Excerpt for Witchbloom - Book 1: The Ghosts of Moonlight Valley by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Book One – The Ghosts of Moonlight Valley

Mercy Lino

For Nimitz and Johnny D

Chapter 1

The young witch glided toward the mountain, fearful of the cave coming into view. Her long, black, purple streaked hair whipped into her face as a strong gust of wind flowed around her. The storm overhead roared, threatening rain and hurling unbearably loud thunderclaps all around her. The sun had gone down hours ago and the moon couldn't quite find it's way through the fat clouds overhead.

As she glanced at her feet, she realized that she hadn't been walking, but levitating along the grassy cliff side path.

As the cave entrance loomed toward her, a shiver ran up her spine. Darkness, darker than the night itself, crept around the edge of her vision. A nearly crippling loneliness clutched her heart as she stared into the opening. She wanted to go in so badly, to see what has drawn her here, but the fear of what she may find held her in place.

A familiar tune found it's way to her from within. It's a song her mother hummed to her as a child. She took a deep breath, not feeling the cold air entering her lungs.

“Mom!” she yelled. Her mouth was closed, the word coming from within. It sounded so foreign to her, bouncing out of the cave, off the mountains, and mixing with the thunder.

As she attempted to step into the cave, her shoe is stopped by an invisible barrier. It seems to be the same kind that protects her town, only localized to this one spot. She pounded a small fist against it.

“Let me in!” she pleaded.

Her fist hit the barrier again as the inside of the cave lit up. An eerie purple light emanated from crystals sprouting from various places along the walls. Stinging tears streamed from her eyes as she scanned the interior. Ahead of her, seated on a straw bed, a woman turned her head away, spilling a shining mane of black hair over the shoulder of her silver robe.

She pounded on the barrier, desperate to break through, but she could only observe. Sure that this was what she has been waiting for, the witch stared intently at the woman, trying to catch at least a glimpse of her face.

The woman stood and moved to a small wood stove, tending to a tea kettle that had just begun to whistle. As she reached for the kettle, her hand brushed a ceramic mug. The witch watched as it slowly tumbled end over end to the rocky floor, shattering.

The woman turned and bent to clean up the shards, revealing her face. It was nothing short of true beauty for the ages. Flawless porcelain skin covered an oval face. Above her cat-like hazel eyes, her brows are pinched together. Her full red lips were pursed. She was obviously upset, but whether it was about the cup or something else, the which didn't know. Suddenly, she looked up at the witch, recognition sparked in her eyes.

Stacia Bloom, the young witch's mother, stood and ran toward the barrier. But with every step forward, she appeared farther away. Stacia reached for Zoe, the panic strained her perfect features.

As Zoe reached out, her mother began to move up as well as away, and Zoe realized that she was no longer standing on the cliff side, but falling. Her breathing stopped as her stomach seemed to have been launched into her lungs, and her watery eyes locked onto the jagged rocks below. In her mind, she saw her body breaking on the rocks just as the waves did.

“Zoe!” a voice called out.

The falling slowed and became hazy.

“Zoe, wake up!” It was her father's voice.

The fear and confusion melted away as Zoe saw her messy room, her sheets, and her father's loving face.

“Dad, I saw mom!” she said groggily. “She was warning me about something.”

Leo softly took her hand and pushed an errant strand of purple hair behind her ear. Fully awake then, Zoe leaned her head on her father's shoulder.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

“No,” Zoe replied. “I just need to catch my breath.” Her demeanor changed as she looked up into his eyes. “But some pancakes would be nice,” she said sheepishly.

“Anything you want, punkin,” he said with a smile, then stood. “You sounded more scared than usual. Are you sure you're okay?”

“Yeah,” she said after a moment of silence. “It was just different than my other nightmares. She had even aged. Do you think it was a vision?”

“I don't know, darling. You're the magic one. Maybe you should ask your gramps about it.”

With a nod from Zoe, her father turned to leave.

“With strawberry syrup?” she asked.

With guidance from her father, Zoe had been doing her own laundry since she was ten, but she didn't mind. As usual, her hamper was full of dirty clothes (almost all of which had come from the Outside.) When her powers came in, she knew that she'd be using magic to solve the issue.

Unfortunately, she didn't have time to put a load in. Her nightmare had ended minutes before her alarm would normally have gone off. She closed the closet door on the mostly empty hangars and turned her attention to a pile of old clothes that she intended to donate to the local thrift store. A pair of holey jeans, although not exactly fashionable (Zoe's small town had ideas very different from the Outside world,) they would suffice. A groan escaped her as she found the only wearable shirt in the pile, a white tee with glitter surrounding a jovial looking cat's face. To top off the ensemble, she chooses a black holiday robe, replete with a garishly pointed hat and a dreaded pair of of pointy shoes. Thankfully, irons weren't necessary in her town. Clothing was typically magically imbued with wrinkle free threading, and for anything that wasn't, a very simple unwrinkling spell could be used.

With her outfit chosen and put on, she threw her printed pajamas somewhere in the vicinity of the hamper, took a deep breath, and mentally prepared for the day. Ignoring her mirror, she moved to two pictures hanging by the door.

The first was taken at Reflecting Lake when Zoe was five. In it, she was smiling and holding one of each of her parent's hands. Contrary to her usual tomboy nature, she was wearing a pink dress adorned with small golden butterflies. Her mother had encouraged dresses and Zoe liked them as well but when her mother disappeared, she stopped owning dresses altogether.

The second picture is of her mother wearing her usual silver robe, performing a blessing on the garden in their back yard. She exuded regality, standing proudly with her arm and wand outstretched, a glowing smile.

“Mom where are you? Why did you leave?” Zoe wondered aloud,”Will I ever see you again?”

The question faded as she entered the kitchen and smelled the pancakes. The mystery of Stacia Bloom would continue.

