Magical Influence Book One

Magical Influence Book One


Chapter 1

I walked up the front steps, reaching a hand out to my door. For a moment I glanced up, letting my gaze dart up the side of my house. It wasn't a mansion, even though it was indisputably huge. It had 10 rooms, three bathrooms, a vast kitchen, a massive dining room, and a complete warren of a basement, not to forget the particularly massive attic. It wasn't a mansion because it was entirely run down. And I do mean entirely. Roofing tiles fell off the roof every other day, hardly any of the windows closed properly, and there were some gaps so large in the floorboards that rats could fall through.

Still, it was my house, and I was acutely aware that it was perfectly appropriate for a witch. It had those old, castle-like turret-type things. It also had a bevy of old oaks growing by the outer walls, the gnarled branches ready to scratch the windows in every storm or slight breeze. Neither I nor my grandmother ever bothered to do anything in the yard, and it was a collection of junk, branches, and clogged weeds. Needless to say every single sane child on the block would run a mile before going anywhere near our gate.

“Aren't you going to welcome me home?” I asked lightly under my breath as I finally reached the door handle and tugged it open.

I didn't get a response, or at least not a verbal one, but that exact moment saw the house creak ominously and a roofing tile slide off and jettison itself into the yard. It wasn't close enough that I had to duck or anything, and it brought a slight smile to my lips.

Now that was a welcome. An entirely appropriate one considering the day I'd had.

Mumbling under my breath, I walked into my house. While the outside was entirely run down, at least my grandmother and I did spend a little bit of time on housework. No, that wasn't correct; I spent a lot of time on housework. My grandmother spent most of her days and nights tearing around the place making a fantastic mess.

Sighing as I flicked my gaze through the atrium, I saw a pot plant had been turned over, shards of pottery scattered over the floor and a poor fern lying in a sea of dirt. Tutting, I walked over to it and picked it up. “Mary? Mary?” I called out to my grandmother, expecting her to fly down the large spiral staircase in the center of the house, her wild, purple-rinsed grey locks flaring around her head as her blue eyes locked onto me.

It's how she always said hello. I would get back from work, she would appear from the belly of the basement and tell me whatever marvelously ridiculous things she’d got up to that day, then the both of us would sit down for a cup of tea and a chat about all things magical.

Today there was no response. Raising an eyebrow slightly, I patted down my black skirt and walked off into the kitchen. I instantly noticed the mess all over the table. I'd made a point of cleaning it last night, because the darned thing had been littered with dirty dishes for almost half a week now. Somehow the dirty dishes were back. The exact same dirty dishes I had popped into the dishwasher almost 18 hours ago.

I crinkled my brow. If I weren't a witch, I’d probably assume I was going mad.

“Mary? What are you getting up to? Mary?” Slamming my hands on my hips as I turned around in the kitchen, I searched out any sign of my dear old completely batty grandmother.

Then I saw her. Or rather I saw a shadow, outside in the yard.

Now I raised my other eyebrow, tutted very loudly, and quickly jogged to the large French doors that led out onto the patio.

I hadn’t always known that I was a witch, though even as a baby I imagine I would have realized something wasn't quite right with my family. It wasn't Addams Family-esque, but it was close. All of my aunts and uncles and grandparents weren't quite right. For birthdays and Christmas they wouldn't buy me socks and underpants; they would get me old, tattered books that looked like they were 300 years old and that were filled with ghastly, horrifying pictures a child should never look upon. And if it wasn't books, it would be peculiar potions. Jars that looked like nothing more than old jam pots filled with bizarre colored liquids with strange objects in the bottom. Lizards, butterflies, buttons, dirt, you name it, just a collection of strange junk. Yet whenever they would hand me such presents, they would do so with a degree of awe that would suggest they certainly weren’t joking. It were as if they were passing on a crown or a fortune instead of an old jam jar filled with rubbish.

Yes, my family had never been quite right, and soon enough my mother had sat me down and informed me of my lineage, witches and all.

Now it was simply a fact of life. But another fact I could appreciate was one my grandmother herself had been at pains to remind me of whenever she could. Witches must keep their magic secret. As must all other magical creatures. I lived in the real world, after all, the same one you live in. Do you see wizards zipping around with great long beards, chucking fireballs at each other as they drive down the highway? Do you see witches heading off to the shops on their brooms, talking cats keeping them company on the train? Of course you don't. We’re here, but we just don't let ourselves be known.

Like all of the most powerful forces in the universe, we keep ourselves secret. When humanity is ready, they will embrace magic, but for now they are quite content with football, cups of tea, and world wars.

Despite the importance of our secret, something was happening to my grandmother as she aged, and that was general dementia. Okay, not the general kind, the magical kind. It seemed I had to watch her every day to ensure she didn't do anything outrageous that would finally confirm to all of our already suspicious neighbors that we were witches.

Flinging open the French doors, I marched out into the backyard. Fortunately our overgrown garden was so immense that it blocked off the view over our back fence, still, I never liked the idea of Granny practicing magic out in the yard.

“What are you doing?” I marched over to her, crossing my arms as I did, making sure the move was obvious and would put across just how peeved I was.

She looked up from the mud pile she had created. There was a spade leaning next to an overturned table, the exact same patio table that I often liked to have my breakfast at, and it was clogged with dirt.

I made a point of raising an eyebrow and looking up and down my grandmother. She had dug a hole, a fairly hefty, deep one considering how old she was. She had filled it with water and mud, and she was now dancing around in it like a woman trying to crush grapes. Except there were no grapes, just dirt, and it had covered her pants and top completely. She even had it splashed across her face, and a couple of clumps dangling from her purple-rinse curls.

She grinned at me. A very cheeky, somewhat disassociated grin. “Good morning,” she chimed.

It was very much the afternoon. I ground my teeth. Sometimes I didn't know if she put it on. If she only said highly unsettling things and dug holes in the yard so she could irritate me.

“It's the afternoon,” I conceded as I cleared my throat, “a fact you are well aware of. And something else you are well aware of is that you can't bloody well do magic in the yard,” I dropped my voice low, very low at that point, and I had no doubt that Mary could still hear me; everything else might be going, but her hearing was fine. Exceptional even. If I ever tried to have a secret conversation with someone on the phone and she was at the other end of the house, I swear she could always pick up on what I had been saying.

“Magic?” My grandmother's lips wobbled open as if she were surprised at the mere mention of the word.

“I'm not a trainee witch any more, Grandma, I know a weather spell when I see one. Now do you want to cover it up, come inside, wash, and help me prepare some dinner?”

For a moment my grandmother narrowed her eyes, and it was a move that reminded me so much of how she had been when I was a child. Strong, impossibly powerful. My role model. A figure that had taken up so much authority in my life. She had been the one I would always turn to if I had a problem with magic, and she would be the one to track me down if I ever did something wrong. Well now our roles had changed. She was the kid outside playing in the mud, and I was the one trying to tell her it just wasn't done.

“A weather spell, ay? Are you sure?”

I was about to turn away, head back inside to grab a towel and mop in preparation for my muddy grandmother to track her way to the bathroom, but I paused. I glanced back carefully. “Yes, that's right, a weather spell.” Was she challenging me?

“Let me see.” She brought a hand up and started counting off on her fingers. “All you have seen is a spade, a hole, mud, and a miraculously well-preserved grandmother dancing around in it. And you have concluded from this scant evidence that I am engaged in a weather spell?”

She really was challenging me. Though it happened less and less these days, occasionally the old bat would grow lucid enough to remember her training. “Yes,” I kept my arms crossed. I knew what to do when I was questioned. Hold your ground, snarl if you had too, but look as deadly as you can. And my years of growing up with my grandmother had taught me just how one can narrow their eyes in the right way, stiffen their jaw, and pull their lips to the side to give off a definite feeling of concentrated rage and anger.

“Well you are wrong, young girl,” my grandmother finally pulled herself up and out of the hole, showing a grace that she simply should not have considering her age. Bringing up a completely mud-covered hand, she patted at her curls, raising an eyebrow at me as I still stood there with my arms crossed firmly in front of my chest. “This is a garden spell,” she trilled.

Even though I tried to control myself, I couldn't help but falter. My eyebrows descended in a twitch. “No it isn't,” I tried petulantly.

This only caused her to laugh, and it wasn't entirely pleasant; it reminded me acutely of just how much of an authority my grandmother had once been. “I beg to differ. And if you feel like challenging me, take that spade, go over to my lovely little mud pit, dig down, and see what I was dancing over.”

Damn. She had a point.

I wasn't about to go over, pluck up the spade, and actually bother to dig around in that ridiculous mud pit though. I would take my grandmother's word for it.

“There is still a lot you must learn about magic.” As my grandmother passed me, she flicked her curls again, and headed unashamedly to the patio, splashing mud everywhere as she did.

I narrowed my eyes at her, stopped short of shaking my fist, and headed over to the spade to at least cover up the hole. Even though I was damn sure that no one could see into the yard, I didn't like the idea of somebody accidentally catching a glimpse of a deep mud pit. Who knew what they would think.

After I had filled it in, and had grumbled at every splash I had gotten over my stockings and skirt, I finally went in to find my grandmother helping herself to a sandwich from the fridge. She was still covered in mud of course, as was the rest of the kitchen now.

“You have a lot to learn about the subtleties of spells and enchantments,” she shoved the massive sandwich in her mouth and took a hearty bite.

I crumpled up my nose as I watched her eat, noticing every single time her muddy fingers tracked across the bread, lettuce, and cheese.

“Influence magic is very, very context sensitive,” my grandmother brought up her hand and waggled a finger my way. “The difference of one single ingredient can change the nature of a spell.”

I knew all of this, I really did. But I was still kind of right here. Regardless of what kind of spell my grandmother had been casting, she shouldn’t have been doing it outside in the yard where everybody could see... Okay nobody could see, but it was still outside, and that was too visible for me.

“Couldn't you have done it in the bath?” I flopped a hand behind me, indicating one of our many bathrooms. “And when exactly are you going to clean yourself up?”

She shrugged her shoulders and took another enormous bite of her sandwich. For an old lady, she still had a ravenous appetite. She could, and previously had, eaten us completely out of house and home.

“A bath? How am I going to make anything grow if I'm standing on enamel and ceramic? You need to be connected to the ground.” Mary latched her hands onto her muddy pants, placing her sandwich down for a second, and pulled them up as she danced on the kitchen floor, splashing dirt everywhere. “You should know that. It's in the details,” she brought up a finger and pointed it at me again, “every single little detail. If you want to learn how to influence the world through magic, you must be ever sensitive to everything around you. Gather facts, my dear witch, and you will gather power.”

I nodded my head, even though what I really wanted to do was roll my eyes. I had to keep reminding myself that while my once powerful grandmother was now heading full force towards dementia, I still owed her respect. Because underneath she was still the same woman, just at a different stage of life.

“Anyhow, enough lessons, they do so tire me. How was your day at work, my dear?” She grabbed up her sandwich and went back to cramming it in her mouth.

I brought up a hand and tucked my hair behind my ears as I tried to do a quick mental calculation of how much time it would take me to clean the kitchen of all this blasted mud and dirt. “Fine, I guess,” I said distractedly.

“It can't be that fine; you sound as if you have been forced to endure the trials of Hercules himself. Has anyone been making you fight water monsters? Have you had to steal magical apples from the gods?”

I smiled pleasantly, if you call pleasant thin-lipped, stiff, and entirely unhappy. “Just the same old business.”

Though I was technically a witch, and I wasn't a particularly bad one, it didn't pay all the bills. Especially when you lived in an enormous house that was crying out for repairs and had to keep on buying hundreds of dollars of groceries a week to keep your grandmother fed.

One of these days, if it were ever possible, I would love to live off my magic alone, but I doubted it would ever arise. There wasn't that much call for witches these days, not because people didn't like magic, but because they didn't know about it. It was particularly hard to make a living off something that was entirely secret, that you couldn't advertise, and that you couldn't tell anyone about unless they already knew it existed.

It hadn’t been like this hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, or so I had been told. When magic had been more widely practiced, accepted, and known about, many witches had lived off their trade alone. Then the dark ages had come along, or something like that, witch hunts and whatnot, I wasn't really that up on the history, all I could tell you was that in the 21st century it was practically impossible to get along only being a witch.

“You should open your heart to the possibilities of magic. It can be practiced at every single moment in the day. A true witch understands the power of context and influence,” my grandmother reminded me for about the thousandth time.

I knew that lesson, but it wasn't one I required repeating today. What I really needed was for my grandmother to clean up this mess, have a bath, and maybe, just once, not trash the house while I was out at work.

“I don't suppose we had any requests today?” I asked as I walked over to the kitchen table, frowning at the dirty dishes.

How they had un-cleaned themselves, taken themselves out of the cupboard, and stacked themselves back on the table, I didn't know, and I didn't want to ask. Probably some ridiculous spell my grandmother had attempted.

“Unfortunately not, my dear, but my new herbs arrive tomorrow, and I'm very excited about it. I imagine the love potions I'll be able to make from these, and the special healing tonics, will be quite fantastic.”

I listened to my grandmother with half an ear as I stacked the dishes and took them over to the dishwasher, making sure to frown their way, as if that would help.

“You have signed your custom papers this time, right?” I turned over my shoulder to face her.

“Of course I have.”

I nodded my head. At least one thing was going right. Because I really didn't need a knock on the door from the police ready to drag my grandmother away for importing God knows what into the country. She did so love her herbs, and I understood how important they were to magic, but in modern times a lot of the substances she wanted for her spells were... to put it mildly... absolutely freaking illegal. We’re not just talking dried lizards that could bring in various bacteria and viruses, we’re talking freaking narcotics. The kind of thing that would get you in a great deal of trouble, and the kind of thing I really didn't need to deal with on top of all of the other hassles that were already assailing my life.

Last time my grandmother had tried to import her latest bunch of new herbs, I'd spent almost two hours down at the customs office, trying to get them to understand that she was old, and she didn't really understand it was illegal to import sleeping pills en masse from South America.

To my grandmother, they contained a substance that was absolutely necessary for various nocturnal enchantments; to the police it looked like she was trying to set up her own illegal pharmacy.

Pressing my fingers into my brow, I soon finished stacking the dishwasher. Loading in the soap and turning it on, I patted it several times as if in warning. I really didn't need the dishes to unstack themselves and wind up on the table again.

“Patting it won't do any good, but a chain would,” my grandmother commented. “I think there's a lock somewhere out in the shed, and you remember that old ship’s anchor we dredged up one day from the bay? You could put it on top, I'm sure it would get the impression then,” Mary pointed through the window towards the shed.

Chaining up a dishwasher, locking it up, and popping a ship’s anchor on top to weigh it down so it didn't unstack itself was not something that ordinary people had to deal with.

Well welcome to the extraordinary. Yes, it's full of magic, but I can't exactly claim it's full of fun.

“I'm going upstairs to have a shower. Please do me a favor and hop in the downstairs bath?”

Granny appeared to consider my words for a moment, then she clearly got distracted as she watched a flock of birds fly past the window above the kitchen sink. “My oh my, they're practicing weather magic. Rain is on the way,” she brought up a hand and waved at them.

Birds practicing weather magic. If we weren’t both witches, such a statement would lead me to conclude that my grandmother's slip into dementia had turned into a landslide. But I understood, I understood perfectly.

We looked at the world in a different way. Magic made you do that. If you practiced it, it completely changed your perspective. It wasn't just witches and wizards that could do potions, spells, and enchantments; anybody and anything that followed the correct steps practiced magic as well.

The squirrel that hoarded nuts, dug them into the ground, and left them there for the winter, practiced a type of growth magic. The butterfly that flapped its wings over the Amazon, was practicing a kind of chaos magic. The giant blue whale that swum through the ocean, breaching to the surface only to swim back down again was practicing a type of wave magic.

Everywhere, everything was engaged in some kind of spell. You just had to know what to look for.

Flicking my eyes up at the flock of birds as they flew out of view, I scratched my neck. I wasn't so angry at my grandmother and the mess that she had created to forget that I was a witch. And I could clearly see the exact path the birds flew through the sky, the speed, the angle, everything, and I understood what it meant.

Rain. I didn't have to look up the weather report to confirm that fact. I just understood it.

It was instinctive.

It also made me rub my brow even harder. Rain meant more mud. Because no doubt the moment I left for work tomorrow morning, my grandmother would trot out to the shed, pluck up the spade, dig holes in the garden, and get up to more mischief. And even though I didn't particularly care about the state of the yard, I didn't want mud everywhere.

Deciding it was thoroughly time to give up, I waved a hand at my grandmother, walked out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and to the shower.

I was lucky enough that our house was so large that I practically had an entire level to myself. A level where my grandmother hardly ever went, and one I could keep just as clean as I liked it. It was beautifully decorated too, a testament to all of the lovely objects that I had collected over my life; silk cushions from India, paintings and prints from Paris, carved statues from Thailand, and mahogany furniture from Britain.

It was my oasis away from the crazy, the mud, and the purple-rinse curls.

By the time I made it into the shower, I was finally calming down. I was sure to let the water practice its magic. It had a unique way of washing over you, collecting not just the mud and grime, but the sorrows and sadness and troubles, and flushing them down the drain.

It wouldn't last forever; I lived in a rundown mansion with a perpetually crazy grandmother, and we were both witches. Trouble had a way of stalking me.

But for those few minutes I was happy.

Chapter 2

I rolled out of bed that morning with a hint of a strange dream haunting me. It was just a feeling at first, a presence, like a shadow at the edge of my vision.

If I’d had the time, I would have plucked up my dream journal, written about it, possibly meditated, maybe tried to draw a picture, even selected a color and a word to describe the feeling that was building up within me.

Dream magic, after all, was some of the most rewarding that you could practice.

I didn't have the time though. Instead I pushed myself up, made my bed neatly, chose some work clothes, and trotted down the stairs, growling softly when one of them practically cracked underneath my foot.

This house really needed a lot of work. Far more than I could afford.

“I'm heading out early this morning,” I said loudly as I walked towards the kitchen, hoping my grandmother would be somewhere close by, but not willing to track her down. “Don't get into any trouble.”

There was no reply.

I grabbed some toast quickly, downed a glass of water, tugged my bag onto my shoulder, and headed to the door.

As I reached towards it, turning the door handle, I felt a sense.

Just a feeling.

Quick, sharp, and gone in a second.

I knew what it was. Any witch would. A beginning, of sorts. A subtle but perceptible change in energy, as if the first dice had been cast in a new game.

Tugging the door open, I wasn't that surprised to see somebody standing there, hand raised as if they were ready to start knocking.

I wasn't surprised, but that didn't stop me from quickly frowning. I cast my eyes over the man, and instantly noted the badge neatly tucked into his belt.

A police badge.

Whoever he was, he was in a nice suit, though it didn't quite fit over the shoulders. He had short, brown hair, eyes to match, and a faint shadow of stubble over his chin. He had a particularly piercing look about him. As if he weren't so much a man but a scalpel, or a laser, or a particularly powerful torch beam.

I wasn't the kind of girl who categorized people into attractive or unattractive; being a witch, I understood that both were meaningless categories. There were attractive qualities about every single person, just as there were unattractive. Models might have a suitably fine appearance, but you could draw up an extensive list of their behavioral faults. No package contained complete perfection.

This man with his broad shoulders, appealing build, and straight jaw would no doubt turn heads at any bachelorette party, but from the exact look of concentrated attention, and barely contained forcefulness, he was also a lot more than just pretty.

“Can I help you?” I asked warily.

We very, very rarely had people come to the door. It was to do with the state of the house, the state of the yard, and our particular reputations.

Okay, I doubted that any of our neighbors actually, genuinely thought we were witches; the couple living to the left were dentists, and the couple to the right wrote for a science magazine. They were what you would call classically skeptical folk. But they would know, deep down, not to knock on the door of the peculiar ladies in the peculiar house that just so happened to be stereotypically witchy.

The police, of course, would have no such compunction.

He cleared his throat. It was a uniquely grating sound. It got my attention, hell, it would command anyone's attention. It was the kind of move you could do in a fantastically noisy bar and instantly get everybody to turn around, quiet down, and stare your way.

“Mrs. Sinclair?”

My cheeks started to pale. “Yes?”

“My name is Agent Fairweather,” he brought his hand down to the badge that was lodged in his belt, and he plucked it out neatly, bringing it up so I could see.

At that exact moment I swear the clouds parted, and a ray of sunlight came down, making the damn badge glint like the edge of a sword.

Agent Fairweather.

Christ. This wasn't going to be good, was it?

“What's this about?” I still had my hand on the door, and now my fingers dug into it for purchase.

“We need you to come in for questioning.”

“About what?”

“About the kilo of cocaine you tried to import into the country,” he replied easily.

If I had paled before, it was nothing compared to what my skin did now. I swear that every trickle of blood drained from my peripheries. I felt cold in a snap, and stopped breathing to boot.

Kilo of cocaine?

Dear God, what had my grandmother done now?

The man looked at me steadily and very, very harshly. It was the kind of look that told me that if I chose to close the door and run, he would chase, and he would most definitely succeed in catching me.

I finally had the presence of mind to flick my gaze past the man, down the garden path, and out onto the street.

There were several squad cars.

Oh, this was fantastic, completely and utterly fantastic.

“Right,” I said, trying to stall for time, bringing a hand up, latching it onto my chin, and letting the fingers dig somewhat into my cheeks.

My eyes probably grew wide in panic as I tried to think.

A kilo of cocaine? There probably wasn't going to be anyway I could talk my way out of this one. I wouldn't be able to sit down with the customs official, let him know that my grandmother was a little demented, and assure him that I would never let her try to import any restricted goods into the country again.

No, because cocaine wasn’t restricted; it was bloody well illegal. And it was a kilo of the stuff. What was my grandmother thinking? Had she decided we were so destitute that she would start selling drugs on the street corner?

No, of course not; she would have simply found one of her ridiculous new spells on the Internet, and she would have thought that it would be fun to try it. She would not have thought at any time that importing a kilo of cocaine was illegal, would get her caught, and would land her in prison.

“Come with me, you have the right to remain silent,” he began.

I tuned out as he read me my rights. My eyes growing wider with more and more fright as I did.

There would be no reasoning with this man. But I wasn't so far gone that I couldn't see it from his side. To him this would have to be the easiest narcotics arrest in the history of man. Somebody ordering a kilo of very illegal drugs over the Internet and having them sent to their home address. No smuggling it over the border sewn into bags, tucked into car trunks, or squirrelled away in fresh produce.

No, just your home address, and a completely traceable purchase record.

“Oh Esme, what are you doing?”

The last person I wanted to see trotted up behind me.

I turned to shoot Granny a very stony, warning glance.

She didn't pick up on it. But she did turn towards the Agent on my doorstep, and offered him a toothy smile. “Hello, handsome man. Are you here to take my granddaughter on a date?”

I could have died at that moment. And I did pitch forward, giving a painful wheeze of embarrassment.

The man didn't move a muscle. He didn't burst out into laughter, and neither did he decide it was time to forgo the pleasantries, clap me in irons, and drag me off to prison.

“My name is Agent Fairweather, I am here because your granddaughter has illegally imported proximally 1 kg of cocaine,” he began.

But my dear old grandmother wouldn't let him finish. She clapped her hands together. “It's here, fantastic, I've been waiting for it for almost a month now. I have my paperwork, I can just go and get it. You can leave it on the kitchen table if you'd like.”

I started to shake, I really did, but not out of laughter. Though a part of me, a distant, entirely dissociated part, could see the funny side here.

I watched Agent Fairweather and noted his exact expression.

His eyebrows drew down, his lips slightly opened, and his head turned to the side as he stared at Mary askance. “Madam, this is a serious,” he began.

“I know, the man I ordered it from in Colombia said that it wouldn’t take more than two weeks. This is very serious. It's been a month now. I've been waiting too long, and I'm not entirely sure if I'm going to give him good reviews on his website.”

This couldn't get any worse, it really couldn't.

The man put up a hand. “Are you,” he pointed to me, then turned around and pointed to my grandmother, “or you, Mary Margaret Sinclair?”

My grandmother patted her chest, shot up her hand, and waved it as if she had just won the lottery. “That would be me, my handsome young man.”

I couldn't take any more of this. Gritting my teeth together, I faced her. “Stop calling him that. And shut up.”

It was probably the wrong thing to do. It was probably showing that I was complicit in this crime or something, but I couldn't take the pressure any longer.

“Fine, whatever, you're both coming in,” he concluded, obviously dealing with his confusion by realizing he could figure it out later, just as long as he had both criminals under wraps.

Granny narrowed her eyes. “Don't you want the paperwork? I mean, I was very attentive to my granddaughter's wishes. She said, no she practically harassed me over the fact that I must do my paperwork before I import potentially restricted goods into the country. And I've done it.”

I hid behind my hand, closing my eyes, and enjoying every moment of it. If my eyes were closed, it were almost as if everything was a dream.

Almost.

The man cleared his throat again. “I'm going to have to take you into custody. You have the right,” he began.

My grandmother waved a hand at him. “Are you telling me you don't have my drugs?” her tone, which had previously been quite pleasant, suddenly got an edge to it. It was the edge that reminded me of the once powerful witch within. It pitched higher, and she straightened up, her chest puffing out a little, her eyes narrowing. And if you had been really attentive at that moment, you might have seen a cloud pass over the sun.

“No, madam, I do not have your drugs. Now you have two options. You walk with me to the car, or I handcuff you. Which one is it?”

“You don't have to handcuff her; we’re going to come peacefully,” I jumped in quickly, waving my hands around nervously.

So much for getting to work early. I doubted I’d be getting to work for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the week, and hey, maybe not for 10 to 20 years, depending on what sentence the Judge handed us.

“We’re not going anywhere with this terribly handsome young man, unless he’s taking you out on a date,” my grandmother pointed out.

“Stop saying that,” I growled at her.

“You have to go to work, and I'm busy; I'm digging a hole in the backyard, six-foot deep, you know, takes a while,” my grandmother waggled her eyebrows at the policeman as she pointed that fact out.

Six-foot deep. Well great. Fantastic.

That was just the right detail to add whilst having a conversation with a Federal Agent about your serious narcotics violation. Now he would think my grandmother was a murderer to boot.

His eyes narrowed. Boy did they narrow. And he looked right past my grandmother and me and into the hall. His gaze latched onto the overturned pot plant, the one I still hadn't bothered to clean up. Then they zoomed around, saw the broken chair my grandmother had smashed with a mallet for one of her spells, and all the while his expression became darker and darker.

He reached into his pocket, brought out his radio, and mumbled something into it.

I didn't exactly need to know the specifics; I got the general gist.

In seconds the police in the squad cars outside were making their way up the garden path, and more than a few of them had their hands on their weapons.

Yesterday it had been mud pies in the yard, today it was a narcotics violation and a potential allegation of murder.

This was the life of a modern witch.

No glamour, no glitz, no brooms, just trouble.

Chapter 3

We were dragged down to the station, but not the local one; the central depot in the middle of the city that shared the building with the Federal Police.

Because Mister Agent Fairweather wasn't just an ordinary boy in blue; he was a Federal Agent. My grandmother had, after all, tried to import a ridiculously large amount of cocaine into the country. And drug crimes of that stature always skipped the local authorities and got the attention of the big boys.

I was sitting on a chair, by a desk, huddled into my coat, nursing a cup of lukewarm tea.

I didn't care that it tasted like crap, and that the milk was too old and had formed curdled clumps across the top, I still drank it with relish.

It was about my only comfort right now.

They had taken her away to have a chat, as they had put it, in one of the interrogation rooms.

Thankfully they hadn’t handcuffed her, and neither had they bothered to handcuff me, but I got the distinct impression that at any point should either of us get out of hand, they would have no trouble in tying us up.

I stared down glumly at the scant steam rising off from my Styrofoam cup. Then I indulged in closing my eyes for a moment.

At that exact point the door opened and I heard someone clear their throat.

Though I had only just met the man, I knew instinctively it was Fairweather. It were as if a giant or a troll had taught him how to speak. The exact rumble, the baritone, how it resonated through his powerful chest – it felt like listening to lightning.

I winked one eye open to stare at him.

He didn't have a kind expression. But neither was it completely accusatory like it had been that morning. One of his eyebrows was more depressed than the other, his lips were crinkled, and he looked overall confused. Clearing his throat again, patting down his tie, he walked around me and sat at his desk.

“She is crazy,” I started off, spreading my fingers wide in a stopping motion. “It's not been diagnosed, but it's pretty darned close to dementia. Look up her file, this isn't the first time she has... ordered weird things off the Internet.”

Weird things? Cocaine wasn't a weird thing; it was just a very illegal thing.

I couldn't help it though, I was stressed, and whenever I got stressed, I started to babble and speak nonsense.

He leaned back in his chair, the damn thing creaking in an effectively ominous way. “She ordered a kilogram of cocaine,” he pointed out plainly.

Yes, I knew that fact. Glancing up at his expression, not liking it, and staring straight at the floor, I shrugged my shoulders. “What's going to happen to her?”

He leaned onto his desk slowly, planting his elbows over the neat paperwork, and then drumming his fingers close to his phone. “Charges,” his baritone bottomed out to a level that sounded lower than anything I had ever heard.

I winced. “Right.”

“As for you,” he began.

I flicked up my hand, a little too quickly, splashing some of my tea onto my blouse. I was in no mood to care though. “I have no idea what she does on the Internet, none.”

“Well then you should. Your grandmother appears to have had an illustrious career of ordering restricted goods into the country. If you knew she was...” he shrugged his shoulders, “experiencing dementia-like symptoms, you should have kept an eye on her.”

It was a fair point. But there was a mitigating factor here, a really strong one. She was a witch. And while I told everyone she had dementia, it wasn't exactly true. She was experiencing what all witches did as they aged. A loosening of boundaries, a natural desire to break the rules that had once kept them in place. Cognitively she was actually still the same. She had a memory, she knew your name, she could function in her day-to-day tasks. Behaviorally, she was just a lot freer than she had once been. Yes, that meant she would dance around in mud pies in the yard, but it unfortunately also meant that she couldn’t see the problem in ordering large quantities of very illegal drugs into the country. To her, the rules of law simply didn't mean much anymore. That didn't mean she would run out and murder the first person that angered her; she still had morals and a sense of ethics. She just wanted those drugs for a spell, not to sell to kids on the street or pregnant women. No one would get high off them; she’d probably just incorporate them into her next dream spell, or her next love potion, or her next weather enchantment.

I really couldn't explain that to the man with the laser-like gaze. Instead I flopped my hands onto my lap and looked glumly at my tea.

“You have the right to call a lawyer,” he pointed out again.

Yes I did. But I really didn't want to. And it was because I couldn't afford one. There was a lawyer in my family, and his rates were free.

I just didn't want to call Uncle Fred. Because if Mary was going batty, it was nothing compared to the depths of crazy Fred could plunge into.

Though often not spoken of, male witches exist. A male witch is not a wizard, and neither are they a warlock. As the times have changed, so have our understandings of magic. Being a witch is not a feminine thing, it is just a specific method of practicing magic. And men are more than welcome to practice that way without feeling emasculated. So it was very PC these days to call your uncle and father a crone and to invite them into your coven.

But Uncle Fred... I would have to call him, I did know that, I just didn't relish what would happen next.

Likely he would get us off with no charges, but it would be an entirely unpleasant experience to watch. If Mary could be embarrassing, Fred would earn you a reputation that would haunt you for life.

I swallowed hard, stared down at my tea, and nodded my head. “I guess I had better.”

“As for your yard,” his chair creaked as he leaned back further.

“There is nobody buried there,” I said excitedly, realizing a little too late that I'd definitely chosen the wrong words. “Look, I mean, she is crazy. I get home from work, and she digs holes in the yard to make mud pies. Not to... you know.”

He still looked stony. “We are having Agents search your house and garden.”

I closed my eyes again, trying not to give a defeated, pathetic laugh lest the Agent think I was a crazy, drug-loving murderer.

This was just so fantastic. Agents searching the yard? Well good luck to them, because they would have to get through all the weeds first. Neither would they would find anything... much. No dead bodies, of course, they would however discover a lot of weird, truly bizarre junk. Glass jars full of decrepit buttons, heads pulled off dolls – that kind of crap. The stuff any functioning witch would always have on hand, but the kind of things that would lead any good policeman to become truly suspicious.

And that was just the yard; the house was a whole other beast. Hopefully they wouldn't go through it too carefully, because I really didn't relish the idea of what they would find.

I didn't need stress like this. I had enough going on in my life without adding all of this into the mix.

“If there's anything you would like to tell me,” he nodded towards me.

Oh there were a lot of things I would like to tell him. Like the fact that his jacket didn't fit right, that his blue tie was a little too dull, and that if he chose another color it would match his eyes. I also wouldn't mind telling him that my grandmother was completely innocent, that we were just a bunch of city witches, and that this whole thing was a misunderstanding.

I wasn't going to do that course.

“I think I need to call my lawyer,” I conceded.

He nodded his head.

I also needed to start taking charge.

Yes, I was currently a woman under a great deal of stress, but I was also a witch. And sitting there huddled into my jacket on that chair, staring into my crap tea was not utilizing the full range of my abilities.

My grandmother had always told me that the greatest magic of all can be produced when we are at our most anxious, fearful, and desperate. When the energies in a life come together with such tension is when we can pull them back to reveal the secrets within.

Taking in a deep breath, pushing it into my cheeks and puffing it out slowly, I realized I had to do something. Other than call my uncle, that was.

“How long exactly have you been living with your grandmother?”

I almost didn't hear his question; I was too busy wrapping myself up in my self-loathing, frustration, and general anger.

He repeated his question, and I looked up quickly. “Five years or so. I moved in after it became clear... she couldn't look after herself,” I quickly added. Because that was not why I had moved in. I had moved in after it had become clear that I could no longer live on my own. That didn't mean I was having trouble paying the bills or I needed some company around to stop me from getting lonely.

Unfortunately it meant something a little bit more nefarious.

Magic is a very complicated thing. There are good sides and there are bad sides; two heads to the same coin.

