Sneak Peak

“A-tishoo!” Libby groaned as the fine yellow powder scattered like the wind. “Damn it!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you, Huwie.”

Libby quickly cleared up the brightly-coloured dust and then held her breath as she measured out a new portion. She would get this potion finished if it killed her. Some days it felt like it might do.

“So, who are you playing the bleeding heart for this time?”

The voice came from behind her. Libby made sure she sealed the top of the container before turning to scowl at the speaker.

“That’s not nice, Huwie. Mrs Flaherty is really having problems and you know I couldn’t just sit by and watch her suffer.”

Huwie swivelled one salt-crusted arm round so his tiny face could peer at her.

“She is not suffering. She laid a guilt-trip on you and you gave in, just like you always do.”

Libby sighed. He was probably right. She was well aware she had issues with saying no to people and sometimes they didn’t realise just what it cost her. Magic was in her blood, the women in her family had been witches for more generations than most people could trace back. It was just unfortunate that she seemed to have problems none of them did.

She removed her thick glasses a moment and rubbed at her watering eyes as she blinked at the potion recipe. She could cope with being allergic to fur, dust, pollen, gluten, various fruits, nuts, to be honest more things that she could generally list – but did she have to be allergic to magic? The one thing that made her vaguely special, that set her apart as something other than a nerdy woman with jamjar glasses, frizz-prone hair and her most significant relationship being with a starfish. Yup, a starfish.

When she’d been a child and pictured herself with her own witch’s familiar she’d imagined a sleek black cat, maybe an owl or a raven. Even a toad was kind of traditional, though she’d never been a big fan of anything with warts. But nope, fur and feather made her constantly sneeze and the one time she’d held a toad the oils from its skin had brought her out in hives. So, instead she had Huwie.

He was kinda cute in a sort of ‘childhood at the seaside’ way. Rich orangey red colours with delicate spiny patterns. That cuteness tended to fade though once he opened his mouth. Most familiars had been different spirits in a former life. Huwie swore he had been ruler of an underwater kingdom and he didn’t appreciate the fall he had taken in life. She was sure he was fond of her really – honest! It was just that his way of showing it tended to consist of telling her everything she was doing wrong.

“You’re probably right.” She conceded to him, sometimes it was just easier to give in. “But I’ve promised I’ll do it now and she’ll be here in an hour, so please could you help me?”

Huwie gave a little huff but she felt the soft surge of power flowing into her, renewing her tired limbs. Quickly she unstopped the mixture and poured into the large pot already heating on the stove. She added two more ingredients, turning her head at the puff of smoke rising up to try and avoid making her eyes worse. The kitchen filled with the scent of freshly cut grass mixed with oranges and something faintly like vanilla. Libby tried not to sneeze again; it was fake grass – fake grass! Her nose didn’t seem to believe her though.

Picking up the wooden spoon she slowly stirred the potion, chanting as she did so. The power rose up, prickling over her skin and bubbling in her blood. This moment – when it flowed through her, when it seemed like the most natural thing in the world – this was what she lived for. She peered into the pot, relieved to see the mixture had turned a soft green, like spring grass. That should mean it was ready. She filled four small bottles. It was always good to have some on tap, and at least it might save her going through this next time.

Almost on cue, pain stabbed through her. Skin burned as hives began to break out up the length of her arms. Damn it! Why could she not find something that would help with this? Instead she left one bottle on the kitchen counter, put the others in the cool pantry and went to rub an anti-histimine cream into her skin. Coming back into the kitchen, she sank exhausted into one of the chairs. What she would really like now was to go to bed, but Mrs Flaherty was coming and possibly Joe from down the street. Plus, Christina was struggling with her new job so Libby had said she’d be here if needed.

“Thank you, Huwie,” she murmured to him, grateful for the additional strength he provided.

He grumbled something as he turned back to the wall, and she got up to feed him some treats. He looked up at her between mouthfuls.

