The Witches' Brew
The creatures of the Dwarf Forests knew to avoid Dead Man’s Creek tonight if they valued their lives. At midnight of every full moon, witchesfrom the forests and neighboring kingdoms gathered at the creek. The meetings were strictly for witches only, and they enjoyed making gruesome examples out of those who disturbed them.
Dead Man’s Creek was shrouded in mystery, making it an ideal place for the witches to assemble. Every so often, without any warning or explanation, the creek redirected itself to flow uphill into the forest. And every time the rerouting occurred, dead bodies floated in from an unknown location.
The bodies were never identified, nor was who or what had sent them—not that any time was given for an investigation. When corpses were found, the witches picked them apart like vultures, taking home what they needed in jars to stock their potion supplies.
The midnight gatherings were held at the Witches’ Brew, an old tavern made entirely of twigs and mulch that sat in the middle of the creek like a giant beavers’ dam. Smoke rose from the tavern’s single chimney, filling the air with a foul odor and signaling to the witches traveling to the creek that the meeting was about to begin.
The gatherings were usually uneventful and low in attendance. However, due to a recent crisis that had taken the kingdoms by storm, tonight’s attendance was expected to be much higher than usual.
Some witches traveled to the creek on foot or by mule. Flocks of witches flew toward the tavern’s smoky signal on broomsticks. A few sailed down the creek by boat or on makeshift rafts. Some even slithered through the water like serpents.
At half past midnight, the tavern was fuller than it had ever been. A hundred or so witches were seated around an enormous cauldron in the center of the tavern, while the latecomers stood in the back.
Dark magic was known for leaving a mark on those who partook of it, and each woman’s appearance had been affected differently. Some witches had warts, enlarged noses, decaying flesh, or eyeballs that hung out of their sockets. Others had been transformed past the point of appearing human and resembled other species. They had hooves and horns, tails and feathers; some even had snouts and beaks.
A short and stout witch with skin made of stone approached the cauldron. She threw a handful of rocks inside and the liquid glowed, illuminating the room in a menacing green light: The meeting had begun.
“Welcome, sisters,” the stone witch said in a gruff voice. “I am Gargoylia, the Stone Mistress of the Dwarf Forests. I assume we’ve all come tonight to discuss the same matter, so let’s not waste any time.”
The witches looked around the tavern and nodded to one another. They may have been a diverse group, but they were united in paranoia.
Serpentina, a witch with scaly green skin and a long, forked tongue, took the floor.
“We’re here to dissscusss the missssing children,” she hissed. “Ssso let me be the firssst to sssay, whichever witch isss taking them needsss to ssstop at once before ssshe getsss usss all killed!”
Most of the tavern was outraged by her remarks. Charcoaline, a witch made of ash and soot, hit the side of her seat so hard that part of her fist crumbled off.
“How dare you blame us!” she hollered at Serpentina.
Embers flew out of her mouth as she spoke. As her temper rose, a lava-like glow filled the cracks of her skin. “We’re always the first ones accused whenever there’s a crisis! I expect better from someone of our own kind!”
Arboris, a witch whose hair was made of sticks and whose body was covered in tree bark, stood by Serpentina’s side. “Twelve children from the Corner Kingdom and twelve children from the Charming Kingdom have disappeared without a trace,” Arboris said. “Only a witch would be stealthy and brave enough to commit such a crime, and she’s probably among us in this tavern!”
Tarantulene, a large witch with fangs, four hairy arms, and four hairy legs, descended from the ceiling on a web produced from her abdomen. “If you two are so certain a witch kidnapped the children, perhaps it was one of you!” she growled, pointing with all four of her hands.
The tavern grew increasingly loud as each witch voiced her opinion on the matter. Gargoylia threw another handful of rocks into the cauldron and a blinding flash of green light hushed them.
“Silence! ” Gargoylia yelled. “It doesn’t matter which witch is responsible, the kingdoms will hold all of us responsible when they’re caught! I’ve heard rumors that a witch hunt is being organized throughout the villages. We must prepare ourselves!”
A witch wearing scarlet robes stepped forward.
“May I offer a suggestion?” she asked calmly. She lowered her hood and a few witches gasped. She was a completely normal-looking middle-aged woman—and a pretty one at that.
“Hagetta! ” Gargoylia said with a dirty gaze. “After all this time, you’ve finally graced us with your presence.”
“Ssshe doesn’t belong here!” Serpentina hissed.
“She’s an embarrassment to all real witches,” Charcoaline said.
Chastising Hagetta was the only thing all the witches could agree on, but Hagetta had come to the tavern expecting to cause a fuss.
“Practicing white magic doesn’t make me any less of a witch than you,” Hagetta said. “And I guarantee you, no one outside this tavern will care what kind of witchcraft I practice if more children disappear. Angry mobs will sweep through the woods until every last witch is found. We’ll all be rounded up and burned at the stake. So, unlike the rest of you, I’ve come to present a solution that will hopefully prevent a witch hunt from happening.”
