A joyful melody resonates in the darkness, floating beneath the dark corridors and walls of an ancient house. The tune is so upbeat and lively that marks a great contrast for the sad atmosphere around. But the singer, a young mouse girl in a maid outfit, doesn't care. In fact, every time she enters in each of the abandoned rooms, she smiles upon remembering what member of her family used to live there and its favorite song. Then she sings while trying to clean away the dust on the beds, walls and floors.
On close inspection, the looks of the girl doesn't fit her cheerful personality. With short red hair tied in a pair of little braids, she has a pale skin, as if she had just recovered from a sickness. Her complexion is slim, somewhat famished, and yet she has enough energy to complete the full list of chores by herself every day. In fact, she is the only servant in the entire house.
The girl entered the main dormitory, the only room of the house that was forever clean and tidy. The furniture there was elegant and well preserved, silver curtains with gold trimming on the windows, glowing pieces of multicolored jewelry standing in cases over the fireplace. Smiling, the girl passed her duster very carefully beneath the porcelain figures placed on the danish nightstand in her way to the curtain covered bed at the center of the room.
Drawing aside the silk curtains, the maid discovered disappointed that the bed wasn't used that last night.
"How strange" Pondered the girl with a worried face. "My lady hasn't returned yet?"
Some minutes later, while the maid was removing the dust from the elegant dresses in the closet and dreaming with wearing some of them, a strange noise from downstairs, like a groan of pain, caught her attention. A pair of seconds later, a voice called her by her name.
"Sabrina! Where are you?"
"Oh It's her!" said the maid to herself, and quickly hung again the party dress she had taken out to contemplate in secret.
"Sabrina! Come here now!" ordered the female voice again.
"Y-yes, my lady!" answered the girl running out of the room. In her hurry, she didn't notice that the door was closed, but it didn't matter at the end. Sabrina just walked through it. An easy feat for a ghost like her.
Sabrina ran silently stairs down to the main entrance of the manor, but there was nobody there. "My lady? Where are you?" asked the mouse girl glancing sideways.
"In the dining room! Hurry up!"
"At once, my lady!"
The girl made her way through the door of the dining room, and couldn't help but gasp at the sight of Lawhinie, her master, leaning on a chair with an arrow piercing her left arm and a mixed expression of pain and fury on her face. The witch was clenching her teeth trying to hold the tears; her beautiful dress was rip, scorched and blood-stained; her orange hair was mistreated and her feathered pointy hat was missing.
Recovering from her shock, Sabrina ran to her side immediately. "My lady! Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not!" answered Lawhinie bluntly. "Now help me take this arrow out!"
"Yes, yes my lady!" The maid sank her ghostly paw in Lawhinie's arm and grabbed the arrow's tip.
"Damn you are cold!"
"Forget about that, just continue!"
"At your orders!" The ghost girl pulled out the arrowhead, causing Lawhinie to stir and hiss. The maid apologized again, cleaned the wound with alcohol and applied some bandages she found in the kitchen.
Lawhinie noticed how her servant was sobbing while trying unsuccessfully to press the bandages with her ghostly paws to stop the bleeding. The poor girl was almost crying. Such compassion melted the witch's hatred for a moment.
"Calm down already, I'll do it…" Said Lawhinie passing her paw through the cold fingers of her servant to press the bandages herself. She flinched when she touched the wound and let out a yelp that made her servant close her eyes. Deep inside, Lawhinie knew that Sabrina cared about her very much. The witch decided to speak to calm the girl's anxiety. "So… are you not going to ask what happened?"
Sabrina wiped her eyes before answering. "I don't know if that would be appropriate, my lady…"
"Well, I don't pretend to tell you the whole story" Lawhinie grinned but fell silent afterwards, glancing at the lit candles of the chandelier above them. "I just think you would like to know… I found my sister"
The ethereal eyes of Sabrina brighten up with such news and her grief transformed in joy. "My lady Gadget? That's wonderful! But…" she then glanced around and asked with a hint of distress. "Why didn't she come back? Is she all right?"
"Oh yes, she is fine" answered Lawhinie sarcastically. "She got herself some new 'friends'".
