That Old Black Magic

That Old Black Magic

by Laurie C. Kuna


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When Some Practical Magic isn’t enough . . .

When Endora Bast is asked for help by the same witch Tribunal that reduced her magic to almost nothing, she wonders why she should bother. Years ago, they punished her harshly, all because she’d fallen in love. Now, they desperately need her to save the entire witch community.

Endora is in for a shock when she’s told she must stop her old nemesis, Obsidian Ashmedai, before he regains his full magical powers. If she does, she’ll regain all of her magic and have her record expunged. If she doesn’t, Ashmedai will become the most powerful being in the world.

Only one other witch can help Endora defeat Ashmedai.

Marcus Morion, her former lover, was also punished by the Tribunal. As a penalty, Endora and Marcus were forced to remain apart, indefinitely. But now, without benefit of full magical powers, they are the witches’ only hope of survival. Failure might cost them their lives. But if they succeed, the happiness they’ve always yearned for will be theirs for the taking . . .

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933417769
Publisher: BelleBooks
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Pages: 196
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.45(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dallas, Texas, Present Day

She'd been in his dreams every night for forty years.

Actually, if he was brutally honest, and he had been of late, he'd admit she'd crossed his mind at least once every day of that time, too.

Seeking answers, he shuffled an intricate deck of tarot cards and laid several out in a Celtic Cross spread. The first card he placed in the middle of the table, putting the second card sideways across the first. The third went directly above the two-card cross, the fourth directly below. To the left of the cross he placed the fifth card. The sixth went to the right. The seventh card he positioned to the right of the entire six-card cross, level with the number four card. Cards eight, nine and ten were lined up in ascending order above the seventh card.

Then he studied the spread intently.

The King of Wands was upright in the first position. His current circumstance. So, he was handling the people around him with strength and compassion. True, he thought wryly. I'm just a compassionate sort of guy.

His light mood was instantly engulfed by resignation when he considered the card lying crosswise over the King of Wands. The Queen of Swords. That fit her completely. Amazing wit, inventiveness and grace. A strong ally. But the disturbing aspect of the Queen of Swords was her ultimate need to put her own interests first. He had no doubt this would be true, and he wasn't certain he was ready for that.

Finding the Two of Swords in position three made his wry smile return. The best he could do at present was balance all the aspects of his life as skillfully as he could manage. Guess that's going to take some doing, givenwhat's coming up.

The next two cards changed the tone of the reading. The Wheel of Fortune and The Tower. A negative situation over which he had no control, and the harbinger of bad luck, respectively.

Cards six through nine continued on the theme of unrest, danger and change. Very little to misinterpret here, he concluded. Cut and dried.

In the tenth and final position lay the Death card, reversed. It represented major changes for which he was ill-prepared but which were nonetheless entirely necessary. Change. Renewal. Possibly in a real sense death itself. Yet the latter really held little fear for him. Being what he was, he was philosophical about all aspects of the spectral universe. Physical death was just a shifting of energy on the metaphysical plane. Of course he was now fifty-nine, not twenty, and even though witches aged at about a third of the speed that humans did, he'd matured tremendously over those years. He liked the body he now occupied, yet he knew eventually it would break down and his light, the core of his being, would take some other form.

Right now, he had a bigger problem to worry about than dying, though.

She was coming.

And that scared the hades out of him.

* * * *
Chapter One

"You've got to be kidding me!"

Scowling, Endora Bast studied the directions the on-line map service had produced for her. 142 Rowan Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana. The corner of Rowan and Rood. This was the place.

But, even in her most outrageous imaginings, it wasn't what she expected.

Conveniently, there was an open parking space on Rowan right across from the address. She pulled in, letting her vintage '65 Plymouth Satellite idle while she assessed the situation.

"Suicide Prevention Salon," read the garishly painted sign stretching across the entire shopfront. "No One Dyes by Her Own Hand Here."

She snorted a half-laugh. Only in the Big Easy, she thought wryly.

