Can you feel it? She did. She had never met the man with the strange smile who laughed at the death of Ser Raim and the [Hunters]. She did not know him, any more than she understood his motives. But she could still feel it. Belavierr could sense the threads drawing together.
Reason and purpose, intersecting. Chance and plans. Malice, directed at her. But she was just a piece in someone else’s trap. And that knowledge bothered the [Witch]. She looked up, blinking at the bright sky. And she realized she’d been tricked. But she did not know who had done the tricking, or why. She could not see the web that ensnared her. But she felt it.
The [Witch] looked back down at her daughter. The trap did not matter. She did. And surely, whoever had laid it had known, or guessed. Belavierr looked at her daughter. And she felt the second of the two deaths closing in. But that did not matter.
So the [Witch] waited, her immortality burnt away, her protections gone. Her magic weaker. And she waited to see how her death came. For her daughter, she would face it. But her daughter—Belavierr closed her eyes. And she heard that distant laughter as the trap closed.
Day 66 – Ullim
Tyrion Veltras’ return to his estates had not been triumphant. It had been quiet. The armies he had gathered for his elaborate, grand scheme, had dispersed. And with it, goodwill. Say what you would of Magnolia Reinhart and many would—she had made grave enemies with her actions.
But when you got down to it, Tyrion Veltras’ grand scheme that had cost many peers of the realm countless thousands of gold pieces in time and energy spent had fallen apart. He had brought a force capable of taking Liscor, of altering the map and potentially securing a lynchpin of Drake defenses. And he had failed.
That was all there was to it. So Lord Veltras returned in fury and ire, so much so that no one dared mince words with him. Politically, he might have been disgraced, or have lost capital in the currency of opinions, but on his lands, the ancestral Veltras estates that Drakes and Gnolls both would point out that they’d owned in ages past, he still reigned supreme. If he wasn’t welcome at certain balls or gatherings—he seldom attended them anyways.
Tyrion Veltras was much like a wolf, to people who knew nothing of wolves. He was aloof, fierce, a leader when he needed to be, but solitary. His home, which was more of a keep than a mansion, held only a few of his most loyal retainers, servants, and his two sons.
For all that, he was not a poor [Lord]; just specialized. He could lead an army and fight with the best of opponents. But he took little to the managerial side of his class, and it showed.
Veltras lands occupied the western flank of Izril, stretching from the huge Vail Forest—a [Hunter]’s dream, abundant with wildlife—all the way right up to the famous landmark, the ‘tail’ of Izril’s northern half, a long coastal stretch. It meant Veltras lands were abundant in forests due to the heavy rainfalls that could come off the High Passes to the south, the economy fed by trade with ports and steady business, but in places, still very much unsettled.
Of course, to the north, where the Veltras’ had first settled, there were booming cities, but none quite so famous as Invrisil. If anything, Veltras lands were known more for the family which protected them. A reluctant leader he might be, but Tyrion Veltras’ aptitude for war meant that few monsters or raiders troubled his lands overlong.
It was the economic issues that annoyed the [Lord], which meant he left most of the work to his family’s steward. Ullim. Unfortunately, large events still required Tyrion’s attention, which was how the luckless Ullim found himself putting issues before his temperamental master as rain beat at the study windows outside.
“—Reinhart’s [Trade War] continues to affect commerce in a huge radius, Lord Veltras. It isn’t just Invrisil blocking trade, although that certainly has affected the southern half of the continent. But Reinhart holdings spread across Izril, and we have been running into shortages in our own markets. The [Merchants] are unwilling to cross Lady Reinhart, you see. I suspect some of the nobility will take action or perhaps Lady Reinhart will herself relent; her markets will feel a pinch soon, but until then, we lack for a number of products, including rye grains, some of our wheat imports, a number of fruit orchard’s produce—”
The glower cut the [Majordomo] off. Tyrion Veltras sat straight-backed in his chair, and annoyance was written large on his face. He snapped as he stared at the map on his desk.
“We can live without rye, Ullim. I have no interest in dealing with Reinhart’s trade war. If we lack for some goods, the people can adapt.”
“One wishes that were so, Lord Veltras. But as I was saying, the traditional, ah, trade routes for salt and oil are also blocked, Lord Veltras. Lady Pryde’s industries of course include the Chalen salt mines, and importing it from the coast has increased the price significantly. As well, oil and butter products are generally sourced through Invrisil or trade routes, thus—”
He stopped again as Tyrion cursed. You could live without rye, but salt and oil were different. Tyrion drummed his fingers on the table.
“Go to the coastal ports along the Izril’s Tail. Send word that I require trade vessels and caravans in number. We can import goods for a while.”
“At a steep price, sir. It would be cheaper to buy from Terandria with Drake tariffs, and that will cost…”
Ullim calculated out the number on an abacus. Tyrion’s teeth audibly ground together. The [Majordomo] winced. Tyrion got up to pace. Of course, the [Trade War] was a direct byproduct of Magnolia interfering with the siege of Liscor and the ensuing insult to her and her allies.
Although…Ullim distinctly recalled the Veltras family not sending a black rose. His master had his sense of honor, prickly though it was. He would damn a Drake city to oblivion, but insult a peer who had fought at the Sacrifice of Roses?
Never. Still, Tyrion’s lands were west of Invrisil and the trade war was hitting [Merchants] headed their way. The Merchant’s Guild probably also correctly recalled Magnolia and Tyrion’s longstanding feud and wouldn’t risk the journey with a [Trade War] in any case, regardless if Magnolia was specifically targeting Tyrion.
At last, Tyrion’s furious pacing stopped. Like a caged animal, he whirled.
“Ullim. Your opinion?”
“I fear you’re correct, Lord Veltras. We must import, and everyone must tighten their belts in certain regards.”
Tyrion just glared. After a moment he stalked back to the desk and stared at the map. Ullim could see the [Lord] fighting with the map, but Tyrion hated the dance of economics as much as he loved war. They were not the same.
“Salt comes from the ocean. We can at least source it from the ports, can’t we?”
“Of course, sir. Sea salt will do just as well as Lady Pryde’s exports. I will add it to the list.”
Tyrion nodded. Ullim sighed with relief as he saw the [Lord] relax. Part of Ullim wished Tyrion took more of an interest in the other side of his class. Ullim was old, and he had known Tyrion growing up. He hoped he had the energy to raise the next generation of the Veltras family’s main line—Hethon and Sammial. They were young, but growing and lacked for a mother. A father too, at times. Tyrion tried, but like managing his lands, he had to know what was right first.
And his other half, who had been so good at explaining it to Tyrion—was dead. But for her, and he might have been a better [Lord]. But it had been…dead gods, four years? Ullim felt like it was a lifetime ago, sometimes. Now Lord Veltras was distant, ever on campaign, and his sons, especially Sammial, grew apart. If Lady Salva had been alive, she could have been Tyrion’s other half.
She had not been perfect, of course, but without her, Tyrion would attack the problem of the trade war relentlessly, trying to outmaneuver an opponent who breathed it since she’d been born. Ullim remembered that too. What Tyrion was to military and combat, Magnolia was to infrastructure and diplomacy. They were complete opposites of each other in a way; the only thing they ever agreed on was their disdain for each other.
“It’s still raining.”
Tyrion’s voice drew Ullim out of the past. The elderly man roused himself and looked to where Tyrion’s attention was focused next. Rain pounded on the panes of the window. Ullim sighed again.
Lord Tyrion Veltras did not do well indoors. And while he was content to train or move about in the rain, he didn’t suffer the same for his mounts or his soldiers. It was only one more reason for his enduringly bad mood.
“It has been unnaturally wet, Lord Veltras. One expects the end of the rainy season would have come, but there is no predicting the weather with complete certainty. Even the [Weather Mages] make errors.”
Not that House Veltras employed any. They had dozens of war mages they could call on, but not one could clear a cloud from the sky beyond shooting fireballs at it. Tyrion only made a discontented sound.
“Too long. It’s been eight days. No lightning. Just rain. The clouds should be spitting lightning and the rain should be passing. This isn’t natural.”
“It may be someone else tampering with the weather, Lord Veltras. You do recall the time we had gale winds blowing for nearly two weeks? Not to mention the hurricane…?”
“I recall that. But why here? What of the lands south of us?”
They were largely unoccupied, and certainly unclaimed. Humans had yet to fully colonize the vast expanse of northern Izril, and the lack of nobility from the last Antinium War meant there were fewer holdings under the protection of [Lords] or [Ladies]. Ullim had to consult his notes. He frowned.
“Temperate, Lord Veltras. But normal.”
“To our west, then?”
“Izril’s Tail…well, there was a grand storm, but I have no reports of the port-cities experiencing bad weather.”
Tyrion glared at the rain. Undeterred, the water kept falling. Ullim went on, shuffling his notes.
“Let’s see. Well, other nobles have been raising the weather issue as well. Lady Ieka’s lands are unseasonably dry, for instance. A pity for her harvests…”
“So something’s affecting the weather.”
“At least in part, Lord Veltras.”
The [Lord] made a disgusted sound.
“Find a [Weather Mage], then. Have them stop the rains today.”
“We would have to send for one, Lord Veltras. I do not know if there are many to be found—the rains may subside in the time it would take—”
“A [Weatherchange] scroll, then! Buy one and use it!”
Tyrion snapped. Again, Ullim hesitated.
“May I quote you a price, Lord Veltras?”
“Two thousand gold pieces at least for a scroll that could affect a radius of your holdings. If we wanted to change the weather patterns, we might need to spend as much as four thousand, or even six…”
Again, Ullim saw Tyrion grimace. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t pay the sum, but it was a lot of money to deal with rain. Most cities would be able to afford one scroll or [Weather Mage] in times of need; a [Farmer] could always pay for a shower of course, but a sustained spell capable of changing weather in a huge radius?
Veltras was rich. Rich enough to finance a truly powerful standing army. But though they were one of the Five Families, that didn’t mean they were all-powerful. Just look at some of the other families.
The houses of Veltras, El, Reinhart, Terland, and Wellfar. They were legends that had settled Izril, taking it from the Drakes and Gnolls thousands of years ago. Of course, they hadn’t been the only noble houses to sail from Terandria. The ones that had perished or fallen over the years had been forgotten by all but a few.
Now, the Five Families remained. But some, like the Wellfar families, had fallen far from their lofty past heights. Others, like the El and Terland families had retained some of their strength, although the Antinium Wars had slain some of the scions of these houses—Veltras was strong. But they didn’t have huge stockpiles of magical goods. Their strength lay in military might, and their coffers could stand to be deeper.
The Reinharts on the other hand had at least kept most of their artifacts—no, even expanded their wealth over the generations thanks to Regis Reinhart. And under Magnolia Reinhart, they were richer still. They could hardly call on all their artifacts of old with that old ghost hoarding their treasures, but it was just another disparity. Ullim could see his lord thinking of all of this as he drummed his fingers on the table. At last, Tyrion nodded.
“Buy a scroll. Use it. Hire a Courier if need be. I want the rain gone tonight.”
“At once, sire.”
Ullim breathed out. It was a cost, but one the Veltras’ family could afford. And he’d be glad to see the end of this rain too. Sammial was practically bouncing off the walls with his desire to be running about. Veltras nodded as Ullim reached for a list of reputable Couriers.
“I’m going to ride south. I’ll return by nightfall.”
“In this rain, Lord Veltras?”
“Rain brings out monsters, Ullim. I will send a [Message] if I’m delayed returning.”
Tyrion nodded and strode for the doors. At least he’d be happy if he slew a monster, Ullim reflected. The [Lord] paused at the door and wrinkled his nose. He looked around, and snapped.
“Ullim. Send some servants into the cellars and storerooms. I believe we have rats.”
Day 66 – Ryoka
“She cannot stay here. She must leave.”
That was all Lady Rie said as she watched Belavierr. The [Witch] stood alone. Ryoka wondered if even her coven was afraid to speak with her. And Ryoka didn’t argue the point.
