Magic Vs. Money: Part One
Part 1: Trespassers
In the dreary dimness of the swamp, a green Ixi woman in patchwork clothes and a pointed, broad-brimmed hat made her way through the trees, paying barely any attention to the mangy meowclops following after her. With her gnarled wand, the sorceress inspected the grey-green moss hanging from the tree for any unwanted parasites before scraping a sample off and placing it in her pouch. People often wondered why Sophie liked to live alone in the swamp, but those were silly questions that anyone could have answered for themselves if they thought about it. She lived in the swamp because there were so many plants that made for useful ingredients in her potions. She lived alone simply because she didn’t much like people.
Seating herself on a tree stump, she took out her list of things to do and checked the item off, then looked over the remaining plants and herbs she needed to gather for the day. There were three items left: tongue tree bark, twelve darkthorn vines and six wartroot bulbs. It was still an hour before sundown and she knew where to find two of the items she needed already. She smiled and put the notebook away.
Glancing up, she noted that her meowclops had cornered a mortog near a tree and was batting at the frightened thing with its paws.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she warned.
The scruffy grey animal glanced up at her for a moment, then went back to tormenting its captive. Sophie shrugged and decided to watch; if her petpet wasn’t going to listen, it would have to learn the hard way. The mortog drew in a deep breath, bloating up to nearly twice its original size. With a startled shriek, the meowclops hopped back, then fled to the safety of Sophie’s dress, its single yellow eye peering fearfully out from under the hem. After a moment, the mortog let out its breath with a loud croak and hopped off to find a safe place to hide. Sophie laughed and scooped the meowclops out of her skirts and laid it down on her lap, petting the trembling petpet and speaking to it in a soft, reassuring coo.
“There, there, it’s alright. I warned you not to tease it. You’ll know better next time, won’t you?”
When the meowclops had calmed down, she set it back on the ground and rose, dusting herself off before setting off again down the path to where she knew a bramble-patch of darkthorn vines were growing, content in the thought that she’d have all her collecting done on time for once. She’d been behind for months. As she drew near the bramble-patch, however, she heard voices and her irritation piqued. Moving softly through the muck as only she knew how, she hid herself behind a twisted tree to watch the three trespassers. Two Moehogs and an Elephante, all dressed in dark suits and with lightning batons hanging at their sides, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice.
“Are you sure she’s here?” one of the Moehogs asked nervously.
The Elephante turned slowly, one ham-sized hand clasping around the baton, and eyed his partner angrily. “Of course. You saw her come this way.”
“Well, I’m just saying we don’t really know for sure,” said the Moehog. “I mean, maybe we just thought we saw her?”
“Quit being such a coward, Rydil,” said the Elephante.
“Can’t say I blame him, Don,” said the second Moehog. “I mean, you know the reputation of this swamp. Or, more particularly, the person living here.”
“Ansa, please,” the Elephante – Don, apparently – replied, rolling his eyes. “What are the odds of running into the so-called swamp witch? Knowing how these backwater locals get, I’ll bet she’s really just some eccentric hermit living out here to get away from people; yeah, definitely strange, but not really dangerous. Besides, if we don’t find the girl, we’re out of the job.”
“Just who might you be looking for?” asked Sophie in a chilling voice.
The three suited figures turned and saw her at once, leaning her back against the tree, clutching her wand in one hand and holding up the brim of her hat with the other. By her expression, it was a safe guess she wasn’t very happy to see them. The two Moehogs backed away, but Don took a bold step forward, the lightning baton like a tiny twig in his enormous hand.
“And it seems that the odds of finding the ‘so-called swamp witch’ are pretty good today.”
“You’re her then?” asked Don.
His skeptical tone made Sophie feel a hint of anger, but she kept herself calm. “I am and you are trespassing in my swamp.”
“We’re just here on a job,” said Rydil. “We’ll leave as soon as we’re done.”
“We promise,” said Ansa, visibly shaking.
Sophie smiled, but there was nothing comforting about it. “What job might that be?”
Rydil opened his mouth to speak, but Don cut him off. “That’s really not your concern.”
Sophie stopped smiling. “You’re trespassing in my swamp, but it’s not my concern? You have a funny idea about what should and shouldn’t be my business.”
Don took the lightning baton from his belt and switched it on. Sparks leapt between the prods with a menacing electrical crackle. The two Moehogs took another step back. The Elephante came forward, eyes narrowed dangerously, but Sophie stood her ground.
