Ethan began spending some of his more boring days out at the Bay City Boardwalk.
It was located in a southwest section of the city near the pointed gulf known as the Bay City Dagger, which stretched north upward all the way to 95 Freeway in a slender point, and above the beach that rested against the Long Island Sound. Even though it was hardly the glorious experience that it should have been, Ethan found it rather comforting.
At its far western end against the Dagger were the Bartlett Bay Docks and the empty shells of the Coughlan Cannery and Bartlett Fisheries. In the center and eastern end were the remaining shops, restaurants and hotels. There had been a time that every inch of the boardwalk had been filled and literally, every ten contained some kind of artist performing and or selling their art. There had been dancers, painters, musicians, poets, singers and more. In addition to restaurants found in buildings, there had been personal stands with various food sellers, all smiling and waving at the people who came wandering by.
By the time Ethan had started coming around it was almost entirely abandoned. People could get everything they needed at the Bay City Mall north on Worthington and it was clear that with all the shops boarded up it, like everything else on Fisher St, had become a rather seedy and possibly even dangerous. Even the docks only had maybe a dozen boats or so docked inside of it.
One Thursday Ethan came down to kill some time like always, dressed casually in a black baseball t-shirt with short dark orange sleeves and an orange collar, jeans, a new pair of black Sketchers he bought, and his black leather jacket. He leaned down against the rail overlooking the Long Island Sound near to the center and west of the Bay City Beach where he saw a few people swimming out in the water in swimming trunks and bikinis, which surprised Ethan because he found fifty degrees extremely cold.
He couldn’t help but feel what a shame it was that the boardwalk was abandoned. The mall no doubt gave everything a person would need materially but there was a certain artistic necessity that only something like a boardwalk, like the one he explored in Venice Beach, California, could ever truly fulfill.
While he was thinking about art, he found his mind drifting toward a woman named Grace O’Brien.
Ethan reached into his pocket and took out a picture he had found of her just a few days ago in the newspaper. Grace O’Brien was a victim of enchantment, a sleeping beauty, put down in 1960 only to suddenly awaken in 2012. Tragically, the magic didn’t keep from her aging so when she went to sleep she was around the same age Ethan was and when she awoke, she was over fifty years older. Nearly eighty years old. The newspaper showed a picture on the left of a gorgeous blond movie starlet in Tudor period costume, Grace’s first starring role in Hollywood was second billing below Natalie Wood in the 1959 film Queen Anne, and on the right was a crone. She was a woman much older looking than she actually was because she had not physically moved in fifty years. Grace O’Brien’s youth and body had been used up in a hospital bed somewhere.
Presently, she was in another hospital somewhere else being rehabilitated. He had asked about her but no one would tell him where and since he didn’t dare tell them why, he felt the best course was to simply wait until she appeared to start his plan.
“O’Brien,” he said softly to himself. When he had seen her name in the newspaper, a vision had come to him. It didn’t come again, neither had the others that he had, but he recalled what he saw as perfectly as if it happened to him mere moments ago.
* * *
Thomas Bartlett walked side by side with his Uncle Andrew casually down the pier farther down the same boardwalk. Thomas loved the boardwalk; loved the way people mulled around and sold things from their little outside stands or their quaint little shops with everything available from daily necessities such as food and furniture to creative endeavors such as paintings and musical instruments. From the view of the boardwalk, he could always see fishermen sailing out into the water of the long Island Sound in their little boats throwing out their lines and pulling out their catches. Thomas was always satisfied and pleased that as one of his favorite activities was to fish. He spent much of his free time and boyhood out on a boat fishing in Lake Chelsea.
Thomas was fourteen years old in 1852, having grown into a stout young man barely topping five foot with an average looking face that bordered on ugly, light blue eyes and straight blond hair naturally parted in the center. He wore a black suit with a matching hat, bowtie and gloves with a dark orange vest.
Uncle Andrew looked very different from his nephew but that was no surprise since they were not related by blood or even culture. The Ireland born Andrew O’Brien was a wiry man, over six feet in height, with short, very dark brown hair balding at the sides with eyes so dark they were almost black. He was just a little bit more attractive than his nephew was but he was still an extremely ordinary, almost painfully plain, looking man. He wore a dark green suit with a brown vest and a matching hat and walked with his favorite cane casually. He was in his mid-thirties but seemed in general much younger in body and spirit.
For some strange reason, he seemed rather gloomy that afternoon.
Everyone was very polite to the two well-dressed men as they walked down the boardwalk. Thomas Bartlett’s father, Nathan Bartlett Sr. owned the fisheries that supported the entire city and Andrew O’Brien was the owner of O’Brien Railroad Company which provided a great deal of much-needed jobs that had almost masterfully earned him the respect of the poor, especially among his fellow Irish and blacks.
The latter was on Thomas’s mind because he had just read a new book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and he found it haunting. He didn’t exactly believe what he read in there, at least not where the personalities of the people involved were concerned, but the violence of the plantation man did strike him as realistic and it made him think. He heard the stories, not just of the brutality of slavery with whippings and scaring and the like, but also the raping of women. The book somehow reminded him that they were more than just fanciful tales people yapped about at the dinner table.
When Nathan Bartlett Sr. had seen what his son had been reading he ripped it from his hands, beat him with it for a while, and then tossed it into the fire. Then he said to him, “If I ever catch you reading this pro-nigger book again I will disown you!” Luckily, it was Thomas’s second reading through so he already knew how it ended.
“Have you read the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe?” asked Thomas.
“I have,” Andrew replied and he rested his arms on the wooden rail of the pier. Thomas moved up beside him and the two looked out over the Long Island Sound at the boats moving about here and there from the Bartlett Bay Docks. “It’s a fine novel,” he said in an uncommitted kind of way.
“I hear the Sea Crest Theatre is putting on a play about it,” Thomas said but Andrew didn’t answer. “So have you made a decision with John Coughlan’s proposal?”
“I have decided to help him with his cannery,” Andrew told him. “He knows the business after working in that cannery up in New York City for several years and I think it will be very useful for the city both now and in the future.” His eyes looked sadly out at the ocean, the summer sun bright on the surface of the water.
Thomas noticed his father’s steamboat, the Lady of House Kent, moving through the bright water. It was a pristine white and red thing that looked to Thomas like a normal ship only missing its walls and sails with a giant red waterwheel added at the back. He thought it was a rather beautiful looking contraption and found it almost magical in its science. “There’s my father’s steamboat,” he said.
“Deathtraps,” said Andrew. “Every one of them explodes.”
“Are you alright, Uncle?” asked Thomas. “You seem rather downcast today.”
“Sometimes I think the world is on fire, Tommy,” he replied and he took off his hat. “The Gorta Mór seems to be finally receding no thanks to the English with years, possibly decades, to recover but now a new problem is coming. The Irishmen arriving will probably get caught up in it.”
“The Great Famine,” Thomas said sadly. He had heard what the Irish called it many times and it had a kind of special power because of the uniqueness of the Irish language. It was no surprise he knew it by the Irish name considering how many Irish people there were around those days to tell him all about it.
When Thomas was just a boy, Andrew was the only Ireland-born Irishman he had ever seen. By the time he was twelve, he could not walk down the street without practically tripping over a new one moving through town or looking for work or both. An Irishmen had once painted a farmhouse in his home county of Kerry in southwestern Ireland beautifully where it soon came to adorn Andrew’s home above his mantel. After seeing that, Thomas could not imagine anyone ever leaving such a place but they did and in droves. Ireland had become the world’s most beautiful graveyard and every week thousands if not more flooded into those United States.
“All around my homeland are the starving and the dead,” said Andrew. “I remember when I was in Maine I was given word that Sophia was born healthy. I was so happy, even though I wasn’t there to see it, and I decided to treat to myself to some Maine lobster with expensive red wine. It was one of the best meals of my life and my very first as a father.”
“Why are you so careful with money?” asked Thomas. “You’re ludicrously wealthy.” Andrew had started with only a little money true but after marrying Thomas’s aunt, he had turned his modest finances and her dowry into a grand fortune. For some odd reason or another, he still acted like he was poor.
“I wasn’t that wealthy then, Tommy,” he replied and his eyes took on a forlorn, almost lost, look. “Awhile before I had sent money back to my mother, who was then still in Ireland, because a childhood friend Marlon Maguire, my mother’s good friend’s son, was suffering rather horribly. His family’s ancestral farm, which was owned by some Englishman somewhere, was robbed violently by some desperate men not long before. They almost killed him in the process while leaving him penniless and foodless with a young son and a wife. He didn’t grow potatoes so he had been doing better than most but was still barely surviving and the Englishman was not sympathetic to his problems. He expected his money.
“Around the time I was eating that lobster dinner my mother had used the money I sent to buy food for Marlon’s family, which must have cost a small fortune, and went over to the farm to help relieve him. She had been like a mother to him since his own mother had died and thought of him as a son.” Andrew lowered his eyes miserably. “He went to a doctor we knew when his child became sick, God knows how he was going to pay him for it, and left his wife to care for the boy. The boy had died while Marlon was in route and Marlon’s wife, in some kind of starvation frenzy, began to eat him. As soon as she realized what she was doing, she was overwhelmed with the horror of it, rushed to the kitchen, found a sharp blade and sliced her throat wide open. When Marlon come home to the sight of his family, he took a long length of rope and hung himself in the barn. My mother had been the one to find all three of them.”
Andrew’s mother was always an incredibly quiet and sad woman and that was probably why.
“He thought I was crazy for coming here,” Andrew said sadly and then looked over at Thomas. “I know you’re one of those people who think magic can solve anything but you’re wrong.”
Thomas turned the palms of his hands upward over the water and a soft, orange light appeared in the center between his fingers: it was a Heal spell improved over the version Walter Kent had designed design. It was becoming somewhat more common to see magic of that sort around, especially in the south where it was becoming extremely popular among Southern ladies. They personally viewed magic, provided it wasn’t of the combative unladylike kind, as an upper-class art form perhaps because almost nobody who was poor ever had the time or means to learn it properly.
