A TOWER IN THE WOODS
The Bartlett Mansion had been standing since the 17thcentury and was one of the oldest buildings in Connecticut.
It was a three-story tall, not including the two giant attics and basement, made of beige brick and in imitation of something square and simple. The windows were shaped like vertical rectangles following that simple theme and there were over a dozen chimneys sticking out over the dark blue roof. The two extended wings later added to the home made the building stretch out across the property like an ominous wall.
Beyond the dark blue double-doors was the giant foyer. It was all three stories tall, incredibly huge, wide and uninviting, with a staircase on either side leading up to a walkway on each level.
It was a dark shadowy room as well, the strongest light coming from the huge square window on top of the platform directly ahead, and the light stretching across the tiled floor along with paintings and statues gave the room a kind of unpleasant cathedral vibe. In the center of the ceiling, hanging from a chain, was a giant unlit glass chandelier shaped like an upside wedding cake.
“I think I hate this place already,” Ethan Benedict Bartlett said as he looked around himself, each of his footsteps echoing throughout the foyer.
He was a highly attractive eighteen-year-old, average in height and build, muscular with straight, thick dark brown hair that hung down past his extremely light blue eyes. He was wearing a dark blue t-shirt, jeans and black and white Converse shoes. Compared to the people in those paintings he felt incredibly common.
In his left hand, he held his sheathed 15th-century longsword wrapped with its partner, a 15th-century dagger, which he had a professional made and then personally enchanted. In his right hand was a suitcase of various books, DVDs and a portable DVD player he used to entertain himself on his flight from LAX in Los Angeles, California to Tweed New Haven Regional Airport in New Haven, Connecticut.
“So where the hell is everybody?” he asked aloud, his voice echoing all around him.
He had let himself in after knocking for ten minutes after a cab ride that he had to pay himself all the way from New Haven. His family had been supposed to pick him but no one had either been nor answered his phone calls.
“Hello?” he called out and when no one answered, he shrugged and went up to the loft where the rest of his things were waiting.
For some unknown reason, he found it remarkably easy to navigate the house even though he had never been there before and he found his attic on the first try. The east attic was just an ordinary albeit a very large attic while the one on the west had been converted into an extremely comfortable set of rooms that acted as a complete guesthouse within the main house. It included a dining room, living room, kitchen, one master bedroom complete with a bath and shower and a guest room that shared a public bathroom. There was also a small parlor, which Ethan planned to convert into a magician’s laboratory.
It was warm, brown, comfortable and wood with a ceiling of crisscrossed dark brown wooden beams and a floor that was mostly carpeted deep green with pale white tiles in the bathrooms and kitchen. Every room was utterly empty save for the unmovable kitchen island, baths, toilets, sinks and the one king-sized bed in the master bedroom. The windows were large and open, light spilling across the huge open space and from beyond Ethan could hear the sounds of the sea bashing against the cliffs below the house.
His few possessions from California were piled neatly in the corner of the living room delivered a week before. Mostly, they were just his library books, monster hunting and fiction novels, along with his video games, their systems, his computer, and a small flat-screen television all neatly put away in boxes.
That Friday morning he had flown in and if things went right, he would begin his new job working Bartlett & Bartlett to be groomed for upper management on Monday.
“Okay, enough fucking around,” Ethan told himself. He had seen the bounty sign on a local diner as he went by in the cab and after a quick call on the way to the Bartlett Mansion, he got himself a spot held on a monster hunting team.
They only held it because he was a magician, the job apparently nothing more than a simple daylight troll hunting expedition with three experienced hunters already, but he had nothing else to do for the day and he could always use more cash.
He placed his suitcase on his bed, opened it up, and took out his satchel. Like his sword and its matching dagger, he had personally enchanted it and it could hold ten times the amount of space for its equivalent size. He generally used it just for the magical potions he had made, each in a slender clear vial with as much liquid as a shot glass, his other magical items and a few emergency supplies giving him plenty of extra space for whatever he might find.
The sword and satchel were not his only magical achievement.
Over his young life, Ethan had developed a variety of magical talents. It was possible for anyone to do so but he had a gift for it and it came naturally for him. It was similar to that of a naturally gifted artist who required little to no training leaving and he was told his talent took a decade, possibly two, from what was normally required.
For that alone, he was often accepted into hunting groups.
Ethan had always loved magic and he spent much of his childhood learning spell casting, enchanting, alchemy and ritual magic and although he only had a select amount of each to learn from he had still become quite good and had made a grand study of any magic-related subject that he could find.
Ethan threw off his jacket and put on his adventuring gear which consisted of loose-fitting black pants he could fight in, military boots, the same t-shirt, black fencing gauntlets and a thick black fencing vest which was a high collared, sleeveless Renaissance-like thing with two lines of buttons on the front made out of leather. Ethan strapped his enchanted sword on his left, his dagger on the right, and put his belt satchel on his left behind his sword.
He would have carried a gun too, if he could have. He had turned eighteen last November and it was legal to have almost any kind of gun while on an official monster hunting bounty but even if he somehow had managed to afford a gun’s purchase price, his uncle would have no doubt been furious and would have stopped at nothing to get it taken away.
As Ethan slipped out of the attic and walking down the stairs, he saw a fourteen-year-old girl looking up at him with wide, curious eyes. The sight of her struck him very suddenly and powerfully as the physical incarnation of the female “nerd” persona. Her dull brown hair hung down in two long braids and she wore a dress of dull green with wide straps, a boring short-sleeved white blouse, thick square glasses and tall socks with small brown shoes.
“Hey kid,” said Ethan, “The 1980s just called. They want their cliché back.” She just stared at him in response. “It’s a joke. You know, for fun. Laughter.”
The girl’s expression did not shift in the slightest. “You have my eyes,” she said.
Ethan stepped down onto the hall above the foyer in front of a giant square window overlooking the front where she was waiting. “It’s because we’re related,” he told her. “I’m your cousin Ethan and not just some yahoo with a sword robbing your house.” She stared at him blankly for a minute. “Okay,” he added after a moment. “How about a question. Why wasn’t anyone picking me up at the airport?”
“Aunt Anne was supposed to go but she got drunk and passed out.”
“Oh how lovely,” he replied.
“You’re prettier than me,” she said suddenly. “Everyone is pretty than me.”
“I guess it’s no surprise you lack self-esteem after being dressed as Urkel’s white sister.” She looked at him blankly some more. “I’m saying you’re not ugly and that whoever told you that dress was a good idea will not be welcome in Heaven.”
“I’m ugly. Why try and change?”
“Kid, you are really starting to bum me out,” he replied. “Tell Aunt Margaret to hire somebody to teach you how to dress. I mean, you’re fucking rich, kid. Shouldn’t you have a lackey somewhere to make you look perfect like the Hilton sisters or some shit?”
“How should I dress? It’s complicated.”
“Start with ‘like a girl.’ ”
“Boys don’t wear this.”
“Either do girls.” He rested his left hand on the pommel of his sword. “Your name is—Lucy?”
“Agnes Hamilton,” she replied and she held out her hand.
“Unfortunately,” he added as he shook her soft, nervous hand. “A pleasure to meet you. I’ve got to go now and kill a troll in your northern woods.” The girl’s eyes widened. “Yeah, I do that. When’s dinner?”
“Seven but I’m not sure Wendy’s making anything for you.”
“I’ll try and make it home in time anyway but I might not. Tell Aunt Margaret not to worry.” It felt good to think someone might actually care whether he was around or not. No one certainly did in California.
“You shouldn’t go into those woods,” said Agnes. “There are monsters and—and a witch.”
“Witches are pussies, Agnes,” he told her and smiled genuinely. “I’ll be back later, alright.” He quickly left, wanting to get away from that house and Agnes’s eyes following him as he left. He kind of liked her but there was something about her that was disquieting. Even a little disturbing.
Ethan had no vehicle so he walked to the diner and as he did, he looked around his new home.
* * *
The city of Bartlett Bay was founded by Ethan’s ancestors and Ethan had always wondered what it would be like to finally go there and see it with his own eyes. Unfortunately, it had so far proved to be an incredible disappointment.
The sign into town had been promising. It said “Welcome to Bartlett Bay” in white letters on a dark blue sign with the words “Home of Alfred the Thanksgiving Turkey” below it. It had all seemed like a promising middle-class New England town but, in the cab and then walking later, he saw that it was simply not the case.
Bartlett Rd was a straight line from the mansion to Edmonton St, a major street that went from east to west, containing many houses and some small businesses. Edmonton St had countless empty buildings. They weren’t falling apart exactly, the city wasn’tthatpoor, but there was a great deal of “for sale” and “for lease” signs on many perfectly good buildings making it appear as if it soon would be. They were old in design but not that old, maybe a couple of decades or less, and that it made seem sadder to him.
As he neared the covered bridge known as Nathaniel Bridge that spread across what the cab driver called the Orange River, Ethan saw a waterfall to the south. Curious, he moved down the slope beside the road, moved along the grassy bank of the river toward the edge, and gripped the chain-link fence so that he could lean over and peer down.
He looked down a hundred feet or more into Lower Bartlett Bay, saw all the closed down fishing-based businesses and noted that theydefinitelylooked poor.