The witches mumbled and grunted insults at her. Gargoylia tossed another handful of rocks into the cauldron to quiet them.
“None of us want a witch hunt, so if Hagetta thinks she can save us from one, let her speak,” she said. “But make it quick—I’m out of rocks.”
Hagetta looked around the tavern, making eye contact with as many witches as possible. She knew it would be a challenging audience, but she wasn’t going to leave until she convinced them.
“I say we stop assigning blame and put our efforts into finding the perpetrator,” she said. “The world has always blamed all of us for individual witches’ mistakes. None of you would have come tonight if you were responsible, so let’s work together and turn over the one who is responsible. We’ll prove our innocence if we decide to help the kingdoms solve the mystery of the missing children.”
“We can’t turn in one of our own! This is a sisterhood!” Charcoaline yelled.
“It won’t be much of a sssisssterhood if we’re all dead,” Serpentina said.
“The last thing the humans want is help from witches!” Arboris argued.
A witch standing in the back with a large stomach and a carrot-like nose burst into tears, and the entire tavern turned to her.
“I’m sorry,” the emotional witch said. “I just relate to what Hagetta is saying. I’m not a saint, but I’ve been blamed my entire life for things that I’m innocent of.”
She blew her nose into the cloak of the witch standing next to her.
“THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS AN INNOCENT WITCH!” shouted a deep voice no one was expecting to hear.
Suddenly, the front doors of the tavern burst open, causing all the witches to jolt. A man wearing a sack over his face strolled into the tavern as if he owned it. A dozen soldiers in red-and-white uniforms followed behind him. All the witches jumped to their feet, outraged by the intrusion.
“Forgive us for interrupting, ladies—and I use that term loosely,” the Masked Man said with a cocky laugh. “I’ve been listening to your discussion all night, and I’m afraid I can’t keep quiet any longer.”
“How dare you disturb us!” Gargoylia shouted. “No one disrupts us and lives to tell—”
He raised a hand to silence her.
“Before you turn us into mice for your familiars to feast on, please allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “They call me the Masked Man—for obvious reasons. The men behind me are what’s left of the Grande Armée that nearly conquered the world five months ago. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”
Although none of them had been directly involved with the recent war, the witches knew very well about the pandemonium the Grande Armée had caused.
“This man is a joke,” Hagetta said, knowing she had to intervene somehow before the witches’ curiosities grew any more. “He’ll fill your head with tales of grandeur about how he led an army and raised a dragon, but in the end, a dying old fairy made him run for his life.”
The Masked Man scowled at her. “So you’ve heard of me, at least,” he said. He looked Hagetta up and down— there was something very familiar about the witch. He was certain their paths had crossed a long time ago, but he didn’t want to waste any time venturing down memory lane. He had come to the tavern with a purpose, and the witches weren’t going to give him much time.
“I haven’t come here to impress you; I’ve come here to establish a partnership by offering you a warning,” he said.
“We don’t need partnerships with the likes of you,” Gargoylia said.
The Masked Man continued his pitch despite her unwillingness. “You have the right to be worried,” he said. “It’s widely believed that a witch is responsible for the missing children, and the villages that lost their young are not taking it lightly. I’ve lived in hiding for months and even I’ve heard about their upcoming retaliation. They aren’t planning a witch hunt—they’re planning an extermination! ”
The news was heavy for the witches. Was the Masked Man trying to rile them up, or was the situation even worse than what they feared?
“Which is why we need to find the witch responsible while we still can,” Hagetta said.
The Masked Man shook his head. “I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do to prevent this,” he said. “Even if you proved every witch was innocent, this massacre will happen. They don’t want justice for the missing children; they want justice for every crime your kind has ever committed against theirs. They’re using the missing children as an excuse to seek centuries’ worth of revenge!” The witches went quiet. None of them could deny the likelihood of what he was telling them. Relations between witches and mankind had never been easy, and the missing children may have angered the kingdoms of man past the point of no return.
“You try to start wars wherever you go,” Hagetta said, desperately trying to belittle the info he was presenting. “We cannot listen to this man! He won’t be satisfied until the whole world burns!”
The Masked Man smiled. “There’ll be battles and fights, but you’re giving yourself too much credit if you think there’ll be a war,” he teased. “Witches won’t stand a chance once they’re targeted—you’re too outnumbered! Soon, your kind will be as extinct as the dragons.”
The emotional witch in the back burst into tears again. She hunched over and vomited on the floor. “Sorry,” she peeped. “I overwhelm easily.”
Colonel Rembert, who stood among the soldiers of the Grand Armée, raised an eyebrow at her. Something about this witch didn’t sit well with him.
