6.46 E

Day 70

 

Fire. Fire for Manus. Fire from the skies. Fire, lightning, acid, fog, ice—the elements of the Dragons. And their children, flying through the skies, bringing death to Human lands. It had come to Riverfarm.

Laken could see it. The Drake was lighting up the entire countryside. This wasn’t undirected arson. There was a strategy to it. The [Emperor] spoke, his throat constricted.

“He’s—igniting every patch of forest in thirty miles. Not just around Riverfarm. Anywhere there’s a settlement. Cities, towns—some of the villages are already in the path of the flames.”

Laken couldn’t see into the villages he didn’t own. But he could see everywhere else. For now. Once again, his map of the landscape was burning. Totems made of wood burned like everything else.

It was too dry. The grass, the forests—everything—was fuel ready to go up without a drop of water in over a week. But that was by design as well.

“Your village must flee, Laken. Now.”

Yitton Byres snapped. The caravan heading towards Riverfarm was stopped, and the [Lord] stood, communicating with the [Mage] frantically sending spells. Laken shook his head.

“Where? And how, Yitton?”

“Towards us. Or towards Gralton’s lands. Anywhere out of the flame’s path!”

“But he’s still moving, Yitton. And he’s cutting them off.”

The [Lord] looked up.

“Who?”

The villagers. One group tried to flee as the flames sprung up near their home. Laken could see them fleeing their village, belongings on their backs, some with wagons hitched to frightened animals. They’d moved fast and left their village quickly, within less than ten minutes of the flames burning towards them.

But the Drake had seen them too. He simply flew down the road and set a fire in the direction of the fleeing villagers. Laken clenched his fists.

“That monster.”

There was a beautiful simplicity to it. Laken Godart didn’t see it, but the Oldblood Drake did. He flew up again, letting the fire do the work that would take dozens of Drakes. The villagers would run into the fire. Some might escape if they found a path through the flames or if they were lucky, had Skills; their homes would be gone either way. And so would their livelihoods, the value of the region.

And it had taken only one Drake to do it. One Drake, a few weather-changing scrolls, and the right timing. Not only that, he’d engineered the death of a [Summer Knight]. And the [Witches] were right in the path of the fire. The wind blew towards Riverfarm, fanning the fire.

It had been less than twenty minutes since it had begun. Already, the fires were linking. Growing bigger and bigger. Laken had heard stories of wildfires before. Australian bushfires. Californian wildfires. But he had never been able to picture them. Now he saw them.

“There’s no way they’ll get through the flames. The fire’s already a hundred feet wide. The villagers aren’t going to make it. They’re turning left—”

But the smoke. The burning embers. Laken shook his head. And it was coming for Riverfarm. He forced himself to turn his attention back to the present. The caravan was staring at him. Goblins, Humans. The [Emperor] looked around.

“Yitton. We’re too far away. We won’t make it. Send word to every city and town in the region. Tell them to prepare for fires headed their way. Evacuate the ones I’m going to name.”

He began reciting names from memory, directing Yitton to find others based on their geography. Trying to find the safest routes away from the blaze. And all the while that damned Drake flew. He was still setting more areas alight.

And he wasn’t the only one.

 

—-

 

Tyrion Veltras’ ears rang. The lightning striking his family keep kept falling. The enchanted stones shook. The wards began to give way. The entire building was trembling, but the [Lord] ran.

Ullim! Sammial! Hethon!

He bellowed the names of his [Majordomo], his two sons. He found Ullim in his son’s room. They were hiding under their beds, as if this was an earthquake. Lord Tyrion stared at them.

“Lord Veltras! What’s happening?”

Ullim’s shouts were half-lost in the roar of falling lightning. The room kept lighting up with blinding light. Tyrion bellowed.

We are under attack! Get my sons into the safe rooms! Move!

Father!

One of his sons shouted, panicked. But Tyrion was already whirling. He ran, shouting, as his servants and guards raced through the keep.

Jericha! To me!

The [Mage] raced towards Tyrion, half-dressed, a wand in hand. Tyrion pointed at the windows.

“Drakes!”

He didn’t need to see them hidden in the cloud to know what was causing the lightning. Besides a [Mage] as powerful as Archmage Amerys, only one species could fly and command that much lightning. Jericha nodded.

“There are at least four, Lord Veltras! They’re hitting a city and villages as well! There are two above—I will rally a force of [Archers] and hold the battlements!”

“No. They’ll destroy you. They’re using the storm. Get me the Banner of House Veltras! And my shield! Gather every [Mage] and prepare to sortie!”

Tyrion snapped. Jericha nodded and both raced through the keep. Lord Tyrion himself strode to the armory where a portion of his house’s treasures were kept. The Banner of House Veltras could shield him from lightning. With it, he and his retainers could hold the keep.

But when the [Lord] strode onto the battlements armed for war, the lightning had already ceased. The Drake Oldbloods had failed to destroy the keep and the enchantments. So the lightning was already falling elsewhere. Tyrion stared across his countryside. And he saw the lightning falling, hitting fields, buildings. People—he raised his sword as Jericha hoisted the glowing banner.

“Warn every city in a hundred miles! There are Drake fliers in the air!”

“We can’t see them or catch them! Lord Veltras—”

Tyrion was already calling for his horse. But he could feel it too, in the pit of his stomach. It was a trap. And he realized as more frantic [Messages] came in, that he wasn’t the only one being targeted.

 

—-

 

“Lord Erill’s lands are beset by flame. Lady Ieka’s are suffering from lightning—as is House Veltras! Lord Pellmia is reporting multiple deaths—Tyrion Veltras is confirming it’s a Drake attack!”

Yitton read the [Messages] being transcribed with shaking fingers. He looked up, pale-faced.

“My home.”

“Does your wife report anything?”

“Nothing. She’s checked the weather, and my guards are on alert—”

“Then House Byres wasn’t considered important enough. Focus, Yitton! They went after me and Gralton instead of you! Can he send any [Riders]? Anyone who can fight a blaze like this?”

Laken snapped at Yitton. The [Lord] looked up. He reached for a message.

“Gralton—the plague. He hasn’t responded, Laken. We received word his kennels were filled with sick dogs—the Drakes must have—”

Damn his dogs! People are dying!

The [Emperor] shouted. He whirled. He could see Riverfarm coming alive. They had gotten his messages. But they were so slow. Fire moved too fast. Faster than people could run. Laken turned, his closed eyes seeking Yitton’s voice.

“The Drakes. Tell them to call the attack off. I know it’s them. Tyrion can’t prove it. I can. Tell them it’s the Drakes.”

The [Emperor] saw nothing with his eyes. He heard an intake of breath, Yitton’s voice issuing quick orders. In his head he watched the flames moving. Saw the [Witches] gathering. Ryoka, Durene, Prost, Rie—his heart—and his people gathering.

Laken Godart waited. But he learned the same thing Ryoka had: it was not just his story. The purpose of [Witches], a pair of City Runner’s journey, the crusade of the Order of Seasons, the return of an [Emperor] and the fate of Goblins—and yes, even the vengeance of Drakes—was all part of a whole. And try as he might, he couldn’t change it all. He was only an actor.

After an agonizing wait that might have taken minutes or hours, measured only by Laken’s furiously beating heart, Yitton replied.

“A—an accusation has been leveled. But the Walled Cities claim ignorance. They reject the idea that Drakes are causing these incidents. Manus suggests this might be unusual Wyvern migrations combined with freak weather—”

Laken whirled away. He clenched his hands. And then he slumped.

“We can’t do anything, then. Just watch. Yitton.”

“Laken?”

“Get the caravan moving. Towards Riverfarm.”

“But the fire—”

The [Emperor] ignored the [Lord]. He turned his head, back towards his empire, his home. His people. He shook his head.

“By the time we get there, the fire will be gone. Can’t you see? It’s everywhere. And there’s nowhere to run. Get the caravan moving. And tell Prost—retreat to the fields. The mountain’s no good. That Drake’s setting fire to the forest. The fields. Tell Durene I love her. To stay alive. And ask the [Witches] for help. It all depends on them now.”

 

—-

 

At first, the people in Riverfarm refused to believe Ryoka’s warning. They listened to the picture she had put together at last and laughed, skeptically, uneasily. But even if they agreed with her—so what? They didn’t understand. After all, how many had even seen a Drake? They couldn’t imagine what Ryoka could, what Laken’s [Message] had made her realize what the [Infiltrator]’s plan was.

But then Mavika screamed as her crows burned and the smiles left the skeptical faces. Riverfarm and Lancrel’s people looked up as Rie ran into the village, shouting for Prost and calling the alarm with Nesor hot on her heels. Then they saw the smoke on the distance. And above it, the huge, ominous cloud that filled the clear sky.

“Pyrocumulonimbus cloud. That’s what it’s called.”

Ryoka panted as she and Charlay ran towards the closest plume of smoke. Riverfarm was in a growing panic and Prost was corresponding with Laken. But Ryoka had to see it herself. The Centauress stared at her. Charlay frowned.

“What?”

“The cloud. That’s what it’s called. It’s a cloud made up of all the fire.”

It was the most useless piece of information Ryoka could think of in this situation. But her mind wasn’t being sensible. She was panicking. Because she could see the smoke. It was already in the air, blowing towards Riverfarm. Ryoka wasn’t controlling it. Something else was. That Drake and his scrolls. Charlay coughed. The whites of her eyes were showing.

“Yeah? How’s that help us?”

“Doesn’t. The fire—”

Ryoka didn’t see it. There was too much smoke coming this way. Charlay groaned and Ryoka crouched lower, as if that would help. The wind was blowing it straight at Riverfarm.

“That’s a big fire. Ryoka. That’s…really big. As bad as the jungle fires in Baleros. We have to get out of here!”

The Centauress was terrified. She began pawing at the ground, looking around frantically. Ryoka felt it too. Humans had used fire, but some animal part of her was terrified. It could sense the flames. Worse—the rational part of her agreed.

“It’s—there’s too many spots. Damn it, the fire’s everywhere!

Ryoka pointed. The flames weren’t coming in any one direction. There was smoke directly ahead of them. And another patch to the left, a third far to the right—was that a fourth plume of smoke behind it? The young woman coughed as she turned back to Riverfarm.

It made so much sense. Normal fires didn’t happen like this. Wildfires happened in her world, but even arson was limited. Fire had been used in war, but this was different. That Drake could breathe fire and fly. Moreover, he was changing the wind to amplify the fires. The lack of rain had prepared this area for a truly deadly fire. This was beyond anything from her home.

“It’s coming.”

The two Runner girls felt the smoke intensify. Coughing, Ryoka turned.

“We have to go. Charlay? Charlay!

The Centauress was frozen. Then she turned and galloped past Ryoka. But not before Ryoka had seen her head turning wildly, trying to find a path of escape. But that was the problem. The fire had engulfed the north, and was spreading east. But more fires were popping up. And if they ran south—

The Drake was still out there. Ryoka could see it clearly. He wanted them to run. He could set a fire anywhere he wanted. If they stayed, they died. If they ran, they died.

But Riverfarm was innocent! She wanted to scream it at him. Riverfarm’s people hadn’t participated in the attack on Liscor! But Laken had. Riverfarm’s [Engineers] had made the trebuchets. And did it even matter? The Drakes wanted to hurt the Humans. What was easier than destroying villages, farms, cities? Destroying the infrastructure of the north with a single Drake?

They had to stop it. Ryoka ran back into Riverfarm with Charlay, coughing and panting. Now a crowd had gathered and was staring at the horizon. Ryoka panted as Rie rushed out of the house, a slip of parchment in her hands.

“Is it…?”

“Fire. It’s everywhere. North, east—and more’s coming.”

Ryoka pointed to a smoke plume to the west. Encirclement. Lady Rie looked uneasily down the south road. Ryoka stared west. The mountain that had once buried Riverfarm lay that way. But to get to it, they’d have to go straight through a forest. And she wondered if the fire were already growing there.

“What did Laken say?”

She looked desperately at Lady Rie. Laken could see the countryside! If they could make a break for it—there were thousands of people in Riverfarm. They’d lose everything. But…stay? Riverfarm was made out of wood.

Rie’s face was pale. She looked around. The crowd was pushing forwards. Someone screamed.

What’s going on? We demand answers!”

Councilwoman Beatica looked terrified as the rest. Ryoka spun. Beniar and the Blacksky Riders were dismounted, keeping people back. Rie looked at Ryoka.

“The [Witches].”

“What?”

“His Majesty says flight is unlikely to succeed. He is calling upon the coven to stop the fires if they can. Can they?”

She looked at Ryoka. And the young woman only gulped because she didn’t know. She turned with Lady Rie.

“Where are they?”

And then Ryoka really looked around. And she realized the [Witches], always so noticeable with their pointed hats, were nowhere to be seen. And Riverfarm’s people, many of which would have given anything to see the end of the [Witches], realized that at the moment they were needed—they’d disappeared.

Fear began to turn into panic. And the flames came onward as the sky turned black and red.

 

—-

 

The coven was, by universal consensus, one of the worst covens to have ever formed in the history of [Witches]. No one would debate that. Mother and daughter? [Witches] at odds with each other, having to meet to discuss crises instead of gathering for a monthly or bimonthly meeting at most? That was not the function a coven should occupy.

But sometimes, a coven handled disasters. And so they met. Seven [Witches]. Alevica had to be helped into a chair; the Witch Runner was still pale and weak. Wiskeria sat, staring at her mother. Even Belavierr looked focused. The [Witches] sat down, murmuring.

“Tea, anyone?”

“Just a cup.”

“Got anything to eat?”

“Stale jerky.”

“Pass it over.”

Rustling. Chomping sounds from Hedag and Mavika. Silence. And then a voice.

“Well, this is a mess, isn’t it?”

Wiskeria looked at Hedag. The [Executioner] leaned against the table. And her smile was bitter.

“Looks like it’s a mess of a war, then. The Drakes and Humans fighting. Messy business.”

“Not what we came for.”

Califor agreed. She glanced out the window. All the [Witches] could feel it. The fire was a distant power, growing in strength. Wiskeria shuddered. Alevica looked pale and weak as she met Wiskeria’s eyes. Nanette was frightened. The older [Witches] glanced at each other. Eloise put down her cup.

“The odds we could stop something like that?”

“I cannot conjure rain. And that blaze the Drake sets would devour my flock. Him, I mark and blame. But I can do nothing of the flame.”

Mavika hissed. Hedag nodded.

“If it were a regular forest fire, I’d trust to fire breaks and the river. But the wind blows ill. I’ve seen it blow like this twice before and both times the villages were lost in front of that fire. It will travel across rivers and consume before rains take it. And not a moment before. Califor?”

The [Witch] tapped a finger on the table as the others looked to her.

“I agree. To stop it would require a truly powerful amount of magic. A ritual? Perhaps it might work, to summon rain. Anything more would require a grand working. A cost few [Witches] could pay. However, I ask the coven this: is this our battle to fight?”

The question went around the circle. The other [Witches] shrugged or frowned. Wiskeria held her breath. Califor’s gaze swept past her.

“The coven came to entreat an [Emperor] on behalf of [Witches]. In face of this Circle of Thorns and old threats returning. But if there is no empire, our purpose is gone.”

“Califor! We cannot leave this village in front of the flames.”

Eloise snapped as she put down her cup. Califor stared at her.

“Better we attempt to save ourselves first, Witch Eloise. Or do you believe we ourselves could escape this fire unhindered? It has the width and breadth of wildfire.”

Eloise hesitated. She looked left, towards Belavierr.

“If it were possible to stop, this [Emperor] would be indebted to us. I agree that it cannot be done without a ritual. Or…”

Belavierr looked up. She sat still at the table. And all the [Witches] recalled how she had burned. Belavierr’s voice was quiet.

“My magic is thread and needle. Cloth burns. Fire has ever been my weakness. And my spells have been burnt away. I could have conjured an army to build walls of dirt, or other constructions. They are gone. I could weave more, but that would take more time than the flames allow. Beyond that, I have nothing to use against fire.”

Silence after that. There wasn’t much more to say. Alevica looked up, her mouth opening and closing. It was Califor who moved first.

“Very well. I motion that this coven leave. The fire encircles us, but it is yet weak to the south. Combined, we may punch through the blaze. Nanette, gather your things. We are leaving.”

“Miss Califor!”

Wiskeria shot to her feet. Califor fixed her in place with a glance.

“You have an issue with this, Witch Wiskeria?”

“Riverfarm needs help! The fire’s coming for the village! They’ll all burn if we don’t stop the fire!”

“Can we?”

Califor’s blunt words made Wiskeria pause. The older [Witch] shook her head. Her gaze was focused, her words sharp.

“Fire moves fast, Witch Wiskeria! It can outrun people on foot if the wind is right. And this Drake has plotted his vengeance against this Emperor Godart and his people. If he is backed by a Walled City, it explains the magic that we were unable to move. With a ritual, we might defeat his control over the weather. But by that time, flight will be even more difficult. I will not risk Nanette’s life or this coven’s. You should think of yours.”

“But—we could try. Please? We’re the only ones who can! Laken would owe you all a great debt! If you tried a ritual—”

Wiskeria pleaded with the rest of the coven. They looked at her gravely, even Hedag. Eloise was hesitating. But it was Nanette who spoke up.

“Can’t we try the ritual? Please, Miss Califor?”

She looked up tearfully at Miss Califor. The older [Witch] hesitated.

“You are too young to risk your life, Nanette. Moreover, we are [Witches]. We behave according to our natures. We are not obligated to save lives. Especially with a risk such as this.”

“But Wiskeria said we could try. Please?”

Nanette looked around. She fiddled with her hat, and then took it off. She bowed to the rest of the coven, the older [Witches].

“I like it here. The people aren’t always good. But there are good people among them. They have been kind to us [Witches]. And—and if we could try, surely we should? I ask the coven to hear my request.”

“Nanette…”

Wiskeria breathed. But then she looked around. The other [Witches] exchanged glances. Belavierr paused and looked at her daughter. And Califor looked at Nanette’s face and sighed. One by one, they nodded. Mavika tipped her hat.

“By your request, Witch Nanette, and Witch Wiskeria’s, this coven will try. The fire builds with each passing second. So the ritual must be done within the hour.”

“If we must do it, we will need a place. A focus. And a purpose.”

Eloise spoke briskly. Califor was nodding impatiently. She sighed as Nanette beamed in relief.

“Hold on, what if we’re for leaving?”

