Thunder and Herbs
The written words of Jenny Hackett
Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 17: Woman of the Hour
In the cramped back room of a seaside pub, all Hell breaks loose. Within moments, Penny finds herself pushed head-down into a table by someone behind her, hands searching her pockets. The coin’s removed from her right trouser pocket — she feels its absence keenly — along with her keys, her phone and Yarn’s mysterious listening device. She sees the coin placed on the table next to her head. Yarn’s box is placed alongside.
“What’s this?” demands one of the young punks, a baby-faced guy with a tattoo on his neck that traces webbing down to his chest. His head is about five inches from Penny’s, and his breath invades her nostrils.
“Please,” cries Grateful Dead, “there’s no need for this kind of violence; he’s just a boy!”
“He’s a spy,” snarls someone from behind. Penny can’t see who’s talking but it sounds like the guy with the nose ring. “He gave up his right to humane treatment by working with the enemy!” She feels her head slammed into the table: the shock produces a sickening ringing in her ears.
“What’s your name, son?” Babyface demands. “Who sent you?!”
Penny tastes blood in her mouth as she answers. “I— I don’t know his name,” she pleads. “I… you’re hurting me!”
“We’ll do a lot more than that if you don’t talk,” Nose Ring says, calmly.
She’s pretty sure she’s going to die.
“This is not how we do things here,” says one of the older men, forcefully. This is followed by a loud clatter somewhere Penny can’t see, and the sounds of a struggle.
“Back off, granddad!” yells one of the punks.
Someone sniffs. “Stinks of old fogey in here.” The voice sounds like Nose Ring’s. “Better bring him to the van.”
Penny feels herself pulled up off the table. Helpless, she’s dragged out of the room by two of the punks — she catches a glimpse of one of the old hippies clutching his stomach, and a flash of blood, before the door shuts — and frog-marched through the pub, out of the main door. Nobody makes any objection to the obvious kidnapping in progress: there’s presumably some kind of glamour at play.
Penny’s dragged outside to a large black van in the car park. It’s muddy, the paint’s chipped in places and one of the hubcaps is absent. Nose Ring pulls open the back of the van and she’s shoved inside, pain shooting up her right arm as it’s almost wrenched from the socket. Babyface grabs her left arm and yanks it to the side, slapping a handcuff onto her wrist and attaching the other end to a handle on the floor of the van. Both punks jump back out, and someone closes the door. For a moment, Penny is alone.
There’s no light in the back of the van: there are no windows, and the front part of the van is separated off by a partition that blocks all view of the driver. After a few minutes of near silence, Penny hears a pair of dull thuds separated by nearly-inaudible chatter, and the van rocks slightly. Moments later, the engine starts, and the vehicle begins to move. Where to, she doesn’t know.
Devoid of her coin and any sort of backup, Penny feels especially helpless. It’s almost okay when the van’s moving in a straight line, but on every turn she finds herself thrown to the side, her joints pulled out by the chain of the handcuffs. By the second or third turn the pain starts to drown out the anxiety, and she’s sure something must be dislocated. Tears fall down her face, and her jaw aches from gritting her teeth. Unfortunately, her recent sessions with Yarn have built her pain tolerance up, and she finds herself unable to pass out.
A loud and sudden bang reverberates through the chassis of the vehicle, like metal on metal, and the van rocks unpleasantly as it coasts to a slow halt. There’s muffled yelling from the front, and more thuds reverberate through the vehicle as doors are flung open and people get out. Penny waits, breathing harshly through the haze of panic and the pain of her tortured limbs, until finally the back doors of the van are flung open and she peers, blinking, into the light.
Standing in the sunlight is a girl, about Penny’s age or slightly older, wearing a metallic blue t-shirt and a red skirt. In her right hand she holds a rope, about two metres long and ending in a lasso that’s currently tied around the leg of the unconscious Nose Ring. She’s wearing a mask, but it conceals so little of her face that it must be an affectation, and at any rate Penny knows exactly who she is.
Diana smiles, tossing her head to the side. Her hair, now in curls, cascades down her chest, just managing to reach her breasts. (Huh. Those’re definitely bigger than Penny remembers.)
“Told you I was good with a lasso,” Diana says. It’d be a pretty cool line if it weren’t totally undercut by the broad smile on her lips, and at any rate Penny’s not so appreciative of the wit right now.
Diana jerks her arm and the rope uncoils from Nose Ring like it wasn’t tied up in the first place. She raises her hand above her head and whips in a figure-eight; Penny’s handcuffs unlock.
“Come on,” she says, gesturing for Penny to follow. Penny doesn’t need to be told twice; she dashes towards her hastily, cradling her injured arm as much as she can manage without unbalancing herself.
Diana takes Penny down a series of side streets at a dizzying pace, ducking into interstitial spaces Penny never knew existed. They take an alley between a pizza place and a McDonald’s, squeezing through a gap at the back and coming out behind a bank, through what might once have been a marketplace and toward a block of flats that’s almost certainly seen better days. Diana whips her rope against the back fence twice in a precise sequence of movements and the hexagonal mesh of the fence peels apart into a doorway.
From Penny’s limited view of the pattern — it’s a lot harder to see without her coin available — Diana’s somehow activated a dormant aspect of the weave. It’s kind of like it’s two things at once, and she just nudged it from one to the other. The two girls step through the gap in the fence and Diana whips the rope once more in a sort of pirouette motion, causing the gap to close up behind them. It leaves no seam, no evidence it was ever there — at least to the unaugmented eye.