Almost abandoned, there were only a few boats in the Bartlett Bay harbor still floating around in the once lively port and the docks side streets had garbage and refuse scattered all over the place with most of the buildings so far gone it was a wonder they were even standing. The huge cannery and fishery buildings that had once been the lifeblood of the city were still in one piece but even at that distance, it was clear they were a long time beyond functioning. Every wall of the cannery and the fisheries that he could see were covered in graffiti.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind, kid?” a voice suddenly screamed. Ethan looked over his shoulder to see a slender elderly man with very short white hair with a bald spot at the back yelling at him from the road. He was dressed in a light blue suit with a dark blue tie and he looked furious. “That fence is there for areason, boy!” he told him fiercely.
“What reason’s that, sir?” Ethan asked jokingly as he climbed back up the road. The man gave him an unimpressed frown in response and watched him suspiciously as he went one way and the old man went the other.
Ethan didn’t stop again and was soon at the center of town at the cross section of Edmonton St and Worthington St, the latter being the big business road heading down from above the 95 down through Upper Bartlett Bay, Central Bartlett Bay and into Lower Bartlett Bay.
Mandy’s diner, which he felt already felt must be the single last mom and pop businesses remaining in the city, was located on the northwest vertex of the two streets. The giant white sign that said “Troll Hunting Bounty – Inquire Within” in giant red letters was placed over one of the huge side windows with a number underneath.
The inside of the 1950s diner was bustling with activity, people eating and talking loudly with three waitresses moving around back and forth. He immediately went to the host, a boy about nineteen in red wearing a white apron and a goofy white cap who looked him over casually as he approached, eyes lingering on his sword for a moment. “You the magician, Ethan?” he asked.
“Yeah,” he told him. “My name is Ethan Bartlett. I’m a fully trained swordsman, a fully trained magician and why the hell is it suddenly so damn quiet?” He looked around and saw almost everyone in the room was staring at him suspiciously. “What the hell did I just say to make every one you stop and stare at me?” They all turned away and the activity began again but was distinctively quieter. “Weird.”
“Two of them are over there,” he said and pointed, his eyes looking at him in the same suspicious way everyone else just had. “The bounty is set at three thousand dollars to kill the troll and rescue my sister Tori Randal and it is all we can afford, Bartlett.”
“What exactly happened?”
“I was out at my girlfriend’s, my mother was working here and my father was out picking up a pizza when a troll destroyed part of our house and stole my sister Tori. We know it was a troll because of the extent of damage and the size of the footprints. One set.”
“Stole you say?”
“Stole. She’s still alive.” Her eyes narrowed in a challenge. “Sheis.”
“That’s odd,” he said.
“You sound just like everyone else. If it kidnapped her, why would she be dead?”
“It’s odd for sure. Trolls usually eat people right then and there and it’s usually male adults instead of children and that’s because they’re not afraid of anything except sunlight. It would be much more plausible for the troll to have come in to eat your father rather than your sister. More meat, you know. Children kidnapping or killing is more of a goblin deal.”
The topic of conversation clearly upset him. “Look, Bartlett,” he said. “Can you kill the fucking troll or not?”
“Of course. Trolls are stupid but one shouldn’t be too hard to kill with a team of hunters.” He turned around, saw two other members of his group, and sighed. “Assuming, of course, my team of hunters doesn’t consist only of snobby assholes.”
The two men had been frowning at him from across the diner in a red booth with already a strong dislike of him. Ethan walked up to them and held out his hand. “Ethan Bartlett.”
The one in the right, a very pretty, muscular man in his early twenties with a cleft chin and long, wavy gold hair looked up at him with a cocky half-smile. He wore a dark blue under suit for plated silver-like armor that resembled something like SWAT armor with heavy black boots. His heavy two-handed sword was leaning up against the side of the booth next to his rifle and he made no move to take his hand. “Rory Upton,” he told him. “Are you some kind of weapon carrier for the real men?”
“Oh hilarious,” Ethan replied and turned to the other man. “Ethan Bartlett.”
“Alan Thorne,” he told him and he gave Ethan a similarly cocky smile. He wasn’t nearly as handsome as his friend was but was much bigger with eyes almost as black as his heavy, curly hair. He was dressed in a red version of the same undergarments Rory with black plates instead of red and it made him look almost like a second player in an old video game. He had a heavy double-bladed axe resting against his half of the booth next to a shotgun. “Areyoureally going to be joining us?”
Ethan cast his Torch spell on Alan’s face and created a bauble of bright white light between his eyes. He jerked back, the bauble remaining where it was, and glared at Ethan. The words were not required to be spoken aloud as Ethan had mastered spell casting to the point where he could simply say them in his thoughts. “I’m the magician, asshole,” Ethan told him.
“Yeah right,” replied Alan. “You’re probably using some trick magic item you bought on eBay to do make that spell.”
“Why is it that nobody ever believes me?”
“Even if you are a real magician trolls are pretty resistant to magic,” Rory told him.
“I’m still coming and I’m still getting a piece of that bounty.”
Rory sucked in air through his teeth. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “I’ll be talking to the woman made the bounty about an unnecessary expenditure of my reward—”
“He’s going,” said a woman from behind and Ethan looked over to see a blond woman around her late forties, early fifties, dressed in a blue t-shirt and jeans. Her eyes had huge rings under them and her face was red from crying. “He’s a magician and I wantallthe angles covered.”
“We don’t need a magician, Mrs. Randal—”
“It’s Francine and I’m not risking my daughter’s life because you want to have a dick measuring contest,” she told him. “He’s coming and so is she.” She stepped aside and Ethan saw a stunningly gorgeous woman come sauntering in
She was tall and pale with long, silky blond hair, bright blue eyes and a muscle structure that a fitness queen would be incredibly proud of. She wore a black form-fitting short-sleeved shirt, brown pants clinging to her long, shapely legs and tall black boots.
“Sally here is a professional hunter and has been hunting trolls with her sisters since she was thirteen.”
Ethan walked up to her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Ethan Bartlett and—”
“Shut up,” the girl told him.
“That’s not nice, Sally.”
“I said shut—” she locked her blue eyes on his very aggressively “—your mouth or I will shut it for you.”
“You’re wasting your time with her,” said a man at a nearby table. “She’s a Bellator woman.”
Sally’s eyes remained locked onto his, daring him to challenge her, and her lips slowly curled up into a smug smile when he didn’t.
“Figures,” Ethan replied. Many people considered the Bellator Mulieres faction of monster hunters perhaps only a step or two below the Ku Klux Klan in violent aggression and on par with the Templar monster hunters for fanaticism.
All Ethan knew for sure was that they were an all-female group founded in the early 1900s, shifted to an extremely violent feminist mentality in the 1960s and lived on communes where no man was ever allowed to step foot in.
“Do you guys still believe in the SCUM Manifesto?” he asked.
She looked at him with a crazy amount of loathing. “It is time to go now, boy. It’s time to save someone who actuallydoesn’tdeserve to die.” She turned Mrs. Randal. “We’re ready. These two idiots I can use but I can assure you a magician won’t be necessary.”
“I don’t wish to take any chances.”
“Alright,” she replied, “But if he turns out to be completely useless I will be demanding his portion of the bounty.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Ethan said and all three of them turned and looked at him in an unimpressed manner. “I’m not afraid of any of you. You cross me and we’ll have more than words.” They all smiled at him as if that idea was just the single stupidest thing in the world.
“Enough bravado,” said Francine. “I’m going to get my sister’s van and I’m going to take you to the woods. You are then going to go in there, hunt down that troll and bring me back my child.”
* * *
The dark blue 1976 van disappeared back down Charlotte St and was gone before the four hunters had entered the forest known as the Englestad. It was blocked by a long, old, rusty chain-link fence that ran unbroken along the north side of the street but where they stood, something had ripped part of it right out of the ground.
Beyond the fence were huge footprints.
Something was wrong with the woods. Ethan had only been in Connecticut for a few hours but he could tell those kinds of trees were geographically normal to the area. The others went in without a word, unaware or uncaring, and Ethan began to follow when he saw a black van park itself on Charlotte St just far enough away that he couldn’t clearly see who was driving.
He shrugged it off as probably nothing and followed the others into the woods.
Rory and Alan walked ahead, following the footprints of the troll, which were so incredibly unsubtle a nearsighted person could easily follow without their glasses, while Sally casually walked behind with Ethan at the rear. After about an hour, the two men slowed down, tired from their armor, and Sally moved ahead and followed the tracks in the same casual fashion they had before.
“You don’t have the breeding for a magician,” said Rory suddenly. “I doubt you could accomplish anyrealtask involving magic.”
“Breeding is bumpkiss for magic,” Ethan replied. “You would be surprised how well a minimum wage working Mexican who can barely speak Spanish can toss a fireball.”
“I wouldn’t,” said Alan. “I would just be disappointed.Incrediblydisappointed.” He shook his head, disgusted by any thought to the contrary, and started to yap to his friend.
They had been talking and complaining to each other the entire time and it was soon clear that they were from wealthy Connecticut families who viewed the bounty as some kind of “fun time” that was becoming less fun the closer it came to actual work.
