The Enchanted Writes Book One
It took Henrietta far too long to open her eyes that morning. There seemed to be a great weight pressing down on them. But she managed it, then she shot out of bed like a bullet, ripping her duvet off her stomach and arms so fast that it fell off the bed and tumbled to the floor.
Her room was trashed. Totally trashed. The curtains she had lovingly handmade out of old Japanese kimonos had been ripped from the rails. The boxes of trinkets, necklaces, bracelets, and rings that she kept on her dressing table were scattered over the floor, some of them broken, their glass and plastic beads everywhere. That wasn't to mention the state of her wardrobe: the door was hanging off and all of the clothes had fallen off their coat hangers.
As the words “what the hell” were preparing to erupt from her mouth, Henrietta stopped.
Breath sharp, hands shaking, she pressed her fingers into her mouth, her eyes widening in surprise and shock.
Good god, what had happened to her last night?
She sat back down on her bed, eyes never blinking as she surveyed the mess. A cold, sickly feeling was gathering deep in her belly and it washed over her skin in regular waves. She had to lean down, grab up the duvet and bring it around herself to cut out the fiendish chill and shock.
Henrietta Gosling closed her eyes. She brought her hand up and rubbed it over her face, but try as she might, she couldn’t erase the memory of last night.
Last night Henrietta, the mild-mannered cafe waitress, had undergone a transformation, and she had trashed her room in the process.
To think yesterday had started off so innocently. In fact, apart from being late in the morning, she’d almost had a good day. Almost, because around midday things had started to go pear shaped.
As her grandfather clock ticked in the background, she sat huddled on the edge of her bed. After a bit she poked her hands out from under the duvet and looked them over. She turned them around, staring at the fingers, the palms, the nails. Her hands were undamaged. Which was a fantastic fact considering what she'd been through last night.
As she sat there, she gave a huge shudder, even letting out a gasp. She let her gaze shift across the room until she caught sight of the grandfather clock.
“Dammit,” she spat as she jumped to her feet. She was late for work. Again.
Before she could lean down and grab the simple black skirt and white shirt she always wore to wait tables, she stopped. Seriously, she couldn't consider going to work after what she'd gone through. So Henrietta Gosling called in late that day. Instead of waiting tables at the cafe squeezed between the central police station and the fire station along the main road of town, she sat on the edge of her bed or walked around her room waving a hand at her face and swearing.
Henrietta was late. She was running down one of the side alleys that cut across town and led to Sizzle Cafe where she worked. Her handbag jostled around on her shoulder as she ran, and her worn ballet slippers kept coming undone and almost falling off her feet. Suffice to say, she was in a bad mood.
One look at the grey clouds gathering above suggested her mood was about to get worse. She’d dressed for the summer's day promised by the weatherman last night, but he’d neglected to mention there would be a storm thrown into the mix.
As she rounded a corner and came out onto Main Street, she ducked to the side to avoid two burly men moving a large couch through the front doors of the furniture store.
One of them asked whether she was in a hurry, but she didn't have the time to stop and reply: hell yes, she was in a hurry.
She’d been planning on getting to work early today, so she could leave early and head over to her sister's for dinner. It wasn't every day Marcia Gosling invited her over for tea. Henrietta and her sister weren't on the best of terms. Marcia was a drop-dead gorgeous, knock-out bombshell, and Henrietta was average, and only if she bothered to put the effort into brushing her unruly hair and ironing her unkempt clothes.
Their difference in looks didn't account for the two sisters’ less-than-perfect relationship. That had to do with the fact Marcia had stolen every single boyfriend Henrietta had ever had. First was Mark in sixth grade. Minutes after Henrietta had kissed him behind the gym, Marcia had gone in and kissed him in full view of everyone in the yard. Then there’d been Richard in high school. About a day after Richard had asked her to the dance, Henrietta had seen Marcia walk through the mall with him wearing the man like a handbag as he hung off her arm and gawked at her.
Then... then there was John. John had hurt. John had been Henrietta's boyfriend during her brief flirtation with college. John had been studying engineering. John had already bought himself a house at the tender age of 20. John had prospects, John had intelligence, John had wit, and John had adorable floppy hair. Several months after meeting Marcia for the first time, Henrietta had come home to the crushing view of the two of them on the couch.
Marcia was that callous, she was that forward, and she was that uncaring. To Marcia it had meant nothing that she’d stolen Henrietta's boyfriend. To Marcia, you couldn't take flings seriously, and if you couldn't take them seriously, then what right did Henrietta have to get upset over them?
Still, Marcia was family. That meant Henrietta had to go over for dinner tonight. Considering who Marcia was, it also meant Henrietta had to stop by the fancy delicatessen on the high street and get some fresh, new, white freesias. She would also have to trek all the way across town to get the finest bottle of champagne she could afford.
Now that Henrietta was late, it meant she would have to stay back at the cafe and make up her hours. It also meant she would be late for Marcia's. Marcia would blow a gasket. No, Marcia would do more than that; Marcia would have a full-on shouting match with Henrietta on the porch, and then hop online to tell all of her friends what a beast Henrietta was.
Unfortunately, Marcia was still family.
Henrietta put on a burst of speed, trying to catch the pedestrian light before it flicked to red. She didn't make it. When she considered jaywalking – running across the street and taking her chance with the cars – there was a gruff laugh by her side.
“I know you're late, Henrietta, but I have to point out that breaking the law in front of a policeman is never a good idea.”
She turned to see Patrick. Patrick Black. The same Patrick Black who had dated Marcia for an entire three months, which was Marcia's world record for the duration of any relationship.
Patrick Black was tall, handsome, and had the kind of build that could reassure any woman. He was also courteous, and had one of those perfect smiles that made you think he’d practiced for hours and hours in front of the mirror as a teenager.
“How’s your sister?”
She forced her lips to play nice, and she offered Patrick a controlled smile. “Oh, you know, Marcia is always Marcia.”
She waited. There was only one question Patrick would ask next. It was the same question he always asked.
His eyes narrowed in interest.
“No, she isn't seeing anyone,” she got there first.
“Oh, ah, how did you know...?” He patted down his hair.
Basic experience with the male race, she wanted to answer. Instead she put all her effort into maintaining a smile. She’d lied to a police officer. Whilst Marcia wasn't seeing anyone seriously, she was seeing men. Yes, men – more than one – Because Marcia tended to play the field all at once. To her, the idea of having one boyfriend at any given time was boring. Why juggle with one pin, when you can juggle with 10?
“So, how is—” he began.
Once again she got there first. “Dad’s fine, so is Mum.”
Patrick gave a light chuckle, his brow crumpling in a wince. “Am I that predictable?”
Something beeped, and she turned to see the pedestrian light flashing green. She turned back to Patrick, shrugged, gestured wide, and nodded. “Sorry, Patrick, but one of these days you'll have to ask me about quantum physics or how my pot plants are, to break the mold.”
With that, Henrietta Gosling walked across the street, leaving the confused Patrick Black to figure out what she'd said.
When she made it through the beautiful sanded-down, rustic doors of Sizzle Cafe, it was already 9:35 AM. The second her soft ballet shoes padded onto the polished floorboards, was the second the cafe's owner, the diminutive Maria, came whirling out of the backroom, her teeth clenched as she grappled with the string of white pearls around her neck.
It was never a good sign when Maria was manhandling her favorite pearls.
Henrietta gave her most apologetic grimace as Maria rounded on her.
“Late again.” Maria shook her head. “If you weren't the best barista I have, Henrietta, I would have fired you yesterday. Now put your bag down, get your apron on, and get to work.”
Henrietta nodded and ran for the back room before Maria could give her another serving.
Minutes later she set herself up behind the whopping imported Italian coffee machine. Tying her apron around her middle, she looked up and through the massive plate-glass windows at the front of the store. The sky was now clear.
Her lips twitched into a thin frown. When she’d run to work this morning, the sky had been spitting and the wind roaring. Now the sky was clear, the wind gone, and the sun bright and warm.
It figured. Henrietta was an unlucky girl.
It wasn't until 12:30 that anything interesting happened. As she made an espresso for the Fire Chief, she looked up to see a man entering the store.
Just before she looked up, she felt a peculiar tingling sensation prickle the skin on the back of her neck. It was slight, it was sudden, and it was quick. It was over in the blink of an eye, but it served its purpose; she looked up at the right moment.
The stranger by the door flashed her a smile. It wasn't a dashing smile, it wasn't the kind of smile Patrick Black had practiced in front of the mirror. No, it was awkward, crinkled, and graceless.
Blinking, she surveyed him. It was impossible to guess his age or race. He could have been anywhere from 20 to 40. He had the kind of face that looked as though it never aged, but that couldn't be said for his clothes. He was under 6 foot, but his clothes had been made for a man twice his size. They hung off him in great swathes of calico and cotton, the style reminiscent of a monk’s tunic and pants. Over the top was a full-length leather jacket.
He looked like someone out of a movie, maybe a vampire hunter or something as ridiculous, except one wearing hand-me-down clothes from a giant.
He had a wide, large face, and that was about all that could be said for it. His features were nondescript. He didn't have the kind of handsome face that would set him apart from the crowd, in fact he didn't have any feature that was worth noting at all. He looked normal. He had a nose, drab brown eyes, and far too much stubble collecting over his chin and top lip.
He looked out of place, and he knew it. He kept shooting nervous glances to his left and right, as if expecting the tables to rise up and eat him.
It took ten seconds for the man to take another hesitant step into the room, and it wasn't until he took a breath, thumbing his nose and loosening his shoulders with a shake, that he appeared to calm.
Henrietta yanked her hand back as the hot water she was using to clean the coffee machine spilled out and splashed over her.
It forced her to look down, and when she looked up, using her apron to dry her hand, the guy wasn't there anymore.
He hadn't disappeared in a flash of smoke or anything so fantastic. He had wandered off to the bathroom.
He wandered back out again several minutes later and then left.
Weird people walked off the street all the time, but this guy caught her imagination, and she craned her neck to watch him as he strode across the street outside.
“Henrietta, hello, Henrietta.”
She blinked, snapped her head forward, and realized she was ignoring one of the customers. Except this wasn't any old customer. This wasn't any ordinary man. It was Jimmy Field, the hottest man in the whole city. He was strapping, he was handsome, and he had the kind of body that looked fantastic when covered in oil. He was always December when it came to the nude calendar the fire station did each year for charity. Though by nude, you never saw anything; there were hoses and fire hats in the way. Still, Jimmy Field was Mr December. He was also dating Marcia. Though Marcia was also dating about nine other men, Henrietta knew her sister was proud of the fact she’d gotten the attention of Mr December.
Jimmy turned around in his chair to check where Henrietta had been staring off to.
She squeaked. “Oh, sorry, nothing, a bird caught my eye.” A bird caught her eye? What kind of excuse was that?
Jimmy nodded, as if birds caught his eye all the time... which they did, but only if bird was being used as a euphemism for women.
She knew what was coming next. As Jimmy opened his mouth, she got there first. “She is fine. So is mum and so is dad.”
Jimmy got the same confused look Patrick had that morning. “How did you know what I was going to say?”
She shrugged and tried to look affable. It was best not to tell him he was as predictable as one of Marcia’s ridiculous romance novels.
“All right, what am I going to say next then?” Jimmy waggled his eyebrows.
Henrietta paused and glanced around the room, trying to look mystical. “Jimmy Field, you are about to say: here, have a tip.”
He laughed, reached into his pocket, and grabbed a piece of gum, offering it to her. “Here, Henrietta, have a tip.”
She accepted the gum, but arched an eyebrow. “Jimmy, this is not a Home Alone movie. In the real world, we use money.”
He shrugged, his tan, muscular arms peeping out from under his tight and sooty white t-shirt. “Sorry, Henny, but I don't have any coins.”
She took the gum and put it into the pocket of her apron then she watched as Jimmy brought out his mobile and proceeded to call her sister, planning a date for the weekend.
Whilst Marcia would get to enjoy the hottest fireman in town, Henrietta would spend her weekend cleaning out her woodshed. Some things weren't fair. Especially where Henrietta was concerned.
She didn't have long to mull over her bad luck. It was then that she took a quick break to go to the bathroom.
A funny thing happened while Henrietta was in the bathroom. The door caught fire.
She patted down her skirt as she started to smell smoke. It was slight at first, but became thick quick and fast. With a shuddering blink, she turned towards the door and noted the smoke now billowing into the bathroom from underneath it, through the keyhole, even through the cracks in the side near the hinges.
Her heart tripled its pace and she coughed into her hand. She jerked back from the door, staring at it in disbelief.
That would be when the wood started to sizzle and crackle. A second later, it burst into flame.
She stumbled backwards until her legs jammed up against the ceramic toilet, and she screamed. By god did she scream.
Above the crackle and roar of the fire, she heard people shout from outside and soon the piercing wail of a firetruck.
Considering Sizzle Cafe was squeezed between the police station and the fire station, help wasn’t far away. In fact, the back wall of the toilet was shared with the fire station itself.
Notwithstanding how close help was, she still had a flaming door in front of her. She grabbed a hand towel near the basin, covered it in water, and crammed it over her mouth.
By now the whole door was covered in bubbling, undulating flame.
... Yet it wasn’t hot.
She should have been boiling; she wasn’t.
Fires don’t burn cold.
Something wasn’t right.
She didn't have long to entertain that alarming thought; the thick smoke was still making her choke, and she struggled for every breath.
She huddled against the cistern, crumpling her face towards the wall.
Her elbow jostled into something and a small package fell out from under the u-bend.
Even in the chaos and the smoke she noted it; it caught her eye. It had Henrietta written across the top in a scrawl. As she reached out a shaking hand to pick up the packet, she heard the firemen kick into gear on the other side of the door. There was a fantastic splashing and sizzling sound as the water started to chase back the flames, and the wood shuddered under the impact.
For a moment she paid no attention to it. For a moment she forgot she was stuck in the bathroom behind a flaming door.
All her attention focused on the package.
She was attracted to it. The attraction was electric, magnetic, impossible to ignore. As she stared at it, smoke filling the room and billowing around her, sensations rushed through her body. Cold snaps, tight shivers, exciting tingles.
Her distraction didn’t last. With an adrenaline-fueled snap, she remembered where she was.
She crumpled her shoulders, digging her feet into the ground as she pushed herself as close to the toilet as she could.
Her hand clutched the packet, her knuckles pale white with tension.
With a resounding shout from outside, the door buckled, and the flames started to die.
Jimmy Field rushed in. Being the large capable fireman he was, he found her huddling in the corner, lifted her up, and carried her out of the room.
That was how Henrietta Gosling spent her lunchtime. She spent the afternoon in emergency being treated for smoke inhalation.
She spent a good chunk of the evening trying to explain to her sister how it wasn't that embarrassing to be caught in a flaming bathroom.
It wasn't until Henrietta got home to her small sweet house that she realized the packet was still in her hand. Somehow she’d held onto it all day long. From the hospital, to Marcia’s, she hadn’t dropped it.
With an audible swallow and a shaking whine, she realized how horrifying that was.
The worst was yet to come.
For five minutes she did nothing but stare at the package. She placed it on her sideboard, stepped back, crumpled her hands around her middle, and opened her eyes wide.
She brought up a sweaty, shaking hand and pressed it against her mouth.
The package started to sizzle. Her smoke-addled nostrils were too burnt and overworked, but she noticed the smoke curling up from underneath the manila-colored paper.
With a violent twitch, she swatted the package, knocking it off her wooden dresser.
She jerked away as she stared at it on the floor. It was no longer smoking, and somehow the dresser was unmarked.
Her heart pounded like a hammer against stone. Her breath was short and sharp, her chest punching out quick and tight against her white work shirt.
The packet didn’t burst into flames, but she still rushed to her kitchen and grabbed the fire extinguisher by the cooker. She raced back into her hallway and stood over the package with the nozzle of the fire extinguisher extended towards it. When nothing happened, she slowly put the fire extinguisher down.
Drawing in a breath and locking it in her chest, she got down on her hands and knees and looked at the packet.
Wincing, she jabbed a finger at it. It didn’t burst into flame and it didn’t gobble her up. So she brought out her hands and grabbed it.
She flinched, expecting the worst, but the cardboard didn't burn her; it wasn't even warm to touch.
That was when Henrietta Gosling got the courage to open it. She sat down, bringing her knees in, and then, with the care of a surgeon pulling back flesh, she tore into the manila packet.
Still shivering, she turned it over, giving it a shake to dislodge whatever was inside.
A hairpin fell out. Yes, a hairpin.
She sat there on her bottom and stared at it.
There was no note, no message, only a drab brown hairpin.
What was going on here? Why had this packet been tucked behind the u-bend at Sizzle Café? Why did it have her name on it? What in God’s name was a dull hairpin doing inside?
These were questions she couldn’t answer, and perhaps no one could. For all she knew, the envelope wasn’t addressed to her at all. Perhaps it was intended for some other Henrietta. A Henrietta who was desperately after a hairpin, and didn't mind if she had to pick it up from a public bathroom.
Minutes ticked by, but she didn’t move. She sat on the hallway runner, the bare skin of her legs scratching against the carpet. She stared at the hairpin, and she wondered what the hell it could mean.
After her bare legs started to chill and her crumpled body began to fatigue, she drew herself up.
She gave the hairpin one last wary stare before turning away. She walked several steps, then spun to check on it once more.
Chewing a nail, she decided she needed a shower.
She was going mad. That had to be it. Maybe some hot water and some clean clothes would help her see reason.
It was when she was shampooing her hair that she smelt the smoke.
Yes, more smoke. It took her a while to notice it; her nose was raw and cracked from her ordeal at lunchtime.
When she caught a whiff of burning wood, her body gave such a jolt she almost fell over her taps.
She flung the shower door open, jumped out, and barreled out of the bathroom. She sprinted, wet feet catching against her hallway runner, until she reached the hairpin. It was smoldering. Thick wisps of smoke tracked along the carpet, curling up and filling the hall.
The smoke alarm in her kitchen began to blare like a klaxon.
She stood stock still.
She made no move to pluck up her fire extinguisher.
Because there was something in her hallway. To be precise, a man.
The same leather-jacket-wearing man who had wandered into Sizzle Cafe at lunchtime.
She was naked, sopping wet, and her carpet was smoking.
She was terrified.
“Get out, get out, get out!” she screamed until her voice cracked with strain. Doubling back, she clutched her hands around herself and ducked into an open doorway to her side.
There was a whoosh, and her carpet caught fire.
The man in the leather jacket didn’t move. He was standing half a meter from the flames, but didn’t appear bothered. With a slight frown, his brow crumpled with confusion, but that was it.
“Get out!” She grabbed the first thing she could reach, which happened to be a heavy book on Swedish verbs, and threw it right at the man's head.
Her aim was poor, and rather than hit the man, the book fell on top of the flaming rug.
“Excuse me,” the man said, as if Henrietta had been quite rude.
“Get out,” she screamed, her voice a keening cry. Not only did she have a home invader, but the fire was picking up, burning with more ferocity as the wood underneath began to roar and crackle.
“Why have you left your wand against wood when I specifically told you not to?” He crossed his arms, the leather of his jacket creaking like an old hinge.
Still hiding behind the doorway, she grabbed up another book, this one on French architecture, and tried to fling it at him again. Once again her aim was terrible, and she managed to hit the fire extinguisher instead, toppling it over and making it roll towards the flames.
If she kept throwing things at him, she would end up taking the rest of the house with her.
Yet she wasn't going to stop, because there was a creepy man in a creepy leather jacket standing in her hallway talking about hairpins.
“I told you explicitly that if you put it near wood, the wood will burn.” He had an authoritative, peeved edge to his voice.
“I don't know what you're talking about!” She grabbed another book.
“I clearly wrote on the inside of that packet that if you leave your transformation wand near any type of wood, eventually the wood will burst into magical flames. Look, you have ignored me.” He shook his head and looked disappointed.
Good god, he was mad. If she needed any more evidence of the man's lunacy, considering his dress sense, then talk of magical flames and transformation wands was the nail in the coffin. “Just get out, please, get out.”
“Now why would I get out? I have only just found you. I have been looking for you for entirely too long, and I am not about to leave now.” He glowered at her, the flames almost touching his feet as they licked and leaped across the carpet. “Are you going to stand there, dripping against your wall, or are you going to come and put this fire out?”
The smoke was now so thick, she had to slam her dripping palm over her mouth.
She had to get away.
She backed off, darting down the hall and into the kitchen. As she passed the open bathroom door, she grabbed at the robe over the back of it and swung it over herself, shrugging into it as her feet pounded over the hallway floor.
She reached the kitchen, seizing the doorway and using it to pivot herself so she didn't lose any speed.
Her gaze locked on the knife rack, but she hesitated. She wasn't the kind of girl to grab up a kitchen knife and threaten a home invader. She was more the kind of girl to fling open the kitchen door and run like crazy until she could get the neighbors to call the police.
So she turned and headed for the door.
Except there was a problem. The man was now in front of it. She’d left him in the hallway, and she’d run the whole way to the kitchen, only pausing to grab her toweling robe, and yet somehow, somehow he was now in front of her.
It was such a shock that she brought herself to a stuttering stop, grabbing onto the kitchen table to steady herself so she didn't fly face-first into the guy.
She must have looked like a surprised fish – her mouth was wide open, her jaw as slack as loose fabric. If she’d been in any other situation, she would’ve laughed at herself.
There was no time to laugh at anything now, not when a creepy home invader was rushing around her house at the speed of light.
Her mouth still open, she backed away from the kitchen table.
“If you keep your mouth open like that for too long, a spider may crawl inside,” the man pointed out, his voice matter-of-fact.
It was the creepiest thing she’d ever heard. It gave her a full-body shiver, and she clutched a hand onto the collar of her toweling robe, pulling it around herself tighter and tighter.
She turned on her foot and ran from the kitchen, heading back to the hallway.
When she reached the flaming rug, it was no longer on fire. What was more, the man was standing on it again.
It was the same man, it had to be. It was the same leather jacket, the same scuffed boots, the same large clothes, and the same thick stubble. It was even the same bemused and bored expression.
She started to shake, and it was a bad, shuddering type of shake. It was the kind of shivering that she couldn't control, the kind of quick snapped movements the body gave when it was dealing with the most horrible of shocks.
She began to back off again, except now her heart was beating so fast that it sent cold blasting through her neck and lungs.
She stumbled, keeping her eyes on the man, her mind reeling with surprise and fear. “What's happening?”
“We are getting to know one another.” The man shrugged. “As we will be spending a lot of time with each other in the future, it is natural to spend some time introducing ourselves.”
Getting to know one another, spending a lot of time with each other in the future – oh god. There was no doubt that this crazy, ninja-quick home invader wanted to kidnap her.
She screamed, and it was loud and desperate, the kind of keening cry that no one could mistake for a joke.
The man looked at her nonplussed and then cleared his throat. “Are you alright?”
“Please, please, leave. I won't call the police, I won't tell them what you've done. Just leave.”
The man looked bemused, but that was it. He didn't start cackling, and neither did he snap forward, bring out rope, and tie her up. “I do hope you are not this emotional when it comes to fighting.”
She slammed a sweaty hand on her chest and she wheezed. He hoped she wouldn't be this emotional when she was fighting? Did this mean he was going to kidnap her and use her for some kind of cage fight? Was that a thing? Did men in leather jackets kidnap confused women and force them onto the boxing circuit?
Standing there, her knuckles white as she clutched onto the collar and waist of her bathrobe, her imagination ran wild.
“After it has taken so long to find you, I had hoped you would be everything that legend promised.” He narrowed his eyes and appraised her with an unimpressed look. “I must admit, unless you are acting, you do not seem like a brave and capable warrior woman.”
“Warrior woman?” she repeated, disbelief constricting her voice into a timid squeak.
“Yes, warrior woman.”
It was all too much. She choked as hot, fat, salty tears streamed down her face.
If the man had looked unimpressed before, now he rolled his eyes in obvious disdain. “You are actually crying?”
Of course she was crying. It had been a big day, and to top it all off, it appeared she would be kidnapped and forced into cage fighting. So yes, she was crying, because she had a lot to cry about.
The more the hot sticky tears trickled down her face, the less and less impressed the man looked.
“Well how long are you planning on crying for? We have a busy night ahead of us. I have already located a witch, and unless we deal with it, we will be remiss of our duties. If we are remiss of our duties, the Sacred Balance will be affected, and if the Sacred Balance is affected, well,” he took a heavy and pointed breath, “Then the universe will cease to exist.”
The universe will cease to exist?
She whimpered. This man was utterly insane.
“You are whimpering now, but you have stopped crying, does that mean that you are ready to go and transform?” He narrowed his eyes and shot her a cautious look.
She wanted to run away and call the police. No – she needed to.
“You're planning on trying to run again, are you?” He asked perceptively.
She took an enormous swallow and took a shuddering step backwards.
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I have been training all my life for this,” he kept shaking his head, “I was promised a warrior woman, a Witch Hunter, and all I get is an emotional woman past her prime.”
She choked back her tears. “Excuse me, past my prime? I'm still in my 20’s!”
He chuckled. “Most Witch Hunters of old were 16. It is a good age for witch hunting.”
“... Just get out of my house,” she begged, but this time her voice was firmer. Maybe it was the snide comment about her being past her prime, or maybe she was calming down enough to get a handle on her fear.
“I have already told you, I can't do that; I am your witch watcher, I am here to guide you along the path. I am here to deliver your transformation wand, and I am here to help you do what is necessary.” He nodded low, and it was a notable move. It was slow and delicate, and seemed to belie a great deal of respect.
“... Who are you?” She didn’t let go of her bathrobe for one second as she anchored her hands on it.
He watched her. “You have no idea, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Okay, well be sure to listen carefully this time. My name is Brick, I am a warrior monk. I grew up in a warrior monastery, with my warrior monk brethren. When I came of age, I was given a holy task. My holy task was to watch over a Witch Hunter.” He nodded her way.
“Sorry, Brick? Is that your name?” She looked at him with narrowed eyes. Of all the things he’d said – of all the crazy he’d spouted – the possibility that his name was Brick trumped it all.
Brick looked at her with narrowed eyes and cleared his throat. “Do not interrupt me. It took me some years to find you, but now I'm here, it's time we start to get down to business. We have a lot of witches to hunt, and you have a lot of training to undergo. Now I have introduced myself, it's time for you to take up your transformation wand, get changed into something more magical, and go out and fight the witches.”
Henrietta blinked at him. She couldn't think of an intelligent reply, and she couldn't even think of a semi-stupid question to ask. All she could do was blink.
She couldn’t process what he’d said. It was all fanciful, all fantastic, and all entirely impossible.
As Brick watched her, an expectant look on his face, she realized she had to react in some way. So, despite the fact he was a creepy home invader, she shrugged back and began to laugh. “Okay, sure thing, Brick. I have another idea. How about I call the police, and you get the hell out of my house?”
Brick scrunched up his brow and looked quizzical, as if he was thinking over that possibility, and then he shook his head. “You are not an active listener. You seem to have ignored everything I have told you. I have a sacred imperative to help you fight the witches, so I am going to pass up on your offer to get the hell out of your house. Instead I am going to teach you how to transform with your transformation wand, and then you are going to go out and fight the witches.”
It was her turn to shake her head. Her dripping hair sent trickles of water playing down her neck and back and several droplets even splattered onto the wall beside her.
Brick gave a heavy sigh. “We do not have much time, Warrior Woman Henrietta; we must get some witch hunting done before the night is through. Recognize that these are dangerous creatures, and if left alone, the witches will bring much misery and destruction.”
She kept shaking her head.
“Why are you shaking your head? Are you denying the fact that the witches are one of the most dangerous and insidious enemies on the planet?” He crossed his arms and got a stern look on his face.
“You are mad,” she admitted with a nervous chuckle.
Brick's eyebrows crumpled. “I am mad? You're standing there, as a Warrior Woman, ignoring your duty, and dripping water onto your floor.”
“Why don't you get out of my house, Brick?”
Brick paused, shrugged, shook his head, and took a massive sigh. “I see I am going to have to give you a demonstration. Very well then.” With that he reached into his leather jacket and somehow pulled out a massive crossbow. It was huge, and couldn't have fit into the pocket of his jacket, and yet he whisked it out, and the moment he did, she shuddered back from shock.
“Please, please, please don't.” She crumpled a hand over her mouth and whimpered.
“Don't what?” Brick shrugged.
Before he could wait for her answer, he did something.
He shot the roof.
He brought the crossbow up, directed the top of it towards the ceiling, and then he fired. No bolt came streaming from the crossbow. Instead it was a surge of blue energy and flame.
She screamed, clutching a hand to her chest, whimpering as she stumbled back, feet snagging on the carpet and sending her tumbling to the floor.
She didn't sit frozen in fear for long. She crawled backwards, eyes locked on the blue flame playing over her ceiling.
Though it looked powerful, it didn't burn through the plaster. Instead it somehow formed a mandala, circular-like pattern with symbols playing around the edges. It was around this that the flames and electricity crackled.
She’d never seen anything like it. Crossbows shoot bolts, not mysterious blue flames and symbols.
She shuddered and screamed and whimpered, but no matter what she did, the symbols and flames didn’t disappear. Neither did the ceiling burst into flames.
The flames were cold.
She stared at the specter; she couldn't drag her eyes from it.
“How do you like the demonstration? Do you feel ready to go fight the witches yet?”
She scampered backwards. “What's happening, what is happening, what's happening?”
Brick brought his crossbow down, looked it over, and gave an easy shrug. “It's nothing to worry about. It's a magical magnification field, used to increase the effect of magic practiced within it.” He paused, watching her expression. “It won't damage your ceiling.”
“What is this? What are you? Who am I? What's happening?” She couldn’t form a coherent sentence, she couldn't push her words out, she couldn't force her thoughts to make sense. All she could do was stare at those dancing blue flames.
“Why is this happening to you? I have already told you that, as I have already told you who I am and who you are. All that is left is for you to pick up your magical transformation wand, write the words “Witch Hunter” clearly in front of you, and be sure to dodge all your furniture whilst the process takes hold. Then we will go out and fight the witches.” He ticked off the list on his large, thick, scarred fingers.
She didn't move. She fixated on the blue flaming symbols on her ceiling until they dissipated.
Brick was patient for a while, then started to tap his foot. “Warrior Woman Henrietta, we do not have much time. I assure you, there are already witches in this town, and we must begin our sacred task of eliminating them this night.”
She tore her gaze from the ceiling and locked it on him. “I....”
Brick plunged his hand into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a large heavy Akubra hat, despite the fact the hat couldn't have fit into his pocket in the first place. He tugged it onto his head and then nodded at her.
He pushed his hand into his pocket again and brought out the hairpin.
The second she looked at it, she gave a violent shudder.
Brick noted the move and nodded in approval. He walked over to her and handed her the hairpin.
She didn't run away from him, she didn't even stumble backwards. She looked at the hairpin and shivered.
“Take it, Warrior Woman Henrietta, and grasp hold of your destiny.”
Her lips wobbled on the word destiny.
He stood there, the hairpin still in his hand as he held it out for her to take. When it became obvious she wasn't going to play along, he rolled his eyes. He flicked his head to the left. “Oh my god, do I smell smoke?”
She twisted towards the kitchen.
That would be when Brick leaned down and tucked the hairpin into the front pocket of her bathrobe. The move was too fast; aside from having a magical crossbow, Brick was lightning quick. So by the time she looked around, the hairpin was already in her pocket.
She snapped backwards, stumbling away from him.
She looked down at her pocket.
“Pick it up and then write the words “Witch Hunter” up in the air with it,” Brick encouraged her, nodding and smiling.
She stared at him like the crazy man he was, and continued to back off.
Her back brushed against a door, and she brought up her hand and opened it, without turning from him for a second.
The door led to her bedroom. Her bedroom had a small patio that connected to the side of the house, and a set of French doors that led out into the garden.
Still, it was her bedroom, and the idea of leading this Brick fellow into it was terrifying.
She flinched as she entered her room, especially when she saw Brick following after her.
“You are crazy, this is crazy,” she said, her voice high and fast. Her throat was tight, her hands were sweaty, and she was still holding onto the edges of her bathrobe with a stiff-knuckled grip.
He crossed his arms and sighed, appearing disappointed in her. “Henrietta Gosling, take up the transformation wand from your pocket and use it to write the words “Witch Hunter” in the air.”