The girl couldn't believe what had just heard. "Friends? My lady Gadget?"
"Oh yes" continued Lawhinie. "It seems I was not good enough for her"
Sabrina shook her head. "Please, don't say that! You are her twin sister!"
"Yes I am! And yet…" Lawhinie stopped and looked away recalling events from the past. "I think she still doesn't get over the whole 'contract with a devil' thing… well, maybe it was me who convinced her to sign, but it was a fair trade! Absolute knowledge in exchange of her soul! She can even foresight the future now! It was a bargain, if you ask me!"
"Yes it was…" nodded Sabrina trying to sound convinced.
"And now, If you could see the scum she is hanging out with! An archer, a jester, a fat moustached savage, a bat, a fly and… an immature girl… I swear my sister could open a circus with that people!"
Sabrina opened her eyes wide. "An archer, my lady? It was he who shot you?"
Lawhinie didn't answer. She tilted her head back remembering that moment again. The moment when that archer... Chip was his name? Aimed the arrow at her and they both looked at each other's eyes. The witch recalled the fear of death she felt then, and how she wanted to say something but her throat was almost frozen. In fact, she wanted to beg for her life.
A red blush appeared on her face upon remembering that. Truly, she was so scared that she was willing to beg but the words didn't came out. And then, unexpectedly, the archer put down his bow and decided to let her go. Why? Then that hysteric girl grabbed the bow and…
"Why?" Whispered Lawhinie to herself. "I almost killed him… Why did he let me go?"
"Umm... My lady?"
"I… yes!" exclaimed Lawhinie coming back to reality. "Yes… it was that filthy archer… ranger… but he failed and he is gonna regret it! Next time we met, I will turn him to dust!"
"Oh! That will teach him, my lady"
"Yeah…" Lawhinie bragged. "And don't worry about Gadget, as soon as I get better I will go look for her again. After all, she has my bo…" The witch bit her tongue. "my… hat!" Then, she realized the truth of her words. "Damn! I really left my hat back there!"
Sabrina used that moment of silent revelation to make a cheerful comment. "It would be great to have lady Gadget back with us! Some of her inventions need maintenance"
"Yes..." answered Lawhinie with a sigh. "Anyway, it's enough for now. I need to rest..."
"Certainly! Let me help you!"
Lawhinie managed to get upstairs to her room with the help of Sabrina. She laid down on her bed and tried to relax despite the pain in her arm. At the end, the last thing she saw before falling asleep was the sad smile of her servant, sitting at her side in silence.
Chip woke up. The first thing he saw was Tammy, sitting at his side and smiling softly at him, although a tired expression on her eyes was very noticeable.
"Hi Chipper" the girl whispered a bit weary. "How do you feel?"
"Tammy!" exclaimed the hero blushing red. "I..." He sat upright, and discovered surprised that the pain in his ribs had disappeared. "I feel rather good, actually. Did you..."
"Use white magic on you? Oh yes!" Tammy raised her white glowing paw. "I spent the whole day treating your wounds. Oh, I also cured your new companions, Monterey and Zipper. We just finished to eat dinner and now everyone is resting near the fireplace, over there. You, on the other hand, slept the whole day. Don't worry, I kept a bowl of soup for you"
Chip glanced over Tammy's shoulder. There, next to the fireplace in one of the walls of the abandoned ruins that centuries ago were part of a castle, his friends Monterey, Zipper, Foxglove and Dale were sleeping and recovering from the wounds, the burns and the fear from the night before. But... someone was missing...
"Where is Gadget!? Did she leave!?" asked Chip jumping on his feet and looking around frantically. Tammy was surprised as well as a bit hurt by Chip's sudden attitude.
"Oh calm down!" she replied placing away the bowl of soup. "The witch is there, on the window. Although we don't know what's got into her"
"Huh? Why do you say that?"
Tammy scratched her head while answering. "Well... at first she was helping me treat everyone's wounds, but as time passed by she became more and more... gloomy. I think she realized her black magic was useless. Later on, she ate her dinner in silence and flew up there on her broom"
Chip looked up at a silhouette on the corner of the window. Tammy stood up and placed her paw upon the ranger's shoulder. "Chipper, she still has my mother's book. You heard her sister, she will come back soon to search for it and then... how do you know your friend won't betray us?"
