Anna's Hope Episode One

Anna's Hope Episode One

Chapter 1


Anna shouldered her bag, rearranged her coat, and stared up at the skyline.

“Gosh, that’s a big city,” she said before biting her lip and wincing. “Too big.”

“Oh, would you hurry the hell up. You think I want to stand here all day while you wince at the goddamn skyline? Or do you think, just maybe, a great witch like me has something better to do?”

Anna swung her head down to look at the tabby cat sitting next to her feet. The cat was a dusty brown color, with a collection of odd spots and stripes running down her head. She also had the most peeved expression a feline had ever possessed. Considering cats were domesticated to look down on humans, that was saying something.

“Don’t just stand there – hurry up,” the cat spat.

“Alright, alright – I just wanted to pause to see what I was up against. Because that sure is a big city.” She turned back to the view, nerves snaking around her gut and making her feel exquisitely queasy. On account of her being a witch allergic to magic, Anna spent most of her life feeling ill.

In fact, she could feel a snuffle coming on. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her pink floral handkerchief.

“Oh the goddess, you are the worst witch in the world. You can’t even think about magic without getting a runny nose. Now hurry the hell up, stop staring at the city, and jolly well take me to our new house. I want some milk … and some tuna. Perhaps with a sprig of dill,” the cat added thoughtfully.

“I don’t want to rain on your parade, but we don’t exactly have much cash anymore. We spent almost all of it on the plane trip to get here. I’ve got enough for the month’s rent – which I have to prepay. But that’s it. Until we find some work, it looks like we’ll have to go hungry.”

“Until we find work? Who the hell is this we? I am the spirit of one of the most powerful witches ever to have lived. Do you honestly think I will lower myself to work?” Her voice trilled on the word work as if it were the nastiest curse this side of a death hex.

“Okay, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to insult you. I’m the one who’ll be working.”

“Call me by my proper name when talking to me, girl.”

“Oh the Wondrous and Great Luminaria von Tippit, I apologize for my insincerity.”

“Do not pronounce Tippit like that. It is a powerful word, you foolish witch.”

Anna rolled her eyes – an unusual move of defiance for someone as admittedly timid as she was. Still, no matter what way she looked at it, Tippit was about the least powerful witch’s name she’d heard. Even Anna Hope Summersville was punchier – well, just a little.

Not for the first time, she started to wonder whether she could do this. When she’d accepted her transfer to Marchtown, she’d been over the moon. Finally a chance to reinvent herself. Away from friends and family, she could find a new life. She could flourish.

Now as she looked up at the spires and towers of Marchtown, she reminded herself she wasn’t the flourishing type.

She bit her lips, sinking her teeth into the flesh until the slight stab of pain cut through her trembling nerves.

“Hurry up,” Luminaria spat. “You are contract-bound to look after me, young witch. Need I remind you what will happen if you don’t?”

Anna made a squeaking noise and pushed off down the road.

She had a lot to do today. Once she settled Luminaria into their new home, Anna had to meet her new boss.

Though Marchtown had its own police force, the dynamics of magical crime-enforcement were different to Vale. For one, the police knew nothing about magic. The witches, wizards, and magicians kept that secret to themselves. They also enforced the law.

Considering the three races didn’t always get along, a council had been formed to oversee magical law enforcement. The council was the body ultimately responsible for determining the punishments of criminals, yet they weren’t responsible for the day-to-day plod work. Rather, the council gave out bounty-hunter licenses to “reputable magical folk” who brought in criminals as per the council’s bulletins.

Anna certainly had not applied to become a bounty hunter. Though she had some experience in tracking down and apprehending criminals through her work with Vale Police Department, that would not prepare her for magical bounty hunting. The only loons desperate and dumb enough to get into that line of work had a skull as thick as a mountain, and a body to match. Magical bounty hunting was one of the most dangerous jobs out there.

No, Anna’s transfer would take her into the office of the Magical Enforcement Council. The grunt work would be left up to people who could grunt – the most Anna could manage was a pathetic “hup,” and that wouldn’t scare a baby bird.

“I’m getting tired,” Luminaria suddenly announced, shifting her small head back and twitching her whiskers disdainfully. “Carry me, vassal.”

“Shoosh, we’re coming onto populated streets,” Anna said under her breath. “You can’t speak in front of a normal person – you’re a cat.”

“Oh pish – this hellhole hasn’t seen a normal person for centuries. Just look at them all,” Luminaria turned her tiny head left and right as she pointed out various people with her tail, “they’ve all got pacts with the Devil, mark my words. It takes one to know one, and I can sense their kindred spirits.”

Anna looked around. Rather than seeing a gleefully evil population, sacrificing chickens and drinking goats’ blood, she saw an old lady walking a corgi, a bin man smoking a cigarette, and a child walking hand-in-hand with her mother.

Unless this group of particularly innocuous citizens was very good at hiding their Devil pacts, it was safe to say Luminaria was overreacting.

“They’re just normal people. Now keep your voice down.”

“Normal?” Luminaria hissed quietly. “I sense great evil in the air. Mark my words – this city is damned. I’m going to have a hell of a lot of fun living here,” she added triumphantly.

Anna pressed her lips together and tried her hardest to ignore Luminaria.

If it were up to Anna, she would ditch the possessed cat at the pound – but that would be a great way of winding up dead.

Luminaria was contracted to Anna, and to break the contract would break Anna.

Hurrying through the streets, she ignored Luminaria’s constant commentary until they made it their new house.

Standing on the pavement and looking across at it, Anna quickly grabbed her phone and checked the address.

666 Hollow Crescent.

….

Yep, this was the place.

She returned her phone to her pocket and winced as if she’d been punched with a brick.

The place before her was exactly the kind of house to chuck a brick at someone’s head.

It wasn’t rundown, so much as creepy. Magically creepy.

Luminaria sniffed the pavement, padded up to the letterbox, gave it a calculating look, then tipped her tiny cat head back and laughed manically.

“Shoosh – keep your voice down! We’re in the middle of the street.” Anna reluctantly left the safety of the pavement to reach Luminaria.

“Oh, this place is perfect. Can you feel that dark chaotic energy? It beckons me.” Luminaria was a tiny cat – the kind of feline who’d never grown much bigger than a kitten. Well, right now she stalked towards the house, and she looked as menacing as a tiger.

No … she still looked like a kitten, just one clearly unaware of how small and cute she was.

“Wait up,” Anna said, exasperation making her tone pitch high, “don’t approach that house! There must have been a mistake. We can’t live here. This place is—”

“Delicious. Its energies will sustain me and my great plans.”

“—Evil,” Anna finished. “I’m just going to make a call to ensure this is the right place.” She looked up at the imposing weatherboard and stone house and made a face. “Because it definitely can’t be.”

It took a few minutes before her worst nightmares were confirmed – 666 Hollow Crescent was indeed her new home.

Swallowing hard and securing her hand over the charm bracelet she always wore, Anna approached it.

Not much ever went right in her life. In fact, she was easily the unluckiest witch in the world. From allergies to possessed cats, Anna Hope Summersville never caught a break. A cold, yes. Always yes.

But maybe, just maybe this new job would change everything.

Crossing into the yard of this massively creepy house, she kindled a little hope. If she could do a good job in Marchtown, maybe her prospects would change. If she worked hard in her new position, maybe life would start smiling at her.

Or maybe not.

 Chapter 2

Anna approached the imposing brick and stone building, a knot of nerves causing havoc in her gut. With one hand on her tummy and the other carrying her patchwork bag, she mustered the courage to walk up to the doorway.

Two wizards were on guard, and they both shot her bored looks.

“Ah, I’m here to see Wizard Aaron – I mean Arana. I have a new job. He’s going to show me around, I hope. Or maybe he’s just going to greet me, I don’t know. Nothing much has been explained to me—”

“We don’t care, lady,” one of the wizards interrupted, his tats peeking out from under his tight grey t-shirt. As a light wind brushed his neck-length greasy blond hair over his shoulder, he shook his head. “Just get inside.” He jammed his thumb towards the door.

“Sorry,” Anna said in a weak voice as she hurried past the wizard.

Once inside, she took a deep breath and immediately regretted it. This place – being the HQ of the Magical Enforcement Council – wreaked with magic. With a hearty cough, her eyes started to water.

Plunging a hand into her bag, she fumbled for her hanky.

“Do you mind?” Luminaria trilled as she popped her tiny head out of the bag. “I was sleeping.”

“Sorry, I just need my handkerchief.” Anna negotiated around Luminaria’s snarling form until she managed to pry her floral tissue from a side-pocket.

“You’re so pathetic. Mark my words, they’ll take one look at you, and give the job to someone else.”

Anna tried to ignore Luminaria. She concentrated on finding her way through the labyrinthine halls instead.

There was no one waiting by the front doors to direct her to Aaron’s, neither was there a helpful building map or a reception desk.

Nope, there was simply a series of branching corridors leading to closed doors with out-of-sequence room numbers. The first one she passed read ‘356’, the second, ‘09’. Either the builder had been particularly dyslexic, or the rooms changed themselves around. Considering this was the building of the Marchtown MEC, she imagined it was the latter.

“Okay,” she mumbled to herself as she wandered off down the corridor, drawing her phone from her pocket to check where she was meant to go. “It should be around here somewhere.”

“We’re going to get lost and end up as skeletons scattered over the floor. When we start to starve, mark my words, I’ll eat you first.”

Anna ignored Luminaria. Over the years, she’d become particularly good at it. It was a survival mechanism. If she didn’t find some way to block out the cocky evil cat, she’d go spare.

“Alright, it should be just over here.” Anna surprised herself by stopping in front of the right door. “Ha, I found it! Room 01. Here it is.” She pocketed her phone with a smile and knocked.

“You did not find it – you got lucky,” Luminaria sniped, “finding entails skill, girl, of which you have none. You couldn’t find your way out of a locked coffin, let alone into a wizard’s office.”

“… Ah, who could find their way out of a locked coffin? That’s a really weird thing to say.”

“A witch could. True witches can do anything.” Luminaria glared at her pointedly, then popped her head back into the bag, disappearing from sight with a flick of her tail.

Anna rolled her eyes.

At the same moment, Aaron opened the door. He lifted an eyebrow. “I’m sorry if you feel I made you wait, Miss …?”

“Summersville,” she squeaked. “And no, no, I—”

“If you could just take a seat,” he barely glanced at her as he turned and walked back to his desk, “I have something I need to finish.”

“Oh, sure.” She quietly sat down.

And started to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Aaron’s office was suitably roomy. It was also suitably majestic. It matched the guy’s personality perfectly. Suave and debonair with the kind of class you rarely see this side of ‘50s classics.

It also somehow had a commanding view of the city’s stacks and office towers. A fantastic view considering this office was technically on the first floor. She hadn’t entered a lift or gone up a single flight of stairs, and yet she guessed they were easily twenty stories up.

Not that surprising when you considered magic was involved. In fact, considering the sheer amount of raw potential concentrated in this place, it was a surprise this office didn’t have a great view of the center of the sun or the surface of the moon.

Anna brushed her hair over her shoulder as she continued to wait.

Aaron didn’t look up. Not once. Fair enough – he was a busy guy. He wouldn’t have time to deal with a silly little witch while he was protecting the world from evil wizards.

He had a patient expression as he methodically leafed through a massive magical tome propped on the desk before him. The book was easily as big as a TV, and looked just as heavy. It had intricately designed gold motifs twisting up the black and blood-red spine.

She could sense it was magical. It made her skin itch and her throat tingle.

Just as Anna resigned herself to waiting here all day, something horrible happened. The same horrible thing that always happened to her – Luminaria.

With an irritated snort, she snapped her head out from the bag, instantly glaring at Aaron. “Do you mind, wizard? We have not come here to watch you reading. You may be particularly full of yourself – but trust me, boy, nobody is interested by the fact you’re literate. Surprised, granted, but not interested. Now hurry the hell up.”

Anna sucked in a shocked breath and tried to shove Luminaria back in the bag. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Wizard Arana. She doesn’t mean it.”

“Yes, I do. Now get your hands off me.” Luminaria swatted Anna, scratching her across the hand.

“Ow.” Anna jerked her hand back.

Aaron finally looked up. He had a pen in one hand, the other halfway through turning a page. At first it looked as if he had a patient expression on his handsome face, but it quickly became bored. “Do you mind?”

“Do I mind?” Luminaria’s eyes flared with indignation as she repeated his exact tone. “Let me think?” She tapped a claw to her chin. “Yes, I mind! You are wasting my time. Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, I am aware of who you are,” Aaron clasped his fingers together and gazed blankly at Luminaria, “you’re Luminaria von Tippit, one of the most prolific witch criminals to have lived. You personally created some of the most devastating dark spells of the Middle Ages. You stole and connived your way into history. And yet, despite all those crimes, you never went down for a single one. You managed to dodge your trial by conveniently dying.”

Luminaria narrowed her small golden-green eyes and shot Aaron the kind of look that should have withered him into a prune. “My death was not convenient, wizard. And I take umbrage at your accusation. I died when Nature dictated.”

“Indeed.” Aaron smiled around his words. “And I take umbrage at having you in my office, let alone my city.”

“Well, Mr Wizard, what are you going to do about it? Oh yes, nothing. You have no legal recourse against me. I’m here rightfully, and there’s not a goddamn thing you can say to that, is there?”

Though Anna was right there in the room, neither of them looked at her. She felt like wallpaper blending into the background. Then again, when didn’t she feel like that?

Even though they both steadfastly ignored her, she had to say something before this erupted into a slinging match. A magical one.

She cleared her throat and shifted forward until she sat on the very edge of her antique chair. “I’m sorry, Wizard Arana, please excuse her. But I um … I’m here about that job. I was told to meet with you directly for my introduction.”

“You may have dodged your rightful comeuppance, Luminaria, but you’re not untouchable. If you fall out of line again, you will be punished. Eternally,” he added darkly.

“Ah, excuse me?” Anna tried to get their attention.

They both ignored her.

Luminaria chucked her head back and chuckled, the effect so high-pitched and cute you’d be forgiven for finding it funny. Well, you wouldn’t be forgiven by Luminaria – she would eat your soul and curse every remaining second of your life.

“I wouldn’t laugh,” Aaron warned, “your heirloom contract with the Hopes might have saved you so far, but you will step out of line one day. And I will be waiting.”

“Oh you scare me, little wizard. Can’t you see? I’m positively trembling.” Luminaria brought up a paw and held it perfectly steady, as she wobbled her bottom lip in mock fright.

“Ah, hello, guys?” Anna raised her voice.

This was not how she’d envisioned this meeting. She’d hoped Aaron would politely show her around with his trademark debonair smile lifting his cheeks and making his eyes sparkle.

Then again, when Luminaria was involved, things never went to plan.

Anna would have left her at home, hell, she would have left her back in Vale, but she couldn’t. She was bound by the contract.

She was responsible for Luminaria. She had to look after her. From her health to her protection, Anna couldn’t leave the possessed cat alone.

If she did, things would start to break. In particular, Anna would start to break.

Heirloom contracts were a particularly nasty business. Unfortunately some distant relative several hundred years ago had been foolish enough to enter into one. Now every successive generation had been burdened with the duty of looking after one Luminaria Von Tippit – the most ill-mannered and raucous witch since Hecate herself.

Fortunately heirloom contracts were well understood by the magical community. No one blamed Anna – they saw it as the rightful curse it was.

The MEC and Aaron had known all about Luminaria before they’d offered Anna the position. Most magical enforcement councils did not discriminate based on such situations. Plus, it wasn’t as if Luminaria was a threat to anyone. Verbally, yes. Magically, no.

The terms of an heirloom contract prevented Luminaria from practicing magic unless in self-defense.

Still, if given the chance, Luminaria would shout at Aaron until the sun went down.

Unnoticed by the bickering pair, Anna reached into her bag, withdrew a small can of tuna, and opened it quietly.

Immediately Luminaria stopped, mid-insult, and sniffed the air.

Anna placed the tuna on the floor, and Luminaria jumped down to eat it without so much as another word or curse.

Aaron, cheeks reddened from his fight, looked across at her and cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t have thought that would work on her,” he admitted quietly.

“She loves tuna. More than fighting. More than magic. More than anything. It’s the one way I can keep her quiet,” Anna mouthed. “Anyhow, so, ah … do you have a job for me?” she asked hopefully.

Aaron didn’t even try to smile. “No. That position has been filled.”

She blinked. It was so big and overwrought, she would have looked like an actor on a stage. Problem was, she wasn’t. This was real.

“Ah, you’re joking, right?”

“That position has been filled,” he repeated firmly.

“But … I came all the way here from Vale on the promise of a job.”

“No, you were not promised anything. You were offered, but unfortunately the offer no longer stands as we’ve found someone else to fill the vacancy.”

Anna tried to swallow. It was hard, because it felt like her throat had frozen. “Um … I … packed up my whole life to come here.”

Aaron looked unmoved. “There are other jobs available in this town, both mundane and magical. I’m sure you’ll find something.”

Anna was shell-shocked. Was this punishment for Luminaria? It had to be. No one could be cruel enough to let someone schlep all the way to a new city for a job that no longer existed.

“Look, if this is about my cat,” she tried.

“It is not about von Tippit. The Magical Enforcement Council of Marchtown does not discriminate based on heirloom contracts. The simple fact is, we found someone better for the position, and we employed her. Your skills will still be useful somewhere else.”

Just not here. Ha?

“Oh. Ah, good bye then,” she said weakly.

Anna slowly leaned down, grabbed up the tuna can, hooked her bag over her arm, and walked out, Luminaria following the still half-full tuna, mewing pleadingly.

“Good bye, Miss Summersville.” Aaron didn’t look up from his book.

Chapter 3

“I can't believe this,” Anna said softly into the bottom of her drink. It wasn't that she couldn't believe she'd downed her drink already. That was totally understandable. The fact she’d lost her job, wasn’t. “How could I be so unlucky?”

A few more patrons entered the bar, all somehow looking grittier than the last. From black leather boots with hex-wards scribbled into the soles, to magic-protecting shades - they were a far cry from the law enforcement she was used to.

“Why exactly have you taken us to this massively displeasing bounty-hunter bar?” Luminaria suddenly popped her head out of Anna's patchwork-quilt bag and shot the nearest patron a death glare.

“Because it's preferable to a dark-arts bar.”

“To you, maybe. But you always have been a soppy girl. When are you going to open your black wings and embrace the dark, glorious side of life?”

“Never. I don't have enough money for anything right now. And I know for a fact that the dark arts require a lot of candles and black-velvet cloaks. That stuff can add up real quick.”

“You are a soppy witch,” Luminaria declared as she flashed her tail like an executioner wielding an axe.

“Yeah, I suppose I am.” Anna rested one of her arms on the bar, propped her head with the other, and stared at her empty glass.

“You look like you need another,” the bar woman said as she walked up and slapped her hand on the bench.

Anna blinked back her surprise.

The bar woman was everything Anna wasn't: statuesque, slim, confident, and with looks that could melt a mirror.

“Ah, thanks, but I better leave it at that. I only have enough for one drink.”

“It's on the house.” The woman flourished a liquor bottle from somewhere, and poured Anna a drink before she could protest.

“Ah, I, oh, I couldn't.”

“Just drink it, sweetie. Now I couldn't help but overhear your conversation with your demon cat.” The bar woman smiled, her crimson-red lips curling with the languid ease of a snake slipping through grass.

“Oh, no - she's not illegal,” Anna jumped to her defense immediately, “she hasn't committed a crime since she died. She's an heirloom contract.”

“Relax,” the woman shook a slender finger at Anna, “I don't care about that, sugar. Now let me introduce myself. Meredith.” She leaned over the bar, grabbed Anna's hand, and shook it.

Her handshake was strong, and suspiciously crackly. Either Meredith was packing a Tesla ball somewhere in her slim-fit black leather jeans, or she was magical. Really magical.

Anna pried her hand back and squeaked “Anna Hope Summersville.”

“Pretty name. Now, what do you do Anna? I can sense you're a witch.”

“Oh, I'm a police witch. At least I was. I just lost my job actually. Well, I lost it before I had it, I guess,” she babbled.

Meredith raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Sorry, I missed that - did you say police witch?”

“Ah, yeah. I used to work in Vale.”

Silence catapulted through the bar. Though silence usually wasn't a projectile, the way it slammed its way around each patron was so fast and violent, you'd be forgiven for thinking it hadn't been shot from a gun.

Anna swallowed. Audibly. Visibly. Loudly.

Meredith leaned in, crumpling her long arms in front of her as she brought her face as close to Anna as the wide bench would allow. “Vale?” she pushed her glistening teeth into her lip with relish. “You were a police witch in Vale?”

“Yes,” Anna squeaked. She sounded exactly like a mouse.

“And you're out of work?” Meredith's eyes glittered with a particularly unsettling combination of magic and shrewd calculation.

“... Yeah?”

“Well, Anna Hope Summersville, you've walked into the right bar. I've got a job for you. Great pay, free drinks, and fantastic future prospects.”

“S-sorry?”

“I'm offering you a job, kid.” Meredith grabbed a piece of yellow-gold parchment from somewhere under the bar and slid it towards Anna with the practiced ease of a croupier revealing an ace. “Sign on the dotted line.” She tapped the right spot with one of her carefully manicured nails, the click-click-click somehow louder than the rowdy patrons.

“B-but ... I just met you.” Anna shrunk away from the bar. She wasn't scared of Meredith. Though the woman cut a striking figure in her tight patent leather and knife-thin heels, she was imposing, not evil. No, Anna's reluctance came from simple confusion. This kind of stuff didn't happen to a girl like her. She was slow, patient, and, well, boring. And boring never got offered jobs in seedy bounty-hunter bars.

“Don't matter. You need a job, honey. And I've got one for you. With your extensive experience, it'll be a breeze.”

“Extensive experience. Wait no, I only worked a couple of months for Vale Police Department. And anyhow, how would that help me be a bar mistress?”

“Sweetie, I'm not offering you a bar mistress job,” Meredith chuckled melodiously, “I want you as a bounty hunter. With your experience, you'd be able to pile up the bounties quicker than one of Arana's boys. And god knows I could do with a proficient hunter.”

“Ah ... you hire bounty hunters?”

Meredith arched her back and patted a hand to her chest. “I'm a licenser, hon. You clearly don't know how this town works,” she flicked her gaze over Anna's ankle-length skirt and patchwork bag, “so I'll give you a crash course. We don't have a police force. Magical crime enforcement gets foisted onto any magical creature who can hold it together long enough to pass a character check. But even if you can prove you’re not the Devil herself, you still have to have a licenser. That’s where people like me come in. You could call us sub-contractors, I guess. We own the bounty hunting licenses, and we can astutely pick employees to carry out our bounties.”

“Why doesn’t the Magical Enforcement Council just hire bounty hunters? Why do they need you guys?”

“Because we do the paper work and … mop up after things,” she smiled through her words. “We make the process run smoother. Plus, the Council is way too busy to deal with your average bum bounty hunter. No insult intended, boys,” she waved a hand at the assembled bar before continuing, “they need licensors like us to deal with the day-to-day work. We’re the ones ultimately reportable to them. Bounty hunters like you only have to deal with people like me.”

Bounty hunters like you? Meredith was already acting as if Anna had accepted.

“All you have to do is sign there,” she tapped the contract again, “and then start bringing in the bounties. Easy as,” she purred.

Anna opened her mouth to say no.

She could never be a bounty hunter. She’d barely managed to scrape by as a police witch in Vale, and only with the welcome help of Benjamin Tate.

She wouldn’t have a Benjamin in Marchtown. There’d be no police back up. She’d be on her own.

“Just think about it, kid,” Meredith winked, “you need money, and you can clearly do the work. I promise you, knowing what you put up with in Vale, police work in this old hole of a town will be a walk in the park.”

Considering the evil that had lurked in Vale City Park, that wasn’t as reassuring as it should have been. “Ah … look, thanks, but—”

“She accepts,” Luminaria spat as she jammed her head out of the bag like an aggressive meerkat.

Meredith tilted her head and laughed. “Well that’s a deal then. I’m glad to have a witch like you on the team.” She offered her bony, elegant hand to Anna.

“Hold on, I—”

“I make the decisions around here,” Luminaria cut in, “and I accept this offer.”

“But—” Anna stuttered.

“This witch,” Luminaria gestured to Anna with a clawed paw, “is under my heirloom contract. She is indebted to me. She is magically bound to care for my every need. And she is currently out of work,” she spat, her long whiskers bristling. “So she accepts this job. Because if she doesn’t, I’ll break her leg.”

Anna winced. She got the threat. While she wouldn’t put it past Luminaria to attack her, that’s not what the cursed cat meant. Oh no, she was referring to the contract. It really would crush a bone or two if Anna didn’t keep up her end of the bargain.

Meredith chuckled. “I can’t say I usually like demon cats – but maybe I’ll make an exception for you.”

“I am not a demon cat, madam.” Luminaria pulled herself up to her full height. Though she was as tall as a garden gnome, she held herself like Mount Everest incarnate. “I am possessed.”

“Yeah, there’s no difference. You still claw the couch and drag in the occasional angel through the cat flap. But what I’m really interested in, is getting a signature.” Meredith shoved the contract under Anna’s nose again. “Dotted line, sweetie. Come on now, I’ve got a whole bar to keep happy here.”

Anna wanted to protest. She wanted to point out she couldn’t be a bounty hunter.

Yet she couldn’t afford not to be. She needed the money, and she very much needed to appease the contract before it started breaking her legs.

Driving her teeth into her lip until the pain cut out her nerves, she cautiously pulled the contract towards her.

She took a calming breath, then jammed her thumb onto the bottom of the contract. A few sparks of magic jumped over her flesh, flashing along her nail and sinking into the parchment.

Immediately, she sneezed.

“Bless you, if you’re into blessings, of course,” Meredith mumbled as she snatched up the signed contract and stuffed it under the counter. “Right,” she clasped her hands together and leaned in, “pleased to have you on board, Ms Summersville. You begin tonight, right after I knock off work at 3 AM. Bring your hexes, your weapons, your blessings, and your balls. We’re taking down a kingpin.”

“S-sorry a kingpin?”

