I went from being an outcast in Salem, to living in Xest, a world that exists solely on magic. I have a good job brokering hopes and wishes, a hot boss, and a cool place to live. My life is a witch’s dream.
Except there are a couple of teensy little problems. I might’ve accidentally gotten infused with some magic that didn’t belong to me. The hot boss? I might be falling in love with him, to my detriment. If that isn’t enough, heaven and hell have finally caught up to me, demanding I return the extra magic or else. Too bad I don’t know how to do that.
14 Years Ago
The needle had pierced the skin on the back of my neck so many times that it felt like surely the skin would be a lump of mutilated flesh. “It hurts, Mommy. Can we stop yet?”
She stabbed again with her needle, and I wriggled forward in my seat. She dug her fingers into my shoulder, pulling me back.
“Stop it, Tippi. You know it’s for your own good.” She leaned forward, grabbing my chin, her dark hair wild around her shoulders. “You have evil inside of you, and if I don’t do this, that evil can spread to the rest of the world. Do you want everyone to know what you are? Do you know what happens then? The bad people come and get you.”
“But I don’t do anything bad,” I said.
She let go of my chin, and I turned my gaze away from her. She’d had that look since this morning, the one where I never knew what she was going to do, and I didn’t want to find out.
The needle was pushed deeper into the flesh of the back of my neck. I shouldn’t have spoken. If I’d sat silently, maybe she would be done by now.
“You don’t have to do bad things. It’s what you are, what you were made from. You were born from evil.” She turned, fiddling with the ink on the table beside her. She paused, letting out a sigh as her movements slowed.
Maybe by tonight, she’d be calm again. She usually was afterward, but it was hard to know how long this part would last.
She turned to me, needle in hand but pausing, as if unsure whether to stop.
“Mommy, I want to be good.” If she knew how much I wanted it, maybe she’d stop.
“You can’t be. It’s who you are. I’m your mother, so I will fix you as much as I can, but you must always be guarded because you aren’t normal, do you understand?” She dipped her needle again, her movements growing jerky.
“Yes.” I sniffed, trying not to cry. She hated when I cried.
“Move your hair. If I have to tell you again, you won’t be getting any lunch.”
I pulled my hair over my shoulder and clenched my fists together in front of me, trying not to shift. Mommy didn’t eat breakfast, and there was never much food in the apartment. If I didn’t get to share lunch, my stomach would hurt.
She pressed her needle deeper, and I forced myself to sit still. Don’t think of the stinging. Anything but the stinging.
A burst of yelling and laughter drifted through the open window, and then the familiar sound of metal squealing against metal as the kids at the playground hopped on the swing set. All the kids in the complex played there, even me. Sometimes when Mommy drank her medicine and got tired, I would sneak out and swing too. I didn’t talk to the other kids, but sometimes I’d wave to one or two of them.
“Don’t let me catch you playing with them. You know you’re not allowed. Do you want them to discover who you are? Do you want them to drive us out of our home after they figure out that you’re evil?”
She put down her needle and stared at the ink again. I didn’t speak this time.
She cleaned the needle and then covered the small container of ink with the lid, talking as she did. “I’m the only one who will ever accept you. Don’t you forget it. Only a mother could love something like you. I’m the only one you’ll ever have, and be grateful that I didn’t let them kill you at birth.”
I watched her move about the room. “I know, Mommy.”
She grabbed her medicine off the counter, unscrewed the cap, and sipped from the bottle. “Even your father wouldn’t stay, because he knew what you were. He wanted to be with me, but you were just too much to handle. I don’t have a husband because someone had to stay with you. I gave up my life for you, so you’d better not complain about anything. I’m the only reason you weren’t killed.”
I nodded, knowing that she’d take her medicine and fall asleep on the couch soon. I hoped the medicine worked fast this time and that she was better when she woke up. I didn’t like it when she was sick.
