The dream tasted bitter and cold. Like an unripe, frozen apple, hard and almost poisonous. I swallowed and it clung to the inside of my throat, refusing to go down easily.
Aiden’s dreams were always bad. It was probably the main reason he stuck to me.
The taste of his nightmare still lingering on my tongue, I decided on the flavor of the new dream and started weaving it. Soothing and warm, just like a baked apple coated in cinnamon and sugar would taste. Once my magic settled over the tall boy sprawling on the couch I turned back to my cauldron.
The crow’s feet had simmered so long that the meat started separating from the bones. Perfect.
Pulling back the long sleeves of my grey school blazer I began to fish the bones out of the brew with a heavy brass hook, humming absentmindedly. It wasn’t often that I used animal parts in my recipes, as I prefered to rely on a myriad of different plants, but like every witch worth her salt I had to tackle the more stomach-turning potions as well. The one I was currently making would improve one’s vision, and if the concentration was exact enough, the consumer would even be able to see in the dark as long as the effect lingered.
Brewing potions was one of my favorite past-times. My magic wasn’t especially powerful or flashy; quite the opposite, for the casual observer I wasn’t really doing anything when consuming or creating dreams. But when it came to potions every witch was equal. You just needed a spark of magic, patience and some recipes.
Even fishing for bones was not so bad and I felt relaxed here in my tower. A soft rain drizzled against the only window, making the light dull and grey. This was countered by the warm glow of the multiple candles strewn across the circular room, one even towering on top of a stack of books. The air smelled like wax and old leather, dust and the fragrant herbs I’d laid out for drying - and the slightly less pleasant odor of cooking bird feet wafting from the cauldron.
This room, which I at one point came to think of as my room, was at the very top of one of the smaller eastern towers of the school building. The building itself, compared to its twin in the human world, had always reminded me a bit of a cluster of different mushrooms growing haphazardly: there were bridges spanning between the mass of different towers, labyrinth-like hallways and constantly changing styles of architecture. My room pulled off the medieval-castle-flair, with stone walls, small, slitted windows and a high, shadowy ceiling. In the past it might have been the private study of a professor, or maybe even a small classroom, but as the building was expanding, there was no need for it anymore. When I found it, it had been abandoned, the furniture covered with tarps and spiderwebs collecting in the corners.
The spiders were still there, simply because I didn’t have the heart to kill them, but the room was otherwise clean. Circular and stuffed to the brink with tomes, candles, small trinkets and herbs, I had made myself at home.
I’d found the room quite by accident, during my first weeks at school. Thanks to my faulted sense of direction convincing me east was west and the other way around, I climbed the horrendous staircase while searching for my Herbology classroom. Only after arriving at the top, close to lung failure and longing for one of those oxygen tents they erected for mountain climbers, did I notice the glaring lack of other students or a teacher.
Since that second day of school I came here regularly, whenever I had some free time. It probably said a lot about my social skills, but I loved the solitude of my little tower, where I could experiment with potions to my hearts content. At home there was always someone around, my parents, my grandma, my aunts and uncles, my younger siblings and cousins - but here I was on my own.
Well, almost. I risked a glance at Aiden, the boy sprawled on the mustard-yellow couch, one arm thrown over his head. The furrow between his dark brows had smoothed out and his breathing was deep and regular. The warm dream I’d woven for him seemed to have rooted. As usual, while he did wear the Saint Morgan’s school uniform, he still managed to make it look like a casual outfit - no tie and a sloppily done shirt, that gaped open around his collarbone, showcasing the words best chest and tanned skin. A small pin glinted at his collar, declaring his status as a sophomore.
Black and grey tattoos covered his hands and forearms before disappearing under his rumpled clothes. His bronze hair, short on the sides but longer on top of his head defined a sharp face with a jawline that could probably cut glass. Silver piercings caught the candle light, a stud in his eyebrow, a ring encircling his pouty bottom lip and five more decorating his left ear.
My heart gave one of those strange hops that set my stomach fluttering and I quickly turned back to my brewing potion. The visual of bird bones floating in a yellowish stew should have been enough to calm my heart, but the picture of Aiden’s soft lips pierced by gleaming metal refused to budge.
I’m so screwed.
Almost as if my wish for a distraction had summoned him, the door across the room banged open and a student lurched in, breathing hard.
