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“It is the very error of the moon; she comes nearer earth than she was wont, and makes men mad.”
As I drove down the winding dirt road to Mystic Keep, a seaside sanctuary for badass witches like me, I wondered if my ex was finally right about something—I had lost my mind. Maybe I had. In one afternoon, I quit my job, gave a stranger the keys to my lakeside cabin, and emptied my bank account into a duffle bag. I shrugged and kept driving. None of that mattered now. All that mattered was that I get to that town before the rise of the Blood Moon.
Packed to its ceiling with boxes of clothes, herbs, and potions, my vintage, blue, rust-bucket of a Volkswagen van sputtered around the final curves in the road. The put-put sound of the engine started a few miles back, but I didn’t dare stop. I held my breath and eased up on the gas pedal, allowing gravity to help me travel the last few miles.
Dark clouds danced along the horizon, making it hard to see the sunset, but I could feel the pull of the almost-full moon waiting to appear. I didn’t have much time.
As I rounded the last bend, the town came into sight. I passed through small acreages with farmhouses, barns in various states of repair, and barking dogs. I rolled through clusters of west-coast dwellings with large balconies overlooking the bay. Finally, I came to the center of town, a collection of quaint storefronts that would fit nicely in a travel brochure. I turned on to the main street and parked my van in front of a café called The Perfect Brew.
I didn’t need to check a map to confirm my destination. Magic thicker than honey and more persuasive than quicksand pulled me inside. The sign hanging slightly askew beside the door held the invisible signature of a powerful sorceress, Ophelia Black, my great aunt.
I swallowed hard and, in my hurry, slammed the van’s door on my familiar, Plums. He’s a male Siamese cat who has been with me for all of my forty-five years. He cursed me in Egyptian, and with his bent tail standing high, followed me inside the brick building.
The café looked like any other coffee house in the country. People lined up at the bar on the left side of the room for drinks and food. Small tables filled the rectangular space, and on the far end, a wood fire crackled in an enormous stone hearth. Soft jazz played through the speakers loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that it drowned out the laughter, chatter, and sounds of steaming espresso machines.
Yup, it was like every other caffeine-soaked joint in the country, except that it wasn’t. The intoxicating smell of good coffee blended with the toasted-almond aroma of potent magic. Behind the bar, Oscar, the barista, adeptly wiggled his fingers over the top of the drink he prepared. He looked up at me and smiled. He was a kitchen witch, and at least half of his clientele had magical power.
Stepping into this town was always transformational. I felt as if I entered another dimension, a place where I actually belonged. I soaked it in. Here, there be sorcery—serious sorcery. I bit the inside of my cheek.
Two werewolves, I guessed to be in their twenties, sat in one corner holding hands and making goo-goo eyes at each other. By the fire, a group of teenaged witches giggled as they shared photos on their phones. And if my nose served me well, and it usually does, two wizards chatted in the center of the room, and three warlocks stood by the back door.
If I wasn’t on a mission, I would fall in love with this place, commit the rest of my life to support it, and maybe even pay taxes. But the Blood Moon called me, and her call could not be denied.
I sat down at the only empty table and considered my next step. In my haste to get to Mystic Keep, I had put all other thoughts aside. Now I needed a plan. Before I could complete that thought, a green mist that smelled worse than a sewer flowed around me. I wanted to gag.
The chattering stopped. Everyone around me froze. I blinked.
The wizards stood and backed away from each other. Blue sparks flew from the shorter one’s hands. Dressed in denim overalls and a blue-plaid flannel shirt, he looked more like a farmer than a sorcerer. His thin weathered face tensed with anger.
The taller wizard stopped the sparks with his right hand. He wore a leather jacket and jeans. “Enough,” he said. “This is not the place.”
The shorter guy growled. “Son, you should have thought about that before you asked to meet me here.” He recited an incantation in Latin, which I could barely hear.
Sitting two yards away from them, I had a front row seat to their argument. I scanned the room. Everyone else appeared to be frozen.
Getting involved in this drama would be stupid, I told myself. This wasn’t my circus, and these weren’t my wizards. Domestic squabbles could be dangerous, and one involving wizards … Well, there’s no telling what could happen. They have mercurial mood swings and no respect for other people’s property.
The floor beneath me trembled, making a low rumbling sound. Even the building was unhappy. It really, really wasn’t my business, I reminded myself.
As the energy beneath me grew, I felt as if I stood on the precipice of a volcano. Steam rose through the cracks in the wood floor. It smelled of sulfur, like dying souls and anger.
I bit my bottom lip. If I interfered, there was no knowing what the wizards would do to me. It wasn’t my rodeo, and I wasn’t a cowboy.
A long wooden staff appeared in the right hand of the father. He stomped it twice on the floor and glowered at his son.
