There was a howl in the dark that night.
“A wolf,” said her Gran.
“Don’t be silly,” Red said.
“I know a wolf when I hear one,” her Gran said. She paid no attention.
Wolves don’t howl.
The creak of their chairs was the only thing that made the night seem real.
“They’ll get me,” she said through wizened lips.
Red paid no mind.
Her Grandmother had been wrong before.
She rubbed the herbs between her fingers, scraping the symbols into threaded wool. Red knew real magic when she had it in her hands, after all. Who didn’t?
It was when her Gran didn’t come back the next night that she began to think about it.
A foreboding. A warning.
A message of what was to come.
Wolves don’t howl, but her Gran was not here.
The sounds stopped, but her worry didn’t.
There were no howls but there was no Gran. It was silent all the lighttime until…
Gran was there, and she was tired. She told Red not to worry. She told Red she needed to sleep after such an ordeal. Whatever that was.
The old woman’s eyes looked different that night. Red had seen enough of the world to notice a change in how it’s reflected at her.
The bed was soft and Gran was quiet, lapsed into drowsy napping and delirium. “What happened?” Red asked, to little reply. She occasionally heard her mutter.
“I won,” said Gran, “I didn’t let nothing take me.”
After night, Gran’s fingers had not unfurled. There had been no magic from them, they remained clasped to the bed sheet. Red asked again.
“Gran, what happened?”
No. Gran could never be tired. That isn’t what happened to witches.
Red’s fingers were growing long with every passing day, and her senses were sharp. Red nodded to herself and drew long symbols into the forest ground outside with a burnt branch, one they had charred together. She scraped out shapes in a long tendril, leading steadily into her Gran’s room. The old witch watched with interest.
It was the first noise that set them both on edge. That screeching, sending chills up their spines, “You hear that?” said Gran from her bedroom.
Red said nothing. She slowly ran a rock against the blade she kept at her side, ready to handle anything.
It was disquieting and razed through the forestside to her ears. She’d expected it.
“More rest, Gran?”
“Yes, so long as that noise is about. It has me on edge.”
Witches are never scared, for that is the first sign of a trapped witch. Others will find their way.
The third night, Red blew out the candles and squeezed herself from the door, heading to the hearth. Solace lay there. Answers lay in the ashes. Red peered at the spray of charr that lined her fireplace, the brushes and ostentatious flick of chaotic ruin. She read them. It was time. She listened to the rustling near the windows.
Oh Gran. You aren’t Gran.
Who knows what you are, anymore.
The hunter came through the window, a near invisible face spread across a vague backdrop of comfort. They moved in lightness and subtlety, tickling the views where eyes do not lead. It was no wonder that the hunters responded to the call. They were hungry.
They were the faceless that wrapped around trees in the night They called to themselves in echoes and not of voice Only one converged on the spot to undo what had been done.
Red’s Gran could not die, but what could happen would be much worse.
Red shut her eyes and mind, ignoring the bedroom, ignoring the movements, ignoring and yet still cataloguing the events she dared not watch.
She didn’t see the wolf for what it was, loping with its thick stomach filled with indigestible nightmare, its body a mix of counterfeit visions of the creatures it had eaten. She did not see the hunter that tracked down the scent, but she trusted that it was her only chance. Spirits of the night demurred no-one. Red understood her plea came with a price of magic, which she could pay, but she could be paying forever.
The noise in the room was frightened. Gelatin. Monochrome. Alien. Dark.
Red peered in, when the slurping subsided.
The hunter was gone, leaving but a small skeleton and a shuddering form of her Gran, fingers curling long loops around her own thin arms.
Red did what she needed to clear the wolf. The hunters, she would have to placate for as long as she knew. But now…
She had her world back. As she stared at the frail, living form of her Gran, Red’s fingers grew one more knuckle.