Anna's Hope Episode One
shouldered her bag, rearranged her coat, and stared up at the skyline.
that’s a big city,” she said before biting her lip and wincing. “Too big.”
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?”
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.
stand there – hurry up,” the cat
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.
she could feel a snuffle coming on. She reached into her pocket and pulled out
her pink floral handkerchief.
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.
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.
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.”
Wondrous and Great Luminaria von Tippit, I apologize for my insincerity.”
pronounce Tippit like that. It is a powerful word, you foolish witch.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
getting tired,” Luminaria suddenly announced, shifting her small head back and
twitching her whiskers disdainfully. “Carry me, vassal.”
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.”
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.
group of particularly innocuous citizens was very good at hiding their Devil
pacts, it was safe to say Luminaria was overreacting.
just normal people. Now keep your voice down.”
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.
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.
was contracted to Anna, and to break the contract would break Anna.
through the streets, she ignored Luminaria’s constant commentary until they
made it their new house.
the pavement and looking across at it, Anna quickly grabbed her phone and
checked the address.
was the place.
returned her phone to her pocket and winced as if she’d been punched with a
before her was exactly the kind of house to chuck a brick at someone’s head.
rundown, so much as creepy. Magically
sniffed the pavement, padded up to the letterbox, gave it a calculating look,
then tipped her tiny cat head back and laughed manically.
keep your voice down! We’re in the middle of the street.” Anna reluctantly left
the safety of the pavement to reach Luminaria.
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
“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—”
Its energies will sustain me and my great plans.”
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.
hard and securing her hand over the charm bracelet she always wore, Anna
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.
just maybe this new job would change everything.
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.
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.
were on guard, and they both shot her bored looks.
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—”
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.
said in a weak voice as she hurried past the wizard.
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.
hand into her bag, she fumbled for her hanky.
mind?” Luminaria trilled as she popped her tiny head out of the bag. “I was
just need my handkerchief.” Anna negotiated around Luminaria’s snarling form
until she managed to pry her floral tissue from a side-pocket.
pathetic. Mark my words, they’ll take one look at you, and give the job to
to ignore Luminaria. She concentrated on finding her way through the
labyrinthine halls instead.
no one waiting by the front doors to direct her to Aaron’s, neither was there a
helpful building map or a reception desk.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
At the same
moment, Aaron opened the door. He lifted an eyebrow. “I’m sorry if you feel I
made you wait, Miss …?”
she squeaked. “And no, no, I—”
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.”
She quietly sat down.
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.
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.
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
brushed her hair over her shoulder as she continued to wait.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
jerked her hand back.
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.”
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.”
Aaron smiled around his words. “And I take umbrage at having you in my office,
let alone my city.”
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?”
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
they both steadfastly ignored her, she had to say something before this erupted
into a slinging match. A magical one.
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.”
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
me?” Anna tried to get their attention.
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.
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.”
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
guys?” Anna raised her voice.
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
when Luminaria was involved, things never went to plan.
have left her at home, hell, she would have left her back in Vale, but she
couldn’t. She was bound by the contract.
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.
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
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.
of an heirloom contract prevented Luminaria from practicing magic unless in self-defense.
given the chance, Luminaria would shout at Aaron until the sun went down.
by the bickering pair, Anna reached into her bag, withdrew a small can of tuna,
and opened it quietly.
Luminaria stopped, mid-insult, and sniffed the air.
the tuna on the floor, and Luminaria jumped down to eat it without so much as
another word or curse.
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.
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.
didn’t even try to smile. “No. That position has been filled.”
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.
position has been filled,” he repeated firmly.
“But … I
came all the way here from Vale on the promise of a job.”
were not promised anything. You were offered, but unfortunately the offer no
longer stands as we’ve found someone else to fill the vacancy.”
to swallow. It was hard, because it felt like her throat had frozen. “Um … I …
packed up my whole life to come here.”
looked unmoved. “There are other jobs available in this town, both mundane and
magical. I’m sure you’ll find something.”
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
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
good bye then,” she said weakly.
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.
Miss Summersville.” Aaron didn’t look up from his book.
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.
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.
it's preferable to a dark-arts bar.”
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?”
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.
suppose I am.” Anna rested one of her arms on the bar, propped her head with
the other, and stared at her empty glass.
like you need another,” the bar woman said as she walked up and slapped her
hand on the bench.
blinked back her surprise.
woman was everything Anna wasn't: statuesque, slim, confident, and with looks
that could melt a mirror.
thanks, but I better leave it at that. I only have enough for one drink.”
the house.” The woman flourished a liquor bottle from somewhere, and poured Anna
a drink before she could protest.
“Ah, I, oh,
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.”
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.
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.
her hand back and squeaked “Anna Hope Summersville.”
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.
raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Sorry, I missed that - did you say police witch?”
I used to work in Vale.”
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.
swallowed. Audibly. Visibly. Loudly.
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?”
squeaked. She sounded exactly like a mouse.
out of work?” Meredith's eyes glittered with a particularly unsettling
combination of magic and shrewd calculation.
Hope Summersville, you've walked into the right bar. I've got a job for you.
Great pay, free drinks, and fantastic future prospects.”
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.
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
matter. You need a job, honey. And I've got one for you. With your extensive
experience, it'll be a breeze.”
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?”
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?”
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.”
doesn’t the Magical Enforcement Council just hire bounty hunters? Why do they
need you guys?”
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.
have to do is sign there,” she tapped the contract again, “and then start bringing
in the bounties. Easy as,” she purred.
her mouth to say no.
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.
wouldn’t have a Benjamin in Marchtown. There’d be no police back up. She’d be
on her own.
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.”
the evil that had lurked in Vale City Park, that wasn’t as reassuring as it
should have been. “Ah … look, thanks, but—”
accepts,” Luminaria spat as she jammed her head out of the bag like an
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.
“I make the
decisions around here,” Luminaria cut in, “and I accept this offer.”
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.”
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
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
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.”
to protest. She wanted to point out she couldn’t be a bounty hunter.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
much hired muscle? And what is this guy? A wizard, a magician, a troll? And do
we have backup?”
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
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.”
crumpled her hand over her mouth and tried to breathe. “B-but you told me to
accept the job.”
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.”
her hands over her eyes and slumped against the bar.
couldn’t get any worse.
tonight, they would.
“Ah, is this such a good idea?” She turned
over her shoulder and shot Meredith a pointed look.
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
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.
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
swallowed uncomfortably and shook her head.
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.”
offered a meek smile. “… Okay.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
however, magic. Anna could feel it itching her back and leaving a heat rash.
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.
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.
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
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.
occasion, Luminaria had actually protected Anna. When it served her interests,
was nice to leave the old crone at home.
