Part II, A Friendly Fiend
Location: Shadow of the Moon Occult Curiosities – Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 2 p.m., Day After the Attack on LHU
Charlie leaned her head against the window staring out at the traffic around them, plenty of pedestrians carrying on about their days. Some hauled brown grocery bags overflowing with food in two arms, teenagers dodged people on their bikes and skateboards, street performers played their instruments for change. The routine of the city bustle as calming as the rhythm of a heart beat. The alchemist was never one for people watching, detail orientated in every sense of the word, aware of her surroundings that gave her an edge in scavenging whatever the city abandoned. She knew something deep in the marrow of bones was changed, but the city persisted with its normal.
“Hey mom, drop me off a couple blocks away. Just to be safe.
” Charlie said suddenly, there was no telling who had eyes on the shop. “I’ll walk from there.
Jules pulled off the street idling in front of a barber’s shop, she drummed her fingers across the steering wheel. Her expression difficult to read. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come?”
Charlie opened her door stepping out, “Nah, it’ll be alright mom. Just gotta catch up with Maddi. See how she’s doing after her shop got trashed.
“It was attacked by the Hounds though, so are you sure?
” Jules asked, one more time.
Charlie nodded, grabbing her staff from the back. “I’m sure.
” She said again.
Jules nodded then said, “Call me when you’re done, we’ll meet here.”
Charlie nodded then closed the door waving her off as she drove back into traffic. She jaywalked across the street, moving into the crowd avoiding curious eyes who caught her arm in a sling or her black eye. She walked on heading to Shadow of the Moon.
A few blocks away, Shadow of the Moon stood proud and polished. Like the phoenix rises from the ashes, this curious little brick and mortar sprang to life after its recent destruction by the Hounds, sporting new furnishings and displays that had been waiting in the stockroom for months. Inside, Madalena was hard at work.
Burning braziers filled the store with pungent fumes, an odd mixture of sweet and sour; every entrance, including the windows, were marked with discrete glyphs assumed to banish or ward against harm and lined with powdery streaks of black salt and red brick dust; talismans formed of bone, iron, and wood hung from wall mounts, light fixtures, and the air vents; and at the center of it all, Madalena loomed over a bubbling pot seated just above an open flame. Nearby were a collection of alchemical apparati filled with herbs and essences used in previous experiments.
Hearing the shrill ding
of the door, Madalena cautiously arose to find, much to her relief, Charlie Croll. It had been two days since their introduction, but already Madalena felt close to her. Of course, that’s just how things went with Maddi. A minute alone and you’re going to each other’s wedding. “Charlie!”
Madalena exclaimed, voice rising as she reached the -lie
in Charlie. Maddi ran from her station behind the counter to embrace her newest friend, but stopped once she’d taken a good look. ”Oh good lord, girl. What happened?”
Madalena hastily inquired, at the time unaware of Charlie’s earlier ordeal.
The shop was something out of a story, the smells, the sights of a witch at her bubbling cauldron. If she hadn’t walked in from a hot summer day, she’d have guessed she waltzed into a Halloween special. Seeing the shop bouncing back in full force brightened Charlie’s disposition immensely. When Maddi asked what had happened she frowned glancing away, eyes examining the shop. “Hey Maddi. Uh- well. You’ve heard about what happened at the University right? The big scale shitstorm the Hounds were behind?
Madalena’s expression went grim as her eyes opened wider in realization. It hadn’t occurred to her that Charlie was active at LHU. She’d just escaped one run-in with the Hounds, and now her friends were being persecuted by them in greater numbers. ”I-I’m so sorry,”
Maddi stuttered sympathetically. ”I, uh, I saw the headlines late last night. It’s . . .”
Madalena could feel herself becoming emotional, but reigned in her tears. The Hounds wouldn’t turn her into a babbling child. Her sadness quickly turned to fierce determination.
Madalena placed a hand around Charlie’s good arm. ”Those bastards won’t keep getting away with this, we’ll make sure of that!”
Charlie would later find real appreciation for Maddi’s fervent sympathy but now Charlie just felt like it was all still happening to someone else. Her skin prickled under Maddi’s touch, she felt goosebumps rising over her arm. She smiled, largely for Maddi’s benefit. Charlie nodded, “Yeah, you bet. That’s why I’m here, we need to figure out how to take them down a few pegs in a real way. I stole some of their tech yesterday, whatever it is they used to hurt us with those shoddy towers.
” She walked into the store looking around heading to take a closer look at the alchemy, taking a deep breath in wincing from her ribs. She snuck a peek at the cauldron. “You’ve got a witchy brew happening? What’re you making?
