ONE | Forgather
I have to keep going, or I will die . . . Like my master.
One step after the other.
I tell myself that despite the deep ache from the tear in my soul where the Dark Warlock severed it from hers . . .
Bowing my head, I push down the fresh tragedy fermenting in my mind. All four legs stiff as though the paralyzing spell had left a residue, each step sends a hot shock up to my joints. But nothing could compare to the pain crushing my heart to dust.
I calculate any means of a threat before convincing myself to venture back out into the streets. I’ve been running all night. If I don’t find shelter soon, light will come, extinguishing the shadows, my safe havens.
The witch I’ve been tracking can’t be far. Her energy is strong; it calls to me. Although I loved my previous master dearly, I can’t very well ignore this new welcoming song.
If I find her, I will be safe. Perhaps I will remain powerless if our souls never bond, but at least I’ll have her protection.
One more block, I tell myself. One more block and she’ll be there. She’ll welcome me with open arms and heart. From the strength and energy pulling at me, I’m sure she’s bonded with more than one familiar. Something tells me there will be plenty of room for me, whether in cub form or not.
What if the other familiars don’t like me? Or I them . . . Would they fear the darkness I carry?
I shake my head as though it’ll fling the doubts away. No need for such negative thoughts without even knowing her name. I’m sure she’d at least let me stay until I was ready to move on.
I see it then. Another light post, I assume, but the light has a slight bounce as we draw closer to each other. I halt across the street and the light pauses as well. It rises, illuminating an old woman’s face.
Her eyes flash with the gold of the flame, and my vision blinks white. The identification has been complete: witch and familiar, staring at each other across the street, one waiting for the other to make the next move.
“Hello, dear.” Her tone is gentle, the strangely familiar voice is raspy and worn with age. She might be older than me. “Come on, I can take you home.” She motions for me to follow.
My heart runs faster than I could ever keep up with despite my magical abilities. I almost collapse from relief and exhaustion hitting me all at once.
“I feel your pain, sweet kitty,” the elder witch whispers. “You don’t have to speak until you’re ready, okay? I promise you’ll be safe with me.”
I want to believe her . . . But the warlock that killed Master Zeydha . . . Such power should be impossible. Yet, the energy resonating from this witch felt almost—if not just—as strong.
With tentative steps, I narrow the cobblestoned distance between us.
She bends down once I’m about two yards away. My steps slow, but in a blink of exhaustion, the world tilts and she has an arm keeping me upright.
With her free and deeply scarred hand, she strokes my fur from head to mid back. After a moment, she brings her fingernails up to my ears, where she scratches. “There you go,” she says in a tone grownups usually use with small children. I almost purr from amusement. Her fingertips trail the rounded tips of my ears. “I see you’re not just a kitten, huh?” Scooping me up in her arm, and I force back the urge to extend my claws and dig into her freckled skin. “A panther,” she says with an awed smile. “There’s a first for everything.”
As she walks us back towards her house, her soul weaves with mine—something witches do when they meet a new familiar. It’s how they learn . . . “Ozul,” she says, and I raise my gaze to meet hers. “Pleasure to meet you, Ozul. My name is Agatha.”
I finally allow myself to purr, the vibration almost makes me want to cry too. She must feel it, because she sets the lamp down on the concrete wall by the gate and scratches my ear again.
“It’s okay, little one,” she says. My tail twitches. “We’ll be safe together.” She opens the gate and picks the lamp back up.
TWO | The Familiars
While trying not to get overwhelmed by all the different scents in the garden, a movement catches my attention through my peripheral. Through the small window by the front door, I see 2 cat silhouettes. 4 golden orbs glow through the curtains. My own vision nearly completely fades from the glare of my own irises.
“Don’t worry about them,” Agatha says as she shuts the front gate behind us. “They’re all real friendly. Even the snakes.”
Snakes? I look warily at the door and consider jumping out of Agatha’s arms and making a run for it.
The witch says something under her breath. There’s a click, and then the door creaks open. A large bird and a rabbit wait for us at the top of a shelf by the entrance.
“Oh, Raio,” Agatha says when the rabbit’s black-tipped ears twitch in her direction. She sets down the lamp, blows it out, and picks up the fur ball. “How did you get up there this time?” A pause, a chuckle. “Yeah, I’m sure she’s quite happy to have you out of her fur now, eh? Were you being nice?” Another pause. “I didn’t think so.”
Birds’ wings flutter as they begin chirping their concerns about a new feline entering the premises. Agatha sets the rabbit down on the floor, and it hops away in a zigzag manner.
“Everyone.” Once the critters settle down, the witch also sets me on the worn hardwood floor. “This is Ozul. Please try to make him feel welcome.”
