Posted in Short Stories, writing

The Collector

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It was winter in Ridgefield. December to be exact. And that meant one thing: snow. Sheets of it were pulled around the houses like a giant white curtain, hiding them from the trees that surrounded everything. It covered the roofs, the mailboxes, the dogs. And Magnolia was almost certain it had made its way inside her left shoe. It was nothing like the city. Where snow fell and turned to grey mush beneath the feet of pedestrians in less than a minute. Here the snow fell in white tufts and stuck to every surface it could find. And it stayed there indefinitely.

But Magnolia, unlike the snow, was just passing through. On her way to track a witch.

“I knew. I knew I should’ve ridden my broom here,” she whispered to her left shoe, admonishing it for getting her wool socks wet. She had worn three on each foot. Just in case. A man in one of those hats with the fluff balls on the top of it walked by just then, and Magnolia smiled weakly. Had he heard her? If he had, he didn’t show it. He just smiled back and waved. Magnolia put her head down, plowing forward and passing the fountain at the entrance of town.

Witches weren’t so bad. Magnolia knew since she was one. But humans couldn’t know about them. No. Never. That would be very, very unfortunate.

“I’m here for a relic,” she practiced under her breath.  A group of children skipped past her, kicking snow into the air.

Magnolia shielded her face from the flying snow and tried to focus on what she would tell him. The Collector. A chill that had nothing to do with the freezing temperature infiltrated her heavy black robe.

“I am here for a relic.” She tried with more assertion and yet another town’s person walked by and waved. She cursed herself for not performing an invisibility spell.

“Collector,” she said through her teeth, as ferociously as she could in a whisper, “I’m here for a relic and I won’t leave till you give it to me.” She poked one finger at the air, flurries gathering on her gloved hands.

By the time the family of very tall humans stalked past her like elegant giraffes, smiling and waving, Magnolia had lost what little cool she’d managed to dig her nails into.

“Will no one in this town let me concentrate?”

With two long strides the giraffe family had gone and Magnolia felt a wave of guilt wash over her. But then she remembered who she was going to see. Or more accurately what. Because The Collector was more thing than witch. More creature than human. More nightmare than reality.

Her socks soaked up more snow as she trudged down Main Street, rehearsing her tirade.

She looked around to see if she spotted any other Magicks around, but the tell-tale colorful aura that surrounded Magicks for a split second on sight didn’t seem to exist here. In the city it was like a small fireworks explosion to just walk down the street. Greens, purples and reds, in clouds of hazy light, surrounded both the Punks on Bleecker and the business men on Park. All Magicks and witches. All concealed in plain sight. But even New York City, with all its hidden shops and secrets, didn’t hold the answer she was looking for. A relic, or a thing from the past, that would allow her to look at a memory. It could be anything: a dress worn by a witch, a nickel held in the hand of a monster, a rock. It didn’t matter, so long as it was present at the very moment Magnolia needed to see. At the memory of some other witch she needed to creep into. Or of one very specific witch. Margo Pennyfeather.

Magnolia’s chest tightened with the thought of her but she pressed on. She needed to stop somewhere before she reached her destination and make sure she had everything. Her wand, her book, her weapon.

“Oh dear,” she whispered at her now sopping shoe. The weapon was something she did not like to think about. Not at all. But her apprentice Morrissey had found it prudent she have it.

“Take it,” she’d said in her soft way. “Take it or I’ll find a way to come with you. Your choice.”

Magnolia scowled. If Morrissey had come with her things would have been much, much worse. Because The Collector might not care to keep an old witch like her. But for one with Morrissey’s ability? He would do unspeakable things.

“Unspeakable,” she muttered, waving to a priest with a flashlight smile. She’d never waved so much in her entire life.

Crossing the street to Four Twenty-Six Main Street, Magnolia looked both ways before slipping into an alleyway. She pulled her wand from the sleeve of her dress, looking around and letting out tiny puffs of vapor as she did. When she was sure no one was looking she pointed the wand at her chest.

“Blot.” A wave of warmth washed over her and she hid her wand with much less caution. She was invisible now.

