For the daughter of a legend, Wiskeria’s eyes were too normal. They were yellow and green, the two colors separate, not some blend of the two, and quite resembled a plain field of grass and daffodils on a sunlit day in nature.
Compared to her mother’s gaze—well, all Erin Solstice knew were stories. Numbtongue had described them like black rings in an orange glow, narrowing and narrowing towards the pupils without ever ending. Not that he’d gotten a good look at her up close.
Mrsha had all of Lyonette’s flowery prose, and she had stared down Belavierr longer than most beings in the entire world. She had written that Belavierr’s eyes, ‘instilled nothing so much as a grand fear within my soul, for I knew there were multitudes looking back at me, and I knew not whence they came and feared to find out.’
Erin, for her part, feared that Mrsha was becoming an old man in her writing style. But the image that had stuck with her most was actually Kevin’s. He had the misfortune of surviving Belavierr, and while she had not declared him a personal enemy, nor had he seen her up close, he had told Erin this:
“It felt like I was looking straight into the layers of hell. From Dante’s Inferno, you know that story? It looked like that.”
All in all, Belavierr’s mere gaze seemed like a suitable representation of the Witch of Webs, the greatest living [Witch] in this world. Wiskeria, though, was her daughter of twenty some years. She was the failure who did not encapsulate Belavierr’s dark myth, for better or for worse. She was the ordinary witch, the [General] of Riverfarm, so not that ordinary—
But she was Belavierr’s daughter, and the product of her mother raising her was everywhere about her if you looked. A [Witch] pretending to be normal without ever recognizing it. But she did try, and of all the [Witches] that Erin had met so far, she alone did not prod or poke Erin to become something.
That was why Erin liked her. And that was why, at the wee hours of dawn, Wiskeria and Erin met to begin her lessons in witchcraft.
This was, of course, before the announcement that Terandria was going to settle Izril’s new lands or the Yoldenites’ broadcast. Five days before that, to be exact. This was the day after the old man in the river had been unleashed and then pushed back to his resting place. Erin still felt ashamed and unsettled—but she wanted to learn.
Just not from Eloise, Hedag, Mavika, Agratha, Oliyaya, or any of the others. Anyways, Erin was nervous, and she had woken up and eaten her magical bisque extra early so that she could even get out of bed.
“Is this the witching hour? No, wait, that’s even earlier, right? Should we have gotten up then?”
She joked around. Wiskeria gave Erin a blank stare, which did not seem to be amused.
Unusually, Wiskeria seemed like she’d gotten less than adequate sleep, and she was a bit ruffled. She replied as she checked her hat and straightened her robes, both deep blue.
“You agreed to learn from me, Erin. Which means you do this my way. Ask all the questions you want, but when I tell you to do something—do it. If I think you’re not trying, I’ll stop and we’ll part ways.”
Erin hesitated. Her desired response was to be a bit funny. But it occurred to her that this was Wiskeria.
Belavierr’s daughter. And if Erin had learned nothing else from the ghosts of great [Witches]…she stuck a hand up in the air.
Wiskeria stared at it.
“What are you doing?”
“Just ask it, then.”
Okay. Erin took a breath and raised her fingers in air-quotes.
“By ‘part ways’, do you mean that if I screw up, you’ll just stop teaching me?”
“Do I get second chances?”
Wiskeria looked confused.
“Why would you? No. Is that normal to…?”
A note of uncertainty entered her voice, but she caught herself and shook her head.
“No, maybe it is. But not for witchcraft. I won’t come after you or curse you or do anything else. We’ll just stop if I think I can’t teach you or you’re not trying. No second chances. We’re done.”
“For how long?”
An exasperated tone entered Wiskeria’s voice.
“Forever. Until the last Giants die. Until the marrow of the earth rots. Until time expires. I didn’t think I needed to explain that.”
Erin shrugged helplessly, but she felt a strange tingling in her stomach. Anticipation, perhaps. Nerves, as well as…well, Wiskeria didn’t understand why Erin smiled.
“I just wanted to make sure.”
Witches played for keeps. That was the true element of Wiskeria’s nature hidden behind her facade. When she said ‘done’, she meant it. If she threatened to hurt you—she meant it.
Wiskeria rubbed at her eyes and yawned. She gazed at Erin as they stood just outside Wiskeria’s home on the edge of Riverfarm, far enough out that their voices wouldn’t wake the regular citizens.
“I’m sorry. Perhaps I’m just tired. Poor sleep. I was up all night chasing a screaming mouse or something.”
“Are—are those normal around here?”
“Who knows? It doesn’t matter—seeing me when I’m not at my best will teach you how a [Witch] lives. Which is the point. You need lessons in what being a [Witch] means. You need a hat and to find your craft. Three problems. So—I am going to teach you like my mother taught me. Now—”
Wiskeria broke off and closed her eyes for a second. She stared at Erin waving her hands urgently, because the [Innkeeper] had some instant reservations.
“Um. Exactly like your mother taught you?”
Erin didn’t think she wanted to become Belavierr 2.0. However, Wiskeria just shook her head.
“Growing up as Belavierr’s daughter isn’t the same as learning witchcraft from her. It’s all I know. Now, we’ll pretend you’re learning the basics. Follow me.”
Thus began Erin’s lessons with Wiskeria. It would be a lie to say she wasn’t concerned about it all. She had messed up big with the Water Elemental, but Wiskeria was possibly the most concerning teacher out of everyone in Riverfarm she could have asked.
Belavierr’s daughter. Like it or not, that was a reputation that concerned even Erin herself.
…Let alone Mrsha, half-snoozing as she spied on the two from the corner of a house. Lyonette was yawning and holding Mrsha in her arms. Joining them was Numbtongue, wearing only pants, and Ulvama.
Not all in the same corner, even. Lyonette saw Numbtongue waving at her and pointing at Wiskeria. She made a face and shrugged as Mrsha sleepily frowned at Wiskeria.
None of Erin’s family and allies were exactly sure if this was a good idea. Nor, it seemed, was anyone else. Lyonette realized there was a hatted woman standing in the shadow of another roof and jumped as she saw Hedag, the massive woman with the axe and brown robes, silent as a statue.
Then Mrsha froze, sniffed the air, and looked up, and Numbtongue nearly drew his sword when he glanced up and saw Mavika perching on a roof’s ledge overhead. Both [Witches] glanced at Erin’s group. Then they pointedly looked at Gamel, trying to hide behind a wheelbarrow. Ulvama stared hard at Mavika, who ignored her completely. In silence, the groups eyed each other as Erin started her day.
Wiskeria asked Erin to copy her routine. She spoke as she worked, but not as much as Erin thought. The [Innkeeper] would learn by doing, so she ended up following Wiskeria’s morning routine.
The first thing they did was brush their teeth. Then, Wiskeria stretched for eight minutes, mostly her hands and ankles, though she had a few familiar arm and leg exercises. After that, she found two pieces of bread and toasted them over a fire she started from a candle, not any magic. She offered Erin butter and some jam.
When they started sweeping Wiskeria’s house, Erin had to say something.
“Um. Wiskeria. How long are we sweeping?”
She had been very patient. She had done the morning stuff, but the sweeping felt extraneous. Especially after eighteen minutes of methodically sweeping every part of Wiskeria’s pretty clean floors. They were in the living room when Wiskeria raised her head, as if she’d forgotten Erin were there.
“Hm? Until it’s clean.”
She gestured at the kitchen and other rooms in the home she’d been allotted. Erin hesitated.
“Is this part of the lessons?”
“Ah, got it, got it. So this isn’t just part of your daily thing?”
“No, I meant to give the house a good cleaning. But this is an excellent lesson. Have you learned anything yet?”
Wiskeria glanced at Erin and couldn’t read Erin’s face. Anyone else in the world could have—Erin bit her tongue. Wiskeria just went back to sweeping. She did no magic. She didn’t even have an interesting sweeping form; Silveran would have called her ‘passable’, but it wasn’t like Wiskeria was even that good at cleaning. She wasn’t fast; she moved much like someone doing a chore did. Slowly, without wasting energy or trying to get the job done quickly.
Now, Erin had started as an [Innkeeper] by cleaning her inn. She knew cleaning. She hired Ishkr to clean because there were other things she could do with her day.
In fact, she began to speed up and used [Advanced Cleaning] to hurry the process along. Even that low-grade Skill was being used by a Level 40 [Innkeeper], so, to Erin’s delight, she saw that each pass of the broom carried all the dust and grit out in a huge sweep across the floor. She barely needed to move around chairs or lift things up; it was as if a magnetic force were sucking around them with the bristles of her broom.
Great! Erin guessed she might clean this entire room in, like, eighteen sweeps, and she’d already done nine when Wiskeria grabbed her broom handle with a huge frown.
“Stop that. No Skills. And stop rushing.”
Erin looked up. Wiskeria was methodically crouching to dust under the cupboards with a short-handled broom. At this instruction, Erin bit her lip.
“Alright. Question time, Wiskeria?”
Erin waved her hands at the broom and cleaning.
“Is this…a metaphor? Or a hidden lesson? Because I’ll definitely do this if it turns out I’m training and I eventually learn how to sweep up a dust storm from practicing this. But if it’s a metaphor, I don’t get it. Am I waxing on or off or just sweeping?”
At this point, Wiskeria’s face suggested that she understood the problems every other [Witch] had had so far with Erin. She took a breath.
“If I told you, it would defeat the purpose of figuring it out.”
“Ah, so there is a lesson! Yoda-style. Got it, got it. But do you do hints?”
“No. And my mother made me do this every morning wherever we stayed. This is teaching you.”
Wiskeria waited, but Erin just nodded and, now not using her Skills, went back to sweeping. She swept for twenty more minutes with Wiskeria, even moved a table so they could properly and mundanely sweep. All the while, she watched Wiskeria, stretched her magical, mundane, and aura senses for a hint of anything unusual, but Wiskeria was just focused.
If there were something to learn, Erin didn’t get it, but she did dutifully follow instructions. She knew there was something to learn. She just hoped it wasn’t one of those boring lessons about interconnectedness or humility. She had never, ever heard the other old [Witches] of yore talking about brooms except to tell Erin that there were better ways to fly.
After that, Wiskeria looked outside and saw the sun finally rise. It seemed too early to Erin, but the High Passes weren’t blocking the sun, so it was coming up fast, even for autumn. Wiskeria led Erin outside, and they began their day with an audience with Laken Godart.
“I’m not angry, Erin. I understand these things happen. The river is alive? Well, Wiskeria, Witches, what do you think?”
“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. You should raise the embankments around the river and the bridge. Tell children to be careful when playing in the water. All the sensible things an [Emperor] should do. No more, for now.”
Witch Eloise and Hedag were present in the throne room as Laken discussed yesterday’s debacle with Erin. The [Innkeeper] fidgeted. Laken turned his head, eyes closed, to each person, and that was slightly uncanny. She spoke up as Wiskeria nodded along.
“I’ll take responsibility if something happens. I really didn’t mean to. Is Cade alright? Was anyone else hurt?”
Briganda had accepted her apology stiffly, and apologized in turn for decking Erin. Laken shook his head.
“No one is hurt. We’re just discussing how to make sure no one else is in danger. Once again, I’m not blaming you, Erin.”
“Well, maybe I’m blaming myself! You can be mad at me. I can take it. Or pay for…bridge raising.”
Erin saw his eyebrows rise, and she turned redder. The [Emperor] just chuckled, then looked sideways at Lady Rie for a moment as if he’d sensed something she couldn’t see. The oddly…alive…Lady Rie, looking faintly flushed with energy, also made Erin feel slightly disconcerted. Heck, all of Riverfarm wasn’t what she expected, even the Goblins who seemed almost content. Happy?
Laken, for his part, just turned back to Erin.
“There is no need, Erin, I assure you. In fact, I was just reminded that Ryoka herself arrived when Riverfarm was in danger of being burnt by Drake saboteurs…and there was a tornado, though that was a helpful event. Largely. Tell me—how many of our friends from home are there?”
Erin jumped at hearing that, but no one else in the room did. She did notice that Wiskeria, Eloise, Hedag, and Rie all looked very interested. Prost and Gamel just waited, either content in not knowing everything or already knowing what Laken was referring to.
But he was open about the secret. Odd. Erin hesitated.
“One, two, three…Inkar…uh, at least six? And lots more elsewhere. I could ask if they want to visit later. Why? I bet Kevin would, at least. He could bring you a bike.”
“I would love that. Truly. Well, the invitation stands whenever they would like. I just mention it because—Mister Prost? We had better make sure all our homes are earthquake-proof. Possibly typhoon-safe as well.”
Erin heard a huge snort of laughter from behind Laken, and Durene, the [Paladin], covered her mouth. Maybe it was a yawn; she’d come back late this morning with the Thronebearers who had run, killed a hundred undead, and run back before levelling up. All of them.
Erin’s mouth fell open, and she realized he was making fun of her! The [Emperor] smiled, and that was that.
“Was that [Witch]-y? Or did I mess up in there?”
Erin and Wiskeria walked out of the throneroom, and Wiskeria raised her brows.
“That was an audience with an [Emperor]. Not part of my lessons. My mother did not make a habit of…well, my encounters were different, and that wasn’t what I wanted to teach you. But I was watching you and seeing what you need to learn.”
“Oh, come on. How was that bad?”
Wiskeria tilted her head as she nodded at people in Riverfarm she knew—which was practically everyone. She glanced over her shoulder and glared. Erin turned her head and saw a pack of six Sariant Lambs hiding behind a parked wagon wheel. She raised her brows, and Wiskeria shook her head.
“We’re not allowed to kick them. Anyways, moving on—there are certain qualities that are [Witch]-like. I’m sure the ghosts taught you some of that. You’re very good at pretending, but not good at being certain. How would another [Witch] describe it…? You’re good at making other people think what you want them to think, but not much good at being it yourself. There, that sounds suitably confusing.”
Erin thought so too. She frowned, but Califor had said something like that.
“How am I good at pretending?”
This time, Wiskeria actually gave Erin a narked look. Her annoyance didn’t abate at Erin’s confused stare.
“You’re doing it to me right now.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. You’re pretending to be confused when you’re only half-confused. You play the [Innkeeper] very well, I can tell.”
“But I am an [Innkeeper].”
Erin protested, but she did have an inkling of what Wiskeria meant. The other [Witch] took a deep breath.
“Yes, but you lean into her more than you have to. I’m sure a lot of your guests think you’re as…as…scattered as you pretend. Or as innocent. Or as confused. Eccentric.”
“I prefer zany.”
Erin felt highly uncomfortable at having her methods seen through so fast. She realized—all the other [Witches] had probably seen exactly what Wiskeria had. Even Grimalkin had fallen for it at first, the old Erin approach. But as Wiskeria explained…
“That’s pure witchcraft, Erin. No wonder Califor thought you had potential. Every [Witch] pretends. Even if they are. No, don’t ask a question, you understand. Mavika always pretends to be Mavika. Yes, she’s probably like that, but look—”
They passed by an open square, and Erin saw the Crow Witch sitting in the center. Laken had ordered a small tree to be relocated to the center of the square as a kind of ornamental piece. Right now, it was festooned with cawing crows, their beady eyes staring at the people who avoided the lone woman sitting with crows flapping their wings and eating from one hand.
That was a look. If Erin had seen that on Earth, she would have immediately bought every good-luck charm she could find. Wiskeria nodded to Mavika.
“She’s not lying—well, not right now—but she’s being extra her. Do you sense her pulling in their emotions?”
Erin did. Mavika was lightly drawing some of the nervousness or fear into her. Like someone skimming the cream off a vat of milk—a gentle, even elegant pull that fed her craft. But it wasn’t fear she wanted, no. It was more like…
Erin glanced at Wiskeria, and she got her first smile of the day. Then Erin saw Mavika more clearly.
If you assumed Mavika lived off fear or…crow-stuff, you only understood part of her craft. But she was a [Witch]. A [Witch] of [Witches]; she was the literal [Witch] in people’s imaginations. And because they thought that and she confirmed it, she could do what they believed.
That was the kind of [Witch]-logic that hurt your head, but it was a valuable lesson. Wiskeria nodded to Mavika, and both women tipped their hats. Mavika stared pointedly at Erin, and the [Innkeeper] flapped her apron at her.
Five crows took flight and chased the two young women for two streets. When they finally flew away, Wiskeria glared at Erin.
“You pretend as well as Mavika. But you’re not certain.”
“I’m certainly upset about that! Rude! I was just being funny.”
Erin pointed back at Mavika. Wiskeria eyed her.
“You…you knew she wouldn’t appreciate that. Do you have to joke about everything? Listen. This is easy. You’re not certain. You waver, you’re not…you pretend to be an [Innkeeper], but I don’t think you are one. Mavika pretends and is herself or whomever she wants to be. She could be a charming [Courtesan] if she had to.”
Erin could literally not imagine that. She put her hands on her hips.
“Okay. Maybe, sometimes, I get a bit…nervous about the future. Yeah. But I have stressful things to worry about! I dither. So what?”
“So learn to fix it.”
The young woman waved a hand.
“Do I have to? Is that a requirement for being a [Witch] or can we just say I’m working on it?”
It was incredible. Really—Wiskeria, the normal [Witch], looked like she was more peeved after three hours in Erin’s company than she had been fighting a war against Goblins and dealing with the nobility at the Summer Solstice party. The questions, the backchat—the jokes—she took a deep breath and looked Erin in the eye.
“Before I answer that, I have a question. Erin, how did the [Witches] in the lands of the dead deal with you when you annoyed them?”
Erin bit her tongue. She didn’t want to say, ‘how did you know?’ Instead, she scuffed a foot on the ground innocently.
“They might have made me go talk to other ghosts. Or said really—and I mean really—hurtful stuff.”
To her surprise, Wiskeria’s mouth opened, and the [Witch of Law] snapped her fingers.
“That’s so odd. It must have been because they were ghosts. Otherwise they’d have showed you that.”
She pointed, and Erin looked around.
Wiskeria smacked the back of Erin’s head so hard Erin staggered. When the outraged [Innkeeper] turned around, she threw a punch. Wiskeria kicked her right under her kneecap, and Erin swore. She raised a fist, and Wiskeria grabbed a passing mallet out of a [Builder]’s cart as they set up to build another house.
“Whoa, whoa! What are you doing?”
“Escalating. If you hit me, I’ll hit you harder.”
Wiskeria stared pointedly at Erin’s knife. The [Innkeeper] innocently let go of the handle.
“Good. It was meant to. Here you are.”
Wiskeria handed the hammer back and nodded to Beycalt, the [Construction Supervisor] of Riverfarm.
“Everything alright, Witch Wiskeria?”
“Just teaching our guests a lesson.”
Beycalt grinned as Erin rubbed at her knee and the back of her head. She debated punching Wiskeria in the shoulder and saw the [Witch] glance at her. Erin uncurled the fingers of her fist.
“Califor wouldn’t have done that.”
Wiskeria raised her eyebrows, looking amused again.
“Not twice. Now, are you going to be serious?”
Her only response was a long exhalation from Erin, and then the [Innkeeper] snapped back.
“Alright. Fine. I’m not certain about things. So how do I fix it? I don’t like making mistakes, and I have. I had…a helper I mistreated. Toren. I got a friend killed, even if he came back. People die when I make mistakes.”
“Fine, but be certain when you commit. Dither too long or while you’re doing something and fail. You know that.”
Erin’s stomach clenched. She didn’t like talking about it, but Wiskeria seemed to understand her dilemmas. Erin whispered.
“What if I’m wrong?”
Her reply was Wiskeria raising her eyebrows and giving her a calm smile.
“Then you’ll be certain you made a mistake. Listen, you know this doesn’t mean certainty about everything. Just…what are you certain about? What do you know very, very well? We should find your craft and make that hat, so this is a great place to begin.”
Erin stood there, rubbing her head, and the answer was actually easy. She took a breath.
“Goblins. And chess.”
If there were any two things in this world that defined her and that she was certain about—Wiskeria didn’t scoff, she just nodded, pleased.
“Well then. That’s excellent, you know. I had to search for a long time to find out what I was certain about. That’ll be the basis of everything you do and how you decide things. I’m sure it is.”
Erin felt calmer when she said that. She began walking on, and then she realized one of the crows who attacked her was flying from perch to perch. She glanced over her shoulder, and Agratha stood behind one of the nighttime lantern-poles that Laken had ordered built. She was actually almost invisible despite being too wide to hide; a mundane little illusion spell kept her hidden.
But Erin and Wiskeria still noticed. Erin growled to Wiskeria.
“Is every [Witch] in Riverfarm watching me?”
The other [Witch] just raised her brows.
“They want to teach you, and they probably want our secrets. [Witches] can be grand and helpful and work together and be as petty as cats. And they’re better than most people at both.”
Erin sighed. So far, the day had led her to sweeping for half an hour, being made fun of by an [Emperor], and now she had a sore head and knee. And yet…she glanced sideways at Wiskeria.
“Well, what about you, then? What are you certain about?”
Therein was the charm, because Wiskeria only took one second before she told Erin, and that directness was what Erin wanted, even if Wiskeria were right and she didn’t do it herself.
“I’m certain in what I admire and love and find worthy. Hence—my craft, although it’s a strange connection.”
[Witch of Law]. Erin raised her brows, and Wiskeria nodded to Oliyaya, innocently pretending to plant mushrooms in a trough outside someone’s house, much to the homeowner’s dismay. The woman gave a huge, twisted smile to the two, and Wiskeria muttered to Erin.
“Even I don’t feel like elaborating right now.”
Understandable. Erin saw Oliyaya sigh—then Oliyaya’s head snapped up as the [Innkeeper] innocently put her hands behind her back.
“Do you know what your mother was certain about?”
Wiskeria’s eyes glittered.
“Not where it started. But yes. My mother is certain…that it was worth it. Despite it all, and however long it has been. It was worth it.”
Erin shivered, and Oliyaya cackled as they went on. Wiskeria glanced at Erin and seemed compelled to offer Erin an olive branch.
“Even if you think the other [Witches] are only certain, they can be insecure, you know, Erin. But they just pretend and be certain when it counts. You’re allowed to be afraid. Like me. I’m never sure if I’m saying things right, or if people understand my words, or if I’m supposed to smile or pat someone on the shoulders. Every [Witch] is still a woman. They can be prideful or worry about their looks, or secretly love someone and know they won’t confess, or want to try on a necklace but fear they’ll ruin their image. Right, Mavika?”
She turned a corner, and Erin found herself face-to-face with Mavika. Again. This time, the [Crow Witch] was inspecting a shaking pigeon who had come to the wrong territory. The woman had clearly heard all of Wiskeria’s statements about insecurity.
Mavika, her huge, beady eyes black like a raven’s, thin as a rail, hunch-backed, with yellow teeth and a stare that could stain a wall. Mavika, worried about her looks, secretly in love, and wanting to try on a fetching necklace? The [Crow Witch] stared at Wiskeria, then Erin and replied.
Erin looked at Wiskeria, and the [Witch of Law] amended her statement.
“Well, maybe not those examples with Mavika. But even you’re insecure about some things. Like…”
Wiskeria stared at Mavika, and the [Crow Witch]’s shoulders hunched. Her pet raven cawed warningly, but Wiskeria spoke as a bunch of [Washers] including Yesel hauled a prodigious amount of linen to be cleaned.
“Aha. You’re worried that you’ll be one of the last of the old ways, dying, gasping on empty shores as the death of magic—the literal death of magic, not the half-Elf—swallows up every wonder and leaves the world dark and empty. Until only half-people with shells for souls inhabit everything.”
Erin and Mavika stared at Wiskeria. Mavika’s raven, Sephraic, fanned its wings and took off from her shoulder as Yesel and the [Washers] turned as one to stare at Wiskeria. Instantly, the [Witch of Law] realized she’d said the wrong thing. She panicked—as if breaking the code of normalcy were the most disturbing thing she’d done. She turned and looked around.
“That’s completely normal! Just like, uh—Alevica.”
The Runner Witch froze as Wiskeria pointed at her, eating breakfast in Riverfarm’s first outdoor cafe. She began to cast a hex, but Wiskeria was already speaking.
