CHAPTER 1: SHE IS A PET HYDRA;
Leo gave the witch a pat on the shoulder as they watched a dragon breathe fire upon the witch’s hut. Her lips trembled. Fear, sadness, or anger, which of these emotions she held in the flicker of her eyes.
The man behind the dragon’s fury was Sal Germini and he had an issue with temper.
Leo had only heard about the archbishop from the hateful words of his enemies. The depiction of the most revered man in Ashlora as a greedy, psychopathological, war-mongrel was without a doubt biased. The only verifiable truth was the monstrous power Sal Germini wielded and that he had a bone to pick with the witch.
Her name was Eliot Gradren Alse Forse, or “the witch”. Formerly one of many witches of Ironheart, her profession became a unique title when she incurred a seven-hundred-thousand-pris bounty on her head for somehow offending the archbishop, who lived half the world away, in the city of Azeth.
She did not remember what she had done to earn his wrath in the first place. But, given the temperance of the archbishop, she claimed it must have been something incredibly trivial. Perhaps, even more trivial than the time someone stole his horse and the entire kingdom of Fa’el was razed to the ground.
Leo acknowledged half of the story. The destruction of Fa’el did happen overnight but no one survived the catastrophe to answer the question of how and why. And as a scholar himself, Leo wouldn’t put his finger on a cause as silly as a stolen horse.
“I want to cry…”
Eliot placed her deflated cheek on a pile of papers on a long table. Her arms limbed beneath the table. She groaned long and low pitches. And she stayed this way for a while before short hicks started coming out from under the white-ribbon witch’s hat.
“Don’t weep on my sketches. Get your face off my workbench!”
“Shut up, inventor! If you can’t say anything nice, shut up!”
Women, attention-hogging creatures that lived to drag other people into their own drama; to men who wanted to focus on the important things, women were worse than a pet hydra and Leo knew what became of the guy who had a pet hydra. He became its dessert.
“Your wailing is heard. I’ll lend you some pris for a room at Brown’s Boulder tavern tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Can’t it be tonight? Where am I supposed to stay for fourteen moons? Also, “lend”? I think you mean “give”, right?”
“Stop it! When I came to you for answers, you charged me twenty pris for everything, including “how are you today?” Don’t just talk transactional fairness when it’s convenient!”
“What a gentleman you are then!”
“You may stay here until dawn break. I know this workshop is infinitesimally better than your old shack but please don’t make yourself home.”
“Delusional! This is a shack too. You even have weeds and…what’s with those lumber logs all over the lawn?”
“It’s called a “disguise”, mind you! Some of us don’t have the luxury of cloaking magic. Judging from the fact that your shack is on fire and mine isn’t, I dare say your case is weak.”
“Isn’t it because there’s nothing of value here to burn?”
The Witch picked up a sketch on the workbench and read:
“Gas fire flying machine?”
“Enough of those and our red-helm knights can fly to the moon and back.”
She let out a chuckle.
“So, what is this…torture device?”
“That so-called torture device is a cannon. It does worse things than a spiked steel cage. It is how we normal humans cast Crumble.”
“And what is this?”
“It’s an ice box. It makes ice. Stop rummaging through my stuffs! What are you trying to say?”
“I forgot. What were we talking about again?”
Leo cringed and pointed at the fireplace.
“Forget it! Go watch the pan and tell me when it smells.”
“What is this black thing you are roasting?”
“Coffee beans. Please don’t turn them into charcoal.”
The night went on and eventually the dragon’s rampage was over. But, the flame of destruction raged on and it painted the night sky orange. Even the great blue moon was shrouded in a tower of smoke stretching for miles.
None of this happening changed the schedule Leo had for that night.
His appointment was the bishop of Ironheart.
“Father Felacia? Aren’t you supposed to be here at four?”
“It is the fourth moon, Leo.”
“Is that so? Blasted! I missed a horn; should have kept a clock.”
“The dragon, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed it was. Damn thing was so loud, I couldn’t hear myself thinking!”
Leo returned to his workshop and boiled some coffee beans in a mug. The water turned muddy and a strong aroma emanated into the atmosphere.
“What’s with the giant pot?”
The bishop tapped on a large clay pot by the fireplace.
“Pot? Oh, that’s my crucible. Eliot is in there. Don’t wake her up.”
“Why is she in your crucible?”
“I don’t know. It’s a witch’s thing I guess?”
Leo removed the boiled coffee from the fireplace with a tongs and put the mug aside to let it cool. He then returned to the workbench and began flipping through a notebook.
“Oh that smells nice. Is it the cure?”
“No, this is coffee, a recreational drink I shipped from the rim of the world. I’ll send your monastery a box of these beans as sale promotion but on that later—”
He ripped a page from the notebook and gave it to the bishop.
“—this is the cure.”
“Dawurry’s adventitious root, Midnight Virgin’s stem. What is Midnight Virgin?”
“Midnight Virgin is grass-like plant that can be found in the Dark Forest. It is characterized by a white, glass-like stem and dark red flowers. Eliot has been cultivating them in her garden, which is most unfortunate, because the said garden is on fire.”
Father Felacia turned his downcast eyes towards the fireplace.
“Does the Lord have any mercy on our city?”
“No comment on what God has in mind but I do have spare Midnight Virgin seeds in the ice box at Brown’s.”
“This is great news, Leo. So there is hope after all.”
Leo pinched his forehead and sighed.
“In all seriousness though, I have little success planting Midnight Virgin anywhere outside the Dark Forest. There is something in the Dark Forest that is absolutely necessary for these seeds to sprout and I don’t mean the soils.”
“No problem. We’ll just drive away the dragon, put out the fire, and cultivate Midnight Virgin in the Dark Forest. It’s that simple.”
“Oh, it is that simple huh?”
“Yes, it is. This city is dying. What are there to lose?”
Leo applauded, cheering to the bitter sarcasm on the bishop’s face. Well said, Father Felacia! There was no hope after all.
“Damn son! I’m out of ideas, even the crazy ones!”
“I still have one: revealing Eliot’s involvement and praying nobody in Ironheart would sell her out for seven hundred thousand pris.”
The bishop began to contemplate.
“I don’t have that kind of faith in man, Leo.”