About Xavier Axelson:
Xavier Axelson is a writer and columnist living in Los Angeles. Xavier’s work has been featured in various erotic and horror anthologies. Longer written works include “The Incident”, “Velvet,” and “Lily.” Xavier covers Fringe Culture for the Los Angeles Examiner. www.xavieraxelson.com
By Xavier Axelson
Stage 1: Sleep
He dug his own grave, a shallow hollow beneath an October sky. It would be October, he mused as blood ran and tears welled, mixed, and then fell in pink rain upon the sodden, forest floor. Searing pain sucked tears from his eyes with merciless abandon.
Sebastian inflicted wounds deep enough to expose the pink meat of his back, marked with gaping holes along the ladder of vertebra. Vicious looking cuts along his inner thighs made it impossible to move without screaming. Leaves and dirt stuck to the wounds as he worked.
He clawed the earth, sent dead leaves fluttering in a moldering cyclone of dirt, worms and roots; he paused when flocks of geese squawked overhead. Their v-shaped departure mocked his earth bound death.
He’d flown to the woods, guided by some instinct, then fell like a goose shot from the sky, physical pain broke the spell, and he tumbled to the ground. His will, worn thin by Sebastian’s torture, shattered.
He would die and it would be October when he did.
The geese vanished beyond the trees.
If I hadn’t fallen, he thought staring longingly at the naked sky, if I’d held the threads of the spell together long enough to land and weave a cocoon, I might have saved myself this death beneath the earth, a minute longer...
A large shadow passed over the sun, and he panicked.
“Sebastian?” He ducked into the shallow grave. “…Please don’t, you let me go!”
Wild eyed, aching and terrified, he shuddered in the grave until the sun emerged.
“I couldn’t hold it,” he whined, scraping the corners of the grave. “I couldn’t.” Dirt slid between his fingers. “Its so slippery,” he cried. “The bats are coming, coming, change into something!”
His thoughts dissipated, came together and vanished. Equal parts remorse and pain unreasoned his reason. If he hadn’t been caged and beaten, drained and starved he might have held the satin slippery web of the transformative spell, and transformed into something heartier than a moth.
Bats eat moths, he thought, and laughed bitterly.
“One window, find the one open window, fly faster, the bats are circling, snapping…Hold the spell!” He muttered, hearing madness in his words. He looked around the woods but saw walls of shadow, smelled his own blood. “I can’t, I’m falling!”
He fell into the grave and sobbed when his back, scored to the depths of his timber, hit the dirt. Insects and other long buried things, disturbed by his raucous grave digging, were agog to feast.
He belonged to them, his death meant a busy season of devouring for others and he could only stare up at the iron clad October sky through the curtain of skinned, bony branches of trees long lived, and awaiting the spring.
His last physical efforts were used to cover himself with the disturbed dirt that felt like rain on his torn skin. A zephyr came along and blew leaves up and over the grave and finally dropped a blanket of leaves so only his eyes were left exposed to watch nature take its last somber breath before giving itself over to winter.
Stage 2: Sebastian
The hemlock bloomed with bunches of white starry flowers next to indigo monkshood and spires of chartreuse mullein harmonious with night blooming moonflowers and spiky, golden-white cereus. He’d been unable to tame the henbane and it grew in wild clusters along the borders, daring anyone to accidentally ingest its poisonous foliage.
A shadow fell across the fence separating his house from the woods.
“Hyoscyamus niger,” a voice said.
Bridge looked up from a particularly unruly patch of henbane.
A man stared at him, fingering a henbane bloom that grew between the fence slots. “Fetid herb, deadly to animals…and the unsuspecting human.” He plucked the flower and brought to his nose. “Are you a witch?”
“A gardener,” Bridge answered.
“Liar,” the man’s smile widened.
“Who are you?” Bridge asked.
“Sebastian,” the man, tossed the bloom, and offered Bridge his hand. “I’m a witch too.”
Bridge looked from the hand back to Sebastian’s face. “You’re not a witch.”
“But you are,” Sebastian said, and withdrew his hand.