I approach with caution, taking in the three snakes slithering in my direction. The cats stretch across the sofa and yawn like they’re bored. A Great Dane sits up on the recliner and is about to say something, but the rabbit hops over to me, his ‘hi, hi, hi!’ so loud it drowns out whatever the dog says. ‘I’m so happy to meet you,’ he says. ‘Hope you don’t run me up the walls like Cira does.’ He glances at one of the cats on the sofa.
The cat licks her paw and doesn’t look up as she says, ‘You should try to not be so annoying.’
As Raio tells me about how his siblings had found other witches, my attention wanders. My gaze stops at the fish, frog, and snake tanks that line the wall. A discreet sliding ladder contraption built into it sits at the corner of the living room. I can picture Agatha climbing it to access the tanks on the higher built-in shelves.
If the pull here was so strong for me, what’s to say the warlock can’t feel it, too? My chest contracts and I force myself to breathe. The rabbit is rambling about his favorite game to play, but I can barely follow his rushed words. ‘How many familiars are in here?’ I cut in.
‘Oh, um . . .’ The rabbit vibrates in place.
The cat shakes her head. ‘Just go, Raio,’ she says. Before she’s even done speaking, the rabbit dashes out of the room without a word. ‘Excuse his hyperactivity.’ She jumps off the couch and approaches me at a cautious pace. ‘Huh,’ she says. ‘You look young, but your essence . . . Ancient, at the very least.’
I don’t respond.
‘There are at least fifty five animals here,’ she finally answers, sitting before me. Her lax black tail wraps around her white legs. Though seemingly relaxed, her gaze pierces through me with such intensity I feel exposed. She must read the fresh wounds in my heart and soul because she adds, ‘You would be wise to speak to Master Agatha. The moment you go through the bonding spell, the safer you will be from the Dark Warlock.’
My heart stumbles. ‘Y-You know about Leander?’
The other cat hisses, his fur rising on its back, and the rest of the animals cower. The male cat hops off the couch and joins Cira, staring down at me. ‘We do not speak that name here.’ His colors are the same as Cira’s, only reversed; white tail, black paws.
‘Sorry,’ I start, but he’s speaking over me.
‘You could do well here, as long as you’re not a suspicious fellow.’ He narrows his eyes. ‘You’re not a suspicious fellow, are you?’
‘If I was suspicious, would I tell you?’
Cira chuckles, failing to cover it with a sneeze when her brother looks back at her. Something passes between them, through a link only shared through the same litter.
The Great Dane raises his head and wags what’s left of his docked tail. ‘I like you. Please tell us you’re staying.’
‘I . . .’ I glance at the other felines.
Cira looks at me, blinking slowly. Her twin brother stares intently.
‘. . . thought it’d be up to Agatha.’
The Great Dane barks out a laugh. ‘Master Agatha wouldn’t say no to you.’ He jumps off the recliner and trots my way. One of the snakes slithers up his leg and wraps around his neck. A live scarf. ‘She sensed you coming and wanted to make sure you found your way home.’
‘Home,’ I repeat without thinking.
‘That’s what you’re looking for, in’it?’ the Great Dane says.
‘I wish . . .’ I lower my head as I realize how stupid I’m about to sound.
‘I know.’ The shine in the dog’s eyes fades and his shortened tail is still. ‘You’ll miss your old master for a while. Maybe for the rest of your life,’ he admits. ‘I lost my Master, too,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t a big fan of these people, especially not Shaxi.’
The snake shakes her head. ‘Jeezzz, Dragon, thanksss,’ she says through five flicks of her tongue.
‘But this is my family now. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t found Agatha.’ He nudges my head with his wet nose. I intend to stay put but end up shaking the dampness from my fur the best I can. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to mind. ‘You’ll fit right in,’ he assures me. ‘You’ll see.’
Agatha comes back to call for lights out. A bird flies across the living room to the light switch and pecks it off, submerging the room in darkness. My ally and my enemy.
The witch pauses as she twists the additional locks. She says an incantation in a rushed whisper and the runes on the locks glow and fade into faint blue outlines. “It’s best everyone sleeps inside until I can scope out the area in the morning.”
‘It’s already morning, Master,’ the rabbit says, still hopping around in zigzags.
“Not to me,” she says, giving the rabbit a playful scowl. “And you all better behave while I slumber.”
‘Yes, ma’am—Yes, Master!’ the familiars call out.
They all retreat into their preferred sleeping spots. The cats go back to the backrest of the couch, the moonlight making their fur shine. Dragon wanders back to his recliner, the snake draped around his neck and shoulders. The rabbit disappears behind a couch. The birds disappear behind some books in the bookshelves.
