The banging at the door was as loud as it was unexpected. Noori leaped, startled enough to send her papers scattering to the floor.
Pausing only to smooth her skirts, she scurried to the door just as another round of banging sounded and pulled it open wide.
“Keisza!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“Noori, love.” The guest at her threshold embraced Noori firmly, planting a quick kiss on her lips before sweeping passed her into the room.
It was a rare thing indeed for the art witch Keisza to venture into town. As it was, the gauzy curtained door leading to her incense-scented workshop could only be found in the dark of night. Anyone who wanted to see Keisza needed to find her first.
Noori had stumbled upon this temporal portal a handful of years earlier when, in desperate need of a spell to heal her ailing father, she had followed a trail of whispered conversations in dark corners of town, leading to Keisza’s doorstop. That the two would eventually fall in love had not been part of the deal struck between the mortal and the witch, but it happened nonetheless.
These days it was almost always Noori that went to Keisza, and while a visit from the witch wasn’t unheard of, she had never before come without warning.
Noori knew at once something had to be amiss.
Keisza paced a tight circle about the room. Noori took her in: the way her dark eyes flitted distractedly from place to place; how her long raven hair had been twisted hurriedly at the top of her head, held in place with a paintbrush. Her spectacles, the ones allowing her to see colors both on and off the canvas no normal person could see, were pushed up and perched on her forehead.
All of this was normal for Keisza – but there was something about her that wasn’t.
Noori blinked as she realized what was missing.
“Where’s Luck?” she asked.
Keisza turned quickly, biting at the tips of her paint-stained fingernails.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
This was bad; it was unprecedented, even.
A witch was never to be without her familiar.
“How?” Noori asked in a small voice.
Keisza sank into a low plush armchair. “I don’t know.”
To see Keisza without Luck, the small spritely dragon who was never more than a dozen paces from her, was unnerving. Keisza was an art witch, and Luck was her familiar – an extension of her very soul. He brought her brushes and chose her paints, he inspired her work and whispered spells in her ears. He was Keisza’s constant companion, and their bond was as strong as her magic.
“He was with me when I fell asleep last night, but when I woke,” – Keisza gestured vaguely – “nothing.”
“I don’t understand.” Noori knelt next to her lover. “How can a witch be without her familiar?”
For a moment Keisza didn’t respond, instead staring unfocused at the ground.
“She can’t,” she answered at last. “At least, not for long.”
A desperate moment hung between them.
“I’m not the only one,” Keisza confided in a hushed tone. “Other witches in my circle have brought news of their own familiars disappearing into the ether.”
Noori was aghast by the news.
“What can we do?”
Keisza smiled up at her gently.
“That’s why I’m here, love.” She took Noori’s hand. “I need your help.”
“Me?” Noori asked, shocked. “Darling, what can I possibly do? I have no magic, and unless being a harbormaster counts for something, I have no special skills.”
“You’re wrong,” Keisza chided, gently pulling her beloved closer. “I wish you wouldn’t doubt yourself so. You are special. Trust me; I should know.”
“You only say that…” Noori wanted nothing more to help, but she felt like a house cat compared to the lion that was Keisza.
“Please, love. I know he’s here on this side. I can feel it. But you know the door between my world and yours is sealed during the day. I cannot stay. I need you to listen to the whispers and follow the trails. Find Luck the way you found me.”
Noori bit her lip.
“Can’t you paint a spell? Something to tell us where to look?”
“If I could, I would.” Keisza’s hands clutched Noori’s earnestly. “But without him, my magic is weak. I’m weak. I might only have enough power left for one spell. What if I need that power to save him?”
Noori didn’t want to think what Luck could possibly need saving from.
First thing the next morning, Noori began her search in earnest. With the harbor’s ledgers in hand, she strode purposefully along the docks, listening to the gossip amid the hustle and bustle of the busy wharf.
Normally she enjoyed the task of cross-referencing ships with their reservations in the ledgers. She looked forward to strolling about the harbor and surveying the over one hundred vessels that came from all over the world to make berth at the wharfs that had been in her family for generations.
She loved the ships as much as she loved the many strange and wonderful people she met along the docks day in and day out. Merchants peddling fabulous goods from far off lands, daring adventurers and charming storytellers all made their way through these waters.
Today she listened to those storytellers with a different ear, hoping to catch wind of missing familiars or anything to point her in the right direction. But a heavy scent hung in the air, fragrant and alluring. Noori found it incredibly distracting.
“What is that smell?” she asked when it got to be too much. The gaggle of merchants she had been bantering with shrugged.
“I smell nothing,” one replied, apparently echoing the sentiments of the others, for they all murmured in agreement.
Noori excused herself. She knew she wasn’t imagining the scent – it was too strong to be all in her mind. Following her nose, she wandered until she came to crowd gathered near the end of one of the docks.
Pushing gently through the throng of people she saw that they were all listening intently to a toothy old man waving from the gangplank of an ancient trading vessel.
“Whatever your heart desires,” he called to the crowd. “You’ll find it in my floating ship of dreams. Such wonders, and they’re all for sale! But you must hurry, for I set sail again at sunrise.”
It wasn’t unusual for a merchant with a penchant for showmanship to enchant a crowd with promises of the fantastic and marvelous. But it was odd that a scent so strong could go unnoticed by so many; and whatever was causing it was somewhere in that merchant’s ship.
