Coming Next:




Chapter One:
Captives and Cabbage



"Good news!"  Aunt Anklistine strode into the kitchen, rubbing her hands. Her hair was pulled back in its usual severe bun, wisps trailing out at the ends.  Her angular face looked gleeful.  "Someone stole a cabbage from our garden!"

Aunt Lilith squinted up from the cauldron she was stirring.  She brushed her spotless apron and dipped a finger in the boiling liquid to taste the brew.  "A cabbage?  Already?"

Aunt Anklistine flicked at her boots.  Caked mud clumped off and landed by the doormat.  "Yes, already.  They've been enchanted since yesterday.  I told you my lures work quickly."

Mildred looked up from the squirming orange mash she was supposed to be chopping for dinner tonight.  It looked atrocious and smelled repulsive.  Probably Aunt Hurda's idea of dessert.  Good news that someone stole from us? she wondered.

Aunt Lilith sighed.  "You realize we don't have a room free to keep a captive yet."

"Oh, we can use Mildred's."  Aunt Anklistine ran her bony fingers through her hair.  "She won't need it much longer.  Once she leaves —"

"Excuse me?" Mildred burst in.

Aunt Lilith jumped, looking guilty.

"I thought she was banned from the kitchen."  Aunt Anklistine frowned at the corner where Mildred had sat hidden.  "Doesn't she burn everything?"

"She's not stirring, she's chopping.  Besides, she has to learn to cook eventually."

"What a nuisance," Aunt Anklistine muttered.

"Mildred's not a nuisance!  There's every chance she'll grow up to be just as creditable as her mother.  Besides, Drakin was . . ."

Evil?  Vicious?  Vindictive?  No loss to anybody? Mildred thought sourly.

". . . irreplaceable," Aunt Lilith finished.  "But our niece has her own qualities —"

"Such as trying to talk to Normals?"

Mildred's face turned hot.  One time she'd tried to sneak out of the manor to find a friend.  Once.  Why couldn't Aunt Anklistine let her forget it?

Aunt Lilith sighed.  "Be that as it may . . . you realize that if we leave to fetch the thief, we'll have to take Hurda with us.  That was Oplisa's condition for letting us out for the day."

Aunt Anklistine's face pinched.  "I suppose she might have some use . . ."

Mildred sighed.  Aunt Oplisa saw it as her duty to coerce the middle sisters to include the youngest, but she rarely subjected herself to Aunt Hurda personally.

The front door slammed, and both aunts stiffened.

Aunt Hurda stomped into the kitchen.  Her clothes were coated in mud and grass stains.  Her favorite necklace of cockroach legs was knocked askew, and her right foot trailed a cobweb with brambles tangled in it.

"Got a cabbage missing," she grunted.

"I know that.  I planted them."  Aunt Anklistine folded her arms.  "Unless two are missing because you just ate one?"

"What did you wear into my kitchen?" Aunt Lilith screamed.  "Get out!  Get out!  Take that filth with you!"

Ignoring her, Aunt Hurda dipped her knuckle in the stew and slurped.  "Not burnt enough yet."  She knelt down by the fire and blew.  The flames roared.

Aunt Lilith wrenched her sister away.  "Get out of my kitchen!"

Mildred tried not to giggle.

Aunt Hurda didn't seem to notice.  She reached out and snagged a handful of squiriming orange mash.

"No good raw."  She shoved it in her mouth anyway.  "Burn it, too."

"I've told you before," Aunt Lilith said through gritted teeth.  "Stay out of my kitchen twelve nights a week, and you get to cook the thirteenth.  Why is that so difficult to remember?"

"Once a week not enough," Aunt Hurda mumbled through her mouthful.  "Don't get enough respect as it is."

Aunt Anklistine's eyebrows drew together.  "Well, if someone hadn't refused to declare a death-enemy when she came of
age . . ."

"Nobody I wanted to kill," Aunt Hurda shot back.

"That isn't actually necessary," Aunt Lilith snapped, snatching the remainder of the orange mash from the counter and squishing it into a bowl.  "I've never killed a witch in my life."

Mildred nodded.  Very few witches took the term literally.  Aunt Anklistine competed with her enemy to make nastier gardens. Aunt Lilith stole recipes from hers.  Of course, Aunt Oplisa had killed her death-enemy years ago, but Aunt Oplisa killed everything.