Meredith shrugged, the silver rings embellishing her fingers clinking together as she ran her pinkie over her teeth. “Runs a dark establishment in Course Street. Up to all sorts of no good. I don’t have all the specifics – the MEC don’t always share their reasons with us. From my own experience, though, I know this guy’s a real low life. All we have to do is force our way in the front door, deal with his hired muscle, and drag him back to MEC HQ. Simple and quick. Trust me.”

“Ah, how much hired muscle? And what is this guy? A wizard, a magician, a troll? And do we have backup?”

“Questions, questions, questions. They can wait. Now I have to deal with my customers. See you, sweetie.” Meredith waved and sashayed off.

“… Oh my god, what have I just done?” Anna put her hand up to her head, suddenly feeling faint.

“You did what I told you to do, fool. Now take me home. I wish to be comfortably in bed before you go out and get yourself killed tonight.”

Anna crumpled her hand over her mouth and tried to breathe. “B-but you told me to accept the job.”

“Of course I did – we need the money. Other than that, though, it’s a goddamn terrible idea. You are the worst witch in the world, and you have severe magical allergies.” Luminaria tipped her small furry head back and cackled like only a possessed cat could. “You are most definitely going to get yourself killed. I suppose I shall be handed back to your mother for safekeeping. Which will be infinitely better than you – your mother can cook.”

Anna closed her hands over her eyes and slumped against the bar.

Things couldn’t get any worse.

Oh, wait, they could.

And tonight, they would.

Chapter 4

 “Ah, is this such a good idea?” She turned over her shoulder and shot Meredith a pointed look.

Meredith shrugged, reached into her pocket, pulled out a stick of fluoro pink gum, and proceeded to chew it in a thoroughly non-caring way. “Who cares? We’ve got you – an ex-police witch. You can always chuck a fireball or two if things get hairy.”

Anna took a calming breath. At least she tried to. There was nothing short of valium that would settle her nerves right now. “Ah, I really wasn’t a very good police witch,” she tried to explain for the thousandth time.

Meredith looked bored. She even stretched her long, swan-like neck back and yawned. “If you were good enough for Vale, you’re more than good enough for this piece-of-crap town.”

Anna swallowed uncomfortably and shook her head.

“Buck up, kid,” Meredith swooped an arm around her shoulders and winked, “like I said before – this will be a real simple case. All we have to do is go in there, get the kingpin, and go.”

Anna offered a meek smile. “… Okay.”

“That’s the way. Now once we’re done, we’re really going to have to get you out of those frumpy damn clothes, and into something more suited to Hellhole.” Hellhole was what the locals – at least the dissatisfied ones – called Marchtown.

As far as names went, it wasn’t too far off the mark. While there weren’t demons and the damned spilling onto the streets, Anna was starting to learn this place certainly wasn’t heaven.

There was an odd feel about it. Most cities usually felt alive, bustling with people as the hectic pace of a metropolis drove them like cattle dogs.

Despite its size and population, large parts of Marchtown felt dead. You could go into a crowded shop and feel like you were walking through empty ruins.

It had a distinctly odd vibe. The architecture didn’t help. It was a thoroughly ugly mix of old with unappealing modern. Ornate, grand 1920s Art Deco frontages sat alongside brick monstrosities from the ‘70s. Here and there new glass and steel structures broke up the horizon, but they only served to highlight how much of a mishmash this town was.

Vale had an ancient, powerful vibe to it. Marchtown was simply confusing and chaotic. Great, epic tales could and had happened in Vale. In Marchtown … oh boy, if the vibe was enough to go off, anything could happen here.

“Come on, kid, let’s do this. I’m pretty sure he’s in there now. I probably don’t need to ask – considering your pedigree – but do you remember the plan?” Meredith reapplied a coat of luscious red lipstick. It was the kind of hue that belonged in cut rubies or cut veins. It drew so much attention to her lips, it was a surprise men didn’t walk straight into them.

Anna wanted to ask – plan, what plan? Meredith’s entire operation came down to two steps: walk into the bar, and walk out with the kingpin. Everything else would be worked out on the fly, as she’d put it.

Anna had never been a particularly good police witch, but she did have an eye for procedure. If you wanted to carry out a successful sting operation, you usually had to put more thought into it than ‘meh, we’ll just chuck a fire ball at whatever moves and run out the back if there’s trouble.’

Before she could say anything, Meredith walked away, carrying a slim black handbag over one shoulder as she glided towards the bar.

The bar in question looked like little more than a nondescript doorway sunk into the side of a drab brick building. There weren’t any bouncers out front, there wasn’t even a sign.

There was, however, magic. Anna could feel it itching her back and leaving a heat rash.

“Okay, you can do this,” she whispered to herself. “Meredith is here, and she’ll know what to do if things go wrong.” She clapped her hands together in a praying motion.

If things go wrong? More like when. She couldn’t turn off her police brain. And right now said brain was screaming at her to turn and run away.

There was only one silver lining to this looming storm cloud – Luminaria had stayed at home. She was tired. Meaning Anna could do this without a talking, cursing cat ruining everything.

That being said, occasionally Luminaria could be useful. While she was great at keeping the house free from all but the darkest and most evil mice (which Luminaria doted on), the evil cat was handy in a fight.

On occasion, Luminaria had actually protected Anna. When it served her interests, of course.

Still, it was nice to leave the old crone at home.

“Come on.” Meredith waved her forward with one bony hand. “The night has only just begun, and I’ve got things to do after this.”

It was 3 AM in the morning. The night was over.

The chase, however, was about to begin.

 

Chapter 5

Anna had been to some dark places before. She'd worked in Vale, for one, and that place was well known for its seedy, shady establishments.

But this ... this was worse.

As she and Meredith walked their way into the bar (Meredith technically glided), Anna couldn't contain her swallow. She gulped like a fish coming across a sudden shark, or bar-full of sharks.

Every single patron sitting in this murky, dingy pub looked ... dark.

There was a vampire sitting on a barstool to her left, drinking something that smelt suspiciously like real blood.

To her right, she passed a bona fide banshee, staring at its empty drink with pale white irises tinged with red capillaries - a sign of tension from a life spent screaming at the top of your lungs, no doubt.

If the patrons weren't bad enough, the wait staff was worse. There were two burly looking magicians behind the bar, serving drinks from bottles with so many runes written over the glass it was a surprise the liquid inside didn't boil and shoot out in a giant shot of glittering steam.

Even though Anna had worked for several months as a police witch, and she had come across mini little hell holes like this before, she'd always had backup.

She'd never been following a leather-clad lascivious bounty hunter, either.

“Let's get a drink,” Meredith suggested in a low and sultry voice that made every man - human or not - turn and stare at her.

While Meredith was decked out in the tightest leather this side of a dominatrix conference, Anna was in the same old drab clothes she usually wore: an ankle-length blue skirt and a neck-high overly lacy blouse that looked like something Liberace would pass on for being too over the top. She also had a pair of sensible shoes and socks.

She was not and never would be fashionable. Even if you threw away all the floral and lace in her wardrobe, it wouldn't work. Anna couldn't pull off stylish. She'd tried it before, and people just laughed at her.

She had neither the body nor the personality. She was tall, willowy, and a little gaunt. Her skin was usually as pale as fresh milk, and her dull hazel eyes were often red-rimmed from her allergies. Her hair was this knotted curly mess of nondescript black. It wasn't pretty - it was awkward. Which summed her up perfectly.

“Excuse me.” Meredith slid onto a bar stool, her leather pants somehow not sticking to it and causing her to fall off. “Two drinks please.”

“What do you want?” The barman shifted his shoulder, indicating the splendid array of dark liquors behind him. Even though the lighting was suitably gloomy, Anna could still make out some of the titles written on the bottles. Blood of a Cat was a particularly worrying one. If Luminaria were here, she'd likely swat the magician, pour the bottle down the sink, and breathe on him with her tuna breath until he died.

“What do we want? Hmm. Whatever you think we deserve,” Meredith replied cryptically. And sexily, very sexily. Every word that came out of her mouth sounded like satin slipping down skin.

If her intended effect was to distract the barman, it was working. The guy cracked a smile, even though it looked like he had a permanent frown etched into his gaunt face. He leaned down on the bar and started to chat to Meredith.

Not once did the guy glance Anna's way, not even to ask Meredith what on earth she'd brought with her.

Anna sat awkwardly on the edge of her stool, shifting her head to the side as she again stared at the rest of the bar.

According to Meredith, this would be easy. According to Meredith, the 'kingpin' would be sauntering around here somewhere, completely unaware there was a bounty out on his head, and completely unprepared for a leather-clad witch and her frumpy sidekick to take him down.

Anna couldn't see the kingpin anywhere though, unless he was taking a really long time in the bathroom.

Then again, she didn't know what he looked like. When she'd questioned Meredith about that, she'd said Anna would know him when she saw him. The guy had a dark magical vibe, apparently. Well, that was hardly a distinguishing feature - every single patron in this hellish bar had a dark vibe. It was kind of a requirement of entry. Those with angelic vibes didn't drink cat's blood next to banshees and gloomy vampires.

Tuning out of Meredith’s conversation, Anna turned around on her chair, trying to get a better view of the far corner of the bar.

The lighting over there was appalling. Though she understood that added to the overall ambience, it had to be an OH&S risk. Someone could and would trip, spilling their wine over another patron. Or they could stab the wrong person. Whatever constituted a humorous accident in a bar like this.

It was while she was peering into the gloom that she saw something.

There was a man sitting in a booth with his back pressed hard into the chair behind him and his legs rested on the table. It wasn't his excessively nonchalant behavior that caught Anna's attention - having your feet on the furniture probably wasn't a taboo here.

No, it was the fact he felt ... different.

There was one upside of having magical allergies. There was a bucket full of downsides, mind you - but occasionally her illness came in handy.

She was exquisitely sensitive to different kinds of magics. Not only would she sneeze whenever she encountered the stuff, but depending on her symptoms, she could tell what type of magic was being practiced. Good magic tended to give her a runny nose and watery eyes. Bad magic gave her a blood-red heat rash and made her spine tingle as if spiders were growing in the bone.

The guy in the corner wasn't bad. He was good. She could feel it. He wasn't practicing any magic at the moment, but he'd clearly practiced some recently.

As her eyes started to water, she rubbed them with one hand.

The guy was wearing a pair of thick pants and a nondescript grey top. His boots were enormous, and clearly made for climbing up mountains or surviving mudslides. He wasn’t decked in the usual array of black velvet and leather you saw in places like this.

Just like her, he didn't fit in.

She tilted her head to the side as she tried to get a better look at him.

If she had to, she'd bet he was another bounty hunter just like her. Why else would a good guy come to a bar like this?

Anna pressed her lips together and wondered if he was after the same bounty she was.

There was every possibility he wasn't. Just one look around this bar confirmed every single patron had something to hide. There was likely a bounty out on all of them.

“Are you coming, or what?” Meredith said pointedly as she looped a firm hand around Anna's arm.

“Sorry, what?” Anna lurched around on her stool, realizing she'd zoned out so badly she hadn't heard a word of what Meredith had said.

“Are you coming? Our friend here has some fabulous wine he wants us to try. It's out back,” Meredith added.

Anna's gut reaction was to say “hell no” at the top of her lungs. Go out back with a dark magician like that, and you'll wind up bled dry for his next vampire customer.

She had to stifle her common sense here, though, as she was on an operation. Or at least a semblance of one.

While Anna had always assumed she'd been an appalling police witch, maybe that wasn't entirely true. Something had rubbed off on her during her stint in Vale - the importance of good procedure. If you wanted to keep a city safe - especially one as murky as Marchtown - you had to have a set of rules in place. You had to know exactly how to deal with different types of crime, and you had to stick to those procedures. Over time, you modified and improved them, until you had a rulebook.

Marchtown didn't have a rulebook though, and nor did its bounty hunters. They looked exactly like the kind to tear pages out of rulebooks to light cigarettes with.

“Are you coming?” Meredith said one last time, shooting Anna a very specific look. It was the kind of look that told her that unless she got her butt off that stool, she'd be kicked off.

“Yep,” Anna squeaked as she jumped down.

By the time she shuffled past the bar to join Meredith and the magician, the bounty hunter in the corner was gone.

Though she craned her neck to stare right into the far corner of the room, she couldn't see a trace of him, nor his massive action boots.

Before she could wonder how he'd disappeared so quickly, Meredith waved her forward with a sharp cough.

Anna followed.

As soon as they walked through a dark doorway into an equally dark hall, she started to feel her allergies kick up.

A nasty red rash was rising up her chest, and the tingling in her back was so bad she had to squirm as she walked.

Yep, they were about to encounter some seriously dark magic.

Meredith's stiletto heels clicked along the floor, sounding like nails being driven into the wood with every step. She was a decent enough witch that she'd be able to feel the dark vibe, but the woman looked as confident and calm as ever.

How did she do it? Anna thought briefly to herself.

While Meredith was strutting forward into what was obvious to everyone was a trap, Anna could barely hold it together. Her hands were sweaty, her heart was a fragile beating mess, and her tingly spine was killing her.

Before she could turn around and run back to the bar, they arrived at the backroom.

It was more of a side room, technically - as the long corridor continued beyond them.

She wasn't in the mood to point that out though.

The magician pushed his hand into the door, and it creaked like a gravestone coming to life. It sent such a shot of nerves pulsing down Anna's back, it was a surprise she didn't fry herself.

“So where's that wine, sugar?” Meredith purred to the magician as he led the way into the room.

It was dark in here. Like really dark. There wasn't a window throwing light in from the street. And whatever bare illumination made it in from the hall stopped at the door.

“So,” the magician said, voice dripping with menace.

Oh hell, Anna thought.

“Yeah?” Meredith asked, voice still light even though they were in a dark room with a magician who'd just said so with all the glee of the damned.

“We're all out of wine, ladies,” the magician said.

There was a flicker of light. Said light came from the magician's hand as he brought up a candle.

In an ordinary non-magical situation, bringing a candle to a fight was pretty funny. When a magician was the one holding the candle, however, all humor curled up and died.

The specific kind of candle the guy held tightly in his white-knuckled grip made Anna gasp. It was a caller candle.

It didn't grab your phone and start dialing numbers in a panic. No, it simply sent out a message on all dark magical frequencies, attracting whatever may come.

It was the kind of candle you brought if you were suitably evil and wanted to call some friends around, but you were too cheap to pay for a text.

Once lit, the candle would summon every demon, ghost, ghoul, or plain bad dude to your abode in a heart's beat.

The one good thing about the candle was it threw some light into the room.

It was enough to see Meredith's pallid expression. While she had a hand squeezed behind her back, a few licks of blue-white magic collecting up her fingertips, she didn't act.

“My friends will be here shortly, witch,” the magician snarled, “so I wouldn't bother attacking. I'd save your magic. It might buy you a few more minutes of your worthless little life.”

Meredith stared darkly at the man, her once attractive face contorting with anger. “Where the hell did you get a candle like that?”

“I borrowed it off a friend. A powerful one. One who has no use for a meddling little bounty hunter like you.” The Magician’s lips curled so hard against his teeth, it looked like they’d shatter the enamel.

Despite the danger of the situation, Anna had just enough spare brainpower to think 'ha'.

She was in the room too, but the magician was acting like it was just Meredith.

Was Anna that invisible?

“Oh my, can you hear it? It’s coming for you.” The magician smiled. The kind of smile that would see any person locked away for life. It had all the creepy of Jack Nicholson combined with the frantic energy of a wasp honing in on its target.

It was exactly the kind of smile you ran away from, not toward.

Meredith clearly didn't know that lesson, though, as she pushed forward and rammed her shoulder into the magician.

There was a scuffle, and the candle fell to the ground. Even though it rolled all the way to the opposite side of the room, it kept burning. That was no normal wax, and it was no normal flame. Both were being sustained by the magician’s power. The only way to snuff the candle out would be to snuff the guy out too.

Anna had to help. Pushing the pain of her burning, tingling skin to the back of her mind, she ran forward.

She didn't get far.

Something landed outside the open window.

There was a scratch of claw on glass and a rustle as something moved past the wood.

The blood drained from her face in a heartbeat, just as a flash of heat burst up her back.

A demon was in the room.

She knew it was a demon, not only because her allergies were going into overdrive, but because she heard the specific whoosh as its black web wings unfolded.

Before Anna could think, she reached Meredith, hooked a hand over her arm, and yanked her to the side.

Though Anna was quite thin and hardly a muscle-bound witch, she managed to muscle Meredith out of the way.

Just in time.

The demon's tail lanced out of the darkness with all the speed of a bullet.

It swooshed past her hair, ruffling it and sending it tangling over her eyes.

Meredith, despite her towering heels, punched to her feet and ran towards the demon.

Not away, towards. What was this woman on?

Before Anna could push to her feet to offer a hand, somebody pulled her back.

It was the magician. Showing speed that belied his gaunt form, he looped a spidery arm around her throat and yanked her towards him. “Let her deal with that. You can come with me,” he offered.

Anna yelped. She instinctively shoved her shoulder back, pulling her torso forward as she tried to ram her way free from his grip.

Though the guy let out an “ooph,” he didn't let her go.

So Anna Hope Summersville did some magic.

It was honestly something she tried to avoid. If sensing magic was bad for her allergies, practicing it was havoc.

Whenever she called up the raw potential in her veins, it felt like her blood turned to acid. So much pain accompanied any display of her own power, that Anna only ever did it when she had to.

Now, she absolutely had to.

Magicians didn't practice magic like wizards, and to be honest, weren't usually as powerful. It took a true master to learn the intricacies of magicianhood, and most boys didn't have enough brain on their shoulders.

Anna balled her hand into a fist and sent magic rippling up her wrist and into her palm and fingers.

Though an ordinary witch could throw a fireball without so much as a grunt, Anna felt it - every damn spark - as if her skin really was on fire.

With a massive half-grunt half-scream any body builder/ action hero would be proud of, she rammed her fire-riddled hand into the magician's chest.

He crumpled, the surging magic leaping over his black shirt, and burrowing between the buttons and weave until it sunk into his skin.

Singed flesh wrought the air as the guy lost his grip on her, stumbled, and staggered to one knee.

Anna had just enough light and time to note his expression. He looked at her with clear surprise slackening his cheeks and widening his pale brown eyes.

He hadn't thought she could do that, right?

A lot of people were surprised by her power. Just because she had allergies, it didn't mean she couldn't practice magic. Nor did it mean she was weak.

It was true that the stronger the spell, the more it hurt her - but that didn't mean she didn't have the power and prowess to practice it.

Because of her allergies, Anna had been forced to put more effort into learning magic than your average witch. She'd studied extremely hard to find a way to practice that didn't leave her as a puffing, blotchy, itchy mess on the floor.

Some would ask - considering her condition - why she'd never quit and sought out a mundane life instead.

The answer was simple: her heirloom contract.

It wouldn't let her. Luminaria von Tippit's agreement with the Summersville family forced each member to look after Luminaria in every way they could. If Luminaria got into trouble, and Anna somehow held back on protecting her, she'd wind up very broken and very sore.

She couldn't hold her magic in reserve, not when it meant not doing everything within her power to help Luminaria.

Also, to be honest, Anna couldn't give magic up. Even though it clearly hated her, and her body even more, she couldn’t turn away from it.

For a girl like her - one as drab and plain with as boring prospects - magic was the one thing she could hold onto. Okay, she wasn't the best witch out there, but she was a witch. And that meant something.

So she'd stock up on hankies, eye drops, and cooling cream, and she'd keep being a witch.

Well, she would if she could get out of here.

Just as the magician fell to his other knee, she saw him reach a hand around his back.

She could feel dark magic. Her allergies flared as it ate through the room.

Though the calling candle was still on the opposite side of the room, the magician suddenly made it blaze.

She snapped her head towards it, the blaze of light like a small bomb going off in the corner.

The magician had one second to look up at her, his eyes narrowing in dark delight, before he jerked back and ... disappeared.

He didn't fall, roll, and quickly hide behind a handy couch. Nor did he lurch up to his feet and dash for the door.

No, in a flash of dark magic, he was gone.

It was some kind of transportation spell, one that left the air heavy with a dark, pulsing energy.

Anna pressed a hand into her chest, pain shooting through her ribs and down into her back.

Her skin would be bright red from the insidious rash climbing her chest and neck, and her limbs tingled so much it felt like they'd detached themselves and plunged into a pool of ants.

Magical allergies usually only resulted in mild discomfort in the presence of irritants. Sometimes, and with some people, they could become exquisitely severe.

While Anna wasn't about to collapse from anaphylactic shock, she was feeling less of the so-called discomfort right now, and more of the abject agony.

There was something different about the magic that magician had just cast. Something she'd never encountered before, and something that was sending her allergies haywire.

Despite the fact she was sure her muscles were on fire, she forced herself to turn.

Just as she reached Meredith, the bounty hunter managed to dispatch the demon by roundhouse kicking it to the face with a flaming, magical heel.

The demon, suitably put out, gave a blood-curdling cry and crammed himself back out of the window, metaphorical tail between his legs.

Meredith pushed back a non-existent stray hair from her perfect soft curls, struck a pose, and smiled. “Nothing like a demon fight to get your blood pumping. Are you alright? Did that loser get you?”

Anna dropped her hand from her chest and took a calming breath. “I'm okay. But I'm sorry to say we lost him - he disappeared. It was ... weird. He practiced a kind of magic I've never seen before.”

“What do you mean? I would have thought you'd come across plenty of magicians in Vale?”

“It's not that. He didn't practice magic like a magician. It was ....” She trailed off as she stared around the room, looking for inspiration to describe her confusing thoughts.

It was then that she noticed the candle was still burning.

In fact, as she stared at the flame, she realized something.

It wasn’t a normal caller candle.

This feeling – the scratching, hot pain making its way through her ribs – it was coming off the candle, wasn’t it? Whatever strange magic the magician had practiced, he was still practicing it, because his caller candle was still lit.

Wordlessly, she picked her way over to it.

“Hey, what’s up?” Meredith fell into step behind her. “We should probably make our discreet exit the same way the demon did, before things get worse. I imagine our friends back in the bar heard our fight, and are on their way to lend a hand to the side of evil. Anna …?”

She didn’t answer. The closer she came to the still-burning candle, the more her stomach knotted with nerves.

Reaching it, she leant down, placed a hand next to but not on it, and brought her face level with the softly burning flame.

This close, her blood felt like insects as it clawed its way through her body. This new magic was hell on her allergies.

Still, she didn’t shift back. She locked her knees in place as she leaned on the dusty floor, and she concentrated.

She may not be the best witch out there, but her ability to sense a vibe was second to none.

“Ah, Anna? I think I can hear that vampire swooping down the corridor. Unless you’ve got some handy stakes tucked into your ankle-high frilly socks, I think we should leave.”

Anna finally felt it. The tendril connecting the candle to its master. A trace of magic, so dark and evil, it made her back convulse with fear.

She jerked up with a move that saw her bang her side against the wall.

“Just leave the candle – we can’t snuff it out. But if we get out of here, it won’t matter. No one is going to care if a caller candle calls any more deadbeat evil goons to a deadbeat evil goon bar. Come on, Anna,” Meredith insisted, leaning down and latching a hand around Anna’s elbow.

“Wait,” Anna managed, “he’s … he’s still in the building.”

“What?”

“That magician, he’s still in the building.”

“I’m not going to ask how you know that, but it doesn’t matter – he’s not our target. Our target isn’t even here. And we shouldn’t be here either – seriously, that vamp is just around the corner. Oh, damn. Too late. He’s here.” Meredith spun on her pinpoint heels, bringing her hands up as she did. Blue magical flames licked high over her curled fingers, matching the mean glint in her eye.

Anna was distracted. She shouldn't be - Meredith was right, and a vamp was literally right outside the door.

Even though she could feel that, something about this new magic was distracting Anna. It wasn't just her allergies going nuts - it was ... it called to her.

“On your feet, girlie,” Meredith snapped as she sent a warning shot at the door. As the magic dashed against the wooden frame, blistering the drab grey paint, it lit up a figure just beyond.

A tall, spindly man in a swathe of black and blood-red velvet. Even without the fangs poking out of his thin lips, he was clearly a vamp. Everything from his slicked back grease-clogged hair, to the cape attached to his collar by a single blood-drop ruby screamed vampire. That, or a cos-player desperately trying to mimic a vampire. Because seriously, the costume was overdone.

There weren't too many vamps in Vale. They didn't like places with strong magic. Places with strong magic tended to have too many wizards and witches sticking their noses into affairs and trying to maintain order.

Your average vampire was at his or her best when they were the only one in a town or city. Lonely, but effective, they could prey on the unwanted and never missed, dispatching a township's homeless one by one until they moved onto another haunt.

Wizards and witches tended to hate vampires - for very good reason. Not only did they hunt the innocent, but they could bring undue attention to magic. All you needed was a few dead bodies winding up in the river, bloodless and with two telling bite marks in their necks, and the mundane media would go nuts.

Though Marchtown did have the MEC and its team of registered bounty hunters to keep law and order, it was clearly fragmented enough to make this city homely for your average vampire. Indeed, the very fact this guy was here, being so open about his identity with his pointy fangs and slicked-back hair, was all the evidence Anna needed that law enforcement in Marchtown didn't work.

Not for the last time, she concluded crime like this just couldn't happen in Vale. Marchtown needed its own dedicated magical police force - not some disjointed bounty-hunting system.

Anna wandered along with her thoughts, kind of forgetting about the fact a vampire was in the doorway.

The slowly burning caller candle still held a peculiar hold on her. In its presence, though her allergies went wild, her mind felt foggy. It was as if she'd stumbled into a cloud.

“Get up,” Meredith now roared as she sent a fireball slamming towards the vampire.

The vampire, in true undead style, walked right through it.

Though it could be perturbed by strong displays of magic, it was pretty much only a handful of garlic and a stake through the heart that could bring one down.

Even a stake through the heart was unlikely to work these days; vampires had gone with the times somewhere around the '70s and now all wore body armor under their silky shirts. Inch-thick stab-proof Kevlar stood between their mythical hearts and any pointy sticks. And as for garlic, if you opened a window or sprayed a room with some refreshing spritzer, you could ward off the smell.

“We need to hustle,” Meredith snapped, as she threw another fireball at the vampire to slow it down.

