All I wanted was to ride as fast as I could to the edge of the world and drop off.
Earlier this same day, I had not suspected anything would go wrong. I got up, drank my elixir, and got ready for work. My wrinkles and warts faded away as usual, and I braided my long shiny black hair. As I walked out the door, I kissed my cat and she hissed at me. Nothing different there.
Icy blasts whipped across my face as I rode my broom toward the office. Usually, I love fresh air, but this wind whispered evil portents. I cast a protective bubble around me and stopped shivering.
When I arrived at the large, crumbling castle, I set my broom up against the rack with the others. Everyone was here today, I noticed. That could be good or bad. I mumbled my Freshen Up spell to release the wrinkles in my black dress and walked in the back door.
Our entire staff of witches, as well as the receptionists, gathered around our CEO, Madame Bramblerose. Was I late for some staff meeting I didn’t know about? Sarah gestured towards me to get over there, her eyes flashing. That girl really was a witch.
“As some of you know, there have been reports from the Eastern Realm that are quite disturbing. None of us should panic, since we have long expected this could happen. Rest assured that Western Coven Magical Assist will do everything in our magical power to continue our service to the community,” Madame Bramblerose said in a gravelly voice. Everyone’s eyes, even Becky Speckleleaf, who usually dozes during meetings, were fixed on our leader.
I shook out my shoulders, which had started to clench up. Spells could be affected by tension in a witch’s body. What in the seven hells was she talking about?”
“In order to continue our expected level of service, witches will work in partners for every spell. Every spell. No exceptions.”
Groans echoed throughout the room. Most witches have their own personal style, and they don’t play well together. The corporate environment of WCMA kept us from killing each other. Most of the time.
“I appreciate your professionalism in these trying times. Your partner assignments have been loaded into your mirrors. Get out there and do your best.” She swept out of the circle and into her office, the heavy wooden door slamming locked behind her. That’s the last we’d see her that day. Well, I would see her in an even worse mood, but that would be later.
“What’s this all about?” I whispered to Bonnie, who shared an office with me. She came from the country, like me, and kept a level head. These city witches weren’t used to demon attacks and superstitious village mobs with torches.
“Magic is failing,” she whispered back, her tan face uncharacteristically pale. “The rate of spell failure is 17.8% and rising. It’s begun.”
My stomach flipped. Of course I’d grown up with the threat of Magic Fade, but I didn’t think it would happen in my generation. Mama had told me all about it when I was little, not exactly the type of bedtime story I would tell my children. A time would come, she would say with lifted eyebrow and low insistent voice, when the magic in our world would be used up. After all, it wasn’t a renewable resource, everyone knew that. Magic resided in the rocks, the ancient stones that surrounded us. Rocks were everywhere across the realms, plentiful as weeds. And yet, every time we cast a spell, a little more of our magic was lost.
“Sheep dung!” I swore with a hiss.
“It certainly is,” she agreed.
When I spoke my password into the mirror on the wall in front of my desk, the assignment list popped up. “Bull pies!” I spit out, as I saw who my partner would be. The Goddess hated me. Bramblerose hated me.
“Marion, get your lazy bones out of that chair, and let’s get to work,” a grating, familiar voice called from the doorway. I looked up to see a tall, thin witch with white stringy hair that hung from her head like a poppet. Sarah Nightshade. She would be working spells with me. All. Week. Long.
“I’m coming,” I called, and as I passed her, Bonnie gave me a pitying look. No one worked with Sarah for many good reasons.
The rest of day went pretty much as could be expected. Customers came into our consulting rooms, otherwise known as remodeled dungeon cells. There I spent hours casting spells with Sarah. Most of the time, customers were completely satisfied. I could feel the magic thinning a bit, but I could still access it without too much effort.
All day long, I ignored my partner’s demeaning insults and disgusting personal habits. Do you have any idea how unpleasant it is to be cooped up in a tiny cell with someone who passes gas continually? And when they brought us our lunch, she shoved the plate in her face and ate the stew without her spoon. Disgusting, and she’s the one who calls me uncouth. Called me, I mean.
Finally, I saw we reached the last customer on our list. Not a minute too soon. A tiny, tottering old crone came in, her face covered in festering warts, no doubt caused by constant exposure to poisonous plants she grew for the medicine men. Oh no. Not another beauty spell. That took positive, beautiful thoughts, and I was fresh out. Sarah obviously didn’t have any to begin with.
“My husband won’t sleep in our bed anymore,” she rasped. “He sleeps out in the sheep shed. Embarrassing when our neighbors see him crawl out in the morning. Please help me.” She offered the standard payment in her wrinkled and twisted hand. Where did that old lady get that much gold?
“No problem,” Sarah said, pocketing her money. “Lay down on the table.” The crone creaked over to a low pallet positioned in the middle of the room. Both of us could easily walk around the patient, taking magical items from the cupboard against the wall. As my partner got the woman settled, I reached into the cupboard and took out the herbs we needed, just like I’d done hundreds of times before. Can’t really blame Sarah for putting the jar in the wrong place. It’s my responsibility to pay attention.
After mixing the dried leaves with a white powder and pouring cow urine over it, I brought the elixir over to Sarah. She sniffed it and frowned. “Doesn’t look as potent as the last batch. Are you sure you did it right?”
That was it. I was done with that witch. “Who are you to question me? Just because I went to a country school doesn’t mean I’m an idiot!” I roared at her with the pent-up frustration I’d saved all day.
She stepped back from the sparks flying from my hands. When did I start doing that? I usually didn’t have much command over lightning magic. Must have been all that partner work.
After I calmed down, we chanted the spell together, and then she gave the potion to the crone, who drank it down quickly with a grimace. Then the fun began.
Our frail old lady shot up from the table and began spinning in the air. In the air. Not part of our spell. The cell filled with foul smoke and when it cleared, a large demon appeared. Again, not part of our spell.
I’ll spare you most of the details because to be honest, it happened so fast I didn’t have much time to react. Of course, Sarah and I called on our defensive magic, but wouldn’t you know, my magic worked, but hers didn’t. The ugly demon with sharp teeth and claws made quick work of our customer and my fellow witch. It couldn’t reach through my bubble, but I couldn’t touch it either. Discouraged, it burst through our door, reducing it to a pile of kindling. I ran out after it.
Eventually, the witches got the demon under control and sealed him up in a jar, just in case we needed it for something in the future. Madame Bramblerose wrote me up for sloppy spell work and suspended me for a week. None of the other witches could look me in the eye, not even Bonnie.
Now I was zooming away on my broom, disgraced and guilty as hell. I should have checked the jar. A demon-summing spell is far different than a beauty potion. Not only did I mess up the spell, but now I could feel it. My magic was fading. Who was I without magic?
I headed toward the mountains, to my favorite hideout. When things had not gone well at primary school, I had discovered a place where I could hide until Mama used her Find My Child spell. Landing on a huge, flat rock, I sat down to watch the rushing water traveling down the mountain’s back. It would be so easy to jump over the side and allow the jagged rocks and swirling water to do its work.
The evening sun was setting behind the ridge, so I cast a small ball of light that hovered in front me. Its glow was pale and weak. The water roared below me, taunting me, daring me.
If magic failed completely, would I still be a witch? Before magic school, I showed some talent with a brush. Maybe I could be a portrait painter. Wouldn’t make much gold, so I would have to move back to the farm with Mama and the boys.
I looked up and saw the endless field of stars above me. Even without a spell, I could read their possibilities. Tangy pine air inflated my lungs. I was still me. No longer could I hear the water’s cry. When I mounted my broom and headed home, I knew I would find my way.