THE TALISMAN & THE WITCH’S CODE
Novella Two of Vanessa Schierman PhD WITCH
BY Sandy Nathan
Vanessa sat at her dressing table, peering into the looking glass. She couldn’t look that ugly. But she did. She swiped her fingers over the creases at the corners of her mouth, glancing at the pots of powder and cream on her vanity. She didn’t know how to use them to improve her looks. Cosmetics wouldn’t be enough, even if she did know how to use them.
She would never get what she longed for. Or whom. He stood next to her in the framed photo on the dressing table. Magnificent, startlingly handsome. Their image had appeared on the cover of NET WORTH Magazine the month before.
When she so magnanimously revealed to their blundering reporter that she was the richest person in the world, not Will Duane, as NET WORTH had erroneously reported for twenty years, the magazine did a joint issue on the two of them: the richest man and woman on the planet.
She sighed as she remembered the glory of the photo shoot. They did it at Will’s house, of course. Vanessa didn’t tolerate visitors at her estate. A chuckle escaped her, sounding more like a cackle than she would have liked. Visitors didn’t tolerate the estate well, either, though most of them came out of their hysterics soon after leaving.
Will’s estate was down the hill, in the flatlands of Woodside. Wide open, oak-studded meadows framed the magnificent modern masterpiece–his home. Sunlight flooded the gardens around the pool. The photographers, a passel of them, shot away while Will smiled at her. Charming. Irresistible. So amazingly sexy. Young people thought that those over sixty were all but dead. Not so. Not Will, and certainly not her.
Will smiled and put his arm around her, gazing into her eyes with his clarity and intelligence flaming. He had treated her like a princess, as though she were his best friend.
That was definitely not what she wanted.
“You mean so much to me, Vanessa. If you hadn’t taken me under your wing years ago, I’d still be a garbage collector’s son–or waste management contractor’s son–wondering why I couldn’t get anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.” He smiled, making light of his humble beginnings. “You showed me what really mattered in upper class society–grammar and spelling.”
“And excellent table manners, as well as proper pronunciation,” she added gleefully. “As well as entre into the best clubs, and references–no, glowing endorsements–from those already in power. Preferably at the high end of power.” She sniffed and raised her head. Vanessa couldn't help being a snob.
The splendid day was almost ruined by a foolish photographer. The magazine was on a tight time schedule for publication, so the workers toiled in Will’s basement office, generating proofs for them to approve then and there. She and Will had previously had legal contracts drawn requiring their signed acceptance of images for publication. Vanessa hadn’t had any photos published before this shoot, but she knew she’d need legal protection if it ever happened.
“I had to Photoshop the shit out of that picture to make her look human,” a wretched little dimple on a laptop whispered to her co-worker. The dimwit had no idea how acute a witch’s hearing was. “I’d swear she was a witch, but I didn’t think they came that ugly. Look, I put the final version on this tablet.”
Vanessa stiffened and shot a hard look at the vicious photographer. The girl’s hands flew to her throat. She began choking as Vanessa grabbed the tablet from her hands.
“How do you make this work?” She shook the unit and the picture covered the wall. “Oh. That is quite large.”
Vanessa had not been completely aware of what Photoshop was, or what it could do. Photoshopping had worked miracles. The photographer had apparently removed her head, tilted the chin down and moved the whole thing back on her neck. She’d taken away the hump on Vanessa’s back. The protrusion had grown year by year since the accident. Her horse had fallen on the hunt field decades earlier. It ended the poor dear’s life and broke Vanessa’s back. They couldn’t fix it in those days; she survived, but her head leaned forward, looking like it might topple from her neck.
But that nasty sprite with the camera and laptop had fixed all that, on paper anyway. The little snit, who was gasping and holding her throat while Vanessa reviewed her handiwork, had smoothed the ravines and craters of Vanessa’s face and tamed the protuberance of her chin. She looked handsome, if not lovely. It was enough.
“Very nice. I approve it.” Vanessa handed the tablet to the girl, releasing her spell. The child couldn’t speak, but Vanessa did. “Haven’t you heard the saying, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’? It’s most useful. You should try it for a while. In fact, you will.”
