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Day 60 – Ryoka
“She knows it’s not alive.”
Wiskeria spoke softly. Her eyes were shadowed by her pointed hat. Her face pale. She stood in the light, a flickering candle’s illumination in a lantern aided by the embers in a fireplace. They cast long, dancing shadows. But no one was suggesting using the [Light] spell. The silent gathering did not want to see magic.
“She knows it’s fake? You’re sure?”
Prost leaned over the table. The former [Farmer]’s face was pale. He had fought Goblins, lived for decades in Riverfarm. But this had shaken him. Wiskeria looked up. Her yellow-green eyes reflected the lantern’s light. She nodded once.
“She has to. I know the deal she took. At least, in part. It would be hard, very hard, to make something that fooled her against her will. Too much work. Moreover, what would be the point?”
“To trick her?”
Lady Rie sat at the table, flanked by her bodyguard, Geram, and Nesor. She looked up, but the young [Mage] was silent. This magic was beyond him. Wiskeria, the sole [Witch] in the room, shook her head.
“It didn’t feel like that. I can see her magic. My…mother’s. I can’t see all of it. But it looks fair.”
The word was incredulity. It came from more than one person. Charlay. Durene. Not Ryoka. But from others. Wiskeria tugged her hat lower, hiding her eyes.
“Yes. In a sense. It was fair in that Rehanna gave something and she got something. That…doll is casting a spell on her. It looks like a baby. If you let it, it would probably seem like a baby to you.”
“Why don’t we see it that way, then?”
Wiskeria shook her head.
“Because you don’t want to, Lady Rie. You don’t want to. The magic works on you if you’re willing. Like I said, it’s an easier illusion. But Rehanna wants the doll to be her son. So it is. That’s the nature of the deal. The baby—the doll is hers. And my mother has what she wants.”
And what was that? The listeners exchanged silent looks. In truth, they didn’t need Wiskeria to say. They had seen Rehanna. The woman was aged. In a single day, she had developed grey in her hair. Her body was older. And all of the vitriol, the anger and hatred she had had towards Wiskeria, towards Riverfarm and Laken and the world, all of it was gone.
“So. Is it a threat?”
“No. It’s just a baby. It can’t do anything other than cry.”
“Can it eat? Will it grow?”
The words made Prost’s heart jump. They came from Ryoka. And they were the first she’d uttered since the emergency meeting had been convened. Wiskeria glanced up at the City Runner.
“No. It’s not alive. Not like a String Person. It’s just well-sewn.”
Ryoka nodded. The others relaxed. Durene shook her head and then coughed. She was still weak. Woozy, in fact. The healing burns were still fresh; her body still smelled of smoke. Come to that, Wiskeria was wearing a borrowed tunic and leggings. She’d been literally naked but for a cloak less than ten minutes ago. Ryoka shook her head wearily, feeling her sore feet and tired body from a day of exercise. She hadn’t slept since yesterday morning.
It was late. So late, the sun was rising into the next day, casting long shadows out of the night. But no one was abed, or even thought of it. Tired as she was, Ryoka feared sleep. She feared the sight of that infant, the piercing, familiar wail. But it was not alive. She shivered with fear. But at least she had seen things more terrible.
Most of those standing around the table had not. Ryoka looked at them and saw the horror. But for Wiskeria, it was more than horror. It was sadness. Disgust. Regret. Disappointment.
She had seen this before. So now the task fell to her to explain.
“It was a bargain. There was no malice in it. Not from my mother, at any rate.”
“She didn’t seek Rehanna out because the woman destroyed your brew, Wiskeria? You’re sure?”
Prost fixed Wiskeria with a searching eye. The [Witch] barely hesitated.
“No. My mother doesn’t mix business with vengeance. If she was angry at Rehanna, she would have killed her or done something far worse. I know what we saw. But it only concerns Rehanna.”
“In that case, what of Belavierr’s former crimes?”
Lady Rie looked at Ryoka. The City Runner glanced down at the scroll of parchment and unrolled it. She held it down with the inkpot Nesor had used to write it and stared at Fierre’s message.
Bad news often came too late. Ryoka stared down at the…list of Belavierr’s crimes. Her stomach lurched. It was long. Long, disturbing, even hilarious in parts. And then just horrifying because it was probably true.
“Mass-murder of a city. Is that even possible? Seduction of a [Prince]?”
Charlay unhelpfully pointed that out. The entire room glared at her and she quailed.
“What? It says that there.”
“That’s probably a lie.”
Wiskeria looked uncomfortable. But she hadn’t been surprised by the list of crimes either. On the other side of the table, Rie and Prost were greatly disturbed.
“This goes beyond regular crime. If even a tenth of what’s written here is true, let alone the bounty, Belavierr is a monster on the same level as…”
“The Necromancer? The Bloodfeast Raiders? Or this Circle of Thorns?”
Prost looked at Rie. She paused, her face pale, and nodded.
“Any, yes. Why is Belavierr’s name not known the world over?”
“Perhaps because she doesn’t kill armies. She comes and goes. She’s most dangerous when people try to attack her, or stop her. I know what my mother is capable of. But believe me, she didn’t come to harm Riverfarm. I know how she thinks. For her, this is business. And her coming with the coven is because they need to deal with Laken. Because of me.”
Wiskeria looked around the table. No one could immediately respond. Belavierr didn’t seem harmless. Ryoka recalled the thing in Rehanna’s arms. It had been skillfully done. Everything was right. In fact, it was far, far more realistic than any mannequin baby from her world. Plastic could not take the shape cloth had.
Bu it was not alive. But it moved and cried. Ryoka’s skin crawled and she felt her stomach heave, trying to eject reality.
However, she had seen worse. Worse, and better. More glorious magic, more tragedy. She had seen a Dragon. So it was Ryoka who stirred as the first rays of dawn crept into Rie’s home. She raised a hand as the light struck her face. Her two missing fingers made the beams blind Ryoka anyways. The young Asian woman sighed, then stood.
“Well, we’ve sent a message to Laken. And everyone’s inside, if not asleep. Rehanna’s being watched. So I think I’ll talk with the coven tomorrow. I mean, later today. Maybe I’ll take a nap before that. Unless anyone has anything else to say?”
She squinted at the brightening window. Ryoka stared at the rising sun and wondered if four hours would allow her to function. Maybe with a stamina potion. She’d trade someone else’s left leg for coffee. Then she realized everyone was looking at her.
“We can’t just go back to work. We haven’t resolved this issue, Miss Griffin!”
Lady Rie was quietly horrified. She rose, smoothing her dress.
“Emperor Laken is sure to respond, but we must make some announcement, or preparations—”
“About what? Belavierr? Wiskeria said she made an honest deal. We can watch Rehanna, and I’ll ask the [Witches] like I said, but what else can we do? Make plans against Belavierr?”
Ryoka stared at Rie and then shook her head. She raised her hands.
“If you want to do that, feel free, Lady Rie. But I’m not going to. Belavierr’s not a threat right now. And I’d like to keep her that way.”
Lady Rie pursed her lips, vexed.
“But if she were to endanger us—”
“We’ll do what? What plans could we make? If she attacks us, how many of us even get away? Is Riverfarm still standing?”
The City Runner stared around the room. Lady Rie went pale and Geram, the [Fistfighter], shifted. He looked uneasily at one arm, as if trying to imagine stopping Wiskeria with that. Ryoka glanced at Wiskeria.
“I don’t feel like making useless plans. Especially when we’re all tired. We have a lot of new arrivals in Riverfarm thanks to the aid mission. Mister Prost, they all have homes, but I’ll bet they’re reconsidering their choices. We should put them to work, even if everyone’s tired.”
The [Steward] started. He looked up and nodded.
“I can do that. We’ll all be sleeping in late, but—yes. We should get some sleep. All of us.”
He stood up. Lady Rie looked at him.
“Miss Griffin’s right, Lady Rie. There’s no sense in letting the fields go to waste or standing about. Work will keep folk’s mind off it. But I will tell Beniar to keep his [Riders] close to the village. The [Bandits] aside—”
He glanced at Wiskeria. Her walking out of a [Fireball] unscathed was small potatoes compared to the rest of tonight’s events, but it did merit some attention.
“—we’ll get back to work. Miss Griffin, talk to the [Witches] by all means. I’ll deal with what I can do, and wait for his Majesty’s orders.”
He nodded to the others. Lady Rie protested, but that was that. In truth, everyone was too tired to think. They just left the house. But sleep was hard to find, even exhausted. No one could forget the baby.
The baby. Ryoka woke up in Durene’s cottage seven hours later. It was already late morning, so she got up cautiously, only to find Charlay staring right at her. The Centauress’ eyes were sunken.
“I dreamt about screaming babies.”
Charlay knelt on her horse legs as Ryoka got up. The City Runner stared at Durene’s kitchen, and decided she didn’t have the strength to make a hot meal. It wasn’t that kind of day. Some days you didn’t want food to make you feel good because it couldn’t. She dug in her pack and pulled out some nuts and a couple dried fruits. Charlay copied her and came up with some dried oats and nuts.
They ate, quietly. It felt like a wake, to Ryoka. It was almost a relief when Frostwing dove from her perch and tried to steal all of Ryoka’s nuts. That woke Durene up. She joined them, and after tossing potatoes out at the Mossbear lying in the remains of Durene’s garden, they found Wiskeria.
She was lying in her tent. Awake. She crawled out and stared at them. Like Charlay, her eyes were worn by exhaustion. She stared up at Ryoka. At Durene. Charlay.
Ryoka could see the looks on her companions’ faces. They were remembering the baby. But that wasn’t Wiskeria’s fault. In no way had she condoned or helped that occur. It was only that Belavierr was her mother. And that she was a [Witch]. Ryoka looked down at Wiskeria’s face. To her, it seemed, both meant she was partly guilty.
“Uh. Morning. Want some nuts? Charlay’s got oats if you’re interested.”
Wiskeria blinked as Ryoka offered her the travel rations. The comment Ryoka made was incredibly stupid. But it helped break the gravitas of the day. Durene snorted a bit, and Charlay eyed Ryoka.
“I thought you hated my oats.”
“I did. Maybe Wiskeria’s allergic to nuts, though.”
The [Witch] slowly got up. She faced Ryoka. The City Runner gave her a half-smile.
The strange mood filled the village. Not exactly horror, not in the light of the day. And not grieving; no one had died. But a strange, quiet mood. Like that after some huge tragedy too large to encompass. Unease, that was it. Ryoka looked at the quiet faces, the way no one, not even children, made loud sounds.
As if it were against the rules. As if they were all dreaming. But in time, people began waking up. Someone made a loud sound as she slapped two pots together and everyone jumped. Someone else made an inane joke about oats and Humans and no one laughed, but the world became normal. Ryoka and Charlay gave each other high-fives and Chimmy was able to run up. And like that, Riverfarm became normal.
And Ryoka realized she was actually hungry for food instead of a handful of nuts and fruit. She joined the queue in front of one of the cooking halls, where food was being passed out. Today’s was, almost predictably, a stew. They were easy to make, but someone—Prost—had decided to let the [Cooks] add a generous helping of lard and some of the meat as well as some really nice bread.
It wasn’t quite as well-risen as something from Ryoka’s world—she blamed a lack of baking powder—but it was just as tasty. And hot! She ate greedily and found Charlay stuffing her face as well.
“Charlay, can you eat meat?”
“Don’t be racist, Ryoka. Of course I can. But I don’t eat too much; it goes straight to my lower belly.”
Ryoka eyed the Centauress’ lower half. She couldn’t argue with that. She saw people standing around, talking, until men and women began walking through the crowd with authority, shouting.
“Alright! Enough time stuffing faces! We need to get those fields tilled, or do you think our seeds will sprout in fresh air? [Farmers], with me! You new folk, anyone who’s got a farming class, come with me until Prost sorts you out!”
“Building team! Muster up!”
“Ladies and children, we’ll be setting up those drying racks. And washing clothes and seeing to the rest of our tasks! It’s a fine day to dry what needs drying, so we will be cleaning and letting the air do our work—”
Ryoka had another reason to admire Prost, then. The unsure crowd began to move with a purpose. From her seat, she watched a group of [Farmers] get up. Her hermit-friend, the spear fisher, was good-naturedly hefting his spear and arguing with Beycalt, who was clearly not about to let him wander off and pursue his passion and calling. A group of farmers, including Mister Ram, trooped past Ryoka, groaning.
“We’re going to have to water the fields, aren’t we? It’s too damn bright and we need rain! At least the river’s nearby.”
“Stop complaining. We’ve any number of hands and the river’s close by. And some of us have [Water-Retaining Soil]. But would you rather wait for rain, with nary a cloud in sight?”
“It’ll be half a day of watering! We’ll have to do it all by hand!”
“Well, you were complaining about the rain right before this. Make up your mind, man!”
One of the female [Farmers] slapped a man on the back. He groaned.
“Can’t [Witches] conjure rain?”
Everyone in earshot paused at that. The other [Farmers] scowled at the loudmouth and half of them smacked or elbowed him. The woman [Farmer] glowered.
“Yeah. How much of your soul do you think they want for a shower? Forget it. Let’s get some buckets. We do need a canal or two, though…”
They moved out of the mess hall. Ryoka sighed. The village was still mostly in shock. She was certain that would change. She got up and bussed her and Charlay’s dishes.
Yes, shock. You could see that on most faces. With the daylight hitting them and the dark night behind, it was easy for people to laugh off what they’d seen. Or pretend it wasn’t as real. Just a doll, perhaps. Some trickery of magic. Not…
It was a bad memory. Until you heard a baby’s wail and looked about wildly for it. Twice it happened and both times everyone in earshot froze, and then laughed. But no one laughed when they went past the house where Rehanna lived.
She was by herself. She had her own house; no one would live under the same roof. And no one had touched her baby. Rehanna grew violent at the very idea of putting it…away…when it had been brought up. Otherwise, though, she was—happy.
That was the disturbing part. Ryoka saw a pair of women awkwardly standing outside, like guards. But whether it was to protect Rehanna from someone else, or from herself, no one could say.
The mood was quiet. But Ryoka was certain it wouldn’t last. Rehanna would have to come out of that house eventually. And then people would have to face what Belavierr had done. They could ignore it, but the thing about magic, real magic, was that it didn’t tarnish in daylight. They would see and have to deal with it again, and then all the chickens would come home to roost.
Or crows. They were gathered with the [Witches]. Six of them had gathered near Eloise and Hedag’s temporary home. The streets were absolutely deserted around the houses as Ryoka and Wiskeria approached. And even the [Witches] looked—
Okay, half of them were relaxed as could be. Mavika, Alevica, Califor, and Hedag were unconcerned as could be. Hedag and Alevica were arguing over the last heel of warm bread when Ryoka found them.
Eloise and Nanette were different. The youngest [Witch] was wide-eyed, just as sleep-deprived as the rest of Riverfarm. Uneasy too; she kept looking at Califor, and the [Witch] would occasionally say something that would make Nanette relax. As for Eloise…she drank her tea quietly.
“Go away, wind’s child. We aren’t in the mood to speak of what your eyes and ears can see. No more are we here to comfort thee.”
Mavika was feeding half her breakfast to a raven perched on her shoulder. She cast Ryoka a black-eyed glance and Ryoka hesitated. But then she sat down at the table. Affronted, Mavika’s eyes narrowed, and Wiskeria hastily came up behind Ryoka.
“Ryoka has a few questions, Witch Mavika. On behalf of Riverfarm. They need some assurance.”
“Of what? The doll? It was—”
“—a deal fairly struck. So Wiskeria’s said, Witch Mavika. A good morning to you, by the way.”
Ryoka spoke tactfully. Mavika eyed her and clicked her tongue. Alevica grinned as Hedag grabbed the last heel of bread.
“Then why do you ask?”
“To be sure it was fair. No offense to Witch Wiskeria, but Belavierr is a powerful magic-user. And I know some stories about [Witches]. Very few of them have fair endings.”
The coven went quiet. Mavika broke off some bread and ate it. She replied, chewing, as her raven snatched the last of the break.
“And do you hold these tales to be true of all [Witches], wind’s child?”
“No. But I haven’t met any [Witches] before all of you. And Belavierr is unique.”
Not even Mavika could contest that. She sat back, looking annoyed, and Ryoka took that as acceptance. She looked around.
“The baby. I get that Belavierr traded it to Rehanna. Can you all tell me why? And how she struck the deal?”
The [Witches] looked at Ryoka. Then Alevica leaned over to Nanette.
“And here I thought she was halfway smart.”
Nanette’s somber expression turned into twitching facial muscles. She pulled her hat off her head to cover a giggle. Califor looked disapproving. Hedag boomed with laughter. She slapped the table, making all the cups jump and leaned forwards.
“Don’t insult the girl, Alevica! Miss Runner! You want to know what bargain was struck? Can’t you see what it was? Or do you ask if there’s some other trick to it? If so, I’ll tell you what any [Witch] would: there’s not and it was honestly done!”
She eyed Ryoka, her huge face smiling beneath her brown hat. Of all the [Witches], Ryoka had spoken to Hedag the least. Not at all in fact; she’d been playing with the children all of yesterday. She looked at Ryoka, eyes bright beneath the huge grin.
“Califor said you understood our craft. So you tell me, Miss Runner Ryoka, what was the nature of the bargain? It should be plain to see.”
Ryoka thought for a moment.
“It looks like Belavierr made the doll for Rehanna because the woman missed her child. In exchange for part of Rehanna’s life. Or her lifespan. But—it’s not that simple, is it?”
Hedag’s smile was challenging. Ryoka turned to look at Wiskeria and got a nod. That was what Wiskeria had said, but…Ryoka frowned.
“But it’s just a doll. What makes it worth…a decade of life?”
“It looks like her child. Sounds like it too.”
The Asian girl blinked. That made sense. But…it did feel too simple. She raised her eyebrows, meeting Hedag’s gaze.
“So it’s not going to disappear or fall apart or…suck the life out of her?”
“Why would Belavierr make a working that didn’t grant happiness? She has a reputation to uphold.”
That question came from Califor. The [Witch] looked peeved at Ryoka’s questions. The City Runner shook her head.
“But it’s just a doll. It’s not worth…does it eat? Will it grow up?”
The [Witches] shrugged, all but one. That was Eloise. The oldest-looking [Witch] sighed and put down her cup. She regarded Ryoka over it, and her voice was quiet.
“It will be a baby forever. It may even eat. I don’t care to know. And into it, it will take Rehanna’s grief. For her, it is her baby, and perhaps she might even dream her husband is just around the corner, laughing, as he holds it. It is…just that, Miss Griffin. Just that, but too much nevertheless. Just a spell. An illusion of…happiness.”
The short [Witch] stood up. And calmly added water to her tea kettle until it was steaming again. She looked at Ryoka as she made tea, serving it around.
