Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 28: On a Beach

Penny, Michelle and Diana head back to the Investigators’ car via a deliberately circuitous route. Penny takes the lead for once, taking her friends over fences and hedges, under canopies of trees, through gardens, back-alleys and all of the other sorts of strange spaces and passageways that make up the maze of the modern suburb. All the while, she keeps watch for the tell-tale traces of being followed, only changing direction towards her true goal once she’s absolutely sure they’re free from shadows. They find the car more-or-less as they left it; even the shards of windshield glass strewn across the street don’t seem to have moved at all. It’s vaguely eerie.

Penny pulls the door to the car open and gets to work. After a short while of rifling through Bennet’s pockets, she finds what she’s looking for: an expensive-looking BlackBerry bearing a Lucerist insignia on the back. It takes her about twenty minutes to get it unlocked, with Diana’s help — who knew she knew how to hack phones? — and once she’s done so, she runs her eyes across the phone’s address book, looking for a particular name. Sure enough, sandwiched between “Davidson, Samuel” and “Dellinger, Erica” is “Davies, Jonathan”.

Diana gives Penny a stern look. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks, sounding rather more sceptical than Penny would like.

As it happens, Penny’s not at all sure about her plan: it’s risky, ethically-dubious and more than a little complex. But she does happen to be sure that now isn’t the time to be honest about her doubts, so she just nods.

Michelle surprises her with a hug from behind. It’s nice, once the adrenaline’s dissipated.

“We can pull this off,” Penny says, trying to believe it herself. She starts to write a message on the phone, hoping she’s got the tone right. It’s hard to pretend to be someone you’re not.

Have tracked Reed to South Beach, but he has friends. Need backup.

“What if he just sends some foot-soldiers?” Diana asks.

Penny swallows, biting at the inside of her cheeks. “If I’m right, he won’t.” The phone buzzes in response; Penny reads the message quickly, then slips the phone back into Bennet’s pocket and clears her throat. “Right. I’ve got about ten minutes to get my tail back. See you soon.”

This is the part of the plan least likely to go right. That’s not the same as the part most likely to go wrong: that’s the last part.

Penny wanders. She heads back through the numerous gardens and passageways, tracing circles and figure-eights on her mental map and drifting gradually towards school. She’s almost all of the way back there when she notices a familiar kink in the pattern, nestled between a postbox and a tree. Satisfied, she heads to the beach, where Diana and Michelle are waiting for her.

The sea crashes white noise on the shore, cold ocean spray infusing the late morning air. The sand is firm under Penny’s feet, refusing to give to her weight. Gulls cry incessantly as they twist through the sky, occasionally dipping down to grab some discarded food item off of the ground. It all feels a little ominous.

Michelle hands Penny a cardboard coffee cup. It’s warm to the touch, and smells faintly of milky tea. Penny sips it gingerly, the heat threatening the skin of her lips but never quite inflicting any pain.

“How long d’you think we need to wait?” Michelle asks softly.

Penny sighs, ever so slightly. “Um. I don’t know. Not long.” She sips at her tea some more. “You probably need to get back to school, right?”

Michelle shrugs. “Might be a bit late for that to do any good. We’ll work it out. Wouldn’t be the first time I’d skipped.” Her words are fairly cavalier on the matter, but her tone is vaguely solemn.

“I could help with a sick note,” Diana says. “I do it all the time. Y’know. To fight crime.” Her smirk doesn’t quite manage to reach her eyes.

The sound of a car attracts the girls’ attention. It’s Yarn’s: he got here quickly, it seems. Penny notes, with relief, that he’s alone. He steps out of the car with his string already in hand, using his other hand to brush away some imagined dust from his expensive-looking tailored suit. His tie, a deep blue, swings gracefully across his chest as he straightens himself up. He strides over to the sand in a casual manner, though at no point does he take his eyes away from the three girls standing there.

Diana drops her stance into something defensive almost immediately, and Michelle follows suit shortly thereafter. Penny remains still, moving only to drain the tea into her mouth, swallowing slowly. It hides the fear from everybody but herself.

“You came,” she says, flatly.

“I did,” Yarn replies, equally neutrally. “You brought friends? How nice.”

Penny suppresses a smirk. “You didn’t,” she deadpans.

