Marko felt a tickle at the back of his throat and coughed involuntarily. He swallowed and the tickle came on stronger the second time. The coughing didn’t stop. Marko found it difficult to catch his breath. He was dimly aware that Janet was asking him if he was okay. Marko tried to answer and succeeded only in coughing more forcefully.
He fought back a wave of panic as he found it increasingly difficult to catch his breath. Marko suddenly realized that Phillip’s wraith had done something to his lungs, after forcing its way inside of him. He hadn’t wanted to alarm the others, but a gritty sensation in his throat had persisted, even after he had expelled the spirit.
Marko’s constant coughing made him light-headed. His eyes watered and were closed, when Janet thrust a bottle of water into his hand. Marko accepted it and gratefully took a drink. His coughing subsided enough for him to explain that he was going to have to make an elixir in order to clear out his lungs.
“If it’s medicine you need, wouldn’t it be faster just to go to a pharmacy,” asked Andrea.
“That wouldn’t help. It takes magic to counteract magic.”
Janet’s eyes grew wide, “that thing you inhaled did something to you didn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so. There’s only one place in this area where I can get all the ingredients for the elixir.”
Andrea entered the address Marko gave her into the navigation app on his cell phone and started the car. Feeling exhausted, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Marko drifted off for a few peaceful minutes before a coughing jag jarred him awake. His chest was sore by the time they arrived at their destination. The sisters looked doubtfully at the old wooden house. They were out on the outskirts of town, where the houses were miles apart.
Despite the sunshine and cheerful chatter of birds in the trees around them. Janet did not like the neglected look of the dingy white clapboard house and tall, weed-choked grass around it. She felt watched. Janet wasn’t sure, but could have sworn that the slats on one of the closed wooden shutters inside the front window moved slightly.
“Did you see that Andrea? The slats of that shutter slid open a little, like someone is looking out at us.”
“No, I didn’t see that. There doesn’t seem to be any movement in or around that house. Are you sure someone still lives here Marko?”
“Of course I am. A sweet little old woman has lived here for as long as I can remember. I’ve bought a lot of herbs from her over the years. It has been awhile since my last visit though. I’ve been travelling a lot lately. She’s got to be getting up there in years. Maybe she can’t get around like she used to. That’s probably why it looks a little rundown.”
Andrea raised her eyebrows at Janet and they sat staring at the house for an indecisive moment until another bout of Marko coughing got them moving. The two climbed out and attempted to help him out of the car. He shooed them away and got out on his own. A short, squat grandmotherly woman answered the door and ushered them into a small living room.
The shuttered windows blocked out the sunshine. Janet stepped over the threshold and felt the temperature drop. It was like stepping into a cave. Her sensitive nose detected decay, beneath the strong scent of cleaning solution. She looked up and realized the walls were crowded with taxidermy heads mounted on plaques. A hundred glass eyes seemed to fix their blank gazes on them.
An inexplicable sense of disquiet stole over Janet, as they sat conversing with the woman. She seemed harmless enough, beaming genially at them as she inquired about Marko’s family. Still, Janet didn’t like the watchful way her beady eyes darted back and forth, as though gauging something about them. They were upfront about the urgent need for the herbs they sought. Marko’s coughing was clearly taking his breath away. Yet the woman showed no concern and made no move to go and get the herbs. She just prattled away, as though they were on a social visit.
Andrea and Janet exchanged frustrated glances. Again, Andrea started to mention the herbs but Marko tapped her hand and shook his head no. Janet could tell that her sister’s anger had not returned since the shadow cat’s attack. Rather than confront the woman, Andrea shrugged and fell silent. Janet’s frustration increased. The one time her sister’s anger actually would have helped the situation, it was absent.
Marko appeared to think it rude to cut short the endless small talk. Janet got the sense that it was not so much a friendly chat as it was some sort of stalling tactic on the part of the withered old crone. But why? What was she up to? The others didn’t appear to suspect anything.
Maybe she was overreacting, because the place creeped her out. Janet waited for the woman to look away and quickly took a look at her through the eye of the talisman. She had just enough time to secret the stone down her shirt before the old woman’s eyes returned to her face. Janet smiled to mask the shock she felt. The woman had no aura! She wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it couldn’t be a good thing. All at once, she realized what bothered her about the woman’s eyes. They reminded her of glass taxidermy eyes.
Janet didn’t care if she was overreacting. They needed to get out of there. She was beginning to have serious doubts about the existence of those herbs Marko wanted. Janet decided to investigate. She asked if she could use the bathroom. The woman looked at her and smiled, displaying a row of crooked, yellow teeth speckled with decay. She didn’t answer for a moment and Janet felt an unpleasant crawling sensation along her scalp. Instinctively, she emptied her mind and held the gaze without moving. The woman blinked first.
“Yes of course dear, I suppose you would need to use the facilities after such a long drive. What a bad hostess I’m being. I should have asked you all if you needed to use the facilities. Go right on back. It’s the third door on the left. Don’t keep us waiting too long though dear, my son Wallace is going to brew us a nice pot of tea.”