Chapter 2

The morning was brisk, but no threat of precipitation loomed (according to the local weather broadcast, anyway.) A ray of sunshine broke through a few fluffy white clouds, bringing behind it a pure crystal blue sky, and finally touched down on a small town in Oregon. Between Portland and Eugene, east of Salem, lies Moonlight Valley. Otherwise invisible to everyone but the very special 203 residents (plus four on the way,) it looked like it belonged on a 50s era postcard. Aside from the various witches, warlocks, and other magical creatures, of course.

It was day one of a Sabbat for the town called Samhain, a three day holiday that begins on October 31st. It is also known as The Witches New Year to the Wiccan community. The residents would wear black shoes and traditional black robes with an orange crescent moon emblazoned on the chest. Witches's shoes were pointed, warlock's shoes were pointed, and those that didn't wear shoes would wear ankle bracelets, rings, or other forms of jewelry.

One such storefront was that of Pritchard's Pantry, named for it's owner, Pritchard Blackwood. He was always the first to open for the day, promptly at first light. In addition to groceries, Pritchard's had various hot beverages available along with fresh pastries that his wife would prepare. She was well known for her ability to supplement her cooking with magic, cutting her cooking times in half.

The Elders would frequently stop in on their way to the Sacred Hall at the end of the Main Street as well as Verdelet, the town High Officer. On holidays he brings the Magistra special black roast coffee. It is always unsweetened, with two spoons of Nubian goat cream (sourced locally from Ottoman Farm.) Seven minutes later, like every other morning, Verdelet delivered this coffee to the town's interim Magistra Daria Rane.

Shortly after Verdelet's departure from the store, a Goblin would order piping hot chocolate topped with whipped cream for himself. It had taken him years to finally try the delicious cream. It suits him fine.

Pritchard Blackwood was generally a happy and hard working warlock. He would manually assemble the produce stand in front of his store, and place every fruit and vegetable just right. Any hint of bruising, rot, insects, or visual blemishes and he would send the fruit to the local farm for pig feed. The store generated just enough income to cover his expenses, have a small nest egg for emergencies, and keep his family comfortable. He had never focused on profits, choosing instead to ensure that all of his customers walked away happy.

Pritchard nonchalantly waved of his wand, the glass store entrance unlocked and the “open” sign lit up. Arms wrapped around his waist from behind and he turned to kiss his wife on the forehead.

“Ready for another day?” she asked.

“Always,” he replied with a smile.

Pritchard saw Mrs. Sapharnia, a nymph and teacher at Paragon Academy of Magic, approaching the doorway. He opened it for her and greeted her with a smile.

“Ola!” she exclaimed happily, wearing a large smile. Pritchard was moving to pour her a cup of coffee before the door had even closed.

“Medium, black, one lump?” he asked.

“Oh, no thank you, Mr. Blackwood. I had time to make some at home,” she replied, still smiling. “But I do need some dill. My garden was completely frozen this morning, and I can't have eggs without dill!” She emphasized the last word with a pointed finger.

“Ah,” Pritchard said with an empathetic frown. “Did you try a warming spell?”

“I did, and I ended up burning them,” she said with a nervous laugh. Being a teacher, it was embarrassing to make mistakes with spells. Fortunately, Pritchard was not the judgmental type. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“Don't worry, it happens to the best of us.”

Mrs. Sapharnia neglected to tell Pritchard about why she had been distracted when casting her spell. The night before, her husband, Thisbe, had attempted to make dinner without the aid of magic. The result was disastrous. The meat was beyond well done, the potatoes were under cooked, and the vegetables were more of a paste than anything recognizable. The whole ordeal had required Mrs. Sapharnia to contact Aldo, Zoe's grandfather, for an herbal remedy to calm her stomach.

“1.25 please, Mrs. Sapharnia,” Pritchard says after bringing the dill to the checkout counter. Mrs. Sapharnia's eyebrows twitched upward slightly in surprise.

“Pritchard, have you gone and increased your prices on me?”

“No, never!” he said. “It just so happens that this is the best dill on the market, imported from our friends in Germany. If you liked your eggs before, they're really going to zing.” She eyed him with good natured suspicion, but he continued. “And for chicken, just this with a little butter and garlic will send you to the moon!”

With a satisfied nod, she handed the currency over.

“Don't forget the receipt please,” she requested. Mrs. Sapharnia had always been a thrifty shopper, marking every transaction in a small ledger. “Thank you, Mr. Blackwood. I'll tell you know they turn out at the festival tonight.”

With a flashy smile and wave, she exited the store with an extra bounce in her step. She is excited about tonight's festivities as will be all the citizens. Tonight will bring more than just celebration.

Chapter 3

Zoe and Leo were walking along a well worn path through Hallowed Forest on their way to Aldo Winter's house. Aldo was Stacia's father, Zoe's grandfather. He had grown up in the Bloom house, and had raised his daughter there with his wife, Tempe. After Stacia had left for classes at an Outsider college, Tempe had become ill. No amount of magic could heal her, and she refused to go to the hospital in California. She had only been 55, but she had known that it was her time. Aldo was devastated having been married to Tempe since he was eighteen.

He moved into a small cabin buried in the woods outside of town just after Stacia's marriage to Leo. Aldo wanted them to have a place of their own, but he also wanted solitude, and to continue his work on the illness that had claimed his wife. The year before, he had discovered a rare berry that, unless consumed properly, would poison the consumer. Although he hadn't yet found a cure, he made sure to notify the town, which promptly burned the berry producing plants.

“Watch the path, dad,” Zoe warned. The path can twist but otherwise it's a fairly easy trek.

Zoe loved walks with her father. It gave them time to catch up on each others busy lives, such as the current series of books she was reading, Zombie Fallout. Initially, Leo hadn't wanted Zoe reading about scary and adult situations, but she had assured him that zombies didn't scare her and she was mature enough to handle anything else. Ever since the first book, she was swept up in the Outsider zombie fascination, and forming a new bond with her non-magical father. He still preferred mystery novels, but enjoyed sharing conversations about zombie books with his daughter.

“So Mike Talbot and his family are facing off against endless zombies, again,” Zoe continued. “But dad, he's so funny with B.T., I can't wait for you to read this series.”