‘You can come over here,’ the Great Dane calls out. I join him by the recliner and settle down on the rug below. ‘You can jump up here, if you’d like,’ he offers.
‘He might want to keep his distance for now, Dragon,’ the snake says.
‘Ah, right. Cats don’t like snakes.’
‘We’re not the only ones,’ Cira chimes from the window.
The Great Dane laughs.
It takes me a while to fall asleep. The variety of scents tickle my nose and the number of unfamiliar energies make my restless soul wary. It’s surprising I sleep at all, but despite the shuteye, it’s not restful.
THREE | Mail
Halfway through our meals, there’s a knock on the door and I nearly fall off the island table at the sound. With a shuddery yawn, I right myself. Every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing my late master die while I was frozen to the ground by her spell.
‘Mail!’ the Great Dane says through a bark. ‘Mail, mail, mail!’ He jumps up and down as Agatha nears the door. ‘Do I get a new toy, Master? Do I get a new toy?’
“Hush up, boy,” she tells him and he backs up a couple of steps, looking at me with wide eyes while panting in his excitement. Agatha opens the door and greets the mailman, “Good morning.”
“It’s 1PM,” the mailman says, unsmiling.
“Goodness me,” the witch exclaims. “Making breakfast must’ve taken longer than I thought.”
He looks over her shoulder at the animals. “Wonder why.” He hands her the package and gives her something to sign. “Have a good one,” he says and backtracks before turning to open the gate. “Crazy old lady.”
Before shutting the door, Agatha whispers something under her breath.
The mailman falters, tripping over a raised slab of concrete. He almost falls but catches himself before resuming the walk.
The slab of concrete sinks back into its spot and Agatha shuts the door with a smile. “You have no idea.” She joins us at the island table again.
Cira raises a claw and Agatha holds the package out to her. She tears through the tape in one swift movement. Agatha pops the box open and looks inside. “Hmm.” She reaches into the box and pulls out a book.
My heart drops. Without thinking, I walk up to her and stare at the cover.
“What is it?” Agatha asks, sensing my uneasiness. “Do you know who this is from?”
At my hesitation, Cira bumps into me. ‘You need to talk to her,’ she tells me.
I cave. Despite the knot of reluctance between my heart and the pit of my stomach, I open my mind to her. ‘That’s my Master’s journal.’
Agatha looks down at the book and tentatively undoes the strap that binds it together. A piece of paper falls out as she opens the book. As she picks it up, her eyes widen. She glances at me, then back at the paper.
“Agatha . . . If you are reading this,” she pauses to look at me again, then averts her gaze as she reads on, “. . . I am no longer in the world of the living. In this book, you’ll find spells I’ve created. Some successful, some not. Keep it safe. And beware of the Dark Warlock; he’s coming for us. Ozul senses him, too. It doesn’t matter how much we run, the outcome is much the same. I don’t know when Leander will find me, but I do know it’s a matter of time. You’ll do well to listen to Ozul. Do not, under any circumstances, look for confrontation. He will be ready. Worse, he will win.”
Agatha turns the paper, and her gaze drops to the end. Her eyes widen, tears forming in her eyes. When she continues, her voice shakes. “I know you’re more powerful than I ever was, and I wish we had been closer, made a coven, like our parents wanted. Perhaps we’d have more hope. I hope that, when Ozul finds you, he’s able to provide you with enough strength and clarity to know how to proceed. I wish you the best. And if you decide to confront him, please be careful.
Best of regards,
Your sister, Zeydha.’”
FOUR | Hope
Agatha and I stare at each other for a long moment. Sister. This is my master’s sister. From what she told me, they stopped talking long before I came along. I want to ask why, but the tears in her eyes stop me from prying.
‘Master, are you okay?’ Dragon asks softly.
Agatha shuts the book and holds it close to her body. “I’ll read through it,” she says, wiping her cheeks and sniffling. “You guys stay put and keep an ear open.”
‘Yes, Master,’ Dragon says, stubby tail wagging slightly. ‘Both ears open for me. You can count on that!’
“I know,” Agatha says with a small smile. She retreats into her room with the book and closes the door behind her.
Right away, Dragon and some of the more energized creatures start discussing the possibility of going after Leander. I’m appalled by the idea. I thought they would want to be safe. For their and their family’s sakes.
Cira once again seems to gaze into my soul despite my efforts to remain compliant. ‘Safety is overrated, Old Kitty,’ she says. ‘You’ll find sometimes peace lies within danger.’
‘That doesn’t make sense.’
She grooms her paw, eyes half closed. ‘Life doesn’t make sense.’
I hold back an irritated purr. She has a point.
For months, Master had tried to figure out Leander’s motive. All to no avail.
