A Gift for a Very Special Girl

Learn what first gift Jamie buys for his little girl-to-be…
In the timeline, this falls before A Reckless Witch.
Previously published in Pink Snowbunnies from Hell.

Aervyn popped another fry into his mouth. “How ‘bout a fire truck as big as a bed, so she could sleep in it?”

A nephew after his own heart. Jamie grinned. “Nat says the baby’s going to sleep in our bed when she’s born, so we can keep her nice and warm.”

Aervyn shook his head. “Nuh, uh. She’s a fire witch. She’ll keep you nice and warm.”

All the more reason to keep the baby close at night. She wouldn’t be the first witchling infant to cause magical trouble while she slept. God knows his four-year-old sidekick had caused plenty of mischief as a newborn.

Jamie swiped one of his nephew’s fries. “I remember when you were a baby and you kept teleporting your sisters into bed with you.”

Aervyn giggled and ported his remaining fries to an unknown location. “That’s cuz Mama was too heavy to move when I was a baby. I can do it now, but she says it’s bad manners to port someone unless they ask first, so I don’t get to do it very often.”

There were good reasons his sister Nell wasn’t fond of teleporting. Jamie ruffled Aervyn’s hair. “I think that’s because of some of the things that happened when we were little.” An accidental visit to Chinatown came to mind. Nell hadn’t been impressed that she’d taken the trip in her pink-bunny jammies, or that he hadn’t been able to reverse the spell and get them home.

Aervyn shrugged, materialized a fry, and popped it into his mouth. “So what about our mission? Mama says I’m a’posed to be a good helper, and make sure you don’t get dis-trac-ted. What does that mean?”

Jamie laughed. “It means she’s worried I’m going to take a detour to the computer store.”

After a moment of serious contemplation, Aervyn shook his head. “I don’t think a new baby needs a computer.”

Probably right. If there was any karma in the world, his daughter would be a coder like her daddy, but that might have to wait a few years.

“Let’s go to the store.” Aervyn jumped up. “I think you’re supposed to look at stuff when you shop, not just sit and think.”

The kiddo had a point. Jamie eyed the store across the street with trepidation. It was so… pink. And frilly. He looked down at his nephew and acknowledged that maybe he’d borrowed the wrong kid. Nine-year-old girls were probably better at this kind of stuff, but they got all gooey in baby stores.

On the other hand, Aervyn thought it was perfectly okay that Jamie still didn’t have a gift for the baby shower. The triplets would have skewered him.

They walked into the store and the saleslady immediately pounced. Aervyn was only too happy to answer her questions. “We need the bestest baby gift ever.”

“For a boy or girl?”

“Girl. But she might like boy stuff, too, cuz she’s gonna play with me a lot, and I mostly like boy stuff.”

Jamie was pretty sure the saleslady didn’t approve of girls and boys mixing like that. She looked up at him, perhaps hoping for moral support. “We have a lovely princess-themed ensemble, including exclusive extras like frilled diaper covers and a baby tiara. The perfect gift for a very special girl.”

Pink snowbunnies would ski in hell, first. “Anything in the non-princess vein?”

Aervyn beelined for the back corner of the store. The saleslady sniffed. “That’s our boy-themed gift selection.”

Jamie looked around at the choices. Not themed around any boys he knew. He reached out and flipped over the tag on a vaguely Art Deco bug thing that said music player. Music was good for babies. Holy crap. Five hundred dollars? He looked at the saleslady in disbelief. “Does it do something besides play music?”

Hell was definitely well on its way to freezing. “It creates an ambience. Infants appreciate a calm, well-decorated space. You can’t put a price tag on your baby’s happiness.”

Nope, but he could definitely put a price tag on his sanity. He paged his sidekick. Dude — let’s head out. I’ve got an idea.

***

Aervyn thought the fire-engine-red iPod was a really awesome gift, especially when he got a matching one. Jamie figured if anyone protested too loudly, he’d send them to meet his new favorite saleslady, and see what they bought in self-defense.


A Samhain Surprise

Featuring Marcus and his trip to Realm on Hallow's Eve…
In the timeline, this falls before A Nomadic Witch.
Previously published in Every Witch Way But Wicked.

Marcus hated Halloween. Most modern witches regarded late October with a mix of humor and resignation, as pointy hats, broomsticks — and lately, Harry Potter glasses — came out in full force. They waited patiently until the year clicked into November and everyone decided witches weren’t real again.

But it wasn’t the flood of fake witches that Marcus hated. Or the sharp increase in silly people trying to do magic, or the devastation wreaked by small children hyped on sugar.

He hated that Halloween reminded him of Evan — that it made him, a forty-eight-year-old man, feel five and helpless again. Watching your twin brother float away on the astral plane and never come back was a horror no five-year-old should ever have to face. Reliving it for the next forty-three years…

That was his burden to carry. And if it made him a grumpy old man on the eve of Samhain, as the veil between the worlds thinned once again, then so be it.

This year, however, he’d decided to try something different.

Picking up his laptop, he logged into Enchanter’s Realm. Online gaming worlds had no astral planes, no veils, and no ghostly brothers. And for once, this Halloween, he really didn’t want to be alone.

