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A Halloween Witch Trials Story

Halloween feels like the perfect time to remind people about my witchy books, The Twisted Mark and the Binding Mark. The latter actually includes witches attending a halloween party at a vampire's mansion, which feels hard to beat on the spooky stakes! But actually the best halloween scene in the series is actually one most people won't have come across, as it's not in either of the two main books, but rather in my prequel short story/novella, Two Reasons.


The whole story is from Gabriel's point of view, but this chapter is particularly interesting as it covers something that has intrigued many readers of the main books - what, exactly, did his demon mother say to him as a teen to make him that obsessed with Sadie?


If you'd like to read more of Two Reasons, you can sign up for my mailing list and then download it here: subscribepage.io/PXTHWP


In the meantime, have a fab halloween and enjoy this extract.





TWO REASONS - CHAPTER TWO - A SAMHAIN PROMISE


Thornber Manor, Mannith, Yorkshire

31st October—15 years before the events of The Twisted Mark



Sometimes I romanticise the infamous conversation with my mum as being her last words to me, a deathbed promise, her dying wish.


In reality, it happened a good few months before she finally wasted away. But it was the most meaningful conversation we’d had in years. The last time she was really coherent. Afterwards, the impact of being prevented from accessing the magic in the atmosphere finally entirely broke her.


That night was Samhain. Or Halloween, if you prefer. It was always genuinely a bit of both for us—half traditional, sacred ritual in which we lit huge bonfires all around the grounds, laid out a feast for spirits, and communed with the dead. Half an opportunity to put on spooky fancy dress costumes, throw open the doors of the manor, and have a party.

Thornber Manor’s higgledy-piggledy stonework, thick windows and oak beams gave it a spooky air even on a bright summer’s day. On a night like that one, it would have been atmospheric without us having made any conscious effort. But Dad and I had worked together and we had made an effort.


Candles, mirrors and drapes everywhere. Pumpkins, apples, and straw dolls. Scents of fire, spice, and juniper in the air. Dark corners, bright illumination, and a subtle, drifting cloud of mist. Disembodied, haunting music, some of it just for background ambience, some of it designed to make you dance with wild abandon. Hot cider served out of ancient cauldrons that my ancestors had probably used for unspeakable things. Most of it done in an instant with magic, a few finishing touches added by hand to show that we cared.


For the earlier part of the evening, the bit that only actual practitioners had attended, I’d lit the ceremonial pyres with a simple glance, and I’d chanted the old spells to welcome the spirits and call the dead—and then had plenty of polite chats with elderly ancestors who’d been dead for decades. I’d sensed the subtle change in the atmosphere when spirits and other, darker things crossed the boundaries between worlds. I’d stayed on my guard, striking a careful balance between inviting them into the grounds and not allowing them into the house. I’d watched as all the food we’d laid out got eaten by unseen hands.


Afterwards, we’d extended the cast list to human acolytes, local villagers and those central Mannith businessmen who owed loyalty to my family. I’d played the good host, the perfect heir. I’d circulated through the grand hall, being as polite and charming as I could manage. I had a hint of teenage awkwardness, but I was already tall, already showing signs of handsomeness, already suffused with obvious power. I was also dressed like a stylish vampire, because why the hell not?


Mum had been the perfect hostess when I was a child. But with every year that Dad had forced her to wear the enchanted bracelets that blocked her magic, both her body and her mind had gone steadily downhill. The previous year, she’d made a brief, shaky appearance at the annual party, but that night, she was tucked away in her room while half the town danced and feasted and played with magic in her marital home.


Part of me had worried about that fact. But wildly powerful part-demon practitioner or otherwise, I was still a fourteen year old boy, so my mind was mostly on the party. And by eleven o’clock at night, with the revels in full swing, Dad had let me go off duty.

I’d grabbed an illicit drink and retired to the upstairs study with a little crowd of friends, admirers, and hangers-on of the same sort of age as me. Most of them were either actively flirting with me or just listening to my every word and nodding along. Nowadays, I can find that sort of thing stifling, but as a teenager, it was an uncomplicated pleasure. I was sprawled on the old green leather sofa that dominated the room, with an arm round the waist of a girl dressed like a cat and my other hand resting on the leg of a guy working a generically gothy vibe. I think a third person was actually holding my drink for me.