Anna pushed herself up. It was one of the hardest things she'd ever done, but she pushed past the candle, breaking whatever hold it had on her.

As she did, though it sounded odd, it felt as if something unwound from around her chest. As if some invisible grip faltered, its ghostly fingers dropping from her body and falling back into the shadows.

She shook her head, cleared her mind, and rapidly realized how dangerous this was.

Holy crap, there was a vampire in the doorway.

Though the fear had never truly left her, now it leapt back into her heart and shook it like an earthquake.

The guy took a step into the room, a shadow appearing from nowhere and dancing across his face, his eyes drawing dramatically wide as it did.

Vampires were always over-the-top. Or at least a certain breed were. Clearly one dynastical line had watched too many ‘50s Hollywood horror movies, and now thought red velvet, capes, and posing dramatically by open windows was how a true vampire should behave.

Meredith breathed hard through her teeth, the hiss echoing through the room.

Anna didn’t need to see the tension locking Meredith’s slender form in place to know how bad this situation was.

Just before she could wonder whether it could get worse, it did.

From behind, near the vicinity of the window, there came a slow swoosh.

Anna felt the dark magic before she turned her head and saw yet another vampire appear.

Holy crap, this town was clearly infested. While that was good for the local fabric boutique, it was hell for everyone else.

Even in Vale, home of magical law enforcement, the police would have been stretched thin with a double vampire attack. Here, now, there was only Anna and Meredith.

Or so they thought.

Before the vampires could circle them, cackling in a deep commanding tone, like Shakespearean actors gone bad, there was a skidding sound from the doorway.

She turned in time to see a bolt of some description fly from a gun and slam into the closest vampire’s chest. Though the bolt wasn’t strong enough to make it through the Kevlar, once it struck, magic began to seep from it, blue-red lines snaking from the point of impact like fracture lines through glass.

The vampire looked down, then up, his eyes drawing so wide it was like the rest of the skin on his face disappeared.

Before the vampire from the window could act, another bolt sliced through the air and slammed into its chest. The same thing happened as bright, crackling magical lines burst from the bolt and ate into the vampire’s clothes.

“Now,” a deep gravelly voice from the doorway said, “I don’t have a bounty out on you boys. But that don’t mean I won’t fire some more of these wooden bolts right through your chest if you don’t politely leave.”

A man walked into view. First his camel colored massive boots struck the flickering light of the candle, then one large arm, then the side of his face.

It was the guy from the bar. He really was a bounty hunter, clearly.

He had sandy, shoulder-length hair tied behind the base of his head with a strap of leather. A kinked smile crumpled his clean-shaven chin, and two deep brown eyes narrowed in concentration as he levelled his modified gun at the closest vampire. “Do I need to repeat myself?”

Without so much as a curse or a fangy hiss, the vampire whirled on the spot and turned into a bat. The guy clearly had been watching too many movies. He might as well have held the corners of his cape, covered his face, leaving only his glare visible as he muttered a shuddering, ‘I’ll be back mortal!’

The other vampire did the same, and the two bats quickly made their exit via the open window.

The bounty hunter lowered his gun, tapping a finger along the chamber as he leaned into the doorway. “So, you still in the business, Merry?”

Meredith rolled her eyes, planting her hands on her hips as she glared his way. “Yes, I am Scott. I go to the same damn MEC meetings you do. Now what are you doing on my case?”

“I’m not on your case. As usual, I’m after something bigger.” He brought his gun up and used it to brush a stray hair from his face.

Maybe Anna had been working with cops too long, but her eyes bulged at the move. Seriously, the guy had just used a modified magical gun to neaten his hair.

“Ha,” Meredith snorted, tipping her head back as her soft curls played down her back and shoulders, “as usual, you’re an ass.”

Scott chuckled, scratching at his neck. “An ass that just saved you and your friend.” He nodded at Anna.

Wow, he’d noticed her. Well, fair enough, she was standing a few meters from him, but men never noticed Anna, especially when a woman like Meredith was around.

“We would have managed,” Meredith snorted.

“Sure. After you’ve scarified your blood and magic to become a vampire. But hey, don’t let me tell you how to run your business.” Scott bowed.

“Alright, idiot, just get out of our way. Actually,” Meredith stopped, “what is your target?”

Scott put a hand up to his lips. “Bounty hunters don’t share. Plus, this one is way above your station. It’s best for you to return home to your little bar and leave the work up to the real hunters.”

“Good god you wizards are all such dicks. Now get out of my way, Scott.” Meredith sauntered past him, her hair swaying with every tick-tock of her hips.

Scott brought his hands back, gun still held in one, and offered mock surrender. “This is me getting out of your way, Merry. No, actually, this is me saving you. This,” he stepped back and swept a hand at the door, “is me getting out of your way. That being said, considering the particular clientele back there, don’t you think a bounty hunter of your caliber is better climbing out the window?”

“How about I jam one of these heels up your ass?” Meredith offered.

“I think I’ll pass. God knows where your heels have been.”

Anna stood in the corner listening, watching, and barely holding back her surprise.

These two were technically law-enforcement officers. They had a duty to uphold the good, and, well, be decent. If a police witch offered to stick her shoe anywhere other than on the floor, she’d be fired.

Lord, Marchtown sure was a different place.

“Come on, Anna, it’s time to leave this joint. The company isn’t what I thought it was.” Meredith waved her forward.

Anna wanted to leave. Heck, she’d never wanted to come. And yet, she couldn’t move.

She turned her head back to the candle. It was dripping wax onto the dusty, scuffed floorboards, its flame dancing slowly in the breeze filtering in from the window.

It was important. And dangerous. The magic that magician had practiced could be used for god knows what, but God knows it would be bad.

Despite her better judgment, she leaned down and picked it up.

She braced herself before she did, shoring up her stance to ensure any flare up of her allergies wouldn’t knock her off her feet.

Scott stiffened, pulling away from leaning nonchalantly on the doorframe to stand cautiously, staring her way. “You want to be careful with that, Anna.”

Careful?

That was an understatement. With the amount of dark potential wafting off this thing with every flicker of the flame, she could fry her eyebrows. Oh, and likely kill herself.

She took a slow swallow and let her fingers rest into the wax as she held it at arm’s length.

Meredith turned to watch her curiously. Curiosity was far from Scott’s gaze – his eyes crumpled with genuine alarm. “You should put that down.” He motioned slowly towards the ground with an outstretched hand.

Anna didn’t open her mouth to tell him she knew what she was doing – she didn’t know what she was doing.

She had no idea why she’d picked this thing up and why she was now pushing her mind into the softly swaying flame, trying to connect to the magic that sustained it.

She let her eyes half close.

There.

She could feel it again.

Just as a rash of nerves exploded over her back, making her skin smart and prickle, she caught hold of the magical link that fed the candle.

She jerked her eyes open. “He’s this way.” She began to walk towards the wall.

“Ah, who’s that way?” Meredith asked. “That’s a wall, sweetie.”

Anna walked towards the wall, her gaze fixated on a small, innocuous splash of white paint towards the skirting board.

Scott fell into step behind her, but Meredith remained by the doorway, staring on, a confused expression crumpling her perfect brows. “Anna, hon, what are you doing?”

“Jeez, for a bounty hunter, you sure know nothing about magic. She’s sniffing out the magical connection,” Scott explained.

“To what?”

“Not to what, to whom,” Scott said.

Anna, half of her own free will, and half through compulsion, reached a hand out and pushed the flame against the speck of white paint.

At first nothing happened. One second ticked by, then another.

Just as she started to wonder what she was doing, something happened.

The wall exploded in magical symbols. The dirty, mildew covered drab wallpaper burst away in a hiss, as fiery blue-white runes raced over the plaster.

Sparks crackled and spat from the symbols, like hair thrown onto a fire.

Meredith gasped, taking an audible step back on her sky-high heels.

Though Anna wanted to jerk away, she couldn’t. Her hand kept pushing the candle against the wall, until the flame disappeared from the wick, its magic vanishing into the last of the runes with a long, drawn-out hiss.

She dropped the candle, whatever compulsion that had forced her to hold it disappearing.

She gasped and took a lurching step backwards, right into Scott’s firm chest. He settled a strong hand on her shoulder and anchored her in place. “Just take a breath; it’s not controlling you anymore.”

“W-what just happened?”

“I’ll explain in a second.”

“What? Tell me now. I – what did I just do?”

“I can’t tell you now – that wall’s about to explode.”

On cue, the wall shattered. It didn’t detonate like a bomb going off, and neither did it break as if under some great pressure.

No, it shattered like glass, cracking and tumbling to the ground in shards that sizzled with white-hot power.

The broken wall revealed a set of stairs leading down. Despite the fact the wall was easily ten meters across, the stairwell was small enough that she could reach her arms out and touch both walls.

Space was warping, twisting downward towards those dark steps.

“Holy—” Meredith began.

“This is where I leave you, ladies.” Scott walked past Anna. “Thanks for finding the door, Anna – it would have taken me all night. I’ll see you around.” With that, he tipped his head in a brief bow, toted his gun, and walked down the stairs.

“Oh my god, it’s a travelling hell door,” Meredith stuttered – the very first time Anna had heard the bounty hunter display anything other than confidence or contempt.

A travelling hell door was all in the name. It was a portal that could be summoned – with extremely strong dark magic – to take someone to whatever nefarious location they needed to get to.

Anna had read about them, she’d never seen one. She’d certainly never stood on the brink of one, facing the brunt of its foul energy.

It broke against her in wave after wave of dread. Though she was standing and breathing, she felt like she was drowning at the bottom of the darkest lake.

Just before she could turn away, something happened. Something caught hold of her chest and pulled.

It wasn’t a hand or a tail or a tentacle. She couldn’t see anything – she only felt a ghostly grip latch itself around her torso and wrench her forward.

She stumbled down the stairs, managing to push into the wall to stop herself from free falling down the steps and breaking her neck.

Before she could do anything she heard an ominous clap.

The portal closed. The doorway back into that room and Meredith closing with it.

Darkness swelled in around her, the only sound her beating heart as it industriously tried to hammer its way out of her constricted chest.

She shook, her hand slicking with sweat as she used the wall for purchase, pushing into it until she stood on her shaky feet.

“Oh my god,” she whimpered.

The magician had been horrible, but manageable. This … this was ….

She took a step down the stairs. She didn’t want to. Christ, she wanted to crumple to her knees and cry into her hands.

Something was pulling her down, guiding her towards whatever lay at the bottom of this circular staircase.

She wasn’t stupid enough to think it was her curiosity getting the better of her. It was the compulsion, it was back. Even though she no longer held the candle, her fingers stiffened as if its phantom was still in her hand.

“Oh god, oh god,” she kept whining to herself as her footfall echoed down the stone steps.

As she walked, and the staircase wound around and around, she came across the occasional window. Suddenly the darkness would be cut in half by a ray of the brightest moonlight.

Which was pretty odd considering the moon was waning at the moment. Yet as she arched her head towards the long, slim window, she saw it was full, hanging in the sky like a luminescent crystal ball.

The windows were too high to look down through. She could be in some tower that overlooked Marchtown, or she could be halfway around the world – she had no way of knowing.

She kept walking down the stairs.

Step after step, that grip around her chest tightened. It became hard to breathe, but she didn’t stop moving.

Soon her echoing footfall stopped. She reached a door. It was heavy, large, and covered in runes. They glistened in the moonlight cutting through a window beside it, making the symbols dance in an eerie silver-grey glow.

Anna was a good witch. She may not have been the strongest witch, but she did know how to handle herself around magical doors like this. The very last thing you wanted to do was touch them.

So what was the very first thing she did? Touch it.

She reached out a hand, let her fingers settle against the wood until the runes squirmed underneath her skin, and then she pushed.

The door creaked open with all the portent of a flock of crows fleeing a cemetery.

It opened to a room. A massive one. The bar may have been large, but if she needed any more evidence she wasn’t in it anymore, this was it.

She walked forward into a chapel.

It was carved from blocks of sandstone, their mottled creams and browns a soft warm palette.

Along the wall, and right at the far end of the room, were stained glass windows. They were massive, majestic, and stunning. Rich blues, greens, golds, and reds lit up with the full-glow of the moon beyond.

Lit torches were arranged around the walls, casting twirling patterns over the walls and floor.

Anna, truly in a daze now, walked forward, her mouth slack, her arms loose by her sides, and her eyes out of focus as she stared at the wonder.

She’d never been in a more beautiful place. It went beyond stunning – it did something to the mind.

She walked forward, her long skirt swaying against her ankles with every languid step.

The chapel stretched out before her, carved wooden pews neatly arranged along the walls.

Though she didn’t realize it, she made her way towards the pulpit at the end.

If her mind had been free from the fog encasing it, she would have stopped, turned, and run away with a hearty scream. She certainly wouldn’t have languorously walked up to the empty pedestal bathed in colored light shining from the massive stained glass window behind it.

Anna patted a hand down her face sleepily, disturbing her hair and pushing it messily over her eyes.

She didn’t care; she kept walking.

All fear was gone. The panic that had punched through her when she’d first been pulled into this travelling hell portal had disappeared entirely.

Now all she wanted to do was curl up under that lectern, under the light of the full moon, and fall asleep.

 She reached the pedestal, climbing the red-carpet covered stairs. She rounded the lectern, smiling sleepily at it.

There was a book resting open on the carved wood.

She saw the symbols, but she couldn’t recognize them.

“I’m so tired.” She put a hand up to her head and blinked heavily.

“Then you should sleep,” someone suggested from behind her.

She had just enough energy left to turn around.

A man was standing behind her. She hadn’t heard him walk up, nor was there a door through which he could have come.

He was just there.

That made enough sense to her tired mind that she didn’t immediately scream and throw the lectern at him.

“I was only expecting one offering tonight,” the man admitted.

He was a wizard. She might have been dead on her feet, but she could feel that.

He wore blue jeans, a dark-blue t-shirt, and a biker’s jacket.

She swayed on her feet, almost succumbing to sleep while inconveniently standing up.

The guy tilted his head down to follow her move. He offered her a smile. Had she been sufficiently awake to notice, she would have realized it was the creepiest smile lips could be forced to make. “You look tired, Anna. You should sleep.”

She kept her hand pushed into her head. “W-why am I here?”

“You found me,” he chuckled lightly, “you sought out my magic, and you brought yourself here. I already have my sacrifice for tonight, but if you sleep through tomorrow, I’ll be ready for you then. What do you say, Anna? Aren’t you tired?”

On the word tired, she swayed back, banging into the lectern. She struggled to keep her eyes open, let alone her feet on the ground.

“W-who are you?”

“Does it matter?”

“I … I ….” She fell to the floor, her limbs crumpling as the fatigue cut them down.

The guy walked up to her. With one hand resting casually in his pocket, he looked down at her. He didn’t say anything, he just stared.

Anna rested her head against the cold sandstone, her knotty hair tumbling over her face and covering her eyes.

He leant down, his jeans creaking. She could feel him as he brushed back her hair. “You’ll make a good sacrifice. It was lucky you found us. But now it’s time to sleep, Anna. You won’t have to wake up again.”

Sleep. Yeah, she wanted to fall asleep. Her whole body tingled with the urge to let go and drift off ….

….

Anna suddenly coughed, sneezing herself awake.

Her sneeze was so violent, she jerked back from the kneeling man and hit her head on the sandstone.

It was also violent enough to wake her up. Not just from her impending slumber, but from the sleep spell itself.

Her allergies kicked into gear. With a runny nose, bleary eyes, and a fantastic rash covering her hands and arms, she stared up at the guy above her. The creepy wizard who had just tried to put her to sleep and kept promising to sacrifice her tomorrow.

Oh – my – god.

Anna jerked back, slamming her foot into the guy’s knee as she tried to get to her feet.

Her allergies had saved her life. If they hadn’t woken her up, she’d be ….

The guy struggled forward, snapping towards her with all the pent-up energy of a cheetah pushing into a run.

She scrabbled around the side of the lectern, her hands leaving sweaty prints on the dusty sandstone.

The guy didn’t say anything. Not a word. He pushed around the lectern and snapped towards her.

She didn’t have a weapon, but her hands instinctively grabbed the only thing they could find – the book – and she threw it at him.

As soon as she snatched it off the lectern, a strange echoing crack wrought the air. It sounded like every stained glass window suddenly shattered, sending their mounds of glass tumbling to the stone floor.

The wizard jerked backwards as if he’d been hit.

Though Anna had woken up from a sleep spell, and her allergies were beyond intense, she realized what was happening.

The wizard had been sustaining his spell through the book. By closing it, she’d broken the connection. Violently.

He was stronger and faster than she was, but this gave her an opportunity.

She lunged for the book. If she could get to it and keep it from his grasp, she could hamper him.

The wizard, still confused and injured, stumbled back, then his eyes drew wide in panic. It was the first emotion other than cold hatred she’d seen him show.

He snapped forward.

The book had fallen behind a pew.

She threw herself towards it, her fingers brushing the spine.

He jumped right over the pew, landing on the wood and kicking it into her.

Though it jammed against her outstretched arm, crushing her fingers, she managed to keep them pressing into the book.

And that was all it took.

With every scrap of determination and attention she could muster, she fought against her allergies, and blasted magic into every page. She didn’t have time for a well-thought-out spell. Instead, magic – undifferentiated and dancing in a whirl of sparks and flame – surged from her touch, dashing against the book and sinking into the cover.

The man was right on top of her, ready to pull her back. But he stopped. His body jerked to the side as if it had been struck by a train. Off balance, he latched a hand onto his stomach and wheezed, stumbling into the very same pew he had kicked over, and toppling over it.

Anna kept her hand outstretched. She kept her fingers pressed as hard as they could be, right into the front cover of that ominous red-spined tome. Squeezing her eyes shut, her lips curling flat in a grimace, she gave it everything she had.

In a hail of whirling blue fire, finally it exploded. The pages shredded, sending blazing magical symbols plummeting through the air, scattering against the sandstone and leaving great singe marks in their wake.

The wizard shuddered back, just as he got to his knees, gave her a surprised look, then fell over.

He was out cold.

He’d clearly been using the majority of his power to sustain the spells enshrined in that magical tome. Which was curious. While a sleep spell was tricky, that wizard looked more than capable of casting one without too much effort.

The fact he had keeled over after his book had been destroyed suggested he’d been sustaining other spells.

Though Anna was buzzing (and itching) from the fight, she slowly pushed the pew from her hand, and stood. Cautiously she stared around the room.

She could feel that same distinct dark magic gathering. It was seeping up from the tiny cracks between the flagstones and infiltrating its way through the gaps in the glass.

She shuddered. Though her wrist and hand hurt from where the pew had fallen on them, she ignored the pain.

Though she was human and didn’t have hackles, every hair on the back of her neck stood on end as a truly cold shiver shot up her spine.

“Oh god, it’s not over,” she realized, just as the stone below her feet began to shimmer.

She had managed to ward off the last effects of the sleep spell, so she knew she wasn’t dreaming here. The ground honestly was shifting and reflecting like a disturbed pool of water.

She tried to jerk back, to find a patch of stone that still knew it was just that – stone, and not water. But she couldn’t. The whole floor of the chapel was transforming.

With a sound like cracking glass, the floor shifted violently to the side. Anna already had weak legs from all her fighting and running, and she was easily thrown from her feet.

Somehow, though the chapel was very much empty, she slammed into someone’s back, knocking them from their feet.

She banged her chest hard on that same person’s equally hard chest. With a groan she looked up to see a very surprised, rugged, blond bounty hunter.

“Anna?” Scott grabbed her shoulders and helped her up.

If Anna hadn’t just been thrown sideways into what looked like an entirely different chapel, she would have appreciated she was currently in Scott’s arms. An ordinary, powerful witch would have taken the time to notice and indulge in the strong romantic undercurrents of falling into a burly wizard’s embrace.

Anna just pushed herself up; her head was still swimming.

Scott got to his feet, darting his head to the left and right as he clearly assessed her. “Where did you come from? Are you alright?” He helped her to her feet, then he latched a hand on her shoulder protectively as he turned and searched the room for something. “You need to get out of here, there’s a dark wizard—”

“You mean that guy?” Anna pointed over her shoulder to the comatose wizard arranged over the broken pew.

Though that strange rippling spell had transported Anna to another chapel entirely, fortunately it had brought the wizard and his broken pew with her. Once the guy was awake – and in custody – she was going to have some firm words with him about sacrificing witches under the full moon.

She watched Scott close his mouth and shoot her an impressed look, one side of his lips kinking into a charming, rugged smile. “Wow. When I saw you hanging out with Merry, I thought you were the latest of her charity cases. She has a habit of hiring bounty hunters down on their luck, who couldn’t catch a dead wizard tied to a stake. She has this strange view that by giving them a job, she’ll help them out. The only thing it usually helps is to shorten their lives.”

Anna gave an awkward, teeth-pressed smile.

That would be her, alright. Down on her luck and pretty much incapable.

Or maybe not entirely incapable. She had downed that dark wizard. She turned over her shoulder to stare at him again.

“How did you get down here, anyway?” Scott brushed past her, leaned down, and checked the wizard. “And what did you do to this wizard? He’ll be out cold for the rest of the night.”

Anna opened her mouth to explain. Before she could, she glanced past Scott and saw a comatose woman lying on the ground.

“Oh, her. I saved her. It’s okay. That creep wizard was going to sacrifice her for some spell, but I got here just in time. Or maybe you did.” He shot her another impressed smile. “He’s my bounty, by the way. A tough catch. When he jumped through some portal, I thought I’d lost him. You found him, I guess.”

She still didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Instead she brought her hand up and stared at it. Her skin was going bright red. As she stared at it, her back trembled as a serious case of pins and needles impaled every muscle and joint. “Oh dear.” She swallowed.

“Did you burn your hand in the fight?” Scott walked over casually to check her wound. “Hey, you’re face is getting a bit red too.”

The dark magic was back. And it was back in a big way. It was tumbling into the room around them, spilling from every crack and nook and gap, like the ocean trying to sink a broken ship.

“Oh dear,” she muttered again.

“What is it?”

“I think we should get out of here,” she yelped, latching a hand on Scott and trying to tug him towards the door.

He wouldn’t budge. He was built like a tree trunk and she was built like a spindly stick. It was exactly like trying to tow a freight train with a bicycle.

“Hey, hold on. We’ve got to get the witch. Plus, this place is fine now. That wizard is down—” Scott stopped suddenly. Either he could feel the dark magic amassing around them, or he’d just heard that suspicious scratching sound. “What the hell is that?”

Understanding flashed through her mind as she stared back at the wizard. He’d been sustaining more than the chapel and her sleep spell with his magical book.

He’d been calling something to him.

Something that was about to arrive.

Outside, something shook. With a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, it sounded as if something massive was making its way towards the chapel.

The chapel ceiling suddenly shook, a hail of dust raining down on them.

Scott looked up slowly, narrowing his eyes as he brought a hand up to brush the grit from his hair. “I see your point,” he somehow found the time to quip, “we should get out of here.” He turned sharply on his boot and raced up to the comatose witch. He picked her up carefully. “The door is back that way.” He started to run towards it as he inclined his head towards the back of the chapel. “Come on.”

Anna, still shocked from the brutal pace of this situation, stood there for a single moment.

She didn’t know why. Maybe that compulsion was back, or, just maybe, a kick of courageous curiosity was kindling in her gut.

It didn’t last. Scott rammed into her with his shoulder as he shouted another desperate “come on,” right in her ear.

She pivoted on her shoe and raced after him. As she did, she turned over her shoulder, her hair fanning out behind her, strikes of moonlight slicing through the windows and playing across the obsidian strands.

Suddenly something burst through the chapel wall, smashing the ornate window above the pulpit, and sending shards of stone and glass scattering over the floor.

Anna screamed.

It was a soul catcher.

As the massive creature took a shuddering step into the room, the torches along the walls swayed back and forth like ships buoyed by a tidal wave.

She’d never seen a soul catcher. She’d only ever read about them in particularly rare and esoteric books. According to the literature, those fell creatures no longer existed. The magic required to sustain them had been obliterated – whatever that meant.

Well, the books were wrong.

“Holy crap, that’s a soul catcher,” Scott yelled as he too turned over his shoulder.

For a man who looked as though he embodied adventure, he was clearly well-read.

The soul catcher was a massive, troll-like creature. Or at least it was today. Soul catchers could take on the forms of the souls they captured. Once they did, they would become virtually indistinguishable from the dead person – as they’d have access to not only their likeness, but all their memories too.

While soul catchers could use that ability to go incognito, this guy had opted for muscle instead. Clearly somewhere in its remote past, it had consumed a massive, burly, grisly troll. One with arms like felled trees and a torso so large it could crush a semitrailer.

The soul catcher leaned down, angled its neck forward, and screamed. It echoed off the walls, shattering the remaining windows and shaking the floor.

“Come on,” Scott rammed into her again, “we gotta get out of here.”

Anna turned and ran, faster than her tired limbs should allow. Despite her lethargy and crazy allergies, there was a fricking soul catcher behind her, and she really couldn’t hang around.

They reached the end of the chapel, just as the soul catcher changed form. She saw it, and boy did she felt it. The rash climbing her neck suddenly exploded all over her face, the heat so intense it felt as if she’d pashed the sun.

The massive troll leaned down, crunching its form in half, as its massive hands coursed with black, twisting magical lines. With a boom that shook the walls, the troll changed into a black leopard.

“Ahh!” Anna now rammed into Scott, shoving him towards the door as she threw a bolt of magic into it, blasting it open. “Go, go, go!”

She heard the leopard pounce over the broken sandstone, every bound bringing it perilously closer.

Scott jumped through the open door.

Anna pushed herself through, just as the leopard leapt towards her. She could see its glistening claws and teeth, even feel the buffeting air that swept towards her from its blisteringly fast leap.

She stumbled, grabbed the door, and slammed it closed, ramming the metal bolt in place to lock it.

She expected the soul-catcher-cum-leopard to slam into it. It didn’t.

She took a careful step back.

Then she sneezed. Violently. All over the magical-reinforced wood.

“I usually shout when deterring enemies, but I guess sneezing could work too,” Scott quipped. “Now come on,” he waved her forward with a tick of his head, “we better get out of here before that thing breaks through the door.”