“I believe I told Lady Rie when Belavierr sought Rehanna that we had a difference of opinion. And that is the truth. Belavierr and I both deal with what you understand to be grieving souls, Miss Griffin. Of course, you know that my craft helps all sorts, from the troubled to those simply who wish a day to be happier for a moment. But Belavierr seeks out those who have lost.”
The [Witches] nodded as one. Ryoka looked back at Eloise.
“So the doll—”
“Is a doll. But it is not as simple as you seem to think, Miss Griffin. The magic on it is not simple.”
“I know that, but—”
“It makes her believe the baby is real. And if you would let yourself believe, you would see it as such. And the enchantment will last as long as Rehanna lives. Perhaps longer. It will not fade, Miss Ryoka. The baby will be hers. And because of it, Rehanna is happy.”
Eloise put down her cup with a clink on her saucer. She looked up, and her gaze held Ryoka’s. The City Runner sat still. Eloise poured her a cup.
“She is happy. And I hope, she will continue to be. The doll will help with that, I think. It will make tragic days hurt less. It is not all-powerful. But she will give it strength. Until she decides she has no need of it.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Then it will be her child, sweet, and there for her to love until the day she dies. Or it is taken from her.”
Eloise sat down. She looked at Ryoka, her face tired. Her eyes direct.
“There is no trickery in the doll. No function in it to steal Rehanna’s life or emotions. She already gave Belavierr her price. Belavierr has no need to siphon her life away. Again—it was a bargain struck between the two. And willingly given things are worth far more than stolen worth.”
Ryoka struggled for words. She had seen worse. But this bothered her. Because this was no majestic Dragon and his hoard which could be bargained for, where even his smallest trinkets were things of incredible worth. And it was no Necromancer, who committed terrible evils because he could.
It was so…small. A petty magic in one sense. The doll wasn’t real. But it would make Rehanna happy forever. In that sense, it was grand. Petty and grand and—a [Witch]’s magic. Ryoka sat back, conflicted. She sipped the tea automatically, then looked up.
“Okay. Thank you for explaining it to me. I have only one last question. Was it a good deal for Rehanna? It seemed like Belavierr made the doll quickly. So did she pay too much? Was it fair? Was there a better deal she could have struck?”
The coven looked at her. Old and young. Even Wiskeria. And for one moment, they were united. All seven smiled, or laughed, or shrugged. And they replied in different words, but with the same message.
“It depends on her.”
[Witches]. They were about bargains and emotion. No—give and take. As Ryoka went for a run on the dry, warm day, she thought about Rehanna. It was too bright outside. The skies too blue. It felt like summer had come, even though according to Prost’s internal calendar they still had time yet.
Either way, it was all too easy to run and forget about yesterday. At least for a moment. But the baby—Ryoka didn’t want to avoid it. After her meeting with Eloise, she had decided there was only one logical step. To psyche herself up for it, Ryoka went on a brisk run.
There was nothing eventful about the run itself. Ryoka was doing a big lap around Riverfarm, avoiding rocks or patches of nettle-like plants. What was interesting was the man she met who stepped out behind a tree, about two miles south of Riverfarm. Ryoka saw him, jerked in surprise, and doubled left as she reached for a potion at her belt.
The wind blew fiercely, and then died. It was acting up here. At the worst moment. Ryoka was tensed—but the man held up two hands.
“Peace, Miss Runner! I come in peace, on my honor! Might I have a word?”
He smiled with all his teeth, and Ryoka instantly recognized him. The man that Charlay had met yesterday. The same one Rie had said was lurking around Riverfarm. She grabbed a tripvine bag and held it, but didn’t yank it loose and throw it. She halted, panting.
“Can I help you, sir? I’m a City Runner, but I’m not looking for any deliveries—”
“Nothing of the sort, Miss! I’m just a wanderer, looking to speak to someone. Might I have a word?”
He stepped forwards, and Ryoka took his full measure now. Including his clothes. Instantly, Ryoka’s eyes widened. Because she recognized the style of the garb he wore. It was so easy for Charlay or anyone else to mistake. And their descriptions were all generic because describing clothing was hard unless you had the background and terminology.
The man had a hat, yes. Dark clothes. But the style was…Ryoka fixed on the long-sleeved, trench coat-like design. The gloved hands and what might be armor concealed underneath the cloth. But light armor, nothing heavy. And the hat! That gave him away too.
It was a capotain, conical and tall, complete with a buckle on the hat. It didn’t need to be a buckle. It could have been an insignia. Or left blank. But the hat, the style of it was iconic as if the man had owned two swords and possessed cat-eyes.
The dress was a costume. A symbol. The hat alone—it probably wasn’t totally real to what pilgrims might have looked like in the 1600’s. And it wasn’t a style that existed in Ryoka’s world except as an icon, a particular style as old as…[Witches]. But it told her something, in silent words.
To her it said [Witch Hunter]. The man stepped forwards, smiling that strange smile. And Ryoka hesitated. Because his presence put pieces together in her head.
Bounty on Belavierr. The [Bandits] targeting Wiskeria, a [Witch]. The stranger asking questions about Riverfarm. The Circle of Thorns?
Pieces. But she wasn’t sure. So Ryoka warily rested on the balls of her feet, ready to move. She couldn’t see if the man was armed. His hands were spread away from his body. He was trying to be…friendly. He nodded to her, his eyes flicking to her belt.
“Good day to you, Miss Runner. I hear you’re having a bit of trouble with [Witches]. May I ask what they’re up to in Riverfarm? I’ve got my head against the ground so to speak, but rumor is hard to sort from fact sometimes.”
“Who are you?”
“Just a traveller—”
“Really? Because you look like a [Witch Hunter].”
Ryoka warily circled the man. He turned with her, raising his brows. And she detected a hint of wariness. The wind blew cautiously around Ryoka’s shoulders.
“That’s a bold assumption and claim to make upon seeing someone, Miss City Runner.”
“What about a man who’s been spotted around Riverfarm asking questions about [Witches]? And who dresses like half the [Witch Hunters] I’ve ever seen?”
Only if you counted movies and other media from her world. But it was a gamble Ryoka was willing to take. And the way the man’s eyes flickered was a dead giveaway. He lowered his hands, sighing.
“Ah. You’ve caught me out, Miss. Are you from the north? Terandria, perhaps? Izril has few of my kind I’m sorry to say, although we’ve been present in greater numbers in times past.”
Ryoka refused to nod or shake her head.
“Let’s just say I’m familiar with your look. Mind walking back with me to Riverfarm? The [Lady] in charge of this region would like to meet you. And have a chat.”
The man glanced over Ryoka’s shoulder, back towards Riverfarm. He shook his head, still slightly smiling.
“I’d prefer not to get closer. [Witches] tend to see right through me and I think I’d be at odds with them. Which I’d rather not be, given which ones are about.”
“So you’re after them? On the hunt?”
“I prefer not to say, Miss. I’m just a traveller, asking questions. If you take umbrage to me, I’ll gladly depart.”
The man took a step back, as if to hide behind a tree. Ryoka frowned. She didn’t want him at her back. She glanced around warily. Was there anyone in earshot? No. Damn.
“Let’s be straight. Are you a [Witch Hunter]? Yes or no. Because these [Witches] are under an [Emperor]’s protection.”
The man looked at her warily.
“If I was, would you tell the coven in that village, Miss Runner? Because I have an attachment to my body. And I’d rather not end up in pieces. Which I think I would if any of the…serious ones met me. I’m sure you understand. And I understand your [Emperor] isn’t here. Which is why I am. All-seeing [Emperors] sound as bad as [Witches]. But I might take a risk on him. I know I won’t survive meeting some of them.”
The young woman paused.
“…They wouldn’t kill you. Look, that coven’s not evil. Most of them.”
“You’re willing to risk my life on it?”
The [Witch Hunter] smiled, eyes wary. Ryoka frowned. She doubted she could force him to come back with her—no, she wouldn’t even risk it. She couldn’t see a weapon on him, but she wasn’t an expert and if he was a [Witch Hunter] he could probably kill her easily. She warily gestured with her free hand behind her.
“They’re not evil. None of them are. If this is about the Marshlands Coven or Belavierr—”
“The Stitch Witch. So she is in that village?”
The man raised his brows until they disappeared beneath his cap. Ryoka cursed.
“If she is, so what? She’s done nothing wrong.”
“Ah, that explains why everyone I’ve met has sung her praises.”
The [Hunter] gave her a sardonic look. Ryoka glared at him.
“Someone put a bounty on [Witches] via [Bandits]. Was that you?”
“Do you know what the Stitch Witch’s crimes are? They’re enough to put her on any watch list in any major city in the world. But it’s rare to ever find her in one place long.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe that’s because people like you hunt her down. I’m warning you. Stay away from this village and the [Witches].”
“Is that a threat?”
The man tilted his head. His eyes were locked on Ryoka’s. She gritted her teeth, holding the bag with a sweaty hand. She began backing away. If she found Beniar—she snapped as she stepped backwards.
“Yes. Leave all the [Witches] alone. They’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You mean, they haven’t killed anyone yet. But they will. And the baby’s only the start.”
Ryoka spun around. The man was looking straight at her. He nodded.
“People talk. The Stitch Witch may have come here for her daughter, Miss Runner. Or perhaps this bargain with your [Emperor] you speak so highly of. But if you have a chance, look into her crimes. She’s wiped out cities that make this one look like a patch of sand. She’s a threat, and I will swear that on any truth spell you’d ask of me. I’m here to deal with threats.”
“Under whose authority? Your own? What gives you the right to judge them?”
Ryoka snapped. The man shook his head.
“Just remember what I said. And when they show you their true nature, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Good chatting, Miss City Runner. If you tell those [Witches] about me, at least be kind enough to bury what remains, would you?”
He stepped behind the tree and disappeared. Ryoka backed up, her eyes on the tree. But she saw no flicker of movement, or glint of metal. She still didn’t turn around until she was four hundred feet away. Then she ran in a zig-zag pattern until she got back to Riverfarm. And by the time she found Beniar and he and his [Riders] went back, the man was gone. But Ryoka had known that would happen. She cursed anyways.
But at least that was another piece of the puzzle. A [Witch Hunter]. She was almost certain of it. And he’d pretty much confessed to it when she put together his dress. But that look was one thing. Him sticking around, confirming the [Witch]’s presence was another. Why was he here? Waiting?
Because he was waiting for something. And that certainty bothered Ryoka. What was he waiting for? And what could she do about it? She couldn’t have taken him, she was certain. She was just a City Runner. So Ryoka did what she could do. She headed back into the village and went to see Rehanna.
Day 60 – Durene
The reply from Laken was simple. Durene squinted at it over Prost’s shoulder.
Let no one strike a deal with Witch Belavierr. But do not try her yet. Collect evidence for a trial which I will preside over. If this Coven is to be trusted, see what they do when no bargains are struck. And give Rehanna every kindness. Do not take the baby away. Leave her be.
–[Emperor] Laken Godart
Just that. And it didn’t exactly fill Durene. But it was something. And Prost set out to fulfill Laken’s orders the instant he received them.
A group of men and women, Beycalt, Ram, and Beniar and his [Riders] among them followed Prost as he confronted the [Witch] in the street. Belavierr was walking. Slowly, walking down the street.
It was an ordinary thing and obviously everyone did it. But Durene shuddered as she stood behind Prost, to see Belavierr even do that. After last night, she couldn’t help but suspect even that innocuous action of some dark meaning. Belavierr didn’t turn as Prost strode towards him. The [Steward] called out again.
“Witch Belavierr! By order of his Majesty, Laken Godart, no one in Riverfarm is to strike a deal with you! Until his Majesty arrives, you are to refrain from attempting to bargain with anyone in the Unseen Empire! Is that clear?”
He hurled the last words at full-volume at Belavierr, barely ten feet from her. And not once did the [Witch] turn her head.
“Witch Belavierr! Do you hear me?”
She walked right past him. Prost’s voice gave out for a second. He faltered, staring as she continued down the street. Then he whirled.
Two of the [Witches] were gathered, inspecting a chess board. Eloise and Alevica. The older [Witch] and the Witch Runner were playing, much to the [Carpenter] Jelov’s displeasure. But he’d retreated into his open-air studio rather than confront the two. Prost strode over and Eloise looked up. She regarded him and the small crowd of Riverfarm’s authority behind him.
“Witch Eloise. I have a message from Emperor Godart—”
“I heard, Steward Prost.”
“Witch Belavierr does not appear to have heard me. Will she heed Emperor Laken’s request? If she refuses, we shall have to…”
Prost’s voice trailed off. And Durene wasn’t certain herself of what Prost would do. She’d been eying Belavierr. The woman was tall, but Durene was still taller, and a lot bigger. She could surely grab Belavierr and restrain her. But somehow, Durene’s image of that scene never quite seemed to work in her head. Eloise shook her head in reply to Prost’s question.
“She may not have heard you, Steward Prost. But we shall attempt to remind her if she attempts to practice her craft again. That I may promise you.”
Ram made a strangled noise. Eloise looked at him and adjusted her hat.
“That is who she is, I’m afraid. And I thank your [Emperor] for his considered response. We will attempt to honor his request.”
Attempt to honor. Even Durene knew that wasn’t a promise. But what could be done. Annoyed, Prost dismissed the crowd. Which left Durene to look for her house-guests as the sun set.
She’d been watering the fields all day. Some of the [Farmers] had been used to irrigation, but the newly-planted fields didn’t have them yet. It wasn’t too hard to draw water from the river, and in truth, the crops would have survived longer without rain—it was just that to grow them quickly, you wanted a lot of water. Which meant even Durene’s arms hurt from hauling wheelbarrows of water from the river.
That was what she had occupied herself with, and Charlay had actually pitched in! The Centauress had dragged water over to the [Farmers] and only stolen a few handfuls of wheat to snack on. On the other hand, Wiskeria and Ryoka had refrained from helping and instead gone off on their own ways. Durene had no idea what they’d done all day. But she found both at her cottage when she returned with food for a meal.
Ryoka was sitting in Durene’s cottage, staring at a wall. Frostwing was pecking at a handful of nuts. Wiskeria was in her tent. Durene hesitated, but decided to see Ryoka first.
“Ahem. Hi. I brought dinner.”
Durene hefted the basket as she came in. Ryoka turned. Durene was alone; Charlay had stayed in Riverfarm to eat food there before coming back to the cottage for a second dinner. Ryoka blinked at the half-Troll girl.
The two regarded each other. After their last conversation where Ryoka had told Durene she couldn’t help her, the two hadn’t really spoken. But, strangely, after the [Bandits] and the not-baby, all their earlier tension had vanished. A large crisis was a wonderful unifier. Durene began unpacking her bag and after a second, Ryoka got up and tried to help.
Tried, because Durene really knew her kitchen better than Ryoka. But the other young woman was determined, and she could peel potatoes—even if her first reaction was to throw away the skins.
“You can eat those, you know.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
The two worked in silence for a moment. Durene was making a cheesy scallop dish, which was really exorbitant, but the first cheeses had been finished and Prost had given Durene some to take back with some milk. It was going to be a lovely feast, and one Durene felt was needed. She was concentrating on that, but she knew Ryoka was deep in thought. The City Runner was absently working, her brows drawn. And after a while, she spoke.
“Laken told you about my world, didn’t he?”
Durene jumped and sliced her hand with her kitchen knife. Ryoka hissed, but Durene waved her hand.
“It’s alright! Didn’t even get through the first layer of skin!”
“Oh. Right. [Iron Skin], huh? That’s a great Skill.”
“Um. No. Even before I had the Skill, I never cut myself.”
Ryoka looked impressed. Durene smiled. She clenched her hand absently as she got back to work. She could still remember the thump as she hit the [Bandits]. Strange, to be making food now. After a moment, she recalled what Ryoka had said.
“That’s right. You know about it, right? Laken told you everything?”
Ryoka glanced up. Her brown eyes were searching. Durene paused. Ryoka had hated talking about anything from her world, especially possibly inventions. The half-Troll girl nodded at last.
“A bit. Well, he told me lots of stories. I can’t believe most of it, but I know…about airplanes? Cars? Um…electricity and the internet? Guns?”
“Huh. Those are the basics, I guess.”
“Well, he talked about more, but yeah. Why?”
The City Runner was silent as she chopped a potato.
“I went to see Rehanna.”
Durene looked up, missed her potato and brought the blade down on her fingers. Ryoka stared again. Abashed, Durene cleared her throat.
“Oh. Is she—”
“She’s okay. Actually, she’s pretty good. She was asking for work to do, so I…got her a job sewing. She’s a [Seamstress], you know.”
“Well, she’s making clothes. For the…baby.”
“Her baby. And she’s going to make more for infants and newborns. Which is a good idea, to be honest. They need special clothing. So I got her what she needed.”
“Huh. That’s sort of ironic, her being a [Seamstress] and Belavierr—”
Silence. Durene kept cutting, although it seemed like Ryoka was edging her hands away from Durene’s knife. After a bit, Ryoka continued.
“So. My world. Has Laken told you about modern medicine?”
“A bit. Just like…you can reattach hands. Or make these medicines—drugs—which aren’t potions, but can cure all kinds of things. But you don’t have potions, so you’re behind in a lot of ways.”
The comment made Ryoka smile, just like it had Laken. She put a few potato slices in the pan as Durene got some firewood out for her stone stove.
“Hm. Yeah, I suppose you could say that. But has he talked about how we deal with sickness other than uh, physical?”
Ryoka nodded. She watched as Durene began to strike her flint and tinder on the kindling. She crouched, absently.
“I was thinking about the deal Rehanna made. And the effects.”
“She looks older. Is she going to die soon?”
“What? No. I think she’s about…fifty. And she was in her thirties, maybe. Maybe she’s lost more time, but she should have anywhere from a decade to fifty more years. But she will die earlier.”
“Even so. Was it a good deal?”
Durene paused as she put her milk and cheese-covered scallops over the growing fire.
“What? That doll’s awful! Did you see it?”
Ryoka met her eyes and nodded.
“Yes. I did. And that’s why I’m thinking. Uh, your hand’s in the fire, by the way.”
Durene put the pan over the hot fire. She’d have to watch the scallops to make sure the part over the fire didn’t get too hot and burn. She tended to her dish as Ryoka went on.
“We don’t make things like that…doll. But we do prescribe medication for ill people. There are a lot of parallels between what we do in my world and what the [Witches] do. I think that’s what Eloise does, in a way. She’s a therapist. And a pharmacist if her teas are magical.”
“I have no idea what those are. Are they like [Doctors]? Laken says your world has [Doctors] instead of [Healers].”
“Specialized [Doctors], yeah. But that’s my point. Belavierr—she’s a different sort. She took Rehanna’s life, yes. And her hate. But she gave her…in my world, we have medicines that really change you. Even our painkillers just…take away pain. Morphine. And we prescribe medicine for depression. Not for loss—unless we diagnose it as needing treatment. But medicine, therapy—magic’s different, yet similar, right?”
Durene didn’t know where Ryoka was going with this. But she nodded as she watched the fire, and Ryoka out of the corner of her eye. The young woman was pacing.
