Ellsworth seemed to appear out of nowhere. As Chloe and Elizabeth walked up the road, deep in conversation, he simply materialised in front them.
“It will not be so easy now, witch!” he snarled.
Immediately Elizabeth grabbed Chloe’s arm and stood really close. “W-what do you want?” she asked.
Chloe could feel the girl trembling at Ellsworth’s intimidating presence.
“You know what I want,” said Ellsworth, appearing to tower over them, his face twisted in a maniacal grin, with an evil sparkle in his eyes. He raised his hand, pointing a finger at Chloe. “I want her.”
“Get behind me,” said Chloe, pushing her friend behind her - not an easy task since Elizabeth appeared to have no intentions of letting go but, eventually, Chloe stood facing the witch’s arch nemesis in the dark - and apparently deserted - street. “You may have bitten off more than you can chew this time, warlock,” she said quietly.
“My dear, nothing would give me greater pleasure than having a real opponent, the others, it’s sad to say, have not been anything more than a minor distraction.”
“Chloe, don’t,” said Elizabeth from behind. “You have no idea what he might do.”
Chloe ignored her friend. “Well? What are you waiting for?” she asked. “I’m here, you’re here. Why delay this any longer?”
“You’re showing gumption, girl, I like that,” he said with genuine enthusiasm.
“Don’t trust him. You said it yourself, he’s an arsehole.”
“However,” said Ellsworth. “I should like to put a stop to that incessant chatter.”
He raised his hand and Elizabeth immediately let go of Chloe, her hands flying to her mouth.
Chloe stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at her friend, whose eyes showed all too clearly, her fear and distress. When Elizabeth moved her hands, Chloe could see her lips growing together, almost as if they were being zipped shut.
“Mmmmph!” Elizabeth mumbled, her fear turning to panic.
“That was a grave mistake, Ellsworth,” said Chloe, darkly.
“We will indeed,” she replied, with grim determination.
With Elizabeth in such a fluster, Chloe found it almost impossible to concentrate and needed to regroup - a difficult task, what with Ellsworth sneering and sealing up mouths all over the place. She saw her chance and let out a blood-curdling scream. At the same time, she felt Elizabeth’s fingers grip her upper arm so tightly it almost stopped the blood flow, while confusion showed as plain as day on Ellsworth’s face.
Taking another breath she was about to let out one more, even louder scream, but a sound - something akin to a cat being strangled, pierced the evening air and the road was filled with the effects of flashing blue lights.
“What’s going on here, Miss,” said a policeman through the open window of his patrol car. “Is there something wrong?”
“Yes, officer. This man’s been stalking us all day. He’s scaring us.”
“Oh come now, Elizabeth, that’s beneath even you,” said Ellsworth, disapproval and frustration replacing his original expression.
The policeman got out of the car, manoeuvring himself between the two girls and the rather flustered-looking Ellsworth. “Which one of you is Elizabeth?”
“She is,” said Chloe.
“That’s not Elizabeth,” said Edward. “The other one is.”
“Is this true?”
“No officer,” said she replied. She moved her head in Elizabeth’s direction. “I’m Chloe; she’s Elizabeth.”
“So you know this man?”
“Only because he threatened us earlier in the precinct and has been following us around, but I don’t know him.”
“You girls had best run along. We’ll deal with this,” said the policeman, his colleague stepping out of the other side of the car.
“You can’t escape that easily, witch,” shouted Ellsworth.
“You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” said the second policeman.
The two girls left the scene, returning to Elizabeth’s house as quickly as their legs would carry them.
Chloe led Elizabeth straight downstairs to the basement and picked up the cards.
“Elizabeth,” she called. “I need your help, quickly.”
Elizabeth - the younger - watched as Chloe appeared to go into some kind of trance.
Elizabeth - the witch - appeared to Chloe and saw Elizabeth - the younger - immediately.
“Ellsworth?” she asked.
“Yes. A few minutes ago. I managed to get him taken away by the police, but I don’t imagine it will hold him up for too long. Can you fix it?”
“I can’t. You’re going to have to.”
“But, I don’t know how.”
“It’s alright, I can give you what you need, but there’s likely to be a price.”
“Price? What price?” Chloe asked, aghast.
“The fact is I am not what I used to be. Five hundred years of fighting and hiding has taken its toll. I can help you to right this, but whether that will leave me with enough strength for the fight and to return you to normal afterwards - assuming we’re successful of course, is not certain.”