She couldn’t. She still felt tears unshed when she thought of Ser Raim. She had not agreed with him. Ryoka had wanted to find some peace, because part of her liked Belavierr. And another had looked at Raim and seen a hero.
Did that make Belavierr a villain? Perhaps. Perhaps. Or perhaps she was just…a [Witch]. But all of Ryoka abhorred the death of the [Witch Hunters].
There was no answer the young woman had. She had tried to use logic, tried to apply a morality to what she saw. All she now knew was that she was a guest in Riverfarm. Trying to steer a rudder away from destruction. And now—had she succeeded?
The Order of Seasons were leaving. Ryoka had not witnessed the battle between Belavierr’s minions and the [Knights]. She had missed the conflict that tore the earth. But today, she saw what remained.
Cloth, really. Torn silk, so precious that some of Riverfarm’s people had picked it up until they remembered who it belonged to. Broken creatures, some so lifelike that Ryoka could only stare at a severed Wyvern’s head until she walked around it and saw it was filled with stuffing. A few rotting corpses, yes, from the undead. But mainly broken cloth.
And weapons. A treasure trove of ancient steel, even what looked to be magical items. No one touched those either. Even the most light fingered person thought twice about it.
Cloth. Undead corpses. And four [Knights]. All wore green. They were Knights of the Spring, and Ryoka saw from the living ones how young they were. More than half were younger than she was. They had died, lacking magical armor, fighting to keep Ser Raim and the [Hunters] safe. And they had fallen to treachery and he had burnt away before he could end Belavierr.
Perhaps they still could finish her. Ryoka saw that too. Each of the [Knights] looked at the [Witch], measuring her, seeing her hunch and tend to her burns, or wince at the bright light. They were such mortal actions that Ryoka herself felt like she could kill Belavierr just by walking up and stabbing her in the back. But then the [Witch] would turn. And not even the [Summer Knights] could meet her eyes.
“We will not forget this day. Nor will we forget Ser Raim’s sacrifice. Had it not been for the weakness of one man’s heart, he would have triumphed. I will return his possessions to my order. Miss Durene, you have my thanks. And you, Sir Beniar.”
Dame Talia, a woman with raven-black hair, was in command. Ryoka saw her look at Belavierr more than once, but her orders were clear. The Order of Seasons would not make the Stitch Witch their enemy. Apparently they were still at an uneasy standoff with some…Griffin Riders? Ryoka wasn’t sure she’d even heard that right.
Regardless, Dame Talia bid farewell to Durene and Beniar, both of whom had fought with them. It was strange to see her clasp hands with Durene, and the half-Troll girl looked just as surprised. But they had fought while Ryoka had chased the fae. She said not a word to Ryoka as she bore the ashes and Ser Raim’s greatsword away. She had no time for a City Runner.
And then? There was only the village of Riverfarm left. Prost oversaw the burial of the [Witch Hunter], Tagil. The Order was returning their artifacts to the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria. And they carried the ashes of Sylind, Erashelle, Faigen, and Gaile with them. No one had asked for his body.
So the villagers cut his body down. It landed with a soft thump. Ryoka thought it should have been louder. But the sound stayed with her for hours. And they buried him where he fell. No one said a word. It was a traitor’s death. All they did was cut off his head, rather than give him a coffin filled with ash or anything else. That was so he wouldn’t rise as an undead.
And that left only Belavierr. No one would go near her. But she was there. And as Lady Rie said—she couldn’t stay. Whatever pact the coven hoped to achieve with Riverfarm, she could not be part of it. Everyone had seen what she’d done. They’d seen the body.
“Who will persuade her to leave? His Majesty? A knighthood order couldn’t do it. Leave her alone. All of what’s come to pass has been because people went after her. Leave her alone, Lady Rie.”
Ryoka snapped at the [Lady]. Prost was still wiping his hands.
“We will do just that. But there’s the matter of all this…cloth on the ground. Those weapons—”
“You could outfit a company on Baleros with all of them. It’s worth a fortune. The silk’s valuable too, even if it’s old.”
Charlay blinked as Ryoka elbowed her in her horse-half, right below her Human belly. She smacked Ryoka back on the shoulder. Prost shook his head.
“No one touches a thing. We’ll leave it be. If anyone thinks to touch it—I’ll make an announcement.”
“Saying, what? Anyone who touches it, be it man, woman, or child, is dead? That this [Witch] can do whatever she pleases without consequence?”
Rie’s lips were pale. Ryoka looked around.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“Ryoka! Are you mad?”
Charlay tried to drag Ryoka back. But the City Runner was adamant. The two engaged in a tug of war which the Centauress fairly easily won at first—until she realized that Belavierr was staring at them. Then she ran away.
And that was how Ryoka met Belavierr. The [Witch] still stood where she had fought Ser Raim. The dry grass had caught fire—a huge swath of scorched earth radiated around her. And the [Witch] still smelled of smoke. But her clothing was whole. The only difference was Belavierr herself.
“I have survived my death. But I have another.”
She was talking to Mavika. The coven had joined Belavierr at last. All save for Eloise and Wiskeria. The crow [Witch] cocked her head; Ryoka noticed only her pet raven on her shoulders. Even the crows had fled Belavierr’s general vicinity.
“You foresaw two deaths, Witch Belavierr?”
“Yes. Two. The second comes on the heels of the first. I do not know how. Or where. But it will be by fire. I would flee it, but I have lost my protections. And my daughter remains. So I shall stay. Until the deal with this [Emperor] is struck.”
Belavierr’s eyes were still ringed. But the glow had faded from them. She even blinked. Seldom. And she spoke…like a person. She even turned her head as Ryoka approached. That was unnerving. Alevica shifted from foot to foot, eying Belavierr. The Witch Runner jumped when Belavierr turned to look at her.
“Uh—Bela—Witch Belavierr. You’ve lost your protections?”
“Yes. They were burnt away. I can be killed. I may die. With age or blade. The spells of centuries that would have taken a blow are gone. It is strange.”
The [Witch] raised her head. She stared straight up at the sun and blinked.
“Bright. And I feel…”
She looked at Ryoka. The City Runner paused. Belavierr went on.
“…alive. More aware. Before, I was a function of my craft. My nature displaced. Distant. It has been centuries since I last felt this way. Passing strange.”
She looked around again. Her eyes found Hedag.
“Hedag. I remember your predecessors.”
“Ah. And fine Hedags they were. Fine bastards, or so I hear.”
The [Executioner] grinned. Belavierr paused.
“Perhaps. There were more of you. Hedag was a name spread across Izril. ‘For any man or woman may take up the axe and dispense justice. They are the Hedags of villages.’ And you are the last.”
Hedag nodded. Her grin flashed wide across her face, as wide as the strange man Ryoka had met outside the village. It was not necessarily friendly, especially on Hedag’s face. And this time Belavierr noticed. She was aware. She peered at Hedag, and then looked around. This time at Mavika.
“We have spoken before, Mavika.”
Belavierr nodded. And then she looked at Alevica. The Witch Runner tried to copy Hedag’s grin. It slipped away.
“Alevica. It has been long since [Witches] flew through the sky. And your magic is weak.”
“I uh—I’m improving.”
The Witch Runner flushed, gripping the edge of her hat. Belavierr nodded.
“Grudges and envy are too weak to sustain powerful spells. You incur ire, but you are neither feared nor hated enough to call on true magic. You fly by virtue of talent. And you are weak. Someone should have told you.”
Alevica shut up as Belavierr stared down at her. The Stitch Witch turned her head.
The [Witch] held her ground as Nanette hid behind Belavierr. Belavierr tilted her head, and then stopped, turning sideways. Nanette squeaked, terrified. And Califor stepped to shield her. Now Belavierr met her gaze. The two [Witches] locked gazes. Belavierr spoke absently.
“We have not met. But you remind me of the old covens.”
“The old ways still linger. Nanette, introduce yourself to Witch Belavierr.”
“I—I raise my hat to you. Witch Belavierr?”
The [Witch] girl stuttered, white with fright. Belavierr tilted her head, eying Nanette.
“I remember when Wiskeria was as small as you. I would that I had taught her more. You study from a great [Witch] of our era. A lesson, Witch Nanette. Immortality is not as simple as taking life. To endure the passage of time, we who are mortal must give something away. To hide my soul away from harm, I hid my soul away. But the cost was exactly what I gave. Remember that.”
“Yes, Miss Belavierr.”
Satisfied, the Stitch Witch straightened. She looked around and Ryoka jumped as the eyes latched onto her. Belavierr was changed. Hey eyes were focused, not distant as they always had been except when talking to Wiskeria. And she was remembering names. Faces.
And yet, some things were the same. It was the same woman, just more expressive. More here. And—she focused on Ryoka.
“Ryoka Griffin. You saw the guests. The wind knows you. I saw that. But I did not ask. Who are you?”
Ryoka shuddered. The full attention of Belavierr was like a lighthouse’s beam blasting her. She gritted her teeth.
“I—I uh—are you going to clean up all those weapons and cloth?”
Belavierr blinked. She paused, stared at Ryoka, and then turned her head. She regarded the cut, burnt, dirty cloth. The weapons lying on the ground. And she sighed.
“Your possessions are destroyed. What have you left of your craft? What can you remake?”
Mavika watched as her raven darted from her shoulder and swept up a bright piece of red silk. Belavierr eyed the raven and it took flight. She swept her hand. And all the cloth began to move. Ryoka heard exclamation and saw people run towards the village—the cloth was slithering across the ground, towards Belavierr.
The Stitch Witch held up one loose arm of her robes. And the cloth somehow slithered up and up into her dress. Only—it was going somewhere else. In moments, it was gone. Leaving only the metal weapons. Belavierr eyed them. Then she walked over and picked one up. She stared at a steel sword and tossed it back on the burnt ground.
“My creations took decades to make. My wards far longer. I can bind time, create lesser wards. But the workings that hid my very heart away—those were made out of power that was burnt away. I must find more. I have lost all but a few years. Rehanna’s among others. I will be weak.”
Ryoka choked. The cloth was gone! Belavierr looked blankly at the scattered weapons and armor.
“Metal. I cannot pick it up so easily. I will conjure something to gather it tonight. Now. You did not answer my question. Who are you?”
She looked back at Ryoka. The young woman hesitated.
“Just…a City Runner.”
Belavierr stared at her.
“Even were I immortal, I would know that as a lie.”
“It matters not. What matters is that my second death comes. And my daughter is wroth with me. She…hates…me.”
And the words came slowly. Ryoka nodded.
“I think she does, yeah.”
“Because of who I am? Because of what I do? How strange. When did she think so? I can remember when she grew angry with me. Back then I had no understanding of it. Now—I understand. But she is a [Witch]. And she lacks a true craft. She is a [General] serving an [Emperor]. How has she strayed from her path? And she hates me. Why?”
Belavierr mused to herself. She looked…confused. The other [Witches] exchanged glances. At last, Belavierr looked up.
“I must find Wiskeria.”
She walked away. And at least there, she was the same. Ryoka watched her vanish in moments, striding with unnatural speed across the ground. She let out her breath and looked around wide-eyed. She wasn’t the only one. Even Mavika and Califor were blinking more than usual. Alevica was practically tearing her hat in two.
“What the hell was that?”
“She has come back to herself. That was Belavierr of old. In the times since I have met her, she has grown more distant. Her soul hidden behind her web now burned away. Whether that [Knight] did her a gift unknowing, who can say?”
Mavika’s eyes focused on the distant Belavierr. Califor just sniffed.
“Watch her, Nanette. That is the price of immortality that she mentioned. Everything has its cost.”
“That it does. But what a change it makes! Perhaps we’d best get any answers out of her we want now! But will it help her with Wiskeria?”
Hedag laughed. She leaned on her axe. Califor shook her head, pursing her lips.
“I do not imagine so. And Eloise is at odds with Belavierr. Our coven squabbles, and our members have caused the deaths of others on this [Emperor]’s lands. A fine mess this is when we are bargaining on behalf of [Witches] across Izril. And the sky remains clear. I have had few worse covens.”