Sometimes, when she was better, we’d go for walks or color in my books. Sometimes she’d get us popcorn and a movie. She taught me how to play checkers last week, and we played for a couple of hours. She told me how things were going to be like this forever because she wasn’t sick anymore. She was going to make more money because she could do things other normal people couldn’t do. She was going to buy me all sorts of toys and games, and we’d always have plenty of food. I believed her, but then she got sick again. She always got sick again.
I didn’t move from the chair, not wanting to draw attention to myself, even when I had to pee, even when I got thirsty, not even to go get Allison, my doll. I didn’t dare move until a long while later, when Mommy’s soft breathing turned into an ugly snore that meant she wouldn’t be stirring.
I got up, stretched my cramped legs, and went to the bathroom. Her head was turned, drool on the side of her face when I came back and laid a blanket on her. I closed her medicine bottle so it didn’t spill, knowing it was the only thing that brought peace when she got sick. Then I went in the kitchen and found a can of chicken broth, because Mommy wouldn’t be getting us lunch today.
A mother walked down the road in front of me, holding her daughter’s hand. The two smiled at each other as if they shared some secret. The girl beamed as she looked at the woman, as if she were the sun, the stars, and everything good in the world.
Had I ever felt that way about anyone? What would it be like to trust someone that completely? Never fear that they would hurt you or betray you in any way? That they’d sacrifice their life so that you might survive?
“Did you hear me?” Bibbi asked.
I dragged my gaze away from the scene up ahead, having no idea what she’d said but hearing the urgency in her tone. “Sorry, what was that you were saying?”
“I think we’re being followed.” There was a sharp edge to her voice, displaying the steel beneath the coiled curls of hair and the frilly skirt with layers of lace she was wearing. In the past month, she’d bought out every frilly frock Bewitching carried. She was a walking conflict, soft and fuzzy on the outside but rock solid with pointy fangs beneath the surface. She’d come a long way from the timid, unassuming girl I’d first met.
“Yeah, I noticed.” The group of six witches and warlocks had been following us for about ten minutes already, and my pulse had yet to break its rhythm. The only thing soft left about me was my rainbow-streaked hair, and even that was tugged back into a severe-looking ponytail. My wardrobe didn’t have a frill in sight. My boots were steel-toed, better to kick my enemies with. My pants and tops were well fitted, and not in a vain attempt to showcase my lean form, but to avoid giving an enemy an easy place to grab. My jackets shrugged off with ease for the same reason.
Once upon a time, I’d been soft. That was way before I’d been abducted to Xest and dumped in a wish factory for forced labor. I’d been nearly killed by an invisible evil monster, a dragon, and a gigantic bat, and those were just a few of the fun times I’d had since living here.
Turned out that was the easy part of living in Xest. I’d even thought I was turning a corner, getting ready to settle into some calm, boring day-to-day stuff up until about a month ago. That was when a demon and an angel told me I possessed too much magic to be allowed to live. Too much of theirmagic, to be precise, the very seed magic that had helped Xest come to be. Before that, I’d stressed over the little things in life: would I be homeless; would I get kicked out of the broker building again; would Helen, the Helexorgomay machine, decide a black cloud would be the best thing for me?
Those days were over. Something had broken in me after that last visit and looming threat, or perhaps something had been fixed. All the soft spots left in me had melted away, leaving nothing but hard-angled surfaces. There was only one weakness I had left, and it had zero to do with a marauding group of witches and warlocks who hadn’t had their mettle tested the way I had.
“Let’s duck into the alley.” I motioned to the infamous place of one of the worst beat-downs I’d ever received in my life. A normal person would never set foot in there again.
Normal wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary, and I was doing my damnedest to evict the word fear as well. In my opinion, this was the best spot to avenge my previous history, the weakness I’d displayed, and leave a better memory in its wake.
“Why are we turning in here? Am I supposed to run? I’m not running this time. That was a bad plan. You looked like hell after that. It was surprising you even lived. And I thought we were done with that anyway?”
I turned into the alley as Bibbi continued to fuss, knowing she’d follow me in spite of her reservations.