The son winced. “You wouldn’t dare,” he said.
For the love of all that’s holy, I really hoped the old wizard didn’t dare. What could a third stomp do? The most potent magic always comes in threes. I could only guess what would happen next, and none of my guesses were good.
As the tension between the wizards grew, the building’s steam increased, making a hissing sound like a snake.
I shouldn’t get involved, I told myself. Not in a town I didn’t live in. Not in a town where almost everyone had supernatural powers. And definitely not with wizards!
The father lifted his staff. “If I have to teach you a lesson, son.”
No, I thought. No. Please, don’t stomp the staff a third time.
“Ha,” said the younger wizard. “I dare you, Pops. I dare you.” He scoffed. “You don’t have it in you.” He chanted an incantation in a low rumbling voice.
Jeeze! I wished these mages would speak louder. I took a deep breath and centered my energy. I needed to be ready for any eventuality. Be calm, I told myself, be calm, as if there were a possibility of that.
The older wizard flicked a side-glance my way. “Sorceress, don’t interfere,” he said.
Urgh. Just urgh! Most days, I flowed through crowds unnoticed like most middle-aged women, melding with the masses, and drawing as little attention to myself as possible. But not today. Since I was outed, I stood and pulled out my crystal wand for protection.
Both wizards turned and stared at me. The son stopped his mumbling, and the father withdrew his sparks. But the green mist of their combined magic continued to freeze the room. “Who are you to interfere?” asked the elder.
As I opened my mouth, the wind grabbed my words and scattered them to the floor. Plums jumped onto my shoulders and wrapped his tail around my neck. I reached deep inside myself for wisdom. Any wisdom would do. But the well was dry.
I spoke from the center of my magic, “I, Merlina Black, call on the power of the moon to do my bidding. I …”
A bright light flashed through the room, and a cloud of silver smoke descended. Out of the smoke stepped a warrior mage dressed in full battle gear. He stood in front of me and drew his sword.
I lowered my wand. “Just what the party needs. A warlock.” I sneered.
“Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly. Then your love would also change”.
My witch senses spiked. I folded my arms and leaned back, assessing the warlock. Donovan O’Reilly and I had met before. I guessed him to be in his late forties, and the passage of time had seasoned him well. My heartbeat hitched for a second.
Killer blue eyes dominated his perfectly sculpted face, covered with just enough scruff to make my female parts quiver. Silver strands ran through his thick, black hair, which peeked out from the hood of his cloak. His broad shoulders, thin waist, and mile-long legs made my hands itch. A perfect specimen of an alpha Celtic male, he who would pique the interest of any witch’s passion.
Any witch but me that is. I sneered at the big, bad warlock, as one sneers at a chocolate sundae smothered with whipping cream and sprinkles when one is on a diet.
With his sword drawn, he stepped closer to the wizards and spoke. “As the supernatural sheriff of Mystic Keep, I command you to button it.”
I squinted. “Button-it?”
The wizards rounded on the two of us. I felt like pond scum, useless, powerless, and as welcomed as a belching frog, standing beside the warlock.
Donavan gave me a side-glance cold enough to freeze the devil. “Behave, witch,” he said beneath his breath but loud enough for me to hear.
Behave? He told me to behave! That did it. I waved my wand dramatically in the air, creating a cascading flow of stars. I clicked my fingers, and a gentle breeze scented with night flowers blew through the room. I wiggled my nose and a puddle of seawater rose from the floor high enough to cover our ankles.
The warlock sheathed his sword and turned to face me. “Are you done yet?”
The older wizard chuckled.
“I’m just getting started,” I said.
Despite my display of magic, the green fog persisted, and its swampy smell made my stomach roll.
To say the warlock looked unimpressed with me would be an understatement. I don’t know how the mage got under my skin so quickly or so profoundly, but he did. It must have been the long drive, I thought.
Plums chuckled softly in my head. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Blame it on the pavement.”
The hot sheriff raised his right brow, clearly waiting for me to say more.
“Did you lose your words, sheriff?” I asked.
A shadow crossed his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re doing here, witch, but let me make things clear. This is my town. And this …” He nodded towards the wizards, “is my problem.” His low voice sounded like aged Canadian whiskey on the rocks, sensual, manly, and oh so smooth. It made me hate him even more.
“My name, as you might recall, is Merlina Black. We had met twice before. I came here to …” My throat tightened. What was I thinking? I couldn’t tell him my mission in a public place.
He took a deep breath, which made his chest grow even more expansive. “Well, Ms. Black,” he said, “I appreciate you trying to fix this supernatural altercation, but wizards are powerful, and …”
“Oh, wait,” I said. “Let me guess. I shouldn’t worry my pretty, little head about such things?”