He sounded like a teacher, or a principal, or her own father; his voice had an authoritative, commanding and yet disapproving edge to it.
She replied by shaking her head, her wet hair sending tendrils of dripping fringe slapping into her face and cheeks. She kept backing into her room, and that leather-clad man kept following her. There was such a keen, intelligent, watchful edge to his gaze that she couldn't help but stare at his eyes.
“Why does this have to be so hard?” He brought up a hand and planted his thumb and fingers into his brow. “None of the legends of Witch Hunters and their warrior monk assistants ever mentioned problems like this.” He let out a grating groan, then darted his gaze towards her pocket. “Can’t you feel its power?”
She wanted to shake her head. She didn’t.
She could feel something. Feelings she’d never felt before. Quick, powerful, tight, and racing. They promised a lot of power, power she’d never before imagined.
Maybe her expression changed, maybe her gaze drifted down to the hairpin, because he cracked a smile and nodded. “That's it, pick it up now.”
She shook her head and backed off into her room until her shoulders banged against her dressing table and she knocked her hairbrush onto the floor. It tumbled over her inexpensive and fake Persian rug and came to a rest close to her dog basket.
Her dog, Barney, was fast asleep in the basket, as he was now so old that he only arose for food and a pat.
Having a hairbrush dropped right next to him made Barney open an eye.
Far from rushing up and barking at the home invader, he blinked a sleepy eye at Brick, then let out a yawn and closed his eyes again.
It got Brick's attention, and a calculating expression twisted into place on the home invader's face.
It sent a quick, sick feeling shooting through her, and she jerked over to Barney's basket.
She was too late. Brick, with his lightning fast ninja-like skills, darted across the room and grabbed Barney up in the blink of an eye.
She yelped. “What are you doing? Put him down now!”
With a satisfied smile, he shook his head. “I can see that you are the kind of woman who requires encouragement to get started.” He scratched Barney under the chin.
Heart rocketing around, she took several tight steps towards Brick. “You put him down now, you hear me?”
Brick shrugged. “I can hear you, though I am not going to put him down. I am going to keep him here until you do what I have told you, and you rise up to take hold of your destiny.”
“Give me back my dog!”
“Not until you have transformed into a Witch Hunter.” Brick kept scratching Barney under the chin, and the dog could not look happier.
She stood there, surveying her bedroom, trying to look for a weapon, anything she could use to defend herself and get her dog back.
Brick watched her eyes and shook his head again.
He patted Barney on the head several times, then opened his jacket and managed to tuck the dog into his pocket. Barney fit. Barney fitted fine. When Brick closed his jacket again, it was as if nothing was there. There was no massive bulge as the small corgi pushed up against his jacket. The leather sat straight against Brick's chest.
She crumpled her hands over her mouth and gave a scream. “What have you done?”
At the sound of her scream, a muffled bark filtered out from Brick's jacket.
“Your dog is fine, but if you want to see him again, for the love of god and all that is sacred, pick up the hairpin and write the words “Witch Hunter” in the air.” Brick looked desperate now, and the frustration pulled at his already lined face.
He was mad, this was mad, but he had stolen her dog and somehow hidden it in his jacket. So she let her shaking hand descend to her pocket and she let her fingers close around the hairpin. The second she did, a jolt of energy passed through her. It felt as if she’d stood on a live-wire. She managed to keep hold of the hairpin, and she brought it out to stare at it with wide, shocked eyes.
Though it was mad, she brought the hairpin forward and she began to write the words Witch Hunter.
With a shaking, trembling hand she finished writing. The second she did something occurred.
First a loud keening sound filled the air. It reminded her of getting too close to a high-voltage power line, and it began to pluck at the hairs along her arms and the back of her neck, making them stand on end. Within seconds that noise dissipated and was replaced with a swooshing sound. Henrietta looked down to see a circle appear at her feet. It was like the circle the magical crossbow had shot onto her ceiling; it looked like an intricate mandala, surrounded by symbols that flamed an electric blue and green.
The second the circle formed, energy crackled all around and up over her feet, legs, and the rest of her body.
At the sight of it, she screamed. As the energy plucked and played along her skin, she tried to swipe it off her as if it were insects.
“Calm down, Warrior Woman Henrietta. You will be fine,” Brick said, a calm edge to his voice as if he were a parent trying to assure a child after a nightmare.
She didn't stop screaming; blue and green energy was covering her, swimming and swarming over her skin with alarming speed.
Within seconds, something else began to happen. Henrietta started to float. At first it felt like a light sensation picking up through her feet and legs, then she looked down to see her bathrobe fluff out as if a strong wind shot up from underneath her.
Her feet lifted off the ground.
She screamed even harder now.
“Floating is natural.” Brick gave a hearty laugh.
She screamed louder.
As she floated, the symbols at her feet grew wider, and the color of the blue and green more vibrant. There was now so much energy crackling around on the floor and over her that her entire room was illuminated with a glow.
Brick walked over to her window and pulled the curtains shut. “I don't think the neighbors need to see this.” He chuckled.
Her arms became stiffer and pulled straight at her sides as her legs were yanked down. It was as if she was a puppet being manipulated by a strong hand.
“Don't worry, the magic is stretching you out so it can get your measurements. You do want your clothes to fit.” Brick flicked her a casual smile as he tucked his hands into his pockets.
She was beyond screaming now; her throat was so dry and cracked that the only sound she could make was a harsh low whimper.
Something appeared over her skin. The light below her changed as well. The blue and green energy snapped to white. As it did an energy covered her. In a wisp of sudden smoke, her bathrobe disappeared. Before she could clutch her arms around her body to cover her nudity, she felt a peculiar sensation; clothes were forming over her. Not just any clothes. As she looked down in abject horror, she saw the most fantastic of costumes appear out of thin air. It was blue and white and gold, and it looked as if it was made out of a material spun from sunshine.
The pin still in her hand elongated. In a snap and click it went from being a drab hair ornament to a long wand with a crystal on top.
The circle at her feet disappeared and the floating feeling started to dissipate.
She drifted down to her feet and the white glow illuminating the room twinkled out.
She was immobilized with fear, her mouth open and her heart beating hard in her ears. All she’d done was write with a pin, and now she was wearing a fantastic costume and holding a wand with a crystal on the top.
Brick stood there, looking proud. There was an easy smile curling his lips, his eyes were sparkling, and after a short, thoughtful pause, he started clapping. “Well done, well done.”
Her face scrunched up in shock, and she dropped her head to survey her clothes. If she’d thought Brick's costume was ridiculous, then her own was 100 times worse.
She had shoulder pads, actual shoulder pads. She had thigh-high boots on, too. She was wearing a long, flaring jacket that pinched in at the waist. Unlike Brick's, it wasn't made of jet-black leather; it was blue and white and shimmered like crystals. It was the gaudiest thing she’d ever seen. Underneath she wore an old-style flared dress, complete with a bodice, but with a skirt that ended up around her thighs.
It looked like something she’d bought from an adults-only store.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell am I wearing?” She tried to tug at her hem to lengthen the skirt, but it was a thankless task.
Brick looked at her then rubbed his hands together. “You are wearing a classic witch-hunter costume. Classic, with certain modern improvements. Ever since it was pointed out to us warrior monks that it is appallingly hard to run in a long skirt, we shortened it for the sake of efficiency in battle.”
She shifted her head until she looked at him, and as she did her jaw dropped open. The warrior monks shortened her skirt for proficiency in battle.
She didn't have the words to express how she felt right now.
He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “Okay, now you're dressed, it’s time to go out and fight the witches.”
“I am not going anywhere dressed like this.” Her voice was as high as a train whistle.
“Why not? Those are the perfect clothes to fight witches in. I must say, that jacket is a stylish cut, too.”
She pressed two white sweaty fingers into her brow and tried to find the words – any words – to explain what was happening to her.
She had written in the air with a magical pin, and she’d somehow transformed into this ludicrous outfit in the middle of her bedroom. What was more, she’d trashed the place.
As she looked around, she saw her curtains had come off their rails, somehow the door had fallen off her wardrobe, and all the trinkets on her dressing table had fallen onto the floor.
From somewhere within the confines of Brick's jacket she heard a soft bark. That made her snap her head around. “You give me back Barney right now.” For some reason she planted her hands on her hips. It was a powerful and assertive move for timid Henrietta. It felt good though.
Brick brought up a finger and wagged it at her. “You will earn your dog back when you defeat the witches.” He turned and headed for the door.
“You get back here.” She stomped forward, her heels piercing the carpet and leaving tiny indents. They were like sky scrapers, but weirdly she had no trouble balancing in them. Which was fantastic considering how unco she was.
Brick kept backing off, then he brought his hands up and clapped them again. “It's time to begin. Follow me.” He turned and disappeared.
He actually disappeared.
Three seconds ago he’d been standing in the middle of her bedroom floor. A moment later he was standing outside her French doors.
She stumbled back and gasped.
“Come on,” he called to her from the other side of the doors, waving her forward. He tapped at his wrist as if to indicate that they didn't have much time.
At first Henrietta rushed forward, then she stopped. She looked down, and she remembered what she was wearing. Was she going to follow this crazy warrior monk across town while dressed like she was out of a bizarre adult movie?
No. She was not. As soon as she made that decision, she heard the soft pining bark of Barney filter through from Brick's jacket.
She clutched her fingers into her palms and she steadied her jaw. How dare he come into her house, steal her dog, and run around like a ninja.
With that, Henrietta Gosling, dressed in clothes she’d never before worn and would never ever consider wearing again, ran to her French doors and pulled them open. She followed the crazy warrior monk called Brick out of her garden and into the night.
Henrietta Gosling was not good at sport. She was terrible at athletics, she was horrible at gymnastics, and she’d given up on most forms of exercise by the tender age of 15. She couldn’t run and she was so uncoordinated that she’d always trip over everything in her path, from dustbins, to dogs, to old lady’s walking frames.
Tonight it was different. Tonight she could run. She could also jump, fantastically stupidly high. As Brick sprinted before her, managing the kinds of physics-defying moves that were relegated to video games and Hong Kong action movies, she matched pace. At one point Brick jumped on top of a building. He went from standing in an alleyway, to jumping up, planting his hands onto a wall, pushing himself off, and then somehow flinging himself onto the opposite building, despite the fact it was two stories tall.
Normal human beings couldn’t jump that high. Normal human beings had knees and legs and hips and bodies that were built for modest heights, but tonight that didn't matter. Somehow she followed his move. She planted her hand into the ground, her ankles sturdy despite the fact her heels were high enough to be considered penthouse apartments, and then she forced herself into a magnificent somersault. She jumped from the ground to the top of the building, and even though she stumbled when she landed, her skirt revealing an indecent flash of underwear, she still made it.
Incredible. This was all incredible.
The sensible, reasonable part of her brain tried to tell her she must be on drugs, but the rest of her brain was very much enjoying it all.
It was a dark night, which she was extremely thankful for. She hadn’t forgotten what she was wearing, and several times she had run past people in alleyways as they shot her wide-eyed looks, their eyebrows shooting off their faces as their gazes raced down her figure and clothes.
Henrietta could be thankful for one more fact: she had a mask on. She brought her fingers up to feel it a few times, and it seemed large enough to do a good job of hiding her identity.
Her hair felt different, too. Instead of being a wild red angry clump at the base of her neck, it was smoothed up into a fabulous bun at the top of her head. It felt elegant and was held in place with several clips.
Her mask was one of those Venetian masquerade jobs, with all the fancy trimming and details. How it was staying on her face, she didn't know, as there wasn't any elastic holding it around her head. It sat there, and no matter how high she jumped or how fast she ran, it didn't fall off.
She felt like she was wearing make-up, and as she ran along, she caught sight of herself in a shop window. She almost stopped.
She looked so different.
Her eyelashes were long and shaded a deep black. Her lips were covered in a dark-red wet-look gloss. She also had eye shadow on, and it matched the color of her black mask.
Before she could stand there and stare at herself for the rest of the night, Barney’s soft bark filtered back to her.
She set off again.
Soon, Brick began to slow down, and she realized they’d run all the way to the other side of town. A trip that would have taken a good few hours on foot had taken her 10 minutes of jumping and running along the rooftops.
Before she could distract herself with how amazing this was, she realized where they’d stopped.
They were at the abandoned docks. She’d heard Patrick Black talk enough about this area to realize the place was infested with crime. The city had plans of tearing it down and building something far more respectable, but for now it still stood, dark and forlorn at the edge of town.
She looked at the water to her left. It was dank and impenetrable, and no doubt cold.
The shadows of the buildings around her were long and cast the area into even deeper darkness. There were no city lights out here, and the closest streetlights were kilometers away.
There was only one good thing about being in this area: there was no one around to gawk at her.
Henrietta looked up to see that Brick was now sitting on top of the building to her left. How he’d managed to get up there, she didn't know, but she was starting to realize it was magic. While Brick could jump high and run fast, he also had another trick up his sleeve: he could transport, if that was the right word. He would go from standing in one place, to standing in another place close by in the blink of an eye. Either he put on a fantastic burst of speed, or else he could travel between two points without moving through the space between.
Henrietta Gosling had never been the kind of girl to believe in magic; she liked to think her head was screwed on right.
Well tonight her head was un-screwing.
She took several steps forward, clapped her hands on her hips, and tightened her grip on her wand. “Alright, I’ve followed you here, now give me my dog back.”
Brick let his legs flop over the edge of the roof, and he kicked them back and forth. “I'm afraid you’re going to have your hands full soon. How about I keep hold of Barney, and how about you have your first fight with the witches?”
“Give me back my dog!” she roared. It was loud, it was angry, and it was unlike her.
Brick chuckled. “Those clothes are changing you, Warrior Woman; you’re beginning to embrace your natural power—” He stopped and swiveled his head to the side.
A noise echoed from the building beneath him.
At first it sounded like fingernails scratching over a blackboard, then it arced up and teetered like only a voice could. It sent a cold rush and a prickle of surprise jumping up her spine.
She blinked, snapping her head towards the sound.
“I will stay up here, Warrior Woman, and I will direct you,” Brick said, voice quick and loud, and maybe a little afraid.
The voice cut out and a vortex of wind rushed past Henrietta's cheeks.
The funnel of air was sucked into the abandoned warehouse.
Within the building, black shadows danced.
She tightened her grip on her wand, her fingers curling around until they dug into her palm.
“You will be okay, Warrior Woman, but you must be forthright. Go in to meet the enemy,” Brick suggested as he stayed up on the roof, several soft barks emanating from his jacket.
Fight the witches? It was starting to dawn on Henrietta what was happening to her. From the fantastic to the fearful, she was realizing that maybe, possibly there was a witch in that abandoned warehouse and that she was going to have to fight it.
She started to freeze up, her muscles tightening and her eyes opening as wide as they could.
The screeching scream returned again. At first it sounded like a child sobbing, then halfway through the noise twisted up, reverberating high into a keening cry.
Whatever was inside, it didn't sound normal; it didn't sound human.
A light started to filter out from the building. At first it was dim, then grew brighter and brighter. It also crackled and smelt of sulfur.
“Quick, run in before the witch can set defensive spells.” The man was usually calm and nonchalant, but now he was on the edge of his seat, his voice betraying a tight fear.
This served to heighten her own panic. She had never felt as scared as she did now.
The door to the abandoned warehouse creaked further open. She could see several fingers curl around it, long fingernails tapping against the metal with spine-tingling squeaks.
“Duck,” Brick screamed.
She fell to her knees, crumpling her arms over her head.
Something hot and fast rushed over her. She twisted to the side, flopping on her back and rolling in time to see an actual fireball whiz past and slam into the dark water beyond the dock. It sizzled, steam erupting with a hiss.
“Duck again,” Brick roared.
Henrietta threw herself to the ground, and once again a sodding great fireball zoomed past.
She whimpered and whined, clutching her fingers over her head.
“Bring out your wand, defend yourself,” Brick commanded.
“How?” she screamed back, her voice tight with pleading.
She could no longer deny what was happening to her. In the face of imminent death, she was starting to lose all incredulity for her circumstances, and she was gripping onto her wand, ready to use it in any way she could to defend herself.
“Write the name of the spell you want in the air with your wand,” Brick announced.
She didn't understand. She didn't have time to clarify either, as yet another fireball came whizzing towards her. This one was so close it collected the side of her jacket and seared right through the fabric, even catching the edge of her skirt on fire.
She gave a pathetic scream and tried to pat down her skirt, but soon it didn’t matter. The fire picking up along the fabric disappeared and something fantastic occurred: the fabric grew back. At one point there had been a sodding great singed black hole in her jacket, and then the thing had fixed itself.
“Stop patting your skirt and duck!” Brick roared at her.
Henrietta looked up in time to see a fireball hurtling right at her face. She stopped. Time seemed to stretch out before her. Things slowed down. She could see the crackling fire bursting over the girth of the fireball as it came towards her.
It did not reach her. It did not slam into her face, knock her off her feet, and kill her dead in a second.
No, because at that moment somebody jumped in front of her.
Brick. In the blink of an eye, he appeared before her, face turned her way, back turned to the soaring fireball. It struck him, slamming into his back and shifting him forward with a ferocious force. Brick stumbled towards her, and she brought her arms up to catch him (despite the fact he was a dirty home invader who had stolen her dog).
He rested in her arms, and she caught a full glance of his face as he ached through a wince.
As quick as he could, he pushed himself up, shook his head, straightened, and gave a cough.
“Forgive my blasphemy, but goddamn that hurt,” he spat as he stretched out his shoulders and turned his head. Though the fireball had struck him neatly on the back, his leather jacket was not damaged. It did seem to emit steam in places, but there was no hole torn through it, and there wasn't a clump of Brick's exposed and bloody flesh to be seen. In fact, apart from swearing at how much that had hurt, he appeared to be fine.
Henrietta still had her arms and hands in exactly the same position they'd been in when she'd opened them to catch Brick.
This was happening so fast.
Before she could try to shake her head and catch up to the situation, there was another terrible whooshing noise, and Brick grabbed her roughly by the arm, pushing her to the side. In a snap, he plunged his hand into his jacket, the ends of it flaring out dramatically, and he whipped out his crossbow. He aimed it towards the fingers that were still curled around the door of the abandoned warehouse, then he fired.
Something rushed forward from the crossbow, and it jolly well wasn't a bolt. It was a small spark of light, and it landed right on the half-opened door, spreading over the whole metal frame with a horrible crackling sound and with the speed of a bullet.
She watched in horror and fascination as the door gave way. In its place a wall of magical symbols and squares stood instead. The symbols were not one-dimensional; they appeared to be 3D and thick, taking up the same width as the door had.
The witch screamed, if indeed it was a witch. The creature with its claws on the door yanked them back, and while at first it gave a cry like a child's, the sound of it twisted up into the ferocious call of an animal.
It made Henrietta scamper backwards, her heels snagging against the uneven ground, sending her toppling backwards onto her butt. She landed with a thump, but didn't waste her breath on moaning out an oomph.
For all the time she'd chased after Brick, for all those fantastic jumps she had managed to pull off, she hadn't tripped once. Yet here she was stumbling backwards and falling over like a total klutz.
Brick turned to his side and looked down at her. “Get to your feet, Warrior Woman Henrietta, and stop falling over.” He leaned down to her, put his right hand on her arm, and pulled her to her feet. “If you let the fear take hold of you, you will lose your magic,” he warned, his eyes sparkling, despite the dark night.
Henrietta swallowed through a nod, then she stopped. What was she doing? What on earth did Brick mean? Magic?
All in a rush, she started to shake and shudder. She couldn't deny the situation was real; the skin along her hand was cut and singed, and Brick's back still steamed where the fireball had struck it.
“I know it is hard, but unless you act to contain that witch, she could move on to harm others.”
She couldn't ignore that, could she?
Brick reached out a hand and clutched his large palm over her fingers as she held the wand. “Write in the air the word of a spell. Whether it be fire, water, ice, blizzard, wind, tornado – any ferocious force you can think of. Write it in the air, Witch Hunter, and it will appear. You can use it to contain the witch. To fight her off, to overcome her.”
There was a steely magical quality to his voice. His words bypassed her ears and ate straight into the imaginative side of her mind. As he spoke, it was as if she could see each spell he was talking of. Fire, ice, wind – all she had to do was bring up her wand and write the words before her, then they would appear.
She looked down at the wand.
“We do not have much time; I have pushed her into the warehouse for now, but my wall spell will fail. This is a powerful witch, and it will take a full Witch Hunter to overcome her.” Brick turned, but still had his hand clutched over hers.
There was no more fighting this situation. There was no more doubting what was happening to her. All Henrietta could do was stumble forward, her heels clicking loudly against the uneven bitumen, but her grip never failing around her wand.
Brick was by her side, crossbow in hand, and when they reached the wall of magical symbols and she hesitated, he clamped a hand over her back and pushed her through.
Henrietta sucked in a breath, squealing as she stumbled through the magical symbols. In her mind, her face would singe off the second she touched them, but nothing of the sort occurred. She managed to walk right through them as if they were nothing but air. They did crackle though, and a few of them collected around her as if they were feathers and she was tar. She patted at them, shaking her arms, trying to dislodge them, Then Brick slammed into her side, wrapped a hand around her middle, and pulled her out of the way.
A shot of fire, as if propelled from a flame-thrower, blasted past her, and would have collected her if Brick hadn't moved when he had.
Henrietta didn't have time to scream, much less splutter, because at that point, Brick wrapped his hand tight around her wand. “Write something in the air, and do it now.”
So she did. As she fell to the side, Henrietta wrote fire.
It was on her mind. Considering her day, fire seemed to be about the only thing she could think of.
When she finished writing the word, the most spectacular thing occurred. A circular symbol appeared at her feet and then a fireball shot right out from it. The fire swirled around the edge of the symbol, collecting into a ball, before flying forwards right towards the witch.
Henrietta still hadn't seen the creature in full; the abandoned warehouse was dark, and all she could catch was a glimpse of two long hands with equally long fingernails. They were gaunt and painfully thin.
The fireball launched right towards them.
There was a scampering sound and someone appeared to take a quick, desperate breath. Once again it sounded like the cry of a child, but it changed into the most horrible of screams.
“Don't pause, keep writing,” Brick commanded, and then he moved his hand over hers and brought the wand up.
It popped into her head, and the second it did, she started to write the word.
As had occurred with fire, a symbol started to appear at her feet, and then a great rush of crackling ice shot around it and up towards the witch.
The witch screamed again, and the ice slammed right into her, those two hands plastering to her side from the force.
Henrietta still couldn't see the creature, but she was catching glimpses of it, beyond the hands to its torso, to the ends of its unkempt, scraggly black hair. It felt so nightmarish seeing it in pieces like this, as crackles of her spells lit up the creature in spurts.
It was wearing rags, a simple skirt and top, but they were burnt and dirty. It had the hollowest eyes, dark-rimmed circles underneath them, the pupils wide, the irises pale. It was thin, ghostly thin; she could see the bones in its arms and legs, and its cheeks were high, its neck long and gaunt.
So this was a witch. Apart from the long fingernails, she could have passed for a human being, a sick, horrific-looking human being, but a person nonetheless.
Henrietta stood there, but once again Brick leaned into her. “Do not stop, Witch Hunter; you must keep fighting.”
So she did.
This time she wrote the word wall. It formed before her mind, somewhat like the ice spell had. The second she wrote it, magical blue crackling outlines of bricks shot from a symbol under her feet and appeared before her. As they did, as they formed a solid wall, the witch screamed and shot fireballs from her hands.
It was a frantic thing to watch. Horrible too and terrifying, and it made Henrietta shiver. Fire began to crack up along the witch's skin, as if she was made of stone that was breaking under heavy weight. The witch hurled her hands forward, as if they had been yanked by heavy ropes, and the fireball collected off her skin and shot towards Henrietta.
It didn't reach either her or Brick; it slammed into the wall.
“Excellent,” Brick admitted through a quick, snapping breath.
Write any spell that comes to mind, Henrietta thought to herself. Her fingers tightened around her wand.
She wrote the word before her, her wrist twisting.
A new symbol appeared at her feet, and it was accompanied by a quick burst of air that caught the ends of her jacket and skirt. Soon a vicious wind whipped around the circle and then shot forward at her magical wall. It pushed into the bricks and they flung forward, right at the witch.
The bricks fell against the creature, and as they did, a roaring magical wind slammed into her too. The witch brought up her arms, tried to protect her face, and let out a ferocious cry.
“Don't—” Brick began.
“Stop,” Henrietta finished off his sentence. That was what he was going to say.
It also gave her an idea.
She wrote the word, and the most curious of symbols appeared at her feet. Something that was not wind, that was not fire, that wasn't even visible, rushed up from the symbol and spread through the room around her.
The bricks stopped tumbling and the wind stopped roaring, the tails of her jacket and skirt stopped brushing against her legs too. In fact, everything stopped. From the dust filtering through the air, to the horrific cry of the witch.
Even Brick did. The only thing capable of movement was her.
She had to replace this spell with something more useful.
She had to figure out some way to end this.
She didn't want to write end. Who knew what would happen. If writing the word freeze had made everything freeze, end could destroy the entire world.
So Henrietta thought, and she thought blindingly fast.
She wrote the word, but as she did, she kind of hoped that the spell would take effect on her and not the witch. It was a fleeting thought, but as it appeared in her mind, it made Henrietta change the direction of her writing; rather than write towards the witch, she brought her hand back and wrote the word on her own chest.
It worked. A new symbol appeared at her feet, this one a vibrant turquoise color that reminded her of tropical waters. She started to float and so did Brick. The moment he did was the moment he began to move. The freeze spell had obviously worn off and been replaced. He turned his head to her, his surprise evident.
Before he could say anything, Henrietta turned to the witch. She saw that familiar red crackle of fire begin to race over the creature's skin.
Henrietta had to do something; now that they were floating in the air, the two of them were sitting ducks.
She wrote it as the word formed in her mouth, and she said it out loud too.
Something horrible happened. A massive gaping black void opened up in the ground. Everything in the warehouse dropped away. From the old crates, to the broken and rusted 44 gallon drums, to the piles of yellow magazines and trash. They all fell through the cavernous hole that was now the ground. The hole was deep, impossibly deep, and pitch black. Where it led to, she had no idea.
Only one thing mattered. The witch. She looked down at her feet for a split second, gave a cry, and fell through the hole.
The fire along her skin extinguished and the black darkness below engulfed the witch.
Henrietta was shocked, and it was such a powerful, tactile sensation, that she crumpled her shoulders and arms in, wrapping herself into a ball as she floated above the giant, enormous hole.
“Quick, bring the floor back,” Brick snapped, “before this spell dissipates.”
She wrote floor, and soon the floor reappeared below them. Her float spell stopped with a snap, and she fell about half-a-meter down until she flopped face-first onto the floor with a thud.
Brick managed to land on his feet, and snapped up to a standing position. “Warrior Woman Henrietta,” he began, and there was a distinctly proud note to his voice. “You have vanquished your first witch,” he was almost cheering.
Henrietta lay there with her face pressing into the cold musty floor for a few more seconds. She tried to process what had happened. Magic, witches, giant holes forming over the ground....
She heard a soft barking that grew louder.
She flopped over onto her back, and then forced herself to sit up, not caring that her ridiculously short skirt showed far too much.
Barney. Her beautiful old corgi was now resting in Brick's arms, and the mutinous dog was licking the man's face.
She scampered to her feet. “You give me back my dog.”
Brick handed Barney over.
Henrietta opened her mouth, readying for a volley of whatever torrid frustration, anger, and accusations she could think of. They dried up. For the love of god, she had fought a witch.
Her mouth was open, her lips slack, her skin deathly white.
Brick looked at her, but at the same time ran his hands over his jacket smoothing it, and then fluffed up his collar until it was stiff against his neck. He brought two fingers up to his hat and tipped it at her. “Well done. You have successfully taken hold of your destiny.”
She shook her head mutely.
“You may now return home. You will need to sleep. I fancy you will also require time to... adjust.” Brick smiled widely. “I will see you tomorrow night.”
“Sorry?” her voice shook.
“To hunt more witches,” Brick said as he took several steps back. Without another word the bugger did a jump that saw him land like a cartoon character on the heavy metal rafters, swing around and then do a fantastic somersault right through the broken glass skylight above.
There was a soft pattering of feet on the roof, followed by silence.
Which left Henrietta Gosling standing in ridiculous boots, with the shortest skirt in the world and the gaudiest jacket ever, clutching her dog to her chest with one arm as she held a magic wand with the other.
Eventually she walked home, though she was damn sure to keep to the side streets, and as far away from traffic as she could.
For a good half hour after she arrived home, she sat on her bed, or walked around her room in her heels, listening to the sound of them clicking on the floor, and watching herself in her full-length mirror.
Several times she tried to tug off her jacket or skirt, but for some reason she couldn't get them off.
It wasn't until about half past midnight that she came up with the idea to write her own name with the magic wand. When she did, a reverse transformation occurred. When she had written the words Witch Hunter with her hairpin, she had turned into exactly that. When she wrote Henrietta Gosling with her wand, there were all sorts of lights, symbols, and sparks, and she landed on her bottom in her bathrobe.
Then Henrietta Gosling went to bed. Seriously, what else could she do?
It had taken Henrietta maybe two hours to pull herself together that morning. In fact, it had only been an angry call from her boss that had made Henrietta walk out of her room and face the day.
She couldn't stop mumbling to herself.
“You're mad, you must be mad,” she told herself as she stared at the hairpin she had propped up in her bath. At first she'd placed the hairpin on her kitchen table, but within minutes the damn wood had started to singe. So after an age of experimenting, she had settled on the thick ceramic of the bath, which was about the most fireproof thing she had in the house.
Now she was staring at a sodding hairpin in her bath as her arms were folded up over her knees.
Maria had given her an ultimatum. Unless Henrietta got off her butt and got into work before noon, Henrietta would be out of a job. She did not want to be unemployed again. Considering her infamous run of bad luck, few people would offer her a job. In fact, Maria had been the only person willing to employ her. So it would be a big deal if the diminutive Italian woman fired Henrietta.
But, seriously, she had transformed into a Witch Hunter last night and had managed to produce magic by writing it in the air with a wand.
At first, after she'd woken that morning, Henrietta had been inclined to write the whole thing off as a terrible dream. Then she had tried it again. In an attempt to prove to herself that it was an ordinary hairpin, Henrietta had brought it up and written the words Witch Hunter. The whole transformation had occurred again, this time trashing her kitchen in the process.
It had been the conclusive evidence Henrietta could not turn from. The hairpin was magical, and so was she apparently. Unless she got off her butt, dressed, and got down to Sizzle Cafe in the next 45 minutes though, she would be an unemployed, underfed Witch Hunter.
So Henrietta pulled on her clothes, but only after standing for a full 10 minutes in the mirror telling herself that she could get through the day, that she could be normal, and that nothing was going to happen.
Before she had run out the door and down the street, Henrietta had glanced back at the hairpin. She didn't like the idea of keeping it there in her bath; for all she knew when she came home it could have burnt her house down. Plus... she had to admit she didn't like the idea of leaving it full stop. She seemed to have the strangest of connections to that hairpin, and it gave her such reassurance to pick it up and hold it in her hand.
So Henrietta had done the only thing she could think of, and had twisted her hair into a bun, cramming the hairpin through it like a hairpiece. Then she ran to work.
Unlike her display last night, when she’d been fully capable of jumping onto buildings in a single bound, Henrietta lost her grace that morning, and was back to being entirely uncoordinated. As she ran along, she collected the side of a trash-can, bruising her shin something horrible. She also banged her head on a sign, leaving a nasty bruise on her forehead. But she made it to the cafe, and in time for the lunch-hour rush.
Maria was there waiting for her in the doorway, and she promised Henrietta that they would have a good chat after work.
It was a surreal experience picking up her apron, tying it around her middle, and getting behind the counter.
It was a busy day, and the cafe was full. From firemen to policemen, to people who had wandered in off the street to get out of the sunshine – Sizzle Cafe was always popular.
While Henrietta was usually fantastic with customers, and could on any ordinary day chat until the cows came home, she was deathly silent. She offered up bare smiles whenever anyone said hello, and when she wasn't behind the coffee machine, she found herself staring off out of the plate-glass windows, a preoccupied look on her face.
She kept checking her hair too, bringing her fingers up until they brushed over the hairpin.
“What did you get up to last night?”
Henrietta turned to see Patrick Black walking up to the counter and sitting up on one of the tall stools.
