Of Enemies and Endings
he morning before my fourteenth birthday, the witches ambushed us before Mom had a chance to finish her coffee. We were arguing about the usual things.
“The triplets will be here any minute,” I said, shoving my cellphone and my M3 into my carryall’s front pocket. Those guys were always a couple minutes late for guard duty. Sometimes they slept through their alarm. It was summer. That happened. “Then we can get out of here.” I slung on my raincoat. Big heavy drops pattered on the window.
Mom set down her mug and folded her hands carefully. I knew what that meant: I wasn’t going to like what she said next. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Rory.”
Amy didn’t even try to break it to me nicely. “No. They’re not coming with us today. We’re meeting with the play’s producers.”
“You need protection.” I reached for my magic combs and reminded myself that it wouldn’t do any good to get irritated. They just didn’t really understand—not yet.
“They’re teenagers.” Amy crossed her arms. “It looks like we’re babysitting them, not the other way around.”
“It is beginning to look strange, Rory,” Mom said. “Normally, I’m fine with them tagging along with us. I know that it makes you feel better, but today’s meeting is important—”
“Makes me feel better?” I wrestled with my temper and lost. “The Snow Queen attacks a new Character almost every day.”
Mom took a very deep breath, like she usually does when she thinks I’m exaggerating but doesn’t want to call me on it. “We’ve taken all these precautions, but we haven’t been in any danger since that wolf attacked us in the grocery store.”
She always brought that up in arguments, and it was getting old. “You didn’t want to move to Ever After School, even though it’s the safest place for us,” I reminded her, “and I said okay, but only if you accepted bodyguards. That was the deal. You promised me.”
Mom winced. She’d obviously hoped I’d forgotten about that. “They’re just kids, Rory. Just like you.”
“You could come with us,” Amy said. “That wouldn’t look as weird.”
“I have responsibilities too.” I had class in Hansel’s training courts in an hour, and I was on call for rescue duty until dinnertime. I’d explained this to them at least a hundred times.
“Besides, your mother made that promise more than three and a half months ago,” Amy said. “Maybe the Snow Queen forgot about you.”
“She hasn’t.” I was about to turn fourteen. According to my Tale, I would hold the fate of magic in my hands some time this month. The Snow Queen had to move now, but I’d been saying that since before Independence Day. They still weren’t convinced.
I wished the triplets would hurry up and get here. Company always cut our arguments short.
Something pounded against the roof. No matter what they said about the Snow Queen losing interest, Mom and Amy both jumped just as high as I did. Outside the window, white spheres bounced across the back porch. “Just hail,” I said. We didn’t usually see it in San Francisco.
“Great.” Amy dug through her purse for her keys. “I better check on the car.”
Movement flickered in the yard. It had to be one of the dirt servants. Lena had rigged them to patrol the yard’s perimeter—our own magical security system. And this one was shuffling toward us, as fast as its stubby dirt legs could carry him. It was hard to tell in the crummy weather, but it looked like it was missing a foot.
My heart stuttered. I reached for one of my combs.
It could be another false alarm.
The dirt servant jolted to a stop in the middle of the backyard, its mangled limbs bleached to gray. It toppled over. Turned to stone.
“Found them!” Amy stepped toward the exit, her keys jangling from her hand.
“No!” I tossed the comb in front of the back door. It fell with a clunk, and bars as wide as my wrist sprang up from the floor.
“Not again!” Amy said. Bars crunched against the ceiling. “Rory, you damage the house every time you overreact. We’ll never get our security deposit back.”
Mom tried to be more soothing, but she was obviously a tiny bit peeved too. “It’s probably just the neighbor’s dog again. The dirt things always think he’s a wolf.”
I picked up the other combs. The Snow Queen’s allies were coming, just like I knew they would.
The front door banged open. Someone—several someones—stampeded into the living room. We couldn’t see them, but we could definitely hear them squawking and cawing through the drumming hail.
I threw the second comb across the entryway to the living room. In two breaths, it knitted up the door frame with a chain-link fence. I tossed a third comb between the island and the kitchen table, and metal bars sprouted from the wooden floor.