“Why would you say that?”
“I feel your power,” Sebastian answered.
“I don’t feel yours,” Bridge replied and left Sebastian at the fence.
Two days later, an invitation arrived in Bridge’s mailbox.
“Tea?” Bridge scoffed. He dropped the card on the table and saw a note scribbled on the back.
“P.s. Please bring henbane, I’m concocting a salve and have zero luck growing it, while your garden overfloweth.” Signed “S”
Bridge threw the invitation in the trash.
The next morning the invitation waited on the kitchen counter. He crumbled it, gabbed scissors and went into the garden.
“Tea isn’t ready.” Sebastian said opening the door.
Bridge thrust the newspaper wrapped henbane in Sebastian’s face. “I don’t like being played with. Here’s your weeds, now leave me alone.”
Sebastian looked at the henbane. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He stepped aside. “I haven’t unpacked, forgive the mess,” Sebastian disappeared deeper into the house.
Bridge peered inside and saw boxes lining the inside hallways. “I’m not coming in,” he called.
“What?” Sebastian called back. “The water’s on, it’ll be a second. I need help moving a sofa.”
Bridge shook his head in disbelief, but went inside and closed the door. “I don’t like the invitation trick,” he shouted.
“What trick?” Sebastian answered. “I’m in the kitchen.”
Bridge hesitated, the house felt unnaturally dark.
Sebastian came and led him down the hall. “I want to hear about your invitation trick.”
“Your invitation trick,” Bridge corrected.
“Mine?” Sebastian asked, offering Bridge one of two chairs at a glass table.
“Your invitation to tea---“
“Did you like it?” Sebastian asked. He’d collected mugs and placed them on the table. “I made the ink myself; pokeweed.”
Bridge dug into his pocket, produced the crushed invitation and slammed it on the table. “I threw it in the trash Sebastian, and this morning it was on my kitchen counter, a cheap parlor trick.”
Sebastian smiled. “I’m thrilled you think I’m capable, do you know how long it takes to extract the poison from pokeweed?”
“I don’t care,” Bridge snapped. “Do it again and I’ll get angry.”
“You’re angry now.” Sebastian laughed, as he went to the stove. “Who taught you?” he asked.
“What?” Bridge asked.
Sebastian returned with a teapot. "A minute more brewing and I’ll pour.” He sat back in his chair. “The craft. Who taught you?”
“Modesty is tiresome Bridge,” Sebastian sighed.
“My father,” Bridge relented. “He died a couple years ago.”
“I see,” Sebastian said. “Rare, and fascinating when father passes it to son.”
“Look, my father told me to always help fellow travellers of the path, I’ve helped you despite my misgivings and now I’m leaving.” Bridge picked up the invitation and threw it at Sebastian. “No more tricks.”
Sebastian leaned forward and poured tea into Bridge’s cup. “I’m self-taught,” he said as though Bridge hadn’t spoken, “and learning.”
Bridge snorted and turned away.
“I’m sorry,” Sebastian called. “I needed to get your attention, you are right, I may not be a natural witch like you, but I want to learn what you know.”
“The learning never ends,” Bridge said. “My father instilled that into my head.”
Sebastian nodded and gestured at the chair. “Please, sit and talk awhile, no more tricks.” He poured himself some tea. “Do you make a living with it?”
Bridge relented and sat. “I can’t charge,” he replied. “I’m not about to become known as a back door kitchen witch.” Bridge lifted his teacup, and stared into the golden liquid; it smelled of anise, spice and something else, bitter, and familiar.
“I want to learn from you,” Sebastian said.
“You keep saying that,” Bridge answered, “but I wonder if you mean it.” Bridge took a sip of tea. A shadow passed by a nearby window. “Do you get a lot of birds?”
Sebastian followed Bridge’s gaze. “Not exactly birds, what do you think about the tea?”
Bridge took another longer sip, and tried unmasking the flavors in the blend. “Decent,” he said and saw another shadow pass outside. He got up and the room tilted. More shadows passed outside. “What is it?” He asked. Sweat ran down his back. He dropped the cup.
