The Pied Piper
Babet was casting a spell when someone pounded on her front door. Whoever it was would have to wait. Vittorio, her friend the vampire, needed a protection amulet. With his usual sense of dark humor, he’d brought her a fang attached to a leather thong. She hoped he meant to wear it around his neck, but with Vittorio, she never knew.
The door opened, and her mother stopped on the threshold. No witch would interrupt a casting. When the spell was finished, Babet motioned her mom inside. The house’s wards knew her as a friend and let her pass. Morgana, Babet’s familiar, slithered to greet her. The boa loved company.
Her mother raised an eyebrow at the long, curved tooth. “Really? Someone chose that as an amulet?”
“Vittorio.” Her mother knew him. He’d helped them fight the necromancer who’d come to River City to recruit dead witches.
“Did he yank it from a true dead friend?” her mom asked.
“No, I think it’s from a Were of some kind. It looks authentic, though, doesn’t it? I hope it helps him. He’s managed to anger another one of his own. It’s a good thing he has witch friends or he wouldn’t last long here.” That, and he was old enough to be formidable. Not that Vittorio looked old. Anything but. With his long, lanky body and dark, untamed looks, women came to his parlor to get tattoos they didn’t even want.
The niceties dealt with, her mother got straight to the point. “Two of my students didn’t make it to witch’s school this morning. Their parents sent them, but they never arrived. They always walk together, and…” at Babet’s smirk, “they’re not the type to skip.”
Babet’s smirk faded. She watched her mother lace and unlace her fingers. It took a lot to bother Mom, the leader of River City’s coven. “No one’s seen them?” She glanced outside her front windows. The sun hovered at the tree line in the west. The day had gotten away from her. Prosper was working late tonight on a case with Hatchet, so she didn’t have to watch the time.
Her mother looked out the window, too, as though the girls might walk down the sidewalk in front of Babet’s yellow bungalow. “They never returned to their homes. They’re good girls. Something’s happened to them.”
Babet licked her lips. The last time children disappeared in River City, the bogeyman was stealing them, but he only took children who misbehaved, and he’d promised never to return. Most supernaturals lived together in peace here. Succubi, vampires, voodoo, Weres, and witches treated one another with respect. The supernatural enforcement agency—where Prosper and Hatchet worked—made sure of that. But there was always the danger of someone or something new invading their city.
“Have you felt any new magicks?” Babet asked. She knew that by now, most of the coven would be out scouring every nook and cranny for the girls. Her mother must have thought they’d find them, or she’d have come for her sooner.
“That’s why I’m here,” her mother said. “We’ve felt ripples of magic, but we can’t find their source.”
Babet nodded. “Let me drop this off at Vittorio’s place—the sooner he gets it, the better—then I’ll join you at the shop. I’ll bring Morgana with me.”
The snake bobbed her head. She had a great sense of smell. No bloodhound could beat her at tracking, especially when magic was involved.
Her mother nodded. “Hurry. The girls have to be frightened, if….”
Babet interrupted her. “How old are they?” Witches from kindergarten through high school age attended her mother’s classes.
“Twelve. Right on the brink of….”
“Maturity.” A witch’s powers swelled when she came into her womanhood. Babet pressed her lips together in a tight line. “Have you talked to Evangeline?”
Evangeline had both witch and voodoo powers. She trained with their coven, and her mother was the high priestess of the voodoo community near the bayou.
“They’ve already sent their spirits out to search, too.”
Babet wasn’t sure what else they could do, but she’d offer any assistance she could.
Half an hour later, she parked at the curb in front of her mom’s school. Vittorio had promised to join her once the sun went down. Loreena, one of the witches in her mother’s coven, waited at the door for her. Her lovely, mocha face was scrunched in panic. Her lithe body tensed with nervous energy. “Vesta’s missing now, too. Her mother’s been with us, tracking any scents of magic we can. Her husband called her home half an hour ago. Vesta was in her room, upstairs, doing homework. He didn’t hear her leave the house. She didn’t say goodbye or tell him where she was going—not like her.”
A chill shivered down Babet’s arms. “Are any other children missing?”
“Not that I know of.” Loreena was sliding into Babet’s car to ride to Vesta’s house when Babet’s mother pulled in behind them and screeched her car to a stop. She and Hennie ran to Babet and Loreena. “Ezra’s gone now. His dad was watching him play soccer. Ezra went to the bathroom and never came out. When his dad went to check on him, no one was there.”
Babet blinked. “Did anyone else leave the restrooms?”
“A man in a long, black coat and black pants. He was carrying something shiny. It flashed in the last of the sunlight, so Ezra’s dad remembered it. And there were lots of black birds flying overhead.”
Babet bit her bottom lip. No one wore a long, black coat in Three Rivers in September. What was this man? “We might be able to use the birds to track him. I could take Morgana to the soccer field to try to follow his scent.” She’d have to wait to do that until it was dark and the park was empty. Mortals tended to wonder about boas.
Before they could divide up to search, Evangeline and Perdita pulled next to them. “Two more children are missing.”
Babet curled her fingers into fists. “How?” By now, every witch parent had their children under lock down. No one would enter their houses and no child would be allowed to leave.
“Opal and Saffron climbed out their bedroom window and shimmied down a tree to run off.”
“He’s calling them,” Babet said. “He’s bespelled them somehow. He’d need hair or nail clippings to do that. He’s planned this, probably for a long time.”
“How do we find him?” her mother asked.
“Morgana can follow his scent. We’ll start at the soccer field.” The sun sank below the horizon. It would be safe now. Most parks closed once it was dark.
