“Why can’t you just turn Jason into a frog?” Boise Davenport frowned, brushing back a loose strand of her unnaturally red hair.
We were sitting in my living room, which was doubling as my office, as business was slow.
“That’s not the sort of thing I do. No matter how much someone might deserve it,” I said. Why does everyone always want a frog?
Boise (real name Janet Kretzel) hit it big on one of those reality shows where the producers strand you in the tropics with little in the way of clothing. By the end of the first episode, #RedBoise was trending.
She was attempting to parley that popularity into an acting career but her big break was being held up by an intransigent casting director who she implied was a candidate for #MeToo. Hence the amphibious transformation request.
Boise removed her over-sized sunglasses, revealing green eyes with a conspiratorial bent. “Not necessarily a frog. A badger or a groundhog would do. It doesn’t even have to be an animal. Just something to get him out of the way. Make him allergic to Wi-Fi and he’ll have to move to the woods in West Virginia.” She smiled at me with perfect white teeth. Those caps must have set her back at least ten grand.
I shook my head. “In my practice, I like to be constructive. Build up my clients, rather than tear down others.”
“What about that Supreme Court Justice you put a hex on?” She pointed to the blown up, framed cover of LA Magazine hanging on the wall. A professional hair and make-up job and the talents of a skilled Photoshop artist resulted in the Platonic Ideal of myself above the caption “Meet the Face of the #NewResistance: Jennifer Griffiths is The Witch of Sherman Oaks.”
At Polliwog Park the day before the confirmation vote, I burned sage, coriander, dandelion roots, and a photo of Smirking Judge Punchable Face in a silver chalice, while I danced and chanted a curse that my Welsh grandmother taught me. So many crazy things happen in LA every day, but my video went viral. The raccoon carrying her babies in the background might have helped. I was in Variety, Deadline, and interviewed by Don Lemon on CNN.
I shrugged. “You’ll notice he’s still on the court. The whole exercise was more cathartic than cabalistic.”
She stared at me, a blank look on her face.
“That means liberating,” I said.
She snorted. “I know what cabalistic means.”
This conversation needed to get back on track. Not only would Boise be good repeat business, but she was a hot commodity. Word would get around. The clients would return. If they didn’t, by the end of the month I’d be living out of my Prius.
“A good witch is part life-coach, part therapist,” I said.
“I already have a life-coach and a therapist.” She put down her coffee and jabbed a finger at me. “What I don’t have, but what I need, is a witch who can put the whammy on Jason Sugarman, so I can get my movie career out of first gear.”
“I can’t just wiggle my nose.” I smiled sheepishly. “Let’s work on creating a positive energy field around you. I have these marvelous scented candles handcrafted by Bhutan monks. They’re made of the wax from Asian pears grown in the Chele Le Grove. That’s a virgin forest where no machinery of any type is permitted. Light the candles before you go to sleep and repeat a mantra that I’ll give you. I guarantee your aura will be a deep blue in no time.”
Boise stood. “This is ridiculous.” She pulled out her phone. “Refused to take my concerns seriously.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m one-starring you on Yelp. Office décor embarrassingly outdated. And the coffee is weak.” She tapped away as she walked out the door.
I struck the punching bag with a blazing left-right-left combination, followed up with an elbow, then a knee strike. I reset and kicked the bag with my bare right foot.
Kicking isn’t a completely accurate description. In Pradal Serey, you don’t snap your leg. Instead you generate power by rotating your hips, thus delivering maximum force against your target. And it firms up your glutes. I continued to imagine Boise as the bag, pummeling her with all my rage.
“Someone’s fired up,” said Daevy Sayavong, my kick-boxing coach. She’s 5’3”, two inches shorter than me, but all muscle beneath her Dodgers t-shirt and shorts. Her mop of jet-black hair and intense eyes contrasted with her eternally goofy grin.
Gasping, I asked, “Why would you say that?” Left. Right. Right elbow. Left elbow. Right knee strike. Left kick. Left knee strike. Right kick.
“Take a minute, catch your breath, and grab a drink. Then I’ll let you have a go at me.”
I nodded, retreated from the bag, and sat. While sweat dripped down my forehead and stung my eyes, I chugged an organic, non-GMO electrolyte, swapped out my bag gloves for sparring gloves, and slipped the chest protector over my tank top.
The gym was empty except for Daevy and me. Checkerboard-style black and gray pads covered the floor. Exercise equipment crowded along the far wall. Above me hung the flag of Cambodia: two blue stripes and one red with Angkor Wat in the center.