The practice of magic is not without its risk. Even when it is done right, and for the best intensions, it can still attract things. Dark things, terrible things, the kind of things that go bump in the night, but don't leave it there. The kind of things that crawl up from underneath your bed, wrap their tentacles around you, and drag you down to hell before they roast you and eat you alive.

The kind of magic I practiced was not the glitzy, powerful, sparkly kind. I never produced lightning from my fingers, and I hadn’t once parted the sea or used my wand to make objects fly towards me.

That being said, my magic happened to be one of the most powerful kinds out there. It was what you used if you needed to shift big things. Fireballs were great for small fights or if you wanted to impress somebody. They took a lot of energy over a short period, and what you got in the end was a fantastically bright ball of flame that could dent a car or burn through a pile of leaves. What you couldn't do with a fireball, however, was change governments. Shift hearts and minds, take a broken life and mend it.

Those with the big things. And for the big things you needed an entirely different type of magic. Zipping around on brooms, making candles burst into flame of their own accord, using your mind to make an apple appear before you could not heal a traumatized soul. It could not take someone who had been broken down by the hardships of life and give them hope.

For that you required influence. Context. Change context, change everything.

It was the most complex form of magic, but that answer alone could not satisfy Agent Fairweather's question.

The reason I had moved in with my grandmother, was that I was no longer safe on my own. Neither was she. Because we both practiced influence magic, the most powerful kind of magic out there, we were targets. Not just for the things that go bump in the night, but for our competitors.

Nasty competitors.

Because changing hearts and minds, shifting the values of a country, altering the course of history was a profoundly personal thing. Not everybody wanted the broken man down the street to get better. Not everybody wanted the woman with low self-esteem to finally find her true self and to blossom. Not everybody wanted a country to start accepting its minorities, a world to stop going to war.

Different people, different desires. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was under no illusion that I was a particularly powerful witch. While I talked of influence magic being able to alter the course of a country, I was nowhere near that level of power. I was the kind of girl you went to if you’d just fallen out of a bad relationship and needed to build yourself a new identity. People called me if they couldn't understand what was going wrong with their life, and needed to find a new source of meaning. I was a little bit more like a personal coach, a little bit less like a powerful sorceress shepherding the course of humanity.

That didn't mean that I hadn't made my enemies though. For every good witch out there that wanted to help you grow, there was somebody that wanted to use your weakness to feed their own power.

I'd made enemies. In my short career as a witch on my own, I had turned certain heads.

I'd received threats in the mail, spells in the postbox, I would come home at night to see my house ransacked, but not by your ordinary robber, by the kind that would leave enchantments painted across your walls in freshly dried chicken blood.

Not pleasant.

By moving in with my grandmother that had all stopped. There is safety in numbers, especially where witches are concerned. The magic number, that everyone knows, is three. You get three witches together, and you have safety, you have a coven, you have a place of purpose and meaning and growth.

There was only myself and my grandmother, but it had proved to be enough. In our enormous old, decrepit mansion, the threats had stopped, the bullying had ceased, and my life had settled down.

I pushed my teeth into my bottom lip, darted my gaze up to the man, and suddenly realized that I had just dwindled into the world’s longest and most awkward pause.

What should have been a fairly innocent comment, was quickly turning into something ridiculously suspicious. “I... guess I needed to look after her,” I added.

“What do you do?”

“I am... a secretary,” I said, my voice going up like a kazoo at the end as if it were a question.

Technically that was correct. I was a lot more however. I was a secretary during the day, but a witch at night.

I started to massage my neck and noticed how sweaty it was.

“I think I need to call my lawyer now,” I realized as the panic started to build.

He grabbed his phone, turned it around, and handed it to me. It was a heavy and pointed move.

Agent Fairweather was suspicious. For very good reasons, including a kilo of cocaine and a quip about digging a six-foot hole in the yard.

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms as he watched me intently dial the number.

I was starting to get bleary eyes and I could hardly breathe. Dragging my hand over my forehead, I let it shift down until I was hiding my eyes with it.

Come on, Uncle Fred, I told myself in my head, answer, answer the bloody phone.

“Hello there, Esmerelda,” he finally picked up.

How he knew it was me, considering I was calling not from my mobile but from Agent Fairweather's phone, I didn't ask. It would be magic, after all. “I sense you have a spot of legal trouble, my legal bones are shaking about, and I'm very good at reading them.”

“You could say that,” I said carefully.

Then I looked up sharply. Fairweather was still watching me, his eyebrows fully crumpled over his eyes. To him that would be a particularly weird way of answering the phone. No hello, no introduction, just a random statement.

I settled my fingers into the collar of my blouse, and I tried not to blink too much. I asked my uncle kindly to come down, told him a little bit of the story, and then hung up, feeling thankfully more secure than I had before. Fred would be a nightmare, but at least there would be a dawn after the dark, dark night. If anyone could solve this, he could.

“I guess I will wait for him to arrive,” I conceded in a quiet voice as I shot one more look Fairweather's way.

His arms were still crossed, his jaw was still locked, and he was still as hard as ever. He no longer reminded me of a scalpel, but of a sodding great broadsword. One that was directed straight at my throat.

Chapter 4

Uncle Fred had weaved his particular kind of magic. While Granny’s spells included mud, cocaine, lizard heads, and colored jars, Fred’s involved robust arguments that cited previous cases, precedents, and criminal law codes.

In short, we were out of custody, and all charges had been dropped. Somehow. I didn't want to go into the details, because I didn't understand them. In fact, I'm fairly sure Fairweather hadn't understood them either, but somehow, despite his best attempts, both of his perps had walked away, scot free.

There was something to be said of coming from a family of witches. There was also something to be said of coming from a family of ordinary people. Ordinary people don't order large amounts cocaine off the Internet, dig mysterious holes in the garden, and come to the attention of the Federal Police.

With every good there was always a bad; nature loves a bit of balance.

It also loves a bit of chaos.

When I had finally gotten home, called my boss and explained, without telling him what had happened, why I hadn't gone to work, I had been exhausted.

Thoroughly exhausted. I grabbed a slice of chocolate cake from the fridge, wandered upstairs, ran a bath, and slipped into it.

So much for practicing any magic.

Another reason I had moved in with my grandmother had been the possibility of learning a thing or two, and having more time to practice.

But with work so thin on the ground, and nobody coming in for any love potions, identity fixes, or influence lessons, I seemed to do nothing these days but complain, clean, and have baths.

As I lay there, opening the hot tap for another burst of heat, I stared up at the ceiling.

I'd picked those tiles. I’d picked the paint. I'd even picked the exact taps, and I had chosen my favorite iron-claw-footed bath too.

But had I kept it together today in the police station? Had I gathered influence around me to change the situation? Had I used the special knowledge I had as a witch to manipulate the context, to alter things so my desired outcome would arise?

No. I’d simply asphyxiated myself out of nerves, chugged down my nasty-tasting tea, and had made a complete fool of myself in front of Fairweather. Not that that mattered, of course, because I had no intention of ever crossing paths with that man again.

As I closed my eyes, turning off the tap, and settling down into the water, the last thing I wanted to hear filtered through the closed bathroom door.

“Oh Esmerelda,” Granny called.

I winced, and I cursed under my breath.

“What are you doing in there?”

“I'm having a bath,” I pointed out angrily.

“Of course, I can hear that, I meant what are you thinking? Ask yourself this, my witch, what magic are you casting right now?”

I was in no mood to play Mary's games considering the kind of day she had given me. “Look, I'll be out of here in a couple of minutes,” I lied, fully intending to stay for another hour or so, until I was thoroughly pruney.

“You need to be careful,” her voice dipped.

Just as had occurred this morning, she got back a bit of the old authority. The power. I could hear it, hell, I could feel it; it danced across my skin, making my hair stand on end.

“What are you talking about?” I finally gave up on ignoring her, and sat up straight in the bath, bringing my knees in, and curling my arms around them.

“Remember your tarot cards. Remember The Tower,” her voice still had that same quality to it. It was a quality I could not ignore, no matter how hard I tried.

I frowned.

The Tower card. Precisely the kind of card you did not want to see after a day full of trouble; it would only bring more. It was a warning. One that told you that a situation that had been allowed to build and build was about to explode. Your tower was about to crumble, and you were going to fall along with it.

But why was she mentioning it now? Especially when all I wanted to do was eat soggy chocolate cake and stay in the bath for hours.

She wasn't going to tell me; I would have to ask. “What are you talking about?” I glanced over at my bathrobe, wondering whether I had the energy to get out, open the door and actually have a conversation with her face-to-face.

“I know what you're thinking. And I'm not blind, my dear, I have seen your behavior over the past weeks and months. You are letting something build. You feel trapped, darling, and you want to break free. But in breaking free, and in imagining yourself as trapped, you will have to destroy something. Fancy building yourself a new identity?”

To an unskilled witch, my grandmother's words would not make sense. I, however, was not unskilled. I knew exactly what she was talking about. If you spend a great deal of time moaning and groaning about your life, complaining, whingeing to anyone who will listen, and dreaming about something better, only one thing will happen. You'll lose what you have. At first you will lose it simply because you do not pay attention to it, but then as you allow all that negativity to build, it will seep right into the cracks, expand, and bring everything shattering down. Your job, your life, your marriage, it doesn't really matter; allow concentrated negativity to build, and you’ll lose it all.

I finally pushed myself out of the bath, feeling the chill against my skin instantly.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” I tried, but my voice was so low and shaky, that I couldn't have convinced a child.

“Yes you do,” she called my bluff. “Now be careful. You may not like the current life you have, but if you let it break, you might not like living in the rubble.”

With that, I heard her turn and walk away.

I stood there on my bath mat, dripping, freezing, staring at the closed bathroom door.

She was right. Entirely right. I couldn't blame her either. It's one thing to not like what you're doing with yourself, it's another to spend all of your time complaining about it and doing nothing to fix it. You can grow and change what you currently have, or you can take a sledgehammer to it, and leave it shattered and broken by your feet. My grandmother was thoroughly right. Break what you've got, and you might not like living in its remains.

Feeling shockingly uncomfortable, I dried myself off and headed to bed.

I hoped tomorrow would be a better day. But unless I listened to my grandmother and actively tried to make it one, hope would be all I would get.

Chapter 5

As I headed to work that morning, there was a distinctly unsettled feeling in my gut. It felt like a premonition, but not something concrete; there were no images in my mind, no sense of what would happen, just this scattered feeling of doom.

Yes, doom. Exactly what I didn't need in my life right now. Trouble is one thing, but doom is its far more powerful cousin.

Shaking my head as I tried to dislodge it, I quickly got about my morning chores, dressed, and got ready for work.

Rather than disturbing my grandmother, I walked out the door without saying goodbye. The first thing that met me was a blistering, cold gust of wind.

It roared up the garden path, scattered the branches in the oaks by the house, and blasted against my face.

I blinked into it, bringing my arm around and protecting my face.

If that wasn't a portent, I didn't know what was.

Fixing my hair behind my ears, casting a wary glance up at the dark clouds chasing across the sky, I hesitantly walked down the path. As I did, I was acutely aware of everything I saw, heard, and felt. A single crow was sitting on the gate, preening itself, then every now and then straightening up, looking alarmed, and checking over its shoulders as if a predator were right behind it. The weeds on my lawn looked even more dead than usual, and as I walked past one shrub, it actually fell over. And to top it all off, there were scattered snail shells broken by the mailbox.

Wow. Either the world was going to end, or just mine was. Everything around me had such an ominous, frightful edge to it, that I would be mad to ignore the warnings.

Scratching at my arms uneasily, I walked out the gate, and headed to my car. As I did another blast of wind caught my skirt, blowing it against my legs. Thankfully it was tight enough that it didn’t flare up, Marilyn Munro style, but it suddenly made me acutely uneasy of my appearance.

I wasn’t exactly a stylish woman, though I could look glamorous if I put some effort into it. I was mostly functional, and that worked for me. I was a very practical personality, so of course my choice in clothes matched this. But occasionally, just occasionally, I would look at somebody walking down the street in their fantastic high heels and their designer skirt with their face delicately made up, and I would feel a longing. Then I would look at myself, note the functional but slightly frumpy work pants and shirt, and I would feel a little ashamed.

As a witch, I understood exactly what would occur in a moment like that. Doubt. Doubt about who you are and the choices you've made. Comparison is the first symptom, and a trusty warning sign. Suddenly find yourself comparing your life and finding it lacking in every single category, and an identity crisis is around the corner.

But this wasn't an identity crisis, was it? I knew where I was in life, knew what I wanted, and was very confident I could get it.... Okay, so I spent most of my time complaining about my living situation, cleaning up after my grandmother, and attempting to have narcotics charges removed. Yet that aside, I knew who I was.

Frowning, I ignored that sense of doubt, and made it to my car.

The drive to work was an unpleasant one. For no particular reason. I didn't have a horrendous car crash, I didn't see anything nasty along the way, and the traffic wasn't that bad.

It was just all the little things. Things I usually ignored. Someone cutting in front of me hurt more today than it usually would. Not managing to catch a yellow light made me far more frustrated than it should have.

Even more portents that today would be a thoroughly tiresome one.

By the time I made it to work, I had a thundering headache and wanted to do nothing more than head home, crawl into bed, pull the covers over my eyes, and forget about everything.

I wouldn't have the opportunity.

As soon as I sat down at my desk, my boss ordered me up and told me to go out to buy some milk and biscuits. They had a meeting that day, and they were fresh out of snacks.

Usually this wasn't my job, but the receptionist was sick, so was the other secretary, and so was the boss’ PA. In fact, I was the only person there.

It seemed everybody else at work had taken one look at the sky, read the signs, and had wisely chosen to stay at home.

Grumbling to myself, I'd acquiesced, grabbing some cash and heading out the door.

I should have stayed inside. I should have really stayed inside.

There was a small grocery store two blocks away from where I worked, and usually the walk was a pleasant one; it was nice to get up from my desk, after all. Today it was one of the most nervous walks I’d ever had.

Was it just me, or did everyone I pass seem... dangerous somehow? I don't mean they were wielding machetes and chasing after me, but the looks on their faces were unsettling. Everyone from businessmen, to cab drivers, to little old ladies.

Scratching my arms again, I turned the corner and finally made it into the grocery store. As I plucked some biscuits up from the shelf, something happened.

A wave of fear caught me as if I were nothing more than a light little shell on the beach, ready to be dragged under the ocean.

“What was that?” I whispered to myself, hands shaking as I clutched at the packet before me.

Something happened seconds later.

A man walked into the store. Closed the door erratically behind him, and walked over to the cash register. It was when he was in front of it that he pulled out the gun.

“Everybody get down, you, empty the register,” he brought up a simple white bag and shoved it at the alarmed sales assistant.

I hadn't moved. I was still holding onto the biscuit packet, eyes now wide in shock, heart beating wildly in my chest, jaw shaking from the effort of it.

“Nobody move, nobody move,” the guy said, twitching as he did.

Suddenly there was a gust of wind outside on the street, a powerful one. It shook its way over the roofs and signs, like hands grating across a blackboard.

It startled the guy. He jumped, turning to the side. That would be when the old man next to him decided to do something brave and entirely stupid.

He lunged at the gunmen.

You didn't need to be a genius to see it wouldn't work out. The guy holding the gun was a good six-foot-two, possibly in his late 30s, and had a reliable build. The old guy was probably 75, crouched over, and though he had a mean and determined look on his face, he had no brawn to match it up with.

The gunman shoved him off, jumped back, and shot him.

I screamed. I planted a hand over my mouth, whimpered into it, and finally dropped the packet of biscuits.

Seconds later I realized the old man wasn’t dead; though he had been shot, it was a flesh wound to his arm. He was on the ground though, covered in blood, and breathing wildly as he clutched his wound.

Everybody else was screaming, shouting, and a quick glance out the large windows to the street told me the people out there were doing the same.

The gunman started to panic. He backed off, looked at the old guy by his feet, and then out at the mayhem through the windows.

“You shouldn't have done that, you shouldn't have done that,” he said, voice pitching up and down as he held onto the gun fast, and with his other hand made a fist and rubbed it back and forth over his leg. “You shouldn't have done that.”

I was still standing there. No longer holding the biscuits, but completely incapable of moving.

I was a witch, for heaven’s sake, I dealt with things far scarier than a madman with a gun. Okay, I'd read about things far scarier than a madman with the gun. Though in those few months before I had moved in with my grandmother I had experienced my fair share of violence and threats, I’d never gone through anything like this. Letters, yes, and my apartment had been broken in to, I had also been followed, but somehow that had been different. That had been a world I understood. This... Christ, I just couldn't move.

“I said everybody get down,” the gunmen stepped back again, flailing wildly with the gun, pointing it at everyone and everything.

One moment he was telling us not to move, the next he wanted us on the ground; I didn’t need too much more evidence to conclude this guy was unstable.

“Get down,” somebody whispered in my ear, placing a hand gently on my shoulder.

That did it. I followed them as they pressed slowly and lightly into my arm, guiding me down.

As they did, my head darted out from sight and I was no longer able to see the gunmen, and thankfully, he was no longer able to see me either.

As the fear caused a lump in my throat, I glanced up to see who was before me, the owner of the hand that was still gently pressed into my shoulder.

I could have balked. Hell I could have thrown up. Let alone got to my feet and run out the freaking door.

It was Agent Fairweather.

He was in his suit, and as I saw his hand slowly reach to his side, I could bet he was armed too.

He brought a finger up and pressed it against his lips.

I got the picture, loud and clear.

Stay down and let the Federal Agent deal with it. Well I had no problem with that.

....Or maybe I did. I may have been scared, but I was still a witch. And that magical part of me understood what was happening here. I understood the context.

The wind, the storm, the day, it was chaotic. It was all summing together to produce a frightening mix, a powerful spell.

A dangerous one too.

With what was going on outside, it should have been no surprise to me that a man would run into a store and botch a robbery. It would also be no surprise to me if this little situation of ours got worse quickly, far, far worse.

Even though I wasn't the world's best witch, I wasn't that bad, and I understood precognition when it visited me. In that moment, it practically slammed its fists into my face. If Agent Fairweather ducked out with his gun and tried to take the gunmen down, or at least attempted to negotiate with him, it would end one way. Fairweather would get shot. I was sure of it. The certainty shook right through me.

I did the only thing I could think of. As he moved around me, obviously intending to duck out from the shelves, I brought a hand forward and latched it onto his sleeve, holding him in place.

He looked down immediately, shaking his head. “I will be fine,” he mouthed.

He most certainly would not be fine.

I shook my head, hoping that he would understand. Of course he didn't. He just shrugged my hand off, and got ready.

I had to do something.

I was the only witch here, or so I thought.

My grandmother had always taught me that in moments of stress, you don't just try to calm down, you try to make the situation calm down. In moments of chaos, you try to bring order. Alter your situation, and you inevitably alter how you feel about it. But what exactly could I do here? I wasn't a particularly strong woman, neither was I that athletic, and I certainly didn't have the kind of skills required to force a mad gunman to give up his weapon.

I had to do something though. Short of offering him a packet of biscuits, a cup of tea, and a pleasant sit down, I wasn't going to make this situation any less stressful.

Any good witch knew that if you wanted to reduce the chaos and uncertainty in a situation there were several things you could try. Minimize noise, make sure the room is not too cold or too hot, ensure everybody is comfortable, that the lighting is right, that everyone is well-fed, that there are plenty of cups of tea, and that everybody is smiling. Such steps will always reduce any level of discomfort, stress, and even terror, if practiced by a particularly mindful and competent group of influence witches, of course. I couldn't exactly offer the man a cup of tea, a sweater, and a comfortable place to sit down though. I could, however, do a little bit of magic of my own.

I made my breathing as quiet as I could, my moves as slow and gentle and as deliberate as was possible. But I did a little bit more than just that. I pushed my concentration into it. All of my will, all of my desire, and yes, all of my magic. As I quietened down, I invited the situation to quiet down with me. If I had been a more powerful witch, it would have been less of an invite and more of a command, but I had to deal with what I had and what I currently was.

It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, but I stopped the rising fear, digging my heels into it, dragging it down until I encased myself with a warm, calm sense that everything would be okay and despite the wind and the gunman and the chaos, there was order and love to be had.

Despite my efforts, I couldn't stop Fairweather. In that moment, he darted out from my side of the shelf, no doubt revealing himself and his gun to the madman by the counter.

I wished right now that I was one of the other kind of witches. Not an influence witch, but one of the immediately powerful kind, the ones with fireballs and brooms and cats that could talk.

I wasn't.

I stood up. On impulse, you might say, or maybe the growing calm in my mind and body had forced me to do so.

I put my hands up in a classic sign of surrender.

“Put your gun down,” Fairweather said in an even but dangerous voice.

“What the hell is this, who the hell are you?” The gunman, now sounding frantic, backed up towards the counter, pointing his gun at Fairweather, his brow clearly wet with sweat.

I tried to think of exceedingly un-stressful things, like calm walks along the beach, a cup of tea, or a snooze in the sun.

It wasn't exactly working, but at least I wasn't a shaking puddle of fear on the ground either.

I could still feel the chaos outside, the wind and the storm and the general ominous touch to the day, but I honestly tried to put them out of my mind, pushing them to the corners of reality, and trying to ignore them.

“You do something brave, I'm going to kill somebody,” the gunman's hand shook, and all eyes were locked on the muzzle of his handgun.

“Put it down,” Fairweather said, that distinctive baritone of his feeling as if it shook through the ground like an earthquake.

Only two things could happen here. Either the gunman would get shot, or Fairweather would get shot. No, sorry I was forgetting a third; both of them would get shot.

I didn't want anyone to die today. Especially considering, according to my grandmother at least, I was in part responsible for this. The tower card from the tarot pack suddenly flashed before my mind. All those months of negativity and whingeing were catching up with me, and in fantastic style too.

“You have your money,” I said in the calmest voice I could manage, nodding towards the counter.

It was true. Whist I had been clutching on hard to my packet of biscuits or holding onto Fairweather's sleeve, the cashier had done exactly what he had been told, and had filled the white bag with all the money from the register.

It was just sitting there, invitingly.

I nodded towards it. “Nobody has to get shot; you have what you came for.”

I really tried to use my most gentle, subtle, motherly voice. It didn't quite work, but at least I wasn't screaming at him in the pitch of a punk rock singer.

“Stay out of this,” Fairweather snapped.

No chance. If I withdrew the calm magic I was bringing to this situation, it would collapse. With a bang. Or several.

“You have your money, you have what you came for,” I said again, as gently as I could manage.

I put my all into my voice, I really did. All those years of training, of being a witch, of dealing with magic.

And maybe it worked.

Was it just me, or did the slack, sallow look of almost sociopathic madness on the gunman's face waver? Did it soften slightly, the color returning to his cheeks?

He turned around to look at the cash register, confirming with a glance that the bag was in fact full.

And that would be when Fairweather shot him.

I think I knew it would happen before it did. A rising, sudden feeling in my stomach, somewhat like a shot itself, warned me a nanosecond before it occurred.

When he squeezed the trigger, I screamed.

The gunman jerked to the side, the bullet lodging in his firing shoulder, but as the bullet ripped into him, he stumbled back, squeezing off a shot of his own.

It whizzed right past me and lodged, ironically, in my packet of biscuits. The same packet of biscuits that I had hoped would make this day calm again, suddenly exploded in a cloud of packaging and crumbs.

He didn't, however, manage to get off another shot; Fairweather rammed into him, ploughing into his side, and pulling him to the ground.

It all happened so fast, but in seconds the Agent had hold of the man's gun, and for all intents and purposes, the situation was over.

Well, this incident was, the day, however was only just getting started in terms of the trouble it could produce.

Chapter 6

I was on a park bench, just outside the convenience store, sipping on a particularly unappealing but at least warm cup of tea.

I was staring out at the police cars and an ambulance.

I was trying very hard not to listen to the man berating me.

“You should have stayed behind that shelf, where I told you to,” Fairweather raised his voice again.

I replied by scratching my nose.

“Are you listening to me?”

No, I really wasn't. Or at least I was trying not to. This day was getting out of hand, and if I knew a thing or two about magic, I could understand where it was heading. Unless I ran home, hid under my covers, or did something else to turn my back to this ominous Tuesday, my life was going to explode.

I just wanted to get out of here already.

“I'm a Federal Agent, and I knew perfectly well how to handle that situation; it was dangerous and foolish getting involved,” he had his arms crossed, and now he seemed to tighten them, his forearms bulging against his shirt.

It was a mildly distracting view, but it didn't serve to completely let me forget what was happening here.

“Are you going to say anything?” he prodded angrily.

“This tea is terrible,” I managed.

It was the wrong thing to say. I was coming off as exceedingly churlish. For a woman who had been pulled into his office only the day before because her grandmother had stupidly imported a kilo of narcotics, only for some downright bizarre lawyer to somehow manage to have all charges dropped, I was being very stupid here. I shouldn't even be talking to this man. I should be trying my best to stay out of his way, tell him what he needed to know, and get home as quickly as I could. Instead I was acting like a teenager being told off by a parent.

Latching a hand on my neck, I finally turned to look up at him.

“That could have ended differently,” he stared right into my eyes.

I got the message.

Just not the message he was trying to convey. It could have ended differently; if I hadn't gotten involved, Fairweather here would be the one in the ambulance, not the gunman.

That was no guess either; this was witch’s intuition. I knew how to read a context, and that grocery store had been as clear as day.

I couldn't exactly tell this to Fairweather, and nor could I ever get him to understand even if I could break the sacred rule of magic and let him in on the fact I was a witch.

“I'm very sorry, officer,” I tried, ensuring there wasn't a trace of petulance left anywhere in my tone.

“Agent,” he corrected in a snap.

“It's been a long day, and yesterday, yesterday wasn't any better,” I clutched at my cup harder.

“How exactly did you get those charges dropped, anyway, who the hell was that lawyer, who are you connected to?” Fairweather jumped in, asking more of the questions he had bombarded with me with last night after Fred had managed to wade in and pluck my Granny out of the Federal Polices’ clutches.

I stood up. “Is this all? Am I free to go? I've given my statement, and I really, really want to go home now.”

He pressed his lips together. He could have been handsome, but right now he looked deadly.

He didn't say anything. I took that to mean it was up to me to try to leave and find out what would happen next.

Figuring there was no way I was going to finish my tea, I popped my half-full Styrofoam cup on the end of the bench and started to walk away.

He cleared his throat. God dammit that was a grating, heavy sound. It was like a mountain being dragged across the landscape. “You going to litter in front of a policeman?”

“I thought you were an agent?” I mistakenly quipped back.

“Littering is an offence,” he stared at me directly.

I wanted to pick the cup up and throw it in his face, but I managed a quaint smile instead, grabbed it up, and walked it over to the trashcan closest to me. “I am very sorry officer, I had no intention of littering, I was putting it down just for a moment.”

“Agent,” he corrected again.

Pain in the ass, I wanted to add, but I had the presence of mind not to.

“I'll be keeping my eye on you,” he nodded my way as I turned.

Dear God, it sounded like a line out of a movie. He would be keeping his eye on me? Where did he get off threatening perfectly upstanding members of the community?

... Okay, I wasn't exactly a perfectly upstanding member of the community; I was a witch, and as far as he was concerned, I was complicit in drug imports, and fancied myself a rogue police negotiator.

Anyhow, I knew what I meant underneath. Agent Fairweather was being a bully.

Not bothering to say goodbye, I walked away, shrugging into my jacket, and half wanting to bring up my hand and shake my fist at the marching clouds above.

So what if my grandmother was correct; so what if I had been the one to create this day through months of whingeing and anguish. I knew just how to get away from it. It was time for another bath and another plate of chocolate cake.

Chapter 7

By the time I made it home, I was ready to pop. I'd made a quick call to my boss, intending to let him know what had happened. But my conversation hadn't gone quite according to plan.

I’d been fired.

Yes, that's right, fired. Yesterday I had spent several hours in a police station, today I’d been in a robbery, and this afternoon I’d been sacked.

But I wasn't done with the trouble.

As I pulled up outside my house, I sat there for a few minutes, staring at my steering wheel glumly.

I needed to find another job as soon as possible; we already lived beyond our means. I didn't relish the opportunity of job hunting though.

I also didn't relish having to tell my grandmother. Because she was going to say one thing; The Tower. I had created this mess, now I was reaping the rewards. I had never liked my life, and I had been undermining it for weeks and weeks now with my constant whingeing. Well, I had successfully attacked the foundations, so now the house was falling.

Leaning back in my seat, closing my eyes, I indulged in covering my face with my hands. The slight smell of my perfume still lingered.

It was an orange, rose blossom mix, and it had always been my favorite.

I felt it summed me up perfectly: a little bit sweet, a little bit delicate, but not too showy.

After almost a minute of hiding, I finally opened the car door and got out.

That's when I saw the house.

Or rather, I saw the tree. One of the oaks had lost a branch, and that branch was now lodged in the roof.

I winced.

Then I snapped my eyes open.

My grandmother was smart, she was powerful, she was a witch; but she was still old.

Leaving the car door open, the keys in the ignition, my bag on the front seat, I sprinted towards the house. “Mary, Mary, are you okay?”

Nobody answered; nobody could hear me. The gusts of wind that had been tearing through the city were only growing more powerful. My hair was whipping around my face like a fan, and twigs and leaves were picking up along the garden path, slamming into my legs and feet.

The front door was open.

I rushed in, heart suddenly in my mouth.

“Mary, Mary?” My shoes squeaked on the once beautifully polished floorboards of the hall as I headed for the kitchen.

If I was any judge, the branch had fallen into the roof just above it.

I had a horrible flash of my grandmother lying underneath it, pinned down, and possibly covered in the dirty dishes that kept unpacking themselves from the dishwasher.

I had to grab hold of the doorframe as I sprinted into the kitchen, just to stop myself from slamming into the wall.

I didn't, however, stop myself in time before I slammed into someone’s back.

“Hey,” that someone snapped. It was a man. A man in a suit.

As I stumbled and righted myself by grabbing at the kitchen bench, he turned.

I almost fell over, despite the fact I now had two hands clutching onto the side of the kitchen bench.

Agent bloody Fairweather.

For a second the fact that he was in my kitchen and I'd run into his back was all I could think of, then the urgency caught up with me again.

I snapped my head to the side.

Mary, my grandmother, was sitting at the kitchen bench, staring up at the branch that was lodged in the wall.

“There you are, dear, look what happened? A branch came down. What a storm we've got out there.”

I stared at my grandmother, over to the branch, then back to Fairweather.

There were a lot of questions to be answered here.

“Is everybody okay?” I asked quickly, swallowing loudly as I did. Though I'd said everybody, I didn't mean it. I meant my grandmother and the house; Fairweather could go hang for all I cared.

He straightened up, patting down on his tie again; he did that a lot, perhaps it was his little way of neatening up the world. He did seem to be the kind of fellow that would be obsessed with ordering things, cleaning them up, keeping them on the straight and narrow. He was a Federal Police Officer, after all, or an Agent as he so liked to insist.

“I'm fine,” Mary said with a smile, “Agent Fairweather here seems suspicious of us, and as for the house... it looks as if you're going to have to pick up another job to pay for the repairs. I called our builder friend, it’s going to be costly.”

I nodded my head, then shook it. I understood the bit about the house and my grandmother, but as for the statement about Fairweather, it was probably bang on the mark, but it wasn't comforting.

I narrowed my eyes as I slid my gaze over to him. “I see, and why exactly are you here, Agent Fairweather?”

“I was on business in the local vicinity. I was just outside when the branch fell. I heard your grandmother call for help, and I came to assist.”

A likely story. The man had probably been parked out front, sipping on a coffee, just waiting for me to come home so he could harass me again.

I nodded, keeping my smile as pleasant as I could. “I guess I should thank you then.”

“I suppose you should,” he agreed.

We stared at each other for slightly too long.

Granny cleared her throat. “Would you like a cup of tea, or a biscuit?”

Fairweather looked over at the kitchen table.

It was covered in dishes. In fact, you couldn't see the lovely wood underneath; all you could see were mugs and plates and pots and pans.

He looked back at me. I got the picture. He couldn't blame my dear old grandma; she was clearly demented. He could, however, cast judgment on the crazy lady who seemed to allow her to collect federal offences and live in squalor.

“Did you unstack the dishwasher again before it was done?” I asked very softly, glancing towards my grandmother.

I knew fully well that she hadn’t been the one to unstack the dishwasher; I'd been a witch and had lived in this house long enough to understand its quirks.

She crumpled her brow and looked at me suspiciously as if I'd suddenly lost my mind. “It unstacked itself.”

Fairweather just nodded. “I'm fine, I don’t need a cup of tea or a biscuit,” he assured me, that tone of his bottoming out as it always did, making me feel as if he was dragging me down to hell.

“Okay then, I guess you'll be leaving,” I said pointedly.

I wasn’t usually this rude. If we had guests, I was a very obliging host. I'd be the one to pull the chair out for you, to ensure your glass was always full, to make you special food if you had any allergies. But here I was practically telling Fairweather his stay was up.

“Esmerelda, how very rude. You must forgive her, Jacob, she has always been a bit funny around attractive men. A little self-conscious, you know what I mean? Doesn't know what to say, gets awkward,” my grandmother said plainly as if I wasn't in the room.

I choked. Fairweather swallowed a snigger.

I was going to kill her. I was going to kill my grandmother, but I was going to bloody well wait until Fairweather was gone.

Feeling my cheeks turn a furious red, I blinked hard, patted down on my pants, and walked over to the kitchen sink just to get away. I poured myself a glass of water, and drank it as I stared concertedly out the window, feeling the breeze that was pushing its way past the branch lodged in the opposite wall.

“Jacob, I simply insist. I'll have Esme here make you a cup of tea, and I'm sure we've got some biscuits or cake lodged in the fridge somewhere. You’ve been such a dear coming to my aid. Stay for a bit.”

Such a dear?

This was the same man that had dragged her in for questioning a little over 24 hours ago.