“Do they ever win?” Leo asked. He preferred happy, or at least not hopeless, endings. Unfortunately, zombie books ended badly as often as they ended well.

“I'm not sure yet, but they always seem to get away. But this time there's a vampire.”

“A good one, or a bad one?” he asked. Just like the Outside world, they had vampires, but theirs were real, and not bound to a good or evil side.

Zoe was about to answer when she saw Aldo's house not too much farther along the path that had caused her excitement to rise.

It was one story, painted a creamy white, and had a porch that wrapped around it entirely. Four chairs, one a rocker, sat on the porch, faced toward the front. If she continued toward the back, she would see the kitchen windows overlooking his garden full of the various herbs that Aldo needed for his potions. Beyond the garden was a smaller house built for his live in maid, Marigold. It even featured a smaller garden for vegetables. Aldo had hired Marigold shortly after moving to his cabin, insisting that Stacia was too busy to be “cleaning up after an old man.” It also helped that she wasn't stomping through the house.

Four steps up the porch, three to the door, and Zoe greeted the knocker.

“Good morning, knocker.”

It didn't respond, simply looking at her with it's very simple carved eyes, nose, and mouth. Knockers were not known for their hospitality. Or any behavior, for that matter, since they were just carved wood. Nothing needed to be said to a knocker. It simply announced who was in front of it.

“Zoe Bloom and Leo Bloom, have arrived,” the knocker stated flatly.

Marigold's fairy wings fluttered quietly as she opened the door to let them in.

“Good holiday, Blooms!” she said.

Her blond hair was straight and perfect, flowing over her ample (for a fairy) bosom, and down over her nearly as ample belly. A small locket, a courting gift from her husband and the only one she owned, lay between her breasts. Contrary to popular Outsider belief, Fairies were just as susceptible to over indulgence as any other creature. Hers was due to the loss of her husband, a goblin she had met about 200 years before in her twenties. At the time, Ireland forbid crossing magic between species, but their hearts couldn't be swayed, so they had moved from the forest to Moonlight Valley.

Silver, her husband, had been an inventor, having even created many tools in current use by their farmers. He was also fanatic about mysterious places. After three years of convincing Marigold, plotting a safe route, finding an enchanted and foolproof navigation system, and building his own boat, he left to explore the Bermuda Triangle, never to be heard from again. The covens in Florida continued investigating and monitoring the area, but had never turned up any clues.

Marigold didn't like being referred to as a widow, but her story was so well known that it was hard to avoid.

Marigold floated along the foyer. Her blue eyes gleamed, indicating her happy mood. A mouth watering aroma filled the house, quite normal for any time of the day. One of Marigold's duties included having coffee and tea on standby.

“Is gramps home, Marigold?” Zoe asked.

“Sorry. He's in the marsh gathering herbs for some concoction or another, but he should return soon.” she replied, “Care for some coffee or tea if you intend to wait?”

“I'll have a coffee. Thank you, Marigold,” Leo said.

“Berry tea for me, please,” Zoe said with a hint of disappointment. She had hoped Aldo would be home, but she knows that she should have texted him first.

On the way to the kitchen, they pass picture frames that rotate through various members of the Winter families. Although it was a technology known to Outsiders, the magic community had been enchanting frames for centuries, including hers. The sight of her mother caused her to pause and sigh. Leo instantly saw the change in her.

“Don't worry, punkin,” he said, placing and arm around her shoulder. “We'll find her.”

Zoe's watery eyes looked up at his.

“When?” she asked.

“I don't know, but we'll never stop looking.”

“But I'm coming into my power in two months! I want her to be there. She should be there.”

A tear rolled down her cheek, and Leo brushed it away from her chin.

She'll know, Zoe. Some how, some way, she'll feel you changing, and she'll be there with you, even if it's just our hearts.”

I don't know dad, that dream...” she trailed off. It was still bothering her how real it had all seemed.

Let's focus on your adventure tonight,” he tried. “Trick or treat, just like I used to. Okay?”

Zoe nodded and hugged him before walking into the kitchen.

It was a medium sized room, plenty of sleek counter tops and glass cabinets, with a pantry to the right side. The pantry contained meticulously organized shelves of canned fruits and vegetables (some of which will be sold to Pritchard's Pantry) that Marigold prepared year round.

The kitchen table that could fit four comfortably, stood before them with a glass of freshly squeezed apple juice sitting alone on the surface. Marigold often enjoyed fresh apple juice, made with apples picked from the take-what-you-want town orchard. The Smiths, a non magical couple with a magical daughter, Jenny ran the orchard. They were always happy to see Marigold on her Saturday picking trips.

Zoe sat near the stove for the extra warmth while the other two shuffled to their spots. A moment later, Marigold placed a cup of black coffee down for Leo, and a berry tea with three lumps of sugar in front of Zoe. Her father had cut the amount from five lumps when Zoe's adult teeth were growing in. Luckily, she could still have the cookies that Marigold had just placed on the table.

Are you going to wait here with me, dad?” Zoe asked.

Yes, punkin. My whole day is yours,” he responds with a smile, which was then returned by Zoe.

They passed the time talking about the food they would see at the festival, and listening to Marigold talk about what she would bring. Before long, a companionable silence fell over them.

So the P.O. Box I have in the city is much more reliable than the school,” Leo said. Marigold looked at him with confusion.

It's an Outsider thing,” he explained. “Since the post office can't deliver here, I need to get my mail. Plus, Zoe is waiting on her new book series, Merlin. She'd turn me into a turnip or something if it got lost.”

Zoe giggled. She enjoyed Outsider books that portrayed magic in a positive light. Merlin, King Arthur, the whole saga was right up her alley.

I knew a Merlin when I lived in Germany, many years ago,” Marigold said. “Except he was a bird that guided people through Long Stand Mountains.”

Never heard of it,” Zoe said. Leo said nothing and simply shrugged.

It was a treacherous path. Before the Giants there became neutral, they would scoop travelers up and make snacks out of them. Merlin was able to help people dodge them, or negotiate with them if necessary.”