The icepick-sharp keyboard stabs of Duran Duran’s “A View to A Kill” blared from the sound system. A ten-year-old Daevy escaped the killing fields by walking all the way to Thailand. She came to America as a refugee in the mid 80s and fell shamelessly in love with New Wave bands.
I met Daevy in the center of the gym. We touched gloves and began to spar. Daevy’s a pro. No way I can keep up with her. Normally she doesn’t go full out. Her students don’t learn much when they’re flat on the mat. But today, she wasn’t holding back.
I successfully blocked a kick from the right, but before I could blink, she was on the other side of me, and dropped me with an elbow.
She offered a hand. “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“Nope,” I mumbled through my mouth guard, getting to my feet. I launched right-left-right, elbow, and knee strike. She stopped them all.
Synthesizers and saxophones soared. “Gold” by Spandau Ballet was playing now.
I blocked a flurry of punches, but a quick knee felled me.
She stood over me. “Someone’s not focused.”
I was breathing too heavily to answer. Three more knockdowns and fifteen minutes later we’re sitting on the bench.
“You’re not here today, Jen.” She tapped the side of her head.
I frowned. “It’s business. Lost another client.” I told her about Boise.
Daevy shrugged and pointed to my heart. “The wisest person I know once told me that success is all in here.”
“If I’m the wisest person you know, then you’ve got bigger problems than me.”
“Some air-headed reality-star trying to extend her fifteen minutes doesn’t want to hire you? You’re better off without her.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Remember Jim with his PTSD? You help real people with real problems.”
I appreciated Daevy’s efforts, but her pep talk wasn’t going to pay the rent. I hit the shower, let the water flow over my aching muscles, and tried to forget about everything. It worked until the hot water ran out.
I stepped out of the shower, dried off, got dressed, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. I found Daevy in the gym. Her smile was missing, replaced by a look of concern.
“You’ve got a potential client waiting,” she said.
Daevy nodded. “Yeah. Says he went to your home, but got no answer. But Mrs. Beanpole noticed him and said where to find you. He’s outside. If you want, I can run him off.”
“Why? Are you getting a bad vibe from him?”
Daevy shook her head. “Not bad, just odd.”
“I’m not in a position to turn down clients. Why don’t you come out with me? If things get crazy, it’ll be two against one.” Not that Daevy needed any help to take down weirdos.
We stepped outside into the midday sun, and I spotted him leaning against a mailbox. Daevy was right. This guy looked off. He was dressed like an extra from the latest unnecessary Robin Hood remake: a green vest over a white shirt, green tights, a triangular felt hat, and a leather punch looped over his shoulder. Plus, he wore a cape!
He saw us standing at the gym entrance, straightened up, and strode toward us with a definite sense of purpose. He stopped three feet before me, removed his hat, dropped to one knee, and bowed.
I glanced at Daevy who rolled her eyes.
In an accent I couldn’t quite place, the man in green said, “Well met, Jennifer Griffiths, The Witch of Sherman Oaks. I am Braxtiaran Darahenij and I urgently need your assistance.”
Ten minutes later, I was sipping my unsweetened iced tea in the far corner booth of the Boulevard Café. Brax (no way I was trying to pronounce his full name) ordered a milk and wasn’t too pleased.
“This beverage is the product of unhappy bovines herded into exceedingly confined circumstances.” He slammed the glass to the table. “It has been scorched, subjected to some malevolent mechanical process, and denuded of its essential nutrients. It is unworthy of being drunk.”
Brax had dirty blonde hair, an infectious smile, and a strong chin. I was still trying to place his accent. New Zealand?
“Yeah, I do hate denuded milk.” I fake-frowned in mock sympathy. “You said you needed my assistance?”
“Yes!” He held up a smartphone. “This ingenious device allowed me to peruse the ratings of witches and others imbued with the supernatural in the vicinity. You have received many outstanding testimonials. Save for this most recent assessment: ‘Refused to turn the bastard who’s ruining my career into a frog.’” His blue eyes, the color of Big Bear Lake, twinkled. “You are not only a lady of immense power and rare beauty, but of great integrity.”
My face burned red. “I hope you’re not looking for help with a casting call.”
He gave me a bewildered look. “No, I require your aid in defeating the Evil Sorcerer Crixon.”
“Evil Sorcerer Crixon?” I sighed.
He nodded. “The Spiteful One’s followers plan to breach the dimensional barrier that protects your planet. They will open the portal allowing Crixon to manifest himself in all his malevolence.”