The sheriff firmed his lips. “I am grateful for your powerful presence, dear witch, but, really, I have it under control. Stand down.”
I pointed to the frozen patrons holding mugs of magic coffee in the air. I nodded at the barista whose hand loomed in the middle of a hex. And I waved my fingers in the green fog. “Yeah, big guy, I see you’re in control.” Sometimes, I’m a drama queen, but not usually. It was this arrogant mage’s fault that I acted so childishly. He truly brought out the worst in me.
The warlock cursed and pushed back his hood. His Irish-blue eyes blazed with potent magic. Why are you here?”
I shrugged. “Who can explain the Fates,” I said, referring, of course, to the three fates in the Greek myth. The ones who weave our destiny at birth. By the pained look on his face, I guessed he didn’t get it.
The Daddy wizard chuckled. “So true,” he said in a gruff voice. “So true.”
His son rubbed his chin. “Fate. Perhaps, that’s our problem.”
“Hmph,” said the father. “Are you saying the universe created the trouble between us? That it’s not my fault?”
The son shrugged. “It’s possible.”
The warlock blinked and shook his head. “Let the people go,” he said to the wizards, “and I will help you talk out your differences. I am known to be a good mediator between our folk.”
“Good gravy,” I said. This guy was too Boy-Scout to be true. “Can’t you throw them in jail and charge them for withholding coffee from the people, or something.”
Another frightful side-glance came my way, but I let it roll over me like an ocean wave and answered it with an eye-roll.
“Not in my town,” said the warlock. “Strange witches, no matter how powerful they are, don’t step in and take control. Not in my town.”
“Feeling insecure?” I said.
The father wizard chuckled. “I think we should go, son,” he said.
As the warlock held me in a death-stare, the wizards vanished in a puff of smoke, the air cleared, and the sound of the espresso machines resumed. Everyone stared at us.
I held the sheriff’s gaze. Damned if I would be the first one to look away.
Through the din, I heard the clicking of high heels approaching.
“Welcome, sister,” said a voice familiar to me. Cassie, put her hand gently on my shoulder.
When I didn’t respond, she added, “I see you’ve met our law and order. You remember him from the wedding, don’t you?”
The warlock groaned and broke his stare. “My name is Donovan O’Reilly, and I am the supernatural sheriff in this town.”
As if I didn’t know that already. Ignoring him, I looked at Cassie. “I came to speak with you about an important matter.” I gave the warlock a dismissive look. “That is if I’m not under arrest.”
The sorcerer’s riveting, blue eyes flashed with magic. “Not today,” he said. “Maybe next time.” He pulled his cloak together and vanished.
“I ignored your aura, but it grabbed me by the hand like the moon pulled the tide, and the tide pulled the sand.” –Talib Kwell
After the warlock left, I hugged my sister long and hard, but even our love could not diminish the gut-wrenching fear growing inside me like a ravenous beast whose appetite could not be quenched. We headed to her apartment upstairs.
“It’s the moon,” I explained. “It’s all about the rising of the next full moon.” I sat across the kitchen table from Cassie, in her well-appointed apartment above the coffee shop. I hoped my calm face masked the stress rippling through every cell of my body, but that was unlikely. Sister witches feel each other’s emotions almost as if they were their own.
Being the oldest of six sisters, I knew this only too well. I loved them all, but the number of feelings we share can be overwhelming at times.
I smiled at Cassie. I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I’ve always felt closest to her even though she’s fifteen years younger than me. Sitting close to her gave me some peace. Her heart-shaped face glowed with contentment, and the love in her green eyes slid into my heart.
Plums lay beside Sid, Cassie’s black-cat-familiar, on the floor between our feet. The two had known each other for years and seemed content to sleep cuddled-up together.
Outside, dusk ebbed into night. With a howling sound worthy of a horror movie, a northeast wind blew the clouds away from the horizon. Moonlight shone through the window and spilled over my right hand, which lay on top of the table clenching a charm bag.
Cassie put her hand on top of mine. “The Blood Moon rises in three days. Is that what this is all about?”
The touch of her hand warmed my soul. “The Blood Moon is a full eclipse,” I said. “The earth will shadow the sun, and the moon will turn blood red.”
Cassie’s eyes narrowed. “Is this about the Blood Moon prophecies?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “As you know, I’m not fond of, folklore. All I know is that something wicked this way cometh.”
Cassie smiled at my remark. “The Blood Moon prophecies come from the Christian Bible. Many people believe in them.”
I nodded. “That’s fine for them. But I don’t think biblical prophecies should be taken literally. You know my views. Ancient myths were created by people looking for answers to the wonders of nature. Our ancestors made up stories to explain what happens in our world. Some of them were written down in the bible, some elsewhere. The stories could all be allegorical.”
Cassie’s brows rose. “I agree, but truth is often hidden in myth.”