Anna stared at her hands. The rash was gone, completely. Her skin no longer itched, and her back had thankfully stopped tingling. “... I don't think it's coming through the door,” she managed as she stared at the red-marked wood.

“And how the hell do you known that? You can tell me while we run,” he added as he leaned forward and managed to shove her with his elbow while still holding the comatose woman.

“I'm not sneezing or itching anymore,” she pointed out as she half jogged up the stairs.

“Don't jog - run.” Scott shoved her in the back again, this time with his boot. “And my congratulations to your immune system, but I don't think the dark creature in there cares that you've fought off a sniffle. Trust me, doll, he's coming through that door as soon as he changes form into something that can slam through it.”

“No, I have magical allergies,” she wheezed as Scott kept pushing her forward, “I'm not sneezing and I don’t have a rash anymore. That means there's no longer any magic around.”

“... You have magic allergies? That's a thing?”

Completely out of character, Anna gave a terse grumble. Or at least as much of a grumble as she could spare breath for. Scott was driving her up that winding staircase like a sheepdog herding stock. A sheepdog with a modified magical gun hanging off its hip.

“You're a witch and you have magical allergies. Christ, that's the funniest damn thing I've heard. I'd laugh my head off, but we're currently running away from a soul catcher. So run faster.” He planted his boot into her back and shoved again.

“How are we even going to get out of this tower?” she spared the breath to speak as she stumbled up another step.

“By opening a door. Now move.” Scott pushed her again.

He kept driving her up and up until, miraculously, they came across a door. Scott didn’t pause, and rammed his foot into it, sending a burst of magic down the boot as he opened it with a bang.

It swung to violently, revealing ... the backroom from the bar. There were several shocked magicians standing around, cleaning up from Meredith’s demon fight.

Scott, still running forward, grabbed the gun from his hip and shot the nearest one. Then, with a smooth move that belonged only in the non-physical world of comic books, he rolled with the woman still in his arms, and came up shooting. He hit the remaining magician before the guy could prepare a spell or even mutter a surprised curse.

Anna gasped. She’d never seen someone move so fast and instinctually.

Scott wasn’t done. He shoved her again, pushing her towards the open window. “Time to make a discrete exit.”

“But ... that wizard is still down there. Shouldn’t we catch him?”

“Ha. Unless you’ve forgotten, there’s a goddamn soul catcher down there. We can’t do this on our own.” Scott reached the open window, hooked it with his shoulder, pushed the frame all the way open, and somehow managed to pull himself up and out, even with the witch still in his arms.

Anna, though she was tall, couldn’t pull herself out, and had to drag a table over to reach the window.

Scott screamed at her to hurry up.

Just as she heard boots hurrying down the hallway, she pushed herself through the window.

She promptly fell on her face.

Scott didn’t let her rest. He poked her with his boot. “Get up.”

She ignored the pain in her wrists and elbows and hands – and everywhere – and hobbled to her feet.

Scott pushed her into a run, not letting her stop until they were several blocks away.

She slumped against a wall, practically dead on her feet.

Scott gently placed the unconscious witch on the ground, before standing back, picking at an itch on his chin, and shaking his head. “What a night. This is one for the books. A soul catcher and a witch with magical allergies.”

She crumpled against a wall, letting it guide her down to the ground so she didn’t fall and break something else. Using the last of her energy, she angled her head up to him.

He hooked one hand on his side, tilted his head, and stared back at her. “You okay?”

She tried to smile. It was more of a grimace.

“Now why don’t you start from the beginning, Miss Anna, and tell me exactly how you got down there and exactly how you managed to fight off that wizard?”

Though Anna could have lied, she didn’t. She told Scott the whole truth, even if it revealed every one of her numerous weaknesses.

She’d enjoyed the impressed smile he’d given her when he’d thought she’d taken down that wizard on her own.

Now his face stiffened with concern and alarm. “You shouldn’t have been down there, let alone bounty hunting with Merry. You could have gotten yourself killed,” he reprimanded harshly.

She pressed her back into the cold brick wall behind her. Playing with her hair distractedly, she nodded. “I know that,” her voice was weak.

Scott harrumphed. “Right. I can’t say it surprises me, though – like I said, Merry will drag anything in off the street and give it a job.”

Anna withdrew.

She’d had a tough night. Now this guy was accusing her of being dragged in off the street like a stray dog.

“Okay,” he conceded after a lengthy pause, “that came out wrong. I didn’t mean it like that. But, Anna, this is a dangerous profession. Okay, you don’t usually come across mythical soul catchers that aren’t meant to exist anymore, but every day brings more trouble. If you aren’t up to it—”

Anna pushed herself up, standing despite how wobbly her legs were. “Thanks for helping down there,” she said in a subdued tone, “if you look after that witch, I’ll head home.”

Scott stared at her. His head tipped to the side slowly. He tilted his head an awful lot – he clearly saw the world from a different perspective to most people. “I’m not going to let you walk home alone – not in your current state. You hold up, I’ll deliver this witch to MEC, and I’ll take you home myself.”

“I’m fine,” she tried.

He snorted. “You are not fine. You almost got kidnapped by a seriously powerful wizard, and then I spent a good five minutes rudely insulting you.” He latched a hand on his jaw and manipulated it back and forth. “Which I’m kind of sorry about. You don’t need me harping on at you right now.”

Anna blinked. She was used to being insulted, but being apologized to was new. She stared at Scott warily, waiting for him to chuck his head back, laugh, and continue to berate her. When he didn’t, she pushed her lips together and shrugged. “Okay then. But there’s something I’ve got to warn you about.”

Scott raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “What?” His lips kinked into a half-amused, half-intrigued smile.

“I have a cat,” she said seriously.

He cracked into a grin and laughed. “Ah, thanks for the warning. But I’m not allergic.”

Anna bit her lip. “You’ll understand when you meet her.”

Scott shot her an odd look, shook his head, then leaned down to pick up the witch. “You’re a pretty weird one, Anna. I’ll text Merry and let her know you’re okay. Now let’s get this done so we can get you home.”

Despite everything that had happened tonight, and everything he’d said to her, Anna found herself smiling.

She didn’t know why, and she didn’t have to.

She just smiled.

 

Chapter 6

 

 Once Scott dropped off the witch at the MEC HQ, and their team of magical medical personnel saw to her, he walked Anna home.

By the time she made it to her street, she was utterly spent.

“Alright you, we’re almost there.” Scott shot her a careful look, no doubt checking to see she wasn’t about to fall headfirst into the ditch.

Anna managed a groan as she pushed her hair from her face.

The medical personnel at HQ had checked her out to ensure she hadn’t been injured. Apart from a chronic flare up with her allergies, and her general weariness, she was fine.

“So which one is your house?” Scott looked around him, peering into the dark.

This street didn’t have any functional street lamps. The evil seeping up from Anna’s house had probably broken them all. Evil, after all, so did love the dark.

“Ah,” she turned her sleepy head around, “that one.” She stabbed a finger at house 666.

Scott spluttered. “You’re joking right?”

“Nope.” She flattened her hand down her face and blinked wearily.

“What on earth are you doing living there? That’s got to be one of the dingiest, darkest, evilest abodes I’ve seen around Marchtown – and that’s saying something.”

“I kind of signed the lease without having seen it first. I’ve already paid the first month’s rent, too, and I don’t have enough to move somewhere else. I’m stuck with it.”

Scott shot her a look, but she couldn’t see it properly in the dark. “You’re not very lucky, are you, Anna?”

“Nope,” she agreed as she opened the gate. It creaked and groaned, exactly like a zombie rising from its grave rather than some hinges that needed a good oiling.

She mooched up to the front door, ignoring the distinctly evil clicking of a cricket. A few moths flew past her nose, and she swore they flapped curses her way with their tiny silver wings.

She hated this place. Still, it had a bed, and she needed her bed more than anything right now.

She walked up the front steps and opened the door.

“You don’t keep it locked?” Scott asked as he trotted up beside her. “That’s brave. A place like this would be a magnet for every evil bozo in the city. You’d return home to find them squatting in your basement.”

“I don’t need to lock it – I have a cat.” Anna massaged her neck as she walked in.

Scott snorted. “Exactly what kind of cat do you own?”

“You’re about to find out.” Anna leaned to her left and flicked on the light switch.

The front door led right into a combined lounge and kitchen.

While this house was most definitely wicked, it was still roomy.

As soon as the light flickered on, it revealed a regal, throne-like chair sitting in the middle of the room, right in line-of-sight of the door. Luminaria was sitting on top of it, Anna’s nicest silk scarf in tattered shreds at her feet.

“Oh really?” She groaned as she walked forward and grabbed the scarf. “And I thought I told you not to move the furniture around. It’s plain dangerous. I could walk into that chair in the dark.”

Luminaria shot her a dark look, her whiskers straightening as she snarled. “You have no right to lecture me, pup – you’re the one who’s been out all night. I am hungry, and you have failed in your sacred duty to attend to my needs.”

Anna blew a breath of air against her fringe, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a can of tuna, and opened it.

“Ah, you have a talking cat.” Scott, who was apparently still in the house, made the fatal mistake of walking up to Luminaria and trying to pat her. “She doesn’t look that bad.”

Luminaria straightened up, pulling her head away like a dragon readying for a lunge. With her green-gold eyes blazing, she hissed. “How dare you, mortal,” her voice rattled and shook, “I don’t look that bad? I am the worst – the worst there has ever been!”

Scott wisely backed off, hiding his hand protectively behind his back. “O-kay,” he said slowly.

“Leave him alone, Luminaria. We’ve both had a hard night.” Anna grabbed a plate from the cupboard and upended the tuna onto it.

“Hurry up, child,” Luminaria snapped. “And don’t you dare think of feeding me without garnishing that dish. There’s some dill in the garden. Go get it.”

Anna groaned. She walked past Scott and back out into the yard.

Scott followed her out.

She hadn’t bothered to turn on the porch light, and nor did she have a torch. Rather than go inside and get one, she just walked around in the dark, heading towards a likely looking bush.

“Ah, do you want a light?” Scott produced a torch from somewhere and handed it to her. “I think you’ll be less likely to trip over a garden demon in the dark if you have this.”

She took it from him. “Thanks. Now where the heck is that dill?”

“I wouldn’t eat anything growing in this garden. Hell, I wouldn’t eat anything left in the house for too long, either – it’s likely to get infected by some rare and exotic magical disease.”

Anna flashed the torch around, following the sporadic weed-infested patches of garden bed, looking for some sodding dill. Dawn would soon break, and she’d spent all night being chased by or chasing evil wizards. And now she was out here looking for garnish.

Life wasn’t fair.

“So how did you come across that … cat?” Scott appeared to control himself. It was clear cat wasn’t the term he wanted to use to describe Luminaria. Curse was probably more like it.

“Ah, she’s a family heirloom.”

“… Sorry?”

Realizing that probably sounded pretty weird, she gave an awkward smile that accentuated her dimples, even in the dark. It could have been cute, if Anna wasn’t the most awkward witch in the world. It made her look like she was trying to escape from her own teeth. “Oh, sorry. Um, she has a magical contract with my family. We’re indebted to look after her.”

“An heirloom contract?” Scott sounded mildly interested. “Are you sure it’s binding?”

She gave another seriously tired but awkward smile. “Oh yeah, pretty sure. If I stop looking after her, terrible things start happening to me. One time when I tried to ah … get rid of her,” she said warily, “I fell down a set of stairs and broke my wrist. Another time when I kind of deliberately lost her, I broke my nose and my leg. It’s a binding contract alright.”

“Amongst us wizards, those kinda contracts are illegal.”

“Yep, well, not amongst witches. Believe me, my grandmother looked into it. The Summersville family is stuck with Luminaria von Tippit until we die out as a bloodline. Which might be sooner rather than later if I don’t find this bloody dill.”

“Hey,” Scott pointed to the fence, “there it is.” He ran over and picked her a few sprigs. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.”

“So, I should probably be going. As much as you owe me a coffee for walking you all the way home, I’m going to pass on account of your seriously crazy cat.”

She managed a subdued laugh.

“Look after yourself, Anna. And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“… Ah, you will?”

“Hell yes. Tomorrow we have to debrief with the MEC HQ. We gave them the shortened version of events tonight, but tomorrow we’ll have to march back into their offices to give them a proper briefing. We’ll also have to ensure they do the right thing,” Scott’s voice dropped darkly.

She was too tired to ask what he meant. Instead she walked with him back to the front door.

He nodded his head low. “Get some rest. And ah,” he looked down at her clothes and coughed, “you might want to change your clothes.”

Though she’d been smiling, it disappeared as she looked crestfallen. “Oh, yeah, I know they’re not very attractive—”

“They’re ripped, Anna, and they kinda wreak of bad magic.”

“Oh.”

“See you tomorrow.” Scott waved, turned over his shoulder, smiled, and walked off, hands in his pockets.

She waved at him, her hand hovering in the air for entirely too long.

When she heard her front gate creak closed, she tucked her hair behind her ears and bit her lip.

Before she could pause to think about the curious Scott, Luminaria screamed at her.

Racing back inside, Anna garnished the tuna, set it before her possessed cat, and gave the door one last look.

Closing it, she finally went to bed.

Tomorrow would no doubt be a big day, and if given half a chance, it would be bigger than today.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

She woke in a strangely good mood for someone who’d spent the night like she had.

With an arm pressing sleepily into her head, she blinked at the ceiling.

She let her lips curl into a soft smile.

Then, with a bang that was disproportional for her size, Luminaria jumped on the bed. “Get up, you awful witch. You are late.”

Anna jerked up, her pillow tumbling to the floor, no doubt to be stolen by evil cockroaches or whatever nasties lived under her bed. “Ha? Late for what?”

“Your meeting with the MEC HQ. I wouldn’t have brought it up – as law enforcement is such a bore – but our livelihood currently depends on it. And we are out of tuna,” Luminaria trilled.

Anna rubbed her eyes. “I thought Scott didn’t make a time to go see them?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I do, however, know that we received a message from the MEC this morning, calling you to a meeting at 9 A.M. sharp.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Anna turned towards her clock, and saw it was already 9 A.M.

“Because I enjoy seeing you struggle.” Luminaria snarled happily.

Anna jumped out of bed. “Oh no, I need some clean clothes. Where are they? I had a washing basket of freshly folded clothes around here somewhere.” She searched around the floor.

“I slept on them last night.” Luminaria pointed a claw at the laundry basket. The once-clean clothes were now spilled across the carpet, rumpled and covered in cat fur.

Anna sighed.

“Shouldn’t you hurry?” Luminaria flicked her tail. “You’re already late, and you can’t afford to lose this job – we’re already out of food.”

Anna selected some clothes and quickly dressed. “You’d better stay here.”

“You cannot order me around—” Luminaria began.

“Aaron will probably be there,” Anna supplied as she pulled on a sweater, tugging her hair free from the collar with a practiced sweep of her arm.

Luminaria ground to a halt, like a boulder suddenly realizing it didn’t want to tumble down the hill after all. “I shall stay here,” she announced, as if it had been her plan all along. “You disturbed my sleep last night, with your crawling in the door at 5 A.M. And I need my beauty sleep.” She fluffed up her whiskers with one paw.

“Okay.” Anna raced past her, pulled on some socks as she hopped from foot to foot, then grabbed her shoes and headed for the door.

She was still bone-weary, but she forced a smile as she raced down the path.

Most witches believed that if you smiled at the world, it would smile back. If you taught reality how to treat you, it wouldn’t dare go against your wishes.

Well, Anna wasn’t most witches. As soon as she smiled at the sky, she swore it got a little cloudier.

By the time she made it to the MEC HQ, she was flustered, out of breath, and ready to flop back into bed.

She didn’t get the chance.

“You took your time,” someone said from behind her.

She turned to see Scott sauntering down the street. He nodded at her. “Sleep well?”

“Nope.”

“Didn’t think so. But buck up. As soon as we’re finished here, you can head back home. Though considering you live with that cat, I don’t imagine it’ll be that relaxing.”

She nodded. “So ... all we have to do is debrief with someone, right? Who will it be? Aaron?”

Scott’s face visibly stiffened. It was as if someone had poured concrete into his veins. “Hopefully not. But knowing that idiot, he’ll want to interfere.”

Anna blinked back her surprise. “Oh ... ah.”

“You don’t like the guy, do you?” Scott stared at her seriously.

“Me? I hardly know him.” She rubbed her cheeks to hide her blush. To be honest, she did like Aaron – any red-blooded witch would. He was smart, debonair, and well-accomplished. Where most wizards tended towards tats and motorbikes, Aaron was a world apart. He was sophisticated and oh so handsome.

That being said, he had rudely and meanly taken away her job.

“Good,” Scott conceded with a gruff cough. “Now come on. We’ll get this over with.” He muscled his way towards the door.

Why did Anna get the impression that he was about to wade into a battle?

As soon as they were directed to Aaron’s office, she realized why.

This was war.

Aaron opened the door, one stiff hand on the doorframe as he shot Scott the kind of look that sat alongside despise in the dictionary.

Scott cracked his knuckles and walked in. He made his way into the center of the room and turned hard on his boot until he faced Aaron’s desk.

Aaron closed the door behind them, then slowly walked back to his chair. He sat slowly. Actually, it was less slow, and more menacing.

For her part, Anna carefully sidled towards Scott.

Things were about to get ugly, weren’t they?

“I’ve read your report.” Aaron gestured towards some papers on his desk.

“No one is impressed you can read, Arana,” Scott shot back. “Now what are you going to do about it?”

“Now you have brought this matter to the MEC’s attention, we will deal with it.”

“That’s comforting. But that’s not what I asked. I want to know how,” Scott snarled.

“That’s none of your business. You are a contracted bounty hunter,” Aaron said contracted with enough spite to melt the word into steam, “the procedure of the MEC is not your concern.”

“You can’t fob this one off like you usually do. There was a goddamn soul catcher in that chapel. This is serious.”

“That soul catcher will be long gone. It would have been called to feast on the soul of that witch. Without that soul to sustain it, it will have gone back to wherever it resides – which certainly isn’t Marchtown. If the catcher were still here, our magical instruments would be going haywire. Our only concern now is the dark wizard.”

Scott snorted so loudly it was a surprise he didn’t blast his nose right off. “Oh it’s long gone, is it? That dark wizard knows how to call it. Don’t ask me how, but he knows. And unless we stop him, tonight he’s going to call it again. And I want to know what you’re going to do about it?”

Aaron leaned back in his chair as he arranged his stiff arms before him. He swallowed hard, the move so tense he could have ripped his neat collar in two. “You are in no place to lecture me about correct procedure. You have brought this matter to my attention, and now you can trust that I will deal with it. You can also leave.” He fobbed a hand at the door.

Scott snorted. “Oh, I can leave, can I? Well, jeez, I better just tuck my tail between my legs and run away, trusting that you'll deal with this. Only problem is, I don't trust you, Arana, and I never will. You burnt up whatever faith I had in you years ago.” Scott snarled, stabbing a finger at Aaron as he took an intimidating step towards his desk.

Aaron slowly rose. He unfolded his stiff arms like a man shrugging free from chains. He stood, clamping his hands on the desk, his knuckles like carved marble. “Get out of my office, Scott.”

“You're such an arrogant, egotistical—”

“Why don't we all have a cup of tea?” Anna suggested. It was categorically not time for tea. Unless said tea contained enough horse tranquillizer to take down two irate wizards.

Still, her comment was sufficiently strange that both men stopped staring daggers at each other to shoot her odd looks.

“We should just calm down,” she hooked her hair behind her ears and clapped her hands together, “things can't be that bad.”

Scott snorted. It was his go-to move. Either he was a bull in disguise, or he was perpetually disdainful. She knew which one it was. “Things are pretty bad, doll; there's a madman kidnapping witches. And I don't know if you've noticed – but you're a witch, and he tried to kidnap you last night.”

“I'll deal with it,” Aaron said slowly, each word dripping with menace.

“Oh, yeah, okay, like you dealt with it last night? No, wait - I dealt with it last night. If I hadn't found that chapel, I wouldn't have saved that witch. She'd be dead right now, sacrificed for whatever spell those jackasses have planned.”

She wanted to point out she’d helped to save that witch too – if she hadn’t dispatched the wizard, things could have got ugly. She held her tongue and instead tried for a calming smile. “Why don't we just—”

“You have absolutely no right to lecture me on how to save people,” Aaron spat. There was so much fire behind his words, the air sparked.

Anna sneezed.

“You want to drag skeletons out of the closet, Arana? Fine. We can do that. You're the one who let her die.” Scott's expression crumpled, his brow digging hard into his nose as his lips knotted with tension.

Aaron paled. For a man as nicely tanned as he was, that was quite an achievement. “How dare you,” he said through sharp breaths.

They were about to attack each other – Anna could feel it. Her eyes were watering from the intense build up in magic. Also, their expressions weren't exactly friendly. They looked like two men ready to abandon their last scraps of decency for abject hatred.

She had to do something.

“Why don't I just ah ... set up a sting operation? I mean, that wizard already tried to kidnap me last night. I bet – if given the opportunity – he’d tried to do it again. All we have to do is set a trap and—”

Scott, without breaking eye contact with Aaron, tilted his head her way and said: “no.”

“But it's the perfect plan. How else are we going to capture that guy? That wizard isn’t going to go back to that bar. He can summon travelling hell portals. His base of operations could be anywhere. The only way to find him is to get him to find us.”

“No,” Scott dismissed her again.

“It could work,” Aaron spoke over the top of him. “She has a point – currently we have no way of finding out where he is. And if he can call a soul catcher, it is imperative we find him as soon as possible.”

“So you're going to use a witch with magical allergies to bait him.” Scott shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Tell me, Aaron, does anyone matter to you? I mean, anyone other than yourself?”

Aaron swallowed, his jawbones so pronounced they looked ready to spring from his face. “How dare you.”

They were about to start up again.

“Okay, now, as far as I'm aware, I don't actually need to ask permission from either of you to do this. It's my prerogative as a contracted bounty hunter to track down targets as I see fit. So ... I'm just going to do it.”

Both men whipped their heads around. “No,” they both said at once.

“Ha, I thought you said it was a good idea?” Scott challenged, returning his attention to Aaron.

“I thought it was a good idea in principle – not with her.”

“Well on that we can agree.”

Anna paled as both men went back to arguing.

She knew she wasn’t the best witch in the world, but she didn’t need that fact paraded in public.

True, she didn’t want to use herself as bait, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t do this. If the operation was set up right and she had backup, it was doable ... maybe.

It was worth a try though. She’d felt that strange dark magic last night, and she knew it could open up Hell itself, given time.

Plus ... she wanted to face him again. That wizard. She wanted to capture him.

Instinctively, she rubbed her chest. It was probably her imagination, but she could still feel a ghostly touch around her heart.

“You’re such a joke,” Scott shouted at Aaron.

“How dare you,” Aaron retorted.

Anna was already close to the door. Silently, she picked up her bag and walked out without either man noticing.

She’d come to this city to reinvent herself. The old Anna wasn’t the kind to throw caution to the wind and track down an extremely powerful dark wizard.

The new Anna lifted her chin and stared at the gloomy sky.

Bringing a hand up, she rubbed her chest.

She walked home.

 

Chapter 8

 “I want you to tell me how I would do it.” Anna crossed her arms and stared down at Luminaria.

The possessed cat was seated on her velvet bed, an imperious look flashing in her golden-green eyes. “I don’t see why you want to know. You’re such a tame witch.”

“Just tell me how I would lure that dark wizard.” Anna paced back and forth through her lounge room, her socks snagging against the dirty carpet. No matter how much she cleaned this place, it went straight back to being a tip.

She’d walked all the way home, bogged down by her thoughts.

By the time she’d made it in the front door, she’d decided to give it a try.

She would attempt to track down that wizard. But she wouldn’t do it alone. She wasn’t that stupid.

“Why would you want to associate with such a deviously evil wizard, anyway?”

“Because there’s a bounty out on his head. He’s … horrible. He’s sacrificing witches for some kind of spell.”

Luminaria snarled. She may be currently stuck in the form of a cat, but underneath, she was still a witch.

“You can help me catch him,” Anna offered, halting her frantic pacing to stare at Luminaria hopefully.

“And what would we do with him then?”

“Hand him over to MEC.”

“I can think of other things to do with a wizard who sacrifices witches,” she said darkly.

“Ah, I’m sure you can. But you don’t need to share. Plus, when we hand him over, we’ll get a reward, and I can buy you all the tuna you want. So what do you say?”

Luminaria looked calculating, her golden eyes darting from side to side, as if they were beads on an abacus sliding down to count her options. “I say yes.”

Anna made a success fist behind her back and tried not to smile too obviously. “Alright. You’re coming too, though.”

“Excuse me?” Luminaria trilled.

“I don’t want to do this on my own. In fact, it would be plain stupid to go in there without someone watching my back. And before you shout at me, think about it. This will be the most fun you’ve had in decades. I’m offering you the opportunity to mingle with a real dark-arts professional. Granted, we’ll have to arrest him. But at least you’ll be able to stand inside his evil chapel and soak up the vibes.”

Luminaria looked thoughtful. She even brought up a paw and tapped a claw on her chin.

“This guy has enough dark magic to summon a soul catcher. That’s a lot of power. The place will be seething with it.”

Luminaria’s whiskers twitched as her mouth kinked into a manic grin. “It sounds delicious.”

“It will be. And all you’ll have to do is come with me and … help me out.”

Luminaria narrowed her previously saucer-like eyes. “And why would I care about what happens to you? If you die – no, when – the contract ensures I’ll be shipped back to your mother. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I like her more.”

“You care about me, because I can give you what you really want. And I’m not talking about tuna casseroles and a seat in the sun. If you stick with me and help me out, I can take you to the darkest places around. I can let you rub shoulders with all the evilest people in Marchtown. Sure, I’ll have to arrest them after you meet them, but you’ll get to see what you miss the most – the dark side. And you won’t be breaking the law; you’ll be helping enforce it. So there’ll be no repercussions for you – just fun.”

Luminaria’s mouth jerked loosely open, her pupils dilating. She looked like a cat who’d spied a whole mound of sleeping mice.

“What do you say?”

“I say yes,” Luminaria spoke around a devious smile.

