Mark A Davis
"Strangely enough," said Black Dahlia, "Walpurgisnacht is a Christian name for a pagan festival. At least that's how it's worked out. Saint Walpurga was an English missionary to the Frankish Empire. She is credited with bringing Christianity to Germany. But of course, celebrations of the end of Winter and the coming of Spring date back to pagan times."
Five heroes were gathered in a warehouse, about a small table. Black Dahlia poured five cups of hot tea, then added clear liquid from a tall bottle to each. "A mixture of water, strong apple cider, and several herbs," she said. The leader of the Black Moon Maidens was a pale woman with long, dark red hair, in a black Victorian dress, and an abundance of silver jewelry. She wore black lipstick, black eyeliner, and black nail polish.
On her right was DarkFireNinjaCatgirl, often called Dafinica for short. She was a young half-cat woman who normally dressed like a ninja -- though for tonight she was wearing one of Dahlia's dresses, looking very uncomfortable in a laced-up corset bodice and poofed sleeves laced from the wrist to the elbow.
On Dahlia's left was Dark Dr. Dark, her mentor and current Supreme Sorcerer of the World (five years running, non-consecutive -- not counting 2010 when he had tied with Alvadine the Bold and lost in a runoff, or 2012 which was a strike year) and a member of the League of Two-Fisted Justice. Dark Dr. Dark was a tall man dressed in black with a thick black beard. For tonight he wore a cape and dark glasses.
Across from Dahlia were two more members of the League of Two Fisted Justice -- Unpossible Man, a seven-foot, 350 lb behemoth in blue and black spandex, but also for tonight wearing over this a brown robe that bore a strong resemblance to a graduation gown, and Grandpa Anarchy, a very old man in a gray suit who normally wore a fedora, but who tonight had on a black witch's hat, along with a black robe thrown over his suit.
"Traditionally the drink is consumed in a shot glass or wine glass," said Dahlia, "but I prefer to mix it into a lovely cup of tea. It seems more civilized, and I do love my Earl Grey."
"Who doesn't?" replied Dark Dr. Dark, selecting a cup and breathing in the aroma.
Dafinica made a face. Unpossible Man said, "Gimme a beer any day."
"In Germany," said Black Dahlia, "they say that witches and warlocks hold a pagan celebration and meeting atop the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains. The truth is more complex -- the Brocken that we will visit is not on the mountain in Germany, but a kind of idealized version of it -- a spiritual Brocken of dreams, as it were. Witches, Wizards and Warlocks the world over gather here once a year on Walpurgisnacht to feast and celebrate the changing of seasons and the coming of spring."
"Everyone meets in a magical place to get drunk," said Grandpa.
"Yes," said Dahlia. "That's pretty much it."
"Sounds like quite a shindig," said Unpossible Man. "Doc, you say you've been doing this every year since we've known you? How come you never said nothing?"
A pained looked passed over Dark Dr. Dark's face. "It was not my idea to tell you of it this time," he said. "This is a celebration for practitioners of the magic arts only. But we have need of your help...."
"Mycontrolofdarknessandfireisjustlikemagic," said DarkFIreNinjaCatgirl. "IcandissappearatwillninjapowersarebasicallymagictoosoIbelongthere."
"We're here to stop a potential terrorist event," said Dahlia. "We are here to capture a very clever magical terrorist. She calls herself the Witch of Heath and Hedge, and she is bent on causing a global catastrophe. I should not have to add, we are not here to drink." She glared at Dafinica and added, "You are too young to drink."
"But you're mentally twelve," said Dahlia. "You will always be too young to drink, as long as you're working for me."
"Aw," said the catgirl. "Nina lets me drink!"
"That's nice," said Dahlia. "When you work with her, you can drink. But for now, nobody drinks. Clear?"
"Sure," said Grandpa. "I don't drink liquor anyway. So how do we get to this place?"
Dahlia glanced down at the teacups and said, "We drink."
As soon as they'd downed their tea, the five heroes found themselves in a grassy clearing. The air was crisp and cold and the night sky was overhead. In the distance they saw burning bonfires and crowds of people. Dahlia and Dark Dr. Dark led the others in this direction.