I nodded politely and sipped my tea.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Brax said.
“Really?” Why didn’t I ask Daevy to come along? How am I going to get out of here? What asylum did you escape from?
“Why not prevent the portal from opening, thus stopping the Sorcerer before he even arrives?” Brax shook his head. “The threat would never be truly gone, for the portal could open at any time. Crixon must be defeated here. Once that is done, the barrier cannot be breached for another 144,000 years.” He paused. “That’s Thacriulean years, of course.”
“Of course.” Time to make a break for it. I gulped the rest of my tea and stood. “Look, Brax. This all seems very interesting, but I have to go, I’m exp—”
“But you can’t leave yet. We haven’t even discussed your payment.”
“Payment?” I returned to my seat.
He reached into his pouch and pulled out a fist of gold coins. They rattled on the table. “Will this be sufficient recompense?”
My eyes widened. I picked up one of the coins. Heavy. A Krugerrand? Was Brax’s accent South African?
“The portal will open in your Mojave Desert. All the dedicated servants of Crixon: the duskmouths, the gallcrackles, and Dadan Sanguis, his high priestess, will be present at the ceremony.”
“The desert? You mean like Burning Man?”
Brax nodded. “There will be a figure aflame. That is a necessary prerequisite for the portal to materialize.”
Now it all made sense. Brax was larping one of the Merry Men because he’s some kind of Renaissance Fair performer. And he needed me to fill a role. “Is this a union gig? Because I’m no longer in Actor’s Equity.”
“No guild membership is required to oppose the sorcerer.”
I rubbed the coin between my fingers. I needed to make sure this was really gold, but this might be the break I’d been waiting for. “What exactly do you need me to do?”
“I would never presume to tell a witch how to use her powers.”
His act was beginning to wear. “I’m not asking how, but what?”
“You stand upon the greensward, challenge the Sorcerer, and use your magic to defeat him. Once vanquished he will return to his home dimension and the portal will close.”
“Where in the desert?
“The closest populace is a village called Baker.”
I knew it. Off I-15. Little place to grab gas and snacks on the way to Vegas. “When is this?”
“The ceremony begins an hour before sundown.”
“Yes, time is of the essence.”
I gathered up the coins and slipped them into my purse. “I sure don’t want to disappoint the duskcrackles and gallmouths, but we’ll have to make a couple of stops first.”
“I have no idea who this is.” My buddy Arman, the proprietor of 24-7 Pawn, held the gold coin in his stubby fingers and displayed the profile of a lady in a crown. “Or what the hell this is.” He flipped the coin over. The reverse featured some kind of half-beaver, half-dinosaur creature. “No numismatic value whatsoever.”
“But it is gold, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, the tests say it’s gold.” He glanced at the stack of coins on the counter. “Where’d you even get these, anyway?”
Brax, further down the counter and fascinated with an over-sized metronome, answered, “They come direct from the Pagash Treasury, a reward from my good friend, the Countess Battenstrong.”
Arman raised a bushy eyebrow. “The Countess Battenstrong?”
“I’m sure it’s totally legit.” I gathered up the coins. “Let’s finish up in back.”
I left Brax to the metronome, while Arman and I worked out a deal. I convinced him to trade the gold for cash, enough to pay off all my credit cards, rent an office that wasn’t attached to my kitchen, and think about a vacation. Arman agreed not to report the transaction. I’m a good liberal and think everyone should pay their taxes, especially the multinationals that run this country. But does the government need more from me? What are they going to do with it? Drone strike another wedding party in Yemen?
Next stop: my place. I changed into my favorite turquoise golf shirt, dressy khaki shorts, and these fabulous ankle boots I discovered in a little boutique in West Hollywood. Black leather with a silver buckle and a two-inch heel. No time to go hit the salon. I wore my hair up, secured with a copper jaw-clip.
I called my friend Laura and let her know about this latest gig and had her track my iPhone. Into my purse I slipped three bottles of water and a five-shot .38 caliber revolver. Belonged to my granddad. I knew martial arts, but Brax, as charming and goofy as he was, had height, weight, and reach on me. The gun made for a great equalizer, just in case.
Three hours later, we were in my Prius heading north on 127 out of Baker toward Death Valley. The sun low in the western sky. The GPS instructed me to turn right onto a dirt road cutting across the desert.
“Is this really the way?” I asked.
“Indeed. Follow this path and we will arrive at the site of Venomous One’s materialization.” Brax annoyingly refused to break character.
