“Come BACK here, you little @&&#*!$!” rang about through the night, shattering the quiet around Whitman Cottage. Three small figures leapt out of one of the windows and hit the ground running. At least one of them, the one with the long straight black hair, ran. The one with the ‘Harpo Marx’ head of blonde hair rode the back of a very large pale dog like a pony, and the one with the flyaway red hair was sitting on top of a basketball-sized glowing orb with some sort of pale fire burning inside it. They managed to get a good distance before the back door burst open and five teenaged girls in dressing gowns came boiling out. “Slow down you little $#!*&@%$!” screeched the girl with the silver blaze in her black hair.
The three younger girls weren’t listening. “This way, Pally!” yelled the one on her feet.
“No, no, not THAT way!” bleated the little blonde riding the dog. But Pally didn’t listen to her and rode her glowing ball into a chain link fence protecting a power transformer, which was all but invisible in the late night gloom. The impact made a loud crash against the chain line, and Pally was thrown from her ball.
The older girls converged on her, but Pally, unable to get back on the ball, tossed it over to the blonde, yelling, “TAKE IT, Clover!” The redhead among the older girls dived and managed to intercept the ball, only to have the little girl with the dark hair throw a few slips of paper at her, which caused… things… to happen. The struggle for the ball went back and forth, with the girls pulling all sorts of tricks out of their sleeves, most of which seemed to go wrong for some reason.
Clover finally got control of the ball and was making a run for it, when she and her mount stumbled into a nearly invisible web that was spun across the gap in the trees. “Whoopsie…” Clover said faintly as the large dog dwindled into a bare handful of a pup with huge button eyes, and neither of them could move an inch.
“You were GOING somewhere?” the gangly pale goth-looking older girl asked from the edge of the web.
Clover whimpered as Foxfire and the other Lit Chix dragged Palantir and Abracadabra over to the web. Foxfire had Palantir by her ear, and wasn’t letting go. She glowered at Clover, who still had the glowing ball in her hand. “Excuse me, but I believe that you have something that BELONGS to me?”
Mrs. Savage bustled out the door, putting her hair preparations to rights as she moved. “Girls! WHAT, pray tell is all this racket about?” All the girls started yammering at once, and Mrs. Savage had to quiet them all down. But when she recognized the three younger ones, she let out a gusty sigh. “I see. Give me a minute, and I’ll get Miss Grimes on the phone.”
Elysia Grimes bustled into the Kirby Complex and clipped down the hall to the (comparatively) small room used for the Basic Mystic Concepts class. The three usual suspects were seated at their chairs, glaring at the two security guards who were watching over them. Rebecca ‘Foxfire’ Corbin was standing there in a dressing gown (with a slip of paper stuck to her forehead for some reason), holding her silver fox familiar in her arms, both of them glaring right back at the three girls. As Elysia entered the room, her familiar, Merlin, leapt from her shoulder over to the desk. “Very well,” Grimes said in a martyred sigh, “what did they do THIS time?”
All four girls broke out talking at once. “QUIET!” Grimes barked, her long angular face showing that she was obviously in no mood for monkeyshines. She held up a hand for silence, and when the chattering died down, she pointed at Foxfire. “You. What happened?”
“I was going to take a shower, when THAT one-” she pointed at the tousled redhead- “asked me if I’d help her open a magic book of hers that had gotten stuck somehow. When I tried to open it, it was a trap, and it ripped off a piece of my Essence! She’s got it in that stupid BALL of hers!”
Irene ‘Palantir’ Durcell clutched the silvery orb to her, and loudly proclaimed that it was HERS! At which point, her buddy ‘Abracadabra’ yapped at her that it was ALL theirs, and they all started squabbling again. “QUIET!” Grimes snapped. When order had been restored, Grimes leaned forward and asked calmly, “Is this true, Irene?”
“Well…” Palantir hedged, “We gotta get magical power somehow…”
“So we can do MAGIC!” Clover bubbled with happy anticipation.
“Miss Grimes,” Bethany ‘Abracadabra’ Tarvetti began in her trademark studied calm way, “we are in the Mystic Arts program in order to learn how to work magic. In order to work magic efficiently, we need a reserve of Essence. In order to-”
“Then GET YOUR OWN!” Foxfire snarled. Boots, her familiar, added a yip of her own to the statement.
“Out in the real world, Mages constantly compete for each other’s essence,” Abra continued. “It’s part of the-”
“I am well aware of the way that mages operate out in the *ahem!* ‘real world’,” Grimes cut her off. “However, Whateley was created to avoid precisely that sort of predatory environment. The Mystic Arts program was founded so that young mystics such as yourself would have a safe haven to learn your craft and develop your power, so that when you go out into the, -heh- ‘Real World’, you’ll be able to defend yourself. Irene, Estelle, Bethany, if we were to allow the kind of predatory antics that you’re espousing, then YOU three would be the first to be targets for the likes of, oh, say… Hekate?” Grimes fought down a smile as the three reacted to the name of the fearsome Alpha Queen. Even as wooly-headed as the three were, they knew a genuine predator when they saw her.
“BUT, that’s not the case,” Grimes continued. “You three are safe from Hekate’s wiles, and Foxfire here,” she gestured at the girl with the bristling fox in her arms, “has every right to feel safe from booby-trapped books.”
“Yeah!” Foxfire snapped. “So hand it over, Squirt!”
Palantir bristled and hugged the silvery sphere even closer to her chest. “You can’t prove that this is yours, and Possession is nine-tenths of the Law!”
“If your Math was as good in the classroom as it is here, you’d be in Mystic Concepts 101, instead of 050,” Grimes smirked.
Abra spoke up again. “Well, Miss Grimes, as Pally-”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!”
“As Palantir points out, there’s no real way to prove where the Essence in her ball came from, and since it IS her ball-”
“Ah, but there IS a definitive way to prove to whom it belongs!” Grimes said happily. “Irene, dismiss the orb.”
“But that’ll let the magic stuff out!” Clover squeaked.
“But we need it to light OUR magic! Foxfire already HAS her magic lit and-”
“Clover, Foxfire’s magic is Foxfire’s. It is hers by birthright, and by the earned right of her hard work.”
“But we need the magic, so we can do FUN stuff!”
Grimes set that aside. Trying to talk sense to Clover when she had an idea set in her mind was like trying to get an octopus to tap-dance. Which would eventually make her a mystic of the first water, but in the meantime… “Irene, it comes down to this- either you release Foxfire’s Essence from your orb, or-” she sketched a mystic diagram in the air in pale violet flame, forming a ‘dart’ of sorts, “-or I burst your bubble. Which is it going to be?”
With a cross look on her face, Palantir tossed up the ball, which burst in mid-air. A smaller ball of pale blue flame lingered for a moment in the air, and then sped to Foxfire’s breast. Foxfire gave a deep breath of relief. “Thank you, Miss Grimes.” Then she spared the three a particularly nasty look. “Now, if you’d kindly take THIS off?” she gave the slip of paper that dangled in front of her face a tug.
Grimes leaned over and studied the slip. She spared Abra an annoyed look and corrected a stroke. The paper fell from Foxfire’s face. “You can go now, Rebecca,” Grimes said. “I’ll take care of the ‘Mildred Hubble Fan Club’.”
As Foxfire left, Boots leaned over from her nest in Rebecca’s arms and gave Buttons a big juicy razzberry. The fluffy little dog sprang from Clover’s arms, grew into the huge pure white, red-eyed monster-dog that it had been before and growled menacingly. Merlin hopped down from the desk, growing into a full-sized Black Panther as she went, and gave out a lusty snarl/roar in Buttons’ direction. The Gabriel Hound yelped and dove back to Clover’s arms, shrinking into a little fluffy puppy again. In a trice Merlin was back on the desk as a haughty black cat again.
“Now, girls, I can understand, even empathize, with your wanting to grow in power and get along with your studies,” Grimes said in her most patient voice. “But Magic isn’t something that you just learn, it’s literally something that you grow into. For instance, you started on a tricycle. When you were large enough, you got a bicycle with training wheels. When you were good enough they took off one of the training wheels. Then they took off the other training wheel. In time, you may progress to a motorcycle, or learn how to drive a car. The point being that you don’t just put a five-year old in the driver’s seat of a sports car! You learn as you grow!”
“What about Fey?” Palantir demanded. “She’s only a year older’n me, and she was throwin’ around big-time magic, even before classes started?”
“Fey is a special case, in more ways that one,” Grimes said calmly, refusing to let Palantir dictate the terms. “She has access to reserves of power and intuition that are far beyond you three. AND, may I point out, even with that remarkable intuition she blunders frequently. Fortunately, most of her errors wind up as those idiotic ‘hobgoblins’ of hers. I’m afraid that like the rest of the Mystic Arts program, you’re going to have to keep adding to your personal reserves a smidgen at a time, until you have enough that it quickens.”
