Chat-your-own-Adventure #20: The Pellet Potion

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Yule                                                    Hallow’s Eve                                           Equinox

The pumpkin patch, according to the grapevine, was the best place to find one of those odd animals that only come out during a few weeks of the year, when the wind first grows fangs. Orbitia stood in the midst of it, silently, waiting for any sign that one of them was around.

Hallow’s Eve was just around the corner, and it was a time of celebration for many. Sadly, she was cut out, not only of the festivites, but of the village itself. Orbitia’s family had long practiced witchcraft. They were smart enough to cast certain spells, barely noticeable things, that kept the villagers from seeing them as evil and breaking out their torches, but they couldn’t stop the natural isolating effect of the magic.

Each generation their family home had moved further away from all the others, in a subtle fashion. They didn’t even notice a disturbance in the plants around it. It was so far now, nestled into the woods, that Orbitia couldn’t even hear the church bells in the morning. She wouldn’t hear the laughter of the children when they celebrated, going around to their neighbors and asking for sweets. She wouldn’t hear the drunken laughter of the adults bobbing for apples in barrels of glowing wine.

There were things they wouldn’t hear either, like the growls and baying howls that came from the creatures of the forest, that came with the wind’s bite. The villagers were protected by their closeness and their lanterns and their mirth. Alone in the woods, with her father having passed away in the previous year, Orbitia had nothing to guard against them in this, the darkest of seasons.

Hence her trip to the pumpkin patch, where some of the gourds grew taller than men and some of the vines would trip you and snicker behind your back. It was a place of mischief and mild magic, where you could go to speak with spirits or bargain with minor devils, but Orbitia was after something simpler: a guard dog of sorts.

Magical animals were also known to forage there, and there had to be something easy to train or enchant that could help her when Hallow’s Eve came. For now though, there was no sign of anything. She stood in a cluster of green, white, and warty pumpkins, occasionally knocking on their rinds to hear if they were hollow. The villagers never took any from this patch for decoration, as you never knew what might be birthed from one of them.

The wind blew through her clothes, a simple black dress and leather boots crafted by her hand, its nip reminding her that time was short. Perhaps a whistle, a bit of birdsong from the druids of old, could convince something to show itself. She pulled out a treat of sunflower seeds and honey, letting the wind carry its scent. Then she whistled, keeping the sound low, close to the fading grass and red leaves.

The song, back when it had words, was the tale of a clever weasel who could never be caught. His body was like rainwater, slipping through any snare or act of deceit. In the end the last note of her whistle simply faded away, because the story had no ending. That creature was likely still out there somewhere, still waiting for someone clever enough to catch him and split him from his elusive hide.

Weasel                                                      Owl                                                            Toad

Orbitia held her breath and waited. At first there was nothing, but after a few moments she heard light tapping. She pressed an ear to one of the largest pumpkins. It came from inside. That was only the first pumpkin. Others joined in. She heard the tapping from all directions, with multiple instances coming from the same gourd. Sh stepped back and held out her hands, worrying she might have angered something with the old song. Perhaps pumpkins hated druids.

All at once the tapping ceased. Orbitia whirled around and found herself face to face with an owl, talons wrapped around a thick gourd stem. While the creatures were known for their inquisitive expressions, this one looked permanently furious, with its feathery eyebrows trailing down its gray plumed breast.

Its beak was like ivory, and its irises gold. It turned its head on its side to examine her back. Orbitia still had the treat in her hand, but she didn’t think an owl would be interested in anything free of bones or blood. She’d expected a rodent, or a raccoon at best. Owls were not minor in their magics; they often fabricated their own from nothing but the pellets they left behind and the fear their eyes pulled out of children.

Hello,” Orbitia offered softly. She didn’t speak the word, but whistled it in the same druidic tongue as the song; she thought it best to be consistent with the creature. Its head went level once more, but it offered no other response. “I don’t want to waste your time… I’m just a humble witch, so humble as to be without broom and flight. I have nowhere to go come Hallow’s Eve.”

The owl’s head spun, nearly all the way around, and then came back. Was it looking for something? Were they being watched? Orbitia swallowed and picked off little pieces of the seed treat with one fingernail. The owl hooted, as if telling her to go on.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you,” she continued, trying to ingratiate herself, “what lurks in the night come Hallow’s Eve. They take whatever victims they can find, and I fear they will find me in my little hut. I seek protection or aid from the nature that birthed those monsters. Do you… have any ideas? Are you willing?”

The owl reached out one foot, claws glinting even though the clouds thoroughly obscured the sun, and tapped on the rind beneath it. The pumpkin responded by resuming its tapping, as did all the others. The sound became louder than before, causing them to rock on their vines and nearly roll away. The wind picked up, snatched brittle curling leaves off the ground, but did not rustle a single feather on the owl.

I don’t understand,” she said, voice barely audible over the jostling of the gourds. She felt like she was about to be sacrificed, attacked by a vine from behind, which would attach to her head and make her part of the patch permanently. She’d only come for a pet, something to keep the beasts at bay and then the loneliness on all the other nights.