“Walter Kent could magically grow food out of the ground daily,” Thomas told him. “He did it through the entire Siege of Boulogne. The tree that makes his orange apples is still there and they even make a special French wine out of them. If magic had been pursued properly over the years who knows what they could be accomplished in Ireland with that famine.”
“Tommy, dreams mean nothing against lives. Today there are perhaps one hundred magicians or less in all of Ireland who could equal such a feat as Kent had, which includes the great college he was trained at, but there are millions of people still starving even as we stand here even now.” He seemed extremely tired. “Magic can only solve this problem if it could magically make the English willing to stop exporting all of Ireland’s food out of the country,” Andrew shook his head. “I swear to God that one thing would have made all the difference.”
Thomas nodded. “‘Ireland is certainly not England’,” he said sarcastically with an English accent. Someone had told Walter Kent that after the failed rebellion by that Earl of Kildare, Thomas “Silken” Fitzgerald, but Thomas could not recall what lord said that and exactly how or why it had come about. He recalled its meaning clear enough though: the Irish are not our equals.
“Now the Irishmen who came here from that are going to end up in our war,” said Andrew.
Thomas felt depressed. The only two things he loved in life were magic and architecture, the latter already certainly going to be his future occupation, but it looked like some rather dangerous winds were blowing up from the South threatening to ruin his life. “My father is sending me to West Point,” he told him. “Like you, he thinks there’s going to be war but he thinks it will be easy.”
“I seriously doubt that, Tommy,” Andrew replied in a bitter voice. “I visited Nashville, Tennessee a couple of years back while they were having a convention with all the Fire-Eaters assembled and I must say they weren’t really looking as worried as I would have liked.”
“Fire-Eaters, eh?” Thomas took off his hat, a lock of blond hair hanging down over his right eye. “They’re just a bunch of pro-slave screaming whiners who never worked a day in their lives. Of course, they’re not worried. They’re just morons.”
“Some of them are remarkably competent, Tommy. William Barksdale, for example, is an educated lawyer and college graduate and his friends are not far off from that, some even politicians in our government, and even the craziest of them, Edmund Ruffin, is an agronomist who was a professional newspaper editor.” Andrew frowned at the ocean. “Have no doubt, Tommy. These people are not just morons.”
“Being smart and being educated are not the same,” Thomas replied.
“Does anyone truly know the difference?” Andrew asked as Thomas put his hat back on his head. “The world is changing, Tommy. Men like Frederick Douglass, great men of color, are bringing us into a new age of consciousness and civilization but they have also become the living contradictions to the so-called Southern way of life. A wave of logic and rightness is coming down from the north and as the free states begin outnumbering the slave states everything will change. Slavery is dying but it still remains very profitable.”
“You can thank Eli Whitney for that,” said Thomas half-jokingly with a smile. It was true, the cotton gin invented did make slavery profitable, but he didn’t blame Whitney for it. It wasn’t his job to fix the world.
“Tommy, you know you’re like a son to me.” That had an effect on Thomas since his father did not seem to love him. Oh, he loved his other sons Nathan Jr. and John and his two sisters but with Thomas, he regularly stated not only that he did not love him and that Thomas was also a “disappointment.” The closest thing to a father for Thomas was Andrew O’Brien who, only having daughters himself up until recently, found Thomas the closest thing to a son that he had. “You need to prepare yourself for what’s coming.”
“Honestly?” Thomas replied as he looked into his uncle’s worried face. “My God, you really don’t think this will be an easy thirty-day war, do you? I mean with all our advantages; the entire army, the entire navy, almost all the guns, almost all the cannons, almost all the ships, something like five times the population available for new recruits, not even including your countrymen who will be joining up instantly, all against a bunch of dumb farmers? How the hell could it not be?”
“Son,” said Andrew, “I think there is a very fine chance this could well be the single bloodiest affair this world has ever known and I think it’s going to last a hell of a lot longer than thirty days.”
* * *
Ethan realized he was leaning onto the very same spot he had as Thomas one hundred and sixty years ago while he was still staring down at the pictures from the newspaper. “Life goes on even when you’re asleep,” he said to himself as he refolded the picture and stuck it back into his pocket.
“I heard you were hanging around here,” said a voice.
Ethan turned his head to his left to see a beautiful older woman approach him. He could tell she was over forty, maybe as old as fifty judging by her face, but otherwise, she had aged extremely well. She was athletic and fit with long, silky dark brown hair hanging down her back in a single ponytail with a curvy, sexy shape that had not gone down even slightly over the years. She was wearing a white blouse tucked into jeans and white shoes as she walked up to him.
“Jen Everson,” she said and held out her hand.
Ethan shook it. “Ethan Bartlett which I guess you know,” he replied. “Are we related? My paternal grandmother was an Everson?”
“Yes, actually,” she told him with a smile. “She was my aunt. My father had three sisters, one of whom married your grandfather and went to California and another married Wilbur Coughlan. The third is a serial wife with more divorces than Elizabeth Taylor and we don’t see her very often.”
“Neat,” he replied with a smile.
“Are you alright, Ethan? You look a little peaked.”
“Oh I’m fine,” he replied. “I was just thinking about my last life’s childhood with my Irish uncle before I ended up serving in the American Civil War. How can I help you today, cousin?”
“Yeah, uh, okay?” She shrugged it off and leaned down onto the rail beside him exactly where Andrew O’Brien had. “I have a job for you if you’re interested. It’s for you because you’re one of the few people willing to walk into those incredibly evil woods in order to kill a monster.”
“It’s true,” he replied calmly while hiding his excitement. “I have been out there in the woods a few times and I have killed me a monster or two. What’s the job exactly?”
“Two little girls are missing,” Jen told him. “You wouldn’t have heard about it since it was just yesterday afternoon but even if it hadn’t, it would have been kept quiet because the family would like to keep it that way. They’re at my farm right now and if you’re interested you should come and speak with them.”
“I might be,” he said as he turned around and leaned back against the rail. “Why exactly aren’t they coming themselves?”
“You’ll see,” she replied. “And it’s not as sinister as it sounds. You will receive a large reward and I am willing to part with one of my familiars if you agree to help them.”
Ethan was instantly hooked. He had always wanted a familiar but he could never have afforded one since they were all in the ten thousand to fifty thousand dollar range of price. “You have familiars?” he said trying to sound casual.
“Three generations of Eversons have bred traditional and non-traditional familiars. Ethan Everson began the practice after the Civil War. You’re probably even named after him.”
“Why does no one tell me these things?”
“I suppose a name isn’t that important to some people.”
“I meant the familiar thing. Did you create Alfred the Thanksgiving Turkey?”
Jen seemed to fly up to him, her eyes wide and she put her hands on his shoulders. “Have you seen him since your encounter in the woods?” she asked worriedly. “Francine and Tori Randal told me you had seen him out there.”
Ethan shook his head. “Not since that day,” he replied. “Also, no surprise, he really should not be out there. He is far too timid for those woods.”
Jen looked genuinely upset and dropped her arms from his shoulders. “I don’t know why he’s out there,” she said sadly. “We’ve been trying to find him for a year. When you saw him, did he say something about the Gurneys? We’ve been having trouble with them and Old Man Gurney has had his eyes on my land for years.”
“The Gurneys?” Ethan had never met any of them but they had a very bad reputation in town. They lived on a farm north of the freeway and west of the private airstrip and were rumored to be incredibly racist. His memories as Thomas Bartlett there was a never time when they were any different. “He didn’t really say much about anything.”
“I’m terribly worried about him.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Well how about you tell me you are going to come back to my home on Everson Farm and meet the parents of those two little girls. Without steady work, you need the reward and I can see you are incredibly eager for a familiar.”
Ethan smiled. “Alright,” he replied. “I’ll follow you in my car.” She nodded and without another word, she led him back to where her 2006 silver-colored Lexus was, not far from his own junkier looking classic, and then she casually led him east down Fisher St to Worthington St and then went north. They took a left of Edmonton St and then right up Alberta St along the east side of Bartlett Bay’s last remaining farmlands.
Her house was down a private road on the left, a three-story manor house in front of the farmland that led down a slope and west to the Dagger. He parked his Corvette beside her Lexus in front of a beautiful dark brown three-story manor house just off the main road. The farmland itself was a kind of animal farm judging by the arenas and barns all over the place. Looking back across Alberta, he saw more farmland but only halfway to Worthington. In the distance, he could see the back of the Bay City Mall.
As Ethan stepped out of his car, he noticed a thoroughbred racing horse standing over by a nearby white fence giving him a strange and curious look. Its lips seemed curled up to the left as if the horse was deep in thought.
“Weird ass horse,” said Ethan as he stepped up beside Jen who opened the door and let him into the house.
“Wait here,” she told him and she left him in the entryway and disappeared into the house for a moment. Ethan shrugged and killed the time by casually looking around the old homey feeling entryway. It was a house built in the 1800s and it was packed with relics of that era: paintings, black and white photographs, old-style chairs, a lovely wood table and an old wooden grandfather clock with a huge swinging pendulum.
Ethan went up to the clock, looked at the top above the face and saw the name “Everson” carved elegantly into the wood. It was beautiful and made entirely by hand. “They certainly don’t make things like this anymore.”
Jen came back less than a few moments later. “They’re going to be a few minutes. They’re still arguing over how to approach you. I’ll let you find a familiar while they figure that it out.”
“They’re the Le Sueurs, aren’t they?” asked Ethan with a smile.
“I would not help Robert Le Sueur if it would save the world,” she said with sudden and surprising bitterness.
“It’s good because I would not have cooperated with him.” She nodded with hard eyes. “Do you have any male cousins, brothers or nephews?” She shook her head. “It’s a shame. Your name will die off.”
Jen shook her head again. “I have a son and grandsons who have my father’s surname. Louis is my son’s name and he is one of those Wall Street guys but his oldest son wants to work the farm when I pass and he has a family too so it’ll go on.”
“You’re a great-grandmother? You’re like forty.”
