Chapter 2

THE BLACK WITCH;

These were the sixth drafts, notes for a ritual Eliot was working on, fanned out on the floor. Eliot bit her pinky’s nail, tracing her eyes on the runic characters and descriptions scribbled on a scroll centuries older than her handwritten notes.

“This goes here,” she picked up a small hammer nearby, and nails, and with a whack she pinned a note to one corner of a triangle drawing on the floor, “Brimstone salt, chalk, charcoal rice, white wine, brewed purple tea leaves, six fragments of glass, and? What was it? What was it?”

This young, amber-eyed woman by the name Eliot was a witch. She was not just any witches; she was the Black Witch, the last of her kind in Ashlora. Her demise would put an end to the Holy Church’s decade-long campaign against witches and witchcraft. But since she chose a life of exile in the Dark Forest and did no harm to the nearby church, she was let off the hook, for the time being.

A witch’s hat wrapped in white ribbon sat on her lap, and she came with a casual get-up similar to that of a town folk: a white blouse, black skirt and a long silk cloak that had lighter colored frills on its darker purple collar. The silk cloak was out of the ordinary, of course. Silk was anything but common, a luxurious commodity from the Far East.

“Ah, I need holy water!”

Eliot rose and tiptoed across the minefield of occult artifacts randomly scattered about, careful so as not to drip candle wax on the floor. Suspended in mid-air from the ceiling by vines directly overhead was a pine basket full of ingredients. Through a circular stained glass window ten meters above ground, colorful rays of morning light shone into the room. Even though the highest ceiling was lit up, the rest of the house remained sunken in a bitter, lifeless grayness.

A polished, wooden broomstick flew down from an extruding ledge under the glass window, and it gradually descended as Eliot was waiting below. She sat on and let the magic broom lifted her to the ingredients otherwise out of reach. Wringing a little as her eyes adjusted to bright light, Eliot pulled the basket closer and started looking for holy water, grunting which mundane should be thrown out of the window next.

Then, there came a knock: three taps on the door.

Hovering to the circular window, she peeked outside through the outreaching branches. A middle-age man twirling a lantern’s handle was at the front door; only his tall build and untrimmed beard were spared from the surrounding darkness. And even at this close distance, a tanned neckline under a brown tunic was all she could see.

Without hesitations, the Witch skipped to the ground and jumped to the front door. The broom turned left and right in confusion when it realized its mistress was not there anymore. Eventually, it drifted back to its ledge.

The Witch turned the knob. A dim, yellowish light leaked in. It was almost noon and yet outside was as shady as in early dawn. Strange that there was artificial light and yet there was not the smell of candle wax or the ashen scent of burning wood. Instead, there was this rattling noise which, to her, was similar to that of a cricket swarm.

Cricket swarms didn’t exist in the Dark Forest. Anything that cries would be eaten alive in the Dark Forest.

“Done with it?” a male voice boomed when she opened the door. A strong dusty scent, a foreign yet remarkable smell, hazed the air. Gunpowder: a scent distinctive to the Inventor.

The Witch nodded, she knew what the Inventor was expecting. She stared at his gray eyes:

“The quarterstaff you brought me the other day, very classic. Red lizard’s scale for fire resistance, solid desert ironwood body, eight out of ten elemental runes; this thing will break rocks but damn it’s a bust. Must be a tornado to snap it in half like this…”

“I see, and what can you find out about the owner?” the man asked.

As he cranked up the handle, the dim light from the lantern became brighter.

“What about the owner? It’s a magic item, not something you can come across everyday so of course the owner was—”

“A mage, isn’t he? I can guess as much…”

“—a merchant, a thief actually,” the Witch giggled, “and it happens, Déjà vu! Aren’t you coming in?”

The Inventor raised a suspecting eyebrow; he sighed:

“Just this time, I will pass.”

“That’s rare. You come all the way here and you pass up on a tea offer?”

“We all have things we must do, Witch. I have somewhere else I must go so let’s cut to the chase,” the man proposed.

“Somewhere? Here in the forest or in the mountain?”

“Mundane Silverflow’s business, don’t ask,” the Inventor shook his head. “I don’t have too much time. Can you show me how you figured out that he was not a mage but a thief then I’ll be on my way,” he pressed.

