6.48 T

“Toren? Toren. Where have you gone, you silly skeleton?”

A young woman called out cheerfully in an old inn. She stood by a table, turning left and then right aimlessly. She had a blank, vacuous look on her face. But her voice was clear.

“Toren! Get over here!”

At her words, a skeleton obediently trotted over. He was wearing a ragged apron, and he had a sword at his side. The young woman ignored both. She turned and the skeleton obediently sidled over.

“There’s some dirt over there. Someone made a mess. Maybe me. Clean it up, will you?”

The skeleton stared at her. Then he grudgingly walked over to a broom leaning against a table. Erin Solstice turned her back again and bumped into one of the few tables in the room as Toren went over to the tiny amount of dust and dirt and began sweeping it with the crude broom towards the entrance. Erin’s voice continued.

“And here’s another mess! Toren! I told you to keep the inn clean! Sweep this up too! And is that blood?

She was indicating another splotch on the floor. The skeleton looked up, spotted the other messes, and redoubled his efforts. He swept the first patch of dirt out of the door and scurried over to the next. Erin wasn’t satisfied, though.

“You’re so slow. Honestly! This is why I hired Lyonette. I mean, even though all she does is complain and steal stuff. But to be fair, she never blew up my inn.

She turned back to the table and bumped into it again. Toren’s shoulders hunched and he paused in cleaning up the dirt. The action wasn’t missed by Erin, even though her back was turned.

“Hey! Get back to work, lazy bones! Clean up the mess! That’s what you’re good for! That’s all you’re good for.

The skeleton’s head slowly rotated around on his shoulders. Two purple flames stared at Erin through the eye sockets of his skull. Erin, undeterred, kept speaking.

“What’s your problem? I’ve got places to be! Chop, chop! Clean up the mess!”

The skeleton threw down the broom and stepped on it. He snapped the thin handle and heard Erin gasp.

“How dare you! Toren! Clean that up right now and fix that broom!”

He ignored her. Toren advanced on Erin. She turned left, stared blankly at a wall. The furious skeleton circled around her, but Erin wouldn’t look right at him.

“Toren! I said, clean up the—”

The sword cleaved Erin’s head open. Toren raised the blade, wrenched it out of Erin’s head as she jerked, and tore it free. Then he stabbed her through the chest.

Erin stumbled. But she didn’t fall. At last, her eyes focused on him.

“Toren? What—”

Toren yanked the blade free. He ran Erin through a second time. She still didn’t fall. And—she made no sound as he stabbed her. He did it again and again, piercing the pallid, rotting skin of her chest. And she was silent.

At last, Erin fell to the ground. Toren stood over her, silently staring at her open eyes, her gaping mouth. He wasn’t panting; skeletons had no lungs. And Toren was a skeleton. An undead creature brought back to life by necromancy. But he wasn’t mindless. And in his head he was…relieved.

He’d done it. Erin’s stupid voice and her stupid orders were done with. Forever. He’d killed her. Silenced her at last, as he’d fantasized about doing. She was dead.

Again.

Toren stared at Erin’s body. And then suddenly, he stumbled back. He dropped the sword, clutched his skull of a head in his hands. What had he done? He’d killed her. He’d—

Erin jerked back upright with a groan. She didn’t get up like normal people did; her feet found the ground and she flopped upright without pushing herself up. It was an unnatural display of midriff strength few Humans could hope to equal.

Oh, and she also had half a dozen stab wounds through her chest. But she wasn’t bleeding. Her mouth gaped blankly at Toren and her unfocused eyes stared right through him. She groaned. But it was more of an unconscious sound; zombies didn’t speak, no matter how hard Toren tried to make them.

Toren stared at ‘Erin’ as the zombie of the young woman lurched upright unsteadily. A few maggots squirmed in her open mouth. The zombie lurched past Toren, blankly, but Erin’s voice still rang in Toren’s head.

“Toren! You stabbed me! Rude! Now, go pick up that broom and fix it. And get rid of all this dirt! Did you hear me? I said—”

The skeleton warrior shook his head. He walked away from Erin, picking up his sword, and sat down at a table. The zombie Erin bumped into a table again and the momentum carried her into it. Toren heard a crash as the flimsy wood broke. Zombie and table collapsed onto the ground. Toren whirled—

And the illusion fell apart. He stared around at the crude tables made of bits of wood held together with string or primitive nails. At the few chairs, which could barely support his weight, let alone an actual person’s. At the bar—a slab of wood on top of some rocks. At the ‘kitchen’, a metal door at the back, and the three doors that he’d created that led into this room. The stone walls.

This was not The Wandering Inn. And the zombie flailing uselessly on the ground wasn’t Erin. Toren was in the dungeon. Erin Solstice was dead. Months dead. He’d killed her. Left her alone in the snow outside a city far from her inn. And he was trapped in the dungeon. The skeleton buried his head in his hands. And he heard it closing in on him.

Madness.

 

—-

 

It was just one small room in hundreds, thousands of others. A single spot in the labyrinth, the maze of Liscor’s dungeon. It was a tiny place, barely fortified by some crude doors. The inn had some tables, some chairs, a few bowls, and a barrel or two of ‘food’. And a skeleton and a zombie.

The zombie was just a zombie. It was a young woman’s zombie, and she had dirty and bloodied hair that might have been brownish, once. She was—had been—Human, and fairly young. She wandered about aimlessly, occasionally groaning, bumping into tables, chairs, walls, and the doors, looking for a way out.

The skeleton was different. He was not aimless. Everything he did had a purpose. And he could use doors. Sometimes he left the inn. Sometimes he came back. Always, always, he kept the three doors that lead out from the inn closed, lest the zombie escape and fulfill her vocation of trying to kill anything alive. And he seldom opened the fourth door that led into the back of the inn. The sturdy, metal door that led to the…kitchen.

There were a lot of sounds coming from behind the metal door. But the skeleton ignored them. He had a job to do. With one hand he held a crude dustpan, which looked like a bit of iron armor flattened out into a funnel of sorts. Which it was. And in the other hand he held the head of a broom.

Toren swept the stone floor, found a dustrag and a bucket of water and polished the floor, despite the water having tiny particles in it that made keeping everything perfectly clean impossible, and fixed up the broken table. The zombie lurched past Toren, groaning, doing that thing with the arms that was so trendy among zombies.

Toren ignored her.

He swept the floor, diligently.

He polished the bar.

He didn’t open the door to the kitchen.

He stood blankly in a corner of the inn.

He stabbed zombie-Erin repeatedly.

He banged his head against the wall until his skull cracked and began to magically mend itself.

He lay on the ground.

He stabbed the giant fly-thing that tried to force its way into the room.

He cleaned up the blood.

He chopped up the fly thing and added it to the barrel of food. There were lots of maggots inside.

He swept the floor again.

And through it all, he wished, oh, how he wished, that he could go back in time. Because Toren was miserable. He was empty.

Erin was dead. And he was lost.

Not lost in a physical sense. Or even in terms of the dungeon. Toren didn’t know how long he’d been down here. He lost track, sometimes. The dungeon felt like a home to him, in a way. He knew the layout; he could navigate the threats of the dungeon and he could navigate most areas without needing to see. Literally; the skeleton’s memory was flawless. But Toren seldom went out of the inn he’d built here. There was no point. All he wanted, the source of his misery and regret, was right here.

Well, sort of. Zombie-Erin lurched past Toren and he stared at her. It wasn’t Erin’s body. He knew that. It was just some Human’s body he’d found among all the dead corpses. This one looked most like Erin. Well, she had. Now she had a bunch of holes in her chest and half of her head was sheared off. Toren might need to find another ‘Erin’ soon. But this one was good.

The skeleton waved a hand and felt a perverse sense of delight as the zombie obediently lurched over to him and halted in front of the table he was cleaning. That was one of his abilities. Commanding the undead. He could make the zombie-Erin run, hit things, lie down, or even pick things up, albeit clumsily. But he couldn’t make the zombie speak. Or think. Or—be Erin for him.

The zombie halted in place, staring aimlessly past Toren. Her mouth was open and Toren saw something wriggling inside. He absently picked out the squirming worms out of the fake Erin’s mouth, tossed them into one of the snack bowls, and patted her on the head. A few hairs came out and the zombie made an ‘urghfshh’ sound that was half-voice, half gas and liquid escaping from her deflated lungs.

“I’m sorry, Toren. I’d never get rid of you. I like you. You’re my favorite worker. Not like that jerk, Lyonette.”

Erin’s voice echoed in Toren’s head. He stared at her and pointed at a chair. Zombie-Erin sat, with Toren’s help, and wobbled unsteadily in her chair. It creaked, but held. Toren stared at her. At Erin.

Slowly, tentatively, he sat next to Erin. He could hear her voice in his head. As bright and cheerful as always. A perfect replica of how the real Erin had talked. That was the problem with Toren’s memory. It was too perfect. He could remember Erin too well. It never faded.

It. Never. Faded.

Toren realized he was slamming his head against the table. He looked up. Erin stared at him, a look of concern on her face. A maggot wriggled in her cheek.

“I really need you to keep it together, Toren. I rely on you for all kinds of stuff.”

Toren nodded. Sorry. He was just having a bad moment. He was always having a bad moment, now. He edged closer. Slowly, tentatively, Toren leaned against Erin.

The zombie tried to lurch away. Toren grabbed its hand and patted his skull with it. It was something he had seen her do to Mrsha. And the little Gnoll had smiled. The skeleton sat there, patting his own head with Erin’s hand. Then he gingerly hugged Erin.

The skeleton smiled, but not by choice. And his purple eyes dimmed slightly. The purple fire grew weaker. He didn’t feel better. He felt worse. The zombie moved, unconsciously trying to seek something to kill. Toren ordered it to hold still and it did. But he knew it wasn’t really Erin.

And then he heard her voice again, whispering in the confines of his skull.

“You blew up my inn, Toren. You blew it up! You maniac! And you killed me. You killed me and I’m dead and you will never leave this dungeon ever again.

Toren jerked. He leapt away from the table and zombie-Erin fell to the ground as the chair holding her collapsed. Shaken, the skeleton stared at the zombie as she picked herself up. She hadn’t said anything.

It was all in his head. All in his head. Toren smacked his skull with his bony hands. And he felt terrible. Because after months, after so long, he could finally admit it: he wanted to go home. But he couldn’t. The dungeon was his prison.

Toren lacked a living person supplying him with mana. Without it, he couldn’t go above without running out of magical energy in minutes. And without magic, the spells giving him life would wither and he would die. Anything short of that Toren could survive; in the mana-heavy environment of the dungeon, he was very, very hard to kill because his body would automatically repair itself over time.

Those were the facts. Toren had lost his old home, The Wandering Inn. His master, Erin, was dead. He’d killed her. Well, not directly, but he’d left her in the snow, far, far, from home. So it was his fault.

Around and around, the thoughts went. Toren couldn’t avoid them. He’d tried. He’d tried to replace Erin, remake the inn, even find a clientele in the dungeon. None of it had worked. Toren tried to cheer himself up by killing things with his sword, but he’d given that up oh, about two zombie-Erins ago. What was the point?

He’d gotten tired of killing things for no reason. And that was the most shocking thing Toren could ever imagine in the world. But there it was. If you didn’t have a reason, killing things got boring after twenty thousand six hundred and fifty one times.

Toren mechanically got back to work after a while of beating his skull with his hands. He bent down and fixed up the broken chair. The stupid furniture was always breaking. Unfortunately, Toren didn’t have much in the way of stuff to fix it with.

The current chairs and table were held together with bits of twine, strips of monster hide or sinew, and nails fashioned out of bits of metal. Toren was wrapping a bit of antennae or something around the chair, hoping it would keep the fragmented wood together, when he heard a sound.

A voice. The skeleton froze, and his hand darted to his sword. Another hand grasped at something at his side. A mask. The hand tried to place the mask on his face, but Toren forced it down. He waited, listening. Where…?

It wasn’t coming from one of the three ramshackle doors leading out of the inn. Toren relaxed. It wasn’t adventurers. Or Raskghar. Or Cave Goblins. Or those annoying little monsters that pretended to be children. In fact, it was coming from the metal door.

The kitchen. Toren paused. But curiosity slowly propelled him towards the door. He hesitated, listening. There were definitely voices coming from the other side. More than before. The [Skeleton Knight] paused as he reached for the door. There was a bar on this door. He slowly touched it, and then looked around.

Zombie-Erin was nearby. Toren looked at her, and then hurried her into a far corner of the inn. Then he came back over, unbarred the metal door, and opened it. Quickly, Toren went through and shut the door behind him.

It was dark in the ‘kitchen’. It wasn’t a kitchen. It was really just a large room, empty when Toren had found it. Now it was full. Of corpses.

Four thousand bodies. Well, four and a few hundred if you wanted to be precise. Raskghar. Human. Goblin. Drake. Gnoll. All of them were piled up, some practically to the ceiling in places. Rotting. Decomposing. And now—wandering about.

Toren stared around the room. His fellow undead had moved at the sudden influx of light, and lurched towards the door, but now it was shut, they began wandering again. It was nearly pitch-black in the room. There was no light, safe from the countless eyes, staring, shining with undead malice. No light. But there were voices.

“Doombringer.”

Toren jumped. Someone was talking in the darkness. He stared around and saw a huge, hulking, distended figure. A monster twice as tall as he was, with bones for teeth, eyes staring out of the mouth, black liquid dripping from its gaping maw. Huge ‘hands’. Legs, made of other body parts.

A Crypt Lord. One of the more powerful breeds of undead. It moved more purposefully than the zombies and ghouls around it. But it hadn’t made the sound. Toren peered around it. The Crypt Lord held its ground, staring past Toren at the door. There was something like intelligence in the way it stood, but not too much intelligence. Toren impatiently raised his hands to push it out of the way, and then thought better. He meekly edged around the Crypt Lord and listened.

“…it be an end to all of us!”

A voice screamed. Toren jumped a foot in the air and bumped into a Ghoul. The undead staggered and Toren sheepishly edged back. None of the other undead seemed to notice the voice. Toren moved forwards. And then he saw the speaker.

It was a Gnoll. He lay on his stomach, his head twisted up to stare blankly past Toren. He was dead; someone had broken his ribs, torn out his heart. But the Gnoll spoke. His lungs moved and his voice was only slightly distorted by rot and death.

“Cursed Raskghar.”

Toren stared at the Gnoll. Then he stared at the thing that the Gnoll was connected to. Where the Gnoll’s legs should have been, Toren only saw a squirming mass of limbs. Fur. Elongated flesh. Heads. Hands, grasping. Legs. Faces. And more voices.

“Damn you.”

“Lord Veltras! The Goblins are—”

Redfang!

“Who are—”

“Not a Raskghar—”

A babble of voices, now, from the heads, the bodies twined together. Toren stared. There were hundreds of faces, all woven together in a…he eyed the thing. A mount of bodies. No, more like a tree. The ‘roots’ or ‘legs’ were torsos, like the dead Gnoll. The thing had limbs, made of people. And in the center of it, rising up, was a pillar of flesh. Of heads. They were all parts of a whole, and they spoke.

Goblins. Humans. Gnolls. Drakes. Ooh! And A Raskghar. It just snarled, growling incoherently. But then, all the voices were nonsensical. Toren shook his head, listening. The Gnoll was speaking again.

“Doombringer. Doombringer.”

Who was he talking to? Toren wondered. They were words from his life, no doubt. The Gnoll tried to drag itself forwards and all the hands and bodies nearby did the same. Toren jumped; the thing was moving. It was thousands upon thousands of pounds of rotting flesh, joined together, but the sum of the parts allowed it to crawl forwards across the ground.

Toren stared at the…thing. Hundreds of elongated corpses tangled together, hands grasping, heads moving. Staring at him. Uttering fragments like the Gnoll babbling his last words. He stepped back and behind the mount of flesh, the entire creation as a whole. The undead collective. Toren turned his head. Next to it, another Crypt Lord had risen, and it was tearing at a lesser zombie, ‘eating’ it and absorbing the bones and flesh into its own makeup. Toren paused and then shook his head.

This was a complete failure. He sighed, stepped back as the flesh-pit tried to crawl forwards again, and scuffed backwards. He tried to order the mass of bodies not to crawl over him, but it ignored his commands. Just like the Crypt Lords. There were eight of them in the room—five more than last time. Hundreds of zombies, already. Not any skeletons; all the bodies Toren had found were fresh, but a good number of Ghouls, too.

Toren pointed at one of them, a more agile, alert version of the zombie. It obediently bounded over to him; a corpse of a Raskghar, but before Toren could give it another order he felt something else impose its will. The Ghoul paused, turned, and bounded back to the nearest Crypt Lord. Toren stamped his foot and glared at the undead commander. The Crypt Lord stared at Toren and he felt a tug. It wanted him to follow it. Toren ignored the command and clattered his jaw furiously.

Failure! Another failure! He’d had such hopes for his room of undead! And he’d worked so hard to gather all the bodies! But instead of creating what he’d wanted—an army of undead he could control and maybe even some high-level undead for him to use—he’d created, well, high undead.

Crypt Lords. And whatever that flesh-pit thing was. They not only ignored Toren’s orders, but were capable of giving other undead orders. Case in point; each Crypt Lord had a retinue over dozens of zombies and Ghouls, which followed them around. Try as he might, Toren couldn’t ‘steal’ any of the undead; the Crypt Lords had more authority than he did. And worse, if he tried to poach a few bodies…

The Level 27 [Skeleton Knight] paused. He hadn’t leveled up much in that class; Toren didn’t do much killing these days. But he had another class. The purple flames in the skeleton’s eyes glowed brightly for a moment. He pointed, and one of the corpses lying in a small mound jerked and began to move. Toren saw it rise, saw the ghastly light appear in its eyes. A zombie Hobgoblin rose and Toren clapped his hands delightedly.

Level 12 [Undead Leader]. [Command Lesser Undead]. That was another class he possessed, and a Skill that allowed him to give orders to zombies and Ghouls and skeletons. But also—

[Raise Corpse]. The zombie lurched forwards. Toren beckoned to it urgently, before one of the stupid Crypt Lords could steal his zombie. The zombie obediently stumbled forwards, and Toren motioned it to the door. He reached for the handle—

And the flesh-pit moved. A mass of hands rose, grabbing, and yanked the Hobgoblin zombie off its feet. Toren froze as he saw the zombie struggling, and then go limp. The mass of corpses was drawing it in!

The flesh-pit picked up the zombie and pulled in into the writhing mass of bodies. Toren felt the zombie’s individual presence vanish. And the squirming pile of bodies was suddenly a bit larger. Toren stared at it. He heard a myriad of voices. A wail of dead bodies, echoing their life.

Toren scuffed at the ground with one bony foot. Jerk. It kept doing that. All Toren wanted was his army of zombies. But could he get even one? No…he could barely replace his zombie-Erin! There were all these…

The Crypt Lords were aimlessly walking the room, searching for a way out. Toren noticed one coming up behind him too late. He turned, and it reached for him with one huge hand. The skeleton tried to jerk away, but the Crypt Lord caught him. It raised Toren up as the skeleton struggled. And the many eyes in the thing’s mouth focused on Toren’s burning purple flames.

The skeleton froze. He felt the Crypt Lord’s mind pressing in on his. And from that mind Toren felt…an instinct. A thought, magnified so loud it drowned out Toren’s sense of being. The Crypt Lord’s thoughts blasted through Toren’s skull.

DEATH.

It dropped him. Toren collapsed to the ground, stunned, the command still vibrating through his entire being. The Crypt Lord lurched past him, ignoring the skeleton in a moment. It grabbed a Ghoul, lifted it up, made eye-contact, dropped it. The Ghoul bounded into place in its retinue. Toren kept lying on the ground. He didn’t feel like following the Crypt Lord around. Still, that had rattled him.

Toren got up after a bit. It was too crowded here. He glared at the Crypt Lord who’d picked him up. He knew it was probably a bad idea, but he was Toren! The strongest skeleton in the world! How dare the Crypt Lord pick him up like—like—like a common Ghoul?

The purple light in Toren’s eye sockets grew a bit brighter. He casually sidled past the undead following the Crypt Lord about. The undead commander was searching for another member of its army when Toren tapped it on the…back. The Crypt Lord turned, black blood dripping between its bone-teeth.

Toren plunged his sword in to the Crypt Lord’s chest. The undead recoiled! Toren laughed silently. Hah! Take th—

The Crypt Lord smashed Toren into the ground with one massive hand. The zombies and Ghouls leapt on Toren, tearing his bones apart and smashing him flat. For about five seconds the skeleton flailed with his sword—and then he was torn apart. The bones went flying as the Crypt Lord kept smashing same spot, and then stopped. It paused, and then then went about its business.

The skeleton’s bones lay there for a while and the Crypt Lord moved past him, wandering aimlessly around the enclosed room. After a few more minutes, the bones began rolling towards the door. Toren furtively reassembled himself next to the door and crept back to pick up his sword. The Crypt Lord he’d stabbed ignored him. Toren lifted the sword, looked at the undead’s back, and thought better about it.

He hurried back to the door and pushed it open. The Crypt Lords turned as one and the wailing from the flesh-pit grew louder. All the undead lurched for the door and the nearest Crypt Lord reached out, trying to fit itself through the opening. It saw a skeleton in the way and ordered it to move aside.

Toren slammed the door in the Crypt Lord’s face and was rewarded with a satisfying thwack. The skeleton grinned and did a little dance in place. Idiots! So what if they could command more undead than he could and beat him in a fight? They couldn’t open doors.

He absently pushed the door closed all the way and slammed the bar down. Then he kicked it for good measure. The door made a satisfactory ringing sound and Toren slapped one shin-bone, grinning. His good mood lasted all of eight seconds. Then he stared at the door and gloomily went back to the table. He sat down as zombie-Erin lurched past him.

Yep. That was a failure. Stupid undead. All Toren wanted were some Draug, not…bosses. And besides which…Toren sprawled out at the table like he’d seen Erin do.

So that was what other undead were like, was it? The Crypt Lord’s order still resonated in Toren’s soul. The skeleton thought about it. And he shook his head.

There was nothing there. Toren had seen a glimpse of the future in the Crypt Lord’s mind—a future it would bring about, what all undead would bring about given their natural instincts and time. And the world they would create was empty. An oblivion where the undead were all that remained. That was its purpose. And Toren, understanding that, came to another conclusion.

Undead were idiots. All except for him. The skeleton looked at zombie-Erin. He paused, and then threw one of the snack bowls at her. It bounced off her head and she staggered.

Yup. Idiots. All they wanted was to kill the living? What was the point in that? Toren paused. Well, obviously for fun, but all life? Every living thing, until the world was silent and empty and nothing, not even insects, could reproduce? That was the stupidest idea he, Toren, had ever heard of. And he’d taken orders from Erin Solstice.

Death was boring. He should know. Life, now…Toren paused. He looked at zombie-Erin.

This was what Toren realized. It hit him like a snack bowl. Killing things was sometimes a bad idea. The skeleton’s jaw dropped off his skull. He had to pick it up and reattach it. But—he looked at the kitchen door. At zombie-Erin.

There could be no other explanation. He regretted killing Erin. He missed her. He wished she were back. Even though she was stupid. Even though she did things he didn’t like.

That was the thing. He didn’t know how he felt about her. Erin. She—had—made him angry. Given him orders he didn’t like. But Toren missed her. More than that he needed her. He…wanted her not to be dead. Because she was annoying and stupid and he had to obey her.

But sometimes. Ah, sometimes. Sometimes she sang and the music still haunted him. Sometimes she said ‘thank you’, or ‘good job, Toren’. And sometimes she came up with things to do that were…fun. She had given him meaning and in a way, life.

Protect Erin Solstice. Obey her. Be used in less-optimal tasks. Of all the people and animals and monsters and things in the world, Toren regretted killing only her. And he realized the scope of his blunder, his error now. She was gone. And death was timeless. The undead came for all things, and they were eternal, or close to it. Which made living things, finite things, more precious.

Or maybe just Erin. Toren was still hazy on whether other living things mattered. But Erin did. Because there had only been one of her.

These were the things Toren didn’t do. He didn’t bury his head in his hands. He didn’t weep. Or scream. Or hit the tables or himself, or curl into a ball or shake or shudder in pain. Because those were biological reactions. They didn’t help him. So he just sat. And hurt.

This was what Toren knew, too late. You couldn’t get something back when you lost it. It was a revelation for him, just the same way it was for anyone who loses something precious the first time.

The skeleton sat and was sad. Insanity gnawed at his head. Madness and sadness. And as it got too much for him to handle, as he sank lower and lower, his hand moved. Toren tried to stop it. But he was too weak. And the mask, the mask hanging by his side came up. It covered his face and he—

Was she. Toren sighed and relaxed and shook her head. She looked around, realized she was naked, and stomped over to a pile of rags in the corner of the inn. Zombie-Erin watched blankly as Toren dressed herself. When she was done, she looked like…a person. You could mistake her for a thin, female Human wearing a mask. Female Toren adjusted the cloth padding one arm, and shook her head.

Too long since she’d last been in charge. He liked moping around his inn too much. But she didn’t agonize like he did. She had something Toren lacked. Purpose. She left the bar behind, contemptuously stalking out of the illusion of the inn. She was so annoyed with him that she didn’t even bother closing the door. It would serve Toren right if something came along and ate his fake-Erin. And he’d probably go on a murderous rampage again or sit in a corner. But that was his time. She had other plans.

The skeleton disappeared from the inn. Zombie-Erin lurched around, not quite picking up on the fact that she could leave the inn yet. She wandered about, occasionally groaning.

After a few minutes, the door to the ‘kitchen’ opened slowly. The Crypt Lord pushing it open stared at the drop-bar that usually kept the room sealed. It hadn’t landed in the crude metal holster. The door opened wider and the Crypt Lord stumbled forwards. The lone zombie in the inn looked up as whispering voices filled the inn. Voices and movement.

And suddenly, there were a lot of…things coming out of the corpse room. Not just Crypt Lords, zombies, Ghouls, and flesh-pits, either. Something crawled down, made of many bones. Toren would have been shocked to know they were in the room. Because Toren, in the way skeletons and people often lack spatial awareness, had never once decided to look up.

 

—–

 

Anith, the Jackal Beastkin of Vuliel Drae had never once in his entire life thought to question what kind of stone Liscor’s dungeon was made from. It was not on his list of things to worry about, and as team leader of his eclectic group, he had any number of concerns.

“Granite?”

He politely stared at the Human woman holding the hammer and the pointed nail of metal in one hand. It looked like a nail—only about a hundred times bigger. She was angling it towards the slab of the floor, tapping it and frowning. Earlia, the Silver-rank Captain of the Gemhammer, looked up and nodded.

“That’s right. Got to be. You can see just by the way it looks, obviously, but who’s going to make a dungeon out of anything less? What did you think it was?”

Anith blinked at Earlia. The Jackal [Mage] closed the spellbook he’d been studying and coughed.

“I must confess, I’ve never given it any thought. If you were to ask me, I would have assumed it was a…limestone?”

Limestone?

Earlia burst into laughter. She sat back on her haunches, away from the trap mechanism that was only three feet in front of her. Anith’s fur tried to stand up on end; he wasn’t so sanguine about their proximity to the trap. But Earlia kept laughing.

“Limestone. Hey, Timgal, Anith here thinks this dungeon’s made of limestone!

Anith heard a guffaw from further down the room. The Jackal sighed.

“I only assumed—”

“What, that whoever built this dungeon wants it to wash away with the first rainstorm that hits it?”

Earlia snorted. She grabbed the nail of metal and hammer and leaned forwards again. She pressed the tip into the ground and began smacking the top with the hammer, trying to drive it into the stone. Anith, embarrassed, watched in silence. Earlia was hitting the wedge hard, without fear of smacking her gloved hand, but the pick didn’t seem to be penetrating the dungeon’s floor. With a sigh, Earlia growled and tossed the hammer behind her.

“It’s no good! Boys, we have to crack the enchantment before we can break the stone! Where’s my sledgehammer?”

She stood up and the rest of her team, five more heavily armed and armored adventurers, walked forwards. Anith backed up politely against one wall of the passage to make room for them and the weapons they carried. They were all armed with picks, sledgehammers, or mauls, weapons that required a lot of brawn to swing. And the men and women had that in supply. Earlia nodded as she grabbed a sledgehammer.

“Alright. Me first. Anith, you step back. Watch your faces!”

The rest of her team stepped back, shielding their eyes and averting their heads. Anith copied them, not knowing why, and Earlia raised her sledgehammer.

“[Hammer Blow]!”

The first impact made a sound like thunder as metal hit stone. Anith clapped a hand over his sensitive ears and recoiled. The other adventurers, seemingly used to the sound, just waited. Earlia studied the patch of floor and scowled.

“Next!”

“My turn.”

The huge fellow named Timgal stepped forwards. He held a miner’s pick, and he swung it up and down, aiming for the same spot Earlia had hit.

“[Piercing Blow].”

His strike was less thunderous, but the crack was still sharp enough to keep Anith’s hands over his ears. He kept watching as Timgal stepped back, grunting and eyeing the spot to let another man step forwards with a maul. Anith watched the maul go up—

“[Power Strike]—”

“Watch your eyes, idiot!”

A hand blocked Anith’s vision right before he heard the crack of impact. This time there was more than just the collision; he heard the stones breaking and felt something ping off the wall beside him. He jerked back as Earlia lowered her hand.

“What was—”

“Shrapnel. Hey! Keep a hand over your eyes and step back! All of you! Dead gods, haven’t any of you lot ever been around a mining operation?”

Earlia snapped at Anith and the adventurers crowding around behind her team. Anith turned. The rest of his team, Vuliel Drae, stared at Earlia and sheepishly shook their heads. So did he. Earlia sighed.

“Hands over eyes. Got it? We have helmets or we cover ours. You do not want to be hit by a bit of flying rock when we break the dungeon’s floor. That’s how you lose eyes, healing potions or not. Step back! Next! Fea, break open those tiles with your pickaxe! Blaik after her!”

The rest of Gemhammer took turns using their Skills. The sound of breaking stone was accompanied by a spray of fragments that kept Vuliel Drae covering their eyes until Earlia announced a break.

“Alright! Fifteen minutes, everyone! Then Blaik’s up with his [Power Strike]. Back to the other room—let’s keep working on that trap!”

The rest of her team trooped backwards, laughing good-naturedly and picking up the hand-wedges—the oversized nails of steel—and the smaller hammers. Vuliel Drae watched, bemused and confused.

“Wait, you’re giving up?”

Insill, the Drake [Rogue], stared at the patch of broken stone, perplexed. Earlia shook her head.

“Not at all. But we’re out of usable Skills. The rest of my team only has one, like Blaik’s [Power Strike]. We need to keep using them; we’ll never break the stones just by swinging our hammers.”

“Oh. I mean, of course. Sorry.”

The Drake nodded understandingly. Earlia smiled and jerked a thumb behind her.

“And while we do that, we’ll keep breaking down these trap-pillars. We already got the warding enchantment down; all we have to do is carefully remove the actual blades.”

She was pointing to the room behind them. Anith turned and looked at the trap-pillars. There were two in the room, and they were designed such that anyone carelessly entering the room would be instantly diced by the rows of curved blades that would spring from hidden compartments on each pillar. However, the activation mechanism in this particular trap room had been disabled, and now Gemhammer was methodically breaking down the granite stone to get at the trap.

“We’ll split our time between working with hand tools and using our Skills. Once we break the warding enchantment we can use physical force. But we’ll still be at work for a few hours. At least. It’s a day-job, really.”

Earlia sighed as she grabbed her own hand wedge and hammer. Anith nodded, impressed. He wasn’t the only one. Another member of his team, Dasha, the half-Dwarven woman, spoke up.

“That’s proper mining technique alright. Which I know about because of my ancestry. Your team’s not bad at manipulating stone, Miss Earlia. For Humans, of course.”

She stroked her beard self-importantly, ignoring the eye-rolling of the rest of her teammates. Anith sighed, but Earlia just laughed.

“We were [Miners], you know. It’s just that adventuring pays better and it’s about the same level of danger. Anyways, if your team wants to watch…”

She looked at Anith meaningfully and he nodded.

“Of course. Insill, Dasha, watch our way in. Pekona, Larr…”

“On guard.”

The Gnoll [Archer] and [Sword Dancer] Human, Pekona, both nodded and moved to cover the other entrance. Insill and Dasha walked past Gemhammer. They took up a casual guard so that both entrances were watched. Earlia nodded.

“Thanks, Anith.”

“Of course. You are paying us.”

The Jackal coughed again, a bit embarrassed. It was the first time his team had ever been hired to guard another adventuring team, but Earlia had asked and he had agreed out of curiosity and a sense of obligation. The Captain of Gemhammer gave him a grin.

“I know it’s not much, but my team and I wanted someone to guard us for the first few times, just to see what kind of attention we attract. We’re loud and we’ll have our hands full without posting a guard. Best case is that you pocket some silver and all you have to do is stand about for a few hours. Worst case…”

She looked at Larr and Pekona, leaning against their walls and keeping an eye out, and Dasha and Insill, probably arguing about her dubious claim to Dwarven knowledge. Anith sighed.

“Don’t worry. Despite how they look, my team is relatively alert. Larr and Insill will spot anything coming. But can we help in any way with ah…”

He waved a hand at the traps Gemhammer was working on. They were in the trapped rooms, the first layer of Liscor’s dungeon. But unlike every other team that had tried to pass through this area, Gemhammer hadn’t been interested in advancing or clearing more trapped rooms. Instead, they’d insisted on finding rooms already de-trapped by other teams, like this one. Anith still wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing.

Earlia shrugged.

“If your team’s got anyone with [Power Strike] and a sturdy weapon, we could use you. Dasha’s the only one by the looks of it and her axe is a bit…fragile. Don’t worry about it. We just need time and we’ll start breaking the walls and floor. Clearly, we’re working with a dungeon-wide enchantment here. The big stuff. No room-by-room enchantment or mundane materials here.”

Her comment made one of the other adventurers look up. Blaik wiped a bit of grime from his brow as he hammered the spike of metal into the stone pillar.

“What d’you reckon’s holding the place together? Dungeon-wide enchantment worked into the stones? That’s high-grade stuff, which is what I’d expect. Or does it have a locus of some kind?”

“What, like a dungeon heart? Hah!”

“As bad as limestone?”

Anith politely inquired. The rest of the former [Miners] snorted. It was Earlia who replied, shaking her head.

“If it is, it’s worse than limestone. Dungeon hearts or dungeon cores are terrible dungeon design. All one adventurer has to do is charge into the center and break whatever’s powering all the enchantments. Then the entire dungeon implodes or falls apart.”

“Ah.”

Anith had no idea that was a problem. But then—he wasn’t an expert on dungeons. And he was regretting it now. Earlia’s team had clearly done their research, and they were talking as they hammered at the trap. One of the women, Fea, was nodding knowingly.

“It’s not actually that bad to use limestone in a dungeon, Mister Anith. I mean, limestone’s soft, almost as bad as marble, but so long as it’s enchanted, that’s the trick. You can’t make many dungeons out of regular stone. It breaks down too fast—and if you get Crelers, Rock Mites, or half a dozen other monsters infesting your dungeon? Inside of a decade and it’ll be more porous than a sponge!”

She tsked, shaking her head over poor dungeon quality management. The rest of the [Miners] nodded. They were wearing gloves and several had helmets on to shield their faces. Earlia’s voice was muffled as she put on a helmet and got to work beside her team.

“Don’t mind my team, Anith. We’re good at dungeons and rock-related stuff and nothing else. A new dungeon’s a great opportunity for us, especially now all this insanity with the Raskghar and so on’s died down. Still, no one’s taking chances.”

“Which is why you reached out to my team. May I ask why you wish to dismantle this room, though? I assumed it was already safe.”

Anith glanced at the trap pillar. One of the adventurers was carefully working a concealed metal blade out of the wall. Earlia chuckled.

“What? You mean you don’t know what we’re doing? There’s gold to be made—safely—by removing these traps. That’s what our team’s here for and that’s how we’re going to make a fortune.”

“By removing…”

And then Anith saw Blaik pull out of one of the metal trap blades out of the wall. The man grunted, very carefully keeping his fingers away from the edge.

“Captain. Got one!”

“Good work, Blaik!”

Earlia chortled and raised her visor for a better look. She motioned Anith over and he examined the blade. The [Mage] could tell there was an enchantment on the metal, but Anith’s understanding of magic wasn’t specialized in that area. He was certainly not about to touch it, though. Neither was Earlia. She grinned at the blade, looking delighted.

“Beautiful. See? Gold. Just lying here! I can’t believe the other teams aren’t trying to compete with us. Let alone the teams that actually did the de-trapping! I asked Halrac before he left, but he said we were free to have at it. Either he’s an idiot, or the rumors are true and he came away with a huge score.”

Anith’s paw tightened on his spellbook. Halrac, Captain of Griffon Hunt. And one of the people who knew Vuliel Drae’s disgrace. He bowed his head, but then moved on.

“Perhaps. I had heard that he ran into some good fortune. Well-deserved, I think if so. But why would he be interested in…?”

He indicated the metal blade. Earlia gave him a strange look.

“It’s enchanted, Anith. You’re telling me you don’t think we could sell this?”

The Jackal Beastkin paused.

“Oh. Of course. But who would buy…?”

Earlia shook her head, tapping the metal.

“Enchanted metal, nice quality, very fine edge—I’d say forty gold pieces per blade? Unless it’s enchanted with some really keen enchantment, in which case it could be worth ten times that. We’ll have to see—hey! Anyone got something to cut with this thing?”

“I have a mutton leg. Let me eat it.”

One of the other adventurers fished out a snack. After carefully stripping the meat from the bone, he handed it to Earlia. She lifted the bone and chopped at it with the blade. Both she and Anith whistled; the trap blade had gone straight through the bone and marrow. Earlia nodded, satisfied.

“Yup. That sliced through the bone like that. I’d say we can get at least six-fifty on each blade.”

“Six—”

Anith inhaled sharply. Larr turned his head, blinking. Earlia grinned at the expression on Anith’s face.

“Six hundred and fifty gold pieces. That’s right.”

“For just one of those?

Incredulously, Anith pointed at the second trap blade Fea was working out of the pillar. Earlia nodded.

“Well, we’re reselling them, not melting them down or repurposing them, right? If it was magical glyphs or something, the dust or inscriptions are worth a lot less. But magical blades are magical blades. Hells, you could even put this on a polearm and have yourself, what, a Gold-rank weapon? Nah, but a good Silver-rank one. See why we’re so interested in these traps?”

Anith did. He gulped and hesitated.

“Is it wise to tell us this? And who would you sell these blades to? A [Blacksmith]?”

“Just a regular [Merchant] who deals in this kind of stuff. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to pay for dungeon-grade traps. Anyways, it’s not like we’re going to hide what we’re doing. If any other teams want to take a crack at removing the traps, feel free. But it’s dangerous and difficult. Not sure how well your team would do.”

Earlia nodded to Vuliel Drae without rancor. Anith sighed. It was true. His team was specialized for a fight, or maybe defusing traps, but not breaking through stone and enchantments to get at them. But if they could hire a [Miner]…he eyed Earlia’s team and sagged. That was why there was an entire team of former [Miners], wasn’t there?

“Don’t take it too hard. You can make your fortune by finding treasure and collecting monster parts. Each to their own.”

Earlia grinned and patted Anith on the back. He looked somewhat dourly at her beaming face, but relented.

“As long as you’re paying us for guard duty. I’m tripling our fee next time.”

“Bastard.”

The Human woman laughed. Anith smiled, and stepped back as another blade joined the first in a pile. Earlia went back to her pillar and began hammering at the stone, breaking pieces loose.

“We got the idea from the Horns of Hammerad and Miss Erin, actually. If a door they found in a dungeon can transport people a hundred miles, how much would all this be worth? Hey you idiots don’t fool around with those blades! You drop it on your hand and you’ll lose the hand!”

She snapped at her team and turned to Anith.

“So Anith, how’s your team doing? Don’t tell me you’re that jealous of us; your team was the first to find treasure in the dungeon after all. You made out like [Bandits], right?”

Earlia’s comment took in the rest of Vuliel Drae standing watch. Anith paused, and looked around. Insill, Larr, Pekona, and Dasha all looked back at him with expressions ranging from guilt to wariness. Earlia didn’t see; she was still working. After a moment, Insill coughed.

“We uh, we’re doing alright. Yeah, we got really lucky. We found that mace on the first Raskghar. Gold-rank gear. Sold for a lot. And after that…”

Vuliel Drae glumly looked at each other. Oh yes. After that. Their career as adventurers workings around Liscor had been meteoric at first. They’d found treasure in Liscor’s dungeon—a Gold-rank weapon worth thousands of gold coins! And they’d encountered a mysterious adventurer who’d given them her aid. Confident, overconfident, Vuliel Drae had kept exploring and inadvertently been the cause of the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor.

It was a fact few people knew. The Gold-rank teams, the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt who’d uncovered the truth had decided it was best no one but Liscor’s Guildmistress and a few others know. Not out of sympathy for Vuliel Drae, but to prevent the outcry against adventurers and to keep the Silver-rank team from being lynched.

But Vuliel Drae had paid for their mistakes. From drudge work assigned to them by Tekshia Shivertail to a permanent warning on all of their records in the Adventurer’s Guilds’ private files—Anith had no idea that was even a function of the guilds—their team was still haunted by their mistake.

Justly so, in Anith’s opinion. The Jackal Beastkin had a strong sense of justice that came from his tribe, and he considered their disgrace the least of the debt they owed society. However, the topic was still touchy, and the silence from the rest of his team lingered long enough that Earlia looked up.

“What, the mace you got wasn’t worth as much as you hoped? Or did you sell it to the wrong [Merchant]?”

“Neither.”

Larr folded his arms. The taciturn Gnoll glared at nothing in particular, his ears lowered. Pekona, the dour woman from the Drath Archipelago, just looked down, scowling. Anith cleared his throat hurriedly.

“We sold it by way of Invrisil. The money finally got to us by way of Courier, along with some of the equipment we ordered.”

“We could have done Pallass—”

Insill grumbled under his breath. The lone Drake in the group had voted for that. Dasha rolled her eyes. Earlia looked up.

“You got your goods via Courier? Isn’t that a waste of gold?”

“Not at all. Apparently, if you’re rich, the [Merchants] will send you a…what did they call it, Anith?”

“A catalogue, Dasha. They even paid for the Courier’s fees.”

“For what we spent, of course they did!”

Earlia whistled.

“They must have heard you had money to burn! That’s fancy. Free Courier deliveries? That explains your gear.”

She nodded to Vuliel Drae. Anith smiled a bit. He was wearing new robes. Not the best money could buy, but better than the common cloth enchanted with a weak stain-resistance spell. And Dasha had upgraded her axe to a mithril-alloyed metal she swore was ten times better. Larr had a few enchanted arrows, Pekona had a scroll at her belt and Insill had enchanted armor and weapons. It wasn’t a huge upgrade, but it had moved them up the Silver-rank hierarchy a bit. Earlia nodded.

“How much do you have left, if you don’t mind sharing?”

And there it was again, Vuliel Drae paused and Insill piped up nervously.

“We donated some of it. It uh—the thing is—”

He hesitated, guilt written across his face and Dasha elbowed him.

“Shut up!”

She hissed at the Drake. Anith coughed.

“We donated some of the money to the victims of the Face-Eater Moth attack.”

“Oh? That’s generous of you. I mean, yeah. I suppose we owe Liscor something. Huh. I don’t know if my team would be down for that.”

Earlia frowned absently, glancing at her teammates. Anith took that moment to give Insill a warning look. Both Pekona and Larr did the same and the Drake [Rogue] bit his lip. His tail thrashed guiltily, but he said nothing more.

Secrets and guilt. It wasn’t what Anith wanted. This wasn’t why he’d left his home in Chandrar. But it was what fate had brought to his team, so he could only steer them with dignity and integrity from here on out. And while Anith had wrestled with his shared guilt, he had concluded that telling other people what his team had done would cause nothing but harm. So he signaled to Dasha to drag Insill further down the hallway and let the conversation die out.

It was boring work, watching Gemhammer slowly dismantle the trap and occasionally use their Skills to begin breaking down the next room. Anith didn’t even understand why they were interested in the next room—it was designed to cremate anyone alive, a ‘classic’ trap made more sinister by the fact that the spell didn’t shoot flames or slowly warm the room—it would explode in a fireball of air instantly. That was, until he saw Gemhammer carefully removing the actual spell-trigger.

“You see, to write magic runes, people have to use some kind of dust or paint or whatnot. We can scrape it off if no one wants to buy the runes. It can be worth a bit or a lot, again, depending on if we can sell it wholesale without scrapping it for the dust. But the real treasure in a trap room like this is—aha! Magicore!

Earlia crowed as her team cracked one of the walls and exposed a thin tube of oozing liquid. The [Miners] scrambled for jars, scraping the precious, fiery molten stone into jars. Anith could feel the heat of the stuff from here.

“Fire-elemental magicore. No wonder the trap room heats up so fast! Do you have any idea how much we can sell this for?”

Earlia crowed in delight. Vuliel Drae glumly watched as the exuberant [Miners] began talking about potential buyers. Earlia waved a hand, shushing the lot.

“Stop yakking and get to work! This is great, but also bad. The instant we start selling this stuff, we’re going to have competition. More teams are going to make a beeline for this dungeon to strip the traps, so every hour we have on them is more gold we pocket! Less talking, more mining! Anith, can I convince your team to keep this all secret for a bit of gold…?”

“Sorry, Captain Earlia. But you’ll have competition soon enough. I’m not certain we can compete with a [Miner]’s team as efficiently, but with the door open to Pallass, you can bet we’re hiring our own specialists.”

A feathery Garuda appeared in the far hallway. Earlia jumped and Anith whirled. Insill and Dasha waved at him as Bevussa Slenderscale, the Gold-rank Captain of the Wings of Pallass, strode into the room. Technically she was just a Gold-rank adventurer, but it was an open secret that she was the defacto leader of her team among the adventurers in Liscor. But Captain or not, it was her Gold-rank status that had both Vuliel Drae and Gemhammer turning to respectfully greet her.

“Miss Bevussa. What brings you here?”

Anith bowed respectfully towards Bevussa. The Garuda smiled at him, and nodded back. She walked lightly, eying the [Miners] trying to hide the fiery magicore behind their backs and swearing as it burned their gloved hands.

“Captain Bevussa, we were just—”

“Stripping the dungeon? I’m not trying to intrude. It’s no one’s territory since the original teams are gone. Don’t worry.”

The Garuda opened her beak, amusement in her voice. Earlia relaxed a bit, looking embarrassed.

“Sorry. Sometimes in other dungeons—”

“It’s no problem. And you won’t have to worry; there’s a system for claiming areas you’re working on. It’s still first to eat the worm, but Gold-rank teams can’t order you to abandon this spot. Am I intruding?”

“Not at all. We were just finishing—hey! Start packing that magicore! Bags of holding—one jar apiece! What can we do for you, Captain?”

The Garuda nodded at Anith and Earlia.

“I wanted to find you two. I’m letting all the Silver-rank teams and Gold-ranks know that we’re doing a coordinated push into the dungeon again today.”

“Again? That’s the third time this week!”

Earlia looked startled. Anith just nodded slowly. Bevussa shrugged.

“It’s just for teams who have the energy. My team does, and Keldrass’. The more teams who go in, the safer. Usually. Let us know if you’re coming; it’s in three hours and we’re hoping to push into that Bagrhaven area. There’s a buyer for their feathers in Pallass.”

“Oh! Well, if it’s Bagrhavens—no thanks. Our team will stick right here. Anith, we can manage without you and pull back to a spot near the entrance. What do you say?”

The Jackal rubbed at his finely-furred chin. He looked at his team, taking in their opinions in a glance, then nodded.

“If Earlia won’t object, I’d be pleased to take a position in the push, Captain Bevussa. We’d like to do something active today.”

The Garuda nodded.

“We’ll put you on the list, then. Oh, and you’re paying a fee to the Lifwail Blades. They’re holding the back lines and acting as emergency backup in case of Raskghar or that Facestealer thing strikes again.”

All the adventurers present shuddered. Liscor’s dungeon had been purged of some of the main threats, including the Face-Eater Moths and Raskghar, but there was always something else. Over a dozen adventurers had already been found headless, killed by the last guardian of the dungeon.

Anith knew the team on standby was good, able to fight at range contrary to their names, but the thought of running into Facestealer was horrifying, even if Anith only had his imagination and Calruz and Ceria’s words to go by.

Still, you could earn a lot of gold from a single day in the dungeon. And if you found a truly great treasure haul? You’d be set for life. That was the calculation every adventurer made.

Bevussa’s voice was brisk as she looked at Anith. If she was afraid of Facestealer, she gave no sign of it.

“Remember, three horn blasts and you run for the exit. That means Shield Spiders are coming in waves. One long blast—”

“Facestealer. We remember. Do you think we can trap him, Captain Bevussa?”

The Garuda frowned.

“Maybe? He’s never taken the bait so far, but that thing doesn’t strike often, according to…the Minotaur. And we’ve got Gold-rank teams. If we run into him, we’ll pin him down and melt him at range. That’s the plan, but I’d rather stick to monsters I know are down there. See you in three hours.”

She nodded to Anith and Earlia. Then she nodded to the Jackal and he followed her back down the tunnel. Insill and Dasha stepped back and the two had a quiet conversation.

“One more thing, Anith. Since Halrac’s gone and we assumed the Halfseekers were leaving, I was informed along with Keldrass about the Face-Eater Moth incident…”

Anith’s heart began beating faster. He opened his mouth, and Bevussa put a wing-hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t say anything. Guildmistress Tekshia informed us. It’s important to have some Gold-rank teams in the field who know about any…problems. I’m honestly not worried. You make a mistake, you pay the price. You’re not going to try destroying any nests again without contacting us, right?”

“Of course not, Captain Bevussa.”

The Garuda nodded briskly.

“I don’t have a problem with that. What I do want to know is if you have a way to contact the other adventurer. You know? The Masked Warrior?”

Anith started.

“She’s still been seen below? My team hasn’t been in the dungeon proper for a while. We assumed…”

Bevussa nodded.

“A few teams see her now and then. Human, wears a mask? Lends a hand to teams that get attacked? Never says a word? The Guildmistress wants to talk to her. So do our teams. I know the Face-Eater thing was an accident, but anyone who’s survived that long would be valuable to know. And it’s also risky having someone wandering about who might trigger an attack. We sealed the Shield Spider nest again, but…”

She trailed off meaningfully. Anith nodded.

“We do not have a way to contact her, but she has found our team most of the times we entered the dungeon. If we see her, we’ll let you know, Captain Slenderscale.”

“Just call me Bevussa. Thanks, Anith.”

The Garuda smiled. She left, and Anith watched her go, a bit breathless. Now there was a Gold-rank Captain that he aspired to be. The Wings of Pallass were a good team, and Bevussa felt reassuring to him. He looked over as Insill and Dasha approached.

“What did she want, Anith?”

“Hm. Well, she knew about the moths…Larr. Pekona!”

Anith signaled them and Vuliel Drae converged for a quick meeting. Larr had of course, heard it all, and the Gnoll was fretful. The rest of the team was nervous.

“Wait, how many people know what we did?”

Insill looked panicked. Dasha slapped him on the shoulder.

“Everyone you told, idiot! I said we should keep it secret. And now that masked woman’s in trouble? Good! I say she deserves a lot of the blame!”

“She didn’t know any more than we did. We thought we were getting rid of a nest—”

Insill protested hotly, blushing a bit. The half-Dwarf woman rolled her eyes.

“You’re just saying that because you want to get in her pants!”

“I never said—”

Pekona frowned at Dasha.

“If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have survived the first time in the dungeon! We owe our lives to her! Be respectful.

She glared, the accented words coming out slowly. Dasha folded her arms. Larr growled.

“If she made a mistake, she made a mistake, yes? The other teams should be curious of her. If it is just talking, let them. I am curious of her as well. She always smells of so much blood. She must be killing monsters constantly to survive. That is a strange person, no?”

“Some adventurers are like that. She saved our lives—”

“If she doesn’t have a beard, she’s untrustworthy!”

“Shut up, Dasha!”

Anith raised a paw for silence. His team looked at him.

“No one’s asking us to turn her in. Our…friend has been the source of much of our luck. And some of our misfortune, it is true. But we owe her our lives. If we see her, let us try to honor Captain Bevussa’s wishes. But most of all, let us be careful.

Vuliel Drae nodded. They looked at each other, annoyed, disagreeing—but a team. Not the best team in the dungeon. But not the worst. And they’d be better. They checked their gear and prepared to go into the dungeon, to risk their lives for fame and wealth and power. That was the adventurer’s calling.

And then they glumly watched Gemhammer making easy money for three more hours. Some teams had all the luck.

 

—-

 

This was what the skeleton saw. Toren wandered the dungeon, a skeleton in the darkness, a shadow in the night. Or maybe it was day? It didn’t matter. She was in charge. And Toren was a lot more proactive than he was.

She asked the questions he never did. Why was there a dungeon here? What was it hiding? What secrets were there yet to uncover? All he did was think of Erin. But that was their duality. She enjoyed seeking the answer to the question more than the answer itself would bring her. So she flitted from space to space, sword in hand, gilding across the floor, avoiding traps.

Rarely fighting monsters. That was the thing. Toren was a skeleton. As such, half the monsters she encountered didn’t attack her because there wasn’t anything they wanted. Bones weren’t very nutritious and she didn’t smell of succulent flesh or blood. And the other half didn’t even seem to see her. They walked past Toren, as if she wasn’t there.

Of course, Toren could choose to fight them, but she preferred to save her energy for the battles that mattered. Thus, the skeleton spent most of her time investigating new parts of the dungeon. She would carefully investigate a corridor, following trails left by monsters, eying suspiciously clean parts of the dungeon. Occasionally she’d step on a trap and have to reassemble herself, but mostly she explored.

See—here came a Flesh Worm. A sinuous, crimson worm, as tall as…Toren stared up and up and backed away as the gargantuan worm-monster swept down the dungeon. It had two long, ‘arms’ with palps that could snatch flesh off a body. And like the Crypt Lords, it had a trail of undead. Toren eyed the escort of zombies and decided here was an opportunity.

She meekly fell into line behind the trialing undead. Some of the zombies paused, but Toren’s appearance didn’t matter. She was a skeleton and they were zombies, so they made little reaction to her. The Flesh Worm never noticed as it slithered forwards. Toren followed it down the corridor.

She was careful not to attract the Flesh Worm’s attention. They couldn’t control her any more than the Goblin [Shaman] could. Not anymore. But even so, Toren didn’t like them trying to impose their will on her. Worse still, if the Flesh Worms failed, they would immediately attack her with the rest of the undead following them.

And where were they going? Let’s see. The four ‘nest silos’ full of monsters led up to the teleporting trap rooms. And from the nests the labyrinth worked its way inwards, past designated habitats for monsters, natural springs of water that held aquatic things—Toren wasn’t willing to try diving again in case she was dragged down and stuck forever—leading ever inwards, past those odd places where all the food was.

The same food he was so obsessed with getting to stock his fake inn with. He’d gotten them crushed and ‘killed’ eight times trying to fight monsters for the food that appeared in designated rooms, only to learn that it disappeared after a few hours!

Anyways. Toren huffed along, and realized the Flesh Worm was moving inwards, towards the center of the labyrinth. The skeleton paused as she heard the clank of metal ahead. She peered past the Flesh Worm as it turned and saw it.

A suit of armor. The enchanted metal warrior walked past the Flesh Worm, ignoring it and the undead. The Flesh Worm contemptuously slithered past it. Toren stared. This was further than she often went.

This was enchanted armor territory. They occupied the inner part of the dungeon, mostly, guarding the city filled with the…people. The ones with holes in them and no skin. That was the most dangerous area; the traps got worse and worse the closer in you got, and the patrols of enchanted armor and Flesh Worms and other monsters were nastier and more frequent around there.

The inner city was relatively fine by comparison; it had no traps or monsters. The only real problem was that that the horde of those Infested people would tear anything apart and Toren had no desire to recollect her bones over the period of a week again after being scattered nearly a mile wide.

The Flesh Worm was moving straight through the armor’s territory without fear, though. Toren wondered if the creature was insane. But Flesh Worms were intelligent. Dangerously so. If it thought it was safe…Toren turned, looking around. These corridors were taller! And the fortifications—she saw suits of armor standing guard, and the Flesh Worm had to slither between defensive lines. Some of the enchanted suits of armor carried bows! They were prepared for a war!

This was a part of the dungeon Toren had never seen. She’d never been close enough; the armor would smash her to bits. No wonder no one had ever taken the inner part of the dungeon, Raskghar or not—fighting the armor on their home ground was suicide. There were constant patrols of them. Toren kept right behind the Flesh Worm with the undead. And it kept going further into their territory!

Now there was clanging. A glow in the darkness. Toren paused, and then hurried after a zombie. She tripped it up so the line of undead behind her would slow and stared at what lay beyond.

Forges. Battered suits of armor were slowly being repaired, the dents hammered out, steel patched onto steel. An armory of weapons and armor, the latter enchanted with life. They stood in rows, silent, some moving off into patrols or war bands. But the rest ominously still. Silent. Rows upon rows of them. Toren stared until a zombie bumped into her from behind. Then she jumped.

The Flesh Worm turned. It hissed in displeasure as it saw the undead following it hadn’t kept up. It swung one tail—Toren saw it shear through a zombie’s neck. She edged backwards as the Flesh Worm continued onwards and moved to the back of the line. Just in time to see the nearest suit of armor pause with hammer in hand as it repaired its brethren.

The suit of armor stared at her. Toren froze, and then put her arms out. She walked forwards, trying to open her mouth and groan. Then she remembered she didn’t have any flesh. The suit of armor stared at her, masked, wearing clothes, and the nearest zombie.

The enchanted automaton had nothing like actual intelligence. Even so, it processed Toren for a few more seconds before slowly walking past her. It must have sensed her undead presence, or else it had fallen for her act. Toren followed after the train of undead and Flesh Worm, metaphorically sweating.

And then she saw it. Standing at the head of the legion of armor on a pedestal of its own. So still, so unmoving that spiders had built cobwebs that appeared to anchor it to the ground. But the creation’s eyes burned. It still had presence. It waited sword and shield in hand. And as the Flesh Worm and the entourage of undead moved through the grand assembly room, the general of the legion of enchanted armor slowly looked up. Its head turned and Toren saw a flash of something like intelligence from the burning lights in its helm.

A guardian of the dungeon. Toren froze. She stared at the General of Armor or whatever it might be. It stared at her, and then the Flesh Worm. Slowly, it moved. Spiders fled and the cobwebs broke as it raised a sword and pointed at her. Without words, without life, in truth. But with ancient duty.

And as one, the legion of enchanted suits of armor turned. Toren froze. The Flesh Worm paused, and then whipped around. It stared at Toren. She looked at it. She looked at the Armor General on his pedestal. She waved a hand. And then she ran for it.

Arrows flew. Enchanted armor charged at her, and the Flesh Worm shrieked as it and the undead raced after Toren. She fled, waving her arms and clattering her jaw indignantly. It wasn’t like she was trying to—

A hammer smashed her skull in and the skeleton collapsed. Her bones rolled onto the floor and the enchanted armor smashed them to powder. Toren held very still as the alarm ended. After a while, the magic in her bones slowly returned her form. The cracks sealed, the powder reformed. Toren got up, adjusted her clothes, and stomped off in a huff.

That was how she spent her time in the dungeon. She was different than he was. He lacked something she did. Well, she lacked it too, but she knew it was lacking. It was the same thing, only there was a trace of it in her still. A distant memory. Sometimes it was faded and she, like he, only understood death. Killing. Leveling. A mindless pursuit. But other times she saw something. And that part of her woke up.

See.

The Antinium sent an army into the dungeon sometimes. A few hundred, or sometimes thousands, to cut down as many monsters as possible, or—Toren suspected—to map parts of the dungeon they didn’t know. They did it by sacrificing dozens of Antinium for each step. The monsters would pour out from every corridor and the Antinium would charge on, through traps and ambushes until there were none left.

Toren didn’t know what the purpose of this outpouring was. She only knew it when she saw it and felt it. She heard the thrumming of thousands of feet, heard the sounds of violence. And she felt the dungeon moving, changing, reacting to the threat.

Flesh Worms slithered down the corridors. Dens of monsters, agitated, poured out. Traps exploded and unleashed their wrath. The armored legions poured forwards, as unending as the Antinium. Toren hurried down the corridors, ignored by the monsters, peeking around corners.

She saw them. The Black Tide, sweeping forwards. Fighting. Dying. Soldiers and Workers, grappling with monsters, tearing them apart. Nameless Soldiers. Those without paint.

But people, still.

Toren paused. Why had she thought that? She stared at the Antinium. They were fighting, dying. And Toren, both Torens, were amazed by the battle. The Soldiers refused to die easily. They dragged their opponents down with them. If it took a hundred Soldiers to bring one Flesh Worm down, or hundreds, they paid that price. They were grouped up, fighting in narrow corridors, unable to surround their opponents.

But they did not yield. They advanced. And he reveled in the slaughter. He laughed at the death, the spectacle of it. She? She saw something else. Something more that she tried to show him.

Look at how they died.

The thousands fell away. The corridors were filled with blood. The Soldier’s green. The Workers retreating, dragging bodies back to the Antinium Hive. But the Soldiers continued on. They had no home to return to. They had only one last order.

From thousands, they were hundreds. She watched them fighting, bringing down nearly a dozen Flesh Worms, a score of undead, battling through exploding larvae, until the Shield Spiders poured through the tunnels, destroying everything in their wake. Toren and the last Antinium fled. And she watched them fall.

Twenty three. And then sixteen. Nine. Five. And then, two. The last two Soldiers ran, fleeing the Shield Spiders that stopped to drag the corpses of their brethren back to their nest. The other monsters halted their pursuit as well. They had much to eat, or wounds to nurse. Even the enchanted armor seemed fed up with the slaughter. They marched back towards their garrisons.

Leaving the two Soldiers alone. There they stood. Worn. Bleeding. Dying. The dungeon surrounded them. They would never return. They could not. They had been sent to die, to strike a blow at the dungeon. So the Soldiers had been dead the moment they charged.

In the silent corridor, the two Soldiers stopped. The Soldiers stood, bleeding green, looking around wildly. But they had a reprieve. The spiders had fled. Something else was coming, summoned by the massive incursion into the dungeon.

The Soldiers paused. They turned to look at each other and lowered their fists. They stopped. And one of them made a clicking sound. The skeleton watched, her eyes seeing all. And what she saw next spoke to that spark in her.

One Soldier opened his mandibles. Closed them. He made a click. And it was soft. The other Soldier paused. And then it went click. What they said—if they were even words—Toren had no idea. But then the Soldiers stepped forwards each other.

They grasped each other, clumsily. All four arms of one, and three arms and a stump of the other. Toren thought they were trying to kill each other. But then she saw one step. Slowly, his hands on the other Soldier’s shoulders and waist. And the other stepped with him. In perfect synch.

They moved slowly, in a halting, rhythmic pattern. A swaying tracery on the floor. Turning, pausing. Twirling.

And Toren saw, amid the faint glow and death, the way they moved had a purpose. And she realized it was a dance. The Soldiers held each other, the last two in their world. And they moved. Not with the desperate last energy of the dead, but with dignity. With grace.

They waltzed, dancing in the dark corridor in the elegant style of a Terandrian ballroom. And Toren saw it all.

He didn’t want to see. He didn’t understand. But she saw. And it called to her. Toren turned her head. The dungeon had gone silent.

It was coming. So the skeleton stood from where she was crouched. She drew her sword and advanced slowly.

The two Soldiers stopped dancing as soon as they noticed Toren. They whirled, bringing up their fists. Toren held up her sword, her palm open, pleading. They stared at her, wavering. And then Toren felt it.

She turned her head. And there it was. A staring head poking around the corridor on a stick. Toren whirled. She pointed. The two Antinium Soldiers hesitated as she turned and lifted her sword. She pointed again.

Go.

They hesitated. And then they ran. Toren charged. And Facestealer was there. It looked down at her. The bag of heads it carried trailing behind. The heads on sticks clutched in one hand, a grotesque collection. Toren raised her sword and leapt forwards. Not for victory; she knew that all too well. But for something else. For—

It took her a long time to come back from having her skull and bones crushed into powder. At last, Toren got up. Her mask was broken. Her clothing torn. She found some dead spiders nearby and managed to fix the mask, at least. Her sword was lying on the ground, for all the good it had done. Then the skeleton looked around. She was afraid of what she would find. But she did look.

She found them two corridors over. The two Soldiers lay where they had died. Their heads were missing. The skeleton knelt next to them for a very long time. She bowed her head. And she felt…as terrible as he did when he thought of Erin.

And then Toren noticed one thing. The two corpses on the ground were identical. Not in every way of course; both had different wounds. But both were missing heads. And both had four arms.

 

 

One of the Soldiers had been missing a hand. Toren looked up. She looked around. She searched. But she never found another pair of Soldiers, or one with a missing hand. Maybe the monsters had gotten them. Or maybe…

The skeleton smiled. And she had a winning grin. She stood up and stretched. She twirled amid the death and laughed silently. They both sought it, each in their own way. He, and she. And she found it in this.

And in battle. That was true. But one Toren killed to kill. She—did it for a reason. The skeleton drew her sword. And she went hunting. She had only one quarry in the dungeon worth doing battle with. He and she could agree on that, at least. They were a nuisance. And they had killed Toren countless times before. Now the shoe was on the skeleton’s foot.

She found the Raskghar camp after nine hours of searching. They had hidden well. But not well enough to escape a skeleton with all the time in the world. They smelled her, of course. And she was used to their howls.

The Raskghar were already waiting for her. Especially the special one. Toren halted in front of their camp. She adjusted her mask. And she moved forwards slowly, as gracefully as the two Soldiers. She was a [Sword Dancer], Level 13. It might not be enough today. It hadn’t the last twenty three times.

But she could try again. The Raskghar could not. And they knew her. Oh, yes. They remembered. The one standing guard snarled. Her voice was guttural. Desperate, rasping—that was new—and hateful.

“You. Thing.”

The Raskghar coughed. Nokha bared her teeth, the glowing blade in her hand held up warily. Toren paused. She lifted the blade in her hand and tapped it with one finger.

A new sword. Nokha had destroyed the last one in their last encounter. The skeleton smiled behind her mask. Nokha warily held her ground. Behind her, the other warriors backed up, howling quietly at the camp already preparing to flee. There were less of them, now. Far less than when the Minotaur had led them. Far less camps too. Toren had played a part in that.

“Leave. Leave now. We surrender. Tell magic-Human. Surrender. Surrender.

The Raskghar was speaking nonsense. Interesting nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. Toren tilted her head. And then she advanced. Nokha raised the magic sword Toren wanted so much with a snarl of rage. The two waited.

Nokha coughed again, unable to suppress it. Toren leapt. And the Raskghar snarled and screamed. Toren swept towards her, blade slashing up in a two-handed arc. Nokha swung straight. She was faster and stronger. But Toren had anticipated the cut. She let it slash through her ribs and struck Nokha along the arm. The Raskghar howled in pain. Toren grinned. She could recover. She rolled, trying to get away to attack again later—

Too slow. Nokha stomped, crushing Toren’s bones, smashing her skull with her foot over and over. Then she fled, coughing, howling a pained call to the other Raskghar. They fled with her. Toren lay on the ground, her body rebuilding.

Darn. Well, it was worth a shot. And next time, maybe the Raskghar’s arm wouldn’t have healed. She was annoyingly intelligent, though. Still, that cough…

As Toren rebuilt herself, she decided she needed a bow. A bow and arrows might really help. But it was hard finding good weapons that didn’t get smashed with her body. And could she even shoot a bow and arrow? The skeleton picked up her skull and had to fix her mask. Again. She sighed, but it was busy work.

This was what the skeleton saw and did. But what she was really doing was waiting. And then, at last, the skeleton heard it. Distantly, in the way the monsters moved, the dungeon shuddered and adjusted. She turned her head. And she knew they were there.

Adventurers. She smiled and ran towards them. Because she liked people. And they were always worth seeing. Protecting. And maybe her team would be there. The ones she liked.

Her…

Friends? She liked that thought, even if she didn’t understand the concept entirely. But that’s what the Drake had called her. He hated the idea. Hated it and them. But he wasn’t in charge. And they were both lonely. So she kept the mask on. They could always sit in the inn later.

 

—-

 

A skeleton sat in a tiny bubble in the ground. A hollow depression of dirt, barely large enough to hold her. A coffin would have been more spacious. In fact, the crushing weight of the dirt trying to settle on her would have killed any living creature. The lack of oxygen certainly would have.

But Ijvani, the greatest skeleton in the world and obviously, the only one with actual intelligence, was too depressed to care. Her magical robes were puddled around her, filthy and unwashed. An earthworm digging through the soil went straight through her ribcage.

Ijvani didn’t move. She didn’t react, or move. She could have been an actual skeleton, the dead kind, save for the two dimly golden flames burning in her eye sockets. And her bones.

They were black. Black and glossy—coated with a dark metal. They were part of what made Ijvani special. Unique, in fact. But she didn’t feel special. She was a sad skeleton. Because she was alone. Abandoned. Or worse—would it be worse?—forgotten.

It had been ninety six days. Ninety six days since her last communication with her master, her creator, Az’kerash. Ninety six days since he had reached out to her and she had felt his presence.