Her glare took in everyone. Ryoka paused, her head still spinning.
“Wait, what was that about clear skies?”
“Oh, nothing. Just the fact that it hasn’t rained and I haven’t seen a cloud for over a week now. That strike you as strange, Griffin?”
Alevica rolled her eyes. She pointed up at the clear skies. Ryoka felt sweat beading on her forehead. It was hot. She’d assumed it was just an early summer heat. But…she paused. And she really looked around.
Not at the weapons on the ground. Or the burnt places where Ser Raim’s fire had ignited the earth, or the torn places where the battle’s scars remained. At the village itself. The surrounding forest.
It was all…dry. Alevica and Califor were right. It hadn’t rained in, what, over a week? Even longer? Ryoka couldn’t remember. She recalled hating the rain right up until about when the [Witches] had arrived, but she hadn’t noticed the dryness except to complain about it.
But today, the heat and Alevica pointing it out made Ryoka notice how dry the grass was. It was yellowed, practically dead. The earth was equally parched underfoot. Only the [Farmer]’s fields were at all green, and that was because of Riverfarm’s river and the watering the villagers were doing.
It was dry. Too dry. Ryoka turned to Miss Califor.
“I thought it was just odd weather. Is there something magical about this, Miss Califor?”
The [Witch] nodded once. Her severe expression was tinged with annoyance.
“Someone has cast a working on the sky. Someone informed the Order of Seasons of Belavierr’s whereabouts. And someone slew Wiskeria’s coven. These events may be linked or they may not. I came here to speak to this [Emperor], not to endanger Nanette. I would not have brought her had I known. It seems there is something afoot. And I will find out what it is.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. Ryoka hesitated. She felt for whomever got on the receiving end of Califor’s wrath. But she had no idea…
Ryoka paused. She frowned. No, wait. She had a few hints. Clues. She looked at Miss Califor, and then surreptitiously checked the expressions of the rest of the coven present.
Alevica was frowning up at the sky and muttering about Belavierr—but very quietly. Nanette was staring up at Miss Califor, worried. Hedag was picking at her teeth. And Mavika and Califor were looking straight at Ryoka. She hesitated. And then she backed away. And as she headed back to Riverfarm at a run, she felt it too.
Suspicion in the air. If all of this was the result of someone’s doing. Then who? And why?
And—what would Wiskeria make of her mother now? Ryoka got five steps into the village when she got the answer to that question, at least. Wiskeria’s scream rang through the air, and then Belavierr came walking past Ryoka. She looked miffed, a new expression on her face. Purple flame burned on her dark clothing, and then extinguished themselves. Ryoka stared at Belavierr. The [Witch] stared back.
“Weak magic. My daughter has yet to find her craft.”
Coming from her, it sounded like the only problem in the world.
Day 67 – Durene
“I will never forgive her. Ever.”
Wiskeria sat in Durene’s cottage. Tears ran from her eyes. Durene sat with her. Charlay had run away. And Ryoka was talking with Prost. But really, they had both run away. Wiskeria’s eyes were red. Her nose ran despite Durene’s handkerchief, which had done its best. She looked nothing like a [Witch]. She looked like, well, a young woman.
Durene had never had a fight with her mother. She envied Wiskeria, in a way. Envied, and understood. Because she knew what it was like to have a monster for a parent. But one that was living?
The half-Troll girl had seen what Belavierr had done. She had seen Ser Raim die. And she had seen evil. Evil smiled as a man swayed on a tree branch. Evil threatened to murder families and children. And that was Belavierr. Durene had never feared anything as much as her. Because she had no idea what to do. Belavierr couldn’t be stopped. She couldn’t be reasoned with. She was…
A monster. But one who cared for her daughter. And her daughter wanted nothing to do with Belavierr anymore. Not after what had passed.
“I can’t do it, Durene. We do the same things. But she’s gone too far. And now—was that my mother, before? Who is this? What is she? She talks. She’s different!”
“What’re you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t let her do this anymore. I can’t—I became a [Witch] because of her. But it’s too much. Why did I…?”
She was crying. Durene reached out and patted Wiskeria on the shoulder. But the tears, like everything else, had run out. And Wiskeria’s sobs soon turned dry. Then, she just sat and bowed her head. And the terrible look in her eyes scared Durene far more than Wiskeria’s wrath or sadness.
“Why don’t we find Eloise? Or—Ryoka? She said we have a problem.”
Durene offered the suggestion as an alternative to sitting in silence. Wiskeria looked up after a moment and nodded. She got up and stared at the mess of a handkerchief. Durene winced.
“I can wash that—”
Wiskeria shook it and handed it back. Durene gingerly took it—and then realized the handkerchief was dry. Empty, too. Relieved, she smiled.
“Hey! That’s a great trick! You know a lot of tricks for a [Witch]! Even if you don’t um do the big things…”
The young woman’s face turned into a bitter smile. She looked up at Durene. And something of the dead [Hunter], Tagil’s, last expression was there.
“Yeah. You know, I think the other [Witches] always expected more of me, Durene. Because of my mother. But a [Witch] is limited by her craft. And I don’t have one. If I took power from everyone I would be stronger. Even if it was a bit. But I was always afraid of who I might become, I think. So I took just a bit from my team. I became an adventurer. And Odveig, my best friend, turned out to be an imposter. I haven’t been that much happier by running away.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
Durene looked down. Wiskeria smiled.
“I know. Come on.”
They left the cottage. Wiskeria strode down the dry dirt road. Durene followed, warily. But Wiskeria wasn’t about to be stopped.
Riverfarm was quiet. People worked, and then rested in the shade. The air was hot and dry. But what exhausted the body was the atmosphere. It was tense. Stifling. Fights broke out for no reason. Arguments began and halted as people saw the pointed hat. But the fear—the fear was the root. Durene was no [Witch], but she could feel it.
“You see? Mother’s everything that makes [Witches] hated.”
Wiskeria whispered as she looked around. Durene walked with her through the village, looking for Ryoka. The [Witch] went on.
“And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Eloise. Hedag. Even Mavika, in a way. People don’t hate them. Some of them saw the good. I can feel it. They’re an inch from turning on us. If they weren’t terrified of mother, they would. But they liked us. It’s still there. Buried.”
“You can show them again. Riverfarm has good people in it. Even the folks from Lancrel can see.”
Durene saw Wiskeria shake her head.
“No. So long as she’s here, she’ll always remind them of what we can be at our worst. She is the most powerful [Witch] I know. And the darkest.”
They found Ryoka in Rie’s cottage. The young woman was panting. And Charlay was drinking greedily from a flask of water. Durene glared at both, but the two Runner girls had an uncharacteristically grave look on their faces. Rie was tracing a finger across a map.
“So, that appears to be, what? A fifty mile radius?”
“At least. Charlay made it way farther than I did. We both took about an hour and some to go out there, and we saw dry grass ahead. So yeah, fifty miles at least.”
Charlay pawed the ground as she splashed some water on her face and the floor and Ryoka.
“I thought I spied some green at the end of my run. But Ryoka’s right. It’s dry. All the streams have dried up.”
Prost leaned over the table, his brow knotted with worry as it always seemed to be these days.
“Why didn’t we notice it before?”
“It seemed natural to me after all that rain. This felt like an early summer heat wave. And it’s not like we didn’t have enough to worry about. It’s just these last few days that have been hot—”
Ryoka glanced up as Wiskeria and Durene stopped in the doorway. Her expression was grave. Durene opened her mouth. Wiskeria beat her.
“What has my mother done this time?”
“Nothing. We have a new problem. It’s still not rained.”
Ryoka outlined the issue succinctly. There wasn’t much to say. Durene had noticed the lack of water of course. She’d been working the farm rotation, helping water the crops. Because Riverfarm was fed by the river, they’d been able to keep growing what they wanted. But outside the village, everything was drying up. And according to Ryoka, it wasn’t natural.
“The [Witches] say it might be magic causing the drought. Califor’s certain. Which makes me certain it is something. The question is—is it one of them? The Circle of Thorns? The Order of Seasons? Someone else?”
“What makes you think the Order of Seasons had anything to do with this? They targeted Belavierr. And they are an extremely honorable order.”
Lady Rie looked insulted. Ryoka raised her eyebrows.
“They’re called the ‘Order of Seasons’. I imagine they could do something like that.”
“Maybe it’s my mother. It sounds like something she’d do.”
Wiskeria’s expression was still bleak. Ryoka paused. Everyone in the room looked at Wiskeria. Their looks ranged from sympathy to quiet appraisal. Ryoka paused.
“Could she do that?”
“Weather magic. Stitch magic. My mother could probably do it if she wanted to. Maybe someone paid her.”
Ryoka paused for a second and then shook her head.
“She might. I’ll…ask her. And the coven, to see if they know anything. But what could affect the weather for so many days? Anyone? Even the wind feels slack.”
She paused and bit her lip. Wiskeria and Lady Rie both looked at each other. Wiskeria frowned.
“A few things can change weather. [Witches], for one. We know rituals. Also, [Weather Mages]. Some artifacts, although they’re rare. Magical scrolls of course, but they’re too expensive for regular people to use. You’d have to use a bunch to keep the weather straight for days on end. And…maybe [Druids]? Those are the ones I can think of. I guess you could be a [Water Mage] and shoot water into the air or something.”
“Scrolls are out of the question for most individuals. I myself couldn’t afford to use more than one or two in times of emergency. If I thought this drought was natural, I might still give it four more days before I called for a [Weather Mage] or scroll.”
“Surely it’s not that expensive? I’ve known bad years before, and once Riverfarm pitched in to call on a [Weather Mage]. It did cost the earth, but we could afford it.”
Prost protested gently. Rie shook her head.
“Mister Prost, the difference is forcing a change and temporary relief, or encouraging nature to be…nature, as I understand it. Calling for a sudden shower is simple, if taxing. Changing the weather to, say, start the rainy season early is more difficult, but again, possible. But outright halting the fall of rain? Halting this amount of rain over such an area? That would require a great deal of magic from one [Mage]. Or a simply exorbitant number of scrolls.”
“Or a [Witch] casting the right ritual. Or hex.”
Everyone was silent then. Ryoka looked up. The City Runner paused.
“Well, we don’t know who it is. But I think we should begin making plans and investigating the issue. I’ll ask Fierre—I also want to know how the Order of Seasons knew Belavierr was here.”
“Very well. I will see to collecting some water. We can fashion some barrels, store them…”
Rie and Prost focused on the issue of storing water as if it were some huge problem. But Durene didn’t see it. As the others left, she turned to Ryoka.
“What’s the problem? I understand it’s dry, but it doesn’t affect Riverfarm, right? We have a river, Ryoka.”
The young Asian woman gave Durene a frown.
“Yeah. But it’s not infinite. Riverfarm could run out of a river.”
“What? No, it’s a river…”
Durene chuckled. Then she saw the look on Ryoka’s face.
“The river’s not infinite, Durene. It’s being fed by tributaries and groundwater. Haven’t you seen how low it is?”
Durene hadn’t. Nor had anyone ever explained the concept of how rivers came to be to her. Riverfarm’s river had always been there; it never occurred to Durene that it could disappear if it stopped being fed by rain. She gasped when she saw it. Ryoka nodded and knelt, peering at the banks.
“Your river’s sunk three feet. What happens when it runs dry? The crops die for one. And for another…we could be in serious trouble.”
“No one can keep the weather dry forever, though. Not even the most powerful spells can hold back the natural weather.”
Wiskeria’s voice was quiet. Ryoka nodded.
“True, but we stand at risk for fires. Well—not with the river, yeah. But we’ll store some rainwater. Maybe we should keep some at strategic places in case a fire breaks out. I’ll—”
And then she paused. She looked up at the same time Durene felt the tingle on her neck. A change in the air. She still smelled of smoke. And she could die. But she felt like power.
Belavierr strode towards them. She didn’t appear. She just walked. And her eyes were fixed on Wiskeria.
