Heroines Amber and Srujana return for the latest installment of their Halloween adventures. On this All Hallow’s Eve, Amber is confronted with the past, and appearances aren’t always what they seem. Need to catch up on their Halloween hijinks? Find Amber and Srujana’s earlier adventures here.
The cauldron in front of me bubbled furiously, the liquid slowly looping through different colors like a set of Christmas lights. I tried not to exhale in frustration at how long this potion was taking. Just like fermentation science, witchcraft is a lot of waiting that never seems to end, sandwiched between breakneck set-ups and take-downs. I yawned and looked at my watch. If this potion fails, I’ll try making a different one in the morning. Since tomorrow is Halloween, maybe there will be enough free magic floating around to amplify the effects of the spell.
After a few minutes had passed and I was satisfied with the consistency of the liquid, I spooned some out into a small bowl, which I then topped with a few dried flower petals to increase the potion’s effectiveness. I spoke a few words and dumped the liquid onto the bad luck charm that someone had placed in my bag at a conference last year. The liquid sizzled like hot water in a frying pan and finally dissolved away. Nothing happened.
I ground my teeth in irritation. I had spent the last year researching, making potions, and casting spells to divine the identity of the person who had placed the charm in my bag, to no avail. I must be a glutton for punishment, I thought to myself. I’m a scientist and a witch, so I get to be disappointed at work AND at home when my experiments fail. While I sulked about my failure, my mind began to wander to my previous encounters with things that go bump in the night. First there was the poltergeist. My co-worker and friend Srujana had helped me battle the invisible boogey in our fermentation lab, during which time I revealed my true identity as a witch. The next year we managed to escape a horde of the undead at a pilot scale fermentation plant. Twelve months ago, Srujana and I successfully fended off a rather persistent werewolf, while attending the conference where we had almost become victims of the charm that now lay in front of me.
As I was pondering my odd run of luck, my thoughts were interrupted by a warm snout on my knee. I smiled and gently patted my dog's head. “Hello, Moro.” Her tail began to wag furiously in response. “It’s very difficult to get any work done when you’re being so cute, you know.” Her blue eyes continued to stare unflinchingly, challenging me to move her head from where it rested. I finally sighed in defeat. “Fine, you win.” I stood up and stretched. “Why don’t we get into the holiday spirit with a movie? It’s been a while since I’ve heard Jack Skellington sing about being the Pumpkin King, it might make me feel better.” We had just started out of my laboratory and down the stairs when the doorbell rang. Moro’s ears perked to attention and her head swiveled toward the front of the house. Who would be here this late at night? I wondered. Most of the humans I knew would be in bed, while the witches would be stowed in their homes or covens, treading lightly so as not to draw the attention of the darkest creatures that would roam the lands shortly.
Srujana smiled warmly after I opened the door. “Hi, Srujana! How are you?” “I’m well, how are you tonight?” “Celebrating the season with a movie.” She looked at me and laughed. “I see that you’re celebrating a little early, you even have your costume on already.” “Yeah, I was feeling a little dark this time so I dressed up as Schrödinger's cat. My box is in the house. So what brings you by at this hour?” Srujana patted the covered dish in her hand. “I thought I’d bring over some pumpkin pie. You and I have been together every Halloween for the last few years, so I didn’t want to break our tradition.” My mouth began to salivate at the thought of Srujana’s pie. While we had initially bonded over fermentation, I had soon discovered Srujana also shared a deep love of sweets.
“Come on in, I’d love the company,” I said. We had only made it a few steps into the house when our ears were met with the cacophony of an angry dog. Moro had planted herself between us and the rest of the house. Her growls were deep enough to wake the dead (figuratively, thankfully), while her lips were drawn into a ferocious snarl. “Moro, stop that!” I yelled in rebuke. The dog paid me no mind, instead staring directly at Srujana. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She’s never acted like this before.” I thought I caught a fleeting look of annoyance from Srujana, but she quickly smiled. “It’s alright, she hasn’t met me before so it’s understandable she’s nervous.” Moro’s behavior isn’t just nervousness, I thought to myself. I shook off the feeling of concern that was beginning to form in my stomach.
I dragged Moro away and shut her in my laboratory to give us some peace, then got out two plates for our late-night snack. Srujana held out her hand to dissuade me from scooping some pie out for her. “I had some before I came over.” “Are you sure? You brought plenty, I probably shouldn’t eat all of this by myself.” She shook her head. “Okay, more for me to enjoy then!”