Jen smiled but it was one of those “unhappy subject” kinds of smiles. “Follow me,” she said and then walked past him into the west side of the house. “Try to pick a familiar that is closest to your personality.”
“That’s a very hard match,” he said earnestly.
“It always is,” Jen replied and she pushed open a pair of large double doors into a huge extended room where all the familiars were.
It seemed very barnlike with a tall a rounded ceiling and huge double doors at the back. The sections for the animals were squared off perfectly with transparent hard plastic walls that together created the shape of large squares except for the aviary, which was had thin, round metal caging. They were sectioned off by animal type but it was generally unnecessary because all familiars could talk and generally got along.
The smallest areas were reptiles, only a few lizards and snakes that had lizard-like limbs added to them, located on the direct right all grinning at him happily through the hard plastic of their home. The mammals were the largest section but only because of their size: dogs, rabbits, rodents and cats, all filling up the left half of the room. The right side just past the reptiles were the birds, the most popular and expensive of all familiars with hawks, eagles, doves, parakeets and parrots along with dozens of others Ethan did not know the names of.
The instant he entered they all began talking at once.
“Quiet everyone!” called out Jen and they did. “Ethan here is looking for a familiar and I want you all to behave.”
Ethan started down the white-tiled path toward the back looking at the sections casually. Among the mammals, he saw a rabbit stand up on its hindquarters, press its soft hand-like paws against the wall, pulled its ears back while it looked straight up with its round black eyes and said in the single cutest voice ever, “You seem ever so very kind, Mister. If you take me we’ll be the best of friends forever!”
Ethan shuddered and looked over at the birds, which were his primary interest anyway. “Oh do pick me!” cried a dove that, when it opened its wings, had little arms similar to its feet underneath. “I will be the very, very, best the best familiar ever, I promise, and if you love me I will love you forever and ever and ever.”
“Good God, Jen, they’re painfully nice!” said Ethan unhappily and she laughed. He looked through the cage beyond the others into the back and saw a black hawk sitting on a wooden peg frowning miserably, its face and front covered in rainbow paint. “Hey, what’s with sunshine over there?”
“Oh that’s Mickey,” said Jen. “He’s just mad because during this morning at feeding time he went off for a joy ride through the house and ended up face-first into my husband’s rainbow painting. I’m making him sit in it for punishment.”
“Wow, just look at him. He looks like a gay-pride parakeet.”
Mickey looked him straight in the eyes, opened his wings to let out his arms and then promptly gave him the middle finger on his left four-fingered hand.
All the familiars gasped and stared in horror-struck silence for several moments.
Ethan and Mickey burst out laughing. “He’s great,” said Ethan. “I’ll take him.”
“Really?” said Jen in surprise and Mickey frowned at her. “He’s always been a little—obnoxious. People tend to find him aggravating.”
“Well, I’m kind of asshole myself so it works for me,” Ethan replied. “Besides, birds of prey aren’t supposed to be cute and sweet. I mean how can I go hunting with Big Bird as my wingman?”
“You want to hunt with him?” asked Jen.
“It’s an idea,” Ethan replied.
“Oh thank God someone who’s not a pansy is here!” cried Mickey. He flew over to the door and started hopping up and down on a bar. “Let me out, let me out, let me out—”
“Quiet!” said Jen. “I will let you out so your new master can play with you but you have to go in again because you will belong to Ethan here only if and after he does a job for me.”
“Okay,” said Mickey happily. “Let me out, let me out, let me out, let me—” Jen opened the door “—freedom!”
Ethan tapped his left shoulder and Mickey casually flew onto it, moved a few times around to get a feel for it and then rested there quietly and calmly. Jen looked at them for a moment in surprise. “What?” asked Ethan and Mickey at the same time.
“I’ve never seen a familiar bond so quickly with his master,” said Jen.
Ethan and Mickey shrugged.
“Well okay then,” she said. “Come with me.”
“Hey, Ethan,” said Mickey as he walked. “Can you get this crap off of me?”
“Yeah, let me just see what’s actually going on here and then I’ll get to it.”
He was led into a very nice green sitting room where two people were arguing quietly on a couch. They were clearly upper-class yuppie types, the man looking highly average with dull brown hair and dull brown eyes wearing a blue polo shirt, white slacks and black dress shoes. Beside him was a much younger, highly sexy, blond-haired, blue-eyed buxom trophy wife wearing a matching blue blouse with white form-fitting shorts.
“You’re not cold in that?” Ethan asked her and they both looked at him nervously. “I don’t know you so why is this supposed to be awkward?”
At that exact moment, a young man about Ethan’s age stepped out of the nearby kitchen eating a chocolate chip cookie and stopped dead when he saw him. He instinctively reached up and touched the nasty scar on the left side of his face that had been created when Ethan had hit him with a lightning bolt two months ago.
“Why hey there, it’s Peter Wellington,” said Ethan. “I guess these are your parents then.”
“Father and stepmother,” he replied. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Your sisters are missing and he’s only the person who will freely wander into those woods,” said his stepmother in a hard voice. “I want you to apologize right now for whatever it is you really did to him so he’ll help us find them.”
Peter’s lips quivered he was suddenly so upset. “You know he started—”
“Nobody believes that!” hissed the woman. “Maybe if you were Johnny we would but you’re not, so apologize already!”
Ethan pretended to examine his fingernails carefully. “I’m waiting, Mr. Wellington,” he said and Mickey laughed.
When Peter looked at him his face turned almost as red as his scar but he said nothing. He just shook his head, sneered at him, and turned away.
“Can’t do it for the world, can you?” Ethan laughed. “Perhaps I should apologize to that blond for getting her knife all covered in my blood and then maybe to you as well for losing my temper when you innocently confused my body with a punching bag.”
“Hmm,” said Mickey. “I might be missing something but he looks like a douchebag. Is he a douchebag?”
“Oh this is bullshit!” cried Peter. “He’s not going to help us! He doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself!”
“He saved Jessica Downs for nothing more than a free meal,” said Jen. “He doesn’t exactly strike me as someone who cares only about himself.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears and she looked right at Ethan. “Mr. Bartlett, my little girls are missing and I need you to find them.”
“How old are they?”
“I’m in,” Ethan replied and he sat down across from the parents. Jen, who had gone into the kitchen, came back out with a wet rag and tossed it to him. He caught it and after putting Mickey in his lap, he began to clean him off which he clearly enjoyed. “Lady,” he said. “The first thing I need to tell you is that anything that goes into those woods may not come out. As of late, I’ve been quite lucky with what I’ve found but I don’t want to get your hopes up with promises I can’t necessarily keep. Sooner or later that luck will end.”
“You’ll die,” said Peter and he shrugged. “Sad.”
“That’s not what I’m saying, genius.”
“He’s saying someone he’s looking for will wind up being dead one day,” said the stepmother and she began to weep quietly into her hand.
Watching the woman cry made Ethan think of his mother, which made him very uncomfortable. “Does she have to keep doing that?” asked Mickey.
“Shut up, you evil bird!” hissed the woman.
At that moment, the thoroughbred horse from before pushed open the nearby window with his nose and stuck his head in. His eyes were filled with intelligence and Ethan was suddenly and uncannily reminded of that black unicorn. “I heard voices,” said the horse. “What’s going on?”
“Oh not much, Bob,” said Mickey. “We were passionately talking about the world’s greatest failures and obviously the 1988 Kentucky Derby came up.”
The horse’s lips quivered and then he let out a loud miserable scream and ran off. “Damn it, Mickey!” cried Jen.
A man’s voice outside cried out, “Bob! Bob, you come back here!” Ethan saw a tall, slender man with a mostly bald head rushing after him. “Calm down! You calm down now!”
Mickey laughed and said to Ethan, “Secretariat’s foal. He lost the 1988 Kentucky Derby to Winning Colors. There’s a video around here somewhere of him breaking down right afterward. His jockey looks soooo uncomfortable.”
Ethan looked over at Jen. “Bob the Horse? Really?”
Jen rubbed the bridge of her nose and said, “We really don’t have time for this.”
“Was that your husband out there?” asked Ethan and she nodded. “Why isn’t he in here?”
“We simply don’t get along,” said Peter’s father. It was the single first thing he had said.
“What are your names, anyway?”
“This is William and Loraine Wellington,” said Jen. “I used to date William in college and he asked me as a personal favor to bring you here.”
At that moment, a tall older black man somewhere in his mid to late seventies stepped into the room from the main hallway. He was a professional-looking man, his white hair kind of puffed out in an intellectual manner with a matching beard that looked to Ethan to be rather distinguished in a way that was typical of elderly black gentlemen. He was wearing a white polo shirt and khaki pants as if he had just been out golfing casually. Ethan instantly recognized him even though he had only met him once.
The Bartletts had been invited to a wedding and it had been an unpleasant, awkward experience that had nothing to do with the fact that Ethan had been one of only three white people there although that could not have possibly helped.
It was the wedding of one Owen Merrick and Christine Taylor and it must have been a great match for her because the Merricks were the second wealthiest black family in the city right behind the Fullers. They were also business partners with other powerful families and because they were close to Julian Bartlett I, Ethan’s family had been invited. Only Ethan, Margaret and Anne actually came and they quickly disappeared into a corner and said nothing during the whole occasion leaving him to mingle alone.
Remarkably, there had been no mirth anywhere. No one was laughing or having any fun of any sort at any time, and the only music after the solemn funeral-like wedding in the lavishly decorated backyard behind Owen’s mansion was Ethan himself playing an old piano. Christine, who was an absolutely gorgeous black woman around his age, had just had stood over him looking incredibly miserable in her grand white gown with the sad old reverend who had married them to that utterly bizarre man.
Owen Merrick was handsome and muscular like a bodybuilder with some degree of stoutness. He was also older than his bride was by at least two decades and was very, very blank. Ethan knew of no other word to describe the disassociated look on his face that was so unbelievably cold and empty that he made Margaret look like she was on fire by comparison.
The man who sat down across from him was Owen Merrick’s uncle who had barely spoken during the entire wedding. “Ronald Merrick,” Ethan said when his name came to him.
