Authors: Bret Schulte
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
Age of Heroes: The Witch Hunter’s Gauntlet
Text copyright © 2012 Bret A. Schulte
All Rights Reserved
Thanks to Mom, Dad, Jessica, Andrea, Whitney, and Amy for putting up with me.
Special thanks to Karen, the Empress of Editors and to James, the King of Covers.
Alexander Nero Jr. was not a fan of the cold. Standing on a barren, wind-swept ice cliff on Ellesmore Island, deep inside the Arctic Circle, would normally fall very low on his to-do list. But this remote and frigid island happened to be the home of one of the most heavily protected magical vaults in the world. And he intended to rob it.
The crafty old wizards of the
Sorcerors’ Guild had used their best spells to hide and booby-trap the vault. They even managed to turn it invisible and untouchable. The charms could only be broken if the vault was damaged, and since no one could see or touch it, the wizards thought it would remain undisturbed forever.
But they didn’t know Alexander Nero.
He activated his specially designed goggles. His vision warbled for a second until suddenly a steel door set in a block of stone appeared before him. The vault hung in the air just over the edge of cliff, exactly where his late father’s notes said it would be.
picked up a chunk of ice and flung it at the door. The ice passed through the steel door as if it wasn’t even there. He could see the vault, but he still couldn’t touch it.
He had a plan for that. According to his sources, there was one law of physics that those old wizards had forgotten about, and he had brought along one of Nero Industries’ latest creations to take advantage of that fact. He signaled his men to start it up.
There was only one person who stood in his way now.
He had a plan for her
Five minutes ago fourteen-year-old Samantha Hathaway became the most wanted criminal in the world.
The impossible had happened. The most magically secure vault on Earth had been violently breached.
Droplets of lava sizzled in the Arctic snow around the shattered remains of the vault’s stone guardian. The once invisible and untouchable steel door had been torn off at the hinges and tossed several yards away.
More troubling than the loss of the vault’s dangerous contents was the fact that not a
drop of magic had been used in the robbery. Only the Hathaway family was known to have the skill and knowledge necessary to pull off a feat of this magnitude. As the last surviving Hathaway, Sam immediately jumped to the top of the suspects list.
had no clue that powerful and secret forces from around the globe were zeroing in on her. At the moment she was busy scrubbing a particularly stubborn smudge of burnt oatmeal off of a cookie sheet. A smudge she had been working on for nearly fifteen minutes now.
! What are you doing?”
Sam had been working at the Cookie Emporium
in Presley, Illinois’s tiny one-story mall for the last five weeks now. In that time, her co-worker Alison had only referred to her as Sparky because every time Sam took off her hairnet her frizzy auburn hair would sprout out wildly, making her look a bit like she had been struck by lightning. Fortunately Alison didn’t bother to talk to her much.
In all fairness, Sam didn’t really feel like talking to Alison either.
Sam and Alison hadn’t traveled in the same circles since third grade. If it wasn’t for the fact that they each needed a minimum-wage-paying low-stress job to earn a little cash before the start of freshmen year, they probably could have gone on blissfully ignoring each other until graduation.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked,
letting the cookie sheet slip under the water.
“Can’t you smell that?” Alison asked.
Sam sniffed around. She caught a hint of burning peanut butter.
She darted past the smirking Alison. Her heart pounded in her ears as she slipped on a pair of oven mitts and reached into the oven, hoping beyond hope that the cookies were still okay.
he sheet of burnt peanut butter and macadamia nut cookies was another tragic victim of the Sam Curse, her unfailing ability to mess up even the simplest of tasks.
“That makes over twelve dozen now, doesn’t it?” Alison asked. It was no secret that she was scheming to get rid of Sam so that her friend Chloe could take her job and they could spend the summer gossiping and flirting with the boys across the hall at the Sports Corner.
“What is going on back here?” asked Susan Ferris, the frazzled manager of the Cookie Emporium, as she hustled into the kitchen.