It was like a carnival. First came the smells of sizzling steak and chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, and of cotton candy, spent fireworks, beer, and the smell of people crowded too close together. With this came the buzz of hundreds of colliding conversations, of musicians playing and chorale singing in unfamiliar tongues, and the crackle of fire and hiss of the grills. Fog-like smoke crawled across the ground.
"Looks like they blew the budget on dry ice," Grandpa said.
There were many small fires at the edges of the gathering, but one giant bonfire in the center, with flames leaping high into the sky. The witches and wizards in the crowd tossed small vials and spells into the flames, so that they turned green and blue and violet and bright red, and sometimes took on shapes like those of dragons or burning butterflies or phoenix birds rising up into the night sky.
Everywhere there were cats, and wolf-like dogs, and other animals mixing with the crowd. Nearly everyone had a robe of some sort, and many had pointed hats. There was a large beer garden. There was mead, food, sweetbreads, cakes and pies and unfamiliar treats. One location was making some sort of Asian noodle stir-fry. Another had piroshkis. Yet another stand had strawberry shortcake.
A large, overweight man with a smiling face already flush from drink greeted them. "Grandpa, everyone," said Dahlia, "this is Alparkaneous. He is the Master of Ceremonies for tonight's gathering."
"Call me Al," the man replied, shaking each of their hands. "Master of Ceremonies is just a title that means I get blamed for anything which goes wrong." He laughed heartily, then added, "I can't tell you how much we appreciate you heroes showing up for our little shindig tonight. We have no idea if this Witch of the Heath and Hedge will make an appearance, but the threat has spread among the population. Just having a few heroes present makes everyone feel better."
"It's no problem," said Dark Dr. Dark. "We do this sort of thing all the time."
"Very good!" Al exclaimed. At the same moment, a tiny fairy appeared and buzzed in his ear. He paused, then said, "In the meantime, enjoy the festivities! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm being summoned to resolve a dispute between wizards...." He rolled his eyes. "That's, like, three-quarters of what I do around here...."
The man disappeared.
After a moment, Unpossible Man said, "Welp. You'll find me in the beer garden."
"No drinking!" Black Dahlia hissed. "We're here to stop the Witch of Heath and Hedge."
"What's this witch look like, and what's she planning to do exactly?" asked Grandpa.
"We have no idea who she really is," Dahlia replied. "But she's threatened to cast a spell that would destroy certain crops worldwide, just to draw attention to her cause. I suggest we split up and search the grounds. Meet back here in an hour."
Black Dahlia and Dark Dr. Dark disappeared into the crowd. Dafinica simply disappeared. Unpossible Man said, "Welp! I'm off to the beer garden."
"You'll piss off Dahlia," said Grandpa.
"Sure," said Unpossible Man, "but if you think I'm gonna let a young girl tell me what I can and can't do, you've got another think coming."
"She's a witch," said Grandpa.
"Don't worry, Grandpa," said Unpossible Man. "You know I can hold my liquor. I have the alcohol tolerance of ten tolerant men!"
"That makes no sense whatsoever."
"Nope," said the the big man, puffing on his cigar. "When the time comes, I'll be ready!"
Grandpa sighed as Unpossible Man muscled his way through the crowd. "Feel like a danged fool in this outfit," he grumbled. "Well, better go looking around...."
He turned and collided with someone. He stumbled back and mumbled, "Sorry, sorry! I'm just a foolish wizard, nothing more! Name's Doctor Anarchy...." He looked into the eyes of the other man, and froze.
The man could have been Grandpa, if Grandpa wore a much nicer black suit with a stylish cape, a top hat, and a neatly- trimmed beard. The man looked serious and studious, like a history professor with twenty years tenure who knew he was smarter than you and never smiled. Grandpa himself could never have managed that look.
"I beg your pardon," said the bearded man, "but I am Doctor Anarchy!"
Grandpa Anarchy shook himself. "Whoa, Nelly!" he said. "I've met a lot of alternate me's in my time, but not one like you."