“You could argue that Belavierr’s just a—a—she’s giving Rehanna a vision of her baby. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“Yep. It’s not real.”
“No—that’s not the problem, Durene. It’s what Rehanna paid. She gave up part of her life. That’s the real problem. Otherwise, what’s the problem with the baby if it had been given freely?”
Durene opened her mouth to protest that the baby was creepy, had given her nightmares—but Ryoka was right. It hadn’t done anything to anyone. Except Rehanna.
“Isn’t what it’s doing to Rehanna bad?”
“What? Making her happy? I was thinking about that. It’s a mental crutch. She’s dependent on that and anyone could tell you that’s unhealthy. But—”
She shook her head.
“The main problem is what Belavierr took from Rehanna. She thought it was fair. But she wasn’t in her right mind when she made that deal. Again, not everyone is. If we fault Rehanna for making a deal while she’s grieving, what about someone who…drinks when they’re depressed, or if they’ve just lost a friend? A wife? They have a right to do what they want to themselves. If they endanger themselves, that’s another thing, but is this wrong? Rehanna’s harmed herself. But then again—”
Ryoka had never talked this much in Durene’s presence. Ever. The half-Troll girl said as much as she carefully checked her baking scallops, all without gloves. Ryoka smiled bitterly.
“I’m a regular chatterbox when it comes to debates or issues like this. Moral ones, I mean. I’m just trying to work out whether it’s right or not. Objectively. Is the baby good for Rehanna if you take out the aspect of the deal?”
“It looks wrong, Ryoka. How can you look at that and be okay?”
Durene objected as she found a spoon. She directed Ryoka to a cupboard with plates. Ryoka sighed as she set four. She looked back.
“Have you looked at Rehanna’s face, Durene? Today, I mean.”
“No. I didn’t even see her once.”
“Few people did. They’re locking her up in her house. But I visited her, Durene. She’s smiling. She’s happy. Genuinely. This isn’t her being high on a drug or delusional. She got mad when I annoyed her, and she’s not delirious. But she is happy. How is that wrong?”
Durene had no answer. Silently, she put the scallops on a table. Charlay was trotting towards the cottage, but she’d stopped to get Wiskeria out of her tent. Bismarck was staring through the kitchen window as Frostwing choked on a nut and then spat it out. Ryoka sighed.
“I don’t think it was a good decision, what Rehanna did. If I were in her place, I would never do it. But I’m not a mother. I haven’t lost a husband. Part of me—most of me—says that regardless of what she thinks, that there’s a cost beyond Rehanna cutting her life by twenty years or in half or whatever she did. But what if there’s not? What if it really is fair? In that case, why not take it?”
She leaned on the table, staring at the scallops as if they were a gateway to the soul. Durene silently checked to see if she had any alcohol. She did not. Ryoka sighed.
“I want to believe we can’t run away from our problems, can’t rely on things or use magic to…escape. Back home, I relied on coffee to get up. I needed my medication or I had a bad day. I…relied on my parent’s money. On the government and laws that surrounded me. I leaned on all these things. If I could have something that made me happy—would I pay ten years of my life? Twenty? What about just one?”
“Hey Ryoka! Hey Durene! Ooh! Are those cheesy potatoes! I’m not a fan of cheese.”
Charlay trotted into the cottage, practically dragging in Wiskeria behind her. Ryoka didn’t look up from the table.
“If you could be happy whenever you wanted, Durene, would you give up ten minutes of your lifespan? If the answer’s yes, isn’t giving up more for less or anything else just…haggling? Do we have a right to condemn Rehanna for her decision to choose happiness? If she were permanently sick and decided to trade half her lifespan for being well for the rest of her shorter life, would we fault her? Can we blame her for wanting to see her child again? What right do we have to choose for her? Or judge her?”
They stared at her, Centaur, half-Troll, [Witch], Mossbear, and blue bird. Charlay silently opened the door and trotted out.
“Bathroom! Tell me when she’s normal.”
“I don’t think there are good answers, Ryoka. Nice potatoes, Durene. But I know that I can’t forgive my mother for what she does. Maybe Rehanna’s happy. But my mother still stole her life.”
Wiskeria answered as she sat down quietly. Ryoka glanced at her. And then she sat down too, across from Wiskeria. She shook her head and Durene closed the door in Bismarck’s face.
“Your mother preyed on Rehanna in a moment of weakness, Wiskeria. That’s true. But she also gave Rehanna something. If she asked for one year, could you live with that?”
Wiskeria clenched a fork in one hand. She looked up and spoke slowly.
“You don’t know what she does. This is the least of what she’s capable of.”
She stared at Ryoka, her eyes flashing. The City Runner did not look away.
“Then why do you not condemn her? Because you’re her daughter? You try to stop her. But have you tried changing her? Talking to her?”
“Yes! Of course I have! And it doesn’t work! Why do you think I haven’t talked to her in years? Do you think I enjoy knowing what she does? What she is? But I can’t stop her! No one can! Not Mavika, not Califor—no one!”
Wiskeria slammed one hand on the table. Durene nervously tried to put a plate down.
“Um—let’s have some potatoes, everyone. Ryoka, we can talk about this later—”
“Wiskeria. Does she know you object to what she does? Because Belavierr doesn’t seem like she understands that. Have you ever said how you feel to her face? Wiskeria. Have you talked to Rehanna?”
The Asian girl waited, seated at the table as the steaming scallops grew colder. Wiskeria’s glare could have burnt them to a crisp. The door cracked open and Charlay peeked in.
“Um. Everything okay?”
Ryoka and Wiskeria glared at the Centauress. Durene decided to start ladling food out before someone threw a dish.
The dinner was silent. Wiskeria, not exactly happy beforehand, looked angry and distraught. Ryoka was still thinking. Twice she tried to keep talking and Durene interjected with a loud joke, or Charlay decided to regale everyone with one of her famous runs. Wiskeria and Ryoka just stared at each other.
It wasn’t even as if Ryoka had been angry at Wiskeria. But—who was right and who was wrong? As Durene let Frostwing and Bismarck finish off the scraps of scallops, the half-Troll girl had to think that was Ryoka summed up. Someone had to be right and wrong. And Ryoka was thinking about Rehanna. She had visited her. Where the others shuddered and drew away, Ryoka looked at the crying child made of cloth. And at Belavierr. And she did not draw away.
That night, Durene was exhausted. She still hadn’t caught up on sleep since the…baby. So she retired early, and everyone was tired enough to join her. Wiskeria left the cottage, and Ryoka and Charlay bedded down with Durene.
The three bodies made the cottage smaller, and warm. But it was still comfortable. Durene lay in her kitchen, staring at the ceiling. She was ready to drop off, and get some good sleep. Tomorrow would…well, tomorrow would be different. Hopefully. But as she was closing her eyes, wondering if she’d level as a [Farmer], Durene heard Ryoka’s voice.
“If you could give up a toe, an arm, fingers, or years of your life, gold—anything, Durene. If you could give it up and be Human, or change how you looked. Who you were. Would you do it? Is that worse than Rehanna?”
Durene’s eyes shot open. She stared at the ceiling. Then she sat up. Ryoka was sitting up in bed, head in her hands. The half-Troll stared at her. Then she reached behind her. She threw her pillow at Ryoka as hard as she could and lay back down. Ryoka did too after a moment. She had never known that feathers could hurt that much.
Night 60 – Wiskeria
The [Witch] did not go back to her tent immediately. She stared at the cottage for a long time. And her stomach churned, despite Durene’s cooking actually being good. But Wiskeria hadn’t tasted much of it. Ryoka’s words had bothered her too much.
So, Wiskeria walked into Riverfarm. The journey from Durene’s cottage was silent. Few people were about on the streets. Two of the Darksky Riders passed her, doing sweeps, but they saw her clearly in the darkness and only greeted her quietly.
Wiskeria knew where Rehanna’s house was. A light still burned in the window. And another Darksky Rider had been posted outside the door. The man let Wiskeria in after a moment’s conversation. She had been a [General].
But it was a [Witch], and a daughter who went to see Rehanna. Wiskeria paused when she came in through the doorway.
The woman was…working. Quietly, humming to herself. She had some cloth spread out on the table, and she was neatly pinning sections together, ready for sewing. She was making something small. Very carefully creating…Wiskeria’s heart twisted.
Rehanna looked up. Wiskeria braced, but the woman’s face lit up. She stood.
“Miss Wiskeria! What brings you here?”
And she curtseyed. That was the worst part. Part of Wiskeria wanted to run. Just seeing Rehanna’s graying hair, the way she was slightly stiff as she tried to offer Wiskeria a chair—all of it hurt. She shouldn’t have come here, no matter what Ryoka had said.
But then Rehanna surprised her. The woman smiled as she pointed back towards her room.
“I would offer you tea, but he’s sleeping. How can I help you? Or are you checking up on me like the rest?”
She smiled as she went back to pinning the clothes together. Wiskeria stared at them, at the needles and thread. Then she looked at the woman.
“The—your baby’s sleeping?”
She’d meant to say the doll, because that was what it was. But she couldn’t. Not in front of Rehanna. The woman nodded.
“Mihka. That’s a name my husband and I came up with together. He’s Mihka. The very same. I don’t know how Lady Belavierr did it.”
She used your memories. Wove them like a thread into the baby. You’re making him as much as her magic. Wiskeria bit her lip. She paused.
“I—I just came to see you, Rehanna.”
“I’m glad you did. I wanted to apologize for how I behaved.”
“No—you have every reason.”
The woman paused.
“I might. I was angry at you for being a [General]. For not being punished. But I still attacked you for doing what you did. I regret it now, because it was senseless. I ruined friendships. I hope I can mend them. And I am so grateful to your mother.”
“Don’t say that. Please.”
The [Witch]’s head sank. She tugged her hat lower, as if it could hide reality. Rehanna looked surprised.
“But she’s done me such a favor. I only wish you could see it. You, and Mister Prost, and the others. I understand you fear Mihka, but he’s no threat to anyone. You mustn’t take him. I couldn’t bear it again, Miss Wiskeria. Tell the others. Please.”
She looked at Wiskeria, and there was a bright sincerity, a pleading in her eyes. The [Witch] hesitated. She looked at the table, at the cloth, the baby’s clothes.
“Are you happy, Rehanna? After making the deal?”
“Can’t you tell? I actually want to work. And I’m happy. Actually happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again. Not after Mihka—and then the news from Lancrel.”
The woman smiled. She was teary-eyed. Wiskeria clenched her hands.
“But Rehanna. I—no, I have to say this. The baby. Your Mihka. He won’t ever grow up. You understand that, right? He’ll always be a baby. And your life—”
“Is shorter now. I know that. I know that too. She told me all of it. Mihka won’t grow and I’m close to my grave, if sickness or accidents or monsters don’t take me first. And that’s fine. I’m still eternally grateful for what she did.”
Rehanna looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] paused.
“Then—why the clothing? He’ll never wear it!”
The clothing Rehanna was making was too large. It was for an older child, one that needed more than swaddling. Rehanna shook her head, smiling.
“It’s not for Mihka. It’s for another child. I don’t know who. But more than a few women are pregnant, and children will need clothing. I can make that for them. That’s what I can do. I think I’ll be happy. No—I am happy already.”
“But it’s an illusion. A spell. It’s not real, Rehanna. That baby isn’t—”
Rehanna stopped her. The woman shook her head. And now her bright eyes started to overflow.
“I know that. Don’t you think I don’t? Lady Belavierr showed me what she would make. But I said yes. Because when I held him, he turned into Mihka. The same baby from my dreams. The exact same. And I think my man—I couldn’t pay the second price. I wouldn’t. But sometimes I can hear him, or I feel him. Lady Belavierr did that for me. And more. The baby’s more than just a…fake thing, Wiskeria.”
Tears ran down her cheeks. Rehanna placed a hand on her chest.
“Wiskeria. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Don’t you understand? Do you know how angry I was? How sad and angry and—have you ever felt that way? So much so that you could die?”
Of course. Rehanna nodded.
“Your mother took that pain away. It won’t come back. For that, I’d have paid almost anything. And I did. She told me she wanted a fair deal. And it was fair. For me, more than fair. I know you might think of me as a fool. But I am happy. Please. Let me be happy.”
“And you will be?”
The woman gave her a tearful smile as she dabbed at her eyes.
“I think I will be. I made a choice, and Mihka will help me no matter what comes. It’s better this way, Wiskeria. It truly is. Thank you for coming, but I must be abed if I want to work tomorrow.”
And she politely but firmly showed Wiskeria to the door. It was only after she’d closed and bolted it that Wiskeria realized Rehanna had kicked her out. The [Witch] stared at the closed door.
There was some of Rehanna there. Even happy as she was. But how much? How much was there, and how much had Belavierr torn away? There was no answer. But the second question Ryoka had asked Wiskeria burned in her mind. So she turned as the light in Rehanna’s house winked out.
Wiskeria didn’t know where her mother was. Or if she even had a house to sleep in. Wiskeria doubted it. But she didn’t need to ask. All she had to do was lift her hat off her head and toss it.
It was a dark blue hat. Not as dark as Belavierr’s own clothing, which could be black if you had no eye for the color. But dark blue. A simple hat, meant for a [Witch], with minimal flair. And that was what Wiskeria had wanted. But the hands that had sewn it had not been simple. They had mimicked unoriginality so well that sometimes Wiskeria forgot.
But the [Fireball] that had nearly killed her had reminded her. Where her clothes had burnt away to protect her as part of Belavierr’s charm, the hat had remained. It hadn’t even been knocked off her head.
And it had one other trick. One other element, besides the fact that it had grown with Wiskeria since she was six to always fit her head. A long time ago, a humble [Stitch Witch] who worked in a no-name village in Terandria as small as Riverfarm had sewn something for her daughter. For the tearful child who was afraid of being lost and not finding her mother, who could be forgetful. And ever since that day, Wiskeria had never been lost again.
So for the first time in eight years, Wiskeria lifted her hat and tossed it up. And the hat flew. It caught a breeze and Wiskeria cursed and chased after it as it was blown across the street. She ran after it, her replacement robe catching the same dry wind.
The hat tumbled down onto the street and around a corner. And Wiskeria ran after it, her legs burning, cursing as the hat eluded her time and time again, blown by the infuriating breeze. At last it stopped and the [Witch] snatched at it, picked it up, and glared at it. And then she put it on her head and looked around.
The street was gone. So was Riverfarm. Wiskeria’s legs hurt, and she was breathless. She realized—in that way memory has of catching up—that she’d been running for seventeen minutes, almost. Quite some distance. But she was where she needed to be, because here was a slight hill. Beyond it, the two moons rose, one waxing, the other waning. And sitting under the tree, her wide hat lowered, her knees partially stretched out, was Belavierr.
Wiskeria caught her breath as she saw her mother. Belavierr’s clothing was dark as the night. Her head bowed. Her huge hat covered all but the bottom of her face. But one hand was extended. It held something. And the midnight stallion, a giant of his kind, bent and ate from the palm.
Even this was uncanny. Because the stallion made no sound. Nor was what he ate food. Wiskeria was almost certain he was the same horse that had used to carry her about. The same one that had never bothered when she’d pulled at his ears, and had carried her and her mother about the village. And hadn’t it been a surprise when Wiskeria had ridden her first horse who objected to ear-pulling instead of taking it as a sign of affection?
But this one was dark. Larger than the horse in her memory as a child. But her mother could have altered him. Wiskeria was almost positive the horse was a thing of cloth. Or if it had been alive, she had stitched him together. He didn’t look up as Wiskeria walked forwards. Nor did Belavierr. Few things could attract Belavierr’s attention.
Even at the end, when the mob had chased them away, Wiskeria remembered it. Screaming for her mother to run, reaching back from the horse’s back, looking back at the villagers burning their cottage, the child Belavierr had made as the father shouted and strained in the arms of the people who held them—even then, Belavierr’s gaze had been distant, absent as she walked away. She had only looked up when she heard Wiskeria cry and seen the tears. And then—
“Belavierr. Witch Belavierr.”
The hat didn’t rise. The hand didn’t move. Belavierr was still, like a statue—no, a tapestry. Because the wind still moved her dress. The horse still pretended to breathe. It was a scene. And as Wiskeria drew closer, she saw what Belavierr was doing.
As she gave her horse the loose thread it was eating like a snack, her other hand was held out, dangling something in front of Belavierr’s bowed head. She was inspecting something. A bit of thread, tied up in a complex fashion, but still just a single unbroken thread.
Wiskeria recognized it. One of her mother’s ward-spells. She had no idea how powerful it could be. Normally, you’d want to make a spell or ward out of strong emotion and magic. Conventional artifacts of great power for instance were never made of pot metal or clay for instance because those were weak materials. Of course, you could make a very specifically powerful wooden enchanted sword for instance, but material mattered.
Unfortunately, Belavierr’s craft was such that logic stopped applying to her abilities. Grand magic could turn even weak thread into powerful tools. It was probably a thread made from a Griffin’s mane or something, anyways.
It was also trembling. Wiskeria paused. That usually meant the magic was being used. She didn’t know what this ward spell did. Perhaps it had stopped some bird droppings from landing on her mother’s hat? Or…it had done something else.
It was just more of the same. Wiskeria squared her shoulders. She had come here for a reason. And she should have done this long ago. Ryoka was infuriating, but she was also right.
The head rose. And Wiskeria felt a bitter pleasure. She had loved, in that once ago, that only one word and one voice could ever make Belavierr react consistently. But now she looked down and saw that ringed gaze, the orange, luminescent eyes, and she saw…
“Daughter. It is late. Do you need something of me?”
Belavierr stood in one motion. She looked down at her daughter, and Wiskeria stared up at her. Her mother’s face was impassive as ever. Wiskeria took a deep breath. There was no use beating around the bush with Belavierr.
“Mother. I need a favor of you. A big one.”
“Of course. Name it, and I will do it if it is within my power.”
Wiskeria nodded. She looked into Belavierr’s eyes. And they were familiar. She didn’t know why people shuddered. If you stared long enough, you could see what was in the ever-smaller rings. Deeper and deeper. Wiskeria hesitated. And then she spoke.
“Mother. Please stop using your stitch-magic. Please throw away your creations of thread. I—I beg you, as your daughter. Stop using your charms and curses of needles and cloth. Don’t use any of it.”
It was hard to say. Harder than Wiskeria had thought. But it was a relief to come out with, even if Wiskeria knew the answer. She lowered her head. And Belavierr paused. But then she nodded.
“Very well, Daughter. For how long?”
Wiskeria’s head snapped up. She gaped at Belavierr.
“What? You’ll do it?”
The bright gaze never wavered. Belavierr inclined her head slightly.
“Of course. For you, Daughter. How long do you ask this of me?”
Oh. Of course. Wiskeria closed her eyes. But—could she live with that? She looked up, biting her lip.
“Two hundred years. Can you do that, Mother?”