"Speaking of which," Aunt Anklistine said pointedly, "don't we have a Normal to go out and capture?"

"Oh!  Right.  Right."  Aunt Lilith snapped her fingers, and the fire under the pot died.  She smacked Aunt Hurda's hand away from her shelf of alphabetized cookbooks, and said, reluctantly, "Would you like to come with us?"

Aunt Hurda grinned, showing her black teeth.  "I like capturing things."

Aunt Lilith's shoulders slumped.  "Go to your room, Mildred," she said morosely.  "Clean it out.  We'll be back in an hour."

"But I need my room!" Mildred protested.  "It's small and private and has the best view in the manor —"

"Towers are traditional for keeping captives," Aunt Anklistine snapped.  "Stop arguing and do it."

"Then where am I supposed to sleep?" Mildred cried.

"You can have Drakin's old room," Aunt Lilith said kindly, as if offering a generous gift.

Mildred stared at her in horror.

"I'll cook tonight," Aunt Hurda offered, pulling a limp ball of fur from her pocket.  "Rat soup."

"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" Aunt Lilith screamed, diving to stop her.


*     *     *


Mildred slammed the door to her room.  How dare they take it away!  And to give it to some prisoner!  And now they wanted her to sleep in Drakin's horrible bedroom . . .

Mildred shuddered.  Drakin had been dead since she was two or three, too young to remember.  But she hated hearing the stories about her mother.  Drakin had been worse than Aunt Oplisa, manipulating people's minds instead of just killing things.

Mildred sighed, flipping through her closet dispiritedly.  Of course, it isn't like I have much to take with me.

Three dresses that still fit.  Several piles of ones that didn't.  A few forgotten toys from when she was much younger, which had collected dust for years.  Spellbooks . . .

Oh!  Mildred's eyes widened.  She yanked back a pile of too-small dresses back to find a stack of old, forgotten books from the family library.  Histories of the kingdom from two hundred years ago, heroes who defeated witches, princesses with perfectly golden hair . . . Aunt Anklistine had long-since threatened to burn those if she caught Mildred reading any more of "that trash."

Teetering under a stack of twelve tomes, Mildred inched down the stairs and stumbled her way to the library.  She scanned the bookcases, finally spying a top shelf that wasn't quite full.  Breathing a sigh of relief, Mildred dragged over a chair and hid them all behind the spellbooks in the front row, which had titles like Deadly Poisons in Your Garden, Famous Feuds of the Last Thousand Years, and Leave Your Enemies Helpless.

She jumped down from the chair and squinted upwards.  Good.  You couldn't tell from here that anything had changed.  That should save her from a scolding, unless Aunt Lilith took inventory again.

Running back up the stairs, she flicked through the rest of her possessions, which didn't take long.

Spellbooks.  They could keep those.  She rarely read them, anyway.

Slippers.  She tucked them in her pocket.

Clothes.  Mildred stared dismally at her wardrobe.  Two of her dresses were threadbare, one was just plain ugly, and she'd never liked that blue cloak.  Maybe if I leave them here, they'll get the hint that I need something new.

Mildred eyed her mattress uncertainly.  Possibly, if she dragged that downstairs, they might let her sleep in the kitchen instead of Drakin's old room . . .

"— Your fault it nearly got away!"

Mildred jumped.  Aunt Anklistine!

"Stop yelling!" Aunt Lilith shouted back.  "It didn't get away, did it?  Hurda, stop letting it struggle so much!"

The door exploded.  Aunt Hurda appeared in a cloud of dust, tossing the front end of a screaming, wriggling sack at the mattress.

"MMFHFHH MHFFMNMM MFHHHMMMN!" the sack shouted.

Mildred stared at it, dumbfounded.

"Too heavy," Aunt Hurda muttered, kicking the back half onto the mattress.  It yelped and started swearing at her.  "Room all ready?"

Mildred nodded nervously.

Aunt Lilith appeared at the top of her stairs, her face red and beaded with sweat.  She glared at the sack and marched straight to Mildred's window, gasping for breath as she squinted down the side of the wall.  "High enough to . . . keep it contained . . . you think?"

"Meh," Aunt Hurda grunted, peering over her shoulder.

Aunt Anklistine shoved Aunt Hurda aside and looked outside.  "Not nearly high enough," she said crisply.  "It might survive a fall from this distance.  Let's use something else to keep it in."

