“Everyone, come here at once!” Lorita hollered loud enough to scare the crows in the backyard garden.
The staff — sentient, and familiar to the anger that fueled her voice, dropped whatever they were doing and formed a line in front of their mistress.
“Who prepared this concoction?” Lorita sniffed the bowl before raising it to the staff. To the common eye, it would have passed for a regular soup bowl. The contents in it, however, were something no layperson had the faintest clue about.
Lorita waited for a few seconds for the person to own up. When no one did, she snatched up her a bottle of purplish-blue dust from her shelf and hoisted it close to her mouth. As she whispered her incantations, her crew of helpers stole wary glances; first at their Lorita, and then at each other.
“It’s the itching spell,” Mrs. Tubb’s, an elderly member of her frightened unit muttered.
“T’was me, ma’am,” a frail young girl stepped out of the queue. “I might have added frog’s skin to the mixture. Please pardon me, Miss.”
Lorita lowered her fist, which still gripped the notorious powder known to have forced the Earl of Brinestone to tear his clothes off in public.
“Look up, Miranda,” Lorita lifted the trembling girl’s chin, and looked into her eyes like a hawk surveyed a sparrow. Miranda trembled as Lorita probed her mind with her piercing gaze. A witch and a mind reader at that…she was a formidable boss to have.
After a painful minute of arduous inspection, Lorita stepped away from the Miranda. “It’s your first mistake, and you admitted it. So, I will let it pass. But you will do extra chores this week to compensate for the loss.”
“Yes, Miss,” Miranda quavered.
“Now, we must turn this grime into what Lady Featherby requested. And we have exactly two hours left till delivery. Any suggestions?”
The large bracket clock on the wall of Lorita’s Apothecary, her storefront, chimed loud and clear. Eleven. The delivery was due at one in the afternoon.
“Maybe we could,” Mrs. Tubbs gulped as she gave voice to her suggestion, “maybe we could ask Lady Featherby for an extension. Let her know that we need a couple of more days to—”
Mrs. Tubbs’s words hung midair as soon as Lorita shot her one of her ‘thundercloud’ stares. The entire team had seen and heard it at some point during the period of their employment at Lorita. They said every witch was born with some special powers, a gift the devil grants only her. Lorita was an arch mage who read minds and could devise punishments that her crew wished she would never use on them.
“Mrs. Featherby is one of our oldest patrons.” Lorita spoke in a low but firm voice. “’Tis because of her that our shop exists in the first place.”
“I understand, Miss,” Mrs. Tubbs bowed a little to show how apologetic she was. “But a youth potion needs at least three days to brew. And this one’s spoiled. Unless we prepare a new batch—”
“A drop of tadpole blood and tears of a pheasant. And it’ll be as good as new.”
The entire crew, including Lorita, swerved their heads toward the speaker. She wasn’t any older than Miranda. Bushy straw-shaded hair, with thick brows; she did not paint a pretty picture. The blotchy freckles dotting her face rendered an odd texture to her youthful skin. Coupled with her thin lips, she looked like a budding artist’s portrait gone wrong. But her eyes; Lorita hadn’t seen such a sharp gaze in a young witch before. The steel gray of her orbs made her pupils look like black pins.
“And you are?” Lorita crossed her arms as she started her inspection from toe to head.
“Abnus. No last name.” The girl’s gleaming gray gaze locked onto Lorita’s as she reached the final stage of her surveillance. Lorita’s face changed from one of tepid curiosity to that of concern as she realized the girl’s mind was dark like a ditch. She couldn’t read a thing. In all her years of practice, this was the first time a mind had closed its doors to her.
“Abnus, you say,” Lorita’s voice softened, “how do you know that remedy?”
Abnus smiled like a jungle cat. “I know a lot of other things,” she said. “If you allow me to stay—”
Lorita raised her hand, motioning her to stop. “I don’t have extra rooms or provisions for additional help.”
Lorita turned away and asked her staff to get to work.
“The old, rusty attic you have will suffice,” Abnus said.
Lorita stared at the girl. Her mind was a blank. But it was agile, and she knew things. Perhaps a seer. They were rare to come by.
“Fine. But since you are new, you will assist everyone else in their daily tasks. ‘Talk less, do more’—that’s the key to keeping your job here, understood?” Lorita cocked a brow.
Abnus smiled, “absolutely.”
“Birch wax, lime seeds and crow’s feet, that shall do the trick,” Abnus instructed Miranda as she rushed to fetch the ingredients and add them in the exact order Abnus demanded. Lorita watched her from a distance. Six months had rolled since the queer little girl had arrived, and she was already in charge of the shop.
Though she avoided speaking of her origins, Lorita could guess that the girl didn’t have a common witch’s blood.