A few bites in I began to feel a little dizzy. I closed my eyes, hoping it wasn’t the beginning of a migraine, but the dizziness increased in intensity. I grabbed the edge of the table to prevent myself from toppling over. Moro’s agonized whimpering filled my ears. “What’s wrong, feeling a little under the weather?” Srujana’s voice suddenly turned cold and patronizing. “Maybe it was something you ate.” She laughed mirthlessly.
I stood from the table and backed away to put distance between myself and Srujana. “What… why…” My throat closed around the words and I struggled to make the sounds of speech. I looked at the dessert sitting on the table and thought about how Srujana hadn’t eaten any. “Poison?”
“Indeed. But which one? You’ll be dead before you figure it out. I’m planning to hang around, just to make sure you’ve really expired. We witches can be difficult to exterminate and I’ve had plenty of failure trying to get rid of you this far.” At this admission, I understood the gravity of the situation. Srujana was here to kill me and had been trying to dispose of me for longer than I knew. This revelation shocked my survival instincts to action. My only chance was to make it to my laboratory where I kept a large stock of antidotes. Then I would worry about neutralizing the enemy.
Growing up a witch, we’re taught from our earliest moments that there are a lot of creatures in this world that want to kill us. Thankfully we’re also taught how to protect ourselves from said creatures, and we infuse every aspect of our lives with this critical knowledge. When I moved into my house, I had anticipated multiple versions of the scenario I now found myself in. I quickly spoke the words that would trigger one of my defensive spells, then snapped my fingers to complete the spell’s release. Before I could blink, Srujana was thrown out of the house by an invisible force and the door shut behind her. I heard humming and popping as my other defensive spells activated, the cascade initiated when the door slammed and locked.
The effects of the poison were getting worse by the moment. The room was now spinning rapidly and the colors in my vision were almost fluorescent. It’s possible I’ll start suffering from hallucinations soon. I tried to estimate how long since I had ingested the toxin, but without knowing which poisonous substance coursed through my innards, I had no idea how much time I had until organ failure. I staggered up the stairs and threw open the door to my lab.
Moro nuzzled me frenetically, concern obvious in the way her nose examined my body. I gently shushed her and patted her lovingly. “Don’t worry, girl.” I knew I had little time to give myself an antidote before the poison had progressed enough to shut down my motor function. But what was the poison? My brain was beginning to feel sluggish and I struggled to think clearly. I quickly scanned the various bottles that sat on the shelves in my bonus room, which functioned as my nerd cave as well as my laboratory. I realized my vision had begun to blur. Soon I would be unable to read the bottles, but if I randomly picked an antidote, it could worsen the effects of the poison and kill me quicker. I imagined that my organs were ceasing to function, thus completing the domino effect of my death.
My eyesight dimmed and within a few seconds I could no longer see. Panic rose within me and my heart beat faster, unintentionally causing the poison to circulate even faster. I felt my legs give way beneath me and I slumped to the floor. Instantaneously, I felt Moro’s warm body next to mine. My outstretched hand found her velvet fur and I tangled my fingers in the soft mass of hair. Dying doesn’t seem so scary with Moro seeing me on, I thought. It’s certainly the most preferable of the ways I had almost died in the recent past.
A cool, smooth hand pressed gently against my forehead. “Moro?” I asked, barely able to speak her name. There was no response, but I could feel a small glass bottle being pushed against my lips. This must be part of the hallucinations, I mused, and then felt proud of myself that I still retained some of my mental faculties. The hallucinatory bottle at my lips became more insistent, demanding I drink the liquid within. Okay, geez, I’ll drink it! I opened my mouth and a foul tasting mixture made its way down my throat.
I don’t know how many minutes went by, but shortly I felt my strength return and my head cleared of the poison-induced fog. I blinked several times while my vision began to come back. Moro sat facing me, panting heavily, and she began to lick me once she realized I hadn’t voyaged to the Great Beyond. “Calm down, I’m okay.” More licking ensued. “I know, I love you, too.” And then even more licking. “Okay, enough, we have a witch to take care of!” Satisfied with the amount of saliva on my face, my ebony dog sat back and stared intently at me. I looked down to see a small glass bottle, empty on the floor. The screw cap had been tossed aside haphazardly. I titled my head in confusion, then looked back at Moro. “Moro, did you…?” She raised her paw like she had been trained to do when I asked for a high five. Realization dawned on me. “Are you a…?” Again, a raised paw answered my question. “Holy crap,” was all I could manage to say before Moro bounded on me, burying me in a literal dog-pile.
Moro lent me her strength to get myself off the floor. Although the toxin had been neutralized, it would still be several hours before I was fully back to normal. I picked up the antidote bottle on the floor. “Deadly nightshade,” I read aloud. “How pedestrian,” I spat. “If she’s going to poison me, at least pick something less well known. Where’s her flair, her sense of the dramatic?”