Aunt Lilith raised her fingers from the windowsill and stared at them, looking disgusted.  "Mildred, this place is filthy.  There must be a week of dust here.  Don't you ever clean it?"

"Too clean already," Aunt Hurda muttered, pulling a sack of grey powder out of a pocket and dumping it across the floor. "That's better."

Aunt Lilith shrieked in outrage.

Aunt Anklistine pulled off one of her sharp-heeled boots.  "Mildred, get my flameberry seeds."

Mildred was still watching the writhing sack.  "Which seeds?"

"Flameberry," Aunt Anklistine said coldly.  "Relative of poison ivy?  Top drawer of my seed cabinet, left side?"

"Oh.  Right."  Mildred tore her eyes away.  "You're . . . you're not going to hurt the Normal, are you?"

Aunt Hurda pulled a picture from the wall and put it back upside-down.

Aunt Anklistine removed the other sharp-heeled boot.  "Would you rather be included in the hurting?"

Mildred gulped.  The heels of those shoes hurt.  She knew because Aunt Anklistine had thrown them at her last week.

"The correct answer is 'no,' of course," Aunt Lilith directed, snatching the picture and turning it rightside-up again.  "So you might want to hurry."

Mildred raced down the stairs, narrowly avoiding tripping on the loose step.  She hurried down the shabby hallway.  Aunt Anklistine's room was the third door down, halfway between Aunt Hurda's pigsty and the macabre bedroom that had once been Drakin's.

Aunt Anklistine's room was covered with clutter, bags of fertilizer, and gardening tools.  The seed cabinet took up three full walls — there was barely enough space left for the mattress shoved in a corner — and it was so crammed full that when she yanked the right drawer open, several drawstring bags poured out and spilled their contents across the floor.

Mildred winced.  She hoped Aunt Anklistine could remember which of those tiny brown seeds were which.

The flameberry bag was labeled, fortunately.  She pulled the fireproof pouch out carefully and tucked it in her pocket.  Then she ran back up the stairs again.

Aunt Hurda was grinding one of Mildred's dresses into the floor while Aunt Lilith pulled a cobweb from the ceiling, looking repulsed.

"Flameberry seeds," Mildred panted, holding out the pouch.

"Took long enough," Aunt Anklistine snapped, grabbing it from her.  "Hurda, get over here!  I need you to activate these."

Aunt Hurda didn't look up from the petticoat she was scrubbing with dust.  "Do it yourself."

"I'm an earth witch!" Aunt Anklistine shouted.

"Oh, I'll do it," Aunt Lilith said, snatching the seed bag.  "What do you need?"

"Just wake them.  I'll grow them."

"Fine."  Aunt Lilith poured seeds into her left hand.  They were round and red, and ridged like tiny pumpkins.  She picked up each one in turn, blew on it, and it burst into flames.  Then she dropped it out the window.  Each one exploded as it hit the ground.

"Good.  Thirteen," Aunt Anklistine said, taking the pouch back.  She tied the drawstring around her wrist.  "What do you think?  Just straight up, or around the whole tower?"

"Up and around," Aunt Lilith said.  "And thatched if you want them to look ornamental."

Aunt Anklistine grunted and began to trace lines in the air with her fingers.  She pulled a bag of fertilizer from her pocket and emptied it down on the seeds.

"FLAMEBERRIES, GROW!" she shouted.

For a moment, nothing happened.  Then flameberry vines exploded through the window, across the wall, and all down the floor.

Mildred leapt back as a cluster of berries roared past her.

"Unhealthy," Aunt Anklistine said critically, picking up one of the vines and frowning at it.  "Insufficient nutrients.  That's the problem with these mass-growing spells.  But it'll have to do."

"Should we let . . . it out now?" Aunt Lilith asked, wrinkling her nose.

Aunt Hurda upended the sack.  A disheveled Normal girl dumped out onto the floor.

A girl.  Mildred felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.  She'd seen men from a distance, but she'd never spoken with one, not really.  Aunt Lilith scolded whenever she tried to talk to Normals, and Aunt Oplisa didn't let male witches near the manor.

The captive crawled to a sitting position and glared up at them through her mass of tangled hair.  She looked mean, and too skinny to be healthy.  There was also a long scar down her face.

"I HATE YOU ALL!" she shouted.

"We ought to give it a name," Aunt Lilith said, wiping her fingertips along a closet shelf and shuddering at the traces of dust she found.  "Thoughts, Anklistine?"