He had forgotten her. That was the plain truth of it. Ijvani knew it to be true. Why else had he left her, his Chosen, and not called her back since? He had forgotten her, or replaced her. She didn’t matter.

So. How had she ended up in a hole in the ground rather than proudly serving her master? Ijvani knew the answer. In fact, since she could neither sleep nor forget, she dwelled upon it every moment of her existence, without any biological functions interrupting her grief. Skeletons were unparalleled at having pity parties. And Ijvani could name all the reasons for her despair.

Firstly, she was inferior. She had failed her master, the glorious Az’kerash. The Necromancer. The most brilliant, most powerful [Necromancer] in the history of the world. She had failed him by failing to kill Zel Shivertail with her brothers and sisters. Not only had he survived and forced her master to take to the field himself, he had wounded Az’kerash. And he had damaged all the other Chosen—destroyed one of their number beyond repair, Oom.

Secondly, Ijvani had witnessed a horror worse than her own inferiority. She had seen…her master…the great and powerful Az’kerash whose wisdom and intellect was unmatched by all the Archmages of Wistram…lose a game of chess.

Yes. Lose a game of chess. Ijvani groaned in her pit in the earth. How could it happen? It shouldn’t have happened. But it had. He had lost a game. She had failed him. And now, thirdly, to top it all off, he had forgotten about her.

She had already been in despair about points one and two. Ijvani recalled it so clearly. Her master had killed Zel Shivertail, albeit at cost. And he had retreated, calling on the remaining Chosen to teleport back with the Scrolls of Greater Teleportation that he had spent so lavishly to kill his hated foe. But he had been one short. So he had looked around and—

“Ijvani, you will make your way back with an invisibility spell; there are no more scrolls of teleportation.”

The black skeleton [Mage] shuddered. Oh! The pain of it! The horror! Her master had looked around and named the least worthy of his Chosen to return on foot. The most expendable. He, in his infinite knowledge, had looked among his Chosen and found her the least worthy after measured thought and consideration.

Thus, Ijvani knew: she was a failure. Even more so than Venitra, who had failed to capture both the Human Runner, Ryoka Griffin, and been defeated by Zel Shivertail. But Ijvani was somehow worse.

Even so, that might not have been so bad. Ijvani would have walked through molten magma for her master after all. She had slowly made her way back towards his castle south of the Blood Fields. And then…then had come her error.

It wasn’t disobedience. Ijvani cringed internally. Not really. At first, she just hadn’t heard her creator’s voice in a week, and she had been tired of travelling south, hiding behind illusion spells and moving at night to avoid being spotted. She’d decided, well, to stop.

Not to disobey her master! But just so that he might contact her, to demand what had slowed her down. Because…because that would prove empirically that she still had worth to him. Of course! It had been such a simple plan. He would contact her and no doubt be furious. But he would contact her and then Ijvani could return without fear of going back to him and being…worthless.

So the skeleton had stopped. She’d slowed her pace to a crawl. And the first week had been a grand, butterfly-inducing game of disobedience! Ijvani had hid herself, burying herself in the earth under the pretext—if her master asked—that she had been swallowed by a sinkhole. Buried miles deep, so she’d been faithfully digging her way out!

That was a logical explanation, wasn’t it? She would never have dared to trick her master before, but he had lost a game of chess. So perhaps he might not be perfect in every other way?

It was just a test. Just a little test! To make sure of what she had been sure of—that she still mattered to her master. That, in time, she could regain her grace with him. So Ijvani had waited. She knew that her master knew how long it would take her to return. So after, say, two weeks, he would begin to wonder, if not sooner! After all, she could be very swift when stealth wasn’t a hindrance.

That knowledge had kept Ijvani waiting for the first week. And then the second week. He’d contact her and demand to know where she was tomorrow. And then tomorrow had come and she had heard nothing. But, surely, it would be the next day. Sometimes he spent weeks working on a project, but even then, he could still devote some of his incredible intellect to managing his Chosen, giving them orders.

He would contact her tomorrow. He was just busy today. Venitra had probably done something stupid again. It was a month before it had dawned on Ijvani how long it had been. And then she’d been in denial the second month. Waiting, day after day, to hear him reach out for her. Then she’d been afraid. Something had happened! One of his enemies had laid siege to him in the castle! But—Ijvani realized that would have made her master call her even sooner. Unless she was so useless that even an attack by the Dragon wouldn’t necessitate her presence.

So that led her to today. And Ijvani now realized the truth: she was unloved. She was forgotten. So the skeleton sat. She could not weep. She didn’t even really understand the action. In Az’kerash’s castle, there were no tears. The undead did not laugh or weep. Nor did their master. So Ijvani was sad without knowing how to be sad.

In the darkness of the ground, she whispered to herself. Ijvani’s voice was a ghastly whisper, an echo from beyond. And a bit petulant.

I am superior. Master loves me. I am unique. Master will call for me. He remembers me. I am…

Weak. Ijvani remembered Oom dying. Again and again. She saw the Drake crushing his mana core, breaking Oom’s center like glass. She had thought she was so much stronger than Zel Shivertail! He was just a [Warrior]! A mortal of flesh and blood! But he had torn through the Chosen like…

Oom was gone. Not just broken, able to be fixed, but gone. That meant Ijvani could be…gone…too. The skeleton shuddered, confronted by her own mortality. What would it mean, now that the Chosen were one less? How were the others reacting to Oom’s demise?

Not with satisfaction. Yes, the Chosen vied to be the one most loved by their creator, but the loss of one was a blow to their master. And that was a terrible thing. Moreover, Ijvani had liked Oom. More than Kerash or Venitra, at any rate. What would Bea, the lovely creature of plague, do with him gone?

Bea was the one who liked Oom most. They had been created at the same time, after all. Oom had been the second-oldest, Bea third by only a day or two. Ijvani next. And then Venitra. Kerash had been there from the beginning and he was special in a different way. Nevertheless, they were five of Az’kerash’s Chosen, his special creations. But now they were four.

Or was it three? Ijvani shuddered. Was she no longer one of the Chosen? Forgotten as she was, was she like…Viltraid? She remembered him. He had been…not one of the Chosen. But more than a regular undead. And she remembered how he had been removed.

At the time, Ijvani had rejoiced in his demise, because he had been a pest in her eyes, inferior to her. But now she wondered. He hadn’t been one of the Chosen. But her master had created him. And could it be that he had once been one of the Chosen who had…?

Kerash claimed he could remember…more. More who had once been…Chosen. And had somehow failed. Was that what Ijvani was?

No. No. I am not a failure. I am still one of the Chosen! I am—

The black skeleton shuddered. She was a special creation! She had a nigh-indestructible body, the ability to match any Gold-rank [Mage] in magical combat! But…

She couldn’t stay here any longer. But—she was afraid to return and have her fears proven. Even so, Ijvani was tired of the dirt. Water kept tricking down every time it rained and the worms were getting on her nerves. She’d find somewhere else. And keep thinking. Her master might not not hate her, after all.

So Ijvani stood up. Her head was immediately engulfed in soft, earthy loam, but she barely paid it any mind. She put her hands up and began excavating the ceiling. Dirt swallowed her, but Ijvani kept digging, climbing upwards.

A strange sight greeted anyone who might be strolling along the ground of Liscor’s Floodplains. In a small valley, a skeleton’s head suddenly popped out of the ground in a shower of dirt. Ijvani dug herself out of the ground and quickly swiveled her skeletal head three hundred and sixty degrees.

Of course, she was using [Invisibility], [Suppressed Aura], and [Muffle], but Ijvani was well aware that she could be detected by the right Skill or Spells. [Greater Invisibility] was still…beyond her, so she checked the surrounding area for any possible watchers. No one was there. Ijvani pulled herself out of the ground. Then she looked around.

Where should I wait for master to call me?

She stared around blankly. Everywhere looked as equally pointless as her hole in the ground. At last, the skeleton began walking towards a nearby cave. It was as good as any a place to wait. Because her master would call her. Definitely.

Tomorrow.

 

—-

 

In the Floodplains of Liscor were many unique sights of nature. The ecological marvel and nightmare that was Rock Crabs, for instance, or the surprising survivability of Ashfire Bees trapped in a cave with a limited supply of honey in their hive. Not to mention the wonders of the nature in the higher reaches of the High Passes.

However, the most astonishing thing in the entire Floodplains from a researcher’s perspective might be located in a humble cave and valley just outside of it. Because there, in the cave, lived a colony of Fortress Beavers, the oversized cousin of the regular beaver capable of creating massive dams as large as any castle. And just outside the cave, cleverly hidden in the grass, was a nest of Shield Spiders, the dangerous and numerous spiders who could grow to gargantuan sizes given enough time.

Neither species was unique to Liscor. In fact, both were downright common. But what was fascinating to the inner [Arachnologist] and [Mammalogist] inside every person was that both species were living in more or less harmony. This was an unheard of arrangement, given that both species generally tried to exterminate each other given the slightest provocation. And yet, both species were living in more or less symbiosis!

Well, technically you could call it a non-aggression pact born out of a mutual war with a hated foe that had turned into a surprisingly profitable defensive alliance and trade agreement between species. And it had endured, which was even more surprising.

Once, there had been a grave threat to the cave. A foe more terrible than any regular animal. Crelers. And they had infested the cave, as they had so many parts of the world and devoured both spider and beaver alike, preparing to unleash a massive brood in time that would eradicate all life from the Floodplains if left unchecked. But they had been stopped. Not by adventurers, but by a desperate alliance of beavers, slime, spiders, and a Gnoll with a wand. Once, a glorious battle had been waged in this very place.

But such stories were old. And much time had passed since then. Anyone would expect the animals to revert back to their natures and resent each other’s proximity. But that strange alliance had endured.

Here was how it worked. The Fortress Beavers would helpfully (or perhaps, lazily) toss out all the scraps they had no use for in their caves into the Shield Spider’s nest. And that included rats, foxes, other scavengers unprepared to tangle with Fortress Beavers, and once, even a wolf. The Shield Spiders happily devoured the lot and in turn kept the cave clear from larger predators—mainly by trapping them in their concealed nest.

It could have been a clever arrangement that tested the limits of animal and arachnid intelligence by creating a symbiotic relationship that might irrevocably shift the natures and cognition of both species over time if the right circumstances endured.

Or it might be dumb luck. But the sacred bond forged in the Battle of the Cave had endured, albeit with cracks over the long months since. For in the absence of the Crelers, both species were reproducing with the bountiful spring, and cracks had already begun to form in the treaty forged between both species.

The Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers had both reaped the benefits of the era of fish and rains that had filled the Floodplains. The Fortress Beavers by happily fishing, the Shield Spiders by consuming the fish as the waters receded, leaving the more foolish members of the species trapped. And accordingly, both populations had entered into a massive population boom that meant they were encroaching into each other’s territory.

Several young Fortress Beavers had been eaten—some by wandering into the Shield Spider nest, others by straying too close to it when the Shield Spiders were hungry—and more than a few intrepid Shield Spiders had been smacked to death when they’d crawled into the Fortress Beaver’s cave. Faced with mounting provocations from both sides, both sides could naturally be assumed to go back to war. However, that never occurred mainly due to the one mediating presence that travelled from both cave to pit.

The healing slime. And if a…slimenologist were to happen across this marvel of magical biology, they would probably be at a loss for words. Because the little slime that zipped around the cave possessed not only the ability to move at incredibly rapid speed, but to heal. It was a small blob, barely two feet high, whose inner body glowed and shimmered with magical colors.

It could heal. And because of that, both Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders tolerated its presence. In fact, both species had begun to rely on the slime. Fortress Beavers wounded by combat with other animals would slink back to the caves and emerge healed in moments. Shield Spiders damaged while at war with other nests of Shield Spiders or animals would wait patiently for the healing slime to roll on by. And while the slime frequented both areas, peace reigned.

It was a marvel. A peace unlike any other. Ijvani stared at the healing slime rolling happily out of the Shield Spider pit. And then she grabbed it.

The slime made no sound. But every color in its translucent body instantly turned to purple and orange. It tried to speed away, but Ijvani held it up in the air and the slime whirled in place. The black skeleton held it up and stared at it. She eyed the mana stone inside the slime.

What a strange slime. You are not naturally-made. Did some [Alchemist] throw out their potions? But…how curious.

The slime quivered in terror. And it’s fright—and the presence of the black skeleton—awakened the Shield Spider nest. They swarmed out of the opening. But they didn’t see Ijvani. They only saw the slime, hovering in midair, clearly under duress. So they swarmed towards Ijvani and ran into her.

Of course, they bit her. The black skeleton stared down at the spiders as the swarmed up her robes and bit at them, and her black bones. The largest spider’s mandibles locked onto a femur and hung on. Its crushing mandibles did exactly nothing to her bones. Ijvani went back to staring at the healing slime.

You are strange. As odd as Oom.

She paused. Then she hung her head.

Oom is gone.

Depressed, Ijvani put the healing slime under one arm. She didn’t let it go. Or squash the slime’s core. She couldn’t do that to a slime, even if it wasn’t Oom. And she didn’t feel like letting it go. She missed Oom.

This is a good place to be forgotten by master. I guess.

Glumly, Ijvani wandered into the cave. She stared at the colony of Fortress Beavers and the wall of packed mud, grass, and bits of wood they’d turned into a fortress. The Fortress Beavers stopped patting at the wall with their tails and looked up in alarm at the mass of Shield Spiders attacking the…thing in the cave. They saw the healing slime’s distress and lumbered forwards.

Ijvani stared blankly at the Fortress Beavers and noticed she was covered in spiders. She sighed.

Oh. Right. Invisibility.

She dispelled the magic and appeared as she was. A metallic skeleton. The Fortress Beavers froze. The Shield Spiders scurried off Ijvani in terror. There was more than a bit of unnatural power in Ijvani. More than a regular skeleton. The Fortress Beavers, who would and did crush errant undead that attacked them, backed up. The Shield Spiders scurried back.

Ijvani didn’t care. She looked around. Then she collapsed onto the ground, staring up at the cave ceiling. She hugged the healing slime to her, much like she remembered Oom doing.

Master. You remember I exist, right?

The animals and spiders stared at the quivering healing slime and the motionless black skeleton. The healing slime tried to roll away. Ijvani held on tighter. It stopped moving as she reached into its body and gripped the mana core that was its life source. Then it just trembled.

Master, I am here. Your faithful servant. Do you remember me?

Ijvani stared at the ceiling of the cave. She didn’t move. In fact, she was so still that it was unnerving. But there Ijvani stayed, as the Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders warily moved around her, considering, weighing what their instincts told them against the evidence of their eyes.

An hour Ijvani lay there. Two hours. Three hours. Then eight. Fortress Beavers realized they could edge around her. Shield Spiders scurried in a large circle around the skeleton and she didn’t move. The healing slime stayed where it was, quivering; the mana core was still in Ijvani’s hand. She enjoyed its presence.

It was to the credit of the Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers that it took nine hours before one Shield Spider finally decided to overrule the warning bells in its head and scuttle forwards. It opened its mandibles, preparing to bite the skeleton in the face. It was how the Shield Spider reacted to every threat, so it thought the action had a chance here.

The Shield Spider never got to Ijvani’s head. As it got within four feet of the skeleton, it saw one finger rise and point at it. Ijvani spoke a word as she stared up at the ceiling.

[Searing Flash].

There was heat. A popping sound—the spider exploded so fast it didn’t have time to make a sound—steam, a patter of falling parts, light, and the sound of many things fleeing as fast as they could. And then blissful silence again. Ijvani sighed.

Master. I’m here. Can you hear me? Master?

But that wasn’t how it worked. If she contacted him, how would she know he loved her? That was the quandary. So Ijvani lay on her back and sulked.

There she remained. And the defenders of the caves, the doughty Fortress Beavers and fearless Shield Spiders fled as their ancient ally, the Healing Slime, was held captive. They might have dared an army of baby Crelers. But this?

No. None could oppose the horrifying, unnatural skeleton who wielded magic. It was a threat far beyond even the Crelers. Despair filled the Defenders of the Cave, and they wailed lamentations to the sky. In a metaphorical way.

Who could save them? Who could bring justice back to the cave? Only a wizard. Or perhaps, a [Druid]. So the people cried out, calling the heroine who had once brought salvation to these lands.

And far, far away, in lands most distant, Mrsha the Great and Terrible looked up at the table she sat at. Her ears twitched and her head turned. The wise and brave [Druid]’s head rose and her hair stood on end. Mrsha stood up, not knowing why, only that she was needed—

“Mrsha! Where are you going? Just wait one more second—the Election Day Pancakes are ready to eat!”

The Gnoll paused and looked over. Erin walked out of the kitchen with a huge stack of fluffy pancakes. Mrsha’s eyes went round and her tail began to wag. She sat back down and made a happy signal with her paws. And she completely forgot what she’d been thinking about a few seconds ago.

So the skeleton lay on the ground. And she continued laying there. Ijvani was unhappy. Sometimes, she had to admit, even if she was a Chosen of Az’kerash, sometimes it was really hard being the only sentient skeleton in existence. Venitra didn’t count, obviously.

 

—-

 

Bevussa Slenderscale leapt forwards and slashed with her enchanted shortsword. The blade cut into the first Bagrhaven’s chest and the screaming monster retreated. The harpy-like creature flew backwards, talons raised, but Bevussa kept advancing. She had no fear of the other monsters swooping around her; her team was in the air and they had the Bagrhavens on the run.

“Push them into the trap! [Gale Wings]!”

Bevussa twisted and her wings flapped once. The Bagrhaven swooping at her screamed as a blast of wind suddenly sent it and three of its companions flying. Bevussa’s team of Oldblood Drakes flew after them, capitalizing on the moment.

The monster harpy-women weren’t idiots. They could sense when the tables were turned against them and the Wings of Pallass had come into their lair ready for a fight. The Drakes and Bevussa might have been outnumbered, but they carried magical armor the Bagrhavens couldn’t easily claw or bite through, and their magical blades hurt. So the Bagrhavens fled, flying down the corridor, intending to lose the fliers behind them.

Keldrass! Coming your way!

Bevussa shouted. She heard a shout from ahead. The Bagrhavens tried to slow down, hearing and seeing the armored shapes, but too late. Keldrass and his team threw the nets up and snared the Bagrhavens in the lower-ceilinged corridor. The monsters dropped and the Drakes charged in.

“Cut them down! Bevussa, two are getting—”

“I see them! Wings, after me!”

The Garuda led her team after the last two Bagrhavens who had avoided the nets. She flew through the narrow corridors, faster than her team. The monsters, realizing that they couldn’t escape her, turned. Bevussa slashed at one, striking while flying backwards and kicking off the walls, the ceiling.

The Bagrhaven screeched, trying to bite her, claw her. It fell at last, not from any one decisive strike, but blood loss. Bevussa stared down at the dozen wounds on its body as her team pinned the other to the ground and finally ran it through.

“Captain, congratulations!”

“It was just a Bagrhaven.”

Bevussa modestly wiped her blade before sheathing it. In truth, she was a bit embarrassed. The Flamewardens had already dealt with the other eight Bagrhavens in half the time it took her team. But Keldrass was beaming as he cleaned blood from his axe.

“Good job, Bevussa. We apologize for letting the others get away. We should have aimed more carefully. Injuries?”

The Oldblood Drake was gifted with the power of fire breath unlike Bevussa’s team, who were capable of flight. However, as often happened, the power of Keldrass’ flames were hard to control, such that even the Gold-rank adventurer had to speak in shorter bursts, to avoid accidentally discharging his fiery breath. He also avoided looking straight at Bevussa, turning his mouth to one side as he spoke.

Neither feature bothered the Garuda. She knew Keldrass, and so she only smiled.

“None, Keldrass. No problem on the nets. Bagrhaven are quick. I wish my team and I had your staying power, though. We’d never have taken this nest without injuries. I can barely take one and your team got…”

She indicated the Bagrhavens on the floor, who’d been neatly killed while in nets. Keldrass laughed and a bit of blue flame exited his mouth.

“Nets aren’t very sporting. And we carry heavy armor.”

He indicated the plate armor his team wore, and their weaponry. Bevussa knew that was true.

“Still, if you wanted to, you could fry them in one blast, couldn’t you? I can’t help but feel my team’s lacking compared to yours.”

“Captain!”

One of Bevussa’s teammates, Issa, cried out, sounding hurt. The Garuda rolled her eyes.

“I’m just saying, Issa. We can fly. We’re not exactly great dungeon-divers.”

“Yeah, but we can fly.

Zassil demonstrated, flexing his wings and grinning at the other Drakes. The Flamewardens on Keldrass’ team grunted or spat flame dismissively. Bevussa sighed. Oldblood Drakes. The ones who could fly always argued with the ones who could spit lightning or fire or acid about who was best. And the ones who could do both were insufferable.

“I just mean I wish I could carry something heavier than a shortsword.”

“Why don’t you?”

Keldrass looked up. He was squatting by a Bagrhaven, plucking the glossy black feathers loose from the creature’s wings. Bevussa squatted next to him. That was their haul today; Bagrhaven feathers were worth good money, and this nest was one she’d be glad to see the last of.

“Oh, you know. Too heavy and I can’t fly right. I’m all hollow bones anyways; armor’s no good, so I have to dodge or die. That’s what they teach you at Pallass’ flying academy. Dodge and strike. Wear your opponent down. Never go for a frontal assault.”

“Huh. I never knew that. Isn’t military doctrine…?”

Bevussa smiled.

“We have Garuda instructors. We’ve changed how Drakes view aerial combat. You know our [Generals] love frontal assaults. Well, that’s not how you fight in the air.”

“Good to know. The brass understands that?”

“They’d better, or they’ll have a lot more casualties than we need. But we’re not in the army anymore, Keldrass. And I’m not about to reenlist and shake things up.”

“No aspirations to be the first Garuda [General]? In Pallassian history? You know, Gold-rank teams can instantly receive…the [Captain] rank if we join back up. And promotions are fast. If you know the right people.”

“Yeah, but is it fun, Keldrass? Why’d you quit that fancy elite unit with your team if it was so great?”

“Well…”

The two Captains chatted as they stripped the monster corpses with their team. Bevussa slid the last blood-covered feathers into her bag of holding and sighed.

“That’s some good money right there. Not as much as we’ll get from those trap rooms. We need to hire some [Miners] or something from Pallass. That Gemhammer team is already stripping the rooms.”

“Huh. Really? How much gold’s…up there?”

Keldrass frowned, pausing to exhale some smoke. Bevussa shrugged.

“Before they noticed me eavesdropping? Few thousand gold in one room.”

Really?

“Let’s investigate it. I had no idea it was worth so much, but Earlia sounded serious.”

“Definitely. I’ll send a [Message]. To Pallass’ Guild. Get some insight.”

Bevussa nodded. She straightened, looked at her team, and jerked her head.

“Alright! Everyone got all the feathers? Back to the safe zones!”

Both teams moved in tandem, marching back down the dungeon corridors. Bevussa watched the markings on each wall, checking for outlined traps, navigating back towards the hole in the dungeon that the adventuring teams had climbed down. She and Keldrass kept an eye out, only relaxing when they were in areas cleared of monsters.

They knew it was clear because the first thing they saw was a wall. A palisade, rather. It was made of metal and blocking a tunnel. It was one of dozens the adventuring teams had set up in the dungeon. This one was designed to let adventurers fleeing a threat bail over the top if need be; Keldrass and his team clambered over while Bevussa’s team just flew. But Bevussa knew that before they left the dungeon, unless they were in full retreat, the teams would seal the tunnel completely.

“Classic dungeon tactics. Seal areas one by one. Create safe zones. Deplete monster reserves.”

Keldrass rolled over the top of the palisade and landed on the ground with a crash of metal. He got back up and Bevussa saw his armor flicker a dozen colors. She grunted as she helped pull him up.

“Nice armor. You got that from the Raskghar?”

Her voice was envious; she hadn’t gotten anything nearly as good in the lottery. Keldrass grinned.

“Magical. I could walk through a [Fireball] and not blink.”

“Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t make you any more agile. Come on, let’s seal this palisade and see how the other teams are going. We cleared two corridors today. There’s about eight thousand more to go, but that Minotaur’s map says there’s one of those unopened treasure rooms eight corridors further than where we went. I don’t trust his word at all, but if there’s a chance…”

Keldrass frowned at Bevussa as he helped the rest of his team over the palisade.

“You don’t trust him?”

“What, a traitor that allied with monsters?”

Bevussa folded her wing arms. Keldrass paused, sniffing the air.

“Phew, reeks in here. Those Bagrhavens stink. I usually don’t smell anything but smoke. Anyways, Bevussa. Good soldiers snap. I’ve seen it in the army. You too.”

Bevussa had to agree. About the smell. She waved a wing in front of her face, scowling.

“That’s different. This was—”

The Garuda broke off. So did Keldrass. Issa was waving at Bevussa urgently.

“Captain! I just got a [Message]!”

She unrolled a scroll. Bevussa leapt over to her.

“What is it? Facestealer?”

Instantly, both teams were on alert. Keldrass looked up, his posture tense. Issa shook her head as Bevussa snatched the scroll and read.

“No. It’s from that Silver-rank team. Vuliel Drae. It’s her.

“The Mask Warrior?”

One of Keldrass’ teammates exclaimed excitedly. Bevussa frowned. She noted the coordinates.

“So the mysterious adventurer’s here, is she? Keldrass, you want to meet this mystery adventurer?”

“The one who helps other adventuring teams?”

The Drake raised a brow. Bevussa scowled.

“Yeah. I want to convince her to come to the guild. Or at least identify her. We still have no idea who she is. And from what I heard, she had something to do with the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor—”

“She’s an adventurer. We don’t pry. Besides, she could be Named.”

Keldrass grunted. Bevussa shook her head.

“Hah. Named Adventurer? I’ll eat my tail if that’s the case. Er, wings. I’m going to catch her before she runs off. You in?”

The Drake swished his armored tail for a moment before nodding.

“Go. We’ll catch up. We have to seal this tunnel first.”

“Got it. Don’t be slow!”

Bevussa took wing, calling for her team. They flew after her, disappearing down the corridor in seconds. Keldrass heard a snort from another Drake.

“Don’t be slow. Lizard-faced hatchlings. What, do they not see our armor?”

“Shut it. Let’s get this wall up.”

Keldrass exhaled a plume of smoke wearily. He looked around for the other half of the palisade so they could anchor the wall and seal any monsters that might creep through. Then Keldrass frowned. He looked up.

The ceiling was fairly high overhead. And it was dark, but Keldrass didn’t remember seeing any murals on the dark stone when they’d passed through last time. Only now, there was a pale ivory and yellow…thing…

The Drake’s eyes widened. The crawling bone-thing stared down at him, its face a mask of yellowed bone hung with scraps of rotten flesh. He opened his mouth, the fire building in his lungs.

Abov—

The Ceiling Crawler dropped on him. Four more launched themselves down at the Flamewardens, biting and tearing with their limbs of sharpened bone.

 

—-

 

“It’s really good to see you again, um, Miss Warrior?”

Toren smiled. Of course, she was already smiling, but now she traced a smiley face on her mask. Insill smiled back. The Drake [Rogue] edged closer, eying the two dead Ghouls. One had been shot neatly in the head by Larr’s arrow and struck in the chest by several arrows Anith had conjured. The second had been beheaded by Toren’s blade.

“You always seem to appear when you’re needed. I mean, the dungeon’s sort of your home, isn’t it? We’re really grateful. Again.”

“Not that we needed her! I had it all under control! Right, Pekona?”

Dasha called out loudly as she swung her axe into the skull of the last crawling zombie. Pekona made a snorting sound as she cleaned her curved blade; she and Dasha had hacked through the group of zombies following the Ghoul. Anith just sighed. And Toren smiled.

Vuliel Drae had been surprised by the undead attack. Not too surprised; they’d cut through the group with Toren’s timely arrival with no issue. But Toren had been slightly surprised to see so many undead. So had Anith. He knelt by one body, frowning at the loose armor it wore.

“Hm. A [Soldier]’s gear. And undead? The last expeditions ran into very few undead. I thought we had exterminated most of them already.”

“Maybe some fell into the dungeon. Hah! Anyways, they’re just fodder! Although—hey, Insill! Check the bodies! See if any of them are carrying anything valuable! I’ll pull the armor off this lot. We can probably sell it for some good—hey! Pekona!”

Dasha protested as Pekona pulled her back by the hair. The part-Dwarf woman spun around. Pekona’s expression was disapproving as Anith’s.

“We don’t loot the dead.”

“Since when? We used to do it all the time! Zombie corpses have chainmail? That’s free chainmail!”

Anith coughed, looking at Toren and then at Dasha.

“I believe since we were able to earn enough to outfit ourselves, Dasha. It is about respect. It may be permissible to search their belongings, but at least leave them their clothes.”

The Dwarf’s face fell.

“What, all of them? At least take the armor and swords…”

“And why do I have to search the bodies? I’m talking with Miss Warrior here!”

Insill complained, looking back from Toren to his team. Larr sighed.

“You’re the [Rogue].”

“So? What does that have to do with anything?”

Pekona, Anith, Dasha, and Larr all looked at Insill. He wavered.

“Well? I don’t like searching bodies.”

“But you are the [Rogue]. There.”

Pekona folded her arms. Insill spluttered.

“But that’s…”

Toren patted him on the shoulder. Insill looked around and Toren squatted next to a body. She turned it over and rummaged around. She offered Insill a handkerchief. He hesitated.

“Um. Well, I guess that’s useful, but not exactly what…”

The Drake glanced over his shoulder. Dasha tapped the side of her head and mouthed ‘crazy’ until Pekona slapped her hand down. Anith shook his head.

“Miss Warrior, thank you again. But some ah, other adventurers have been asking about you. If you’d consent to stay so they can speak with you, we’d be grateful.”

Toren looked up, alarmed and intrigued. Adventurers wanted to speak with her? She adjusted the mask uneasily. Was her cover blown? Maybe she should…

She began edging away from Vuliel Drae. Flustered, Insill raised his claws.

“No, wait! They just want to talk! We’re not trying to accuse you of anything! Or blame you for…”

He bit his tongue. Toren looked at him. Blame her? Had she done something wrong?

“Insill, you idiot. You have the biggest mouth of any Drake I’ve ever met!”

Dasha cursed. Insill flushed.

“I just meant.”

“If you’ll let me explain.”

Anith stepped forwards, bowing apologetically. Toren looked around. She heard flapping wings. And in the distance, what sounded like whispering…

“Aha! Hold it right there!”

A giant bird-woman flew down the tunnel. Toren stared, lifted her sword, and prepared to slash. She halted as Insill darted forwards.

“No, wait! That’s Captain Bevussa! The Wings of Pallass!”

Toren froze. The Garuda landed in front of her, staring.

“Well, well. So this is the mysterious Masked Warrior all the teams are talking about. Hello. Bevussa Slenderscale. Wings of Pallass. Gold-rank team. Before you run off, mind if I have a word?”

Toren paused. She stared at Bevussa. A Gold-rank adventurer? She didn’t look like much. The skeleton saw a few magical items at her belt, some enchanted leather armor, a magical shortsword…she nodded slowly, eying the other Drakes who alighted behind Bevussa.

The Garuda smiled. But she was watching Toren carefully. Vuliel Drae hesitated, but Bevussa was a Gold-rank Captain. The Garuda spoke briskly, peering at Toren’s mask, her clothed body.

“Sorry to bother you, but we’d heard there was a solo adventurer in this dungeon. One that refused to leave the dungeon. I couldn’t believe it myself. Someone surviving this long alone? But I suppose anything’s possible. The thing is—you wouldn’t happen to be able to speak, would you?”

Toren paused. She considered this, and then shook her head. Bevussa nodded slowly.

“Mute? Vow of silence? Cursed?”

The skeleton shrugged unhelpfully. She didn’t like all these questions. Nor did she like Bevussa’s tone. She liked Vuliel Drae and the little Drake standing nervously by her side. Not the Garuda. Bevussa sighed. She folded her wings and looked at Toren.

“Miss. Miss…Warrior? I know we’re both adventurers, but let me be honest. Liscor’s Adventurer Guild’s Guildmistress would like to speak with you about some incidents in the dungeon. The Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor, for one. We’re not saying it was your fault! But you had a role in how it happened. And frankly, after this situation with the Minotaur, we want to treat anyone staying in the dungeon with care. Do you…are you aware about the situation with the Raskghar? The Minotaur?”

She looked at Toren. The skeleton gave her a blank look and turned her head to Insill. The Drake hesitated.

“Well, what happened was…”

“You can tell her all about it. Above. Miss Warrior, it won’t be for more than a few hours, but we need to talk with you. You can write, can’t you? Let’s go to Liscor and you’ll be free to come back here…or we could find you a team. It can’t be easy staying below. Come on, come with us, please?”

Bevussa tried a smile and held out one claw-hand. But Toren was instantly alarmed. What had she just said? Go above? For hours? That would be death. She slowly stepped back, shaking her head.

“What? No? Why not? I mean, what’s wrong?”

Toren just kept shaking her head. Bevussa paused. She looked at Vuliel Drae.

“What’s wrong?”

“No idea. But she never wants to go above. She does that all the time. Annoying, ain’t it?”

Dasha answered unhelpfully. Bevussa exhaled slowly. She looked at her team, but they were waiting for her.

“Where’s Keldrass when you need him? Excuse me, Miss Warrior—”

Toren hopped backwards. Bevussa paused, and then she did frown.

“I have to insist.”

Shake, shake. Toren crossed her arms for further emphasis. No going above. No way. Bevussa paused.

“Captain Slenderscale, it is her choice. She’s a fellow adventurer…”

Anith murmured to Bevussa. She scowled at him and the Jackal [Mage] hesitated.

“I’m aware, Anith. But if I don’t get her to come with me, Guildmistress Tekshia will have my feathers…Miss! Can you at least identify yourself?”

Toren paused and thought about that. She shrugged and then shook her head again. Bevussa snapped her beak.

“Alright. Well. In that case, if you won’t go up, and can’t tell us who you are…take off your mask, please.”

The skeleton froze. So did Insill, who peeked at her masked face. Bevussa walked forwards.

“Or tell me who you are. I’ve had enough surprises from adventurers in this dungeon.”

Toren backed up. And now she had a hand on the hilt of her sword. He was in her head, laughing at the situation and telling her to stab the Garuda. But Toren didn’t want to. And yet—she couldn’t take her mask off. She couldn’t go out of the dungeon. And she wasn’t sure she knew how to write.

All these things made her back away. But now Bevussa had a look of deep suspicion in her eyes. She advanced, only to be slowed by Insill and Anith.

“Miss Bevussa! Wait! She’s saved our team dozens of times!”

Dasha coughed.

“I wouldn’t say dozens…”

“Hey! That’s our Captain, normalblood. Gold-rank. Claws off!”

Issa snapped at Insill. He hesitated, but Anith backed him up, firmly barring Bevussa’s way.

“Captain Bevussa, adventurers are entitled to their anonymity…”

“She can have that. But there’s the situation with the Minotaur—with Calruz, remember? I just want proof she’s not some half-insane person as mad as he is! Or…or a Raskghar or something!”

Bevussa protested. Everyone looked at Toren and her thin frame. The Garuda sighed.

“Okay, not a Raskghar. But you know what I mean.”

She pointed at Toren.

“What reason does she have to be down here? Why not go above? It’s too suspicious. There’s insanity in challenging a dungeon alone, and then there’s this. Why are you down here, Miss? Why can’t you speak? Who are you?”

Toren had no answer. Well, she had tons of answers, but not ones she could give. And not ones that would deescalate the situation. She tried tracing a smile on her mask. Bevussa glared.

“Are you mocking me?”

“Captain Slenderscale, I’m sure she…”

Anith broke off. Toren was nodding her head happily. It was sort of fun.

Insill choked. Dasha guffawed. Bevussa snapped.

“Alright, that’s it. Mask comes off. Miss, take it off or—”

She paused as Toren drew her sword. Bevussa stepped back.

“Lower it.”

Toren shook her head and lifted her sword. Bevussa’s eyes narrowed. She reached for the hilt of her shortsword.

“Captain Slenderscale!”

Anith protested, but the other Wings of Pallass moved forwards, suddenly tense. Bevussa looked around. She exhaled, annoyed and frustrated. She did not want to do this, but Keldrass wasn’t here being reasonable and she was out of patience. She tried one last time.

“If you won’t so much as answer one of my questions, I have no choice but to—”

She stopped. The masked warrior was looking around, cocking her head. Bevussa scowled.

“Hey! Are you listening to me? I said…”

Then she stopped. Because the mysterious adventurer had held up a finger to her mask where her mouth should be. She was looking about, and looking wary. She turned, blade in hand. And then suddenly, Bevussa felt a tingle of danger too. Not from [Dangersense] or any Skill, but just long-honed instinct. She cleared her throat.

“Something’s…”

She looked around. And then she saw the masked warrior pause. Slowly, ever so slowly, prodded by the sense that there were more undead really close nearby, Toren looked up. And so did Bevussa. She shouted.

Up—

The Ceiling Crawler leapt. But Toren was faster. She kicked Bevussa backwards and the Ceiling Crawler landed on her. The undead instantly tried to squirm off Toren—she wasn’t a living thing—but Toren furiously stabbed at it and the undead, sensing the threat, began to fight back. Bevussa flew backwards and Dasha shouted in horror.

Dead gods! Undead crawling on the ceiling!

“Wings of Pallass! At them!”

Issa shouted, panicked, and the team began to take wing. Bevussa unsheathed her shortsword.

“No! Stay on the ground! They’ll hit you in midair! They’re jumping!”

“Help Miss Warrior!”

Insill shouted desperately. He swung his daggers, stabbing at the skeletal Ceiling Crawler’s back, but it was all bone! Bevussa hacked with her shortsword. The enchanted blade struck pieces of ivory away as Toren stabbed at the thing from below. It was biting her, sinking its claws and teeth into her cloth ‘body’. Anith, Insill, and Bevussa were all trying to get it off her, crying in horror, but Toren mostly just felt tickled.

At last, the three adventurers tore the Ceiling Crawler off Toren and it flipped, trying to snare Insill. He dodged out of the way and it crawled backwards, unnaturally fast. It was bigger than even Larr, and there were three more of them, leaping from wall to ceiling, trying to pin down and savage the adventurers!

“Gah! What are these things! Pekona! Help!”

Dasha screamed as one leapt at her. Pekona leapt forwards and slashed.

“[Flash Cut]!”

Her blade went through the thing’s arm and the bones clattered to the floor. The Ceiling Crawler recoiled and Dasha smashed it on the bony, gnashing face, shouting. The Wings of Pallass were fighting back-to-back, not at home on the ground.

“Retreat! We’re fighting the wrong type of monster! Retreat!

Bevussa shouted at her team and Vuliel Drae’s. Larr loosed an arrow and watched it bounce off one of the skeletal monster’s heads. Anith raised his spellbook and pointed.

“[Repulsion Barrier]! Go, go!”

The wall of force threw back the Ceiling Crawlers for a moment. All the adventurers turned and ran. Toren bounded after them, feeling distinctly miffed. What kind of undead were these? And why did she sense a lot more ahead of them?

She got her answer as the adventurers streamed back towards the entrance and came face to face with another Silver-rank team. Nailren and the Pride of Kelia. The Gnoll adventurers, most armed with bows, were retreating as well. The Gnoll howled at Bevussa.

“We’re under attack! There are Crypt Lords! And something else! All adventurer teams, pull back! They’ve smashed one wall!”

“Where’s Keldrass? We need his team!”

Bevussa shouted. Nailren drew breath as his team began loosing arrows—Toren peered past them. Those were Crypt Lords! The same ones in his kitchen! She slapped her skull, vexed. Of all the—

And then all the adventurers heard it. Three loud, desperate blasts. They looked up. Bevussa shouted.

“That’s the retreat! Shield Spiders?”

“Or just too many undead! Come on!”

“Not without Keldrass! Wings, we have to find—oh, Ancestors. What is that?

Toren turned. And then he heard it. Faint whispers growing louder. Voices. A chorus of the damned.

Doombringer. Bring us doom…

Lord Tyrion! The Goblins are—

Redfang.

Who are you? You’re not a Gnoll. You’re—

It’s cold.

Dozens of voices. The adventurers froze. Toren stared at the writing mass of hands and bodies, pulling the entire assembly towards him. The flesh-pit writhed, calling out to the living. Dasha paled. Pekona stumbled backwards, eyes wide. Toren wondered how it had gotten out of the inn. It better not have smashed any tables!

“Greater undead. Back to the entrance. Wings of Pallass, throw your alchemical weapons! Issa! Wand of Lightning! Now!”

Bevussa reached for her belt. She grabbed a potion, threw it, and ducked backwards. Toren stared as the other adventurers took cover. What was—

The whumph sent the skeleton flying. She landed on her head, which was fine, and got up. There was a flash—lightning blasted past the adventurers, catching a Ceiling Crawler as it leapt. The Wings of Pallass were using their magical items with abandon. Bevussa yanked an acid potion from her belt.

“Acid potions, on that thing! Withdraw! We’re making a stand at the entrance! Zassil, fly back and find the other teams! Rally on me! On me!

Anith was chanting, throwing magical arrows of light. Vuliel Drae held their ground as Larr shot zombies and Ghouls through their heads. Pekona leapt forwards, slashing at a Crypt Lord and dodging backwards as it spat black blood and swung at her. Toren wondered if this was somehow her fault.

Probably. She looked around, seeing more battle, flashes of light from behind them. The adventurers were putting on a really good fight. The undead, for all that several Crypt Lords were leading them, weren’t actually that much of a threat to this many teams. Toren didn’t see a reason to panic.

The fact that the many dead bodies of the flesh-pit were screaming at the living, calling out to them, didn’t really strike Toren as an issue. The Gnolls crying out to the Pride of Kelia, the Human faces beseeching Pekona, the Drakes screaming at their comrades in the Wings of Pallass—Toren scratched her head. Now where could she do the most good? Or—maybe she could slip away? That angry bird-adventurer got on her nerves.

Toren was just deciding to quietly leg it when she spotted something lurching forwards next to the flesh pit. She froze in place. And she looked back across the battleground at the lurching form. No. At her.

It was Erin. No—the zombie. Toren felt a hand creeping up towards her mask. She seized it, staring at the hand. No! Not now! But it was her! The zombie-Erin had gotten loose, and it was advancing on the adventurers! But it was moving past the flesh-pit, and the desperate undead abomination, looking for something to replenish the bodies melting under the acid and combined firepower of the magical adventurers, suddenly seized zombie-Erin with dozens on hands.

No! He was suddenly wrestling with Toren, trying to remove the mask. She grabbed the hand reaching for the mask with her own. He was trying to take over! Not now! She stared at zombie-Erin, flailing vacantly at Bevussa. It was just a zombie! It wasn’t even the real Erin!

But it was real to him. And Toren felt her feet carrying her forwards. She looked around. The adventurers were stumbling back. But Insill, darting forwards to hamstring the undead, had been caught by one of the hands of the flesh pit. He was screaming, sinking into the abomination as hands tried to drag him into the center of the fleshy mass. Dasha was running towards him with Pekona, but a Crypt Lord barred their way.

Insill. The funny Drake. Toren froze. She looked at him. And then at zombie-Erin, absently waving an arm and groaning. And Toren, both Torens, realized something. They looked ahead. And then at their hands. Slowly, the hand grasping Toren’s mask let go. And it reached instead to the right. Nailren jerked and turned.

“What are you—”

Toren’s hand slapped him on the face and snagged the buckler on his side. The skeleton raised the shield. He and she ran forwards, past the adventurers who shouted at her to come back. For him to stop. But neither Toren listened. For the first time, they began working together.

There were zombies in the way, Ghouls leaping forwards. Toren barreled into them, shield raised. [Daring Charge]! He smashed a zombie aside, ducked as the undead turned their wrath on him. A Ghoul leapt, jaw gaping. Toren blurred out of the way and his sword ran it through the stomach.

[Mirage Cut]. Toren tore the blade loose and ran past the Ghoul as Larr’s arrow caught it in the chest, keeping it from rising. He saw a wall of zombies and hesitated.

Attack? No! [Hi-Jump]. Toren leapt into the air and kicked off a wall. She saw a Crypt Lord turn and swing at her. She slashed down, cutting across the undead’s body, but it kept swinging. Toren flung herself sideways.

[Perfect Dodge]—she braced on the ground and lunged. Her sword slashed through the Crypt Lord’s leg. [Sharpened Edge]. It fell and Toren stopped. The kick to the Crypt Lord’s face came from both of them.

Closer. Insill was sinking into the flesh-pit, screaming in pain as the bodies inside clawed and bit at him. Toren leapt forwards. He brought his buckler down. [Shield Bash]. Toren heard a satisfying crunch, and one of the arms snaring Insill fell away, broken. Toren sawed at the other. Insill, one of his arms free, cut at the other arms, sobbing.

“Thank you, thank you—”

Insill! This way!

Dasha was shouting. She and the other warriors with weapons had opened a hole for them to retreat. Insill leapt forwards.

“Come on! Miss Warrior! The Flamewardens are here! Miss Warrior?”

He turned. Toren was still hacking at the flesh pit. He turned.

“Miss Warrior—”

The masked face turned. She looked at Insill, and then shoved him. He stumbled backwards. Pekona darted forwards, hauling him away.

No! Wait! She’s—

Insill shouted, but Toren was surrounded by the undead. Bevussa caught her breath. The undead were being cut down on all sides, but the flesh-monstrosity was coming straight at the adventurers. And it was trying to pull them in like Insill.

“We can burn it down!”

Keldrass rasped. He was spitting smoke, his armor still littered with bones from the Ceiling Crawler ambush. He pointed.

“Flamewardens, prepare to breathe! One, two—”

“No! She’s still in the line of fire! Hold it! Keldrass, there’s an adventurer there!”

Bevussa yanked at Keldrass. The Drake stopped.

What?

“What’s she doing?”

Another Gold-rank team Captain, Lifwail Blades, lowered her wand and shouted incredulously. Bevussa didn’t know. The masked adventurer had gotten the Drake [Rogue] to safety, but she was still hacking at the flesh-pit. Trying to pull…Bevussa’s eyes narrowed.

“Is she trying to rescue a zombie?

“What?”

Keldrass stared. Bevussa hesitated. The masked warrior was trying to save the zombie, heedless of the hands trying to pull her into the undead mass. Bevussa cursed.

Archers! Protect that adventurer! Keldrass, wait! Take out the undead on the flanks! Pull back! Don’t let her get sucked in!”

Toren heard none of it. Nor did he see the arrows that flew, covering him. All he could see was Erin. He began hacking at the mass of moving bodies, heedless of the hands trying to drag him in. He could see the Erin-zombie—Toren grabbed at her, dropping his shield and pulled as he slashed wildly. She came away rotten flesh tearing, light fading from her undead eyes. Toren staggered back. Erin? Erin? He lowered her to the ground. Staring at her.

Flamewardens! Breathe!

Fire blasted past him. Toren didn’t see it, didn’t see the other adventurers throwing the jars of acid that seemed so familiar, or the monstrosity of corpses burning, melting. He heard a voice as he held Erin. The zombie was weakly trying to bite his arm.

Right. She was just a zombie. But she was his zombie. She represented…Toren stared at it. It was no good. She was fading. Too damaged by the flesh-pit and the battle.

Damn it. Damn it all. He was going to have to get a new one.

“A second time! Inhale—now!

This time the fire drowned out the voices of the dead. Toren heard a crackling sound, explosions of fat catching fire. He felt the heat and then hands gently pulling him back. He stayed where he was, cradling the dead Erin in his arms. He’d worked so hard on the clothes. And the hair! It was so hard to find an zombie with the right color hair! Not to mention the same species!

The adventurers slowly regrouped, counting injuries. Not losses, thankfully. The undead assault had been quick, but not deadly. Keldrass’ team was mainly to thank for that. The furious Oldbloods had burnt half the undead themselves, and Bevussa’s holding of the line had ensured the undead hadn’t even overrun them. Even so, they were all shaken.

“Dead gods. What kind of undead was that?”

Bevussa pointed at the remains of the monstrous flesh-pit that had been made of hundreds of bodies. She could still hear the voices, calling out to her. She shuddered; some of the greener adventurers were throwing up. The other veteran Captains looked at each other.

“I think it was a Wailing Pit. You get them in mass graves. I don’t know. I didn’t think they could move.

“Dead gods, I didn’t know undead could speak—

“How did so many corpses get in one place?”

“Maybe they fell into the dungeon after the battle with the Goblins. Could be anything, but dead gods, I thought I recognized someone…”

“No recognizing anyone now. Almost all ash. Still—anyone got more acid jars? Let’s melt the rest.”

“What I want to know is why that crazed adventuress stuck around. She got Insill out, but why…?”

And then everyone was staring at the masked warrior. Some of the other teams pointed, recognizing her. Keldrass and Bevussa stared at the enigmatic warrior. Keldrass cleared his throat. Bevussa closed her eyes.

“Oh. Oh, that’s why…”

It was a simple picture, really. A tableau. There was the masked adventurer, nameless, a shadow in the dungeon. And she was cradling someone. A zombie. Yes. A zombie, but one she had risked her life to preserve. And sometimes you forgot that zombies had been people.

Erin. Well, sort of. Toren held the motionless zombie in her arms and bowed her head over the corpse. It was going to be such a pain to find another one. He didn’t notice the adventurers watching him.

“Well, now I feel like a complete Lizardperson.”

Bevussa whispered to her team. She shook her head, ashamed of her suspicion. Keldrass looked at the masked adventurer, a pained look on his face. Slowly, he off his helmet. After a moment, the rest of his team followed suit.

“You hate to see it. Think she lost her friend in the dungeon or in one of the battles?”

Issa leaned on Zassil, tears in her eyes. The other Drakes looked at each other.

“Fellow adventurer, maybe? A duo?”

“Could be one of the monster attacks.”

“Argh. And no wonder she’s not leaving. But it’s not healthy to stay—”

“You can’t talk sense to them. She nearly drew a sword when Captain Slenderscale tried to get her to leave. It’s the shock.”

Bevussa reddened under her feathers as Keldrass looked at her reproachfully.

“I didn’t know. I thought—”

The Drake paused. And then he slowly walked over to the masked woman. He bent down. Slowly, his voice rasping after breathing so much fire, he coughed and addressed her.

“Miss? Miss. Let’s bury your friend. You can’t do anything more for her. You found her—you did it.”

The masked woman looked up, almost surprised. She let go of the body. Keldrass caught her, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry. We’ve all experienced it. Was she—were you old comrades?”

He waited. Toren stared at him and then the zombie. Keldrass shook his head.

“You don’t have to say anything. But we can’t leave the body. Burial might be—once a zombie—we could cremate her. With respect. An adventurer’s burial.”

Toren had no idea what they were talking about. But she obligingly let them burn the body. All the adventurers made a big deal about it, solemnly standing around and saying a few words. For some reason they expected her to collect the ashes. They even gave her a bag for it. And the bird-woman kept patting her on the back.

“I know it’s hard. But you can’t throw away your life. You understand? Just—come with us for a bit.”

Toren kept shaking her head. She was prepared to run, but Bevussa didn’t seem intent on taking her mask anymore. Toren saw some of the other adventurers whispering and looking at her.

“We can’t force her. You know how unstable—”

“—be worse to let her as she is. Staying down here?

“The Minotaur did it. Look, let’s get a [Healer]’s opinion on this. One used to dealing with adventurers? She’s survived this long—I knew a team that tried to force it. Turned ugly.”

“I’m really sorry. Again. But if there’s any way…”

Bevussa sighed as Toren backed up. The Garuda shook her head and looked at Keldrass. He grimaced, but tilted his head towards the ropes. Some adventurer teams were already ascending. Bevussa gave it one last try.

“At least let’s say we owe you a drink. Any…anytime you want, we’ll buy you a drink. Hell, we’ll buy you ten! You want to come above, you can find us in Liscor’s Guild, alright? Just send a [Message] and someone will get word to us. We’ll take you to the best inn we know. Alright?”

She waited. And at last, the masked woman slowly nodded. Bevussa smiled. She held out a claw.

“Then—friends? I’ll look for you again when we return. You’ll be there. Promise?”

The masked adventurer wavered. But she came forwards. And after staring at Bevussa’s claw, she took it.

Slowly, the skeleton shook the Garuda’s hand. And Toren—both Toren’s—felt a flash of…warmth. No. Not warmth; they were dead after all and there was no biology to react. But a memory of it. Bevussa smiled and Toren traced a smile on her mask.

He watched them preparing to leave. In the end, Vuliel Drae and the Wings of Pallass and the Flamewardens were last. They’d stayed to try and convince Toren, but now they were going. And in the end…the skeleton wavered.

She would miss them. And he had never understood why. But today, they’d been…fun. They’d killed the stupid Crypt Lords that kept stealing his undead, and the flesh-pit. So, maybe she was right. Maybe…Toren looked at the adventurers and decided they weren’t so bad.

“Dead gods, but I do need a drink. And I’ll buy a round for everyone. My treat.”

Bevussa was talking to the others, glancing back at Toren now and then. She wished she could join Bevussa. But outside was…Toren turned away, sighing inwardly. Bevussa sighed too, watching her leave. She shook her head. Each adventurer made their choice. She only hoped she’d see that brave soul again. By her side, Zassil looked up at his Captain.

“What is the best inn in Liscor, Keldrass? Or bar? Wishdrink’s? I know you’re not thinking of the Tailless Thief, Bevussa—”

“Hey! I like that inn.”

Bevussa rolled her eyes at Keldrass as he protested mildly.

“Because you’re a Drake, Keldrass. That [Innkeeper] treats you like royalty and anyone who’s not a Drake like dirt. Please, there’s only one inn I’m thinking of—”

“Oh come on. She doesn’t even have a good selection of alcohols.”

Keldrass protested. Bevussa snorted and turned to him.

“It’s The Wandering Inn for sure. Sure, it’s not the best cooking, but Miss Solstice’s got all those new foods. Sure, the variety’s less than what you can get at some other inns, but there’s the plays and the magic door and the fact that there’s always something interesting going on…”

She turned back to the tunnel. But the masked woman was gone. She’d vanished while Bevussa had been speaking. Damn. Bevussa had been hoping to lure her with the promise of a hot meal, but the masked woman was truly…the Garuda shook her head as she turned sadly back to Keldrass.

“Gah. I hate to see it. We have to do something for her. Carefully. Let’s get that drink, Keldrass, figure something out.”

“You can’t save them all, Bevussa.”

Keldrass patted her on the wing-arm. Together they left the dungeon. The adventurers left, abandoning the horrors of below for recuperation.

And in the dungeon, Toren lay on his back. He jerked—looked around. Why was he lying down?

Oh. He’d fainted. He’d heard ‘The Wandering Inn’. And then he’d heard…the skeleton stared up at the ceiling. He’d heard that wrong. Hadn’t he?

Solstice?

…Erin?

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.47 E

Day 71

 

He returned on a quiet day. The rains that had poured from the sky after the day of fire had flooded the barren ground. So much so that the banks of Riverfarm’s river were overflowing. The water was actually a danger to the landscape; it was eroding the soil which wasn’t prepared for this much stored rain. There was a potential now for the fields of scorched plants to drown.

Another aspect of the Drake’s plans, if they’d thought so far ahead. But the heavy downpour had stopped in the morning, leaving only intermittent showers.

Ryoka stood in Riverfarm’s entrance with the others. Waiting. They knew he was coming. So they waited. [Witches]. Villagers. Her, Charlay. Silently.

They could have been working. The fields were half-ruined by fire. Parts of Riverfarm had been evacuated due to the fire damage. There were a hundred things to do. But all the people of Riverfarm had done yesterday was cremate and bury the dead, or rather, what remained of those they’d found.

No one had the spirit for anything else. Even the [Witches] were silent. Their hats still dripped with rainwater. They were motionless.

Five of them. Hedag. Eloise. Mavika. Alevica. Wiskeria. The one missing was Nanette. But no one had forced her to come outside. After yesterday, after the revelation that it had been Califor who had stopped the fire at the cost of her life, she hadn’t moved. Belavierr had fled. And Nanette was…gone.

Broken. Ryoka didn’t want to think of it like that. But that was what it looked like. Someone had taken Nanette’s heart, had taken that smiling, cheerful little [Witch] and removed her happiness. Belavierr had killed Califor, had forced her to her death. And Califor had been Nanette’s mother. Her true mother, by blood as well as parenthood. And she was dead.

There wasn’t anything else to say. Ryoka couldn’t even cry. She hated herself. Hated herself for ever believing Belavierr was more than a monster. Hated herself for trying to give her a chance. And she hated the Drake who had died.

She didn’t even know his name. But he had engineered this pointless death, spread the fire that had taken so many lives. He had done it so casually, too. Without even knowing Riverfarm. He was an agent of a foreign power. And he had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in this region for a war that few had taken part in.

Ryoka had never felt more like she was home than today. It was the same world, deep down. The same people, even if they wore different bodies. She hated it. But she couldn’t even be angry. So she stood there.

And there he came. Just before midmorning, the silence of the crowd was broken. A bright, blue bird took wing. She flew up, and Frostwing’s piercing scream made the people below start. The bird had sensed the grief in the air perhaps, but she was a simpler creature. And she had picked up on something before the others. She flew east, flapping her wings rapidly. Then she dove out of the skies, a blue bolt of feathers, shrieking.

On the ground, a Mossbear got up from where he had been napping besides Durene. Bismarck, his fur singed, looked up and roared. He lumbered forwards, people scattering around him. He raced after Frostwing, moving faster than Ryoka could remember seeing him. Ryoka stood taller, craning her neck with the others to see. It was Durene who exclaimed and pointed first.

And then Ryoka saw him. A distant figure, riding slowly towards them, one of two on the road. He didn’t lead the way. He was following another man, who was guiding both his horse and the young man’s. But the [Emperor]’s head was craning, following Frostwing as she flew down towards him. He raised an arm and she landed there, pecking and shrieking at him.

“Is that…?”

Eloise murmured. Durene ran forwards a few steps.

“It’s him.”

She was certain, even as far away as she was. Durene hesitated, and then began to trot, and then run. Prost watched her. And then he followed at a jog. Chimmy, Miss Yesel, and the rest of his family followed as well.

“It’s his Majesty!”

Jelov the [Carpenter] shouted, spraying people around him with spit. He crab-ran after the others. And then Riverfarm’s villagers were running, calling out his name. The others, who had never met Laken, watched. Startled. But then they followed, first at a quick walk, and then faster. Ryoka ran past them. Charlay galloped on her right.

“Why are we running? Why are we running?

Ryoka had no answer. But everyone in Riverfarm was racing towards him. And he sensed them. He dismounted from the horse as the other rider stopped. He jumped back, shouting, laughing, as Bismarck nearly knocked him flat. And he hugged the Mossbear. His head rose. And his closed eyes turned. He urged Frostwing onto Bismarck’s back. And he turned as Durene thundered at him.

“You—you—you’ve been gone so—”

Laken Godart stood there as Durene skidded to a stop in front of him. Ryoka was third, Charlay second. She looked at the [Emperor]. He stood in front of his horse. And he seemed larger than she remembered. He filled the air, for all he was shorter than both her and Durene. He turned his head, his eyes still closed. Towards her. But it was to Durene he turned back to.

“I know. My dear Durene. I know. I’m sorry.”

He walked towards her. The half-Troll girl hesitated. And she moved forwards timidly. The two stopped in front of each other, awkwardly. Laken tilted his head up, as if to see her face. Durene hesitantly raised a hand.

They reached out. And Laken straightened and Durene’s head bent. And—she didn’t expect it, but he had intended it—they kissed there. Riverfarm’s folk stopped, panting. And waited. After a second, Laken turned towards them. The man on the horse slowly dismounted.

“Your Majesty.”

Mister Prost spoke slowly. Lady Rie panted as she caught up, having to push through the crowds. Laken turned his head. He didn’t speak at first. He just turned his head, his closed eyes passing over the faces in the crowd. Laken paused. And then he nodded.

“Mister Prost. My people. I’ve missed you so dearly. You and Riverfarm. I have been gone too long. At last, I have returned. Hear me. I am your [Emperor]. And I have come back.”

And he smiled slightly. Prost and the villagers of Riverfarm bowed their heads. And then they took a knee. In the muddy road. Lady Rie curtsied, ignoring the same muck. The people behind them hesitated. Lancrel’s folk, townsfolk and villagers from further off wavered. But something compelled them. Perhaps it was the way he stood. Or the way he fit in this place. Like a missing part of the village. Perhaps it was only his class, but Ryoka felt it too.

Slowly, they knelt. Men, women, children. Only Ryoka remained standing. Ryoka, Charlay, who wavered and then locked her legs. And the [Witches]. The man behind Laken looked disapproving. Laken himself just smiled.

“Thank you. You still find me worthy, then, Prost?”

“I have never doubted you for a moment, sire. Not since the day you found my family in the snow.”

Prost spoke, his head bowed. Laken nodded.

“Then I will answer that faith. Rise, my [Steward]. I am back. And though much grief has passed, I intend to begin mending my errors. Rise. And look: I did not return alone.”

He pointed. Ryoka saw, behind him, another procession travelling on foot. A few were mounted, but the majority of the [Engineers] and [Builders] walked. They too broke into a run when they saw the gathering. And one of the mounted men, Gamel, raced towards the crowd with Tessia riding behind him.

Gamel! Tessia!

“It’s the [Engineers]! They’ve all returned!”

Some of the villagers exclaimed excitedly. Laken nodded, and those who knew the people running towards them broke out of the crowd and met them. The delighted laughter and exclamations felt odd to Ryoka’s ears. Unfamiliar after so long without hearing them. But oh, so welcome.

The young man on horseback, Gamel, dismounted. He bowed precisely towards Laken.

“Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Gamel. Tessia, your parents are over that way.”

Laken pointed to his left. Tessia cried out and ran to an older couple fighting their way through the crowd. Gamel smiled. Laken turned his head.

“Do you have anyone you would like to see, Gamel?”

“No one not buried, your Majesty. And they can wait. Your orders?”

The [Emperor] paused. And then he nodded.

“Very well, Gamel, with me. Mister Prost, Lady Rie, Durene, and Lord Yitton, would you all walk with me?”

Laken turned his head. And Ryoka saw him nod once towards her. But then he set off, with the five people trailing after him. The crowd parted as Laken walked forwards. The [Emperor] turned his head.

“Lady Rie, a delight to hear your voice.”

“You flatter me, your Majesty. Was your return uneventful?”

“Besides witnessing the devastation? Quite. However, my delayed return has given me time to assess the damage. We have much to do.”

“Yes, sire. Only—”

Prost hesitated. Laken turned towards him.

“Yes, Mister Prost?”

The [Steward] wavered. Their conversation was being followed by everyone present. And the moment of Laken’s arrival was passing. Ryoka could see the others appraising him. Waiting on his words. Prost raked a hand through his greying hair.

“I don’t know where to begin. The fire that…Drake caused didn’t damage Riverfarm much. But there was a [Witch].”

“Belavierr. Yes. I understood most of what transpired from Lady Rie’s [Message].”

Laken’s word caused a shudder to run through those around him. The [Emperor] paused. And he looked around.

“Mister Prost, I understand. Riverfarm has been through so much. But, surely you haven’t reached the limits of your stamina the moment I return? Or am I overestimating you [Farmers] and village folk?”

He smiled at the slight flush on Prost’s face. Laken shook his head, forestalling the man’s reply.

“I know. Yet, we have been through worse, Prost. I remember a village covered in snow. A time when we fought in the streets of Riverfarm. We have seen times just as dark. And each time, Riverfarm rebuilt itself. This time, mercifully, there is more left. And I will replace the rest piece by piece. But I can’t do it alone. May I lean on you for help?”

“Of course. Of course, your Majesty.”

Prost’s voice cleared. And he looked around, assessing, a spark back in his eyes. Laken nodded.

“This is still a home. And it has weathered both ice and fire. And I am finally back. So, let us get to work! And then break open the stores and toast and mourn! Miss Yesel! Chimmy!”

He reached out, addressing the girl and woman in the crowd. Others gathered around. Laken turned, addressing people by their names. Smiling. Prost had to eventually shout for order, and help Laken extricate himself from the crowd. Laughing, the [Emperor] continued onwards.

“Very well, Mister Prost. I see that Riverfarm’s folk are hale and hearty. But the village is quite a bit bigger than I remember. Will you introduce me to the newcomers?”

He turned and faced the other folk. They shifted, a bit disconcerted by the stare that was not a stare with Laken’s closed eyes. Prost nodded.

“These are folk from other towns and villages, your Majesty. Some from small places like Fendele, others larger places like Tulntown. Most are from Lancrel, though.”

“Ah, yes. Lancrel.”

Laken murmured. A shadow crossed his brow. He nodded, turning his head to regard the crowd.

“I welcome you all. I regret that I was not here earlier. And I thank you for your efforts in building Riverfarm. I am Laken Godart. Riverfarm’s [Emperor]. I will meet with all of you in time and learn who each of you is. Today though, we have work to do. Riverfarm has endured a great disaster. But it stands. And it will become greater still.”

Murmuring. The people watched Laken, some wary, others disbelieving. Many hopeful. Because he was blind. But Laken was confident. He didn’t hesitate.  He was turning back to Prost when a voice rang out.

“Excuse me! Excuse me! Make way!”

Ryoka, listening, winced as she saw a familiar face pushing through the crowd. And Councilwoman Beatica did have to push. Her metaphorical stocks were in the dumps after the disaster that had left her with some magically-healed burns and countless others dead in the river. But she still faced Laken, breathless.

“Pardon me. Your…Majesty.”

“Yes? Can I help you, Miss?”

Laken paused, turning back to Councilwoman Beatica with a bemused look on his face. Surely he had to know who she was—but his brows rose. Lady Rie glared and urgently whispered in his ear, but the [Emperor] stepped forwards.

Everyone was watching this too. Councilwoman Beatica smoothed her dress, straightened, and spoke with every shred of authority she had. She smiled ingratiatingly—until it occurred to her that was pointless on Laken.

“I am Councilwoman Beatica, your—your Majesty. And I am pleased to welcome you on behalf of—”

She got no further. Laken, with impeccable timing, raised his brows and exclaimed.

“A [Councilwoman]?

He whirled, cutting off Beatica’s flow and frowned at Lady Rie.

“I didn’t know Riverfarm had elected a council. Nor that my people were intending to replace my [Steward], Mister Prost. What is the meaning of this, Lady Rie?”

For a moment the [Lady] looked as surprised as anyone else. Then she smiled.

“Your pardon, Emperor Godart, but I’m afraid you misheard Councilwoman Beatica. She was not referring to Riverfarm’s council.”

“Not referring to…?”

Laken’s frown made the smile on Beatica’s face waver. She licked her lips.

“I am of Lancrel, your Majesty, but as I was saying—”

“Ah, Lancrel. Of course.”

Laken lightly tapped the heel of his palm on his forehead. He smiled, and nodded. Then, suddenly, he focused on Councilwoman Beatica.

“This is Riverfarm, Miss Beatica. You are aware of that?”

The woman spluttered.

“Yes, but—”

The [Emperor] nodded happily. Then he walked right past her.

“I am delighted to meet you, Miss Beatica. However, I must attend to Riverfarm’s pressing needs at the moment. I look forwards to meeting you with the rest of my new subjects when time permits.”

“But—”

“If you have an issue, you may address it to one of my subordinates if they have time for you, Miss Beatica. However, your former station does not grant you any authority here. Lancrel’s folk are welcome here—as citizens of the Unseen Empire.”

Ryoka enjoyed seeing the woman’s face go slack. She opened her mouth, but Laken was already ignoring her. He addressed the rest of the crowd, who had seen Councilwoman Beatica’s power evaporate like, well, an idea.

“If you have come here, you are my people. No less regardless from whence you came, but no more than that either. Any of you might be a leader. And you will have chances to rise to the occasion. But right now, in this moment, my [Steward] is Mister Prost. Lady Rie is his counterpart. The man who stands next to me is Gamel, my aide and [Knight]. Lord Yitton Byres has come to visit Riverfarm. Durene is my consort and [Paladin]. And I will rely on each of them to manage Riverfarm. Now, let us begin.”

Laken clapped his hands. And the air was suddenly brisk. He strode back to Riverfarm, and the five adjutants followed him. And everyone else thereafter. Laken spoke briskly, turning his head to Mister Prost.

“There are three main issues that need attending to now. Firstly, the fires and aftermath. I sense no remaining embers after the rain. The sacrifice of the…[Witch] must have caused that.”

He paused, and turned his head towards the five [Witches] watching him. Laken nodded and went on.

“However, there is much to do. Mister Prost, I am placing you in charge of the repair work. A number of buildings on the western and southern edges of Riverfarm are damaged. Begin pulling down any that can’t be repaired. Next, I want teams of sweepers removing all this ash and dust before we breathe it in. Wash it down the street with buckets if you have to.”

“At once, sire.”

Prost beamed. He looked ten years younger as Laken smiled. The [Emperor] nodded towards the distant river and the fields beyond it.

“Lastly, I want [Farmers] to begin replanting fields and every [Hunter] and [Archer] you can spare in another team. There’s a herd of deer—regular deer—who fled the fires. They’re north of us, about eight miles. Have wagons ready to bring back the carcasses.”

“Hunting, your Majesty?”

Prost exclaimed, but in the next moment he was nodding.

“Absolutely. It will be done, sire. Let me get—”

He began looking around, but Laken held up a hand.

“No need to deal with all of it yourself, Mister Prost. That does remind me. Before you set to work—excuse me, you, sir, and you, Miss, with the hammer in the belt. Step forwards please.”