They formed a caravan to drive to the fields, and Babet walked with Morgana to the public restrooms near the parking lot. Morgana’s tongue flicked in and out. When she found the scent of magic, she started after it. They followed a trail through the woods to a large, grassy field. A circle of stones sat in its center. At one time, voodoo ceremonies were performed here—dances, music, and food. No black magic, but when River City’s surburbs bumped against the voodoo community, the community had picked up and left. Now, it sat between the slow-moving, lazy river and the bayou—three of its borders safe from encroachment.
Morgana slithered toward the circle, stopped, and bobbed her head.
A man sprang from the shadows behind the waist-high, stone wall, balancing on top of them.
Loreena gaped at him. “Roary! What are you doing here?”
Babet stared at his bare feet. Earth magic. He held a ragged piece of mirror in both hands. He swayed from side to side and tilted his head, listening to something none of them heard. Then he stared hard at Loreena. “After you cast me aside, I traveled for a while, learned new magics. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I was at you.”
Loreena frowned. “What are you talking about? We met at the spring solstice. You barely spoke to me. You barely spoke to anyone.”
“I wanted you.” He did a little jig on the flagstones. “But you never noticed. The beautiful girl with the jade green eyes had no time for me.”
“I thought you didn’t like me.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Who wouldn’t like you?”
Babet had to agree. Loreena’s skin looked like smooth, deep caramel. Her exotic features attracted second glances. And her smile stunned. More, she was friendly and outgoing, so people flocked to her.
Loreena smiled at him. “So you came to visit me? To tell me how you feel?”
Smart girl. Babet was impressed.
“No!” Roary screamed the answer. He raised the mirror above his head and cried, “I came to make you as miserable as you made me.”
“But why? If you’d have talked to me, we could have been friends.”
“I don’t want to be your friend!” Roary’s body trembled. He shoved the mirror in front of him for them all to see. “All you talked about was your coven, how much you loved your fellow witches. So I knew. If I hurt them, I’d hurt you.”
Morgana slithered toward him, and he glared at Babet. “Keep your snake away from me, or I break this.”
“A mirror? Is it important?” Babet kept her voice light, conversational. She didn’t want to upset Roary any more than he already was.
Roary’s lips twisted in a cruel smile. He spoke some words, and a circle of fire formed in the air behind him. A portal. “My magic’s sucked your children into my mirror. I want Loreena to watch me send them through the portal to the demons that await them.”
Cold stabbed Babet’s heart, made it clench. Fear sped through her body. An entrapment spell. Black magic. She frowned at Roary’s wrists. Scars crisscrossed each other. No wonder he wore long sleeves and pants. She’d bet he’d cut himself everywhere to offer enough blood to empower the mirror.
Babet’s mother spoke, her voice like dry ice. “We’ll kill you once you harm our children.”
Roary laughed—a high-pitched, eerie noise that set Babet’s nerves jangling. “You can try.”
He meant to open the portal, then cause a diversion and disappear. He wasn’t as good as he thought he was. Every witch in the coven knew that trick…and how to stop it. They’d fought demons before. But by then, it would be too late. Once the children went through that portal, they’d never return.
“I’ll promise to go with you, to stay with you, if you free the children,” Loreena said.
“It’s too late!” Roary ran in place on the flagstones. Babet didn’t know how he kept his balance. It must be his Earth magic grounding him. “I know you don’t want me. I won’t live a lie.”
Tears coursed down Loreena’s cheeks. “Please, don’t do this.”
He raised the mirror and began to say his words. If they rushed him, and the mirror fell and broke, the children would be trapped wherever he sent them. The amulet needed to return them would be destroyed. If they waited, he’d send them to the pits.
A flash made Babet rub her eyes. The scenery blurred, and then Roary howled in fury. His hands were in the air, empty.
Movement stirred beside her, and Vittorio offered her the mirror. She blinked. A vampire’s speed. So fast, mortals couldn’t follow it. Obviously, neither could witches when they weren’t concentrating to see it.
She felt a lump swell in her throat and she swallowed it down. “Thank you.”
Vittorio shrugged. “I owe you. Your spell saved me this evening.”
She shook her head. She and Vittorio kept trading favors, and so far, it benefited both of them.
Roary licked his lips. He gulped. He was about to perform his disappearing act when a large, clawed hand shoved through the portal, grabbed him by the back of his black coat, and dragged him through the fiery hole. When his foot disappeared, the portal closed.
Everyone stared. No one knew what to say. Finally Vittorio asked, “Does someone here know how to get the kids out of the mirror?”
Hennie nodded. Babet’s mother’s best friend knew more about spells and potions than anyone in the coven. Her mom could have looked it up in a spell book, but now she didn’t have to. Hennie took the mirror from Babet, held it high, and chanted a spell. First, Saffron and Opal walked from it, then Ezra, and then the two girls. When the mirror was empty, Hennie asked, “Is there anyone else, from some other place?”
Then Hennie broke it. No one rejoiced. Everyone sighed with relief. Shoulders hunched, feet dragging, they silently walked back to their cars at the soccer fields. Babet gave Vittorio a ride home. Loreena returned with Babet’s mother and Hennie. Evangeline and Perdita rode together.
When Babet and Morgana returned to their yellow bungalow, Prosper’s car was parked in the small drive by the back patio. He was holding a glass of wine for her when she stepped inside the kitchen. “Hatchet got a call from a few witch parents. I’m guessing you’ve had a long day. Do you want to talk about?”
And suddenly, she did. She needed to spew it out, rid herself of the aftertaste. They sat across from each other at the table, and he shared his day, and she shared hers. One of the perks of bonding with a werebear. He was not only cuddly, he was a great listener, and the perfect partner.