Landing in the middle of the small village near his castle keep, he frowned. There were dozens of people on the streets, as he’d expected. But they were all staring up at the sky, absolutely silent except for a few stray oohs and aahs.

Marcus looked up and caught sight of the beautiful ghostlights dancing on the face of the moon — and then cursed and grabbed his rucksack. Would the idiots never learn? It hadn’t been more than a month since pink birds had flown overhead, singing and dropping candy — and half the stockpiled spells in Realm had turned into hopping frogs. The time before that, the sky had sprinkled purple glitter — and his warrior army had been found eating their swords-turned-into-carrots and wearing pink bunny slippers.

Three times and he’d learned his lesson, even if no one else had. The world was not always as it seemed, and a smart witch looked for the hidden layers. Or in this case, Warrior Girl’s latest sneak attack. He checked his rucksack, assessing the spells he had on hand. Damn it. He was well armed for trick-or-treating — but not a decent counterspell in the bunch.

Caught flatfooted again by a nine-year-old girl. She might have just unseated him as the number-three player in Realm’s witch-only levels, but darned if that meant he was going to roll over and vanish.

“Lost something?” said a voice to his right.

Marcus turned—and felt like he’d entered a time warp. Nobody had seen either of Realm’s top two players in years. “What are you doing here?”

The old, gnarled wizard cackled. “I hear the girl child has taken over. Figured it was time for her to face some real competition.”

Marcus scowled. “We put up a decent fight.”

“In my day,” The Wizard rubbed his hands gleefully, “little girls didn’t run Realm.”

“Careful.” Marcus grinned. “This little girl’s pretty feisty. She hears you talking like that, she’ll probably turn your underwear pink.”

“She can try.” The Wizard scowled, but looked oddly amused. Probably reasonable, given her real-life status as Warrior Girl’s mother.

Marcus thought quickly. Back in The Wizard’s heyday, solitary play had been the name of the game. Then they’d let in women and small girl children, and alliances had broken out like a particularly contagious virus. Marcus had resisted until fairly recently, but when the world changed, sometimes even cantankerous old men needed to evolve.

He grunted. “It’ll be easier to get things back to normal around here again if we work together.”

The Wizard grinned, a wholly unnatural act for his face. “A good idea. Too bad the girl child beat you to it.”

As Marcus gaped, smoke puffed, and The Wizard evaporated. A thready voice came out of the smoke. “And you might want to check your underwear.”

Demon wings and bat dung, would the girl never stop messing with him? Marcus didn’t bother checking — no doubt his undershorts were pink. Or glittery. Or worse.

He spun around at a chuckle from the shadows. “Who goes there?”

“Your newest friend,” said a sultry voice — another that he hadn’t heard in Realm for years. Even the veil between past and present thinned tonight.

Marcus walked over to join the sexy gypsy lurking in the dark. “Esmerelda. Haven’t seen you around for a bit.”

“Not enough competition.” She shrugged. “The girl is interesting, though. Inventive. You don’t think fast enough to keep up with her.”

Marcus gritted his teeth. He’d spent four months as the last witch standing between Warrior Girl and Realm domination, and was getting very little respect for it. “You might have shown up a little sooner.”

Her low, sexy laugh grated on his last nerve. “And missed the pink bunny slippers? I don’t think so.” She raised an eyebrow. “It took you too long to reverse that spell — getting rusty in your old age?”

He resisted the urge to use up half his spell cache in a defiant display of un-rustiness. Barely. No point wasting game points. “Why are you here?”

“To ensure I stay the top player in Realm. Why else?” She leaned back against the wall. “I could use a good number two.”

She was offering an alliance? Marcus frowned, his brain fighting to catch up. Ah. “You need me. You won’t beat The Wizard and Warrior Girl working together.”

“Oh, but I will.” She wiggled her fingers. “And I brought reinforcements.”

He jumped as duplicate blonde pixies materialized in the shadows and started giggling. “Hi, Uncle Marcus.”

He frowned. Warrior Girl’s triplet sisters weren’t witches. “How’d you two get in here?” Non-witches played in separate levels, for their own safety. That wasn’t a veil — it was supposed to be a bloody brick wall. Mia and Shay were expert programmers, but they wouldn’t last long in this level without magic.

They looked particularly pleased. “Esmerelda fixed it so that we can play. One night only.”

Hecate’s hallows — that must have taken about a zillion game points.

The gypsy’s eyes twinkled. “Girls, go prepare your distraction.”

They took off running. Good thing everyone was still looking up at the moon. “What exactly are they doing?”

Esmerelda shrugged. “I’m not sure — they wouldn’t tell me. But they assured me it would get everyone’s attention.”

He preferred minions that followed his precise directions. “And then we’re going to do what, exactly?”

“There’s only one way into the top spot. We’re going to challenge The Wizard and his latest sidekick to a duel.”

Marcus was unconvinced that Warrior Girl was anyone’s sidekick, but he decided to keep that little bit of information to himself.

Then a gong rang out, resounding off the walls and keeps of Realm. Marcus spun around and ran toward the street — he knew that gong. Time warp again. The gypsy was hard on his heels. “The Hacker’s back?”

