Tricked or Treated
by J. A. Campbell and Rebecca McFarland Kyle
Elise Macrow grimaced when her phone rang bright and early on Halloween. Hopefully it wasn’t another phone call from Hagatha worrying about the Halloween celebration she’d put together and wouldn’t be attending. Where was she anyway? Halloween was her favorite holiday and she’d absented herself—when she was the one who had the idea for the party for the whole town in the first place.
Ah—the caller was not Hagatha but her father. Smiling, she clicked answer.
“I hate to call you so early, but I need a favor.” Marcus sounded harried.
“Of course,” Elise replied.
“I’m dealing with a Justiciarate Magus matter,” he explained. “Hagatha wanted me to pick up the food items and run them to the school gym early this morning.”
“Can Melanie do it?” Elise asked, referring to her new step-mother. “Hagatha’s stuck me with a bunch of errands, too. I can lend Melanie my Outback for transport if she wants to take a WayGate here. I can even get some local ghosts to help her load up the items….”
“I am certain she’d be glad to help out, but she’s got a contract film score with a tight deadline,” Marcus replied. “She’s been working hard for the past two days to get everything done so she can keep her promise to Hagatha and perform at the party and help hand out treats.”
Elise laughed. “All right, I’ll go over there and get the food loaded up and delivered. I’ll see the two of you later.”
“Thank you,” Marcus sounded relieved. “Hopefully I’ll get this done and be able to make it.”
Elise added getting the food to the school gym at the list of last-minute details her cousin left for her to do. True, Hagatha did most of the planning, preparation, and even paid for the party, but if the devil was in the small details, there was a whole lot of room for catastrophe here.
And Cousin Hagatha’s trademark phrase was: What could possibly go wrong?
Elise shook her head ruefully and consulted the scrawled novella her cousin left her, which included lists for the party and instructions for access to Hagatha’s tower for supplies and a check on her clouder of pet cats.
“Oh crap,” she muttered. She needed to pick up the popcorn and other food items for the party now and re-fill the cats autofeeders so they would have food until her return. Thank the goddess, Hagatha had magically spelled the place so that the litter boxes would clean themselves and the waterers would continually freshen. She didn’t even want to think about having to scoop cat boxes for how many stray cats? Hagatha at least neutered and spayed them and provided excellent food and veterinary care, but as usual, she was getting over-run.
“Stay.” Elise said to Raid and Jett, her two Border Collies, who’d immediately gotten up the minute she reached for her car keys. “You’ll upset Hagatha’s cats.”
Raid quirked his head quizzically. Elise could read the question loud and clear in the dog’s intelligent amber eyes:
So, upsetting cats is a bad thing? They’re always mad.
She more or less agreed with him, but since she’d be the one to clean up a tower full of whatever feline vengeance the cats wrought, it was prudent to leave the dogs at home.
She laughed and scuffed her head, then petted Jett as well. “Guard our home.” She gave the command knowing they already would do so, and then hastened to Hagatha’s tower.
The place was far different than what Hagatha initially magicked when the two of them moved to the remote Colorado community together years before. An attack by a rabid admirer necessitated strict security measures: both mortal and magical in nature. The perimeter of Hagatha’s property was now walled with a security fence. The once open road was gated requiring a security code to get through. Instead of the Colorado Desert landscaping around the tower, a deep moat populated by sea dragons surrounded the tall structure.
Elise typed in the security code, then parked her green Subaru Outback wagon and stepped to the moat. She recited the spell to lower the drawbridge, and then moved quickly across since the spell was time-delimited. She paused only to wave at the sea dragons who gathered to watch her crossing. Their scaled heads, in jewel-like shades of greens, blues, and golds rose slightly above the water. Intelligent human eyes followed her movements. These were the ones of their kind who’d chosen to remain in draconian form rather than to live primarily among humans. Since they’d been trapped in an Italian Alpine lake, Colorado was similar enough to their former environs that they were quite content.
Next, she opened the massive wooden doors with her key and stepped quickly inside the circular tower.
