There were more noises in the forest that fateful night. Mysterious happenings took place that night. After the bishop of Ironheart left the house, the Witch took a closer look at one of such happenings. She looked into the unknown suppression field by the door.
White mushrooms sprouted from the saw dust she sprinkled around the premise, a witchcraft imitation of the popular “reveal hidden constructs” magic. Nothing was revealed in the spot she sprinkled saw dust upon. The suppression field was gone, as mysterious and sudden as when it arrived. No harm was done but the event sowed a seed of doubt in the Witch’s mind. The little sense of security she had in her house had vanished, along with the warding cross, whose disappearance she could not explain.
It was another night when the moon was blue, the third night in a row. Eliot wandered out into the Dark Forest after dusk fell. She flew above the forest’s canopy, out of reach of creepers, sinkholes and elusive dirt paths that led travelers astray. Her destination was a workshop at the north eastern corner of the Dark Forest, near the iron mines of West Rufus. The place was owned by the Inventor. It used to be a lumber mill now remained as a relic of Ironheart’s heydays. The Inventor refurbished the building into a place of gathering for his cohorts. He added a forge and reinforced the walls. However, he left the exterior deceptively disrepair and rugged; with a yard full of old, moldy logs and a stagnated canal cut off from river Sane by a dam made of stone and iron.
Rarely any soul wandered these parts of the land, now devastated by the blight. But, for the outcast, West Rufus was safe heaven. The Witch sometimes ran into such people. There were a few other houses in the neighborhood when she first visited West Rufus before the plague. But there was nothing but this workshop after the plague hit this region. That was only the start of the decadence. The scavengers came next and they plundered all they could from the ruins, leaving behind only scraps that wouldn’t worth a crumb of bread.
That night, a silhouette of a man was in front of the workshop by a campfire. He was plucking an ivory-white cittern and singing a nursery rhyme in his gentle, soothing voice:
“Little Meadow asks the swallow,
Left or right which path to follow?
Ask the hag, the trees bellow,
Keep the name in night Hallow
Lest the hag takes thy shadow…”
The white coated minstrel rose from his lumber seat as the Witch landed in front of him, “O isn’t it the Witch of Black?” he greeted and plucked his cittern once, “Wherefore did you leave the Forest?” he mused and started playing a melody.
“My dear, don’t you know?” the Witch couldn’t hold her chuckles as she mused along, “I’m the hag. Your shadow lured me out”.
“What must I do? Am I blessed or am I cursed?”
“Cursed I am, blessed you are”.
“Then curse me, curse me forever!”
“Who are you to ask the way; a lost traveler, a silent bard?
“I am a blind beholder. I’m enchanted. Wherefore are you so charming, o the Witch of Black?”
“And bewitched you are, as I am. My charm is yours forever and ever…”
They sang the duet together, a friendly handshake the minstrel had written. She always giggled in delight every time the song was sung, as she did so by the end of the duet that night.
There had been a time when this nursery rhyme was a mockery to the Witch. And long gone was that time. These days, the rhyme had become a sort of flirtatious courting; one that would be sung by young men and women in festivals. It was the Inventor who came up with the idea and this man who spread the words. Discreetly as the background noise at taverns, boldly as the play-for-laugh song on the playgrounds of children, and subtly in the humming of random passersby on the street, they spread the words. Before one knew it, the blasphemous song, whose origin became lost in words of mouth, was a part of the culture and a welcome replacement for the spiteful original.
The Holy Church never caught the men who started it all.
“At last! This is the proof I seek after. Proof that Ironheart is optimistic, proof that we believe in reconciliation and not condemnation, and proof that there is hope in humanity…” concluded the Inventor, calling the deed an experiment for his own curiosity than a favor for the Witch.
And yet Eliot remained grateful, a favor was a favor, she owned it to them and she would repay them in full when the opportunity arose.
The minstrel invited the Witch to join him on the lumber seat, and to reward him of his courtesy, she promptly tossed him a tip of copper.
“The first song is free, mademoiselle—”
She put a finger on his lips. “I beseech your pardon. The copper is yours, I sayeth a lie. Tonight I come to ask a riddle, a silver shall be the reward. Listen! Name me the place that ends with the letter ‘B’ in the First Church”.
“—Sure thing, mademoiselle! But may I ask? Why must you seek such gloomy tales?”
“Gloomy tales you say? Maybe I’m intrigued? Two silver! Ask no more, tell me now!”
“As you wish, mademoiselle, I ask no more”.
The minstrel began plucking his cittern, standing in front of the fire.
“Cometh! Listen to the tale I sing!” and he began singing a fable in a multitude of tones and paces; at times fast and lively, yearning and prophetic, and at other times, his tale was forceful and imbued in grandeur. The melody was that of the ballad sung in taverns across Ashlora; the famous ballad that told the legend of the Archbishop as the prophet of God. But different verses were sung by the minstrel.