“Should’ve done that before I left New York,” her eyes scanned the doors along the brick walls. Doors that weren’t there a moment ago. That humans could not see. Chalk drawings sat above each entrance, signaling the name of each establishment. An owl with giant eyes for The Hoot, a bar for Magicks, a rabbit above another for The White Rabbit Inn, and a few others that were of no interest to her. “At least not right now,” she licked her lips at the small rodent drawn above The Rat cheese shop.

She reached the end of the building. A purple door with a skinny tree drawn in white chalk above it, the eerie tree enveloped in green mist: Hollibird’s Hole.

Magnolia pushed at the door and the smell of firewood, hot chocolate and what smelled suspiciously of burning hair, snaked its way up her nostrils. She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Yoo-hoo,” she waved her hand at the elderly bartender who grunted in response. So much for all the waving.

“You’re always too cheerful,” the bartender spit into a small gold tin on the wooden bar and flicked her wrist.  A mug flew from a hook above her head and landed with a clank on the bar. The bartender snapped her finger, the mug filling to the brim with bubbling brown liquid and white floating clouds. “And you always did love marshmallows,” the bartender smiled a crooked smile with only a handful of teeth at Magnolia.

“Griswold, I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me.” Magnolia wrapped her numb hands around the hot cup and wished she could pour the chocolate down her dress to warm up. But that would probably be a bad idea. Definitely she thought as the hot liquid washed over her tongue and warmed her insides.

“I might’ve. Depends if you brought me one of those banana puddings I like.”

Magnolia produced a package from the inside of her robes. “I would never forget your pudding,” she winked.

“So what’re you doing here?” Griswold asked.

“I came to see someone.”

Griswold arched an eyebrow. Because they both knew there was only one other reason Magicks ventured beyond the city and into Ridgefield. The Collector.

“You can’t go there, Maggie,” hissed Griswold. “You know how dangerous he is.”

“It’s very, very important.”

“You say that about everything. Last time you called me saying, “I need a block of cheese from The Rat, it’s, “‘very, very important.’”

“Hush now, hush,” Magnolia waved her hand in front of Griswold’s face as she laughed, exposing the back of her too dark throat and lack of molars. “This is different. This has to do with…well, I can’t tell you.”

“If you can’t tell me, I can’t help ya,” Griswold began wiping the bar down.

Magnolia bit her lip. She was absolutely, forbidden from talking to anyone about the memory she had to find. The one she had to see before the entire Magick world was rewound. Erased. Doomed. No pressure.
“One step at a time,” she whispered at her shoe, which was drying as she stretched one leg out towards the fire.

Magnolia sighed. “I need a relic,” she confessed, “one tied to a witch.” Griswold nodded as if to say go on.

“A relic tied to Margo Pennyfeather,” Magnolia got out in the smallest whisper she could manage, but the blow of that name still nearly knocked Griswold off her feet.

The Timeteller?” Griswold’s eyes had gone wide. Timetellers weren’t around anymore. They’d been hunted for their powers and killed off. It seemed the power to control time was something no witch could resist.  But no one knew what happened to the last one. To Margo.

“Yes,” hissed Magnolia looking around, “But keep. It. Down. Will you?”

Griswold held her hands up.

“You wouldn’t happen to have anything that would help me? Some sort of potion maybe?” Magnolia asked.

Griswold arched an eyebrow before disappearing under the bar. Magnolia peaked over the wooden surface when Griswold popped up and nearly knocked her nose back to last Tuesday.

“Here,” she shoved a small bottle into Magnolia’s hand.

“What’s this? Oh, oh no!”

“Now you hush.”

They were both looking around like dogs in a park full of squirrels. Luckily there was only one witch with his back to them in the corner of the bar, a dozen or so glasses adorning the table in front of him.

Magnolia turned the bottle over in her hand, the pink liquid swishing inside of it. A Charm spell could make another Magick do anything you wanted. Like the force except it was illegal. Highly illegal.

“Use that and he’ll give you whatever you want,” Griswold smiled smugly. “You’re probably toast but at least this way you have a fighting chance.”

Magnolia nodded. She knew Griswold was right.