“But we wanna do COOL stuff!” Irene insisted.
“So, who says that you can’t do ‘cool stuff’, Palantir?” Grimes asked gently. “I mean, YOU of all people should know that just because something’s not big and flashy doesn’t mean that it’s not cool. You call yourself ‘Palantir’, right? From the ‘Lord of the Rings’? Well, the Palantirs were regarded as some of the most powerful and feared things on Middle Earth. And what did they do? They just allowed people to see things in other places. That’s very quiet and very subtle- but it’s also very powerful and very cool. Palantir, your power isn’t big and flashy, like Fey’s is- but that doesn’t mean that you won’t grow up to be very powerful and important some day. And we have to make sure that you’re ready when that day comes. So, we teach you how to control yourself and your magic, and we help you gather up your power, a little at a time, so when the time does come, you’ll be ready.”
“But that’s booorrriiing…” Clover whined.
“If you think THAT’S boring… pull out your ‘Basic Mystic Concepts’ text books.” Obediently, Irene, Estelle and Bethany reached into their desks and pulled out their books. “And your notepads. I want you to turn to page 35 in your textbook, and copy out the Whateley Code of Mystic Ethics- TWENTY TIMES!”
“What?” Irene bleated, “Twenty Times? But the Code of Ethics is five pages long! That’s a hundred pages!”
“Yes, it is.”
“But it’s Ten o’clock at night!”
“Don’t worry- the writer’s cramp will keep you awake.”
For an hour, Miss Grimes watched them crank out page after page spelling out how the school expected students with magical powers to behave and why. After a bit, Grimes looked up from her book and said, “I’m going to the teacher’s lounge. Merlin, you’re in charge while I’m gone.” The cat replied with an annoyed ‘maiow’, and informed the three girls with a single swish of her tail that she was missing out on some primo prowling hours, and she held THEM personally responsible for it.
Grimes allowed herself the luxury of a deep cleansing breath. The timing of the trio’s escapade wasn’t that inconvenient, but it was still annoying that she spent more time with a class of THREE STUDENTS than she did with any of her other classes! She hurried down the stair and passed through the hidden door that separated the more mainstream classes of Kirby Hall from the more esoteric ones down below. Grimes knew that the students (and teachers) of the Psychic Arts programs held the paranoid suspicion that the Mystic Arts program not only got more rooms than they did, but larger and more extensively equipped ones. They were right, but it was still paranoid.
The only things particularly strange about the teachers’ lounge were the teachers. The most mundane of the three teachers sitting in the lounge was a stout, late-middle aged man of Levantine cast wearing a fez. But while he may have seemed rather exotic for New Hampshire, Mr. Al-Feyez was everyday next to Dr. Tennant, (a.k.a. ‘Caduceus’) who was using her hair to hold the book that she was reading as she sipped coffee. And both of them were positively mundane compared to Mrs. Chulkris, who was draped all over in foliage, though it was currently in its rather drooping autumn stage. “Oh, hello Lyz!” Chulkris said. “Aren’t you a little early?” The Junior and Senior Mystic Arts classes were often held at night (especially midnight).
“My MC 050- ‘Common Sense for Dingbats’- class is here,” Grimes said in a martyred tone. “They’re churning out a hundred pages of the Code of Ethics.”
“Oh, what did they do now?”
“They ambushed one of the older girls and tried to hijack some of her essence, probably thinking that they could do the ‘lighting the candle’ bit with it.”
“They actually managed to take a hold of some of this girl’s essence?” Caduceus asked. “That’s quite impressive.”
Grimes sighed, “In the classic tradition of nitwits throughout history, they tapped into the near-infinite creativity and cunning of pure idiocy. I know that they have to be disciplined and taught better, but dammit all, why do _I_ have to be ‘Miss Hardbroom’ all the time?”
“Because you’re good at it?” Caduceus answered wryly.
“Yes,” Earth Mother agreed, her round merry face smiling wanly. “Lords of Light know _I_ couldn’t handle them. I mean every time I try to talk simple sense to Clover, she just looks at me with those big eyes, and she is just So Kyute! And then Abra starts nattering about some triviality and Palantir starts fussing, and before I know it, they’ve completely weaseled their way around me!”
“Same here,” Caduceus said sadly. “Let’s face it, Lyz, you’re the only one here with the combination of hard nose to put up with no monkeyshines and fine touch to avoid setting Clover off.”
“Clover?” Al-Feyez cut in. “The little girl with the blonde curls? Why would you be so cautious about setting her off?”
“Clover’s a Probability Warper, combined with a magical talent,” Grimes explained. “Most of the time, she unconsciously bends the odds to favor whatever imbecility they’re up to at the moment, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to read the odds. Or, more importantly, to know how to sense when she’s pushed her luck too far and a backlash of bad luck is going to happen. Worse, when she gets scared, she reflexively scrambles the odds seven ways to Sunday.”
Al-Feyez almost did a spit-take. “Excuse me,” he asked with intent urgency, “are you telling me that we have FOUR odds-manglers at this school, at the same time?”
Earth Mother paused and counted off on her fingers. “Let’s see- there’s Kismet, she’s at Whitman; there’s Hazard, she’s in Melville; there’s that ‘Risk’ boy in Poe, and they have Clover over at Dickenson- yes, four.”
Al-Feyez melodramatically clutched at his chest. “FOUR? The bizarre fluctuations in the patterns of probability are excruciating when you have only TWO probability warpers in close proximity! And we have FOUR?”
“Well, we DO try to keep them well apart,” Caduceus said defensively. “You’ll notice that we have them all at separate cottages, and only Kismet and Clover have any magical talent- Thank You, Wise Ones, Blessed and Bright!”
Al-Feyez raised an imperious eyebrow. “And what about that insane ‘Halloween’ holiday of yours? How are you going to keep them apart during a night when the Malkuthean veils are so thin?”
“Not to worry, Bubbie,” Caduceus said consolingly. “First, Clover’s only 12-”
“TWELVE?” Al-Feyez yelped.
“Yes, I know, I know- the rule is, the younger a mutant manifests her trait, the more powerful that trait is. Fortunately, we have a few years to give Clover a little discipline before her power really kicks in. Anyway, as I was saying, Clover’s too young to be going to the Halloween party, and Mrs. Nelson will be sitting for her-”
“Better that she was sitting ON her,” Grimes muttered.
“Hazard’s agreed to DJ, well separated from the dance floor, and I will see to it that Risk and Kismet stay well away from each other.”
Al-Feyez huffed, “You will excuse me, if I find that I have urgent business OFF-campus that night.”
Grimes sighed, “That does remind me that I’ve got to get my ‘Wicked Witch’ costume out of mothballs.”
“It’s either that, or put up with the smart-mouths who keep ‘suggesting’ it.” Grimes finished her cup of tea and levitated it over to the sink. “Well, my sanity break is over. Time to see what the Dingbats have gotten up to in my absence.”
When Grimes got back to the classroom, she found all three of her charges with their heads on their desks, eyes closed, breathing deeply with their pencils still in their hands. “Oh,” Grimes cooed, “The little darlings are asleep! How cyuuute!” She leaned over and snapped in Palantir’s ear, “It’s not working, Irene! I said twenty times, and I MEANT twenty times!”
It took a while, but the three junior high students managed to crank out the hundred-or-so pages. Miss Grimes escorted them back to their cottages, as they rubbed their aching wrists. And then she was finally free to get down to doing some serious teaching with students who could at least be shamed into acting more maturely on occasion.
“It’s not fair!” Irene expounded at lunch as the three little witches glared in the general direction of Team Kimba’s table. As usual, the Kimbas were talking animatedly among themselves, even though the trio couldn’t hear what they were saying for some reason.
“Yeah!” Clover agreed emphatically, as she glared daggers at the slight young Asian girl who was sitting next to the infamous blue-haired ‘Tennyo’. “Howcum SHE gets to eat with the cool kids?”
Abracadabra and Palantir turned icy gazes at their compadre. “Clover, are you saying that WE’RE not cool?”
“No!” Clover fumbled for a second, “I mean, howcum she gets to sit with the big kids? I mean, lookit her! She can’t be any older’n me! Howcum she gets to sit with High School kids?”
“Well, I haven’t seen her in any of our Middle School classes,” Abra said. “Maybe she’s a genius or something, and is taking high school classes.”
“That’s NOT what I was talking about!” Palantir ruthlessly dragged the topic back in the direction that she wanted. “It’s not FAIR that Fey gets to throw around big time magic just by twiddling her fingers any time she feels like it. Howcum WE don’t get to do stuff like that, hunh?”
“Yeah!” Clover exulted, “COOL STUFF!”
“Well, what can you do?” Abra asked cooly. “Fey is a natural at tapping into ley lines and like that. Ordinary baseline mages either have to have a reservoir of Essence, or perform this huge preliminary ritual in order to tap into a ley line. Fey just does it.”