“She did it again
Sam understood Susan’s disappointment and confusion. After all, how hard is it to pop a dozen prepackaged fast-food-style frozen cookies into the preset oven for fourteen minutes without burning them?
“Okay, you know what?” Susan began. The wheels of her mind were clearly spinning extra hard this time. “Maybe baking isn’t for everyone. Why don’t you grab the register? Alison can bake another batch of peanut butter
and macadamia nuts before we run out.”
“Why do I get the sweaty, nasty job? I didn’t burn anything,” Alison whined. Alison lived for register duty, because it was the best way for her to spy on the rest of the mall.
“Fine,” Susan said throwing on one of the spare aprons. “I will bake the cookies and finish the dishes. Alison, you take the register. Try to steer people towards the oatmeal raisin cookies. We have plenty of those. Sam, why don’t you get the Windex and go out and clean the glass? There are finger smudges all over the display case.”
Alison smugly grabbed the Windex and a rag off the rack and made a big show of handing them over to Sam.
As it turned out, the display case was absolutely filthy. Little kid fingerprints were everywhere. It was nice to think that she wasn’t just doing busywork.
“Having fun?” Alison asked from behind the register.
“Yes, quite,” Sam said through gritted teeth as she scraped off a nasty smudge--some sort of cheese, from the looks of it.
“That’s good,” said a sickly sweet voice from behind her. “
You know, you are very lucky. Most people spend years and have to go to college to find their future career path, but you have already found yours.”
Sam spun around. “Hello, Courtney.”
Courtney Cho always found time in her busy day as queen bee to make sure that Sam knew she was inferior in every way. Sam had become Courtney’s favorite punching bag the day she moved into Courtney’s old room in the small apartment the Cho family lived in before Mr. Cho was promoted to head engineer at Nero Industrial Heating and Cooling. Ever since then Courtney looked at Sam and her godparents as the old poorer version of her own family--and took every opportunity to remind Sam of that fact.
Of course, Courtney wasn’t aware that Sam’s parents had died saving the world or that Courtney, her family, and all the
pretty pop stars she worships would be enslaved or worse right now if not for the sacrifices of the Hathaway family. But Sam wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about that, not that she knew much to tell, or that anyone would believe her if she did.
o you want, Courtney?” Sam asked in her most disinterested voice.
“Tsk, tsk. What kind of customer service is that?” Courtney shook her head. “I might have to tell your manager about that.”
“Go for it.”
“Ah,” Courtney said in mock concern. “Do we not like our pathetic little job?”
“Do you really have nothing better to do than bother me today?”
“I was shopping, nitwit.” Courtney held up her shopping bags. “The Hole just got in Monica Summers’s new line.”
Sam could not care less.
“Do you know what your problem is?” Courtney asked in her patented condescending way.
“At the moment?”
Courtney brushed Sam’s sarcasm off with a wave of her hand. “You have no-”
Sam waited for her to make whatever hurtful comment she wanted. She had her mental list of comebacks ready.
But Courtney didn’t finish. In fact, she didn’t even finish not finishing her sentence. Her mouth remained frozen in mid speech.
Sam stared at her for a moment, almost impressed that she could hold that expression for so long. She stepped closer and noticed that Courtney’s face didn’t seem to be moving at all; she wasn’t even breathing.
“Uh, Alison?” Sam began as she turned to check and make sure that Alison was seeing this too.
Alison was turned away from Sam, restocking napkins.
Sam watched her for a moment and realized she wasn’t moving either. She was frozen in mid-reach.
Sam’s heart was racing now.
“Susan?” Sam yelled at the back room.
No one answered.
Sam whipped around, looking in every direction. Everywhere sh
e looked people had stopped cold.
“What is going on?” she yelled.
Sparks of panic zipped through her body. She wanted to run, fast, in any direction. But she had no idea where.