Wiskeria turned. Ryoka, Charlay, and Durene backed up. Belavierr stopped and looked down at Wiskeria. Yesterday, Wiskeria had shot magic at her mother until she left. Today, Belavierr stood at a slight remove. Her voice was cool.
“Have you calmed, Daughter? I would speak to you of your craft. Your future. I understand you are wroth with me.”
“I’m beyond angry, Mother.”
Wiskeria shook her head. She looked at her mother. And Durene saw more than a few people from the village had followed. They were staring at Belavierr. At Wiskeria. And their faces—Belavierr paid them no mind. She looked at Ryoka, once. Charlay and Durene she ignored.
“I have lost my protections. Been torn back to mortality. I hunger and thirst and breathe. But I still do not understand your fury, Daughter. You are a [Witch]. You know what it is to be one of us. All that I have done has been to protect myself. I made no unfair deals with Rehanna.”
“But you threatened a [Prince]’s life. You convinced a man to kill his friends and hang himself.”
Belavierr’s eyes never changed. Nor did her voice.
“Of course. I made such deals to protect myself. The Griffin Prince accepted my bargain, even if he found it not to his liking. Tagil the [Witch Hunter] chose his daughter’s life over mine.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
Wiskeria’s voice was bitter. She looked at her mother and shook her head. Belavierr sighed.
“Does the death bother you? Why? I never raised you to fear it.”
“You didn’t. I suppose I still knew what being a good person was. What having responsibility for your actions meant.”
Wiskeria shot back. Belavierr frowned.
“Responsibility? That is a concept of cities. Of law. We are [Witches]. We act according to our craft. Our desires. You know this.”
“I do. But my desires tell me that I can’t look away from what you do.”
It was the same argument Durene had heard before. The one Wiskeria had wept over. She saw Ryoka’s face, sharply listening. Waiting, mouth opening, as if to break in. But she couldn’t. Belavierr sighed.
“So you say. We walk in a circle. Daughter. Nothing I do is your fault. You are not responsible for my actions. And you are my daughter. Can we not be mother and daughter?”
She reached out. And Wiskeria flinched. She held up a hand. And then she cried out. To all listening.
“You don’t understand. I can’t forget what you’ve done! I can’t look away and pretend you aren’t wrong! If I could, I would be happy. But I can’t. Because I still love you, Mother! Because you’re my mom, and you murder and hurt other people! Because I could stop you.”
Tears unshed. And Belavierr sighed. She sighed, and Durene waited for what would come next. They were at odds, the two. Neither one changing. But today, Wiskeria’s face was pale. Her eyes horrified. Belavierr spread her arms, welcoming, entreating.
“My Daughter. My beloved Daughter. I would do anything in my power for you. But I will not change who I am. And you cannot stop me.”
“I can try.”
Wiskeria drew her wand. Durene heard Belavierr sigh and turn.
Purple flames burst from the wand. They struck Belavierr as she raised one arm. Her clothes caught the fire. It stuck and burned, as Belavierr lowered her arm. The [Witch] glanced at the flames. She did not look impressed.
“A Tier 3 spell, Daughter. My clothes alone could ward it off.”
Wiskeria gritted her teeth.
“You always were careless, Mother.”
She pointed at the flames still burning on Belavierr’s clothes. Wiskeria’s eyes flashed and her voice acquired an echo. She snapped her fingers.
“Come, fire. Burn hot! To punish a [Witch] whose heart she has forgot! Blaze, rage, from failed justice spark! Grant me fire to purge my mother’s dark!”
And the fire turned white and burned. Belavierr’s eyes widened. She clicked her own fingers. Instantly, the fires dimmed down. But the mother was no longer smiling.
Belavierr and Wiskeria locked eyes. And Durene saw how [Witches] fought. There were no fancy flashes of light. No tricks of magic or cunning spells like she’d heard in fabled [Mage] duels. The battle was solely one of wills and power.
This was how [Witches] did battle. Durene could feel the air grow tense. Wiskeria was muttering under her breath, snapping her fingers rhythmically. Belavierr simply closed her hand, and the white hot flames became purple. She was at a disadvantage; the contest was over the flames trying to consume her clothes. And with every snap of Wiskeria’s fingers, the flames turned brighter. Then shrank.
There was no subtlety about it. The two were just throwing magic at each other. Belavierr spoke, her tone annoyed.
“Chant spells. Basic magics aided by your craft. My Daughter, you could do so much more.”
Wiskeria took a second from chanting to snap back.
“I owe my lack of craft to you, Mother. I’ve seen what it turns you into.”
And that hurt more than the fire. Belavierr frowned. The two continued. Wiskeria raised her wand.
“Cut the air and strike the skies! Enough of my mother’s lies! Strike the murderess between the eyes!”
This time it was air. Durene saw something shift. She saw an almost invisible blade fly at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch glared.
She raised a hand and slashed. Durene saw a flash of silver; Wiskeria gasped and stumbled backwards. The blade of air severed, exploded in a burst of air. And Belavierr lowered the needle. She reached over plucked the fire off her and tossed it to the ground. Durene groaned. Belavierr pointed at the still-burning flames. Her voice was coldly disappointed.
“I do not need to chant my magic. I weave it in each thread! Daughter, you could be greater. But you lack a craft. You lack a source of strength!”
“I don’t need one!”
“You are nothing without a power to draw upon. I have failed to teach you. Your coven has failed you. A [Witch] who has no craft is weaker than anything else. A [Hedge Witch] has more strength. Come. You will learn from your coven if not I.”
So saying, Belavierr reached out. Wiskeria raised her wand. The Stitch Witch crooked a finger and Wiskeria’s robes gripped her. Durene saw the cloth pulling her arm down.
Wiskeria struggled, but the cloth constrained her movements. Belavierr pointed, and Wiskeria began moving sideways. Her clothes were pulling her.
“Must I treat you like a child, Daughter?”
Belavierr looked annoyed. But she paused as an arm barred her away. Durene looked at Ryoka. And then she realized it was her arm. The half-Troll inhaled as Belavierr looked at her.
“Stop. She doesn’t want to go.”
They were nearly of a height. The Stitch Witch stared at Durene. And the half-Troll girl felt a lump of cold fear in her stomach.
“Move, Troll’s child.”
“No. Wiskeria doesn’t want to go with you. Let her go.”
Belavierr’s eyes flashed. Durene flinched and Ryoka took a step forward.
“Be silent. I give you one last warning, half-girl. Move.”
This time the word made Durene’s heart freeze in terror. But she refused. She thought of Ser Raim. And her hands balled into fists.
“No. Make me.”
The Stitch Witch ignored her daughter. She reached towards Durene. The half-Troll raised a fist.
An arrow sprouted out of Belavierr’s chest. She staggered. Durene jerked back. Wiskeria stumbled as the clothes let her go. She stood up, turned.
Belavierr stared down at the arrow in her chest. She reached for it. And then coughed. She stumbled; that saved her from the second arrow. It hit the ground and Durene looked around wildly. Who was shooting?
Ryoka shouted, and air blasted around them. The City Runner was looking around as Charlay dashed to one side. The Centauress had the most wits about her; she kicked the ground, whipping up dust and screamed as she zig-zagged into it.
“Move, you idiots! Get behind cover!”
Wiskeria had rushed to Belavierr’s side. She looked around desperately for the archer, but they were nowhere in sight. Belavierr was coughing. Choking. Then her eyes focused. She raised a trembling hand, the same one that held the needle. She flicked it, spitting out a word.
She flung the needle. With her other hand, pulled the arrow out of her chest, grimacing. As Durene watched, horrified, Belavierr quickly ran a finger up the hole in her chest. And the red wound sealed, closing together. The blood stopped! The dress mended—
And someone screamed. Belavierr sank to one knee. Her wound and clothes were healed, but the grimace of pain still crossed her face. She looked at Wiskeria.
“I am fine, Daughter. But I must heal.”
“You closed the wound?”
“With thread. The bleeding is stopped. But the flesh is cut. I—I must use a poultice. I lack for potions. A powerful one might heal the wound in a day—”
Wiskeria stared blankly at her mother. Belavierr stood, unsteadily.
“What? Is the arrow enchanted? Do you have a potion?”
The Stitch Witch shook her head.
“I have not needed one for…”
She stopped as Wiskeria grabbed one from her belt. Belavierr frowned.
Belavierr did. She blinked. Durene didn’t see the wound close, but the grimace of pain vanished from Belavierr’s face. She rose, feeling at her chest.
“Strange. Potions were not so powerful the last time I remember using them.”
“And when was that, Mother?”
The Stitch Witch blinked. She looked at her daughter. Then she smiled, ruefully.
“Long ago that I could remember Sage’s Grass being a thing I hoarded for the power of it. I traded a perfect Cloth-Warrior made of silk and satin to a noble [Sheik] for three seeds.”
“Oh, Mother. You were always bad with money.”
The two stared at each other. And then they laughed. Belavierr quietly, and Wiskeria with a note of relieved hysteria. But they did laugh. And for a moment, they looked like a mother and daughter. Then Durene heard the scream again. And the moment vanished. But as she turned and ran, she saw Ryoka’s face. And the young woman looked as though she wished it had lasted forever.
The [Archer] was dead. He was a former [Soldier], one of Lancrel’s people. And he had been hiding behind one of the roofs in the village. He’d shot well; he was over a hundred and fifty feet distant. And he’d taken cover. But Belavierr’s needle had found him even so.
It had gone through his head. Straight through bone and brain. Belavierr didn’t retrieve the needle. Nor did she look twice at the man. She only grimaced.
“Cloth fails before Skill. I must recreate my wards. Better that it struck me than you, Daughter. The arrow would have passed straight through you.”
She looked at her daughter. Wiskeria just stared down at the man. Riverfarm’s folk stood far back, save for Durene, Charlay, and Wiskeria. But their eyes fixed on Belavierr. Durene didn’t doubt that many of them wished the [Archer] had succeeded. But when Belavierr looked up they ran. Wiskeria knelt, not looking at her mother. Her voice was broken again.
“You killed him.”
“I was defending myself.”
“You didn’t have to kill him, Mother!”
Wiskeria’s eyes flashed. Belavierr’s voice was cool. She turned away from the man.
“Should I have let him live to try again, Daughter? He made his choice and I, mine. Now, as I was saying. You must find your craft—”
She paused. Wiskeria was weeping again. Belavierr stared at her. She looked at Ryoka, Charlay, and Durene. Awkwardly, she bent.
The Stitch Witch hesitated. But Wiskeria’s tears did what magic, an arrow, and Durene hadn’t. After a moment, Belavierr went. Wiskeria wiped her eyes. She knelt by the body as people finally dared to return. Ryoka looked around.
“Who sent this man? Councilwoman Beatica? Or did he do this himself?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead. And my mother won’t die so easily. You saw it. She can stop herself from bleeding.”
“It looked close to me.”
“It was. I think it scared her.”
Ryoka paused. She looked down at Wiskeria.
“You still care for her.”
The [Witch] nodded.
“But I can’t stop her. She killed someone else today.”
Wiskeria looked up. Her eyes shone with tears. She looked at Durene, at Ryoka.
“They’re still dead, aren’t they?”
And that was how Durene understood Wiskeria’s relationship with her mother. Anger, quarreling. Unchanging natures. Disappointment on both sides. Grief. And love. Despite it all, Durene still envied Wiskeria.
Day 68 – Ullim
It was raining again. Ullim saw his [Lord]’s eyes flashing as Tyrion strode across the room.
“Someone must have reversed the [Weatherchange] spell, Lord Veltras.”
There was no answer Ullim could give. He could only speculate.
“It may be the work of another spell in another province. Weather magic does have wide-ranging effects. If the rain is being diverted—”
“Ullim. I don’t want speculation. I want answers. Who is causing this? Give me a list of people who could have caused it.”
Tyrion coldly dismissed his [Majordomo]. Which left Ullim scrambling to ask questions where he didn’t know where to start. However, he was able to come back two hours later with a bunch of [Messages].
“Lord Veltras, we may know who caused the rain.”
