Chapter 1: A Magical Time Of Year
“What is bugging you?” said my cousin Allegra. “You’ve been on edge all afternoon. I can tell.”
We were in the kitchen of my draughty old castle home. Allegra was nibbling daintily on a slice of cake. She pushed the plate aside with a groan. “I can’t manage another bite. I’m as stuffed as a big old turkey.”
I laughed at that. Tall, slender Allegra, most gorgeous of my cousins, looked nothing like a turkey.
“Out with it,” she demanded. “And no changing the topic.”
“You’re the one who changed the topic.”
“You know what I mean.”
Oblivious to our nattering, our ghostly great aunt broke into song across the kitchen. “It’s a magical time of year,” she trilled, “season’s sweet greetings so full of good cheer.”
She swished her wand as she iced her fairy cakes. An entire row of them bobbed through the air in orderly fashion, jumped in delight as they received a swirly icing hat, then tucked themselves neatly into their own individual gift boxes, snuggling down to wait for Christmas.
Allegra and I turned in the kitchen booth to watch her, and propped our legs up on the seats, unable to move after the enormous meal of roast lamb we had just finished.
Allegra poked me with her wand. “Well?” Then she frowned and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Esme, there’s someone peeking in the window over there.”
Alarmed, I turned to look. We’d had a break-in at the castle recently, but the intruder had fled after our youngest ghost had raised the alarm.
A small face was pressed up against a window set high on the kitchen wall. The girl must have climbed up onto a ledge to get a glimpse inside.
She saw me looking and her eyes widened. She dropped out of sight.
“Be back in a minute.” I rushed out of the kitchen, snatching up a basket on my way.
I raced out through the closed castle café to the cliffside exit. The girl was fast and had almost reached the end of the castle gardens.
“Wait!” I called. “Just one moment!”
She hesitated, turned towards me warily. An older girl appeared from behind the trees. “There you are!” she called, looking harassed. Seeing me, her jaw clenched. “She hasn’t been up to no good, has she?”
Both girls were skinny, with long black hair and a grey tinge to their pale faces. Finfolk. Thieves and brigands, my Uncle Ghastly would have said.
“I didn’t do nothing.” Tears glimmered in the youngest’s big green eyes. She looked only around six or seven.
The elder scowled. “She never meant no harm. She’s a good girl really.” She blanched. “She didn’t steal nothing, did she? Give it back!” She turned a furious glance at the child.
The little one burst into tears.
I dropped to my knees in front of her. “Did you only want a peek inside?”
She nodded, and whispered, “To see where the flaffiness is made.”
By now I’d decided they couldn’t be my thieves. “You can come in and have some lunch if you like.” They looked like they needed it.
The little one’s eyes widened hopefully. The elder shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“I’m Esme. If you change your minds, come another day and ask for me.”
The child’s sobs quietened. “I’m Naia Calder,” she whispered. “This is my sister Ondine.”
“It’s good to meet you both.”
“You’re the pink witch!” Naia giggled, her eyes on my hair, in which a streak of untamed Magicwild pink blazed bright, having refused to take up the brown dye I’d slathered on the rest of it.
“Don’t be rude,” her sister admonished her. “We haven’t been gossiping about you.” Her cheeks went pink. “Our gramps knows your aunt a bit. He likes a bit of chatter is all.”
“Send him our best wishes, and here’s a little Christmas gift for you all from us.”
I offered Naia the basket, but she looked to her big sister for permission. Ondine chewed her lip. Shook her head. “We can’t give nothing back.”
“Except to come and say hello to my aunt sometime. Bring your gramps. She’ll love that. She’s made these chocolate surprises and muffins and sweetbreads specially for the children. There’s enough to share with school pals too. Won’t that be lovely?”
The little one’s face turned eager. “Presents to share? With flaffiness?”
I nodded and took a small foil-wrapped egg from the basket and tapped it three times. The foil unfurled like a ribbon, the pink sugar shell split open and a tiny ballerina with wings fluttered out.
Naia’s mouth dropped open. The tiny ballerina immediately darted inside, twirled on the tip of her tongue before melting into a delicious sugary puddle.
Naia burst into giggles. She leapt through the air and did an astonishing pirouette, then squealed in delight at her own antics.
“Did you see, Ondine? I flew like a proper ballerina!”
“I did.” Ondine looked suspicious.
“It wears off immediately,” I whispered, “and it won’t let them hurt themselves.”
Naia jumped for joy. A normal jump this time. “It was so yummy, Ondine, like a unicorn dream. Like flying on a cloud. Oh please, can we take one for gramps? I want to show him!”
“You must take them all or my aunt will think you didn’t like her baking.” I handed her the basket.
Ondine finally nodded and the little girl beamed.
“Maybe you’ll try one yourself?” I teased Ondine.
She smiled. “Maybe. Thank you.”
My heart felt lighter as I watched them walk away, hand in hand. Naia now skipping.
