The Most Wanted Witch – Donna Augustine

A cold nose pressed against my cheek, the body it belonged to invisible. Dusty, the Elusive Rare Dust Bunny that had somehow become a pet of sorts, was spending more time invisible these days. It was an ability I was becoming more and more envious of. “We’ll get used to it,” I said, making no move to get out of bed, in spite of the constant steps and people yelling to each other outside my door. “Musso! Dinner is getting cold!” Bertha, Musso’s wife, boomed through the stairwell from the landing of the first floor. “I’m coming!” Musso yelled from above, before his steps thudded overhead like his feet were boulders. Musso and his wife had moved in a couple of months ago, along with others. Gone were the good ol’ days when there hadn’t been a third floor. Another set of steps sounded from down the hall. I was still on the second floor, but it was much larger these days. “Tippi, you coming down?” Oscar asked from the other side of my closed door. Oscar had moved in a few days before Musso and his wife, which had been right before— More steps thudded. It was hard to think at this point with all the noise. The steps were soon followed by pounding on my door. “Tippi, come on! Get out of bed,” Zab yelled.

“Bibbi thinks you’re sick again.” Yeah, so Zab had moved in right after Musso, but right before Bibbi. I still wasn’t sure why everyone had decided this was the place to hole up, but now I was surrounded, everyone so close. Too close, some might say. Uncomfortably close, a sane person might suggest. I liked living alone. I enjoyed putting things down in a spot and having them be there when I went back, and having quiet to think my thoughts. Now I was surrounded from the moment I woke up to the second I fell asleep. Every waking moment, someone was there, talking, yelling—being. “Tell her I’m coming,” I yelled back.

I’d locked myself up here for a couple hours, just to get my head together. It wasn’t as if I’d become a full-on hermit. If anyone disappeared for too long, though, you could count on Bibbi to gather the troops. She’d fuss that they must be sick, dead, or lying in an alley somewhere, with a horde of grouslies eating their flesh to the bone. Considering the current darkness shrouding Xest, it wasn’t that outlandish a fear—except that everyone knew where I was. I got up and pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail, ignoring all the streaks of colors that were startlingly bright in contrast to the half of my hair that had remained a normal black. My boots with the heavy tread were excellent for a good, swift kick, and went well with my soft leather pants. I was ready for dinner. The No Evil monkeys were up to their normal antics in the office. They’d transitioned from music to stand-up comedy.

I walked in, and Speak No Evil said, “A girl walked into a building…” My glare cut his words short. For some reason, all their jokes started with this mysterious girl. “I know who the girl is,” I said. “Find some different jokes.” Speak No Evil glared back at me as his two cohorts watched on. Finally, his face softened and he shrugged. “Fine. But this is censorship.” I rolled my eyes and continued on to the back room. It was nearly triple the size it had been a few months ago.

A full kitchen and cupboards were where the tea and cocoa station had once been. The fireplace had been enlarged and now had a metal rod to swing a pot over, which Bertha manned diligently from sunup to sundown, acting like a loving but pushy drill sergeant most of the day. I’d found out that she’d owned a meal delivery company, Hearty Brews on Brooms, before she retired. She ran this kitchen like it was her business and we were all her sous-chefs. “Tippi, good job on the dicing,” she said, nodding. “Thanks.” I’d done a good bit of prepping and chopping before I’d gone to hide, afraid to skip out on my food chores. She handed me a plate and pushed me toward the table. “Make sure you eat well. You’re too skinny.

” I smiled and nodded. Any will to resist Bertha had withered after the first week. The war against the darkness taking over Xest might be possible to defeat, but no one and nothing would beat her. I took a seat at the table beside Musso, who was eating cold eggs. “And people wondered why I didn’t bring her to the office,” Musso mumbled, but his stare was what said it all. I’d never seen such love packed into a glance in my life. For all their yelling and bickering, and there was a lot, the looks between them showed the truth of their relationship. “That’s enough out of you, old man,” Bertha teased as she dumped another piece of meat on his plate. Bibbi didn’t appear her normally perky self, with her lavender hair sticking out this way and that. Her eyes were red as she took a seat on the other side of me.