“I’m not going to ask you to run anywhere,” I said as she joined me. “I think this is a better place to deliver a beating, is all. I don’t want to scare off any more of the witches and warlocks in Xest who still might be friendly.” It was bad enough that a lot of them crossed the street when they saw me, like I wanted to eat them for dinner or something.
I shrugged out of my jacket as my words sank in.
“Really?” Her face lit up like she’d seen a rainbow for the first time after living in a pitch-black cave for a decade. Nothing made Bibbi happier than a good meal of chilled revenge.
“Yes. I’m kicking their asses. If you want to hang out and watch, be my guest. But could you do me a favor and hold my jacket? I just bought it, and I really don’t want to throw it on the ground or stain it with blood. I’ve yet to find a spell that removes those stains for good.”
She held it up. “I don’t blame you. This is a really cute jacket.”
There was rustling at the end of the alley.
“Thanks. If you could stand back a bit, too? I don’t want to worry about splatter.”
“Have I told you how impressive you are these days?” she asked. She folded the jacket over her arm and took a step back. “I’ll be right here if you need me.” She gave me a thumbs-up. Bibbi was near bouncing with her blood lust, little sicko that she’d become. She was still the best roommate I’d ever had.
“Thanks.” She’d told me the same thing at least ten times in the last few weeks. I probably should be flattered, but I was finding that the farther along I got in not giving a shit, the less flattery seemed to affect me, because, well, I just didn’t give a shit. After that last incident with Lou and Xazier, I only had two states of being: kill or be killed. Everything else had been muted.
I cracked my knuckles, waiting to see if today would be a killing day. A head popped around the corner and then disappeared.
The alley opening was empty again. What the hell? I didn’t have all day for this crap. I had a client coming into the broker office in a couple of hours, and, even more pressing, I needed to have a tea or two first. I hadn’t slept that well and couldn’t stop yawning.
Maybe I’d bug Mertie to go get me a cocoa at the Sweet Shop. Ever since Gillian had decided to move out again, anybody associated with the broker building or the broker himself were cut off from cocoa. Except for Mertie, that was, because no one had the nerve to turn down a retired demon.
Although if I managed to time my visit to the Sweet Shop during Gillian’s break, her employees were too scared to turn me away. If these losers didn’t hurry things up, I wouldn’t manage a cocoa or a tea before my appointment. I yawned again, getting more annoyed by the second.
I glanced back at Bibbi. “We should send Mertie for some cocoa after we’re done here.”
She waved a hand toward the end of the alley. “Which will be when? A year from now?”
I shook my head, sharing her disgust.
“I know you’re there. We doing this thing or don’t you have the stones?” I called loud enough for my voice to carry past them and to the other side of the street. If I had to wait to kick their asses, I was going to make it that much worse and humiliate them in the process.
The fifth wind was only making me more annoyed. They said you got used to the bone-chilling cold of Xest, but my body must be a slow learner. It’d been months and I still felt the burn on my skin like two hot pokers every time the wind kicked up, which it was doing right now.
I turned toward Bibbi. “They get two more minutes, then I’m leaving. I really don’t have time for this.”
Bibbi’s smile melted. “Really? But they’re right there. I can hear them shuffling about.” She pointed, as if I couldn’t hear their oafish movements.
I understood her need for vengeance on my behalf, even if these might not be the same group who’d beaten me to a pulp in this very same spot, but it really was getting quite chilly.
A hand slowly poked out and waved. “Miss Tippi?”
Miss Tippi? Bit of an odd way to start a bloody battle, but, I guess, why not be polite about it? If I thought about it for more than a passing moment, I could respect that.
“Yes? Did you want to discuss something first?”
The top of a shaggy head of hair was followed by a big-eyed face and some lean shoulders, but he didn’t go as far as revealing his entire torso, as if the partial building in front of him would save him from my wrath. If he had any idea of the weird things happening around me lately, he’d know it didn’t stand a chance.
“We were just hoping to have a word with you?” His question ended on an awkwardly high note, the vocal equivalent of showing me his belly.
Was this a trap? Did he think he was going to trick me somehow?
