The Witch's Cookbook
The swamps of the Haunted Woods glow a fantastic golden green when the afternoon sun penetrates the canopy. Instead of the menace the fogs take on at other times of the day, in the afternoons all burn away, and the surface of the water takes on an emerald gleam. Draphlies skate across the surface of the glossy bogs, herds of Tralbaks creep from their hidden bushes to drink, and strange, feral vines unfold their leaves to drink in the light. At the heart lies a tiny building that appears to have grown from the earth itself, nestled in the roots of a gargantuan swamp tree. The untended, rickety bridge over the swamp is littered with warning signs varying between the threatening and absurd. "GO NO FURTHER." "NO TRESPASSING." "A GREAT BEAST AWAITS YOUR DELICIOUS AND FOOLISH ARRIVAL."
The little speckled Aisha bounces up the steps, arms full of ingredients. A strip of bottled spices belted to her waist clank hard against her hip, but in her excitement she ignores the small bruise starting to form. She reaches the door at the top of the (considerable) staircase and begins loudly banging on it.
"Hello, I'm here!" she shouts at the door. From inside the small cottage comes a long, exhausted sigh, and then a series of slow, shuffling footsteps beginning to approach the creaking door. An enormous yellow eye appears at the keyhole and the Aisha ceases her frantic knocks.
"Can I help you?" a withered, ancient voice intones from behind the door.
"Oh, um, yes. This is, um...this is the house of Sophie, the renowned apothecary? Yes?" The Aisha shifts, watching the eye as it slowly blinks.
"Hmm," the voice answers. "Hmm."
The eye seemed to shove itself further out the keyhole, unblinkingly staring. The Aisha shrinks under its unwavering gaze, but refuses to budge from the porch. Crokabeks flurry down from the branches of the great tree, bristling and crowing around the edge of the porch. From inside, the Aisha hears a scratchy-sounding mew and the brushing sound of papers being tossed about. The eye continues its stare, oozing further and further from the door until a loud SQUELCH resounds, a Slorgclops popping from the door and scurrying to stand at the intruder's feet. More mewing voices join the cacophony from inside until thunderous footsteps return to the door.
The door slams open and a cloaked figure stomps out, brandishing a broom against the Crokabeks. "Quiet! That's quite enough, all of you! Shoo!" A flood of Meowclops pour out of the house, several holding scrolls between their teeth. The Crokabeks flee and the figure turns to face the Aisha, drawing back a massive hood. "You're the one the Fairground Commission sent?"
The Aisha recoils at the sight, but regains her composure quickly. Under the hood, a green Ixi grimaces, covered with sores, blisters, and tumors so numerous that at first sight she isn't recognizable. "Madame Apothecary! I'm very excited to work with you."
"Name, please, give me your name," Sophie snaps, her voice as damaged and misshapen as her face and skin.
"Ash Grey. I sent you letters." She smiles sweetly at the lurching form. "I'm the chef designing the potions menu for the Haunted Fairground Gala. Did you not...read them?"
"Read what?" Sophie mumbles. A Meowclops paws at her leg, offering up a scroll of parchment tied with a neat, honey-colored ribbon. "Oh, these? Definitely not."
Ash soldiers on. "Regardless, I'm here to work, so let's get down to business."
Sophie suddenly jolts. "Oh, wait, the gala is next month? Hmm."
The Aisha's face scrunches up in anger for a brief moment. She draws a vial from her belt, and shatters it abruptly onto the ground. She returns to her bright, cheerful smile, smoothing herself out.. "Yes. The gala is next month, Miss."
Sophie stares at her with an odd look on her face for several moments, then steps to the side, gesturing to door. "Come on in, Ash Grey."
"In the name of Coltzan's great beard, don't use the skeem juice in that cauldron!" Sophie shouts from the other side of the kitchen, looking over her shoulder at the speckled Aisha.
"In the name of making this taste good, Coltzan's great beard will have to take a back seat for now," Ash retorts, pouring a bottleful of the sparkling orange liquid into a steaming mixture which appeared to hum discontentedly at any touch. A cloud of smoke rises from her spoon, which is sucked into the mixture along with the rest of the bottles contents and the hum rises into a scream. Sophie casually strides over and reaches into the simmering pot, pulling out an icicle shaped spear of the skeem juice and wood fragments. She opens a window and tosses it into the swamp. The strange object whistles through the air and lodges itself in a tree. Sophie closes the window just as it explodes, sending chunks of the tree flying. Sophie whirls around to face Ash with a manic, furious grin.
"Next time, Miss Grey?" she asks, her gravelly voice shocking Ash from her stupor.