Her heart started to beat wildly and her mouth was dry.
“Sorry?” her voice shook.
A single thought was running through her head: he knows.
Patrick gave a soft chuckle, then let his eyebrows clamp over his eyes as he nodded towards her. He brought a hand up and tapped his head. “The bruise over your eye.”
She brought her fingers up, pressed them into her skin, and then winced. She also let her shoulders deflate, and she let out a relieved sigh. “I ran into a sign,” she admitted.
Jimmy Field appeared at Patrick's side, and he gave a low chuckle as he did.
Jimmy and Patrick were good friends. Despite the fact that the both of them vied for the affections of Marcia Gosling, that didn't stop them from hanging out. Henrietta had no idea how that worked, but figured it had something to do with Marcia's fantastic good luck. Her efforts to sleep her way around town never resulted in any hatred or ill feeling towards her, and the mere fact that two men could remain friends while still attempting to woo her was conclusive evidence that Marcia had no ordinary human level of luck.
“Ran into a sign, you know, that sounds like you, Henrietta,” Jimmy pointed out, a beautiful smile pushing up his cheeks.
On any other day, she might have paused and ogled the two. Patrick and Jimmy would easily be the hottest men in town, and they were so far out of her league that it wasn't funny.
Henrietta was in no mood to stare at their loveliness today. Instead she kind of gave them a dead-eyed look and went back to wiping down the counter.
Jimmy's chuckle stopped, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Jimmy and Patrick exchange a look. A mildly worried look.
“Are you all right, Henrietta?” Patrick asked, a note of professionalism running through his voice.
Henrietta didn't answer him. She kept wiping at a non-existent spot on the counter, putting her elbow into it, even though there was no mark there to be cleaned off. If she put all her attention into cleaning or working, she could keep her mind off what had happened last night.
A witch. An actual witch. Magic, wands, spells, and a man in a ridiculous leather jacket. Not to mention her own costume....
“Henrietta,” Patrick's voice was louder, and it forced her to look up and offer him a quick blink.
The man looked clearly concerned, and so did Jimmy. The calm, friendly edge was gone from their countenances.
“You should have taken the day off,” Jimmy nodded at her, a frown forming on his lips. “Considering what happened yesterday—”
Henrietta looked up at him sharply.
“With the fire,” he continued.
Her shoulders deflated and she looked to the side, blinking, bringing her hand up and touching her hairpin.
“Why don't you head home?” Patrick suggested.
The two of them were so obviously concerned, and somehow it served to make them all the more attractive. There was something about fantastically handsome burly men in uniform looking out for you that had to make any girl swoon.
Henrietta was in no mood to swoon, and she also couldn't afford to take the day off.
“I'm sure Maria will understand,” Patrick said as he got off his stool, “it's inappropriate to have you come back to work so soon after the incident.”
Maria would not understand. Maria was a ball breaker. Maria was one hell of a woman and believed in her own special kind of discipline. Short of an actual letter from a doctor or a lawyer, there was no way she was going to let Henrietta head home today. Maria was fully aware she’d suffered smoke inhalation yesterday, but had been given the all clear from the doctor. Maria was also aware that Henrietta was the cafe's best barista, and tended to bring in far more customers when she was at work.
Henrietta shook her head and tried to give them both a reassuring smile, but she couldn't manage it. Though she spread her lips, it looked a hell of a lot more like a grimace. So she brought her hand up and gave a cough to hide it.
“Are you okay?” Jimmy asked, no doubt thinking that her cough meant she was about to choke up her lungs, a delayed effect of the smoke inhalation and shock.
She shook her head, then she nodded it.
Patrick was already on his feet, and he was surveying the cafe looking for Maria. So Henrietta had to do something. Short of pulling out her hairpin and writing the words “sit back down in your seat, Patrick,” she had to find some way to stop him from heading over to Maria.
So it was time to lie.
There was only one kind of lie that would get both of these men to pay attention.
“It's my sister,” Henrietta said through a hearty and faked sigh.
Patrick turned around, and so did Jimmy. In fact, the two of them looked like dogs who had heard the dinner bell.
“What about your sister?” Jimmy snapped.
“Is Marcia okay?” Patrick followed up, sitting back down on his stool.
Henrietta had to press her lips hard together not to smile. It was so bizarre that the mention of her sister's name could have such power over these two professional and capable men. It was like Marcia turned them into malleable putty, and even the mere mention of her name made the men melt on the spot.
Henrietta blinked. “She is angry at me,” she said through faked glumness.
Jimmy nodded. It was a knowing move. “Oh.”
They had all been there before. All three of them had been on the receiving end of Marcia's legendary anger. That was the thing about being a full-time beautiful drama queen: Marcia could get dramatic easily, and woe betide if you were on the wrong end of that drama.
“I was meant to go to her house and have dinner last night,” Henrietta noted, “she wasn't exactly happy when I couldn't make it,” she grimaced. To be fair, she was telling the complete truth here; Marcia was angry at her. But the prospect of her sister being mad at Henrietta was not what made her go staring off into space, and it was not what was making her so edgy today. Henrietta was not about to tell the town's finest police officer and fireman what exactly was up with her.
“You could try flowers,” Patrick suggested helpfully.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “You only try flowers with Marcia when she has been sick or she has demanded them.”
The two men looked interested, as if they were ready to take notes.
“Chocolates?” Jimmy offered. “She seems to always like chocolates.”
“She likes the boxes,” Henrietta noted as she shook her head, “she won't eat them, in case she gets fat.”
“I didn't know that,” Jimmy looked scandalized. “I've been buying her the finest boxes of chocolates I can afford.”
She shrugged. “As soon as she gets them, she chucks out the chocolates and keeps the empty boxes. Apparently she likes the color and patterns.”
Jimmy crumpled a bit.
“Look, it's okay, thank you both for your help, but I'm sure I'll get through this.” Henrietta tried to blink prettily, but there was no point. She was never going to get the eye of either Patrick or Jimmy. They both viewed her as just Marcia's sister, and only an avenue to learn more about the blonde bombshell, and never as a romantic prospect in herself.
Which made Henrietta glum. In another second she reminded herself she didn't have the time to be glum; she had found out she was some kind of magical Witch Hunter.
Her lips crumpled together and she gave an odd and loud swallow.
“You’ll be okay; Marcia will forget eventually,” Patrick tried.
“Thank you.” With that, she went back to attempting to clean the already pristine bench. This time neither Patrick nor Jimmy looked on at her with great concern; they were clearly satisfied by her excuse.
The day dragged on, and every single time Henrietta looked at the clock, it seemed as if the minute hands had frozen in place. A few times she brought her hand up to her hairpin, with the sudden idea of writing “make time go faster,” but of course she never did it. She desperately wanted to run home, lock the doors, pull the curtains, and whip out her hairpin. She wanted to write Witch Hunter in the air with it, to see what would happen.
As the day drew on, and the normal drudgery of her life continued, she began to realize how fantastic last night had been. Could she be a magical Witch Hunter? Could such a thing exist? What of the strangely-dressed Brick? Could a man so unflappable, odd, and powerful be real?
Henrietta had to wait until the end of her shift to get any answers.
It was when she was walking home, and she flagged down a bus, that her normal and boring day took a turn.
She usually didn't take the bus; she didn't live that far away from where she worked. Plus, she always liked the light exercise. But with ominous-looking rain clouds building on the horizon, she had decided the bus was her only option.
She was in a hurry to get home. She was in a hurry to push all the furniture to the side in her bedroom and to take up her magical hairpin.
When she sat on the bus, it took Henrietta a long while to realize that it was empty save for her and the driver. In fact, it wasn't until the bus took a turn in the wrong direction that she looked up.
Had she gotten on the wrong bus? Wasn't it meant to turn left at Hickory Street?
For a while she sat there, pressing herself closer to the glass so she could get a better view of where it was driving. Eventually she realized the bus was heading out of town. That's when she got to her feet and cleared her throat.
Latching a hand onto a handrail so she didn't fall over considering how damn uncoordinated she was, Henrietta turned towards the driver. “Excuse me, but where are we headed? I think I may have gotten on the wrong bus.”
The driver didn't reply.
She took several steps forward, always ensuring to latch her hand over a rail so she didn't tumble over her own feet. “Excuse me, but where are we going? I think you better let me out; my stop is in the other direction.”
The driver still didn't answer.
It wasn't until she made her way up to the front of the bus that she figured out why. The driver was not wearing an ordinary cap. He wasn't even wearing an ordinary uniform. He was in a full leather jacket with a black leather Akubra.
He turned around and offered her a grin.
Henrietta gripped harder onto the rail she was leaning next to, and she spluttered. “What are you doing here? Are you a bus driver?” It was a stupid question. From her brief experience with this man, she could bet that he was not a sodding bus driver. He was a warrior monk, with ninja-quick, lightning-like skills, a magical crossbow, and a jacket that seemed capable of swallowing anything.
Brick shook his head. “Don't worry, I used to drive the bus at the Warrior Monk Monastery; I have my bus license.”
It was such an incongruous thing to say, but at least it made her snort. Then she realized she was on a bus with Brick the warrior monk, headed out of town. “Where are you taking me?” she hissed.
“I know, I know, it's not night yet, and I did promise to come and get you at night. The only problem is, we have to get to work now. I have heard news of a witch on the outskirts of town, and she is playing around in the forest unfortunately.” Brick shook his head briefly.
Henrietta clamped a hand on her face, crumpled her eyes closed, and shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“Really? Do I have to explain that you are a warrior woman Witch Hunter again?” Brick turned around in his seat, not bothering to glance at the road, and giving her pause to wonder whether the man did have his bus license.
Somehow he managed to keep the bus straight, and avoid every single cyclist and car in his path, while fixing Henrietta with a disgruntled look.
“You don't need to repeat that,” she assured him after a moment. “But...” she trailed off. Maybe Brick did need to repeat the story again, because maybe she still couldn't believe it.
Brick sighed and gave a croaking cough into his hand. “Excellent. You should take the time to transform.” He nodded towards the back of the bus. “There isn't much room here, so you might bang into a couple of rails, so be as careful as you can.”
She grimaced. “What are you talking about? I'm not going to change in a bus!”
“Transform,” he corrected her. “Yes you are. I am going to put the pedal to the metal, or whatever that human phrase is, and we are going to head out to the witch before she can set the forest on fire with her fireballs.” Brick shook his head again. “It is appalling how some people have such poor hygiene around forest fires. You know,” he put up a finger, neither hand on the wheel, “all it takes is an errant spark to start a forest fire, and that forest fire can go on to destroy property and lives. This has been a dry summer,” he emphasized.
She stared at him, her lips parting gently. He babbled, and it was worse than the trash that usually came out of her mouth.
He turned to her again, taking both his hands off the wheel once more. “Go and transform,” he nodded towards the back of the bus, “don't forget—”
“I have to grab destiny,” Henrietta finished his sentence. They probably weren't the exact words he was going to use, but it was the same sentiment.
He turned back, and he came good on his promise: the warrior monk slammed his foot onto the gas pedal, and the bus shot forward violently.
She grabbed harder onto the rail to steady herself. Then she began to walk backwards towards the end of the bus.
“What are you doing?” she asked herself as she pulled the hairpin from her hair. It was sharp, and she had to be careful not to stab her neck as she tugged at it. She held it for a moment and gave it a jolly good staring at. “Really, girl, what are you doing?”
“You are off to fight the witches,” Brick called from the front of the bus, apparently possessing super hearing.
She darted her gaze over to glare at him, and then she clutched the hairpin tighter.
She closed her eyes.
Only several days ago she’d been a normal sensible girl. An unlucky one, sure, but she certainly hadn't been involved in anything as bizarre and improbable as magic and witch hunting. Yet here she was in a speeding bus being driven by a warrior monk towards a witch.
Henrietta let out a heavy breath, then, glancing to the side, she brought up the hairpin. “What happens if someone sees me transform? What happens if some kid captures it on his mobile phone?”
“I'm driving too fast,” Brick said, a smile in his words. “Plus, I have made some adjustments to this bus to ensure our anonymity. Feel free to change now, Warrior Woman Henrietta. We will be at our destination shortly.”
This is mad, she told herself.
She brought the pin up and wrote two words: Witch Hunter.
As had happened last night, she began to transform. The symbols appeared at her feet, the energy rushed up her body, and then she began to float. Within about 20 seconds, her costume had fully formed over her body and she landed on the floor, falling over promptly and hitting her butt with a thump. She rubbed at it, swore, and then pulled herself up. She looked down at her outfit and shook her head. She brought a hand up and felt her mask, even letting her fingers play over her tight, neat, sexy bun.
Henrietta Gosling had become a Witch Hunter.
Now it was time to hunt a witch.
Henrietta never usually left town; she wasn't one for the country. She had always been a city girl, and she got hay fever around too much grass. But here she was, jumping out of the bus, the tires still smoking, and walking her way towards the National Reserve forest that backed up onto the city.
It was still light, and would be for several hours yet, but the cicadas were already beating their wings, and there was a light breeze picking up and taking the edge off the heat.
Brick hadn't been wrong about one thing: the grass and trees were dry. Now she put her mind to it, apart from the sudden scuds of rain that drenched her on her way to work, it had been a dry summer.
“Perfect weather for a fire,” Brick shook his head, “considering the low water content of the soil,” he reached down, picked up some soil and rubbed it between his fingers, “this forest will go up like a firecracker.”
She looked at him and then shifted her gaze carefully towards the still-smoking tires. He followed her and shrugged. “Don't worry about them,” he flicked his hands towards the bus, “they will be fine.”
She nodded her head, then shook it when he turned away.
She held onto her wand tighter as she started to wonder what she was doing. This was a public forest, a public reserve. Naturally, it would be full of the public. Though Brick had managed to park somewhere far away from the usual car park, somehow taking the bus cross-country to park it on top of a hill, Henrietta knew they would run into people at some point.
She found herself clutching a hand on her skirt and trying to make it longer.
Brick watched her. “You don't want to do that. Long skirts make you trip up.” He nodded at her knowingly. “What you have there,” he pointed closely to her skirt, “is the perfect length for action.”
She clutched her hands into fists but didn't say anything.
Suddenly she turned towards the forest. She'd heard something.
It sounded like a child crying. It sent a cold wave of nausea running through her body.
“Witches,” Brick said with a powerful sniff.
Henrietta redoubled her grip on her wand.
“Warrior Woman Henrietta, it is time for work.” Brick nodded forwards, then began to walk off towards the forest edge.
Despite the fact the ground was soft and full of holes, she did not trip over in her stupendous heels. Once again, she found she was walking with great ease, elegance even, and she knew that if she wanted to, she could probably flip right over the tree nearest to her. It was an odd but kind of awesome sensation. It saw her looking at her hands in admiration.
“If you act somewhat like you did last night, this should be easy,” Brick said, his statement hardly clear.
She narrowed her eyes and turned to him, walking right over a large rock, even though any attempt to do so in those heels by a normal woman would see her fall on her back and break her legs. “What are you talking about? Why don't you tell me some real advice? Like what are the witches, and how am I meant to fight them? What spells are the best? If I write anything in the air, will it happen? Why don't I write ‘witch disappear?'”
Brick frowned at her, confused. “But you were fine last night.”
She gave an angry harrumph. “I played it by ear last night, and we barely got out of there alive. If you are meant to be my warrior monk helper, then you tell me what I have to do. I don't even know what a witch is.”
“Really?” He looked dumbfounded.
She wanted to hit him. He knew that she knew nothing about this magical world, and that before yesterday, she’d never experienced anything like this in her life.
“I thought everyone knew what witches are?” he pointed out again.
She balled up a fist and went to hit him, but the lithe and quick man ducked out of the way in a flash.
“Why would you punch me?” he asked, surprise obvious.
“You are being so bloody obtuse. If you want me to help get rid of these witches, and if you're meant to assist me in that task, then bloody well assist me. What are witches, and what kind of spells should I use to defeat them?”
The two of them kept walking through the forest, and at that moment, they found the path, but they also found something else. As Henrietta finished asking Brick what kind of spells she should use, two surprised-looking old ladies rounded the corner.
They stopped, and they stared.
Henrietta couldn't blame them, because she was dressed in ways that an old lady could never approve of. What was more, she was walking around with a man in a ridiculous leather jacket and hat, with billowing, puffy clothes.
The two old ladies stood there, exchanging glances and staring at Henrietta and Brick.
Brick didn’t stop; he nodded their way, gave them an affable smile, and waved Henrietta forward.
She was horrified. Her eyes grew larger under her mask. She wanted to clamp her hands over her face and hide behind them, because there was no way she was going to manage to hide behind the scraps of fabric she was wearing.
Brick looked at her and shrugged further along the path, the move quick. It was obvious he wanted her to hurry up.
So, cold embarrassment still wrapping around her, Henrietta turned away from the women and ran up the path.
“Oh my god,” she mumbled when she was sure they were out of earshot, “oh my god, I have ruined everything. Those two ladies saw me!”
Brick shrugged. “And?”
She looked at him, her cheeks growing hotter with every second. “They saw me in this.” She clutched a hand onto her bodice and tapped it there.
Brick looked down at the bodice, but not once did it seem as if his gaze was lecherous in any way; it was cold and pointed. “Do you have a problem with the national dress of the Witch Hunters?”
“Yes,” she said after a pointed pause. “But isn't this meant to be secret?” she added, getting to her real question. “Aren't people never meant to find out about me or the witches?” She brought up her wand and waved it around. “Or magic?”
Brick nodded. “They won't find out about the witches, and they certainly aren't meant to find out about your true identity. This is not because you require anonymity from the public. It is because the witches might find out, and if the witches find out, they will come to your house in the night and surround you in so much flame that you can't get out.”
Her hand gave a violent twitch, and she clutched it to her chest as she conjured that mental image. “Sorry?”
“But as for people finding out about magic, frankly, it's not going to happen. They will think you are a loony running around in a costume. Plus, that is where the wand comes in.”
She was ready to hit him, but she paused. “What do you mean that's where my wand comes in?”
Brick pointed to it. “You are right, Warrior Woman Henrietta – you do have the sacred task of keeping magic, the witches, and your true identity secret, but you have several powerful tools to assist you in that area. Also, you must remember that no witch would ever fight in front of an ordinary human. It is a witch's last desire to become known by humanity. They live in the shadows, and though they come out to do damage, they do so secretly. All magical races, I think you will find, enjoy their anonymity from humanity.” Brick nodded sternly as he spoke, and he had the kind of tone that suggested he was a teacher conveying his wisdom to his attentive pupil. Except the only problem was Henrietta was more gob smacked than attentive.
“I thought you said that the witch in the forest is about to set it alight? That kind of sounds like the type of behavior—” she began.
Brick brought up a hand. “You misunderstand. Witches will certainly act to destroy both lives and property, but they will do so from the shadows. They will only make themselves known to their victims, and never to the general public. They are a secretive race, and this has always made our war with them a shadow one.”
“So what do we do then?”
“Simple, we find the witch, we fight her, you contain her, then we go home.” Brick smiled.
“What happens if someone recognizes me? What happens if someone comes across me while I'm fighting the witch? What happens if someone sees my magic? Witches may be secretive, but what happens if I make a mistake?” It was an important question considering her track record in life. She was the one who failed at everything, she was the girl who made every possible mistake, and she was certainly capable of screwing this up.
Brick took a moment to think, his eyes darting up, and his lips crumpling to the side. “Humanity is a curious race. Even if they see magic, their tendency is to rationalize it away.”
It wasn't a good answer. “You aren't answering my question,” she spat back, her costume making her a great deal stronger and more forthright than she usually was. “Am I going to get in trouble if someone sees my magic? Am I going to be dragged up in front of some kind of Witch-Hunter Council? Is my wand going to be taken away from me? Is some secret and shadowy government organization going to swoop in and kidnap me?”
Brick shrugged. “I'm not sure.”
His answer made her cheeks burn with anger. “What do you mean you're not sure? You are meant to be my helper. You’re a warrior monk, you were given the sacred task of helping me hunt the witches,” she reeled off the facts she’d learned from him last night. “So how can you not be sure? You seem to know everything about the witches and Witch Hunters, and I don't know a thing.”
He gave a cough, and it caught Henrietta's attention, because it was careful.
He didn't answer her question though, so she took a breath and got ready to steam roll on. “How many other witch hunters are there out there? How long have we been fighting the witches? Is there some kind of organization I now belong to?”
As she kept pumping out her questions, Brick looked less and less sure of himself, which was an odd and unusual expression for the warrior monk to hold.
She ground to a halt, the heels of her boots digging into the soft and dry ground. “What aren't you telling me?”
Brick cleared his throat, running his tongue along his lip as he looked up into the sky. “That there kind of haven't been Witch Hunters for a couple of hundred years,” he managed to say.
She scrunched up her nose. “What?”
He shrugged. “You are kind of on your own.” He brought his arm up and scratched at his neck uneasily.
“What do you mean I'm on my own?”
“You know last night when I told you it took me a couple of years to find you?” Brick asked through a bizarrely frozen and stiff smile.
Henrietta didn't answer.
“Well, by a couple, I meant a couple of hundred. I've been looking for you for 350 years.”
“All of the other Witch Hunters are... to put it lightly... dead.”
“Dead?” She jerked back and crammed a hand on her stomach. Before tonight, she’d never heard of Witch Hunters. Yet the prospect she was now the only one left made her shoulders droop and her eyes widen.
Brick latched his hand onto his neck. “I was meant to find you before the last war, however, you hadn’t been born yet. We got the prophecy wrong.” He sighed heavily, and now didn't so much look awkward as grief stricken. His sadness passed quickly, but it hinted that under Brick's odd exterior was a real man.
“Prophecy?” She kept her hands clamped on her stomach, the fingers tugging against her bodice.
Brick nodded. “You were meant to be the Witch Hunter to put an end to the war.” He didn't look at her. “But considering you weren't born 350 years ago....”
She swallowed, closing her eyes and squeezing them tightly shut.
“But I finally found you.” The light returned to Brick's gaze. “And, who knows, the prophecy may now turn out to be true. You may be the witch hunter to finally end the war. Or at least we can hope you will be... because you are the last witch hunter, and when you die, well, there will be no stopping them.”
She wanted to throw up. Her saga of finding a magical hairpin and transforming into a witch hunter had taken a turn from the fabulous to the serious.
“So, to answer your question, I don't know what will happen if people see you doing magic; you are the first witch hunter to exist in modern times. Although, obviously, it would be preferable that no one ever saw you, we will have to see what happens if they do.”
She locked her teeth together and grimaced. What happened if all of those books and fantasy movies were right? What if the government came and kidnapped her and did all sorts of experiments on her?
“We must press on.” Brick sliced a hand forward. “That witch is near.”
Far in the distance, something began to cry.
It pushed a familiar flutter of fear through her stomach.
She still had a lot of questions for Brick, such as if he’d been looking for her for 350 years, why hadn’t he found the time to update his wardrobe?
Before she could point that out, she caught a whiff of acrid smoke curling through the trees.
“Drat.” Brick clicked his fingers.
She was about to pull him up on saying drat and clicking his fingers like a ‘50s cartoon character when a wind sliced through the air. It brought with it the sizzling and crackling of dry wood.
On instinct, she flattened herself onto the ground. Her face and nose pressed into the dirt, and she sucked in a chunk of dry dust. She spluttered, but she moved. A fireball whizzed over her head and slammed into the ground beside her.
Instantly the dry leaves and wood littering the forest floor burst into flame.
Henrietta had served firemen for long enough to appreciate how dangerous forest fires were. When it was summer, when it was windy, when the ground was dry, the forest behind the city could go up like a tinderbox. All it would take was a smoking cigarette for the entire place to burst into flame.
She pushed to her feet, flicking her wand forward.
Brick had dodged the fireball too, and sprung to his feet, whipping out his crossbow and pointing it at the fire. He fired, and the familiar blue spark erupted from the crossbow’s tip. It slammed into the flames, pushing them out and fanning them forward with its force. Then a symbol began to grow, and the crackling flames began to die.
“Hurry, contain the witch; I can fight the fire, but not very effectively.” Brick shunted to the left and shot at a different patch of fire that curled up the side of a tree.
She locked her knees, braced her shoulders, and twisted her head. She tried to listen to the witch, tried to figure out where it was. As she did, she snapped her wand up and wrote water.
A unique, blue, flickering symbol that reminded her of the ocean depths appeared at her feet. Water rushed and furled out of it, shooting up and around her, until it reached a zenith that equaled the height of the tallest tree. With a pop, it flopped down to the earth in a thundering splash. It soaked everything around her, including Brick, and extinguished the fire instantly.
He stood there, rivulets rushing off his hat and down his face.
She wanted to giggle, but now wasn’t the time.
She planted her hand into the ground and flipped to the side, somersaulting high over a fireball as it swooshed past her.
She landed and pulled up her wand.
A rush of cold wind and snowflakes whirled from a symbol beneath her feet. They pushed her jacket and skirt up, revealing way too much underpant real estate.
The blizzard whipped up and twisted around and around her, sending the freezing snowflakes left right and center.
The snowflakes hit the burning forest ground, the flames sizzling under the onslaught, but unfortunately the wind also fanned them outwards, pushing them further into the forest.
Oh no, bad move.
Yes, the blizzard was cold and the snow was thick, but wind and fire don’t mix!
It also made visibility low. The snow was that blanketing that it was hard to see beyond a meter or two.
The second she finished, the blizzard abated, errant snowflakes drifting around her until they settled on the ground by her feet.
Way to go, Witch Hunter. She'd made things much worse with her carelessly chosen spell.
She bit her lip hard and took a shifting breath.
“Don't stop, Witch Hunter; get the witch before she can set the whole place alight.”
Henrietta let his words catapult her forward.
She had no clue what she was meant to write, and as Brick had given her little guidance, her only option was to learn by trying.
How about help me? It was worth a try.
As she dashed through the trees, her heels clicking along the rock-laden ground, she tugged her wand up.
Just in time, she stopped herself. It seemed like a very open spell. It felt like an invitation to anyone and anything. She shivered as she realized the witch could take it as an invitation to help itself to Henrietta, or something equally as horrible.
But Henrietta had to do something, so she snapped up her wand again and wrote water. Once again a tidal wave rushed out, but it didn't rush far enough to extinguish every spot fire.
Plus, as the witch darted through the trees, wherever the creature ran, she set the place alight, her flaming body licking against the dry leaves and twigs. The witch kept shooting off fireballs, too, most of them zipping off course and traveling deep into the forest.
Brick was right, she had to end this. She had to stop the witch before she could hurt anyone.
So Henrietta wrote the next word she could think of.
It was an odd spell to pin her hopes on, and as she finished writing it, she began to regret it. She didn't have the time to waste on useless spells.
As frost shot out from a symbol at her feet and covered the forest, she noticed something. Not only did it damp down the fire – it protected the forest from any more sparks.
The frost she’d conjured wasn’t ordinary. It wasn’t a light smattering of frozen water droplets over leaves and bark; it was deep and thick. It covered the ground, trees, branches, and foliage in a casing of frozen water. It was like an armor against the fire. As the sparks floated through the forest, and fireballs kept cracking her way, they no longer ate into the dry wood, but glanced off the ground, coming to rest and sizzling and steaming like a match thrown on the snow.
The witch shrieked.
Henrietta could hear it closer now; the keening cry couldn’t be more than several meters to her left.
She changed direction, her jacket flattening over her legs but never tripping her up.
A whirl of frost crystals erupted around her, twisting until they balled together and shot forward.
If frost had worked so well to contain the fire, then perhaps it would work on the witch too.
Henrietta could now see the creature rushing through the forest. Like the one from last night, she had the appearance of a thin and glum young woman. She had sallow, large, round eyes. She was wearing the remnants of a summer dress, but it was just so many rags against her pale skin. She had long unkempt hair, and she wore no shoes.
As Henrietta sprung towards it, she struggled to latch hold of a plan. She couldn’t write hole again and have a void form in the forest floor. It would leave a massive section of barren land devoid of trees and life.
But how else could she get rid of that witch?
Henrietta darted to the side and wrote wall, that familiar magical wall forming in front of her just as a fireball slammed her way.
She twisted and wrote frost, a thick blanket of frost covering the forest.
As she ran and wrote, she had to admit something: the more she wrote, the more tired she became. It was like cramp or bad RSI.
Had she run out of magic? Had Brick neglected to mention that there was a limit on how many spells she could cast?
The witch suddenly stopped and whirled on the spot, her unkempt and greasy hair flying over her shoulder and slapping into her neck and face. She opened her jaw wide and let out a keening, screeching cry.
She balled her fists up, familiar cracks of red fire splintering over her skin.
Henrietta skidded to a halt, her boots snagging on the ground as a surge of fear rushed through her. Her elegance and agility fell away, and she fell over, slamming onto her butt and jarring her wrist.
Terror tore through her, ripping through her chest. It was the look in the witch's eye. It was the proximity of the creature as she loomed forward, more and more flame licking high into the air. It was the horrible promise that kept flickering in her eyes.
The wand threatened to slip through Henrietta’s grip, but she snatched it up in time.
The witch drove a fireball right towards her. Henrietta rolled, but not before the fire smashed into the ground next to her and singed her leg.
She screamed, a deep, primitive move that tore through her throat.
Her leg crackled and burnt, the skin bubbling like pig fat thrown in a pan. A shooting pain burst up into her hip and back.
She scrabbled on the ground, white-gloved fingers gouging the dirt.
The witch loomed above her.
Henrietta, heart stilled, let her head fall back as she stared at the witch.
The flame crackling over the witch’s flesh punched higher and higher, wider and wider, until Henrietta could feel it seer the unprotected flesh of her face.
Time slowed down.
This was it.
Fight or die.
She chose to fight.
With a shaking hand, she wrote the word as fast as her sweat-slicked fingers could manage.
Just as the witch flung her hands back, readying a fireball, chains appeared out of nowhere and wrapped around the creature's wrists, shackling her to the ground.
The witch shrieked, and Henrietta flung herself backwards, clutching a hand to her burnt leg.
Brick appeared, just as she stumbled, her leg buckling from the pain stabbing through it. He caught her, wrapped an arm around her middle, and pulled her back to her feet.
“You fly fast, Warrior Woman Henrietta; I lost track of you.” He struggled for breath. “But you are now weakened. You have cast too many spells.”
Her wrist was stiff and unmovable, her body a sweaty, burnt mess. Too true she was weakened. It was a struggle to keep her eyes open.
“But we haven't yet overcome the witch.” He took a step back from her when it was clear she could stand, and tugged his crossbow from his jacket. He aimed it right at Henrietta's stomach.
She was still shaking from fatigue and pain, but she shuddered backwards. “Brick, what are you doing?”
The witch crashed about in the background, the clinks and clangs of her chains reverberating through the forest.
“Casting a magical magnification field.” He fired. Blue sparks streamed from the crossbow and thumped into the center of her chest.
It didn’t topple her over and send her tumbling meters over the scorched ground. Instead, a mandala appeared at her feet, a rush of energy snaking into her legs and tingling all the way up to her fingertips.
“Write the word banished,” Brick bellowed.
She didn’t hesitate.
Which was unusual. She was the girl who took half an hour to decide what to eat. It always took hours to pick a movie. And last time she went shopping, she’d spent half an hour in torture over which T-shirt to buy.
None of that mattered now. She wrenched up her wand and wrote banished.
An eerie black light shot out from a dark symbol at her feet. A powerful, tingling, rushing sensation pushed through her, sending a sharp shiver dancing up her spine.
The witch screamed, the black light surging forward and encasing her.
Suddenly, she was yanked backward. Her body stretched like a soaked photo as she was pulled towards some invisible point. Her screeching grew quieter and quieter until both it and the witch disappeared.
Henrietta slumped forward. Brick caught her. He chuckled and patted her back. “Excellent work.”
She let out a morose sigh, strands of her fringe falling in front of her face. She felt like hell.
“You did let yourself get burnt, and you almost died, but apart from that, it was alright.” Brick tried to cheer her up. “Oh, and you almost burnt the forest down with an ill-chosen blizzard spell. But honestly, apart from all that, you did well.”
Her stiff neck creaked as she looked at him. It was clear Brick had no social skills, but at least his friendly smile was genuine.
Suddenly, sirens filtered through the dense trees.
Brick turned to them. “It sounds like the Fire Service are finally here.”