Madalena sighed, taking her position back over the concoction. ”It’s part of a poultice I’m working on but I can’t seem to get this part right.”
Madalena produced a comically large, black, leather bound book from behind the counter, pointing to a series of illustrations detailing the creation of a herbal poultice. To the side were markings and instructions written in a nonhuman or otherwise long dead tongue. ”The eighth step calls for a ‘black pearl’, or I guess that’s what it wants. Doesn’t translate quite right. Anyhow, it’s like a little marble of congealed organic matter left over from animal bits, but I can’t get this slop to congeal.”
Madalena gave Charlie a pouty look. She shouldn’t have expected this path to come easily, but had been lulled into a false sense of security by the string of witching successes she’d had up to now.
Charlie leaned over the book then looked into the cauldron, “I’m not any sort of expert where witchy woo is concerned but it sounds like your soup needs some starch.
” She stared then amended, “Metaphorically, I mean. What have you got in there, right now, specifically? Maybe I can help thicken it up.
She stopped and laughed at herself, “Oh my god, add that to the list of things I never thought I’d hear myself saying. I mean - well anything that I can do myself without interrupting the brew directly.
Charlie offered without really knowing what she’d be helping with. She often found herself lost where Carrie had needed help in any of her own magic deeds.
Madalena looked at Charlie for several moments before her face lit up. ”Wait!”
Maddi exclaimed, gesturing toward a partially full retort opposite the small cauldron. ”I was supposed to collect some sort of red dust from the vapors that condensed in this thing, but most of what I collected was still very liquid. Maybe if I got that sorted, the dust would help the brew coagulate?”
Madalena looked hopefully at Charlie, counting on her superior knowledge of alchemy and chemistry.
Charlie perked looking to where she pointed. “Now that is something I can help do. So we just need to dry this red dust liquid up. Easy.
” She replied, confident. She laid her staff aside, reaching past Madalena for some paper and a pen. “Do you have any gloves? Or is it safe to touch directly?
” She began scribbling her alchemic formula for changing of elemental state and isolation. What elements she was isolating would be the mystery.
Madalena moved in closer to watch Charlie’s process. ”The glass has gone cool now and the liquid feels warm and a little coarse, if that’s possible, but it ought to be safe.”
“Glass, gotcha. Okay so we’ve got sodium carbonate, silicon dioxide. . .
” Her tongue stuck out the side as she completed the formula, she often translated chemical composites into alchemical symbols. Her mother taught her daughters to use chemistry formulas while Nathaniel was a traditionalist in writing alchemy in the old way. Charlie used both interchangeably, irking both of her teachers.
Charlie leaned back to show Madalena, “How much do you think you’ll need? I can measure it out in ounces.
””Hmmm . . .”
Madalena hummed, following the spell’s instructions back to a previous step. She had some trouble finding the exact measurements the first time around. ”I wanna say it’s three ounces. What do you think?”
Maddi pointed to the instructions for producing the red dust, referred to as some complex arcane name on paper. The section was written in primarily alchemical text, some of the symbols appearing as their more archaic or uncommon cousins.
“It says so right there, see that symbol?
” She poked the page with her index finger, closer still, “It means a few things but within context of the rest of what it says here, I’ll safely say you’ll need at least five ounces. I’ll transmute a little bit more just in case.
Madalena nodded, lowering down behind the counter so as to be eye level with Charlie’s transmutation. She’d witnessed it before when Charlie and Carrie helped but that store back together, but this time it felt more involved. It was a skill Maddi hopped to one day acquire, or at least develop her own version of it.
Charlie swallowed shuffling her work overtop of the container, she felt a twinge of nerves. Not used to having an audience, Maddi’s attention was flattering but stage fright casted a little doubt. “Alright, here we go.
She stretched her hand forward dipping her fingers directly into the substance. It’s texture strange and cool, the alchemical symbols glowed across the paper from left to right. Charlie concentrated, transmuting it from it’s liquid state to solid. Before Maddi’s eyes the red dust shrivelled, rippling, collecting in a pile of it’s purer form. True dust.
Charlie removed her hand, it felt gritty between her fingers. “There we go, some starch.
Madalena jumped and applauded, rattling a few of the containers on the counter. ”Yes ma’am! Okay wait . . .”
Madalena held up a finger, using her other hand to pour the collector full of dust into the cauldron. She stirred clockwise nine times as directed before small lumps began to form in the mixture. ”That’s it!”
