The Will of the Wisps by Angela Teagardner

When the moon hides her face in star-filled night, a trace shall be crafted of faerie light. The rhyme jangled in Kat’s head as she pushed through the knee-high brush. The ground was soggy, giving way beneath her boots. Water pooled into every footprint. The voices of the party had become an unintelligible murmur behind her, and Kat took a moment to look back. The music and the blazing glow of the bonfire seemed far away, as though she’d stepped through a veil into a different world.

Her life had been cleaved into two unequal parts: Before and After. The bonfire parties—that world and all her joy in it—belonged to the first part. The After was shorter, but dense, each day heavy enough to sink Kat to the bottom of the bog.

But she hadn’t come to drown. The thought skidded, an unnecessary reminder, through her head. She didn’t want oblivion. Kat sought magic.

She gazed across the near-total darkness ahead. Her path would be treacherous. At the moment, drowning seemed the most likely outcome. She wondered if, a century ago, Maureen Burke had been the same, staring out across dark water as her desperation outweighed her fear.

A blue glow sparked in Kat’s periphery, and her breath hitched, excitement flooding her veins. Slowly, more lights flickered into being, blue flames like the propane glow of a crowd holding up lighters at a concert, as though Kat herself were someone to be celebrated. For a moment, she stared at the lights, giddy. Until right that moment, she hadn’t quite believed the stories were real.

Follow with caution the paths of the fae; change wrought in darkness still lingers, come day.

The rhyme was more of a legend than a dare, the kind that parents and teachers dismissed as nonsense. It was obvious, though, that they must have believed it themselves, once; the first name on the stone was nearly a hundred years old, after all.

There was more to it than just the couplets, of course. The legend unfolded in a series of instructions passed down in the school yard: one child to the next, year after year, after year. “On the night of the new moon,” kids would whisper, often still too young to actually understand the moon’s phases, “you can follow the will-o’-wisps across the bog and to the old McCurdy house.” No matter who spoke, the directions were always word-for-word the same. “Knock three times on the door, then go inside. That’s how you meet the witch.”

Kat could barely remember a time before she’d known the legend and its accompanying rhyme. She was only four or five when Meg—Kat’s cousin, older by ten years—had first explained what the will-o’-wisps were. Kat had wondered aloud if Meg had followed them, if she had met the witch.

“Why would I want to meet a witch?” Meg had scoffed, but Kat had seen the way her face went pale when she spoke, even though she was almost grown. Despite pretending she didn’t believe, Meg told the story with the same quiet reverence all the younger kids used, listing the lost girls one by one. Meg had known Belinda Snow, after all. “She was my babysitter before she disappeared,” she said. “Before she lost the path in the bog and drowned.”

Most kids never tried it, and of those who did, Kat hadn’t heard of anyone who’d gotten all the way to the house, let alone through the door. The way was perilous. Deadly. Belinda Snow wasn’t the first girl who’d followed the wisps to her doom and she wouldn’t be the last.

The Witch’s Rock was in the bonfire clearing, five names crudely carved into it. Maureen Burke’s name was the oldest, partially obscured by moss and lichen. Then came Fiona McEwan and Catherine James, their ages—fifteen and seventeen, respectively—etched into the stone beside their names. Mary Doyle’s name was rough-hewn but deep, like someone had gouged the rock with a pen knife, over and over for hours until she became an indelible property of the stone. Belinda Snow looked new by comparison, her edges sharp and white, uneroded even after twenty years’ wind and rain.

The girls on that rock had been made immortal simply by dying.

Kat didn’t want immortality, and she didn’t want to die. All she wanted was to somehow erase that night last fall—the memory and the consequences. Magic could do it, if the witch were real. If not, there was always the notoriety of having tried. She would still be stared at, but at least the whispers would be different.

Kat looked toward the phantom lights wavering in the dark void, flickering in and out of existence. She stepped cautiously across the spongy earth, wondering if she would come back. Wondering who would carve her name into the rock if she didn’t.

She’d seen the wisps before—everyone had. They were visible from the highway, blue phantasms hovering over the dark of McCurdy’s Bog. The ignition of swamp gasses, her father always insisted when Kat mentioned the legend. Nothing science can’t explain.