As for Sally, she had said nothing as they walked, her dark red armor as form fitting as the clothes she had worn underneath, and after staring at her backside for several hours Ethan decided that he wanted to be friends. “You’ve been very quiet, Sally,” he told her as he moved up beside her.
“Go fuck yourself,” she replied and she adjusted the rifle she carried on her back a bit as if to warn him.
“Perhaps later,” he replied cheerfully and when she looked at him, though incredibly angry, he found she still had one of the most amazingly beautiful faces that he had ever seen. “Seriously, you are incredibly beautiful. Can we go out? Maybe see a movie. See where things go.”
“Perhaps a play. Maybe just dinner.”
“You don’t want to play this game with me, kid,” she stated.
“Sally, one, we’re basically the same age, and two, you are seriously too fucking hot just to expect me to give up.” She frowned at him. “What’s your problem anyway? You a lesbian? That’s cool—” she took a deep breath through her teeth, stopped and faced him“—is this a no to a date?”
“Someday I’ll have children but it willneverbe with you.”
“I’m not sure I know what I did to piss you off so much,” he replied and saw that her eyes were so full of rage and hate that it was genuinely shocking that she did not hit him. Both of her hands were in fists and shaking, her eyes narrow and hard as blue steel. “What is wrong with you?”
“Don’t you ever cross me, pig!” she hissed. “I am not some American slut-whore you can pay for sex.”
“Can you just give it to me for free then?”
Sally then did hit him, right across the face and with enough potency to send him stumbling off the path into a tree. She was a strong girl and she knew very well how to throw a punch. He ended up with a black left eye and a mean little bump on the back of his head.
Both men chuckled behind them.
“Too far that time,” Ethan said and he felt his black eye. “You do know that it’s not impossible for most women to refuse politely.”
“I shall do as I please,pig,” she replied and she shook her head in disgust and walked away. Rory and Alan gave him smug smiles and continued following the footprints that did not seem to ever end.
* * *
“I guess I’m missing dinner down at the Bartlett Mansion,” Ethan told the others as they all sat around a fire at nightfall. Rory and Alan were in bad moods, having no food and miserable from their walk the day before, and Sally was as quiet as ever as she ate some rabbit and squirrel she had hunted.
Ethan took out of one of his magic potions called Taste and sprinkled the blackish-brown liquid on one of the ration bars he always carried in his satchel. It made the blandest material taste insanely good but if it wasn’t already bland, it would become nauseatingly rich.
Rory and Alan gave him dirty looks when he did not share his food. Sally also shared nothing and even threw out what she didn’t want but they didn’t dare bother her about it.
There seemed to be something really wrong with that girl. With his cellphone that barely worked in the woods, he found her on an adventurers’ website that rated their sort of adventurers known aswww.ratemyhunter.comand it wasn’t pleasant at all.
Every reviewer who met Sally, who oddly had no last name, found her violent, misandristic, vicious, temperamental, touchy, spiteful and very cruel to name simply a few of their adjectives. He himself had very few reviews which were all generally positive relating to magic written by Mexican-American erstwhile companions in English and Spanish but Sally had managed to anger enough people in an almost certainly equally short career to dwarf his information with an almost literary level of complaints.
Other than being very pretty, talented, well equipped and strong there was absolutely nothing good said about her written by men and women of all ages.
The Bellator Mulieres women were crazy but they could be tolerated and useful. They were feminist warrior women who didn’t need men for any reason and that was something someone could admire if one could get past their attitude but Sally was something else. Sally actuallydespisedmen and whenever she looked at Ethan, he could see that blind hate in her eyes. He felt that she genuinely wanted to hurt him and for little more reason than just being alive and slightly more annoying than the other two.
“How much did that magic potion cost you?” asked Rory.
“Not much,” he replied. “I made it myself.”
“Why is it nobody ever believes me when I tell them what I am capable of. It’s just like how they never believe I madethis.” He reached into his satchel and pulled out his magical map known as a cartographer’s map. It automatically mapped everywhere around him and he could manipulate it with his mind to be as far as out as the continent and as close in as the street. “That’s odd.”
“What is odd?” asked Alan.
“Says here we’re somewhere in a Guyana rain forest.” He sighed and put it away. “What a great day following trolls’ feet. How about we go to sleep very close to each other, Sally?”
Sally groaned. “Will youevershut up, you fucking pig?”
“No,” he replied. “You’ve been a hell of tease and I’m tired of you jerking me around.”
“What the fuck did I ever to do to tease you?”
“You eye banged the shit out of me in the diner,” he told her. “Oh, I know you’ve been dreaming about me since the moment we met.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Ethan gave her his best smile. “Four play. Don’t you just love it?”
Sally looked at him coldly and shook her head. “If you ever lay one hand on me I will make you wish you were never born. Out here, in these woods, I can kill you and no one will ever find the body. You know this is true, yes.”
“I do,” he replied and he wasn’t lying.
“Then shut your fucking mouth!” she cried and she slipped down onto the ground.
“Okay,” Ethan told her.
“No! Not a chance!” If she had politely told him she wasn’t interested in the beginning, he would have left her alone as sincerely as any gentleman would. However, since she was so nasty, he felt like he would rather die before giving her the satisfaction. If she ever accepted him, he would politely refuse, just to piss her off more.
Ethan slipped down by the fire and used his dagger to carve simple magical runes, letter-like symbols, all around his sleeping area. It was a simple ritual called Protection, one of only three that he knew, and once cast, the symbols dully glowed Ethan’s dark orange and prevented small natural animals, such as snakes and spiders, from coming up to him where he was sleeping.
Then Ethan lied down and used his satchel as a pillow. A quirk of the satchel’s enchantment made it feel like everything inside was as soft as silk, even if they were sharp as blades or made of steel, making it perfect to sleep on.
“Tomorrow we’ll find the troll’s cave,” said Rory. “You are to be at your best, boy.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I’m serious. I’mnothaving this conversation again.”
“Maybe if you stop pretending you’re my mommy we won’t—” Ethan grunted as Rory landed on him, a survival knife pressed up against his neck “—a problem Mr. Upton?”
“I’ve been listening to your mouth wag all fucking day long.”
“Yeah, it does that.”
He moved the knife against his throat. “I’m not going to just sit around and let some fucking Jew tell me what to do.”
“Well, then I don’t recommend trying to break into Hollywood.” Ethan laughed until the knife went deeper. “Ah shit.”
“You think this is funny?”
“I think it’s hilarious—” Ethan felt the knife go even deeper and small lines of blood slipped out. “Look, Rory, you need to calm down—” he slit the side of Ethan’s neck “—goddamnit.”
“You listen to me and you listenwell,” Rory told him. “Iam the fucking master of this group.Icall the shots.Iknow the business andIhave been trained. Unlike you, I’m not some fucking nobody from fuck-nowhere Connecticut. You cross me once—”
“His accent says he’s clearly from California, you moron,” said Sally, “And if you command me one time, Upton, justonetime, I will cut your balls off and feed them to you.” He looked over at Sally, worried. “You may continue,” she said, gesturing with her hand for him to do so. “I give you permission.”
“What a woman, eh,” said Ethan. “‘She will be mine. Oh, yes. She will be mine.’” They looked at him without understanding. “Wayne’s World. Nineteen-ninety. Mike Myers. What, nothing?”
Rory leaned down, his blond hair hanging down onto Ethan’s face. “I am a member of the Order of the Autumn Rose. You’re not a real mage. If you were you, would a member of the Umm.”
“One, the Order of the Autumn Rose is a prissy little bitch club and two, the Unita Malefici Mundi are a bunch of egotistical fascists and if one of them were here right now, they would demand ninety percent of your piece of the bounty just for the privilege of being in their presence.”
“I am fuckingtrainedin this, Bartlett. You want to get yourself killed, you go right ahead.”
“If you keep sweet-talking me like this I’m going to get hard.”
“Do not cross me, Ethan.” He slipped off of him. “I could have you killed you any time.”
“You don’t say,” replied Ethan as he sheathed the dagger that had been less an inch away from Rory’s side. Ethan cast his only Heal spell, which wasn’t a very good version, and the wounds on his neck stopped bleeding and scabbed after glowing orange during a minute of casting.
He then put his hands behind his head, shut his eyes, and thought about the bounty. The next morning they would follow those remarkably blunt tracks to whatever cave the troll was hiding in and then they would kill it as it slept, hopefully.
That was the idea but it all felt wrong.
For one, there was no way a troll could make that kind of distance over a single night. Trolls were slower than humans despite their much longer legs and a human, unless he or she was running, probably wouldn’t have made it to where they were by morning. The canopy was nowherenearthick enough to block the sunlight’s effect, which was what the others would have realized if they bothered thinking at all, and so there should have been a troll shaped stone statue waiting for them down the road, caught in mid-stride as the sunlight crossed over it.
While Ethan was no forester or cartographer, he knew that this forest should not be so large. How did they make a whole day’s walk through, what, three miles of forest? Maybe four? They should have hit the 95 Freeway on the other side within hours, if not earlier.