Vanessa didn’t look at Will’s image at all. No need–he would appear as he always did: magnificent. Glowing. Brilliant. Tantalizing. White hair and dark blue eyes shimmering with intellect. She glanced at the photo of the two of them on her vanity. Will was tall, even next to her Photoshopped self.
Why didn’t he love her?
He never noticed her next to the perfect, if vacuous, bimbos he “dated.” She sniffed, knowing full well what bimbo meant and the behavior that accompanied the appellation. Would he love her if she looked and acted like that?
If she were beautiful, she’d still be as smart as she was. Vanessa was a theoretical physicist, one of the best back in the 1930s. She and Will had educated conversations about everything: stock markets, the supply of money, the Federal reserve rate. They could even talk about art and history. Will was an art collector and she had supervised her family’s collections of treasures for ages. They spoke about modern political history with vigor. Vanessa had lived far longer than she’d admit. She’d participated in large chunks of modern history, knowing it firsthand. She and Will had a crackling intellectual relationship. They enjoyed each other’s company.
Why couldn’t he love her?
Because she was a hideous, terrifying old witch who scared the crap out of most people, to use the popular parlance.
Of course, she hadn’t always been this way.
When she’d married Heinrich, she had been a handsome woman. That was many years ago, long before the children and the pain their tragic condition had brought her–and the pain her husband’s state had brought as well. Heinrich had turned out to be mentally ill. The dazzle and charm that won her heart was mania. His bipolar disorder could be wonderful on the up side, but when his mood turned downward to depression, it was terrible for her to witness and worse for him to live. She certainly hadn’t exercised due diligence in researching her husband.
Why hadn’t she realized that she and a German warlock whose name was virtually the same as hers might have genetic incompatibilities? True, his family came from a different part of Germany than hers: Heinrich von Schierman’s ancient brood hailed from the prosperous north west of the German nation. Her direct ancestors had fled the old country centuries before. Those who stayed in Germany were from the southeast around the mountains near Switzerland.
But her name was Schierman and her father’s name had been Heinrich Schierman and half of his male relatives bore the same surname. Why didn’t she realize that her forbearers dropped the “von” in their name to Americanize themselves and erase any ties to their aristocratic roots? Because of passion, of course. The same reason empires rise and fall.
Vanessa Schierman had fallen madly in love with and married Heinrich von Schierman, her distant cousin. Not distant enough. Their children emerged so flawed, so ill. They had aged her as surely as the passage of time. And then the accident left her bent, as she was.
Vanessa sat thoughtfully. Could she morph back in time to look the way she had? Absolutely. Her PhD was not an idle ornament hung behind her name. She’d kept up her experiments long after retiring. In her home laboratory, she’d created things that the planet’s military powers would kill to have. She had invented a way to go back to the self she’d been before her marriage. She could go back to whatever time she wanted. Would the rejuvenated Vanessa be lovely enough to tempt Will?
No. Even if she availed herself of the time-bending means at her disposal, she still wouldn’t be a babe. Worse, she would end up in the present, in 1998, her brain back in the time she took herself to, with no memory of Will Duane whatsoever. She wouldn’t know what had happened between, say, 1950 and now. The memories wouldn’t exist in her brain.
Even the platonic friendship that existed between them would be gone. Will wouldn’t know who she was. And she’d think him an old man.
She had to find another way.Heaving herself as erect as she was able, Vanessa steeled herself for another day. How could she make Will see her as a woman? As a mate? As the love of his life?
The hallway outside her private rooms was paneled in dark wood covered with ornate carvings. Swags of flowers and leaves converged into opulent trusses of ribbons and bows––all wooden, yet all moving as though kissed by a breeze. Bewitched, the carvings swayed and little things peeped forth. Small whittled animals, squirrels, chipmunks, and a fox or two. A mahogany monkey that she had breathed to life and set loose in the paneling when she was a child. And bats. Vanessa loved bats. They awakened as she headed into the kitchen to greet its familiar human denizens, Mrs. Marjory Naughton, her chief housekeeper and confidant, and Cook, her cook. It was time for breakfast and coffee.
Brilliant sparkles of light cascaded onto the landing and down the stairway. Her mother’s portrait was awake. Vanessa turned and saw her mother rendered larger than life and magicked into seeming alive. Her face was cold and regal and icily beautiful, brows arched, lips parted as though about to bestow a curse. Her ruff wafted from her neck, opalescent and pastel-colored with sparkles flying everywhere.
