Thursday, November 11, 2021

WIZARD - Chapter 8 - The Art of Illusion


 Chapter 8
The Art of Illusion

Octava hurried through the woods. The small sack which she clutched in one pair of hands, contained the ingredients needed for the spell to combat the dark magic. She had never been squeamish about chopping off a bat’s wing or poking out a snake’s eye, let alone pulling off a frog’s leg. “They’ve got another one,” she muttered as she scrambled through the twigs and leaves that were scattered on the ground.
It was quiet. Only the wind rustling the leaves on the trees could be heard. As she walked in the direction of her cave, her mind wandered back to a time when she was not so alone. She had come from a long line of hags who had lived in the area for many hundreds of years.
I’m all that’s left now. The line will die out with me.
Octava stopped and sniffed. Her eyes began to feel damp. She blinked in an effort to rid herself of the tears that threatened to fall at the memory. But she could not rid herself of all those other memories. Perhaps it was the silence of the night and the place that brought it back. The woods were where the coven had had their monthly meeting. Many voices, much laughter all around a great pot that bubbled upon the flames of a huge fire. There were spells and dancing. Oh yes, Witches loved to dance themselves into a trance. She remembered how she had stood away from them, watching and wishing. Wishing to be more accepted. She was not like the others. She was the only one to have four arms and an unusual taste in food. Granted she was not pretty, but then not many Witches were.
“I don’t know what all the fuss about my appearance was. Frightened, that’s what they were. Scared the blood line was not pure.” Octava sighed and looked up into the pale moonlight. Which of them could say that they could chop up ingredients for their dinner while reading a book at the same time eh?
She stared at the moon a moment longer before lowering her eyes to look directly in front of her. She saw nothing but the images that were playing in her mind’s eye. She heard nothing except for Narandella’s voice telling her to leave.
“Go now Octava and never come back to us again.”
“But why? What have I done?”
“Your four arms, your bent back, the rumours that you have acquired, let us say, an unusual taste in flesh, have brought disrepute on our coven.” Narandella looked around the gathering as all heads nodded in agreement.
“But I’m the progeny of Cattama, and her mother before her and hers before her. My line goes back for centuries.”
“People are frightened and no longer come for help. How are we to live if the people do not seek our help and pay us for our favours? You must leave. You are no longer welcome. Be gone.” Narandella pointed a finger at Octava as the rest of the coven looked on.
She saw herself walking away, an outcast from the group. Her exile made her bitter and resentful. But it also made her determined to be more powerful than her sister Witches. She studied her craft with a diligence that was born out of rejection and loathing. Her prowess in the skill of mixing magic spells became so remarkable that word spread through the witching community and soon they began to fear her.
Octava reached out in front of her, as though to touch an image only she could see.
 They came when they were scared enough, to ask my forgiveness for their treatment. “I forgave them all right. Killed every last one of them. May they rot in hell.”
She spat on the ground as if to seal her curse and laughed at the memory of their faces as they laid dying in the dirt and how she had stripped them of their possessions. The lock of hair she found on a ribbon around the young Witch Lily’s neck. She knew who the hair belonged to, she made it her business to know what was going on.
The hoot of a distant owl snapped her out of her reverie and she hurried on home.
“Bat’s wing, snake’s eye and frog’s leg. Dust it must be to work.”
 Octava pounded the mixture in the metal pot, until it was a fine powder. She picked up a bottle and held it towards the flames that danced within a silver dish set to the side. She pulled the cork free from the bottle and sniffed.
 “Boy’s blood. So red, so beautiful.”
 In one set of hands she held the bowl with the powder and the bottle with the blood. In another hand she held a metal rod. With her free hand she pulled a hair from her head. To combat dark magic you had to put yourself into the spell, she knew that, but she had no fear of the consequences. She poured the powder and blood together into the fire in the silver dish and added the hair, whilst stirring it with the metal rod. The incantation to create the spell to combat dark magic rolled easily from her mouth, a slim wisp of a spell that curled into the air and reached towards the silver dish.
Octava watched as the flames ignited the powder, hair and blood. Her eyes widened as the ingredients and fire become one. The fire spiralled upwards from the dish, whirling faster and faster, a kaleidoscope of colour.
