image of crux the rapid
image of carina, the pithy hourglass

The Flip

You are a WITCH without borders or bindings. You are an explorer of the far-flung unknown, a messenger from the edge. Your magic spawns from a nip of whiskey. You have written dissertations on the intricacies of demon deals. GET BEESWAX IN YOUR HAIR!

You are a WITCH forged of gold. You practice healing sutures on underripe bananas. Your magic spawns from the flip of a coin. You have devoted your studies to the construction of magical instruments. IT’S TIME TO GIVE IN TO THE ARCANE!

PROFESSOR CRUX THE RAPID KICKED OPEN THE DOOR TO DEMONOLOGY 201 with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a cloaked cage in the other. She had made stranger entrances to stranger rooms, but still the lecture hall rippled with surprise. Despite her polished bouffant and waxy bangs, she radiated an unbound mania that made even the most collected student nervous. There were whispered theories among the oldest wards of THE HALLOWED HALLS on how she had procured such strange, unnatural eyes—soft red like the pollen of a noxious plant, slit like a snake, always twitching from one imperceptible target to the next. The other staff said she was just as wondrous as she was woeful, but where that goodness sprouted in the dark, sloshy dirt of her haphazard personality was anyone’s guess.

She rarely began her lessons with any sort of formal introduction. “Contrary to some recent, utterly irresponsible research publications,” she spat, “you should never equate a demon’s magical capability or intelligence with its size. How do we measure demon capability?” Her voice boomed in the large hall, half-ringed with ascending semicircles of pale marble benches.

A WITCH in the first row raised her hand. Their arm emerged from a near-gaseous cloud of curls. “Proximity to witchhood.”

She nodded. “Meaning what?”

The WITCH continued, emboldened. “Demons steal the natural magic of the wilds to survive and grow stronger. The closer one displays the power of a witch, the closer they are to the apex of that magic.”

“Good.” Crux pulled two shot glasses from their pocket, set them both on the WITCH’s desk, and poured generously from the bottle.

They stumbled. “Should we be drinking in lecture?”

”Never mind, you don’t deserve this.” Crux took both, her head knocking back with the ease of practice. Eyes closed, she exhaled fine golden mist. When they opened, her gaze was bright like pricked blood. “What signs of power do we look for in a demon?” She pointed at a student to her left with a black gown draped over their crossed heels.

They spoke quickly, “Capability for speech, stolen extremities or organs, convincingness of disguise.”

“Excellent.” Returning to the front of the hall, Crux removed the sheet of fabric from the cage with a flourish. Inside, a small creature about the size of an apple with wet black eyes and a twitching snout. As it was exposed to light it curled upon itself to form a ball of quills like a cup of brown rice. The class could not contain a cry of adoration.

“A hedgehog!” a few students called, voices pitched up with delight.

The professor muttered something under her breath before smacking the back of the cage with her hand. It tripled in size and knocked the creature into the bars. The form of the hedgehog rippled and shook, expanding to velvety black limbs grappling beneath a cloud of black smoke. The eyes, snout, and quills grew and flattened to a grotesque mask as if the rodent had been heated and stretched. The DEMON threw back its head. “Ow!”

The front row drew back in disgust and fear. Crux pointed to one, two, three first-year students who had reacted most strongly. “You, you, you. You just died in the woods meeting this thing. Get out of my class. Write an essay on self-preservation and then burn it before lecture tomorrow.”

The chosen scrambled for their belongings, eager to escape the immediately heavier energy of the room. The air around the DEMON condensed and pulsed with WOE. It had the bulbous frame of a sickly child—pudgy stomach, two legs, and only one arm ending in a thin claw.

“Top a guy up, Crux? I even brought a cup.” It spoke in a rasp, the mouth on its mask still and unmoving. It pulled a large acorn cap from somewhere behind the warped face and held it up, pleading.

Ignoring it, the professor turned to the class. “Why would that be stupid for me to accept?”

A shout from the back. “It could argue it gave you the cup as a gift and you owe it.”

“Precisely. I will, however, pour a shot for no reason in particular and leave it here on the desk. If some creature were to find it and drink it, that would have nothing to do with me.” She refilled both of her glasses, pushed one towards the cage and brought the other to her mouth.

The DEMON reached its single, spindly hand through the bars to take the drink. It tutted mockingly. “It, it, it. I have a name, you know.”

“What is it?” The curl cloud WITCH sat forward, fascinated.

“Could I have yours first?” It tilted its head at them.

“Of course not.” They grinned.

The DEMON squirreled the cup somewhere behind its mask. “Okay, Crux, so maybe you are a half-decent teacher.”

Professor Crux tossed her hair, a smile creeping imperceptibly. “This is Hodge. He happens to owe me a great debt. Of course, he is as much a sniveling buffoon as I am a prolific scholar of demonology.” Though the DEMON’s mask could not move, its eyes rolled in spirit. “He has agreed to settle up by visiting our class today and allowing you all to practice negotiating with him without killing or seriously maiming anyone.”

