The Ludus 1:
Hunting for Witches
By: Lana Pecherczyk
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Creative Cartel Publishing
Publication date: 4.25.2015
Witches have been obliterated - or so the world hopes. At 24, Roo struggles to keep her DNA-changing abilities secret. She doesn't feel like a witch, but if she isn't, how can she manipulate the physical world? Why does she feel the energy of all living things?
On tenuous ground, Roo keeps her skills hidden with the help of her sexy songstress BFF and her barmaid job at The Cauldron. Hiding in plain sight seems to be working until a mysterious witch hunter comes to town. Rooms powers are growing and, when a witch possesses the body of her sister, she defends her using any means possible.
Roo is exposed and attacked from all sides. She must learn to trust others while she discovers her identity and masters her powers to save the lives of her loved ones. She needs to convince herself and her town that she's more than a witch.
Inspired by mythology, science and fantasy, this fascinating debut novel is set in a brilliantly envisioned world where life is a secret game played by gods and witches until death...
It wasn't a key. Well, it looked like a key to the ordinary person, but I wasn't an ordinary girl. Instead of a key, I saw a chance and my lifeline to the universe.
'So, what's it gonna be, key?' I blew on it, like it was lucky dice about to be cast in a game of craps. Only, I wasn't going to win money, just my independence. I held my breath and chewed my lip. Well, here goes. Up in the air it went, rotating in slow motion across the blurred backdrop of my hallway. Rows of black photo frames begged for attention, but I kept my gaze on the key. The cold metal hit my shaky right palm and I closed my eyes. Here goes, I can do this. One eye opened, then the other.
Smooth side up. Fuck. My bottom lip trembled. I had to stay. A surge of defiance raced through my body. No, screw that, I hadn't survived three years of persecution and prejudice to chicken out now.
I inspected my mauve nail polish chipped from a hard day's work in the vineyard. That wouldn't do, I had to look presentable for work at the Cauldron. I imagined a beautiful new set of nails, strong, healthy and a glossy aubergine. As the vision formed, neurons fired in my brain, signals travelled down my spine, my arms and hit my nails, reshaping them before my eyes. The tips grew to perfect curves, the color darkened and spread to cover the entire nail bed. I smiled, that was more like it. Witchcraft wasn't so bad, if you ignore the part where being caught would mean a death sentence. I touched the probation collar at my neck. I wasn't out of the woods, yet.
I curled my fingers into fists and punched the air, ready to take my future into my own hands. Now or never. I rounded the corner to the kitchen and planted my feet squarely in front of Aunt Lucy.
'I'm moving out,' I said, the tone of my voice higher than usual. We lived just outside the country town of Margaret River, and the scenery surrounding the Manor was picturesque, but I was over living at the Urser Estate Winery.
She turned, eyes blinking and pulled her arms out of the sudsy sink to tap her gloved fingers on the porcelain bowl. She removed her second skin, one finger at a time, and grabbed a tea towel to dab her hands. 'Don't be ridiculous,' she said through gritted teeth.
It took me three attempts to swallow and that's how long it took for her to throw the tea towel over a shoulder and place her hands on her hips. She wore colourless clothing, never used makeup or dyed her grey hair and she never argued. She wanted to go unnoticed - in public. Here with me, she liked to cause waves. I seethed at her hypocrisy. Despite her careful charade, thoughts collided behind her steely eyes.
I took a step back, held my breath, and darted a glance at my sister as she sat at the grand table reading the newspaper. The ghost of a smile danced across Leila's delicate features but she covered it with a sip of coffee. Her eyebrows quirked as she flicked her dark hair over a shoulder and turned the page. 'Oh, look at this one.' She picked up a pair of scissors with her left hand and snipped awkwardly, with her right she drank coffee.
'I'm not being ridiculous.' I held up my key. 'Kitty's leasing one of her apartments and I can move in tomorrow. I'm all packed.'
Leila spat coffee everywhere and grimaced at her accident. 'Now, look what you've made me do,' she whined, slamming her mug down. 'I wish I had a normal sister.'
'Yeah, well I wish my sister didn't hate my guts for something I couldn't control-'
'Uh, uh.' Aunt Lucy cut me off. She raised a finger, then turned her back on me to help Leila mop off her precious clippings. 'What did you find today, Darl?'