"Cabbage," Aunt Hurda grinned, showing off rotten teeth.

Aunt Anklistine considered.  "Cabbage it is."

"That's NOT my name!" the girl shouted.  "It's Beauty!"

Aunt Lilith stared at her incredulously.  Aunt Hurda snickered.

The girl glared.  "I wasn't born with this scar."

Aunt Anklistine yawned.  "Just tell it why it's here, Lilith."

Aunt Lilith frowned.  "Very well.  Cabbage —"

"Beauty —"

"— You're here because you stole something from us.  That means we get to keep you here as long as we want."

The girl scowled.  "It does not."

"Does so," Aunt Lilith sniffed.  "There's even a law about it.  If you can't return the object you stole, or another in kind —"

The girl's eyes darted side-to-side.  She looked worried.

"— We're entitled to keep you in debtors' prison until the debt is paid."

"Bet it ate the cabbage," Aunt Hurda noted, looking pleased.

"Of course it did; no one would steal from a witch's garden unless they were starving," Aunt Anklistine said impatiently.  "No matter how appetizing the lure spells planted."

"So," Aunt Lilith finished, "we can keep you here as long as we like.  I doubt you have family; we own all the land in this area; we've been legally wronged; and the village is afraid of us, anyway.  Nobody's coming to rescue you.  Nobody cares."

The girl's eyes flicked fearfully around the room. "Then why don't you just kill me?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Aunt Lilith purred.  "We want a prisoner."

"Though we might kill you if you try to escape," Aunt Anklistine snorted.

"And in the meantime . . ."  Aunt Lilith stopped, shuddering.  "Hurda's going to cook all your food."

Aunt Hurda grinned.  "Finally, my own time in the kitchen."

"Trust me," Aunt Lilith said fervently, "you might wish you were dead."



Chapter Two:
Revelations



Mildred woke up to a horrible stench.  She opened her eyes to see Aunt Hurda's face.

"Wh-wh-wh-what do you want?" Mildred yelped, scrambling to pull a blanket over her nose.

Aunt Hurda grabbed her wrists.  "I want to tell you the truth," she hissed.  "Before Oplisa gets home."

Mildred struggled not to inhale.  Her aunt's breath stank.

"H-here?" she gasped out.  "N-now?  About what?"

Aunt Hurda grinned.  "About Drakin," she said.  "You want to know, don't you?"

"A-about what?"  Mildred scrunched the blanket around her nose, hoping it would help slightly.  It didn't.  "What are you talking about?"

"Drakin."  Aunt Hurda smirked and leaned back. In the dim light, even her torn nightgown seemed ragged and filthy.  Mildred hoped that caked mud was illusion.  "You want to know why your mother died, don't you?  Who your father was?"

Mildred's heart skipped a beat.  She forgot about her aunt's breath.

"You're going to tell me?" she gasped.

Aunt Hurda looked gleeful.  "You ever heard of Welsa?"

Mildred racked her brain.  "Noooooo," she said uncertainly.

"Drakin's death-enemy?  Purest hatred for each other?"

Mildred shook her head.

"Salutatorian the year they graduated?  Always second-best to Drakin?"

Mildred chewed on her lower lip.

Aunt Hurda sighed.  "Well, she got sick of it.  Challenged Drakin to a death-match.  Know about those, don't you?"

Mildred gulped and nodded.  They were a formal way of killing your death-enemy.  Supposedly, they were more prestigious than mere stabs in the back or poisoning.  But she'd never heard of anyone actually risking it.

"Wish you could have seen it."  Aunt Hurda grinned, showing off her yellow teeth.  "Perfectly matched.  Intense hatred.  Unbridled power.  Drakin even won.  But Welsa got a parting shot in just as she was dying, so they killed each other."  She scowled.  "Most annoying.  Oplisa's been running our lives ever since."

Mildred's heart pounded.  So that was how her mother had died.  It explained a lot.  "So — what about my father?" she asked hesitantly.  "Is he — still alive?"

Aunt Hurda sniffed.  "Would we be stuck with you if he were?"

Mildred swallowed.  "Well," she said cautiously, "if he was really bad at magic, and you didn't want him raising me to be weak, too . . ."

"Wasn't a witch at all.  He was a Normal."

Mildred's eyes widened.  "He — what?"

"Oplisa doesn't want you to know," Aunt Hurda hissed, leaning in closer.  "Thinks it would be a big distraction.  You can't let on I told you."