Was a word going to turn into a spell kind of word? A word before we fought? I glanced at Bibbi again, to see if she had a better read on the situation, being a Xest native. Was there some sort of fighting etiquette I’d been unaware of until now?
All I got was a shrug and a pinched face.
I shook my head. This was not the fun I’d expected.
“You’re going to have to come closer for that word.” My tone revealed my lack of patience.
The person disappeared for a few seconds, and I walked closer to Bibbi.
“I know this is going to be a disappointment, but if this doesn’t pick up soon, we’re going to have to leave. I was fine for a fight, but I don’t feel like standing here and having a damned tea party while I wait for it.”
She crossed her arms, shaking her head. “They should get kicked out of Xest completely for behavior like this. This is just embarrassing, if you ask me. This is worse than getting your ass kicked.”
“Look, maybe it’ll work out and they follow us down the street. I’ll beat them up in a different alley.” I wasn’t optimistic, though.
“Stop trying to make me feel better. They’re never going to do it.” She held out my jacket to me. “If it’s not going to work, I’d rather just go.”
She took a few heavy steps before we both stopped and looked at the entrance to the alley.
There were five witches and warlocks making their way toward me, very slowly. I would’ve sworn there had been six, but clearly one didn’t have the guts to make it into the arena.
I stretched my arms, and then my neck, loosening up because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, according to the action movies I’d seen.
The only thing I accomplished was a crick and to slow the group to a complete halt. I let out a sigh, shooting Bibbi another commiserating look. They really weren’t worth the aggravation.
I looked at where they’d stopped and shook my head again. “If you want to fight, you’re going to have to get a little closer. If you think you can stand back there and use your magic on me, it’s not going to work. I’m a lot stronger than I look.”
I was definitely stronger than I’d ever imagined I was. If someone had laid out the challenges that would be before me back when I lived in Salem, I wouldn’t have left my apartment ever again.
A year ago, I hadn’t known what I was made of. I’d never been tested the way I had been this past year. That was the one beauty about tests: pass or fail, at least you knew what kind of raw material you were dealing with. I’d kept surviving, sometimes in spite of myself. If this ragtag crew in front of me thought they could take me down, they’d find out as well.
The lean kid with the slender shoulders began waving his hands, and not in a hocus-pocus kind of way. This was white-flag behavior. Maybe that ridiculously high tone was legit?
“Oh, no! That’s not it at all! We aren’t looking to fight you,” Lanky said.
“No, definitely not,” a short little redhead added, peeking her head out from behind him.
“Spells, then? I really don’t see that working out for you, to be honest. Not to judge, but none of you appear to be very strong.” When I first got to Xest, what seemed like an eternity ago, I hadn’t known what magic was. Back then, everyone seemed mystical and awe-inspiring. Now? I could pretty much pick out the minor threats from the little annoyances. It might’ve been the way they held themselves or it was this weird sixth sense I got. Either way, I’d come to rely heavily upon my first gut reaction.
“No! Not that either. Actually, we were hoping you’d sign something for us?” He reached into his back pocket and held out a book. Black Unicorns and Other Unexpected Anomalies That Shape Our World.
Was I an Unexpected Anomaly? I’d been called a lot of things, good and bad, but that was a new one.
There was a very loud sigh behind me. “All that buildup and for nothing,” Bibbi grumbled.
A few of the witches and warlocks glanced her way with confused expressions.
“Yeah, sure.” I held out my hand for the book, and four more appeared.
The grumbles behind me grew louder.
Mertie’s hoofs sounded through the office on her way to the back room.
Zab tossed his book on the table as Oscar dumped his tea in the sink. Bertha and Musso took a seat at the table. Even Dusty, the rare and elusive dust bunny, became visible.
Mertie walked into the back room with a tray of cocoas that she placed down on the table.
“I’m not sure how I got stuck doing all the bitch work around here, but here’s your damn cocoas.”