“Well, if you insist,” as Agent Fairweather, or Jacob as I had just learnt, spoke, he stared right at me.

“Let me make a space for you,” I said through gritted teeth as I walked over to the kitchen table, brought out a chair, grabbed the mugs and bowls off it, and took them over to the dishwasher. As I stacked them in, I was sure to glare at it.

“So, Jacob, tell me some more about yourself. How long have you been a Federal Agent for? And I must say, you’re the first Federal Agent I've ever met, unless you count the ones I've seen on TV or in movies,” my grandmother said in her usual scatty tone as she sat at one of the other kitchen chairs, apparently not caring that there was a dirty plate underneath her.

“About two years now,” he answered, and as he did, I swear he kept his attention firmly locked on me.

“What did you do before that?” My grandmother smiled at him invitingly.

“I was in the Army for a short stint. “

“The Army, how exciting. What an action man you are. They should make a figurine of you,” my grandmother said, in a completely straight tone, with a completely straight face, because she was completely serious.

I managed to swallow my laugh, and to Jacob's credit, he simply tapped his hand on his knee and mumbled that he didn't think so.

As I hurriedly cleaned the table, stacked the dishwasher, set the kettle on, and prepared some cake from the fridge, I started to get an itchy feeling along the back of my shoulders and arms.

I dismissed it.

A mistake.

As my grandmother continued to ask Jacob Fairweather the strangest and most awkward questions, she suddenly stopped. She turned her head towards the window, narrowed her eyes, and sniffed. “How is your car, dear?”

She was talking to me.

And then I remembered. I remembered the fact I had left the keys in the ignition, the door open, and my bag on the front seat.

Swearing loudly, I dropped what I was doing, ran out the door, and sprinted down the garden path as fast as I could.

I needn't have bothered.

Because it was gone.

Seriously, my car was gone.

I had lost my job that day, and now to top it all off I had lost my car too and my bag and purse.

Fantastic. Bloody fantastic.

As I stood there on the curb where my car should have been, I closed my eyes and covered my mouth, breathing a silent scream into it.

I heard footsteps behind me.

“What are you doing?” It was Jacob.

“I have no idea,” I answered honestly as I brought my arms out expressively.

No, that wasn't fair, I knew exactly what I was doing; I was ruining my life, one mishap at a time.

“Where is your car?”

I couldn't turn to him. Eventually I shrugged my shoulders. “I'm not sure.”

“What do you mean you're not sure?”

“Oh dear,” I heard my grandmother call out, “shouldn't you call the police?”

“Are you telling your car has been stolen?” Jacob insisted.

I wanted to cry. And scream and shout, and generally make a scene. I managed to hold onto my dignity though, but only just.

“Oh, I forgot, Jacob's a policeman, how useful. You can let him know that you left your keys in the ignition, the door open, and walked away from your car, practically inviting it to be stolen,” my grandmother walked up behind me.

“Is she serious?” Jacob looked at me pointedly.

I grit my teeth, pulling my lips around them in the world's most nervous, fearful, crazed smile.

“When I pulled up, I saw the branch lodged in the roof, and I just ran to check my grandmother was okay,” I pushed my hand into my fringe as I spoke, feeling how sweaty and hot my brow had become.

Really? Could this day get any worse? I felt like facing the clouds above and shouting at them: “Enough already, I get the picture’. I was a very bad witch who had been far too whingey and was now paying the consequences.

“You left the keys in the ignition and the door open,” Jacob tried to clarify.

“And my handbag on the front seat,” I added, teeth still clenched.

“It really was an invitation for someone to steal it, wasn't it, dear?” My grandmother patted a hand on my back.” You should have known better.”

I really was about to pop.

“Can I just ascertain that you are serious? Your car has been stolen?” Jacob looked from me to the curb then back at me.

I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. “I got held up this morning, lost my job this afternoon, and five minutes ago, my car got stolen,” my voice was unnaturally singsong.

“You lost your job, oh, how unfortunate, how are we going to pay for all the damage? Also, how am I going to pay for my new shipment? I ordered something fantastic off the Internet last night,” my grandmother pointed out with a smile.

I choked. Wrong time to talk about the weird and wonderful things she was going to have shipped from other countries; Agent Jacob Fairweather was still standing right there to my left.

“You realize under most insurance policies leaving the keys in the ignition and the door open will invalidate the terms?” he pointed out.

What a comforting thing to say.

“Oh dear, I think we should get back in the house before the rain starts,” Granny removed the hand from my back and pointed up to the sky.

The clouds were still racing, but if I were any judge, it wasn't going to start raining any time soon.

Well I was wrong, and my grandmother was right; she was a far more powerful witch, after all, and she had seen her fair share of weather spells. The exact hue to the laden grey and blue clouds in the sky, the pace of the wind, and the general ambience of the air suggested one thing; a downpour.

By the time we made it back to the house, there was a clap of thunder, seconds later the rain began.

I caught a glimpse of Fairweather glancing out the window and up at the clouds, a confused look on his face. “That was quick,” he said under his breath.

“Come in and sit down, Jacob, I'm very sorry you've been distracted. Now where were we?”

He’d been distracted? Was my car being stolen nothing more than a simple little distraction? Was the fact I had just lost my job nothing more than a mild inconvenience?

I crossed my arms and frowned deeply as I followed the two of them back into the kitchen.

The second I reached it, I realized just how damaged the roof was. A gale was blowing through the hole the branch had wrought, and as the rain slammed down, it fell onto the floor, soon to ruin one of my favorite rugs.

“It's a bit draughty in here, Jacob, how about we move into the drawing room? Esme, be a good girl and fix up the tea and cake, would you?”

I didn't want to be a good girl. I wanted to kick Jacob out and have a tantrum. I had just enough self-control not to do that though. I busied myself trying to clean up my kitchen instead. Once I had delivered the tea and cake to my grandmother and her thoroughly unwanted guest, I set about trying to figure out a way to get the branch out of the wall, and some kind of shield up so my kitchen wasn't completely ruined in the storm.

Clambering into a thick jacket and gumboots and fixing my hair into a tight bun, I waded out into the darkening day to see what I could do.

“I hate you, day,” I said petulantly as I sloshed over to the oak tree that had lost its branch, planting my hands on my hips as I leant back to survey the damage.

If I were a different kind of which, I would have tried to talk the wood into pulling itself out of the wall and the wall into stacking up its bricks, strengthening its mortar, and fixing its plaster back into place.

Unfortunately I had to deal with what I had, so I splashed over to the shed looking for the chainsaw I knew was still in there.

I hauled it back to the oak tree, then spent a few frustrated moments trying to get it to start.

“You are seriously going chainsaw in this weather, are you?” I heard Jacob ask from behind me.

Not expecting it, I gave a jump, starting the chainsaw at that exact moment.

“Dammit, be careful, you could take my leg off with that,” he scolded as I turned around with the chainsaw in hand, the chain turning around as the machine groaned from years of misuse.

I turned it off, dropping it to my side. “It's not like I have much of a choice. There's a sodding great branch in my kitchen,” I pointed to it needlessly as a gust of wind plastered my hair into my face, the rain managing to seep its cold touch down the back of my jacket.

“Just leave it, call someone in the morning,” he suggested.

I frowned at him, turned my back, started the chainsaw, and muscled it over to the tree.

And that would be when I felt it.

Another snaking, twisting spike of precognition.

There was a crack from behind me. From the same mutinous oak tree that had already dropped a branch onto my already decrepit house.

I had the presence of mind to drop the chainsaw, and without my hand on the trigger, thankfully it stopped before I could take my foot off.

Half a second later, a branch came swinging my way like a dark shadow from a nightmare.

It didn't squish me; it didn't get the chance.

Jacob slammed into my side, pulling me to the left just as the branch fell exactly where I’d been standing.

His arm around my middle, his weight pressing into my back, I fell face first into the mud. I breathed in the wet dirt, and I started to choke wildly.

But the weather and the day were not over yet. There was another crack from above us. Jacob hauled me up by the collar of my jacket, and pushed me to the side again.

The whole tree was about to go.

“Get back,” he commanded needlessly. It was needless because I could already see I didn't want to stand anywhere near that tree, and because he had an arm around my middle and was dragging me away as fast as he could.

With another almighty snapping sound, the whole trunk sliced in two and the rest of the branches fell over with a groan.

It was a spectacular sight. Made all the more frantic by the sudden clap of thunder and the slice of lightning far off down the street.

Even though it was only relatively early in the evening, the sudden approach of the storm had sucked the remaining light out of the dusk.

Jacob let out a soft swearword from behind me, eventually letting his arm drop from my side. “You okay?”

No, I really wasn't. My life was falling apart.

Lightning. And trees falling over. It was most definitely The Tower card. Bugger. Because that card never left the job half finished. The tower would come down, everything crumbling with it.

My life was undoubtedly falling apart, but judging by how screwed up the situation was, I knew it wasn't finished yet.

“Are you okay?” He walked around me, staring down into my face as he did.

I think my bottom lip wobbled at that moment. I was getting ready to cry. Who cared if I did? It was raining, and it wasn't as if Jacob Fairweather was a friend or anyone I held in particularly high esteem; I didn't have to keep my dignity around him. And maybe if I burst into tears it would finally chase him away.

“Get inside,” he said. And surprisingly, his tone was soft. The rumble and baritone was still there, but the sharp edge was gone.

By the time we made it to the front door, my grandmother was standing there, two towels in her hand. “Get inside before you all catch colds,” she squeaked.

And then she stopped. She dropped the act. The scatty, mad, crazy woman act.

The woman with authority, the witch of old, took hold.

With a quick glance, she saw the broken oak tree, her lips parted, she ushered us in, and she slammed the door.

Her countenance had changed in an instant.

“Perhaps it’s time to leave us, Jacob Fairweather; it seems we’ve got a little bit of the situation here, I wouldn't want to hold you up,” she suggested.

Her tone was different, her choice of words was different, her entire manner was completely at odds with what she had shown before. She seemed competent, clever, smart, and in control.

I caught Jacob staring at her askance as he dabbed at his face and hair with the towel. “Sorry?”

“Thank you very much for your assistance, Agent, but we simply can't take up any more of your time,” she said again, a note of insistence rippling through her voice.

I had lived with my grandmother long enough to know what she was doing here. Though she seemed to enjoy spending most of her time as the town's craziest woman, she was still powerful underneath all of that bizarre behavior. And the powerful witch understood what had just occurred.

Slowly I began to catch up with the situation too.

One of our oak trees was down. That wasn't just an inconvenience, it was perhaps one of the greatest portents of doom you could get.

The two old trees that stood either side of the house were a little bit more than decoration. They were guards, sentinels. They stood at either side, blocking the house from attack.

Now one of them was down.

No, it had been split in half, it had burst, it had broken in a spectacular display of power.

It wasn't just the weather, it wasn't an artefact of the storm; it was a sign.

The safety and security this house had once given us, was now gone.

I backed off a little, swallowing uncomfortably, holding onto my towel until my knuckles turned white.

Losing my job was one thing, losing my car equally as disturbing, but it was nowhere near as bad as this.

“Thank you again,” my grandmother said as she ushered Jacob to the door, one hand firmly pushing against his back.

He seemed flustered, and rightly so. One minute my grandmother was acting like a total loon, the next she was perfectly in control.

He shot a look my way. All he would've seen was my pale face, my bedraggled form, and the no doubt distinct look of dismay on my crumpled expression.

He opened his mouth, eyes still locked on me, the once stern look gone as it gave way to a far more compassionate one. I knew he was about to ask if I was okay; he didn't get the opportunity though.

My gran practically shoved him out the door. “Keep the towel, thanks again, goodbye.”

With that she closed the door.

She locked it.

She turned around and she stared at me.

A lot was exchanged in that simple look.

“Go upstairs, go to your room, lock the door. Get out your sacred books, put them by each window, make sure they are locked,” my grandmother marched past me, heading towards the kitchen.

I knew what she was about to do. She really was far more powerful than I was, perhaps more powerful than I ever would be. And now she was momentarily disengaging from her crazy side, she was a force to be reckoned with.

I didn't need to ask her why the sudden change in temperance.

We were under attack.

Or at least we would be.

First the storm, then... who knew? But as we looked at each other as she headed to the kitchen, one thing could not be doubted; this day was only going to lead to a far worse night.

Danger was in the air.

“Lock your windows,” my grandmother repeated one last time as she entered the kitchen and disappeared from view.

I raced up the stairs.

Chapter 8

As I entered my room, diligently closing the door and locking it behind me, my hands were actually shaking.

Sometimes I forgot about this side of magic. Ever since I’d moved in with my grandmother, I'd been lulled into a false sense of security. I'd almost forgotten why it was that I had come to live with her in the first place.

Suddenly all those threats, those letters, the shadows of people following me down the street... they all flooded back into my mind.

Magic was a dangerous business to be involved in. Help the wrong person, gain the wrong enemy.

I ran over to the window closest to my bed, unlocked it, then locked it again firmly. I glanced out at the yard as I did.

It was dark.

Impossibly, stupidly, unreasonably dark. It was only 5 o'clock in the afternoon. We should have at least two more hours of sunlight, and yet as I stared out, I could hardly see anything more than the dark shapes of the remaining trees swaying in the gale.

Taking several steps backwards, I rushed over to the other window, unlocked it, then locked it again. Then I scampered to the chest by the side of my bed, grabbed at my sacred books, and stacked them at every point of entry or exit.

When I was done, I backed off, eventually sitting on the edge of my bed, bringing my hands down and locking them over my knees. The sound of the wind outside felt like it was hammering its way into my heart, one vicious blow at a time. Bringing a hand up, I unbuttoned my blouse and shifted my fingers past the fabric until I rubbed the skin underneath.

Calm down, I tried to tell myself. It didn't work.

After an uncomfortable 10 minutes, I heard a soft knock on my door. I wasn't so far gone to think it was an angry wizard here to settle debts or some creature from the underworld taking the opportunity to feast upon a frightened witch.

“It's just me,” my grandmother assured me. Before I could go over to the door, unlock it, and shift the books, she walked through.

Yes, she walked. Right through the solid wood door.

I had only seen her display magic of that kind of forcefulness on one or two occasions before. We were both influence witches, after all, and our skills didn’t lie in those areas. Yet my grandmother, when pressed, seemed to be capable of the most incredible feats.

Shifting back, my eyes started to fill with tears. For her to display such power reinforced one fact; the situation was perilously dangerous. Something that had started off as a pest of a day had grown into a beast, a wild and frantic one baying for my blood.

“What's going on?” I kept on rubbing at my skin, trying to warm it up, but no matter how hard I tried, it was frigid to my touch.

My grandmother didn't answer at once; she looked outside through the window by my bed, her eyes darting around keenly, no hint of the demented old bat I usually had to deal with. “We have lost one of our guards, our house is no longer safe,” she concluded as she tapped her hand on the windowsill, running her fingers over the badly painted wood.

I took a shuddering, loud, alarmed breath. She turned to me quickly. “Keep hold of yourself. In times of chaos, call upon the calm within and the calm without will manifest,” she chided me.

I nodded my head and then sniffed loudly. Reaching for a tissue, I clutched it into a ball, forcing one of my fingernails against my teeth as I'd chewed it nervously. “You don't think anyone is after us, right? I mean... it's just the storm, isn't it?”

They were very stupid and naive questions, but for some reason I had to ask them.

My grandmother shook her head. “You understand magic,” she said simply.

I did. It was often confusing, but sometimes it was clear as crystal.

“This storm has weakened us, it has weakened you,” she nodded her head my way. “And far more importantly, you have weakened you. You have spent the past several months, almost a year in fact, complaining of your existence. Every single detail, from my behavior to your job, to your persistent lack of romance. You have undermined everything you have, making it far easier for others to take what is left.”

I didn't reply, just kept on chewing my fingernails, swapping over to the next one when the jagged mess I had left was too short for my teeth to gain any purchase.

She was right, wasn't she? Dammit, she was right.

What had I done to myself?

While it's easy to understand the negative consequences of complaining after the fact, it is far harder to stop it when you are in full swing.

“You have opened yourself up for attack.”

I nodded again, the move deadened, slow, cold. I suddenly reached behind me, grabbed at my doona, and pulled it around my shoulders, huddling inside, even drawing it over my head like a hood.

“You are right to hide,” she assured me as she sat down on my bed, ferreted her hand underneath the covers, and placed it tenderly over my own. “However, I do not think anyone is after us... yet.”

I blinked my previously tightly closed eyes open. “But you said?” I began.

She shook her head. “People will be after you. The storm, and your own behavior, have opened you up for attack. When something is open for attack, an attack is a logical response. You are like a goat chained and tied down in a savannah full of lions and hyenas. You are easy, inviting, and obvious prey.”

Though she still had her hand over mine, she was no longer offering any comfort. The picture she was painting was vivid and frankly terrifying.

“You have made enemies in your time, and they no doubt now sense your weakness,” she continued.

I had made enemies. I'd never denied that fact. But could it be... as bad as she was trying to make me believe? Okay, I understood the portent of one of our oak trees splitting in two, and I could see objectively that my life was certainly falling apart, making me more vulnerable than I'd ever been. Yet was I exactly like an animal chained up for the slaughter?

I knew that darkness existed in this magical world of ours. I knew that there were enemies out there that could pluck my flesh from my bones in an instant. The kind of bad guys I'd met along the way were... well, small time. Petty criminals, witches and wizards that I had rubbed up the wrong way, magicians that worked for the dark side of the law. Nobody as epic as my grandmother was trying to suggest.

Maybe she understood what I was thinking, because she bent her head down until she stared into my eyes, even pulling the cover back to get a clearer look at my face. “You are my granddaughter. You are my son's child. You are correct, in your short life so far you have not made too many enemies, and the ones you have made cannot be classed as anything more than small. I, however, have made my fair share.”

I shuddered.

“They would think nothing of going through you to get to me,” she clutched my hand harder.

I shuddered back, suddenly feeling freezing, as if someone had dumped ice-cold water over my head.

“I have made enemies, I have lived a long time, but I have learnt much. I have helped many. But in helping one, my witch, you always disadvantage another. Such is the balance of life. My enemies are numerous as they are powerful. They will think nothing of going through you to get to me,” she repeated.

Tears started to streak down my face.

I understood what my grandmother was saying; I'd heard her arguments before. In fact, she had been the one that had been instrumental in getting me to move back into the house with her. For a while there I’d been happy and willing to ignore the threats and try to make my way in life as an independent witch.

But she’d sat me down, with a cup of tea in her hand, and she’d casually told me of the people she had angered in her life. From mob bosses to wizards in control of cartels. At some point it had seemed that my grandmother had picked a fight with every evil force she could find.

Over the past five years I had kind of forgotten that though. Living with my grandmother, watching her go slowly insane, had reinforced that I wasn't here because she was protecting me, but that I was simply sharing her house, looking after her, and benefiting from the natural protection of having two witches under the same roof.

That little fantasy came crumbling down as she stared right into my eyes.

“I warned you,” she said softly.

I yanked my hand back, crumpling it underneath my arms as I tugged the covers over my head further. It was churlish, it was childish, but I couldn't help it.

“You must stay in here tonight. I will deal with the branch, and I will ensure this house cannot be broken into. Tomorrow we will work hard. We will prepare the defenses of this property. We will find you a job, we will buy you a car, we will fix what is broken. We will take the pieces of the life that just crumbled, and we will build you a new one. We will do it quickly. Before anyone can sense your wound, before anyone can take advantage of you.” She stood up. “There is nothing to worry about.”

There was a fantastic amount of things to worry about, but I understood what she was implying.

Worry would not lead to anything but danger. I was an influence witch; I understood the ability of my own thoughts and behavior to affect the world around me. If I wanted lasting change, if I wanted magic, I had to control myself first of all.

“Sleep tight, dream of sweet dreams, and tomorrow we will rebuild your identity.”

With that she left the room. Though I had my head firmly tucked under the covers, I swear that I never heard her shift the books from the door and open it.

She would have walked straight through. It underlined the fact that she had a power I did not. That she was strong and I was vulnerable.

Chapter 9

I didn't so much as wake up the next morning, as open my eyes from a sleepless, tumultuous night.

Needless to say I hadn't slept a wink. Between the wind, the rain, the lightning, and my own thoughts, there was no peace to be had.

Though I fancied lying in bed for the rest of the day, I didn't get the chance; at 7 o'clock sharp there was a knock on my bedroom door.

“It's a new day, time to make a new you,” my grandmother called out, her tone and voice at odds with what they usually were. Gone was the crazy woman, in its place the one I had known from childhood.

“There's a lot to do today, a lot of you to rebuild,” she added through a light cough.

I brought my arm out from the covers, even though my room was cold and my skin quickly prickled, and I reached it behind my head.

She sounded like an infomercial. Hell, this entire thing sounded like a bad new age spiritual quest. But the problem was, it was real.

I could also appreciate what would happen if I didn't manage to go through with what my grandmother suggested.

We had to shore up my defenses, and those of the house, before we both were attacked.

Wincing, I climbed out of bed, grabbed my dressing gown, gently pushed the stack of magical tomes that had been protecting my door all night away, and opened it to see my grandmother.

She was dressed not in her usual garb of fisherman pants and a tie-dyed top. Rather she was in a pencil woolen skirt, a white blouse, and pearls. Yes, you heard me correctly, pearls.

She looked completely at odds with the woman I had been living with for the past five years.

She obviously saw me checking out her appearance and she raised an eyebrow as she patted down her hair. “It's serious business ensuring that your granddaughter is not attacked and that your house is not assailed by magical vigilantes,” she assured me.

I believed her.

Pouting to myself I walked downstairs to the kitchen expecting to find the mess I had left last night.

I did not.

The tree branch was gone, and leaning to the side I could see what had happened to it out the view from the French doors. It had been chopped up into neat piles and the chainsaw was sitting on top like a cherry on the cake.

As for the wall, some hasty boards had been nailed over the top, and a little bit of plastic taped over them to ensure that no more rain made its way in to ruin my rug.

I knew enough about my grandmother not to ask whether she had gotten up at 4 o'clock in the morning to chainsaw a tree in her dotage.

She was a witch. I understood what had happened here. I also understood what was happening to the wall. Taking several steps towards it, squinting my eyes, I could see the various objects crowded behind the wooden boards. Mud, leaves, some of the shards from the oak tree, some of the dirt from the dishwasher, some food pellets for pot plants. All tied together in a jar.

A growth spell.

“I thought you didn't like using magic to fix the house, I thought you said it gave it a life of its own and we couldn't afford to have this old place getting any more cheeky than it already is?” I turned to ask my grandmother, gazing pointedly at the dishwasher after I did. The dishwasher was a prime example of what happened when you used magic too often on ordinary objects.

“We don't really have the option at the moment, dear. We are on the cusp. On the precipice. Standing over a cliff with hands pressing into our backs,” her words were lyrical, and her pearls glinted as she spoke, even though the sun was still tucked firmly behind the clouds and the light was not on in the kitchen.

I frowned at her description. Very comforting.

“Yes, this may give the house more license to act like a loon, but we will deal with it. If it is whole, it can help us, if it has a wound in its side, it may let the night and its shadows in.”

Nodding, I wrapped my dressing gown tighter around myself and made my way over to the fridge. Before I could rummage around and grab something suitable for a young witch about to lose her life and everything in it, my grandmother grabbed my wrist.

“Not today, today you must have a proper breakfast, one fitting for a witch, a powerful witch.”

I just looked nonplussed. “I'm hungry,” my stomach chose that exact moment to give a growl.

“Today is a new day, the beginning of the new you,” she let go of my wrist and pushed me out of the way as she started to rummage through the fridge on her own.

Seriously, she sounded like an infomercial, it felt like she was about to start selling me some revolutionary face cream, or a self-help book that would change my perspective, change my figure, and change my bank balance.

“Have you forgotten everything about magic, Esme, that you do not understand what I am doing?” She grabbed at some watercress I swear we had never had in the fridge, some herbs, an orange from the fruit bowl, and several other ingredients I didn't recognize.

“No, grandmother, I haven't slept so soundly that I have forgotten I'm a witch,” I grumbled, heading over to the kitchen table.

It wasn't covered in dishes. It was the first time I had paused to notice that fact. Narrowing my eyes, I actually leaned down and checked under the table just to ensure that the dirty plates and pots and pans hadn't been nailed to the underside of it.

Nothing. It was clean. I sat down, crossed my arms, brought my legs up, and stared glumly out of the French doors.

“If you want to be a powerful witch, you must start acting like one. You must do all of the things that a powerful witch would do. All of the things a witch who could never be threatened, who could never have her life broken and turned upside down, all the things such a wonderful woman would fill her life with.”

I understood what she was talking about. Seriously, I wasn't a kid here. I'd read my fair share of magical tomes, I’d even been to magical high school. But eating the type of breakfast a powerful witch would eat surely wouldn't be enough to fix my problems.

“Don't frown at me like that; don't challenge the magic, just go with it. We will fill your life with everything we need to transform you into something new,” she began to peel the rind off the orange, chopping the watercress, and ripping the other herbs as she set them in a bowl. The fragrance was startlingly pleasing; I wasn’t usually a girl who ate greenery, I was more of your eggs and cheese kind. I liked my fare to be fatty, rich, and luxurious.

Still, the scent of those herbs and that orange rind reached in and made my belly grumble.

“After breakfast, we will visit your uncle, Vincent. He will give us a new car. Something fitting for a powerful witch.”

I snapped my head around, no longer letting my gaze be drawn in by the glum view of the grey sky above. “Vinnie? Are you serious?” A light but scared lilt of laughter filtered through my voice.

Uncle Vinnie was the black sheep of the family. Which was frankly incredible considering who our family consisted of.

Vinnie was a car dealer. Not a witch, not a wizard, not any kind of magical creature, just a car salesman. A used car salesman.

He always wore beige suits with these horrendously vivid blue bow ties. In his front pocket would be a scrunched, dirty, handkerchief. He had a single gold tooth that always glinted, no matter what light he was under. And his black hair was so slicked back it could be used as a grease mine.

“He is a good boy, he’ll give us a good deal,” my grandmother assured me.

A good deal? All of his cars were trash. Complete and utter junk. And yet somehow he managed to sell them. I drove past his car dealership on the way to work, and everything I saw always made my stomach turn. Old cars, dents in the fenders, actual junk on the front seat. Somehow the man kept up a living though, somehow he kept on selling his wares.

I say somehow, I actually knew exactly why. Despite the fact he wasn't a witch or wizard technically, he still came from a magical family, and it gave him certain advantages where persuasion was involved.

Woe betide if you were a careful shopper who frequented Vinnie’s used car dealership. Despite the fact you had very much wanted a nice, compact, new, affordable hatchback, you would be driving away in a 1970s low-slung thing with a dent in the back, rips in the front seat, and a ridiculous noise emanating from the engine.

But somehow you would be smiling as if you’d just won the lottery.

“Isn't there some other way?” I tried desperately.

My grandmother didn't bother to answer.

Because there was no other way. Neither of us had any money, I no longer had a job, and the only people who were going to sell us a car were going to be family.

“Okay, now eat up, and straighten up while you're doing it. Do you think a powerful witch sits at the table playing with her knees and staring with a depressed look on her face out at the grey clouds above?”

I didn't answer.

“Of course she doesn't. Take it from me,” Granny thumbed her pearls one after the other, “you sit straight, you have a mean look in your eye, you have brushed hair, you have a silk, not flannelette, dressing gown,” she said with a growl. “In short, you look like a regal queen.”

Rolling my eyes, I plucked up my fork and started my salad. Salad. Yes, that's right, it was breakfast, my life was breaking down, and I was eating something green.

I would never get used to this.

But unless I fixed my life, shored up the defense of this house, and managed to stay away from the trouble that would inevitably follow a witch down on her times, I wouldn't have to get used to it; I wouldn't live through the week.

After breakfast I got dressed, though, I say I got dressed; Granny picked the clothes.

I was usually a sensible girl. Not stylish, but very practical. An ordinary black skirt, a white shirt, maybe a splash of color if I felt like wearing a necklace. Everything fit, everything was comfortable, and nothing made me stand out.

Well now, as I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, one of my eyes twitching, I didn't know what to say.

Somehow Granny had conjured up clothes that I was damn sure hadn't been in the house previously. I was wearing a dress. I hardly ever wore dresses, especially not in weather like this.

“Stop looking at yourself like that, and don't play with the hem.” Granny leaned on the bathroom door, crossed her arms, and shook her head.

“How exactly am I going to wear a summer dress today? It's almost winter,” I locked my hands on my hips and turned to face her. “And this dress has such a big skirt, the first breath of wind is going to send it flapping over my face and everybody is going to see my knickers.”

At the word knickers, one of her perfectly arched eyebrows twitched up. “Do you think a powerful witch says the word knickers?”

I sneered at her. “Who cares, my point is, I'm not going to wear a summer dress whilst its freezing outside, it's gusty, and it's bound to rain at any moment. I'll be freezing. Everybody will look at me like I'm mad.”

“Correction, everybody will look at you like you don't care what the weather is, like you don't care what they think about you, like you don't care about the rules, like you wear exactly what you want when you want to. Like you are a powerful, self-directed young woman.”

Letting my hands slip down my skirt as I played with the hem, I stared at my grandmother warily. It wasn't that I didn't want to believe what she was saying; I had to respect she was a great deal more powerful than me. It was just that it sounded too fantastic, too bizarre, too disconnected from reality.

But I didn't have the energy to fight her on this one. Instead I turned back to the mirror and made a face at myself.

It wasn't that I didn't like the dress; it was very pretty, far more attractive than anything I usually wore. It had a 60s style to it, a belt at the waist, pinching the fabric in, and a wonderfully flouncy skirt. It had a delicate floral pattern on it, which seemed to match even my plain tastes.

“Stop looking at yourself, time for action,” my grandmother ordered.

“You mean time to go to Vinnie and beg him to give us a car?” I picked up the brush on the counter and ran it through my hair, teasing out the knots my tossing and turning from last night had caused.

“Beg? Demand,” she corrected.

She was really going full bore on this whole powerful witch thing. It was a testament to how serious the situation must be for my grandmother to postpone her dementia to get me through this.

Despite the fact I had just eaten, my stomach gave a growl. It didn't signify that I was hungry, just a tendril of nerves travelling through my system, disrupting whatever sense of security I'd managed to gain that morning.

“No time to spare, come downstairs and we will begin to get your life sorted out.”

“How exactly are we going to get to Vinnie's?” As I followed her down the stairs, I tried to be extra careful not to put my foot through one of the faulty floorboards.

It didn't work. As I put my full weight down, one of the blighters cracked, and I was flung forward.

Fortunately I didn't tumble head over heels down our ridiculously long staircase and break my neck; my grandmother, quick as a flash, caught me.

“Resist the urge to fall over,” she looked straight in my eyes, her expression stiff and serious.

It hadn’t been an urge; it had been an accident.

“This day, and the days to come, will challenge you. Resist the urge to be challenged.” With that she let go of me, ensured I could stand, went back to thumbing her pearls, and walked down the rest of the stairs.

If only life were that easy. If only you could click your fingers and decide to ignore all your trials and tribulations.

If only I hadn’t just lost my job, my car, and my sanity, and if only a whole bevy of angry and malignant magical creatures weren’t after me life.

By the time we made it to the front door, a frown had settled on my lips. “It's quite windy out there, and if I'm any judge of the weather, it looks as if it is about to rain,” I pointed up at the clouds as my grandmother opened the door.

“If you are any judge of the weather? Don't question your abilities; make a statement and make it right. If reality dares do something other than what you have decreed, wrestle it into the state you want it to be in.”

My cheek twitched at that. Right, of course. If it didn't start raining in five minutes, I would just hop on the nearest plane, head up into the clouds, jump out, and start wrestling them. That would fix everything.

Pushing my hand over my brow, I managed a slight, frustrated smile, and followed my grandmother out of the house. “Seriously though, how are we going to get to Vinnie's? He is all the way across the other side of town. And if we walk, we will get wet.”

“That's the spirit. Not we might get wet, but we will. Take a deep breath, sneer, and tell the world exactly how it will be, and it won't dare do anything different.”

Narrowing my eyes at the back of her head as I followed her down the garden path, I realized it would be a long day. Not only would there be the persistent risk of the rest of my life crumbling in a heap before me, but I would have to put up with my grandmother's new found bluster.

“Now to answer your question, we will get to Vinnie’s via the bus.”

“The bus?”

“Yes, we may be witches, but that does not put us above affordable public transport. We do not have the money for a taxi, the bus is our only option.”

“But the next bus stop isn’t for several blocks,” as I pointed that out, I tugged down firmly on my hem, casting my glance over to the nearest tree as a gust of wind shook the leaves. I really didn't want to walk for several blocks in this dress; I would have to be on constant guard duty lest the damn thing blow away.

“It will give you a chance to practice your powerful witch woman walk.”

Right, of course it would.

As the two of us made our way to the bus stop, I couldn't help but notice all the little details. I was an influence witch, after all. If you wanted to truly attune to your circumstances, and become truly powerful over them, you had to be aware of everything about them. From the overpowering sense they gave you, to the tiniest, exquisite detail. Today wasn't only windy, but blown along in the gale was the scent of rain in the mountains. If you looked closely, you could see there weren't just leaves and twigs blocking up the storm drains, but paper cups and odd little plastic toys. And the touch of the wind promised a freezing and frantic night.

Not too wild though, I hoped.

Chapter 10

By the time we made it to Vinnie’s, the rain had started. It came in fits and bursts, some drops large and fat, others scant and light.

When he walked through Vinnie's front door, the man popped his head up from his desk like a meerkat. Then a grin slow and steady spread across his lips. If he could have unhinged his jaw, it would probably have spread all the way around his head.

“Ladies,” he said as he brought his arms up wide and expressively. “You've come to the right place.”

Classic Vinnie. No “hello,” no “how are you,” no “I haven't seen you for years,” just straight into business.

“You need a car, and boy have I got the car for you,” he walked up to me winking my way.