It took me a second to recognize him. Colin Mitchell, golden boy of our grade. He had it all: the good looks, the popular friends and girls literally swooning over him. On top of that he was a strong Pyromage, which practically guaranteed him one of the coveted spots among the Guardians.
At the moment though, his good looks were taking quite a hit. His usually flawless caramel skin was forming strange bluish black bubbles along his throat. His dark blond hair, on other occasions styled into a perfectly fabricated mess, was now an actual mess with strands wildly sticking out. His face was red and sweaty and he was wheezing - probably because of the long winding stairs leading up to my room.
The unnatural bubbles concerned me.
“You’re that potion witch, right? Mary Something?” he gasped.
“Maggie,” I corrected him, but he ignored me.
“Why isn’t this damn room keyed in? And what’s wrong with that stairway from hell?”
“It’s not an official classroom.” Only those were magically accessible by the keys each student carried. It was the only way the building could be effectively used - otherwise the teachers would probably have to force search teams to comb the hallways looking for lost students every day.
“Fantastic,” was his only comment before he straightened with visible effort. Angling his chin up and pointing at the black blisters at his throat, he said: “I need some help.”
Warmth brushed my back and the clean scent of pine needles enveloped me.
“Who’s your visitor, Mags?” a voice drawled, rough from sleep.
Colin stared at a point above my head. His eyes were almost comically wide.
“A boy from class,” I answered, trying to ignore all that warm flesh pressed against my back.
“Hmm.” Aiden rested his chin on my head, probably still sleepy. I felt his hard stomach brush my shoulder blades.
A strange tingle flushed across my skin. Don’t blush, don’t blush ...
“What happened?” I asked Colin, forcing myself to concentrate on him instead of Aiden.
He blinked a few times before refocusing on me. “Eh ... Right.”
Gathering his wits and pointedly not looking at the boy draped over me he again indicated his neck. “Well, at first I thought it was a curse so I went to Abigail - you know, the hot redhead sitting next to Celine Lacoste. But she told me that it definitely wasn’t, so my next guess is poison. And I was told you’re the best in our grade when it comes to potions and stuff.”
I would dearly like to know exactly who told him that.
Aiden plucked a small vine out of my hair. I probably put it behind my ear while brewing the base for my current potion, the same way some people did with pencils.
Focus. “Did you eat or drink anything suspicious today?”
Colin’s eyes lit up, making him look a bit like an eager student happy to know the correct answer. “Yes!”
He opened the overstuffed brand-name bag hanging from his shoulder and tugged a silver and red stripped circular box free. Someone had glued a big red bow on top of it.
“I ate some of these.” He told me while handing over the box.
Aiden watched the proceeding over my head, without commenting. He didn’t seem all that interested.
If only he would put a bit of space between my distracted self and his body.
On top of the box, next to the bow, was a card with the words Happy Holidays scrawled in a feminine flourish.
The handwriting looked disturbingly familiar.
A bad feeling formed in the pit of my stomach, as if it still had trouble digesting Aiden’s bad dream.
I opened the box and an aroma of sugar, butter and citrus peel greeted me. It smelled of family, Christmas and happiness. Immediately, memories bubbled to the surface, unbidden.
The small kitchen with its blue tiles at my aunt Theresa’s house, filled to bursting with flour covered children who were alternately pressing cookie cutters into the flat, rolled out dough spread before them and eating little pieces of it when my Grandmother looked the other way for a second. In the overlapping picture of my memories the children slowly started growing up, but the general scene stayed the same.
No matter what kind of teenage rebellion one went through, no Rotfuss child had ever dared to miss Grandma’s annual Christmas baking.
I didn’t even have to look at the heap of cookies in the box, some coated in chocolate, others with a frosting made from lemon juice and powdered sugar, to know that someone who regularly attended these events had made them. All of them were generously decorated with colorful sprinkles and gleaming little sugar beads. Weihnachts-Plätzchen, as my Grandmother would call them.
I picked one of the cookies out of the box - shaped like a Christmas tree coated in chocolate and pink sugar beads - and sniffed it. The fragrance of chocolate overpowered almost everything else, but I knew how they usually smelled, and something was off by a hair.
What did you do, Jo?
“Do you know who gave you the cookies?” Because I was pretty sure I did.
Colin shook his head. “The were already on my desk this morning when I got to school.”
I frowned. “And you just ate them, without knowing who left them there?”