“I thought you would. So you’ll tell me how to find him and you’ll help me catch him?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll take you straight to his door, child. Then we’ll break it down and marvel at what nefarious achievements he has amassed.”

“Before arresting him,” Anna reminded her.

Luminaria twitched her whiskers. “Yes, yes, whatever. Now leave me alone. I must cleanse my mind of any vestige of the light so I may seek out the glorious dark.”

“Okay … so you’ll know where he is by tonight? It’s only that we have to do this quickly – we can’t let him kidnap another witch.”

“Do not pester me – I’m working.” Luminaria flashed her tail. “And yes, we will act tonight. I will feast upon his dark prowess, before punishing him for sacrificing witches.” She snarled.

Anna nodded, padded out of the room, and clapped her hands together quietly.

Finally, something was going right.

Who knows, if she managed to pull this off, maybe she could make her way as a bounty hunter in Marchtown.

Then again, if she failed, she could die.

….

If she survived, however, she could prove everyone wrong. Aaron, Scott, her friends and family – everyone thought she couldn’t do anything.

It was time to show them she could.

 

Chapter 9

 “Are you sure this is going to work?”

“Do not question me,” Luminaria snapped as she prowled the mouth of the dark alley.

Anna stood in the shadows, her hands in her pockets and her head tucked firmly into her collar and scarf.

She wasn’t scared. She was cold.

Though hanging about in dark alleys as a young witch wasn’t recommended, she wasn’t defenseless. She had a cat possessed by a dark criminal mastermind. While Luminaria would love to be mugged, the mugger wouldn’t love it.

The terms of Luminaria von Tippit’s heirloom contract were simple. She could only use magic if she was attacked with magic. Starvation, sickness, or misfortune could not be fought with a hex or blessing. She couldn’t use a quick curse to slow down a mouse. No, she could only reply with a fireball if one was thrown at her.

Despite that limitation, in many ways she was the perfect person (cat) to have watching Anna’s back.

Luminaria snarled into the darkness. “I can sense dark magic. Far off,” she sniffed the air, her long silver whiskers catching the moonlight, “but still strong enough to taste.”

Almost on cue, Anna sneezed. She reached into her pocket and drew out a hanky.

“This way.” Luminaria trotted off, her tail high in the air.

Anna plunged her hands further into her pockets and tried to ward off the chill by jittering under her coat. It wasn’t a particularly cold night, but her muscles were still locked with an icy rigidity.

The longer she was out here, the more the reality of the situation sunk in.

She was tracking down a seriously strong, seriously bad wizard. On her own with nothing but a possessed cat for back up. While Luminaria was strong, it was still a huge risk.

Oh god I hope this works, Anna thought as she winced, I really don’t want to die.

She followed Luminaria’s trotting form.

Anna’s only comfort was that the soul catcher wouldn’t be there. The wizard would have to find another sacrifice before he could call it again. If Anna got there before he could, she had a chance at winning this.

If she was late … she’d run away.

It was a plan, of sorts.

Luminaria took her on a circuitous route around the back alleys and laneways of town. Though occasionally they came across some pretty shoddy looking types, all it would take was a well-placed evil insult from Luminaria to see them run away.

It took half an hour or so, but soon they came across a strange building.

It was low and shaped like an ordinary house, yet it was squeezed between two huge brick buildings, their sidewalls towering high above the house’s sloped roof and chimney.

You didn’t need to be a genius to realize this house was out of place. You did however need to be a witch to realize it was riddled with magic.

Anna patted at her nose as she held back a sneeze. “Okay, so he’s in there?”

“Yes. Or at least something terribly dark is in there.”

“… You haven’t taken me on an evil sightseeing tour, have you? We don’t have any time to waste; we can’t let him grab another witch. If he calls that soul catcher—”

“Relax,” Luminaria huffed. “He’s in there.”

Anna tipped her head back and breathed. Then she winced. Then she took a hesitant step towards the house. “What is that place, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s probably a bar.”

“What?”

“All truly evil types tend to do their best work in bars, where alcohol and peanuts are in ready reach.” Luminaria trotted forward, heading towards the front door. She had to leap over a white picket fence to reach it.

Anna carefully opened the gate and approached the house with extreme caution. She kept looking over her shoulder as if she expected the place to disappear or a hail of demons to rain down on it from the clouds. Which, to be fair, were both possibilities.

As Luminaria reached the front door, it opened with the kind of creak you associated with crypt doors. A seriously gaunt man stepped out. His eyes were so sunken and his skin so sallow he looked like a skeleton wearing a skin suit. He opened his mouth to say something, probably along the lines of ‘go away.’

He didn’t get the chance. “Get the hell out of my way,” Luminaria snapped as she trotted past him. “Come, vassal.”

Anna didn’t lower herself to mutter a ‘yes, master,’ but she did hurry up the path after Luminaria.

The gaunt doorman didn’t stop them.

Once they made it through the front door, everything changed.

She expected a hovel of a house with a few tables and a couple of cases of fuel-strength ethanol.

What she got was a proper bar. One that didn’t fit in the space allotted by the house.

If she weren’t a witch, she’d scratch her head. Instead, she scratched her arms as they started to itch horribly.

“This way, slave.” Luminaria darted between the patrons.

If the bar last night had been bad, this place was evil with a capital E, underlined and accentuated with neon arrows.

She recognized every patron she passed – all of them had their faces up on wanted posters in the MEC HQ.

She couldn’t arrest them all, and she had to keep focused.

She was going to catch that wizard. She made a fist as she followed Luminaria all the way to the back of the bar. “You, sit there,” Luminaria gestured towards a booth. It was suitably gloomy and dank. “I must investigate.” Luminaria darted away.

Though Anna wanted to follow, Luminaria had already wended through the patrons’ legs and out of sight.

With a nervous sigh, she sat down at the booth.

Her body was tense. Of course it was. She was on a stakeout with a possessed cat and no back up. She brought a hand up and pushed it over her face.

“Hiding isn’t going to help,” someone said as they sat down beside her.

Anna jumped, yelping into her hand.

A man leaned down on the table, his face coming into view.

It was Scott. And he looked pissed.

“What are you doing here?” Anna yelped with surprise.

“Saving your ass before it gets kidnapped and sacrificed,” Scott hissed as he leaned towards her.

“But, but, how did you find me?”

“I followed you.”

“What, why?”

“Because, despite your allergies, you’re kind of resourceful, Anna Hope Summersville. I had a feeling you’d find that wizard again. But I wasn’t going to let you do it alone.”

Anna opened her mouth. She wasn’t sure what to say to that. “… So you’re going to help me?”

He laughed quietly. “Hell no. I’m going in there – you’re going home.”

She crumpled her brow. “This is my operation. I found this place,” she whispered so no evil patrons could be disturbed by the bounty hunters arguing in the corner and ruining their night.

“No you didn’t – your cat did. I watched her. She’s pretty useful. I mean, that doesn’t make up for her shocking personality. But she could be kind of handy sniffing down bounties.”

“I’m not leaving,” she ignored his banter. “I’m going to prove—”

“You don’t have anything to prove,” he looked at her evenly, “to anyone. And don’t live your life like you do. Anna, you seem like a sensible girl. Do you really think going after this dark wizard is a good idea?”

Up until now she had. Up until the exact moment he’d locked her in his serious gaze she’d been determined to prove herself.

Now his words were sinking in.

“He’s after witches, love. If he doesn’t manage to get one, he won’t be able to call the soul catcher. Or at least I hope not,” Scott conceded with a shrug. “But the point is, you can leave this up to me.”

Anna closed her mouth.

“That evil cat of yours should be able to get you home with no trouble. I don’t imagine any punk in this town – no matter how aspiring – would be ballsy enough to take her on.”

She looked down at her hands.

“I’ll have this guy in prison before you know it.” Scott stood, offering a half bow. “Now keep safe, and I’ll see you around, Anna.” He shot her a dashing smile, then he walked off.

She could have ignored him and continued to stake out the bar, waiting for the wizard, but she didn’t. She slowly rose and picked her way to the front door.

As soon as she opened it and the chill night air hit her, it brought with it some much-needed reason.

Scott was right. She couldn’t and shouldn’t do this. She wasn’t up to a task this difficult.

She’d been a fool for coming here.

She rubbed her eyes and walked down the path, figuring Luminaria could get home on her own.

She made it to the gate, opened it, and walked through.

A man – probably a dastard patron hankering for happy hour – walked up to her. “Hold that gate,” he asked.

She stepped out of his way.

He walked past her, and, in one smooth move, grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward, mumbling a spell under his breath as he did. Hot blue sparks spat out of his mouth with every muttered word.

Anna tried to pull back, but his fingers were like steel soldered around her wrist. “Let me go,” she screamed.

The man didn’t respond. He didn’t turn to her, didn’t speak – didn’t acknowledge her in anyway. Instead he reached his free hand out and closed the gate. As his hand rested against the metal, it sent spikes of magic arcing into it like an electrical discharge.

Anna’s whole body began to burn as her breathing came in strangled gulps.

It was the same magic – the same new, evil magic from last night.

As she looked up to see the man incline his head towards her, she realized something even more horrible.

It was him.

The wizard.

He was back.

He pulled his hand from the gate, then kicked it open with his boot. Without a word, he pulled her through.

The world around her changed. Somehow the path leading through the sparse lawn and up to the bar disappeared.

It was replaced with that spiraling staircase.

He’d summoned a travelling hell portal. And if Anna couldn’t fight him off, soon he’d cast another spell – with her soul.

She tried to fight. She couldn’t. He pulled her forward.

Chapter 10

He said nothing as he pulled her down the cold, dark staircase.

She tried to struggle, but every move was met with a tightening of his viselike grip.

She had to get out of here.

Oh god, she had to escape.

She fumbled for the hex bracelet she wore on her free hand. Luminaria, in her wisdom, had made her wear it.

Now it could save Anna.

She fingered it until she selected the correct hex.

Before she could do anything, the wizard pushed into her, using his bulk to knock her against the wall. Her bracelet fell from her grasp and into the darkness.

As his face jerked past a slice of moonlight, she saw his wide-open, white-rimmed eyes.

She screamed, but there was no one to hear. Her voice echoed up and down the spiral staircase.

With a fast, practiced move, the wizard caught hold of her free wrist, and twisted it hard.

She fell to her knees. It was that or let her arm break.

With a stuttering, caught breath, she whimpered.

The wizard stood over her, his dark figure cut against the shadow of the stairwell, outlined by the silvery moonlight.

He dropped her wrists and flicked his hand to the side as he stood back.

Though his stone cold fingers no longer crushed her wrist, the grip was somehow still there.

“Come with me.” He turned, secured one hand languidly in the pocket of his jeans, and walked leisurely down the stairs, each thump of his footfall slow and deliberate.

That phantom grip was still around her wrist, and it dragged her forward.

She tried to fight it, she tried to hook her fingers around the lip of the window above her, but she was yanked forward.

She screamed, the strangled noise echoing sharply down the winding staircase.

She had to scuttle forward, pushing against the wall with her free hand so she could keep up with the grip. Its ghostly influence relentlessly pulled her forward, and if she didn’t keep up with it, her wrist would snap clean off.

The wizard did not once turn to look at her. He slowly, almost ponderously walked down the stairs, one hand still hooked in his pocket, the thumb tucked into the denim while his fingers tapped his leg.

As they descended, they passed the occasional window, moonlight cascading into the shadowy stairwell and lighting up the wizard’s side, face, and back.

“Just … let me go,” she whimpered.

He said nothing.

“It won’t work. They’ll catch you,” she tried to reason with him.

He said nothing.

“People know I came here tonight. They’ll come looking for me.” She stuttered as she stumbled into the wall, only to be dragged forward again.

The wizard didn’t even turn to her.

“It won’t work,” tears trembled down her cheeks, each drop cutting an erratic pattern down her blotchy skin as she was jerked down stair after stair.

“It will.” The wizard half inclined his head over one shoulder.

All she saw was one eye and a flash of his smooth forehead. It wasn’t enough to note his full expression, but it was enough to sicken her.

“Oh god,” she sobbed.

 

Chapter 11

Anna was taken down into the chapel. It was the same one from last night. Its stark, majestic stained glass windows let in the moonlight from beyond.

The ghostly grip dragged her across the sandstone, right up to the pulpit.

The wizard reached the lectern, turning and standing with his hands rested on the wood as he read from his book, his lips moving, but no words coming out. He looked like a priest practicing for a sermon.

Anna was brought to a stop just before the altar. One of her hands was held in front of her, the wizard’s phantom grip pulling back the fingers to reveal the soft underside of her palm.

Her eyes were wide with frantic fear, her heart no longer beating, but thundering through her chest.

She was cold all over, despite her flaming allergic rash.

“God, please don’t do this,” she whimpered.

The wizard kept whispering his spell.

Magic started to pull up from the book, collecting over his hands and racing up his arms, crackling along his leather jacket and singeing it.

She tried to cast a spell, tried to call upon her own magic. As soon as she did, his grip became crushing. It jerked her hand to the side, shaking her like a doll.

She began to cry.

Tears spread down her cheeks like blood cut from the vein.

The wizard’s voice began to pick up, until it echoed like an earthquake through the chapel.

The windows shook, chattering like teeth on a cold night.

Anna could feel something coming. That strange magic he practiced suddenly surged. It rushed out of him, bursting through the room like a grenade.

She was thrown backwards, as far as the grip on her hand would allow.

He was calling the soul catcher. She could feel it. Her eyes drew impossibly wide as she stared up at his face. It was compressed with concentration, his lips pressed thin as he brought up a hand and pointed towards her. “Here is a witch,” he announced.

“Yes, yes, we know she’s a witch. No one thinks you’re clever for pointing that out,” came a voice from somewhere behind Anna.

A voice she knew. A voice every Summersville knew and would never forget.

Luminaria von Tippit.

Anna jerked around. Sure enough, Luminaria was casually making her way down the main aisle.

The wizards stopped summoning his spell. Wordlessly, he jumped down from the pulpit, his jeans creaking as he stiffened and straightened. He walked slowly past Anna, casually flicking his hand and sending her skidding towards the wall. The grip pinned her against it.

She struggled, holding her pinned wrist as she tried to tug it free. She couldn’t. Her shoes slipped and slid against the stone, the sound of the rubber soles grating over the rock echoing through the chamber.

“Do you speak, boy?” Luminaria asked as she drew to a stop in the center of the chapel. “Or is this you trying to intimidate me? Because it won’t work.”

The wizard furled one hand to the side, stretching his fingers as magic erupted over the skin. It glowed so violently, it looked as if he’d just summoned a super nova to his palm.

Anna jerked her head to the side and covered her eyes with her free arm.

“Oh, I really wouldn’t attack me. You won’t like me when I’m attacked,” Luminaria snarled.

The man didn’t heed her warning.

He attacked.

He launched at her with a punch, sending a ball of sparks spewing from his fist and lancing towards her.

Luminaria didn’t move. She let the blow land.

She wasn’t, however, flattened and cooked in one go.

With a satisfied chuckle, she rebuffed him.

Luminaria loved it when she was magically attacked. It was the one time she could defend herself.

And defend herself she would.

She dug her paws into the sandstone, stiffened her back, and whipped her tail from side to side.

Just as the wizard whirled around for another blow, Luminaria slammed her front paws into the floor.

A magical wave launched outwards from her move. It sparked so much, the air zinged from it.

Though the wizard tried to jump back, he wasn’t quick enough, and it caught him along the knees, sending him toppling back into a pew.

He snarled, punching to his feet as he kicked the pew, obliterating it with a dash of magic as he brought both hands up and set them alight.

“Child’s play,” Luminaria chuckled lightly, slamming her paws into the floor just as the man attacked.

She sent another wave of power smashing towards him. The man dodged this time, leaping and flipping over another pew as he punched his own blast of magic towards Luminaria.

She didn’t dodge. She didn’t have to. She whipped her tail forward and created a magical shield in front of her body. The wizard’s blast fell against it with a fizzle. “Anna was right – I am enjoying this.” Luminaria walked forward.

The wizard, clearly realizing she was no ordinary cat, took several steps back. He brought a hand up and wiped it over his top lip. His eyes were fixed open, his gaze calculating.

“You won’t win,” Luminaria informed him with a laugh, “you’re already weakening. In fact, if that feeble little witch behind me were more attuned, she’d realize she could break free if she tried hard enough.”

Anna snapped her head around to look at her pinned wrist. She pushed her shoulder into the stone wall behind her and tried to heave herself free.

When that didn’t work, she put a bit of magic into it. She reinforced her arm with a blast of power, and finally, with a great “oomph,” she snapped the grip. She fell to her hands and knees, her hair dropping over her face as she breathed heavily.

The wizard tried to dart around Luminaria, but the cat cackled and sent another blast sinking into his feet and sending him skidding back.

Though it was hell, Anna pushed herself to her feet. She groaned and checked her wrist. It wasn’t broken, but it had been very close. The skin was ripped and bleeding, and it was already swelling a treat.

Luminaria kept playing with the wizard. Though the cat appeared to be winning for now, it might not last. If Anna had learnt one thing, it was that she couldn’t underestimate this guy.

She had to end this. Now.

She stumbled towards the lectern, pulling herself up onto the pulpit and staggering towards it.

She heard the wizard push into a sprint behind her, his boots thumping against the stone.

“Come back here,” Luminaria snarled.

Anna reached the lectern, and used the base to pull herself into a standing position. With her good hand, she grabbed the book.

The wizard somehow dodged every blow Luminaria sent his way. He leapt onto the pulpit.

He reached towards Anna, his hand spreading wide as magic raced over the fingers.

Screaming, she snatched the book, staggered back, and did the only thing she could think of. She threw it, right at Luminaria. “Destroy it!”

The wizard reached her and grabbed her arm, his awful grip eating into her once more.

There was an almighty bang from behind her.

A massive magical shock wave slammed through the room.

The wizard was thrown off Anna, and she tumbled back into the lectern, her head slamming into the wood.

A massive cloud of smoke and rock dust swept through the room.

She blinked against it, her ears ringing from the blast.

“Well that was more dramatic than I thought it would be,” Luminaria mumbled from somewhere near the center of the smoke cloud.

Anna pushed herself up. She had to press her back into the lectern and jam her feet into the floor to manage it. But with effort, she stood.

She stared down at her feet, at the wizard.

He was out.

Or so she thought. Just as she leant down to check him, he snapped forward and caught her hand.

As he did, he began to disappear. A massive, seething pool of black magic amassed around him, climbing over his body as he pulled her towards him.

She tried to resist, but he was so strong.

His torso vanished, his body sinking through the floor.

She screamed.

The look in his eyes held her place. Not his grip around her arm, but his look.

Humans have a saying – the eyes are the doorway to the soul. They’re right. The eyes are the gates into the soul. And should you know how, you can shove them open.

She felt him pulling her down, down towards some hell she couldn’t imagine, but one she was about to experience firsthand.

 She could hear Luminaria racing up behind her, but the cat would be too late. “Fight it, child!” she roared.

Anna was the kind of girl who always did as she was told. Today was no different.

As Luminaria’s plea echoed at the edge of Anna’s hearing, she resisted.

She closed her eyes, shutting off the connection. It was hard, but the wizard had been weakened by his fight with Luminaria.

She pulled her arm back.

Luminaria reached them, and sent a massive blast right at the wizard’s head. It struck home, and he tipped back, finally releasing Anna.

She snapped her eyes open to see his jerk wide too.

Something cracked.

Something that shouldn’t.

Suddenly Anna was thrown back as a mysterious force slammed into her.

She fell against the stone, her head spinning, her vision blurry, her heart racing.

With a bang, the wizard disappeared. She could feel as that new dark magic vanished, taking the wizard with it.

She tried to push herself up, but her head was still swimming. She felt like she’d been hit by a mountain.

“Oh ... well you don’t often see that,” Luminaria conceded as she leant down and sniffed the spot where the wizard had disappeared. The stone was riddled with cracks and covered in dark swathes of singe marks. Residual magic crackled and spat, dancing erratically over the floor like headless fireflies. In other words, it was exactly the kind of thing you didn’t sniff.

Anna pulled herself into a sitting position. She held onto her head. It felt like it wasn’t attached anymore. “What – what happened?”

“Our little friend got away. Strange kind of magic he practices,” Luminaria licked her teeth, “I’ve never come across it before. Which is odd when you consider I’m ancient and positively powerful.”

Anna tried to get to her feet. She failed.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Luminaria warned as she sat down and glared at Anna. “You might faint. You have a part of that wizard’s soul, after all.”

“Sorry?”

“Silly fool was trying to practice soul magic before he vanished. That’s how he created the portal. It’s also how he was compelling you to follow him. Problem was, when he tried to access your soul, he opened up his own. Then I came along and walloped him in the noggin with a magical blast, and broke off a section of his soul. It slammed into you. Not something you see everyday. In fact, I’ll be honest with you – I’ve never seen it before. But tonight’s been full of surprises, ay?”

Anna’s head stopped swimming – it started whirling around like a tornado instead.

She ... she had a fragment of a dark wizard’s soul!

She fainted.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

Anna woke to a face staring into her own.

At first, she thought it was the wizard, back to finish what he’d started.

She pushed backwards, raising her hands in defense as she whimpered.

“Miss Summersville, it’s over. You attacker is gone. It’s me, Wizard Arana.”

She looked up into his handsome face. It was Aaron alright – the same angled jaw, neat hair, and sparkling eyes.

“W-what happened?” she stuttered.

He helped her sit. “You fought off a dark wizard.” He stood back, once he was sure she could sit on her own, and stared around the badly damaged chapel.

“No, boy, I fought off the dark wizard,” Luminaria snapped. She was trotting proudly around a massive crater in the ground – one she’d created when she’d destroyed the wizard’s book.

“Indeed.” Aaron raised an eyebrow.

“How did you get here?” Anna tried to get up, but as soon as she put weight on her wrist, she crumpled.

“You’re injured,” he pointed out needlessly. “And I got here, because there was a massive display of magic – strong enough to alert our instruments at the MEC HQ.” He put his hand into his pocket, and somehow produced an icepack. He handed it to her. “Press this against your wrist. It isn’t magical, so it won’t irritate your allergies. It won’t be nearly as effective, though, I’m afraid.”

She accepted it with a small smile.

“How did you access the chapel though?” Anna held the icepack tightly, thankful for its cold touch. Her wrist felt like it had been put through hell, and in a way, it had.

“Through the front door. Once you defeated the wizard, he lost control of his portals, and I managed to enter through the same one he created last night in that bar you frequented with Meredith Pride.”

“How did you get past the vampires and magicians?”

He raised an eyebrow.

She remembered whom she was talking too. Aaron would be the strongest wizard in the town, let alone the country. He sat on the Council of Eight, for god’s sake. A few vampires and some rowdy magicians would be nothing but a mild irritation to a man like that.

“My body wizards are upstairs cleaning out that ... bar,” he said, making it clear he thought bar was a generous term. Cesspit, was probably more on the mark. “They will be down shortly to secure this chapel.” He smoothed down his tie as he turned, angling his head back to stare at the ceiling and windows.

She swallowed.

Was it really over?

Aaron walked away from her, descending from the pulpit to inspect the crater in the main aisle. With one hand tapping on his tie, he raised an eyebrow.

Anna pressed the ice pack into her wrist and watched him.

He walked down the side of the crater, his Italian loafers crunching over the crushed and burnt flagstones. He tentatively poked some of the ash-caked stone. “Was it really necessary to incinerate all the evidence? That book was our only link to the wizard.”

“I’m so sorry,” Anna sighed as she crumpled further over her injured hand. She was feeling sorry for herself. Fair enough, she’d almost been sacrificed to a soul catcher. If misery were ever justified, it was now.

“From what I gather, you had little to do with this. The damage,” he kicked a small charred stone lightly, and it climbed the side of the crater only to tumble back down and strike his shoe, “was wrought by one Luminaria von Tippit,” he continued.

“In my own defense.” Luminaria jumped up, her hackles rising in a strong strike of fur down her mottled back. She stalked over to Aaron. If she’d been anything other than a cat, it would have been as intimidating as watching a train barrel down on you. “If I had broken the terms of my contract and attacked another with magic, I wouldn’t be standing here right now, would I? My possession of this fine feline would have ended with a very audible and very magical bang.”

Pressing two fingers into his brow and massaging it slowly, he said “I’ve gathered that. My point still stands: it was mighty inconvenient of you to destroy all the evidence. Now we have no way of tracking down that wizard.” Briefly Aaron’s eyes focused on Anna’s injured wrist, before he turned his head quickly and stared down at the crater.

“No way of tracking down the wizard? Are you really that dumb?” Luminaria laughed.

“Excuse me?” Aaron raised his other eyebrow.

“He’ll be back for her.” Luminaria flicked her tail towards Anna.

Anna paled, her hand freezing mid-move as she tried to wipe the soot from her cheeks.

Again Aaron looked at her, but this time his gaze lasted. “What do you mean?”

“Do I really have to spell it out for you?” Luminaria rolled her eyes and chuckled scornfully.

“Yes, spell it out.”

“Anna has a part of his soul. He’ll need that back if he wants to keep practicing soul magic and if he ever wants to call his soul catcher friend again. He’ll also need it back to live. He’ll manage for a while, but without his own, he’ll start to fade away, and so will his power. So mark my words, he’ll come back for her.”

Anna drew in a sharp breath, her back jerking with the move.

“We don’t know that,” Aaron cautioned.

“Yes we do,” Luminaria interrupted. “You weren’t there, wizard, but I was. I saw the transfer – I tasted it too. Strong magic like that tastes like lemon sherbet, cut with jet fuel.” She twitched her whiskers thoughtfully. “Anyhow, the point is, you want to catch that wizard, watch Anna. Eventually he’ll come back for his soul, sooner rather than later.”

Aaron turned to stare directly at Luminaria. He fixed her with the kind of penetrating look that reminded Anna he was one of the most powerful wizards in the world. Though no magic crackled around his eyes, the world still stood still.

Luminaria didn’t flinch. “Come now, boy, you know I’m right. Now, I’m quite tired, and I would like a little bit of milk and tuna before bed. I would also like to be brushed.” She shook her back, dust falling from her fur. “Come, Anna.”