Laken turned and unerringly pointed to two people in the crowd. There was a start, but the two he’d indicated came forwards slowly. Ryoka recognized both. Laken nodded to the man and the woman.

“Ram, isn’t it? And [Forewoman] Beycalt. I’ve heard of both of you.”

“You have? I mean, your Majesty?”

Beycalt stammered. Ram looked delighted.

“You remember me, Emperor Laken?”

“I do indeed. Ram from Windrest. How could I forget? And you, Miss Beycalt, I’ve heard good things of. Both of you.”

Both man and woman bowed their heads, flushing. Laken went on, speaking in a loud, carrying voice as he turned back to Mister Prost.

“Mister Prost, you’ve done a splendid job as [Steward], as has Lady Rie. But no man or woman can handle an entire village alone, let alone one of Riverfarm’s size. Thus, I am naming Mister Ram my [Head Farmer], and Forewoman Beycalt my [Construction Supervisor]. Both will be in charge of their respective fields and have the authority to issue orders and promote people below them to jobs such as [Foreman]. Or [Forewoman].”

“Promoted?”

Ram exclaimed. Beycalt’s eyes bulged.

[Supervisor]?

“Of course. A [Forewoman] can’t handle Riverfarm’s construction, can she? Nor can Mister Prost manage everything himself. You’ve both held your positions of authority under him. I am simply confirming it. With a class change. Let me know if you don’t level up.”

Laken turned, smiling slightly. Then his voice sharpened again.

“Mister Prost, Supervisor Beycalt, Headman Ram, please take whomever you need! Mister Prost will confer with you.”

The [Steward] nodded, and, beaming, clapped Ram on the shoulder. The former [Rancher] pointed at Laken. So did Beycalt.

“But he just—a [Supervisor]?”

“To work, Beycalt! And you, Ram! It’s nothing you can’t handle, or his Majesty wouldn’t have chosen you. All you have to do is pick folks you know can do the job. Just like before. Beycalt, you know who can swing a hammer! We’ll start with the edges first, and Ram, how many hands do you need to replant and expand?”

“Well—”

The confused expression faded from both’s faces. They glanced back at Laken and he nodded. He looked sideways and addressed the young man walking beside him.

“Gamel. Please introduce Tessia and our [Engineers] to Supervisor Beycalt. They’ll be helpful in setting up those houses. And get me a big piece of parchment as well. Riverfarm’s layout is good, but I want to update it. I’ll need—”

“Drawing charcoal sire, I will have it in a minute. [Engineers], with me!”

Gamel’s call stirred the crowd. He turned and marched backwards, towards Tessia and the others. And then Prost, Ram, and Beycalt were calling names, and men and women, realizing they’d be called on, were halting. Meanwhile, the procession was continuing, heading into the village. Laken was glancing up at the sky, or rather, tilting his head up since he didn’t need to see.

“I feel like I’m going to be hit in the head with a raindrop any second. Let’s get ready for rain. And get some food ready! Have people had a filling meal, Lady Rie?”

“Some food, yes, Emperor Godart. I wouldn’t call it filling.”

“Then let’s have a rolling lunch. [Cooks] to their stations! We have a number of cookhouses now, don’t we? We’ll run food out to the [Farmers] if it’s not pouring. But that’s a smaller task. Now—the second issue. Beniar! Why are you hanging back there?”

He waved at the crowd. At his words, the armored [Cataphract] pushed his way forwards, beaming.

“Your Majesty! I didn’t want to presume!”

“And here I was expecting you to ride me down and hug me in that uncomfortable armor. Get over here! You’re needed! The Darksky Riders have been Riverfarm’s shield and sword—I’m going to have to expand your ranks as well as honor the lot of you!”

There was a whoop from behind Beniar. He strode forwards as Laken turned, taking the course around the village. He gestured at Lady Rie and Beniar next. Ryoka, hurrying to watch him, saw Lord Yitton watching with approval and fascination—Durene with pride.

“Lady Rie. I count seventeen groups on the road. Find me a map and take Beniar and his Darksky Riders. Once I’ve located them for you, send the [Riders] to them and invite them to join Riverfarm. Few villages remain standing. Two towns were half-destroyed. Send the [Riders] to those towns as well.”

“So many?”

Lady Rie looked worried. Laken’s face sobered.

“Yes. And too many were caught by the fire. But those who did make it are by and large homeless. I intend to do what Ryoka did and offer them Riverfarm’s security.”

He nodded in Ryoka’s direction. The City Runner jumped as every head swung towards her for a moment. That was another thing. In Invrisil, Laken had just been…blind. But here, it was like he had eyes in the back of his head as well as everywhere else! It was adding to the impression he made as he spoke. Lady Rie frowned.

“What if they decline, your Majesty?”

Laken shook his head.

“It is an offer they may refuse. Riverfarm can feed them and house them, but it is a choice, Lady Rie. Which is why we need to bring in food now. Which reminds me…”

He snapped his fingers, vexed. Then he turned as Gamel hurried back towards him.

“Gamel! I also have a list of bodies of water with fish in them! Anyone who knows how to fish will need to be transported to and from those spots—but not overharvest any one location! Get me two maps, one for Lady Rie, another for Prost! And that parchment!”

“Yes, your Majesty—”

Laken turned back to Lady Rie, nodding.

“Food, as I said. And if the groups do agree to enter Riverfarm, they must be found places to sleep, and heads counted, lists of their classes and useful Skills accounted for. Negotiations are in order as well; we will need to work with every town and city nearby to repair so much damage. Lady Rie, I am entrusting that role to you and whomever you would like to appoint. Perhaps you have a list of some of our more diplomatic members of Riverfarm?”

Lady Rie inhaled. And somewhere in the crowd, Beatica looked up eagerly. Laken’s smile was all too knowing.

“We may need managers to distribute goods, Lady Rie. To coordinate cooking, supplies—any number of roles! I will entrust their appointment to you, Lady Rie. They are under your authority, of course. Send whomever you please on horseback at once. And while you’re at it, about fifty eight totems have been burned. Jelov will need to replace them.”

The [Lady] could not have looked more pleased if Laken had told her she could hit Beatica with a broom. Her head turned and the [Councilwoman] paled as Lady Rie smiled ghoulishly at her. Ryoka guessed that the most distant city or town would soon be getting a newly-appointed diplomat visiting them. Probably riding the most ill-tempered mule Rie could find. The [Lady] curtseyed.

“At once, your Majesty. I will see to everything that needs doing. And confer with you as to the location of these groups in…thirty minutes? Very good, your Majesty. Oh, Miss Yesel? A word, if you would. And you too, Mister Tharei. I suppose you as well, Miss Beatica. Come along now!”

She strode off, taking more people with her. That was the trick to it, Ryoka realized. Laken was still moving. He hadn’t even paused when Rie took her leave. He was speaking to Jelov next. The [Carpenter] had somehow managed to get between Durene and Yitton and was now beam-spitting at Laken.

“Your Majesty, so glad to see you! Knew you’d be back, and hope you whooped those Goblins a second arse! You need new totems? Of course! They burned, didn’t they? Fire does that, ‘least, if we carve it of plain wood. We could make some out of fireproof stuff, but that costs the earth and’s hard to work, so it is! But you need more? Can do! Me and a few of the other, heh, [Carpenters]’ll be glad to do it! Of course, I’d be glad to lead them…”

He waggled his eyebrows in a way that made Ryoka vaguely nauseated, but Laken’s lack of sight meant he didn’t even pause. He smiled and patted Jelov on the shoulder as he wiped his face with a sleeve.

“Good work, Jelov. But I haven’t decided on a [Royal Carpenter] yet. I’d prefer you of course, but I understand Prost’s had words with you about selling trinkets. Please do something about the coins in the floorboard under your bed. It’s distracting me. Now, onto the third issue at hand.”

As the [Carpenter] choked on his own tongue, Laken turned to face the group still following him. More and more people were being called away, but a great number still watched Laken. Among them were the [Witches], who had made their way to the front. As well as Ryoka and Charlay. The Centauress was tugging on Ryoka’s arm.

That’s Riverfarm’s [Emperor]! But he’s blind! And he can see everything? Is it a Skill! He’s pretty cool! Hey, you know him, Ryoka?”

“The last issue. Shut up, Charlay.”

Ryoka muttered back. She watched as the [Witches] straightened expectantly. Laken paused. Then he walked right past the [Witches] and stopped in front of Charlay and Ryoka. He looked up at them as all five [Witches] turned, looking peeved under their pointed hats. Laken nodded absently.

“The third task is Gralton. But first—Ryoka Griffin. It’s been a while.”

“Hi, Laken.”

Ryoka didn’t know whether to smile or frown at Laken. Since it wouldn’t matter, she did neither. Laken paused. The two stood together, unsaid words spilling in the air. Laken nodded.

“I owe you a debt, Ryoka. And we have much to discuss. But later.”

“Right.”

“We are here as well, [Emperor] of men. Do not ignore us.”

A voice spoke menacingly from behind Laken. He paused, and then turned around. The [Witch] who had spoken, Mavika, received a blank not-a-stare.

“That was hardly my intention, Miss [Witch]. Ryoka Griffin is a friend of the throne. And you, my guests of whom I have heard so much. I greet you, and hope the hospitality you have been offered has suited you. To whom am I speaking?”

It was well done. Mavika paused. And it was Eloise who replied, with a curtsey as formal as Lady Rie’s.

“Your Majesty, Emperor Godart. I am Witch Eloise and this is Witch Mavika. We are [Witches] who have come to request an audience on behalf of the [Witches] of Izril. We five are part of a coven and we ask that you hear our petition when time may allow. We formally greet you and thank you for your hospitality—as well as forbearance for any incidents our number may have caused you during our stay.”

She tipped her hat, and stepped on Mavika’s foot while elbowing Hedag. The other [Witches] bowed or nodded. Mavika just glared, before jerking her head. Laken tilted his head in reply.

“I greet you, [Witches] of Riverfarm’s Coven. I am aware of the great debt I owe you, and the [Witch] known as Miss Califor especially. Your actions have saved Riverfarm and I will not forget that.”

The other [Witches] nodded approvingly. Laken went on with a slight frown.

“However, I understand that one of your number has brought death and strife to Riverfarm. She has slain a [Knight] and [Hunters] from Terandria’s guild on my lands, taken the life out of one of my subjects and—coerced others to their deaths. Tell me. Do you claim the Stitch Witch, Belavierr, as one of your own?”

The question went straight back towards Mavika. And all the [Witches], Ryoka, and everyone else paused to hear their response. Mavika bared her teeth.

“No. She has taken the life of her fellow [Witches] without cause. This coven has found her wanting. She is welcome among neither [Witches] nor men.”

“Very well. In that case, I bid you all welcome. Avail yourselves of my hospitality until we have the opportunity to meet. But as I mentioned, it is Lord Gralton that needs must attend to. Yitton, have we heard anything more from him?”

The man that had been accompanying Laken stepped forwards. Ryoka saw an older man’s face, lined and stern, but quite well-kept. European, like the landed nobility of Izril’s human population, turning to grey from the dark blonde. It was also somewhat familiar. Ryoka narrowed her eyes. Wait. Byres?

Yitton nodded.

“Nothing yet, your Majesty.”

“Then it’s safe to say Gralton’s situation is unchanged. And he is in need.”

“Who’s Gralton, Laken?”

Durene whispered, and then turned red when everyone stared at her. Laken patted her arm reassuringly.

“Gralton is one of two [Lords] who accompanied me back, Durene. Remember, I wrote of them?”

“Oh, right. Where is he?”

“In his estates. Which is the problem. His lands were hit by a mysterious plague around the same time as Riverfarm was.”

“Drakes.”

Someone cursed. Laken nodded gravely.

“Exactly. But his ailment was sickness. It’s in his kennels. He’s falling apart over it. Which brings me to my issue.”

He turned back to the coven, who were all watching him like hawks, save for Mavika, who had a crowish glare. Laken nodded.

“Ladies, [Witches], first, how may I address you?”

Hedag laughed. She leaned on her axe, speaking at Laken under her wide, brown hat.

“Call us [Witches], you who call yourself [Emperor]. For that is what we are. And you.”

Laken nodded, turning his head left and right as if to catch Hedag’s voice and memorize it. He paused, and then went on.

“Very well. [Witches], I have a request for you as [Emperor] of Riverfarm and the Unseen Empire. At this moment, a friend of mine, a [Lord], is struck by disaster. The same Drakes who set fire to Riverfarm have engineered a plague in his lands. Or perhaps it is poison, a combination of both. As we speak, his dogs and people lie dying. Gralton’s [Healers] are stymied by the sickness. But [Witches] might have better luck. Have any of you the craft to heal Gralton’s sick?”

The request caught the entire coven off-guard. Ryoka saw them exchange looks, and then all turn to stare at Eloise. The tea [Witch] pursed her lips and answered after a moment.

“I may. It is a sudden request, your Majesty. But—several of us know the craft of poison or remedy thereof to some extent. Are you requesting us to come to this Lord Gralton’s aid?”

“If I asked it, would you agree? I would consider it a boon that would not go unrewarded.”

The coven paused. Mavika glared and replied waspishly.

“A boon to be repaid with words, or deeds, [Emperor] of men? If you would seek to ask for our deeds, do you have aught to offer or do you simply make a request.”

Laken raised an eyebrow.

“Witch Mavika, is it? I poorly phrased my statement. Of course, I offer payment for services rendered. But the question I wished to ask was whether you would consider doing it at all.”

“That depends on the offer.”

Mavika!

Eloise hissed. Mavika ignored her. Laken smiled, though. It almost looked like he was enjoying himself. But his tone was courteous as he nodded.

“Of course. Then, to cure Gralton’s lands, I offer you coin and an [Emperor]’s gratitude. Witch Eloise, do you desire gold?”

“It is always welcome, your Majesty.”

The [Witch] replied smoothly. Laken nodded thoughtfully.

“In that case—four hundred gold coins to each [Witch] who has the skill to heal Gralton’s ill.”

“I’ll do it!”

Alevica’s hand shot up before Laken had finished speaking. All the coven looked at her. Alevica was still pale, but the light of avarice had given her new energy. Eloise hesitated.

“I as well. As a favor to both his Majesty and for those in need. We shall set out at once, then. We may require horses. I may, at any rate, if Alevica is well enough to fly.”

“Excellent. I will provide you with directions and transport. Are there any among you who can cure poisons? Wiskeria?”

The [Witch] hesitated and then shook her head.

“Not me, Laken. I can do some, but Eloise and Alevica can do far more than I can. But maybe…”

She glanced at Hedag. The [Executioner] shook her head.

“Not I. And little Nanette—no. But Mavika might.”

Everyone looked at Mavika. The crow [Witch] folded her arms. Some of her crows were circling overhead, cawing. Frostwing flew through them, screaming, and they scattered.

“I have knowledge of poison and ills. But gold does not motivate this [Witch]’s will.”

She sounded like she was just being stubborn, if the look on Eloise’s face was anything to go by. But Laken was equal to the challenge. He bowed, very politely, which surprised Ryoka until she remembered. German folklore meant he was probably aware of the dangers of insulting as much as she. Or he just understood what Mavika was like.

“Witch Mavika, if gold does not suit you, what about food? Four hundred pounds of food for your flocks, whenever you ask it. Meat or grain. So long, of course, as you do all in your power to come to Gralton’s aide.”

In fact, he really understood her. Laken must have memorized the descriptions of each [Witch]. Mavika blinked. And the crow perched on a roof overhead cawed hungrily. She wavered, and then nodded grudgingly.

“Done.”

“Excellent. Then, I, Laken Godart, do swear to pay your price due if you swear to work to your utmost within the spirit of your vow and reason to bring aid to Gralton’s land.”

Laken held out his hand and Mavika shook it. He turned, nodding, and looked at the young man hurrying up towards him with his arms full.

“We may need to borrow a house. The throne room doesn’t have tables, as I recall, Gamel. Lady Rie is that way—we’ll convene with her. I require a larger map to show these [Witches] where Gralton’s lands are.”

“I will see to it at once, sire!”

Gamel wheezed. Laken led the way towards Lady Rie’s house as Gamel hurried inside. The [Emperor] was muttering to Yitton, and Ryoka edged forwards with Charlay to listen.

“Yitton, tell Gralton he’s going to have to put up the gold when they arrive. Eight hundred pieces. I think he’ll call that cheap for his dogs, don’t you?”

“I do indeed.”

Then the two City Runners jumped as Laken turned to them. Laken was smiling again. He paused as Charlay drew up, suddenly nervous.

“Ryoka, would you introduce me to your friend? Dustrider Charlay, I presume?”

“I—that’s right! You know my nickname?”

Charlay was thunderstruck. Laken charming.

“Of course. Dustrider Charlay, I must thank you for aiding Ryoka as well as coming to Riverfarm’s aid in its time of crisis. I will not forget it, but at this moment I have a request. Tell me, would you consent to a delivery? I would like to send a [Witch] straight to Lord Gralton’s lands. And a letter, from me, explaining the situation.”

The Centauress looked pleased, and then alarmed.

“I can do it! But—wait a second. I have to carry someone? On my back?

He only smiled. Ryoka nearly did. But she was watching him. Hesitating. At last, Charlay nodded.

“Well—if it’s Eloise, sure! If it’s Alevica, forget about it!”

“Up yours, horse. I can fly!”

Laken ignored Alevica. He nodded.

“In that case, I would prevail on you to transport Witch Eloise and a letter. For a delivery fee of…twenty five gold pieces?”

Charlay hesitated. Ryoka nearly whistled, but in the face of the price he’d offered the two [Witches], it wasn’t that much. It was good for a delivery that would probably be safe, just fast, but…Charlay gave Ryoka a side-long look.

Well…I could definitely do it. If I uh, was paid a bit more? You’re paying the [Witches] um…twelve times what you’re paying me!”

“Sixteen, Charlay.”

“Sixteen!”

She looked hopeful as her tail swished back and forth. Laken frowned.

“Can you cure an entire province of poisoned dogs?”

“No…but I can run really fast.”

Charlay pouted. Laken paused.

“The distance is three days for someone on horseback without Skills. If you can make it in two, I’ll triple your fee.”

“Alright! In that case, get on Eloise! I’ll get you to this Gralton’s place in no time! Which way!”

Charlay reared and Laken dodged back, looking vaguely alarmed. He turned his head towards Ryoka and made a bemused face. Then Lady Rie was hurrying out with a map. The [Witches] crowded around. Mavika nodded.

“My flock and I can make the journey in two days as well. One, if the winds fly behind us.”

“I can make it in two days. Probably.”

Alevica gritted her teeth, poking her stomach. Laken looked around.

“Do so at all speed, please. Time is off the essence. Gralton’s dogs aren’t all dead, but many are dying by the hour. As are his people, to a lesser extent. I will send him a [Message] informing him you are arriving. He will give you all the aid you require. However, do you need anything prepared in advance?”

The [Witches] conferred briefly. Mavika looked up.

“If it is plague, Feverwort. If it is poison—easier. Eloise’s teas purge the body. I have other ways. Sage’s Grass if it is poison. Sage’s Grass, pure charcoal and the venoms of many creatures. Preferably the Drake who spat poison if it lives.”

“I’m told Gralton’s surviving dogs ripped it apart. But I’ll send a [Message] at once. Nesor!”

Laken called, and the young man standing at the table behind him jumped. Ryoka watched as Laken conferred, began working on a map with Lady Rie—and then Mister Prost entered the room to receive his own copy of a map with fishing spots. Ryoka’s hermit-fisher friend was one of the people he sent to collect the bounty. And Ryoka—just watched.

He needed Prost, Rie, and the others. Laken had a plan, one borne of time on the road and his [Emperor]’s sight, but he needed people he could trust to implement his plans. And what he had was an edge—the ability to see where animals were, or fish, pinpoint people exactly—and that was a huge advantage. But what he was really giving the people of Riverfarm was, was purpose. Prost had tried, but he wasn’t a leader in that way. Laken was. He had a vision, and the moment he’d returned, Riverfarm had begun moving and shaping itself around that vision.

In a way, he was like a [Witch]. But one who had made an empire his craft. And Ryoka saw, evaluated, and compared it to the Laken she had met in Invrisil, and the one she had heard about who had led Goblins to a siege at Liscor. This third Laken and the other two mixed and mingled. And she thought, until Durene burst through the doors with a panicked shout.

“Laken! There’s a caravan coming this way! A lot of wagons with bars! They’re filled with Goblins.

Everyone in the room froze. And Ryoka looked up. Laken calmly raised his head.

“Yes. Yes they are. I told you I was bringing them back.”

“But—they’re coming here! Into the village!”

Laken paused. He frowned.

“That could be dangerous. I agree. Durene, with me. Prost, Rie, I won’t be long.”

He strode out of the room. Ryoka followed, her heart beating faster. Goblins? Could one of them be…?

The wagons were huge, and packed with Goblins. It was a huge procession of them! Dozens of wagons, all with bars, lurching slowly towards Riverfarm. The people had seen them and were crying out in shock. Laken walked towards the caravan, which had an escort of…it had to be at least a hundred [Guards]. Perhaps three times that many Goblins, or more.

Ryoka felt sick, watching them crammed together, staring out. Durene just shuddered with hatred, but Ryoka was scanning each face, for a familiar Goblin. She didn’t see Rags. And she could sense the hostility behind her.

“Everyone, back to your work! Emperor Laken has this in hand! Back to work, I say!”

Prost had followed Laken outside. He stood with the [Emperor], and Ryoka distinctly heard him and Laken exchanging some words.

“…will find a place later. [Guards], yes, but not one is to be—”

Laken broke off and raised a hand. A relieved-looking man was riding towards him, a sword at his side. Laken called out.

“[Caravan Master] Dintal! Thank you for your tireless work. I will commend your name to the Merchant’s Guild and issue you and your men a bonus for your efforts.”

“It’s a relief to be here, your Majesty! Where do you want these Goblins?”

The man called out, pulling to a stop before Laken. The [Emperor] smiled thinly, clearly aware of the stares he was getting.

“I have a spot picked out, Dintal. However, I have one last task for you. Move the caravan south, along the river. I have a spot picked out for you. Until I give you the word, guard the Goblins. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who attacks them, you will stop. Without killing, preferably. But if any Goblin dies, and I will regretfully withhold both your bonus and commendation. Thank you.”

And with that, Laken turned his back and kept speaking to Mister Prost. Dintal stared, but then he looked resigned. Ryoka saw him turn and whistle.

“You heard Emperor Godart! Move the Goblins! And stay clear of the wagons, everyone! These bastards’ll throw their shit at you! Throw a stone and don’t be surprised if they throw it back! Come on, move it!”

And the caravan moved, turning down the road. Ryoka saw the exclamations and fear and hatred on the people’s faces—but she was more curious about the resigned looks on the faces of the [Guards]. Not malice. And the Goblins just stared. They were watching Laken, looking around. Not with hostility, necessarily. But a keen intelligence. And Laken was watching them.

“I’ll have Gamel instruct Dintal. And I’ll need some of Beniar’s people and folk you can trust watching the wagons, Prost. No—I’ll make Dintal’s men stay another night. I’ll have to pay them well, too. But keep Riverfarm’s folk moving and they won’t be able to interfere until I settle matters with the Goblins.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Prost didn’t look happy as he kept staring at the wagons, but he did obey. That was a sign of loyalty alright. But Ryoka just stared at Laken. His head was still following the Goblin carts. And he eventually looked back at her. Laken didn’t smile this time. He just looked weary.

“Part of the road home, Ryoka. And there’s no road to redemption or forgiveness. But I have to do this.”

She didn’t reply. After a moment, Laken nodded back towards Riverfarm.

“Back to work. The Goblins will have to wait. They’ve waited for over two months; I’ll subject them to another day.”

He walked back towards the village. Ryoka saw him enter Lady Rie’s house, but she didn’t follow him. The City Runner looked around.

Riverfarm was in full bustle. And the three [Witches] had already left, along with Charlay. Only Wiskeria and Hedag remained. The [Executioner] was leaning on her axe, her eyes alight with interest as she watched people moving with a renewed sense of purpose.

“Some [Emperor] this is. I’d heard stories and I’ve met a [King], but this is a man like few others! Is it his class that does it, or him?”

She laughed. Ryoka would have liked to know that too. Wiskeria shook her head. She looked relieved. Relieved, and still heartbroken.

“He’s back. Finally.”

She made no move to follow Laken. Nor had he called for her among his advisors. But it was Hedag who pushed Wiskeria gently towards the house. She looked at the older [Witch].

“But I—”

“You’re the one who stayed here and forced us to come to you, Wiskeria-girl. Go and do what you must. I’ll stay with Nanette.”

The [Witches] exchanged a glance. And then Wiskeria nodded, squared her shoulders, and walked into Lady Rie’s house. Ryoka looked at Hedag. And the [Executioner] grinned.

“And where do you fit into this village now, Ryoka-girl?”

The City runner looked around. She looked at the hopeful faces, at the scorched land. At Hedag, and listened for Laken’s voice. Then she shook her head.

“Nowhere.”

Hedag laughed. She slapped Ryoka on the back.

“You’d have made a fine [Witch], girl. A fine [Witch].”

 

—-

 

Night fell. Laken Godart worked into it. Riverfarm had so much that needed doing, and he was finally back. He only stopped when Lady Rie and Mister Prost both stopped taking his orders. Then Laken realized he was exhausted and needed some sleep.

“There’s always tomorrow. I’ll sleep, I’ll sleep, Prost! Don’t threaten me with Yesel.”

Laken yawned. He looked around, intending to tell Gamel to prepare a bed. And then he stopped. Slowly, his head turned.

“Oh. I’m back, aren’t I?”

It was alone that Laken came to Durene’s cottage. Well, not alone; Gamel had walked him the entire way there, and the [Knight] was hovering by the gates. Laken had to throw rocks in his vague direction until the young man finally left him. And then Laken took a few minutes before he knocked on the door.

He didn’t know why he did that. Frostwing was already screeching inside, and Laken was pushing Bismarck’s head away from licking him when Durene opened the door. The [Paladin] stared at Laken. He stared back.

“It’s good to see you, Durene. May I…come in?”

“Oh. Sure. I mean, we saw each other just—”

“Yeah.”

“…Come in! Of course! It’s your…”

Laken walked inside. The house wasn’t exactly like he remembered, but he’d known that as soon as he focused on it. Durene was sleeping in the kitchen, and someone had occupied her bed. It was messier, with more work needed on the roof and some unwashed dishes in the counter—Frostwing’s nest was bigger and Bismarck had made his own den around back—but it was familiar.

And not. So was Durene. Laken awkwardly stood with her for a bit before they sat down at the kitchen table. Neither one knew where to begin, and when they did—

“You brought Goblins back. And you took months doing it.”

“I had to, Durene. I explained it. Goblins are people—”

Hah!

“I thought you of all people would understand.”

“What’s that supposed to mean.”

“Durene, you’re half-Troll. Goblins are—”

“Trolls aren’t the same as Goblins!”

“No. But they’re both considered monsters. And neither are. Durene, Goblins—”

Killed my friends! They killed the army and they burned and killed and hurt a bunch of people! You were there, Laken! Remember fighting them at Riverfarm?”

“I’d never forget. But—”

“But what? But what?

Listen to me! But they’re not all alike! Or are all Humans alike?”

“They’re evil. All of ‘em.”

“How can you say that?”

“How can you say there are good ones? Has anyone ever met a good Goblin? No one has!”

“Maybe because no one’s given them a chance. How many good Trolls can you name?”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If I let them die, the army would have hacked them to pieces. Goblins who’d surrendered. Goblins who couldn’t fight. Children.”

“…”

“Don’t give me that look.”

“I’m not giving you any look. You can’t even see it.”

“I can tell you’re giving me a look, Durene. I have an [Emperor]’s senses.”

“Well, why didn’t you sense how I felt about this!”

“Because it’s not about you, Durene.”

“How is it not about me when the Goblins killed my friends?”

“I—I’m sorry. You’re right, it affects you. But Durene—those Goblins are people. And if I killed them, or let them die, knowing what I do now, I’d never forgive myself. And I wouldn’t be an [Emperor]. Or at least, not one you’d like.”

“…”

“The Goblins stay, Durene. And they’ll be protected, given the same rights as anyone else. If they kill someone, they’ll be punished. If they steal, they’ll be punished. And if someone kills a Goblin, I will treat them like a murderer.”

“No one’s going to like it. And I bet you anything that people like Ram’ll go after the Goblins. If they don’t attack us in our sleep. Are you at least watching them?”

“I have a guard on them now. To protect them from Humans, among other things. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them, Durene. In fact, it’s fine that way. I’ve got a plan. It may work. But it doesn’t matter if people hate the Goblin’s guts. I will show them…”

Laken trailed off. Their first fight hadn’t been the worst. No one had broken anything. But Laken was more upset by this than anything else this day. He stroked Frostwing’s head as the bird huddled in his lap. He could tell Durene was looking at him. At last, she burst out with it. The Goblins were only part.

“What happened? Laken, what happened when you left? Why was it so long? Why did…what happened?”

And he had no answer for that. He had a plan, an answer for everything else. But not that. Laken hung his head and shook it slowly.

“I made a huge mistake, Durene. And everything—all of this—is a result of it. I made a mistake. I’m so sorry it took me so long to return home.”

She didn’t reply. After a while, she got up and sat beside him. Laken turned his head. He could feel Durene there. But she didn’t embrace him. They just sat together. After a while, Durene wiped at her eyes.

“I thought it would be easier when you came back. I waited and waited.”

“I’m sorry.”

He reached for her hand. Durene pulled it away.

“Ryoka had to tell me you’re not perfect. That you make mistakes. I had to…I need to be a [Paladin], Laken. Or I need you to take it away. I can’t be half of it, though. I want to fight. And if you’re wrong about Goblins, maybe you were wrong about me.”

“I’m not.”

Laken whispered, but the half-Troll girl didn’t respond. So they sat there. Familiar strangers, sitting together in the cottage. Until the door opened.

Laken started. He heard a gasp, and then Ryoka’s voice.

“I’ll just uh, sleep outside. In the village, actually.”

“Ryoka? Oh—”

The [Emperor] belatedly remembered the two other cots. Durene stood up hastily.

“Ryoka—”

“No, no! Go back to whatever you were doing!”

“We weren’t—”

The two began, but Ryoka had already shut the door. Laken could hear her retreating, and then a distant voice.

“Hey Wiskeria! You don’t want to go in there—”

Laken and Durene sat in silence after that. They paused, and then one of them began laughing and the other joined in. Somehow, that had helped. In the end, they sat on Durene’s bed. She listened as he told her of what had passed, of what had done. Trying to explain, or maybe justify. And then it was her turn.

“So much happened after I woke up. I can’t even explain…”

“Tell me. Tell me from the start. From the fever.”

And she did. Laken sat, listening to that familiar voice, willing himself not to interject too much, to listen. To understand. Durene sat there, so close it hurt. After a while, he found himself holding her hand. And she looked at him and tried to remember if it had felt like that before he’d left. They slept apart that night. Somehow…it just ended up that way.

 

[Emperor Level 20!]

[Skill – Group: Surge of Inspiration obtained!]

[Skill – Empire: Fields of Bounty obtained!]

 

 

Day 72

 

Ryoka saw Laken’s new Skills the next day. The [Emperor] was up at dawn, raring to get to work. And Riverfarm was up with him. She caught him using the Skill on a group of [Woodcutters] who’d volunteered to see what the Skill was about.

“[Surge of Inspiration].”

The group jumped as one, and then patted their bodies and each other, laughing. One of them raised his axe, and uttered a loud yell.

“Dead gods, but I feel awake! I could chop down half a forest myself!”

“Well, it’s just burnt roots and stumps! Come on, let’s get to work! Your Majesty, that’s one Skill I wouldn’t mind you using on us every day! We’ll let you know how long it lasts!”

The leader laughed as he hefted the axe. The group moved off, practically jogging. Laken looked bemused.

“The instant I got back, I leveled up. It’s probably the world’s way of telling me I should never have left. And that Skill! That would have been so useful on the ride back. And the [Fields of Bounty] will allow me to feed all the people coming here.”

He nodded to Ram. The [Head Farmer] was practically bursting with delight, both from his new class that had replaced his [Rancher] class—it was apparently an upgrade—and Laken’s Skills. He indicated the fields which were being expanded again as he spoke to Laken.

“I reckon I can see some of the crops growing, Sire! What with all the Skills us [Farmers] have plus yours—even the grown plants look twice as good as they did yesterday! What do you think, Miss Griffin?”

Ryoka paused. She’d been offered some of the newest crop—corn—and was chewing on it. She gulped and nodded.

“Nice corn. Almost as good as Farmer Lupp’s. Well, half as good.”

Ram looked insulted. Laken just smiled.

“I’m sure that’s a compliment, Mister Ram. Or maybe encouragement. Keep up the good work! I need to attend to the Goblin situation and the refugees coming in. You’ll be fine?”

“Oh, uh, yes, your Majesty! I won’t let you down! Me and the [Farmer]’ll have your storehouses bursting in no time! Just so long as those filthy Goblins don’t slit our throats! But you have a plan for that! We’ll use them as monster bait or workers, right? Something only an [Emperor]’d think up!”

“Something like…well, nothing like that. But you’ll see, Mister Ram. Don’t worry about the Goblins. And keep people from thinking about going after them.”

Laken waved Ram off. Then he turned to Ryoka. Gamel was already waiting with a small horde of people who wanted Laken’s attention.

“Ryoka, I know I promised to talk, but I’m still in the middle of a thousand minor crises. Can you wait? I could use your help with Lady Rie and sending messages if you need something to do.”

Ryoka looked up, startled, and then shook her head.

“What? No. I’m fine. I’m just going to…sit here. If that’s alright.”

“Of course.”

Laken nodded and vanished into a crowd. Ryoka barely noticed him go. Then she stood up and went to a house on the edge of Riverfarm. More houses were being built of course; and other buildings too. Laken was creating more than just houses and remodeling some that could become storefronts, other buildings. Even inns.

But the house Ryoka stopped at was just a house. Quiet. So quiet it hurt. And inside were two [Witches]. One was Hedag. The other was Nanette.

“Hey.”

“Miss Runner-Girl. Miss Ryoka Griffin. How do you feel?”

Hedag greeted Ryoka. The City Runner paused, and then realized Hedag was indicating her slightly tender-footed gait. Ryoka shrugged.

“No calluses. I burned my feet off on that run. I still smell smoke.”

“Ah, when you led a tornado made of flame. You never said how you did it.”

Hedag’s eyes glinted as she sat next to Nanette. The [Witch] girl was sitting next to her on the ground. Just sitting there, her expression distant. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t…Ryoka forced herself to answer Hedag.

“How’d I know it would follow me? I didn’t. It’s the wind. It didn’t like being held. And tornados—well, I was pretty sure that it would move after me if I gave it a headwind.”

“I see. Well, however it was done, you have a Hedag’s thanks. And a village’s no doubt. Even Califor would have struggled to end that whirlwind and the rest of the fire. Perhaps she might have failed. And then, what a waste, eh?”

Hedag’s cheerful voice made Ryoka flinch. And Califor’s name made her look at Nanette. The girl had stirred once, in reply to the name. But Hedag didn’t look guilty at saying it out loud. The [Executioner] was tender as she combed Nanette’s hair. But she had made the girl eat and drink this morning when she’d refused to. In her way, Hedag was crueler than Mavika. She refused to let Nanette alone.

“I’m sorry. I never should have trusted her.”

That was all Ryoka could say to Nanette. She sat down, looking and not looking at the girl. Hedag watched the two as Ryoka sat there, hating herself more than any other day in her life.

Nanette didn’t respond. She lay there, motionless. Like a doll with its strings cut. Hedag drank. Ryoka spoke, haltingly. Nanette said nothing.

They had made it through the fire, Califor and Nanette. That was the story Wiskeria and the rest of the coven had heard from Nanette, before shattering grief had given way to this. The path of events that had led Califor to return to put out the fire at the cost of her life was simple.

They had met Belavierr. And in that meeting, she had stolen a bit of Nanette’s hair. Just a strand or two. But that was enough. Belavierr hadn’t ever lied. She’d told the truth; she couldn’t stop the wildfire with her craft. She might have if she used all her magic and her life, but she hadn’t wanted to die. And what she could do was kill Nanette. So she’d made Califor an offer. Her daughter or her life.

And to save her daughter from the Stitch Witch, Califor, the legendary [Witch] in her own right, had rode back and stopped the fire. She’d saved Wiskeria. And Belavierr had cheated her death again.

It was such a simple story. All of Belavierr’s stories of her evil were the same. Ryoka felt sick. But this had crossed a line. This hadn’t been a deal, or self-defense. This had been evil. As Nanette sat next to her, Hedag honed her axe.

“This blade’s never ended a [Witch]. Hedags don’t go after [Witches] much. And this Hedag is a [Witch], so there’s less point. In our covens, we look the other way for the sins a [Witch] does so long as it brings no grief upon our kind. We’ve little enough allies to peck each other apart. But when a [Witch] kills another [Witch]—then they are hunted. By other [Witches]. And if ever I meet Belavierr, I owe her a Hedag’s justice.”

Ryoka couldn’t care about that. Belavierr was gone. She had killed Califor. Killed her and left Nanette with nothing. That was what mattered. She had to ask.

“Was she…Nanette’s…”

“Mother? Califor?”

Hedag’s voice was too loud. Ryoka and Nanette flinched. Hedag nodded.

“She was Nanette’s mother. If she pretended otherwise, it was to spare Nanette the attention she might have had otherwise. Or else other [Witches] would have looked to her like Wiskeria. Judged. You know how we are.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Ryoka said it again. Hedag snorted. She delicately moved the axe across the whetstone. And her gaze was merciless as she looked at Ryoka.

“Sorrys and regrets have never salved one wound, Wind-Girl. Go. And do what good you may elsewhere. Leave Nanette to herself. And say her name. Califor.

“But Nanette’s—”

Ryoka looked at the girl. She was crying, crying without moving. Hedag’s voice was implacable.

“She was Nanette’s mother. And she was named Califor. Don’t pretend she never existed. And you Nanette, let it hurt. Let it hurt or the wound will never heal.”

The girl wept. And Ryoka looked at her and Hedag. And she didn’t have the courage to stay.

 

 

Day 73

 

It took Laken two days to deal with the Goblins. And when he did, Ryoka was there. She had to be. She didn’t know what Laken intended, but she was ready for…anything. She still had yet to talk to him. Riverfarm was still growing, as more shell-shocked folks made their way here, speaking of the fire. Laken was reorganizing, dealing with the problems of city folk versus villagers, people wanting special treatment because of their class, even petty thefts.

And the thing was, he was dealing with the problems, not patching them up for later. [Thieves] were evicted after a lashing or time in the stocks. People were told to live with their neighbors or politely informed they could leave. And two [Bandit] groups were smashed by Beniar and his [Riders] in night raids almost before they’d been formed.

The [Emperor] was back. And most people couldn’t be happier. But even the happiest, even people like Prost and Durene, feared the Goblins. Twice, people had come after the prisoners in their wagons, for vengeance, or out of fear.

Both times Laken had spotted the trouble coming, but the Goblins? Ryoka knew that Laken couldn’t have turned them loose along his trip without them being hunted down or potentially terrorizing some area, but she couldn’t imagine how he’d handle them now.

She didn’t have to wait any longer. The Goblins were being unloaded out of the wagons. They formed a huge mass, eying the caravan guards and the militia that Laken had recreated warily. The Humans were armed and roughly equal in number to the Goblins; only a few were Hobs. Even so, it felt like the Humans were more terrified than the Goblins at this moment.

They were wary. Oh yes, Ryoka could see some of them looking around, clearly seeking lines of escape. But the place Laken had put them—next to a river curving south from Riverfarm and too far away from a forest and a mountain to the west—wasn’t a good place for running. It was relatively flat, here at least. So the Goblins stayed put. At least, for the moment.

They were strange to Ryoka. She was no Goblin expert, but she could at least tell that they were from different…tribes. Some even had grey skin! Others, a few, were marked with red paint—practically covered with it. One even wore a chef’s hat. It was dirty, and had lost some of its floof, but the little Goblin had it on her head as she hid behind another Hobgoblin who was definitely female. Her entire body was covered in exotic paint and she looked around, warily, watching, listening.

“Well, so this is what you all look like. And you.”

Laken waited until the last Goblin left the carts. Then he addressed them. He didn’t get any closer, but he was speaking to one of the Hobgoblins who wore red paint. The Hobgoblin stared at Laken, but didn’t respond. In fact, the Goblins were eerily quiet and still. Laken sighed. He pointedly turned his head across the Goblin’s ranks.

“I know you can understand me. And I know you’re there. I can’t imagine what you must feel. But we’ve arrived at our destination. And you must know what comes next.”

There was a susurration among the Humans. A slow tensing among the Goblins. Laken nodded.

“A choice. Now, listen to me. And watch.”

He walked forwards. Gamel started and the Humans with weapons wavered, but Laken stopped a good two dozen paces short of the Goblins. He frowned at the ground and then stuck one shoe in the wet earth. It was barren, devoid of grass, but some new shoots were already blooming. Life even after fire. Laken ignored the burgeoning green and dragged his foot along the ground. Everyone stared as the [Emperor] drew a line, straight from the river past the Goblins. He stopped, kicked some mud off the tip of his shoe, and pointed at the line.

“You see this line? Beyond this line is my land. The land of Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire.”

He was addressing the Hobgoblin with the stripes. Laken stepped back. The Redfang Hob walked forwards and investigated the line. He eyed it, and then pointed at the land across the line. Laken nodded.

“My territory.”

The Goblin instantly stepped over the line. Ryoka, Beniar—all of the Humans tensed. Laken just chuckled. The Hobgoblin watched, expectantly. Laken nodded.

“Well now, you’re on my land. So that means my laws apply. Steal, harm, or break the laws of Riverfarm and you will face the consequences. And I will tell you each of the laws if you ask. While you are on my land, you will be treated like people. If someone harms you, I will know. And I will punish the guilty. But I cannot promise you will be safe.”

The Hobgoblin stared at him. He looked at the other side of the line. Walked across it. Then he kicked some dirt over the line as if to say, ‘so what’? Laken nodded patiently.

“Beyond this line are Goblin lands. Your territory. And your rules. Perhaps someone will have need to cross this line. If, for instance, some Goblins took something that belonged to Humans. Someone shot a deer and it ran across this line. Sometimes, Humans may need to cross this line. But whether and how we do is up to you. How you act.”

He waited. The Goblins waited. Some of them began picking their noses. Laken continued, undeterred.

“The line isn’t just here. It continues. From here straight up to that mountain. I also warn you that I control much of the land to your south. But if you go south and west too far, you will run into lands claimed by Humans. This immediate area is my territory, for at least twenty miles south of here. And my people will patrol my borders while not stepping onto Goblin lands. You see? Along the river is how far it goes. We will put people down the river, and catch those who might try to hurt you if we can. But again—you know us Humans.”

The Goblins stirred. So did Ryoka. Laken wasn’t promising them much. You know Humans. It was practically a warning. But Laken was saying…Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. The [Emperor] continued, and both Humans and Goblins were listening, trying to figure out what his game was.

“I can see what happens on my land, by the way. I can see what you do. You can try taking vengeance. Or you can run off. I’ll stop you if you attack Humans. I won’t stop you if you run off, or protect you. And this is the only thing I will ever give you. This line. Oh—and this.”

He pointed casually to something behind the Goblins. They turned around and stared at the pile of objects and opened crates. One of them stared inside. A little Goblin poked his hand in and pulled something out. Laken nodded.

“Hammers. Nails. Hoses. Shovels. Etcetera. And food to last you a week, if you manage it. That’s all. Do with it as you will. And remember—my line. My territory. That’s yours.”

He turned and began to walk away. The Goblins stared at his back. Beniar’s jaw was practically falling off his face. Ryoka could feel the disbelief in the air from both sides. That was it? But Laken only stopped once.

“Oh, and one more thing.”

Hundreds of stomachs and butts instinctively clenched. This was it. The [Emperor] pointed back towards the crate.

“It’s right on top of the pillows. Try not to break it.”

The Goblins stared at the crates. The [Emperor] smiled once.

“See you.”

And then he walked away. Slowly, the Humans followed. Some of them were already arguing with the [Emperor].

“Your majesty! We have to set a guard!”

“Then set one.”

“They have weapons!”

“Well, if they use them, I’ll know. This is what an army’s for, Beniar. Speaking of which, we need to begin recruitment and training.”

“But—”

“What else do you want, Beniar? I’ll let you have it. But no killing Goblins. Anything else I’m fine with.”

And then their voices trailed off. The female Human with bare feet stared at the Goblins a while longer before running off. And the Goblins of four tribes, the tribe of Tremborag, the Great Chieftain of the Mountain, the Redfang Warriors, the Flooded Waters tribe Goblins, and the Solstice Goblins, who had once been Cave Goblins, all stared at each other.

Ulvama was muttering to herself. Some of the Hobs were looking at each other. They had no chieftain. The chieftains might all be dead. Did they form a new tribe? What about the strange, blind Human’s words?

It was one of the Redfangs who made the first move. She was a Hob, and a Redfang, and she had her priorities straight. The first thing the Redfang Hob did was grab the shovel and lift it. She checked it for faults, and swung it once. Nodded.

Sharp. It was no sword, but she could kill something with it. The other Redfang Hobgoblin nodded. He checked the crates, looking at saws, nails, all kinds of things you could make useful weapons from. Or fortifications. He grunted, and two of the smaller Redfang Warriors began arming themselves, debating on how to get ahold of some armor.

And then the Redfang Hob paused. He remembered the [Emperor]’s words. Slowly, suspiciously, he looked for the crate filled with pillows, which some Goblins were already tearing apart for feathers which were good for all kinds of stuff, like toilet paper or arrow fletching. And the Redfang Hob stopped.

The other Goblins saw his posture, saw the shock. Not the alarm, so they crowded closer. And they all stopped, staring down into the crate. At the other thing the [Emperor] had left.

They stared at it. Ulvama blinked. Pebblesnatch came from behind her. The little Cave Goblin’s eyes were wide, because she recognized it too. They all did.

It was the iPhone.

 

 

Day 74

 

“Emperor Laken wishes to see you, Miss Griffin.”

Three days after he’d arrived, Ryoka finally got the call to meet Laken. She couldn’t blame him, not really. He’d been fielding [Messages] left and right yesterday. Among housing thousands, designing a new village, gathering food and supplies and working out what was essentially a bureaucracy in the making, Laken had also had to deal with the Drakes.

Or rather, one Drake, whose body had been preserved in a coffin. Not out of respect, but necessity. Ryoka could only listen to a few reports, but it appeared that the Drake’s attack on other lands had gone off with mixed success. In places, they’d just done damage and left, like Lord Veltras’ estates. In others, they’d gone in personally and caused damage like Lord Pellmia’s home, where the Drakes had cut down notable figures before retreating—or dying.

However, there were few bodies. Fewer signs of proof. The Drakes had magical objects on them, but most had preferred to destroy their gear before dying. And none had anything that connected them to a city or organization.

It was a mess. But Laken was communicating with the other nobles who’d been affected. Tellingly, they were all wealthy or powerful individuals that had taken part in the siege of Liscor. Even smaller [Lords] like Yitton Byres hadn’t been hit, only the big ones. And Laken.

“Laken? Are you here?”

Ryoka pushed open the door. Gamel glared at the impropriety, but Laken looked up from the table. He’d converted one of the houses into a meeting room so people would stop borrowing Rie or Prost’s homes. Another thing the [Emperor] could do that stuck.

“Yes, come in, have a seat. Can Gamel get you anything?”

“Nope.”

“Then that will be all, Gamel. Give us some room. And keep people away unless it’s an emergency.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

The door closed. Gamel cast one curious look at Ryoka before the door closed. Laken sighed, sat back, and then spoke in a much more conversational tone of voice.

“I’m sorry it took so long to arrange a meeting. But I’ve been swamped—”

“So I see. It’s no problem. How’re things?”

Ryoka stretched out at the table, watching Laken closely. He didn’t turn his head to look at her. He was aware of where she was of course, but he didn’t react to her like someone with eyes would, and that was disconcerting. He was surer than she was of the locations of things around him, actually. Case in point, Laken reached to one side and lifted a cup without turning his head.

“They’ve been there a day. The [Witches], I mean. Your Centauress friend really did get there in two days. And apparently the [Witches] managed to figure out an antidote in record time.”

 

“According to who?”

Laken paused, and then he laughed.

“Ah, well, it was quick. Puts the [Healers] to shame, really. But apparently that [Witch]. Mavika? She’s experienced with Drake poisons and their venom. Apparently one of them was spitting it into the water supply and increasing the dosage.”

“Nasty. So the dogs are alright?”

“More or less. Lots of them died. And some people too, but Gralton cares more about dogs than…the rest are recovering. The [Witches] are headed back now. I’ll need to prepare Mavika’s reward if she wants it all at once. But you don’t need to hear about my issues.”

“Nope. We’re here to chat. Come on, take a load off.”

Ryoka gestured at the table. Laken smiled.

“Can I get you anything to eat? We’ve got snacks.”

“Huh. Well, maybe. Let me check. Oh—”

Ryoka got up and went to the cupboard. She frowned at what was inside. Then she motioned to Laken.

“Hey, uh, it’s not a snack, but—”

“What? Something wrong with the walnuts?”

Laken looked up with a frown. Ryoka motioned to him and he got up.

“I don’t know if you can see it with your [Emperor] vision. Come here.”

He walked over, past a chair, and straight into Ryoka’s fist. She hit him in the stomach as hard as she could—she didn’t feel like breaking a finger on his jaw.

Laken doubled over. He didn’t groan and he didn’t retch—he just fell over, clutching his stomach. Ryoka watched him doubled over on the floor in silent agony for a minute. She debated a kick, but thought better. After another minute, she heard a sound.

He was swearing in German. Ryoka listened a bit and stared at her hand. No good. She’d hoped it would feel different, but she still felt like she’d just sucker-punched a blind man. Not a great feeling.

Ryoka walked over and took a seat at the table again. Well, she did feel better now she’d gotten that out into the open. She addressed Laken on the floor.

“I hope you know why I did that.”

—scheißkerl—I should have expected that.”

Laken tried to pull himself up on the chair. He winced, and decided to lie still for a second longer. Ryoka raised one eyebrow.

“You’re not going to call for Gamel and have me executed?”

“I’m not a tyrant.”

“Yet.”

Laken pulled himself up. He sat, doubled over, and his entire face was one grimace.

“So that’s what you really think of me. Don’t hold back. Start naming names. Let me guess. It starts with an ‘H’—”

Ryoka glared at him. She raised a fist and Laken flinched. Ryoka slowly put her hands back on the table.

“I owed you a punch. And if you met my friend, she’d probably give you ten times that. If she didn’t try to stab you first. I heard about what happened to the Goblins at Liscor.”

“I bet you did. What do they say?”

“Oh, glorious praise about how Tyrion defeated the Goblin Lord while the Drakes hid behind their walls. Propaganda. But I know Goblins. Tell me. Do you know Goblins? You sounded like you knew them, a bit.”

Ryoka stared at the young man sitting across from her. Laken felt at his stomach.

“If I throw up, don’t tell Gamel. He’ll clean it up and probably try to stab you. Just help me find a rag. Yes. I think I know Goblins. But I didn’t back when I just got to this world. Listen. I don’t want to defend myself.”

“No, go ahead. The punch doesn’t judge what happened before. Just the end result.”

Laken glared. Then he spoke slowly, measuring his words.

“The first time I met Goblins, they were trying to kill everyone in Riverfarm. Perhaps I should have realized they weren’t all like that. But I was told monsters were monsters. That was my mistake. That, and giving Tyrion Veltras weapons to use against the Drakes.”

Ryoka paused. As explanations went, that was pretty good.

“So you know?”

“That’s they’re people? Yes. Listening to them scream at Liscor would have been enough. But I met a Goblin Chieftain the day my army attacked theirs at Lancrel. And she…spoke. She was a person. Ryoka, I know just what I did. And I wish I could turn back time. I just didn’t know until that moment. And after…the trebuchets brought me into a war.”

The young woman was silent. She nodded abruptly, closing her eyes.

“That was my fault as well. And look where it got us. Those Drakes were a direct result of the siege on Liscor, I’ll bet anything.”

“Yeah. Just like home. It’s a mess. And everyone’s telling me what monsters Drakes are. What awful things they’ve done. But—let me know if they’re any different than Goblins.”

“Nope. Bit scalier. Hot tempered. Stubborn. Pretty damn Human, really.”

“That’s what I thought. Gnolls?”

“Furry Humans. Pretty decent people. Don’t blow up their shops.”

Laken sighed. He massaged his stomach, and then put his head down on the table.

“I am in so much pain.”

“Good.”

“Do you feel like hitting me again? Because I can’t stop you and I’d like to get it over with. What do you think? How bad am I on the tyranny scale?”

“Give me a while and let me see. Honestly, aside from the Goblins, you haven’t done too bad.”

“Thanks.”

Ryoka shook her head.

“It doesn’t mean I trust you. I trusted you in Invrisil. And look what happened. Maybe you did what anyone would have done. But you’re an [Emperor]. And you’ve done terrible things. Some good things. But I don’t trust you.”

Laken paused. And the pain that crossed his face wasn’t all due to the punch.

“That’s fair. Can I earn your trust?”

“Maybe. But not today. You could start by telling me, truthfully, what you’re doing.”

“You saw what I was doing.”

“Rebuilding. What comes after that?”

The [Emperor] shrugged. He sat up, grabbed his cup, and drank.

“I have a few ideas. Mainly, it will be turning Riverfarm into an actual place. One that has goods to export, has a reason for people to pay attention to it. Besides the trebuchets. Deal with the [Witches]. Forge an alliance between Riverfarm, and Gralton and Yitton’s lands. Basic stuff like that.”

“Fair enough. So you don’t have a grand plan?”

“I have multiple plans. Whether they’re grand is debatable. You want me to get into detail?”

“Please. But first, talk to me about the Goblins. What the hell was that yesterday? Are you just going to let them form a tribe? Or what? What’s your angle with them?”

Laken frowned.

“They haven’t all run off, if that’s what you mean. But I didn’t lie to them. I will leave them alone. I have hopes for them. But it depends on what they do.”

“Tell me.”

Ryoka leaned forwards. Laken hesitated, and she waited. She wanted to trust him. But every conscious part of her pulled herself back. Trust had been given too freely of late. At last, Laken sighed.

“Well, for one thing, they’re occupying the only good mining spot on my lands. And they have my iPhone until it runs out of charge. And to judge from what I’m seeing—they’re preparing to be attacked. They’re building a base. And here’s what I predict happening if I tweak things right…”

He leaned forwards. Ryoka listened. She blinked.

“That might work. Historically, I mean, there are parallels.”

Laken rolled his closed eyes.

“Oh, lecture me on the parallels. Go ahead.”

Ryoka coughed, embarrassed.

“Sorry. I just meant—that could work. Okay. I believe you. It’s a good plan, at least. But it does depend on the Goblins.”

“They’re people. They might not do what I expect them to. But I’ve given them a chance. That’s all I can do.”

The two sat in silence after that. Ryoka hesitated. She bit her lip. Laken faced ahead. And then he raised his head.

“Oh.”

“Oh? What?”

The [Emperor] hesitated. He bit his lip, and looked rueful. And then focused on Ryoka.

“I forgot to tell you one thing, Ryoka. In the early spring, I summoned the fae. And I met one of them. She called herself Ivolethe. She wanted you to know she’s alive.”

Ryoka stared at Laken. He waited. She was frozen in place. After a minute, he coughed.

“Ryoka?”

She didn’t respond. She’d turned into a statue. Worried, Laken reached out.

“Ry—”

Ivolethe’s alive?

Ryoka leapt to her feet. She stared at Laken, white-faced, although he couldn’t have known that. He leaned back.

“Yes—”

He got no further because Ryoka let out a shout that made Gamel open the door. He saw Ryoka dancing around inside, laughing hysterically. Laken shooed Gamel away and the door closed. Ryoka didn’t notice. She laughed and began to sob, and then lost her balance.

Laken waited, surprised. Ryoka was laughing and crying on the floor. She didn’t stop. Her laughter was relieved, wild, hysterical. And eventually, Laken began to laugh as well.

It took a long while for them to stop. At last, Ryoka returned to her seat. Her throat was raw. But she reached out and grabbed Laken’s hands, to his surprise. And he sensed the tears in her voice and eyes.

“You know, I’d forgive you for almost anything for telling me that. Thank you. Thank you. She’s…”

He wished he could see her face. Because every line of her he sensed—Ryoka sat down in the chair again.

Redemption. He didn’t know what had happened between her and Ivolethe. But the City Runner wiped tears from her eyes. So it hurt Laken to deliver the next part of the message.

“She’ll never see you in this world. It’s her punishment, or something.”

Ryoka froze. But after a moment, she replied, quietly unsurprised.

“That’s okay. Maybe I’ll see her in my next life. Or when I die. But at least she’s…alive.”

She sat there with him. Laken waited, but nothing more came from Ryoka. After a while, he began to chuckle again. When Ryoka made an inquiring sound, he shook his head.

“When did it all go so wrong, eh?”

“Yeah. What happened to the Laken I met?”

The [Emperor] paused.

“He was never perfect. Believe me, if I thought I could break away from Lord Tyrion’s army, I would have. I saved the few Goblins I could, Ryoka. And I left my people alone for too long. I need to regain their trust. Durene’s…everyone’s…”

He sagged in his chair. And Ryoka felt like he’d had enough. She reached out and touched his hand.

“You’ve got a bit of mine. And I saw what you did. Riverfarm needs you. I hope you’re good for it.”

Laken nodded, and straightened a bit.

“Me too. As you for you—I meant what I said, Ryoka. I owe you. You kept Riverfarm from being destroyed. I know it wasn’t easy. But you did it, even though you didn’t owe me anything. Thank you for that.”

“You could start by paying me.”

Laken chuckled. Ryoka didn’t.

“I’m serious. I have expenses.”

“I know. I’ll get the money to you. I’m not hurting for coin. Call it my first Skill or just luck; Gralton, one of my new allies, is one of the richer [Lords] in the area. And Yitton Byres has his silver mines, although he’s not hugely wealthy. I can borrow from them until I get Riverfarm an actual economy. That’s actually easier than the Goblins, by the way.”

“Really? In that case, a thousand gold coins—”

“Don’t be greedy.”

“I outran a tornado made of fire to save your damn village. And the [Witches]—”

The two fell silent again. Ryoka scrubbed at her face.

“You never met her. But Miss Califor was a hero, Laken. You owe them. I don’t know exactly what they’ll ask, but you owe them something large. As large as a life.”

“I know. Tell me just one thing, Ryoka. What was the other one like. Belavierr?”

Ryoka paused. She took a long, long time to reply.

“Like…a nightmare, Laken. A nightmare, at first. But a classic one. One you think you know. So it’s scary, but you expect it, in a way. Horrifying as it may be. And then you wake up. And you think it was just a dream. You think you know reality. But then you realize you’re still dreaming. That’s her.”

Laken shuddered. The two sat in silence for a while longer. At last, he cleared his throat.

“I don’t expect you to stay. I’d like you to. If you wanted it, I could find you a role in Riverfarm. For you and your friends. But I doubt you trust me that much.”

“Nope. And I’m a Runner. Born to run.”

Laken smiled.

“Will you keep in touch?”

“You bet I’ll check in now and again.”

Ryoka nodded. She stood up, and after a moment, hesitated.

“The traitor. The one who ordered the attack on the Goblins at Lancrel. I told you about my suspicions, didn’t I?”

Laken paused. Ryoka had, by [Message]. He spoke slowly.

“Tyrion Veltras was as good as his word back then. He asked every single noble under truth spell if they had committed the crime. His subordinate, Jericha, did it. And the traitor never showed up.”

“You can fool a [Detect Truth] spell. Not just with the wording. You can literally just ignore it if you have the right artifact. Or spell.”

Ryoka watched Laken’s expression. He swore under his breath.

“Alright. Who’s your guess?”

She told him and watched his face change. Laken got up to pace. Ryoka quietly spread her arms.

“It’s only a guess.”

Laken nodded, distractedly, but she saw how rattled he was.

“In storytelling logic, your first guess is always wrong. And it’s always the last person you expect. Like Durene, I suppose. Or Frostwing”

“If we were in a story. How many of them have Goblins that aren’t monsters?”

Laken paused at that. Then he sat back down.

“I’ll check it out. Even if you’re right, finding proof will be hard. Especially because everyone knows about my [Emperor] senses. Still. Lady Rie?”

“Yup.”

“Damn. I’ll…she was loyal the entire time I was gone, Ryoka.”

“If she’s one of the Circle of Thorn’s members, she might want to turn you against Magnolia.”

Ryoka pointed out. Laken scrubbed his face.

“If she is. If she is, I’ll make my decision. Let’s…talk about something else. I’ll watch her, Ryoka. If you’re right, I’ll find out eventually.”

The young woman nodded. She sat in silence with Laken for a bit, and then thought of a topic.

“What are you going to do about the [Witches]?”

“I have a few thoughts. Would you like to talk about it?”

Laken smiled bleakly. Ryoka smiled too. The two sat across from each other, wary, trying to understand each other. Trying to be…friends. Ryoka laughed, forcing it a bit.

“Sure. But if you ask me how to make a ballista, I’m going to hit you again.”

Laken chuckled.

“Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure I could work one out myself.”

And this time Ryoka’s laughter was genuine. She reached out and punched Laken.

Ow!

And they sat there and talked, until Gamel brought dinner. And they might have been friends. Or they might have already been friends. Ryoka didn’t know.

She left that night. Before the other [Witches] returned. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know what happened next. It was just that Ryoka had a fairly good idea of what Laken would do. And this was not her empire. Strangely, unsettlingly, and rightly, it was his. He belonged here. And she—

She had to go. She had friends in Reizmelt. She had a friend in Charlay. She would come back to see what he’d done. But Riverfarm—she’d done all she could here. So she left. And the [Emperor] sat and thought of all she’d talked to him about over that night.

He wished she’d stayed.

 

 

Day 76

 

The coven met outside of the [Emperor]’s throne room and talked, quietly. They had come back. And they had been summoned not an hour after Eloise had flown back, riding on Alevica’s broom. Neither [Witch] had enjoyed the journey, but they gathered nonetheless. Mavika spoke, looking at the others in turn.

“He paid his promises due. I counsel caution, but remember that he has kept his words true.”

Eloise was next. Good advice came in threes, and the three oldest [Witches] gave it in turn.

“I counsel caution as well. [Emperors] have many tricks and Skills.”

“I counsel trust, then. For his people love him and the children too. And they have eyes that see through what adults do.”

Hedag laughed. The other [Witches] nodded. All but Nanette. She followed like a ghost. She had to be there, or the coven wouldn’t be whole. But it was already broken. Califor was gone. And Belavierr…

Wiskeria’s stomach clenched as she entered the throne room. She had spoken to Laken, about the events that had unfolded, but not in detail. And he had not told her how he felt about the other [Witches]. Nor could she promise the coven that they’d get what they wanted. But—here they were. And after all that had happened, Wiskeria stood with her fellow [Witches].

She could do nothing less.

“His Majesty, Emperor Godart, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, Ruler of Riverfarm and the surrounding area and sovereign lord of the Unseen Empire!”

Gamel cried the address as the [Witches] approached the throne. Alevica snorted. Hedag laughed. Wiskeria thought that Laken had intended it that way, but Eloise’s silent elbows made the other [Witches] bow slightly. And Laken nodded in reply.

“Approach, and speak freely.”

The coven did. They lined up, six [Witches], standing together. Wiskeria, Hedag, Mavika, Nanette, Alevica, Eloise. And they felt the absence of the other two. Laken stared down at them from his carved, wooden throne. And his voice was neither harsh, nor welcoming.

“So. A coven comes before me. A coven whose members have wrought great ill and good for my lands and that of my allies. And a coven comes to me today to strike a bargain.”

Wiskeria paused. Laken’s voice was distant and impartial. It wasn’t like the Laken she knew. Sitting on that throne, he looked like an [Emperor], though he had no crown and his garments were plain. It was Eloise who spoke for the others.

“Your Majesty, we speak for all [Witches] across Izril. And we make you a simple offer. Consider what you have seen us do. Consider our craft that you have witnessed or heard of. We are [Witches] and we bring good. Sometimes ill, yes, but often good. We provide magic, charms, our expertise. What we ask—all we ask—is that we be given freedom to practice our arts on your lands, free of persecution.”

“Sheltered by my empire.”

Eloise paused.

“If you would say it like that, yes, your Majesty. We would like you to guarantee that bounties on [Witches] be invalidated on your lands unless there were ample reason given. It is not a crime to be a [Witch].”

“But some [Witches] commit crimes, true?”

Eloise paused. Wiskeria stared up at the [Emperor]. What was he doing? The coven shifted, restlessly.

“Some do, your Majesty. But some [Carpenters] are monsters. Some are good workers. Often, a [Witch] is blamed for things she has not done. Or spells, bargains, undertook on behalf of another.”

“Such as…?”

“Cursing a cheating husband, your Majesty. Casting a hex that makes a well scream his name and the woman he slept with. Giving someone a boil. Petty crimes like that are things [Witches] do. It’s a service, like a [Mercenary].”

Wiskeria broke in, desperately. Laken stared at her.

“Or a [Thug] beating a man after being paid. Those are hostile magics, Witch Wiskeria.”

“They are not what all [Witches] do. Many do not cast such magics, your Majesty. In fact, many bring a positive change. Such as Witch Mavika, who eradicated pests from your fields.”

Eloise spoke quickly. Laken frowned.

“Yes, I have heard that from Prost. But that does not change the point, Witch Eloise. Under your pact, [Witches] would be free to practice their craft in my lands. Free from prejudice or their crimes of old. And part of that craft might harm my citizens.”

The coven paused and shuffled their feet. Well, if he wanted to get technical about it—Wiskeria’s heart was pounding. No one could deny that. But think of all the good they’d done! And then she thought of her mother and her heart sank.

Eloise was trying to choose her next words carefully. But it was Alevica who stepped up next. She spoke in her most charming voice possible. So charming that Wiskeria was positive she’d used some of her craft.

“It is true that [Witches] cannot be bound, your Majesty. But we are no group of criminals like [Bandits] or [Raiders]. We are a calling, and a class. Some of us do great evil. Others great good. We only ask that we not be treated as enemies without judgment.”

Wiskeria held her breath. Eloise was glaring—as was Mavika. They’d agreed not to use magic on Laken! If it went wrong—

The [Emperor] shook his head, and then replied sharply.

“You ask for more than that. You want this to become a gathering of [Witches]. A haven in case the rest of Izril turns against you. How many [Witches] would come here if they knew they could practice most of their craft without interference or judgment?”

“Er—”

Alevica floundered. She looked around. And it was Hedag who replied, with a broad smile.

“We would always be judged, [Emperor]-fellow. Here is just a place where many of us would like to pause. Or practice our craft without hired [Mercenaries] seeking our life. But that depends on the [Emperor]. Do you see a need for a Hedag? Or do you think the Hedag belongs beneath the axe she’s swung?”

Laken paused and Wiskeria winced. But it was the right direction. Because Laken nodded and relaxed on his throne.

“You, Witch Hedag, I see a need for. Because I would do the very same if I feared a man were abusing his child. Prost has told me of the man you executed. And I do not fault you for that either. I thank you.”

The coven relaxed. Laken went on.

“But if I were to catch a [Lord] or someone of similar power who had committed murder or worse, would you stride into my prison and behead him then and there?”

Every eye turned to Hedag. Wiskeria willed the old [Witch] to respond diplomatically, but Hedag just shrugged and drank from her flask.

“I suppose that’d lie in the justice I saw such as him receive, wouldn’t it? If it did not satisfy, then the old ways would come out, as surely as I stand here.”

The coven glared. Hedag was unmoved. Laken murmured on his throne.

“Old ways are not always the best ways.”

It was an echo of what Califor had said. Nanette jerked and looked up with lost eyes, stared around, before realizing and hanging her head. It silently broke the hearts of all who saw it. But Laken’s eyes were closed. He went on, debating with himself as much as the room.

“If I let Witch Hedag practice her craft and punish parents who abused children, spouses, and criminals, should I forbid [Witches] from casting curses? Making deals like Belavierr did with Rehanna?”

No one replied. Laken eventually paused. And when he looked down at the [Witches], he did look. His eyes opened a bit, as if he wanted to see them. And Wiskeria saw his faded eyes and wavered.

“There are no good answers. [Witches]. You may do what is best for Riverfarm. Or you may do ill, and perhaps I could judge you individually, and treat you like the people you are. Perhaps there is a place for [Witches] here, despite the potential for strife. If you agreed to hold the most basic rules of hospitality—to kill no one, cheat no one, and offer deals that the other side can clearly understand—perhaps I could allow your presence.”

He waved his arm, gesturing above.

“I have made a court of far stranger folk my vassals, and I considered that a fine deal. For the service one of your own has done Riverfarm, I acknowledge that this may be the least of the ways I can repay it.”

The coven waited. Everyone could hear the ‘but’. It came out differently, from the [Emperor].

However, answer me one thing. If there are good among you, and those who do ill, who can hold [Witches] to account? Who will know when they commit a crime? I, alone? There is a saying where I come from, [Witches]. Who watches the watchers? In this case, who watches the [Witches] to see what they do? Who will hold them accountable if another Belavierr appears? Who will judge them, if I am unable?”