"What? No, she wouldn't never do that!" declared Chip without a hint of doubt.
Tammy, on the other hand, shook her head furiously. "Please, don't trust her so lightly! You know that witches are evil!"
Chip sighed deeply and looked around. The moonlight was entering trough the window, cutting the darkness of the room like a silver blade and revealing some forgotten wooden toys laying on the floor. If it wasn't so dark, one could notice that this was once a kid's room. "Two days ago…" he mused slowly. "Things were simpler. Witches only existed in fairy tales and were all evil, as you say. Then yesterday, in a single night, I witnessed real witches flying in brooms, turning others to stone and throwing fire from their fingers. The full definition of evilness. But on that same night, I also discovered that witches do smile, cry, laugh and supplicate. Just like any of us would do. What do you make of that? Now I believe that 'witch' is just a title. Just like 'ranger', 'cleric', 'warrior'. A title doesn't make you good or bad, your actions does. Now, up there on the window is a witch who has saved my life twice and always tries to work out the problems by talking instead of fighting. It doesn't matter if her title is 'black witch', she helped me and now she needs my help, our help..."
"I... I wish I could share your point of view." confessed Tammy downcast. "I really wish it"
"Don't worry about it" said Chip squeezing his friend's paw. "I'll climb up there to convince her to come back to us'.
Tammy watched in silence as Chip grabbed a curtain's rope. Her mind was troubled with mixed emotions (one of them being jealousy) and yet, an important question still remained in the air.
"And what about her sister, Lawhinie?" She asked bluntly.
After one moment of reflection, Chip answered with a smile. "I think there is still hope for her!"
"Nonsense..." whispered Tammy to herself.
Chip climbed up the rope and jumped to the stone window's frame. There, on the opposite corner, was Gadget, curled and occupied in petting her octopus pet's tentacle.
"Gadget?" asked Chip walking to her.
"Hi Chip" the witch greeted him without looking up. Gustav returned to the folds of the black cloak. "How do you feel?"
"I feel... as good as new!" Said Chip jovially. He stretched his arms back and forth to remark his words and try to liven up the talk.
However, Chip's hopes were broken when Gadget lifted her sullen eyes to his. They were brimming with tears. Before Chip could ask anything, She spoke with a broken voice. "I'm glad… I'm really glad that you are fine. Tammy turned out to be a natural healer, just as I predicted. Stay close to her, will you? You will be safe"
"Close to her?" asked Chip confused. "And what if... what if I prefer to stay close to you?" Chip sat next to the witch smiling and took her paw on his own. Gadget glanced nervously at him and, for his disappointment, she took her paw away.
"W-what's wrong?" the ranger asked.
"If you stay close to me, you might end up dead, or worse... You and our new friends, I couldn't live with that. I was so worried about you last night! So worried, and yet I couldn't save you when you needed me. Tammy... She did it"
"So, that's troubling you?" Chip grinned smugly at the witch. "I didn't keep count, but I think last night the seven of us saved each other's lives plenty of times. That's the meaning of teamwork. We take care of each other. We are just like the knights of the round table!"
Chip's comparison made Gadget chuckle. "Please, the knights of the round table were all good and virtuous. It may fit you, but I'm a soulless witch. The complete opposite"
The ranger shrugged his shoulders. "And yet, I trust you blindly"
"Blindly? That's not very logical of you" Said Gadget wiping her tears. "So far, you only know I can use black magic and have a twin sister"
"Well, so tell me more about you. For starters, why did you sell your soul?"
Gadget blinked twice at the audacity of that question. She soon realized she had no choice but to answer the plain truth, so she breathed deeply and started to confess. "Well, because of greed... It's always greed. Some people desire gold, others desire power... I desired knowledge. I wanted to know everything. How the storms are created, how can one travel to the stars, why do we get sick, what happens when we die… I wanted to know the answer to life, the universe and everything… And so, I trade my soul to Mephisto"
"Foolish? That was the first thing I learned when my wish was granted. Because among all the answers I got, I was told what happen when each of us die"
"What... happen?" Asked Chip hesitant.