Henrietta stood and surveyed the damage. The forest was most definitely on fire. It wasn't a raging inferno, and the sections covered in frost still appeared to be immune, but there were spurts of flames and bursts of smoke dotting up everywhere.
She dragged her wand up.
Brick rested his hand on her wrist and pushed down. “You do not have the magic left.”
“But I have to do something.”
“A banishment spell is the hardest spell to perform, and uses up all residual magic you have. You need to rest now. Let the Fire Service deal with this.”
“But what about your crossbow? Surely there is something you can do?” Guilt gathered in her gut as she watched the flames catch over the trees and scrub.
“I am out of bolts. And you and I must now leave. While I do not know what would happen if the humans saw us casting magic in the forest, I am sure they would pause to stare at your costume regardless of whether you were waving your wand around or not.”
Had he admitted her costume was outrageous? She was too tired to bring him up on it. She felt totally drained.
“The fire is small, and it should be easily contained. So now it is time for you and me to get on a bus and to drive like cats on speed.” Brick wrapped an arm around her middle and pushed into a run.
She collapsed against him, thankful he was there.
Henrietta was drying glasses with abject fear plastered over her face. It cracked up the sides of her shivering lips and crinkled the skin around her wide-open eyes.
She was listening to a conversation between Jimmy and one of his firefighting friends.
“Look, Jimmy, I’m telling you, she had boots up to her thighs.” The friend tapped the side of his leg. “And the heels were sky scrapers.”
Jimmy laughed around an open smile. “Are you sure it wasn't just smoke inhalation?” He slapped his friend on the back.
“Smoke inhalation? She was wearing a bodice, and her skirt,” the guy's voice shot so high he was like a prepubescent boy, “was the shortest I have ever seen.”
Jimmy laughed again.
Henrietta had been drying the same glass for about five minutes now.
“Come on, Jimmy, you have to admit this is incredible.” His friend whistled.
Jimmy didn't stop laughing, but his eyebrows did crumple down. “I'll tell you what is incredible, did you hear about the frost?”
Henrietta's hands seized up, her fingers clutching at her tea towel.
“What frost?” The friend ticked his head to the side
Jimmy scratched his brow and shrugged. “Look, I have no idea how it got there, maybe it was just some kids playing pranks… but there were whole tracks of forest that were covered in the thickest frost. It was one of the reasons we didn't have a serious bushfire on our hands yesterday.”
The friend pressed closer, leaning an arm onto the bar. “I heard Rodriguez say something about that, but I thought he was tugging my leg.”
She swallowed, her throat constricted.
Jimmy turned to her. “You probably think we’re mad, don't you, Henny?”
“I… I'm sure there's an innocent explanation for everything.” Her fingers were so white, they looked like someone had whittled the flesh down to bone.
Jimmy curled a lip and sniggered. “Maybe you’re right. Still, that frost....”
His friend made a motion like he was tracing the outline of a woman's body. “That outfit.”
Jimmy slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Very smooth.”
She wanted to pull free from the conversation, she wanted to put her glass down, let go of her tea towel, and run away as fast as she could.
Someone had seen her in the forest yesterday, seen enough of her to gawk at her costume. Worse, Jimmy Field had seen the remnants of her frost spell. So much for keeping her anonymity.
Brick would kill her.
He’d promised to come see her after work. Apparently she could kiss her quiet nights goodbye. She'd be fighting witches from now until the end of the shadow war.
It hadn't sunk in yet. She didn’t want it to sink in.
She wanted to go back to normal.
Henrietta swallowed again and picked up another glass.
Jimmy frowned. “Are you okay today?”
Nope. Definitely not okay.
She forced a smile over her stiff lips. “Sure.”
Jimmy paused, that frown pushing harder down his chin.
“Have you talked to Marcia recently?” she interrupted before he could push his point.
Jimmy straightened and lost that careful, concerned, professional look. All it took was the mention of Marcia, and he turned into putty.
His friend leaned in, chuckled, and thumped him on the back. “He saw her last night.”
Henrietta hated talking about her sister, but at least it distracted Jimmy and his friend. So she engaged in small talk about Marcia until both men left.
The rest of the day wound on. Just like yesterday, she was possessed with the urge to run to the bathroom, grab her hairpin, and write witch hunter just to see what would happen.
It was still amazing to think she had that kind of power....
As she worked, she listened into every conversation between any of the firemen who came in for lunch or coffee. Some of them talked of the fire, but by far the hot topic was the woman they'd seen in the forest.
She tried to keep herself composed, but it was hard. From the guffaws, to the fake wolf whistles, to the sheer disbelief, everybody had their own version of events. Fortunately, not once did she hear mention of a witch – a thin, gaunt, young woman in a broken and burnt summer dress who spat fire from her skin.
A stripper in the woods was bizarre, so was frost in the middle of summer. A creature whose skin cracked with flame, however, would be impossible to explain.
She’d dodged a bullet. Still, if she wanted to keep the truth of the witches secret, she’d have to do a better job next time.
By the time work ended, she’d whipped herself into a frenzy. Her thoughts kept flitting from her fight to the few scraps of advice Brick had shared with her.
She was in a daze as she walked home.
When she reached her house, a shaking hand inserting the key into her lock and tugging the door open, it was to the sound of Barney giving a happy bark.
Her dog never welcomed her home. He only got out of bed for chow and a pat.
“What the hell?” She let the door swing shut as she tugged her shoes off and kicked them next to the wall. “Barney?”
Her dog gave another happy bark.
She reached her room.
There was a man sitting on her bed, playing with her dog, and he was wearing a ridiculous leather jacket.
Brick looked up, plucked his hat from his head and tipped it at her, and then went back to playing with Barney.
“You do not have much sustenance in your house,” Brick pointed out before she could start shouting at him.
His statement derailed her. “What? What are you talking about?”
Brick shrugged towards the kitchen. “I have gone through all the food available in this residence, yet it was not sufficient. Where are your stores?” He kept scratching under Barney's chin.
Barney didn’t like people. He tolerated them, especially if they fed him, but he was no lap dog. Yet here he was rolling over and letting Brick rub his tummy. The little sell-out.
She clamped her hands hard on her hips and shifted her jaw around stiffly. “What do you mean you've eaten all my food?”
“There was not much to start off with. And as a warrior monk, I have a considerable appetite. So I am enquiring where you keep your stores for the winter. I went through your house, but I could not find a cellar stocked with meats and cheeses, so where are they?”
Her eyebrows crumpled. “Meats and cheeses? A store for the winter? What the hell are you talking about?”
Brick shook his head. “And you call yourself a witch hunter.”
“I do not call myself a witch hunter, you do. And you'd better pay for all the food you ate, mister.”
“Pay? How would I pay?”
He was playing dumb; of course Brick knew what money was. Or at least she hoped he did. She was on a budget, and if Brick had cleaned her fridge out, it would be grass and water for her.
Brick sighed and stood up. He shifted his shoulders around as if he was getting ready for some action, the leather of his jacket squeaking. “Are you ready for some witch hunting tonight?”
She didn't answer. She crossed her arms and held them there. As she stood, Brick several meters from her, her sell-out corgi looking up at him with adoring eyes, she paused.
Just how much did she know about this man? Other than the fact he dressed like a Jackaroo and could produce Harleys out of thin air.
“Does something bother you, Warrior Woman Henrietta?”
“Yes, you do. I want to know more about you, I want to know more about this situation. You told me a little yesterday, but I need to know more. Just who are these witches and where did they come from? And more to the point, if you have been looking for me for 350 years, then how old are you?” Her questions came out in a jumble, her thoughts pitching around her mind like ships in a storm.
“Witches are your enemy. I’ve told you that before.”
“I don't want your black-and-white answers. You tell me who they are, where they come from, and what they are after. If I am meant to fight these... creatures, then I need to know everything about them.”
Brick sighed, reached up, took his hat off, and crammed it into the pocket of his jacket. “It’s hard to explain. But with time you will understand the witches. For now, I can tell you of their origin. They are a race that parallels humanity; as humans have developed, so have the witches.”
“But who are they?”
“They are a kind of magical race. They are, if you forgive the term, evil,” he growled.
“Evil?” Henrietta took a large and loud swallow. She didn't believe in evil, and she didn't believe in black-and-white answers, but there was something about the way Brick spoke that gave her pause for thought.
“They are malicious, they are murderers, and they will act in any way they can to take advantage of humanity.”
Brick shook his head. “They are evil,” he answered again, and there was a note of gravitas in his voice. It made her shut up and listen.
He sighed, it was heavy, and riveted her attention.
“To be honest, Warrior Woman Henrietta, I have no good answer for you. I have been searching this earth for 350 years for you, and in that time the legends of the witches have passed. I have held onto what knowledge I have, and so has the warrior monk class, but the true origins and nature of the witches were always held with the witch hunters.”
She watched him, her eyes wide with interest. “And… they are all dead.”
“No, they are not all dead; you are alive. But unfortunately the knowledge that was held with the other witch hunters... that is gone forever.”
She felt uneasy at his answer. She didn't like being in a position where she didn't understand what she was fighting and what was happening to her; it made it impossible to make a reasoned decision.
“But I can tell you this, there are other kinds of witches that differ from that which you have already encountered.”
She frowned. “What do you mean other kinds?”
He started to count on his fingers. “There are water witches, snow witches, lightning witches – and you really don't want to meet those ones.... Now, let's see, what else? Oh, there are King Witches and Queen Witches.”
“King Witches? What do you mean? I thought all witches were women?”
“You thought wrong.”
“But what’s a King Witch?”
“Ah, it is good you have brought this up.” He patted down his jacket and sat heavily on her bed.
Henrietta wanted to shout at him to get off her bed, but he raised a hand, and that ominous look returned to his gaze.
“A King Witch is in town,” Brick’s voice rang low with warning.
“It’s only a rumor for now, but I have heard from my fellow warrior monk brethren that such a creature is at large in this city. It is quite possible this man has been here for some time, and that only now we have become aware of his presence.”
She clamped her lip between her teeth as a queasy feeling curdled in her gut. “Okay... but… then when do we go and get him?”
Brick beamed. “I am gladdened that you are finally taking this seriously.” He shook his head in large sweeps. “But you are not ready to face the King Witches yet.”
A cold pressure spread through her chest. “What do you mean?”
“A King Witch or a Queen Witch has access to a great deal more power than any other type. While a fire witch can only command fire, a water witch water, and a lightning witch lightning, a King and Queen Witch can command all sorts of spells.”
Instinctively she clutched her hairpin and pulled it free. She pressed it close to her chest.
Brick watched her move with interest, then cleared his throat. “They are also... indistinguishable from ordinary humanity. While the fire witch or water witch will stay close to the dark, to the shadows, and never come out, a King and Queen Witch are well-schooled in human behaviors. They can go unnoticed amongst people, they can buy houses in suburbia, even keep up the pretense of having a normal job and family....”
Wow. That was creepy.
A tumble of nerves jumbled in her gut, sending sharp shivers climbing her back and shoulders.
“And not only do they command a great many spells, but they can command other witches. They serve as a point of organization. A King or Queen Witch can command a coven, delegating tasks, building power.”
She kept pawing at her hairpin; it was the only thing that could calm her.
“So, believe me when I say, Warrior Woman Henrietta, you are not yet ready to fight a King Witch. However, if the reports are correct, and one has moved into this town, then one day you must address this threat. But not today.” Brick shook his head with finality.
“But when? I mean, if this King Witch is such a threat... shouldn't we address it as soon as we can?” She wasn’t usually this proactive, but the very thought of this Witch King gave her the creeps. She wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing he was out there.
“When you are ready. There are still many witches in this town of lower grade and skill, and it is upon these that you must practice. But we will have the goal of one day working up to the Witch King.” Brick lifted his chin, and his eyes sparkled with determination.
“Witch King...” she said, but as she did, she rubbed her hand too far down the hairpin, and cut her thumb along the sharp side. With a yelp, she dropped it.
The hairpin landed on her bare floorboards, just past her rug. She didn't immediately lean down to pluck it up, which was a mistake. Within several seconds the wood began to smoke.
Sucking on her thumb, she snapped down with her good hand and grabbed it up.
She turned to Brick. “Just why the hell does this hairpin burn wood?”
Brick shrugged. “I will be honest with you, Warrior Woman Henrietta, I do not know. That hairpin is a transformation wand of a warrior woman witch hunter. And I am a warrior monk. The secrets of its design and use are not held with my clan.”
Great. Another answer that didn’t answer anything. “And another thing, now I come to think of it, if you knew this burnt wood, then why didn't you warn me when you gave it to me?”
Brick narrowed his eyes, his lips pressing up, his face twisting around in confusion. “Sorry?”
“When you left this hairpin for me in that manila package in the bathroom of Sizzle Cafe. If you knew that it burnt any wood around it, then why the hell did you leave it so close to the wooden door? And why didn't you warn me? Why didn't you give it to me in person? I could have bloody well died that day. It made the wooden door burst into flames.” Her eyes were blazing.
“But I did warn you. Written on the inside of the packet was a warning about the hairpin.” He looked entirely unapologetic, and shot her a look that said she was overreacting.
Well she wasn't bloody overreacting.
“This could have burnt my house down. Why didn't you give it to me in person? Why did you bloody well leave it in a manila packet tucked into the U bend of the toilet? What would have happened if I hadn't found it?”
“But you did find it. And you didn't die. It didn't burn down your house.”
Henrietta clutched her hands tighter. “You are infuriating, Brick. I can't believe you are being so unapologetic.”
Brick replied with another easy shrug.
She wanted to hit him. Instead she held onto her hairpin and took an enormous breath. “And another thing, if this hairpin burns wood, how come it seems to be okay when I'm holding it? I mean, I understand that if it touches wood, it'll singe within minutes or even seconds, but if it's even close to wood it does the same. But I've been walking around all day long next to a whole bunch of wooden benches, but nothing ever happened, why?” She crossed her arms carefully, not wanting to stab herself in the chest with the pin.
“Because you contain the magic.”
“What kind of an answer is that?” She glared at him.
“The correct answer. Now, Warrior Woman Henrietta, you have received your explanations. We must go to fight the witches.” He pushed up from the bed, patted down his giant billowing pants, and pulled his hat from his pocket, slamming it on his head.
“Not so fast, Mister, you have left one thing out. Just how old are you?”
“I have already located another fire witch, and we must get to work before she can do anything we will regret.”
“Seriously, how old are you?”
Brick nodded at the hairpin. “It is time to write the word witch hunter in the air and to transform.”
“Brick, how old are you?”
No matter how many times she asked, he would not answer. And soon enough she gave up and transformed.
Henrietta Gosling turned into a warrior woman witch hunter, and then she followed the infuriating Brick out the door.
It had been several weeks now. Henrietta worked every single day, and every single night she went home to find Brick playing with her dog, and then the two of them would head out into the night and hunt down witches.
It was surreal, but with time she was settling into it.
Weirdly, she wasn't that tired. Brick said it was her magic, but Henrietta fancied there was another reason. She’d never had direction before – she’d fallen from job to job, house to house. She’d never had a sense of purpose, let alone destiny.
Now here she was with an incredible responsibility and power. She was finally doing something meaningful with her life – saving the goddamn world.
She took a step back from the counter, brought her arms up, stretched, and gave a yawn. It was Friday afternoon, and the cafe was uncharacteristically quiet. A lot of the other staff had gone home, but she’d offered to stay late. She needed the money. Brick kept swanning into her house when she was at work and eating all her food, and her grocery bill was now astronomical. He kept promising to bring her some gold to repay his debt, but he never did. Plus, he would probably bring her real gold, and she would have no idea what to do with it. Could you go down to the local jeweler, set a clump of gold on the counter, and ask to exchange it for money? You'd likely go on some kind of list or something, and you'd get a knock on the door from the police.
Henrietta yawned again, bringing a hand up and covering her mouth so she didn't show her tonsils to the whole room.
It was around two o'clock, when she was on her break, that she got a phone call. She hardly pressed the phone to her ear before the screaming voice of her sister caused her to yank it back.
Henrietta screwed up her face in fear and self-pity.
“Where the hell have you been for the past several weeks?” Marcia began, hardly taking a breath. “I've been trying to contact you, I've left messages on your Facebook, and I’ve sent several texts. What the hell is your problem?”
Henrietta pulled the receiver from her ear again, twisting her lips into a pronounced grimace as she did. She tried to take a steadying breath. “I've been busy, Marcia.”
“Busy?” There was a fairly obvious derogatory tone to Marcia's voice. “Doing what exactly?”
Henrietta narrowed her eyes. Marcia had never made any effort to hold herself back when it came to telling Henrietta all her faults. Marcia thought Henrietta didn't try enough, didn't take good care of her appearance, gave up too easily, and was too shy around men.
“I asked you out to a double date three days ago, but you never replied to my text.”
Henrietta rolled her eyes. That wouldn’t have been the first time that Marcia had used Henrietta in order to play two men off at the same time. Henrietta had been on plenty of these so-called double dates. She would sit on one side of the table, and both guys would sit around Marcia, with that glazed-eye look and amazed expression that every single man on the planet got around her. So of course Henrietta hadn’t jumped at the opportunity when Marcia had offered it. Plus, Henrietta hadn’t even seen the text, and she hadn’t hopped on the Internet for weeks. She didn't have the time. When she wasn't working trying to keep Brick in food, she was jolly well fighting the witches and trying to bring peace to humanity.
But she held her tongue. “I'm sorry, look, I really am; I haven't looked at my phone in several days.”
“Well you are looking at it now, aren't you?” Marcia asked, her voice wild. She was a drama queen. Every single action, every single emotion, every single word, it was all over the top. And somehow people loved Marcia for it.
Henrietta mumbled a yes.
“Good, because you aren’t getting out of this one. I have a party tonight, and you are coming,” Marcia commanded her, and it did sound as if there was no way Henrietta was going to get out of this one.
But Henrietta didn't have the time to go to parties; no doubt tonight she would be running around the streets in her ridiculous outfit fighting witches. Plus, if Marcia's double dates were bad, then her parties were worse. Not only would every single eligible bachelor there be after Marcia, including some of the non-eligible ones too, Marcia would trot Henrietta out and poke fun at her. There would be baby photos, there would be stories about all of the hilarious accidents Henrietta had gotten into as a child, and it would go on and on all night. It would ruin Henrietta's reputation even further; with every single one of Marcia's parties she had ever attended, Henrietta had always wanted to run away and join the circus afterwards.
“Marcia, I can’t, I'm busy—”
“So you're going to get here at 8:30?” Marcia steam-rolled over her. “I would tell you to bring a date, but—” she snorted, “never mind, just bring a bottle of wine. And make it expensive.”
With that Marcia hung up.
Henrietta stood there and tried to remind herself that Marcia was family and that she couldn't go around to Marcia's house and throw a brick through the window. For all Marcia's acting, for her terrible attitude to men, and for all the embarrassing situations she had ever put Henrietta in, Marcia was still Henrietta's sister. And when you stripped her back of all her glamour and drama, she was nice and she was reliable. It was always Marcia who came along to the hospital with Henrietta whenever she had an accident, and it was usually Marcia who tried her hardest to get Henrietta a job again after she'd been fired. She was reliable, she was loving, but bloody oath there was a lot of drama that came along with that.
The rest of the day dragged on slowly, but eventually Henrietta found herself opening her front door, dumping her bag on the ground, and giving an almighty sigh.
She walked into the kitchen, and she was not at all surprised to find Brick with his head in the pantry, Barney at his side.
Though Brick did not technically live with her, he was around so much and had the uncomfortable knack of letting himself in, that she should start charging him rent.
She cleared her throat as she walked into the kitchen, pulling a chair out with her foot and sitting roughly at the table. “Get your head out of the pantry. I don't get paid until Friday, and I can't afford any more food.”
Brick turned to her, and he had a can of baked beans in his hand, it was open, and he was using his fingers to pick the sauce-coated beans out and plop them in his mouth.
It was disgusting.
She raised an eyebrow at him and then clicked her tongue. “You better clean up after yourself.”
Brick finished off the beans and he smiled. “Of course,” he assured her. He pulled open his jacket and shoved the can into his pocket. And of course when he closed the jacket, it was as if it was no longer there.
On several occasions Henrietta had asked Brick exactly what was going on with his jacket. Was it magical? Did it link to some kind of portal? But no matter how often she asked, he never answered. He said it had to do with the many mysteries of the warrior monk cast.
She pushed her lips up, scrunched her nose, and shook her head at him. “Just use the bin,” she told him.
Brick didn't use the bin, and likely never would, but at least he smiled at her. Then he walked over to the kitchen table and sat down, that ubiquitous leather jacket of his scrunching. Though she'd known him for a while now, she had never seen him wearing anything other than the same scuffed boots, jacket, and billowing clothes. Occasionally he would reach into his magical pocket, pull out his hat, and tug it firmly onto his head. But that was the only variation when it came to Brick's wardrobe.
“So,” she leaned back in her chair and tugged the hairpin from her hair, “who are we going after tonight?”
Brick shook his head. “No one. There is no witch activity to speak of at the moment.”
Henrietta frowned. She had started to get into a routine here. It would be work during the day, and then it would be hunting witches at night. While she did feel overworked, now was not the night to have a holiday.
“I thought you would prefer to go to your sister's party instead,” Brick said as Barney walked up to him, barked, and demanded a pat.
“How the hell do you know about that?”
“Your sister called several times today and left messages on your machine. I heard them.”
Henrietta crossed her arms.
“You have been working very hard, and I understand that your relationship is such with your sister that if you were not to go to this party, she would cast dire aspersions against your name,” Brick pointed out with an even expression.
She wanted to shake her head, but the problem was, he was right. Marcia wouldn't be casting dire aspersions against Henrietta, so much as going on the Internet and telling all her friends Henrietta was a dirty swine of a sister who could not be relied on for anything. She would complain to Patrick, she would complain to Jimmy, and no doubt Henrietta would have to put up with a rant from everyone she met in town for the next couple of weeks.
“I have already picked out the costume for you,” Brick nodded.
“You have done what?” Henrietta stood up from her chair, planting her hands on the table.
Brick stood up too, but there was no menace in his move. He stretched his shoulders and yawned. “I have picked out a costume that is fitting of a warrior woman.”
She scrunched up her nose. She knew what costumes Brick thought were fitting for a warrior woman, and there was no chance in hell that she was going to wear them to Marcia's party. Her sister would be thrilled to see Henrietta walk through the door in incredible boots, a tiny skirt, and a top so low you could see everything. But it wasn't going to happen.
“I have laid it out on your bed for you. Also, I have taken the opportunity to get an expensive bottle of wine.” Brick reached into his jacket and brought out a bottle, placing it on the table before him.
She looked down. “That looks really old,” she pointed out as she glanced at the dust and the water damage on the label.
“It is. It is a 250-year-old bottle of Chardonnay. It is good,” he assured her.
She was horrified. “We can't take that to the party.”
“But your sister asked for the finest bottle of wine. And this was the best I could find at short notice,” Brick said with his usual nonplussed attitude.
Henrietta shook her head, realizing she couldn’t win this one. Then she marched from the kitchen into her bedroom. She expected to see the gaudiest and most outrageous outfit lined up on her bed, but she didn't. In fact, what she saw was, well, quite nice.
The clothes also weren't hers. She walked over to them, picked them up, and looked them over carefully. “Where did you get these?” She turned to Brick as he followed her into her bedroom.
“I acquired them,” he replied mysteriously.
Brick often said he acquired things. But as of yet Henrietta hadn't managed to get him to reveal where he acquired them from. She hoped the warrior monk wasn't a warrior monk thief, otherwise she would be getting a knock on the door from Patrick Black any day now.
She glanced down at the clothes again. There was a stylish black dress, cut in a familiar glamorous 60s style, with a flared skirt and netting underneath. There was also a pair of expensive high heels. It seemed that when it came to shoes, Brick had a bit of a fetish. The heels were high, but thankfully they were thick enough that it didn't look as if Henrietta would stab holes in any lawn she walked over.
There was a simple pair of clear stockings, too, and an ornate silver necklace with an odd stone for a pendant. Overall, Brick's choice in clothes had been fantastic. She didn't want to admit that, so she pressed her lips together and let the clothes drop back to her bed.
“I guess it will do.” She scrunched her lips as she looked at him.
Brick nodded his head low, his expression dropping as if he was remiss. “I know, I know, you would have preferred higher heels, frankly, so would I. However, I couldn't find anything that matched the dress.”
He looked serious. He didn't look like he was acting or joking. He appeared genuinely disappointed at the fact he couldn't find the perfect set of skyscraper stiletto shoes to match her dress.
Henrietta shook her head, turned from him, and went back to looking at the dress and pendant.
Whenever she went to one of Marcia's parties, she was always the cheapest looking one there. That wasn't to say she looked skanky and that her clothes looked like sequin-clad scraps of fabric. She perpetually looked like she shopped from a second-hand store, and no matter what Henrietta threw on, Marcia always pointed out how dingy it looked.
Well, if Henrietta wore the clothes Brick had brought her... hell, she could almost outdo Marcia.
A small smile spread across Henrietta’s lips.
She turned to Brick. “But what happens if you hear of any witch activity while I am at the party?” It was a pertinent question. The witches only came out at night, and considering the Witch King was upping his ante, their activity was supposed to become more frequent from now on. That was what Brick had assured her, and for the last several weeks that fact had been confirmed.
Brick tugged at the collar of his jacket, and it almost looked as if he was trying to appear dashing. “I am coming to the party with you. Should I hear of any witch activity, I will tug quite firmly on your arm, and we will dash out into the night.”
Henrietta was never sure when Brick was joking, but she settled on offering him a wry smile anyway. “You think you are coming to one of my sister’s parties, dressed in that?” She looked pointedly at his jacket.
Brick looked down at his outfit, and then looked up. “Yes, I do.”
“Listen, Brick, you don't know my sister.”
“Marcia Gosling, 28 years old, works as a travel agent, is known to have multiple amorous encounters and partners at the same time,” Brick began to reel off the facts.
Henrietta snorted. Multiple amorous encounters and partners sounded like a tidy way of describing Marcia.
“Though she is known to overreact and appears to possess strong self-esteem, her behavioral patterns seem to suggest an underlying lack of confidence. It may be a subconscious psychological reaction to the fact that her sister is the last witch hunter,” Brick finished.
Henrietta now snorted louder. “Sorry, what? You think that Marcia acts the way she does, because on some deep subconscious level she always knew that I was a witch hunter, and that she feels threatened by it?”
“Marcia doesn't suspect I'm a witch hunter! I didn't even know I was a witch hunter until several weeks ago. The reason Marcia acts the way she does...” she trailed off. She had no idea what drove Marcia to do the things she did. Henrietta often tried to figure it out, but couldn't. Perhaps Marcia lacked empathy, perhaps she felt some deep psychological need to be with a partner, or several, all the time.
“Trust me, Warrior Woman Henrietta, this is the psychological evaluation handed down to me by my warrior monk brethren.”
“Excuse me? Your warrior monk brethren? Have they been checking up on Marcia?”
Brick nodded as he jutted his chin out. “We warrior monks are thorough. Now that I am your witch hunter watcher, and I am destined to help you in your sacred duty, it would be remiss of me not to find out as much about your life as I can. And considering the overbearing psychological power you give to Marcia, it is important that I assist you in your future interactions with her.”
She took in a deep, spluttering breath. “She doesn't have....” she was about to protest that Marcia did not have unwarranted psychological power over her, but it was a lie. Of all the people out there, Henrietta was most scared of her sister. Even the prospect of the Witch King didn't freak her out as much as going to the party did.
Brick waited, brought his hands in front of him, locked them together, and nodded at the clothes on the bed. “It is time to get dressed. The party is in half an hour, and we must make our way across town. And as you will not be dressed as a witch hunter, I fear that we will have to use public transport.”
Though basic common sense told her not to put on the dress and go to the party with Brick, she found herself getting dressed.
After she did, she paused to look at herself in the mirror.
For the first time in her life, Henrietta Gosling almost looked... what was the word, attractive? She didn't look as if she was a child wearing adult clothes, and neither did she look as if she was the kind of girl who paid no attention to her appearance. She looked perfect. The dress fit snugly, and the heels made her legs look great. Okay, she didn't look as fantastic as she did when she was dressed as a witch hunter, but it was a different effect anyway.
Henrietta couldn't help but smile.
She had chased Brick out of the room so she could dress, but eventually he found his way back in.
She turned to him. The blighter had used his magic to transport from one side of the door to the other. Now he had his arms crossed and was leaning back against the wall, looking at her. He wasn't checking her out; he was appraising her with a careful eye.
“You must do something with your hair, it does not match your heels.”
It was always about the shoes with Brick. She was starting to wonder whether the leather-clad warrior monk loved shoes a little too much.
She turned back to her reflection and stared glumly at her hair. Brick was right. Short of the fantastic things that magic did to her red gnarled locks, Henrietta would never be able to make her hair look anything other than freaky.
“Hand me your brush, and hand me your hairpin.”
She looked at Brick, her lips pulling themselves open. “Excuse me?”
“I will manage your hair.” He walked across the room to her, grabbed the brush off her dresser, and then nodded at her hairpin.
She snorted at him. “You are a warrior monk, not a hairdresser.”
“I have my barber license,” he said as he tugged at her hair and began to brush it before she could get away.
“What the hell is a barber license? That isn't a thing.” She tried to pull away, but he had a firm hold of her hair, and was now brushing it vigorously.
He was quick too. Before she could muscle free, Brick took a step back, clapped his hands together, and gestured to the mirror. “Now you match your shoes.”
She cast her eyes over him, and hoped her expression revealed to him how crazy he was. Then she looked in the mirror.
She looked fantastic. Her hair looked... great. It was smooth, it was shiny, it was no longer unruly. And the red color looked far more alluring than usual.
Somehow, despite the fact Brick had used no product and he hadn't used a hair-dryer, he had managed to curl her hair into perfect tassels, leaving several strands of fringe collecting around her neck, and pulling the rest into a beautiful bun at the base of her neck. Then he had secured it in place with the hairpin.
She stared at herself in wonder. She had never looked this good in her life.
“We must now leave. I believe my warrior monk brethren have pointed out on several occasions that your sister... now, what is the correct word?” Brick paused while he tried to think. “Ah, yes, can go ballistic. Your sister will go ballistic if you are late. And we already have too much to deal with in this town without adding a ballistic woman to the mix.”
She chuckled into her hand, but as she did she kept glancing at her reflection in the mirror.
Wow. Just wow.
Henrietta and Brick made it to the party, and somehow, even considering how thick the traffic had been, they were not late. Before she wandered up her sister’s garden path, she paused and tugged Brick to the side.
There was something she had to deal with before she let that man anywhere near her sister. It was the same thing Henrietta had to deal with when any man was about to meet her sister for the first time.
Brick looked at her, and there was even a flicker of interest and intrigue in his eye. “Do you sense the forces of the witches nearby?”
Though his voice was quiet, she told him to shut up. People were arriving all around them, and the last thing she needed was for the local policeman to overhear her having a farcical conversation with Brick about magic and witches.
“Do not worry, Warrior Woman Henrietta; if anyone overhears us, they will merely assume we are mad,” Brick said earnestly.
She wanted to hit him. She always wanted to hit him, but she held herself back. “Brick, if you go in there, you need to be prepared.” It was like she was briefing a soldier before they went into combat, and hell, maybe it was exactly like that. The second Brick walked through that door and Marcia laid her eyes on him, was the second Brick would become prey.
Brick brought his hands up and tugged on his collar. “I am prepared.” He even reached into his jacket surreptitiously and pulled out the bottle of wine, nodding at her, eyes vibrant as if to suggest he was more than capable of this mission.
“Brick, my sister... well, look, she is incredibly attractive.”
Brick, in usual fashion, looked nonplussed. “Her appearance has been described to me by my warrior monk brethren. She is tall, 5 foot 8 to be exact. She has long, flowing blond hair, large blue eyes, thick eyelashes, a round and pronounced bust tapering down to a narrow waist, and long slender legs.” As Brick spoke, he didn't start gawking or get a look on his face that suggested he wanted to run in and see Marcia for himself immediately. He looked like a schoolboy reeling off facts and waiting patiently for his teacher to reward him.
“Brick, you don't understand. She is a knock-out. You probably think you are immune right now, but you won't be. Plus, she has this thing,” Henrietta shifted back, feeling uncomfortable, “she always goes after any guy I'm with. Any guy I hang out with, any guy I stand next to in a line even. If we enter the party together, and if she realizes you know me... Brick, she won't let go of you, she’ll come after you hot and fast, and you won't be able to resist her charms.”