Then there was that business with the girl. Trolls really weren’t known to kidnap people and theyneversingle out children. They thought of people the way people thought of deer: the bigger the quarry, the more the meat and trollslovedmeat. They were especially fond of big and burly men like lumberjacks who in the late 1800s and early 1900s developed a method of killing trolls with their axes just as a form of self-defense.
No, it definitely did not feel right.
* * *
The feeling didn’t vanish or lesson the next morning and by early sunrise, it got worse when he looked from a grove through the trees and saw the side of a white stone tower sitting out in the center of a grassless meadow.
“Was someone else sent ahead of us?” he asked the moment he saw it.
“None of your damn business,” said Rory.
“You don’t think that’s important to know? I’d rather not like to fall into the same trap they did.”
“It’s important formeto know,” Rory told him. “I’mthe one in command.”
“A couple head hunters from Branford thought they had what it took,” Alan said, “but they got cold feet.” He looked up at the tower, which seemed medieval to Ethan. “Not everyone has what it takes to be a monster hunter and not everyone is lucky enough to get to tag along with someone who does.”
Ethan moved up around the dark brown trunk of a hundred-foot tall tree and examined the tower quietly. It was a simple thing rising up like a cylinder of the ground up two hundred feet, high above the tree line, where it ballooned out into a series of rooms for its occupant or occupants. The roof of it looked like a dark red funnel with smoke rising up out of its tip.
“Who makes these buildings?” he asked softly. “Who comes out here in Connecticut and builds—” he stopped dead when he by chance glanced north up past the tower and saw an ominous black medieval castle silhouetted against the morning sky set in a pass between two large mountains on a hill “—fuck me.”
The troll’s footprints went through the grove up toward the southern entrance of the meadow the tower was built in. It had a balcony overlooking the meadow but he didn’t see anyone up there. It wouldn’t have been a troll, even at night, because there was no way a troll could fit up there.
The others were following the trail carefully ahead of him when Ethan saw something carved onto the sides of the trees the troll walked past. His eyes were drawn to them through his use of magic and as he looked, his magical attuned eyes made them glow.
In the lead, Sally was literally less than half a foot from crossing them when he jumped forward, caught her by the shoulder and yanked her back.
“Wait—” her hand shot down, caught his crotch with professional-level efficiency and squeezed. He groaned loudly and Rory and Alan both burst out laughing. “Sally—” Ethan’s face turned apple red “—you have the wrong—” she squeezed harder “—i-de-uhhh.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Rory. “A little trouble there with the ladies?”
“You should squeeze harder,” said Alan with a grin. “I don’t think he’s getting it.”
“Fuck you, Rory, fuck you, Alan and fuck—” Sally squeezed harder and then twisted so hard it made him cry out in agony “—Sally, seriously, let—the fuck—go.”
She sighed and gave him a tired, unimpressed look. “I’m sick of you, Bartlett. I’m sick of your attitude, your comments and unending perversity.”
“Offering casual sex isn’t perverse,” he replied, his face turning even redder. “Crapping on a monkey while watching midgets rape cats during aSeinfeldmarathon is perverse.” She frowned at him. “Not even a courtesy smile?” She gave him a phony smile. “Thanks. That just really means a lot to me.”
“I could make you pass out if I wanted,” she told him. “I could even pop both your balls right now.”
“Do it!” cried Alan cheerfully. “Hedeservesit!”
“Please don’t do that,” he told her. “I need those.”
“I don’t know. Madam? Sir? Mistress? Lord Vader? Mighty Sauron? Goddess Hera? Goddamn it, Sally, let me thefuckgo!”
“Men are soweak,” she hissed in a voice drooling with contempt. “All men act strong but whenever a woman,anywoman, wishes to conquer one, she need only reach down, grab a hold and it’s all over.”
“But without us who you will clean for?”
Her look of surprise was utterly comical with her mouth a big wide “O” of “did he really just say that” shock and in that moment of that startled surprise, Ethan burned her wrist using his Lightning Bolt spell. She shrieked in shock, an oddly feminine sound coming from someone as unfeminine as she was, and she clutched her burnt wrist painfully. “Youbastard! Don’t you talk or touch meeveragain!”
“Can do, bitch!” he replied as he slipped up against a nearby rock, rested his hands on his knees and waited for the pain to vanish. Ethan had felt a lot of pain in his life but that had to be close to the worst ever. “Sally, ‘you ignorant slut,’ I was trying to tell you not to walk between—” she turned and sauntered through the trees with Rory and Alan following behind “—those trees.” The magical runes on both sides of the trees activated themselves and turned a bright ugly grayish-white color. “Mexicans would never have fallen for that,” he added.
Sally stopped a few feet out and then noticed the runes. “What the—” she clutched her center, great pain overwhelming her, and the two men groaned in discomfort and started to twitch. “What’s happening to me?”
“Well uh—” Ethan looked at the runes and saw they were different effects for men and women. The male rune was connected to a “transformation” rune as well as a necromantic one, which only understood marginally at best, and the female rune was connected to a “drain” rune but he didn’t think it wasn’t connected to “energy.” “—you’re all kind of fucked.”
“Yousawthose!” shrieked Sally. “You saw those and youdidn’twarn me?”
“I am not going to justify that with a response,” he replied as he forced himself up, stepped back a bit, and prepared his Ice Shard spell in his right hand. It only took a quick moment, the spell creating a sharply pointed shard of orange-colored ice when fired but while prepared in the palm of his hand appeared simply as orange mist.
Rory and Alan began to scream and strip off their armor. “What’s going to happen to me?” shrieked Sally.
“You’ll probably just get tired,” he replied and he shot his shard into one of the runes, the mist transforming into the slender pointed orange stalagmite instantly as it flew across the air. It chipped the tree, broke the rune, and caused a sudden burst of magical power out in all directions. However, instead of the tiny burst of magic, which a normal rune would typically make, it made an explosion of force not unlike a grenade. Luckily for Ethan, it was by no means lethal.
Ethan flew backward through the grove, missed several trees that could have killed him, and landed flat on his back in the grass. His back exploded from agony on impact but nothing was seriously injured and he was able to sit up after a moment.
“Wow,” he said and he looked at the nasty looking burn that had been created on both sides of the trees after just one of the runes had been destroyed. They were advanced chain runes, stacked together one after the other to create more magnificent and specific magical effects, and when he destroyed one all the others exploded with it, releasing their combined power together.
His ears were ringing as he forced himself up to a sitting position, blood leaking down his nose to his chin.
By then everyone was screaming and stripping off their armor and clothes. Rory and Alan’s hair were falling out and their skin, which had turned blood red, was beginning to peel off and reveal the muscle underneath had become a startling neon blue. They suddenly and inexplicably reached down, grabbed their melee weapons and charged off into the woods shrieking like banshees.
Ethan forced himself up, blinked, and saw that they had left their pistols and Alan’s shotgun with their clothes. Why they took their blades and left those, he couldn’t imagine.
“Completely naked, Sally’s skin was turning almost as red as the men’s had, but it was clear something else was happening to her. Her arms were wrapped around herself and she was weeping. “What’s happening to me?” she whimpered.
“Whatever it is it can’t be as bad as what happened to them,” he said with a gesture of his thumb in the direction the others had run.
She looked up at him, her eyes filling with tears. “What’shappeningto me?” she shrieked at him.
“Well I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that it’s some kind of draining magic that is extremely fucking powerful. It could be taking strength, beauty, youth or anything else your body has to offer.”
She could only stare at him in horror. “Well what the fuck is the good news?” she screamed after a minute.
“I’m not affected,” he replied with a smile.
“You son of a—” her words died as something suddenly shifted painfully inside of her that made her cry out.
“It can’t possibly be permanent for any of you,” he told her but, when thought about it, about how much more power was in those runes than he had ever seen before, and he felt doubt come over him.
Ethan looked out at the trees and saw runes on every single one that surrounded the tower’s meadow. He shot an ice shard at another, blowing it apart with enough distance to not be affected by the explosions although it turned out it didn’t matter as much since the blast radius was far smaller when it wasn’t activated.
“I’ve got an idea!” he told Sally and he quickly moved off through the trees. “It could work!”
He went around the meadow and threw ice shards at every single rune he could find. There were an amazing amount of them and it took him almost a half of an hour before he made it completely back around the meadow. Hopefully, that stopped whatever the runes were doing.
He was covered in sweat when he returned, spell casting the kind of magic that was most taxing, but Sally was gone for some reason.
“Oh great,” he said and then when he started to look for her he immediately saw something very odd. Through the trees, back the way they had come, something brown, feathery and round was kneeling down in the small grove over her. “Oh—” Ethan shrugged “—kay.” He started toward it carefully, his right hand gripping the hilt of his blade, but when he got a clear look at it, he simply tilted his head for a moment and then shrugged.
It was an anthropomorphic six-foot-tall turkey crouched three quarters turned away from him. It was primarily feathered a deep, dark brown color with light brown feathers here and there, especially on its fantail, and was incredibly fluffy. It had bird wings like all turkeys but it also had skinny arms very similar to its legs, which extended out from under the wings. Its face was blue and it had that deep red snood like all turkeys did and it could talk.