Glad we have GPS now,” Leo teased, eliciting a laugh from Zoe and a good natured glare from Marigold. Not a fan of the outside world, Marigold ended her end of the conversation by returning to the dough she had been kneading.

Zoe's mind wandered to the upcoming trick or treating. Her dad had shared many of his Halloween memories with her, but her fear of Outsiders had kept her from doing it until that year. She trusted her father, but she didn't trust herself to deal with such a new experience. Her awkwardness in Moonlight Valley was enough to keep her occupied.

Earlier in the year, Zoe had been granted unsupervised access to her father's laptop. Leo was generally a lenient father, but when it came to mature content he wanted to make sure that it wasn't too gratuitous. She solidified his trust in her by being honest whenever he asked about what she was doing. Before long, their computer use times began conflicting, so Leo bought her a new laptop.

It had opened up an entirely new world for her, and she soaked it up like a sponge. Between playing various games, she researched voraciously.

Dad?” Zoe asked, looking up from her tea.

Yes, punkin?”

Do you think the Smiths will let Jenny go trick or treating?”

Maybe,” he said, furrowing his brow. “With them being Outsiders as well, they'll know all about trick or treating. I'm sure they'll leave it up to her, just like I left it up to you.”

Zoe smiled, happy that even if she were alone, she'd be the first Moonlight Valley citizen to make such a trip. She wasn't sure if she wanted to share her experiences with anyone. She didn't have any real friends to speak of. Children were often not very inclusive of others that had Outsider parents.

Just do what you feel most comfortable with, Zoe,” Leo told her softly. “I'm just glad you're interested in something that I was interested in a child.”

With a nod, Zoe decided that she would definitely be going. Her mother had always told her to “Try first, decide later,” which is exactly what she intended to do.

The thought of her mother reminded her of the dreadful dream and she remained quiet with her thoughts.

I must know what the dream means, she thought, Is it real. Is mom in trouble?

The answer would not be found any time soon.

Chapter 4

The oldest man in town trod through Mortem Marsh, looking for a form of Icoja root that grew in that area of Hallowed Forest before the marsh took over. The gnarled tree that it grew from had luckily survived the advance of the marsh, but was constantly changing positions along the border of it. The root was normally used to alleviate arthritis pain, but Aldo had been experimenting with its ability to treat bronchitis and other lung related maladies. His current patient had been afflicted with a particularly nasty form of asthma. After years of visiting healer after healer, they had finally found a treatment, if not a cure, with Aldo Winter.

Aldo hurried along because he had promised the boy an improved treatment before the festivities. Azule, a will-o'-the-wisp, guided him along, its soft blue light just touching the soggy ground. In the marsh, wisps were the only safe way to navigate through the ever shifting marsh. A perfectly marked path would shift within hours, and no recognizable part of it would be left after a day. No landmark, no plant, no signs or indicators would remain in the same place long. Only one person that had gotten lost in the marsh was ever found, and he had been in a near voodoo-zombie-like state. Aldo continue to treat him, but had yet to make any breakthroughs.

The wisps showed up with the marsh, nearly years before. Initially the wisps were mischievous, leading townsfolk into bad and sometimes dangerous places within. Aldo's daughter, Stacia, had been the one to magically communicate with them, assuring them that her people meant no harm. Instead of stopping their antics, the wisps had actually offered to switch gears entirely and guide people only to where they needed to be. That was one of Stacia Bloom's first act's as Magistra. To stop the marsh and deal with the wisps. But when she disappeared, a few of the wisps began returning to their old ways.

Azule and Aldo had long had a special relationship built on mutual respect and trust, so Aldo was never worried that Azule would lead him astray. There was no way to avoid the mud, though, so Aldo did his best to jump from one less soggy place to the next. Levitation had never been reliable in Mortem Marsh. Knowing that the marsh mud was very difficult to clean, even with magic, hadn't stopped Aldo from foolishly wearing his white robe, he always wore. He counted himself lucky to have hired Marigold, however, as she had the only recipe known to break through the gunk. She had even begun selling it at Pritchard's store. It was called Marigold Mix which was the only solution in town that worked against the marsh mud effectively.

Aldo paused as his senses told him that someone other than Marigold was in house.

Azule, are we almost there?” he asked, hearing a bit of urgency in his voice. He didn't like to hurry Azule, but he had an important duty to attend to.

The wisp bounced twice, its indication of a “yes” answer, slightly lowering Aldo's stress level. Even at the ripe age of 135, he pace had never slowed from what he had as a teen. Sure, there were pops, soreness, and it took a moment to get his morning pep, but he was a sprightly young fellow of an old man.

A moment later, he caught sight of the tree. A moment after that, his foot caught on an unearthed root, sending him forward an extra step. He didn't fall, but his wand shifted in his belt and toward the porridge-like marsh. As always, his reflexes were perfect. Before the wand hit the ground, he waved his hand to secure it again.

He knelt on a portion of branch that had fallen from the tree some years before. His put his gloves on, as before preparation, Icoja is poisonous. Herbalists were known for their sometimes extreme safety precautions, never taking the chance that their concoction would hurt someone. Aldo's particular brew had taken one week to prepare, but had taken months before and after due to his careful testing.

Two roots was all he needed, and he took no more. Unprepared Icoja roots don't last more than a few months. Into his enchanted pouch they went along with the gloves, then tied closed. He nearly unconsciously ticked each step off from the list in his head.

Satisfied, he turned to leave, but paused suddenly.

Quiet for a moment please, Azule,” he said, holding a staying hand out near the wisp.

A far off clomping sound reaches his ears from deeper within the marsh.

Horses? he wonders. Azule trembled minutely. Horses never entered the marsh. Even Unicorns and Pegasia, known for their bravery, wouldn't step one foot into it.

There weren't many cloven beings in or around Moonlight Valley, but before Aldo could think about it any further, the wisp began moving in a rapid circular bouncing motion. He had only seen Azule alarmed once before, when a pack of bigger bogies had gotten too close to them.