“Alevica’s afraid she’ll die alone and unloved. See? Very normal.”
She turned to Erin and ducked as a hex shot over the tip of her hat. Once again, Erin and Wiskeria found themselves running as Alevica, howling curses, shot spells at them.
Six streets later, they stopped, and Erin clutched at her side. She felt like she was learning a lot. Maybe not about being a [Witch], but a lot.
Wiskeria glanced back to see if Alevica were following, but after she saw no more spells, she straightened her hat.
“That’s another lesson about what not to say in public, I guess. This is why I like being an adventurer. Everyone’s just afraid of dying, and there’s no shame in that, apparently. Any more questions?”
She turned to Erin as if they were still having a chat about certainty, and Erin had to know.
“Alright, what are you afraid of, Wiskeria?”
For answer, the [Witch] just sighed.
“Dying without having a fulfilling life, I guess. It frightens me every year I grow older—and at least a few times per month. Ending without doing something I think is worthwhile.”
She thought about it as Erin fidgeted. It was like speaking to…the most honest person in the world, and it was disconcerting and uncomfortable because of that. No…it was a bit like speaking to a child, like Mrsha. Someone who wouldn’t lie. But Wiskeria just went on.
“Or becoming my mother. But if this doesn’t pan out and I still don’t think I’m on the right track, I might think about giving it a shot. In a year or two.”
At this point, Erin needed a break from Wiskeria. Juuust for a second. She had a sit-down with Pebblesnatch and Numbtongue and Ulvama, who were all sipping coffee that Lyonette had brought from Liscor.
Laken had ordered some made for anyone who wanted to try a cup. So three Goblins were all sitting in one of the mess halls, alone but not hated.
Some Riverfarm folk even waved at Pebblesnatch and complimented her on a dish. It was so strange that Numbtongue looked as amazed as Erin.
“Hey, Pebblesnatch! How are you? How’s my favorite [Cook] doing?”
Erin hugged the little Cave Goblin, and Ulvama glared as Pebblesnatch clung to Erin with a cry of delight. Erin sat down and exhaled.
“Wow, that was a crazy morning. How are you two doing? Hey, Ulvama.”
The [Shaman] was moody. Numbtongue was amused.
“We slept in the Goblinlands. They’re healthy.”
“Really? Any want to come back to Liscor with us? Pebblesnatch? I invited another [Chef] to my inn, but we could always use two!”
Erin expected Pebblesnatch to leap at the offer, but the Cave Goblin just hesitated. She scratched at her head and then, to Erin’s amazement, spoke.
“This place nice.”
“Aaah! You can talk?”
Ulvama rolled her eyes.
“All Goblins talk, stupid.”
Erin danced around in delight and amazement.
“But Pebblesnatch never spoke! You can talk?”
“I am learning.”
Numbtongue corrected the beaming Pebblesnatch. Instantly, the Cave Goblin scowled and raised a ladle of wrath to hit him. He raised a fist, and she reconsidered. In that sense, Goblins were like [Witches].
“You really like it here?”
Erin tried not to show she was hurt. Pebblesnatch avoided her gaze, and Ulvama sneered.
“No Goblins want to go. They all…they all think here is safer, as if here is better. Maybe it is, but there’s no tribe here. Just the blind [Emperor].”
She burst out, too mad to even pretend to speak ineloquently. Erin saw Numbtongue nod.
“Weird place. There’s no real Chieftain. Some people like Raidpear and Leafarmor are sort of Chieftains…but not.”
Erin knew enough about Goblins to understand how strange that was. She harrumphed, not exactly liking Laken being praised for his Goblin-relations. Then she nodded at the door.
“Well, I was learning from Wiskeria, and that was intense. She’s…real. So real it feels like she’s going to throw me off a cliff and I’ll become a [Witch] before I land or go splat.”
“Ooh. Splat-meat. Already mushy. Easy to cook.”
Pebblesnatch nodded knowingly in a way Erin didn’t like. As for Numbtongue, he nodded understandingly. Ulvama just snorted.
“Go jump already, stupid. You have the class. Go. Shoo. Annoying [Innkeeper] finally has annoying people to teach her. [Witches] this. Witches that. All hats and craft. Bleh.”
She pulled one eye down and stuck out her tongue in the most immature way Erin could imagine. She hadn’t seen someone do that in years. She gave Ulvama a long look as Numbtongue sipped his coffee.
“Don’t like your coffee, Ulvama? I love it.”
“Tea is better.”
That one comment earned Ulvama the approval of the [Tea Witch], who did not appreciate this competitor to her domain. Erin sighed and pushed herself up.
“Alright—fine. But if I get swirly eyes and start cackling at the moon, I’m blaming you! Anyways, I have to go. I’m apparently making a hat.”
Ulvama’s ears perked up. She watched Erin leave as Numbtongue nudged her.
“Psst. Ulvama. How important is a hat?”
For answer, the [Shaman] rolled her eyes.
“How important is your guitar, [Bard]?”
Numbtongue eyed his guitar. He glanced at Erin and raised his brows.
All three Goblins watched Erin head out to get back to her training. No wonder her being here was so important. She really was a bad [Witch].
The thing was, it was hard to tell who was most offensive to the [Witches]. Erin…or Wiskeria.
One was a joking, irreverent, non-conformist as easy to pin down as a feather in a hurricane.
The other was the greatest heir to their class, who wanted to pretend to be normal while speaking the language of the Elementals and refusing to teach anyone else.
Both were not just offensive to sensibilities, either. They were actively, dramatically rude and insulting at times.
That was why only the most patient [Witch] would suffer them making a hat for Erin as part of the competitions to make a hat that Riverfarm’s folk would wear. Something stylish, something…well, impressive. It would certainly boost the [Witch]’s acclaim who won, but there was also personal pride.
Agratha versus Oliyaya. So it was no less than Agratha who let the two [Witches] work on Erin’s hat as she and her friends and apprentices designed a hat for the non-[Witches].
Agratha, the [Teacher Witch], was the third-most abhorrent [Witch] to many other [Witches]. In this room was the trifecta of irritation. What was really impressive, to the outside observer, was that even here, they annoyed each other.
Erin Solstice stared down at buttons and beads and thread. Oh, so much thread. Cloth to form a hat, pieces of wire to create supports to sew onto, scissors and bobbins and…
She was not a sewing-person. She didn’t see a sewing machine, and when she heard she’d have to hand-sew her hat, she nearly backed out altogether.
“You can have help. It’d be embarrassing, but the hat’s quality can vary. Knowing what it should look like is the first step. Do you have something in mind? Remember what I told you—base it around your certainty. If you knew your craft, that’d help, but a [Witch] can wear whatever hat she thinks is good. Think of Eloise or Hedag.”
“Hedag wears a brown shoe on her head.”
Erin muttered, and one of Agratha’s students laughed before clapping a hand over her mouth. Agratha’s own lips twitched as she worked on her masterpiece.
Agratha wanted to create a practical hat, a kind of all-purpose cap for [Farmers] and [Crafters] alike. She was engineering it to be a cross between the wide-brimmed caps you needed to work in the sun with something closer to a baseball cap for versions indoors. And she had put Riverfarm’s pyramid-logo on the front.
It looked almost too plain—until you saw Agratha’s vision, which was to make this so popular anyone would try it on because it represented Riverfarm. She was experimenting with colors to see what looked best.
Casual-wear. Oliyaya, apparently, had gone the opposite way. Like the argument between their ideals, she was creating a hat for a few. A hand-stitched eye upon the top of two ragged wings, dark as night, and all enchanted so that the wearer could walk around in the dark like one of the [Darksky Riders] and see in every environment. A tricorne hat oozing with macabre style that only one or two would ever be made of.
And Erin had to make her own hat. She didn’t want to. She eyed the sketches of a traditional pointy hat and some of the examples of Eloise’s gardener hat with flowers, or unusual ones like Alevica’s, which sometimes had glass goggles enchanted for flying hanging off them. And still, she said the most abhorrent thing for a [Witch].
“Do I need a hat? I just don’t feel like a hat-person. Is this the kind of thing I have to wear all the time, or could I put it on for special occasions like when I’m doing magic?”
Wiskeria and Agratha glowered at Erin as she raised her hands.
“I’m just saying! I don’t know if it’s my style. Once you go hat, you can’t go back. I think that’s a saying. What if I did the thing where I have a hat like this?”
She sketched one in the air over her head, and Wiskeria slapped her hand down.
“You don’t deserve that hat. If I thought you took it seriously, that would be fine. But you’re taking it too lightly. Don’t laugh, and don’t make fun of hats. Not here.”
“Or everyone in here will poke you.”
The younger [Witches] and Agratha looked up. The thing about sewing circles was…if someone really got on your nerves?
Everyone had needles. Erin eyed them and mollified her tone slightly. She hadn’t realized how dangerous an angry [Sewer] could be.
“I get it. It’s just—I don’t think I’ll look good in one.”
“Then make one that suits, my dear. No one can look bad in a hat if it’s made for them.”
Agratha sounded kind, like the best of teachers, if somewhat annoying. Erin squirmed.
“Yeah, but I just don’t like having to wear one. You know, it feels like being forced to, and I hate that. I could never do a dress code.”
Even the [Teacher Witch]’s smile slipped. She almost snapped back, but Wiskeria eyed Erin’s clothing.
“Why? You wear that apron all the time, and you’re not at work. You don’t mind that. Why don’t you really want a hat?”
Erin froze. She was indeed wearing her innkeeper’s outfit, even though Selys and Drassi had sent her with tons of stylish clothing. She had chosen it…perhaps deliberately…as a kind of defiance against her lessons. She squirmed, fidgeted, and then turned her head. But fixed between all the other [Witches]’ stares, Erin turned beet red and finally admitted the truth.
“I—I—I’m not sure I’m cool enough to be a [Witch] all the time, Wiskeria. I can’t ooze style and self-assurance like that. I’ve been worried all day because Califor, the [Witches] of old like Somillune? I don’t think I can ever be that—wonderful. [Witches], I mean. They’re magic and stories, and I’m afraid I’ll let down their class. Can’t I look like this?”
She said it, and the hostile mood of the sewing circle changed at once. Some of the apprentices glanced up, fumbling with beads and decorating their own hats as they pleased. Agratha’s scowl turned into a beaming smile, and another [Witch] with her hair braided under a hat spiraling upwards in a swirl of different-colored cloths exhaled.
Ah, so that was it. Another piece of the Erin-puzzle fell into place. The same doubt Wiskeria had seen was all over her. Wiskeria looked thoughtfully at Erin and nodded.
“Yet you tried to bind an Elemental to this land. That’s a level of witchcraft few people can do. You want that, but not to be a [Witch] at all times? I see. You haven’t learned my lessons yet. How about this? Help me sew for a bit. We need to teach you basic threadwork, anyways.”
So she began with showing Erin how to thread a needle and the most basic of tasks, and once again, Erin found herself slightly bored, but less so than sweeping because the [Witches] did talk. They talked about work, projects, gossiped about folks in Riverfarm—but more interesting than regular gossip.
“Cheating on her husband? Well, that will be a to-do when it comes to light. Tsk, tsk.”
Agratha’s coven discussed an affair occurring in Riverfarm, complete with salacious details like the couple meeting in the forest in the dead of night. Unlike gossip, though, this didn’t end with them all tut-tutting or one person speculating on what might happen. Another circle might be the leak from which the entire affair was exposed by. Agratha’s?
“We should have the truth out before it festers. The trick is keeping the husband from going off in a rage and the couple from becoming pariahs—for too long. How sensible is the man?”
Another [Witch], Qitene, the one with the curving headpiece of colors, was a [Cloth Witch], and she was even a Stitch-woman. She was best at working here, although she seemed oddly intimidated by Wiskeria, even though the [Witch of Law] wasn’t doing more than teaching Erin how to sew a straight line. She responded.
“He listens to [Witches], and I think he knows something is amiss. As for a temper—who doesn’t run hot? At least the other fellow has no fiancée or partner of his own.”
“Then let’s pluck the thorn before it festers. I, myself, might go down and have a talk with the man. Does anyone have some small bit of craft for the daughter? Something to delight a girl of six. I need a suitable vintage if he might want to drink, and I will prevail on the [Chef] for a good meal. Then we will have a chat, he and I.”
“And the partners?”
Agratha’s smile was neither nice nor malicious as her fingers worked over the cloth with a needle of her own.
“I understand one of the two is a former [Trader] in class? A month or two of transporting goods to the Unseen Empire’s other settlements and allies might keep them out of Riverfarm. I shall ask His Majesty or Mister Prost about it.”
Erin listened thoughtfully as the coven agreed this might be for the best. In this way, she was reminded of her inn. She had bad guests.
Even Relc had been one, and Menolit too, at times. Agratha’s methods were more direct. She nudged and used very basic ideas like…talking to someone or reassigning the cheating couple to prevent the social wrath of Riverfarm from falling on them.
Her craft, her magic, was very mundane. But it was there, like the little toy that Agratha accepted from one of the other [Witches]. It was one of those wooden propeller-toys that you could spin in your hands to make fly. Only, this one could hover and spin for far longer than it should or return to you if you shot it high into the air. Agratha bowed and owed the other [Witch] a small debt.
“I shall take his daughter’s laughter and make him a brooch of it to wear, that poor man. If he is wise, and if his friends and family support him, that should balm the wound in his heart.”
Subtle magic, for a [Witch] in the modern day. Thoughtfully, Erin doodled on a piece of foolscap as Agratha’s own hat, the cheerful red hat over a sweater and robes, made her look so normal.
Yet she still had magic. Which begged the question—
“What does Oliyaya’s craft look like, Witch Agratha? I know you’re opposed to her. If this is how you help people, how does she?”
Agratha’s smile slipped as she tucked the propeller toy away. The other [Witches] glanced up, and Wiskeria sighed as Agratha replied a bit stiffly, but with a smile for Erin.
“Oliyaya is a [Witch] of traditions, Erin. I’m sure you’ve seen her penchant for drama and frights. Well, her craft is not to help people, I’m afraid. She would simply sell the man a hex to torment the couple or the cheating woman her own protections. She would let a community fall to ruin, tormenting each other.”
The other [Witches] nodded, and Erin winced as she imagined what would happen if you could literally buy a hex to cast on someone you didn’t like. She turned to Wiskeria, and the [Witch of Law] rubbed at one ear. She glanced around—then replied, not quite looking at Agratha.
“Some would say that leaving people to administer their own justice is fairer than guiding a place. If everyone has stones and throws them, they learn not to throw them unless they want a street full of broken windows. Oliyaya’s never been run out of any city, Erin. She has left—before they collapsed, but she would tell you they were already rotten. Good should be good, and bad should be bad, as vividly as possible. Otherwise, everything is just flat and boring.”
She paused as Agratha’s gaze sparked with annoyance, and she calmly met the [Teacher Witch]’s eyes.
“…Is what Oliyaya would say, if she were here. Perhaps not as politely.”
Agratha turned to Erin, smiling.
“That is Oliyaya’s perspective, Miss Solstice. I hope when you find your craft and hat, you’ll use it for the good of as many people as possible. A [Witch] does not need to be feared.”
“Sometimes, she does. They should fear you, or how else will they respect you when you need to stand against them?”
Once more, Wiskeria’s comment earned her a flash of irritation. Erin bit her tongue, and Agratha turned pointedly to Erin’s illustrations.
“Do you have a hat in mind, Miss Solstice?”
“S-sort of. I have a few things that I think would look cool. What about this?”
Erin showed her drawing around, and the [Witches] inspected it. It was just a first-draft, but the hat…Wiskeria glanced at Erin, and Agratha looked slightly dismayed, but some of the [Witches] liked it.
Her first attempt at a hat was a typical pointed hat, with a decently wide brim, all in blue, to match Wiskeria’s. But on the outline of blue, Erin had doodled the accessories that would really make the hat hers.
…Chess pieces. She had drawn little hooks and loops of string from which chess pieces would dangle around her hat or sit on the brim or higher up. A rook, a queen, a pawn…Erin glanced around.
“Whaddya think? I could have made the hat green for Goblins, but I feel like this is a good start.”
“Do you…like chess that much, Witch Erin?”
Agratha eyed the drawings, and Erin smiled at her.
“You have no idea.”
It wasn’t going to be her final hat, and both Erin and Wiskeria knew it. The other [Witch] didn’t even have to say anything; they just walked out of their first day in the hat-making process, and Erin scuffed a foot on the ground.
“Okay, maybe I wasn’t feeling it. But I’m warming up to the hat thing.”
“Good. Now, what I didn’t say in there was that Agratha isn’t wrong. She teaches more [Witches] than anyone—even Califor or Oliyaya—can. Oliyaya is a traditionalist, and her craft is powerful—but she teaches her apprentices to make the most of what they have or what they are.”
Wiskeria pointed to the witching street, where, at night, [Witches] would scare people or commit pranks. There were even warning signs posted about when the allowed mischief began. Oliyaya’s street even seemed darker, the shadows longer.
“Have you seen Oliyaya’s current apprentice? The one with scars?”
“She wears a scarf sometimes? Yeah…what about her?”
Erin sighed. It really was a…a scary face? No, but it was disturbing, and it wasn’t the girl’s fault; it had been a fire before Oliyaya found her. But she did seem to revel in the looks she got. Wiskeria nodded.
“Oliyaya took her in. She told her apprentice that if her face scares people—she could use that in her craft. Just like Oliyaya doesn’t mind being the ‘bad witch’. If you’re petty or you have a scar, if you are something—embrace it. It’s not always right, but a lot of [Witches] are that. Qualities, good and bad, taken and made into craft.”
“Aha. I think I’m more on Oliyaya’s side—I mean, the big magic—than Agratha’s.”
“Perhaps. But you don’t seem like you’d stand for another [Witch] causing trouble on your turf. If I were in your coven, I’d be careful about doing something to annoy you.”
Erin opened her mouth to object and then reflected, honestly, that this was true. The last spellcaster she had opposed had gotten a faceful of death curry right before she asked Grimalkin to punch Palt and the others. Wiskeria summed up Oliyaya’s entire ethos with a simple fact.
“Witch Alevica is one of Oliyaya’s best pupils. She pretty much represents the best and worst of Oliyaya’s teachings.”
Erin whistled; that made sense. She turned to Wiskeria.
“Okay, I sort of get what’s wrong about how I’m acting. I’m thinking of a hat—what do you think my craft is? Can I find it?”
She was hoping now was the time to do some magic, but for answer, Wiskeria just raised her brows.
“That depends on whether you can learn the lesson. Come on. It’s not even midday yet. I have a lot to do, and sewing wasn’t one of them.”
So she led Erin off, and to her dismay—the [Innkeeper] realized that, [General] or not, Wiskeria really was a normal [Witch]. She kept looking for the lesson, but she missed it as they patrolled Riverfarm, helped till a field since there were no farmhands, and went picking rare herbs in the forest. Wiskeria taught her about herbcraft, talked about basic spells to ward off insects, and the aspects of being a [Witch]—alchemy and spellcraft, people skills and herblore, and more.
It was the most boring stuff Erin could have dreamed of.
That night, Wiskeria let Erin go and watched the [Innkeeper] practically race away to catch up with her friends and the other people from Liscor. She thought Erin had been holding her tongue ever since evening began, and the impatience coming off her was practically an aura in itself.
“Is she going to learn? At least one more day.”
Wiskeria wasn’t mad—she was just curious whether this was a waste of time or not. She liked Erin and felt like Erin liked her, but they were diametrically different. But if she found out what Wiskeria wanted her to see, what Belavierr had taught her and ruined forever…
Well. That would be worth it.
With Erin gone, Wiskeria walked across the river and patrolled the riverbank, listening hard. She noticed a few crows sitting in the trees, and she’d seen Hedag and some other [Witches] doing this throughout the day, in between spying on her and Erin.
They were all listening to the old man. After yesterday, people had taken care when drawing water and moving around it, but it wasn’t like he had any power without a body. Erin had given him a body and magic—right now, he was the river.
What Wiskeria didn’t like was that he was quiet. He didn’t weep or speak or beg. He was quiet, as if he had died. Or as if he were a river or stream not old or magical enough to have a personality.
She didn’t like it. But once more, Wiskeria knew that if she wanted to slay him or stop him from doing anything else, she would need to perform a sacrifice or work a great craft of her own, and she had none. So, she just listened and went back to her home.
Once there, she took her hat off, stretched out in an armchair, and watched the scrying orb while she took a load off. She laughed and stared at the people on the various channels and television networks, trying to figure out why they did those things. After she felt rested, she got up and began to bake some bread so she had food for breakfast.
Something with almonds; she’d gotten a big basket as a gift from a [Forager]. She ground some up to add to her flour and kept watching the scrying orb. What a boon it was! She loved seeing other people like this, and this way she didn’t have to spy on them or watch out of the corner of her eyes.
Wiskeria was letting the bread rise in the stone oven and about to pop out to get some pumpkin soup for a lovely dinner that would be mildly appetizing to her. A fine, home-cooked meal that would never compare with the feasts Belavierr lavished on her as a child, from magical cornucopias and every great kingdom of old.
She was just opening the door when she heard the shrieking sound again. For a third time that day, when it had woken her up before dawn, in the sewing circle, and now—Wiskeria heard it.
A scream with no vocal cords, no voice. A kind of…was it even a scream? It sounded like that, but it was so foreign that Wiskeria froze—then she drew a knife and wand and was racing around her home.
“Where are you? Where are you? Come out and face me, come out from where you hide. Let you or I come to blood and one of us now dies.”
Furious this time, she chanted a little spell and cast it wide, hoping to grab something and provoke it to battle. It would have worked if it were a screaming mouse like she claimed, but her spell found…nothing.
Nothing. Wiskeria searched, without rest, ears perked, until she sensed her bread was almost done in the oven. Cursing, she sheathed her weapons and took it out.
Where was that sound? Not even Erin heard it, and she heard the old man in the river. Is it just me?
Not once did it occur to Wiskeria that she might be crazy. She just wished her mother was here. Her mother would be the best resource for anything unknown.
To Wiskeria, a scream in your head, the flicker out of the corner of your eye? That was either an illusion of your head or something actually being there. Neither one was wrong, and she was almost positive it wasn’t in her head.
So why? Why, why, why? Wiskeria settled into her rest uneasily. She kept a knife right next to her hand in her bed, and she cast three wards to find invisible intruders. She didn’t expect the scream again, but to her surprise, it woke her just past dawn. The scream echoed in her ears, and she ran in her nightclothes, bursting out her door, head swinging around wildly.
It was in Riverfarm. Not her house. Then she realized two other things. Erin was covering her eyes and telling Wiskeria to put some clothes on and that she refused if this was part of her training.
The next thing? She heard it in the air. A snarl, this one audible and ongoing despite the scream. A snarl coming from across Riverfarm, from the rushing river…and Wiskeria felt it on her skin. She needed no pricking in her toes. She looked up as the sky began to sprinkle rain, which turned into a downpour and grew and grew throughout the day.
The old man was back. And this time—he was angry.
To most, it probably just looked like a stormy day. Granted, the signs hadn’t been there last night; the skies had been clear, so this was a fast storm, possibly magical.
The truth was that it was very magical. In fact, it was elemental. Natural, but not in the nice way of nature.
The [Witches] held a conference with Laken and a single [Rain Mage] specialized in weather magic. Their advice was simple: shore up the levies. Make sure the river, if it overflowed the embankments, wouldn’t threaten Riverfarm.
Fortunately, Riverfarm hadn’t been rebuilt on the edge of the river. So the [Emperor] listened and gave orders diverting a lot of the work to digging embankments that would rise above the highest flow of the river.
It would be a tough problem, given the size of the river, but Prost estimated they only needed five feet of raised land to contain the river on each side. Even the most wet years had never passed that much higher.
Besides, even if they lacked concrete as of yet, magic would provide. Stone could be raised and dirt piled around it. Similarly, the [Rain Mage] assured Laken he could try and remove the power of the storm.
So, it was a rainy day. Which wasn’t at all Erin’s fault as she went about another day of shadowing Wiskeria. Today, she did so with a huge glare piercing her shoulder blades.