Alevica’s protest was met by six cold stares. The Witch Runner looked around.

“Damn it. Fine. What about the river?”

“Sympathy. I agree. We have no place of power, so it will do. The purpose should be to call rain, obviously. We don’t have the moons or anything else for a great working. And the focus? I have a vessel of carved wood.”

Califor looked around. Hedag sighed and reached for her bag.

“I have something. I traded for this a time ago. It’s yet to be polished, but it might do if no one else has better to offer.”

She produced a small aquamarine, uncut and unpolished, but sparkling. Califor nodded. Belavierr peered at it.

“In that case, I will add a binding of thread, a weather-pattern charm to both. Give me vessel and focus.”

Califor produced a carved cup, large enough to be held in two hands. Hedag handed over the aquamarine. Belavierr produced needle and thread and wove a loop around the blue gemstone before beginning a complex pattern that tied it to the wooden vessel. The [Witches] watched for a second, and then stood up.

“Thank you.”

Wiskeria said it to the others. Eloise smiled. Hedag laughed.

“I have given my word to protect the children here. And it is a Hedag’s word as well as a [Witch]’s. While Belavierr prepares the ritual, let us do what we can.”

“I will prepare the site. Nanette, pack your things and saddle the horses. Then come and find me. Witch Mavika, if you would join me?”

“Yes.”

The two [Witches] headed out the door. Eloise, Nanette, and Wiskeria followed. Alevica hesitated, until she realized Belavierr was staring at her unblinking as she worked. She got up and hastily went after the two.

Panic in the streets greeted the [Witches]. Prost was shouting, trying to organize people to expand the firebreak while others tried to pack their things. But where would you go? Wiskeria saw smoke in every direction but the mountain and forest that bordered Riverfarm. And she had a feeling that fire was already building unseen there as well.

Wiskeria!

Ryoka and Rie found her. Califor and Mavika strode past them. Ryoka halted.

“Look—Laken’s asking your coven for a favor. Wiskeria, he knows it’s a lot to ask, but if you agree—”

“We’re performing a ritual. Don’t worry, Ryoka. We’ll fight the fire together. No one’s leaving.”

The City Runner sagged with relief. Eloise raised one finger, eying Lady Rie.

“Yet. However, I would not place all your hopes in this ritual, Miss Griffin, Lady Rie.”

“It could fail?”

Lady Rie looked sharply at Eloise. Wiskeria did too, heart pounding. She’d seen rituals go wrong. But they had so many powerful [Witches]. But it wasn’t the full moon and they didn’t have a place of power…Eloise was clearly thinking the same things. The [Witch] shook her head.

“Wiskeria and Nanette have convinced some of the [Witches] to stay. And I have agreed to give the ritual an attempt. But should that fail, we must all flee or attempt to stand. And this fire would consume us all, I fear.”

“Laken’s told Prost to put everyone in the fields. He says that’s the safest space—cleared grounds.”

Eloise paused.

“Perhaps. Certainly, it has the river to its back. But the smoke the fires are giving off and the wind—I think many would die either way. In either case, if this ritual fails, the coven will leave. And we will only have the power to shield ourselves.”

The thought made Wiskeria cold inside. Lady Rie paused, licking her colored lips.

“Could you—take a group with you? If you left earlier?”

“If we had decided to leave now? Yes. But the fire is growing. And I cannot walk through flame unhindered. Belavierr might. Califor could ride through it, and Mavika fly. But Hedag and I will have to run or ride. We will try if it comes to that. But we must use every option. Have you any left? Hedag is going to clear more space at the firebreak.”

“She is? Durene’s there with some people. They’re trying to give us more space—”

Ryoka pointed towards the fields. She looked around. Then she slapped her forehead.

“Of course! Let’s call for help! What if we got a [Weather Mage] here?”

“They’d have to be present to call rains, Ryoka. And it’s not possible. Unless they could move like a Courier—”

“It’s possible! And there’s someone else who could extinguish the blaze!”

Ryoka suddenly looked hopeful. She whirled and looked at Lady Rie.

“Magnolia Reinhart.”

“Reinhart?”

Lady Rie recoiled, but Ryoka grabbed her shoulder.

“She can do it! She’s got a magical carriage! She could send it to Invrisil! Lady Rie, tell Nesor to send her a [Message]! Don’t argue—Nesor! Nesor!

Wiskeria saw Ryoka race off, dragging Lady Rie with her. The [Witch] looked around. Nanette hesitated.

“I have to pack my things. And saddle the horses. I’ll—I’ll go help Miss Califor after that. We won’t need the horses, right?”

She looked from [Witch] to [Witch]. Neither Eloise nor Wiskeria could find the words for reassurance. Nanette hurried off after a second. Eloise looked at Wiskeria. She looked old. And worried. Wiskeria looked around. People were rushing down the streets, but some had stopped to stare desperately at them.

“What should we do, Eloise? Help Califor and Mavika? Or Hedag?”

Eloise pursed her lips. She shook her head after a moment.

“I’m not one for picking up sticks or digging, Wiskeria. And Califor and Mavika have the preparations well in hand. As does your mother. No, I think our purpose is to keep Riverfarm from falling apart. The people are split. Some would flee. They would die. The fire is too thick and moving too fast. We must keep them here. And calm. Draw on your craft.”

“I—I don’t know. I’ve never soothed a group, let alone so many people—and I don’t have magic to call on, Eloise.”

Wiskeria wavered. Eloise looked at her.

“I cannot do it alone. And you have your craft. Or was yesterday a fluke?”

Wiskeria blinked. And then she remembered. Slowly, she looked around. The people were desperate. But the ones looking at her—she spotted Jelov. And Chimmy.

“Miss Wiskeria? Miss Wiskeria, we ain’t going to have to flee, are we?”

Chimmy’s eyes were wide with fright. She looked up as Wiskeria strode over to her. The [Witch] hesitated. Then she knelt.

“We might, Chimmy. But my coven and I are doing our best to keep Riverfarm safe. Trust in that. And keep a calm head. Jelov, what are you doing?”

The [Carpenter] sucked at his teeth.

“Waiting, Miss Wiskeria. Not like I can pack up and move a second time. Emperor Laken made me his best [Carpenter], didn’t he? Reckon I’ll trust to him to get us out of this. Got all my stuff here and it burns easy. Hey, what should we be doing?”

They looked at her. And Wiskeria felt something in them. Justice. Unity. She pulled on it, taking some of it. And she spun it, used it in her voice. In her craft.

“Help me keep people calm. Stop them from packing! We need people expanding the firebreak, or gathering supplies under Prost’s direction! We don’t need valuables like clothes—we need barricades the fire can’t move past! Walls of dirt, even! You—Ram! Stop!”

She shouted, and Mister Ram stopped from trying to grab people and forcibly tow them towards the fields. And her voice was the voice of command. More people stopped, and Wiskeria shouted. Her pointed hat stood out. It marked her as [Witch]. And that wasn’t always a bad thing.

“People of Riverfarm! Stay calm! Don’t pack your belongings; there’s no time to waste! Help dig the firebreaks or follow Mister Prost and help evacuate what needs evacuating to the fields!”

“Stay calm. Follow us.”

Eloise’s voice was no less loud, but it had a confidence in it like steel. The [Witch] swept down the street, and people halted, their panic subsiding. It was a [Lady]’s presence, and a [Lady]’s Skill mixed with a [Witch]’s craft. Wiskeria followed, shouting.

Some refused to go. People who were suspicious of [Witches] or too out of their minds with fear to listen. But more and more people stopped racing about, controlled by fear. Prost found Wiskeria and Eloise and his expression was written with relief. He pointed as they came towards him.

“To the fields! Children, anyone who can’t grab something there first! The rest of you—we’re hauling barrels of water, there! If you have a shovel, get to work on a wall or just clear away the brush over there!”

He pointed towards the hundreds of people feverishly trying to build a safe space around the fields. The watered and tilled grounds and crops were the safest place to be. Wiskeria saw the logic in that. And already, people were building a wall to keep the fire and smoke from hitting them. The firebreak, already wide, was spreading out.

In any regular fire, it would have worked. No—the firebreak around Riverfarm would have been enough, with a vigilant firefighting team watching for embers. But the wind! Wiskeria felt it whipping hot air into her face. The ritual had to work. It had to.

An hour seemed to pass in minutes. Wiskeria was busy shouting at people, trying to use the emotions she was taking from them, suppressing fear. She only looked up when she saw her mother striding towards her.

Belavierr was holding the vessel of wood. The aquamarine hung in a web of threads, a magical design. Just in time; Wiskeria could see Califor striding towards them.

I call upon this coven!

And her voice summoned every [Witch]. From Alevica, surreptitiously holding her broom, to Nanette, leading two horses whose eyes were wide with the scent of fire. Mavika stood in front of the ritual place as Wiskeria walked with Eloise and Belavierr. And the people of Riverfarm watched, desperate. Wiskeria felt their hope.

She wished she shared it. None of the other [Witches] looked as hopeful as the people watching them. Because—Wiskeria could see the others thinking it. [Witches] didn’t trust everything to magic. Against things like fire, they much preferred to trust to a bucket of water, a firebreak. Nature wasn’t something you could just order around.

But they had to try. Wiskeria stopped when she saw Ryoka standing close to the ritual spot. The City Runner’s face was pale.

“Ryoka. Is Magnolia Reinhart—”

The other [Witches] looked at the City Runner. Ryoka shook her head.

“She’s too far away by carriage. She says her [Weather Mages] will try to send rain. And the person I asked for—I think he’s asleep.”

“Then wake him up!

Alevica snapped. But Ryoka’s expression was her only reply. The [Witches] paused. Califor looked around, and her tone snapped.

“The ritual awaits. Take your positions.”

It was a simple working Wiskeria saw. Califor and Mavika had placed river stones in a diagram, laying out a seven-sided star on the ground with radial lines connecting to the center. In that center, Califor placed the vessel with the aquamarine and thread. She had filled it with river water.

“That’s it?”

Ryoka heard an uneasy voice behind her. It sounded like Charlay. The [Witch] bit her lip. She could feel the doubt. But this was all the coven could have prepared. And it was all they needed. She told herself that as the [Witches] took their spots around the heptagram.

The ritual began as a hot wind whipped towards them. Smoke made some of the audience cough. But the [Witches] stood silent. Their pointed hats didn’t move in the wind. And their gazes were distant.

Their shadows deepened. They seemed to twist towards the circle if you stared at them long enough. And a silence fell. The coven breathed in. Breathed out.

Ryoka saw they were all breathing the same. Nanette to Belavierr. They blinked as one. Ryoka’s hair stood on end, despite the desperation and fear of the moment. She felt a charge rising in the air, but not of static. Of intent.

Then a [Witch] spoke. Belavierr. Her ringed eyes were wide as she spoke, raising a cloth-bound hand.

 

Someone tries to bring fire and flame to those without blame.

Whose malice brings death and grief without end.”

 

Two [Witches] spoke. Wiskeria and Nanette.

 

“Let crying earth mend

Let nature’s wrath end!”

 

Califor continued with Alevica. The [Witches]’ gazes were fixed on the aquamarine stone. And it glowed. The water in the cup moved, restlessly, obeying neither the wind nor physics.

 

“Magic bows before nature’s will

Let not it be used further ill.”

 

Hedag and Eloise chanted the next lines in tandem.

 

“And give us your blessing, by river’s flow

As from the sky we ask for the same, by a coven’s will, an [Emperor]’s name.”

 

Mavika raised her hands. Her voice hissed and called, like the birds flying overhead.

 

“So come water, come relief and rain!

Here to end Riverfarm’s pain!

 

And all seven [Witches] drew a blade. Nanette, Califor, Hedag, Eloise, Mavika, Wiskeria, and Belavierr. Ryoka knew what was coming.

All seven [Witches] cut themselves across the wrist. They sprinkled blood on the river stones. Belavierr continued.

“By blood we call water.”

“By river we summon rain.”

Who was speaking now? Ryoka couldn’t tell.

Now the [Witches]’ lips moved as one.

“We call.”

“We implore.”

“We beg.”

A second cut. So deep that Ryoka felt ill, seeing the blood run down Wiskeria’s arm. Nanette stumbled. But she spoke with the rest.

Rain.

And the aquamarine shone. The water in the wooden vessel trembled. And Ryoka looked up. She felt the winds pause. The hot, angry, controlled air shiver.

In the sky, the pyrocumulonimbus cloud formed by the smoke slowly changed. Ryoka saw the distant cloud begin to darken. And in the distance, moisture gathered. Days of unspent rain began to gather. The air grew thick with humidity.

And it began to rain. Riverfarm’s people turned. In the distance, sprinkles of rain began to fall from the saturated sky. Ryoka heard a whoop of delight, and then wild cheers. She turned, beaming. And saw the [Witches] had frozen. They were staring at the gemstone. The trembling water. And then Ryoka saw them raise a hand as one and point.

“Rain.”

They spoke as one, continuing the chant. And the gemstone began to pulse. Ryoka turned. Something—

 

—-

 

The Oldblood Drake saw the rain begin to fall. He whirled, snarled with fury. He grabbed at a scroll from his belt, desperately unfurled it.

“Oh no you don’t. [Weatherchange]!

The rain’s fall began to slacken. But the cloud formed by the smoke wanted to rain. And there were days of rain waiting to fall. But not now! Not now!

The [Infiltrator] dropped the scroll as the magic went out of it. Those damn [Witches] were casting a spell! But he had more scrolls. Manus had predicted interference with the weather. The Drake pulled them out, reading from the burning magical inscriptions, calling upon the magic contained within. [Witches] would not stop this fire! They couldn’t!

“[Weatherchange]! [Weatherchange]!

The scrolls flashed and fell from his claws as they used up their magic. In Riverfarm, the [Witches] began to chant. And the rain stopped falling. Started.

“They can’t do this! They can’t!

The Drake cursed as he battled the coven. With each scroll, the rain stopped, but the [Witches] were pushing. He could feel it, feel the cloud above him trying to disgorge its contents. But the scrolls were holding them off.

And yet—there was a limit to how many he had. The [Infiltrator] cursed as he reached for the last of his scrolls, as the [Witches] silently battled him, pulling at the sky. He raised it, desperately.

And then—Wiskeria felt the strain. In the circle, she looked up from her trance and gasped. The other [Witches] broke from their spell. Wiskeria pointed.

No—

It was the gemstone. It hadn’t been cut. And perhaps it had a fault, or it was simply that Hedag’s focus wasn’t strong enough to contain the magical battle. The aquamarine ensnared in the vessel of water cracked. The web of string binding it snapped apart. The [Witches] went flying as the magical backlash boomed and threw them across the circle, into the river.

In the sky, the Oldblood Drake went flying as well, the last scroll bursting with the backlash. He was falling! He flapped desperately, righting himself before he crashed on the ground—and then looked up and crowed triumphantly.

The sky was dark with smoke, but no rain fell. The Drake breathed out, and he unsteadily glared at Riverfarm. Then he unfurled the last two scrolls and nodded. His expression was dark as he looked at Riverfarm, no longer confident. Wary. He bared his teeth.

“Time to end this.”

 

—-

 

The ritual failed. Wiskeria felt the backlash hurl her backwards. She collided with Ryoka and sent the City Runner tumbling to the ground. She cried out from the impact. And she was lucky. The [Witches] standing closes to the river went flying into it. Including Nanette. Wiskeria saw the girl go in, robes and all. Headfirst—Nanette flailed wildly, caught by the moving current, deep.

“Nanette!”

Wiskeria fought to get up. She ran towards the river as Ryoka picked herself up. Eloise, Belavierr, they were getting up. Wiskeria ran, trying to shed her robes. Another figure sprinted fast her.

Califor was faster. She dove into the water and pulled the young [Witch] out. The water seemed to spit both [Witches] out. Califor lifted her apprentice and slapped her on the back. Nanette choked and vomited water and sobbed as Califor held her.

“What was—”

Ryoka halted, breathing hard. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] muttered, feeling the shaking in her teeth, the queasy weakness in her stomach.

“Backlash.”

“The ritual failed.”

It wasn’t a question. Wiskeria looked up and nodded. And the hope surrounding her turned to terror. A low moan filled the watching crowd. Ryoka looked at Wiskeria. Disbelieving. Wiskeria looked for her coven, so she didn’t have to see the stares.

“But we could try again—we nearly had it! We could try—”

Witch Wiskeria!

Califor shouted at her. Wiskeria flinched. Califor came towards her, holding Nanette. The girl was sobbing, still coughing water. Califor held Nanette’s hand protectively, drawing the girl towards her.

“It failed, Witch Wiskeria! We cannot perform a ritual twice like a spell. It is time to leave. Nanette!”

“But—but—”

The girl sobbed, and looked past Wiskeria at the fire. Califor looked as well. The sky was filled with smoke. Then her gaze travelled lower. At the many faces looking at them. Her voice softened. But her grip tightened on Nanette’s shoulder. And it was filled with grim resolve.

“Nanette. We are going. We can do nothing more here.”

“You can! We might not be able to do another ritual! But we can use smaller spells! Hold the fire back! If we raise the wall higher, we could hold the flames away, conjure enough cool air to outlast the fire—Miss Califor, please!”

Wiskeria pleaded with the older [Witch]. Califor hesitated again. Wiskeria held her breath. This was Califor. Hadn’t she heard stories of the [Witch] pulling off feats just as grand? Surely—

But then Califor shook her head. It was at Nanette she looked. And she shook her head.

“I am sorry. But Nanette comes first. In that, I understand your mother. You should go with her.”

She pointed. Belavierr was walking towards Wiskeria. And her face wasn’t expressionless. It was intent. Wiskeria looked at her.

“Mother.”

“Wiskeria. It is time for me to leave. I cannot halt the fire any more than my death. Come. I will bear you out of this place. I have the strength for that.”

She reached for Wiskeria. The [Witch] drew back, horrified.

“We can’t just go!”

“You must. Or you will die. The chance of surviving this is slim to none. Wiskeria, listen to Witch Belavierr. She speaks with your interests at heart.”

Califor snapped as she crooked a finger. Her horse and Nanette’s approached. The [Witch] put the protesting Nanette on a saddle.

“No arguments, Nanette. I will not risk your life.”

“But I want to say! They’ll die! Miss Califor, please!

“No.”

Nanette sobbed. But Califor held her on the horse. The other [Witch] mounted and looked down. Wiskeria looked up helplessly at her.

“There’s a chance.”