“Tea,” Sebastian replied, sounding far away.
Bridge shook his head, “out there,” he stumbled from the table toward the window.
“I worried I used too much datura,” Sebastian cooed from behind.
That was it, the bitterness! Bridge moved his lips but nothing came out. He clawed the window, peered out at the shadows. They rushed past, blotting out the light. His knees buckled.
“What are they?” He heard himself ask.
“Bats,” Sebastian laughed.
Stage 3: Awake
Cold, frozen and crumbly the earth took him into its embrace. The first autumnal frost slowed his heart and cracked it open like a fallen acorn. Bridge stared up from his shallow grave, through the cathedral of dead branches scratching the sky with skeletal fingers as though hoping spring and warmth were beneath the skin of the cotton clouds. When it rained, he remembered tears, but couldn’t cry.
The worms moved blood through his veins and the vibrations of things dying and growing shuddered through him, keeping his senses at a lull between life and death. Memories of his capture, torture and eventual release echoed in these vibrations.
“I want to learn what you know,” Sebastian said.
“I know nothing,” Bridge replied.
“Then I’ll cut it out of you,” Sebastian said.
When autumn ended, his father’s apparition appeared and glared down between the dead leaves heaped upon the grave.
“Is this how you die?” The ghost asked.
The words shook the dirt from Bridge’s ears, but he couldn’t reply.
Winter brought snow that crept into the cracks of his heart, freezing the last human warmth from his body and slicked his blood to ice. The worms maneuvering in and around him curled and died.
In December the ghost returned and asked, “Is this how you die?”
Bridge lay icy and sharp like a buried thorn, listening, hating and hungering…remembering.
January winds used Sebastian’s voice to taunt him. “I want your power,” they whispered. “All your power…”
The wounds in Bridges back filled with frozen earth, and healed.
In February, an owl came. It settled in a snow-covered tree and gazed down with wide golden eyes. Bridge saw the creature, because despite being covered with earth, leaves, and snow his eyes remained unfettered by death’s clutter. The owl lifted one great talon and revealed a dead bat skewered in its claws. It stayed there until dusk and before flying off dropped the dead bat onto Bridge’s grave. By March, the grave was covered with dead bats.
His father’s ghost returned, adding words to the question Bridge couldn’t answer.
“Is this how you die…or how you live, Son? Do you know your strength? The power in the earth? The gift being given? Renewal, retribution, return, reprise…Revenge! Live. Die. Revenge.”
The first day of spring, Bridge woke up.
Flung from the warming earth like an arrow strung on a bow, he kicked dead bats from his wake.
The owl, asleep in the tree, opened its eyes.
“Sebastian! You want my power!” Bridge raised his arms and welcomed the watery sunlight onto his cold flesh. He looked down into the grave, green shoots sprouted and earthworms wriggled wildly. “This is how I live, Father,” he shouted. The ghost had vanished.
The owl took flight, checked and passed his face. Bridge followed the bird at first on naked foot but then took hold of the satin slick spell of transformation and lifted from the ground.
Two owls, one greater than the next landed in a tree beside the gray house at the end of the empty street.
Bridge climbed down, cloaked in feathery remnants.
“You want my power…” he swept his arms towards the front door. It cracked and fell shuddering to the ground. “Sebastian!”
Sebastian emerged, staring wide eyed at Bridge. “I set you free!” He shrieked. Behind him a large bat flew past his head, screeching as it met the sunlight.
From the tree, the owl adjusted its claws.
Bridge shook his head, “only one bat left.” He stepped closer, relishing the shock on Sebastian’s face.
“You,” Sebastian spat, and glared up at the owl, then his bat, “kill the bird!”
Bridge whisked his hands and watched Sebastian shake as wind buffeted the house. “Nothing more than a bat wrangling magician.”
The bat furiously beat its leathery wings against the gust.
Bridge looked into its jaws, and remembered similar fangs snapping at his frail moth wings.
“I set you free!” Sebastian’s words were whispers in the wind.
“But only if I could get past the bats,” Bridge replied. “Only if I could transform…once you drained enough blood.”