That was likely the last humorous thing she'd get to enjoy for a while, though. And, since she had been summoned to this address and the sign said "Walk-ins Welcome," Endora shut off the engine and got out.

But as she approached the door, the hair on her nape rose.

The corner shop's bizarre name notwithstanding, something wasn't right. The building fairly hummed with paranormal energy, at an unusually high level even for a city as haunted as New Orleans. Her hand halfway to the doorknob, she froze, quickly reviewing her options.

Zero. I have zero options.

A subpoena of sorts had arrived two days before at her home in Salem, Massachusetts, her most recent stop in a nomadic four-decade stretch. During most of those years she had worked as business manager and familiar to Cassandra Hathorne, known to a world of fans as The Kitchen Witch. But known to Endora as a truly good witch and her best friend.

Endora prayed to every supernatural entity she knew that what was about to happen wouldn't destroy that relationship. Or everything she knew and loved. Including herself.

She had been summoned to present herself in two days' time at this address. Nothing more had been written, but she knew the meaning behind what few words there were. Time was almost up for her.

Curiosity supposedly killed the cat, she thought glumly. And since I've little choice, I might as well test that theory.

With a hand that barely shook, she reached for the handle of the shop's front door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The beauty parlor looked fairly typical, except that she was literally engulfed by enough paranormal energy to power the entire Eastern Seaboard nonstop for a month. Her whole body tingled from the charged air, and she wondered exactly what that energy had done to her stylish coif. After all, she had meticulously put herself together for this command performance, and her look always started with outstanding hair. Hair that, at this time, was completely outstanding, as every strand of it had risen from its normal neat position on her head and was trying to see how far it could stretch before coming out at the roots. It was all Endora could do not to turn around and dive right through the plate-glass window on the way to her car, which she would then drive like a bat out of hell as far away from this place as possible.

She throttled that impulse, refusing to be intimidated by this staged display of authority, especially since she detested every one of its authoritative sources. No one here meant anything to her. And threats had to have relevance to have power.

The moment she decided on fight rather than flight, her hair settled to its original stylishness. And she was grateful to realize she hadn't lost bladder control during her first moments of panic, either. Thank the goddess for small favors.

Deliberately, she raised a brow for her favorite haughty look, then scanned the room with a gaze calculated to project the trademark bored aloofness of her feline species. It would have worked completely on any other assembled group. However, since her audience today was six of the thirteen witches of the Tribunal, it fell a bit short. Not totally, though, as her open defiance caused them all a bit of discomfort, if the drop in paranormal energy levels and the increase in feet shuffling and throat clearing was any indication. And that was gratifying.

Score one for the underdog. Or, in my case, the undercat.

The half-dozen Tribunal members stood directly in front of a huge display of hair products, and Endora recognized several she used herself. She briefly wondered how the elders would react if she walked over and took some samples from the shelves. They'd probably vaporize her where she stood, which would solve the problem of her summons. But since she was not suicidal at this point in her life, she quelled the impulse. Knowing the fine art of pushing insubordination as far as she could without consequences, she made a calculated retreat. Strolling over to a salon chair, she sat and draped her legs over one chair arm. Then, fixing her best cat stare on the group, waited for them to make the next move.

All six of the witches cleared their throats again, but only one spoke.

"We, uhm, we made a mistake," the one who looked like she was close to two hundred years old said.

This time, Endora's brow shot up in genuine surprise. An admission of culpability from the Tribunal? Unheard of. "I'm confused."

"A mistake regarding how we handled your case forty years ago."

Completely blind-sided by that declaration, Endora barely locked her jaw before it fell open. She stared at each and every witch in turn before snarling, "That's the understatement of the last four decades."

The spokeswitch continued as if Endora hadn't interrupted, "An error of potentially catastrophic proportions."

"Fire whoever writes your dialogue," Endora cracked. Sarcasm saved her from succumbing to the undignified urge to pace. And to tear out clumps of her hair. "This sounds like a bad episode of Mission Impossible."

"Ms. Bast," the tall, thin old witch intoned, "we are deadly serious. The situation is perilous, and the Tribunal is prepared to reinstate all your powers and remove the sanctions from your name if you succeed."