Let's hurry!” Aldo exclaimed without hesitation. The wisp zipped away, then slowed it remembered that Aldo's pace was much slower. Aldo pushed, struggling to keep up, and struggling to maintain sight on the bouncing and swerving creature.

I might be in real trouble here, he thinks. All he heard was the squishing sucking noises of his shoes fighting the mud. He would only find more mud and mystery.

Chapter 5

Marigold eyed the clock in the kitchen and frowned.

He should be back by now,” she said. Marigold had never trusted wisps. With her frown slightly deeper, she offered the Blooms a refills. They had switched to something new half an hour before, Zoe with cranberry juice, Leo with a glass of water containing ice. Both declined.

Zoe, would you mind picking a few sprigs of Rumy for me?” she asked.

Zoe nodded and went out through the back door. On the second step the tip of her shoe folded under itself, tripping her. She caught herself on the banister before falling. She hated pointy shoes, but it was expected of her to wear them for the holiday. They always had a way of tripping her, especially in front of her fellow classmates that would further alienate her for being clumsy. She has been dubbed a “reject” in school. This does not bother her as much as one would be. She wants to be liked for who she was, not what she wore, or other shallow things.

Gobbledygook!” she exclaimed. She had a splinter in her palm. The word was one of the few profanities allowed by her mother.

She reached the section of the garden that held herbs for cooking, but couldn't figure out which plant was which. Plants and Inbetweens hadn't been her strongest class, even though she was two years in. Conceding to defeat, she turned and returned to the back door.

Through the kitchen window, Zoe saw Marigold fluttering nervously (a fairy's form of pacing) and gesturing wildly with her hands. Not much can get stout Marigold into a whirlwind, and Zoe didn't take it lightly. Zoe couldn't read lips, but she knew that Marigold was worried about Aldo. She paused with her ear near the window, trying to avoid awkwardly interrupting her.

I've told him over and over to have an officer escort him into that dreadful marsh,” she nearly yells. “But no, 'I can trust Azule' he says!”

Leo held up a hand.

Marigold, an hour late doesn't mean that the wisp has gone bad. Maybe he's picking something else?”

She shook her head and scoffed.

No,” she said. “We have a deal. If he goes in that marsh, he comes straight home. Not just to scour those filthy robes, but to check in and let me know that he's okay!”

Okay, okay,” Leo said. “Let's give him 20 more minutes. High Officer Verdelet will be up to his neck in work for Samhain anyway, so let's make sure we really need him.”

Marigold mumbled something, fiddled with her necklace, then began wiping down the already clean counter surface. When Zoe saw that there was a lull in the conversation, she came back inside. Eavesdropping wasn't a normal habit of Zoe's, but she knew that adults tended to avoid more serious issues when children were within earshot.

Marigold,” she said, pretending that she hadn't heard their conversation. “What does Rumy look like again?”

Green leaves, yellow stalk,” she replied. “But don't worry about it, I'll pick it later. Would either of you like something else to eat?”

Zoe shook her head and sat next to her father, who had also shaken his head. Within a few minutes, Zoe was tapping her fingers and her legs wouldn't sit still. Waiting had never been a strength of hers.

Dad, that dream isn't going anywhere. I think I can wait until tonight to talk to him.”

Well punkin,” he said. “Normally we'd head out if you wanted to, but your grandfather is late and we're a little worried.”

Late? What happened?” she asked, letting some of her worry creep into her voice.

Don't worry,” Marigold offered in a silky voice. “He's probably sidetracked trying to pick some new little plant, or find a new wisp to replace that dreadful Azule.” She paused and rang out the dish towel. “Or maybe he finally lost his marbles, the old coot.”

Marigold's attempts at humor weren't swaying Zoe.

So what are we going to do?” she asked.

Don't worry, Zoe,” her dad said, somewhat elusively. “We'll get this taken care of.”

Zoe knew that they were hiding their anxiety, but she decided not to push it. Instead, she took the Kindle out of her backpack and picked up on the next book of her Zombie Fallout series. There is nothing better than Mike Talbot and B.T. to take her mind off of the outside world.

The three of them waited. And worried. Only time would tell what happened to Aldo.

Chapter 6

Aldo's running speed was taking a toll on the joints of his knees and ankles. The never tiring wisp was still bouncing in and out of his sight, constantly reminding Aldo of years past when such things like joint pain were unthinkable. For the third time, they passed a rotten log, half buried in the muck. It was a rock solid indication that they were either moments away from emerging into Aldo's yard, or trapped in the marsh forever.

Azule. Please, my friend,” he sputtered between breaths. “I need to rest.”

He saw the blue light instantly stop in front of him, although it still trembled in fear. Aldo could feel the fear from the wisp, like wave after wave of icy water splashing on the back of his neck.

The noise was farther away but still audible. Aldo was confused. He knew that four hooves made a certain echo, but he wasn't hearing it. Then it came to him.

Satyrs. He realized. His breath caught in his throat. How did they get here?

As a healer, Aldo was always in the loop when it came to what was going on in town, but there had been no indication of the half man, half goat creatures being in the marsh or anywhere near Moonlight Valley. With Satyrs being an enemy of both white and black magic users, any sighting would have been immediately reported. The result could be anything from an emergency meeting of the Elders, up to sounding the alarm and putting the town on lock down.

He could taste the fear in the back of his throat. He couldn't see them to be sure it was actually Satyrs, not even a torch, wisp, or silhouette. An inviting rock was nearby, showing Aldo a place to catch his breath and gather his thoughts.

Azule,” he said quietly. “Stay vigilant and warn me if anything comes close.”

The ball bounced twice again, answering in the positive.

Aldo sat in the mud, leaned against the boulder, and closed his eyes. Within moments, his body went limp and a much less corporeal version of him stood, a blue light emanated from him, much dimmer but similar in appearance to the wisp's. Aldo was astral projecting himself. It could take years or a lifetime to learn it yet he had known how at a young age.