The road was bumpy but survivable by keeping the speed under ten mph. We drove past miles of still landscape: brown rocks, Joshua trees, and sand, but not a single living creature. After thirty minutes or so, the road twisted around a mountain. Flames became visible in the distance.
Brax muttered something in a foreign language, then said, “Stop here.”
I pointed to the GPS. “We still have a mile to go.”
He shook his head. “We will approach on foot.”
I pulled off the ‘road’, parked on a flat spot, and checked my phone: no bars. I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the blazing heat. The desert wind sucked the moisture right out of me.
We walked toward the fire, Brax leading the way. I chugged half a bottle of water and offered the rest to Brax. He declined.
“Aren’t you hot in that getup?” I asked.
“We have far greater concerns than my comfort.”
No sound, but the wind and the crunch of our footsteps. As we grew closer, I could see the burning figure was neither a man nor boy. It had multiple tentacles, like a giant flaming squid. Had to be fifty feet tall. The wind died down. A low noise in the distance. Not shouting or chanting, not even sure it was voices. More like growling.
Ten minutes later we were at the camp, for lack of a better word. Decidedly low-tech. No ticket takers, info booth, or porta-potties. I couldn’t even see where everyone parked.
The giant burning squid overlooked a green circle maybe one hundred feet in diameter. A giant putting green incongruously placed in the middle of the desert.
Brax led me to a large boulder where we perched ourselves to gain an unobstructed view of the ceremony.
Scores of cosplayers sat at edge of the circle. Most were wearing gray rubber, full-body suits, complete with pointed ears and tusks. Brax said those were the duskmouths. Not sure how they managed to sit down with their knees bending the wrong way. One grabbed a passing scorpion, and it looked like he shoved it in his mouth. Must be the heat getting to me. I drank more water.
Brax pointed out the gallcrackles: orange, bald, and equipped with a pair of realistic-looking prosthetic arms. The arms appeared to be functional, as one of the gallcrackles used all four to toss wood at the base of the flaming squid. Inside that guy must be sweating up a storm. Got to give them credit; these people were serious about putting on their show.
I chugged my last bottle of water. I hopped up and walked over to the closest duskmouth. I scrunched up my nose at the odor from his costume. Like a skunk drowning in burning motor oil. “Hey, do you have anything to drink?”
He gurgled at me unintelligibly.
“I appreciate your commitment to the role, but I’m parched. I need something before I do the big act.”
He emitted a high-pitched wail and blue smoke emerged from his nostrils and ears.
“Wow that’s some good effect,” I muttered to myself as I walked back to Brax. “I need some water.”
“Not now.” He pointed to the circle. “The high priestess Dadan Sanguis is about to open the portal.”
The priestess was the only one not wearing a rubber-suit. She was tall, about six-feet, and built like a WWE Diva. She had platinum blond spiky hair and wore a strapless black gown that defied gravity. Don’t tell me she didn’t have work done. On either side of her, gallcrackles, using all four arms, pounded on drums. Da-dum, ba-dum, ba-thum.
The priestess chanted, danced, pointed her arms at the heavens, and chanted some more.
I leaned over to Brax. “When are we going to get to the good stuff?”
“Shh! He arrives.”
Above the priestess a black hole appeared. I glanced around for projectors, but didn’t see any. Then, an explosion. Gray smoke filled the air, when the smoke cleared, a man stood in the center of the green circle: The Evil Sorcerer Crixon.
Of course, he didn’t come through the black hole. Good illusion. But the smoke was a dead giveaway. A chance to distract the audience. I should know. For three years, I was the assistant to the Astounding Melvin at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. Two shows daily. Dark on Mondays. The Reno Gazette-Journal named us a “Top Ten Entertainment Value of 2014.”
Crixon strutted around the putting green waving a wand. He was an inch or two shorter than the priestess. Salt-and-pepper hair ran down to his shoulders. He wore something resembling a purple tuxedo. The smirk on his face reminded me of a certain Supreme Court Justice.
“Prepare yourself, Jennifer. It is nearly your time.” Brax put a hand on my shoulder. “Crixon will announce the challenge. It’s mandatory and perfunctory. No one is expected to accept. But you will. Say these words: Hyvaksin teedan hausteesy. Then enter the greensward, where you will use your magic to defeat him and return him to Thacriulea. His minions will follow and the portal will close.”
“After I accept the challenge, what do I say?”
Brax gave me a baffled look. “You are the witch. You know what spells are best.”
