A Dangerous Man II: Merlin’s Wrath

This story contains a character whom I created back in January. If you’re interested, the link for his first appearance is here: http://adamdixonfiction.com/2016/01/09/a-dangerous-man/

 

A Dangerous Man II: Merlin’s Wrath

By Adam Dixon

The Man sat on the hard wooden stool, the light from the crackling fire dancing on his spectacles as the witch scurried around the cave. She was a plump woman and her pleasant, feminine face was flushed with anxiety. She had a light blue dye in her short hair and she appeared to be no more than thirty years old, but the Man knew better; she was much, much older. She was searching for something, rearranging a collection of jars here, discarding a pile of yellowed scrolls there and all the while muttering to herself. The Man sat in silence and allowed himself an amused half-smile. Finally, the witch found the object she sought.

“Aha! I knew I ‘ad one!” she exclaimed, her delicate French accent filtering through her triumph. She brandished a cast-iron flask decorated with ancient runes in her left hand. In the firelight it was easy to spot that her little finger was missing, and the stump that remained was swaddled in bloodied bandages. There was another long bandage tied around her head which kept slipping over her eyes. She stepped in front of a bubbling cauldron set above the fire and beamed at her guest. The Man leaned forwards, his eyes gleaming.

“Well then, Madeleine,” he rasped, maintaining eye contact. “What’ve you got for me this evening?” Madeleine wilted under his stare, and visibly steeled herself before replying.

“What do I ‘ave, Master?” she said, waving her free arm with a flourish. “Why, I ‘ave the very thing you ‘ave been asking for!” She smiled at him again, looking expectant.

“As fun as it is, you don’t have to call me Master, y’know,” the Man chuckled. “It sounds a bit medieval to me, and I’m all about the here and now!” The witch’s smile faltered.

“But I ‘ave to, Master,” she said in a serious tone. “By customs ancient and binding I must. You killed my apprentice and defeated me in single combat.” Madeleine grimaced at the memory. “Poor Isolde…she showed such promise….”

“Alright, alright!” the Man barked, irritated. “Call me whatever you need to, just get on with it!”

“Of course, Master. My apologies,” the witch replied, bowing her head. She took a long-handled ladle from next to the cauldron and dipped it inside, scooping up a large helping of the putrid, mottled green liquid. The Man noted that the ladle also had runes etched into it. As Madeleine transferred the steaming concoction into the flask, a single drop fell to the floor. Her eyes widened in alarm for the merest hint of a second before she composed herself; the Man saw it, but said nothing. Once she had filled the flask, Madeleine dropped the ladle and held the potion reverently, turning to face the Man.

“’Ere you are, Master,” she said, her voice a husky whisper. When Madeleine whispered, her voice made grown men swoon, but as usual it had no effect whatsoever on the Man. “This is known as Time’s Bane, and it is most powerful. I was involved in its creation, and I am the only witch left alive who knows the recipe. Drink this, Master, and you shall know youth again!” Madeleine’s eyes sparkled with pride and anticipation. “Each mouthful will return twenty years of strength to your bones and the time will fade from your face in but a moment!” She held the potion out with a solemn bow of her head. The Man said nothing and merely observed her. After a few tense minutes, Madeleine began to perspire, a faint sheen developing across her upper lip and forehead. She cleared her throat nervously.

“Master, is something wrong?” she asked, her hands beginning to shake. “I ‘ave done what you asked, for I am your devoted servant!” The Man snorted and stood up. His long, dark coat covered his body as he rose, and Madeleine was ominously reminded of the cloaks of witch-hunters. He was shorter than her, but the black aura which surrounded him was one which demanded fear and obedience.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! But…why don’t you take the first sip, Maddie?” the Man said, his eyes glittering and his voice even. “You’ve put in all the effort, so why not take a small reward? Take a couple of months off!” He cackled at the joke, and Madeleine froze. Her eyes were wide and her mouth moved silently like a fish.

“Spit it out, Maddie!” The Man said. “Not the potion, though! You’ve gotta get that bad boy down you!” He laughed again, the sound sending a shiver up Madeleine’s spine.

