On Wings of Midnight

by Mike Phillips

The house was in ruin. Though it had survived a civil war and countless natural disasters, the good fortune that had always surrounded the old place had come to an end. The walls with their elegant murals had been pulled down. Painted tiles and leaded glass were turned to rubble and woodwork to splinters. Water sprayed from ruptured pipes as a child’s summer game. Electricity snapped and popped, starting small fires in the wreckage.

Amidst the destruction lay an old woman. She was wearing a well cut suit, fine jewels circling her wrists and neck. The woman, Minerva, had been handsome once but that small beauty had been wiped away by the same force that had destroyed the house. Bruised and battered, she seemed at peace despite her suffering, seemed to know that she was about to move on to a better world.

“Look what you made me do,” snapped Gwendolyn, standing over her victim like an eagle with a fish in its talons. She was young and beautiful and terrible. “Now I’ve wasted all morning. I know you have it. Are you going to tell me where the book is or shall I instruct you in the ways of pain?”

The old woman’s only reply was a smile. Blinking, she looked into the endless sky and murmured something under her breath.

“What’s that?” Gwendolyn spat, raising a hand contorted with the workings of some secret menace, flecks of green fire rising in her palm. “Enchantments? How absurd. You must know by now there is nothing you can do.”

Saying the woman’s name like the speaking of a curse, Minerva replied, “No Gwendolyn, my greatest escape is yet to come.” Satisfied with this small act of defiance, she returned to her prayers without further explanation.

Furious, Gwendolyn said, “You will tell me what I want to know. Where is the book? Where have you hidden it?”

“No, I will not tell you. And there is no threat by which you can make me tell. You have defeated me, but you will not have victory if I may prevent it. There will be others. Your wickedness shall not endure.”

“Others? Don’t make me laugh,” Gwendolyn taunted. “Come then, fool, call your friends. Where are they now?”

“The powerless, the lowly, these are the ones that will defeat you. Let this be my final prediction.” So saying, Minerva closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, the many toils of her life coming to an end.

Gwendolyn lifted her hand. Invoking words of power, she shined a yellow light over the broken body at her feet. “Now, now, I will not let you die so easily, not until you have told me everything I want to know.”

Plucking a single hair from her head, Gwendolyn pulled the golden strand taut between her fingers as she worked the enchantments that would give it strength. With a fierce, predatory gleam in her eye, she pushed the old woman to the floor and thrust the needle sharp hair through her shoulder. Minerva screamed as the golden thread pierced her flesh. Taking her time, enjoying the extended torture as each new hair penetrated skin and bone, Gwendolyn pinned her victim to the floor.

With Minerva stretched out like a frog on an examination tray, Gwendolyn turned to survey the ruin in which she stood. She found a broken china bowl that would serve her needs. Scattering the fragments in which the bowl lay, she pulled it from the wreckage and set it upon an upturned chair.

Button by button Gwendolyn opened her blouse, revealing a shapely bosom, flawless in curve and form. But like the body of which it was a part, the flesh was corrupt. Increasing from shoulder to crest, sickly pustules rose from porcelain skin.

Checking each of the riper blisters, Gwendolyn found one ready to be put into service. Something black and wormlike swam inside, visible through the thin membrane. Under careful ministrations the blister broke open. Blood and pus splattered into the bowl, taking the worm-thing with it.

Seeing her pet hungered by the efforts of birth, Gwendolyn squeezed the open sore, giving the creature her blood on which to feed. “Now for some mother’s milk,” she said when the blood ran dry, her own ripe bosom providing the substance by which the thing would gain strength and come to know its master.

When the worm-thing had fed, Gwendolyn brought it to where her victim lay, turning the bowl over the old woman’s ear. Hungry still, the worm-thing slithered to the end of the short canal. Into the woman’s brain it went, eating hungrily, getting a taste for the finer meat that was offered there. Tears wetting her soft cheeks, Minerva could do nothing to resist.

“Don’t fight it,” said Gwendolyn in a silky voice, seeming to be a friend, someone who only wanted the suffering to end as soon as possible. “Just tell me what I want to know and it will all be over. No more pain, no more worry. Tell me where the book is and I’ll set you free.”

And as the worm-thing burrowed deeper, guided by its wicked master, Minerva could not help but tell what she knew. She told about the location of the book. She told about the young witch charged with the duty of keeping it safe. In the end, she told everything she had to tell, and then she died.