“There is. But part of raising a life is putting that life first. Witch Wiskeria, you may hate your mother. You may disagree with her. But she has ever put your life above her own. She has tried to protect you. And I cannot fault that. I would fault the rest of Belavierr. But never that.”

Califor looked at Wiskeria and met Belavierr’s eyes. The Stitch Witch dipped her head slightly. Califor raised her hat.

“I am sorry. But this day I am a coward first. I cannot let Nanette risk her life. Goodbye. I hope you all survive.”

Miss Califor!

The plea came from the [Witch] girl. But Califor ignored her. She pointed and the horses took off. Califor raced south with Nanette following. Nanette shot one agonized glance backwards. And then they were moving south, between two plumes of smoke. And Belavierr’s gaze followed them.

“She is right, you know. She understands what it is to be a mother more than I. Daughter, come with me. I can protect you. You and perhaps a few others. Is that not enough?”

She reached out to Wiskeria. But her daughter recoiled. She still couldn’t take her mother’s hand. Too much lay between them. And she looked around and saw the desperate faces.

Stories. Once, Wiskeria had watched an army die. They had called her their [General]. And she had seen them buried. She had come to Riverfarm and protected it. And she had once loved her mother. For this and so many other reasons, she couldn’t. So Wiskeria begged.

“Mother, please stay! Please! For me?”

Belavierr hesitated. She looked into Wiskeria’s face. And she hesitated. The immortal, distant gaze was gone. But a far more mortal one was there. Uncertain. And…afraid? Wiskeria’s heart skipped a beat. It was gone in a moment. Belavierr bowed her head.

“Ah. My daughter, I see my death. And you and it are connected. So this is how it comes.”

She looked up at the burning sky. And she shook her head. She looked at Wiskeria and stepped away.

“I see it now. You are my death as surely as the fire. If I…no. Daughter, come. You have done all you can here. Come with me and take other lives to save. They will certainly live. If you stay, you risk everything.”

Wiskeria knew it was true. But she clung to hope. And she looked around. At Chimmy. At Prost, Ram, Durene, Rie, Nesor—and she knew what her answer was. Had to be. She looked at her mother, tears in her eyes.

“I can’t. I can’t abandon them. We can still stop the fire. The fields—”

She couldn’t finish. A chance. She reached, but Belavierr stepped back. The Stitch Witch hesitated. And then she turned away. She looked back just once, as she began to stride away.

“I must go. Daughter, please come with me.”

And Wiskeria shook her head.

“No. I have to try.”

Belavierr paused. She almost smiled. Strangely. Awkwardly. But she just looked…sad.

“I never did understand you. But D—Wiskeria. My beloved daughter. I do not want to end. Even for you.”

And then she was gone, walking away towards a black horse that rode towards her. She mounted it, and rode away like Califor did.

And then it did feel like the…end. Ryoka Griffin looked around. The villagers stared after Belavierr. And their panic turned into a cold certainty. They looked at each other. And they began to flee. Some stayed, like Jelov, like the Riverfarm folk. They listened to Prost and believed this was safest. But others just ran.

And the coven—the coven was breaking. Alevica was next. Ryoka saw her call her broom towards her. The Witch Runner grinned shakily. She was still pale and clutching her stomach where she’d been stabbed.

“Alevica.”

“Wotcha, Ryoka. Hey, listen. It’s been great, really. But it’s time to go. Catch you later, if you make it out, okay?”

The [Witch] stopped as Ryoka grabbed her shoulder. She spoke urgently, trying weakly to prize Ryoka’s hands off her.

“Look, our debt’s settled. Me helping you with the charm? All settled! I owe you, even! But—I’m not staying. Not for this. Not if you paid me two thousand gold pieces. I—I don’t want to die, Ryoka.”

She tried to take off. Ryoka let go of her. Alevica flew upwards. And then her broomstick wobbled.

“No—no!

The [Witch] crashed down to earth. Alevica rolled, tried to get up. She cursed. Eloise walked over towards her. The old [Witch]’s face was grave.

“You’re out of power. You spent it in the ritual. And your wound’s taken the rest.”

“No! I can do this! I just need a potion!”

Alevica stumbled unsteadily to her feet. Eloise shook her head. She slapped Alevica across the face. The Witch Runner stared at her.

“Alevica. If you fly, you will die. That Drake will pick you off. They’re trained to air combat and you’ll run out of mana, even with potions. Come with us. Mavika has agreed to fly with us.”

She pointed. Hedag stood with Mavika. The [Executioner] was speaking with Miss Yesel. The woman’s face was white. She was pushing a screaming Chimmy towards her. More parents were clustered around Mavika, Hedag. Holding children. Ryoka’s mind went still when she saw that. Alevica looked up, desperate, relieved.

“You won’t leave me?”

Eloise shook her head. She pointed south, the way the other [Witches] had gone.

“Califor can ride through the fire as it hasn’t fully spread yet. But it will be far harder for us. I propose fire-resistance charms. We move in a group. We can take children, some villagers perhaps. No more.”

“Eloise—!”

Wiskeria’s voice was pleading. The [Lady] turned [Witch] looked at her and shook her head. She walked back towards Hedag. Mechanically, Wiskeria and Ryoka followed.

“We cannot take all the children.”

Mavika hissed impatiently. Hedag cradled an infant in her arms. Her eyes were unblinking. And there was that same terrible light in them as when she had swung her axe.

“No. But your crows might lift some. Some might fall and die. ‘Tis up for the parents to decide. Those that can run will come with us. No more than fifty.”

Mavika paused and nodded. Eloise’s gaze was distant. She bowed her head.

“Very well. We can try to part the flames for that many. But there are more that will follow. They’ll try to stop us.”

“Let them try. My flock will chase those who follow away.”

Mavika’s eyes were dark. Wiskeria looked around. The hope and panic had turned dark. People were watching. Listening to the [Witches]. More were congregated around the river. Some had gone back to the village, were returning with hammers, wood.

Galloping hooves. Ryoka spun. Charlay stopped in front of her. The Centauress gulped, coughed. The sky was orange. The flames had turned the sky glowing. In the distance, everything was smoke and fire.

“Ryoka. I’m going. Are you coming?”

“Charlay?”

Ryoka looked up at her. And then she looked around. Wiskeria was watching her. Ryoka hesitated.

“Charlay, the fire’s everywhere. I’m staying. The [Witches] might not give you safe passage. If you helped carry them, maybe—”

“No. I’m going. I can run faster than anyone else. If you wanted to come with me—”

Ryoka hesitated. She felt it too. Fear. She was afraid. But—it was already too late. She shook her head.

“The fire’s already surrounding us. The safest thing is to go with the [Witches] if they’d let us, Charlay. And that’s…we could survive here. I’ll try to blow the fire away when it gets close. With the river, there’s a chance—stay here!”

But the Centauress shook her head.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to die either.”

She turned. Ryoka shouted, desperately.

“Charlay! Don’t! No matter how fast you run, the smoke will kill you!”

There was no way the Centauress could break through that much fire. Charlay looked back once.

“I’m sorry!

Then she ran. Ryoka wavered. And then she ran, shouting.

“Charlay! Don’t! It’s—”

Seeing Ryoka run after Charlay was the last straw. Wiskeria saw the last group of people not frantically working with Prost run to the river. But why there? The [Witch] saw as she spotted a group of makeshift boats. And leading them, at the head of a group of Lancrel’s folk, was Councilwoman Beatica. The woman was shouting at Lady Rie, who was arguing with her.

“You will not make it down the river, Councilwoman! Listen to me, all of you!”

Lady Rie was shouting to make herself heard. But no one was listening. Panicked, they grabbed for the overladen, crude boats. That was what Lancrel’s people had been doing, rather than working on the firebreaks. Wiskeria felt a surge of fury. And then she heard Beatica’s high, panicked voice.

“We are leaving! We’ll go down the river in boats! The water will give us safety!”

“You’ll die! Do you think the river will protect you? The water will boil you if you swim and if you go in boats, you’ll die to the heat and smoke! The wind is blowing—”

Lady Rie’s voice fell on deaf ears. Beatica screamed and the first boat shoved off. A huge crowd of people followed it into the water, grabbing at the other boats. Several capsized; the rest shoved down the river, overladen. More people followed, swimming, trusting to the water. Wiskeria looked up and saw Lady Rie’s pale face.

“They could make it.”

“No. I spoke to Laken. The fire engulfs the river on both sides. The smoke is too thick. Some may survive. But they will be far too few. We may have to retreat to the river ourselves. But—”

Rie turned away. She slowly walked back towards the field. There was fire on the breeze now. Fire and ash. Eloise, Hedag, Mavika, and Alevica stood with a group of children and a few parents, all laden. They looked at her.

Wiskeria wavered. She looked for Ryoka. For Durene and Prost, still desperately working. Frostwing was screaming as she flew in a circle overhead. Even Bismarck was pushing dirt towards the wall the villagers were trying to build.

And then someone cried out. Ram turned and pointed. And everyone looked up. Wiskeria didn’t see it at first, lost amid the lurid orange glow on the horizon. And then she saw the movement in the skies. And hope finally extinguished itself in her.

It came out of the storm cloud fueled by smoke. A shifting at first. And then a clear, moving, black and red shape. Everyone turned to look. [Witches]. Villagers. Wiskeria. Ram’s face was white as he stared up at the writhing pillar of wind and fire.

“Dead gods. What is that?

“A twister. One made of flames.”

Eloise spoke quietly. The old [Witch] looked up. It was coming straight at Riverfarm. So fast that Wiskeria could see it travelling across the ground. The flames were coming with it. Embers flying through the sky. And the Drake was laughing as the last scrolls fell from his claws. The [Witches] looked at each other. Mavika spread her arms, feathers emerging from her robes.

“I am sorry. But I cannot shield you from that.”

“I understand. Go.”

The crow-[Witch] hesitated. Her crows were flying off, led by her raven, fleeing the approaching tornado. Wiskeria looked at Mavika. And then she felt her mother’s name on her lips. Eloise and Hedag were looking at her.

Wiskeria!

A voice bellowed her name. Wiskeria turned. She saw Durene. Durene and Ryoka. The half-Troll girl was carrying a limp shape. Charlay. Wiskeria ran over to her.

“What happened?”

“She tried to go south. The wind is throwing embers at us. The smoke—she passed out.”

Ryoka was burned across her shirt and face. She looked at Wiskeria. And then back at the twister. Wiskeria’s voice was numb.

“I can try to get you out. And Charlay, if she wakes up. Maybe my mother can hear me still. But I don’t think she can stop that.”

The City Runner nodded.

“Do what you have to do. But I still think there’s a chance.”

Wiskeria laughed. The laugher was high, hysterical. As close to cackling as she’d ever come.

How? How can anyone flee that?

The young woman didn’t answer. She was looking at the twister. And Mavika hadn’t fled. She was watching Ryoka. Dreamily, Ryoka got up. She looked at Durene. Charlay. Prost, who had gone to his family. Rie, the [Witches] and then at Wiskeria.

“Stay here. The land’s cleared. The fire can’t spread. It’ll throw embers and smoke, but you might be able to make it, like Laken said. Stay low to the ground. The smoke goes up. Get in the water, maybe, although it could boil. Either way, there’s a chance. If you can make oxygen, air, do it. Shield everyone here.”

She pointed around. More than half of Riverfarm hadn’t fled. Perhaps because there was nowhere to go. Perhaps because they still believed in an [Emperor]’s words. Ryoka took another breath. Coughed. She was shaking. She looked at Eloise, Hedag, and Mavika. Alevica was sitting on the ground, her head in her hands.

“You—[Witches]. If you stay, could you protect them?”

“We might. We could try calling air and redirecting the fire. But we could also run.”

Hedag leaned on her axe, eying the flames to the south. She was looking at Ryoka too. So was Eloise. And even Alevica looked up. Because Wiskeria felt it too. Ryoka’s fear had subsided. A calm resolve was in her. She was still terrified. But she was calm. Ryoka nodded. She addressed Hedag, gesturing the way Califor had gone.

“The fire’s too wide to break through. If you could fly, you might make it. You’ll never do it on foot. If you’d left an hour ago, maybe. Califor? Maybe. You’re on foot. And the horses will panic. This is safest. You know wildfires.”

Hedag’s eyes glinted.

“Aye, I do, Runner-Girl. There’s sense in what you say. Stay. But that whirlwind of flame will be our end either way.”

“Not if I stop it.”

Ryoka looked up. And her expression was bleak. But she smiled. Wiskeria looked at her, disbelieving.

“Stop it? You?”

“Wind’s child.”

Mavika murmured. Ryoka nodded. She stood up.

“I came here for a reason. It might have just been because Laken asked me. Maybe it was curiosity. Or maybe it was this. I’ll try. The wind listens to me. If I can’t change the direction the tornado’s coming, go down the river. And tell Erin—tell Laken—I did my best.”

She turned. Wiskeria shouted at her back. But Ryoka was already running. Running straight ahead. And the wind blew faintly at her back. As the tornado raged and came towards her.

 

—-

 

Nanette was crying. The burning fire dried her tears. But the flames never touched her. She rode, clutching Miss Califor’s dress. The [Witch] rode the stallion through the flames. Behind them, Nanette’s horse had fallen.

But they were free of the fire. They broke through the fire and burning skies into ash and clearer skies. Califor was breathing hard. But as she slowed the dark horse, she was untouched. She looked down at Nanette.

“Nanette.”

The [Witch] girl’s tears and nose ran. She looked back, at the fire. She could see how far it stretched. And in the distance, the whirlwind of flame.

“They’re going to die. All of them.”

Califor didn’t reply. She just leaned on her horse, panting. And she looked tired. The two looked around the ash and smoldering landscape. They had made it. Califor had ridden through the flames, refused to let them take her.

But how many had her magic? Who else could run away? Nanette looked back, desperately. But no one else broke through the wall of fire. Califor dismounted and gripped the horse’ reins.

“Stay on the saddle, Nanette. We must keep moving. And keep an eye on the skies for that Drake.”

The [Witch] cautioned Nanette. And she urged the horse forwards. Nanette was still crying. She didn’t respond. But she raised her head.

And there she was. Belavierr halted, astride her dark horse. She paused and looked at them. Califor and Nanette halted. Belavierr didn’t look like she’d ridden through the flames. Even Miss Califor’s dress smelled of smoke. But the Stitch Witch had made it through the flames without a scratch.

“Good evening. I tip my hat to thee, Witch Califor. Witch Nanette.”

Belavierr raised her hat. Miss Califor stopped. Nanette saw her grip the reins tighter. The horse Nanette rode snorted, eyes wide. It was as wary of Belavierr’s beast as the fire. Nanette froze. But the Stitch Witch didn’t say anything more. She just sat astride her horse, looking at them. And then she spoke.

“Witch Califor. The fire is vast. A blaze without magic. But in its way, more terrible than a [Knight]’s fire. Few Archmages I remember could defeat such a blaze alone.”

“Perhaps you remember them. But fewer still could put out a fire today.”

Califor’s voice was sharp. Tired. Belavierr paused, and then nodded.

“My daughter remains. She refused to leave.”

Nanette’s breath caught. She looked at Miss Califor. The older [Witch] bowed her head.

“Stubborn girl. She made her choice.”

Belavierr’s gaze didn’t waver.

“Yes. And I have yet to make mine. Tell me, Witch Califor. Do you know of a way to stem the fire? I can think of only one way.”

Miss Califor paused and nodded.

“I know of the same way myself. But the cost is not one I would pay. Nor do I think you wish to pay it. But it is possible.”

“Yes.”

Belavierr whispered the words. She looked back. And Nanette saw she was afraid. Her eyes turned back and Nanette stared into that ringed, orange gaze. Belavierr paused.

“She is my daughter. But the choice is mine.”

“That is every [Witch]’s decision. I would not fault you either way. To protect Nanette, I abandoned the coven. I would do it again.”

Miss Califor’s voice was quiet. Belavierr nodded. She hesitated, and then she reached out. She and Califor both stared at the extended hand.

“Witch Califor. I bid thee farewell. If I meet other [Witches], I will speak your name to them.”

Nanette’s eyes widened. Califor stared at the hand. And then, slowly, she reached out and shook it.

“Witch Belavierr. I bid thee farewell also. If I should meet other [Witches], I will speak your name to them. Farewell.”

Belavierr nodded. She rode past Califor. And she looked at Nanette.

“Witch Nanette. Farewell. I have a choice to make.”

“I—I bid thee farewell, Witch Belavierr. If I should meet other [Witches]—”

Nanette choked on her reply as she took the hat from her head. Belavierr’s eyes were so very afraid. The Stitch Witch paused, waiting. Nanette only cried. Belavierr paused. Her eyes focused on Nanette. She put her hand on Nanette’s head. Patted it once.

“Once, Wiskeria was as small as you. I remember those days.”

She waited as Nanette put her hat on her head. And then she turned. She looked old and tired as she sat on the saddle. But she straightened. And the Stitch Witch, Belavierr, looked back at the fire. It blazed behind the three [Witches]. Belavierr sighed. And she turned and nodded at Miss Califor.

“For my daughter, Witch Califor. I might do anything.”

Califor only nodded in reply. Belavierr tipped her hat. And then, slowly, she kicked her horse. It trotted forwards. The wrong way. Belavierr rode towards the smoke. Towards the fire Nanette and Califor had left. She didn’t hear Nanette shouting at her.

“Nanette. Let her go.”

Miss Califor watched Belavierr’s back. The Stitch Witch sat straight, head bowed. She rode back through the flames. Califor and Nanette watched her go. And Nanette saw Miss Califor sigh. The [Witch] turned and jerked her head.

“Come, Nanette. We must keep moving.”

She strode forwards, leading the horse carrying Nanette across the burned land. Miss Califor kept her gaze ahead as her apprentice kept crying. She only looked back once.

 

—-

 

Ryoka saw it burning ahead of her. So much fire that it didn’t seem real. It looked like the entire world was on fire. It was like staring at hell. A vision of it.

She was afraid. Terrified. The wind wasn’t coming to her aid. It was shackled. Forced to blow against its will. But fire and pressure had created that tornado. And now it raged, hurtling towards Riverfarm. Ryoka had struggled to stop strong breezes. How could she stop this?

The City Runner ran on. Coughing, choking as the smoke grew heavier. She tried to keep low, but beyond this point had been when Charlay passed out. She tried to call the wind—and it blew some fresh air into her face. She gasped, coughed—ran on.