Maddi squealed, lighting a match and dropping it into the mixture, causing remaining liquid to instantly ignite and evaporate, sending a jet of hot air upwards into her and Charlie’s faces. At the bottom of the pot were six pearlescent black beads. ”We did it!”
Madalena exclaimed once again, her exuberant outbursts lifting the ominous air of the store considerably.
The alchemist laughed heartily, brushing some of her hair back into place and out of her face. A blush had bloomed across her cheeks, “That was awesome!
” She leaned over the cauldron looking at the little beads, “They’re so pretty and tiny. What’re they even for? Don’t tell me they’re fancy, like, tapioca pearls.
” She joked, beaming at Madalena.
Madalena fished the pearls from the cauldron and set them on a square of cloth. ”From what I’ve read, black pearls retain little pieces of life essence. They’re fairly rare nowadays, but they’ve got a few nifty uses.”
Madalena pulled another book from behind the counter, this one much smaller than the last and, instead of being hand written, was clearly printed, likely a later copy of a much older original work. The pages were ratty and worn and the cover was falling apart. Madalena skimmed the pages, looking for the section she’d read earlier that day.”Here we go,”
she said aloud, finding the page near the end of the book. ”Black pearls, or blood jewels as they are less commonly known, can be used to provide sustenance to the dead. Shattering one in the presence of a spirit will grant it strength and the ability to manifest for long periods of time . . . useful.”
Madalena nodded, looking further down the page. Her eyes lit up when she read the next passage.
Then, she closed the book, no speaking another word. Instead, she took a stuffed crow a decorative display next to the register and set it on the counter between them. She’d stolen at a flea market when she was twelve, whom she named Edgar for obvious reasons, and kept it as a trophy of her nimble hands for years. ”They can also be used to do this.”
Madalena tucked the pearl inside Edgar’s mouth and set him back down. For a moment, all was the same. But slowly, his waxy feathers and glossy eyes were filled with life. The crow loosened himself from the stand he’d sat perched on for decades, looking up at Madalena and Charlie with a cheerful expression, cawing his approval.
Charlie blinked down at the revived bird, she looked back up to Madalena then said, quite dryly, “That is creepy, ridiculously weird and fucking awesome.
She reached out petting the crow’s head, scratching around his head, the feathers were soft and vibrant as ever. Like it hadn’t been sitting pretty for any length of time. It was incredible. “So weird. . .
” She mumbled, smiling.”Ah, the wonders of comradery,”
a sinister voice echoed through Shadow of the Moon, pouring from the shadows in the smallest crevices, filling the air with a thick, black haze.
Shadows and embers from now dim braziers began to coalesce, burning brighter until a fiendish giant emerged, skin pale and bathed in ghastly luminescence, angular features beautifully sculpted, sharp, protrusive antlers the color of night, and hands that stretched into lengthy, ashen claws. ”I see you’ve found an ally to our cause, Madalena. Well done,”
the creature congratulated Maddi, sporting an eerie smile that evoked feelings of unease in all who did not know it. ”Oh, it was nothing!”
Madalena blushed, taking note of Charlie’s visible discomfort. ”Charlie, I introduce you to the one, the only, Robin Goodfellow, or as he’s more affectionately known, Puck.”
At the illustrious emergence of Puck filtered through the light and shadows of the occult shop, what felt like warmth was sucked out of the atmosphere for the alchemist. She flinched back with a start, eyes tracking up the towering figure of Puck. Her sight blurred at the edges, fear sharpening every detail. Her throat squeezed dry. Skin prickling with goosebumps.Calm, calm, calm…!
Charlie thought but her heart thundered on. She reached for her staff with her free hand eyes glued to the demonic figure. While Maddi had assured Charlie this was Puck, the very same spirit that gave Maddi her magic awakening, this drawn out fear was instinctual. It felt like it was spiraling out of control, a reaction surprising even herself.
” She clasped her staff, white knuckling it. She gulped down air, “C-can I get s-s-s…
” Her teeth clattered, “S-some space. Please.
” She tore her eyes away, squeezing them shut.
Puck distanced himself from Charlie, bowing in both an introductory and apologetic fashion.”Forgive me, love.”
Puck’s voice held less weight but carried an eerie air nonetheless. ”I meant no offense. Indeed, ‘twas quite the frightening entrance for the unsuspecting bystander. Perhaps I can redeem myself with a gesture of good faith?”