Janet thanked her and made her way to the hallway. She pulled the bathroom door closed as she walked past. Janet stealthily opened doors and glanced in rooms. She came to the basement door and slipped through, quietly closing it behind her. Janet paused halfway down the stairs, surprised to see how far back the basement reached. It was a cavernous space which extended far beyond the walls of the house. There were rows upon rows of plants underneath grow lights suspended from the low ceiling.
Janet was exploring one of the rows, when footsteps alerted her to the fact that she wasn’t alone. She dropped down to her knees and crawled towards the sound. The tallest man she had ever seen was standing before a shelf full of dried and crushed herbs searching for something. Janet watched him select a jar from the shelf and shake some of its contents into the palm of his paw of a hand before making his way up the stairs. In his haste, he left the jar on the counter.
Janet couldn’t remember all the herbs Marko said he needed but she recalled that he said the most important one was lungwort. She figured that she would get some as a little insurance, in case the woman’s asking price was more than they could afford. People tended to get greedy, when they knew they had you over a barrel and Marko was in a bad way. Janet found what she was looking for and stuffed a handful of dried lungwort leaves into the pocket of her jeans.
She replaced the jar and stood back, scanning the labels on the other jars. Hopefully, the names of the other herbs Marko had mentioned would come back to her if she saw them. Janet’s gaze encountered a jar labeled “Scopolamine (obey me blowing powder).” Next was the space previously occupied by the jar on the counter. Janet glanced over at it and froze in the midst of turning back to the shelf. Her eyes widened. She asked herself, “Did the label on that jar say Valerian (sedative)?”
Janet moved to the shelf and snatched down the jar labeled scopolamine. She unscrewed the lid, dumped some powder into her hand and thrust it back on the shelf lidless, in her haste. Janet quickly crept back up the stairs and opened the basement door wide enough to covertly peer into the hallway.
The tall man was knocking on the bathroom door with his left hand while hiding a hammer behind his back with the right hand. When Janet didn’t respond to the knocking, he opened the door and peered inside. Finding the bathroom empty, he turned towards the basement door as Janet closed it. She waited for the handle to turn. It turned only slightly before the man flung open the door and raised the hammer over his head. Janet took a quick breath and blew the powder from her hand up into his face shouting, “obey me!”
The man looked stunned for second before his mouth went slack and his eyes became vacant. Unsure of what to do next, Janet pushed past him and ran to the living room. Andrea and Marko lay back against the couch unconscious. She was so relieved to find that they both had pulses, she didn’t notice the corpse seated across from them. It was the body of the old woman. Judging from the advanced state of decay and tattered clothing, she had been dead for quite some. The odor she had detected earlier was now an overpowering reek. Janet called Wallace into the living room.
“Tell me Wallace. How long has she been dead?”
“She obviously wasn’t your mother. Who was she to you?”
“Just some old crone I bought herbs from.”
“Did you kill her?”
“Someone told her what I was using the herbs to make and she refused to sell certain ones to me.”
“Why kill her?”
“The men I work for would have come after me, if I wasn’t able to keep them supplied with potions.”
“I don’t even want to know what you were going to do to us. My friend here was attacked by a phantasm. Now he has a bad cough. Do you know how to make a potion to cleanse his lungs?”
“Then go and make it.”
Janet followed him back down to the basement, deeply breathing in the earthy air gratefully. Anything was better than the corrupted air in the living room. She hunted around until she found some boxes and got busy while Wallace made the potion. Two hours later, Andrea and Marko awakened in the car as Janet drove. They rode along in bewildered silence as the mental fogginess slowly dissipated. Andrea spoke first.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to a motel. I’ve had enough of creepy old places. Besides, we all need a good night’s sleep.”
Marko started coughing. Janet pulled a vial of liquid from the cup holder and handed it back to him.
“Here, drink this.”
Marko drank the elixir and felt something rising to the back of his throat. He had Janet pull over by the side of the road. The sisters looked on in revolted silence as Marko clambered out and coughed up a glob of black tarry substance. The remnants of it clung to his lips and tore the tissue Janet handed him to wipe his mouth.
Marko climbed back into the backseat. His throat was a little sore but his lungs were clear. The tightness in his chest had subsided. He cautiously took a deep breath and was relieved that the urge to cough didn’t seize him. He laid a hand on Janet’s shoulder and thanked her.
“How did you get my friend to make the elixir?”
Janet broke the news to Marko about his friend. She filled him and Andrea in on what transpired after they were drugged. They were shocked to hear how Wallace had used magic to animate the old woman’s corpse and prevent them from seeing her as she really was. Andrea continued to shake her head in wonderment as Janet described the way she had Wallace carry them and a box crammed full of vials of additional herbs and powders out to the car. Marko spoke up from the backseat.
“If we leave Wallace behind in that house, he’ll victimize more of her former customers.”
“Don’t worry Marko. I called the police and had Wallace make a full confession.”