A magical net dropped over her before she could summon a shield to protect herself. Elise dropped to the ground struggling against the tightening net as the exterior door slammed, cutting her off from the outside world before she could call the sea dragons for help.
Elise bit back an oath as she struggled against her bonds in a vain attempt to reach her cell phone. In her haste to get everything done, she’d forgotten the control panel, which locked the tower down and neutralized a visitor’s magic. The net effectively held her in a tight ball cutting off her ability to move.
The familiar round granite interior of the tower was cast in near-darkness. Dozens of feline eyes glowed in eerie shades of green, orange, and red peering down at her from the spiral staircase leading up to the tower’s top. Feline yowls from a scratchy gutteral bass to a near-human scream split the darkness, echoing eerily off the native granite walls. A sharp burning in her nose indicated Hagatha’s magical litterbox scooping system had failed…perhaps days ago. Her eyes watered and she told herself those were not tears. She was one of the most powerful necromancers in the world. She had resources.
Elise took a deep breath, fighting back a mixture of fury and panic. She reached inside, hoping the low power she used in summoning her ghostly servant, Slade, would not set off further alarms. While Hagatha deplored ghosts and would not permit them on her premises, she’d made an exception for the former cowboy, who’d proven himself invaluable to both of them on more than one occasion.
“M’lady Elise.” Slade appeared an unsteady flicker, his voice staticky, cutting in and out. “It appears you’ve gotten caught up in Lady Hagatha’s protection somehow.”
Elise gritted her teeth wanting to chide the man for stating the obvious. Instead, she asked, “What can you do to help?”
Slade’s form expanded and contracted causing eerie flickers on the tower’s circular walls. With effort, he could solidify to near human density in Elise’s tower, but he couldn’t seem to keep any form here.
“It seems Lady Hagatha’s preventin’ me from gainin’ any kind of substance, Ma’am. I’m goin’ to find Lord Marcus.”
Elise let out a heavy sigh as the ghost dematerialized off to find her father. Marcus would certainly help her out of this mess, but she dreaded both interrupting his Justiciarate Magus business and the tiny smirk she could imagine playing at the corner of his mouth as he did so. Marcus was an ancient mage, blessed by the Myriddn himself, powerful and skilled and too smooth for words. Marcus would never have gotten caught in this kind of mess.
Light flashed as a WayGate opened into Elise’s tower. Marcus stepped through He shook his head at her predicament, incanted a few words before Elise could warn him and swore when a similar apparatus dropped on him.
“It’s Hagatha’s alarm system,” Elise explained. “She’s blocked magic.”
Marcus chuckled. “Oh, I’ve got more than this.”
He spoke in a fluid language Elise suspected was ancient Welsh. The nets evaporated from both of them and they stood up. Marcus dusted off his hands, the satisfied smile Elise expected on his face. She figured he would depart and leave her to deal with Hagatha’s errands. Instead, he considered the tower critically.
The place was more untidy that usual. Hagatha had stacked the bottom floor with bags full of candy. Round silver pie pans of unpopped corn were stacked near as tall as Elise and several abreast right next to the central fireplace.
“What in the name of the Goddess has gone wrong here? The place smells like a latrine. She has boxes piled everywhere. It’s dreadful cold in here—even for furry animals,” Marcus said. A broad gesture and the grand central fireplace lit, sending a blaze of comfortable warmth through the tower.
Magic flared from the fireplace, Hagatha’s heating system sending warmth through the cold tower.
A boom deafened Elise. Marcus shoved her to the floor covering her with his body as they were buried with candy/ Then the room filled with the smell of hot butter, caramel and cheese. Thousands of tiny pops followed the initial explosion, which filled the circular interior with popcorn. She could scarcely breathe as air got scarcer.
“Too tight,” Marcus groaned, his weight bearing down on Elise. “Can’t move.”
Elise reached for Slade again. Nothing.
Marcus gasped. He shifted sideways but now they both occupied a bit of floor and there wasn’t room enough for either to lie comfortably. The chilly granite flags bit into Elise’s hip and shoulder. She winced and blinked away a few more tears. Surely that was from the overwhelming popcorn stench….