Pumpkin Hatch                           Owl give Trinket                      Bird on Shoulder

There came a bang from one of the pumpkins, almost like an explosion. She whirled around expecting to see pulp and seeds everywhere, but they were all intact. Another, behind her once more. She turned and saw the owl, having switched perches. Another bang. The owl was gone again, off to the loudest pumpkin.

Orbitia became so confused that she spun in a circle, only stopping when the noises ended once more. She fetl claws on her shoulder. She couldn’t look directly at it because of the angle, and when she tried its grip tightened and broke her skin. She breathed in slowly. She only felt one of its claws and she somehow knew the other held something.

She slowly lifted her hand, keeping her palm flat. The owl tossed something into it and she wrapped her fingers around it instantly. The pressure was gone and she heard it flap only once before the patch was silent again. The pumpkins looked inert as ever. The extra chill in the wind was gone and the leaves settled. It wasn’t a pet, but it was a gift. She didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the owl and what lurked inside the pumpkins, so she simply bowed to them, thanked them, thanked the sky the owl had disappeared into, and left. She would examine it in the safety of her home.

That safety had been breached sooner than expected. When she reached her tiny house she saw the door ripped from its hinges and the floor covered in leaves. Her single window was broken, despite it having a strengthening spell upon its glass. The shards meant that whatever had done it, whatever had invaded and sniffed about in all her belongings, was magical in nature as well.

Her blanket was shredded and her mattress torn open, its downy guts spilled across the floor. She knew, whatever it was, it had been looking for her, tearing at the things that smelled most like her. Surely it would grow stronger before the next night, when all the spirits were freed from their graves and only the mirth she couldn’t generate could keep them back.

That left her with the owl’s gift. She sat on her shredded bed, nestled in its down, and opened her hand. It was a strange thing indeed: a small ball of unknown material with a tiny skull curved across its surface. The shape was strange, somewhere between a man and a rat. Stripes of other bones went around its sides. The color was light brown and the ball was covered in scratches.

Its obvious resemblance was to an owl pellet, but it was clearly a craft. She ran her fingers along it, trying to guess at its construction. One moment it felt like bone, but the next it felt like metal. What she was to do with it, she had no idea. There was a collection of ideas in the house, luckily untouched by the invader.

She scurried over to her mother’s trunk, a thing of purple leather and a blooming metal latch, and opened it. Inside were all her books with magical insight, disguised as regular volumes should people free of magic examine them. The text on rolling bones would look like a bible. The text on arguing with the weather would look like nothing more than a collection of rather unpalatable recipes for boiled fowl, limp vegetables, and sour honey.

Her fingers danced through their spines, searching for the most appropriate choice. She had a few options among those dealing with artifacts.

When a Teapot doesn’t Contain Tea

Put it back in the Ground!

Wonders of Witchcraft and Whimsy

Out came a thin green book entitled When a Teapot doesn’t Contain Tea. It was mostly for the brewing of potions and philosophical poisons, but it had an excellent reference section for all sorts of magical things you could drop into a pot.

It was the book that had taught her the most since the passing of her parents. She brewed with old man’s beard to commune with the dead, though sadly her parents’ spirits were too happy together to ever return. She followed the recipe for impish brew whenever she wanted to scare children away from her home. It gave her lovely green skin, sharp teeth, and a nose like a parsnip for a few hours.

It was near the final page where she found what she searched for, though the information was lacking. She saw a charcoal illustration of a very similar object to the one the owl had given her. The one on the page had a skull more like an alligator, and a different number of bony bands, but surely they fell into the same category.

The book told her it was a malgum of death. Apparently its effects upon a simple potion of boiled water and flower petals were numerous. If you turned the color black, soaking the malgum would create a draught of living death where anyone who consumed it would follow any orders they were given until it wore off, even shedding any injuries they’d earned during that time.

Was that the solution the owl offered her? Was she supposed to make herself into something still and obedient, just so she could return to her normal state the next morning, shedding the rage the monsters had inflicted upon her with their claws and teeth? That could not be right. She would never be able to recover from being swallowed whole.

She squinted, reading through the more obscure effects in the tinier handwriting at the absolute bottom of the page. It was almost like the author of that section had been crowded out by all the others. She squinted harder. Often quiet witches had the most to say. Magic that you never noticed stuck around the longest.

Though black produceth living death, a brew orange and thick with pumpkin flesh produceth a shield against malice. No monsters upon your doorstep or under your bed while its effects linger, yet death will result no matter what. Delaying loss of life is the best one can hope for with such a strange gift from those in the night’s sky.

This wasn’t going to be simple. If Orbitia brewed it black, she had little idea how to use it. If she brewed it orange and consumed it, she would simply have a more peaceful death at the end of Hallow’s Eve, but perhaps she could use that time to find another solution. She paced about, rolling the malgum of death around between her fingers. What would her parents have done? She smiled, remembering that they’d likely have disagreed. Her father always favored the more bombastic enchantments while her mother preferred things that whispered in your ear at night. Even stronger in opinion had been her maternal grandmother, who thought you should curse anyone who came to your door without an invitation.