Vanessa’s teeth ground together. Her mother had the gaudiest ruff of any witch she knew. It was beyond bad taste. But what did you expect from Euro-trash floating around the continent on a charm and a spell? Her father should have known better; he was the one with the bloodlines and money.
Still, even dead and in a painting, her mother commanded attention. Nothing could outshine her jeweled, beaded, and spangled dress. It cast light like air-kisses, flashes cascading down the landing and entry hall. The wand in her right hand was so flamboyant that it made her clothes and ruff look chaste. Illuminated letters burst from it and fell to the floor, spelling her name: Ophelia. Ophelia. Ophelia drifted down to the painted carpet beneath her painted feet.
Vanessa studied the portrait. By coming alive like this, her mother was surely trying to tell her something. What?
Ophelia Schierman’s left hand rested on her chest. Above that, the talisman glowed.
The talisman! That was it! It worked subtly, so that its target didn’t know it was operating.
Vanessa could cast a spell and Will would idolize her even if she looked like a donkey. She could make him do anything. Why not? If you can’t compel people to things against their will, what was the use being a witch? She could magick Will into submission and devotion, but that wasn’t what she wanted.
She wanted him to love her the way she loved him: knowing his weaknesses and faults, his strengths and essential goodness and kindness––most of which he hid behind a public display of rotten behavior and foul temper. She knew who he really was, and loved all of him.
Beside the grossest enchantment, what could make him love her the same way?
She could use the talisman to subtly charm Will. Not bewitch him, but move the parts of his soul that cared for her to the fore. Let Will’s own heart and soul come to her.
“I’ve got it!” Vanessa cried, bursting into the kitchen.
“Wonderful, dear. Got what?” Mrs. Naughton said. Cook merely handed her a mug of coffee.
“I’ll get the talisman. Then everything will work out!”
“The talisman? What talisman?”
“The Blood Talisman. It’s mine. My mother took it.”
“Where is it?”
“With my mother’s corpse––at the family estate in Germany. I’m going there right now.”
“Oh! I’d better pack for you, Vanessa. How long will you be gone?”
“Pish! I don’t need to pack. I’ll be gone as long as it takes!”
Vanessa’s tailored ruff emerged from her neck with a subtle sheen of black peau de soi, its jet crystal beaded points glittering, but not emitting venom. Her wand appeared in her hand, slightly bigger than perfectly tasteful, but just the way she liked it. Vanessa raised her wand and disappeared.
“What is the Blood Talisman?” Mrs. Naughton asked Cook. They looked at each other and then at the empty space where Vanessa had stood.
The castle’s immense entry hall was darker and more somber than she remembered. Of course, it had been eons since she’d visited. Even so, the stillness was weird. The château perched on the edge of a mountain, the kind of dwelling that exists only in the Alps. Huge and impractical, the only reason that it hadn’t been converted into a tourist attraction or hotel was that it was so terrifying that even tourists seeking supernatural thrills wouldn’t chance it. In the valley below, the fortress’s shadow dampened the spirits of all it touched. That and her family was loaded and didn’t need to prostitute itself by entertaining paying guests.
But the stronghold had been a turbulent hotbed of life–witches and warlocks weren’t the undead, after all. They lived and needed servants. She was an only child, but her father’s people reproduced like viruses, mutating just as fast. She had phalanxes of cousins and once-twice-thrice removed necromancers calling her auntie. She was no one’s auntie, but answered to the term when in the ancestral stronghold.
Where was everyone? Vanessa stood alone in the vast stone-walled space. Even her breathing echoed. She looked around, up and down, turned in a circle. Total disaster! No witch worth the name would allow her home to deteriorate so. Ropes and tangles of cobwebs hung everywhere, their eight-legged creators nowhere in sight.
“I’ll fix that.” She raised her wand and the cobwebs formed braids, festoons, and dainty Germanic lace patterns. A swag of spider silk draped the main entrance. “That’s much better. Spiders! Emerge!” A few decrepit specimens appeared, legs broken, sheen gone.
“What has happened to you?”
The same that happened to everything. Look around, came the spiders’ silent response.
