I walked through the fields and admired the sunlight slanting through the trees. My new home was in such a peaceful and serene setting that it always made me happy. The mailbox was installed at the end of the dirt path that I called a driveway. I loved the morning trek to the mailbox more than I ever thought possible.
I pulled open the metal door to the mailbox and peered inside. The package I’d been waiting for had arrived and excitement surged through me. I pulled the small package out and jogged back to the barn where Basir and I lived. He would still be sleeping, having given in to his nocturnal nature since our move to the new home.
At the kitchen table, I tossed the bills to the side and grabbed a pair of scissors from the metal bucket I used to hold my office supplies. I slit the packing tape and opened the box, letting myself feel the rush of anticipation – the box contained a whole new identity for me.
The small cards were brightly colored with flowers and garden tools. Garden Magic Landscaping Service – Make your garden magical. Arienne Cerasola – proprietor. The new business cards were exactly what I had wanted.
It was a fresh start. No more job interviews that ended in “we’ll be making our decision in a few days” (translation, “you’re not getting the job”). I would be self-employed; no more worrying about getting fired (again). No more finding magical items or meeting magical beings that tried to trick me. No more worries about killing someone who was trying to kill me. The last thought sent a shiver of remorse down my spine.
I focused on the cards again – I needed to break the habit of dwelling on the past. My future was printed in front of me and while it wasn’t exactly a dream job, I hoped I’d be able to use my earth elemental magic to make a living that wasn’t quite as dangerous as the other magical occupation I had tried. I might as well find some use for my witch side. Preferably a use that wasn’t quite as risky as my last foray into the magical world.
I stuck one of the cards to the refrigerator with a magnet. Basir would see it when he woke up. I looked around at the unfinished space inside the barn I was trying to convert to a home and decided I could spend some time gathering wild herbs on the property. I loved wandering through the fields and I pulled my canvas tote off the rack by the door and headed outside.
The tiny Berkshire Mountain town we had decided to settle in suited us. It was close to the major cities, but remote enough to offer us the relaxed and private lifestyle we wanted. Basir was thrilled with it, and I felt more comfortable than I had in a long time. There was no need to worry about where we were going to end up next. No more fear about the United Coven and Alliance tracking us down. Since I wasn’t exactly practicing magic, they were ignoring me. I wanted to keep it that way.
If they were ignoring me, then they didn’t know that I had killed one of their warlocks in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. There was an up-side of being considered completely inept – the Alliance would never think I was powerful enough to have done that.
I ran my hand through my copper colored hair and tilted my face toward the morning sun. A few more freckles didn’t really matter to me. I was about to become a landscaper, so I’d have an outdoorsy glow to me from now on. I’d tan to a very pale, freckled honey shade, like I’d been when I worked as a field archaeologist – back before my magical talents started leaking out and creating disaster for me. Jeez, I released one little demon (okay, it was a nasty demon) but I managed to contain it (by collapsing a ruin, but still – it was contained), and yet nobody wanted to hire me as a field archaeologist. Go figure. My Ph.D. was totally useless and I had to accept that.
I decided the past was the past and I bent to pick a few shoots of wild onions. I would focus on the present and the future, no more lamenting things! When my fingers closed around the onions, a whisper of magic came through the ground. The hair stood up on my arms, and a shiver traveled the length of my spine. I looked around at the meadow and squinted into the woods. It had been a few months since I’d felt anything magical…and I didn’t like the sudden reappearance of it.
I bent and took a few more onions, crouching to hide my face. I took another look around and I didn’t see anything threatening, but my senses remained on edge. I tucked the onions into my canvas bag and walked toward the barn, keeping my stance relaxed despite the panicked little warning alarm in my head.
I bent again at a clump of clover, and pretended to pick the white flowers off the stalks. I laid my other palm on the ground as if to steady myself and tuned into the waves of energy around me.
I felt it more clearly that time. Something very powerful was nearby. The hair on the back of my neck tingled, and a cold fear knotted my stomach. If I concentrated, I could almost feel something watching me. I gathered what energy I could from the ground and readied myself. I would need power to put up any sort of fight.
I walked on, meandering toward the barn and concentrating on looking calm. I bent every few steps as if to pluck a bloom, and laid my palm against the earth. I could feel the magic coming through the ground, and I carefully sipped from the currents so as not to tip off whatever lurked in the woods. If I drew in a large amount of power, it would be obvious that I was preparing for an attack. I needed the element of surprise.
I had worked for days on a concealment spell to shield my property from view and memory. I had woven the energy around the perimeter into a sort of magical fence that would give serious unwelcoming vibes to anyone who crossed it. It wasn’t called an offensive/defensive barrier for nothing.
Yet something was lurking in the woods. Something that shouldn’t have been able to cross the barrier.
I walked a little faster.
The prickling sensation on the back of my neck intensified and I quickly reviewed all of the spells I knew I had some chance of performing should I be attacked. It was a depressingly short list.
I cast a protective bubble around myself, drawing the currents of energy out of the earth and knitting them around my body. I channeled a little energy into the amulet I wore around my neck, just for good measure. I wondered if there was an expiration date on amulets or if I should have recharged it somehow.
This magic thing really wasn’t working out too well, considering that I had an intruder on my magically protected property and I didn’t know if my amulet would work. It wasn’t exactly a good time to be thinking about those details, and I made a promise to myself to try to plan better. Yeah, right.
I could feel whatever was in the woods still watched
me. I looked down at my arm and saw the translucent hairs on my forearms standing straight up.
I looked at my wrist, pretending to check the time. My watch was on the kitchen table in the house. As if remembering I had someplace to be, I hoisted the canvas bag onto my shoulder and set off back toward the barn. My pace was a little quicker, fueled by the rising panic in my chest.
Something rustled the leaves behind me.
I didn’t turn, but I quickened my pace to a jog. A wash of magic brushed against my skin. Whatever followed me was way more powerful than I was. I ran faster, spurred by the adrenaline and the prickles of fear on my skin.
Leaves crunched behind me and I felt my pursuer gaining on me. The sounds of panting echoed in my ears, magnified by magic or fear. The air was suddenly charged with electricity and I tried to grab it, to add it to my own reserves. I ran even faster, pulling on the currents of energy desperately to fuel my body as well as my magic.
A scream was trapped in my throat. I was too far from the barn. I could only just see the roof over the next rise. I didn’t realize I had walked that far! I ran full out, throwing the canvas bag down and pumping my arms, trying to draw oxygen in over the knot of dread in my chest.
My own feet crunched through the tall grass, and I heard and felt something gaining on me. The thrashing sounds behind me grew louder as if clamoring to be heard over my own ragged breathing. I could see the siding on the barn, and make out the furniture on the patio. I pushed my tired limbs faster.
Almost there. Come on, Arienne! Move it!
The sounds behind me suddenly ceased and a choked sob escaped from my throat one second before something crashed into the center of my back.
I fell, arms outstretched and slammed onto the ground. I tumbled into a summersault and reached for the power in the earth. I grabbed frantically at it, trying to channel it into the amulet I wore. I rolled onto my back, eyes wide with terror and looked directly at the sharp teeth of my attacker. Its jaws were opened as if to tear out my throat, and a scream exploded out of me.
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