Marcus grunted in pain as he pulled his phone from the holster at his hip. The screen lit, but thousands of tiny fractures radiated from a central break on the glass. Elise reached for her own and couldn’t even get it to respond.
“Are you hurt?” Elise asked him, assessing her own injuries. She’d be sore and bruised, but thanks be to the goddess, nothing more.
“Shoulder,” Marcus replied, his voice sounding tight. “I overreacted. Thought we were going to get hit with something far worse than hot popcorn. I can heal this soon as I have room”
“Did you leave word where you were going?” Elise asked, hopefully. He and Melanie were newlywed and seldom apart for long. No doubt she’d come looking.
“Note.” Marcus groaned.
“You didn’t text?” If she could have stuck her elbow in her father’s ribs, she would have right then. Marcus had the latest model cell phone on his hip. Melanie used her phone extensively for everything from navigation to note-taking. She didn’t even score music on paper.
“How much air do we have?” Marcus asked.
Elise shook her head. Popcorn surrounded them and faint pops sounded as more of the stuff packed in. Marcus couldn’t die. Like the legendary phoenix, her father would go up in flames and return. Unfortunately, if that happened in too close a proximity to Elise, she could well burn to cinders.
Plaintive screams of several cats sent her heart racing. What was happening to Hagatha’s poor pets?
* * *
Bloody buggering hell…Melanie’s eyes widened as the remote control flew off her desk switching channels away from the movie she’d been writing a score for. Sheet music she needed for tonight’s performance at Hagatha’s Halloween bash blew off the music stand. The stand itself pirouetted and landed facedown on the floor with a resounding metallic clang. Keys depressed on her synthesizer, playing of all things, do-ray-me….
Chill bumps rose up on her bare skin as the room’s temperature took a nosedive into the meat locker zone and the lights flickered.
“MARCUS!” she yelled, rushing from her music studio to the library and then the gym, her husband’s usual hangouts. For good measure, she went outside and yelled. No Marcus. His black Benz sedan was still in the garage.
Marcus had bespelled the perimeter of their home against ghosts and other spectral visitations, but occasionally one would slip through, coming to the Master Necromancer in need of some resolution.
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and speed-dialed Marcus. No answer.
She started back toward her office for the dispelling wand he’d left her when a note floated in front of her.
“Gone to see Elise. Be back soon. Love, Marcus.”
She read, plucking the note from the air. Only one ghost would present her with this note. She took a deep breath and calmed herself, recalling the words Marcus used to permit ghosts to fully appear.
“Slade, you have my permission to manifest to the extent of your abilities.”
Melanie stopped abruptly when Slade appeared right in front of her, doffing his usual cowboy hat. She smiled at the old cowboy’s weather-worn face and traditional garb.
“Pardon, M’lady,” he drawled. “M’lady Elise went to M’lady Hagatha’s tower earlier this morning and ended up tangled up in a security net she couldn’t get out of. I came here and got Lord Marcus to help her and neither one of ‘em’s come out. I can’t get back in to the tower to see what’s happenin’. Somethin’ doesn’t feel right.”
“Thank you, Slade,” Melanie said, feeling a pit in the center of her stomach. Whatever it was had to be bad if Marcus and Elise couldn’t escape.
She grabbed the keys for Hagatha’s tower which the younger necromancer had entrusted to Marcus, a black bag with wands and other magical implements Marcus had taught her to use, and opened a WayGate to the exterior of Hagatha Macrow’s tower.
Of course, the Ways took her to a crossroads first. A black cat sat in the middle of the road preening.
“What is your wish?”
Melanie smiled at the creature and assured it she wished for nothing and passed on through. The Ways were not a place to make any kind of deals. They would not turn out in her favor.
Melanie pulled out her phone and looked up the document where she’d saved Hagatha’s lengthy instructions for entering her abode. Getting into the place on your own was like an episode of Mission Impossible. Marcus could do it, but she wasn’t that skilled with her newly-discovered powers. No way would she attempt it without the instructions. She had committed them to memory, but Hagatha, being somewhat mercurial, could easily change them and she’d set the document on her computer so changes would show. Melanie wasn’t sure all the traps and cantrips were necessary, but if it made Hagatha feel safer in her own home after she’d been attacked, who was she to question?
