Samantha Goodwin has always known the shape of her life. That's what you get when you grow up in the most powerful witch clan in the entire country. She knows when she'll be sick, she knows when the frosts will kill the harvest - she even knows the day she'll die. Everyone in her family knows it. It doesn't make life terribly exciting, but then, what can you do? Everyone is content with (or at least resigned to) their lot in life.
At least, until he shows up.
September 4th, right at the beginning of autumn. When the glow of summer was still radiant on her cheeks and the leaves held stubbornly to their branches, while the last of the summer blooms basked in the perfect cool air.
That was the day on which she would die.
Sam had known her deathday for as long as she could remember. It was as natural as having a birthday, she’d always thought - except birthdays always filled you with excitement. Now, less than three months away from her deathday, she only felt queasy.
“Sam?” The knock came gentle on her door, as it always did in the morning.
“I’m up, Min,” Sam called back.
“Theater camp today. You don’t want to be late.” The creaking floorboards just outside her room heralded her Aunt Minerva’s exit as she went back downstairs to where coffee no doubt beckoned.
Sam didn’t want to go to theater camp at all. She’d only agreed to it because her best friend, Melanie, had begged her to go. “One last best friend thing,” she’d wheedled, tears brimming under her eyelids. Melanie, unlike Sam, was a great actress. She could convince Sam to do anything - even to spend some of her last days of freedom with the overblown members of Soundhill’s amateur theater department. Sam sighed with what she hoped could pass for boundless depression in the camp’s morning exercises, and kicked off the bedsheets.
It was still reasonably cool for mid June, and Sam shivered until she could hop into the shower. When she came out fifteen minutes later, fresh and shivering again, she pulled on a battered pair of cargo jeans and a plain blue t-shirt. Melanie would fault her, she knew, but she couldn’t muster up enough excitement about her image to scrutinize every item in her closet just so that she could find the perfect top for a Thursday.
“Sam!” her cousin Nina called from downstairs. “Breakfast!”
Sam’s cousins Nina and Bridget were already sitting at the table with a plate of scrambled eggs each. Aunt Min was scraping the remains of the pan’s contents onto a third plate. She nodded to the counter, where a tall glass of orange juice stood.
“Can’t I have coffee today?” she asked, even as she grabbed the glass.
Min raised one of her perfect, arching eyebrows. “No, Sam,” she admonished in her typical soft tones. “You know what coffee does to your powers.” Picking up her own plate, she herded Sam to the table and they joined the two girls.
“My powers that I never use,” Sam grumbled.
“You never know when you need them,” chimed Bridget. Sam did her best to give her cousin a nasty glower, but she failed even there. They were right, and she knew it.
The four of them could barely squeeze round the table. As Sam mechanically spooned up the eggs, she listened to Bridget relate some of the dreams she’d had the night before.
“And then the badger started chasing us, and we were all dressed in these top hats and we weren’t allowed to take them off or he would catch us. And then we were at the top of this roller-coaster -”
“Sounds like your dream was just a dream today,” Sam said around a mouthful of scrambled egg.
Bridget scowled at her, wrinkling a brow as perfect as her mother’s. The three of them all looked alike, with their freckled skin and dark hair. “Dream interpretation is very complicated,” she said in that bossy older-sister tone that she had been adopting a lot recently.
Sam rolled her eyes internally. Bridget was fond of saying that. Probably because Nina, who was older by two years, was so fond of saying, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’
“Dreams depend on a lot of factors,” Bridget began. Two bright spots had appeared in her cheeks, which meant she was gearing up for a long soliloquy on the importance of her powers. Nina grinned at Sam across the table. She was probably already formulating all kinds of retorts.
Aunt Min, who had a keen ear for an argument that was even miles away from starting, interrupted smoothly. “We’ll look at the dream book together after breakfast, Bridget,” she said and took a long drink of coffee from her large black mug. Sam eyed the mug enviously. Min caught her glance and pursed her lips. “If you don’t finish, Sam, you’re going to be late.”
As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Sam shoved the last bits of egg into her mouth and washed it all down with a big gulp of orange juice. “I’ll be back later,” she said, giving Min a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. “Probably when I die from a heightened sense of drama.” With a wave to Nina and Bridget, she headed to the front door and to Melanie.
Sam and Melanie had been friends for six years. Melanie had moved to Soundhill from Ohio, and Sam had been the first to befriend her. Even though Melanie quickly grew more popular than Sam would ever be, they still walked to school every day and puzzled over their homework together most nights. She was the only one outside of the Soundhill coven that knew of Sam’s short future, and she was not afraid to talk about it. She also had a definite flair for the dramatic. This morning she was wearing tight jeans, high heeled boots and an airy blouse with sheer sleeves. Her hair was artfully curled and she had topped the entire ensemble with a violently pink beret, cocked jauntily (if not entirely correctly) over her ear. When she saw Sam, her face fell.