Endora's gaze snapped to the speaker. "If I succeed, I get my powers back? I'm supposed to fix this perilous situation without full powers?" She laughed incredulously.

"We're afraid so," the spokeswitch replied gravely.

Pacing was now the only option. Endora rose from the salon chair, but the confined space and the need to negotiate among workstations kept her from putting much distance between herself and the Tribunal. "Have you taken to smoking henbane at coven get-togethers? Because that is the most idiotic, drug-induced proposal I've ever heard."

A short, squat witch who reminded her of a troll said condescendingly, "You've no need to be insulting, Miss Bast."

Endora stopped her restless stalking, turned toward him, and ramped up her vaunted cat stare. "Pardon me, but I can't help thinking that, with thirteen half-wits on this tribunal, the governing body of the entire witch community has only six and a half brains among them. Three of which are in this room, and apparently having seizures."

Face nearly purple with rage, troll-witch invaded Endora's personal space. "Now see here, that's insubordination!"

Although only five-five, she towered over him. And increased her advantage by stepping even closer, forcing him to look up at her. "Buddy, you haven't even seen what I consider insubordinate."

"Enough." With a flick of her finger, the eldest witch sent a burst of energy between the two combatants that knocked them each back a step. "We have no choice but to ask you, Miss Bast. And you must help us."

"Why risk my life for you?" Endora shook her head in amazement before turning her stare on the spokeswitch. "You convicted me of sabotaging a Tribunal operation. As a result, you reduced my powers by three-quarters, ordered me into forty years of servitude as a familiar, and removed my name from every witches' registry in the world. One third of my life has been spent in limbo, and now you think admitting your error justifies asking for my help? What happened to me was not a mistake. It was a complete miscarriage of justice."

She felt her face flush, knew she was ranting, but didn't rein in her temper. "And, to get my full powers back, I have to succeed at this mission? I don't give a fat rat's ass if we're on the cusp of Armageddon. I'm not helping you with your little crisis-of-the-week project."

"Ironic you should put it that way, Ms. Bast," the Head Magistrate stated soberly. Apparently, he had finally found his voice. "We are indeed on the cusp of Armageddon. And you're only one of two who can do anything about it."

At his words, Endora flinched as if she'd been shot. Her legs turned rubbery, and she found herself sitting abruptly in the nearest styling chair. That said chair was occupied by a member of the Tribunal meant nothing to her. After all, she was a cat. Cats sat in whatever lap they wanted to. Or not.

"That one of two part," she managed to say weakly, "can you elaborate on who the other one is?"

"Marcus Morion," the group's mouthpiece supplied.

"I was afraid you'd say that." Endora had to suffer the indignity of fainting for the very first time in her life.

Right in front of half the Tribunal.

* * * *

Marcus Morion subtly scratched beneath the colorful gypsy scarf covering most of his hair. Sweat trickled down toward his collar, adding to his inexplicable irritation and setting off alarms in his already aching head.

Take it easy, buddy, he reminded himself. This, too, shall pass ... As soon as I get away from this goddess-forsaken city.

Although it was the last week in October, the weather was sticky in Dallas. Not for the first time, Marcus cursed being there. The only thing he liked about the city was that it hosted his current employer, Medieval Festivals, Incorporated. For which he played Marco the Magnificent, King of the Gypsies. This latest persona, made more believable by his dark hair, black eyes and olive complexion, was a variation on the theme of his life for the past forty years. Moving from town to town, changing identities with every new location. He had knocked around Europe for over fifteen years, but finally succumbed to a bone-deep longing and returned to America. To circus sideshows, state fairs, and now renaissance and medieval festivals. Just a higher-class version of the con he'd run for two-thirds of his life.

A sweet looking middle-aged woman approached his booth, followed closely by a Stetson-wearing cowboy who appeared to be years older. Marcus knew personally that looks could completely deceive. He'd bet his next paycheck the cowboy had gotten his leathery skin from hours in the brutal Texas sun, giving a mistaken impression of well-advanced age.