“This has nothing to do with you and you really don’t want to get involved in our business. Just go home and there’ll be no trouble.”
“You’re wasting your time trying to intimidate me,” Sophie calmly replied. “What’s worse, you’re wasting mine. I’m already going to fall behind on my work today because of this, and since you shouldn’t be here in the first place, you’ve already got two strikes. That means if you don’t leave in the next five seconds, things get ugly.”
“Don,” said Ansa nervously, “you really shouldn’t be getting her mad.”
“He’s right, you know,” said Sophie. “I’ve never been a very patient person and what little I have is running very thin.”
Don puffed his chest out and held up his baton threateningly. “Yeah? And just what are you going to do, then?”
Sophie raised her wand and unleashed a blast of green energy at the Elephante, sending him flying back into a tree, his baton slipping from his hand and getting lost in the mud. With another wave of her wand, Sophie sent a wave of thorny vines from the bramble-patch to tie him up, carefully making sure that none of the thorns were actually digging into the skin, but coming close enough to make sure he understood that they could at any moment she wanted them to. Panicked, Rydil and Ansa dropped their weapons and fled screaming into the swamp. Sophie let them go; she only needed one person to get answers. Stepping up to the trapped goon, she put her face as close to his as she could. Don put on his best show of not being afraid, but Sophie knew better. The Elephante was sweating.
“So, Don, just who are you working for?” she asked in a conversational tone.
Don clenched his teeth, his eyes looking nervously away.
“Someone worse than me?”
Don looked back and his eyes went wide at the sight of Sophie’s cruel grin. “We’re on assignment from Mr. Mogul. We’re just looking for a little girl who ran away from us, that’s all.”
“Mr. Mogul?” asked Sophie. “The owner of NeoCorp? The same NeoCorp that just built its headquarters in Neovia?”
“What does Mr. Mogul want with a little girl?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Don protested. “He’d be furious.”
“What will he do?” asked Sophie. “If he can do something worse to you than, for example, turning you into a skidget, I’d sure like to know what it is.”
The witch raised her wand to Don’s face. The lurid green glow of its magic lit up his horrified expression and a terrified little squeak escaped him.
“Mr. Mogul wants her and her family held in custody,” he said quickly.
“I don’t know.”
Sophie’s eyes shrank to very angry slits and the glow of her wand grew more intense.
“It’s the truth!” Don shrieked. “He didn’t tell me why, he only said we had to get the family and take them to NeoCorp headquarters. I’m just the low-level security detail, he doesn’t give me that kind of information.”
“Who’s the family?”
“Alfred Winters, his wife and his child.”
Sophie thought for a moment. “I don’t know those names,” she said, more to herself.
“They just moved in eight months ago,” said Don, now far more afraid of not being helpful than he ever might have been of his employer. “Alfred is one of Mr. Mogul’s research scientists. He works on a lot of projects, but I’m not important enough to know what they are.”
“I see,” said Sophie. “Then it really isn’t my business, except for the part about you trespassing in my swamp.”
“I’m sorry,” Don said quickly. “We were just following orders. Mr. Mogul wanted us to take the entire Winters family into custody. The girl ran, so we chased her; that’s all there is to it.”
Sophie pressed a finger to her chin in thought, turning her back to Don for a moment. It sounded like some internal business politics. She really didn’t want anything to do with NeoCorp or any of its people, especially not if they made it a habit of hiring stupid, muscle-headed oafs like this one. As long as nobody she knew was getting hurt, she didn’t see any reason to get herself involved. She turned back to the Elephante, who was now well dampened with sweat and visibly trembling.
“I suppose since you told me what I want to know, I should be nice and let you go running back to your boss,” she said.
For a moment, a nervous, but hopeful smile found its way onto Don’s face, but it lasted only long enough for him to see Sophie raise her wand. There was a flash of green light and a burst of smoke. When it cleared, the witch reached down and scooped up the dazed wormlike creature wriggling around in the dirt. Sometimes, you just couldn’t let bad behavior go unpunished.
“Too bad for you, I’ve never thought of myself as a nice person.”
She took a glass jar from her belt, popped the cork and dropped the skidget into it and stopped it up again. After a moment’s consideration, she took a boring tool and poked a couple of small air holes in the cork, then hung the jar from her belt. She turned back to her meowclops and beckoned for it to come out of hiding, then went about her business of collecting the darkthorn vines for her potions, grumbling angrily to herself about how the goons had put her behind schedule again.
To be continued...