“You’re not even ready yet,” she complained.
Sam stared, mystified, down at her own clothing. Then she looked back up at Melanie. Her expression caused the other girl’s to falter, then transform into something resembling abject horror. “You’re not,” she nearly gasped.
“Come on, Mel, we’ll be late.” Sam bit her cheek to keep the grin from showing.
“I can’t believe it,” Mel ranted as Sam shut the door behind her and they started off down the path away from her house. “You look like a hobo. Acting is about appearance, Sam. Besides, you don’t want us to remember you in your last moments as the girl who wore her dad’s old t-shirts.”
Sam shrugged off Marian’s complaints, and soon enough the talk turned towards other things. Melanie loved gossiping with Sam, who was always willing to listen even though she generally steered clear of the high school intrigue that Melanie seemed perpetually ensconced in. Melanie chatted as they walked to the end of the road and turned onto the path that cut through the little woodland that linked up the tiny town center with their suburb.
“Are you sure you can’t use your magic to affect the lives of others?” Melanie asked as they passed into the dappled shade.
“Only to save a life,” said Sam. “And even then, there are rules.”
“I know, I know.” The girl waved her hand impatiently, even though she had asked in the first place. “Can’t mess with the predestination and all that. But what if someone is destined to die by your hand? Then it’s not really breaking the rules, right?”
Sam rolled her eyes. “Charlie didn’t ask you to prom. That’s not something to kill him over.”
“Maybe not,” Melanie conceded. “But asking Jess…he doesn’t even like her. He only did it to make me mad.”
And he succeeded, Sam thought, but she knew her friend well enough to keep her mouth shut.
“Maybe you could cripple him,” Melanie suggested.
“Okay, okay. Give him some psychological trauma?”
“Okay!” Mel threw her hands into the air. “I give up. But you could have at least made yourself prom queen. I mean, how did Jess even get picked?”
Sam shrugged. Jess had always been nice enough to her, whenever they’d crossed paths. It wasn’t often, in truth. “She seems okay,” the girl said.
“Yeah. She’s okay. And then she turns around and she’s suddenly a bloodsucking fiend. Like the Bride of Dracula. What’s the point of being one of the most powerful witches in your clan if you can’t use it and you’re gonna kick the bucket?”
“Come on, Mel,” Sam tried, but Melanie was on a roll and until they came in sight of the Soundhill town center, she was speaking animatedly of all the ways in which Sam could make her life better, be cooler and have more friends. “If I were you, Sam,” she sighed as they crossed the town square and headed toward the Soundhill Theater, an unassuming building that had been converted from a gutted warehouse into the cinema and playhouse.
If you were me, Sam thought, you’d follow the rules, just as I do. Because she’d heard stories of the people who didn’t. Witches who thought they could play around with magic never got happy endings.
Sam liked to consider herself a down-to-earth kind of girl. Standing under the lights and being instructed in the art of bellowing wasn’t really her idea of a fun time. And improvisation, vocal exercises, dramatic readings and mime were all things that she felt were more than a little ridiculous. Melanie had a natural talent for it - her stage whisper reached to the very back of the auditorium, and her naturally rich voice carried just the right notes of passion, deviousness or despair. Sam’s own voice seemed thin and reedy by comparison.
The morning was spent in vocal exercises. Sam howled her way through tongue twisters with the rest of them and tried to keep her head down. Melanie was singled out twice - and complimented both times. The ever conscientious drama “professor,” Doctor Hegel, tried to give everyone at least a little attention. His half-hour attempt to teach Sam the rounded vowels of a prima donna left her ears burning all through lunch.
“He was only trying to help,” Melanie said as they sat on the lawn with their lunches. Melanie, who considered a schedule the glue of life, had gotten up in plenty of time to prepare homemade sushi, complete with a little plastic bowl of soy sauce. Sam considered it a victory that she had remembered to slap some peanut butter on bread the night before.
“Help,” Sam scoffed.
“He was talking to everyone, Sam. No need to take offense. You know,” said Melanie around a mouthful of fish, rice and seaweed, “for someone so avidly anti-drama, you can be quite the drama queen.”
“You’d be mad if someone told you that you sound like a peasant,” muttered Sam, glaring down at her hapless sandwich.
“Well, that’s because I don’t,” said Melanie, matter-of-factly. “Hurry up, or we’ll be late.”
Sam dragged her feet all the way back to the auditorium, which turned out to be a mistake. When Hegel caught her reluctance he interpreted it as lethargy, and they spent the rest of the afternoon mercifully ignoring vowels, but humiliating themselves by doing various physical exercises by which they had to impart a point without speaking. By the time the afternoon was over and they were free to go, she was certain that she’d sprained her arm by flinging it out at Hegel’s insistence.