“Do you want a candy bar?” asked the turkey in a gentle, young man’s voice. It reached into a light blue gym bag that it had and pulled out a Snickers bar. “I also got a Three Musketeers and a Payday if you don’t like Snickers.”
“Alfred?” The turkey jumped and stared at Ethan with human-like blue eyes. “You’re Alfred the Thanksgiving Turkey!”
The turkey bounced from one foot to the other with its gym bag in its hand, looking conflicted and scared before it turned and ran off into the woods making gobble-gobble sounds. “I’ll get your sister, Sally!” cried Alfred as he disappeared into the south.
“Well that was certainly stranger than normal,” said Ethan as approached Sally and then he looked down at her. “Whoa!Fuckingwhoa!”
Sally had withered into a crone since the last time he saw her which was definitely one hell of a magical feat if Ethan ever saw one. He had not evenheardof anyone having that level of power since the Dark Ages and that he always took that as some kind of exaggeration from a time when recording history was less honest and the hatred and fear of magic was at its all-time highest.
Ethan bumped her gently with his foot and both eyes filled with huge cataracts opened wide. Her hair was bone white, her teeth rotten and black, and her skin had taken on an ugly shade of putrid yellow and was filled with so many wrinkles that he could barely see any skin between them. “You alive, Sally?”
“Help… me…” she managed to barely hack out.
“I’ve got some bad news, Sally.” Her eyes widened. “I’m so sorry, I truly,truly, am, but well, I’m—” he lowered his eyes “—I’m just going to have to take a rain check on our date until you stop being a hag.”
“You… you—” she bared her black teeth “—you…ass…hole…”
“Yes I am,” he agreed and he took out one of his Heal potions, which he chose to color blood red, and was absolutely superior to the spell version he had in every possible way. He unscrewed the top, poured it down her throat, and watched as it took effect. The cataracts vanished from her eyes, her teeth whitened and her skin became a natural paler shade but she was still very old. “This isn’t possible…”
She snatched his wrist like a viper biting its prey. “Undo it! Undo itnow!”
“Well, you see, it’s kind of funny but—” her hand tried to tighten painfully on his wrist but failed “—this may come as a fantastic, mind-blower of a shock but I don’t know the black arts that well.”
“Find my sister Julia!” she hacked out in a crone’s voice with drool leaking out of her mouth. “She’s nearby!Shecan handle this!”
“The turkey’s doing that but is she even around to find?” He suddenly recalled the black van on Charlotte St. “Well even if she is, she could be anywhere out here, especially if whoever did this to you erased our tracks behind us. Honestly, judging by your state, I don’t think you have much time to wait.” He touched her face with the back of his fingers, seeing if this was some kind of elaborate illusion, and she jerked away, still disgusted. She felt old as well. “I’ll see what I can do. It’s probably nothing but I’ll try.” He quickly left the grove, took a deep breath, and said, “Still a fucking bitch.”
He took a step out of the grove, raised his eyes upward two hundred feet, and saw a young and beautiful brunette leaning out over the rail. She gave him a big smile and a cheerful wave.
Ethan threw on a phony smile, waved back and wondered why she wasn’t casting something? As a magician, he would always be able to feel it pretty easily, presumably even black magic, butnothingwas happening. If she could enchant runes with a quarter of the power she used on Sally she should have been able to magically kill him from miles away.
She was probably mocking him.
Ethan decided the best course would be to go up there, kill her and then hope that her death would break or reverse whatever happened. With that in mind, he cast his Magic Armor spell, which instantly covered the surface of his body with an invisible layer of magic making it more difficult to damage him as well as oddly tinting whatever clothes he wore a dark orange while leaving his skin normal. Once that had been accomplished, he rushed across the clearing and grabbed a handgun someone dropped, Sally’s rifle and Alan’s shotgun, both of which he slung over his shoulder.
Up close he could see it was a highly climbable tower, full of footholds and bricks too far out, and though success would definitely get the drop on the witch, he hadnointention of trying it. He was reasonably certain he had enough skill for it but anything that hit him, like a rock, a book, or possibly just a heavy iPad, would send him falling to his death.
He cast his Sense Magic spell as he walked around the base of the tower and saw that it was not magical in any obvious way. The witch would need a way down unless she could fly which was, contrary to common belief, not particularly common among witches.
There his spell showed there were no secretmagicaldoors to be found but when he got back under the balcony he discovered a loose brick. He looked up, saw there was no way the witch could see him, and he pulled the brick out to reveal an old-fashioned wooden lever. He reached inside, pulled it to the right, and heard theclanksound of a door unlocking.
To his right, the large door disguised as part of the wall pushed inward. It was, somewhat unsurprisingly, right where the troll’s feet had led.
“Too damn easy,” Ethan said and he reached for the door. The instant before his hand made contact it violently swung inward into the inside wall slamming hard enough to create a loudboomsound.
A skeleton stepped out of the darkness, its bones a bright yellow, whatever remains it had deep blue and, and something else, like cherry red fabric, hung over it here and there. Its eyes were oddly human, though they did not blink or have expression, and in its right hand was a rusty old machete.
“Run!” it cried in a screeching voice. “I can’t stop myself! I’m going to kill you!”
Ethan tossed the pistol down, raised the shotgun and fired into its face. The lower half of the skull exploded, part of the skull vanishing along with it, but all it did was send the skeleton stumbling backward into the darkness for about five feet. As soon as it stopped, it raised its machete and charged back forward.
Ethan tossed the shotgun, pulled out his sword, and parried the skeleton’s swings as it came swinging with two hands, his English longsword containing the hand-and-a-half that could be used one-handed or two.
The skeleton was slow, weak and uncoordinated, even dying perhaps, and Ethan sliced off its head easily after the first opening presented itself. It burst into dust even before it hit the ground leaving little trace of its existence except for a few bones here and there and a small amount of goo on Ethan’s blade, which magically removed itself and revealed the orange runes he had stamped onto both sides of the blade when he enchanted it.
Ethan looked up to see a dozen more skeletons rush out of the tower toward him.
Self-destructive and slow, they came, armed with axes, swords and spears: the tools of troll hunting. They swung wildly, fighting against whatever control they were under, giving him tons of opportunities to put them out of their misery. Within minutes, he stood over piles of dust and goo as he fought backward across the meadow trying to avoid becoming surrounded.
It mattered little however since they did not actually attempt any such tactic: they simply ran at him like an uncoordinated horde of animals.
Ethan heard a sound and spun around to see Rory and Alan standing between two trees covered in the reddish goo that Ethan then realized had used to be their skin, their flesh underneath perfectly intact but colored that strange dark neon blue color. The others must have been men just like the three of them and, like Rory and Alan, they must have been caught walking between the runes.
“Hi fellas. How’s tricks?”
“You!” cried Rory, his natural voice clear along with a guttural skeleton voice. “You didn’t warn us! Youmurderedus!”
“Well Rory, at the time I was a bit busy clutching my balls, listening to you laugh and waiting for Sweet Death’s release.” Then he shrugged. “Besides, you told me you didn’t need a magician.”
“You evil motherfucker!” cried Alan.
“Look, guys, if it’s any comfort to you, dealing with this has been really hard on me.”
They screamed in rage but before they charged, Ethan fired his Lightning Bolt spell from his left hand into Rory. The orange streak of lightning hit him in the direct center of his chest but instead of damaging him, it seemed to make him bigger and stronger, absorbing the magic like water filling up a balloon. The only good that it managed to do was keep him still for a moment while Alan rushed out ahead of him alone.
“Youdeservethis!” Alan shrieked as he raised his axe over his head. Ethan sliced open his belly almost casually, spilling his blue guts out onto the ground even before the axe came down. Alan gasped, dropped his axe behind himself and then fell to his hands and knees.
There was no time to finish him off. Rory threw himself forward wielding his blade with full talent and passion. Ethan parried using his sword in both hands as he was quickly pushed backward across the front of the tower.
Rory was by no means an untalented swordsman and unlike the others, he genuinely wanted to kill Ethan.
“You’re dead, you fucking traitor! You goddamn motherfucking Christ-killing Judas!”
“Wouldn’t Walt Whitman would be proud?” Ethan replied in a moment where their blades stopped against each other. Rory’s skeletal face was glaring at him from a couple feet away, his nose having fallen off somewhere but his eyes, bulging and circular, remained focused on him.
“I’m going to get you eventually, Ethan,” he told him something that kind of resembled a smile, his nearly neon yellow teeth blazing back at him unpleasantly. “You’re getting tired.” He pushed Ethan back to break their blade hold and then rushed at him.
The fighting continued onward and Ethan soon became exhausted while Rory remaining unchanged. Ethan parried one hit a little too weakly and Rory’s blade came down onto his shoulder, cutting through his Magic Armor and clothes.
Ethan stumbled away screaming in pain, his left shoulder gushing blood down his chest and back. He leaned onto his knee with his left hand, holding his sword weakly in the other and looked over at Rory worriedly. It looked like Ethan could barely lift his sword.
“I’m going to cut you to a thousand pieces, Jew,” said Rory and he smiled and rushed forward. He made a casual, hard stab straight toward Ethan’s side.
