That Old Fashioned Voodoo
This years' Black Magic Expo was turning out to be a disappointment. Almost everyone was younger than twenty-five, and had been practicing the dark arts for less than two years. They could barely tell the difference between the Necronomicon and a cookbook. Most weren't even drying their lizards properly – they were being hung by their tails rather than the big toe of the left back foot. What was black magic coming to? Was it just a hobby now, for teenagers with too much time on their hands?
Mz. Ruby sighed, and continued to lumber between the stalls. All the old witches seemed to have disappeared, pushed out by these cubs with a penchant for body paint. If this was what the arts were heading for, she could hardly blame the older generation leaving the Expo – it was nauseating to watch children waving their arms about and reciting nonsense words when a few droppers of swamp algae and a newt would do just as well. It was really too bad.
The few older witches who were at the Expo to display their wares had an almost hunted look about them, huddling into the shadowy corners of their stalls and occasionally glancing sharply at some imagined sound. Taming beasts from the underworld or reigning over evil powers didn't faze these women, but this invasion of pop Goths had them cowering.
Mz. Ruby was just about ready to pack it in and head for home when she came to a three-way intersection through the stalls. At the same time she was slammed with a strong impression of evil. At Expos gone by it wouldn't have been a surprise, but now it was an event.
Mz. Ruby smacked her chops experimentally. Yes, definitely a low-down, no-good kind of juju. Delightful! Now to find the source.
She didn't have to look long, or far. She didn't have to leave her spot, in fact. The source of the evil vibe was approaching from another fork of the intersection. It was a woman of the arachnid persuasion, wearing a red dress with a fashionable spider web pattern. She seemed to be looking around the stalls with the same kind of disgust that Mz. Ruby felt.
As she came near, she noticed the reptilian witch. Something about the way Mz. Ruby stood and watched her made the many legged female pause and look her up and down. She didn't have the same power to sense a person's aura as Mz. Ruby did, but she did have an extensive education involving psychology, as well as personal experience dealing with dark magic, and could read some of those things off of Mz. Ruby.
They stood at the intersection for awhile staring at each other, sizing each other up, before the spider woman spoke. "Well, at least there is someone here who seems to know her cauldron from her crock pot."
Mz. Ruby barked a laugh, "Indeedly so. It's a relief to know that not all our kind are in hidin'. There's more mojo in my childhood dolls than in this graveyard."
"Mmm," the other nodded, "very probable. I am known as the Contessa," she held out a claw-hand, "hypnotist and genius."
"Glad to know you, sistah," Mz. Ruby said, gingerly taking the proffered claw, "Mz. Ruby of Haiti, voodoo witch and mojo mastah."
The Contessa paused, "Mz. Ruby…" she murmured, "I seem to remember the name, but can't quite place it…" she shook her head, "Well, I am pleased to meet an accomplished practitioner of the dark arts. Indeed, the only one besides myself at this 'Black Magic Expo'."
"Not quite, sistah," Mz. Ruby said, turning to face the last fork of the intersection.
Floating along at eye-level was a pale, scowling half-mask with feather details. People walking around the mask seemed not to notice it, but simply flowed around it like water, without so much as a glance. The only ones who seemed to see it were the two women. Apparently sensing that these two were the only magical things at the Expo, the mask turned and regarded each in turn silently. The women glanced at each other, then back at the mask, but it remained silent.
"Well," the Contessa finally said, "perhaps we should find a better place to carry on a conversation."
The Cadaver Café was a small purveyor on the corner geared toward the gothic circles. Due to the nearby Expo, however, the three villains had the café to themselves. It was deliberately kept dark and cobwebby, the floors and walls were dark hardwood and the ceiling was crisscrossed with faux smoke stained beams. Everything had a thick layer of dust coating it, which was reapplied every night by the employees, and every surface that boasted free space was taken up by rows of black, runny candles. There were even a few rats that were specially imported and taken care of by the management, but they weren't very effective as atmosphere; they were too clean, and had a habit of begging for table scraps from customers.
The two women and the mask were seated at one of the iron wrought tables made to look like a giant spider web on multi-jointed legs. The Contessa had ordered a coffee laced with cinnamon, Mz. Ruby a black licorice tea – into which she slipped something from a small paper envelope – and between the two of them, decided to order the Mask of Dark Earth a green tea. Mz. Ruby and the Contessa stirred their drinks quietly, waiting for them to finish brewing before returning to their conversation. The Mask merely stared into its cup sullenly, thinking it would have preferred a java and biscotti.
"Well, Mz. Ruby," the Contessa said at last, "what brings you to this corner of the world – just this sham of an Exposition, or something more substantial?"
Mz. Ruby plucked her finger out of her tea and slurped it clean before replying, "Heh, this is just a little detour on my way to find myself some… assistants. I don't mind tellin' you that I used to have quite a following of my own."