I returned to the kitchen, where Allegra had been given a fresh selection of treats to sample by Aunt Adele, and was looking at them in stuffed-turkey dismay.
She pushed them in my direction. “You better try them. Was everything okay?”
I nodded. “Definitely not our suspects. I hope.”
We grimaced at each other. It was a sad state of affairs when you had to fear children in your own town might be going hungry this Christmas. Or that they might be forced to resort to stealing.
I took the plate from her and ate a tiny chocolate robin. The flaffiness in it twittered like happy birdsong, lifting my spirits. I ate a couple more. Despite my big meal, I was still peckish. The bowlful of special blood-truffles I’d eaten before lunch had only partially sated my secret vampirish hunger.
“So, you were saying?” she reminded me. “About what put you in an antsy mood?”
“If you must know… Chris called me earlier. He said he’s got some exciting news. He sounded so happy. Said he’d tell me when he saw me.”
Her brows shot up. “Exciting news, huh? I’d have said he was about to pop the question but you two aren’t even dating!”
I made a regretful face. He was a sentinel, a guardian against all things beastly. And I was secretly a vampire-witch—almost—a creature prophesied to become the greatest of evils. If we had just been two normal people, things might have progressed to a happy place by now. But such things were out of the question until I found a cure.
“I’m just happy that he sounded happy,” I said. “It was nice. You know how hard he works.”
“Happy, huh? I’d never have known. You’ve been all jittery. Nervous, like.”
I flushed. “I haven’t.”
The truth was that I was hoping he might pop in to see me before Christmas. He’d been away for a few weeks already. But as she’d said, we weren’t dating. It would be silly for me to admit how much I had missed him.
“Anyway, I am happy.” I insisted. “It’s only one week until Christmas.”
I’d had the rare luxury of feeling oddly content these past few months. And I’d just enjoyed a delicious meal with my favourite friend and cousin. What wasn’t there to be happy about?
The rest of the castle might be freezing, but we were snug as two bugs in a rug in the toasty kitchen beside the roaring fire.
“What is it about this time of year,” I added, “that just makes all your cares slide away?”
“Could it be because ten months ago we vanquished your vampire sire?” she teased me.
“Hmmm. Yeah, that was a relief.” I pondered. “But it’s not that…”
“Or that Chris finally knows your big fat secret and never gave up on you?”
I smiled. I couldn’t help but feel a glow inside at that.
She was right. It was those two things in a way. The three years since being bitten had been nothing but stress. I’d burned in sunlight and craved blood until Allegra had found rare magic to help. I’d worried people would find out my secret, that I’d be sentenced to death, that my loved ones would spurn me, and then that my vampire sire was hunting for me. I’d finally had a few months of peace.
“And no murders,” she added. “No murders for months and months and months. And now Christmas is here, and no one in their right minds would want to kill someone at Christmas.”
I groaned. “You’ve jinxed us now.”
She grimaced. “Don’t say that. I want a drama free holiday for once.”
“Me too. I feel so cosy inside. For no reason. It’s inexplicable.”
“It’s the anticipation of happiness,” she said. “Of family and friends and food and fun.”
“The quiet snowy evenings,” I said dreamily. “All the little children getting ready for bed, eager to dream happy dreams of Santa.”
“Of Aunt Adele, you mean.” Allegra blew a kiss at our ghostly great-aunt, who was busy packing her mini cake boxes into a larger box, which she then sent soaring onto the top of a towering stack.
“The anticipation of happiness,” said Aunt Adele suddenly, as if her mind had been elsewhere. “What a lovely way of putting it. Oh, I do so hope the children will get everything their hearts want this year. And everybody else too.”
She looked troubled. Her determination to spread cheer this festive season had seen her start her annual festive bake-a-thon at the very start of December.
This year she was baking for far more than just the town’s children. Times were hard, she’d said. Everyone needed some flaffiness.
Her brow furrowed. “Have you noticed that even some of our old regulars don’t come to the café anymore? I miss them. It makes me worry they can’t afford to indulge in a little treat any more. I would happily feed them for free if I thought it wouldn’t offend them. I wonder what we can do?”
She looked at me and Allegra helplessly.
“How about a Happy Hour in the café?” I said.
Her eyes widened, and she clapped her hands in glee. “Or a whole Happy Afternoon! How wonderful!” She gave me a fond look.
Comforted by this thought, she started icing a new batch of cakes, these with shimmering bright pink frosting with a crisp candy snowflake on top.
Things were more beautiful than ever in Bewitching Brimstone Bay, as the tourist brochures called our little town. But if you knew where to look, they were grim. For the first time, a food bank had opened up this year. Lifelong residents were now struggling to afford to live here. We had the Hardwick Coven to thank for that, I thought bitterly.
Allegra and I had agreed to not waste our energy thinking of them for the rest of the week, so I tried to thrust the thought out of my mind.