Now, with the fires so close, Kat wasn’t inclined to be scientific. The nearest one hovered at the far end of a fallen log, so she stepped onto it. Under her weight, the tree sank an inch or two. She held out her arms for balance as the dark water lapped her boots’ thick soles. She walked slowly, unsteady across too-soft bark. The wisp faded and died as she approached, and another flared into life just a few yards further.

She stepped into a clump of vegetation, testing first with one foot, then the other. The bog was filled with false islands—mounds of plant life that looked like solid land, but would quickly collapse under her weight. It would then be easy, she thought, to be caught in the tangle of roots and stalks beneath the surface. Kat had no idea how deep the bog was, but she remembered when Liam had tried to cross. He’d taken a wrong step and nearly drowned. He’d described mud like concrete, sucking at his feet while dense vegetation closed around his head and arms.

Kat crouched, shuddering. She pressed one hand against the soaked earth, afraid of losing her balance, of tumbling into the mud and never finding her way out. Liam had lost his shoes out there, somewhere, coming back barefoot and caked with greenish muck. Kat had laughed with everyone else, squealing in horror as he threw one slimy arm around her shoulders, though she hadn’t minded. Not really.

Now she closed her eyes, swallowing back nausea. No more thinking of Liam. There weren’t any safe thoughts of him anymore; even the sweetest memories had withered and turned bitter.

When she stood again, it was on trembling legs. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was afraid of, the mystery ahead of her, or her own past. Both?

A year ago, Kat wouldn’t have tried to find the McCurdy house. She’d been too smart and too practical to risk her life on a legend whose only legacy seemed to be a list of dead girls. But last October, her life had come to a jagged halt.

Now she picked her way through the dense marsh, risking her life on the childish belief that magic was real. Did she even believe it? Kat didn’t know. All she knew was that she was sick of wearing her life like an ill-fitting sweater. Anything would be better.

It’s better not to speak up. Even her own best friend—former best friend—hadn’t taken Kat seriously. Emmy had been the one Kat had run to, after, the one witness to her near-hysterical tears. The only one who’d ever heard Kat say the words aloud. Her advice had been swift and certain. You’ll only make trouble for everyone.

Kat kept quiet, but trouble had come nonetheless. Trouble for Kat, not Liam. It’s not like she was a virgin. The whispers at school were designed to be heard, designed to wound her. She’s nothing but a lying slut. Liam never said a word. He didn’t have to, because everyone knew that a girl like her was lucky to have perfect, golden Liam as her boyfriend. She never deserved to go out with him. Each word, each glance was the tiniest slice of a razor, until the threads binding Kat to her friends, to her whole world, finally snapped.

Alone, she grew small.

As each wisp in her path flickered and faded, another blazed to life, just a few meters away. Kat followed carefully, wishing she’d thought to bring a walking stick to test the earth. Any misstep and she’d be sucked into the bog. Already she felt it clutching at her, trying to pull her down. Her breath faltered with each tug, a memory of hands pushing her down.

Mud squelched beneath her boots as the water rose, step by step, to cover her feet. Soon she was splashing as much as squelching, the cold water up to her ankles, and then her shins, the sodden fabric of her jeans wicking the damp up to her knees.

The air was fetid, dank with rotting plants and the greasy sharpness of swamp gasses. Kat felt it settling into her hair and her clothes and wondered if she was transforming into something less than herself, a creature of moss and lichen. Water soaked into her skin through her feet, and like a plant cutting, she imagined she would erupt into pale roots, surrender herself to the bog and let it sustain her.

Still she walked. The wisps showed the way.

When her foot bumped something more solid, Kat’s heart lurched. Blinding panic strobed through her as she imagined a body, any one of the girls lost to history. But another step confirmed what her legs had already realized—she’d reached solid ground. She stepped uneasily onto the grassy bank, half-afraid to leave the familiarity of muck and mud.

She was close to the end.

