“You really think she’s up to it?” James asked.
Sophie gave an uncharacteristically inelegant snort of derision at his question.
The three of them were in the Land Rover, Hunter driving, James in the passenger seat, and lowly Sophie sitting in the back. Hunter’s hands tightened on the wheel as he concentrated on the road rather than answering James’ question.
“Hunter? You think she’s ready?” James persisted. They were on their way to a raid, it would be Sophie’s first time coming up against witches as a witch-hunter, and typically James wasn’t happy about the idea.
Hunter shrugged, not the most positive gesture, he realised. “She’s done her training well. Besides, would you rather she have her first time out at Hallowe’en? She needs to operate in the real world.”
“Hallowe’en is nearly a month away, she has time for more preparation if you’re not sure.” James cautioned.
“She, she, she!” Sophie suddenly spat. “I’m sitting right here. Why don’t you ask me if I think I’m ready?”
Hunter shot her a look in the rear-view mirror. “Because, my dear, we know exactly what you think. You’ve been champing on the bit these last few weeks, dropping increasingly obvious hints every time a job comes through from the MMC. If you had your way, this would be your fifth raid, not your first.”
Sophie sat back, a rather superior smile on her lips. For once she didn’t rise to the ribbing, she was getting what she wanted right now.
“This isn’t my first time, anyway.” Sophie suddenly said, breaking the silence. “Brian took me to a raid. Although I wasn’t allowed to actually do anything, just watch him and the other witch-hunters outnumber and overpower a small coven.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure Brian knew what he was doing.” Hunter replied distractedly. “And I doubt you’ll be doing anything this time, there are more than enough higher gen witch-hunters to deal with the threat. But you need to learn, so you are going to stand there and do exactly as instructed, even if that is to stand and watch; even if that is to return to the car and wait. Understood?”
When Sophie didn’t respond, Hunter met her gaze in the rear-view mirror. “Understood?” He repeated, harder.
Sophie looked away. “Yes.” She said quietly, gazing out the car window.
Hunter suddenly turned off the road onto a dirt track. The Land Rover lurched over the rubble and potholes for a few hundred metres until a big black Jeep and a blue Volvo came into view. Hunter pulled up next to the other parked cars, and as if on cue, every car door opened and seven people were clambering out.
Hunter squinted in the low afternoon sun. He smiled, matching the voice to the driver of the Volvo. “Toby! It’s been a while. How’s the wife?”
“Bloody chitchat. You’re late, Astley.” The driver of the black Jeep grumbled, interrupting the polite exchange.
Hunter grit his teeth against the insulting tone, his eyes suddenly cold. “I would say that we are right on time, Mr Halbrook. We were told to meet at 4 o’clock.”
“Yeah, so good of you not to arrive a minute earlier than necessary, Mr Astley.” He responded, deeply bitter.
Hunter sighed, it hadn’t been his choice to have Gareth Halbrook on the team, but the MMC had assigned him, and there was no getting rid. Oh dear, best to just get the job over and done with quickly.
“Who have you brought?” Hunter asked, nodding casually to the two young men that had climbed out of the black Jeep.
“Matt and Dave Marshall, 3rd gens. I took over their training after their old da got killed a few months ago.” Gareth responded unenthusiastically. “What about your guys?”
“James Bennett and Sophie Murphy, both first gens.”
The Marshall brothers looked at them all silently, their faces betraying an unprofessional interest as they glanced at Sophie. Sophie grimaced in disgust and shifted closer to James.
“Firsts? You brought a couple of firsts?” Gareth demanded, spitting slightly in his anger. “What the hell use is that?”
“They are fully-trained, Mr Halbrook. I don’t have time to argue with you.” Hunter said, fighting to keep his calm. “Can we please get on with the planning?”
Gareth folded his arms and glared at Hunter challengingly. “Whatever you say, sir.”
Toby, the Volvo driver that had greeted Hunter, now stepped forward, shaking his head at the conflict. He laid a large sheet of paper on the bonnet of Hunter’s Land Rover.
“The MMC have received reports of frequent gatherings of witches at a nearby wood. They meet and cast at sunset, I know, predictably dramatic. We estimate four to six witches, none showing extraordinary magic.” Toby reeled off the information he had collected while at the MMC headquarters earlier that day. He leaned over Hunter’s car, indicating the paper. “This is a map of the surrounding area. The clearing is here, about a mile into the wood. Unfortunately there’s no natural barriers, so we’ll just have to surround them and hope they don’t break through.”
Gareth leaned over the map. “We don’t know which way they’ll be arriving, so we should wait until they start casting before we move into position. It is more dangerous, I know, but it’s our best chance of surrounding them. We could probably park up here to wait.”
He jabbed at a spot on the map, then looked up, and shrugged. “But what do I know, I’m just a 4th gen with twenty years’ experience, obviously not enough to be in charge. What do you think, Astley?”
Hunter frowned. He really didn’t like the fact that his 7th gen status gave him superiority over more experienced witch-hunters. And he liked it even less when odious individuals like Gareth Halbrook held it over him.
Hunter gazed at the map, uncomfortably aware of the silence and the eyes all focussed on him. Damn Gareth. “No, I agree. Let’s move out.” He finally admitted through gritted teeth.