Vanessa looked around. Tapestries hung over every stone of the wall not covered by ancestor portraits. They depicted the family’s favorite subjects: the active subjugation of the working serfs and the conquest of surrounding fiefdoms. The weavings depicted rape and pillage and pogrom-type pursuits that made The Rape of the Sabine Women look G-rated.
Normally, the figures on the tapestries acted out what they were depicted as doing, predating large screen and X-rated TV by centuries. Now, the weavings were still, their color dimmed by… something, as well as the spider’s webs and dust coating their surfaces.
The same could be said of the ancestor portraits. The figures hung limply in their frames, dejected, lifeless, and not the all-conquering, never-daunted Schiermans she knew. Another thing: most of the furniture and all of the silver and porcelain was missing. The hall was truly empty. What had happened?
Fear shot through Vanessa. Had her relatives pawned the Blood Talisman? She needed that; the crawling tapestries and combatant portraits spelled home, but not her heart’s desire.
“Where is everyone?” Her ruff shot out. Her wand filled her hand. They knew she needed to be prepared. “Cousins! Nurse! Nanny! Where are you?” She turned slowly, noting the despoliation of a castle that had endured for centuries. “What’s happened here?
“Where are my cousins? It’s Vanessa, come from America. Where are you?”
After some time, she heard a rattling tap. Someone was coming from the castle’s inner sanctum. Peering down a darkened hallway, she saw an ancient figure tapping her way toward her. Using her wand as a cane!
“Cousin Viola! Why are you using your wand like that? Stop, dear! It’s a travesty.” Vanessa was sufficiently shocked that she forgot that she hated her cousin Viola. She looked so horrible, who wouldn’t feel pity? “What’s happened?”
“Ah can’t say ah know. Who’re you?”
“I’m Vanessa Schierman, from California. You know me. We’ve visited.”
The crone looked her up and down. “Ah daresay you’ve done better than me. Been hard times here.”
“Don’t know, dear. Expect a spell’s been cast on me. Think ah’m the last living soul here. Think so.”
“Viola! You must remember! What has happened to the castle and all the furniture? And the cousins?”
“All th’ fam’ly’s gone. ‘spect they sold the swag to keep up the lifestyle. Designer this, couture that. Hard to be a witch in modern times.”
“It went for clothes?” Vanessa stepped back, truly shocked. Her skirt swayed forward, reminding her of her own clothing. This dress was one of her favorites, floor length and completely black with fine pleats and tucks, black lace trim, and obsidian buttons like eyes. Custom made, of course, but by the villagers who lived behind the estate house. Cost nothing.
“Oh, yeah. Y’ need t’ have top drawer clothes and shoes. Handbags, of course. And posh entertaining. Couldn't do it here.” The other witch raised her wrinkled face to indicate the doomsday hanging over them.
“You could if you cleaned up a bit. I entertain. I even had a wedding at my house.”
“A wedding? Do people still get married?” A demented giggle. “Of course they do. Ah forgot that our Adrianna and Laurenz von Zadicus were married. But not here.”
“In Paris. At a fancy hotel. Took the last silver candelabra to pay for it. They’re here. Somewhere. They’ll come out in a while.” She looked up at the narrow gothic windows. A shadow of dim light indicated their location. It was almost dark. “Sleep all day, awake all night. Howling and carrying on.”
“Adrianna is here?” That was a blessing. Adrianna was a level head and a smart one. A new breed of witch. Incorruptible. “Who else is here?”
“No one; everyone with any life lit out.”
Vanessa cursed silently. “Well, I think I’ll go wake her up.”
Viola’s eyes widened, fit to burst. “Oh, no. Wouldn't do that. She’s with Laurenz, y’know. Newlywed.” Viola’s bulging eyes took on a lascivious glint.
Vanessa certainly didn’t want to walk in on her distant cousin in the raptures of the newly conjoined.
“Come in the kitchen with me, Cousin Vanessa. Ah’ll make ye a cuppa.”
Since when did her relatives start talking like Yorkshiremen? Vanessa followed her. They walked a long way, into a kitchen that might have been cleaned in this century. Or not.
“What happened to the servants? You had a whole village of them, just as I do.”
“Too lively for here. Lit out when Laurenz’s family started coming by. Now it’s just me.”