"We reborn" answered Gadget looking at the sky with a sad smile. "In another body, in another time, in another place. We return to life again in again with the purpose of perfect and embellish our soul. It can take many lifetimes, but only with a luminous soul we are worthy of ascend to the heavens. So you can say that life is a cycle. The most beautiful part of this law is..." She searched for Chip's paw and gently caressed it. "Each being you meet in one life gets bound to you in order of meet them again in your next life. That way, we all help each other to polish our souls. Enemies get a second chance to make amends; friends can help and love each other again. At the end, we are all connected"
"That sounds truly beautiful" conceded Chip.
"Yes, it truly is. But then... " She turned her blue eyes back to Chip. "Do you know what happens when the beings that gave up their soul pass away?
Chip's answer was more like a whisper. "What?"
"We will never reborn again" Gadget explained with a broken voice. "The contract dictates that our souls are to be sent to suffer to a place called the city of Dis. Have you… read of it?"
Chip nodded. "Yes I have, but it can't possibly exist!"
"Oh but it does..." answered Gadget darkly. "I have seen it, just as Dante saw it four hundred years ago. My soul will be locked up there in punishment for breaking the cycle of rebirths and become a black magic wielder"
Chip remembered the verses Dante wrote about sorcerers and shook his head in desperation. "No… You can't end there! I will save you! I promise it!"
"Don't promise such thing!" She scolded him. "Do you think I haven't thought a thousand ways to regain my soul? All of them flawed, for a reason or other! Just hear this..."
While Gadget was telling him the many clauses and stipulations of her contract, something outside caught Chip's attention. A human was looking at them from the road that leads to the castle. An old human, wearing gray robes and a wide brimmed hat. By the moment when a pair of ravens posed on that human's shoulders Chip was already pale and trembling.
"Chip? Are you all right?" asked Gadget watching with concern her friend's haunted expresion. "I'm sorry, I know this can be very scary for anyone inexperienced with the supernatural"
"Scary or not..." Chip answered in a whisper. "I think... I just realized what I should do"
"What? What are you talking about?" I already told you..."
"I-I have to go outside" declared Chip standing up. "Please, go back with Tammy and the others. I'll be back soon!" With that, the green cloaked ranger hurried up back to the rope and outside the ruins. Gadget, as well as Tammy down at the fireplace, was left perplexed. The young witch turned around and glanced at the field outside trying to spot his friend. Then, on the distance, she caught sight of the old human standing in front of the ruins.
"Could it be...?" asked Gadget to herself, when suddenly, a vision assaulted her mind.
It was the future, she was at least sure of it. She could tell so by the sight of a flying machine crossing the blue sky, leaving a white wake behind. Then, in front of her appeared a human city, made of so many illuminated houses that for a moment the witch thought she was in the middle of a sea of stars. One after another, the wonders of that place were presented before Gadget. Crystal buildings as tall as mountains with their roots on an island at the center of the city. The gigantic statue of a crowned lady carrying a torch welcoming the fuming steel ships that were arriving at the bay. Enormous coliseums bathed in lights housing emerald green fields. A bridge so long that she could spent a whole day walking through it. And finally, millions, millions of humans living there as if a interminable river of people. Next, the vision presented Gadget a squared forest engulfed by the city. A silent reminder that the world was meant be green instead of gray. The vision transported Gadget inside one of the oaks of that forest, and she found there the future life of Chip.
Chip, Dale, Monterey and Zipper. Foxglove and Tammy were there too. All of them living together, with Tammy wrapping her arms around Chip as he caressed her long red hair tenderly. It was obvious that Chip was mad in love with her, and that caused Gadget's heart to flinch. Meanwhile, the rest of the group was having a great time telling histories about the humans and animals they helped that day. Gadget managed to understand some pieces of their conversation. Something about a fat cat that had tried to steal jewels from a human unsuccessfully. The vision started to fade the moment when Monterey started to throw punches to the air, mimicking a fight and causing everyone around to laugh.