Nikki was dressed like a devil—but deliberately channelling scary rather than sexy—with her short, dark hair dyed a vivid red. She was curled up in an armchair by the fireplace, half making out with a girl from school, half shooting me disapproving glances, as though it were my fault everyone fawned all over me.


Halfway through telling some amusing but inconsequential story, the grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. And as its chimes faded away, they were replaced by a rhythmic sound like a hammer on an anvil, accompanied by a scent of burning far deeper and more disturbing than the background aromatic fire scent with which we’d suffused the room. And then a glowing ball of red fire appeared in the air before me, and I gasped out loud.

My companions gave me an odd look, but ignored the fireball and all the rest of it. It seemed the whole sensory experience was for my benefit and mine only. I extracted myself and got to my feet.


“Excuse me for a moment,” I said, somehow maintaining a degree of poise and nonchalance, even though my heart was pounding.


I took a hesitant step forward and the ball of fire moved by the same degree. Another step from me, another movement from the fireball. The pounding sound and the acrid fiery scent both increased in intensity. Then the fireball began to move more quickly and I followed. I couldn’t quite tell whether I was curious or compelled—probably a mixture of both.


The fireball led me away from the overspill from the party and up the back stairs to the next floor. When we reached my mother’s bedroom, it doubled in size, hovered above the door for a moment, then exploded in a starburst. I jumped backwards. There was a blast of heat, but no pain, only flashing lights in my eyes that took a moment to clear. The strange sound and smell disappeared at the same moment.


I knocked, once, then gripped the doorhandle with a shaking hand and stepped inside, still not entirely convinced I was in control of my body or mind.


In contrast to the rest of the house’s dark magnificence, Mum’s room was all pastel, flowery prettiness. Ornate Victorian wallpaper with pink roses and blue birds. Gauzy chiffon nets at the windows and surrounding her white four-poster bed. Watercolours of fantastical landscapes and beautiful ancestors. The scent of perfume and the smell of potions, mingling together. Light cascading from a crystal chandelier on the ceiling, enhanced by candles on every surface. As a kid, I’d loved it in there—it’d been safe, cosy, welcoming, a wonderful place for us to play together. Now that Mum never left the room, something about its sheer delicateness repelled me.


That evening, Mum was sitting up in bed. Which was increasingly unusual, but by no means unheard of. What was more surprising was the way the blonde curls that generally hung limp around her face were shiny and full. The way that instead of a delicate nightgown, she was wearing some sort of black lace ballgown and a matching chocker, complete with diamonds. Her face was fully made up, all smoky eyes and blood red lips. Her eyes—oddly shaped like mine—were glowing red. She looked like the demon people whispered about her being. And I couldn’t have been happier about that fact.


“Mum!” I ran over and embraced her, with none of the usual standoffish faux-dignity of a fourteen year old boy.


A glance at her wrists confirmed that the awful bracelets were still in place, but the second I put my arm around her, I could tell that magic suffused her skin. Perhaps more magic than I’d ever felt in my life.


“Sit down, darling,” she said, in the lilting Irish accent that two decades in England had never managed to shake. “There are things I need to tell you. Tonight. While I’m capable of true speech.”


I sat down on the bedside chair and pulled it as close to the bed as I could. My heart pounded. It was the thing I’d wanted the most for years on end. Mum healthy and whole again. Mum channelling magic like she was born to do.


“The walls between worlds are thin tonight,” she said, as matter-of-fact as if she were commenting on the weather. “They always are, on this night of the year. And the energy generated by the party and all the fires, offerings, and rituals helped. So I reached out to my family on the other side, to buy some power for an hour or two. To tell you the things you need to hear.”


I fought my natural instinct to shudder. It’d have hurt Mum’s feelings, made her feel she’d raised me wrong. After all, they were my family, too, the demons.


Dad loved all the power the demon ancestry had given me. That fit right into his master plan. But any talk of the source of that power left him simultaneously squeamish and scared. I wasn’t meant to ask questions about that aspect of my heritage. I certainly wasn’t supposed to make contact.


Mum, on the other hand, had talked about the whole demon thing plenty when I’d been younger and she’d been stronger. It wasn’t something she’d felt ashamed about. She’d been bought up by her mother, who was a normal practitioner, albeit a strong one. But as a child, she’d also been in fairly regular contact with her father—the demon who’d seduced her mother—and seemed to love him, after a fashion. Her parents hadn’t stayed together but had remained on good terms, and she used to spend some of the school holidays in hell. Which was apparently better than it sounded. She’d taught me some of the extremely difficult to learn language. She’d given me names and ways to reach out. The only reason I hadn’t been taken on a little visit myself was because Dad had put his foot down, for better or worse.