Vanessa washed their cups, and the teakettle, pot, and teaspoons. She wiped down the old stove and the table top and resisted the urge to mop the floor. Viola was obviously very ill; she couldn't keep up. But why not hire someone from town?
Curious as she was about the cause of the degenerated state of the ancestral castle and finances, Vanessa had a mission: get the Blood Talisman and go back home. She sipped tea, glancing at Viola surreptitiously. Her third cousin twice-removed was just as unwilling to make eye contact with her. Vanessa knew what she looked like and couldn't blame her, but if the pot ever called the kettle… Viola was no one to feel superior regarding looks.
“I’ve come to see everyone, of course, but I do miss Mama so. I wanted to visit her crypt and bring her these…” Bring her what? A bouquet of deadly nightshade leapt into Vanessa’s hand. Being a witch was so useful. “A token of respect. Mama is still in the mausoleum, I suppose? You haven’t found it necessary to pawn her remains to buy new shoes or anything?”
The other witch made a disgusting snort. “Pawn your mother? Like to see the bloke who’d try that madness. She’s got a circle of demons around her. Good thing, too, because Laurenz an’ them want that jewel on her throat. Covet it bad. But Ophelia’s as much a witch dead as she was alive.”
Relief bathed Vanessa. She’d nip down to the crypt, grab the jewel, and be off. Pity to miss seeing Adrianna, but she’d undoubtedly enjoy her tryst with her new husband more than a cup of tea with her “auntie.”
“Well, I don’t suppose I’ll have any problem. The jewel is rightfully mine, as the female head of our line. I’ll just…” She rose to leave when she spied an emaciated waif wearing an almost invisible chemise in the doorway.
“Adrianna? Is that you?” The creature was almost naked. “Viola, grab a table cloth or something to cover her. She’s lost her clothes…”
“What?” the waif objected. “This is a Vermilini Couture gown.”
“Gown? It’s barely a handkerchief…” Vanessa took the cloth Viola proffered and wrapped it around the urchin's shoulders. “What happened to you? You were such a robust girl.” Now skin and bone, pale as death, Adrianna had once sported thick glossy hair that curled and bounced. But now nothing about her indicated any life within her. She kept her eyes down and averted.
“Thin is in, auntie. You should know that. Laurenz and I travel a great deal all over the world. We move in fashionable circles. I have to look the part.”
“Well, society has changed a great deal since I was a girl. A woman had to have recognizable boobs back then.” The other witches recoiled at her words. “Boobs and an ass. You look like a drowned rat.”
Adrianna shot a look at her. Something about it alarmed Vanessa, but the young witch turned away before she could puzzle it out.
“One thing hasn’t changed,” the scrawny duck’s wispy voice had an edge, a definite bite. “People of breeding have manners. They don’t ‘drop in’ uninvited and make judgments about family and home. We haven’t seen you since your mother died, and you come here, saying all these things…”
How did Adrianna hear her and Viola talking closeted away in the ancient kitchen? Was the house bugged? That was likely. Vanessa’s mansion certainly was. Was her witch’s hearing especially acute? Or was she something else? A horrible thought was coming to Vanessa. The only thing with better hearing than a witch was a…
“Oh my God!” She spun to the door. Another wasted figure stood there, this one male with lank, dark hair. He wore trousers like those popular in the 1800s and nothing else. His skin gleamed white and his eyes flashed red.
“AAAAAAAA!” The war cry emerged from her with no stops, no holding back. Her hair stood on end, mouth flashing her teeth. Vanessa’s ruff jumped two feet from her neck, poison acid squirting from its jeweled tips at the interloper. The poison alone should have killed him, but her wand settled the matter conclusively.
Shooting from her hand, its handle formed a T, or more correctly, a cross. The business end of the wand hit the stranger just to the left of the breast bone, piercing his body at the heart. Before she could even say, “How do you do, Laurenz? Welcome to the family,” the rotter lay dead on the kitchen floor. Nothing like a stout oak wand for offing vampires.
Viola and Adrianna stared at her, lips retracting from their fangs and bloodshot eyes glinting ruby in the dim light. The wand ejected itself from Laurenz’s chest and flung itself at Viola’s, finding the same deadly perch. The older witch fell, black blood leaking from her wound. Vanessa’s wand pulled itself from Viola’s body and hovered over Adrianna.
