Chapter One, A Wolf in the Shadows
He asked me again what it was like to breathe underwater, and I knew I needed more caffeine to compensate. I ordered another latte as he rattled about the numbers his new piece would bring to the local exhibition in S.H. Ervin Gallery, and found myself instead listening to the drum of rain against the café window.
It looked as though Sydney was drowning.
Heritage buildings and apartment blocks desperately rose above the rush of water, the Sydney Harbour Bridge peaking between two buildings, unbothered by the deluge. And here in a tiny café on the corner of Pitt Street, I sat trying to hasten a deal with yet another artist seeking the exhilaration of illusion magic.
Of course, his name was Kurt. Out of instinct I fidgeted the vials I kept strapped beneath my shirt, eager to be sure they were still right where I left them.
“Breathing underwater must be so – so illuminating!” He grinned the kind of grin only an artist who thought it would be their brush stroke to usher in the next age of art could. His hair curled from black to electric blue, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much gel was required each morning to shape such a creation. To be fair, he probably thought my pastel pink hair was done in my bathroom sink, not with a potion my mother had tried snatching from my hand when I was sixteen.
Sienna Montgomery! A witch prides herself on presentation. Remember to have a lick of class when presenting yourself to your peers. My mother’s hair was aquamarine.
I shrugged and traced a finger tip over the lip of my mug.“I haven’t used it much myself. Not for recreation at least, just to test the potion and ensure quality for my clients.” I shrugged, and pulled out a cold vial filled with a light blue substance, labelled, Mermaid’s Breath. A slight, near undetectable shimmer encased the vial. I handed it over to the eager young artist and his eyes gleamed hungrily, holding it like the keys to a brand new car.
Who knows, maybe the painting he makes with it will buy him a hundred new cars.
The waitress who brought me my latte eyed him for a moment, before walking away with a shake of her head. To her, the potion would look like a simple tissue. Glamour magic had always been my strength, and I often found most everyday people didn’t find anything odd with one pink-haired 22-year-old handing a tissue to a usually eccentric looking individual. Grateful for the refill, I took a sip of the latte and continued to watch the raindrops racing down the window. Our hair stood out in the rain-streaked reflection. Blue and pink. A stranger might even think we’re a couple. The artist put his precious vial in his breast pocket, and grinned with a different sort of look in his eye.“So, what’re doing after this, Miss Witch?”
Yeah, banish the thought.
“Work. Always more work.” I gave him my best tight-lipped smile and quickly sipped the rest of my latte. When the mug clattered against its matching plate, I watched the disappointment flash in his eyes. Quick as it came, it was gone. An opportunist flirt. Why is it clients assume I’ll give them some freebies if they shout Maccas and show me a mattress without a bedframe? I tapped the table and slipped out of the booth, flashing him my customer service smile. “If you’re in need of anymore Mermaid’s Breath, I’m just a text away.” I said, maintaining the smile in spite of the shiver going down my spine at the thought of having to interact with him anymore. I’d known artists all my life, and so many were brilliant, dazzling and sometimes outright confusing people. And sometimes they were like Kurt.
As I left the café my phone buzzed, notifying me of the other half of my payment. The soft light of my phone lit up my face in the dim rumblings of the drenched evening, and I didn’t want to think of the gloom probably paling my face.
$250 have been transferred to your St. George account. Processing pending.
Living in Sydney in my flat, the quartz dangling around my neck, the pink hair now slicking against my rain jacket and my evenings spent in coffee shops, well my little brother would call me the modern bohemian. I’d call myself trapped. My mother would call me baegchi. An idiot. I looked up to where I’d spotted the Sydney Harbour Bridge peeking through the buildings, and realised it wasn’t just overcast. The sun was beginning to set.
The haste in my step quickened, splashing through puddles as cars flashed their headlights at each other, signalling the cop waiting just beyond the intersection. I pulled my blue beanie further down, even though it was now black, soaked all the way through. I duck and wove through the streets once I was off the main drag, searching for familiar alleyways I could dart through to lessen the trip home. A bus would be a waste of time and I simply couldn’t afford a ride-sharing service. Past rush hour, there weren’t many people about. Most wished to avoid the deluge, happy to order-in rather than brave the storm. I couldn’t blame them. Yet, none faced the kind of dangers I did. I managed to duck into an deli awning, taking shelter for a moment while I got my bearings again. I felt for the vials once again, and breathed a sigh of relief. All of them were safe and accounted for.
A second vial of Mermaid’s Breath.
Three vials of Inferno Skin.
One vial of Eye of the Beholder.
One vial of Drake Claws.