Despite her dramatic words, she looked uncertain. I reached out a hand and put it on top of hers. “Go on, Mum. Tell me what you need to tell me.”


She nodded slowly. “There are a hundred and one different things I’d like to say. Fragments of prophecy. Practitioner wisdom. Demon lore. A mother’s love and advice. But the power I’m drawing from the other side will only last until the clock strikes 1. And once it’s gone, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak like this again, no matter what I try.”


I closed my eyes. I longed for her to tell me all those things. For us to talk for hours, like when I’d been a kid. For her to be like this forever more.


“Instead, I’m going to focus on three things,” Mum continued. “Three asks of you. I’ve chosen these three out of all the things I could have gone with. So I need you to listen.”


I nodded frantically and squeezed her hand harder, noticing the suddenly smooth skin and perfectly manicured ox blood nails—all the work of magic. “I’m listening.”


“I know, darling. You’re a good boy. A good son. But tonight I need you to do more than just listen. You’ve got to promise me you’ll do the three things I ask of you.”


I nodded harder than ever. I’d never normally make a solemn, binding promise without knowing anything about what I was agreeing to. Not now, and not then either. But I trusted my mother absolutely. Loved her, absolutely. Her request didn’t trigger the slightest flicker of nerves, only exhilaration.


I’m telling you, Gabriel, we can’t remove the bracelets. I’d like nothing more, believe me. I love your mother, it kills me to see her constrained like this. But you’ve never seen what she’s like when the power takes her over.


For a moment, my dad’s warning echoed in my head. We’d had the same argument hundreds of times over the years. but I’d never paid it much heed. I’d never thought of “demon” as a term of abuse.


“You have to trust me,” Mum added. “You know I can see the future. And I can understand people, understand souls. I could go with world-changing consequences. But I’m dying. So I just want what’s right for my son, and I know precisely what that is. So, do you promise?”

I lifted my hand off hers, then formally put my right hand in her left and pressed the joined hands to my chest, in the traditional sign of a binding bargain. Then I spoke in that strange old hyper-formal style that Mum liked, sure it was what she’d want to hear.


“You may make three requests of me, Mother, and I will agree to them and do my utmost to ensure they are carried out. This I swear.”


“Thank you, darling.”


“Are you…are you going to mark me?” This time, though I tried to keep my voice matter of fact, like hers, it shook a little.


Mum gave that wild smile of hers. “Don’t be silly, sweetheart. I wouldn’t do that to my boy. I trust you to keep your word.”


I managed to smile back. “So, are you going to tell me what these asks are?”


She waved her hand, and a bubble of silence descended around us, the densest, most impenetrable one I’d ever experienced. Usually, they were intangible, but this seemed to have a physical weight to it, seemed to raise the temperature of the room.


“Firstly, I want you to stay in this town. I don’t mean you can never leave, that would be foolish. Study somewhere prestigious. Travel. Go on visits. But remember that Mannith is your home. Make it your base. Make the town great and make yourself great within it.”


“Is that one ask? It sounds more like five.” I laughed, mostly with relief. That was pretty much my plan. It certainly tallied with what Dad wanted. Maybe I’d have liked to have kept my options open slightly more, but I’d never truly considered going away for ever.


Mum laughed back. “That’s the first ask. Are we agreed?”


“Agreed. So, ask number two?”


“I want you to marry Sadie Sadler.”


My mouth pretty much fell open. To say I was blindsided would be an understatement. It wasn’t that I was horrified or anything, I just had literally no idea where that sentiment had come from.


“You mean Brendan Sadler’s youngest sister? Philip Sadler’s daughter?”


I knew there were four Sadler children. Anyone and everyone who lived in Manith knew that. I knew—and disliked—Brendan, who was around the same age as me and thought he was the prince of the town. I could just about have recognised Chrissabelle, who was a little younger, but hung out with her older brother’s friends. But like most teenagers, I didn’t pay much attention to those more than a year or two below me, so the two younger siblings were a bit of a blur.


Mum waved her hand, and an image appeared of a beautiful woman in her early twenties.

