Tillie was struck dumb by the site before her. With thick, black ooze dripping from the corners of her mouth and all six pudgy legs kicking at the air, Ophelia looked more like a gigantic tick ready to pop than a ladybug.
Never remaining dumb for long, Tillie spun on the Governor of Green. “What have you done to Ophelia?!”
The kneeling man did not respond.
Eve tossed her beaded handbag to the floor, grabbed the Governor of Green by his emerald lapels, and hauled him to his feet. “Answer her,” she hissed.
The Governor of Green trembled, but did not speak or look at the witch; indeed, he seemed unable to take his eyes away from Ophelia.
A deep rumble resonated from behind Tillie and Eve. Tillie rotated, realizing two things as she turned – first, that the rumble was actually a laugh, and, second, that the laugh belonged to Ophelia.
“The Governor of Green has done nothing to me,” Ophelia said, the rolls of her distended midsection shaking with glee. “As for what I’ve done to him, well, that’s another story.”
Eve dropped the shaking man onto the flagtones in a heap of jade pinstripes. “Step away from the ladybug, Tillie,” she commanded. “That slimy piece of worm-ridden filth is behind all of this.”
“Now, now,” Ophelia said, rolling onto her side so she could get a better look at her visitors. “Let’s watch our language.”
“Watch this,” Eve replied, twisting her hands together in the beginnings of a spell.
Ophelia stifled an imaginary yawn. “Gesture-based spells are so limited.” She lifted one fat leg and squirted a wave of inky darkness at Eve. The blast flung Eve into the air and pinned her against the outer wall of the room. Shackles grew from the stones and fastened around the witch’s outstretched arms and legs, pinning her against the wall in a gigantic “X.”
“I do know verbal spells as well,” Eve boasted.
“Thank you for reminding me.” A thick vine of black energy sprouted from the wall behind Eve, bent across the witch’s face, and covered her mouth.
Eve twisted her head to one side in an attempt to free her mouth from the gag. “Ahmgnukloo,” she said.
“I’m sure you’ll try,” Ophelia replied.
Taking advantage of Eve and Ophelia’s verbal slapfight, Tillie grabbed a tiny iron shovel from a bucket beside the fireplace and crept towards Ophelia.
Ophelia spun on her back, stopping with Tillie dead in her sites. She pointed a leg at Tillie.
Tillie felt a tug at her belly and dropped the metal shovel. She looked down just as her feet left the floor. In an instant she was levitating five or six feet in the air. “Why are you doing this?” Tillie asked. “I came here to help you!”
“And help me you will,” Ophelia said. “In ways you never anticipated.”
“What does that even mean?”
Ophelia narrowed her eyes. “It means that you will help me by being the final ingredient.” A fire sprang up under the cauldron next to Ophelia; Tillie could feel the heat from the flames where she hovered. The gray liquid inside the cauldron belched.
Tillie squirmed, trying to break free from Ophelia’s hold. Then she noticed something beyond the cauldron that made her heart leap into her throat. A familiar face had appeared at the window.
It was Grayden.
The young warrior looked bruised, scraped, and sweaty, but very much alive. At first, Tillie refused to believe her eyes; then, remembering that her eyes had only lied to her once before, she decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. She wanted to call out to Grayden, but realized that doing so would give him away. She decided to buy him time, instead.
“I’m the final ingredient for what, exactly?” she asked. “A recipe? Personally, I always thought I’d make a nice addition to an omelet. Spinach, tomato, feta cheese, and Tillie all folded in three fluffy eggs. Mmmmm mmmm. Tasty!”
“No, not the final ingredient for a recipe,” Ophelia said. “The final ingredient for a very complicated spell.”
“And what does this very complicated spell do?”
The ladybug smiled wide. “Allow me to take over the world! I think. Honestly, I’m not 100% certain. Let’s find out together as you’re slowly boiled alive.”
