Sweets and Treats was one of the picturesque storefronts lining the main street on the mortal side of the portal that divided the magical and mundane sides of Sweetwater Falls, Georgia. The shop had just closed up for the evening, and its owner, Zoe Cross, was pressed up against the cold windowpane that looked out over the sidewalk.
Zoe wasn’t looking at the sidewalk, though. Rather, she was squinting up at the sky.
“Does it really never happen in the mortal world?” she asked aloud, seemingly to no one. The shop was entirely empty of people.
A fluffy white kitten who appeared to be napping on the windowsill nearby opened one sleepy eye and said in a forthright voice, “It does happen. But certainly not every Christmas. But this is Georgia. The locals start to dig out their earmuffs and sables when it dips into the forties.”
Zoe pouted in the direction of Snow, her familiar, who to all appearances was utterly unmoved by the expression. Snow responded by yawning and closing her eyes again.
“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow.”
“We can hop over to Witch World if you like?” Snow suggested. “I’m sure it’s coming down in buckets there.”
Snow was always looking for an excuse to leave the mortal world.
Zoe shook her head. “No. This is my first mortal Christmas, and I want to experience it. I’m not about to get myself in the habit of zipping back home every spare chance I get and missing out on the whole thing.”
“There’s nothing interesting about mortal Christmas,” Snow objected, picking herself up from where she was lying. She stretched out her back, and then lay down again in a slightly different position. “Christmas in Witch World is interesting.”
“That’s not true. Christmas in the mortal world is super interesting! I mean, they claim not to believe in magic, but then there’s this whole time of year where they just obviously, openly do believe in it? And that’s not fascinating to you?”
“The hypocrisies and foibles of mortals are your thing, not mine.”
Just then, there was a knock at the door.
“Speaking of,” Snow said, “I believe that’s Lissie now, coming to whisk you away to be tortured.”
Of course, Zoe’s best friend Lissie was not taking Zoe to be tortured. Rather, Lissie and Zoe had both volunteered to help decorate for an upcoming Christmas-themed play at the local elementary school. Lissie showed up wearing a green reindeer-antler headband with jingle bells hanging from it.
“I brought you one, too!” she said when they got to the car, and handed Zoe a red one.
Zoe happily placed it over her temples, then reached up to make sure her antlers were standing up straight.
“We’re going to be the Christmas Spirit Brigade!” Lissie said gleefully. “I’m so glad you’re here this year. None of my other friends ever gets as into Christmas as I do.”
“This is going to be the best Christmas ever!” Zoe cried happily.
Not even Snow could damage Zoe’s Christmas spirit, not with all her bah-humbug grinching.
There was, however, something that could damage Zoe’s Christmas spirit. And that something called Zoe’s cell phone approximately forty minutes into Zoe’s and Lissie’s decorating process.
“I’m so sorry,” Zoe said, climbing down carefully from the ladder she’d been standing on while hanging an ancient string of lights with a rusty staple gun. “I’ve got to take this.”
Lissie watched her friend duck out of the room, confused at Zoe’s sudden urgency. She’d never seen a simple phone call make Zoe look so panicked.
As a matter of fact, Zoe was panicked because it wasn’t her cell phone that was ringing. That is, the phone she used to text Lissie and to take cute photos of her most recent confections for her shop was still dark and silent, tucked into the pocket of Zoe’s jeans.
The phone that was ringing was one Zoe kept in her purse, in a zipped interior pocket. The Witch’s Council had given this phone to her and told her to keep it secret. They would only use it in case of emergencies.
Zoe struggled to find a private space to have a chat. All around the school halls, volunteers were helping with the set-up for the play. Eventually, she wrenched open a classroom door and ducked inside, not bothering to turn the lights on and risk drawing attention to her hiding spot.
“Hello?” she said, scrambling to answer the phone before it stopped ringing.
“Miss Cross? You certainly took your time in answering.”
The voice, clipped and businesslike, belonged to Moira, one of the more intimidating members of the Witch’s Council.
“Oh, um, yes, sorry about that! I was… decorating.” Zoe winced at her own words.
Luckily, Moira seemed not to be listening.
“There’s been a major problem in Witch World,” Moira said. “Milo was murdered.”
Milo. Without a last name it took Zoe a beat to remember who Moira was referring to.
“The vampire?” she asked finally.
Many vampires didn’t have last names, after all. Milo had probably dropped his centuries ago in order to make his history more difficult to track. It was possible he had lived so long that he didn’t even remember for himself what his last name had once been.
“Yes,” Moira replied. “The vampire. He was exposed to the sun while sleeping in his coffin. It was clearly intentional. And we need you here in Witch World right away.”
Well, it seemed like Snow would get to leave the mortal side sooner than Zoe had thought.
“I’m so sorry,” Zoe came up to the base of the ladder, already pulling on her coat. “I’ve got to get back to the shop.”
“Is something the matter?” Lissie asked, eyes widening in concern.
“No, no,” Zoe flapped her hand. “Just a… a thing I have to take care of!”
She was a horrible liar, and she thought she’d have better luck staying vague.
“So sorry to leave you in the lurch like this,” she called, already heading for the door. “I owe you!”
Lissie watched her friend pass through the vestibule and out toward the street, red jingling antlers flapping with the speed of her stride. Lissie narrowed her eyes in thought.
It was pretty clear to her that there was something going on with Zoe. She felt tempted to climb down from the ladder and follow her friend, to see whether she could figure out what was wrong.
“Oh, is that the staple gun?” Another volunteer came up eagerly, hands outstretched. “I’ve just got to get these streamers up.”
Lissie startled and blinked. She looked at the volunteer, then back to the door.