“Three hundreds and ninety years,
An angel fell from heaven…”
“A hundred and threescore years, a man went to heaven…” the Witch clapped her hands and sang the original verses; the only version she knew.
“Exactly, mademoiselle!” the minstrel cheered, flicking a finger, playing improvised fillers to synchronize her singing with his. These were the verses he sang:
“Two hundred years and eleven
The prophets sealed the Fallen;
And a hundred threescore years,
The Standard of God reborn”.
The music came to an end, “The prophet? The Archbishop?” the Witch pondered.
“Prophets, mademoiselle, three of them heeded the summoning. There was a mage, there was a raven and then there was a maiden”, the minstrel answered. The strings of his cittern reverberated another time, this time they rang an ominous tune. “There were the verses where the Lord met the three prophets in heaven—”
“—the mage sought glory,
A kingdom he was given.
The maiden sought beauty,
Eternal youth she was given.
The raven sought envy,
O the Lord who art wrathful
Put the raven to death…”
“Mademoiselle, I know the answer of your riddle. It is the catacomb under the Great Light where the Divine Spirit in mortal form resides”.
“Catacomb it is”, the Witch tossed him two silvers, “Lend me your music another time”.
“The Inventor is coming tonight. Are you going to see him too, mademoiselle?” he asked.
After the encounter in the afternoon, running into the Inventor again was the last thing she wanted. Her intention remained. She had no desire to be with him in Ironheart and she had even less reasons than before, now that Father Felacia personally instructed her not to go.
“He is? Then I must make haste. Excuse me, Traveler. Don’t tell him I came”.
The white-coated minstrel took a stage bow as the Witch soared into the sky; all it took was a simple hand wave, and strange gust whisked an eruption of embers from the camp fire. His vision was obscured for a brief moment and she was gone in the sparkles.
“Farewell, the Witch of Black. Till another blue moon, we sojourn…”
“Till another blue moon, we sojourn”, Eliot murmured. His farewell echoed in her mind.
Another restless night under the blue moon and the Witch returned to her house before the highest moon. It was never safe to spend the night behind these wooden walls when the moon was blue. The Dark Forest came to life. Things that should not move moved, and things that should move hid from the things that should not move. It seemed even her house would soon grow legs of its own in such a night, “Not literal, of course, but not too far from the truth”, as she once told the Inventor about it.
Despite the words of warning and horror stories she shared with her visitors, the Witch herself often ventured out; she went on the hunt for the rarest of ingredients that only bloomed in such a night. For the past two nights, she had been doing so and the harvest had been indeed bountiful. But the third night marked the longest blue moon cycle she had ever experienced in the Dark Forest. She was ill-prepared for this night.
She locked the door and the windows, and cowered into the biggest and blackest iron cauldron in the house, in the shadiest corner. She placed her trusty broomstick within arm’s reach. A machete would be the ideal choice; she was too tired, she couldn’t care less for the details. And yet, she cared enough for her own comfort that she cushioned the inside of the cauldron with soft furs of snow beaver and laid on top her dark purple cloak. After all the preparations which she—had she been a better mind—would consider shoddy, were done, the Witch blew the candle and went to sleep.
It was then a few hours before dawn when Eliot was disturbed by the burning sensation on her chest.
Slowly casting her half-open eyes into the gap between her collars, she figured out what caused the sensation. The Witch had in her possession an Amulet of Prying; a rare artifact she looted from the corpse of one of many brave yet unwise souls the Church sent after her. One of its seven thin colorful threads—those that weaved the chain of her amulet—glowed shimmering yellow and radiated heat. The heat grew ever more intense until it could burn even thick wood. The Witch stashed the amulet away in a smaller cauldron, and then stirring her hand about the brim, filling the small cauldron with mist. The amulet produced unnerving, sizzling sounds, and smokes as the mist condensed into water.
The sizzling noise and the dimming glow drew attention to the cauldron she was in. Several men gathered inside the house while she was asleep. It was pitch black inside the house, yet, none of them dared light a candle. The hook-like end of a halberd grabbed the brim of the cauldron and suddenly toppled the cauldron over. The small cauldron and the glowing amulet fell out, tumbling near the men’s feet.
The Witch pushed against the walls of the large cauldron and remained stubbornly hidden inside. The shimmering radiance revealed to her the emblems on the ironclads of these intruders: these men came from Azeth. Three of them were lying unconscious behind the curious men; she could safely assume, from their injuries, that this was the handiwork of the Forest and the traps she laid in her garden. There were five or six men standing, possibly more beyond her narrow view.
One of the intruders traced his eyes along the length of the broomstick extruding outwards from the brim of the large cauldron. His eyes met the Witch’s eyes.
She grinned mischievously and smashed her broomstick in his face.
Then, the cauldron suddenly jumped in the air and floated to the middle of the intruders. Arrays of candles along the walls set alit, burning the color of dimming purple, at a snap of her finger.