Mrsha the Wet had had it up to here with this vacation. First, she got sick. Then, as she was getting over it, the rains began.
None of the children wanted to play in the rain long. Oh, it was fun the first hour or two, but then the rain got so intense that it just wasn’t fun.
Much less for a Gnoll covered with fur. She shook her fist at Erin as the guilty [Innkeeper] left with a raincoat on.
Meanwhile, everyone else was either ‘content’ or working in the rain. For instance, there was Numbtongue. Rather than being the cool older brother who’d run around with her or do something fun, there he was.
Snuggling. Mrsha balefully saw him sitting next to a fire minutes after he trudged in, wet, from helping the Goblins fortify up their spot from mudslides. He began playing his guitar next to Garia, who was equally soaked. They only had one blanket, which they were sharing.
Curse your boring lives. Mrsha hissed at him. The Hobgoblin shooed her away as he began to strum on his guitar. She didn’t see the point. Oh, there was some merit to a good snuggle with people. But when you were tired, not during the day! The only thing she approved of was his plate full of snacks, and he smacked her paw when she tried to steal some.
I will remember this.
Mrsha handed him a card. He flicked it into the fire, and she pulled the door open so rainwater would blow in and kept it wedged open with a boot.
Mrsha the Vindictive went to find someone else who was fun, but to her dismay, Griffon Hunt were helping dig the levees. Briganda didn’t have Cade anywhere near the river, obviously, but the children were reading books inside.
Books? Mrsha the Semi-Literate stared in dismay at them. Another task for when you had less energy! She wanted to run around. She tried to think. Who else was there?
Ulvama. Ulvama was—
…Sitting in one of the mess halls, making Pebblesnatch cook up food for her and the other wet and hungry Riverfarm folk. And eating a lot of the Goblin’s food. Mrsha raced off to find Lyonette.
Lyonette! A panting Ser Sest held the door open for Mrsha; he had the unenviable task of following her around and keeping her safe. Lyonette was—
Sipping tea with Eloise again and chatting about home.
“So do you think your family will be trying for an alliance at this banquet they’ve cooked up, Miss Marquin?”
“Oh, it’s not a banquet. It’s clearly some kind of meeting, but the Restful Three…dead gods, Mrsha, how wet are you? Come in here and have a seat. We have tea and—”
Mrsha dashed back out into the rain. She howled up at the sky silently as she raised her fists to the storming clouds.
No tea! No snuggling! No gods or masters! She tried to think.
Who else was there? Who had come on this trip that she could find that was fun? The [Emperor] was no good. One of the [Witches]? But they were, uh…intense. Not to be crossed, even by Mrsha the Cute and Lovable.
Of the people she knew, who was free? Not Erin; her [Witch]-training was boring. Numbtongue, Garia…Mrsha counted on her paws until she thought of the new, fascinating duo.
Tkrn and Inkar.
Now, Tkrn was a known quantity, but he was a bit different after his time in the south. As for Inkar, why, she was a Gnoll-Human! Entertaining and wise in Gnoll-ways. However…Mrsha’s face fell.
She knew they were a couple. A serious, full-time couple, not like Numbtongue and his open, multi-snuggling arrangement. No doubt they’d be full bleh-fest right now indoors.
And there Mrsha was wrong. For, right before her eyes, she saw Inkar briskly walking with a load of bricks, helping transport them to the levees. She was working! But seriously, so Mrsha didn’t bother her. Then she saw Tkrn and heard something amidst the rain.
“Now’s hardly the time to test it, Mister Tkrn—but then again, now’s the only time! I wouldn’t have you standing in the street, and we have wagons coming in still since no one expected the rain.”
Tkrn and Mister Prost were lugging something with a team of people down the street. Mrsha smelled new steel and something interesting. She followed Tkrn as Ser Sest the Weak begged her to go indoors, offering her a hot drink of something.
What Tkrn and Prost had that was so important was going straight in the middle of the street known for all the traffic jams. In fact, it was so important that Durene herself came to help hang it up. They were trying to hang it from a rope, but realized it was too unstable; instead, they had a post hammered into the street as they cleared a spot with pickaxes.
It was fast with someone as strong as Durene; then they anchored the whatever-it-was to the top. Mrsha stared in confusion as a small guardrail was installed to keep someone from hitting the central post.
What was this strange thing? Prost was shouting about putting paint down to mark the sides of the street, but Tkrn was so wet he could barely hear.
All the while, the [Guardsman] was blowing his whistle and directing the wagons such that they didn’t smash into each other.
It was an even greater concern on a rainy day such as this, where rain made wheels slip and obscured vision. Yet Laken Godart had commissioned a solution, and now, Mrsha saw a strange metal…thing…standing tall on the pole.
It had a kind of triangular base and head and a four-sided rectangle for a body, pointing each of the cardinal directions. But what was odd were the three holes on each side. They were vacant, but as Prost stepped back and began shouting at the crowd, including [Drivers], Mrsha saw him turn to Nesor, the timid [Mage], and the young man raised a wand.
Then the entire apparatus came to life, and Mrsha saw a bright, nay, brilliant red, unlike most mundane colors, come to life. It shone down the street, not bright enough to blind, but visible to the confused drivers.
Who stopped. They stared at the red light, and Mrsha waited…but the light just shone. Shone and shone…and she realized there were green lights coming from the other direction. Tkrn waved the carts through on those sides, while the other two stopped. Then—
The light turned green, and the others turned red, and those two streets stopped. Tkrn waved the new drivers through, and they passed under the aegis of the world’s first traffic light until the light turned yellow and blinked. That meant it was about to turn red, and sure enough, only one wagon made it through before it turned red.
“Red means stop! Green means go!”
Prost wanted to put a sign up, but he bellowed the instructions at the crowd, who really didn’t need more than that.
Red meant stop, green meant go. And like that, the poor Tkrn could be relieved. Like that…the Gnoll [Guardsman] stared up at the beginning of something new. Something that would forever change the Five-Way Cart Fullbody Pileup for good—or create the Ten Mile Wagon-to-Wagon Jam.
Traffic lights. He couldn’t wait to tell Zevara about it, and as Laken had told him, this simple light was only the beginning. Why, you could create entire rules like turning right on red or multiple lights to direct streets—but you’d need paint for that. Proper intersections.
It was going to change a lot. Of course, this was only necessary in a bigger city with traffic, but Tkrn saw it. He glanced around and saw a little Gnoll staring up at the light.
Mrsha stared up at the glowing light as it began to show its signals on a nonstop loop. She admired it for about one minute, then padded off.
Mrsha the Increasingly Desultory walked through the empty streets of Riverfarm, fast losing her will to persist in this cold, wet environment. Even with all the will in the world, even as a [Druid], this rain sorta blew. And it also was wet.
She was almost about to call it quits and join a snuggle-pile or eat herself sick with Ulvama when she saw something. Mrsha stopped dead in the street and craned her head. She sniffed, but the rain took away the scent.
“M-Miss Mrsha, wouldn’t you like to sample some cookies? I’m sure that we could find you one. A bushel! Let’s keep it between ourselves, and Her Highness need not know, eh?”
Ser Sest was so cold and shivering even in his armor that he was resorting to base bribery. It worked on the other [Princesses]; why not Mrsha? But then he saw her take off through the streets, and he had to run to keep up.
Once more, Sest cursed the lost hand of cards last night that had led him here. He was certain that Shriekblade was following Mrsha; even if he couldn’t see her, Princess Lyonette valued her daughter’s safety over her own.
Between an [Emperor]’s eyes and a Named-rank, what could he do?
Oh yes, keep her from catching another cold. And his head be it if the rascal got one, but Mrsha had taken his umbrella and thrown it into the air when he tried to hold it over her head! Her raincoat? He suspected she’d stuffed it in the oven when he wasn’t looking because he couldn’t find it.
Where was she going? Mrsha was following something down the street. Only when Ser Sest rounded a corner did he see her charging after a small shape almost as white as she was—only this one had a lot of brown cloth over its body. Sest stopped because, despite them being a familiar sight—
He had never seen a Sariant Lamb wearing a raincoat. It even had little boots. Somehow, the wretched creature was more adorable.
Sariant Lambs hated the rain, but this one was trotting off, and Mrsha was running after it. In fact…as the Thronebearer ran, he saw a line of Sariant Lambs appear. They were all trotting ahead of Mrsha, who was following them.
Dead gods, were the rumors true? The lambs stopped at the edge of Riverfarm, and Sest felt for his sword. They assembled, and he saw the most uncanny thing as Mrsha halted herself.
They were, sixteen of them, forming an arrow. The arrow was pointing out of Riverfarm, up a hill. Mrsha turned and gave Ser Sest a wary look.
“Perhaps we’d better, ah, find His Majesty, Miss Mrsha?”
She hesitated—but Mrsha the Fearless was not about to turn down this mystery. She slowly began running down the street, and Ser Sest ran, this time with a hand on his emergency speaking stone. The lambs dispersed behind him, and he felt worried.
If we ever get back to the capital, I might need to have a word with the Grandmaster of the Thronebearers about the lambs.
Then again, he had heard the [Emperor] had a Skill. So the lambs might be doing this for him? But what could they think was worth Mrsha leaving Riverfarm?
The answer, thankfully, wasn’t that far from the town at all or Sest would have called Mrsha back and triggered the alert. In fact, it was just a small hill overlooking the town. There, sitting under a tree as rain thundered down, running down the trunk and drowning the roots was…
A [Witch]. A young girl, sitting with her hat dripping with water over her wet robes. She made no move as Mrsha and Ser Sest came to a halt.
Ser Sest the Obvious was the first to react to the strange sight. Mrsha was entranced just seeing Nanette sitting there.
It looked like…well, it looked like some kind of fantasy painting. There was the tree, water running from every leaf. Below it was a girl dressed in dark cloth, blue, but soaked so much it looked black, water running down her pointed hat, face blank as a doll. The water ran past her legs, a veritable torrent heading to the river, and the storm was only increasing.
It would be a lovely painting…but the reality of it had to be the most uncomfortable thing in the world. It was wet. And Mrsha could not imagine sitting there like that.
But the strange girl never moved. Mrsha wondered if she were dead. But she could see the [Witch] breathing.
Yet not once did she move, even when Mrsha padded forwards and waved at her. Ser Sest tried to call her back, but Mrsha ignored him.
Hello? Are you okay? Are you cold?
She couldn’t say these things with writing, and obviously the girl didn’t know Mrsha-signs, so Mrsha tapped a speaking stone.
The [Witch] blinked at that. A head came up, and Mrsha saw little round cheeks, pale and shivering slightly with cold, and eyes that should have been shy and rosy brown, wide and innocent.
They were as empty as a piece of glass. Empty and lost. Mrsha stared at the girl. The gaze fixed on her slightly curiously, but then drifted down as if the hat were weighing the head down.
“Miss Mrsha, let’s not disturb this good [Witch]. His Majesty is friendly with them…”
Sest the Stupid called out nervously. He actually tried to pull Mrsha away, and Mrsha leapt up, so that he tried to catch her. The Thronebearer tried to hold onto Mrsha and slipped as she springboarded off his chest. A windmilling pair of arms was followed by a crash as he went bouncing down the hill.
Mrsha spat after him, then turned back to the strange [Witch]. Not once had the girl moved, though she had watched the entire thing.
She was wet and cold. Even if she herself didn’t acknowledge it, the rain made her limbs tremble. Mrsha tapped her stone again.
“Hello! What’s wrong with you?”
She winced—but that was the only phrase that came close to displaying what she wanted to say. The semi-insult made the [Witch] glance up, but this time, she saw the speaking stone.
“I’m fine. Thank you, Miss Gnoll.”
She spoke politely, and Mrsha stood there, uncertain of what to do. She sensed a profound emptiness from the girl. Not even sadness…just a vacancy.
Ser Sest was coming back up the hill, swearing under his breath. He turned to Mrsha as the girl sat there, not responding. Even if Mrsha threw a rock at her like the bad kids, Nanette wouldn’t have moved.
Mrsha threw no rocks, of course. Instead, she turned as Ser Sest glumly hung his head in the rain and, to his amazement and relief, pointed down the hill.
“Food. I’m hungry. Let’s go back.”
“Back, Miss Mrsha? At once!”
In relief, Ser Sest escorted her down the hill, and that was that. The [Witch] sat there, staring at the clouds. Wiskeria hadn’t come by. The ‘old man’ she had talked about must be the one causing the storm.
Nanette wondered how long it would last. She wondered if the water would reach this hill or if Erin would make her go to Liscor. If Califor wanted it…
Her mother was dead. So Nanette sat there, vaguely recognizing the Gnoll, thinking of Erin’s words to her. But still, she could not move.
What she did not expect, nor recognize at first, was the little girl coming back up the hill, followed by a beleaguered Thronebearer. Nanette did not recognize the two at first because this time an umbrella disguised Ser Sest, and he was so festooned with objects that he could barely see.
Mrsha herself had a towel on her head. She parked herself in front of Nanette, and the [Witch] looked up.
If Hedag had not been at the riverside, helping dig the levees, she or Eloise would have come up here, if they’d seen Nanette, and taken her somewhere dry. That didn’t seem to occur to Mrsha. Instead, she grabbed the umbrella the [Knight] carried and clambered into the tree. There, she wedged it among the branches that it might not blow away and began ordering the [Knight] around with authoritative jabs from her wand.
“Er—Witch Nanette, isn’t it? This is for you. Do pardon the intrusion, Miss Mrsha—I am giving her it!”
The [Knight] had a dry towel. In fact, he had several towels and what turned out to be Mrsha’s raincoat. Nanette blinked at it.
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
She tried to assure Mrsha she needed and wanted nothing. The girl offered Nanette a towel.
“Miss Mrsha cannot speak, Witch Nanette. I pray you forgive her insistence. She is a gentle soul.”
Mrsha stabbed Sest in the leg with the wand and made him back up. Then she dumped the towel on Nanette and industriously tried to remove as much water from the dripping area as she could. The umbrella kept the rain from pouring down on Nanette, and Mrsha used up three crisp, white towels and tossed them one after another at Ser Sest. Then she produced, of all things, a quill and paper and wrote!
Ser Sest gloomily read the instructions.
“Miss Mrsha, these are not our provisions! I am sure His Majesty is generous, but I must remind you that I am also your bodyguard. I cannot leave you.”
Nanette saw Mrsha writing and, despite herself, craned her neck to see.
Mrsha wrote word by word fairly fast and very legibly and handed it to Ser Sest. Instantly, he brightened up.
“Well, I suppose that if I must—Dame Ushar, I fear I must call you to action. I believe Miss Mrsha would like two umbrellas, yes, two, and six towels. I cannot explain, meet me at the hill—”
“I’m fine. Really.”
Nanette realized what Mrsha was trying to do and objected as the girl brought forth a fourth towel. But Mrsha just gave her a bright smile.
She had no words, but somehow, the smile managed to say everything it needed to. Perhaps it was Nanette’s own witchcraft, but she could almost hear the little girl mimicking a mother’s voice.
Yes, of course you’re fine.
Then she proceeded to ignore Nanette and pat her with the towel. The [Witch] let her and had to admit, being drier was better than shivering. She only moved when Mrsha went to remove the hat.
“That’s mine. Don’t touch it.”
She caught Mrsha’s paw, and the Gnoll hesitated. Then she nodded and let Nanette pat it dry.
A second Thronebearer appeared, annoyed, but when she saw Mrsha and the [Witch], things made more sense. Mrsha grabbed the towels and kept drying Nanette; in fact, she then demanded a heat spell, which Ser Sest cast. Of all the spells the Thronebearer had—[Dry Clothing] and [Remove Minor Stains] were two of the cantrips he practiced.
Well, they came in handy here, and then Mrsha was in the branches, wedging more umbrellas up there. She wasn’t even done. To Ser Sest and Dame Ushar’s mild horror, she took the wet towels and, instead of removing them, made them cut holes in the towels and join them together so they formed a kind of cloth wall! Then she hung them over a branch, forming a barrier on two sides that she anchored with rocks.
“Miss Mrsha! The towels are—ow! Ow! Eight more towels, Ushar. Or just bedsheets, Lady Marquin? Bedsheets it is.”
She was making a fort! A fort out of umbrellas and towels and cloth. Nanette was well aware of how expensive cloth could be, but Mrsha was happily ignorant of the fact. It seemed to be her mission in life to shield Nanette from the slightest raindrop and gust of wind.
In fact, she was quite enjoying herself, and while she was young, she was a Gnoll; she had lived in yurts and their travelling tents and knew how one was made, in theory. Nanette kept trying to shoo her away, but Mrsha refused to go, and Nanette would not stand, so all she had were vague words.
Nor did the Thronebearers stop their wayward charge. At first, they protested the cost and imposition, but then they glanced at the wet little girl and saw past the pointed hat.
Soon enough, Nanette had a raincoat over her like a blanket and another to sit on. Mrsha wanted to reinforce the towel and bedsheet ‘walls’ and make sure the entire affair wouldn’t collapse when the wind blew too hard.
To that end, Ser Sest with a shovel was beginning to pile dirt up so the wall could be anchored in the ground, and Mrsha was beginning to demand lumber, long boards of wood. Which in turn required nails, and hey, if we were going to do this, why not some insulation? Two sets of walls—could Sest find a huge nail or something to anchor them together? A bedframe would do.
It never seemed to occur to Mrsha to move Nanette. Nor that it would be easier to make Nanette move. She regarded it as a challenge; if the [Witch] had a reason to be here in the middle of a storm, well, Mrsha would happily requisition an entire house for her.
The breaking point was probably the demands for boards of wood. No less than Lyonette and Eloise came up the hill to see why two Thronebearers were grabbing so much from the guest houses.
“Mrsha! Come here, young lady!”
Mrsha hid behind a tree, but Eloise saw Nanette and cried out.
“Nanette! I thought I told you to stay indoors. It seems your daughter saw what we had forgotten. Come, Nanette. You’ll die of sickness and wet.”
She strode over, and Nanette sighed. She didn’t move as the [Tea Witch] bent to pull her up, but to her astonishment, a Gnoll clambered through the branches. She aimed a wand down, and Mrsha the Sniper shot a little arrow of light at Eloise!
The spell bounced off the [Witch]’s hat.
Lyonette was scandalized, and Eloise recoiled slightly. Mrsha blanched as her mother came striding towards her, but then she leapt down, waving her wand and a fist.
“No one is taking her! Back, back!”
She wrote on a card until Lyonette grabbed her—then she was a struggling, silently yowling fighter. She wriggled so hard that Sest, Ushar, and Lyonette together couldn’t hold her. All for what?
Nanette’s dignity? Mrsha’s furious fighting was putting her in hotter and hotter water. Especially when a waving foot kicked Lyonette in the chin and the [Princess] went tumbling down the hillside.
Then she was in grave trouble. Mrsha was racing around the tree, silently screaming while two Thronebearers pursued her, and Lyonette vowed no dessert until the end of the era! And then…Nanette stood up.
Mostly to stop the little girl from getting in more trouble.
“I’ll go. I’ll go, Eloise.”
No you won’t!
Mrsha clung to her and tried to make her sit! Now, Nanette was struggling to go, and Lyonette was grabbing Mrsha and apologizing to Nanette and Eloise—then realizing how cold Nanette was. Eloise stood back, sensibly, and her eyes were on Mrsha.
That was when the entire towel-house came down amid a downpour of rain and the branches and all three umbrellas. Everyone was drenched, smacked in the face by heavy, sodden cloth, and covered in mud. Nanette pulled herself out and reached out, and a little girl’s paw took her hand.
She looked up, and Mrsha, wet, fur dripping, beamed at her and pointed down to the big mess hall. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and to Nanette’s amazement, hers copied it.
Let’s go eat, huh? Mrsha patted Nanette on the hand. The [Witch] looked at her seat and saw it was a tangle of two Thronebearers, a crushed [Princess], and towels.
There wasn’t anywhere for her. So, vaguely, she followed Mrsha down the hill, stomach rumbling, and the [Princess] rose, dignity gravely misplaced, and saw her daughter and the little girl heading down, hand in hand.
Even Lyonette didn’t have the heart to stop them. She simply turned to Ser Sest and Dame Ushar.
“Perhaps we should all forgo punishments for now. Mrsha’s heart was in the right place. Let’s dry off, get some food—Witch Eloise?”
“That does sound like the wisdom of the Hundred Families, Your Highness.”
The [Tea Witch] bowed with a smile, and Lyonette noticed her clothes were dry as could be. The [Princess] sneezed, then looked at the muddy fort.
“Someone will have to clean this up. Ser Dalimont? Ser Lormel? We leave it in your hands.”
The two other Thronebearers looked askance at the mess. Far below, Mrsha pulled Nanette into a warm building and slapped the counter to demand a soup for her and the little girl. Then she sat with Nanette, towels wrapped around them, and the [Witch] found herself eating. She said not a word, nor did she want to move.
But Mrsha did not pull like the others, or push. And the thing was—Mrsha never said anything either. In that way, they were alike.
Erin did not have a day half as good as Mrsha. Her day was filled with wet. Wet, shoveling dirt to help build the levees. Wet, walking Riverfarm to see where the flooding would happen. Wet, following Wiskeria as the [Witch] walked through the mud, let the rain buffet her—and not once did Wiskeria seem bothered.
If she tripped and fell—and she did!—she got back up. If it took her twenty minutes to walk a hundred feet in the blowing wind, she did. If she had to dig for an hour, she did, with nary a complaint.
Erin could feel emotion. She knew Wiskeria didn’t mind. Either that or she was masking her emotions. But that was not true either, because Erin’s hands were wet with blood that evening as Wiskeria embarked on her most grisly task yet.
Erin knew that to eat meat, animals had to die. She was resolved to kill when necessary, but there was something about slaughtering animals that was still terrible. She did not want to do it, even if she would live with it to eat.
But Wiskeria was consulting with no less than Mister Ram, the [Head Rancher] who needed her advice. A pig had fallen ill of something and died, and under Laken’s new orders, the body had actually been burned. It had been the male boar, leaving a sow and piglets. But the female pig wasn’t eating. He hadn’t brought it up to Laken, but Ram was a bit uncertain as to what to do.
“Embarrassing as it is, I usually keep most of my animals fed until it’s time, but this one refuses to eat, even with Skills. I thought you’d have some insight, even if it it was that we could use the pork, Miss Wiskeria.”
[Witches] were good people to turn to for advice. And her response was quick and simple.
“She’s grief-stricken, Mister Ram. I’d tell you to butcher her.”
“Ah, well, I thought you’d say that. But I can’t see a way around it. The [Chefs]’ll be happy. That’ll be a fine meal after all this rainy work.”
Ram didn’t glance at Erin, the perpetrator, as he nodded. To Erin’s dismay, Wiskeria offered to do the job. Ram was surprised, but Wiskeria told him it was no problem.
“Call for the [Butcher], but it will be a good lesson for Erin. I know how to slit a throat.”
Erin did not want to do the job. Nor, it seemed, did Mister Ram. Which surprised Erin. He was a [Rancher], and she assumed it came with the job. But then she realized the same man who raised animals might not want to kill them. In fact, Wiskeria told her that some people would go from farm to farm and render the service for a fee.
“Do I—do I have to do it?”
Wiskeria knelt by the motionless pig and gently propped the sow’s head up. She was careful in case the pig tried to bite or attacked, but the female pig never moved as the piglets were slowly herded away.
“Of course not. Just watch. Hold the head for me. It will be fast. [Farmers] try to make it quick.”
That was when Erin decided she might be able to live without meat after all. It was one thing to see images of slaughterhouses and know there were inhumane ways of killing animals and ‘humane’ ways—that was, ways most Humans were happy about killing people that weren’t them—
Quite another to hold a pig and feel a shudder as Wiskeria ran a blade across the throat.
It was fast. This wasn’t a Shield Spider, nor a monster. It was a pig, but Erin swore she felt something leave. Wiskeria?
Wiskeria’s eyes never changed. But she did feel sad. Just a bit. That was all. And that sadness persisted as Ram nodded with the [Butcher] in tow.