Within the vortex she saw the bat’s wing flap.
“And there, and there.”
She pointed at the whirlpool as the snake’s eye blinked and the frog’s leg jumped. The hair twisted itself around all three to bind them and the blood poured over them to cement them in place. She took a step back as the flames leapt towards the roof, fiery tongues licking outwards in all directions. The blaze lit up the cavern, so bright that she had to shield her eyes. Then with a hiss and splutter the flames extinguished and within the dish came the clang and the clatter of metal upon metal.
“It’s done.” She moved in closer. A miniature arrow lay in the dish. “Perfect. I just have to throw it and it will work its magic.” She rubbed her hands together and cackled as she reached in to retrieve it. “Oh.” Her reflection from within the silver bowl stared out at her. Down one side of her dull grey hair was a streak as black as night itself. “Hmm. That’s different. Not much of a price to pay was it? I think it complements my good looks.” Octava laughed as she slipped the arrow into her robe pocket. “Now to make the illusionary draft.”
It was already the early hours of the morning when she had almost finished the draft. “I’m one ingredient short.” She rubbed her chin with one hand while scratching her head with another and searching her shelf of bottles with her extra pair of hands.
She pushed aside one bottle after the other. I’m sure I had spiders legs somewhere. She went back to the spell list and read the instructions once more. It says not to deviate from the ingredients. But surely beetles legs can’t be much different from spiders? What harm could it do?
She collected the jar of beetles legs and tossed half a dozen into the brew. They sank into the bubbling mixture and just as she was about to stir it, they ran up the side of the pan as if trying to escape.
 “Drat these beetles legs. Spiders would never do that.” Octava tutted as she pushed them back down with her wooden spoon, but as soon as she knocked the last one into the liquid, the first ones started to climb out again. By the time she was finished, she was exhausted and it was almost daybreak.
She poured the illusionary brew into a vial and then made herself a refreshing cup of nettle tea. The village will be awake now. Ha, they probably haven’t slept a wink with all those rats running amok. “Won’t they be pleased to see me.”
 She slipped the vial into her other pocket and grabbed her cloak and swung it over her shoulders. On the table stood the basket of berries she had prepared, glistening like tiny jewels. The poison had long ago seeped into each plump and juicy fruit. Her lips curled into a smile as she took hold of the basket and headed out and towards the village.
When she arrived outside the village, the gates were wide open. The people were going about their normal day’s activities, and there wasn’t a rat in sight. What’s happened here? Who got rid of the dark magic?
She peered at the village square where the market stalls were being set up. Well, I won’t be needing this after all. She patted the metal arrow that lay in her pocket. It will keep. With Lostan nearby, I may have need of it yet.
From her other pocket she pulled the vial of liquid. It fizzed within the glass container. It shouldn’t do that. Octava frowned as she held it up and studied it. Could it be the beetles legs that’s causing it? I have to get in to see the boy and get what’s mine. I mixed it well. It should work. She uncorked the vial and held it to her mouth. “Throw it in, tip it back, down it goes without a scratch.”
The liquid slid down her throat and hit her stomach in an explosion of bubbles. Her tummy stretched out in one direction, then in the other, as though a large finger was pushing the skin out of shape. A rumbling noise, at first soft, grew louder and louder as it climbed up her gullet and erupted from her mouth in a thunderous burp while at the same time a gush of steamy vapour poured from her ears. Octava stood still and caught her breath. She hoped no one had seen. She looked towards the gates, but the inhabitants of the village seemed not to have noticed her.
 Her whole body quivered as it started to changed shape. To all, she would now appear as a beautiful tall woman with a head of vibrant red hair topped in a White Witch’s hat, decorated with stars and the moon. Garbed in a robe of pure white silk she held the basket of fruit in her hand. Her lips pressed themselves into a smile as she took her first steps towards the gates. Her body quivered again and for a second she fluctuated between the illusion and her real self before returning to the illusion.
 Damn. it must be those beetles legs. I must concentrate if I am to hold this illusion. The spell only lasts a short while. I must be quick.
Octava hurried through the gates and into the main square. The stall holders stopped what they were doing as all eyes were cast upon the White Witch that stood before them.