I wasn't about to ask how he knew that it was me that needed the vehicle; he was my magical cousin, even if he didn't share the family trade.

“Vincent,” my grandmother's voice bottomed out, and she sounded exactly like a boom of lightning.

Vincent, the smile freezing in place, turned, one of his eyebrows twitching. “Mary... you seem... less demented than usual.”

She stopped thumbing her pearls and bowed slightly. “I am afraid circumstances dictate a far more heavy-handed approach right now.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “How can I help you?”

“Do you expect me to tell you? Vincent Sinclair, use your nous.”

Licking his lips, Vincent brought up his hands, plucked the crumpled handkerchief out of his pocket, and patted his brow. “You always were a hard woman, Mary. But very well. I accept the challenge.” He turned to me, looked me up and down slowly, grated his teeth together, then clicked his fingers. “You want to buy a car.”

I snorted with laughter. “We've already ascertained that, Vinnie. You aren’t going to get any points for stating the obvious.”

He shrugged, opening his hands wide. “Not having a good morning, Esme? You're a bit more snide than usual. Wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”

“She is lucky to still have one, the way her life is currently going. Now, Vinnie, stop wasting my time. I want you to find the best car you have. The most powerful car you have. A car fitting for my granddaughter.”

Vinnie recoiled slightly, glancing over at Mary, then back at me, then out at his car yard beyond the large glass window before us.

“Are you sure you want the most powerful car I have?”

“Vincent Sinclair, get on with it. We have a lot to do today,” my grandmother chided.

Vincent latched hold of his bowtie, wiggled it around as he straightened it, clapped his hands together, and then shrugged towards his car yard.” Right.”

With that we followed him outside.

I glanced up at the grey, swirling mass of cloud above us, and as I did, a few dribbles of rain dashed against my cheeks. I reached up my cold fingers to wipe them off.

The wind was so wild that the clouds seemed to churn. Fast and ferocious, as I stared up at them, my brain began to pick out shapes among the chaos.

Faces, and not particularly nice ones.

Magic? Or just my addled brain finding danger when none was present?

I would have to find out.

“Okay, well this is my most powerful car,” Vinnie took us over to a giant, monstrous four-wheel drive. It had huge tires, a raging bull bar, and doors that were almost a meter off the ground.

I couldn't say anything; my bottom lip just tugged open of its own accord.

My previous car had been a small hatchback. Manageable, nice, and good with petrol.

It had not been a monster truck.

My grandmother placed a hand on the bull bar, squinted through the windscreen, then she walked around the vehicle, kicked the tires, crossed her arms, and looked impressed. “It certainly seems powerful.”

“It is,” Vinnie clapped his hands together. “You could take on a train with this thing.”

A train? Why on earth would you want to take on a train with a car? I just wanted to get from one place to another, just a simple drive through the city, economical, easy, and safe. That didn't equate to a monster truck.

Pressing my hand into my neck, I arched my shoulders.

“We'll take it.” My grandmother nodded definitively at Vinnie who burst into an immediate, almost infectious grin.

I spluttered. “No we won’t. This is ridiculous. I'm not driving a monster truck.”

“It is the most powerful vehicle he has. We must surround you with the most powerful things we can find. Until the threat to this family has subsided, you will follow my lead,” my grandmother added at the end in a low, serious tone.

Though I had snapped my mouth open ready to protest, I couldn't challenge her, not when she was looking like that. Instead I looked pointedly at the monster truck, then down at the enormous wheels. “Where would I ever park it? How would I change lanes? I mean, it's going to cost a fortune in petrol.”

“And if any malignant wizards or witches decide now is a good time to attack you, you can speed away into the forest or force them off the road,” she said primly.

I twitched at that. I honestly did. Drive off into the forest, force them off the road? This wasn't a movie. This was my life. I wasn't about to get into frantic, ridiculous car chases with evil magical creatures. It didn't work like that. I knew the rules of this game. They wouldn't kidnap me, chuck a brick through my window, or bundle me into their car. They would undermine my life with spells, enchantments, and hexes. And then, when I was at my weakest, they would strike.

I looked back at the monster truck. Could I really drive that? Did I really want to?

“Considering your family, I will cut you a deal. Interest free for...” Vinnie trailed off as he started to count on his fingers. “Three weeks.” He gave something you could confuse with a compassionate smile.

Three weeks? How generous.

My grandmother leaned in, settled her hand on the enormous bull bar, even though it was about up near her neck, and she bared her teeth. “I have a different deal. It's called free. I am your grandmother, Vincent Sinclair, I am the current head of this family. One of our own is in danger, we act to protect each other.”

Vinnie looked as if he wanted to protest, hell, Vinnie looked as if he wanted to call the police, but quickly his expression softened. “I'm a businessman, Mary, you can't expect me not to make profit,” he tried.

Granny raised her hand. The knuckles were stiff and white. “Vincent, do you remember when you had all that trouble with the law last year? Do you remember how Uncle Fred came to your aid? And you remember the year before that when you got into a spot of trouble with the Russians? Do you remember how Aunty Frida sorted that out for you? Do you remember the times you've been helped, Vincent?”

He took a step back, grabbed his handkerchief, and wiped it across his brow again. “But I'll be out of pocket.”

Granny leaned down, plucked an errant piece of plastic off the ground, dusted it off on her fine woolen skirt, and handed it to him. “If you are worried about an empty pocket, here's something to put in it. Now give us the keys and fill out the paperwork.”

I had to hand it to Granny; she could get what she wanted when she would put her foot down. But I didn't want the truck.

Staring back at it, gazing over the monstrosity, I honestly wondered how this day would end. Could I really turn into the kind of witch that ate salads, drove monster trucks, and bullied her cousins into giving her cars for free?

The alternative would, of course, be entirely more unpleasant. Death, or something like it.

As Vinnie got the keys, I glanced at my grandmother.

She arched her neck back, staring at the swirling mass of clouds above. For a moment the facade broke, and I saw underneath. A sharp, palpable spike of fear. I felt it, just like any perceptible witch should.

It reminded me of what was at stake, it grounded me to the situation. This was more than serious; it was desperate.

And if it were desperate, I would find a way to clamber up into that car seat, and drive that huge thing. Though I really didn’t relish the idea of using it as a getaway vehicle, if I had to, I would. Because that was what a powerful witch would do.

Deal with what circumstances you are given, alter what you can, and craft what you want.

Chapter 11

Despite my misgivings, I was now sitting in the front seat of a monster truck. I wasn't, however, driving. Granny was. It was quite an experience to be alongside an old, previously demented woman wearing pearls as she clutched her hands onto the steering wheel and drove the car like a maniac. Yes, a maniac. She cut in front of people, tooted on the horn, and once or twice I swear she had been about to wind down the window and engage in some road rage.

I was ready to grant this car one thing: it had a fantastic vantage. You were so high up you could see everything. It also gave me a startlingly clear view of the sky above. I was becoming fixated on it. It seemed that every moment I wasn't worrying about my impending doom, I was staring off into those tumultuous clouds. The exact greys and blues seemed to haunt me.

“We have your car,” Granny said as she changed gears aggressively and zoomed past a small hatchback. “Next step is to get you a job.”

I narrowed my eyes and glanced over at her quickly. I hadn't known about this part. I’d thought we would head home, possibly over to the hardware store first to get some wood and hammers, and then fix the hole in the house.

Perhaps she perceived my misgivings. Taking her eyes off the road, and apparently not caring, she nodded my way. “We have to fix your whole life, dear, that includes everything. We need to get you a car, which we have done, a job, which we are about to do, we need to give you a sense of style, a sense of power, we need to fix the house, and we need to get you a man.”

It took me a while, but I processed what she had just said. The last bit. The bit about a man. I spluttered quickly, blinking hard, turning around and not caring that the seatbelt dug into my neck. “Sorry, backup, what do you mean get me a man?”

Finally my grandmother turned back to the road. How she hadn't crashed, or run over other smaller, insignificant cars, I didn't know. Magic was no doubt involved, that, or exceedingly good luck.

“You heard me correctly, my dear, and I imagine you understand what I meant. Though you don't complain to me, I hear you on the phone. If you aren’t whingeing about the dishes not being done and having to work so much, you're complaining that you are always so unlucky in love. All your friends are getting hitched, but you can't even seem to get a date. Not that you try, of course.”

I sneered; I couldn't help it. “That's not true,” I lied patently. “I am... happy being single,” I tried.

“You should be. There's nothing wrong with being single. But you are lying. Which means you are unhappy about yet another aspect of your life. If we change it, hopefully you will seem more powerful again, and if you seem more powerful, you will be more powerful. Trust an influence witch.”

My lips crumpled up, my nose crinkled, and I probably looked entirely unattractive. “Is this an intervention? You are treating me like I’m one of your clients. I understand influence. But I'm trying to tell you that I don't need a man. I don't need a monster truck either. I just....”

“Yes? You just what? Have no idea what you want? You only know you don't like what you currently have? I say currently,” she snorted quickly, “but that's not quite right. Because you don't have anything at the moment. You've destroyed it all.”

“Now hang on a minute here, I haven't destroyed anything. This storm,” I waved at it pointedly,” and the dark forces that are after me, they are the ones to blame.”

She flicked her gaze over to me, looked stony, and then proceeded to ignore me.

Which left me alone with my thoughts, which quickly spiraled into a nervous hellhole. Just what kind of job was my grandmother going to get me, and worse than that, what would happen if I let her play Cupid? What sorry soul would she drag up and try to make me marry?

Feeling my hands slick with sweat, I fixed the straps on my dress. In my grandmother's current mood, I guess I was lucky she hadn't made me wear a power suit this morning. But hey, it would no doubt be a long day. Before she was done meddling, I would be a new woman. A frightful one, quite possibly.

I didn't ask where we were driving to until it was too late.

As soon as I recognized the street, and the building and the car, I immediately reached for my seatbelt, unbuckled it, and prepared to jump from the moving vehicle.

My grandmother reached over and clutched her hand around my arm. “Don't be frightened. This is a logical choice. Your Aunt Tessa will most definitely have a job for you. A fitting job.”

My face could have fallen off from the fear chasing its way through me. “A suitable job? Are you out of your mind?”

“Not currently. I'm remarkably lucid, considering I have to save your life.”

I ignored her quip. “I can't work for Tessa!”

“Why not? It will be exceedingly good money. Money you can put to use buying new clothes, fresh fruit and vegetables, and a mirror so you can see yourself practicing your new powerful, deadly glares.”

My grandmother pulled up next to the curb, though I say next – it was on it. She rode up it like she was parking on a mound. Then she opened the door and jumped out deftly.

I followed suit, but my moves were far less coordinated, and once or twice the wind flicked my skirt up around my thighs. Tugging on it demurely, closing the door as best I could, I walked around to her. I looked her right in the eye, hoping that she would understand me. “I am not going to become a private investigator.”

She stared at me. Maybe she noted how serious I was, but in a moment she waved me off. “Yes, you are,” she said in a far stricter tone, utilizing more power and determination then I had the capacity to give.

With that she locked the door and ushered me forward.

For a moment I stood there in the street, looking left and right, wondering whether now was a good time to run and take my chances on my own. Though it was inviting, I wouldn't get very far. Not because I didn't know how to handle myself, but because my grandmother was right; I was a target ready to be shot. A lonely and lost lamb wandering around in front of the wolf den. If I ran off down an alley, I could guarantee I wouldn’t get halfway along it before some shadowy figure would pull out of a wall and tug me down to hell.

That fact didn't make it any easier though. I actually had to close my eyes, wincing them as tightly shut as I could, as I followed her through the plain black door before us. We climbed three flights of stairs, then out into a hallway, and in moments we were standing before a relatively plain door with the words “Aunt Tessa’s Private Investigator Agency” written across in neat gold paint.

Why she had called it Aunt Tessa’s Agency, I didn't know, though I could guess. Everyone in my family seemed to call themselves by their title; Fred wasn't just Frederic Sinclair the lawyer, he was Uncle Fred Sinclair the lawyer, as if everybody was his niece or nephew. And when my grandmother was up to receiving visitors, she always insisted they call her grandmother. It was a Sinclair family thing. Another one of our exceedingly odd eccentricities that set us apart from all the normal in the world.

As my grandmother strode forward, she didn't even have to knock on the door. Immediately it opened and a statuesque woman in a powder blue suit opened it.

Aunt Tessa. She looked like a Greek goddess; powerfully tall, with regal features, and locks of golden hair. But don't get me wrong, you wouldn’t put her on the catwalk. Because although she had all the ingredients that would sum to make a very attractive package, she had this searing, burning quality about her that reminded you of the insides of a bomb.

“Grandma,” Tessa nodded her head.

“Aunt Tessa,” my grandmother replied. Which was odd, because Tessa was one of her children, not her aunt. Another peculiar tradition of the Sinclair family.

“What ails you?” Tessa nodded at her mother, then darted her gaze straight to me. “You've lost your job? You're here to see if I can give you one? I suppose I can,” she looked to the side quickly obviously thinking hard.

There was no point in me replying; I didn't have to participate in this conversation at all, Tessa would be able to glean the facts just by looking at me. She was a witch, after all.

She crossed her arms and leaned against the doorway. “I have to admit, I don't consider you detective material. You're too scatty, Esme. And while you practice influence magic, you'll find a quick fireball never goes astray in our field of work. Are you sure you want to work for me?”

As she asked her question, she directed her gaze off me and landed it on Granny.

It was as if I wasn't even in the room, or worse than that, as if I was a child waiting for my parents to make up their decision.

“Oh she is very sure, trust me, this is absolutely what she wants to do,” Granny nodded vehemently.

“Okay,” Tessa finally pushed herself off the door frame and waved us inside. She immediately walked over to her desk, rummaged around in a drawer, brought out some paper, grabbed a pen, and shoved it all at Granny. “Here is the contract, sign at the bottom.”

“Sorry, but I'm still in the room. Shouldn’t I be the one to look over the contract, shouldn't I be the one to sign it? Plus, I'm not even sure if I want to be a PI. I think I would be horrible at it.”

“You will be horrible at it, but I'm sure you'll get by, as you always do,” Tessa conceded with a nod, clearing a space on her desk so Granny could sign the paperwork.

I stood there, unreasonably startled at what was happening. It was unreasonable because I had grown up with these people. I knew the Sinclair family through and through, so their antics should not be surprisingly. And yet here I was as my grandmother was signing me up for a new job, one I didn't want, and one my new boss clearly thought I was incapable of.

“The pay won’t be good to begin with, but you can work your way up. I'll put you on the easy cases to start with, maybe just a little paperwork for now, lost cats, wayward mail, that kind of thing. Nothing big, nothing that will bring you unwanted attention,” Tessa leaned back in her chair, her statuesque form casting a shadow over the desk as the sun managed to spike through the clouds outside.

“Lost cats, yes, that will do for now. Once she is powerful again and has gone through this weak, wimpy stage, we can get her something a little bit harder,” my grandmother finished signing the papers and handed them back.

I was shocked. I spluttered loudly. “But I wouldn’t have the first idea how to be a PI. I really don't think I have any detective skills.”

“Don't worry, I will beat them into you,” Tessa smiled.

My grandmother laughed.

This couldn't be happening.

As I opened my mouth and prepared for a much-needed barrage, the sun that had managed to peek through the clouds suddenly went out.

A cold, harsh breeze sliced through the barely open window to Tessa’s side.

Both Tessa and Granny turned to it sharply. I could see how quickly their skin paled, how their breaths stuck in their chests.

Then I felt it, all too late.

Something ominous. Like the sound of twigs snapping behind you in the forest. Like the sudden blink of headlights when you are hiding by the road.

The first hint that something is after you.

Tessa leaned over and closed the window with a bang. Then she stood, pushed her hands into the glass, and glowered down at the street.

“I think we got here just in time,” my grandmother brought a hand up and clutched at her pearls, and to my dismay, she was shaking.

I looked from her to Tessa to the contract.

I may not have liked the fact I had just been muscled into a job I didn't want, but maybe it really had been just in the nick of time.

There was a howling gust of wind along the street, and a trashcan blew over, rolled off the curb, and right into the path of a car. The poor driver barely missed it, there was a screech of tires, and everyone turned to look.

Just then there was boom of thunder far off towards the mountains at the back of the city.

“I can give her some work immediately,” Tessa finally turned back to my grandmother, and her words were quick and sharp. She was clearly worried.

“I think that would be for the best,” Granny stood up, angling her head out the window, but for some reason it seemed as if she was unwilling to get too close to the glass.

“I heard about your oak tree,” Tessa sat down, though she was still clearly uneasy, and her previously stiff back had led way to crumpled, bowed shoulders. “You should replace it.”

My grandmother nodded her head. “I'll have to find something suitable.”

“Hurry,” Tessa noted simply.

Jesus. With the amount of tension in this room, added to the sheer doom of the weather outside, it felt like someone was about to die.

Me. That was the point, right? This situation was getting more serious by the second.

Oh, and I had just been granted a new lease on life, a new job, and a new car.

“Here's a bunch of paperwork,” Tessa opened one of her drawers, plucked out two neat bundles of documents, and handed them to me. “Run through them, they will give you the general gist of my business, show you what we usually deal with. Be sure to try to read them by the end of the day,” she noted as she glanced back to the window.

“I will make her. The only way to reap the magic of a new job is by working it,” my grandmother dropped her hands from her pearls and clutched them in her lap instead.

“What are you going to do now?” Tessa grabbed the contract my grandmother had signed and ferreted it away in one of her drawers.

“Fix the house, find a new guard to replace the broken oak tree, and, of course, find my granddaughter a man.”

Tessa nodded sternly, as if nothing my grandmother had said was out of place. “Good luck.”

“I imagine we will need it,” Granny stood up, patted down her skirt, and nodded towards her daughter.

“I warn you, this job won't be easy,” Tessa finally turned her attention to me. “But if you really want it, I have no problem in giving it to you.”

If I really wanted it? What about my appearance or behavior had suggested to anyone that I wanted to be a private detective?

I didn't bother saying anything. There was no point. I just had to let my whirlwind of a grandmother get through this day, and drag me with her. Then, hopefully by the end of it, I would still be alive, but very, very different.

With the contract signed, and me now an employee of my Aunt Tessa, we waved goodbye and headed back to our monster truck.

I had the oddest sensation as I looked at it just before my grandmother jumped in and gunned the engine. Though it was horrendously large... at least it looked solid. Vinnie was probably right; you could take on a train with it. It might be a little worse for wear, but unlike my previous hatchback, it wouldn’t be a pancake on the tracks.

It looked like it could withstand a frightful bashing.

In other words, it could protect its driver.

I hated the fact I was warming to it, however slowly, but as I clambered up, showing the world my knickers as I did, I felt all the safer once I was inside. With that incredible bull bar and the huge engine roaring beneath us, it seemed we could take on anything.

We would, however, need a lot more than a truck.

As the heavens were opening up, that sensation that something was after me grew.

At first it was an itch along my back, then a cold feeling in my chest, and by the time we had driven back home, it was a full-blown panic attack.

Chapter 12

“Now, before we get out of this car, I want you to think powerful thoughts,” my grandmother said as we pulled up to the curb outside of the house. “I know you can feel it, child, forces are building. The tower is about to collapse. I have protected you this far, and this car, through its monstrous size, enormous tires, and roaring engine, has kept us safe this morning. But now it is time to head back to the house. You will be exposed on the walk up to our door. You must remain solid and strong.”

I swallowed loudly and uncomfortably as I listened to my grandmother's words.

“You must promise me that you will think only powerful thoughts until we get into the house. Believe that you can be a strong, self-directed, powerful witch. Believe that you can get through this day. Promise me that,” she reached out, clutched my hand, and tightened her grip around it.

I could hardly breathe, let alone reply to her. It wasn't just what she was saying, it was her general temperance as she spoke. As an influence witch, I knew that my grandmother was more than capable of gathering the magic around her and imbuing everything she did with its force. Well now the whole car seemed to pulse with it. A warning, poignant and incapable of being ignored.

I managed a nod.

I felt like a child, lost and lonely, incapable of looking after myself, ready to run behind the nearest adult so my sense of security would return.

My grandmother tightened her grip, and her old fingers almost cut off the circulation in my hands. “I said think powerful thoughts.”

I knew she couldn't read my mind exactly; she didn't have to though. As an influence witch she picked up every little sign she could, stored every fact, and could read a situation better than any other magical creature I had ever met.

Think powerful thoughts. If only it were that easy. It really didn't help that the day had become strangely dark, that the wind now sounded less like a thing and more like a howling animal, that every time I looked over to the house, all I could see was the space where the oak tree had once been.

“You can do this,” she affirmed.

I guess I would have to.

Without another word, she opened the door, looked meaningfully at me, and waived me on.

It was one of the tensest moments of my life. Though I had been through danger before, I’d never touched on anything as frightful as this.

My grandmother had almost guaranteed that I would be attacked on the way up to the house unless I managed to shore up my magical defenses, push out my doubt, and believe in myself.

The second I opened the door, the wind caught it, tugged it out of my hand, and banged it open. Startled, I gave out a gasp.

“Powerful thoughts, think only powerful thoughts, do not make startled sounds like a little girl,” my grandmother added ominously.

Powerful thoughts, I kept on saying to myself. I am thinking only powerful thoughts.

Once I had jumped down from the truck, it managed to close the door for me. I say it, I meant the wind. Before I could turn around and reach for the door handle, the whole thing was snapped from me in enormous gust. I jumped back just as it slammed closed and the truck shook on its monstrous tires.

Don't be startled, I told myself. A powerful witch is not startled by something as simple as the wind.

I tried to leave my thoughts at that, but the mutinous little things could not be helped. The wind, I knew perfectly well, could be a disastrous thing. A breeze you could ignore, a gale was a pain, but what about a tornado? A hurricane? Were those little, innocent things, or could they pick you up, slam you into a building, and bring a tree and a couple of cows smashing down over your broken body?

Wrong thoughts.

As soon as I thought them, I felt weakened. As soon as I felt weakened, the wind howled all the louder, that animal-like sound of it pitching high.

I made it up onto the curb somehow, instinctively falling into step behind my grandmother.

Then we made the usually short trip over to the fence, through the gate, and up the garden path.

It was not short today. It felt like I was travelling the River Styx, waiting for judgment to be heaped upon my weary body.

I was so focused on getting up to the gate, locking my eyes only on my grandmother's back, that I was surprised when I heard a voice behind me.

I say surprised, I mean completely, deafeningly shocked. I screamed, I do mean screamed. And I jumped behind my grandmother like a scared little girl.

Expecting the worst, believing a massive demon would be behind me, ready to spike me through the chest with its tail, I turned to see... Agent Jacob Fairweather.

His mouth was open and he had a humorous if surprised look on his face. “Are you hiding behind your grandmother?”

I didn't know how to answer. Because I was hiding behind my grandmother.

“Get in the house now, dear, ignore the attractive man on the garden path,” Granny warned, clutching at my hand and tugging me along.

Jacob snorted. He seemed to do that a lot around my grandmother.

“I came to check on your house, I noticed the tree is already down... and the wall is fixed, are you too okay?” he asked as he followed us up the garden path.

I just wanted him to go away. I also wanted to get in the house. My hands were so slick with sweat and my heart so wild with fright that I knew I was seconds away from fainting. And I didn't want to faint right there in front of Jacob, not wearing a summer dress, I already had to keep one hand latched on it so it didn't fly up.

Somehow we made it. And maybe it was the distraction of having Jacob walking up behind me, but the last few steps were not as frightening as the first few. I was no longer pressing my addled mind into thinking only powerful thoughts; I was distracted by the fact my least favorite Federal Agent was harassing me again.

But by the time I’d walked through the doorway and into the house, I could have collapsed on the floor from relief.

“There, that wasn't too hard,” my grandmother said under her breath. Then she turned. To face Jacob, who had followed us in, like an uninvited puppy.

“Jacob,” she clapped her hands together, warmth returning to her smile, and just a little bit of the crazy old lady shining through. “What a dear you are for coming to check on us. Do you want a treat for your troubles?”

Despite the situation, despite the fear and the pressure of the walk up to the house, I snorted. Because my grandmother made it sound like Jacob was a faithful dog who’d performed a fantastic trick and now needed an instant reward.

He locked eyes on me. That cold, challenging book was back. “I just came to check that you were okay and not getting into any more trouble.”

“Now, now, I do believe it is actually fate. Tell me, you handsome young man, are you single?” My grandmother jumped in.

It took me a second, but I suddenly realized what she was doing.

My eyes opened wide like she was about to light the fuse on a bomb.

“Sorry?” Jacob gave an awkward cough.

“Single,” my grandmother walked over, plucked up one of his hands, and checked that he wasn't wearing a ring. “You look single. You are, aren't you?”

“Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Fate. It's surprising how it works. I need to get my granddaughter hitched, and a lovely eligible young bachelor walks in the door. It's when you think you're at your lowest that it turns out your luck is about to blossom. Now what about that tea?”

Jacob was now standing stiffly, the defiant look gone. Was it just me, or was his bottom lip just about wobbling?

On account of the fact I had just spent the whole morning expecting to die and being forced to get a car I didn't want, and a job I couldn't do, I didn't jump in to tell Granny to shut up. I just stood there, feeling sick and entirely overcome.

“I, ah, need to...” Jacob said, backing off slightly, pointing towards the door as if he had incredibly important business elsewhere. Somewhere far, far away probably.

My grandmother clutched a hand onto his arm and pulled him forward. Now Jacob wasn't a small boy; he was a very well-built man. But despite the fact he clearly resisted, my grandmother easily tugged him along as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. “Let's head into the kitchen, and we’ll talk.”

It sounded as if she wanted to start up a negotiation. As if she would sit us down, confirm we were both single, pull the plastic rings off a packet of bread, and a declare us wed then and there.

Even though I wanted to head up to my bedroom and hide under the covers, I found myself following.

When I got into the kitchen I wasn't all that surprised to see there was no longer a hole in the wall.

Obviously the old house had taken well to the magic spell my grandmother had cast when she had stuffed that jar full of nonsense behind the plastic and planks.

It was fixed. If you could call it that. There was certainly no longer a hole, but in its place was a distinctly odd collection of stones, wood, and glass. It looked like a bizarre artistic motif.

It immediately caught Jacob's attention. “That was... quick.”

“I fancy myself somewhat of an artist. I saw the hole as a blank canvas, and I worked on it all night,” my grandmother ushered him over to a chair, then rather than ordering me to make the tea, planted her hands on my shoulders and sat me down next to him.

If I hadn’t been on the brink of disaster, I'd tell Jacob to leave and beg my grandmother to stop acting like a fool.

My head wasn't straight though, so I let myself sit, plucked up my skirt, and surrendered to the situation as I played with the hem.

Jacob looked itchy, nervous, and like he wanted to kick out the French doors and run away. But for a second he looked my way. And his brow crumpled. Was that compassion, just a touch of it? Intermingled with the confusion and that red touch to his cheeks that had flared ever since Granny had asked him if he was single?

“Now I'm going to make some very special tea,” my grandmother took a step away from the table, and as she did, I felt something. Magic. It were as if she calling it to herself in that moment.

I had been a witch for long enough to know what she was doing.

She was getting ready to cast a spell.

It took a moment, but my mind caught up.

It wouldn't just be any spell. Because it wouldn't just be any pot of tea she was about to make.

Darling Grandma was about to make a love potion.

I stood up as fast as I could, my chair tumbling out from behind me. “What are you doing? He doesn't want tea. He really doesn't look like the kind of man I want to share tea with,” I added pointedly as I ran over to her.

“Yes he does,” my grandmother looked calmly from me to Jacob, then back to me. “I am sure he likes tea.”

“He definitely does not like tea,” I pointed emphatically at him. “And I really don't want to share any with him.”

“Um, what's going on? I don't mind tea. I'm not much of a coffee drinker. But there are other matters I need to attend to,” he said as he tried to stand up.

He looked like he wanted to head out the kitchen door, but at that exact moment a gust of wind slammed it closed. The wind came from nowhere, and dwindled in an instant.

“Oh my dear, what a startling wind,” my grandmother said as she put her wrist up to her head in the classic move of a damsel in distress. “We are just two frightened ladies in this house. It's so big, and so run down,” she blinked her eyes compellingly at Jacob, “I really do get so frightened in the wind.” It was patently clear that my grandmother was trying to manipulate Jacob, and at first I thought it wouldn't work. After all, he was the Federal Agent who had tried to get her thrown in jail for 20 years for ridiculously, stupidly importing a kilogram of cocaine to her front door.

But I watched him waver.

“Officer Fairweather, I mean Agent, I mean Jacob,” I turned around to him, clutching my hands together as I rubbed them quickly, “we are totally fine here. I understand if you need to go and...” I really wanted to say “harass someone else,” but I was trying to get him on side here.

He latched a hand on his tie, smoothed it down with his palm, and cleared his throat. I may have once found that move intimidating, but right now I could read between the lines, and I could see the flicker of unease in his gaze. “There are some things I need to get done.”

I was so relieved I could have run over and hugged him. I turned back to my grandmother though, a curling smile parting my lips. “There will be no tea today.”

As soon as Jacob was out of the house, I was going to grab her by the ear, drag her to a chair, and give her a good telling off. She had spent the past five years solidly not meddling in my life. Now she was pulling out every stop in order to craft me a new existence to her liking. Fair enough, it was more complicated than that; she was trying to protect me from dark and evil and malignant magical forces. But from where I sat, it was totally unjustified to randomly pick a man of the street and attempt to hitch us up. Especially when that man was Agent Jacob Fairweather, someone who had already proven to be an effective spine in my side.

“I really don't suggest you go out in this storm, dear,” my grandmother looked at me for all of a second, then marched right over to Jacob. Again her demeanor had changed. Gone was the sweet old lady, in her place stood a woman with a face hooded in shadow, promising danger on the horizon.

Jacob no doubt noted the change. His eyebrows lifted in a somewhat cute way, and he latched that hand right back onto his tie. “I'll be fine.”

My grandmother pointed out the French doors with one gnarled finger. “You hear that wind? By my judge, we’re about to be in for a hurricane.”

“We are inland,” Jacob pointed out plainly, taking a step back.

Was that real fear in his eyes? Would he be reaching for his gun in a second? Had he finally decided the two weird ladies in the old house were too much for him?

Clearing his throat again, he didn't even bother to make eye contact with me before he whirled around on his feet, yanked open the kitchen door, and headed for the hall. My grandmother was right behind him like a shadow though. “The wind is ferocious,” as soon as she said it, a gust so powerful it shook the whole house rattled through the neighborhood.

Jacob paused. Then he practically dashed for the door. Just as his hand closed around the handle and he tugged it open, my grandmother got to his side again.

Looking up at him, fixing him with the kind of gaze you didn't see this side of hell, she shook her head. “It's about to rain, we’re seconds away from lightning, and the wind will soon double in speed.”

As if on cue, a clap of thunder roared from outside, rain started to pelt against the roof, and the wind picked up to a tremendous, frightening speed.

His hand shook. I swear it did. As he pulled the door open and faced the brunt of the weather, maybe Jacob Fairweather, the previously competent Federal Agent, realized he was dealing with more than he could handle.

But I gave him credit for one thing; he sure was brave. Ignoring my grandmother's warnings, he mumbled goodbye and walked right out into the ferocious, vicious weather.

He didn't get far.

Before I could close the door, lock it, turn to my grandmother, and tell her exactly why it was so dangerous to bait a man like Jacob, something happened.

Yes, of course I felt it before it did. A powerful spike drove through me, as if someone had stabbed me through the back and the heart at the same time. Clutching a hand to my chest, I looked up just as a strike of lightning raced down from the sky. I swear time ground to a halt in that moment, I swear instead of slamming towards the ground with the force and speed lightning travelled at, it inched forward like a snail. I saw every frame as if I were watching a series of still pictures.

The lightning did not strike Jacob. It struck the other oak tree by the side of our house. The last remaining sentinel.

It really did feel like being stabbed through the heart.

Though Jacob had already taken several steps before the lightning strike, he had not moved on far enough; the force of it sent him flying off his feet. In a moment of searing light, force, and power, I crumpled onto the floor, as the house shook around me and a fleeting vision of Jacob being thrown clear haunted my vision.

The sound of it was so deafening that it felt as if my hearing would give up; being replaced with nothing more than a buzzing and ringing in my ears.

My grandmother was the first on her feet. Of course she was. Despite her decrepit, old nature, she was the super powerful witch here; I was just the recently-employed, monster-truck-owning PI, and Jacob was just the Federal Agent.

With a speed that belied her age, she ran into the storm. Moments later she returned with a body over her shoulders.

I still hadn't moved, and all I could do was look up slowly, bottom lip wobbling as my dear old grandmother walked in with a man slung over her back.

Another strike of lightning outside produced a burst of illumination. Even though it was still technically midday, that blasted storm had come in so low that it might as well have been midnight.

As the lightning flashed, my grandmother was lit up, the scene seeming far more dramatic as the shadows under her chin and eyes grew deep.

“Close the door behind me, find any magical statues we own, and place them in front of it. Attend to every window, the back door, the patios. Place magical tomes in front of them all. Do it now,” my grandmother walked past me, carrying the comatose form of Jacob towards the lounge room. I say comatose; it was less of a statement and more of wish. I had no idea how close he’d been to the lightning, and considering I had all but crumpled after the incident, I had no way of knowing if he was injured or would ever wake up.

And then the situation caught up to me.

Our oak tree. Our last remaining guard. It had exploded. In a ferocious display of power, lightning smiting it from the heavens. The last source of protection we could rely on for the house had been destroyed.

Shaking, I forced myself to my feet.

“Hurry,” my grandma's voice drifted back to me through the hall.

My eyes were wide, pleading. I didn't understand. Why should I? Everything was happening so fast. One moment I was in the kitchen begging my grandmother not to make a love potion for the man who had all but ruined my week. The next I was shaking in the hallway, coming to terms with the fact that if I didn't do everything I could to close the house off from attack, every denizen of hell would be at my doorstep in minutes.