"No," said Doctor Anarchy. "And I have met a lot of alternate selves as well.. and they were always like you." He frowned more severely and added, "You do not belong in this place, Grandpa Anarchy."
"Huh!" Grandpa replied. "You know better than that! There's trouble afoot, and here is exactly where I'm meant to be."
Doctor Anarchy raised an eyebrow. "Indeed? I shall have to keep my eyes open then."
And with that, Doctor Anarchy was gone. Grandpa frowned in turn. "That was pretty condescending of me," he said. "I don't think I like me at all."
Grandpa paced the fairgrounds like a police detective who only had eyes for murder. He made a complete circle of the grounds, and then another. Everywhere there were dancers and revelers and people making merry, and many tried to hand him a drink, friendly wizards or witches too drunk to spell the word spell, let alone cast one. Grandpa always refused. He hadn't touched alcohol since the waning days of prohibition, when his brother had been murderer by a rum runner. He certainly wasn't going to start now.
He wasn't certain what he was looking for. In theory, he was looking for something out of the ordinary, but this was quite difficult. For one thing, in place of the usual face painting and temporary henna tattoos, this carnival had an entire row of booths offering temporary transformation spells. Skin and hair color were just the least of it, but those alone accounted for many youngsters running about with rainbow-colored skin and hair that glowed or appeared to be made of green and purple flames. Beyond that, some booths offered to transform you into animals, or exotic creatures such as centaurs, fauns, and fairies, while others merely offered a temporary sex change. Spotting one person who seemed unusual or suspicious among all this strangeness was next to impossible.
There were other spell booths as well -- more traditional ones that offered true fortune-telling or hawked love potions, and more exotic ones that offered instant spells for self defense, for utility, and for pleasure. On a whim, Grandpa bought a small bottle of roast beef sandwich pills -- just add water! -- and a vial that promised to transform your opponent temporarily into a pink kitten.
After his third trip around the fairgrounds, Grandpa said, "Well, I suppose a little strawberry shortcake won't hurt...." He laid down some money at the appropriate booth, got a plastic bowl filled with with shortcake -- not spongecake, but a real shortcake biscuit, flaky and much heavier, and piled high with syrupy strawberries topped with whipped cream. Grandpa sat by the fire and ate it up, and had to admit it was almost as good as his favorite breakfast, strawberry pancakes.
After that he joined a group of wizards and young kids who were roasting marshmallows. The giant bonfire had settled down somewhat, and was now burning even hotter, with a glowing heart of bright orange coals. Grandpa's first marshmallow turned golden brown and grew too soft and slid into the fire. His second caught fire. He yanked it out and blew out the flames, and then handed the charcoal mess to a kid who could appreciate it -- Grandpa was not one of those Philistines who would eat a scorched and blackened marshmallow.
For his third attempt he concentrated very carefully. Slowly it turned golden brown on all sides. He pulled it back from the flames just in time, and blew on it to cool it down, then popped it into his mouth. It tasted heavenly.
It was then that he realized how the soundscape about him had changed. There was no more singing, no music, no drunken conversation. Instead he heard the squealing of pigs.
Everywhere he looked, Grandpa saw pigs. The ran about the fairgrounds and rooted through the food on the ground. The booths were empty, as was the beer garden. The only other humans he saw were the four kids who'd been roasting marshmallows with him.
Some of the pigs had pointy hats. Grandpa grimaced.
"Mister?" asked one kid. "Where did everyone go?"
Grandpa stood. "Looks like someone spiked the punch," he replied. "Find a safe place to hide, kids. Things are about to get ugly."
A young woman dressed in green and brown strode into the center of the fairgrounds. She had flowers in her hair, and might have been Mother Nature herself, but the look on her face was far too sinister. She spotted Grandpa. She raised an eyebrow, then, ignoring him, produced a canvas bag, removed a handful of seeds, and began to scattered them on the ground in a curving line.
Grandpa strode towards her. "You wouldn't happen to be the Wizard of Heath and Hedge, would you?" he asked. "Because if you are, I'm going to have to ask you to stop...."
With a look of annoyance, the woman gestured at him.
Grandpa was slammed into the air and across the fairgrounds. He crashed to the ground nearly 100 yards away.
