That Ain’t Witchcraft – Seanan McGuire

THE STACCATO RHYTHM OF a woodpecker slamming its beak against a pine tree echoed through the woods, filtered and distorted by densely-packed branches. There were no other sounds, not from the birds and animals that lived there, and not from the human girl who hung by her knees on a bough in one of the larger trees, a knife in either hand. Antimony sometimes thought that if she were to total up the amount of time she spent upside down—between her work with the family and taking the occasional header during roller derby—she’d probably be able to qualify as an honorary bat. As it was, she’d come to find inversion strangely soothing. It definitely helped to straighten out the kinks derby practice left in her spine. Somehow, she didn’t think the rest of the team was going to take “spend a lot of time hanging out upside down in trees” as a therapeutic tip. Also unlikely to catch on with the rest of the team: floating. Fern seemed happy about it, but Fern wasn’t human and, for her, being in a situation where she could dial her personal density down to something roughly akin to a blowup doll was probably really, really relaxing. She drifted gently up from the ground and grabbed the nearest available branch, stopping her ascent before she could reach the top of the trees. “I have good news and bad news,” said Fern. “Which one do you want first?” “The bad news, please.” Antimony didn’t bother keeping her voice down. They weren’t hunting anything arboreal: attracting unwanted attention wasn’t a concern. More importantly, her siblings were only about two hundred yards away, working their way toward her. If she wound up in a bad situation, one phone call would bring her backup running.

She wasn’t the biggest fan of her older brother or sister, but that didn’t mean they didn’t know how to do their jobs. If there was one thing she could count on, it was them following their parents’ instructions to the tediously detailed letter. “Well, it’s definitely a unicorn,” said Fern. “It has all the unicorn-y bits. Like the horn. Also the blood. I did not expect a unicorn to have that much blood on it. Are unicorns usually covered in blood?” “Every unicorn I’ve ever seen has been.” “Oh.” “Is the good news that it’s already super dead and I can come down from the tree and we can go out for pizza?” Antimony’s hands tightened on her knives, clearly telegraphing how annoyed she’d be if the unicorn had been handled without her.

Fern glanced at Antimony’s hands, but wisely didn’t comment. She had known her friend and teammate long enough to know when she was facing a fight she couldn’t win. “No, it’s alive and bloody and armed—um, horned—and heading this way, so it’s probably going to get here soon. The good news is that Karen is single again.” “Karen—what?” “You know, Karen. The blocker from the Concussion Stand. Um, she skates as Can’t Believe It’s Not Beater?” “I know who Karen is, I’m just not sure why that’s good enough news to bring it up when we’re in the middle of a unicorn hunt.” Fern looked at her with wide blue eyes, increasing her density just enough to let her gaze slightly up at Antimony, like a particularly trusting child. Sometimes Antimony envied that trick. No one knew exactly how sylphs were able to change their personal density—not even the sylphs, who usually shrugged and went about their business when asked—but they were good at it.

Good enough to fly, or at least float, when the need arose. Also good enough to turn themselves into the proverbial immovable object. Antimony wasn’t good at anything like that. In a family of Lilu, ghosts, dimensional travelers, and telepaths, she was just Ordinary Annie, the unnecessary third child. And nothing was ever going to change that. “Karen likes you,” Fern said patiently. “I mean, I don’t understand why, since you’re sort of mean sometimes—not to me, but to the other girls during practice, when you think they’re not focusing enough—and it’s not like you ever hang out and talk to anybody, and the last time you came to a party you just leaned against the wall drinking Diet Coke and glaring at anyone who tried to get you to dance, but she does, and she’s single. So I bet if you asked her out, she’d say yes at least once.” Antimony raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be doing this, exactly?” “Because dating is fun and smoochies are fun and you’re lucky enough to have members of your own species around to do smoochies with, so you should at least try once in a while.

You said you thought you might like girls. This is your chance to find out.” “Okay, one, I doubt Karen wants to be my bisexual experiment, and two, I told you, I’m not looking for anyone right now. Not on the team, not off the team, not at the grocery store, not on the weird cryptozoologist dating site my cousin Artie keeps threatening to set up—” “He’s not really going to, is he?” “Uh, no. Half the signups would be Covenant assholes trying to infiltrate us, and the rest would either be overcommitted LARPers or some bored Bigfoot looking for someone to catfish. He’s smarter than that. He may not always act smarter than that, but he is.” “Oh.” Fern bobbed in place, clearly relieved. “Good.