Past a hill with a tree. A rope still hung from one of the branches. And a bit of unmarked soil marked a traitor’s grave. A [Witch] with a huge hat sat at the base of the hill. Her clothes were dark. Her eyes orange and ringed. She looked up as Ryoka passed by.

“Oh, hello. Terrible weather, isn’t it?”

The City Runner stopped. She stared wide-eyed at Belavierr. The Stich Witch was just sitting there. She glanced up at Ryoka. Nodded ahead at the burning oblivion and tornado growing in the distance.

“Miss Ryoka Griffin. Would you like to speak for a moment? Or is now a bad time?”

Ryoka nearly laughed. It was the same Belavierr. The same—but different. She still didn’t know what to say. She still guessed at being normal. But she was Human. And she looked weary as Ryoka halted.

“I can stop for a moment. But I’ve got a date with the fire.”

“As do we all. You run towards it.”

“Yeah. I guess I think I can do something about it. Why’re you here? I thought you left.”

“I have not decided yet. My death comes. But my daughter stays. So I wait. I am wondering. If.”

“If?”

Belavierr’s eyes glinted.

“If I should take her by force. If I can avoid my death.”

Ryoka glanced at the tornado. It hadn’t grown larger. So she hesitated. Gestured back towards Riverfarm.

“You seem certain. Aren’t there a lot of ways you survive?”

Belavierr shook her head.

“No. My death is fairly certain. I have seen it. I wove the tapestry with a [String of Fate], that I might see my deaths. And I saw the [Knight] and fire. This is the second of my deaths.”

“Yeah, but you could leave—you don’t have to stay for Wiskeria’s sake. Or abduct her.”

The [Witch] sighed. Loudly. She glanced up at Ryoka again.

“If it was that easily avoided, it would not be my death. I know myself, Ryoka Griffin. So long as my daughter remains, I do too. I only wonder if my death would save her. Or if there is a way to escape it. The last time took the death of a man. A traitor’s choice. And my immortality. This time I have neither to give.”

She stared at the fire in the distance. Ryoka looked at it. But—she still had time. So she walked over to Belavierr. She looked at the Stitch Witch. Belavierr glanced at her. She was holding threads in her fingers. Was she playing some…convoluted game of cat’s cradle? It looked like it, with threads as thin as hair. She noticed Ryoka staring at it and the threads vanished into one sleeve. Belavierr paused, looking at the City Runner.

“Tell me, something. Once, before, you called yourself my daughter’s friend. And you proposed to help us reconcile. How did you intend to do that, Ryoka Griffin? Or was that a lie?”

Ryoka shrugged her eyes on the fire. It had slowed down, definitely.

“I had a plan. I was going to get you to do some magic with Wiskeria. Something positive. Like—making more charms. She’d have to help you, and maybe learn something. And you’d show her you could do good. I thought that was worth a try. I mean, I know I’m not an expert. But no one else was trying to help.”

“Hm. Strange.”

“What is?”

“You. Few people wish to aid me. My daughter has told me she hates me. What makes you wish to help me?”

The young woman hesitated. She sat down across from Belavierr, keeping one eye on the fire.

“I don’t agree with Wiskeria. I don’t think you’re good or evil. And I think…its good you survived. I just wish Ser Raim didn’t die. And the [Hunters]…”

She paused. Embarrassed. Ashamed. But that was her thing. She liked immortals. Despite herself, she still liked Belavierr. Vampires, Dragons, the fae—there should be a place for them in this world. Even for the [Witch] who sat there.

“All you do is offer deals. And it’s the people who take them that suffer. There’s a justice in that.”

Belavierr half-smiled.

“I’m capable of offering poor deals, Ryoka Griffin. Of making threats. I sewed your lips together, as you recall.”

Ryoka ran a tongue over her lips.

“True. Do you do that often?”

“No. My craft demands I am fair. Things taken by force have less value. But my daughter does not lie when she calls me a monster. I think.”

“Right. But I can’t help…respecting what makes you not fit in my world. My best friend was like you, in a way.”

“Hmm. Strange. You are much like my daughter, Ryoka Griffin.”

“How so?”

Belavierr looked up. She shrugged.

“I do not understand you. Nor my daughter. I do not understand her. Despite losing my immortality. But I would rather she lived, especially now that she has found her purpose. I was…happy to learn of it.”

“What? Her craft? You mean, when she hit you with lightning? And she used justice against you? You liked that?

Ryoka had her own opinion of that moment. And the idea of calling on collective will like that made her feel uneasy. It spoke to her of lynch mobs and public will. But she was hardly about to debate that with the tornado—Ryoka cast a quick glance ahead. It hadn’t moved? Or had it barely crept closer? What was going on?

Belavierr just smiled, though.

“Justice? Oh, that. Well, Wiskeria is free to make mistakes.”

“You think it’s not her craft.”

Ryoka blinked at her. The [Stitch Witch] nodded back the way Ryoka had come.

“Justice is a fickle, untrustworthy thing. It twists and bites and it is a harsh ruler. It can consume everything or ignore half-wrongs. It is a stupid choice for a [Witch]. But that is not what gives me joy, Ryoka Griffin. It is my daughter discovering she could take it.”

“I don’t follow.”

The Stitch Witch paused. She looked up and shook her head.

“When she took it from the villagers, she did what no [Witch] could. Not one of us. She became a new [Witch] in that moment. A [Witch] for the new era. One who can harness the power that belongs to law. The power of order and rules. That is Wiskeria’s true craft. It will make her strong. Perhaps—stronger than the old ways ever could. And most importantly—I know what drives her.”

Slowly, she tapped her chest.

“Me. Her hate for me let her find her craft. And it was what made her a [Witch]. And what stopped her from finding her path before now.”

“But that’s…”

Ryoka held her tongue. Belavierr glanced at her.

“What?”

“It’s so…isn’t it painful?”

The Stitch Witch paused. And for a second something like that flitted over her face. Then she just shook her head.

“Better that I am the source of her strength. Far better that I know it. I…have given her nothing. My daughter. From the day I found her and took her as my own, I tried to give her many things. I have given her food. Shelter. What I knew of as…love. But poorly. I know that now. And I have given her nothing since we parted. If I could—if she asked—I would give her what she desired.”

“What, exactly?”

Belavierr stretched her hands out.

“Gold. Fame. Power. If my daughter asked, I would find it and give it to her. Whatever the cost. Because she is my daughter. But she does not ask. And she never will.”

Ryoka paused. She sat across from Belavierr. She looked at the Stitch Witch.

“Can I have—”

“No.”

“What about a little charm? Like the one you put on Wiskeria…?”

“No. I offer nothing for nothing. My daughter is the one exception.”

Ryoka sighed, staring at the distant fire. Time hung still around the two of them. At last, Belavierr seemed to notice Ryoka’s worry.

“Do you wait for the fire?”

“Yup. I’ve got to do something before it gets to Riverfarm. But it’s not moving closer. Are…are you doing that? Or is that Drake out of wind? It’s still blowing. So why…?”

Ryoka frowned, licking her finger and feeling the air. Belavierr smiled.

“You need not worry. We sit together in an [Immortal Moment].”

Ryoka jumped.

“A—?”

“A useful Skill. I learned the it the last time I leveled up. Recently.”

Ryoka hesitated, and then bit her tongue nearly hard enough to break the skin. Belavierr turned her head.

“What?”

“Nothing. Uh…Wiskeria doesn’t want gold. Treasure? Power? She never asks for any of it? Not even once?”

The [Witch] stared at Ryoka. And then she shook her head slowly.

“When she was young, she asked it of me. Toys. Small things. I gave them to her. And then—she asked a favor of me. On behalf of a boy she knew. On the day she became a [Witch].”

“Will you tell me what happened? Since we have time?”

Belavierr nodded. She looked up, at the burning sky.

“It was a different time. We had fled the village where she grew up. My craft had enraged the villagers. Perhaps she hated me then? But she never said it. And I found a second home. One in a city. I believe she struggled then, because of me. But for her, I used my craft for gold. And I attracted attention. I cared not for it, but for her I worked my spells. And she made friends. One of them was a boy. I do not remember his name. But one day, my daughter came to me with a request.”

Ryoka waited. Belavierr’s eyes were lost. She spoke on, dispassionately. Her face unchanged as it glowed in distant fire’s light.

“She wanted me to grant his request. For he was a [Prince]. The prince of his nation. The Griffin Prince? That was it. The new one. And she called him a dear friend. So I agreed. And the boy told me he wanted to be proof against blades, that he might be the mightiest [Prince] his kingdom had ever seen. A worthy [King].”

She paused. Her face changed not one whit. Ryoka spoke.

“And? What did you do?”

Belavierr looked at her oddly.

“I did it, of course. I gave him his protection against blades. To do it, I cut him apart, piece by piece. And I wove him of my magic again. So long as my craft endures, he will be proof against blades. I did that for my daughter, but she fled me. And she cursed my name. That was the day she told me she hated me, Ryoka Griffin. That was the day…she became a [Witch]. And she left my side thereafter. Then, I did not understand why. I am trying to remember why it could be now.”

She paused, frowning. And Ryoka just stared at her and felt cold. Here sat a monster. Or if not a monster…someone else. Mortal, yes. But…she cleared her throat, coughed.

“Was he screaming when you cut him apart and…sewed him together?”

“Who?”

Another blank look. Ryoka paused.

“The Griffin Prince.”

Belavierr stared at Ryoka. And then she blinked and sighed.

“Oh. That was why she hated it.”

She shook her head. Ryoka was silent. Belavierr looked at her hands. Mystified. And then, tired.

“It has been a long time since I took my first life. So long, that I cannot even remember who it was or how. Or why. But—I still remember a young woman who swore she would never forget that day. Yet that day itself? I am old. Too old to have been a mother to my daughter.”

“Why did you do it, then?”

Ryoka was endlessly curious. But she felt the moment coming to a close. The fire tornado was moving again, ever so slowly. But she and Belavierr clung to this conversation. Both feared the future. Belavierr shook her head.

“I don’t know. But there she lay. And she looked up at me. And she would have died had I not picked her up. So I did. Because it filled something in me.”

And that was it. A monster. Immortal. Unfeeling. Distant. A [Witch]. But it was her. Wiskeria alone who grounded her. Ryoka just didn’t understand why. So she asked.

“Why? Why are you going to die for her? Why can’t you leave her or let her die and not care like so many others? Belavierr the Stitch Witch, why does Wiskeria matter to you?”

The Stitch Witch looked at her. And she took a long time in replying.

“In any sewing, there is a first stitch and a last stitch. And there must be a knot. An ending, or else what is made must unravel.”

Ryoka nodded.

“So is Wiskeria the first or last stitch?”

Another look.

“She is my daughter, not a thread. I am making a comparison. We each are a tapestry, a weaving. And she was not the first or last thread in mine. I am my own work. And yet, somehow, though my first stitch was sewn long before hers, her threads and mine are interwoven. We are tangled together. But separate.”

Belavierr wove her fingers together, staring at them. She went on, quietly.

“And yet, somehow, despite my daughter’s youth. Despite that she and I share no blood save for the original blood of humanity, she matters to my tapestry. She is bright color on darkest cloth. Without her, night is the same as day. Without her, contrast fails. And I would have no meaning.”

She looked up, looking slightly…

“It is how I can explain it. Does that answer your question, Ryoka Griffin?”

“Yeah.”

The City Runner looked away. And she stood up. She avoided Belavierr’s eyes as the [Witch] looked questioningly at her. Then Ryoka turned and nodded.

“I wish my mother had said she loved me like that. So that’s why it’s your death.”

Belavierr nodded. There she sat. And the moment passed. Ahead of her, the tornado burned. Ryoka looked ahead. Belavierr spoke.

“I would like to be loved. I am afraid of death. My daughter must live. But I fear death. So I look for an alternative. Perhaps there is one. But a mother’s love holds me here. But you. You have no child. Why do you run to your death? You fear it too, don’t you?”

“Oh yes.”

Ryoka looked ahead. And the fire howled. The wind blew hot on her face and she shivered. She was afraid.

“Then why do you run to yours?”

The young woman turned. And she smiled at Belavierr. At the curious face. Ryoka breathed in. And she sighed. She reached for her belt and touched a bit of frozen courage. A bit of friendship.

“Because I have a choice. And I’m afraid of who I would be if I left. I’d like to be a good person.”

“How strange.”

Ryoka laughed. And then she began to run. She left the [Witch] where she sat. And she ran forwards, trotting, jogging, and then running. And ahead of her a twister of ash and flame bore down on her.

“Wind. Come on. I know you’re more than a tool for someone to use. You’re free. Come on. Run with me.

Ryoka whispered. She shouted. And the wind blew around her, clearing the ash. It was all fire. Embers blew past Ryoka, smoke and sparks mixing. And the ground burned. Ryoka’s soles blistered as she came close to the blaze. But she looked up. The tornado was blowing waves of heat at her. She raised her arm. And she shouted.

I am the Wind Runner! And I call the wind! Be free!

She turned. And she began to run. Fast. Faster than she had ever run. The wind howled behind her. And the tornado raged. It blew towards Riverfarm, caught by the wind that pushed at its back. Until it sensed the second breeze. And the young woman who called it.

The whirlwind of fire turned. It began to blow after Ryoka. And she laughed. She ran, trying to outrun the pillar of flames that swerved after her. She had never known the wind could turn to fire! She ran and the ice in her hand froze her as the fire burned behind her. Chasing her.

Once, Ivolethe had told her that she didn’t understand the wind. And Ryoka still didn’t. She could not fly. She could not run with the wind. But she could lead it. And she did.

She ran. The tornado of fire raced after her, over barren grass, turning away from Riverfarm. Chasing the young woman who dared it. She ran on, laughing, screaming as it burned her. Carrying it as far as she could with every step. Faster and faster, until she ran with the racing fire. Across scorched ground. Through ash and embers.

Faster. The wind howled at her back. And the fire caught her. It touched her and embraced her but she did not let it consume her. And she ran with fire. Until the fire was spent and flickering, far from its fuel. Then the young woman stopped. She looked back and saw the trail she had run. And the fiery winds had nothing left to burn. Ryoka Griffin spread her arms, laughing. She looked at her charred body and fell.

“Impossible.”

Overhead, the Oldblood Drake stared as the whirlwind of fire changed courses. He stared as the young Human woman ran and it followed. She should have died in that first hundred feet. But she ran on. And the tornado blew after her. It lost the fire that gave it strength and heat. The winds refused to blow to Riverfarm! The Drake screamed his fury. He watched the City Runner fall. And he contemplated her death. But she was already burnt.

The Drake turned his gaze towards the village. The wind now blew where it pleased. And the tornado was gone. But the fire was still advancing, devouring the dry landscape. He whispered as he flew lower. He had long since used his fire’s breath past its limit. But he had a mission to finish.

“It will still happen. The village will still burn. And so will they. If I have to finish it myself.”

So the Drake dove. And he breathed, and the fire raged. It raced over the fire break, fanned by his breath which set the very earth alight. Until it met the five [Witches] who stood against it.

 

—-

 

“Hold it back. Hold. It. Back.”

Wiskeria stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Hedag, Eloise, Mavika, and Alevica. They faced the flames as they raced across the edges of the fire break. Wiskeria’s palm was raised. And all of her force was directed towards the fire.

Embers burned as they flew towards the villagers. Sparks and smoke parted as the [Witches] held their ground. The people of Riverfarm were gasping, falling back towards the river. They were surrounded by fire. On the other side, the fire was licking at the village’s wooden buildings. When they went up, the inferno would trap them on both sides.

It was hot. Wiskeria was trying to hold back heat and ember and smoke. She could feel the blood vessels bursting in her eyes, her nose. She staggered. The four other [Witches] stood with her, combining their power. They wavered and the fire advanced.

Durene was still trying to fight the fire with dirt and a shovel. The others had fled backwards, towards the center of the fields. A shrinking circle of people huddled together as the smoke and heat drove more and more towards unconsciousness. Wiskeria gritted her teeth. Just a bit longer. A bit longer and the flames might extinguish themselves! Run out of fuel!

Then a spark of light made her turn. She looked across the river and saw it. Bright flames. Burning brighter for what they consumed. A low groan escaped her lips. Riverfarm was on fire.

But the fire could not spread by the wind. Ryoka had set it free. Wiskeria watched the village begin to burn. And then she turned her attention ahead. The fire had halted. The fields gave it so little to consume and the firebreak had stopped it. Wiskeria held her ground. And she held it. They could do this. They could!

And then her death fell from the skies on copper wings. The Drake breathed fire. And his ignited the earth itself. The [Witches] looked up and scattered. And the fire, unblocked, raced forwards.

Burn! All of you!

The Drake roared his fury. Wiskeria fell to one knee as the other [Witches] dodged. She saw Eloise raise her hand. Together, they tried to stop the flames. And the fire’s backlash set Eloise aflame. The old [Witch] screamed.

Wiskeria saw the fire racing forwards, burning and adding to the Drake’s flames. They went straight for Riverfarm’s folk who cried out in fear and despair. The Drake laughed. Wiskeria lay on the ground, spent. She looked up as the fire touched her and began to burn her.

“I tried.”

She tried to cry. But it was too hot. She lay there, burning. And the scream bubbled at her lips. Her people were screaming behind her, catching flame as the Drake burned them, as the fire burned them all.

Riverfarm.

People.

[Witches].

Then the mother made her choice. And Wiskeria, burning, saw a figure riding through the fire. The horse she rode was black. And she sat on it, her hat pointed. Her eyes flashing. Her voice was like thunder.

Halt, fire! You race and burn everything away! But I, I have a life I must save! So burn, and follow me!”

“Mom?”

The [Witch] rode forwards. Her voice called the flame. It raced up her horse and the horse caught fire. The [Witch] screamed. The fire was consuming her. Wiskeria raised her head. The flames on her had gone out. The [Witch] rode on, and the fire leapt from the people. It abandoned the ground and raced after her. She clutched her hat to her head as she rode past Wiskeria, a fireball.

“Come, flame, I offer my magic and craft. I offer a [Witch]’s bones, a mother’s love! I offer my life to turn your wrath! So come and burn away. That my daughter might live one more day.

Mother!

Wiskeria shouted, but the [Witch] didn’t look at her. She was riding away, towards the river. Pulling the flames—all of them after her. They roared across the ground, leaving the village, leaving the [Witches]. Burning her.