"I've heard tell y'all do fortunes," the woman said in a soft drawl.

He was seated behind the ticket counter of his booth; nevertheless, Marcus put his right hand over his heart and executed a half bow. "Marco the Magnificent, at your service, Madame," he said in his best fake gypsy accent. "How may I be of service to such a lovely lady as yourself?"

Obviously delighted, the woman tittered softly, then indicated the cowboy with a tilt of her head. "My husband, Daryl, doesn't believe this seeing the future stuff."

"Waste of money, ya ask me," Daryl growled. He leveled a glare at Marcus that would have bored through titanium. "But seein' as how it's Lorena's birthday, I said I'd bring her here."

As Lorena glanced adoringly at Daryl, Marcus shot him a conspiratorial wink. "And we men must do all we can to please our ladies, no?" He looked to Lorena, whose attention he again had, then gestured to the brightly-colored placards decorating the booth. According to their pictures and words, Marco the Magnificent could predict the future via crystal ball, tarot cards, astrology, numerology, tea leaves, palmistry and runes.

"So, my lady Lorena, how do you wish to have your fortune told?"

"Don't y'all do that ooo-wee-gee-ah board thing?" Lorena asked.

High rollers in every gambling establishment in the world would have killed for the poker face Marcus had, so he was confident his revulsion did not show on his face. "Actually, the Ouija board is more for contacting loose spirits," he said in as offhand a manner as he could manage. "Something I don't recommend any amateur do." Or any honest practitioner of the magickal arts, for that matter, Marcus thought grimly. Dangerous black magic, that.

Lorena's face fell momentarily until her eyes lit on another placard. "What are runes?"

Just the next step up from a Ouija board for me. He glanced at Lorena and Daryl. She looked totally fascinated and he completely uninterested. "Well, let me explain. Runes are an ancient form of forecasting, Germanic in origin. In a reading, the order in which the runes are cast is important, as is the symbol on each one that is cast and the position it's in when revealed."

Lorena turned to Daryl. "What do ya think, darlin'?"

"Yer birthday, yer choice."

Eyes dancing with anticipation, Lorena turned to Marcus. "The runes, please."

Marcus felt his heart sink. He was already sweaty, irritable, out of sorts. Now this. Surprisingly bitter thoughts filled his head. Why couldn't you just stick to form, Lorena, and pick a common method? Tea leaves ... crystal ball ... palm reading ... Oh no, you're a risk taker. Want to live on the edge, have a fortune told the way none of your bridge club members would ever think of.

"Runes it is," he said with fake cheerfulness. Smiling at the couple, he gestured to the small room attached to the booth. "Step into my reading room." He winked at Lorena. "Your husband is welcome to sit in with us. Sometimes, having a skeptic as a witness increases the satisfaction of saying 'I told you so.'"

Daryl grunted but followed his wife into the permanent wooden structure and pulled out a chair to seat her before taking the chair at her left.

Marcus turned to the wall behind his seat and opened the black-lacquered cabinet containing all of his props. Reaching inside, he discreetly flipped a switch to start the ankle-level cooling system. It blew a cool mist across the floor, lending an air of eerie authenticity to the proceedings. Next, he switched on a light that centered directly over the table, casting everything else in shadow. Once seated across from his customers, he spread out his black rune cloth and smoothed it over the tabletop.

"What's that circle on the middle of the cloth for?"

Marcus smiled at Lorena. "It's a target, of sorts. Every set of runes has at least twenty-five pieces. Mine has twenty-eight because I prefer to use runes many others don't. To do a reading, I pour them all onto this cloth, and then choose only from the ones that fall inside the circle."

Eyes twinkling, she turned to her husband. "Isn't this excitin', darlin'?"

"If you say so."

Lorena swatted Daryl playfully on the arm before turning her full attention to the runes.

"Now, Lorena," Marcus intoned in his most mysterious gypsy voice, "concentrate on a question you want answered. Ready?"