“Hello again Mr. Bartlett,” said the older man. He looked even more solemn than he did at the wedding if such a thing was possible.
“Why did you just come in now?”
“Well I was out of the golf course with some friends when I got word and it took me a little time to get here.” He sat down at a sofa chair on the left completing a semi-circle of the people all facing Ethan. “That’s not a problem, is it, Mr. Bartlett?”
“No. Just kind of odd, I guess.” Ethan shrugged. “Alright, just so I’m clear—” he pointed at William “—you’re the father—” he pointed at Loraine “—you’re the sexy young trophy wife who gave this guy two new children and that—” he pointed at Peter who was standing in a corner“—is a douchebag from an earlier marriage who was supposed to apologize to me.”
“Loraine!” cried Peter.
“So what’s your part in this exactly?” Ethan asked Ronald.
Ronald looked into Ethan’s eyes with a cold, calculating gaze. “Let them explain first,” he said.
“Okay,” Ethan said and he adjusted Mickey to clean him better. “Tell me exactly what happened and why.”
“My daughters Sarah and Britney disappeared yesterday,” said Loraine. “This morning we got a hold of the video of what happened. I don’t—I don’t think it was human.”
Mickey enjoyed being cleaned and he rubbed up against Ethan went he slowed down. “More damn you! More!” Ethan closed his fingers gently over his beak and Mickey shook his beak loose and frowned up at him.
“I went into Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of The Hunger Games for my stepdaughter but they didn’t want to go in. When I came back out they were gone and there were cookie crumbs all over the inside of the car and a broken window.” She bit her lower lip. “I saw it jump with them over the back wall.”
Ethan found himself thinking about that odd house he had seen from the tower for some reason. “You mention the cookies because—” he left hanging.
“Show us the video,” Ronald said. “That will save some time.”
Loraine pointed at the DVD player with the remote and pressed PLAY. The television and DVD were already on and ready.
“Oh boy, oh boy!” cried Mickey. “Is this the video where Bob breaks down after letting down everyone? That video is hilarious!”
“No!” said Loraine, William, Ronald and Jen at the same exact time.
The video was a security tape in color with pretty good clarity, showing a very old woman leaning around the back right window of a black Toyota Prius. She was dressed as an employee of Mrs. Fields Cookies with a white blouse and the red apron with her matronly white hair tied behind her head in a bun. She was offering to hand the girls cookies through the slit in the window from a cute brown basket she carried.
Ethan leaned closer.
The woman straightened her back, sighed as if tired and then punched the window almost casually. It shattered into a thousand pieces and she stuck the whole front of her body in for a moment, her legs swinging wildly out behind her, and then was back out again with her arms inside. Then she almost casually yanked out a little girl one at a time, her hands holding their arms and leaving them dangling as if they weighed as much as dolls. Then she turned, rushed toward the wall, and leaped upward into the air. Her feet easily clearing the wall and then was gone from sight.
“And that is why you came and found me,” said Ethan.
“That was totally not hilarious,” said Mickey.
“No human could have made that leap,” said Jen softly, her eyes wide, both of her hands were shaking though she tried to hide it.
“Spring-Heeled Jack maybe but we’re far from London.”
“In almost every direction there were people and buildings,” said Ronald and by then the camera showed Lorraine screaming at the wall and pointing and others coming toward on the screen. “They were both screaming like banshees when that thing grabbed them.”
“More girls,” said Ethan. “Is it just me or are there almost never any males that are victims around here?”
“Caught on to that, did you?” said Jen and Ethan looked over to see her looking at him with a bitter, strange expression. “There’s something out there in those woods that hates young and pretty women. Check old newspapers sometime and you’ll see the pattern pretty clearly.” She folded one long leg elegantly over the other. “It could be her.”
“Her who?” asked Ethan.
“When I was a little girl, my grandmother always used to tell me about a witch that lived deep in those woods. This witch would routinely come out every ten years or so to feed on children, especially twins like my little sisters.” She popped open a Coca-Cola can and took a deep drink. “Almost all of her victims were pretty little girls.”
Loraine looked on the verge of panic and Ethan saw a shadow cross Ronald’s face.
“You ever meet her?” asked Ethan. Jen’s eyes tilted to the left and she opened her mouth to say something but then promptly closed it. She pressed her lips together, looked him straight in the eyes and then shook her head.
“You have to find them,” said Loraine miserably. She took out her smartphone, fiddled with it for a moment and then showed Ethan a picture of two pretty, slender brunette girls smiling and waving wearing adorable matching dresses, one green, one red, with Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ear hats, no doubt picked up on a trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld.
“Do you have any idea what this creature is exactly?” asked Ronald.
“It could be a hag,” Ethan replied. “I read about them in my German monster encyclopedia. They almost always eat children—” Loraine took a deep intake of breath “—and they can apparently appear as people that you would trust like sweet old grandmotherly ladies and pretty women and things like that. They’re often confused with witches. That would be my guess on what we just saw based on what I know.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Loraine.
“I’m going to go out into those woods, I’m going to find this creature and then I’m going to try and kill it. If it’s not easy, I’ll amuse myself by continuing to try. With the killing of adults, I find I can sometimes let it go but the killing children—” he shrugged “—tends to bring out the psychotic in me.”
“Cool,” said Mickey.
Ronald’s lips curled into a wide smile that didn’t come close to touching his eyes. “I take that to mean that you are more likely to execute this creature than spare her life,” he said.
“I can tell from that video that going easy on this creature is probably not an option but it’s not like it matters. Mercy is not in my nature and monsters tend not to surrender. If I could capture it, which I’m really not too sure I could, I would only do it so in order to dump it out in front you two alive so you can get more closure by personally deciding its fate.”
Ronald nodded soberly with extremely hard eyes. “I like that,” he said softly.
“Then we’re all in an understanding,” William told him. “The bird and ten thousand dollars for my daughters alive. The bird and two thousand if you are unable to bring—them back.” Loraine shut her eyes and a single tear went down either side of her cheeks “—bring back the head of the hag if you can.”
“Deal,” he said. “Someone finish cleaning off my ten thousand dollars plus bird because I need to get moving.”
“He’s not worth ten thousand dollars!” snarled Bob the horse from the window, tears running down his face. “He’s not worth diddly squat!”
“You’d only know that if your math is better than your sprint,” said Mickey.
The horse’s lips quivered and Jen’s husband pulled him away. “Ignore him, Bobby.”
“Before I leave I want to know what your part is in all this, Ronald,” said Ethan.
Ronald reached into his pocket, took out a photograph and dropped it on the coffee table in front of him. It was a black and white picture from the 1950s, possibly the 60s, of two black twins: a handsome boy and a very pretty girl both smiling ecstatically. The girl was wearing a pretty, white dress and the boy a dark suit. Neither of them could have been older than five at the time and there was a much younger Ronald, who could not have been older than twenty-five. He wore a suit and stood behind them with a hand on their shoulders and a smile that lit up his entire face.
“That girl is my daughter Natalie. In 1957, a very similar incident occurred not far from my family home. My son escaped. My daughter did not. When my brother and brother-in-law went into the woods looking for answers they disappeared never to be seen again. If you can find proof this is the same creature that killed my daughter and brothers, and subsequently kill it yourself, I will give you an additional fifty thousand dollars but only with proof.” He swallowed. “Nothing short of that will allow me to sleep at night and die in peace.”
Ethan studied the picture for a moment and then asked, “How did your son describe this monster when he returned home?”
Ronald’s eyes became distant and sad. “He didn’t remember much. He said it looked just like my mother, a sweet elderly black woman, and then something else. A crone covered head to toe in burn scars.” He turned to Ethan. “In fifty years, he’s never been able to recall enough to give me a remotely clear picture save from something out a fairy tale.”
That made Ethan think again about that house he saw on Agatha’s tower and he asked, “Did he mention something about a gingerbread house?”
Ronald’s eyes narrowed. “No,” he said. “I did notice that he was terrified of fairy tale witches and especially Hansel and Gretel and when I say ‘terrified’ I mean very terrified. Why?”
“When I was up in the tower where I found Tori Randal I saw a gingerbread house for a moment in the distance. It appeared, almost hypnotized me, and then was gone.”
“Are you messing with us?” asked Peter. “That is the single stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That would be exactly why it works,” Ethan replied and he stood up. “I don’t expect any of you to believe me.”
“Well, we don’t,” said Peter.
“Do you think there is a chance they’re alive?” asked Loraine.
Ethan handed Mickey and the rag to Jen. “All I can say for sure is I’m going to follow that monster into those woods and I’ll almost certainly find her. I believe, but can’t say for sure, that your kids are alive.”
“Do you really, really believe that?” asked Loraine.
“Food is every day but once a decade strikes me more of ritual than simple eating. It may take days, even weeks, to complete it but then again, maybe it won’t. I can’t say for sure and it might go for or against us. At best, Lorraine any ideas I have are all vague possibilities.” He looked at the picture again closely, saw it was a modern computer copy, and put it in his pocket. “Natalie Merrick, right?”
“Why are you keeping that?” asked Peter.
“I may need to remind her of something,” he replied and that made Ronald smile genuinely. Ethan saw the comparison of modern to past smiles and found almost no trace of the charming young man that he had once been. “Clean off my hawk, please.”
Jen stood up as he turned to leave, Mickey resting on her wrist. “If you see Alfred, tell him to come home,” she said sadly. “Tell him we’re not mad at him and it is okay.”
“If I see him,” he replied but he honestly doubted he would. If Alfred was still alive it would be only because he caught onto how to avoid things that would easily get him murdered. Like a hag. “Loraine, where is this Barnes and Noble exactly?”
* * *
Ethan stepped out of his car into the parking lot alongside Barnes and Noble, which was connected to the mall and felt the black left and right-handed Beretta 90 semi-automatics strapped to his sides under his long jacket. He had been kept from owning firearms before by his family but after the Cave of Blue Light, it was clear that without a gun he would be at an incredible disadvantage. So afterward, he bought a small safe and hid them inside with their holsters, bullets and the four spare clips, which he kept at his sides in the magazine holsters. The rest was just his usual equipment.