Adrianna dropped to her knees, hissing. She crawled toward Vanessa, hissing and threatening with her teeth. Before she got very far, her body began to sway back and forth between her aunt and her husband. Growing still, she wailed, “You killed Laurenz. You killed my husband.”
Her grief didn’t last long; leaping to her feet, Adrianna dropped the table cloth shielding her fragile body and pointed at Vanessa. The older witch jerked back, feeling the curse and spell cast upon her. Becoming a vampire hadn’t hurt her young relation’s witching ability one bit.
“You killed my husband. You owe me.” The waif’s face was set and ugly. “You owe me until the end of time.”
Sadly, that was true. It was the way of witches.
* * *
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I hope you enjoy Vanessa Schierman PhD WITCH. Vanessa has appeared in my other books, particularly In Love by Christmas, but she’s never had a starring role. Wendy Potocki’s Halloweenpalooza motivated me to give Vanessa her due. Wendy’s Halloween-themed on-line festival for authors and readers of the macabre is unique. I love the sheer wackiness of Halloween and applaud Wendy for creating an event around it.
In this book, I introduce you to a special woman, who is entirely fictional, and entirely based on a woman I knew. Her estate and world are parts of my youth. Only a veil of imagination separates what I experienced as a child from the dark mansion on the mountain in this tale.
I was born to be a princess. I was a princess, for a while. My parents overcame the poverty of their youth by becoming extremely successful. My hometown was one of the most affluent places in the country. Giant oaks, old mansions, and flashy cars surrounded me. I spent my time showing horses and water-skiing behind my dad’s obscenely overpowered boat.
“The Schierman estate” really exists. I discovered it while riding my horse through the redwoods of the coastal range in the San Francisco Peninsula around 1960. I was totally lost—fences were rare in those days—I rode around a bend in the tall trees and ferns and found myself confronted by a magnificent, historic mansion. Acres of emerald lawns and glorious evergreens ringed the ancient structure. I’ve never forgotten that breathless moment. The grand house I found wasn’t scary; it was beautiful and surprising and truly magical. The one in my story was designed to terrify anyone who saw it.
Dr. Vanessa Schierman is based on a real person, a very tall, gaunt, and extremely wealthy woman with exquisite manners and enough kindness and love to stock the planet. She wasn’t a witch, but she embodied Dr. Schierman’s ideas about taste and decorum. And she was a direct descendent of a Robber Baron. Her family’s bloodlines and influence reached far into the past. She defines a truly upper class person to me.
My life as a princess ended when a drunk driver ran into my father head-on in 1964, killing him. Not instantaneously, either. My dad’s death was the stuff of horror movies.
My old life vanished. All the horses, water-ski boats, and parties went Poof! Through structures and systems I will not describe, I lived at a close to poverty level income for a while. What happened in the coming years opened my eyes. I’ve seen and lived the over-privileged existence I describe in my novels. I’ve seen how ephemeral its rewards are and how it warps those who are trapped by it. I’ve seen how it masks mental illness.
My writing has a bite. My life has had a bite. Recovering from what happened to me has taken many years. And I have recovered. What was legitimately mine came back to me, along with the fruit of my own labor. If your life echoes mine, you might like to see how I healed; it’s in my books. I write fiction so that I can tell the truth without being sued.
Now for my “regular bio”: I’ve been in school a very long time and have two advanced degrees. I’ve had prestigious careers. My writing has won thirty national awards and I am an Amazon bestselling author in a number of categories. I’m very happily married; my husband and I have been together forty-two years. I have three grown children and two grandchildren. We live on our California horse ranch.
Also by Sandy Nathan
THE BLOODSONG SERIES
(A Bloodsong Novella)
Bloodsong Series, unnumbered:
Vanessa Schierman PhD: WITCH
EARTH’S END TRILOGY
(Earth’s End 1)
(Earth’s End 2)
(Earth’s End 3)
(Earth’s End 1 to 3 in a single eBook)
NONFICTION & CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
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https://vimeo.com/187268392 HALLOWEEN FUN WITH BACKYARD FRIENDS. If you don’t have arachnophobia at the beginning of this, you will by the end.
And: https://vimeo.com/187279088 HALLOWEEN IS COMING–DON’T BE AFRAID. Produces fear of almost everything.