“I’ll be right back,” Magnolia walked towards the rest room.

Slipping into a stall, she opened her robe and felt for her supplies. She had her wand, she had her hollowed out book. And now she had her weapon. She put the Charm spell inside a secret pocket on the lapel of her robe and took a deep breath, pressing her warm hands against her still gelid cheeks. Soon she’d be out in the snow again. Waving like a mayor in a parade. Soon she’d be face to face with death.

“I’ve got to go,” Magnolia stood before Griswold, one hand behind her back.

“So soon?” Griswold didn’t look up from the bar.

“I’m sorry.”

“What fo…”

But before she could finish her sentence, Magnolia had blown an electric purple powder into the air.

Remember me not,” she whispered as she blew the lilac cloud towards Griswold and then towards the witch behind her. She’d bottled a Memory Keeper spell for just this occasion.

A dazed look overtook Griswold and Magnolia snuck out of the bar, taking the memory of their meeting with her. Soon it would be as if Magnolia had never been there at all.

Stepping out into the frigid cold, night had nearly fallen on Ridgefield, and Magnolia turned to her right. Towards the library.

There were no more pedestrians. No more giant dogs trying to eat snow. She was alone with the crows. It was if word had spread of her mission. As if everyone knew a witch was about to die.

She stepped in front of the giant doors to The Ridgefield Library and pulled.

“Oh.” The door did not budge. “Right.” Magnolia pulled out her wand and ran it along the place where the two doors met. Inside, she breathed in the smell of old books. She crept along the entrance and down the hallway and towards the stairs, knowing that the moment her hand touched the banister there would be no turning back. Because The Collector would know she was there.

In the Magick world there were all sorts of witches and creatures. Witches who could run at lightning fast speeds, or control nature and monsters who could suck the power from their prey. But The Collector was one of a kind. He not only took magic, he took actual witches. Kept them in his collection, siphoning off bits and pieces of them until they shriveled away like a wilted flower in the too hot sun. And he always stayed hidden. A shadow, a breeze that played with your hair, a whisper that lured you to your imprisonment. To your death.

“Tricky. I know you’re tricky,” Magnolia whispered. Her shoe was mercifully dry and she felt badly for yelling at it earlier, when it was doing such a good job of not being wet anymore. She took the small pink vial filled with magic and placed it gingerly inside the woolen socks on her left foot. With one final, deep breath, she placed her plump hand on the banister and was plunged into a darkness so black, she was certain she’d never actually seen before, and never would again.

All at once she was downstairs and in The Collectors lair. It still looked like a library, except ancient. Thousands of leather bound books with golden lettering were organized neatly in floor to ceiling shelves. But Magnolia knew better than to think they were simply books. No. These were The Collector’s cages.

“Magnolia,” an old man with spectacles too big for his small face stepped out from behind a shadow. “I expect your walk here was quite cold.” He smiled kindly but Magnolia shuddered. The smile was an ordinary one but a vision of blood-covered teeth appeared over it. Like he had two smiles in one mouth.

“Hideous,” whispered Magnolia despite herself.

“I know. Quite. Now, tell me why’ve come here? It’s…after hours.”

“I…need something…from,” she looked down. She needed to do this. If Magnolia was going to stop the Magick World from poofing, she needed to find out what’d happened to Margo. And fast. Or everything she knew, and loved would be lost.

“From my collection,” The Collector said and as he did he seemed to grow ten feet tall, stretched like an infinite, gruesome shadow, but small and old and frail all the same.

“Yes, but please listen. It’s important.”

“Nobody takes anything from my collection,” he ran one boney finger along the spines of the books closest to him, a black jagged nail growing from it.

Magnolia steeled herself and took one step forward.

“Not even sneaky, lying, thieves.”

Magnolia took another step.

“Your left shoe is quite nice.”

Magnolia froze.

How had he known? She smiled weakly at him and nodded. “It’s my favorite shoe.”

“I can tell,” The Collector whipped his head towards her and flashed his bloody, double smile before shooting one hand towards her. A black putrid liquid oozed from his palm and snaked through the air.