She rode ablaze with light. And she laughed. She cackled. The [Witch] raced on, back through scorched ground. Wiskeria sobbed.

“Mother. Mother!

The tears ran down her cheeks and she screamed. Far ahead, the rider was slowing. The horse was failing. And the woman slumped in the saddle. But on they went. A blazing pair, their steps slowing as the flames found nothing left to take. They burned the [Witch]. Devoured her. And there she stopped. Wiskeria ran towards her mother, weeping.

“No. No.

The Drake flew downwards, screaming. He was spent, coughing. But he had his spear. He dove. And Alevica’s crossbow bolt struck him in the chest. The Drake twisted, and the [Witch] slashed at him, cutting his arm. He snarled and slashed at her, and she flew backwards.

A shriek pierced the black sky. Mavika dove, a monster of wings and the Drake screamed and struck at her. She ignored the jabbing spear and tore at him.

To earth he fell, snarling. He stood, bleeding, and drank from a bottle. The old [Witch] who he saw first he charged with his spear raised. And the [Executioner]’s axe caught him across the neck.

“[Headman’s Last Cut].”

The [Infiltrator] jerked. The Oldblood Drake, the smiling man, twisted. He looked into Hedag’s eyes as the axe cut into his neck and shoulder. He jerked away, stumbling. His life’s blood spattered to the ground. Hedag lifted her axe for a second strike, but the Drake spat one last plume of fire, warding her off.

“Healing potion. Healing…”

He reached for it. And he drank it. Splashed it on the wound. But it refused to close. The Drake looked up into Hedag’s eyes. And she smiled like the sun.

The Drake looked around. The [Witches] stood around him. He reached for his spear. But his arms were out of strength. He gasped, trying to slow the blood with one class.

“I am one. Just one. Someday, Humans. We will bring you all to justice. Every last one.”

The [Witches] said nothing. They watched as the Drake slowly sat down. He looked at the blood on his claws. Faintly, slowly, the [Infiltrator] looked up.

“I’m cold.”

He stared up at the sky and died. The [Witches] watched. Then they turned as Wiskeria wept and the last of the fire went out. They bowed their heads and removed their hats.

At last, the rain began to fall.

 

—-

 

Charlay found Ryoka. The Centauress was weeping, running from burnt logs to felled trees, calling Ryoka’s name. She found the young woman lying on the ground. Her potions had been destroyed by the fire. Her clothes were barely intact, more fused to her charred flesh than anything.

But she was alive. Charlay hugged her and gave her potions, her hands slipping. It was wet. The rain was falling on the charred landscape. A light drizzle. It hurt Ryoka, until the potions did their work. Gently, Charlay carried her back to the others. Ryoka muzzily kept asking whether the others were okay.

Some had died. Two thirds of the people who had tried the river had perished. Mayor Rodivek had died along with many of Lancrel’s folk. Somehow, Councilwoman Beatica had survived. As if to prove that the fire had taken lives without discrimination.

Those who had fled by ground had perished almost down to the last person. The fire had been too much for anyone on foot or even horseback to outface. Only two [Witches] came back riding unscathed. Nanette was pale, shaking, incoherent as she rode past Ryoka. Califor’s face was blank as she looked at the destruction.

What there was of it. For the fire had eaten away at a number of houses on the edge of the village of Riverfarm, but it hadn’t consumed the village. Nor had it touched the people who’d sheltered in the field. Between the [Witches] and the…end…Ryoka found most alive. Many were burned, but there were healing potions and bandages.

She saw the corpse and rider and the gathering as Charlay brought her through the crowd. Durene helped Ryoka off Charlay’s back and carried her. Ryoka asked to be put down, though she had to lean on her friends. She had to see. She stumbled forwards as the people parted. And her sigh was the only sound in the world.

“Belavierr.”

The fire had burnt her away. Her and the horse. It had made her thinner, burnt at her flesh, reduced the horse into barely…but still she sat there. There was no orange glow in her sockets. No clothing left. Just a body. She and the horse still stood upright. Two charred figures fused into one.

The [Witch] had died mid-laugh, her head thrown up to the sky. Ryoka wondered what Belavierr’s last expression had been. Happy? She whispered, numbly.

“I thought I could stop it.”

One of those gathered around the body looked up. Wiskeria was kneeling by her mother’s corpse, unmoving. Mavika looked at Ryoka. She bled, but the poison had been tended to. Her expression was sad. Nothing more. She nodded at Ryoka as the other [Witches] gathered around her.

“You could not prevent her death. But without you she might have died in vain. She made her choice. And she died a true [Witch].”

Ryoka looked at what remained of Belavierr. It was true. It had been a truly epic magic to end it all. She had contained a wildfire’s inferno in her body and carried it away from Riverfarm. All of it. The fire that had spread for miles had gone out with the [Witch].

And she was dead. Ryoka didn’t know what to say. Looking around, no one did. The people of Riverfarm silently looked on as Wiskeria wept for her mother. They had hated and feared her in life. She had killed Ser Raim, turned Tagil against his companions and to his death. She had manipulated, stolen life, and she had committed atrocities Ryoka couldn’t even imagine. But she had died for her daughter.

Her coven stood around her. Mavika watched in silence, her crows circling, her raven perched, watching. Califor held Nanette, who was shaking, covering her mouth, stroking her head and whispering to her. Eloise looked at Belavierr, mystified, her hat resting in her hands. Hedag leaned on her axe, looking old and tired and full of grief. Alevica was just sitting, staring up at the [Witch].

Wiskeria wept until there were no more tears, and she just lay there. At last, Prost spoke. He looked around, jerking his eyes away from the corpse.

“She deserves to be put to rest. We’ll cremate her? Or should we bury…?”

He looked around. Ryoka stared at him and the man looked at her, blankly.

“She deserves a proper funeral.”

Wiskeria raised her head at that. Her eyes were swollen, but she had finished weeping. At least for now. She stood, Mavika and Eloise supporting her.

“Fire is fine. She won’t mind. It’s only her…body. Besides, it was her death. She wouldn’t care.”

The villagers looked at each other. And slowly, they found wood. Still—glowing embers. They took the remains of houses. Built a pyre larger than any Ryoka had ever seen. It surrounded the [Witch], still mounted. And Wiskeria herself lit it. She had no words to say beyond a whispered goodbye. No one else could say anything.

“Goodbye, Mother.”

Ryoka watched the fire burning upwards, licking at the wood which refused to burn in the light rain. The fire slowly, reluctantly, built. And as it built, at last, the broken voice burst out. A crying, weeping shout from a daughter.

Mother!

Nanette tore herself away from Califor. She ran forwards, sobbing. She would have run into the blaze had Wiskeria not caught her. She struggled, and she screamed.

“Mother! Mother! Mommy!

The sound broke the silence. It twisted the solemnity, turned it to confusion and discord. Ryoka raised her head. She saw Nanette struggling, tears running down her face. Her coven held her back, confusion written on their faces. Wiskeria stared at Nanette. She looked at the burning corpse. Her mother.

“Mother? Nanette, she was your…”

Ryoka turned slowly. And she felt it. The coven looked up. Wiskeria slowly let go of Nanette as the blood drained from her face. She looked over at Miss Califor, who had let go of Nanette and stepped back.

And the thing that looked like Califor smiled. It raised its head. And Califor’s hat swept from her head. And Belavierr raised her true hat and placed it on her head. She smiled, a monster dressed in darkness. She spread her arms, wide, wide, and her smile filled her face.

My beloved daughter.

The mourners looked up. And then they looked at the burned [Witch]. And they understood. Ryoka stared in Belavierr’s eyes and she saw Belavierr’s true heart. The Stitch Witch laughed.

They came at her, all of them. Mavika and her flock, Ryoka with knife and wind. Charlay, Alevica, Eloise, Hedag—the axe met a needle as long as a sword. The crows choked as thread tangled them. The villagers screamed as their clothes tangled.

Belavierr swung her arm and cut open Mavika’s face with a needle. Eloise she met and the two traded blows. Belavierr stumbled and Eloise flew and struck the ground and didn’t move. Belavierr twisted her fingers and the hair of the two City Runners tangled, strangling them. Hedag swung again, and the needles struck her entire body. She stumbled back. Fell.

Prost stumbled, and stared down at the blood running from his perforated legs. Rie fell, screaming, as Geram tried to undo the threads choking her. Durene charged as Frostwing and Bismarck leapt. Belavierr crooked a finger and both bird and bear were pulled back by leashes.

Durene swung a fist and Belavierr raised an arm. The half-Troll girl’s fist struck cloth that acted as if it were steel. Belavierr’s hand flickered. Durene staggered back, her eyelids and mouth stitched shut.

Belavierr stood amid the screams, around the fallen coven. And she looked down at her daughter. She smiled, with all the love in her soul. Her daughter’s horror-struck gaze met her mother’s. Belavierr swung one arm out, and her smile was a terrible thing. She walked forwards and bent towards her daughter. She reached out and Wiskeria raised a shaking hand. Belavierr captured it. And her voice was soft.

“My beloved daughter. You will remember this day forever. You have found your craft, and you will be the first [Witch] of a new era. One of law. Of order. And you will be the greatest [Witch] of us all. This is my love for you, Wiskeria. This is what I can give you. I will be your craft. Stop me. Hunt me. For I shall never die until the day you stop me.”

Belavierr bent. She kissed her daughter on the forehead. And then she turned and walked away. She looked back once at Wiskeria, waved, and then she was gone.

The next day, Laken returned home.

 


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151 thoughts on “6.46 E

  1. It was always meant to end like this. Nanette was always Califor’s true daughter. And Califor the better mother. And it was Belavierr who lived, by trickery, for her daughter in a twisted way. She has escaped more deaths over her life than we could name.

    And she is a far worse monster in her way than Az’kerash could hope to be. I don’t have anything else to say. I hope the chapter was well done. And I have one last one, to tie the last of things together and set the stage for what comes next. After that, I’ll take my break. Thanks for reading.

    • Nice chapter but there is something that feel wrong in the ways the final revelation is written, for a moment I thought that Califor had always been the real bellavier and the other another cloth fake or something like that and I didn’t understand why everyone was fighting. It feel as if I missed a paragraph, something like Nanette having a sudden look of terror while looking at the fake Califor before crying for her mother? But maybe it’s just me.

      • It was really subtle, and I had to go back and read it again before I understood what had happened. Still unclear on when the switch was made (probably when Belavierr rode off after Califor? Something to do with the threads in Belavierr’s hands when she speaks with Ryoka?) but “The [Witch]” who sacrifices herself is only ever referred to as such. As an added bonus, in Belavierr’s earlier conversation with Wiskeria, she scorns using chants for magic, but Califor clearly uses one to draw the flames, which I totally forgot about in the rush of the epic climax.

        Well played Pirateaba, well played.

    • Well done Pirateaba. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this arc. The rhyming, spells and rituals were very cool. I didn’t expect the ending. I had to stop and reread just to make sure I read it correctly. Wiskeria is going to become a powerhouse because of this. Which is exactly what Bel has been wanting this whole time.

      “I love you, but I’d never give my craft up for you.”

      She’s a witch and that’s her world. To see her daughter succeed her she’d kill and betray anyone. Beautifully done.

    • Listen, though i did not like the ending like many, i do respect authors choice. Still i think you could reedit/change it a little bit at the end to make it clearer. Like others
      I just did not quite get what happened at the end.

      For example make Nannets reactions different and not just BAM!!! like that, maybe stretch out her entry and realization bit. Or make it clearer that Califor had actually switched places with Bel, since i thought at first that Bel had been her from the start in disguise or had removed a bit from herself to make Califor (which would have been in line with all the dopples you mentioned shed made in the past).

      Anyway keep up the good work 🙂

      • Her coven stood around her. Mavika watched in silence, her crows circling, her raven perched, watching. Califor held Nanette, who was shaking, covering her mouth, stroking her head and whispering to her.

      • I did a double-take at the point where she was covering Nannette’s mouth, but I’d assumed that was just Califor’s misguided attempt to keep Nannette dignified as a “propper” witch.

        Means a lot more now!

      • When a villain has lived for hundreds or thousands of years, it’s pretty normal that they’re harder to kill than mortals. There are probably hundreds of others who tried to walk that path but stubbled.

        There is a reason why the Goblin Lord and Garren were villains that died while Belavierr and Az’Kerash survived their “deaths”. Experience.

        In the same way, plenty of “heroes” like Zel or other adventurers died but Teriarch and Ivolette are still alive despite attempts at killing them.

        There is a reason “immortals” don’t die easy, else they would have perished a long time ago…

    • There is no other way that could have ended. I am in awe. I am crushed and overjoyed and I’m ruined for the rest of the day. Well done.

    • Now, this is what I wanted out of Belavierr for the last two chapters 🙂 . Exactly what the reader needs to properly hate and fear her like the characters do!

      Granted, I still like her (though I wish that Califor had lived; I liked her even more), but now there’s a plain and obvious reason that I should hate her.

    • I’m back from vacation, and boy, was this worth catching up to! I think I’m going to blame it on how tired I am, but Califor’s death made me cry. I’m a moma’s boy at heart, I guess.

      Love all you do! Keep on trucking! ❤

    • Ok wtf happened here? I usually enjoy the story but this chapter’s Bel swap twist was too abrupt.

      The “hunter-drake reveal” and “hunter traitor reveal” was good. There were a few lines tossed in to build up dread, and they felt like they fit perfectly. But I felt there’s no dread nor buildup w/ Bel’s twist ending.

      The breadcrumbs were spread too far apart. I spotted the “cackle” oddity but didn’t think too hard about it.

      The “Haha, it was me all along! And then everyone attacked her.” moment was really stupefying. It needs more lines. Show not tell! Why they attacking? Do they feel disraught? Calruz’s beatdown in prison felt better w/ more lines of character reactions. No struggle, just exit stage left.

      I picked up too little clues on Bel and Calefor’s quirks to identify them & make the deathscene swap dramatic.

      I only knew Bel was spooky, and Calefor was “powerful” and kept to herself? No identifiers. No quirk, verbal tic nothing. If we see them both die, how can we tell either of them apart? They both liked their kids, so they’d BOTH probably smile knowing they protected their daughters.

      When Calefor, Nan & Bel rode out of the fire circle, I didn’t see how anything was wrong. I thought the elders were saying formal goodbyes b/c they’re old codger witches?

      Calefor’s last ride stopping the fire wasn’t badass enough. She spoke a few words and then she died. What? The “Redfang hobs last stand”, and “drakeguy vs necromamcer” was felt much better emotionally. Needs more lines.

      I felt:
      – Calefor riding out of village needed a bit more ominous to raise dread.
      – More hints on Calefor’s last ride, than “Bel doesn’t do incantations” which I missed, or the “cackle”, which I passed over.
      – Calefor’s pyre would have ppl seeing “something’s not right”w/ the corpse as it burned, for tension. I only realized AFTER the abrupt fight scene, that the Kinghts mentioned that Bel can “swap faces of her victims”.

      Bel’s motives n logic felt soild, but the exectuion felt worse. It feels less impactful than other parts of the story.

      Now for rants and idiot balls.

      There’s a lot of railroading.
      -Why couldn’t the witches use a flooding spell if the rain spell failed?
      – Why didn’t Ryoka use science and wind to snuff out the flame? She knows the fire triangle right?
      – why did Ryo run straight at fire tornado that popped outta nowhere? Whole village in fire, run straight?
      – Why did the ritual gem just break? Zero buildup there too.
      -Why didn’t Wiskera join the fight? She hates her mom even more now right? Tbh, there’s enough salt/”justice” in the crowd after they’ve been duped to fuel Wisk’s craft so hard, Bel turns into a salt pillar
      – Nanette runs out and runs back into burning village for no reason, could’ve stayed safe in Riverfarm fields w/ the villagers
      – Bel’s bad deeds we only hear from knights who want to kill her, and her daughter who hate her. Nobody explaines Bel’s “unfair” deals in detail. Too shaky to condemn Bel outright. Plus story’s 5 volumes of “dont judge ppl by cover” “leave gobbos alone!” “leave King Slaver alone! Hes is ok… somewhat” Then suddenly we find Bel is ireedeemable Space Hitler. Whut?

      When will Ryoka pick up protagonist powers?

      Erin acts like a cluless whimsical protag and everything’s fine. When Erin uses The Power Of Friendship, and she uses it all the time, it just works. Nothing Erin does bites her in the ass. Plot armor?

      – Misha didn’t turn into Rat Torturer McEdgeGnoll despite being a kid, ample buildup & motive (my parents are deeeeaaaaadddd) vs Carluz
      – Lism’s a bundle of cliches that also quickly loses
      – TWO human towns and an entire Walled City bends to Erin.
      – Necroguy antag sits around & twiddles his thumbs for months after his failed invasion
      – Erin loses her skelly and it gets murdery and bipolar, but skelly got better *on its own*, & now sits in the dungeon doing nothing
      – Erin mopes for several chapters cuz gobbos dead and only Numbtongue survive, but we know not all hobs dead tho
      – Carluz the insaned even has a cool confrontation w/ angry jailors. No Erin intervention needed either.

      – Not Erin: Neo-UN established, doesnt immediately implode from bias and hostility

      When Ryoka tries to help people, everything goes to shit:
      – Story spends 5 volumes humanizing literally everyone, including King Slavery Is Cool (Sometimes). But ONLY RYOKA meets story’s 1st & only Space Hitler.
      – Ryo sends message to forest, drake gf dies
      – Ryo tries to save Mirsha, kid’s entire tribe dies
      – Ryo makes a faerie fren. Fren Ivothe dies
      – Ryo helps a village. But became completely unnecessary to entire arc (i think), invisible elves troll Ryo with “its not your story”, Ryo gets abandoned by horse friend (dont blame Charlay but poor Ryo), Nanette’s mom dies, village set on fire, and then everybody gets maimed. Wtf?

      – Erin’s story: “trust ppl you’ll be fine” Ryoka’s story: “psyke”

      At least Charlay survived. And Ryo’s vampire friend isn’t dead. Yet? The vamps all have vampire aids. As expected, Ryo doesn’t know how to help.

      Is Ryoka the story’s designated butt monkey or something?