“I will be impervious to her charms. Warrior Woman Henrietta, you forget that I am a warrior monk. I am fully skilled in all forms of fighting. And if your sister wishes to hunt me down as a predator would their prey, then I will be fully capable of defending myself.”
Henrietta slowly shook her head, making sure Brick saw the move. “Brick, you have no idea what you're talking about. My sister is incredible. If she wants you, she will get you.”
“I am impervious to her charms,” Brick stated again, his voice firm this time, and it was clear he meant what he was saying.
She crumpled her brow, crossed her arms, tilted her head to the side, and shrugged. “Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you,” her voice was low and ominous. She couldn't help it. The adamant look of bravery in Brick's eyes was stupidity. He was going to get himself burned. The witch hunter helper didn't know what he was getting into. Sure, he could fight fiendish magical creatures in the streets at night, he could pull anything out of his magical jacket, and he could run around ensuring Henrietta didn't destroy her house and the rest of the block with her new powers. But Brick would not be able to stand in Marcia's way. If Marcia took a liking to him, and that was a certainty considering Brick would be walking in the door with Henrietta, then Brick wouldn't have a chance. By the end of the party Brick would be covered in Marcia's trademark fire-truck-red lipstick, and a week later he would pull out a pair of her lingerie from the pocket of his leather jacket with no idea how it got there and a stupid, dull-witted smile forming on his lips at the possibility of what it meant.
No, Henrietta was adamant that Brick was getting in over his head. Sure, the guy seemed pretty competent when it came to being a witch hunter watcher, but no doubt if Marcia got her hands on him he would disappear from Henrietta's life for good.
Yet as Brick stood there so close to the flower patch that his boots were covered in mulch, he had such a steely and determined look on his face that it appeared he was ready to take on a dragon. Well good luck to him.
Henrietta shook her head, clamped her hands on her hips, and nodded towards the house.
The party was already in full swing. Music was pumping out, thumping through the house and vibrating along the path. It was obvious that Marcia didn't care how loud it was, and didn't give a hoot whether she upset the neighbors or the police had to come around. Then again, the neighbors were already there and Henrietta had parked alongside Patrick Black's car.
It did seem as if the universe had a different set of rules when it came to Marcia Gosling. It seemed as if every single angel smiled down at her. Not only did Henrietta's sister have the perfect looks, the perfect job, the perfect house, and the perfect friends, but Marcia never got into any trouble. Which was un-freaking-believable considering the amount of men she played off. Somehow Marcia never got a visit from an angry wife, a little off put that Marcia had slept with her husband, and ready to discuss the fact over a kitchen knife. Neither did Marcia ever have any run-ins with disgruntled lovers. Hell, it seemed that people were happy to be part of her life, no matter how badly Marcia treated them.
As Henrietta walked, she felt the weight of the hairpin. It was incredible how much it calmed her these days, but more than that, it also made her feel strong. That was not a feeling Henrietta usually got to enjoy.
“We are entering the dragon's den,” Brick said in a low voice as he walked carefully by Henrietta's side, the two of them making their way up the porch and towards the door.
She couldn't help but give a spluttering laugh into her hand. Brick was using the same tone he used when addressing a threat, he was even walking with that same tense feeling. One look to the side told Henrietta that his expression was rigid with expectation. It wasn't the kind of expectation one should wear when going to a party. Oh no, Brick's lips were pulled back, his teeth clenched, his nose crumpled, and his eyes narrowed. He looked like he was getting ready to be punched in the face.
She laughed again. Though she'd been dreading going to this party, with Brick at her side it might be survivable. Plus, for the first time in her life, she may have worn something Marcia would agree with.
As Henrietta stood there on the porch, knocking on the door, she let a hand travel down the fabric of her skirt. Somehow Brick had done a fabulous job. Perhaps every warrior monk had to do a full course in style and fashion. Brick was a versatile chap, after all. Not only did he have his bus license, but in the last couple of weeks he’d proven himself handy with any weapon and any vehicle. He also had a way with animals, and from the few times she had left him in her house alone, she had always come back to the place sparkling clean. Apparently warrior monks can't abide a mess, and if you hand them a broom, they won’t sleep until your house is spotless.
As Henrietta waited there, a nervous feeling started to trickle through her stomach. This was going to be one of Marcia's parties. Anything could go wrong.
The door opened.
It wasn't Marcia.
It was Patrick.
He looked at her, and he offered her the kind of smile you might a stranger. “Are you one of Marcia's friends—” he stopped. It looked as if his eyes were bulging out of his head. “Is that you, Henrietta?”
She couldn't help it: a fast grin spread across her face. “Yes,” she began to chuckle. “Are you that blind drunk already, Patrick?”
Patrick gave a shrug but shook his head. “Sorry, I actually didn't recognize you,” he sounded impressed.
He looked to his left and saw Brick. The policeman's shock kind of crumpled into something that looked like mild suspicion.
“This is my friend,” she mumbled.
“Right....” Patrick looked back at her, and for the first time since she'd met him, his eyes lingered over her figure.
Wow. Patrick Black. One of the city's most eligible bachelors. Someone who Marcia had dated multiple times, which was kind of a universal record considering she usually dated a man once and then never met him again.
Henrietta stood there and reveled in the attention. Then she cleared her throat. “Patrick, can we come in?”
Patrick yanked the door open. “Sorry, Henny.”
Patrick hardly ever called her by her pet name, Henny. Jimmy did it all the time, and so did Marcia. But Patrick always kept a polite distance. One look at Henrietta tonight had changed that.
She couldn't help but smile when she saw Patrick look all the way down her legs and to her heels. Once again, he looked impressed.
“Where is she?” Henrietta interrupted his gawking.
“Oh, sorry, yeah, she's in the lounge room, on the couch,” Patrick said through a quick cough.
“Oh well, I'd better get this over with,” Henrietta mumbled as she waved a quick goodbye to Patrick. She turned and headed for the lounge, but didn't walk as quickly as she intended to. She was distracted. People, mostly men, were staring at her. Unless she had a fantastic klutz attack, and fell over in the middle of the street, knocking the contents of a bin all over her top, men never stared at her.
She would have to buy Brick a meal for this. Maybe she would even have to ask him to give her a few pointers on style.
Henrietta made it into the lounge, but before she did, Brick thrust the old bottle of wine into her chest. “You must now arm yourself,” he assured her in a low voice.
She clutched onto the bottle. Dear god, it did look fancy. She could bet that Brick was not lying to her, and that it was a good couple of hundred years old. It would be worth an astounding amount, and yet here she was about to offer it to her sister at a simple party.
The lounge was packed, but the couch only had two people on it: Marcia and Jimmy. Marcia was leaning back, chuckling at Jimmy as he had one of his giant, enormous arms around her. He looked, as Jimmy Field always did, incredible. Seriously, he was Mr December, there was no way he could ever look anything other than steaming hot.
Henrietta took a stealing breath and walked up to them. It took a while for Marcia to glance up, in fact, Jimmy noticed Henrietta first. Just like Patrick, he got a confused look on his face, studying Henrietta all too well for several seconds until he leaned back and gave a surprised chuckle. “Henrietta?”
Now Marcia turned around. She snapped her gaze on Henrietta. Those pale and alluring blue eyes travelled all the way up and down Henrietta for several seconds. She leaned forward in her chair. “Henny?” her voice pitched high.
Henrietta nodded. “Hi Marcia.”
Marcia opened her mouth wide, her full and pert red lips pouting. “What are you wearing?”
Henrietta looked down, rested a hand on her skirt, and then shrugged. “Clothes.”
“Where the hell did you get them? You couldn't afford anything like that. And who picked them out for you?” Marcia's tone brimmed with accusation.
Despite what she was wearing, and despite the fact she had brought a bottle of ancient wine with her that was worth a small fortune, Henrietta began to feel small. Her sister had this uncanny ability to sap all of Henrietta's confidence. In Marcia's presence, Henrietta often felt like the smallest of insignificant dots on the carpet.
“You look great, Henrietta,” Jimmy interrupted. Mr December seemed to mean what he said; he had the same dull-witted grin on his face that he only wore for Marcia.
Marcia snapped her attention towards him, and then shifted herself away from his arm, giving him a cold look.
Marcia turned right back to Henrietta. “Seriously, who picked those clothes out for you?”
“I did,” Brick stepped forward, “the shoes too,” he added.
Marcia sat up straighter, narrowing her eyes, her shaped eyebrows descending, though only slightly considering how much Botox was locking them in place. “Excuse me? Since when have you been in a relationship?”
Henrietta's lips became stiff, and she clenched them there, not wanting to move her mouth down or up, wanting to keep it still so she didn't do anything as pathetic as bursting into tears. Seriously, any strength Henrietta had felt swanning in here and getting appreciative glances for the first time in her life had burned up. Marcia had so much power over Henrietta.
She felt sick.
As if on cue, Patrick walked into the room carrying two drinks. He handed one to Henrietta, a friendly smile on his face. Then he sat down on the other couch opposite Marcia and Jimmy.
It got Marcia's attention. She looked at Jimmy, then at Patrick, and finally at Brick. Her eyes narrowed even more, and she proceeded to give Brick a thorough looking over. From his scuffed boots to the ridiculous leather jacket, to the thick stubble. Then Marcia flicked her gaze over to Jimmy and Patrick.
Henrietta knew what was happening here. It was always the same. Whenever Henrietta brought a new man into her life, whether it be a boyfriend, an acquaintance, or even a bloody plumber, Marcia would have her hands on the man within minutes. It was something deeply psychological, and maybe it was fueled from Marcia's own feelings of inadequacy, but it was also bloody irritating.
Marcia straightened up, pulling down the little fabric that covered her bust and waste, and pushing her fat lips into a smile. “Are you going to introduce us?” She leaned forwards, the fabric of her tight skirt creaking as she brought up her hand, reaching it out to Brick.
Brick did not take her hand. Neither did Brick flick his gaze towards her exposed knees or cleavage. Brick didn't start to blush at Marcia's smile, and he didn't get a dumb, schoolboy-like grin on his face. Brick looked like Brick.
He looked at the hand as if he had no idea what to do with it.
It was awkward, so Marcia let her hand drop, one eyebrow kinking instead. “Okay then, well,” she turned her gaze back to Henrietta, “who is your friend?”
Henrietta felt like telling Marcia the truth. Brick was her witch hunter watcher, he'd found her, given her a magical hairpin, and now helped her to fight evil. But she held her tongue. Instead she tried not to laugh at the look of slight, but still pretty, confusion that crossed over Marcia's face at Brick's disinterest in her.
“Well?” Marcia turned back to Henrietta, and her tone dropped, indicating her annoyance at Henrietta's prolonged silence.
“Brick,” Brick answered.
“Sorry?” Marcia looked confused again, and it was a very alluring confusion. She was twisting her shoulders to the side, giving her bust as much leverage as she could, and she was pouting, blinking, and flicking her head until her hair sat attractively around her shoulders. All up, it was an awkward mess of a move, and looked as uncomfortable as anything, but it was the kind of pose that would send a man to his knees.
The problem was, Brick was still standing.
“Brick,” Brick answered again.
Henrietta had to bite her bottom lip not to start laughing. “That's his name...” she trailed off. Normal people were not called Brick. And Brick had gone to great pains to tell her that they must keep their cover. If they didn't keep their cover, then the witches might find out Henrietta's true identity. And if that happened... her house would be fire bombed in the middle of the night. So she quickly cleared her throat. “It's French,” she hastily added.
This seemed to resolve Marcia's confusion, and it also piqued her interest. At the word French, she oozed into a puddle of seduction on the floor. Now she was leaning so far forward that every single person in the room could see down her top.
“French,” Marcia said, “I see,” she added, in the kind of voice she probably hoped rang with sophistication.
“Bonjour,” Patrick leaned in from the other couch, bringing his hand up to shake Brick's. Once again, Brick just looked at it.
“My name is Brick,” Brick repeated, as if he was a broken record.
Henrietta flinched. Brick did have a nasty habit of repeating himself, and she was starting to realize that he had zero social skills. It likely had something to do with the fact he had spent his entire life growing up in a warrior monastery.
“He's just ensuring you pronounce it right,” Henrietta jumped in. “He's very particular about the pronunciation. You see, a lot of people get it wrong,” she lied on her feet, her heart beating in her ears as she did.
Marcia nodded again, buying the farce. “So it's Breeek?” she said, trying to make his name sound as foreign as she could.
Brick narrowed his eyes and looked at her askance, but before he could open his mouth and say the word Brick again, Henrietta began to laugh. She brought out her hand, and slapped it on Brick's back, hoping he got the picture. “That’s it, you've got it now, Marcia.”
The move brought attention back to the bottle in Henrietta's hand. So she brought it out and offered it to Marcia.
“What's this?” Marcia asked as she glanced at the bottle of wine.
“It is a 350-year-old bottle of Chardonnay,” Brick jumped in.
Both Jimmy and Patrick snorted, and Marcia rolled her eyes. “Of course it is. Henrietta, how many times have I told you not to play games with me?” Marcia snatched the bottle out of Henrietta's hands.
“Games? Would you have preferred a pack of cards over a 350-year-old bottle of Chardonnay?” Brick asked. He did seem impervious to Marcia’s charms. He hadn't once leaned over and stared down her top, and neither did his eyes appear locked on her knees and thighs. In fact, he looked bored.
Well there you go. There was a breed of man on Earth that could ignore Marcia Gosling. They happen to be magical warrior monks.
“Can I have a look at that?” Patrick leaned forward and took the bottle from Marcia.
“I can't believe you steamed the label off a bottle of Chardonnay and just replaced it with one you have made to look fake,” Marcia said, coming up with her own version of events to explain why the bottle looked so ancient.
“Steamed off the label? The bottle is 350 years old,” Brick pointed out again, and his voice was terse. “The craftsmanship does not originate from this time, the style of bottle indicates it comes from a specific region of France, and the label cannot be faked. The ink used, though fading now, has specific traces of minerals that indicate its age. If you take it to a nearby laboratory, and find a suitably trained scientist, you can confirm this.”
“Wow.” Patrick turned the bottle over and over in his hands. Patrick Black fancied himself as a bit of a wine connoisseur, and though Henrietta had never seen his house, Marcia had assured her he had a substantial cellar. Unlike Marcia, who liked fancy wine because it made her feel fancy, Patrick had grown up on a vineyard outside of the city, and wine was in his blood. He went to wine tasting events whenever he could, and he had an entire shelf of books devoted to the art.
Right now his eyes were wide with shock. He leaned forward, cradling the bottle now. He looked right up at Brick. “Where did you get this?”
“From France, 350—” Brick began.
Henrietta slapped him on the back before he could finish his sentence. The wonderful warrior monk was probably about to say that he got the bottle 350 years ago from a tiny village in France. Because, in fact, that would be where Brick had gotten the bottle. But if they wanted to keep their cover, they couldn't run around perpetuating stories like that. And even if Brick had assured her that everyone would think they were crazy, she didn't like to run the risk. Plus, she didn't want her reputation to become any more tainted.
“Brick... is rich,” it was all Henrietta could think of. It popped into her head, somewhat like the right spell always manifested before her mind when she was out fighting the witches. As with her spells, once she had said the words, she could not repeal them.
Marcia got up now. She tugged down on her skirt and offered Brick the most dazzling of smiles. She offered her hand out to Brick again, but once again Brick ignored it.
“And eccentric,” Henrietta added.
“Really, what business are you in?” Marcia asked, her eyes sparkling, her hips shimmying and her shoulders leaning to the side. It got Jimmy and Patrick's attention, but Brick didn't even glance at her.
“Old money, really old money,” Henrietta jumped in.
She had no idea whether Brick was going to back her up on the fly; he was looking at her as if he had no idea what she was on about.
Now Henrietta had started this game, she wasn't going to stop. She took an enormous breath. “He's very generous too. He bought me this dress and a bottle of wine for you, Marcia.” Henrietta gave a toothy grin.
“And you managed to pull him,” Marcia gave up on offering her hand to Brick, and twisted her head to face Henrietta, her voice a whisper.
“We are just friends,” Henrietta answered. Although she could put up with pretending that Brick was an eccentric rich Frenchman, she didn't want to add a relationship into the lie. Brick wasn’t the kind to pretend amorous affections with any one. Perhaps it was some code to do with being a warrior monk. Maybe they were all celibate, or perhaps his idea of a woman was somebody with a house full of shoes, and neither Marcia nor Henrietta were his type.
“Friends,” Marcia's voice trilled on the word. “Well thank you so much for this bottle of wine.” She leaned down and grabbed it roughly from Patrick, clutching it to her chest, the fabric of her sequin-covered top grating into the label.
Patrick winced at the move. “Marcia, that is a really expensive—”
Marcia turned from him and went back to smiling at Brick. “And I find the fact you are from France,” she bit into her lips and batted her eyes, “so romantic.” She gave a shimmy as she finished her words.
No matter what Marcia did, Brick didn't seem to care. “I am hungry, where is the food?” Brick turned his head from Marcia and surveyed the room.
Henrietta brought her hand up and laughed into it. “The kitchen is through the hallway, to the left.”
Brick turned and left the room. While it was hilarious to see him leave, without casting a single glance Marcia's way, Henrietta realized she was now alone with her sister. Well, alone in a room chock full of party guests, but the feeling stood.
As soon as Brick was out of the room, Marcia turned on Henrietta. One of her perfect eyebrows arched up as far as she could push it. “Where did you meet him? Does he live here? What is he like?”
“He is...” Henrietta began, but stopped. She wasn't going to tell the truth. She wasn't going to point out to Marcia that she’d met Brick when he’d stuffed a manila package behind the U-bend of the toilet in Sizzle Cafe, causing the door to catch fire. Nor was she going to tell her sister that Brick had moved into her house. As for what Brick liked, the answer was heels.
So Henrietta shrugged her shoulders. “We only just met each other.”
“Why on earth didn't you tell me about him?” Marcia fluffed out her hair. “If I’d known you were bringing someone like him along, I would have put a little more effort into my outfit.”
Jimmy leaned forward, his beer sloshing. “You look great, honey.”
Marcia ignored him.
“Oh, it was really a last-minute thing. We weren't sure if we were going to make it tonight.” Henrietta clasped her hands and tried not to look too nervous. Every time she looked into her sister’s perfect blue eyes, she always felt like a fool.
“I don't get it, how did you meet someone like him?” Marcia trilled on you and him. It was clear what she meant: it was inconceivable that Henrietta could pull somebody like Brick. While that was a humorous thought, considering who Brick was, it also hurt. In Marcia's eyes, Henrietta was nothing. Nobody. Just Marcia's little sister, the awkward young woman who couldn't do anything right.
Henrietta’s expressions soured. She took several sharp steps back from Marcia. She didn't want to tear up and run out of the party crying. For one, Brick would find her and tell her in an outrageously loud voice so everyone could hear that warrior women don't cry; and two, she didn't want to make a scene in front of Jimmy and Patrick.
“Lighten up, Marcia, just come and sit back down on the couch.” Jimmy patted the cushion by his side.
“Why don’t we talk about something else?” Patrick tore his eyes off the bottle of wine.
“What else could we possibly talk about? This town is so boring and dull, nothing ever happens here.” Marcia crossed her arms and flopped back on the couch.
“Boring?” Jimmy took a sip from his beer, a strange smile twisting over his mouth.
Patrick understood what it meant, and he gave a low laugh. “What about Stiletto Girl?”
Patrick guffawed as Jimmy wolf whistled.
Marcia spun to them, flicking her head so fast that her beautiful blond hair fanned around her. “You mean that skank running around town dressed like an actress from a porn movie?”
It was ironic for Marcia to accuse Stiletto Girl of being risqué, considering what scraps of fabric adorned Marcia’s wardrobe. Plus, Stiletto Girl wasn't skanky; she required a short skirt so she could run.
Crap, had she just thought that? Not only had she referred to herself as Stiletto Girl, but she’d bought into Brick’s ridiculous excuse about her skirt.
“Oh, come on, Marcia, you have to admit, she certainly has a little something,” Patrick grinned around every word, looking like a toothpaste salesman.
“She doesn't have anything.” Marcia harrumphed. “How she thinks she can run around in those heels, and get away with a skirt that length, I have no idea.”
Brick walked back into the room. “The boots are reinforced around the ankles, and with the correct poise and balance, it is quite easy to run in them.”
“What he means is, by the look of the boots, they appear to be reinforced,” Henrietta jumped in. “Brick knows a lot about... leather and shoes.”
“And as for the skirt, I think you will find that it is the right length for running and kicking,” Brick finished off.
Both Jimmy and Patrick erupted into boyish laughter, as if they’d shared their first illicit magazine.
Marcia stiffened. “I don't know what you are both laughing at. That woman must have very low self-esteem if she feels the need to run around town dressed like a hooker in a mask.”
Wow, that was hypocritical. This coming from the lady who honest to god owned a g-string collection.
Brick opened his mouth again.
Henrietta doubled forward and slapped him on the back. Knowing Brick, he would probably point out to Marcia that her skirt, while short, was not the optimal length for action, and that her heels, while high, did not match her hair. Then he would point out her psychological faults and explain why they might lead her to form an inaccurate conclusion about Stiletto Girl.
“What do you think about this then?” Marcia rounded on Henrietta.
Everyone looked at her. Even Brick turned to face her.
Her cheeks flushed with heat. “What do I think? About Stiletto Girl?”
Before Henrietta could formulate a lie, Brick flicked his head to the side, frowned, then snapped over to Henrietta and locked an arm around her elbow.
Marcia raised an eyebrow, the move so fast it was a surprise it didn’t flick off her face and land on the carpet.
“I am sorry, Marcia Gosling, but I am bored of your party. We are going.” Brick tugged Henrietta backwards. “Enjoy the wine.”
Brick pulled her around, and they headed for the door.
“Brick, what are you doing?” she asked in a harsh whisper.
“I have just received word: there are witches on the dock.”
Henrietta stopped resisting and let Brick pull her towards the door.
“Henrietta!” Marcia screamed from behind.
“Sorry, Marcia,” Henrietta waved at her sister, “but I told you he was eccentric.” It was a terrible excuse, but it worked, because Marcia didn't run up to Henrietta and start tugging on her too.
Before too long, both Brick and Henrietta were out of the house.
“Right,” Brick looked to his left and right as they rushed down Marcia's path, “that went exactly as I expected it to. The information gathered by my warrior monk brethren was correct.”
Really? It hadn't gone how Henrietta had expected it to. Firstly, Brick had been immune to Marcia's charms, and secondly, Henrietta had spun a bare-faced lie that Brick was a rich eccentric Frenchman. Now she would never hear the end of this. Marcia would be calling her 24/7, rushing around to her house on the off chance she could spy Brick.
Her stomach sank.
Brick kept tugging her along until they reached a dark section of road underneath some thick trees. He paused, checked the street, and nodded. “You can transform.”
She tugged the hairpin from her bun, strands of hair brushing against her cheeks.
“Do not be afraid,” Brick gave her the thumbs up sign, “no one will see you transform here.”
It was dark, but she wasn't comfortable whipping off her clothes in a magical swirl of energy and transforming into her outrageous witch hunter costume out on the street. “I'm not going to transform here.” She dropped her hand, the hairpin resting against her leg.
Brick sighed, grabbed her wrist, and tugged her along once more. They ran down another section of road until they reached a small park. It had large trees, and there were no houses around the sides.
Henrietta felt comfortable enough to pick up her hairpin and write the words Witch Hunter.
She transformed, the magic sparking and crackling over her form until her heels touched down on the grass.
She patted her short skirt and gave a good tug on her jacket. She was ready.
“Excellent.” Brick turned from her. He shifted his shoulders around, cracked his neck, then opened his jacket wide.
She pressed up on her tippy toes, trying to see over his shoulder.
He kept his back to her at all times. After a great deal of rummaging, he stood back.
There was a sodding great Harley-Davidson motorbike sitting in front of him. It was big enough for three people.
“Don't worry.” He threw himself on the motorbike, his jacket flaring around his hips and back. “I have my motorbike license.”
She didn't say anything.
She jumped on the back of the motorbike, locking her arms around his middle.
He gunned the engine, and the bike roared out of the park, spewing a plume of exhaust in a thick cloud.
They headed to the dock.
Henrietta was starting to get good at this. Or at least that was what Brick was telling her. She no longer hesitated as much when she met a witch, and her spells were coming quicker and easier. They also appeared to be growing in strength. When she cast an ice ball these days, it would shoot out quicker and would travel for a longer distance.
Brick had assured her that the more she practiced and fought, the stronger her magic would become. Yet she was still not strong enough to fight the Witch King. Brick told her it would take months if not an entire year of practice before she was ready to face him. But at least she could contain his efforts by going after the lesser witches under his command.
Henrietta walked along the dock, her boots clinking against the old, rotting wooden boards.
It was well lit, but even still, the street lights that were dotted around the place still left great swathes of darkness in between. You could be standing right under one of the lamps, and be fully illuminated, and yet all around you would be a great area of shadow. Henrietta was starting to appreciate that a lot could lurk in the shadows.
“What are we dealing with here?” she asked as she kept walking along, never once falling, despite the fact her heels should have been treacherous along the uneven boards.
Brick was sniffing the air, and Henrietta had come to realize he always did that when he was trying to figure out what kind of witch they were about to fight. He even brought his finger up, licked it, and ran it through the air as if he was trying to check the direction of the wind. “Water witches,” he rumbled, and as he did, there was a loud wet splash from behind them.
Henrietta whirled around, her jacket plastering against her legs.
She brought up her wand.
She hadn't fought a water witch yet. She had fought plenty of fire witches and earth witches and even an air witch. But not a water witch.
Each different category of witch looked different. Some of them were far more human-looking than the others; it seemed to depend on what kind of magic they had. The earth witches looked like young women who had caked themselves in dirt and dust. An air witch had such a flighty, flowing quality to her, that you could tell she wasn’t human. As for a water witch, Henrietta was about to find out.
There was another wet thump from behind her, and Henrietta twisted, bringing her wand up and writing wall.
It was a handy spell, and the second she finished writing it, a wall formed in front of her and Brick.
It was in time to see a massive spurt of water rush from the river and smash into the wall.
The wall shook from the force of it.
“She is powerful,” Brick warned as he grabbed his crossbow from his jacket. “Be careful.”
Henrietta turned again; she could hear a steady dripping noise to her left.
She hadn't yet seen anything. While the water had rocketed from the river and smashed against her wall spell, she hadn't seen the creature that had cast it.
“Remain on guard.” Brick kept turning around in a circle, crossbow grasped in his hands.
Though Henrietta got the urge to write a fire spell and cast it in every direction, she stopped herself. The more she wrote, the more she would drain her magic, and until she knew what she was dealing with, she couldn't risk wasting resources. She had learnt that important lesson over the past couple of weeks. Her magic had a definite limit, and though that limit was increasing with practice, it was still there. Depending on the strength of the spell, she could cast about 10 or 12 different words before she started to ache with fatigue. She always had to be careful to keep enough magic left for the banishing spell. While there were several ways to defeat a witch, the banishing spell was always the most reliable. However, she could not cast it the second she came across a witch; she would have to defeat the witch first, or at least fight her for long enough until the witch became tired.
“Get down,” Brick hollered from her side, knocking into her, and planting a hand on her back.
Henrietta let herself fall to her knees.
She rolled onto her back and brought her wand up.
A sharp jet of water like a knife sliced over where she had been standing. It twisted around in a wide arc and managed to cut through the metal post of one of the street lamps. The light blinked out in an instant, and the pole fell over, the glass smashing against the dock and covering her back and face.
She jumped to her feet, dusting the glass off, and she shot towards the water.
She had never faced a spell like that. Fireballs, yes, mini earthquakes, sure, but that water spell had been incredible. It had been strong enough to cut through a metal pole.
“Get down,” Brick roared again. This time he wasn't close enough to her that he could grab her and pull her to her knees.
Henrietta flattened anyway, but it wasn't quick enough; another one of those jets of water sliced over her, and it managed to cut off the tales of her jacket.
She shrieked, pushing herself further down into the broken beams of the dock, and covering her head.
“It's on the barge,” Brick roared by her side.
She pushed herself up and stared into the darkness. She could hardly see; now that the street lamp behind her was gone, it was too dark to pick much out.
Henrietta wrote the word, and as she finished, a surge of energy shot up from a symbol at her feet. The energy collected in her eyes, and she blinked through the peculiar sensation until she could see again.
It didn't matter that it was dark; she could see everywhere. She glanced towards the dock and the water, and she saw a barge. What was more, she saw the creature standing on top of it.
A water witch.
She had the form of a young woman, but the clothes she was wearing were decidedly other. Also, her hair hung around her like a wet sheet billowing in the wind. Droplets of water cascaded from her arms and legs at every movement, and her eyes were wide and glossy.
Henrietta wrote her favorite spell once again, in time to stop another one of those jets of water from chopping her in half.
Brick skidded on his feet and did a somersault right behind the wall, but not before the jet of water managed to knock his hat from his head.
The bricks of her magical wall took a beating, and shifted backwards with the force of the witch’s water jet, but they did not fall. Still, they would not be able to take too much of an onslaught before the spell failed.
So she had to be creative. She could figure that it would take an enormous amount of magic to banish this witch, so she had to be scrupulous with her remaining spells in order to defeat it.
She wrote the spell, bringing her arm out as far as she could, trying to write the word as far away from her body as was possible.
Though it was hard, Henrietta was starting to get a handle on where to cast her spells. When she'd first started out as a witch hunter, she’d written her words willy-nilly, with no care for where the spells were cast. Now she understood that the relationship between where she wrote them affected where they appeared. She still wasn't that accurate, but she was trying to improve.
Fortunately this time she got it right. After she finished writing the word tremble with her wand, the barge the witch stood on started to shake.
It was violent and quick, and it made the witch stumble on her feet until she fell over, her body slamming forward with a wet splash.
The witch cried out. While a fire witch shrieked like a whistle, a water which sounded far more like a distressed drowning person.
It was a frankly horrible sound to listen to, and Henrietta found herself flinching at it.
“Cast your magnification spell,” Henrietta snapped at Brick as she darted around the side of her magical wall.
Brick did not hesitate; he pointed his crossbow right at her and fired. That familiar blue spark landed on her shoulder, then a mandala formed at her feet.
It sent such a rush of energy through her, that her shoulders tugged back and she took an enormous involuntary breath.
It was the rush she needed to perform the next spell.
She wrote both words in such quick succession that the symbols seemed to form together. Both spells twisted around her until they shot out towards the barge.
Henrietta stumbled backwards. Though she'd gotten Brick to cast a magical magnification spell, casting two spells at once had still taken their toll on her.
She didn't stumble over, she still kept on her feet, and she looked up in time to see the fire tornado pass over the barge.
The water witch shrieked again, that horrible drowning sound echoing around the docks.
Henrietta wanted to clamp her hands over her ears to block it out. But she needed to hold her wand at the ready.
The fire tornado dissipated; combined spells never lasted long.
As the last twist of fire disappeared, she ran forward to the edge of the dock to see what damage they had done.
The barge itself was trashed; it was covered in black char. Still, amongst the mess, there stood a young woman, no longer dripping water, but sizzling as steam hissed over her body.
Henrietta did not wait. She whipped out her wand and she wrote the word banish. Before she could finish, a funny thing happened.
The witch disappeared. A hole formed underneath the creature's feet, and in an instant she dropped out of sight.
Henrietta stumbled backwards, startled, her hand stiff around her wand.
“What the—” she began.
Before she could finish her sentence, Brick toppled into her, latched a hand over her arm, and started to pull her back. “We have to get out of here.” His expression was wild. It was a look she'd never seen. Sure, sometimes Brick would look startled or angry or frustrated or even powerful in the heat of battle, but the fear plastered over his face now was different.
“Brick?” Henrietta's voice shook. “What's happening?”
“Run,” he pushed hard into her back, and then he stood and faced the barge, bringing his crossbow up and pointing it right at the hole that was still there.
She stumbled from Brick's shove, but she didn't do as he said, and she didn't race off into the night. “Brick, what's happening?” she asked again.
“Run,” he repeated. He did not pause or even waste the breath to call her Warrior Woman Witch Hunter. Which was something he had never done before. Despite how quick and fraught and violent a situation could become, Brick always used her full name while addressing her.