Ethan parried the blade, spun around and sliced Rory’s head right off his shoulders.
He exploded like a water balloon, goo everywhere, and his sword landed with athudin the dirt. “Hooray, I win,” he said, not as tired as he pretended to be but still very tired.
He felt a powerful amount of magic coming from above and he sensed what it was even before he looked. A fireball shot down from the balcony but was stunningly uncoordinated. Ethan parried it away over twenty feet away his using his magic, one could tamper with a created spell to knock it away or even alter it if one knew how, and he found it shockingly easy. The caster was insanely strong but had no real talent or skill.
The fireball exploded into the forest to Ethan’s left in an explosion more powerful than ten grenades.
“Good God! cried Ethan, parts of trees it hit landing in small chunks all around him. He looked up at the witch who was glaring down at him.
“You run away, boy!” the witch shrieked. “You run away or I will kill you!” Ethan gave her a cynical kind of smile and he started back across the meadow. Another fireball came and he parried it as easily as the other and even sent it into the same spot as before. If it had not been quite so powerful he would have considered shooting it back but he suspected it would end up flying out of his control and blowing up in his face if he tried. “You stay away!” she cried. “You hear me!”
Ethan drank a Heal potion to cure his shoulder, cut off Alan’s head to end his misery, walked over to the tower opening and picked up the semi-automatic pistol that he had dropped. He stuck it in his belt behind him and held out his sword in front of him.
It was nearly pitch black in the base of the tower and there were no windows anywhere so Ethan held out his sword and made the runes illuminate the area he stepped in. He sighed sadly when he saw what was lying against the walls all around him.
Under and around the winding staircase were twelve dead children, all drained to the point of being mummies. They were far past whatever happened to Sally, their mouths and eyeless sockets trapped in a visage of horror at their last moments.
He could tell they were children and girls by their size and the dresses they were of which came from several different eras going back possibly to the 1800s. They all looked like they had been killed yesterday, something about the draining process preserving them like beef jerky.
Ethan laughed the way a man did when he was committing himself to a suicide mission and began up the stairs. A fireball in there would kill him, yes, but the stairs were wood and it would trap the witch in the tower who, by that point, Ethan was almost completely convinced was someone’s lackey. His opinion was strengthened by the fact nothing happened on the way up nor did he see any runes anywhere.
The top of the stairs ended at a medieval door.
“Do enter,” said a soft voice the moment he was near.
There was nothing magical in that tower stairwell or on the door but there was something intense beyond. It was so incredibly strong that not only could he see it without using his Sense Magic spell, which without he could only see magic weakly at best, he could even feel it leaking out from under the door beyond its source which he had never felt before. He did not know what it was but since he had no intention of leaving, he pushed open the door and entered anyway.
The door creaked open wide revealing an opulent medieval room filled with extraordinarily ornate furniture typical of that earlier time. There was a giant purple canopy bed, a bookshelf with huge blocky leather-bound books that were almost certainly handwritten, violet satin drapes over the windows, a large gold framed oval-shaped mirror and a tapestry showing a black gowned woman casting a great spell over some battlefield.
There was a solid wooden door to his left and right and one set of opened wooden double doors straight ahead leading out to the balcony where he saw the witch was standing with her back to him in the bright yellow sun of the late morning.
She was wearing a satin dress the color of aubergine purple, sleeveless, legless and shoeless, reaching down to her ankles and clinging beautifully to every inch of her hips and backside. When she turned around, the robe was revealed to have a very low neckline showing off her large, perfect breasts. Her hair was long, silky and gold, hanging down behind her head in an intricate braid and her eyes were a sultry brown color.
Her body had a disturbingly similar look to Sally’s, her arms and legs almost the exact same length, shape and muscularity, though her face was still her own, appearing to be that of an innocent girl of about seventeen. Her hair and skin were the exact shade Sally’s had been as well and she even seemed to walk like her.
“Like what you see?” she asked as she stepped into the room. Her eyes were offering him her body, he had seen the look before, and it was a possibility she was even in enough danger from him that she actually meant it.
“No,” he replied immediately and he pushed the safety off his pistol with his left thumb. “I think you should reverse what you did witch. I think you should do it right now.”
“I think you should run,” she replied. “I think you should run away very fast and never look back.” She sounded confident but there was a twinge of worry in her eyes.
Ethan looked around and saw someone in the corner by the bed. It was a girl, three quarters drained to the point Sally was at least half-dead and staring at him mournfully. “And fix Tori Randal here,” he said.
“I see Francine hasn’t given up,” said the witch. “Perhaps we can make a deal. She offered money, I can offer more.”
Ethan gave her a straight, unimpressed look and said, “Where’s your leader?”
The witch blinked. “What leader?” she asked.
“I’m not an idiot, witch,” he said. “I’m talking about the master magician who carved those runes outside.” The magical device in the room that he felt under the door was above him and he no longer could stop himself from looking. He saw upward what appeared to be a cheesy 1970s style metal chandelier with a basketball-sized glowing crystal sphere inside.
“I don’t have a leader—”
“Where did you getthat?” asked Ethan, pushing the safety of his gun back on.
“What are you talking about?” Ethan gave her a cynical smile. “You’re a talented magician if you can see that.”
“How the hell can I miss it?” he replied.
She looked up at the sphere, shook her head, and said, “Don’t touch it. It will kill you.”
“Really?” Ethan holstered his gun in his pants behind his back. “You don’t say.”
“I have your friends’ skills in weaponry, not just her body, and Icankill you. I can fight better than that prissy rich boy you killed any day.”
“That would be a problem,” Ethan said and he sheathed his sword and held up his hands. “So let’s talk then.”
“Talk?” The witch sighed. “Look, child, you’re far from the beginning of this story and you really don’t want to know what’s waiting for you at the end. If you were smart, you would turn around before you do and run screaming back into your happy world.”
Oddly enough, Ethan had a feeling she wasn’t lying.
“Fair enough,” he replied and he pointed his hand to the right and sent a bright orange lightning bolt out from his fingers. It destroyed the rope holding up the chandelier instantly and when it fell, Ethan reached up between its metal frame and caught it by the orb.
“NO!” the witch screamed and she snatched a broadsword off the wall nearby and charged at him.
The amount of power that suddenly went flowing through Ethan was ludicrous and terrifying. The woman seemed to slow down the instant he touched it, moving like a figure at quarter speed in a moving, and the only clear sense he got through the hurricane of magic within that orb was a light-switch quality of “push” and “pull” which he immediately focused on “pull.”
The witch stumbled and looked up with new lines of age appearing on her face. “I’ll KILL YOU!” she shrieked and she swung wide and hard. He used the metal chandelier parts to block it and her blade hit with aclang. “Damn you!” she cried and she swung crazily but skillfully at him, forcing Ethan to jump back around the room.
One swing he ducked hit the mirror shattering it and the next hit the bookshelf, chopping through several pages from some book.
Ethan stumbled on a footstool, slowed for a second, and the witch stabbed between the metal of the chandeliers, into his shoulder and out the other side. He cried out, grimaced, and looked into her eyes. “Is that you got?” She twisted, and he screamed. “You—twist like a sissy!”
“I warned you, you deadbeat!” Ethan somehow remained focused on her, his eyes narrowed, and continued to “pull” steadily. “Oh God, you’re an enchanter too!”
“Caster, enchanter, alchemist, ritualist: I’m everything but a man whodoesn’thave a sword in his shoulder.” Ethan looked down and saw the witch’s hand began withering, somewhere now in her late sixties and she stumbled backward, taking the sword with her. “Oh, that’smuchbetter.”
“Oh God, no! Give it back! Please, oh please God, give it back!”
Ethan put his right hand under the orb and then used his Heal spell six times on his shoulder before he was finally able to reach into his satchel to grab a Heal potion. He drank it quickly, the whole time never losing sight of his target whose entire body was starting to shrivel, sag and wrinkle everywhere.
Ethan pulled the orb free of the chandelier as it suddenly began to flash colors very quickly. “That’s probably not very good.”
“You can’t fill it like this!” cried the witch in an old woman’s voice. “It’ll explode! Only person to person works fast and it’s been draining Tori Randalallday!”
“Hey, that reminds me.” He turned to Tori and “pushed” whatever was in that orb inside of her. The sound of squishing and cracking came from Tori’s body as it regenerated back to leave her in a stunningly beautiful and healthy twelve-year-old girl’s body. She blinked at him, eyes wide, and stood up. “Out in the hall, kid.”
The girl let out a sudden ear-piercing scream and then scrambled out of the door as if a monster was chasing her.
“I think you might have scared her,” Ethan told the witch and tapped the orb with his fingers. “How about a name, witch?”
“I can’t give you anything,” she told him weakly. She wasn’t aging anymore because Ethan had stopped draining her to fix Tori but, like Sally, it didn’t seem like she was far from dying of old age. “You ought to know masters put spells on their subordinates to prevent them from revealing anything. Even under torture.”
“Witchcraft 101,” Ethan said and sighed. “That is a problem. No bargaining points. You’re really going to make me kill you, aren’t you?”