No one blinked an eye at her salty tone. Who would’ve ever imagined she’d still be here, andwould be a better fit than Gillian? In fact, Mertie was such a good fit that she’d even started taking on some freelance jobs, doing especially well with anything causing misery.
She’d moved in when things started going downhill in Xest and never left. I didn’t blame her, either. The broker building was about the best place to live in Xest. It was the oddest place I never could’ve imagined. Close to the center of town but far enough away that the street traffic wasn’t that bad. The interior was where it got really interesting. It was a weird blend of an old English library and a witches’ lair, buried in a bunch of antiquities you’d find in some archeologist’s office. And one could never forget to mention Helen’s machinery, which took up over an entire wall with gears and wheels and rivets, always humming, whirling, and whistling.
The fireplace in the back room was big enough to stand in, which was good, since Xest was cold enough to freeze you alive. The only thing the building didn’t have was good cocoa, but luckily, we still had Mertie.
“Mertie, you have to go because you’re the only one Gillian will let in the Sweet Shop,” Zab said, handing out the cocoas.
“And why is that? I live here, same as you all do. Why am I not cut off?” Mertie took a seat and kicked her hoofs up onto the chair next to her.
“Don’t take it personally. She assumes you hate us. If you told her you liked us, I’m sure you’d get cut off as well.” I grabbed my cocoa, and a puff of dust exploded by my feet. “I didn’t forget you.” I turned back to the table, knowing we’d be living in the dust bowl if there wasn’t cocoa for Dusty. He had a two-a-day habit.
Mertie huffed. “As if she’d ever believe I like you people.” She reached down, scooping up Dusty.
“That’s unfortunately why you’ll have to continue getting the cocoas,” I said, watching as she let Dusty drink from her cocoa.
Bibbi was sitting silently at the table, not offering a comment.
Zab placed a cocoa in front of her, and we all watched. She hadn’t taken a sip of the stuff in months on some sort of principle. It was nicer to say that than that she hated Gillian too much to drink her cocoa. But the way she’d been staring when the cocoas arrived lately, we were all waiting for her to crack. It was going to happen soon. You could practically hear her saliva glands firing as the aroma filled the room.
Bibbi reached for the cocoa, and we all froze. Then she placed it away from her, and we all sighed. Today would not be the day Bibbi cracked.
“Mertie, I appreciate you picking it up for me, but I find Gillian’s cocoa has a bitter taste I’m not drawn to.”
Musso groaned as he drank his. Bertha, who’d been on the end of many of Gillian’s jibes, smirked quietly in the corner.
Mertie tapped the cocoa cup with a long black fingernail attached to blood-red skin. “As much as I appreciate your ability to hold on to hate, which is really quite impressive, and this is coming from someone with vast experience in the field, you do realize you’re an idiot, right? That this is just cocoa and not some sort of master war you’re waging? That Gillian doesn’t give a shit or know if you’re drinking it?”
Bibbi raised her chin. “Just the same, I’ll pass. I find it to be inferior.”
Bertha actually let out a small giggle.
Hawk walked in, the light of the fireplace harshening the angles of his face in a way that shouldn’t have made him more alluring but did anyway. A glint of steel that had nothing to do with the color flickered in his deep-set eyes. Had he always been this hard, or did I see him clearer now from a wider vantage point? Strange how your perceptions were colored by the life you’d lived. It felt like I’d seen everything in muted shades of grey. Now I saw every color of the rainbow and some I didn’t know existed.
No matter how hard and cold he seemed, I’d felt the heat that raged underneath that exterior, and it was scorching. As hardened as I’d become myself, his heat was the one thing that could melt me on the spot. I wasn’t sure if that was an asset or a hindrance, but it definitely felt like my soft underbelly was showing, and it made me want to growl as much as roll over.
I lifted my head, glancing in his direction as I nodded. His gaze met mine, a frisson running between us that felt like it lit the room with a charge. I sipped a little slower, my taste for cocoa shifting into something much more carnal.
I didn’t fixate on the way he moved across the room, or the woodsy, fresh scent that made me feel like I was part feral deep down inside. Or the tingle of awareness that spread across my skin and down my spine as his gaze remained on me, even as I shifted my focus elsewhere.