Yarn looks to his left and right, imbuing sarcasm into his movements. “Apparently not. I’ll have to have those two sacked, really. Competence isn’t much to ask for, is it?” He fixes his eyes on Penny with a meaningful stare. “Or loyalty, for that matter.”

There’s a brief silence, interrupted only by the waves, while Yarn walks forward. He glances at Michelle and Diana, still combat-ready. “Is this really necessary?” he asks, irony weighing heavily on his tongue.

Yarn twists the string in his fingers, weaving it into sickening knots that fill Penny’s vision with red. Diana whips her rope in response, twisting herself around in the manner of a falling cat and producing a column of sand that she unleashes towards him. He steps sideways, avoiding the attack with terrible ease.

Penny grips her coin, fingers going white from the tension as she stares daggers at her former mentor. Before she can act, however, Michelle launches herself at him, a guttural growl emanating from her throat. She throws a punch, landing a glancing blow that allows Yarn to grasp her arm with his free hand. He kicks her — hard — in the groin, and throws her to the ground.

“Huh,” he says, surprise clearly only for theatrical effect. “This one’s actually a girl.” How in all Hell did Penny not realise sooner how much of an arsehole this guy is?

Penny takes a deep breath — to give herself time and room to think, as well as to calm her nerves. She starts to roll her coin to and fro on her hand, even as her fingers are shaking from anxiety. She counts up to five before she speaks.

“You leave her alone. You leave us all alone!”

Yarn looks up at her. “You’re in no position to be making that sort of demand. We had a deal, remember?”

Yarn twists the string in his fingers, and Penny feels a stab of pain at her right temple. She hears a distant cry of anguish — it takes her a moment to realise it’s her own — and her fingers slip, letting the coin in her hand tumble and fall to the ground. Eventually, the world stops spinning around her, and out of the corner of one eye she sees Diana sending further blasts of sand towards Yarn; he shrugs each and every one of them off like they were nothing.

This really isn’t going according to plan.

Somehow, gradually and falteringly, Michelle stands up. “You’re a really nasty fucker, aren’t you?” she says. Her voice is shaking slightly, but she seems resolved. “Using her desperation to make yourself a toy soldier. You were never going to give her what she wanted, were you?”

Yarn glares at her, hot poison in his eyes. “Unlike Mister Reed here, I honour my agreements.” He knits his string into arcane sigils that impregnate the air with the scent of burning plastic. Penny starts to feel faint, and slightly queasy.

“What would’ve happened if you’d let her finish her ritual?” Michelle continues. “My guess is: absolutely nothing at all.”

The words snap Penny’s reality back into focus, pulling her sharply back into her own head. What?

“I bet you go around, looking for desperate people, and you promise them the whole world,” Michelle declares, all sense of uncertainty lost from her voice. “And all they have to do in return is do exactly what you say.”

Penny blinks a tear free from her eyelashes. She slowly looks up, at Yarn’s face, hoping to see… she’s not sure. Something.

Yarn speaks flatly. “And?” He throws air at Michelle, knocking her back down to the ground with a flick of his wrist. “Do you realise what would happen if I didn’t do all of this? Do you think the Umbratists would do any less? At least with us, there is hope for a better world, where people can achieve their impossible dreams. Utopia takes time.”

Diana throws her rope into long arcs across the sandy ground, the grains hissing with the rush of air. She dashes forwards and up, her legs carrying her skywards with a volley of kicks. Yarn steps sideways again, but a hand grabs his leg — Michelle’s — forcing him to take the brunt of the attack. He grunts, spitting out blood.

“So the ends justify the means?” Diana says mockingly. “You’ll get yours, just not yet? I’ve heard less clich├ęd crap from a cartoon supervillain. Where’s your funny accent?”

“Laugh if you want to,” Yarn says, his voice low, but clear. “But even the Umbratists know it: if everybody could use the Art to get what they wanted, it would be chaos. A gradual change is far better than holding back the inevitable.” He brushes some sand away from his clothes. “In ten, twenty years, you can get what you want, regardless of what I think. Be glad you were born when you were.”

Penny bends down to pick up her coin, swallowing spit and fury. “And until then, I do what you say?”

“Until then,” he intones, “you keep your word.” He twists his fingers once more, sending waves of icy pain through Penny’s joints as he pulls on the remnants of her puppet-strings. She feels control start to drift away from her…

“Stop!” a familiar voice echoes across the beach. Rakesh steps into view, yo-yo brandished menacingly in his hand. “You can’t do this, Jon!”