“Boiling time already, is it?” Tillie asked, starting to get nervous. She glanced beyond Ophelia just in time to see Grayden pull himself up onto the windowsill. He was now standing on the outer ledge, his arms braced against the window’s casing. Tillie noticed that he had replaced his old seaweed kilt with a suspiciously familiar animal pelt.
“As soon as the contents of my cauldron hit a rolling boil,” Ophelia continued, cackling, “in you go!”
“But I still have questions.”
“Then I suggest you ask them quickly.”
“Well, first off, if you need me so badly for this mystery spell, how did you know that I’d find my way here?”
Ophelia sighed. “Isn’t it obvious? I set up this entire scenario to entrap you! I made the Governor of Green change my spots from black to green and then came to you for help. Then, I staged my own abduction by the daylight owl so you’d feel compelled to come rescue me. Thanks to your reputation for adventuring, I knew that you would be unable to resist.”
“Actually,” Tillie said, “it wasn’t very clear that you were abducted by the daylight owl. You and the owl were so far away by the time I got to the bridge that I wasn’t even sure the bird I saw was an owl.”
Ophelia placed two fat legs on her rotund waist. “But I repeatedly yelled ‘help me’ as the daylight owl flew away with me in his claw!”
Tillie shrugged. “Tiny little insect voice plus hundreds and hundreds of feet between you and your target equals poor planning.”
“Well, no scheme is perfect,” Ophelia said. “You found your way here all the same.”
“Yes, I did,” Tillie admitted. “But that was because of the Glass Eye’s vision.”
“Ah-ha!” Ophelia said in triumph. “The Glass Eye’s vision that I created!”
Tillie crossed her arms and looked down at Ophelia, incredulous. “I don’t believe you. The Glass Eye shows nothing but truth.”
“In the past, perhaps – but not this time. I knew that you’d go to your Uncle Quentin and his Glass Eye for advice before setting off on your journey, so I overrode the Glass Eye’s true vision with a false one of my own design.”
“No offense, but how could a ladybug manage something like that?”
“No offense taken,” Ophelia said, gritting her teeth. “I was able to override the vision using the combined power of all the black and all the green in the world. The Governor of Green was already under my influence and had usurped the Baron of Black’s position. With his help, overriding the Glass Eye’s vision was fairly simple. I even clouded the Glass Eye with an abundance of black after I forced it to show you my vision, thereby preventing it from showing you a true vision.”
“Can you return the Glass Eye to normal?”
“Of course.” She smiled. “But I won’t.”
An image of Uncle Quentin cradling the blackened Glass Eye sprang to Tillie’s mind. Suddenly, she no longer wanted to talk to Ophelia. However, one glance past the ladybug to where Grayden was now unlatching the windowpane was enough to keep her asking questions. “Assuming that I believe everything you’ve said – which is a huge assumption – I suppose the big question is, why me? Why am I the final ingredient for your spell.”
“Simple. The spell calls for a ‘child of Red Sky’ and you’re lucky enough to meet those criteria; you live in Red Sky Cottage and you’re a child.”
“Why didn’t you just kidnap me? Why make me think I was helping you?”
“Abducting you was quite tempting, believe me. However, the spell specifies that the child of Red Sky must come to the spellcaster willingly.”
“Why didn’t you just set up the cauldron in my backyard, then? I willingly go in my backyard all the time. You could have just grabbed me, boiled me alive, and cast your spell there, which would have saved me the trouble of coming all this way.”
“I did think of that,” Ophelia said, a tad defensive. “But I didn’t have a choice where I set up my cauldron given that all the black in the world – the other key ingredient of the spell – can only be controlled from within the walls of the Casa de Castle. I assumed that all the black in the world would be the most difficult ingredient to obtain, but with the Governor of Green’s help, it was relatively simple to collect. You, on the other hand, have proved remarkably hard to predict – especially given the unforeseen participation of the witch.” Ophelia glanced up at Eve, who was still hanging from the wall, gagged. “I tried to separate you from her as soon as the daylight owls reported her involvement, but the head of the daylight owls made a mistake and hit both of you with the vanishing powder. I feared that I had lost you at that point, but you later turned up wandering the Plains of Wompusmeeste. I sent the daylight owls to ensure your survival against the Wompus Wulf. Even though I had to sacrifice my entire squad to that beast, it was worth it.”