” “Yeah, good. But really and truly, I’m not interested in dating right now. If there’s someone out there for me, I’ll find them eventually. I mean, they’d have to be pretty weird to be interested in,” Antimony waved a knife, indicating her entire inverted self, “all this. So maybe it’s not going to happen.” “It will. I know it will. Someday your weirdo will come.” Antimony snorted. “Whoever it is, they must have been very, very naughty to wind up stuck with me.

” Fern opened her mouth to object—she didn’t like anybody saying bad things about her friends, not even her friends—but stopped as a bloody, vaguely equine shape trotted into the clearing below. Wisely, Fern shut her mouth and pointed. Antimony turned to follow Fern’s finger. Her smile in that moment would probably have been enough to hurt her dating prospects, such as they were, for the foreseeable future. It was the smile of someone finally being allowed to start breaking things. “All right,” she breathed, sheathing one of her knives and reaching under her vest to produce a Ziploc baggie filled with raw steak. It had been pressed against her side long enough that it was virtually at body temperature, and the smell, when she broke the seal, was strong. Fern wrinkled her nose and didn’t say anything. She kept not saying anything as Antimony dropped the baggie like a plummeting meat bomb. It burst when it hit the ground, strewing chunks of steak everywhere.

The unicorn’s head snapped up, nostrils twitching. It really was a horrifying creature, bearing less resemblance to a My Little Pony than to a horse that had been sent to the glue factory, murdered everyone it found there, and come looking for revenge. The only part of it that could be considered beautiful or majestic was the long, spiraling horn that emerged from its forehead. The horn shone like mother-of-pearl, despite its thin coating of gore. Fern whimpered. It was a reasonable response. “Shhh,” said Antimony, and pulled another bag of steak—this one laced liberally with rat poison, because there’s no kill like overkill—out of her vest. She was grinning as she dropped it. In a very soft voice, she continued, “See why I don’t date? You try explaining this to your significant other, and see how single you are in the morning.” The unicorn was under the tree, nosing at the spilled steak.

As it began to eat, Antimony unsheathed her second knife, winked at Fern, and unhooked her legs from the branch where she’d been hanging. The unicorn never saw what hit it. T One “Don’t look back. You’ll never see anything but what you’re doing your best to leave behind, and you’re a lot more likely to trip and fall down, which gives it another chance to eat you.” –Frances Brown A large corn maze somewhere in the middle of Ohio Six days ago HE WIND BLEW ACROSS the corn with a sound unnervingly like a million bones rattling in the distance, a skeleton army marching on our position. I’ve never seen a skeleton army, but if they exist, I’m absolutely positive they’d be marching on Ohio. There’s nothing else to do in Ohio. It’s just corn, corn, skeleton army, possibly evil corn maze, football, corn. When they show farms in the movies, the ground is always soft and loamy, inviting. It’s ground that says “hey, have a picnic on me.

” This ground wasn’t like that. This ground was hard and dry and seemed to consist of equal parts petrified dirt and rocks, which dug into my butt in a way that managed to be simultaneously uncomfortable and invasive. I tried to squirm unobtrusively. All I did was work a few particularly pointy chunks deeper. Sam grimaced. “Is it ants? Please tell me it’s not ants. You can lie if you want. In this one situation, I give you full and enthusiastic permission to lie.” “It’s not ants,” I said. “I think I’m sitting on a rock.

” “I know you’re sitting on a rock. I’m sitting on at least six rocks.” Sam leaned back on his hands. “I feel like this farm is missing its true calling. Get rid of the corn, harvest rocks.” “I doubt a rock maze would attract nearly as much in the way of tourism.” “Okay, first, this is Ohio, there is no tourism. There’s just bored teenagers looking for someplace to go on a Friday night. Second, how much tourism do you think they’re getting, with all the mysterious disappearances? Ballpark figure?” “They got a lot of bonus tourism after the first couple disappeared.” If there’s one thing humans and sapient cryptids have in common, it’s the burning desire to gawk at the site of an accident—and that goes double when you substitute “mysterious disappearance” for “accident.