Chloe thought for a moment, her head bowed.
“Then that means I would stay as I am, right?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I’d never go back to being Steve?”
Chloe had to think.
There was an overwhelming desire to do right by her friend Elizabeth and of course, at the same time, she was curious about who she really was.
However, despite the fact that she liked being Chloe - it was after all, all she’d known over the very short space of time she had been this way - Steve was who she really was. Ellen was desperate to find her son and Chloe felt she owed her the chance to have him back.
However, it wasn’t as if she had a choice.
Elizabeth - the witch - may not have been able to change her back and, much as she wanted to know who she had been before all this started, she also felt a need to make things right before any of the brown stuff got caught up in the air conditioning. Then at least, Elizabeth - the younger - would be herself again and that’s what mattered to Chloe.
“I don’t care,” she said at last. “It’s my fault Elizabeth got mixed up in all this and she just has to be fixed.”
The witch looked at Chloe and smiled. “She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?”
“Duh! She’s my friend.”
“I see,” the witch replied, nodding knowingly.
Chloe didn’t think she believed that was all there was to it. “She’s just a friend,” she assured the witch.
“Of course,” the witch agreed, with a slight smirk.
“Right,” Chloe said, with some degree of obstinacy and a vigorous nod of the head.
As they set about curing Elizabeth, Chloe could feel a strange sensation flooding her body, kind of like the tingling she received from the cards, but more so. It was so strong that she was only vaguely aware of the witch’s voice in her head, giving her step-by-step instructions on what to do - something Chloe seemed to be doing on autopilot.
She was also dimly aware of the arrival of Ellen and Lynne as they reached the foot of the stairway, standing mouths agape on the bottom two stairs, as Lynne’s niece appeared to glow slightly and lift, her head tilting back, eyes closed and arms outspread, while her lips started to slowly reform and part. Then, very slowly, the young girl descended back to the floor, the glowing ceased and Elizabeth opened her eyes and her mouth with a deep sigh, followed by two almost simultaneous sharp intakes of breath from Lynne and Ellen.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Lynne demanded.
Chloe and Elizabeth were about to reply when Edward Ellsworth’s voice thundered, “I’m not going to play these games anymore, witch. ”
How he’d gained entry was uncertain, but there he was in the middle of the cellar floor, just a few feet from the two girls. Chloe immediately pushed Elizabeth across the room towards her aunt and Ellen, stepping across to the table to get to the cards.
“As I said - no more playing.”
With a negligent flick of a finger and a muttered collection of words, the cards flew in all directions, shredding into thousands of pieces and fluttering like confetti to the floor.
“What have you done?” Chloe demanded. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Not at all, it’s just you and me now. There’s nowhere for you to hide, Elizabeth. This is the last time for one of us.”
Chloe felt a wrench in her stomach. She could not feel the witch’s presence as she had done and it felt to her as though she had gone. Maybe Ellsworth’s destruction of the cards had finally put paid to the witch too and now, she had to face down a very angry-looking warlock - alone.
“Bring it on, arsehole,” she said bravely.
“I do hate that expression. It sounds so uncouth when it comes from one as pretty as you. Perhaps I should do to your latest incarnation what I did all those centuries ago - poetic justice don’t you think?”
“I’d like to see you try,” Chloe said through clenched teeth.
Ellsworth pointed a finger at Chloe and a bolt of lightning arced and sizzled as it spanned the intervening space between him and Chloe, but it didn’t find its mark. Instead, Chloe ducked and it hit a wall lamp behind her, causing the bulb to burst, sending a spectacular spray of blue-white sparkles and shattered glass cascading over the floor.
The smell of ozone hung heavy in the air as Chloe glimpsed her friend, held protectively by her aunt, Lynne, at the foot of the stairs. As she tried to reach out, crying and fighting to get to her, but Lynne simply gathered her in her arms and held her close.
“Lucky,” said Ellsworth, already drawing himself up for another attack.
Again, Chloe dodged the bolt of lightning, which this time struck the floor, sending a plume of smoke upwards as it singed the pieces of the cards Ellsworth had shredded moments earlier.
Chloe taunted the aged warlock. “Not very good at this, are you?”
“Mock me not, witch,” he bellowed, standing tall and sending a third bolt at Chloe, which this time found its mark, engulfing her in a blue-white nimbus.