Not right now.
What was more, his leather jacket was twitching from side to side as his arm shuddered whilst he held onto his crossbow.
She backed off, her heels clicking against the wood below her.
Something began to form out of the hole in the barge.
The spell she'd cast on herself that made her eyes capable of seeing at night was still working, so she had no trouble in making out the figure that was pulling itself out of that black hole.
First she saw the hands, then she saw the arms, and then something rose right out of that black, bottomless pit.
That something was a man.
He was dressed in a pair of suit pants and a white shirt. His top button was undone, but the rest of his outfit was neat and pressed. He was young, maybe in his late 20s, and he had a keen handsome face and expression. His eyes were wide with interest, and in another moment he offered her a smile.
Henrietta kept backing up until her boots collected against the pole of the chopped-in-half street lamp.
She fell right over it and bumped her butt right on the ground.
This always happened when she was afraid; she lost the ability to walk around in her ridiculous heels and fell down unceremoniously.
The man smiled even harder, bringing his hands up to clap. The hollow sound of it echoed around the docks.
“Warrior Woman, get out of here,” Brick pleaded with her again.
“Brick, who is that?”
“Allow me to introduce myself.” The man folded his arm in front of himself and bowed. He raised his head while he was still in the bowed position, always keen to keep his gaze locked on hers.
Henrietta's throat was dry, and the muscles of her face were tense, forcing her eyes wide and her lips apart.
“I am Theodore Francis Hellier the Third,” the man bowed again.
She'd already scrambled to her feet, and she held hold of her wand and pushed it in front of her, getting ready to write.
The man smiled harder, but it was not a reassuring move. “I welcome your magic, young witch hunter.”
“What are you?” As soon as the words shook out of her throat, she came up with her own answer.
It was obvious the man was a witch, and so far the only male witches she had heard of were the King Witches.
Brick had told her over and over again how powerful they were, and how Henrietta was in no way ready to face one yet.
A powerful surge of fear crossed over her, and she found herself teetering on her heels until she fell over again.
“I have not met a witch hunter in years,” the man pointed out as he took a step forward, the black hole underneath him disappearing in a hiss.
He looked at her with such interest that Henrietta began to blush. It had something to do with the quality of his gaze, how his eyes darted over her and seemed to see right through her.
She stumbled to her feet again, clutching a hand in front of her chest.
The man chuckled. He kept walking forward until he physically took a step off the barge. He didn't plummet down and fall into the river. No, he walked over it.
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and a horrible metallic taste filled her mouth.
“Get back,” Brick shouted as he fired a bolt towards the man.
The man brought up a hand and swatted at the bolt, the magical light dissipating in an instant.
“Stay out of this, warrior monk,” Hellier spat.
He made it to the dock, he walked right onto it, his expensive shoes now squeaking over the old wood. Up close, he looked even more intense.
Henrietta cast the spell, her arm twitching, her breath fast.
The wall appeared, but as it did, the Witch King began to chuckle.
Then he walked right through it. Although the magical bricks fell around him, and appeared to strike his face and arms with violet force, he was unaffected. He brought up his other hand, fixed his hair, cracked his neck, and kept walking towards her.
“What do you want?” She kept staggering backwards, but it was hard to keep her balance, and her ankles and legs wobbled from side to side.
Though her wall spell had been so ineffective, she still held her wand defensively.
“An invitation,” the man tipped his head to the side and gave her a lingering look.
Henrietta baulked. “I'm not going anywhere with you!”
He snapped his eyes up, no longer looking at her skirt and boots. “Now or later, Witch Hunter, you will follow. They all do in the end.”
“Warrior Woman, run,” Brick shouted again, whirling forward and bringing his crossbow around towards Hellier.
Hellier darted to the side, brought his arm up, and protected his head as Brick brought the crossbow around.
That would be when the crossbow shattered.
It wasn't even loud, but Henrietta found herself shrieking at the noise.
Brick took a shuddering step backwards and gave his crossbow an alarmed look. He threw it to the side and launched himself at the Witch King.
The two of them fought.
Hellier was fast, but so was Brick.
“Run,” Brick begged her once more.
She didn't stay by Brick's side, she didn't try to defend him, because the look in his eyes was so pleading she couldn't ignore it.
Still shaking on her heels, her fear drowning her, Henrietta ran from the dock, and she kept running until she was as far away from that side of town as she could get.
In fact, it wasn't until she reached her home, locked her door, and flopped down on her floor that she stopped her frantic escape.
She curled up on her rug, right next to the singed section of floor where her hairpin had burnt through the floorboards. She waited.
She stayed in that position until Brick returned home.
When he appeared in her house without bothering to open her door, Henrietta screamed.
She punched up to her feet and brought her hands up as Brick fell forward.
Though he was tall and well built, and she was hardly a body builder, she managed to catch him and hold him in place.
“Brick!” She twisted him around in her arms until she saw his face.
It was covered in bruises and blood, and his bottom lip was fat and cut right down the middle.
He offered her a bare smile.
“What happened? Are you alright?” She brought him down until he rested on the floor, and then she leaned over him like a worried mother.
She heard a soft bark from her bedroom, and then Barney, showing never-before-seen speed, ran up to Brick's side. The dog sniffed over Brick's jacket, and then began to nuzzle at his hand.
Brick chuckled. “Bring me food,” was all he said.
“Brick, you are injured, what can I do?” She didn't rush to her kitchen and bring him a sandwich; he was so beaten and bloody it looked as if he could hardly move, and though it had been years since she had done her first aid course, she doubted that a hastily-made cheese sandwich was recommended as a cure-all.
“Bring me some chicken,” Brick said, his voice faint and light.
He even reached a hand towards the kitchen.
Henrietta was still dressed as a witch hunter. She hadn't bothered to change; she’d just run all the way home from the dock. She still had her wand pressed into one of her hands.
She looked at it.
While she'd been fighting witches for several weeks now, she still hadn’t figured out how many spells she could write. There was always more to learn and more to try.
Henrietta ran her fingers over the crystal at the top of her wand, then she looked down at Brick.
“Chicken,” he said again, voice still pathetic. If he wasn't so injured, the scene would be farcical. A man in a giant leather jacket groping towards the kitchen and pleading for chicken; it belonged in a cartoon. But Brick was obviously injured. His breathing was ragged, what was more, blood kept trickling and oozing from the injuries on his face, and as Henrietta looked down to his chest, she could see his shirt was spattered with red.
She wrote the words. Nothing happened. No rush of energy came out from a symbol at her feet and collected over Brick, fixing him up in an instant.
Henrietta looked down at her wand again. “Come on,” she encouraged it.
She wrote that word instead, but once again, nothing happened.
“Chicken,” Brick moaned.
It was sometimes hard to find the right words that would cast a spell. Not any collection of phrases would produce magic; she had to pick the right ones.
She had no idea what she was meant to write.
She wanted to heal Brick, and she had no reason to believe she couldn't.
Light appeared from under her feet, and then a whirl of orange, yellow, and white sparks rapped around her and shot right down into Brick.
He jostled, twitching, and Henrietta crammed her hands over her mouth and screamed.
What had she done?
Soon the sparks settled down into Brick’s skin, and they crackled around his injuries, dancing like fireflies in the wind.
The effect lasted for 30 seconds, the light dissipating with a pop.
Brick shot to his feet.
The move was sudden, and she reeled backwards.
Brick looked fantastic, if the warrior monk could ever look good in his leather jacket getup. The point was, he looked healthy, vibrant even.
He turned to her and nodded his head low. “Thank you, Warrior Woman Henrietta.” Without another word, he walked off to the kitchen and helped himself to some chicken from the fridge.
Henrietta followed after him, staring down at her wand as she walked.
She had healed a man. She had taken away someone's injuries with magic.
Incredible. It was incredible. Just how much magic could she produce? Just what other spells was she capable of?
“I was wondering when you were going to learn that spell,” Brick said as he crammed a chicken wing into his mouth, chunks of food splattering over his chin and neck.
Henrietta grimaced, walked over to one of her drawers, and pulled out a tea towel, handing it to him. Then she listened to what he was saying. “Why didn't you just tell me to cast that spell?”
“It doesn't work like that, Henrietta. I can't tell you how to learn; you have to do it for yourself. If I told you what spells to cast, you would never develop a proper battle brain.”
“Battle brain?” she asked him. “What does that mean?”
Brick paused, the chicken wing still half in his mouth, and he tapped at the side of his head. “Your instinct. That subconscious connection that tells you what to write, that knows the best spell to win the battle. I can't teach you that; you have to learn it yourself.”
Henrietta pressed her lips together. “But you were so injured! Why didn't you just tell me the name of that spell, I could have healed you the second you got in the door.”
Brick kept shoveling the chicken into his mouth. “It doesn't matter, you cast the right spell anyway.”
She always hated when he used excuses like that. He would do something dangerous and risky, and then he would blow it off by telling her that everything worked out in the end anyway. If Henrietta were Brick's mother, she would go over there and clip him around the ears for being a smart ass. Instead she grabbed at the plate of chicken and pulled it across the table from him.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“You don't get any more chicken until you tell me who that guy was at the dock,” her voice shook. “He was a witch king, wasn't he?”
Brick let the chicken wing fall from his mouth, then he rested his hands on the table. “Yes.”
Henrietta felt sick, but she hid the feeling by straightening up in her chair and crossing her arms. “Why did he appear?”
Brick let out a worried-sounding breath. “I had hoped that he wouldn't. I had hoped that we would have had time to train you before your first encounter.”
“Why did he invite me to join him?” Her voice wavered, and she clutched hard around her middle as her sick feeling surged.
“Well, technically, not all witch hunters were killed off in the last war.”
“What do you mean?”
“Witch Hunters are not all that different from witches; they are both capable of using strong magic,” Brick pointed out.
“Brick, answer the question.” She had been around him long enough now to know that the warrior monk always dodged around uncomfortable questions by answering something else.
Brick looked at the table. “They can join in union. Witch King and a witch hunter.”
Henrietta scrunched up her brow instinctively. “You mean marry? A witch hunter can marry a witch king?”
Brick nodded. “They prove to be powerful partnerships.”
Brick’s words and the notion of the concept he was explaining sat heavily with Henrietta, and she rubbed at her stomach, trying to chase away the nausea. “Well I would never marry that man. I don't even know him!” she pointed out, as if that was the most important factor. But, seriously, he was a witch king. He commanded a force of nefarious, horrible creatures hell-bent on destroying humanity.
“Nothing happened, Warrior Woman Henrietta. You managed to get away, and now we are safely in your kitchen,” he looked across at the chicken, “feasting.” He leaned over and grabbed at the plate.
She got there first, and picked it up, taking it out of his reach. “I am not done yet, Brick.” She gave an uncomfortable swallow. “What happens now? Is that guy going to appear every single time we fight a witch? Am I going to have to go into hiding, and practice on my own, until we are ready to face him? Is he going to hound my every move?”
Her voice was quick, frantic even, and just as she thought of one question, another one popped into her head.
Brick raised a hand. “Henrietta, I know this is difficult, but the threat is over for now.”
He was calling her Henrietta again. Not Warrior Woman Henrietta, or witch hunter, just Henrietta. For some reason it calmed her.
“To answer your question, I do not know. Though I doubt that the Witch King will appear every time we fight a witch. I believe tonight... was different. That water witch was very powerful, and may have been one of Witch King Hellier's personal bodyguards.”
Henrietta let a sharp breath through her teeth. “But is he going to be after me now?” That was the question that was most important, the one she needed an answer to.
“The answer is yes. He is a Witch King and you are a witch hunter.” Brick gave a shrug. “It is only natural.”
He put a hand up. “What I mean to say is, he will not be after you any more than before. While we have every aim to clear this town of witches, his own goal is to secure his power and influence over his own kind. He now knows of your presence, and he will try to interrupt our operations. But if we stay away from him directly, and only go after the lower class witches for now, we will have a chance to train you up before you meet him again in battle.”
Henrietta pushed the chicken towards Brick, and the warrior monk grabbed at it like a hungry child.
Then she walked into the center of the room and wrote Henrietta Gosling. She transformed, and she was back in the clothes she had worn to the party. She changed into the fluffy pajamas she only ever wore in winter, and shrugged into her bath robe, cramming her slippers onto her feet. Then she made herself a cup of cocoa, and sat back down at the table. When she did, it was to the sight of Brick finishing off the plate of chicken, and burping loudly.
“You are disgusting,” she mumbled as she pressed the warm cup into her chest, reveling in the heat.
Though she was sick and tense and frightened over what had happened with the Witch King, she calmed down enough to go to bed.
That night she slept with her hairpin in hand. She was careful to find some leather to put over the bottom so she didn't end up stabbing herself in the middle of the night, though.
Pen in hand, Henrietta Gosling drifted off.
Brick had been right. For the next few weeks after her run-in with Witch King Hellier, Henrietta's night-time fights with the witches were not interrupted by the man. However, the frequency with which the witches appeared seemed to increase, and nearly every single night Henrietta would find herself running off with Brick to protect the city.
She was getting better, but Brick had assured her many times that she was still not ready to fight the Witch King.
Which was a good thing, because she didn't want to. Every single time she closed her eyes and imagined that man's face, she always had to grab at her hairpin to calm herself down.
Just the thought of him frightened the life out of her.
He was imbued with magic; the way he had walked so casually over water, the way he had ignored her wall spell and had moved right through it with ease.
Henrietta shuddered again as she put chocolate sprinkles on the coffee she was preparing.
“Feeling cold?” Patrick asked as he reached out a hand to take the coffee.
She ran a hand up and down her arm. “I guess.”
“Then you must be coming down with a cold, because it is sweltering in here.” Patrick latched a hand onto the collar of his shirt and pulled at it. “So, Henrietta, how—” he began.
“Is my sister?” she got there first.
Patrick shook his head. He took a sip from his coffee. “Actually, I was going to ask how you are?”
He had been doing that a lot recently. In fact, ever since the party, Patrick had been a whole lot more engaging whenever he had spoken to her. So had Jimmy Field, come to mention it, so had every single man that had seen her there that night.
Though Henrietta hadn’t worn that fantastic dress again, and she hadn't let Brick do her hair in weeks, it seemed the effect lasted.
“I guess I'm okay.”
“That isn't something you should have to guess at, Henrietta,” Patrick pointed out as he shifted his head to the side and looked at her carefully.
“Ignore me, I am just distracted.” She brushed at her cold arms again. Then she walked off as another customer ordered a coffee. When she came back, it was to the sight of Jimmy and Patrick exchanging pats on the back. The two of them were still the firmest of friends, despite Jimmy’s on-and-off relationship with Marcia. Apparently these days it was a lot more off than it was on. Ever since Marcia had met Brick, she'd been going mad in her attempts to catch his affection.
It hadn't worked, and the few times Marcia had met up with Brick, Brick had remained aloof and lovingly bizarre.
That made Marcia want him even more. It seemed that every single day Henrietta would get a text from Marcia, begging her to bring Brick along on a double date.
That was never going to happen, of course.
Jimmy ordered a slice of cake and an espresso, and Henrietta brought them over, handing them to him as he turned and began to laugh at Patrick. “You can't be serious?”
Patrick nodded. “We have got photos.”
“Well, can I see them?” Jimmy put a hand on his chin, then let it slide down, his jaw locking into a grin. He had that familiar schoolboy look again.
“Technically, I should probably not be doing this, but because these aren’t linked to any case,” Patrick pulled his phone from his pocket, “and the kid who snapped them has already put them online, then I guess it doesn't matter.”
Jimmy grabbed Patrick's phone, before Patrick could hand it over.
Then he gave a wolf whistle. “Look at those boots,” Jimmy said as he stabbed a finger towards the phone, chuckling louder.
Patrick joined in.
It was their favorite topic these days. While Henrietta served a lot of people at the cafe, and though Stiletto Girl was a hot topic of conversation, nobody talked about it is much as Jimmy and Patrick.
Henrietta always found it hard to control herself whenever she overheard their conversations. She would blush, start playing with the sides of her apron, and usually find something else to talk about. But even the topic of Marcia couldn’t get the two off Stiletto Girl these days.
“She was spotted outside of the industrial district, helping an old lady out of her crashed car,” Patrick said, his voice far too high.
Henrietta remembered the incident well. Except the car had never crashed. An errant burst of wind from one of her own tornado spells had slammed into the old sedan, pushing it into a wall. Henrietta had cast a health spell, and the old dear had never noticed. Then, of course Henrietta had felt compelled to help the old lady out of her seat, and she'd even enquired as to whether the grandma had insurance.
Henrietta shook her head ever so slightly.
“You think that’s impressive? The other day we were attending a fire out west,” Jimmy leaned in conspiratorially, “and she got there first. Just as we were rolling up in the fire truck, one of the windows of the house was kicked out, and she appeared carrying a kid.” Jimmy pursed his lips, chin wobbling. “Then she just ran off into the night.”
She remembered that incident too. She'd been fighting a fire witch, when the hack had run up onto a roof, and cast a fireball right at a house. Henrietta had banished the witch, but she hadn’t managed to get to the house in time to dowse the fire. She had cast a scanning spell, and when she’d realized there was a child inside, she'd gone in to save him.
She was hardly a hero here. She was just running around mopping up after her own mistakes or her inability to stop the witches in time. Still, listening to Patrick and Jimmy drool over her antics pushed away the guilt, and she felt her cheeks blush.
“Who the hell do you think she is?” Jimmy always asked that question, and he always shook his head as he did, a fantastic look in his eyes.
“I have no idea. We do have orders to escort her to the police station to answer some questions, should we ever get our hands on her,” Patrick said as he waggled his eyebrows.
Jimmy let out a hoot of a laugh and slammed a hand onto Patrick’s shoulder. “Good luck.”
Henrietta went off to serve another customer, and when she came back to the two, they were no longer gawking over the pictures on Patrick's phone, and they had in fact changed topics.
“I thought I heard a rumor that someone disappeared down there, one of the construction workers,” Jimmy said, all levity gone from his expression, and his brow crumpled over his bright, inviting eyes.
Patrick nodded at him sternly. “It's just that, a rumor. We haven't had any reports of a missing person. But, that being said, some strange stuff is going on down there.”
“Like what?” Jimmy finished off his espresso and rested the cup down on his empty plate.
“Disappearances, stuff being stolen, nothing too serious... but we have no idea who is doing it or where they're taking it. They seem to be concentrating on the construction area at the moment.” Patrick shrugged his shoulders and finished up his own coffee too. Then he stood up. “I probably shouldn't say anything more.”
Jimmy nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
Henrietta took a step towards the bench and cleared her throat. “What are you talking about? Disappearances?”
She didn't like to interrupt Jimmy and Patrick's conversations, especially when it sounded as if Patrick was talking about his work. She was never sure how much he was meant to say, and whether she was meant to be overhearing what he was telling Jimmy. That didn't matter right now. She had to know what he was speaking about, because an uneasy feeling had settled in her stomach.
Patrick turned to her, offering her that same engaging warm smile he always did these days. Then he shook his head. “It's nothing, Henny,” he used her nickname, something else that had changed since the party. He hardly called her Henrietta any more, preferring the much more familiar Henny whenever he could.
“Where? Around here?”
Patrick shook his head, patting down his jacket and making it neat. “No. There's nothing to worry about. It's just out at the new construction site in North Square. You know, the one where they’re building another tunnel for the subway?”
No, she didn't know that; Henrietta hardly paid attention to what happened in this town, not now that she spent every single day and night preparing to fight the witches.
“Oh.” She pulled Jimmy’s empty plate and glass towards her. “What kind of stuff has been disappearing then?”
Patrick shrugged. “It's probably just kids. No formal complaints have been made, this is just what I've heard from a couple of mates that work at the site.”
Though Patrick appeared to think whatever was going on at the construction site was nothing, a cascade of panic prickling down her spine told her otherwise.
She was starting to realize that even when she wasn't trotting around town as a witch hunter, she could still access her magic. It was slight, but it was there. If she paid attention to her feelings, sometimes she could trust in the same instinct that Brick referred to as her battle brain. The sense that told her what to do next when she was fighting a witch, what spells to cast, and how to win.
Her instincts told her the construction site was important.
She left work early that day, and it was only because she had been so diligent and on time in the past month and a half that Maria let her go. Ever since Brick had moved into her house, she no longer had trouble getting to work. She was no longer late, her clothes were no longer crumpled and stained, and her lunch was always prepared. Though Brick had a nasty habit of eating all her food and moaning when there was no chicken in the house, he was turning out to be a fabulous house-mate. Maybe it was because he’d grown up in a monastery, but not only did he always ensure her house was spotlessly clean, he ironed her clothes, got her up on time, and even prepared her lunch for her.
She was also getting used to his personality. He had his quirks, and he never took off that leather jacket, but apart from that, she was almost enjoying having him around.
Almost. He did ask for chicken too much and he cost her an enormous amount in food.
More than that, knowing he was around also let her relax. Since her run-in with the Witch King, she’d been forced to take this new life of hers seriously. Doom hung over her head, and the prospect of running into that awful man loomed around every corner.
Brick kept her sane, mostly because his insanity could distract her from her own.
She ran home early, and it was to the sight of Brick in an apron, scrubbing out the oven. The apron hardly stretched around the girth of his leather jacket, but it was still somehow tied, and it made him look ridiculous. His expression suggested he didn't care.
“You are home early. You have not worked your entire shift. You will earn approximately $20 less on your next pay check. This will cost us in chicken,” he pointed out gravely.
Henrietta ignored him, flopped a hand his way, and walked over to the kitchen chair and sat in it.
“Brick, how can you find out about the witches? I mean, how do you seem to know where they are and when they are going to attack?” she had asked him this question before, and he usually dodged right out of it.
Maybe today he was distracted by cleaning the oven, because he cleared his throat. “Secret warrior monk brethren communication lines. It's magic, you know.”
She nodded. Whereas several weeks ago she would have shouted at him for such a silly explanation, she could now appreciate that it held some truth.
“Well, have you heard anything about the new construction site in North Square?” She leaned forward with interest, her elbows resting on the table as she gazed at him.
He was on his hands and knees while he was scrubbing out the oven, and he turned to face her. “No.”
She sighed and tried to let go of the tension that was still locked in her shoulders. “That's a relief....” Except it wasn't a relief. She hadn't managed to let go of all the stress that had bottled up inside her ever since she had heard about the construction site. It felt like a needle in her, scratching at her skin. “Brick, I overheard a conversation today between two men,” she blushed at the word men. They weren’t just men; they were Carson City's finest, but Brick didn't need to know that detail. “Anyway, they were talking about this new construction site. One of them said there was a rumor about someone disappearing there. And the other one mentioned that things have gone missing from the construction site, but they haven't found out who is responsible.”
Brick stood up, pulled off his rubber gloves, thrust them into his jacket, and then did the same with the apron. “I see.” He crossed his arms and looked thoughtful.
“Do you think it has something to do with the witches?”
“You tell me, Warrior Woman Henrietta.” Brick nodded at her. “What does your instinct say? What does your warrior brain tell you?”
“That it does,” she answered, forcing herself to take a breath as she did. “I don't know, but as I was listening to them have that conversation, I suddenly felt so uneasy. It's as if I know who is behind it and I know what is going on. I could just swear that the rumor of the disappearance has to do with the witches. There was a policeman there, and he said that there have been no missing people reported, but if a witch was seen disappearing, then of course it wouldn't have been reported, because there would be no one to miss her.”
“Flesh out your ideas,” Brick suggested as he sat down alongside her.
“Hear me out, but if somebody saw a witch disappearing into the construction site, they may have assumed it was a person, and that might have started up the rumor. But of course the police would never have been able to confirm anything, because of course the witch isn't going to appear on a missing persons list.”
Brick nodded, and fortunately he did not laugh at her and point out that her suggestion was ridiculous. “These are very probable happenings.”
“But if it was a witch,” she swallowed hard, “then what was she doing down the tunnel? And what about the other disappearances, the other thefts? What could be going on?”
Brick narrowed his eyes and looked thoughtful, even tapping his finger on his chin. “You may have found a coven then.”
Henrietta looked up sharply. “A what?”
Brick nodded. “A coven.”
“You don't think, you don't think....” The uneasy feeling in her stomach doubled. “That it has something to do with Witch King Hellier?”
“That would be the logical conclusion. You must remember that the Witch King would be in control of all witch activity in this city. If you have come across the witch coven, then no doubt the Witch King would be connected to it. Whether or not he would be located there himself, I cannot guess. I imagine he is very mobile, and resides in many residences. Remember that witch kings, unlike an ordinary witch, will come out during the day and will interact with people. They will acquire aliases, even suburban homes and dogs, and they will attempt to fit in.”
Henrietta hadn't forgotten that, and it was the prime reason she was having trouble sleeping. What if she ever came across Hellier in the street? Brick had assured her that the Witch King would not be able to recognize her, that her costume would hide her identity. But what if Henrietta said something or did something to indicate who she was?
“I suggest we investigate this, but perhaps not in person.” Brick plunged a hand into his jacket and brought out a phone.
“You have a mobile? I didn't know that,” she leaned across the table to get a better look.
Brick yanked his mobile phone back and covered it with his hand.
“Don't spy on me,” he reprimanded. “And yes, I have a mobile. Us warrior monks always run with the times.” With that he stood up and walked out of the room.
She tried listening to what he was saying, but as soon as she walked close enough to the door to pick up on his conversation, she heard a rustling sound, and he moved off with his trademark speed. She gave up, went and hopped in the shower, and afterwards set about making tea.
Brick was gone for some time, but mysteriously appeared the second she set his bowl on the table.
“So, are we going to the construction site tonight?” Henrietta asked with interest.
Brick shook his head. “This is a reconnaissance job, a job for my warrior monk brethren. They will scout this out, and I will be informed if anything comes up. So tonight, Warrior Woman Henrietta, you have a holiday.” Without another word, Brick brought his food towards him and started to shovel it into his mouth like he was a starving pig at the trough.
She finished off her meal, left the dishes for Brick, then she wandered about the house at a loss.
Considering her nights were so busy these days, she didn't know what to do with herself when she wasn't running around saving the day. She got a reprieve when her phone rang. The reprieve didn't last however, because it was Marcia.
“Is he there? Brick? Is he there with you?” Marcia snapped.
Henrietta couldn't count the number of times Marcia had asked her that question. Every single time she rang these days, she would always want to know if Brick was anywhere nearby. Henrietta fancied that Marcia was probably in her car, ready to dart around in an instant if there was so much as a hint that Brick was in the same suburb, let alone house.
“I haven't seen him for days,” Henrietta lied.
“Oh,” Marcia sounded powerfully disappointed. “Well, have you heard about the ball then? Do you know if he has a date?”
Henrietta shook her head in confusion at the quick change in subject. “Sorry? What are you talking about, Marcia?”
“The ball, the masquerade, Jesus Christ, Henrietta, where have you been? It's being advertised on every radio station, even the TV, and there are posters up everywhere along the subway.”
Henrietta didn't have time to listen to the radio or watch TV, and she never took the subway, because her house was within walking distance of work. So no, she hadn't heard about the masquerade.
“It's a charity ball, and it is going to be so fantastic,” Marcia pointed out passionately. “Everybody is going to be there, all the elites, all the politicians, all the socialites, everyone.” Though Marcia's list of people who would be attending the ball wasn't exhaustive, and left out nearly all of the population, Henrietta got the picture. This dance would be catering for exactly the kind of people that Marcia loved: the rich, famous, and good-looking.
“The tickets aren’t that expensive, if you get in early, so hurry up and ask Brick if he wants to come with me already,” Marcia snapped, as if she could possibly be angry that Henrietta hadn't asked Brick to go with Marcia to the dance yet, considering Henrietta hadn't even heard about it until a few seconds ago.
“I really don't think he will want to go,” Henrietta tried to wrack her brains for a diplomatic reason. She didn't want to outright tell Marcia that there would be no way Brick would ever be interested in her. Marcia would blow a gasket. “He doesn't like parties.”
“But this is a masquerade,” Marcia trilled. “It's completely different.”
“Marcia, it's a party where you wear a mask, but it is still a party.”
“Just ask him already. You told me he doesn't have a phone, and he's not on Facebook, and he never seems to be around when I come by, so just ask him for me,” Marcia pleaded.
“Okay,” Henrietta caved in.
“You should think of going too. You don't have to have a date or anything,” Marcia added at the end.
Henrietta narrowed her eyes. “It really wouldn't be my thing.”
Marcia snorted. “Of course it wouldn't, sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. But hurry up and ask Brick and get back to me. I really need to figure out what I want to wear. They're doing this really cute thing where if you come with a partner, you have to be matched. So you have to wear the same masks, and if you come in a red dress, he has to have a red handkerchief. It's going to be so stylish. So I will need to know what Brick wears so I can order my dress.”
Henrietta tried hard not to snigger. If Hell froze over, and Brick agreed to go with Marcia to the masquerade, then there would be only one thing he would wear. Cumbersome and over-large clothes, old boots, and a ridiculous leather jacket. The thought of Marcia trying to match her dress to that made it hard for Henrietta to keep a straight face.
“Okay, okay, next time I see him, I will ask,” Henrietta assured Marcia.
“Excellent. But make sure you hurry up. Like I said, the tickets are cheap now, but I can bet they are going to get more expensive. Plus, we need to decide whether we are going to fork out a little bit more money and get into the main room. Apparently Mr Hellier, this incredibly gorgeous philanthropist who you just have to see to believe, is organizing the masquerade. In fact, he is giving a chunk of money away too. Anyway, if you want to meet him, you have to pay more to get into the main room. Otherwise you have to hang out with the plebs downstairs.”
Henrietta froze. She almost dropped her phone. In fact, her hands became so slick with sweat it began to slip from her fingers.
“Henrietta? Are you there?”
Henrietta clapped a hand on her chest, and the shudder of her heartbeat shifted her palm in place. “Sorry, what was the name of the guy organizing it?”
“Mr Hellier. I think his first name's Mark. haven't you heard of him? He is like only the most eligible bachelor in town? I would so have gone after him, but I have never met him. Apparently it is really hard. He is always so busy,” Marcia said through a lonesome breath. “But if we pay enough, I could so see him at this masquerade. Apparently he has like a string of girlfriends or something, and they're all really sallow looking, I think he's into the Gothic look. But I could put on more make-up, and I know a friend who owns this really lacy black dress,” Marcia started to babble.
As soon as Marcia had pointed out that Mr Hellier's first name was Mark and not Theodore, Henrietta had started to relax. Upon hearing the comment about the Gothic girlfriends with the sallow faces, her heart fluttered faster and faster. “Marcia, look, I have to go; I think I organized to meet up with Brick tonight or something. I'll ask him about going to the masquerade, and I will get back to you. Goodbye.” She hung up before her sister could say anything else.
Then Henrietta stood there in her lounge room, her bare feet sinking into her plush carpet, her skin prickling with cold.
She turned and ran to the lounge room.
Brick was sitting on the couch, messaging on his phone, and he gave her a terse look as she entered. Before he could berate her for interrupting him, his expression changed. “Warrior woman Henrietta, you appear distressed. You were speaking to your sister on the phone, has she said something that has further reduced your self-confidence?”
She tried to force her breath to calm, but it was choppy and short. “Brick, Brick, oh god, he's going to have a masquerade, and everyone in town is invited.”
“What are you talking about? Who is going to have a masquerade?” Brick finished texting on his phone and pushed it into the inner pocket of his jacket. Then he gave her his full attention.
“Hellier.” Henrietta clamped a hand over her mouth and shook her head, shock still rippling through her.
That got Brick's attention, and he pushed himself to his feet, planting his hands on the table. “What do you talk of, Warrior woman Henrietta?”
“I just got off the phone with my sister, and she told me that this guy called Mark Hellier is organizing this massive charity ball.”
“Because his last name is shared with that of the Witch King of this town does not mean he is the same man,” Brick pointed out calmly.
Henrietta shook her head so vigorously that her fringe came free of her ponytail and fell across her eyes. “That's not all she said. She told me that this Mark guy is always surrounded by a litany of sallow-looking, terribly-thin girlfriends.”
“Perhaps that is the style of woman he prefers. It doesn't mean—”
“Marcia is terrible at remembering names. It probably is Theodore Hellier. Plus, Brick, my skin is tingling, it feels like something is crawling up my spine, and my stomach is bottoming out. You keep on telling me to follow my instincts, and right now they are screaming at me that the Witch King has just organized a freaking masquerade. What do we do?”