Out in the parking lot, the broken glass was still there, its thousands of pieces spread out across the ground, and there was a little blood where one of the girls must have been cut somehow while being pulled out. Ethan followed the drops of it to the tall stone wall, climbed up easily and then crouched on top like a bird. He could see the series of orange and yellow-leaved trees onward through Walton Park, which was, despite its beauty, was somewhat of a badly maintained park. It looked almost abandoned in the early afternoon, which certainly would have served the hag well.
Ethan jumped off the wall and saw a more substantial spot of blood on a tree where the hag must have bonked one of the girls as she went running by. It didn’t look very bad because there was only a little blood there but it seemed pretty clear the hag wasn’t afraid of being followed and didn’t bother being very sneaky.
He followed her trail through Walton Park which went along Charlotte Rd and crossed a small creek that led him to a dirt road between some suburban houses made somewhere in the 1950s. Moving eastward through this easier and the houses much more run down and abandoned which came as no surprise considering they were pressed far too close to the west side of the Engelstad to be even remotely safe.
He found some more blood between two abandoned houses. On the left side, someone right, “Beware: Hell’s Woods” and on the right, someone had sprayed, “I’d turn back now if I were you,” and both were written in blood-red paint.
Ethan stepped through into the Engelstad without hesitation, the nightmare forest a series of almost angelically beautiful shades of reds, oranges and yellows. The trail was clearer in the woods, the hag becoming even less subtle than before, leaving a trail any amateur tracker could follow. Even if they couldn’t, Ethan kept finding ripped clothing here and there almost as if he was being led somewhere.
Afternoon came and went and soon the bright blue sky was filled with clouds as red-orange as the trees. When he looked up at it through the windy branches at them, they looked like magical islands where he could imagine people living on. He rested his hand on his sword’s pommel, smiled to himself, and thought, It’s so beautiful out here in these woods. It’s more beautiful than any place I’ve ever seen. He wondered if that meant something but that he had no answer for.
Night had fallen within a few hours and that was when Ethan stumbled on the house.
It was nestled amid the trees and seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was so suddenly on his left that he almost stepped right out in front of it which would have exposed him to anyone looking down the small candy path from one of the front windows.
She wanted me to find this place, was his single first thought. She’s watching me right now, was his second.
There was the gingerbread house at the end of a path of hard candy cobblestone with a lollypop fence on either side connected by black licorice-like rope with gingerbread boys and girls standing like sentries every five feet or so. It looked exactly as he remembered: gingerbread walls, gumdrop decorations, dark chocolate door framed in candy cane with clear rock candy windows framed in red licorice with a milk chocolate chimney. Closer, he could see ornamental decorations of frosting, skittles, M&Ms, Jolly Ranchers and Mike & Ikes, which were his personal favorite. From where he was standing, he could also see a small sign made of red Jolly Rancher material on a curve-less candy cane with white sugary letters stating, “Lollypop Lane.”
The sight of the house bought back that hypnotic fogginess but he resisted and then killed it quickly. It was not remotely as hard when he was ready for it but a child would have never known and easily been overwhelmed by it.
He quickly but quietly moved through the trees toward the house, still strongly feeling like someone was watching him, but then he saw something move across the side window of the house. He moved closer quietly, hiding among the trees, and looked closely through the pane of transparent rock candy.
The outline of the monstrous hag from a fairy tale was a black silhouette. Her nose long and crooked like a bent index finger, her nails like nasty sharp claws and her back, though straight, was so bony as if she was a victim of extreme starvation. She suddenly cackled loudly, an eerie and unnatural sound that crawled up Ethan’s spine like ants.
Then she dropped straight down out of sight.
Ethan pulled out his gun, walked a few steps toward the building, and then spun around with the gun pointed straight behind him. All he saw was darkness, nothing there apparently, but he was almost absolutely certain something had just been moving up behind him.
He raised his eyes up and saw the orange leafed trees sway in a gentle wind before a starlit sky. Something could be hiding up there, no doubt, but he saw nothing. Although the hag was evidently inside, it did nothing to comfort him. Nothing could be certain: anything and everything was possible in those woods.
It was also possible there was more than one.
He listened to the forest, heard nothing he could discern from the usual night sounds, and then turned back to the house. He cast Sense Magic and saw that the house only came off as barely magical which was something he thought rather unlikely and assumed it was enchanted in some way to hide its true level of magic. It was also real candy or real enough to fool his senses because when he got close, its scent became sickeningly sweet and overwhelming.
He knocked on the door with his left hand and pieces of chocolate flew off the door with impact. From within, he immediately heard the sound of footsteps slide up and a high-pitched woman’s voice pierced out from behind.
“Oh, whoever could it be at such a late hour and whatever could this person ever want from me? What wonder and intrigue could draw me out on such a grand adventurer.” It sounded ghastly and creepy, like the voice of a serial killer hiding in a closet holding a meat cleaver while giggling at someone who went about their daily routine unawares. There was an accent too, one that struck him as maybe Germanic or Russian or something Slavic but he couldn’t tell for sure. After it spoke, it laughed for a minute with that evil cackle and then added, “What draws you out here in the dark of night, my sweet and tender boy?”
Ethan gave his voice an English accent and said, “‘Well, to be perfectly honest, madam, I'm taking part in and international students’ contest to see who can get the most points for selling magazines.’”
He jerked around, his gun flying toward the darkness but saw nothing again. There was something behind him, he would have bet his life on it. That something had been creeping up toward his back but it wasn’t there anymore and the hag was still quite clearly on the other side of the door.
Ethan elbowed the door a few times behind him and heard cackling laughter as the hag disappeared into the house and no other answer. He kept his eyes locked on the path of gingerbread children and candy cobblestone, saw nothing else, and then grabbed the rock candy doorknob and found it locked. He laughed, shook his head, and then shouldered the door powerfully.
It burst open in a shower of chocolate and wood to reveal the inside of a very natural looking cottage. The was a lit stone fireplace straight ahead in the dining room, to his left was the window he had seen the hag in, and to the right were shelves of books. He could see the dining table in the room with the fireplace with a single chair. Against the entryway’s right wall not far from the shelves was one staircase that led upward and a door that he guessed would lead down into the cellar.
Where the oven would be.
Ethan slammed the door shut hard enough to break it into place and quickly checked the bottom floor. He didn’t mess with anything, nothing really interested him, but he did notice the large books on the shelves seemed to have been written in German. The bottom floor just a dining room and an entryway.
Her accent could have easily been Germanic but he had no idea if that meant anything at all.
He checked the front door, saw it was still shut in the same way, and he quickly moved up the stairs. The top floor was just a small loft made into a quaint bedroom with a small window, a tapestry of white knights with black crosses on their surcoats battling random Arab looking types, a twin-sized bed covered in green sheets and nothing else at all. There was a closet, which he checked with his gun pointed, but it was empty of anything but black robes and a broom.
Somehow, he had known whatever was waiting for him was waiting for him in the cellar.
Ethan approached the door and saw an old deadbolt on the outside. “Surprise, surprise,” he said as he took out his dagger, popped off the deadbolt off from the wood and pulled open the door widely. It led down an oddly long staircase to a fire lit stone room below. “Surprise, surprise again.” He moved his hand and shoulder against the door and then, with one violent shove, broke the door open by pushing violently against its hinges against the vertex of the stone wall.
The inside above or below still didn’t appear magical at all but Ethan didn’t believe it down there any more than he did outside. There wasn’t much he could do about it either unless he planned to leave, so he slipped his dagger into his sheath, readied his right gun in both hands and started down the stairs.
Hags and witches were often intermixed in fables but in reality, they were very different. Witches are almost always some kind of spell caster, mostly human and the hag was neither. She might be some kind of enchantress or alchemist or possibly an illusionist but not through any spell casting. They were a monster of some sort, like a troll or goblin, and no book he had read described them as “easy” to kill.
He walked down the stairs and emerged into the cellar.
The bottom was a simple round bakery with a giant stone oven at the left, a wall full of typical but old medieval cooking tools, a huge table covered in blades and a large metal cage, not unlike a bird’s, hanging from the ceiling close to a corner. There he saw the girls and they weren’t dead yet.
One was lying face-first on a table not far from the stove, her fingers covered in blood while her arms, face and hair were covered in flour, chocolate and other random ingredients. Every inch of the table was covered in pastries, most of which were pies and all of them extremely, almost disgustingly sweet looking.
The other one was in the cage and she had somehow gained at least three hundred pounds or more in the small amount of time she was gone. She was so overweight her arms weren’t even capable of bending up enough to reach her face to take off her gag.
The hag was sitting beside the girl at the table: gone one moment, there the other and she was monstrous beyond words.
She was like her namesake in all stereotypical ways with a long, crooked nose, black, rotting teeth and an angular, pointed jaw and face. The teeth were almost all broken, almost to her gums, and so was her nose, bent t the right, and many other important bones on her face deformed it further. In addition to that, her skin was almost one hundred percent scar tissue, every inch of seeable flesh having been burned down the bone to regrow badly, leaving no hair anywhere on her entire head. He could see nothing else because she wore a long old woman’s black dress.
Ethan suddenly knew exactly who it was.
Hansel and Gretel was a German fairy tale. The creature of the tale was a witch, often confused with a hag, which was known to lure children to their death using a candy house for a lure. In the end, the hag was burned alive when one of the children shoved her into the oven but contrary to the tale, it seemed that she simply just didn’t die from it. Many people believed hags did not age and they were apparently right.
“So did it hurt getting shoved into that oven?” he asked.
Her left hand, ending in long, black claw-like nails tapped the table gently. The nails seemed almost natural the way the extended from her fingertips but they were also jet-black and came down into dagger-like points.
Her right hand very gently rested on the sleeping girl’s back.
“Natalie Merrick,” he said and her face showed mild surprise and amusement. “Oh, you even remember her?”