Tyrion and his aide looked up. The [Lord] frowned as his personal [Mage], Jericha, looked up from her own spellbooks. Ullim cleared his throat.
“A [Witch] passed through your lands some time ago, Lord Veltras. Around the same time the rains began. The villages distinctly recalled her passing—she was known as Eloise, or the ah, ‘Tea Witch’. She seems to be highly regarded by some. But hers was a notable passing. No one can recall if she was given offense, but many believe she may have cursed the region for some slight.”
“A [Witch]? I asked for answers, Ullim. Not superstition.”
Tyrion frowned darkly. Ullim coughed.
“I understand, Lord Veltras. But there are no other notable events I could find. And [Witches] can change the weather…”
“Not for this long. At least, not without considerable magic. Lord Veltras, I wouldn’t lay too much faith in this being a [Witch]’s doing. There is magic in the weather we’re experiencing. But I can’t lift it and I doubt a [Witch] would be inclined to use this much magic for a slight.”
Jericha frowned. Ullim raised a finger.
“Ah. However, I discovered one more thing of note. A discrete inquiry revealed that this [Witch] is in fact a former [Lady].”
Both Tyrion and Jericha started. Ullim nodded. It had been worth paying for that tidbit.
“Lady Eloise of House Havin. She hails from Terandria. She left her house and was considered dead to her family over three decades ago. But she is apparently the very same [Lady].”
“A [Lady] becoming a [Witch]? And she’s known as the Tea Witch?”
Jericha looked appalled at the thought. But Lord Tyrion’s brows just snapped together. He came to the same conclusion that had crossed Ullim’s mind in a moment.
Ullim nodded, darkly satisfied. It was just a hypothesis, but one [Lady] was known to have ties to countless nobles. And Magnolia Reinhart loved tea, albeit with enough sugar to classify it as something else entirely. She was also, Ullim knew, greatly fond of using agents to achieve her ends.
“Lord Veltras. After some investigation, I have noted that Lord Erill, Lady Ieka, Lord Pellmia, and a number of other notable peers of the realm are all suffering from some kind of disturbance in their weather. And Invrisil is not. Furthermore—Lord Pellmia’s [Manservant], Kilmet, reported the presence of another [Witch] passing through his lands. A figure of note. A Hedag. Or Hedag the [Executioner]. I’m not clear on whether it was a name of title.”
Ullim was rewarded by his lord’s furious expression. Tyrion Veltras strode over to a map, plotting Lord Pellmia’s lands.
“[Witches]. And Reinhart’s lands are unaffected?”
“She may have hired these [Witches] in conjunction with the trade war, sire. I can investigate. If a [Witch] did perform a ritual, they would have had to anchor the spell. We might discover it.”
“Do it, Jericha. Ullim, send work to Pellmia. Ask him about his [Witch]. Send word to each village that this [Witch] passed through. I will send an escort. I want them here tonight to testify to what occurred. And check whether Bethal, Pryde, Wuvren—any of their lands are affected by this weather.”
“Of course, Lord Veltras. And if they are not?”
Ullim held his breath as Tyrion turned his head. Lord Tyrion Veltras’ voice was quiet.
“If they are not, then I will consider Reinhart’s interference at Liscor and this latest an insult that demands my immediate attention. And I will call on every noble affected to bring that complaint to her.”
Outside, the rain drummed on the windows. But the lightning flash that would have really made the scene appropriate never came.
Day 68 – Alevica
Alevica, known as the Witch Runner, was bored. She’d been bored ever since she came to Riverfarm. Annoyed too; killing a few [Bandits] hadn’t been worth the effort. And but for one incident with that damned [Knight], Riverfarm had been as dull as could be. Although Alevica still remembered that burning figure with unease. But she would have gladly left to make some actual money if she could.
The problem was that she was a [Witch]. And even the most independent and solitary of [Witches] had to answer to their coven. And hers had sent her here. Along with a bunch of other ‘legends’ who weren’t much in person. Eloise was sweet, but faded. Hedag was fun, but hardly more than a drunk old woman with a strong right arm. Neither was a powerful [Witch] by Alevica’s standards. Wiskeria was weak, Nanette was just a kid.
Of course, then, Alevica had to grudgingly admit that Mavika was truly powerful. As was Califor. In fact, but for those two, and Alevica wouldn’t have come. But you didn’t cross either one lightly. Alevica might still have refused or left—but then there was Belavierr.
She scared the Witch Runner. And that was something Alevica would never admit out loud. But there it was. Belavierr was terrifying. Even after she’d been burnt, set on fire, shot full of arrows and been cut with a flaming greatsword—all that had done was make her Human again. She was still alive, and she’d just killed a man yesterday with a needle.
“A needle. She killed a man by throwing a needle at him. Who needs arrows when you can throw a few hundred of them? Huh?”
Alevica grinned around the dining room table where she was sitting, her chair rocked back and feet propped up. Half the [Witches] sitting around the table glanced up. No one answered. Califor spared a glare for Alevica’s feet, but said not a word. Discontented, Alevica folded her arms.
Old [Witches] and kids. This was why she hated most covens. Ryoka Griffin seemed fun at least, but she was always hanging about the older [Witches]. Alevica rocked back further in her chair, watching and listening.
Wiskeria was moaning to the coven. They’d all gathered save for Belavierr to comfort her and pat her tears away. Alevica rolled her eyes.
“I don’t understand how you can look the other way. Any of you. Didn’t you see the man she killed yesterday? What about Ser Raim?”
“We see. Some of us do not condone it, Witch Wiskeria. But we see and acknowledge it as Belavierr’s business. You have a right to speak of it by blood. But we are not Belavierr’s masters. She answers not to us. Would you have us rule her? That is not a coven’s function.”
Mavika perched on her chair, like the birds she enjoyed hanging out with. Pretentious speech aside, what she meant was the unwritten rule of [Witches]. Don’t interfere with other [Witch]’s business. Alevica sighed. Loudly. No one looked at her.
“But she kills and threatens other people! How is that right?”
Wiskeria blazed. Alevica could see her righteous fury. A bit of sadness. And love. Oh, yes. Alevica hated looking at it. The other [Witches] looked sympathetic, especially Nanette. Hedag just grinned. Now she was hard to read. Alevica knew Hedag had poor magical abilities, but she couldn’t read Hedag’s emotions any more than she could any of the other [Witches]. That bothered Alevica a bit.
It was Eloise who replied. The tea [Witch] sipped from her cup, but slowly. She hadn’t been pleased about Belavierr either, but she was defending the other [Witch]. That had to stick in her craw.
“Selfishness is in our nature, Witch Wiskeria. We act according to our natures. And we do not judge each other. We only interfere if one [Witch] endangers others. And Belavierr has not. Her trials have been her own.”
“Except that she’s putting the coven’s deal with Riverfarm in jeopardy.”
The other [Witches] paused. Well, yes. There was that. Wiskeria went on as Alevica dug in one ear.
“I’ve heard this before. ‘[Witches] act according to our natures. We obey no laws. That’s why we’re [Witches].’ But we don’t have to be lawless! We can live in society and obey rules! Eloise, you do that! And Hedag—”
She broke off as the [Executioner] laughed. Hedag shook her head.
“Ah, Wiskeria. We’re different. Eloise may live within the law, but she’s one of us. The rest, from Mavika to Califor to your mother obey their own laws. And I? I’m the biggest lawbreaker of all, according to some!”
“But Hedag, you’re a law bringer yourself—”
Wiskeria protested weakly. Hedag’s laugh cut her off.
“But my laws are my own, Wiskeria. I bear justice as I see it. Miss Califor gives aid as she sees fit. We are halves of Mavika and Alevica, who act in their interests. But we are all the same. Your mother is just more [Witch] than we!”
“But she’s a murderer.”
“And she’s good at it! Get that in your head, Wiskeria!”
Alevica cupped her hands and shouted it at Wiskeria, impatiently. She was rewarded by a glare from Wiskeria. Califor sniffed and Alevica gritted her teeth, but shut up. Mavika nodded after giving Alevica a birdish look.
“Yes. We are proud of her. For her crimes she is hunted. But she is ours, Witch Wiskeria. And she speaks the truth. You lack craft. You lack power. I say it to you too. Why do you not accept it?”
She prodded Wiskeria with a taloned finger. Wiskeria glared.
“You’re proud, Mavika?”
The crow [Witch] nodded.
“Proud. Yes. Why shouldn’t we be? She is ours. Witch Wiskeria, she is the legend of [Witches]. A dark one. And there are those of us who are outcast. But we are [Witches] still. We have been hunted and shunned. Who will stand for [Witches] if not other [Witches]? We cannot always stand alone.”
“A [Witch] has always broken laws. We all live apart. We are not city dwellers, Witch Wiskeria. We do not operate under law. Because law has always sought to exterminate our kind. That is why we seek to bargain with this [Emperor], to keep our rights. To life without fear. But he must accept that we practice our craft. We cannot be beholden.”
Califor snapped, out of patience with Wiskeria. The younger [Witch] looked up. Alevica was impressed; she didn’t flinch from Califor’s glare or the force in the old woman’s eyes.
“That’s fine for you to say, Miss Califor. But I don’t want to be a [Witch] like that.”
“You want to bow and scrape and obey laws? Why’d you take the [Witch] class, then, Wiskeria? Be a [Mage].”
Alevica laughed incredulously. This time no one shushed her. Mavika frowned dangerously.
“You speak of the end of [Witches], Wiskeria. We cannot be tamed. We will not be shackled. When law stretches across this world and the wilderness dies—so too will the last [Witch].”
“Maybe. Or maybe we’ll change. Maybe we should change. Mavika. I respect you. But I could never be you. And I can’t be my mother. No matter what she wants of me. I want to have a craft. But my mother’s deeds hang over me. She—I’m guilty because of her. Do you understand?”
“We do. But Wiskeria, she has been herself for centuries. Possibly longer. She will not change. And she is a [Witch]. Darker than many, but a [Witch] true. If anyone has yet to fully become a [Witch]—it is you.”
Eloise spoke softly. And Wiskeria’s face crumpled. Alevica looked away.
She’d had worse coven meetings. And in truth, many of them were like this. Younger [Witches] whining about trouble, or older ones complaining. Yes, sometimes you met and did real magic, the kind that made it all worthwhile, like trying to summon a spirit and bind it—or casting a powerful hex or warding spell. But other times it was just an informal gathering and support session.
Alevica was looking for an opportunity to leave when she saw Nanette dutifully hand something to her teacher. The kid had been working on it all this time. What was…?
And then Alevica saw it. It was a few houses, crudely shaped out of clay. Six, to be precise. Nanette dutifully placed the last house next to the others. Alevica nodded silently. The other [Witches] watched out of the corner of their eyes as they comforted Wiskeria. So did Alevica.
Califor was doing a working. You could feel her drawing on her power. Now, on the clean wooden table, Califor produced a handful of soil. She must have gathered it from outside. The dry earth sprinkled in a circle around the clay village. Alevica watched as Califor drew a circle around the small clay village and then reached for her flask. The [Witch] sprinkled some water from her flask on the model village. The [Witch] paused, frowned, and then sprinkled more water on top.
Alevica gleaned out the window. She felt the power go out—but the sky didn’t so much as change. She peered at Califor, smirking. Right up until the [Witch] looked up, peeved. Then Alevica pretended to be studying the ceiling.
“No luck? I tried a little water spell by the river. Had nothing.”
Hedag leaned over, inspecting the village. Eloise pursed her lips silently as Califor glared at the clay village, as if willing it to explode. Nanette looked nervous as she shifted by her teacher. Alevica had to admit, it was something. She’d never seen nor heard of Califor failing at any basic spell like this.
“Something is working against my magic.”
Hedag nodded. So did Eloise. And then Mavika. Everyone stared at her. The crow [Witch] looked annoyed.
“My flock has created a crow-sign for rain. It failed. Something is at work here.”
Every [Witch] looked at the other, speculatively. No one said it. But Alevica could think of a few reasons why these small workings had failed. Either someone was using some powerful magic to alter the weather—or one of them had created a serious working.