“Ah, improvise.” I nodded. “How long should it take? I want to give the audience their money’s worth. They probably don’t want me to dispatch Crixon in two minutes.”
For the first time there was concern in his eyes. “Do not underestimate The Odious One. He has slashed a course of death and destruction across a dozen dimensions. I have confidence that you can defeat him and protect your world, but do not take your task lightly.”
The drums stopped. No noise but the howling wind. Crixon glanced around the circle at his followers. He shouted in a language I didn’t understand.
“Your turn,” said Brax.
“Get some good photos of me. Something Instagramable.” I handed him my purse and strode forward.
I stopped at the edge of the putting green. I announced in my most confident voice, “Hivacstyn treidlen histeersi. ”
Crixon, the priestess, the minions all stared at me.
I realized I flubbed my lines and gave it another go. “Havivacstine treeding hosteersi.”
Crixon glared at me, and the duskmouths made a sound like laughter. I turned back to get help from Brax, but he was already beside me.
In a booming voice Brax said, “Hyvaksin teedan hausteesy.”
“Sorry, I didn’t get that right.” I whispered to Brax. “What now?”
“The challenge has been accepted. Enter the greensward.”
I stepped into the circle. “Welcome to California.”
A look of amusement crossed Crixon’s face. “Ah, a Terran. Who are you who dares to challenge me?” He had a British accent like one of the upper crusters on Downton Abbey.
I walked forward, trying not to trip as my heels sunk into the green, stopped about ten feet in front of him, and placed my hands on my hips. “I am Jennifer Griffiths, The Witch of Sherman Oaks, Defender of the Mojave, and Face of the New Resistance.” I’d been rehearsing that line for hours.
The gallcrackles grunted.
Crixon looked me over and scoffed. “I sense no magic in you, Mortal. Leave now and spend your final few hours with your loved ones before I burn your world to a cinder.”
“Not quite, Mister.” I pirouetted on my left foot, spun three hundred and sixty degrees, pointed at him with my right hand. “Esgusodwch fi, syr. Faint o arian y byddai’n ei gostio i gylchdroi teiars fy nghar?” It sounded impressive, but it was just Welsh for ‘How much would it cost to get my tires rotated?’ For what I was getting paid, the audience deserved something more than ‘Abra Cadabra.’
Crixon crossed his arms. “Is there more?”
I leaned forward, smiled, and said, sotto voce “Brax didn’t give me a lot to go on. Say something and I’ll react.” I winked and stepped back.
Crixon raised his wand, and it sparkled with electricity. His eyes turned a flaming red. How he managed that trick, I had no idea. He uttered something unintelligible and pointed the wand at me. A lightning bolt streaked across the green, slammed into me, and knocked me backward through air. I thudded to the ground. Darkness swallowed me up.
I opened my eyes. The light was dim, almost total darkness. My body ached all over. I tried to move my leg, but something held it in place.
“Jennifer, you are awake?” Brax asked.
I squinted. A manacle attached to my right shin, the chain secured to the wall. We were in what looked like a cave. “What the hell happened?” I licked dried blood from my lower lip. I needed water. My stomach was on fire. My shirt was singed where the lightning bolt struck me, first-degree burns underneath. Damn. I really liked this shirt.
“Indeed, it is Hell. I was wrong.” Brax shook his head. “I thought you were powerful enough to stop Crixon. I read how you placed a curse on one of your nation’s greatest law-givers. You have a 4.9 rating on Yelp!”
“Enough with the act. Where are we?”
“Crixon’s minions transported us to this abandoned mine. It is not far from the portal.”
“This isn’t funny anymore.” Did Brax lead me into some kind of 21st century Manson Family sacrifice? “Get me out of this thing.” I rattled the chain attached to my leg.
“Fair Witch, I cannot as I am similarly shackled. I have attempted to extricate myself with this.” He held up a rusty crowbar. “So far, I have been unsuccessful.”
“Knock it off with the cosplay. These people are nuts and dangerous. We have to get out of here and find help.”
Brax frowned. “I doubt your secular authorities are any match for The Caustic One. That is why I sought you out. Perhaps I should have engaged the Oracle of Beverly Hills.”
“Valerie? That hack? Everything she knows about being a witch, she learned from repeats of Charmed.”
Brax opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything.
I needed to focus. Losing my temper wasn’t going to get us out of here. “Sorry, Brax, that was uncalled for.” I took three deep breaths. “What’s the deal with these people?”
“What are they doing? Why are we chained up?”