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.
however, was about to begin.
been to some dark places before. She'd worked in Vale, for one, and that place
was well known for its seedy, shady establishments.
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
been following a leather-clad lascivious bounty hunter, either.
a drink,” Meredith suggested in a low and sultry voice that made every man -
human or not - turn and stare at her.
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.
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
Meredith slid onto a bar stool, her leather pants somehow not sticking to it
and causing her to fall off. “Two drinks please.”
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.
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.
did the guy glance Anna's way, not even to ask Meredith what on earth she'd
brought with her.
awkwardly on the edge of her stool, shifting her head to the side as she again
stared at the rest of the bar.
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.
couldn't see the kingpin anywhere though, unless he was taking a really long
time in the bathroom.
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
of Meredith’s conversation, Anna turned around on her chair, trying to get a
better view of the far corner of the bar.
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.
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.
one upside of having magical allergies. There was a bucket full of downsides,
mind you - but occasionally her illness came in handy.
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
her, he didn't fit in.
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?
pressed her lips together and wondered if he was after the same bounty she 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
coming, or what?” Meredith said pointedly as she looped a firm hand around Anna's
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.
coming? Our friend here has some fabulous wine he wants us to try. It's out
back,” Meredith added.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
could wonder how he'd disappeared so quickly, Meredith waved her forward with a
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.
were about to encounter some seriously dark magic.
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.
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.
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.
in the mood to point that out though.
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.
that wine, sugar?” Meredith purred to the magician as he led the way into the
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
magician said, voice dripping with menace.
Oh hell, Anna
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.
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
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
specific kind of candle the guy held tightly in his white-knuckled grip made Anna
gasp. It was a caller candle.
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.
the candle would summon every demon, ghost, ghoul, or plain bad dude to your
abode in a heart's beat.
good thing about the candle was it threw some light into the room.
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.
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.”
stared darkly at the man, her once attractive face contorting with anger. “Where
the hell did you get a candle like that?”
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.
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.
“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.
exactly the kind of smile you ran away from, not toward.
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.
landed outside the open window.
There was a
scratch of claw on glass and a rustle as something moved past the wood.
drained from her face in a heartbeat, just as a flash of heat burst up her
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.
could think, she reached Meredith, hooked a hand over her arm, and yanked her
to the side.
was quite thin and hardly a muscle-bound witch, she managed to muscle Meredith
out of the way.
tail lanced out of the darkness with all the speed of a bullet.
past her hair, ruffling it and sending it tangling over her eyes.
despite her towering heels, punched to her feet and ran towards the demon.
towards. What was this woman on?
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.
yelped. She instinctively shoved her shoulder back, pulling her torso forward
as she tried to ram her way free from his grip.
guy let out an “ooph,” he didn't let her go.
Hope Summersville did some magic.
honestly something she tried to avoid. If sensing magic was bad for her
allergies, practicing it was havoc.
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.
absolutely had to.
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.
her hand into a fist and sent magic rippling up her wrist and into her palm and
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.
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.
crumpled, the surging magic leaping over his black shirt, and burrowing between
the buttons and weave until it sunk into his skin.
flesh wrought the air as the guy lost his grip on her, stumbled, and staggered
to one knee.
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.
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.
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.
ask - considering her condition - why she'd never quit and sought out a mundane
was simple: her heirloom contract.
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.
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.
stock up on hankies, eye drops, and cooling cream, and she'd keep being a
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.
feel dark magic. Her allergies flared as it ate through the room.
calling candle was still on the opposite side of the room, the magician
suddenly made it blaze.
her head towards it, the blaze of light like a small bomb going off in the
magician had one second to look up at her, his eyes narrowing in dark delight,
before he jerked back and ... disappeared.
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
pressed a hand into her chest, pain shooting through her ribs and down into her
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.
allergies usually only resulted in mild discomfort in the presence of
irritants. Sometimes, and with some people, they could become exquisitely severe.
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.
something different about the magic that magician had just cast. Something
she'd never encountered before, and something that was sending her allergies
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.
suitably put out, gave a blood-curdling cry and crammed himself back out of the
window, metaphorical tail between his legs.
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?”
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.”
you mean? I would have thought you'd come across plenty of magicians in Vale?”
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
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.
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.
she picked her way over to it.
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 …?”
answer. The closer she came to the still-burning candle, the more her stomach
knotted with nerves.
it, she leant down, placed a hand next to but not on it, and brought her face
level with the softly burning flame.
her blood felt like insects as it clawed its way through her body. This new
magic was hell on her allergies.
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
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
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.
up with a move that saw her bang her side against the wall.
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.
managed, “he’s … he’s still in the building.”
magician, he’s still in the building.”
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.
distracted. She shouldn't be - Meredith was right, and a vamp was literally
right outside the door.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
wandered along with her thoughts, kind of forgetting about the fact a vampire
was in the doorway.
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.
Meredith now roared as she sent a fireball slamming towards the vampire.
vampire, in true undead style, walked right through 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.
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
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.
her head, cleared her mind, and rapidly realized how dangerous this was.
Holy crap, there was a vampire in the doorway.
fear had never truly left her, now it leapt back into her heart and shook it
like an earthquake.
took a step into the room, a shadow appearing from nowhere and dancing across
his face, his eyes drawing dramatically wide as it did.
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.
breathed hard through her teeth, the hiss echoing through the room.
need to see the tension locking Meredith’s slender form in place to know how
bad this situation was.
she could wonder whether it could get worse, it did.
behind, near the vicinity of the window, there came a slow swoosh.
the dark magic before she turned her head and saw yet another vampire appear.
this town was clearly infested. While that was good for the local fabric
boutique, it was hell for everyone else.
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
vampires could circle them, cackling in a deep commanding tone, like
Shakespearean actors gone bad, there was a skidding sound from the doorway.
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.
looked down, then up, his eyes drawing so wide it was like the rest of the skin
on his face disappeared.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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!’
vampire did the same, and the two bats quickly made their exit via the open
hunter lowered his gun, tapping a finger along the chamber as he leaned into
the doorway. “So, you still in the business, Merry?”
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
“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.
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.
Meredith snorted, tipping her head back as her soft curls played down her back
and shoulders, “as usual, you’re an ass.”
chuckled, scratching at his neck. “An ass that just saved you and your friend.”
He nodded at Anna.
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.
have managed,” Meredith snorted.
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.
idiot, just get out of our way. Actually,” Meredith stopped, “what is your
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.”
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.
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?”
I jam one of these heels up your ass?” Meredith offered.
“I think I’ll
pass. God knows where your heels have been.”
in the corner listening, watching, and barely holding back her surprise.
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.
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.
to leave. Heck, she’d never wanted to come. And yet, she couldn’t move.