That sparked something within her and she looked up at him with wide eyes. “Thomas Bartlett.” There was no hint of a question in her voice.
“You’re running out of time,” Ethan told her. By then the orb in his hand was becoming hotter and even vibrating a bit.
“So are you, Thomas.”
“Who the fuck is Thomas?” She shook her head and continued to look up at him with those wide eyes filled with, what, love? Lust? It was something oddly affectionate. “Why are you looking at me like that?
“We were so close, Thomas,” she told him. “Take me away from here! Away fromHer! Give me youth and beauty and I will be yours! I told you I never loved you but I did! I always wanted to be yours long before Regan and Emeline entered our lives!”
“Are you insane?” Ethan asked, reasonably convinced she was. “Who is Her?”
“Morgan Le Fey, Titania, Lillith—” she jerked a bit, as if someone pricked her with a needle, and looked at him with tear-filled eyes “—you’ll find out soon enough, Thomas…” She died, too old to handle whatever strain she was under, and fell face-first to the ground.
“Well, that was goddamn odd,” he said and then he noticed that the orb was flashing much faster. He got the sensation that it was going to explode and very soon, so he rushed to the balcony and tried to transfer Sally’s life force back into her from up there. It did not work because the trees, also creatures of life, were confusing the magic that he could only barely control to begin with. “Shit!” he cried.
Having no idea what else to do he reached into his satchel, pulled out nine prepared but blank alchemic potions that he had kept without ingredients in case he ran out of one type or another and needed to make one quickly, and then quickly spread them out onto the thick stone railing.
He quickly pushed the essence from the orb into each potion, filling it up to the brink, leaving the potions glowing a pure white color. Two of them broke, having put too much power pushed in, leaving the mystical good luck number of seven remaining and each with more life force than he put inside of Tori Randal or had taken from the witch.
Even though he had pushed out much more than he pulled, the orb began to violently shake in his hands while flashing colors so bright they began to hurt his eyes. Then, without warning, it suddenly jumped up in heat.
Ethan screamed and threw the orb off the balcony, the palms of his hands bright red. “Son of a—”
A loud BOOM erupted from below followed by a wave of powerful magic that could have been felt miles away. Ethan stumbled back from the balcony into the room, blood leaking out of his ears and nose while his head suddenly had the single worst headache of his life.
Had the explosion been a natural one of equivalent size, it may well have sent the tower toppling down.
“Oh son of a bitch!” he cried. “Goddamn motherfucking son of a bitch!” He went back, started putting the glowing potions in his satchel one at a time, and then saw something really odd. “What the hell is happening now?”
Out there in the distant woods, in some grove somewhere in the distance, was a little house.
Why it was a gingerbread house but why he should be afraid of that? Some part of him felt certain he should but then again, some other part was certain it was just a cute harmless thing. It had gingerbread walls, gumdrop decorations, a ceiling lined with frosting, a picket fence of white chocolate, a door framed in candy cane, windows framed in red licorice, and a yummy looking dark chocolate chimney. It was the world’s most tasty funhouse and suddenly Ethan wanted to explore it. He wanted to walk along its lollypop fence, taste the gummy bears hanging from lawn trees and wave to the gingerbread boys and girls that stood guard like sentries.
Whatever drew him there did not matter. It came with a near unbreakable urge to walk out into the woods, find that house and explore it. Someone was there and he knew it was someone special; someone who could make all his wildest fantasies come true. Whatever he wanted was out there for the taking and all he to do was go there, find—
Ethan shut his eyes tightly, killed whatever it was that was going through his mind, and then looked up at the same open grove to see it was completely empty. The castle was still there in its place between the mountains, ominous and black, but that funny little gingerbread house was gone.
He quickly finished putting his potions away, checked the witch and found she very much was dead. He checked the other rooms and found a medieval kitchen, a solar, a chapel, and a great hall, all of which were empty.
The witch did not live here, he noted.
The instant he stepped out into the stairwell and Tori instantly threw wrapped her arms around him and wept happily. “Not a bad first couple days for me,” he said and he gestured to the stairs. “You ready to leave?”
She nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. She was incredibly dirty wearing a blueTwilightshirt with the likeness of Taylor Lautner on the front, jeans and white sneakers. All of them were very loose on her, her belt pulled very tight, and it was suddenly clear to Ethan that she had lost a significant amount of weight. The picture didn’t depict her as overweight but she wasn’t skinny either. Now she was, with obvious muscle definition she never had before.
“Thank you so much!” she told him, tears making streaks through the dirt on her face. “I was so—so—” she cried silently for several moments “—scared!”
“The time for fear is over, Tori,” he told her and he led her out of the tower using his Torch spell light the steep staircase downward. He lowered its intensity when they got near the bottom so that she couldn’t see the dead children while they passed and the two stepped out into the sunlight.
Across the space of the meadow, five women stepped out of the woods with Alfred smiling happily on the side holding his gym bag daintily in both hands. “I found Sally’s sisters,” he told Ethan.
“Alfie!” Tori cried and when she held out her arms, the giant turkey rushed up to her. She laughed and hugged him tightly, Alfred making happy gobble-gobble sounds in response.
“I’ll be right back,” said Ethan.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got to go make some unpleasant bitch young again,” he replied and strode across the meadow toward the five women. “Hello ladies,” he called. “You’re hero has arrived.”
Three of them were rather plain but strong and capable women, very typical look of Bellator women who didn’t believe in makeup or pretty clothes, while two of them, the one who was the leader and one in the back, resembled Sally so closely in face, shape and unbelievable beauty, they had to be related. Like Ethan, they were bleeding from the nose and ears, which meant they were extremely talented magicians, although not necessarily trained. Their friends, Tori and the turkey had no such problems, probably suffering nothing more than a minor headache at best.
The leader put her hands on her hips and gave Ethan such a hard look of pure hate that he slowed his step. She had short black hair and dark blue eyes and close up was even more stunningly sexy than her sister had been. She was also very much his type and wore a tight dark blue t-shirt tucked into jeans with tall black military boots.
“Why do you don’t tell me,hero, what happened to my sister?” she asked.
Ethan stopped in front of her. “Look—”
“I asked you a question,pig!”
“Okay.” Ethan looked at the hard expression of the women who had made a wall in front of him, and decided it was not in his best interest to try to force his way through.
“You going to answer it?”
“Well, it appears, though you may need to find a trained physician to be sure, that your sister has been aged into a crone.” She sneered at him. “It is also a distinct possibility that it is due to her essence being sucked up into some kind of mystical disco ball.” He held out his red-palmed right hand. “You’re Julia I’m guessing. I’m Ethan.”
All of them except Sally’s other sister, stared at Ethan like he was the worst human being on the planet and, unsurprisingly, Julia did not take his hand.
“Okay,” he said as he soon lowered it. “Can I at least pass?” They did not move. “I would like to pass please.” They frowned at him. “It would mean a lot if I could get past you so I could help your sister.” Julia glared at him. “Split, move, separate or any other verb meaning to make space for me to proceed.” She scoffed and shook her head and Ethan decided he had enough. “Look, you dumb feminist cunts, I would like to pass now so I can help your bitch sister, go home, and ride on this success hopefully far enough to get some hot Connecticut ass.”
“You disgust me.”
“I don’t care how you feel about me, Julia,” he said and she took a sudden step forward and looked right up into his eyes. Once again, he was overwhelmed by her beauty. “That was a lie. You are incredibly beautiful and you’re a born-magician like your taller twin there. That’s nice.” Magical talent was always inherent in a twin, identical or fraternal, for some unknown reason.
Julia found his attraction to her amusing. “All six of my sisters, none which are twins, are natural talents just like you.”
“That’s a statistical unlikelihood.”
“Whether you believe it or not, Sally is a born-magiciananda woman,” she told him.
“She’s a woman too?”
Julia gave him a very dark look. “Am I supposed an emotional retard like you is somehow going to find what a woman likeSallywould miss?”
“Yes, you are,” he replied simply.
She took a deep breath and put her hand on his arm in an oddly seductive manner. “You say there was a magical orb that was used to steal my sister’s youth?”
“A great magical orb that’s now destroyed because of you?”
“Correct again. Tossed it right off the balcony. The crater right over there? It’s a rather odd shade of teal, though, don’t you think?”
Julia snatched his vest and pulled him close, her eyes on fire. “And you broke it on PURPOSE?” She shrieked the last word.
“Yes,” he replied and her jaw dropped. She let go of his vest and stepped back slowly, shaking her head in shock. “Or at least, I would have in the end, but I actually didn’t have to. Like the Enterprise, it had a self-destruct sequence.”
“You think this is funny? My sister is older than my goddamn grandmother!”
Her other sister, a taller brunette with long straight hair reaching halfway down her back, stepped forward nervously. “Julia—”
“Shut your fucking mouth, Natalie,” said Julia. “I didn’t ask for your opinion and I don’twantit.” Her sister lowered her eyes, wounded, and backed away. “Fucking idiot!” she hissed and turned back to Ethan.
“You should be nicer to your sister.”
“Mind your own fucking business, you male fascist cocksucker,” she replied and she slapped him across the face. “What—” she shook her head “—what the fuck am I going to do with you.”