“NO!” Magnolia shuffled back, pawing at her robes as she looked for her wand. Now she had no choice. She had to fight. She found the smooth wooden stick and pointed it at The Collectors head.

A bright green light shot from her wand, but missed.

The Collector cackled. He’d begun climbing the stacks like a twisted monkey, his old body limber and fast, his tall horrendous shadow figure and bloody teeth following him and enveloping his form.

“I’d quite like another Alchemist witch to add to my collection,” he said pleasantly.

“You won’t be trapping me you hideous thing,” Magnolia shot her wand at him again but this time The Collector swooped down and grabbed her by the ankles, slamming her on her back. Stars danced above Magnolia’s head. She was as good as dead.

“Now, now my simple friend. No rudeness or I’ll make this much more painful than I planned to.”

Everyone always thought she was simple. Magnolia knew they all thought she was dumb. But she also knew that looks could be deceiving. In fact, she counted on them being so.

She slammed her left heel against the floor and her dark leather shoe broke free of her foot and scampered away behind The Collector. Magnolia thrust her wand beneath his chin. Her woolen socks had wrapped themselves around his wrist, keeping them locked together.

“LET GO,” he roared trying to turn around and catch Magnolia’s shoe, which was never really a shoe at all. The leather thing transformed, revealing a small, furry creature. Her rat, Francisco. Using it’s tiny paws, the rodent pulled the cork and drank the pink liquid hungrily. Then he put the entire bottle in his mouth and ate that too. Just in case.

“I said just drink Francisco,” Magnolia grit her teeth, struggling to keep The Collector from biting her face off.

Glass crunched and popped inside the rat’s mouth as a pink mist seeped from its teeth. “Now?” he asked in his tiny voice and Magnolia managed a nod before Francisco, scurried up The Collectors back and to the top of his head.

“No, no, no!” wailed the creature but it was too late. Francisco opened his mouth and breathed the pink Charm magic right up The Collectors nose.

“It’ll need to be concentrated,” Magnolia heard Morrissey say, “You’ll need to get the spell so close he can’t help but breathe it in. It’s either kiss him or…something else.”

And Ricardo had been Magnolia’s something else.

A glazed look overtook The Collector’s eyes and Magnolia let out a sharp breath.

“Let go,” she commanded her socks and they did.

“Stop,” she told The Collector and his wild attempts to kill her stilled.

“You will be sorry,” he said his voice so loud the books threatened to tumble from their shelves.

“Give me the relic that holds the memory of Margo Pennyfeather’s fate,” Magnolia’s voice was shaky as she shuffled backwards.

“No,” said The Collector with his bloody smile, but he moved towards the shelves all the same. He took a book from a shelf towards the back of the room and waddled back to Magnolia, who had her wand trained on him, and Francisco on her shoulder.

“I only have the first part. You’ll need to find the rest elsewhere, if you live long enough to. I am going to kill you, you know.”

“Yes, of course,” Magnolia took the book from him and he snapped towards her hand wildly, but she told him to stop, and he had no choice but to listen. Charm spells really were useful. It was too bad about the illegal part.

She gave one final command. “Stay there until I am gone. Don’t follow me.”

Magnolia ran back towards the stairs, hiding the relic inside her hollowed-out book. She put her hand on the banister and could just hear The Collector as she was transported through the darkness and into the upper part of the library. “You will be quite delicious to eat when I catch you. And I will catch you. Of course.”

She shivered as she ran through the hallway and out the library double doors. She stepped right into a pile of snow. “Great,” she muttered looking at Francisco as he shrugged and scampered down her robe, wrapping himself around her foot, a shoe once more.

As soon as she was far enough from the library she smiled. She had done it. The relic was in her possession and, maybe, she’d be able to see what happened to Margo all those years ago & figure out the riddle of what was happening to her world today. But for now, there was nothing to do but go home. She trudged along, whispering compliments to Francisco for his good work as a new snow began to fall. Magnolia stopped and looked up into the starry night sky. Even the city sky, filled with magic, was not nearly as beautiful as this one. She opened her mouth wide and closed her eyes. The snowflakes melted the moment they touched her tongue.

Author:

Young adult fantasy author.

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