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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“Just a cup.”
“Got anything to eat?”
“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.”
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!”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Ryoka halted, breathing hard. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] muttered, feeling the shaking in her teeth, the queasy weakness in her stomach.
“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—”
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!”
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.
“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!”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
Ryoka held her tongue. Belavierr glanced at her.
“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.”
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—”
“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].”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“So is Wiskeria the first or last stitch?”
“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?”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.