Amy shrank back. “Oh my God.”
Four green-skinned, black-haired witches trampled in from the dining room, the only entrance to the kitchen the combs hadn’t sealed off yet. They wore toothy grins under their warty noses and raised long wands in their gnarled hands.
So, the Snow Queen had kept her word after all: the Wolfsbane clan would get their chance to kill me. They had even gotten first dibs.
One witch fired off a spell. I grabbed Mom’s elbow and yanked her aside. The enchantment landed on the fridge, turning it to stone. Mom would have to pay for that too when we left this rental.
“Get behind the island,” I said, snagging my carryall and dodging another shot. The top was marble. It would protect us from most spells. “Where are those rings I gave you?”
The week after I’d gotten back from the Arctic Circle, I’d made them swear to keep the rings on them at all times. When school was still in session, I refused to get in the car unless they both showed me the rings, but I hadn’t done a check in a while. I definitely should have.
“My nightstand,” Amy confessed.
Mom’s mouth thinned and twisted, the face she always made when she realized she’d messed up. “It’s over there.” She pointed to where her red purse sat on a side table—on the other side of the chain-link fence.
I pulled my own ring out of my jeans’ pocket and stared at it. One ring for three people.
“Well, you know what you have to do,” Mom said. Calm as anything, she placed a hand on my arm. “You go to EAS. Get help. Come back and rescue us. The bars will keep us safe.”
There were a million things wrong with that plan. I hadn’t heard the third comb’s bars hit the ceiling yet. Mom and Amy knew nothing about fighting, even less about magic. But I didn’t bother arguing.
I squeezed her fingers reassuringly. With my other hand, I gripped the ring.
“I love you, sweetie,” Mom said. The only way she could have been more obvious was if she actually said she never thought she would see me again.
“I love you too.” Then I slid the ring on her finger.
She didn’t have time to look surprised. She was just gone.
“She’s not going to like that,” Amy said quietly. “She wanted you safe first.”
“If they captured her, they would use her against me.” I’d explained this a hundred times too. I didn’t mention that the witches would do the same with Amy.
“I never said I didn’t understand your reasons.” Amy scooted up just enough to peek over the counter at the witches. “Is that supposed to happen?”
I poked my head around the island, just for a sec. A spell whistled past my hair and blasted the dishes drying beside the sink. A mug—the one I’d painted and given to Mom for her birthday a couple years ago—exploded, and its clay shards cascaded to the floor.
I ducked back to safety, but I’d seen what I needed to see.
Three of the four witches had leveled their wands at the third comb. The bars were still growing toward the ceiling, but slowly. Maybe just an inch a second. I’d never seen this spell.
“No, it’s never happened before.” The Snow Queen’s forces were adapting. They had trained just to stop these combs—just to fight me.
“I thought so.” Amy crawled over to the last cabinet, where we kept most of our canned goods. She opened the door, plucked out some green beans and some cream of mushroom soup, and launched them over the island.
The first one struck a witch’s elbow. She shrieked and dropped her wand. The soup can caught the second witch in the face. She crumpled, her nose gushing blood.
“Wow,” I said, impressed. Only two witches were still performing the spell that countered the enchantment. The bars rose faster—two inches a second.
“I was the pitcher on my college softball team, remember?” Amy reached for another can. The witches outside must have sensed trouble. Their footsteps thudded across the patio, louder than the hail. “You do your thing. I got this.”
I reached into my carryall and pulled out my sword. I felt calmer, having it in my hand. Then I grabbed my M3. “Chase?” I shouldn’t have tried him first. I knew he wouldn’t answer. “Lena?”
The mirror stayed blank. I frowned. Lena never left her M3 lying around.
Two more witches stamped in. Their spells hit the marble island with wet sizzles. Amy launched a counterassault of diced tomatoes, but these witches were ready for her. They raised their wands. The cans exploded, and red chunks rained down on our heads.
The bars grew, inch by inch.
Only one witch was left on comb-enchantment duty. She had gray hair and a huge gap between her crooked teeth. I didn’t understand why the other three witches had stopped helping her. “Now!” she shouted to someone behind her. “It must be now!”