The coven paused. And each [Witch] looked at the other, seeking who had the best response. It was Mavika who spoke, forestalling the others. Wiskeria heard a laugh, high and mocking. And Mavika spoke for the first time in the throne room. She pointed a finger up at Laken as Wiskeria closed her eyes and tried to imagine how she was going to explain this to any angry [Witches] who came calling. But Mavika’s eyes never wavered as she met Laken’s.

“Haven’t you noticed, young man? Everyone watches us.”

Wiskeria waited. Laken paused. And then he laughed. And he leaned forwards.

“Very well then. We will hammer out this agreement. [Witches] should not be allowed to cast…permanent hexes. Perhaps there is a place to let them punish wrongdoers. But there must be limits. There must be accountability. And we will see how far I will stretch and how far you will. But…”

The coven held its breath. Laken nodded.

“[Witches] may roam Riverfarm. They may practice their craft. And they may come here safe from persecution unwarranted. I must obey the laws of hospitality. And more importantly—if Goblins are people, then [Witches] are too. And in the name of Witch Califor, who saved Riverfarm, they will be welcomed. Better to have great good and great evil than neither of either at all.”

He nodded down at the coven. At one [Witch]. And she didn’t look up at him. But Wiskeria realized that it was Nanette who had swayed Laken all along. The girl stood there, blank to the world. But as the [Witches] and the [Emperor] spoke and argued, Nanette slowly looked up. At the rising moons. Because there was one last thing left.

 

 

Day 77

 

It was done. The coven had made a deal with the [Emperor] of Riverfarm. And it had been hard-won, too hard-won. It had come at far too high a price. But the cost of it hadn’t come from just Laken. It had come from the plots of Drakes, an order of [Knights]. And a [Witch] who had forsworn herself for her daughter.

Someday, Belavierr would face her punishment. Wiskeria had sworn it. She would never cease hunting her mother. And she would become stronger. She would put an end to her mother herself.

But tonight wasn’t about Belavierr. It had been seven days since the fire. Seven days since Miss Califor had died. And on this day, the coven of Riverfarm gathered for one last purpose.

The story of Califor had ended. Her thread had been cut, perhaps untimely short. The Stitch Witch had plucked it to trick her own death. And there the story ended for most. But [Witches] had always known a secret about stories. There was always the ending. And then there was what came after.

Six of them gathered. And it was a hexagram that they drew on the dark earth where her ashes had been buried. The ground was covered with flowers. And someone had spoken of raising a monument. But in the dark of the night, past midnight, the [Witch]’s hour made the plucked flowers look pale and strange. The two risen moons were close to full.

And the coven had a purpose to fulfill. They had argued over it. Eloise had almost refused to take part. Hedag had been wary. But Mavika insisted. And so had Nanette. Now, Mavika finished the hexagram and placed a catalyst in the center. A handkerchief.

Miss Califor’s. All her clothing had burnt away. Her possessions, such as they were, had mostly gone with her. But Nanette had her mother’s handkerchief. She scarified it now. And she cut herself—she called by blood.

The cut was deep. And the blood that trickled from Nanette’s arm made the girl’s face even paler. Her eyes were huge in her head. She shouldn’t have been here. But she had wanted it. She shouldn’t have known about the ritual. Eloise’s fury with Mavika had been frightening. But the crow [Witch] was unmoved.

“It has not been done successfully in years. Few ghosts remain. Few spirits to harness or summon or make deals with. But she was the most powerful in generations. And she died with a grudge. She surely remains.”

That was all Mavika said. She led the coven. And her low chant echoed across the scorched earth. The [Witches] walked, clockwise, then counter clockwise. And their steps traced a perfect circle. They stamped, and the light flickered.

The only light came from the moons. Everything else was dark. Wiskeria could feel the power. In the ground, in the air, in the time and place and other [Witches]. But they weren’t calling on any of these things.

They were calling on her. The bloody handkerchief shone in the faint moonlight. The blood seeped from Nanette’s hand onto the ground. It ran. It joined. It flowed.

And something was watching them. Something else was there. Wiskeria could feel it. It was gathering in the center of the circle. Mavika ordered the coven back.

“Do not cross the circle.”

It was the one they had walked. Wiskeria could feel it. They’d traced a barrier in the earth. And beyond that point reality had begun to melt. Slough away. Something else lay on the other side. You could fall into it.

But they were calling. And as the [Witches] waited, in silence, Wiskeria realized she couldn’t hear anything in the distance. No animals. Not even the rustle of wind. The silence grew and grew. Until it was so quiet that the heartbeat of all the [Witches] was deafening. And then that sound stopped. And something else spoke.

Whispered.

Nanette.

The child looked up. She grew pale. She raised her bloody hand. Something was in the center of the hexagram. Something had appeared. It wasn’t made of smoke or even magic. It was something even paler than moonlight. Almost invisible. But taking form. Wiskeria stared.

It did not look like Califor. But the voice was familiar. Nanette stumbled forwards.

“Mother? Mother?

She was caught by Mavika and Eloise. The young [Witch] fought, but Mavika dragged her back. The older [Witch] was triumphant and alarmed.

“Stay outside of the circle!”

They pulled Nanette back. The girl twisted, crying, and then shouted again.

Mother! Miss Califor! Are you there?

It is me.

And there she stood. It was Califor. Twisted, tattered. She looked—Wiskeria shuddered, and felt Alevica shudder beside her. She looked burned. Her form was partially destroyed. Twisted. But it was her. The face, the silhouette—or was it?

The coven looked to Mavika. The crow [Witch] paused. She looked up. A raven flew overhead. Mavika stared at the thing in the circle. And she slowly nodded.

“Califor Weishart. Your coven calls you. Your daughter beseeches you. She wishes to see your face. Do you know her name?”

Nanette Weishart. My daughter.

Even in death, Califor’s voice sounded a bit impatient. Mavika nodded. She and Eloise let go of Nanette a bit, and the girl rushed forwards. They held her from the edge of the circle, though. Nanette wept.

“Mother! I’m sorry! It’s my fault!”

No. I curse the Stitch Witch. Belavierr. Blame no one but her, daughter.

Her voice didn’t echo. And it was distinct, snappish, familiar in every syllable. But it was far away. Not distant in volume, but in…Wiskeria closed her eyes as tears sprang to them. Califor’s figure bent, her fingers reaching for her daughter.

My daughter. You have lost your craft. You have lost your way. And you have lost me. I would give any of these back to you. But I am dead.

“Come back! Please! I’ll be good! I’ll do anything!”

Nanette begged the ghost. She reached out and Eloise snatched her hand back. Slowly, regretfully, Califor stood.

No. I cannot. You must be a [Witch], Nanette. That is my last lesson to you. In the end, we all must walk alone.

No! I want to go with you!

Nanette struggled, screaming. This time Hedag helped hold her back. Wiskeria’s heart was breaking. Nanette should not have been here. But Mavika was speaking. She held up a pure crystal jar, beautifully carved. And the [Witch]’s eyes flashed.

“Come, Califor. Become your daughter’s strength. Return to the world of the living for a day. A year. Return and be bound.”

Wiskeria held her breath. Not for years had a spirit been summoned. Let alone—she looked at Nanette. But this was wrong. Wiskeria wanted to protest. Not like this. But Califor was shaking her head.

No. Not for my daughter. I cannot.

“Why? You hold the world with your grudge! Why do you not wish to return? What do you see, Califor? For centuries, [Witches] have lost what lies beyond! What has gone wrong?

Mavika beseeched Califor. And the ghost’s voice was quiet.

What do I see? Nothing. It is empty. Terribly empty. There is nothing here. They are all gone. I will not stay either. I will not be eaten.

“Eaten?”

Wiskeria heard the faint voice come from Alevica. The Witch Runner was shivering. And Alevica felt it too. Something was leaking from the other side. A cold. A feeling that pulled at Wiskeria. She wanted to walk forwards. And it terrified her.

Califor turned. She stared past Nanette.

Something walks this ground, sisters. Something older than us all. Something hungers. And it has devoured the land of death. It comes for you, the living. And it is strongest here. On these lands. Something—I know it. We all do. But it is nameless. It must be so. He must never return. I have seen the past in him. And yet I fear the future.

She turned. Mavika was speechless. The crow [Witch] backed up as Califor stepped past her. The dead [Witch]’s eyes moved past her. Searching. And they found Wiskeria. Califor reached out, to the limits of the circle. Entreating.

Wiskeria, daughter of Belavierr, who was my death. I crave a boon.

“Don’t go, Wis. Don’t go. Remember the rules.”

Alevica’s teeth chattered. The ghost paused. And she became more firm. Realer. Her voice closer.

I call you by your debt. Wiskeria. Come.

“The ritual has gone on too long. We have made her an offer. Return her! Mavika!”

Eloise snapped. Mavika nodded. But then her head snapped up. Wiskeria was moving.

“Witch Wiskeria! Do not—”

“I have to.”

Wiskeria stared at Califor. The [Witch] was dead. Because of her. Alevica grabbed for her.

“No! Wiskeria, it’s a trick—”

But it was too late. Califor was realer by the second. The lines in her face, her eyes—the other side called to Wiskeria. She stepped forwards, dreamlike, as Califor beckoned to her.

Her foot went through the circle. Mavika hissed, but it was too late. Califor smiled. And then she reached out and seized Wiskeria. And suddenly, her form changed to fire.

Fire. The same fire that had burned her as she died. Her hands were living flame. They grabbed Wiskeria. And suddenly, the flame was real. Wiskeria felt the burning pain. She started to scream. The [Witches] struck at the hexagram, erasing it. Hedag kicked the ground and cursed as Nanette fought to get to her mother. And Califor’s voice echoed in Wiskeria’s ears as she grabbed the [Witch]’s arms.

Wiskeria. For you, I have died. I curse your mother. I curse her. And I charge you. Keep my daughter safe. Swear it on your life!

“I swear! I swear!

Wiskeria screamed. She would have sworn anything to stop the pain! Califor didn’t relent. Her grip tightened. She drew Wiskeria closer. Mavika was shouting something, but Califor’s voice filled Wiskeria’s ears. The ghost sounded almost gentle over Wiskeria’s screams.

Keep her safe, and beware. He is coming.

“Wh—w—”

The ghost paused. And she looked through Wiskeria. And even in death, Wiskeria saw Miss Califor was afraid.

His name should end and never be spoken. But it will be spoken. So I say it and damn the world for my daughter. Just as Belavierr damned me. And when you hear his name, flee. And take Nanette far, far away. He is our enemy. [Witches] have sworn his death. We were there. We must honor our vows.

Who?

Wiskeria screamed. Califor didn’t reply. Her grip squeezed and Wiskeria howled. Her flesh caught on fire.

“The ritual’s broken! Seize her!”

Eloise cried. The hexagram was snuffed out. And the portal was closing. Califor was drawn back, into the center of the circle. The other [Witches] leapt forwards, pulling Wiskeria back.

But Califor held on. And her lips whispered a word into Wiskeria’s ear. One word that burned into Wiskeria’s mind like the flames that seared her arms. And then the flames vanished. The presence disappeared.

Califor was gone.

Wiskeria lay on the ground, shuddering, screaming in pain as the word and burns marked her. The potion Alevica poured on her didn’t remove the raw handprints on her arm. Nor did Eloise’s charm. Nothing did. As the coven bent around Wiskeria, the last [Witch] stood in front of the circle.

“Miss—?”

Nanette looked around. But her mother had said nothing more. Not to her, her daughter. She hadn’t even looked at her. Nanette tore off her hat. She sank to her knees, weeping. She lay there, curled up. Until, so quietly that she thought she’d imagined it, she heard a voice.

The girl looked up. And then she saw it. Something, lying on the ground. In the center of the circle. It was a little burned. Charred near the tip. But it rested there, where it had burnt away to ash before. The other [Witches] turned and stared.

“Nanette—”

Eloise raised a hand. But the girl ignored her. She crawled forwards, eyes wide, disbelieving. And she reached out with a shaking hand. Slowly, the girl took Califor’s hat from the altar and hugged it to her. Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Mommy.”

She whispered the word. And then she screamed it. She sobbed, and wept fully. And she sat there, as the coven stood, shaken, as the marks on Wiskeria’s arms refused to heal. And the name burned in her mind. But it was Nanette who cried the name aloud. Who held her mother’s hat. Desperately, searching for a sign.

But nothing replied. The afterlife was full of nothing. Not even [Witches].

 

 

—-

 

It was not so dark where Ryoka was. Stars shone overhead, and they, combined with the moon, gave her enough illumination to run by. And it was late, she knew. But she was close to her destination. So Ryoka Griffin risked the night run.

She ran north, towards Lord Gralton’s lands. Charlay was there, waiting. She hadn’t returned with the [Witches]—apparently she’d cracked a hoof on the run north. Ryoka was wondering what kind of joke she should tell—unless Charlay was really upset.

North, and then further still. Ryoka was going back to Reizmelt. She had gold, an [Emperor]’s favor for what it was worth, and she had more regrets. More sorrow. But part of her was forging it all into something which gave her the strength to continue.

Determination. Ryoka thought of her friends. Fierre, Levil, Erin.

Mrsha.

She had to go back. And she had to run forwards. So she did. Ryoka Griffin ran down a forest road, alert for any sounds or light. And she was so focused on noticing one or the other it was only after a moment she realized there was neither.

Slowly, the City Runner stopped in the shadow of the trees. It was fitting. So when she turned, she knew who it was before the [Witch] was visible in the shadows.

“You. How dare you?”

“Good night to you, Ryoka Griffin. I have business with you.”

Belavierr stood, her hat wide, her robes darker than the shadows around her. Her eyes did not glow. But the orange eyes and black rings still terrified under the moonlight. She was no immortal. Not anymore.

But she was still Belavierr. Ryoka reached for the bag of holding at her side. The Stitch Witch didn’t reply. Ryoka drew a weapon, and then another. She shouted at the [Witch].

“I thought you were just—just different! Not evil. Not a monster. I’ve met immortals. And you’re the worst of them.”

“Indeed? Worse than Perril Chandler?”

“Who the hell is—”

Ryoka’s words died in her mouth. Belavierr smiled. She gestured to Ryoka’s face.

“You have met with him. I see the magic on your tongue. Faded. He is still alive. Good. He owes me a favor.”

The young woman paused. She stared at Belavierr. And then she shook her head.

“She will never forgive you. Wiskeria will hate you forever.”

The words were meant to hurt. But Belavierr’s smile just drank them in.

“Good.”

Good? I thought you loved her! I thought she was your daughter?

Ryoka howled at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch slowly shook her head. She watched as Ryoka circled her, tense. Belavierr replied calmly.

“I give my daughter purpose. I give her something.”

The City Runner spat.

“So that’s it. That’s all you want, isn’t it? Give your daughter something. And because she hates you—you can be whomever you want. Because you know your daughter cares.”

“Perhaps.”

Ryoka didn’t waste any more words. She just attacked. She threw the silver knife and lunged with the cross-stake made of wood. Belavierr took one small step and went around Ryoka. The knife missed and Ryoka stumbled.

She whirled. Belavierr stood there, staring down at her. Ryoka raised the stake. And then she looked at Belavierr. She shook her head and walked past the Stitch Witch. She picked up the knife, stowed it and the cross. And she looked over her shoulder.

“I can’t kill you. Not even the wind wants to pick a fight with you. So forget it. Go fuck yourself. I’m out.”

Ryoka raised two fingers and began to back up. She turned—and Belavierr was standing in front of her.

You—

This time Ryoka’s fist hit Belavierr in the chest. But it felt like she’d broken it. Ryoka bent over. The Stitch Witch’s robes were hard as steel! Belavierr calmly waited. Ryoka looked up, sweating, pale.

“How do you do that?”

“I am a master of stitchcraft. Once, I made Seven-League Boots. Shoes aren’t much harder.”

The Stitch Witch’s matter-of-fact voice made Ryoka stare at her. The City Runner backed up.

“What do you want?”

Belavierr didn’t reply. She just stared at Ryoka. And then she smiled again.

“Would you like to know how to meet your friend?”

“Wh—”

This time Ryoka’s breath caught. And Belavierr’s smile widened.

“I heard you as he burned me. And you saw them. The strangers.”

Ryoka backed up. The fae. She’d heard her? She stammered.

“She’s gone. She’s been banished and she’ll never, ever see me again. Ever. There’s no way she can defy her ruler.”

Belavierr tilted her head. Still smiling.

“Even they have laws. Even they have a price. There is a way. And I know of it. Would you like to meet her again?”

See her again? Ryoka jerked her head, shook it rapidly.

“No. No, no, no—I won’t give you my life. Go away! Leave me alone!”

She turned to run. But there Belavierr stood. And the Stitch Witch stood over her. Her voice was inescapable. It whispered in Ryoka’s ear, ran through the forest.

“I don’t want your life. You are my daughter’s…friend. All I ask is something small. A little thing. Easy to pay.”

Ryoka knew she shouldn’t ask. She shouldn’t. But Belavierr wouldn’t let her go. So Ryoka asked.

“What is it?”

Belavierr told her. Ryoka went still.

“Just that?”

“Just that.”

“It won’t harm anyone?”

Belavierr only smiled. Ryoka looked at her. It was so simple. But it could hurt people. She was sure of it. Somehow. Some way.

“But just think. You could see her again. Maybe even take her with you. They have rules. You will never see her again but for my help.”

Ryoka wavered. And she looked up into that terrible, knowing smile. And she looked at Belavierr as she raised her arm. Ryoka knew.

A [Witch]’s deal. It was funny. Everyone knew what the right answer was. Everyone knew, even in those old days. But that was the thing. The thing people forgot. When the devil reached out, he always offered the most important thing to you in the world. Nothing less.

Ivolethe.

Ryoka looked up and wondered if this was how Tagil and Califor had felt. Standing before her, the Stitch Witch smiled. Her lips curved up and if Ryoka looked closely, between the rings in Belavierr’s eyes, she could see damnation laughing at her.

Belavierr slowly held out one hand. Ryoka stared at it and she thought of her dearest friend. Slowly, trembling, she raised her right hand and stared at the missing fingers. She looked into Belavierr’s eyes.

And she sighed.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.46 E

Day 70

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Your village must flee, Laken. Now.”

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

“Where? And how, Yitton?”

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

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

The [Lord] looked up.

“Who?”

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

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

“That monster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he wasn’t the only one.

 

—-

 

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

Ullim! Sammial! Hethon!

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

“Lord Veltras! What’s happening?”

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

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

Father!

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

Jericha! To me!

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

“Drakes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

“My home.”

“Does your wife report anything?”

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

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

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

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

Damn his dogs! People are dying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Laken?”

“Get the caravan moving. Towards Riverfarm.”

“But the fire—”

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Yeah? How’s that help us?”

“Doesn’t. The fire—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s coming.”

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

“We have to go. Charlay? Charlay!

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

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

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

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

“Is it…?”

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

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

“What did Laken say?”

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

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

What’s going on? We demand answers!”

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

“The [Witches].”

“What?”

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

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

“Where are they?”

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

“Tea, anyone?”

“Just a cup.”

“Got anything to eat?”

“Stale jerky.”

“Pass it over.”

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

“Well, this is a mess, isn’t it?”

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

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

“Not what we came for.”

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

“The odds we could stop something like that?”

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

Mavika hissed. Hedag nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eloise hesitated. She looked left, towards Belavierr.

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Califor!”

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

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

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

“Can we?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Wiskeria said we could try. Please?”

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

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

“Nanette…”

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

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

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

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

“Hold on, what if we’re for leaving?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

Wiskeria!

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

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

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

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

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

“It could fail?”

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

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

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

Eloise paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magnolia Reinhart.”

“Reinhart?”

Lady Rie recoiled, but Ryoka grabbed her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wiskeria wavered. Eloise looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

The [Carpenter] sucked at his teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stay calm. Follow us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I call upon this coven!

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

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

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

“Ryoka. Is Magnolia Reinhart—”

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

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

“Then wake him up!

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

“The ritual awaits. Take your positions.”

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

“That’s it?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Whose malice brings death and grief without end.”

 

Two [Witches] spoke. Wiskeria and Nanette.

 

“Let crying earth mend

Let nature’s wrath end!”

 

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

 

“Magic bows before nature’s will

Let not it be used further ill.”

 

Hedag and Eloise chanted the next lines in tandem.

 

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

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

 

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

 

“So come water, come relief and rain!

Here to end Riverfarm’s pain!

 

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

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

“By blood we call water.”

“By river we summon rain.”

Who was speaking now? Ryoka couldn’t tell.

Now the [Witches]’ lips moved as one.

“We call.”

“We implore.”

“We beg.”

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

Rain.

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

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

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

“Rain.”

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

 

—-

 

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

“Oh no you don’t. [Weatherchange]!

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

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

“[Weatherchange]! [Weatherchange]!

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

“They can’t do this! They can’t!

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

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

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

No—

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

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

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

“Time to end this.”

 

—-

 

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

“Nanette!”

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

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

“What was—”

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

“Backlash.”

“The ritual failed.”

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

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

Witch Wiskeria!

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

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

“But—but—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother.”

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

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

“We can’t just go!”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“There’s a chance.”

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

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

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

Miss Califor!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Wiskeria shook her head.

“No. I have to try.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alevica.”

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

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

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

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

“No—no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t leave me?”

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

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

“Eloise—!”

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

“We cannot take all the children.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ryoka. I’m going. Are you coming?”

“Charlay?”

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

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

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

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

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

But the Centauress shook her head.

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

She turned. Ryoka shouted, desperately.

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

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

“I’m sorry!

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

“Charlay! Don’t! It’s—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They could make it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dead gods. What is that?

“A twister. One made of flames.”

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

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

“I understand. Go.”

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

Wiskeria!

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

The City Runner nodded.

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

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

How? How can anyone flee that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hedag’s eyes glinted.

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

“Not if I stop it.”

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

“Stop it? You?”

“Wind’s child.”

Mavika murmured. Ryoka nodded. She stood up.

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

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

 

—-

 

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

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

“Nanette.”

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

“They’re going to die. All of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My daughter remains. She refused to leave.”

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

“Stubborn girl. She made her choice.”

Belavierr’s gaze didn’t waver.

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

Miss Califor paused and nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nanette. Let her go.”

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

“Come, Nanette. We must keep moving.”

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

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As do we all. You run towards it.”

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

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

“If?”

Belavierr’s eyes glinted.

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

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

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

Belavierr shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm. Strange.”

“What is?”

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

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

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

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

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

Belavierr half-smiled.

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

Ryoka ran a tongue over her lips.

“True. Do you do that often?”

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

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

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

“How so?”

Belavierr looked up. She shrugged.

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

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

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

Belavierr just smiled, though.

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

“You think it’s not her craft.”

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

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

“I don’t follow.”

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

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

Slowly, she tapped her chest.

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

“But that’s…”

Ryoka held her tongue. Belavierr glanced at her.

“What?”

“It’s so…isn’t it painful?”

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

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

“What, exactly?”

Belavierr stretched her hands out.

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

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

“Can I have—”

“No.”

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

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

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

“Do you wait for the fire?”

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

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

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

Ryoka jumped.

“A—?”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And? What did you do?”

Belavierr looked at her oddly.

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

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

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

“Who?”

Another blank look. Ryoka paused.

“The Griffin Prince.”

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

“Oh. That was why she hated it.”

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

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

“Why did you do it, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryoka nodded.

“So is Wiskeria the first or last stitch?”

Another look.

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

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

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

She looked up, looking slightly…

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes.”

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

“Then why do you run to yours?”

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

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

“How strange.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Impossible.”

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

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

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

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

 

—-

 

“Hold it back. Hold. It. Back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burn! All of you!

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

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

“I tried.”

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

Riverfarm.

People.

[Witches].

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

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

“Mom?”

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

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

Mother!

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

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

“Mother. Mother!

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

“No. No.

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

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

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

“[Headman’s Last Cut].”

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

“Healing potion. Healing…”

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

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

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

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

“I’m cold.”

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

At last, the rain began to fall.

 

—-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Belavierr.”

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

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

“I thought I could stop it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She deserves a proper funeral.”

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

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

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

“Goodbye, Mother.”

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

Mother!

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

“Mother! Mother! Mommy!

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

“Mother? Nanette, she was your…”

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

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

My beloved daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next day, Laken returned home.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.45 E

Can you feel it? She did. She had never met the man with the strange smile who laughed at the death of Ser Raim and the [Hunters]. She did not know him, any more than she understood his motives. But she could still feel it. Belavierr could sense the threads drawing together.

Reason and purpose, intersecting. Chance and plans. Malice, directed at her. But she was just a piece in someone else’s trap. And that knowledge bothered the [Witch]. She looked up, blinking at the bright sky. And she realized she’d been tricked. But she did not know who had done the tricking, or why. She could not see the web that ensnared her. But she felt it.

The [Witch] looked back down at her daughter. The trap did not matter. She did. And surely, whoever had laid it had known, or guessed. Belavierr looked at her daughter. And she felt the second of the two deaths closing in. But that did not matter.

So the [Witch] waited, her immortality burnt away, her protections gone. Her magic weaker. And she waited to see how her death came. For her daughter, she would face it. But her daughter—Belavierr closed her eyes. And she heard that distant laughter as the trap closed.

 

 

Day 66 – Ullim

 

Tyrion Veltras’ return to his estates had not been triumphant. It had been quiet. The armies he had gathered for his elaborate, grand scheme, had dispersed. And with it, goodwill. Say what you would of Magnolia Reinhart and many would—she had made grave enemies with her actions.

But when you got down to it, Tyrion Veltras’ grand scheme that had cost many peers of the realm countless thousands of gold pieces in time and energy spent had fallen apart. He had brought a force capable of taking Liscor, of altering the map and potentially securing a lynchpin of Drake defenses. And he had failed.

That was all there was to it. So Lord Veltras returned in fury and ire, so much so that no one dared mince words with him. Politically, he might have been disgraced, or have lost capital in the currency of opinions, but on his lands, the ancestral Veltras estates that Drakes and Gnolls both would point out that they’d owned in ages past, he still reigned supreme. If he wasn’t welcome at certain balls or gatherings—he seldom attended them anyways.

Tyrion Veltras was much like a wolf, to people who knew nothing of wolves. He was aloof, fierce, a leader when he needed to be, but solitary. His home, which was more of a keep than a mansion, held only a few of his most loyal retainers, servants, and his two sons.

For all that, he was not a poor [Lord]; just specialized. He could lead an army and fight with the best of opponents. But he took little to the managerial side of his class, and it showed.

Veltras lands occupied the western flank of Izril, stretching from the huge Vail Forest—a [Hunter]’s dream, abundant with wildlife—all the way right up to the famous landmark, the ‘tail’ of Izril’s northern half, a long coastal stretch. It meant Veltras lands were abundant in forests due to the heavy rainfalls that could come off the High Passes to the south, the economy fed by trade with ports and steady business, but in places, still very much unsettled.

Of course, to the north, where the Veltras’ had first settled, there were booming cities, but none quite so famous as Invrisil. If anything, Veltras lands were known more for the family which protected them. A reluctant leader he might be, but Tyrion Veltras’ aptitude for war meant that few monsters or raiders troubled his lands overlong.

It was the economic issues that annoyed the [Lord], which meant he left most of the work to his family’s steward. Ullim. Unfortunately, large events still required Tyrion’s attention, which was how the luckless Ullim found himself putting issues before his temperamental master as rain beat at the study windows outside.

“—Reinhart’s [Trade War] continues to affect commerce in a huge radius, Lord Veltras. It isn’t just Invrisil blocking trade, although that certainly has affected the southern half of the continent. But Reinhart holdings spread across Izril, and we have been running into shortages in our own markets. The [Merchants] are unwilling to cross Lady Reinhart, you see. I suspect some of the nobility will take action or perhaps Lady Reinhart will herself relent; her markets will feel a pinch soon, but until then, we lack for a number of products, including rye grains, some of our wheat imports, a number of fruit orchard’s produce—”

The glower cut the [Majordomo] off. Tyrion Veltras sat straight-backed in his chair, and annoyance was written large on his face. He snapped as he stared at the map on his desk.

“We can live without rye, Ullim. I have no interest in dealing with Reinhart’s trade war. If we lack for some goods, the people can adapt.”

Ullim hesitated.

“One wishes that were so, Lord Veltras. But as I was saying, the traditional, ah, trade routes for salt and oil are also blocked, Lord Veltras. Lady Pryde’s industries of course include the Chalen salt mines, and importing it from the coast has increased the price significantly.  As well, oil and butter products are generally sourced through Invrisil or trade routes, thus—”

He stopped again as Tyrion cursed. You could live without rye, but salt and oil were different. Tyrion drummed his fingers on the table.

“Go to the coastal ports along the Izril’s Tail. Send word that I require trade vessels and caravans in number. We can import goods for a while.”

“At a steep price, sir. It would be cheaper to buy from Terandria with Drake tariffs, and that will cost…”

Ullim calculated out the number on an abacus. Tyrion’s teeth audibly ground together. The [Majordomo] winced. Tyrion got up to pace. Of course, the [Trade War] was a direct byproduct of Magnolia interfering with the siege of Liscor and the ensuing insult to her and her allies.

Although…Ullim distinctly recalled the Veltras family not sending a black rose. His master had his sense of honor, prickly though it was. He would damn a Drake city to oblivion, but insult a peer who had fought at the Sacrifice of Roses?

Never. Still, Tyrion’s lands were west of Invrisil and the trade war was hitting [Merchants] headed their way. The Merchant’s Guild probably also correctly recalled Magnolia and Tyrion’s longstanding feud and wouldn’t risk the journey with a [Trade War] in any case, regardless if Magnolia was specifically targeting Tyrion.

At last, Tyrion’s furious pacing stopped. Like a caged animal, he whirled.

“Ullim. Your opinion?”

“I fear you’re correct, Lord Veltras. We must import, and everyone must tighten their belts in certain regards.”

Tyrion just glared. After a moment he stalked back to the desk and stared at the map. Ullim could see the [Lord] fighting with the map, but Tyrion hated the dance of economics as much as he loved war. They were not the same.

“Salt comes from the ocean. We can at least source it from the ports, can’t we?”

“Of course, sir. Sea salt will do just as well as Lady Pryde’s exports. I will add it to the list.”

Tyrion nodded. Ullim sighed with relief as he saw the [Lord] relax. Part of Ullim wished Tyrion took more of an interest in the other side of his class. Ullim was old, and he had known Tyrion growing up. He hoped he had the energy to raise the next generation of the Veltras family’s main line—Hethon and Sammial. They were young, but growing and lacked for a mother. A father too, at times. Tyrion tried, but like managing his lands, he had to know what was right first.

And his other half, who had been so good at explaining it to Tyrion—was dead. But for her, and he might have been a better [Lord]. But it had been…dead gods, four years? Ullim felt like it was a lifetime ago, sometimes. Now Lord Veltras was distant, ever on campaign, and his sons, especially Sammial, grew apart. If Lady Salva had been alive, she could have been Tyrion’s other half.

She had not been perfect, of course, but without her, Tyrion would attack the problem of the trade war relentlessly, trying to outmaneuver an opponent who breathed it since she’d been born. Ullim remembered that too. What Tyrion was to military and combat, Magnolia was to infrastructure and diplomacy. They were complete opposites of each other in a way; the only thing they ever agreed on was their disdain for each other.

“It’s still raining.”

Tyrion’s voice drew Ullim out of the past. The elderly man roused himself and looked to where Tyrion’s attention was focused next. Rain pounded on the panes of the window. Ullim sighed again.

Lord Tyrion Veltras did not do well indoors. And while he was content to train or move about in the rain, he didn’t suffer the same for his mounts or his soldiers. It was only one more reason for his enduringly bad mood.

“It has been unnaturally wet, Lord Veltras. One expects the end of the rainy season would have come, but there is no predicting the weather with complete certainty. Even the [Weather Mages] make errors.”

Not that House Veltras employed any. They had dozens of war mages they could call on, but not one could clear a cloud from the sky beyond shooting fireballs at it. Tyrion only made a discontented sound.

“Too long. It’s been eight days. No lightning. Just rain. The clouds should be spitting lightning and the rain should be passing. This isn’t natural.”

Ullim nodded.

“It may be someone else tampering with the weather, Lord Veltras. You do recall the time we had gale winds blowing for nearly two weeks? Not to mention the hurricane…?”

“I recall that. But why here? What of the lands south of us?”

They were largely unoccupied, and certainly unclaimed. Humans had yet to fully colonize the vast expanse of northern Izril, and the lack of nobility from the last Antinium War meant there were fewer holdings under the protection of [Lords] or [Ladies]. Ullim had to consult his notes. He frowned.

“Temperate, Lord Veltras. But normal.”

“To our west, then?”

“Izril’s Tail…well, there was a grand storm, but I have no reports of the port-cities experiencing bad weather.”

“Hm.”

Tyrion glared at the rain. Undeterred, the water kept falling. Ullim went on, shuffling his notes.

“Let’s see. Well, other nobles have been raising the weather issue as well. Lady Ieka’s lands are unseasonably dry, for instance. A pity for her harvests…”

“So something’s affecting the weather.”

“At least in part, Lord Veltras.”

The [Lord] made a disgusted sound.

“Find a [Weather Mage], then. Have them stop the rains today.”

Ullim hesitated.

“We would have to send for one, Lord Veltras. I do not know if there are many to be found—the rains may subside in the time it would take—”

“A [Weatherchange] scroll, then! Buy one and use it!”

Tyrion snapped. Again, Ullim hesitated.

“May I quote you a price, Lord Veltras?”

“Do it.”

“Two thousand gold pieces at least for a scroll that could affect a radius of your holdings. If we wanted to change the weather patterns, we might need to spend as much as four thousand, or even six…

Again, Ullim saw Tyrion grimace. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t pay the sum, but it was a lot of money to deal with rain. Most cities would be able to afford one scroll or [Weather Mage] in times of need; a [Farmer] could always pay for a shower of course, but a sustained spell capable of changing weather in a huge radius?

Veltras was rich. Rich enough to finance a truly powerful standing army. But though they were one of the Five Families, that didn’t mean they were all-powerful. Just look at some of the other families.

The houses of Veltras, El, Reinhart, Terland, and Wellfar. They were legends that had settled Izril, taking it from the Drakes and Gnolls thousands of years ago. Of course, they hadn’t been the only noble houses to sail from Terandria. The ones that had perished or fallen over the years had been forgotten by all but a few.

Now, the Five Families remained. But some, like the Wellfar families, had fallen far from their lofty past heights. Others, like the El and Terland families had retained some of their strength, although the Antinium Wars had slain some of the scions of these houses—Veltras was strong. But they didn’t have huge stockpiles of magical goods. Their strength lay in military might, and their coffers could stand to be deeper.

The Reinharts on the other hand had at least kept most of their artifacts—no, even expanded their wealth over the generations thanks to Regis Reinhart. And under Magnolia Reinhart, they were richer still. They could hardly call on all their artifacts of old with that old ghost hoarding their treasures, but it was just another disparity. Ullim could see his lord thinking of all of this as he drummed his fingers on the table. At last, Tyrion nodded.

“Buy a scroll. Use it. Hire a Courier if need be. I want the rain gone tonight.

“At once, sire.”

Ullim breathed out. It was a cost, but one the Veltras’ family could afford. And he’d be glad to see the end of this rain too. Sammial was practically bouncing off the walls with his desire to be running about. Veltras nodded as Ullim reached for a list of reputable Couriers.

“I’m going to ride south. I’ll return by nightfall.”

“In this rain, Lord Veltras?”

“Rain brings out monsters, Ullim. I will send a [Message] if I’m delayed returning.”

Tyrion nodded and strode for the doors. At least he’d be happy if he slew a monster, Ullim reflected. The [Lord] paused at the door and wrinkled his nose. He looked around, and snapped.

“Ullim. Send some servants into the cellars and storerooms. I believe we have rats.”

 

 

Day 66 – Ryoka

 

“She cannot stay here. She must leave.”

That was all Lady Rie said as she watched Belavierr. The [Witch] stood alone. Ryoka wondered if even her coven was afraid to speak with her. And Ryoka didn’t argue the point.

She couldn’t. She still felt tears unshed when she thought of Ser Raim. She had not agreed with him. Ryoka had wanted to find some peace, because part of her liked Belavierr. And another had looked at Raim and seen a hero.

Did that make Belavierr a villain? Perhaps. Perhaps. Or perhaps she was just…a [Witch]. But all of Ryoka abhorred the death of the [Witch Hunters].

There was no answer the young woman had. She had tried to use logic, tried to apply a morality to what she saw. All she now knew was that she was a guest in Riverfarm. Trying to steer a rudder away from destruction. And now—had she succeeded?

The Order of Seasons were leaving. Ryoka had not witnessed the battle between Belavierr’s minions and the [Knights]. She had missed the conflict that tore the earth. But today, she saw what remained.

Cloth, really. Torn silk, so precious that some of Riverfarm’s people had picked it up until they remembered who it belonged to. Broken creatures, some so lifelike that Ryoka could only stare at a severed Wyvern’s head until she walked around it and saw it was filled with stuffing. A few rotting corpses, yes, from the undead. But mainly broken cloth.

And weapons. A treasure trove of ancient steel, even what looked to be magical items. No one touched those either. Even the most light fingered person thought twice about it.

Cloth. Undead corpses. And four [Knights]. All wore green. They were Knights of the Spring, and Ryoka saw from the living ones how young they were. More than half were younger than she was. They had died, lacking magical armor, fighting to keep Ser Raim and the [Hunters] safe. And they had fallen to treachery and he had burnt away before he could end Belavierr.

Perhaps they still could finish her. Ryoka saw that too. Each of the [Knights] looked at the [Witch], measuring her, seeing her hunch and tend to her burns, or wince at the bright light. They were such mortal actions that Ryoka herself felt like she could kill Belavierr just by walking up and stabbing her in the back. But then the [Witch] would turn. And not even the [Summer Knights] could meet her eyes.

“We will not forget this day. Nor will we forget Ser Raim’s sacrifice. Had it not been for the weakness of one man’s heart, he would have triumphed. I will return his possessions to my order. Miss Durene, you have my thanks. And you, Sir Beniar.”

Dame Talia, a woman with raven-black hair, was in command. Ryoka saw her look at Belavierr more than once, but her orders were clear. The Order of Seasons would not make the Stitch Witch their enemy. Apparently they were still at an uneasy standoff with some…Griffin Riders? Ryoka wasn’t sure she’d even heard that right.

Regardless, Dame Talia bid farewell to Durene and Beniar, both of whom had fought with them. It was strange to see her clasp hands with Durene, and the half-Troll girl looked just as surprised. But they had fought while Ryoka had chased the fae. She said not a word to Ryoka as she bore the ashes and Ser Raim’s greatsword away. She had no time for a City Runner.

And then? There was only the village of Riverfarm left. Prost oversaw the burial of the [Witch Hunter], Tagil. The Order was returning their artifacts to the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria. And they carried the ashes of Sylind, Erashelle, Faigen, and Gaile with them. No one had asked for his body.

So the villagers cut his body down. It landed with a soft thump. Ryoka thought it should have been louder. But the sound stayed with her for hours. And they buried him where he fell. No one said a word. It was a traitor’s death. All they did was cut off his head, rather than give him a coffin filled with ash or anything else. That was so he wouldn’t rise as an undead.

And that left only Belavierr. No one would go near her. But she was there. And as Lady Rie said—she couldn’t stay. Whatever pact the coven hoped to achieve with Riverfarm, she could not be part of it. Everyone had seen what she’d done. They’d seen the body.

“Who will persuade her to leave? His Majesty? A knighthood order couldn’t do it. Leave her alone. All of what’s come to pass has been because people went after her. Leave her alone, Lady Rie.”

Ryoka snapped at the [Lady]. Prost was still wiping his hands.

“We will do just that. But there’s the matter of all this…cloth on the ground. Those weapons—”

“You could outfit a company on Baleros with all of them. It’s worth a fortune. The silk’s valuable too, even if it’s old.”

Charlay blinked as Ryoka elbowed her in her horse-half, right below her Human belly. She smacked Ryoka back on the shoulder. Prost shook his head.

“No one touches a thing. We’ll leave it be. If anyone thinks to touch it—I’ll make an announcement.”

“Saying, what? Anyone who touches it, be it man, woman, or child, is dead? That this [Witch] can do whatever she pleases without consequence?”

Rie’s lips were pale. Ryoka looked around.

“I’ll talk to her.”

“Ryoka! Are you mad?”

Charlay tried to drag Ryoka back. But the City Runner was adamant. The two engaged in a tug of war which the Centauress fairly easily won at first—until she realized that Belavierr was staring at them. Then she ran away.

And that was how Ryoka met Belavierr. The [Witch] still stood where she had fought Ser Raim. The dry grass had caught fire—a huge swath of scorched earth radiated around her. And the [Witch] still smelled of smoke. But her clothing was whole. The only difference was Belavierr herself.

“I have survived my death. But I have another.”

She was talking to Mavika. The coven had joined Belavierr at last. All save for Eloise and Wiskeria. The crow [Witch] cocked her head; Ryoka noticed only her pet raven on her shoulders. Even the crows had fled Belavierr’s general vicinity.

“You foresaw two deaths, Witch Belavierr?”

“Yes. Two. The second comes on the heels of the first. I do not know how. Or where. But it will be by fire. I would flee it, but I have lost my protections. And my daughter remains. So I shall stay. Until the deal with this [Emperor] is struck.”

Belavierr’s eyes were still ringed. But the glow had faded from them. She even blinked. Seldom. And she spoke…like a person. She even turned her head as Ryoka approached. That was unnerving. Alevica shifted from foot to foot, eying Belavierr. The Witch Runner jumped when Belavierr turned to look at her.

“Uh—Bela—Witch Belavierr. You’ve lost your protections?”

“Yes. They were burnt away. I can be killed. I may die. With age or blade. The spells of centuries that would have taken a blow are gone. It is strange.”

The [Witch] raised her head. She stared straight up at the sun and blinked.

“Bright. And I feel…”

She looked at Ryoka. The City Runner paused. Belavierr went on.

“…alive. More aware. Before, I was a function of my craft. My nature displaced. Distant. It has been centuries since I last felt this way. Passing strange.”

She looked around again. Her eyes found Hedag.

“Hedag. I remember your predecessors.”

“Ah. And fine Hedags they were. Fine bastards, or so I hear.”

The [Executioner] grinned. Belavierr paused.

“Perhaps. There were more of you. Hedag was a name spread across Izril. ‘For any man or woman may take up the axe and dispense justice. They are the Hedags of villages.’ And you are the last.”

Hedag nodded. Her grin flashed wide across her face, as wide as the strange man Ryoka had met outside the village. It was not necessarily friendly, especially on Hedag’s face. And this time Belavierr noticed. She was aware. She peered at Hedag, and then looked around. This time at Mavika.

“We have spoken before, Mavika.”

“Yes.”

Belavierr nodded. And then she looked at Alevica. The Witch Runner tried to copy Hedag’s grin. It slipped away.

“Alevica. It has been long since [Witches] flew through the sky. And your magic is weak.”

“I uh—I’m improving.”

The Witch Runner flushed, gripping the edge of her hat. Belavierr nodded.

“Grudges and envy are too weak to sustain powerful spells. You incur ire, but you are neither feared nor hated enough to call on true magic. You fly by virtue of talent. And you are weak. Someone should have told you.”

“I’m—”

Alevica shut up as Belavierr stared down at her. The Stitch Witch turned her head.

“Califor.”

“Witch Belavierr.”

The [Witch] held her ground as Nanette hid behind Belavierr. Belavierr tilted her head, and then stopped, turning sideways. Nanette squeaked, terrified. And Califor stepped to shield her. Now Belavierr met her gaze. The two [Witches] locked gazes. Belavierr spoke absently.

“We have not met. But you remind me of the old covens.”

“The old ways still linger. Nanette, introduce yourself to Witch Belavierr.”

“I—I raise my hat to you. Witch Belavierr?”

The [Witch] girl stuttered, white with fright. Belavierr tilted her head, eying Nanette.

“I remember when Wiskeria was as small as you. I would that I had taught her more. You study from a great [Witch] of our era. A lesson, Witch Nanette. Immortality is not as simple as taking life. To endure the passage of time, we who are mortal must give something away. To hide my soul away from harm, I hid my soul away. But the cost was exactly what I gave. Remember that.”

“Yes, Miss Belavierr.”

Satisfied, the Stitch Witch straightened. She looked around and Ryoka jumped as the eyes latched onto her. Belavierr was changed. Hey eyes were focused, not distant as they always had been except when talking to Wiskeria. And she was remembering names. Faces.

And yet, some things were the same. It was the same woman, just more expressive. More here. And—she focused on Ryoka.

“Ryoka Griffin. You saw the guests. The wind knows you. I saw that. But I did not ask. Who are you?

Ryoka shuddered. The full attention of Belavierr was like a lighthouse’s beam blasting her. She gritted her teeth.

“I—I uh—are you going to clean up all those weapons and cloth?”

Belavierr blinked. She paused, stared at Ryoka, and then turned her head. She regarded the cut, burnt, dirty cloth. The weapons lying on the ground. And she sighed.

“Ah.”

“Your possessions are destroyed. What have you left of your craft? What can you remake?”

Mavika watched as her raven darted from her shoulder and swept up a bright piece of red silk. Belavierr eyed the raven and it took flight. She swept her hand. And all the cloth began to move. Ryoka heard exclamation and saw people run towards the village—the cloth was slithering across the ground, towards Belavierr.

The Stitch Witch held up one loose arm of her robes. And the cloth somehow slithered up and up into her dress. Only—it was going somewhere else. In moments, it was gone. Leaving only the metal weapons. Belavierr eyed them. Then she walked over and picked one up. She stared at a steel sword and tossed it back on the burnt ground.

“My creations took decades to make. My wards far longer. I can bind time, create lesser wards. But the workings that hid my very heart away—those were made out of power that was burnt away. I must find more. I have lost all but a few years. Rehanna’s among others. I will be weak.”

“The weapons—”

Ryoka choked. The cloth was gone! Belavierr looked blankly at the scattered weapons and armor.

“Metal. I cannot pick it up so easily. I will conjure something to gather it tonight. Now. You did not answer my question. Who are you?”

She looked back at Ryoka. The young woman hesitated.

“Just…a City Runner.”

Belavierr stared at her.

“Even were I immortal, I would know that as a lie.”

She paused.

“It matters not. What matters is that my second death comes. And my daughter is wroth with me. She…hates…me.”

And the words came slowly. Ryoka nodded.

“I think she does, yeah.”

“Because of who I am? Because of what I do? How strange. When did she think so? I can remember when she grew angry with me. Back then I had no understanding of it. Now—I understand. But she is a [Witch]. And she lacks a true craft. She is a [General] serving an [Emperor]. How has she strayed from her path? And she hates me. Why?”

Belavierr mused to herself. She looked…confused. The other [Witches] exchanged glances. At last, Belavierr looked up.

“I must find Wiskeria.”

She walked away. And at least there, she was the same. Ryoka watched her vanish in moments, striding with unnatural speed across the ground. She let out her breath and looked around wide-eyed. She wasn’t the only one. Even Mavika and Califor were blinking more than usual. Alevica was practically tearing her hat in two.

“What the hell was that?

“She has come back to herself. That was Belavierr of old. In the times since I have met her, she has grown more distant. Her soul hidden behind her web now burned away. Whether that [Knight] did her a gift unknowing, who can say?”

Mavika’s eyes focused on the distant Belavierr. Califor just sniffed.

“Watch her, Nanette. That is the price of immortality that she mentioned. Everything has its cost.”

“That it does. But what a change it makes! Perhaps we’d best get any answers out of her we want now! But will it help her with Wiskeria?”

Hedag laughed. She leaned on her axe. Califor shook her head, pursing her lips.

“I do not imagine so. And Eloise is at odds with Belavierr. Our coven squabbles, and our members have caused the deaths of others on this [Emperor]’s lands. A fine mess this is when we are bargaining on behalf of [Witches] across Izril. And the sky remains clear. I have had few worse covens.”

Her glare took in everyone. Ryoka paused, her head still spinning.

“Wait, what was that about clear skies?”

“Oh, nothing. Just the fact that it hasn’t rained and I haven’t seen a cloud for over a week now. That strike you as strange, Griffin?”

Alevica rolled her eyes. She pointed up at the clear skies. Ryoka felt sweat beading on her forehead. It was hot. She’d assumed it was just an early summer heat. But…she paused. And she really looked around.

Not at the weapons on the ground. Or the burnt places where Ser Raim’s fire had ignited the earth, or the torn places where the battle’s scars remained. At the village itself. The surrounding forest.

It was all…dry. Alevica and Califor were right. It hadn’t rained in, what, over a week? Even longer? Ryoka couldn’t remember. She recalled hating the rain right up until about when the [Witches] had arrived, but she hadn’t noticed the dryness except to complain about it.

But today, the heat and Alevica pointing it out made Ryoka notice how dry the grass was. It was yellowed, practically dead. The earth was equally parched underfoot. Only the [Farmer]’s fields were at all green, and that was because of Riverfarm’s river and the watering the villagers were doing.

It was dry. Too dry. Ryoka turned to Miss Califor.

“I thought it was just odd weather. Is there something magical about this, Miss Califor?”

The [Witch] nodded once. Her severe expression was tinged with annoyance.

“Someone has cast a working on the sky. Someone informed the Order of Seasons of Belavierr’s whereabouts. And someone slew Wiskeria’s coven. These events may be linked or they may not. I came here to speak to this [Emperor], not to endanger Nanette. I would not have brought her had I known. It seems there is something afoot. And I will find out what it is.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. Ryoka hesitated. She felt for whomever got on the receiving end of Califor’s wrath. But she had no idea…

Ryoka paused. She frowned. No, wait. She had a few hints. Clues. She looked at Miss Califor, and then surreptitiously checked the expressions of the rest of the coven present.

Alevica was frowning up at the sky and muttering about Belavierr—but very quietly. Nanette was staring up at Miss Califor, worried. Hedag was picking at her teeth. And Mavika and Califor were looking straight at Ryoka. She hesitated. And then she backed away. And as she headed back to Riverfarm at a run, she felt it too.

Suspicion in the air. If all of this was the result of someone’s doing. Then who? And why?

And—what would Wiskeria make of her mother now? Ryoka got five steps into the village when she got the answer to that question, at least. Wiskeria’s scream rang through the air, and then Belavierr came walking past Ryoka. She looked miffed, a new expression on her face. Purple flame burned on her dark clothing, and then extinguished themselves. Ryoka stared at Belavierr. The [Witch] stared back.

“Weak magic. My daughter has yet to find her craft.”

Coming from her, it sounded like the only problem in the world.

 

 

Day 67 – Durene

 

“I will never forgive her. Ever.”

Wiskeria sat in Durene’s cottage. Tears ran from her eyes. Durene sat with her. Charlay had run away. And Ryoka was talking with Prost. But really, they had both run away. Wiskeria’s eyes were red. Her nose ran despite Durene’s handkerchief, which had done its best. She looked nothing like a [Witch]. She looked like, well, a young woman.

Durene had never had a fight with her mother. She envied Wiskeria, in a way. Envied, and understood. Because she knew what it was like to have a monster for a parent. But one that was living?

The half-Troll girl had seen what Belavierr had done. She had seen Ser Raim die. And she had seen evil. Evil smiled as a man swayed on a tree branch. Evil threatened to murder families and children. And that was Belavierr. Durene had never feared anything as much as her. Because she had no idea what to do. Belavierr couldn’t be stopped. She couldn’t be reasoned with. She was…

A monster. But one who cared for her daughter. And her daughter wanted nothing to do with Belavierr anymore. Not after what had passed.

“I can’t do it, Durene. We do the same things. But she’s gone too far. And now—was that my mother, before? Who is this? What is she? She talks. She’s different!”

“What’re you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t let her do this anymore. I can’t—I became a [Witch] because of her. But it’s too much. Why did I…?”

She was crying. Durene reached out and patted Wiskeria on the shoulder. But the tears, like everything else, had run out. And Wiskeria’s sobs soon turned dry. Then, she just sat and bowed her head. And the terrible look in her eyes scared Durene far more than Wiskeria’s wrath or sadness.

“Why don’t we find Eloise? Or—Ryoka? She said we have a problem.”

Durene offered the suggestion as an alternative to sitting in silence. Wiskeria looked up after a moment and nodded. She got up and stared at the mess of a handkerchief. Durene winced.

“I can wash that—”

“Here.”

Wiskeria shook it and handed it back. Durene gingerly took it—and then realized the handkerchief was dry. Empty, too. Relieved, she smiled.

“Hey! That’s a great trick! You know a lot of tricks for a [Witch]! Even if you don’t um do the big things…”

The young woman’s face turned into a bitter smile. She looked up at Durene. And something of the dead [Hunter], Tagil’s, last expression was there.

“Yeah. You know, I think the other [Witches] always expected more of me, Durene. Because of my mother. But a [Witch] is limited by her craft. And I don’t have one. If I took power from everyone I would be stronger. Even if it was a bit. But I was always afraid of who I might become, I think. So I took just a bit from my team. I became an adventurer. And Odveig, my best friend, turned out to be an imposter. I haven’t been that much happier by running away.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

Durene looked down. Wiskeria smiled.

“I know. Come on.”

They left the cottage. Wiskeria strode down the dry dirt road. Durene followed, warily. But Wiskeria wasn’t about to be stopped.

Riverfarm was quiet. People worked, and then rested in the shade. The air was hot and dry. But what exhausted the body was the atmosphere. It was tense. Stifling. Fights broke out for no reason. Arguments began and halted as people saw the pointed hat. But the fear—the fear was the root. Durene was no [Witch], but she could feel it.

“You see? Mother’s everything that makes [Witches] hated.”

Wiskeria whispered as she looked around. Durene walked with her through the village, looking for Ryoka. The [Witch] went on.

“And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Eloise. Hedag. Even Mavika, in a way. People don’t hate them. Some of them saw the good. I can feel it. They’re an inch from turning on us. If they weren’t terrified of mother, they would. But they liked us. It’s still there. Buried.”

“You can show them again. Riverfarm has good people in it. Even the folks from Lancrel can see.”

Durene saw Wiskeria shake her head.

“No. So long as she’s here, she’ll always remind them of what we can be at our worst. She is the most powerful [Witch] I know. And the darkest.”

They found Ryoka in Rie’s cottage. The young woman was panting. And Charlay was drinking greedily from a flask of water. Durene glared at both, but the two Runner girls had an uncharacteristically grave look on their faces. Rie was tracing a finger across a map.

“So, that appears to be, what? A fifty mile radius?”

“At least. Charlay made it way farther than I did. We both took about an hour and some to go out there, and we saw dry grass ahead. So yeah, fifty miles at least.”

Charlay pawed the ground as she splashed some water on her face and the floor and Ryoka.

“I thought I spied some green at the end of my run. But Ryoka’s right. It’s dry. All the streams have dried up.”

Prost leaned over the table, his brow knotted with worry as it always seemed to be these days.

“Why didn’t we notice it before?”

“It seemed natural to me after all that rain. This felt like an early summer heat wave. And it’s not like we didn’t have enough to worry about. It’s just these last few days that have been hot—

Ryoka glanced up as Wiskeria and Durene stopped in the doorway. Her expression was grave. Durene opened her mouth. Wiskeria beat her.

“What has my mother done this time?”

“Nothing. We have a new problem. It’s still not rained.”

Ryoka outlined the issue succinctly. There wasn’t much to say. Durene had noticed the lack of water of course. She’d been working the farm rotation, helping water the crops. Because Riverfarm was fed by the river, they’d been able to keep growing what they wanted. But outside the village, everything was drying up. And according to Ryoka, it wasn’t natural.

“The [Witches] say it might be magic causing the drought. Califor’s certain. Which makes me certain it is something. The question is—is it one of them? The Circle of Thorns? The Order of Seasons? Someone else?”

“What makes you think the Order of Seasons had anything to do with this? They targeted Belavierr. And they are an extremely honorable order.”

Lady Rie looked insulted. Ryoka raised her eyebrows.

“They’re called the ‘Order of Seasons’. I imagine they could do something like that.”

“Maybe it’s my mother. It sounds like something she’d do.”

Wiskeria’s expression was still bleak. Ryoka paused. Everyone in the room looked at Wiskeria. Their looks ranged from sympathy to quiet appraisal. Ryoka paused.

“Could she do that?”

“Weather magic. Stitch magic. My mother could probably do it if she wanted to. Maybe someone paid her.”

Ryoka paused for a second and then shook her head.

“She might. I’ll…ask her. And the coven, to see if they know anything. But what could affect the weather for so many days? Anyone? Even the wind feels slack.”

She paused and bit her lip. Wiskeria and Lady Rie both looked at each other. Wiskeria frowned.

“A few things can change weather. [Witches], for one. We know rituals. Also, [Weather Mages]. Some artifacts, although they’re rare. Magical scrolls of course, but they’re too expensive for regular people to use. You’d have to use a bunch to keep the weather straight for days on end. And…maybe [Druids]? Those are the ones I can think of. I guess you could be a [Water Mage] and shoot water into the air or something.”

Rie nodded.

“Scrolls are out of the question for most individuals. I myself couldn’t afford to use more than one or two in times of emergency. If I thought this drought was natural, I might still give it four more days before I called for a [Weather Mage] or scroll.”

“Surely it’s not that expensive? I’ve known bad years before, and once Riverfarm pitched in to call on a [Weather Mage]. It did cost the earth, but we could afford it.”

Prost protested gently. Rie shook her head.

“Mister Prost, the difference is forcing a change and temporary relief, or encouraging nature to be…nature, as I understand it. Calling for a sudden shower is simple, if taxing. Changing the weather to, say, start the rainy season early is more difficult, but again, possible. But outright halting the fall of rain? Halting this amount of rain over such an area? That would require a great deal of magic from one [Mage]. Or a simply exorbitant number of scrolls.”

“Or a [Witch] casting the right ritual. Or hex.”

Everyone was silent then. Ryoka looked up. The City Runner paused.

“Well, we don’t know who it is. But I think we should begin making plans and investigating the issue. I’ll ask Fierre—I also want to know how the Order of Seasons knew Belavierr was here.”

“Very well. I will see to collecting some water. We can fashion some barrels, store them…”

Rie and Prost focused on the issue of storing water as if it were some huge problem. But Durene didn’t see it. As the others left, she turned to Ryoka.

“What’s the problem? I understand it’s dry, but it doesn’t affect Riverfarm, right? We have a river, Ryoka.”

The young Asian woman gave Durene a frown.

“Yeah. But it’s not infinite. Riverfarm could run out of a river.”

“What? No, it’s a river…”

Durene chuckled. Then she saw the look on Ryoka’s face.

“What?”

“The river’s not infinite, Durene. It’s being fed by tributaries and groundwater. Haven’t you seen how low it is?”

Durene hadn’t. Nor had anyone ever explained the concept of how rivers came to be to her. Riverfarm’s river had always been there; it never occurred to Durene that it could disappear if it stopped being fed by rain. She gasped when she saw it. Ryoka nodded and knelt, peering at the banks.

“Your river’s sunk three feet. What happens when it runs dry? The crops die for one. And for another…we could be in serious trouble.”

“No one can keep the weather dry forever, though. Not even the most powerful spells can hold back the natural weather.”

Wiskeria’s voice was quiet. Ryoka nodded.

“True, but we stand at risk for fires. Well—not with the river, yeah. But we’ll store some rainwater. Maybe we should keep some at strategic places in case a fire breaks out. I’ll—”

And then she paused. She looked up at the same time Durene felt the tingle on her neck. A change in the air. She still smelled of smoke. And she could die. But she felt like power.

Belavierr strode towards them. She didn’t appear. She just walked. And her eyes were fixed on Wiskeria.

“Daughter.”

“Mother.”

Wiskeria turned. Ryoka, Charlay, and Durene backed up. Belavierr stopped and looked down at Wiskeria. Yesterday, Wiskeria had shot magic at her mother until she left. Today, Belavierr stood at a slight remove. Her voice was cool.

“Have you calmed, Daughter? I would speak to you of your craft. Your future. I understand you are wroth with me.”

“I’m beyond angry, Mother.”

Wiskeria shook her head. She looked at her mother. And Durene saw more than a few people from the village had followed. They were staring at Belavierr. At Wiskeria. And their faces—Belavierr paid them no mind. She looked at Ryoka, once. Charlay and Durene she ignored.

“I have lost my protections. Been torn back to mortality. I hunger and thirst and breathe. But I still do not understand your fury, Daughter. You are a [Witch]. You know what it is to be one of us. All that I have done has been to protect myself. I made no unfair deals with Rehanna.”

“But you threatened a [Prince]’s life. You convinced a man to kill his friends and hang himself.”

Belavierr’s eyes never changed. Nor did her voice.

“Of course. I made such deals to protect myself. The Griffin Prince accepted my bargain, even if he found it not to his liking. Tagil the [Witch Hunter] chose his daughter’s life over mine.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

Wiskeria’s voice was bitter. She looked at her mother and shook her head. Belavierr sighed.

“Does the death bother you? Why? I never raised you to fear it.”

“You didn’t. I suppose I still knew what being a good person was. What having responsibility for your actions meant.”

Wiskeria shot back. Belavierr frowned.

“Responsibility? That is a concept of cities. Of law. We are [Witches]. We act according to our craft. Our desires. You know this.”

“I do. But my desires tell me that I can’t look away from what you do.”

It was the same argument Durene had heard before. The one Wiskeria had wept over. She saw Ryoka’s face, sharply listening. Waiting, mouth opening, as if to break in. But she couldn’t. Belavierr sighed.

“So you say. We walk in a circle. Daughter. Nothing I do is your fault. You are not responsible for my actions. And you are my daughter. Can we not be mother and daughter?”

She reached out. And Wiskeria flinched. She held up a hand. And then she cried out. To all listening.

“You don’t understand. I can’t forget what you’ve done! I can’t look away and pretend you aren’t wrong! If I could, I would be happy. But I can’t. Because I still love you, Mother! Because you’re my mom, and you murder and hurt other people! Because I could stop you.”

Tears unshed. And Belavierr sighed. She sighed, and Durene waited for what would come next. They were at odds, the two. Neither one changing. But today, Wiskeria’s face was pale. Her eyes horrified. Belavierr spread her arms, welcoming, entreating.

“My Daughter. My beloved Daughter. I would do anything in my power for you. But I will not change who I am. And you cannot stop me.”

“I can try.”

Wiskeria drew her wand. Durene heard Belavierr sigh and turn.

“Daughter.”

“[Foxfire].”

Purple flames burst from the wand. They struck Belavierr as she raised one arm. Her clothes caught the fire. It stuck and burned, as Belavierr lowered her arm. The [Witch] glanced at the flames. She did not look impressed.

“A Tier 3 spell, Daughter. My clothes alone could ward it off.”

Wiskeria gritted her teeth.

“You always were careless, Mother.”

She pointed at the flames still burning on Belavierr’s clothes. Wiskeria’s eyes flashed and her voice acquired an echo. She snapped her fingers.

Come, fire. Burn hot! To punish a [Witch] whose heart she has forgot! Blaze, rage, from failed justice spark! Grant me fire to purge my mother’s dark!

And the fire turned white and burned. Belavierr’s eyes widened. She clicked her own fingers. Instantly, the fires dimmed down. But the mother was no longer smiling.

Belavierr and Wiskeria locked eyes. And Durene saw how [Witches] fought. There were no fancy flashes of light. No tricks of magic or cunning spells like she’d heard in fabled [Mage] duels. The battle was solely one of wills and power.

This was how [Witches] did battle. Durene could feel the air grow tense. Wiskeria was muttering under her breath, snapping her fingers rhythmically. Belavierr simply closed her hand, and the white hot flames became purple. She was at a disadvantage; the contest was over the flames trying to consume her clothes. And with every snap of Wiskeria’s fingers, the flames turned brighter. Then shrank.

There was no subtlety about it. The two were just throwing magic at each other. Belavierr spoke, her tone annoyed.

“Chant spells. Basic magics aided by your craft. My Daughter, you could do so much more.”

Wiskeria took a second from chanting to snap back.

“I owe my lack of craft to you, Mother. I’ve seen what it turns you into.”

And that hurt more than the fire. Belavierr frowned. The two continued. Wiskeria raised her wand.

Cut the air and strike the skies! Enough of my mother’s lies! Strike the murderess between the eyes!

This time it was air. Durene saw something shift. She saw an almost invisible blade fly at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch glared.

Enough.

She raised a hand and slashed. Durene saw a flash of silver; Wiskeria gasped and stumbled backwards. The blade of air severed, exploded in a burst of air. And Belavierr lowered the needle. She reached over plucked the fire off her and tossed it to the ground. Durene groaned. Belavierr pointed at the still-burning flames. Her voice was coldly disappointed.

“I do not need to chant my magic. I weave it in each thread! Daughter, you could be greater. But you lack a craft. You lack a source of strength!”

“I don’t need one!”

“You are nothing without a power to draw upon. I have failed to teach you. Your coven has failed you. A [Witch] who has no craft is weaker than anything else. A [Hedge Witch] has more strength. Come. You will learn from your coven if not I.”

So saying, Belavierr reached out. Wiskeria raised her wand. The Stitch Witch crooked a finger and Wiskeria’s robes gripped her. Durene saw the cloth pulling her arm down.

“Stop!”

Wiskeria struggled, but the cloth constrained her movements. Belavierr pointed, and Wiskeria began moving sideways. Her clothes were pulling her.

“Must I treat you like a child, Daughter?”

Belavierr looked annoyed. But she paused as an arm barred her away. Durene looked at Ryoka. And then she realized it was her arm. The half-Troll inhaled as Belavierr looked at her.

“Stop. She doesn’t want to go.”

They were nearly of a height. The Stitch Witch stared at Durene. And the half-Troll girl felt a lump of cold fear in her stomach.

“Move, Troll’s child.”

“No. Wiskeria doesn’t want to go with you. Let her go.”

Belavierr’s eyes flashed. Durene flinched and Ryoka took a step forward.

“Belavierr—”

“Be silent. I give you one last warning, half-girl. Move.”

This time the word made Durene’s heart freeze in terror. But she refused. She thought of Ser Raim. And her hands balled into fists.

“No. Make me.”

Mother, don’t—

The Stitch Witch ignored her daughter. She reached towards Durene. The half-Troll raised a fist.

Thunk.

An arrow sprouted out of Belavierr’s chest. She staggered. Durene jerked back. Wiskeria stumbled as the clothes let her go. She stood up, turned.

Mother!

Belavierr stared down at the arrow in her chest. She reached for it. And then coughed. She stumbled; that saved her from the second arrow. It hit the ground and Durene looked around wildly. Who was shooting?

Stop!

Ryoka shouted, and air blasted around them. The City Runner was looking around as Charlay dashed to one side. The Centauress had the most wits about her; she kicked the ground, whipping up dust and screamed as she zig-zagged into it.

Move, you idiots! Get behind cover!

“Mother—”

Wiskeria had rushed to Belavierr’s side. She looked around desperately for the archer, but they were nowhere in sight. Belavierr was coughing. Choking. Then her eyes focused. She raised a trembling hand, the same one that held the needle. She flicked it, spitting out a word.

Seek. Kill.

She flung the needle. With her other hand, pulled the arrow out of her chest, grimacing. As Durene watched, horrified, Belavierr quickly ran a finger up the hole in her chest. And the red wound sealed, closing together. The blood stopped! The dress mended—

And someone screamed. Belavierr sank to one knee. Her wound and clothes were healed, but the grimace of pain still crossed her face. She looked at Wiskeria.

“I am fine, Daughter. But I must heal.”

“You closed the wound?”

“With thread. The bleeding is stopped. But the flesh is cut. I—I must use a poultice. I lack for potions. A powerful one might heal the wound in a day—”

Wiskeria stared blankly at her mother. Belavierr stood, unsteadily.

“What? Is the arrow enchanted? Do you have a potion?”

The Stitch Witch shook her head.

“I have not needed one for…”

She stopped as Wiskeria grabbed one from her belt. Belavierr frowned.

“Daughter—”

Drink.

Belavierr did. She blinked. Durene didn’t see the wound close, but the grimace of pain vanished from Belavierr’s face. She rose, feeling at her chest.

“Strange. Potions were not so powerful the last time I remember using them.”

“And when was that, Mother?”

The Stitch Witch blinked. She looked at her daughter. Then she smiled, ruefully.

“Long ago that I could remember Sage’s Grass being a thing I hoarded for the power of it. I traded a perfect Cloth-Warrior made of silk and satin to a noble [Sheik] for three seeds.”

“Oh, Mother. You were always bad with money.”

The two stared at each other. And then they laughed. Belavierr quietly, and Wiskeria with a note of relieved hysteria. But they did laugh. And for a moment, they looked like a mother and daughter. Then Durene heard the scream again. And the moment vanished. But as she turned and ran, she saw Ryoka’s face. And the young woman looked as though she wished it had lasted forever.

 

—-

 

The [Archer] was dead. He was a former [Soldier], one of Lancrel’s people. And he had been hiding behind one of the roofs in the village. He’d shot well; he was over a hundred and fifty feet distant. And he’d taken cover. But Belavierr’s needle had found him even so.

It had gone through his head. Straight through bone and brain. Belavierr didn’t retrieve the needle. Nor did she look twice at the man. She only grimaced.

“Cloth fails before Skill. I must recreate my wards. Better that it struck me than you, Daughter. The arrow would have passed straight through you.”