It wasn’t as if covens didn’t have [Witches] working towards their own ends. Califor snapped into the sudden silence.
“I trust that everyone understands that this deal with the [Emperor] supersedes all other commitments. This coven gathered to address the attack on [Witches]. To strike a deal for sanctuary. And to deal with Witch Wiskeria’s relationship to Witch Belavierr. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
Eloise nodded. So did the others. Alevica just grinned. She yawned openly as she got up. The other [Witches] looked at her. Mavika frowned.
“Witch Alevica. Where are you going?”
“Out. It’s been fun, fellow [Witches]. But I’m tired of cheering Wiskeria up and making daggers at each other. If someone’s messing with the weather, isn’t that their right as a [Witch]?”
Alevica smiled cheerily at the others. Califor’s brows snapped together.
“Witch Alevica, if you know something, speak. A [Witch]’s business is our own. But this touches on the future of all [Witches]—”
“Yeah, yeah. I get it. But isn’t that the opposite of what you told Wiskeria? Hey, Wis. You want to be a [Witch] who barks and obeys orders? Go ahead. But if you think you’ll get your craft from people out of gratitude or something, think again. What can they give you? Eloise barely makes her tea, Hedag gets her strength from little children—you want to know why your mom has all her power? It’s because she does what she wants and scares the daylights out of people. That’s what being a [Witch] is. That’s power. Can you match that?”
Alevica grinned mockingly at Wiskeria. She was rewarded with Wiskeria’s glare and flushed cheeks. Wiskeria paused, and then snapped back.
“No. And neither can you. Even you can’t take misery and grief like she can, Alevica. That’s why she called you weak.”
The Witch Runner’s cheeks went crimson. She clenched a hand, then glared at Wiskeria. She made a sign that made Nanette gasp and stormed out of the house.
Alevica went flying. She was still fuming, but soaring through the sky above Riverfarm made her feel better. Up high, everything was better. People were little dots and she stared down at them. The trouble was that even flying, Alevica couldn’t shake Wiskeria and her mother’s words.
“Weak? I’ll show you who’s weak! You can’t even do a major working! I can!”
The Witch Runner shouted as she flew faster and faster. She could fly! Wiskeria was as weak as Nanette! But—Alevica could also feel herself burning her magic. She couldn’t fly long. And she was furious because she knew Belavierr was right. Grudges and envy and anger had some magic, but it wasn’t strong. Alevica found that seeping the enjoyment from her as she flew.
And it was hot. The sun beat down overhead. Alevica glared up at it. Someone was affecting the weather, she was certain. It wasn’t her. But it could have been any of the [Witches]. Or—someone else. And when she thought of that, Alevica decided to go on a hunt.
The thing about flying was that she could travel faster than even Charlay for a while. And being this high up meant that Alevica could potentially spot a working if one of the [Witches] had hidden it. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but Alevica could see magical power just as well as any [Mage]. And she bet she could recognize a working if someone like Hedag or Eloise had laid it. Califor or Belavierr…? Well, it was worth looking.
Alevica crisscrossed the skies, seeking out places of power. You could follow old ley lines in the ground, places were magic was stronger. That would be a likely spot. Not that there were any old gravesites or magical ponds about. Mavika was right, in her way. As civilization progressed, people took the magic out of the world.
The old [Witches] in Alevica’s real coven loved to yammer on about how you couldn’t go two miles without tripping over a magical cairn or something. Alevica wished she’d been born in those days. When there was power, waiting to be tapped instead of weak emotions—
“Hello. Who’s that?”
The [Witch] spotted something on her third flight. She swooped down and spotted him. A…man. But there was power about him. Magic? He was hiding in a stand of trees, as dried as the earth. And he saw her at the same time as she saw him.
There was no running. He didn’t even try. The man with the odd hat walked forwards her. Smiling. It was an uncanny smile. Too wide, with too much teeth. Actually, it was the same kind of smile Alevica liked to give. Like a predator’s grin.
“Hello there. You must be that [Witch Hunter] Ryoka was talking about.”
Alevica casually reached for her crossbow and shortsword as she alighted on the ground. She was running out of mana after so much flying. But she’d found the man and she had Skills in fighting too. The man eyed her as Alevica alighted.
“Well, I’m delighted to be so popular. Good evening, Miss…Witch?”
“What gave it away?”
Alevica grinned. She eyed the man up and down. Yup. Hat, clothing—all of it matched the former [Witch Hunters]. Another one? Alevica felt a twinge of danger. But she was dangerous too. She pointed at him.
“And who’re you?”
“Just a traveller—”
Alevica drew her crossbow. The man paused.
“You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed traveller, Miss?”
“I don’t see anyone watching us.”
Alevica bluffed. She was watching the man carefully. He had lots of power about him. Strange—she was having a hard time reading him. He was far too calm. He wasn’t a [Mage]—but—
“Why don’t you tell me why you’re hanging around, causing trouble for my kind? And if you try to run, I’ll shoot you and see what I can find on your body.”
That threat should have done something to his emotions, but the man was cool. He just grinned at her. And Alevica began to get uneasy herself. He shrugged, his hands lowering a touch towards his own belt. He had a bag of holding there.
“Just call me a scout, Miss Witch. Or a hunter who deals in fire and retribution to those who deserve it. One of many. But I’d rather not fight with you. What say we go our own ways?”
“And let a [Witch Hunter] go free? You put that [Knight] on Belavierr, didn’t you?”
“Maybe. Could you fault me for that? You [Witches] tend to cause trouble.”
“Yeah. We kill people we don’t like. Who are you? Last question! Answer me!”
Alevica gritted out. She didn’t like the way the man was watching her anymore. She’d identified the emotion coming off him. And it wasn’t fear or even wariness. He was going to try to kill her. It was an almost intangible, cold certainty. He’d been ready to kill her the instant he saw her. She wished she’d stayed on her broom. She warily reached for her sword. And the man just smiled.
“Miss Witch, I’d fly away. I really would. I have no quarrel with you specifically. But if you want to make this an issue, I’d much rather—”
Alevica fired her crossbow and drew her sword. As she did, she chanted an incantation in her mind.
Sword, cut and bite! Bolt, truest flight!
She saw the bolt curve towards the man. He staggered as he leapt sideways. The bolt stuck out of his side. Alevica charged him. She saw him reach for his belt. His hands flashed as she slashed at his head—
The spear went into her stomach. Alevica realized that after she screamed. She stared at the sword on the ground. The man raised his spear. It was bloody. Her blood. Alevica screamed as she felt the burning again. Desperately, she reached for a potion. Drank it.
It did nothing. Something was burning her insides. Poison. The [Witch] stared up as the man casually kicked her blade away.
“Poor luck, Miss Witch. You should have hit me with that bolt somewhere it mattered.”
He lifted the spear, and then reconsidered.
“[Witches] cast curses with their dying breath. Or so the textbooks say. I can’t risk one now. Curse me and I’ll finish you off. Otherwise—you can hope someone finds you.”
He walked away. Alevica tried to shout after him. Swear that if he didn’t give her the antidote, she would curse him. But all she could do was scream.
The pain was burning. The poison—Alevica realized she was bleeding. Dying. The Witch Runner whispered. Magic. She had to call on her magic.
“Poison bites and tears away. But—but life, hold and stay! Blood, thicken and stop! Stop! Call help and give aid! Before this [Witch]’s life fades—”
She tried to pour her magic into the spell. But she couldn’t focus. She was slowing the bleeding. But she couldn’t pour energy into a working. Alevica lay there, clutching at her stomach. The poison was eating her up. The blood…trickled…away…
It was hot. Alevica screamed for help. And then her voice gave out. She lay there, the world fading. Her magic fading. Until she heard galloping hooves and an urgent voice.
“She’s here! She’s here! Ryoka! She’s hurt!”
Alevica heard someone racing towards her. She felt something huge kneel. A huge body. Not a Human’s. As hard to read as that man. Alevica couldn’t do non-Humans well—
“Alevica! It’s me!”
Charlay? The Centauress grabbed Alevica. Then she saw the blood.
“You need a potion! Ryoka! Ryoka!”
“I’m here! I—”
Someone. Blurry shapes. Alevica looked up. She felt a cool hand on her. Babbling voices.
“—stabbed her. Help me get—”
Alevica could groan the words. She spoke, desperately.
“No potion. Poison.”
The two voices babbled. And then someone picked Alevica up. She screamed and cursed, but the hands pushed her up. And then someone was holding her as she was bounced. And each bounce took more blood away. Someone was babbling at her to stay away. Stay awake—
“Emperor Laken’s close by, Alevica. Close enough for him to locate you when you didn’t come back. Hold on. We’ll get you to Riverfarm. Charlay, run. She’s not going to make it—”
“I’m trying. Just hold her! [Lightning Gallop]—”
Alevica begged. She didn’t know what was happening anymore. Someone was slapping her. And then she was flying. Flying and falling. Into the darkness. Until she felt the power, and the [Witch] who held it.
“She’s dying. She’s lost too much blood. The potions don’t work with the poison in her. She needs a transfusion—”
Ryoka was babbling. She was still trying to apply pressure. Eloise stared down at Alevica’s pale face, the tinge of green in the wound.
“She will not die. My coven, hold Alevica here while I work. I’m familiar with poisons as well as teas and herbs. I can counter it. Give me a moment.”
The old [Witch] spread her herbs on the table next to Alevica. The [Witch] was so pale and still. Even the blood had stopped oozing. But maybe that was because of the [Witches] who stood around her.
All of them were there. Wiskeria, Belavierr, Hedag, Califor, Mavika, even Nanette. And they looked down on Alevica. It was dusk. The light cast long shadows on their faces. But their eyes had a luminescence of their own.
“Hold her. Give her strength.”
Eloise ordered the others. And Alevica’s chest seemed to rise and fall only by virtue of the [Witch]’s stares. Nanette’s face was pale. Califor’s eyes focused on Alevica’s face. Hedag leaned on her axe, her eyes blazing.
“Mother. Can you save her?”
Wiskeria never looked away from Belavierr. The Stitch Witch paused. And her voice was heavy with power.
“It is not my strength. Witch Eloise surpasses me in that field. Hold her.”
“We cannot. She is dying.”
The raven on Mavika’s shoulder called once, echoing the [Witch]’s words. Eloise was mixing something, spreading it on Alevica’s stomach. Wiskeria clenched her hands.
“No! No! She can’t die!”
“She is fading. She has lost too much blood.”
“It isn’t right.”
“If we’d been faster—”
Ryoka clutched at her head. She was trying to figure out how to transfuse blood. Tubes? No! She couldn’t cut Alevica. She looked around desperately. A funnel. But she needed to test Alevica’s blood type—
They hadn’t noticed Alevica was gone until in the evening. And then the coven had grown concerned. The older [Witches] had felt…something. And Laken’s [Message] had come at the right moment. He’d found her. But—
“She can’t die. She can’t! We need more power!”
Wiskeria looked around, desperately. Belavierr’s eyes began to glow, and then stopped.
“I have not enough. We are holding her on the edge of life. We need more to pull her back.”
She looked up. Wordlessly, at Ryoka. The City Runner shouted, desperately. She saw people crowded around the house, staring in.
“Take it from me!”
Charlay called from the door. The Centauress’ eyes were wide. Wiskeria looked at them, desperately. Mavika hissed.
“Then give me your passion! Give us feelings! Strong as can be!”
Ryoka looked at Alevica. She was rude, arrogant, she’d burned Charlay’s tale, but she didn’t deserve this—
“I take your desperation.”
“I take your grief.”
“I take your rage.”
Mavika, Belavierr, and Hedag spoke as one. Ryoka felt it go out of her. She stared at Alevica, suddenly blank. A bit empty. The [Witch]’s eyes flickered. Mavika whispered.
“Not enough. More.”
The [Witches] looked to the crowd. And the people shuddered. But Belavierr shouted towards them.