We tracked down the dark warlock and found some blood for a spell. The spell revealed he had no family in this realm, either dead or in another universe. Whatever the case, he didn’t seem to have a clear intent. But, as I told her multiple times, I doubt there’s any motive under that wicked man’s actions.
He completely obliterates witches, leaving no trace of their soul behind. The familiars were killed too, but my late Master Zeydha thought ahead. She figured if one of us could survive, it would be okay.
Why she thought I would be okay without her is beyond me, and I almost resent her. I miss my master so much it hurts. We were two halves of a whole.
‘I suppose we should convince Ozul here to do the bonding ritual,’ Cira says.
Aric tilts his head. ‘It’d be a waste of time and energy.’
Dragon barks. ‘That’s not very nice.’
He shakes his head. ‘Ozul does not strike me as the kind to be disrespectful, but . . .’ He turns his striking golden gaze in my direction. ‘You don’t like us much, do you?’
‘You guys don’t seem to care about being rude,’ I admit. ‘But I’m not leaving.’ I should . . . but I left my Master to fend for herself. I can’t leave; I’d be failing her again. Master Zeydha wanted me to find her. There must be hope.
FIVE | Spiders
Hours later, we wait for Agatha in the basement to begin the bonding ritual. I have never been to a basement before. All my Master had and needed was in the living room. We never had many visitors . . .
If Agatha has other friends, perhaps some could help us. But when I ask Dragon, he brushes off the question with ‘We don’t need other witches to be strong.’
‘My Master wasn’t one for covens either, but she said one might be beneficial . . .’
‘Yeah, sure,’ he says, unusually curt.
I get the feeling he doesn’t like me as much anymore, and I’m not exactly sure why. Is it so bad I want to be cautious? ‘Dragon,’ I say.
‘Are you angry with me?’
He finally looks at me. His eyes soften, and I can feel the energy between us shift. ‘No, I get you’re trying to help,’ he says, ‘but I have a feeling you think very little of us.’
‘That’s not true,’ I start. ‘Why—?’
‘Didn’t say it was true. Just a feeling. But you’ll see,’ he tells me, ‘we’ll prove to you how powerful we are—how powerful we all can be.’
We wait for Agatha in the dark silence. Despite now being comforted by the fact Zeydha wanted me to join Agatha, my nerves get the best of me and I anxiously groom my paws with my serrated tongue. Soft whispers fill the silence, but they’re not speaking to us, not that I want to speak to them anyway. I’ll be fine as long as the spiders stay away from me.
‘What kind of powers do spider familiars have?’
‘You could ask us, child,’ one of them says.
I jump. ‘Sorry. I didn’t—’
‘We do have ears, you know,’ the other says in a less melodic tone.
‘No we don’t,’ the first spider says with something that mimics a giggle. ‘We have kickass web, though.’
‘Web,’ I repeat.
‘You sound doubtful.’
‘I’m not,’ I say, not sure which of us I’m failing to convince. ‘I’ve never seen a spider familiar before.’
‘You don’t get out much, do you?’
‘I actually—’ I begin, but they cut over me.
‘We’ll have to show him, Itsy,’ the first one says.
‘On it, Bitsy,’ the other says.
‘You guys don’t have to—’ Dragon begins.
The next thing I know, I’m held down by a heavy weight. The net tightens around me, and before I can form another thought, the darkness within me expands. I break through the woven net with my claws and shake off the rest.
Dragon shrinks in front of me. ‘Ozul?’ he says, looking up at me with wide eyes. ‘Whoa!’ He bounces once. ‘That’s so cool, Ozul! You look so strong!’
I look down at myself. Instead of the cub form I usually take, I’m in my full-grown form.
‘Oh,’ Bitsy says. ‘You’re not as little as we thought,’ finishes the other.
I spot a spider hanging not too far above my head and suppress the urge to swat it with my oversized paw.
She retracts and disappears into the shadows.
SIX | Zheyda
Unlike my late master’s bonding ritual, Agatha’s requires a potion. She and Dragon pull a hefty cauldron from behind the basement stairs to the center of the room. She pours the ingredients and mutters the incantations from memory.
Once my blood is added with the witch’s, soft green and purple glow emanate from the bubbling surface.
“Here,” Agatha says, extending some of the potion cupped in her hands. I take a few sips before it’s all gone, and Agatha goes back to the cauldron. She tests the temperature before stepping onto a chair that seemed to have magically appeared in front of her. “Now comes the real magic, little Ozul,” she tells me with a smile. She steps into the cauldron.
The liquid bubbles as she settles in, and I can’t help my curiosity. Hopping up onto the chair, I peer into the cauldron. The surface glows and swirls with the colors of our souls, her bright green with my deep purple. It’s mesmerizing. It’s impossible to look away.