I turned to Moro. Now that I knew what my friendly fido really was, I would have to start using her knowledge and experience in my witchcraft. “I’ve worked with Srujana for a long time and I don’t believe for a second she would try to kill me. We’ve survived some serious stuff together. There were multiple moments she could have left me to die, but she saved me time and again. Plus, I’ve never felt any magical ability from Srujana, so my conclusion is that the witch outside isn’t really her. But you knew that already, didn’t you? That’s why you were hysterical when she came inside.” Moro didn’t need to lift her paw for me to know the answer.
“Ok, let’s assume she’s using a doppelganger spell to mimic Srujana’s appearance. We need something that will negate the illusion so we can see who our enemy really is. We also need a way to subdue her once we know her true identity.” I studied my magical items and potions, finally settling on an enchanted katana, a spool of string infused with silver, and several small glass bottles with various liquids. I turned to Moro. “I’m going to need your help, girl.” She lifted her lip in response to show me her pearly white canines. I inhaled deeply, then sighed out. “Ready?” Within an instant, my furever companion was at my side. I stroked the fur on her back as a quasi-meditation to help calm my nerves. After a moment, she proceeded down the stairs with me trailing on her heels.
We slipped out the back door, quietly listening for any sign of the wayward witch. “You’re harder to kill than a cockroach,” a scathing voice called behind me. I turned to face the woman standing on the other side of the lawn, while Moro erupted into more growls and snarls. “Yeah, I’m pretty intent on staying in the land of the living.” She scowled in response.
Without warning my foe sprinted toward me. I could hear snippets of a spell as she muttered it, and I caught enough to know she was summoning fire magic. I was able to jump out of the way as a line of flames shot past me. I really have to be careful, pyromancy is incredibly dangerous and hard to deflect. I placed my fingers on the blade of the katana and recited the spell that would awaken the power within. The blade began to glow with a cool intensity. The other witch shot another fire bolt toward me, this time grazing the edge of my costume and blistering the skin underneath. Moro rushed at the pseudo Srujana, biting wildly at her limbs, distracting her long enough so I had a chance to use the katana.
Light arced from the sword and slammed into the witch, followed by a blinding kaleidoscope of color. As the color faded, it was no longer Srujana who stood before me, but someone I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. “Alyssa?” The young woman looked down at her hands and body, realizing the doppelganger spell had been destroyed.
Alyssa and I had grown up in the same coven, and we had been close once upon a time, but as is normal in life, we grew up, grew apart, and I left the coven to live my own life. “Why are you trying to kill me?” I demanded, anger making my voice a hard staccato. “ “And it was you who put that bad luck charm in my bag, wasn’t it?” She sneered in response. “Yes, I put the charm in your bag, and I led the necromancer to find that grimoire. I’d like to take credit for the poltergeist too, but my only contribution there was releasing the spirit that had lain dormant for decades.” “But why?” I demanded again.
“Because you’re the rightful heir to lead our coven. As the last direct descendant of Mother Magdalena, you inherit our sisterhood and all the power as our leader.” It was true, I was the last living descendant of Magdalena, an incredibly powerful witch who had founded our coven 560 years before. Members of her bloodline had led the sisterhood since its inception, and ascending to the Headship resulted in immeasurable magical aptitude and ability. “You turned your back on us, but I won’t let the prodigal daughter return. I will become the next Mother, and all your power will be mine. It’s time for Magdalena’s dynasty to come to an end.”
Before I could protest that I had no desire to be the new Mother, Alyssa had fired off several shots in rapid succession. One moment, flames were streaking through the air with extreme prejudice, and the next, my head was throbbing with intense pain as I lay on the ground. Moro had apparently body slammed met out of the way.
“Thanks, I owe you one,” I said as I absently rubbed my head. We need to take Alyssa out now, before Magdalena has no living descendants. If I can get close enough, I can bind her with this string. I pulled the silver infused rope from my pocket. Silver wasn’t toxic to witches like it was to werewolves, but wrapped around us enough times and it would completely paralyze us, nullifying our ability to use our magic. I made eye contact with Moro and placed my hands on the sides of her head, willing her to understand what I was about to do. After a moment, I dropped her head. “Got it?” She dipped her head quickly in understanding.
Moro left my side like a shot from a cannon, making her way directly for Alyssa. The witch tried her best to incinerate my pup, but the canine was too fast. While Moro attacked Alyssa’s front, I sprinted to her back side, where I threw the silver rope around her body and began to wrap her with it. I would have to wrap her 13 times in order for the silver to take effect. I silently cursed the stupidity of the laws of magic. At least science was usually straightforward and made logical sense.