To his dismay, the Witch had other ideas in mind.

“You are the Inventor, you know how this works,” she chuckled, and sneaked a quick glance at his lantern.

The man stared back at her. He fidgeted, knowing where the tone of the Witch’s voice was leading to.

“You used up your offering in the last question. It’s just good business, okay? So what’cha bring me today; bread, sheep or…this?”

With a playful pause, she hurled her hands towards the lantern but the man was faster, he yanked the object away. And, he was also much taller than she was. His long arm put the prize out of her reach. He had noticed her curious glances at the lantern during their conversation, this was bound to happen.

“Not the lamp, I’m using it!” he protested, “I will make you another one next time so please explain your hypothesis…”

“Hypothesis?”

“I mean… theory, proposal, guess,” the Inventor struggled to explain.

“Weird slangs don’t make you sound smarter, contrary to popular belief,” she shook her head.

“Good God! You made me call God! It’s a legit word, go look up the dictionary I gave you”

“Which…Oh, that book? I offered it to Enoch, so I did. That’s another story.”

The Inventor dropped his shoulders and glared at the Witch.

“It’s normal, you see. You gave me the book and you got your answer. I needed my answer, so Enoch got the book. Be glad I let you choose what to offer, and that I accept whatever you offer. Divinations out there ask pretty outrageous offerings. A body part for example,” she nonchalantly added.

The Inventor merely sighed and shook his head in disappointment. The Witch burst into laughter at his reaction. She could tell he was not amused one bit but it was funny on her side. The Witch had her laugh so after a short silence, she threw him a bone:

“Fine, lemme tell you how magic works.”

The Witch paused on purpose, waiting for his attention. She got the Inventor’s attention.

“Normally, I would keep the details for myself but you would never let this slide without an explanation, would you? Listen! When you channel magic into a focus, it leaves behind residual energy, energy that remains in the focus for years. I looked into the core and I learned that magic was channeled into the quarterstaff at some point,”

The Inventor nodded, affirming her that he was still following.

“But that’s that, ancient history. I can’t see the residual now. This is a unique and invaluable artifact. So I put two and two together. If a person keeps an artifact this rare and he can’t wield it, and he gets himself beaten half-dead for it, what do you think he should be?”

“I see. For someone with such a restricted pool of academic words, your religious vocabulary is questionably unchallengeable.”

“Why, thank you?”

“That’s not a compliment!”

“It is to me. I couldn’t care less about your academic and whatnot.”

And she clearly meant it.

“Come again, you should have looked into his background before you make him your apprentice,” the Witch sarcastically commented.

“I should, indeed, I should. If only he had any background to look into,” the man rolled his grey eyes, hissing in disdain.

“Everyone has a background, Inventor. Even I have one. You’re not looking deep enough,” she waved her hand in dismissal, closing the door, and saying: “I’ll hold on to this staff as insurance, come again if you have any other questions.”

The Inventor’s dull eyes brightened up. He jammed his foot at the closing door.

“I’m telling you. He has no memories and you won’t be able to tell who he was just by looking,” he cut it.

She doubted if it had been the case. But, he seemed serious.

“He lies, simple as that.”

“He’s not lying. That I can guarantee,” he assured.

“If I had a copper every time someone lied to me, I would be filthy rich!”

“Look! How about you come and see him for yourself? Come, I’ll buy you a drink tonight. He’s your kind. You two will get along just nicely.”

“What do you mean by…my kind?”

She sensed mockeries from his smirk but he piqued her interest with the statement. Although in hindsight, only disappointment ensued:

“It goes like this,” the Inventor cleared his throat as though making an announcement, “I talked to him about science; various topics hoping they would trigger his lost memories. Onetime, I told him that the Earth revolved the Sun, and he was like “Look! You got it backwards. When the creators settled the world, they put the Earth between Heaven and Hell.” Can you see? I die a little on the inside every time someone brings that up. Such a terrible misconception…”

“Eh? The Earth is at the center of the world alright. Isn’t that common knowledge? What kind of ale are you drinking?”

“Quod erat demonstrandum! That concludes my demonstration!”

She did not quite catch what he wanted to say.

“Just come to Ironheart tomorrow, I’ll show you the model we have in Silverflow,” the man insisted.