“Greetings, boys, girls and anything in between, I am the Black Witch”, she greeted, her voice echoed from inside the cauldron. “I’m sorry. I cannot see you face to face even though you have traveled far to offer me your shadows. I mean, you see, I normally sleep naked…”
The cauldron crashed on top of an ironclad bounty hunter, causing his allies nearby to daze and prone. Before the intruders could gasp what she was saying, the Witch emerged—fully clothed—from the cauldron and slammed her broomstick at the necks of two fumbled hunters at once. Their windpipes were brutally snapped shut when the weight of the Witch landed on the broomstick atop them.
“Pardon my wickedness and perversion, I sayeth a lie. Eh hem, unfortunately, tonight is slightly different from the usual, and therefore, I’m not naked”, she chuckled and crossed her legs, sitting prominently on top of the pinned down hunters. From within her wide-rim hat, she pulled out a hammer and with it she cruelly smashed the skulls of the poor hunters.
Even though they were stricken by terror, the remaining two sorcerers banded up and aimed their wands at the Witch. There was something in the ghastly candlelight instilled indescribable fear in their heart. Their hands were trembling uncontrollably.
“Come on now, put down your toys before you hurt yourselves. You cannot use magic in the Dark Forest. Shouldn’t father Felacia tell you that already?”
The young sorcerer shouted, “Stop your trickery! We saw you used magic!”, and channeled a luminous orb of light at the tip of his wand. But, before he could finish his chant, the Witch had already closed the distance. Her broomstick attempted to strike the wand from his hand. The man was nimble; he dodged the attack using a wind enchantment a partner of his cast on his boots.
“Now repent, the Black Witch. Your blasphemy ends here!”
The man received a blessing of power from his partner. He conjured a hundred spears of holy light aimed at the Witch.
And then, his partner dropped dead on the floor in a loud thud, following by the disappearance of his own power. A brief exposure to the blight of the Dark Forest had driven both casters insane. Without a word, the Witch snatched a longsword from one of the ironclad hunters and used it to deliver the mercy blows. The wild screams of the crazed men turned into a bone-chilling silence as the sharp blade severed the heads.
The hunter who was crushed by the cauldron was still alive.
“There’s a saying that a frequent lie becomes the eventual truth. I have become a monster befitting your Filthy Church’s vision of me, have I not?”
She picked up the Amulet of Prying and stabbed the unconscious men dead. Three clean jabs at their hearts and their twitching motion of the eyes ceased. Flicking the sword about to shed off the blood, the blood dripped to the floor but left no stain on the wooden flooring, the Witch turned to the last of them.
“Rejoice, mercenary! I will not kill you today. A fresh kill makes the best sacrifice. The rain god will be utmost delight…”
He spat in her face.
“I’ll haunt you in my death. I’ll rape you and I’ll make your life a living hell.”
The Witch maniacally laughed, then, with a whack on his forehead, she put the man to rest.
“Father Felacia, the kids you hired are dead”, the Witch yawned drowsily, “I’m offended, father. Did you honestly think weaklings like them can beat me? Come out! I know you are here. I must thank you after all. The talisman in you warned me. It told me that you were near. It told me something was amiss. I mean, you had escorts, how else would you be at my house in the middle of the night?”
No answer but she caught glimpse of someone running away from her garden. She gave chase, riding on her broom, following the track the fleeing silhouette left behind.
“Father, what are you going to do now? I know you’re here and it is hours before dawn break. It’s over, father. You cannot run from me. This is the Dark Forest; this is my home, my domain. I memorized every path, every thorn—”
The Witch swept the longsword in her hand and severed the razor-sharp cords of a hidden wire trap then dodged under swinging log sprang at her.
“—every sinkhole, every spider web—she cleared another sinkhole trap thanked to her ability to fly—and I can taste the strangeness in the air. Naturally, I can see the track you left behind among the strangeness; I can smell it, can’t you smell it too, father? It is the smell of fear in your heart. Where’s your God now? Where is he?”
Finally, she caught up with the bishop at an opening a short distance from the eastern border of the Dark Forest. Her broom sped up; she cut across his escape path.
“Oh, father, you shouldn’t have—”
Out in the open, under the shining blue moon, a pale skin, white lifeless eyes and a screaming face of true horror of the bishop became apparent. Father Felacia was possessed and the necrotic power of Necromancer of Merlock was channeled through his body in the form of a freezing black haze. Black frost crept from his feet to the ground.
Two menacing skeletal beasts were raised from the earth. The corpses of the mercenaries she killed tailed her from within the dark of the Forest. Their flesh was rotten and their fatal wounds were stitched together by the same necrotic frost.
“The Necromancer!? This is a trap, Stardust—”
Eliot was knocked off her broom by a blast of Cold Strike magic from the bishop, who she knew had never cast a single spell his entire life. Her magic broom dropped to the ground, frozen solid as the result of the spell.
Immediately, the band of undead had her surrounded.
*Latest revision: June 2016.