Two more days, she thought gloomily as she trudged back toward the woods with Melanie. Two more days of reading, flailing, lunging, gasping…Melanie was practically skipping, and taking the opportunity to make up for all the time when she’d been mute in class by gossiping about the other dramatists, what they’d be doing tomorrow, the opportunities of landing a role in the play…
Sam shuddered. The thought of the play was almost excruciating, she thought. Enough to raise goosebumps. But then she shivered again, and rubbed at her arms. Something felt strange, and it wasn’t just the fear of auditioning for Hegel’s self-penned play. The forest had grown darker around them as they made their way home; now what sky could be seen through the trees was almost a violent purple, and seemed to be growing even darker. Melanie was oblivious, crashing through the underbrush as though nothing were wrong, but in addition to the cold there was a strange sensation, like a thickening of the air. Sam found herself suddenly laboring to breathe.
Sam pulled up so short that Melanie almost crashed into her. “What…” the girl began in irritation, but quieted when Sam held up a rigid hand for silence.
She had never heard the forest so quiet. No crickets chirped in the distance, no frogs with their hoarse, frantic cries, no sparrows or magpies or birds of any kind. There wasn’t even the rustling of a tree to indicate the movement of a squirrel upon it. All was silent, as though the forest were made of glass. And above, the sky roiled and swirled, like the construct of some angry god.
Melanie nudged Sam hard in the ribs, and pointed. When Sam followed her finger, she saw that the outline of the trees just a few feet away was blurred and stretched, as though they were trying to merge with one another. Beyond them the path was clear, though it was her forest as she had never seen it before. The path was smooth, devoid of dips, potholes or roots. On either side it was lined with dark, thorny hedges that Sam could not name. Their points seemed sharp enough to make her bleed.
Sam took a tentative step forward, and put her hand out toward the strange, slipping trees. Right where they altered from the normal trees around her, the air was thick, like a wall of water. In that instant she knew that the forest on the other side of those trees was not her forest, that the land was not her land. Through some kind of unknown magic she was looking in on another place entirely.
“Look,” whispered Melanie, and Sam turned to look down the other path.
A figure was pounding down the road toward them. His long legs sped over the path, and he kept his head tucked down. Nothing mattered to him but the space beneath his feet. Sam squinted but couldn’t make out who it was - the figure seemed a complete stranger. He was furthermore a complete stranger who didn’t seem to know they were there. He barreled toward them with no indication that he had seen them, or that he intended to slow down.
Sam opened her mouth to shout. And that was when the stench hit her, so hard she nearly fell over. She gagged and coughed. Behind her, Melanie was reeling, choking out obscenities between breaths. The stench was that of a rotted carcass, magnified and multiplied and mixed with the cloying sweetness of some illness. It was almost as potent as knockout gas, and it was emanating directly from the other world.
She was so busy choking that she couldn’t call to the strange figure until he was practically on top of them. He didn’t seem to realize anything was different up ahead until he plunged, head-on, into the thick double-air that seemed to separate their worlds. His head shot up, and for a moment their eyes locked in mutual bewilderment and panic.
Then their worlds collided in a more personal fashion, and he came crashing through the strange, thick barrier, knocking Sam to the ground. Her head smacked on the packed dirt trail and black spots clouded her vision. A throbbing pain made it difficult to think, to see, to hear. But she did hear Melanie scream, and it jolted her into action.
There was another figure, running down the dark path towards them. He didn’t run as fast as the boy who now lay prone on top of Sam, but he took his strides easily, almost relaxed. He was clad in black leather armor that obscured his face and ended in a pointed, draconic snout. A long, wickedly curved sword was naked in his hands.
There was no doubt he had seen them. There was no doubt that he was coming toward them. That they were his prey.
Later, Sam wasn’t sure how she’d done it. Had she stopped to think about it, she probably would have floundered and failed to do anything. But right then, with time to only act, she felt with that extra sense, the sense that controlled her magic, and she used it to grasp the invisible corners of the portal and wrench them together with all of her might.
Things began to twist and darken. The world on the other side of the trees seemed to pull away and become more distant. The man on the other side noticed too; his pace increased and he lost all pretense of leisure. But he was too late. His enraged roar echoed out of the portal just as it winked shut.
Sam, Melanie and the strange boy were left alone on the forest floor.
Melanie was the first to regain her cool. She puffed her cheeks and sighed dramatically, looking from Sam to the stranger, still lying prone. With a sudden rush of guilty embarrassment, Sam squirmed out from under him. Melanie crouched down.
“Right,” she said. “What just happened?”