When she returned to the workshop that night, Noori found Keisza hunched over her workbench painting abstract shapes aimlessly. Without Luck, she was distracted and growing weaker by the hour; a witch without her familiar was never truly whole.
But downcast as she was, an unmistakable fury still burned behind Keisza’s eyes when Noori shared her news of the toothy old merchant and his suspiciously fragrant ship.
“It was so peculiar,” Noori said. “It was if I was the only person who could smell it!”
“That’s because you likely were,” Keisza snarled through clenched teeth.
Before Noorie could ask why, Keisza began storming about her workshop.
“That devil!” Keisza shouted, piling pots of paint and brushes into her arms. She spilled the supplies unceremoniously upon the workbench before disappearing for a moment into another room. Still muttering curses beneath her breath, she returned and unfurled a fresh sheet on canvas across her station.
“Keisza, my love!” Noori had never seen her so incensed before. “What’s going on?”
“Marlscent.” Keisza answered, pulled her spectacles down over her eyes. “It’s a powerful concoction of herbs and other enchanted ingredients that, when burned, attracts those who have known magic with its perfumed smoke. Magical creatures such as familiars are especially drawn to it. I should have known!”
She began putting brush to canvas. She was painting a spell. Noori recognized the process.
“Darling,” Noori gasped. “I thought you only had enough magic left for one spell! Are you certain about this?”
For a moment, Keisza did not answer. Pouring her magic into her work took focus and concentration. Each brushstroke was carefully calculated, every color chosen with purpose.
“I am certain enough,” She paused to survey her progress. “I feel it. And in the unlikely chance I’m mistaken, this spell should give Luck all the firepower he needs to help himself, regardless.”
Keisza made the finishing touches to her painting.
“You’re going to need to activate the spell,” she said, glancing at Noori. “My magic is not strong enough right now to work from here, so you must take the canvas to the merchant’s ship and add the final brushstroke. You’ll know where it’s needed, trust me.”
“Me?” Noori cried, watching as Keisza began to mutter an incantation over her work. “Why can’t you co-”
The spell was cast. The painted brushstrokes glowed.
Drained, Keisza’s unconscious body crashed to the floor.
Within no time, Noori was storming the harbor, clamoring along the boardwalk with little regard for the commotion she risked causing.
The haze of Marlscent was still ripe in the air. She followed it, keeping a death grip on the rolled canvas and paintbrush clenched in her sweaty fist.
She pushed herself to run faster than she had ever moved in her life, urged through the searing pain in her legs by the vision of her love, collapsed and unresponsive on the workshop floor.
Noori was terrified at the idea of attempting magic without Keisza there, but she was far more terrified at the idea of losing her.
At last she stumbled to a stop before the merchant’s ship – the once pleasing aroma of Marlscent now only succeeded in making her insides twist.
She threw herself to her knees at the gangplank and unfurled the canvas before her.
Keisza had been right: as if by instinct, Noori knew exactly where to place the final brushstroke.
Ever so carefully, she completed the painting.
“Please work,” she begged, her voice shaking.
Noori’s panic reached a fever pitch.
“No!” she cried, tears falling from her eyes onto Keisza’s spell. “This has to work!”
They had been wrong. If Luck was in that ship, the spell should have worked. And now they were out of magic and out of time.
Then, just as Noori began to sob, a fiery blast erupted from the ship’s hull, sending a shockwave across the water.
From the wreckage rose a massive dragon made of flames; the dragon from Keisza’s painting. The creature bellowed triumphantly as dozens of shooting stars – familiars, Noori realized as she watched in awe – rocketed into the sky, twisting and turning chaotically before zipping out into the night.
“Luck?” Noori called to the dragon.
At the sound of her voice, the dragon peered down. When it spotted her, the flames extinguished with sizzling pops and down from the smoke fluttered the beast in whimsical miniature.
Together, Noori and Luck returned to the workshop.
Keisza’s body rested on the bed where Noori had left her, but like a charcoal sketch, she was devoid of any color.
Noori let out an anguished sob.
“Are we too late?”
But the small shimmering dragon coiled its way lovingly around her neck and nuzzled against her ear.
“Have faith in us,” he hissed softly before fluttering to his mistress and setting to work.
Noori watched through damp eyes as Luck let out a slow and deep breath. Where any normal dragon might breathe fire, his was made up of every swirling shade imaginable, and he used it to carefully paint Keisza head to toe in living color.
Curling up beside her lover on the mattress, all Noori could do now was wait.
Noori waited and she waited until the next thing she knew, she was awoken by a soft kiss to her lips.
Her eyes fluttered open to find Keisza smiling back at her.
“I knew you could do it, love,” the art witch said in a quiet, sleepy voice.
Ecstatic, Noori threw her arms around the woman she loved. Luck, dozing peacefully on his mistress’ chest, let out an indignant squawk, making the lovers laugh.
Nestled close together, a safe calm settled over the three when a question swam into Noori’s mind.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said. “I thought only those who have known magic could smell Malscent. So, why can I?”
“You managed to find me, did you not?”
Dissatisfied with her lover’s response, Noori began to protest but Keisza cut her off with a laugh and a kiss.
“You know, my love,” Keisza whispered, pulling Noori in close. “You should trust a witch when she tells you you’re special.”
Noori rolled her eyes. She would never admit it, but Keisza’s words made her feel like she might just be a lion afterall.