“Who be you?” asked the baker.
“I’m Isabel Icicle, The White Witch of the Snow Mountains.” Octava concentrated as she felt her body flutter.
“Snow Mountains? Where would they be then?” He looked up from setting his loaves out on his table.
“Oh, they’re somewhere over there.”Octava pointed a slender finger in the general direction. “South of that great hill.”
“I thought White Witches were just a legend. Don’t know anyone who’s seen one before,” said an old woman as she sorted through vegetables that she was going to sell. “You’re not having us on are ye?” She sniffed and wiped her nose across a grubby sleeve. “We don’t like tricksters.”
“I assure you my dear lady, I’m who I say I am. It’s true White Witches are rarely seen. They only do nature magic, not much call for that these days. Can you direct me to the Wizard’s house. I assume you have a resident Wizard?”
The old woman put down a cabbage and came to stand in front of Octava. “Why do you want the Wizard?”
“I bring a gift of berries.” She held up the basket. “A gift from nature and to introduce myself.” Octava smiled her sweetest smile.
The old woman wrinkled up her eyes and stared intently into Octava’s face. “What’s wrong with your nose?”
“My nose?”
“Yes, it keeps changing shape.”
“I assure you it doesn’t. You haven’t been eating toadstools instead of mushrooms, have you?”
“Old Betsy’s been known to hallucinate from time to time,” said the candlemaker. “Too much pipe baccy, eh Betsy?”
The gathered group of sellers let up a roar of laughter at the joke.
“You silly old fool,” said Betsy turning away from Octava to glare at the old man. “You’ll find the Wizard’s house over there. It’s the big one with the steps up to the door,” she called over her shoulder before returning to her vegetables.
Octava climbed the steps to Narcam’s house, knocked on the door and waited.
“Someone’s knocking at the door.” Micos leaned out of the workroom. “Nettle, the door.” But when Nettle didn’t appear, Micos sighed and walked towards it himself. “I’ll just answer it then shall I?”
“You do that.” Nettle’s voice echoed from the kitchen.
“I knew she heard,” Micos muttered as he opened the door. His mouth dropped open as his eyes took in the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Hullo.” Octava smiled. “You need to close your mouth before something nasty flies in it.”
Micos snapped his lips shut. “Sorry. Can I help you?”
“I’m Isabel Icicle, The White Witch of the Snow Mountains and I’ve come to pay my respect to the Wizard.” Octava kept her gaze on the boy. I’ve found you, you little wretch. The urge to reach out and clasp him around the neck was so great, that it felt like her extra pair of arms was going to break free from the illusion and strangle him. She took a quick breath and filled her mind with the image of Isabel. She felt the slightest flutter within her body and then everything became stable again.
“The master’s away at the moment, but I,” Micos placed a hand on his chest, “am considered the Wizard in his absence.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you and I bring you this gift.” Octava held out the basket of berries. Micos’s eyes lit up at the sight of the bright fruit that glistened in the morning light.
“How rude of me. Do come in.”
 Octava walked through the doorway.
“This way.” He led her down the corridor until he reached the kitchen. “Nettle we have a visitor.”
He stepped aside as Octava entered the room, then he closed the door behind them. Nettle looked up from the food she was preparing and stared at the woman who stood by Micos. She wiped her hands on her apron and walked over to the two of them.
“This is Isabel Icicle. She’s the White Witch of the Snow Mountains and she brings us a gift.” Micos pointed to the basket of fruit.
“A gift?” Nettle looked at Micos, then the fruit, then at Octava. “That’s very kind.”
“Yes, I come to pay my respects to the great Wizard that overpowered the Dark One.”
“The Dark One?” asked Nettle.
“Word has reached far and wide that a Wizard from this village forced the one known as Lostan to leave. I came to see this Wizard for myself and congratulate him.”
“That was me.” Micos beamed with pride.
“Then indeed I have come to the right place.” Octava placed the basket down on the table.
“Nettle we should offer our visitor some refreshment. Please sit.” Micos indicated the bench.
Nettle glared at Micos. There’s something not right here. White Witches are legends and there are no Snow Mountains in these parts. She looked at Octava. “What may I get you? Herbal tea? Water?”