#

The storm had kept Lynn Weigenmeister away from home much longer than expected. Thirty-eight inches of snow had fallen in little over a day, stranding her, but it was hardly noticeable for the condition of the roads now. The good folks at the county garage had cleaned it all up rather nicely. Even so, she had to slow down. Icy patches could turn up even on the most assiduously tended of highways. The drive had been long and tedious, but she was making good time and it would soon be over.

In the distance, dark shapes circled above the snow banks. She counted fifteen in all, remembering a silly rhyme about birds in a pie. Coming to the spot, she slowed, watching crows gather at the carcass of a deer. By the look of things, a big truck must have struck the poor animal and left it for dead.

Crows and other carrion birds are viewed as harbingers of death by folklore the world over, but Miss Weigenmeister didn’t share those superstitions. The birds only behaved in the way survival had taught. They were even known to work collectively, a sign of intelligence, protecting each other from larger predators such as hawks and foxes. Working together, what was called a mob by less enlightened, the birds would sometimes even chase away an animal as large as a wolf.

Seeing the dead deer was posing no threat to other motorists, and feeling a special kinship with the gathering crows, she decided to let the poor birds have the best of the feed and drove on. Another hour’s travel brought Miss Weigenmeister to her turn, the county road that led to the gravel tract on which she lived.

But as she took her foot from the accelerator, an awful clanking sound came from the dashboard, followed by the grinding of gears and a puff of sweet smelling, white smoke. The smoke grew thick and clung to the windshield. Fearful she might swerve into the opposite lane in her blindness, Miss Weigenmeister slowly pumped the brake, angling toward what she hoped was the shoulder of the road.

Rethinking her general scorn of all machinery to include her automobile, she opened a window to clear the air of the sickly odor and was amazed to find herself on the outskirts of town. The local auto repair garage was not three city blocks away.

“That’s odd,” said Miss Weigenmeister to herself as she tried to put together the means by which she had come to this place.

Finally she decided that it must have been a trick of the snow banks, making less of her than a rat in a maze. If she hadn’t been away from home for such a long time, with the added weariness of the hours of travel, she might have gone right then to see what the mechanic had to say about her malfunctioning vehicle.

As it was, she was too tired. Wiping the windshield with a handkerchief and rolling down the windows as far as she could endure, she turned the car around and headed for home.

#

A county road meandered some twenty miles into the wilderness before bringing her to the gravel track on which she lived. The road was lined with overhanging trees, draped with the softest snow, looking like a joyous Christmas wonderland in some romanticized, greeting card scene.

At times the county was late in clearing the gravel tract on which she lived. She was the only one who was out that far and after a big storm it sometimes took days for her to be plowed out. Not this time, she saw with relief as she neared the intersection. She was in luck. She wouldn’t have to hike in.

Slowing, happy the journey was almost over, Miss Weigenmeister pumped the brakes and turned the wheel. The car did not respond. It kept going straight down the county road, past the little tract and up the rise beyond, accelerating, defying the laws of gravity as she understood them.

Wrenching the wheel, she punched the gas, hoping to regain control. The back wheels spun wildly on the snow covered pavement. Panicking, she stepped on the brake, harder than she should have, locking the wheels and sending the Volvo into a skid. There was nothing to do but hold on until the car came to a stop. Moments later Miss Weigenmeister found herself wedged in the ditch. Try as she may, rocking the car back and forth did nothing to free it.

“What is going on today?” she said aloud, an odd sense of danger pricking her nerves. Lynn Weigenmeister had a talent, as aptly named a curse, for finding trouble. As she sat behind the wheel of the old Volvo, she began to wonder if the car had been possessed and was now the tool of some malevolent force.

“Maybe it’s just me,” she finally decided. “I’ve heard tales of ordinary objects taking on enchantments when in proximity to practitioners of the magical arts, a sort of mystic radiation if one is to believe in such accounts. But could that have happened to an automobile?”

Thinking for a moment, she said, “I did have that nice summer dress take on a life of its own, but that was as a result of a direct spell of my own make. Well, I guess the book helped.”

At the mention of the book, that particular book she had used in painting the wall mural of her upstairs hallway, the radio turned on by itself. A raucous tune that seemed a soundtrack to murder played at thunderous levels. Between the music and the growing ache in her skull, Miss Weigenmeister felt as if she were being assaulted.

“Enough!” she commanded, the radio going dead.

Addressing the car directly, she said, “My apologies to you, then. I think I have finally figured out what you have been trying to tell me. There is some danger connected to the book, a danger that may have found me out.”