“But…Master,” she stammered. “This potion, it is not for me! I…I ‘ave already ingested my annual dosage…to drink more would court disaster! It is for you to regain your former strength this night, not I! I crafted it especially for you, and I fear it will not for me!” Madeleine waited, her eyes fearful. The Man took a step closer, glaring solidly into her face. She managed a weak smile which crumbled as quickly as a rose. Suddenly, his large hands snaked out and covered hers as they held the flask. Madeleine yelped with fright and tried to jerk away from him. The Man held her tightly.

“I don’t believe you,” he said in a threatening tone. “In fact, I smell a rat…a stupid, blue rat!” The Man wrenched his hands to the right, sending Madeleine tumbling to the floor and the flask flying across the cave. It struck the jagged wall and the green liquid splashed all over it and dripped to the ground. As soon as it made contact with the surfaces it began to bubble and hiss furiously, burning through several centimetres of rock. The Man advanced on Madeleine, who screeched in terror and flung up her hands. A torrent of fire flew from her open palms towards the Man, who ducked underneath it and ran forward. His boot cracked into Madeleine’s temple and she fell on to her back, extinguishing the jet of flames. In an instant he was straddling her, his stocky thighs crushing her chest and pinning her left arm to her side. As she swung her right hand in a wild fist but he caught her wrist in a vice-grip.

“Now, now, Maddie,” he crooned, holding her with ease as she bucked and writhed under him. “Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.”

“Spare me, Master!” Madeleine cried, her eyes wide with terror. “I did not mean to-“

“Shut the hell up!” the Man barked. “Spare me your excuses! You tried to kill me, again, and you’ve failed! You really shoulda thought of something less obvious, darlin’.” He reached inside his coat with his free hand and removed the remnants of an ancient bronze spear. The power emanating from it was almost palpable from that distance and at the sight of it Madeleine began to whimper, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You must really think I’m stupid, huh?” He began to run the spear point along Madeleine’s trembling arm, nicking the skin here and there. Tiny droplets of blood seeped down as the blade bit into her flesh.

“I’ve been a killer all my life,” the Man said, moving his grip up to Madeleine’s hand. “And one thing I’ve learned the hard way over the years is to never…ever…trust a witch!” The Man spat this remark through bared teeth. Spittle flew from his lips and decorated Madeleine’s pale face.

“Please, Master, not again!” She begged as he forced open her hand with his, exposing her index finger. “The Holy Lance, she does not cut like other blades! My wounds, they still bleed! Please, no! I will do all you ask! Non, je vous en prie!”

“Hush, Madeleine,” the Man crooned, touching the razor-sharp edge of the spear to her finger. “You have disrespected me. Accept your punishment.” With one quick, clean motion the Man sliced off the witch’s finger with the blade. Madeleine screeched, the noise reverberating painfully around the cave. Blood poured down onto their clasped hands and dripped on to her chest as she struggled furiously. The Man held her still for a few moments, a manic grin on his face. Finally, he released her hand and stood up, holding the dripping spear at his side. Madeleine hugged her hand to her chest and curled into the foetal positon, whimpering and moaning.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” The Man asked, the glee evident in his voice. “All is forgiven! You can get back to doing as you’re told, now. Isn’t that right, Madeleine?”

“Y-Yes, Master…” Madeleine replied, barely audible. The Man crouched down and rested the wet spear against her throat. She stopped moving immediately and her breath came out in harsh gasps.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you, darlin’” he whispered, his eyes burning with malice. “I said: isn’t that right, Madeleine?”

“YES MASTER!” Madeleine shouted, gazing fearfully at the lance. The Man nodded and plucked Madeleine’s severed finger from its resting place on the ground. He examined it for a moment, admiring the precision of the cut.

“You know, I had my doubts about this thing,” he said, turning his gaze back to the Lance. “But I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s a real beauty!” He snorted and stowed the weapon in his coat. Using a nail he produced from another pocket, the Man pierced the bloody digit all the way through and slipped it onto a piece of twine he wore around his neck. The grisly object slithered down the twine and came to rest next to two other trophies: a little finger and an ear, both stained brown with dried blood. He cackled as he tucked the necklace back into his shirt and glanced over at the witch.

“Madeleine,” he said quietly. “What is that green swill anyway?”