“Of course. If you wish it, for two hundred years I will use no spell of stitching, no cloth artifacts or magic of thread and needle. Does this satisfy you?”
Belavierr said it as if it were the lightest thing in the world. And even her daughter had to stare. But then Wiskeria nodded. She even smiled.
“Yes! Yes! Of course! Thank you, Mother.”
The face didn’t change one whit. But then Belavierr bent and regarded her daughter. She paused again.
“It is what you wish, Daughter. But why do you ask it of me?”
“Because I don’t want you to take lives, like you did to Rehanna, Mother. So—you will do it? For two hundred years, you won’t steal life or trade curses? You’ll be…”
And that one sound pierced Wiskeria’s heart. Belavierr straightened. And then slowly, she shook her head.
“No. I’m afraid you misunderstand me, Daughter. I will not do that. I will give up my stitch-spells and pacts of thread. But the deal I made with the woman Rehanna I will continue to make. Else I would die.”
Wiskeria stared up at her mother, shocked. Belavierr never lied. But the Stitch Witch didn’t appear guilty.
“I promised to give up my magic. My spells and lore. For you, Daughter, I would give it away, and seal my knowledge for two hundred years. But what you ask is different. You ask that I would change my craft. The very essence of what I am.”
“Yes! Will you do it? I will never ask you for anything again, Mother! Please?”
The word echoed. And the face that delivered it never changed. That was what was worst of Belavierr. Not her magic, or her deeds. It was the way she moved through life, uncaring. Uninterested. It hurt to argue with her. Wiskeria clenched her hands, her nails digging into her flesh.
“But that is all I want. All I want from you, Mother. I would be happy if you did this.”
“It is my craft.”
“It hurts people. You take their lives, Mother. You take their emotions. You take. And you hurt people. Sometimes you kill—because someone asks it of you.”
“Yes. Because we make a fair deal.”
“Fair? It’s not fair! What of the people who paid you to make a curse-doll? What about the people you hurt because someone pays you in years of their life?”
Belavierr didn’t even blink.
“It is fairly done between I and them. They have something I wish, and I have a service or thing they desire. That is the oldest exchange, Daughter. You know this.”
“But what about the people you hurt? If someone pays you to hurt someone else—”
“They have paid. And I act.”
“But that’s wrong. There’s no justice in what you do, Mother.”
The [Witch] blinked once.
“Of course not. It is an exchange. When one wishes, another’s wishes are destroyed. That is how all things are done, Daughter.”
She paused. Belavierr glanced up, and a slight frown crossed her features.
“We have had this conversation before.”
“Yes. We have. And I still can’t accept it, Mother.”
Wiskeria was close to tears. But she refused to cry. Belavierr would not understand. She looked up and tried one last time.
“Mother. I want you to change. I want you to stop killing because you’re asked. Stop stealing life and—and offering these deals. Stop your craft. Practice other magic. No—keep using your stitch-magic. But don’t take like you do. Can you do that? For me?”
Belavierr paused. And for a moment, for one wonderful, frightening moment, Wiskeria thought she might agree. But at last, she shook her head.
“No, Daughter. You ask for more than I can give.”
“Because I would fight for you, Daughter. I would take lives for you. I would use my magic. Defend. Protect. Seek what you desire. But you ask me to change my craft. To change who I am. If I did so, I would not be Belavierr. I would not be your mother.”
She looked down. And Wiskeria saw Belavierr’s lips move. She saw, but it took her minutes to understand. And when she did, her eyes did fill with tears.
Belavierr was trying to smile. But she had forgotten how. Wiskeria’s eyes ran, and wetness trickled down her cheeks. Belavierr’s smile vanished. She reached down.
“Daughter. You are crying.”
“I know, Mother.”
“Why are you crying? Are you hurt? Do you need something?”
“No. No, I—”
Wiskeria brushed away the hand. She gulped, and then looked up. It had been like this once. And then, Wiskeria had left, gone so far she’d hoped she’d never see Belavierr again. But that had been running away. This—she wished she’d done this.
“Mother. Let me say this so you understand it. I…”
She searched for words. Belavierr waited, patiently, standing impassive as her horse stood by the tree. And the night shone down on the two. Wiskeria sighed. And she took her hat off and was a girl again, standing before her mother.
“It was good, to be your daughter growing up. When we lived in the village I thought you were the most wonderful mother ever. I wanted to be like you. I thought the other [Witches] who told me how grand and terrible you could be all admired you, even if you could be scary. I saw the darkness in your craft, but also the good. You helped people. And yes, you were…distant. You could be thoughtless, or unkind. But I was happy to be your daughter.”
Belavierr tilted her head sideways. Her hat moved with her, and Wiskeria couldn’t help but smile at the uncomprehending look on her face. She went on.
“But mother. One day, I saw you for what you were. When you made a daughter for a father out of thread. Something—horrible. Something with no life, that looked like what he wanted. And I realized. I asked, and I found out what made you—you. The dead you took life from over the years. The deals you made for your power. The dead, Mother. The dead you left hanging because they opposed you! The threats you made! The people you killed! How old are you?”
“I do not recall, Daughter.”
“That’s not the point!”
Wiskeria stamped her foot and screamed. The night took the scream. Belavierr looked down at her.
“Then what is the point, Daughter? You know what I am. Sometimes, I believe I do not know what you are. But you are my Daughter and I, your mother. Is that not enough?”
Wiskeria put her hand over her heart. She closed her eyes. And when she looked up, her eyes were clear. It still hurt to say. More than any words. But she said them.
“No, Mother. I wish it could be. But it’s not. Because what I never told you when I saw what you are is this: I hate it. And Mother, I hate you.”
The glowing gaze widened. The wind died. And all things paused. There was only Wiskeria and Belavierr. And the [Witch] looked up at the [Witch]. And her words continued.
“I hate you, Mother. I hate what you do. And because you will not change, because what you do sickens me to my core, because I cannot ignore what you do and what you have done, I hate you.”
Belavierr stood stock still. She didn’t move. But her eyes were wide, wider than Wiskeria could ever remember. And she looked—Wiskeria would have rejoiced if it didn’t hurt. She turned away.
“I’m sorry. But I hate that I’m your daughter. And if I could stop you, I would. If I can, I will.”
She reached for her side as she stumbled away, back towards the quiet village far from the hill. And she turned, with wand in hand. Wiskeria’s hand shook as she pointed it at Belavierr. But that was all. She couldn’t, so she lowered it and turned. She walked, then ran away. Leaving her mother standing on the hill.
If Wiskeria had looked back, she would have seen no horse. Nothing, save for her mother, standing stock still. Staring at her back. As still as a statue. But there was nothing blank, nothing timeless about Belavierr’s stare. She watched her daughter disappear. And then Belavierr blinked.
And after a moment she touched herself, two fingers on one hand touching her cheek. Belavierr’s voice was…hesitant.
Day 61 – Ryoka
Ryoka had no idea how everyone else had fared last night. She herself had been up, far, far later than she would have liked, trying to figure out whether what had happened to Rehanna was…but when she woke up, she felt a certain schadenfreude in seeing that Wiskeria looked as tired as she did.
Everyone else was more rested, purely by virtue of being so tired that they’d slept like rocks. And that had the secondary effect of giving them the time and energy to process Rehanna’s deal with Belavierr. The result? When Ryoka, Charlay, Durene, and Wiskeria went into Riverfarm, they found the mood in the town was distinctly changed.
Towards the [Witches]. No one had forgotten yesterday of course. But now—people were visiting Rehanna. They were talking, not just numbly shocked. And they had heard Laken’s pronouncement, seen Belavierr’s uncaring face. You could find that unsettling—or you could hate the impassive look.
That is who she is. Eloise’s words were another double-edged sword. Belavierr’s actions reflected on the others as well. If that was who she was, what were the other [Witches]? They all occupied their own bubbles of space that day. Even Eloise; few people stopped to have tea with her, and then quickly, furtively.
You could feel it in the air. A word unspoken. It wasn’t about classes, but a superstition across worlds. A word. Condemnation. Fear and loathing.
However, what it changed was actually very little. The eight [Witches], even Wiskeria, went about their business as usual. Despite the lack of visitors, Eloise brewed her tea and chatted with anyone who wanted to talk. Hedag spoke to children and occasionally some parents, laughing when no one was about. Alevica went flying, ignoring the muttering. Mavika sat on a rooftop while her flock patrolled the fields for an hour, then she vanished. Califor and Nanette took their lessons—none of the [Witches] reacted to the hostile looks.
It was something Ryoka didn’t know about [Witches], but which she should have understood. A fundamental quality of their natures and class. When they were pushed, [Witches] did not give in or change. They doubled down.
And that went for more than just outside hostility. Because the most notable thing Ryoka saw that day was at midmorning. She saw Wiskeria striding down the street, looking peeved. But that was one thing. Seeing Belavierr following her daughter, matching Wiskeria’s two strides for every one of hers made Ryoka choke on her lunch. Wiskeria glared up at her mother.
“I told you, Mother. I hate you. Stop bothering me!”
Belavierr followed Wiskeria, tall, silent but for that one word. Wiskeria rounded on her.
“I told you.”
“But my nature is who I am, Daughter.”
“Well then, maybe I hate your nature, Mother!”
Belavierr blinked. She was more immediate, more in this world than Ryoka had ever seen her. She seemed genuinely confused as she regarded her daughter. Ryoka was edging closer. Her and a number of people, including a crowd of Lancrel’s folk that Ryoka was vaguely uneasy about. But Belavierr only had eyes for Wiskeria.
“But—why? You did not hate it growing up.”
“Because I did not know who you were, Mother. As I said. Now leave me alone. I don’t want to talk with you!”
Wiskeria stormed off. Belavierr made to follow, but perhaps even she sensed how futile that would be because she stopped. Ryoka stared at her back. Belavierr looked bothered. No—Ryoka stared at Wiskeria as the younger [Witch] hurried off. She would have given gold to know what Wiskeria had said to Belavierr!
Then Ryoka heard a voice.
“Excuse me! Miss [Witch]! We must have words!”
Ryoka turned around. A familiar woman was striding forwards, followed by at least four hundred of Lancrel’s people. It was a sizeable crowd, but how Councilwoman Beatica had thought it was a good idea to lead them against Belavierr was beyond Ryoka. Maybe she was just deliberately suppressing her sensible instincts. Either way, the woman came striding up just as Belavierr was watching Wiskeria’s back.
Normally, Ryoka expected Belavierr to walk off without another word. But as Ryoka had noticed, Belavierr was in the world of reality. And her head turned as Councilwoman Beatica snapped at her. She turned her head.
“Your behavior has been unacceptable! You have assaulted one of Riverfarm’s citizens! For this, you must issue an apology, and forthwith cancel the mag—”
Beatica got that far when her tongue gave up in her head. Ryoka, who’d been looking around to find Beniar, Prost, Rie, or Durene, froze. Her head turned back to Belavierr. Because something was different about the [Witch].
An intensity. A shift in her posture. Her gaze swept across the crowd and the angry people from Lancrel froze. And Ryoka felt her stomach drop. Because there was no blank stare. The glowing eyes had force behind them. And it was simple. But terrifying when Ryoka realized the reason behind it.
Belavierr was angry.
No. Vexed. It wasn’t true anger. Ryoka couldn’t even imagine what that would be. But vexation—annoyance? Yes. Belavierr’s eyes, immortal, magical and ageless, still held that familiar emotion. And Ryoka, the mob, and Charlay, who’d trotted over to see what was happening, all paused.
Unfortunately, Beatica wasn’t able to back out and save face so easily. Her mouth dried up, and she backed up. But her plan—which might have been hurling insults at Belavierr while being safely ignored—was suddenly derailed. And all she could do was plough ahead.
“Miss Belavierr. I said that your—your behavior has been unacceptable. We, the citizens of Lancrel, are censuring you. You—you must issue a formal apology. Or else we will find you…”
She trailed off. Belavierr was staring at Beatica. And she was looking more annoyed with each word. She stared at the crowd behind Beatica. And their anger turned quickly into a terror that made them still, rather than flee in fear. Belavierr stared around.
“I warn you—”
Beatica’s high-pitched voice broke off in a small scream as Belavierr lifted a hand. The [Witch] crooked a finger. Then she turned and strode off. Ryoka, who’d ducked along with Charlay at the gesture, breathed a sigh of relief. She straightened, and Beatica, looking pale and relieved, stood taller. She looked around, and then turned to give a speech as Ryoka prepared to run after Belavierr.
At that moment, every stitch in a three hundred foot radius suddenly unraveled. It was abrupt, suddenly, and so fast that all the clothes just dropped off the crowd, Ryoka, and Charlay. Bits of fabric fell to the ground, in its component parts as the stitching neatly fell into spools of thread as well. Ryoka blinked as her clothes fell off her body. It was actually sort of nice for a moment; the day was sunny and the skin could breathe in the mild wind that followed her about. Then her eyes went wide and everyone processed what had happened.
“What the f—”
It was probably telling what the first action of each person was. Whether they covered themselves, stared—and who they stared at and where—or immediately tried to show off, like one muscular [Blacksmith]—it was all pandemonium.
Ryoka, for her part, stared around just to make sure everyone was similarly undressed as she grabbed at her clothes and tried to cover the essentials. Charlay wailed as she grabbed at her shirt. Then her fallen belt! Even it had fallen to pieces!
“Don’t look at me! I’m naked!”
The Centauress wailed as she raced off, clutching what remained of her shirt to her chest. Ryoka stared after her.
“You’re naked? What about me?”
She screamed, but Charlay was already running. The crowd was in chaos. People were bending over to pick up clothes on the street, then realizing that was a very exposed situation. There were red faces, tears—Ryoka saw Councilwoman Beatica running into the nearest house. Ryoka looked around, then realized something.
“Oh. Bag of holding.”
She pulled out a change of clothes and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever Belavierr had done, it hadn’t hit the bag of holding, or the stitches in the magical bag itself. That was a relief. Ryoka hopped into some pants, forgoing underwear, tossed on a shirt, and then ran like hell as more people came to see what was happening and stare. She was laughing. Right up until she made her mistake.
Belavierr was standing in the same spot where Ryoka had visited the picnicking [Witches] a few days ago. Right in front of the tree where she’d been resting, close to the river. Only, she was standing. And she looked annoyed. Her back was also turned, so Ryoka was hesitant in walking up and tapping Belavierr on the shoulder. She elected to call out instead.
The figure was silent. Tall. Her shadows seemed too long. And when she turned her head, the orange eyes glowed beneath the brim of her hat. Belavierr’s voice was cold.
“I do not wish to speak to you.”
Ryoka halted, her bare feet in the grass. She felt a leap of apprehension, but Belavierr was looking at her. Talking to her. So she smiled. She had met immortals after all, befriended a Vampire. She had to try.
“I understand that. And I beg your pardon, Witch Belavierr. But I’d like to speak to you. You might remember—”
The words made Ryoka stumble over hers. She tried again, more desperately.
“I know Wiskeria. And I can talk to her. I know you two have an argument. I asked Wiskeria about it. She’s angry at you. And I think I can—”
Belavierr’s eyes were very bright. Ryoka took a step back. But then she gritted her teeth. She had bargained with a Dragon. She looked at Belavierr. Try. If she didn’t respect Ryoka, acknowledge her, there was nothing Ryoka could do.
“Witch Belavierr, I can help. Listen, about Wiskeria not liking you—”
Belavierr moved. Ryoka blinked. She tried to continue, say something. But her lips were glued together. She looked down, but she couldn’t feel anything. But then she felt pain. And she raised her fingers to her mouth and felt something thin and hard.
The scream was muffled. Ryoka’s lips were sewn so tightly together than she couldn’t even move them. And the pain—it had been so fast—but Belavierr was standing in front of Ryoka. And in one hand she held a bloody needle.
She’d sewn Ryoka’s lips shut.
Ryoka tried to scream. The needle had gone through her lips! It had been so fast—but now she felt the pain and gathering blood from the places where the needle had pierced her skin. She stumbled back, clawing frantically at her mouth, and then her belt.
Blood was dripping into her mouth from the perforations. And the thread—Ryoka desperately sawed at it with a knife. It didn’t break. Not even when she cut hard.
Belavierr watched it all impassively. Ryoka was breathing desperately through her nose. Her eyes were wide, her mouth filling with blood. She tried to open her mouth a crack and the thread pulled at the holes in her lips. She screamed again, muffled.
The [Witch] bent. She met Ryoka’s eyes. The City Runner stared up at her. Belavierr’s whisper echoed.
Ryoka ran for it.
The coven of three [Witches] was Alevica, Mavika, and Wiskeria. They were cheering up Wiskeria. Or just entertaining her presence. Either way, they were first to see Ryoka running towards them. Blood was tricking from Ryoka’s mouth. The red thread—even Mavika paused.
“Dead gods! What happened Ryoka—”
Wiskeria caught herself as she shot up. She stared at Ryoka, and then cursed.
Alevica blinked. Mavika stared at Ryoka as the Runner frantically gestured at her face. The [Witch] peered at the red stitches. The bloody holes. She nodded to herself.
“You must have truly angered her. She’s put a small working on the thread. You won’t be able to cut it without a magical blade. A decent one. It is not my craft. A pity; you should not have scorned Belavierr’s wrath.”
Wiskeria snapped at the other [Witch]. She looked at Wiskeria.
“I’ll find my mother and have her undo it. Just wait—”
“What? Now? She’s peeved at you already, Wis. And Ryoka must have annoyed her. She might sew Griffin’s eyes shut if you word it wrong. Here. Don’t bother. I’ll do it.”
Alevica stood up, yawning and stretching. She walked over to Ryoka. The City Runner was waving her hands and making small sounds. Alevica saw why and winced.
“Ouch. Those are pulling your flesh. That has to hurt. Well, I can cut it. I think. Give me a second.”
She pulled a knife from her belt. Then she clenched her shortsword.
“Hm. Better steel in the knife. Alright. Here goes. Ryoka, don’t move or squirm. I might slice a lip off.”
So saying, she laid the knife on her arm. Ryoka watched, trying not to choke on the blood running from her wounds. She was half-mad with needing to open her mouth, the shock—but she still stiffened as Alevica chanted, her voice harsh, but triumphant.
“Grudge, fester. Knife, cut. Anger, grow. Envy grate. Slice sharper. Prick harder. Hate. And the honed edge—make.”
The knife didn’t move or flash or do anything else on her arm. But with each sentence, the edge seemed harder to find, thinner.
Sharper. But the chant was quick. And Alevica plucked the knife from her arm and grinned at Wiskeria and Mavika. Wiskeria looked somewhat impressed. Mavika did not.
“A simple chant for a simple working.”
“And a simple task, Mavika. We don’t all need to write poetry in verse. Now, hold still, Ryoka.”
Mavika turned back to Ryoka. She raised the knife and Ryoka froze. She felt the blade working at the tight thread and Alevica cursing.