Afterwards, the Witch suggested bringing the man in question to her house since it would be risky for her to pay Ironheart a visit. The city guards would not welcome a witch’s presence. At the moment, they had agreed on a truce, arranged by another client whose identity remained undisclosed. She told him she would not spoil the arrangement for something as trivial as a drink.

The Inventor brought up all sort of other excuses, trying to get her to his place in the city. He explained that he did not trust the new recruit fully and thus bringing him to the house could endanger the Witch. He had a point but she found him rather suspicious.

“How come are you worrying about me now? Is it love?” the Witch teased.

“It’s just that, you see, I would like you to hide your identity when you meet him and it’s much easier to do so when you’re…not in the wood, wearing robes and pointy hat. I don’t have to remind you that our partnership is a secret, do I?” the Inventor finally revealed his motive.

“Oh please, don’t pretend you didn’t talk to your cohorts about it. That’s like, some dozens of people know about our partnership already!”

“I assure you, I didn’t talk about our relationship with anyone—”

“—except for that one bard,” the Witch cut in.

“That was your fault, not mine. I’m tight-lipped,” he shrugged, “Admittedly, I do talk to him about it quite often afterwards. Keeping this secret is a burden, which makes me wonder, when do you plan to rectify this evil-baby-eating hag image of yours?”

“That’s none of your business!”

In the end, the Inventor failed to sway the Witch’s decision. No matter what he said, the Witch refused to leave the forest. Having been bothered long enough, she reminded him of his “mundane business” and had her magic broom escorted him out of her garden. With a touch on the sentry rune behind the door, she reset the traps around the house.

Nothing comes in; nothing comes out until she says otherwise.

The Witch returned to the basket on the ceiling and found the flask she was looking for, buried at the bottom, untouched since God knows when.

It was a small bottle containing crystal-clear liquid, through the transparent body one could see a tiny metallic cross submerged in the liquid. Miraculously, there was enough water for one question; one question only.

Basked in the sunlight, the Witch peered down a sea of darkness that was the wooden floor. She blew the candle and drifted in mid-air towards the center of the room, hovering a little bit at a time as her eyes were fixated on something in the abyss. And then, precariously, she stood up on her feet and slowly tilted the crystal flask.

Dripping down to a silver bowl were glittering droplets of holy water. Every candle, every talisman, drawing and material on the floor emitted a brilliant glow. As if gravity had vanished for a moment, all objects began to float and circle in different layers of an imaginary sphere encompassing the room as a whole.

“To thee who healed the angels…and guarded the gate of heaven…and sat the throne of wisdom…hearken my call! I summon thee!”

She chanted, one hand grasping the invisible threads of light pouring in from the window and the other keeping her balance as the broomstick shivered in the stirring gusts. Holy water in the silver bowl bubbled and produced mist. The mist filled the imaginary sphere, the offerings transformed into new stars, and a faceless figure of a man and a serpent staff emerged from the vapor.

“Show me how to complete the ritual,” she asked, flashing a handwritten rune note to the divine spirit.

The eyes of the serpent glowed and the ritual notes on the ground turned into ashes. On the outer ring of the triangle, magic letters began to rotate and shift position as the spirit moved its staff. It pointed to the characters in sequence to form the answer.

“Azeth,” she muttered. The Citadel was the first word. The spirit drained a third of the remaining holy water and continued with the second word.

“Cathedral” was the second word. Another third was drained from the silver bowl.

The last word would give the exact ritual site within the grand cathedral in Azeth. But, before she could see it, a shout from the outside grabbed her attention.

“Eliot!”

She cast her glance through the circular window. She saw the smoldering remnant of a torch and the fading runes of a lightning shock trap seemingly to have expended all its power. It seemed she had a guest and that guest must have set off the hidden trap.

A great shadow manifested out of the abyss beneath her feet as soon as she was distracted. Two dark wings sprouted from the shadow, the maverick wings of the devil. The shadow jumped from the abyss to the rune mark on the door unnoticed. A surge of demonic energy consumed the amulet’s magic.

Suddenly, the Witch heard a shattering noise inside the house.

“Who’s there?”

She looked around.

To her dismay, the sentry rune she had placed on the door was destroyed.


*Revision June 2016.

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