“She’s dying! Someone’s stabbed her! Don’t you feel a thing? Feel something! We’re trying to save her!”
The people heard. And some—some felt what Ryoka had felt and it was taken. But too many just stared. And Ryoka heard the word, unspoken.
They did not care for her. They did not care, truly care if Alevica died. What the crowd saw, what they experienced was…
Helplessness. Just as when they had seen Belavierr facing Ser Raim. Desperate—hope—longing—anger—fear—it wasn’t strong enough. No one emotion. What could sum up the death? The loss? It wasn’t right. But they did not know Alevica. She was a [Witch] and they did not know her. But someone had killed her—
Ryoka could see the [Witches] trying to pull power from the crowd. But they weren’t any one thing. They weren’t afraid. They weren’t angry enough either. It was just horror and pain and loss—but numbed after what they had seen. Wiskeria screamed.
“It’s not enough. Can’t you feel anything? This isn’t right! This isn’t right! Why don’t you care?”
And they looked at her. Belavierr’s daughter. And at Alevica. And the reaching [Witches] took nothing. They closed their eyes as Alevica’s breathing slowed. Wiskeria looked around desperately. And then she felt something. And she pulled and the crowd gasped. Ryoka’s eyes went wide. It went out of her too, as she grasped Alevica’s hand. That emotion. That—
And the power went into the [Witch] and she opened her eyes. Ryoka saw Eloise press the poultice to her and speak.
Each of the [Witches] reached down. They grasped a part of Alevica. Ryoka, holding Alevica, felt a jolt of something more alive than electricity hit her. She jerked back. Alevica jerked. She sat upright, head smacking into Nanette’s and screamed.
The poultice fell away, black and wet. Alevica’s stomach was raw, bloody. Eloise splashed a potion on Alevica as the [Witch] flailed. And then she was alive. Wiskeria staggered back into her mother’s arms. Nanette cradled her head as Califor drew her back. The [Witch] slapped Alevica on the back of the head as the Witch Runner flailed, slashing with a sword she didn’t have. Alevica stopped. She blinked down at her stomach as it began to heal.
“Alevica! What happened?”
The [Witch]’s face was deathly pale. She jerked, staring around.
“Which one of you—the power—”
All the [Witches] were looking at Wiskeria. They looked back at Alevica as she jerked again, still in shock. The words came out in a rush.
“The bastard had a spear. And—artifacts. Lots of ‘em. I sensed it on him. I didn’t think he’d be that fast—he had poison on it!”
Ryoka leaned over the table, urgently. Alevica looked at her. Her mouth worked.
“The man with the smile.”
Hours later, Ryoka was standing in conference with several [Witches], Rie, Prost, and her own dark thoughts. She had heard everything from Alevica before the Witch Runner had passed out. And Charlay had repeated her encounter with the man—as had Ryoka. It wasn’t conclusive. But he had just bumped himself up on the list of people Ryoka suspected of…something.
The drought? Or just the attack on Belavierr? Either way, he’d tried to kill Alevica. But who was he? No one knew. And worse still, he’d vanished. Mavika was the last to return. Her crows landed, cawing loudly, and the [Witch] herself walked into the home. She looked…angry. Only, angry didn’t describe the hunched, elongated form. The nails that looked like talons. For a moment, as the [Witch] stepped out of the night she looked like something else. Something that hunted and screamed in the darkness of mankind’s dreams.
The Humans shuddered and drew back. Ryoka waited as Mavika seemed to shrink. The [Witch] spoke curtly.
“This [Hunter] of yours moves quick. My crows could not find him. And they flew wide. Even with a horse, he was fast, to outrun wings.”
“You lost him?”
“We searched miles. Either he hid with powerful spell or he raced so fast as to be a bird himself.”
The [Witch] glared. The conference room was silent. Ryoka drummed her fingers on the table. Lady Rie spoke, briskly.
“Laken’s nearby enough that we can ask him to locate the [Witch Hunter]. He can sense everything on his lands and we replaced all his totems.”
The others nodded. Ryoka bit her lip as Nesor sent a [Message]. The reply came back slowly, as Nesor scribbled it line by line on a piece of parchment with agonizing slowness. Ryoka read it with the others, crowding to see.
Ryoka, Durene—all—I am searching for the [Witch Hunter] you described. I cannot find him. The [Witches] I can sense. Belavierr is…different. Not Human? I also sensed a Centauress? Ryoka’s friend Charlay? Among others? A number of non-Humans on my lands! I am closing in on Riverfarm. Do not kill the Goblins hiding in the forest, please. I will aid as best I can as soon as I get here. News about lack of rain troubles me. It is still raining where we are. Why? Circle of Thorns?
“So. Is this my death?”
Belavierr whispered into the silence that followed. Everyone stared at her. The Stitch Witch looked back. Wiskeria was still staring at her hands. She had been ever since Alevica had been saved. And her mother—Belavierr’s eyes flickered upwards. As if tracing a thread only she could see.
No one had any answers. Alevica was sleeping, under Eloise’s watchful gaze. Hedag was walking the perimeter of Riverfarm and Califor was attending to Nanette. The other [Witches] kept their own council. Belavierr shared none of her thoughts. Ryoka made hers clear to Durene, Rie, Prost, and Charlay.
“What do we know? That man seems incredibly suspicious. But is he responsible for the lack of rain? I got in touch with Fierre and she said that a man with his description paid her to alert the Order of Seasons. But who is he?”
“A [Witch Hunter] trying to kill Belavierr?”
“Or a member of this Circle of Thorns. Does it matter, Ryoka? Laken can find him. He can sense everything on his lands. He’ll get him and tell us and we’ll find him and make him talk.”
Durene pounded a fist into one hand. Ryoka nodded dubiously. It couldn’t be that easy? Could it? She waited, with Nesor in the room as it slowly emptied. The [Mage] was uncomfortable. But no matter how long Ryoka waited, until she was yawning with fatigue, no reply from Laken came.
They were sleeping, dozing, when Ryoka took to Durene’s cottage for sleep. She told herself Laken would send a [Message] tomorrow. But she had only slept an hour before someone hammered at Durene’s door.
“Ryoka, wake up!”
It was Beniar. The [Cataphract] hadn’t news from Laken, though. He practically dragged Ryoka towards the village.
“What is it?”
The former adventurer’s face was serious. He pointed towards Riverfarm, where some torched blazed.
“There’s a group of people outside Riverfarm. Beniar’s [Riders] stopped them. They say they know you. They’re asking to be let in.”
Day 69 – Ryoka
Ryoka looked at the [Archer]. She remembered the man. Only, she had known him only by the bow he carried. His had been the first settlement she’d come to. The one guarded by the independent group of people with bows who’d refused to move to Riverfarm.
They were here now. And they carried only a few possessions. One bow. Half had burns. The other looked white with exhaustion. Fear. Loss. Ryoka stared at the man’s face. She hadn’t even known his name. It was Nale. He held his wife and looked at her.
She could feel it. All the pieces were falling into place. An invisible pattern, making itself known. And it made itself known through tragedy. Nale’s face was pale. Still covered in soot. His wife clung to his side. The group had come straight from their settlement. It was still dark. And the fires still burning.
“The entire barn went up in seconds. We tried to fight it—but it was too dry. We barely got out.”
Nale’s voice cracked. His wife wept into his shoulder. The [Archer] looked helplessly at Ryoka.
“It was too fast. Too fast, and our wells were too low. The drought—”
“We lost everything. Everything. The animals went up. Dead gods, we couldn’t get them.”
Another woman leaned on a wall. She was too shocked to even sit. Prost looked deeply disturbed. Ryoka just stared at Nale. And then she got up. She hesitated. And then she reached out and put an arm on his shoulder.
She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. The man stiffened. But it was all Ryoka could do. Then he relaxed. And he began to shake. Ryoka didn’t know him. But they stood together, two people. And she looked at his wife, as she rested a hand on the woman’s arm. Looked into her eyes.
“You can stay here. Riverfarm needs people like you. There’s room for you. And everyone.”
She looked past them at Prost. The [Steward] nodded.
“Of course. We’d be delighted to have the folks of Tabeil here.”
The group’s eyes filled with relief. They relaxed. And some did begin weeping then. Ryoka stayed with them. But she had to go. She had to excuse herself. Because her mind was racing.
“Fire. We have an arsonist. Or maybe it’s just the drought. Either way, we need to take precautions now.”
She gathered Prost, Rie, and the coven. Rie nodded, eyes wide.
“The water. We can put in barrels around the village.”
“This entire place is made of wood. It’ll go up like a bonfire if a fire isn’t caught.”
“Patrols, then. No one sets a fire here. Day and night we check for that bastard. If he is causing fires.”
“It could just be coincidence. Hell, one bit of heat lightning would start a fire. We need more precautions.”
Ryoka looked at the [Witches]. Hedag exchanged a glance with Califor. The [Witches] nodded. Hedag turned back to Ryoka. The [Executioner] nodded.
“In that case, we’ll do as all folks do in face of a fire. Dig a ditch. A firebreak. Here and here—far enough away from the village that flames won’t jump it. We’ll also remove brush. Tinder—anything that goes up easy.”
She pointed, indicating areas outside the village proper. Ryoka blinked. Califor nodded.
“Of course. Clear a space and a fire has nothing to feed on. You. [Steward]. Put all of your people to this task. We will clear a wide enough space that no sparks may jump across the break.”
She marched past Prost and began ordering people into teams as Hedag described how deep the firebreak should be. Ryoka stared, blinking. Trust [Witches] to have sensible solutions instead of magic. But Ryoka would have really preferred actual magical solutions to this drought. When she asked, though, Eloise only shook her head, looking troubled.
“We’ve been trying. All of us have cast charms. But short of a powerful working, we cannot change this weather.”
“Can you do one, then? A working?”
The [Witch] pursed her lips.
“Perhaps. But we would rather do it on a full moon, at the height of our strength. We have used much saving Alevica. She is still healing, so our coven is incomplete. And Belavierr—we could attempt one tonight. But Miss Ryoka, I fear we lack the power to shift whatever is affecting this weather. None of us specialize in weather magic.”
She looked directly at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated. She nodded at last.
“Please try, then. Tonight.”
Eloise nodded. That left Ryoka with Charlay and Durene. The City Runner paced.
“The [Witches] might manage to lift the spell. Unless they’re behind it.”
“Or that [Witch Hunter] is actually a [Weather Mage] of some sort.”
Charlay pawed the ground nervously. Durene restlessly clenched and unclenched her fists. They could feel it too. Something—Ryoka looked around. The wind was so silent. Something was controlling it too. She sat down at the table. And she tried to force a connection.
“What do we know? Either it’s a mysterious hunter who’s been lurking about, someone we haven’t seen, or a [Witch]. And the motive’s clearly to hurt Riverfarm. Maybe even start some fires. Who knows? But more importantly, who gains from this?”
Charlay frowned. Ryoka went on, thumping her heels of her hands into her forehead.
“Who wins if Riverfarm collapses? If Belavierr dies as well? The Circle of Thorns, right? Or…”
She looked up.
“Magnolia Reinhart. She’s not a fan of Laken. And I bet she doesn’t want someone like Belavierr around.”
Durene looked astonished and worried. Charlay started, but Ryoka was already pulling back from the idea as soon as she voiced it.
“No. No—this isn’t her style. She doesn’t kill innocent people. I think. And this isn’t her style. The Circle of Thorns, then.”
But she had no proof. No proof of anything. Ryoka rested her head in her hands. She sat there, her mind running in circles, slamming into invisible walls. She was missing something. She couldn’t see what the angle was. She had no proof.
She only moved when she heard the voice. It rang from rooftop to rooftop in Riverfarm. It was a shout. A call. A challenge. It broke through Ryoka’s stupor. Wiskeria’s voice.
There she stood. A [Witch] wearing a dark blue hat. She stood in the middle of the street. And a [Witch] wearing a wide hat, with ringed eyes and a dress as dark as her sins walked to meet her. Ryoka stumbled out of the house. And Riverfarm gathered.