“You don’t need to tell me,” said another voice.
A witch stepped out from behind the rack where we hung our raincoats and umbrellas. The edge of her long cloak was stitched with silver, and a string of moonstones was braided into her dull black hair. Her lashes were long, and her eyes tilted up at the corners like a cat. If witches hadn’t been cursed with ugliness, this one might have been beautiful.
The three witches turned their wands on the newcomer. An invisible current crackled through the air. The moonstone witch rose, her cape flickering around her ankles. She bent her legs and hugged her knees, and the three witches floated her toward the comb cage. More specifically to the three-foot gap between the bars and the ceiling.
I could guess where they were going with this.
I grabbed a can of chicken soup in front of Amy, and I launched it at the witch in charge of slowing down the comb. It went wide and clattered on the table. That was why I usually stuck with weapons you didn’t have to throw.
“Please don’t waste my ammo.” Amy threw three cans in rapid succession. One hit a witch on the shoulder, another in the arm, and the last in her huge warty chin, and all three casters levitating their sister witch stumbled back.
But it was too late.
The moonstone witch had floated past the bars, and when the spell dropped her, she landed hard on the kitchen floor. Plates and glasses clinked inside the cabinets.
“She’s inside with us, isn’t she?” Amy asked me.
I swallowed. “Yep.”
The gray-haired witch lowered her wand. The bars zoomed up and buried themselves in the ceiling, cracking the plaster. “It is all up to you now, Istalina,” she said.
The moonstone witch drew herself up taller. So she was Istalina. “Come out, Aurora Landon, or I shall flush you out.”
“Stay where you are,” Amy hissed, grabbing another can. “I’m sure I can get her.”
But Amy had no idea what we were dealing with. The last time I’d had to fight some witches, I jumped off a moving train to get away from them. I couldn’t throw the fourth comb. I couldn’t risk her using that slowing spell again. I couldn’t risk her capturing it.
I wished that Chase and Lena were here instead of Amy. They would know what to do.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never fought a witch before, Chase would probably say. Magic users usually stick to spells. Most of them have no close combat skills.
I poked my head out. Istalina was waiting for me. She raised her arm and fired, only ten feet away. I jerked back just in time—the spell took a big chunk out of the island’s cabinets and blasted the pot Mom had used to make macaroni the night before.
I knew what Lena would say too. Wait! You need something to intercept her magic. I forced myself to stop, to look at the materials around me the way she would look at it.
We had the fourth comb. We had all this kitchen stuff. I opened the cabinet next to me. Pans and their lids. I started shifting through them, careful not to touch the one Istalina’s spell had hit. It burned a glowing orange.
“What are you doing?” Amy asked.
I ignored her.
“I doesn’t matter what you try, Aurora Landon,” said the witch. “It won’t work. We have you trapped.”
I ignored her too.
I found the lid I wanted. It was bigger than most and pretty heavy, but it had an extra strip of metal, almost two inches wide, that ran all the way around the rim. I dropped the comb inside it.
Please let this work, I thought. Please please please please.
It did. Slender metal rods sprouted from the pot’s lid. Tentatively, they wove themselves together, like the comb wasn’t totally sure about my plan either.
“Stay here, Amy.” I concentrated on protecting her and stood up, my lid-shield in one hand, my sword in the other.
Istalina threw off her cloak. It puddled around her feet. Her cheeks were even greener than the rest of her face, like she was flushed or something.
Beyond the cage, seven green-skinned witches lined up, their beady eyes watching us, like crows circling a picnic. A fight with an audience, just like dueling with Torlauth at the Snow Queen’s palace.
Before I could shudder, Istalina launched a spell. My sword’s magic flowed into me, and my left hand shifted slightly. I caught the spell on the pot lid right in front of my belly. Good. My sword had adapted to the new shield, just like it had with my ring.
The moonstone witch’s eyes widened above her warty nose. She launched a few more. I couldn’t see the little zings, but I heard them sizzling toward me. The runner’s high seeped through my body. I danced to one side and then the other, dodging three more blasts. I caught a fourth, right in front of my face.
Okay, defense was solid. Time for some offense.