Anna, still understandably overcome, didn’t move.

This was a lot to take in. She had a part of that wizard’s soul, and he’d be back for it ....

She shivered, instinctively rubbing a hand on her chest.

“Anna,” Luminaria snapped.

On autopilot, she jumped to her feet. “Coming.” Still rubbing her chest, she jogged after Luminaria.

While it would be great to ignore the possessed cat, Anna already had enough bruises for one night.

“You can’t just leave. We need to figure out what we’re going to do.” Aaron turned sharply on his foot to track them across the room.

“Oh pish, I need food,” Luminaria snapped.

“I’m not talking to you.” Aaron walked forward. “I’m talking to Anna.”

Dumbfounded, she stopped. In all their interactions to date, Aaron had talked around her, not to her. It was patently clear he thought she was a waste of time.

It was kind of a surprise he’d noticed she was in the room, frankly.

“Anna?” he asked in a patient tone.

She stopped and turned slowly.

“Anna,” he said directly, “if Luminaria’s right, and I think she is, you’re in a lot of danger. You can’t just return home.”

“Don’t be so condescending, wizard, and stop pointing out she’s an idiot,” Luminaria snapped, “I’m the one who does that. You can stop wasting our time too. I’ve dealt with that wizard once, and I’ll deal with him again. If he comes knocking on our door in the middle of the night, I’ll make him knock into it on the way out. I have more than enough power to deal with such a pipsqueak.”

“And if you don’t have more than enough power, what then, Luminaria?” There was a real note of authority in Aaron’s voice. It sailed through the air like a masterfully swung katana, slicing into its target.

Luminaria stopped. She took a deep breath that jammed her chest out, and she turned. She considered Aaron with cold contempt. There was, however, an unusual hint of unease about her stance. She wasn’t as indignant and confident as usual.

“There is every possibility, Luminaria, that if he attacks you, he’ll win. Do you need me to describe what will happen if you’re defeated by magic in your current form?”

Luminaria stiffened.

Aaron ignored her and continued, “your magic and your contract will pass to another. And you, Luminaria, you will cease to exist.”

“I know the terms, wizard,” she snarled.

“I’m sure you do. I’m simply reminding you of them. And now you are reminded, perhaps you will agree returning home and waiting for this wizard to reappear is a particularly bad idea.”

“What are you suggesting instead?” Luminaria flashed her tail.

“That we return to my place and we think about this. At this stage, we have no idea how big this group is, nor do we know how many resources that dark wizard has access to. If he could spare enough magic to continually relocate this chapel, then he is easily the strongest practitioner I have seen in Marchtown for years.”

“You think I couldn’t feel his power? I could taste it, boy. But you’re wrong – he’s not as strong as you think he is. My estimation is he is merely a foot soldier.”

“Hmm,” Aaron stowed his hand in his pocket and looked thoughtful, “to you he may be merely a foot soldier, but to me, that means he has powerful friends. Now, we should probably get out of here before this chapel crumbles around us.” He made a point of wiping some dust from his silver-grey jacket.

Even though her home wasn’t a comforting place, Anna still wanted to crawl into bed. She wanted to pull the covers over her head, cradle her wrist, and pretend none of this was happening.

….

She had a part of a dark wizard’s soul, and sooner rather than later, he’d be back to claim it.

 

Chapter 13

Though she’d been through a lot that night, and she was dead on her feet, it was still interesting to see where Aaron lived.

He hadn’t taken her back to the offices of the MEC. Nope, after a painfully quiet but thankfully short car ride, they’d arrived at a colonial-style five-story house. It was red-brown brick rimmed with white window frames and capped by a baby-blue roof. There were white roses in the generous yard, and a well-kept sandstone path leading to an ornate red door.

It was exactly like its owner: distinguished and regal.

Anna pressed her injured wrist against her chest and wandered up the path, her head turning in every direction as she spied something new to stare at.

Though the place appeared traditional in design, if you looked carefully, you could see something … a little extra. There were magical enchantments, talismans, and hex wards dotted throughout the garden and grounds. A few well-placed nicks in the large birch by the fence would protect the house from demons and ghosts. The tiny golden symbols etched into the door with a sacred knife would ensure no vampires entered, even with an invitation. The tiny scribbled leafs of parchment half-buried under the roses would prevent the undead from digging their way out of the mulch.

Aaron cleared his throat.

She barely noticed. She spied a few malachite stones scattered around the grass by the path. Malachite was known throughout the ages for its ability to protect and heal.

Aaron cleared his throat again. “By this rate, you’ll never make it into the house.”

She looked up at him and made an awkward face. She was good at awkward faces; she’d spent most of her life practicing. In fact, when Anna wasn’t being embarrassing, she was usually having an accident that would lead to future embarrassment.

Usually it didn’t bother her. Around Aaron and his lovely house, she couldn’t ignore it.

He was everything she wasn’t. Sure of himself, powerful, distinguished, and forthright.

“Anna, come in,” he said pointedly as he opened the door and gestured into the hallway.

“Oh, sorry.” She hurried up the stairs and over the threshold. As soon as she crossed it, she sneezed.

Magic.

Everywhere. The wards and talismans protecting the outside of the house were nothing compared to the objects and spells within.

She put a hand up to her mouth and coughed, trying to ward off another sneeze.

Aaron turned and walked into a room to his left. She caught sight of his expression, and it was to be as expected. He looked bothered. Clearly protecting a silly witch like her wasn’t how he preferred to spend his nights.

“I’ll have the butler take you to a room. You’ll be safe there. I’ll sort out everything else.”

“So … that’s it?” She stood in the corridor and shuffled her feet. Her skirt was dirty and ripped. In fact, everything she wore was worse for wear, including herself. She was in dire need of a bath, a drink, and a lie down.

Leaving everything up to Aaron didn’t feel right, though. It felt too much like giving up.

“You’ll be safe here,” he repeated.

She looked down at her feet and distractedly rubbed her wrist.

He tipped his head down, tilting it as he tried to look up into her eyes. “Are you alright?”

She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, fine.”

“I’ll have the butler see to your wrist. He’s accomplished in both normal and magical first aid. Considering your particular allergies, it might be best to see to your wrist in a more mundane manner.”

“Thanks,” she managed. Then she fell silent.

Aaron stood on the threshold to his drawing room. Clearly he was waiting for her to go away. A man like him was busy every second of every day, and her escapades tonight had only added to that.

“I’ll just go look for the butler,” she pointed in a random direction over her shoulder.

“He’s not hiding in the broom cupboard.” Aaron raised an eyebrow, but at the same time, he smiled. Softly. Honestly, the move was barely there. You had to be paying as much attention as Anna was to his chiseled jaw and defined cheekbones to even notice it. “He’s just over there,” Aaron continued, pointing towards the end of the hall.

A man was standing with a white-linen towel folded neatly over one arm. Lord knows how long he’d been there, as Anna hadn’t heard him approach.

She stifled a startled yelp, and coughed instead. “Okay … um, thanks.”

“This way, ma’am,” the butler said as he turned stiffly on one heel, his shoes crushing the plush pile of the cream carpet.

Aaron entered his drawing room and closed the door without a word.

If Luminaria were here, she’d snap at him for being rude. The possessed cat was currently outside chasing mice. As soon as they’d arrived, she’d spied one and pursued it around the side of the house. For a witch trapped in a feline’s body, she sometimes forgot about her human roots and ate entirely too many lizards.

Still, even though it was nice when Luminaria left her alone, right now, Anna could use the snide cat. She’d know exactly what to say to Aaron. She also wouldn’t take a back seat. Luminaria von Tippit was not the kind to let others fight her battles.

Anna apparently was. She turned and followed the butler up the stairs.

Once she entered her room and closed the door behind her, she let out a sigh. It shook with emotion and exhaustion.

So much for her first solo bounty hunter mission. Far from proving herself to Scott and Aaron, she’d proven they were right.

Scott ….

She hadn’t thought about him since he’d left her at that bar. He could be worried about her, she realized as she bit her lip. Or, more likely, he could have forgotten all about her, as she was the most forgettable witch and woman in the city.

Sighing heavily again, she flopped onto her bed. It was covered with an intricate soft-white bedspread. And now that was covered in soot and dried up blood.

“Oh god,” she pushed herself up and made a face. She darted over to the en suite, but soon realized she was trailing mud and ash with every step of her dirty shoes.

She couldn’t win.

Anna never could.

 

Chapter 14

Once the butler attended to her injuries, Anna went to bed. It was a relief to close her eyes.

Her dreams were ... unsettling, though. Anna usually dreamt of inane silly things.

Tonight, she dreamt of dark rituals and hidden magic. By the time she woke in the morning, she was sweating.

She shifted up, pressing a hand to her sweaty brow.

That’s when she noticed Luminaria was sleeping on the pillow beside her. The cat opened one eye, the move slow and dangerous. “You’re disturbing me,” she warned. “Also, move over – your massive body is taking up too much room.”

Anna shifted to the side. That’s when she noticed Luminaria had something pinned under her paw. On close inspection, it turned out to be a rat’s tail.

“Eww.” Anna leapt out of bed, jumping from foot to foot. “You had that thing in the bed the whole night! Where’s the rest of the mouse?” She made a face as she drew back the covers and checked for the remains.

“In my belly.” Luminaria still had half of one eye open.

“Why didn’t you leave the tail outside?”

“Because it is enormous fun to see you squirm, child. Now shut up – I’m tired and I need my rest. I had a big night last night.”

Anna was about to point out she’d had a big night too – but thought better of it.

Instead she turned and walked around her room.

It was generous, and had plenty of space for a large queen bed, a dressing table, a wardrobe, a desk, and a recliner. Everything was antique and looked more expensive than anything she’d ever be able to afford.

Standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, her bare feet sinking into the invitingly plush carpet, she scratched her arms. She didn’t want to touch anything in case she broke it. Aaron seemed like exactly the kind of guy to make her pay for any damaged goods.

After a minute or so, she walked carefully over to the window. She pressed a hand onto the sill and stared down at the garden below. It was even more beautiful in the daylight. The old oaks and birches stood tall and proud, their verdant leaves casting a mottled shade against the side of the house.

Aaron’s house was, appropriately, in the expensive section of town. It was easily on an acre or two of sprawling gardens, and if you angled your head right, you could block out the rest of the city and pretend you’d been transported to the countryside.

It should have been idyllic – and was – but Anna was in no mood to appreciate it.

She brought a hand up and compulsively rubbed her chest.

Though it sounded crazy, she swore she could feel the fragment of that wizard’s soul in there. It felt like a shard sticking into her heart. Not enough to kill her, but enough to cause constant discomfort.

She wanted it out, and she wanted this damned situation resolved.

She sighed heavily.

“Oh, for the love of god. Stop standing there and sighing like the most pathetic witch in the world. If you want to find out if Aaron’s caught that little snot from last night, just go and ask him,” Luminaria snapped as she rolled over and curled with her back to Anna.

He’d probably already left for work – considering how monumentally busy he always was – but Anna nonetheless dressed and wandered down stairs.

The butler instantly appeared from somewhere, with all the suddenness of an apparition. “Wizard Arana requests your presence in the dining room.” He swept his arm to the side, revealing a door at the end of the hall.

Realizing she was underdressed for this house, let alone breakfast with Aaron, Anna tried to arrange her ripped top so it didn’t look so bedraggled.

It was a thankless task, and she gave up by the time they reached the dining hall.

The butler opened the door to reveal an enormous room. While the house was large, this room looked like it belonged in a castle. A really fancy castle.

There were large, gilded windows to the left that offered sweeping views of the garden, with the stacks and towers of the city only barely visible over the tops of the trees.

If the view from her room was idyllic, this was mesmerizing.

In the middle of the room sat one of those mile-long extravagant tables you only ever see in illustrations from fairy tales. No one in the real world could afford a table that immense, made from a single continuous piece of the most luxurious red-brown wood in the world.

Aaron wasn’t from the real world.

He was sitting at the head of the table, reading the paper and eating marmalade toast.

She shuffled her way over to him, her hands clasped awkwardly before her, as if she expected to be told off for muddying his perfect room with her disheveled presence.

“There are clothes in the wardrobe in your room.” He took a sip of his coffee from a hand-painted bone china cup. Still reading the paper, he didn’t turn to her once. “It’s magical – it will produce whatever apparel you desire. You can ask the butler if you can’t figure out how to work it.”

Anna looked at her feet.

Why was this guy always so brief? She’d seen him be nice before – he could be incredibly dashing and charming. Just not with her.

Why? Was it her looks, or lack thereof? Was it because he thought she was weak?

Or did she not even register on his radar?

“You can sit, Anna.” He gestured to a seat.

She dutifully sat.

“And you can eat,” he added after she stared at the empty plate before her for a few seconds.

Obediently and silently, she reached for some toast.

She tried to butter it as quietly as she could, wincing as the elegant silver knife scraped over the bread, sending crumbs tumbling onto the pristine white tablecloth.

Aaron ignored her. He kept reading his paper.

He kept ignoring her until she brought a hand up and rubbed her chest in discomfort.

His eyes snapped up, and he looked on with focused interest. “How are you feeling?”

“... Okay, I guess.” She kept rubbing her chest.

He folded his paper, placing it neatly beside him. He stared at her.

She’d been about to take a bite of her toast, but instead paused with the bread hovering near her lips.

After a few seconds, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and looked thoughtful. “What did you dream of last night?”

She blinked quickly, surprised at his sudden question. She’d heard that some families discuss their dreams over the breakfast table, but hopefully not with such directness. She felt like she was being interviewed by the Spanish Inquisition.

Realizing she couldn’t stare at him blankly forever, she placed her toast down. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because there is every likelihood you dreamed of your attacker’s life. With a part of his soul, you’ll – in part – have access to him. His life, his memories. His dreams,” Aaron emphasized as he clasped his fingers together and looked searching.

Anna couldn’t hide her shiver. It crossed up and down her back with all the speed of light.

She pushed her toast away.

A part of her didn’t want to share her dreams – or nightmares – with Aaron. Because, for some strange reason, they felt personal. They weren’t – they weren’t hers at all.

She took a sharp breath and forced herself to speak “dark stuff, mostly. Rituals, spells,” she stared at her hands, “crypts, caves. The usual fare of evil wizards, I guess.”

Aaron didn’t say anything; he kept sitting there, locking her in his penetrating gaze. Eventually, however, he leaned forward. “You’ll be okay, Anna,” he said in a reassuring tone, “I’ll find out who he is, and the MEC will deal with him. I’ll leave for work shortly, but you’ll be safe here.”

Aaron was speaking with a calm determined tone that could melt any girl’s heart. It was completely at odds with his usual dismissive attitude towards her.

She opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of a word to say.

He wiped the marmalade from his fingers with a pressed-linen napkin and rose to his feet. “My butler will stay with you all day. You’ll be safe in this house. I built it myself. I don’t care who this wizard is, he won’t be getting in without an invitation.”

“So I ... just stay in all day? I mean, can’t I help?”

Aaron smiled. “The only thing you can do right now is stay out of his way. Luminaria is right – he will be back for you. Before midnight, if I’m any judge. He won’t be able to call upon the soul catcher without a complete soul of his own. So now is our chance to catch him.”

Anna scratched at her arm distractedly. “So I just ....”

“Stay here. Have a bath, change your clothes, and rest. Considering what you’ve gone through the past couple of days, you deserve a rest. You can wander through the house – we have a great number of facilities, both magical and mundane. Just stay away from the doors that are locked. And, of course, don’t leave the gardens.”

She nodded.

Aaron smiled again. It was a full cheek move that crinkled his eyes and reminded her there really was a man under that often-dismissive façade. “Relax. You’re in safe hands.” He bowed, turned, and walked off.

“Good bye.” She turned in her chair, offering a completely unnecessary and unreturned wave as he walked out.

Really? All she had to do was spend today resting?

She spread a generous serving of marmalade on another piece of toast. Then she took her plate over to the window, sat down, and looked at the view.

Though a niggling pain welled in the center of her chest, she ignored it.

She was safe.

 

Chapter 15

 

Anna stood at the open wardrobe, her toweled hair dripping down her back.

Crunching her lips together, she thought about what she should wear.

She was not stylish by any stretch of the imagination. Anna was textbook frumpy. Everything she owned had bright, ugly floral and rumples. She always wore socks with skirts, and had an astounding array of drab knitted cardigans.

Most of her clothes were hand-me-downs, and usually sat bulkily over her slight frame.

She didn’t have the money or class to afford good clothes.

Well, right now she was facing a magical wardrobe that could make her any garment she wanted. She could grab her phone and look up an award-winning designer, or surf the style pages for the latest and greatest in elegance and fashion.

“Are you going to stand there facing that wardrobe all day?” Luminaria snapped from the bed. “It’s magical, you know. And the last thing you want is for the sodding thing to start spitting twee British children at you and fauns with a penchant for toast.”

“It’s not that type of wardrobe. Plus, I’m trying to figure out what to wear.”

“How about nothing. It works for me.”

“You’re a cat.”

“And you’re a frumpy pathetic witch with no hopes, dreams, or aspirations. Just put on one of your usual floral affairs, and be done with it.”

Anna tried to ignore her cat. She didn’t want to put on a cardigan and frilly white socks today. She wanted .... Ah! She didn’t know what she wanted.

She rubbed her chest again. Before she knew what she was doing, she cleared her throat and asked the wardrobe for “blue jeans, boots, and a navy top.”

The wardrobe closed the door she was holding onto with a magical fizz.

Anna stood back and waited.

She heard Luminaria shift on the bed. “... Seriously, little witch? Do you not realize what you’ve just asked for? That’s what he was wearing last night.”

Anna gasped, slamming her hand over her mouth. Oh god, Luminaria was right – she had described his outfit without even realizing it.

The wardrobe finished creating the garments, and opened its door with a light pop.

Anna winced in preparation for what she’d find. She still had a mental image of that wizard walking down the stairs in his blue jeans, one hand held languidly in his pocket as he dragged her behind him with his ghostly grip.

She put a hand up and felt her injured wrist. The butler was very handy, and had patched it up a treat. Without strong magic, however, she’d have to wait a while for it to heal completely.

Warily, she peered into the wardrobe.

She did not see what she expected.

There were blue jeans, boots, and a navy top, alright – just not the same style. The jeans were tight, the boots knee-length black soft-suede with a generous wedge heel, and the top was made of a soft, dark cotton that bunched at the chest.

She reached in and grabbed the clothes, biting her lip as she did.

Though Anna was exactly the kind of self-conscious girl that hated wearing anything tight and revealing, she found herself dressing in the clothes nonetheless. She could at least try them on. If they looked hideous, she could chuck them back into the wardrobe and try again.

She tugged on the top, fidgeted into the jeans, and zipped up the boots. Pulling the towel from her hair, she let her unruly mop taper down her back as she opened the wardrobe again to look at the full-length mirror attached to the inside of the door.

She ran her hands up and down her jeans.

She looked .... There was a word for it, she just couldn’t think of what it was.

“Terrible,” Luminaria snarled with a choppy laugh that echoed through the room as if carried on a PA system. “You look terrible. You can’t pull off those heels and jeans – you’re not confident enough. That outfit might be suitably sexy for a real witch, but we both know you’re not one of those.”

Just as Anna’s heart sank and she reached to pull off her top, she stopped.

For the briefest second, she’d felt good in these clothes. Sure, she wasn’t a match on Merry, but who would be?

The point was, however briefly, she’d felt good about herself.

Anna was aware that she let people influence her too often. She did what she was told. Blame it on having a demanding, insulting heirloom cat in the family, or on magical allergies – but she didn’t stand up for herself.

She never carved out her own path.

“Go on, take it off,” Luminaria encouraged meanly, “get back in your cardigan and socks. You’re not born to impress people, Anna Hope Summersville – you’re born to get out of people’s way. Oh, and feed me tuna.”

Anna tugged her top down. She turned, her wet hair flicking over her shoulder. She placed her hands on her hips. “I’m not taking them off. I think I look good. Or at least okay,” she said, as confidently as she could.

Luminaria actually rolled around on the bed laughing. “You’re an idiot. Get back in your box, Anna. You’re never going to do anything with your life, so stop dressing like you will.”

Anna ground her teeth together and took a firm breath. “No. And you’re wrong – I’ve already achieved things. I fought off that dark wizard twice.”

“You must have hit your head last night, girlie, because I fought off that wizard, not you.”

“He got away from you, Luminaria, and it was me who thought of destroying his book. Plus, I resisted his soul magic.” She levelled her chin. These clothes were having an odd effect on her. She felt confident, even though she wasn’t, just because in order to wear clothes like this you had to be confident. It was circular logic, but magic loves circles.

She kept her chin lifted, and she stared right back at Luminaria.

The cat stopped cackling, and narrowed her eyes. “There better be a good reason you’re looking at me like that, witch.”

“There is. I’m wearing these clothes, and that’s it. And,” she brought a hand up to brush her fringe out of her face, “I’m going to fix my hair too.”

Luminaria snorted, but the move wasn’t as loud and rude as her previous display. “He’s not going to notice you, you know, no matter what you do.”

“... Who?”

“Don’t be so obtuse. Arana. That pompous plastic-faced git. He’s never going to notice a girl like you.”

Anna’s stomach sank. Or at least it started to. She lifted her chin. “I don’t care if he notices me. I’m not doing it for him.”

“Really?” Luminaria laughed like a tinkling bell. An evil tinkling bell.

“Yes,” she said firmly.

“You tell yourself that, dear. I’ve seen the way you look at him, and I’ve seen the way he doesn’t look at you. He only brought you to stay here so he had a shot at luring that wizard. Don’t get thoughts above your station, girlie.”

Anna took a heavy breath. Without another word, she turned and marched into the bathroom. Once there, she found another little magical cupboard that could produce any haircare or makeup she asked for.

After a good half hour of experimenting, she found a product that did wonders for her hair. It turned her riotous mop into a soft, straight, sleek sheet that swooshed every time she moved. She could barely believe her reflection, and she kept patting at her hair compulsively, as if she wanted to catch the exact moment it would frizz again.

When it didn’t return to its usual rat’s nest, she walked out of the bathroom.

Luminaria was no longer in the room. The window was open, and no doubt the cat had tried an aerial assault on a bird. She was probably down under some bush somewhere eating her catch right now.

Making a disgusted face, Anna decided to explore the house.

Aaron had offered. She wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity either. The chance to explore more of Aaron’s incredible mansion – and life – filled her with a kind of skipping sense of curiosity. Curiosity usually didn’t skip, but around witches it did. With enough magic, anything could skip, let alone bubble and fizzle and pop.

As she walked down the stairs to the first floor, the house was silent. The butler was nowhere to be seen. Either he was outside chasing Luminaria away from the birdbath, or he was doing whatever butlers did when they didn’t butler. Butler wasn’t usually a verb, but considering Anna had already reinvented herself with a brand-new set of clothes, she wasn’t above making up a word or two.

She lightly pressed her lips together, patting her hands up and down her sleek and sexy jeans. Her wedge high heels made every step echo, punching out like a drum beat. Maybe Luminaria was right, and Anna wouldn’t have the balls to wear this outfit outside, but for now, she was determined to enjoy it.

With curiosity still skipping and tumbling in her belly, she explored the first floor of the house. Disappointingly, more doors were locked than opened. She’d try the ornate brass handles only to hear them click and resist her grip.

Maybe Aaron had changed his mind, and had realized that it wasn’t a good idea to have a witch with magical allergies exploring your very magical house. He probably didn’t want to come home to Anna sneezing all over his rare magical tomes and hideously expensive set of sacred knives.

Once she was done with the first floor, she explored the second and third. By the time she made it to the fifth, she was tired and bored. She shouldn’t be – this was wizard Arana’s own house, and he was practically a celebrity in the magical world. But the fact was, there was nothing here of note. Or, rather, all the note was firmly tucked behind magically locked doors.

Rather than return to her bedroom and wait out the rest of the day twiddling her thumbs, she decided to go outside. Aaron had said she could explore the house and grounds, as long as she didn’t open the front gate and head out onto the street.

She had no intention of wandering onto the road and offering herself up to the dark wizard. Just the thought of it made her chest hurt.

She headed down to the front door, and opened it cautiously. When the world didn’t end and the scrap of dark soul within her wasn’t ripped from her chest, she let out a trapped breath and walked outside.

She sneezed. A light breeze was blowing through the trees, collecting along the protective symbols carved into the wood and sending their magic tumbling through the garden.

Reaching into her pocket for a hanky, but realizing her jeans were too tight to hold anything but air, she patted her nose instead. Then she walked down the garden path. With her hands clasped behind her, and her heels clicking along the cobble, she enjoyed the mid-morning sun. Despite the magic wafting around the place, messing with her allergies, it was quite a pleasant way to spend the day. There were birds tweeting in the trees (a comforting sign which meant Luminaria hadn’t managed to kill them all off yet). There were bumblebees and dragonflies buzzing about, too, bursts of color against the luscious green of the lawn.

Just before Anna could find a nice oak tree to settle under for a nap, she heard somebody clear their throat. She snapped her head around to see a man waiting by the front gate. There was a sturdy, low sandstone wall that ran around the property, a secure wrought iron gate leading onto the street.

Before Anna could freak out at the prospect the wizard was back, she caught sight of the man. “Scott?”

“That’s right, doll face. Now where the hell did you get to last night? You had me worried, you know that?”

“Oh my God,” she trotted down the main path and reached the gate, “I am so sorry. I … a lot happened last night,” she swallowed uncomfortably, “I’m so sorry.”

Scott, wearing the same heavy pants, sturdy boots, and grey top, locked one hand on his side and shook his head. Then he levelled his eyes at her and grinned. For the briefest moment, his eyes flicked down her outfit, and he raised his eyebrow appreciatively.

Though Anna was busy blushing, if she’d been observant, she would have noticed his eyes linger on her injured wrist.

“So, are you going to come out here, or what? If you’re going to apologize to me, do me the dignity of facing me in full, hon.”

She went to open the gate, but stopped, just in time. “Sorry, sorry,” she stuttered quickly, “but I can’t. I can’t leave this house. Or at least not until Aaron sorts this whole mess out.”