Oscar tipped his head in his direction. “Any word?”
I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. Hawk had been checking with his sources on a regular basis about my angel and demon problem.
The room went quiet, as everyone in the room was aware of the situation. It tended to have a sobering effect on most.
“Tippi, you’re quite calm about everything, you know, considering you have an angel and a devil, not on each shoulder per se, but standing behind you, aiming their little arrows and pitchforks.” Oscar let out a half laugh, enjoying his description of my situation. He was never one to let an opportunity for amusement go to waste.
It didn’t bother me in the least. I’d take a laugh wherever I could get it, especially from someone who’d proven themselves loyal.
Hawk shot Oscar a glance that said he didn’t find it overly amusing as he grabbed a seat at the table, a chair buffer between us. When he looked my way, the few feet meant nothing. I would’ve needed a few football fields to chill the heat in his eyes.
“I don’t see what you people are fretting about. There’s an obvious answer to all of this, Dread, the imbalance, the demon and the angel.” Mertie waved her hand in the air as if it were all so obvious to her.
“Which is?” I asked, wondering what brilliance she’d figured out that the rest of us were too stupid to see.
“Take down Lou, trap him in the hill somehow, and that’ll offset the imbalance of Dread. Xazier likes you for some unknown reason, so he won’t put up much of a fuss. All good.” She sipped her cocoa as if that were the end of it.
“Even if it were that simple, I still have too much magic. That’s one of their issues,” I reminded her.
“I bet if you take care of Lou, Xazier will be more willing to negotiate,” Mertie said with a smirk.
She was right. Xazier would be. And even if she was wrong, it wasn’t a bad idea. Although I might’ve been alone in thinking that. The rest of the room listened without comment, except Hawk, who was now making his distaste known with a glare in her direction.
I didn’t care if Hawk hated the idea and everyone else thought it was stupid. I was open to giving anything a try.
“If one were to give this a go, any idea on how to get Lou in the hill?” I asked.
“I can’t be the idea girl, the logistics, the executor of said plan, and the one that has to get the cocoa several times a day. You people have to do some of the work too, you know.” Mertie huffed, and a small puff of smoke came out of her nose as she crossed her hooves. She stopped suddenly, looking at her left hoof. “Oh, well, that’s great. Now I chipped a hoof. I just painted them and they’re ruined.” She got up and stormed out of the room, stomping and complaining the whole time.
“It doesn’t matter who wants to kill her. Tippi can live through anything. She’s tough,” Bibbi said.
Oh no. Oooooh no. How could I have forgotten?
“You should’ve seen her luring a group into the alley so she could kick their teeth in without an audience,” Bibbi continued.
Hawk looked over at Bibbi. “Really? That sounds like an interesting day,” he said.
By the avid attention around the table, it was clear there would be no one saving me with an interruption. Bibbi was better than Zab was with a secret, but only if you made sure to instruct her that it was a secret. That was what I got for being distracted by cocoa. There were no freebies in life. That cocoa was going to cost me an earful later.
How many times had Hawk said in the last few weeks to keep my guard up? That anything could be a setup? I’d lost count, as I’d gone deaf to all the warnings after a while, but the count was way up there, all the way up with goodies like “make sure you floss” and “wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.”
Hawk’s attention appeared to be solely on Bibbi as she told the tale with great fanfare, and, of course, embellishing where needed to make it more entertaining. This would lead to one of the things I’d been avoiding the most in the last few weeks, and that wasn’t a demon or an angel or a fight. I could do all three of those things standing on my head while simultaneously playing the bongos. What I couldn’t handle was the man sitting a couple of chairs over who was going to want to discuss things with me.
He was my kryptonite, the one thing left that could slay me emotionally and mentally, and I hadn’t quite figured out how to defend myself against him yet.
Although I had some time, as Bibbi laid out all the sordid details of my bravado, knowing I’d single-handedly be paying a fee for the entertainment after the show was over.