“This is enchanted! But that’s some thread—I have no leverage. Hold on—I think it’s giving—”
The thread snapping made the entire tight binding slacken. Ryoka nearly screamed again, but then her fingers were pulling one end of the thread out. Alevica snagged the other and pulled—surprisingly gently. Ryoka still gasped in pain, but she pulled and pulled. The bloody thread came out and Ryoka spat a mouthful of blood and saliva. Then she reached for a healing potion with one hand.
“Ryoka! What were you doing? Did you make Mother angry? How did—?”
“I pissed her off. I—I’m going to—she sewed my lips shut! Like that!”
Ryoka was trembling as she took a mouthful of healing potion and swished it around. Alevica was eying the bloody end of thread she’d retrieved.
“No kidding? I heard Belavierr could be nasty, but this was pretty good. If Ryoka hadn’t been near us, she might have had to tear the thread out of her skin! My cut-spell was barely good enough to cut it.”
“She should not have angered Belavierr.”
“Well, yeah, that too.”
Wiskeria was hesitating. She came over to Ryoka. The City Runner was still shaking. It wasn’t just the pain—although that was a large part. It was how fast it had been. And the look in Belavierr’s eyes. If Ryoka hadn’t run—the Asian girl’s hands trembled and Wiskeria caught the bottle.
“I’ll tell my mother off. She won’t get away with this, Ryoka—”
“No! No! I’m fine, Wiskeria. Don’t bother her. I already made her mad. I thought I could talk to her. But she’s not like—”
The Frost Faeries tormenting her. Their vengeance before she’d made peace with them. How could she have forgotten? Overconfident, that was what Ryoka had become. Overconfident and—she shuddered. Because she knew Wiskeria, she’d thought she’d be safe. But Belavierr hadn’t cared.
After a while, her shaking stopped. She looked up.
“Alevica. Thank you. Thank you.”
The Witch Runner waved it away, grinning.
“What, and leave you with a mouth stitched shut? I could never do that. I’m only too happy to help a fellow Runner. And now you owe me a favor. Remember it, Ryoka. Because I’ll call it in.”
Ryoka froze. She looked at Alevica, hoping for a laugh. But the Witch Runner only winked as she sauntered back to her table. Ryoka didn’t even have the energy to get mad. She was still in shock. Wiskeria was still fussing.
“What did you need to speak to my mother for? Why did you try without me?”
“I—thought I could get her to listen to me. I wanted to talk to her about you. Try to patch things up between you. Or convince her to help…I thought I could reason with her. I’ve done it before.”
Ryoka muttered, tasting more blood. She got a water flask out to spit bloody water. Wiskeria paused. She frowned.
“Persuade mother? You don’t know her. And this is my problem, Ryoka. You don’t need to—stay out of it, please.”
“But she’s potentially—dangerous. I know you’re confronting her, but—I want to talk to her too. I know I don’t understand everything, but I understand something about the consequences of…”
Ryoka realized she was making a bad case with her mouth still bloody. She shook her head.
“Wiskeria, I know it’s hard. But I want to help. This rift between your mother and you—I want to help fix it. No, I need to. I know you think she’s evil and I know you’ve seen some of that. But I think she actually likes you. Listen—”
Wiskeria recoiled before Ryoka could finish. She stared at Ryoka, and then her eyes narrowed. She tugged at her hat, looking angry.
“What? You don’t know how I grew up. Don’t you dare assume that you do! Do you think I was watching her sacrifice people and thinking it was normal? No! I only found out what she did when I was older, and that was because I asked. She never killed anyone in front of me. Never!”
“What? But I thought—”
“The worst she did was terrify a village after they ran us out and burned one of her creations! I know what my mother is, and I’ve seen what she can do! I haven’t seen her do worse, but I know her. And she’s more complicated than a monster who randomly kills people! She doesn’t change! That’s why I hate her! And it’s my business how I deal with my m—with Belavierr! If she’s angry, good! That’s a welcome change! Just stay out of her way and I’ll handle it!”
Wiskeria turned and stormed off. Ryoka, mouth gaping in protest, tried to call her back. But she couldn’t. She looked around as Alevica laughed. Then Mavika, sitting at the table, spoke. Or rather, the crow on her shoulder did.
It spoke the word, disturbingly coherent. Ryoka stared at it. The crow stared at her with one huge eye. And Mavika looked up.
“Arrogance. What a strange, arrogant girl you are.”
Ryoka’s mouth still hurt. She glared at Mavika. Until she recalled Wiskeria’s warnings about the [Witch] and quailed. Mavika’s gaze was direct. She gestured at Ryoka. Then at Wiskeria.
“Yes. Look at what you do. And what you say. You think you stand at the center of your story. But this is not yours. Witch Belavierr is not yours to change. Her life will not bend for you in a day. Nor will Witch Wiskeria’s. This is not your story, wind’s child. Nor mine. You meddle where you have no knowledge of the past. Arrogance. Do not meddle in [Witch]’s affairs.”
She stood up and walked off. Ryoka watched as Mavika followed Wiskeria, the raven flapping its wings. Still staring at her. Alevica leaned back, putting her feet on the table. She grinned at Ryoka.
“Remember that favor. Because I will.”
Ryoka looked at her. And then around. She shuddered. And then she saw Nesor hurrying towards her, waving a bit of parchment.
“Miss Griffin! Miss Griffin! There’s a message for you! A [Fence]! He’s dead! It—”
“The [Fence]? In Filk?”
And Ryoka heard of the dead Ratwhisperer, her mouth and nose sewn shut. And her own mouth throbbed and burned. To her credit, even Alevica looked uneasy.
“Don’t let your [Opener] friend talk about Belavierr, Griffin. That’s a curse Belavierr’s used. And I don’t think many people could dodge that. Even if they’re [Mages].”
Ryoka agreed. She looked at Nesor and sent a swift reply.
Everything’s fine. She’s dangerous, but I think it’s safe for us. I’ll be here a bit longer. Don’t cross her, Fierre. And don’t worry about me. I have to do this. Thanks for the help.
A lie. Because Ryoka wasn’t fine. That night she kept opening her mouth, running her teeth along her healed lips. Shuddering. And she stayed away from Riverfarm. Refused to go near it. Or the [Witch] with the glowing eyes and wide-brimmed hat. If she hadn’t run—Ryoka’s dreams were filled with a man she’d never met, mouth and nose sewn shut. Staring into oblivion as blood ran down his throat. And Belavierr’s blank, impatient stare watching as he died.
Day 63 – Ryoka
For two days, Ryoka ducked at every passing person even wearing clothes that were remotely black. A pointed hat and she fled the other way. The worst part was that no one, not even Charlay, called her silly for doing that. In fact, everyone took the time to tell Ryoka how stupid she had been for crossing Belavierr.
And they were right. Right, and wrong. Because Belavierr might be—probably was—a monster. But one who obeyed her own laws. She was like the fae. Or Teriarch. A mix between him and Az’kerash, perhaps. So what anyone with sense would do was avoid her until Laken returned. Let him handle her and not provoke her wrath.
But Ryoka had never been accused of having sense. And the issue of the [Witches] was greater than just Belavierr. That was what Prost didn’t understand, or Rie, or anyone else. They had come to Riverfarm, this coven, to ask Laken to grant [Witches] sanctuary. And if Emperor Godart was anything like the Laken she remembered, Ryoka expected him to honor that vow.
The problem was whether it would be safe. Half of the [Witches] seemed fine. Califor, Eloise, Nanette, even Alevica could behave. But Mavika? Hedag? Belavierr? It was a quandary. And the only person who could solve it wasn’t Ryoka.
It was Wiskeria, Belavierr’s daughter. But the irony was that the daughter wanted nothing to do with her mother. She hated her mother. And—thanks to Ryoka—she had said it at last. And that bothered Belavierr.
She followed Wiskeria, until her daughter told her to leave her alone. Asked questions as Wiskeria shouted at her. Listened. Until that glacial face hardened and became angry. Frustrated. Uncomprehending.
“She hates Belavierr for who she is. But Belavierr won’t change her craft. It’s like watching two trees hit each other.”
Charlay summed up the conflict as Ryoka hid behind her on the third day, after a one-sided shouting match. Wiskeria stormed off and Charlay, Ryoka, and everyone who’d stopped to watch fled as well. Because Belavierr was angry. She stood in the street, her head bowed, staring at Wiskeria’s back. And undone clothes were the least of what Ryoka feared from her now.
There was something else that was brewing in Riverfarm as a consequence of these fights. No—of Rehanna. The woman sometimes went outside, holding her baby. And that was a terrible sight, in daylight or at night. Belavierr’s encounter with Councilwoman Beatica had also caused trouble. The woman had shown more sense than Ryoka and refused to engage with Belavierr directly, but bad will towards Belavierr and [Witches] in general had spread across the village.
And into that confused tangle of events, a mother and a daughter’s war, and the hot days without a hint of rain that continued to roll on, the dark looks and trouble brewing, there was Hedag. Ryoka had paused from a day of trying to talk with Wiskeria and hiding from Belavierr as people trudged back from the fields.
No one was happy. It was hot, and the river that fed the village was now being used to partially irrigate the fields. But hand-watering still had to be done, and it was hot. The [Witches] had kept to themselves today, mercifully, and Eloise had even relegated her tea service in lieu of helping Califor teach Nanette how to make some bread that may or may not have been magical.
Mavika and Alevica were nowhere to be found as dusk settled, and then night. Ryoka ate a meal with Durene and Charlay, on the lookout for Wiskeria and Belavierr. And that’s when she saw her.
Hedag. The woman was sitting at a table, laughing, drinking and eating with [Forewoman] Beycalt and a few other laborers. Completely at ease. She ignored the looks she was getting as she poured a generous drink from her flask into each cup. Despite the volume of the flask, she filled each polished wooden cup to the brim. Ryoka didn’t have to see the way Beycalt brightened or the others lifted the cups to know it was alcohol.
“To your [Emperor], then! And a hard day’s work!”
Hedag laughed, and her voice boomed through the mess hall. She lifted the flask and drank with the others. Ryoka blinked. She looked around.
“What’s Hedag been up to all day, Durene? Charlay?”
The Centauress shrugged. But Durene leaned over.
“Haven’t you seen her? She’s been helping build houses.”
“What, with magic?”
Ryoka stared back at Hedag. The woman’s plain brown hat and travel-worn clothing made her seem the most normal of all the [Witches]. She was a big woman, bigger than Beycalt, and she looked strong. And she had chopped off a man’s head with her axe. But here she was jovial, smiling. Durene shook her head.
“Nope. No magic at all. She just helped. She’s good with a hammer and she knows how to put up a house.”
Ryoka watched Hedag drinking with the other villagers. She had an infectious laugh. And an openness about her that was the exact opposite of what Ryoka was used to. She reminded the City Runner of Erin, actually. Only, an Erin of a different sort.
And yet, she was a [Witch]. And no one had forgotten how she’d walked into Riverfarm and pronounced judgment. Many of the people stared and murmured, and few would drink with Hedag, despite the free liquor. But if the [Witch] noticed—and she surely did—she paid no mind. In fact, she noticed more than Ryoka thought, because though she never turned her head, after the second round she raised her voice.
“Share a drink with me, Runner-Girl?”
Ryoka jumped. Hedag turned and waved a hand. Ryoka felt a stab of embarrassment as everyone stared at her. But there was nothing for it. She stood up and walked over.
“I didn’t mean to stare.”
“Ah, what a kind lie. But you don’t fool me! Come, sit. And perhaps you won’t be as wary of Hedag as you are of my coven!”
Hedag’s slap nearly catapulted Ryoka into her seat. Ryoka blinked as the woman grabbed a cup from the table behind her. Someone had used the cup, but Hedag sloshed in a bunch of pungent…rum? Ryoka inhaled it. Certainly not just an ale or mead.
“That’s a hard worker’s drink there. Hard to get and expensive! For us at least. But a reward best used, not hoarded. Stand a round?”
Hedag grinned. Ryoka blinked at her, but she wasn’t about to refuse. She raised the cup and downed half with the other drinkers. After some of the coughing and laughter, Ryoka lowered her cup.
“That burns! What is that, a magical flask?”
“This? Naught but a little trick. It’s wider than it seems. I don’t do grand magics if that’s what you’re asking, Miss Ryoka. And if you’ve been wondering whether I’m a threat to your village, have no fear. A Hedag is justice, not aught else. I don’t use my craft for myself like young Alevica, or in spite as Mavika does. Nor am I Belavierr. But I am a [Witch].”
Hedag casually drank from her flask again, her eyes twinkling beneath her hat. Ryoka stared at her, embarrassed.
“I’m sure you’re not. I’ve only—”
“Been asking? And talking with your [Emperor], haven’t you? What a slow lad! I thought he’d be here days ago! Tell him to hurry up!”
Hedag laughed, ignoring the askance looks some of the other villagers were giving her. She spread her arms, sloshing some of her drink. She was actually drunk, Ryoka was sure of it! But the [Witch] wasn’t ashamed.
“What’s the point of holding a drink if there’s no fun in it, Runner-Girl? I work hard, I sweat, and then I drink and sleep! Occasionally I eat and I’ll own to a few other things. But I don’t want for anything else. I am a [Witch], but I’ll work for coin when my craft doesn’t call.”
“But what is your craft? Justice?”
Ryoka tried to press Hedag. But the [Witch] only smiled and filled Ryoka’s cup.
“It calls me sometimes often. Sometimes once a month, or even a year. And what it is, is justice.”
Beyond that, she wouldn’t say. And Ryoka realized after the third cup that Hedag was just as crafty as Eloise in her way. She’d bought goodwill with her strong drink. And she was content to just let people drink and insult each other and…be people, unlike Eloise. She was amid them, laughing, challenging Beycalt to an arm-wrestling competition, or laughing uproariously at a bawdy joke. But what did she do?
Ryoka had to excuse herself from the table to sit back and think. She was sure she was holding her liquor well—until Charlay pointed out Ryoka was about to fall out of her chair. The young woman sat up and tried to think.
She had seen Mavika selling crow’s feather charms to a few brave people. And Eloise sold her tea. Alevica was a Runner, and Califor seemed content to teach Nanette. Belavierr and Wiskeria were their own thing.
But Hedag had been the real mystery. Day after day, she’d been talking with children. Letting them show her a ball, or a doll, playing with them by pulling up a stone so they could scream at the bugs, or giving one a ride on her shoulders. The parents had been uneasy, but Hedag had just been kind. And then she’d stopped and begun helping out in the village.
“Why? Is she collecting fun? Goodwill, like Eloise?”
Ryoka muttered as she inspected Hedag with one bleary eye. Charlay shrugged.
“I have no idea. But she’s fun to be around.”
That was true. Hedag’s laugh filled the hall into the night. And she drank like an alcoholic and laughed without guile. And not once did Ryoka see anything ‘witchy’ about her.
Because there wasn’t. She was looking in the wrong place, at the wrong person. It wasn’t Hedag Ryoka should have been watching. So she only saw the end of it, when the fire in the mess hall was low and most had taken to their beds. Hedag sat, smiling, pleasantly drunk, at her table, occasionally belching.
And she was waiting. And that night, her craft did call. It was no large thing. Rather, it was a young boy Ryoka had never met. She had never seen him. To her, he was a face, one of Riverfarm’s many families displaced. She couldn’t have seen anything unique about him. Her eyes were on the [Witches]. She did not know the young boy, who had shown a leather ball to Hedag and heard her promise. Ryoka did not even know his name. His story.
But here it was. The young boy had had a fulfilling day. He’d been corralled into a work force of boys all bursting with energy around his age, too young to take up a task that involved anything bladed, but too old to stay with the young children. He’d been sent under the eye of a pair of [Hunters] to the forest near Riverfarm to gather some edibles.
Of course, the boy had played with his friends, but they’d all come back with some edibles, or bits of bark and kindling to appease Prost and the supervisor in charge of them. But responsibility wasn’t something the boy had a grasp of yet. He was a city’s child, and he’d laughed at the diligent villager-children who refused to so much as try and catch a rabbit barehanded and gathered most of the day.
And then he’d come back and eaten a hot meal, which he liked. He missed his home in Lancrel. Terribly. And the fascination of a new village, the relief of fleeing the Goblins was worn off. Riverfarm was boring, where Lancrel had been huge and exciting, a proper city. In his way, the young boy had been contemptuous of Riverfarm’s villagers.
The only exciting thing was the visitors. The Centauress, the strange-looking City Runner. And the [Witches]. They were terrifying and exciting to someone his age and he’d tried following around the young [Witch] until the old one snapped at him. Or the Witch Runner, until she’d conjured a swarm of stinging bugs and scared him and his friends off. The young boy had gotten into a fight twice with the villager boys and a girl named Chimmy. And he’d been told off and slapped hard for each.
Misery. Fun. Boredom and joy. That was his life in the day. But at night—at this night in particular, the young boy sat in his newly-made bed and listened. He shook, because he heard a man’s voice. Familiar, rough. And yes, drunk.
It was a story Ryoka didn’t know, but that she knew. The young boy listened. He had a mother and father. She was often impatient with him. He had expectations, and didn’t like being here in Riverfarm. The father was a [Jeweler] by class, and he didn’t take well to the work he had to do since he couldn’t pursue his class.
So he was impatient. Annoyed. And that night, drink, provided by Councilwoman Beatica at the Lancrel gatherings fueled a long-burning fire. An old problem. The boy listened as the voices murmured, then grew loud. And he was afraid.
Dark thoughts. A temper. Bitter words, perhaps over losing his home, his family moving here. Grievances at work. Councilwoman Beatica’s words. The lack of rain. [Witches].
The first shout made the young boy’s heart jump. He prayed he wouldn’t hear another. But he had no one to pray to, and he didn’t even know how to pray. It mattered not either way. He heard a quarrel. Another raised voice. And then a slap. A cry.
Heart racing. Hands clenching the sweaty sheets. The boy got up and searched his bed, desperately. He found what few things he owned. A leather ball he’d won from a friend. A bit of quartz he’d tried to polish. Three copper coins. He grabbed the ball and squeezed it. But then he heard more fighting. And another cry.
Now he was standing. Shaking. But he knew what was going to happen. It was a pattern. Not the first time, either. The young boy stared at the light through the door. And he was afraid. He’d been out there before. Tried to block the man, his father. Fight back. Last time he’d lost a tooth. He was afraid.
Because the wrath would turn towards him, soon. Already, his mother was sobbing. And the boy, desperate, wanted to hide under the bed. Or go out the window. But to where? This was home. So he shuddered.
And he remembered something. A smile. A huge face. A booming voice and a promise. A [Witch]’s promise. She’d sworn on her hat. And she had told him if, if he needed her, to call her name. And she would come. She’d touched the ball, and he’d seen no magic. But she had promised.
In that dark night, the boy had no one to turn to. His father was passing from drunk into a dark temper. Beyond just fury, in fact. The brooding, bitter rage that wouldn’t end in slaps or tears or even blood. So the boy hesitated. He grabbed the ball and clenched his fists. He had to be a man. A man wouldn’t let his mother cry out like that.