I wasn’t built for this kind of stress. I'd come to that conclusion five years ago when I had moved in with my grandmother. I liked magic, I really did. And I also enjoyed helping people. But I didn't have the balls, like my grandmother, to ignore all the dark out there, and help someone, despite the fact it would anger others.

Get to your feet, I tried to convince myself. We are running out of time.

So I got to my feet. Though I could hardly stand, I ran over to the bookcase at the opposite end of the hallway and started pulling books out and cramming them into my arms.

Without bothering to place them neatly, I skidded over to the front door, ensured it was locked, and dumped them in front of it. Then I ran back to the bookcase, filled my arms again, and headed to the kitchen.

In like fashion, I attended to every possible entry into the house. It really was a big house, which meant a lot of windows, a lot of patios, balconies, doorways, and back entrances.

I had no idea how long it took me, but by the time I was finished, I practically crawled into the lounge room to find my grandmother nursing Jacob.

I looked over at him.

He was propped up on the banana lounge, one silk cushion behind his head while a cheery throw was neatly tucked in around his body.

“Is he okay?” I asked through an unsteady breath.

“If you mean that will he live? Of course he’s going to live. He will, however, have a fantastic headache, and his first lesson of why it is important never to ignore a witch.”

As soon as she mentioned the word witch, my nose crumpled up. “Grandma, you can't say that around him,” I really shouldn't have had to remind her of that, but maybe the storm and the fact the house was now completely open to attack was getting to her.

“Relax, child, he is unconscious. Plus, I have the feeling that before this night is through, he will know of our kind and our secret.”

I could have fallen over at that admission. There was nothing more essential than keeping who we were secret. To a magical creature, it was one of the most important things they would ever do. And yet here my grandmother was making the prediction that before this storm was over, a Federal bloody Agent would know exactly who we were.

“You look like you have swallowed a fish. Place you lips together, stand up straighter, push your head back, and fix your hair. We may have found your man, but that is not the last item on my list. In order to offer you the protection you so desperately require, it is time to make you into a powerful witch.”

There were a lot of things that were wrong with what my grandmother had just said. First and foremost was the fact she had plainly indicated that the comatose Jacob Fairweather was my man, and that she had gotten him for me. As if the fact she had rescued him from the storm meant that now I owned him and we would be married before dinner. The other thing that was wrong was that she was still trying to make me powerful. As if that would help the situation.

My grandmother looked at me keenly, probably aware that I was pulling apart her statement and getting ready to argue with her. One single arch of her eyebrow told me not to bother.

She was in a challenging mood. Why wouldn't she be? Our last oak tree that had stood sentinel by our house for almost 100 years was gone.

It was gone.

I had to come to terms with what that really meant.

Again my arms and hands started to shake softly, and I managed to find my way over to one of the recliners. Sitting on the edge, I grabbed one of the cushions and began to hug it tightly. “Can we get through this?”

“For a child of magic, that is a ridiculous question; anything is possible, we just have to find a way to make it so.”

Technically I guess she was right. But it wasn’t a comfort. While everything was possible, some things were very, very unlikely. And as I looked up past my grandmother and out through one of the windows behind, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was just no way we could get through this safely.

“I am going into the kitchen to make Jacob a healing potion. Look after him. It will give you a chance to grow accustomed to your future husband,” she added as she walked past me, heading for the door.

I really wanted to dismiss her statement on the basis she was demented, but as I saw her expression, I appreciated just how serious, intelligent, and aware she was.

But this was still mad; I wasn't going to marry Jacob Fairweather. Hell, I’d barely had three conversations with the man, and they’d all been uncomfortable and accusatory.

That didn't, however, mean that I was going to grab him up and chuck him outside. I may not have agreed with what my grandmother had in store, but as I looked down at Jacob, I realized he was needlessly caught up in this situation. Regardless of the fact that I didn't like him, that didn't mean he deserved to be here, facing the same potential fate as my grandmother and I.

“You should get out while you still can,” I mumbled under my breath as that bright blue tie of his caught my gaze.

A part of me expected him to answer, and I had no idea why. I could see that he was lying there, very comatose, tucked under that patchwork quilt. Yet the sense still rose in me like a wave rushing to shore.

I crumpled my eyes half closed, took a step back, turned, and stared out the windows.

Then I saw it.

The shadow.

The shadow pressed up against the glass.

I screamed. A full, pitching sound rocketed up through my throat and shook its way out of my mouth.

It seemed that my grandmother was by my side in an instant. The first thing she did was not pull up her sleeves, tug open the window, clamber outside, and punch that shadow on the nose. Instead she untied the massive velvet curtains and tugged them closed in an instant.

We hardly ever closed those curtains, and as they were moved clouds of dust erupted from them, travelling across the room like avalanches.

But I hardly noticed it, and neither did I bring my hands up to bat at it. Instead I stared at my grandmother's back until she turned to face me.

“They are here,” was all she managed. She stood and stared at me for several moments longer, but neither of us seemed capable of sharing any more words. Instead she moved on, back to the kitchen, but was not gone long. When she returned, she had a brightly colored liquid in an old ice cream container. She walked it over to Jacob, leaned down on her knees beside him, grabbed at the corner of the patchwork quilt, dipped it in the liquid, and then started to pat his brow with it.

For all intents and purposes it looked as if she had filled up an old plastic container with food dye and was now trying to ruin a perfectly good quilt with it.

I knew more. I also knew that my grandmother was particularly good at potions, everything from healing drafts to cups of love tea – she was a renowned witch in her field.

It didn't surprise me then that within moments of her dabbing the liquid on, Jacob began to stir.

He mumbled something incomprehensible at first, then accompanied it with a low and loud groan.

The second he blinked his eyes open I was filled at once with relief and yet fright.

Because, seriously, Jacob Fairweather was sitting on my couch.

While both my grandmother and I were aware of the fact he had been thrown off his feet by a nearby strike of lightning, I doubted he'd remember that. And I'm sure the competent Federal Agent could come up with all sorts of theories as to why he had ended up on the sofa in the living room of the two crazy ladies he'd been trying to get away from.

I backed off a little, clasped my hands together, and ran my fingers over my nails.

“Young man, I did warn you not to go out in that storm,” Granny stood up, the plastic ice cream container still in her hand as she dipped her fingers in and sprinkled some more potion over Jacob.

Clearly confused, he winced a little, then it were as if his brain came back online in a flash. He realized he was on the couch, no doubt looked up to ascertain that my grandmother really was flicking colored water at him from an ice cream container, and then his eyes sought me out, locked onto me, and narrowed. “What the hell is going on here?” he croaked.

“You ignored the advice of a witch,” my grandmother finally stopped flicking liquid at him and glowered down at him instead.

I spluttered, I choked, and I could have chosen that exact moment to fall over and faint.

She had said it. My grandmother had just revealed what she was to an ordinary human being.

I needn't have worried however. Because Jacob didn't suddenly jump to his feet, look comically surprised, and demand to see her broom and wand. He tried to push himself up and he did sneer however. “How the hell did I get on this couch? And why does my head pound like this?”

“You got on that couch because I carried you. Speaking of which, perhaps you need to lose a little weight, young man; you are heavier than you look. And as for what happened to you. You were walking far too close to an oak tree in a storm. And I don't need to tell you, or perhaps I do, that oaks are the tree that is most often struck by lightning. Young man, you were unlucky, and right now you are resting.”

Jacob didn't immediately call her bullshit, jump up, rush past her, and run for the door. He did plant a hand on his head, wince his eyes closed, then blink one open again. “Struck by lightning? Are you out of your mind? The house would have been destroyed if your oak tree had been struck by lightning.”

My grandmother straightened. It was a sudden and chilling move. “It hasn't been destroyed yet, but we’ll see what happens tonight. And yes, that tree was struck by lightning. If you care to stand and walk over to the opposite window and pull back the curtains, you'll see what I'm talking about. You were lucky, now rest, and while you're there, stop questioning me,” with that Granny patted down her skirt and headed out of the room.

Half an hour ago she had been nothing but sweetness and light to Jacob. A sweet old dear whose only desire had been to make him chug down a love potion and fall for her granddaughter. Now she was this statuesque, powerful, frankly frightening woman.

As soon as she was out of the room, Jacob tried to get to his feet.

I say try, because he was unsuccessful. He kind of fell back against the couch, and as I moved to step forward to help him, he shot me with a dark, deadly look.

“Whatever you’re planning to do here,” he began.

I put my hands up quickly. “I'm not planning to do anything. My grandmother's right; you were standing near the oak tree when it got struck by lightning,” even though I didn't want to, I walked over to the window that looked out onto the side of the house, and tugged open the curtains. It showed exactly what it should. Our yard, with the remnants of the old oak tree blasted around it.

It was a startling sight. It honestly did look as if God had reached down and smote the tree in all his wonder.

Though he hadn't managed to stand before, somehow Jacob got to his feet, and warily made his way over to me. Though he stood an obvious two meters to my side, I turned around to see as his face crumpled in confusion.

“Christ,” he managed.

I hope that meant he now believed our story, and wasn't about to call his superiors and get every local police officer to surround our house and take us to prison.

“Hold on though, if I was so close to lightning, why on earth can I still hear?” He brought a hand up and tapped his ear, turning to me, that challenging look back on his face in full fury. “A blast like that would have left me deaf, possibly permanently. And what about the house? It doesn't look damaged. And how about you, where were you when it exploded?”

His barrage of questions felt a little like machine gun fire. Even though the first thing I wanted to do was shove him back in his chair and tell him to shut up, I didn't get the chance.

Because I felt something. At first it was niggling, easy to ignore, and nothing more than a transient sensation tracing its way over my back.

Then it twisted around and burrowed in like a parasite. Flinching, taking a step back in surprise and pain, my eyes locked on the view outside of the window just in time to see the shadow move up and press its way against the glass.

First Jacob was looking at me, then finally he glanced towards the window.

I would always remember that moment. Because it was a defining one. Something you look back at when you're old and grey and have the time to reminisce. The point your life changed.

Not everyone can see magic. Hell, if they could, more people would know about it. It's not enough that us magical creatures simply keep our abilities and our world secret; magic itself is persistently hard to track, hard to see, and hard to isolate. I had spent my entire life growing accustomed to it, but for the uninitiated, it could take years before they could see the occult side to life.

Jacob saw it immediately.

His skin paled. Quicker than a flash. He reached for his gun, brought it forward, and pointed it straight at the window.

“What the hell is that?” He took a step forward, gun still pointed right at the glass. “What is it trying to do?”

A part of me was too surprised at Jacob's unexpected reaction; the rest of me knew exactly what I had to do.

Though I didn't want to near the window for fear of the creature reaching in and plucking me out, I jumped forward, loosened the ties of the curtains, and tugged them close.

Even though I wasn't fighting it, even though it was outside and I wasn't, that was one of the most frightening things I'd ever done.

Don't ask me why. Maybe it was the mere thought that the only thing protecting me from the creature outside was a couple of centimeters of old, moth eaten green velvet.

Seconds later, my grandmother was back in the room, and she marched right over to me, latched a hand on my shoulder, and pulled me back, settling me somewhere in the center of the room before she walked over to the window, tugged the curtain open slightly, brought her hand up and wrote something on the glass.

Seconds later there was a hiss like steam escaping a pressurized pipe.

“What's going on here? And what the hell was that?” Jacob still had his gun in his hand.

I wasn’t usually a particularly good judge of character; my grandmother said that I didn't have enough life experience to be going around trying to judge others who had more. But I knew enough to tell that Jacob was not reacting how he should.

All I had seen was a shadow at the window. Something dark, something that I had felt should not be there, and something that my witchly senses had told me was trying to make its nefarious way into the house. While Jacob was acting as if he had seen an assailant. A monster, something other than a swarm of dark light.

Perhaps my grandmother realized this also, because she turned sharply and stared at Jacob. And for the first time it appeared as if she were actually looking at him. She didn't seem to be taken by the fact he was handsome, by the fact he was an eligible bachelor, and by the fact she could try to drug him into joining the family. Now she looked past that to what was inside.

Jacob swallowed, finally letting his gun drop, but not settling it back in his holster as he stared back at my grandmother.

“What did you see?” Granny crossed her arms. “Tell me everything.”

It sounded as if she were trying to play the psychiatrist; getting the confused and frightened man to admit to whatever illusion was chasing around his mind.

“What's going on here?” he repeated, darting his gaze around the room, then nestling it back on those green velvet curtains and whatever evil prospect lay beyond.

“Young man, what you did see?” my grandmother asked again, but this time her voice was laced with something more than frustration and force. Magic, a startling amount of it. The air even sizzled from it.

His lips dropped open with a jerk, as if someone had tugged them free with string. “A man, with a knife in his hand, and black wings, a spider crawling across his hand, a scorpion on his cheek,” Jacob answered, except his voice didn't seem his own. It sounded like my grandmother's.

I knew what she was doing. She was using her magic to reach inside his mind, and use him like a marionette.

It was something she would never do under ordinary circumstances, especially not to a normal human.

These were not ordinary circumstances.

And as I looked at Jacob, I wondered if he were even an ordinary human; where I had seen nothing but a shadow, he had seen a fully formed apparition.

My grandmother's eyes narrowed carefully, and she took a step forward, leaning her head down as she appeared to appraise Jacob carefully. “Any history of magic in your family?”

“What are you talking about?” Jacob apparently had control of his voice again, and it was shaking.

“Probably not, I think I would know if you were holding something like that back from me. Which means, my dear Agent Jacob Fairweather, that you have natural talent.”

I balked at the phrase natural talent.

“Where my granddaughter saw nothing but shadow, you saw what was really there. You certainly are the perfect addition to the Sinclair family,” a small but satisfied-looking smile spread her lips.

Jacob shook his head. It was clear he had no idea what was going on, and why should he? I was a witch, I was related to my grandmother, and I had no idea either.

“That's it, you really have to tell me what's going on now, or I am going to call the authorities,” Jacob backed off.

“I have already told you what is going on,” my grandmother replied coldly, casting her glance back to the green curtains for a moment. “My granddaughter and I are witches. Due to my granddaughter’s persistent complaining and whingeing, she has brought a rift into her life. A rift that has left her open for attack. Now that both of the oak trees that had previously held guard at this property have been destroyed, we are under real threat of attack. What you saw at the window was the first wave.”

So much for telling him what was going on; even I had trouble understanding her disjointed account of affairs.

To Jacob's credit, he didn't pull up his gun and shoot us both though. “You drugged me,” he suddenly came up with his own conclusion. As he did, his cheeks paled, and he brought his gun up in a swinging, quick motion. “Jesus Christ, you put something in those biscuits, didn't you?”

“I haven’t drugged you yet,” my grandmother defended herself.

Jacob acted predictably on the term “yet.”

He stepped back, brought his other hand up to his gun, held it exactly as a professional should, and pointed it over at me. “You two are going to prison this time.”

“Look, it's just a misunderstanding,” I tried fruitlessly.

My grandmother waved me off into silence.

“I knew there was something up with you too,” Jacob stated through clenched teeth.

My grandmother's expressions soured. “Is this the thanks I get for hauling you out of that storm and healing your injuries? Young man, you need to learn some manners. “

“Stay exactly where you are,” Jacob took one hand off his gun and reached into his pocket and then plucked out his mobile phone.

Great, the cavalry was about to get involved.

“Good luck trying to get any reception; I imagine the only thing you're going to hear when you open up that is the chatter of demons and lost souls,” Granny crossed her arms.

Jacob did not take her warning. He opened the phone, expression a severe one, then dialed the number. Seconds later he pressed it to his ear.

Then he all but dropped it as he gave an involuntary shudder.

Eyes widening in obvious fear, he took a step back from it. “What the hell is that sound?”

“I told you, demons and lost souls. Now it is clear that you have a talent for witnessing magic, I'm afraid you are going to be in for a rough ride. Our house, whether you like it or not, is currently being assailed by every magical creature with any claim to the dark side. If you choose to walk out the door or clamber out a window, I suggest you prepare yourself to fight off the ghosts and trolls. Should you try to call anyone, or send off an email, expect to hear nothing but the replies of the crushed and doomed straight from hell.”

I doubted Jacob actually believed what my grandma was saying, but the edge to his expression was gone. The self-righteousness, the anger. In its place was nothing but confusion and just a grain of determination. He was still holding onto his gun, after all.

Keeping my hands in the air as if in surrender, I tried for a smile. “Look, honestly, this is all just a misunderstanding,” I said again. It was never going to work though.

The two of them simply ignored me as if I were no longer in the room.

“What was in that... potion you gave me? What have you done to me? Am I hallucinating?” Jacob brought a hand up and touched his ear, as if expecting to find a couple of streaks of cocaine dabbed across his face.

Granny snorted. “You don't want to know what was in that potion, neither could you comprehend it. But you can thank me for the fact you still have your hearing and that although you have a headache it is only mild.”

“Please, can't we just sit down, discuss this,” I suggested, but my voice could hardly be heard over the two as they continued to bicker.

I took several steps back. This was... beyond unbelievable. This situation had become dangerous very, very quickly. And I wasn't just talking about the fact this house was now open for attack. I was talking about Jacob, the angry, armed Federal Agent. The one my grandmother had admitted we were witches to. The one my grandmother seemed content to goad at every moment with magical explanations and potions.

I brought my hands up, locked them on my cheeks, and felt how frigid cold my fingertips were.

Honestly, I wasn't built for stress like this. I liked the quiet life, not one filled with shadows at the window and remarkably perceptive men with guns.

I had to do something.

Didn't I? That was the point. Even though I was trying to resist my grandmother's meddling, I understood what lay underneath. If I wanted my life to get back to normal, I had to take charge.

Take charge.

I latched onto that thought, and took a deliberate step backwards, turning and heading out the door.

My grandmother was not the only witch here. And as I headed through the kitchen, a plan formulated in my mind.

Unfortunately it would turn out to be the worst thing I had ever thought of.

Chapter 13

By the time I reached the kitchen I was cold. Through and through. It wasn't just because the house was old and draughty and that persistent wind was pushing its way through the cracks in the floorboards. It was much more than that. It felt like every trace of warmth or everything that had ever remembered warmth had been removed from the place. The kitchen reminded me of the inside of a glacier. Instantly my breath turned white, and I clutched at my exposed hands.

I knew a thing or two about magic. Like most forces, it generated heat. A really powerful love spell would be hot as hell, and of course a fireball wasn't exactly chilly.

But what I was experiencing here was something different. When a room or a place or an object became cold, the kind of freezing temperature you associated with deep, deep space, it meant something was building. It meant the life and the magic and the sole had been sucked out of the area, in preparation for... something new.

I cast my glance quickly out the French doors. I had lived here for so long that the view of that old oak tree had become a fixture in my life. The way it dappled the light in summer, the way the rays of the sun pushed through the naked branches in winter... it was a guttural, tactile memory.

But now it was gone. And I felt that loss like you would a limb.

Letting out another puff of air that turned to white and buffeted against my cheeks, I glanced towards the fridge. I had come in here for a reason; that reason had been to gather together all the potions I required for a sleeping spell. Not just any sleeping draught though, one that would knock out dear Agent Jacob Fairweather and erase from his memory the last 24 hours. It was the only way. Not only would it remove him from the house, but it would mean my grandmother's careless admissions would be forgotten.

Ignoring the cold and the powerful sense that something was building, I half jogged over to the bench, pulled out a bowl, and went to open the fridge.

And that would be when I felt it.

Rushing up from underneath. It had no wind, the air did not buffet against my feet. It was just a sense. I couldn't see it, I couldn't hear it... but a part of me suddenly stood still from the fright of its approach.

I didn't have the time to scream. Something latched onto my ankle.

Cold and hard it wrapped around my flesh and it pulled. My body fell out from underneath me, and I slammed against the floorboards. The wind was knocked out of my chest, but before I could catch a breath, a hand latched around my throat.

It had all happened so fast. If I had been the kind of capable, powerful witch ready to defend herself, I might have been able to squeeze off a spell. I wasn't, and to boot, all I knew was influence magic, and those kind of spells required time. The kind of time you didn't have when something latched onto you and tried to tug you through the floor.

The crush of the bone-like hand against my windpipe filled my senses. Alarm rushed through my body. But I was pinned down; there was nothing I could do.

Eyes growing wide, mouth spluttering as I tried to choke out a breath, my gaze turned black at the edges. I was seconds from unconsciousness, or possibly death.

I struggled, brought a hand up, tried to tug off whatever was gripping my throat and ankle. As my own hand latched around that foreign wrist, I realized it really was nothing more than bone.

I could hardly see. The blackness now encompassed me.

Before I could slip through the floor and probably end up in hell, I heard a shout.

Something was pulled off me, I was yanked to my feet, and the pressure on my throat finally subsided.

It took seconds for my vision to return, and as it did I felt a comforting arm around my middle pulling me backwards. “You are alive, you are alive,” my grandmother's voice soothed my wild heart.

“What's going on? What the hell is that?” I heard Jacob. Heard the exact note of fright in his voice.

“Get back to the lounge room,” my grandmother commanded.

Finally my vision returned in full. As it did I caught a glimpse of something. Something in my kitchen. Something perilously close to my dishwasher.

That something was a skeleton.

I only saw a flash of it; as my grandma hauled me through the kitchen door, it closed on its own. Then she passed a gnarled, old, sun-kissed hand over it and chains appeared from nowhere, locking it in place.

But I'd seen it. A vision of that skeleton standing there, a sword in its hand, its eyeless face turned my way.

I was no stranger to magic; I had seen some terrible things, but wholly hell, there was a skeleton holding a sword in my kitchen.

I screamed, but it was a crumpled, choked affair, and it did more damage to my throat than was worth it.

“What's going on, what's going on?” Jacob kept on repeating.

“Get to the lounge room,” my grandmother began.

Then there was a bang. From the front door. I turned in my grandmother's arms to see the thing buffet inwards.

We all paused for a moment. Maybe the house paused. Because it felt as if we were on a precipice. As if that which had been building was finally here. The tower was about to crumble.

The door banged again, and the whole thing jerked in against its hinges. Yet it held.

“Take her back to the lounge, do it now,” my grandma whirled around and pushed me at Jacob.

I still couldn't stand; my ankle felt like it had been cut through with acid, and I could hardly breathe. Yet my darling nana had just chucked me towards Jacob, even though he was still holding his gun, and didn't look like he wanted to help us, let alone believe us any time soon.

That being said, he caught me.

My grandma turned and headed straight for the door. She did not reach out a hand and trace calming symbols on it. She did not lean towards the coat rack at the side, pull out her umbrella, and get ready to use it like a sword. Instead she walked straight through it.

I felt Jacob shake behind me. An intense, full-bodied move, it was a surprise he managed to keep on his feet and not drop me.

Yet that arm of his was still locked around my middle. Coughing, my chest shaking, I couldn't deny one uncomfortable fact; I felt safer pressed up against him then I would on my own two feet.

Then my brain caught up to the situation. My grandmother had just walked through the door. Outside, to face them. Though our house no longer offered much protection, it still offered more than the wild storm outside. I just knew instinctively our yard would be crawling with creatures. The dark, the dead, the damned. They would all be after me. My grandmother had just walked out, unarmed, to face them.

I began to struggle against Jacob, trying to get towards the door. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but the fear of my grandmother facing those creatures alone pounded through me.

Jacob resisted. He did not let me go. He didn't take his arm back, push me forward, and tell me he was happy to be done with me and my crazy, crazy house.

Instead he pulled me towards the lounge room. “Stop struggling, stop struggling.”

I didn't have much struggle left in me, to be honest. The cold touch that skeleton’s hand had left against my throat and ankle seemed to haunt my mind. Every other sense was subdued in comparison to it. It was like the damned thing was still holding onto me.

Jacob managed to haul me back, and soon we were in the lounge room.

He didn't let me go until he closed the door. Then he headed over to the couch and pushed it in front of it.

I crumpled. I could have stood, but I didn't want to. I let my knees buckle out from underneath me, and I landed on the carpet with a thump.

Jacob took several steps back from the door, his gun still in his hand, his face directed away from me.

Everything was going to hell, literally.

Something that had been an academic fact this morning, was now inescapable.

We were being attacked. And it was very, very unlikely we would make it through the day and into the night.

Finally he turned back to me.

I could barely raise my chin to glance his way.

“You okay?”

His question washed over me, and it took me too long to register and comprehend the words.

I shook my head. Then I began to choke and splutter again, bringing my hand up to my throat, making a motion as if I was trying to pull something away from it. It still felt as if that skeleton’s hand was around me.

Jacob took a shaking step my way, eyes darting over my face, down to my throat and then back again. “What...?” He trailed off.

No doubt he had been about to ask what was going on here, what the hell was happening, who we were, etc. Repeating the litany of questions he had been bombarding us with for the past half-hour.

But he just stopped.

His cheeks twitched and then became slack and white. He looked back at my throat. “How do we get it off?”

I looked up at him, startled. I didn't understand his question.

He nodded at me again. “Do you have... anything in here we could use as a tool?” he turned around, surveying the bookshelves, old dressers, and general junk in the room.

“What are you talking about?” I kept clutching my throat, trying to pry away the sense of the skeleton’s hand.

He ignored me, walked over, and knelt by my side. Though he seemed reluctant at first, he set down his gun, then brought his hands up.

I actually twitched back. I didn't know what he was doing. Then I caught his eyes, settled into his glance, and realized there was no anger there. Just a strange, confused, pressured concern.

“You can't see it?”

“See what?” I could hardly push my words out. I still felt like I was choking. My throat was coarse, rough, narrow.

He brought his hands up. I saw the skin, the knuckles, the fingers. He latched them, not around my throat, but around something I could not see.

Expression crumpling, he tugged at it.

It took a moment, where he clutched his teeth in frustration, but a second later he pulled something off.

He let it go immediately, and it fell to the ground.

In a snap, it was visible.

A skeleton hand. Locked in a gripping motion.

It had been around my throat. Yet I had not been able to see it. The presence of that had filled my mind, but the fact of it had eluded my senses.

I immediately fell back, scuttling away from it, choking again.

Jacob however did not share my fear. He did grab up his gun, and seconds later poked the bony hand with the toe of his boot.

“I have to get outside to help her,” I pushed myself to my feet. Now that the skeleton’s hand was no longer around my throat, I could breathe. And with every lungful of air the grim reality of the situation pressed in on me.

She was out there, alone, and though she was powerful, no one could take on that amount of concentrated evil and live to tell the tale.

“Don't be crazy; you can't go out there,” Jacob stood up, walked over to the door, and stood firmly in front of it.

Coughing, I tried to move around him. “Get out of my way. You don't understand what is happening here.”

He spluttered through a laugh. “You're damn straight I don't understand what is going on here. I'm still convinced I am hallucinating. But I just pulled a skeleton’s hand off your throat....”

He didn't appear to be capable of finishing his sentence. Fair enough; he wouldn't have much experience uttering sentences like that.

I didn't know what to do. I knew what I wanted to do; rush outside, try to find my grandmother, and try to help her. But I also knew that would be certain suicide. The only reason she had gone out there would have been to protect me. By rushing out to find her, I would just make a liability of myself.

“I....” Apparently I couldn’t finish my sentences either, as whatever I had wanted to say got stuck somewhere around my croaky, damaged throat. I patted a hand to my neck, turned, and stared at one of the massive velvet curtains.

“We safe in here?” Jacob walked up slowly behind me.

Of course we weren't. For now, maybe, but it sounded as if the storm was only just getting started.

I simply shook my head.          

“What do we... do? Is there someone we can call?”

I turned to face him. He was taking this... better than I would have expected. The first time I had clapped eyes on Jacob Fairweather, I’d assumed he was a by-the-book kind of man. What was happening right now, would be unlike any book he had ever read. He would have no grounding for this, no understanding, no rules for how to behave.

I shook my head. “We’re on our own.”

He spluttered; a bit of that frustration and anger was back. “And who exactly are you?”

I rolled my eyes. Despite the situation, that tone of his was so damn grating. Plus, he'd already been told this several times. I couldn't spend the rest of the night reminding him my grandmother and I were witches; presumably I would have to fight for my life, and that would no doubt take up a lot of time and energy. “I'm a witch,” I snapped.

“I need a real answer,” he began.

I turned around and pointed at the skeleton hand on the ground. He stopped.

It should have been a moment of mild victory for me. Here was Jacob Fairweather, out of his depth, the same Jacob Fairweather that had deliberately tried to make my life hell for the past several days. Shouldn’t I be enjoying taking him down a notch or two?

Yet here I was, staring glumly at my hands, over to the curtains, and then back at him.

If I wanted any chance of getting out of this, I had to... well, think. More than that, I had to do as my grandmother had been suggesting all day long. I, Esme Sinclair, had to start acting like a powerful witch. The kind of witch that thought ahead, that knew what to do when there was a skeleton with a sword in her kitchen, that wouldn’t blink twice at turning to the Agent, explaining the situation, and asking for his help.

Because I would need his help, wouldn't I? He had already proven that he could see things I couldn't. How, I didn’t know. And I was more than sure it was a fact that would come to annoy me in the future. But right now I had to use it to get out of here.

I turned to him slowly. It was one of the hardest things I'd ever done. “I know this is hard for you to understand.”

“I'm hallucinating, I have to be hallucinating,” he pressed his fingers into his brow, and the move looked hard and pointed.

“You aren't hallucinating,” I used my softest, most gentle voice. “This is real. If you honestly believe you are hallucinating, then why did you pull that skeleton hand off my throat? Why did you take me in here when my grandmother asked you to? If you really think this is a hallucination, why don’t you dive out that window, and see what’s waiting out there? Or find a way to get back in the kitchen and see if the skeleton has conveniently disappeared?”

It was a risk. If Jacob Fairweather honestly thought he was hallucinating, then there was nothing to stop him from doing as I’d suggested.

He wavered. He looked at me, over to the window, then back at me. “That proves... nothing.”

“Listen to yourself, you're trying to rationalize with me. If this were a hallucination, why would you bother? Jacob,” I began.

“Agent Fairweather,” he chided automatically.

I glared at him. “Agent Fairweather, the window is right over there. I won't stop you.”

He looked back at the window slowly.

For that short moment it seemed as if every emotion played across his face in full view. The confusion, the anger, the frustration, and yes, the concern.

He finally turned back to face me. “Fine, if this isn't a hallucination, what is it?”

I brought my hands up wide, and I shrugged my shoulders. “Like I have already told you. We are witches. Magic exists. Is that so hard to believe?”

He snorted.

Apparently that meant a yes.

“Look, I don't think we have time for this. And I know this is really hard to believe, but dark forces, demons, lost souls of the night – they're all trying to get in the house. Technically they're coming after me, but knowing them, they will think nothing of taking you with me. I know we only just met, and I know you really, really don't like me—”

“I never said I don't like you,” he interrupted as he crossed his arms, “I just don't trust you. You are a drug dealer, you kidnapped me, and you...”

“Have a skeleton with a sword in my kitchen and a grandmother who can walk through doors,” I challenged.

“Right,” he held my gaze.

“Look, you can do whatever you want to do when this situation is over. You can take me down to the police station, you can clap me in irons, honestly – I won’t stop you. But right now, we need to get through this, and I kind of need your help.”

He crossed his arms tighter, and maybe just a little bit of the indecision dried up. Perhaps he had a bit of a hero complex, and by appealing to it, I was doing the best possible thing I could do to get Jacob Fairweather onside.

“I can't say I've appreciated your attention over the past several days, but Agent Fairweather, I can appreciate that you obviously know how to handle yourself. And you obviously...” I looked down at the skeleton hand, “have a talent for magic. We really need to work together if we want to get out of here.”

With those arms still crossed tightly in front of his chest he stared down at me.

An awkward, exceedingly uncomfortable silence spread between us. I stared up at him, desperate to find out whether he was going to flop a hand my way, laugh at my ridiculous explanation, and proceed to haul himself out the window only to get eaten by demons.

He didn't. After a very long time he finally relaxed his shoulders. “I don't believe a word of this, but,” he hazarded.

I looked up at him sharply.

“I'll stay.”

I smiled. Despite the situation, the fact that everything was going to hell and that I would probably end up dead by the end of the night, if not married to a man I barely knew, I actually smiled.

And I swore that the corner of his lip twitched up as I did.

“Thank you,” I clasped my hands together, “now....” Now I had to come up with a plan. Somehow I’d managed to convince the standoffish Fairweather to come to my aid, but the night, and even the day, were not over yet. What was I meant to do? Tell Jacob to pick up his gun, follow me, and start clearing the house of magical bad guys and lost souls?

I brought a hand up and uncomfortably scratched my neck. Jacob watched the move keenly. He nodded down to me. “You have no idea what to do, do you?” There was a hardened, accusatory note to his voice.

I looked up sharply, shifting uncomfortably on my feet. “I...”

“How do we defend this room? Is there somewhere else that’s safer? How many enemies do you expect, and what direction will they come from? What abilities will they have? What do we have to defend ourselves with? Will my gun work?”

I actually blinked at his barrage of questions. They were so quick and fast that I couldn't follow them. I shook my head like a confused dog. “Hold on, I can't keep up.”

“Then I suggest you try harder. If this situation is as serious as it seems, there’s no time to be pathetic.”

Pathetic? That single word managed to punch through my confusion. I wasn’t being pathetic! I had just had a very trying day. From skeletons in the kitchen to monster trucks in the morning, of course it was reasonable to assume that I would be skittish.

“If you don't take charge, I will.”

I spluttered. “You don't know the first thing about magical creatures,” I pointed out as I waved my hands at him emphatically.

“I seem to know more than you. You couldn't see that hand, could you?” He walked past the skeleton hand and kicked it with his shoe. “And what did you see out the window? Just a shadow?”

I didn't need to be questioned by a small-time Federal Agent. I stiffened my back a little, drawing my lips down into a thin frown as I tried to give him a steely gaze. “I am the witch here.”

“Well start acting like one. Draw up some kind of magical defense. Make a hex or something, or grab your wand and start producing fireballs. Do something. Your grandmother is outside, and though she looks more competent than you, she also looks like she is about 90 years old.”