The vision ended and Gadget fell to her knees, realizing from a new perspective the harsh consequences of what she had done to her soul. So far, she had endured the pain due to her solitude, but now that she had made six friends in a single night… it was just too much to bear. In her grief, she realized something else: whatever was this new plan of Chip to help her would be futile. She had just seen that the outcome for her would still be the same: Oblivion. She looked up at the waxing moon as a tear went down her face. "We've met before, but you won't know of me on the next life, no matter how much you care. What... have I done?"
Lawhinie was looking impatiently at the ascension of the waxing moon, tapping her foot at the very center of a crossroad outside of the walls of Cologne. She had a very important appointment there at midnight. The wounded witch wondered for a moment how many humans or animals had been in the same situation as her over the ages…
The midnight came and the bells from the cathedral started to chime. Twelve times. The apprehension of the witch growing at each passing sound. What if her master didn't believe her story? No, she just had to trust in her skills. Telling convincing lies was like a second nature to her since she was a little girl. She would be fine.
The bells finished their chorus and for a weird moment, nothing else was heard. However, she could feel there was someone walking down the road. A black cat.
At first notice, it looked like any other common stray cat: slim, agile, hungry; ready to pounce at any moment. But one detail was enough to tell he was anything but common. Flaming white eyes without pupils. The mark of an otherworldly fallen angel. This black cat was no other than Mephisto, the merchant of souls, locked in a mortal body as result of his battle with the disappeared heroine Bethany Lombardi.
"Greetings, master Mephisto" said the witch with a reverence, purposely showing her bandaged arm.
"Save it, Lawhinie…" said the demon cat as he stepped in front of her. "Where is the grimoire?"
Lawhinie gulped nervously. "I... don't have it with me, master"
"What!?" the cat demon growled. "Why not? Where is Julien?"
The witch quickly explained. "I went to Rouen to receive the grimoire from Julien as you ordered, master… But we were ambushed. Ambushed by a group of heroes..."
"Heroes?" Asked the cat narrowing his flaming eyes. "What heroes?"
"Six heroes, one of them the daughter of Bethany Lombardi. They even used white magic. Julien and I had no chance. They took the grimoire and I lost sight of Julien in the chaos. It was… horrible…" Lawhinie finished her recount with a broken voice.
Mephisto looked away disdainfully. "That obsessed mouse is still alive, I haven't felt his soul passing away. He is irrelevant, anyway… But these damn meddling heroes… It must be work of that damned norse god that refuses to die!" The cat shouted a curse in an ancient dead tongue and then glanced back at Lawhinie with rage-filled eyes. "Black witch, I want you to go back there and kill his new servants! Kill them and bring me the grimoire!"
"As you wish, master... but, I'm afraid I will need more power if I want to make they pay such outrage... please, grant me more of your power! Just enough to overcome their filthy spells!
The cat hesitated before answering. "More power? I don't think so... What you need is a helping hand. Go to Paris. You'll find a fellow sorcerer there who will join you. He is specialized in... gathering armies, so to speak."
Lawhinie lowered her head in a reverence. "Understood, Master"
"We are done here. Don't fail me again, Lawhinie"
The black cat turned his back on Lawhinie and walked into the darkness. The strange phenomenon of momentaneus silence occurred again. Then on the distance a group of dogs started to bark frightened, and soon the whole city was filled with terrified howls. Meanwhile, Lawhinie was alone again, gnashing her teeth enraged.
"That... stingy demon!" She whispered to herself. "A helping hand? Nonsense! He just doesn't want to share his power! Is that cat afraid of me? Either that or... he was no more power left to share…" The black witch mused on her words for a second and then grinned with malevolence. "No, It's both… Now I understand. My master is now just a helpless kitty without any magic left, except those glowing eyes. Yes, that's it... Just wait, 'master'. Once I get the grimoire, I'll be ready to break free from you! I'll send to back to the deeps of Dis and I will remain here as the most powerful witch in the world! Yes, just wait! Ah ha ha ha ha!
The maniacal laugh of Lawhinie resonated through the fields as she mounted in her broom and rose up in the night sky. And so, all the pieces on this board, white and black, started to move again. None of them could know, but they were marching blindly into a disaster... one square at the time.
End of episode 1