“M-Merlin’s Wrath, M-master,” stammered Madeleine, still laying on the ground. “A p-potent p-poison. B-burns all creatures i-inside out…”

“Really? Hmm…” The Man stroked his stubble with bloody fingers, leaving smear marks along his chin. He strode over to the cauldron and seized a glass vial.

“Will this hold it?” The Man asked. Madeleine merely nodded, groaning. Lifting the ladle the Man filled the vial with the bubbling green liquid, slamming a stopper securely in place. He shook the vial and watched its contents swirl around inside the glass.

“Y’know, my old Ma used to make stuff like this,” he said quietly, watching the firelight illuminate the murky liquid. “She’d go out at night and come back with all kinds of weeds and flowers in a sack. She’d stink out the back room when she’d cut them up and put them in the tub. She’d spend days making her ’remedies’, as she called them. My Pa told me and my sisters that Ma had a screw loose, but he was deadly afraid of her when she did all that. He never beat her or any of us during those few days…” The Man chuckled again, shaking his head.

“Well now, get a load of me! Talking away like an old housewife!” He said, smirking. “I’d better go, Maddie, I’m hunting tonight. Bigger fish and all that!” He raised the vial in a mock salute to Madeleine and grinned at her.

“Thanks a bunch, sweetheart!” he said, slipping it into his coat along with the Holy Lance. “This’ll come in handy, for sure! Just make sure you’ve got what I ask for next time, or I won’t be so gentle with you.” He strode out of the cave, leaving the mutilated witch sobbing and cursing him as he howled with laughter.

 

Blessed Night

Blessed Night

By Adam Dixon

 

Andi strolled through the forest clearing, a filled satchel on her back and a bright smile on her face. Bathed in the pale glow of the full moon and soothed by the cool wind blowing through her dark hair, she was content as she collected the various flora which grew there. Her satchel was full to bursting with nettles, wildflowers and mushrooms, as well as with more valuable items such as blisterweed and Lady’s Folly posies. Already her mind raced with the potions she could brew from such a spectacular haul. She smiled and congratulated herself. Nice one, Andromeda, she thought, business is looking good!

But one item still eluded her, and it was the ingredient which had brought Andi so deep into the forest in the first place. It was the Moon-Spun Lily, a beautiful, delicate flower which only bloomed once a month; during the full moon, naturally. Andi had pinned down the area in which the flower would be likely to bloom and her collecting so far, although fortuitous, had simply been a way for her to waste time before the moon had risen. Now that it had, Andi could freely collect her prize. She strode eagerly towards her destination, her eyes flicking to the red compass point on her smartphone screen. She grinned at the device. How did the alchemists of old manage to find anything in the dark? She wondered, shaking her head at the thought. Thank the Maker for modern technology!

Andi passed through the clearing and penetrated the thickly wooded forest. The air smelled wonderful, with wafts of damp leaves, soil and the aroma of dozens of night-flowers filling her expectant nostrils. She breathed deeply as she walked, savouring the fresh air, the night sky and the freedom of being away from her laboratory. She lived for these excursions, and she refused to permit anyone else to undertake them on her behalf. This was what real alchemists did, and she was one of the best. She’d never catch her esteemed father taking the easy option! She imagined her father’s stern face observing her, just as he had done when she had stirred his bubbling cauldron as a child. Well, Dad, here I am! She thought triumphantly. Getting the job done properly, just like you! Her phone pinged, and she banished the image and looked around.

She gasped as she beheld the Moon-Spun Lily nestled between two small trees. Its milky white petals glowed with an inner luminescence, quivering as the breeze caressed it. Andi noticed the tiny droplets of pollen leaking from its flowers as they danced in the wind, only to be picked up and swirled off to another part of the forest. As well as being stunningly beautiful it also looked incredibly delicate. Andi raised her phone and snapped a picture of the flower; it was a poor substitute for the real thing, but she wanted desperately to capture the moment in her memory. She longed to stay and watch the flower as it swayed in the night, but she had work to do and a deadline to keep. Steeling herself, Andi withdrew a small pair of pruning shears and a silk bag from her satchel. Leaning forwards, she carefully snipped the stalk of the Lily and let it drop into the bag. Now that the flower was gone, the space between the two trees looked desolate, as if the life had faded from it. Andi felt a little sad, but she abruptly shook it off and turned to leave the forest.