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
important. And dangerous. The magic that magician had practiced could be used
for god knows what, but God knows it would be bad.
better judgment, she leaned down and picked it up.
herself before she did, shoring up her stance to ensure any flare up of her
allergies wouldn’t knock her off her feet.
stiffened, pulling away from leaning nonchalantly on the doorframe to stand
cautiously, staring her way. “You want to be careful with that, Anna.”
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
She took a
slow swallow and let her fingers rest into the wax as she held it at arm’s
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.
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.
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.
her eyes open. “He’s this way.” She began to walk towards the wall.
that way?” Meredith asked. “That’s a wall, sweetie.”
towards the wall, her gaze fixated on a small, innocuous splash of white paint
towards the skirting board.
into step behind her, but Meredith remained by the doorway, staring on, a
confused expression crumpling her perfect brows. “Anna, hon, what are you
a bounty hunter, you sure know nothing about magic. She’s sniffing out the
magical connection,” Scott explained.
what, to whom,” Scott said.
of her own free will, and half through compulsion, reached a hand out and
pushed the flame against the speck of white paint.
nothing happened. One second ticked by, then another.
Just as she
started to wonder what she was doing, something happened.
exploded in magical symbols. The dirty, mildew covered drab wallpaper burst
away in a hiss, as fiery blue-white runes raced over the plaster.
crackled and spat from the symbols, like hair thrown onto a fire.
gasped, taking an audible step back on her sky-high heels.
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.
the candle, whatever compulsion that had forced her to hold it disappearing.
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.”
explain in a second.”
me now. I – what did I just do?”
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.
shattered like glass, cracking and tumbling to the ground in shards that
sizzled with white-hot power.
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.
warping, twisting downward towards those dark steps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
she could turn away, something happened. Something caught hold of her chest and
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.
stumbled down the stairs, managing to push into the wall to stop herself from
free falling down the steps and breaking her neck.
could do anything she heard an ominous clap.
closed. The doorway back into that room and Meredith closing with it.
swelled in around her, the only sound her beating heart as it industriously
tried to hammer its way out of her constricted chest.
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,”
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.
was pulling her down, guiding her towards whatever lay at the bottom of this
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.
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
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.
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
walking down the stairs.
Step after step,
that grip around her chest tightened. It became hard to breathe, but she didn’t
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.
out a hand, let her fingers settle against the wood until the runes squirmed
underneath her skin, and then she pushed.
creaked open with all the portent of a flock of crows fleeing a cemetery.
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.
forward into a chapel.
carved from blocks of sandstone, their mottled creams and browns a soft warm
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.
were arranged around the walls, casting twirling patterns over the walls and
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.
been in a more beautiful place. It went beyond stunning – it did something to
forward, her long skirt swaying against her ankles with every languid step.
stretched out before her, carved wooden pews neatly arranged along the walls.
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.
a hand down her face sleepily, disturbing her hair and pushing it messily over
care; she kept walking.
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.
tired.” She put a hand up to her head and blinked heavily.
should sleep,” someone suggested from behind her.
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
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.
blue jeans, a dark-blue t-shirt, and a biker’s jacket.
on her feet, almost succumbing to sleep while inconveniently standing up.
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.”
her hand pushed into her head. “W-why am I here?”
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
“I … I ….”
She fell to the floor, her limbs crumpling as the fatigue cut them down.
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.
her head against the cold sandstone, her knotty hair tumbling over her face and
covering her eyes.
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.”
Yeah, she wanted to fall asleep. Her whole body tingled with the urge to let go
and drift off ….
suddenly coughed, sneezing herself awake.
was so violent, she jerked back from the kneeling man and hit her head on the
It was also
violent enough to wake her up. Not just from her impending slumber, but from
the sleep spell itself.
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 –
back, slamming her foot into the guy’s knee as she tried to get to her feet.
allergies had saved her life. If they hadn’t woken her up, she’d be ….
struggled forward, snapping towards her with all the pent-up energy of a
cheetah pushing into a run.
scrabbled around the side of the lectern, her hands leaving sweaty prints on
the dusty sandstone.
didn’t say anything. Not a word. He pushed around the lectern and snapped
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.
jerked backwards as if he’d been hit.
had woken up from a sleep spell, and her allergies were beyond intense, she realized
what was happening.
had been sustaining his spell through the book. By closing it, she’d broken the
stronger and faster than she was, but this gave her an opportunity.
for the book. If she could get to it and keep it from his grasp, she could
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.
had fallen behind a pew.
herself towards it, her fingers brushing the spine.
right over the pew, landing on the wood and kicking it into her.
jammed against her outstretched arm, crushing her fingers, she managed to keep
them pressing into the book.
was all it took.
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.
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.
shuddered back, just as he got to his knees, gave her a surprised look, then
He was out
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.
was buzzing (and itching) from the fight, she slowly pushed the pew from her
hand, and stood. Cautiously she stared around the room.
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
shuddered. Though her wrist and hand hurt from where the pew had fallen on
them, she ignored the pain.
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.
it’s not over,” she realized, just as the stone below her feet began to
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.
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
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.
though the chapel was very much empty, she slammed into someone’s back,
knocking them from their feet.
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.
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.
pushed herself up; her head was still swimming.
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—”
that guy?” Anna pointed over her shoulder to the comatose wizard arranged over
the broken pew.
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.
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.”
an awkward, teeth-pressed smile.
be her, alright. Down on her luck and pretty much incapable.
not entirely incapable. She had downed that dark wizard. She turned over her
shoulder to stare at him again.
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.”
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.”
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.”
burn your hand in the fight?” Scott walked over casually to check her wound. “Hey,
you’re face is getting a bit red too.”
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.
she muttered again.
“I think we
should get out of here,” she yelped, latching a hand on Scott and trying to tug
him towards the door.
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.
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?”
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.
calling something to him.
that was about to arrive.
something shook. With a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, it sounded as if something
massive was making its way towards the chapel.
ceiling suddenly shook, a hail of dust raining down on them.
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.”
shocked from the brutal pace of this situation, stood there for a single
know why. Maybe that compulsion was back, or, just maybe, a kick of courageous
curiosity was kindling in her gut.
last. Scott rammed into her with his shoulder as he shouted another desperate “come on,” right in her ear.
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.
something burst through the chapel wall, smashing the ornate window above the pulpit,
and sending shards of stone and glass scattering over the floor.
It was a soul catcher.
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.
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
books were wrong.
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.
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.
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.
catcher leaned down, angled its neck forward, and screamed. It echoed off the
walls, shattering the remaining windows and shaking the floor.
Scott rammed into her again, “we gotta get out of here.”
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.
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.
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.
now rammed into Scott, shoving him towards the door as she threw a bolt of
magic into it, blasting it open. “Go, go, go!”
the leopard pounce over the broken sandstone, every bound bringing it
jumped through the open door.