She looked at her daughter. Wiskeria just stared down at the man. Riverfarm’s folk stood far back, save for Durene, Charlay, and Wiskeria. But their eyes fixed on Belavierr. Durene didn’t doubt that many of them wished the [Archer] had succeeded. But when Belavierr looked up they ran. Wiskeria knelt, not looking at her mother. Her voice was broken again.

“You killed him.”

“I was defending myself.”

“You didn’t have to kill him, Mother!”

Wiskeria’s eyes flashed. Belavierr’s voice was cool. She turned away from the man.

“Should I have let him live to try again, Daughter? He made his choice and I, mine. Now, as I was saying. You must find your craft—”

She paused. Wiskeria was weeping again. Belavierr stared at her. She looked at Ryoka, Charlay, and Durene. Awkwardly, she bent.

“Daugh—”

Go away!

The Stitch Witch hesitated. But Wiskeria’s tears did what magic, an arrow, and Durene hadn’t. After a moment, Belavierr went. Wiskeria wiped her eyes. She knelt by the body as people finally dared to return. Ryoka looked around.

“Who sent this man? Councilwoman Beatica? Or did he do this himself?”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead. And my mother won’t die so easily. You saw it. She can stop herself from bleeding.

“It looked close to me.”

“It was. I think it scared her.”

Ryoka paused. She looked down at Wiskeria.

“You still care for her.”

The [Witch] nodded.

“But I can’t stop her. She killed someone else today.”

“In self-defense.”

Wiskeria looked up. Her eyes shone with tears. She looked at Durene, at Ryoka.

“They’re still dead, aren’t they?”

And that was how Durene understood Wiskeria’s relationship with her mother. Anger, quarreling. Unchanging natures. Disappointment on both sides. Grief. And love. Despite it all, Durene still envied Wiskeria.

 

 

Day 68 – Ullim

 

It was raining again. Ullim saw his [Lord]’s eyes flashing as Tyrion strode across the room.

“Magic.”

“Someone must have reversed the [Weatherchange] spell, Lord Veltras.”

“Who?”

There was no answer Ullim could give. He could only speculate.

“It may be the work of another spell in another province. Weather magic does have wide-ranging effects. If the rain is being diverted—”

“Ullim. I don’t want speculation. I want answers. Who is causing this? Give me a list of people who could have caused it.”

Tyrion coldly dismissed his [Majordomo]. Which left Ullim scrambling to ask questions where he didn’t know where to start. However, he was able to come back two hours later with a bunch of [Messages].

“Lord Veltras, we may know who caused the rain.”

“Go on.”

Tyrion and his aide looked up. The [Lord] frowned as his personal [Mage], Jericha, looked up from her own spellbooks. Ullim cleared his throat.

“A [Witch] passed through your lands some time ago, Lord Veltras. Around the same time the rains began. The villages distinctly recalled her passing—she was known as Eloise, or the ah, ‘Tea Witch’. She seems to be highly regarded by some. But hers was a notable passing. No one can recall if she was given offense, but many believe she may have cursed the region for some slight.”

“A [Witch]? I asked for answers, Ullim. Not superstition.”

Tyrion frowned darkly. Ullim coughed.

“I understand, Lord Veltras. But there are no other notable events I could find. And [Witches] can change the weather…”

“Not for this long. At least, not without considerable magic. Lord Veltras, I wouldn’t lay too much faith in this being a [Witch]’s doing. There is magic in the weather we’re experiencing. But I can’t lift it and I doubt a [Witch] would be inclined to use this much magic for a slight.”

Jericha frowned. Ullim raised a finger.

“Ah. However, I discovered one more thing of note. A discrete inquiry revealed that this [Witch] is in fact a former [Lady].”

“What?”

Both Tyrion and Jericha started. Ullim nodded. It had been worth paying for that tidbit.

“Lady Eloise of House Havin. She hails from Terandria. She left her house and was considered dead to her family over three decades ago. But she is apparently the very same [Lady].”

“A [Lady] becoming a [Witch]? And she’s known as the Tea Witch?”

Jericha looked appalled at the thought. But Lord Tyrion’s brows just snapped together. He came to the same conclusion that had crossed Ullim’s mind in a moment.

“Reinhart.”

Ullim nodded, darkly satisfied. It was just a hypothesis, but one [Lady] was known to have ties to countless nobles. And Magnolia Reinhart loved tea, albeit with enough sugar to classify it as something else entirely. She was also, Ullim knew, greatly fond of using agents to achieve her ends.

“Lord Veltras. After some investigation, I have noted that Lord Erill, Lady Ieka, Lord Pellmia, and a number of other notable peers of the realm are all suffering from some kind of disturbance in their weather. And Invrisil is not. Furthermore—Lord Pellmia’s [Manservant], Kilmet, reported the presence of another [Witch] passing through his lands. A figure of note. A Hedag. Or Hedag the [Executioner]. I’m not clear on whether it was a name of title.”

Ullim was rewarded by his lord’s furious expression. Tyrion Veltras strode over to a map, plotting Lord Pellmia’s lands.

“[Witches]. And Reinhart’s lands are unaffected?”

“She may have hired these [Witches] in conjunction with the trade war, sire. I can investigate. If a [Witch] did perform a ritual, they would have had to anchor the spell. We might discover it.”

“Do it, Jericha. Ullim, send work to Pellmia. Ask him about his [Witch]. Send word to each village that this [Witch] passed through. I will send an escort. I want them here tonight to testify to what occurred. And check whether Bethal, Pryde, Wuvren—any of their lands are affected by this weather.”

“Of course, Lord Veltras. And if they are not?”

Ullim held his breath as Tyrion turned his head. Lord Tyrion Veltras’ voice was quiet.

“If they are not, then I will consider Reinhart’s interference at Liscor and this latest an insult that demands my immediate attention. And I will call on every noble affected to bring that complaint to her.”

Outside, the rain drummed on the windows. But the lightning flash that would have really made the scene appropriate never came.

 

 

Day 68 – Alevica

 

Alevica, known as the Witch Runner, was bored. She’d been bored ever since she came to Riverfarm. Annoyed too; killing a few [Bandits] hadn’t been worth the effort. And but for one incident with that damned [Knight], Riverfarm had been as dull as could be. Although Alevica still remembered that burning figure with unease. But she would have gladly left to make some actual money if she could.

The problem was that she was a [Witch]. And even the most independent and solitary of [Witches] had to answer to their coven. And hers had sent her here. Along with a bunch of other ‘legends’ who weren’t much in person. Eloise was sweet, but faded. Hedag was fun, but hardly more than a drunk old woman with a strong right arm. Neither was a powerful [Witch] by Alevica’s standards. Wiskeria was weak, Nanette was just a kid.

Of course, then, Alevica had to grudgingly admit that Mavika was truly powerful. As was Califor. In fact, but for those two, and Alevica wouldn’t have come. But you didn’t cross either one lightly. Alevica might still have refused or left—but then there was Belavierr.

She scared the Witch Runner. And that was something Alevica would never admit out loud. But there it was. Belavierr was terrifying. Even after she’d been burnt, set on fire, shot full of arrows and been cut with a flaming greatsword—all that had done was make her Human again. She was still alive, and she’d just killed a man yesterday with a needle.

“A needle. She killed a man by throwing a needle at him. Who needs arrows when you can throw a few hundred of them? Huh?”

Alevica grinned around the dining room table where she was sitting, her chair rocked back and feet propped up. Half the [Witches] sitting around the table glanced up. No one answered. Califor spared a glare for Alevica’s feet, but said not a word. Discontented, Alevica folded her arms.

Old [Witches] and kids. This was why she hated most covens. Ryoka Griffin seemed fun at least, but she was always hanging about the older [Witches]. Alevica rocked back further in her chair, watching and listening.

Wiskeria was moaning to the coven. They’d all gathered save for Belavierr to comfort her and pat her tears away. Alevica rolled her eyes.

“I don’t understand how you can look the other way. Any of you. Didn’t you see the man she killed yesterday? What about Ser Raim?”

“We see. Some of us do not condone it, Witch Wiskeria. But we see and acknowledge it as Belavierr’s business. You have a right to speak of it by blood. But we are not Belavierr’s masters. She answers not to us. Would you have us rule her? That is not a coven’s function.”

Mavika perched on her chair, like the birds she enjoyed hanging out with. Pretentious speech aside, what she meant was the unwritten rule of [Witches]. Don’t interfere with other [Witch]’s business. Alevica sighed. Loudly. No one looked at her.

“But she kills and threatens other people! How is that right?”

Wiskeria blazed. Alevica could see her righteous fury. A bit of sadness. And love. Oh, yes. Alevica hated looking at it. The other [Witches] looked sympathetic, especially Nanette. Hedag just grinned. Now she was hard to read. Alevica knew Hedag had poor magical abilities, but she couldn’t read Hedag’s emotions any more than she could any of the other [Witches]. That bothered Alevica a bit.

It was Eloise who replied. The tea [Witch] sipped from her cup, but slowly. She hadn’t been pleased about Belavierr either, but she was defending the other [Witch]. That had to stick in her craw.

“Selfishness is in our nature, Witch Wiskeria. We act according to our natures. And we do not judge each other. We only interfere if one [Witch] endangers others. And Belavierr has not. Her trials have been her own.”

“Except that she’s putting the coven’s deal with Riverfarm in jeopardy.”

The other [Witches] paused. Well, yes. There was that. Wiskeria went on as Alevica dug in one ear.

“I’ve heard this before. ‘[Witches] act according to our natures. We obey no laws. That’s why we’re [Witches].’ But we don’t have to be lawless! We can live in society and obey rules! Eloise, you do that! And Hedag—”

She broke off as the [Executioner] laughed. Hedag shook her head.

“Ah, Wiskeria. We’re different. Eloise may live within the law, but she’s one of us. The rest, from Mavika to Califor to your mother obey their own laws. And I? I’m the biggest lawbreaker of all, according to some!”

“But Hedag, you’re a law bringer yourself—”

Wiskeria protested weakly. Hedag’s laugh cut her off.

“But my laws are my own, Wiskeria. I bear justice as I see it. Miss Califor gives aid as she sees fit. We are halves of Mavika and Alevica, who act in their interests. But we are all the same. Your mother is just more [Witch] than we!”

“But she’s a murderer.”

“And she’s good at it! Get that in your head, Wiskeria!”

Alevica cupped her hands and shouted it at Wiskeria, impatiently. She was rewarded by a glare from Wiskeria. Califor sniffed and Alevica gritted her teeth, but shut up. Mavika nodded after giving Alevica a birdish look.

“Yes. We are proud of her. For her crimes she is hunted. But she is ours, Witch Wiskeria. And she speaks the truth. You lack craft. You lack power. I say it to you too. Why do you not accept it?”

She prodded Wiskeria with a taloned finger. Wiskeria glared.

“You’re proud, Mavika?”

The crow [Witch] nodded.

“Proud. Yes. Why shouldn’t we be? She is ours. Witch Wiskeria, she is the legend of [Witches]. A dark one. And there are those of us who are outcast. But we are [Witches] still. We have been hunted and shunned. Who will stand for [Witches] if not other [Witches]? We cannot always stand alone.”

“But—”

“A [Witch] has always broken laws. We all live apart. We are not city dwellers, Witch Wiskeria. We do not operate under law. Because law has always sought to exterminate our kind. That is why we seek to bargain with this [Emperor], to keep our rights. To life without fear. But he must accept that we practice our craft. We cannot be beholden.”

Califor snapped, out of patience with Wiskeria. The younger [Witch] looked up. Alevica was impressed; she didn’t flinch from Califor’s glare or the force in the old woman’s eyes.

“That’s fine for you to say, Miss Califor. But I don’t want to be a [Witch] like that.”

“You want to bow and scrape and obey laws? Why’d you take the [Witch] class, then, Wiskeria? Be a [Mage].

Alevica laughed incredulously. This time no one shushed her. Mavika frowned dangerously.

“You speak of the end of [Witches], Wiskeria. We cannot be tamed. We will not be shackled. When law stretches across this world and the wilderness dies—so too will the last [Witch].”

“Maybe. Or maybe we’ll change. Maybe we should change. Mavika. I respect you. But I could never be you. And I can’t be my mother. No matter what she wants of me. I want to have a craft. But my mother’s deeds hang over me. She—I’m guilty because of her. Do you understand?”

“We do. But Wiskeria, she has been herself for centuries. Possibly longer. She will not change. And she is a [Witch]. Darker than many, but a [Witch] true. If anyone has yet to fully become a [Witch]—it is you.”

Eloise spoke softly. And Wiskeria’s face crumpled. Alevica looked away.

She’d had worse coven meetings. And in truth, many of them were like this. Younger [Witches] whining about trouble, or older ones complaining. Yes, sometimes you met and did real magic, the kind that made it all worthwhile, like trying to summon a spirit and bind it—or casting a powerful hex or warding spell. But other times it was just an informal gathering and support session.

Alevica was looking for an opportunity to leave when she saw Nanette dutifully hand something to her teacher. The kid had been working on it all this time. What was…?

And then Alevica saw it. It was a few houses, crudely shaped out of clay. Six, to be precise. Nanette dutifully placed the last house next to the others. Alevica nodded silently. The other [Witches] watched out of the corner of their eyes as they comforted Wiskeria. So did Alevica.

Califor was doing a working. You could feel her drawing on her power. Now, on the clean wooden table, Califor produced a handful of soil. She must have gathered it from outside. The dry earth sprinkled in a circle around the clay village. Alevica watched as Califor drew a circle around the small clay village and then reached for her flask. The [Witch] sprinkled some water from her flask on the model village. The [Witch] paused, frowned, and then sprinkled more water on top.

Alevica gleaned out the window. She felt the power go out—but the sky didn’t so much as change. She peered at Califor, smirking. Right up until the [Witch] looked up, peeved. Then Alevica pretended to be studying the ceiling.

“No luck? I tried a little water spell by the river. Had nothing.”

Hedag leaned over, inspecting the village. Eloise pursed her lips silently as Califor glared at the clay village, as if willing it to explode. Nanette looked nervous as she shifted by her teacher. Alevica had to admit, it was something. She’d never seen nor heard of Califor failing at any basic spell like this.

“Something is working against my magic.”

“Mine too.”

Hedag nodded. So did Eloise. And then Mavika. Everyone stared at her. The crow [Witch] looked annoyed.

“My flock has created a crow-sign for rain. It failed. Something is at work here.”

“Or someone.

Every [Witch] looked at the other, speculatively. No one said it. But Alevica could think of a few reasons why these small workings had failed. Either someone was using some powerful magic to alter the weather—or one of them had created a serious working.

It wasn’t as if covens didn’t have [Witches] working towards their own ends. Califor snapped into the sudden silence.

“I trust that everyone understands that this deal with the [Emperor] supersedes all other commitments. This coven gathered to address the attack on [Witches]. To strike a deal for sanctuary. And to deal with Witch Wiskeria’s relationship to Witch Belavierr. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“Of course.”

Eloise nodded. So did the others. Alevica just grinned. She yawned openly as she got up. The other [Witches] looked at her. Mavika frowned.

“Witch Alevica. Where are you going?”

“Out. It’s been fun, fellow [Witches]. But I’m tired of cheering Wiskeria up and making daggers at each other. If someone’s messing with the weather, isn’t that their right as a [Witch]?”

Alevica smiled cheerily at the others. Califor’s brows snapped together.

“Witch Alevica, if you know something, speak. A [Witch]’s business is our own. But this touches on the future of all [Witches]—”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it. But isn’t that the opposite of what you told Wiskeria? Hey, Wis. You want to be a [Witch] who barks and obeys orders? Go ahead. But if you think you’ll get your craft from people out of gratitude or something, think again. What can they give you? Eloise barely makes her tea, Hedag gets her strength from little children—you want to know why your mom has all her power? It’s because she does what she wants and scares the daylights out of people. That’s what being a [Witch] is. That’s power. Can you match that?”

Alevica grinned mockingly at Wiskeria. She was rewarded with Wiskeria’s glare and flushed cheeks. Wiskeria paused, and then snapped back.

“No. And neither can you. Even you can’t take misery and grief like she can, Alevica. That’s why she called you weak.

The Witch Runner’s cheeks went crimson. She clenched a hand, then glared at Wiskeria. She made a sign that made Nanette gasp and stormed out of the house.

 

—-

 

Alevica went flying. She was still fuming, but soaring through the sky above Riverfarm made her feel better. Up high, everything was better. People were little dots and she stared down at them. The trouble was that even flying, Alevica couldn’t shake Wiskeria and her mother’s words.

“Weak? I’ll show you who’s weak! You can’t even do a major working! I can!

The Witch Runner shouted as she flew faster and faster. She could fly! Wiskeria was as weak as Nanette! But—Alevica could also feel herself burning her magic. She couldn’t fly long. And she was furious because she knew Belavierr was right. Grudges and envy and anger had some magic, but it wasn’t strong. Alevica found that seeping the enjoyment from her as she flew.

And it was hot. The sun beat down overhead. Alevica glared up at it. Someone was affecting the weather, she was certain. It wasn’t her. But it could have been any of the [Witches]. Or—someone else. And when she thought of that, Alevica decided to go on a hunt.

The thing about flying was that she could travel faster than even Charlay for a while. And being this high up meant that Alevica could potentially spot a working if one of the [Witches] had hidden it. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but Alevica could see magical power just as well as any [Mage]. And she bet she could recognize a working if someone like Hedag or Eloise had laid it. Califor or Belavierr…? Well, it was worth looking.

Alevica crisscrossed the skies, seeking out places of power. You could follow old ley lines in the ground, places were magic was stronger. That would be a likely spot. Not that there were any old gravesites or magical ponds about. Mavika was right, in her way. As civilization progressed, people took the magic out of the world.

The old [Witches] in Alevica’s real coven loved to yammer on about how you couldn’t go two miles without tripping over a magical cairn or something. Alevica wished she’d been born in those days. When there was power, waiting to be tapped instead of weak emotions—

“Hello. Who’s that?

The [Witch] spotted something on her third flight. She swooped down and spotted him. A…man. But there was power about him. Magic? He was hiding in a stand of trees, as dried as the earth. And he saw her at the same time as she saw him.

There was no running. He didn’t even try. The man with the odd hat walked forwards her. Smiling. It was an uncanny smile. Too wide, with too much teeth. Actually, it was the same kind of smile Alevica liked to give. Like a predator’s grin.

“Hello there. You must be that [Witch Hunter] Ryoka was talking about.”

Alevica casually reached for her crossbow and shortsword as she alighted on the ground. She was running out of mana after so much flying. But she’d found the man and she had Skills in fighting too. The man eyed her as Alevica alighted.

“Well, I’m delighted to be so popular. Good evening, Miss…Witch?”

“What gave it away?”

Alevica grinned. She eyed the man up and down. Yup. Hat, clothing—all of it matched the former [Witch Hunters]. Another one? Alevica felt a twinge of danger. But she was dangerous too. She pointed at him.

“And who’re you?”

“Just a traveller—”

“Yeah?”

Alevica drew her crossbow. The man paused.

“You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed traveller, Miss?”

“I don’t see anyone watching us.”

Alevica bluffed. She was watching the man carefully. He had lots of power about him. Strange—she was having a hard time reading him. He was far too calm. He wasn’t a [Mage]—but—

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re hanging around, causing trouble for my kind? And if you try to run, I’ll shoot you and see what I can find on your body.”

That threat should have done something to his emotions, but the man was cool. He just grinned at her. And Alevica began to get uneasy herself. He shrugged, his hands lowering a touch towards his own belt. He had a bag of holding there.

“Just call me a scout, Miss Witch. Or a hunter who deals in fire and retribution to those who deserve it. One of many. But I’d rather not fight with you. What say we go our own ways?”

“And let a [Witch Hunter] go free? You put that [Knight] on Belavierr, didn’t you?”

“Maybe. Could you fault me for that? You [Witches] tend to cause trouble.”

“Yeah. We kill people we don’t like. Who are you? Last question! Answer me!”

Alevica gritted out. She didn’t like the way the man was watching her anymore. She’d identified the emotion coming off him. And it wasn’t fear or even wariness. He was going to try to kill her. It was an almost intangible, cold certainty. He’d been ready to kill her the instant he saw her. She wished she’d stayed on her broom. She warily reached for her sword. And the man just smiled.

“Miss Witch, I’d fly away. I really would. I have no quarrel with you specifically. But if you want to make this an issue, I’d much rather—”

Alevica fired her crossbow and drew her sword. As she did, she chanted an incantation in her mind.

Sword, cut and bite! Bolt, truest flight!

She saw the bolt curve towards the man. He staggered as he leapt sideways. The bolt stuck out of his side. Alevica charged him. She saw him reach for his belt. His hands flashed as she slashed at his head—

The spear went into her stomach. Alevica realized that after she screamed. She stared at the sword on the ground. The man raised his spear. It was bloody. Her blood. Alevica screamed as she felt the burning again. Desperately, she reached for a potion. Drank it.

It did nothing. Something was burning her insides. Poison. The [Witch] stared up as the man casually kicked her blade away.

“Poor luck, Miss Witch. You should have hit me with that bolt somewhere it mattered.”

He lifted the spear, and then reconsidered.

“[Witches] cast curses with their dying breath. Or so the textbooks say. I can’t risk one now. Curse me and I’ll finish you off. Otherwise—you can hope someone finds you.”

He walked away. Alevica tried to shout after him. Swear that if he didn’t give her the antidote, she would curse him. But all she could do was scream.

The pain was burning. The poison—Alevica realized she was bleeding. Dying. The Witch Runner whispered. Magic. She had to call on her magic.

Poison bites and tears away. But—but life, hold and stay! Blood, thicken and stop! Stop! Call help and give aid! Before this [Witch]’s life fades—

She tried to pour her magic into the spell. But she couldn’t focus. She was slowing the bleeding. But she couldn’t pour energy into a working. Alevica lay there, clutching at her stomach. The poison was eating her up. The blood…trickled…away…

It was hot. Alevica screamed for help. And then her voice gave out. She lay there, the world fading. Her magic fading. Until she heard galloping hooves and an urgent voice.

“She’s here! She’s here! Ryoka! She’s hurt!”

Alevica heard someone racing towards her. She felt something huge kneel. A huge body. Not a Human’s. As hard to read as that man. Alevica couldn’t do non-Humans well—

“Alevica! It’s me!”

Charlay? The Centauress grabbed Alevica. Then she saw the blood.

“You need a potion! Ryoka! Ryoka!

“I’m here! I—”

Someone. Blurry shapes. Alevica looked up. She felt a cool hand on her. Babbling voices.

“—stabbed her. Help me get—”

“Who? Nearby?”

“—matter. Potion?”

“No.”

Alevica could groan the words. She spoke, desperately.

“No potion. Poison.

“Poison?”

The two voices babbled. And then someone picked Alevica up. She screamed and cursed, but the hands pushed her up. And then someone was holding her as she was bounced. And each bounce took more blood away. Someone was babbling at her to stay away. Stay awake—

“Emperor Laken’s close by, Alevica. Close enough for him to locate you when you didn’t come back. Hold on. We’ll get you to Riverfarm. Charlay, run. She’s not going to make it—”

“I’m trying. Just hold her! [Lightning Gallop]—”

“Eloise. Eloise.”

Alevica begged. She didn’t know what was happening anymore. Someone was slapping her. And then she was flying. Flying and falling. Into the darkness. Until she felt the power, and the [Witch] who held it.

 

—-

 

“She’s dying. She’s lost too much blood. The potions don’t work with the poison in her. She needs a transfusion—”

Ryoka was babbling. She was still trying to apply pressure. Eloise stared down at Alevica’s pale face, the tinge of green in the wound.

“She will not die. My coven, hold Alevica here while I work. I’m familiar with poisons as well as teas and herbs. I can counter it. Give me a moment.”

The old [Witch] spread her herbs on the table next to Alevica. The [Witch] was so pale and still. Even the blood had stopped oozing. But maybe that was because of the [Witches] who stood around her.

All of them were there. Wiskeria, Belavierr, Hedag, Califor, Mavika, even Nanette. And they looked down on Alevica. It was dusk. The light cast long shadows on their faces. But their eyes had a luminescence of their own.

“Hold her. Give her strength.”

Eloise ordered the others. And Alevica’s chest seemed to rise and fall only by virtue of the [Witch]’s stares. Nanette’s face was pale. Califor’s eyes focused on Alevica’s face. Hedag leaned on her axe, her eyes blazing.

“Mother. Can you save her?”

Wiskeria never looked away from Belavierr. The Stitch Witch paused. And her voice was heavy with power.

“It is not my strength. Witch Eloise surpasses me in that field. Hold her.”

“We cannot. She is dying.”

The raven on Mavika’s shoulder called once, echoing the [Witch]’s words. Eloise was mixing something, spreading it on Alevica’s stomach. Wiskeria clenched her hands.

“No! No! She can’t die!”

“She is fading. She has lost too much blood.”

“It isn’t right.

“If we’d been faster—”

Ryoka clutched at her head. She was trying to figure out how to transfuse blood. Tubes? No! She couldn’t cut Alevica. She looked around desperately. A funnel. But she needed to test Alevica’s blood type—

They hadn’t noticed Alevica was gone until in the evening. And then the coven had grown concerned. The older [Witches] had felt…something. And Laken’s [Message] had come at the right moment. He’d found her. But—

“She can’t die. She can’t! We need more power!”

Wiskeria looked around, desperately. Belavierr’s eyes began to glow, and then stopped.

“I have not enough. We are holding her on the edge of life. We need more to pull her back.”

She looked up. Wordlessly, at Ryoka. The City Runner shouted, desperately. She saw people crowded around the house, staring in.

“Take it from me!”

“And me!”

Charlay called from the door. The Centauress’ eyes were wide. Wiskeria looked at them, desperately. Mavika hissed.

“Then give me your passion! Give us feelings! Strong as can be!”

Ryoka looked at Alevica. She was rude, arrogant, she’d burned Charlay’s tale, but she didn’t deserve this—

“I take your desperation.”

“I take your grief.”

“I take your rage.”

Mavika, Belavierr, and Hedag spoke as one. Ryoka felt it go out of her. She stared at Alevica, suddenly blank. A bit empty. The [Witch]’s eyes flickered. Mavika whispered.

“Not enough. More.”

The [Witches] looked to the crowd. And the people shuddered. But Belavierr shouted towards them.

“She’s dying! Someone’s stabbed her! Don’t you feel a thing? Feel something! We’re trying to save her!”

The people heard. And some—some felt what Ryoka had felt and it was taken. But too many just stared. And Ryoka heard the word, unspoken.

[Witch].

They did not care for her. They did not care, truly care if Alevica died. What the crowd saw, what they experienced was…

Helplessness. Just as when they had seen Belavierr facing Ser Raim. Desperate—hope—longing—anger—fear—it wasn’t strong enough. No one emotion. What could sum up the death? The loss? It wasn’t right. But they did not know Alevica. She was a [Witch] and they did not know her. But someone had killed her—

Ryoka could see the [Witches] trying to pull power from the crowd. But they weren’t any one thing. They weren’t afraid. They weren’t angry enough either. It was just horror and pain and loss—but numbed after what they had seen. Wiskeria screamed.

“It’s not enough. Can’t you feel anything? This isn’t right! This isn’t right! Why don’t you care?

And they looked at her. Belavierr’s daughter. And at Alevica. And the reaching [Witches] took nothing. They closed their eyes as Alevica’s breathing slowed. Wiskeria looked around desperately. And then she felt something. And she pulled and the crowd gasped. Ryoka’s eyes went wide. It went out of her too, as she grasped Alevica’s hand. That emotion. That—

And the power went into the [Witch] and she opened her eyes. Ryoka saw Eloise press the poultice to her and speak.

Pull!

Each of the [Witches] reached down. They grasped a part of Alevica. Ryoka, holding Alevica, felt a jolt of something more alive than electricity hit her. She jerked back. Alevica jerked. She sat upright, head smacking into Nanette’s and screamed.

No!

The poultice fell away, black and wet. Alevica’s stomach was raw, bloody. Eloise splashed a potion on Alevica as the [Witch] flailed. And then she was alive. Wiskeria staggered back into her mother’s arms. Nanette cradled her head as Califor drew her back. The [Witch] slapped Alevica on the back of the head as the Witch Runner flailed, slashing with a sword she didn’t have. Alevica stopped. She blinked down at her stomach as it began to heal.

“What—what—”

“Alevica! What happened?

The [Witch]’s face was deathly pale. She jerked, staring around.

“Which one of you—the power—”

All the [Witches] were looking at Wiskeria. They looked back at Alevica as she jerked again, still in shock. The words came out in a rush.

“The bastard had a spear. And—artifacts. Lots of ‘em. I sensed it on him. I didn’t think he’d be that fast—he had poison on it!”

“Who?”

Ryoka leaned over the table, urgently. Alevica looked at her. Her mouth worked.

The man with the smile.

 

—-

 

Hours later, Ryoka was standing in conference with several [Witches], Rie, Prost, and her own dark thoughts. She had heard everything from Alevica before the Witch Runner had passed out. And Charlay had repeated her encounter with the man—as had Ryoka. It wasn’t conclusive. But he had just bumped himself up on the list of people Ryoka suspected of…something.

The drought? Or just the attack on Belavierr? Either way, he’d tried to kill Alevica. But who was he? No one knew. And worse still, he’d vanished. Mavika was the last to return. Her crows landed, cawing loudly, and the [Witch] herself walked into the home. She looked…angry. Only, angry didn’t describe the hunched, elongated form. The nails that looked like talons. For a moment, as the [Witch] stepped out of the night she looked like something else. Something that hunted and screamed in the darkness of mankind’s dreams.

The Humans shuddered and drew back. Ryoka waited as Mavika seemed to shrink. The [Witch] spoke curtly.

“This [Hunter] of yours moves quick. My crows could not find him. And they flew wide. Even with a horse, he was fast, to outrun wings.”

“You lost him?”

“We searched miles. Either he hid with powerful spell or he raced so fast as to be a bird himself.”

The [Witch] glared. The conference room was silent. Ryoka drummed her fingers on the table. Lady Rie spoke, briskly.

“Laken’s nearby enough that we can ask him to locate the [Witch Hunter]. He can sense everything on his lands and we replaced all his totems.”

The others nodded. Ryoka bit her lip as Nesor sent a [Message]. The reply came back slowly, as Nesor scribbled it line by line on a piece of parchment with agonizing slowness. Ryoka read it with the others, crowding to see.

 

Ryoka, Durene—all—I am searching for the [Witch Hunter] you described. I cannot find him. The [Witches] I can sense. Belavierr is…different. Not Human? I also sensed a Centauress? Ryoka’s friend Charlay? Among others? A number of non-Humans on my lands! I am closing in on Riverfarm. Do not kill the Goblins hiding in the forest, please. I will aid as best I can as soon as I get here. News about lack of rain troubles me. It is still raining where we are. Why? Circle of Thorns?

 

“So. Is this my death?”

Belavierr whispered into the silence that followed. Everyone stared at her. The Stitch Witch looked back. Wiskeria was still staring at her hands. She had been ever since Alevica had been saved. And her mother—Belavierr’s eyes flickered upwards. As if tracing a thread only she could see.

No one had any answers. Alevica was sleeping, under Eloise’s watchful gaze. Hedag was walking the perimeter of Riverfarm and Califor was attending to Nanette. The other [Witches] kept their own council. Belavierr shared none of her thoughts. Ryoka made hers clear to Durene, Rie, Prost, and Charlay.

“What do we know? That man seems incredibly suspicious. But is he responsible for the lack of rain? I got in touch with Fierre and she said that a man with his description paid her to alert the Order of Seasons. But who is he?”

“A [Witch Hunter] trying to kill Belavierr?”

“Or a member of this Circle of Thorns. Does it matter, Ryoka? Laken can find him. He can sense everything on his lands. He’ll get him and tell us and we’ll find him and make him talk.”

Durene pounded a fist into one hand. Ryoka nodded dubiously. It couldn’t be that easy? Could it? She waited, with Nesor in the room as it slowly emptied. The [Mage] was uncomfortable. But no matter how long Ryoka waited, until she was yawning with fatigue, no reply from Laken came.

They were sleeping, dozing, when Ryoka took to Durene’s cottage for sleep. She told herself Laken would send a [Message] tomorrow. But she had only slept an hour before someone hammered at Durene’s door.

“Ryoka, wake up!”

It was Beniar. The [Cataphract] hadn’t news from Laken, though. He practically dragged Ryoka towards the village.

“What is it?”

The former adventurer’s face was serious. He pointed towards Riverfarm, where some torched blazed.

“There’s a group of people outside Riverfarm. Beniar’s [Riders] stopped them. They say they know you. They’re asking to be let in.”

 

 

Day 69 – Ryoka

 

“Fire.”

Ryoka looked at the [Archer]. She remembered the man. Only, she had known him only by the bow he carried. His had been the first settlement she’d come to. The one guarded by the independent group of people with bows who’d refused to move to Riverfarm.

They were here now. And they carried only a few possessions. One bow. Half had burns. The other looked white with exhaustion. Fear. Loss. Ryoka stared at the man’s face. She hadn’t even known his name. It was Nale. He held his wife and looked at her.

She could feel it. All the pieces were falling into place. An invisible pattern, making itself known. And it made itself known through tragedy. Nale’s face was pale. Still covered in soot. His wife clung to his side. The group had come straight from their settlement. It was still dark. And the fires still burning.

“The entire barn went up in seconds. We tried to fight it—but it was too dry. We barely got out.”

Nale’s voice cracked. His wife wept into his shoulder. The [Archer] looked helplessly at Ryoka.

“It was too fast. Too fast, and our wells were too low. The drought—”

“We lost everything. Everything. The animals went up. Dead gods, we couldn’t get them.”

Another woman leaned on a wall. She was too shocked to even sit. Prost looked deeply disturbed. Ryoka just stared at Nale. And then she got up. She hesitated. And then she reached out and put an arm on his shoulder.

She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. The man stiffened. But it was all Ryoka could do. Then he relaxed. And he began to shake. Ryoka didn’t know him. But they stood together, two people. And she looked at his wife, as she rested a hand on the woman’s arm. Looked into her eyes.

“You can stay here. Riverfarm needs people like you. There’s room for you. And everyone.”

She looked past them at Prost. The [Steward] nodded.

“Of course. We’d be delighted to have the folks of Tabeil here.”

The group’s eyes filled with relief. They relaxed. And some did begin weeping then. Ryoka stayed with them. But she had to go. She had to excuse herself. Because her mind was racing.

“Fire. We have an arsonist. Or maybe it’s just the drought. Either way, we need to take precautions now.

She gathered Prost, Rie, and the coven. Rie nodded, eyes wide.

“The water. We can put in barrels around the village.”

“This entire place is made of wood. It’ll go up like a bonfire if a fire isn’t caught.”

“Patrols, then. No one sets a fire here. Day and night we check for that bastard. If he is causing fires.”

“It could just be coincidence. Hell, one bit of heat lightning would start a fire. We need more precautions.”

Ryoka looked at the [Witches]. Hedag exchanged a glance with Califor. The [Witches] nodded. Hedag turned back to Ryoka. The [Executioner] nodded.

“In that case, we’ll do as all folks do in face of a fire. Dig a ditch. A firebreak. Here and here—far enough away from the village that flames won’t jump it. We’ll also remove brush. Tinder—anything that goes up easy.”

She pointed, indicating areas outside the village proper. Ryoka blinked. Califor nodded.

“Of course. Clear a space and a fire has nothing to feed on. You. [Steward]. Put all of your people to this task. We will clear a wide enough space that no sparks may jump across the break.”

She marched past Prost and began ordering people into teams as Hedag described how deep the firebreak should be. Ryoka stared, blinking. Trust [Witches] to have sensible solutions instead of magic. But Ryoka would have really preferred actual magical solutions to this drought. When she asked, though, Eloise only shook her head, looking troubled.

“We’ve been trying. All of us have cast charms. But short of a powerful working, we cannot change this weather.”

“Can you do one, then? A working?”

The [Witch] pursed her lips.

“Perhaps. But we would rather do it on a full moon, at the height of our strength. We have used much saving Alevica. She is still healing, so our coven is incomplete. And Belavierr—we could attempt one tonight. But Miss Ryoka, I fear we lack the power to shift whatever is affecting this weather. None of us specialize in weather magic.”

She looked directly at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated. She nodded at last.

“Please try, then. Tonight.”

Eloise nodded. That left Ryoka with Charlay and Durene. The City Runner paced.

“The [Witches] might manage to lift the spell. Unless they’re behind it.”

“Or that [Witch Hunter] is actually a [Weather Mage] of some sort.”

Charlay pawed the ground nervously. Durene restlessly clenched and unclenched her fists. They could feel it too. Something—Ryoka looked around. The wind was so silent. Something was controlling it too. She sat down at the table. And she tried to force a connection.

“What do we know? Either it’s a mysterious hunter who’s been lurking about, someone we haven’t seen, or a [Witch]. And the motive’s clearly to hurt Riverfarm. Maybe even start some fires. Who knows? But more importantly, who gains from this?”

Charlay frowned. Ryoka went on, thumping her heels of her hands into her forehead.

“Who wins if Riverfarm collapses? If Belavierr dies as well? The Circle of Thorns, right? Or…”

She looked up.

“Magnolia Reinhart. She’s not a fan of Laken. And I bet she doesn’t want someone like Belavierr around.”

Magnolia Reinhart?

Durene looked astonished and worried. Charlay started, but Ryoka was already pulling back from the idea as soon as she voiced it.

“No. No—this isn’t her style. She doesn’t kill innocent people. I think. And this isn’t her style. The Circle of Thorns, then.”

But she had no proof. No proof of anything. Ryoka rested her head in her hands. She sat there, her mind running in circles, slamming into invisible walls. She was missing something. She couldn’t see what the angle was. She had no proof.

She only moved when she heard the voice. It rang from rooftop to rooftop in Riverfarm. It was a shout. A call. A challenge. It broke through Ryoka’s stupor. Wiskeria’s voice.

Mother!

There she stood. A [Witch] wearing a dark blue hat. She stood in the middle of the street. And a [Witch] wearing a wide hat, with ringed eyes and a dress as dark as her sins walked to meet her. Ryoka stumbled out of the house. And Riverfarm gathered.

Furtively. Hanging back. They feared her. But they came anyways. For spectacle, perhaps. Out of fear of what new event might befall them. But perhaps—perhaps also because of hope. Because on one side stood a monster. The Stitch Witch. And on the other, her daughter. And the people of Riverfarm knew Wiskeria.

She held her wand. And another hand held her hat. The [Witch] faced her mother. And Belavierr walked towards her. She ignored the looks. She had eyes only for her daughter.

“Daughter. Have you found your craft? Do you hate me still?”

“Yes. And yes, Mother. I have told you once and again. I cannot forgive what you do.”

Belavierr sighed. But her eyes were focused on Wiskeria.

“Daughter. I am a [Witch]. You know what this means. If you cannot accept me, how can you accept any of our kind? Shall I tell you of Mavika’s sins? She has done black deeds and fair. What is the difference between she and I?”

Mavika stood in the crowd, waiting. Califor and Nanette walked to join them. Hedag and Eloise waited, faces expectant. Alevica slept. Wiskeria shook her head. And she looked past Belavierr at Mavika.

“I know what Mavika has done. Or I can guess. But Mother—it may be selfish. But I only care about you. You alone I cannot forgive. Because I see what you do. So. I’m telling you here and now that I will stop you. I believe there are laws that [Witches] should obey. I believe we should obey them. My coven tells me that [Witches] cannot exist in cities. And I have been a [Witch] and I have walked through cities as an adventurer. I say—we can be [Witches] even under law. And I will be that [Witch].”

She spoke the words, looking into her mother’s eyes. And Belavierr sighed. The expectant light faded from her.

“Daughter. Laws bind us. Laws constrain us. To be a [Witch] is to follow our passions. What passion, what craft have you that could exist in a city.”

“My passion, Mother, is born out of my disgust for you! Don’t you see? You are what I want to stop!”

Wiskeria cried out. And Belavierr’s eyes flickered. She stood taller, and the shadows rose around her.

“And what could such a [Witch] take? Goodwill from those you help? Fleeting gratitude? Anger from those you oppose? Daughter, what is your craft?”

She looked at the faces of the people around her. And the Stitch Witch’s eyes showed only contempt. Riverfarm’s people shouted at her. But their anger burnt away before her stare. Their hope turned to ash in their mouths. She took their fear and hatred. Leaving Wiskeria with…

Nothing? No. Ryoka felt it in her chest too. Even as Belavierr’s eyes filled her with fear. Something—a longing that even Belavierr’s horror couldn’t touch. Ser Raim had given it fire. And Wiskeria pulled it from Ryoka. She raised her wand. And the wind blew. Ryoka looked up. Belavierr’s eyes widened. And the [Witches] stared. Wiskeria pointed up and closed her eyes. And she spoke a word.

Justice.

A bolt of lightning fell from the skies. It flashed down and struck Belavierr. The Stitch Witch went flying. And Wiskeria caught the lightning as it tried to flee. She held it for a second. And it shone in her hands. Then she aimed it back up into the sky. The bolt split the heavens.

Belavierr stared up at her daughter from where she had been flung to the ground. And Wiskeria swept her hat from her head and bowed. Mockingly. Challengingly. And Riverfarm screamed her name.

“I will never be a [Witch] like you. I will be something else. Something better. And I swear I will stop you. Even if it takes me my entire life, I will become a [Witch] who can end what you do! That is my craft! And this is my magic!

She pointed at Belavierr and turned away. The Stitch Witch lay there. And Wiskeria’s coven looked at their [Witch]. And all of them slowly raised their hats and tipped them. Hedag was laughing. Eloise smiling with pure delight. Califor nodded, and Mavika smiled for a moment. Nanette’s eyes were shining.

And Belavierr? She lay on her back as Riverfarm’s people dispersed. A black shadow on the ground. Ryoka went over to her. And she looked down as Belavierr stared up at the sky. The Stitch Witch’s face was expressionless. And then—

She beamed. Ryoka jumped back. Belavierr spoke upwards.

“My daughter has a purpose.”

She sat up in one motion. And she stood in another. And she looked at Ryoka, delighted. Ecstatic. Ryoka stared at her.

“But she hates you.”

Belavierr paused. And something like sorrow flickered in her gaze. And something else.

“If it is hating me, I will be her hate. That is my love for her. But let her be a better [Witch] than I. But let her live. Ryoka Griffin, the threads draw closer. Can you see whence my death comes?”

“No. I’m missing something. I don’t know what. I can’t figure out what this is all about!”

The City Runner shook her head. Her heart was pounding. Belavierr leaned forwards.

“You lack a thread. Then see it. This is what you seek. I see it. Tell me my death.”

She pointed. And Ryoka saw Nesor running towards her. The [Mage] had a bit of parchment in his hands.

“A [Message] from Laken! Miss Ryoka—”

The City Runner snatched the parchment from his hands. Belavierr turned away. She smiled as she left. And Ryoka read. She blinked. And read again.

 

Ryoka. I scanned every part of my lands for a guy with a hat like you mentioned lurking about. No one. I missed the fire, but it wasn’t [Bandits]. Beniar rode down the last of them yesterday. Only travellers on the road looks like a few Runners, some travellers including those refugees, and a…lizard-person [Merchant]? Drake? No [Hunter] either way.

 

“No hunter? But—”

Ryoka’s mind whirled. Could he have escaped? But Laken’s vision as [Emperor] was perfect. Could you cheat it? She looked at Nesor. The young [Mage]’s face was pale. Ryoka turned.

“You said it was the last clue. But how—”

Belavierr was gone. Ryoka stared after her. And then she slowly looked down at the parchment.

A man. A [Witch Hunter]. Or so she’d thought.

‘Izril has few of my kind I’m sorry to say, although we’ve been present in greater numbers in times past.’

A stranger who appeared on the roads. Who never got too close. He’d never said who he was.

‘[Witches] tend to see right through me and I think I’d be at odds with them.’

He’d told Alevica he was a…scout. A hunter who dealt in retribution in fire. Ryoka’s pulse began to accelerate.

That smile. That huge, grinning, toothy smile. The kind that made Humans uneasy. Because people didn’t smile like that. It was a sign of aggression. But Ryoka remembered a city where people smiled like that. Every. Single. Day. Two species smiled like that.

And one of them could fly. A few of them. There used to be more. Ryoka looked down at the parchment. Laken had said ‘non-Humans’ the first time. And this time—no one had ever mentioned a Drake [Merchant].

“Nesor. Send a [Message] back to Laken. Ask him what this Drake looks like.”

The [Mage] paused. Slowly, he put his fingers on his temples. He spoke the response.

He has scrolls, Ryoka. Lots of scrolls. And wings.

You could change the weather with scrolls. They were really expensive, though. But why? Ryoka didn’t know why. But she was certain. And before she could ask a second question, Nesor spoke, urgently.

Ryoka. He’s breathing fire. I saw it. He just set a village on fire. Eighteen miles northeast, down the northern road heading left at the crossroads. He has a camp in a stand of trees. Hurry!”

Ryoka spun. She screamed a name. Mavika looked up. Ryoka ran. And now the pieces fit. All but one.

 

—-

 

She understood who he was. What he was doing. But not why. If she thought about it, she would understand. But it wasn’t something that tied him to Riverfarm. He had never come here before. And he bore this place no great hatred. It was just a place.

But an [Emperor] called it home. That was enough. The man looked up as the crows flew towards him. He sighed as they sped towards him, a murder seeking his death. And then the man grinned. That toothy grin that was the only flaw in a perfect disguise. He shed the illusion spell.

“It seems my time is up.”

The bronze-scaled Drake flexed his wings. The crows paused, wheeling, and then dove. The Drake didn’t fly. He just inhaled as the crows dove through the foliage he was hiding in. And he exhaled.

Fire blasted upwards. Fire, bright and glorious. The flock of crows diving towards the Oldblood Drake screamed and burned. The rest fled, and the [Witch] screamed her wrath, miles distant. The Drake laughed and walked out of the fire.

He didn’t fear the heat. Far hotter heat burned in his veins. He was a child of Dragons. And his blood had thrown truest. He spread his wings. And he did fly then. The Drake mused as he took wing. How had they found him? Had the [Witch] he’d spared identified him?

It didn’t really matter. The preparations were done. The Drake reached for one of the scrolls he carried. He had any number of artifacts. For disguise. To change the weather. A fortune in expendable items. More than any casual Wall Lord could finance. But a Walled City?

Oh yes. A Walled City could stockpile such valuable items. And spend them in times of need. Now, the Drake took a [Message] scroll and wrote a simple line in it. He watched the ink vanish. The note was sent. His cover was blown first. So it was time.

“A day or two sooner than I’d like. No matter.”

The Drake mused as he flew across the dry landscape. He beat his wings. Stared down at the scattered villages, lonely houses. They didn’t know why he was doing this. They might never know. And perhaps, they hadn’t had a choice. This new [Emperor] might have forced them to war.

It didn’t really matter. The Humans had come to Liscor to take it. They had brought war. And the Drake had his orders. So he flew down. And he exhaled a plume of fire.

Just one. But that was all it took, wasn’t it? Fire was a terrifying thing. The Drake watched the flames lick into a forest. A dry forest, one made far too dry by the weather changing spells. And the brush caught. The fire began to consume dry bark, leaves. It began to grow. The Drake flew up, satisfied. He caught the thermals. Flew towards the second patch of fuel he’d marked.

He hadn’t known the [Witches] were here. But he and the other [Infiltrators] had been ordered to adapt. And it didn’t matter how it had turned out. Win or lose, [Witch] or [Knight], he hadn’t really cared. He’d paid the [Bandits] to attack the [Witches] because they were a hindrance if they spotted him. But either way, Humans had died.

And Terandria? A high-level [Summer Knight] had perished. A [Witch]—one of the old enemies of his people—had been brought low. The fires might still consume her. Both were victories for Drakes, who warred with Terandria and northern Izril. The Drake smiled as he found another forest. He breathed flame. And the tinder caught.

The dry forests began to burn. The grasslands started to blaze. The Drake fanned the flames with his wings, lighting more parts up. It wasn’t random, but strategic. He had identified every spot he needed to ignite.

Drakes understood fire. They understood how it could move. How fast it could travel. And grow. If the circumstances were right—a single Drake in the right conditions could do more damage than an enemy. The Drake dispassionately exhaled in the final location. Now, to fan the flames.

“Time for wind. [Weatherchange].

He raised a scroll. And the wind began blowing. It added air to the growing fires. Began to carry sparks and embers. The Drake laughed to see it. He flew upwards, watching. Waiting. The fires would take longer to grow. But they were one of many.

He was one of many.

Across Izril, the Drakes flew. Oldblood Drakes, each gifted with a breath. A target. Some had set their stages with weather. Others with poison and rot. Still more had simply attacked targets of opportunity. They knew their targets well. The lands of the nobles who had besieged Liscor.

The first bolts of lightning began falling from the skies, striking the Veltras estates. In his manor, Lord Gralton raced into the kennels. Saw the dead and dying dogs. Sick. Poisoned. A Drake spat acid into the water supply as Gralton roared his fury. Another spewed dark fog into the skies before she unsheathed her blades, hunting Pellmia’s lands in the blackness.

Flame. Lightning. Acid. Cloud. Frost. Oldblood Drakes flew, bringing vengeance. And the one who had watched Riverfarm flew.

“Fire for Manus. Fire for Liscor!”

The fire burned and blazed. Spreading. Growing. First an acre of blazing land. Then two spots. Ten. Dozens. And then it was a line of fire a mile long. Two miles. The Drake added to the fire, directing it. Blowing it towards a village. And Ryoka Griffin stared at the sky. Laken paused as he rode towards his home and cried out as his dream became reality.

The [Witches] looked up. And Belavierr saw her death.

There it was. Larger than any mortal threat. More terrifying than an army. Spreading. Growing. Joining together and blazing, fanned by fierce winds, spreading embers through the sky. Feasting on dry ground, a spring’s worth of fuel. Moving towards a village. Burning brighter and racing like—

Wildfire.

 


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6.44 E

(Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn is available on Amazon! If you can, please leave a review or tell people it’s out! Buying is not necessarily necessary. Thanks so much for the support!)

 

Day 65

 

Over a century ago they had been given form. Their forms had been cut from silk, carefully stitched into shapes and connected. And something else had been added. Magic. A half-life that could animate their bodies of cloth and give them purpose.

What purpose that had been, perhaps even their creator had forgotten. So the puppets eventually lost their purpose, were stored away. But they remained. Because the one who had stitched them together always had need of things. If you looked in her eyes, through the interconnecting rings bathed in orange, you might fall into them.

Deeper. Deeper. Into the very depths of her soul. There, you would see her.

She had been a mortal woman once. But such was her skill at thread and needle that she had grasped a truth of her art. All things were connected. And the art of sewing life and fate and magic was only a different technique than physical materials.

So, as to not die, she had created charms. Barriers of stolen life, of the very essence of fate and grand protections, all to protect her very being. So many that sometimes she forgot who and what she had been. In a way, she had made a new self.

It, she, was called Belavierr. Over centuries, she had added to those layers, creating something beyond any spider’s ability. Some of those old wards had failed. Many had stood strong in the faces of harm. But for all she had touched immortality, Belavierr had always known of her death. For it was the one thread she could never cut. It was woven into her being.

And now she knew one other truth: nothing was permanent. Dragons fell. Gods died.

She burned. And as she screamed, her creations rose. They came from the shadows, creations of silk. Puppet warriors. Cloth Golems, without the spark of true life. But armed for war. They bore ancient weapons and charged.

They burned and died. The flames that consumed them were burning at the shadows themselves. Steel melted. Magic burned. The [Witch] screamed.

There he was. Standing in the web of her soul, cutting at her protections. The thread burned. He was cutting it all away. The [Knight] burned, his very life the fuel of the flames. He could hurt her. She was dying.

But she didn’t flee. Because the [Witch] was looking ahead. At a [Hunter] whose axe cut a red line into her daughter’s throat. Wiskeria. Belavierr took another step, and then turned. She raised a hand and struck. With needle, with thread, with the weight of her magic. And the [Summer Knight] staggered.

But Ser Raim came on, his greatsword cutting into her. Through her. But it was aimed at those threads of her being. While they held her, she could not die. Belavierr staggered. But moved forwards.

Keep her back.

Gaile’s voice was steady as she yanked Wiskeria backwards. The [Witch] stared up at her mother. Four [Witch] Hunters covered them. One with crossbows shot again and again, downing the stitch-creations that came charging out of the shadows. The sky had turned black. Some of his bolts hit Belavierr, but she ignored them. They cut, but not deeply at her thread. The flame was what burned her.

Another had a hammer and shield. He did battle with a giant made of cloth. Yet another used a rapier and wand, aiming at grasping hands. A laughing voice, a shape in the air.

Spirits. A [Witch]’s craft. But they feared the blazing [Knight]. And the brilliant arrows shot from the bow of the last [Hunter] burst into flashes of brilliance. The [Hunters] aimed at Belavierr as they covered the [Knight]. Giving Ser Raim openings to strike again and again.

She could have run. But she stayed. And she fought. The [Witch] conjured metal storms of needles, summoned old creations, beasts made of animal’s hide. A Wyvern hide given life. But her creations burned. And the [Knight] cut at her.

She could have fled. But her daughter was there. So the [Witch] walked. She struck Ser Raim. Advancing as Gaile backed up, snarling. And her thread burned away. Ser Raim pursued. Each minute an eternity. Belavierr reached. And at the end, the [Witch Hunter] realized Belavierr had caught her.

Her grip tightened on Wiskeria and the axe as the threads tied her feet to the ground, the noose of cloth tried to drag at her neck. Gaile hesitated. Then she abandoned Wiskeria, shoving the young woman to the side. She lifted her axe.

The [Huntress] struck as Belavierr swung an arm down. On Gaile’s lips was a Skill. And she cut a thread before hers was cut in turn. She fell. And Ser Raim raised his sword. Belavierr screamed. She staggered, and her blood, her true, life’s blood, ran onto the parched, dry grass. She looked up and saw her death.

He died too, as her immortality burnt away with him. For a mortal could best even that which is immortal, if he had the strength, the will, and the chance. He could slay forever.

 

—-

 

They watched. The Order of Seasons, in distant Terandria, from the Knight-Commander to the Grandmasters to Dame Talia, her fingers white on her sword. In Riverfarm, the people of the Unseen Empire watched, witnessing the battle of giants. From their isle, the [Mages] of Wistram covertly observed.

The coven of [Witches] watched. And so did the fae. From their perches they watched an old story unfold. All eyes were on Belavierr as she tried to flee, and her daughter watched her mother. Smelled smoke and burning. Heard her mother scream.

One person turned away. She ran, as the shadows caught fire. Searching the ranks of the otherworldly host. Ryoka shouted, but her voice was lost by the roar of battle. And no matter how far she ran, she couldn’t approach the watchers. They were here, but not here.

And they looked down on her. On Belavierr, alight with flame, Ser Raim, the [Witch Hunters]. The fae watched with curiously grave expressions, without the glee or amusement Ryoka would have expected. They were bearing witness.

Ivolethe!

The young woman cried out. But her voice was too quiet. This was not her moment. And the watching fae paid her no notice. She ran towards one, begging. Pleading.

“Ivolethe! Is she here? Is she alive?

Ryoka Griffin called out for her friend. And at last, one of the fae looked down at her. A strange person with sharp teeth grinned. And her?—his?—eyes were suddenly gleeful.

 

“You again. You want to know?”

 

“Yes! Please!”

Every fiber in Ryoka wanted to turn. It was screaming at her that she had to see. For better or worse, see what became of Belavierr. But what kept her begging, searching for a hint of blue and ice, was friendship. Her friend. She pleaded with the fae. And it laughed.

 

“Tell me. Why should I tell you? Now, begone. We are trying to see.”

 

He flicked a finger. And Ryoka could only stumble away. She kept pleading. But they didn’t listen. And when Ryoka heard the last shriek, she had to turn.

Gaile was dead. The [Hunter] lay on the ground, impaled by a single needle that had gone through her magical armor, as long as a javelin. The other [Hunters] cried out. But Belavierr’s voice rose above them, a sound no Human could have made.

She was on fire. They all were. The [Hunters] burned from their proximity to Ser Raim. And they screamed with it too. But they fought. Ryoka saw one drinking a potion as he reloaded. He shot both crossbows and the silver bolts struck a Wyvern dropping out of the skies. The bolts blew holes in the Wyvern, exploding with fire. He whirled.

She’s running! Sylind! Mark her!

The [Hunter] with the bow and arrow turned. She aimed at Belavierr. The [Witch] was fleeing, striding away as Ser Raim pursued her. Again, each of Belavierr’s steps seemed to take her dozens of feet away. But the fire was still burning her. And she looked—Ryoka’s breath caught.

Mortal. As if some of the unearthly nature had burnt away. Even her steps were unsteady as she fled. And she turned, her hand flickering, and she raised a cloth shield.

“[Chain Lightning].”

The [Witch Hunter] with the wand aimed it. Ryoka saw a flash—the bolt was caught on the cloth shield—Ser Raim’s blade stopped as it struck the shield. Then it began to burn as his blade drew back. Belavierr struggled, stepping backwards. And the [Huntress] spoke.

“[The Eternal Hunt].”

The arrow flew. Belavierr dropped the burning shield, and dozens of threads as thick as cables tried to ensnare Ser Raim and the [Witch Hunter] with the hammer. The man with the hammer cursed as the threads tried to snare him, and he clutched an amulet, and for a second he was intangible, walking through the thread. Ser Raim swung, cutting through. Belavierr whirled, and the black horse rode towards her, faster than any horse should move.

The arrow struck Belavierr in the shoulder as she pulled herself up onto the bare horse’s back. She turned, staring back at the [Hunter] with the bow. But the one with the crossbows loosed again, and Belavierr’s fingers twisted. The crossbow bolts snapped on her clothes which were suddenly harder than stone. She rode, outdistancing her pursuers in a moment, with each second passing hundreds of feet. But the [Hunter] kept firing, aiming at her back even when she was a distant speck.

And then? Ryoka, her eyes wide, saw Belavierr’s head turn. And though the [Witch] was a speck, Ryoka felt the single emotion from her. Fear. Pure, mortal, fear.

She fled. And the others abandoned their pursuit. Ser Raim slowed, and the brilliant, white flames around him vanished. The other two [Hunters] slowed. The man gasped, his face cut, his armor torn twice.

“Gaile. She killed Gaile.”

“She got away. We nearly had her. Raim got her protections. I could see her dying. But we lost her!”

The woman with the rapier stared at the place where Belavierr had disappeared in the distance. She cursed. The other two [Hunters] joined them. Ser Raim was stationary, his eyes locked on where Belavierr had vanished. The [Huntress] with the bow raised it.

“It’s not over. I marked her. I know where she is. Northeast—two miles. She’s circling.”

The other nodded silently. The rest of the [Hunters] looked up.

“You marked her? Truly?”

“Yes. We can find her. I will never lose her again.”

“So long as you live. We have to bring the battle to her. She will try any trick—”

“Raim. How much of his life did he burn away?”

The others looked at him. The [Summer Knight] was bent as Ryoka approached with Prost, Rie, the others. Prost called out and the group turned. Ryoka saw the [Knight] turn to face them and froze.

His armor blazed with the colors of his season. Gold and red and orange. His sword still burned. But the man was different. He had been changed.

“Who are you people?”

Prost demanded. The [Witch Hunters] looked at him. One nodded.

“We are members of the Hunter’s Guild.”

“The what?”

“Terandria.”

Lady Rie murmured the words. Her eyes were wide. The other [Hunters] nodded. One went to Raim’s side. He was bent over. Another ran for the orb on the ground. Ran, not walked. The woman with the bow had turned, scanning the distance. The one with the crossbows spoke tersely.

“We are hunting the Stitch Witch, Belavierr. Your pardons, but she is a wanted criminal.”

“We know. That is—her coven—”

The [Hunter] looked up. He lifted one crossbow as seven [Witches] approached.

“We have no quarrel with you. But we will not be stopped so close to our goal. [Witches], hold. And you. Are you the [Village Head] here?”

“No. [Steward] to Emperor Godart.”

The [Hunter] paused. But then his head turned, his eyes flicked to the horizon. And Ryoka felt it too. Then she saw movement.

“Tagil—”

“I see it. Whoever you are, all of you, get your people into that village. We’ll cover you. The Stitch Witch is hurt. But she’s desperate. And she knows we can find her.”

“Raim!”

The [Huntress] archer called out nervously. The [Knight] was moving towards them, supported by the man with the hammer. The [Summer Knight]’s voice was beyond weary.

“The Order. We have her. I can finish her. I cut away her immortality. But—”

“We see it.”

The scrying orb was speaking. Ryoka saw a huge conference table, staring faces. [Knights], gathered in the circular reflection. Ser Raim nodded. Then he pointed. Prost, Rie, Ryoka, all looked up.

“She can die. But she has sent her minions against us. We must track her down.”

“Protect Sylind. If she dies, Belavierr escapes.”

The [Hunter] drew his crossbows and shot. Ryoka didn’t see what he aimed at first. Then, as both crossbows reloaded and she shot again, she saw them.

A legion of warriors made of cloth. Not one or a thousand, but tens of thousands. Taxidermy monsters, indistinguishable from their real counterparts. A patchwork giant, as misshapen as a Snow Golem, lurching forwards. And then—Ryoka’s heart stopped.

A Dragon, crawling towards them. But the scales were purple cloth. The creature fake. But the threat real. And in the sky came howling faces. Half-real things that flickered and made Ryoka want to tear at her ears. The others paled, but the [Hunters] set themselves.

“Looks like bound wraiths. An entire army of cloth monsters. Brace.”

The crossbows shot. Ser Raim gasped for air. He turned. And Ryoka saw that he had burnt himself away. But the ember flickered. Belavierr’s death coughed. Then he straightened.

“Knight-Commander. A word.”

 

—-

 

At the same time as Ser Raim spoke, a woman sat on a throne. Hers was made of wood, but hardly as humble as that of the [Emperor] of Riverfarm. Hers was enchanted wood, yet the paint still chipped in places, because centuries meant even magic began to fail, let alone millennia. But that was not the point.

The throne marked her. And she belonged to it. And her people, who stood in the throne room which was open to the elements on one side of the room, leading to a huge balcony, respected the symbol of the throne more than the appearance.

They did not dress like courtiers of a typical kingdom. For their garb was thick, appropriate for the winter, even. But fitting because the open-air throne room was chilly, cold, even in the last days of spring. The altitude freezing, and snow was not unknown even in the hottest days of summer. This was the court of Kaliv’s kingdom, and it was the nation of Kaliv whose people lived among the highest altitudes. And they were Humans, predominantly.

They bordered the Eternal Land of Calanfer, Gaiil-Drome one of the forest-kingdoms who lived in uneasy peace with half-Elf populations, and bordered by the powerful nation of Ailendamus, whose breadth and span was thrice that of all three other nations.

But though all three had been tested, the alliance between Calanfer, Gaiil-Drome, and Kaliv had held back even Ailendamus and six other nations in the last war, Petril’s Folly, which had been twenty eight years hence. Because Kaliv had settled the high plateaus and a mountain itself. Poor in arable land it might be, like the Dwarves of Terandria, they had endured any foe who might assail them.

Because of the beasts that were Kaliv’s treasure, export, strength, and weakness. That demanded food, yet made the nation famous. Griffins. And their counterparts on the ground, giant goats that could be ridden to battle, far unlike their insane cousins, the Eater Goats of the High Passes. Such was their history that their ruler was always known as the Griffin King of Kaliv. Or in this case, the Griffin Queen.

But it was not to the Griffins she looked today. But to the latest arrival, who had been born by Griffins, yes, but unusually, had been carried into the throne room. She stood, ignoring the protests, her protectors and her daughter who had barred the sudden arrivals with blades. The Griffin Queen, Novakya, shouted so her voice might be heard in the cavernous room.

“Let him through.”

He did not approach. But the four men and women bearing him did. The Griffin Queen saw with a start that it was him. She looked down upon her son as they bore him across the throne room. The man was young—in his late twenties.

He was in his way, the most famous of the royal line of Kaliv. Firstborn of her line, yes, but also for another reason. He was Kaliv’s famous disgrace. An exile in all but name.

The Griffin Prince.

He had not returned to this throne room for years. Not since he had been banished. Now, they bore him in on a sheet of cloth, straight from Griffin-back. Novakya recognized it; the crimson cloth akin to the plainer stretchers that the [Griffin Riders] used to transport the wounded or supplies. But why had they used…? And then she realized the cloth was plain, but the blood had dyed it red.

“What has happened?”

She spoke to the man who accompanied the [Prince]. He stuttered, his eyes wide with panic.

“Queen, he collapsed not ten minutes ago. On patrol. He’s bleeding. We can’t stop it, even with potions. The—we’ve seen this once before. It’s—”

Move aside! Lay him down—gently!”

The words were shouted by the [Royal Healer] who ran across the throne room. The men and women did and the Griffin Prince lowered to the floor. The blood began spreading. His mother looked down.

He was choking, bleeding from his clothing and onto the stone floor. The Griffin Prince could barely move, but he still looked up. And his face was deathly pale as he reached up. The Griffin Queen, Novakya, looked down and reached for her boy, a man grown. But the [Healer] stopped her.

“Potions don’t work?”

“They heal him, but the wounds—”

The [Griffin Rider] pointed, his face pale. And then Novakya saw it. All present drew back save her. The Griffin Queen saw her son bleeding from his limbs. From the stitches that held his arms to his shoulders, his torso, even his neck.

But he was Human, not Stitch-Person. And Novakya knew. She looked up. The [Healer] had frozen. Then she grasped for her potions.

“The same as nine years ago.”

The Griffin Queen nodded silently as the [Healer] knelt. She said nothing. Her daughter spat as the open throne room echoed with the Griffin’s shrieks as they scented the blood.

“The Stitch Witch. She’s finally decided she has no use for him.”

“Why now?”

The Griffin Prince was choking, coughing on his blood. Spitting it up. Novakya could not look away. No one had an answer. But one revealed itself as the [Healer] desperately brought out her own needle and thread, trying to stem the bleeding from the separating limbs.

She cried out as the thread twisted as she tried to thread it through the needle. It fell to the floor, black, twisting. The [Royal Guard] tried to stop their [Queen], but she pushed them aside. And she saw the thread twist in the blood.

The thread moved, forming into a pattern on the floor. A crew of four parts, so distinctive that Novakya recognized it at once.

“The Order of Seasons.”

“They must have her. They’ve cornered the Spider at last and she’s desperate. Mother—”

The Griffin Princess looked both triumphant and disgusted. She spared no emotion for her brother lying on the ground. But his mother—the Griffin Prince’s eyes opened. And he spoke, in a pained voice as the [Healer] shakily tried to sew his limbs back in place.

“My Queen.”

She jerked. The [Prince] tried to raise his head. The [Healer] snapped at him.

“Don’t! Move and you could lose your head.”

He stopped. But his eyes rolled. The Griffin Queen stepped closer. And his eyes focused on her. He spoke hoarsely.

“My Queen. This is my punishment. For ever trusting her. Don’t give in to Belavierr. If she is using my life, she’s truly backed into a corner. She wants you to assail the Order to save me.”

Novakya’s daughter made a disgusted sound. She drew her sword, stepping into the blood.

“Of course she does. Brother. Say the word and I will end it now. Just as I promised you then! Let her not leave her claws in our kingdom.”

And there was silence. The Griffin Prince breathed, laboriously. The [Healer] paused, and the court waited. And the Griffin Queen waited. Her hands were clenched as he inhaled, and looked up, his grey-blue eyes wild. And he closed his eyes after a second.

“I—can’t. I may yet live. And I wish to live. If Belavierr dies, I will be free. But my Queen. Leave me—”

His sister made a sound of disgust and turned. She hurled her sword across the throne room as she stalked away. And her mother just stood there. Thinking. But not thinking. All she was doing was watching his blood run across the throne room’s floor. And he looked at her, pleadingly. They had not spoken in six years. And then, only for a moment. Not like this.

“My Queen. Mother. Let me die, if it is my time. I have brought you only grief. Do not let her ensnare you too.”

Her disgrace. The fool of a [Prince]. Her son. Novakya knew this was Belavierr’s game. She knew. And still, she reached for him and again, the [Healer] stopped her.

“Majesty, he is falling apart. We are holding him together with potion and thread.”

The Griffin Queen stepped back. The [Healer] was calling for more potions, her assistants. And her son lay there, pleading silently. Not a man or woman in this room didn’t know his story. But none dared say a word, not even the Griffin Princess. They all waited. And Novakya closed her eyes.

How long and how wide was her web? The Stitch Witch, Belavierr. The Spider of Lives. Novakya raised her head. And oh, how bitterly she admired the way the threads had ensnared her. But she would never choose otherwise. And that was what Belavierr had known. Damn her.

Then the Griffin Queen turned. Her cloak swirled and her breath appeared in the cold air. A storm was coming. She snapped at the nearest [Royal Guard].

“Send a [Message] to the Order of Seasons. By order of the Griffin Queen, I demand them cease their quest for Belavierr’s head.”

The man paused only a moment. The Griffin Queen walked past him. She shouted for her [General]. He was already ready, mounted on the Imperial Griffin. She pointed at him.

“Summon eight hundred Griffin Riders. We fly upon the Order of Season’s stronghold. Arm them for battle. Now.”

“Mother.”

The Griffin Prince called her back. His voice was desperate. Novakya stopped and stared at him. Her shoes were standing in his blood. She looked down at him, and her face was distant. Harsh.

“You are a disgrace to Kaliv. But you are also Griffin Prince. You may not die yet.”