“A moth,” Sebastian laughed. “You couldn’t even manage a sparrow.”
“Your words, are nothing,” Bridge lowered his hands, the wind stopped. “You…are…nothing!” He took several steps toward the house.
Above Bridge’s head, the bat screamed. He looked at the ground but couldn’t see his feet.
“Fly little moth,” Sebastian jeered. “See if you can escape this time!”
Bridge dodged and weaved, flailing his arms, unable to fly.
“They’re behind you, little moth,” Sebastian laughed.
Bridge couldn’t find the window; he’d be trapped in the house forever, with the knife, the cage…Sebastian.
Sebastian’s laughter grew louder.
“Not again,” Bridge wailed, “not again!”
He fell to the ground, rolled over and saw the bat.
“Dead little moth,” Sebastian cried. “Dead!”
The bat hurled itself at Bridge, but the owl met it mid attack and knocked it sideways.
Sebastian’s laughter died.
Bridge got to his feet and realized he’d been under Sebastian’s control. Fool, he thought, struggling to remain upright. While I slept in death, Sebastian culled his powers, dipped into the darkness, and something answered.
The air erupted with screeches as the owl and bat clashed, parted and met again in a flurry of claws and wings. Bridge watched Sebastian gaping at the owl and saw fear in his eyes when the bat shrieked and fell to the ground, only to be covered by the owl’s massive wings and outstretched talons.
Bridge stepped around the feasting bird. “You couldn’t take my powers,” he said.
A flash caught Bridge’s attention, and the flaying knife gleamed viciously in Sebastian’s hands.
“Come Bridge,” Sebastian slashed the knife forward. “Your flesh hungers to be cut.”
“The knife will take no more of my blood,” Bridge hissed.
Sebastian laughed. “Your blood, sweet like candy,” he licked his lips. “How thirsty I am.” He jumped off the front steps.
“Witch drinker!” Bridge came closer. “Fraud!” He heard the wet tearing of flesh as the owl rent the bat. “Filling your gut with witch blood hoping it would make you what you aren’t!”
“And what is that?” Sebastian asked, lips twitching.
“A true witch, and walker of the path, you are nothing but a parlor trick magician,” Bridge sneered. “Who believes drinking witch blood gives you power!”
“Your blood enticed the most serious of demons,” Sebastian snickered, and pointed the blade at Bridge. “I’d finally found a witch powerful enough to bring me one of the legion.” Sebastian lifted the knife.
The sweep of the knife came fast, but the time spent in the earth, made Bridge’s skin hard and his instincts swift. He spun, caught Sebastian’s arm and twisted. “This is not how I die,” he said. “This is how I live!” Bones crunching, snapping, breaking, reminded Bridge of the woods, the crunch of dead leaves and snapping twigs, it was almost musical.
Sebastian squealed, sprung back and fell to his knees, holding his broken arm. “I set you free!”
Bridge lowered the knife and pointed it at Sebastian. “Now I’m going to set you free.” He raised the knife to strike, but stopped. Behind Sebastian, shadows swarmed, collided and grew.
“Sebastian, what have you done?”
Sebastian looked over his shoulder and cackled. “See how powerful you are? Your blood makes demons yield!”
Unable to take his eyes from the demon, Bridge drew the knife high, arched back and plunged downward.
The owl, still perched on the remains of the bat, screamed, took flight as the blade found its mark.
The shock in Sebastian’s eyes ate a piece of Bridge’s thawing heart. He withdrew the blade and stepped back.
“Take him,” he gasped, lowered the knife, and then dropped it. “And this.” He kicked the blade at the demon.
The demon reached and swallowed it in darkness. Sebastian screamed once more as the demon sucked him into its embrace. Larger, it rose up and lurched toward Bridge.
Bridge turned his back on it.
“Come with us,” the demon whispered. “The darkness is infinite.”
Bridge walked away. The demon screamed, wailed and followed, but Bridge heard another call, louder than demon; the woods demanded his return. Transforming once more, he found himself in the form of a small robin, his red breast like a flame between the trees.
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