Already, Zoe had disappeared into the darkness.
“I’ll be done in just a second,” Lissie said brightly and returned to her work.
Figuring out what Zoe was up to would just have to wait.
One of the many problems with bailing on her friend date, Zoe reflected as she hustled back toward Sweets and Treats, was the fact that Lissie had driven them to the school. Which meant Zoe was stuck on foot, with a little over a mile to walk.
She could have sped things along using magic, of course. Zoe wasn’t the most advanced practitioner, but even she knew of spells that could have given her bursts of superspeed. Or at least one to make time rush a little faster.
But Zoe wasn’t allowed to use that kind of magic on this side of the portal, and particularly not out in plain sight on a public street, nighttime or not. In fact, the Witch’s Council had stationed Zoe to live in Sweetwater Falls in order to try to figure out who was responsible for recent dangerous infractions in the law against using unsanctioned magic in the mortal world. She certainly wasn’t about to break those same laws herself, on her way to meet with that same Witch’s Council.
Still, the walk was unpleasant.
“You look like you got a little windblown,” Snow remarked lazily as Zoe breezed through the door.
Zoe didn’t answer her familiar. Instead, she moved with purpose through the shop and into the back room where the portal was kept.
Snow, sensing her witch’s seriousness, easily leapt up and trotted after her.
They both paused for a second before the wardrobe that contained the portal. From the outside, it looked perfectly innocuous–a dusty old antique that had seen better days.
As soon as Zoe reached out and cracked the door open, however, the darkened back room filled with a faint silver light.
Set deep in the wardrobe, where the back panel ought to have been, there was instead a vertical, lightly stippled quicksilver pool. Its surface wobbled gently, as if disturbed by the rush of air from the opening door.
Zoe stared into the silver surface. From this distance, she could already catch the slightest whiff of the world beyond, the perfect cinnamon smell of her sister’s shop on the other side.
“Well?” Snow prompted. “What are you waiting for?”
Obligingly, Zoe stepped through.
The back room at Chloe’s shop, the Crook and Nook, sprang to life.
The room was full of tidily stacked crates and sacks. It was considerably less dusty here than in Zoe’s storage room. Chloe, an advanced practitioner of magic, used a vast repertoire of spells to keep her shop in shipshape.
The store was quiet as Zoe and Snow made their way through it. It was evening here, as well, and Chloe must have already closed up for the night. Neither she nor her familiar, Paws, were anywhere to be seen.
“It’s for the best,” Snow said airily. “I wouldn’t have wanted to see that mangy creature, anyway.”
Snow and Paws had long fostered a deeply invested antagonism, the cause of which wasn’t clear.
Zoe let herself and Snow out of the shop.
The shop had been quiet, but the street outside was alive with energy and activity. As Zoe had hoped, the road was heaped with snow, soft and downy. Within a stone’s throw of where Zoe and Snow walked out onto the sidewalk, there was a polar bear picking her way down the middle of main street, dressed in a gold scarf and hat and loudly singing Christmas carols.
A little further off, a couple of warlocks were overseeing the decorations of the street lamps, enchanting some stringed lights to twine themselves up and between the long row of posts.
Immediately, Snow rushed off in an unseen direction. She had a number of friends on this side she liked to visit whenever the opportunity arose. It had been a while since they’d stepped through the portal, and in her eagerness Snow had dispensed with the niceties of telling Zoe where she was going or when she’d be back.
Oh well. Zoe could find Snow if she needed.
“Zoe!” someone called as Zoe made her way toward the square at the center of town. She turned her head, and Ivers, the talking snowman, was waving his broom handle arm in her direction. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” Zoe chirped back happily.
In the center of the square there was a giant, towering tree, surrounded by a large crowd. Tonight must have been the decorating! For all her enthusiasm about experiencing an unadulterated mortal Christmas, Zoe was excited she wasn’t about to miss this wonderful, season-launching event after all.
There, on the other side of the square, Zoe spotted her double. Chloe, Zoe’s identical twin, was surrounded by a handful of other people. Unlike most of the crowd, Chloe wasn’t staring up at the tree in wonder. Instead, she looked as though she’d been crying.
Zoe began to pick her way through the crowd toward her sister. As she did so, the decorating began. As if of their own volition, glittering beaded garlands and gleaming glass baubles began to float up from the base of the tree and into the air, coiling their lengths around the trunk in a descending helix and hooking themselves onto branch after branch, slipping past one another in midair as if in an elaborately choreographed dance.
“–was a close personal friend of mine,” Chloe was saying as Zoe came into earshot. “I just can’t think who would have done this to Milo. He was eccentric, sure, but he was kind.”
“I heard the police have Agatha in custody already,” a nearby witch said, patting Chloe’s shoulder as if in consolation. “She’s always hated him, ever since the days of the Salem Witch Trials.”
Agatha Winters was in custody? Zoe thought, concerned. The witch was intense, sure, but Zoe always considered her harmless.
And besides, if the Council already knew who was responsible, why had Moira summoned Zoe at all?
Chloe only blubbered harder. However, as she was wiping her eyes, she caught sight of Zoe through the crowd. She burst past those surrounding her and hugged her twin tightly.
“Thank magic you’re here,” Chloe said. “The council brought you, right? To help figure out who killed Milo?”
Zoe nodded, a little bemused. She hadn’t realized her sister knew the victim. Still, she gave Chloe a squeeze.
“Good,” Chloe said, pulling back with a sniffle. “I want you to make this your number one priority, Zoe. I want you to find the evidence that will put Agatha Winters away forever.”
Was it really as straightforward as a centuries-old grudge? Zoe wasn’t so sure.