Ash pauses. A Mozito buzzes between her antennae, and the humidity of the kitchen seems to be impenetrable, drips of thick water and sap rolling down the walls. Finally, she mutters, "Point taken."
Sophie grunts, then turns back to her work, cutting up some mysterious triangular fruit into translucent slices. Ash stares at her back. The robes cover the worst of the mysterious ailment, but the change in the witch from her infamously spry and cantankerous form to this limp and oozing silhouette was stark. Her eyes, once a bright emerald green which mirrored those of her mentor Ilere, had turned to sticking out from her face like sores, swollen and yellow as pus. Her hooves were chipped and unclipped, a sickly grey color. Her fur had fallen off in patches, leaving scaly, mangy skin behind. Sophie senses the eyes fixed on her and stiffens, but carries on with her work.
Ash rinses off her paws and carries the cauldron to the sink, where she begins to rinse it. (Sophie had already yelled at her for scrubbing the seasoning from the cast iron once, although Ash wonders how exactly potion remnants serve as any type of seasoning at all.) She hums a soulful little Jazzmosis tune to herself, tapping her tail against her leg to an imaginary rhythm. From across the kitchen, she hears a small, annoyed grunt and slowly tucks her tail back in, finishing the cauldron robotically and silently. As the tiny chef gathers ingredients for her next endeavor, Sophie storms out of the room. Ash frowns, her smooth forehead creasing.
Sophie bounds back into the kitchen and slams an enormous grimoire onto the kitchen table, flipping through it rapidly. She stops at a page and, glancing up at Ash with a grin, utters a short incantation, waving her staff. The kitchen fills with simple, bubbling music, reminiscent of a genre the younger Neopians might call 'water faerie rhythm synth'. Sophie sets her book aside. "I thought we might lighten it up in here."
"The explosion didn't help? It was pretty bright." Ash wipes her brow, relaxing.
"Oddly enough, explosions aren't normally entirely relaxing to me," Sophie laughs.
They both settle comfortably back into their work, quietly listening to the soft blue music. It seems to cool the room, providing a simple rhythm to their movements. Ash references a pile of potion books on the table, cross-checking ingredients and spices. As Ash sorts through the tomes, Sophie drops slugroots into the cauldron, motioning Ash over. "Not for taste, maybe, but they tend to help with stability. They're easy enough to cover up with other flavors." Ash nods, tapping a dash of citadel stew spice into the mix. Sophie leans against the wall, looking at the cauldron. "It took ages to season that. No one realizes the importance of built-up magic in spells nowadays. They always want things clean and perfect. If something's powerful, though, it needs a bit of an extra kick to it. Potions aren't a toy, and they aren't something you can use to get exactly what you want. It'll take a minute for that to cook in, if you need a break."
Wiping her paws off on her apron, Ash returns to the kitchen table. Sophie watches her cross the room, but speaks before she can reopen one of the spell books. "You can ask what happened to me. I won't be offended."
The Aisha sighs before turning her gaze away from her work. "It seems you want to talk about what happened. I take it you don't get many visitors out here."
"Oh, did the Crokabeks give it away?" Sophie laughs. "Ask me."
"You made a bit of a deal with the swamp ghoul, I'm guessing," Ash notes grimly.
She grimaces. "In a manner of speaking. I hunted down one of Krawley's potions."
"Yes. It was a bit of an ordeal."
"And I got my heart's desire. Magic. Enough to fix everyone and everything in the entire world." She smiles sadly down at her hooves. "My brother. He got left. Everyone else? Cured. They lived happily ever after. Who cares about poor old Bruno?"
Ash rubs her temples. "I'm not sure I understand. You knew that there would be consequences. It's how he works. You could've just reverse engineered his work or…"
"Or. Or what? You may know food, chef, but I know magic. It's not like a recipe. It's like a fingerprint. Seasoning, you see? Only Krawley could undo Krawley. I thought...if I had enough power, enough magic, that I...well. When the curse 's sunk its talons in…" She gestures vaguely. "My brother is falling deeper and deeper into that curse every day. It's gradual, and he refuses to care. My parents refuse to notice. I refuse to let him waste away."
"Hmm." The chef motions towards the cauldron. "At least you're keeping up your community service in the meantime."
Sophie snorts. "Ah, yes. Community service. All the Haunted Woods bigwigs will be there."
Ash's eyes widen. "Oh. You mean…"
"A certain someone will be in attendance."
"How do you know?"
Sophie snaps and the music shuts off. Leaning in conspiratorially, she grins. "Mr. Krawley never misses a chance to make a buck.
To be continued…