"But — but why would Drakin marry him?" Mildred burst out.  "That makes no sense!  Unless — unless . . ."  She swallowed, a question on the tip of her tongue that she'd always wanted to ask.  "Did Drakin . . . did she love my father?"

Aunt Hurda let out a shriek of laughter.  She almost fell to the ground, she was laughing so hard.

"Drakin — love?" she gasped.  "Whatever gave you that idea?"

Mildred shrank back, feeling close to tears.  "Well — well, I thought — maybe —"

"Look," Aunt Hurda sneered, "Drakin never loved.  Not her sisters.  Not her daughter.  Certainly no Normal man."

Mildred tried to swallow the lump in her throat.

"Then . . . then why?" she whispered.

Aunt Hurda shrugged.  "Wanted to test her latest love spell.  Lifetime dedication, all that.  And you were a mistake.  That's why she left you with Lilith.  She never cared about you."

Tears welled up in Mildred's eyes.  So even her mother hadn't wanted her.  Even her horrible mother . . .

"But there's more you should know," Aunt Hurda hissed.  "Welsa was married too.  She —"

"Mildred!"

Mildred jumped to see Aunt Lilith in the doorway.

Aunt Hurda coughed and slid off Mildred's quilt, leaving a trail of grime.  Her eyes shifted around, looking guilty.  "Just thought someone should say —"

Aunt Lilith didn't even bother to look at her.  "Oplisa's home, Mildred.  She wants to talk to you."


*     *     *


Mildred traced her finger along the grain of midnight-blue wooden door, reluctant to open it.  She hated visiting her least favorite aunt.  Screwing up her courage, Mildred pushed the latch aside and creaked it open.

Aunt Oplisa's back was turned to her, tracing runes across a wall of water.   "Come in," she said, glancing at Mildred's reflection. "I have news for you."

Mildred shuffled in, swallowing.  Had Aunt Anklistine complained about the belladonnas she'd crashed into during her disastrous broomstick lesson last week?

Oh, no.  She hoped this wasn't going to be another of those lectures about why emotions were weakness.

Aunt Oplisa ran her fingers across the water mirror.  It rippled.  "As you know, I take great interest in your education."

Mildred nodded glumly.  That was why she had always received spellbooks, rather than toys or new clothing, every time her aunts gave her anything.

"Do you know where I've been, Drakin's daughter?"

Probably killing another enemy.  Mildred shrugged.

Aunt Oplisa smiled.  There was the barest hint of warmth in it.  "I've been speaking with Tractia, the High Witch of Black Magic Academy.  As you know, your mother was a valedictorian there."

Mildred shrugged.

"Your name has finally reached the top of the waiting list.  You'll be starting school tomorrow."

Mildred's eyes widened.  I'll WHAT?

"This is a moment we have long anticipated."  Aunt Oplisa's smile flowed slightly warmer.  "I'm sure you'll prove our family worthy of further honors this generation."

"I'm not going!" Mildred burst out.

Aunt Oplisa froze, looking startled.

"I'm not — I'm not — I'm not going!  I'm not!  I am not going there!"

Aunt Oplisa's eyes darkened.  "Every member of our family goes to Black Magic Academy."

"Aunt Lilith didn't!  And Aunt Hurda —"

She stopped.  Aunt Hurda got kicked out.  Probably not wisest to remind Aunt Oplisa about that.

"Lilith was never accepted in the first place," Aunt Oplisa said frostily.  "You have been."

"But," Mildred began desperately.

"You are Drakin's daughter."  Aunt Oplisa's eyes flashed.  "She was the finest witch of her generation.  And you are the only member of your generation of our family."

Why can't you just have some children yourself?! Mildred raged.  I don't want to be the only member of my generation of the family!

"I'm not — going," she repeated stubbornly.

"Of course you are."  Aunt Oplisa turned back to the mirror.  "The matter is settled."

"No, it isn't!" Mildred shrieked.  "I'm not going!"

Aunt Oplisa didn't even glance back.  "Don't be foolish, Drakin's daughter.  You don't want to make me your enemy."

Her mirror frosted into ice, and shattered.  Slivers sprayed across the room and sliced curtains, embedding into the wall.

Mildred went mute.