Palantir wasn’t having any of it. “SO? That just means that we gotta find some essence! There’s GOTTA be something we can do to scare up some essence! Maybe there’s something in the classroom.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Irene,” Abra continued, “there’s nothing in our classroom with any real magic. I’ve checked. It’s all very basic stuff-learning how to focus, basic diagrams, and tons and TONS of stuff on magical wardings and defenses.”
“BOR-ring!” Clover sang.
“Wait a minute!” Palantir suddenly brightened. “Grimsey!”
“What about her?”
“She’s got to have TONS of Essence! I mean, she just whips up stuff right out of the air!”
“Yeah? So? Irene, if they jump all over us for snitching some essence from another student, what d’you think they’d do to us if we did that to a TEACHER?”
“So? Who says that we steal it from HER? She’s got to have a power source of some kind!”
“Maybe she saves it up, like a piggy bank?” Clover guessed. “Like those ‘Power Cultivation Diagrams’ that she makes us stow our magic away in, whenever we scare some up?”
“It’s called a ‘reliquary’, Clover,” Abra droned.
“YES! SEE?” Palantir enthused. “So, all we gotta do is figger out where Grimsey hides her relinquary-”
“Whatever! We just gotta find it and use it to light our essence, like we was gonna do with Foxfire’s essence! Once we do that, they GOTTA let us learn how to do the real big time magic!”
“Fun Stuff!” Clover giggled.
Abra tried her best to be cool and detached. “And I suppose that Grimsey will have her reliquary in her office, with a big sign saying, ‘Magic Battery, don’t touch’?”
“Okay, you’re so smart, where WOULD she hide it?” Irene blustered back.
“I don’t KNOW!”
They squabbled back and forth for a bit, until Clover asked, “Why don’t you just ask your magic ball?”
Palantir paused, uncharacteristically unsure. “Weeelll…” she hedged.
“She doesn’t know HOW to use her magic ball,” Abra said smugly, as if her own enchantments weren’t more likely to explode than do what they were supposed to.
“I DO TOO!” Incensed, Palantir held her hands spaced out before her as though cradling something between them. A translucent sphere the size of a softball appeared before her. She stared into it intently, trying to make something appear in the ball. Things did appear inside Palantir’s magic ball… Sometimes.
“You can grunt and sweat all you want, but there’s no way that you’re gonna see where Grimsey hides her reliquary,” Abra said, still smug.
Palantir snapped and squabbled at Abra again, until, “Pally…” Clover said uncertainly.
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!”
“Look!” An image had appeared inside the ball.
As one, they all crowed around to peer at the image. “That’s Grimsey’s house!”
“Well, DUH!” Palantir said superiorly, “Where ELSE would she keep her relkwary?”
“What I said!”
“Okay, so now we know that it’s in her house,” Abra said. “So what?”
“So? So we go in and GET it!”
“You want me to break into a teacher’s house and steal magical energy?”
“Hey, we’re gonna give it BACK, just as soon as we light our own magic!”
Abra quibbled, Pally ranted, and Clover whined that it would be way past her bedtime, but eventually they settled on that they would go in about 10 PM, after Miss Grimes left for her first night class.
“Where IS she?” Irene looked around peevishly for Clover.
“Maybe it’s past her bedtime,” Abra drawled.
“Of COURSE it’s past her bedtime, it’s past my bedtime and it’s past YOUR bedtime! What’s that got to do with anything?” Palantir hissed back.
Then there was a sound from out in the darkness, and Palantir and Abra both hid as best they could. A figure appeared out of the gloom, conspicuous in a bright yellow dress with an eye-catching ruffled skirt. “Guys?” she called. “You there? I’m not too late, am I?”
“Clover? What IS that you’re wearing?”
“Oh this old thing? Oh, I’ve had it hanging in my closet forever and-”
“Why did you wear THAT?” Pally demanded, waving her arms in the air.
“Oh, I was just feelin’ buttercuppy today,” Clover giggled as she stuck out her tongue and twirled around.
“Clover, ‘buttercuppy’ isn’t even a word.”
“Yes it is! How could I say it, if it wasn’t a word?”
“Okay! Whatever!” Palantir dismissed the issue. “So how are we gonna get in?”
“Well,” Abra got her know-it-all on, “Grimsey wouldn’t just use a simple lock to keep people out. She’d use a complex and subtle warding spell that changed with some astral pattern. Now, I have spell ready-”
Abra went on and on until Palantir got tired of it. “Will you just do the SPELL already?”
“It’s not that simple, Irene. I have to-”
“Hi, guys!” Clover said as she popped out the door.
“How’d you get in there?”
“I crawled in through the doggy door! Or is it a kitty door?”
Pally gave Abra a superior look. Clover was younger than either of them, and all too often she acted like she was only six. But she was lucky, and she had an amazing way of doing things- whether you wanted her to or not. Carefully, the Three Little Witches crept into Miss Grimes’ house. Palantir’s flashlight made everything seem sinister- not that Grimes’ choice of décor needed any help. The place was a minor museum of exotic looking bric-a-brac, and the contrast between the bright light of the flashlight and the shadows cast made everything spooky.
Then the lights went on. Palantir and Abra let out little yips of surprise and fear. “WHAT?” Clover said from over by the light switch. “It was DARK!”
“We’re SUPPOSED to be doing this all secret like!”
“But it was all dark and spooky!” Clover whined.
Abra looked at Palantir. “Okay, Fearless Leader, we’re here- so, where is it?”
“I dunno! What does a relklyware-”
“Whatever! What does one LOOK like?”
Abra paused and looked around. She hated to admit that she didn’t know anything. It made her look stupid. “Well, there’s the problem. Grimsey wouldn’t made it obvious-” she launched into another rambling dissertations of the potentials. Her lecture was interrupted by an annoyed ‘Mmrroowr…”
The girls jumped as they suddenly spotted Miss Grimes’ cat, Merlin, sitting there on the back of the couch, twitching her tail and giving them that ‘And what are YOU doing here?’ glower that cats do so well.
“Oh crap!” Abra whispered. “Grimsey’s CAT!”
But Palantir was ready. She reached into the pocket of her black hooded sweatshirt and pulled out a catnip mouse. She dangled it in front of Merlin’s nose. Merlin poked her nose at it, and deigned to permit herself to be bribed. As Merlin rolled around on the sofa with the mouse, the three poked around the shelves and tops of the house. Then Clover gasped. “What is it, Clover?”
“LOOK!” Clover pointed to where a plastic bag with a long black dress in it was draped over the end of a table. Next to it was a crude wooden broom with willow bristles and a tall back pointed hat. “It’s Grimsey’s Witch stuff!”
“Oh, get real,” Abra grumped. “That’s just a Halloween costume.”
“Why would Grimsey dress up like a witch for Halloween? She IS a witch!”
“Oh, come ON!” Abra groaned, “You don’t honestly think that Grimsey dresses up in that to do real magic, now do you?”
“Why not? Maybe that hat has special witch powers?” Clover picked up the hat and settled it on top of her own blonde curls. “Yep! I can tell! This is definitely a Witch hat!”
“CLOVER, that is NOT a ‘witch hat’!”
“Why not? Have you ever seen a witch hat? Then how do you know that this isn’t one?”
“Okay, OKAY!” Pally exploded, “So, it’s a Witch Hat! Fine! Whatever! Let’s just find the helliqwary!”
“WHATEVER!” They busied themselves turning the place upside down.
“Aw MAN!” Abra moaned, “We’ll be at this all NIGHT!”
“And it’s past my bedtime!” Clover added.
“Okay, OKAY!” Palantir blustered. “Let’s try one last thing…” She cupped her hands before her, and manifested her ‘magic ball’. She held the ball up and left it hanging in the middle of thin air. The Three Little Witches joined hands in a triangle and muttered their private centering mantras. The ball began to glow. “Yeah!” Palantir gasped. “Look!” she peered into the ball. An image was taking form, and slowly coming in to focus, until they could clearly see… “A BOWLING BALL BAG?”
“Why not a bowling ball?” Clover asked.
“ ‘Cause it’s just so Uncool!” Pally shot back.
“Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense,” Abra mused.
“What?” Pally said aghast.
“Grimsey would want to hide it, in such a way that she could keep track of it easy, right? So, why not hide it in something that most people wouldn’t bother giving a second look at?”
“But a Bowling Ball?” Palantir said in a pained voice.
“Who says that there’s a bowling ball in that bag?”
Palantir brightened. “Good point!”
“Besides, there’s another point that totally proves it.”
“Can you honestly see Grimsey bowling? Let alone often enough that she’d have her own ball?”
With that conclusive evidence, the Three Little Witches ransacked the closets of the ground floor. “Got it!” Abra lugged the heavy bag out with both hands and lifted it with effort onto a table.