The Hacker had made Realm history fifteen years ago, in the very first online version of the game, when he’d cracked the witch-only levels. He remained the only non-witch to ever breach the brick wall.

The two of them charged into the street — and into a huge cloud of smoke. That damn Wizard. Marcus coughed and dug into his rucksack. He was hopelessly unprepared for a showdown.

He looked up as the fog suddenly cleared. And joined all the other witches on the street in a moment of stunned silence.

The Wizard stood, Warrior Girl at his side, both of them looking gobsmacked. Esmerelda had taken up a fighting stance in front of Marcus, but her mouth was hanging open.

All eyes were on the team of three that stood ready for a Hallow’s Eve battle. Two blonde pixies and a geeky old librarian. The Hacker — and two of his real-life daughters.

His third daughter was thinking faster than anyone else. Warrior Girl glared at her sisters. “How’d you get here — and who’s he?”

Young people these days. They had no respect for history. Marcus stepped forward, hoping to get a better handle on the situation before all hell broke loose. “He’s The Hacker. Greatest coder ever to play this game.”

Warrior Girl sniffed. “Never heard of…” Her voice trailed off as she put two and two together. “Dad?”

He bowed. “At your service.”

Her eyes were as big as plates. “I thought you didn’t play anymore.”

“I don’t.” The Hacker’s grin was huge and seriously unnerving. “I just came to watch my apprentices take down the old farts holding onto the top two spots in Realm.”

Marcus blinked. Mia and Shay were genius coders for nine-year-olds, but they didn’t have magic. And in the witch-only levels of Realm, magic was as necessary as air. Especially if you wanted to win.

The Wizard stepped forward, eyes on The Hacker. “What are you up to?”

He grinned again. “Just leveling the playing field a bit.”

Marcus had his eyes on Warrior Girl, who had very quietly reached into her bag and pulled out a spellcube. “I don’t think so.” She glanced up at The Wizard. “Anyone gets to take him down, it’s going to be me.”

She aimed the cube at her sisters, activating the banishing spell as she fired. And gasped as her father caught it and threw it back. “What did you do to my spells?”

Shay’s grin was fierce, and as big as the sky. “Tonight, nobody here is a witch.”

Mia dropped the second hammer as witch chaos broke out. “On behalf of the non-witches of Realm, we bring the fight to you, code-to-code.” She gestured toward dozens of new faces that had >suddenly appeared in the street behind her. “Tonight, we’re taking you down.”

***

It was an epic battle — the kind that Realm would talk of for years. Most witches, denied access to their usual magic, had been toppled easily, their rusty coding skills no match for the elite non-witch forces. The Hacker had stepped out of non-combatant status long enough to lock The Wizard and Esmerelda in the Eternal Tower. Warrior Girl and her sisters had locked themselves into a never-ending code loop, the product of three minds used to thinking a little too much alike.

And Marcus had been left standing as Ruler of all Realm.

He sat now, in the real-life living room of The Hacker and The Wizard, enjoying the spoils of victory.

Daniel, aka The Hacker, raised his glass in toast. “To the only witch smart enough to figure out you’d been hacked.”

Marcus snorted. “Knowing is one thing. Fixing it was a whole different cauldron of fish.” He’d won the battle for Realm by reversing the magical block The Hacker’s two minions had slid through a loophole in Realm’s admin controls. It had been perversely difficult to find.

Daniel grinned in pride. “My girls are awesome coders. All three of them.” The girls in question were wedged in the couch together, giggling.

The Wizard sat down on her husband’s lap. “You didn’t need to lock us in the tower, however. I might have to get even for that soon.”

Her brother Jamie, looking nothing like a sexy gypsy, snickered. “I’d offer to help, but I don’t think it’d do much good.” The Hacker’s coding skills were truly legendary.

Marcus sat back a moment, watching their three sets of twinkling eyes. They were enjoying themselves a little too much. And then the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place. He leaned forward, speaking in tones the girls wouldn’t catch. “A Samhain surprise. You planned this.”

The Wizard batted her eyes innocently. “Whatever do you mean?”

Now he was sure. He stared at the three of them for a moment, trying to work it out.

Jamie grinned. “We might have left a tiny hole in the admin controls. And Daniel might have had his girls test the system for any vulnerabilities.”

And a couple hundred Realm players, witch and non-witch alike, had had the time of their lives because of it — and might pay a little more attention to their coding skills in future. Marcus nodded in appreciation, and then stopped, as one more question struck him. “So why did you let me win?”

The Wizard nodded toward her girls. “We couldn’t very well let one of them win.”

The Hacker grinned. “You’re the only guy other than the three of us who can code well enough to beat my girls.” He paused a beat. “For today.”

Marcus raised his glass. Warning heard and heeded.

***

Later, as Marcus dropped into Realm to shuttle back to his home on the other side of the continent, he looked up at the full moon and pondered. Tonight, the veil between two worlds had thinned, and good had come of it. Perhaps there was a lesson there.

Closing his eyes, he visualized his twin’s face. And for once, felt a bit of comfort.

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