Furtively. Hanging back. They feared her. But they came anyways. For spectacle, perhaps. Out of fear of what new event might befall them. But perhaps—perhaps also because of hope. Because on one side stood a monster. The Stitch Witch. And on the other, her daughter. And the people of Riverfarm knew Wiskeria.
She held her wand. And another hand held her hat. The [Witch] faced her mother. And Belavierr walked towards her. She ignored the looks. She had eyes only for her daughter.
“Daughter. Have you found your craft? Do you hate me still?”
“Yes. And yes, Mother. I have told you once and again. I cannot forgive what you do.”
Belavierr sighed. But her eyes were focused on Wiskeria.
“Daughter. I am a [Witch]. You know what this means. If you cannot accept me, how can you accept any of our kind? Shall I tell you of Mavika’s sins? She has done black deeds and fair. What is the difference between she and I?”
Mavika stood in the crowd, waiting. Califor and Nanette walked to join them. Hedag and Eloise waited, faces expectant. Alevica slept. Wiskeria shook her head. And she looked past Belavierr at Mavika.
“I know what Mavika has done. Or I can guess. But Mother—it may be selfish. But I only care about you. You alone I cannot forgive. Because I see what you do. So. I’m telling you here and now that I will stop you. I believe there are laws that [Witches] should obey. I believe we should obey them. My coven tells me that [Witches] cannot exist in cities. And I have been a [Witch] and I have walked through cities as an adventurer. I say—we can be [Witches] even under law. And I will be that [Witch].”
She spoke the words, looking into her mother’s eyes. And Belavierr sighed. The expectant light faded from her.
“Daughter. Laws bind us. Laws constrain us. To be a [Witch] is to follow our passions. What passion, what craft have you that could exist in a city.”
“My passion, Mother, is born out of my disgust for you! Don’t you see? You are what I want to stop!”
Wiskeria cried out. And Belavierr’s eyes flickered. She stood taller, and the shadows rose around her.
“And what could such a [Witch] take? Goodwill from those you help? Fleeting gratitude? Anger from those you oppose? Daughter, what is your craft?”
She looked at the faces of the people around her. And the Stitch Witch’s eyes showed only contempt. Riverfarm’s people shouted at her. But their anger burnt away before her stare. Their hope turned to ash in their mouths. She took their fear and hatred. Leaving Wiskeria with…
Nothing? No. Ryoka felt it in her chest too. Even as Belavierr’s eyes filled her with fear. Something—a longing that even Belavierr’s horror couldn’t touch. Ser Raim had given it fire. And Wiskeria pulled it from Ryoka. She raised her wand. And the wind blew. Ryoka looked up. Belavierr’s eyes widened. And the [Witches] stared. Wiskeria pointed up and closed her eyes. And she spoke a word.
A bolt of lightning fell from the skies. It flashed down and struck Belavierr. The Stitch Witch went flying. And Wiskeria caught the lightning as it tried to flee. She held it for a second. And it shone in her hands. Then she aimed it back up into the sky. The bolt split the heavens.
Belavierr stared up at her daughter from where she had been flung to the ground. And Wiskeria swept her hat from her head and bowed. Mockingly. Challengingly. And Riverfarm screamed her name.
“I will never be a [Witch] like you. I will be something else. Something better. And I swear I will stop you. Even if it takes me my entire life, I will become a [Witch] who can end what you do! That is my craft! And this is my magic!”
She pointed at Belavierr and turned away. The Stitch Witch lay there. And Wiskeria’s coven looked at their [Witch]. And all of them slowly raised their hats and tipped them. Hedag was laughing. Eloise smiling with pure delight. Califor nodded, and Mavika smiled for a moment. Nanette’s eyes were shining.
And Belavierr? She lay on her back as Riverfarm’s people dispersed. A black shadow on the ground. Ryoka went over to her. And she looked down as Belavierr stared up at the sky. The Stitch Witch’s face was expressionless. And then—
She beamed. Ryoka jumped back. Belavierr spoke upwards.
“My daughter has a purpose.”
She sat up in one motion. And she stood in another. And she looked at Ryoka, delighted. Ecstatic. Ryoka stared at her.
“But she hates you.”
Belavierr paused. And something like sorrow flickered in her gaze. And something else.
“If it is hating me, I will be her hate. That is my love for her. But let her be a better [Witch] than I. But let her live. Ryoka Griffin, the threads draw closer. Can you see whence my death comes?”
“No. I’m missing something. I don’t know what. I can’t figure out what this is all about!”
The City Runner shook her head. Her heart was pounding. Belavierr leaned forwards.
“You lack a thread. Then see it. This is what you seek. I see it. Tell me my death.”
She pointed. And Ryoka saw Nesor running towards her. The [Mage] had a bit of parchment in his hands.
“A [Message] from Laken! Miss Ryoka—”
The City Runner snatched the parchment from his hands. Belavierr turned away. She smiled as she left. And Ryoka read. She blinked. And read again.
Ryoka. I scanned every part of my lands for a guy with a hat like you mentioned lurking about. No one. I missed the fire, but it wasn’t [Bandits]. Beniar rode down the last of them yesterday. Only travellers on the road looks like a few Runners, some travellers including those refugees, and a…lizard-person [Merchant]? Drake? No [Hunter] either way.
“No hunter? But—”
Ryoka’s mind whirled. Could he have escaped? But Laken’s vision as [Emperor] was perfect. Could you cheat it? She looked at Nesor. The young [Mage]’s face was pale. Ryoka turned.
“You said it was the last clue. But how—”
Belavierr was gone. Ryoka stared after her. And then she slowly looked down at the parchment.
A man. A [Witch Hunter]. Or so she’d thought.
‘Izril has few of my kind I’m sorry to say, although we’ve been present in greater numbers in times past.’
A stranger who appeared on the roads. Who never got too close. He’d never said who he was.
‘[Witches] tend to see right through me and I think I’d be at odds with them.’
He’d told Alevica he was a…scout. A hunter who dealt in retribution in fire. Ryoka’s pulse began to accelerate.
That smile. That huge, grinning, toothy smile. The kind that made Humans uneasy. Because people didn’t smile like that. It was a sign of aggression. But Ryoka remembered a city where people smiled like that. Every. Single. Day. Two species smiled like that.
And one of them could fly. A few of them. There used to be more. Ryoka looked down at the parchment. Laken had said ‘non-Humans’ the first time. And this time—no one had ever mentioned a Drake [Merchant].
“Nesor. Send a [Message] back to Laken. Ask him what this Drake looks like.”
The [Mage] paused. Slowly, he put his fingers on his temples. He spoke the response.
“He has scrolls, Ryoka. Lots of scrolls. And wings.”
You could change the weather with scrolls. They were really expensive, though. But why? Ryoka didn’t know why. But she was certain. And before she could ask a second question, Nesor spoke, urgently.
“Ryoka. He’s breathing fire. I saw it. He just set a village on fire. Eighteen miles northeast, down the northern road heading left at the crossroads. He has a camp in a stand of trees. Hurry!”
Ryoka spun. She screamed a name. Mavika looked up. Ryoka ran. And now the pieces fit. All but one.
She understood who he was. What he was doing. But not why. If she thought about it, she would understand. But it wasn’t something that tied him to Riverfarm. He had never come here before. And he bore this place no great hatred. It was just a place.
But an [Emperor] called it home. That was enough. The man looked up as the crows flew towards him. He sighed as they sped towards him, a murder seeking his death. And then the man grinned. That toothy grin that was the only flaw in a perfect disguise. He shed the illusion spell.
“It seems my time is up.”
The bronze-scaled Drake flexed his wings. The crows paused, wheeling, and then dove. The Drake didn’t fly. He just inhaled as the crows dove through the foliage he was hiding in. And he exhaled.
Fire blasted upwards. Fire, bright and glorious. The flock of crows diving towards the Oldblood Drake screamed and burned. The rest fled, and the [Witch] screamed her wrath, miles distant. The Drake laughed and walked out of the fire.
He didn’t fear the heat. Far hotter heat burned in his veins. He was a child of Dragons. And his blood had thrown truest. He spread his wings. And he did fly then. The Drake mused as he took wing. How had they found him? Had the [Witch] he’d spared identified him?
It didn’t really matter. The preparations were done. The Drake reached for one of the scrolls he carried. He had any number of artifacts. For disguise. To change the weather. A fortune in expendable items. More than any casual Wall Lord could finance. But a Walled City?
Oh yes. A Walled City could stockpile such valuable items. And spend them in times of need. Now, the Drake took a [Message] scroll and wrote a simple line in it. He watched the ink vanish. The note was sent. His cover was blown first. So it was time.
“A day or two sooner than I’d like. No matter.”
The Drake mused as he flew across the dry landscape. He beat his wings. Stared down at the scattered villages, lonely houses. They didn’t know why he was doing this. They might never know. And perhaps, they hadn’t had a choice. This new [Emperor] might have forced them to war.
It didn’t really matter. The Humans had come to Liscor to take it. They had brought war. And the Drake had his orders. So he flew down. And he exhaled a plume of fire.
Just one. But that was all it took, wasn’t it? Fire was a terrifying thing. The Drake watched the flames lick into a forest. A dry forest, one made far too dry by the weather changing spells. And the brush caught. The fire began to consume dry bark, leaves. It began to grow. The Drake flew up, satisfied. He caught the thermals. Flew towards the second patch of fuel he’d marked.
He hadn’t known the [Witches] were here. But he and the other [Infiltrators] had been ordered to adapt. And it didn’t matter how it had turned out. Win or lose, [Witch] or [Knight], he hadn’t really cared. He’d paid the [Bandits] to attack the [Witches] because they were a hindrance if they spotted him. But either way, Humans had died.
And Terandria? A high-level [Summer Knight] had perished. A [Witch]—one of the old enemies of his people—had been brought low. The fires might still consume her. Both were victories for Drakes, who warred with Terandria and northern Izril. The Drake smiled as he found another forest. He breathed flame. And the tinder caught.
The dry forests began to burn. The grasslands started to blaze. The Drake fanned the flames with his wings, lighting more parts up. It wasn’t random, but strategic. He had identified every spot he needed to ignite.
Drakes understood fire. They understood how it could move. How fast it could travel. And grow. If the circumstances were right—a single Drake in the right conditions could do more damage than an enemy. The Drake dispassionately exhaled in the final location. Now, to fan the flames.
“Time for wind. [Weatherchange].”
He raised a scroll. And the wind began blowing. It added air to the growing fires. Began to carry sparks and embers. The Drake laughed to see it. He flew upwards, watching. Waiting. The fires would take longer to grow. But they were one of many.
He was one of many.
Across Izril, the Drakes flew. Oldblood Drakes, each gifted with a breath. A target. Some had set their stages with weather. Others with poison and rot. Still more had simply attacked targets of opportunity. They knew their targets well. The lands of the nobles who had besieged Liscor.
The first bolts of lightning began falling from the skies, striking the Veltras estates. In his manor, Lord Gralton raced into the kennels. Saw the dead and dying dogs. Sick. Poisoned. A Drake spat acid into the water supply as Gralton roared his fury. Another spewed dark fog into the skies before she unsheathed her blades, hunting Pellmia’s lands in the blackness.
Flame. Lightning. Acid. Cloud. Frost. Oldblood Drakes flew, bringing vengeance. And the one who had watched Riverfarm flew.
“Fire for Manus. Fire for Liscor!”
The fire burned and blazed. Spreading. Growing. First an acre of blazing land. Then two spots. Ten. Dozens. And then it was a line of fire a mile long. Two miles. The Drake added to the fire, directing it. Blowing it towards a village. And Ryoka Griffin stared at the sky. Laken paused as he rode towards his home and cried out as his dream became reality.
The [Witches] looked up. And Belavierr saw her death.
There it was. Larger than any mortal threat. More terrifying than an army. Spreading. Growing. Joining together and blazing, fanned by fierce winds, spreading embers through the sky. Feasting on dry ground, a spring’s worth of fuel. Moving towards a village. Burning brighter and racing like—