“Now, remember,” Clover chided the others as they grinned voraciously at the bag. “We only take as much essence as we’re gonna need to light our own, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever…” Palantir opened the bag, her magic ball ready, and an eerie glow came up from the interior of the bag. Pally jumped back. A round shape rose up from the bag. It was a clear sphere, about the size of a bowling ball. But inside the sphere was a bleached white human skull. The skull turned as if to regard the girls, each in turn, and then it opened the hinge of its jaw. A high-pitched cackle issued forth and the ball came at them. It giggled as it chased them all through the house, never quite managing to catch up with them.
Finally, Pally, Abra and Clover all piled out the back door in a heap. The fearsome skull thing didn’t follow them out the door. Palantir pulled herself up and gasped, “Thank goodness, that’s over!”
“Thank goodness WHAT’S over?” came a voice from behind them.
The three looked over their shoulders to see two men in Whateley security guard uniforms. One was a tall gangly African-American, the other was a stocky Anglo. “Really, Proctor,” chided the Anglo. “Can’t you see that they’ve been through an ordeal?”
“Well, Breaking and Entering IS hard work, or so I’ve been told,” Proctor allowed.
“Whaddya MEAN ‘Breaking and Entering’?” Pally demanded loudly.
“So, you’re wearing black to mourn the passing of your youthful innocence?” Gamble tsk’ed loudly. “So young to be so cynical.”
“So, I wear black! So what? I wear black all the time! The school uniform is black!”
“True,” Proctor admitted. “Makes it very hard to keep track of the kids in the dark. Why I’ve lost track of the number of students that I’ve run over when they were trying to get back in by sneaking through the back.”
“Hey, if we were trying to break into that house WHY would she be wearing yellow?” Pally pointed at Clover.
“You were feeling buttercuppy?”
“YEAH!” Clover piped, “Buttercuppy! SEE? Buttercuppy IS a word!”
“LOOK,” Pally blustered, “There is NO WAY that you can prove that we broke in there, and you know it!”
“True, true,” Gamble admitted with a sigh. “So, we’ll just have to take you in for being out past your curfew.” The two guards took gentle but firm holds of the three little witches and led them off. “By the way, nice witch hat.”
At about 2 in the morning, after her last class and a few hours chatting with the other Mystic Arts faculty members, Miss Grimes came home. She found her back door open, and the skull-in-the-ball lying on the kitchen floor. She gave a gusty sigh as she picked up the ball. The levitation effect didn’t last that long if the ball was separated from her reliquary. “I just wish that I could really blame them,” she sighed. She carried the ball to the bowling ball bag that was her actual reliquary and slipped it inside. Merlin walked up, watched Grimes as she renewed the charm that would activate the chasing ball effect, and twitched her whiskers at the mage a bit. “Very well, Merlin, I admit that it’s a trifle… ‘Mystery Men’. But just because you can’t stand Ben Stiller is no reason to give up on a wonderful bit of imagery.”
The three little witches sat at dinner again and compared battle scars. “Dishpan hands!” Palantir fussed, “I have DISHPAN HANDS!”
“I have ‘Fur Duty’ all week,” Abra groused.
“I’m gonna be pullin’ weeds forever!” Clover moaned. “I hate pullin’ weeds! They make my hands all sticky!”
“And we still don’t have enough essence to do anything.”
“Bummer,” Clover sighed.
“We can’t just STOP!” Pally insisted. “You don’t become a great witch by just sitting there and waiting for things! You gotta go out and MAKE things happen!” Irene was the next youngest of five children, and she learned to fight for her fair share.
“So?” Abra asked. “How do we find some essence? We can’t go tapping into any of the other students’ essence, or they’ll kick us out of school!”
“And that would blow,” Clover said seriously.
“Well?” Pally thought intently. “Well, there’s gotta be another way to get essence! I mean what would Harry Potter do?”
“He’d sneak out, do it anyway, and let Dumbledore bail him out.”
“Okay, what would Mildred Hubble do?”
“Curl up in a ball and whine, until there was a crisis and pull a big solution out of a hat.”
“Who knows? Are they even still writing those books?”
“BOOKS!” Pally gasped. “That’s IT! What does Harry or Mildred do when they need to know something? They go to the library!”
“You sound like a commercial for the library,” Abra grumped.
“There aren’t any magical books in the library, and all the stuff that we got in our room is all boring stuff!” Clover said.
Suddenly, Palantir had a brainstorm. “Yeah, but we’re up on the first floor, with the Psycho Arts weenies! There’s GOTTA be more stuff, down where the Second Years have their classes!”
“Yeah,” Abra agreed, “but the door’s concealed by magic. And you know the rule- if you can’t find the door, you can’t be taken past the door.”
“Yeah,” Palantir breathed. “But like you just said- ‘if you can find the door, then you can go through the door’.”
“That’s NOT what I just said.”
“But how are we gonna FIND the door?” Clover bleated. “The big kids in the Psycho Arts are always tryin’ t’find it, and they can’t!”
“THEY don’t have THIS!” Palantir held up a hand and a pearly bubble the size of a pea appeared and grew to the size of a grapefruit.
“You’re going to use your magic ball to find the door?”
“No, WE are going to use this to find the door!” Irene said with complete assuredness. “We’ll go in and find the library, and my ball will tell me where to find the books that we need!”
Abra just gave Palantir her best blank stare. “We’re going to sneak in the school’s super-secret Occult Library in the middle of the night and just happen to find the one book that will somehow tell us exactly what we know to supercharge our power?”
“I don’t want to sneak in, in the middle of the night again!” Clover whined. “It’s way past my bedtime, and my wrist still hurts from writing the Code of Ethics over an’ over!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Clover!” Irene said severely. “We’re not going to sneak in the middle of the night. That would be silly. All the instructors would be there in the middle of the night. We go in during lunch, when they’re all asleep!”
“Do you HAVE to wear that stupid hat?” Irene asked crossly.
“What’s the matter with it?” Clover asked, adjusting the black conical ‘witch hat’ on her mop of blonde curls.
“It’s STUPID, is what’s wrong!”
“It’s not stupid, it’s a WITCH hat! How’m I supposed to do witch-stuff without my witch hat?”
“Clover, you don’t NEED a ‘witch-hat’ to do magic,” Abra insisted.
“Oh? Then howcum you got that magic wand?”
“I keep telling you, it’s not a wand it’s a stylus. It helps me focus the magic into my enchantments.”
“I still say that it looks like a magic wand.”
“Whatever!” Palantir exploded. “Let’s just DO this, okay?” Then, as one, the three little witches looked around the lobby of the Kirby Complex, in case anyone was watching them. Nobody was around, so Palantir produced her magic ball. She peered into the pearly orb, and tried to make it work. “C’mon, c’mon, C’MON!” Irene cussed and fussed. But the ball wouldn’t show anything. Palantir shook it, and nothing happened. “NUTS! Well, you guys got any ideas? Guys?” She looked around and no one was there. “Guys? Where’d you go? Guys?”
Then a hand reached out of nowhere, grabbed her by the collar, and pulled Pally backwards. She gave a yip of surprise and then recognized Abra and Clover. “Where are we?”
“On the other side of the door.” Abra said smugly.
“How’d you get in here?”
“WELL, while YOU were so busy looking into the No-Seeing Eye of Myopia, _I_ was paying careful attention to the way that the lobby was laid out in a very specific pattern, and I deciphered the-”
“We spotted the janitor going in, and followed him,” Clover cut in, as Abra scowled at her.
“So, how do we find the library?”
“I think that looking at the directory would be a good first step.”
“There’s a directory?” Pally asked incredulously. “You mean, this place isn’t laid out in some weird, mystically significant way, like in The Name of the Rose?”
“You read The Name of the Rose?” Abra asked, impressed.
“Well, I saw the movie,” Palantir admitted. Abra just gave her a dirty look. “Hey, it had Christian Slater in it!”
Fearfully looking around, in case anyone saw them, the three little witches made their way to the library. Palantir and Clover almost fainted when they saw the Mystic Arts library stacks. The shelves towered over them by several feet. There was barely enough room for two of them to walk between the shelves. And the shelves themselves were arranged four across by twelve aside. “Will you LOOK at this?” Pally said aghast. “How are we supposed to FIND anything in here?”
“Well, you’re the one who wanted to go poking around in here,” Abra said.
“Where’s the computer?”
“Why would they have a computer?”
“How do they know where anything IS, if they don’t have a computer?”
“I don’t see any computer, Pally,” Clover said.
“Well, there’s only one thing to do,” Palantir said portentously as she raised her hands before her.
“Here we go again,” Abra sighed.
Still, Palantir’s magic ball did lead them to one section of the library. “So? Where do we start?”
“I’m hungry, let’s go get lunch!” Clover whined.
Totally at random, Pally took a book from the shelf and opened it up. “I can’t understand it. Is it in some code?”