“I think the Happily Forever After Assembly is behind the kidnappings!” the Masked Man said. “The fairies have always wanted to get rid of the witches, and inspiring a massive witch hunt would do the trick! I wouldn’t be surprised if the new Fairy Godmother kidnapped the children herself!”
“The Fairy Godmother would never kidnap two dozen children,” said one of the heads of a two-headed witch in the back.
Rat Mary, a mousy witch with thick bushy hair and enormous buckteeth, stood on her seat to get the tavern’s attention. “Even if the fairies aren’t behind it, I’m sure they’ll encourage it!” she said.
“They want to live in a world without witchcraft!” Arboris said.
“They want magic sssolely for themssselvesss!” Serpen- tina hissed.
The witches were easily convinced the missing children had been a scheme concocted against them, and soon the entire tavern roared with hatred for the fairies. The Masked Man had the witches exactly where he wanted them.
“It’s time the witches fought back!” the Masked Man said.
The witches cheered, but Gargoylia shook her head, acting as the voice of reason. “That would be suicide,” she said. “You just said we’re outnumbered, especially if the fairies are involved.”
The Masked Man rubbed his hands together. “Not if you make the right friends,” he said snidely. “With my help, we can raise another army!”
The witches cackled at him. The idea seemed ridiculous.
Hagetta quickly reclaimed the floor. “An army? An army of what?” She laughed. “Besides, you already had an army, and it failed miserably. Who would trust you to handle another?”
The Masked Man jerked his head toward her. Clearly she had touched on a sore subject.
“I’VE NEVER FAILED!” he yelled. “I have spent my entire life planning a way to abolish the fairies! So far I have succeeded in every step of my plan! The Grande Armée, the dragon, and the attack on the Fairy Palace were never meant to defeat them—just weaken them! Once they thought the fight was over, I snuck into the palace and retrieved a potion I’ve been after from the very beginning! Now that the potion is in my possession, the real war can begin!”
Beads of sweat soaked through the sack over the Masked Man’s face. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down.
“But before I can begin the next phase of my plan, I need your assistance,” he continued. “There was something else in the Fairy Palace I meant to steal along with the potion—a collection of sorts, but the late Fairy Godmother must have gotten rid of it. I need your help finding where she put it. Once we find it and combine it with the potion, I’ll be able to recruit the new army.”
Gargoylia crossed her arms. “But what kind of army?” she asked. “If the Grande Armée and a dragon weren’t enough to obliterate the fairies, what is?”
“An army beyond your wildest imaginations!” the Masked Man said with theatrical gestures. “An army that will make the Grande Armée look like a gang of children! I’ve been dreaming and scheming about it since I was a boy, and with your help we can bring it here. We can lead this army together and this world will be ours!”
The witches couldn’t tell if the Masked Man was insane or if there was merit to what he was saying.
The emotional witch couldn’t contain herself after hearing his speech. “I’m sorry. It’s just so nice to see a man so passionate about something,” she cried, and tears spilled down her face.
Colonel Rembert eyed the witch suspiciously. As the witch cried, her carrot-like nose was washed away by her tears—it was a disguise!
“Sir, I believe we are in the company of more than just witches!” Rembert shouted to the Masked Man. He quickly retrieved his pistol from inside his vest and aimed it at the witch.
Suddenly, the emotional witch leaped into the air and somersaulted toward Rembert, drawing a long sword from inside her cloak. She sliced the tip of the pistol off as she landed at Rembert’s feet.
The witch moaned and held her stomach. “Somersaulting is more difficult when you’re pregnant,” she said.
The Masked Man stared down at the impostor—she wasn’t a witch at all.
“GOLDILOCKS!” he screamed.
“Goldilocks, what are you doing in the tavern?” Hagetta said.
“Hello, Hagetta,” Goldilocks said. “We followed you here. We knew the Masked Man couldn’t resist an audience with the witches.”
“We?” Hagetta asked.
The Masked Man backhanded Rembert across the face. “You idiot! You’ve led us right into a trap!” he shouted. “Seize her!”
The soldiers of the Grand Armée rushed toward Goldilocks with their weapons raised.
“NOW!” she yelled.
Four witches in the back threw off their disguises. Jack, Red Riding Hood, Froggy, and the third Little Pig had been among them the entire time.
The two-headed witch charged toward the Masked Man, separating into two different people as she closed in—Alex and Conner Bailey. The two circled the Masked Man. Alex pointed her crystal wand at him and Conner raised his sword.
“You aren’t the only one with masks, dude,” Conner said.
Alex didn’t say anything. She was clutching her wand so hard she was afraid it might break in her hand. After months and months of agonized searching, they had finally found him. She would finally unmask the Masked Man and expose his true identity to the world.
“It’s over,” Alex told him. “And no one is going anywhere this time!”