“No, don’t trouble yourself. I’m perfectly all right. Just a chat and then I’ll be on my way. Come sit, eat some of the berries I brought. Trust me they are delicious. But first tell me young Wizard how did you get the Dark One to leave?”
Micos sat down opposite Octava, and Nettle came to stand by his side.
“Well, I just said the spell I had concocted that made Lostan start to age rapidly and to stop it he had to leave.”
“Ah, I see. But was the spell alone all you needed?”
“Why are you so interested in what he did?” Nettle stood with her arms folded across her chest, her gaze firmly fixed on Octava. Just for a moment she thought she saw something, a change in her features, but it was gone as quickly as it came.
“Why my dear, Wizard’s magic is fascinating to a Witch. Us girls are just not in the same league are we with our potions and powders. Why don’t you have a handful of these luscious berries while I talk with the young master here.” Octava pushed the basket of fruit towards Nettle.
Nettle said nothing, but kept her eyes on the woman dressed in white. Something’s weird about her. I can feel it. She gave Micos a look that said, keep your mouth shut. But he glanced back at her and decided to ignore her. After all, if someone was interested in hearing his tale then he was going to tell it.
“Actually I did use something else,” said Micos, embellishing the story he was happy to tell. “A sort of charm, to boost the spell. A talisman only a Wizard could create.”
“Can I see it?” Octava’s eyes sparkled.
Before Nettle could stop him, Micos had withdrawn the talisman from his pocket and held it out in the palm of his hand.
“Here boy have some berries.” Octava pushed the basket closer to him.
Nettle watched Octava. The light seemed to be shifting all around her. She noted how her slender hand as it reached towards Micos’s hand, seemed to change shape. She caught a glimpse of gnarled fingers and yellowed nails. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Micos grab a handful of the juicy berries and bring them up to his mouth.
“No Micos!”
Nettle slapped Micos’s hand as hard as she could. The berries toppled from his grasp to scatter over the table and floor. The click of her fingers rang in his ears.
Octava’s illusion dissolved and in the place of the White Witch stood her bent body clad in black. Micos fell backwards as Octava kicked away the bench and lunged towards him with her four arms, one set reaching for him, the other for the talisman.
 “Give that to me boy.”
Micos, still holding the talisman, backed away pulling Nettle with him.
“You can’t escape. Give me what’s mine and I promise I won’t hurt you or the girl.” Octava’s face wrinkled as she narrowed her eyes.
“How do I know I can trust you?” Micos kept a tight grip on the talisman.
“You can’t,” whispered Nettle.
Octava moved to the edge of the table. Nettle’s eyes darted first to the door which was closed, then to the Hag, who was working her way around the far side of the table. Nettle looked once more at the door. Octava looked at her.
Nettle’s heart banged so hard she could barely hear herself think. Can I do this? I’ve never tried it before. It’s our only chance. With lightning speed she swung around to face the door. With her back towards the Hag, she raised her hand, screwed up her eyes and put all her focus into the words. “Portus apeario.”
The door creaked. Octava stopped dead in her tracks and stared. Nettle held her breath. The door creaked again and opened half way.
“Run Micos!” Nettle tugged on his arm and both made a dash for the opening.
“Oh no you don’t. I want what’s mine.” Octava grabbed some powder from her pocket, clambered up onto the table and threw it in their path. It hit the ground and exploded in a fireball. Micos pushed Nettle to one side as they skidded around the flames. Nettle grabbed the door and pulled it wider as the two of them ran through and down the hallway.
“Come back.” Octava scrambled down from the table and ran after them. The front door was open and she charged out and down the steps. Where are they? She scanned the surrounding area, but neither the boy nor the girl were to be seen.
* * *
“Those fools. I waited all night for them to bring the boy. So the rats weren’t enough eh?” Lostan ran his hand through his hair, only to find several strands remained wrapped around his fingers. He looked at the dark hairs and remembered the spell’s warning, before allowing them to fall to the floor. “Pfft.” Let’s see how the villagers survive not just the rats but a never-ending storm.