A long, loud howl pierced the stillness of the night. Andi froze, her eyes widening. Every hair on her forearms stood on end and her heart hammered in her chest as the howl continued. The noise was answered by a similar howl, this one higher in pitch. Andi realised with terror that they were both close by. She slipped a hand into her jeans and pulled out a tiny vial filled with a gelatinous blue liquid. Her hands were shaking as she unstopped the vial and raised it to her lips. She threw her head back and downed the potion, feeling it burn as it slid down her throat. She crouched and leaned forwards, fighting the urge to choke and splutter. Oh man, I forgot how awful this one tastes! She thought, disgusted. The howls came again, nearer still. They were getting closer! Andi shuffled into the thickest section of trees, cursing the potion for not taking effect sooner. As she began to notice her hands and torso losing their definition, a huge shape crashed through the undergrowth and came to a halt where she had been standing moments before. Andi’s breath caught in her throat; it was a werewolf.

Standing on powerful hind legs it towered into the air, fully eight feet tall from its pointed ears to its claws. It gazed around the clearing with eyes of a deep red and saliva dripped from its gleaming yellow fangs. By the Maker¸ Andi thought to herself, transfixed. It’s beautiful! The creature possessed a savage beauty that Andi had never seen before, and the descriptions she had read about such beasts did it no justice whatsoever. It pawed at the ground impatiently and growled deeply from the back of its throat. A freshly-killed young doe was grasped in one if its giant paws, carried as if it were no heavier than an apple. A crash of branches announced the arrival of a second beast, this one just as majestic as the first and even larger. The two wolves faced one another in silence, crimson eyes locked together. Andi wiped a bead of sweat from her eye and realised that her potion had taken effect: she was invisible.

The wolves growled and padded closer, neither one breaking eye contact. Mottled brown fur swayed in the wind as it sighed through the forest, and fallen leaves crunched underneath massive paws. The wolves stopped within an arm’s length of each other and continued their rumbling observations. Suddenly, a gravelly voice issued forth from the maw of the first creature.

“Evenin’, Moon-Sister,” it growled. “A fine night for a hunt, eh?”

“Too right, Moon-Brother!” the larger werewolf said, its eyes tightening and a coughing sound racking its body. Andi looked on in amazement. It’s laughing! She could hardly believe what she was seeing. The first werewolf tossed its head and lowered itself into a crouch. It still stood over six feet tall even then.

“Ahh, but it’s nice to see another of my kind!” it said, the growl in its voice sounding pleased. “As much as I enjoy these evenings, they can be lonely.”

“That’s never bothered me, to be honest,” the female werewolf said as she joined him in a crouch. “My other life is always noisy, so I enjoy the peace, but I am pleased to meet you! It makes for a refreshing change.” The first werewolf acknowledged the gesture with a nod of his great head.

“Have some of my catch, if you like,” he offered the doe to his companion. The female laughed again, the strange guttural sound sending a shiver up Andi’s spine.

“Don’t mind if I do, Moon-Brother! Thanks!” She accepted the bounty and tore off a large piece of flesh with her razor-sharp fangs. Andi felt her stomach perform a somersault inside her. Oh, the poor thing! She thought, turning her face away from the scene. The sound of ripping meat and crunching bones assaulted her ears, and she fought hard to keep from retching.

“We know you’re there, human,” the female’s voice growled. “You may as well join us.”

Andi’s heart plummeted in her chest and an icy shock hit her in waves. She began to tremble and slowly turned to look back. Two pairs of blood-red eyes were looking straight in her direction. She gulped and tried to respond.

“How…how can you see me?” Andi managed to squeak.

“We can’t,” the male werewolf answered, his pink tongue lapping blood from his jaws. “But you reek of fear and excitement. We could point in your direction from a mile away.”

“Come and join us.” The female repeated. It did not sound like a request. Petrified, Andi made her way towards them on legs which threatened to buckle under her at any moment. She stood before the two creatures, clasping her satchel with both hands in an effort to compose herself. The female leaned forward and inhaled deeply through her wet nostrils.