“So,” she said, “tell me why the Blood Moon terrifies you.”
I squeezed my medicine bag. “I had a vision,” I said.
Cassie rolled her eyes. “Dear Goddess, I hate it when you say that. It never ends well.”
“I saw …” I began.
Cassie groaned. “After all, we’ve gone through with the Lord of Darkness.” She paused. “What more could go wrong?” She put her hand on her baby bump, which had grown considerably in the three months since I had seen her.
Of course, many things could go wrong, but she was, and would always be, my kid- sister, and considering her condition, I really didn’t want to jump into that cauldron. I looked at the ceiling for inspiration.
Plums jumped on my lap and mewed. The damn cat was right, of course, I should get to the point.
“It’s like this …” Words froze on my tongue as silver mist flowed through the room, and yet another warlock appeared.
I liked this one. A lot, actually. Sanjay Kahn had cocoa-colored skin and tangerine eyes. He was adept at magic, and had a good heart. More importantly, he was my first brother-in-law, the sire of my soon to be born niece, and the husband of Cassie. He gave me a stately bow.
I rose. We hugged, and the warm feeling of family calmed my mood.
Sanjay clicked his fingers and conjured me a mug of coffee, undoubtedly spelled with something wonderful. “Welcome, sister,” he said. His eyes blazed. “You made quite a stir in town challenging wizards. Are you on a mission to make tongues wag?” A mischievous smile broke across his face.
“Donovan talked to you,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Along with twenty others.” He sat. “Tell me, Merlina, is the air at your cabin not agreeing with you?”
“I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.
His right brow rose. “My dear sister, taking on wizards is not healthy. I recommend against it. I would very much like you to help raise our daughter.”
“Stop,” said Cassie waving her hand. “Merlina was just about to explain why she came. Judging by the look in her eyes, I’d say we both need to hear this.”
I looked at the ceiling again. Still no help. “I had a vision …,” I began.
A knock on the door stopped me from saying more. Actually, it was more like pounding. I looked at Cassie.
She shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, but you never know who will turn up in Mystic Keep.”
As Sanjay opened the door, a gust of cold, autumn air swept into the room. “Hello,” he called out as he looked around. No one appeared, and no one answered. On the floor lay a large, brown envelope. He swirled his hand. A mist that smelled of pumpkin spice swelled in the air and descended upon the parcel. A few seconds later, he said, “It seems safe.”
As he tucked it inside his cloak, Cassie spoke. “Oh no, you don’t. This is my apartment, and that envelope was meant for me. You’ve already determined it’s not toxic. Give it to me.”
Sanjay turned to face us. “The packet is safe for me to touch and transport. I need to take it to my laboratory to open it safely.” Without giving us any time to comment, he vanished.
We both stared at the empty space.
“How could you marry a warlock?” I said.
Cassie sighed. “That’s not Sanjay’s usual behavior, but he’s been different lately. He’s become over-protective since I got pregnant. The transition from tough, single warlock to daddy isn’t easy for him.”
“I suppose. But really, why do warlocks need to be so, so …”
“Warlock?” said Sid, Cassie’s black-cat-familiar, who lay stretched out on the floor between us. “Sexy, stubborn, and sexy,” she added.
“Exactly.” I laughed. It felt good to be with my sister and Sid. Oh, how I wished that could be the reason for my visit.
Cassie caught my mood change. “Merlina, talk to me,” she said.
I squeezed my charm bag. “Okay. Two nights ago, I had a vision.” The bag heated in my hand. What the hex?
I had come to tell her about my vision, but the soft leather bag grew so hot I had to drop it on the table.
Cassie looked at my hand, which had turned pink. “What’s wrong?”
“I … I don’t know.”
I closed my eyes and centered my energy to search for an answer. Before I left home, I placed a potion made of rosemary, a lock of our mother’s hair, and three drops of morning dew in my medicine bag. I spelled the concoction with magic to draw the universe’s energy to give me strength, protect me from dark forces, and give me clarity of purpose. Clarity of purpose? That had to be it. “Cassie, I’m sorry. I don’t think the powers-that-be want me to share the vision with you,” I said.
“But, you always share, Merlina.”
I touched the pouch. It felt cool now. “The details of the vision are gruesome, beyond the imagination ….” I swallowed. “It’s probably best your unborn child doesn’t hear it.”
Cassie rubbed her bump. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what you’re up against.”
I firmed my lips. “I’ll tell you my intention instead.” I checked the medicine bag. It felt cool. That had to be a good sign, right?
“You’re beginning to worry me,” said Cassie. “First, you challenge wizards, then powerful warlocks, and now you ramble mystical mumbo-jumbo. What happened to my fearless, badass, older sister?”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Worry about all of us. I’m here to protect the town.”