Scott didn’t react to hearing Aaron’s name. Even as she said it, she gulped. She expected him to go ballistic, to explode like an emotional bomb. One that had the added advantage of knowing magic.

He didn’t. He raised an eyebrow as his gaze flicked over her again. “Well then, if you can’t come out, let me in.”

“Of course.” Anna reached for the gate latch. It didn’t look particularly sturdy. It wasn’t some megalithic lock attached to a chain thick enough to tug a container ship. It was just a latch. And yet, it would be able to keep out an army. She felt its magic crackle under her fingers as she clasped it.

Scott smiled at her encouragingly, reaching one hand into his pocket as he rested it casually by his side.

Something about the move caught her attention. It kindled a memory.

“I don’t have all day, doll face.” Scott latched a hand on the opposite side of the gate, clearly getting ready to push it open. He’d only be able to do that once she undid the latch. He could be one of the strongest wizards in the world, but unless he was stronger than Aaron and this magical house, Scott wouldn’t be able to force his way in.

“What happened to you last night, anyway?” Anna asked curiously.

He shrugged his shoulders, one hand still perched in his pocket. “Like I said, you disappeared, I didn’t hear anything from you, and I kind of got worried. I haven’t known you for long, Anna, but you’ve made an impression on me.” He looked right into her eyes as he spoke.

She could kid herself and say his sudden attention for her was due to her clothes, but that would be missing something. In fact, it would be missing everything. Scott let his eyes slide down her outfit once or twice, it was true, but every time his gaze lingered on her wrist before returning to her eyes.

She started to feel cold. She swallowed uncomfortably. Maybe this was all in her head, or maybe—

“You stupid witch, get away from that gate now.” Luminaria von Tippit roared up the garden path, her paws scattering over the stones as she raced madly towards Anna.

Anna squeaked in surprise, and jerked out of the cat’s way.

“You’re about to let in our friend from last night,” Luminaria snapped as she skidded to a halt, the hackles along her back rising as she flared her tail from side to side. Revealing her teeth, she hissed at the man.

Though Anna had already realized something wasn’t right, Luminaria’s revelation made her shudder. She twisted her head to stare at Scott.

He started to smile. It was the kind of slow move that spread across his face like oil from a spill. It poisoned his once handsome features, contorting them with a familiar expression of cold rage. “Why don’t you open the latch, Anna Hope Summersville? Why don’t you make this easy for yourself?” he suggested, his voice low and calm.

She shivered, backing away from the gate and almost falling into a rose bush.

“Why don’t you stay out there and slowly disappear while she holds onto a part of your soul, wizard?” Luminaria suggested instead. “You must be in a mighty amount of pain, hey? As your soul desperately searches for its missing half, you must be enduring agony.” Luminaria took a lot of pleasure in what she was saying, her golden green eyes sparkling as if she were reciting poetry and not a death threat.

Scott’s lip kinked. “Pain brings power, witch,” he snarled. “Now open the gate, Anna,” he said in an almost singsong tone.

A cold drenching sweat travelled down her shoulders and forehead. Though the sun was full and shining above, she felt as if she were floating in the dead vasts of space.

Scott smiled at her, his once handsome features contorting with hatred and greed. He patted his hand on the gate, the move slow and deliberate, the sound echoing around her like a clock ticking down. “Open the gate, doll face.”

Luminaria hissed aggressively. “Why don’t you go and hand yourself in to the Magical Enforcement Council, wizard? They will be much nicer to you than I will be.”

“You want to fight me again, witch?” He turned his attention on Luminaria. “Then open the gate.”

“Listen here, we are not men and we are not wizards,” Luminaria pointed out as she tipped back her head haughtily, “and we will not accept such a ridiculous challenge. Now stand there and disappear, boy, while I watch.”

Scott snarled, his lips crinkling and kinking until they tucked under his nose. “You have no idea who you are messing with. I am the most powerful wizard this age has ever seen. And once I’m done with you,” his eyes darted towards Anna, “I’ll have more power than this world has ever seen.”

“You have a mighty big head, I’ll grant you that,” Luminaria chuckled at her own joke, “but you are not the most powerful wizard in the world. My little witch here bested you twice, and she has magical allergies.”

Though Anna was frightened out of her wits, she was cognizant enough to realize Luminaria had just complimented her. Well, kind of.

Scott let his eyes slide towards Anna. He looked her up and down, his gaze attentive and thoroughly creepy.

She shivered again, backing even further into the rose bush, the thorns snagging against her bare arms.

“She’s nothing. But I will make her into something. With her soul, I’ll complete my spell. And then—”

“Come on, Anna.” Luminaria suddenly turned her tail and started trotting down the path.

“What?” Anna twisted her head to watch her go.

“We’re not going to stand there and listen to that silly man aggrandize himself. Nobody cares what he’s going to do once he’s the most powerful wizard in the world, because he is never going to be the most powerful wizard in the world. At midnight, he’s not even going to be a wizard, as he’s going to be dead. Good riddance, I say. Now come on.”

Anna made the mistake of turning around to look at Scott once more.

His head was tilted to the side, his gaze locked on hers, his eyes glittering with a keen interest that made her want to throw up.

“Make this easy on yourself,” he whispered, his lips moving sharply around each word, his clean-shaven chin crinkling and slackening. He leaned forward and placed both hands on the gate. While he could rest them on the metal, he wouldn’t be able to reach over and grab her. Still, the move sent electric shots of fear convulsing through her back and arms. “Give into me, Anna. You know you want to.”

She turned sharply from him, her boot snagging on the grass and sending her tumbling towards the gate. She managed to grab the metal bars before she fell face first into them. Then she pushed herself up.

The wizard darted his head down, until he stared right into her eyes.

“You might not want to let me in, but you fail to realize I’m already inside,” he said quietly, as if to himself.

She let go of the metal bars, her fingers trembling as she stared at him. “What?”

He brought a hand up and tapped the center of his chest. “I’m already inside you, Anna. Do you honestly think a weak little witch like you will be able to fight me off forever?”

She staggered backwards. “You ... you’re wrong,” she stuttered desperately, hoping she was right. For even as she said the words, a pressure built up in the center of her chest. She crumpled her fingers over it, digging into the fabric of her top as she tried to release the tension.

Scott tipped his head to the side, until it was almost horizontal. Half a lip kinked into a grin and he chuckled. “Did you sleep well last night? I’m in your head, Anna. And by midnight, I promise you, I’ll rip my way out.” With that, Scott took a sudden look over his shoulder, then disappeared in the same cloud of writhing black symbols she’d seen from last night.

Though the gate and fence did a sterling job of blocking out the wizard’s dark magic, enough of it leaked through that Anna began to itch. A rash rose up her back, burning her stomach and arms.

“Just try to keep me out, Miss Summersville, just try.” The wizard’s voice was cut short as he disappeared completely.

Anna fell over. She couldn’t stand. Her heart was a trembling, wild, beating mess. It felt as if her legs had turned to jelly, and her arms wouldn’t stop shaking.

Tears streaked down her cheeks.

“Stop crying in the rose bushes,” Luminaria scolded from the front door, “and come inside at once. Wizard Arana will be home shortly, and though I detest the man, it is impolite to hide in his rose bushes.”

“Aaron?” She said his name, and just the mention of it gave her hope. “But he’s at work.”

“Not for long. Not after a display of magic that strong right outside of his house. Mark my words, he’ll be home any instant.”

Suddenly the sound of a door opening loudly filtered out from the house. There was a series of strong, quick steps, then the front door opened. Aaron, in his impeccable grey suit, raced down the garden path, his sleeves rolled high.

“Too late, you’ve already missed him,” Luminaria snarled.

Aaron reached the gate, latching his hands on it as he checked up and down the road. His eyes quickly settled on the patch of pavement where the wizard had disappeared. After a few seconds of staring at it with a narrowed, worried gaze, he turned and quickly dropped to one knee. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he repeated.

It was? A pressure was building in her chest. It wasn’t her imagination, she wasn’t being pathetic and letting Scott’s words get to her – it felt like something was growing in the center of her sternum. She collapsed a hand over it.

“Come on.” Aaron gently helped her up. “It’s safer in the house.”

“Are you sure about that?” Luminaria hissed at him as she sat imperiously in the middle of the garden path. “If I hadn’t stopped Anna from opening that gate, our friend would have forced his way in.”

“I wasn’t going to open the gate to him; I realized something was wrong with Scott,” Anna tried to defend herself as she pressed her hand harder into her chest.

Aaron twisted his head down so fast, it was a surprise he didn’t shatter his spine. “Sorry, what? Was Scott here?”

“The dark wizard, it was Scott,” Anna managed as she let Aaron lead her forward.

Though Aaron’s cheeks paled with anger, his eyebrows also crumpled. “What are you talking about?”

“I was in the garden, then Scott walked up to the gate. He asked me to come outside, and when I wouldn’t, he wanted to come inside. He was … the dark wizard.”

Aaron’s cheeks now paled so much it looked as if the skin and blood and muscle had disappeared to reveal nothing but smooth white bone. “That’s impossible,” he said firmly.

For a man who hated Scott as much as Aaron did, his admission was too adamant. Surely wizard Arana would take glee in the fact Scott was a bad apple.

But Aaron shook his head again. “It can’t be Scott, trust me. My brother is a lot of things, but if he were a dark wizard practicing soul magic, I’d know about it by now.”

Anna gave a stage blink. “Brother? Scott is your brother?”

“Yes. And he’s not the dark wizard. It just means ...” Aaron trailed off as he turned over his shoulder to stare at the street. You would be a fool not to note the worry slackening his features.

“It just means what?” she prompted as she took a hesitant swallow.

“That Scott has been captured,” Aaron conceded in a quiet voice, “if that dark wizard is mimicking his appearance and speech, it means he’s got Scott.”

Anna inhaled sharply. “Oh my God. Is he going to ... is the wizard going to—”

“He’ll do nothing until he has all of his soul back.” Aaron helped her up the steps and through the door. “Which we’re going to make sure doesn’t happen.”

Still rubbing her chest, Anna nonetheless appreciated the feel of Aaron’s arms around her shoulders as he helped her towards his drawing room.

“All we have to do is wait until midnight. If my calculations are correct, the dark wizard only has until 12 o’clock tonight to get his soul back. If he can’t, he’ll disappear. Then one of my agents will be able to track Scott down, wherever he is.”

She wanted to believe that Aaron’s words were dismissive of Scott, but that would be denying Aaron’s expression. It was composed, granted, but only in a way that hid the tension. His torso was locked, his fingers crooked as they rested on her arm, and his jaw was straight and closed.

He led her over to a chair, flicking it out with his foot and helping her sit. Then, with a worried glance through his window, he walked around to the front of his desk. He rummaged in a drawer for several seconds before pulling out a small black book.

He sat down and started to leaf through it.

....

He wasn’t going to start reading in front of her again, was he? Aaron had a habit of ignoring her while he immersed himself in his latest read. But now really wasn’t the time for some light literature.

Before she could clear her throat, he settled on a page, nodded, and looked up at her. “I think I have something of interest.”

“What do you mean? Before that dark wizard left, he threatened that he was still inside me,” she tapped her chest with an open, sweaty palm, “and that he could take control and breakout.”

Aaron nodded solemnly, still holding onto the book, keeping the correct page with his thumb. “I know, that’s what I’m talking about. I think I have a talisman somewhere that might help you fight him off.”

“So ... it wasn’t just an empty threat? He really could break his way out of me?” Her eyes became steadily wider and wider until the skin along her temples and cheeks threatened to crack.

“I’m ashamed to say I’ve been underestimating this wizard. While Luminaria may be correct and the wizard’s own magic may not be substantial, I cannot ignore he has powerful friends. I doubt he alone has been calling the soul catcher. It makes more sense to believe that somebody else, someone far more powerful, has been telling him to do it. That same person, or creature, or group,” Aaron qualified, his voice becoming unsettlingly ominous, “could help to magnify the wizard’s magic.”

“And if he gets strong enough, he’ll break his way right out of my soul,” her voice shuddered as she sank further into the comfort of her chair.

“He’ll try. But we will stop him.” Aaron got to his feet, still holding onto the little black book as he walked to the opposite side of the room and checked through his bookcase. Neat, colorful-spined magical tomes were lined up, their covers untouched by sun and age, despite how old they were. Aaron looked thoughtful as he selected one and brought it back to the desk.

“I don’t get it. Last night you seemed to already know that this guy had friends. Or at least that’s what you told Luminaria. That’s why you brought me here, right?”

Aaron didn’t answer immediately. Instead he peered up into the furthest reaches of his bookcase, clearly searching for something important. Only when he found it several seconds later and brought it back to the desk did he look at her. Setting the book down slowly and pressing one hard-knuckled fist into the cover, he shook his head. “There’s something you need to know about magic in Marchtown. This city isn’t particularly old, and neither is it placed over some hell portal or magical site. And yet ...” he trailed off and looked pensive as he clearly tried to sort through his thoughts, “I have faced more magical crime here than I have anywhere else, and that includes Vale. It’s varied, it’s chaotic, and no matter how many criminals you wipe off the street, more grow up to replace them. That’s why I’m here. I head up security for the Council of Eight, and out of every city in the world, I choose to live in Marchtown, because I’m needed here more than anywhere else.”

“What are you saying?”

“That I have been guilty of underestimating a threat before, and I’ve done it again. I want to tell you I know what we’re dealing with. I want to tell you that if you stay here behind these walls you’ll be fine. But I can’t know for sure. If that wizard managed to capture Scott ...” he trailed off and shook his head, bringing two fingers up to press them hard into his brow. “There is every possibility he has access to people or a source of power I don’t know about. And if I don’t know about it, I can’t predict what will happen next. I thought bringing you here would be enough, and I hope it still is, but I realize now we should prepare for the worst.”

Anna brought a shaking hand up and pushed her hair from her face. It had gone back to being a mess. Either the magical wonder product she’d used on it this morning hadn’t lasted, or her fright had frazzled her body and hair too.

“Come with me, that talisman is in my storeroom.” He shrugged towards the door.

She got to her feet, latching a hand on the armrest as she pushed the other hard into her sternum, trying to chase away the growing tingle building there. “Hold on, you said before he might have access to a kind of magic you’ve never encountered.”

“It’s possible. There are things out there both extremely ancient and extremely new that are not documented. It’s very unlikely though. It’s far more likely that new powerful criminals have moved into town and they are helping him.”

There are things out there both extremely ancient and extremely new. Aaron’s words echoed in her mind.

She pulled her hand off her chest and brought it up to stare at it. She remembered the awful prickling tingle that had escaped across her body when she’d met that wizard. When she had felt him practice that strange magic.

Her allergies had reacted to it in a mega way. And her allergies were proportional to power. The more magic she encountered, the worse they got.

Should she say something? Or was she just being an idiot? Aaron was right; the likelihood that she, Anna Hope Summersville, had somehow encountered a completely new kind of magic was astronomically low.

Yet the lifeblood of magic was possibility – making the unlikely real.

She trotted quickly behind him until she reached his side. Wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans and tucking her hair behind her shoulders she took a breath. “I know this is going to sound weird, but maybe there is a possibility he’s practicing some kind of new magic.”

Aaron looked like he ignored her as he reached past, grabbed the door handle, and muttered a quick spell under his breath. The door was bright fire-truck red and had a single gold symbol painted in the middle encircled by a dragon eating its tail. It swung open gently to reveal a massive room. The room had to be much bigger than the house. It looked as though it sprawled for acres. In the style of a hangar, with a tall rounded ceiling, it had stacks after stacks of shelves, all full with boxes.

As Aaron walked in, he flicked his finger to the side, and rows of lights lit up from above, turning on with a hiss and a buzz.

“You might not want to breathe too hard when you’re in here; there’s a lot of concentrated magic. I would leave you out in the corridor, but ...” he didn’t finish his sentence. Did he have to to?

If he left her out in the corridor, unsupervised, she might suddenly crack in half as a dark wizard claimed her soul.

She hurried up and slipped into step behind him.

Though he’d completely ignored her before, she cleared her throat again. “I know you’re not going to take much stock in what I say. I’m just a stupid little witch with allergies. But listen, I think those allergies might be trying to tell me something.”

Aaron stopped, just as he reached for a box on the shelf before them. He turned over his shoulder and locked her in his gaze. “I don’t think you’re stupid, Anna.”

Well you sure act like you do, she thought bitterly. She didn’t say it out loud, of course – she wasn’t that kind of girl. What she did instead was try hard to keep his gaze. “My allergies are proportional to what I face,” she said, suddenly sneezing and making her point perfectly. She gestured around the room. “This place would be enough to give me a headache, a rash, and a nasty case of tingles. But whatever that wizard was practicing,” her eyes drew wide, “it was awful. I’ve never felt anything like it. And I know you may think I’m not up to much, but I did work on the Vale police force for several months. I’ve encountered demons, vampires, dark magic, you name it. I have never felt anything like this though.”

Aaron looked like he wanted to ignore her and turn around to keep searching through the boxes. Or maybe that was just her impression of him. Maybe she had trouble reading his smooth brow and blank gaze, because maybe Aaron never let his true feelings show.

She swallowed, waiting for him to dismiss her or laugh her off.

He did neither. “Are you sure it wasn’t just soul magic? It is a very rare form of magic, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d never encountered it, even in Vale.”

She shook her head impassionedly, her hair scattering over her shoulders and cheeks. “No, I know it’s not soul magic. It ... I felt it most when he called the soul catcher. I thought my back was going to burst into flames.”

Aaron looked at her. His expression was irritatingly blank. Even a team of magical psychologists wouldn’t be able to predict what he was thinking.

After several agonizing seconds he sighed. “I want to tell you you’re wrong, and that it’s impossible, but I’m starting to realize I know nothing about this city. I’ve been working here for several months, and I have barely made a dent in crime.”

He sounded frustrated. He didn’t look it though. He still had that same controlled, relatively blank expression. Aaron was clearly a man who hid his true feelings well.

“If it is some kind of new magic, or very old magic,” he added in a low, not particularly comforting tone, “then ...” he trailed off.

She swallowed. “Then what?”

“We should hurry and find you that talisman.”

She placed a hand on her stomach and tried to fight back the queasy wash of nerves that threatened to engulf her.

If this situation was starting to worry Aaron, then ... oh lord, it was serious. Deadly serious.

She let Aaron work, and she dutifully followed him, always keeping at a distance whenever he opened a box. The trapped magic would make her eyes water.

After what felt like an hour, he stopped, the slightest of smiles curling his lips. “I’ve got it,” he said triumphantly as he pulled something out of a dusty brown wooden box.

Anna expected to see a talisman befitting a man like Aaron. Maybe it would be gold studded with rubies that shimmered even under the darkest night. Or maybe it would be carved out of light itself, and would sit around one’s neck, blazing like a mini sun.

What she got, however, was a chunk of wood. It wasn’t even carved. And it was hung on a particularly drab, dirty piece of string. It looked like something a child would make.

“Ah, is that it?” She tried to keep the disbelief from her voice.

She clearly didn’t manage it, as Aaron raised an eyebrow. “What, you can’t feel its magic?”

She opened her mouth to say no, then she sneezed. So violently she almost hit her head on the shelf. Leaning back with a hand over her nose as she blinked her eyes she muttered an “oh.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s very powerful. And hopefully it will be enough.”

“What exactly is it meant to do?”

“Magnify your own soul.”

Magnifying magic and power she had heard of, magnifying souls was new to her. Dropping her hand from her nose, she stared at it warily. “And what exactly does that entail?”

“This,” he patted it gently, “will help you become more like yourself. Your true self,” he qualified quickly.

It sounded like a self-help book.

He handed it to her reverently.

She took it, biting her lip as she did. “So it will keep the dark wizard back? Stop him from pushing his way out of my soul?”

Aaron held her gaze then shook his head. “No, I’m afraid it can’t do that. If that dark wizard really has a way to gain control over the scrap of soul he has left in you, then there’s nothing I can do and nothing I have that can stop him.”

She paled. She must have looked like she’d died, or was just about to.

“But there’s something you have and something you can do,” Aaron emphasized. “When the dark wizard tries to gain control of you, this will help you to stop him.”

She looked up, and she was unashamed at the pleading edge to her gaze. This guy was wizard Arana. He was on the Council of Eight, and he was easily one of the most powerful wizards in the world. As pathetic as it sounded, she wanted him to fix this. She wanted to collapse into a chair knowing that he was here and would make everything okay. Yet as he held her gaze and swallowed, she realized that wasn’t going to happen.

It was now up to her.

 

Chapter 16

Luminaria strode along the carpet, shooting Aaron a terse look whenever she passed him.

For Aaron’s part, he sat in his chair, his chin cradled in his hand as he read his book.

This time he wasn’t completely ignoring Anna, though. Like clockwork, every several seconds, he looked up and checked on her.

He was waiting – they were all waiting – for Anna to lose control of her soul. For the dark wizard to make his move.

The grand old clock above the equally grand old mantelpiece red 11:30.

There was precisely half an hour left. Either the wizard would chicken out and be a no-show, or any second now he would start tapping on the door to her soul, violently and with a big stick in his hand.

“Where is this pathetic wizard?” Luminaria suddenly declared as she whirled on the spot, her outstretched claws ripping the carpet.

Aaron shot her a warning look. “That’s very expensive.”

“And my little witch’s soul isn’t?” Luminaria shot back.

Had Luminaria actually just said that? Because it sounded – impossibly – as if the possessed cat cared for Anna.

“I wasn’t suggesting that,” Aaron defended himself quickly.

“Oh yes you were. I know your type, wizard,” Luminaria snarled, “you love your books more than you love your witches.”

It was an odd thing to say, and it made Anna blush.

“I value human life more than anything else.” Aaron made a point of closing his book and resting it on his lap.

“Oh yes, of course you do. I imagine you value your life quite a bit. But let’s be honest here, people like Anna don’t belong in it, do they?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Oh really?” Luminaria cackled at him. “There must be some reason you ignore her and dismiss her all the time. I mean, I’m not one to point fingers – I have made a very successful life of ignoring that silly little witch. But I have a very good reason for doing so: I’m evil. I don’t give a single hoot what people think about me, and I just love spreading ill will. For a so-called good wizard, you’re particularly rude and harsh.”

“I have a very important job. It takes up all of my time, all of my power, and all of my attention. If I come across as rude, I apologize.” Aaron turned towards Anna.

She blinked quickly. She always blinked quickly when he looked at her; it felt pretty weird to be noticed, especially by him. “Ah, you don’t need to apologize,” she mumbled quickly, realizing she should say something.

“Of course he needs to apologize. He’s extremely irritating,” Luminaria pointed out harshly, “and if I were permitted to, I would magically slap him for it. But that is not the point.”

“Do illuminate us, Luminaria,” Aaron asked patiently, “but what is the point?”

“I may be a cat, but once upon a time I was a woman.”

“Fascinating,” Aaron said dryly.

“Yes it is. Because once upon a time I had empathy, though I rarely used it, of course. It did, however, enable me to acquire sound psychological skills. Primary among them, is finding out someone’s weaknesses.” Her head dipped low as she smiled. It was the kind of smile that belonged only on the face of felines and devils.

Aaron stiffened.

“You have a scar, my boy. Some kind of mental wound. Emotional, too, if I’m any judge. I’ve watched you, you see, and you either dismiss people or you engage with them through a facade of charm, which is another kind of dismissal. You hide behind your perfect little face and suit, so no one ever sees who you truly are.”

Aaron didn’t move and he didn’t say anything.

Though any minute now Anna would be attacked by a dark wizard, all her attention was focused on Aaron.

“I wonder what your wound is?” Luminaria brought her paw up and started to play with her claws. “I wonder who wronged you? Was it that brother of yours?”

Aaron stood up slowly. He swallowed, or at least tried to. The move stuck in his throat and he turned sharply towards the mantelpiece. He strode over to it, pretending to be interested in the fire crackling softly in the hearth.

“Everything you do and say, or don’t do and don’t say, reveals your weakness,” Luminaria continued, taking great pleasure in psychologically unpicking Aaron.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Aaron said. His voice sounded calm and controlled, but there was a note of hesitation. And, as fantastic as it sounded, vulnerability.

Here was one of the most powerful wizards in the world looking lost.

Anna shifted uncomfortably on her chair. “Luminaria, maybe you should give it a rest. We should concentrate on the fact that the dark wizard—”

“Shut up, girl. I’m having the most fun I have had in years. Now let me see if I can figure this out. It most definitely has something to do with your brother, and if I’m any judge, you’ve lost something. You have the kind of look of a man who has lost something.”

Aaron turned his back, leaning down as he stoked the fire. There was so much rigidity about his shoulders that it looked as if he was trying to impale each log.

“Thank you for confirming my assumption, boy. Your silence is the only evidence I need to conclude I’m on the right track. Was it a woman? Did you lose your pathetic first love to your more strapping brother? Oh that makes delicious sense. Only wizards would be pathetic enough to care about something like that.”

“It was my mother,” Aaron answered.

“What?” Luminaria looked confused.

“We lost our mother.” Aaron turned around. His face was no longer controlled. He wasn’t crying though, and nor did he look furious. He looked resigned. “You are right, it is a wound. But it happened a long time ago, and I have moved on as best as I can.”

“I’m so sorry—” Anna began.

“And you’re right: I blame Scott. I blame him for becoming the kind of man he did. For turning to crime. For worrying her. If he hadn’t—” Aaron shook his head.

“For turning to crime?” Anna stuttered disbelievingly.

“When he was a teenager, he joined a dark magical gang,” Aaron explained, pushing his hands into his pockets as he turned over his shoulder and stared out the window.

“But, I thought he was a bounty hunter?”

“He is now. But that doesn’t cancel out his dark past.” Aaron spoke through clenched teeth.

Anna’s mind whirled. Scott had been into the dark arts? “But how did he get your mother killed?” she asked, relenting to her curiosity before she thought through her question.

Aaron levelled his gaze at her, and it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it.

She stuffed both her hands over her mouth. “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up. Please ignore me. I’m sorry,” she practically whimpered.

“He was into the dark arts, you say?” Luminaria interrupted. “I’m beginning to like this boy more and more. I shall personally see to it that he is returned from the clutches of that dark wizard, just so he can continue to haunt your steps, Arana,” she promised cruelly.