Abra looked over her shoulder. “Yeah. It’s a code called ‘Latin’.”
“So, what’s it say?”
Abra peered intently at the page. “Propitius, ego sum valde infigo ut vos went ut totus perturbo of reddo is.”
“Okay,” Pally said crossly, and what does that MEAN?”
“Quare es vos non procul prandium, vel lascivio, amo bonus parum puella.”
“You’re just READING it!” Pally snapped. “What does it mean?”
“Well, it’s a very subtle text and…”
“If you don’t know what it says, why don’t you just SAY so?”
“Not so loud!” Abra shushed her.
“Hey, Pally, why is the lettering on the page different, when you look at it through your ball?” Clover asked, looking over Palantir’s shoulder.
“Hunh?” Palantir looked at the page through her magic ball, and now the words were in English. “Wow…” She passed the ball over the text, avidly soaking up the words’ meanings until, “What does all this crud MEAN?”
Abra worried her lower lip, hating to admit that it was all WAY over her head.
“They could at least put some pictures in these stupid books!” Pally fussed.
Abra was still trying to cover herself. “Well… Clover! What are you doing?”
Clover was climbing up the shelves. “Well, they always put the really GOOD books up where I can’t get at them, so…” Then the shelf started to tip over under her imbalancing weight. “Whoopsie…” Clover fell from the shelf with a squeak, but the shelf kept tipping over. Palantir and Abra reached up and applied all their might into keeping the shelf from falling. Clover scrambled to her feet and pushed. Together, they shoved the tall bookshelf back-
-so far back that the bookcase tipped over the other way, hitting the bookcase on the other side, tipping IT over, creating a domino effect. Fortunately, it only tipped over three more bookcases, but from where the Three Little Witches stood, it was a scene of horrific devastation. As Pally and Abra stood there aghast, Clover said, “Hey, look at this!” She leaned over and picked up a book that had fallen with several others. This one had fallen spine-down, and it was open to a passage.
“No Time!” Pally said as grabbed Clover by the hand and started running. “We gotta get outta here before anyone sees us!” They ducked behind the shelves that were still standing as the janitor came in to see what the noise was. The janitor had a fit, but luckily he was so busy having a hissy that he didn’t see the three sneak out past him in the aisles between the still standing bookcases.
Once they were safely out, Pally fussed, “Well, THAT was a complete waste of time! We only have ten minutes for lunch, and we didn’t get NOTHING!”
“Yes we did!” Clover piped as she held up the book. “Lookie! Pictures!” She opened up the book. There were pictures of complex diagrams.
“Wait a minute!” Abra peered intently at the book. “That looks like a summoning diagram that I saw Grimsey describe to one of the Seniors…” she carefully studied the text and had Palantir use her magic ball to translate the script. “I can’t believe it! If this is right, then this chapter describes out to squeeze essence out of spirits! But what are the chances that THIS particular book would fall open to THIS chapter, which is just what we need?” Palantir said nothing, just smiling a smug little victorious smirk as she turned to look at Clover who was standing there, blinking huge innocent blue eyes. “Oh. Right.”
“Can we go and get some lunch now?”
At dinner, Abra went over her notes with Palantir and Clover. “If I’m reading this right, this diagram here is an enchantment that drains essence from spirits. It says here that this is to weaken the spirit so that it can be bound to a purpose more easily, but I don’t see anything that says that we can’t use that essence to ignite our own.”
“Good work, Clover!” Pally said. “Have a cookie!”
“I did all the work,” Abra said mulishly as Clover chomped down on the chocolate chip cookie with gusto.
“You did the work- she got the job done,” Palantir got down to business. “So! Now we got the way of getting the essence. Now, we need a spirit. So. Anyone know where we can find a spirit?”
As one, all their eyes drifted over to the Team Kimba table, where the eerie chalk-white ghostly being known as ‘Shroud’ brought a tray to her ‘little sister’ Jade. “NO,” Abra said warningly.
“No way!” Clover agreed.
“But it will only be a little essence!” Palantir said earnestly.
“That’s what you said with Foxfire,” Abra growled. “She’s STILL giving me the evil eye in the hallways.”
“But this is different!”
“Shroud is a Spirit, not a living person!”
“Do you remember what Team Kimba did to the Alphas, when Solange kidnapped Shroud?” Clover asked, eyes wide and hands over her mouth.
“And Shroud’s listed as a student,” Abra added. “After Foxfire, if we get caught, Grimsey will have us doing detention at Hawthorne for sure.”
“No!” Clover peeped, “Hawthorne’s all creepy! I heard they got this big lumpy GSD monster guy in a tank down in the basement there!”
“Hey,” Pally said soothingly, “all we gotta do is do it sneaky, so they just don’t catch us. We get a little essence, and let Shroud go. That’s all.”
“Well,” Palantir said as she coughed up a little chalk dust, “that was educational.”
“It was a cluster fuck!” Abra snapped as she paced around the floor in Clover’s room.
“Abra!” Clover gasped, “If Mrs. Nelson heard you, she’d wash your mouth out with soap!”
“My best work, up in smoke, and we’re still not any closer to getting any essence!” Abra groused as she shifted yet a little more chalk dust out of an uncomfortable crevice. She plopped down on Clover’s bed, arms crossed, eyebrows beetled. “So, how’re we gonna fix this?”
“Fix?” Palantir’s eyes snapped open wide. “Of course!”
The next day, at lunch, the Three Little Witches studied the ‘Bad Seeds’ table. Everyone knew that the Bad Seeds were trouble. Their parents were supervillains. Real supervillains. Okay, so, the big black guy’s dad was supposed to be just some big super-powered goon who worked for other supervillains. But the Asian chick’s dad was supposed to be the Iron Dragoon, a real big player. And the sleazy weasel in the lab coat was supposed to be a real prince! Well, of some little island near South America, but still a prince! And Winter was- well, Winter was a pain in the ass, even the kids on the Freshman floor knew that. They watched as the other Bad Seeds finished and went off to do whatever they were up to, leaving the three who hung out together.
“Hi, Lindsay!” Clover called out as they walked up. She leaned over and offered a finger for Dragonrider’s dragonet to scent.
“What’s this?” She-Beast said with a smirk. ‘You still on the loose, papoose? Watch yourselves, ladies, these are some very dangerous characters we’re dealing with here! We don’t have a ghost of a chance!”
“I’m sure that they are just going to chalk it up to experience,” Nacht said, with the merest trace of a smile in her deadpan delivery.
“Still, they haven’t a shroud of evidence,” She-Beast shot back.
“Okay, okay, very funny, very funny!” Palantir grumbled.
“So, what do you want, dear?” Dragonrider asked from where she was sitting with Clover, scratching between Pern’s horns.
Palantir paused, not sure how to sell this. She-Beast wasn’t just a mage, like Nacht and Dragonrider- she was the fixer for Melville, the wheeler-dealer for the underclassmen. Well, Goldrush sort of officially had the job, but getting him to actually DO anything for anyone who wasn’t an Alpha was like walking on hot coals. She might as well play it like the little kid that everyone thought that she was. “Uhm, well, it’s comin’ up on Halloween…”
“Yes? You want a Witch Hat, like your friend?”
Pally almost rose to the bait, but kept to her chosen story. “Ah, well… one’a the girls was tellin’ me that there’s this spook that haunts the school, and it’s getting’ towards Halloween, and this IS Whateley, so I was wonderin’… are there any dangerous spooks around Whateley? For real?”
She-Beast cocked a golden eye in her direction. “And why are you asking me? Why not ask your teacher, Miss Grimes?”
Pally pouted, “Oh, Grimsey never tells us anything!”
“Well, in truth, Whateley, indeed, the entire Dunwich area, is famous in certain circles for being haunted,” She-Beast said in a tone that suggested that she was warming up a ghost story. “There are places around here that you simply don’t go. Fortunately, most of them are rather remote, and you really do need to know where they are to find them in the first place. For the most part, you don’t need to worry about that, they’re too far away from the campus for you to just stumble across them. BUT there IS one place that you need to stay away from. Up to the north of the campus, just where the foothills start, there’s a cave. Sugar, that cave is BAD NEWS, major-league bad mojo! It is sacred to some WAY out of the league of anyone here BAD STUFF. Stuff that even Grimes doesn’t wanna mess with.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to worry about it. They got it boarded up and you can’t get in without the key. What you DO have to worry about is this rock laying just outside the cave entrance.”
Palantir gave She-Beast a hard look. “If the cave is such bad news, why would I have to worry about a stupid ROCK?”
“Because, they have the cave locked up, like I said. But they can’t lock up the rock and they can’t get rid of it.”
“Hello? It’s not like a rock that you can pick up in your hand! It’s this big-ass slab of New Hampshire granite, probably weighing several tons, most of which is buried underground, with only a little bit of it peeking up through the dirt, like an iceberg with only the tip showing out of the water. It would take a derrick to move it- or a brick- and even then, it wouldn’t be the best idea.”