“You smell like a garden centre,” she said, amusement in her tone. “Have you been rolling around in the meadows?”

“No…no, I’m collecting wild flora,” Andi replied, still struggling with her sentences. “You see…I’m…an al-alchemist.”

“Ahhh, one of those!” the male guffawed and chomped down on another piece of the doe. “That explains it, then! What’s your name, alchemist?”

“I’m…Andromeda….Andi, for short.” Andi replied, unsure where the conversation was going. “Do you…erm…do you have names?” She nearly bolted from the forest as the two wolves threw their heads back and howled in unison. She stood shaking, hoping desperately that she hadn’t offended them.

“No, Andi the alchemist, we don’t,” the female said with good humour. “Of course, we do as humans, but we don’t use those names during the Blessed Night. That would be wrong.”

“This is the one night we can forget about those lives of weakness and boredom; we can truly be free.” The male werewolf added, gazing up at the moon with a sigh. Andi thought about this, her fear lessened by this information.

“I see…” she said, rubbing her invisible chin. “So you enjoy being werewolves? I always thought it was a curse.”

“Some people will see it that way, obviously,” the male answered, shaking his head. “But for me, this is when I’m really alive. As a human, I’m weak, unfulfilled and miserable. Getting bitten by a Moon-Sister was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“It’s the same with me,” the female snarled in agreement, tossing the remainder of the doe away into the trees. “My other life would seem complete to some, but I’m not valued as an individual. These evenings are my own, and I love them dearly. They make me feel alive!”

“I see…” Andi said again, shocked at their frankness. She was fairly sure by now that they were not going to eat her, but she didn’t want to risk upsetting them. She began speaking, addressing them very cautiously.

“So, erm…you don’t want to stop being werewolves then? You wouldn’t want to find a cure?” The professional in Andi was considering how a potion might be brewed to that effect, but both beasts shook their heads.

“Not unless I find something in my human life which makes me feel so free,” the male wolf shrugged. He fixed his frightening eyes in Andi’s direction, and she saw the pain within them. “But I really doubt that’ll happen. Nothing completes me like this change. Nothing.” Andi stood still, absorbing this information. The wolf regarded her, silently crouching in the moonlight.

“So, what happens after tonight?” Andi asked tentatively. The wolves looked at each other, and Andi felt a spark of understanding pass between them.

“We return to our other lives,” the female said sadly. “We go back to being human.”

“Back to wishing the days away until Blessed Night comes around again,” the male added, his ears drooping. Andi was moved by their profound misery and was at a loss as to what to say.

“Stay with us whilst we enjoy the last few hours of moonlight, Andi the alchemist,” the female said. “We will not harm you.”

“Are-are you sure?” Andi asked, brightening at the idea. “Wouldn’t I be interrupting your solitude?”

“Nah, not at all,” the male werewolf replied. He patted the ground next to him with his blood-stained claws. “It’s nice to have company for a change.”

“Oh, alright then.” Andi smiled and sat down between the two hulking creatures, her fascination returning and her fears vanishing. She considered asking the beasts if she could take a selfie with them to preserve the moment, but she quashed the idea as quickly as it came to her. Best not push it, girl! She thought

Andi sat with the werewolves for several hours, listening to them describe the freedom of prowling the night as its ultimate predator, of how the soaring wind felt on their fur or how the moon called to them prior to their transformation. Andi was mesmerised, mentally noting down all of the information they provided. She was almost certain that her situation was unprecedented in human-monster interaction and so she intended to remember as much as possible. She gradually pieced together that the male werewolf was an undervalued, underpaid accountant whose wife had left him penniless. It also turned that the female was the wife of an extremely successful business tycoon, and by being so found herself in a constant state of near-invisibility. Andi in turn told them about her alchemy business, and her initial struggle to get out from underneath her father’s shadow as a potion-brewer. She even shared some of her more scandalous business requests, at which the wolves howled into the night once again and laughed. She found herself enjoying their company immensely, and as the light began to return she felt sadness at the inevitable ending approaching. The female stood up, stretching her long, hairy legs as the sky began to change to a pinky-grey hue.