Aaron didn’t react. “And how are you personally going to see to that, Luminaria von Tippit? It’s almost 12, and our wizard hasn’t arrived. Where is he? There is every chance we got it wrong, and ....” He turned around, staring over his shoulder at the window again.

“And what?” Anna prompted.

“For all I know, Scott is dead and that wizard isn’t coming.” Aaron, for just a second, became undone. The cold, calm facade dropped completely from his face, revealing a confused, fragile man.

She wanted to walk up to him and give him a hug, but she didn’t think he would appreciate it. Instead she ground her teeth into her lips and winced in compassion.

She was still wearing her talisman, and without realizing it, she reached up and clutched it in her hand.

She sneezed, the magic affecting her allergies immediately.

This talisman was meant to make her more of herself, it was meant to magnify the very essence of her soul – her true destiny. Instead, it was making her allergies flare up.

Then again, her allergies were part of her, weren’t they? As weird as it sounded, in many ways, they defined her more than any other feature. Anna was known as the witch who sneezed at her own magic.

She felt silly as she sat there and thought that. Who wouldn’t feel silly? Aaron was defined by his power and wisdom and sense of style. Luminaria by her cruel tenacity. She hadn’t known Scott particularly long, but she could still define him as gritty, playful, and serious, all wrapped up into one confusing, clean-shaven package.

Anna, Anna was just the allergic one. The witch who shouldn’t be practicing magic

....

And yet the witch who practiced it nonetheless.

And maybe that was what defined her. Though she had every reason to quit, she didn’t.

“What happens if that wizard doesn’t try to attack me before midnight?” She looked up quickly, gazing between Luminaria and Aaron.

“I don’t know. But I do know that Scott is running out of time, or he has already run out of time,” Aaron added softly.

Anna ran her teeth over her lip. “But if we take the wizard down, it will be easy to find Scott, right?”

“Once we eliminate that wizard or capture him, whatever spells he’s using to subdue Scott will break. If Scott is in any state to escape, he will. Even if he isn’t, it will give us a fighting chance to find him.”

She nodded, a firm resolution building in her gut. She even patted a hand to her stomach, the first time she’d stopped rubbing her chest. “Okay then, it’s simple. We bring him to us. We fight here, now, and we end this before 12.”

Aaron and Luminaria shared a look. If things weren’t so serious, Anna would take a picture to remind them later.

“How are you going to bring the wizard to you, you silly witch?” Luminaria asked.

At the same moment, Aaron talked over her. “There’s no way to bring that wizard here.”

Anna tightened her grip on her talisman. She let her fingers wrap all the way around the plain wood. It may have only been simple and drab, nothing but string and a stump of stick, but she could feel its power.

It reminded her of herself. She was simple and drab, but underneath it all, she was still a witch.

She levelled her gaze at them. “I think I can bring him here.”

“Short of slapping a target on your head and going outside to dance naked under the moon, it’s not going to work. And I’m afraid even a naked séance dance isn’t going to get that wizard’s attention. He has clearly been distracted by some other task. Maybe he’s found a way to continue without your soul, or maybe he’s concentrating on amassing a soul catcher army to come breakdown Aaron’s door. The point is, Anna, there’s absolutely nothing someone like you can do.”

Anna let her eyes narrow on the term someone like you.

It was a term she had heard all her life. Someone like Anna couldn’t be a witch. Well someone like Anna was.

Someone like Anna couldn’t be a magical bounty hunter. Well someone like Anna was.

People kept trying to make her believe she was someone she wasn’t.

And it was time to make them stop.

If Anna had been the kind to flick her hair and plant her hands on her hips she would have. Instead, she clasped her hands in front of her and took a deep breath. “I think maybe you should both stand back, as this could get messy.” She closed her eyes before anyone could say anything.

She heard Aaron walk up to her, his footfall thumping along the carpet as he hurried to her side. “What are you going to do? It’s best for you to just sit down and wait.”

She also heard Luminaria’s soft paws trot up to her side. “Just give it a rest, Anna. Sit down and wait.”

She did neither.

Anna closed her eyes and she concentrated.

Not on her magic. Not on her soul.

As weird and wonderful as it sounded, she concentrated on her allergies.

Because what were her allergies other than an exquisite sensitivity to magic? Sure, they gave her no end of runny noses and sneezing fits, but underneath it all they meant her body was just more attuned to magic than your average practitioner.

Anna had never thought of her allergies this way. Her whole life they had been a nuisance. Yet right now they could be the key to ending this.

She tuned out Aaron and Luminaria’s continuing complaints. Anna instead focused on her sharp intake of breath, on the way her skin prickled around her chest, and on the intense pressure building in her sternum. Rather than give in to the allergies, she tried to follow them. Like a path. One paved with rashes and snuffly noses.

With another deep breath, she felt the way her heart pattered and drummed in her chest. She fixed her mind’s eye on the sensation of it racing, until she felt herself running along with it.

“Anna, you need to be careful,” she heard Aaron warn.

Careful? She’d spent her entire life being careful. Boring too. She was the girl who stayed at home to look after the cat, the girl who stuck to lacy socks and wooly cardigans because they were safer than jeans and heels.

She could do this.

As she followed the sensations of her allergies – the way they reacted to the building pressure in her chest – she swore she started to feel something tapping on her head. It wasn’t an enterprising bird who’d flocked in past Luminaria’s defenses. A woodpecker hadn’t mistaken Anna’s noggin for a nice winter’s home.

No. It was him. The wizard.

It was the connection between them – the string that bound their souls. Or the chain, rather.

Anna had never practiced soul magic. Soul magic was particularly hard and particularly powerful. It would be a great way of giving herself a pounding headache and an iridescent rash that would last for a week.

And yet now as she searched out that wizard, as she tried to differentiate his soul from her own, she felt an odd kind of tingle escape over her flesh.

It was power. One more basic than sparks and flame and crackles. One that stretched back to the dawn of time.

You had to be taught to practice soul magic, and there were few teachers willing to do the job. It was hard, it was dangerous, and the only people who wanted to learn were particularly evil and unlikely to pay their tuition fee.

Anna had never been taught, and yet right now she could feel herself practicing spontaneously. As she searched out that wizard’s soul, she had to learn to wrangle with the magic of destiny itself.

She may have sneezed, her body may have been plunged into a terrible coughing fit – but she couldn’t tell. Her mind was now pushed towards her task with all the single-minded attention of a horse with blinkers.

There.

Finally.

She could feel him.

Her brow slackened and her arms hung limply by her sides. She retained only enough attention and control to keep her body standing, but she could feel herself sway.

She latched her hands onto the wizard’s soul, and she pulled.

At the same time, he pulled her.

A battle of wills ensued. No, a battle of souls.

Though she wasn’t aware of it, her talisman lit up like a flare on a moonless night. It throbbed with a bright orange-yellow glow as it hung against her chest. The wood and string were transformed, coursing with so much energy they looked like nothing but pure potential.

Aaron and Luminaria had to duck back or be blinded.

Come on, Anna said to herself, you can do this.

No, you can’t. Another voice said in her mind. It was him.

The wizard.

Just as she heard his determined, cold tone echo in her head, she felt something.

She also heard Aaron scream.

Anna forced her eyes open, just in time to see black energy surge down her chest, crackle into her legs, and burst into the carpet. It ate into the wood below, sending long, twisting dark marks over the expensive rug and floorboards.

Before she could say or do anything, a hand descended from the black pool of twisting, writhing energy, and it latched around her suede boot.

She had enough time to level her gaze up and stare at Aaron’s shock-filled expression, before Anna was pulled down.

She couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t fight it. With a crackle that burst through the air like a thunderclap at close range, she was stolen from that room. From Aaron, from Luminaria – from safety.

 

Chapter 17

 

Anna slammed face-first into the floor. The wind wasn’t so much knocked out of her, but stolen from her chest. It felt as if tiny hands had ravaged her lungs, stealing every scrap of air and energy until she was left weakened and stilled.

She heard footfall. It came from thick, heavy boots. Then there was the distinctly memorable creak of jeans as someone leaned down close to her. She felt a large hand grab her hair roughly, and her head was yanked back.

She looked up into the wizard’s gaze.

His lips kept kinking and twitching as if he weren’t sure whether to smile or snarl. “I wasn’t going to get you until later. I found a way to sustain myself without the scrap of soul you carry. But look at this – you found me.”

He still held her by the hair, and there was nothing she could do about it. Maybe it was the exhaustion of practicing soul magic of her own, or maybe the wizard’s portal spell had done something to her – but she couldn’t move. It felt as if she’d swallowed an anchor, or someone had managed to turn the air around her into concrete to pin her in place.

She barely managed breath after breath, and only just had the energy to keep her eyes open.

She stared at him.

His lips finally settled into a satisfied grin. “I’m going to enjoy using your soul, Anna. I was going to keep you as an ordinary sacrifice – but I’ve got bigger plans now. You’re going to come in real handy.” He brought up his free hand and brushed two knuckles down her cheek.

“Leave her alone,” someone croaked. The voice was so weak, it barely travelled.

She heard it though, and she knew from whose tortured throat it issued.

Scott.

The dark wizard was back to looking like his usual self. He no longer mimicked Scott, and once again wore his trademark blue jeans and biker’s jacket.

He picked her up by the hair and yanked her to her feet.

She saw she was back in the chapel. Somehow there was still a full moon shining outside, casting its eerie silvery glow through the stained glass windows lining the walls.

Up on the pedestal, Scott was tied to a chair. It wasn’t ropes that bound him – it was magical, writhing snakes. They twisted around his hands and feet, holding him to the chair, the undulating bodies slithering as blue-black magic crackled over their scales.

Scott had a desperate, wide-eyed look on his face. He was pale, beaten, bleeding, and clearly weak, yet he mustered enough energy to beg “let her go.”

The wizard ignored him and dragged Anna forward, finally dumping her next to the lectern. She fell to the floor, her head slamming into the unyielding thin red carpet. She couldn’t move, but she could stare at Scott.

“Fight him, Anna. Come on, you can do it,” he pleaded with her. Blood was dripping down from a gash in his brow, and his usually tied-back hair was loose and clumped around his face.

She tried to push herself up, but her limbs felt as thought they’d been replaced with mountains.

“Fight it,” he begged her. “Don’t let him do this to you. Come on.”

The dark wizard started to mutter some spell. She could hear him leafing slowly through a book resting on the lectern.

She’d called that wizard because she’d been convinced she could fight him. The sorry truth was she didn’t have a chance. She couldn’t stand, let alone muster the energy to attack.

Scott’s expression paled, his desperation giving in to a sickly resignation. He winced, closed his eyes, swallowed, and looked at her one last time.

How had she thought she could fight this guy? He had enough power to capture Scott – and Scott was ten times the bounty hunter she would ever be.

This would be the mistake of her life. Her soon-to-be short life.

She felt tears tumble down her cheeks, their cold touch one of the few things she could feel as a detached numbness started to pull over her limbs. It felt as if someone was deleting her body from her memory. As if, one by one, her hands and feet and legs and arms were being taken away from her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see something climbing her body. Dark crackles of magic leapt over her skin, sinking into the carpet and making it singe.

She whined, trying with every scrap of energy she had to jerk away.

She couldn’t.

The wizard stopped mumbling. He turned around, dropped to one knee, and grabbed her by her injured wrist. She gasped in pain as he tightened his grip more and more, until it felt as if he was trying to squeeze right through the bone until he crushed her hand into dust.

“Just let her go. Please,” Scott begged.

The wizard did let her go. Suddenly, he jerked back and stood. But while he removed his real hand from her wrist, its phantom remained. Once again that ghostly grip was back. It encircled her wrist like steel-reinforced stone.

The wizard flicked his hand to the side, and Anna was pulled up by her wrist. She screamed, but it did nothing. What could it do?

She was beaten, and very soon, she would die.

Tears filled her eyes, washing down her face in waves as resignation stole away her last trace of hope.

The wizard shifted his hand again, and the ghostly grip around her wrist pulled it back until her palm was facing upward, her fingers held back as far as they would go.

“Anna, come on, please fight it. He’s about to steal your soul. Fight it!”

“I bring you a witch,” the wizard announced in a thundering tone that shook the windows and floor. “A soul for you to do with as you please, great master.”

She heard a rumble from outside the chapel. The room started to shake, the torches along the walls shuddering, their light casting erratic, horrible shadows against the stone.

Her eyes drew wide.

She could feel it approaching. The soul catcher.

Scott paled even more – an impossible feat considering he already looked whiter than powdered bone. He tried to fight against the snakes binding him, but they only slithered tighter against this body. “Goddammit, you asshole,” he screamed at the wizard, “you can’t do this. Stop!”

The wizard looked up at him. “I can. I will. I am.” He brought his hand up, and Anna shot into the air, held there by his ghostly grip.

Her wrist was about to break, and she gasped and writhed in agony.

She couldn’t break free though.

The soul catcher continued to approach. There was heavy, pounding footfall from outside. But then, just as it appeared it would break right through the far wall, it stopped. A door opened towards the back of the church, and someone entered. The soul catcher. She watched its enormous troll-like form change in a crackle of black smoke, until a woman walked forward.

With a slight frame and shocking emerald eyes, she walked towards them, her long black hair tapering down her naked back. Her two bare feet padded softly against the cold stone floor as she made her slow way towards them.

The wizard knelt, pressing his head to the floor. “You’re Highness.”

As the woman approached, she raised a hand, her elegant fingers splaying as fine traces of magic sparked between her nails. They made the air around her crackle and spit, like water thrown on coals.

The wizard’s head jerked back, as one of his eyes suddenly lit up like the sun. The iris flared with shocking blue, lines bursting from it and travelling down his face like an infection on fast forwards.

Before Anna could wonder if the soul catcher had killed the wizard, the man pulled himself to his feet, a triumphant smile curling his lips. Half of his face glowed, one eye still alight and burning brightly.

Anna had never seen anything like it. She’d never read anything like it either.

She had no idea what was going on.

There was only one thing she was sure of – she was about to die.

“What soul do you have for me?” the soul catcher asked, her long neck tilting to the side as she stared down at Anna.

“Not her – we can do something better with her,” the wizard intoned darkly.

“What is that, child?” the soul catcher’s voice was melodic and light, tinkling through the room like clinking glasses or light bells.

“I want you to transfer my soul to her body,” the wizard answered.

“Why? If you are after the fragment of soul you lost to her, I can get it back. And then I can feast on what’s left in her.” The soul catcher smiled at Anna, bringing a hand up and running a single fingernail down Anna’s cheek.

“No, I want that body. She has something that could help us.”

The soul catcher inclined her head slowly towards the wizard.

“If you’re hungry, you can feast on that bounty hunter,” the wizard gestured to Scott, “he’s not a witch, and he won’t further out plans, but at least it’s another soul to add to your collection.”

The soul catcher patted a hand down her lustrous, silken hair and stared over at Scott. She didn’t blink as she surveyed his body. “Yes,” she agreed. “I will take him.”

“Then complete the ritual and give me her body. I don’t know how much longer I can sustain you – my caller candle is already burning low.”

The soul catcher tipped her head in agreement, then walked unhurriedly towards Scott.

She was going to kill him. That woman was going to draw the soul from Scott’s body and feast on it.

Anna struggled against the ghostly grip holding her in place. She tried to yank her hand back, she tried to shove her shoulder back and forth until she found the purchase to free herself.

If she’d paused to notice, she would have realized she was moving. Through desperation or time, she was beginning to regain control.

She twisted to watch the soul catch lean over Scott. He watched her with fixed, unblinking eyes, sadness and guilt and anger twisting through his expression.

The soul catcher brought up a hand, and the snakes holding Scott in place disappeared in wriggles of black smoke.

Scott fell to the ground. He tried to back away, but the woman spread her fingers and locked him in place. His body froze under her influence, his open eyes and mouth becoming so still, they looked like stone.

She leaned down.

Magic built around her.

It was the same magic from before – the new, powerful, strange force Anna had first experienced several days ago.

It wasn’t soul magic – it was something else entirely.

It made her allergies surge. Though her body had previously felt numb and detached, now feeling returned in a wave of tingling, burning heat.

She had seconds – seconds before that soul catcher killed Scott.

God, she had to do something!

As her allergies went haywire, Anna fought harder against the ghostly grip. She could feel her body again, and she was determined to use it. She twisted and yanked – fighting with everything she had.

Both the soul catcher and the wizard turned to look at her.

“Contain her,” the soul catcher said.

The wizard stalked towards Anna, bringing a hand up and balling it into a fist.

Anna’s wrist broke. The snap of bone echoed through the hall.

Her eyes burst wide and she wheezed, gulping in an agonized breath.

And yet, despite the pain, she didn’t give up.

The wizard reached her, and with a satisfied smile brought his hand towards the ground. She slammed into the floor, landing on her injured wrist.

More pain exploded through her. It was more burning and intense than any she’d ever felt.

And yet, despite the pain, she pushed herself up.

The wizard stood over her, shaking his head. “You should have stayed down.” He brought his hand back, and sent her skidding across the floor.

“Do not play with her, contain her,” the soul catcher admonished.

“I’m doing both.” The wizard jumped down from the pedestal and followed Anna.

She had to do something.

Now.

She may not have much in terms of power, determination, and ability. She was the girl who’d lost her job before she’d even started it.

Anna was the kind of girl everyone ignored. She could surprise no one. Though sometimes it was novel seeing just how loudly she could sneeze.

Now, everything rested with her. If she couldn’t defeat this wizard and stop the soul catcher, Scott would die.

The wizard reached her and leaned down on one knee. “Done fighting me?”

She looked up into his eyes. She held his gaze. She ignored every blaze of pain, every stab of her allergies and broken body. She held that gaze with all the determination of Luminaria von Tippit herself.

“No,” she said.

Anna fought back.

When she’d searched her soul to find the wizard, she’d practiced soul magic. Now, she did it again.

It was almost an unconscious thing – it just happened as she gritted her teeth and lurched towards him. While she shoved her shoulder into his side, she moved against him with her mind too.

A scrap of the wizard’s soul was still inside her. While that meant he had access to her and could control her, didn’t it mean the opposite too?

Couldn’t she control him?

The wizard was caught off guard, and stumbled back, grabbing his head as he did.

She caught hold of his soul lodged in her heart, and she pulled. She yanked at it like you might a weed.

He stumbled back again, breathing hard, that blue light tracking down his face suddenly turning a muddy brown.

Anna kept moving forward. Though her wrist and arm were broken, she didn’t let that stop her. She rammed her shoulder into the wizard again, sending him toppling over.

She heard the soul catcher shift quickly away from Scott.

Anna had seconds. She had to defeat the wizard before that woman could reach her.

So she used every scrap of magic she had. Every memory, every dream – every twist of fate – she called on it all.

And Anna Hope Summersville practiced soul magic. Real soul magic.

The wizard’s eyes drew wide as she forced her way through them into his mind.

He suddenly drew slack. His legs crumpled from underneath him, and he fell to the floor, frozen like she had been minutes before.

She heard the soul catcher snarl from behind her.

Anna knew what to do.

During her ordeal, the clues had been sliding into place.

She knew how to defeat the soul catcher without even turning to face it.

She closed her eyes. She reached into the wizard’s mind, she grabbed hold of his magic, and she snuffed it out.

Every spell he was casting, stopped. The light along his face died, the lines dropping from his face and disappearing in puffs of smoke.

Far off, a candle stopped burning. A caller candle. The very same candle the wizard had been using to sustain the soul catcher.

The soul catcher gasped.

She disappeared.

It happened in a flash. She did not writhe or twist as the magic sustaining her was ripped from her body. Her eyes simply drew wide as her body blinked out of existence.

Anna had time to turn to her, time to lock onto the soul catcher’s gaze. Then, the woman vanished.

Silence returned to the church. Eerie, quiet, still.

Not even dust filtered down from above.

From outside, the full moon stopped shining, and the once-other-worldly glow bathing the stained glass windows withdrew. Now only the softly flickering torches lit the room.

“Oh my god,” Scott croaked.

She yanked her eyes off the comatose wizard to turn to him.

“You did it. Christ, you did it!” he managed through a wheezing breath.

She ran up to him. Or at least she started to. Very soon she realized how injured she was. She let out a punctuated “oh my god,” of her own.

“Just be careful. You went through a hell of a fight,” he said as he tried but failed to pick himself off the floor. “I don’t know how you did it, but you got rid of that soul catcher and the wizard. I was wrong about you,” though it looked painful, he lifted his head to stare at her, “you are a great bounty hunter. I’m kinda sore Merry hired you before I could. Actually, I’m kinda sore all over.”

Anna reached him and carefully made it down to her knees without falling and landing on his chest again. She offered him a pained, tired smile. “You okay?”

“Oh, hell no. I’ve been tired to a chair by magical snakes for a day, and my soul was almost stolen by a soul catcher.” He gave the gruffest laugh. “But that’s not important. How are you?”

She didn’t immediately answer. She had to think about that one. How was she?

She turned over her shoulder to stare at the wizard.

She’d beat him. And in doing so, she’d learnt soul magic to boot.

“That was incredible, Anna. How did you do it?”

“I realized he was sustaining the catcher through a calling candle, so I reached in, took control of his magic, and snuffed the candle out.” Even as she said it, she couldn’t quite believe it.

She brought her hands up. The bruises and cuts and swelling confirmed she really had done it.

Scott somehow found the energy to shift up and rest a hand on her shoulder. “Thanks for saving my life. And congratulations on your first bounty.”

“... Ha?”

“There’s a substantial bounty out on that guy’s head. You brought him down, so you get it. My first bounty was a toothless vampire suffering from magical dementia. Yours was a dark wizard calling soul catchers – you’re going to have a hell of a career in this town, Anna Hope Summersville.”

It felt weird listening to his words, really weird. He was talking about her, right?

Right.

As he smiled her way, a little light returning to his tired eyes, there was no doubt he was referring to her.

“I still have magical allergies,” she tried to point out.

“Then you better always pack some tissues and eye drops.” He somehow found the strength to hobble to his feet. Then he reached a hand down to her. “Come on, Anna. I suspect there’ll be people waiting for us.”

Anna accepted his hand.

Almost immediately, she heard a noise filtering in from the opposite side of the chapel. It sounded like frantic footfall thundering down the stairs. Indeed, it was, as in a second, the door burst open to reveal Aaron and a team of burly wizards.

Somewhere at his feet, darted Luminaria.

“What happened?” Aaron raced towards them, his tie flapping behind his shoulder. He didn’t stop until he leapt up the pedestal coming to a rest in front of them. His eyes darted over Anna then settled on Scott. “You’re alive.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but yes.” Scott stiffened.

Anna could have stayed out of it, but she didn’t. “Scott, he’s not disappointed. Now give your brother a break. Also, give me a break. You’re leaning on me, and you’re pretty heavy.” She handed him over to Aaron.

Though both brothers had a moment of animosity, Scott still accepted Aaron’s shoulder.

After Aaron shored up his stance to support Scott, wrapping an arm around his brother’s back, he turned to Anna.

It was hard to describe his expression. “You shouldn’t have done that, Anna. If Scott hadn’t been there—”

“Hey, leave me out of this, brother. I didn’t do diddly apart from sit there tied to a chair. Anna was the one who took down that wizard and the soul catcher. So once you’re done lugging me to a medic, you should probably sort out her bounty reward.” Scott nodded at Anna.

“... Anna defeated the wizard and a soul catcher?” despite Aaron’s usual emotional control, disbelief wavered through his tone.

“That’s right. I saw it. And, because of her, I lived through it.”

Aaron slowly turned back to her. His expression was completely unreadable. “How did you do it?”

“She learnt to practice soul magic, on the fly, and reached right into the dark idiot, and took control. Like I said, I wouldn’t believe it, but I had the opportunity to watch. Us bounty hunters are going to have to look out for her – she’ll be catching all the crims and grabbing all the rewards before we know it.”

“Um, it wasn’t eniterly me. I mean, it was probably the talisman.” She reached for it, but it was gone. “Oh my god, I’ve lost it.” Panic filled her gaze as she looked up at Aaron. “I’m so sorry. I’ll try to replace it. I ... don’t really have any money, but—”

Aaron smiled. It was dashing – but not in the usual way. She’d seen Aaron try to charm people before, but this was different. His smile reached all the way to his eyes and he brushed a hand down his face. It was real. No act. No façade. “It’s okay, Anna. You don’t have to replace it. I’m glad you’re alright.”

She didn’t know what to do, so she tried to neaten her hair. Big mistake – as soon as she pushed her fingers into it, they got stuck.

She was beyond bedraggled. It was a surprise Aaron hadn’t confused her for a drain monster.

“Alright, we need to wrap this operation up. Anna, can you walk?” Aaron looked at her seriously.

“Her wrist is broken,” Scott supplied immediately.

“But it’s not attached to my legs. I can walk.” She demonstrated by taking a step. “Just don’t ask me to fight anymore wizards tonight,” she groaned.

“It’s alright – we’re fresh out of evil guys,” Scott chuckled. “Case closed.”

Luminaria, who had been sitting near by and watching everything, suddenly stood. “Really? Case closed? Can you be that stupid?”

Everyone turned to look at her.

“Do you honestly think that dark wizard was acting alone?” Luminaria raised an eyebrow.

“We’ll look into it. We’ll investigate this,” Aaron promised. “But for now, let’s enjoy this victory.”

“... He wasn’t acting alone. That wasn’t a normal calling candle he was using,” Anna supplied quickly, a flick of fear returning to her.

She may have just won the battle, but somehow she could feel the war was right around the corner.

That soul catcher would be back.

“We will question the dark wizard when he wakes,” Aaron said, “and I will put out a bounty for any information on those calling candles. We will figure this out,” he commanded.

Luminaria flicked her tail. “Or you’ll fail, and I’ll have fun watching.” She tipped her head back and cackled.

“Come on, Luminaria, aren’t you hungry?” Anna walked up to her. “We can buy some tuna on the way home.”

Luminaria appeared placated, and purred.

“I don’t know how she deals with that cat,” she heard Scott mumble under his breath.

“Patience of a saint,” Aaron agreed quietly.

Anna blushed, turned around, and followed Luminaria.

Case closed.

For now.

Want to keep reading? You can buy Anna's Hope Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

 


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