I close my eyes, seeing the colors behind my eyelids. As I lower my head to rest it on the warm cauldron, I hear my master’s voice in my mind. It’s a wordless song, her vocalized tune soothing my nerves. With her calling to me, I start falling into a waking dream.
It’s a strange feeling, and I’m torn between embracing it and ripping it away, but even if I could, I don’t think I would.
I see my old Master, her sweet face welcoming me home. Souls immediately bound, as though meant to be. Sometimes she said that’s why we’d found each other. I think she’s wrong. If I had saved her . . .
At that thought, Leander looms in my vision, startling me.
“It’s okay,” Agatha’s voice says in my head. “He’s not here. This is a memory.”
The dark warlock is a shadow in the dark house. He doesn’t announce his presence until he’s hovering over my Master’s sleeping form. But her senses wake her, and she flings me to the dark corner of the room in a flash of blue and blankets me in indigo.
Frozen to the floor, I beg her to let me move, to let me help, but she—stubborn as ever—tells me she’s got it.
She’s wrong. I now know she knew this better than I.
A blue light leaves her chest. My heart crumbles as her limp body slumps onto the bed. With a frantic expression, Leander looks at the witch’s extracted life force before he breathes it in. As my master’s essence slither is nose and mouth, his eyes roll to the back of his head.
The blue light—the one that mingled so perfectly with my purple upon our first meeting—crumbles beneath Leander’s. He’s ripping it away from me too.
I yowl in real time as the pain of losing her rips through my heart again, but I can’t move yet. The vision isn’t over. The reigns she had so loosely used around me turn to whips as the warlock opens his eyes to look at me.
I don’t cry. Zeydha’s spell still weighs me down. There’s a pull—one with a twist but a lot like Master Zeydha’s—coming from Leander. It’s too distorted and darkened, even for a dark witch.
The little that’s left of my master’s soul calls out to me in the back of my mind.
“Run, Ozul. You have to run.”
And I, the loyal dark familiar to the loyal dark witch, cannot deny her last command.
SEVEN | Recruits
As Agatha resurfaces to heave in breaths, my soul cries all over again for my late master. Back in my cub form, I’m caught off guard when Dragon licks the top of my head. He tells me everything will be okay, and I want to believe him, but he doesn’t understand.
‘I do understand, Ozul,’ Dragon says.
I look up at him, and somehow I can see more than his eyes. His sorrow, his guilt, his understanding radiate from his aura like heat. I haven’t felt more exposed as I do now. ‘You saw?’ I ask, but I already know the answer.
Dragon ducks his head. ‘I saw,’ he says to me. ‘Don’t you worry. We will beat him. I promise you, Ozul.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ I look up at Agatha, who now stands in the cauldron, her grayed hair dripping. ‘How is any of that helpful?’
“Because we know what Leander is doing now,” she tells me.
“Aye,” she says, stepping back onto the chair. The Great Dane pulls a towel off a rack by the stairs and wanders back to our Master. “He’s taking the witches’ powers,” she tells us, voice quivering again. “He was looking for me.”
‘What?’ Dragon and I say at the same time. ‘Why?’
‘Hmm,’ Itsy says as she drops down from above, dangling inches from Agatha’s face.
Her twin follows close behind, and the witch allows them to rest on her arm. ‘He wants our Master’s powers, eh?’
‘Makes sense,’ Dragon says after a moment. ‘She’s one of the most powerful witches we’ve ever known.’
“I’m flattered, Dragon,” Agatha starts.
‘It’s true,’ Bitsy says.
‘The absolute truth,’ Itsy chimes in.
“Well,” Agatha says, suppressing a smile, “even if it isn’t true, Leander thinks so.” She gives me a tearful glance. “I believe Leander killed my sister, Zeydha, to get to me. Draw me out.” She shakes her head, eyes closing in an attempt to keep the tears in. “I’m so sorry, Ozul.”
In my cub form, all I can manage is paw her long skirt. ‘I’m the one that should be sorry,’ I say. ‘I didn’t save her. I failed her. And at the same time, without even knowing, I failed you.’
“You haven’t failed,” she whispers, wrapping her towel tighter around herself. “We haven’t failed her. Not yet. Not if we don’t let her sacrifice be in vain.” After a moment of forcing herself to breathe more steadily, she nodded and said, “Let’s go. We need to prepare.”
‘Prepare how?’ I ask.
“For one, we’ll have to speak to the others and ask them what they’re willing to do.”
I nod. Unlike many witches, Agatha, much like my late Master, doesn’t force the familiars to do anything. She wants them to have an option in the matter, and when she turns to me, I read the question in her eyes. ‘You can count on me to fight alongside you… Master Agatha.’