Alyssa must have sensed what we were doing. She timed her flames well enough that I heard Moro yip in pain, then she turned and kicked me with full force in the abdomen. I fell to the ground in agony and saw her grab the katana that I had dropped earlier. Alyssa brought the blade down with all her might. I closed my eyes, unable and unwilling to be a spectator to my own gory death.
When I heard Alyssa scream in fury, I opened my eyes despite knowing the katana was on its way to my heart. A tall, beautiful woman with the palest skin and darkest hair I had ever seen held Alyssa’s arm in a vice grip. Alyssa struggled to free herself, but it was no use against the iron force of the woman’s hand.
I quickly jumped up and finished encircling the other witch with the silver string. Alyssa became dead weight and she fell into the arms of the other woman. “Who.. who are you?” she asked with fear and awe. The woman didn’t respond, but her ice blue eyes met mine and she smiled tenderly. “You guys met earlier, this is Moro. It seems Moro knew you weren’t Srujana, but apparently neither one of us realized my dog was actually my familiar.” I smiled sheepishly. “Sorry girl.”
Once I was sure Alyssa was safely contained, I gave Moro instructions to take her to my old coven and hand her over to the current Mother. I scribbled an accompanying note to explain what had happened. With a nod, Moro opened a portal on the lawn and stepped through with Alyssa in tow. As the portal closed, I realized how exhausted I was. I made my way back inside and dropped to the couch, asleep within seconds.
My eyes snapped open as I heard the doorbell ring. It took me a few moments to remember what had happened before I fell asleep. Wow, I’ve been asleep longer than I thought. It was almost 11AM. I cautiously crept to the door and peeked out the window.
Srujana waved to me through the glass. I debated whether to open the door, but finally got up the nerve to answer, hoping it was the real Srujana and not Alyssa returning to finish the job. Her eyebrows furrowed in concern once she saw me. “Are you alright? You look like you had a long night.” Before I could answer, she continued. “Oh, by the way, I made chocolate cake yesterday and thought I’d bring some over. I have vanilla ice cream to put on top.”
I felt myself turning green. “I thought that you like cake. You don’t have to eat any if you don’t want to,” she quickly added. “You should come in,” I answered in return. I heard the clicking of dog nails as Moro strode into the kitchen. My familiar, back in her canine form, trotted over to Srujana and wagged her tail in greeting. I let out the breath I had been subconsciously holding.
“This must be your puppy you talk about all the time. Hi there.” Srujana kneeled down and began to pet Moro, who subsequently fell into a contented trance. “Yeah, about that... Have a while to stay and chat?” Srujana looked up at me in concern, then nodded. I sighed and exhaled, then started into my long story. I told her everything, including how I grew up in the coven, how Alyssa had been trying to kill me for years, and that Moro was actually a supernatural spirit that masqueraded as a dog.
Srujana sat on the couch for a while, unable to speak. She kept looking at Moro, as if she couldn’t believe the raven-colored dog that sat before her could also take the form of a human. “Don’t worry, Moro won’t hurt you. As a familiar, her role is to protect me and guide me through my magical journey. Otherwise, she’s a lot like a normal dog.” As if to emphasize how safe she was, Moro gently placed her head on Srujana’s lap and looked at her with puppy dog eyes. Srujana hesitated for a moment, then softly stroked Moro’s head, indicating her acceptance of my spiritual companion.
“So what are you going to do about the coven?” I chewed my lip before answering. “Honestly, I don’t know. I love working, and having a real career is integral to my personal fulfillment, but the coven can’t function without a leader.” “Can’t someone else take your place or fill in for you?” I shook my head. “No, Mother Magdalena’s grimoire and magical items can only be unlocked and used by her rightful heir.” We sat together for a while without saying anything. “Want some of the cake you brought?” I asked as I made my way to the kitchen. “You really want to eat something after you were just poisoned?” “I’m a stress eater, I can’t help it. Plus your baking is divine, so I’ll be damned if I let a little poison stop me from indulging in that chocolate ecstasy!”
As I ate the cake, I reflected again on all that Srujana and I had been through. While we had been fortunate in surviving against all those supernatural creatures, I also realized how much I had grown since that first night in the lab, when we huddled under the laminar flow hood, not sure we would make it to the morning. I was a stronger person and witch than I was that short while ago, and I was determined to keep growing and learning. The coven may have wanted me to return, but I wasn’t done with the human world just yet....