“Well, I’ll have to leave you until morning. I am afraid I won’t have the opportunity to call a service truck if things are going to go as badly as your warning suggests. Sorry, but I’ll provide for you as soon as I may.”

With that, she stepped out of the car and into the wild.

#

“What a disgrace. An iron cauldron over the fire and a few potted herbs, these are hardly proper conditions for practicing the noble arts,” Gwendolyn said with a sniff, looking over the sitting room, trying to discover if some hiding place had been secreted from her. But there was no trace of a spell beyond the feeble wards that guarded the windows and doors.

“I supposed it is to be expected. Once a maidservant, always a maidservant. Why those fools would have entrusted the book to her, I really can’t imagine.”

Gwendolyn stepped into the hallway, continuing her search. Coming to a rather substantial bookcase, she paused to take a look, thinking it absurd to have hidden the precious volume in such an obvious place. Still, she cast her spell. Closing her eyes, she let the magic guide her fingertips.

War and Peace, what romantic trash,” she said, reading the dust jacket, not even bothering to open the book. “I can’t imagine anyone reading that nonsense.”

Heading up the stairs to the second story, Gwendolyn came upon a wall mural. It was painted in the likeness of a snow covered meadow. As she looked on, the dead branches of the trees seemed to sway with the wind. Snow drifted into the distance.

There was a small nest in one of the trees, made of grass and twigs and mud. A single thread of tinsel was caught within. Drawn to the strand of silver, flagging with the feral wind that blew, Gwendolyn was overcome by the feeling that she could reach out and touch the thing if she wanted to. All she had to do was to take a single step and she would be close enough to catch it in her hand.

And with the thought upon her, the wind seemed everywhere, growing in pitch and ferocity as snow swirled all around. Coming to her senses, Gwendolyn pulled back. She was in the hallway once again. A pile of snow lay at her feet.

“Fool girl to leave something like that out in the open,” she hissed, breathing hard from the effort of freeing herself. “Why, anyone could walk into the thing and be gone, and then you’d have some explaining to do. They may not burn you at the stake like in the old days, but I imagine they have devised tortures in this technological age that would make a burning seem a summer fête in comparison.”

More cautious now, taking another look at the painting to see if it hid some passage to a secret hollow or locked door, Gwendolyn thought she recognized the book’s magic. Having learned everything she could from the mural, she sniffed, “No accounting for talent, I guess you don’t have to paint very well for the magic to work, and what an atrocious job it is on both accounts.”

Appalled, she went on, “Why, the destination is indeterminate. A person could step into that and end up just about anywhere. The more I learn of this maidservant the less I like, such brazen carelessness is the sign of a weak mind. To have something so magical and so dangerous in a hallway is stupidity.”

But her musings were cut short. The wards that protected the house began to tremble with the approach of their mistress.

#

Winter days in the northlands are fleeting, and as Lynn Weigenmeister walked the last few steps to her own front gate, the sun was already beginning to set behind the western mountains. Long shadows were turning the failing day to an early twilight, a grim reminder of the dangers that lay ahead.

Though the protections she set upon the house were intact, Miss Weigenmeister could not suppress the feeling that danger lurked within. There were no tracks leading to the door. The snow in the drive and yard were unmarked by human passing. But she trusted the warnings her car had made, and she knew there were those with power to travel by other means.

Opening the front door, she prepared herself for attack. Unmolested as she went inside, Miss Weigenmeister took off her coat and scarf. To save energy, she had turned down the thermostat upon her departure, but the house was warm and she could smell a wood fire. Strange, she hadn’t noticed smoke coming from the chimney.

The odd silence too much for her, she called out, “Hallo? Is anybody there?”

“Yes, and shame on you for keeping me waiting, girl,” said a woman from the next room.

In the sitting room Miss Weigenmeister saw a tall, attractive woman seated primly on the davenport. “My apologies, I was not expecting guests. I have been away on business and have only just returned. How may I be of service?”

“I have come seeking a certain, unique object, a book of magic that once belonged to your mistress,” the woman replied in a smooth voice, a voice that seemed to calm the nerves and unburden the mind.

Recognizing the enchantment for what it was, and being especially adept at the sort of spell, Miss Weigenmeister turned her mind away, isolating herself from the seductive effects.

“I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” she began, trying not to reveal too much about her strengths. “Again, my apologies, but I do not believe we have met.”