Ethan could not believe he was still standing there having that stupid conversation. “Julia, you are seriously killing my buzz. Natalie, can you tell her to let me pass.”
“I think—” Julia turned her head back and glared at her “—I don’t he’s going to hurt her.” Natalie lowered her eyes timidly.
Ethan looked over Natalie and smiled. “No woman as seriously beautiful as you should be so insecure. You should be a model.” Natalie blushed, biting her lower lip, and Ethan realized he liked her for more than her body. She was as gorgeous as any Hollywood starlet or Victoria Secret model, as near a perfect specimen as a woman could get, but inside was still a sweet, gentle human being.
“Don’t you flirt with my sister!” hissed Julia.
“But she’s so beautiful and cute and shy,” he replied.
“You are such a misogynistic little prick.”
“One, misogyny means I hate women and Ilovethe ladies and two, I’m trying tohelpyour other, more evil, sister. I have a potion that will cure her.” Julia’s face began turning bright red with anger. “You and Sally have some serious rage issues. You need help.” Her eyes shifted in some subtle way and Ethan realized he might very well be in danger from her. He wasn’t sure how that came to him but it did and he believed it.
“Another healing potion could be helpful, I suppose. She’ll live all the way to the hospital.” She slapped him across the face again and that time much, much harder. “You colossal asshole! I already have healing potions!”
“Julia—” her eyes turned dark and she shook her head.
“Leave him alone!” cried Tori.
“Don’t do it, Julia,” said Natalie. “I think he really just wants to help.”
“What he wants to do is to press his advantage and rape Sally while she’s old and helpless,” said Julia.
“ThehellI do!” Ethan cried and Julia’s lips curled up into a very dark smile that didn’t touch her eyes. “Do you want me to help your sister or not, you fucking cunt?”
Her face calmed as if she crossed some hurdle in her mind and then she pulled out a small pistol from behind her back and shot him in the stomach. She was extremely fast and before Ethan even realized what happened she had turned to the others and was saying, “Sharon, get the girl, we’ll have Audrey erase her memories and Maggie, shoot the turkey. We probably can erase his too but, frankly, I find him incredibly annoying.” She cracked her neck. “Mother will collect the reward.”
Ethan stumbled backward clutching his stomach.
“Shoot the turkey?” Alfred whimpered and saw one of them raise a rifle. He squawked and made a ball out of himself while covering his face with his wings in horror. However, the instant before the gun went off Tori jumped in front of Alfred and the woman named Maggie very nearly shot her right in the back.
“Run, Alfie, run!” Tori cried as she pushed him away. Once he started running, it was easy for him to charge off at full speed into the trees and vanished out of sight, the several gunshots that fired at his back all missed completely.
Ethan stumbled across the meadow toward Tori, pulled out another Heal potion and drank it. It was followed with absolute agony as the bullet inside of him suddenly forced out in a painful, gut-wrenching near-explosion of puss and blood. It felt to Ethan like someone threw tacks into his stomach and then twisted him like a towel but when it was done, half a minute after so later, he began to awkwardly run away.
Julia realized he was running when he saw him and Tori moving through the trees. He fired his semi-automatic at them, startling them into inaction, and disappeared into the tree line.
“Too far that time!” Ethan cried. A gunshot aimed at his head hit one of the sides of a tree as he past, blowing a chunk of the bark off, and he moved quicker. Tori, now apparently more athletic than ever, was easily able to keep up.
He left the tracks, moved through the woods, and went across grounds full of roots and grass. If they left some kind of tracks, the Bellator women were either incapable or unwilling to follow them.
Ethan had managed to get tori back to Charlotte Road by dusk. The faked troll trail they had followed before had a kind of strange zigzag quality to it and in a straight line south, Ethan made it back much faster.
“Well that was just a barrel of fucking monkeys, eh kid?” he said as they stepped out of the hole in the chain-link fence and she laughed, hugged him tightly and didn’t let go.
* * *
Ethan spent several hours at the diner telling his story repeatedly leaving out only the youth potions, the exact nature of how he was going to help Sally and fully how Rory and Alan died, instead describing them as killed by the runes when he broke them.
They gave him a free burger, fries and soda, as well as the full reward, and everyone was happy. Francine spent the time snuggling with and commenting on how pretty her daughter had become, having lost a lot of weight and suddenly having perfect skin, and she refused to let her go despite her protests.
It was after the third time when he saw a strange girl entered his life for the first time and he found he instantly liked her. She was extremely beautiful, just his type with dark gold hair hanging straight down past her emerald green eyes down past her large, perfect breasts. She had a high cheek-boned model’s face with a fit, perfect body with long, shapely legs. She was wearing a casual white tank top and jean shorts as she walked into the bar with several other people he barely even noticed.
Their eyes locked from across the room and a powerful, almost magical, connection seemed to pull him across the diner right up to her. “You’re the new Bartlett magician I heard about,” she said with a distinct southern accent. “I’m Claire Winters from Louisiana.”
“I’m Ethan Bartlett from California.” Staring into her eyes was like watching a movie he could not tear himself away from. He felt like everything beautiful he had ever heard about in Southern women was personified in her. “I would like your number, Claire.”
“Alright,” she whispered but before she could give it to him, a man stepped in front of her.
“Mr. Bartlett,” he said with a cold expression. “Good job with that troll.” He was a big, stout man with a short flattop buzzed hair of light brown and dark brown eyes wearing a light brown suit with a tie. There was something unforgiving in his eyes and some part of his look reminded Ethan of the uncle who hated him the most.
“It wasn’t a troll,” Ethan said, watching Claire being pulled out by another girl. She smiled at him, bit her lower lip, and disappeared out of the door. “Wow.”
“My name is Robert Le Sueur and that is my uncle’s granddaughter, Mr. Bartlett.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Le Sueur.” Ethan held out his hand and Le Sueur took it. Instantly his grip turned vicious enough to hurt badly but Ethan’s face did not bother to register it. “A problem, Mr. Le Sueur?”
He smiled in a phony way and leaned closer. “You stay the hell from my family, Bartlett.Especiallythe girls. You understand?”
“I’m not going to rape her, Robert—” He squeezed extremely hard, the man’s grip like a vice, but Ethan could ignore much more pain than that. “Are you finished?”
“You stay away from my family.” He let go, gave the phony smile again, and said, “Enjoy your dinner.” He turned around and left.
Ethan rubbed his hand, confused. “That was oddly severe,” he said and then he turned and very nearly walked straight into an elderly woman. She was very pretty for her age, near seventy, with long, straight dark brown hair hanging like silk down around her head. She wore a white blouse with a jeweled broach and a long blue skirt. The expression on her attractive face was the combination of tired and determined.
“Do you know who I am, Ethan?” she asked coldly, her hands on her hips.
“Grandaunt Margaret, the matriarch of my family.”
“Very good,” she told him. “Might I ask why this happened?”
“I don’t know. He’s a jerk.”
“I don’t mean Le Sueur. I mean your little bounty.”
“Well,” Ethan said, “A witch was trying to steal Tori’s youth but I came along with my hurt locker and—”
“I’m asking you why you went out there to risk your life for some girl who’s hardly worth the effort.”
“Watch it, Bartlett!” hissed Francine Randal from twenty feet away. The whole place had become very silent, everyone watching them with cold, unsympathetic eyes aimed at Margaret.
“Finish your food so we can leave.”
“Oh I’m done,” he told her and he turned around. “Bye everyone.” They were all silent as the grave. “Too much enthusiasm. Try and remain calm next time.” He laughed and Margaret pulled him out of the diner and into a black limousine.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” she told him.
“Kill an evil witch?” he replied. “It’s a good thing, Aunt Margaret. Teaches young girls not to go out and become witches.”
“I honestly didn’t expect you to go wandering off to risk your life for these people,” she told him. “You areneverto do that again!”
Ethan smiled contentedly for the first time since he could remember. “I’m glad you care, Aunt Margaret,” he told her earnestly but then she gave an unreadable look with enough coldness in it that made his smile slip away.
“You’re welcome,” she told him and turned away.
Ethan thought about his journey to Connecticut and it made him feel rather depressed. His family owned a private jet but he was flown coach. They had a driver but they didn’t bother to have him picked up at the airport. No one even bothered to meet him when he arrived at the home and his room was not one of the family rooms but an impersonal guest suite designed for a stranger.
“I want you to promise to stay away from that Le Sueur girl.”
“No damn way.”
She gave him a very withering look. “You are to stay away from the Le Sueurs andnevergo on another monster hunt. Is that understood?”
Margaret sighed. “Ethan,” she said, “The life of a Bartlett is precarious enough without stacking the problems Le Sueurs and monster hunts will give you. You will need to step very carefully in this city to survive.” There was genuine worry in her voice and when she touched his arm afterward, he thought it had a kind of worried tenderness.
“Okay,” he told her and felt once again moved by the fact that somebody in his family finally cared about him. He would avoid the bounties, he had a real job now anyway, but he did not think he could avoid Claire Winters. There was something special there and he wanted to pursue it.
Monday morning would come the following day, he would start the family business and within a week, everything would probably be normal.