At the mention of my grandmother, I swallowed uncomfortably, blood drawing thick and fast into my cheeks. Patting a hand over my hot and sweaty brow, I gave a small shake.

Jacob saw it, because the edge to his frown disappeared in that moment. “Is this the safest room in the house?” he asked again, voice quieter this time.

“I... doubt it. Maybe the attic might be? We have stacks of old magical books up there, and a lot of family history.... That might do.”

Jacob nodded quickly. “Right, then let's head there. Do you have any weapons?”

Not exactly.

“Can you produce... fireballs, lightning? Anything useful?”

I sucked on my lips, turning my eyes up until I looked at the ceiling. “Well... no.”

“I thought you said you were a witch? Your grandmother walked through a door, can you do that?”

I shook my head.

“You said you lived here to look after your grandmother, it's the other way round, isn't it?” He looked right at me as he headed past for the door, shifting the couch out of the way.

I blushed. Uncontrollably. “Now hold on a minute. She is usually very demented, I will have you know. I come home almost every day to find the place completely trashed. And the other morning, when she ordered that kilo of bloody cocaine, that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her insanity. She is only... with it at the moment because the situation demands it.”

“Dementia is not like a switch; you don't turn it on and off.” He snapped.

“She is a witch,” I rallied.

“And apparently so are you, so do some freaking magic.”

“I'm not really that kind of witch... I use influence magic,” I admitted uncomfortably.

“That sounds useless.”

If I were blushing before, my cheeks were now burning. “I’ll have you know it’s one of the most powerful kinds of magic.”

“Then click your fingers and save us all.”

“It doesn't work like that,” now I crossed my own arms.

“How convenient. If you can't do anything, stay behind me, keep close, and let me deal with... whatever is out there.”

What an ass. I’d been willing to hold out my hand to him, explain the situation as kindly as I could, and protect him as best as my magic would enable me. Yet now Jacob Fairweather was taking charge in the most arrogant of ways.

“Look, your options are to stand there glaring at me, or you can come with me and we can head to the attic. You said yourself, this situation is perilous. If you want to stay here blushing with embarrassment, fine, but I'm not going to.” With that he headed to the door, placed a hand on the handle, took in a heavy breath, and pulled it open.

Smarting from his insult, but aware of what he was about to do, I finally pushed myself into action. I half jogged, possibly in a truly pathetic way, up to his side, and got ready for what would be out there.

And what would be out there?

Trouble. Trouble of the likes I had never imagined and Jacob Fairweather had never thought possible.

Chapter 14

Despite the fact I was the witch and the only one who really knew what was going on, Jacob took the lead.

And just maybe I let him. As he walked through that door, his whole body tense as his head turned from left to right, I was right behind him.

Though I had seen my hallway many times, as I looked on at it now, it was like another place.

With the storm roaring outside, the dappled light that made it in through the window above the door seemed to make the shadows grow.

Or maybe the shadows were growing on their own.

I sucked in a scared, quick breath.

“What is it?” Jacob said through such a clenched jaw his words were barely discernible.

“Get up the stairs, get up the stairs,” I placed a hand on his back and pushed forward.

If I were any judge, soon those shadows would grow into something a little more damaging than a lack of light.

Jacob did not suddenly put his head down and sprint to the stairway. Instead he stopped where he was and let out a little growl. “We can't keep running. Where are they? What are they?”

Yes, we could keep running. Deciding I would make a show of how it was done, I went to jostle past him. But I didn't get very far; he grabbed at my wrist and held me firmly in place. “If you don't let me know what we are dealing with, how am I going to protect you?”

Protect me. That had never been part of the deal. I was very much not the damsel in distress here. I was only standing behind Jacob because his back was so large.

Maybe he saw that moment of sweet indignation on my face, because he growled even deeper. “Have you forgotten where we are and what's going on? Where are the enemies?”

I turned back to the shadows. How I had managed to shift my attention off them, I didn't know. There was something about Jacob and his petulant sense of arrogance that could make me forget the most desperate of situations.

They were gone.

The shadows that I had sworn were growing, lumping together like raindrops collecting down a windowpane, just weren't there anymore.

In their place was... my hallway. Exactly as I had left it before this whole thing had begun. The pot plant was still there, that broken chair was still in the corner, and apart from the sound of the wind and the rain and the lightning outside, it was almost... pleasant.

I took an enormous swallow.

“Is there anything out there?” Jacob repeated again, speaking through a locked, hard jaw.

“We’re okay for now.... Let’s just head to the stairs and up to the attic as quick as we can.”

Again I tried to take charge, but Jacob was still holding onto my wrist, and apparently he wasn't going to have me rush ahead.

“I'm the one with the gun,” he said coldly, letting go of my wrist and taking several steps forward. His chest was actually puffed out, his head held high, and if he’d had the time, no doubt he would have slapped some oil on his muscles and posed for a photo. I'd never seen such a macho show.

It made me want to snigger. Then I heard a little, light, crumpling sound from behind me, like glass breaking.

I gave a yelp and ran forward.

“Why don't you just advertise where we are?” he quipped, finally increasing his pace as we reached the stairs.

“Just hurry up,” I pushed him on the back.

“Keep doing that, and you’ll find out how I will react,” he offered in a low, threatening voice.

“Just hurry up, I think I can hear something behind me,” I turned around, still keeping a hand on Jacob’s back, telling myself it was only to ensure that he was moving fast and not because the trace of warmth through his shirt made me feel safer.

My eyes searched out the hall below. It felt and looked different again. It were as if someone had clicked their fingers, and in the blink of an eye the place had changed. It no longer looked familiar. Though academically I recognized the floorboards and the walls, the pot plants, and the various pictures, they all had a foreign, terrifying sense about them.

Then I saw something. Quick, like a flash, heading from the lounge room into the library by its side. It made me yelp yet again. As a witch I fully understood that the best way to get yourself attacked by a dark creature was to appear pathetic and to act like an easy target. Add to that the tendency to make loud, obvious noises, and you'll soon find yourself stabbed through the heart by a skeleton with a sword, or tugged through the wall by a daemon covered in scorpions.

“It's fine, come on,” Jacob turned, latched onto my shoulder, and tugged me up the stairs. He was a lot quicker at moving me than I had been at moving him. In seconds we were up on the second floor.

The second floor was my grandmother's domain, the third was my own, and the fourth had the attic. Suffice to say whenever I headed down or up the stairs, I always made a point of ignoring the second floor. While I kept the kitchen and the library and the bathroom and the lounge room as clean as I could, it was a never-ending battle to do anything to my grandmother's realm.

“Is that a stuffed giraffe with pins in it?” Jacob secured a hand on the banister and turned around to survey the junk in the corridor and the rooms sprouting out from it.

“It's zoo voodoo,” I managed, breath stuck in my throat as I peered back down the stairs, expecting something dark to chase its way up them at any moment.

“Zoo voodoo?” he repeated pointedly. It was obvious he was trying to make a joke, or something like it, despite the situation. What kind of a man did that? This was no laughing matter. There should have been no time to pause, point out the comical stuffed animal with the pins hanging out of it and let off a little snigger. There should only have been time to race up the stairs, pile ourselves into the attic, and close the door behind us.

This guy really was full of himself, I suddenly concluded. “Can we move on? Or do you want to invite the denizens of the dark to feast on our souls?”

“Feast on my soul, you mean; you’re a witch, you don't have one, right? You've already made a pact with the devil or something like that, lost your dignity and meaning by dancing in the forest naked and summoning evil, right?

I started to go pink, very pink. Dancing in the forest naked? Selling my soul? “Excuse me,” I began.

“But we really need to make it up to the attic. Stop distracting me. You really have no idea how to keep yourself safe, do you?” he goaded as he turned around, proceeded to ignore all the weird and wacky junk on the second level, and headed up the next flight of stairs.

I'd seen some weird things in my time. Especially living with my grandmother. Jacob Fairweather was turning out to be the weirdest. People didn't react like this, did they? Real people, from the real world, had real reactions of fear when faced with a situation that was as scary and dangerous as this. There should be no time to make jokes and quips and insults. There should only be time to run like hell until we got to safety.

I knew Jacob had seen the skeleton in the kitchen, and I knew he had pulled that bony hand off my throat. There should have been no doubt in his mind that he was dealing with something frankly terrifying here. And yet he was managing to joke. It was like we were in a movie, or a play, because, god dammit, real people didn't react this way.

It took me until we had reached the third floor to realize that I wasn’t reacting normally either. Instead of being terrified out of my wits, I was spending all of my mental energy wondering just what Jacob Fairweather's problem was.

“This must be your grandmother’s floor. She’s got good taste,” Jacob nodded, this time not pausing too long to point out the decor or find another excuse to belittle me.

Unbeknownst to Jacob, he’d just offered me his very first compliment.

“Actually, this is my floor. And thank you, I do like to keep things clean and nice.”

“It was a joke. It's ugly,” he said automatically.

Ugly? Ugly? I'd put my heart and soul into making this place beautiful. I had picked everything from the carpet to the drapes to the paint to the pictures. It had been a labor of love over many years to acquire all the vases and cushions and throws.

He wasn’t just arrogant, Jacob Fairweather was far more than that. He was like a playground bully. Like your first crush who would come up to you in the yard, push you over, shove worms in your mouth, and run-off.

But at least it kept me distracted. Until we finally made it to the attic, that was.

Unlike most houses, there was a set of ordinary stairs leading to our attic. You didn't have to pull anything down from the ceiling and grab a ladder; you just had to make your way up the last flight until you reached the door. A suitably ominous door, because this was the house of two witches. It was old and creaked something menacing, and the surface was chipped and scratched. Yet it could withstand a mortar from a tank, I was sure.

Because behind it was something special. Years and years and years of Sinclair family history. Books, photos, stories, letters. All of it was up there in boxes and stacked on bookshelves. Squeezed between magical books and objects were teddy bears and old albums, wedding dresses and toys. Every type of memorabilia you could think of.

“Are you sure it is going to be safe behind there?” Jacob hesitated, clearly not wanting to reach a hand out to touch that door.

I was damn sure. To demonstrate this I shoved my way past him and went to open it.

I latched my hand onto the handle and tried to muscle it open.

Except it wouldn't work. The handle was stuck. Feeling a touch embarrassed, I tried to tug harder.

We didn’t have a lock on this door, so there was no reason for it not to open. Unless the rising damp from the storm had shifted the house on its foundations and the door was a little stuck in its frame, there should have been no reason for it to get stuck like this.

Bearing my teeth, putting my shoulder into it, I tried again and again.

“You really are pathetic,” he shoved me off. He didn't ask me to move aside so he could have a go; he actually shoved me away. He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed, not hard enough to make me tumble back down the stairs and break my neck, but hardly gently either.

It confirmed my suspicions that he was a playground bully. No doubt if I delved into Fairweather's past, I would find many girls who had been pushed over in the rain, many children whose lunches had been stolen at recess, and a whole bevy of disgruntled, frustrated teachers.

Before I could be too embarrassed at not being able to open the door, I realized Jacob couldn't either.

“Where's the key? Is it locked?” he tried to wrench it open, but to no avail.

“It can't lock.”

“Well then I've got news for you, witch, it's not opening.” He stopped trying to open it, letting his hands drop, and turning over his shoulder to check down the stairs. “Great, we’re trapped up here. Fantastic plan. We can't get into the attic, and if we head down the stairs, we’ll be an easy target. Is this your idea of going somewhere safer?”

I ignored him. Instead I reached a hand out and nestled it onto the wood. “Come on, open,” I said under my breath.

“It's a door, it’s incredibly hard to negotiate with. I've got a better idea,” Jacob grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

There was no asking me to move to the side, there was no waiving me on, there was only him moving me around like you might a piece on a chessboard.

Before I could snap at him to respect my personal space, he took a step back, raised his gun, and no doubt got ready to shoot.

I jumped in front of him.

“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted.

“You can't shoot this door! You'll make the whole house angry. It will try to kill you,” I shook my head, bringing my hands up and waving them about.

“Don't jump in front of somebody's gun, are you mad? Do you want to die?”

“You can't shoot the door,” I didn't move from where I was.

“Fine, but don't jump in front of my gun again. As irritating as you are, I really don't want to kill you,” with that he turned around and stared back down the stairs. “Can you hear that?”

“You mean the storm?”

“I mean the patter of feet. Sounds like there's a whole army down there,” Jacob slowly straightened up, resting one hand on the railing as he kept the other firmly gripped on his gun.

A whole army, great. And no, I couldn't hear it, which meant Jacob was either pulling my leg, or once again he could sense things I couldn't.

It was one thing being the witch in this relationship, it was another being the lesser magical creature. Because if my grandmother was right, then Jacob seemed to have a natural talent to see things beyond which I could. And hell, I'd been training for years.

It just wasn't fair.

“You might want to wipe that pout off your face; we have to head back down there. Can we make the lounge room safe? Or is there somewhere else we can go? What about your bedroom, would that be safe?”

I slapped my hand on my chest, blushing the color of magma. “My bedroom? Why do you want to go into my bedroom?”

“Don't get too excited,” he said sarcastically. “Presumably anywhere you have a lot of your magical books or junk or whatever is safe. So I just concluded, considering your character, that your room would be full of all of this magical trash. But answer the question, would it be safe?”

Feeling my heart thumping through my chest and vibrating my hand, I was suddenly distracted by how tall and broad chested Jacob was. If you got past the arrogance, he really was handsome. Now was not the time to think about that. Now was the time to come up with a new plan.

“Would you stop blushing; it was no compliment, just tell me if it would be safe?”

Ha, no.

Staring up at him coldly, I shook my head. “There is nowhere here that is safe. If we can't make it into the attic....I guess we have to leave,” the thought came upon me at once. As soon as I said it, I realized how true it was. There was no longer anywhere in this house that could protect us. If I wanted to see this day and night through, I had to get away from here, take my chances elsewhere. I could head to my Auntie Tessa’s, beg her to stay in the office, or head back to her own house. Presumably it would offer me a great deal more protection than I could receive here. Plus, Tessa was such a bulldog that I doubted most evil magical creatures would bother trying to take her on, even if I was up for grabs.

I nodded to myself.

“Care to share? I'm not sure if you've forgotten, but you, through you're careless actions, have gotten an innocent man involved in this situation. Now it's up to you to see the both of us get out of here safely.”

I screwed up my face at the term “innocent man.” Jacob wasn’t innocent; he was a jerk, but unfortunately he was right. I did owe it to him and myself to get us both out of here safely.

“We have to get out of the house. It is not going to be easy, especially when we get to the yard, but if we make it to my car.... We could properly go and see the rest of my family. We’d be better off there.”

“We? If we manage to get out of the house, you're on your own,” he nodded my way.

For some reason that startled me. Though I had spent a good part of the last hour thinking about how arrogant Jacob was, he didn't seem... to be the kind to leave somebody in the lurch, especially when that someone was in as much danger as I was.

“Surprised?” he challenged me.

I glowered down at him. “Not really; you're a jerk. It’s exactly what I would expect you to say. Now unless you want to become fodder for the damned, follow me,” feeling a rising anger take hold, I pushed past Jacob, and managed to stay ahead, despite the fact I knew he would take any opportunity to grab at me, push me behind him, and make another arrogant quip.

Well I wasn't going to have anything more of it. I wasn’t going to hide behind this man anymore, and I wasn't going to let him bully me.

I started to tug up my sleeves. And it felt... good. Don't get me wrong, a spa and a nap on a sunny bed would have felt better, but at least I was taking charge of my own fear.

I settled my senses back into the situation. I tried to understand the peaks and troughs in the magical currents around me.

I could feel how much had crammed itself into this house. Underneath it was the same sense my home had always given me, but at the edges, on top, like a stifling blanket, was the dark side.

I'd never been particularly good at distinguishing magical creatures, and it wasn't that much of a surprise that Jacob was better at it than I, even though he was untrained. But I knew enough to know what was dangerous.

I could sense something clambering up the stairs towards us. Yes, clambering. It felt like it had many legs, and if I strained my hearing, I could discern each one of its pattering footsteps.

The sense of it... was dark. Darker than anything I had ever experienced. The type of dark that had never seen light and never would.

I snapped my eyes open.

“I don't think we can make it out the front door, we are going to have to...”

“Jump out a window?”

Before I could turn around and offer him a snide reply, I stopped. Because that seemed like our only opportunity. If we couldn't make it down the stairs, then yes, it sounded as if we would have to jump out a window.

“Wait, you're serious. We can't jump out of window, we’re on the fourth floor.”

“Just trust me,” I snapped, and with that threw myself down the stairs.

Though the fear was still there, though it was ever present and ever threatening, I pushed through it. Or against it more like. With every step I took forward, with every breath I managed, I faced it. The more I faced it, the less frightening it became.

Was this the power my grandmother was talking of? Was this why you always wanted to face every situation with as much force as you could? The less frightened you became of a situation, the more power you took back from it, the stronger you could stand, the longer you could last.

We reached the third floor, and without thinking I turned and headed straight for my bedroom.

“Where are we going?” Jacob asked from behind me.

I had no intention of answering. The man was taking up too much of my time and energy. I was acting less and less like a witch and more and more like a disgruntled little girl who kept having her lollipop stolen. Jacob was distracting me in all the wrong ways.

Not even hesitating, I grabbed open the door to my bedroom and ran in.

The bad was a mess; I’d had a rough night, after all. In fact the whole room was not as clean as it usually was.

I heard him snigger from behind me. Yes, he sniggered. Ordinarily, real, nice men did not snigger when they entered a woman's bedroom for the first time.

Jacob was none of those things. He was also something I was determined to ignore for the time being.

“Is that a teddy bear on your bed?” He walked over to it and picked it up.

Though I was hoping to ignore him, I couldn't ignore that. I whirled on my foot, walked over to him, and snatched back my teddy.

Because yes, it was a teddy, my favorite teddy. It had been with me since childhood. It had had been given to me by my great-grandmother, and it was a family heirloom.

A family heirloom... I suddenly stared down at it.

“You aren’t going to hug it, are you?” Jacob gave a short laugh as he walked over to the door, closed it, and muscled my chest of drawers in front of it.

“No, I'm taking it with us,” I suddenly concluded as I turned it over and over in my hands. If I were going to head out into the real world beyond my house, then I had to take things with me that would keep me safe.

As a child I had invested much time and energy into hugging that bear, into taking it wherever I could, into confiding my secrets to it, into letting it console me. It had been such a symbol of safety.

I was a witch, I practiced influence magic, and I understood the import of this straightaway.

If there were one thing that could protect me out there in the real world, it was my teddy. So I brought it up, patted its head, and tucked it under one arm, much to the surprise and humor of Jacob.

“You're serious, you're taking your teddy bear outside... to protect you from the demons and the skeletons.”

“Yes,” I answered, and thankfully my tone was even, my chin was raised, and my stare was unblinking. “It's a lot less arrogant and talkative than you are.”

I turned around and headed to the window just above my bed. Leaning towards it, I glanced down into the yard.

The day outside was still dark, perilously so. Though a brief glance above revealed a swirling, tumultuous mass of clouds and lightning, it did not account for the gloom.

Only magic could.

“How the hell is it so dark out there?” Jacob walked up and stood beside me. A little too close; his arm brushed against mine.

“Use your imagination,” I shot back.

“Do you need to take a blanket out there with you? So you can hide under it with your teddy when the going gets rough?” He crossed his arms and sneered down at me.

What kind of a man crossed his arms, sneered, and insulted a woman when they were just about to climb out the third-floor window and throw themselves into a yard full of ghosts and trolls and everything wrong with the world?

I was starting to get the picture that Jacob Fairweather was disconnected from reality. Maybe he really was on drugs, or maybe the potion my grandmother had given him had wiped away his common sense and replaced it with the kind of dry humor you always got in rotten comic books and TV sitcoms.

Ignoring him, I slowly pulled back the latch on the window and opened it.

A blast of wind slammed into my face and pushed me back, plastering my hair over my cheeks, and bringing with it a hail of rain and leaves and twigs.

“How exactly are you going to climb your way down the side of the house? Or are you just going to jump and hope for the best?” Jacob nodded at me.

“There's a storm pipe just down the side,” I leaned into the window, against the brunt of the wind, and pointed to the left. There was the storm pipe. I would not be considering clambering down it for one minute if it weren't for the fact there was an army of dark climbing up the stairs ready to eat me.

“You'll slip and die,” he pointed out. He hadn't said we would slip and die, just me.

“What do you care?” With that I planted my hand on the windowsill and got ready to climb out.

I didn't get the opportunity. He stopped me by grabbing hold of my arm. This time it was a light move. It didn't feel like he was about to tug me around or push me over. He was just stopping me in place. “Think about this. It'll be slippery, it'll be cold, and the wind is going to...” He nodded at my dress. “Play havoc with your clothes. If you really have to go out there, shouldn’t you change into something more sensible?”

He had... a point. Because I was still wearing a summer dress. And it had a terribly flouncy skirt. All it would take was one gust of magical wind for me to be pulled off the drainpipe and sucked up into the sky.

Reluctantly I clambered back into the room and patted down my clothes.

Not answering I walked over to my chest of drawers and started to fumble around.

“You'll need sturdy pants, something with long sleeves, and maybe a sweater, considering how cold it is,” he suggested needlessly. It was needless, because I knew how to dress for a magical storm. I was the witch.

“Just turn around,” I snapped.

“You think I care?”

“Turn around,” I said with a far more deadly tone.

I turned to check that he wasn't still staring my way, and then started to fidget into the clothes that I had chosen.

Well, wasn't this awkward. Here I was changing in front of Federal Agent Jacob Fairweather, who had turned out to be more of a pain in the ass than I could have ever imagined. The idea that my grandmother had clapped eyes on him and concluded that he was the man of my dreams was terrifying. Did she know so little about me? For her to think that a man like this would be someone I would want to spend the rest of my life with, was further evidence that she really was going insane. I didn't want to spend the rest of the day with this man, let alone my whole existence.

I tugged my jeans on, buttoned them up, and finally unzipped my dressed, pulling it over my head. But I didn't get so far as to take it off; at that moment something slammed against my bedroom door, forcing the chest of drawers forward.

I screamed, fell back, and landed with a thump on the ground, my dress still somewhere over my head, my arms trapped inside.

“Jesus, get up, move,” Jacob pulled me up.

“I thought I told you to stay turned around,” I said in a high-pitched voice as he pulled me to my feet.

“Like I said, I don't care, just put the top on quick,” he brought his gun up and pointed it at the door. It was still shaking as if something were wailing on it from the other side. Probably because something was wailing on it from the other side, something that sounded like thousands of fists.

I imagined even it if I screamed at him, Jacob would not turn back to the window. Which left the rather uncomfortable fact that I now had to change in front of him. Turning, I tugged off the dress, sidled over to where I’d dropped my top like a crab, and pulled it on with a muffled, weird sounding whine.

“Is that a butterfly tattoo on your back?” Jacob nodded my way after I'd finally finished dressing myself and had turned back to him.

“Just watch the door,” I snapped at him as I grabbed my teddy and headed back to the window.

“You don't strike me as the kind of girl to have a butterfly tattoo,” he grinned.

“And you don't strike me as the kind of guy who would be interested,” I replied coldly, finally making my way out the window.

It was nicer now that I wasn't dressed in the summer dress. I’d chosen a sturdy pair of jeans, a long-sleeved top, and a thick woolen jumper. It might not be the most stylish garb, but at least it was practical.

As I thought that, a little voice in my head popped up and repeated my grandmother's warning from that morning. If you wanted to be powerful, you had to appear powerful, which meant you had to dress powerful. And a woolen sweater with a reindeer on the front wasn't usually associated with force. I'd never seen a commanding general waltz onto the battlefield in his grandmother's finest knitwear.

....Still, it was too late to change into anything else. It would have to do.

It appeared I would face the rest of this adventure with Santa Claus and a reindeer emblazoned on my chest. So be it.

Chapter 15

Making my way down that drainpipe was the hardest thing I had ever done. It wasn't just that the wind tugged and pulled at me, it was that with every single gust I felt hands move along with it. I swore there was a creature in the storm, or hundreds upon thousands of them, and as it roared past me, they all reached up to tug me down, down into the yard beyond.

I managed to keep my grip on the windpipe, and just maybe with my teddy tucked under my arm, I had the reassurance I required to continue. However, more likely, it was probably the sheer annoyance of Jacob Fairweather climbing down after me, muttering to himself, continuing to insult me, despite the fact I could hardly hear him.

What a distraction he was turning out to be.

Though I was sure that the overgrown shrubs and trees of my yard prevented my neighbors from seeing whatever was done there, I was also certain that if any of them had looked out of their windows at that point, they would have seen me climbing down from my bedroom window with a man in a blue tie. If they could have seen through the storm, that was.

I doubted the rain and clouds and lightning and wind were putting on the same show for everybody else in the neighborhood. No doubt just beyond my fence everything would calm down. The wind would turn into nothing more than a breeze, the clouds would part to show the sun shining through, and the lightning would dwindle to be nothing but a faraway crackling in the hills behind the town.

The storm was after me, not the rest of the town.

As I continued to clamber down, my hands became frigid with every blast of wind. I could hardly move my fingers anymore, and yet I managed to keep my grip, but only just.

As I clambered down, my brain started to do some much-needed thinking. With the wind drowning out Jacob’s insults, there was nothing to distract me.

It was time to come up with more of a solid plan. Once we were out of the yard, if we ever managed to get out, that was, I would have to... make my way on my own. Jacob had already made it clear that he was ready to ditch me. And good riddance to him, frankly. I didn't need him running around as a liability, attracting various magical creatures, and tugging me along like I was some kind of rag doll.

Think, girl, I commanded myself.

How was I to get through this?

As I passed the second floor window, I caught a glimpse inside, and what I saw made me want to let go and give up.

Creatures were swarming through my house. Flashes that I could just see from the lightning playing its way through the clouds above. Faces, contorted into disgust, fear, and hatred. The whip of a tail, the flap of a wing. It seemed that hell had opened up all of its fury and dumped it in my big old house.

Why had this happen to me? I'd always been a good witch, I'd always looked after my grandmother. I didn't deserve this.

Or maybe I did. I had spent the past several months complaining about everything I could, undermining, as my granny had put it, everything I stood upon.

So despite my grandmother's annoying meddling, I could see her point. It was time to change everything I hated about myself, take charge, and find my natural power within.

In doing so, I would strengthen my defenses, and this barrage of the dark side would be overcome.

I had a car, my grandmother had already seen to that, and a job too, and as for man, I was quite certain I could live without one. So that just left... becoming powerful.

As I thought and planned, my body did what it had to, and soon enough I had made it down the drainpipe and was standing on real, solid ground, even though it was very, very soggy.

For a moment I just stood there, a smile of victory spreading my lips. I had actually done it. I’d climbed down the side of my house in a ferocious magical storm. That was certainly something to brag about at the next family reunion.

And then I heard a growl behind me. A particularly loud and nasty one.

I turned slowly, ever so slowly, like a pig on a rotisserie ready to be roasted and eaten.

In my mind, the most horrible of creatures would be behind me. Perhaps a troll, three meters tall, teeth dripping with blood. Perhaps a demon, its black wings spread out so wide they blocked off all light from the heavens.

What I saw... was a gnome. Yes, a gnome. Not a garden gnome, one of the live ones. It was barely one-and-a-half feet tall, and it had a characteristic pointy blue hat on.

I heard Jacob land beside me. He had turned to see what I was staring at, and the brute laughed. “When I saw you turn like that, I figured you were facing a monster or something. Is that a garden gnome?”

I brought a hand up, quick and sharp, hoping to cut off his insult before he could get us into any more trouble. “Don't move a muscle.”

“You serious? It's a gnome,” he shoved past me.

That would be when the gnome reacted. It might have only been one-and-a-half feet tall, but gnomes had a distinct advantage. Anger. Devastating anger.

“Quick, throw your teddy bear at it,” Jacob jokingly suggested from my side before he pushed past me, pulled down on his tie, and headed for the garden path.

He didn't get very far.

The gnome turned around and launched itself at him, ran up his back, wrapped its arms around his head and head-butted him.

It all happened so fast.

Even though the wind was loud and the lightning louder, I heard the crack of that creature nutting Jacob.

Jacob spluttered, stumbled backwards, brought his hands up, and tried to pull the gnome off.

I stood there, surprised, just a little amused, and quite a bit concerned. Yet soon I pushed myself into action. Despite the fact I was wearing a Santa Claus sweater and holding onto my teddy, I had to do something; I was the witch trying to find her power, after all.

I flung myself forward, and even though Jacob was a great deal taller than me, I tried to reach up to grab the gnome. It kept on head-butting him, and Jacob, in his desperation to pull it off, was stumbling around, always dancing just out of my reach.

I had to think of something quickly, because despite how annoying Jacob was, I really didn't want him to end up with any lasting brain damage because he had mistakenly insulted a gnome.

I also knew I couldn't pull it off him; I couldn’t reach it, and I wasn’t that strong anyway. I had to look for something to help me.

I was starting to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be a witch like my grandmother. The kind of witch who could practice both influence magic and the other, raw, more powerful kind. You wouldn't see me walking through walls any time soon.

I had to settle into what I had and what I could do, and I had to maximize it.

So to get a gnome off Jacob's head, I had to practice influence. I had to manipulate the context, alter the variables involved until the situation resolved itself. Minimal effort for maximal gain.

Standing on the spot and staring around myself, I looked for something that would make Jacob powerful. I knew he was more than capable of pulling the gnome off his head himself, he just needed a hand to get his strength back. And then I saw it. His gun. He’d dropped it, presumably in surprise when a gnome had run up his back and started head-butting him in the face.

I scuttled over to it, picked it up, and then saw an overturned fence post. It was broken, and had two pointy ends. I snatched it up.

I ran over to Jacob and chucked the gun and the fence post at his feet. Then I closed my eyes and let off a silent prayer. A quick, mumbled spell.

To the uninitiated, what I had just done would have seemed useless. No, beyond useless. Rather than hand Jacob the gun, I had thrown it at his feet, and to top it all off, I'd added a broken fence post, as if that would do anything other than offer an opportunity to trip.

Despite appearances, what I had just practiced was magic.

To Jacob presumably there was nothing more powerful and nothing that could offer more security than a gun. As for the broken fence post, it offered several pointy, rough edges, that would presumably put one in mind of something pointy, rough, and tough. Like a pointy, rough, and tough man more than capable of besting a gnome.

Okay, I was very much clutching at straws here, but it would have to do.

And, low and behold, seconds later, Jacob finally succeeded in wrapping his hands around the gnome and pulling it off. With a hearty, thumping cry he chucked it into the black berry bush several meters away.

Then he looked at me, blood dripping down from a deep gash in his head. “Why did you just stand there?”

“I didn't,” I pointed down at the gun and the broken fence post. “I cast a spell, I was the only reason you managed to get it off.”

Jacob looked at me slowly and very aggressively. “You're out of your mind.” He poked the fence post with the toe of his boot, reached down, grabbed the gun, and turned from me.

“Just because you don't understand influence magic, doesn't mean you should dismiss it. That thing was winning before I intervened,” I raised my voice as Jacob strode ahead.

I understood, I really did, how pathetic my little intervention must have looked. Chucking a gun and a fence post at his feet? It must have seemed like I was more than mad. But I wasn't.... This was honestly how my magic worked. It wasn't about lights, explosions, and fireballs. It was about reminding people of what they could do, about reminding situations of what they could become. It involved a lot of junk and incantations, but I knew it was the most powerful way of altering the universe.

If Jacob didn't understand that, so be it, but I was confident that my intervention had been the difference between him finally claiming victory over that gnome and crumpling into a ball of brain injury.

As Jacob strode ahead, I clutched tight onto my teddy.

Neither of us got very far. Something swung out of a tree. And it swung right at me. At first I didn't understand what it was, then just before it hit me I saw the snaking grab of a tentacle. It wrapped itself around my stomach, squeezed the face of my knitted Santa Claus, and began to pull me towards the bushes.

Before I was crushed or sent slamming into the fence, Jacob opened fire, and somehow his aim was true, and he shot right through the tentacles. There was a scream from the tree, and the creature dwindled into a hiss of smoke.

Frantic, I batted the remaining tentacles off me and took several steps back, shaking in fear.

That is how you save somebody,” Jacob looked down at me pointedly, then he turned away and headed for the garden path.

That was one way to save somebody, I felt like replying, but he was too far out of earshot, and I really doubted he wanted to listen.

There were probably only 10 or so meters separating us from the garden gate. I was confident that once we were on the street outside our current situation would improve measurably. We just had to make it that far.

And somehow, clutching onto my teddy, practicing what magic I could, we did.

I had no idea why. From the sounds of the storm and concentrated evil lurking behind every bush and tree, I was more than sure we would have been assailed at every step.

Yet we weren't. Between Jacob's bluster, his gun, and his general aggressiveness, and my own magic of course, we made it.

Right to the garden gate.

We, however, did not get to open it.

Just as Jacob leaned over to kick it open, ignoring the latch, and obviously not caring that it would take more than I could afford to replace it, something rushed out at him.

White and glistening. Bone. The bone was attached to a skeleton, and the skeleton was attached to a sword.

This time I did react, and no, it wasn't to lean down, grab up a fence post, and chuck it at his feet. I threw myself at Jacob, grabbed him, and pushed him out of the way. Except I didn't do it in time.

I heard the blade slash down, and I felt it as it sliced through my arm.

Blood splattered everywhere.

Yet I didn't scream. Pain filled me, spiking through my arm with a ferocity I had never felt. Yet I held onto the anguish and fright, and I didn't let it out.

Though blackness was curling in at the edges of my vision, I was aware of the fact that the skeleton turned, brought it’s sword up again, and lashed out once more.

Jacob was still on the ground underneath me, and I was an easy, easy target.

But I wasn't down yet.