"Now, do get a few more hours of sleep."  Aunt Oplisa waved a hand to dismiss her.   "It will make a better impression tomorrow morning.  You exist purely to further our family's glory, Drakin's daughter.  Always remember that.  There is no other reason."



Chapter Three:
The Badge and Broomstick



"You haven't even tested for her element yet?"

Aunt Oplisa's furious voice echoed down the hallway.  In it was all the scorn she usually reserved for talking about men.

Mildred's hand jerked away from the latch to the kitchen door.  Maybe I should wait until they've stopped arguing.

"Not safe . . ." Aunt Lilith's voice mumbled.  "Qualified testers need to . . . school's much better-equipped . . ."

"Oh, don't be so squeamish," Aunt Oplisa snorted.  "Tests don't have to be that life-threatening.  Mother nearly drowned me to find out I'm a water witch."

"I'm not going to try to drown my own niece!" Aunt Lilith snarled.  "Nor am I going to shove her off a tower or throw her in a fireplace!"

Mildred shivered.  The occasional stories she heard about her grandparents were not pleasant.  She was glad they had both died before she was born.

"Perhaps I could run some tests myself," Aunt Oplisa mused.  "If she sleeps much longer, she'll be too late to start classes this morning, anyway . . ."

Mildred scrambled for the latch and shoved the door open.

"Here I am!" she said hastily.

Aunt Lilith glanced her over.  "You look dreadful," she said.  "Did you sleep at all?"

Mildred nodded hesitantly.  She had managed almost half an hour of sleep.

"Well, clearly it wasn't enough."  Aunt Oplisa looked disgusted.  "Make her presentable, Lilith."

"Of course!"  Aunt Lilith leapt to her feet, looking relieved.  "Come with me!"

Mildred cast a longing look at the food on the table: boiled slugs and candied nightshade and pigs' feet and nettle pancakes . . .

"Mildred!" Aunt Lilith hissed, seizing her arm.

Reluctantly, Mildred let her drag her out of the kitchen.

"You really ought to wear something less ragged than that," Aunt Lilith murmured as they climbed up the stairs.  "That black dress is almost threadbare."

"I'd love to have another one that still fit," Mildred said touchily.

"Ah.  Well, can't be helped, then."  Aunt Lilith sidestepped the loose stair and touched a crack in the wall as they passed. "Maybe we can darken your blue cloak.  That would be something."

"Or you could just turn me invisible instead," Mildred said hopefully.  "We could both pretend I went to school, and Aunt Oplisa would never notice —"

Aunt Lilith snorted.  "Oplisa would notice."

"You've known all along, haven't you?" Mildred accused.  "You should have told me I was getting sent there!"

"Seemed imprudent," Aunt Lilith shrugged.  "You'd hide."

Mildred glared at her.

Aunt Lilith touched the smooth, polished latch to to her door.  It slid open to reveal six walls covered in identical shelving.  In the center sat a bare mattress.  No other furniture, no knickknacks, and very few possessions.  What shelves weren't empty were filled with books.

"Let's start with the basics," Aunt Lilith said.  She headed for the wall directly opposite them, running her finger along the spines of a hundred or so alphabetized spellbooks.   She opened one and started flipping through it.  "Dust remover, dust remover . . ."

Grey dirt dumped down on Mildred's head.

Mildred coughed, looked up, and found Aunt Hurda grinning at her.  Her usually-black teeth looked yellow today.

Aunt Lilith slammed the book shut.  "Hurda!"

Aunt Hurda held up a pair of chicken bones.  "For her hair."

Aunt Lilith seized the bones and flung them out the window.

Aunt Hurda shrugged, pulled a dead rat from her pocket, and tried to arrange that in Mildred's hair instead.

Aunt Lilith shrieked in outrage and snatched a pair of gloves from the shelf behind her.

"You're not going to use illusion to make my teeth look rotten again, are you?" Mildred asked warily.

Aunt Hurda grinned.

"Get out!" Aunt Lilith snarled.

Mildred fought a laugh.

Aunt Lilith yanked the dead rat out of Mildred's hair, sent three cleaning rags whizzing across the floor, and cast several spells to remove Aunt Hurda's dirt.  Then she chanted away the dark circles under Mildred's eyes and pulled her hair into a tight bun.

"You're no beauty," Aunt Lilith said critically, finishing a spell to turn Mildred's cloak inky black, "but at least you won't embarrass us."

Two minutes later, Aunt Hurda snuck in and dumped a bag of soot over Mildred's head.