When she nodded eagerly, Marcus opened the drawstring closure on a black velvet bag and spilled the contents onto the table. Choosing a stone within the circle, he placed it facedown on the cloth. The second stone went beside it on the right. The third to the right of the second. He drew the fourth stone and placed it directly above the second, now middle, stone. The fifth stone went directly below the second, establishing a cross pattern.

"Still visualizing it?" Marcus was amused to note Lorena's eyes were closed tight in concentration. She said nothing, just nodded emphatically. "I start the reading by turning over the center stone. It represents the present, and the problem or issue as well."

He revealed the first rune, then turned over the second.

"Hades!" The epithet escaped his mouth before he even realized it. Both Lorena and Daryl jumped as if they'd been shot, but Marcus quickly recovered and smiled his most charming, reassuring smile. "Beg pardon. It's just that this is an excellent starting rune, and I'm frankly surprised."

"Ain't that hell?"

Marcus looked directly at Daryl. "Certainly, sir. However, it's customary to invoke that location when reading runes." And if you believe that, I've got potions guaranteed to assure world peace. And I'll sell them to you for a song.

Marcus turned over each rune in turn, deliberately leaving the one in the fifth position face down. And he deliberately didn't look at the stones. This was not a casting for Lorena. It was for him. Concentrating hard, he let his paranormal senses envelop the couple across the table. And then he saw it, or rather read it in Daryl's thoughts. He smiled in relief and looked up at Lorena, glad he had an excuse not to look at the rune stones.

"You're going on a trip," he said brightly. Then he winced for effect and turned to Daryl. "Um, she didn't know this, did she?" The cowboy shook his head. "Do you want me to spoil the surprise?"

Daryl snorted a laugh, then leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Take a crack at it."

With a nod, Marcus continued. Pretending to stare at the runes, he tuned his senses to Daryl. "I see a cruise ship. To Mexico. A week's resort stay, then the cruise ends in San Diego. You fly back to Dallas from there." He glanced at the dumbfounded Lorena, but it was Daryl's expression that made him want to laugh aloud. The cowboy's mouth was hanging open. Marcus allowed himself a polite smile. "How'd I do, Daryl?"

"I'll be damned," Daryl muttered, shaking his head. "I'll be damned."

Marcus turned to Lorena. "Apparently, I was close."

He was still smiling minutes later when he walked the couple out and wished them a safe and happy trip. He hadn't cast into the future to see whether it would go smoothly, but he wouldn't have told them the outcome unless going would endanger their lives.

His smile faltered when he turned back to the table. The slight shaking of his hand as he reached to turn over the last rune had him cursing inventively in several languages. But there was no stopping Fate. He read all five stones, then sighed heavily.

Endora Bast would charge back into his life very soon. In fact, within the next few days. He knew without looking at the rune in the first position-which indicated a past event causing a present situation-that their misadventure of forty years before was the reason she sought him out. He had thought by ignoring the Tribunal's summons to go to New Orleans, he could avoid revisiting that painful time. Clearly, that wasn't the case. The woman he had loved and lost all those years ago was about to reopen deep, unhealed wounds. Just by showing up. He had no idea how he was going to deal with her, but there was absolutely nothing he could do to prevent her arrival.

The runes didn't lie.

* * * *

"Cassie, I need your help."

The tall, dark-haired object of Endora's plea jumped nearly a foot, throwing her hands up in a gesture of protection. The bowl of orange Halloween frosting she'd been holding went flying in one direction, the spatula to apply the icing went the other way. In a split-second it looked like a balloon containing shredded pumpkins had burst in the kitchen. Orange frosting was splattered everywhere.

Face a pasty white, Cassandra Hathorne-Sandor spun to face her familiar, sitting in cat form on her kitchen table. "By the goddess, Dora! You should know better than to sneak up on a pregnant woman. You scared me half to death."

"I'm so sorry, Cassie." Guilt swamped Endora. "I didn't stop to think about--"

"My water broke!"