She grins, eyes sparkling with newfound love.
‘You can count on me too, Master,’ Dragon says. ‘But you already know that.’
‘And us,’ Bitsy says.
‘Of course,’ Itsy adds.
“Good.” Agatha smiles. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Once Agatha finishes retelling what happened in the vision, she asks them who will join the fight. Most of them agree to tag along—even some bats I had not seen when I arrived. Raio the rabbit is in too. The cats agree with a ‘Well, somebody’s gotta watch out for our new kitten.’
Agatha laughs, giving me a meaningful look. “Right.”
EIGHT | Recharging
Night comes fast, surprising even us nocturnal creatures. While focused on memorizing everything Agatha has for us, time becomes meaningless. Brains fried by spells, calls, and more, our thoughts sizzle in unified incomprehension.
“Alright,” Agatha declares. “That’s enough for the night. Rest up. We’ll be leaving at two after midnight.”
The witching hour. Of course. It’ll be when we are most powerful, but if that’s the case, then so would Leander.
‘Master Agatha,’ I say, heart stumbling in a breath.
“I know what you’re going to say, Ozul,” she says. “But it’s best we bring the fight to him than wait for an ambush.”
‘Things could go wrong. Very wrong.’
‘We know,’ Itsy and Bitsy say.
‘This is not our first encounter with the Dark Warlock, dear,’ Cira says.
‘Indeed,’ Aric says, still aiming to look taller than me. He looks a bit ridiculous with his neck stretched so high up. ‘And we will win this time.’
I want to ask what happened last time, but a weight of sadness courses through the group and I get an idea of what must’ve happened.
Even after everyone retreats into their preferred corner, I find it difficult to fall asleep. I’m not the only one. Raio bounces to me and then settles in close, saying something about being cold. I know better, but I don’t say anything. There’s no need. The fear is thick in the air. It’s almost impossible to breathe.
‘I wish my master were here.’ I must’ve been on the edge of sleep because I don’t mean to actually say it.
‘Her death won’t be in vain,’ Dragon assures me.
I hope he’s right.
The witching hours roll in and I must have fallen asleep because Dragon is coaxing me awake. ‘You know you don’t have to do that,’ I whine as I rub some of the slobber off onto his recliner.
‘I know, but you’re so darn adorable, I can’t help it,’ he teases. ‘Let’s go. We’re all set to go.’
I look around, amazed I didn’t wake up with all the animals wandering around the living room. The birds and the bats flew about, chirping and squeaking in anticipation for the battle.
“All ready?” Agatha asks, nodding at us as she looks around the living room. “Let’s go, then.”
We leave, turning the lights off on our way out. The streets are silent aside from the slight clicking of claws on stone. We wander about and I assume we’re going in a random direction at first, but Agatha has her gaze on a map in her hand.
Something pulsates purple in the middle of the parchment, and it must be what connects me to Leander. The fact that I have a connection with the Dark Warlock makes the fur on my back stand on end. It should have been impossible for Leander to steal Master Zeydha’s powers . . . and our bond with them. If I hadn’t found Agatha, I can only imagine how easily Leander would have taken control of me.
Yet, the traces of blue struggle to blend with the green. It’s not completely snuffed out. I need to cut the connection entirely, even if it kills me.
NINE | The Witching Hour
“We need to stay quiet,” Agatha says as we turn a corner. The bats fly higher up, their squeaks the only thing giving them away. “It’s not much farther now.” Anticipation makes a few peck at their paws or feathers. The bird on Agatha’s shoulder whispers something into her ear, to which she replies with, “I know, I know. But this is the only way we can win.” Perhaps the bird is about to change its mind, because Agatha adds, “We’re stronger together.”
The bird nods and takes flight joining the bats and letting their ears guide him in the dark.
‘This’ll be interesting, twin,’ Bitsy says, and I jump, not realizing the spiders had taken a hitch on my back.
‘Ha-ha, you scared itty bitty kitty,’ Itsy says.
‘Don’t like spiders much, do ya?’ Bitsy remarks.
I don’t answer and keep trailing Agatha like a second shadow. The full moon is high above. A soft spotlight illuminating the path ahead.
The darkness within me shifts, threatening to grow and expand. Instead, I test my powers out a little with the shade of the post, hoping that will relieve some of the anxiety-induced pressure. The shadow bends and stretches towards us. I let it recede back behind the light before anyone notices.
My powers are back. Still, even if he’s only got my Master’s powers, he’s too powerful. And if he feels the connection as strongly as I do, would he sense us coming? I look around at the misfit pack of familiars marching towards unknown territory. Would this be enough?