* * *
Static charges leapt from wall to floor, crawling everywhere, fizzing dangerously. The whole room seemed alive with electricity. Lynne, Elizabeth and Ellen’s hair was beginning to stand on end as Ellsworth’s electrical bolt continued to buzz, feeding the aura of pure energy that surrounded Chloe.
At the same time, in all the static, the pieces of the cards started to move.
Slowly at first, the tiny pieces stood up, like iron filings over a magnet, but then they began moving, edging towards one another, lifting off the ground and swirling as if caught in a vortex.
Ellsworth’s face began showing signs of fear as he didn’t appear to be able to stop the flow of the charge. His body shook as the pieces of the cards moved together, swirling upwards joining and forming a shape, but this time not as the cards they had previously been.
The cards swirled faster and faster, blurring as Ellsworth, wide-eyed with terror, shook violently, his body almost convulsing and his head nodding forwards and backwards, then from side to side. All the while, the cards swirled and Chloe, still suffused with the white glow, continued to stand as if apart from all that was happening.
The pieces of card had reformed into something reminiscent of a human being; its back hunched and its face haphazardly placed around a huge nose, hooked over and almost touching a very prominent chin - never looking as though it was going to finish forming as it undulated and pulsed.
For the briefest moment, everything stopped and the figure in the cards turned to face the sweating and ashen figure of Ellsworth, the face twisting and distorting in a hideous grin.
“Please,” he begged, dropping to his knees, though it wasn’t obvious whether that was a gesture of supplication or because he no longer had the energy to support his own weight.
“Edward Ellsworth begging?” intoned the darkly hollow voice of the card figure. “Please?” it asked, mocking.
“I-I…” the sentence trailed off into nothingness as the figure of the warlock tumbled forwards, prostrating itself on the floor at the card figure’s feet.
“You what?” it asked. “For years you tormented; lied through those stinking rotten teeth of yours and above all, murdered to get what you wanted, walking over everyone in your way in order to further your own desires, but no more.”
“Who…?” he began.
“SILENCE!” roared the card figure as it turned and smiled somewhat wistfully at the glowing figure of Chloe. With a series of intricate gestures and mumbled incantations, the figure lifted its hands and cried out.
The aura that surrounded Chloe burst in an explosion of light shards that flew in all directions, ripping the cards away from the figure that had been within and, moments later, Elizabeth Knotts stood before Ellsworth.
“This is what you did to me.”
“Now it is your turn.”
With more incantations and gesticulations, she brought her hands together as if to clap and then slowly drew them apart, a mist-like substance between them, which grew as her hands moved apart.
With a single motion of her hands, she pushed the ball of mist towards Ellsworth who cried out just once.
As the mist descended, engulfing Ellsworth’s entire body, he began writhing and the more he writhed, the more Elizabeth changed. Her nose shank and her chin receded. The warts disappeared, the hair changed from iron-grey to honey blonde growing longer, cascading over her shoulders and shining like it had just been polished.
Within no more than a couple of minutes, Elizabeth stood over the form of Ellsworth, weeping sores and boils covering the majority of his face. Black, rotten teeth fell from between his lips as he opened his mouth to speak.
“Why?” he asked, but Elizabeth ignored him.
“Poetic justice, I believe you called it,” she said and turned to face the three others in the room.
“I apologise for this imposition,” she said. “I can see you are fearful, but please do not worry, I have no animosity towards any of you.” She focussed on Elizabeth. “In fact, young lady, I must thank you, for with your help I have been able to force the hand of Edward Ellsworth. Hopefully, this will be an end to centuries of fighting.”
“What about...?” Elizabeth - the younger asked.
The beautiful witch who stood before them raised her hand. “I shall deal with that momentarily. If you will excuse me.”
For a few moments the witch, Elizabeth, seemed to stare into nothing.
“Are you there, Chloe?”
“I am here,” came the reply, but the words appeared to come from two voices.
Elizabeth’s jaw dropped open as standing before them was not only the Chloe who had once been Steve, but also the elder Chloe who once was hers.
“You have returned?” she asked.
“Sadly no, my love, I cannot. The foul deed that Ellsworth hath performed upon me cannot be reversed. Know that I am with you in spirit and know too that one day, we will once again be together.”
Elizabeth’s face dropped and her eyes took on a look of profound sadness.
