I didn’t have a good feeling about what I was about to do. Since the day Eva showed up in Sunnyvale with the news that I was a monster hunter and that every monster in the world was out to kill me, I’d developed a decent sense of when things were off. Maybe walking into so many messed up situations during that time had made me more sensitive to small signs. You’d think I’d have gotten smarter by now, but the fact that I was about to climb out of my hiding spot and break into the witch’s house on my own clearly showed that I was as dumb as when I’d started this adventure.
At least that’s what Eva liked to tell me. Her internal filter had only gotten worse since I let the Lord of the Vampires turn her into one of the undead, ironically as a way to save her life. Never one to pull any punches, she said whatever came to her mind, regardless of how it sounded.
Take yesterday, when our team of five monster hunters ducked into a barn during a thunderstorm, Eva sat on the bale of hay closest to the door, rubbing her vampire teeth with her fingers. “This place stinks worse than you do.”
My face went hot, so I covered up by digging through my backpack to find my last protein bar inside. The rest of the guys jostled for seats on the hay bales, looking for the most comfortable spot. It was going to be a long wait, so everyone found something to pass the time except me.
Between flashes and booms of the storm raging outside, I thought through my plan to collect the Jerusalem Stone I’d left with the witch, Bella of the Woods. Not by choice. She would have killed Xavier otherwise. Anyway, I needed to leave the Stone somewhere safe before we went to the Underworld to steal the one held by Shaitan, the Lord of the Demons. When I explained my plan to go to the witch’s house alone, the others put up more than a little resistance.
“That’s a ridiculous idea,” Eva said. She was eyeing a mouse in the corner of the barn. I had the unsettling feeling she was thinking about eating it.
“It’s the easiest way to get it back,” I said.
She turned from the mouse and stared at me, unblinking. “You’re dumb and selfish. You’ll end up being boiled alive in one of the witch’s cauldrons.”
The rest of my friends weren’t exactly fans of the idea either.
T-Rex and Will, my two buddies from home who’d followed me into this mess, tried their best to talk me out of it, using all kinds of guilt-trips. Will was hard-core about it, calling me both a moron and a loser, but I could tell by T-Rex’s tone that he could do without a return trip to the witch’s cottage and her herd of weird little henchmen, the Talib. “Don’t go alone. I couldn’t stand it if we found one of those Talib heads stitched onto your body, running around trying to fight us.”
Daniel, the monster hunter who was three years older than the rest of us, would have enjoyed piling the insults on me before he became a werewolf. But our run-in with the Lord of the Werewolves in the Black Forest in Germany had made him more brooding. He just sniffed at me and said, “No way can you handle her by yourself. It’s a terrible idea.” As if the reason I wanted to go by myself was for some sort of glory. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Only Xavier seemed to understand. The youngest hunter, the brains and inventor of useful gizmos in our group, didn’t even look up from the contraption he was tinkering with on his lap. “Makes perfect sense to me, Jack. You made the deal with her. She’s bound to you and no one else. You’ll have safe passage in and out. The rest of us there just complicate things.”
The rest of the group booed his addition to the conversation, but he was oblivious to it, lost in the details of his invention.
I shrugged. “I’ll sleep on it. Nobody’s going anywhere in this storm anyway.” Technically, I kept my promise, going to sleep with the others shortly after midnight. Then halfway through the night, I woke in a sweat. The rain had stopped. Xavier was right, and whether they wanted to admit it or not, I thought the others knew it too. So I carefully got up, snuck out of the barn, and made my way down the country lane at a slow jog.
A couple hours later, I was looking at the witch’s cottage, obscured by the swirl of moonlit fog settled in the meadow around it. I found the place a lot creepier than I remembered. Only two weeks earlier, the cottage had appeared well kept, freshly painted with bright colors. A vegetable garden organized in smart rows had stood next to a chicken pen with birds softly clucking as they pecked the soft earth.
Things had changed, and it wasn’t only because I was seeing the place at night this time. The cottage looked as if it’d aged dozens of years since I saw it last. Paint flaked off the dried and cracked boards, and it appeared the forest was reclaiming the ramshackle building. Creeping vines crawled up the walls, forcing apart the clapboard siding, causing it to warp and bend. The windows were black holes without shutters, just shards of broken glass that looked like teeth in gaping jaws. Part of the roof had caved in near the stone chimney, making it lean precariously toward the center of the house. The garden looked like an army had trampled through it. The chicken pen was twisted and ripped open. The only sign of the birds was dirty feathers trapped in the gnarled metal fencing.
A cold chill sent shivers down my spine as I wondered what might have befallen the place to make it look that way. At that moment, I kind of wished I’d given in to my friends and let them come along. Honestly, I didn’t feel very brave, and it would have been nice to know there were five strong hunters backing me up.
Too late for that now. I drew in a deep breath, gripped the sword at my side, and made my way down the path to the cottage’s front door.
Excerpt ~Inspired Kathy~
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