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Emma L Adams

Badgered to Death: A Wildwood Witch Mystery Book 6 (Paperback)

Badgered to Death: A Wildwood Witch Mystery Book 6 (Paperback)

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Book 6 of 7: A Wildwood Witch Mystery

After a busy summer carnival season, Robin Wildwood is trying to take it easy. Her job as Head Witch tends to make that challenging, but she's keen to focus on her budding relationship with Harvey and her hopes of getting her dad and brother back in touch with one another.

When a sinister new enemy shows up in Wildwood Heath and attacks a group of camping badger shifters, the peace is shattered. Faced with an invisible adversary, Robin is forced to turn to outside help in the form of the mysterious Reaper who just showed up in town.

Maura and her ghostly brother Mart are undeniably hiding secrets, but Robin has no choice but to put her trust in them to find their unseen killer. Even her powerful magical sceptre might not be enough to handle this one…

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With a family like mine, I expected my date night to get interrupted, but I didn’t expect the instigator to be my grandmother’s ghost. I was in the middle of the living room in my mother’s house when I looked up and saw Grandma’s transparent form waving cheerily from outside in the street

Instead of waving back, I startled. I’d thought she was confined to my office, but she had been testing the limits recently and must have floated straight through the closed door to the Wildwood Coven’s headquarters and out into the street.

“Oh no,” I muttered as she pirouetted, her transparent feet skimming the ground. The only saving grace of having my grandmother’s restless spirit take up permanent residence in my office was knowing I could at least get some privacy at home. From her, that was, since the rest of my family members were all too present in my life.

Crossing my fingers behind my back that she wouldn’t be able to get into the house, I walked through the hallway and opened the front door. My red squirrel familiar, Tansy, ran past and hopped onto the garden wall to watch while I closed the door behind me and cleared my throat. “Grandma, what are you doing out here?” 

“I thought I’d drop by for a visit.” Her gaze fell to the neat front garden. “What did you do to my flowerbeds?”

“I didn’t do anything,” I told her. “If you have an issue with the garden, take it up with Mum.”

And you removed the black curtains?” She gave a sniff. “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten me already.”

Chance would be a fine thing. “The curtains made the living room look like a cave. Besides, you’re still around, so we don’t need to move on, do we?”

After my grandmother’s death, the house had been decked out in mourning black in a manner that I found frankly excessive and that the woman herself had never appreciated in the slightest. This was the first time she’d even brought up the subject, but she gave me an affronted look and then shooed Tansy off the fence. “Did that familiar of yours eat my flowers?”

“Certainly not,” Tansy answered in an indignant tone. “Your eldest daughter moved them into the back garden before the flower contest to keep them away from her sister.”

“Exactly,” I said. Tansy might have a taste for sunflower seeds, but she knew better than to snack on Mum’s prizewinning flowers. On the other hand, my aunt Shannon had proven she wasn’t above resorting to sabotage in order to win the town’s annual flower contest, although my mother had come out the victor in the end. “Why not go to her house?”

“My youngest daughter is in disgrace,” she returned. “I won’t give her the honour of a visit.”

Figures. Aunt Shannon had shown up the entire coven when her illegal potion-selling scheme had been publicly exposed, and I was willing to bet she was scheming for a shot at revenge on me for humiliating her. Since my aunt’s house was right next door, it was nice to imagine Grandma floating in and catching her in the act, but I didn’t need to encourage my grandmother’s wandering tendencies any further.

“Fine.” Instead, I paced down the road and beckoned to her to follow me. “C’mon. Let’s go back to the office.”

“Do not patronise me, Robin Wildwood.” She folded her arms, a gust of wind stirring around her. 

Oh man. Even a witch as powerful as my grandmother no longer had access to the magic she’d had when she was alive, but that didn’t make her harmless. If she chose to blast off my mother’s roof, for instance, I was pretty sure even my Head Witch sceptre wouldn’t be able to stop her.

“I’m not.” 

A curtain twitched in the window of the house next door. Great. Aunt Shannon had come to watch the show. 

“Mum doesn’t have time to attend to your whims, and I thought you liked having the office to yourself.”