“All of the daylight owls were killed?”
“Oh, yes. Did you honestly think that they would defeat the Wompus Wulf?”
“How could you send them all to their deaths like that? Don’t you value life at all?”
“Obviously not. I’m preparing to boil a little girl.”
“Besides, if I hadn’t sent them, you’d be dead now.” The stained corners of Ophelia’s mouth twisted upwards in a wicked smile. “Just like your little barbarian friend.”
Grayden lunged at the bloated insect.
“Get her, Grayden!” Tillie yelled.
And he did. Rolling across the floor in a ball of arms, legs, green hair, and Wompus Wulf fur, Grayden lunged at the swollen insect with his pike tooth dagger.
The bug fought back, unleashing a torrent of black blasts from all six of her legs, missing her nimble target every time.
Grayden dodged in close to Ophelia, slashing at her face. The bug held up one leg for protection. His dagger sliced through the leg, severing it from her body. Thick, black liquid sprayed from the tip of the wounded leg like water from a cut hose. Ophelia roared in pain, flailing her remaining limbs.
“Look out!” Tillie yelled.
Ophelia brought her remaining legs together at their tips like a closing hand, she shot one wide ray of darkness from her torso.
Grayden raised his dagger in front of him. The blast of magical energy struck his weapon and sent it clattering to the stone floor where it began to tremble.
Ophelia laughed, her whole body shaking.
Grayden’s weapon expanded outward, changing its shape. The center elongated, pushing the tip and the hilt ever farther apart. Soon it stretched across the length of the room. Under its own power, the long, thin, green thing turned onto its side, a gaping tooth-filled mouth decorating one end.
“She’s turned your knife into a giant python!” Tillie yelled.
“I noticed!” Grayden yelled back. He dodged to one side as the slithering beast snapped at him. At first, he kept pace with the monster, tumbling around the room and avoiding the python’s coils. After a few minutes of constant dodging, Grayden began to tire and slow. Powered by dark magic, the python remained as quick as ever, twisting from side to side and lashing at Grayden with its writhing tail.
Ophelia clapped her hands and giggled.
The monster slammed into Grayden’s stomach, knocking the wind from his lungs. Sensing his weakness, the snake curled around the young warrior’s body.
“Let him go!” Tillie yelled at the snake. She turned to Ophelia, her eyes welling with tears. “Tell the python to release him, Ophelia. You don’t need Grayden for your spell – just me!”
Tillie could see fires of hatred burning deep in the ladybug’s eyes. “That savage took one of my arms,” Ophelia said. Her voice was loud and firm, but strangely devoid of emotion. “He will die for that. He and his entire misbegotten race.”
Tillie hung in mid-air, crying.
“Enough fun and games,” Ophelia said. The contents of the cauldron were bubbling with a full-on rolling boil. “Let’s get this show on the road.” The ladybug waved one leg at a nearby desk, magically opening its drawer. A small, ragged, gray diary leapt from the drawer and landed on the floor beside Ophelia.
The Governor of Green craned his neck to get a look at the little book. “Th-that diary d-doesn’t belong to you,” he stammered.
“It does now,” Ophelia said, licking the tip of one leg and flipping through the journal’s pages. “I found it in an abandoned room of the castle. Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
“The abandoned r-room,” the Governor of Green said, “was it l-locked?”
“Oh, yes,” Ophelia said. “Lucky for me that ladybugs can fly through broken windows, isn’t it?” She turned to the final entry of the journal. “Ah, here we are. ‘Spell to Take Over the World.’”
The Governor of Green’s face turned pale as he heard the words. “Not for you!” he said, more forceful than he had been before. “Only for him!”