My jaw dropped. I'd given her monumental news and she'd turned her back on me.
'Look at this one,' Leila said, swiping a drop from a clipping. 'The church is recalling their latest safeguard against witch possession. Apparently, there was a faulty part in the device or something. It would be nice for them to finally get one invention right, don't you think? And this one, see?' She held up another clipping. 'The DNA test used to identify maleficent victims isn't accurate because there haven't been enough cases of witch possession over the last four years - you know, since the Purge.'
'Tsk, tsk, such a shame.' Aunt Lucy rubbed Leila's shoulder. 'Never Mind, Darl, it could be a good thing. Only a few possessions in four years isn't bad. But just in case, we'll continue to go to church and take confession like they told us. It's worked so far, right? We've never seen a witch around here.' Leila hummed in agreement.
How dare they ignore me? I waved the key in the air. 'Um hello? Did you hear what I said? I'm moving out.'
A woman moving out of home was not to be taken lightly these days. Witches only attacked females - it had something to do with higher estrogen levels. But like Leila said, since they'd burned half the female population in the Purge, there hadn't been many cases of possession. The world had relaxed and being a woman wasn't so bad anymore. 'You stubborn, stubborn girl.' Aunt Lucy shook her head. Her golden crucifix clinked against her necklace of glass baubles. It was the only thing about her that stood out. She said it was a gift from her late husband, so she wore it to remember him. She wiped her forehead with her wrist, dislodging her grey headband and releasing flyaway strands of shoulder length hair. 'You'll be labeled a whore, just like your friend. I should never have let you get a job at that devil's playground, it's caused nothing but problems.' She pulled off her band and threw it on the counter.
I raised my eyebrows. Had she just called Kitty a whore? Hang on - had she called me a whore?
'After all I've done for you. I housed you when your father abandoned you, I put up with your criminal ways, I even let you get a job when there's so much to do here at the vineyard. You're going to throw it all in my face and leave a week before the food festival?' The tenacity of her words caused a coughing fit, she wheezed and spluttered into a quickly grasped tissue. The sour stench of smoker's breath hit me moments before her pungent lavender perfume. I flinched and tried to screw up my face. Seriously, brush your teeth.
With shaky hands, she reached for a glass of water and took a sip. Aunt Lucy ran her boutique vineyard estate with an iron fist, but quit smoking? Impossible. She downed the water in gulps, holding up a solitary finger. The conversation wasn't over. When she finished, she busied herself with drying the dishes. The muscles in her shoulders and neck grew rigid as she mulled over her next words. Finally, she picked up a spoon, and waved it at me. 'That sin-bin you work at is just a lawsuit waiting to happen.' She opened the cutlery drawer and slammed the spoon in place. 'I can't believe it was even allowed to open in the first place,' she said. Leila snorted in sympathy.
In an effort not to roll my eyes, I stared at the sparkling black and white checked floor. There she goes again, spouting her devil nonsense.
'The Cauldron is not a 'sin-bin,' or a 'devil's playground.' It's a legitimate establishment where people can enjoy a drink or a meal, and learn about the history of witches,' I said in monotone, tired of defending my workplace.
Leila laughed. 'You can't be serious, Roo. It's a mockery: they poke fun at the myth, not teach the reality.' Her last words came through a clenched jaw and she shuddered.
It was true. The Cauldron was a cliched, witch-themed bar. It resembled something from Halloween, and served cocktails like 'The Holy Grail' and 'Brew to Forget.' Taxidermy crows peered down at you as you ate, but it was harmless fun. I felt at home there.
I shrugged. 'If it makes people feel safe and confident they have one up on witches, who cares? I get paid, and all I have to do is serve drinks and look pretty with this thing hanging around my neck.' I flicked my slick collar. It made me special. 'I'm accepted for who I am. Besides, it's coming off in a few weeks and I'll be free to do what I want. Everyone with opinions can bite me.' I added the last bit in an awkward rush and, as if sensing my unease, the skin underneath my probation collar itched. I slid my finger over the watery surface, trait it around to the clasp at my nape and scratched. Oh, that felt good. I'd be glad to have it off in a few weeks when my sentence lifted. I smiled at the notion. After one thousand and ninety-five days I'd finally be able to touch people without risking an electric shock, annoying alarm, or being covered in an embarrassing UV staining liquid. If I could keep my secret under wraps people might actually look at me without suspicion.