Diana throws her rope into the air, twisting her body as she does so in a sort of arcane waltz, and it coils itself as it falls. She catches it around her left arm in a near-effortless display of poise.
All Penny can say is: “Wow.” To be honest, she’s still surprised to be alive right now.
Diana smiles, looking back at Penny over her shoulder. “Practice.” Presumably that’s meant as an explanation
Diana opens the back door to the building — it’s unlocked — and leads Penny up the stairs to the third floor. The wallpaper on the staircase is faded, and peeling away at the edges, and there’s a strange smell that Penny can’t place. There aren’t any windows.
The third floor of the building has a hallway lit by dim candlelight, each candle on the floor encircled by its own pool of semi-molten wax. Penny treads carefully, cradling her injured arm as she tries not to knock over the naked flames. Diana, by contrast, strides ahead without even glancing at the floor. She goes up to a door — number 33 — and raps hard with her knuckles, four times. After a moment, there’s a sort of rattling sound, like a sequence of locks being opened, and the door swings open.
The speaker is a brown-skinned individual, about a year or so older than Penny, with short, dark purple hair and light stubble. They’re wearing a light green top with Ninja Turtles on it, and a pair of black skinny jeans. Penny can’t tell if they’re male or female; the stubble being cancelled out by a rather prominent pair of breasts.
She scolds herself lightly for this line of thought.
“Angie, this is Daniel,” Diana says, making the appropriate gestures for introduction.
Penny coughs. “Um, actually,” she says nervously, “it’s ‘Penny’ now.”
“Oh, congratulations,” Diana says, as though this were a totally normal thing for Penny to say. “Angie, Penny, Penny, Angie.”
“Hi,” says Angie, sounding somewhat disinterested. “You better come in.” They move aside, letting Penny and Diana into the flat. It’s a lot nicer than the rest of the building: the walls have been painted relatively recently and the place is fairly clean, with none of the strange smell of the hallway. After removing her mask, Diana leads Penny into the kitchen — cramped but not bad for its size — and starts to fill a kettle.
Penny ignores the question, unable to hold back the questions in her head. “How did you find me?” she asks. “How did you know I needed help?”
“Ah,” says Diana, grabbing two chipped mugs from a drying rack next to the sink. “Well, I’ve been watching them for some time.” She pops a teabag from a jar on the counter into each mug. “Milk? Sugar?”
“Watching the Umbratists?” Penny asks. “So, you’re with the Department.”
Diana chuckles slightly. “No, I’m not on their side either. I’m a free agent.”
“A free pain in my arse!” calls Angie. They’ve taken up residence in the living room, on a tatty brown sofa that’s just about visible from the kitchen doorway.
“You love me, really!” Diana retorts playfully. She turns to Penny. “Do you want milk, or not?” It’s a playfully stern question.
“Oh, um,” Penny mumbles awkwardly. “Milk, no sugar?”
Diana smiles. “Coming right up.”
Once the tea’s been made, Penny follows her saviour into the living room. It’s an odd space: on the one hand, the exposed brickwork gives it a sort of hipster feel, but the tattered furniture looks more “old” than “vintage”. There’s no television, only a cheap-looking CD player with cracks and chips in the plastic case, hooked up to some kind of makeshift speaker system consisting of wildly-mismatching parts connected with tangled cables. There are three sofas, each a completely different style and colour, arranged in a horseshoe shape around a battered coffee table decorated by countless ring marks, otherwise bare except for Diana’s mask.
Angie’s on the leftmost sofa; Diana sits down next to them, resting her head on their shoulder. Penny opts for the middle sofa. It gives way a little as it takes her weight.
Diana straightens herself up and takes a sip of her drink. “I’m guessing,” she says, smirking, “you’ve got more questions.”
It’s true: Penny has many questions. Albeit, none that she can form into words right now.
“So, um,” she attempts, “you practise the Art, too?”
Angie snorts. “Call a spade a shovel,” they say. “She’s a witch, like you. Me too.”
“Excuse me,” Diana says theatrically. “I’m a superhero.”
Penny blinks. “A superhero?”
“I fight crime,” she says, grinning.
“Except crime’s a construct of the carceral state,” Angie says. “What she means is, she fights injustice.”
Diana pouts. “You’re no fun, you know that?”
“‘Carceral state’?” Penny echoes, bewildered.
Diana takes another sip of tea. “What ze means is, like, the people who make the rules want to maintain the status quo,” she explains. “Problem is,” she punctuates this with a sip of tea, “the status quo sucks.”
Penny remembers the Lucerist booklet she got from Rakesh. Is that what they meant by “regulation”?
“So, like, the Lucerists want to preserve society as it is right now,” Diana continues. “Magic’s a threat to that, so it needs to be controlled. No using magic to house the homeless, feed the hungry, that sort of thing.”
This is all a bit confusing for Penny. “I thought it was the Umbratists who wanted things to stay the same?” she asks.
“Oh, they do,” Angie explains, scratching a spot just above their brow. “They both do, just in different ways. Umbratists want to stay hidden, but Lucerists want to conform. Which is hiding, too, but in a different way.”
Penny drinks a too-large gulp of tea, mulling over the new information. There’s a certain logic to what Angie’s saying. But if it’s true, doesn’t it make the Lucerists right? Things aren’t perfect as they are, sure, but it has to be better to fix things gradually, rather than create chaos by messing with everything at once. Still, if that means people should be left to suffer in the meantime… she’s not exactly comfortable with that either.
“Hey,” Diana says brightly, catching her attention. “Want to see something cool?”