Nearly paralyzed by fear, he leaned against the boulder and listened as the hoof beats grew louder. Slowly, he moved toward the noise, dashing from tree to rock to bush to stump, trying to catch a glimpse of what was causing it. Nothing visible was within sight, yet the hooves had increased to a thunderous volume. He narrowed the source of the sound down to a copse of trees so thick that he couldn't see past them. Slowly, he moved to the trees. Just as he was about to break through, the sound stopped without warning. It didn't taper off or quiet down, it simply stopped.

Aldo cautiously entered a small clearing past the trees, looking for any trace of what he had heard, but there was nothing. No tracks, no hairs, no droppings, nothing. It was enough for Aldo to briefly question himself, wondering if his mind had finally began showing signs of his old age. But Azule had reacted to it as well, so the thought was quickly cast away. Satyrs were to be feared, and any potential sighting (or hearing) needed to be reported right away. They were extremely magical and not everything was known about them. They were known to leave disaster in their wake, so something had to be done.

After an uneventful walk back to his body, he sat down and reconnected to himself, the blue glow fading to nothing. Muddy, weighed down, and exhausted, he thanked Azule and requested that they hurry home. He would have to check in with Marigold, then warn the Elders as soon as possible. The town needed this information. Now.

Chapter 7

Zoe absently watched as Marigold kneaded another wad of dough. Contrary to the methods used by most magic users, Marigold enjoyed the process of traditional cooking from scratch. She had even branched out into some Outsider recipes that Leo had printed out for her. Her latest favorite was a creole spice that she had been experimenting with on eggs and macaroni and cheese.

The dough that she was currently mistreating was for Aldo's favorite rolls; sour cream, garlic, and cheddar cheese. Aldo preferred the random shapes created from simply plopping the dough into a pan, but Marigold couldn't stand by and watch her baking devolve into anarchy. Zoe had just discovered that she liked sour cream so she couldn't wait to taste the rolls. The only thing was Zoe preferred Outsider brands. She frequently applied it to tacos and potatoes. The topping had been a big hit at the Beltane Feast earlier in the year, especially with the dishes prepared by a recent arrival to Moonlight Valley, a couple from Juarez, Mexico.

Marigold locked eyes with Leo, then looked at the clock. Zoe's mood darkened slightly at still not being included in their concern.

Okay, Marigold,” Leo said. “Go ahead and get your parchment. We'll text the High Officer.”

Parchments were a form of communication used by most magic communities and acted similarly to texting with phones, hence the shorthand use of the word “texting” when referring to sending messages back and forth. Unfortunately they were only usable by magic users, so Leo had to rely on others to send and receive messages that way. He had a phone to partake of the communication.

Just as she was turning to retrieve it, Aldo burst into the back door, a whirlwind of sweat, mud, and heavy breathing. The robe and shoes that Marigold had made spotless the night before were almost completely covered in dark brown muck. Marigold's surprise lasted half a breath before a scowl contorted her face.

What happened to you?” she demanded. “You're a mess! By the Goddess, this will take me days to clean!”

Aldo moved to the table, intending to sit, but Marigold placed a meaty and authoritative hand on his chest.

Don't you dare, Mr. Winter! You stand right there while I get a towel. Your robe is one thing, but I won't have you destroying this chair as well.”

Moments later, towel draped over the chair, Aldo sat and put his face in his hands. Marigold realized that she was acting more like a maid than a friend, and drew a glass of water for him. In one swift move, Aldo emptied the glass and asked for a refill.

“Thank you,” he said as she handed him a refill with a sprig of mint in it. “I can't get the sour mud taste out of my mouth.”

“Aldo, tell us what happened,” Leo requested. “We were about to get help we were so worried.”

They quietly listened while he related the story. The possibility of Satyrs in Moonlight Valley was a bit far fetched but he know what he heard.

“Those darn wisps!” Marigold exclaimed.

“What?” Aldo asked, momentarily confused. “No, Azule helped me. I wouldn't have made it out of there without him!”

“If not him, then one of the others!” she said, one hand on her hip and the other jabbing a pointed finger toward Aldo. “They can't help tricking everyone that has the misfortune of finding one.”

“Enough, Marigold,” he said, irritation seeping into his voice. Aldo possessed great patience, and would normally be amused, but Marigold's stubborn distrust of wisps could be taxing. “There were no others.”

“Mark my words, Aldo Winters. Those wisps should be banished!”

With that, she resumed her dough kneading and Aldo sighed, relieved that the fairy had ceased despairing the creatures that he knew as friends. A moment later he shuddered minutely at the thought of the Satyrs.

After a few minutes of companionable silence, Aldo took his pipe and tobacco from his pouch. After a few puffs, he heard Zoe sigh.

“Granddaughter,” he said warmly. “What troubles you?”

Her suddenly watery eyes looked into his as she was trying to put into words what she was feeling.

“It was another nightmare, gramps,” she said as the first tear slid down her cheek. “About mom.”

“Oh, now there, sweetheart,” he said, standing up to hug her,”I will go get cleaned up first then we will figure things out.”

Leo comforted Zoe while Aldo kicked off his shoes near the door.

Marigold retreated through Aldo's bedroom to his private bathroom to draw him a bath. They could hear her muttering the whole way about how long it would take her to get everything cleaned.

Aldo thought of Zoe as he followed Marigold's path a few moments later. She truly was special. Her mother, Stacia, had suspected that she was important, that she would one day have a momentous effect on their lives. With the help of various mediums in the town, Aldo had only been able to confirm the vague statement at face value. They were never able to see more details. Stacia had wanted to be the one to tell her child when the time was right, and Aldo, always hopeful that his daughter would some day return, honored the desire.

A sigh escaped him as his thoughts shifted from his granddaughter to his missing daughter. There were no clues to how Stacia had disappeared. It was an ongoing case.

The tears trickled from Zoe's eyes onto her father's shirt. It didn't always solve everything, but her father's warm embrace had seen Zoe through every high and low, every loss and victory, every difficulty, that life had thrown at her.