Her lips curled up in a sneering smile. “I remember how she tasted,” she replied simply and in an oddly normal woman’s voice. Ethan moved a little closer and the claws of her hand pressed against the girl’s back gently. “I wouldn’t do that,” she said.
Ethan thought he heard something upstairs but he didn’t dare leave the hag alone in the room or turn his back to her. “Do you even remember who you were?” he asked in an effort to stall her.
The hag’s face turned into a hate-filled sneer that was terrifying to look upon, her eyes darkly narrowed and then she started talking. She began with, “Once upon a time there was a baker’s daughter who lived in a small village in what you call Germany. Oh what a pretty young girl she was—” she felt the sleeping twin’s hair almost tenderly “—and so much so that she caught the eye of the son of a local lord, a freiherr. He finds her one day while she is innocently picking flowers in the light of a warm summer day.” Her face turned dark. “He begins his rape of her right there within sight and sound of her own village and her ‘loved’ ones. She screams for her life and begs for them to save her but they do not. They watch and they do nothing, her screams and cries filling the flowered fields all around her.
“After some time her screams worry this lord’s son for he is a knave and a coward and weak and even his father is tired of him. How easily they could restrain or even harm him with little or no repercussions from the great lord. He might even have thanked them for ending the embarrassment the boy had caused him but, of course, they do not. The frightened lord’s son fears the townspeople, in a just world, he should have, and in his fear of their possible interference, he beats the girl’s face violently with a metal gauntleted fist, destroying her beauty even as he destroys her innocence, in a successful effort to silence her.
“When he is done he tosses her away and so does the village. The father, no longer proud of his daughter, tosses her out into the world to die penniless, ugly and alone and the town soon goes about the rather easy task of forgetting the incident. Is it then any surprise this once pretty girl, now wholly used and deformed, takes such great vengeance on the lord and the village? Gold and blood can sometimes fill the hole that happiness and love have left—”
Ethan threw his elbow back, hit something, and the hag’s illusion by the girl vanished.
He spun around and four of the hag’s left claws went across the bottom of his right forearm as he raised his gun. It knocked the gun from his hand and four of her other hands’ claws went violently across his vest and made contact with his chest.
He head-butted her in the face, reached for his sword but before his hand made contact four of her claws stabbed into his right arm like four little daggers. He pulled the blade out with his left hand instead and sliced her across the left shoulder as it came free, and then sliced her again across the chest.
She fell down against the stairs with a shriek, the huge gashes in her body spilling out blackish-red blood out like two broken sprinklers, and she grimaced. She licked her lips, looked into his eyes, and stood up.
Before Ethan was a young and beautiful blond-haired blue-eyed woman with a perfect, almost angelic face and gold hair hanging down in thick curly locks around the side of her head and down her back. Her dress was a dark emerald green sleeveless and shoulder-less thing that was low on her bodice, clung to every perfect curve she had and was legless to reveal long, sculpted perfect limbs sticking out of the skirt that reached down to her booted ankles. There were still cuts but they were less severe and they gave a kind of sexy-battle scar look to the woman’s body.
“You broke her spell,” she told him in a sultry voice. “How can I ever repay you?”
“You can die,” Ethan replied and he would have stabbed right in the chest if his arm worked. It didn’t and when he opened his mouth a second after, black bile poured out of his mouth.
She smiled in an evil, sexy way and said, “I may have failed to mention that I am poisonous.” Ethan’s vision blurred and his right arm was starting to go numb. “You are so very beautiful,” she whispered and she looked over him admiringly. “It has been so long since a grown man has walked into my home.”
He found himself aroused by her but it was obviously unnatural because choking to death on poison was hardly a turn-on. His sword was slipping from his hand and she was moving up toward him in a way that made his arousal almost physically hurt.
Ethan slammed his head back into her face and the illusion and arousal shattered like glass. She stumbled down into the stairs, in her hag form once again and let out a long, loud scream of surprise. Ethan stepped forward, forced his arm to work and stabbed her in the stomach as hard as he could. He had no off-hand because he was ambidextrous and the bladed went through one side and out the other. The hag looked down at the sword, smiled and looked up at him.
“What are you smiling at?”
“No man under my poison has ever had the power to resist me,” she said. She grabbed the blade with her right hand, gripped it tightly, and started pulling it out. “It’s just so rare for me to find a surprise at my age and especially so when flesh is involved.” She cackled and pulled the blade free while simultaneously pushing Ethan back. Ethan found himself suddenly barely able to stand. “It doesn’t matter much now since you’re dead already but it is something, I suppose.”
“Am I?” asked Ethan. He put his sword in his other hand, which could barely hold it, reached into his knapsack, pulled out his yellow-colored Cure potion, which was designed to cure all diseases and poisons. He quickly opened it up and drank it down. His face immediately turned crimson, felt his head spin and then he fell back first onto the stone floor like a rock.
“Dear pretty boy,” said the hag as she stood up. “I am the child of Baba Yaga, a daughter of the Graeae, and I’ve been doing this for many long centuries. Do you truly think to outwit me in potions or poison?”
Ethan felt the poison pouring out of him from the wounds that put them in so it worked but when she stood over him calmly, he knew exactly what was going to happen. She was simply going to poison him again as soon as he was healed.
He raised his left hand and fired his Lightning Bolt spell directly into her chest. She shrieked, stumbled backward for several feet, and then shrieked again. He reached across his stomach, grabbed his left gun, pointed it at her and saw her face turn into a hate-filled, but fearless, sneer. He fired and her left shoulder burst open in a gush of blood. She spun around and he fired into her three more times hitting her in the lower back, the leg, and the ankle, but she continued to move without slowing down even slightly.
“Ah fuck me!” he cried as the last of the poison left his body. He holstered his gun, drank a red Heal potion, and scrambled to his feet. His wounds healed, his sickness was gone, and he quickly sheathed his sword and grabbed the right-handed gun from the ground. “This is turning out to be more fun than I thought,” he said as he took a blue Remove Spell potion.
He reached into the cage, pulled down the girl’s gag and she instantly let out a loud, long shriek of misery. “Look what she did to meeeee!” she whimpered.
“I suppose there is just too much emphasis on looks these days,” Ethan said as he popped off the top of the vial and poured it down her throat. He then took out his dagger, stuck it through the cage bars between the door and the rest of the cage and broke it open. It was an extremely old cage and it easily broke under his strength. “I really hope that potion works,” he said. He had never been able to fully test it because he had never been fully enchanted.
“I feel kind of—” the girl let out a sudden loud, ear-piercing shriek that Ethan felt could have filled the entire Bartlett Mansion. Parts of her body seemed to slice open revealing orange insides, his magic, and from them poured the magical fat-like material that been put into her body. It looked like oozing green colored slime flowing out like from a cut in a water balloon. It happened very quickly, her body throbbing then pouring then shrinking and then repeating itself for about fifteen seconds until it was at the very end when there was a burst of bright orange light and she was a skinny little girl again only covered in green slime.
Ethan looked over at the girl at the table who had awakened sometime during all of what was happening but still looked extremely tired. “Are you okay?”
“No more work! Please don’t make me work—” she looked over at the girl “Britney! You’re—” the girl in the cage vomited out green slime “—ill, gross!”
“Shut up, Sarah!” she said and she pushed open the door, used Ethan for a ladder, and climbed down.
Something distinct and familiar was heard from upstairs. “What was that?” asked Sarah.
“That would be a sword being unsheathed or brushing metal,” said Ethan and then he saw a pair of black boots at the stairs. They were heavy, thick and connected to chainmail-covered legs. “Get behind me,” he said.
The figure stepped out into the open and though Ethan did not hesitate for a second in firing into him, he was fully aware of how baffled he was with what he saw.
It was some kind of knight armored in chainmail with those boots, metal gauntlets, and a simple surcoat of white with a giant black cross. He was belted at the waist where the surcoat then split and spread downward like a jacket to its ankles. The cape was the same white with the same black cross and the steel helm was right out of the crusades with two slits for eyes, holes on the front to breathe in, and horns making almost a perfect “U” shape extending out from the sides. It carried only a one-handed sword in his right hand.
Past those slits for eyes, Ethan could see an unnatural burning white light and knew it wasn’t human.
Ethan had fired when he saw its legs, had shot it half a dozen times in the lower body before it half appeared and by the time he had fully appeared, he had unloaded the remainder of the magazine into it but he did stop or even slow down. Ethan holstered his gun, pulled out his sword and looked back over to see the two girls were clutching each other in terror in a corner.
He readied the blade in his right hand and met the knight as it came.
Ethan parried the first swing, nearly getting disarmed, and got sliced across the left upper arm with a deep but not very serious slash. Ethan then quickly put his sword in two hands, clashing blades with the knight carefully, and found him an incredibly difficult opponent. The knight wasn’t an amazing swordsman but what it lacked in skill, its armor made up for. Ethan had sliced and slashed across it at least half a dozen times without getting through the armor.
The knight made for a wide kill swing and Ethan knocked its blade away hard, almost knocking it out of its hand, and then shouldered it over onto the ground and then stabbed him in the chest. It cut right through the chainmail, right into his body and right into all the major organs that should have been there but weren’t judging by the reaction.
A leg came up, kicked Ethan in the chest, and sent him stumbling backward into the large hanging cage. The knight sat up, seemingly unharmed, the white light of its eyes burned so brightly it seemed to almost hurt Ethan’s eyes and then started to stand. Ethan’s sword had no blood on it so whatever he hit only seemed alive. “Stay behind me girls but not too close,” said Ethan.
As the knight stood up completely Ethan rushed over, shouldered it just before it was ready and knocked it across the room away from the stairs and onto his back again.
“Up but not too far!” cried Ethan and the girls instinctively obeyed moving to the stairs and staying a few steps ahead of him. Ethan backed up the stairs holding out his left hand above them toward the entryway above with his right hand holding the sword out down toward the basement. The three of them moved steadily up with each step moving at the same time. “Scream if the hag appears,” he told them, the palm of his left hand crackling with a readied Lightning Bolt spell just in case she did.