Ophelia continued to talk to herself, ignoring the Governor of Green’s protests. “Let’s see. I’ve already completed steps 1 through 23 of the spell. The cauldron has hit a rolling boiling – right, right…. So, on to Step 24, then. ‘Add 10 gallons of concentrated black to the boiling conconction.’”
The ladybug bent over the cauldron and made a gagging noise deep in the back of her throat. A thick dark liquid spewed from her mouth, blending with the contents of the cauldron. Ophelia’s entire body shook as the black sludge poured from her, the force nearly raising her off the floor. Then she coughed twice. “Anyone have a hanky?” she asked. “No? Ah, well....” She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with two hands. “That part of the spell wasn’t very ladylike, I realize, but if someone knows a better way to concentrate all the black in the world into just 10 gallons, I’d love to hear it.”
“Don’t do this!” the Governor of Green yelled. “You’ll kill us all!”
“Quiet, fool,” Ophelia said, stepping back to observe the cauldron with pride. She cleared her throat and lifted the diary high. “And now for the incantation part of this evening’s entertainment.” In a low voice, she began to read:
Colors, gather at my word;
Leave no order left unheard.
Fill my cauldron with decay.
Rainbow’s end shall come today.
Apple blossom, wilt and fade.
Farewell, orange of marmalade!
Violet violets, berries blue,
Heed my call and lose your hue.
As Ophlelia spoke, Tillie noticed that the spell was causing immediate effects – an ivory figurine on the mantle above the fireplace darkened to gray and an orange in a bowl on a nearby table rotted into mush.
No more verdant grass of green.
Bye-bye, tint of fava bean!
Azure sky and yellow sun,
Stew and darken into one.
Gesturing towards the cauldron with one leg, Ophelia sent Tillie drifting into the cloud of hot steam.
Tillie peered into the bubbling cauldron and saw the vague outline of a person’s face. Half-formed eyes stared up at her. “Is there supposed to be a face in here?” she asked, trying to remain calm.
“It’s him!” the Governor of Green screamed, nearing hysteria. “It’s The Gray Man! He’s coming back!”
“He is a man,” Tillie agreed, watching the face in the cauldron grow a pair of ears. “And he’s certainly gray.”
“Quiet!” Ophelia yelled. “Both of you! Only one stanza to go!” Concentrating on the words in front of her, the ladybug read:
Just one final step remains –
One last piece to break the chains.
Willing child of Red Sky,
Sink in grayness ’til you die.
Tillie turned her face away from the cauldron, unable to face the plunge. Something sparkly caught her eye. The formerly multi-colored beads decorating Eve’s handbag cast reflections of gray light around the chamber.
Suddenly, the end of Tillie’s nose itched like it always did when she had a good idea.
She reached into the hidden pocket of her cowgirl vest and pulled free the tiny glass phial she had stowed there a couple of days earlier. She uncorked it and flung it at Eve’s handbag. The few remaining drops of The Keeper of the Flame’s potion did the trick, instantly enlarging the purse to an enormous size.
Ophelia looked up, surprised. The insect began to snicker then to giggle then to chortle and then, finally, to guffaw. “What a pathetic attempt to save yourself,” she said, hissing between words. “Do you intend to stop me with the witch’s keen fashion sense?”
“No,” Tillie replied, smiling. “I intend to stop you with the keen end of a harpoon.”
On cue, Lord Mareel burst through the giant handbag, his harpoon hand leading the charge. With all the force in his body, he slammed into Ophelia, skewering her like a ripe tomato.
In that instant, several things happened at once: Ophelia’s body popped like a balloon, splattering the room with an explosion of colorful ooze; the partially formed Gray Man lost his shape and fell back into the liquid with a plop; the Governor of Green screamed and fell face forward like a rag doll; Eve and Tillie dropped to floor; the giant python turned back into Grayden’s pike tooth dagger; and Lord Mareel rolled across the floor, striking his head against the stone wall.