I sprinted forward. Istalina tried to fire off another shot, but I was already in range. I bashed my shield down on her wrist, knocking the wand off course. I flipped my sword over and swung the hilt toward her temple.
A dagger blocked the blow. Istalina’s weapon was black, its blade made of shiny stone instead of metal. The witch twisted her dagger around my hilt. I was so surprised that she almost managed to wrench my sword out of my hand.
The Wolfsbane clan had sent the witch who could actually fight.
The witch’s heel shot out, trying to smack me in the chest. I caught it with my left hand.
But it was a feint. She squeezed off another shot from her wand. I ducked, crouching low to the ground so that it sailed over my head.
“Rory!” Amy cried. I whirled around, checking to see if she was all right, but it turned out to be just one of those be careful kind of yells.
Mistake. I shouldn’t have looked away.
The witch’s second kick caught me in the shoulder before I could stand. I went sprawling. My head cracked against the hardwood floor. The witches outside the bars cawed, like a green-and-black flock celebrating. Istalina preened. She raised both her dagger and her wand, like she wasn’t sure which one she wanted to use on me first.
Half-dazed, I waited for her to decide. Another wrong move could cost me.
“Watch out!” one of the witches shouted.
Istalina took a step back, and a can of tomato sauce sailed past her face, inches from her long nose.
“Don’t worry, Rory,” Amy said. I couldn’t see her, but I could picture her on the other side of the island, her arm cocked back, another can at the ready.
Istalina lifted her wand toward Amy’s hiding place with such a sinister smile. In the Arctic Circle, the Snow Queen had raised her hand, just like that, right before the ice shards flew from her fingertips, seconds before Hadriane died.
“No!” I sprang to my feet and tried to push Istalina’s wand arm out of range with my blade and my shield. She caught my sword with her dagger easily, but the shield . . . well, the tip of her wand slid through the metal weaving and exploded. Tiny splinters flew in all directions.
The pot lid saved me from the worst of it. I only felt one big sliver impale itself in my left shoulder.
Istalina wasn’t so lucky. Shards stuck out from her forearm. The witch’s green blood spilled down her elbow, over her fingers, and dripped off the end of her wand, which was considerably shorter than before.
Hopefully, that meant she couldn’t use it.
The Wolfsbane clan stopped squawking. They stared at Istalina’s wand, horrified.
“You still have your blades!” one of them shouted.
If that was all she had left, I could handle her. I still had a magic sword.
She slashed her dagger at my face.
I blocked it with my shield arm, hitting her fingers with the lid’s edge so hard that she shrieked. Her dagger clattered to the floor. She struck with her other hand, swinging a second knife. I hadn’t seen it. She must have dropped her ruined wand and grabbed the hidden blade.
With my luck, she probably had extra knives stashed in her boots. Well, if disarming her didn’t work . . .
I kicked out, three times in quick succession just like Chase and I practiced—once to bash the weapon out of her hand, once in her stomach to knock the wind out of her, once in the face to stun her. She choked, gasping for air. Her face twisted with rage, her lip bleeding. With a fresh knife, she tried to stab my belly, but the movement was much slower than before. I whacked her blade aside with my shield, stepped inside her guard, and smashed my hilt into her temple. She dropped into a heap, her arm twisted under her in a really uncomfortable-looking way.
She probably wasn’t faking.
“Behind you, Rory!” Amy yelled.
I glanced back. A third knife sailed though the air, aimed directly at my head. I jumped out of the way, but then a throwing star shaped like a snowflake flew into my path. I deflected it with my shield.
The witches of the Wolfsbane clan had lined up along the comb cage. I gulped. The bars only stopped magical attacks. A regular blade or arrow could make it through. The Wolfsbane witches had come prepared for this, armed with knives and snowflake-shaped throwing stars in every green hand.
“We gave Istalina the honor of first blood, if she could get it,” said a short, squat one. “But make no mistake, Aurora Landon. We bring your death with us today.”
They all threw at once. Amy screamed, but the witches’ aim was less than awesome. A few barbed snowflakes knocked into the bars and fell to the floor. A small knife bounced off my shield. Only one grazed my jeans and sliced open the fabric near my shin.