“Please, do not mourn my departure, my love,” said her Chloe. “For that was my time. Had I not been so foully murdered at the hands of that insane man, thy victory today would not have been possible.” She turned to Chloe - the younger. “And it wouldst seem I have thee to thank for that.”
“I did very little,” said Chloe, blushing furiously.
“Thou hast done what was right and that is what is important.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I do love thee, my Elizabeth and I will be waiting for thee…”
With that, the image of the older Chloe faded, leaving those in the room in silence, save Ellsworth, who continued to snivel on the floor at Elizabeth - the witch’s feet.
* * *
Chloe had met the older Elizabeth’s Chloe. She had appeared while Chloe - the younger had been engulfed in the white nimbus. During this time, Chloe - the younger could only guess at what was happening beyond that fuzzy white halo, as for her, it was like trying to look through the frosted glass of a bathroom window.
Chloe - the older, was so beautiful that Chloe - the younger felt almost jealous, something that Chloe - the older had seen through almost immediately.
“Thou hast nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Thy looks are quite breathtaking enough.”
“Thank you, but it’s not that which bothers me at this time.”
“What is’t that ails thee, child?”
“It’s just that in order to do this, your Elizabeth had to change me. I can’t remember any of it, but I used to be a boy named Steve. I’m afraid that when this is all over and if I survive, I shall have to return to being him.”
“Is that so bad?” the elder Chloe asked.
“I don’t know, but I like this - I mean, being a girl. I’m sure I would think differently were I Steve’s mind in this body, but I’m not. I’m me, not Steve and I’m afraid that if we win, I shall have to let this go and I’m not sure I want to. Actually, I’m very sure I don’t.”
“That is a dilemma, is it not?”
“I know, but being Steve again would make it easier to ask Elizabeth out.”
“Elizabeth?” the elder Chloe asked, her eyebrows shooting up.
“Not your Elizabeth, my Elizabeth,” Chloe replied. “It feels awkward as a girl asking another girl to be my girlfriend.”
“And thinkest thou it would be easier were you male?”
“Well, yes. It’s kind of natural for a boy to ask a girl out, isn’t it?”
“Wouldst thee find it easier?”
Chloe - the younger thought about that and truth to tell, it probably wouldn’t have been any easier for Steve to ask Elizabeth - the younger out on a date after all.
“We...ell probably not, but boys and girls are more conventional, aren’t they?"
“That may well be so, child, however, that is not always how love works, is it?”
The young Chloe thought about it momentarily. Perhaps boys and girls was acceptable, but it wasn’t always the way love worked.
The memory of seeing her Elizabeth crying and trying her best to get to her earlier made Chloe think hard about the situation. Would Elizabeth have been so emotional if the person being attacked by Ellsworth had been Steve?
It was a moot point since that didn’t happen, but what did occur to her was the fact that such an emotional display meant that it was highly likely that Elizabeth had stronger feelings for her than she thought and if she was to be returned to being Steve, would those feelings still be there?
The scary part of it all was whether her mum would still love her if she knew that she, Chloe, didn’t want to be Steve anymore? Would it make any difference if she didn’t tell her mum that she didn’t want to change back and told her instead that she had to stay this way?
There were so many questions and not a single answer to be found.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Elizabeth - the witch cleared her throat and wiped some rather obvious tears from her eyes.
The witch took Chloe’s hands and as she did, something passed between them and the woman’s voice sounded loud in her head.
“I know I said I would change you back to Steve if I was able, but it is time for me to pass my gift on as Ursula did for me and I trust you will use it wisely. I can think of no-one better to pass this gift to, though it will no doubt take some time for you to learn the extent of what you are able do; but I have faith in you. As for Steve, I think we both know he’s not what you want to be and anyway, I need you to send Edward and me back from whence we came.”
“I-I don’t understand,” said Chloe.
The witch gently laid a hand on Chloe’s face and smiled warmly. “You will, my child. You will.”
Elizabeth - the witch, turned to the others and moved to the centre of the room.
“I must thank you, Chloe,” she said, aloud this time. “And you too, Elizabeth, for your help and support. It is nearly time for me to leave, but before I do, I have to talk to you, Ellen.”
Ellen nearly jumped out of her skin. “M-m-me?” she stammered.
“I must tell you that Steve is missing because of me. For five hundred years I have been waging this war against the miscreant you see before you and each time I have found someone to help, they have been thwarted. It’s been most unfortunate, but I have never been given a choice in this.