    • As an Australian, maybe firefighting the worse of the worse fire’s gets talked about, almost like sport cometary a lot more then elsewhere (are firefighters are often called apon for there exp for the more horrable California fires & training) so I was all, “Do this! Take action, do that! Talk to each other about what it is you can do & do xyz while that happens.” Very much all the fires get started by firebugs here (a school holiday or a long weekend is something to dread about in the dry weather, but yet parents don’t keep an eye on there kids, at least they finally court the guy who was lighting the big fires every year, (he was in the volunteer fire service) I was getting sick of seeing the photos from NASA of the whole of Australia being on fire from space.), so only the skill that set the earth on fire really brought it home to me how hard it was to stop.

    • MotherFUCK. Nanette didn’t deserve this. I didn’t want Belavierr to die and still I found her death to be a better ending. What kind of mfking twist is worse than what the story would have been otherwise. You’ll make me cry. ;-;

    • “Durene as Frostwing and Bismarck leapt” -> “Durene __(missing word, maybe “charged”)__ as Frostwing and Bismarck leapt”

    • Error:
      Change the Seven of 4 sentences with an Eight, as there are 8 Witches not 7.

      … And so they met. Seven [Witches]. …
      … And so they met. Eight [Witches]. …

      … laying out a seven-sided star on …
      … laying out an eight-sided star on …

      And all seven [Witches] drew a blade. …
      And all eight [Witches] drew a blade. …

      All seven [Witches] cut themselves …
      All eight [Witches] cut themselves …

      Typo:
      … [Witches] drew a blade. Nanette, Califor, Hedag, Eloise, Mavika, Wiskeria, and Belavierr. …
      You forgot to add Alevica.

    • He bellowed the names of his [Majordomo], his two sons. He found Ullim in his son’s room. They were hiding under their beds, as if this was an earthquake.
      son’s –> sons’ (looks like they’re sharing a room if both beds are in one)

      “She is my daughter, not a thread. I am making a comparison. We each are a tapestry, a weaving. And she was not the first or last thread in mine. I am my own work. And yet, somehow, though my first stitch was sewn long before hers, her threads and mine are interwoven. We are tangled together. But separate.”

      Belavierr wove her fingers together, staring at them. She went on, quietly.

      “And yet, somehow, despite my daughter’s youth. Despite that she and I share no blood save for the original blood of humanity, she matters to my tapestry. She is bright color on darkest cloth. Without her, night is the same as day. Without her, contrast fails. And I would have no meaning.”
      –> “And yet, somehow,” feels awkward to be used this successively in a speech (granted that it’s Belavierr)
      despite my daughter’s youth. Despite –> youth, despite

      She looked up, looking slightly…
      –> slightly… what? (kind of hanging)

    • It isn’t really explored why she liked belavier (even after she got her mouth shut and was sent flying). I assume she needed to feel sympathy to want to make Wis close to bela again. But it feels closer to a scenaristic need than to a real character motivation.
      I really feel those last chapters contrived, most protagonist holding an idiot ball and the bad guy having a multi layered plot armor (like usual).

      • Ryoka’s always been a sucker for the legends and the immortals. Part of her is able to appreciate them for what they are, whether they bring good or bad. From the Frost Fae to wind to magic to Teriarch, she’s loved this kind of thing. And gone out of her way to get involved with them.

        And up until this point Bela hasn’t done anything truly horrific or unjustifiable in some manner, at least not in front of Ryoka. The stitch baby is creepy, but defensible. The sewing of the mouth was healed easily enough and aligns with what Ryoka knows about finicky immortals. Again, not a good thing, but it still fits the narrative that leaves her fascinated with immortals without leaving lasting damage. The witch hunters and knights? Horrible, but they did come after her, not the other way around.

        Well, now Belavierr has done something even Ryoka might have a hard time reconciling.

        • I think Belavierr offered a choice to Califor, a way to save Nannette, and at the same time, others as well. Belavierr couldn’t do what Califor could, trade her life for another, but she could make it possible for Califor to do so, at a very steep price. Yes, she’s a monster, but a very understandable one.

        • Ryoka didn’t necessarily seem that fascinated with immortals : she disliked the faeries up till the point they saved her even then Ivoelethe was the one asking to come with Ryoka, Fierre was the most talkative of the other two patrons where she stayed so they bonded naturaly. Teriarch is that impressive though. But Ryoka almost never searched for the big ancient immortals before that they just found her.

          “until this point Bela hasn’t done anything truly horrific or unjustifiable in some manner”
          Yes she did, everyone tells that she did, Ryoka had a list of Bela crimes, she was victime of some, even the other witches told her bela was a monster.
          She got her mouth sewn, even if it was healed (not easily the stitching was bewitched, she had to get the other witch undo it) it has to be traumatic.
          I feel like these chapters threw away normal reactions for more dramatic effect. Like everybody attacking bela for Califor death? Why? Some of them probably didn’t even know them. They are after an enormous fire and almost died or were passed out a few minute and they are still itching to attack the very powerfull witch who seem as powerfull as ever at this moment? Even people that dislike true fight (Charlay) and Ryoka attacking with a knife when it was stated she had trouble going lethal in self defense or trying to save others (in the dungeon).
          I don’t believe in the reactions in these chapters.

          • First off, well said about her initial relation with the faeries, I definitely agree that she didn’t initially like them (From what I can tell, 2.05 is the first mention of frost faeries at the end). And I also agree that she doesn’t really search for the big ancient immortals but rather stumbles into them. But I feel like it’s the whole Pixar-esque idea of “coincidences get you into trouble, but how you get out shouldn’t be” in that it’s not how Ryoka continually meets immortals, but how she responds to them. She learns about the fae, Teriarch, Fierre, and Belavierr. She tries to understand the world through their eyes, the eyes of an immortal. But yeah, I’m not quite sure if this is a fascination or simply her curiosity/world view.

            I agree that not only Ryoka but Charlay joining the fight against Belavierr was pretty shocking. Ryoka’s in rough shape, and she’s very well aware of how powerful Belavierr is. And Charlay’s been more of a literal runner (in more ways than one) than a fighter.
            Although I do feel like the witch’s response was pretty justified. They said they would not involve themselves with other witch’s business unless it endangered another witch’s, which it very clearly did in this case.

            I also feel that Ryoka’s analytical take of Belavierr was pretty fair. Ryoka is not a typical “normal” person with her responses to things, Ryoka had a non “normal reaction” with Wiskeria’s choice of craft because she herself feels that “justice” is something that can be easily corrupted by mob mentality (*cough cough* Calrez (I know she doesn’t know of the fate of Calrez, but this is just an example)).

      • From my point of view the reasoning is the draw of the, well, “unearthly”. By which I mean gnolls and drakes and centaurs might be cool, but they’re basically just furry or scalie or fast running people, when you get down to it. You could take one of them and drop them in our world and they could presumably get along fine within the rules. Beyond biology there isn’t much that’s special about them.

        But you *can’t* say the same of Dragons, or Fae, or Vampires. They’re so magical, so powerful, that they basically break the normal rules just by existing, and that breaking draws your attention just by being there. And Belavierr when we first meet her fits that same category to a “T” (only moving when you don’t look, creep eyes, always standing in shadow, etc.), so I’m not surprised that the attraction to the otherworldly kicked in, doubly so when you consider that the only lasting damage Belavierr has done up until this point from Ryoka’s POV was to people who were trying to kill her (or who asked her to do it to them).

        TL;DR: It’s not that Ryoka is trying to be sympathetic here, or that she’s being handed an idiot ball. It’s just that she has a fetish for the otherworldy, for the things that scream “You could never find me on Earth” just by existing, and as long as they aren’t actively trying to kill her then she’s probably going to try to get closer to them.

        • I’m still not convinced she’s got a “fetish”, the only thing she made in that sense was trying to see Teriarch, the rest was happenstance, in fact in most case she tried to avoid the “unearthly” and supernatural and was dragged kicking and screaming into it.

          Even if she got a “fetish”, it really should have stopped when she got mutilated.
          Everything but death can be healed in the TWI, given sufficiently powerfull magic but that shouldn’t mean it’s not completly traumatizing.

          Also she knows Alivca tortured her friend. She still cozy up with her. And that’s also a first, she was before very strict about standing against bully and monsters. She apparently threw away all her principles in the last few chapters.

          • Before she was self-centered and judgemental. I would say her fascination with the supernatural came from meeting Ivolethe and from learning that there is more to the world. Back in the day she thought she was better than everyone because she could throw a kick. Now she’s realized that the world is bigger than her and she’s always trying to approach things with an open mind, trying to understand other people and even creatures that play by completely different rules.
            I’d say she actually gained principles instead of acting on whether or not she feels like someone looks punchable.

        • Fetish might be a bit sexual, but there’s definitely some kind of attraction here.

          I’ve mainly seen it as her trying to make herself the biggest one in the room, or at least be worthy of notice/status. If she were male she’d probably get called macho for it. It’s something she did by fighting Calruz and Yvonne near the start, as well as getting pissy when Teriarch or Azkerash wouldn’t pay her. She punched Ivoleth, she let Fierre know she was outed, she consistently berated Belavierr.

          Anything that would otherwise spook or control her she’s set herself against, knowingly or not. Her headstrong and prideful nature leads her to clash with every supernatural thing in the room and, because of Ivolethe (among others), she believes it’s likely enough to turn out well.

          Not so much in this case, I guess.

    • You should remember that there exist people who can trick others into believing they are good, while hiding the pain and misery they inflict on those closest to them. Psychopaths.

      Ryoka thought she saw something good within Belavierr, but was tricked. Though I think most of that was because of Ryoka’s wishful thinking…
      Still, I think all it says about Ryoka, is that she tries to see the good in people. This time she was wrong.

      • Psychopaths do that by being charming and manipulative, though. Bel sure as hell ain’t charming, and I don’t think she understands social interaction well enough to do any manipulating.

        It might be partially due to Ryoka’s recent attempt to be more like Erin, but I think there’s more to it than that. As it’s pointed out, she’s drawn to the inhuman types, the sort that are so powerful and superior compared to mere mortals that they don’t seem to be constrained by morality or mores. Thinking back to Ryoka at the start of the story, that sounds familiar. They’re what Ryoka kinda thinks of herself as, and wishes she could be.

        • Oh, except that Bel manipulated Califor into sacrificing herself to save Nanette. And manipulated that knight into sacrificing himself to save his daughter.

          Hm.

          I suppose maybe she only understands that “sacrifice yourself for daughter” thing as that is the closest to a complex human sentiment she’s experienced in a long time.

          • That’s threats and coercion, not manipulation. Doesn’t take any thought or cleverness to put a gun to someone’s head and demand that their family do something. It’s one of the easiest and lowest forms of thuggery, really; usually in stories when a bad guy does that kind of thing it’s either to illustrate what a dumb brute they are, or because they’re at the end of their rope and about to be killed by the good guy.

  2. I literally threw up in my mouth.
    I both love and hate to the most vicious nature, what you did there.
    It is both vile and awe-inspiring.
    I can only hope Nanette forgives Wiskerea eventually.

  3. Wow. What a fucking plot twist. Honestly might be one of the best ones I’ve ever read. I had a gut feeling something was odd when califor left but dayum. Damn.

    If not for the fact that the author most definitely gets a hard-on for killing off interesting characters I wouldn’t have expected it at all. The wandering inn is the perfect definition of a story that takes 10 steps forward and 20 steps back. The pattern of tragedy is so repetitive in this series that I’ve unconsciously started skipping over lines and distancing myself from the characters. I think I posted it on royalroad, but I said the moment this arc with the witches started that the witches were most likely going to die or some horrible tragedy was going to befall riverfarm. And waddya know, I was right 😀 Still tho, props out to the author for this amazing chapter and the hard work he has put into the series as a whole.
    9/10

    • >What a fucking plot twist.

      Villains in Wandering Inn having multilayered Plot Armor is a surprise for you?
      You must have missed last seven arcs…

      Sadly it does make the book much worse and predictable. Too much cheap drama, soap opera and over the top villains who are evil “just because”.

      Will have to stop reading when arc finally finishes.

      • There are valid criticisms of TWI, but villains being blatantly evil for the sake of evil isn’t one of them. Until this chapter a good portion of the readership didn’t even think Bel was a villain, and it seems like about half of the readership still doesn’t think Laken is.

        • Whoa, just because he’s German(ish) doesn’t mean he’s a villain. Granted, most Germans would be extremely careful with thoughts of being a monarchist ruler, but to be fair, we’d be really good at it…

          I think Laken has great potential to be a very good guy, having learned all of the problems us Germans had with dictators who divide and annihilate their own

  4. Soo, double checking that I understood this correctly. Belavir kidnapped Califor (she had her hat), dressed her up like Bel normally looks, then sent her off to eat the fire storm via either coersion (she stole Nanette?) or by force (attached threads to Califor, made her talk somehow, whatever). All so that Wiskera would hate her and grow in power/craft?

    • Nope. Bel used Immortal moment to offer Califor a way for Nannete to survive. Which incidentally killed her and cemented her place as the enemy of Wiskeria insuring her craft will be of Law/Order/Justice.

    • No. She just doesn’t want to die. Belavierr is extremely fixated on staying alive, no matter the consecvenses, the only thing to make her hesitate is her daughter. Nothing else left, she escaped her death by betraying her coven. So both her and Wiskeria stay alive, perfect outcome (for her).

  5. I was expecting Belavierr to jump into the fake baby body, but this is far better/worse.

    Also, [Immortal Moment]…I don’t know enough about the system to fully understand the implications of this. It must be far more potent of a skill than previously thought if it was something a high level [Witch] learned through a level up bonus. I wonder if Erin gets anything out of other people using the skill she created.

    • Well Ryoka did guess that the system takes from you the more you level, possibly even trapping your soul on the world (widespread belief in reincarnation). So maybe the system using the original creator’s soul (or at least whatever it took) to use the Skill when other people activate it.

      To a [Witch] like Bel, or any high level really, it’s an extremely potent Skill cause it lets you prepare a spell, plan, or get your bearings all in a single moment. The reason it doesn’t seem that strong for Erin is cause she isn’t a combatant. Although I do wonder if Erin’s Skill is seen as more ‘powerful’ since she is the Skill’s originator.

        • I would estimate high 80s possibly even low 90s. She’s a [Witch] through and through meaning she’s always practicing her craft. She has also been alive for over a thousand years and is from the time when people could still get ridiculously high levels. The current estimate for Az is high 70s or low 80s, and he has only been alive for a couple of centuries.

          • I would estimate the same as Az (high 70s, low 80s). They’re on the same power scale (funtionally immortal and can pull armies out of their asses) as well as compared multiple times.

            • Nah, Az is clearly much more powerful. Bel’s personal army was stopped by a couple dozen reasonably high-levelled people. Az’s personal army was stopped by a combination of the best army, drake-for-drake, in Izril; impregnable fortifications behind which said army was sitting; four drake relief forces, led by the Tidebreaker himself; and a massive Antinium force led by the Slayer himself. And with all that it still might not have been enough if Zel hadn’t gotten to Az in time. Venitra alone would likely have been enough to crush the forces deployed against Bel.

              • Not sure you can compare Az’s army to Bel’s ‘army’…the primary attribute of Az’s class is strong minion’s and/or mass armies, while it’s just kind of a sideline for Bel

              • Az MIGHT be more “powerful” (I wouldn’t bet on it though) but I’m pretty sure Bel is higher leveled.

                I mean, the difference in age and experience is just to big. Az’Kerash is what, a bit above 200 or 300 years old? Belavierr is too old to even remember her age and for all those years, has been utterly dedicated to her craft. To her, Az is pretty much a young upstart.

                Despite [Necromancer] obviously being a more combat and army oriented class than [Stich Witch] he was still defeated on the battlefield by mortals despite striking when the continent was at it’s most vulnerable.

                Compare that with Bel who survived an ambush on her by ennemies who planned for years (despite having to protect her daughter which made the endeavor manyfold harder).

                From what we saw, the only thing that gave her even a chance to die was the fact that she wanted to protect Wiskeria, else, both of her “deaths” would have been almost trivial to escape…

                To compare power of spells, just look at how inferior Az’s death spell cast on Ryoka seems compared to the world spanning curse protecting Bel from being ratted out by informers…

                • What with Belavierr being old enough to remember the creation of an entire race, and her single-minded dedication to her craft…

                  If she isn’t max level, who in the Innworld could be? I mean, they do slow down the more levels they gain, but she’s pretty much lived her ancient life as a powerleveler – she should be at the limits of what is practically possible.

                  There might be people with more efficient leveling than her, Az included, but given her sheer advantage in age, I’d just assume that she’s higher level than anyone we’ve seen.

                • I mostly agree, however I don’t think she’s maxed level seeing the fact that she leveled recently.

                  Heck, we don’t even know if there is such a thing as max level, only that it get exponentialy harder to level up…

                  • …Well, to make a weak counterargument, maybe “recently” means something different to someone with her distorted perspective? Like she still considers last century to be recent, or something like that? Or more feasibly, maybe she’s found a way to lose levels in hopes of “rerolling” them for better skills?

                    Well, that aside, even if there isn’t a hard cap, there definitely seems to be a soft cap, past which leveling becomes exponentially more difficult each level – even if it’s not literally “max level”, once it starts taking more than a mortal’s lifespan to gain another level, I feel comfortable enough calling that the “practical max” even if it’s technically possible to go further than that. I mean, we know of other supernaturally long-lived beings in their 80s – if she’s still only in her 90s and still gaining levels, then 100 isn’t really possible for anyone.

  6. Well, this was a suitably frustrating and annoying end to a likewise frustrating and annoying chapter. A chapter in which I still think everyone acted like melodramatic fools and where everyone kept taking astonishingly stupid actions.

    Frankly. Wiskerias “power source” in Justice is one I don’t even get. You’ve clearly established that Witches draw power from emotions, which is fair, but Justice isn’t an emotion. It’s a concept that’s nebulous and extremely individual, and again isn’t an emotion by itself.

    And then there’s this absurd last act and ‘plot twist’. I don’t even have the words to describe how pointless it felt. Yeah, I’m sure you as an author is trying to avoid clichés, but you seem to be going to such lengths that many times, it makes the story as a whole worse. A mothers self sacrifice for her daughter is as cliché as it gets, but it’s something that contains powerful emotions and is cliché for a reason. It feels as if you twisted a powerful emotional moment into a bit of eye-rolling pettiness that successfully robs the ark of any meaning it might have had.

    I suppose you do manage to bring out emotion for me, because annoyance is an emotion. I am irked, which has caused another of my otherwise rare comments, but I’ll let this be all for now.