” One mysterious death or missing teenager is a short-term gold mine for the heartless entrepreneur. As long as you don’t mind building your success on a foundation of bones, you can make a lot of money. The trouble begins when the deaths and disappearances keep happening. The “lightning never strikes twice” school of morbid curiosity can turn into “maybe I should have a vague sense of self-preservation” with reassuring speed, and the crowds stop coming. The corn maze where we were enjoying the wonders of nature had been the site of not one, not two, but eleven disappearances since the start of the Halloween season. Always couples, always in their late teens or early twenties, and always fitting the “would totally sneak away to make out in the corn maze” demographic. (Not as narrow or specialized a demographic as you might think. I know for a fact that my older sister went all the way in a corn maze with one of her high school boyfriends. She came home with husks in her hair, a smug expression on her face, and the phone number of the guy who’d been driving the hay wagon. My brother never got lucky in the corn as far as I know—although it’s also possible that Alex has more of a sense of discretion than Verity, which hello, not hard—but he definitely took a few girlfriends to walk the supposedly haunted trails and hold hands in an atmosphere of delightfully artificial fear.

Sex and terror go hand in hand.) Sam frowned, tilting his head back until he was gazing at the sky. The nearest city was far enough away that it was a gorgeous deep black, splashed generously with stars. The moon was a perfect bone-pale circle, looking down on us like a single unblinking eye. “Didn’t you say you had family near here?” “My maternal grandparents,” I confirmed. “They live in Columbus. My cousin Sarah was staying with them the last time I checked. She hasn’t been well.” That’s putting things mildly. Sarah is a cuckoo, a kind of pseudo-mammalian cryptid telepath.

She’s a nerd fantasy on the outside, all long black hair and big blue eyes and books on complicated mathematics. On the inside, she has more in common with a tarantula wasp than she does with your average mathlete. She’s not human. She’s only technically a mammal. Evolution made her, threw up its hands, and went home. Cuckoos are psychic, and that’s what got her into trouble. Most cuckoos use their telepathy passively, letting it make the world easier for them without actually exerting any effort. A few years ago, Sarah used her telepathy actively, in an attempt to save my sister’s life. She succeeded. Verity lived.

She also failed—or at least, she also paid. Her telepathy hasn’t been working right since she used it to manipulate the memory of some Covenant goons, and when a telepath’s powers go on the fritz in the real world, it’s not the cute two-issues-andresolved dramatic twist like you get in the comic books. It’s scary and it’s grueling and sometimes I’m scared that Sarah is never going to be back to what passes for “normal” with her. We’ll love her no matter what. She’s family. But I miss spending hours online chatting with her about her latest math obsession, and what’s happening in the comics, and whether she’s ever going to tell Artie—one of my other cousins, not actually related to Sarah; the family tree is complicated—that she’s hopelessly in love with him. I miss Sarah. I wish I could be sure she was coming home. I wish I could be sure I was. Sam glanced down, a hopeful look in his eyes.

“We could go visit. Let them see that you’re okay.” I threw a handful of corn husks at him. “What part of ‘in hiding from my family for their own protection’ don’t you understand?” “The part where I’m tired of sharing rooms in shitty motels with Cylia and Fern, and I’m sort of hoping your grandparents have a guest room.” “Uh.” I raised an eyebrow. “Am I wrong to interpret that as ‘I miss getting laid, and I think my chances are better in your grandparents’ house’? Because if so, wow, do I suddenly have some questions about your pre-me dating life.” Sam snorted. “Please. You met my grandmother.

Between her overprotective ‘I will end you’ routine and the whole monkey thing, you know I wasn’t getting any before you came along.” I threw another handful of husks at him, just on general principles. Sam laughed. I grinned. Despite the rocks digging into my butt and the whole part where we were sitting in a field known to be the site of multiple disappearances, this wasn’t the worst way to spend an evening. Maybe my standards are lower than they should be. Honestly, I don’t care. We were closer to my grandparents than I liked—no more than a hundred miles from Columbus, and that was being generous—but it hadn’t been a choice, not once we’d heard how many people had gone missing from this one sleepy little town. Their only real tourist attraction was the corn maze, more than a mile across and capable of holding hundreds of people at the same time without any of them being in eyeshot of anyone else. It was the perfect combination of domesticated fear and light exercise, and it had been running for years without problems.

As we got closer to Halloween, the maze would —in an ordinary season—be overrun with hired teenagers in spooky costumes, paid to make the night more interesting. This wasn’t an ordinary season. This hadn’t been an ordinary season since the week after the maze had opened, when the first pair of teenage lovebirds had gone into the corn and failed to come back out.

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