“You’d be a fine [Farmer], Miss Wiskeria. And that’s a compliment if I might say so.”
“Thank you, Mister Ram. Should I do the rest too?”
Wiskeria glanced up, and Ram hesitated.
“The piglets? They’re hardly as old, and they eat. It’d be a waste. Why? Are they sick?”
Wiskeria gave Ram a strange look, and Erin saw her trying to recalibrate, but she didn’t manage it this time. Instead, she replied slowly, trying to understand what she was getting wrong.
“No…because they’re all grieving too. Grieving—now twice for their parents. They can smell the blood. They’ll know. I’m sure most if not all will eat and grow, but if you wanted to spare them the sadness, I am here.”
She spread her hands as blood ran from her blue dress, without staining it. Ram and Erin looked at her, and the [Rancher]’s laugh was uneasy. Even afraid.
“Why, Miss Wiskeria, you’re kind to offer, but—they’re just pigs. I’m sure the sow was—was sad. But they’re pigs. Not even magical pigs. Not like a dog nor…”
His voice trailed off uneasily. Ram tried to smile, but Wiskeria looked at him—and then a smile crossed her lips that was entirely fake.
“Of course. That was a joke, Mister Ram.”
“A joke—dead gods—you play too much with an old man’s heart.”
He laughed and laughed, far too loudly. Then Ram headed off, laughing, and Erin stood there. She looked at Wiskeria and knew—the [Witch] had not been lying.
Ram’s discomfort was one thing. He did not like how Wiskeria talked about the pigs. Like they were people. That had to hit him close to home, and Wiskeria almost reminded Erin of people who said animals had feelings and were as sapient as Humans and deserved not to be eaten.
Which was fine, and Erin could get on board with that. Only, Wiskeria…Wiskeria believed it with all her heart, and she had still killed the pig and offered to kill the piglets.
“Do you think they’re people, Wiskeria?”
As Erin washed her hands in the rain, Wiskeria gave her a blank look.
“I killed a father in front of his children two—no, three days ago. I heard him scream as I broke his neck. He was a racoon. Nanette didn’t realize what I meant either and asked me about it. Was I wrong? I killed a mother in front of her children.”
“I know why you’re saying it like that. But they’re pigs.”
Wiskeria nodded reasonably as Erin’s skin crawled. She responded without blinking.
“And I will remember that, especially after seeing how I made Ram feel. I’ll call them animals. But to you, Erin—what did I say that was wrong? That was a mother. She bled. She felt pain. She grew sad. A Drake can be a mother or father.”
“Yes, but is there a difference?”
Wiskeria laughed until she realized this was no joke. She looked at Erin knowingly.
“Sariants can write. Yet they’re pets. Magical cats can understand speech, if not say it. Wyverns are said to be far more intelligent than the smartest dog, but they’re monsters. Mother never saw a difference, only in who she was allowed to kill without repercussion. So I’ll remember who I can slaughter, but I killed a mother today. I’ve met some people who think animals have no emotions or feelings. As if fish cannot feel pain. They’re as strange as I.”
That just made Erin more uneasy.
“If you think that way, why kill the female pig? Why offer to kill the children? Why not let them live and tell Ram to let her grow old or just not eat until she passes away?”
To that, Wiskeria was silent as she washed and dried her hands.
“…Because it’s how he lives. He raises animals to slaughter, and Riverfarm uses them as coin for meat and hide. I understand people have to make a living.”
“It’s not right. Not the way you see it.”
Erin was wiping her hands on her jeans, again and again. To that, Wiskeria gave her a flat stare.
“Then make the world otherwise. But this is how it is, and I don’t mind it enough to change. People suffer and do things to each other that are cruel, but allowed. That’s how a city functions. I don’t want to change the way Riverfarm works. In fact, I admire it. That is why I’m a [Witch of Law]. Law be my craft. Law and consequence and rules. Of course it sacrifices a few people for thousands.”
Erin stood up and looked at the barn, where the dead pig was and the piglets were setting up a clamor. She shook her head.
“That will not be my craft. That can’t be my craft.”
Wiskeria nodded reasonably.
“I know. You and I aren’t going to be alike. But I still like you. Do you still like me or did that change everything?”
She looked Erin in the eye, and the [Innkeeper] was quiet for a while. She thought of Elirr’s cats. How close were they to people? She heard people hunted and ate monkeys, and Humans and monkeys were far, far too close. How intelligent were they? Didn’t someone teach a gorilla to speak with sign language?
Wiskeria did not teach Erin anything easily. In fact, Erin knew she was like the great coven of the dead because she didn’t teach Erin any spells.
Much to Erin’s frustration, Wiskeria was teaching her how to be, not how to do. Which was fine—unless you wanted to shoot a lightning bolt into the storm. Just once. But no—Wiskeria was adamant.
“Erin, that’s not witchcraft. That’s certainly not my witchcraft, and even my mother would say you’re being silly. You and I can practice spells or making something after you learn my lesson.”
They were now mopping one of the mess halls by themselves, and Erin foresaw two hours given all the mess from boots. They’d already cleaned each table. Without Skills.
They had [Cleaners] in Riverfarm! Wiskeria had told them she and Erin would do this building by themselves. Erin growled at Wiskeria.
“Oh yeah? Would Belavierr call me ‘silly’? That’s what she’d say?”
“I can tell that’s sarcasm. Is that sarcasm? Irony? No, is that a joke?”
“No, it’s me being angry!”
Wiskeria muttered under her breath.
“I see. If you want to know how my mother would say it, she’d say, ‘you conflate the power of [Mages] with magic in all its forms. They are a single ray reflected through the narrowest of slits in the wall, but visible to the naked eye. If you would chase that—chase that. But do not come to me when you realize the zenith of their power is to step beyond their pale confines. For we have always been there, and the [Archmages] learn that lesson far later.’”
Erin turned and stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] shrugged, and two faintly red patches appeared in her cheeks.
“She may have said that to me as well. I was young, too. I think I was six.”
“Great! Then I’m a six-year old! Well, I’m throwing a tantrum!”
Erin threw her mop down. She was about to throw the most childish tantrum yet when she saw Wiskeria sigh. The [Witch] continued mopping, and Erin realized she was being unfair.
She had come to Wiskeria for lessons, and here she was, three days in, being—being—
Being a Lyonette! Being a Lyonette just like when she’d first met the [Princess], who refused to do anything and called everything hard and gave a lot of backsass. And at that, Erin turned beet red and felt ashamed.
Slowly, she picked up the mop and started mopping again. Wiskeria watched her, then spoke up.
“You’re going too fast.”
Erin almost snapped. But she ducked her head and copied Wiskeria’s pace.
Slowly, methodically, the two went back to work. Erin decided it was her penance and resolved to help Wiskeria clean this entire hall no matter how long it took. After all, this couldn’t be fun for Wiskeria. She was doing this to teach Erin, so, damnit, she’d try.
Erin stopped thinking about how tired she was or how to deal with the old man. She’d tried to talk to him, but all she heard was a snarl, manifesting itself in the growing river, the rain pouring down.
It was still raining, and it looked like it was going to go on all night. Erin was worried about it, but she couldn’t even swab fast because Wiskeria kept telling her to slow.
So Erin slowed and just…mopped. And in doing so, she lost focus of her vexation and just mopped.
It was like doing any repetitive task. Once you got into the rhythm, you lost focus, relaxed, and you could enter a kind of meditation. A zen, not dissimilar to running or exercise. Erin—
“You’re drifting off. Focus.”
Erin was going to kill someone. She stopped, hunched her shoulders—and reconsidered.
She had thought, privately, that the lamest thing Wiskeria could teach her was that there was a tranquility or state of mind she should achieve, such that a [Witch] wasn’t too good for any task. Like a [Monk]. Erin had considered that would be a lame lesson—but it seemed like even that far-flung idea was wrong.
Exasperated, she turned to Wiskeria to tell her that she needed the answer after all. Then she noticed, for the first time, Wiskeria’s expression.
The [Witch] was slowly swabbing the floor, eyes on the dirt and water and soap clearing it away. Again, she wasn’t the best mopper in the world.
Silveran would have given her a C-. Oh, she got the floors pretty clean, but it wasn’t great. Yet she really was mopping. Not fast, but thoroughly. Nor was she in that state of mindless zen that you could reach in repeated action.
If anything—she was as focused as the moment when she’d cut the pig’s throat. She was all there. And for the first time, Erin realized what was coming off Wiskeria.
Contentment. No, not just contentment—concentration. She was, Erin realized, swirling her mop in different patterns. As if trying to figure out how the best way of cleaning the floorboards was.
“Wiskeria. Have you ever mopped a floor before?”
“Um…twice, I think. Mother had me sweep, but I’ve only mopped a floor with a mop twice. Once when we tracked in blood to a manor from a kill, the second time when I came to Riverfarm. Isn’t it interesting?”
Wiskeria glanced up, and Erin saw Wiskeria was watching her. Erin frowned.
“Nope. I hate mopping.”
“Ah, well. It’s not the most fun thing in the world. I admit that. But do you see anything? I think you might be getting it.”
Erin hmmed. Then she went back to mopping, thinking hard and watching Wiskeria the entire time.
That was a clue. Wiskeria had just hinted that she didn’t enjoy mopping either. So why was she saying it was interesting? If you didn’t enjoy something, but you got something that made you so content. No—what was that emotion?
Wiskeria gave off so few emotions. But this one…Erin realized it had been coming off her all day. It wasn’t as much an emotion as something more abstract. Like Mavika’s use of superstition in her craft, Erin realized what it was.
Wiskeria was working hard. She was giving this a lot of effort. Just like when speaking to Ram—Wiskeria was fully engaged. She was close to sweating with sheer concentration.
Over mopping? Erin watched Wiskeria’s mop form a figure eight down one length of the hall. Then she tried the old back-and-forth. She seemed to realize it wouldn’t work, so she did a square. No, a zig-zag? What about…a zig-zag that connected the square? But that failed to be economical; now you were using way too many strokes in one section.
So what if you didn’t take it square by square, but zig-zagged across the floor? Then you alternated directions until you were filling in a huge area, such that when the mop invariably spilled water to right and left, it overlapped with dirty spots?
Erin watched Wiskeria crossing into an open area of the dirty floor and then realized the [Witch of Law] was tracing something in the dirt and mud and cleaner floorboards that even Erin could see.
It looked like a kind of strange symbol, almost like a magical rune, filled in a thousand different directions, a crisscrossing shape of intent. Erin gasped. Was this how magic originated? That brushwork with the mop! Was this—
“Wow, that is a terrible cleaning job.”
Wiskeria turned, beheld her creation in muck, and pushed her mop in a straight line through it all. She looked back and nodded.
“This seems faster. Erin, you’ve stopped again.”
Erin was hitting her head with the handle of the mop. Doomed, she was doomed. She would never understand what Wiskeria was trying to show her.
And in that sense, Erin was mistaken. Because she assumed this was a puzzle. She assumed Wiskeria was going the ‘ancient master’ route and trying to hide the answer. It never quite occurred to Erin that Wiskeria was a bad teacher. Or rather, that Wiskeria was such a bad teacher that she hadn’t even managed to show Erin what she wanted the [Innkeeper] to see.
The moment came as Wiskeria turned across the long mess hall, her mop trailing behind her. She had mopped criss-cross. She had been using the broom all day, had picked flowers and shoveled dirt.
Now, as she swung the mop across her body, it ran across the floor. Just a single mophead, dirty from use, the old braids of fiber worn out. As Wiskeria stepped forwarsd the smooth handle twisted in her hands, running the mop across the newly-finished floorboards, not a year old.
Then, Erin’s head came up as she saw Wiskeria step across the forty-foot room from wall to wall. Her foot rose, and she swept across the entire floor, leaving behind nothing. Not a speckle of dirt, not a drop of water.
Her path curved across the flat ground, erasing all the signs of the storm and grit people had tracked in. Far wider than the mere tool she held should have cleaned things. It looked like a brush of cleanliness had slashed across the room from above.
Then Wiskeria’s foot touched the ground. Forty feet away, she completed her step, and the wind blew through the closed room and across the [Innkeeper]’s tied-up hair. Erin felt the bandana she’d tied to her forehead rustle in a breeze that smelled fresh, like the same lavender soap. She saw Wiskeria turn—and then felt the same breeze run past her.
Erin looked down—and the sweeping stroke from Wiskeria’s mop ran across the room like a shockwave. Erin saw the mud and grit flow across the room and gently come to rest in a line against the wall where Wiskeria stood. She looked down and saw sparkling floorboards at her feet.
If Silveran the Cleaner had been here, he would have fallen to his knees and stared at the pristine floorboards. Then he would have looked up at the [Witch] he had disparaged and seen Wiskeria’s smile and the sweat she wiped from her forehead as she lifted the mop in triumph.
“I knew I could do it! There, did you see that, Erin? Do you understand?”
“Wh—wh—wh—what was that?”
Erin stuttered as she pointed to the [Witch of Law]. For answer, Wiskeria planted the mop on the floor, and it stood upright as she spread her hands and laughed as she walked across the clean mess hall.
“Magic. Just like Mother showed me. Real magic. Not a Skill. A perfect brush. Just like a perfect swing of the blade or heft of the shovel. I’ve been trying for two days. Mother? She could do it every twenty-ninth time she swept with a broom.”
“What? Belavierr has super-sweeping Skills? What’s…”
Then Erin caught herself and looked, because this was it. She thought about what Wiskeria was saying and then the lesson the [Witch] was trying to impart. Then Erin looked at the mop in her hands.
“Wait. Is this why you enjoyed mopping so much?”
Wiskeria corrected Erin.
“I didn’t enjoy it. I was trying to master it. I wanted to be good at mopping. Just like everything else. Because it’s beautiful to see an expert work. Haven’t you ever admired that?”
Erin had been introduced to Jelov, the spitty [Carver]. She had seen him trim a curl of wood twice the length of her arm off a totem pole-in-progress. She had seen Ksmvr demonstrate his new school of swords, and yes, she had seen Relc’s spear dances.
All these things were beautiful and made her faintly jealous or purely admire the skill, not Skill involved. Erin would admit to watching Youtube videos back at home of an expert chef flipping pieces of pizza, and she remembered…she’d even seen someone handling a line of shopping carts a hundred long and maneuvering them into place more easily than she could swing a single one around in a shopping mall.
Wasn’t that cool? Of course it was. Just…that was work. It wasn’t like a skateboarder performing a trick or grinding down a handrail. Right?
Wiskeria never saw the difference. But she did see the dawning realization in Erin’s eyes. And the heart of the lesson? She broke into a beaming smile and lifted her empty hands. Then she brought them together in a clapping sound.
Only, something about the way she struck her hands together was perfect. It was the loudest clap Erin had ever heard in her entire life. Like someone who had looked at the very act of clapping their hands and worked on timing and angle until they produced the crispest, loudest sound in existence.
And unlike Earth—there was magic in it. The air rippled out from Wiskeria’s hands, and Erin’s hair blew back as her eardrums howled.
Every single window in the mess hall blew open. A door smacked Mister Prost in the face as it shot open—he had been coming to ask if they needed help. A shockwave scattered the last fragments of dust across the walls into the air, and they fell down like rain.
In the center of the room, a beaming [Witch] looked Erin in the eye.
“Not everything is an Elemental, Erin. You’re looking in the wrong spots. You’re making wonders, making the moment and the great magic you think witchcraft is. That’s half. The other half of all your magic can be in the way you breathe in. A single smile or stroke of the pen.”
That was the lesson that Belavierr had once taught her daughter. Magic could be as large as a floating island in the sky. Or encapsulated in a single clap of the hands. And Wiskeria?
Wiskeria had clapped her hands every single day for eight years until she had learned to perform a single gesture with hands that had blistered and turned raw with pain. What was the point?
The point was that Wiskeria could stride into the rain, with water sleeting off the dress her mother had made her—her mother, the greatest [Seamstress] of all time—who had also perfected something.
Wiskeria looked up at the storm the old man had called down in wrath, water falling so hard it blotted out the sky. And as [Witches] poked their heads out of windows, as Erin stumbled outside, Wiskeria clapped her hands.
This time, she blew open no windows. But Erin thought all of Riverfarm heard the sound. She saw a shockwave of air and water grow outwards, and it struck her in the face and knocked Prost onto his butt again. The rain halted for a second as a bubble of calm appeared. Wiskeria stood there, grinning at Erin—and then the rain poured down once more.
“No Archmage living in this world save for the Death of Magic remembers this! [Monks] clapping their hands, a [Bard]’s guitar, the swing of a [Blademaster]’s sword—it’s all magic.”
She looked at Erin’s face, and the [Witch of Second Chances] slowly raised her own trembling hands. She didn’t clap them together, but suddenly, her wet hands were burning. Burning with a strange fire that flickered out so fast Wiskeria thought she’d missed it.
The [Witch of Law]’s eyes widened, and Erin closed her eyes. She looked down at her hands. But there it was. Out of a mundane, wet street—she pulled something as magical as a clap of the hands. It was coming upon her, slowly. Her craft.
The old man in the river was raging harder and growing with every passing hour. But so were they. Wiskeria tilted her head back, knowing the [Witches] were watching.
“I may have had the Witch of Webs as my mother, but I practiced clapping longer than many people their crafts, every day pushing myself to learn. Witchcraft is part grace, part earned. Part cunning, part wisdom. Mostly, it is doing something only you can do.”
Now, if only she could take power for her craft from the eyes watching her. Alas…Wiskeria reached out for the justice in people’s hearts. The reason in governance. The power of law.
She felt it not. Alas—Wiskeria looked at Erin’s face as the [Innkeeper], the [Witch], looked at her hands and a fluffy white Gnoll and a little girl with a hat full of sadness came running out to leap on her in the rain.
This was good enough for now.
“Oh, clap your hands. Sure, that makes sense. Like someone burping [Fireballs]. ‘Look at me, I’m a [Witch]. I get to rewrite the laws of magic because I’m unique.’”
At least one person wasn’t happy about Wiskeria’s demonstration of magic. She didn’t think it made sense. Or was fair. Predictably—that person was Revi.
And no, it wasn’t because she was sulking. Especially because she had been ready to grudgingly hang out with Erin and was expecting Mrsha to pester her favorite Gold-rank team, and she hadn’t.
But there was more to it than just that. She stood with Typhenous under a magical spell that kept the rain from falling on them. A shimmering stream of liquid in the air curving in a parabola that was called, well, [Water Umbrella]. Tier 3 in complexity, pretty cool looking too.
Nothing like the way a [Witch] clapped her hands. Typhenous was, as always, studying, but Revi folded her arms. Her complaint was cut off by the sight of Erin bending down to talk to the blank-faced Nanette.
“At least she has her priorities straight. But I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. What do you think?”
“No one could stop you from doing that, Revi. In physical form or…? I could hold a pair of scissors.”
The Stitch-woman turned, and Typhenous skipped out of the Goblin-style jab she gave him. He stroked his beard, smiling. Revi folded her arms.
“Witches. Why do they have the power to do that, Typhenous?”
“Simply because they cannot throw a fireball the size of a house with the same…oh, ease we can, Revi. I have often been fascinated by other spellcasters.”
“Gotten anywhere with Eloise yet?”
Typhenous calmly plucked a flower out of his sleeve, and Revi snorted. He showed her the yellow rose and then winked.
“I picked up some tea from the south of Izril. Drake and Gnollish.”
“Is that why you volunteered to go to Invrisil? You rogue!”
“Only in a previous life, Revi. [Rogue] is so…well, it consolidates. As for [Witches]—you should know they gain something for not having direct magical power. You are a [Summoner].”
“I still have to obey magical rules.”
Revi sulked, but Typhenous was in his lecturing mood and enthusiastic.
“Ah, but a [Witch] does obey rules. Just not the ones any regular [Mage] who listens to Wistram’s claptrap understands. My observation is that we [Mages] and related classes are rather mathematical. We add together force and power in a steady chain, such that while Archmage Valeterisa and Eldavin and so on can perform incredible feats, if you understand the equation, you can see how they arrived at the result.”
Revi cracked an eyelid open.
“If five times five is an immutable law in magic—Skills can make a shortcut or add another multiplier. I do not suggest Witch Wiskeria can break the rules of magic entirely. Rather, a [Witch] cannot multiply as well as a [Mage]. But a [Witch] can turn ‘5’ blue. And if they add a bit of yellow they’ll get green.”
Revi considered that explanation as she watched Mrsha clapping her paws and demanding to learn Wiskeria’s ways. Then she shook her head.
“You can just say they get magical tricks, Typhenous.”
The old man heaved a huge, aggrieved sigh.
“They get magical tricks, Revi. There. Happy? What were you going to harangue Miss Erin about?”
“The poor Antinium!”
And with that, Revi went storming across the ground, finger raised. She was happy that Erin turned to her with a big smile on her face.
“Revi! There you are! How’s it going? Where’s Gothica?”
“Sewing up some new designs. Impressive Goblin you’ve got there—Erin, I have a bone to pick with you! I heard you said your craft was Goblins and chess! Where are the Antinium?”
Revi was outraged as Erin gave her a blank look.
“How do you know that?”
“Typhenous takes tea with Eloise. Nevermind that. Haven’t you ever been gossiped about? How dare you not mention the Antinium!”
Revi was deeply offended on behalf of the Antinium, none of whom could complain for themselves. She had a soft spot for people ignored. Something about home? No parallels.
Erin blinked at the [Summoner]’s outrage. Wiskeria turned, and Revi stepped behind Erin. She kept shaking her finger.
“And you’re learning weird magic again! From—Witch Wiskeria! Can’t you learn something normal?”
Nanette looked up blankly. Ser Sest had come out with an umbrella for everyone, but despite Erin trying to be as friendly as possible, the [Witch] stood there, not really reacting to a thing. And that was a struggle not even Wiskeria could solve.
Erin had no idea what to do. She looked at Wiskeria, then produced something.
A flame filled with quiet sadness. It burned blue, like the most precious, painful jewel in her hands. Mrsha’s laughter immediately stopped, and she punched Erin’s leg.
Not here! Not in front of…
Nanette? The [Witch] stared at the flame.
“It’s beautiful. Is that your craft, Miss Erin?”
She spoke! But it was a polite inquiry, and Erin’s face grew puzzled as she bent down and showed Nanette the flame. The girl actually touched the cold fire, fearless of the heat.
And it did not grow. Erin glanced up at Wiskeria, and the [Witch of Law]’s face was puzzled. The flame of sadness burned all those who could feel it. Pelt, Erin herself—an entire city had once gazed upon it and fed and felt its flame.
Not Nanette. Revi inched away from the fire as Erin tossed it to the street and it slowly began to die. Erin glanced up.
“That might be part of my craft, Nanette. But it’s sorta…weird. Like everything. Sorry, Revi, but magic is always strange, isn’t it?”
She glanced at Wiskeria and smiled, eyes lighting up with excitement. Revi knew that feeling, of learning a new spell, of a great discovery. But she pointed her finger warningly at Wiskeria even as she kept Erin between the two.
“Well, yes. I suppose if you wanted to learn something—Witch Wiskeria is the best teacher. But I just wanted to tell you that the Antinium should be part of that craft, Erin! It’s unfair to them. And—and you might learn too much. Especially with the two of you here.”
Erin’s head looked up, puzzled, and Wiskeria raised her brows.
“Why is that, Adventurer Revi?”
She spoke! To Revi! The [Summoner] kept Erin between them as she edged back. Erin was giving her the stupid look she sometimes wore, but it seemed genuine.
Didn’t they see it? Revi shook her head.
“You may be a Goblin’s friend, Erin—and I’m sure they owe a lot to you. But you matter more to the Antinium. Just like Witch Wiskeria over here.”
That was when Erin, Mrsha, and the others noticed that Revi was using Wiskeria’s title unfailingly. She was seldom that polite. Erin glanced up and recalled—
Belavierr was Wiskeria’s mother. And she was the legendary Threadbreaker, as old as the creators of Revi’s species. No wonder the [Summoner] was a bit nervous. Revi licked her lips.