Allegra’s smile had flattened a bit, and I knew she was thinking about them too.
“I should help,” she said, picking up her wand from the tabletop and standing to join Aunt Adele at the counter.
“Don’t even think about it, dear,” trilled Aunt Adele. “You girls sit and relax. Esme’s been on her feet all day in the café, and Tabby tells me you’ve been running yourself ragged with Christmas things for Flaffiness Emporium too. I’ve planned everything I must do, and it is all still on schedule. And remember, we ghosts never tire.”
She shot us both a reassuring smile. She had even shut up the castle café next door early today, saying we all deserved a rest. Business had been quiet today anyway. Partly because customers were busy with their Christmas shopping, but mainly because people had gone to join the crowds at the town square gathered around the wishing tree.
Allegra sank back into her seat with a groan of relief.
With my unreliable magic, I couldn’t have helped with the bake-a-thon if I had wanted to. Ever since I’d drank a drop of my vampire sire’s blood earlier this year, even picking up my wand was liable to send strange magic shooting out of it to cause havoc.
“Now all we need is just one more thing,” said Allegra to me quietly, reaching across the table to pat my hand.
“Oh Ali,” I said, half fondly, half exasperated. “It would take a miracle to catch all three wishing seeds, and nothing less will grant my heart’s desire.”
Our town’s wishing tree, the only one this side of the ether, had bloomed finally for the first time in many years. Legend said anyone who ate all three seeds from one pod would be granted their heart’s desire.
“And anyway,” I added, “the entire town will be hunting for them, and there are many people more worthy of those seeds than me.”
“Hmm,” she murmured, as if she didn’t agree. Then changed the topic. “Did Chris say if he was coming for Christmas or not?”
I winced. I had so hoped he would accept my invitation and pop in for a visit, but he had seemed distracted when I’d asked.
Before I could answer, Aunt Adele swooped across to our table, her eyes wide. “Oh girls! Did you say wishing seeds? I’ve been so busy I’d forgotten entirely about it. Hazel told me the pod is nearly ripe and ready to burst.” She seized my hand and squeezed it. “Esme dear, how wonderful it would be. The answer to all our problems!”
I was touched. She meant all my problems. It was too bad that it was nearly impossible to catch even one of the elusive flying seeds.
But her eyes were suddenly shiny with tears. Aunt Adele rarely mentioned my little vampire problem, as we called it, but deep down she was worried about what would happen to me. Only my unreliable magic was holding the vampire virus in my system at bay.
“You will join the hunt, won’t you, dear?” she persevered. “My friend Hazel said she’s hoping her girls will catch them to bring magic back to their family, but that need not put us off. In fact, why are you girls sitting here? The seeds might drop at any moment and you should—Oh!”
The kitchen door had suddenly opened, startling her.
We turned to see Chris Constantine coming in, an intense excited look on his face.
“Chris!” I jumped to my feet and then froze awkwardly because I had almost run across the kitchen to fling my arms around him. He’d only been gone a few weeks for heaven’s sake. Not eons.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “One of the ghosts let me in.”
He smiled and my stomach did a funny little flip-flop that I should have been too old for.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought you were staying in London for Christmas with your family?”
“I was. I am. You’ll never believe what I’ve found. I just had to come and show you” There was an odd breathlessness in his voice. “I asked a witch to etherhop me to Brimstone Bay. Thought I’d stay a couple of days.”
He gave me a look that made my heart pitter-patter, as if he’d missed me.
“Chris dear, try this cake,” said Aunt Adele. “I’ve put a new kind of flaffiness in the pink frosting in honour of Esme’s hair. It’s a kind of giddy hope, bursting with possibilities, the way it makes you feel to look at…”
Her voice trailed off as Chris rushed across the kitchen to hug me. He picked me up and twirled me once, and laughing, let me go.
He took a paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and showed it to me. It was a photocopy of a tattered piece of parchment, cramped magiolingvo handwriting scrawled across it.
I looked at him in enquiry. “This is odd magiolingvo. Looks really old. What is it?”
Reading the language of magic had never been my greatest strength. And whatever was written on the paper was impossible to decipher.
“I’m hesitant to say, just in case it isn’t—”
He broke off as Allegra jumped to her feet to take the paper from his hand. She scanned it.
“Sentinel magiolingvo,” she muttered, screwing up her brow. “And a really old style. Interesting. It says…” She muttered something slowly under her breath, then gasped.
She sank back into her seat, her face going pale.
“Ali, are you okay?” I asked in concern.
She scrutinised the paper. Then looked up at me, tears brimming in her eyes.
“Oh Esme. It’s what we’ve been searching for,” she said shakily.
I frowned, not knowing what she meant.
“The cure,” she choked out.
My breath stopped. She couldn’t mean the cure to my vampire virus.
She nodded and her tears spilled over. “It’s true. We wanted a miracle and now Chris has found it!”
End of Sample Chapter