That was what she said. But that was not what he heard. And the Griffin Prince sighed. His mother turned. And she called as the storm swept down across the mountains. She swung herself up into her personal Griffin’s saddle. She had known this day would come. And she had known the choice she would make. She looked ahead and swore that would not be the last sight she saw of him.

The Griffin Queen pointed.

“Fly.”

 

—-

 

Knight-Commander Calirn stared into the orb. Ser Raim stood there. And he had already changed. He had given himself to the flame, as the champions of his class had time and time again. And already—Calirn closed his eyes.

He was dying. Closer to death. But Calirn had also seen Belavierr flee. He had heard her scream. And now—

“She can die. Knight-Commander, she has fled. But we have marked her.”

“How certain are you that you can locate her again, Ser Raim?”

The [Summer Knight]’s voice rasped. Behind him, the four remaining [Witch Hunters] were setting up. Two were already loosing arrows and crossbow bolts. Knight-commander Calirn knew time was of the essence. Ser Raim’s eyes flickered past him, staring at something Calirn couldn’t see.

“Completely. Sylind has [The Eternal Hunt]. She will never lose her quarry once marked. Knight-Commander, we can hold against the waves Belavierr has summoned. But we must pursue Belavierr. This village will be destroyed if we do not protect it. I request reinforcements to hold the ground while we advance.”

“There is a legion of cloth golems bearing down at them.”

The Spring’s Warden spoke quietly, her eyes staring past Ser Raim’s head. Calirn nodded. He saw one of the [Hunters] turn and snap.

“Raim. More are coming.”

The [Summer Knight] nodded. He looked back at the orb.

“Knight-Commander.”

“I will consider your request, Ser Raim. A moment.”

The Knight-Commander was a [Winter Knight]. He spoke the harsh words impartially. Emotion could not affect his judgment. He could see the Summer’s Champion, the opposite of his Season, look up, eyes flashing. But Ser Raim only nodded. He drew his sword and advanced past the orb, taking up a position with the [Hunters]. Calirn saw a huge shadow, and one of the [Hunters], the one with the bow, Sylind, aiming up—

“Fall Sentinel. Do you believe that Skill will locate the Stitch Witch, despite her abilities?”

Calirn looked over at the Grandmaster of the Season of Fall. The Fall’s Sentinel looked up. The war room held three of the Grandmasters and Calirn as well as two servants. By protocol, the Winter’s Watcher was elsewhere, should they all fall. The Fall Sentinel paused, and nodded.

“[The Eternal Hunt]. With that Skill, [Hunters] of old could track even Dragons. Getting to them was more difficult, but no magic could protect them.”

“And she is wounded.”

The other three Grandmasters nodded. Calirn only wondered how much. Belavierr had still fled. But her scream—he clenched a fist. She had not made that sound when he had battled her. She could die.

Then he turned. The wide-eyed [Servants] were still panting. Knight-Commander Calirn looked at them. Then at the Spring’s Warden. Her gaze met his. Calirn clenched his fist.

“Kilav. And the shining kingdom of Taimaguros. I knew of the Griffin Prince. But what hold does the Stitch Witch have on Taimaguros’ [King]?”

“Anything. Perhaps she gave him life. Or maybe some charm? We should be lucky the Blighted King himself isn’t threatening war.”

Calirn nodded. He looked at the [Servants].

“Any updates?”

One had a scroll. She checked it, and the servant shook her head rapidly. She gulped, looking afraid.

“No, Knight-Commander. Both nations demand the Order abandon its pursuit of Belavierr at once, Knight-Commander. And both…both have roused a large force.”

“How many?”

“Eight hundred Griffins from Kilav, sir. Thirteen thousand by horse from Taimaguros. Both have set out at once. Towards the Order.”

The Summer’s Champion uttered an oath.

“Eight hundred [Griffin Riders]? Does Kilav mean war?”

Calirn shook his head. He calmly assessed the numbers. But even his heart was beating faster.

“They would have sent three times that number and a ground force if they intended war. Even so, the Griffin Queen means to assail our order directly. If we do battle, it will be war.”

“For her son.”

“Yes.”

The Grandmasters paused. Calirn studied a map.

“Fall Sentinel. Your appraisal? How fast will Kilav reach us?”

“Three day’s flight from Kilav’s borders. Or—if the Griffin Queen herself, leads, a day’s flight. But she will not reach the order until tomorrow at dawn at the earliest, even if she uses speed-boosting Skills and calls wind-magic to her aid. Taimaguros will be six days even with the best Skills.”

Calirn nodded absently. Then he looked up. The Summer’s Champion’s aura was driving the temperature of the room up. The man met Calirn’s gaze.

“It just proves Ser Raim is right. She is desperate, Knight-Commander. Belavierr throws everything she can against the hunters. Ser Raim has cut the thread of her immortality. Give me leave to assemble five lances. I will lead them myself. We can end this.”

The Knight-Commander shook his head.

“You are compromised, Summer’s Champion. As am I. She would turn you against your own comrades.”

The Summer’s Champion looked bitter.

“Not I, then. But the Spring’s Warden or the Winter’s Watcher, then. And every [Knight] over Level 30 we can spare—!”

He clenched his fist. But it was Knight-Commander Calirn who deliberated. The Griffin Queen promised war. As did Taimaguros’ [King]. But Belavierr—he weighed the costs, the odds of her death. Then he looked up and nodded.

“Prepare the grand ritual a second time! Summon the Order of Spring and Order of Summer! Move!

The Grandmasters raced from the room. The Fall Sentinel was protesting, but he sprinted with Calirn to one of the oldest parts of the Order of Season’s stronghold. So old, in fact, it predated the Order of Seasons.

It was a relic of the half-Elven empire that had once called this area home. The room was a giant spell circle, designed for several ritual spells that even Wistram would have trouble emulating. And perhaps more that were yet unknown. But one—the ability to walk across a world in moments was one of the Order of Season’s trump cards. And yet—

“Knight-Commander! The cost is too high! We have exhausted over half of my Season performing the ritual once! We cannot do it again so easily!”

The Fall Sentinel snapped as Calirn burst into the grand ritual chamber. Calirn saw he was right. The last ritual’s components were still assembled on the floor.

Raw magicore, mana potions—even artifacts and enchanted weapons, scrolls, wands—all lay on the design on the floor. And the magicore was already turning to simple stone. The scrolls were just parchment.

All were spent. And the [Autumn Knights] who had fueled the magic were drained, unsteady. Many were drinking mana potions, but they rose as Calirn strode into the room. Racing [Knights] poured into the room, but the Fall Sentinel’s voice snapped above them all.

“Gather all the magical items below relic status! Prioritize components and replaceable items first! Knight-Commander—”

“I hear you, Fall’s Sentinel. But the cost I am willing to pay. Even if we must sacrifice a lesser relic.”

The Fall Sentinel inhaled sharply, but then he shook his head.

“The cost would be too high. Our order is exhausted, and it is from them that much of the mana is produced. Moreover, you know we cannot move an army, Knight-Commander! The [Witch Hunters] and their gear were bad enough, as was Ser Raim!”

He gestured to the spell circle.

“Moving that much magic across the world took every bit of magic the Season of Autumn could muster, Knight-Commander! It is not a matter of weight—in the confines of this ritual, magic is the true weight! If we had another type of spell—no army. No magical armor! And the Stitch Witch will rip apart any [Knight] not bearing enchanted gear!”

Calirn paused.

“How many with simple steel armor and unenchanted weapons?”

Calirn—

The Knight-Commander glared at his old comrade.

How many, Grandmaster?”

The Fall Sentinel hesitated.

“…Twenty eight, Knight-Commander. No one with a powerful aura or whose body is affected by their Skills. No Autumn Knights. That is the only margin we can account for. Any more or anyone with more magic and we will run out of mana. They will fall short of Riverfarm.”

“What of a few individuals who…?”

“No. I could calculate it out, but not on the fly.”

The Fall Sentinel folded his arms. Calirn looked back. A [Servant] had the scrying orb. Battle was already being joined. He made another decision and turned. The Seasons of Spring and Summer had flooded the room. They stood to attention, young and old, eyes locked on the combat across the world reflected in the scrying orb. Calirn called out.

“Summer’s Champion. Choose eight of your best who fit those parameters! Spring’s Warden—I seek twenty of our youngest. Let only those who are ready for death volunteer. They will reinforce Ser Raim and hold the ground before bringing the fight to Belavierr. They are to take steel and silver only.”

The Fall Sentinel closed his eyes. Eight veterans, and twenty [Spring Knights]. The Summer’s Champion and the Spring’s Warden only hesitated a moment. Then they began calling names. Calirn turned. Cold decisions. He looked at one of his brethren, a [Winter Knight].

“Send word to the Winter’s Watcher. Lock down the Order. Prepare for combat against aerial foes. Make ready seal all the entrances for a siege.”

“You mean to defy Kilav, Knight-Commander?”

“Until war is inevitable, yes. The scrying orb.”

Calirn beckoned. The Fall Sentinel turned, and artifacts and magical items flooded the rom as twenty-eight of the Order of Season lined up. Dame Talia stood proudly among her sisters and brothers, tossing her magical gear aside and being armed with plain steel and silver.

Calirn paused. But she was a [Summer Knight], noble blood or not. He spoke into the scrying orb. The [Hunters] were already battling. One had deployed an artifact that was throwing up walls of stone; another was throwing chained lightning from her wand.

Ser Raim!

The man turned. Calirn shouted towards him.

“Ser Raim. Reinforcements are on the way! You must claim the Stitch Witch’s head as quickly as you can. The Order is about to be assailed by Kilav. The Stitch Witch has forced their hand!”

The [Knight] stumbled towards him. He was burning, but not from his life-consuming Skills. Calirn repeated the order. Ser Raim’s face was pale. He paused, panting.

“Reinforcements? We accept. We will pursue—the Stitch Witch—I am pledged to—”

He wavered. His face was deathly pale. Calirn’s eyes widened as he saw a huge clothed foot smash one of the stone walls.

“Ser Raim! Behind you! Ser Raim!”

The [Summer Knight] whirled. He saw the cloth giant and raised his greatsword. Then—suddenly—he paused. Calirn bellowed his name, but it was no use. Ser Raim fell without a sound, the greatsword slipping from his hands. The cloth giant turned as a thrown hammer struck it and the impact sent it reeling back. But it advanced. Ser Raim had fallen. Calirn whirled.

Fall Sentinel! Send them now!

But the ritual needed time. Calirn turned back. Ser Raim was lying on the ground. Spent. He had used his Skill—he needed rest! He had to finish it! But the cloth giant was bending down, ignoring the spells and arrows blasting holes in its face. It bent—as Calirn watched helplessly, freezing the ground around him—

And a grey hand grabbed Ser Raim. At first, Calirn thought it was a monster. But the giant of a girl was holding a shield and crude leather armor. No—her shield was just a converted wooden door. But she pulled the [Knight] back, behind her. She grabbed the greatsword in one hand and lifted her shield—a door of wood—in the other. The cloth giant brought its hand down like a hammer.

And the half-Troll girl blocked it. The impact drove her down, with a cry, but her knees held. She forced the arm up and swung. The enchanted greatsword cleaved into the cloth golem, set it alight. The [Hunters] finally severed its head at range and the girl held her ground. She roared and swung her greatsword, catching bounding Ghoul and bisecting it. Calirn stared.

“Who is that?”

 

—-

 

Durene stood over Ser Raim. The line of [Hunters] had broken with the cloth giant. They reformed it, shouting, as she swung the greatsword one-handed. She blocked a pair of cloth-warriors circling her right with her shield. The sword was light. It sheared through everything with a single cut.

She swung. The flaming greatsword burned in her hands. But the fire did not hurt her. Nor had Ser Raim’s flames. And her eyes held a trace of that same fire. The [Paladin] bellowed, holding the line while the [Hunters] raced past her.

“Guard Raim! Set up a perimeter! [Hail of Bolts]!”

The crossbowman snapped at his comrades as he raised his crossbows. The self-loading magical crossbows raised as he aimed at the purple cloth-dragon charging at them.

Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunkthunk—the crossbows reloaded and shot, the mechanism blurring too fast for Durene to see. The bolts streaked across the ground, exploding and blowing parts of the gigantic dragon to bits. It collapsed before it got within range, but more cloth-warriors were advancing.

There were so many! And they were armed—Durene cried out as one slashed across her side. The blade was ancient steel, but it cut through her armor. Her skin was tougher and the blade only slashed lightly. Durene twisted, and a hammer crushed the cloth head, smashing the entire creation into the ground. The man with the hammer raised it.

“[Circle of Protection]. Fortress wall strength.”

Durene saw a racing line of bright green—and felt a reassuring presence. The first rank of Belavierr’s creations charging at them ran into a wall and began hammering at it. Undeterred, the man with the hammer swung into them, and Durene did the same.

“It won’t last! Stone walls, there, and there!”

Another [Hunter] was raising stone walls with a wand, funneling the enemies. The one with the bow was shooting down flying targets. But there were so many!

“[Quake Blow]!”

The man with the hammer swung and knocked a score of enemies flying. Then he looked up and swore.

“Ghosts! Incoming!

Durene looked up. She saw a laughing face, twisted with insanity, a flicker in the unnaturally dark sky—and then something went through her. It passed through her shield, her armor—she cried out as her insides froze. Then she heard an explosion.

The [Archer] with the bow had shot at the spirit. Durene heard a scream as it retreated, but more were flying out of the sky.

“What are they?”

“Spirits. Those are spirits. Mundane weapons won’t even work on them unless they’re made of silver or a purifying substance. Back up!”

The [Hunters] retreated. They began aiming up as Durene swung at the airborne apparitions with the greatsword. They avoided that, but they went through her shield. Durene abandoned it to pick up Ser Raim. She ran back towards Riverfarm, the [Witch Hunters] covering her.

“How many creations does she have?

“Keep fighting!”

The [Hunter] with the crossbows snapped. He drew a potion, threw it. The explosion of light drove half the specters away. But more were coming. And beyond them—

“Another giant. Dead gods.”

The [Archer] lowered her bow. The [Witch Hunters] exchanged a glance. The hammer-wielder bared his teeth.

“No retreat. We’re too close. That village is at our backs! Hold! Hold, damn you all!”

“She’ll come after us when we’re exhausted, Faigen! Raim’s out, and Gaile’s dead. We need to pull back! So long as Sylind lives—”

The [Mage Hunter] snapped as she pointed her wand and shot lightning into the sky. Durene, panting, looked up. Riverfarm was filled with screams. Prost had mobilized Beniar and the [Riders] to hold the entrance to the village. But where was that galloping coming from?

She turned. And then the first [Summer Knight] raced past her. Dame Talia lowered her visor and pointed her sword ahead.

For the Order of Seasons! House Kallinad and the summer! Charge!

More riders thundered after her. Knights dressed in the bright of spring, the radiance of summer. They filled the gaps, hacking down the cloth golems as four of the [Summer Knights] charged the cloth giant. Durene caught her breath. She looked at the unconscious [Knight] on her shoulder. The [Hunters] looked at her.

“Miss! Into the village! Do you have anywhere we can use? We can set up a warding spot until Raim wakes up!”

One of the [Hunters] snapped at her. Durene blinked.

“I—yes! This way!”

She led them at a run towards the newest houses. Behind them, the Order of the Seasons was holding Belavierr’s army back. The physical ones, at least. Durene looked up as someone screamed. More spirits were flying lower. And they looked like faces, caught in some madness of grief or rage or insanity—

“Down!”

The [Archer] raised her bow. But the spirits were flying lower, assailing the fleeing Riverfarm people in the street. They dove as the [Hunter] cursed, trying to place her shot. They flew past an old woman with a pointed hat, chasing a child. The [Witch] raised her hand and slapped the spirit.

“[Deft Hand].”

The spirit had no body. But something smacked it into the air. The [Archer] loosed, and the arrow exploded with light. The spirit vanished with a scream. And the [Witch Hunters] looked down.

Eloise straightened her hat as one of the [Summer Knights] thundered back into Riverfarm. Dame Talia’s eyes were blazing. She spotted Eloise, and then did a double-take.

“Another [Witch]?

“She’s not a target! Hold!”

The [Witch Hunter] with the crossbows halted Talia before she could lower the lance. He turned. But warily. The man looked at Eloise. The grandmotherly [Witch] wasn’t smiling as she regarded the battle outside Riverfarm. Or Ser Raim.

“Lady Eloise du Havin. Where is the Stitch Witch?”

The [Witch Hunter] addressed the [Witch] politely. Eloise looked at him.

“Gone, young man. And I am [Witch] Eloise. I haven’t used that other name in years.”

The [Hunters] tensed. The man with the crossbows paused.

“I see. Does your coven intend to stand with the Stitch Witch, then?”

Eloise paused. She looked around, meeting Durene’s eyes a moment. Then she shook her head.

“My coven will decide whether they stand with her or not. I have already given my answer, but the others have not. Now, let us protect this village. Put the [Knight] in a safe place. He’ll wake soon. He’s just tired. If he means to end Belavierr, he had better do it soon. She will try to kill the [Hunter] who marked her by any means necessary.”

“And if they choose to fight? This coven of yours? What then?”

Talia snapped, still blazing with battle-fever. Eloise glanced up at her. And then she looked at Ser Raim.

“If they do, you had better bring ten times as many of your sisters, Miss Knight.”

Her eyes glinted under her hat.

 

—-

 

She couldn’t catch them. Not the fae. No matter how hard she ran. They didn’t even seem to move. But they were distant. With each step she was further from them. The wind wouldn’t carry her. She couldn’t run like the wind. So she called out to them.

“Wait. Please?”

And they laughed at her. But their eyes didn’t linger on the mortal girl. They turned. Following another gathering.

The six [Witches] found Belavierr sitting under a lonely tree. Wiskeria picked up her hat and stared at Ryoka. Somehow, the City Runner was there first. Despite the cloth warriors that marched on Riverfarm, attacking everything they saw. The [Witches] had been forced to fight past them, all but Wiskeria.

And Ryoka was staring at something else, far away. And she looked lost. But Wiskeria had only a glance for her. All of her eyes were fixed on the huddled shape at the base of the tree.

Belavierr. Smoke still rose from the [Witch]’s clothes. And her dress was still ragged, torn from battle. She was sitting. And she breathed. The air rasped through her lungs. Wiskeria uttered a word.

“Mother—”

Califor stopped her. The senior [Witch] stared at what Belavierr held. And she shook her head. With one hand, she aimed a wand.

“No closer. She has a jar of spirits. She’s unleashing them.”

Now Wiskeria saw the flickering around Belavierr. Faces. Shadows despite the day. She heard faint voices. Some called her name. Alevica shivered.

“A what? Spirits? That’s old magic. They don’t exist anymore.”

She tried to grin. But the flickering half-real shapes flew towards her and she raised her wand. The things avoided her spell. No—the ray of burning fire passed through them. And they flew at the coven.

Dragging. Calling Wiskeria’s name. They pulled at her, freezing her body, trying to force the dagger out of her sheathe. They circled Alevica as she swung at them, taunting, laughing at her magic. Mavika they avoided. Hedag they swarmed around, screaming her sins. And Califor raised her wand and the light blossomed—

Light. It was the first of spells. But the [Witch] shaped it. She conjured a sword out of it and swung. And the ghosts, fled, screaming. Califor raised her wand. And the light shone bright.

Belavierr looked up. The ghosts abandoned her, Ryoka, the coven. The Stitch Witch pointed and they fled past them. Towards Riverfarm. Gasping, her insides cold, Wiskeria took her hand off her belt. She saw Alevica jerk. The [Witch] had been aiming her shortsword at her own neck. Hedag breathed slowly, loosening her grip on her axe.

Even Mavika looked disturbed. Califor put one hand out. The ghosts had never touched Nanette. But the girl clung to Califor as Belavierr walked towards them. Califor’s voice was soothing and strict.

“In ages past, Nanette, [Witches] consorted with such things. Now, they are far fewer. So few that even bound ghosts are rare. The afterlife is empty. Thus [Witches], [Shamans], [Summoners] and all of our kind suffer for it. But sometimes great spirits still linger. Now. Stay behind me.”

She turned. And Belavierr stopped. Wiskeria looked up. And her mother stared at her.

“Daughter.”

Her eyes lingered on Wiskeria’s throat. The [Witch] still felt the cold axe digging into her flesh. She raised her hand to the healed wound. But it had been magical. So a scar remained. The potion hadn’t healed it.

“Mother. Who are those [Hunters]? Who is that [Knight]? Why are they hunting you?”

She knew. She didn’t know the exact details., but she knew. And she waited for her mother to give her a non-answer. For that vacant expression. That timeless look that Wiskeria loved and hated. But Belavierr’s eyes were steady. Present.

“I do not know. I do not remember. Daughter, you must flee. I do battle here.”

She raised her hand. And Wiskeria felt her calling more magic. It ran through the ground, pulled at the shadows. Magic far beyond her, so much of it that Wiskeria felt sick. She had never seen Belavierr using this many spells.

The ground began to move. Alevica eyed it and stepped back. Califor did not. She ignored the hand that rose as it unearthed itself, clawing its way out of the soil. She stomped on it and held Nanette with one arm. Her voice was sharp and direct.

“Belavierr. The enemies that seek your life are your own. [Witches] do not interfere in the business of other [Witches]. Unless such matters may affect all [Witches]. Or the [Witch] asks. Do you beg this coven’s help?”

The Stitch Witch blinked. She turned as more corpses dug themselves out of the earth. She had a needle in hand and she was stitching them together. Now she paused and looked back at Califor.

“You would do battle?”

“We would decide. If asked.”

Wiskeria saw her mother pause. And Belavierr’s eyes flickered with something that frightened Wiskeria. Hope. And it was frightening because hope could only exist with fear. Belavierr paused. And then she looked at Wiskeria. And she saw her daughter. Really saw her.

“No. I do not ask it of my coven.”

“I see. Then I bid you luck. We shall bear witness.”

Califor inclined her head. And Belavierr nodded back. The two [Witches] tipped their hats and Califor turned. She strode away, Nanette clinging to her. The little [Witch] looked back, wide-eyed, afraid. Alevica stared at Califor and then at Belavierr. Hedag leaned on her axe.

“Keep your creations away from the villagers, Belavierr. Or I will be forced to fight against you. I am Hedag and they are under my protection.”

Belavierr glanced at her.

“My death waits there.”

The two [Witches] stared at each other. Hedag raised her axe slowly, resting it on her shoulder.

“Then I’ll protect your death. The village will not fall. So swears Hedag, upon her axe and craft. I don’t wish your death, Belavierr. But it’s coming. And your [Executioner] burns with a wrath I’ve not seen. Go well.”

She turned and walked away. Alevica hesitated. She looked at Belavierr and then fled.

“Daughter.”

Belavierr turned back to Wiskeria. She staggered as she turned. Wiskeria reached out, as if to catch her. Catch her? She couldn’t be hurt. She couldn’t be dying.

But she was. She looked…Human. And in that moment, she focused on her daughter. And that was what Wiskeria had wanted. But not this way.

“Mother? Are you hurt?”

“Yes. I am.”

The Stitch Witch paused, looking down at her hands. They were pale and whole, but she still smoked. She looked at Wiskeria, and gestured past her. Towards the village.

“This is a death meant for me. You will live.”

“But—you were hurt—if you’d fled—you came back for me.”

Wiskeria stammered, her voice shaking. Belavierr paused.

“Yes. Your life was in danger.”

It was a simple equation to her. But it filled Wiskeria’s eyes with tears. And Belavierr saw. She reached out and paused. Staring. Then a finger brushed Wiskeria’s cheek and captured one of the tears. She inspected it and Wiskeria’s face. And then she looked around.

Mavika. Ryoka. Wiskeria. The fae and the rising dead. Belavierr lingered on Ryoka for a moment, and then looked back at Wiskeria. And she hesitated for a second. And she looked so tired.

“My Daughter. There is little time. I must do battle. I am hunted. But I ask one question of you. Would you see me dead? Do you wish it?”

The question hurt Wiskeria. She clutched her hat, her tears running down her face.

“No, Mother. I don’t. I don’t—!

Despite it all. Not like this. Let it not happen this way. Wiskeria shook. And then she saw Belavierr straighten. She smiled, and the great hat rose. The Stitch Witch looked past her daughter, towards her death. And she relaxed.

“That is well. Then go, my Daughter. I will escape this death as I have others. Go.”

“I can’t leave you—”

But the black horse was already riding towards her. Wiskeria felt her clothes tugging her towards it. Belavierr gestured, and Wiskeria flew. As gently as if she was a child, settling onto the horse’s back. She clutched at her hat, shouting.

“Mother! Let me stay!”

But she was already being carried away. Wiskeria wept as the tall figure disappeared. And then she rode past giants. Creations of old cloth. And she realized she hadn’t known her mother well. If she had her craft—Wiskeria wept.

And then Belavierr turned. To the young woman who had seen it all.

“Ryoka Griffin. Tell me of my daughter’s heart. Does she…know of my love for her now?”

“I think so.”

Ryoka looked into those ringed eyes. And she saw a mortal woman there. Just a flicker. Belavierr nodded. And Mavika stepped forwards. Her flock of crows and the single raven flew high overhead. The [Witch] regarded Belavierr. And the Stitch Witch looked at Mavika, questioningly. The Crow Witch spoke.

“You are being burnt away. That [Knight] has the means to burn your magic itself. All your protections and wards are useless before his fire. He will turn himself and you to ash. And they have marked you.”

“Yes.”

Belavierr sighed. Mavika paused.

“If you ask it, my flock and I will give you half a day to flee.”

The Stitch Witch wavered. She was tempted. But her eyes swung back to Ryoka. And they flickered.

“I have a thought. If I do flee, they will come after my daughter. Mavika, is that so?”

The Crow Witch paused.

“She is of our coven. She was of my coven. We would protect her. But she may be a hostage or be forced to flee herself. This [Emperor] is not here and this order of [Knights] is powerful.”

“I see.”

“Your answer, then?”

Belavierr’s head turned. She stared across the moving land. Past the undead that walked, the spirits screaming through the dark skies. Towards a young woman riding back towards her village. Still looking back at her. Belavierr sighed.

“For her, I would give it up. My magic. What I possess. Even life. But not my craft. But I would gladly face my death.”

Mavika looked up. And she nodded once.

“I see your true nature, Belavierr the Witch. May you meet fire with craft and stitch.”

She turned and disappeared, flying past the dark shapes. That left only Ryoka. She looked at Belavierr. And then fled. The Stitch Witch stood alone. And she kept watching her daughter, until she was out of sight.

Then Belavierr turned. She felt pain. She knew her death waited. But not yet. She called on her magic, summoning them to her aid. But it would not be enough. So she cast one last spell, whispering into the night.

 

—-

 

Ser Raim was awake when Ryoka returned. The undead didn’t touch her. Nor did the warriors made out of cloth, armed with ancient weapons. They fought and broke on the [Knights] who held the field outside of Riverfarm. The Order of the Seasons charged and held, some of the unhorsed [Knights] fighting on foot. They wouldn’t have held alone. But the [Hunters] fought too. Ryoka saw magical explosions tearing up ranks of advancing cloth warriors, the [Archer] loosing and bringing down the spirits in the sky.

It felt like a dream. Neither side bothered with Ryoka. Slowly, the Order of Seasons drove back the cloth creations. Until their ranks dwindled. Then came zombies. Undead. But fewer. The [Knights] drank potions and the [Witch Hunters] fortified their position.

With magic and Skill. They had created a house. A tall, slanted building unlike the uniform buildings of Riverfarm. Just outside the village.

Ryoka passed by boarded-up houses. Closed shutters. Riverfarm was silent, afraid. But the house the [Hunters] had created was safe. Needles lay around it, so many that Ryoka had to cover her feet to even approach the door. As she did, more needles, some as large as javelins flew out of the dark evening. They struck the house, bouncing off the sides. Cloth ropes like snakes twined closer—lost their magic. Failed.

The young woman entered the house through the front door. It was unlocked. She heard a voice. Saw a gathering. The [Witch Hunters] were there. They had taken their fallen comrade. Ser Raim was on his feet. So were Prost and Rie. Ryoka heard a low voice.

“This is a Hunter’s Haven. A portable place to fight from. Warded against any foe. Even Belavierr’s magic would fail there. She is trying. Hunting Sylind. Keep all of your people indoors. If you have any needles, any sewing equipment—throw it outside! Those needle storms are aimed at us.”

One of the [Hunters] was addressing Prost and Rie. His crossbows hung at his sides. He looked up as Ryoka entered—the crossbow was in his hands in a flash. He paused as he saw her.

“Who are you?”

Ryoka!

Lady Rie exclaimed. The [Hunter] lowered his crossbow a bit. Ryoka looked around. She tried to answer the [Hunter]’s suspicious questions. Rie and Prost’s urgent queries. But her eyes were on him.

A female [Knight] had joined Ser Raim and the [Hunters]. Her armor was scratched, the colored steel deformed. But she was alight with passion.

Ser Raim was not. He stood over Gaile. The female [Huntress] who had wielded the axe and threatened Wiskeria’s life lay on a long table. Her arms had been folded. Her eyes closed. The needle that had gone through her chest was gone. Ser Raim looked upon her and bowed his head.

“She threw away her honor to strike a blow against Belavierr. And I believe she would have forsworn herself had the Stitch Witch fled. For one of the First-Hunters of the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria, she disgraced her status and legacy.”

He stared down at the woman’s face. Gaile’s expression was still set in death. Ser Raim bent, exhausted. Someone offered him a chair, but he stood.

“And yet, I knew Gaile. Gaile the [Beastslayer]. Gaile, who became [Witch Hunter] for vengeance. For six years we have sought Belavierr. And were it not for her actions, we might have lost her again.”

“Was it justice, then, Ser Raim?”

The female [Knight] looked confused. Ser Raim glanced up at her and shook his head.

“Neither, Dame Talia. She did wrong. She threw away her honor and I would have cut her down if I had to. But. She was my friend. And she had every right to her fury.”

He bowed his head. And he spoke to Gaile.

“Your death will not be in vain, Gaile. I swear, I will bring her down.”

Then he straightened and staggered. Hands reached for him. Durene’s. Talia’s. Raim caught himself and shook his head.

“I’m fine. Just exhausted.”

“You’ve burnt your life away. The backlash will continue. The Summer’s Champion and your Season agrees—you must rest before doing battle again.”

A voice spoke from a glowing orb to the side. Ser Raim turned and Ryoka saw a man dressed like winter in the glass. Ser Raim nodded once.

“I understand, Knight-Commander. But Belavierr is assailing our position.”

“Let your brethren handle it, Ser Raim. Rest. You must end Belavierr. And soon. If you lack the strength.”

“No. I have at least twenty more years to burn. So long as we can find her, she will not escape the second time.”

Ser Raim sat. And Ryoka, drawing forwards, saw how he had changed. He was aged. He might have been in his thirties before the battle. But now—his hair was grey. His body was still hale, but now it was lined, as was his face. Ryoka saw him sitting up, brushing off one of the other [Knight] trying to treat him.

Thirty years. It looked like he had burned thirty years away in less than thirty minutes. The man in the orb, the Knight-Commander, spoke directly.

“If you should fall—”

“I will not. I will cut away the last of Belavierr’s protections. I saw them, Knight-Commander. A dark web. I will lead the other [Hunters] against her. They have the means to end her. Together, we can defeat her.”

“Bring the reinforcements we have sent you. They will hold tonight, but at least the [Summer Knights] would be able to give battle on the morrow. They stand ready to aid you, Ser Raim. With their aid, you may still keep a decade or two—”

“No.”

Ser Raim’s voice was flat. He looked up, and his gaze still burned.

“If I sought to live, Knight-Commander, I would not have volunteered to hunt Belavierr. I will end her tomorrow even if I must burn away. All the [Hunters] and I are resolute. My brethren may battle the Stitch Witch’s minions, but we must end her. They are not specialized for combat against her, and none bear magical weapons.”

“Ser Raim! I am a [Summer Knight] like you. I may not be able to conjure your fire, but I can enchant my weapon to flame, plain steel or not!”

Talia protested. The other [Witch Hunters] snorted as they looked up from their quiet preparations. Ser Raim shook his head.

“Dame Talia, you misunderstand. It is not about fire. It is about piercing Belavierr’s defenses. I have cut half away. But she is still half-immortal. While she is such, every blow we deal her is useless. The [Witch Hunters] with me can cut her threads, and I will burn the rest. But if you stand against her without the right precautions, she would turn you into a puppet and use you against us.”

“I—”

“Dame Talia, enough.”

Talia bit her lip. Knight-Commander Calirn looked at Ser Raim. His eyes flickered past Raim.

“The Stitch Witch continues her attempts to stop us in Terandria. You are certain this…haven will stand?”

“Certain, Knight-Commander. The [Witch Hunters] employ it against enemies capable of magic. So long as the Order continues repelling the undead Belavierr is conjuring, we will be safe from her magic within these walls.”

“Can you bring the battle to her now? After a few hour’s rest?”

Ser Raim hesitated. It was one of the [Hunters] who shook her head. The woman was checking her arsenal of wands. She looked up and snapped a reply.

“Night is the worst time to hunt a [Witch]. She can use illusions or summon spirits if there are any about. Raim is also exhausted. We wait for dawn. Is that a problem?”

“…No. Act as you deem most fit, Huntress Erashelle. But are you certain you can both locate and trap Belavierr tomorrow?”

The [Witch Hunters] paused. The man with the hammer nodded.

“She’s wounded. She can attempt to flee, but we have her location. While we are on the hunt, even her speed will fail her. She cannot escape Sylind’s Skill.”

Sylind nodded. She was checking her bow.

“I can feel her. Not six miles distant.”

“Six miles? We could ride against her now—!”

Talia shut up as Ser Raim looked at her.

“Unless a [Hunter] leads, she could outrun you, Dame Talia. Again, it will not be easy. I must gather my strength. So long as I burn, her magic fails around me. The [Hunters] will end it if I cannot and support me. We will work alone. As a team. You must guard our rest.”

“I understand. Forgive me, Ser Raim. Leave the field to us. We are armed and Riverfarm supports us.”

Dame Talia’s cheeks were red. She looked questioningly at Durene. The half-Troll girl nodded.

“I’ll help. Beniar and his [Riders] are taking out anything that gets past you. Except for those giant things, we can beat all those undead.”

“She’s weakening already. Those first legions were ancient. Now she’s summoning undead. Still, if we hadn’t had Raim burning half of them away she might have overwhelmed us just with those.”

One of the [Hunters] murmured. The others nodded. Everyone stopped and glanced up. Ryoka felt a thump. Talia strode towards the window. She swore and charged out the door. Ryoka saw a huge shape in the darkness. Then a bloom of fire. Durene barreled out the door as well. Rie paled.

“What is that?”

The [Hunter] with the crossbows glanced up. He took a step towards the door and Sylind stopped him.

“Tagil. Save your bolts. The Order of Seasons has it.”

He nodded and sat back down. Tagil answered brusquely, placing one crossbow on the table and checking the enchanted weapon piece by piece.

“Undead. She’s sewn together Flesh Abominations and raised Ghouls. She may send a Rotfield Giant against you. Be prepared. Belavierr has more creations still.”

Rie paled. But Prost just nodded. He looked warily towards the windows.

“The magic she’s throwing against you all. Will it truly not get in?”

“Hostile magic fails in this place. Even Ser Raim’s fire is hard to use here. This is a place for [Hunters]. We know our craft, Steward. Raim. You won’t be able to rest here. We’ll guard Sylind.”

Tagil addressed Raim. The [Knight] looked up wearily. The Knight-Commander spoke briskly.

“Indeed. Two [Summer Knights] will guard your rest. Dame Talia—”

“—has gone to join the battle. I will leave her to it.”

Ser Raim stood, wearily. Calirn’s voice snapped.

“Absolutely not. Fall Sentinel, contact Talia. Have her return at once. Ser Raim—”

The [Knight] ignored the Knight-Commander. He wearily walked towards the door. Ryoka opened it. She held out an arm.

“Here. I’ve got you. Where do you need to go?”

“My house. And who—who are you?”

Rie murmured. Ser Raim paused. He stared at Ryoka. Then he nodded.

“Directions would be welcome, Miss Runner.”

He did not lean on her. And he ignored his Knight-Commander as he wearily walked outside. Ryoka stepped warily away from the house. In the distance, more fire bloomed, and [Knights] rode to battle. But Ser Raim walked away from it, into Riverfarm. Ryoka was braced. She didn’t know if Belavierr would assail them. If she did—Ryoka was ready. But nothing attacked them.

“You needn’t worry. If I needed to, I could burn away any weak spells. Belavierr knows this. I’m tired. But my aura is strong as ever.”

Ser Raim reassured Ryoka. She glanced at him. He smiled. He was so old now. He glanced at her as she led him towards Rie’s house. Entered it, as two [Summer Knights] rode towards them. Ser Raim waved them away. He sat down inside.

“I have a few artifacts here. My bag of holding. Help me set them up, please.”

He handed Ryoka a stack of talismans. Like Japanese ofuda talismans. Then what looked like bright orbs of glass. They hung around the room, swaying. Flickering.

“Bad magic?”

“Her spells. Those charms are Drathian. You don’t need to worry about my safety. A [Witch] like Belavierr is powerful. But she must have my hair or some possession of mine to curse me. And even then, these wards work. Her magic is not all-powerful. It is ancient. But not—”

Ser Raim coughed. Ryoka found herself making tea. He sat, sipping it. He sighed. Then he looked at her again.

“You know the Stitch Witch. And you’re here to argue for her life.”

Ryoka froze. But the [Summer Knight] didn’t reach for his blade. She hesitated.

“I—want to. I’m not here to attack you. Just—I’ve met Belavierr. Talked to her. She didn’t offer me any deals, but I’ve…seen her.”

“Strange. She rarely talks to anyone that she does not want something from. I’ve searched for her for years and she rarely talks to anyone. Save for her victims.”

Ser Raim coughed. Ryoka nodded once.

“I’m—different. Wiskeria’s also here.”

“Her daughter?”

“Yes. Your friend took her hostage.”

“Gaile. But for that, Belavierr might have fled.”

“Yeah.”

The two sat in silence. Ser Raim waited. Ryoka burst out at last.

“I haven’t seen her commit any terrible crimes while she’s here. I’m sure she has. But Belavierr doesn’t seem evil to me. Just amoral.”

She paused, flushing.

“I’m sorry. I know this is stupid to argue with you—”

What was she doing? But Ser Raim didn’t bristle. He just sat back and sighed. And when he spoke, it was quietly.

“No. You’re hardly the first to say as much to me. And at this hour, it hardly matters. But you are right. Belavierr, the Stitch Witch. She has done good. There are tales of her making deals with slaves for their freedom, such that even Roshal calls her a threat. She has saved lives. But always she takes something she wants in exchange. Perhaps that is fair. But she kills at the behest of others as well. She has tricked. Deceived likewise. When she is desperate, she will use any means she desires.”

He set the tea cup down quietly on the table and looked at Ryoka.

“However. She does evil as well. Half of our number have lost someone to her. I lost my heart, my fiancé. Gaile her husband. The rest bear her no love. Some are in the hunt for the glory of it, like Faigen, who wields the hammer. Or because they see Belavierr’s crimes as unforgivable, like Sylind, the [Archer]. The [Mage Hunter], Erashelle is of that mind, although she may also desire Belavierr’s artifacts. Tagil does. But he would use it for the good of his family, and in truth, the reason matters not.”

He paused. And the lights flickered from the ward-spells. Raim looked at Ryoka and shook his head.

“For all she does good, she does evil. And she is a selfish existence. To live, she would drown cities in blood. She has done so before. She will do it again. I am sworn to protect innocents against evil. Could I ignore Belavierr’s existence? Even if I could—she slew my love.”

Ryoka had no answer to that. She could only hang her head. Ser Raim looked at her and shook his head.

“Perhaps I am wrong. In the past, my Order slew Dragons. They followed their nations, like Belavierr. But some burned and killed and we deemed them a threat. It matters not. Tomorrow I will burn, Ryoka Griffin. Burn with all the enmity I bear Belavierr. My grief, my love for my lost heart—all of it, I will deliver her. Nothing can stop me.”

And that was true. Ryoka had nothing else to say. Exhausted as he was, tired, she saw Raim’s eyes flash. He burned still. And the last ember was waiting. Waiting to flare and die.

To slay Belavierr. And Ryoka could not tell him it was wrong. She could not argue for Belavierr. So she stood. She bowed to Ser Raim.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could wish you luck. I only—”

She couldn’t finish her sentence. Ser Raim smiled.

“Thank you.”

She left the house. Quietly. And Ryoka looked up as the night grew quieter. Even the undead attacks on Riverfarm were slowing. She looked for the fae. But they had vanished. Powerless, Ryoka left the two [Summer Knights] standing guard. She walked through the streets, lost.

“Ivolethe.”

She looked for them. But the fae did not reply. Nor could Ryoka find them, though she looked. Because they did not hang about Ser Raim as he wearily rested. They were not watching him that night, nor the Order of Seasons who did battle. They waited elsewhere. Watching something else.

One of oldest stories. And they wept, then.

 

—-

 

Night had fallen. Ser Raim slept, guarded. Outside, the onslaught against Riverfarm had slowed. But the Order of Seasons remained vigilant, patrolling in every direction, cutting down Belavierr’s minions. And the Hunters rested in their house.

There were four left. Sylind, the [Archer] who had marked Belavierr. Tagil, with his crossbows. Faigen, with hammer and shield. Erashelle, their magic user. As night passed deeper and deeper, they grew more watchful.

They might have slept. But they were alert. Each time the ward-charms flickered, they looked up. But they were guarded well. Even so, all knew that if Belavierr struck, it would be now. Now, or the next day, as they drove their quarry into a corner. So they stayed alert. Vigilant as they partly rested. Each had been on longer hunts, so they guarded their strength. Tended to their arms.

They did not speak of Gaile. Or of Ser Raim’s fate. They were resolved. After a while, Sylind went upstairs, to the second floor of the slanted house. There were few rooms, but she sat upstairs to meditate and check her arrows. After a while, one of their number, Tagil, joined her.

Sylind looked up as he stepped into the room and sat across from her. She said nothing for a while. Neither did he. At last, Sylind spoke.

“You don’t have to watch over me. I’ll shout if I see anything. Her magic won’t work here.”

“Perhaps. But I have seen our havens broken. She could penetrate the wards.”

The female [Archer] raised her brows.

“If she does? I have all my gear on. What magic could bypass our wards and have the strength to kill me?”

“A powerful blood spell. I’ve seen it done before.”

Tagil crouched. His gear was simple, but Sylind saw the dozens of concealed, magical pockets in his armor. Her eyes even saw his equipment, a fortune’s worth. It made him one of the best [Hunters] in the Hunter’s Guild. And he was specialized for his task. As was she, but he was her senior. She shifted uncomfortably.

“Don’t get sentimental near the end of the hunt, Tagil. You’re twice the veteran I am. Belavierr can’t be that much worse than the Witch of the Black Forest, surely? Or Blooddrinker Eval?”

It was unlike Tagil. But the [Hunter] had to be feeling the same nerves she did. Belavierr had fled. They had hoped to take her. Sylind felt like the Stitch Witch was watching her. But she would not fall. So long as Ser Raim stood against her, they could bring her down. Tagil shook his head absently.

“Those [Witches] were monsters. But Belavierr is older than all of them. Age is strength for [Witches]. And her web is widest of all. She puts her hooks into everyone. Everyone from the Griffin Prince of Kilav to the Knight-Commander of the Order of Seasons.”

“You heard what the Knight-Commander said? Are they really going to assail the Order of Seasons? Can Belavierr really threaten them? The Knight-Commander himself and the Grandmasters? How can she do that?”

Tagil shrugged.

“She has the hair of one of their loved ones, perhaps. If they came against her, she would kill them. Perhaps she is trying, but failing. The Griffin Prince is different. He made a pact with her.”

“Really?”

She had heard the rumors. But Belavierr was made of rumors. Tagil nodded. He was checking his crossbows. Running his hands up and down the loading mechanisms. They were different, he and she. She used a longbow, and she had trained for over two decades to obtain her ability and Skills. Tagil used a crossbow, enchanted to reload automatically with his Skills.

Different skillsets, both geared towards the same job. But she was a [Deepforest Huntress], adapted to hunting all kinds. He had one quarry. And his unrest bothered Sylind. What did Tagil sense? The [Hunter] shifted. After another break, he spoke again.

“The share of the bounty. Do you know what I’ll do with it?”

Sylind looked up from inspecting her magical arrows with a frown.

“It goes to your daughter, won’t it? If you’re worried, Tagil, we swore an oath. If you fall—the money will go to Gaile’s relatives. If she has any. Regardless. Even if we fail—it goes to your daughter. The Order of Seasons will make sure of that.”

Tagil didn’t say anything. Sylind paused.

“She’s sick, right? Not even the best [Healers] could cure her.”

“Yes. They can delay the sickness. But not cure it. She’s…tomorrow, if we bring Belavierr, that could change things. With the bounty I’ll earn, I could take her to the fabled Healer of Tenbault.”

Sylind nodded. Even if Tagil sold all of his gear, he might not have afforded her price. But Belavierr was worth more than gold. Wistram had promised treasures to the one who slew her. So had Roshal. The Order of Seasons, the Hunter’s Guild…she could respect Tagil’s motivations.

Then Sylind had a thought. She checked a stone set in her bracer, spoke casually.

“I know the Hunter’s Guild investigated this. But…was your daughter’s sickness magical? Did Belavierr curse her somehow? You’d never have been allowed on this team if so, obviously—”

Her hand lingered near her bow. Tagil didn’t seem to notice. But of course, he did. He paused.

“No. Her sickness isn’t magical. Or if it is, Belavierr had no hand in it. That I’m sure of.”

The stone flickered. Sylind sighed and relaxed. Abashed, she attached the bow to her back and spread her collection of magical arrows, on the floor, inspecting them.

“Sorry. Just jumpy.”

Tagil’s eyes flickered. He was silent for a long moment, and Sylind thought he had taken offense. But then he sighed. And he looked up at her.

“You’re right, Sylind. Belavierr never touched my family. But I met her once, before I volunteered to join this hunt. And she made me an offer then.”

Sylind froze. The bow dug against her holster. But now it was behind her. Tagil sat still. And his eyes locked on hers. The [Huntress] hesitated.

“You turned her down, of course.”

Tagil didn’t reply. His crossbows hung at his sides. Sylind’s heartbeat quickened. Her hand slowly crept forwards, towards her arrows. Tagil watched her. He spoke. Haltingly.

“My daughter is very sick, Sylind. Even if she’s cured, the sickness has worn her away. Even the Healer of Tenbault couldn’t cure that.”

“Tagil.”

“But a [Witch] can do more than any [Healer]. If the deal is fair. And you know Belavierr’s reputation.”

“Tagil. Don’t do this. You turned the offer down, didn’t you?”

Sylind’s hand paused. Tagil looked at her. And his eyes were full of grief. He shook his head slightly. Neither hunter moved.

“The offer was never for then, Sylind. It was for this moment.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know.”

The [Huntress] paused. She stared at him. And he at her. Sylind bit her lip.

Ta—

He moved and she twisted, reaching for her bow—

The crossbow bolt struck her in the chest. Her protective charms exploded. Tagil lowered the crossbow and stared blankly at Sylind.

“I’m sorry.”

He got up and walked downstairs. Erashelle and Faigen looked up from where they sat. Faigen raised his hammer. He was treating it with a compound of silver dust. He frowned.

“Tagil, what was that s—”

The [Hunter] raised his crossbows. The two [Hunters] dove. Tagil fired twice. Faigen howled as the bolt caught him in the throat. Erashelle screamed. Tagil dodged as she pointed her wand. Faigen was charging, breathless, blood running from his chest.

“[Hail of Bolts].”

The crossbow fired again and again. Faigen jerked as the bolts hit him. Again and again. But he kept coming. Even after they found his heart. Tagil backed up. Faigen collapsed, falling onto him. Tagil stepped to one side. Then rolled. He aimed his crossbows. Fired once. Twice.

Erashelle was still alive. The first bolt had gone through her ribs. But it had missed her heart. Both of her hands were nailed to the wall. She kept trying to cast a spell as Tagil walked towards her. He aimed the crossbows. But she was already dying. She spat blood, the bolts blocking her magic.

“You—traitor. Damn you.”

“I’m sorry..”

Tagil’s eyes burned. He looked at her. She spat. Her lung was filling. She coughed, choking the last words out.

“I hope you suffer forever. If there’s anything—hope you—”

Then she died. Tagil stared at her corpse. Then at Faigen. His hands shook. He dropped the crossbows. The [Hunter] fell to his knees, as bile filled his throat. And his tears lasted as long as Erashelle’s blood kept dripping to the floor. And he screamed his damnation.

Then the man stood. And his eyes were empty. But one last purpose moved him onwards. He left the house, left his crossbows. Walked through silent Riverfarm. Past the [Knights] whom he placated with lies. He walked onwards. Out of Riverfarm, slowly following a thread that called him.

She was waiting for him there. At a tree far enough from the village it hadn’t been cut, on a small hill.

Belavierr. The man looked up at her.

“It’s done.”

She nodded. And her eyes shone with orange light. He stared at her with hatred. Regret.

“Raim lives. I’ve done my part. Now. Will she…?”

“Yes. Do you want me to repeat our pact? I have sworn it.”

Belavierr’s voice was cold. Tagil shuddered. He walked up the hill.

“No. Keep your oath, [Witch].

She had left something for him there. And she helped him stand on the stool. Tagil stared at her. He spat into her face. She never blinked.

“I will keep my promise. It will be fulfilled in the hour after your death. Regardless of my fate.”

“I hope Raim burns you away.”

“He may.”

But that was not his business. Tagil closed his eyes. The hemp rope hung around his neck.

“Will you tell him I’m sorry? Will you tell her what I did?”

“I did not promise that.”

“Then I curse you, Belavierr the Witch. I curse you. But save my daughter. I did it for her.”

Tagil took a deep breath. And he stepped off the stool. The noose tugged. His neck snapped.

That was how they found him. As dawn broke, as the three bodies were found inside the warded house by Ryoka Griffin and the [Knights] found they had battled only puppets that collapsed as the sun rose.

He hung there. On the hilltop. From the longest limb of the tree. Ser Raim’s scream still echoed. His despair. Betrayal. The [Hunter] stared sightlessly at the [Summer Knight].

And there she stood. As tall as the hanging body. Her eyes glowing in the light of the rising sun. Raim stared up at Belavierr.

“What did you offer him? What did you give him? His daughter? Was it you?

His hands shook. His face was ashen. Belavierr looked down at him.

“No. But I offered him her life. A charm to protect her. It is already sent.”

“A charm? He betrayed all for a charm?

Raim choked. Belavierr nodded. Her eyes were distant. She smelled of smoke and fire.

“The charm was woven from heartstring and bowstring and the string of the noose. His daughter will receive it, and it will protect her from sickness and harm. It will be cursed with a traitor’s sins. But blessed by a father’s love. She will live a hundred years longer and her gifts will overflow until the day of her death.”

She paused.

“And now, my death, you will no longer find me.”

She turned. Raim uttered a wordless cry. Behind him, Talia raised her sword.

“The Order of Seasons will hunt you down! We know your weakness, Belavierr! We know your daughter—

She wavered as Belavierr turned back. The Stitch Witch stared down at Talia. At the orb from which Knight-Commander Calirn and the Grandmasters of the Order of Season stared. And her eyes widened.

“My daughter. You would use her against me? Very well. Try. For if I am chased, I will flee. If my daughter is held, I will find who takes her and kill them. If she dies killed, I will find who slew her. And they will never die.”

She pointed down at Talia. At the Order, as the body swung behind her. Belavierr’s words echoed and shook the air.

“If the Order of Seasons kills my daughter, I will break their stronghold and slay their families one by one. I will kill their sons and daughters generation upon generation and bring ruin to their lands. I will disappear and bring ruin to Terandria if it takes me all of eternity. I vow the same to anyone who would harm her.”

No one present could meet her eyes but Ser Raim. Knight-Commander Calirn spoke hoarsely.

“This will not go unpunished, Belavierr.”

“Unpunished. Then tell me, little [Knight].”

Belavierr stepped down the hill. Her eyes fixed on Calirn’s. She spread her arms.

“Are we enemies? I have never considered the Order of Seasons my foes. If we are, let there be war and ruin. Until my final hour, I will hound your Order from the shadows and by my craft. Do you wish it, [Knight]? If you wish it, I will show you how I treat my enemies.”

Calirn looked at her. Ser Raim was gathering himself.

“Ser Raim. Can you end it?”

“I cannot follow her if she flees.”

“Her daughter.”

Belavierr waited. Calirn hesitated. He looked at the young [Witch]. And felt his oaths holding his tongue. From the skies, he heard a ringing voice. And he saw them flying down upon his order. The Griffin Queen screamed.

Stay your [Knights], Knight-Commander! Or I will bring war to the Order of Seasons!

“Queen Novakya! We can end Belavierr!”

The Winter’s Watcher called from his position on the battlements. The rest of the order stood within, encased by stone and magic. Novakya landed her Griffin. Her eyes blazed as she lowered the lance.

“If she dies, my son, the Griffin Prince, dies.”

“He is one life. She can be killed. The Spider can be ended once and for all! Your son might survive her death! Is one life not worth risking?”

“He is my son. That is your answer.”

“So be it.”

The Winter’s Watcher drew his sword. Griffons fell, striking at the Order’s stronghold. Calirn felt cold. It was all coming together. He spoke a hoarse word.

“Ser Raim. The Order does not call Belavierr our enemy this day. We will not risk it. Nor can we hold the Stitch Witch’s daughter responsible for her crimes.”

“Knight-Commander. I understand.”

The [Summer Knight]’s voice was very distant. He looked at Belavierr. And she waited. Ser Raim slowly raised his greatsword.

“Belavierr. I am a [Summer Knight] of my Order no longer. But for what you have wrought. Then and now—! You will not flee. Stand. Or I will forswear myself as Gaile did.”

“You swore an oath.”

Raim nodded.

“I did. You have taken everything from me. Even my honor. Stand, Belavierr. And let us end this.”

The Stitch Witch paused. And she looked at her daughter. And she nodded, once. She walked past Raim and turned to face him.

“Come, my death.”

The [Summer Knight] followed her. He paused just once. Talia’s eyes burned and ran with tears. He put a hand out, touching her shoulder gently.

“If I should fall, none of you are to pursue her. Return to the Order. That is an order, Dame Talia.”

“Ser Raim—”

He looked into her eyes and walked on. The [Knight] paused and turned his head.

“Knight-Commander. Grandmasters. It has been my honor.”

“Raim! Don’t do this!”

A voice came from the orb. But the [Summer Knight] walked on. He passed by Ryoka. And she looked at him. His face was set. And his footsteps became fire. He walked towards Belavierr as those gathered watched him go. They shouted. Called his name.

A monster waited for the knight. He stepped towards her. And behind him, the Order of Seasons stood and unsheathed their blades. They raised their swords and saluted him, shouting, weeping.

In Terandria and Riverfarm, the Order of the Season watched him pass. They were not the only ones. The people of Riverfarm screamed. All those who claimed mortality cheered on the [Knight] as he moved forwards. They had seen her evil, so they called to him. End her. End the nightmare. A roar that shook the skies, from a thousand throats. The man raised his sword high, his armor shining, his back straight.

Glory.

There the immortal stood, her back to the dawn. She nodded once, and he advanced, lifting his greatsword as it burned. As he burned. And Ryoka thought she saw Raim smile for just a moment. Then the fire was all-consuming.

She was crying as she watched him go. And the fair folk bowed their heads as he charged. The [Knight] met the [Witch].

This time he screamed first. A wordless cry, with all the rage and fire in his soul. And he struck her. Cutting away the threads that bound. Cutting into her very soul. And she screamed and struck him. He was alone. But he burned. Bright. Brighter, with a fire that struck the shadows. That burned the Stitch Witch away.

They fought. One tore at the other. They staggered. And he fell. He rose as she dug at him, and he screamed her name. His sword swung. And she fell. He tried to finish it. But there was nothing left.

A [Knight] stopped where he stood. He sank down, trying to stand. But a mortal man had burnt away. He fell, reaching. Calling a name. And they watched her. She stood. She was burned. And her eyes no longer glowed. The shadows had left her. The [Witch] rose, gasping, her lungs burning.

Mortal. But alive. Belavierr stood and turned. The Order of Seasons watched her. And Knight-Commander Calirn lowered his head. He turned away.

Triumphant, Belavierr smiled. She looked across the faces of Riverfarm’s folk. The [Knights]. She ignored their horror and wrath. She looked past them, at her coven. She saw the hatred, the despairing hatred and loss in her daughter’s eyes and stopped.

And Belavierr’s smile vanished. She looked at her daughter and reached for her. And then she paused. Her death lay before her. Belavierr looked at him. And then she looked up. At the clear sky. She shaded her eyes, frowning.

“It’s bright.”

And somewhere, somewhere, the man with the wide, uncanny smile was laughing.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

 

6.43 E

(Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn is available on Amazon! If you can, please leave a review or tell people it’s out! Buying is not necessarily necessary. Thanks so much for the support!)

 

Day 60 – Ryoka

 

“She knows it’s not alive.”

Wiskeria spoke softly. Her eyes were shadowed by her pointed hat. Her face pale. She stood in the light, a flickering candle’s illumination in a lantern aided by the embers in a fireplace. They cast long, dancing shadows. But no one was suggesting using the [Light] spell. The silent gathering did not want to see magic.

“She knows it’s fake? You’re sure?”

Prost leaned over the table. The former [Farmer]’s face was pale. He had fought Goblins, lived for decades in Riverfarm. But this had shaken him. Wiskeria looked up. Her yellow-green eyes reflected the lantern’s light. She nodded once.

“She has to. I know the deal she took. At least, in part. It would be hard, very hard, to make something that fooled her against her will. Too much work. Moreover, what would be the point?”

“To trick her?”

Lady Rie sat at the table, flanked by her bodyguard, Geram, and Nesor. She looked up, but the young [Mage] was silent. This magic was beyond him. Wiskeria, the sole [Witch] in the room, shook her head.

“It didn’t feel like that. I can see her magic. My…mother’s. I can’t see all of it. But it looks fair.”

“Fair?”

The word was incredulity. It came from more than one person. Charlay. Durene. Not Ryoka. But from others. Wiskeria tugged her hat lower, hiding her eyes.

“Yes. In a sense. It was fair in that Rehanna gave something and she got something. That…doll is casting a spell on her. It looks like a baby. If you let it, it would probably seem like a baby to you.”

“Why don’t we see it that way, then?”

Wiskeria shook her head.

“Because you don’t want to, Lady Rie. You don’t want to. The magic works on you if you’re willing. Like I said, it’s an easier illusion. But Rehanna wants the doll to be her son. So it is. That’s the nature of the deal. The baby—the doll is hers. And my mother has what she wants.”

And what was that? The listeners exchanged silent looks. In truth, they didn’t need Wiskeria to say. They had seen Rehanna. The woman was aged. In a single day, she had developed grey in her hair. Her body was older. And all of the vitriol, the anger and hatred she had had towards Wiskeria, towards Riverfarm and Laken and the world, all of it was gone.

“So. Is it a threat?”

“No. It’s just a baby. It can’t do anything other than cry.”

“Can it eat? Will it grow?”

The words made Prost’s heart jump. They came from Ryoka. And they were the first she’d uttered since the emergency meeting had been convened. Wiskeria glanced up at the City Runner.

“No. It’s not alive. Not like a String Person. It’s just well-sewn.”

Ryoka nodded. The others relaxed. Durene shook her head and then coughed. She was still weak. Woozy, in fact. The healing burns were still fresh; her body still smelled of smoke. Come to that, Wiskeria was wearing a borrowed tunic and leggings. She’d been literally naked but for a cloak less than ten minutes ago. Ryoka shook her head wearily, feeling her sore feet and tired body from a day of exercise. She hadn’t slept since yesterday morning.

It was late. So late, the sun was rising into the next day, casting long shadows out of the night. But no one was abed, or even thought of it. Tired as she was, Ryoka feared sleep. She feared the sight of that infant, the piercing, familiar wail. But it was not alive. She shivered with fear. But at least she had seen things more terrible.

Most of those standing around the table had not. Ryoka looked at them and saw the horror. But for Wiskeria, it was more than horror. It was sadness. Disgust. Regret. Disappointment.

She had seen this before. So now the task fell to her to explain.

“It was a bargain. There was no malice in it. Not from my mother, at any rate.”

“She didn’t seek Rehanna out because the woman destroyed your brew, Wiskeria? You’re sure?”

Prost fixed Wiskeria with a searching eye. The [Witch] barely hesitated.

“No. My mother doesn’t mix business with vengeance. If she was angry at Rehanna, she would have killed her or done something far worse. I know what we saw. But it only concerns Rehanna.”

“In that case, what of Belavierr’s former crimes?”

Lady Rie looked at Ryoka. The City Runner glanced down at the scroll of parchment and unrolled it. She held it down with the inkpot Nesor had used to write it and stared at Fierre’s message.

Bad news often came too late. Ryoka stared down at the…list of Belavierr’s crimes. Her stomach lurched. It was long. Long, disturbing, even hilarious in parts. And then just horrifying because it was probably true.

“Mass-murder of a city. Is that even possible? Seduction of a [Prince]?”

“Allegedly.”

Charlay unhelpfully pointed that out. The entire room glared at her and she quailed.

“What? It says that there.”

“That’s probably a lie.”

Wiskeria looked uncomfortable. But she hadn’t been surprised by the list of crimes either. On the other side of the table, Rie and Prost were greatly disturbed.

“This goes beyond regular crime. If even a tenth of what’s written here is true, let alone the bounty, Belavierr is a monster on the same level as…”

“The Necromancer? The Bloodfeast Raiders? Or this Circle of Thorns?”

Prost looked at Rie. She paused, her face pale, and nodded.

“Any, yes. Why is Belavierr’s name not known the world over?”

“Perhaps because she doesn’t kill armies. She comes and goes. She’s most dangerous when people try to attack her, or stop her. I know what my mother is capable of. But believe me, she didn’t come to harm Riverfarm. I know how she thinks. For her, this is business. And her coming with the coven is because they need to deal with Laken. Because of me.”

Wiskeria looked around the table. No one could immediately respond. Belavierr didn’t seem harmless. Ryoka recalled the thing in Rehanna’s arms. It had been skillfully done. Everything was right. In fact, it was far, far more realistic than any mannequin baby from her world. Plastic could not take the shape cloth had.

Bu it was not alive. But it moved and cried. Ryoka’s skin crawled and she felt her stomach heave, trying to eject reality.

However, she had seen worse. Worse, and better. More glorious magic, more tragedy. She had seen a Dragon. So it was Ryoka who stirred as the first rays of dawn crept into Rie’s home. She raised a hand as the light struck her face. Her two missing fingers made the beams blind Ryoka anyways. The young Asian woman sighed, then stood.

“Well, we’ve sent a message to Laken. And everyone’s inside, if not asleep. Rehanna’s being watched. So I think I’ll talk with the coven tomorrow. I mean, later today. Maybe I’ll take a nap before that. Unless anyone has anything else to say?”

She squinted at the brightening window. Ryoka stared at the rising sun and wondered if four hours would allow her to function. Maybe with a stamina potion. She’d trade someone else’s left leg for coffee. Then she realized everyone was looking at her.

“What?”

“We can’t just go back to work. We haven’t resolved this issue, Miss Griffin!”

Lady Rie was quietly horrified. She rose, smoothing her dress.

“Emperor Laken is sure to respond, but we must make some announcement, or preparations—”

“About what? Belavierr? Wiskeria said she made an honest deal. We can watch Rehanna, and I’ll ask the [Witches] like I said, but what else can we do? Make plans against Belavierr?”

Ryoka stared at Rie and then shook her head. She raised her hands.

“If you want to do that, feel free, Lady Rie. But I’m not going to. Belavierr’s not a threat right now. And I’d like to keep her that way.”

Lady Rie pursed her lips, vexed.

“But if she were to endanger us—”

“We’ll do what? What plans could we make? If she attacks us, how many of us even get away? Is Riverfarm still standing?”

The City Runner stared around the room. Lady Rie went pale and Geram, the [Fistfighter], shifted. He looked uneasily at one arm, as if trying to imagine stopping Wiskeria with that. Ryoka glanced at Wiskeria.

“I don’t feel like making useless plans. Especially when we’re all tired. We have a lot of new arrivals in Riverfarm thanks to the aid mission. Mister Prost, they all have homes, but I’ll bet they’re reconsidering their choices. We should put them to work, even if everyone’s tired.”

The [Steward] started. He looked up and nodded.

“I can do that. We’ll all be sleeping in late, but—yes. We should get some sleep. All of us.”

He stood up. Lady Rie looked at him.

“Prost—!”

“Miss Griffin’s right, Lady Rie. There’s no sense in letting the fields go to waste or standing about. Work will keep folk’s mind off it. But I will tell Beniar to keep his [Riders] close to the village. The [Bandits] aside—”

He glanced at Wiskeria. Her walking out of a [Fireball] unscathed was small potatoes compared to the rest of tonight’s events, but it did merit some attention.

“—we’ll get back to work. Miss Griffin, talk to the [Witches] by all means. I’ll deal with what I can do, and wait for his Majesty’s orders.”

He nodded to the others. Lady Rie protested, but that was that. In truth, everyone was too tired to think. They just left the house. But sleep was hard to find, even exhausted. No one could forget the baby.

 

—-

 

The baby. Ryoka woke up in Durene’s cottage seven hours later. It was already late morning, so she got up cautiously, only to find Charlay staring right at her. The Centauress’ eyes were sunken.

“I dreamt about screaming babies.”

“You did?”

“Mhm.”

Charlay knelt on her horse legs as Ryoka got up. The City Runner stared at Durene’s kitchen, and decided she didn’t have the strength to make a hot meal. It wasn’t that kind of day. Some days you didn’t want food to make you feel good because it couldn’t. She dug in her pack and pulled out some nuts and a couple dried fruits. Charlay copied her and came up with some dried oats and nuts.

They ate, quietly. It felt like a wake, to Ryoka. It was almost a relief when Frostwing dove from her perch and tried to steal all of Ryoka’s nuts. That woke Durene up. She joined them, and after tossing potatoes out at the Mossbear lying in the remains of Durene’s garden, they found Wiskeria.

She was lying in her tent. Awake. She crawled out and stared at them. Like Charlay, her eyes were worn by exhaustion. She stared up at Ryoka. At Durene. Charlay.

Ryoka could see the looks on her companions’ faces. They were remembering the baby. But that wasn’t Wiskeria’s fault. In no way had she condoned or helped that occur. It was only that Belavierr was her mother. And that she was a [Witch]. Ryoka looked down at Wiskeria’s face. To her, it seemed, both meant she was partly guilty.

“Uh. Morning. Want some nuts? Charlay’s got oats if you’re interested.”

Wiskeria blinked as Ryoka offered her the travel rations. The comment Ryoka made was incredibly stupid. But it helped break the gravitas of the day. Durene snorted a bit, and Charlay eyed Ryoka.

“I thought you hated my oats.”

“I did. Maybe Wiskeria’s allergic to nuts, though.”

“Um. Thanks.”

The [Witch] slowly got up. She faced Ryoka. The City Runner gave her a half-smile.

“Shall we?”

 

—-

 

The strange mood filled the village. Not exactly horror, not in the light of the day. And not grieving; no one had died. But a strange, quiet mood. Like that after some huge tragedy too large to encompass. Unease, that was it. Ryoka looked at the quiet faces, the way no one, not even children, made loud sounds.

As if it were against the rules. As if they were all dreaming. But in time, people began waking up. Someone made a loud sound as she slapped two pots together and everyone jumped. Someone else made an inane joke about oats and Humans and no one laughed, but the world became normal. Ryoka and Charlay gave each other high-fives and Chimmy was able to run up. And like that, Riverfarm became normal.

And Ryoka realized she was actually hungry for food instead of a handful of nuts and fruit. She joined the queue in front of one of the cooking halls, where food was being passed out. Today’s was, almost predictably, a stew. They were easy to make, but someone—Prost—had decided to let the [Cooks] add a generous helping of lard and some of the meat as well as some really nice bread.

It wasn’t quite as well-risen as something from Ryoka’s world—she blamed a lack of baking powder—but it was just as tasty. And hot! She ate greedily and found Charlay stuffing her face as well.

“Charlay, can you eat meat?”

“Don’t be racist, Ryoka. Of course I can. But I don’t eat too much; it goes straight to my lower belly.”

Ryoka eyed the Centauress’ lower half. She couldn’t argue with that. She saw people standing around, talking, until men and women began walking through the crowd with authority, shouting.

“Alright! Enough time stuffing faces! We need to get those fields tilled, or do you think our seeds will sprout in fresh air? [Farmers], with me! You new folk, anyone who’s got a farming class, come with me until Prost sorts you out!”

“Building team! Muster up!”

“Ladies and children, we’ll be setting up those drying racks. And washing clothes and seeing to the rest of our tasks! It’s a fine day to dry what needs drying, so we will be cleaning and letting the air do our work—”

Ryoka had another reason to admire Prost, then. The unsure crowd began to move with a purpose. From her seat, she watched a group of [Farmers] get up. Her hermit-friend, the spear fisher, was good-naturedly hefting his spear and arguing with Beycalt, who was clearly not about to let him wander off and pursue his passion and calling. A group of farmers, including Mister Ram, trooped past Ryoka, groaning.