“Dad, she's in trouble. I can feel it.”

Leo kissed her forehead.

“If she is, we've got some great magic around here that we can count on,” he said.

She dried her eyes on his shoulder, then pulled away to face him.

“Dad, I can't control my power, you don't have any powers, and gramps hasn't even been able to find her!”

“Punkin,” he said, lightly tapping her nose with his index finger. “We have a whole town of magical folk ready to help. Everyone loves your mother, and they'd do anything to get her back.”

“I know, but...”

She paused with a finger on her pursed lips, then her eyes opened wide.

“What if it's a clue? Do you think gramps can, I don't know, decipher it or whatever?”

“If anyone can do it, Aldo can,” he replied with confidence. “Every day has the potential to bring new hope.”

Satisfied for the moment, Zoe asked her father to tell her about his Halloween experiences again. As he went on, she calmed. Her eyes were no longer red when Aldo re-entered the kitchen. His long hair was dry and combed straight and he was wearing a fresh white robe.

Feeling his normal self again, he focused on Zoe.

“Zoe, would you mind if we moved this conversation into my study?” he asked.

She stood, then looked at her father.

“Do you want me to go with you?” Leo asked. When it came to more sensitive matters of magic, she preferred to deal with her grandfather one on one, but he still offered his company from time to time.

“No, dad. I can do this.”

“I'll fetch some tea for you two,” Marigold said, grabbing the kettle.

“No. Thank you, Marigold,” Aldo said. “I'd rather we not be disturbed, but if you'll have some ready when we finish, that would be excellent.”

Marigold nodded. Zoe took her grandfather's hand as they moved to the study. Leo continued using his butt to hold his chair down.

Zoe watched as Aldo touched a pentagram on the door at the end of a small hallway. It glowed white, allowing access to room beyond. Had Zoe or anyone else touched the charm, it would have remained inactive, blocking access to the study with a sturdy magical protection.

It was the largest room in the house, containing every scrap of Aldo's life of research. The far wall had a full length work space and racks of empty glass containers. To the left of that was a large roll top desk surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of books. They had been built around two stained glass windows to either side of the desk. On the wall opposite the desk, more floor to ceiling shelves covered the entire space. Every available space was crammed with pouches, bottles, boxes, containers of every kind, each containing a different ingredient for Aldo's various projects. Beneath them was a basement containing an even larger collection of books and ingredients, and general storage. Leading to that was a trap door hidden near his desk.

The smell of wood smoke was a constant, as nestled in the work space was an enchanted stove that kept the room at just the right temperature throughout the year. Aldo's pipe smoke added to the comforting smells as he settled into his desk chair and Zoe seated herself in the familiar arm chair nearby. He blew a few smoke rings that lazily collided with one another. He winked at Zoe, knowing that his smoke tricks amused her.

“Now,” he said, putting his pipe on the desk and intertwining his fingers. “Tell me everything that you remember.”

Zoe saw no reason to delay the inevitable, so she recounted the nightmare. By the end she was trembling and nearly in tears again.

“That's all I remember, except the endless fall at the end.”

“Hmm,” Aldo said, looking at the ceiling before continuing. “I don't see anything of significance. Are you sure that that's all? No other details?”

“Nothing,” she said, frowning. “Sorry, gramps.”

“Don't fret, my dear. We can try some mind to mind communication, if you'd like,” he offered. Onieromancy, a form of divination through dream interpretation, had been one of Aldo's best subjects at Paragon Academy of Magic, the same school that Zoe was currently attending. It was a good thing for a healer to know to help patients plagued by dreams and nightmares, along with proper potions.

“Ignis,” he said, and waved his wand at four candles floating in each corner. Each lit at once. Another wave of his wand turned the windows a dark, charcoal black, blocking the daylight. He pulled a desk drawer open, revealing a phonograph. A moment later, soft instrumental Celtic music filled the room. Mind to Mind, as it was easily referred to, was best practiced in the most relaxing environment possible.

Aldo cleared his throat and sat back down.

“Palms on the desk, please.” His voice was silky, drawn out, flowing through the room like his pipe smoke.

She scooted the chair forward and placed her hands on the desk, palms up. She was familiar with the basics of the procedure, having began studying it in Divination.

“Have you been practicing?” he asked.

“Only with dad, but it never works. You and him are the only ones I trust with this.”

“Well, there's plenty of time to learn,” he said with a gentle smile. He didn't want to push the issue and cause her any stress before the procedure. Zoe didn't know what she wanted to do in life but she did admire Aldo for being a healer, though she had no interest in becoming one herself.

His leaned forward and put his hands on hers.

“Alright,” he said quietly. “Focus on what you can, especially what you were feeling. Relax and open up.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, there was nothing. He listened and heard nothing. No smell registered, no signal of touch moved from his foot to his brain. His mind was ready to receive her thoughts and feelings.

Slowly, a pin point of purple light began swirling and growing in front of him. A rough shape at the edges of his vision didn't quite materialize, but it appeared to be the interior of the cave. The sound of thunder crashed in his ears, momentarily disorienting him. Before he could recover, Zoe's nightmare emotions exploded in his mind. Fearful panic was the strongest, and nearly severed their link. Aldo's years of practice kicked in, steeling his defenses. Unfortunately there was nothing else to see. The cave had rushed away, replaced by an endless rocky cliff wall, signaling the fall, then end, of her nightmare. Just as their connection severed, the crash of a wave rang in his ears.

“You can open your eyes,”he said.

His voice came to her from a distance as she returned from a state of wakeful sleep. Aldo waited patiently as her eyes fluttered open.

“Did you get any clues, gramps?” she asked with renewed hope.

“I saw the cave. I've never seen a crystal cave that glowed purple, so that's something to look into.” He paused. The sound of the wave had piqued his curiosity. Normally when a dream concluded with a seemingly endless fall, there was, by definition, no bottom.

“Did you have the sense of being near an ocean?” he asked.

“I don't remember,” she said. She lowered her face into her hands and sobbed once, quietly. “I'm failing her, I know it. This dream is a message and I can't understand it!”