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.
stumbled, grabbed the door, and slammed it closed, ramming the metal bolt in
place to lock it.
expected the soul-catcher-cum-leopard to slam into it. It didn’t.
She took a
careful step back.
sneezed. Violently. All over the magical-reinforced wood.
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.”
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.
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
sneezing or itching anymore,” she pointed out as she half jogged up the stairs.
- 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
“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.”
have magic allergies? That's a thing?”
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.
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
“How are we
even going to get out of this tower?” she spared the breath to speak as she
stumbled up another step.
a door. Now move.” Scott pushed her
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.
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
gasped. She’d never seen someone move so fast and instinctually.
wasn’t done. He shoved her again, pushing her towards the open window. “Time to
make a discrete exit.”
that wizard is still down there. Shouldn’t we catch him?”
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.
though she was tall, couldn’t pull herself out, and had to drag a table over to
reach the window.
screamed at her to hurry up.
Just as she
heard boots hurrying down the hallway, she pushed herself through the window.
promptly fell on her face.
didn’t let her rest. He poked her with his boot. “Get up.”
the pain in her wrists and elbows and hands – and everywhere – and hobbled to
pushed her into a run, not letting her stop until they were several blocks
against a wall, practically dead on her feet.
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.”
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.
one hand on his side, tilted his head, and stared back at her. “You okay?”
to smile. It was more of a grimace.
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?”
could have lied, she didn’t. She told Scott the whole truth, even if it
revealed every one of her numerous weaknesses.
enjoyed the impressed smile he’d given her when he’d thought she’d taken down
that wizard on her own.
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
her back into the cold brick wall behind her. Playing with her hair
distractedly, she nodded. “I know that,” her voice was weak.
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.”
She’d had a
tough night. Now this guy was accusing her of being dragged in off the street
like a stray dog.
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—”
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
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.”
“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.”
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.”
raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “What?” His lips kinked into a half-amused,
“I have a
cat,” she said seriously.
into a grin and laughed. “Ah, thanks for the warning. But I’m not allergic.”
her lip. “You’ll understand when you meet her.”
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.”
everything that had happened tonight, and everything he’d said to her, Anna
found herself smiling.
know why, and she didn’t have to.
Once Scott dropped off the witch at the MEC
HQ, and their team of magical medical personnel saw to her, he walked Anna
By the time
she made it to her street, she was utterly spent.
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.
managed a groan as she pushed her hair from her face.
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
one is your house?” Scott looked around him, peering into the dark.
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.
turned her sleepy head around, “that one.” She stabbed a finger at house 666.
spluttered. “You’re joking right?”
flattened her hand down her face and blinked wearily.
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
“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.”
her a look, but she couldn’t see it properly in the dark. “You’re not very
lucky, are you, Anna?”
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.
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.
this place. Still, it had a bed, and she needed her bed more than anything
up the front steps and opened the door.
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.”
need to lock it – I have a cat.” Anna massaged her neck as she walked in.
snorted. “Exactly what kind of cat do you own?”
about to find out.” Anna leaned to her left and flicked on the light switch.
door led right into a combined lounge and kitchen.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
wisely backed off, hiding his hand protectively behind his back. “O-kay,” he
alone, Luminaria. We’ve both had a hard night.” Anna grabbed a plate from the
cupboard and upended the tuna onto it.
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.”
groaned. She walked past Scott and back out into the yard.
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
She took it
from him. “Thanks. Now where the heck is that dill?”
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.”
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.
“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.
a family heirloom.”
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.”
heirloom contract?” Scott sounded mildly interested. “Are you sure it’s
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.”
wizards, those kinda contracts are illegal.”
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.”
Scott pointed to the fence, “there it is.” He ran over and picked her a few
sprigs. “Here you go.”
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.”
a subdued laugh.
yourself, Anna. And I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“… Ah, you
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.
his head low. “Get some rest. And ah,” he looked down at her clothes and
coughed, “you might want to change your clothes.”
been smiling, it disappeared as she looked crestfallen. “Oh, yeah, I know
they’re not very attractive—”
ripped, Anna, and they kinda wreak of bad magic.”
tomorrow.” Scott waved, turned over his shoulder, smiled, and walked off, hands
in his pockets.
at him, her hand hovering in the air for entirely too long.
heard her front gate creak closed, she tucked her hair behind her ears and bit
could pause to think about the curious Scott, Luminaria screamed at her.
inside, Anna garnished the tuna, set it before her possessed cat, and gave the
door one last look.
she finally went to bed.
would no doubt be a big day, and if given half a chance, it would be bigger
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.
a bang that was disproportional for her size, Luminaria jumped on the bed. “Get
up, you awful witch. You are late.”
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?”
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.
her eyes. “I thought Scott didn’t make a time to go see them?”
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.”
didn’t you tell me earlier?” Anna turned towards her clock, and saw it was
already 9 A.M.
enjoy seeing you struggle.” Luminaria snarled happily.
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
“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
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.”
selected some clothes and quickly dressed. “You’d better stay here.”
order me around—” Luminaria began.
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.
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.
raced past her, pulled on some socks as she hopped from foot to foot, then
grabbed her shoes and headed for the door.
still bone-weary, but she forced a smile as she raced down the path.
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.
wasn’t most witches. As soon as she smiled at the sky, she swore it got a
By the time
she made it to the MEC HQ, she was flustered, out of breath, and ready to flop
back into bed.
get the chance.
your time,” someone said from behind her.
to see Scott sauntering down the street. He nodded at her. “Sleep well?”
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
“So ... all we have to do is debrief with someone, right? Who will it be?
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.”
blinked back her surprise. “Oh ... ah.”
like the guy, do you?” Scott stared at her seriously.
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.
said, he had rudely and meanly taken away her job.
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.
opened the door, one stiff hand on the doorframe as he shot Scott the kind of
look that sat alongside despise in
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.
closed the door behind them, then slowly walked back to his chair. He sat
slowly. Actually, it was less slow, and more menacing.
part, Anna carefully sidled towards Scott.
about to get ugly, weren’t they?
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
have brought this matter to the MEC’s attention, we will deal with it.”
comforting. But that’s not what I asked. I want to know how,” Scott snarled.
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.”
fob this one off like you usually do. There was a goddamn soul catcher in that
chapel. This is serious.”
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
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
such an arrogant, egotistical—”
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
comment was sufficiently strange that both men stopped staring daggers at each
other to shoot her odd looks.
just calm down,” she hooked her hair behind her ears and clapped her hands
together, “things can't be that bad.”
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.”
with it,” Aaron said slowly, each word dripping with menace.
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
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—”
absolutely no right to lecture me on how to save people,” Aaron spat. There was
so much fire behind his words, the air sparked.