“When your son handled the cards, something happened that has never happened before and that was an interruption at a crucial point. In fact that saved his life - or not, depending upon how you care to look at it.”
“It did? Where is he?” Ellen asked.
“He is standing just over there.”
Ellen looked round, trying to see her son, yet the only person visible was Chloe, who was trying her best to hold herself together. “Where?”
“Come here, Chloe,” said the witch, holding her hand out.
Obediently, Chloe stepped forward.
“This is Steve,” said the witch. “I can only work with women and over the years have discovered that it’s not always women that I am dealt - if you pardon the pun - what with the cards and all.”
The comment went straight over the heads of both Ellen and Lynne, although Chloe and both Elizabeths all saw the funny side.
“Anyway,” said Elizabeth - the witch, clearing her throat. “I had to change Steve and Chloe was the result. However, the interruption meant that Chloe has no recollection of Steve or his life whatsoever and I’m pleased to say that had that not been the case, it’s entirely likely that we would have fallen, Ellsworth would have won and I would be no more. Heaven alone knows what the changes to what we all know would have been.”
“S-she’s St-Steve?” Ellen asked, her face ashen.
“Yes - well, no. She’s Chloe.”
“I don’t understand,” the anxious mother said.
“Chloe came from Steve, but retained none of his memories. Essentially, Chloe is an entirely new person.”
“Does that mean she’s my d-d-d-daughter?”
“That’s about the size of it, yes.”
With that revelation, Ellen dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
Lynne immediately dropped to her knees, trying to make Ellen comfortable as she came round. “Why the hell didn’t you say something?” she said, angrily.
“We only found out just before we got back and didn’t have time to tell you. By the time we got here, everything kicked off,” said Chloe. “We were going to. We just didn’t know when.”
“Please don’t be angry with them,” Elizabeth - the witch asked plaintively. “They have been most helpful in ways you cannot even begin to imagine and it really isn’t their fault that they didn’t have the time or opportunity to tell you about what was happening.”
The witch straightened.
“It is time, Chloe. Please, take my hand.”
To the astonishment of Elizabeth, Ellen and Lynne, Chloe began an incantation in a language none of them understood. The air around her, Ellsworth and Elizabeth - the ex-witch now, began twinkling, what appeared to be tiny beads that shone with all the colours of the rainbow swirled around them, becoming more numerous and faster with each passing second.
Soon, all three were engulfed in a tornado of light, which whipped around them and when Chloe lifted her hands, the swirling lights rose, taking Elizabeth and the disgusting Edward Ellsworth with it, rising up through the ceiling until the last shining ‘bead’ disappeared with a ‘pop’.
Chloe dropped her hands by her side, her head bowed and her face showing traces of the tears that had run from her eyes.
Though their meeting had been short, Chloe felt a wrench at losing Elizabeth - the ex-witch, feeling that had the time been different, they may well have enjoyed a long and lasting friendship.
“Holy shit!” said Elizabeth, breaking Chloe’s moment of reflection, running to her friend and engulfing her in a huge hug. “Are you here to stay?”
Chloe nodded and looked at the two women, neither of whom looked as though they really believed what had occurred.
“Are you disappointed, Mum?” she asked.
Ellen looked at the young girl, her face filled with awe, shaking her head slowly. “Not at all. I was horrible to you as Steve, but that was because I knew you needed to grow up without a father. I think I can be a much better mother to you now,” she said, blushing. “As, at least I know something about girls.”
Wordlessly, Chloe walked across the room to her mother and the two of them held each other tight.
* * *
It was a new start for Chloe and whilst she felt a little nervous of all the power she had, she knew that Elizabeth - the ex-witch wouldn’t have passed it to her had she not felt confident. Yes, she would probably make mistakes, but didn’t everyone? So long as she didn’t leave a trail of burning people, toads or radishes, she didn’t think things would be too bad.
As Ellen and Chloe made preparations to leave, Elizabeth approached Chloe.
“Don’t you ever frighten me like that again,” she said, standing very close.
Quite how she had frightened Elizabeth, she wasn't sure, but she looked into the eyes of her friend and knew exactly what Elizabeth wasn't saying, that perhaps she should have been. Elizabeth - the ex-witch’s friend Chloe was right. Love wasn’t always straightforward.
“I won’t,” she replied and with her stomach doing back-flips, she took Elizabeth’s face in her hands and kissed her soundly on the lips. “I love you too much for that.”