“Zoe Bloom,” Aldo said firmly. “You look at your grandfather right now.”

She sniffled once and looked up into his eyes. She could feel the concern in his voice.

“This is not your fault. In two months you'll come into your born right power, and things might make more sense.”

She smiled slightly, then frowned.

“But...this is a message, right?” she asked.

“I didn't get that feeling. To be honest, it felt more like the beginning of a vision.” He paused to re-light his pipe. “This could be a good thing. You may be getting The Sight. It took your mother years to develop it after turning 13 and here you are, already showing signs.”

“I want to have it now,” she said, pouting.

“Be patient, Zoe. Her disappearance may not have been foul play. She may have been called off on some quest or another that required her immediate departure. Sometimes strange are the ways of magic.”

And it was true. Aldo himself, with a two year old Stacia in tow, had been called to quest of such importance that he didn't even have time to leave a note. They had been gone for three years and weren't able to contact anyone in Moonlight Valley.

“Thanks gramps. I know you tried,”said Zoe.

“The answer will come one day.”

“I hope it's soon.”

Aldo said nothing. He didn't have a feeling regarding his daughter's whereabouts either way.

“I love you gramps,”said Zoe.

“I love you too.”

A bit later, Aldo closed the door behind Leo and Zoe. Worry etched his face. He didn't like the idea of such a young witch going outside of the barrier, but Leo had insisted that he'd keep her safe.

The Satyrs returned to his thoughts. They were a threat to Moonlight Valley, and by extension its special child, Zoe Bloom. The issue needed to be addressed right away. Aldo would see to it.

Chapter 8

The young witch admired her costume in the full length mirror. She wore matte black vinyl pants, top, and gloves. Looped around the pants was a pink belt with the initials HG stamped into the buckle. It held up a black and purple plaid skirt. A black, purple lined cape ran the full length of her body, touching the tops of her ankle length black combat boots. The wig she wore was the same purple as the streaks in her hair but much shorter. Just past her chin. To complete the ensemble, a black mask covered her eyes, making her feel mysterious.

The costume was that of Hit Girl, the lead character in a move Zoe and her father both enjoyed called Kick Ass. Naturally, her father was dressed as Big Daddy, the armored Batman like father of Hit Girl. It was a fun but ironic getup for them, considering that neither had held a weapon or even been in a physical confrontation. Even the weapons they carried were quite obviously fake.

She was glad that she would never have to use a firearm. They were much too loud and cumbersome, especially when compared to the wand that she'd be receiving in two months.

Her thoughts returned to Halloween, or rather the parts that she found confusing. She understood the garish lights and decorations, but not the pumpkins. For her, they had always been a symbol of the fall harvest, to be used for decoration, then used for food after. Outsiders frequently wasted the delicious fruit.

There was also the matter of children essentially dressing up as monsters and threatening to play tricks on people that didn't provide them with sugary morsels. It had taken much explanation, including visual aids courtesy of YouTube, to assure her that Trick or Treating was a completely innocent celebration similar in many ways to their own.

A shrill ring erupted from her cell phone, an alarm indicating that it was time to go. It was a 40 minute drive to Salem and she didn't want to be late.

“Dad, it's time!” she yelled as she walked down the hall to his room. She knocked twice. “Dad, are you ready?”

“Just a second, punkin,” he called as he rummaged through a drawer looking for his wife's sewing kit. “A button popped off my cape.”

“Just let me do it, dad,” she said through the door. Her mother had taught her how to mend clothing with magic many years prior, but Leo still did things the old fashioned way when he could.

“Okay,” he replied. “I'll be down in a minute, I'm just tying my boots.”

She went downstairs waited on the couch, nervously fumbling with the plastic pumpkin she planned on keeping her candy in. A few minutes later he came down, a picture perfect representation of Big Daddy. A huge smile betrayed the menacing look of the costume.

“I love these boots!” she exclaimed as she stomped around the living room. “They're much better than my sneakers.”

“Whatever you want, punkin,” he said as he handed her his cape.

She happily clomped over and took the cape. After putting the button in place, a simple wave of her hand mended it and she handed it back. He took it and kissed her on the forehead.

“How about a selfie to mark the occasion?” Leo asked.

Zoe smiled at her father's attempt to use the comical millennial word. Using her phone, they posed for a quick shot, angled from slightly overhead to show most of their costumes.

“I'm going to take so many pictures!” she exclaimed.

“Why don't you enjoy yourself and let me? I'll get some video too,” Leo suggested. Zoe nodded.

“Should I bring my back pack?” she asked. “I don't have anywhere to put my parchment.”

“Best to leave it here,” he replied. “It wouldn't be a good idea to text on the outside. Besides, we'll only be gone for a few hours.”

He took his keys from a hook near the door and checked them both over one last time. Satisfied that their costumes were complete and they needed nothing else from the house, they went to the garage and got in Leo's car. He was one of the few vehicle owners in Moonlight Valley. Being non magical, he was one of the few that couldn't blink, fly a broom, dash, or otherwise make his way from point A to point B without using his legs or mechanical transportation. And so, being a teacher in Salem, a cheap, economical 1997 Ford Taurus, silver, was his preferred method of locomotion.

The garage door trundled up the tracks then stopped mid way. It had been acting up for years, but calling a repairman in a magical town wasn't exactly an option. With Leo's limited time and repair skills, it had been put on a back burner. With another push of the button, it raised the rest of the way.

The garage door forgotten, Leo slowed at the end of the driveway. Since cars are limited in Moonlight Valley there is no need for asphalt. The streets are made of gravel. It was easier on the hoofs of the horses, unicorns and Pegasi (when decided to walk instead of fly.) Leo pulled onto this kind of street then habitually, he checked for traffic. Two other residents drove, but he rarely saw them. There was the occasional equine traffic, brooms, and pedestrians, however.

No obstructions were in view, magical or otherwise, so Leo turned and headed toward the only exit to the Outside world where Zoe will discover something new about herself.

Chapter 9

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