But he was small. And afraid. So the boy grabbed the ball. He hesitated, and then raised his prized possession and cried out. And his father heard and tore towards him. The boy heard the furious pounding on the door and hid under the bed. Praying without words. But there was no one in his house besides him, his father, and his mother. His neighbors were quiet, asleep or silent. There was no one to hear him.
Except the [Witch]. And in the mess hall, nodding off, Ryoka saw Hedag’s silent form move. The hat, which had partially slipped off Hedag’s head, rose. And the woman, who had fallen asleep, looked up. And there was no laughter. No smile.
Hedag was on her feet in a second. She ran. Ryoka jerked upright. She was quick, but Hedag was out of the doors, tables and chairs still tumbling aside as she charged outside. Ryoka stumbled after her, the alcohol in her veins disappearing. What? She hadn’t heard a thing!
The [Witch] was outside, head turning. She looked left, down a street of houses with few lights flickering behind the shutters. Then she ran. Ryoka shouted.
“Hedag! What is it?”
The woman didn’t respond. She took off, and Ryoka chased her. But Hedag was fast. She ran without form, holding her hat on her head, pounding down the dirt street. But she was still faster than Ryoka. She ran until she stopped. Ryoka nearly missed her. Hedag stormed up to a house with a faint light flickering behind the door. Ryoka heard a few sounds from inside, a raised voice, a pounding sound.
Hedag’s fist struck the door. The [Witch] bellowed into the night. And her voice was like thunder.
“You inside! Touch not that child! Step away from that door!”
Ryoka heard an oath from inside. And then a muffled voice. Hedag’s fist slammed into the door.
“Step away, man. And leave him be. Open this door or I will open it myself!”
She roared the words, heedless of the doors opening, the people stirring. Ryoka stared. She did not know what was happening. But then she saw Hedag lower her shoulder and slam into the door.
The wood was solid. The frame sturdy. It had been made by good [Builders], out of strong wood, and it was fresh. It held, but Ryoka heard the creak. Hedag didn’t stop. She backed up and struck the door again, hurling her entire weight against it. The door cracked.
“—off! This is my house!”
A man’s voice was audible now. He was shouting in a fury. And Ryoka heard a woman’s voice. And she understood. But Hedag didn’t stop. She rammed the door a third time. And then she raised her foot. She kicked, and the door broke. Ryoka heard an oath and exclamation. Hedag strode into the house, knocking the broken parts of the door aside.
“Step away from the child and woman.”
There was a shout. Ryoka saw a flicker of movement as she ran for the doorframe. She saw Hedag step back, move—the man was swinging at her. The [Witch] blocked the blow and struck back. Ryoka heard a cry—and then a thump. And then another one.
“Listen to me, your poor excuse for a man. You’ll never touch her or him again. Do you hear me?”
“Let go of me! I’m—”
Ryoka heard a slurred voice, and then another blow, so loud her own teeth clenched at it. A cry of pain. Hedag’s sounded like thunder still, rolling and distant.
“Never again. This is a lesson. So pay heed: never again.”
A giant wearing a hat stood in the kitchen. Tall, taller than the mortal man she held. And she raised her hand and the man screamed. Ryoka saw a woman grabbing Hedag, pleading. A boy—perhaps eleven—standing and watching, wide-eyed. Watching his father’s pain. Ryoka grabbed at Hedag’s arm as the woman raised it. And the backhand that struck her sent Ryoka stumbling into a wall.
“Don’t interfere, girl. Nor you, wife. This is my craft. My business. And this man will not touch you or his son so again. Or the next time I return, I will break his bones. And he will remember it. A Hedag’s promise is never broken. So remember this. What you were going to do to a boy less than half your size. Remember this.”
She struck him again. Ryoka stumbled upright. She saw Hedag standing over the man. There was a terrible light in her eyes that scared Ryoka. She moved, grabbing the father as he tried to run. And the next blow doubled him over.
“Hedag! That’s enough!”
Ryoka called out. But the [Witch] did not stop. The father tore away from her with animal strength and ran out the door. Hedag caught him in the street.
A crowd had gathered. Most in their night clothes. They stared at Hedag as she caught him and delivered another blow. The father gasped.
And he was struck again. He made a wild sound and that moved the crowd. Some of them stepped forwards, but stopped when Hedag looked at them.
“Here now! What’s he done? You have no right to attack a man in his house—”
Hedag barked the word. It stopped Ryoka, behind her. The crowd. Prost, approaching with Beniar. Hedag looked around and the [Witch]’s eyes were wide under her hat. She spoke, her words tearing the illusion of the peaceful night apart.
“I am Hedag! And I am teaching a man who would beat his wife and child a lesson. He will suffer for it. He will not die of it. But he will suffer. And no one will stop me. I am Hedag, and this is my right. This is justice. Will any woman or man gainsay it?”
She stood, holding the whimpering man in a grip of steel. The crowd protested. But it was at Prost the Hedag was looking. The [Witch]’s eyes met his. And the [Steward] stopped. He looked at Hedag.
“Hedag the [Executioner]. Do you say this is just?”
The exclamation came from a dozen voices, outraged. But Hedag just nodded. She looked around. And the outraged people hesitated.
“Should I show you the wife’s bruises? The cuts? Or should I show you the way he beat her? Should I reveal his sins? I will if you wish it, and you will see what sort of man you call neighbor and friend.”
No one spoke to that. Hedag’s eyes blazed as she lifted the man. He made a sound between terror and pain.
“I don’t need to. And better left, those sins are. Each one has their own. But this one I do not stand. Come, you gathered folk. If you didn’t know what a Hedag’s justice was, you know now. It is this. No man or woman will beat a child. No crime will be done that is not punished. And the punishment is this.”
She raised a hand and struck the man across the face. Ryoka saw a spray of blood and heard a mortal groan. It might have come from her. Hedag dropped the man. He was alive. But the suffering—she stood over him, and the crowd flinched from her gaze. Hedag continued, calmly. Her voice ringing in the night.
“Time was, a village wouldn’t sit by to see such things done. When worse came to worst, they’d gather. Go in and see justice done themselves. But they say civilization and progress put an end to those times. Now people wait and pretend not to see bruises or a blackened eye. Tears or torment. But Hedag sees. And wheresoever Hedag walks, she carries the old ways right here.”
She touched her chest and hat. The [Witch] looked around. And Ryoka understood. It wasn’t a story she knew. But it was a universal story. And Hedag had seen it a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand times.
She ignored the protests. She left the man where he lay. Her lesson was done. And it wasn’t him she’d ever cared about. It was the young boy in tears Hedag walked to. And the [Witch] was not guilty or remorseful. She grabbed him where he might have struck at her and she talked.
“It was a harsh thing, young lad. But better your father learned it. And it was bravery to call me. If you ever need help, call my name. And listen, because I tell you this plain: your father was wrong. The poorest of people beat their kin, let alone a child. And also know this. You will be safe. I swear by my hat on it.”
And that was all. Ryoka stood as Prost stood over the man and the city folk saw what the oldest justice was. What a Hedag was. [Executioner], yes. But also judge. Protector. Some shouted it was not right. Or just. But Ryoka looked at the wife, who was bleeding and bruised. And then at the man Hedag had left on the ground.
This was Hedag’s craft. She talked to the boy. And he hit her, and then cried, and he listened as she held him and told him it was going to be alright. No one was asking him to grow up yet. But he’d been a man tonight. And—Ryoka saw—he was years and centuries older than the boy he’d been yesterday. Then she talked to the wife. And the woman was just as conflicted.
That was what Hedag took. That was what she offered. As she left the house, Ryoka saw hundreds of years on her. Men. Women. Children. All of whom saw and heard her promise.
“Call my name. And I will be there.”
That was this [Witch]’s craft. She took gratitude, pure and simple. Simple gratitude. Innocent lost. Pain, and fear, and regret too, though. But part of it was gratitude. For being there.
And yet, what a cruel justice. Ryoka stared at the man. He wasn’t broken. But he was bloody. And no one had healed him with a potion. Even if they did, he would feel the blows she’d dealt him. He would remember. Ryoka stared at the man as he made faint sounds. And then she went after Hedag.
The [Witch] sat alone, calmly drinking in the mess hall. She looked up as Ryoka hesitated behind her.
“A Hedag has eyes in the back of her head, Ryoka-Girl. Literally. It’s a Skill, not magic. Useful, too. Sit.”
Ryoka did, slowly. Hedag looked at her. Ryoka hesitated. Then she pointed towards the door, the commotion growing. Another night of peace turned to unrest. But this one of a different kind.
Justice? The City Runner spoke, meeting Hedag’s gaze.
“You know they’ll turn on you. That husband you beat down. He’ll do it again as soon as you’re gone, if his wife doesn’t divorce him. Even if she does. And he has friends. They could come after you.”
The [Witch] laughed. It was coarse, almost mocking. But then gentle. She tipped the flask up, and it was empty. She sighed and tossed it on the table.
“Of course I know. I’ve been doing this for decades, Runner-Girl. But what’s the better way? To stand here and listen to a big, strong fellow beat his wife bloody? Is that just? While I’m here, folks will think twice about doing what he just did. And by the time I leave, he will know better than to touch a child. Because I will only leave when I am certain he will not. Elsewise I will come back again and again. And every village hereabouts will know the same. That’s my craft. What do you think of it?”
“I—I think it’s—you didn’t have to beat that man so badly.”
The [Witch]’s eyes glinted.
“Wrong. I did.”
“You could have stopped him.”
“And what would that do, Miss City Runner? Would that have stopped him from trying again? Would he think twice, if I’d have paddled his rear and given him naught but a warning? No. Now, he will think many times.”
The young woman saw the logic. But she took her head.
“You just made him angrier. Violence begets violence. He’ll take it out on the kid if he could.”
“And if he does, I will break his arm.”
“But that won’t change—”
Hedag’s fist slammed on the table.
“Change? It won’t change him. But who said I must be the one to change him? I will stop him, and stop him cold! My craft is not to coddle, Ryoka Griffin. It is not to show mercy to those who do wrong. If that man strikes a child, I strike him. If he kills a neighbor, I will judge him. And if a man or woman commits a crime as warrants it, I fetch my axe. That is justice. It is my craft. Not change.”
Ryoka paused. She stared at Hedag. The woman had abandoned her first flask. She was rummaging around. And she pulled out a second flask and began drinking from it.
“So that’s a Hedag.”
“That is my name. My purpose. There have been Hedags before me. And perhaps there will be some after. But perhaps I am the last. I think every Hedag has always said that, though.”
The [Witch] drank. Ryoka hesitated.
“I understand. You’re the law in far-off villages. That’s what Prost said. A Hedag. A wandering [Executioner] and…but what gives you the right? If you weren’t as principled as you were—”
“What? You mean, if I wasn’t as ‘principled’, I’d do what? Ignore a child’s cry? Punish a man harder than I ought to? Say, ask for those who might pay me and protect only them?”
Hedag’s eyes flashed. Ryoka nodded.
She waited. Hedag gulped down her mouthful, and then lowered the flask. She reached out and grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder before the young woman could dodge. Hedag’s grip was steel. Her voice a rumble.
“In that case, I would be a monster. Some call me that anyways. But I carry my justice here. And here. And in my axe.”
She tapped her hat and heart, and then let go of Ryoka. The young woman felt at her shoulder.
“I understand that, Hedag. But you still went into that man’s house and beat him. If—Riverfarm has laws. The boy could have called for help. The man could have been locked up. We have laws for a reason. They prohibit abuse. Prost would, if he’d been there. Why not trust him?”
She didn’t know why she was arguing. But she had to, to understand. Hedag snorted. She poured herself a third drink from a third flask. It was water. She gulped it down, looking at Ryoka. Shaking her head.
“You speak of the law as if it were some grand thing, Runner-Girl. But to me, the law is a man or woman with a stick or sword. They wield it and if you cross them wrong, they beat you. In cities, it’s a pack of folk. Humans, Drakes, never mind if an [Emperor] lays down the law or a [Mayor]. It’s all the same. What’s so different with what I do? In your cities, the law is a uniform and a book. Out here, it is one woman. And she calls herself Hedag.”
“But we have law in Riverfarm. That man—”
“Would be punished after. If his neighbors had the heart to stop him, or call out. Or if your [Steward] saw the woman’s bruises. Or heard of the boy’s broken arm. But that would be after, Miss Griffin. You say the law protects. But that is not what I hear of your cities.”
Hedag tossed down the water.
“Your [Guards] patrol the streets. [Watchmen] man your walls. And you say if there is crime, there will be punishment. But where is the law on a dark night when a man has been drinking? Where is the law when the girl hides under the bed and the father stumbles in, full of wrath? The law waits. But if that girl calls my name, I am there.”
She stared at Ryoka, with such a piercing look that Ryoka had trouble meeting it. But then Ryoka looked up.
“In my…home, we have a system. If a child is in trouble, she can call. And our law will save her.”
“And if she is too bruised to speak? Too terrified to call? Or perhaps she just loves the father when he doesn’t hit her. What then?”
“We…have people who investigate. Or a neighbor can call. Anyone who sees it.”
“And if they do not see? Or they do not look?”
Ryoka didn’t reply. No system was perfect. Hedag nodded.
“That is better. Better than most villages and cities have. But Ryoka-girl, it is not enough. Because your system waits. I do not wait. I am Hedag, and I have been that girl. My craft made me a [Witch]. And so where I go, I do not just wait. I go to villages, large and small. Far and wide. And I look at every child, every wife and husband. I stare into their faces. And I bring my justice. That is my purpose. That is what I can offer your [Emperor]. That is what he must accept. What say you?”
She looked at the City Runner, and Hedag smelled of alcohol and sweat. Blood and dirt. And she was just a woman with a pointed hat. A drunk. A laugh louder than reality. And sometimes, a giant in the night. Someone who could hear the voices no one could. Ryoka looked at her.
“I wouldn’t ever stop you. I just wish you didn’t have to exist.”
The [Witch] stared at Ryoka. And then she laughed. She slapped the table and howled with laughter. Ryoka listened, waiting, for minutes until Hedag had stopped. Then the woman pulled herself up, adjusted her hat, and grinned.
“I cannot argue with that. Nor can I say I’m perfect, Miss Griffin-girl. After all, there have been poor Hedags. And I will not be here forever. I am no Belavierr. Someday, I will batter down a door and find a knife in my gut. Or a few folk will gather around to end me. I know that. But this is my craft. And Riverfarm has need of me. It is the biggest place I’ve had to ply my craft yet. I only hope I’ve the strength to do it.”
She poured herself another drink and raised it. Ryoka watched Hedag drink. Content. Tired. So this was what she was. Ryoka looked at her. And she thought of all the other [Witches]. And she realized she understood Hedag the most. Because she was simplest.
So Ryoka got up. Hedag watched her, calmly. Ryoka hesitated. And then she bowed to the [Witch] and heard her laugh. She bowed, and wished there were a thousand Hedags. A million, the world over, dispensing their flawed justice. Or none at all.
The old ways.
Day 64 – Wiskeria
“Call it what you will. But it is the old justice. And I have granted Hedag her right. It is old. Older than cities. And until his Majesty returns, she is free to enact her justice. No man died. And no child was beaten. His Majesty has been told of it and he will rule on it, as well as Belavierr when he returns. But I say it is justice.”
That was all Prost said to Beatica. And for once, the Councilwoman’s indignation and protests fell on deaf ears. Because it was a balance. If Belavierr was one thing, Hedag another. You could protest she was a law unto herself. Because she was. You could worry about corruption or bias. But the [Witch] had the support from every side. From children, or adults who had grown up wishing for a Hedag. For those who cried out.
The coven could be proud of her. Of course, they weren’t. Not really. Hedag was simply another [Witch]. And the others [Witches] may have understood why Ryoka was so taken with the [Executioner] and [Witch], but many didn’t care. Mavika didn’t. Nor did Alevica.
“Hedag’s a legend, yes, yes. She goes around beating evil parents and killing murderers. She’s not my kind of [Witch]. I get along with her because she’s free with alcohol. I don’t kiss her shoes, like you do, Ryoka.”
The City Runner glared at Alevica. It was custom, now, for Ryoka to try to have a lunch with any [Witches] willing to suffer her. And today, Wiskeria had cooled down enough to have a civil conversation with Ryoka. But they were still at odds. Ryoka regretted how she’d brought up Belavierr to Wiskeria, but she had hope that Hedag’s moment had given them an opportunity to mend the gap. But Wiskeria didn’t seem as impressed as Ryoka either.
“I have to agree with Alevica, Ryoka. Hedag’s practicing her craft. It’s not as noble as you think. She does it because she wants to. I told you, [Witches] are inherently selfish. Good [Witches] obey the law, or they make them, like Hedag. But she could just as easily be called a bad [Witch] because she imposes her craft on people.”
“Like me. We’re not so different, Hedag and I. The only difference is that I only bother [Bandits] with my evil craft, and people who annoy me. Hedag’s a tyrant in a hat.”
Alevica winked at Ryoka. The young Asian woman didn’t wink back.
“I disagree. I understand she’s flawed, but what she does is…”
Ryoka grasped for words. It spoke to her. It wasn’t acceptable, not in the society where she’d grown up. Hedag would be jailed in a moment on earth. But it was what should be right. That was how Ryoka felt. Wiskeria and Alevica exchanged a glance. The Witch Runner rolled her eyes.
“Well, looks like Hedag’s got another follower. I can’t fault her for being popular. Although you know she has a bigger bounty than mine.”
Ryoka looked up. Alevica grinned as she summoned her broomstick.
“Of course. Do you think villages are happy to see her? She’s not just some amazing crusader who stops wife-beaters, Ryoka. She’s left dead in the villages she passes. People who won’t change. Or who committed old crimes. She’s an [Executioner]. She’s got a bounty. Only about three hundred gold pieces. Poor folk can’t afford more. But think about that. Wipe the awe out of your eyes, Ryoka. If Hedag judges someone, she’ll kill them. Her law doesn’t bend.”
Before Ryoka could reply, the [Witch] flew off, laughing merrily. Ryoka clenched her fists and looked at Wiskeria. The other [Witch] shrugged, a bit embarrassed.
“She’s right, you know, Ryoka. Hedag’s just a good [Witch] with good principles. But it’s—”
“Selfish. I get it.”
She was biased, Ryoka realized. But she couldn’t help it. Wiskeria eyed Ryoka’s expression, but she didn’t say anything. The two stared at each other in silence. Their previous argument still hung in the air.
“Look, I just want to help—”
“It’s my business.”
“I know I don’t understand. But will you explain it to me? This is bigger than just you and Belavierr. There’s a [Witch Hunter], and Fierre was telling me about Belavierr’s past—”
Wiskeria’s eyes flashed.
“I know that. But I know my mother. She won’t do anything while I’m here.”