“Gwendolyn, Lady of Devonshire, House of Stewart, Council of the East,” the woman replied. “My praise to you for keeping the book safe, but I have come to relieve you of that duty. Come now, I’ve wasted enough time. I know you have had the book in your possession for I have seen your picture on the wall upstairs and recognize the magicks it employs.”

Knowing the book in question resided in the hall, guarded by a particular amount of trickery only a librarian would think of, Miss Weigenmeister said, “The book was entrusted to me and I have not been instructed to relinquish it to anyone. If your intentions are honorable, would you not explain?”

“How dare you!” Gwendolyn said, furious. She stood, raising her clenched fists and saying, “I do not have to explain myself to you.”

Miss Weigenmeister leaped back into the hallway only just in time. A ball of green fire flew inches from her head. The fire exploded against the wall, spreading up the wainscoting and across the floor.

Knowing her only hope was in escape, Miss Weigenmeister began loosening the confines of her clothing as she made her way toward the stairs, saying the words that set the mural into action. She felt the energy of the portal build, knew it would be ready if she could only reach it before Gwendolyn overpowered her.

“This is all so tedious,” Gwendolyn said from the sitting room, the pleasure in her voice belying her words as she followed. “I will win. I always do. I will make you tell me what I want to know. Then, maybe, I will kill you; if I don’t feel like making other sport of you first.”

Free of her garments at last, Miss Weigenmeister began to change. Her nose extended into the shape of a beak. Her fingers splayed, her arms turning at the elbow, sprouting black feathers. Soon her transformation into a crow was complete. Up the staircase she rose on wings of midnight.

“My, my, look at that,” Gwendolyn mocked her. “You are full of surprises.”

Not to be outdone, Gwendolyn began chanting a spell. She took the guise of a bird also, but she made herself stronger, more predatory. By the time Miss Weigenmeister reached the top of the stairs, Gwendolyn had taken the shape of an eagle, white headed and majestic, fierce and powerful.

“Here I come, girl,” she said, calling up the hunt with a screech of delight.

#

As she flew into the painting, Miss Weigenmeister struggled to remain focused on the journey. She knew the destination of the portal could change as quickly as one thought to the next. Just as easily, she could lose herself in the journey. But inside her mind was the growing hope that she could use the magic doorway to be rid of her adversary, arriving at some nearby forest or meadow and shutting the way behind her before Gwendolyn could get through.

For some inexplicable reason, she was unable to pull her thoughts from the scene of earlier that day. She saw fifteen crows feeding on the carcass of a deer. The matter caught in her mind, taking her to the very spot.

She found herself high above the road, alight upon currents of winter air that buffeted her like a tall ship on the open sea. Realizing she had returned to the material world, Miss Weigenmeister commanded the portal to close.

As the magical doorway began to shut, Gwendolyn thrust into the world, just escaping the snare. Battered by the winter winds, she desperately flapped her eagle’s wings in an attempt to stay aloft. At times she would be swept up to great heights, while at other times she would plummet to within a few feet of the ground before catching the air.

Seeing Gwendolyn had evaded her trap, Miss Weigenmeister cut through the sky, heading for the dead deer and the safety of the birds collected there. She hoped to hide amongst them, using confusion to make her escape.

Crows are a crafty sort of bird, highly intelligent and possessed of a certain quickness of body, talents by which their unfavorable reputations were made. Miss Weigenmeister knew the other birds were in no physical danger from Gwendolyn in her present form, not unless she chose to use sorcery upon them. She just needed the murder to give her time to decide what to do next.

Dropping lightly to her feet at the end of the carcass, Miss Weigenmeister made a few quick hops in amongst the others, dipping her beak into the spoilt flesh as a camouflage of action, trying to mix with the group as best she could. When she dared look to the sky, she saw the eagle plummeting toward her.

“Here I come, girl,” said Gwendolyn, screeching like an eagle as she swooped down, scattering the crows.

One of the younger birds was slow to get out of the way, and upon the poor bird the attentions of the eagle became fixed. Gwendolyn raked her talons across its back, tearing the bird’s wing to shreds. But the young crow was not without friends.

A nearby crow reached out, savagely nipping the eagle’s backside.  Gwendolyn attacked, chasing it into the sky. Before she could follow, another bird tore a piece of flesh from her thigh. She turned on the new threat just as another crow attacked, and another.

Abandoning Gwendolyn to the gathering fury of the mob, leaving her to be clawed and pecked to death, Miss Weigenmeister turned away. It had been dirty business with Gwendolyn and she was glad for it to be over. For now, she was safe and the book was safe.

The End