She-Beast sighed, “Look, that rock is a part of the framework of magical energies in that area. If you move it, you might damage the framework of magic. And with what’s in that cave, that’s NOT a good idea.”
“What’s IN there, then?”
She-Beast tousled Palantir’s hair. “You’re too young.”
Pally steamed, and then said, “Okay, but why’s that stupid ROCK so bad then?”
“It was Hellfire Sheba’s altar,” She-Beast said simply.
“Hellfire Sheba,” Palantir said in a flat disgust voice. She knew that ‘Sheba’ was a nickname of She-Beast’s. “Yeah. Right.”
“Really! Hellfire Sheba was a notorious witch in these parts, way back in the 18th Century.”
“Seventeenth Century,” Nacht corrected her in her trademark monotone. “She died in 1682. Her real name was Bathsheba Peaslee Whateley, one of the Massachusetts Peaslees who married Elihu Whateley and moved to the Dunwich area in 1637. She had seven children, only two of whom lived to be adults. After her husband died, she became a recluse, for reasons unclear now. Conventional wisdom differs at this point. Some say that her husband died because he reneged on a promise to something that you should keep your promises to. Others say that Bathsheba killed him, just for practice. Others say that Elihu just died, and Bathsheba went crazy out of grief, bitterness and loneliness. It’s agreed that she began to study strange books that should be way out of the reach of a simple farmwife. There’s evidence that she was in contact with… parties… that are better left well alone. She began a low-key campaign of terror against her neighbors, your basic ‘wicked witch’ stuff. But she made a mistake, and allowed herself to be seen when she kidnapped Judith and Abigail Orne, the twin daughters of Benjamin Orne, a local farmer. Judith and Abigail were noted in the region for being identical twins; why this was so remarkable and necessary for this narrative, I’m not entirely sure.
“A neighbor saw Bathsheba carry off the two girls, and raised the alarm. The neighbor went to town to raise a posse, but Benjamin Orne went by himself after Bathsheba. The posse caught up with both Benjamin and Bathsheba just as he was strangling her to death on that rock.” Clover let out an ‘eep!’ “Benjamin said that caught up with her just as she had finished disemboweling Judith with a strange obsidian knife on the rock.” Palantir squirmed visibly. “Abigail supported her father’s claim, and the evidence at the scene- primarily Judith’s bloody body- corroborated it as well. Benjamin was fully exonerated when the townsfolk examined Bathsheba’s house. Among other tasteful decorating touches, they found human bones, a book which was bound in an unknown sort of snakeskin that’s scales formed strange unreadable letters, and a skull that was described as ‘neither human nor canine, yet sharing traits of both’.” Nacht finished her dissertation as if she’d been describing the eating habits of an obscure sort of bug.
“O-okay, so, that’s all really nice,” Palantir put as brave a face as she could on it. “But what’s it got to do with Spirits?”
She-Beast leaned forward with the leer of telling a good ghost story on her face. “Well, local legend has it that the damned soul of ‘Hellfire Sheba’ is stuck in the stone altar that she sacrificed poor Judith Orne on! They say that she’s damned to serve the thing in the cave for all eternity. And if you go to the long rock by the Devil’s Cave under a full moon and say ‘Hellfire Sheba’ three times, her ghost will come forth and try to get you to sell your soul for power.”
“Both that cave and that stone are loci of incredible malignant power,” Nacht said calmly. “A person should only go there in the daytime, and even then only if they have pressing mundane business. To do otherwise would be to risk their very soul.”
Clover let out a little whimper, and Palantir and Abra led her away. Dragonrider looked at She-Beast sternly. “Did you have to scare them with that silly story like that?”
“What silly story?” She-Beast answered. “That rock IS haunted, and that’s the local explanation for how it got that way.”
“And the story of how Bathsheba Whateley killed Judith Benjamin is legitimate local lore,” Nacht said. “I did the research on it. They burned the book that I mentioned, but the skull was sent to Miskatonic University in 1923 for study. That’s the last anyone’s heard of it.”
“You mean all that’s REAL? Then why all the booga-booga?”
She-Beast made a dismissive noise. “PLEASE! Those three? D’you honestly think that they wouldn’t find out about Devil’s Cave? Linds, that cave is serious bad news. They’ll take you out there your sophomore year in a field trip, so you can get a good idea as to what sort of nastiness is really out there. Believe me, when we went there, Kate here was scared snotless.”
“Was not. I had a cold.”
“Yes you were! You were ready to call for your mommy!”
“If I were frightened, my mother would be the last person that I’d call for.”
“Whatever. Linds, the only way to keep those three from poking around Devil’s Cave, is to make it as scary as possible. Believe me, Grimes would be happy that we did it this way.”
“This is SO COOL!” Palantir gushed.
“Yep,” Abra agreed, “there’s no way they’d lay it on that thick, unless they were trying to scare us away from something.”
“I’ll bet that that rock is some sort of power nexus, like in Good & Evil Online!” Pally hopped up and down with excitement.
“Yes, it would explain why they set up the school way out here in the boonies,” Abra concurred.
“But… but… but what about Hellfire Sheba?” Clover whimpered through the hands over her mouth.
Palantir let out a dismissive noise. “OH, puh-LEEZE! Clover, I can’t believe that you fell for such an obvious little-baby trick like that! Of COURSE they’re going to say that there’s some big evil icky monster there!”
“Indeed,” Abra said authoritatively, “there probably is some sort of protective spirit bound there, but that plays right into our hands. With the diagram from the book that we found, we should be able to summon her right into the diagram and drain the essence right into Pally’s magic ball before she can even say ‘boo!’”
“Are you sure?” Clover said with big scared eyes.
“Sure, I’m sure!” Pally said reassuringly. “And just to be on the safe side, we’ll take along a few precautionary measures.”
Palantir got out as she always did- she waited for her roommate to go to sleep and went out the window, lowering herself on her magic ball. Abracadabra got out by attaching a slip of paper to her windowsill. The paper elongated and she slid down it. And as for Clover? Well, just as she was peeking out her door, Bombshell and Duplex got in a fight, ‘cause Duplex was doing this snarky impression of Bombshell- and wearing Bomby’s form while she was doing it. Adamantine and Britomart rushed in to keep it from going ballistic, as Clover walked down the hallway. Mrs. Nelson was so intent on stopping the big fight on the Freshman floor that she didn’t notice Clover on the stairwell as they passed. Clover was at the front door when Buttons yipped at her. Clover paused to recall what Buttons was trying to remind her of. Of course! She forgot her witch hat! She couldn’t go without her witch hat! She went back upstairs. After all, that witch hat was all that she really had, unless you mentioned Buttons, who was a really good dog. Mrs. Nelson was furiously trying to pry Adamantine off of Bombshell, who had apparently said something really snarky about her, as Clover passed. Yes, Buttons was a good dog- a GREAT dog!- but Pally had her magic ball, and Abra had her magic wands. The witch hat was right where she left it. When Clover put it on and felt better. Yes, she was sure of it. It was definitely a witch hat. Abra was saying that it wasn’t a witch hat. HAH! Abra was always making noises like she knows everything, but she doesn’t even know a witch hat when she saw one! Clover went back into the hall, where Mrs. Nelson was reading the Riot Act to the girls. ‘Well,’ Clover thought to herself, ‘gotta haul. Don’t want to keep the others waiting.’ Still, Clover sometimes wondered why she put up with it. Pally and Abra were always dragging her into stuff, and keeping her up way past her bedtime, and her hands were still stiff and sore from pulling weeds- WEEDS!- and why did she put UP with it?
Oh, yeah- ‘cause they were her friends. Clover hurried past Lemure on the stairwell. Lemure thought that it was odd that one of the little ones was going down stairs that late, but hanging out with the losers on her training team had her so burned out that she just didn’t bother to think about it any further than that. Just as Clover was going past the common room, someone with energizer powers did something that shorted out the lights, and nobody saw her go out the door. Which was pretty much par for the course for Clover. Things just always seemed to go right for her. Except for when they went horribly wrong.
Clover hurried out to where she’d agreed to meet the girls, with Buttons scampering along after her. Palantir was waiting impatiently- as always- while Abra was trying to read a laminated map with a flashlight. “What TOOK you so long?”
“No, the real question is, ‘where are we going?’” Abra corrected her. “I can’t find any ‘Devil’s Cave’ marked on this map.”
“Of COURSE, it’s not marked on the map!” Pally groaned, “It’s SECRET!”
“Then how are we going to find it? There are miles of foothills around the campus. We could be doing this all night! What we should do is go back to bed-”
“YES!” Clover piped.
“-come back later,” Abra continued, “DURING THE DAY, and look around until we find the rock and the cave. When we’ve found the rock and the cave, THEN we come back at night.”