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.
paled. For a man as nicely tanned as he was, that was quite an achievement. “How
dare you,” he said through sharp breaths.
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
She had to
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—”
without breaking eye contact with Aaron, tilted his head her way and said: “no.”
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
dismissed her again.
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.”
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?”
swallowed, his jawbones so pronounced they looked ready to spring from his
face. “How dare you.”
about to start up again.
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.”
whipped their heads around. “No,” they both said at once.
thought you said it was a good idea?” Scott challenged, returning his attention
it was a good idea in principle – not with her.”
that we can agree.”
as both men went back to arguing.
she wasn’t the best witch in the world, but she didn’t need that fact paraded
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.
worth a try though. She’d felt that strange dark magic last night, and she knew
it could open up Hell itself, given time.
she wanted to face him again. That wizard. She wanted to capture him.
she rubbed her chest. It was probably her imagination, but she could still feel
a ghostly touch around her heart.
such a joke,” Scott shouted at Aaron.
you,” Aaron retorted.
already close to the door. Silently, she picked up her bag and walked out
without either man noticing.
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.
hand up, she rubbed her chest.
“I want you to tell me how I would do it.” Anna
crossed her arms and stared down at Luminaria.
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.”
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.
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.
attempt to track down that wizard. But she wouldn’t do it alone. She wasn’t
you want to associate with such a deviously evil wizard, anyway?”
there’s a bounty out on his head. He’s … horrible. He’s sacrificing witches for
some kind of spell.”
snarled. She may be currently stuck in the form of a cat, but underneath, she
was still a witch.
help me catch him,” Anna offered, halting her frantic pacing to stare at
would we do with him then?”
over to MEC.”
think of other things to do with a wizard who sacrifices witches,” she said
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?”
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.”
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.”
looked thoughtful. She even brought up a paw and tapped a claw on her chin.
has enough dark magic to summon a soul catcher. That’s a lot of power. The
place will be seething with it.”
whiskers twitched as her mouth kinked into a manic grin. “It sounds delicious.”
be. And all you’ll have to do is come with me and … help me out.”
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.”
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.”
mouth jerked loosely open, her pupils dilating. She looked like a cat who’d
spied a whole mound of sleeping mice.
“I say yes,” Luminaria spoke around a devious
“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.”
arresting him,” Anna reminded her.
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.”
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.
nodded, padded out of the room, and clapped her hands together quietly.
something was going right.
if she managed to pull this off, maybe she could make her way as a bounty
hunter in Marchtown.
if she failed, she could die.
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.
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
question me,” Luminaria snapped as she prowled the mouth of the dark alley.
in the shadows, her hands in her pockets and her head tucked firmly into her
collar and scarf.
scared. She was cold.
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.
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
that limitation, in many ways she was the perfect person (cat) to have watching
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
cue, Anna sneezed. She reached into her pocket and drew out a hanky.
Luminaria trotted off, her tail high in the air.
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.
she was out here, the more the reality of the situation sunk in.
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
Oh god I hope this works, Anna thought as she winced, I really don’t want to die.
followed Luminaria’s trotting form.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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—”
Luminaria huffed. “He’s in there.”
her head back and breathed. Then she winced. Then she took a hesitant step
towards the house. “What is that place, anyway?”
probably a bar.”
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.
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
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.’
get the chance. “Get the hell out of my way,” Luminaria snapped as she trotted
past him. “Come, vassal.”
lower herself to mutter a ‘yes, master,’ but she did hurry up the path after
doorman didn’t stop them.
made it through the front door, everything changed.
expected a hovel of a house with a few tables and a couple of cases of
got was a proper bar. One that didn’t fit in the space allotted by the house.
weren’t a witch, she’d scratch her head. Instead, she scratched her arms as
they started to itch horribly.
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.
every patron she passed – all of them had their faces up on wanted posters in
the MEC HQ.
couldn’t arrest them all, and she had to keep focused.
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
wanted to follow, Luminaria had already wended through the patrons’ legs and
out of sight.
nervous sigh, she sat down at the booth.
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.
isn’t going to help,” someone said as they sat down beside her.
jumped, yelping into her hand.
leaned down on the table, his face coming into view.
Scott. And he looked pissed.
you doing here?” Anna yelped with surprise.
your ass before it gets kidnapped and sacrificed,” Scott hissed as he leaned towards
how did you find me?”
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
her mouth. She wasn’t sure what to say to that. “… So you’re going to help me?”
quietly. “Hell no. I’m going in there – you’re going home.”
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.
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
leaving,” she ignored his banter. “I’m going to prove—”
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?”
now she had. Up until the exact moment he’d locked her in his serious gaze
she’d been determined to prove herself.
words were sinking in.
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.”
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
down at her hands.
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
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
right. She couldn’t and shouldn’t do this. She wasn’t up to a task this difficult.
a fool for coming here.
her eyes and walked down the path, figuring Luminaria could get home on her
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.
out of his way.
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.
to pull back, but his fingers were like steel soldered around her wrist. “Let
me go,” she screamed.
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
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.
looked up to see the man incline his head towards her, she realized something
even more horrible.
It was him.
his hand from the gate, then kicked it open with his boot. Without a word, he
pulled her through.
around her changed. Somehow the path leading through the sparse lawn and up to
the bar disappeared.
replaced with that spiraling staircase.
a travelling hell portal. And if Anna couldn’t fight him off, soon he’d cast
another spell – with her soul.
to fight. She couldn’t. He pulled her forward.
nothing as he pulled her down the cold, dark staircase.
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.
for the hex bracelet she wore on her free hand. Luminaria, in her wisdom, had
made her wear it.
could save Anna.
fingered it until she selected the correct hex.
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.
screamed, but there was no one to hear. Her voice echoed up and down the spiral
fast, practiced move, the wizard caught hold of her free wrist, and twisted it
She fell to
her knees. It was that or let her arm break.
stuttering, caught breath, she whimpered.
stood over her, his dark figure cut against the shadow of the stairwell,
outlined by the silvery moonlight.
her wrists and flicked his hand to the side as he stood back.
stone cold fingers no longer crushed her wrist, the grip was somehow still
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
phantom grip was still around her wrist, and it dragged her forward.
to fight it, she tried to hook her fingers around the lip of the window above
her, but she was yanked forward.
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.
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.
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.
work. They’ll catch you,” she tried to reason with him.
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.
didn’t even turn to her.
work,” tears trembled down her cheeks, each drop cutting an erratic pattern
down her blotchy skin as she was jerked down stair after stair.
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.
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.
grip dragged her across the sandstone, right up to the pulpit.
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.
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.
were wide with frantic fear, her heart no longer beating, but thundering
through her chest.
cold all over, despite her flaming allergic rash.
please don’t do this,” she whimpered.
kept whispering his spell.
started to pull up from the book, collecting over his hands and racing up his
arms, crackling along his leather jacket and singeing it.