“There’s a lot of power in having an entire people behind you. I’m a [Summoner]. I should know. But you don’t even acknowledge that. For the Antinium, I mean.”
She didn’t quite look at Wiskeria. Belavierr’s daughter just shook her head.
“My mother taught me a lot about thread and needle, Miss Revi. She never taught me the deep craft of how life was stitched together. You have nothing to fear from me. My vision, my craft, is incomplete. Clapping my hands is a trick. I see no clear way forwards.”
She stared about the rain, not angry, just sighing. Waiting to see if her future awaited. But Erin?
Erin had seen magic. She had begun awakening to something, and Revi saw it on her face. But the Antinium?
The [Innkeeper] slowly rose and spoke so Nanette and Mrsha and Revi and everyone else could hear.
“I didn’t forget the Antinium, Revi. I just didn’t include them in my craft because I was asked what I really thought was in my heart. And…I love them, and I’ll do anything I can for them. But I don’t know if where they’re going is where I can follow. Pawn especially.”
Lyonette had come out of the awnings, and she stood under another umbrella, looking at Erin. The young woman’s face was slightly sad, slightly happy for them.
“I don’t understand Klbkch’s people, either. I know that. I’ve only met two of them—well, three, if you count the Free Queen. I can’t make them part of my craft.”
“Well—just don’t forget about them. Don’t put Goblins over Antinium.”
Erin looked hurt that Revi even suggested it. She shook her head.
“I wouldn’t. It’s just that I understand one thing about Goblins. I know I haven’t met them all, and there are…secrets.”
She paused a second, then went on.
“I know that. But one thing makes sense to me. A perspective. No killing Goblins.”
There it was, her oldest refrain. Wiskeria’s brows rose, because she had not known this about Erin. But the [Innkeeper] stood there.
“Some might be terrible. Some might be good but do terrible things because they don’t know better or they think they have to. But that is something I’m certain about. So it’s my craft. Chess? Chess is just in my blood. Antinium are my craft, but they’re learning to be themselves so fast I can’t keep up. I’ll help them and serve them food, but they’re playing a game I can’t see anymore. All by themselves.”
She said that so wistfully it made Revi’s skin crawl. Because Emperor Laken Godart had issued a ban on telling Erin or her friends about the Antinium’s crusade against the High Passes. Yet—it was almost as if Erin knew and expected something like this would happen.
And Wiskeria? She looked at Erin, straight-backed, the fire of sadness fizzling out in the rain, that certainty upon her.
So certain. Wiskeria had never felt that way about anything but her mother’s magic. She touched her chest and found only emptiness. Nor did she believe Erin was right about Goblins, not from the history that Wiskeria had learned from her mother, who had met and spoken to their Kings.
But Wiskeria envied that look in Erin’s eyes. As unyielding as pure mithril. Then her head rose, and she heard a shriek—she looked at Erin and then rotated around. But the rain fell on as Revi sneezed, and Erin laughed and Typhenous suggested they all have something hot to drink. Wiskeria though…she looked around for the answer to her mystery.
All she saw was rain.
“It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is roaring
He’ll get out of bed
Drag you to death
And devour your blood in the morning.”
—Creepy [Witch] girl, singing outside Laken’s window, 23 A.F.
It was a strange thing. The next day, the winds and rain were no less intense. In fact, the storm seemed worse, and by now, it seemed clear that the river was going to flood.
And flood higher than Prost had estimated by far. However, Riverfarm’s neighbors to the north and south reported an uncanny phenomenon; they had only a little bit of rain, and if anything, the river’s water levels had dropped.
It was pushing at the banks in Riverfarm, swelling in this one spot. That was magic. Not the kind you wanted to see, but it was deep and old and made the power of [Mages] look like a drop in a sea.
Why was it that on this kind of day, in between horrible events, that the most magical moments were found, before and after?
Erin wondered. She still, if she closed her eyes or walked in the garden, could see the chess club when they had first defied their Hive and stood around her when Skinner attacked. From that moment had come a tragedy that changed her forever, and she wished she had known what would have become of the two dozen Workers.
Four had lived, and they had gone on to shape their Hive in ways no one could imagine. She cried, imagining what Bishop or Knight would have done or all the others whose names she still remembered.
Yet—they had never seemed as vibrant, as heroic, nor as sure as that very moment. That was the basis of Bird, as much as all of Erin’s lessons. That was the hard part to reckon with.
Great strife and fantastical moments were very close together. Like watching a heroine save the day in the middle of a disaster, a runaway car bearing down on someone, for instance.
But it was never something Erin sought out. She wanted all the…the magic of those moments and none of that danger. Today, she realized something.
She craved it. She hungered in the way Fierre hungered for blood. Perhaps all Humans, everyone did, but that was the very thing that Erin had always wanted, always loved since coming here. An [Immortal Moment].
The basis of her craft. The pure envy and laughter bubbling up in her heart from seeing Wiskeria clap her hands. Magic in every single action.
Even [Mages] would say that was silly. They believed that you could make a body of magic. Everything from your toenails to your blood could be infused with magic. In that way—Cognita was the pinnacle of their existence. If she could cast Tier 8 spells, the Truestone Golem would be the most perfect spellcaster. Or perhaps, a Dragon, a being of magic and time.
However, a [Witch] cheated. A [Witch] did things even a [Mage] called silly. Clap your hands? It had no arcane preparation, no list of magical symbols and powerful incantations bound to the gesture. Wiskeria clapped her hands, and because it was the perfect kind of clap—because she found a true moment in a hundred thousand sweeps of a broom, she performed magic.
That was what Erin wanted. Something opposite of memorizing a series of logical paths and rules. But not easy. That was the trick; everyone wanted to wave a wand and cast any spell they wanted. That was just—that was too easy. You had to work for this kind of magic, but it was the kind of work Erin would do. Seeking it in dark forests and practicing something you loved, rather than memorization and academic study.
So when she woke up the next day amid the storm, Erin felt it coming on her like the storm. Only, it was in her blood. Even the voice in her mind seemed like it was waiting.
[Witch of Second Chances Level 13!]
[Skill — From Witchcraft, Sorcery Ariseth obtained!]
—And then she knew her craft was waiting for her.
Skills. Erin was a Level 13 [Witch]. She had gained many from that single day when she leveled up. This latest one compounded the others and made her heart skip with excitement. However. They were conditional.
[Infuse Witchcraft: Objects]. [Harvest Craft (Local)]. These were bog-standard [Witch] Skills that Erin had gained along with the more interesting ones. And as you might guess—they all required something Erin needed as much as that hat.
Craft. It was like being a [Mage] with no mana. Now? Erin’s new Skill suggested that her craft might fuel more than even [Witch] magic.
“My dear. My dear. That is the most wonderful—a Verse Skill at Level 13? Well, I have not seen a [Witch] with that Skill, but the meaning should be obvious, don’t you think, Witch Oliyaya?”
Agratha the [Teacher Witch] was beside herself that morning as everyone sat down to make hats. Amazingly, Oliyaya was there too, and despite their enmity, the two sat side-by-side, as polite as could be. The gnarled woman even tipped her hat as her slightly broken, crooked nose turned to Erin.
“A [Sorcerer]’s magic fueled by [Witch]’s craft. Indeed.”
It was the most astonishing thing. And it fit Erin to a tee; if she were honest, a [Sorcerer] matched her far better than a [Mage]. She had always wanted to cast magic, but she had virtually no mana pool of her own. And her new levels—her own understanding of witchcraft and her confession to the [Witches] had changed their attitude toward her.
It was, after all, all about perspective. When Erin had told the [Witches] she thought she was undeserving of their class, she had softened their hostility to her. After all—she thought they were cool. And Wiskeria had shown the other [Witches] a lesson of her own.
So Oliyaya and Agratha were chumming it up, and Erin herself was energetically stabbing her fingers with a needle. She did have gloves on, and she was working on a hat.
Agratha had lent her a normal, pointy hat all in black. Erin was right now attaching chess pieces to the brim. She had decided to try the chess hat on just to show willingness. She could always change it later.
A pawn piece dangled from her hat as she put it on.
“Tada. How do I look?”
She turned to one of the other [Witches], and the woman hesitated.
“Ah, well. It would certainly appeal to the chess-lovers of the world, Witch Erin. And one can always change their hat.”
Erin’s face fell. Even if they were nicer, [Witches] were savage. She poked a chess piece, and the little piece wobbled, then gently smacked her on the side of the head.
One of the apprentices giggled as Erin ruefully took the hat off.
“Yeah, I guess this would get annoying if I don’t change how long the pieces are. But hey—”
She put it back on her head and looked around. Erin felt strange with the hat on her head, but she beamed.
“I’ve got a hat.”
She was willing to try it on, and the [Witches]’ eyes gleamed with approval. It wasn’t just the physical hat, it was the attitude. Erin exhaled.
I am a [Witch].
“Yes. Today you look the part.”
Erin jumped, and Oliyaya cackled, to Agratha’s mild discomfort, but the old [Witch] seemed to read Erin’s mind. She nodded to the pouring rain outside.
“Now, Witch Erin. Shall we talk about how to quiet this old man? A promising [Witch] has come among us. Let us see how far her craft takes us. It has been long, long, since [Witches] battled Elementals.”
The [Witch of Second Chances] gulped hard. This was her mistake—and she feared Oliyaya was right.
The old man would not stop. Not until he drowned Riverfarm. He had been granted a view of the surface, a body that he had longed for.
You had to see it how he did. He was no person, but a force of nature. He was so old he remembered Dryads and Treants. He knew what he could be, but he had no morality that made him acceptable to the mortals he wanted to wander around.
As he saw it—someone had helped him complete himself, given him what he had begged the [Witches] for. Then taken it away, hurt him for being himself. Now he was going to murder Riverfarm and everyone in it.
It wasn’t even Erin’s fault. Okay, it definitely was. But…rivers were bastards. If she’d found a kindly marsh, she might have created another Khoteizetrough. Although some bogs and marshes could be murderous traps of land. Yet rivers?
Rivers drowned people. Name one river that, over the ages, hadn’t murdered someone who’d fallen into it. A few were great and generous and only took a few souls by accident, but most had rapids and sharp rocks.
A tree was a bit safer, even if it might begin kicking the shit out of every [Woodcutter] it saw. A meadow…well, some had sinkholes that dropped a group of picnickers a hundred feet.
Yet in another sense, it was just as well Erin had woken the river. Because now seeing his wrath—Wiskeria didn’t want him anywhere near Riverfarm.
She was going to murder him.
It was a calm certainty in Wiskeria’s heart. She didn’t know quite how; murdering an Elemental was very difficult even if you bound it to a physical form. She might have to, and that was risky, because she didn’t have the means or craft. But they were at war now.
The [Witches] fought the river with Riverfarm backing them up. But—like the fires that had ravaged Riverfarm and this region, Laken Godart was getting an unhappy wakeup call in a weakness of [Witches]:
They were bad at fighting nature.
Oh, they were using their craft. Hedag was pushing entire boulders to the levees, passing even Durene in strength. Eloise’s tea was sending waves of workers back out as if it were the highest-quality stamina potion. Even Mavika’s crows were out in the rain, gliding through the water as it didn’t weigh them down, showering down dirt and stones.
But it wasn’t, uh, exactly the same as a [Geomancer] raising a huge wall of stone. And a Level 40 [Geomancer] would be just the thing for this moment. [Witches]?
The problem was that [Witches] were good at dealing with problems. People, monsters, other magic-users were problems that a [Witch] could stomp, especially if they were wearing boots. But nature?
Nature was, by itself, normal. It was hard to stop a fire because a fire wanted to burn, and it had all the facts on its side. A purely magical fire? Easy. But a natural wildfire, no matter how it started, was so hard that even Califor…
Even she’d had to use great magic to stop it. And she had stopped it entirely, but the cost was too high. Laken needed a normal [Mage] who could arrogantly just dam or divert the river’s course. A Level 40 [Mage]. Good luck finding one of those for free.
Or, alternatively, Wiskeria could end the old man and the river would be a normal one. She had no compunctions about it. Even the pigs bothered her more. The old man was no innocent victim. He was a force of nature opposed to her.
And he reminded Wiskeria of her mother. He did what he wanted. So yes, like her mother—
She wanted to kill him. The [Witch of Law] realized that she was opposed to the old man. And that was her craft. So that morning, she realized something much like Erin was discovering herself.
The two met in the pouring rain amidst all this rain and the war against the river. Erin had a hat. Well, several hats. Wiskeria was standing in Master Helm’s smithy; even he was helping shore up the river.
She was sharpening a knife on a whetstone. But she was watching something else at the same time. Erin stepped into the shed, shaking water off her hood, and turned to see.
“Oh. Look at that.”
It was Mrsha and Nanette. Wiskeria had a good view of them playing under one of the eaves of a gazebo dedicated to the heroine of Riverfarm—Ivolethe. The circular structure was generous to afford the two with a good play area despite the pouring rain, and the statue of the Frost Faerie was larger than life—a lot larger.
Laken was as good as his word when it came to the fae. This was one of six statues of Ivolethe, and it was actually customary for pranksters to put a little token, like a stone with holes in it, or a gift at the statue before doing something untoward.
Wiskeria didn’t like that. It reminded her of…something she preferred wouldn’t exist. Obsessive belief, perhaps. A kind of variant of witchcraft that relied not on magic but something else.
However, her eyes were on the two little children. Mrsha was eagerly signing to Nanette as the girl sat there. She was…putting up with Mrsha.
The Gnoll girl would tap her on the shoulder, race around giggling, and innocently pretend she had no idea who’d done that! Or she would show Nanette some of her treasures, like her warhorn, or come back with some snacks she’d pilfered and share them.
Nothing would do but for Nanette to take a bite or blow on the horn. Mrsha badgered Nanette to play with her—and the strange thing was that the younger [Witch] seemed to react.
Every [Witch] took care of Nanette, but no one managed to get her to do anything. But she did squirm when Mrsha did a flying leap onto her in a dogpile or take a bite of a cupcake. Perhaps it was how annoying Mrsha was.
Or perhaps it was that they were only a few years apart, or that Mrsha was pushy, but didn’t make Nanette do anything. Erin laughed as she saw the two arguing.
“What is Mrsha doing? I’m glad the [Knights] are watching over her. Look!”
Mrsha was trying to give Nanette a ride on her shoulders. The Gnoll girl was younger, but she was growing up fast and she was a Gnoll. She puffed her cheeks and flushed under her fur as she tried to lift Nanette up and run around with her. The swaying [Witch] held onto her hat as Mrsha wobbled six steps—then both went plunging forwards.
Ser Dalimont and Dame Ushar caught them. Mrsha rubbed at her arms and clearly began reflecting that she needed to hit the gym more—which made her explain the gym to Nanette. Then she was pestering the Thronebearers to put both [Witch] and [Druid] on their shoulders.
“I’m glad you brought her. She’s who Nanette needed to meet.”
Wiskeria checked the edge of her blade as Erin watched Nanette look a tiny bit—exasperated. Which was a good sign to Wiskeria.
“Really? Why? Because they’re kids?”
“No. Because they’ve both suffered terribly. Nanette sees it; every [Witch] can. Yet the girl—Mrsha—wears it well.”
Erin turned to Wiskeria and realized the [Witch] was looking at Mrsha. What she saw…Erin had never tried to use her abilities on Mrsha. She didn’t need to.
She knew Mrsha’s long story. But now it made sense. Like Ulvama had once pestered her, Mrsha refused to leave Nanette alone. Even when the [Witch] hurried off through the rain, Mrsha raced after her.
Erin smiled at that, then Wiskeria spoke.
“You’ve got a hat. Is…is that going to be your hat? Because I don’t think it fits you.”
She eyed the hat Erin had asked Agratha for when she’d seen it among the teacher’s collection. Erin had her chess hat and even a bowler cap because she thought the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings would say it looked good on her.
But she was wearing another hat right now that Wiskeria was eying with clear distaste. Erin laughed.
“No! I’m just getting into the idea of wearing hats. How do I look? Milady?”
She tipped the fedora at Wiskeria with a wink. The other [Witch] eyed the hat. Then she slapped it off Erin’s head and into the rain.
“Hey! Okay, maybe that was justified. What about this hat?”
Her chess-hat made Wiskeria frown.
“Hm. It’s better. It still doesn’t quite fit you.”
“I know. I’ll give it more thought. But I’m warming to the hat thing. What’s the knife for?”
The [Witch of Second Chances] hesitated, but Wiskeria simply sheathed her knife. Then she sighed and stared into the rain at the distant, heaving, raging river.
“The older [Witches] never taught you how to summon the soul of a place, did they? If they did, we could murder that old man right now.”
Erin blanched slightly.
“Murder? Wait, you want to kill him? Don’t you think he’ll get tired and stop if we keep him from flooding Riverfarm?”
She was appalled. Wiskeria gestured to the river.
“It’s already close to overflowing. How long is he going to rage? A week? A month? He might be back again and again. I want him dead.”
“No. This is my fault. I’ll try and talk to him, but he’s just—confused.”
Erin set her jaw. Wiskeria chuckled.
“Go ahead and try to reason with him. I don’t think he’ll listen or understand. I only wish I had a craft. I envy you; you’re almost upon it, aren’t you?”
The [Innkeeper] bit her tongue. She nodded slowly.
“I feel like I’m onto it. You really did teach me what I was looking for, Wiskeria. Why—why don’t you have a craft? Or the power, I mean?”
The [Witch of Law] shook her head.
“I don’t know. My class changed. I thought I found my craft, but whatever I’m trying to pull from Riverfarm’s folk isn’t…there. Perhaps it’s wrong or I am. My mother did not approve of my craft, only that I found it. It stands in opposition to what [Witches] are—even Agratha’s kind of [Witch]. I know that, but when I named it, I thought I was right. Perhaps I was not.”
A [Witch] should know when she was wrong. But she sat on the anvil, sighing. She was uncertain, worried about the future, and frustrated by her lack of power. Only Erin saw it. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] found a stool and sat with Wiskeria in the forge.
“Wiskeria. Do you mind if you talk about your craft with me? You’re the most honest person I’ve met. No one’s ever totally honest. Not even Revi. She’s just mean. But you say what you’re feeling. Like a Goblin.”
That was the last thing Wiskeria wanted to hear as someone who wanted to fit in. But then—Erin was that person Wiskeria wanted to be. Someone who pretended so well that she fooled herself, the likable [Innkeeper], if a touch too eccentric and ‘zany’ for Wiskeria’s tastes.
And Erin wanted to be a [Witch] as sure as Wiskeria. They had passed acquaintanceship into mutual envy.
Envy…and opposition. They both felt it. At their cores, they believed different things. Erin might slay the man in the river if there were no other choice and he was a monster.
Wiskeria wanted to kill him. Now, Wiskeria tried to explain what her craft was.
“My mother. You may love her or hate her, but she is my mother. She spoiled me as a girl. She taught me to be a [Witch], but it was seeing her as others saw her that made me one. She has ruined so many things for me. I have eaten every feast, seen so many wonders that I was dull to them. As dull as her soul before she left Terandria. Do I hold a grudge about that?”
She paused, thinking. Water ran down the shed, and Wiskeria would not have minded if it were blood. She could have culled a thousand animals and waded through their entrails and not minded it. She knew these things were wrong and disturbing, but she had seen worse.
“She was my mother. Mothers make mistakes, and she did her best. For a being who has not died and lived longer than the Stitch-folk race…she did well, didn’t she?”
The [Innkeeper] said nothing. She thought of her mother, who tried to teach her daughter how to cook something, despite the younger Erin’s love of chess. Shauna Solstice was not perfect—but she had never stopped Erin from playing chess. She had driven Erin to tournaments and only asked if it was worth it when her daughter was in tears.
She was not Belavierr. Yet Wiskeria believed her mother had loved her. The [Witch of Law]’s voice dropped.
“Of course it was hard for me to find my craft. I have seen the cost of great magic. I walked A’ctelios Salash and felt the Carven City beneath the soles of my feet. I have seen my mother pull a whale onto a beach with a bit of string. The problem is—I do not admire my mother. I love her, in the way children love their parents. I hate her, because I know what she has done. But admire her? No.”
“Not even a little bit?”
The [Innkeeper] had never met the Witch of Webs, but she had heard that admiration in the tones of other [Witches], even the ghosts who had opposed her. Say what you would—but she was a [Witch] to define every other. Even Califor had told Erin that Belavierr was among the greatest to ever live.
Yet Wiskeria alone sat there and shook her head.
“There is nothing to admire. I know how to sacrifice blood to the moons and speak the old languages. But because my mother taught me this—I have seen her turn the tide back on itself. She can summon a hail of needles with the snap of a finger. Or, yes, if she wanted to, produce a blaze to envelop all of Riverfarm. If she wanted to, she could tear the old man from his river and eat him alive. But it is easy for her; why would I admire you for picking up that hammer?”
She nodded to the tool laying on a workbench, and Erin picked it up. It took some effort, and if she were a child maybe it would be harder or if her fingers had no strength or she were blind—but she was not.
It was a simple task. And that was what Wiskeria saw in her mother’s magic. Wiskeria whispered, cupping her chin in her hands.
“Perhaps if I saw her growing, those first days when she sacrificed everything, I would be more impressed. But I just see my mother, and so how can I admire an Archmage casting magic? It is not hard for them. Did you see the Archmage of Izril lifting Fissival into the sky?”
Erin shivered, and goosebumps ran down her arms. That had happened last night.
“Yes. Yes, that was amazing. You felt nothing?”
“It was magic. I wish I had any wonder in me for it. But my mother has left me jaded. I looked at Fissival and knew it could fly; I only admired the cost and the way Valeterisa did it.”
She gazed out into the howling rainstorm, a force of nature so breathtaking that for all the malice in it, it was still a sight to inspire and frighten and wake some emotion in you. She saw only rain and force.
What a terrible way to live. Erin hesitated to say it, but Wiskeria seemed to read her thoughts like Oliyaya had.
“Don’t mistake me, Erin. There are still things in this world that make me laugh and smile. I can still enjoy a bowl of soup or the feeling of warmth in my hands on a freezing day. But what makes me feel passionate, what makes me admire and feel alive is not that great craft. It is here, in Riverfarm. It is why law is my craft. Do you see it?”
Erin didn’t. She cast around, thinking.
“You saw something in Riverfarm that made you love it more than Belavierr’s magic? Like what?”
For answer, Wiskeria pointed down at the ground of the smithy. There, Erin crouched down and saw in the wet mud from outside, crawling along the stone floor, a trail of ants.
They must have escaped the rain, and there must have been a crack or hole in the stone floor that they could form a nest in. Right now, they were hauling some of Helm’s old lunch off; a bit of bread, some scraps of meat fallen from a sandwich.
Ants, struggling through drops of rain, hauling the pieces of food around. Wiskeria smiled at them. Erin looked up as Wiskeria spoke.
“When I asked, my mother told me stories of how she would make war on kingdoms. How she would raze villages and cities and break armies against her. She went to the Meeting of Tribes and killed. I do not love her for that. I do not admire her for that. But I wonder—if you faced the Witch of Webs, the Spider in her wrath—what kind of courage does that take? A world of it. An ocean of resolve. A Gnoll with no great levels or Skills faced her with a spear in hand. In every age, women and men of every species stood against her. That is bravery.”
“Oh. I get it now.”
Erin mumbled. She looked up at Wiskeria’s shining eyes. And what the [Witch of Law] saw was something else. She turned to Erin.
“I know you come from a different place, Erin Solstice. Laken hasn’t told the others, even Rie, the truth of it, but he has told me and Durene and few others. I know you come from a planet where magic is dead or forgotten or so quiet it doesn’t roar. And despite that—your people fly. You have gone further than we have, into the stars, and you contrive weapons to slay mountains.”
“Bad weapons. Laken told you about Earth?”
Wiskeria shrugged. She leapt from the anvil and lightly walked past the ant trail, never disturbing them.
“I guessed he was someone from another world. Or at least, another plane. That’s what I admire, Erin. Someone who struggles. Not someone who was born and raised with all the powers and secrets of the world. I admire…Riverfarm. It started as a village, and now it has grown until it makes the Five Families nervous. At the end of it, when flames burnt down around Riverfarm, I think that they might have taken up blade and fist against Belavierr. And if they had won—even if they tried—that is beautiful.”
