She was out there. I could sense it.
I could also smell it. Who could miss the stench of oil of newt and blood of bat?
I leaned out and looked around. The street was a mess of shouting people and hurrying wagons, each vying for supremacy of the street. My target wasn’t among them, but then again, she had her own way of travel.
I took a deep, shuddering breath and grasped the handle tighter in my hands. This was my first time out in the wilds with this thing. My bedroom didn’t have the winds and mess of the big world. A few muttered words passed my lips.
“Where is she?”
Ask, and ye shall receive. Or at least, I received a signal from my compatriot, the short, cowled figure in the gap between houses across from where I hid. Their clawed hand gestured at a house to my left. I leaned out and spotted it. The end of a broomstick sticking out.
This was it. This was my moment.
I tightened my hands on my own stick and took a deep breath. “You can do this, Cait. Just a nice flight, a little scolding, and it’s all done.”
I closed my eyes, gave a prayer, and opened them. Determination ran through my tense body as I gritted my teeth.
I shot out of the gap between the houses on my broomstick and flew out over the streets. Or rather, into the street as a swirling wind broad-sided me and swept me toward that flowing mess of carriages and pedestrians. I pulled up on the front of the broom and whisked over the canopied tops of the vehicles. A toupee was lost in the making of that maneuver as my straw end brushed up against a man’s head.
Movement out of the corner of my eye warned me both that the man wasn’t happy, and that I had a tail on my, well, tail. A black-clad figure with a pale face. A slight cackle to her voice. Yep, it was her, my arch-nemesis.
“Thought you could run from me on a broom?” she cackled.
I grinned and yanked the broom to my left. The motion swung me around so I faced the witch. She skidded to a midair stop in front of me and narrowed her eyes.
“I’m not trying to run from you,” I corrected her as I leaned down low against the stick. “I’m trying to run at you.”
The witches’ eyes widened as I shot straight at her. She yelped and tried to turn. Too slow. I grabbed the end of her broom and spun her around. She whipped in a circle like a top, and by the time she came to a stop the witch was slumped over the front of her broom with a noticeable greener tint to her already green face. The witch shook off her nausea and gave me a glare before she darted away.
“Oh no you don’t!” I shouted as I sped after her.
We flew over the tops of the vehicles and people. I barely missed hitting a chimney sweep brush slung over a man’s shoulder and was almost slapped by a fishmonger selling his wares from the back of his wagon. Another wind blew against my side, but I gritted my teeth and pulled the broom back into position so I pointed at my target. I tried to edge up on her from the right, but she darted into an alley. The grimy street below us showed our reflections in the filthy puddles as we sped past, leaving reverberations in the water. The witch darted out of the alley and I tried to pull along side her right again, but again we turned and found ourselves on a street behind where Asher’s house was located.
She threw her head back and loosed a cackle before she glanced over her shoulder. “You think you can keep up with me? I am the best flier in this city!”
“I don’t need to keep up with you-” I called back as I looked ahead of her. “I just need to lead you in the right direction.”
The witch frowned. “What do you-” She looked ahead and her eyes widened.
A thick piece of leather dropped down in front of her from two balconies opposite one another. The witch let out a shriek before she slammed into the leather. A sickening crack told me her broom was once again broken and the witch herself became entangled in the sticky front of the banner.
The cowled figure from before stood up from the balcony at the rear of Asher’s house and removed their hood. I grinned at Ratatoskr, my rat friend with the clawed hands. A small figure darted past me and landed neatly on his shoulder.
I leaned my crossed arms over the front of the broom and gave a thumbs-up to the tiny person. “You did great, Leith.”
The pixie spun in a circle and clapped its hands. “That was almost as much fun as taking apart an engine!”
“Let me out of here!” the witch growled as she thrashed about in the banner. “Why can’t I get out?”
Ratatoskr held up an empty glass bottle. “A little bit of Doc’s bandage juice. You’ll be stuck there for days.”
I floated over to the witch and grinned at her. “All those warm, bright, sunny days.”
The witch let out a shriek and tried to free herself, to no avail. “Let me go! Let me go!”
“I’ll let you go if you promise to stop bothering me,” I demanded.
The witch wrinkled her long, pointed nose. “But what is a witch to do in her mornings?”
I shrugged and floated toward the balcony. “If that’s the way you feel about it. . .”
“Wait!” she yelped as she squirmed in our fly trap. She hung her head and groaned. “Alright. You win. I swear I won’t bother you again.”
“Will you swear it on a leg of this-” I reached into my coat and drew out a limp frog leg.
The witch glared at me. “How do you know about the sacred oath?”
“I have friends in strange places,” I told her as I shook the leg in her direction. “Now will you swear it on the sacred oath of the frog leg, or not?”
She groaned, but stretched out her hand, and together we both took an end of the leg. My enemy and I gave a shake of the leg before I tucked the limb back into my coat and nodded at Ratatoskr. Leith flew across the way and loosed the banner on that end while Ratatoskr untied the other, but they both kept a hold on the ends. Ratatoskr reached into his coat and drew out another vial, this time filled with a purple substance. He popped the cork with his sharp teeth and doused the witch with the concoction.
She sputtered and spat at him. “What was that?”