Turbulence gathered in Aunt Lucy's face when she saw my smile. 'Who's going to want you after what happened to your last boyfriend?' She flung a china plate down, it whirled on the bench top. 'You told him to take a long walk off a short cliff, and then he disappeared. You were only cleared because of lack of evidence. Nobody trusts you, even your workplace won't want you then. You're an asset while you have that freak show happening around your neck but what value will you bring to the show when that's gone? Will you whore yourself out, too?' Her hands shook and she clicked her tongue as she picked up another utensil.
Like Kitty? I was sure she wanted to add.
'We need you here Roo. The grapes won't pick themselves and there is so much work to be done before the food and wine festival, it's simply not possible. Your father left you in my care, and that's where you will stay.'
My hands balled into fists. He left me in her care. Her words cut to the core, they stung every time I heard them. I knew he left because he couldn't stand the sight of me, but did she have to remind me? It's one thing to call me and amy friend a whore, it's another to bring my useless father into it. I clenched my teeth. 'My father lost any say in my future when he disappeared after my trial.'
'You know very well he's classified as AWOL by his military unit. He left your guardianship to me in his will, and since then I've been running myself ragged to help you out. Not that it's done any good, mind you. You're as ungrateful as the day you arrived.'
My eyes flared. Every day off from The Cauldron, I worked the fields, picking relentlessly. I worked hard, damn it, she had no right to say those things. Besides, my father hadn't been on a tour of duty at the time of his disappearance, in fact, I was pretty sure he'd been on personal leave. How convenient for him o blame work for his substandard parenting. But I knew the truth. His daughter had been declared one step above the enemy, and he was embarrassed and ashamed. Well, ha! Joke's on them. I'd fooled them all. I could do everything a witch could do, except hop from one body to another. The thought gave me a sobering dose of reality. I was bad news for anyone close to me. If they knew I could do the same thing as the enemy ... I shuddered, not wanting to finish the thought. Sometimes, I dreamt I'd be able to help people with my skills and be praised for my uniqueness. I could cure sickness, or remodel fractured bones just by willing it so, but it was a dream. In reality they'd burn me.
'Well, my mind is made up. I'm leaving,' I said. 'I'll come back to help serve at the festival, but I won't live here.'
Leila made a derogatory sound and feigned interest in another article. I narrowed my eyes at her. Our matching eye color was the only thing that marked us as sisters. Actually hers were the brown of a deer and mine were more like honey, so maybe I clutched at straws. The similarity stopped there. I stood tall, tanned and athletic with sun kissed brown hair; she was short, pale and curvy with almost black hair. Sometimes I thought I was adopted, but since Leila had witnessed the death of our mother during my birth, I didn't think so.
Maybe she was adopted. The snide thought tiptoed into my mind.
Leila stood suddenly, dragging her chair across the floor. The scent of daisies filled the air as she left the room in a flurry, skirt billowing behind. I sighed and pinched the bridge between my eyes. I had to get to work. A black mark across my name was the last thing I wanted the day before my performance review. What if Aunt Lucy had been right and they didn't want me after my collar was removed? I couldn't exactly how off my witch-like abilities. Guess I'd cross that rickety bridge when I got to it.
'See what you've done?' Aunt Lucy turned on the guilt trip. 'You can't leave her, Roo, she needs you. I'm not going to be around forever and who will look after her then?' She aged ten years in an instant and forced a cough to prove her point. Her grey hair looked limp, her skin sagged, and her wrinkles turned into deep canyons. Maybe the stress of having two girls dumped in your care after a war wasn't good for you health - especially when one suffered from post-traumatic stress, and the other was in trouble with the law.
'You'll be better off without me,' I said. My shoulders slumped as I backed out of the kitchen and walked down the hallway to the front living room.
Twenty-four was a good age to move out - almost twenty-four. Back in the old days, before the War-of-Witches, women were allowed to move out whenever they wanted. But since the WOW, women could only move out if they were conviction free and over twenty-one. Three years with no incidents would cement my independence. I just had a few more weeks to wait.
'This isn't over, Roo,' Aunt Lucy called from the kitchen. 'Don't expect to be welcome back here if you decide to move out.'