Despite being dead, my grandmother refused to give up her old office. She wasn’t going to let a little inconvenient incorporeality stop her from acting as if she was still Head Witch, and she’d refused point-blank to let me redecorate the place. It was bad enough having her hovering around me when I was working, let alone at home. I’d sooner camp out in the forest than have her for a roommate. 

“Is your mother in the garden?” Grandma scoffed. “I’ll go and sort her out.”

She drifted purposefully towards the alley between Mum’s house and its neighbour, but when she reached the opening, her body came to a sudden halt and jerked back as if she were at the end of a bungee cord that had reached its limit. With a huff of indignation, Grandma made a second attempt to get into the gap between Mum’s house and Aunt Shannon’s, but her ghostly figure was unable to move any further. 

I hid a smile of relief. Good. She can’t get into the house. “Come on. You don’t want someone leaving a pile of sage outside the office door when you’re not around again, do you?”

“They wouldn’t dare.” She turned her back on the houses, her face a scowling mask. “I’ll show them.”

As Grandma finally began to drift back towards the coven’s headquarters, Tansy cleared her throat from her perch on the garden wall. “We have company.”

I followed her gaze and spied Harvey approaching. From the expression of utter bewilderment on his face, I assumed he’d witnessed a fair bit of my conversation with Grandma… except he lacked the ability to see ghosts, so it would have looked as if I was talking to myself. 

“Erm.” Why couldn’t I get through a single day without my family showing me up? “Hey, Harvey.”

“Hey, Robin,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“My grandmother’s ghost went for a wander.” I surreptitiously glanced at her retreating path, and I lowered my voice until I was sure she’d floated back into the coven’s headquarters. “I was worried she’d get into the house.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I thought ghosts were confined to a single location.”

“You’d think, but you know how strong-willed she used to be when she was alive.” I shrugged. “She’s no different as a ghost.” 

I sometimes forgot most witches and wizards didn’t have the ability to see ghosts because Grandma was such a demanding presence at headquarters that even the few coven members who couldn’t see her knew exactly where she was at any given time. I had to admit I envied anyone who didn’t have to listen to her throwing tantrums whenever I moved the furniture around the office so I could actually find the paperwork I needed.

“I bet.” Harvey reached for my hand and pulled me in for a kiss, though he kept it chaste. “Should we go before she comes back?”

“Wise idea.” I slid my hand into his as we made our way down the street, while Tansy scampered along at my heels.

“You didn’t bring the sceptre?” Harvey asked, noting the absence of the large glowing stick I usually carried everywhere.

“No, Mum finally caved in.” I’d argued that the sceptre was too cumbersome to carry around and painted a gigantic target on my head, and besides, it was safer in my bedroom than at the pub. “It’s not like we’re leaving town.”

Rather, our destination was the Fox’s Den, the local pub and our favourite date spot. Since it was run by shifters, my family weren’t fans of the place, but in my view, they were missing out. The werewolf bartender gave us each a free drink on the house—a thank you for solving a murder a few weeks ago that had threatened their business—and had also reserved our favourite table by the window. Harvey and I settled down to order our meals and chatted while we waited for our food. I welcomed the cosy atmosphere as a balm to the stress of another week of Head Witch duties and navigating my family’s many demands. 

“Any plans for the rest of summer?” Harvey asked. “I should be done with classes in a few weeks.”

“Then you’ll start on the next school year of classes, right?” 

Harvey was the captain of the local Sky Hopper team, and when he wasn’t in the air himself, he was teaching classes at the academy. Since they’d broken up for the summer holidays, he’d switched to teaching summer school classes, but if anything, he was working longer hours than usual. Honestly, it was a miracle we had time to see one another at all, especially as the Head Witch didn’t get a summer holiday. 

“Yes, but I’ll have a bit of free time in between.” 

Our meals appeared on the table in front of us. 

He leaned forward. “You haven’t said what your plans are. Aside from Head Witch stuff.”

“My plans for the summer currently involve convincing my brother to spend more time with our dad”—I grabbed my fork and dug into my meal—“specifically, taking him to meet Jessica and the kids.”

He lifted a brow. “How likely is it that you’ll convince him?”

“Considerably lower than the odds of me shaking off this sceptre by Samhain.” 

“You never know. Haven’t you been taking lessons from your grandmother?”