She tapped in the numbered combination at the gate and walked through the thick stone walls topped with wrought iron points sharp enough to pierce a climber’s hide.
Elise’s green Outback sat in the driveway. Melanie stopped, touching the hood. The engine had cooled, so Elise had been in there a while. Her steps quickened as she scanned the exterior of the tower, wondering if there’d been another incursion.
Next the moat. The drawbridge was down. She paused only a moment to offer a greeting to the sea dragons who surfaced briefly.
Next, the door. The heavy iron key jangled in her hand as she read the next bit. Keypad on right of door with ten seconds to enter code or you’ll be trapped by a magical net.
Melanie opened the door and gasped as a mixture of buttered, cheese, and caramel popcorn cascaded out.
“MARCUS! ELISE!” She bellowed, digging through the popcorn and managing to turn off the panel mostly by feel before the magical net trapped her in snack food. She backed out, practically swimming in the kernels to escape.
Dearest Goddess, had the two of them been buried in the avalanche?
“MARCUS! ELISE!” She yelled again, listening intently to the rustle of the corn.
“HELP!” she heard Elise’s and Marcus’s yells along with feline mewlings.
For a moment, she considered dialing 911, but that took forever in this little town—and she wasn’t sure the local volunteers had any better tools to deal with this than her magic.
She consulted Hagatha’s instructions again and turned to Slade, who was near solid in his home area.
“I need you to go to the top and open the hatch following these instructions exactly.” She showed them to Slade and watched as he carefully read them. “Once you’ve done that, call down to me and tell me what the interior of the tower looks like.”
He nodded and quickly rose to the top of the tower.
Melanie heard the shout as the ghost flew off.
“It’s packed tight.” Slade said when he appeared before her. “It’ll take forever and they don’t have that much air.”
Melanie contemplated her options. “I could use my powers to try and blow the popcorn out of the tower.”
Slade shook his head. “It’d take a mighty wind to break that up, Ma’am. It’s stuck like a popcorn ball with candy in it too. Cats’re trapped in there. Might send ‘em flying.”
“Can you help?” Melanie asked.
“I believe I can, ma’am,” Slade said. “I ask the spirits who inhabit this valley to come to my aid to benefit m’lady Elise.”
Melanie shivered when dozens of apparitions appeared before her. Her vision blurred, trying to focus on individuals: Native Americans, miners in gear, pioneer women, children, and of course, cowboys like Slade.
“Spirits,” Melanie addressed them. “I ask you on behalf of House Macrow to assist me with digging Lord Marcus and Lady Elise from the—unholy mess.”
Before she could say another word, the miners took their pick axes and set to work. A mixture of popcorn and various loose candies poured from the house.
“We’ve loosened the popcorn,” Slade called. “But we need something to blow it out.”
“I can do that,” Melanie called.
Though her own fae powers were still manifesting, one thing she did quite well was disturbance. She sent a gentle wind into the tower and cheered as a rain of popcorn rose from the top spreading out across the desert toward the town. She kept the power going until air scented with cat waste stung her nose.
A dozen or more mostly black cats came pouring out of the top of the tower bellowing their outrage to the skies.
“Thank the Goddess!” Elise and Marcus staggered out of the tower as the last of the popcorn and candy blew away, looking disheveled and covered with a combination of popcorn and sweets.
Melanie rushed forward, hugging Marcus despite the popcorn.
“Thank you, m’lady,” he murmured to her.
“It was Slade,” Melanie quickly said, turning to the cowboy, who’d doffed his hat.
Marcus nodded and smiled to him—then to all the other spirits. “My thanks to you. We are in your debt.”
Elise quickly explained what happened.
“But—that much popcorn?” Melanie started to say, then looked between them, feeling grim. “That was for the Halloween party tonight for the whole darn town….Okay, we’re reverting to Plan B. You two round up Hagatha’s cats and get cleaned up—her tower should be safe with the door alarms both top and bottom disabled, I’m going to find supplies for a party of three hundred at the last minute.”