“Yellow bellies again?” I kept my voice low. “Yep,” she whispered, afraid Bertha would hear her complaining. Yellow bellies were a type of onion in Xest that had to be shredded. Bibbi had made the unfortunate error of saying something needed more flavor a couple weeks ago. Now it seemed she was getting stuck on yellow bellies every time a recipe called for them. “You want me to try to talk to her?” “No.” She jerked back as if I’d said something shocking. “What if she stops cooking? I know I complained that one time, but her food is amazing. We can’t risk it.” Zab, who’d sat down on the other side, laughed as he listened in.

“Good,” he said, and leaned forward so he could see me. “I would’ve had to tackle you if you tried.” Oscar strolled in the back door, letting in a brutal gust of fifth wind as he took his time. “Shut the door,” I yelled, my voice drowned out by the other four voices yelling the same. Oscar strolled over, smiling at the plates of food on the table. He reached to fill a plate, and Bertha whacked his hand. “Um, ooow?” Oscar said, looking at his attacker. “You were supposed to trim fat today. Where were you?” she asked, pointing her spoon at him. “I had an errand for Hawk.

Had to be handled.” Bertha scowled but lowered her spoon. Oscar slowly reached out to the food, waiting to get his knuckles rapped again. I took one last bite before I got up. “Thanks, Bertha. Dinner was amazing as usual.” I edged over toward the door to the office, hoping no one was watching me grab my jacket. “Going for your walk?” Oscar asked, smirking, as he alerted the entire room to my departure. Bibbi swung around, glaring at me. “I’ll be back in a little while.

” I shrugged on my jacket. Not even my mother had hovered the way she did. Although that might not mean much. “Shouldn’t you have someone with you? I don’t like how you head out alone every night. We’re not supposed to go out without a buddy.” Oscar laughed. “Don’t worry, Bibbi, she’ll have a buddy.” “I’ll be okay.” I made a fast exit before I decided to steal Bertha’s spoon and whack Oscar over the head. 2 The warm glow from the homemade dinner with people I loved was immediately wiped away the second I stepped out of the broker building.

The fifth wind was worse than ever, burning my skin where it touched. The streets were quiet tonight, but they were always quiet these days. That didn’t mean safe. No one left their homes unless they had to, all for differing reasons. Some didn’t want to get involved in the conflict. Others had some strange belief that the roaming hordes of grouslies couldn’t get them if they hid indoors, which showed how little they knew. They didn’t get it. Walls meant nothing. No one was truly safe in Xest anymore. The feeling of Dread, which was what we called the evil that had slowly been growing, was all around.

The only place I could escape it completely anymore was in the broker building. Others had put up wards against it, but as a testimony to its strength, very few were able to keep the feeling at bay completely. Hawk was helping people shore up their defenses while he could before the shit hit the fan. I wasn’t sure exactly what was coming, but I could sense it gathering strength. We just didn’t know what it really wanted. Was it looking to drive half of Xest out? Or for complete dominance in this place? Or was it going to sweep through and wreck Xest before moving on to bigger and badder things? Some were speculating that it wanted to move on to Rest after here. The thing was that everyone was guessing, and even the people who were on its side didn’t know what was going to happen, from what intelligence we’d managed to gather. I spent more nights hunting for something to pin it down than actually finding anything. I walked past Raydam’s house on the square, which had been taken over by Jarro, the new leader of the opposition. Cut the head off a snake and a new one will slither to the front.

Jarro didn’t have anywhere near the power or pull of his dead predecessor, so we’d see how long he lasted before he was cannibalized by his own. He wasn’t even worth a passing glance. I stopped walking, hearing something that snared my interest. Low growls came from the alley on the west side of his house. Stepping closer, I saw there was a herd of grouslies gathered, all looking my way. I took another slow step, hoping they wouldn’t run, even though history told me they would. They’d attack others, and had many times in the last several months, but not me anymore. I took another step, staring at their beady little eyes, and like usual, I’d gotten a step too close and they ran off. “Dammit.” I turned toward the sound of steps, knowing already they’d be Hawk’s.