I lifted my brows at the photographs lining the walls, daring them to taunt me, but the ancestors of my mother remained silent. I gazed at the interior of the stale living room, a staircase situated on each side and an uncomfortable antique settee occupied the middle. Each wall served as gallery space for our family photographs. It was supposed to be historical, but it haunted me to stare at dead people. It was more like Death Row.
Shivering, I grabbed my belongings from the settee and moved to the door. I smoothed down my black uniform shirt and slipped my yellow motorcycle jacket on. After stowing my precious key in the side pocket of my backpack, I slung it over my arms. With a deep breath and a forced smile, I opened the stately front door. I'd actually done it. My smile became genuine as the late spring sunshine warmed my face.
'Roo, wait.' Leila crashed down the stairs on the far side of the room. 'I have something for you.' She reached my side with a big glass jar. It was filled with curious little plastic squares that chinked as she moved. 'I can't let you leave with this hanging over my head,' she said, 'so, here goes.' Her voice cracked out and she swallowed.
Whoa, this seemed like a big deal. Her face was seriously drawn and paler than usual. She pulled out a green computer chip, and turned it over, lost in thought as she gazed at it. The look on her face made me think it hurt to touch, but I knew it didn't. How could it?
'I made some memory bytes for you. Actually, I haven't made them for you but they are about you, so you should have them, they're pretty much all the same,' she babbled. 'You should take them with you, then maybe I'll finally be able to sleep.'
'Right,' I said slowly, chewing my cheek. What was I supposed to say to that? Um, thanks. Sure, no problems, I'm happy to take your jar of nightmares. I opened my hand and caught the microchip in my palm. The little thing was almost weightless but felt as heavy as an elephant - the big one that sat in her room my entire life.
Leila refused to speak about her nightmares, so her therapist had asked her to record them. She'd been doing this for as long as I could remember. I'd often heard her screams at night, followed by shuffling as she gathered the tools needed to make the recording. If I went to her door, I'd see a faint be glow shining through the cracks. Nobody had seen the recordings yet, so I knew this was a pretty big step, but that's as far as my insight went.
'I don't mean to look at you the way I do, and talk to you the way I do ...' Her voice softened as it trailed off. Her eyes narrowed, the heat coming off her gaze was unnatural in someone so delicate. 'My brain says you're my sister, and a little baby couldn't possibly be held responsible. But my heart hates you for killing our mother to get a place in this world. I'm sorry; it's something I can't help.' She shook her head and looked away with her shoulders hunched. 'You have to believe me. I don't mean to feel that way. I just do.'
My eyeballs stung. It wasn't going to get any better than t his. For whatever the truth of that fateful night, she had her own version running through her head, and I didn't need a psychology degree to see it was painful. I wanted to go to her, squeeze her tight, but held back. Something had happened during my birth to make her think I was evil, and after I was accused of bewitching my ex, my name had been put in the same sentence as the enemy. Considering my secret abilities, I knew I was linked to them. Shame washed over me. If she knew my secret, she'd never speak to me again. I resisted the urge to touch her. My collar would beep at the proximity and she would flinch.
She lifted her lashes to peer at me, eyes liquid. 'Maybe things will be difference with some distance between us.'
Maybe she can relax when the monster is gone.
'I hope so,' I said. 'Goodbye, Leila, I'll see you tomorrow.'
'Here take these with you, p-please, you'd be doing me a favor, I can't do it myself. You're the strong one in this family.' She stuttered the words, but hope shone through her eyes, at least that's what I told myself. 'I'll see you tomorrow. It'll be a new day and we can start fresh.' She handed me the jar. Dumbfounded, I watched her walk away. That was probably the longest conversation I'd ever had with her.
In a daze, I left the house and detoured passed the garbage. The lid to the garbage bin was heavy, but I managed to drop the jar inside, the putrid smell matched my mood. I certainly didn't want a jar of nightmares and, as Leila didn't have the guts, I got rid of them for her. Except for the one in my pocket next to my phone. That one I kept for later.
About the author:
As an author, marketer, and artist, Lana is a triple threat! She also makes a mean chocolate cake, and has Level 46 Creative Mojo. A fan of "pro-caffeinating," Lana loves writing mash-ups of the fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and horror genres.
An author in her own right, with her urban fantasy novel Hunting for Witches recently released, Lana creates all of her own cover work and illustrations, and infuses websites with her unique stylish talents and quirky graphic design.
She loves Sailor Moon. No judgment.