“You can’t keep doing this to yourself, Libby.”

She sighed and sank back into the chair. It was a conversation they had had many times and she was too tired for it right now. “What else can I do, Huwie? We have to make a living.”

To be fair they could possibly get by but Libby knew she couldn’t give it up. It was the only time she felt alive, special, the only time she felt needed when she was helping other people through her magic. It was worth the pain. She pulled her long sleeves down to cover the painful bumps on her arms. Honest.

***

Venn stared at the little cottage with some trepidation. It was just so… cutesy. Warm red brick with a neat little garden, shadowed in the growing darkness, leaden-paned windows and a sloping roof. He wouldn’t be surprised to see deer and little bunnies frolicking through the grass. Urgh. This did not look like the home of a powerful witch. Maybe it was a kind of camouflage? Still it wasn’t as though he had a great deal of options here. Everyone else had turned him away. If this witch couldn’t help he was pretty much screwed.

He glided through the night to the painted front door. There was a neat, hand-printed sign.

For enquiries, come to back door.

Great. Like a servant, or a delivery person. Gritting his teeth he made his way round to the back and knocked sharply on the door. It flung open, spilling out warm light and framing the form of a small woman. He blinked at her a moment. Short, curvy, with brown, slightly frizzy hair pulled back in a messy up-do and thick glasses that gave her the look of a blinking owl. This – this was his last hope?

“Can I help you?”

Her voice was surprisingly rich and smooth. Fine, he was here now, though he wasn’t feeling optimistic.

“I hope so. You are the witch in residence here?”

Maybe she was an assistant or something? There could be someone inside who reeked of power. Her eyes narrowed as though she sensed his thoughts.

“The one and only. I am Elizabeth Garrett Morrigan. And I need a good reason to want to help a vampire.”

He sighed. At least she had enough power to know what he was, that was surely a start.

“My name is Venn Draconius. I was told that you can be sympathetic to those who others shun. I am badly in need of help. I am under a curse.”

Her brow furrowed. “What kind of curse?”

“Could we perhaps discuss inside?”

A male voice came from inside the house. “Libby, don’t you dare invite a vampire in here.”

Venn raised an eyebrow. “I assure you no harm will come to anyone in this house on my account.” His lips twisted cynically. “I give you my word on that. Even if I had the inclination, the execution is no longer possible for me.”

The woman stared at him for a long moment, almost as if she was taking his measure. He was surprised to notice that her eyes behind those huge lenses were actually quite beautiful, a deep forest green with tiny flecks of gold around the iris. Odd, he hadn’t noticed a woman’s eyes in probably a century.

She suddenly stepped back, gesturing him in. “I invite you into my home.”

He gave her a brief bow, before stepping past her into a warm and homely kitchen. Curious, he glanced around for the source of the male voice. Perhaps she felt safe because she wasn’t alone.

“I honestly cannot believe you, Libby.” The voice sounded again, close, like it was in the room, but Venn couldn’t see any sign of anyone. “If we’re all killed in our sleep I swear I will never let you live it down.”

Libby gave a brief smile and gestured to an odd shape on the wall. “This is Huwie. Don’t mind him.”

“Don’t mind me? Don’t mind me! That’s gratitude for you.”

“Is that a starfish?”

Venn stared in bewilderment as one of the tiny creature’s arms flapped around, obviously in time with his distress.

She sniffed. “That is Huwie, he is my friend and my familiar and if you expect me to even consider helping you then you’ll be nice to him.”

Be nice to a talking starfish? Obviously this witch was crazier than he’d thought, but for now he needed to keep her on side.

“Erm, nice to meet you?”

Was he supposed to shake hands as well, and which of those waving arm/limb things were classed as hands? He felt the strangest urge to laugh. Again something that hadn’t ocurred to him in more years then he cared to remember.

“Take a seat,” the little witch gestured him to one of the wooden chairs at the table, “and tell me about this curse.”