Chapter 1: A Battle of Worth Forgetting
Kelsey Black reached towards the wicker effigy, knowing full well her actions would christen a war. She untied the knot in the rattan weave, and yanked, unravelling the construction enough to free the pointed hat from the lump of sticks and wicker.
Her mother would kill her if she found out. Grounded for a month, phone swiped from her, and all the works. It made her want it more. Tossing the hat into the depths of the alleyway, she shimmied down the stake. Her feet snapped the kindling below, and a smirk sharpened her thin lips.
Hatless and bedraggled, the effigy resembled a human and nothing more. Not magic, not a witch—not that her mother would care about that for long, though. The witchcraft petition had finally reached parliament, and her followers would be primed to heckle anything on fire. The point was her mother would notice the hat was missing. She could force Kelsey to sit in on the meetings, but she couldn’t force her to agree.
“There. It’s just a bunch of stick now. Are you satisfied?” Feya asked warily. The setting sun cast an eerie light over the empty town square, and she checked over her shoulder, yet again, as if Kelsey’s mother haunted the alleyways. Despite plaiting her hair at the scalp, Feya’s black curls still frizzed out from her ponytail, as erratic as her worried eyes. Her dark skin, a smooth sepia colour, helped conceal some of the pale worry from her face, but Kelsey knew not to push the mischief too far.
Not that she could help herself.
“Almost.” Kelsey pulled out a phone from her leather jacket and took a selfie. She hated the way her short dark hair and pallid face looked sickly in the twilight, but this wasn’t about her. It was about making a statement… Although it didn’t feel barbed enough.
She knelt and swapped her phone for a lighter.
“Oh, no,” Feya said, jumping forwards.
“Oh, yes,” Kelsey said, grinning wildly. “No one will know as long as we run.”
“But you can’t leave a bonfire unattended! The town hall, and then the houses, and-and…You’ll burn down the whole place!”
With a sigh, Kelsey knew her friend was somewhat right, but her fingers still itched to click the flame to life. If I can’t burn it, how do I destroy it? She looked to the safety bucket of water beside the sticks, a new plan tingling the palms of her hands. “You’re right. You’re always right.” Kelsey grabbed the bucket of water and heaved it over the effigy, soaking the figure from head to toe. She quickly stashed the fire lighters in her schoolbag, and stood beside her best friend with a sense of pride over her miraculous restraint. “Now it can’t burn at all.”
“Yeah, that’ll work. Now can we go?”
Kelsey led them away from the town’s centrepiece and down the rural road towards her house—past the signs of magical mishaps, from chunks of broken pavement tiles to bent lampposts—and towards the meeting that meant nothing to her. Her mother’s LOCA group.
“Can’t believe you snuck out of detention for that,” Feya said, although she tagged a smile on at the end that showed her amusement. “You’re so going to be grounded.”
“I’m doing them a favour.”
Feya frowned. “Who? The ‘witches’? I thought you didn’t care about magic.”
“I don’t,” Kelsey said a little too fast. “I’m talking about my mother and her idiot followers. Do you really think the magical community would have let a witch-burning effigy slide? I know I wouldn’t.”
Feya shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ve always said that Embers, or witches, or whatever we’re supposed to call them don’t care about us, and I kind of like that thought. It makes sense, you know? They just want us all to forget about them.”
“Yeah, I did say that,” Kelsey agreed, but it wasn’t that simple. The witches had tried to cast a spell across the world to make anyone without magic forget about them and their powers, to forget anything they may see, and even render them confused at the very mention of their true name, Embers. But it didn’t always work. Children were the perfect example of that, and some teenagers like Kelsey and Feya, too. They had yet to forgot about any of the Embers they witnessed. The horrors of the Embers’ powers stayed with them with every thought. The weight of magic hung heavy on their shoulders with every step they took, even now.
That’s when the pavement cracked.
The cement split in the middle like a dried-out sponge cake, earth spilling up through it. The world rumbled beneath Kelsey and Feya, threatening their balance.
Across the street, a man fell to the road, his shopping breaking free from the plastic bag in his hand. He should have made a run for it like his loose oranges rolling free towards the horizon, but instead he glanced over his shoulder—a mistake that rooted him to the spot, thanks to the spell. It must have worked well in him.
“Oh, no. Not again,” Feya groaned.
Kelsey didn’t complain. Her heart raced the approaching footsteps, the thumping sound pounding her thoughts to the corner of her mind except one. Act now, think later.
The Embers were coming. They had to hide.
Kelsey grabbed Feya’s shoulder. They dove over a garden wall like synchronised swimmers and landed in the Smith’s front garden with a mouthful of tulips.
Like always, Feya curled up into a ball and focused on deep, even breaths, in and out, but Kelsey surfed the adrenaline that pumped through her, riding the high to the beat of her eager heart. Finally, she thought. This wasn’t the first Ember-Bloodwitch fight she had witnessed, but it was the first time she no longer felt petrified.
And that meant her grand plan could work. Finally.
She crawled through the rhododendrons and peered over the bricks, whipping out her phone to record the battle. If she could get this right, the effigy would be complete forgotten. Maybe the meetings would be cancelled altogether!
Another rumble cut off her elation. Two Embers, no older than eighteen, raced down the middle of the road, a girl and a boy, panting as if their lungs had holes in them. They wore matching expressions—frowns and gritted teeth—their legs caught in knots as they stumbled from exhaustion, unable to keep running. They turned around, edging backwards towards Kelsey and Feya, their steps in sync.
The boy held his arm out. A wall of earth tore up through the cracks in the concrete and towards the sky, blocking off whatever was chasing them.