Puck brought up a hand, dark claws elegantly rising through the air, his palm facing Charlie. A warmth would fall over the frightened girl, traveling up through the spine, spreading to each extremity one at a time, washing over her wounds, the sore ribs, the bum arm, the black eye, all fading as his arm came down to its resting position.
Charlie moved her arm testing it patting her ribs feeling no pain. She turned to look to Madalena, shocked. She took a deep breath in and let out a sigh of pain free relief. Fear dissipated. A smirk tugged at her lips, “Thank you, Robin Goodfellow. I’m usually not this easy to scare, had a bad day yesterday. My name is Charlie Croll.
” She said sticking her hand out, “I only heard about you the other day.
Puck let show his impish grin once more, the name Croll fresh on his mind. ”Croll, eh? No doubt a descendant of Nathaniel Croll? I know the work of your family well; it has brought much business to my tavern from aspiring alchemists and nascent witches looking for alchemical formulas and rare reagents travelling through channels established by Nathaniel. Give him my thanks when next you meet.”
Puck repositioned himself, moving closer to the duo and staring amusedly at the reanimated crow, Edgar.
Charlie’s expression brightened, “Yeah, that’s my grandpa. He’s my mentor, along with my mom.
” She turned to Madalena for clarification and more than happy to talk about her family. “My grandfather, Nathaniel Croll is the first real prodigy in my family for, probably before we immigrated to America. Established us here in Lost Haven, immigrated my entire family from Germany including,
” Charlie said with a grin gesturing with her staff, “All the history that we thought we lost after World War 2. Like Puck said, er Robin Goodfellow, sorry. He helped make Lost Haven accessible to alchemists.
She added, “And the best damn cook on the block.
” Charlie grinned.
Maddi smiled. ”Well he’s done wonders with you, Charlie. Wish I could say the same about my family. I think my twice great grandmother was a medium in New Orleans . . . or maybe she saw a medium in New Orleans?”
Madalena trailed off as she was often want to do, trying to recall details about her family history, but finding no useful information to add.”You bear the witches mark,”
Puck interrupted, stepping behind the counter and peering down at the pearls sat atop it, only five left after Madalena’s demonstration. ”You are the first of your kind, Madalena, the beginning of your legacy. I have set you on a path of great success . . . but what I have seen will not come to pass until our plans are complete, and I fear we have a great deal more worrying to do. Have you crafted the poultice I mentioned?”
Puck’s tone was almost fatherly, a sharp contrast to that at his arrival. ”It’s nearly done,”
Madalena replied, pushing the cauldron to the side and replacing it with a mesh bag prefilled with poisons and herbs. She dropped in three black pearls, sealing the contents with a neat ribbon. She whispered a short incantation into the poultice, something strange and unnatural sounding, each word passing her lips like the cry of a raven or the dissonant ringing of a bell. ”There, all done.”
Madalena said proudly, looking to Charlie with some admiration for her part in the matter.
Charlie’s cheeks turned red and she looked away from the pair of them. Taking sudden interest in her staff, wondering if Maddi would translate what she said in her spell later. “So what’s it for? It seemed like a pretty complex brew and you didn’t use all the beads. Does it have anything to do with the Hounds of Humanity?
Puck responded, voice lower and more grim. ”It is the product of necessity, a poultice that can bring one back from the brink of death and heal whatever fatal ailment or injury that would have resulted in death. I had not thought such a trinket necessary before, but now . . .”
Puck leaned against the counter, dark eyes glowing with a hint of worry, perhaps even fear. ”Those injuries you sustained,”
Puck turned to Charlie, ”They came from the Hounds, yes? I saw the fight for your University from afar, bore witness to the strange contraptions and machinations used by the Hounds to weaken your comrades. That is troublesome, yes, but the Hounds are mobilizing more deadly weapons, resurrecting a long dead foe and its vile agents. The Winter Court rises anew, and this New World is powerless to stop it.”
The glowy red in her cheeks faded as she nodded, her fingers rubbed together while she thought. She removed the chip that she stole yesterday and held it up for both of them to see, “As far as deadly weapons go, those towers will hopefully be out of commission and out of the picture. I’m really hoping this was their only prototype.
” She placed the chip on the counter. “What’s the Winter Court? Like a sub group being formed by the Hounds themselves? Or of their own, ‘inspired’ by what the Hounds are doing?
” She tapped the chip with a forefinger, “I guess what I’m trying to ask is if we chase the Hounds of Humanity out of Lost Haven will these Winter Court assholes go with them?
Puck shook his head. ”The Winter Court were a notorious order of witch-hunters in the 15th century. Not much is remembered due in large to the efforts from powerful entities who had their order destroyed, but there are those of us who still feel the sting of loss caused by the Court’s hand.”