Grandpa Anarchy groaned. He climbed to his feet. "Right," he said. "So that's how it's gonna be."
Grandpa charged back across the fairgrounds. Pigs squealed and scattered before him. Ahead he saw the woman complete a large circle with her seeds. She chanted a spell, and flowering plants sprung up. They formed a perfect circle, with her in the center.
"Magic circle made of plants?" Grandpa muttered. "That's not bad...."
He charged into the circle and threw a punch. The woman dodged at the last moment. She touched Grandpa as he passed, and suddenly he was flying face-first into the dirt. Grandpa grimaced -- she'd redirected his energy like a trained martial artist, with the lightest of touches.
"Didn't feel like drinking, did you?" the woman asked. "Well, I can deal with you directly." She chanted a quick spell. Grandpa scrambled to his feet, but the magic struck him in the chest. His skin crawled. For a moment his body morphed and twisted out of shape. Grandpa focused on his own body like a master zen Buddhist, and he was suddenly himself again.
"You can build up a resistance to transformation spells," Grandpa said. "Takes a great deal of willpower and a deep-down knowledge of exactly who you are. Plus there's this godawful nasty potion you have to drink once a week, smells like raw sewage. But it works." He swung at the witch again.
The woman caught his fist and threw him twenty feet. Again Grandpa crashed face-first into grass and dirt.
The woman uttered another spell and thrust her hands upwards. Vines ripped through the ground in front of Grandpa, barring his path. The writhed likes snakes and twined together. Within moments, they formed two long poles, which converged overhead into a thick cylinder. two more long ropes of entwined vines sprang from the top of the structure.
Grandpa gaped. It was a headless humanoid creature made of living vines, nearly thirty feet tall. It swung one long arm at him.
Grandpa dodged. Behind the creature, the woman began to chant a spell.
"Where the Hades are Dahlia and Dark Dr. Dark?" Grandpa exclaimed.
"Your friends have been neutralized already," the witch said with an evil smile. Grandpa followed her gaze across the fairgrounds, where stood two large bushes. He looked closer, and saw that these were thickly-bundled vine cages, with a person trapped within each one.
But even as the witch spoke, a shadow moved behind her. DarkFireNinjaCatgirl appeared, thrusting her sword at the witches's unprotected back.
Inches from the witches's skin, the blade hit something as hard as stone. It bent nearly in two. The witch spun about, anger flashing in her eyes. "Another?" she exclaimed. She blasted the catgirl with a spell -- but what fell to the ground was only the catgirl's dress, wrapped around a two-foot wood log.
Dafinica appeared behind the witch again, clad only in her underwear and slashing again with her sword. "Do you not learn?" the witch exclaimed. She caught the blade with one hand, as if it were made of wood and not sharp metal.
With her free hand, the catgirl blasted the witch with a fireball, point-blank to the face.
The witch cursed and stumbled back, but she hit the catgirl with a second spell. This time the catgirl failed to dodge. Her skin morphed and shifted, and she grew smaller. However it was not a pig she turned into, but a guinea pig. The creature squealed and ran off to hide under a table.
In the meantime Grandpa dodged the giant vine golem, which was clearly powerful but not quick. In its attempts to crush Grandpa it pounded the ground, leaving deep scars in the earth. Grandpa tried to punch it back, but this was as useful as punching a bush. Finally he failed to move fast enough, and the creature caught him with a blow that knocked him thirty feet back into the still-burning bonfire.
Grandpa cursed and scrambled out of the fire, beating his smoldering robe. He stripped the thing off. "Fool idea, dressing like a wizard anyway," he muttered. Then he turned to the fire and hauled two pieces of wood from it to use as burning torches.
Fire drove the vine golem back. Grandpa tossed one makeshift torch at the creature, but this failed to set it on fire. He circled, waving his slowly-dying firebrand at the thing, unsure what else to do.
The witch was chanting her spell now. A cage of vines had grown up around her, sealing her off from Grandpa. He was running out of options. Without Dark Dr. Dark or Black Dahlia, he was no match for a magic-user with this much skill.