Before the panic could get to me, before the sight of that sword glinting in a non-existent light could speak to the primal side of my brain and leave it with the conclusion that death was seconds away, I did something. Instinctual. I reached for my teddy. It had fallen in the mud after I had been attacked. Now it was the only thing within my grasp. So I clutched it up.

I didn't roll away, I didn't try to kick at the skeleton’s feet, and I didn't scream at Jacob to do something. I just reached for my teddy and I held it there.

A funny thing happened when I did.

The skeleton brought its sword down in a stabbing motion, probably intending to skewer me right through the heart.

Though its move was strong, and I could see the concentrated power of its blow, it glanced off. As soon as the sword came into contact with my teddy, a magical barrier appeared, and the skeleton was blasted back.

Yes, that is the power of a teddy bear. Or, more likely, that is the power that comes when one surrounds themselves with objects they have spent a lifetime empowering.

Though I was a witch, and I understood magic, I was just a little bloody surprised. I didn't have time to look down at my teddy before Jacob pulled me to my feet, reached over to the garden fence, pushed it open, and tugged us out onto the street.

It happened too fast, and as the pain ate into my arm, I didn't have the attention left over to keep up with what was going on. But before I knew it, I was out of the yard and standing on the pavement beyond.

It was warm out here. It was light too; though there were thick clouds above, they no longer covered the sun like they had in my yard. Though there was a wind, it was a slight breeze with the occasional gust. And though I heard thunder, it was far, far off behind the city in the rolling hills beyond.

In short, it was completely different weather, despite the fact we had barely moved half a meter. More than that, as I glanced over Jacob's shoulder and beyond my garden gate, I couldn't see what I had moments before.

There was no skeleton with a sword getting ready to jump over the picket fence to finish off the fight. There was no gnome shaking its fist at Jacob, and there was no tentacle monster nursing a bullet wound.

It was just my yard. You couldn't hear anything, you couldn't see anything, and in short, it looked as if nothing was there.

Jacob still had his arm around me, and his shirt was covered in blood. If it wasn't for that fact, maybe he would have doubted what had just happened. Though he took several more moments to stare into my yard, obvious surprise shifting through his expression, he took one look down at my arm, and then reached for his phone.

He was about to call for an ambulance, wasn't he?

I shifted around and closed my palm over his before he could open his phone. I shook my head. “Don't get anyone else involved,” I pleaded.

He held my gaze.

I swear that was the longest we had ever looked at each other up to that point. Before, all we'd shared were blunt, aggressive glances. Now he slowly shook his head. “You're injured.”

I shook my own head. “Please, don't get anyone else involved.” To prove that I was okay, I pried myself from his grip and stood up, holding my arm, but not wavering on my feet.

“I'll be fine...” I took a step back from him. “You can go now. This has nothing more to do with you.” I kept on stepping backwards.

Jacob just stood there. His expression was unreadable. Gone was the arrogant jerk who had haunted me for the past hour. In its place was... somebody I couldn't read. Someone I suddenly understood that I didn't know at all.

“I have a first aid kit in my car.”

Car. As if on cue, I turned around.

There she was, my monster truck. Parked on the curb, glistening in the sun that made it through the clouds, and all but begging me to clamber inside. Suddenly I was more than thankful that my grandmother had insisted we buy the largest and most ridiculous vehicle we could find. The idea of climbing into a hatchback and zooming away from the devil himself was not nearly as comforting as hauling myself up into that truck, gunning the engine, and listening to it roar in approval.

“So do I,” I lied. “I’ll deal with my cut myself.”

It was time Jacob and I separated. It was time for Agent Fairweather to get out of this world while he still could. To ignore me, to forget me, and to go about the rest of his day assuming that these past several hours had been spent in a drug-fueled hallucination.

Taking another step back from him, not being able to tear my gaze off his for some reason, I reached the driver's side door. I put a hand on it.

His look of concern crumpled in that moment. He shifted his gaze up to the monstrosity that was my new car. “Is that yours?”

I nodded. “My car got stolen yesterday, remember? Well this is my replacement.”

He looked at me askance. But it didn't last. Because his gaze quickly darted down to the blood still seeping through my Santa Claus sweater. “I'm not even going to talk about the fact you replaced your hatchback with a monster truck. And I'm not going to leave you on the street bleeding. Where is your first aid kit?”

“It's over, Jacob. We’re out of the house. You can go. Like you wanted to,” I forced myself to turn around.

I didn't have the keys for my car, but hell, I was a witch. As soon as we had signed those papers, this car had become part of the family. It was a Sinclair vehicle now, and it had been sold to me by my cousin. So yes, that meant I didn't need a key; as soon as I reached up and tugged on the handle, it opened, and I swear it gave a purr too.

“Hey, what are you doing? I can’t let you drive around with an injury like that. You’re going to crash into a train. Get back down here.”

Why did people keep on telling me that this truck could take on a train? I knew enough about repetition and affirmations to realize that the more people repeated that, the more likely it would become. And frankly, I really had no intention of slamming my brand-new vehicle into an oncoming locomotive.

I didn't get down. Instead I closed the door.

As I laid my hands on the wheel, I almost forgot about the pain of my injury. The vantage from this car was incredible. I felt like I was in a tank. It actually brought a smile to my lips.

As I looked out at the storm above, it seemed duller, dimmed down. In my massive black monster truck the weather no longer appeared to be able to affect me as much.

I leaned down to turn it on. Though I didn't have any keys, I just made the motion of doing it, and the thing roared into life. Again, not something your ordinary car would do, but something a Sinclair family vehicle had no trouble in learning.

Before I could pull out from the curb, my passenger door opened, and Agent Fairweather clambered in. He fixed me with a steely, deadly gaze. “Turn the car off.”

Before I could react, he leaned over and went to grab at the keys from the ignition.

Except they weren’t there.

I watched his expression falter. He looked for them, checked my hands, then looked back at my face. “I don't get it, have you installed some kind of voice recognition?”

I snorted at him. “No, it's magic. As if I could afford a fancy ignition.”

With that I patted the steering wheel, and the car growled. Yes, growled. It didn't rumble, the engine didn't suddenly rev. The truck growled like it was a lion getting ready for a fight.

“Where’s the first aid kit? Esme, where is your first aid kit?”

Where we on first name terms now?

“Look, Agent Fairweather, I got you out of the house, or you got me out of the house, whatever. The point is, you can leave like you wanted to. Just leave this up to me.”

“Leave this up to you? I've seen what you can do. If a man is in trouble, you throw a broken fence picket at his feet. How exactly are you going to keep yourself safe?”

“Are you forgetting how I got this,” I took one hand off the wheel and pointed to the deep, deep gash in my arm. My sweater was thankfully a cheery red, so the sight of blood soaking it wasn't as stark. Yet I was sure he got the picture clear and sharp.

It got Jacob's attention, and that arrogant look on his face faltered. “Where's the first aid kit? Now please, turn the car off.”

“I don't have time. We might appear safe now, but those things will still be after me. It's different out here in the real world, but they’ll find a way. I have to get to the rest of my family.”

“Then I'll drive,” he nodded at the wheel.

My eyebrows crumpled, my lips pulling thin. “You don't have to help me; I can do this on my own. Get back to your real life. Aren’t you worried you're still hallucinating? Aren’t you worried this is all some kind of drug-fuelled nightmare?”

He ignored me. He pointed at the wheel. “Shift into the back seat.” I'll drive.

I laughed through a cough. “Agent Fairweather, don't you want to go to the hospital to check to see what we put in your biscuits? Aren’t you suspicious about what my grandmother was flicking at you from that ice cream container?”

“I can handcuff you, if that would help?” He crossed his arms.

I stared at him with an open mouth. “You don't have any handcuffs. And what are you doing? Why do you want to help me so much? You already made it clear you think I'm mad, that I'm a criminal, and that you want to get away from me the first chance you can get. Well you’ve got your chance now, so go.”

“Are you serious? Do you think I'm going to leave you alone? I've seen what you can't do. You may be a witch, but you're the worst one I've ever met. You think I'm going to leave you in this monster truck to be chased around the city by the Devil's finest? The damage will be irreparable.”

I turned around to face him, getting ready to argue my point. Then I stopped. I leaned back. “Worst witch you've ever met?”

His expression had been even up to that point. Now his cheek twitched. “Get out of the driver's seat.”

“What do you mean worst witch you’ve ever met?”

“Don't make me wrestle you into the back, because I will.”

“Why are you so good at seeing magic? Don't you dare tell me that you are a magical creature. Don't you dare tell me that you’ve been keeping that from me,” suddenly it didn't matter that my arm was still gushing blood. It didn't matter that I was in a perilous situation and the longer I stayed on the curb arguing with Fairweather the more likely I was to be kidnapped and killed by ghosts and gnomes.

What mattered was this growing sense of unease. I'd already noted that Jacob Fairweather didn't have normal reactions around magical creatures. Ordinary people who had no experience with the bizarre didn't pause to quip on the second landing and point out giraffes with voodoo pins. Neither did they have such extended arguments with witches when they could just as easily haul themselves to the nearest hospital to get their blood checked for hallucinogens.

“If you’re not going to tell me where that first aid kit is soon, you're going to lose consciousness,” he said clearly, moving his lips slowly.

“I don't care if I lose consciousness, have you been lying to me?” I pointed at him, stupidly using the same arm that was now weakened from injury and blood loss. As soon as I moved, I groaned and I blinked heavily.

“That's it, I can't take this anymore,” Jacob leaned over to me, grabbed at my arm, and closed his palm around my injury.

At first I tried to fidget back. “What are you doing?”

“Hold still,” he snapped at me through clenched teeth.

“No, what are you...” I trailed off. Not because I couldn't think of an appropriate insult to fling Jacob's way, but because my mind suddenly became hazy. It became hazy because my body filled with a warmth, unmistakable and impossible to ignore.

Magic.

It spread from the wound, up the arm, through my chest, and down into my torso. It was like popping into a bath after a cold and stressful day, or sitting down to a fantastic plate of chocolate cake in front of a warm fire. Everything that had been troubling me melted away. The fact I was being hunted became just a curiosity, the fact I still had so much to do if I wanted my life back, became nothing more than an odd thought at the edge of my consciousness.

My eyes closed, and I fell back against the driver's seat.

“You are such a pain in the ass,” I heard Jacob mumble.

“You're a jerk,” I replied, automatically. But my words were mumbled, and as soon as my lips closed, I couldn't open them again.

I succumbed to a deep, inviting, healing sleep.

At the touch of Jacob Fairweather, the apparent ordinary Federal Agent, my wound healed itself.

Chapter 16

I woke up with a start. A rattling snort in fact.

“Wow, you were knocked out for ages. Call yourself a witch? You have about as much magic in you as my left pinky.”

It took me a while to adjust, but soon enough I recognized the voice as belonging to my dear favorite Agent Fairweather.

My head was pounding, but the feeling slowly subsided.

Soon enough I was aware of the fact I was in a car travelling somewhere. My memories were having trouble coming back to me, but after several moments of listening to the engine roar, I realized where I was, who I was with, and what had just happened.

I sat bolt upright.

I was sitting in the passenger seat, belted in, with a jacket rolled up and lodged behind my head. As soon as I sat upright, it fell onto my lap, and out of the pocket tumbled a badge. A Federal Police badge.

I turned to him slowly.

“Don't do anything stupid. I mean, don't do anything else stupid; you've already ruined this day as it is. Just be a good girl and sit there quietly.”

Be a good girl and sit there quietly? Instead I tugged off my sweater, pulled up the sleeve of my top, and checked my arm. There was no wound. It was completely gone, not even a mark was left.

Magic like that, the likes of which was required to knit flesh without a scar... was staggering. It was also far, far beyond me. My grandmother, possibly, if she were in a powerful mood, could have done something similar. But Jacob Fairweather?

I turned to him slowly again, this time I leaned towards the window, as if I were trying to get as far away from him as I could. Because, frankly, I was. The man I had thought had been a belligerent, if arrogant but still relatively innocent Federal Agent had just surprised the hell out of me. He was obviously magical. What did he want, why was he here, and why had he pretended not to know anything about my world and witches?

“You don't have to look at me like that,” he smiled, “I'm not going to eat you. I saved your life,” he nodded down at my arm. Though he was driving, he wasn't paying any attention to the road. Yet we hadn't run over any of the cars in front of us, and neither had be ploughed into the ditch.

Definitely magical.

“Who are you?” I couldn't keep the note of hesitation from wavering through my voice. I sounded like a scared, lost, and confused child.

“You really are the worst witch in the world, aren't you?” He chuckled to himself.

I had to make a decision here. Was Jacob a threat, or was he just entirely irritating?

He was clearly, clearly more powerful than I was, and right now I needed to decide whether staying in this car with him was a good idea.

He could be taking me anywhere. Hell, he could be taking me to anyone. Though he'd seemed relatively innocent so far, what if he were working for one of my enemies, what if he'd only wandered into my life so he could gain my trust, kidnap me, and take me to some nefarious magical syndicate?

Maybe my indecision played across my face, because he crumpled his brow and shook his head. “Whatever you’re thinking, I can guarantee it is wrong. It's just the residual fear from escaping your house. And maybe a little bit of the damage left over from your wound. The slice of Necrona sword can be deadly. You are lucky I healed you when you I did.”

I clutched a hand onto where my wound should have been and I left it there. “Stop the car,” I dropped my voice low, warning him with the only thing I had left.

“Really, is that the thanks I get? I heal your wound, save you from a house invasion, and this is how you react?”

“Stop the car,” I repeated, undoing my buckle and putting my hand on the door.

“No. Do you have any idea who is after you? If I stop this car and you get out, you will last all of about 10 seconds before you're either struck by lightning or a car ploughs off the road and squashes you. Are you really that stupid, Esme Sinclair?”

“Then tell me who you are and where you're taking me. What's going on here? If you were magical from the beginning, why didn't you tell us?”

“Did you ever ask? Or did you just assume the pathetic little annoying agent didn't know anything about your world?”

I wanted to slap him, I really did. But I figured that would land me either unconscious or in handcuffs, so I settled for clutching my hands on my lap and looking at him severely. “What are you after?”

He let out a frustrated chuckle. “It’s not you, if that's what you’re worried about. Hell, I would like to be as far away from you and your brand of trouble as I can get, but I don't have that luxury. So why don’t you just sit there, try not to get yourself injured again, and get some rest?”

I was so close to slapping him now it wasn't funny. Another quip like that, and I'd lean over, pluck up the handbrake and settle my hands around his throat.

“As for where I'm taking you, it’s somewhere safe.”

“Where?” I clutched my hands tighter and tighter, and I hoped that if I put just a little bit more effort into my gaze I would start to boil his blood.

“A safe house, for witches like you who get themselves into far too much trouble than this city can handle. I'm not sure if you appreciate this, but if you just jump out of this car and try to fight your way through your attackers, you'll be putting other lives at risk, infrastructure too. So it is up to people like me to jump in when we have too,” with that he latched a hand on his tie and straightened it.

I scoffed. “Up to people like you? Who the hell are you, I thought you were just a Federal Agent?”

“Just a Federal Agent? That's more than you. You're unemployed, so I wouldn't go round picking holes in other people's jobs.”

“Unemployed? As of this morning I'm a private detective,” I settled back into the chair, glowering at him.

He sniggered. “Yes, sorry, I forgot. You can't even find a way to open your attic door, but soon someone's going to employ you to track down lost objects and people. I'm sure you'll be great at it,” he winked sarcastically.

“Are you always this rude? Is this what you do to every witch you pick up?”

He grinned. “I'm not picking you up. Do you think this is a date?”

I blushed a little. “You know what I meant. Is this the standard attitude you have around other magical creatures in trouble, or do you just enjoy acting like the playground bully around me?”

“You really don't know how to say thank you, do you? Here I am driving you to a safe house, and the only thing you can do is bicker. Well I'll be out of your hair soon, Esme Sinclair, so just try to shut up until we arrive.”

I turned back to the window. My hands were so tightly curled into fists that I felt as if my fingernails would cut my palms.

I couldn't deny that currently my situation seemed better off than it had in a long time. Despite how frustrated the man made me feel, when I was in his presence, the danger of the situation seemed dulled. And now the haunting sense of magical terror that had filled me in my house was all but gone. A quick glance through the window told me the clouds and sky were still in turmoil, but I felt... safe.

It seemed as if the worst was over. But I didn't know whether I was prepared to accept Jacob's story in full. Was he really taking me to a safe house? Did people like him exist to track down and protect witches like me so our troubles couldn't spill out and damage the city and its denizens?

“We've already sent a team in to get your grandmother back, everything should be fine and you should be back in that dump of a house of yours by tomorrow. You don't have to thank me; your look of pure indignation is enough,” he sniggered to himself again.

I turned back to rim. “Just who do you work for?”

“The Federal Government,” he looked pointedly at the badge on my lap. “You don't follow what other people are saying, do you? Your head is too full of woolly, useless magic.”

“I don't get it, why the act?” Though I still wanted to slap him, I couldn't deny that my questions burned far brighter than my frustration. Also, the more he goaded me, the more I realized what he was doing. He was a little bit like a troll, and everyone knows, you don't feed a troll. He could irritate and tease me all he wanted, but if I wanted him to stop, I had to start reigning in my reactions.

I sat a little straighter, jutted out my chin, and patted down on my Santa Claus's jumper. Latching a hand on my hair and straightening it, I glowered up at him. “Are you going to answer, or are you going to spend the next five minutes thinking of an appropriate insult? You might be more powerful than I am, Jacob, but that is no reason to withhold this information from me. I deserve to know.”

He looked back at the road for a moment, flicked his gaze to the storm, then turned back to me. “It's standard practice not to reveal ourselves to... lower magical forms,” his lips tugged into a grin.

I was about to react. But then I didn't. Because I was still sitting straight, my chin was still jutting out, and my hair was still sitting just right. And all of those little factors summed to make me all the stronger.

Influence magic. Jacob could say what he liked, but it was the most powerful force in all the universe, if used correctly. “You're lying,” I replied coldly. “And you're particularly bad at it. I don't think either my grandmother or myself are that much weaker than you, Agent Fairweather, we’re just different. So why don’t you cut the bullshit, and tell me the truth?”

Was it just me, or did his gaze flicker? Did the irritating bully falter for a second?

He cleared his throat, glanced back at the road, and kept his eyes locked on it is if suddenly he cared about driver safety. “I had to see what you were capable of.”

“What I was capable of?”

“Not you, your grandmother. I already know what you’re capable of: not much.”

I put up my hand. It was a very strong move. And the fact it was strong made me stronger. “What do you want with my grandmother?”

“Mary Sinclair has a reputation that proceeds her. She also has a checkered history. She has made enemies in her lifetime, I'm sure you're aware of that.”

“You haven't answered my question. What do you want with her?”

“I told you, we need to see what she is capable of,” that arrogant edge of his dropped for a second, and I got a glimpse of the man underneath. He seemed to be under a lot of pressure, and though he appeared to take a lot of joy in teasing me, I could tell it was all just an act.

“Why?”

“To recruit her,” he answered plainly.

I blinked quickly. “Recruit her? She is 95. Recruit her for what? I thought you said you were a Federal Agent?”

“I am. I just don't work for the agency you think I do.”

“Did you... did you set this up?” I receded in my chair, my head banging up against the headrest, Jacob’s badge tumbling off my lap and onto the floor.

“No. Of course we didn't. Trust me, that was all you. Your grandmother's right; you undermined your life with persistent whingeing, disinterest, and a lack of get up and go. You can't blame this on me.”

“Are you sure?” I didn't bother to lean down to grab his badge. I left it there, right by my shoe. “It sounds as if you've known what would happen for a while. And considering your abilities, it looks as if you could have stopped it at any point. So I'm going to ask you again, did you set this up? Did you wait until all those magical creatures assailed my house, just to see what my grandmother would do and how powerful she could become?”

He looked uncomfortable.

Good, because he should bloody well look uncomfortable. From where I was standing he had baited a 95-year-old woman, put my grandmother and I at risk, and had lied to us to top it all off.

Clearing his throat, he checked in his rear-view mirror, though he didn't once turn back to me. “It's a lot more complicated than that.”

“Of course it is, and of course you can't tell me why, because I'm just a stupid little witch.” I turned away from him and locked my eyes on the passenger-side window.

“You can't begin to imagine what we do. The threats that we turn away from the city, from the world.”

I ignored him, and I would continue to ignore him. I was done with Jacob Fairweather. Now that I had found out his secret, I didn't want to have anything to do with the man.

Again I was struck with how damn inappropriate it had been for my grandmother to think that Jacob, of all the possible suitors out there, would be the guy I would ultimately settle down with.

Which reminded me of one particularly uncomfortable fact. If Jacob had always been magical, and had always known that my grandmother and I were witches, what exactly had he thought when my grandmother had offered him tea? Had he known it was a love potion, had he followed the conversation?

“You're wrong about this,” he tried again.

I still would not turn to him. In fact, we spent the rest of the long car journey in silence. I stared up at the clouds, thought about my grandmother, and hoped, prayed that everything would turn out right.

Chapter 17

He’d taken me out of the city. Though I'd been dying to ask where we were headed, I hadn't dared break my silence. It wasn't until we pulled up along a country lane and turned down a gravelly driveway that I finally shifted my head from staring out the passenger window and glanced through the windscreen instead.

“We’re here,” he said in a distracted, quiet voice.

“And where is here?”

“Talking to me again, are you?”

“Listen to me,” I snapped around, undid my belt buckle, and fixed him with possibly the most powerful gaze I had ever mustered. “I have just been through a hell of a day. You can continue to goad me, Agent Fairweather, but it will reflect far more on you than it does on me. As you've already proven, you're the powerful one here, so start acting like it. Show a little wisdom and decency.”

With that I turned around, opened the door, and jumped down. Though I still felt a little lightheaded, I forced myself to stand.

Once again it had a measurable effect on me. Not caving into my weakness made me all the more powerful.

But what was the point? A mutinous little voice noted in my mind. The kind of power I could muster through changing little facts about my life was nothing compared to what Jacob had at his fingertips. The way he had healed my wound proved that he had incredible magic available to him.

I could stand straighter, I could try to look mean, I could dress in powerful clothes, and I could carry around my teddy bear as a sign of protection, but what would that do ultimately?

I'd always been a witch, but I'd never felt as inferior as I did right now. Yet there was still a part of me that didn't want to give into that feeling. Because if I gave in, I'd be giving up, wouldn't I?

I strode forward.

We’d parked next to a barn, and just around the corner, I saw a lovely country house open out before us. There was a garden around it, a vegetable patch, herbs growing by the doors, and a sweet little patio. A curl of smoke was drifting out of the chimney, and the lights were on, giving the house a flickering, inviting warmth.

I didn't wait for Jacob to catch up; I walked ahead for the front door.

As I walked up to it, I tried to get a sense of the house, for the property, for where I was.

There was magic here, I was sure of it.

But it was different, far different to that which I usually felt. Living at home, the kind of sense I got from my decrepit witchy manor was miles away from the house I now stood in front of.

It was refined, careful, different. It was the Shangri-La to my tent.

Though a little hesitant, I walked right up the garden path and reached the door, knocking on it primly.

“There's nobody home,” Jacob said from my side as he pulled a set of keys from his pocket.

I didn't bother to turn to him.

“You snapped at me to be more mature, are you seriously going to stand there and not look at me? We’re going to have to spend the night here, just the two of us, and while I honestly don't care if you hole yourself up in your room and don't talk to me, you might find yourself getting lonely. Plus, who is going to answer all your questions?” He unlocked the door and opened it, strolling through first.

I didn't answer him. I did, however, walk in and suddenly take a sharp breath of air.

It was beautiful. It was charming. Not just because the decor was warm and inviting, but because there was an overpowering sense of it. It were as if someone had distilled everything that it meant to be comforting and welcoming and had showered the house in it.

It felt safe. No, it felt like the definition of safety. Every other measure of protection was but a mere shadow of this place.

“Surprised, ha?”

I glanced over at Jacob. To his credit, he was smiling, but knowing him, it was probably a prelude to another insult.

“There's a bath upstairs, and there’s everything you could possibly want in the fridge. Make yourself comfortable,” he nodded at me and then pulled his phone from his pocket.

Though I really wanted to continue to ignore him, I couldn't deny the effect the house was having on me. All of the anger seemed to seep away with the knowledge that whilst I was within these walls there would be nothing that could hurt me. And if there was nothing that could hurt me, that included Jacob's attitude.

I brightened up, even though I resisted it. My cheeks warmed, stress all but evaporated from my body, and I felt a little like I was floating.

Before Jacob could dial the number, he glanced back at me, and he smiled. It was a far more natural smile than I had ever seen him offer. “This place always affects you influence witches more than it does others.” With a smile still on his lips, he opened his phone and started keying in a number.

“Who are you calling?”

He flicked his gaze my way. “Talking to me again?”

I brought a hand up and leaned my chin on it. “I think you're right, Jacob Fairweather, this place is having an effect on me. And unfortunately for you, it means you can no longer tease me. I don't really care what you say or think. Answer my question if you want to, don't if you prefer.” I offered him a smile, stretched my shoulders, straightened my hair, and walked over to the table nearest to me. On top was a lovely ceramic bowl, and inside was a collection of colorful boiled sweeties. I plucked one up, popped it in my mouth, and let the taste wash through me.

“I'm calling my superiors, to let them know that you're safe. I will also get an update on your grandmother. She should be fine, as I said, the other teams have gone there already.”

I turned back to him and nodded simply. “I suppose I should go take a shower then and ask that fridge to make me whatever I want.”

I turned from him, not before I registered his expression though.

It was different, because I was different. Damn did I feel different. Now that I felt safe, I was acting like I was safe. No matter how much Jacob goaded me within these walls, I wouldn’t react, would I? Because I didn't need to. There was nothing I had to protect here.

Flicking my hair over my ear, smiling at a picture I saw on the wall, I turned and headed for the stairs. Instinctively I knew that there was a bathroom at the top, one with a fantastic view.

Jacob took an uncomfortable swallow, turned from me, and began to talk on his phone.

As I headed up the stairs, I passed a mirror. It gave me a view back into the hallway, and I saw Jacob standing there, staring right at me.

With his eyebrows crumpled, the phone held up to is ear, he rubbed at his chin with an errant move. He didn't look away until I was out of view.

By the time I made it into the bathroom, I was feeling better than I had in months. I had been an influence witch all my life; I'd never known any other type of magic. This house was doing something to me. It was proving a fact I should never have called into question, something that should have been truer to me than any fact of life.

The power of influence. My whole body, my whole mindset, my thoughts and emotions were completely at odds with what they had been before I had entered the house. The only thing that had changed was the sense it gave me.

It was influencing me in wonderful, powerful ways.

As I dallied around in the bathroom, opening the cupboard doors inquisitively, I found they were filled with exactly what I needed. My favorite type of shampoo, a beautifully smelling lavender soap, and some warm, comfortable clothes. There was even a plate of chocolate cake sitting just by the sink.

I smiled, wild and warmer than I had ever done. Plucking up the cake, I took a bite; it was exquisite.

No matter what happened for the rest of the day or the night, right now I felt like I was on cloud nine.

I quickly undressed, popped in the shower, and nestled under the warm water.

Sighing deeply I closed my eyes and rested my back against the wall.

With the water rushing over my body I reflected on how different my day had turned out compared to what the blustery morning had promised. I wasn't dead, I hadn't been kidnapped and dragged to hell, and if Jacob was correct, everything was going to turn out right. My grandmother would be okay, my house would be cleared of the devil and his men, and I'd be back at home tomorrow. A new car, a new job, a new life.

I opened my eyes and stared down at my hands. Spreading the fingers wide, I turned them around, noting every detail.

 “Esme?” Jacob called from outside the door.

Despite how good I felt, his voice brought me down a notch. Because there was a note to it, a hesitant one. One that was at odds with the competent but arrogant detective.

“What is it?”

“You probably need to come out, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Despite how safe I felt in this house, a flicker of worry passed through my gut. Placing a hand on my stomach, I opened the shower door a crack. “Can't it wait?”

“Your grandmother....”

That flicker of worry became full-blown fear. I slammed off the taps, flung open the door, grabbed a towel and, dripping water everywhere, headed over to the bathroom door. I opened it a crack.

Jacob was standing there, but somehow he had the decency to half turn away, staring off down the stairs instead of at the view of me huddled into a bath towel.

“They haven’t been able to find her,” he kept his back to me.

“What do you mean? I thought you said—”

He put a hand up quickly, latching it onto his brow, pushing it into the flesh, and letting it fall down his face. “They're looking for her. I'm sure she is fine, it's just....”

I opened the door wider. Suddenly I didn't care that I was dripping and in a bath towel. I stepped out onto the landing. “My grandmother....” I was about to tell him that she’d better be okay, that they’d better do everything they could to find her, but I stopped myself.

I had to start taking charge, right? And the first place to do that was in my own mind. Reigning in my emotions, my negative thoughts, and my tendency to catastrophize, I took a careful breath. “Is a powerful witch. I'm sure she is fine.”

Jacob finally turned around and looked at me, and to its credit, he didn't let his eyes glance down to my dripping body once. “I guess she is.”

“Is there anything else? Any other news?”

He shook his head.

“I guess I’d better finish my shower then.”

He turned away from me, nodded, and headed back down the stairs.

I hesitated for a moment, watching him go.

I was suddenly struck with the thought of what my grandmother would do in this situation. Would she just stand there, hope for the best, hop back in the shower, and finish off her cake, or would she do something?

She was constantly telling me that if I wanted to be powerful, I had to act powerful. If I wanted the perfect life, I had to claim it.

So if I wanted her back, I had to jolly well go and get her.

I paused just before the bathroom door and turned determinedly. “Jacob', I called down to him.

He didn't immediately stop, so I ran after him. I didn't care that I was dripping everywhere and that hello, I was still in nothing but a bath towel.

I caught up to him just at the base of the stairs.

“I want to go after her,” I said.

His nose twitched up. “What are you talking about? I've already told you that you are safer here. And like I said; we've got a team after her. They'll be able to find her, trust me.”

“No,” I took another step down until I was standing close by him. “I want to go after her myself. I need to help; I'm her granddaughter.”

“You can't help, trust me. Now just go and finish your shower,” Jacob turned, fobbing a hand my way in an obviously dismissive move.

It seemed the rude bully was never too far under the surface when it came to Mr. Fairweather. What an odd mix he was; nice as pie one moment, rude as hell the next. Well right now I didn't care.

I stepped off the final step and stood right up next to him. Even though he was taller than me and I had to lean my head back to look up in his eyes, I tried to do so in a strong, powerful way. “I am going after her. I don't care about my safety. I need to do something.”

Again he looked dismissive, then right at the edge... something else. At first I thought it was concern, but his lips didn't curl up right, and neither did the glimmer in his eye fit the emotion. “Esme Sinclair, I'm not going to let you go back there. Like I already said, you and your little misadventure are a liability to this city. I'm keeping you here not just for your own safety, but for everyone else’s too.”

For a second his argument had the desired effect on me; I deflated, my shoulders drawing in as a little of my fire went out.

But it didn't go out entirely. Taking a labored breath I clutched harder onto my towel. “You can't just expect me to stay here and do nothing. She's my grandmother! And I know I may not be the world's best witch—”

“You've got that right,” he interrupted coolly.

“But I'm still a witch. And there's still something I can do.” I clicked my fingers as a plan formulated in my mind. “I can call Aunt Tessa to start off with, and she can get in contact with my Uncle Patrick – he used to run a magical talisman shop. I'm sure he'd be able to rustle up some goods to help us with. And then there's Vinnie – I reckon he could use his contacts to try and get us some kind of vehicle that could withstand—”

Jacob raised a hand. It was a snapped move. That look in his eye was back too. If I didn't know any better, it was the inner bully getting ready to push me over and steal my lunch. “Esmerelda, it's not going to work. Just leave your family out of this,” he added, voice tense. Hell, his whole body was tense. As I looked up at him, my lips parting gently, I realized just how locked and hard his jaw and neck muscles were.

He really must be under a lot of pressure, I tried to rationalize to myself. Why else would he be this stressed and on edge?

“Just go upstairs and finish your shower,” he took an enormous breath, turned from me, and headed towards the kitchen, pulling his phone from his pocket as he did.

I watched him go. At first his heavy walk and the clear strain playing across his large shoulders and back plucked at my heart strings. I was in part responsible for his current state, wasn't I? As everyone kept on reminding me, I was the one who had stupidly undermined her life through a couple of solid years of complaining and lazing about.

Then doubt crept in.

I had no idea why and I had no idea where it came from, but all of a sudden a flicker of suspicion ignited within.

I instantly dismissed it and surrendered to the idea of finishing my chocolate cake and shower.

I made it all the way back to the bathroom before I changed my mind.

“What are you doing, Esme Sinclair?” I asked myself out loud as I let my towel drop to my feet. Before I leaned forward and turned the taps back on, I turned and looked out the window. The gardens outside really were beautiful, and I could swear that the storm waging war with the city looked less severe from in here. In fact, everything did. Form inside this house, it seemed everything going on outside was a touch irrelevant. Subdued, pointless.

A frown made its way onto my lips from some deep, subconscious place, and it stuck there.

Everything was right here, wasn't it? Jacob hadn't lied to me, had he?

He'd already demonstrated he was magical, and thus far he hadn't done anything but try to protect me – unless you counted all the insults and quips, that was. I could not forget how he'd pulled that skeleton hand off my throat, and nor could I forget that he had healed my injuries.

Feeling thoroughly confused, I rubbed at my arms and began to turn from the view.

Then I saw something. Something I would not have expected to see on such a windblown and rainy day.

A butterfly.

It flapped right up to the window and appeared to hover about for a moment, almost as if it were looking for a way to get in.

My brow crumpled in confusion.

I reached out a hand to open the window, but by the time I had unfixed the latch, she was gone.

“What on earth?” I leaned out the window to watch her go.

Butterflies usually found a safe place to sit out a storm like this, I mused. Then I practically rolled my eyes and knocked myself on the head for being thoroughly stupid. Hello, it was almost winter here; butterflies weren't around full stop.