“Glue dissolvent,” Ratatoskr told her as he took up his end with both hands.
With devilish grins the pair, rat and pixie, gave the leather a great shake. The witch flopped out for a moment before she dropped from the banner and fell face-first onto the street. Her broom clattered to the ground beside her. She groaned and raised herself onto her arms. The witch shot me an ugly glare, but I drew out the frog leg and waved it at her. She sneered at me, snatched up her broken broom, and stomped off.
I breathed a sigh of relief and floated over to Ratatoskr’s balcony. “I’m glad that’s over.”
Ratatoskr wrinkled his nose at the appendage I held. “Does that really work to keep her word?”
“Unbelievably well,” a voice spoke up, and we all looked to the open balcony door. Asher leaned against the frame with a smile on his face. “The frog is their god of warts. If they break the oath the god will rescind his divine blessing and remove their warts.”
“A god, huh?” I mused as I studied the limb.
“Perhaps more of a legend,” Asher mused as he pushed off from the frame. He half-turned to the doorway and jerked his head in that direction. “But could I speak with you for a moment, Cait?”
The tone of his voice made my heart skip a beat. “Sure thing,” I agreed as I handed the leg to Ratatoskr and followed him inside. Ratatoskr tried to follow, but Asher shut the door behind him and the curtains fell into place. I could see Ratatoskr’s shadow stumble back and Leith catching him. There was some mumbling as the pixie grabbed the back of Ratatoskr’s collar and flew him over the railing and to the ground.
My humor died when I returned my attention to Asher. “What is it?”
“I received this from Leon this morning,” he informed me as he drew a folded letter out of his pocket and held it out to me.
I took it and opened the note. It read at thus:
Hi Old Man. I have some news for you, and I don’t think you’re going to like it. Davy was spotted in Porta del Cielo procuring passage on a ship . My sources tell me the ship was headed for Bradach. Arzat was from Bradach and before that from parts unknown, if you see my meaning. Meet you there! - Leon.
“Porta del Cielo?” I repeated as I raised my eyes to Asher.
“Gate of Heaven,” Asher translated for me as he folded his arms over his chest. “It’s the largest port in the world. I wonder that even Leon’s connections found him there.”
I furrowed my brow. “And Arzat? Wasn’t that the guy who made the Heart of God boxes?”
Asher nodded. “Yes, and that worries me. Davy may be trying to find another way to harness celestial power.”
I winced, and my mind invariably thought of someone I dearly missed. It had only been three weeks since our adventure among the windmills of Molina. “I wish Cosimos was still here. . .he knew about Arzat.”
“That’s why I plan on searching his papers before we leave,” Asher told me as he took back the letter. His eyes sparkled as he looked me over. “I thought I could use another pair of eyes.”
I snorted. “I’ll try, but it’ll all be Greek to me.”
Asher arched an eyebrow. “Greek?”
“Well, Fiontarian,” I corrected myself as I looped my arm through one of his. “Now let’s see if Cosimos left us anything.”
We walked downstairs and opened the front door to find ourselves face to face with an annoyed Ratatoskr. He had his arms crossed and his bare, clawed foot tapped the marble flagstone.
“Where’s the breakfast you promised me?” he growled.
I sheepishly smiled at him. “Would you take an IOU?”
“I’d rather take some of that expensive bacon Asher has locked away in his ice box,” Ratatoskr countered.
“Then you’ll have a whole pound if you take us up to Professor Cosimos’s home,” Asher promised.
Ratatoskr arched a furry eyebrow. “Why there? Didn’t you tell me he died?”
“Dead, but not forgotten, nor without his uses,” Asher replied.
“That sounds spooky!” Leith spoke up as the pixie popped out of the ether. “Can we go now?”
Ratatoskr wrinkled his whiskers, but shrugged. “Alright, but I’ll be checking to make sure it’s a whole pound.”
We climbed into Ratatoskr’s strange vehicle and chugged up the streets to the lonely mansion on the hill. I stepped out and looked up at the towering, tottering old house and my heart sank. My mind drew back to that scene at the edge of the pond where he had give nus one last smile.
Asher set a hand on my shoulder. “You can stay here if you like.”
I smiled and shook my head. “I’ll be fine. Maybe it’ll help knowing he can help us some more.”
Asher looked over his shoulder at our two companions. “We might be a while.”
Ratatoskr crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes at Asher. “The bacon is worth waiting for.”
Asher smiled, and together he and I entered the home. The darkness greeted us, so we kept the front door open and Asher led me into the library. The map of the world with the White Garden at its center still lay on the large table.
“There may be something in these books on the table,” Asher mused as he strode over to the furniture. He inspected several of the titles. “He may have been researching the origins of the boxes before he left.”
I joined Asher at the table and studied the large expanse of nothingness on the map. There was a small, familiar-looking wooden box just above the Garden. I arched an eyebrow and picked it up where I cradled it in both hands.
White light burst out of the box. I yelped and dropped the container onto the table. Asher wrapped his arms around me and pulled me behind him. The box pulsed with light for a few moments before it faded.
“W-what was that?” I whispered.
Asher tapped the box with his finger before he shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“You are late.”
Asher and I froze, and a moment later we both spun around.
Behind us stood Professor Stephen Cosimos.