“You don’t need to do anything about it yet. You’re both far too young, her especially. Bide your time. But one day, you’ll see her, looking like this, and from that point on, you must do whatever it takes.”


I stared at the ghostly image. “She’s pretty, sure. But of all the things you could ask of me, why this? Of all the people in the world, why her?”


Mum reached out and touched the face of the girl in her projected image. “Three reasons,” she said.


I nodded. It was always three reasons, with Mum. I used to try to do the same, but three is hard. More manageable to stick with two.


“Firstly, because of the essential qualities she has. Or will have. She’ll be right for you and you’ll be right for her. At the simplest level, I just want you to be happy. To love and to be loved.


“Secondly, it’ll be good for the town. Unite the families. Consolidate your respective power. Do great things together.”


I closed my eyes again, feeling a little dizzy. It was a lot to take in. “And thirdly?”


Mum gave me a wild, beaming smile. “Thirdly, I had one of the old dreams. She’s your fated match. And that’s something you just can’t fight without destroying yourself.”

I gripped the arm of my chair as my heartrate skyrocketed. The wave of dizziness intensified.


Mum had schooled me in the Old Ways since I’d been a child. The whole fated marriage thing was a key strand. But I found a lot of people attractive and they seemed to feel the same way about me. It was hard to reconcile that with the idea there was one specific person I was meant to be with. Harder still to believe they were right here in Mannith—there were old stories of people having to travel the world to find their so-called fated match. Hardest of all to accept that this special, solitary person was the daughter of my father’s greatest enemy and rival, and the sister of a guy I could not stand. I mean, what were the odds, really?


Yet the longer I stared at the image floating in the air, the more I could see Mum’s point. It wasn’t just the way she looked. Plenty of people were beautiful. It was…something indefinable. Is love at first sight an over-dramatic way of putting it? Is “first sight” even the right term when you’re looking at an image of the future?


I stroked my hand lightly across my face, trying to drive away the dizziness and disorientation, trying to calm my thought and regain some focus. It mostly worked.


“So, what am I meant to do about this?” I asked, once I felt capable of speech. “Just rock up at her house one day when we’re both a bit older and tell her we’re meant to be together?”

What on earth would she say to that? Okay, random guy I’ve never met, but who my entire family hates on principle, let’s do this. It hardly seemed likely.


Mum clasped my hand in hers. “It’ll be hard. Her family will no doubt be against it, as will your father. The first time she sees you, she’ll feel something in her subconscious mind. But she’ll let reason get in the way of listening to her heart. You’ll need to make an effort. To persevere. One day, she’ll understand. And when she does, you have to give her this.”


Mum pulled her hand away for a moment and slipped off her engagement ring. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship that I’d loved as a child. Rose-gold, in a complex twisted pattern, inlaid with emeralds that were meant to possess special qualities thanks to their demonic provenance.


I took it in bewilderment and studied the intricate design, unsure what to say. “It’s yours, Mum,” I managed eventually.


She closed my hand over the ring. “I was so happy when your father gave me this, but whatever it was meant to symbolise died long ago. Take it. For now, wear it yourself as a reminder of this conversation and as a symbol of our agreement. Later, give it to Sadie as a symbol of your connection.”


I sat there in silence, twirling the ring around and glancing back and forth between my mother and the image of this Sadie Sadler that still hung in the air.


“Well?” Mum said, after a few moments of silence. “We don’t have much time left. Do you agree that you’ll do this, too?”


It was a formality, really. A failsafe. I’d already said I’d agree to her three requests, sight unseen. But she obviously wanted explicit agreement to each individual one too.


“Fine, I’ll do it. I trust that you know what’s right for me, and I believe in the Old Ways enough to accept that you don’t fight against a fated marriage. Besides, when I look at that picture, I can kind of see what you mean.”


“That’s wonderful,” Mum replied, as though I’d just brought a nice girl home to meet her, rather than had this imposed on me.


Of all of the three promises I made to Mum, the whole Sadie thing is by far the one I’ve spent the most time and mental energy on in the years since. You might think it’s the one that shocked me the most, that we lingered on it that night. In actuality, as soon as we moved on to her third request, all thoughts of Sadie were pushed out of my head.

Mum looked up at the grandfather clock in the room. Ten to one.


“Not long left,” she said. “And this third promise might need a bit of discussion. So let’s move on.”