“When she isn’t taking unexpected excursions.” I ate a few more mouthfuls of delicious pasta.

The pub food might not be quite as good as Kimberly’s, my family’s chef, but it was the companionship I valued the most. My family didn’t really hang out casually, except for the rare occasions I managed to convince my brother to sit down and watch a movie with me on one of his nights off.

Being surrounded by my overly competitive family for too long made it hard to tell if I was making any significant progress, though Harvey had a more optimistic outlook on my capabilities than I did anyway.

Harvey studied me for a moment. “Is there a chance you’ll be able to give up the sceptre on Samhain? Even a small one?”

“Yes… in theory.” 

The last day of October was the official time for the appointment of a new Head Witch, though my own ascension to the position had been earlier due to my grandmother’s untimely death. It also didn’t mean I’d be freed on Samhain myself. 

I waved my hand. “It depends if I’ve fulfilled whatever purpose the sceptre picked me to fulfil as its wielder.”

Otherwise, I’d be stuck with it for another year. The horror. Pity I still didn’t know what, exactly, the sceptre wanted me to do. Being a giant magical stick, it couldn’t talk.

“You mean… what you saw in the Seeing Stone.”

I inclined my head. The Seeing Stone—a kind of all-purpose crystal ball that didn’t require one to be a Seer to glimpse the future inside it—had shown me that I’d have to use the sceptre against some unnamed threat. Given that I was the family outcast with a less-than-stellar record when it came to meeting the coven’s standards, the fact that the sceptre believed I was the person best suited to meet the challenge was more worrying than flattering.

“The Seeing Stone can’t actually see the future, can it?” he went on. “You don’t know for sure that it’ll happen that way.”

“No, but the Stone has a sense of how events will progress if certain choices are made,” I said, “which I realise is pretty vague, but seeing the future is complicated. It’s why Seers tend to couch their predictions in confusing explanations so nobody will ask too many questions.”

“I get it,” he said. “You saw one possible path, which might not end up coming true if you or someone else makes a decision that sends the future in a different direction.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason these people don’t sell lottery tickets.” Though it was beyond me to figure out how the sceptre had “known” the future the Seeing Stone had predicted. “Honestly, even most Head Witches don’t know the mechanics of how the sceptres and Seeing Stones work.”

The sceptre, I knew, had been created by some of the first covens a thousand years or so back, but the actual history behind the title wasn’t something I’d studied in-depth. I’d checked out a few texts from a magical library a few weeks ago to see what paths a Head Witch could take, but I hadn’t thought to look up where the sceptres had originated.

“Who did make the sceptres?” Harvey asked. “Expert wand-makers? I expect their skills are in high demand.”

“Even wand-makers are rare.” Very few covens had the gift of creating magical instruments, but sceptres were like a regular wand amplified by a thousand, and each of them was assigned to a single Head Witch. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been any new ones created in a long while. “I don’t know who made them. Not sure even Mum does.”

“You’d think this kind of thing would be on record.”

“You haven’t seen the coven’s filing cabinets. I can’t even find last week’s records in there.”

The covens insisted on keeping all their records on paper instead of storing them digitally, with the result that a lot of decisions were made according to tradition without anyone knowing the original reason said tradition had formed. 

One such example was the notion that each sceptre had to pick its wielder every Samhain and it could only be held by a limited selection of magical families with nobody new being allowed a look-in. I’d caused enough of a scandal by being chosen, and I did belong to the Wildwood Coven’s founding family. But everyone had honoured the sceptre’s choice regardless of their personal feelings on my capability to handle the role.

“Still,” Harvey said. “Didn’t we learn about the founding covens at school?”

“I must have slept through that lesson.” 

Since my family had held the sceptre for nearly a century, one would think they’d have some idea, but Grandma had been of no use whatsoever in passing on helpful knowledge. It’d taken long enough to convince her to start teaching me how to use the sceptre to cast spells, and she’d only agreed to that after I’d dodged several assassination attempts.

“Me too,” Harvey said mildly. “I was more likely to be napping in class or daydreaming about flying than taking notes.”

“At least your daydreaming became a career.” I’d been inattentive at best through school, but it would have been impossible to live up to my overachieving brother even if I’d been top of the class. “My daydreams were mostly about becoming a Pokémon trainer.”