‘Master Agatha,’ I begin as we stop in front of an antique shop, but she shushes me and points to her ear.
‘Wait, I got it,’ Aric says and saunters off, leaving the rest of us behind.
Cira tilts her head to the side as though she’s listening to something. With a nod, she tells us, ‘We’ve got him, for sure.’
“Where is he?” Agatha whispers.
Cira tilts her head from side to side before raising her white-footed paw. ‘That way.’
“Thanks, Cira… Thanks, Aric.”
‘You’re welcome, Master,’ Cira says.
‘It’s showtime,’ Dragon says. ‘Master, what will you have us do first?’
“We’ll start with the birds—no, he’ll see them coming.” She looks down at the snake. “Shaxi,” she says, “you go in first.”
‘You got it, Massster,’ Shaxi says as she slithers off her shoulders. She disappears into the shadows, but not before I see her body lengthen as she moves, thickening.
“We’ll only have a few moments before he manages a counter-spell,” Agatha warns. “We gotta move now.”
Dragon charges in ahead of them through the alleyway. His neck twists and distorts before two bulges pop out on either side. The bulges open as the eyes and snout form, revealing sharp canines, and his tail lengthens and splits in three.
While I choke on a breath, the Great Dane’s fur catches fire. He doesn’t stop running. All three heads snarl as he pierces through the shadows and illuminates the way to the back of the small plaza.
TEN | Fallen Familiar
We charge in after Dragon. A web shoots out over my head as the spiders swing off me and into the alley where Leander is struggling to crawl towards safety, cradling his blistered and smokey arm close to his body. They wrap him up in a cocoon of their web. Dragon’s three heads bark. Itsy and Bitsy jump out of the way.
Dragon breathes a stream of fire in Leander’s direction, but the Dark Warlock is ready.
The webs slide off him like water, splashing onto the ground beneath them in their new liquified form. Raising his hand, Leander stops the flames inches from his outstretched palm. “Agatha,” he says with a stiff smile. “And here I thought you would wait for me.”
“I don’t like being kept waiting,” Agatha says, looking up at the sky. “Now!”
The bats swoop down, their shrieks sears my eardrums. Hands over his ears, crying out, but composes himself in time for the bird’s powerful wing-wind. Leander laughs amidst the chaos.
Agatha’s face twists with anger. She catches my gaze and nods to reassure me. “Raio,” she says.
Without awaiting further instruction, the rabbit bolts out in front of us, a spark growing from his tail and between his ears. He skids as he stops on his front legs, haunches raised. The electrified orb at its tail shoots forward. It intermingles with the charge between its ears and then snaps outward with a sharp thunder.
Unfortunately for us, Leander dodges the bolt of lightning. His eyes gleam, his lips already conjuring. The lighting bolt forms into a ball above him, and when he shifts his hand gestures, the bolt goes straight for Raio.
The rabbit screeches and Cira jumps in at the last moment to take the rest of the blast. She yowls but sluggishly picks up the injured rabbit in her jaws and carries him to safety.
Agatha turns to Cira and Aric. “You two ready?”
For the first time, Aric looks unsure. ‘Master, Cira’s hurt—’
‘I’m okay, Aric,’ she says, putting a paw on his. ‘Let’s go.’ He nods, but the concern is clear in his shiny round eyes. He lies down on the ground and she rolls over onto his back. In a flash of gold, their bodies merge, resulting in a huge four-legged creature with four eyes and two tails.
While the feline twins get ready to attack, the spider twins drop down another web. Aric-Cira jump onto it before they’re flung in Leander’s direction. In the air, their sharp and knife-like claws extend. They scurry along the cobblestone and around Leander’s body as they slash into his skin.
In a flash of light, the brother and sister explode away from him in two different directions.
‘Cira!’ Aric cries out, but he doesn’t get three steps in before his shaky legs fail him and he collapses onto the ground.
ELEVEN | Stolen Magic
Wrong. This is going all wrong.
Dragon must sense the desperation of the group because he turns back to the warlock and attempts another fireball. Leander raises his open palm and shouts, “Glista!”
Freezing mid air, the fireball darkens and goes out completely.
The snake struggles to bite down on the warlock’s leg and Leander stomps hard onto its neck.
‘NO!’ Dragon howls. ‘Shaxi—’
Shaxi turns to dust beneath his boot.
‘NO!’ Another furious fire punch escapes Dragon’s throat.
Leander stumbles as he dodges it but doesn’t fall.
Dragon gets ready to pounce, his haunches high in the air, his growling faces low to the ground.
“You have to stop him,” Agatha whispers to me. “He’ll die too.”
I look over at Dragon and hope he forgives me afterward. Catching a glimpse of his shadow, I cling to its darkness and hold it there.