“It’s almost time,” she announced with resignation in her voice. “I’ve enjoyed sharing Blessed Night with you, Andi the alchemist, and with you, Moon-Brother. Let’s all meet again some time, the Maker willing.”

“I’ve enjoyed it too!” Andi said, leaping up. “I’ve learned so much from both of you! And thank you again for your gifts.” She patted a pocket in her satchel, where a tuft of werewolf hair and a vial of saliva could been seen poking out of the folds.

“It’s a pleasure, Andi,” the male wolf bowed his shaggy head in her direction. “Thanks for a pleasant evening. Now, I’d better head home. Moon-Sister, may we meet again.” With that, the male bounded off into the trees, his heavy footsteps echoing around the rapidly lightening forest. Andi turned to speak to the female, but she was also out of sight. Andi felt very alone in the large forest, despite the sounds of its denizens waking all around her. She looked up at the sky and saw that the sun was rising sleepily in the horizon. She sighed heavily and looked at her feet, noticing then that she was not invisible anymore. She stooped to pick up the silk bag she had rested on the floor, and her thoughts turned back to her delicate treasure. The Lily is just like the two of them, she thought sadly, beautiful and fleeting. She turned wandered despondently out of the forest, her heart going out to the two poor souls who lived their lives perpetually wanting to be something else. She found herself wondering how many other people felt the same way, but didn’t have the brief luxury of a magical transformation to escape their misery. She shook her head, a single tear running down her face.

“Goodbye, my new friends,” she whispered. “Until we meet again on Blessed Night.”

***

If you enjoyed this story, why not check out Andi’s introductory tale?

http://adamdixonfiction.com/2015/11/08/fever-of-venus/

 

Fever of Venus

Fever of Venus

By Adam Dixon

She stirred the bubbling green mixture in the pan, the heat from the rising steam warming her hand just enough to be pleasurable. It was hard work, brewing magic potions, and Andi had to find some pleasure in the process whenever possible. She closed her eyes and stretched, cracking her back deliciously for a few seconds. The problem was that modern witches simply didn’t have the time to make potions anymore; the effort of finding and preparing the multitude of ingredients was beyond them. Almost all of them had demanding jobs to maintain, such as being lawyers, business tycoons and high-ranking politicians; occupations which satisfied their own sinister, crafty agendas and allowed them to succeed in the world. They still had their spells and arcane hobbies, but they no longer had the leisure time to invest in potion-crafting. That is where Andi came in: as a member of an established and well-favoured family of alchemists she was trusted to fill this area of neglect in the lives of modern witches. Andi had learned her trade from her father, a near-legendary potions master, and she had been successful long enough to consider herself an expert in her own right. She brewed potions for uses good, foul and anything in between for a number of witches who paid her handsomely for her efforts. So, it was hard work, but the rewards were fantastic.

She was currently brewing a complex potion which rendered the unfortunate drinker paralysed whilst fully conscious. The effect could be moderated depending on the strength of the dosage; for example, two drops would cause paralysis for ten minutes, but half the bottle would incapacitate the drinker for twelve hours. It was a potion which had been created by Andi’s father, and it had become rapidly desired by witches who wanted to add something devious to their collections. As expected, it had also proven quite popular among those who had a proclivity for ill-acquired trinkets. Her customer this time was a young witch who had a taste for successful artists; enough said, thought Andi with a wry smile. She began stirring the potion first clockwise and then anti-clockwise in intervals, as the recipe required. She soon lost herself in the rhythm of her work and began to daydream, working by instinct rather than concentration.