“Crixon is going to sacrifice you to duskmouths. As for me, he will replace my soul with dark magic and I will become a drone in his army of destruction. The very same army that he will use to conquer and enslave your world.” He sighed, his face covered with resignation.
It all seemed so impossible. But the gallcrackles? The portal? The lightning from Crixon’s wand? I touched the burns on my stomach. Ow! That sure felt real.
Did I fail to block a strike from Daevy, and I’m KO’d on the floor of her gym, dreaming this? Or could it be another acid flashback? In either case, it doesn’t matter what I do. Ride it out until I wake up or come down. But if Brax were right, the world was in danger.
First thing to do was to get out of these chains. Fortunately, whoever, or whatever, locked me up only secured one leg. My hands were free.
I removed my jaw-clip and my hair tumbled down. I bent the clip back-and-forth, weakening it until it snapped in half. The spring dropped into my palm and I inserted it into the manacle’s lock.
“What are you doing?” asked Brax.
“My kind of magic.” In one of our best illusions, The Amazing Melvin would handcuff me, stuff me in a burlap sack, and drop me into a giant aquarium. Picking this lock with two free hands while dry wasn’t a challenge. In less than thirty seconds the lock popped open. I removed the manacle, stood, and stretched.
Brax’s lock proved no more difficult. “Now we need to get out of here without being spotted and call for help.”
Brax shook his head. “Your authorities are not armed with any weapons that can stop Crixon.”
“He’s never dealt with some of the good old boys they hire for Sheriff’s deputies. They have hurting people down to an art,” I said with false bravado. I wasn’t sure how powerful Crixon was. I hoped Brax was overestimating him.
Brax stood. “We must confront him.”
“He almost fricasseed me last time.”
“Now you are prepared for him. If you were to use the element of surprise, we would defeat him effortlessly.”
“No, Brax. I don’t do that sort of magic. I do spirit guiding, affirmations, herbal workshops. Not lightning bolts.”
“But I sensed great power in you.”
“I think that was the Pradal Serey. I don’t have a wand like Hermione.”
He eyes lit up. “Can we contact this Hermione?”
“I think she’s filming Little Women.”
Brax gave me a blank look.
“We have to go. Are there any guards?” I asked.
“I do not believe Crixon posted any. They are not concerned with us, and the duskmouths do not want to miss any portion of the ceremony.”
“OK, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to sneak out of this mine as quietly as possible, head back to the Prius, and get the hell out of here. Once we’re in cell range, I’m calling in the Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, and the Marines. They’ll handle Crixon.” I hoped I sounded confident, because my knees were shaking.
“No. We tried things your way, and I almost got bar-b-cued.”
“I was going to say: Does not your transportation convenience require a key to start?”
My keys! “Where’s my purse?”
Brax frowned. “It must have slipped from my grasp when the gallcrackles assaulted me.”
No keys. Could I hotwire the Prius? Probably, given enough time, which I wasn’t sure we had. But even if I were successful, I had no idea how to bypass the ignition interlock system.
Walk through the desert? It had to be at least twenty miles to the highway. Assuming we even went in the correct direction. And I was already dehydrated. The heat would probably get us long before we found the road.
I scowled. Chancing a repeat engagement with Crixon, lightning bolts, and his monsters was a crappy plan, but the only one I had. “We have to go back and get my purse.”
“If we return, then we must face Crixon.”
“No. I explained already. I’m not a real witch. I can’t take him on. We sneak in, get the keys, sneak out, and go for help.”
Brax wasn’t happy, but nodded his assent. He picked up the crowbar, and we scrambled out of the mine. The entrance was in the side of a mountain a couple hundred feet above the circle. We switch-backed our way down. The duskmouths’ and gallcrackles’ attention was focused on the ceremony. Crixon gallivanted around the putting green using his wand to throw bolts of lightning and streams of flame. I touched my stomach where I was struck by the bolt and shuddered.
We reached the desert floor and slithered along the ground like snakes, not more than twenty feet from the circle, but no one took notice of us.
“Duskmouths are noted neither for intelligence nor ambition,” Brax whispered.
We crawled our way to the boulder where we’d sat. The high priestess assembled ten duskmouths and stacked them in a pyramid. Crixon pointed his wand. An orange beam emerged from the wand and engulfed the pyramid of duskmouths with a brilliant flash. When the light returned to normal, a twelve-foot tall giant duskmouth stood where the pyramid had been. It would take a bazooka to bring that thing down. His little cousins squealed their approval.