“Seriously maiming?” someone squeaked.

“Without any kind of maiming.” Hodge drew his arm up to his swollen chest. “I don’t have a heart, but you can imagine this is where it would be, and I’m swearing on it. Educational feedback only.”

“Yes, sans any kind of maiming.” Crux swirled the amber liquid in her bottle faster now, excited. She didn’t have the energy of someone who would oppose watching a maiming. “So, who wants to go first?”

“I’ll try.” The curl cloud WITCH stood and walked to the front of the room. After a few steps, they turned and grabbed a paper sack from their desk. When they spoke, their voice wavered only slightly. “Mr. Hodge, I want to borrow some of your power for three hours.”

Hodge crossed his good arm over the stump of the other. “In exchange for?”

The WITCH stuck her hand in the bag dramatically, paused for effect, then removed a rather decadently stacked sandwich. “Tuna salad on rye.”

“I would say yes, give you some cursed ability like hearing rodents’ thoughts but only the ones that scream all the time, and happily eat your lunch. Terrible wording. Next!”

The WITCH in the long black gown stood next. “Demon, if I were to open your cage and set you free, what could you offer me in return?”

“Better,” Hodge pondered, swirling his claws like tentacles upon his shoulder. “But you know I’m bound to a previous contract keeping me here. The cage is mere theatrics. Next.”

Students took turns slowly at first, then faster as Hodge dismissed their offerings. Some approached the cage, others called out from their seats. He picked apart specificity, loopholes, conniving interpretations, tricks and traps.

As the class period drew to a close, a final WITCH stood. Her hooded eyes focused on Hodge, their lids drawn to fold as if sleepy. Two large curls of hair framed her chiseled face, the rest pulled back into twin tails of mauve silk. As she breathed, a trail of teal fire seemed to tickle at her nose. She approached the table with the cage, her gauzy shirtsleeves fluttering with each step.

“Mr. Hodge, please examine this.” She opened her fist to reveal a plain gold disk, one side etched with a line, the other smooth. “I swear on my life and magic it’s a completely unremarkable, evenly weighted coin that will do you no harm.”

The fire at her nose exhaled upwards, climbing on the air and expanding greedily. If it was warm against her face, her expression did not betray it. A WITCH’s pact is binding.

The fire at her nose exhaled upwards, climbing on the air and expanding greedily. If it was warm against her face, her expression did not betray it. A WITCH’s pact is binding.

“Interesting.” Hodge scraped at the coin with his tooth and weighed it on his tongue. He spat it back at her. “I’m listening.”

“I propose a game of chance. You win, I take on all of your debts. I win, you take on all of mine. I toss, you call in the air.”

“Now that,” Hodge leaned forward, forehead knocking against the bars. A wet cluck pierced the quiet mumbling of the hall as he licked his lips in shadow. “That’s something. I know nothing of your debts.”

“And I know nothing of yours.” The WITCH grinned, sleepy eyes widening with some hidden delight. “A split gamble with an unknown loss but everything to gain. No tricks. Just a chance that may be too good to refuse.”

The DEMON deliberated, weighing curiosity and risk on imperceptible scales. Carina folded the coin over her fingers from one side of her hand to the other. Even just the movement of it dancing across her knuckles had her hair defying gravity in anticipation.

“I’ll take it.” Hodge stood up in the cage and gripped at its bars. The classroom of WITCHES hushed as each gasped and held their breath.

“Excellent.” Carina bumped the coin to rest on her thumb and flipped. It twirled in the dust for one second, two—flashing strike, smooth, strike—before Crux grabbed it out of the air. Hodge yipped in frustration.

“Educational feedback only.” She pressed. The spectral hands at her collar, usually austere, were twitching anxiously. If Carina didn’t know better, she would think the professor was nervous.

“No killing or maiming. I want to take the deal!” Hodge was shaking the bars now, voice pitched up like a child throwing a tantrum. The clock struck the hour. Class was over.

“Your debt is repaid. Leave.” Crux insisted, voice steadier this time. The bell did not finish ringing before Hodge dissipated in a tuft of whining black smoke. Crux turned to the class. “Interesting work today. Reflect on your proposition and why it was struck down. We’ll debrief tomorrow.” Dismissed, the room of students broke out in a dozen different frustrated conversations.

Crux turned to Carina. “I’m impressed. I wasn’t expecting anyone to get anywhere today. What was your trick, in the end? Something in the toss? You’re not stupid enough to actually make that deal.” There was something desperate in her expression, almost pleading. She pressed the coin into her student’s palm. The smooth side was face-up, glinting in the light.

The Pithy Hourglass grinned, blue tendrils of heat blossoming across her face. Her mask, grown fully, cast writhing shadows against her skin. “I’d never dare cheat a toss, Professor. If you’d excuse me, I have another class.”

She bowed her head before returning to her seat to gather her belongings. Crux watched as she left, coin in motion again, flying between her fingers, jumping animatedly from hand to hand.