Brew it Black                             Brew it Orange                                    Brew it Clear

Her teapot was up to the challenge. It was covered in dents from the explosive nature of her family’s potions going back three generations. It was black cast iron, so it gave her an excellent color to target with her brewing.

First in was the water, carried fresh from the spring. She put it in a white ceramic cup first, to soften its spirit. She whispered sweet nothings to it in the hopes it would brighten the eventual concoction’s taste, make its scent more alluring.

After the water came the petals. She used mostly the delicate violet discs of the witch’s wink flower, something not visible to those without magic. They never even had a hint of some of the things they missed out on: the serpentine pale dragons weaving through their market streets, the endless fields of flowers over what they saw as black bogs, or the faces in the clouds that observed them with gentle curiosity.

The petals melted in the boiling of water, giving it a bright violet color. She had to turn it black before adding the malgum of death, and that always called for the same two ingredients: charred rose thorns and the powdered legs of beetles that had fed on human flesh in their graves. She poured them both in simultaneously and stirred, quickly drowning the purple under a dense skin of black.

The potion’s bubbles died down, even though she had not let the fire under it weaken. All that was left now was delicately lowering the malgum into the mixture. She did so with two fingers, careful not to let a drop touch her skin. It settled halway without rolling, the tiny eyes on the skull design staying upright. The little sockets immediately sucked up all the steam rising from the pot.

The teeth on the design chattered, making a noise like boar tusks scraping against each other. Slowly it sank into the pot, with the sockets bubbling black in the last possible moment. The potion went still, not a bubble or curl of steam to be seen. She stirred it and realized the malgum had already dissolved completely. She had her draught of living death, but no idea how she would use it. All she could do now was wait, keep it warm for a day, and see what horrors came to her door the second time.

Hallow’s Eve arrived as it always did, with a sharpening of the wind and the quickening of the darkness. Orbitia stood over her stove, pot of living death still warm. The glow of the fire was the only light she had. She had not restored the door, in the hopes that the monsters would solely approach from the angle of its open frame.

It was at one in the morning that the creatures announced their presence, with the lights of their eyes glistening green out in the darkness past the doorway. Three of them approached with slow footsteps, never looking away from Orbitia’s eyes. Her hands shook more and more as they drew closer, revealing the details of their ancient predatory bodies.

Entice the Monsters                  Spray the Monsters                  Run with the Pot

I know you’ve come here for me,” she told them in a soft voice, using all her strength to keep it from quaking. “You didn’t even know there was something better.” They entered the door one by one. Their bodies were covered in fur, but their postures suggested bent men. Their beards dragged across the floorboards. So, these were the monsters drawn to her on the darkest and most magical night of the year.

She was close enough now to know their names. They were Boarlocks, once men of magic, corrupted on a night much like this. Now they simply ate magic, all their memories of casting spells and wearing fine robes locked away, never to surface again. This could work in her favor however. They still knew the tones of language, they could still hear her entice them, offer them something other than mildly magical blood, eyes, and organs.

Do you know the owls?” she asked them. Their eyes lit up: burning emeralds against the one flame of the oven. They bared their teeth. Ropes of blue drool loudly splattered below them. They knew the owls. They flew high enough and late enough to see the magic rivers in the sky, the rivers even witches and warlocks could not see. Their magic was strong, filling. “The owls brewed this potion,” she told them. “They brewed it for me so I could give it to you, in exchange for my life.”

She opened the lid and let them smell. Their eyes rolled back in their heads and they snorted. They shouldered each other, vying for space around the stove. Orbitia took a step back. The boarlocks growled at each other, eventually toppling the pot. Its black contents spilled across the floor and they ran after it, licking it off the wood with long blue tongues.

Orbitia covered her mouth with her hands. How long before it took effect? Would they turn on her before it was fully in their veins? One of them did, stalking towards with a snarl. She sank against the wall and held out her hands defensively. She shut her eyes tight. The boarlock’s forehead pressed against her palm, pushed towards her, and stopped.

When she opened her eyes she saw that the monster’s had gone foggy. The others hovered over the black spill, inert. It was done. For the next few hours she had total control of the beasts. She stood with a broad smile on her face, before remembering the rules of the draught. When day broke they would return to their old selves, hostile and free of injury.

She couldn’t kill them. She could only outrun them, or… feed them to something larger and more dangerous. There were sounds outside, something so mighty that it cared not for the witch and her little shack, a creature of Hallow’s Eve that would be vanish in the light. She had to confront it, entice it as well with a few delicious boarlocks and hope it didn’t see four treats before it.

Come friends,” she told them, patting one on the head as she walked by the puddle. Her mind was going numb. It had to, to prepare for the dangers ahead. “Let’s see what’s out there. We don’t have all night.” The witch and her pets, her hunters, stepped out into the biting wind, which was not yet sated this Hallow’s Eve.

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