Before the Embers could catch their breaths, the wall bubbled and melted like wax. The girl hissed something, but the boy held his hand out again and clenched his jaw. More earth sprouted from the cracks, patching up the barrier, but the rock sizzled and dissolved. The girl put her arm on the boy’s shoulder, her eyes shut. Somehow the rock reformed faster and faster as if she were passing her energy to the boy, almost saving them, until their barrier crashed down into a smoking puddle, revealing a beautiful woman on the other side.
A smell sicklier than honey filled the air, the aftertaste bitter. The woman leaped over the puddle, lithe as poison in the breeze. Her bronze curls were too luscious, her face too flawless, her olive skin too smooth. Her violet dress hung off her body as if she were a model in front of a wind machine. She raised a vial of blood to her lips, knocking it back in one shot.
“So is that all you are?” the boy yelled at the woman. The fluff of a man’s first beard covered his chin. “A filthy Bloodwitch!”
Kelsey’s hand shook, the video blurring in a way her mind never would. Filming the boy and girl’s last moments felt akin to capturing their souls, and did she have the right to do that? Get a grip! she told herself. She leaned her arm against the wall to steady herself. If no one records it, no one will remember. Guilt dug its fingernails into her stomach as she let the scene unfold.
The Bloodwitch swished her hand out towards the Embers, palm up, a devilish smile plastered across her face.
“We’re trying to save you!” the girl screamed as the boy pulled her into a run.
Kelsey knew what would happen to the two young Embers. She had seen it before. Her breath hitched as the danger caught in her lungs, weighing her down. She promised herself not to flinch this time. It would never be okay, but this time she would handle it anyway.
Wisps of purple smoke danced around the witch’s outstretched arm, sailing forward until the locks of smoke engulfed the teenagers in a sickening hiss. The Embers shrieked. Their skin bubbled and bled, and they collapsed onto the concrete. New shrieks layered atop their echoes. The stench of burning skin saturated the air, clashing with the sweet honey scent. When their tortured cries faded, the girl writhed in pain but the boy lay still.
Kelsey realised she had been holding her breath, and let it out with a shudder. It was impossible to watch, yet even more impossible to help them.
Embers weren’t the problem. The Bloodwitches were the ones who had to be stopped.
Feya uncurled slightly. “Is the man okay?”
“The one with the shopping.”
Kelsey tensed. She hadn’t been able to save the Embers, but she wasn’t useless. The Bloodwitches tended to leave the magicless alone. She could help him, or at least check he was okay.
As the Bloodwitch commanded the acid with the wave of an arm to melt the remaining wall of earth, Kelsey peered through the smokescreen of branches and leaves. The shopping had settled, but a bushel shrouded the stranger—unless something had happened to him. She leaned over the wall, further and further, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to step over the wall, and maybe a bit into the road…
A hand wrapped around her ankle: Feya’s. Fine, I’ll find another way. Kelsey stretched her arm out and twisted and twizzled her phone until it illuminated her blind spot.
The man watched the Embers but saw nothing at all. The side of his face had red blisters; the acid had kissed his skin but not burned through to his consciousness. He sat on the pavement, ten steps away from the Bloodwitch, his mind spirited away. Magic had rendered him part of the scenery, with a lax jaw and a sway for every breeze.
“The Aversion’s doing its job,” Kelsey said, referring to the spell that erased memories. The same spell that rendered magical sightings no more than imagination in most adults. She settled into the dirt as the Bloodwitch reduced the remaining wall into a lump of porous rock.
“Really? That’s lucky,” Feya murmured.
Kelsey rolled her eyes. Feya didn’t get it, but Kelsey did. She understood the thrill of the fight, and the meaningless existence without it. The Bloodwitch could have easily walked around the wall of earth, but that wasn’t challenging or fun, and neither was hunting a dull, ordinary, magicless human. The spell that adverted ordinary minds away from magic, known as the Aversion, meant the magicless were like pigeons, only worth killing when they became too much of a pest.
The Bloodwitch walked over to the Embers and placed a finger at her chin. She examined his tattooed arm, the only part of him spared by the toxic mist.
“Ugh, what a mess,” she told the unconscious boy, kicking his stomach. He didn’t flinch at the hit. “But you’re what he wants.” The witch lifted the boy into her arms with an ill-matched ease for her slender frame, and walked off down the road leaving the other Ember behind.
A silence settled over the street.
Kelsey waited a breath or two before hopping over the wall with a car-crash type of curiosity. As sneaky as a cat in the wrong house, she approached the surviving Ember, angling her phone for a better shot of the girl’s face. Blisters crawled up the girl’s neck and cheek, and her matted hair peeled from the edge of her burning scalp. Kelsey’s stomach twisted, but she knew facing the truth of it was a necessity.
A hand latched onto her arm. The poisonous Bloodwitch flashed in front of her, quickly replaced by brown eyes and a soft face. “What are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here!”
Kelsey ended the video, but stiffened. “And the man?”
“He’s fine, I think,” Feya said, her eyes never leaving the Ember. “Should we help her somehow?”
Kelsey spoke against her gut instincts. “No. The Embers will find her. Like you said, we’ve got to go.” She glanced down at the blistered girl and swallowed.
They left the girl in the streets for the Embers to rescue. The man would be fine—the Embers would see the Aversion working perfectly and leave him be. The same would not be said for them, especially as the Aversion hadn’t started to work on them yet.
The grey clouds pulled together, ready to unleash a downpour on them, but Kelsey welcomed the natural face wash. She tucked her phone into her pocket, the overused battery warm against her chest. Her mother’s group might be resistant to the spell, but they weren’t impenetrable, and they couldn’t ignore the truth forever. But for now, she had everything she needed to stop the meeting.