    • I don’t understand the nature of your criticism here. Are you arguing that Pirate should have played the “mother’s sacrifice” cliché straight? Because that would have been, well, cliché, not to mention completely OOC for Belavierr.

      As far as Wiskeria’s power source, half of this arc has been establishing that the desire for justice is absolutely a collective sentiment, and one that scales in power in proportion to population density. Hedag’s power is fairly similar, but as repeatedly described, it’s better suited to rural society. What makes Wiskeria particularly special is that she targets a source that is less vulnerable than other [Witch]es to the advance of civilization.

      • I agree with credulo and I totally do not get the criticism of zanzibar. My desire for justice for anyone victimized by greed or thoughtlessness or anything wrong has always been my own strongest motivating passion and we are seeing it become a strong force for good in real life in America over the last few years. I frankly do not understand why justice is not the strongest motivating force in all people in the world. I guess when it is lacking in a person, as in Bel, it may be a redeeming factor that they can still love their child more than themselves, but barely. But then I like superheroes, too.

      • (Ahhh I don’t know if my previous comment got eaten but I saved most of it, so I’m repeating here. Hope I’m not duplicating.)

        Wiskeria calls it justice, but, as Belavierr says, she’s tapping into something more akin to “the Will of the People,” the Rule of Law, as people believe it.

        I’m going to see if I can make sense of it.

        So, we have base emotions. I use that word to refer to programmed actions of our brain and body. They can be triggered by external experiences, or just by how your body feels, and the brain processes feed back and forth with how the body expresses them.

        We have higher order feelings. I use that word to refer to mental perception of emotions, and also the perception of desires and more complex sentiments. You can feel gratitude, nostalgia, beautiful, powerful, etc.

        I think witches pull feelings. Most of the easy ones are emotions that people experience. But others might be more complex and nuanced and less universally felt.

        And we have will, or volition, which is a cognitive process that humans use to select one of many possible choices or decisions. Sometimes we chose based on feelings, sometimes logic and reason.

        Wiskeria wants more out of being a witch than pulling individual feelings out of people. She wants to be a witch of the people, for the people.

        I think Wiskeria discovered the ability to access the combined will of the people. The conscious deeply felt desires of people, that they would act on if they could.

        She is the embodiment of the consent of the governed. She gains the power to act when everyone wants something enough, and feels like that thing would be *right.*

        So everyone wants the fire to stop. But stopping the fire, or making it rain, those things aren’t deeply felt as morally or ethically correct outcomes. Because the fire is an out of control force of nature. (Or maybe a fully developed Wiskeria could have used everyone wishing for rain, and struck the drake out of the air with a bolt of lightning, I dunno.)

        But I think Wiskeria should be able to gain power to overcome injustice, to act against those who are immoral (or amoral, like her mother). But I’d like to see it used more broadly than that, in the pure positive (not just righting wrongs).

        Maybe she can help extend the food supply so no one goes hungry. Roads are smoothed as she walks across them. Plagues don’t spread. Whatever else a government can do that is more than just punish people.

        Should be easier with most of Lancrel dead, since the Riverfarm contingent is a little happier to fully embrace socialism.

    • Well said, Zanzibar. I agree with every point you made. I will add that in addition to annoying and stupid, I also found this arc to be boring — seems to keep harping on in a manner that I guess was meant to express epicness or deep meaning, but just came off as repetitive filler. And I was not one of the people that hated Ryoka’s character before now — I could take her or leave her — but this arc tipped me over into the dislike column for Ryoka. I was only reading because I was hoping that Laken would get back and one of the other would kill each other (them both killing each other would be too much to hope for with this author), but we did not even get that. I tried Patreon just recently because I was hoping to get past this arc a little soon and get back to the main story, but it seems the author just keeps dragging this thing out. I’ve learned my lesson about Patreon. Better to just let it accumulate on Royal Road for a few months and skip over all the extraneous arcs.

      • I wish this had an edit. I meant that I was hoping Laken or Belavierr would kill each other, not Ryoka (although I dislike her now, she does not deserve to die like those two).

      • Lol
        What is your definition of main storyline anyway? Only things happening around Erin? You should know by now this story has Multiple lead characters. Erin’s side of storyline is just a part of the larger story in a large world. This story is not only about ppl from earth it’s about the inhabitants of this world as well . Even the last arc is not about Erin. Sure Erin did take a major part in it but It’s about goblins. This arc is continuation after the war and the consequences of humans attack on liscor while focusing OTHER Main characters in issril . Their stories also have to move forward. So how are you going to make OTHER main characters interesting without adding interesting elements? Have laken travel with goblins for 20 chapters and ryoka running deliveries for another 20 chapters? Also you becoming a patreon is to support the author not insult him by pointing it out with pointless criticism

    • I disagree about justice – I don’t think it was established that only emotions can be used – just that the witches here do so. That said, I agree that this ending sucked.

      About avoiding cliches, though, it wasn’t avoided, just replaced. “Grow strong by your hatred for me” is also a cliche – one I despise.

    • A mothers self sacrifice for her daughter is as cliché as it gets, but it’s something that contains powerful emotions and is cliché for a reason. It feels as if you twisted a powerful emotional moment into a bit of eye-rolling pettiness that successfully robs the ark of any meaning it might have had.

      But wait… Isn’t that literally what [Witch]es do in this setting? Take powerful emotions, and use them as fuel to solve mundane problems? So Belavierr used the emotions surrounding her death to cheat death yet again, is what you’re saying?

      How meta of her.

      /tongueincheek

  7. I really liked this chapter! I was completely hoodwinked by Belavierr; feeling really sad when i thought she was dead, mourning the loss of another imortal being. Only to be completely turned around with the twist! I’ve really enjoyed all these chapters, and can’t wait for the next one, before you take a well deserved rest. Thank you for the hard work!

    • I think that Bela was weaving this possibility into the working from the beginning and she was continuing the work while she was sitting with Ryoka, that was one reason for hiding it from Ryoka. I would not be surprised if she wove the possibility of changing places with Ryoka’s life into it all if she was the only one who survived other than Wiskeria. Califor was a powerful witch so maybe she had to make a deal to protect Nanette or she was just tricked by a more powerful witch. It may be easier to take advantage of someone in your own coven.

      • Pretty sure it was the former where Califor took a deal from Bel to keep Nanette alive. Califor is powerful but specialized in illusions which isn’t exactly helpful for getting her and Nanette out of a massive wildfire. It would explain why Nanette was so incoherent when Bel (disguised as Califor) rode in with her. Although I think the ‘spell’ she hid from Ryoka was one to call the flames, and the idea to get Califor to do it came after her talk with Ryoka.

        • I got the instinct impression that the deal kept Nanette alive in the sense that otherwise Bel was going to kill her. Eloise and Califor didn’t seem to doubt at all that Califor could get herself and Nanette out, and when Bel comes back with Nanette she’s described as covering the girl’s mouth and whispering to her. YMMV, but to me that screams ‘hostage.’

          • Ah so that would explain why everyone attacked her in the end. Was wondering why even the Coven attacked her if it was just a deal.

    • I think the basics of how this came together can be seen if you look at it now The key details that led to this are:
      1) Bela will absolutely save her daughter. She would also prefer Wiskeria follow Wiskeria’s craft. As a tertiary preference, Bela does not wish to have to kidnap her daughter.
      2) Only Califor and Bela had the power/knowledge to stop the fire from eating everyone, but at cost of their own life.
      3) Bela is extremely powerful, much more powerful than Califor, AND she has a history of manipulating parents using their child. That’s her MO.
      4) Wiskeria got her craft from hating her mother.

      The conclusion is Bela will force Califor to stop the fire using her power and MO. It is the only way she has to save Wiskeria’s life that fulfills all of Bela’s preferences. Had Bela sacrificed herself, I doubt Wiskeria would still hate Bela. Bela also does so in a manner that maximizes her daughter’s hatred.

  8. I love, love, love it! Bel sure is a selfish monster but then the witches kept on telling us that was their way. I am glad she survived anyway. I guess, like Ryoka, I kind of like immortal monsters despite their casual evil. Someone above said how could Nannette forgive wiskeria? I do not see that being an issue. Nannette is a real witch. She understands that Wiskeria has never been responsible for the actions of her Mother.

  9. I very much do not understand when and why belavierre and califor switched?
    If someone could explain it using very small words, that would be great 🙂

    • In order to save Wiskeria without sacrificing herself, Bel threatened Nanette and forced Califor to go back to the village, pretend to be Bel, and suck all the flames into herself.

      Bel probably pulled some strings to stall them when they rode away from Riverfarm. But they didn’t switch until after Ryoka spoke with Bel.

  10. I’m on the negative side of this one. The drake’s seeking retaliation makes sense, but the method of it seems off. I mean they basically laid waste to multiple areas, and no one had Skills to detect it? If just felt far too easy. If the drakes are that strong, why not do it before now? I get that Riverfarm is small, ok, but they also attack Tyrion’s lands as well as the others. Even he almost fell to it, and it was just a couple drake’s from a single walled-city. Far too easy. Like others have said, this arc seems very much contrived.

    The witch portion also seems ridiculously drawn-out for the ending we got. This “E” arc should have wrapped up 2-3 chapters ago. I also don’t get the ending with Bel. Throughout the whole arc the witches stressed again and again how one of their core beliefs was to support fellow witches. Yes, they are all inherently selfish, but they argued multiple times with Wiskeria that one of the only “laws” they follow is to not actively harm another witch. Isn’t what Bel did going against her craft?

    And Ryoka? bleh. I liked her in the beginning, but the more her story progresses the more boring she becomes. It’s also quite amazing how many skills she has without having any actual Skills. She “doesn’t understand the wind,” and yet she’s strong enough to reverse a scroll enhanced fire-twister? Next chapter… Ryoka versus sharknado…

    • I think in regards to Bel, she’s putting everything into making Whis stronger than any other witch, even if that means breaking the old laws and sacrificing her coven to do so. It makes sense if you think of her as a helicopter parent, only one that’s willing to slaughter her daughter’s friends to stop them holding her kid back and stop them potentially getting a place in the school her kids going to.

    • Well to start with, those [Weatherchange] scrolls were probably the stockpile they had to fight Antinium. Also I’m guessing these are high level Oldblood drakes. Oldblood drakes are the bombers of Innworld armies. That’s why they can accomplish so much with so few. That’s what Levels do!

      Second, the “war” between the drakes and humans has just been a bit of mutual hardcore training at the Bloodfields for quite a while now. Until a certain idiot [Lord] and his tame [Emperor] decided to make it something more.

  11. What the actual F did i just read? I’m not sure how I feel about this arc. I both loved it and am now confused, which I suppose is why I keep reading.

  12. Yikes. I’ve been swerved by authors before but this was a sucker punch.

    I kept expecting Ryoka to pull out her cold stone and offer it as a ritual focus. Instead she ended up using it to chill one hand while hte rest of her burned. I also thought, when she was leading the tornado, that she would make it jump into the river, which would not only put out its own flame, but spray water all over the landscape possibly extinguishing others.

  13. I am also on the negative side for this.
    I agree with Zanzibar above too.

    This whole story arc feels too forced and drawn out.

    I get it that you are trying to portray certain ideals and emotions here, but the way you did it makes it completely forced out.

    For example wiskeria.

    She started off as a young lady who is simply disillusioned by her mother’s craft.

    Then her mom comes back into her life.

    She tried to make sense of it and even reopen her past woes with her mom to see if things can change.

    All this up to this point is actually pretty fine.
    You captured the spectrum of emotions of someone like Wiskeria pretty well.

    However here’s where things start to down spiral.

    When Belavierr rescued her , that should be your cue to make Wiskeria turn sympathetic to her cause. That would be how normal people react actually. Love , one for loved ones is a pretty powerful emotion. Even if that loved one done wrong. Instead, you seem hell bent on making Wiskeria turned against her, just for the sake of your plot, namely making her the justice witch. Wiskeria instead focused on the so call evilness of her action rather than the why of it. If you would had instead wrote a balance between the two, it would be better.

    That’s one example.

    Finally about Belavierr.
    It would be just fine to leave this arc at when she defeated the knight, minus the angry Wiskeria part of course, as that would give this story some pacing it needs and a good cliffhanger as readers will wait to see what actually happens to Bel.

    Instead, you felt the need to draw it out further , with your Drake plot line. This whole plot line seems contrived to make Bel the subject of Wiskeria justice power.

    Your *twist” at the end isn’t really a twist.
    It had no build up whatever and nothing supports it .
    Even Belevierr’s emotional makeup seems contrary to what you are portraying.

    Like some mentioned, it’s like a sucker punch.

    Not a good one, just one that takes ppl by surprise.

    To conclude, it seems like you wanted to have alot going for this arc, but you lost focus and you got lost with your own plot.
    Nothing wrong with it, just it might be better to let things go slowly.

    Hope that you don’t take this too harshly as this is meant to help improve your writing as your premise is good.

    I

  14. Great chapter! I’m confused why people are critising it so much. There’s a difference between not liking how something goes and it not making sense.

    A: The whole justice isn’t an emotion thing is silly emotions are just a bunch of mixtures of chemicals we’ve given somewhat arbitrary names to. Moreover the whole point is she’s managed to pull from something no [Witch] before her has ever done. like… thats the point. That its new and interesting and still unexplored. Saying its bad because you “don’t get it” is honestly silly. I don’t get how Numbtongues memory soulbard abilities work but I don’t have to.

    B: Ryoka has had an obsession with magic an immortals since the begining she was as excited as Erin was to learn magic. Morever to those saying Ryoka has an idiot ball. This is a girl who went back to an all powerful mage to yell at him for putting a spell on her to force her to run for him. She also confronted him after she broke the memory charm. She’s always been reckless this was super in character for her to keep going back to Bel. Especially since she disliked Ivoleth at first and thought she was annoying. It was only after she started to understand the fairies rules and befriending them that they became friendly. For heavens sake they spent most of volume 2 throwing snowballs at her. And they also cause literal natural disasters but she doesn’t judge them for that so why would she judge Bel who she hasn’t Personally Seen do anything that bad. You can dislike Ryoka as a person but that doesn’t make her a bad charcter. She’s two for three on immortals

    C: Ryoka turning the tornado also made a lot of sense and the only thing that didn’t was her surviving. Tornados are notoriously unpredictable and can respond to outside winds. The drake spent his last scrolls making the tornado and sending it at Riverrun. All she needed to do was get it to follow her which is a much lesser effect considering how wild the paths of tornados normally are.

    D: Of course Bel was going to weasel out of her death She’s been alive for at least a thousand years. It would be wildly out of character for her to kill herself for her daughter unless literally every other option was taken which clearly here they weren’t. Bel Blackmailing Califor into sacrificing herself fits literally every action we’ve seen her take so far. Same with her not caring that her daughter hates her. Literally every action we’ve seen her take so far was to try to help Witches and get her daughter to start her craft again. This does both by allowing the [Witch] class to grow and evolve into a new form and give Wiskeria the motivation she needs to lead that change and become more powerful than anyone else.

    E: the only arguable part of the critiques I’ve seen is that the Drakes were too effective. I have mixed thoughts on this. I agree you think at least one of the infiltrators would have been caught but it is true that they spent a Ridiculous amount of money on this operation. From the immediate reaction of the drakes it sounds like chances are more than just Manus was involved. More importantly all of these lords and ladies would have just returned home. If you’ve even been away from work for a week and come back you know how things pile up. Imagine being gone for a few months. It seems logical they were all to busy catching up on everything they missed to pay attentiont to the few inconsistencies like the weather till it was already too late.

    Basically complain about what happened. Complain that you personally dislike the events that transpired but there’s a difference between that and saying the writing is bad. It’s been a great arc so far (still kicking myself for missing the smiling man twist). I don’t want every arc to be like this but this was a fun diversion from the main storyline that opens up literally dozens of ways the plot could go from here in future chapters. (also Door gemstone is at Riverfarm at last!)

    • For me a big complaint is that it gives us another big bad roaming the world and we won’t get a conclusion for a long ass time. Like Az’Keresh and the Mother od Graves, they’re just hanging there and doing nothing for the story in any real sense, especially since Reiss is dead and the goblins broken.

      • but would her death make any sense given her actions so far? If an immortal could die from something as small as a wildfire it would be a bit silly. She’s also not truly a big bad since as opposed to Az or presumably mother of graves she isn’t directly opposed to the main characters. In fact her interests very much align with them as she wants [Witches] to do well. In fact if anything her survival means we have a counter to some of the big bads since if say Az ever tries to attack the unseen Empire and she saw a thread of death for Wiskeria this proves she would definitely intervene to stop it. Sure in a way that would make her more hated but she’s clearly results oriented. Somewhat evil she may be (though a pure consequentalist would argue this ending was the best ending for everyone from Bel’s PoV, Wiskeria has a craft and the [Witches] proved themselves to the empire for the small cost of one life) but opposed to the goals main characters she most certainly is not.

      • Why the hell do all the “villains” need to be dead by the end of the story?

        I mean, if even one of those you named was permanently slain by the end of the story, it would still be a very productive CENTURY for the “good guys”.

        I much rather have story that makes sense than on where all the plot threads (lol) are neatly done by the end…

    • First off, I liked your analysis!

      I appreciate your analysis of justice. I think suzie summed it up best by having justice be the “will of the people” or the Rule of Law, something new for [Witches] to harness. I definitely advise giving their post a read, it’s fantastically written.

      I also like your analysis of Ryoka. Although some of the critiques of her meetings with immortals are valid (immortals often find her rather than her seeking immortals out), I still feel she’s fascinated with them and seeks to understand them. Granted, she definitely didn’t like the fae at first (2.05 is the earliest encounter as far as I know). But I feel like she honestly tries to understand them, just as she tries to understand the Antinium. She admits when she was wrong (getting arrogant with Belavierr, her initial stance on religion with the Antinium)

      When it comes to tornados, I don’t fully understand them. I definitely get the critiques of her (especially surviving), but I could understand the idea of wind wanting to be free, and her free spirit and refusal to bend to the rules of the world (leveling) making the wind come with her. But I don’t understand her surviving, besides maybe Ivoleth’s coldness in her hands…? That said, I loved her analysis of the ammoral Belavierr, along with Wiskeria’s choice of justice for her craft and the dangers of mob mentality (*cough cough* Calrez).

      Yeah, I agree that Belavierr surviving makes lots of sense. It would have been a pitiable end for her to die to wildfire after her many lifetimes of experience. Although at first I thought she may have blackmailed Califor, I feel like she may have used an old favor with Califor as leverage (*cough cough* gargoyles and Nanette’s past… *cough cough*), as she has a vague code of only using deals with others, rather than just taking.