“Good Plan!” Clover said. Buttons agreed with a yip and a wag of his tail.
Palantir shook her head. “How’re we gonna do that, with all the detention we got? I got a much better way!” She cupped her hands before her and…
“Oh. THIS again,” Abra grumped.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause you don’t have a natural gift for this sort of thing.”
“Sure, sure, I’m all green with envy, ‘cause you’re the Goblin King from Labyrinth, David Bowie,” Abra mocked.
“Labyrinth?” Clover asked confused, but no one answered.
Palantir concentrated on the magic ball, which glowed. As the three of them peered into it, an image of a low-slung rock in front of a gray-painted sheet of metal set into a hillside. A strange pale flame flickered over the rock. “That’s IT!” Palantir said with a triumphant smirk in Abracadabra’s direction. Using a general sense of proximity that she got from the ball, Pally led them through the gloom. They walked quite a ways, and Clover was starting to complain about being tired when Palantir said, “There it is!”
“Where’s that fire we saw in the crystal ball?” Clover asked as she looked around. It looked just like any other crummy rock in a place where there were lots of big rocks sticking up out of the ground.
“The flame we saw was an allegory to the magical power that’s concentrated in this stone,” Abra said importantly, “A symbol of-”
“Yeah, Allegory- what she said,” Palantir said. “WELL? What are you waiting for, Abra? We can’t be here all night!”
Grumbling, Abra pulled her materials out of her backpack and started her preparations. She used a compass and a sextant to check her directions, then she used a crystal on a string as a plumb bob to find the point of greatest potency. She used a protractor and compass to plot out a perfect circle from that point. Carefully copying each character from the book by flashlight, Abra began at True North (or as close as she could get), painstakingly inscribing each rune going clockwise.
Now while, by and large, Clover’s gift of probability manipulation was a good thing, showering lucky happenstance on her right and left, there was a downside to it. When she’d pushed her luck too far, it ‘snapped back’, creating sometimes-massive bad luck to shower down on her- and anyone standing too close to her at the moment. More experienced ‘manglers’ were able to sense and read the flows of probability, and knew when the odds were turning against them. Some were even able to use the ‘snap back’ against others. Clover had lots of power to her probability warping, but little sensitivity. She never knew when things were suddenly going to go crazy. Indeed, sometimes, the worst snap-back happened and no one noticed- at the time. This time, it happened this way. “Abra, how does Hellfire Sheba know that it’s midnight?”
“What?” Abra bleated, suddenly becoming aware of a massive flaw in their logic.
“Well, she’s a ghost, right? So, she can’t have a watch or a clock. So, how does she know that it’s midnight, if she doesn’t have a watch?”
Abra realized that Clover had, in her own ‘Highlights for Children’ way, put her finger on a touchy issue- the difference between sidereal midnight and midnight according to the local time zone. True Midnight had to be the point between sunset and sunrise, not when both hands were on Twelve. But was that really an issue? The legend didn’t say anything about ‘the stroke of midnight’, and did it absolutely HAVE to be right at the stroke of midnight? Heck, it wasn’t even a full moon! What no one realized was that Clover’s stroke of bad luck was to ask a sticky technical question that was ultimately irrelevant at the precise moment that Abra was halfway through inscribing a very important character. Abra went on to complete the diagram, thinking that she’d completed the character. That would be a problem later.
Both Palantir and Clover contributed some of the little essence that they’d managed to squirrel away in their ‘piggy banks’ to the project. As they doled out the mystic power that they’d so painstakingly saved into Abra, the characters she drew glowed with power. Finally the circle was completed, and the odd geometric pattern in it center seemed to spin like the needle of a compass. “Okay,” Clover said uncertainly. “So, now what do we do?”
Clover looked at Palantir and Abracadabra. Pally looked flabbergasted at Abra. Abra looked dumbfounded at Pally. “Weeellll…” Abra started uncertainly.
“We’re supposed to say ‘Hellfire Sheba’ three times, right?” Pally asked.
“That’s just a stupid spook-story!” Abra snapped.
“Hey, it’s more’n we got now!”
“WHAT?” Clover said, shocked, “You don’t KNOW? But we put all our magic in there!” Clover’s eyes misted with tears. She could have done SO MUCH with that magic! Images of butterflies and sparkles and kittens and dancing dolls flashing through her mind. All gone into a stupid bunch of writing that nobody could read…
Clover started to cry, but Pally comforted her, “Hey, hey! It’s all right! I mean, we’ve gone this far… We can do this… I mean, how hard can it be? And if it doesn’t work… well, you can get that magic BACK, right Abra?”
Abra looked unsure, but didn’t want to upset Clover. “eerrr… SURE! Sure, why not? I mean, I can put the magic IN, I can take the magic right back OUT, right?”
Clover brightened up a little, and Palantir produced her magic ball. “So, we say Hellfire Sheba three times, and hold up this magic ball. Even if she doesn’t answer, that guardian spirit that’s probably here will, and we can bag that,” Palantir suggested. As one, they touched the spherical manifestation and chanted, “Hellfire Sheba, Hellfire Sheba, Hellfire Sheba…”
A story is only a story, but in terms of magic, a story told often enough, and believed in, gains a strange truth of its own. And when there is a kernel of truth to that story, the power is even greater. And a spirit that has been trapped for centuries will latch onto any means of escape, no matter how slight, especially when a million-to-one fluke creates the perfect escape hatch. And no matter what a million ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’ stories say, released demons are rarely grateful.
Pally, Abra and Clover stood there, chanting ‘Hellfire Sheba’ over and over. Even Pally was beginning to feel stupid. Less and less, she wasn’t thinking about gaining power, and more and more she was wondering how she was going to tell Clover that she’d just flushed all their magic down the drain. Ah Man, this was just like the time that Cindy MacGowan dared her to…
Then there was a rumbling, not in the earth or the air, but in the very fabric of reality. All three little witches felt something twitch and give. The circle of glowing letters suddenly expanded, and a fetid reeking darkness swirled out, filling the clearing with the redolent stench of unmitigated hatred and spite. The cloud congealed into a vaguely humanoid skeletal form that might have somehow resembled Bathsheba Peaslee Whateley… had she been dead and buried in dry soil for three hundred years. “It’s Hellfire Sheba!” Clover blurted, wetting herself in fear.
“uh… YEAH!” Palantir bleated, “Of course it is! That’s why we came here! Abra begin the essence transfer!”
“What do you mean, ‘start the essence transfer’?” Abra said, “It should already be working!”
“Okay, so we just… pull the essence into my ball like this…” Pally pointed her magic ball at the horrific mass of corruption before them. Buttons had grown to her full size as a Barguest, and was furiously growling and snapping at the unclean thing that dared to pollute her mistress’s presence. The thing that was the very worst of the malevolent harridan that had been Bathsheba Whateley stared stunned as the very stuff that she was made up of drained out of her into the strange ball that the little redheaded tatterdemalion before her. Then she lost what little human stain as she had in her, and she let out a shriek that would have woken the dead… that weren’t already up and about, anyway.
Sheba lashed out with a talon-like hand, and if Buttons hadn’t sprung up and caught the wrist in jaws like an iron vise. Sheba’s blow still knocked Pally off her feet and sent her ball rolling. On pure reflex, Clover picked up the ball, just in time to see the roiling recapitulation of every nightmare that she’d ever had (well, except for the one about her Aunt Muriel…) coming straight at her, fangs bared. Clover paused like a faun in the highlights of an oncoming car and screamed.
Miss Grimes stopped right in the middle of her answer to Bifrost’s question regarding- what was it again?- as her psychic senses ‘heard’ a cry of sheer panic. There were many things that she could have- indeed should have- done then, but a raw atavistic protective urge overcame her more rational side. “Excuse me class,” she said brusquely, “but an emergency has come up. Eerrr… Simon, would you please come up and explain your essay on reconciling Classic Chinese and Western Elemental concepts while I take care of something?”
She hurried out into the hall and pulled out her cell phone. In turn, she called the House Mothers for Dickinson, Melville and Whitman cottages. “Are you sure, Savage? Abracadabra’s not there, either?”
“Excuse me, Miss Grimes,” came an icy calm voice at her elbow. Grimes jumped and turned into the stoic face of Nacht. “But if that’s what I think it is, I think I have an idea as to where they might be.”
Clover ran screaming through the dark, tangling woods, somehow never getting her clothes caught on any of the branches that should have tripped her up, and managing to keep the ball of essence in her hands. Hellfire Sheba wasn’t having anywhere near as much luck, but she made up for that by ripping up the undergrowth with claws that burned with unnatural fire. Clover heard Pally’s voice calling her name, and without thinking (what, anyone could think with THAT thing hot on her heels?), headed for where the voice came from. “Clover! This way! We’re ready for you!”