Brick answered by bringing out his phone again, and beginning to furiously text. “It appears it is time to mobilize the warrior monks. Henrietta, get some rest.” He headed towards the back door. “By morning I will have your answers for you.”
Then he left. He didn't wait around to tell her that everything would be okay. Neither did he assure her that the Witch King couldn't possibly be putting on a charity ball. No, he left her house, texting with one hand as he grabbed his hat and crammed it on his head.
She had to force two hot chocolates down her gullet before she could calm down enough to watch some TV and finally go to bed.
She did not have a good sleep.
She thought about him, she even dreamed about him, the Witch King, Theodore Hellier.
She woke up that morning to a fiendish knocking on her door. As she went to open it, Brick appeared at her side and rushed past her. He yanked the door open, and then ushered the person on the doorstep in.
Henrietta still had sleep in her eyes, but when she finished rubbing it out, she got the distinct feeling she was still dreaming.
What she was looking at had to be something out of a dream.
It was a man, of a short build and stature, and he was wearing a ridiculously long leather jacket, almost exactly the same as Brick's. What was more, he had a familiar array of stubble over his chin, and he also had the kind of face that suggested it could never age.
He gave Henrietta a reverent nod, then began to talk with Brick in low, hushed tones.
She stood there, trying to force herself to wake up faster. Then she grabbed her robe, shrugged into it, and padded back out into the corridor to find the two of them still furiously chatting. “What's going on?” she eventually interrupted.
“Warrior Woman Henrietta Gosling,” the new man nodded low to her.
She couldn't help but offer the same nod in return.
“I usually just call her Warrior Woman Henrietta, actually,” Brick pointed out easily.
“Really? Do you find shortening it makes it easier to command her in battle?” The other man looked interested.
Henrietta cleared her throat. She knew what would happen if she let these two get deep into conversation: they would never answer her question, and they would start talking about the strangest of things. It would only take a minute or two until they started discussing heels or the length of skirts. “What's going on? Who are you?”
“Henrietta,” Brick turned to her and gestured towards the man, “this is Warrior Monk Spanner.”
She'd opened her mouth, ready to say hello, but she faulted on the word spanner.
“It is a pleasure to meet you.” Spanner nodded low again.
Really, Spanner? This man's name was Spanner? If Brick wasn't called, well, Brick, then Henrietta would probably chuckle. But considering what was going on, she didn't have the time. “Hello, Spanner, but seriously, guys, what is going on?”
Spanner gave a nervous glance her way. “I can see you are eager to acquire information so you can go into battle and save humanity from the witches.”
“Something like that,” Henrietta conceded. Now she was fully awake, and now the memory of last night was sharp in her mind. The Witch King. The masquerade. “Do you know what's happening yet?”
Spanner tugged down on his leather jacket, then pressed a hand into his pocket and pulled out a poster. It was rolled up, and it was large, easily a meter in length. Like everything that Brick pulled out of his pockets, it was in pristine condition and did not appear to be bent or scrunched in any way.
Spanner unrolled the poster.
Henrietta took one look at it, then she almost threw up.
Hellier. Witch King Hellier. It was the same intensely handsome face. The same look. And though it sounded impossible, Henrietta could swear that it felt like the picture of him was looking at her with exactly the same interest that the real man had bestowed upon her that one night she had met him.
“The information provided by the woman who often blows her gasket, Marcia Gosling, is correct. Witch King Hellier has organized a party. It is meant to be for charity,” he added, making charity sound as sarcastic as he could.
“But...” she was about to ask how. How could a Witch King organize a ball of all things? Then she remembered. Unlike the other witches, who stayed to the shadows and enjoyed their anonymity from the rest of humanity, the kings and queens of the witches were different.
She looked at Brick expectantly, wanting him to say that it was all a mistake, that Hellier couldn't possibly be organizing a freaking masquerade, but Brick just shook his head and grabbed the poster off Spanner.
“Though I have no evidence, I would wager that this so-called charity ball will not, in fact, raise funds for charity,” Brick said, his tone grave.
Of course it wouldn't raise money for charity; a bloody witch king was involved. But what was Hellier's plan? As a horrible shudder passed over her back, Henrietta forced her gaze off the poster. “What is he going to do? Why would he do something like this?”
“It depends.” Spanner shrugged. “He could be planning on trapping everybody in the room and burning the place down with a fire spell.”
“He could order up a tornado, and rip the building down,” Brick suggested as he scratched at his neck.
Spanner clicked his fingers. “He could cast an earthquake spell whilst the party was in full swing.”
Brick nodded. “He could cast a hole, and swallow the building up with everyone inside.”
She stared at them in horror. The both of them looked like two lads engaged in a thought experiment. “Are you serious? Is that what he is going to do? Oh my god, we have to put a stop to this! And how can the both of you be standing there and suggesting these things so easily? This is horrible.”
Brick now turned to her, and he got that expression on his face he always did when he felt like he had something to teach her. “These are possibilities, admittedly, but they are unlikely. It is my belief that either Witch King Hellier is attempting to solidify his social status in the town, or he is attempting to bring you out of the shadows.”
She turned her lips in and pressed her teeth against them hard. “Bring me out of the shadows?”
Brick kept his gaze on her as he nodded. “The Witch King is unlikely to go to all the effort of magically disappearing everyone at that ball; while he would likely consider it good fun, it would ultimately go against his ends. At this stage, he is attempting to gather power, he is sending his witches out at night to solidify his influence over the city. He would not go to the extreme of killing off all the city's politicians and elite; he would have uses for them yet. Until he is satisfied with his power, or somehow finds a way to increase his influence, Witch King Hellier will act, but he will do nothing so grandiose.”
She nodded, but it was an uneasy move. “So you think he is after me then?”
“It is a possibility. But I feel the more likely possibility is that he is simply trying to mingle.”
It was an odd choice of words, and if it had been any other circumstance, Henrietta would have laughed at it. The mental image of a witch king mingling with a bunch of politicians over nibbles and wine was a comical one.
“If Witch King Hellier maneuvers himself into power within the town, he will be able to use his position to further his influence. There is word on the street that he is attempting to run for mayor,” Spanner pointed out.
Brick swung to face him, his eyes blazing. “No!?”
Spanner nodded. “Several warrior monk brethren who work for the Council have confirmed this. It seems likely that this charity function has been organized to further that purpose.”
Though Spanner's admission calmed Henrietta down a bit, it also made her nervous, but in a different way. The prospect of Hellier organizing a party just to get to her sent the tightest of fidgeting, frigid nerves shooting through her back. And the prospect of him running for mayor and getting elected made her throat dry and her hands wet with sweat.
“Whatever his desire, I suggest we act in a way to upset his plans,” Spanner said with a nod.
Brick reached out a hand and patted Spanner on the shoulder. “I agree, warrior monk brother.”
Henrietta looked at both of them and reached a hand up to her hairpin. She wore it all the time now, and when she was in bed, she held it in her hand. There wasn't a moment it was off her person. Which not only meant it wasn't off burning down the house, but also meant that she had it by her side in case she needed to transform in a jiffy.
Now she clutched it closely to her chest.
She had to stop him, the Witch King. And yes, even thinking about him still made her nervous and sick, still made her remember that horribly interested look he had given her when he had invited her to come back with him to where ever he came from.
“What do we do?” She pushed through her fear and pushed her words out at the same time.
“This is obvious.” Brick nodded his head low. “We go to the ball. We interrupt his plans. If he wishes to mingle and gain the respect of the other people of this town, we will cast aspersions against him and poison his punch.”
Henrietta screwed up her face at the suggestion to poison his punch, but she got the general gist. Brick was suggesting they head along to the party and do everything they could to upset Hellier's plans.
“And if he is after me?” she asked through a shaking voice.
“Ah, we run,” Brick noted with a shrug.
“Fast,” Spanner added.
“In the opposite direction,” Brick qualified.
Henrietta pressed her eyes closed and kept them shut for several seconds.
“Unfortunately there seems to be no other way,” Brick assured her. “We must go to that party, figure out what Hellier wants, and then we must react to it. Do not worry, Warrior Woman Henrietta, I will mobilize the warrior monk brethren in this town, and we will assist you.”
Henrietta opened one of her eyes to see Spanner snapping her a salute.
“But if I go as a witch hunter, he is going to know, he is going to come after me.” She swallowed.
“It is time to teach you a new spell,” Brick said, and his eyes sparkled.
Spanner began to chuckle, but he also nodded his head low, offering her another salute. “Warrior monk brother, Witch Hunter,” he nodded at them both in turn, “I must go back to my post. Text me if you need anything.”
Spanner backed off, offered another nod her way, and then disappeared, without ever using the door to leave the house.
Which just left her and Brick.
“Brick.... I don't know if I can go to that party. What if he recognizes me? I barely got away the last time I saw him.”
“He will not recognize you, Henrietta, and you will not go dressed as a witch hunter.” Brick’s eyes were sparkling again, and she had no idea what it meant.
“What do you mean I won't go as a witch hunter? Then I won't have access to my magic.”
“There is much you do not know, and many features of your magic you are yet to have learnt.” Brick started to walk away from her, and as he did, he grabbed hold of her couch and gave it a good shove into the corner.
“What are you doing with my furniture?”
“Pushing it out of the way so you don't destroy it when you transform.” He moved over to the curtains and tugged them shut, giving the street outside a wary look before he did.
“What are you about to teach me, Brick?” Henrietta's voice was uneasy.
“Style,” Brick answered, then he smiled, and quite unusually for the warrior monk, it was cheeky and fat.
It was a week until the masquerade. It seemed as if the entire city was buzzing over it. Nearly everyone who came into Sizzle Cafe talked about it, and it was about the only topic that could stop them chatting about Stiletto Girl. Even Jimmy and Patrick had switched topics from Stiletto Girl’s nightly activities to the upcoming ball.
It sounded like nearly every single man in the city had asked Marcia to go with him, but as of yet, she hadn’t accepted anyone's invitation. Every single night she would call and ask if Brick had agreed to go with her yet. But Brick wasn’t going to go with Marcia, because Brick was going with Henrietta.
With every single day that passed, Henrietta felt steadily sicker, but she wasn't going to get out of this. She had to go to the masquerade, because she had to find out what Hellier was up to.
She wasn't sleeping well. She kept dreaming of him.
“I am telling you, I saw a woman disappear,” one of the construction workers sitting on a stool in front of Henrietta's bench suddenly admitted to his friend.
Henrietta looked up sharply.
“But the police said they couldn't find anything, there are no missing people, and nobody else saw it,” his friend said.
The construction worker shook his head, and his dark, stubble-covered skin looked sickly and pale. “I know what I saw. She was just this little stick of a girl, wearing this torn and dirty dress. And I'm telling you, I saw her jump down that hole. Or maybe she fell, I don't know. But the point is, that hole has got to be 10 meters deep. She would have broken her neck.”
“But nobody found anything, and nobody else saw anything either,” the friend protested.
“I know what I saw.” The construction worker waved one of his hands in a straight line, eventually letting it bang onto the end of the bench lightly.
She had several coffees to make, but she wasn't moving. In fact, it took Maria to come over and snap at her before Henrietta pried herself away from the construction worker and his conversation.
A witch. It had to be a witch. In fact, now that Brick had set the other warrior monk brethren the task of finding out what was going on at the construction site, it seemed as if Henrietta's instinct had been confirmed.
It sounded as if there was a great deal of magic emanating from that site, and, what was more, Henrietta had been called to several witch sightings around that area. Brick was convinced that the construction site must be sitting on top of a coven, but as of yet he hadn't let her go down to investigate it.
He was still protecting her, because, as he told her at every single opportunity, she was still learning. She was still training. And yes, of course, she still didn't have what it would take to defeat the Witch King. Which was a problem, considering she was meant to show up at his ball in a week’s time.
The rest of Henrietta's day was a tense one, and when she returned home to Brick that evening, she didn't get any reprieve. She didn't have time to have a shower, or a bath, or to conk out on the couch watching TV.
No, because Brick was teaching her about style.
The man was adamant about it, fanatical even, to Brick, style sounded like it was almost as important as chicken.
Brick walked around her, prodding at the dress. “This will not do,” he said with a disappointed sigh.
Henrietta looked down at the dress, and then she looked over at the mirror she had hauled in from the bathroom and had rested up against the couch.
To her mind, she looked incredible. The kind of incredible that you didn't see outside of cartoons. Even people in movies couldn’t look this good, because the way the lines of her dress and the color and the form and everything worked together wasn't possible in the real world.
Neither was the fabric, for that matter, or the cut or the way it sat. It made her look like one of those perfect Disney princesses, or like someone from a drawing.
“It looks gaudy,” Brick pointed out again. Gaudy was his favorite word. On several occasions she’d pointed out to him that his leather jacket was hardly fantastic, but he’d always offered her a nonplussed look. It seemed Brick could shift from being caring to being fabulously disdainful, as if he was off some kind of reality TV fashion program.
“Look, surely it will do?” she said as she looked down at her dress, picking up a handful of the skirt and letting it flop back down.
She was in a ball gown, a perfect ball gown. It had layers and layers of the softest silk that somehow sparkled and glittered. The bodice and top sat so perfectly, and gave her such a stunning figure, that Henrietta couldn’t recognize herself. Her hair was also done up into the most stylish of dos, and fixed in place with a gold and diamond clip. She had perfect white heels on her feet, and to top it all off, she wore a detailed white mask.
Brick was not impressed. He crossed his arms and shook his head. “A witch hunter’s appearance is her most important asset.” He paused. “Other than her wand... and her magic... and her ability to run... and her battle instinct.”
Henrietta rolled her eyes. “I get it. But honestly, this seems fine.” She looked at herself in the mirror again. She hadn’t been lying when she’d said she could hardly recognize herself. That was the point. This was a disguise, after all.
Just after she found out about the masquerade, Brick had taken her away and taught her a new spell. After she'd transformed into a witch hunter, she'd written the word disguise with her wand. At first, she had twisted around in the air, as a symbol had appeared underneath her, and then she'd fallen on her feet, dressed in one of those ghillie suits that they use in the army when they are trying to hide in long grass.
It had taken Henrietta a few tries to even begin getting a hold of the spell. In fact, every single time she had returned home from work, and before she would go out to hunt the witches, Brick would make her practice the spell.
It wasn’t like most of the other spells she cast. Whenever she wrote wall or ice or tornado, all she had to do was pay attention to where she directed them. Disguise was different. She had to try and concentrate hard on a costume, and that very costume would soon appear around her form.
Brick didn't like her efforts.
“You need to be wearing something that will catch everyone's attention,” he told her for about the 10th time, “including Hellier's. You need to get as close to him as you can, so we can find out what he is doing and we can thwart him.”
Henrietta always felt uneasy when Brick would go over that part of the plan. While she was standing in her lounge room flouncing about in her ball gown, she could pretend that it was all a bit of fun. But in six days, she would be attending a masquerade, trotting up the steps of the City Hall, and attempting to mingle with the Witch King.
Brick assured her that if the spell worked, the Witch King would have no idea she was a witch hunter. The disguise spell would hide her magic completely. It would even disguise her wand, changing it into a ring or a bracelet or a fan. If needs be, she could grab at it in an instant, write in the air, and the disguise would fall, and her ordinary witch hunter costume and magic would return to her.
Henrietta hated this plan; there were so many ways it could go wrong.
“I have discovered from my warrior monk brethren that Hellier is fond of the color black and he prefers heavier make-up.” Brick nodded at her face.
Brick had already told her that several times, but each time she had refused to disguise herself in layers of black silk and mascara.
She looked back at her reflection in the mirror.
Henrietta hadn't been much of a girly girl; Marcia had already beaten her to it. By the time Henrietta had grown old enough to discover make-up and boys, Marcia had cornered that market entirely.
Still, Henrietta had grown up with dreams, little fantasies that were left over from her childhood. And yeah, dressing up in a flouncy white ball gown was kind of one of them.
Okay, she was an adult now, and she wasn't a little kid anymore, but the prospect of dressing up like a Disney Princess still excited her. And the fact she could now make that fantasy a reality with her magic wand... it was too hard to pass up.
“I'm sure I will catch his attention in this dress,” Henrietta said as she did a twirl on the spot, her skirt flying out in a circle. There were so many layers that it sat perfectly over her hips and spread out like a princess’ dress should. It was the right color too. Such a soft white, and there was delicate beading up and down the folds of her skirt, and the prettiest lace poking out from underneath.
As for the make-up, it was subtle; it made her eyes sparkle and her lips wet enough to kiss. Fortunately it didn't make her look like she had been attacked by a stick of eye-liner.
Brick took a heavy sigh. “It seems impossible to teach you style, Warrior Woman Henrietta. Obviously you have too much of a mind for battle, and cannot concentrate when it comes to fashion.”
She looked at him askance. He did like his clothes and shoes, didn't he? Over the past week she'd met more warrior monks, and it seemed the lot of them were far too interested in style. They all had their views on high heels and skirts, and every single time Brick brought them around for dinner, each one of them commented on her bathrobe or her track pants or her hair.
She had tried to ask Brick why he was so damn interested in clothes, and his reaction was always the same. Clothes, when it came to battle, were paramount. They allowed for freedom of movement, for protection. Yet if you chose them incorrectly, if you wore the wrong set of shorts or shoes to the witch fight, then that could lose you the battle. Apparently style was a foundational unit in every warrior monk’s course in understanding war.
Henrietta had to admit even though Brick reminded her of some fashion designer, outraged at her choice of clothing, his countenance wasn't the same. There was a strict edge to what he was saying, and he always backed up his statements with comments like “you won't be able to run in that very easily,” or, “if we make those heels a bit taller, your feet won't get wet when sprinting through puddles produced by water witches.”
“For tonight, this will do. But tomorrow you must attempt to disguise yourself in something more appropriate.” With that Brick backed off, grabbed the mirror from the couch, and returned it to the bathroom.
Henrietta let out a heavy sigh and looked longingly down at her dress for several more moments until she transformed out of it.
Then the two of them did what they did every night; they went to hunt the witches.
It was now the day before the ball, and Henrietta was going mad. She'd already dropped two glasses, broken a plate, and when she had handed the Fire Chief his coffee, her hands had shaken so badly that she had tipped it over his sleeve.
She was a mess, a complete mess.
“Henny, Henny,” someone said from her side.
It took her a while to look over.
She had walked over to the tables by the window to clean them off, but after she'd wiped them down, she'd straightened up, her gaze locking on one of the shops over the street as her mind went blank.
“Henny.” Someone placed a hand on her arm.
She shuddered. Turning around, blinking quickly, she looked up into Patrick Black's face.
“You okay?” He looked concerned.
She stuttered out a, "yes."
“Well then, are you going to answer my question?”
She blinked back at him. “Sorry?”
“Wow, you really are out of it today. Why don't you ask Maria for some time off?”
“I'm okay,” she tried to reassure him.
He nodded, and then, uncharacteristically for the suave and dignified policeman, he looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat, giving a short cough at the end. “So? Are you going to this party? The masquerade? The one tomorrow night?”
Henrietta winced at the mere mention of it.
“Oh, sorry, of course, it's not your thing, is it?” Patrick was speaking quickly, something he never did. “Never mind then.”
“Okay...” she stopped. Patrick was trying to ask her something, wasn't he?
Though her mind was stuffed full of fear at the prospect of the masquerade tomorrow night, a quick pinch of nerves got her attention. Was Patrick Black about to ask her to the masquerade? Her, Henrietta Gosling, awkward and ungainly sister of the hottest woman in town?
While certain men did need to get Marcia's attention by pretending to be interested in Henrietta first, Patrick was not one of them.
“What were you going to ask me?” Henrietta clutched onto the rag she had used to clean the table tighter.
Patrick smiled at her, and by George did it send tingles through her stomach. “It's okay, Henny, it's nothing. Have a good weekend.” He backed off, nodded at her, and walked out the door.
Henrietta watched him go.
Patrick Black was not in her league. Not in any way. But he’d just been about to ask her to the ball, hadn't he?
She took a step to the side and craned her neck to watch Patrick as he walked along the street outside. With every step he took away from her, her cheeks reddened.
No way, she thought to herself, he must have been about to ask me something else.
Henrietta only tore herself away from the window when Patrick was well and truly out of sight.
Then she got back to work. She no longer stumbled over everything in her path, and neither did she spill coffee over the customers as her hands shook.
Though her mind should have been filled with the horrible prospect of what was awaiting her tomorrow night, Patrick Black had distracted her.
In fact, she found herself staring off into the distance wandering about him so much that she didn't hear several customers when they asked for coffee and a slice of cake.
“Henrietta, Henrietta.” Someone leaned forward and waved a hand in front of her face.
It was Jimmy.
She blinked at him. “Jimmy.”
“Well, you look like you are off with the fairies. You had a hard night?”
Henrietta shook her head.
Jimmy laughed. “Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. Your sister likes a drop now and then, but you don't touch the stuff, do you?”
She smiled at him. “I've never really developed a liking to alcohol, no.”
Jimmy nodded, and just for a moment he looked uncomfortable. Which was bizarre, because nothing made Mr December uncomfortable. A raging forest fire? He was fine. Night shift for a week? Didn't bother him. A full day of bench presses and training in the gym? He would lap it up. But right now Mr December looked awkward.
It got her attention.
“You know, it's a funny thing, but...” he trailed off.
“What?” She smiled at him encouragingly.
He took a swallow and leaned in, tapping his hand on the bench. “I suppose you already have plans for tomorrow night, right? I suppose like everybody else in the city, you are going to that ball, or whatever it is.”
Henrietta stopped what she was doing immediately.
He wasn't, was he? Was Mr December asking her out?
The Mr December. Jimmy Field? One of the only men in the entire city who Marcia Gosling truly fancied?
“Look, you probably are, forget I asked.” He stopped tapping his hand and straightened up.
“No, no, no,” Henrietta stuttered, then she stopped. She was actually going to the ball. Except she wasn't technically going in person, if that made any sense. She was going in disguise.
Jimmy returned his attention to her, and he looked expectant. In fact, his exact expression sent all sorts of wriggling sensations through her stomach, and they made her grin awkwardly.
“Well...” she tried to think quickly.
“It doesn't matter, everyone is going to the ball, forget I asked. Have fun.” Jimmy gave her a short but fabulously attractive wave, and then walked off.
She was flabbergasted, gob smacked. In the space of an hour, the city's two most eligible bachelors had almost asked her out. Almost being the operative word. Neither of them had ever asked her directly. All she could do was infer what they had intended.
There was always the possibility that Patrick had asked her what she was doing tomorrow night as a lead-in to talk about her sister, just as Jimmy may have only asked her whether she was going to the ball so he could figure out whether Marcia was going too.
Still. Still it gave Henrietta pause for thought.
She was unlucky, fabulously unlucky when it came to love. But could her luck be changing?
That slim hope was all that got her through the day and the night.
When she woke up the following morning, nothing could shift her mood. It was the day of the masquerade. By that night she would be trotting up the steps of City Hall, and she would have to face Theodore Hellier, Witch King and potential mayoral candidate.
On Saturday morning, Henrietta stayed in bed. In fact, she stayed there with the covers pulled over her head and the pillow held close to her face until mid-afternoon. She never stayed in bed that late. Today was going to be an unusual day, a day out of the ordinary, a day that she would remember, if she lived to see another.
When she finally moped out into the kitchen, it was going on two o'clock, and Brick was sitting at the kitchen table. He offered her a stern glance, and looked like he wanted to waggle a finger her way.
“I assume that you have spent all morning and most of the afternoon in bed going over your battle plan and strategy? Yes?”
Henrietta ignored him, slouched over to the fridge, opened it, and hung over the door.
She was ravenously hungry, but the thought of food made her feel sick. In fact, the thought of anything other than going straight back to bed made her want to hurl.
“Come on, it won’t be that bad. You will be in a disguise, and as I have told you—”
“There will be no chance of the Witch King seeing through it,” she replied as she pressed her fingers over her eyes and let them slide down her nose and cheeks. She eventually closed the fridge and leaned her back against it. “But what if you are wrong, Brick? What if tonight goes pear shaped?”
“Tonight is unlikely to end up shaped like a pair. If things are to go wrong, they are likely to explode, not assume the shape of fruit,” Brick pointed out matter-of-factly.
She wanted to hit him, but instead she got herself a glass of water and sipped at it tentatively.
“You have not yet come upon the perfect disguise. You really must wear something black, and with more make-up, and perhaps attempt for a whiter effect on your cheeks, neck, and arms,” he pointed out with a nod, patting his cheeks as he did.
She glowered at him, finished off her water, and dumped the glass in the sink.
Though Brick had turned out to be useful, and was handy in a fight, sometimes she found herself wishing for anyone else but him. Right now she needed to confide in someone, hopefully someone sane, someone who wasn't so fixated on high heels, who didn't swan around in leather, and who didn't boss her about so much. Someone like Jimmy Field or Patrick Black. Right now she could snuggle into a pair of rugged and strong arms and confess her sorrows to a handsome man.
Fat chance of that happening. Henrietta had to go this alone. She was the last witch hunter in existence, and the only person she could confess that fact to was Brick, and maybe the rest of his crazy warrior monk brethren. But there was no support to be had there.
“I'm going to have a bath,” Henrietta decided, and she headed out of the kitchen before Brick could protest.
“Afterwards you will have to come up with the perfect disguise,” he called after her.
She flopped a hand at him and kept walking.
As she ran herself a bath, Henrietta played with her hairpin. She twisted it around in her fingers, staring at the unassuming bauble at the top. The pin was plain and simple. It looked like nothing, and yet it could do everything.
Such power, such potential. And Henrietta was only brushing the surface. There were still so many spells to learn, and so much to achieve.
If she made it through tonight.
She hung her head again and gave a good moan that echoed around the bathroom.
She was trying to tell herself that it would be okay. That if Brick thought it was a good idea, then it had to be. If he thought it wouldn't be a risk going to the masquerade dressed in disguise, then surely that would be the truth. Brick had been the one to save her from the Witch King, and he was the one who kept telling her she wasn't strong enough to fight him. So if he thought there was little risk in attending the party tonight, then shouldn't she trust him?
The answer was yes, but it left something out. What if Henrietta made a mistake? What if she fell over, tripped over her words, and accidentally admitted to who she was? What if she, in usual fashion, completely stuffed up everything? When Brick had told her it would be safe to go to the party tonight, maybe he hadn't taken into account who she was? Maybe Brick, warrior monk, didn't realize how incapable Henrietta Gosling could be.
Henrietta shut off the taps and stepped into the bath, taking her time, waiting for her skin to adjust to the hot water.
Then she flopped down and sighed as the steam rose up and played against her hair.
“You can do this,” she tried to reassure herself. “In the last couple of months you have changed.”
She listened to her own voice, even felt the vibrations of it through her chest. But it would take her a lot more to believe her words.
“You are a bloody witch hunter, you have magic,” she clamped her hand over her eyes. “You are never late for work anymore, and you hardly ever drop anything these days. Plus, people seem to like you more, pay more attention to you.” Despite her mood, she couldn't help but smile, because she had two specific people in mind: Patrick Black and Jimmy Field.
The thought of the affections of those two men was not enough to cut through her emotions though.
“If anything happens, Brick will be there, so will a couple of other warrior monks. You will be fine,” she kept talking to herself, but still, she couldn't believe what she was saying. She couldn't let it sink in and lift her mood.
Because there was something else. Something she wasn't telling Brick, something she was hardly admitting to herself.
Hellier. The Witch King, when he had looked at her that fateful night on the barge... Henrietta had felt something. It had almost, almost felt like belonging.
She suddenly sunk down further into the hot water, until only her lips and eyes and nose were free from it.
“Don't think about that,” she commanded herself. “It's nothing.”
She repeated those words over and over in her head, but it didn't change the tight feeling in her stomach.
It was the way he had looked at her, that intense interest. No one had ever looked at her like that, and plus, it had obviously promised something.
“Something horrible,” she said out loud, trying to derail her thoughts.
Henrietta moped around in the bath for several hours, and it wasn't until Brick knocked on the door, and then jolly well transported through it, that she finally jumped out.
As Brick looked down at her, he looked completely unmoved by her nakedness. And, in fact, just shrugged his shoulders when she shrieked at him not to look.
“If you are ashamed of your body, cover it up with a towel,” he suggested.
She shrieked at him louder and threw the soap right at his head.
He shifted to the side with his by now familiar reflexes, and the soap thumped into the door, falling to the floor with a wet thud.
She quickly shooed him out, then dressed. And when she came out to find him in the lounge room, she was sure to fix him with a death glare. “How many times have I told you not to walk in on me in the bath, or the shower, or when I'm getting dressed?”
Brick looked thoughtful. “Approximately 14 times.”
She screwed up her hands and gave him a stiff, warning smile. “Brick,” her voice was pregnant with warning.
In usual Brick fashion, he looked completely uncaring. “It is time to get ready,” he pointed dramatically at the clock on the DVD player. “It is now 4:45, and the function officially begins at seven, though the doors will be open at 6:15. I suggest we get there early, so that we can look around.”
Henrietta groaned. Though she had been putting it off, the party was finally getting closer. There would be no running now, would there?
She would just have to go through with the plan... and see what would happen.
“You look peaky, as if you are preparing to evacuate your stomach,” he pointed out.
What a thoroughly distasteful way to explain it. But Brick was right: she did feel thoroughly nervous. It was a quick, flighty nervousness that made her feel as if she had accidentally cast a float spell right into her belly.
“Tell me, Warrior Woman Henrietta, what is it that you worry over?”
Everything. Every bloody aspect of this plan. But more than anything... she was worried about that feeling in her stomach. The feeling she had gotten when Hellier had looked her way.
Henrietta pushed the thought from her mind and took several steps back from Brick.
“We have gone over the plan several times, and I am sure it will suffice. I myself will be there, as well as several other warrior monk brethren in disguise.”
She looked up sharply. “That's another thing I've been thinking about, you aren’t going to wear your leather jacket, are you?”
“Are you suggesting there is something wrong with my usual attire? I think you will find leather is a very sturdy material and helps one to protect their skin should they be pushed to the ground or need to quickly roll out of the way of a fireball.”
Henrietta shook her head. “That's not what I mean, well, actually, your jacket is hideous, but that isn't what I'm saying. People know you now, and if I walk in the door with you wearing that jacket, aren’t they going to figure out that it is me? Henrietta? If my sister sees you, she is just going to put two and two together, look through my disguise, and realize who I am.”
“I see your battle brain has been active. Well done, Warrior Woman. You make a good point, but it is a point I myself have already realized. This is why I called your sister this morning.”
Henrietta felt like putting a finger in her ears and cleaning them out. “Sorry?”
“I will be attending this ball with Marcia Gosling, not you, Warrior Woman Henrietta. I will also not wear my trusty leather jacket,” Brick blinked quickly, and he looked emotional, “but I will wear a tuxedo with a mask,” he brought a finger up as he noted that point.
“Marcia? You're going with Marcia?” Henrietta’s nausea lifted, but it was replaced with a completely unpleasant but all too familiar feeling. Jealousy. Every single time Henrietta got a new male friend, Marcia would jump on him and ruin it.
“Yes, it appears that your sister seems to be very keen to accompany me to this ball.”
Brick didn't look as if he was all too ready to crack into a schoolboy grin. He looked just as even and nonplussed as he always did, unless he was discussing style and high heels, that was.
Henrietta had no feelings for Brick, no romantic feelings anyway. He was such a strange mix that there would be no way she could ever consider him in that fashion. But almost, very almost, he was becoming her friend. She had to admit that without him, she would be lost when it came to witch hunting. So the idea that Marcia was about to get her hands on him still hurt, it still sent niggling feelings of jealousy plucking at her.
“Warrior Woman Henrietta, you do not seem to be a fan of this plan.”
Henrietta turned away. “Look, it's fine, just....”
“I will do nothing to make Marcia Gosling blow a gasket,” Brick assured her with a determined nod.
Henrietta sighed. “So does this mean I have to go on my own?”
“I will travel with you to the event, but I will not walk up the steps with you, and I will not stay by your side at the party. But I will always be close. To maximize our chance of having Hellier notice you, it would be best if I was not by your side.” Brick tugged down on his jacket, and it looked as if he thought the distraction of his own style would be too much for the Witch King, and would rob Henrietta of his admiration.
Alone. She would be at that party alone.