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.
spread down her cheeks like blood cut from the vein.
wizard’s voice began to pick up, until it echoed like an earthquake through the
shook, chattering like teeth on a cold night.
feel something coming. That strange magic he practiced suddenly surged. It
rushed out of him, bursting through the room like a grenade.
thrown backwards, as far as the grip on her hand would allow.
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,”
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.
around. Sure enough, Luminaria was casually making her way down the main aisle.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
her head to the side and covered her eyes with her free arm.
really wouldn’t attack me. You won’t like me when I’m attacked,” Luminaria
didn’t heed her warning.
at her with a punch, sending a ball of sparks spewing from his fist and lancing
didn’t move. She let the blow land.
however, flattened and cooked in one go.
satisfied chuckle, she rebuffed him.
loved it when she was magically attacked. It was the one time she could defend
herself she would.
She dug her
paws into the sandstone, stiffened her back, and whipped her tail from side to
Just as the
wizard whirled around for another blow, Luminaria slammed her front paws into
wave launched outwards from her move. It sparked so much, the air zinged from
wizard tried to jump back, he wasn’t quick enough, and it caught him along the
knees, sending him toppling back into a pew.
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.
play,” Luminaria chuckled lightly, slamming her paws into the floor just as the
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
tried to dart around Luminaria, but the cat cackled and sent another blast
sinking into his feet and sending him skidding back.
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.
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.
stumbled towards the lectern, pulling herself up onto the pulpit and staggering
the wizard push into a sprint behind her, his boots thumping against the stone.
“Come back here,”
reached the lectern, and used the base to pull herself into a standing
position. With her good hand, she grabbed the book.
somehow dodged every blow Luminaria sent his way. He leapt onto the pulpit.
towards Anna, his hand spreading wide as magic raced over the fingers.
she snatched the book, staggered back, and did the only thing she could think
of. She threw it, right at Luminaria. “Destroy it!”
reached her and grabbed her arm, his awful grip eating into her once more.
an almighty bang from behind her.
magical shock wave slammed through the room.
was thrown off Anna, and she tumbled back into the lectern, her head slamming
into the wood.
cloud of smoke and rock dust swept through the room.
against it, her ears ringing from the blast.
was more dramatic than I thought it would be,” Luminaria mumbled from somewhere
near the center of the smoke cloud.
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.
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
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.
to resist, but he was so strong.
vanished, his body sinking through the floor.
The look in
his eyes held her place. Not his grip around her arm, but his look.
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.
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.
the kind of girl who always did as she was told. Today was no different.
Luminaria’s plea echoed at the edge of Anna’s hearing, she resisted.
her eyes, shutting off the connection. It was hard, but the wizard had been
weakened by his fight with Luminaria.
her arm back.
reached them, and sent a massive blast right at the wizard’s head. It struck
home, and he tipped back, finally releasing Anna.
her eyes open to see his jerk wide too.
was thrown back as a mysterious force slammed into her.
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.
to push herself up, but her head was still swimming. She felt like she’d been
hit by a mountain.
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.
herself into a sitting position. She held onto her head. It felt like it wasn’t
attached anymore. “What – what happened?”
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.”
to get to her feet. She failed.
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.”
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?”
stopped swimming – it started whirling around like a tornado instead.
She ... she had a fragment of a dark wizard’s soul!
to a face staring into her own.
she thought it was the wizard, back to finish what he’d started.
backwards, raising her hands in defense as she whimpered.
it’s over. You attacker is gone. It’s me, Wizard Arana.”
up into his handsome face. It was Aaron alright – the same angled jaw, neat
hair, and sparkling eyes.
happened?” she stuttered.
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
Aaron raised an eyebrow.
you get here?” Anna tried to get up, but as soon as she put weight on her
wrist, she crumpled.
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.”
accepted it with a small smile.
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
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.”
you get past the vampires and magicians?”
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
butler attended to her injuries, Anna went to bed. It was a relief to close her
were ... unsettling, though. Anna usually dreamt of inane silly things.
she dreamt of dark rituals and hidden magic. By the time she woke in the
morning, she was sweating.
up, pressing a hand to her sweaty brow.
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.”
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.
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.
belly.” Luminaria still had half of one eye open.
you leave the tail outside?”
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.”
about to point out she’d had a big night too – but thought better of it.
turned and walked around her room.
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.
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
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.
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
have been idyllic – and was – but Anna was in no mood to appreciate it.
a hand up and compulsively rubbed her chest.
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.
it out, and she wanted this damned situation resolved.
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.
probably already left for work – considering how monumentally busy he always
was – but Anna nonetheless dressed and wandered down stairs.
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.
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.
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.
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
If the view
from her room was idyllic, this was mesmerizing.
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.
wasn’t from the real world.
sitting at the head of the table, reading the paper and eating marmalade toast.
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
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.”
at her feet.
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?
sit, Anna.” He gestured to a seat.
can eat,” he added after she stared at the empty plate before her for a few
and silently, she reached for some toast.
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
ignored her. He kept reading his paper.
ignoring her until she brought a hand up and rubbed her chest in discomfort.
snapped up, and he looked on with focused interest. “How are you feeling?”
I guess.” She kept rubbing her chest.
his paper, placing it neatly beside him. He stared at her.
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?”
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.
she couldn’t stare at him blankly forever, she placed her toast down. “Why do
you want to know?”
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
couldn’t hide her shiver. It crossed up and down her back with all the speed of
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
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
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.”
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.
her mouth, but couldn’t think of a word to say.
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?”
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.”
scratched at her arm distractedly. “So I just ....”
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
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.
She turned in her chair, offering a completely unnecessary and unreturned wave
as he walked out.
she had to do was spend today resting?
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.
niggling pain welled in the center of her chest, she ignored it.
at the open wardrobe, her toweled hair dripping down her back.
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.
have the money or class to afford good clothes.
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.
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
that type of wardrobe. Plus, I’m trying to figure out what to wear.”
nothing. It works for me.”
a frumpy pathetic witch with no hopes, dreams, or aspirations. Just put on one
of your usual floral affairs, and be done with it.”
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.
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.”
wardrobe closed the door she was holding onto with a magical fizz.
back and waited.
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.”
gasped, slamming her hand over her mouth. Oh god, Luminaria was right – she had
described his outfit without even realizing it.
wardrobe finished creating the garments, and opened its door with a light pop.
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.
peered into the wardrobe.
She did not
see what she expected.
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.
in and grabbed the clothes, biting her lip as she did.
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.
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.
.... There was a word for it, she just couldn’t think of what it was.
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.
briefest second, she’d felt good in these clothes. Sure, she wasn’t a match on
Merry, but who would be?
was, however briefly, she’d felt good about herself.