“This had better be some kind of prank,” Sam said to the Courtney statue.
She suddenly remembered that she had the bottle of glass cleaner in her hand.
“Prepare to get wet,” she said, pointing the bottle right in Courtney’s face. She waited half a second and pulled the trigger. The spray hit Courtney in the face, but there was no reaction from her frozen features.
“Okay,” Sam said. “Last chance.”
Sam unscrewed the head of the bottle and poured the entire contents into Courtney’s shopping bag. Courtney still didn’t react. If this was all a prank she was really
taking it to an extreme; Sam had just destroyed a few hundred dollars’ worth of clothes.
It occurred to Sam that maybe time had stopped, like in one of those old black and white sci-fi television shows she watched late at night when all the talk shows were over.
Over Courtney’s shoulder Sam could see that the fountain in the mall’s center was still running. During her time at Cookie Emporium, she had somehow trained her ears to block out the constant gurgling of the fountain, the bad mechanical music of those stupid little plastic horses kids can ride for a quarter, and the annoying vending machines that say the same three phrases over and over again like people were going to buy stuff just because the machine was trying to have a conversation with them. But now all those sounds were flooding back.
So time hadn’t stopped. That was good.
She could never stay awake long enough to find out how the people on the TV show got out of it. On the other hand, everyone was still frozen, which was very weird and very bad. She needed to find help.
She made a mad dash for the nearest doors,
the glass double doors that led from the food court out to the parking lot. Dodging the frozen people with their Sbarro trays, she craned her neck looking for signs of movement outside.
“So, you’re just going to abandon these people and save yourself. Why does that not surprise me?”
Sam stopped and spun around on the spot. Two men in robes stood next to the still unmoving Courtney.
Her first thought was that these guys must have come from the comic book store down the hall. Occasionally people came out of that store dressed as hobbits or Stormtroopers or whatever. But usually they were teenagers with bad skin and were pretty harmless. Sometimes they were even kind of fun. There was one particularly cute guy who actually made for a very passable Captain Jack Sparrow. These guys seemed more extreme, and their robes didn’t look like they came from Wal-Mart’s Halloween section. The taller of the two men had unruly gray hair with a few stubborn patches
of brown mixed in and a weather-beaten face. The younger man looked to be in his late twenties; his long, dirty-blond hair was intricately braided in strands that tied in the back.
“Who are you?” Sam asked. “What’s going on?”
The older man smiled at her, a smile that radiated contempt and fiendish glee.
“Hold it right there, Miss Hathaway. There is nowhere for you to run,” the younger man said. He held his right hand up
, palm open, towards Sam.
“What are you doing, the Jedi mind trick?” Sam asked.
Faint blue sparks leapt between the young man’s fingers.
“Uh, okay. That’s interesting,” Sam said. Her eyes darted around the food court looking for any signs of help or escape.
“Personally I’d like to see you make a run for it. How far do you think you’d get?” the older man said as he flexed the fingers on his right hand menacingly.
Nothing was making sense to Sam. Every fiber of her being was telling her to run, but as far as she knew these
two guys were the only other non-frozen people in the whole world. On the other hand, they were extremely weird people, and one of them had sparks dancing between his fingers.
“Okay, stop. Rewind,” Sam tried to act calm. “What is going on? Who are you? How are you moving? How am I moving? Why are they not moving? What is the deal with your hand?”
“Oh, sorry,” the younger man said. He reached into his robe with his non-sparking hand and pulled out a silver medallion. It looked like the badge sheriffs wore in old Westerns, except instead of a star it had a triangular symbol that curved a bit at the corners set inside a circle.
With a flick of his hand
, the blue energy coiling around his fingers shot out, wrapping itself around Sam’s wrists like a pair of handcuffs.
“I’m Deputy Crispin Colver,
of the International Sorcerers’ Guild Magical Enforcement Squad. This is Chief Constable Horatio Albion. You are under arrest.”