I slipped behind the boulder and found my purse. Keys were inside. I looped the strap over my neck and slowly slunk back out. This might work after all.
“Okay, let’s get out of here.” I looked around but couldn’t find Brax.
“Die, Repugnant One!” Brax charged across the circle, swinging the crowbar.
Crixon thrust the wand at him. A bolt struck Brax, knocking him to the ground.
“Brax!” I instinctively stood and raced toward him.
Crixon spotted me. A bolt of electricity crackled over my head. I ducked and ended flat in the dirt. He waved the wand, but instead of being struck by a lightning bolt, I floated into the air, drifting toward Crixon, my arms and legs pinwheeling to no effect. I landed in the circle, facing him.
“The so-called Witch of Sherman Oaks? It seems we’ll have to revise the schedule and prepare your sacrifice now.” There was that damned smirk again.
I tried not to shake. In the bravest voice I could muster, I said, “Yeah, well. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just be going.” I turned to walk away, but my feet didn’t work. I stuck to the green like a fly to flypaper.
He addressed his followers. “What shall it be, my minions? Do you want to see me flay the skin from this arrogant Terran or would you prefer to watch her burn?”
The duskmouths moaned. The gallcrackles groaned.
Crixon laughed cruelly. “My followers have spoken. Flaying it shall be!”
I couldn’t move my feet, but my hands were free. I pulled the gun from my purse. I’d never shot anything other than a target at the range, but I didn’t hesitate. I aimed at Crixon’s chest, cocked the hammer, and pull—Something was wrong. The trigger wouldn’t move. No, not the trigger. My finger froze. It wasn’t doubt or fear. My finger simply wouldn’t respond.
Crixon gestured with his wand.
The gun was hot to my hand, searing, I dropped it. My hand was red, beginning to blister.
The revolver rose from the ground and floated in front of Crixon. A twist of his wand and the gun broke itself down, its parts suspended in midair. He inspected the pieces. A look of understanding crossed his face. “Ah, what a lovely toy. The hammer strikes the primer, igniting a propellant of potassium carbonate and potassium sulfate, which drives the bullet down the barrel.” Crixon mumbled something, and the gun reassembled.
I struggled to free myself. My feet lifted, but the soles and heels of my boots stuck to the green. I flailed like one of those advertising balloons outside a car dealership.
Crixon aimed the gun at the giant duskmouth and fired. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off its body. It made some sort of high-pitched noise, like a giggle. Guess it tickled.
“You have no magic, and your science is for children. This world will be an easy conquest.” Crixon tossed the gun aside. “Where were we? Oh yes, my servants demand that I flay you alive.”
He whispered something, and the wand transformed into a blade. He sliced the palm of his left hand and blood dripped to the ground. He gazed at the sky and began an incantation. The duskmouths and gallcrackles chanted.
My shoes were stuck to the circle, not my feet. I reached down and unsnapped the buckles. I flexed my foot and lifted it an inch to be sure.
Crixon approached, weapon in one hand, his other dripping blood. I had to time this perfectly. He raised the blade, aiming for my chest. I lifted my right leg, got excellent hip rotation, slammed my foot into his ribcage, and sent him sprawling. Daevy would be so proud. The blade slipped from his hand and returned to the form of a wand.
The minions grunted their disapproval.
“Earth isn’t the pushover you think it is.” I delivered a knee strike to his head. Almost.
Crixon raised his hands, blocked my blow, and grabbed my shin. I was off-balance, standing on my left foot, while he held my right leg. He twisted my leg, pain shot up my spine, and I fell to the ground.
I scrambled to my feet. He did the same. We faced off. I feinted to the right, moved to his left, and smacked him with an elbow. I blocked his fist and hit him with a roundhouse right. I was faster and a better fighter, but it was like hitting a punching bag, only harder. His skin was like armor.
I fought with no mercy. This was for the world. This was for me. Left, right, left, he covered up, and I kept pounding. He crouched and leg-swiped me, dropping me to the ground. He crawled toward the wand. I grabbed his leg. He wasn’t making any progress, but I couldn’t pull him away. Stalemate.
He shouted, and the wand shakily rose from the green, floating toward his outstretched hand.
The crowbar soared through the air and struck Crixon’s hand. He screamed, and the wand dropped to the ground.
Brax! I looked to him for help, but a gallcrackle wrestled him to the ground. The minions formed a circle on the green and surrounded us, but they looked to be letting Crixon and me battle it out without interference.