Elise handed over the keys to her Outback and hastened back inside to do the cat wrangling and get ready.
* * *
Despite everything, the Neutral and Boring Halloween party was rocking. Elise smiled as Melanie performed onstage in a black cat costume which looked like it was tailor made for her.
“You think we can ever have a party that doesn’t go wrong?” Elise asked her father as she handed out the last trick-or-treat bag to an adorable little witch who stuck her head in the sack to see her goodies.
“I’m taking a cue from the Bard and just saying all’s well that ends well,” Marcus said. He didn’t look like the man who had chased two dozen cats through Hagatha’s tower and assisted cleaning up a magical misfire with their litter boxes that could have left the tower a Hazmat site, and then had to hose off popcorn salt and oil from his person just hours before.
“And I have a special request from Lady Hagatha,” Melanie spoke from the stage. She held an envelope in her hand. “Marcus, could you come up here, please?”
Marcus nodded and walked up to the front of the stage.
“Hagatha said I was supposed to give this to you at the last.” Melanie handed over the envelope, which Elise could see was sealed with Hagatha’s trademark black sealing wax in the shape of a cat. “And I’m supposed to play this song.”
She moved into a blues song about a black cat crossing someone’s path.
Marcus opened the envelope. His expression shifted so rapidly Elise had a difficult time determining what he was thinking as he read Hagatha’s missive. At the end, the paper vanished from his hand.
“What did it say?” Elise asked.
“My apologies,” Marcus said. “The initial trap was vengeance on me for last Halloween. It appears I was to be the victim of a candy bomb.”
“What about the popcorn explosion?” Elise asked as Melanie finished the last chorus.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Marcus shook his head. “A combination of the fire and the candy triggered the popcorn. That apparently was not intended. I was only to be covered with sticky goo out of revenge for Hagatha having to slog through Austin trash because of my trick on her last Halloween.”
Hagatha had turned a drunken flirt into a black tomcat and Marcus had convinced the two of them they would have to find the escaped feline and turn him back before midnight or dire consequences would ensue.
“I suppose I should not have misled her.” Despite that, he chuckled. “But it was such a delight to see the two of you rush off to catch that black cat.”
“However, if it was aimed at you, she got me too.” Elise’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll think of something suitable in reply. Maybe something extra special in our weekly duels.” Elise pictured the magical fights she and Hagatha staged over their home town of Neutral and Boring, Colorado. The locals loved the extravaganza. They would really love the next fight.
Elise cut her eyes to Melanie, who wore a very fetching black cat suit. “Hey, where did you get that costume?”
“This?” Melanie grinned and turned, lashing the long curved tail. “Hagatha had her friend Deborah make for me as a Halloween gift.”
“Yup,” Elise said. “She was definitely getting revenge.”
Marcus chuckled, catching the “cat’s tail” and pulling it. “On the other hand, this costume definitely makes up for a bit of my inconvenience.”
“Just two more treats left.” Melanie smiled at the two of them and reaching into her kit bag for two boxes. “You two know what to say?”
Elise glanced at the red box in Melanie’s hand and felt a broad smile spread across her lips. How Melanie found time to get a box of her favorite English toffee she would never know and certainly was not going to question.
“Trick or treat,” Elise said, taking the box of toffee from her.
Marcus’ brow raised. A much smaller gold box remained in Melanie’s hand. For a moment, he paused. Elise realized he might have lived centuries on this Earth but he’d never dressed in costume for candy nor actually handed any out until this night.
“Trick or treat,” Marcus said and accepted the box.
Melanie grinned up at him as he pulled away the gold ribbon. Inside, Elise noted four chocolates in beautifully fluted golden foil cups. Marcus generally wasn’t one for candy, but he took one of the chocolates and bit into it.
His eyes widened with surprise and his mouth bowed into a beatific smile.
“That’s a good vintage,” Marcus said, taking another delighted bite. “Thirty years or so, I’d guess. Still I prefer my twenty-eight year old vintage Scottish lass.” He sat down the box and offered a one-armed hug to both of them.