Andi was brought back to reality after about ten minutes by a rattling sound coming from behind her. She turned around and saw that the Blood Receptacle was trembling on its pedestal. The Blood Receptacle was a large bowl fashioned from obsidian, making it very dark and strangely luminous as it sat proudly on top of a marble pillar in the corner of Andi’s laboratory. The bowl was filled three-quarters of the way up with blood, the viscous, crimson liquid partially visible through the glass. The blood was slopping to and fro in the bowl of its own accord, seemingly frantic. Andi sighed and turned the heat down on her Bunsen burner before moving towards the pillar. For all their readiness to embrace modernity, some witches still insisted on traditional modes of contact; Andi would much rather that they used the telephone.  She approached the insistent bowl and quietened it by placing her hands on either side of it. I hate this part, she thought to herself. Taking a deep breath, she lowered her lips to the surface and took in a mouthful of blood. Andi then straightened, and after waiting for ten seconds to pass she spat the coppery liquid back into the bowl with disgust and relief. The blood rippled in the bowl, and slowly the colour was drained until a clear, reflective surface was left. Moments later, the image of a face came into view, blurring slightly as the ritual was completed. A stern, female face of middling years stared out of the bowl and regarded Andi with cold grey eyes.

“Andromeda Hairlock, I presume?” A sharp voice issued forth, the sound wavering slightly. Andi beamed into the bowl.

“Yes, that’s me!” She said cheerfully. “But please, call me Andi. How may I help you today, lady sorceress?”

“I am in the market for a particular potion, Miss Hairlock,” The witch stated brusquely, her manner business-like and efficient. “Your establishment comes highly recommended.” The woman paused for a moment to peer more closely at Andi. “Although, I expected you to be much older, considering the strength of the appraisal.” The pride Andi had felt at the woman’s first words faded quickly and were replaced with annoyance. Her youth was a constant hindrance to her when dealing with prospective customers. She longed for the day when her glossy black hair turned grey, then she would perhaps encourage believability upon first encounters.

“Well, I do hope I can be of service, madam,” Andi said, ignoring her irritation. “Which potion are you looking to acquire, Miss…?”

“Ironbark. Clytemnestra Ironbark.” The witch replied, seemingly annoyed at having been asked. Andi gasped.

“My lady sorceress, it is indeed an honour to meet you!” Andi spluttered, inclining her head in what she hoped was a respectful manner. “Great elephants, I wonder what my father would say if he knew I was talking to a witch of such infamy and power!”

“Yes, I had hoped to enlist the services of your esteemed father,” the witch said matter-of-factly. “But I heard that he is currently indisposed, which is a frightful bother.” Andi’s smiled faded slightly.

“Yes, my lady sorceress,” She replied, caught off guard. “Father had a run in with a particularly nasty goblin who was trying to steal some of his notes. He is healing well, but remains unable to work for the time being.”

“As I said, a frightful bother,” Ironbark said coldly. “In my experience there are no other types of goblins but nasty ones. Loathsome creatures. Your father ought to have been more careful, I say. But no matter, his daughter will have to suffice.”

Andi had by now decided that she didn’t like this obnoxious, arrogant sorceress, but she could never turn down the opportunity to work for anyone so well-known. She bit back an angry retort and simply offered Ironbark a small smile and a nod, indicating that she should continue.

“I’ll say once again, I am in the market for a very specific potion,” Ironbark said brusquely. “I am prepared to meet any price for its production, and I am likewise prepared to wait as long as it takes for it to be brewed to perfection. I have never accepted lesser potions, Miss Hairlock, and I have absolutely no intention of starting with one as vital as this.”

“Understood, madam,” Andi replied warily. “I will do my utmost to provide the potion you seek. Which potion would that be?” I bet it’s a nasty one, thought Andi. She seems like a nasty sort of witch in person, and some of the stories about her are just terrible.

“Yes, well…” Ironbark hesitated, her image rippling slightly as she frowned and looked away. Why is she stalling? Andi pondered, curious.

“Miss Hairlock, I am looking to acquire the most potent reversal of a love potion which you are capable of concocting.” Ironbark said quickly. “As I said, money and time are no object, but I would prefer it to be created as soon as professionally possible. Can you aid me?”

Well, that was a surprise! Andi was stunned. Reverse a love potion? Clytemnestra Ironbark did not seem like the kind of woman who would even consider using a love potion in the first place, let alone reversing one. This was very interesting.

“Well, yes, lady sorceress, I certainly can aid you,” Andi said, taken aback, “There is no potion created which cannot be reversed. However, I will need to know which specific love potion was administered, so that I can correctly fashion its antidote.”