Lostan retrieved the Dark Magica from its hiding place. He knew he needed dark magic to manipulate a natural force like weather, and to do so was a risk. Mother Nature hated being tampered with. He turned the pages until he found the incantation he was looking for. The warning in bright red ink jumped out at him.
To make the weather wild.
A single tear is all it takes,
 When lightning strikes, beware my friend,
You don’t get the shakes.
Do not stutter or falter.
Speak each word right from the start.
Or lightning that runs through the sky
Will jolt though your heart.

I must have whatever it is she gave the boy. Lostan placed the book back in its hiding place and fetched a silver vial from the ornate box that stood on the small table.
 “I need a single tear.”
He frowned. He was not given to shedding tears. It was a weakness he didn’t possess, except for perhaps one brief moment in his life. He pictured Lily’s face once more and the pain was as sharp now as it was back then. She had been sweet and kind. Had she lived, his life might have been different. I’ll never know now, will I?  As he pictured her face, her smile, down his rough cheek rolled not one, but two tears. He held the vial up and captured the first, whilst the second fell silently to the ground.
“Damn Octava.” He gathered up his cloak and threw it across his broad shoulders. He placed the vial inside one pocket and opening the door to his tree house, stepped outside. “I’ll put an end to this one way or the other.” Filled with anger at the villagers and hatred for not just the Hag but also the boy, he marched towards the village.
* * *
“Is she there?” said Micos in a low voice.
“Shush or she’ll hear us.” Nettle peered around from the corner of Narcam’s house. “She’s going over there.”
Micos came closer to Nettle and looked over her shoulder to where she was pointing. Octava was so preoccupied with looking for them, that she had not noticed she had wandered into the square. It was when somebody shouted at her, that she realised where she was and remembered they could see the real her.
“It’s the Hag from the cave. Look!” called out the candlemaker.
“Where?” said another man.
“There. Look,” cried the old woman from behind her vegetable stall.
“How’d she get in the village?” said the basketmaker.
“WITCH. It’s the Witch,” shrieked the old woman.
Octava froze. Her eyes darted across the group of stall holders who were now glowering at her. “Stay back, or I’ll turn you into frogs.” She reached into her pocket and retrieved more powder. “Stay back, I say.”
“She’s bluffing,”said the old woman.
“But she’s a Witch,” said a boy as he cowered behind the apple cart.
“Can she do that?” Micos leaned on Nettle and squinted to get a better look.
“Not with that powder. It’s what she threw at us. If she had anything better than that flame powder, she’d have used it on us.”
“Should we go and help them?”
Nettle pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Best not get involved further. You’re in enough trouble already when Narcam gets back.”
Nettle and Micos continued to watch the Witch and the villagers.
“Turn us into frogs. I’d like to see ye do that.” The old woman puffed out her chest and rolled up her sleeves.
“Careful Betsy, she’s a nasty piece from what I’ve heard tell about her.” The baker came to stand by her side.
Octava was beginning to panic. All she’d brought with her was the poison berries and the combustible powder. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this,” she mumbled.
She hurled the powder in the general direction of the crowd and turned to run. It exploded in a flash of bright yellow flames which set alight the beard of the basketmaker. He screamed and jumped around, his hands flapping in a frantic attempt to put out the flames that were threatening to consume the hair on his face. He ran to the water trough and threw himself in. A sizzle and a hiss drifted into the air along with a cloud of steam.
“Get her,” said Betsy as she picked up a tomato and tossed it at the retreating Witch.
 The others joined in, and a various assortment of vegetables and fruit flew through the air, some hitting Octava while others whizzed past her ears. She reached into her pocket and lobbed one more handful of powder over her shoulder. She heard it explode as she scurried as fast as her legs would take her towards the gates. Her breath now coming in short bursts, she rushed through the opening.
“Ha, I got away.” She glanced over her shoulder. While still running full pelt, she hit something hard and toppled over into a backwards summersault. Over and over she rolled, her arms flailing helplessly until she landed upright on her bottom.
She felt more than a little dizzy and placed her head in her hands. “Fireballs and cauldrons! What was that?”
“Well, well, who do we have here?”
The deep voice made Octava gasp. She removed her hands from her face and looked up. The jet black eyes of Lostan stared back at her.

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