I kept the window open a little longer as I frowned up into the storm above.

Had it been a sign?

I scratched at my chin and grabbed at my towel before I really knew what I was doing. I dried myself off as quick as I could, took another bite of my cake, and then reached for my clothes.

I knew enough about my grandmother to know that she would never leave me like I had left her.

As I tugged on my jeans I solidified my frown into a tight-lipped but determined smile.

I had two options here: stay and finish my shower or leave and find my grandmother.

I could no longer ignore her warnings. She'd spent the entire day telling me that if I wanted it to end well, I had to claim my power. Maybe she'd never predicted that Jacob Fairweather would waltz into my life and turn out to be a super powerful wizard or whatever he was, but surely my grandmother's prediction still stood; things were only going to work out for me in the long run if I found a way to finally claim my power.

As I tugged on the remnants of my Santa Claus sweater, I looked out the window again. In fact, I leaned right out of it and turned my head to the left and right looking for a way down.

Because yes, that's right, I was going to break out of here. I was going to head back to town, and I was going to find my grandmother. Even though Jacob had been unbelievably kind in saving me and all, I wasn't ready to just abandon a member of my own family. His agency, or whoever he worked for, might be trying to find my granny, but I knew my house and I knew her. I would be better suited to do the job myself.

As I finally latched eyes on a storm pipe and leaned out to grab a hand on it, a sudden pang of guilt stabbed through me.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked myself through a stilted breath. “Jacob is right; you might be more of a liability than a help.”

As if in response to my own question, I shook my head vigorously. I couldn't keep on thinking like that. I couldn't keep second-guessing myself. If I wanted to be a powerful witch, it was time to bury the naysayers and claim what I could.

So with that rather reckless thought rocketing around my mind, I climbed down from a third-floor window for the second time that day.

Chapter 18

Maybe it was the fact it wasn't raining out here, or there was no gale to try to rip at my clothes, but I made it down the storm pipe in good time and without once slipping and falling to my death. By the time I jumped down onto the soft grass by the side of the house, I was smiling. Because hey, I was more than a little proud at my epic feat. I may not have just walked straight through a door or blown up a demon with nothing more than a spoon and a jar full of magic, but I had scaled down the side of a building in a ripped Santa Claus sweater.

I looked up, took a rattling sniff, and faced the clouds above me. Though the storm had been tame minutes before, in those few moments of climbing down the storm pipe it had changed.

My forehead crumpled up in confusion. I watched as the clouds grew darker in a flash, as a wind whipped up from nowhere, and as a trail of drizzle started to blow through the garden.

Storms didn't move that fast, right? More to the point, as I looked off to the horizon in the distance, I noted something far more worrying; all the storm's wrath seemed to be concentrated on one point: right above me.

It had been the same with my house; the storm had been at its most ferocious right above our yard, and had tapered off dramatically the second we were out of the gate.

“Right,” I said in a low and hesitant voice, “you really are after me, aren't you?”

The storm answered with a clap of thunder somewhere off in the hills behind the house.

I took that as a reason to run for my truck, gun the engine, and try my hardest to finally end this situation.

I didn't get very far. Though I had been certain that I had been quiet enough not to draw Jacob's attention to my get-away plan, I suddenly turned to see a shadow emerge from somewhere close to a birch tree by my side.

Frowning, I instantly realized it was no bunny rabbit or stray dog. The reason I was sure it wasn't a woodland creature or an innocent barnyard animal was that I was pretty sure it was holding a sword. Yes, that's right, a big black sword with fancy gold trimming.

My eyes bulged at the sight of it. A strike of lightning erupted from cloud to cloud above me, and the burst of light appeared to concentrate along that blade, showcasing just how sharp and ready to stab someone it was.

I backed off. As I did, a truly cold sensation passed across my middle and back.

Then I saw it, or rather, I felt it first.

My ankle and then my neck. A sudden pressure as if the wind itself had found a way to wrap around me and squeeze.

Clutching my own fingers to my neck, I started to cough and splutter.

Then the skeleton walked around the tree, its body appearing out of the bark and leaves.

Oh... dear.

Obviously it had followed us. Or maybe it was a friend of the guy my grandmother had trapped in the kitchen, and it was here to settle its brother’s debts.

I put my hands up as if I were ready to reason with it, then I stopped.

It was a blasted skeleton holding a huge sword; I really doubted it was going to listen to diplomacy.

So there was only one thing for it – I had to scream loud enough above the storm to get Jacob's attention. Then my knight in a blue tie could come out and save me....

Even though the skeleton took that exact moment to open its jaw and let out a silent but still terrifying scream, I didn't follow it up with one of my own.

It stalked forward towards me.

I backed off, my shoulders and hands brushing up against the brick of the house behind me. It was warm to the touch. Despite the cold and blustery day, it had its own heat trapped within. Because it was magic.

This whole damn place was magic, and more than that, it was a freaking safe house. Jacob had told me that, and I'd very much felt it. The sense of security I got from being inside was almost addictive.

Yet it couldn't be all that safe; there was a skeleton with a sword stalking me, after all.

I still hadn't screamed. I still hadn't shouted out to Jacob to come and save me yet again. I just watched in pure terror as that eyeless, fleshless creature turned its head to the side, opened its jaw again, and let off another silent scream. It did not have vocal chords, so it could not yell or shout or curse. But what it did was so much more terrifying. It was just the action of its jaw dropping in a sudden violent move, its head jerking forward, and that eyeless face staring my way.

Just the effect of it. Just the show.

Well I understood the importance of a good show. Because, god damn it, I was an influence witch.

I pulled up one sleeve and used everything I had, every ounce of training, to command my fear to stop.

If I wanted to save my grandmother, then I would have to get through more than a just a magical skeleton.

Perhaps it understood that I was going to fight, and it immediately brought its sword up, lunging forward.

I ducked back, dropping to my knees, and rolling out of its way. Though I managed to doge it, just, it was the most ungainly, least appealing action move you could imagine. I was a mess of limbs, gritted teeth, and sweaty brow. Yet it worked, and that was all that really mattered.

Punching to my feet, scrabbling until I got my balance back, I ran deeper into the garden.

I had no idea what I intended to do. I could hardly sit this fellow down and subtly change the small details of his life until the influence they had on him was such that he gave up trying to kill me and wandered home. My type of magic took time, and I really, really didn't have that.

Desperate, my breath shallow and trapped in my chest, I stumbled forward.

Of course it started to rain at that point. And by rain, I meant a downpour.

With a single crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, the heavens opened up. Or considering my day, hell opened up instead.

I knew instinctively that the rain would bring with it more enemies. I could feel the magical tension in the air. It wrapped around my bones like that skeleton's hand had curled around my throat.

Batting at my neck, trying to chase off the sensation of its grip, I very much tried to think.

I didn't get the opportunity. Something slammed into my back, knocking me to the ground.

Winded, gasping for breath, I slammed into the muddy grass.

Then I heard a sound like a sharp, sharp sword being drawn back.

I waited.

I waited longer.

At no point was I stabbed through the back and skewered into the garden bed.

Slowly I turned around.

The skeleton was standing above me, its sword raised above its head, ready to slam right through me at any second.

I watched it. I didn't breathe, I didn't scream, and I sure as hell didn't suddenly figure out how I could defeat it. I just lay there as the rain drained over my face and clothes, freezing me to the core.

In that moment, time stretched. I did not notice it at first, then I saw the rain slow down, I saw the leaves in the tree behind the skeleton suddenly slow their jerking movements until they sat completely still.

My eyes grew wide. I moved my head up to see the clouds above; they were so still they could have been a painting.

It was no trick of the mind. And I really didn't think the skeleton had just stabbed me and this slowed-down world was my version of the afterlife; I knew what was happening.

A witch's version of bullet time. I'd read about it, but hell, I'd never once experienced it before today.

Just before death, just before her final battle, a witch could draw out the time she had left. Though it wasn't really her; it was her magic. It were as if all the latent potential that had lived within her suddenly leaked out as a prelude to death.

Well I was experiencing it now.

I forced myself to look back at the skeleton above me. I could see its sword inching down ever so slowly. Right towards me. The magic equivalent of bullet time was, apparently, a legacy of the Sinclair family. Nearly every member could recount some experience where it had happened to them. Some kind of epic fight, some kind of noteworthy duel, you name it. Even Vinnie had experienced it once when he had been about to lose a high paying customer.

I had, until now, been one of the only Sinclairs never to have had my own brush with it.

Well now it was here, and all I could do was wonder at the beauty and magic of it.

That, however, was not what you were meant to do. If time suddenly slowed itself down for you, the least you could do was reward it by clocking the skeleton on the nose or running away whilst you had the chance.

Okay, I knew enough about this experience to know that I could not jump up and suddenly best the skeleton with the sword; any sudden movement would set time moving at a normal pace again.

Bullet time did not afford you the advantage of taking down your enemy, or in the case of Vinnie, selling you an overpriced crappy car, whilst the rest of the world could not move. It afforded you one thing; time to think.

For a witch like me, who relied on influence magic, and by definition required enough time to cast and weave and manipulate her spells, it was a godsend. And here I was wasting it.

Immediately I stopped myself from being amazed by the scene of the rain dropping so slowly around me, and by the specter of the stilled clouds above.

Instead I turned my head down and stared at the enemy before me.

This would be my last chance. If I did not use this last time that had been given to me, I would die. I really didn't want that to happen.

Yet what could I do? Pluck up a rock and chuck it at the skeleton's head? Pray to the heavens to send down a strike of lightning to blow the guy up?

Frustration bloomed through me like blood from a bullet wound. The immediacy and reality of my situation was so unescapable. If I didn't find a way to defeat my enemy, to use the magic I had to its greatest effect, there would be no other opportunities. It was time Esme Sinclair got powerful. If she didn't, it was time she died.

At that horrible thought, desperation numbed my hands, and I fell back.

The sudden movement was all it took to break through the spell. Time sped up to its normal pace.

I saw that sword in a single, brief moment. The glint, the way it sliced through the air on its way down to me.

I brought my arm up.

It was instinctive.

The sword lodged into it.

It did not slice through. But it sliced deep enough.

I fell back. Blackness surrounded me. A scream that had been ready to erupt form my throat died as despair darkened what remained of my consciousness.

I felt and heard the sword being plucked back.

Yet as I waited for the final blow, it did not come.

Lying there bleeding, the rain mixing with every drop as it flowed from my arm, I heard a sound.

Bullets. This time the real ones. Not a prelude to time slowing down, but the kind that zoomed and zipped around at speeds magic could never slow.

“Esme?”

I heard someone call me name.

Seconds later I felt them by my side.

I spiraled down into the darkness that surrounded me. But not before I felt arms around my shoulders pulling me up.

Chapter 19

By the time I awoke, it was night. Instinctively I knew it was only a half hour or so before 12pm. Before the beginning of a new day.

The pain was not gone, and neither was my injury. I was lying on a sofa, staring up at the ceiling, and as I tried to move my good arm over to pry at my wound, a jolt of stiffening shock rippled through me.

“I really wouldn't move,” someone said.

It was Jacob, it had to be.

Ignoring him, I pushed myself up as much as I could, and with my bleary eyes sought him out.

He was sitting in a chair just opposite me. There was a roaring fire in the hearth behind him, and he had his gun on the table just beside his legs. His arms were crossed and his expression unreadable as he stared my way.

I met his strange gaze for as long as I could before finally resting back down; the pain in my arm becoming far too much for even my belligerent mind to handle.

“Why did you climb out the window?”

I blinked hard at his question. What with the searing, throbbing pain making its malignant way through my arm and into the rest of my body, I didn't really have enough brain power left over to listen to him.

He repeated his question. Was it just me, or was his tone unusually cold? It went beyond the bullyish edge he'd always showed me, to something I didn't understand.

I placed my good hand over my eyes and blinked my eyelashes against my fingers.

I was cold. Horrendously cold. And I didn't even want to start on my arm. I could hardly move the sucker.

“Esme, answer me.”

“I... wanted to go find my grandmother,” I finally managed to push the words out.

He snorted.

Was that relief?

What the hell was going on here?

Ignoring the pain, biting my teeth against it, I shifted on the couch, rolling over until I faced him. “What happened?”

“You foolishly climbed out the window and you were attacked by another one of those skeletons with swords.”

I watched him as he spoke.

This injury must have been doing funny things with my mind, because I could have sworn the shadows pooling under Jacob's face were darker than usual.

Being an influence witch, I could appreciate that any mood could affect the way you saw the world. From a cheery disposition to a black depression caused by being stabbed by a freaking skeleton; the state of the body always affected the thoughts you had. It was a sacred relationship a witch like me took advantage of all the time. If someone was feeling blue, you lightened up their house with candles and heaters and lamps and blankets. If someone wanted to run for president, you made them work out all day long until all their body could remember was the feeling of strength and resilience.

“That was really, really stupid,” Jacob acknowledged through a sigh, relaxing back in his chair.

“I guess it was,” I groaned, trying to find a position that wouldn’t send pain spiking through my back and torso.

“That skeleton could have killed you.”

“Yep,” I gave a glum smile and poked at my wound again.

There was something tied around it, but as I pried the bandage back, I could see that that was all. There were no potions tucked under there, no healing talismans, not even a bit of antiseptic gel.

“You shouldn't have left like that,” he repeated.

I got the message, loud and clear. I seriously did. But I had a greater problem here. Flicking my gaze up and back at Jacob as he sat there all dramatically, I cleared my throat. “Not to sound too demanding or anything, but do you think you could possibly do some of that healing magic of yours on my arm? Or if you're all spent or something, can you direct me to the kitchen so I can make up a poultice? I'm no magic medic, but this thing feels dark,” I frowned as I patted at it lightly. As soon as my fingers came in contact with the bandage, I practically had to pull them back. It felt like ice down there.

“You'll be fine, it will heal up as long as you stop poking it.”

I looked up at him and couldn't hide my disbelief. “Are you pulling my leg? There's black blood seeping out of it,” I made a face as I peered under the bandage again. It made me sick to even look at it, let alone to think of what it was doing to my body.

“Esme, you'll be fine,” Jacob said again, this time with a great deal more power.

It stilled me, it really did. One minute I was getting ready to force my point, the next I was like a puppy cowering in the corner.

A very sharp and uncomfortable silence spread between us, punctuated only by the crackle of the open fire.

I glanced towards it. I usually loved open fireplaces; there was something suitably caveman about sitting around a naked flame and staring into the dancing mass of heat.

I was not comfortable right now. I was far, far from it. Which made me frown. Because I was back in the safe house, the same damn place that had made me feel safer than I ever had in my whole life only hours before.

Why the sudden change? The walls were still the same, the foundations and roof presumably hadn't changed while I'd been knocked out, so why was I now getting a far darker feel from this place?

“We haven't had much luck tracking down your grandmother. I know you want to help,” he put up a hand.

I was struck by the way the firelight played around his fingers. It made them seem longer, and the shadows between them appeared to be far darker than reason dictated they should be.

I swallowed.

“Esme, we really want to help you. And now you've proved how much you want to help, by stupidly climbing out a window and getting skewered by a sword, I'm giving you that opportunity. We think your grandmother has gone somewhere.... We're pretty sure she's still at your house. Do you have any secret rooms? Anywhere she would go to be safe?”

I frowned. It was instinctive. It wasn't at what he was saying so much as... my lips just turning down of their own accord. In fact, if I had let my body do what it wanted to at that point, no doubt it would have stood me up, walked me out of the door, and found a way back home.

Because something wasn't right here. Maybe it was just the effects of the dark wound, maybe it was something else.

“Esme, please. Do you think she could be in your attic?” Jacob sat forward in his chair, his face suddenly more animated, and I swear the fire chose that exact moment to crackle, sending a lick of firelight forth to illuminate his expression in full. From the wide open eyes to the sharp line of his mouth.

I recoiled instinctively.

“Esme, what's the matter? I'm trying to help you here. We think your grandmother might have gone into the attic. That or there is another room in your house, something secret. Do you know where it could be? Do you know how we could get in there to get her out?”

I clutched at my wound. Covering it protectively as if I didn't want any more of my fear to seep into it, tainting it further.

“Esme, we've managed to control the evil creatures who had amassed at you house. We just need to get your grandmother out now. To check that she's safe.”

....My friends and family members had once accused me of being gullible. When I'd been growing up, I'd been the kind of witch to easily accept anyone's story, taking it on as a fact of my world with little or no critical assessment.

It was a stage all influence witches go through. A necessary step in our quest to change the world through the small details.

Yet I would also like to think that I was now very much over that stage. The Esme of today was suitably cynical.

The Esme of right now, however, was totally and mind-numbingly confused.

Jacob had helped me. He'd saved me on numerous occasions, and I would be very much dead if it hadn't been for him. And despite the fact I'd been spending a chunk of the day convincing myself that my grandmother had been wrong and he wasn't my type, I couldn't deny that on some deep level I was attracted to him.

So why was I so damn tense right now? Why did I want to get as far away from him as I could? Why was there this rising sense of panic within me?

And why oh why didn't I believe what he was saying?

Maybe he sensed my hesitation, because he got up. He waked up to me and leaned down on one knee, right in front of the couch. “Esme, I know you are probably confused; that skeleton's blow was a vicious one, and I'm sure the residual magic it left in the wound is playing havoc with your system, but trust me,” he tried for a smile, it didn't really work though, “I've been looking after you all day, haven't I? I saved you from that skeleton in your house, pulled its hand off your throat. I got you out of your yard, and I brought you here. And if it hadn't been for me... You would have died out in the garden a couple of hours ago. So all I'm asking is that you give me a hand now. My Agency is determined to protect your grandmother, but you've got to help us find her. Before it’s too late.”

Now that he was right in front of me, I couldn't shift any further back into the couch to get away. All I could do was stare right up into his face.

“Esme,” he tried one final time.

“Take me with you,” my voice croaked. “I can try to find her. If the house is safe, then take me back. I'm sure she'll come out if she knows I'm back.”

It was a reasonable suggestion. In fact, it was more than that, it was smart. It was also a challenge.

I needed to see how Jacob would react to it.

His previously broad smile twitched into a frown for a bare second then righted itself. “You can't move, not in your current state.”

“Then show me to a first aid kit and I'll deal with my wound.”

“It will heal, you just need rest.”

“But I'm sure if you take me to the house my grandmother will... come out of hiding.”

“No, Esme, you have to stay here. We can't put you in anymore danger,” Jacob stood up.

He retreated over to the fire and stared down into it.

I locked my gaze onto his back and I wouldn't have let anything distract me in that moment. Because it was time for this little witch to make a decision.

Why would my grandmother be hiding in the attic? Why wouldn't she be out in the yard waging war with the dark side, or trundling down the street, drafting in all the other members of the extended Sinclair family, getting them to help her fight her war?

I knew her. I'd lived with her for a very memorable five years, and she had made me into the witch I was today.

She didn't hide.

She didn't run.

So why should I?

I pushed myself up. I didn't care that my arm suddenly felt like it was going to explode. I just pushed right through that pain until my feet rested on the floor and I faced Jacob's back.

“Rest, don't try to move; you'll hurt yourself,” he tried.

Something was not right here. It was time to stop apologizing for that fact, time to stop rationalizing it away. It was time to find out why and to goddamn use some magic to fix it.

Hours ago I had wasted the magic of time slowing down; rather than use it to my advantage to figure out a way to defeat the skeleton, I'd just let it attack me instead.

I was done wasting my opportunities.

As soon as I concluded that, a funny thing occurred; magic, pure and simple, seemed to fill me up. From my head to my toes, the dark suspicious sensations that had been waging war within gave way to the unmistakable light of a witch.

In reality, I had always been filled with this light. Since I had been born, magic had always been with me. Over the years I had simply forgotten. The sensations of oppression, hardship, and a general moping, complaining nature had taken over.

I stood up. It was probably the stupidest thing I could have done, but that didn't matter; I took the opportunity to finally rise and face this situation, and I did not look away.

Jacob turned slowly to face me. For the first time he did not look like the annoying, bullying Agent I had come to know over the past several days. He looked... confused. And something else. Something that I suddenly realized had always been there. A nervous, pressured tension.

Magic. But not one I recognized and not one I ever intended to practice.

“What are you doing?” he moved slowly away from the fire.

“Jacob Fairweather, you aren't telling me the truth,” I forcefully placed my arms by my side, ignoring the boring, burning sensation of my wound. I knew that the more I ignored it, the more I did not let it affect me, the less hold it would have.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I'm talking about. From the moment we met, you lied to me. And I think you haven't yet told a single truth. So now I'm inviting you to start.”

He snorted. “You're delusional. Sit back down before you fall down.”

“Delusional? I'm feeling sharper than I have in days. Now start spilling the beans. What exactly is going on here? What are you, who do you work for, and why are you so god damned keen to get your hands on my grandmother?”

He opened his mouth, probably intending to tell me to sit back down again, but he didn't utter a word. Instead he took a careful step backwards. “You're ungrateful, Esme. I've gone out of my way to keep you safe, and this is all the thanks I get?”

“Who do you work for? What's going on here? Why are you so keen to get into my attic?”

“I've already told you, we're the good guys. We're here to mop up after your mistakes,” he snapped back. There was far more emotion behind his words now, and the pressure they came out with was unmistakable. They felt raw, unfiltered by the facade Jacob had kept up over the past several days.

Because it had been a facade. I was starting to realize that good old Agent Fairweather really did have a wealth of secrets. And I had been a damn fool to let him keep them up until now.

I straightened my back, but instantly my arm complained to the tune of a stabbing pain that practically made me fall over.

Groaning, I tried to ignore it, but glancing down, I realized blood was now seeping out from underneath the bandage. Black blood.

“Look what you are doing to yourself. Just sit down already. I can't keep you safe unless you let me.”

There was a real sense of desperation behind his words now.

It did something to the suspicion rising within me; it mollified it. But it did not take it away completely.

“What the hell is going on here?” I snapped, cheeks flushing, palms sweating, and heart racing as I tried to keep up. I was so confused. One moment I thought Jacob was the good guy, the next I thought he was neck deep in the dark side. Then my beliefs would switch places again like they were playing freaking leap frog.

There was no steady ground to stand on.

I looked down at my feet. That was wrong; I was standing on the floor, and it certainly wasn't shifting about like sand.

“You know what’s going on. You’ve been systematically undermining your existence, and now you are under attack. You’ve been influencing yourself in all the wrong ways, and now you’re reaping your bitter reward. Now could you please just sit down before I have to handcuff you to the couch?”

I’ve been influencing myself in all the wrong ways and now I am reaping the reward... his words stuck in my mind. No, they burrowed in there like a goddamned parasite. I could feel them taking up root and spreading like fire.

I was the first to admit that I hadn’t been the most competent influence witch over the past several years, and yes, I’d complained way, way too much. I also appreciated that that had meant, ironically, that I had used my own magic to undermine myself. I had influenced myself, as Jacob had just pointed out, in all the wrong ways.

Yet that was a remarkably perceptive thing for simple Agent Fairweather to point out. Okay, he was clearly magical, but that had sounded like something my grandmother would have said.

“Esme,” he began, “you know this storm is after you. You know you’ve made yourself weak and the dark side is trying to take advantage of this. You brought this on yourself, you started this. I’m just trying to help.”

I started this.

I frowned, and for the first time in days, I started to really think about what was happening here. I didn’t suddenly remember my grandmother’s words, and neither did I give in to Jacob’s observations. I swept all their opinions aside.

I thought for myself. And what I thought was this: I hadn’t started this, Jacob had. My current troubles had all begun two mornings ago when a certain belligerent but troublingly good looking Agent had knocked on my front door.

Up until then I had been fine. Yes, I had complained, but no, I had not hated my life. I’d been muddling through as best as I could. I had not been a virus destroying my world; I’d just been a woman growing up, settling down, and trying to get things right.

Other people had decided that I had brought this storm and all its monsters upon me. It was up to me to choose to see the situation as they did, or to make my own story.

Everyone from my grandmother to Jacob, to the freaking skeletons and lightning had been trying to influence me. Especially Jacob.

With his blustery attitude and quick jibes, he’d spent the past several days systematically undermining my power. I couldn’t count the number of times he’d called me the world’s worst witch.

He’d kept me small.

All I’d done in response was tell myself to stand straighter and to glower at him more, but unsurprisingly it had not worked. Because I’d been missing the true power, the true magic behind influence.

The influence you have on others is a pale shadow of that you have on yourself. Control yourself, control your world. I finally understood that ancient and sacred adage. The crest, in fact, of the Sinclair Family.

“Esme,” he closed the distance between us and latched a hold of my shoulders. I instantly felt how strong his hands were, I instantly saw how taller he was. “Esme, I’m trying to help you fix your mistakes. I’m trying to protect you. You aren’t strong enough to fight this on your own, and neither is your grandmother. Now tell me how to get into your attic.”

It would have been easy as I stood there to believe his words. To let his voice into my head. The voice that told me I was the world’s worst witch, that this was my fault, that I could not fix it on my own. That I was weak, so much weaker than he was.

I had let that voice in for the past two days. It was time to kick it out so I could hear my own again.

I smiled. I wasn’t nice. I wasn’t meant to be. I shrugged him off and looked up into his eyes. Suddenly it didn’t matter that he was taller than me and physically stronger. Opportunity favored the prepared, not necessarily the butch. And when it came to magic, opportunity favored those who would take it.

“Get out of my head,” I said, no, I commanded.

“Esme...”

“You,” I pointed at him, “are an influence witch.”

As soon as the words were out, I knew they were true. I understood his magic and how he had used it to manipulate me.

He faltered. It looked as if he were about to tell me to sit down again, then he stopped. He straightened.

Then I fancied I saw the real Jacob Fairweather. He wasn’t the handsome but belligerent Federal Agent. He wasn’t the mysterious but apparently compassionate magical creature. He was a confused but powerful witch. He practiced the very same magic that I did, but up until now he’d been doing it a whole lot better.

“You don’t know what you are doing,” he said. His voice flickered. At once it was dark and ominous, and yet at the same time it was lost. The sense of confusion poured through it like blood from a wound.

“Don’t undermine me,” I snapped, “I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m leaving. Presumably you are going to try to stop me, we are going to fight, and I’m going to win.”

It was a bolshie thing to say. Not only was I announcing my plan, but I was making the unlikely prediction that I would come out on top.

“You won’t win,” he replied.

The light started to leave the room. The fire dwindled to embers and then extinguished itself in a hiss.

The last thing I saw was the angle of his jaw and the glint of his eyes.

“You won’t win,” he repeated.

It was a suitably creepy thing to say, and the force of his voice as it boomed through the room seemed to rattle my bones.

Great. It was, presumably, minutes from midnight, but my horrendous day was not over yet. There was one more thing I had to do. I had to defeat Agent Jacob Fairweather. The very man my grandmother had tried to hitch me up with. The very man who had, apparently, been manipulating this whole situation. It was clear he was after my grandmother, and it was clear he was going to use me to get to her.

Why, I didn’t know. Who he really was, I didn’t know either.

But one thing I did know was that I was a witch. And it was finally time to start acting like one.

I ducked back, fast despite my pounding injury.

I could hear him moving before me. Though it was clear he was trying to be as quiet as he could be, I felt his movements ripple forth like a stone thrown in a pond. He disturbed the magic around him, and it buffeted and lapped against my form.

He was going to move behind me, latch his hands around my middle, and knock me out.

I could sense his intensions so clearly, they might as well have been my own.

I heard him shift, felt a puff of air against my cheek, and smelt the subtle scent of his cologne.

I fell to my knees deliberately, kicking out behind me.

I didn’t connect with anything.

Again I felt air push against my hair and cheek. I fell back, lashing out with my arms.

Nothing.

He had to be in front, or just behind, I knew it. But I could not land a blow.

I lashed out again, as I did, desperation set it. Sweat covered my brow, my heartbeat reverberated through my tensed neck and jaw. But no matter what I did, I could not reach him. He was always just out of reach.

Then he moved. As soon as the frustration and panic set in, he pounced.

I felt his arms snaking around my back.

I could have screamed. I could have pitched back.

I didn’t.

I didn’t give into the fear. I didn’t let it influence me, render me to the spot, turn me into a bucking, wild witch swallowed up by desperation. Instead I used it.

Influence, don’t be influenced, and you will carve the future you want. A creed I could have repeated, but not understood until now.

I rewrote my fear. The sensations I felt were not a sign of my body giving up, they were a sign of attention spreading out, my mind snatching at any opportunity it could find.

That was true influence. Changing the perceptions of the mind over the body. The foundation of all magic.

Jacob latched hold of me and pulled me back.

I pulled forward, against his grip. And I broke his hold.

He was physically stronger, but in that moment as my magic surged it sort out every opportunity he gave me. As he shifted his weight, I pushed against him. As he sucked in a breath, I jammed my shoulder into his torso. As he stumbled, I pushed.

Even the strongest things have weaknesses. True strength often lies in stopping others from seeing where that weakness lies.

I heard Jacob fall to the ground.

He reached for something.

The table. His gun was on it.

His gun was what made Jacob strong; it summed up the mysterious Agent perfectly.

I got there first.

I plucked it up and I held it in front of me. It didn’t make me feel strong, but as I took it from him I knew it made him feel weak.

He made a noise, a frustrated, desperate breath. He pushed forward, intending to ram into me, probably to steal back his gun and finally knock me out.

I got there first.

I did something I had never done before, and no, I didn’t shot him. I did however kick at the table and send it flying in front of him.

He tripped, fell over it, and knocked his head against the corner of the couch.

I heard a dull thump.

Somewhere, a clock chimed midnight. Don’t ask me how I knew; it was dark, after all. But I was a witch, and if you could not dabble in the unexplained and unexpected, there was no point to your existence.

The fire suddenly roared back into life. With it, the light returned to the room.

I saw Jacob knocked out by my feet.

I knew he wasn’t dead, I also knew that unlike most other soft-fleshed people, he would be fine. The smack to his noggin would keep him down for now. That was all.

I stared down at him.

I’d done that. Okay, no, I hadn’t technically done that; the table and his own velocity had. Yet I had brought those two things into contact; I had altered the situation subtly until my desired result had arisen. I had practiced influence magic, and I’d used it to win a fight, of all things. There hadn’t been any fireballs or explosions, but the result was still the same.

I knelt down to him and placed my hand flat on his back.

I still had no idea who he was, and I really didn’t understand why he had done any of this. But it was over for now.

I leaned over to his pocket and plucked out his phone. Then I did the one thing I could think of, I called my grandmother, who called my Aunt Tessa, who called my Uncle Frank, who called the rest of the family.

Then I got in my monster truck and drove away.

It was a new day, and I had a feeling it would be a sunny one.

Chapter 20

I was sitting at the kitchen table, glaring at the dirty dishes stacked all over it.

“You were lucky to get out alive,” Aunt Tessa handed me a plate of biscuits.

“Lucky, she wasn’t lucky – she was a powerhouse of a fierce witch who kicked and screamed until reality gave her what she wanted,” my grandmother replied as she made a fist and shook it in the air.

It made me smile. Despite the fact the wild and demented look was back, and I was certain she’d spent the morning digging mud pies in the yard between the charred remains of tentacles and swords, I was happy.

It was over.

I had won.

“Don’t just sit there and hold those biscuits – eat them, that’s what they’re for, you know,” my grandmother snatched one up.

I raised an eyebrow.

My house, in many ways, was back to normal. I however was not.

I had a monster truck, a new job, and new sense of self.

I also had something I needed to clarify. I cleared my throat and the move somehow commanded everyone’s attention, just like the blast of a foghorn or a whistle. “Uncle Frank, are you sure everything is sorted out with... Jacob?”

I didn’t like to say his name, because I still had no idea how I felt about the situation.

“I have turned over his case to the Magical Disciplinary Board. They will hand down their judgment within the week, I’m told.”

My grandmother snorted. “If that blasted family of his doesn’t intervene. The Fairweathers won’t be taking this lightly.”

At the mention of that family name, I swear a cloud passed over the sun.

In the past few days since my little incident, I’d learnt all about dear Jacob Fairweather.

I’d been right about him; he was most definitely an influence witch. A terribly powerful one, who came from a long line of particularly influential witches. A little bit like my family, but kind of on the other side of the magical divide. The dark side.

“He won’t be trying something like this again,” Tessa flicked her hand at Frank. “He’ll know the Sinclairs can take him on.”

“Legally speaking, I cannot comment,” Frank went back to icing a cake.

“To think they tried to get to me through my granddaughter, and I did not once understand what they were doing,” Granny shook her head and sighed heavily.

I had to snort at that. “I don’t get it, didn’t the fact he was called Fairweather ring any bells, Gran?”

She fobbed me off. “Oh he was such a nice man, it never occurred to me that he was part of a clan of powerful witches who have an historic grudge to settle with the Sinclairs. Plus he popped up on our doorstep just when you needed a man. He looked like the perfect match.”

My eyes boggled. “He’s trying to ruin our family,” I gave a confused laugh.

“Oh, I think he’s a far more complicated man than that. Plus, he has such a nice jaw.”

“Gran, you sound like you’re still trying to hook us up. Need I remind you he kidnapped me and tried to destroy our house with you in it? Need I remind you he comes from a long line of people who want to erase our name from magical history?”

She shrugged her shoulders, batting a hand at her wild curls. “You’re a complicated woman, and you logically need a complicated man.”

I stood up suddenly. “You are mad,” I began.

Then I stopped.

It was my choice to rise to her bait, to accept her opinion, to let her voice into my head.

In other words, it was my choice how to react. I could spend my life running after my crazy family, complaining at my lot in life, or I could do something about it.

And what I did was smile.

Whether I would ever get together with the crazy Jacob Fairweather was up to me. Whether I pulled my hair out every time I came home to a muddy, dirty house was up to me. Whether I allowed the hijinks of the Sinclair clan to pull me down was up to me.

And right now all I wanted to do was finish off my biscuits and stack the dishwasher. Everything else could wait.

Thank you for reading Magical Influence Book One. Book Two is currently available.



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