"Oh sweet, unholy hades!" Sudden panic completely replaced guilt. Endora shape-shifted from feline form back into her mortal body so fast she got dizzy. "What should I do? Where's Mick? How far's the hospital?" She couldn't breathe. The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up, and she looked frantically around as if Cassie's husband was there and she just couldn't see him. Then she reached for Cassie's arm. "Shouldn't you lie down?"

"Not that water, nitwit." The witch's dark eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth. "I must have shot off some stray energy when I jumped. Burned a hole completely through that jug beside the sink."

"Oh. I knew that." Endora's gaze swung to the counter. On it sat a plastic gallon jug, water streaming out both sides via two neat holes through its center. Abruptly, the puddles and spatters covering counter and floor contracted into a stream that reversed back into the jug. The holes closed up behind the stream.

"Neat, Cass," Endora approved enthusiastically, panic gone and hair starting to lie back down. "A year ago, you wouldn't have even thought to try that spell."

Cassandra Hathorne, also known as the domestic diva the Kitchen Witch, laughed. "A year ago, I probably couldn't have done it."

"Been practicing?"

"Sure." Cassie flicked her wrist. The bowl, spatula and globs of scattered icing all returned to their prelaunch places--icing in bowl, bowl and spatula in Cassie's hands. She set them on the table and reached two-handed to rub her lower back. "But I had to accept myself for what I am before all the practice started paying off."

"Guess that's what love, marriage, and impending motherhood will do." Sensing her friend was tired beyond what showed on her face, Endora plopped into a kitchen chair, happy when Cassie followed her lead. "So how are the twins doing? Decided on names yet?"

A snap of Cassie's fingers produced two glasses of milk, one of which she pushed across the table to Endora. She took a big gulp from her own. "Mick wants Bubba and Louie, but I'm holding out for Cruella and Maleficent."

When Cassie laughed uproariously, Endora knew her eyes must have popped wide open over that declaration.

"Gotcha, Familiar," she gloated. "Hooked like a fish. Cruella ... Bubba and Louie. Ha!"

Although she loved her dearly, Endora hated having Cassie put one over on her. But she supposed pregnant friends should be allowed some fun, so she merely said truthfully, "My game's not at its best right now."

Cassie had raised her glass to drink, but lowered it immediately. "I seem to recall, milliseconds before I tried to launch myself into orbit, your asking me for help." She studied her friend through intense, caramel-colored eyes. "Your summons to New Orleans?"

Although Endora dreaded revealing the lurid details, withholding information from her best friend and employer of nearly forty years wasn't even the choice behind Door Number Fifty.

"I've got until the Winter Solstice to fix a bit of a problem."

Cassie cocked her head. "Define 'problem.' And keep in mind I know you're the mistress of understatement, so don't downplay this."

Endora sighed, wondering how to start. The situation was complex and desperate. And intensely personal. "I ... ah ... Well, it's a little bit..." She stuttered to a halt.

And was spared the embarrassment of continued floundering when lightning cracked and smoke billowed through the kitchen.

When the pyrotechnics subsided, Medusa Morlock stood in the middle of the room. Her flowing black robe was covered in random blotches of color, so that the burnt-oranges, yellows, reds and browns seemed to form a pattern that actually moved on the material like swirling autumn leaves.

"Mom!" Cassie rose to kiss her mother. "You always know how to make an entrance."

Medusa returned the embrace, then shot the sleeves of her robe and said imperiously. "Yes, I do, don't I?" She turned to hug Endora, who had also risen to greet her. "So, Cassandra, how are my grandbabies, Huey and Louie?"

"Mom, we've decided on Lewis and Clark."

Medusa winked at Endora. "Why not Jekyll and Hyde?"

"Only if one is born a doctor." Cassie gestured to the table. "Have a seat, Mom. Your timing couldn't be better. Endora needs some help."

"Some help is an understatement." Endora shook her head. "I need a miracle."

Medusa took a seat. "Well, let's see what we can do."

With a snap of her fingers, Cassie produced a huge plate of cookies, glasses, a gallon of milk, and a half gallon of apple cider. Plates and napkins arranged themselves in front of the three of them. "I vote for some snacks while we discuss Dora's problem."