The floating image of Sadie fell away. In its place appeared a medley of images of Mum and Dad in years gone by. The two of them, young and seemingly in love, on some sort of date. A formal shot from their wedding day. Mum pregnant with me, Dad’s arm around her expanding waist, gently touching the bump and smiling. The two of them holding me as a newborn.


The bracelets were notably absent in all of the images. And as a result, you could sense the sheer power radiating off Mum.


I swallowed hard at the thought of what could have been. Why had he done it? Why block all the glorious power, exactly the thing he so admired in me? They looked so happy. And Mum didn’t look dangerous or out of control, she looked glorious.


When I turned away from the pictures to look again at Mum, she was crying. Despite the fact that she was clearly often unhappy, I’d rarely if ever seen her cry. The bracelets she was forced to wear seemed to dim some of her emotions along with her magic, as though the two things were almost interchangeable for her.


I put an arm around her shoulder. “What’s the third promise, Mum?”


“I want you to kill your father.”


My heart raced. The room seemed full of shadows. I’d promised I’d say yes to everything, but despite everything she’d suffered, how could she ask this of me?


“There’s a selfish aspect to this one, I’ll admit,” she continued. “Once I’m gone, I want you to avenge me. His bracelets will have killed me as surely as if he’d driven a knife into my heart.”


“And?” Always more than one reason with her, always.


“And if you don’t, he’ll drag you down. Drive you to bad decisions and worse deeds. He loves you, truly, and that makes things harder. But he fears you too, and that’s a dangerous combination.”


“Mum, I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”


Even at fourteen, I’d done things that were morally dubious at best, in the services of the family. I hadn’t killed anyone yet, but I’d come to terms with the idea I’d inevitably have to do so one day. But not Dad. Never Dad, despite all his faults.


“Darling, I know it’s a lot to ask of you. But there are other reasons too. Many of them. You don’t need to do it immediately. When the right time comes, everything will fall into place. It’ll still be hard and you’ll feel guilty for a long time. But it’ll be the right thing to do, on so many levels.”


I cried myself, then. For Mum. For me. For Dad. I’d promised already, hadn’t I? I couldn’t go back on my word. And I couldn’t deny Mum something that meant so much to her, when she’d suffered so much. But how could I possibly kill my own father?


“Do you promise?” Mum asked, all formal again.


I had so many questions, about all of it. Was this based on prophecy and clairvoyance, or just her own views? She claimed it was about both revenge and what was best for me, but where was that balance struck? How could I ever, ever do this?


I looked at the clock again. Only a minute or two until one o’clock.


“Mum, please. If you’re truly asking this of me, I need more to go on. I’ll stay in Mannith. I’ll find a way to marry that Sadler girl. And I’ll give you something else, anything else, but I don’t think I can say yes to this.”


The sparkle in her eyes and the animation on her face was starting to fade. A pallor was creeping back in.


“Darling, I love you, and I’m sorry. But these are my three requests. Promise me you’ll kill your father. Promise me now, while I’m in a fit state to hear it.”


She said something else, in the demon language I’d never had enough of the blood to master. Too low and fast for me to understand, but it sounded like the same thing. Kill your father. Promise me.


Her hair was starting to fall limp again. The shadows under her eyes were returning. The pictures in the air flickered and faded, as though she couldn’t maintain enough magical strength to keep them whole.


I thought of the woman in the images. I thought of the mother from my childhood, who’d already been devoid of power, but hadn’t yet let that sap her spirit. I thought of the woman I’d spent the last hour with—her passion, her vision, her articulation and understanding.

And then I thought of the person I’d known for the last few years. the closed in, powerless, semi-emotionless wreck she’d become. The woman she was turning back into, second by second.


How could Dad have done that to someone he claimed to love? He’d married her precisely because she had so much magic, it was hardly like it had come as an unpleasant surprise. She’d done exactly what he’d wanted—given him a wildly magical heir. Given him a weapon to use against his enemies. And once he had that—once he had me—she’d become disposable.


Mum said something else, so utterly incomprehensible that I couldn’t tell if it was in the demon language or some mangled combination of English and Irish.


I gripped her hands. “I promise,” I said. And then I repeated the words in passable Irish and some no-doubt horribly mispronounced attempt at the demonic equivalent.


She smiled. “Thank you,” she replied, in English. “I love you.”


And then the clocked struck one and she slipped into unconsciousness. She was never fully coherent again.

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