Then he remembered the spell he'd purchased. Reaching into his pocket, he removed a small blue vial and tossed it at the vine golem. The thin glass shattered on impact. The liquid inside soaked a small part of the creature's leg, but the results were almost instantaneous. The thirty-foot creature writhed and shrunk. In moments, all that stood before Grandpa was a cute and fluffy pink kitten.
"Thank the devil for magic spells!" Grandpa exclaimed. "I'm a wizard after all!" He turned and charged the vine cage. He laid his dying torch at the base of the vines, which slowly caught fire. He then began to climb the cage.
The witch inside looked very annoyed. She gestured, and a second vine golem arose. It swatted Grandpa off of the vine cage. He landed hard on the ground.
"Oh, come on!" Grandpa exclaimed as the vine creature towered over him. It raised one ropey arm to pound him into the ground....
A voice yelled out, "FIST OF THE ANARCHIST!" A giant fist appeared over the golem and slammed it into the earth.
Grandpa blinked in surprise. "Dang," he said. "Now that's a magic spell I could get used to!"
Doctor Anarchy jogged up to Grandpa. "I thought you could use a hand," he said. "Or rather, a fist. Quickly, she's almost done!"
The wizard with the familiar face summoned his mystical fist again. It slammed through the vine cage, crushing the witch into ground and interrupting her spell. She howled in rage and leaped up, apparently unhurt. Instantly Doctor Anarchy and the Witch of Heath and Hedge were locked in a magical battle, each hurling spells at the other.
Grandpa charged forward and clocked the witch in the head as hard as he could. This time, it worked. Her head spun about, and her body followed. She went to the ground, unconscious. Almost instantly magic shackles formed on her wrists and ankles.
Soon pigs began transforming into people. They were startled and confused -- it became clear that no one could recall the last hour.
Dark Dr. Dark and Black Dahlia arrived with Master of Ceremonies Al. "You captured her, Grandpa!" Al exclaimed.
"I had a lot of help from Doctor Anarchy here," Grandpa said. He turned to introduce his alternate self -- but the bearded wizard so like and yet unlike him was nowhere to be seen.
It was morning. Grandpa Anarchy, Unpossible Man, DarkFireNinjaCatgirl, Dark Dr. Dark, and Black Dahlia were seated in the kitchen of the Black Moon Maidens headquarters.
"A Doctor Anarchy, you say?" said Dark Dr. Dark. "I should very much like to meet this man. It is rare to find an alternate version of yourself so far removed from your own talents and inclinations."
"Just think," said Grandpa. "Somewhere out there is a Dark Dr. Dark who don't read, and solves all his problems by punching people."
Black Dahlia poured the tea. There were cookies and coffee cake as well. Grandpa placed a pill on the table and added a drop of water. Instantly a roast beef sandwich appeared. His eyes lit up. "Hot damn!" he exclaimed, and bit into the sandwich eagerly.
His look soured. He managed to swallow. "Tastes like cardboard," he said.
"They always do," said Dark Dr. Dark knowingly. He bit into a cookie.
"The magical authorities are dealing with the Witch of Heath and Hedge, of course," Black Dahlia said. "It turns out her real name is Annalottle MacGilfoyle. She's an expert in nature magic, and has become something of an environmental terrorist. But she won't be causing any more trouble now." She paused, then added, "Your friend Doctor Anarchy vanished before anyone else could talk to him. Even Dafinica here didn't see him."
"Something strange about him," Grandpa said. "I mean, him being a magician version of me. But I supposed anything's possible in an infinite multiverse." He dropped a sugar cube into his tea and added, "What exactly was this witch trying to do, anyway? You said destroy a year's harvest of a certain crop. What was it? Corn? Rice? Wheat?"
Dahlia set her cup down. "Worse," she said. The witch threatened to wipe out the world's supply of citrus bergamia -- the bergamot orange."
There was a long pause. "That's it?" Grandpa asked. "Bergamot? I risked my life for a tea flavoring?"
"It has other uses," said Dahlia. "But yes. Without it, there would be no Earl Grey."
Dark Dr. Dark sipped from his cup. "A terrible threat indeed," he said, "and a great tragedy averted."