Gareth turned back to his jeep, a smug smile on his face, with the two Marshall brothers in tow.
“Want a lift, Toby?” Hunter offered. “I don’t think your little car is up to a cross-country jaunt.”
Toby folded the map and smiled. “Sure, why not. If it isn’t the witches that kill me, it’ll be your driving.”
The four of them piled into the Land Rover, James now demoted to the back seat with Sophie.
“Behave yourselves back there, children.” Hunter teased as he started the engine.
He smiled as Sophie swore under her breath, then put the car into gear and leapt across the field, following the tracks made by Gareth, racing after the black jeep towards the dark shadow on the horizon.
“Who the hell invited Gareth Halbrook?” James demanded, holding on tight against the bumping, speeding car. “Of all the witch-hunters they could’ve assigned, why that git?”
Toby smiled sadly. “It’s Hunter’s fault.”
“What?” Hunter asked sharply.
Toby spared a quick glance around the other passengers and propped himself against the door, grimacing as the car lurched over uneven ground. “The buzz at the headquarters is that Hunter is too big for the Council.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hunter asked, not liking the sound of it.
“Ah, you know the influence you have. Enlisting Sophie here, determining where she carries out her training. Your preferential treatment of James, that he gets to see more than some higher gens, that you refused to let the Council reassign him last year. The fact that you refuse to take on 1st gens for training, and your lack of attendance at the headquarters. Christ, even Charlotte was promoted quickly beyond her years on your advice.”
“That isn’t fair.” Hunter said, when he’d heard enough. “My influence? I will act how I see fit, but I am loyal to the MMC and they will always have the final decision in everything. This ‘influence’ isn’t of my making - it is the Council’s way of treating me.”
“I know Hunter.” Toby said in a pacifying tone. “But you are the miraculous 7th gen, no one knows what you could be capable of. The Council wants to keep you sweet, but at the same time they doubt their ability to control you. Hence, Gareth Halbrook. They’re giving you your birthright to lead, yet proving that they are in charge by making you work with that arse.”
Hunter sat in silent thought, staring straight ahead to the looming woods where the black jeep had already pulled up.
“You’d think,” Hunter said quietly. “That the Council would have more pressing issues to deal with than these ridiculous games.”
Nobody replied, it was obvious where Hunter’s thoughts lay - the MMC were spending time and energy worrying about non-existent problems, when there was one very real, glaring threat of the re-emergence of the Shadow Witch about which they did nothing.
The uncomfortable silence was ended by their arrival at the edge of the woods. Everyone clambered out again, the day still too hot to stay inside the stationary vehicle. There was nothing left to do but wait for the sun to set and the witches to make their move.
Sophie was sitting against the trunk of a shady oak, wondering how best to phrase her thoughts.
“So… what have these witches done? To upset the MMC?”
Hunter stopped his pacing and looked at her. “What do you mean?”
Sophie kicked the dirt in front of her. “I was just curious as to what their crime was. The usual murder and mayhem?”
“Their crime is that they’re witches, love.”
Sophie looked up at the sound of the rough voice; Dave, or Matt, she couldn’t remember which, was looking back with a laughing sneer.
Hunter ignored the Marshall boy. “They’ve done nothing that we know of, yet. This is a pre-emptive strike.”
“So… they’re going to be punished, possibly killed, in case one day they are guilty.” Sophie frowned, trying to get her head around the concept.
Her statement stunned everyone. One of the lads guffawed; and Gareth gave a sharp ‘ha’, throwing Hunter a dirty look. Even Toby and James looked mildly disgusted at the insinuation.
Poor Hunter felt a flush of embarrassment at his trainee’s ignorance. “You’re doing it again, Sophie, you’re thinking they are like humans. They are witches, it is inevitable that they’ll do evil - should we wait for innocent people to get hurt before we act? And we can’t punish them for things they haven’t done - we’ll just bind them and process them, and set them free. I doubt it will be necessary to kill them.”
“More’s the pity.” Gareth grumbled.
Hunter’s head snapped round at this. He knew that some of his colleagues harboured this opinion privately, but no one ever voiced it. Apart from this bastard.
“Oh, I know you champion the non-violent outcomes, but be serious, binding witches wastes time and resources. Honestly, the only good witch is a dead witch, and if I had my way…”
“I know what would happen if you had your way.” Hunter warned. Oh, he knew. He was very much aware of Halbrook’s trigger-happy reputation. “But I’m in charge here and we’re doing it my way.”
“Sorry, sir.” Gareth responded sarcastically. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of myself. You just watch your witch-loving first.”
Hunter took a stride towards him, not sure if he was going to shout, scream, plead or punch. Maybe all four. But he stopped in his tracks. There was a faint hum of a whisper in that part of his mind that was always alert and dominant.
“It’s time.” Hunter said, suddenly realizing the sun had dropped below the horizon.
Nearly a minute later, Toby, the Marshalls, and Gareth cocked their heads as though hearing something faint.
On a sudden impulse, they all rose, quickly inventoried their defences and weapons, then looked to Hunter.
“Let’s go.” He simply said, striding into the shadow of the trees.
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