“Therein lies the problem, Miss Hairlock,” Ironbark stated, her cold eyes boring in to Andi’s. Was that desperation Andi saw in them? Surely not… “I…ah…do not know which potion I used, truthfully. I was hoping that you would be able to identify the draught from the information I can provide. First of all, I was informed that the potion I purchased had a short-term effect, possibly two or three days. I was additionally told that it was brewed from mermaid tears and foxglove at moonlight.”

“That sounds like Merlin’s Seduction,” Andi said, trying hard not to smirk. “You are correct, it’s only supposed to last for a couple of days. It focuses primarily on firing up the lust of the drinker; to render them completely enamoured and with an insatiable desire for-“

“Yes, yes, there is no need to spell it out!” Ironbark interrupted sharply, her cheeks turning slightly crimson. Andi had to fight the urge to burst out laughing. This was becoming a hilarious conversation!

“My apologies, lady sorceress,” Andi bowed her head, as much out of respect as to hide a wolfish grin. “But I assume that something has gone awry?”

“That is correct,” Ironbark said, regaining her stern poise and raising her chin slightly. “The effect is as described, but it has continued now for more than a month with no signs of…abating.” The flush returned to the witch’s cheeks. “The potion was red in colour, easily disguised in wine and it smelled faintly of wolfberries. Can you infer anything with that information?”

“Yes, I believe that I can,” Andi replied, her good cheer returning. “It sounds like you were wrongly sold a very powerful draught called the Fever of Venus. It is designed to increase the…erm…urges, of the drinker towards the first person they see. Depending on the strength of the dosage, the effect can last for months.”

“Great elephants!” Ironbark yelped, her eyes widening. She cleared her throat loudly, embarrassed by her outburst.

“But it is reversible,” continued Andi as if nothing had happened. “I will need to acquire some rare ingredients and brew it in a very complicated way, but I can do it.” She paused for a moment, allowing herself a visible smirk this time. “However, it may take me up to a week to complete the potion. Do you think you can…erm…hold off the…afflicted, for that long?”

“I suppose I will have to, Miss Hairlock!” Ironbark’s reply was haughty, and she was clearly incensed by Andi’s amusement. “I shall keep the wretch at bay until then, I am certain. Just ensure that you craft the item in that time, and not a day later!”

“Of course, lady sorceress,” Andi was insistent. “I will get to work this instant. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No, that will suffice,” Ironbark said almost rudely. “Send me an invoice for the ingredients you require and I will match the price without hesitation. Your fee will be generous as well, should your draught perform as expected.”

“It will, lady sorceress, on my Father’s good name it will.” Andi was quite keen to get rid of the unpleasant woman now, and betrayed her impatience slightly with her curt reply. Ironbark nodded, and after a moment spoke again.

“I…ahh…I would appreciate your discretion and professionalism in this matter, Miss Hairlock. This situation could prove disastrous to my reputation if ever it became public knowledge, and as I am sure you are aware, a witch is nothing without her reputation.”

“Of course, lady sorceress,” Andi replied in a serious tone. “My lips are sealed on this matter, don’t worry.”

“Good.” The old witch seemed greatly relieved. “Until next time, then.” With that, the image of the woman began to ripple, and with each wave the clear liquid began to turn crimson. After a short while the stern, yet embarrassed face of the infamous sorceress had disappeared, and Andi was left staring at her amused reflection in a pool of blood. She stood upright and lazily wiped the blood from her lips. Etiquette required that she did not do so during their conversation, another reason Andi wished that modern witches would ditch the macabre use of the Blood Receptacle. Seriously, what was wrong with the telephone? Or Skype, even? Surely that would save everyone involved a lot of bother!

Andi shook her head and walked over to her desk. She flipped open a huge leather-bound book filled with intricate drawings and long, detailed lists. The book was ancient, well-worn and lovingly preserved. She quickly located the page for the Fever of Venus and she spent the next few minutes working out the ingredients needed to reverse it and noting them down on her iPad. As usual, this blend of the traditional and the modern made her grin, and her thoughts turned to the infamous Clytemnestra Ironbark’s unfortunate situation. She found it amazing that such a historically shrewd and cautious woman could be so easily duped. She also found it hilarious.

“Modern witches,” she said to herself, chuckling. “Still just as clueless as everyone else!”