“What about in general? What about her deal with Laken? And about her not hurting anyone— do you remember that she sewed my lips shut?”
“Maybe because you annoyed her. You have to admit, it’s tempting sometimes. Has no one ever told you that you’re both persistent and stubborn? [Witches] don’t like to be bothered.”
The two glared at each other. They didn’t look away as the wind blew straight into Wiskeria’s face and Ryoka felt a stinging pain in her eyes. Only a quavering, timid voice interrupted the staring contest.
“Please don’t fight. You two are friends, aren’t you?”
Both Ryoka and Wiskeria paused. They turned and saw a young [Witch]. They’d completely forgotten about Nanette. The youngest [Witch] looked wide-eyed at the young women. Abashed, both sat back. Miss Califor, who had been silently eating at the table, cleared her throat.
“Yes, Miss Califor?”
The [Witch] broke off eating a jam-covered biscuit that Eloise had made. Ryoka waited for a grain of wisdom from Miss Califor. The [Witch] paused, eying her and Wiskeria.
“You have jam on your face, Nanette. Eat more carefully.”
Ryoka blinked. Nanette felt at her face and squeaked. Miss Califor produced a handkerchief and cleaned the jam off Nanette’s cheek. Wiskeria and Ryoka stared at her, and then settled back for a more amiable conversation.
Califor was another mystery, although she just felt more like a teacher than anything else to Ryoka. A good one, but she was focused on Nanette almost to the point of exclusion. Teaching the girl everything from how to bake to casting spells was Califor’s obsession and craft, it seemed. And cleaning jam off Nanette’s face.
Even so, it wasn’t a completely harmonious relationship. Nanette was a growing girl, and sometimes it seemed like Califor’s mentorship chafed at her. On the other hand…Ryoka also saw that she respected Miss Califor and hung on the woman’s words. Nanette always had a truism of Califor’s to repeat. And she valued the older [Witch]’s approval more than anything else.
Sometimes that could result in tears, especially today. It was an inadvertent slip up as Ryoka and Wiskeria tried to be civil.
“I guess I have been a bit annoying about Belavierr. I just don’t want to make a mistake. I feel like I have to address her. Or what’s the point of me being here?”
The City Runner muttered into her tea cup. Wiskeria hesitated, and tugged her hat down.
“And—I could talk about my mother. It’s just that it’s hard, you understand? I’m sorry for snapping. Nanette.”
Miss Califor harrumphed quietly. Nanette however looked happy to see the two making an effort. She smiled as she reached for another biscuit.
“I’m so glad. You two were ever so nice when we were on our walk. Miss Califor, Ryoka even healed my hand when I—”
Nanette’s face went pale. Miss Califor’s brows snapped together.
“When you what, Nanette? Did you injure yourself so badly you needed a healing potion? And you did not inform me?”
She looked up and Ryoka felt like every teacher in the world was giving her the death glare. And that was nothing to the way Nanette stammered and tried to lie. Ineffectually, of course. Wiskeria was hiding under her hat as Califor prised the truth out and Ryoka took a quick bathroom break, following Charlay’s example.
When Califor finally found out about Nanette slicing her palm open with the sickle by accident, she did just what Nanette feared. She took the sickle away. Ryoka returned to the table a few minutes later to find Nanette sobbing at the scolding she’d received. She wasn’t being punished beyond having the sickle confiscated, but Miss Califor’s disappointment was enough.
Wiskeria gave Ryoka a look that said she’d hex Ryoka into oblivion if the City Runner left her alone. So Ryoka sat down as Miss Califor left to put the sickle in a safe place until Nanette was older and ‘knew how to respect it’.
They had to comfort her of course. Although, Ryoka had to point out that neither of them had actually told Califor (mainly because they’d forgotten to), and Nanette had let it slip. Wiskeria glared and kicked Ryoka under the table. Ryoka considered that she’d deserved that.
“Look, I know Califor can be harsh, Nanette, but she’s just looking out for you. It’s actually touching, really. Parents are strict because they love you. Generally. I mean, I know Califor’s just your teacher, but—”
Ryoka lamely attempted to comfort Nanette. The young [Witch] gulped as Wiskeria kicked Ryoka under the table again. Wiskeria nodded.
“Califor’s like every [Witch]’s mother. I know I wanted to make her proud of me. She taught me, Nanette. She’s not mad. In fact, she’s pretty caring of you, like I said.”
“I just don’t want to disappoint her.”
Nanette gulped her eyes watery. Ryoka patted her on the back.
“You didn’t do that. Sickles are dangerous. One time, I nearly cut my hand to the bone when I was trying to cook by myself. And Durene—you should see her handle a knife!”
Nanette smiled, but she shook her head again as Wiskeria poured more of Eloise’s fine tea.
“I know. I know, but…I think I’m Miss Califor’s worst apprentice. I’m always causing her trouble and she’s always having to help me, or fix my mistakes. And she always does! She’s so kind.”
The two young women blinked and looked at each other. ‘Kind’ wasn’t a word Ryoka had ever thought of in conjunction with Califor. And she didn’t think that was from a lack of getting to know the [Witch]. Nanette saw her skepticism and Wiskeria’s, or read it in them. She sat up indignantly.
“She is! She’s the best! She does all kinds of things that are nice. Miss Wiskeria, I know your mother’s um…Witch Belavierr. But Miss Califor’s different! I know what they say about her—”
Ryoka looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] coughed.
“Oh, you know. That she’s tougher than nails. She could eat nails and teach an Ogre manners. Cross her and you’d better put the noose around your neck and jump. Once Califor decides to deal with you, you should deal with yourself just to save yourself the misery. She’s the most powerful [Witch] in generations…”
“Does that count Mavika or Belavierr?”
“Generations, I said.”
“But she’s nice! She’s as good—better than any mother! I can prove it!”
Nanette banged her hands on the table. Ryoka and Wiskeria turned back to her, embarrassed again. Red-faced, the [Witch] girl took a deep breath. Then she looked abashed.
“This is a private story, alright? You mustn’t tell. But it’s about Miss Califor. She raised me since I was very small. In a cottage, in fact! I learned from her and she was strict—but also kind. Back then, before she travelled and took me as her apprentice, she had a cottage by the High Passes. She did some work from there, and she had goats. I had a special one named Belfaus who watched over me.”
Wiskeria blinked as she mouthed at Ryoka over Nanette’s head as the girl went on. Califor owned goats? Ryoka was busy listening to Nanette. The girl closed her eyes solemnly.
“When I was small, I made a bad mistake. The worst I ever made. I don’t know how old I was. But one day, I was very bored and Miss Califor had to see to someone who’d broken both legs in a fall. So…I left the cottage with Belfaus. I thought it would be fun to go exploring, but I forgot to tell Miss Califor. And I went far. So far, I couldn’t find my way back.”
She looked up. And Nanette’s face was very pale. Wiskeria and Ryoka stopped and started paying more attention at the look on Nanette’s face.
“Miss Califor always said the land around the cottage was warded, so I shouldn’t wander too far without her. But that day I did. And Belfaus didn’t know better. I kept looking for the way back, but I’d forgotten it. And I went further and further—and I went into the High Passes. Because we lived right near the mountains, you see.”
Ryoka inhaled sharply. Wiskeria glanced at her. Nanette’s voice was lost.
“They said it was a pack of Gargoyles. One of them snatched Belfaus. And the other grabbed me. They—they must have been hungry, because one of them ate—ate Belfaus—but they took me to a cave. And—and I was in the cave for ever so long—and there were so many Gargoyles.”
Nannette’s voice sunk to a whisper. And her eyes were wide. Her hands clasped together. Ryoka remembered the giant stone creatures, the monsters of the High Passes. The girl’s voice went on, conjuring a story until Ryoka could see the huge shapes, snapping, devouring Eater Goats and Belfaus, saving her for later.
“I thought I was going to die. Because even Gold-rank teams won’t enter the High Passes. And there were so many Gargoyles. But I called out. I begged Miss Califor to find me. Save me. And she did.”
Children were poor storytellers. Ryoka and Wiskeria stared at Nanette.
“Just like that? She did? How?”
Nanette looked up and shook her head.
“I don’t know. I was in the dark cave. And was trying to hide beneath a rock. And then I saw the light. And I heard terrible fighting. And then Miss Califor was there. She picked me up and scolded me. Then she brought me back and we buried Belfaus. And that’s when she taught me to use magic to defend myself. But I never knew how she did it. I asked everyone, but no one said they knew. Only that Miss Califor tore up half the mountainside looking for me. And she found me.”
“How? How’d she beat that many Gargoyles? A decent Gold-rank team could only get—three. How’d she do it? Scare them off?”
Wiskeria demanded incredulously. Nanette shook her head, eyes wide and earnest.
“She never told me how she got rid of them all. But everyone says that it was a grand feat, even for Miss Califor. And it wasn’t easy. She still has a scar from that day. Right here.”
She pointed at a spot just above her hip. Ryoka stared at Nanette. The little [Witch] concluded, folding her hands on the table and looking up earnestly.
“I never forgot. And Miss Califor’s always been there. She’s the best. I want to be like her when I grow up. I don’t want to disappoint her. I’m sure Witch Belavierr cares about you just as much—almost as much—as Miss Califor, Wiskeria. And your mother too, Ryoka.”
She couldn’t have known how those words went through Wiskeria and Ryoka. Or why they looked at each other, and for a moment each wished they had a story they could tell like that. Something so pure, so simple. And why it hurt that Nanette could tell that tale of Califor with such sincerity.
Ryoka thought of her own mother. And she tried to imagine her mother—she had disappointed her parents greatly. But they had also disappointed her. Even Ryoka the adult wished they had been more, even if they’d been people, not perfect paragons. And she saw something similar in Wiskeria’s gaze. Similar, but different. But there they were. They got along and annoyed each other because there was something similar.
Of course, Nanette had no idea why Wiskeria and Ryoka started crying. But neither Ryoka or Wiskeria could explain the pure, contemptible jealousy in their hearts. And Nanette eventually began sobbing in sympathy.
That was how Miss Califor found them. The old [Witch] stared down at the three crying girls at the tea table. And she sighed. Then she slapped Ryoka and Wiskeria on the back of the heads and dragged Nanette off. For a treat. The [Witch] girl was forgiven.
But Wiskeria and Ryoka remained. They cried a bit. Then they were laughing. Not hysterically, but bitterly; a joke only they could understand. They got a lot of odd looks.
At last, Ryoka straightened. She looked at Wiskeria as the [Witch] blew her nose. Ryoka sighed.
“You really hate what she does, don’t you? I can understand Rehanna. But it bothers you.”
“Of course. Because she’s my mother. And she’s done worse. But the hardest part is that I still love her, Ryoka. She’s my…mother. Even though I hate her. I can’t get a new one. Or make one. But I sometimes wonder if she could make another daughter.”
Wiskeria bitterly looked at her hands. As if checking for stitches. Ryoka nodded. Wiskeria went on.
“It would be so easy if I knew, knew she really loved me. But you’ve met Belavierr. She says I’m her daughter. But am I? Is she really my mother? Or is this relationship fake? Perhaps I’m her backup in case she dies. Maybe when I grow older, she’ll possess my body. Or use my youth. Or perhaps I’m just some experiment she hasn’t ended yet. Maybe she took me on a whim.”
She looked at Ryoka, helpless.
“I want to believe. But Ryoka—I don’t know if I can.”
Ryoka reached out and grabbed Wiskeria’s hand. The [Witch] nodded. Ryoka let go awkwardly after a second. She looked at the [Witch] as she pretended to fuss over her hat. So there it was. Just as much as Wiskeria hating what Belavierr did. She didn’t know if her mother was genuine. And neither did Ryoka.
How could you believe Belavierr truly loved Wiskeria? By how she acted? Because Wiskeria was the one person who could make Belavierr pay attention? It still wasn’t enough. Ryoka understood that. Even if Belavierr walked up to Wiskeria, gave her a big, genuine smile, kissed her on the head and uh…gave her a hug?
Ryoka couldn’t imagine it. She stared up at the sky. Blue and clear. Hot enough to make her reach for her tea. She drank as Wiskeria sipped as well. At last, Ryoka looked at her friend.
“What was she like, growing up?”
“Sometimes she was distant. But she was always there when I called her name. She wasn’t ever cruel to me, Ryoka. I just learned she did bad things.”
“I get that. And her being here is for you.”
“Me. And the coven. I’m certain it’s both. But me, I guess. She’s here to help [Witches] everywhere, Ryoka. Belavierr does care about witchcraft in general, even if individual people are…”
She flicked her fingers and Ryoka nodded.
“My coven intends to offer Laken a deal he won’t refuse. In exchange for granting [Witches] sanctuary, a place to flee or gather, he’ll gain our aid. But also our problems. We’re messy, argumentative, troublemakers—just like any group of people. But some of us are monsters.”
“What do you think he should do, then? He might get in trouble for offering her sanctuary.”
“I know. On the other hand, if he could convince Belavierr not to practice her craft—or—not steal so much life like you said—! Mother could do good, Ryoka. She has in the past. It’s just that she doesn’t differentiate between the two. She could offer him a fortune. Or give every Darksky Rider the same charm she gave me. It would be easy, for her.”
“And she loves you.”
The [Witch] paused.
“I wish I could be certain.”
That was it. An immortal [Witch]. An [Emperor]’s dilemma. To Ryoka, it crystalized into one point. And it was mortal, fraught, but it was something she could help with. The City Runner sat back. It was a hot day, and the wind that blew into Ryoka’s face and tugged at her hair offered little relief.
“Please don’t. Mother can be dangerous if she’s in a bad mood. I’ve never seen her in a bad mood—I suppose that means she cares?”
Wiskeria laughed weakly. Ryoka shook her head.
“I have to try. I have experience dealing with people like…her. And if not me, then who?”
“Laken. He’s an [Emperor].”
“Okay, but he’s not here.”
“But he’s an expert, Ryoka. At least, in dealing with unnatural things. I actually think he might be able to persuade mother when he gets here. You see, he’s done this before. I heard tales about it, but once, just once, I saw him greet these…people. His [Lords] and [Ladies]. Visitors. But they were like us, but not.”
Wiskeria leaned forwards. And Ryoka felt a jolt of adrenaline run through her. Laken had offered Ivolethe—
“Wait. What visitors? You mean, they came here? In the winter?”
“No, the spring. They were these strange, dangerous folk—”
“The fair folk? Wait? Are they here? What did they do? They came here in the spring?”
Her hands were suddenly gripping Wiskeria hard enough to bruise. The [Witch], alarmed, tried to pull away. But Ryoka was staring at her. And the [Witch] felt it from her. The strongest emotion she’d ever sense from Ryoka.
The desperate longing. Hope. She stammered as Ryoka asked—practically shouted questions. Ryoka let go and stood up.
“They’re here. Laken can summon them? Or—they have ties to this place?”
Her eyes flickered. She reached into a belt pouch and grasped something. Wiskeria, coughing, saw Ryoka murmuring to herself.
“Maybe a ritual? A faerie mound? No. The Summer Solstice. If it’s here—”
She turned. And Wiskeria felt a surge of hope and desperation bordering on madness. She coughed.
Absently, Ryoka walked off. Wiskeria tried to go after her. But Ryoka ran off. The City Runner was filled with maddening thoughts. Hopes. A single one. And suddenly, she had every reason to talk to Laken.
But before that, came her. Belavierr stood alone far outside the village. She looked annoyed. Angry. She turned and her eyes fixed Ryoka. The City Runner slowed.
Ryoka hesitated. She was afraid. But she clutched the bit of frozen ice. And it gave her strength. A hot wind blew around her. And she raised her voice.
“Hi. I’m Ryoka Griffin. A friend of Wiskeria’s, or at least, I hope.”
Belavierr paused. She stared at Ryoka, fingers twisted as if to do something. Ryoka went on, speaking clearly, meeting the [Witch]’s eyes.
“She isn’t certain you love her, you know. And you drive her away every time you steal yourself.”
The [Witch] said nothing. Ryoka went on, trying to speak from the heart.
“You have to change. So does she. But neither of you can do it alone. And the other can’t do it without you trying. That’s all I have to say. And if I can help you two, I will. Please don’t kill me.”
Belavierr stared at Ryoka. The City Runner braced. After a second, Belavierr lifted a finger. She pointed up. Ryoka felt her clothes move.
“Wait—wait! I only—”
Belavierr ignored her. She stared at Ryoka. She flicked her fingers, and the clothes hurled Ryoka through the air.
About four hundred feet away, Mister Ram and some [Farmers] were working the fields, grumbling about dry soil. They looked up as they saw a big shape flying towards them. Ram stared up and swore as he heard a screaming voice.
Ryoka didn’t die when she hit the river. Her fall wasn’t at terminal velocity. But she still sank to the bottom and swam out, gasping at the cold shock. She looked around wildly as Ram and everyone who’d seen her flying rushed over. Ryoka clambered out as Ram reached for her.
“Dead gods! Miss Griffin! What happened?”
Someone uttered it like a curse. But Ryoka just nodded. She stared at a distant figure. Belavierr was still standing there. Ryoka felt at her wet body. Then she crawled onto the bank and lay on the grass. She looked up at Ram, wide-eyed.
“I’m not dead. That probably means progress.”
He stared at her and she smiled. Then put her head down on the grass and passed out.
Day 65 – Ryoka
Waking. Explaining what had happened to Prost. Talking with Wiskeria, who marched off to shout at her mother. Sleeping and waking in a cold sweat. The next day, Ryoka still shuddered. But she thought she’d made progress. She still wasn’t sure if the wind had saved her, blowing her into the river, or if Belavierr had aimed for that.
But it was something. And Ryoka had hope. Because the day was clear, if too hot. And she could try again, this time with Wiskeria. A mother-daughter talk with her acting as intermediary, for what it was worth.
And she had no idea what was happening. Because in Reizmelt, a Vampire girl wrote down Belavierr’s name and was attacked in sewing needles. Across the ocean, the Order of Seasons waited, and a group of [Hunters] and a [Knight] stood, hoping for confirmation. A single name.
And in that day stood a [Witch]. Belavierr. She might have slept. She might have woken. But how she lived was a mystery to most. It made sense to her, though. Her actions have purpose. Her magic was connected, a product of thread and skill and power.
This is what she saw. The [Witch] held up a ward. A needle tied with a thread. The needle tied with thread vibrated and twisted and turned as she held it. Moving despite the absence of wind. Belavierr watched as it stabbed. And Fierre screamed. The Stitch Witch waited. But the stabbing needle kept moving. Desperately.
And then it stopped. The magic was gone. And Belavierr saw the needle snap. She stared at it.
“Hm. Four. The last is failed.”
Her head turned. The wide brim stared at the sun. Straight into it.
“Something is coming.”
That was intuition. But the Stitch Witch had certainty as well. She abandoned the failed ward and reached into her sleeves. And from somewhere, she brought out something.
It was a tapestry. A small woven scene, on a fabric. Silk, or something just as fine. Belavierr looked at it.