"Snacks are good." Endora forced a cheerful tone as she flopped back into her chair. Her stomach felt like it had lead donuts in it.

"No need to put on a brave face, dear." Medusa patted Endora's shoulder. "If you weren't worried, you wouldn't be here seeking aid. Tell us what you need."

With a helpless shrug, Endora swallowed so hard that if she'd had an Adam's apple, it would have popped out like a goiter. "Get comfortable, preggo-witch and grandma-witch-to be. It's a long story." Endora propped her elbows on the table and leaned on them. "Remember that black magic circle back in sixty-five? In Colorado?"

"Didn't the circle leader kill all of the members?" Cassie asked. "A rogue witch named Ash something or other."

"Obsidian Ashmedai." Medusa practically hissed the name. "An evil practitioner of the darkest arts. I always thought he was the spawn of Hecate."

"You knew him, Mom?"

Grimacing, Medusa looked at Cassie. "I never had the displeasure of actually meeting him, but knew of him. I served the customary fifty-year term on the Tribunal and had left it only a few years before he came on the scene." Her daughter's look turned blank and then embarrassed, and she patted Cassie's hand. "That was during your rebellious period, dear, when you didn't associate much with your family."

"I never realized." Cassie blushed furiously. "I'm so ashamed of myself."

Medusa waved away her discomfort. "Children must seek their own paths. At the time, you were traveling in a different direction." But her expression hardened when she said to Endora, "I knew from the start, as did many former Magistrates, that he was trouble. In Hebrew lore, Ashmedai is the undisputed king of demons. The name literally translates as evil spirit. In Christian lore, he's known as Sammael. Coincidentally, that's his middle name. Obsidian Sammael Ashmedai. The most evil witch I've ever known."

Endora and Cassie shared a startled look.

Cassie switched from drinking milk to drinking cider. Then she sat back in her chair and asked her mother, "Why didn't anyone do something to stop him?"

Medusa gave a frustrated snort. "I and several former Tribunal members tried to have Ashmedai's magic severely restricted. But we were blocked by three very powerful Magistrates on the Tribunal at the time."

"But aren't they supposed to protect all of witchkind?" Endora's anger at the witches' governing body neared boiling. "If he was so sinister, why didn't they act against him?"

"I was just about to ask the same question, Mom."

"Witches, like all mortals, are susceptible to pettiness," Medusa said quietly. "Pride, greed, hatred. Whatever motivated those three Magistrates to abandon both common sense and caution is anyone's guess." With a snap of her fingers, she sent her plate and silverware floating toward the dishwasher, which opened to accept them.

Something niggled in the back of Endora's mind. "Are those obstructionists still around?"

"Only one. The other two died a number of years back. Separate incidents, and over a decade apart, but both were under mysterious circumstances."

The hair on Endora's nape stood on end. "Is the living one still a magistrate?"

"Unfortunately, Old Troll Face has five more years to serve." Medusa's gaze sharpened. "Endora, you're suddenly very pale."

It felt like a huge hairball was lodged in her throat. Clearing it, Endora forced a casual tone. "One of the magistrates I met in New Orleans looks like a troll. We didn't hit it off."

"Bald, several inches shorter than you? Beady black eyes?" Too stunned to speak, Endora merely nodded. Medusa appeared to be chewing a mouthful of lemons. "Arthur Morass, emphasis on the last three letters of his surname. A sufferer of 'little witch' syndrome if ever I've known one. Completely repulsive."

"For sure. He's like a Chihuahua," Endora said to Cassie, "a rat with attitude."

"I think I'll ask some discreet questions about dear old Arthur," Medusa stated. "He always championed Ashmedai."

"You said yourself this guy hadn't done anything suspicious up to the point he formed the circle," Cassie pointed out. "How did you know beforehand he was so evil?"

"Actions were not the issue." The elder witch leaned forward in her chair. "It was attitude. Deportment. He exudes an unctuous charisma." She sighed. "But that is long since in the past. The present is our critical concern right now. Endora, continue your story."

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