“We’re going to have to water the fields, aren’t we? It’s too damn bright and we need rain! At least the river’s nearby.”

“Stop complaining. We’ve any number of hands and the river’s close by. And some of us have [Water-Retaining Soil]. But would you rather wait for rain, with nary a cloud in sight?”

“It’ll be half a day of watering! We’ll have to do it all by hand!”

“Well, you were complaining about the rain right before this. Make up your mind, man!”

One of the female [Farmers] slapped a man on the back. He groaned.

“Can’t [Witches] conjure rain?”

Everyone in earshot paused at that. The other [Farmers] scowled at the loudmouth and half of them smacked or elbowed him. The woman [Farmer] glowered.

“Yeah. How much of your soul do you think they want for a shower? Forget it. Let’s get some buckets. We do need a canal or two, though…”

They moved out of the mess hall. Ryoka sighed. The village was still mostly in shock. She was certain that would change. She got up and bussed her and Charlay’s dishes.

Yes, shock. You could see that on most faces. With the daylight hitting them and the dark night behind, it was easy for people to laugh off what they’d seen. Or pretend it wasn’t as real. Just a doll, perhaps. Some trickery of magic. Not…

It was a bad memory. Until you heard a baby’s wail and looked about wildly for it. Twice it happened and both times everyone in earshot froze, and then laughed. But no one laughed when they went past the house where Rehanna lived.

She was by herself. She had her own house; no one would live under the same roof. And no one had touched her baby. Rehanna grew violent at the very idea of putting it…away…when it had been brought up. Otherwise, though, she was—happy.

That was the disturbing part. Ryoka saw a pair of women awkwardly standing outside, like guards. But whether it was to protect Rehanna from someone else, or from herself, no one could say.

The mood was quiet. But Ryoka was certain it wouldn’t last. Rehanna would have to come out of that house eventually. And then people would have to face what Belavierr had done. They could ignore it, but the thing about magic, real magic, was that it didn’t tarnish in daylight. They would see and have to deal with it again, and then all the chickens would come home to roost.

Or crows. They were gathered with the [Witches]. Six of them had gathered near Eloise and Hedag’s temporary home. The streets were absolutely deserted around the houses as Ryoka and Wiskeria approached. And even the [Witches] looked—

Okay, half of them were relaxed as could be. Mavika, Alevica, Califor, and Hedag were unconcerned as could be. Hedag and Alevica were arguing over the last heel of warm bread when Ryoka found them.

Eloise and Nanette were different. The youngest [Witch] was wide-eyed, just as sleep-deprived as the rest of Riverfarm. Uneasy too; she kept looking at Califor, and the [Witch] would occasionally say something that would make Nanette relax. As for Eloise…she drank her tea quietly.

“Uh…”

“Go away, wind’s child. We aren’t in the mood to speak of what your eyes and ears can see. No more are we here to comfort thee.”

Mavika was feeding half her breakfast to a raven perched on her shoulder. She cast Ryoka a black-eyed glance and Ryoka hesitated. But then she sat down at the table. Affronted, Mavika’s eyes narrowed, and Wiskeria hastily came up behind Ryoka.

“Ryoka has a few questions, Witch Mavika. On behalf of Riverfarm. They need some assurance.”

“Of what? The doll? It was—”

“—a deal fairly struck. So Wiskeria’s said, Witch Mavika. A good morning to you, by the way.”

Ryoka spoke tactfully. Mavika eyed her and clicked her tongue. Alevica grinned as Hedag grabbed the last heel of bread.

“Then why do you ask?”

“To be sure it was fair. No offense to Witch Wiskeria, but Belavierr is a powerful magic-user. And I know some stories about [Witches]. Very few of them have fair endings.”

The coven went quiet. Mavika broke off some bread and ate it. She replied, chewing, as her raven snatched the last of the break.

“And do you hold these tales to be true of all [Witches], wind’s child?”

“No. But I haven’t met any [Witches] before all of you. And Belavierr is unique.”

Not even Mavika could contest that. She sat back, looking annoyed, and Ryoka took that as acceptance. She looked around.

“The baby. I get that Belavierr traded it to Rehanna. Can you all tell me why? And how she struck the deal?”

The [Witches] looked at Ryoka. Then Alevica leaned over to Nanette.

“And here I thought she was halfway smart.”

Nanette’s somber expression turned into twitching facial muscles. She pulled her hat off her head to cover a giggle. Califor looked disapproving. Hedag boomed with laughter. She slapped the table, making all the cups jump and leaned forwards.

“Don’t insult the girl, Alevica! Miss Runner! You want to know what bargain was struck? Can’t you see what it was? Or do you ask if there’s some other trick to it? If so, I’ll tell you what any [Witch] would: there’s not and it was honestly done!”

She eyed Ryoka, her huge face smiling beneath her brown hat. Of all the [Witches], Ryoka had spoken to Hedag the least. Not at all in fact; she’d been playing with the children all of yesterday. She looked at Ryoka, eyes bright beneath the huge grin.

“Califor said you understood our craft. So you tell me, Miss Runner Ryoka, what was the nature of the bargain? It should be plain to see.”

Ryoka thought for a moment.

“It looks like Belavierr made the doll for Rehanna because the woman missed her child. In exchange for part of Rehanna’s life. Or her lifespan. But—it’s not that simple, is it?”

“Why not?”

Hedag’s smile was challenging. Ryoka turned to look at Wiskeria and got a nod. That was what Wiskeria had said, but…Ryoka frowned.

“But it’s just a doll. What makes it worth…a decade of life?”

“It looks like her child. Sounds like it too.”

The Asian girl blinked. That made sense. But…it did feel too simple. She raised her eyebrows, meeting Hedag’s gaze.

“So it’s not going to disappear or fall apart or…suck the life out of her?”

“Why would Belavierr make a working that didn’t grant happiness? She has a reputation to uphold.”

That question came from Califor. The [Witch] looked peeved at Ryoka’s questions. The City Runner shook her head.

“But it’s just a doll. It’s not worth…does it eat? Will it grow up?”

The [Witches] shrugged, all but one. That was Eloise. The oldest-looking [Witch] sighed and put down her cup. She regarded Ryoka over it, and her voice was quiet.

“It will be a baby forever. It may even eat. I don’t care to know. And into it, it will take Rehanna’s grief. For her, it is her baby, and perhaps she might even dream her husband is just around the corner, laughing, as he holds it. It is…just that, Miss Griffin. Just that, but too much nevertheless. Just a spell. An illusion of…happiness.”

The short [Witch] stood up. And calmly added water to her tea kettle until it was steaming again. She looked at Ryoka as she made tea, serving it around.

“I believe I told Lady Rie when Belavierr sought Rehanna that we had a difference of opinion. And that is the truth. Belavierr and I both deal with what you understand to be grieving souls, Miss Griffin. Of course, you know that my craft helps all sorts, from the troubled to those simply who wish a day to be happier for a moment. But Belavierr seeks out those who have lost.”

“Her craft.”

The [Witches] nodded as one. Ryoka looked back at Eloise.

“So the doll—”

“Is a doll. But it is not as simple as you seem to think, Miss Griffin. The magic on it is not simple.”

“I know that, but—”

“It makes her believe the baby is real. And if you would let yourself believe, you would see it as such. And the enchantment will last as long as Rehanna lives. Perhaps longer. It will not fade, Miss Ryoka. The baby will be hers. And because of it, Rehanna is happy.”

Eloise put down her cup with a clink on her saucer. She looked up, and her gaze held Ryoka’s. The City Runner sat still. Eloise poured her a cup.

“She is happy. And I hope, she will continue to be. The doll will help with that, I think. It will make tragic days hurt less. It is not all-powerful. But she will give it strength. Until she decides she has no need of it.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“Then it will be her child, sweet, and there for her to love until the day she dies. Or it is taken from her.”

Eloise sat down. She looked at Ryoka, her face tired. Her eyes direct.

“There is no trickery in the doll. No function in it to steal Rehanna’s life or emotions. She already gave Belavierr her price. Belavierr has no need to siphon her life away. Again—it was a bargain struck between the two. And willingly given things are worth far more than stolen worth.”

“But—”

Ryoka struggled for words. She had seen worse. But this bothered her. Because this was no majestic Dragon and his hoard which could be bargained for, where even his smallest trinkets were things of incredible worth. And it was no Necromancer, who committed terrible evils because he could.

It was so…small. A petty magic in one sense. The doll wasn’t real. But it would make Rehanna happy forever. In that sense, it was grand. Petty and grand and—a [Witch]’s magic. Ryoka sat back, conflicted. She sipped the tea automatically, then looked up.

“Okay. Thank you for explaining it to me. I have only one last question. Was it a good deal for Rehanna? It seemed like Belavierr made the doll quickly. So did she pay too much? Was it fair? Was there a better deal she could have struck?”

The coven looked at her. Old and young. Even Wiskeria. And for one moment, they were united. All seven smiled, or laughed, or shrugged. And they replied in different words, but with the same message.

“It depends on her.”

 

—-

 

[Witches]. They were about bargains and emotion. No—give and take. As Ryoka went for a run on the dry, warm day, she thought about Rehanna. It was too bright outside. The skies too blue. It felt like summer had come, even though according to Prost’s internal calendar they still had time yet.

Either way, it was all too easy to run and forget about yesterday. At least for a moment. But the baby—Ryoka didn’t want to avoid it. After her meeting with Eloise, she had decided there was only one logical step. To psyche herself up for it, Ryoka went on a brisk run.

There was nothing eventful about the run itself. Ryoka was doing a big lap around Riverfarm, avoiding rocks or patches of nettle-like plants. What was interesting was the man she met who stepped out behind a tree, about two miles south of Riverfarm. Ryoka saw him, jerked in surprise, and doubled left as she reached for a potion at her belt.

The wind blew fiercely, and then died. It was acting up here. At the worst moment. Ryoka was tensed—but the man held up two hands.

“Peace, Miss Runner! I come in peace, on my honor! Might I have a word?”

He smiled with all his teeth, and Ryoka instantly recognized him. The man that Charlay had met yesterday. The same one Rie had said was lurking around Riverfarm. She grabbed a tripvine bag and held it, but didn’t yank it loose and throw it. She halted, panting.

“Can I help you, sir? I’m a City Runner, but I’m not looking for any deliveries—”

“Nothing of the sort, Miss! I’m just a wanderer, looking to speak to someone. Might I have a word?”

He stepped forwards, and Ryoka took his full measure now. Including his clothes. Instantly, Ryoka’s eyes widened. Because she recognized the style of the garb he wore. It was so easy for Charlay or anyone else to mistake. And their descriptions were all generic because describing clothing was hard unless you had the background and terminology.

The man had a hat, yes. Dark clothes. But the style was…Ryoka fixed on the long-sleeved, trench coat-like design. The gloved hands and what might be armor concealed underneath the cloth. But light armor, nothing heavy. And the hat! That gave him away too.

It was a capotain, conical and tall, complete with a buckle on the hat. It didn’t need to be a buckle. It could have been an insignia. Or left blank. But the hat, the style of it was iconic as if the man had owned two swords and possessed cat-eyes.

The dress was a costume. A symbol. The hat alone—it probably wasn’t totally real to what pilgrims might have looked like in the 1600’s. And it wasn’t a style that existed in Ryoka’s world except as an icon, a particular style as old as…[Witches]. But it told her something, in silent words.

To her it said [Witch Hunter]. The man stepped forwards, smiling that strange smile. And Ryoka hesitated. Because his presence put pieces together in her head.

Bounty on Belavierr. The [Bandits] targeting Wiskeria, a [Witch]. The stranger asking questions about Riverfarm. The Circle of Thorns?

Pieces. But she wasn’t sure. So Ryoka warily rested on the balls of her feet, ready to move. She couldn’t see if the man was armed. His hands were spread away from his body. He was trying to be…friendly. He nodded to her, his eyes flicking to her belt.

“Good day to you, Miss Runner. I hear you’re having a bit of trouble with [Witches]. May I ask what they’re up to in Riverfarm? I’ve got my head against the ground so to speak, but rumor is hard to sort from fact sometimes.”

“Who are you?”

“Just a traveller—”

“Really? Because you look like a [Witch Hunter].”

Ryoka warily circled the man. He turned with her, raising his brows. And she detected a hint of wariness. The wind blew cautiously around Ryoka’s shoulders.

“That’s a bold assumption and claim to make upon seeing someone, Miss City Runner.”

“What about a man who’s been spotted around Riverfarm asking questions about [Witches]? And who dresses like half the [Witch Hunters] I’ve ever seen?”

Only if you counted movies and other media from her world. But it was a gamble Ryoka was willing to take. And the way the man’s eyes flickered was a dead giveaway. He lowered his hands, sighing.

“Ah. You’ve caught me out, Miss. Are you from the north? Terandria, perhaps? Izril has few of my kind I’m sorry to say, although we’ve been present in greater numbers in times past.”

Ryoka refused to nod or shake her head.

“Let’s just say I’m familiar with your look. Mind walking back with me to Riverfarm? The [Lady] in charge of this region would like to meet you. And have a chat.”

The man glanced over Ryoka’s shoulder, back towards Riverfarm. He shook his head, still slightly smiling.

“I’d prefer not to get closer. [Witches] tend to see right through me and I think I’d be at odds with them. Which I’d rather not be, given which ones are about.”

“So you’re after them? On the hunt?”

“I prefer not to say, Miss. I’m just a traveller, asking questions. If you take umbrage to me, I’ll gladly depart.”

The man took a step back, as if to hide behind a tree. Ryoka frowned. She didn’t want him at her back. She glanced around warily. Was there anyone in earshot? No. Damn.

“Let’s be straight. Are you a [Witch Hunter]? Yes or no. Because these [Witches] are under an [Emperor]’s protection.”

The man looked at her warily.

“If I was, would you tell the coven in that village, Miss Runner? Because I have an attachment to my body. And I’d rather not end up in pieces. Which I think I would if any of the…serious ones met me. I’m sure you understand. And I understand your [Emperor] isn’t here. Which is why I am. All-seeing [Emperors] sound as bad as [Witches]. But I might take a risk on him. I know I won’t survive meeting some of them.

The young woman paused.

“…They wouldn’t kill you. Look, that coven’s not evil. Most of them.”

“You’re willing to risk my life on it?”

The [Witch Hunter] smiled, eyes wary. Ryoka frowned. She doubted she could force him to come back with her—no, she wouldn’t even risk it. She couldn’t see a weapon on him, but she wasn’t an expert and if he was a [Witch Hunter] he could probably kill her easily. She warily gestured with her free hand behind her.

“They’re not evil. None of them are. If this is about the Marshlands Coven or Belavierr—”

“The Stitch Witch. So she is in that village?”

The man raised his brows until they disappeared beneath his cap. Ryoka cursed.

“If she is, so what? She’s done nothing wrong.”

“Ah, that explains why everyone I’ve met has sung her praises.”

The [Hunter] gave her a sardonic look. Ryoka glared at him.

“Someone put a bounty on [Witches] via [Bandits]. Was that you?”

“Do you know what the Stitch Witch’s crimes are? They’re enough to put her on any watch list in any major city in the world. But it’s rare to ever find her in one place long.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe that’s because people like you hunt her down. I’m warning you. Stay away from this village and the [Witches].”

“Is that a threat?”

The man tilted his head. His eyes were locked on Ryoka’s. She gritted her teeth, holding the bag with a sweaty hand. She began backing away. If she found Beniar—she snapped as she stepped backwards.

“Yes. Leave all the [Witches] alone. They’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You mean, they haven’t killed anyone yet. But they will. And the baby’s only the start.”

Ryoka spun around. The man was looking straight at her. He nodded.

“People talk. The Stitch Witch may have come here for her daughter, Miss Runner. Or perhaps this bargain with your [Emperor] you speak so highly of. But if you have a chance, look into her crimes. She’s wiped out cities that make this one look like a patch of sand. She’s a threat, and I will swear that on any truth spell you’d ask of me. I’m here to deal with threats.”

“Under whose authority? Your own? What gives you the right to judge them?”

Ryoka snapped. The man shook his head.

“Just remember what I said. And when they show you their true nature, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Good chatting, Miss City Runner. If you tell those [Witches] about me, at least be kind enough to bury what remains, would you?”

He stepped behind the tree and disappeared. Ryoka backed up, her eyes on the tree. But she saw no flicker of movement, or glint of metal. She still didn’t turn around until she was four hundred feet away. Then she ran in a zig-zag pattern until she got back to Riverfarm. And by the time she found Beniar and he and his [Riders] went back, the man was gone. But Ryoka had known that would happen. She cursed anyways.

But at least that was another piece of the puzzle. A [Witch Hunter]. She was almost certain of it. And he’d pretty much confessed to it when she put together his dress. But that look was one thing. Him sticking around, confirming the [Witch]’s presence was another. Why was he here? Waiting?

Because he was waiting for something. And that certainty bothered Ryoka. What was he waiting for? And what could she do about it? She couldn’t have taken him, she was certain. She was just a City Runner. So Ryoka did what she could do. She headed back into the village and went to see Rehanna.

 

 

Day 60 – Durene

 

The reply from Laken was simple. Durene squinted at it over Prost’s shoulder.

 

Let no one strike a deal with Witch Belavierr. But do not try her yet. Collect evidence for a trial which I will preside over. If this Coven is to be trusted, see what they do when no bargains are struck. And give Rehanna every kindness. Do not take the baby away. Leave her be.

–[Emperor] Laken Godart

 

Just that. And it didn’t exactly fill Durene. But it was something. And Prost set out to fulfill Laken’s orders the instant he received them.

“Witch Belavierr!”

A group of men and women, Beycalt, Ram, and Beniar and his [Riders] among them followed Prost as he confronted the [Witch] in the street. Belavierr was walking. Slowly, walking down the street.

It was an ordinary thing and obviously everyone did it. But Durene shuddered as she stood behind Prost, to see Belavierr even do that. After last night, she couldn’t help but suspect even that innocuous action of some dark meaning. Belavierr didn’t turn as Prost strode towards him. The [Steward] called out again.

Witch Belavierr! By order of his Majesty, Laken Godart, no one in Riverfarm is to strike a deal with you! Until his Majesty arrives, you are to refrain from attempting to bargain with anyone in the Unseen Empire! Is that clear?

He hurled the last words at full-volume at Belavierr, barely ten feet from her. And not once did the [Witch] turn her head.

“Witch Belavierr! Do you hear me?”

She walked right past him. Prost’s voice gave out for a second. He faltered, staring as she continued down the street. Then he whirled.

Two of the [Witches] were gathered, inspecting a chess board. Eloise and Alevica. The older [Witch] and the Witch Runner were playing, much to the [Carpenter] Jelov’s displeasure. But he’d retreated into his open-air studio rather than confront the two. Prost strode over and Eloise looked up. She regarded him and the small crowd of Riverfarm’s authority behind him.

“Witch Eloise. I have a message from Emperor Godart—”

“I heard, Steward Prost.”

“Witch Belavierr does not appear to have heard me. Will she heed Emperor Laken’s request? If she refuses, we shall have to…”

Prost’s voice trailed off. And Durene wasn’t certain herself of what Prost would do. She’d been eying Belavierr. The woman was tall, but Durene was still taller, and a lot bigger. She could surely grab Belavierr and restrain her. But somehow, Durene’s image of that scene never quite seemed to work in her head. Eloise shook her head in reply to Prost’s question.

“She may not have heard you, Steward Prost. But we shall attempt to remind her if she attempts to practice her craft again. That I may promise you.”

“Didn’t hear—

Ram made a strangled noise. Eloise looked at him and adjusted her hat.

“That is who she is, I’m afraid. And I thank your [Emperor] for his considered response. We will attempt to honor his request.”

Attempt to honor. Even Durene knew that wasn’t a promise. But what could be done. Annoyed, Prost dismissed the crowd. Which left Durene to look for her house-guests as the sun set.

She’d been watering the fields all day. Some of the [Farmers] had been used to irrigation, but the newly-planted fields didn’t have them yet. It wasn’t too hard to draw water from the river, and in truth, the crops would have survived longer without rain—it was just that to grow them quickly, you wanted a lot of water. Which meant even Durene’s arms hurt from hauling wheelbarrows of water from the river.

That was what she had occupied herself with, and Charlay had actually pitched in! The Centauress had dragged water over to the [Farmers] and only stolen a few handfuls of wheat to snack on. On the other hand, Wiskeria and Ryoka had refrained from helping and instead gone off on their own ways. Durene had no idea what they’d done all day. But she found both at her cottage when she returned with food for a meal.

Ryoka was sitting in Durene’s cottage, staring at a wall. Frostwing was pecking at a handful of nuts. Wiskeria was in her tent. Durene hesitated, but decided to see Ryoka first.

“Ahem. Hi. I brought dinner.”

Durene hefted the basket as she came in. Ryoka turned. Durene was alone; Charlay had stayed in Riverfarm to eat food there before coming back to the cottage for a second dinner. Ryoka blinked at the half-Troll girl.

“Durene.”

“Ryoka.”

The two regarded each other. After their last conversation where Ryoka had told Durene she couldn’t help her, the two hadn’t really spoken. But, strangely, after the [Bandits] and the not-baby, all their earlier tension had vanished. A large crisis was a wonderful unifier. Durene began unpacking her bag and after a second, Ryoka got up and tried to help.

Tried, because Durene really knew her kitchen better than Ryoka. But the other young woman was determined, and she could peel potatoes—even if her first reaction was to throw away the skins.

“You can eat those, you know.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

The two worked in silence for a moment. Durene was making a cheesy scallop dish, which was really exorbitant, but the first cheeses had been finished and Prost had given Durene some to take back with some milk. It was going to be a lovely feast, and one Durene felt was needed. She was concentrating on that, but she knew Ryoka was deep in thought. The City Runner was absently working, her brows drawn. And after a while, she spoke.

“Laken told you about my world, didn’t he?”

Durene jumped and sliced her hand with her kitchen knife. Ryoka hissed, but Durene waved her hand.

“It’s alright! Didn’t even get through the first layer of skin!”

“Oh. Right. [Iron Skin], huh? That’s a great Skill.”

“Um. No. Even before I had the Skill, I never cut myself.”

“Really?”

Ryoka looked impressed. Durene smiled. She clenched her hand absently as she got back to work. She could still remember the thump as she hit the [Bandits]. Strange, to be making food now. After a moment, she recalled what Ryoka had said.

“Your world?”

“That’s right. You know about it, right? Laken told you everything?”

Ryoka glanced up. Her brown eyes were searching. Durene paused. Ryoka had hated talking about anything from her world, especially possibly inventions. The half-Troll girl nodded at last.

“A bit. Well, he told me lots of stories. I can’t believe most of it, but I know…about airplanes? Cars? Um…electricity and the internet? Guns?”

“Huh. Those are the basics, I guess.”

“Well, he talked about more, but yeah. Why?”

The City Runner was silent as she chopped a potato.

“I went to see Rehanna.”

Durene looked up, missed her potato and brought the blade down on her fingers. Ryoka stared again. Abashed, Durene cleared her throat.

“Oh. Is she—”

“She’s okay. Actually, she’s pretty good. She was asking for work to do, so I…got her a job sewing. She’s a [Seamstress], you know.”

“I didn’t.”

“Well, she’s making clothes. For the…baby.”

“The doll?”

“Her baby. And she’s going to make more for infants and newborns. Which is a good idea, to be honest. They need special clothing. So I got her what she needed.”

“Huh. That’s sort of ironic, her being a [Seamstress] and Belavierr—”

“Yes.”

Silence. Durene kept cutting, although it seemed like Ryoka was edging her hands away from Durene’s knife. After a bit, Ryoka continued.

“So. My world. Has Laken told you about modern medicine?”

“A bit. Just like…you can reattach hands. Or make these medicines—drugs—which aren’t potions, but can cure all kinds of things. But you don’t have potions, so you’re behind in a lot of ways.”

The comment made Ryoka smile, just like it had Laken. She put a few potato slices in the pan as Durene got some firewood out for her stone stove.

“Hm. Yeah, I suppose you could say that. But has he talked about how we deal with sickness other than uh, physical?”

“No…”

Ryoka nodded. She watched as Durene began to strike her flint and tinder on the kindling. She crouched, absently.

“I was thinking about the deal Rehanna made. And the effects.”

“She looks older. Is she going to die soon?”

“What? No. I think she’s about…fifty. And she was in her thirties, maybe. Maybe she’s lost more time, but she should have anywhere from a decade to fifty more years. But she will die earlier.”

“Yeah.”

“Even so. Was it a good deal?”

Durene paused as she put her milk and cheese-covered scallops over the growing fire.

“What? That doll’s awful! Did you see it?”

Ryoka met her eyes and nodded.

“Yes. I did. And that’s why I’m thinking. Uh, your hand’s in the fire, by the way.”

“Oops.”

Durene put the pan over the hot fire. She’d have to watch the scallops to make sure the part over the fire didn’t get too hot and burn. She tended to her dish as Ryoka went on.

“We don’t make things like that…doll. But we do prescribe medication for ill people. There are a lot of parallels between what we do in my world and what the [Witches] do. I think that’s what Eloise does, in a way. She’s a therapist. And a pharmacist if her teas are magical.”

“I have no idea what those are. Are they like [Doctors]? Laken says your world has [Doctors] instead of [Healers].”

“Specialized [Doctors], yeah. But that’s my point. Belavierr—she’s a different sort. She took Rehanna’s life, yes. And her hate. But she gave her…in my world, we have medicines that really change you. Even our painkillers just…take away pain. Morphine. And we prescribe medicine for depression. Not for loss—unless we diagnose it as needing treatment. But medicine, therapy—magic’s different, yet similar, right?”

Durene didn’t know where Ryoka was going with this. But she nodded as she watched the fire, and Ryoka out of the corner of her eye. The young woman was pacing.

“You could argue that Belavierr’s just a—a—she’s giving Rehanna a vision of her baby. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Yep. It’s not real.

“No—that’s not the problem, Durene. It’s what Rehanna paid. She gave up part of her life. That’s the real problem. Otherwise, what’s the problem with the baby if it had been given freely?”

Durene opened her mouth to protest that the baby was creepy, had given her nightmares—but Ryoka was right. It hadn’t done anything to anyone. Except Rehanna.

“Isn’t what it’s doing to Rehanna bad?”

“What? Making her happy? I was thinking about that. It’s a mental crutch. She’s dependent on that and anyone could tell you that’s unhealthy. But—”

She shook her head.

“The main problem is what Belavierr took from Rehanna. She thought it was fair. But she wasn’t in her right mind when she made that deal. Again, not everyone is. If we fault Rehanna for making a deal while she’s grieving, what about someone who…drinks when they’re depressed, or if they’ve just lost a friend? A wife? They have a right to do what they want to themselves. If they endanger themselves, that’s another thing, but is this wrong? Rehanna’s harmed herself. But then again—”

Ryoka had never talked this much in Durene’s presence. Ever. The half-Troll girl said as much as she carefully checked her baking scallops, all without gloves. Ryoka smiled bitterly.

“I’m a regular chatterbox when it comes to debates or issues like this. Moral ones, I mean. I’m just trying to work out whether it’s right or not. Objectively. Is the baby good for Rehanna if you take out the aspect of the deal?”

“It looks wrong, Ryoka. How can you look at that and be okay?”

Durene objected as she found a spoon. She directed Ryoka to a cupboard with plates. Ryoka sighed as she set four. She looked back.

“Have you looked at Rehanna’s face, Durene? Today, I mean.”

“No. I didn’t even see her once.”

“Few people did. They’re locking her up in her house. But I visited her, Durene. She’s smiling. She’s happy. Genuinely. This isn’t her being high on a drug or delusional. She got mad when I annoyed her, and she’s not delirious. But she is happy. How is that wrong?”

Durene had no answer. Silently, she put the scallops on a table. Charlay was trotting towards the cottage, but she’d stopped to get Wiskeria out of her tent. Bismarck was staring through the kitchen window as Frostwing choked on a nut and then spat it out. Ryoka sighed.

“I don’t think it was a good decision, what Rehanna did. If I were in her place, I would never do it. But I’m not a mother. I haven’t lost a husband. Part of me—most of me—says that regardless of what she thinks, that there’s a cost beyond Rehanna cutting her life by twenty years or in half or whatever she did. But what if there’s not? What if it really is fair? In that case, why not take it?”

She leaned on the table, staring at the scallops as if they were a gateway to the soul. Durene silently checked to see if she had any alcohol. She did not. Ryoka sighed.

“I want to believe we can’t run away from our problems, can’t rely on things or use magic to…escape. Back home, I relied on coffee to get up. I needed my medication or I had a bad day. I…relied on my parent’s money. On the government and laws that surrounded me. I leaned on all these things. If I could have something that made me happy—would I pay ten years of my life? Twenty? What about just one?”

“Hey Ryoka! Hey Durene! Ooh! Are those cheesy potatoes! I’m not a fan of cheese.”

Charlay trotted into the cottage, practically dragging in Wiskeria behind her. Ryoka didn’t look up from the table.

“If you could be happy whenever you wanted, Durene, would you give up ten minutes of your lifespan? If the answer’s yes, isn’t giving up more for less or anything else just…haggling? Do we have a right to condemn Rehanna for her decision to choose happiness? If she were permanently sick and decided to trade half her lifespan for being well for the rest of her shorter life, would we fault her? Can we blame her for wanting to see her child again? What right do we have to choose for her? Or judge her?”

They stared at her, Centaur, half-Troll, [Witch], Mossbear, and blue bird. Charlay silently opened the door and trotted out.

“Bathroom! Tell me when she’s normal.”

“I don’t think there are good answers, Ryoka. Nice potatoes, Durene. But I know that I can’t forgive my mother for what she does. Maybe Rehanna’s happy. But my mother still stole her life.”

Wiskeria answered as she sat down quietly. Ryoka glanced at her. And then she sat down too, across from Wiskeria. She shook her head and Durene closed the door in Bismarck’s face.

“Your mother preyed on Rehanna in a moment of weakness, Wiskeria. That’s true. But she also gave Rehanna something. If she asked for one year, could you live with that?

Wiskeria clenched a fork in one hand. She looked up and spoke slowly.

“You don’t know what she does. This is the least of what she’s capable of.”

She stared at Ryoka, her eyes flashing. The City Runner did not look away.

“Then why do you not condemn her? Because you’re her daughter? You try to stop her. But have you tried changing her? Talking to her?”

Yes! Of course I have! And it doesn’t work! Why do you think I haven’t talked to her in years? Do you think I enjoy knowing what she does? What she is? But I can’t stop her! No one can! Not Mavika, not Califor—no one!”

Wiskeria slammed one hand on the table. Durene nervously tried to put a plate down.

“Um—let’s have some potatoes, everyone. Ryoka, we can talk about this later—”

“Wiskeria. Does she know you object to what she does? Because Belavierr doesn’t seem like she understands that. Have you ever said how you feel to her face? Wiskeria. Have you talked to Rehanna?”

The Asian girl waited, seated at the table as the steaming scallops grew colder. Wiskeria’s glare could have burnt them to a crisp. The door cracked open and Charlay peeked in.

“Um. Everything okay?”

Yes.

Ryoka and Wiskeria glared at the Centauress. Durene decided to start ladling food out before someone threw a dish.

The dinner was silent. Wiskeria, not exactly happy beforehand, looked angry and distraught. Ryoka was still thinking. Twice she tried to keep talking and Durene interjected with a loud joke, or Charlay decided to regale everyone with one of her famous runs. Wiskeria and Ryoka just stared at each other.

It wasn’t even as if Ryoka had been angry at Wiskeria. But—who was right and who was wrong? As Durene let Frostwing and Bismarck finish off the scraps of scallops, the half-Troll girl had to think that was Ryoka summed up. Someone had to be right and wrong. And Ryoka was thinking about Rehanna. She had visited her. Where the others shuddered and drew away, Ryoka looked at the crying child made of cloth. And at Belavierr. And she did not draw away.

That night, Durene was exhausted. She still hadn’t caught up on sleep since the…baby. So she retired early, and everyone was tired enough to join her. Wiskeria left the cottage, and Ryoka and Charlay bedded down with Durene.

The three bodies made the cottage smaller, and warm. But it was still comfortable. Durene lay in her kitchen, staring at the ceiling. She was ready to drop off, and get some good sleep. Tomorrow would…well, tomorrow would be different. Hopefully. But as she was closing her eyes, wondering if she’d level as a [Farmer], Durene heard Ryoka’s voice.

“If you could give up a toe, an arm, fingers, or years of your life, gold—anything, Durene. If you could give it up and be Human, or change how you looked. Who you were. Would you do it? Is that worse than Rehanna?”

Durene’s eyes shot open. She stared at the ceiling. Then she sat up. Ryoka was sitting up in bed, head in her hands. The half-Troll stared at her. Then she reached behind her. She threw her pillow at Ryoka as hard as she could and lay back down. Ryoka did too after a moment. She had never known that feathers could hurt that much.

 

Night 60 – Wiskeria

 

The [Witch] did not go back to her tent immediately. She stared at the cottage for a long time. And her stomach churned, despite Durene’s cooking actually being good. But Wiskeria hadn’t tasted much of it. Ryoka’s words had bothered her too much.

So, Wiskeria walked into Riverfarm. The journey from Durene’s cottage was silent. Few people were about on the streets. Two of the Darksky Riders passed her, doing sweeps, but they saw her clearly in the darkness and only greeted her quietly.

Wiskeria knew where Rehanna’s house was. A light still burned in the window. And another Darksky Rider had been posted outside the door. The man let Wiskeria in after a moment’s conversation. She had been a [General].

But it was a [Witch], and a daughter who went to see Rehanna. Wiskeria paused when she came in through the doorway.

The woman was…working. Quietly, humming to herself. She had some cloth spread out on the table, and she was neatly pinning sections together, ready for sewing. She was making something small. Very carefully creating…Wiskeria’s heart twisted.

“Baby clothes?”

Rehanna looked up. Wiskeria braced, but the woman’s face lit up. She stood.

“Miss Wiskeria! What brings you here?”

And she curtseyed. That was the worst part. Part of Wiskeria wanted to run. Just seeing Rehanna’s graying hair, the way she was slightly stiff as she tried to offer Wiskeria a chair—all of it hurt. She shouldn’t have come here, no matter what Ryoka had said.

But then Rehanna surprised her. The woman smiled as she pointed back towards her room.

“I would offer you tea, but he’s sleeping. How can I help you? Or are you checking up on me like the rest?”

She smiled as she went back to pinning the clothes together. Wiskeria stared at them, at the needles and thread. Then she looked at the woman.

“The—your baby’s sleeping?”

She’d meant to say the doll, because that was what it was. But she couldn’t. Not in front of Rehanna. The woman nodded.

“Mihka. That’s a name my husband and I came up with together. He’s Mihka. The very same. I don’t know how Lady Belavierr did it.”

She used your memories. Wove them like a thread into the baby. You’re making him as much as her magic. Wiskeria bit her lip. She paused.

“I—I just came to see you, Rehanna.”

“I’m glad you did. I wanted to apologize for how I behaved.”

“No—you have every reason.”

The woman paused.

“I might. I was angry at you for being a [General]. For not being punished. But I still attacked you for doing what you did. I regret it now, because it was senseless. I ruined friendships. I hope I can mend them. And I am so grateful to your mother.”

“Don’t say that. Please.”

The [Witch]’s head sank. She tugged her hat lower, as if it could hide reality. Rehanna looked surprised.

“But she’s done me such a favor. I only wish you could see it. You, and Mister Prost, and the others. I understand you fear Mihka, but he’s no threat to anyone. You mustn’t take him. I couldn’t bear it again, Miss Wiskeria. Tell the others. Please.”

She looked at Wiskeria, and there was a bright sincerity, a pleading in her eyes. The [Witch] hesitated. She looked at the table, at the cloth, the baby’s clothes.

“Are you happy, Rehanna? After making the deal?”

“Can’t you tell? I actually want to work. And I’m happy. Actually happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again. Not after Mihka—and then the news from Lancrel.”

The woman smiled. She was teary-eyed. Wiskeria clenched her hands.

“But Rehanna. I—no, I have to say this. The baby. Your Mihka. He won’t ever grow up. You understand that, right? He’ll always be a baby. And your life—”

“Is shorter now. I know that. I know that too. She told me all of it. Mihka won’t grow and I’m close to my grave, if sickness or accidents or monsters don’t take me first. And that’s fine. I’m still eternally grateful for what she did.”

Rehanna looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] paused.

“Then—why the clothing? He’ll never wear it!”

The clothing Rehanna was making was too large. It was for an older child, one that needed more than swaddling. Rehanna shook her head, smiling.

“It’s not for Mihka. It’s for another child. I don’t know who. But more than a few women are pregnant, and children will need clothing. I can make that for them. That’s what I can do. I think I’ll be happy. No—I am happy already.”

“But it’s an illusion. A spell. It’s not real, Rehanna. That baby isn’t—”

Rehanna stopped her. The woman shook her head. And now her bright eyes started to overflow.

“I know that. Don’t you think I don’t? Lady Belavierr showed me what she would make. But I said yes. Because when I held him, he turned into Mihka. The same baby from my dreams. The exact same. And I think my man—I couldn’t pay the second price. I wouldn’t. But sometimes I can hear him, or I feel him. Lady Belavierr did that for me. And more. The baby’s more than just a…fake thing, Wiskeria.”

Tears ran down her cheeks. Rehanna placed a hand on her chest.

“Wiskeria. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Don’t you understand? Do you know how angry I was? How sad and angry and—have you ever felt that way? So much so that you could die?”

Of course. Rehanna nodded.

“Your mother took that pain away. It won’t come back. For that, I’d have paid almost anything. And I did. She told me she wanted a fair deal. And it was fair. For me, more than fair. I know you might think of me as a fool. But I am happy. Please. Let me be happy.”

“And you will be?”

The woman gave her a tearful smile as she dabbed at her eyes.

“I think I will be. I made a choice, and Mihka will help me no matter what comes. It’s better this way, Wiskeria. It truly is. Thank you for coming, but I must be abed if I want to work tomorrow.”

And she politely but firmly showed Wiskeria to the door. It was only after she’d closed and bolted it that Wiskeria realized Rehanna had kicked her out. The [Witch] stared at the closed door.

There was some of Rehanna there. Even happy as she was. But how much? How much was there, and how much had Belavierr torn away? There was no answer. But the second question Ryoka had asked Wiskeria burned in her mind. So she turned as the light in Rehanna’s house winked out.

 

—-

 

Wiskeria didn’t know where her mother was. Or if she even had a house to sleep in. Wiskeria doubted it. But she didn’t need to ask. All she had to do was lift her hat off her head and toss it.

It was a dark blue hat. Not as dark as Belavierr’s own clothing, which could be black if you had no eye for the color. But dark blue. A simple hat, meant for a [Witch], with minimal flair. And that was what Wiskeria had wanted. But the hands that had sewn it had not been simple. They had mimicked unoriginality so well that sometimes Wiskeria forgot.

But the [Fireball] that had nearly killed her had reminded her. Where her clothes had burnt away to protect her as part of Belavierr’s charm, the hat had remained. It hadn’t even been knocked off her head.

And it had one other trick. One other element, besides the fact that it had grown with Wiskeria since she was six to always fit her head. A long time ago, a humble [Stitch Witch] who worked in a no-name village in Terandria as small as Riverfarm had sewn something for her daughter. For the tearful child who was afraid of being lost and not finding her mother, who could be forgetful. And ever since that day, Wiskeria had never been lost again.

So for the first time in eight years, Wiskeria lifted her hat and tossed it up. And the hat flew. It caught a breeze and Wiskeria cursed and chased after it as it was blown across the street. She ran after it, her replacement robe catching the same dry wind.

The hat tumbled down onto the street and around a corner. And Wiskeria ran after it, her legs burning, cursing as the hat eluded her time and time again, blown by the infuriating breeze. At last it stopped and the [Witch] snatched at it, picked it up, and glared at it. And then she put it on her head and looked around.

The street was gone. So was Riverfarm. Wiskeria’s legs hurt, and she was breathless. She realized—in that way memory has of catching up—that she’d been running for seventeen minutes, almost. Quite some distance. But she was where she needed to be, because here was a slight hill. Beyond it, the two moons rose, one waxing, the other waning. And sitting under the tree, her wide hat lowered, her knees partially stretched out, was Belavierr.

Wiskeria caught her breath as she saw her mother. Belavierr’s clothing was dark as the night. Her head bowed. Her huge hat covered all but the bottom of her face. But one hand was extended. It held something. And the midnight stallion, a giant of his kind, bent and ate from the palm.

Even this was uncanny. Because the stallion made no sound. Nor was what he ate food. Wiskeria was almost certain he was the same horse that had used to carry her about. The same one that had never bothered when she’d pulled at his ears, and had carried her and her mother about the village. And hadn’t it been a surprise when Wiskeria had ridden her first horse who objected to ear-pulling instead of taking it as a sign of affection?

But this one was dark. Larger than the horse in her memory as a child. But her mother could have altered him. Wiskeria was almost positive the horse was a thing of cloth. Or if it had been alive, she had stitched him together. He didn’t look up as Wiskeria walked forwards. Nor did Belavierr. Few things could attract Belavierr’s attention.

Even at the end, when the mob had chased them away, Wiskeria remembered it. Screaming for her mother to run, reaching back from the horse’s back, looking back at the villagers burning their cottage, the child Belavierr had made as the father shouted and strained in the arms of the people who held them—even then, Belavierr’s gaze had been distant, absent as she walked away. She had only looked up when she heard Wiskeria cry and seen the tears. And then—

“Belavierr. Witch Belavierr.”

The hat didn’t rise. The hand didn’t move. Belavierr was still, like a statue—no, a tapestry. Because the wind still moved her dress. The horse still pretended to breathe. It was a scene. And as Wiskeria drew closer, she saw what Belavierr was doing.

As she gave her horse the loose thread it was eating like a snack, her other hand was held out, dangling something in front of Belavierr’s bowed head. She was inspecting something. A bit of thread, tied up in a complex fashion, but still just a single unbroken thread.

Wiskeria recognized it. One of her mother’s ward-spells. She had no idea how powerful it could be. Normally, you’d want to make a spell or ward out of strong emotion and magic. Conventional artifacts of great power for instance were never made of pot metal or clay for instance because those were weak materials. Of course, you could make a very specifically powerful wooden enchanted sword for instance, but material mattered.

Unfortunately, Belavierr’s craft was such that logic stopped applying to her abilities. Grand magic could turn even weak thread into powerful tools. It was probably a thread made from a Griffin’s mane or something, anyways.

It was also trembling. Wiskeria paused. That usually meant the magic was being used. She didn’t know what this ward spell did. Perhaps it had stopped some bird droppings from landing on her mother’s hat? Or…it had done something else.

It was just more of the same. Wiskeria squared her shoulders. She had come here for a reason. And she should have done this long ago. Ryoka was infuriating, but she was also right.

“Mother.”

The head rose. And Wiskeria felt a bitter pleasure. She had loved, in that once ago, that only one word and one voice could ever make Belavierr react consistently. But now she looked down and saw that ringed gaze, the orange, luminescent eyes, and she saw…

“Daughter. It is late. Do you need something of me?”

Belavierr stood in one motion. She looked down at her daughter, and Wiskeria stared up at her. Her mother’s face was impassive as ever. Wiskeria took a deep breath. There was no use beating around the bush with Belavierr.

“Mother. I need a favor of you. A big one.”

“Of course. Name it, and I will do it if it is within my power.”

Wiskeria nodded. She looked into Belavierr’s eyes. And they were familiar. She didn’t know why people shuddered. If you stared long enough, you could see what was in the ever-smaller rings. Deeper and deeper. Wiskeria hesitated. And then she spoke.

“Mother. Please stop using your stitch-magic. Please throw away your creations of thread. I—I beg you, as your daughter. Stop using your charms and curses of needles and cloth. Don’t use any of it.”

It was hard to say. Harder than Wiskeria had thought. But it was a relief to come out with, even if Wiskeria knew the answer. She lowered her head. And Belavierr paused. But then she nodded.

“Very well, Daughter. For how long?”

Wiskeria’s head snapped up. She gaped at Belavierr.

“What? You’ll do it?”

The bright gaze never wavered. Belavierr inclined her head slightly.

“Of course. For you, Daughter. How long do you ask this of me?”

Oh. Of course. Wiskeria closed her eyes. But—could she live with that? She looked up, biting her lip.

“Two hundred years. Can you do that, Mother?”

“Of course. If you wish it, for two hundred years I will use no spell of stitching, no cloth artifacts or magic of thread and needle. Does this satisfy you?”

Belavierr said it as if it were the lightest thing in the world. And even her daughter had to stare. But then Wiskeria nodded. She even smiled.

“Yes! Yes! Of course! Thank you, Mother.”

The face didn’t change one whit. But then Belavierr bent and regarded her daughter. She paused again.

“It is what you wish, Daughter. But why do you ask it of me?”

“Because I don’t want you to take lives, like you did to Rehanna, Mother. So—you will do it? For two hundred years, you won’t steal life or trade curses? You’ll be…”

“Ah.”

And that one sound pierced Wiskeria’s heart. Belavierr straightened. And then slowly, she shook her head.

“No. I’m afraid you misunderstand me, Daughter. I will not do that. I will give up my stitch-spells and pacts of thread. But the deal I made with the woman Rehanna I will continue to make. Else I would die.”

“But—you promised!”

Wiskeria stared up at her mother, shocked. Belavierr never lied. But the Stitch Witch didn’t appear guilty.

“I promised to give up my magic. My spells and lore. For you, Daughter, I would give it away, and seal my knowledge for two hundred years. But what you ask is different. You ask that I would change my craft. The very essence of what I am.”

“Yes! Will you do it? I will never ask you for anything again, Mother! Please?”

No.

The word echoed. And the face that delivered it never changed. That was what was worst of Belavierr. Not her magic, or her deeds. It was the way she moved through life, uncaring. Uninterested. It hurt to argue with her. Wiskeria clenched her hands, her nails digging into her flesh.

“But that is all I want. All I want from you, Mother. I would be happy if you did this.”

“It is my craft.”

“It hurts people. You take their lives, Mother. You take their emotions. You take. And you hurt people. Sometimes you kill—because someone asks it of you.”

“Yes. Because we make a fair deal.”

Fair? It’s not fair! What of the people who paid you to make a curse-doll? What about the people you hurt because someone pays you in years of their life?”

Belavierr didn’t even blink.

“It is fairly done between I and them. They have something I wish, and I have a service or thing they desire. That is the oldest exchange, Daughter. You know this.”

“But what about the people you hurt? If someone pays you to hurt someone else—”

“They have paid. And I act.”

“But that’s wrong. There’s no justice in what you do, Mother.”

The [Witch] blinked once.

“Of course not. It is an exchange. When one wishes, another’s wishes are destroyed. That is how all things are done, Daughter.”

She paused. Belavierr glanced up, and a slight frown crossed her features.

“We have had this conversation before.”

“Yes. We have. And I still can’t accept it, Mother.”

Wiskeria was close to tears. But she refused to cry. Belavierr would not understand. She looked up and tried one last time.

“Mother. I want you to change. I want you to stop killing because you’re asked. Stop stealing life and—and offering these deals. Stop your craft. Practice other magic. No—keep using your stitch-magic. But don’t take like you do. Can you do that? For me?”

Belavierr paused. And for a moment, for one wonderful, frightening moment, Wiskeria thought she might agree. But at last, she shook her head.

“No, Daughter. You ask for more than I can give.”

“But why—”

“Because I would fight for you, Daughter. I would take lives for you. I would use my magic. Defend. Protect. Seek what you desire. But you ask me to change my craft. To change who I am. If I did so, I would not be Belavierr. I would not be your mother.”

She looked down. And Wiskeria saw Belavierr’s lips move. She saw, but it took her minutes to understand. And when she did, her eyes did fill with tears.

“Oh.”

Belavierr was trying to smile. But she had forgotten how. Wiskeria’s eyes ran, and wetness trickled down her cheeks. Belavierr’s smile vanished. She reached down.

“Daughter. You are crying.”

“I know, Mother.”

“Why are you crying? Are you hurt? Do you need something?”

“No. No, I—”

Wiskeria brushed away the hand. She gulped, and then looked up. It had been like this once. And then, Wiskeria had left, gone so far she’d hoped she’d never see Belavierr again. But that had been running away. This—she wished she’d done this.

“Mother. Let me say this so you understand it. I…”

She searched for words. Belavierr waited, patiently, standing impassive as her horse stood by the tree. And the night shone down on the two. Wiskeria sighed. And she took her hat off and was a girl again, standing before her mother.

“It was good, to be your daughter growing up. When we lived in the village I thought you were the most wonderful mother ever. I wanted to be like you. I thought the other [Witches] who told me how grand and terrible you could be all admired you, even if you could be scary. I saw the darkness in your craft, but also the good. You helped people. And yes, you were…distant. You could be thoughtless, or unkind. But I was happy to be your daughter.”

Belavierr tilted her head sideways. Her hat moved with her, and Wiskeria couldn’t help but smile at the uncomprehending look on her face. She went on.

“But mother. One day, I saw you for what you were. When you made a daughter for a father out of thread. Something—horrible. Something with no life, that looked like what he wanted. And I realized. I asked, and I found out what made you—you. The dead you took life from over the years. The deals you made for your power. The dead, Mother. The dead you left hanging because they opposed you! The threats you made! The people you killed! How old are you?”

“I do not recall, Daughter.”

“That’s not the point!

Wiskeria stamped her foot and screamed. The night took the scream. Belavierr looked down at her.

“Then what is the point, Daughter? You know what I am. Sometimes, I believe I do not know what you are. But you are my Daughter and I, your mother. Is that not enough?”

Wiskeria put her hand over her heart. She closed her eyes. And when she looked up, her eyes were clear. It still hurt to say. More than any words. But she said them.

“No, Mother. I wish it could be. But it’s not. Because what I never told you when I saw what you are is this: I hate it. And Mother, I hate you.”

The glowing gaze widened. The wind died. And all things paused. There was only Wiskeria and Belavierr. And the [Witch] looked up at the [Witch]. And her words continued.

“I hate you, Mother. I hate what you do. And because you will not change, because what you do sickens me to my core, because I cannot ignore what you do and what you have done, I hate you.”

Belavierr stood stock still. She didn’t move. But her eyes were wide, wider than Wiskeria could ever remember. And she looked—Wiskeria would have rejoiced if it didn’t hurt. She turned away.

“I’m sorry. But I hate that I’m your daughter. And if I could stop you, I would. If I can, I will.”

She reached for her side as she stumbled away, back towards the quiet village far from the hill. And she turned, with wand in hand. Wiskeria’s hand shook as she pointed it at Belavierr. But that was all. She couldn’t, so she lowered it and turned. She walked, then ran away. Leaving her mother standing on the hill.

If Wiskeria had looked back, she would have seen no horse. Nothing, save for her mother, standing stock still. Staring at her back. As still as a statue. But there was nothing blank, nothing timeless about Belavierr’s stare. She watched her daughter disappear. And then Belavierr blinked.

“What?”

And after a moment she touched herself, two fingers on one hand touching her cheek. Belavierr’s voice was…hesitant.

“Me?”

 

 

Day 61 – Ryoka

 

Ryoka had no idea how everyone else had fared last night. She herself had been up, far, far later than she would have liked, trying to figure out whether what had happened to Rehanna was…but when she woke up, she felt a certain schadenfreude in seeing that Wiskeria looked as tired as she did.

Everyone else was more rested, purely by virtue of being so tired that they’d slept like rocks. And that had the secondary effect of giving them the time and energy to process Rehanna’s deal with Belavierr. The result? When Ryoka, Charlay, Durene, and Wiskeria went into Riverfarm, they found the mood in the town was distinctly changed.

Towards the [Witches]. No one had forgotten yesterday of course. But now—people were visiting Rehanna. They were talking, not just numbly shocked. And they had heard Laken’s pronouncement, seen Belavierr’s uncaring face. You could find that unsettling—or you could hate the impassive look.

That is who she is. Eloise’s words were another double-edged sword. Belavierr’s actions reflected on the others as well. If that was who she was, what were the other [Witches]? They all occupied their own bubbles of space that day. Even Eloise; few people stopped to have tea with her, and then quickly, furtively.

You could feel it in the air. A word unspoken. It wasn’t about classes, but a superstition across worlds. A word. Condemnation. Fear and loathing.

Witch.

However, what it changed was actually very little. The eight [Witches], even Wiskeria, went about their business as usual. Despite the lack of visitors, Eloise brewed her tea and chatted with anyone who wanted to talk. Hedag spoke to children and occasionally some parents, laughing when no one was about. Alevica went flying, ignoring the muttering. Mavika sat on a rooftop while her flock patrolled the fields for an hour, then she vanished. Califor and Nanette took their lessons—none of the [Witches] reacted to the hostile looks.

It was something Ryoka didn’t know about [Witches], but which she should have understood. A fundamental quality of their natures and class. When they were pushed, [Witches] did not give in or change. They doubled down.

And that went for more than just outside hostility. Because the most notable thing Ryoka saw that day was at midmorning. She saw Wiskeria striding down the street, looking peeved. But that was one thing. Seeing Belavierr following her daughter, matching Wiskeria’s two strides for every one of hers made Ryoka choke on her lunch. Wiskeria glared up at her mother.

“I told you, Mother. I hate you. Stop bothering me!”

“Why?”

Belavierr followed Wiskeria, tall, silent but for that one word. Wiskeria rounded on her.

“I told you.”

“But my nature is who I am, Daughter.”

“Well then, maybe I hate your nature, Mother!”

Belavierr blinked. She was more immediate, more in this world than Ryoka had ever seen her. She seemed genuinely confused as she regarded her daughter. Ryoka was edging closer. Her and a number of people, including a crowd of Lancrel’s folk that Ryoka was vaguely uneasy about. But Belavierr only had eyes for Wiskeria.

“But—why? You did not hate it growing up.”

“Because I did not know who you were, Mother. As I said. Now leave me alone. I don’t want to talk with you!”

Wiskeria stormed off. Belavierr made to follow, but perhaps even she sensed how futile that would be because she stopped. Ryoka stared at her back. Belavierr looked bothered. No—Ryoka stared at Wiskeria as the younger [Witch] hurried off. She would have given gold to know what Wiskeria had said to Belavierr!

Then Ryoka heard a voice.

“Excuse me! Miss [Witch]! We must have words!”

“Uh oh.”

Ryoka turned around. A familiar woman was striding forwards, followed by at least four hundred of Lancrel’s people. It was a sizeable crowd, but how Councilwoman Beatica had thought it was a good idea to lead them against Belavierr was beyond Ryoka. Maybe she was just deliberately suppressing her sensible instincts. Either way, the woman came striding up just as Belavierr was watching Wiskeria’s back.

Normally, Ryoka expected Belavierr to walk off without another word. But as Ryoka had noticed, Belavierr was in the world of reality. And her head turned as Councilwoman Beatica snapped at her. She turned her head.

“Your behavior has been unacceptable! You have assaulted one of Riverfarm’s citizens! For this, you must issue an apology, and forthwith cancel the mag—”

Beatica got that far when her tongue gave up in her head. Ryoka, who’d been looking around to find Beniar, Prost, Rie, or Durene, froze. Her head turned back to Belavierr. Because something was different about the [Witch].

An intensity. A shift in her posture. Her gaze swept across the crowd and the angry people from Lancrel froze. And Ryoka felt her stomach drop. Because there was no blank stare. The glowing eyes had force behind them. And it was simple. But terrifying when Ryoka realized the reason behind it.

Belavierr was angry.

No. Vexed. It wasn’t true anger. Ryoka couldn’t even imagine what that would be. But vexation—annoyance? Yes. Belavierr’s eyes, immortal, magical and ageless, still held that familiar emotion. And Ryoka, the mob, and Charlay, who’d trotted over to see what was happening, all paused.

Unfortunately, Beatica wasn’t able to back out and save face so easily. Her mouth dried up, and she backed up. But her plan—which might have been hurling insults at Belavierr while being safely ignored—was suddenly derailed. And all she could do was plough ahead.

“Miss Belavierr. I said that your—your behavior has been unacceptable. We, the citizens of Lancrel, are censuring you. You—you must issue a formal apology. Or else we will find you…”

She trailed off. Belavierr was staring at Beatica. And she was looking more annoyed with each word. She stared at the crowd behind Beatica. And their anger turned quickly into a terror that made them still, rather than flee in fear. Belavierr stared around.

“No.”

“I warn you—”

Beatica’s high-pitched voice broke off in a small scream as Belavierr lifted a hand. The [Witch] crooked a finger. Then she turned and strode off. Ryoka, who’d ducked along with Charlay at the gesture, breathed a sigh of relief. She straightened, and Beatica, looking pale and relieved, stood taller. She looked around, and then turned to give a speech as Ryoka prepared to run after Belavierr.

At that moment, every stitch in a three hundred foot radius suddenly unraveled. It was abrupt, suddenly, and so fast that all the clothes just dropped off the crowd, Ryoka, and Charlay. Bits of fabric fell to the ground, in its component parts as the stitching neatly fell into spools of thread as well. Ryoka blinked as her clothes fell off her body. It was actually sort of nice for a moment; the day was sunny and the skin could breathe in the mild wind that followed her about. Then her eyes went wide and everyone processed what had happened.

Dead gods!

“What the f—

My clothes!

It was probably telling what the first action of each person was. Whether they covered themselves, stared—and who they stared at and where—or immediately tried to show off, like one muscular [Blacksmith]—it was all pandemonium.

Ryoka, for her part, stared around just to make sure everyone was similarly undressed as she grabbed at her clothes and tried to cover the essentials. Charlay wailed as she grabbed at her shirt. Then her fallen belt! Even it had fallen to pieces!

“Don’t look at me! I’m naked!

The Centauress wailed as she raced off, clutching what remained of her shirt to her chest. Ryoka stared after her.

You’re naked? What about me?

She screamed, but Charlay was already running. The crowd was in chaos. People were bending over to pick up clothes on the street, then realizing that was a very exposed situation. There were red faces, tears—Ryoka saw Councilwoman Beatica running into the nearest house. Ryoka looked around, then realized something.

“Oh. Bag of holding.”

She pulled out a change of clothes and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever Belavierr had done, it hadn’t hit the bag of holding, or the stitches in the magical bag itself. That was a relief. Ryoka hopped into some pants, forgoing underwear, tossed on a shirt, and then ran like hell as more people came to see what was happening and stare. She was laughing. Right up until she made her mistake.

 

—-

 

Belavierr was standing in the same spot where Ryoka had visited the picnicking [Witches] a few days ago. Right in front of the tree where she’d been resting, close to the river. Only, she was standing. And she looked annoyed. Her back was also turned, so Ryoka was hesitant in walking up and tapping Belavierr on the shoulder. She elected to call out instead.

“Um—excuse me!”

The figure was silent. Tall. Her shadows seemed too long. And when she turned her head, the orange eyes glowed beneath the brim of her hat. Belavierr’s voice was cold.

“I do not wish to speak to you.”

Ryoka halted, her bare feet in the grass. She felt a leap of apprehension, but Belavierr was looking at her. Talking to her. So she smiled. She had met immortals after all, befriended a Vampire. She had to try.

“I understand that. And I beg your pardon, Witch Belavierr. But I’d like to speak to you. You might remember—”

“Leave me.”

The words made Ryoka stumble over hers. She tried again, more desperately.

“I know Wiskeria. And I can talk to her. I know you two have an argument. I asked Wiskeria about it. She’s angry at you. And I think I can—”

“Now.”

Belavierr’s eyes were very bright. Ryoka took a step back. But then she gritted her teeth. She had bargained with a Dragon. She looked at Belavierr. Try. If she didn’t respect Ryoka, acknowledge her, there was nothing Ryoka could do.

“Witch Belavierr, I can help. Listen, about Wiskeria not liking you—”

Belavierr moved. Ryoka blinked. She tried to continue, say something. But her lips were glued together. She looked down, but she couldn’t feel anything. But then she felt pain. And she raised her fingers to her mouth and felt something thin and hard.

Stitches.

“—!”

The scream was muffled. Ryoka’s lips were sewn so tightly together than she couldn’t even move them. And the pain—it had been so fast—but Belavierr was standing in front of Ryoka. And in one hand she held a bloody needle.

She’d sewn Ryoka’s lips shut.

Ryoka tried to scream. The needle had gone through her lips! It had been so fast—but now she felt the pain and gathering blood from the places where the needle had pierced her skin. She stumbled back, clawing frantically at her mouth, and then her belt.

Blood was dripping into her mouth from the perforations. And the thread—Ryoka desperately sawed at it with a knife. It didn’t break. Not even when she cut hard.

Belavierr watched it all impassively. Ryoka was breathing desperately through her nose. Her eyes were wide, her mouth filling with blood. She tried to open her mouth a crack and the thread pulled at the holes in her lips. She screamed again, muffled.

The [Witch] bent. She met Ryoka’s eyes. The City Runner stared up at her. Belavierr’s whisper echoed.

Leave me.

Ryoka ran for it.

 

—-

 

The coven of three [Witches] was Alevica, Mavika, and Wiskeria. They were cheering up Wiskeria. Or just entertaining her presence. Either way, they were first to see Ryoka running towards them. Blood was tricking from Ryoka’s mouth. The red thread—even Mavika paused.

“Dead gods! What happened Ryoka—”

Wiskeria caught herself as she shot up. She stared at Ryoka, and then cursed.

“Belavierr.”

“Wow.”

Alevica blinked. Mavika stared at Ryoka as the Runner frantically gestured at her face. The [Witch] peered at the red stitches. The bloody holes. She nodded to herself.

“You must have truly angered her. She’s put a small working on the thread. You won’t be able to cut it without a magical blade. A decent one. It is not my craft. A pity; you should not have scorned Belavierr’s wrath.”

“Mavika!”

Wiskeria snapped at the other [Witch]. She looked at Wiskeria.

“I’ll find my mother and have her undo it. Just wait—”

“What? Now? She’s peeved at you already, Wis. And Ryoka must have annoyed her. She might sew Griffin’s eyes shut if you word it wrong. Here. Don’t bother. I’ll do it.”

Alevica stood up, yawning and stretching. She walked over to Ryoka. The City Runner was waving her hands and making small sounds. Alevica saw why and winced.

“Ouch. Those are pulling your flesh. That has to hurt. Well, I can cut it. I think. Give me a second.”

She pulled a knife from her belt. Then she clenched her shortsword.

“Hm. Better steel in the knife. Alright. Here goes. Ryoka, don’t move or squirm. I might slice a lip off.”

So saying, she laid the knife on her arm. Ryoka watched, trying not to choke on the blood running from her wounds. She was half-mad with needing to open her mouth, the shock—but she still stiffened as Alevica chanted, her voice harsh, but triumphant.

Grudge, fester. Knife, cut. Anger, grow. Envy grate. Slice sharper. Prick harder. Hate. And the honed edge—make.

The knife didn’t move or flash or do anything else on her arm. But with each sentence, the edge seemed harder to find, thinner.

Sharper. But the chant was quick. And Alevica plucked the knife from her arm and grinned at Wiskeria and Mavika. Wiskeria looked somewhat impressed. Mavika did not.

“A simple chant for a simple working.”

“And a simple task, Mavika. We don’t all need to write poetry in verse. Now, hold still, Ryoka.”

Mavika turned back to Ryoka. She raised the knife and Ryoka froze. She felt the blade working at the tight thread and Alevica cursing.

“This is enchanted! But that’s some thread—I have no leverage. Hold on—I think it’s giving—”

The thread snapping made the entire tight binding slacken. Ryoka nearly screamed again, but then her fingers were pulling one end of the thread out. Alevica snagged the other and pulled—surprisingly gently. Ryoka still gasped in pain, but she pulled and pulled. The bloody thread came out and Ryoka spat a mouthful of blood and saliva. Then she reached for a healing potion with one hand.

“Ryoka! What were you doing? Did you make Mother angry? How did—?”

“I pissed her off. I—I’m going to—she sewed my lips shut! Like that!”

Ryoka was trembling as she took a mouthful of healing potion and swished it around. Alevica was eying the bloody end of thread she’d retrieved.

“No kidding? I heard Belavierr could be nasty, but this was pretty good. If Ryoka hadn’t been near us, she might have had to tear the thread out of her skin! My cut-spell was barely good enough to cut it.”

“She should not have angered Belavierr.”

“Well, yeah, that too.”

“Ryoka—”

Wiskeria was hesitating. She came over to Ryoka. The City Runner was still shaking. It wasn’t just the pain—although that was a large part. It was how fast it had been. And the look in Belavierr’s eyes. If Ryoka hadn’t run—the Asian girl’s hands trembled and Wiskeria caught the bottle.

“I’ll tell my mother off. She won’t get away with this, Ryoka—”

“No! No! I’m fine, Wiskeria. Don’t bother her. I already made her mad. I thought I could talk to her. But she’s not like—”

The Frost Faeries tormenting her. Their vengeance before she’d made peace with them. How could she have forgotten? Overconfident, that was what Ryoka had become. Overconfident and—she shuddered. Because she knew Wiskeria, she’d thought she’d be safe. But Belavierr hadn’t cared.

After a while, her shaking stopped. She looked up.

“Alevica. Thank you. Thank you.

The Witch Runner waved it away, grinning.

“What, and leave you with a mouth stitched shut? I could never do that. I’m only too happy to help a fellow Runner. And now you owe me a favor. Remember it, Ryoka. Because I’ll call it in.”

Ryoka froze. She looked at Alevica, hoping for a laugh. But the Witch Runner only winked as she sauntered back to her table. Ryoka didn’t even have the energy to get mad. She was still in shock. Wiskeria was still fussing.

“What did you need to speak to my mother for? Why did you try without me?”

“I—thought I could get her to listen to me. I wanted to talk to her about you. Try to patch things up between you. Or convince her to help…I thought I could reason with her. I’ve done it before.”

Ryoka muttered, tasting more blood. She got a water flask out to spit bloody water. Wiskeria paused. She frowned.

“Persuade mother? You don’t know her. And this is my problem, Ryoka. You don’t need to—stay out of it, please.”

“But she’s potentially—dangerous. I know you’re confronting her, but—I want to talk to her too. I know I don’t understand everything, but I understand something about the consequences of…”

Ryoka realized she was making a bad case with her mouth still bloody. She shook her head.

“Wiskeria, I know it’s hard. But I want to help. This rift between your mother and you—I want to help fix it. No, I need to. I know you think she’s evil and I know you’ve seen some of that. But I think she actually likes you. Listen—”

Wiskeria recoiled before Ryoka could finish. She stared at Ryoka, and then her eyes narrowed. She tugged at her hat, looking angry.

“What? You don’t know how I grew up. Don’t you dare assume that you do! Do you think I was watching her sacrifice people and thinking it was normal? No! I only found out what she did when I was older, and that was because I asked. She never killed anyone in front of me. Never!”

“What? But I thought—”

“The worst she did was terrify a village after they ran us out and burned one of her creations! I know what my mother is, and I’ve seen what she can do! I haven’t seen her do worse, but I know her. And she’s more complicated than a monster who randomly kills people! She doesn’t change! That’s why I hate her! And it’s my business how I deal with my m—with Belavierr! If she’s angry, good! That’s a welcome change! Just stay out of her way and I’ll handle it!”

Wiskeria turned and stormed off. Ryoka, mouth gaping in protest, tried to call her back. But she couldn’t. She looked around as Alevica laughed. Then Mavika, sitting at the table, spoke. Or rather, the crow on her shoulder did.

“Arrogance.”

It spoke the word, disturbingly coherent. Ryoka stared at it. The crow stared at her with one huge eye. And Mavika looked up.

“Arrogance. What a strange, arrogant girl you are.”

I’m arrogant?”

Ryoka’s mouth still hurt. She glared at Mavika. Until she recalled Wiskeria’s warnings about the [Witch] and quailed. Mavika’s gaze was direct. She gestured at Ryoka. Then at Wiskeria.

“Yes. Look at what you do. And what you say. You think you stand at the center of your story. But this is not yours. Witch Belavierr is not yours to change. Her life will not bend for you in a day. Nor will Witch Wiskeria’s. This is not your story, wind’s child. Nor mine. You meddle where you have no knowledge of the past. Arrogance. Do not meddle in [Witch]’s affairs.”

She stood up and walked off. Ryoka watched as Mavika followed Wiskeria, the raven flapping its wings. Still staring at her. Alevica leaned back, putting her feet on the table. She grinned at Ryoka.

“Remember that favor. Because I will.”

Ryoka looked at her. And then around. She shuddered. And then she saw Nesor hurrying towards her, waving a bit of parchment.

“Miss Griffin! Miss Griffin! There’s a message for you! A [Fence]! He’s dead! It—”

“The [Fence]? In Filk?”

And Ryoka heard of the dead Ratwhisperer, her mouth and nose sewn shut. And her own mouth throbbed and burned. To her credit, even Alevica looked uneasy.

“Don’t let your [Opener] friend talk about Belavierr, Griffin. That’s a curse Belavierr’s used. And I don’t think many people could dodge that. Even if they’re [Mages].”

Ryoka agreed. She looked at Nesor and sent a swift reply.

 

Everything’s fine. She’s dangerous, but I think it’s safe for us. I’ll be here a bit longer. Don’t cross her, Fierre. And don’t worry about me. I have to do this. Thanks for the help.