She had not woven it. It had woven itself. And what it showed her was a burning figure. And fire. Fire, a burning figure. She touched it, and the very fabric was hot.
“So. Two deaths.”
To Belavierr, it was clear as could be. And the Stitch Witch did not question. She knew, and so she acted. She walked, and a thread in her mind, in reality, a bit of magic, led her straight to a [Witch] taking breakfast with Ryoka. The City Runner jumped and hid behind Wiskeria. But Belavierr’s attention was on her daughter. She only vaguely recognized Ryoka; she had forgotten all but the other [Witches]. And she spoke.
“Daughter. I am leaving. There is danger following me.”
That was all. And it was a clear message. But her Daughter, the one thing in the world Belavierr couldn’t understand—tried to understand but was incomprehensible—spluttered and asked questions. Belavierr only said what she knew.
“It is too dangerous for me. I will return for you. And the pact with this [Emperor] if there is time.”
“Mother! You can’t just run off! Hold on! Wait! I want to speak with you!”
Belavierr was already leaving. But she paused. Because of Wiskeria. Only for her, despite the danger. The tapestry was smoking. Burning. In Reizmelt, Fierre stomped into the tavern and grabbed the [Mage].
“Daughter. I must go.”
“Mother—what have you done?”
Belavierr had no idea. She did not ask the origin, only sought the nature of the threat. She showed Wiskeria the tapestry. Her daughter was uncomprehending.
“I don’t understand.”
“It is a warning. Like other wards, but prophecy. You would know this if you had continued studying your craft, Daughter.”
Belavierr frowned. And she was distracted. Wiskeria glared up at her mother. And someone else tapped her urgently on the shoulder.
“Witch Belavierr? What kind of threat is it? Can you tell us if it’s aimed at us? Or just you?”
Belavierr’s eyes swung to Ryoka. In annoyance. The City Runner froze, but Wiskeria blocked Belavierr.
“Don’t glare, Mother! This is Ryoka. My friend. I want you to listen to her, understand?”
“I understand. But Daughter. I must leave. The death follows me. It may affect you—”
Across the world, the Knight-Commander spoke an order. The [Autumn Knights] called on their grand ritual. Wistram itself coursed with magic.
Belavierr’s head snapped up. Across Riverfarm, seven [Witches] looked up. Wiskeria. Nanette. Califor. Hedag. Eloise. Alevica. Mavika. Even Nesor felt it.
So did Ryoka. She looked up. The wind had changed. It blew, suddenly a gale. Belavierr sighed and turned.
“Daughter. I must go.”
“What is that?”
Wiskeria looked up. The air was shaking. Ryoka heard voice. A thunder, like the cracking of the sky. Her hair was standing on end. Prost and Rie looked up and called the alarm.
They all felt it. And then they saw it. The sky and ground were merging. Outside of Riverfarm, the air warped. Ryoka, turning, saw them.
Ranks of armored Humans. [Knights], hundreds of them, standing in line. Some were dressed like the spring, in green. Others blazed. Still more were dressed in robes, or wearing the russet colors of fall. And few stood like ice. One of them was closest, standing on a dais. He pointed, his sword aimed straight through the disturbance in the air. And his eyes found Ryoka. And moved past her. They widened with hatred. And Belavierr blinked.
Ryoka saw a band of six in the center of the disturbance. Six figures, all on foot. Five wore dark clothing, the same capotain style on two hats. Set faces. Each carried weapons. A pair of crossbows. A golden axe. A wand and rapier. A longbow, already nocked with a shimmering arrow. A hammer and shield.
The last was a [Knight]. He walked forwards. He was at the very edge of his forties or the end of his thirties. And his armor was yellow and orange and gold. It shone. But there was a burning in his gaze. As if fire itself flickered in his pupils. He walked first, and the five [Hunters] behind him.
Through that disturbance in the air, where magic itself was affecting reality. Behind him, the Order of Seasons roared. Ryoka froze.
“What’s happening? Dead gods, what’s happening?”
Someone was shouting that. Riverfarm’s people couldn’t have ignored the magical disturbance. They flooded towards the rift, staring. Mister Prost, Beniar and his [Riders]. Lady Rie.
And the coven. The [Witches] came forwards. And even Mavika and Califor stared. Alevica’s jaw dropped. Ryoka’s head spun. She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch]’s face was white.
“What kind of magic is this? A Tier 7 spell? Tier 8?”
Ryoka stared at the rift. Then she looked around. Her eyes found Belavierr. The Stitch Witch was staring into the rift, at the band slowly walking towards her. The [Summer Knight]’s gaze was blazing, the [Hunter]’s intent. They never looked away from her as they crossed that divide. Nor did Knight-Commander Calirn. He stood with four of the Grandmasters of the Order of Seasons. And the ranks of the [Knights] beheld her. Belavierr.
“Why is this happening?”
There were many answers. Ryoka thought of a [Witch Hunter]. If she had known more, she might have thought of Fierre. Or Belavierr’s ward spells. And perhaps she might have seen the larger picture if it was explained.
But she didn’t. Because Mavika’s words came back, echoing.
This is not your story.
“Belavierr. This day has been ages coming. Stand and face your fate!”
Knight-Commander Calirn bellowed across the rift. The [Hunters] and [Knight] were closing on her, stepping into Riverfarm. One held a scrying orb. And even as the grand ritual’s magic began to fail, the rift began to close, the [Hunter] lifted the orb. She tossed it, and it paused in the air. And the Order of Seasons was reflected there.
The [Hunters] and [Knight] stopped on the grass. The magic vanished from the air. Ryoka staggered back. They had crossed from that other place over to here in less than a minute! She could still feel the shuddering in the air. And now—they were here.
Silence. Nobody could speak. Ryoka’s eyes were wide. How could this be happening? But she was a bystander. And this was not her final act. The [Knight] had no eyes for her. He drew his sword. A greatsword, two-handed. And he spoke.
“Belavierr the Stitch Witch.”
There she stood. Tall as midnight. Dark as shadows. Her glowing eyes fixed on the man as the [Hunters] spread out. And there was a flicker of recognition.
“Do I know you?”
The [Summer Knight] didn’t blink. He only smiled. And his eyes blazed.
“You are wanted across the world for your crimes, Belavierr. And this day you will be brought to justice at last. Come to execute this duty are five [Witch Hunters] from Terandria. And myself. I am Ser Raim, [Summer Knight] of the Order of Seasons. We have met before. Today, for the dead, for those who still suffer from your deception and malice, I will bring you to justice.”
He lifted his sword and saluted her. The [Witch Hunters] drew their weapons. Ryoka was frozen, along with the coven. Wiskeria looked at her mother, but she too was transfixed. It was all happening too fast. And it was not her tale.
Belavierr paused for a moment after Sir Raim delivered his vow. She stared at him. And then the five [Witch Hunters]. They were spread out in a semi-circle, flanking her. Three women, two men. One of them, looked up. The sun was at his back. And he lifted his weapons in both hands.
A pair of crossbows, bolts tipped with silver. The string was metal, the weapons shining with magic. He aimed at Belavierr as she considered.
“I have no quarrel with the Order of Seasons.”
That was what she said. The [Witch Hunter] called out.
“[Magicslayer’s Shot]. [Seven-League Bolts].”
Ryoka saw him pull the triggers at a distance. She never saw the bolts fly. But she saw Belavierr stagger. Wiskeria cried out as Belavierr stumbled back. Two bolts were lodged in her chest. She stared down as the [Witch Hunter] flicked his crossbows.
The crossbows drew back, cocking themselves. Two bolts appeared in the grooves. The [Witch Hunter] raised the crossbows again. Belavierr stared at the bolts in her chest. Slowly, she touched the liquid running down one bolt.
Red blood. The Stitch Witch looked up. And spoke normally. As if the crossbow bolts weren’t there.
“I possess the life of the [Prince] of—”
The second pair of bolts struck her right arm. Belavierr stumbled back. She stared at her arm. Tried again.
“His fate is—”
Her hand rose. Two bolts appeared, halfway through her hand. They would have struck her face. Belavierr stared at them. At blood, which spattered as her arm jerked with the impact. Wiskeria made a sound. Belavierr frowned as the [Witch Hunter] with the crossbows paused.
And then Belavierr frowned. She twisted her fingers. And flicked a needle.
Where had she pulled it from? Ryoka had no idea. But one needle suddenly shot across the ground at the [Witch Hunter]. Then it multiplied. A hundred. A thousand shot across the ground at the man, like hail. He cursed.
“[Shield of Valor]!”
The [Hunter] with the hammer and shield slammed his shield down in front of the other man. Ryoka saw a barrier of light. Heard and saw the needles snap as they struck the shield in the air. Belavierr paused.
“Tagil! Attack in tandem! Watch her threads!”
Another [Hunter], the one with the axe, called out. She advanced, as the two other [Hunters] aimed. One with a bow, the other with a wand. The [Summer Knight] was still as Belavierr turned. She pulled a bolt out of her chest easily. And then she flicked her hand.
More needles. This time ten times as many. They sprayed outwards, striking at all the [Hunters] and Ser Raim. The five [Hunters] shouted, but they were equal to it. They dodged, or blocked. One simply took the hits; the needles stood out on her leather armor as she blocked the ones aimed at her face. She ignored the metal lodged deep into her armor.
Advancing. The silvery needles flew, trying to shred the hunters. But there stood Ser Raim. He wore no helmet. As the sewing needles shot at him, he spoke.
“[Aura of Righteous Fire].”
And he burned. The air ignited. The area around Ser Raim turned to flame. The metal needles melted before they touched him. The [Summer Knight] walked forwards. His steps lit a trail of fire. His armor burned with it. For twenty feet, fire burned. And it walked with him as he advanced on Belavierr.
Six. They came forwards. Belavierr abandoned the needles. Frowned. Then she inspected Ser Raim again. She frowned. And recognition flickered in her eyes.
She shook her head. And as Ryoka watched, breathless, waiting to see what she would do, Belavierr turned. And began to walk away.
The [Hunters] advanced faster. One of them, the one with the longbow, raised it and aimed at her back.
The arrow sped towards Belavierr from behind. It never struck her. It did hit a face that pulled itself out of the earth. A huge, misshapen face. Staring button eyes. A golem of cloth. The [Hunters] charged, but two more golems rose out of the ground. And more needles flashed through the air. One as thick as Ryoka’s arm, a javelin of a needle—
The [Summer Knight] was charging. But the Stitch Witch was just walking away. Calmly as you please as her creations screened her. But each step seemed to carry her far farther than they should have. She was walking torwards a black horse who galloped towards her, a giant of a stallion. And Ryoka saw she was going to mount it. And ride away.
“Give me a clear shot! I have to mark her!”
The [Hunter] with the longbow was screaming. The other [Witch Hunters] were carving down the cloth golems. Ser Raim swung his sword and the golem blocking him burned and his sword cleaved the thing in two. But Belavierr was far away. So far, she was a speck. In moments! He charged after her. But it was too late.
Too late—until a voice rang out. A [Hunter] had fought clear of her golem. She saw Belavierr departing. And she changed targets. Instead of running at Belavierr, she ran straight at Ryoka. Ryoka and Wiskeria. The City Runner jerked back, but it wasn’t her the [Witch Hunter] was aiming at. The woman swung her axe.
“Belavierr! Hold! Hold, or your daughter dies!”
And the black speck paused. Wiskeria froze, eyes wide. The [Witch Hunter] panted, a needle buried in her cheek. She spoke, her eyes dispassionate, locked on Belavierr’s distant form.
“We know you have a daughter. So hold, and return to face us. Or she dies.”
“[Hunter] Gaile! Enough!”
Ser Raim whirled. His eyes blazed with fury. He lifted his greatsword, but Gaile pressed her axe into Wiskeria’s neck. The blade dug into Wiskeria’s skin, parting it without effort.
“Don’t move, Ser Raim. You can’t stop my blade. No one here can.”
“Lower your axe, [Hunter]. Should Witch Wiskeria die, you will ere my crows fly.”
Mavika hissed at the [Hunter]. Alevica turned, lifting her wand, and Califor turned, her gaze flashing. The coven of [Witches] faced the hunters and [Knight]. But Gaile didn’t move.
“Our quarry isn’t you, Mavika the Crow.”
“Nor is it the child! Leave her, Gaile!”
A [Huntress] called out, shifting her bow to aim at Gaile. The [Witch Hunter] just shook her head. She spoke. To the crowd. To her comrades. The coven. And the distant [Witch].
“This goes against your pride, Ser Raim. Your honor. But I am tired of this chase. If I swing, I die. But I will swing before any of you can stop me, even the Stitch Witch. This is our chance. If she refuses to do battle, she flees again. As she always has. But this time I will take her daughter from her. That, at least I can do.”
She looked at the blazing [Summer Knight], unafraid. And then at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was frozen, her eyes wide. Gaile’s gaze was distant. As distant as Belavierr’s.
“I’m sorry, girl. You did not choose your mother. But for her, I would break my honor. Because of her, I buried my daughter.”
And that was all. There she stood. And Ryoka, who had been part of this play, stumbled. She might have gone forwards, but the [Witch Hunter] was looking at her.
“Move closer and I cut. Step back.”
Ryoka hesitated. But Wiskeria was bleeding. Blood ran down her throat, soaking her robes. So Ryoka stumbled back. She looked around. The [Witch Hunters] were paused. Two were aiming at Gaile. But the rest were staring past Ser Raim, who’d turned back.
Watching the distant speck that was Belavierr.
She had not moved. Nor had she come closer. And Wiskeria’s eyes shifted. Her head turned, cutting into the axe slightly. Looking at her mother.
Ryoka didn’t know when she started running. But she was. She ran after Belavierr. Would she run? She wouldn’t leave?
But Ryoka felt it. A terrible feeling in the air. Belavierr had fled. She had sensed the danger. The [Hunters] and [Knight] had been sent for her. And what was more—
They were all watching. Ryoka had to fight free of the crowd. Running past them for Belavierr. Everyone was there, an audience of thousands. And more. She bumped into a figure, heard a curse.
“Watch it, ye daft cunt. We’re trying to see!”
Ryoka turned her head. And then there they were. Standing. Sitting on the roofs of houses. A gathering of bright figures. Individuals who had no place in this world. But who had come. The young woman stopped. And her heart paused.
The fae looked down at her. And then up. They watched the [Summer Knight]. And the lone figure. Belavierr. And Ryoka understood. They had come to see something even the fae deemed worthy. A story.
Perhaps only Ryoka saw them. Only she could see the watchers, gathered invisibly among the others. But then—someone else saw. As Ryoka tore herself away, running, she saw a black figure. And two ringed eyes, glowing orange.
Belavierr looked past Ryoka. At the watching fae. And she saw. And she knew. And for a moment, she hesitated. The fair folk looked on her, waiting. And Ryoka, panting, saw the Stitch Witch hesitate.
Was that fear in her eyes? She looked back at her daughter, at the [Witch Hunter] holding her hostage. Ser Raim called out.
“Belavierr! If it is in my power, I will not let your daughter come to harm! But I cannot stop my companion. Should she strike, I will cut her down. I cannot save your daughter where I stand.”
He planted his sword in the ground, burning. And the world waited. Ryoka looked up at Belavierr. And the Stitch Witch sighed. She looked back at Ser Raim.
“Your word on it?”
“I swear. Return and she lives.”
Gaile called out. Belavierr looked at her. Then she dismounted from the horse. Ryoka’s breath caught in her chest. The [Witch Hunters] paused, incredulously. But Ser Raim nodded. He looked at Gaile.
“No. End it, Raim. While she lives, the axe stays. And if Belavierr flees, her daughter dies. If she lives, I’ll lower my axe and submit myself to justice.”
The [Witch Hunter] gritted her teeth. Ser Raim bowed his head. Then he turned. Belavierr was walking back towards them. Slowly. But she seemed to grow with every step. Her shadow grew longer despite the day.
Four [Hunters] and a [Knight] barred her way, blocking Wiskeria and Gaile. To the side watched Riverfarm’s people, the coven. Ryoka and the fae. Behind the [Hunters], an orb floated in the air, and there watched the Order of Seasons, Wistram. But no others.
Ser Raim stepped forwards. He blazed brightly. But Belavierr’s every step called darkness. The ground shook. And Ryoka saw him smile, wistfully.
He was not her match. None of them were. But they didn’t flee. The [Witch Hunter]’s faces were set. And then Ser Raim looked up. He pulled his greatsword out of the ground. The flames around him, his very aura, was flickering out, as the shadows seemed to eat at the fire around him. He called out though, smiling.
“The sun is bright today. Glorious. Look—the sun shines!”
The [Summer Knight] pointed up. He spread his arms, as if embracing the sky. Then he looked around. At his comrades, half a world away. His audience. And the fae stirred. Ser Raim looked back at Belavierr. His voice rang, building.
“I am a small flame. My worth is but kindling before the darkness I face. But even the smallest fire may blaze bright. So, to face this foe, let me offer a sacrifice worthy of the deed!”
He raised his sword. And the fire around him faded. And then a brilliant flame slowly engulfed his armor. Incomparable to the fire before. It burned brighter than the sun’s light.
“I offer time. I offer my life! [Lifeburning Flames]! Come, [Witch]! Watch, fate! Let me burn the Stitch Witch until nothing remains!”
And there was fire. Pure essence of flame. It burned everything, by sight alone. Ryoka felt it scorch her. The fae stirred. Hundreds of miles away, a Dragon woke. In Reizmelt, Levil, the [Pyromancer] turned and felt the heat.
It burned the crowd. Mavika shrieked, her crows screaming and fleeing the flames. Alevica stumbled away, her robes and hat smoking, crying out. Some in the crowd fell. Others burned and fled.
And Belavierr? She shaded her eyes. Ser Raim advanced. He looked up at her. And she down at him.
“Is that all?”
“No. I offer everything.”
The [Summer Knight] raised his sword.
“[My Life, be Thou My Fire].”
And then the flames were all-consuming. They burned the shadows themselves. Spreading. Ser Raim charged and Belavierr flung up her arms. He struck at her, struck at her body, the invisible threads running from her through the sky. The flames consumed both.
And she screamed. The thread burnt. The shadows fled. Belavierr screamed, and the shriek was the sound of immortality dying. She struck back at Ser Raim and he struggled. The air shifted. Threads reached down, claws of fabric.
The [Witch Hunters] attacked and advanced, battling monsters that stepped sideways out of the world. A screaming apparition tore open the sky and the [Witch Hunter] shot at it. Another battled a giant as tall as a hill, made of cloth.
In the center of it stood Ser Raim and Belavierr. They struck each other, one burning, the other aflame. They tore at each other, with spell, with Skill and steel and rage. And Belavierr burned.
She could have run. She could have fled. But her daughter stood there. So the mother refused to flee. She walked through fire as the [Knight] burned her. And her blood was red. Belavierr fought and burned.
The fire met thread.