The flame she’d followed ashore guttered and died, steeping Kat in deep, oppressive darkness. For several heartbeats, she felt like she would be there forever, blind and breathless with heavy, wet boots.

Then, one by one, the wisps flickered themselves back into existence, until there were dozens of them. In their wavering blue light, Kat saw that they surrounded a crumbling stone cottage. The McCurdy house. It was worse than she expected, with a half-collapsed porch that sloped to the ground at one end and the hollowed-out frame of a long-broken window. The wood trim was blackened, textured by fire or rot—Kat couldn’t tell which.

Now that she stood there, only two meters away from disintegrating porch steps, Kat’s nerve left her. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t make herself climb onto that treacherous porch, let alone knock on the weathered oak door. The place frightened her far more than the bog had.

Is it worse, though? Worse than that night?

The voice in her head was timid, mousy, but it mowed her down like a bellowing stampede of bison. No. Nothing could be worse than being pinned under Liam’s body, his clutching hands bruising her wrists as he held her down. It can’t be rape if he’s your boyfriend.

No? Kat’s face burned with rage. Then what the fuck else was it?

The McCurdy house couldn’t hurt her. No witch’s curse could be worse than what she’d already faced. She reminded herself why she was there. She would do whatever was necessary for a possibility—no matter how small—to take control of her life again.

She stepped onto the porch.

The boards were damp, giving way beneath her boots like sponge. She picked out the sturdy spots and avoided clusters of mushrooms. The wisps flared as she neared the house, until they burned, incandescent. Kat could see exactly where each foot landed.

The door loomed—the last barrier. She held her breath as she knocked three times against the weathered oak. On the third knock, the door shifted, nudging open just a fraction, as if it’d been ajar the whole time. She pushed.

“Hello?” she called, though she knew the place was empty. It wasn’t the kind of house anyone lived in anymore. Not even a witch.

A glimmer of light caught Kat’s attention. She thought it was another wisp, urging her inside, but the house was dark. She stepped over the threshold, just as cautious as she’d been crossing the bog. The floorboards creaked, yielding just a bit beneath her boots. There was a framed picture near the door—a crack in the glass caught the light.

Kat swiped a sleeve to clear the grime. Her own face, her bedraggled hair backlit by the eerie blue glow of the wisps outside, peered back at her. She fell back a step, her back jostling hard against the doorframe. The movement was replicated in the glass and she exhaled in a short laugh. A mirror.

Meet the witch.

Kat touched the cloudy mirror, tracing her fingers along the diagonal crack that split the glass in two. Before and After. “I am the witch,” she whispered. The girl in the glass mouthed the words with her. “I have power.”

In a blink, the wisps were in the house, their eerie blue light illuminating the moldering, ruined room around her. Kat realized that they had chosen to show her the way. They had chosen her.

The wisp nearest her flared, cold and arcane. The light that made the whole room glow didn’t bounce off of her, but instead sank into her skin and became part of her. It was the sizzle of a drowning wick, the blue-white jolt of an electric shock. The magic of the wisps surrounded her, surged into her, and became her own as, one by one, each flame sputtered and died.

The darkness that followed was silent and complete. Kat thought about the names etched into that stone in the bonfire clearing, about bodies never recovered, girls presumed dead. She thought about Liam, for the first time not wincing away from the mere idea of him. She thought of all the reasons why a girl might feel powerless.

No more.

Maureen Burke. Fiona McEwan. Catherine James. Mary Doyle. Belinda Snow. Kat could disappear, too. She could be done with the gossip, the whispers, let them carve her name into the rock and let the legend be her legacy.

Or she could go back. She could hold her head up and own her truth. Maybe someone might believe her. Maybe, just by speaking, she could prevent the same from happening to even one other girl. Kat didn’t know if that would be enough, but it would be a start.

She closed her eyes, seeking and finding the source of the magic within her. With only a thought, she conjured a cool blue flame into her palm—just enough light to see the safe path through—and headed home, powerless no more.

Angela Teagardner grew up on fairy tales and historical fiction. She lives with her small family and three troublesome cats in Columbus, Ohio. When she’s not working, she runs about with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and attempts to make pretty things out of stained glass.