 

A lie. Because Ryoka wasn’t fine. That night she kept opening her mouth, running her teeth along her healed lips. Shuddering. And she stayed away from Riverfarm. Refused to go near it. Or the [Witch] with the glowing eyes and wide-brimmed hat. If she hadn’t run—Ryoka’s dreams were filled with a man she’d never met, mouth and nose sewn shut. Staring into oblivion as blood ran down his throat. And Belavierr’s blank, impatient stare watching as he died.

 

 

Day 63 – Ryoka

 

For two days, Ryoka ducked at every passing person even wearing clothes that were remotely black. A pointed hat and she fled the other way. The worst part was that no one, not even Charlay, called her silly for doing that. In fact, everyone took the time to tell Ryoka how stupid she had been for crossing Belavierr.

And they were right. Right, and wrong. Because Belavierr might be—probably was—a monster. But one who obeyed her own laws. She was like the fae. Or Teriarch. A mix between him and Az’kerash, perhaps. So what anyone with sense would do was avoid her until Laken returned. Let him handle her and not provoke her wrath.

But Ryoka had never been accused of having sense. And the issue of the [Witches] was greater than just Belavierr. That was what Prost didn’t understand, or Rie, or anyone else. They had come to Riverfarm, this coven, to ask Laken to grant [Witches] sanctuary. And if Emperor Godart was anything like the Laken she remembered, Ryoka expected him to honor that vow.

The problem was whether it would be safe. Half of the [Witches] seemed fine. Califor, Eloise, Nanette, even Alevica could behave. But Mavika? Hedag? Belavierr? It was a quandary. And the only person who could solve it wasn’t Ryoka.

It was Wiskeria, Belavierr’s daughter. But the irony was that the daughter wanted nothing to do with her mother. She hated her mother. And—thanks to Ryoka—she had said it at last. And that bothered Belavierr.

She followed Wiskeria, until her daughter told her to leave her alone. Asked questions as Wiskeria shouted at her. Listened. Until that glacial face hardened and became angry. Frustrated. Uncomprehending.

“She hates Belavierr for who she is. But Belavierr won’t change her craft. It’s like watching two trees hit each other.”

Charlay summed up the conflict as Ryoka hid behind her on the third day, after a one-sided shouting match. Wiskeria stormed off and Charlay, Ryoka, and everyone who’d stopped to watch fled as well. Because Belavierr was angry. She stood in the street, her head bowed, staring at Wiskeria’s back. And undone clothes were the least of what Ryoka feared from her now.

There was something else that was brewing in Riverfarm as a consequence of these fights. No—of Rehanna. The woman sometimes went outside, holding her baby. And that was a terrible sight, in daylight or at night. Belavierr’s encounter with Councilwoman Beatica had also caused trouble. The woman had shown more sense than Ryoka and refused to engage with Belavierr directly, but bad will towards Belavierr and [Witches] in general had spread across the village.

And into that confused tangle of events, a mother and a daughter’s war, and the hot days without a hint of rain that continued to roll on, the dark looks and trouble brewing, there was Hedag. Ryoka had paused from a day of trying to talk with Wiskeria and hiding from Belavierr as people trudged back from the fields.

No one was happy. It was hot, and the river that fed the village was now being used to partially irrigate the fields. But hand-watering still had to be done, and it was hot. The [Witches] had kept to themselves today, mercifully, and Eloise had even relegated her tea service in lieu of helping Califor teach Nanette how to make some bread that may or may not have been magical.

Mavika and Alevica were nowhere to be found as dusk settled, and then night. Ryoka ate a meal with Durene and Charlay, on the lookout for Wiskeria and Belavierr. And that’s when she saw her.

Hedag. The woman was sitting at a table, laughing, drinking and eating with [Forewoman] Beycalt and a few other laborers. Completely at ease. She ignored the looks she was getting as she poured a generous drink from her flask into each cup. Despite the volume of the flask, she filled each polished wooden cup to the brim. Ryoka didn’t have to see the way Beycalt brightened or the others lifted the cups to know it was alcohol.

“To your [Emperor], then! And a hard day’s work!”

Hedag laughed, and her voice boomed through the mess hall. She lifted the flask and drank with the others. Ryoka blinked. She looked around.

“What’s Hedag been up to all day, Durene? Charlay?”

The Centauress shrugged. But Durene leaned over.

“Haven’t you seen her? She’s been helping build houses.”

“What, with magic?”

Ryoka stared back at Hedag. The woman’s plain brown hat and travel-worn clothing made her seem the most normal of all the [Witches]. She was a big woman, bigger than Beycalt, and she looked strong. And she had chopped off a man’s head with her axe. But here she was jovial, smiling. Durene shook her head.

“Nope. No magic at all. She just helped. She’s good with a hammer and she knows how to put up a house.”

“Huh. Interesting.”

Ryoka watched Hedag drinking with the other villagers. She had an infectious laugh. And an openness about her that was the exact opposite of what Ryoka was used to. She reminded the City Runner of Erin, actually. Only, an Erin of a different sort.

And yet, she was a [Witch]. And no one had forgotten how she’d walked into Riverfarm and pronounced judgment. Many of the people stared and murmured, and few would drink with Hedag, despite the free liquor. But if the [Witch] noticed—and she surely did—she paid no mind. In fact, she noticed more than Ryoka thought, because though she never turned her head, after the second round she raised her voice.

“Share a drink with me, Runner-Girl?”

Ryoka jumped. Hedag turned and waved a hand. Ryoka felt a stab of embarrassment as everyone stared at her. But there was nothing for it. She stood up and walked over.

“I didn’t mean to stare.”

“Ah, what a kind lie. But you don’t fool me! Come, sit. And perhaps you won’t be as wary of Hedag as you are of my coven!”

Hedag’s slap nearly catapulted Ryoka into her seat. Ryoka blinked as the woman grabbed a cup from the table behind her. Someone had used the cup, but Hedag sloshed in a bunch of pungent…rum? Ryoka inhaled it. Certainly not just an ale or mead.

“That’s a hard worker’s drink there. Hard to get and expensive! For us at least. But a reward best used, not hoarded. Stand a round?”

Hedag grinned. Ryoka blinked at her, but she wasn’t about to refuse. She raised the cup and downed half with the other drinkers. After some of the coughing and laughter, Ryoka lowered her cup.

“That burns! What is that, a magical flask?”

“This? Naught but a little trick. It’s wider than it seems. I don’t do grand magics if that’s what you’re asking, Miss Ryoka. And if you’ve been wondering whether I’m a threat to your village, have no fear. A Hedag is justice, not aught else. I don’t use my craft for myself like young Alevica, or in spite as Mavika does. Nor am I Belavierr. But I am a [Witch].”

Hedag casually drank from her flask again, her eyes twinkling beneath her hat. Ryoka stared at her, embarrassed.

“I’m sure you’re not. I’ve only—”

“Been asking? And talking with your [Emperor], haven’t you? What a slow lad! I thought he’d be here days ago! Tell him to hurry up!”

Hedag laughed, ignoring the askance looks some of the other villagers were giving her. She spread her arms, sloshing some of her drink. She was actually drunk, Ryoka was sure of it! But the [Witch] wasn’t ashamed.

“What’s the point of holding a drink if there’s no fun in it, Runner-Girl? I work hard, I sweat, and then I drink and sleep! Occasionally I eat and I’ll own to a few other things. But I don’t want for anything else. I am a [Witch], but I’ll work for coin when my craft doesn’t call.”

“But what is your craft? Justice?”

Ryoka tried to press Hedag. But the [Witch] only smiled and filled Ryoka’s cup.

“It calls me sometimes often. Sometimes once a month, or even a year. And what it is, is justice.”

Beyond that, she wouldn’t say. And Ryoka realized after the third cup that Hedag was just as crafty as Eloise in her way. She’d bought goodwill with her strong drink. And she was content to just let people drink and insult each other and…be people, unlike Eloise. She was amid them, laughing, challenging Beycalt to an arm-wrestling competition, or laughing uproariously at a bawdy joke. But what did she do?

Ryoka had to excuse herself from the table to sit back and think. She was sure she was holding her liquor well—until Charlay pointed out Ryoka was about to fall out of her chair. The young woman sat up and tried to think.

She had seen Mavika selling crow’s feather charms to a few brave people. And Eloise sold her tea. Alevica was a Runner, and Califor seemed content to teach Nanette. Belavierr and Wiskeria were their own thing.

But Hedag had been the real mystery. Day after day, she’d been talking with children. Letting them show her a ball, or a doll, playing with them by pulling up a stone so they could scream at the bugs, or giving one a ride on her shoulders. The parents had been uneasy, but Hedag had just been kind. And then she’d stopped and begun helping out in the village.

“Why? Is she collecting fun? Goodwill, like Eloise?”

Ryoka muttered as she inspected Hedag with one bleary eye. Charlay shrugged.

“I have no idea. But she’s fun to be around.”

That was true. Hedag’s laugh filled the hall into the night. And she drank like an alcoholic and laughed without guile. And not once did Ryoka see anything ‘witchy’ about her.

Because there wasn’t. She was looking in the wrong place, at the wrong person. It wasn’t Hedag Ryoka should have been watching. So she only saw the end of it, when the fire in the mess hall was low and most had taken to their beds. Hedag sat, smiling, pleasantly drunk, at her table, occasionally belching.

And she was waiting. And that night, her craft did call. It was no large thing. Rather, it was a young boy Ryoka had never met. She had never seen him. To her, he was a face, one of Riverfarm’s many families displaced. She couldn’t have seen anything unique about him. Her eyes were on the [Witches]. She did not know the young boy, who had shown a leather ball to Hedag and heard her promise. Ryoka did not even know his name. His story.

But here it was. The young boy had had a fulfilling day. He’d been corralled into a work force of boys all bursting with energy around his age, too young to take up a task that involved anything bladed, but too old to stay with the young children. He’d been sent under the eye of a pair of [Hunters] to the forest near Riverfarm to gather some edibles.

Of course, the boy had played with his friends, but they’d all come back with some edibles, or bits of bark and kindling to appease Prost and the supervisor in charge of them. But responsibility wasn’t something the boy had a grasp of yet. He was a city’s child, and he’d laughed at the diligent villager-children who refused to so much as try and catch a rabbit barehanded and gathered most of the day.

And then he’d come back and eaten a hot meal, which he liked. He missed his home in Lancrel. Terribly. And the fascination of a new village, the relief of fleeing the Goblins was worn off. Riverfarm was boring, where Lancrel had been huge and exciting, a proper city. In his way, the young boy had been contemptuous of Riverfarm’s villagers.

The only exciting thing was the visitors. The Centauress, the strange-looking City Runner. And the [Witches]. They were terrifying and exciting to someone his age and he’d tried following around the young [Witch] until the old one snapped at him. Or the Witch Runner, until she’d conjured a swarm of stinging bugs and scared him and his friends off. The young boy had gotten into a fight twice with the villager boys and a girl named Chimmy. And he’d been told off and slapped hard for each.

Misery. Fun. Boredom and joy. That was his life in the day. But at night—at this night in particular, the young boy sat in his newly-made bed and listened. He shook, because he heard a man’s voice. Familiar, rough. And yes, drunk.

It was a story Ryoka didn’t know, but that she knew. The young boy listened. He had a mother and father. She was often impatient with him. He had expectations, and didn’t like being here in Riverfarm. The father was a [Jeweler] by class, and he didn’t take well to the work he had to do since he couldn’t pursue his class.

So he was impatient. Annoyed. And that night, drink, provided by Councilwoman Beatica at the Lancrel gatherings fueled a long-burning fire. An old problem. The boy listened as the voices murmured, then grew loud. And he was afraid.

Dark thoughts. A temper. Bitter words, perhaps over losing his home, his family moving here. Grievances at work. Councilwoman Beatica’s words. The lack of rain. [Witches].

The first shout made the young boy’s heart jump. He prayed he wouldn’t hear another. But he had no one to pray to, and he didn’t even know how to pray. It mattered not either way. He heard a quarrel. Another raised voice. And then a slap. A cry.

Heart racing. Hands clenching the sweaty sheets. The boy got up and searched his bed, desperately. He found what few things he owned. A leather ball he’d won from a friend. A bit of quartz he’d tried to polish. Three copper coins. He grabbed the ball and squeezed it. But then he heard more fighting. And another cry.

Now he was standing. Shaking. But he knew what was going to happen. It was a pattern. Not the first time, either. The young boy stared at the light through the door. And he was afraid. He’d been out there before. Tried to block the man, his father. Fight back. Last time he’d lost a tooth. He was afraid.

Because the wrath would turn towards him, soon. Already, his mother was sobbing. And the boy, desperate, wanted to hide under the bed. Or go out the window. But to where? This was home. So he shuddered.

And he remembered something. A smile. A huge face. A booming voice and a promise. A [Witch]’s promise. She’d sworn on her hat. And she had told him if, if he needed her, to call her name. And she would come. She’d touched the ball, and he’d seen no magic. But she had promised.

In that dark night, the boy had no one to turn to. His father was passing from drunk into a dark temper. Beyond just fury, in fact. The brooding, bitter rage that wouldn’t end in slaps or tears or even blood. So the boy hesitated. He grabbed the ball and clenched his fists. He had to be a man. A man wouldn’t let his mother cry out like that.

But he was small. And afraid. So the boy grabbed the ball. He hesitated, and then raised his prized possession and cried out. And his father heard and tore towards him. The boy heard the furious pounding on the door and hid under the bed. Praying without words. But there was no one in his house besides him, his father, and his mother. His neighbors were quiet, asleep or silent. There was no one to hear him.

Except the [Witch]. And in the mess hall, nodding off, Ryoka saw Hedag’s silent form move. The hat, which had partially slipped off Hedag’s head, rose. And the woman, who had fallen asleep, looked up. And there was no laughter. No smile.

Hedag was on her feet in a second. She ran. Ryoka jerked upright. She was quick, but Hedag was out of the doors, tables and chairs still tumbling aside as she charged outside. Ryoka stumbled after her, the alcohol in her veins disappearing. What? She hadn’t heard a thing!

The [Witch] was outside, head turning. She looked left, down a street of houses with few lights flickering behind the shutters. Then she ran. Ryoka shouted.

“Hedag! What is it?”

The woman didn’t respond. She took off, and Ryoka chased her. But Hedag was fast. She ran without form, holding her hat on her head, pounding down the dirt street. But she was still faster than Ryoka. She ran until she stopped. Ryoka nearly missed her. Hedag stormed up to a house with a faint light flickering behind the door. Ryoka heard a few sounds from inside, a raised voice, a pounding sound.

“What—”

Hedag’s fist struck the door. The [Witch] bellowed into the night. And her voice was like thunder.

You inside! Touch not that child! Step away from that door!

Ryoka heard an oath from inside. And then a muffled voice. Hedag’s fist slammed into the door.

Step away, man. And leave him be. Open this door or I will open it myself!

She roared the words, heedless of the doors opening, the people stirring. Ryoka stared. She did not know what was happening. But then she saw Hedag lower her shoulder and slam into the door.

The wood was solid. The frame sturdy. It had been made by good [Builders], out of strong wood, and it was fresh. It held, but Ryoka heard the creak. Hedag didn’t stop. She backed up and struck the door again, hurling her entire weight against it. The door cracked.

—off! This is my house!

A man’s voice was audible now. He was shouting in a fury. And Ryoka heard a woman’s voice. And she understood. But Hedag didn’t stop. She rammed the door a third time. And then she raised her foot. She kicked, and the door broke. Ryoka heard an oath and exclamation. Hedag strode into the house, knocking the broken parts of the door aside.

Step away from the child and woman.

There was a shout. Ryoka saw a flicker of movement as she ran for the doorframe. She saw Hedag step back, move—the man was swinging at her. The [Witch] blocked the blow and struck back. Ryoka heard a cry—and then a thump. And then another one.

“Listen to me, your poor excuse for a man. You’ll never touch her or him again. Do you hear me?”

“Let go of me! I’m—”

Ryoka heard a slurred voice, and then another blow, so loud her own teeth clenched at it. A cry of pain. Hedag’s sounded like thunder still, rolling and distant.

“Never again. This is a lesson. So pay heed: never again.

A giant wearing a hat stood in the kitchen. Tall, taller than the mortal man she held. And she raised her hand and the man screamed. Ryoka saw a woman grabbing Hedag, pleading. A boy—perhaps eleven—standing and watching, wide-eyed. Watching his father’s pain. Ryoka grabbed at Hedag’s arm as the woman raised it. And the backhand that struck her sent Ryoka stumbling into a wall.

“Don’t interfere, girl. Nor you, wife. This is my craft. My business. And this man will not touch you or his son so again. Or the next time I return, I will break his bones. And he will remember it. A Hedag’s promise is never broken. So remember this. What you were going to do to a boy less than half your size. Remember this.

She struck him again. Ryoka stumbled upright. She saw Hedag standing over the man. There was a terrible light in her eyes that scared Ryoka. She moved, grabbing the father as he tried to run. And the next blow doubled him over.

“Hedag! That’s enough!”

Ryoka called out. But the [Witch] did not stop. The father tore away from her with animal strength and ran out the door. Hedag caught him in the street.

A crowd had gathered. Most in their night clothes. They stared at Hedag as she caught him and delivered another blow. The father gasped.

“Help—”

And he was struck again. He made a wild sound and that moved the crowd. Some of them stepped forwards, but stopped when Hedag looked at them.

“Here now! What’s he done? You have no right to attack a man in his house—”

Silence.

Hedag barked the word. It stopped Ryoka, behind her. The crowd. Prost, approaching with Beniar. Hedag looked around and the [Witch]’s eyes were wide under her hat. She spoke, her words tearing the illusion of the peaceful night apart.

“I am Hedag! And I am teaching a man who would beat his wife and child a lesson. He will suffer for it. He will not die of it. But he will suffer. And no one will stop me. I am Hedag, and this is my right. This is justice. Will any woman or man gainsay it?”

She stood, holding the whimpering man in a grip of steel. The crowd protested. But it was at Prost the Hedag was looking. The [Witch]’s eyes met his. And the [Steward] stopped. He looked at Hedag.

“Hedag the [Executioner]. Do you say this is just?”

Just?

The exclamation came from a dozen voices, outraged. But Hedag just nodded. She looked around. And the outraged people hesitated.

“Should I show you the wife’s bruises? The cuts? Or should I show you the way he beat her? Should I reveal his sins? I will if you wish it, and you will see what sort of man you call neighbor and friend.”

No one spoke to that. Hedag’s eyes blazed as she lifted the man. He made a sound between terror and pain.

“I don’t need to. And better left, those sins are. Each one has their own. But this one I do not stand. Come, you gathered folk. If you didn’t know what a Hedag’s justice was, you know now. It is this. No man or woman will beat a child. No crime will be done that is not punished. And the punishment is this.”

She raised a hand and struck the man across the face. Ryoka saw a spray of blood and heard a mortal groan. It might have come from her. Hedag dropped the man. He was alive. But the suffering—she stood over him, and the crowd flinched from her gaze. Hedag continued, calmly. Her voice ringing in the night.

“Time was, a village wouldn’t sit by to see such things done. When worse came to worst, they’d gather. Go in and see justice done themselves. But they say civilization and progress put an end to those times. Now people wait and pretend not to see bruises or a blackened eye. Tears or torment. But Hedag sees. And wheresoever Hedag walks, she carries the old ways right here.”

She touched her chest and hat. The [Witch] looked around. And Ryoka understood. It wasn’t a story she knew. But it was a universal story. And Hedag had seen it a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand times.

She ignored the protests. She left the man where he lay. Her lesson was done. And it wasn’t him she’d ever cared about. It was the young boy in tears Hedag walked to. And the [Witch] was not guilty or remorseful. She grabbed him where he might have struck at her and she talked.

“It was a harsh thing, young lad. But better your father learned it. And it was bravery to call me. If you ever need help, call my name. And listen, because I tell you this plain: your father was wrong. The poorest of people beat their kin, let alone a child. And also know this. You will be safe. I swear by my hat on it.”

And that was all. Ryoka stood as Prost stood over the man and the city folk saw what the oldest justice was. What a Hedag was. [Executioner], yes. But also judge. Protector. Some shouted it was not right. Or just. But Ryoka looked at the wife, who was bleeding and bruised. And then at the man Hedag had left on the ground.

This was Hedag’s craft. She talked to the boy. And he hit her, and then cried, and he listened as she held him and told him it was going to be alright. No one was asking him to grow up yet. But he’d been a man tonight. And—Ryoka saw—he was years and centuries older than the boy he’d been yesterday. Then she talked to the wife. And the woman was just as conflicted.

That was what Hedag took. That was what she offered. As she left the house, Ryoka saw hundreds of years on her. Men. Women. Children. All of whom saw and heard her promise.

“Call my name. And I will be there.”

That was this [Witch]’s craft. She took gratitude, pure and simple. Simple gratitude. Innocent lost. Pain, and fear, and regret too, though. But part of it was gratitude. For being there.

And yet, what a cruel justice. Ryoka stared at the man. He wasn’t broken. But he was bloody. And no one had healed him with a potion. Even if they did, he would feel the blows she’d dealt him. He would remember. Ryoka stared at the man as he made faint sounds. And then she went after Hedag.

The [Witch] sat alone, calmly drinking in the mess hall. She looked up as Ryoka hesitated behind her.

“A Hedag has eyes in the back of her head, Ryoka-Girl. Literally. It’s a Skill, not magic. Useful, too. Sit.”

Ryoka did, slowly. Hedag looked at her. Ryoka hesitated. Then she pointed towards the door, the commotion growing. Another night of peace turned to unrest. But this one of a different kind.

Justice? The City Runner spoke, meeting Hedag’s gaze.

“You know they’ll turn on you. That husband you beat down. He’ll do it again as soon as you’re gone, if his wife doesn’t divorce him. Even if she does. And he has friends. They could come after you.”

The [Witch] laughed. It was coarse, almost mocking. But then gentle. She tipped the flask up, and it was empty. She sighed and tossed it on the table.

“Of course I know. I’ve been doing this for decades, Runner-Girl. But what’s the better way? To stand here and listen to a big, strong fellow beat his wife bloody? Is that just? While I’m here, folks will think twice about doing what he just did. And by the time I leave, he will know better than to touch a child. Because I will only leave when I am certain he will not. Elsewise I will come back again and again. And every village hereabouts will know the same. That’s my craft. What do you think of it?”

Ryoka paused.

“I—I think it’s—you didn’t have to beat that man so badly.”

The [Witch]’s eyes glinted.

“Wrong. I did.”

“You could have stopped him.”

“And what would that do, Miss City Runner? Would that have stopped him from trying again? Would he think twice, if I’d have paddled his rear and given him naught but a warning? No. Now, he will think many times.”

The young woman saw the logic. But she took her head.

“You just made him angrier. Violence begets violence. He’ll take it out on the kid if he could.”

“And if he does, I will break his arm.”

“But that won’t change—

Hedag’s fist slammed on the table.

“Change? It won’t change him. But who said I must be the one to change him? I will stop him, and stop him cold! My craft is not to coddle, Ryoka Griffin. It is not to show mercy to those who do wrong. If that man strikes a child, I strike him. If he kills a neighbor, I will judge him. And if a man or woman commits a crime as warrants it, I fetch my axe. That is justice. It is my craft. Not change.

Ryoka paused. She stared at Hedag. The woman had abandoned her first flask. She was rummaging around. And she pulled out a second flask and began drinking from it.

“So that’s a Hedag.”

“That is my name. My purpose. There have been Hedags before me. And perhaps there will be some after. But perhaps I am the last. I think every Hedag has always said that, though.”

The [Witch] drank. Ryoka hesitated.

“I understand. You’re the law in far-off villages. That’s what Prost said. A Hedag. A wandering [Executioner] and…but what gives you the right? If you weren’t as principled as you were—”

“What? You mean, if I wasn’t as ‘principled’, I’d do what? Ignore a child’s cry? Punish a man harder than I ought to? Say, ask for those who might pay me and protect only them?”

Hedag’s eyes flashed. Ryoka nodded.

“Yes.”

She waited. Hedag gulped down her mouthful, and then lowered the flask. She reached out and grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder before the young woman could dodge. Hedag’s grip was steel. Her voice a rumble.

“In that case, I would be a monster. Some call me that anyways. But I carry my justice here. And here. And in my axe.

She tapped her hat and heart, and then let go of Ryoka. The young woman felt at her shoulder.

“I understand that, Hedag. But you still went into that man’s house and beat him. If—Riverfarm has laws. The boy could have called for help. The man could have been locked up. We have laws for a reason. They prohibit abuse. Prost would, if he’d been there. Why not trust him?”

She didn’t know why she was arguing. But she had to, to understand. Hedag snorted. She poured herself a third drink from a third flask. It was water. She gulped it down, looking at Ryoka. Shaking her head.

“You speak of the law as if it were some grand thing, Runner-Girl. But to me, the law is a man or woman with a stick or sword. They wield it and if you cross them wrong, they beat you. In cities, it’s a pack of folk. Humans, Drakes, never mind if an [Emperor] lays down the law or a [Mayor]. It’s all the same. What’s so different with what I do? In your cities, the law is a uniform and a book. Out here, it is one woman. And she calls herself Hedag.

“But we have law in Riverfarm. That man—”

“Would be punished after. If his neighbors had the heart to stop him, or call out. Or if your [Steward] saw the woman’s bruises. Or heard of the boy’s broken arm. But that would be after, Miss Griffin. You say the law protects. But that is not what I hear of your cities.”

Hedag tossed down the water.

“Your [Guards] patrol the streets. [Watchmen] man your walls. And you say if there is crime, there will be punishment. But where is the law on a dark night when a man has been drinking? Where is the law when the girl hides under the bed and the father stumbles in, full of wrath? The law waits. But if that girl calls my name, I am there.”

She stared at Ryoka, with such a piercing look that Ryoka had trouble meeting it. But then Ryoka looked up.

“In my…home, we have a system. If a child is in trouble, she can call. And our law will save her.”

“And if she is too bruised to speak? Too terrified to call? Or perhaps she just loves the father when he doesn’t hit her. What then?”

“We…have people who investigate. Or a neighbor can call. Anyone who sees it.”

“And if they do not see? Or they do not look?”

Ryoka didn’t reply. No system was perfect. Hedag nodded.

“That is better. Better than most villages and cities have. But Ryoka-girl, it is not enough. Because your system waits. I do not wait. I am Hedag, and I have been that girl. My craft made me a [Witch]. And so where I go, I do not just wait. I go to villages, large and small. Far and wide. And I look at every child, every wife and husband. I stare into their faces. And I bring my justice. That is my purpose. That is what I can offer your [Emperor]. That is what he must accept. What say you?”

She looked at the City Runner, and Hedag smelled of alcohol and sweat. Blood and dirt. And she was just a woman with a pointed hat. A drunk. A laugh louder than reality. And sometimes, a giant in the night. Someone who could hear the voices no one could. Ryoka looked at her.

“I wouldn’t ever stop you. I just wish you didn’t have to exist.”

The [Witch] stared at Ryoka. And then she laughed. She slapped the table and howled with laughter. Ryoka listened, waiting, for minutes until Hedag had stopped. Then the woman pulled herself up, adjusted her hat, and grinned.

“I cannot argue with that. Nor can I say I’m perfect, Miss Griffin-girl. After all, there have been poor Hedags. And I will not be here forever. I am no Belavierr. Someday, I will batter down a door and find a knife in my gut. Or a few folk will gather around to end me. I know that. But this is my craft. And Riverfarm has need of me. It is the biggest place I’ve had to ply my craft yet. I only hope I’ve the strength to do it.”

She poured herself another drink and raised it. Ryoka watched Hedag drink. Content. Tired. So this was what she was. Ryoka looked at her. And she thought of all the other [Witches]. And she realized she understood Hedag the most. Because she was simplest.

So Ryoka got up. Hedag watched her, calmly. Ryoka hesitated. And then she bowed to the [Witch] and heard her laugh. She bowed, and wished there were a thousand Hedags. A million, the world over, dispensing their flawed justice. Or none at all.

The old ways.

 

 

Day 64 – Wiskeria

 

“Call it what you will. But it is the old justice. And I have granted Hedag her right. It is old. Older than cities. And until his Majesty returns, she is free to enact her justice. No man died. And no child was beaten. His Majesty has been told of it and he will rule on it, as well as Belavierr when he returns. But I say it is justice.”

That was all Prost said to Beatica. And for once, the Councilwoman’s indignation and protests fell on deaf ears. Because it was a balance. If Belavierr was one thing, Hedag another. You could protest she was a law unto herself. Because she was. You could worry about corruption or bias. But the [Witch] had the support from every side. From children, or adults who had grown up wishing for a Hedag. For those who cried out.

The coven could be proud of her. Of course, they weren’t. Not really. Hedag was simply another [Witch]. And the others [Witches] may have understood why Ryoka was so taken with the [Executioner] and [Witch], but many didn’t care. Mavika didn’t. Nor did Alevica.

“Hedag’s a legend, yes, yes. She goes around beating evil parents and killing murderers. She’s not my kind of [Witch]. I get along with her because she’s free with alcohol. I don’t kiss her shoes, like you do, Ryoka.”

The City Runner glared at Alevica. It was custom, now, for Ryoka to try to have a lunch with any [Witches] willing to suffer her. And today, Wiskeria had cooled down enough to have a civil conversation with Ryoka. But they were still at odds. Ryoka regretted how she’d brought up Belavierr to Wiskeria, but she had hope that Hedag’s moment had given them an opportunity to mend the gap. But Wiskeria didn’t seem as impressed as Ryoka either.

“I have to agree with Alevica, Ryoka. Hedag’s practicing her craft. It’s not as noble as you think. She does it because she wants to. I told you, [Witches] are inherently selfish. Good [Witches] obey the law, or they make them, like Hedag. But she could just as easily be called a bad [Witch] because she imposes her craft on people.”

“Like me. We’re not so different, Hedag and I. The only difference is that I only bother [Bandits] with my evil craft, and people who annoy me. Hedag’s a tyrant in a hat.”

Alevica winked at Ryoka. The young Asian woman didn’t wink back.

“I disagree. I understand she’s flawed, but what she does is…”

Ryoka grasped for words. It spoke to her. It wasn’t acceptable, not in the society where she’d grown up. Hedag would be jailed in a moment on earth. But it was what should be right. That was how Ryoka felt. Wiskeria and Alevica exchanged a glance. The Witch Runner rolled her eyes.

“Well, looks like Hedag’s got another follower. I can’t fault her for being popular. Although you know she has a bigger bounty than mine.”

“Really?”

Ryoka looked up. Alevica grinned as she summoned her broomstick.

“Of course. Do you think villages are happy to see her? She’s not just some amazing crusader who stops wife-beaters, Ryoka. She’s left dead in the villages she passes. People who won’t change. Or who committed old crimes. She’s an [Executioner]. She’s got a bounty. Only about three hundred gold pieces. Poor folk can’t afford more. But think about that. Wipe the awe out of your eyes, Ryoka. If Hedag judges someone, she’ll kill them. Her law doesn’t bend.”

Before Ryoka could reply, the [Witch] flew off, laughing merrily. Ryoka clenched her fists and looked at Wiskeria. The other [Witch] shrugged, a bit embarrassed.

“She’s right, you know, Ryoka. Hedag’s just a good [Witch] with good principles. But it’s—”

“Selfish. I get it.”

She was biased, Ryoka realized. But she couldn’t help it. Wiskeria eyed Ryoka’s expression, but she didn’t say anything. The two stared at each other in silence. Their previous argument still hung in the air.

“Look, I just want to help—”

“It’s my business.”

“I know I don’t understand. But will you explain it to me? This is bigger than just you and Belavierr. There’s a [Witch Hunter], and Fierre was telling me about Belavierr’s past—”

Wiskeria’s eyes flashed.

“I know that. But I know my mother. She won’t do anything while I’m here.”

“What about in general? What about her deal with Laken? And about her not hurting anyone— do you remember that she sewed my lips shut?

“Maybe because you annoyed her. You have to admit, it’s tempting sometimes. Has no one ever told you that you’re both persistent and stubborn? [Witches] don’t like to be bothered.”

The two glared at each other. They didn’t look away as the wind blew straight into Wiskeria’s face and Ryoka felt a stinging pain in her eyes. Only a quavering, timid voice interrupted the staring contest.

“Please don’t fight. You two are friends, aren’t you?”

Both Ryoka and Wiskeria paused. They turned and saw a young [Witch]. They’d completely forgotten about Nanette. The youngest [Witch] looked wide-eyed at the young women. Abashed, both sat back. Miss Califor, who had been silently eating at the table, cleared her throat.

“Nannette.”

“Yes, Miss Califor?”

The [Witch] broke off eating a jam-covered biscuit that Eloise had made. Ryoka waited for a grain of wisdom from Miss Califor. The [Witch] paused, eying her and Wiskeria.

“You have jam on your face, Nanette. Eat more carefully.”

Ryoka blinked. Nanette felt at her face and squeaked. Miss Califor produced a handkerchief and cleaned the jam off Nanette’s cheek. Wiskeria and Ryoka stared at her, and then settled back for a more amiable conversation.

Califor was another mystery, although she just felt more like a teacher than anything else to Ryoka. A good one, but she was focused on Nanette almost to the point of exclusion. Teaching the girl everything from how to bake to casting spells was Califor’s obsession and craft, it seemed. And cleaning jam off Nanette’s face.

Even so, it wasn’t a completely harmonious relationship. Nanette was a growing girl, and sometimes it seemed like Califor’s mentorship chafed at her. On the other hand…Ryoka also saw that she respected Miss Califor and hung on the woman’s words. Nanette always had a truism of Califor’s to repeat. And she valued the older [Witch]’s approval more than anything else.

Sometimes that could result in tears, especially today. It was an inadvertent slip up as Ryoka and Wiskeria tried to be civil.

“I guess I have been a bit annoying about Belavierr. I just don’t want to make a mistake. I feel like I have to address her. Or what’s the point of me being here?”

The City Runner muttered into her tea cup. Wiskeria hesitated, and tugged her hat down.

“And—I could talk about my mother. It’s just that it’s hard, you understand? I’m sorry for snapping. Nanette.”

Miss Califor harrumphed quietly. Nanette however looked happy to see the two making an effort. She smiled as she reached for another biscuit.

“I’m so glad. You two were ever so nice when we were on our walk. Miss Califor, Ryoka even healed my hand when I—”

Nanette’s face went pale. Miss Califor’s brows snapped together.

“When you what, Nanette? Did you injure yourself so badly you needed a healing potion? And you did not inform me?”

She looked up and Ryoka felt like every teacher in the world was giving her the death glare. And that was nothing to the way Nanette stammered and tried to lie. Ineffectually, of course. Wiskeria was hiding under her hat as Califor prised the truth out and Ryoka took a quick bathroom break, following Charlay’s example.

When Califor finally found out about Nanette slicing her palm open with the sickle by accident, she did just what Nanette feared. She took the sickle away. Ryoka returned to the table a few minutes later to find Nanette sobbing at the scolding she’d received. She wasn’t being punished beyond having the sickle confiscated, but Miss Califor’s disappointment was enough.

Wiskeria gave Ryoka a look that said she’d hex Ryoka into oblivion if the City Runner left her alone. So Ryoka sat down as Miss Califor left to put the sickle in a safe place until Nanette was older and ‘knew how to respect it’.

They had to comfort her of course. Although, Ryoka had to point out that neither of them had actually told Califor (mainly because they’d forgotten to), and Nanette had let it slip. Wiskeria glared and kicked Ryoka under the table. Ryoka considered that she’d deserved that.

“Look, I know Califor can be harsh, Nanette, but she’s just looking out for you. It’s actually touching, really. Parents are strict because they love you. Generally. I mean, I know Califor’s just your teacher, but—”

Ryoka lamely attempted to comfort Nanette. The young [Witch] gulped as Wiskeria kicked Ryoka under the table again. Wiskeria nodded.

“Califor’s like every [Witch]’s mother. I know I wanted to make her proud of me. She taught me, Nanette. She’s not mad. In fact, she’s pretty caring of you, like I said.”

“I just don’t want to disappoint her.”

Nanette gulped her eyes watery. Ryoka patted her on the back.

“You didn’t do that. Sickles are dangerous. One time, I nearly cut my hand to the bone when I was trying to cook by myself. And Durene—you should see her handle a knife!”

Nanette smiled, but she shook her head again as Wiskeria poured more of Eloise’s fine tea.

“I know. I know, but…I think I’m Miss Califor’s worst apprentice. I’m always causing her trouble and she’s always having to help me, or fix my mistakes. And she always does! She’s so kind.

The two young women blinked and looked at each other. ‘Kind’ wasn’t a word Ryoka had ever thought of in conjunction with Califor. And she didn’t think that was from a lack of getting to know the [Witch]. Nanette saw her skepticism and Wiskeria’s, or read it in them. She sat up indignantly.

“She is! She’s the best! She does all kinds of things that are nice. Miss Wiskeria, I know your mother’s um…Witch Belavierr. But Miss Califor’s different! I know what they say about her—”

“Which is?”

Ryoka looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] coughed.

“Oh, you know. That she’s tougher than nails. She could eat nails and teach an Ogre manners. Cross her and you’d better put the noose around your neck and jump. Once Califor decides to deal with you, you should deal with yourself just to save yourself the misery. She’s the most powerful [Witch] in generations…”

“Does that count Mavika or Belavierr?”

“Generations, I said.”

“Oh.”

“But she’s nice! She’s as good—better than any mother! I can prove it!”

Nanette banged her hands on the table. Ryoka and Wiskeria turned back to her, embarrassed again. Red-faced, the [Witch] girl took a deep breath. Then she looked abashed.

“This is a private story, alright? You mustn’t tell. But it’s about Miss Califor. She raised me since I was very small. In a cottage, in fact! I learned from her and she was strict—but also kind. Back then, before she travelled and took me as her apprentice, she had a cottage by the High Passes. She did some work from there, and she had goats. I had a special one named Belfaus who watched over me.”

Wiskeria blinked as she mouthed at Ryoka over Nanette’s head as the girl went on. Califor owned goats? Ryoka was busy listening to Nanette. The girl closed her eyes solemnly.

“When I was small, I made a bad mistake. The worst I ever made. I don’t know how old I was. But one day, I was very bored and Miss Califor had to see to someone who’d broken both legs in a fall. So…I left the cottage with Belfaus. I thought it would be fun to go exploring, but I forgot to tell Miss Califor. And I went far. So far, I couldn’t find my way back.”

She looked up. And Nanette’s face was very pale. Wiskeria and Ryoka stopped and started paying more attention at the look on Nanette’s face.

“Miss Califor always said the land around the cottage was warded, so I shouldn’t wander too far without her. But that day I did. And Belfaus didn’t know better. I kept looking for the way back, but I’d forgotten it. And I went further and further—and I went into the High Passes. Because we lived right near the mountains, you see.”

Ryoka inhaled sharply. Wiskeria glanced at her. Nanette’s voice was lost.

“They said it was a pack of Gargoyles. One of them snatched Belfaus. And the other grabbed me. They—they must have been hungry, because one of them ate—ate Belfaus—but they took me to a cave. And—and I was in the cave for ever so long—and there were so many Gargoyles.”

“How many?”

“Many. Dozens.”

Nannette’s voice sunk to a whisper. And her eyes were wide. Her hands clasped together. Ryoka remembered the giant stone creatures, the monsters of the High Passes. The girl’s voice went on, conjuring a story until Ryoka could see the huge shapes, snapping, devouring Eater Goats and Belfaus, saving her for later.

“I thought I was going to die. Because even Gold-rank teams won’t enter the High Passes. And there were so many Gargoyles. But I called out. I begged Miss Califor to find me. Save me. And she did.”

Children were poor storytellers. Ryoka and Wiskeria stared at Nanette.

“Just like that? She did? How?

Nanette looked up and shook her head.

“I don’t know. I was in the dark cave. And was trying to hide beneath a rock. And then I saw the light. And I heard terrible fighting. And then Miss Califor was there. She picked me up and scolded me. Then she brought me back and we buried Belfaus. And that’s when she taught me to use magic to defend myself. But I never knew how she did it. I asked everyone, but no one said they knew. Only that Miss Califor tore up half the mountainside looking for me. And she found me.”

How? How’d she beat that many Gargoyles? A decent Gold-rank team could only get—three. How’d she do it? Scare them off?”

Wiskeria demanded incredulously. Nanette shook her head, eyes wide and earnest.

“She never told me how she got rid of them all. But everyone says that it was a grand feat, even for Miss Califor. And it wasn’t easy. She still has a scar from that day. Right here.”

She pointed at a spot just above her hip. Ryoka stared at Nanette. The little [Witch] concluded, folding her hands on the table and looking up earnestly.

“I never forgot. And Miss Califor’s always been there. She’s the best. I want to be like her when I grow up. I don’t want to disappoint her. I’m sure Witch Belavierr cares about you just as much—almost as much—as Miss Califor, Wiskeria. And your mother too, Ryoka.”

She couldn’t have known how those words went through Wiskeria and Ryoka. Or why they looked at each other, and for a moment each wished they had a story they could tell like that. Something so pure, so simple. And why it hurt that Nanette could tell that tale of Califor with such sincerity.

Ryoka thought of her own mother. And she tried to imagine her mother—she had disappointed her parents greatly. But they had also disappointed her. Even Ryoka the adult wished they had been more, even if they’d been people, not perfect paragons. And she saw something similar in Wiskeria’s gaze. Similar, but different. But there they were. They got along and annoyed each other because there was something similar.

Of course, Nanette had no idea why Wiskeria and Ryoka started crying. But neither Ryoka or Wiskeria could explain the pure, contemptible jealousy in their hearts. And Nanette eventually began sobbing in sympathy.

That was how Miss Califor found them. The old [Witch] stared down at the three crying girls at the tea table. And she sighed. Then she slapped Ryoka and Wiskeria on the back of the heads and dragged Nanette off. For a treat. The [Witch] girl was forgiven.

But Wiskeria and Ryoka remained. They cried a bit. Then they were laughing. Not hysterically, but bitterly; a joke only they could understand. They got a lot of odd looks.

At last, Ryoka straightened. She looked at Wiskeria as the [Witch] blew her nose. Ryoka sighed.

“You really hate what she does, don’t you? I can understand Rehanna. But it bothers you.”

“Of course. Because she’s my mother. And she’s done worse. But the hardest part is that I still love her, Ryoka. She’s my…mother. Even though I hate her. I can’t get a new one. Or make one. But I sometimes wonder if she could make another daughter.”

Wiskeria bitterly looked at her hands. As if checking for stitches. Ryoka nodded. Wiskeria went on.

“It would be so easy if I knew, knew she really loved me. But you’ve met Belavierr. She says I’m her daughter. But am I? Is she really my mother? Or is this relationship fake? Perhaps I’m her backup in case she dies. Maybe when I grow older, she’ll possess my body. Or use my youth. Or perhaps I’m just some experiment she hasn’t ended yet. Maybe she took me on a whim.”

She looked at Ryoka, helpless.

“I want to believe. But Ryoka—I don’t know if I can.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ryoka reached out and grabbed Wiskeria’s hand. The [Witch] nodded. Ryoka let go awkwardly after a second. She looked at the [Witch] as she pretended to fuss over her hat. So there it was. Just as much as Wiskeria hating what Belavierr did. She didn’t know if her mother was genuine. And neither did Ryoka.

How could you believe Belavierr truly loved Wiskeria? By how she acted? Because Wiskeria was the one person who could make Belavierr pay attention? It still wasn’t enough. Ryoka understood that. Even if Belavierr walked up to Wiskeria, gave her a big, genuine smile, kissed her on the head and uh…gave her a hug?

Ryoka couldn’t imagine it. She stared up at the sky. Blue and clear. Hot enough to make her reach for her tea. She drank as Wiskeria sipped as well. At last, Ryoka looked at her friend.

“It’s hot.”

“Mhm.”

“What was she like, growing up?”

Wiskeria smiled.

“Sometimes she was distant. But she was always there when I called her name. She wasn’t ever cruel to me, Ryoka. I just learned she did bad things.”

“I get that. And her being here is for you.”

“Me. And the coven. I’m certain it’s both. But me, I guess. She’s here to help [Witches] everywhere, Ryoka. Belavierr does care about witchcraft in general, even if individual people are…”

She flicked her fingers and Ryoka nodded.

“My coven intends to offer Laken a deal he won’t refuse. In exchange for granting [Witches] sanctuary, a place to flee or gather, he’ll gain our aid. But also our problems. We’re messy, argumentative, troublemakers—just like any group of people. But some of us are monsters.”

“What do you think he should do, then? He might get in trouble for offering her sanctuary.”

Wiskeria nodded.

“I know. On the other hand, if he could convince Belavierr not to practice her craft—or—not steal so much life like you said—! Mother could do good, Ryoka. She has in the past. It’s just that she doesn’t differentiate between the two. She could offer him a fortune. Or give every Darksky Rider the same charm she gave me. It would be easy, for her.”

“And she loves you.”

The [Witch] paused.

“I wish I could be certain.

That was it. An immortal [Witch]. An [Emperor]’s dilemma. To Ryoka, it crystalized into one point. And it was mortal, fraught, but it was something she could help with. The City Runner sat back. It was a hot day, and the wind that blew into Ryoka’s face and tugged at her hair offered little relief.

“I’ll try.”

“Please don’t. Mother can be dangerous if she’s in a bad mood. I’ve never seen her in a bad mood—I suppose that means she cares?”

Wiskeria laughed weakly. Ryoka shook her head.

“I have to try. I have experience dealing with people like…her. And if not me, then who?”

“Laken. He’s an [Emperor].”

Ryoka paused.

“Okay, but he’s not here.

“But he’s an expert, Ryoka. At least, in dealing with unnatural things. I actually think he might be able to persuade mother when he gets here. You see, he’s done this before. I heard tales about it, but once, just once, I saw him greet these…people. His [Lords] and [Ladies]. Visitors. But they were like us, but not.

Wiskeria leaned forwards. And Ryoka felt a jolt of adrenaline run through her. Laken had offered Ivolethe—

“Wait. What visitors? You mean, they came here? In the winter?”

“No, the spring. They were these strange, dangerous folk—”

“The fair folk? Wait? Are they here? What did they do? They came here in the spring?

Her hands were suddenly gripping Wiskeria hard enough to bruise. The [Witch], alarmed, tried to pull away. But Ryoka was staring at her. And the [Witch] felt it from her. The strongest emotion she’d ever sense from Ryoka.

The desperate longing. Hope. She stammered as Ryoka asked—practically shouted questions. Ryoka let go and stood up.

“They’re here. Laken can summon them? Or—they have ties to this place?”

Her eyes flickered. She reached into a belt pouch and grasped something. Wiskeria, coughing, saw Ryoka murmuring to herself.

“Maybe a ritual? A faerie mound? No. The Summer Solstice. If it’s here—”

She turned. And Wiskeria felt a surge of hope and desperation bordering on madness. She coughed.

“Ryoka.”

“I’m going.”

Absently, Ryoka walked off. Wiskeria tried to go after her. But Ryoka ran off. The City Runner was filled with maddening thoughts. Hopes. A single one. And suddenly, she had every reason to talk to Laken.

But before that, came her. Belavierr stood alone far outside the village. She looked annoyed. Angry. She turned and her eyes fixed Ryoka. The City Runner slowed.

“Begone.”

Ryoka hesitated. She was afraid. But she clutched the bit of frozen ice. And it gave her strength. A hot wind blew around her. And she raised her voice.

“Hi. I’m Ryoka Griffin. A friend of Wiskeria’s, or at least, I hope.”

Belavierr paused. She stared at Ryoka, fingers twisted as if to do something. Ryoka went on, speaking clearly, meeting the [Witch]’s eyes.

“She isn’t certain you love her, you know. And you drive her away every time you steal yourself.”

The [Witch] said nothing. Ryoka went on, trying to speak from the heart.

“You have to change. So does she. But neither of you can do it alone. And the other can’t do it without you trying. That’s all I have to say. And if I can help you two, I will. Please don’t kill me.”

Belavierr stared at Ryoka. The City Runner braced. After a second, Belavierr lifted a finger. She pointed up. Ryoka felt her clothes move.

“Wait—wait! I only—”

Belavierr ignored her. She stared at Ryoka. She flicked her fingers, and the clothes hurled Ryoka through the air.

About four hundred feet away, Mister Ram and some [Farmers] were working the fields, grumbling about dry soil. They looked up as they saw a big shape flying towards them. Ram stared up and swore as he heard a screaming voice.

Ohgodohgodohgod—

Ryoka didn’t die when she hit the river. Her fall wasn’t at terminal velocity. But she still sank to the bottom and swam out, gasping at the cold shock. She looked around wildly as Ram and everyone who’d seen her flying rushed over. Ryoka clambered out as Ram reached for her.

“Dead gods! Miss Griffin! What happened?”

“Belavierr.”

Someone uttered it like a curse. But Ryoka just nodded. She stared at a distant figure. Belavierr was still standing there. Ryoka felt at her wet body. Then she crawled onto the bank and lay on the grass. She looked up at Ram, wide-eyed.

“I’m not dead. That probably means progress.”

He stared at her and she smiled. Then put her head down on the grass and passed out.

 

 

Day 65 – Ryoka

 

Waking. Explaining what had happened to Prost. Talking with Wiskeria, who marched off to shout at her mother. Sleeping and waking in a cold sweat. The next day, Ryoka still shuddered. But she thought she’d made progress. She still wasn’t sure if the wind had saved her, blowing her into the river, or if Belavierr had aimed for that.

But it was something. And Ryoka had hope. Because the day was clear, if too hot. And she could try again, this time with Wiskeria. A mother-daughter talk with her acting as intermediary, for what it was worth.

And she had no idea what was happening. Because in Reizmelt, a Vampire girl wrote down Belavierr’s name and was attacked in sewing needles. Across the ocean, the Order of Seasons waited, and a group of [Hunters] and a [Knight] stood, hoping for confirmation. A single name.

And in that day stood a [Witch]. Belavierr. She might have slept. She might have woken. But how she lived was a mystery to most. It made sense to her, though. Her actions have purpose. Her magic was connected, a product of thread and skill and power.

This is what she saw. The [Witch] held up a ward. A needle tied with a thread. The needle tied with thread vibrated and twisted and turned as she held it. Moving despite the absence of wind. Belavierr watched as it stabbed. And Fierre screamed. The Stitch Witch waited. But the stabbing needle kept moving. Desperately.

And then it stopped. The magic was gone. And Belavierr saw the needle snap. She stared at it.

“Hm. Four. The last is failed.”

Her head turned. The wide brim stared at the sun. Straight into it.

“Something is coming.”

That was intuition. But the Stitch Witch had certainty as well. She abandoned the failed ward and reached into her sleeves. And from somewhere, she brought out something.

It was a tapestry. A small woven scene, on a fabric. Silk, or something just as fine. Belavierr looked at it.

She had not woven it. It had woven itself. And what it showed her was a burning figure. And fire. Fire, a burning figure. She touched it, and the very fabric was hot.

“So. Two deaths.”

To Belavierr, it was clear as could be. And the Stitch Witch did not question. She knew, and so she acted. She walked, and a thread in her mind, in reality, a bit of magic, led her straight to a [Witch] taking breakfast with Ryoka. The City Runner jumped and hid behind Wiskeria. But Belavierr’s attention was on her daughter. She only vaguely recognized Ryoka; she had forgotten all but the other [Witches]. And she spoke.

“Daughter. I am leaving. There is danger following me.”

That was all. And it was a clear message. But her Daughter, the one thing in the world Belavierr couldn’t understand—tried to understand but was incomprehensible—spluttered and asked questions. Belavierr only said what she knew.

“It is too dangerous for me. I will return for you. And the pact with this [Emperor] if there is time.”

Mother! You can’t just run off! Hold on! Wait! I want to speak with you!”

Belavierr was already leaving. But she paused. Because of Wiskeria. Only for her, despite the danger. The tapestry was smoking. Burning. In Reizmelt, Fierre stomped into the tavern and grabbed the [Mage].

“Daughter. I must go.”

“Mother—what have you done?”

“Nothing?”

Belavierr had no idea. She did not ask the origin, only sought the nature of the threat. She showed Wiskeria the tapestry. Her daughter was uncomprehending.

“I don’t understand.”

“It is a warning. Like other wards, but prophecy. You would know this if you had continued studying your craft, Daughter.”

Belavierr frowned. And she was distracted. Wiskeria glared up at her mother. And someone else tapped her urgently on the shoulder.

“Witch Belavierr? What kind of threat is it? Can you tell us if it’s aimed at us? Or just you?”

Belavierr’s eyes swung to Ryoka. In annoyance. The City Runner froze, but Wiskeria blocked Belavierr.

“Don’t glare, Mother! This is Ryoka. My friend. I want you to listen to her, understand?”

“I understand. But Daughter. I must leave. The death follows me. It may affect you—”

Across the world, the Knight-Commander spoke an order. The [Autumn Knights] called on their grand ritual. Wistram itself coursed with magic.

Belavierr’s head snapped up. Across Riverfarm, seven [Witches] looked up. Wiskeria. Nanette. Califor. Hedag. Eloise. Alevica. Mavika. Even Nesor felt it.

So did Ryoka. She looked up. The wind had changed. It blew, suddenly a gale. Belavierr sighed and turned.

“Daughter. I must go.”

“What is that?”

Wiskeria looked up. The air was shaking. Ryoka heard voice. A thunder, like the cracking of the sky. Her hair was standing on end. Prost and Rie looked up and called the alarm.

They all felt it. And then they saw it. The sky and ground were merging. Outside of Riverfarm, the air warped. Ryoka, turning, saw them.

Ranks of armored Humans. [Knights], hundreds of them, standing in line. Some were dressed like the spring, in green. Others blazed. Still more were dressed in robes, or wearing the russet colors of fall. And few stood like ice. One of them was closest, standing on a dais. He pointed, his sword aimed straight through the disturbance in the air. And his eyes found Ryoka. And moved past her. They widened with hatred. And Belavierr blinked.

Ryoka saw a band of six in the center of the disturbance. Six figures, all on foot. Five wore dark clothing, the same capotain style on two hats. Set faces. Each carried weapons. A pair of crossbows. A golden axe. A wand and rapier. A longbow, already nocked with a shimmering arrow. A hammer and shield.

The last was a [Knight]. He walked forwards. He was at the very edge of his forties or the end of his thirties. And his armor was yellow and orange and gold. It shone. But there was a burning in his gaze. As if fire itself flickered in his pupils. He walked first, and the five [Hunters] behind him.

Through that disturbance in the air, where magic itself was affecting reality. Behind him, the Order of Seasons roared. Ryoka froze.

“What’s happening? Dead gods, what’s happening?

Someone was shouting that. Riverfarm’s people couldn’t have ignored the magical disturbance. They flooded towards the rift, staring. Mister Prost, Beniar and his [Riders]. Lady Rie.

And the coven. The [Witches] came forwards. And even Mavika and Califor stared. Alevica’s jaw dropped. Ryoka’s head spun. She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch]’s face was white.

“What kind of magic is this? A Tier 7 spell? Tier 8?”

Ryoka stared at the rift. Then she looked around. Her eyes found Belavierr. The Stitch Witch was staring into the rift, at the band slowly walking towards her. The [Summer Knight]’s gaze was blazing, the [Hunter]’s intent. They never looked away from her as they crossed that divide. Nor did Knight-Commander Calirn. He stood with four of the Grandmasters of the Order of Seasons. And the ranks of the [Knights] beheld her. Belavierr.

“Why is this happening?

There were many answers. Ryoka thought of a [Witch Hunter]. If she had known more, she might have thought of Fierre. Or Belavierr’s ward spells. And perhaps she might have seen the larger picture if it was explained.

But she didn’t. Because Mavika’s words came back, echoing.

This is not your story.

Belavierr. This day has been ages coming. Stand and face your fate!”

Knight-Commander Calirn bellowed across the rift. The [Hunters] and [Knight] were closing on her, stepping into Riverfarm. One held a scrying orb. And even as the grand ritual’s magic began to fail, the rift began to close, the [Hunter] lifted the orb. She tossed it, and it paused in the air. And the Order of Seasons was reflected there.

The [Hunters] and [Knight] stopped on the grass. The magic vanished from the air. Ryoka staggered back. They had crossed from that other place over to here in less than a minute! She could still feel the shuddering in the air. And now—they were here.

Silence. Nobody could speak. Ryoka’s eyes were wide. How could this be happening? But she was a bystander. And this was not her final act. The [Knight] had no eyes for her. He drew his sword. A greatsword, two-handed. And he spoke.

“Belavierr the Stitch Witch.”

There she stood. Tall as midnight. Dark as shadows. Her glowing eyes fixed on the man as the [Hunters] spread out. And there was a flicker of recognition.

“Do I know you?”

The [Summer Knight] didn’t blink. He only smiled. And his eyes blazed.

“You are wanted across the world for your crimes, Belavierr. And this day you will be brought to justice at last. Come to execute this duty are five [Witch Hunters] from Terandria. And myself. I am Ser Raim, [Summer Knight] of the Order of Seasons. We have met before. Today, for the dead, for those who still suffer from your deception and malice, I will bring you to justice.”

He lifted his sword and saluted her. The [Witch Hunters] drew their weapons. Ryoka was frozen, along with the coven. Wiskeria looked at her mother, but she too was transfixed. It was all happening too fast. And it was not her tale.

Belavierr paused for a moment after Sir Raim delivered his vow. She stared at him. And then the five [Witch Hunters]. They were spread out in a semi-circle, flanking her. Three women, two men. One of them, looked up. The sun was at his back. And he lifted his weapons in both hands.

A pair of crossbows, bolts tipped with silver. The string was metal, the weapons shining with magic. He aimed at Belavierr as she considered.

“I have no quarrel with the Order of Seasons.”

That was what she said. The [Witch Hunter] called out.

“[Magicslayer’s Shot]. [Seven-League Bolts].”

Ryoka saw him pull the triggers at a distance. She never saw the bolts fly. But she saw Belavierr stagger. Wiskeria cried out as Belavierr stumbled back. Two bolts were lodged in her chest. She stared down as the [Witch Hunter] flicked his crossbows.

“[Automatic Reload].”

The crossbows drew back, cocking themselves. Two bolts appeared in the grooves. The [Witch Hunter] raised the crossbows again. Belavierr stared at the bolts in her chest. Slowly, she touched the liquid running down one bolt.

Red blood. The Stitch Witch looked up. And spoke normally. As if the crossbow bolts weren’t there.

“I possess the life of the [Prince] of—”

The second pair of bolts struck her right arm. Belavierr stumbled back. She stared at her arm. Tried again.

“His fate is—”

Her hand rose. Two bolts appeared, halfway through her hand. They would have struck her face. Belavierr stared at them. At blood, which spattered as her arm jerked with the impact. Wiskeria made a sound. Belavierr frowned as the [Witch Hunter] with the crossbows paused.

And then Belavierr frowned. She twisted her fingers. And flicked a needle.

Where had she pulled it from? Ryoka had no idea. But one needle suddenly shot across the ground at the [Witch Hunter]. Then it multiplied. A hundred. A thousand shot across the ground at the man, like hail. He cursed.

“[Perfect D—]”

[Shield of Valor]!

The [Hunter] with the hammer and shield slammed his shield down in front of the other man. Ryoka saw a barrier of light. Heard and saw the needles snap as they struck the shield in the air. Belavierr paused.

“Tagil! Attack in tandem! Watch her threads!”

Another [Hunter], the one with the axe, called out. She advanced, as the two other [Hunters] aimed. One with a bow, the other with a wand. The [Summer Knight] was still as Belavierr turned. She pulled a bolt out of her chest easily. And then she flicked her hand.

More needles. This time ten times as many. They sprayed outwards, striking at all the [Hunters] and Ser Raim. The five [Hunters] shouted, but they were equal to it. They dodged, or blocked. One simply took the hits; the needles stood out on her leather armor as she blocked the ones aimed at her face. She ignored the metal lodged deep into her armor.

Advancing. The silvery needles flew, trying to shred the hunters. But there stood Ser Raim. He wore no helmet. As the sewing needles shot at him, he spoke.

“[Aura of Righteous Fire].”

And he burned. The air ignited. The area around Ser Raim turned to flame. The metal needles melted before they touched him. The [Summer Knight] walked forwards. His steps lit a trail of fire. His armor burned with it. For twenty feet, fire burned. And it walked with him as he advanced on Belavierr.

Six. They came forwards. Belavierr abandoned the needles. Frowned. Then she inspected Ser Raim again. She frowned. And recognition flickered in her eyes.

“Oh. You.”

She shook her head. And as Ryoka watched, breathless, waiting to see what she would do, Belavierr turned. And began to walk away.

Belavierr! Hold!

The [Hunters] advanced faster. One of them, the one with the longbow, raised it and aimed at her back.

“[Hunter’s Quarry]!”

The arrow sped towards Belavierr from behind. It never struck her. It did hit a face that pulled itself out of the earth. A huge, misshapen face. Staring button eyes. A golem of cloth. The [Hunters] charged, but two more golems rose out of the ground. And more needles flashed through the air. One as thick as Ryoka’s arm, a javelin of a needle—

Halt! Belavierr!

The [Summer Knight] was charging. But the Stitch Witch was just walking away. Calmly as you please as her creations screened her. But each step seemed to carry her far farther than they should have. She was walking torwards a black horse who galloped towards her, a giant of a stallion. And Ryoka saw she was going to mount it. And ride away.

“Give me a clear shot! I have to mark her!”

The [Hunter] with the longbow was screaming. The other [Witch Hunters] were carving down the cloth golems. Ser Raim swung his sword and the golem blocking him burned and his sword cleaved the thing in two. But Belavierr was far away. So far, she was a speck. In moments! He charged after her. But it was too late.

Too late—until a voice rang out. A [Hunter] had fought clear of her golem. She saw Belavierr departing. And she changed targets. Instead of running at Belavierr, she ran straight at Ryoka. Ryoka and Wiskeria. The City Runner jerked back, but it wasn’t her the [Witch Hunter] was aiming at. The woman swung her axe.

Belavierr! Hold! Hold, or your daughter dies!

And the black speck paused. Wiskeria froze, eyes wide. The [Witch Hunter] panted, a needle buried in her cheek. She spoke, her eyes dispassionate, locked on Belavierr’s distant form.

“We know you have a daughter. So hold, and return to face us. Or she dies.”

“[Hunter] Gaile! Enough!”

Ser Raim whirled. His eyes blazed with fury. He lifted his greatsword, but Gaile pressed her axe into Wiskeria’s neck. The blade dug into Wiskeria’s skin, parting it without effort.

“Don’t move, Ser Raim. You can’t stop my blade. No one here can.”

“Lower your axe, [Hunter]. Should Witch Wiskeria die, you will ere my crows fly.”

Mavika hissed at the [Hunter]. Alevica turned, lifting her wand, and Califor turned, her gaze flashing. The coven of [Witches] faced the hunters and [Knight]. But Gaile didn’t move.

“Our quarry isn’t you, Mavika the Crow.”

“Nor is it the child! Leave her, Gaile!”

A [Huntress] called out, shifting her bow to aim at Gaile. The [Witch Hunter] just shook her head. She spoke. To the crowd. To her comrades. The coven. And the distant [Witch].

“This goes against your pride, Ser Raim. Your honor. But I am tired of this chase. If I swing, I die. But I will swing before any of you can stop me, even the Stitch Witch. This is our chance. If she refuses to do battle, she flees again. As she always has. But this time I will take her daughter from her. That, at least I can do.”

She looked at the blazing [Summer Knight], unafraid. And then at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was frozen, her eyes wide. Gaile’s gaze was distant. As distant as Belavierr’s.

“I’m sorry, girl. You did not choose your mother. But for her, I would break my honor. Because of her, I buried my daughter.”

And that was all. There she stood. And Ryoka, who had been part of this play, stumbled. She might have gone forwards, but the [Witch Hunter] was looking at her.

“Move closer and I cut. Step back.”

Ryoka hesitated. But Wiskeria was bleeding. Blood ran down her throat, soaking her robes. So Ryoka stumbled back. She looked around. The [Witch Hunters] were paused. Two were aiming at Gaile. But the rest were staring past Ser Raim, who’d turned back.

Watching the distant speck that was Belavierr.

She had not moved. Nor had she come closer. And Wiskeria’s eyes shifted. Her head turned, cutting into the axe slightly. Looking at her mother.

“Belavierr.”

Ryoka didn’t know when she started running. But she was. She ran after Belavierr. Would she run? She wouldn’t leave?

But Ryoka felt it. A terrible feeling in the air. Belavierr had fled. She had sensed the danger. The [Hunters] and [Knight] had been sent for her. And what was more—

They were all watching. Ryoka had to fight free of the crowd. Running past them for Belavierr. Everyone was there, an audience of thousands. And more. She bumped into a figure, heard a curse.

 

“Watch it, ye daft cunt. We’re trying to see!”

 

“Sorry, I—”

Ryoka turned her head. And then there they were. Standing. Sitting on the roofs of houses. A gathering of bright figures. Individuals who had no place in this world. But who had come. The young woman stopped. And her heart paused.

The fae looked down at her. And then up. They watched the [Summer Knight]. And the lone figure. Belavierr. And Ryoka understood. They had come to see something even the fae deemed worthy. A story.

Perhaps only Ryoka saw them. Only she could see the watchers, gathered invisibly among the others. But then—someone else saw. As Ryoka tore herself away, running, she saw a black figure. And two ringed eyes, glowing orange.

Belavierr looked past Ryoka. At the watching fae. And she saw. And she knew. And for a moment, she hesitated. The fair folk looked on her, waiting. And Ryoka, panting, saw the Stitch Witch hesitate.

Was that fear in her eyes? She looked back at her daughter, at the [Witch Hunter] holding her hostage. Ser Raim called out.

“Belavierr! If it is in my power, I will not let your daughter come to harm! But I cannot stop my companion. Should she strike, I will cut her down. I cannot save your daughter where I stand.”

He planted his sword in the ground, burning. And the world waited. Ryoka looked up at Belavierr. And the Stitch Witch sighed. She looked back at Ser Raim.

“Your word on it?”

“I swear. Return and she lives.”

Gaile called out. Belavierr looked at her. Then she dismounted from the horse. Ryoka’s breath caught in her chest. The [Witch Hunters] paused, incredulously. But Ser Raim nodded. He looked at Gaile.

“Gaile.”

“No. End it, Raim. While she lives, the axe stays. And if Belavierr flees, her daughter dies. If she lives, I’ll lower my axe and submit myself to justice.”

The [Witch Hunter] gritted her teeth. Ser Raim bowed his head. Then he turned. Belavierr was walking back towards them. Slowly. But she seemed to grow with every step. Her shadow grew longer despite the day.

Four [Hunters] and a [Knight] barred her way, blocking Wiskeria and Gaile. To the side watched Riverfarm’s people, the coven. Ryoka and the fae. Behind the [Hunters], an orb floated in the air, and there watched the Order of Seasons, Wistram. But no others.

Ser Raim stepped forwards. He blazed brightly. But Belavierr’s every step called darkness. The ground shook. And Ryoka saw him smile, wistfully.

He was not her match. None of them were. But they didn’t flee. The [Witch Hunter]’s faces were set. And then Ser Raim looked up. He pulled his greatsword out of the ground. The flames around him, his very aura, was flickering out, as the shadows seemed to eat at the fire around him. He called out though, smiling.

“The sun is bright today. Glorious. Look—the sun shines!”

The [Summer Knight] pointed up. He spread his arms, as if embracing the sky. Then he looked around. At his comrades, half a world away. His audience. And the fae stirred. Ser Raim looked back at Belavierr. His voice rang, building.

“I am a small flame. My worth is but kindling before the darkness I face. But even the smallest fire may blaze bright. So, to face this foe, let me offer a sacrifice worthy of the deed!”

He raised his sword. And the fire around him faded. And then a brilliant flame slowly engulfed his armor. Incomparable to the fire before. It burned brighter than the sun’s light.

“I offer time. I offer my life! [Lifeburning Flames]! Come, [Witch]! Watch, fate! Let me burn the Stitch Witch until nothing remains!”

And there was fire. Pure essence of flame. It burned everything, by sight alone. Ryoka felt it scorch her. The fae stirred. Hundreds of miles away, a Dragon woke. In Reizmelt, Levil, the [Pyromancer] turned and felt the heat.

“Flame.”

It burned the crowd. Mavika shrieked, her crows screaming and fleeing the flames. Alevica stumbled away, her robes and hat smoking, crying out. Some in the crowd fell. Others burned and fled.

And Belavierr? She shaded her eyes. Ser Raim advanced. He looked up at her. And she down at him.

“Is that all?”

“No. I offer everything.”

The [Summer Knight] raised his sword.

“[My Life, be Thou My Fire].”

And then the flames were all-consuming. They burned the shadows themselves. Spreading. Ser Raim charged and Belavierr flung up her arms. He struck at her, struck at her body, the invisible threads running from her through the sky. The flames consumed both.

And she screamed. The thread burnt. The shadows fled. Belavierr screamed, and the shriek was the sound of immortality dying. She struck back at Ser Raim and he struggled. The air shifted. Threads reached down, claws of fabric.

The [Witch Hunters] attacked and advanced, battling monsters that stepped sideways out of the world. A screaming apparition tore open the sky and the [Witch Hunter] shot at it. Another battled a giant as tall as a hill, made of cloth.

In the center of it stood Ser Raim and Belavierr. They struck each other, one burning, the other aflame. They tore at each other, with spell, with Skill and steel and rage. And Belavierr burned.

She could have run. She could have fled. But her daughter stood there. So the mother refused to flee. She walked through fire as the [Knight] burned her. And her blood was red. Belavierr fought and burned.

The fire met thread.

 


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