For all she knew, she would never see Hellier, and he would never look her way. But just the thought of him rekindled that feeling in her, and she reacted to it with immediate disgust.
“Several of my warrior monk brethren will be among the guests, and you will always have someone close by your side. Plus, should matters dictate, take up your wand and write the word flee in the air.”
Henrietta looked at him sharply. “What? You've never told me that before.”
“I do so now to reassure you. Though I am sure it will not come to it, if you feel the need to run, use your wand to cast the flee spell.”
“What will happen?” Henrietta clutched at her hairpin.
“You will run, Warrior Woman Henrietta, faster than any human, faster than any animal, you will run like the wind, even in heels,” he had to add at the end.
“Won’t people see me?” Henrietta was breathing heavily.
“Perhaps, but if you feel the need to use that spell, you must use it. Even the Witch King will have trouble keeping up. Plus, we must remember that the aim of this party is most likely to secure his position as candidate for mayor. He will not risk displaying his own magic. He is not yet that powerful, and his hold on the city certainly is not that strong. He will not risk anything tonight,” Brick assured her for about the millionth time.
Henrietta nodded her head and twisted her hairpin around in her fingers. She looked at it. Flee. She'd never heard of that spell, but it sounded as if it could work. All she would have to do is clutch hold of her hairpin, write it, and then the spell would be cast. Although, considering her hairpin would be in disguise at the party too, she would have to write with her fan.
Because she would be taking a fan, and she certainly would be wearing a beautiful white princess dress, despite what Brick kept telling her. It just felt right to Henrietta. Going to a masquerade dressed in layers of black silk that hung off her like wisps of air from a grave, with her face decked out in more black eye-liner and mascara than a small country could afford, didn't feel right. But the dress, that incredible white beaded number, that felt perfect. She had already decided that she would transform her hairpin into a little fan that would be tied around her wrist. That way she would never lose hold of it, and would easily be able to grab it up if she should find herself in trouble.
Eventually Henrietta walked into the kitchen, though she still couldn't face the prospect of food, even though Brick thought that was the craziest thing he’d ever heard, and kept trying to force a chicken wing in her mouth.
She resisted, and time moved on. Soon she was standing back in the lounge room with Brick, and he was encouraging her to transform. He had already changed clothes, and true to his word, he had taken off his leather jacket and was now dressed in a suit.
Brick, the crazy warrior monk, actually looked handsome. The cut of his suit, the shine of his shoes, and the way his cuff links sat next to his wrists – he looked incredibly stylish. And in control too; he had the kind of countenance and ease of expression that oozed charm. Except the only problem was, Henrietta knew Brick, and Brick had exactly zero charm. Still, he did look the part. And Marcia was going to go gaga over him.
“You must now transform or we will be late.” Brick nodded at her, fixing his cuff links as he did.
Once more Henrietta told herself that she could do this, and once more she chased away that feeling. The one that had taken up root somewhere in her stomach, the one she was trying to deny like crazy.
She brought up her hairpin, and she transformed into a witch hunter.
After the magic had taken hold, and her hairpin had changed into her wand, she wrote the words disguise me, and within seconds the spell had taken effect. In a puff of white light, shooting sparks that looked like stars, and crackles of energy that suspiciously took on the form of butterflies, Henrietta Gosling changed from a witch hunter into what was ostensibly a princess.
In a second her feet touched back down on the ground, her perfect white heels tapping against the carpet and the floorboards underneath. She patted down on her dress, and couldn't help but smile, and as she did the wand in her hand transformed in its own rush of sparks, until it was a beautiful silk fan tied around her wrist in ribbon.
Brick had brought out the mirror again, and she turned to it, staring at her reflection.
Henrietta looked just exactly how she’d dreamed and fantasized of looking when she’d been a child. The dress, the hair, the mask, it was perfect. It was out of her own fairytale, it was out of a movie, it was something that couldn't really exist.
“Come along.” Brick held out his arm to her. “It's time to take the witch hunter to the ball.”
Despite her feelings, Henrietta cracked a smile.
Because even though she looked like a princess on the outside, underneath she was still a witch hunter. Even if the fear had caught hold of her for the better part of the past two weeks, she had to remember that fact. She was no ordinary Henrietta Gosling anymore; she was a warrior woman, as Brick always pointed out to her. And surely a warrior woman could handle a ball.
Brick left her close to the City Hall, and Henrietta walked the last block on her own.
She was no stranger to walking around the city in a costume these days. Still, she couldn't help but note the glances she got from passers-by.
They looked flabbergasted, and if they were men, they blushed too.
Eventually Henrietta made it to City Hall, and then she walked up the steps, her heels clicking against the stone. Several people were standing around, milling about before they went into the party, and every single one of them turned to watch her.
She recognized some of them. One or two were friends of Marcia’s, a couple were politicians, and one woman Henrietta could swear was the anchor for the local news. They all stared at her, gob smacked.
She felt like opening her fan, bringing it up to her face, and quickly blushing behind it. Instead she crested the steps and walked into City Hall.
It was a large building and had three floors. The main ball, or the ball for the plebs as Marcia had put it, was to be held on the bottom floor. The special guests who had been invited by Mr Hellier himself or who had paid a bucket load for tickets, would be able to mingle on the second floor. The third floor, as far as Henrietta knew, would not be used tonight.
Henrietta had tried to buy a ticket for the special function with Mr Hellier, but unfortunately they were sold out. She'd found out about the ball late, after all, and according to Marcia, the special tickets had sold like hotcakes. Even one of Brick's warrior monk brethren hadn’t been able to secure her a ticket. But according to Brick, that wouldn’t be a problem. All Henrietta had to do was stick around downstairs until she got enough attention. Then, surely, she would be invited to the second floor to meet Hellier.
Henrietta had several misgivings about that plan, mostly because it sounded like it was out of a storybook. Real princesses, in fairy tales, might get away with turning up to the ball without a ticket and just sitting in the corner looking pretty until the Prince noticed them. But that probably wasn't going to work here. Or at least Henrietta hoped it wouldn't. Because if it didn’t, then she would never have to stare at Hellier again, note his expression, see the interest and power widening his eyes....
Henrietta shook her head quickly as that thought crossed through her mind. Then she brought out her ticket and handed it to the man standing just inside the large doors that led into City Hall.
He kept looking at her as she handed him the ticket, and it seemed to take a great deal of effort on his behalf to tear his gaze off her outfit and onto the piece of paper in his hand. Eventually he mumbled an “okay," and gestured to the hall with an arm.
Henrietta mumbled a “thank you," then walked away.
Though the ball was not meant to start for another 40 minutes, the place was already packed. Unlike the guests on the steps outside, everyone here had already put their masks on. Still, Henrietta didn't have too much trouble recognizing people. She saw a woman Marcia worked with, and then she saw the Fire Chief, then she even saw the old lady that lived down the street and kept trying to get Henrietta to go to bingo.
While Henrietta recognized them, it didn't appear that anyone recognized her. No one came up and asked how Marcia was, and neither did they ask how Henrietta's parents were. They looked at her with wide, astounded expressions, but that was it. And as she walked past, they would always turn to talk amongst themselves in hushed whispers.
It suddenly dawned on her when she had walked all the way into the hall that she would likely be doing a lot of waiting tonight. Standing up in these heels, no doubt leaning against the wall like the world's most overdressed wallflower, and waiting, and waiting. But fortunately considering she had transformed, and she was technically a witch hunter under this disguise, she felt stronger, and she was a great deal steadier in her shoes. Still, it was going to be boring.
Or at least Henrietta thought it would be.
Usually when she went to parties she would quickly find herself pushed into the kitchen, or out onto the porch, or anywhere that was away from everybody else. More often than not, people would get bored of her conversation and run off to find her sister.
Today it was different. Today, Henrietta felt swamped.
First it was the waiter who offered her a drink and then hung about at her side telling her how fantastic her outfit was. Then one of Jimmy’s friends she recognized as Rodriguez, came up to her and complimented her on her hairpiece. Then it was the guy from the video store who grabbed another drink and offered it to her, despite the fact she had hardly touched her first one.
Henrietta had men all around her, and she could hardly move for compliments.
At one point, however, she did see briefly through the gap between the several fireman and bank managers who were standing just to her left, and she caught a glimpse of a very familiar face.
Brick. And on his arm was Marcia. She was hanging off Brick, leaning into him, depositing her bosom on his arm, and fixing him with the most seductive looks.
Brick hardly glanced at her. He did look at Henrietta though, and he offered her a quick nod.
It made Henrietta shudder with nerves.
Brick had assured her that if his plan did not succeed, and she was not mysteriously tapped on the shoulder and invited to join everyone else on the second floor, then he and his warrior monk brethren would intervene. Henrietta didn't know what that would entail, and she hoped that they would fail.
She kept glancing up to the ceiling above her, imagining who was up there, and, more importantly, him. The Witch King.
When the ball officially started at 6:45, it was to the sound of a town crier ringing a bell. The noise shifted through Henrietta and gave her the most flighty and sudden feeling. She clutched at her fan and had to fight the desire to write the word flee.
Something was going to happen tonight, her instincts screamed at her, and no matter how much she tried to push them away, they wouldn't be pushed.
It wasn't until 7:05 that anything happened. Just as John Farley, a renowned architect, asked for her number, Henrietta got a tap on the shoulder. She practically stumbled over from surprise, her heart threatening to stop right in her chest. She was that tense, that overcome.
When she turned, it was not to meet Hellier's gaze. Rather it was to meet the gaze of the aptly named Spanner.
He was dressed in a black suit and had a badge that red security. He winked at her knowingly and shifted his head towards the ceiling. “If you will accompany me, madam, there is somebody who would like to meet you.”
Henrietta followed Spanner as he led the way through the crowd. She clutched at her skirts so they didn't get caught up in her heels.
She clutched harder and harder the closer they neared the stairs, and as they finally climbed them, her hands began to shake.
At the top of the stairs were several security guards, standing with their hands held in front of them, their eyes darting around the room and over the stairs, no doubt looking for hopeful stragglers who wanted to race up to the second floor uninvited.
They didn't stop Spanner and Henrietta, but moved to the side as they neared.
Spanner led her down the hall, and paused just outside of the function room. He turned to her. “It was almost impossible to get you in, I had to pose as a security guard,” he noted conspiratorially, patting down on his jacket as he did. “But it has worked; you are here finally.”
Henrietta looked at the closed doors in front of her. They were large, and even though doors usually didn't bother her, she suddenly got the impression they were like the gates to Hell.
She clutched at her stomach now, flattening her hands over the tight fabric of her bodice.
“You mean, nobody is expecting me? I don't have a real invite?”
Spanner shook his head. “Hopefully no one will notice. I've got you this far, and I doubt the people in there know who is on the invite list. There are only guests inside; we security guards are expected to stop anyone else from entering.”
She nodded. “Okay,” she said in a light and shaky voice.
Then she couldn't hide from it any longer, because Spanner opened the door, and Henrietta Gosling walked into the function room.
Brick and Marcia had managed to get tickets to the special function, or at least Marcia had. Marcia had pulled strings that only she could pull, and had bought herself tickets after they had all been sold out. When Henrietta had begged her sister to try and grab another ticket, Marcia hadn't bothered. After all, why would Henrietta go to a ball, and why on earth would she want to pay the extra money to go upstairs to mingle with the city's finest? Henrietta had no business doing anything with the city's finest apart from serving them coffee.
Yet Henrietta was now here, walking carefully into the room, trying to make herself as invisible as possible. She wanted to clutch at her fan and write the word invisible, just to see what would happen.
But in her current outfit there would be no way that Henrietta could pass unnoticed.
She walked past Frank Apple, one of the city's richest investors, and the man stopped talking to the Mayor, just to ogle Henrietta's way. The same pattern was repeated the further she walked into the room. Though she held onto her fan as tightly as she could, and tried to walk as quietly as her heels would let her, it wouldn't work; people turned her way and they stared.
So of course it didn't take long for her to come to his attention, not long at all.
Henrietta had come to a rest on the other side of the room, next to the large and ornate windows that stared out onto the city. She had turned her back from the party, taking a much-needed moment to calm herself as she stared at the view.
That was when a hand rested slightly on her shoulder, and a voice puffed past her ear. “Do I know you?”
She turned on her heel. It was him. Witch King Hellier.
He was close to her, too close for personal space, and he took a moment to straighten up as he stepped back. He never took his eyes off her, and they continued to sparkle, that look of interest burning within.
Henrietta was frozen, and it took him to repeat his question before she stuttered out a “no."
“I must admit, I do not recognize you,” he mumbled as he looked at her dress and mask. “I don't suppose it would be untoward to ask you to let me in on your secret?”
Her breath froze in her chest, and her eyes widened so far she must have looked like a deer in the headlights. “What do you mean?” her voice was a mumble, and it was so quiet that Hellier had to shift forward to pick it up.
“Lift your mask,” he nodded at it, “I know it is not customary at a masquerade to ask anyone, let alone a lady, to reveal their identity, but you intrigue me.” He didn't blink as he looked at her, intensifying that deep flicker of interest in his eyes.
Henrietta shook her head.
He gave a chuckle. “Of course, how rude of me. We are at a masquerade and it is customary to keep one's mask on for the entire night. Perhaps after you will reveal your identity to me.”
Her gut twisted, and she clutched onto her fan until it felt like she would break it. “Why... why aren’t you wearing a mask?” She kept stumbling over her words.
He alone, apart from the security guards, was walking around in full view with nothing to hide his identity. He had his suit on, with no jacket and no tie, and there wasn't a mask in sight.
He smiled. “Because I don't have to hide from anyone.”
It sounded as if Hellier was hinting at something more. If he knew that Henrietta was a witch hunter, then telling her he had no one to hide from would be a bold and pointed statement. But he couldn't know, could he? She was just flustered, fearful, she was just making things up. There was no way Hellier could see through her disguise; Brick had assured her so many times that would be impossible.
But as the fear built within her, Henrietta felt suddenly unsteady on her heels, and she stumbled slightly to the side.
Immediately Hellier brought up a hand and latched it over her arm to steady her.
His grip was cold, his fingers icy as they pressed into her flesh, and yet, just as his hand lingered, it began to heat up.
She pulled herself free, mumbling a “thank you."
Pull yourself together, pull yourself together, she begged herself over and over again. You are a warrior woman, act like one.
Henrietta rubbed her thumb and fingers over her fan, and then she forced herself to look at him. “I hear you are running for mayor?”
“Now who told you that? I have not formally announced my desire for candidacy yet.” Hellier brought up a hand and ran it over his lips and chin.
He still looked intrigued, he still looked powerfully interested, and it still sent all kinds of tingles through Henrietta's middle.
“I thought everyone knew?” she added hastily.
When Brick and Spanner had told her, they hadn't bothered to mention that Hellier hadn’t announced his running yet. The fact seemed kind of important now.
“I see, perhaps I am not as good at keeping a secret as you are.” He stopped running his hand over his chin and let it rest gently at his side. He was still standing close to her, and Henrietta shifted her weight back until she was leaning away from him.
“Sorry?” A shot of nerves passed through her heart, making it speed up with a burst.
He couldn't know, could he?
“Your mask.” He tapped at his face. “You still haven't taken it off, and though I am exceedingly good at recognizing faces, I must admit, I have no idea who you are.”
Henrietta instinctively furled her fan and brought it up to her face. It was a very strange thing to do, but she couldn't stop herself from trying to hide behind it. In any other situation, it might have seemed coquettish, had her eyes not been pressed open with fear and surprise.
Hellier chuckled again. “You look flushed, why don't we walk out onto the patio?” He gestured to the opened doors that led out onto the long patio that wrapped around the second floor of the building. “The night air will cool you down.”
No, I really don't want to go out there with him. Henrietta told herself. But you have to, she added. Because you have to find out as much about him as you can. Tonight will be wasted if you don't find out what he is up to and figure out a way to throw a spanner in his works, well, not Spanner himself, but anything that will disrupt Hellier's plans.
So even though a part of Henrietta screamed at her not to follow him onto the patio, she did it anyway.
The night air was cool, but that didn't stop the heat that rose through her.
Hellier led her out to the patio, then he leaned down along the long, carved-stone railing, turning towards the view for a moment before he turned back to her.
Henrietta had never been more thankful for her disguise. And more than anything, it was the mask, protecting her eyebrows from view and stunting the emotional range of her expressions. Because if she wasn't wearing it, then Hellier would be able to see just how frightened she was.
“Are you cool now?” he asked as he tapped his hand directly on the railing.
She brought up her fan and began to wave it at her face. She wasn't trying to look alluring, she was just trying to remind herself that in her hand was her magical wand, and if anything went wrong, she could write a spell and be done with this man.
“Why are you running for mayor?” she asked as she kept fanning her face.
Hellier cracked into a smile, and it was a slow move. “I suppose I shouldn't tell you, because I haven't even made my candidacy public yet, but you seem like the kind of girl who can hold a secret.”
There he went again, talking about secrets. As he said the word, he narrowed his eyes, even flicked his gaze over her face.
He knows. Henrietta thought to herself as she fanned her face harder and harder.
“I feel that I have a lot of skills that I could lend to the city,” Hellier began to answer. “I have several organizational and structural ideas that I think the city planners would benefit from.”
“Ah, I trust that if I tell you, you won't turn around and let the press know?”
Henrietta nodded, keeping her fan in front of her face as she took a hard swallow.
“Very well, I have plans for the subway system. Our current infrastructure is inefficient, and if we opened up tunnels underneath North Square and continued out into the outer city, we could alleviate peak hour traffic. And I assume I do not need to tell you that peak hour traffic is responsible for 10% of this city's carbon emissions. We are too reliant on cars, and in this day and age, that is a sin.”
He looked like he was serious. From his expression, to his countenance, to the way he said his words, there was no indication that underneath was a sodding Witch King whose only desire was to control and ultimately overcome humanity.
Hellier nodded. “They have already begun work on extending a tunnel under North Square, and I must admit, I was the one who put forward the suggestion to the current Mayor. However, I believe that if I were elected to that role, there are many more projects I could achieve, and so much more I could do with this city.”
Henrietta was now fanning faster and faster, and if she kept going, her wrist would probably seize up. But she couldn't help it; he had mentioned the subway, and more than that, he'd mentioned the construction work going on at North Square. Brick was almost certain that there was a witch den underneath that area.
Could that be Hellier’s plan? If he were elected to mayor, would he sink the city's budget into expanding the subway, but ultimately expanding the lair of his own witch coven too?
Before Henrietta could ask any more questions, Hellier nodded back to the room. “Have you cooled down yet?”
“Then, my dear,” he held out his arm, “we should return to the masquerade.”
She really, really didn't want to touch him, so she just brought down her fan, nodded at him politely, and walked through the door on her own.
His eyes sparkled as she passed him.
When they returned to the party, it was to a sight Henrietta had never seen outside of movies: a proper ballroom dance.
The band had started up, and the men and women of the city were all waltzing around with their masks on.
Don't do it, god, don't do it, she suddenly thought to herself. Because her battle instinct suddenly shouted in her ear that Mr Hellier was about to do one thing. Ask her to dance.
Henrietta had never been asked to dance; she was the permanent wallflower, after all. She really didn't want her first time to be with a bloody Witch King.
He leaned in, tapped her on the shoulder, and nodded towards the dance floor. “Care to dance?”
No, bloody no, she wanted to scream at him, but before she could, he reached down and grabbed up her hands.
Though she wanted to yank her hands free, she didn't want to make a scene, so somehow she found herself being pulled towards the center of the dance floor.
He held up one of her hands and brought his other hand around and rested it on her hip.
The move made her shiver.
She’d never forget that shiver.
They began to dance.
Except Henrietta had never danced in her life. She had two left feet. She tripped over blades of grass, for god sakes. So to her, dancing seemed like an impossibility.
Except today she was dancing. Or maybe he was dancing and she was following. But the point was, Henrietta was whirling and twisting around on the floor, completely and utterly unlike herself. Maybe it was the fact she was really a witch hunter underneath, and maybe the magic that kept her walking on her ridiculous heels also managed to make her dance.
He held her hand tightly, but the fingers that rested on her waist did so with a light touch.
It really felt like a scene from a movie. As they danced over the floor, the both of them agile and quick, all Henrietta could think was that she belonged in a book or fairytale. Where the ordinary girl would suddenly turn into a princess, and then find herself doing a fantastic waltz with the Prince at the ball, even though she had never taken a dancing lesson in her life.
And, just like in the movies, people began to step back, giving them more room, even standing to the side to watch them.
As they did, Hellier began to dance faster. He now twisted Henrietta around, her skirt flying out in a twist, then he pulled her back in, dipped her, and kept moving across the floor with such grace and speed that at one point he even drew a round of applause.
Through it all, no matter how hard the maneuver looked, Hellier always kept his attention focused on her, that same slight smile on his lips.
Henrietta had never seen a smile like that, and it did all kinds of things to her stomach, things she really didn't want to admit to. Because Hellier was the Witch King.
It was close to when the song was about to finish, just after Hellier had turned her around, and just as he was moving in for a last dip, that he brought his face alongside hers and whispered something in her ear.
Just two words.
Henrietta lost her balance as the fear rushed through her. Her heels slipped against the floor, sending her tumbling over.
Her dress whirled around her, one of her shoes half slipped off her foot, and her hair came loose, bunching over her shoulder in a mess.
There was a general gasp from the audience.
Hellier leaned down to offer her a hand, but he didn't get there first.
No, someone darted out from the audience, offered her their arm, and had her on her feet in an instant.
He had an alarmed look on his face, and quickly shifted to glance at Hellier.
Henrietta brought a hand up to her head, pushing the hair that had escaped from her bun across her shoulders, and trying to steady herself on Brick’s arm.
Brick surreptitiously covered his hand over his mouth. With his teeth still clenched and his lips hardly parting, he whispered a single word.
Even more fear shot through her, and once again she threatened to slip on her heels and tumble down to the floor.
But Brick strengthened her.
Then he repeated the word again.
Everyone was watching them, every single person in the room had turned their way.
Hellier was standing several steps away from Henrietta, and had his head held to the side, a curious look on his face as he surveyed Brick.
“Thank you,” Hellier said quickly. “Are you all right, my dear?”
She scrunched up her nose at his words. Brick just tightened his grip on her hand.
She had to run.
She had to flee.
Henrietta brought her hands around until she clasped them behind her back, then she held onto her fan with all her might. In the slightest of movements, she wrote the word “flee” with the tip of her silk fan.
There was a rustle of fabric from her skirt, as if a slight wind had just caught up around her heels. If there was any light, it was completely hidden by the folds of her fabric. But that did not stop the sensation.
Moments after she finished casting the spell, Henrietta's feet were suddenly seized with a frantic energy, the kind of feeling that told her she could run and run and run.
She took a careful step backwards, but it was jerked and quick.
“I need to go to the bathroom... to freshen up,” she added. She turned from Hellier.
She ran out of the room.
Not too fast, not with the speed of a sprinter, but fast enough that she got out of there within seconds.
Then Henrietta ran through the corridor, she ignored the security at one end, dashed right past them, down the stairs, through the rest of the party, and finally out of the front doors of City Hall.
She sped down the steps and shot through the streets at a frantic pace.
Henrietta Gosling fled.
Every second as she ran, a single thought occupied her mind. The exact expression on Hellier's face as he’d mumbled those two words in her ear. Witch Hunter.
Henrietta did not get far. Though she had cast the flee spell, and even though it enabled her to run with frantic speed through the city streets, it didn't take long to realize that someone was following her.
At first she heard something that sounded like rain, and then waves almost, and then, from behind, a jet of water shot out from somewhere and slammed right into her back.
By now Henrietta had reached the industrial section of town, and just as the shot of water slammed into her back, pushing her forward and onto the ground, she tumbled to a halt right in front of a scrap metal dealership.
It had high fences, and the yard was packed with old sheets of metal and junk.
Though she had slammed to the ground with a great deal of force, and though she was wearing the most ridiculous of dresses, Henrietta quickly rolled over and pushed herself up to her feet. She turned just in time to see another jet of water shoot towards her.
She dodged to the side, her skirt snagging against some exposed wire of the fence, and ripping loudly.
She didn't have any time to swear. Just across the street was a bloody water witch.
It wasn't just any water witch either; it was the same one she had faced at the docks, the very night she had first met Hellier.
That night the Witch King had saved that water witch, preventing Henrietta from banishing her.
Now the water witch was back for round two.
She was wearing a black lacy dress, high heels, and her black hair had an indigo tinge to it, and seemed to hang around her face like wet sheets.
The witch opened her mouth and let out a horrible hissing sound. “His Highness wishes to see you,” she said.
It was the first time Henrietta had heard one of the witches speak, and it was a truly horrible sound. It felt like someone was sticking pins in her spine, and Henrietta gave a violent shudder.
It was also the words that made her shudder too.
“You interrupted his party, he wants to see you,” the witch repeated, “he wants me to bring you back, you left early.”
Henrietta bared her teeth, clutched her hands into fists, and ground her heels into the dust to steadier herself.
She forced her fan forward and wrote the words witch hunter.
She transformed quickly.
The witch watched her as she did, but the creature did bring up an arm to protect her eyes, as if the light of Henrietta's transformation was painful somehow.
When Henrietta was finished, and her heels clicked down on the dust-covered pavement, the witch gave another hiss. “He wants to see you; he isn't done with you yet,” the witch added.
Henrietta was back to being a witch hunter. Gone was that incredible white princess dress, and the skirt, heels, and long jacket were back.
Henrietta couldn't deny that they made her feel powerful. All that mess of emotions that had overcome her, all that nervousness, all that worry, it seemed to burn up now that she was back in control.
She wrote her favorite spell in front of her just as she ducked to the side, another jet of water slicing out towards her.
The jet of water was so strong and sharp that it managed to cut through the fence Henrietta was standing in front of. There was a cracking sound, and a section of the fence fell forward, missing her by an inch.
With the magical wall in place before her, Henrietta backed off, quickly jumping and flipping through the hole in the fence, rolling on the ground, and then forcing herself to her feet in a snap.
The witch sent another slice of water her way, but fortunately the bulk of the wall protected Henrietta again, though the magical bricks did shake in place.
This water witch really was powerful. Perhaps the most powerful witch that Henrietta had yet faced.
Apart from the Witch King, that was.
“He wants to talk to you,” the water witch repeated, her voice singsong. Then she walked forward, right into the wall. Though the magical wall did repel her, the water witch brought up her arms and slammed them into it.
It began to crumble.
The witch stepped over the remaining magical bricks, a horrible smile peeling across her face.
Henrietta backed off.
She cast a fireball, and it shot towards the witch, but the witch easily brought up a hand, and as she did a rush of water followed. The water collected over the fireball, covering it completely until the two spells cancelled each other out.
Dammit. The last time she'd fought this witch, Brick had been at her side, and he had managed to cast a magical magnification spell. In fact, that had been the only reason that Henrietta had been able to cast a fire tornado, a very difficult spell indeed.
But now she was on her own, and if she didn't come up with a solution fast, it sounded as if this water witch would drag Henrietta all the way back to Hellier.
Henrietta could only shudder to think of what would happen then.
She ducked to the side, rolling quickly, then pressing her hands into the ground and flipping several times until she landed behind a stack of metal sheets.
There were still many spells Henrietta had not tried, many words she had been intending to practice if she ever got the time or opportunity.
It seemed that the breadth and range of magic she could cast was only limited by her imagination. Just as long as she got the wording right, she could almost do anything, well, as long as she had the requisite magic.
The spells that were by far the easiest were the elemental ones. Fire, earth, air, water; those came naturally and fairly quickly.
But wasn't there one element that Henrietta had left out? One elemental spell she had yet to try.
So Henrietta wrote it. Though she had no idea what the spell would do, she was desperate.
The witch was advancing, sending spurts of water Henrietta’s way with every second, until it felt like there was a lake underneath Henrietta's feet.
The second she finished writing the word, the strangest of symbols appeared underneath Henrietta's boots.
But nothing happened. No metal spikes shot out and towards the witch, but still the light of the spell and the symbol below her travelled up and around Henrietta.
It was almost as if the spell had not been properly cast, as if it was waiting for something more.
The water witch suddenly brought her hands up and then furled them out. Just as she did, a wall of water burst around her, as high as a tsunami, and it travelled towards Henrietta like a bullet.
She had seconds.
A word came to her mind.
She wrote it.
Finally the spell at Henrietta’s feet took hold, and several metal poles shot from the symbol, rushing towards the witch. They were fast and there were so many of them that they burst through the wall of water, forcing it to break in half. So when the water did reach Henrietta, it peeled off on either side of her, crashing to the ground, completely soaking her, but not toppling her over with its force.
The metal poles reached the witch, and one by one they slammed into place, then twisted at the top, producing a metal cage around the creature.
Just as Henrietta got to her feet, her whole body sopping wet, she saw the witch begin to pull at the metal bars. The creature was so strong that already she was having success at tugging them apart.
So she had to end this.
The witch was still not weakened enough that she could be banished, so Henrietta needed one more spell.
She had an idea.
It was the first time she'd cast it, and as she wrote the word, there was a violent crackle of electricity from a symbol under her feet, and then an arc of lightning shot out and struck the cage.
Instantly electricity surged over it, down the metal beams, and shot into the wet hands of the witch as she held onto the metal poles.
She jolted backwards, slamming against the cage just as she let out a high-pitched, horrible cry.
Though water and metal surrounded her, and the electrical discharge from the lightning strike should have translated through to Henrietta, nothing of the sort occurred; the symbol at her feet protected her.
The witch was down, weakened enough that the banish spell would work. So Henrietta did not hesitate. She took several shaky steps forward and wrote banish.
The by-now familiar rush of invisible energy coalesced around her and covered the witch, sending the creature back into the void.
After it was all over, Henrietta the witch hunter walked home. She was weakened, she was tired, and she had a hell of a lot to think about.
Henrietta was on the couch eating ice cream. She hadn’t eaten anything that entire day, and yet when she had gotten home, she had polished off a pack of chocolate biscuits and half a tub of cookie crumble ice cream.
Because she deserved it.
Even though she hadn't thought herself capable, she had gone to that ball, and she had found out what Hellier was up to. And, to top it all off, Henrietta had also taken down a fiendishly strong witch all on her own.
Brick was sitting on the recliner opposite her, and by George did he look proud. He was currently tucking into his own packet of biscuits, and he was even making eyes at her half-finished ice cream.
“Get your own,” she warned him with a growl.
“I would have thought you would be more thankful, considering what I did for you tonight,” Brick said as he crammed another biscuit in his mouth.
“You told me that Hellier wouldn't be able to see through my disguise,” Henrietta pointed out as she waved her spoon Brick's way.
Brick winced through a smile. “It seems I got that wrong. Though we cannot be sure that he saw through your disguise; he may simply have taken a lucky guess. However, we should not dwell on such things, because tonight was a success.”
She pushed her head back into the pillow propped up behind her.
“No one died, we found out what he is up to, and you learnt several new spells,” Brick clarified. “What is more, your sister gave me her number.”
Henrietta spluttered, wiped the back of her hand over her mouth, and straightened up.
Brick was meant to be immune. Brick was meant to be the only man Henrietta had ever met that wouldn't ditch her for her sister.
Brick took a moment, and then he began to chuckle, and it was a very toothy, crackly chuckle.
Henrietta threw a cushion at him. “I am in no mood to play, Brick. Plus, we don't have the time. We might have gotten out of there tonight, and I might have taken down that water witch, but Hellier is still going to run for mayor. And if he gets his way, then he is going to spend all the city’s funds on trying to widen his witch den.”
As Brick bit into another biscuit, he momentarily looked solemn. “This is true. But you are a witch hunter, and I am the warrior monk helper who serves you, and if you have not already figured this out, Henrietta, we will always be busy. We will always be fighting the witches until the shadow war can finally end.”
Henrietta put down her spoon, then she nodded at Brick.
Because he was right.
She had finally accepted that fact.
She was a witch hunter. Henrietta Gosling, former train wreck and uncoordinated wallflower was now the very last of her kind. Capable of powerful magic, and with a trusty if eccentric warrior monk at her side, Henrietta would fight the witches.
It was her destiny. And as Brick always said, she had to grab her destiny with both hands. Which she would, as soon as she’d finished her ice cream.
Thank you for reading The Enchanted Writes Book One. The rest of this five-book series is currently available from most ebook retailers. You can also purchase the boxset for a reduced price.