Puck moved in closer, beckoning Madalena and Charlie to do the same, telling the Court’s tale in hushed voices, as if speaking the name aloud would invite their presence. ”The Winter Court,”
Puck began, ”originated in Western Germany where they were a humble mercenary’s guild. They had no name, no face, no worth at the time. But the men of their guild were renowned for their brutish strength and lack of remorse, a valuable asset for any underhanded politician, noble, or church official. In time, as the witch-craze swept Europe, the Catholic Church in Germany sought alternative means of punishing heretics, and so a rowdy band of mercenaries came to be the hounds of the church, their swords for hire.
“The witches in Germany were especially insidious, at least, that was the belief of the Church. In time, their numbers grew from clergymen and mercenaries to noteable sorcerers and occult scientists, whose aid was enlisted for their understanding of God’s mysteries. Indeed, many of the clergy practiced some form of magic, and with time, developed powerful methods for detecting witches, faeries, and other unnatural creatures of concern to the church, as well as the means for their destruction. Over the next century, their techniques were mastered, the men armed with charms and idols that repelled witchcraft and glamoury, bullets that pierced enchantments and poisoned those touched by the witch-fire, shackles that bound a witch’s powers when placed around the wrists, ‘holy’ rites that forced witches to confess their sins and speak only the truth. It was an era of bloodshed.”
Puck let out a heavy sigh, remembering the lives lost, those of friends and colleagues, of prominent witches, faery nobles, even lesser demons and dukes of Hell who were branded by the Court and bound to its service.
Charlie frowned, looking up to Puck. She experienced that hatred and violence first hand yesterday, to have seen it all rise again in prominence after centuries... She empathized with him a little, as terrified as she was only a handful of minutes ago it took only a little imagination to understand how Puck must of felt. “I know this must sound weird coming from someone like me, born way after the fact. I’m sorry you had to live through that.
” She hesitated but reached out, patting his arm comfortingly.
It was an interesting gesture, to try to comfort one such as he. Puck was unaccustomed to such attempts at empathy from humans. Most wished only to have their own needs satisfied, a trait on which he he had long capitalized. A refreshing change of pace. Puck allowed Charlie’s arm to stay, letting slip the softest smile before continuing his story.”In time, these practices and their practitioners spread to other parts of Europe, notably France where the witch-hunts had gained traction. The mercenaries sought to undermine the beliefs of the common folk, relieve them of the fear of the supernatural and magical. They stole their title, The Winter Court, from a neighbouring High Court of Faerie, from the folk customs brought over by the Bretons. Their arrogance and might were unmatched, but such hubris would not go unpunished. The Witch-Mother herself, and her greatest allies, challenged the authority of The Court, using their superior Craft to destroy all remnants of their order.
“Some apologists yet remained, but all their knowledge, their strongholds, their weapons, they were all thought destroyed . . . until now. It would seem that this Witchfinder General of the Hounds, another stolen title, has somehow gained access to this lost knowledge. As we speak, he uses the arts of The Court to undermine powerful witches and destroy their lines. If this knowledge were to spread to the rest of the Hounds, it would end in catastrophe from which this world could never recover.”
The alchemist stared, fear running anew through her for different reasons now. “Fuck… He, the Witchfinder General has his eyes on Maddi right now. How the hell are we supposed to take down someone like that? Who knows how to get past our defenses, maneuver around our tricks? This is so much bigger than I thought.
” Charlie replied her hand found Madalena’s shoulder, she held a fire in her eyes. “But I’m not going anywhere.
Madalena’s cheeks went flush as a wide smile spread across her rosy face, taking Charlie’s hand in hers. In only three days the two of them had grown closer than Maddi had ever been with another, not even Marie was as affectionate a friend. She wished to seize the moment and revel in her newly found friendship, but a light buzzing gave her pause. The burner given to her by the Hounds was gently vibrating, signaling an incoming call.”H-hello?”
Madalena answered sheepishly, voice holding a slight tremble.
“Madalena Hawthorne,” the voice at the other end was deep and gravelly with clear signs of age. “Your services are needed. Find yourself at the following address within the hour, lest that heretical shop of yours be burnt to the ground and you with it.” The call ended.
Madalena received a message with a street address only a few blocks from her store. She turned to Charlie, who looked naturally inquisitive, then to Puck who wore a grim expression. ”Looks like we’d better get a move on with the plan; the Witchfinder General’s just asked for my help.”