      Also, I have to agree that the Drakes were incredibly effective. Of course, we’ve only seen the initial effects of their attack. Personally, I theorize that Magnolia and her ally’s lands are going to be unscathed (Lady Byrne’s lands), which will spark infighting among the humans as they believe she was in on the attack. (Ivrisil was untouched by the odd weather…). That said, this is just the initial shock of the attack catching the humans off guard, time will tell if the dozen(?) or so drakes in the North will make that big of a difference.

      Again, nice analysis. I will admit I thought this arc took a bit to heat up, but I did enjoy it. And I really enjoy the implications of everything, and how effortlessly pirateaba weaved in the Drake’s revenge along with the dive into Terandia lore. The pieces were there, and I was abashed with how well hinted it was, just as I was amazed with the plot twist in this arc.

  15. Fully agree with Andrew Styer. The Drakes were super successful, but they did dump a lot of money into this. I may not understand how Ryoka got the tornado to follow her – I don’t have to understand that to know it’s part of a wonderful FANTASY STORY. The laws of nature and weather from our world do not necessarily apply in that world. I think the criticism was just too much. I love this story. Thank you to pirateaba!

  16. I feel sorry for all characters involved here… Ryoka for being pretty useless, Wiskeria for losing her mother for good, Nanette losing her mother, Califor for… You know… and Belavierr for being a shitty parent. Only for the Drake I’m not sorry, at least in my system of values, he committed war crimes by attacking civilians intentionally.

  17. I have to wonder: was Califor actually an unwilling victim of Belavierr? Or did she also choose to empower her daughter at her own expense?

    Because in its own way, her death will strengthen Nanette just as Belavierr’s casting aside of her last ties to humanity has strengthened Wiskeria.

    And for that matter, the nature of Califor’s death cements the position of the rest of the coven in Riverfarm; one of their own died to save everyone left in the town, and Belavierr’s apparent treachery draws a stark line between her own actions and those of the remainder of the coven. It works out quite neatly indeed.

    • I’m convinced that Califor made a deal. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense for her to disguise herself as Belavierr. Belavierr wanted to increase Wiskerias hatred and sense of injustice by sacrificing Califor, but that would’ve worked either way, if Califor was disguised or not.

      • I believe that Belavierr’s deals have to be fair. It meshes well with superstitions and old tales (thus it would have extra momentum in witches’ system of magic); it’s balanced in a way weights might balance each other if hanged on a string; many people in Innworld believe i
        t and beliefs are made into reality by the System.

        Thus I see two possibilities:
        1. Deal was fair.
        2. Deal was unfair and Belavierrwill suffer backlash (she sacrificed her craft for her daughter)

      • That seems a little out of character, I wonder if she just offered Califor a deal that was too good to turn down. I.E. Save my daughter now and I will use my Stitch Magic to make sure Nanette cannot come to harm, not just today, but forever more.

        I mean Califor knows the life of a witch is dangerous already, and the witches are currently on the run from a powerful group, that’s why they came to Laken at all. Califor also knows that Belivarr is much more powerful than her and has escaped death time and time again. Likely Belivarr can craft magic that long outlasts her own life in any case.

        Perhaps we’ll find out.

    • Personally, I question that as well. Many people, including the characters, seem to take it for granted that it wasn’t Califor’s choice, but… As Bel says, something freely given is worth much more magically than something taken, and Califor’s willing sacrifice would be a much more potent tool for stopping the flames.

      That said, Belavierr has a vested interest in not clearing this up, as she now values her daughter’s hatred, and what exactly happened isn’t entirely clear – at least not to me. If this was something Califor agreed to, I’m not certain how anyone would ever find out, unless Nanette saw the bargain…

  18. Damn… I don’t even know what to say. I just hope Nanette finds her way to Erin, somehow. I don’t think there is any other place left for her.

  19. eeeeehhhhh

    there are simply too many things that feel forced. Belavierre riding out of the fire to get Califor to ride back to impersonate her and do a twisted “yo look at my evil” to motivate her daughter for her craft…

    its all a bit contrived and smacks of writer enforced plot instead of natural flow of character

    I mean was there a reason belavierre had to use califor, couldnt she use any of the villagers?
    if she could force a deal then she had time gather a few lives before the latest crisis

    by the way a foced deal (if thats what happened) doesnt really mesh with me for the reqs of a fair deal (even if she can tilt the deal in her favor)

    as much as I like parts of the witch arc, the characters have been all over place and most often felt like puppets dancing to the writers strings instead of a story unfolding. not everyone might feel this way but I think it was glaring issue in this arc

    alss the last part where everyone attacked belavierre, give me a rest
    choose one of these options:
    a) most everyone in Riverfarm dies to the fire/drake
    b) belavierre uses Califor life to save everyone in Riverfarm

    no really the lets everyone pile on belvierree cause she so evil, was melodramatic overkill

    with all the powers she appearently still has she couldnt abduct or restrain wiskeria in a save place? did she only use califors life so she could infuriate wiskeria?
    was the measured portrait of belavier of an amoral witch which simply makes deals just a fakeout, so her “yo dig ma evil, sooo evil” moment stood out more?

    now I still like pb’s work and I am looking forward to how Laken deals with this mess
    but yeah some points I dislike

    • Califor was needed because she was powerful enough to stop the fire. None of the villagers were powerful enough to stop the fire. Also I don’t think this “deal” was one of the magical deals. I think either she overtly threatened to murder Califor’s daughter or she “merely” kidnapped the girl and placed her in the way of the fire.

      See here:
      ““Yes. And I have yet to make mine. Tell me, Witch Califor. Do you know of a way to stem the fire? I can think of only one way.”

      Miss Califor paused and nodded.

      “I know of the same way myself. But the cost is not one I would pay. Nor do I think you wish to pay it. But it is possible.”

      “Yes.””

      • it just seems to me a contrived solution for maximum drama that requires everyone else to act dumbish

        why not kill the Drake spreading the fire, before the ritual?
        her stitch witch powers are great for killing people, why not

        “oh needle seek those who bring fire and flame to this land and give them retribution”
        or stuff like that, for gods sake
        they have one of the greatest witches/monsters among them and nobody thinks to kill the drake who is fanning flames all the time before their ritual, not even an attempt?
        belvierre is appearently an OP character who can do nothing useful yet still subdue all of riverfarm in a few seconds during the funeral

        • I also kept thinking, “why didn’t Belavierr just sew the Drake’s mouth shut?” for about half the chapter, even while it looked like she was about to sacrifice herself. Needles would have worked too. Belavierr had already proved herself capable of killing people half a continent away (if not more) with those methods, so the Drake should have been doable. It was obviously done to establish Belavierr as a monster to rival Az’kerash, and to kill off any shred of sympathy anyone may feel for her… but I agree, there were more logical ways to stop the arsonist threat.

          • I think she couldn’t since her spells burned out after the battle with the Order. Also, like AshSlanabrezgov said, she’s not the smartest person when it comes to things outside her craft.

    • Strangely, Belavier’s behavior makes sense to me. She said it already – as clear as it could be – she values two things most is the world: her craft, and her daughter. She really believes that if Wiskeria comes to her craft, she would be the most bright thing in the dark and grey world. Belavier said it, repeated it and we listened, but we didn’t hear. She values two things, and she found a way to achieve both.

      She didn’t kill the Drake before ceremony, because she is not the smartest person around. She’s cunning, and has a great talent and passion for sewing cloth and weaving patterns of fate, and making deals and murdering people, but her expertise is focused on her beloved craft. We saw how she was stupid about power of modern potion; how she struggles with interpersonal relations.

      Some of it comes from her hiding her soul away; some comes from the way she saw things happening again and again for centuries; some comes from her enlightenment of how things are interconnected. But skipping those, she seems like a person with a certain cognitive disorder in form light enough to function effectively, but with a cost still pronounced: in her area of expertise, she is intelligent above average human; outside of it – she’s not.

    • “Yo look at my evil”
      That’s the thing. She IS evil. She does care a lot about her daughter, though. I mean, she’s the second most important thing to her, that’s why she showed herself. Also, the deal showed the absolute difference between mothers.

  20. Belavierr didn’t trick Califor or threaten Nanette or anything. It was a deal made years ago. Remember the story Nanette told Wiskeria and Ryoka, with the Eater Goats? Califor had told her to never tell that story to anyone, and Nanette herself didn’t know know how she was rescued, she just thought it was her mom being awesome. But it wasn’t, Belavirr was in the area, and Califor knew it and got Belavirr to rescue her daughter. In exchanges Califor owes Belavirr something more important than her own life, the life of her daughter. Thus when Califor and Belavirr are talking about that thing it’s not some witch’s final spell like the Drake said earlier. They are talking about that deal made years ago, Nanette’s life for Belavirr’s at some potential future date, a deal Belavirr makes ALL THE TIME with important/powerful people.

    Belavirr covering Nanette’s mouth is so that she doesn’t ruin the funeral, and Belavirr’s own reveal. While I did like the reveal at first, out of shock if nothing else, and then was confused at how random and needlessly awful it was was; knowing how it was done makes me like it a LOT more. However I do agree to a point that always having a twist, especially one that’s made just to manipulate the audience, is not ….. great.

    Although to be fair it does fit Belavirr. So yay irredeemable monsters?

    • interesting if it is indeed connected with the Eater Goat story, that would have merit

      but we cant know if thats indeed the fact, as belavierre is gone and califor dead, so we’ll never know for sure?

      still thats better then the sudden, boom have a dead califor bwahahahaha

    • Hm. Now that you mention it, that story about Eater Goats does look like a place where deal was stricken. Never thought about it before, but it’s believable theory. Eater Goats are brutally efficient. For an illusionist leave them torn to shreds… Hm.

  21. Pirateaba will of course write what she wants to write, and I would not have it another way.

    But that said…. The Wandering Inn has been feeling like it’s going the way of Game of Thrones for a long time. No, I don’t mean the TV show. I mean the books. The first three were great. Anyone that thought the first 3 books were great and started to hate it after that will know what I mean. It wasn’t the story it used to be. It didn’t have the characters and stories we loved. And the author didn’t mind the negative feedback because he still had a vocal fanbase cheering him on, saying ignore the haters, and his success was great.

    The first two books were fun, relaxing, exciting…. an adventure. There were twists but they were good. There was sadness but it was accepted. When The Horns died people exclaimed in dismay…. but they didn’t want to toss the book against the wall and stomp on it for good measure.

    Now it’s like the twists are there for the sake of the twists. The story has lost its way and muddles about while more and more plot threads are added. Less and less of the first characters that so drew us in, or they are not the characters we remember. Or maybe I just speak for myself.

    • Well, I would argue it’s not like Ryona died. Or Erin. Or even Pawn. We all like Califlor, but she’s hardly a character we’ve loved for five books. The village is saved and Califlor is the only notable loss, while Wiskeria gets some good development. It’s hardly the red wedding.

      I do agree that often we go off track with characters I don’t care about, as I always want to go back to Erin and Ryoka, but back in the day I didn’t like going back to Ryoka either, so who knows. I’ve learned to love Lyon’s chapters and sometimes we get a good story from the other places, although I think they work best as one or two episode snapshots.

      Since Eiken and Ryoka are now in the same place, that’ll hopefully result in a bit less… Wandering about.

      Also, let’s get Erin that level 40!

  22. I wanted to swear after it was revealed that Belavier that died in dignity was, in fact, Callifor. I really liked Callifor.

    So that’s why Callifor stopped teaching other witches and concentrated on Nanette… She had a daughter… Argh. Belavier is a monster to tear them apart.

    Well, now that’s monster that is more nasty than Az’Keraah. Because she’s much smarter of how people tick, and she uses their connections to use them, even if she got a bit rusty in understanding details of what exactly they feel. She’s faceless doppelganger that would easily disappear in the crowd. And if confronted, she would fight like a one-woman army.

    Oh. That was painful reveal.

    Thank you for the chapter. Ryoka’s coming against fire tornado made me hear a melody of fairy tale coming too life…

    I think this chapter was rarely well done, almost overcooked.

  23. Love the chapter, but two plot twists in succession is too much.

    I also think that that gargoyle incident was when the Stitch witch made a deal and not recently, or was it wyverns?

  24. Aw, you got me! In the beginning, I had thought Belavierr completely untouchable. But then, as the chapters progressed my confidence in her survival kept getting chipped away. As the end approached I had accepted her death even though I disliked it. And I was fooled, Belavierr lives!

  25. a good twist. i can go back and see the foreshadowing in the belavierr califor conversation. either it was involuntary, semi involuntary, or an offer made to califor is not clear yet.
    why the old drake felt the need to risk himself over a farm town is odd.
    why califor needs to save more than a few people’s lives. does it really matter if riverfarm burns?
    more why’s but laken is not my fav arc. a lot of time is spent here, and doesn’t seem to add as much to world building.

    • “why the old drake felt the need to risk himself over a farm town is odd.”
      It’s the town of the [Emperor] that aided the human [Lord], of course he’s gonna prioritize it.
      “why califor needs to save more than a few people’s lives. does it really matter if riverfarm burns?”
      I bet she saw Nannete’s death and traded the little [Witch] life for hers.
      “and doesn’t seem to add as much to world building”
      But it does? It has paved the way for Terandrians to appear in Izril. Also, the Griffon Prince. And the [Witches]. It’s full of lore. I still wonder why the fae wept, though.

      • it’s just a farm town, not the emperor who can set up anywhere.
        seemed califor, nanette escaped the fire already.
        grand teleports are already known more or less. griffin prince.. witch lore.. both not overly relevant, except for belavierr and wiskeria.
        fae wept? hm i need to check, oops.

  26. The frightening thing is, Belavierr might just haved leveled though all this…

    Also, while the humans paid a price, I just wouldn’t want to be a drake from Manus right now if the [Witch] belives that their attempts at harming her deserve retribution… you know so people take her seriously…

    Yeah, Manus and the drakes in general might have kicked the hornet’s nest on that one…

  27. Not gonna lie, I expected different things from the end, but this is the second time an immortal old monster subverts my expectatives. Guess I’m always wrong about very happy ends. Though, in a way, this one was a happy end. Just not what I, as a happily ever after kind of person, liked. It does open very interesting possiblities, though.

  28. Damn, what a twist. Bel is evil AF. Interesting manipulation of prophecy to avoid her death with a stand-in, guess she didn’t live so long for nothing. Kinda not buying the demi-immortal not having any flight spells though, would’ve made killing the spec-ops Drake a snap. TWI has a weird thing where high level characters are seemingly both invincible and fragile simultaneously. Then again actually knowing what their levels are is a problem. On the flip side, I can see the survivors being more united and galvanized now after this experience. And it turns out [Immortal Moment] is a high level skill with time manipulation powers?

    • “evil AF”
      I consider her a Neutral Evil that has her daughter as her second topmost priority.
      “the demi-immortal not having any flight spells”
      Her craft is clothes. Also, most of what she had burned down in her first dance with death.
      “both invincible and fragile simultaneously”
      I see them as being part of a story (I mean, in-world). If the story is against them, their powers are not as effective, may end up with some restrictions, or even countered completely (since there’s no perfect Skill that we have seen or know of). Otherwise, it’s a battle of levels. And since very few know the levels of others, it essentially becomes a game of wits and strength.
      “[Immortal Moment] is a high level skill with time manipulation powers?”
      I compare it with that time-stop ability from a certain game series. It’s not time-stop, just kinda a pocket space where time is stretched as long as the Skill wants (needs) to.

      • > I consider her a Neutral Evil that has her daughter as her second topmost priority.

        Agreed, still evil though and an interesting character. She made Califor an offer she couldn’t refuse.

        > Her craft is clothes. Also, most of what she had burned down in her first dance with death.

        I mean she can still learn orthodox mage spells. She’s had centuries/millenia to do so. Plus her cloth army had a veritable armory of magic items, one of which might enable flight.

        > I see them as being part of a story (I mean, in-world). If the story is against them, their powers are not as effective, may end up with some restrictions, or even countered completely (since there’s no perfect Skill that we have seen or know of). Otherwise, it’s a battle of levels. And since very few know the levels of others, it essentially becomes a game of wits and strength.

        Meh, plot armor. Not knowing the characters’ levels makes it all feel hand-wavy to me.

  29. I can understand the controversy in this chapter. Like the goblin’s chapter, this had a lot of unnecessarily convoluted plot holes, plot device and plot convenience. Though, the comment section are kinda biased and toxic at times.
    I mean if a person doesn’t like the direction the story is going, it doesn’t mean that they should hate on the characters or the writing itself. In fact, it’s been an interesting read for me so far, especially when I have been skipping or skim reading Erin’s chapters for a while now. Since the election is boring and Erin’s been idling a lot lately.

    After reading this chapter, I am not sure about Laken granting sanctuary to witches though, if he does, it means that dangerous witches like Belavierr can just walk in and do whatever she wants again. Well, given that two of the strongest witches were gone from riverfarm now. I guess witches won’t be able to selfishly just do whatever they want now that Laken’s back.
    I guess Alevica owed Laken and possibly Ryoka a favor now since he had been the one who found her dying and notified Ryoka. On the other hand, Nanette seemed to be stuck in riverfarm now whether Laken grants sanctuary or not to the other witches, her guardian is gone and she is still a child. I doubt the other witches will take over as her guardian, maybe except Wiskeria, and she’s technically still loyal to Laken and Riverfarm.

    It also seems that most of the original Riverfarm’s folk survived while the two thirds of the people death toll includes many of Lancrel’s folk. This should make them easier to control when Laken gets back. They also managed to kill the old blood drake too, and have his body along with whatever evidence there can be found on the body, so I guess they have proofs to Tyrion and Laken’s claim of a drake attack?

    Given that the chapters as a whole were mostly focused on Ryoka and the witches, it should have been titled as R chapters instead of E

  30. Noticed interesting bit in the end: “They came at her, all of them. Mavika and her flock, Ryoka with knife and wind.”

    Remember how on few occasions Ryoka stated that she is not a “killer”. She will fight. But she would rather run away than kill.

    But here she is attacking Belavier with everything she has. Not fists, but with knife. And using her only “super power”, the wind. Is the fire wind changing/changed her. Will she be willing to kill now? Or did Pirate drop the ball a little? Or is this just normal Ryoka incensed beyond all bounds?

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