No blood, but too close for comfort. These weapons could be poisoned.
It would have been smart to tie up Istalina to make sure she couldn’t attack us again, but I made an executive decision to just get out of the way. I dove behind the island.
Amy slid closer. “Are you all right?” I nodded, slightly out of breath.
“Again!” barked one.
Another barbed snowflake clattered into the sink. They could throw all they wanted. Their aim had gotten even worse now that they couldn’t see me.
The same thought must have occurred to someone else. “Stop. Do not waste your weapons.” It sounded like the gray-haired witch. She was probably their leader.
“Why?” whined another witch. “We can always call for more. They’re not going anywhere.”
She was right. We were safe for now, but we were definitely trapped.
Amy’s eyes bugged out a little more. “What are we going to do?”
I grabbed the M3 I’d left on the floor. We needed help. We needed my friends.
I flipped open the velvet cover. I looked how I always did in mirrors these days—eyebrows pinched, hair messy, purple smudges under my eyes.
No answer from Lena. Okay. Still not a big deal. She’d been scattered recently. The Director had assigned her too much to do in the workshop. But tons of people had M3’s now. “Hey, come in. We have a code Gingerbread here. Requesting at least two squadrons for backup immediately.”
Only my reflection stared back at me.
A witch cackled. “Call your Character friends all you like. Her Majesty has devised new enchantments to confound your tiny mirrors.”
I froze. If the Snow Queen had figured out a spell to block the M3’s, we really were trapped until reinforcements came.
The triplets should still be on their way. Plus, Mom was back at EAS now. She must have raised the alarm when she arrived. She would track down Lena—or even Chase, if she could find them. She would make sure they brought back-up.
One of the witches guessed what I was thinking. “It wouldn’t matter if your message got through anyway. The warding hex we’ve cast blocks all enemy enchantments. None of your allies can travel here by magical means.”
No wonder the triplets were almost half an hour late. Their temporary-transport spell probably hadn’t worked. My friends couldn’t rescue us if they couldn’t get here.
“Hush,” said the gray-haired witch in charge. “We aren’t supposed to speak of the hex.”
“They’re captured by their own combs!” protested her ally. “It doesn’t matter what we tell them now.”
“Does that mean the ring of return didn’t work?” Amy asked. “Did your mom get through?”
I stopped breathing. I didn’t know. I’d never heard of a warding hex. I had no idea what they did. Lena wasn’t here to explain.
But Mom had disappeared. If she hadn’t gotten through, where had she gone?
I’d been so sure I was keeping her safe.
“Call the archers,” said the gray-haired leader. “Tell them to bring their flaming arrows.”
The door creaked open. Oh no. The archers’ aim didn’t have to be good anymore. All they needed to do was light the kitchen on fire. The smoke would kill us if the flames didn’t.
“That’s right, Aurora Landon,” said the witch who liked taunting me. “We will flush you out as we would a Dapplegrim from its herd. We have brought your death with us.”
I wished they would stop saying that. It was starting to sound true.
“And the death of the woman you seek to protect,” said the gray-haired witch.
I looked at Amy. She held a can in each hand, and her scowl clearly said, Well, I’m going down fighting.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” said the gray-haired witch. “Release the combs, and surrender to us. We will let the woman go free. It is your death we seek, after all.”
It was a trick. It had to be.
But maybe it wasn’t.
My Tale had begun two years ago. The beginning lines hadn’t changed that much: Once upon a time, there was a girl named Rory Landon. Though she did not know it, the fate of magic would fall into her hands during the month she turned fourteen. With it, she would meet winter, death, and despair.
Maybe the hail counted as winter. Maybe despair was finding myself down to two choices: my death by surrender or my death and Amy’s by fire.
No. I could ask them for a Binding Oath. I could make them swear on their lives that Amy would go free, and it would all be over.
My expression must have given me away, because Amy began shaking her head. “No. Rory, don’t you dare—”
The door creaked open again. More feet thundered in. The witches’ archers had arrived.
We were trapped. Help wasn’t coming. I knew my choice.