She turned, and Erin caught a flash of genuine admiration, pure happiness from Wiskeria. The [Witch of Law] looked out, and it was a black world she saw.
Not dark, but a void so long it circled around infinity. A deep lake, where the mortal imagination was a little leaf floating over hidden depths. From the edges came things like Belavierr. Creeping dreads that realized themselves like the Seamwalkers. Monsters and horrors.
Faced with such things, people were like those ants, building a tiny shelter out of ideas and innovation, and when something rose up, they swarmed over it and died by the millions. But a single mortal soul sometimes killed the immortal Dragon or the deathless horror. That was triumph, to her.
“Law. People make all kinds of laws and live by them. Because of law—you can make a civilization thrive. Someday, if Mother ever comes to your world or if a nation rises large enough, it will not be one hero, but the laws, the entire nation which slowly kills her. It might be the end of witchcraft, the end of wilderness and magic itself. But I still admire it.”
Ah. The air left Erin’s lungs, and she saw Wiskeria for what she was at last. So that was why she disturbed the other [Witches]. That was the contradiction at the heart of her class, her craft.
She was a [Witch of Law] indeed. A witch of civilization, of the very idea that ran counter to [Witch] magic. A witch of mortality and the modern age.
“You would love it on Earth, Wiskeria.”
The woman turned, and Erin could almost see it. Wiskeria would love it.
“You could be a normal person if you wanted. Walk into…I don’t know, a cafe? Shop and sing karaoke, work any job, and fly without magic. Yes, I think Earth might make you happy. Because we can reach the moon, and maybe we could fight a war against Seamwalkers and the kind of thing A’ctelios Salash is with nothing more than ideas and a lot of courage.”
Wiskeria’s lips curved into a smile.
“I would like to see that. But you don’t love it?”
“I’m like you. I was raised there, and so I don’t love all the technology that makes sense all the time. I wanted to find magic, and I did. Here. I can’t understand loving a world run by laws. Laws…do terrible things. Not all laws are good, and they make people suffer, sometimes, yeah, so that a lot of people benefit. People twist laws to their advantage.”
Home. She loved parts of it, like hot water and the internet—parts of the internet—and convenience, but this place made her feel alive. Would she want to go home? For her family, yes. For the rest?
Wiskeria reached out and gently touched Erin’s shoulder.
“We truly are different. I think, Erin, that I don’t have much more to teach you. But I should like to be friends. Either that or the best of enemies.”
She beamed, and Erin laughed at the strange [Witch of Law]. Then she hugged Wiskeria impulsively, and Wiskeria patted her on the head. Then Wiskeria heard the sound that had kept her sleepless night after night.
It screamed to her, a sound unlike any she had ever heard. Her eyes snapped open, and Erin jerked.
She’d heard it too. As they embraced, Wiskeria’s strange sound made Erin start.
“You heard it? Where are you? I’ve never heard anything like it. I thought it was a ghast or some kind of ancient enemy stalking me. But it’s beckoning me. I just can’t tell where. Somewhere in Riverfarm.”
Wiskeria had a knife out in a flash. She dashed out into the rain; it was closer! It was calling her. But Erin stood there for a second. Her eyes opened wide.
“Wiskeria. You’ve been hearing—that?”
The [Witch of Law] turned at the recognition in Erin’s tone. The [Innkeeper] knew that sound very well. Erin Solstice saw Wiskeria look back, for never once had Belavierr’s daughter heard nor conceived of that shrill sound that sounded like a scream with no lips.
But Erin—it sounded to Erin like the piercing sound that was entirely automated. The digital, shrill sound of an alarm. But if a siren could have a voice—
It was calling Wiskeria. And this time, the [Witch] heard two voices. One was as shrill and faint as an alarm chiming—sporadic, seeking her.
The other ran through her bones, a deep howl that cut through the old man’s raging. It sounded like the collapse of cities, a thunderous, terrible voice with no words.
This time, every [Witch] in Riverfarm heard it calling Wiskeria.
Mrsha heard no sounds like that. Nor was she playing with Nanette. The [Witch] had shaken her off after Mrsha suggested playing tag.
“Leave me, please. I’m tired.”
Then she sat in a corner of the house she had been given and looked like a sad doll again. But there was a girl there! A girl who should run and tease people and play.
She was so sad. Mrsha had heard her story from Mister Prost, and she’d used three handkerchiefs crying and raging against Belavierr.
It was not right. Someone had to help. Erin was trying, and she was good—but she was also Erin. Mrsha the Super Compassionate had to do something for poor Nanette.
Something…but she didn’t know what. Not exactly. So Mrsha the Resourceful found something and scribbled in it.
When all else failed, she had people to ask. And her go-to, her most resourceful helper was always busy. He was mean and told her not to write ‘odiously’, and he’d said not to contact him since Khelt was a mess.
But Mrsha needed his help. Even though he called her rude things like a ‘pestering plague of insolence’, he was nicer when she told him she was helping someone else, not funding a Balerosian [Prince].
He had a novel idea. So Mrsha thanked Fetohep the Helper and slipped out of her home. She didn’t know if the idea was a good one, but Fetohep was a smart fellow. If he thought it was worth a try…she had to do it.
Even if it meant facing off against her new, mortal nemesis.
He was waiting for her. She had barely opened one of the windows when a [Knight] picked her up and tried to hand her back to Ser Dalimont, who was apologizing profusely.
“Your Majesty, I cannot apologize enough. Miss Mrsha, come here.”
She writhed desperately in Gamel’s grasp. Then she began slashing with paws laced with sharp thorns. He dropped her as a voice spoke up.
“Gamel, don’t hurt yourself. I see that Miss…Mrsha wishes to speak with me. Again. Let her approach.”
The [Emperor] sat in an armchair from which it seemed like Gamel had been reading the news to him from a newspaper. He was frowning at her as she approached. Mrsha checked that Gamel was alright; she hadn’t meant to hurt him.
“Mrsha du Marquin. It does not please me that one of my guests should offer harm to my bodyguard. Nor cause so much trouble. I have heard that it is mostly in aid of Nanette, for which you have my gratitude. But I hope this is an important errand indeed. Or I may have to speak to your mother and express my frank dismay. If that does not solve the issue, I will, perhaps, have to become unpleasant.”
Mrsha gulped. For a blind man, she had the uncanny feeling he was still staring at her. But she stiffened her spine because Mrsha of Just Cause had a reason! She slowly padded over and then cursed because she and he could not communicate well. So she scribbled and handed Gamel a piece of paper.
“…It seems Mrsha wishes to speak to you, privately, Your Majesty. With a single translator. She does not wish anyone else to be present, even her bodyguards.”
“Well now. It seems this must be an important discussion. It surely must be, or else she would not be so insistent.”
Laken’s tone was sarcastic. Mrsha gulped as he stood up abruptly. He gave her an exaggerated bow.
“In that case, we should head to the throne room, which is, of course, warded against spells. Summon Lady Rie! Have the throne room guarded, Gamel, and the Thronebearers shall stand guard as well. I shall entertain Miss Mrsha’s request to the fullest extent of my capabilities. After all—it is important, isn’t it?”
Mrsha was sweating now. Wait…maybe don’t take me this seriously? But she nodded vigorously, and Ser Dalimont’s face as he escorted her to the throne room said this had gone far beyond no desserts ever.
Sure enough, even the mysterious [Lady] who smelled a bit like iron came hurrying over, and Mrsha found herself standing in the throne room as the [Emperor] took a seat, and the session was sealed to all eyes and ears but the three within.
The Thronebearers were waiting for the disastrous consequences to fall on Mrsha’s head. But Laken waited, feeling only a bit like he was bullying a child. But the most annoying child he’d ever met, so he waited.
The conversation between Laken and Mrsha was not smooth, as Lady Rie had to read from Mrsha’s writing, but it was still somewhat coherent. Excluding the pauses for the scritch scritch of the quill and Rie reading out Mrsha’s comments with the occasional aside—it went something like this.
“You’re a mean man.”
“Miss Mrsha, you are an annoying child.”
“You’re not supposed to say things like that to me. I’m cute and young!”
“I am an [Emperor]. I say what I wish. If you came to berate me or demand cookies or something trivial, I will do my utmost to have you punished. I do enjoy pranks and entertainment, but you are as arrogant as a [King].”
“I’m a good person. I want to help Nanette. That’s why I’m here. Listen, you rapscallious pretender to a throne that doesn’t exist. I have, admittedly, been somewhat of a rogue upon these lands, and I will acknowledge a bit of childish glee, but Nanette is in full grief, and I will not waste your time or mine on frivolous issues. Will you hear me out, Your Majesty?”
“…Rie, did she really write that? Really? Er—go on, then. What is so important? If it is cheering up Nanette, I am all for it, but I do not believe a hundred forts of pillows will make her smile.”
“Do you think I am so unintelligent? I am Mrsha, and I know grief. I know every drop and dram of it, sire. Nor did I come here without a plan that involves you directly. You see, it behooves everyone to acknowledge when they do not know the answer to a dilemma. You have your court. I have the friendship of the Protector of Jecrass, the Eternal Ruler of Glorious Khelt, the…my paw hurts, so I shall not recite his list of titles overlong. I sought Fetohep of Khelt’s aid in this matter, and he had an idea that only you could act upon.”
“Fetohep of Khelt…? Are you serious?”
At this point, Laken Godart felt like someone was pulling a prank on him, but the little Gnoll continued.
“Do keep up with the times, Your Majesty. Hear me out and decide for yourself. I offer this, a gift, in the name of friendship and aid towards our mutual goal of helping Nanette. Not for love of you or your empire. Now, this is what Fetohep did spake thereof in most private advice to me…”
The [Emperor] listened. Then his brows rose. Then—he halted the throne room’s private meeting.
The doors opened, and the Thronebearers waited for Mrsha to be thrown out and for Lyonette to be summoned. It might be an important lesson, even for the daughter of a [Princess].
But instead—Laken Godart sent Gamel to fetch some snacks, a drink, and two cookies. Then he went back to listening to Mrsha’s advice. It…might pay to be in her good graces after all.
Wiskeria was following a voice. Two voices, now. Like Erin finding her craft—the [Witch of Law] was finding something.
It called to her. Though she had first taken it as danger, now she realized the voice was calling to her.
Calling, in a language—if it could even be called a language—so foreign that even she, who could speak to riverbeds and shadows and read the moons, couldn’t understand it.
It made her skin crawl. It was more than the pricking of her thumbs or the twitching of her toes. It was the clenching of her gut and the feeling that she had a date with the outhouse.
She had never felt this before. By the rumble of my bowels, something strange this way howls.
And she knew where it was. But what—even Wiskeria was not prepared for it.
Every [Witch] had heard the second voice. Only Erin and Wiskeria had heard the first. But the second had been located, and no less than thirty [Witches] were heading towards Wiskeria as she met them in the wet. Nor had it been hard for them to find what was calling to Wiskeria. It was loud, terrible, a frightening sound.
Hedag led the group as Mavika, Eloise, Agratha, Oliyaya, and all the older [Witches] advanced. Their pointed hats matched Wiskeria’s blue one and Erin’s chess hat. The [Innkeeper]’s eyes went round as she saw what was shouting at Wiskeria.
It sounded like the rumble in your bones. The impact of something heavy—but sharp. It sounded like metal’s screech and terrible duty.
The voice, the object that spoke, was in Hedag’s hands as the [Witch] stared at it.
It was her axe.
Her axe was the voice. Wiskeria halted dead in her tracks.
“Hedag? Your axe is calling me?”
“Wiskeria. What craft is this? What voice runs in my bones? No Hedag has ever known this axe to speak. It is just an axe; I have replaced handle and metal again and again. Now, though—it disturbs me. Something is screaming through my axe. I fear to let it go.”
Hedag’s smile was gone. The vast smile of the terrible [Witch] who dispensed justice in places far from cities and Watches was wary. She showed the axe, brown with faded blood and sharp—a headwoman’s blade for one purpose—to Wiskeria.
It had taken more lives than many warriors’ swords. But it was not enchanted. Oh, it had sometimes born craft on its blade to deliver a final justice—but it was not a magical item.
Yet it shouted. Every instinct in Erin’s body said that if an axe started screaming at you, either pray it was a friendly, enchanted weapon or don’t pick it up.
[Witches] were sensible. Most of them had the same opinion, but Wiskeria shook her head.
“There are two voices, Hedag. One has been calling me for days, but I couldn’t tell where it was. This axe is saying the same thing—but louder. I think…my craft calls them.”
“Your craft? But your craft is useless—”
Agratha interjected before she fell silent. Wiskeria’s gaze flicked to her in annoyance.
“That was what I began to think. It seems like we were wrong. I will take the axe and see where it leads me, Hedag.”
“It is your choice, Witch Wiskeria. But I believe we must insist on watching to see what happens. Just in case.”
Eloise called out, and the other [Witches] nodded. They were worried, Erin realized. In fact, Agratha, despite her comments, had already drawn her cudgel. Mavika’s raven was on her shoulder, and Eloise’s eyes were glowing. She had actually brought a cup of tea out, but not to sip at.
They were preparing for a fight. Slowly, Hedag offered Wiskeria the handle of her axe. The [Witch of Law] wiped both hands on her dress, then pulled a dagger from her belt in her off-hand. She reached out to take the axe as Erin fished out Pelt’s knife.
“Wiskeria. Do you want to borrow this? I’ve got a jar of acid.”
She offered the blade, and Wiskeria eyed it.
“That’s sharp. I’ll take it.”
“We could gather charms for armor or a finer weapon in half an hour. I sense little hostility, but I do not like how loudly my bones rattle.”
Oliyaya glanced around, and the other [Witches] waited. Wiskeria hesitated, then shook her head as she took Erin’s knife.
“If something happens to me—leave the axe. You will need all your craft to quiet the river. Besides—if I die, my mother will be here to see why. I don’t think I will. This is my craft. For once, it calls me.”
So saying, she took hold of Hedag’s axe, and Erin waited. She saw Mavika tense and Alevica step behind Oliyaya, but with wand at the ready. She waited for Wiskeria to speak or do something, but as soon as the [Witch of Law] touched the axe handle, the voice ceased to howl.
Erin saw Wiskeria standing there, hand on the axe handle. She waited for another second, but Wiskeria didn’t move. Then…Erin saw Hedag clench one hand. She stepped back, and Wiskeria stood there, holding the axe handle in midair.
And she didn’t move. Erin saw the [Witches] spread out, step back in a circle, and as she walked forwards, she saw—
Wiskeria’s eyes were rolled up in her head. They showed only the whites, and she had gone as still as a statue. The axe was dead in the air, despite the weight. Wiskeria didn’t move as rain pelted her. Erin gulped.
That wasn’t good at all. She almost reached out to touch Wiskeria, but someone, Eloise, stopped her. Not that there was any point. Wiskeria’s body stood there, but…
No one was home.
The age of [Shamans] was over. [Oracle] was a rare class. Same for [Warlock], even [Witch] and all the other old classes of diverse magic. No one needed the title of ‘Waning World’ to know that ghosts were gone or that magic itself had diminished.
It had been a long, long time since even Belavierr had spirit walked. The closest Wiskeria had ever come was communing with Treants at sea by her mother’s side or going after Erin as she found the old man in the river.
This was similar, but different. Wiskeria found herself going to a place that had no corporeal reality. It was an idea, a representation of something. Her soul went; her body stayed behind.
This was a deeper version of what Erin had done and far more dangerous. If she died, her body would be left behind. And anything could come back.
Worse, Wiskeria had not prepared for this. When she found herself standing in the black world that she had come to, she had neither the axe nor Erin’s knife in hand.
Wiskeria was not afraid. She was wary. If need be, she would fight with tooth and nail and carve chunks out of her essence to fight with. Ideas were as dangerous as material things, here. Her mother had taught her how to survive a journey into dreams.
But this was no dream. Wiskeria felt senses returning to her, but oddly. She smelled and felt—but distantly. She was, after all, within a different kind of world.
Even so, there was a kind of gravity, a kind of…place. Her boots were mired in something that ran around her. She heard little but her own breathing, but she had a sense of…something in the darkness.
There was so little light. It sparked, now and then in the distance, and Wiskeria saw the faint outlines of something. A lot of things.
She was surrounded. But nothing moved, so Wiskeria assumed that if this were a trap, she would have been slain. The question was—where was she and why?
“Hello? You’ve summoned me to your very being, whomever and whatever you are. Welcome me or attack me, but don’t leave me in silence. I am Wiskeria, daughter of Belavierr. Are you my mother’s enemy or friend?”
Wiskeria asked the most obvious question. Yet she received no answer. If this was some Daemon or spirit, she would assume it held a grudge against her mother.
Nothing. Now, Wiskeria heard sounds.
Drip, drip, drip. Something was running down, dripping into the watery floor upon which she walked. She heard a grinding, as of metal on metal, and she smelled iron in the air.
Blood? In the distance, that light sparked again. Again and again, a little flash in a void of nothingness. It was not one color she could see from so far; but it illuminated everything.
Something vast loomed around Wiskeria. She looked sideways and recoiled. Something was crouching over her. Wiskeria hesitated.
She knew it wasn’t going to work. Magic didn’t fizzle out here; magic might not exist here. Sure enough, her hand produced nothing. At least she had her clothes, but they were only an idea. They were not the same clothes woven by her mother. If she imagined it…
Wiskeria walked through the darkness, and the swish of her robes vanished. For a second, she felt a chill and was naked. Then her clothes reappeared.
“Just an idea.”
The robes would not protect her, nor did she wish to be injured here. So where was this?
The light was the most obvious answer. Wiskeria did not want to touch…whatever was around her.
They were huge. Some of them loomed so tall she imagined they were as large as hills, and she had the uneasy feeling of things above even them. Yet nothing moved. She did not even know if they were alive.
Other things were broken as she walked, trying to time her movements to the erratic light, flashing, guiding her forwards. She kicked something heavy and nearly fell, then bent.
What am I walking through? Wiskeria felt something…wet as her fingers touched it. She brought it up, sniffed, and licked it. Then spat.
“Blood. Blood and rust and water and more.”
She could not name all of it. But it wasn’t a river of blood, which was promising. Not only blood.
To the light, then. Wiskeria ran smack bang into something as she walked into the water. It was heavy and hard, and when she recoiled, something fell to pieces, splashing into the water.
Did something die? She felt a sigh run through this place and backed away.
“If I am intruding—tell me. I have no eyes. I cannot see. If I cause offense, I apologize.”
Did anything hear her? She knew something was here, but she could not tell if it was one or myriad. Wiskeria could only continue onwards, to the light.
It was…far. Far enough that her legs burned by the time she reached it. It was a long journey, running into things that sometimes cut her slightly. Nothing moved until she drew closer to the light, whereupon she began to sense a kind of life, here.
If the darkness from where she had begun were filled with almost nothing, closer she began to pick out—presences.
Not life. There were no lungs, nor hearts to beat. If it were a life, it was a strange one, but it appraised her. Many, many lives, some faint and flickering, others cold, and most as old as time.
Her boots began to crunch on something, and she thought she walked over corpses. But what? What?
The light. It was her answer and guide. And now—Wiskeria realized it had the same voice that Erin had called something from her world. A thin, shrill scream, like a newborn babe in an inhuman, alien tongue.
It was the source of her light and, Wiskeria realized, her anchor and guide. The axe, or what had spoken through the axe, was here, too. They must be her contacts or representatives.
But what was the light?
It lay on a piece of fallen metal, so rusted it was all red and brown, not a trace of the original metal to be seen. The object there was small, hand-sized—tiny. Wiskeria didn’t know what it was, at first, but then, as she approached, she stopped.
She used that word so seldom, but she was proud of using it here. Incorrectly, obviously, but everyone used the word incorrectly. For what Wiskeria saw was impossible to some sensibilities.
She saw a tiny object, lying as if it had fallen on the piece of metal. It flashed lights at what she now realized were regular intervals. Not one color. There were three, and the little box with the slanted top and bottom was so small she could hold it up like a lantern.
Which is what it was. But there it shone.
Green, yellow, red.
Green, yellow, red.
The traffic light? It hung in her grip by a little loop, like a lantern, and brightened as she picked it up. Wiskeria felt a chill run down her arms. She began to sense a connection, but then she heard that voice like the falling of an axe blade.
Like a Hedag’s smile. She whirled, and the lantern shone with all three lights, no longer flashing the single pattern. It grew brighter, and at last she saw what this place was.
The first thing she saw was the axe. And it was the axe. Hedag’s axe was in this place. Or rather…
The idea of the axe. If you had no understanding in this place, it might be impossible to comprehend the connection. Wiskeria saw a long piece of rusted steel, tarnished and red in many places, rising from the ground. It had the shape of the axe—all in metal—but the single piece branched out.
As if a tree made of rusted metal were growing from the red water filled with rust and blood. The tree was made up of smaller axes, each blade similar in purpose, sometimes not in design. Hafts of wood transmuted to ancient metal. They dripped with blood.
Most of the axes were broken. In fact—all of them were. The tree had grown fairly tall, such that it was perhaps thirty feet tall in Wiskeria’s perception. Similar to a tree of her world—but dying.
Every single branch was broken. Red blood dripped from the broken branches, like blood. The entire thing was—perishing. Save for one thing.
A blade, an axe only slightly tarnished, shining bright among the foliage of this strange thing. This…idea, this sentience. One spark of ‘growth’ in biology so alien it could not really be called biology at all.
But Wiskeria understood it. She stepped back, for she knew what she saw. Then her lantern swung, and she saw them all.
Look and see. A throne sat among hundreds of its kind. A throne that sparkled with glass and the sun. It was adorned with familiar, golden colors that Wiskeria knew.
She had seen it on the Thronebearers’ arms. And indeed, the Eternal Throne of Calanfer looked like the seat that sat in reality. But—twisted. It was an amalgamation of more than the actual throne; it had corroded metal in places, and it sat in the bloody water. Smaller than many of the thrones.
Some were broken. Many were. One made of root and vine had calcified to dust, and the pieces lay in the water. Wiskeria had kicked some aside. The Eternal Throne was intact, but pieces of it were…
Corroded? Could Truegold corrupt? Only that would explain the pitted surface, the unnatural decay in the metal itself. Yet other parts glittered.
Beautiful, awful. Most of the thrones were like that. They grew, some so vast they overshadowed Wiskeria and the tree of Hedags’ axes by far. And still, they had fallen to ruin or decayed.
Almost no throne was without rot in one place. Only a few were truly beautiful, without flaw. And…they were one among countless thousands.
Most of them dead. Wiskeria saw the things she’d run into were made of metal, rusted, fallen to pieces in this place. Broken, no longer resembling what they had been.
Strange ‘trees’ who rusted. Pieces of metal, even what looked like gears of Pallass, forming…Wiskeria stared into the eye sockets of a dead creature that looked the most like a beast that she had seen. She turned, and the lantern winked its tri-color light.
“They’re dead. So many are dead.”
Wiskeria’s arm shook. There was death in this place. This place was a morgue. There were so many dead…what? She looked at Hedag’s tree, then at the thrones, then towards one of the things towering so high she had thought they were walls to a pit. Up, Wiskeria looked. And up. And up—
And she saw a single thing towering above her. It was a single object, so vast she thought it eclipsed the High Passes. It was made of many, many tiny things.
Skulls. The head of a Drake encased in rusted steel or whatever it was. A Gnoll’s face. Humans and Dullahans—even Selphid bodies woven into the vast eye staring up at the sky and weeping the blood that formed this world.
The oldest of all. Still intact, but so broken that it informed the others. And what were these? Wiskeria looked around, and her heart beat wildly, for she recognized these things. They were like the old man, but different.
“Laws. Are you—laws?”
They groaned, like metal and ancient gears, and now Wiskeria tasted oil on her tongue. Oil and rust and blood and—
She looked at Hedag’s tree and saw it differently. She saw the falling axe, that smile from generation upon generation of Hedag.