While Aunt Lilith was screaming, Aunt Anklistine strode in.

"Here," she said, holding out a squat badge.  "Oplisa said to give this to you."

Mildred took it cautiously.  "What does it do?"

Letters appeared on the badge:

Black Magic Academy
Student
Fifth Class


"Put it on," Aunt Anklistine said.

Mildred tried to pull the badge off her hand.  It wouldn't budge.  She yanked —

Yes!  It was off!

Wait.  No.  It was stuck to her other hand.

Mildred scowled.

"You can't get rid of that until you graduate or get expelled," Aunt Anklistine said coolly.  "It'll stick to you unless you put it on the clothes you're wearing."

Mildred held her hand over the front of her dress, and the badge leapt onto it.  She pulled it off again, fought with it for a moment, and somehow managed to get it stuck to her slippers.

"That was Drakin's badge," Aunt Anklistine sniffed, as Mildred tugged it off and got it stuck to one of her sleeves.  "Treat it with respect."

Now it wouldn't come off her elbow!

"Do I have to bring anything else with me?" Mildred asked, fighting to shove the badge back onto her cloak.  Argh!  Now it was stuck to her hair!  "Books or spells or, um —"

The badge lodged itself firmly on top of her head.

"Your brains," Aunt Anklistine snapped, "if there are any in that head of yours."

"Is something wrong here?"

Mildred froze as she heard Aunt Oplisa's voice.  The badge slid down her hair and attached itself to her cloak.

"Why is she covered in soot?" Aunt Oplisa asked coldly.

Aunt Anklistine gestured while Aunt Lilith chanted; the soot fell to the floor and crumbled to ash.

Aunt Hurda pouted, skulking in the corner.

Aunt Oplisa held out a polished broomstick.  "Sit down, Drakin's daughter."

Mildred flinched.  "I, um, I'm not so good with brooms . . ."

"So Anklistine's told me."  Aunt Oplisa's voice was flat.  "I'll control it.  Just sit."

Gulping, Mildred obeyed.

Aunt Oplisa gave her an incredulous look.  Mildred looked down and saw she'd sat with the bristles behind her.

"Wrong way?" Aunt Anklistine said, sounding exasperated.

Face flushing, Mildred turned around so the bristles faced front.

Aunt Oplisa spoke loudly.  "Broom!  You will take the witch now seated on you to Black Magic Academy.  No detours, no stops, no deceleration.  Now go!"

The broomstick lurched into the air.  Mildred clutched the bristles, which felt even stiffer and scratchier than her mattress.

"Isn't there any other way —" she began desperately.

"Go!" Aunt Oplisa ordered, pointing at the window.

The broom shot through it, bolting forward at a breakneck pace.  Mildred clung to the handle, cheek pressed against the polished wood, fighting airsickness.  She finally forced her eyes open to watch the manor recede into the distance, but it had already vanished.

Mildred swallowed, tears pricking at the edge of her vision.  She knew most of her aunts saw it as a prison, but the manor had been her only home.


*     *     *


The sun was setting, and her back was killing her.  Her fingers ached from their white-knuckled grip on the broomstick handle, and her mind had gone numb from a mix of boredom, terror, and exhaustion.  Trees, trees, trees, endless trees . . . all had flown over for hours was this expanse of trees.

Then she noticed the building.

It lurked like enormous dragon, deep in the heart of the forest.  Light glinted off a few obsidian scales, while the rest seemed to absorb the daylight, sleek and cold and unyielding to the morning rays.  The entrance gaped like a mouthful of teeth, waiting . . . waiting to swallow her.

I am not going in there, Mildred decided, gripping the broomstick handle.

"We — we're going to turn around now —" she began, her voice quavering.

SLAM!

The broom smashed into the ground, exploding up clouds of dirt and shoving Mildred's face into a pile of leaves.  Coughing and choking, Mildred staggered to her feet, pulling leaves out of her hair and noting dismally that she was now covered in dirt all over again.

"Pitiful," a voice said.

Mildred jerked her head up, startled.  A tall, dark-skinned woman was watching from the shadows of the building.

"E-excuse me?" she stammered.

"Pitiful," the woman repeated.  "I expected better from Oplisa's niece.  But perhaps you'll survive.  Come.  We'll go to your dorm."

Mildred stared at her, aghast.  Perhaps you'll survive?

What had her aunts gotten her into?


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