Abnus’s zeal to succeed and learn new magic often reminded Lorita of her teen years. Her constant pestering her own ward, Debby Holecast, to teach her higher, more dangerous arts.
“It’s good to be curious, Lori,” Debby used to warn her. “But too much curiosity will lead to the grave before your time comes.”
Debby was clear where the barbed wires were etched for witchery. Dark and blood magic yielded higher rewards, but the price ripped one’s soul to bits.
And yet, Lorita had made a name amid the civilized upper crust of Lore, the city of dreams. People who cussed and spat at her shop not too long ago now came begging for remedies.
Incurable ailments, charms to look younger and prettier, spells and potions to drive people insane in love—her shop had all of it. The nobler sections of the society, her first customers and patrons, paid a hefty price for her goods. The only condition she had to adhere to was to carry her witchery in the cellars of her shop. It was a brilliant move, an apothecary by day and a witchery by night. It kept the clergy away and Lorita’s business grew over the months.
But the boost came with Abnus’s arrival. She knew stuff even Lorita wasn’t aware of. Things she had begged Debby to teach her. She had tried to weed the information out of Abnus. But the girl, it seemed, had taken a blood oath to not speak of her past.
Then one day came the jolt. The Count of Havelot called for Lorita in the middle of the night. Abnus insisted on accompanying her.
When they entered the bedchambers of the Count, he sat like a homeless wretch on the ground. On the bed against which he leaned lay his wife, pale and lifeless.
“It cannot be, Lorita. My Greta, my sweet wife, is gone.” He sobbed like a child lost in the woods, even as Lorita stroked his head and consoled him.
“Lorita,” he grabbed her palms and urged, “bring Greta back.”
“My Lord, that’s impossible,” Lorita suppressed a gasp as she said.
“Nothing’s impossible for you. I have heard stories about your powers. Your remedies can inject fresh life into withered bones.”
“My Lord, those remedies work on the living. But bringing the dead to life is against nature.”
“Bring her back, Lorita. Please, I beg you! I, I promise to fill your coffers with all my riches.” The Count groveled at her feet.
“I am sorry, my Lord. What you ask of isn’t something I can offer,” Lorita said.
“It can be done.”
Lorita and the Count turned to Abnus, who had just spoken.
“Abnus, do not—” Lorita started to warn her, but the Count pushed Lorita away and rushed to her.
“How? How? Please, I will give anything….”
“You need blood for the ritual to revive the dead.”
“What?” Lorita failed to hide the surprise and indignation in her voice. “Abnus, don’t give him false hopes.”
“I am not,” Abnus raised her brows insouciantly. She then turned to the Count. “The flesh of a subject, the horns of a full-grown ram and the blood…of an arch mage.” Abnus’s black-pin pupils dilated as she latched her gaze on to Lorita.
“No, no…NO!” Lorita screamed and thrashed around as the Count’s servants grabbed and dragged her to his mansion’s basement.
“Would he pass for a subject?” The Count flashed a finger at one of his minions.
One nod from Abnus, and he plunged his dagger into the man’s neck.
Lorita screamed as she watched him tear off the servant’s heart. “ABNUS, STOP THIS MADNESS!”
“What do we do about her?” the Count asked, his gaze bloodshot like a rabid hound.
The other servants tied Lorita, drawn and quartered, to the ground.
“Fetch the best silver vessels you have,” Abnus commanded.
“Abnus, you can’t do this to me!” Lorita’s screams bounced against the stone walls of the dank basement.
They hauled the ram by its noose. It bleated just as desperately as Lorita pleaded.
When the turn to draw the blood arrived, Abnus pulled out a stygian dagger from the folds of her clothing. Lorita’s jaw sealed tight with terror at the sight of it.
“This knife…but how could you—” Lorita’s words lost themselves in waves of panic.
“I believe you never had the chance to read my mind, did you?” A sinister smile curved Abnus’s lips. “Let me grant it to you as a dying wish.”
Abnus put two fingers on Lorita’s forehead, and with a swoosh she was sucked into a slush of memories.
The forest where she learnt her skills.
There she was, still a girl…with the same knife.
Bodies with slashed throats and impaled bellies surrounded her. The corpses of her sister witches, all of whose blood rendered her hands a gory hue of maroon.
With the knife pointed towards her guide, Debby, she said, “It took me a while, but I figured out the key ingredient. Drinking an arch mage’s blood will turn me into one.”
“You shall regret this, Lori. One day—” Debby croaked as she struggled to unbind herself.
“One day, I will rise to heights you never could, while you will rot in this forest.”
As Debby’s screams wrenched the skies apart, Lorita saw a little girl in her vision, hiding under a wicker basket.
Her steel-grey eyes widened and her black pupils dilated as she whimpered, “mother….”
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!