He blushed slightly. “Look, a lot of the girls do this, pack me lunch or bring me sweets. I didn’t really think about it.”
Sure. What could go wrong if you constantly ate food strangers - hormone-laden, magically adept strangers - prepared especially for you?
But Jo’s magic was not harmful, the gift of Farsight couldn’t really affect cookies in any way - good or bad.
A potion then. Probably a self-made one, if this was some kind of prank or revenge. But like all Rotfuss children she learned about potion brewing since she could walk. Why would she make a blunder that resulted in strangely colored skin irritations?
Maybe it had been an impossible potion. Colin was good-looking and (under normal circumstances) charming - What if Jo had tried to feed him a love potion?
Love potions were the Opus Magnum to potion brewers, the same way creating gold had been for alchemists. Not really because they all collectively wanted to arm teenage girls with the supposed solution for all their troubles, but because it centered on the principle of controlling a person’s feelings through a potion.
It was already known and tested that potions could manipulate almost every part of the human body - organs, blood, soft tissue, muscles, sometimes even bones. They could cause hallucinations, a whole range of pain or pleasure and some managed to drive people insane, but they couldn’t fabricate emotions. All the pheromones and hormones attached to one, yes, but not the genuine human emotion.
So, in the best cases, love potions acted like Viagra on speed. In the worst cases, they did something completely different, like causing blood to gush out of the victim’s nose. Or maybe their skin bubbling up in discolored blisters.
But making a real love potion was impossible. And Jo would have known that just as well as I did. Grandma made sure to hammer it into our heads, right at the time when boys stopped being stupid and disgusting and instead were somehow interesting. I couldn’t really picture Jo relying on it anyway.
I looked at Colin again. Maybe it hadn’t been a mistake? Were the blue-black blisters actually the effect she’d been going for? They looked painful, even dangerous. It didn’t fit. Jo was no angel but she wasn’t this cruel either. Something must have gone wrong.
The quickest way would be simply to ask her what she put in the damn cookies. Then I could mix an antidote and no one would be the wiser.
But for that I had to get her alone.
“Leave the cookies,” I told Colin. “I’ll try to figure out what’s in them, and then we can look for a solution.”
He swallowed. “So it actually was poison?”
“No poison,” I corrected him quickly. One had to be very careful throwing that word around. “But the cookies have been tampered with.”
“Great,” he murmured.
Aiden straightened and yawned, and I quickly beat down on my disappointment at losing his touch.
Colin’s eyes flickered towards him and he swallowed before refocusing on me.
I never understood this strange behavior some of the students displayed in front of Aiden. They were nervous and twitchy, almost scared and never looked at him longer than a second.
Sure he looked a bit intimidating, with his height, and tattoos and stuff, but not to the degree to warrant those types of reactions.
I was sure there was something I was missing. To me Aiden always appeared laid-back and slightly detachted, as if we were all performing part of a play he watched at his leisure. Nothing really bothered him, and I’d never seen him get angry or loose his temper.
But maybe it had been different in the past? Aiden was at the school a year before I set foot in it, and a lot could have happened in that time. Maybe he used to be the school bully?
Maybe he took the school bully out in a spectacular fashion?
If I would participate in some of the gossiping around here, I’m sure I would have quickly found the answer. But it felt wrong somehow, to talk about Aiden behind his back. We were a team. If there was something he wanted me to know, he would tell me himself.
And until then I would just ignore the strange behavior of the others.
“Then I’ll come back tomorrow. Let’s say around noon?” Colin shouldered his bag. “Thanks for helping me, by the way.”
“Sure.” I smiled and watched him leave the room, closing the heavy door behind him.
“So, who did it?”
I flinched and turned around to face Aiden. He was standing next to my workstation with the still bubbling cauldron. His eyes, the most amazing shade of green I’d ever seen, searched my face and a small smile tugged on his lips. “You panicked as soon as you saw the cookies.”
Of course he’d picked up on that.
Sighing I walked closer to him and took up the brass hook to continue my ministrations on the potion. “I’m quite sure it was my cousin. Josephine Rotfuss.”
“Hmm.” He leaned against the counter. “Did quite a number on him.”
“I’m certain that’s not the effect she’s been going for. I’ll talk to her once I’m finished here.”
“Why not now?”
“Because if I leave now, the potion will be ruined. And crow feet are damn expensive.”
A witch had to have priorities after all.