‘What’s happening?’ he asks as he retreats into hiding. No one answers.
The darkness that is my soul shifts. My growing claws catch and scrape against the cobblestone. I look down at my own shadow, watch it grow. Closing my eyes, I pray to the darkness and the shadows within.
When I open them, the shadows are multiplying, rising and materializing beside me. With a deep growl, all five of us charge at Leander.
The shadows reach him first, tackling him.
Leander maneuvers to fight them, but shadows do not feel pain. The silhouettes pummel him with their weight, burying him with their dark energy. He spots me charging at him and manages to shoot a spell in my direction. Agatha shouts, “Escutum!” There’s a green flash and the red light stops inches from my snout before dissolving to nothing.
Once on him, I place my heavy paw on his chest to keep him from moving as the shadows around me disappear. ‘You made a mistake, letting me live,’ I tell him.
A shadow slithers from my paw and enters his mouth.
He chokes, but not on the shadow. He chokes on the powers he’d so willingly gobbled up. While shadows drown it all out in darkness, the fumes of extinguished magic escape his lips, nose, and ears. “NO!” he manages to cry out. “Don’t do this! ST—”
But the last of the magic fizzles out in a puff of blue smoke and the shadow pops out of his mouth with an audible snap.
TWELVE | Extinguished
I step back as the dark warlock sits up, wringing his hands to no avail.
He points a finger at me and says, “Escutum!” Nothing happens. The horror is clear on his face. He looks down at himself and that’s when I notice a dark circle—no, a dark hole—in the middle of his stomach. It swirls and his body begins to shrink, curling into the void. “Please, make it stop.” He takes a step forward, and—as though his spine has snapped in two or three pieces—his posture distorts. The familiars around him hiss and growl, their auras intermingling and caging him in. Looking pleadingly at Agatha, he says, “You have to help me.”
The witch chuckles.
“I’m going to kill you!” Leander says. “All of you. I sw—”
Mid-cry he blinks out of existence, leaving the spot he was on empty.
I breathe, feeling myself shrink back to my normal size. I look over at Dragon as his two extra heads shrink back into his neck. But he’s not looking at me; he’s looking at where Cira and Raio are bundled up together.
We walk over to them.
The rabbit is shaking, his tiny white paws nudge Cira’s black fur. ‘I can’t let her die,’ he says to no one in particular. ‘I’m not going to survive anyway.’
“What do you mean, Raio?” Agatha asks, kneeling down beside the two familiars.
Raio looks up at her. ‘My energy . . . it’s fizzling out.’
Agatha presses her lips together and looks away when tears pool in her eyes.
Raio presses his ears against Cira’s chest. Closing his eyes, a burst of white sparks out and into Cira’s limp form.
She jolts awake, panting sharp breaths, and the rabbit falls onto its side. The feline looks at us gathered around, at Agatha’s tearful face, and then down at Raio. ‘Why?’ she asks, her eyes also tearing up.
‘Both of us couldn’t go.’
‘I-I am . . . so-sorry—’ Cira begins, but Raio stops her with a soft tap of his paw.
‘Thank you, Cira. You’re… the best sister I ever had.’
His eyelids droop and don’t open again. His chest stops rising and falling.
Cira lets out a wail that seems to surprise even her. Agatha picks her up into her arms. The spiders collect the snake’s ashes in a tightly-woven web pouch and make a small net for the rabbit.
The Great Dane doesn’t move from the spot where I bound him with my shadow magic. He stares at the spot where Shaxi had disintegrated despite the wind having blown most of the remaining ashes away. While the fire is gone, there’s something hotter in his eyes. Maybe that’s why he won’t look at us.
‘Dragon,’ I start, guilt weighing my heart down. The thing I resented my late master for . . . I’d done it to him, too. ‘I’m—’
‘Don’t,’ he says. It’s strange hearing no pep in his tone whatsoever. I hurt him. Bad. He doesn’t meet anyone’s gaze as he finally moves, brushing past Agatha and ignoring her waiting hand. ‘I need to go. I . . .’ He once again glances at the spot where Shaxi met her final moments. ‘I’ll be back, but I have to go.’
Before anyone can protest, Dragon takes off in the opposite direction where we came from.
His pain weighs us down as we leave. We keep looking over our shoulders despite Dragon’s energy getting fainter the farther he runs away. Moments later, a howl fills the night, followed by the neighborhood dog’s sympathetic chorus.
The connection between the Great Dane and the pack of familiars tears, and he’s gone.
War is not without painful sacrifice. We may not be leaving as we hoped, but most of us are alive, determined to carry on the fallen’s legacies to the end of eternity.
And we will never fail them.
We are a family. A pack.
The familiars, and the witch.