I stomped on Crixon’s leg, let him go, and stood. I needed a weapon. The gun was proven worthless. I looked for the crowbar. A duskmouth was chewing on it like an over-sized Tootsie Roll. That left the wand. I scrambled past Crixon as he rose. I picked up the wand, faced him, and waved like I had seen him do.
Crixon chortled. “The wand is useless to you. It requires a life-time of training to master.”
With the wand in my left hand I advanced, I feinted with a right. He moved to block, and I did my best impression of a Mike Trout homerun swing, slamming the wand into his groin. No such thing as dirty fighting when the world is at stake. A wide-eyed Crixon whimpered and dropped to the ground. I pounded him in the head with the wand until he lapsed into unconscious, the smirk wiped off his face.
Exhausted I dropped to my knees and gulped deep breaths of air.
“Jennifer Griffiths, The Witch of Sherman Oaks, Defender of the Mojave, Face of the New Resistance.” The voice of the high priestess came from directly behind me.
I was spent, nothing left, but the fight wasn’t over. I gripped the wand with my left hand, balled my right into a fist. I counted to three and spun as I stood.
My knees collapsed. I tumbled to the ground; the wand slipped from my hand. The priestess stood over me. I held back my tears. I fought the good fight. I wasn’t going out crying.
Dadan raised her hand. “You accepted Crixon’s challenge and defeated him in fair combat. Mostly.” Her eyes flicked to Brax. The gallcrackle released him and Brax was slowly picking himself up. “I declare you champion.” She offered me her hand and lifted me to my feet. In a low voice she said, “I never liked working for that jerk.”
The duskmouths broke into chant. “Henna-Thur! Henna-Thur!”
“Bunch of front runners,” I muttered.
Brax addressed the priestess. “You will return to Thacriulea? Crixon, duskmouths, gallcrackles, all?”
Dadan nodded. She stamped her right foot twice, and the portal opened above us. “We will depart this world.”
Crixon’s unconscious body floated upward through the portal and disappeared. The giant duskmouth and the gallcrackers followed. The smaller duskmouths ascended. They twisted their heads to get a look at me while still doing their best to chant my name. The priestess was the last to go. The portal closed, and the green vanished. We stood on sand. In the west the sky was a dark purple.
I grabbed Brax and gave him a big hug. “It’s over right? You said he can’t come back.”
“The portal cannot re-open for 144,000 years.”
“So, what now?” I asked.
“Earth is safe. Return to your life.”
“And what about you?”
“There is more evil that threatens other worlds. My work never ends.”
“In that case, do me a favor. Next time you choose a defender, engage in a little more research.”
Brax smiled. “Jennifer Griffiths, you are a true champion. I could not have selected any better.”
I kissed him on the cheek. “If you’re ever in Sherman Oaks again, look me up.”
My gaze flicked to the revolver laying on the ground. “Don’t want to forget this.” I reached down. By the time I straightened up, Brax was gone.
The sun had completely set. The squid burned itself out. New moon. And as dazzling as a night sky full of stars is, it wasn’t enough light to find my way to the Prius. I took half-a-dozen steps in what I hoped was the right direction and stubbed my toe on something metal. Half-buried in the sand, I found Crixon’s wand.
I picked it up and gave it a wave. Still no lightning, flames, energy beams. But I’d hold on to it: a souvenir from the time I saved the world.
My black boots were impossible to find in the dark. so I trudged off barefoot in search of my car. An hour of tripping over cacti and rocks, left me no closer to locating the Prius. I sat on a boulder, laid the wand down, rubbed my scratched and swollen feet, and considered waiting until sunrise. I swallowed to get the saliva going in my mouth. Should have asked for water before everyone disappeared.
Frustrated I shouted at the desert, “Where’s my damn car?”
The wand rattled and hummed. In the distance my Prius lit up, surrounded by a shower of blue neon light.
Perhaps the wand would be more than a souvenir.
We sat on the deck of my Manhattan Beach office. Cynthia, my new client, and I sipped lemonade in the shade, while watching the waves roll in.
Cynthia set down her glass. “My boss is impossible. He’s making all sorts of creepy demands, and says if I don’t go along, he’ll have me fired.” She lowered her voice like she was confiding a secret. “I was wondering if you could put some sort of curse on him.”
My fingers stroked the cold hard metal of the wand. “What did you have in mind?”
James Blakey’s fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly, Crimson Streets, and Over My Dead Body. His story ‘The Bicycle Thief’ won a 2019 Derringer Award. He lives in suburban Philadelphia where he works as a network engineer for a software consulting company.