The knight stepped up onto the first few stairs and Ethan let him, continuing up steadily while watching. Soon he was halfway up and the knight was gaining on him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t supernatural strong for if it had been, it would have been sprinting in that heavy armor.
Ethan fired a lightning bolt into his chest as a test and he didn’t even blink. He turned his hand back up behind him and readied another spell. The knight readied his sword as it came closer.
When they neared the top and Ethan turned his spell to Ice Shard and shot the knight in the head. It made a loud clang sound when it slammed into the knight’s helm and it lost its balance for a second. Ethan knocked his sword aside, shouldered him over and ducked the hand that tried to grab him as the knight went rolling off its feet down the stairs.
He turned and instantaneously fired a lightning bolt above the girls head. He had no real indication the hag would be there but he thought she might have been casually watching him from there, invisible like before and ready to snatch the children when they got too close. It turned out he was right.
The hag screamed and appeared as the lightning bolt hit her in the shoulder and before she could do anything Ethan rushed up past the girls and stabbed her in the chest. Ethan twisted the blade as hard as he could and the hag screamed, her voice echoing to every inch of the house and out of the then open doorway. He twisted it again and the hag screamed differently, letting out then a mournful, pain-filled cry of horrid agony.
While perfectly visible Ethan could see that none of the wounds he had previously given her were there despite the pain he had previously caused her. She had either healed herself with some spell or used some kind of potion just as he had.
The two girls rushed out of the reopened doorway into the night. “Shit! Not too far!” Ethan ripped the blade out and saw the wound he made quickly shut and scab over with his own eyes. The hag tried to speak but blood poured out of her mouth. From behind, Ethan heard the knight scrambling up the stairs, and the hag smiled. “Don’t come after us!” he snarled. “You’ll regret it!” He took his sword in both hands, swung it across her throat and nearly cut her head off. Then he turned to face the knight.
The knight leaped at him like a mad person and while Ethan jumped mostly out of his way, the knight managed to catch his leg and send him flying down onto the ground. Ethan pulled his foot free and kicked him in the face, slamming his head against his helm then scrambled up to his feet while the knight did the same.
Ethan stumbled out of the door and parried the blade of the knight as it came flying down at him. The knight was enraged and the hit was strong enough to send Ethan backward several feet, and then when it looked like he was off balance the knight swung wild. Ethan ducked the swing, stabbed the knight in the leg, and then parried another hit that came down like a chop. The knight punched him in the face with his left gauntleted fist, nearly breaking his jaw, and then him stumbling backward into a gingerbread boy. It fell over with him, hit the ground, and the head burst off.
The knight slammed his foot down but Ethan rolled out of the way just in time and stabbed him in the knee. The knight crumpled over, not from pain but from the science of not being able to stand with a shattered kneecap. He reached for him with his left hand and Ethan scrambled back and was then clambering to his feet.
For an instant he was utterly stunned to see the inside of the gingerbread boy was the corpse of a child, its head a skull with some kind of brown candy material keeping it together like the flesh and ligaments once had.
He had no more time to look and he rushed over to the girls who followed him as he disappeared into the woods.
The knight could not give chase, he apparently didn’t heal like the hag did, and soon Ethan and the two girls had disappeared into the dark of the woods leaving the candy house behind.
In the distance, they heard the rage-filled cry of the hag fill the night.
* * *
Hours passed uneventfully. Ethan had tied his jacket around Britney who had been completely naked and carried Sarah almost the entire time.
Sarah was beyond exhausted. Britney explained that the hag did something to her to make her a slave and she had to cook and clean and anything else she wanted and had done it nonstop until she finally passed out on the table. It had gone on so aggressively that her hands had even bled. Ethan gave her a blue remove spell potion and, after vomiting out green slime for a few minutes, she seemed perfectly fine other than her tiredness.
They found themselves walking beside a cliff overlooking at least a two hundred foot drop into darkness when Britney couldn’t seem to go on anymore so he stopped, woke up Sarah, and put her down. “Are they gone?” asked Sarah, rubbing her eyes.
“No,” he said earnestly. “Watch your feet. Britney had to borrow your shoes.”
“Okay,” she said and she smiled trustingly up at him. Ethan found himself in awe of her childlike innocence. She believed in him so fully that she was not afraid simply because he was around.
“Mr. Ethan,” said Britney sadly. “My feet are hurting. Mr. Ethan—”
He jerked without thought in front of the two girls and the hag hit rammed right into his center as she went flying in from the sky right at them. She stuck all five of her left hand’s claws into his stomach and all five of her right hand into his shoulder while shrieking at the top of her lungs. The impact of her flying into him lifted him off the ground for a second but he was too heavy and, almost instantly, they came back down. She still pushed him steadily backward with some unnatural force however with the toes of her feet just touching the tips of the grass.
“My patience is over!” she hissed as she twisted her nails violently. Ethan’s back hit a tree and he, almost casually, pressed his Beretta 90 against her temple, which did not remember pulling it out. She looked at the barrel of the gun and then at him utterly unafraid.
“Natalie—” he pressed the gun right against her head “—Merrick.” He pulled the trigger and the right half of her head exploded sending her brains and blood out all over a tree. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, her body fell to the ground and convulsed and her tongue stuck out of her head in a rather unpleasant, unnatural expression.
Then her eyes focused and everything in her head seemed to snap back into place like a cheesy movie effect. “You know nothing, Mr. Ethan!” she hissed.
She twisted her fingers and he screamed, cast a lightning bolt into her head and saw her left eye pop from the damage before healing. He started to fire the gun into her head repeatedly but it was like a movie that was being played, rewound and then replayed. He watched her head explode, then suck everything back in, and explode again until he was out of bullets.
Sickness was overriding the pain and she was smiling victoriously at him. “I’m going to kill those two little girls, Mr. Ethan,” the hag told him. “I’m going to eat them piece by piece and make them watch!” She twisted her claws. “Have you not something confident to say, now? I cannot quite hear you.” Ethan whacked her with his gun. “Oh no, nooo, that is my great weakness.” She smiled widely but only until she saw him toss his guns and dagger away “What are—”
Ethan wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed and as her throat shut, her eyes opened. “Hear this, bitch,” he said and he smiled with teeth covered in a thin layer of black from her poison. “I’m not going to let go.” Her eyes filled with fear because, while her body was no doubt healing the damage her neck was taking, the inability to get air was not in of itself “damage.”
Her face distorted in rising panic and she twisted her claws but he no longer felt them. They might even have been mortal but he simply couldn’t tell with the sickness was taking over and blocking out everything. When she tried to scream nothing came out. He could feel the neck healing in his hands when he broke some part of it but that didn’t make air magically come in.
The hag pulled out her claws and grabbed at him for something to use but he had tossed away all that he had completely out of reach.
“Choking doesn’t damage you, does it, Ms. Hamilton,” he said. He laughed and then she reached for his face but he stretched his arms out and hers weren’t long enough to reach anything higher than the very bottom of his neck. She started to truly panic then and began to claw at his chest ineffectively.
Ethan felt incredibly sick but he didn’t dare stop. The poison wasn’t as deadly, possibly a lingering effect of having drunk a Cure potion recently, and all it seemed to do was make him nauseous. That allowed him to continue throttling her and even as her movements soon became limp and weak, he still did not stop.
“All I ever wanted was Henry Percy,” said a soft voice.
Ethan looked around the darkness, still not stopping his squeezing for an instant, recognizing the voice like his own. “Anne Boleyn,” he said sadly and then he caught sight of the skirts of her French fashioned dress and followed it up to her slender waist and soft pale hands and then perfect small breasts. “I’m sorry Anne.” He saw her neck, the head then cleanly missing, and felt tears slip down his face. The hag’s eyes rolled to the back of her head, her clawed fingers wrapped around his wrists. “I’m sorry you never got what you really wanted. Not your true love or your child.” Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy had very rarely mentioned each other after their marriage was dissolved but he believed all the same that Henry Percy was the man who truly held her heart. “I always thought you would outlive us all.”
He looked past her to a table, something he should have seen only in nightmares, and he groaned. There were the heads of the men who were accused and executed with her. There was his old friend Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, the commoner Mark Smeaton and Anne’s own brother, George Boleyn. They were on the table and they were all looking at him, not accusingly, but not innocently either.
Ethan screamed in rage. All of them were innocent, all murdered by the king, to make room for Jane Seymour for the precious son so many would die for and himself would die at fifteen. Oh sure, everyone blamed everything on Cromwell but Ethan knew the truth. He knew the king, knew his mind, and he knew more than that the lengths Cromwell would go to give the king exactly what he wanted which should have, in a saner world, made Cromwell untouchable. He really should have known better.
Henry was a man who would murder all that is wonderful in his life for even a small degree of relief or joy and something like that would turn on anyone.
“I don’t like what I’m—” he looked down “—why the fuck aren’t you dead yet! She just was not dying and his hands were starting to hurt even through his sickness. He continued to strangle her and as he did, more dead people began to appear all around him.
The gates of the Tower of London appeared out of the darkness, the place for traitors’ heads, and there he saw on pikes the heads of Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Culpeper. Three different Thomases of three very different natures, all close friends of the kings, all killed for very different reasons for very flimsy excuses, and all under the same pretext known as “treason.” It said so much about the king and the wide range of his cruelty and depths of his madness. No one was safe from Henry VIII: no one.
“Die, die, die, die, die, die, DIEEEE!” Ethan screamed.
He lowered his head for a minute and felt someone else appear, someone from another time. He looked over his shoulder and saw Mary Surratt, her neck covered in the brutal red ring from her hanging, looking at him mournfully. Beside her was Abraham Lincoln: insanely tall, stately and old but with blood around his neck and shoulders from where he was shot.
“Victims,” Ethan said miserably. “Look how many the world has made and with no real payoff to compensate for their loss.” He bent down, almost crying for real, his forehead pressed against the hag’s and felt dead inside. It was a dream: it had to be a dream because Walter Kent and Thomas Bartlett were both dead and Ethan knew none of those people.
Or perhaps he was just hallucinating because he was on the verge of joining them.