I’d witnessed him move without a whisper, but it seemed sometimes when he walked the streets at night, he liked to dare someone to come for him. The fifth wind carried his scent of spice, forest, and magic as he neared. His dark hair ruffled slightly in the air as his steely eyes met mine. I turned, glad I could blame the wind, not that I’d gotten caught staring, for the burn in my cheeks. Sometimes it seemed my heart would thud faster before his presence even hit my consciousness. Hawk always seemed to catch up to me while I was in this spot. That wasn’t why I’d stopped. It had just become a habit. He stopped beside me, staring into the alley as well. “Amusing yourself with some grouslies tonight?” he asked.

I didn’t ask how he knew what had been in the alley. Maybe he’d seen or heard them somehow from a distance that should’ve made that impossible. Maybe his magic had picked up on theirs. Either way, I wouldn’t ask. He had his secrets, I had mine, and right now I liked them all tucked away neatly. I wouldn’t try to pry open his Pandora’s box as long as he didn’t try to force mine open, especially since mine might have more monsters lurking inside. After all, what was wrong with me that one of the things people feared the most ran when I got near? I couldn’t even egg on an attack, as others ran screaming from them. They’d gotten a taste of me and didn’t want another. What did that say? Hawk turned slightly, his arm brushing mine as he moved closer. His heat seeped my way, adding another shot of adrenaline to my blood.

“Why do you always stop here, in the middle of the square—every…single…night? Don’t you think you got your point across the first few times?” Hawk asked, as if he didn’t have the same motives. I let my eyes move past Raydam’s, and now Jarro’s house, to down the way, where the wish factory was, and across the street to its barracks, and then to all the other shops and buildings. The first time I’d stopped here on my walk, it had been to take in the scene, really absorb what my situation had become, what was at stake and who the threats were. A place of orientation at first. Then it had become something else entirely. After months of the same routine, all of Xest knew I’d be here at some point in the night, including Dread. This had become my guns drawn at noon. My place of duels. My open invitation to anyone and anything that wanted me enough to take me on. It was the moment I reminded myself that if they did, I’d handle it one way or another.

This was the time and place that told the world I could handle anything they threw at me. “I keep thinking maybe one of these times…” Knowing enough time had passed to have made my point clear, having checked off one more night of delivering the message, I continued on my route. Hawk fell into step beside me. “You don’t have to walk with me.” I’d lost count of how many times I’d said that to him in the past several months. I might’ve felt compelled to do my tour of duty, but I was okay doing it alone. I resented his presence as much as I sometimes craved it. The more I craved it, the more I resented it. Seemed I was bound to be unhappy with either scenario, and I didn’t think even a good shrink would be able to fix this one. “I was heading this way.

” It was impossible to recall how many times he’d replied that as well, but it was the same count. “Did you go by the east side tonight? I haven’t gotten over there in a bit,” I said, knowing he’d done a sweep of the other side of Xest before he joined me, as he always did. “Slight increase of its presence in certain pockets, but not enough for most to notice.” He would, though. Hawk could clear a sidewalk like no one else I’d ever seen, but Dread did something to him that rattled me. I’d never forget seeing him weak the way he’d been in the dome, right before I’d shattered us out of it. I’d spent months avoiding a question that needed an answer. I could stare down a dragon, but damned if this one thing didn’t make me feel weak in the knees. It had to be asked. “How much more do you think you can handle before it’s a problem for you?” I asked, feeling good about getting the question out in spite of the pure panic over the possible answer.

Could Hawk die in Xest if it got too bad? Would he be willing to go to Rest, the way Rabbit did? What if he wouldn’t? I kept waiting for an answer that wasn’t coming until I forced myself to look at him, afraid of the bad news he didn’t want to deliver. I stopped walking, and for the first time in months of my tour, I concentrated all my attention on him. This was the exact reason I was better off alone. He was a distraction. And he might end up a dead distraction. If I couldn’t handle even the thought of him dying when he was healthy, how would I handle the reality?

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