Yarn — Jonathan — glares at his younger sibling, letting Penny’s puppet-strings go slack. She breathes sweet relief.

“Don’t interfere, ’Kesh,” he says sternly. “This is Department business.”

Rakesh stands firm, though tears are gently rolling down his cheeks. “No, you can’t do this. I… I thought… We’re supposed to be the good ones.”

There’s a long and still silence, during which Michelle manages to pull herself to her feet once more. Penny walks softly over to her, but finds herself too nervous to offer an arm of comfort. It’s not over yet.

“’Kesh,” Yarn says, sounding vaguely apologetic. “I wish you didn’t have to see this side of things, but… this is the only way to protect ourselves. We’re losing this war without it.” The whole scene feels somehow intimate, as though Penny and her friends were intruding on a family dispute. Penny tries to forget her own existence for a while. It doesn’t quite work.

“Then let’s lose, Jon,” Rakesh says. “Better that than win like this.”

Yarn sighs, a heavy and exasperated sound. “You’re so fucking idealistic, ’Kesh. You should try living in the real world.” He straightens up, twisting his string, and Penny feels the control slip away from her again…

Rakesh throws his yo-yo into the air, spinning on his heels, the sand forming a small cloud around him from the movement of his feet. He stops spinning and jerks his arm back, letting the yo-yo fly rapidly into his open palm. There’s a sort of ethereal snap as Yarn’s puppet-strings snap, and Penny feels a pain like a subdued fire in her joints. It’s a cleansing sort of burn, though.

“No!” Rakesh shouts. He takes a moment to compose himself, brushing the sand from his legs with his free hand. When he speaks again, it’s a much colder sound. “I spoke to our Father,” he says. Penny can almost hear the capital letter in his voice. “I know the Department didn’t sanction you to do this. It’s… it’s all you.” His tone is heavy with heartbreak, but carries a certainty and clarity that almost drowns it out.

A gust of sea air brings a sudden chill, underlining the gravity of the moment.

Yarn flexes the muscles in his arm, the tension in his limbs and his face revealing his frustration. “I don’t want to fight you, ’Kesh,” he says, “but I will, if I have to. Stand aside.”

Rakesh brings his yo-yo to the ready. It’s a strange sight: his brother’s almost twice his size, a wolf staring down a lamb. But there’s a weakness in Yarn’s posture, the tiniest shake in his hands, and somehow Penny feels safer on Rakesh’s side of the standoff. Not that that’s saying much.

“If you have to fight me,” Rakesh declares with a quiver in his voice, “then do it.”

For a brief few seconds, Penny expects the fight to happen, but it doesn’t; the tension simply lingers in the air like a question with no reply. Slowly and without looking away, Yarn lowers his arm, teeth gritted firmly in some vain attempt to suppress fury. Finally, when his hand is at waist height, his gaze moves over to the red string. He stares at it for what feels like several minutes.

Yarn looks up, his head heavy and weary, and speaks to his brother: “No. I’m not going to fight you.” He pauses. “But one day… one day, you’re going to regret what you’ve done here. And I’m probably going to regret letting it happen.”

He turns and leaves, slowly; Penny watches with scarcely a breath in her lungs as he gets into his car and drives out of the car park and away from the seafront. Nobody says a word as the engine noise fades into the distance.

After an age of silence, Penny turns to Rakesh. “Thanks.” She wishes she could say more: his entire demeanour is one of utter devastation. But no words come to mind.

Diana adds: “You did the right thing here.” It’s not completely convincing, even from her. The idealism usually found in her voice is dampened, almost anaemic.

Rakesh sniffs sadly. “If you say so.” He turns his head to look at Penny, wiping his eyes with his free hand. “I’ll make sure they leave you alone. I— I can’t pretend to approve of your associations, but… you didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry.”

He walks away; Diana tries to give him a comforting pat as he passes, but he shrugs it off, giving her a silent and pained look. He trudges dejectedly up the slope of the beach, through the car park, and away from the seafront. Penny, Michelle and Diana can only watch silently as he gradually grows further and further from them, shrinking into the distance until he’s lost in the trees and buildings of their seaside town.

Once he’s gone, there are only the three girls, the sand and the waves.

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