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.
carved out her own path.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
have hit your head last night, girlie, because I fought off that wizard, not
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
so obtuse. Arana. That pompous
plastic-faced git. He’s never going to notice a girl like you.”
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.”
Luminaria laughed like a tinkling bell. An evil tinkling bell.
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.
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.
didn’t return to its usual rat’s nest, she walked out of the bathroom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
could freak out at the prospect the wizard was back, she caught sight of the
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.”
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
was busy blushing, if she’d been observant, she would have noticed his eyes
linger on her injured wrist.
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.”
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 raised an eyebrow as his gaze flicked over her again. “Well then, if you
can’t come out, let me in.”
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.
smiled at her encouragingly, reaching one hand into his pocket as he rested it
casually by his side.
about the move caught her attention. It kindled a memory.
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.
happened to you last night, anyway?” Anna asked curiously.
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.
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.
to feel cold. She swallowed uncomfortably. Maybe this was all in her head, or
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.
squeaked in surprise, and jerked out of the cat’s way.
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.
had already realized something wasn’t right, Luminaria’s revelation made her
shudder. She twisted her head to stare at Scott.
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.
shivered, backing away from the gate and almost falling into a rose bush.
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
kinked. “Pain brings power, witch,” he snarled. “Now open the gate, Anna,” he
said in an almost singsong tone.
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
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.”
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.”
to fight me again, witch?” He turned his attention on Luminaria. “Then open the
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.”
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.”
was frightened out of her wits, she was cognizant enough to realize Luminaria
had just complimented her. Well, kind of.
his eyes slide towards Anna. He looked her up and down, his gaze attentive and
shivered again, backing even further into the rose bush, the thorns snagging
against her bare arms.
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.
twisted her head to watch her go.
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.”
the mistake of turning around to look at Scott once more.
was tilted to the side, his gaze locked on hers, his eyes glittering with a
keen interest that made her want to throw up.
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
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.
darted his head down, until he stared right into her eyes.
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
to keep me out, Miss Summersville, just try.” The wizard’s voice was cut short
as he disappeared completely.
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.
streaked down her cheeks.
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.”
She said his name, and just the mention of it gave her hope. “But he’s at work.”
long. Not after a display of magic that strong right outside of his house. Mark
my words, he’ll be home any instant.”
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.
you’ve already missed him,” Luminaria snarled.
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.
Aaron gently helped her up. “It’s safer in the house.”
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.”
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.
twisted his head down so fast, it was a surprise he didn’t shatter his spine. “Sorry,
what? Was Scott here?”
wizard, it was Scott,” Anna managed as she let Aaron lead her forward.
Aaron’s cheeks paled with anger, his eyebrows also crumpled. “What are you
“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.”
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
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.
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
Anna gave a
stage blink. “Brother? Scott is your brother?”
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.
means what?” she prompted as she took a hesitant swallow.
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.”
sharply. “Oh my God. Is he going to ... is the wizard going to—”
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.”
rubbing her chest, Anna nonetheless appreciated the feel of Aaron’s arms around
her shoulders as he helped her towards his drawing room.
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.”
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
He sat down
and started to leaf through it.
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.
could clear her throat, he settled on a page, nodded, and looked up at her. “I
think I have something of interest.”
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
lifeblood of magic was possibility – making the unlikely real.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
up and slipped into step behind him.
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
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.”
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.”
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
swallowed, waiting for him to dismiss her or laugh her off.
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.”
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.”
looked at her. His expression was irritatingly blank. Even a team of magical
psychologists wouldn’t be able to predict what he was thinking.
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
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.
swallowed. “Then what?”
hurry and find you that talisman.”
a hand on her stomach and tried to fight back the queasy wash of nerves that
threatened to engulf her.
situation was starting to worry Aaron, then ... oh lord, it was serious. Deadly
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.
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
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.
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
that it?” She tried to keep the disbelief from her voice.
didn’t manage it, as Aaron raised an eyebrow. “What, you can’t feel its magic?”
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.”
agreed. “It’s very powerful. And hopefully it will be enough.”
exactly is it meant to do?”
your own soul.”
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
patted it gently, “will help you become more like yourself. Your true self,” he
like a self-help book.
it to her reverently.
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?”
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 must have looked like she’d died, or was just about to.
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.”
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.
strode along the carpet, shooting Aaron a terse look whenever she passed him.
part, he sat in his chair, his chin cradled in his hand as he read his book.
he wasn’t completely ignoring Anna, though. Like clockwork, every several seconds,
he looked up and checked on her.
waiting – they were all waiting – for Anna to lose control of her soul. For the
dark wizard to make his move.
old clock above the equally grand old mantelpiece red 11:30.
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.
this pathetic wizard?” Luminaria suddenly declared as she whirled on the spot,
her outstretched claws ripping the carpet.
her a warning look. “That’s very expensive.”
little witch’s soul isn’t?” Luminaria shot back.
actually just said that? Because it sounded – impossibly – as if the possessed
cat cared for Anna.
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.
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?”
sure what you mean.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
didn’t move and he didn’t say anything.
minute now Anna would be attacked by a dark wizard, all her attention was
focused on Aaron.
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?”
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.
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,
one of the most powerful wizards in the world looking lost.
shifted uncomfortably on her chair. “Luminaria, maybe you should give it a
rest. We should concentrate on the fact that the dark wizard—”
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.”
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.
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.
Luminaria looked confused.
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
sorry—” Anna began.
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.
turning to crime?” Anna stuttered disbelievingly.
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
thought he was a bounty hunter?”
“He is now.
But that doesn’t cancel out his dark past.” Aaron spoke through clenched teeth.
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
levelled his gaze at her, and it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
still wearing her talisman, and without realizing it, she reached up and
clutched it in her hand.
sneezed, the magic affecting her allergies immediately.
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.
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.
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,
was just the allergic one. The witch who shouldn’t be practicing magic
And yet the
witch who practiced it nonetheless.
that was what defined her. Though she had every reason to quit, she didn’t.
happens if that wizard doesn’t try to attack me before midnight?” She looked up
quickly, gazing between Luminaria and Aaron.
know. But I do know that Scott is running out of time, or he has already run
out of time,” Aaron added softly.
her teeth over her lip. “But if we take the wizard down, it will be easy to
find Scott, right?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
her of herself. She was simple and drab, but underneath it all, she was still a
levelled her gaze at them. “I think I can bring him here.”
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.”
her eyes narrow on the term someone like
It was a
term she had heard all her life. Someone like Anna couldn’t be a witch. Well
someone like Anna was.
like Anna couldn’t be a magical bounty hunter. Well someone like Anna was.
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.
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
heard Luminaria’s soft paws trot up to her side. “Just give it a rest, Anna.
Sit down and wait.”
her eyes and she concentrated.