A tradition of Izril and Terandria. The law of villages and places where no [King] nor [Lord] nor Watch was present. A judge and arbiter and executioner in one.
It was a terrible thing. A swinging blade that had no mercy, that cut deep where it went. Yet necessary. Some had been poor Hedags, and she saw black rot on their branches. Some had been great and built this thing larger, this idea, an amalgamation of time, law, and—belief.
But the tree withered. The Hedag’s axe only shone on one branch.
The law of the Hedag was passing away. If Hedag now died…this perished. Wiskeria could not have said if it were good or evil, for she thought that the axe buried in the bloody ground would cut her in twain if it found her unworthy. Without mercy or compromise.
Yet she found it beautiful, and then she turned and beheld the rest.
The Eternal Throne was an idea. The kingdom? A set of laws. The enforcement, the crown—the lives of mortals were one thing, but the idea of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer was something that had existed for six thousand years. It had a weight on the world, and that weight was reflected here.
Yet it was corrupt. She saw it in the beauteous throne. She saw where law had been subverted and the rot set in.
Some thrones were completely engulfed by it. She recognized some sigils embedded in fleshy growth eating at the metal. A few were so twisted that they barely resembled thrones, and some had been infected from the start.
She saw a bulbous plague in this place. A rotten nest of good intent. But it had long, long since been twisted. Now it was murdered.
Spikes of stone had hammered apart Tombhome’s old laws. The immortal flesh still smelled sweet, but—had the beings of this place destroyed it themselves? For it was corrupt. It had been from the start. It was made of A’ctelios Salash’s flesh.
But even that Carven City had nothing to eat here. Everything was stone and metal. Immutable things, in theory. Wiskeria looked up at that vast eye staring sightlessly at the sky and felt at her own left eye. Then she saw it.
One of the oldest laws in existence bled from the countless lives that had made it. The oldest idea of civilization; the oldest consequence.
Death. An eye for an eye. If you break the law—then you will die. The tallest laws in this place were that simple. A twisted hand curling around half of this reality, severed—grasping, protecting much of the laws from the void beyond.
Possession. What is mine is mine. Then Wiskeria looked down at the object she held and recognized it again.
The traffic light. It shrilled at her with that tongue from another world, a concept like the chirping of traffic lights that Laken Godart knew. Tiny. A babe as these things understood it.
Perhaps it would grow—or like the countless objects buried in the ground, it would die before it even grew. Attempts at civilization, ideas crunched under Wiskeria’s boots wherever she went.
This was the world of law and, perhaps—civilization. But it was a terrible, frightening place. There was no gentleness here, and rust overtook all but the most shining ideals.
Look there. A throne of Khelt stood almost untarnished, made of sand and the weight of bone, cast in brass. But it had cracked. Cracked almost in half, and it was held together only by will.
Wiskeria could have wept for Khelt, for all these failed dreams. Millions, billions of lives had made them unwillingly. She looked at the lantern and then, at last, heard the whispers.
She had missed them because she didn’t realize who spoke to her. She had missed them because they were so deep they sounded like the shift of the earth itself, like the voice of tectonic plates. She was too small to encompass them normally. Here?
They spoke, and her ears bled. They spoke, and Wiskeria saw.
They were the enemies of her mother. They were the enemies of monsters and chaos. They were not united. Some laws contradicted each other. They warred and grew and died here. Striving to create something beautiful out of this wasteland of ideas. And they grew amidst filth, amidst foul desire and ill deeds.
Even so, some were beautiful and simple. Some were unsullied, and they tried. An endless war against everything that had seen great victories and setbacks.
They knew her. She was her mother’s daughter, and the Witch had torn so many of them down over time. She had been the corruption in thrones. If they could have—they would have slain her, and nations had tried.
But these things had no power. No voice, only a wrath locked in this place. They sometimes, rarely, had outlets, but they had lain helpless. Helpless…until her craft was revealed and called to them.
After all—Wiskeria fell to her knees as the lantern shone and the laws called to her.
She was a [Witch]. And they wanted her to speak them to the world.
Then she saw it, and her eyes, green and yellow, like a plain field of daisies, turned red as she wept tears like the liquid in this place into the ground. Her nose and ears ran with blood, and Wiskeria felt a dozen hands grabbing at her, like shadows.
She was dying. Death spoke to her, and Wiskeria felt blood vessels rupture. Yet—
“I hear you.”
They wanted something from her. Wiskeria smiled through bloody teeth. Smiled and smiled as [Witches] hauled her back. She looked down at the bright lights.
Then she felt a crow flapping its wings, a burning hand on her shoulder, and the Hedag’s law howled in triumph as a hand as dainty and firm as steel itself took her and—
Wiskeria opened her eyes. Then she began to cough, and she was deaf and blind. Blood ran from her ears, down her throat, and a dozen hands were on her.
“We have her back! Hedag, the axe!”
Agratha shouted, and Hedag raised Master Helm’s hammer with eyes that sparked with cold intent. She lifted the hammer high and brought it down upon her very tool—
Hedag’s arm jerked as Wiskeria screamed. The other [Witches] recoiled as Wiskeria threw out a hand. Wiskeria spat blood from her mouth and realized they had taken her inside the smithy.
“Stop. Stop—don’t break it. It’s yours. They didn’t harm me. It didn’t harm me. They were just too loud. As vast as an idea even beasts understand. Even when they whispered, it was enough to overwhelm me. Do insects have laws?”
She was babbling. The [Witches] stared at her, and Erin knew the answer to the question.
“Wiskeria. What happened?”
The [Witch of Law] sat there. Then she wiped at the blood coming from her face. She felt at her ears and realized her eardrums were not burst; a relief. She stood shakily.
She felt alive. Alive and giddy—and terrified! How long had it been since…? She smiled with bloody teeth, and Agratha eyed her worriedly. But Erin saw the smile as Wiskeria laughed.
“I met Elementals. I need—I need—Master Helm!”
She looked around, and someone jumped in the crowd that had gathered to watch another mysterious event happen. Helm flinched as everyone turned to him.
“Witch Wiskeria? Can I help…?”
“Strike a fire into your forge, Master Helm! Bring me steel. I need you to make something. Hurry!”
Helm froze up. One look at Wiskeria, running with blood from every orifice like some victim of a horrific attack, and he was sure he didn’t want part of that. She was smiling—which made it worse.
“Wiskeria, stop and explain what you intend. You nearly died. We pulled you back when you began to bleed.”
Even Eloise was concerned. Yet Erin saw Wiskeria’s urgency, and she felt a tingling in her bones. Excitement in the air. Her craft called to her. Not Wiskeria’s, but informed by the look on Wiskeria’s face. So Erin raised a hand, and a spark of pink and strange flame that shimmered and dazzled the eyes with a series of colors sparked across her fingers. She flicked it into Helm’s forge, and a mundane fire roared up. Then Erin spoke.
“She’s a [Witch] about her craft! Don’t get in her way!”
Every single other [Witch] turned to look at Erin—and then Hedag took her axe, regarded it, and touched the brim of her hat.
“A [Witch] speaks! You heard her! Flame and steel, Master Helm!”
She tipped her hat to Erin, and the [Innkeeper], laughing, tipped her hat right back.
By the time Laken Godart got there, the forge was in full operation. Helm and three other [Blacksmiths] were working on something, piecing red-hot metal together, casting the discarded slag aside as Wiskeria ranted and raved.
Mrsha was there too, and they stared as Wiskeria shouted.
“No, a smaller fit! Almost—we’re almost there! Bring it to me, Mister Prost! Cut it down if you must, but I need both body and vessel!”
“What’s going on? Wiskeria?”
Lady Rie went to find out what was going on, but Laken Godart could sense it. He found Witch Eloise, who gave him a summary of the events as she saw them.
“Wiskeria was approached by a…a power in Riverfarm not half an hour ago, Your Majesty. She made contact with it.”
“Power? What kind of power?”
Laken was instantaneously alarmed, but he relaxed—slightly—when Eloise told him about the axe.
“We believe she encountered Elementals.”
“More Elementals? And she’s binding one? No more.”
Laken was adamant, but Eloise hesitated. She glanced at Wiskeria.
“You may have to physically subdue her to stop her, Your Majesty. Nor are these Elementals of the kind that are in the river. These are…perhaps worse. Perhaps better.”
“What are they, Eloise?”
For answer, the [Tea Witch] spoke as the glowing traffic light was ported to the blacksmiths working on a small creation in steel.
“Elementals of Law.”
She said it as if she couldn’t believe it herself. Mrsha’s eyes widened, and she thought about what that meant. So did Laken. That didn’t sound so bad?
Mrsha was running for the guest houses. Nope. No thank you. She had a better idea of what kind of Elemental that might mean. And even the [Druid] could sense something coming.
There was a lot of power in the air. Laken felt like he was staring at a sun. Or…the fingers of something pressing across reality. He felt like backing up.
“Just—just how easy would it be to stop her?”
“The real question is—do you want to make an enemy of that? You sense it too, Your Majesty?”
He did. And he did not want to make a foe out of—Laken bit his tongue as the traffic light appeared. Even the most innocent of ideas turned into this! He had no doubt it was part of it all—
All three lights were shining bright, like spotlights into the air. And he was sure Nesor hadn’t enchanted that.
“Evacuate everyone who isn’t needed from the smithy. A hundred feet. At least. Summon Beniar, and put a blade in everyone’s hands. Ask the Goblins to get ready for—something.”
Laken made his decision fast. The [Witch of Law] was reaching out, pulling something across the void like Erin had. But what?
A thousand forces reached out across a void even further than the one the Seamwalkers had climbed. And as thin as an idea.
They were old and young. Weak and strong enough to bend reality across a hundred civilizations, as immutable as time, as corrupt as mortal ambitions and sin.
They needed Wiskeria. And she…she longed for them. She was a [Witch], but one of law and justice and order. Only she could hear them, and they had screamed their will a hundred million times over the ages to any who might listen.
Even so. Their voices had grown louder only when the right conditions were met.
A vessel. An instrument emblematic of them that could anchor their spirit. Not a throne. Nor a book. Instead, the metal box, the streetlight of unchanging signals.
It had screamed to Wiskeria, but she could not see. Now—desperately—she tried to reach out, but she had to anchor them in both physical form and understanding.
How could a law be a thing? How could you believe in a law like you believed in the spirit of a river? They were nothing you could see. They were ideas.
And Wiskeria was weak because she believed in nothing true nor anything real but her mother’s magic. The connection wavered.
Then, the [Witch of Law], as she held the burning steel, as she reached into that graveyard of ideas and intent—saw the [Innkeeper] watching her.
The [Innkeeper], not the [Witch of Second Chances]. She looked back and remembered their conversation on the rainy night as Erin began to realize what it was to be a [Witch]. And she looked forwards and saw it.
Lost amidst the blood and decay. Like a growing plant, a strange tree as stubborn as the mountains. Small, so tiny it had barely taken root. It grew, green metal and wild, uncompromising fire. A law, lost amidst the multitudes that had never taken shape.
Yet still, it grew. And it was that certainty in her eyes. The will to impose a law upon the entire world. It rose like mercy, newly forged, and Wiskeria read it as she understood.
No Killing Goblins. Then a wild smile was on her lips. She reached out, understanding what it was to both desire something with all the helplessness in the world—and all the will. She pulled, and the lights shone uncompromisingly. A [Witch] who knew the oldest of ways. Touching the very soul of law itself.
Her craft. And the other [Witches] saw and bowed their heads as Wiskeria drew something out of thin air. An idea coming to rest in a body of steel.
The [Witch of Second Chances] watched, without running, as her friends skidded to a halt, as Gamel and the Thronebearers backed everyone off. They called out to her, but Erin just saw Wiskeria bending over a piece of metal still so hot it scorched her hands.
Metal, not gelatinous liquid. Metal, for something as immutable and as stubborn as…
Then Erin heard a scream. A shriek that made the Goblins and Humans clap a hand to their ears. They began screaming back, in fear, for they had never heard a sound like that, and it disturbed them.
Some of them—but Numbtongue raised his head. And Inkar? She and Tkrn looked at each other as they stared at Erin. Inkar saw the [Innkeeper], whom she had described as a friendly hill, standing with the strange [Witch of Law]. She saw another great, terrifying mystery descend on the world.
Like Khoteizetrough, but as small as something you could hold hands with. Unlike the old man, the river, this was newborn, days old. And it screamed and wailed like a newborn babe.
In tones that reminded her of electronic sounds. The chirping of traffic lights, the artificial tones of a computer. A synthetic voice crossed with the old bones of metal.
A new being in a new world. Its cry ran through Riverfarm, and the rain ceased as the old man heard the voice and stopped—out of disbelief, astonishment—
Wiskeria lifted something up in her hands, and a bright blue light shone from a single eye. A rounded, perfectly geometrical opening in a tiny being of metal. Like the small version of the traffic light.
But this body had legs. Almost like a spider’s, and Helm had fashioned a dozen little limbs, but only the legs had fit. Slowly, it rotated, the sharp tips of its feet digging into Wiskeria’s hands. She was burnt, bloody, but she felt none of the pain as she beamed down at the little Elemental of Law.
Bound to the traffic light of all things. The lights on the traffic light flashed in synchronicity with the little Elemental—then it returned to blinking red, green, and yellow.
After all, the rules of the street had to be enforced. The first agent of these powers gazed out at Riverfarm’s people. It looked around, and the light flashed red as it focused on the fleeing little Mrsha. Then it swung around, and the hostile glare intensified.
But the [Innkeeper] just bent over it, cooing, as the Elemental of Law made furious chirping, quasi-electronic sounds.
“Oh my gosh. It’s a robot!”
It was sort of like one, or a magical robot. But the thing scuttled back and began flashing its angry red light at Erin.
“I think it recognizes you as a foe, Witch Erin. Us too.”
Oliyaya remarked, eying the little Elemental with distaste. It was inspecting everyone, and it already had opinions.
It did not like Alevica. But strangely—it seemed to beep at Mavika warily, and her raven cawed back. As if she were not completely bad. It scuttled over to Hedag, who backed away from it, but it was friendly to her. And Eloise. Agratha it positively liked as the [Witch] exclaimed over it.
And Laken—when the [Emperor] approached, flanked by his guards to demand what Wiskeria had done, the little lantern-being slowly sank onto the two foremost legs of its eight. It bowed to him.
“Well, I quite like that.”
The [Emperor] smiled as Erin put her hands on her hips in outrage. The Elemental of Law looked around, and Wiskeria turned to Laken.
“Here, Your Majesty, is my craft. I see it now. I cannot take justice from Riverfarm’s folk, nor is law that easy to tame. But so long as people obey the laws—I shall have my magic. I am a [Witch] of a new kind of pact. A pact of ideas set against my mother and many kinds of [Witch]. We shall both see what the future holds.”
“A fitting [Witch] for an empire.”
Eloise opined, and Laken nodded. He bent over the Elemental.
“Can this…being do anything? Does it have a name?”
Numbtongue was peering at the creature, who warily inspected the Goblins, with a good deal of distrust. It was a thing of law, after all, and it was no friend to Goblins. But they had laws, and Ulvama of all people got a little dip of the legs like a nod.
She regarded the Elemental of Law with pure horror and backed up behind the others. Erin was hurt by the little lantern-thing’s distrust of her. She bet it would just love Zevara. For answer, Wiskeria shrugged. She tipped her hat and nearly toppled over backwards until Hedag caught her.
“Steady, Wiskeria. You’ve done a [Witch]’s work, eh?”
Hedag smiled, and Wiskeria beamed herself. Such an odd expression on her face because she wasn’t good or used to smiling. But it was so genuine it put a smile on even the wary Riverfarm folk’s faces. They did like her, after all.
“Thank you, Hedag. I don’t know, Your Majesty. All I know is—this one is the first of many, perhaps. I’ve taught the Elementals how to reach out. More pacts will be made by [Warlocks] and those who can hear. Any Elemental has power; I don’t know what an Elemental of Law can do. A Water Elemental can purify water or fight. This one is small, but it will grow. A name…perhaps Riverfarm can come up with one?”
Erin snapped her fingers.
“I’ve got one! How about…Trafficlighti? No, Traffy!”
The others looked at Erin, and the [Witches] slowly shook their heads. The enraged little Elemental began to blind Erin with flashes, and she backed up.
“Okay! I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
What a strange day. There was no great flash of light or battle to herald Wiskeria’s work, but the Law Elemental was proof enough. The rain resumed, hesitantly, nearly an hour afterwards.
As if, perhaps, the Water Elemental in the river was reconsidering its wrath. It had sensed the Law Elemental, but it was old and the power of this interloper was weak. The rain was beginning to pick up, and the river remembered his anger. Now, he stoked it with the fury of another being opposed to him.
He would rise up and cover the land. He would erase this village and devour until he could create his own body. Now he knew how—he spat upon the banks where the [Witches] tried to stop him. He could grow faster than they could raise the land.
So he would kill them. Kill and…
The old man in the river hesitated. Hesitated, as he sensed the being of metal and oil coming his way. And the two [Witches].
There were more, but he recognized those two. Wiskeria and Erin walked to the river’s edge as it roared and pushed against the levees, so high it was in danger of flooding the fields.
“Old man. Old man, I’ve come to offer you a deal.”
One sweetly bent over the river’s edge. She crooned to him, and the old man in the river hesitated. This was the one who had ignored him for so long. She held the glowing being with an eye that blinked at him. A pathetic thing.
The river swelled. He reached up for her—and Wiskeria drew a dagger. Just a dagger, but she let the Elemental of Law crawl onto one shoulder. Then she bent down, pulled part of the river up in an impossible surge of water as it roiled around her in shock.
Her craft glowed in her eyes as she stabbed the water. It rushed down around her hand as she let go.
The river felt that. Just a tiny prick, but it had never, ever been wounded. Now, the river suddenly fell silent, flat as glass, as Wiskeria bent over it. Smiling.
She had her mother’s smile. But what was reflected in those eyes weren’t immortal rings, but a calm, plain world. A world without great magic where his kind died. She looked the river in the eye and spoke.
“I offer you a deal, old man. Stop flooding. Stop raging, and lie quiet. Beg someone else, and never come to Riverfarm again.”
And why would he do that? He was a river! The old man’s fury was roused like the wrath of the forests—until he looked up and saw the oldest law behind Wiskeria.
The river quailed. Wiskeria bent low as the [Witches] and folk of Riverfarm watched, and her voice was only for him and the Elemental of Law and Erin.
“Lie silent and still and go elsewhere, old man. Beg a [Mage] for help or wait until this place is bone and dust. But trouble me and I will call you into a body and murder you here and now. Law rules, not your watery kind. Every being will have their chance, and law will change and learn and grow. But trifle with Riverfarm and I will cut your heart out and feed it to this one. Do not make Law your foe.”
The river trembled. He was old, and he had seen and felt the Treants leave this land when he was young. He remembered the forests, and he had heard the last Dryad die.
He just wanted…he wept as he sank, fearing the bright stare of the new kind of being, cousins as strange and alien to him as the folk who walked above him and swam his body.
Then—someone else called his name.
An [Innkeeper]? No, a [Witch]. A young [Witch] with a hat above her head swinging with little chess pieces, awkward and hesitant. Guilty.
The river stopped. The second [Witch] bent over him and called down as the [Witch of Law] stepped back, her threat made. Erin Solstice looked down, then looked at Wiskeria and her Elemental of Law.
Erin’s craft hung in the air. Wiskeria had some of her craft. It was in Riverfarm’s folk, even the [Witches]. It was so familiar that Erin had known it—but she had not given it a name.
What was it? Kindness? No. Glory? Again, no, these were things Erin had learned, but they were not at the heart of her craft. That was the stuff of [Innkeepers], and Erin wielded them well.
Something else was in her soul. A burning flame, of course. Second chances? Obviously. But what was all this made of? It was the most obvious answer. Erin reached out and pulled it in. In delight; she had caused it a hundred times. It filled her up and burst from her hands. It burned, a strange flame.
Not one color, but like the color of the night sky. Like the stars raining down across her [Garden of Sanctuary]. A translucent, dark flame, like the night sky, shot with streaks of color, from pink glory to pale grey mercy and sadness and guilt and more. Her craft.
Erin pulled it into her, and then it was all around her. A burning flame, making Wiskeria back up and the Elemental of Law hiss at her. She heard a call as she apologized to the Elemental of the River for what she’d done.
Of all the times! Erin looked up, and Lyonette screamed at her.
“Your hat’s on fire!”
Erin looked up and yelped. Her hat had caught fire! The cloth was blazing with magical fire. Erin grabbed it frantically, and her hand passed straight through the burning flames.
The poor cloth Agratha had gifted her was long since eaten up by the wondrous flame. Wiskeria looked at Erin’s hat. A flaming hat, pointed and made of fire, was burning across Erin’s hair. The [Witch of Second Chances] felt at it—and the wonder burned brighter. Then she began to giggle and laugh.
“Showy, but it suits her. Don’t you think?”
Agratha was nodding along as she watched with the other [Witches]. Hedag just threw her head back and laughed.
“Now there is a [Witch]’s hat!”
It burned as Erin turned back to the river. The old man stared longingly up at the [Witch] of flame and wonders, reflected on his face. She bent down and whispered to him.
“I’m sorry. I was cruel to you. I always am. You don’t understand good or evil. Drowning people is bad, to me. I can’t let you run wild. You’re dangerous.”
Behind her, the [Witch of Law] nodded. The river wilted and wept. But he understood. Erin wiped at her eyes.
He was so lonely. She understood that. Her voice wobbled.
“I can’t bring the forests and all your friends back. I’m sorry. But I do believe in second chances. Not third.”
Wiskeria’s smile vanished. The Law Elemental beeped warningly, but Erin drew something out of her bag of holding.
“I know you just wanted to see us. So—I’m going to give you a little gift, okay?”
“Erin, don’t you dare give him a body—”
Wiskeria raised her knife as the Elemental of Law turned red. But Erin was too quick. She threw something into the river, and the greedy water grabbed it. Wiskeria lunged—and stared as a round ball of crystal sank into the water.
“What the—a scrying orb?”
The glowing ball was flashing with a laughing Drake’s face as Drassi sank into the depths of the river. The greedy river had no concept of a scrying orb.
No one had ever left a scrying orb inside it. Nor could it really understand a single orb in its water. But Erin’s craft filled it as she poured all the power she’d taken from her audience into it.
Wiskeria looked at Erin. The Elemental of Law was trying to project a beam of hostile light into her hair, but Wiskeria covered the eye with one hand. Then—the muddy river was receding. Lowering, as the old man’s wrath abated.
Riverfarm’s people watched, even Cade. The boy was afraid of the river now, but his eyes widened as he peered out of Briganda’s arms.
For—the entire river, that long stretch of water, as smooth as glass right now—suddenly lit up. And it began to glow like a mirror, and suddenly, Drassi’s face shone across it. As if the river were the scrying orb.
She was taking lessons from a [Chef] in Pallass in a cooking segment. The scrying spell lit up the entire river as Wiskeria looked at Erin.
“Did you know that would happen?”
Erin winked at her.
The river fell. The promised wrath never came, nor did it turn into a roving Elemental. In the days to come, people would be wary of it and the levees would still rise, for it was a wild thing of ancient times. Children would be cautioned to be very careful of the river.
All this was fair, even if the old man did not strike at Riverfarm again. But the one thing that would define him and give him a new nickname in the days to come was a strange phenomenon.
They called him the Scrying River, because now and then, one of the television broadcasts would appear for as long as a mile on the water, and a passerby could watch the news on his surface.
All because of one [Witch]. But then—Erin was not the only one. She had given a river something to watch and learn from. In the days to follow, Wiskeria’s craft would be even more notable.
Visitors coming to Riverfarm and seeing the new traffic lights would be instructed as to their simple usage. It made traffic easier, and with the new road lines, traffic jams were less frequent.
But bad and hasty and careless drivers still existed. So someone running a red light or improperly turning would break that law of traffic—and hear an enraged shriek. Then they would look up and see a being of metal glaring and shining a light on them from on top of one of the hanging traffic lights.