He grinned. “You got Tansy. She’s almost the same thing.”

“I don’t want to get stuck inside a Pokéball,” Tansy objected from under the table, where she was eating any stray crumbs that we dropped on the floor.

“He was joking,” I told my familiar. “Don’t worry. You’re cuter.”

“Obviously.” She hopped onto the table and preened, waving her fluffy tail. “I haven’t forgotten you almost named me ‘Eevee.’”

“My mother put a stop to that one,” I explained for Harvey’s benefit. “She said I had to choose a more sensible name.”

As a kid, I hadn’t had the clout to argue. While I’d caved in on that particular issue, I’d never intended to let my family have control over my destiny. Before I became Head Witch, my plan had been to save enough money for a nice camera to build my photography hobby. Then my brother had bribed me into staying in town by buying me said camera. That didn’t mean I’d forgotten my eventual plan. Date nights aside, I would never be free to choose my own fate as long as I stayed in Wildwood Heath. 

“When did you two meet?” Harvey asked. “I have a hard time imagining Tansy sitting patiently at the familiar shop waiting to be chosen.”

“She wasn’t,” I said. “My mother asked my brother and me what kind of familiars we wanted and then used her connections to find the most likely candidates. I always wanted a red squirrel, and she pulled strings to get one from somewhere up north.”

“Nice of her.”

“I guess it was.” I watched Tansy gambol around the table, a tightening sensation in my chest. 

I’d been lucky as a kid—spoiled, even—but it had all been contingent upon my following the family’s rules and being what they expected me to be. I wished I could have the perks of staying in town without the downsides, but my family was more likely to relocate to Mars than give me leeway to choose my own path. “I didn’t expect her to follow through, but I remember the day I woke up and went downstairs to find this adorable ball of red fluff sitting on the kitchen table. I fell in love with Tansy right away.”

“And I fell in love with you when you rescued me from your brother,” Tansy remarked. “He was lecturing me on the family’s rules.”

“Typical of him.” I fished in my bag for my camera. “Luckily, they couldn’t control the personality of the familiar they picked for me.”

“Normal familiars are boring.” Tansy struck a pose when she saw the camera, and I snapped a few photos of her.

“Those are great,” Harvey said, peering over my shoulder at the preview on my camera screen. “Are you going to do anything with them?”

I shrugged. “I don’t really have time, but maybe I’ll start an anonymous account on Witching Photography to see what people think.”

My mother didn’t want me drawing too much attention online—which was fair enough, given the not-infrequent attempts on my life—but a few squirrel photos posted under a false name wouldn’t do any harm.

“Yeah, I guess you have a lot of other stuff going on,” he said, “what with your family and your job.”

I pulled a face. It was hard to forget how thoroughly the Head Witch title had permeated pretty much every aspect of my life, and I was still no closer to figuring out how the sceptre had chosen me above every other possible option. “Yeah, and on that note, I’d like to forget both of those things and enjoy the rest of our night.”

“Fair enough.” 

He watched me snap a few more photos, while someone started playing live music in the background. A shifter band I didn’t know had claimed the stage in the corner, and the twang of an acoustic guitar soothed my nerves a little. 

“Got any plans for tomorrow?” he asked.

“I’m dragging Ramsey to visit Dad tomorrow morning.”

“Wow, good luck,” he said. “I was going to invite you to watch our practise session, but I figured you might find it a little boring. Though I might be free afterwards if you want to drop by in the evening.”

“I promised Rowan I’d play video games with her…” Though come to think of it, I’d never actually been to his house, which might explain why we hadn’t taken our relationship any further than a few kisses. The idea of inviting him to stay in my family’s old house was out of the question, so my only option was to wait for him to ask me first. “She won’t mind if I cancel.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” he said. “The team will want to hang out at the pub in the evening, and you should make the most of your day off.”

“I enjoy spending time with you as well.” I just wished I had more of it, and I hoped he knew I was never inviting him into my mother’s home. 

Especially if Grandma did figure out how to get into the house. After the close call we’d had earlier, I wasn’t taking any chances.

I hadn’t planned to end up living in my family home again in my mid-twenties, but then again, I hadn’t planned to be Head Witch either. If you asked me, I’d have made a better Pokémon trainer instead.

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