Some were worth more than others, sure. But for me they meant everything. And some people, those who knew of witches, our potions, saw opportunity in a lone witch in the low light of the Sydney evening. Especially those who knew of the Quartz Witch. And right now, across the road standing in the middle of a crossing, I think one such opportunist had spotted me.
Too late for a glamour. Shit.
I spun on my heel and made a break for it.
And so did he.
Through the nearest alleyway I ran, ducking beneath make-shift clothes hangers and jumped over old boxes that had sunken in the rain. Hearing more footsteps behind me, I risked a glance behind me. There were three of them now. All in hoodies, their faces obscured with a mask or pieces of cloth pulled up. My heart began to thunder in my chest, and I could only run faster. Down the slant of another empty street, up a chain-link fence they continued their chase. They never broke or hesitated, intent on their prey. I ignored their whoops and cries, their jeers for me to just slow down and chat with them. One assured me they wanted to purchase one of my wares. I ran and ran, ignoring all else until I ducked into another alley, hoping to find a busy main street on the other side. Instead, I found a dead-end. Before they caught up, I had a few seconds to decide. My hand went to the warmest vial against my chest, but hesitation stopped my fingers from flicking the cork right off. Drake Claws began to heat up my finger-tips, and I made my decision.
A single vial alone was worth $2000.
It was enough to really help me move out of the city.
And it’s enough for Liam.
I pressed my back against the concrete wall, rain-water running down the back of my jacket. They stood before me, even their eyes concealed from me. The one with the black jacket who first stared me down held his hand out.
“You know what we want. Hand them over. Or we’ll take you and you can be our cash cow!” He growled, something feral in his voice. My chest heaved, palms sweating as my mind raced to figure out what the hell to do. Before I could figure out how to hide the Drake Claws somehow, a true growl rung out from above the alley. The chasers spun around and looked up, and they each gazed at the wolf staring them down from the top of a fire-escape. Yellow eyes blazed, a long grey tail flicking back and forth as another furious growl ripped from its throat.
My fear evaporated and the pull of the familiar bond flickered in me.
“Scum!” Her wolf roared, leaping from the top of the fire-escape, and slamming down before the three thieves. He stood tall like a man, grey fur turned dark in the rain, his lips pulled back in a fierce snarl. One of the robbers tried his like, attempting to throw a feeble punch. The wolf swatted him away with ease, claws glinting in the yellow light of the alley. The robber slammed against the concrete, scrambling to his feet and racing away. I gasped as the one in the black hoodie lunged for me, only for to be flung away like a bag of trash. The third shrunk under Robert’s yellow gaze and sped away in fear, whimpering as he made his escape.
I felt my breath return to my lungs, and I pulled the hood back up over my beanie.
“God, my back hurts,” Her familiar grumbled, returning to his human form as he slicked his grey hair back down. When a familiar returned to their human selves, it was a quick process, their fur, fangs and claws disappearing in a black wisp.
He retained the same height, the same stony gaze and old brown coat.
“Let’s get you back to your place, Sienna.” He said softly, pulling me into a broad-chested hug. Even his softest words came out like a gravely growl.
We made it back to her flat before the thunder began. Inside, I shed my jacket and beanie. Robert made himself at home with a cup of English Tea, sitting at my table to admire the lilies he’d bought me a few weeks back for my birthday. We ate Chinese take-out as thunder flashed in the full-moon window that over-looked the dark, yellow-lit streets.
“I’m sorry, Sienna. I should’ve been there before they could’ve spotted you.” Robert sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. I slurped up a noodle, and shrugged. “You saved me Rob. That’s what matters.” He said little else, but his yellow eyes seemed sullen.
My familiar had always been a thoughtful man. He was older than most familiars, but that had always brought me comfort. He wasn’t brash or loud, but decisive. He had time, wisdom and experience on his side when it came to defending me. But he was a harsh self-critic. An old, grey wolf that judged himself before all others. I gave him one more hug before he left, enjoying the pat on the head he always gave me when we departed.
“Listen, Sien. I don’t want to think about what might have happened if I’d shown up just a few moments later than I had. Our bond has always been strong, but my back and my response time has only gotten slower with each passing year since Silas. I think it’s time I retire,” He said, scratching the back of his head. A pang of sorrow filled my chest, and I did my best not to let it well up and for the tears to run down my cheeks.
“Robert, I - ” I began.
“I already have a replacement in mind. Meet me for ramen tomorrow and we can talk about it.” He said, already turning away.
I leant against the open door way, and watched him disappear around the corner of the hallway. I stood there for a while, just staring at the grey carpet. Out of instinct, I went to feel for the vials wrapped around me, but found nothing. They were tucked away in my Pomegranate Safe, warm and protected against the world.
While I stood in a draft, soaked to the bone.