Clover tore past Palantir and handed off the ball and without breaking her stride- or stopping screaming. Hellfire Sheba stopped, momentarily confused. She could follow the scared witless moppet who was running like a doe through the woods, or she could grab the mollydraigle who was standing right there- with the precious essence right in her grubby paws. She lunged at the carrot-top. One of the other little hoydens swatted at her with something that looked like a yarn spider web woven between the points of an elk’s antlers. The contraption entangled Sheba for a moment, and tore at… something… that Sheba didn’t miss in the least. Sheba screamed mindlessly and tore free of the netting.
“Cheap New Age webstore JUNK!” Abra snapped. Hellfire Sheba screamed, and balefire sprang from her hands. The hellblaze spattered against an impossibly potent amulet that the bratling held before her, but her spitespew ate away at the talisman like acid. Then that thrice-accursed gyrtrash tried to maul her again, and she sent it sprawling with gashes in its side.
“Buttons?” Clover asked timidly as the form of her best friend in all the world shrank down to the size of a puppy again, but just laid there. She picked up the limp white form and nudged him. “YOU HURT BUTTONS!”
Palantir grabbed her friend, “Clover, we have BIGGER things to worry about!”
“But she hurt Buttons!”
Hellfire Sheba came at them, but Abra threw a handful of coarse sea salt between the rotting horror and her friends. The sea salt whipped up in a dust storm of sorts, and the alchemical purifying effect of the salt burned at the unclean abomination’s corruption. “Clover, hold the ball!” Palantir took charge. “Abra, get the bottle ready!”
Concentrating furiously, Pally focused all her energy, and aimed it at the frantically writhing specter. When Abra said that the bottle was ready, she shouted, “MORE SALT!” Abra threw a shower of salt over Hellfire Sheba. As the spook screeched, Palantir formed another sphere around Sheba and contracted it to the size of a beach ball. “The… bottle…” Pally grunted through her incredible effort. Abra stuck the mouth of a thick green glass bottle against the ball. Pally allowed a small opening in her sphere where the bottle was pressed, and contracted the sphere, forcing Sheba into the bottle.
When her sphere was no larger than the size of a pea and Sheba was securely inside the bottle, Pally relaxed. “Whew! I’m wiped!” She grinned at the bottle as the apparition raged against the sides of the glass. “Gee, not so tough now, areya bitch?”
The bottle vibrated and gave off a rattling keen that built to an ear-splitting crescendo. “Not the smartest thing to say, Pally!” Abra said as she pitched the bottle far away from her. The bottle erupted into a shower of glass shards that cut at all three girls. Hellfire Sheba floated there, gathering her hatred and rage.
Abra threw more salt at her, but Sheba smelled blood.
“Pally, DO something! Wrap her in another ball!” Clover pleaded. “I can’t!” Pally rasped, “I’m too wiped out by that last ball!”
“Okay, she wants a ball?” Abra reached into her backpack, pulled out a ball of willow straps and threw it at the ghost-thing. Sheba didn’t even notice it as she drew closer.
“What was THAT?” Palantir demanded.
“Weeelllll… It’s seemed like a good idea at the time…”
“You put our lives on the line with something from Pier One Imports?”
“Paaallllyyyy…” Clover whined as Hellfire Sheba grew closer still.
“I’m too tired! Abra, DO something!”
“I can’t!” Abra wailed. “The Rule of Three! We can only attack her three times, and we blew it! Now, she’s immune to anything that we do!”
“WHAT? Who made up THAT stupid rule?”
“Nobody made it UP, that’s just the way it IS!”
Clover bucked up and seemed to grow. She shoved the ball of essence and the limp and whimpering Buttons into Palantir’s hands. “No! YOU guys did stuff to her! I didn’t do nothing! That means that _I_ can stop her!”
“YOU? What are YOU gonna do?”
“I’m gonna use…” Clover grasped for whatever straw was around. “My WITCH HAT!” Yeah, my WITCH HAT!” She snatched the hat- which had somehow stayed on her head through all of that- off her head and held it out at the approaching nightmare-thing, bottom-first. “Back off, Sheba!” Clover said in her most authoritative voice. “Or I’ll let you have it with the power of my WITCH HAT! Yeah, I have a Witch Hat, and you don’t! So Back Off!”
“Oh Christ, we are SO dead,” Abra moaned.
Sheba drew closer and closer, not seeming to want to strike too quickly, lest the little bunnies scatter from a misplaced blow. Clover closed her eyes and held out her hat, as if willing something to come out of the hat. Then, as if summoned from the hat, there was a piercing scream and a lithe black figure came out of nowhere to pounce on Sheba. The panther raked at the specter with claws that tore ectoplasm like mere flesh. Startled, Clover peeked inside her hat, as if to look for the hole the great cat had come out of.
Sheba managed to throw the panther from her. The cat landed on all fours and hissed pure vengeance at the ghost-thing. Sheba called up balefire, and tried to herd the nightcat away from her targets with it. They squared off for a bit, and then the cat lunged at Sheba again. But this time, Sheba was ready for the cat, and wrapped herself in a sheath of spitefire. The panther twisted off with a cry of pain, but landed in a fighting posture, and screamed defiance.
Sheba molded balefire in her hands and readied to strike. But even as she was readying to cast, fire rained down from the sky, ruining her cast. Looking up, the three little witches were just able to make out a figure up in the air by the light of the waning moon. Sitting astride her walking stick, was Miss Grimes, with a sigil writ in fire hovering over her raised hand. The sigil shed enough light to see Grimes’ face, which shared a snarl uncomfortably similar to her familiar’s on the ground. “Back away from them you boneless bitch!” she snarled with such ferocity that Sigourney Weaver would have had second thoughts.
As Hellfire Sheba reacted to the new threat, Abra threw more salt at her. But Sheba was on her own ground, and the little witches feared and respected her power far too much. But the odds changed when another figure came out of the moonlit sky. Dr. Tennant came riding in a wicker basket, and her hair snaked all around her head, forming patterns of mystical energy in ways far too delicate for mere clumsy hands to achieve. As Grimes kept Sheba busy and Merlin kept her from the girls, ‘Caduceus’ carefully wove patterns around her, cutting her off from the flow of power in the area.
Sheba ignored the shards of ice that Grimes was trying to wrap her up in, and concentrated on tearing that the minor enchantments that were cutting her off. But, even as she had a firm grasp on one tendril of power and was using it to tear the cocoon asunder, a word of power rang out from the woods, and the woods that had threatened to entangle Clover early came alive. They reached and seized Hellfire Sheba with their roots and branches, even as they sent tendrils into the very core of her being. Mrs. Chulkris came rising up from the soil, the very wrath of the Earth herself carved on her normally merry face. “I’m here, I’m here! Some of us don’t do well up in the air, without the Earth under their feet, you know!”
Together the three magic teachers formed a triangle of power around Sheba. “Irene!” Grimes called, “Form one of your magic balls around her!”
“I already TRIED that! I couldn’t hold her!”
“Don’t worry! We’ll keep it stable! But we need one of your bubbles, right NOW!”
Pally took a deep breath, handed Buttons back to Clover and tapped into the ball of essence for strength. She created another globe around Hellfire Sheba, and smashed it in tight. As Sheba railed against her confinement, Grimes, Tennant and Chulkris added little touches the reinforced the confinement. When the prison was secure, they stepped away and took a deep breath.
Clover stepped forward, her blue eyes huge with concern. She held forth Button’s still form. “Grimsey?” she asked, a child’s whole world of pain in her voice. “Buttons? He… he got hurt… Will he be okay?”
Grimes’ face softened. “Let us take a look at him, dear.” She took the trembling dog from his mistress, and all three of them checked his wounds. Clover stood on tippy-toes and watched anxiously as the three conferred.
Dr. Tennant returned Buttons to his mistress. “Well, honey, I won’t lie to you- he’s hurt pretty bad. But Faerie hounds are famous for being real tough. Takes more than a slice of nasty like this,” she hefted the sphere containing Hellfire Sheba, “to put one down. But we’ve got to do something for him. There was rot on her claws, and it got into the wounds. I can put together a poultice to cleanse the rot, but I’m going to need a lot of essence to do it.”
Clover ran right over to Palantir and took the sphere of essence. “Hey!” Pally started, but Clover shut her up with a single hard look. Clover gave the orb to Dr. Tennant.
“Very well, I’ll do my best. Now, we have to go put this thing back, as best they can.”
As Palantir simmered, Miss Grimes gave her the cold glare, which was mirrored by Merlin on her shoulder. “Oh, and don’t think that you’re getting off just with not getting that essence! Sneaking out of your rooms, being out well past curfew, going places where you KNOW you’re not-” Grimes took Pally by the shoulder and steered her back in the general direction of Devil’s Cave, all the while reciting the litany of their collective offenses. “Oh and by the way- what’s with the hat?”