“Death, death, death: everyone dying so some weak old codgers can pretend they’re strong.” Ethan saw a large rock, dragged the hag over to it, and said, “Everything is different—” he slammed her head against the rock hard enough to crack her skull “—everything is the same!” He did it again and then again and then he dragged the hag to a nearby tree and shoved her face into it. He was no longer really sure she was alive or dead but he decided not to take any chances. He bashed her head continuously for several minutes, which was considerably easier than throttling her and when he stopped, she had finally stopped moving herself but he was still not done.
He dragged her to the cliff, which was not far at all, pulled out his sword and held it up to the sliver of a crescent moon amidst the starlight sky. “Forgive me, Anne!” he cried out to a woman dead five hundred years past and then brought the sword down on the hag’s neck. A huge burst of black blood shot out into the air and the hag’s body fell forward off the cliff and down into the darkness while he held onto the head by her ugly crooked nose. “Forgive me but all the righteous truth of all the great philosophers and geniuses assembled and unified will never keep back a fool’s lie.” He swallowed. “Henry would not listen but he would suffer for it for all the good it did you.” He slumped down a bit and said, “Stultus est qui cogitat et ipse est prudens.”
Suddenly two things shot up from below and Ethan had just enough time to see they were some kind of fleshy muscular vein looking things. An instant after that comprehension, the head was suddenly yanked from his hands down to the darkness below.
“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” He laughed miserably. “Oh fuck me!”
Ethan took out his Cure potion, drank it, and felt the poison and hallucinations vanish to be replaced by an amazing amount of pain. Ethan drank a Heal potion, felt all his wounds heal, and then he sheathed his sword, picked up his guns and dagger and walked back to where the girls were.
They were both looking at him as if he had gone insane. “Are you okay, Mr. Ethan?” asked Britney.
“Claws made me have a nightmare,” he told them weakly. He dropped out both guns’ magazines, tossed them in his knapsack, put in full clips and pulled back the chambers. “I’m sorry if I scared you.” Both of them suddenly snuggled up into him sympathetically. “It’s okay, girls,” he said uncomfortably. “Everything is okay.”
“Who was Anne?” asked Britney. “You sounded so sad when you called out her name.”
Ethan could not remember exactly what he had been feeling or why as whatever it had been fading like a dream. In his mind, however he did have a strange image of a woman kneeling on a platform somewhere but he did not want to think about it because it made him incredibly sad. “It’s time to go home, girls.”
* * *
The sun had not come out yet but it was bright enough to turn the world was a misty deep blue color by the time Ethan parked his Corvette at the Everson Farm.
Loraine let out a loud cry of happiness when she saw her children and they embraced each other and began crying together. William, Ronald and Jen’s husband approached him.
“Good God, are you alright?” asked William.
Ethan had not seen his reflection but he guessed he looked pretty damn bad. He certainly felt that way and he was grateful it was so early in the morning that almost no one else was on the road to get hit by his bad driving. “I found your monster Ronald,” he told him. “I really, really hurt her but she doesn’t die easy. She remembered Natalie.”
“How close did you get to killing her?” he asked as he looked him over.
“I cut off her head and tossed her body off a cliff. I was going to bring it back to you but then two strands of flesh shot up, caught the head by the neck and pulled it back down. It seems she can heal anything and everything.” He looked at him and shook his head. “I know how ridiculous this sounds but I’m not making this up.”
William was clearly disturbed and had no idea what to feel but Ronald seemed incredibly calm. He nodded slowly and soberly, said nothing with a face tense but with something Ethan didn’t recognize was added. Perhaps it was relief. Perhaps he had been waiting for a moment like that with something substantial for over fifty years.
“William,” said Ethan, “She’s not dead. I got your kids out, I fucked her up, but I don’t know what is going to happen after this. She may come for you or she may not. I really don’t know.”
“What will you do if you see her again?”
“Incineration, I think,” Ethan replied. “Maybe fire is the only thing that can hurt her because she is covered in burn scars. Maybe.” He shrugged, wishing deeply he had a fire spell to know for sure. “I just don’t know.” He spun around as Jen walked up from behind him in the direction of the fields. “Jen!” he cried. “It was quite a night, wasn’t it?”
“I can’t believe you managed this,” she said happily. “I am so happy they’re okay.”
“Guns are fucking useless against hags,” he told her with a nod and he pulled one out to show her. “Hey Jen, I need you to do me a little favor?”
“Sure,” she said with a tired but happy smile.
“I need you to turn around so I can shoot in the back of the head.” There was a startled silence everywhere, William, Jen’s husband, the two kids, Loraine and Ronald all staring at him with wide surprised eyes.
“Excuse me?” she asked in a horrified voice. She looked at the stunned others staring at her and then at him. “Excuse me?” she cried.
“It’s like five in the morning, you’re not dressed for jogging, the front doors are in front of me, and everyone but you walked out of them. You, oddly, are trying to sneak right up behind me when there is literally no reason for you to be out there on the farm.” Ethan raised the gun.
Her hand shot out and Ethan blocked with his left forearm. Four of her claws sliced him across his arm, cutting violently deep. She swung with her other arm around toward his neck and Ethan knocked her arm up to avoid fatality but the claws still cut him across the face and splashed his blood across William’s face and chest who himself could only stare in dumbstruck horror.
Both girls and their mother clung together and screamed out in unified terror.
Ronald snatched Ethan’s other gun from his holster and fired like a madman into her. The hag’s illusion vanished as she stumbled back, each bullet blowing through her body, and when Ronald had fired the gun empty, she leaned over with her hands on her knees. She breathed heavily for a moment but was otherwise perfectly healed. Despite all her powers, she still seemed deeply affected by last night’s encounter in some significant but unknown way.
“You killed my daughter, you bitch!” cried Ronald.
“I killed your brother too when he came looking for me, Ronald.” She smiled, her remaining teeth covered in her blood. “So just what exactly are you going to do about it?” Her head suddenly jerked back as a bullet went through the center of it. She stumbled back and Ethan fired into both her knees. She fell down onto her knees before and then he put the gun into his left hand and grabbed his blade.
“End of the line, fräulein—”
She healed, hissed and shot up into the air like a rocket in less time than it took for him to pull the sword out. She shot upward for a hundred feet or so, into the sunless light blue sky and then shot off into the direction of the Engelstad like a jet.
Ronald snatched the gun from Ethan’s other hand and fired it empty at her as she flew away. “I’ll kill you!” he screamed. “You hear me! I’ll KILL you!”
Ethan pulled out another one of his Heal potions and drank it and another Cure potion. Then he picked up the dropped gun, took the other from Ronald and then dropped the empty clips into his hand. He then dumped them into the knapsack, put in two fresh clips, and pulled back the chambers. “I’m lucky I carry so many of these damn potions,” said Ethan and he turned to Ronald. “You really know your way around a firearm, don’t you?”
“We Merricks are all hunters and fighters even when we’re not and just how are you so damn calm?” Ronald himself was very upset but far from out of control.
“Oh I’m not calm,” he replied calmly and he started walking toward the house.
“Jen!” cried Jen’s husband and he quickly rushed past Ethan into the house.
Ethan followed him inside and found Jen was crouched in a corner, her knees pressed up against her, crying. There was some blood on her head where she went into a wall or something.
“She was here!” Jen whimpered. “She’s real!” She hardened herself internally and looked at him. “Did you get her?”
“I don’t think I can,” he replied honestly and paused a moment. “So do you have the basic familiar enchantment book?”
“Yes,” she said in a hollow voice. “Yes, I do.” She blinked and swallowed a lump down her throat. “It comes with the three spells; one that allows you to speak to the familiar over distances, one to see out of his eyes and one to cast a spell through him plus the basic enchantment so that you can make a device he can wear that makes all those spells work very quickly and easily.” She blinked hard, tears slipping down her cheeks and was helped up by her husband. “What happened?”
“The hag followed Ethan and the children back to this house,” said Ronald and he sat down on a chair and looked like he wanted to die. “My boy—my boy had to face that thing at five years old. How in God’s name did he get away from that?”
“That is a very good question,” Ethan said softly. How could a five-year-old do what he just did barely and his two grown uncles failed to do?
“She hasn’t changed since she—she—” Jen bit her lip.
“Took your sisters?” She nodded. “I’m eighty percent sure she’s centuries-old, possibly over a thousand. She even had some kind of undead knight with her.” Mickey landed on his shoulder. “What’s up, Mickey?”
“Why is everyone looking so goddamn freaked out, why were there gunshots and why do you look like shit?”
“Well, Mickey, we just saw a monster, we shot it full of bullets, and I look this way because I got my ass kicked up and down the Engelstad which I hope makes chicks think I’m awesome.”
“Excellent! Did you kill the monster?”
“William!” cried Loraine as she came in clutching onto her children as if they would drown if she let go, her eyes wide with worry. “We need to get going! Now!”
“Can I have my jacket back please?” asked Ethan. Loraine took off her own jacket, untied his, and wrapped hers around her daughter. Ethan held it in his hand because somewhere the girl had panicked and wet herself somewhere while wearing it and he had no intention of putting it back on. He sighed and looked at his bird. “So how was your night?”
Ethan laughed and turned to the others who were staring at him in shock. “I’m going to come by for the book and the reward from you later, William. For now, I’m going to go home and get some sleep. As for you Mickey I’ll take your feathery ass to a store when they open and get some things to play with or sit on or whatever afterward. He can eat anything, right?”
“Awesome,” said Mickey happily.
“You can feed him normal food but you should still feed him normal bird food,” Jen told him.
“I’ll come by your house later this afternoon with your payment,” said William and he shook his head in shock. “Thank you.”
“Sure,” said Ethan with a weak smile. “No problem.” He handed her his last Cure potion. “You’re probably going to need this.”
Jen drank the potion and gasped as black ooze dropped out of the shoulder where the witched grabbed her. Then she suddenly wrapped her arms around Ethan and kissed him deeply on the cheek. “You did good,” she told him earnestly and she smiled. “You take good care of my annoying little friend, alright?”
“I’ll do my very best,” said Mickey happily.