Not on her
magic. Not on her soul.
and wonderful as it sounded, she concentrated on her allergies.
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.
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.
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
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.
need to be careful,” she heard Aaron warn.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Just as she
heard his determined, cold tone echo in her head, she felt something.
heard Aaron scream.
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.
could say or do anything, a hand descended from the black pool of twisting,
writhing energy, and it latched around her suede boot.
enough time to level her gaze up and stare at Aaron’s shock-filled expression,
before Anna was pulled down.
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.
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.
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.
up into the wizard’s gaze.
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.”
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.
managed breath after breath, and only just had the energy to keep her eyes
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.
alone,” someone croaked. The voice was so weak, it barely travelled.
it though, and she knew from whose tortured throat it issued.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
to push herself up, but her limbs felt as thought they’d been replaced with
he begged her. “Don’t let him do this to you. Come on.”
wizard started to mutter some spell. She could hear him leafing slowly through
a book resting on the lectern.
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.
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.
be the mistake of her life. Her soon-to-be short life.
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.
trying with every scrap of energy she had to jerk away.
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.
her go. Please,” Scott begged.
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.
flicked his hand to the side, and Anna was pulled up by her wrist. She
screamed, but it did nothing. What could it do?
beaten, and very soon, she would die.
filled her eyes, washing down her face in waves as resignation stole away her
last trace of hope.
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
on, please fight it. He’s about to
steal your soul. Fight it!”
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
feel it approaching. The soul catcher.
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!”
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.
was about to break, and she gasped and writhed in agony.
couldn’t break free though.
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.
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.
knelt, pressing his head to the floor. “You’re Highness.”
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.
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.
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.
never seen anything like it. She’d never read anything like it either.
She had no
idea what was going on.
only one thing she was sure of – she was about to die.
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.
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.
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.”
catcher inclined her head slowly towards the wizard.
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.”
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.”
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.”
catcher tipped her head in agreement, then walked unhurriedly towards Scott.
going to kill him. That woman was going to draw the soul from Scott’s body and
feast on it.
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.
paused to notice, she would have realized she was moving. Through desperation
or time, she was beginning to regain control.
to watch the soul catch lean over Scott. He watched her with fixed, unblinking
eyes, sadness and guilt and anger twisting through his expression.
catcher brought up a hand, and the snakes holding Scott in place disappeared in
wriggles of black smoke.
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.
It was the
same magic from before – the new, powerful, strange force Anna had first
experienced several days ago.
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.
seconds – seconds before that soul catcher killed Scott.
had to do something!
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.
her,” the soul catcher said.
stalked towards Anna, bringing a hand up and balling it into a fist.
wrist broke. The snap of bone echoed through the hall.
burst wide and she wheezed, gulping in an agonized breath.
despite the pain, she didn’t give up.
reached her, and with a satisfied smile brought his hand towards the ground.
She slammed into the floor, landing on her injured wrist.
exploded through her. It was more burning and intense than any she’d ever felt.
despite the pain, she pushed herself up.
stood over her, shaking his head. “You should have stayed down.” He brought his
hand back, and sent her skidding across the floor.
play with her, contain her,” the soul catcher admonished.
both.” The wizard jumped down from the pedestal and followed Anna.
She had to
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.
the kind of girl everyone ignored. She could surprise no one. Though sometimes
it was novel seeing just how loudly she could sneeze.
everything rested with her. If she couldn’t defeat this wizard and stop the
soul catcher, Scott would die.
reached her and leaned down on one knee. “Done fighting me?”
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.
searched her soul to find the wizard, she’d practiced soul magic. Now, she did
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?
she control him?
was caught off guard, and stumbled back, grabbing his head as he did.
hold of his soul lodged in her heart, and she pulled. She yanked at it like you
might a weed.
back again, breathing hard, that blue light tracking down his face suddenly
turning a muddy brown.
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.
the soul catcher shift quickly away from Scott.
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.
Hope Summersville practiced soul magic. Real soul magic.
wizard’s eyes drew wide as she forced her way through them into his mind.
drew slack. His legs crumpled from underneath him, and he fell to the floor,
frozen like she had been minutes before.
the soul catcher snarl from behind her.
what to do.
ordeal, the clues had been sliding into place.
how to defeat the soul catcher without even turning to face it.
her eyes. She reached into the wizard’s mind, she grabbed hold of his magic,
and she snuffed it out.
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.
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.
time to turn to her, time to lock onto the soul catcher’s gaze. Then, the woman
returned to the church. Eerie, quiet, still.
dust filtered down from above.
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
god,” Scott croaked.
her eyes off the comatose wizard to turn to him.
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.
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
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?”
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?”
immediately answer. She had to think about that one. How was she?
over her shoulder to stare at the wizard.
him. And in doing so, she’d learnt soul magic to boot.
incredible, Anna. How did you do it?”
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.
her hands up. The bruises and cuts and swelling confirmed she really had done
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.”
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.”
weird listening to his words, really weird. He was talking about her, right?
smiled her way, a little light returning to his tired eyes, there was no doubt
he was referring to her.
have magical allergies,” she tried to point out.
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.”
accepted his hand.
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
at his feet, darted Luminaria.
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.”
to disappoint you, but yes.” Scott stiffened.
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.
brothers had a moment of animosity, Scott still accepted Aaron’s shoulder.
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—”
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.
defeated the wizard and a soul catcher?” despite Aaron’s usual emotional
control, disbelief wavered through his tone.
right. I saw it. And, because of her, I lived through it.”
slowly turned back to her. His expression was completely unreadable. “How did
you do it?”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
beyond bedraggled. It was a surprise Aaron hadn’t confused her for a drain
we need to wrap this operation up. Anna, can you walk?” Aaron looked at her
is broken,” Scott supplied immediately.
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.
alright – we’re fresh out of evil guys,” Scott chuckled. “Case closed.”
who had been sitting near by and watching everything, suddenly stood. “Really?
Case closed? Can you be that stupid?”
turned to look at her.
honestly think that dark wizard was acting alone?” Luminaria raised an eyebrow.
into it. We’ll investigate this,” Aaron promised. “But for now, let’s enjoy
wasn’t acting alone. That wasn’t a normal calling candle he was using,” Anna
supplied quickly, a flick of fear returning to her.
have just won the battle, but somehow she could feel the war was right around the
catcher would be back.
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,”
flicked her tail. “Or you’ll fail, and I’ll have fun watching.” She tipped her
head back and cackled.
Luminaria, aren’t you hungry?” Anna walked up to her. “We can buy some tuna on
the way home.”
appeared placated, and purred.
know how she deals with that cat,” she heard Scott mumble under his breath.
of a saint,” Aaron agreed quietly.
blushed, turned around, and followed Luminaria.
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