"Really?" the Contessa asked, "I, myself used to have a network of guards and sentries."
"No kiddin', sistah?" Her tail twitched irritably, "That's just the trouble with flunkies, ain't it? Soon as some real trouble shows its face, they all turn tail, or just get stupid."
"So true," the Contessa agreed, taking a sip of her coffee.
The Mask trembled slightly and let out an inaudible hiss. It had once ruled over thousands of subordinates who would obey every whim without the slightest complaint, who would literally march over hot coals without a single whine about tender feet. In the old days it had been lord and master over the weak minded fools of the Australian outback, and had been stretching out its influence across the seas to control thousands more pawns. The entire world had been its oversized sandbox, one to build empires and crush nations. Until the Moon Spirit had banished it, and then that-- that raccoon and his friends had nearly destroyed it. Now… Its thoughts turned to its current home: a prop box for a local theater. Times were hard for the once lord. The Mask stared into its tea contemplatively.
"What is your area of expertise, if I may ask?" the Contessa said.
"With my powers I can control the undead," Mz. Ruby said with a touch of pride, "I could raise an army of zombies and ghosts with my mighty mojo. Provided, o' course, I had the right materials and planetary alignments."
"Of course," the Contessa said graciously.
"And you, sistah? Ya said you was a hypnotist, but I sense more to your wicked ways."
The Contessa smiled and bowed her head modestly, "Why, yes, I have had experience with the dark arts. I have used some of the less complex tricks of the trade to enhance my hypnotic powers. And there are always a few local poltergeists that need to be kept in check from time to time."
There was a pause, and both women glanced at the Mask expectantly, and then back into their cups. The Mask trembled and fumed silently. What it would give for vocal cords!
"If ya don't mind my askin'," Mz. Ruby said, breaking the uncomfortable silence, "what was it you was usin' them hypnotic powers of yours for?"
Again, the Contessa smiled, "I was working as an agent for Interpol, until recently. They would send me criminals to hypnotize into becoming 'good citizens', and I would force them to tell me where they hid their fortunes."
"Clever," Mz. Ruby said admiringly.
"Yes," the Contessa said with a grin. Then she scowled fiercely into her coffee, "It was all perfect before that blasted Cooper Gang ruined me!"
Mz. Ruby jumped and the Mask bounced out of its seat to hover over its cup of tea.
"Cooper?" Mz. Ruby yelped, "Do you mean little Sly Cooper of the Cooper Clan? The one who owns the Thievius Raccoonus?"
The Contessa looked surprised, "Yes. But how do you know…?" Her eyes widened, "Of course! You're the Mz. Ruby of the Fiendish Five, who stole the Thievius Raccoonus from Sly's father! I should have known immediately who you were."
"That I was. And what were you to that little thief?" In its chair, the Mask was bouncing hysterically, spewing forth silent hisses of frustration, but neither of the women noticed it.
The Contessa leaned back, "He was the latest criminal sent to me to 'correct'. He was also determined to steal back the Clockwerk eyes, which I was using to increase the effectiveness of my hypnosis." The Contessa sighed, saddened once again by her great loss.
"The old bird's eyes, huh?" Mz. Ruby mumbled, "I never did like him that much."
The Mask, finally frustrated beyond rational thought, even for a mask, hopped around the table frantically, trying to make itself understood. Knocking over the center candle, it made a desperate leap and latched onto Mz. Ruby's face.
Mz. Ruby froze, still holding onto her cup of black licorice tea. There was a long pause. It was broken by Mz. Ruby's hearty laughter. "You're gonna hafta do better than that, child," she managed between her chuckles, "I've been working with mojo my whole life, and have developed an immunity to magical attacks."
The Mask shook, then seemed to sag off of Mz. Ruby's face onto the table. Wax from the fallen candle seeped into its feathers as it lay pathetically still. Suddenly it sprang up again, aiming for the Contessa. One of the Contessa's legs flicked up and the Mask went flying back into its own seat.
"Please," the Contessa said carelessly, "as though you would have the strength to take over my mind."
The Mask straightened itself in its chair, and waved its stained feathers despondently. Instead of facing the two witches who continued to watch it guardedly, it stared into its tea cup, embarrassed at its failure to possess them. Very slowly, it tilted to take a sip of tea, but only succeeded in knocking the cup over, spilling its contents all over itself. Green tea dripped around the scowling features and feathers, leaving behind a faint yellow stain. The Mask fell into its chair with a hollow thunk. The chair tilted back dangerously, wobbled on it back legs a moment, then crashed to the floor, taking the Mask of Dark Earth with it.
"Humph," Mz. Ruby said as the Mask rubbed its feathers together agitatedly, "what d'you suppose is his problem?"
The Contessa shrugged, "Who knows the inner workings of a stage prop?"
Mz. Ruby nodded. It was probably the tea stains and candle wax that made the Mask look so depressed.