The Elemental of Law’s power was mostly to shame someone. It would scuttle after a dog relieving itself on the sidewalk if its owner didn’t pick up the waste. It stared and shrilled at someone breaking traffic laws or tossing trash on the ground.
It was the most annoying thing in the world, but it was young. And growing. What it became…well, that was for Riverfarm to see.
Much love to them. Really. Erin found a lot to admire in Riverfarm. From the friendly people, the tolerance to Goblins, and, she had to admit, the [Witches] themselves.
But it definitely wasn’t her place. Nor did she think she and Laken were on the same page. They would best be described as how Erin liked Wiskeria.
Someone who was slightly opposed to her viewpoint, but who she could respect. That was a good way of seeing it. It was hard for Erin to be humble, sometimes; she liked doing things her way.
But she felt like she’d learned a lot from the [Witches]. As Agratha pointed out, Erin had a lot still to learn.
“Fundamentals, my dear. Fundamentals. Can’t you stay another week?”
“I, uh, have to get back. I heard something crazy is happening back home. There’s yodeling Drakes, and I’m missing it!”
Erin had spent three more days in Riverfarm, not blowing anything up or causing chaos. She actually felt bad about going, but she knew she had to. Agratha sighed.
“Well, we may have to send some teachers to help you out. As a [Witch] to another [Witch], of course. Liscor does seem like a fortuitous place to be, and as Wiskeria proves—[Witches] can be parts of cities.”
Mavika croaked, but even she nodded to Agratha’s statement. Their class was changing. Oliyaya chuckled.
“Perhaps I shall send Alevica to visit and impart lessons and gifts.”
“Er, no, that’s fine.”
Alevica protested at the same time as Erin. She was going and saying her farewells to everyone. But what was notable was who was going with her group. And who was not.
Numbtongue was clasping arms with Leafarmor and Raidpear, and Gothica was jabbering to some of the Goblins who’d begun adopting her style. Ulvama stood, ignoring Pebblesnatch as the [Cook] waved and sniffed into her apron—until Pebblesnatch ran over and hugged her leg. Then Ulvama patted her head.
But Pebblesnatch was not coming with Erin. Nor were the other Goblins. She’d asked them, and they were staying. Even Laken was mildly surprised as he shook Erin’s hand.
“I thought one would go, at least.”
“They’re your people.”
Erin couldn’t meet Laken’s eyes, so she tightened her grip slightly.
“I guess they trust you enough to stay. Take good care of them.”
He returned the grip, and the two glanced at each other. They’d had a few words in private, and Laken sighed as his head turned to ‘survey’ Erin’s companions.
“You have been the more interesting and delightful of the two visits I’ve had from—friends from home, Erin. Less casualties than when Ryoka visited, but my invitation stands if she ever comes by.”
Erin snorted. They were loading up the carriages as Inkar shook Prost’s hand and he gave Garia a huge load of seeds and goods for Wailant. Lyonette was talking to Eloise, and Mrsha?
Mrsha was inspecting a little [Witch] standing alone, looking lost. Laken and Erin turned as Nanette waited by the carriages.
That was the last thing. Laken and Erin walked over, and the goodbyes halted as Erin bent over.
“Nanette? Are you sure you want to come with me? It’s your choice.”
“If Mother wanted me to, I’ll go.”
The little [Witch] whispered. She had sat with Nanette an entire day and tried to talk to her about Califor or ask her how she was feeling, but it was as if she weren’t reaching Nanette. The girl stood like she had sat, alone, even with Mrsha right next to her.
The little Gnoll girl was staring pointedly at Laken, and even if the [Emperor] couldn’t see it, he could sense the stare. So he knelt.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
Laken opened his eyes, a rarity, as if hoping to see her. His voice was kind as he spoke.
“The [Witches] tell me you bear a heavy, heavy burden. So heavy it’s crushing you, but they cannot take it away. Because you are a [Witch], you carry it like a real thing.”
He meant her hat. Now, Erin sensed it. She looked at Nanette’s cute, pointed hat, and it seemed like the heaviest thing in existence. The little [Witch] hung her head, and Erin didn’t know how she stood.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Do you have to carry it, Nanette? Can you let it go? It will be your end, Eloise tells me.”
The [Witches] nodded as one. They looked at Nanette along with Riverfarm’s folk. The girl’s blank look turned into something closer to a stare in this reality. She gazed at Laken—then slowly tipped her hat up.
The rains had long since gone from Riverfarm, and the autumn day was sunny enough. The mud had long since dried, and the overflooded areas were recovering slightly.
But as Nanette tipped her hat up, water fell. It rushed from her hat, as if the entire river were encapsulated there. It poured down around her hair as Laken jumped and stood. A rushing torrent spread across the ground, rushing past Mrsha, the surprised Goblins, and the [Witches]. They stood as it poured over Nanette’s head.
Water without end, for fifteen, sixteen seconds. Then she lowered the brim and stood, dripping. Erin was drenched, but not by rainwater nor river water.
Tears. And there were more under Nanette’s hat. So many it seemed like her neck would break. Her face was blank and empty.
“I cannot take off my hat, Your Majesty. Nor remove them. I’m sorry.”
“Your class came to you too soon.”
That was all Agratha said, and there were tears in her own eyes. Hedag lowered her head, and Nanette shook her head slightly.
All Laken did was exhale. He looked down at Nanette, and his own eyelashes fluttered, and he brushed at them. Then he glanced at the little girl watching him and nodded.
“You were right, Mrsha.”
Every head turned to Mrsha, with suspicion and wrath and sudden nervousness. But the girl sat there, waiting. Laken looked down at Nanette.
“Nanette Weishart. In deference to the will of Califor, whom I consider both savior and hero of Riverfarm, the great [Witch] of her era, I will let you go wherever you wish. Riverfarm will always welcome you, but it occurs to me that you may see no relief. No rest, so long as your hat hangs so heavy. Your very class weighs you down, and I fear you will drown. So—I have been told that there is something I can do for you. By a very wise…very connected young girl.”
His head turned sardonically, and Nanette looked confused. Laken slowly held his hand out.
“I am an [Emperor], Nanette. While you stand here, you are still a citizen of the Unseen Empire. That is the pact your coven has made with me. If you wish it—I will remove your class.”
Erin’s eyes widened. The [Witches] looked at each other, and a murmur rose from those listening.
An [Emperor] could do that? Only Ulvama didn’t seem surprised, and Eloise and Lyonette. But they all watched as Nanette stared up at Laken.
“My class? But…I’m a [Witch].”
“I know. You don’t have to be. It may be easier for you. It is your choice. No one will force you.”
Nanette raised a hand to her hat. Her hands, so still, suddenly trembled. A note of emotion entered her voice. Uncertainty. Fear.
“It’s…it’s heavy. But it’s my hat. My mother made it for me. It’s my class.”
Laken waited. Nanette shook her head. She backed up.
“No. It’s my hat. It’s—all I have left.”
She would have turned and fled, Erin was sure, but someone else spoke. Erin was searching for the right words, and it turned out she didn’t need to. Not yet. She would, but Wiskeria stepped forwards.
The girl whirled to her as if afraid Wiskeria would snatch her hat away. She clung to the brim with her hands, but Wiskeria just looked down at her.
“It is killing you. You bore happiness well, but not sadness. Califor would—”
“She wouldn’t take my hat! Not ever!”
Nanette shouted back, a note of desperation in her tone. She stepped back, and Wiskeria shook her head.
“Of course not. She would never do that. But I think she’d be quite sensible. Do you know what I think she’d say?”
The girl stared up at Wiskeria through wretchedly empty eyes. Brown and too old, now. Wiskeria looked down at her and hesitated. She turned, and an [Innkeeper] closed her eyes.
Erin Solstice whispered.
“I think…if Califor were here, Nanette, she would tell you this. ‘A hat is a hat. A girl is a girl. If it is too heavy for you to bear now—put it down. Put it down and rest awhile. Then come back when you’re ready for it.’”
The young [Witch]’s head turned, and her fingers trembled, as if holding back a dam.
“Pick it up later? Can I do that?”
“Of course you can. A [Witch] is always a [Witch]. Class or not.”
Agratha herself said that, and Oliyaya nodded along with Eloise and every [Witch] present. Nanette looked at Laken. Her fingers tightened—and then, with a sob in her voice, she spoke.
“It’s heavy. It’s so heavy I can’t feel a thing. I can’t let go. Can you hold it for me? Just for a bit?”
He whispered. Laken Godart reached out as Nanette slowly held up her hat. No water fell, but her arms trembled.
“How do I…?”
“Just accept it. You are no [Slave], nor is this a sin. Will you put it aside? Nanette Weishart—do you relinquish your class?”
She looked at him. There was no ceremony, nor did Erin feel anything but a prickling, goosebumps on her skin. Like a trembling bubble about to burst? Like someone reaching out and lifting something impossibly light. With no substance. A hand, reaching out and touching the fabric of the world.
Nanette’s eyes opened wide, but there were no tears. Nothing—she looked at Erin.
“I can’t feel anything. Yes. Just for a bit. I want to cry.”
She let go of the hat, and it drifted down into Laken’s hands. The [Witches] sighed, and the [Emperor] caught the hat—then his hands trembled. He tried to hold it, but the weight of that piece of cloth bore him down to his knees until it pressed his hands to the ground. It weighed him down—until Nanette reached down.
She picked it up and stared at the blue hat, sewn for a girl. It was just a piece of cloth in her hands. She tried it on, and it slipped on her hair. Then she looked around.
“I don’t…I don’t feel a craft. I don’t know what you’re feeling, Your Majesty.”
She looked about and met Erin’s eyes. And saw Mrsha looking at her worriedly. Nanette stretched and looked around.
“I feel light. I don’t feel a thing.”
Tears were running from Agratha’s eyes, so she took her spectacles off. Eloise silently handed her a handkerchief, and Hedag’s smile was pained. Mavika bowed her head, but when Nanette looked at her anxiously, the [Crow Witch] spoke.
“If you were sure—you were a [Witch] then and now. What will you do, Nanette?”
The girl gulped. Now she looked uncertain and terribly afraid. Laken turned his blind gaze to her, and Nanette’s voice wobbled.
“Does she—does my mother have a grave? I never even asked.”
Califor’s grave was one of many for the people who had perished in Riverfarm’s fires. Laken had asked if a more suitable tomb would fit, and the [Witches] had claimed it should not matter. Her legacy mattered more than her resting place, so he had commissioned statues and ensured her story would not be lost.
The tomb was square and simple, because it had to be, because there were so many. Flowers decorated many, wreaths and gifts.
Califor’s was empty, brushed clean, but empty, as if waiting for Nanette to visit. The girl still had her robes. Her mother had made them. But she took that blue hat and placed it on top of the tombstone, just so, as if it were wearing the hat.
The wind blew, and the hat fluttered in the wind, but it didn’t budge. It was far too heavy. Nanette bowed, spreading her robes out as if she were bowing to the [Witch] herself. Then she turned.
“I’ll come back for it. Alright?”
“It will be waiting for you.”
The [Emperor] promised. Nanette looked back at the stone. She felt at her head, and her tangled hair was messy. But she looked lighter. She blinked around in the sun, and her stomach rumbled. She stared at the little Gnoll and then at Erin.
Then—and only then—she seemed shy and afraid.
“M-Miss Erin? May I ask a question? Is it an inn my mother wanted me to stay at?”
“Yes, an inn. Do you want to come? We can always come back. I promise.”
Erin was suddenly terrified, anxious, and she wanted to reassure Nanette and say all the things the girl hadn’t heard. But Lyonette nudged Erin aside.
“Hello, Nanette. I’m Lyonette, and I’m very pleased to meet you. Your mother was a grand woman and a [Witch].”
“Oh. Thank you…are you royalty?”
Nanette shook her hand timidly, and Lyonette smiled.
“Whatever would give you that idea?”
Nanette peeked at the Thronebearers shyly, then Mrsha ran up. She held out a paw to shake, and the girl hesitated.
“I—I don’t mind going, Miss Erin. Your Highness. It feels like I’m waking up. May I ask a question?”
Her voice trembled as she looked around again. As if the last few months had been a bad dream. And she woke into…a cool autumn day and stared at the tombstone where her hat lay. Was it a better waking world or…?
“Go ahead. What is it?”
Erin held her breath as Nanette scuffed her foot on the ground, embarrassed.
“Where…where is Liscor?”
Halrac Everam watched as Nanette slowly packed her things into the carriage. She did not have much; she was used to travelling with her mother, so she had only a small bag of holding and a rucksack.
Briganda was crying again. The instant Nanette had asked Laken to take her class, she’d started and never stopped.
It was quite, quite annoying because the [Shieldmaiden] had a hiccuping sob that was very loud, and Cade kept telling her it was okay. Then he began crying.
It was not the moment that Halrac wanted to say goodbye to Erin in. He longed for a private place to say something.
And as if she knew it, the [Innkeeper] walked towards him, looking shy and concerned that Briganda was there. But the [Immortal Moment] that had begun, to let Nanette say all the things she wanted to the other [Witches]. To her mother…
It enveloped him. Erin came to a stop and shyly ducked her head to Briganda.
“Hi, guys. Sorry I caused such a mess. Are you okay, Cade? I can step over here, Briganda…”
She pointed to the side, but Briganda lifted a hand as she blew her nose—on a messy handkerchief.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, alright?”
She had forgiven Erin, and the [Innkeeper] looked relieved. She waved at Cade, looking so sad, but the boy just stared up at her, clinging to his mother’s leg. He had never understood why it was Erin’s fault, and now he spoke.
“You have a pretty hat, Miss.”
Halrac glanced up in surprise. Erin was wearing nothing on her head. Her brown hair was untidy from being blown about by the wind. The [Hunter] had eyes almost as good as any son of House Veltras who had inherited their Skills and abilities.
Yet he saw nothing on Erin’s head. Until he shifted and the wind blew—and he thought he saw it. Perhaps it was just a memory.
But that was her fire. The flaming hat still burned, flickering over the [Witch]’s head. Erin beamed at Cade.
“The trick is to never take it off. I’m gonna go now, but I’ll be back—and you can visit whenever you want, okay? Just not in the spring, maybe. I don’t want to get into more trouble.”
Briganda looked blank, and Typhenous chuckled. Cade solemnly shook Erin’s hand.
“I’ll be a [Witch] when I grow up.”
Now that made his mother nervous. But Erin just tipped her hat with a huge wink. Then she rose and turned to Halrac.
“We didn’t get to hang out as long as we wanted, did we?”
She looked sad about that, and the [Bowman] shrugged, face blank.
“These things happen. I’m glad you levelled up and found your…craft.”
Revi wailed, and to everyone’s astonishment, they saw she was sniffing. She stared at Gothica.
“I’ve met the only person with a sense of style here in this entire dratted continent and she’s going off! Stay another week!”
Erin laughed, but guiltily.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to visit us, guys. Or I’ll finally upgrade that door. But either way, I promise—it won’t be long. The inn is changing. So am I.”
She stood in front of them, and none of Griffon Hunt could deny that. And that hurt Halrac most of all, because the girl who had not changed for so long was different before their eyes. Not worse, no. Not with flaming hat and certainty in her eyes, but she was different, and he was old enough to mourn that. And wise enough not to fear it.
But Erin just turned to Halrac, then she threw her arms around him. Typhenous chuckled as he watched, but this time, Halrac squeezed back a bit. They stood there for a while, until he felt like he’d had a hug as long as you actually wanted to say goodbye.
It just took a bit of forever to do that. The [Witch] and [Innkeeper] stood back, sniffing, and Halrac looked at the girl walking towards the carriage uncertainly.
“Take care of Nanette. She needs help more than anyone else right now. I think you might be what she needs. Laken would not let her go if he didn’t think that.”
Erin nodded, eyes serious. Then she reached out.
“Halrac Everam—I’m going. Revi Cotton, Briganda and Cade Rishaw, Typhenous…um, Typhenous…?”
She turned to him, and the [Plague Mage]’s gaze twinkled with mirth.
“Typhenous the Plague will do, Miss Erin. Or Typhenous the Face.”
She gave him an exasperated look, then, solemnly, recomposed herself and nodded.
He began laughing as Erin turned to them. Halrac rolled his eyes and found Revi was doing the same. But he listened as Erin took their hands, one by one, and spoke.
“If I can help Nanette—you’re what Riverfarm needs. You’re the reason Goblins are walking around here. It won’t be long before we meet. But you’ll come back. And when you do, I’ll finally be able to give you the welcome you deserve.”
The Gold-rank team looked at each other. Revi sniffed again. She took off her nose because it was runny.
“Only you could make guarding a village sound heroic. We’re not the Horns. Or the Halfseekers. You—you take care of yourself. Alright?”
Erin hugged them all one last time and turned to Halrac. He nodded to her, then paused. He felt embarrassed, but he needed a hint.
“What are we supposed to do to become that team you want to welcome, Erin? I don’t see many monsters or as many disasters cropping up here.”
She gave him a surprised look, then wagged a finger scoldingly. Erin stepped back and gestured around Riverfarm. Her arms took in the [Emperor] observing them with blind eyes, Master Helm and the folk of the Unseen Empire, the [Witches], and even the watching Sariant Lambs.
“Halrac! Everyone needs a home. I’m glad I saw yours.”
The [Bowman of Loss] opened his mouth to protest, and he looked around. This wasn’t Windrest—but he saw his folks gazing at him. He saw Pebblesnatch watching anxiously, as if afraid Erin would take her favorite adventurer away. Then he staggered as if she had knocked him over with a word. He really was slow on the draw today. He looked at Erin, and she pointed at him.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But it seems to me like you guys are putting down roots. Trees get up and walk and hit people, or so I’ve been told. But Griffon Hunt might be stronger for Riverfarm.”
Then she was waving and Mrsha was clinging to Halrac’s boots and asking if they could take just him. And he reached down and picked her up and hugged her and told her he’d be back. To visit.
It was a promise.
Everything was going to be different. Nanette sat in a carriage and knew that truth. But [Witches] knew these things, and a little girl, Mrsha, gripped her hand and kept glancing at her to make sure she was okay.
Lyonette was speaking about rooms and friends and the city, and Nanette saw the [Witches] standing there. They tipped their hats to her as the carriage began to move away.
She left her hat behind. It sat on the tombstone, and Nanette felt light. She felt alive, and she saw the anxious [Witch of Second Chances], the [Magical Innkeeper], watching her.
Suddenly, Nanette wanted to know how Erin had met Califor, properly this time. She was hungry, and her feet hurt, and she felt thin, and her robes were smelly from not being washed for a while.
“You can call me Erin, Nanette. In fact, you’ve gotta if we’re living together. Miss Solstice is, like, my mom’s name.”
Erin smiled—then froze and looked guilty—and a Goblin wearing black kicked her so hard in the shins Erin swore. Nanette stared fearfully at Gothica, but then she felt the urge to laugh and had to hide it.
But she was no longer a [Witch]. So what came out of her mouth was hard to hide.
“You really did meet my mother?”
Erin looked up.
“I swear I did. Her ghost was so—so tough she kept me safe the entire time I was dead. And she kept talking about you. She made me promise to seek you out, even if you didn’t like me.”
Nanette nodded. Then she felt a prickling in her eyes. Not a twitching in her toes or a crawling of her skin. Tears, wet and mundane, began to spill from her eyes. She sniffed—and her nose ran—and the [Princess] gave her a handkerchief, and the girl, Mrsha, patted her hand anxiously. The [Innkeeper] looked at Nanette, a reflection of grief in her eyes. Nanette began to sob, but she asked.
“Was she—did she look happy? Did she put a smile on other people’s faces?”
She began to cry as they left Riverfarm. Cry and cry, but not without end. With all the grief she’d been holding in her hat. Then she listened as Erin told her stories, and sobbed and ate and breathed.
All the while, a little Gnoll girl was patting her hand and telling her not to cry because they had a chocolate tree. And—and she’d introduce Nanette to Visma and Ekirra, and they were going to be best friends.
The two were so upset that Ser Sest did the only thing he knew to do when a [Princess] was crying, and began to try and sing a lullaby, as if they were both six. Then Mrsha tried to attack him, and Nanette tried to pull the Gnoll off the [Knight].
Then she and Mrsha looked at each other, and both thought they saw a reflection, however strange. Nanette stopped crying and felt guilty. Until she realized she had years and decades and however long she lived and thereafter to cry.
She was so tired of it and so guilty at being tired—until Mrsha solemnly took her hand. Then she began trying to explain who she was, beginning with her names, and she had many. Nanette bent over the writing Gnoll.
“Who’s Relc? Who’s Gire-u-lashia? Are you sure they’ll like me?”
They had better. Or I’ll stab them with a toothpick.
Mrsha puffed out her cheeks and stomach fiercely; she hadn’t quite mastered posturing. But then she was asking what Nanette liked.
“I—I do like sweet things. And flowers and herbs.”
Then we’ll go to Wailant’s first! He’s a [Pirate].
“A [Pirate]? I’ve only met a few crews.”
Then Mrsha’s eyes went round, and she looked at Nanette. And she realized that she, Mrsha the Worldly, had a friend almost, possibly slightly more travelled than she.
As for Nanette? She looked at the kind, slightly presumptuous, certainly arrogant-as-an-[Emperor] girl sitting across from her. She realized something at the same time as Lyonette let out a breath she’d been holding since the carriage started rolling.
Erin did likewise. The two whispered in the way of meddlesome adults, as if believing a witch and a Gnoll couldn’t hear them.
“You know, Erin. Mrsha doesn’t have any friends who can always visit the inn. And I imagine it’s hard to be a young [Witch] roaming about as, uh, they do. This might have been a good idea after all. Did Califor think of this, do you think?”
“That was the first thing she asked me—if my inn had any children in it. We’re going to need a playground. Or, at least, explore some of the cool gardens.”
Nanette looked up sharply, and everyone realized she had no idea about Erin’s gardens. Mrsha clung to her delightedly, and then the young witch felt it.
Once a [Witch], always a witch. Even if the walls of the box weren’t there. For the first time in a long, long while—Nanette began to look forwards to something and stared out of the carriage.
It reminded her of walking with her mother and asking where they were going next. It might be scary or dangerous—but she had a vision of following Califor and humming a song. Nanette began to hum it now, and Mrsha listened, then joined in. A little nursery rhyme.
Onwards, onwards we go.
Over green pastures and field and snow
Where we’ll end up, nobody knows
So onwards, laughing together down the road.
That was how the [Innkeeper] left Riverfarm. With a promise to return, with wonders and knowledge and deeds done, but no death, for once. It was a poor vacation, perhaps, but it was a start.
The party headed back to Invrisil and to Liscor. Two new souls, two new guests and parts of the inn’s family in tow.
Nanette Weishart, a girl with no class, wondering what she would do and when she would come back to claim her hat. But not afraid of the journey. She looked around at a strange family welcoming her in, and remembered how her mother smiled.
Two souls. A witch, and in the hamper containing all the now-eaten lunches for the ride back, a Sariant Lamb. A quiet traveller on a great journey of her own, for death and glory and salvation and terrible, terrible indigestion. But they only found the lamb the next morning.
Author’s Note: With edits, 39,000 Words. It was about 35,000 after two days.
I think we have established something and it is this: I write better after my weekly break. Say what you will, but the power is there and I sprint without stopping. Hence me being weaker at the end.
But sometimes you get stuff like Valeterisa’s chapter at the end of a writing month. I think it’s about consistency, though. Sometimes I can write too much, so there’s a negative on this side.
Here we are. Back to Erin’s story.
Writing is exhausting and it’s fun. I regret…well, I once thought Terry Pratchett was that madman who claimed it was enjoyable as the end product himself. I regret to say he was right. As always. Sigh.
That’s all from me. I’ll try to tone it down next chapter, but who knows? Let’s see what happens and try to make it a good trip. Thanks for reading.
PS: Taking ideas for the law elemental’s name. Toren was a good one. Can you beat uh, Trafficlighti? Someone suggested ‘the Legis-light-or’. Please, save this poor Elemental.
The Ivory Five, Zimrah, Gershal, and more by Lanrae!
Valeterisa’s Buisness Face by LeChatDemon!
Crusader 57 by son.chapo, commissioned by dado!