Yish nodded. “The texts span Elder Mages, the Necromage and Witch Queen. Do you never read? The sorcerer passed through here sacrificing his guard to the undead as payment to pass. He travelled through here to the Dragon Yard and beyond into the badlands seeking the green Dragon Stone.”
“Matters of chronology can be troublesome to ones mind.”Jeremiah DeLalande, lecture on Thaumaturgical Consequences
“Never fit known facts into matters of Divination. The true artisan never fully understands the nature of foresight.”Archmage Eldritch Mortain, Letters to the Guild of Divination
This is another such ramble for this months
THE WITCH QUEEN: SCAR
Morgan awoke in a strange bed with sunlight dappling through an intricate lace curtain. She held her breath. This had to be another psychological ruse by the Witch Queen. Pleasant, compared to the darkness of a subterranean dungeon where the constant dripping of water not only eroded rock, but nerves. That and the incessant whispering of voices inside a timeless void.
She remembered disappearing inside her head to distract from reality. Past memories of Raz in the makeshift field tent acting as hospital. Her preparing the butchers tools that might aid some injured warrior from the dance of war. Then darkness.
Followed by pain when she came to. A great bruise on the back of her head and a lightless vista she shrank from. Being blind in this world was a death sentence. Hope said temporary and a direct result of the concussive blow that sent her conscious fleeing. Perhaps also explaining the deafness. Nothing to see, nothing to hear. Awake or wandering some place else in her mind. Neither prospect seemed good.
Time she could not measure. Judged by hunger or thirst. How long could you last with either? What if she lay incapacitated near the field hospital? The war passed on and her lying there, missed and awaiting the carrion to begin their feast of the dead.
That memory drift soon vanished when the temperature fell. She could feel death watching her. The stench of decay dropping with each breath whispered on her face. When words followed it inside her head the scream wouldn’t escape.
This be the one Witch.
“My Lord,” a woman’s voice. The witch? Morgan’s tongue refused to move. “What of those that captured her?”
Kill them all.
Why could she not see either? Morgan tried to blink and clear her mind. Except something was crawling all over it.
As is the Blacksmith, so are you chylde.
“Who?” She didn’t know any blacksmiths.
You will. And one of two whose life fell into our dominion.
“Why me?” The desperate cry of all who fall out of normality. Spoken as a thought to the creeping mind walker.
It is your birth rite girl.
She didn’t realise that ice could settle deep inside her head until this moment. Caressing her thoughts, exploring through them. It violated her senses.
Witch. Morgan felt her whole body sigh as whatever had been there left. It’s voice stayed, presumably deliberate. Render her ours.
That, she knew, meant her.
Perhaps these were echoes of a nightmare brought on by being senseless. Maybe she had been rescued and now rested in a warm bed.
Had Raz come back for her? Surely he wouldn’t run and just leave her to die. What if he had? Worse still, had he thought she was dead and didn’t have time to check? What if he were dead too? That left her an orphan for the second time. An emotional scar that Raz had shown tenderness to. Tears filled her eyes.
Her wrist itched. She turned it over to look and another scar, this time blood red, met her gaze. A pentagram inside a circle. Branded like cattle, a piece of meat. Ownership it said.
“Witch mark child,” an elderly woman stood watching. She placed water and bread on a side table. “It’s not much, but might help you over the sickness.”
“What sickness?” Morgan was confused.
“They brought you in from the killing field. You were found unconscious by what was the hospice.”
“The surgeon, what happened to the surgeon?”
“No trace, they looked but the tent was nothing but ashes.” She gave the girl a sympathetic look. “If he was in there then…”
“He’s not dead,” Morgan interrupted. “He can’t be.”
“They say he saved your life. If it were not for him then your fate would now rest in the same dust.”
Better it had, she thought as her eyes filled again. Scars becoming open wounds.
She drew breath. “What did you mean by witch mark?”
The woman stepped closer, shrinking at the question. “It means you have been touched by a witch,” she whispered. “Keep it hidden, if others see it…”
Morgan knew that lore. Her path might still lead to ashes. Witch familiars, innocent or not, were all purged by flame.
The nightmare was ongoing it seemed.
Where is she now?
“With the guardian.”
Is she is ours?
The Witch Queen nodded, “And latent enough to track the surgeon and from there the elf.”
The cloaked form before her shimmered. Inside the hood eyes swirled in a vortex. The wretched’s myths claimed these were souls harvested in collection. Nothing living ever had an opportunity to see this thing and talk. None save her. “Once she meets the elf then the sigil will burn. When it does so, I will know.”
And the horde?
“It will act like a beacon.”
She took no answer as a good sign.
Alone now she stared at the night sky. Stars blinking. How many worlds were there. How many did it want? The Witch Queen shivered and wrapped her own cowl tighter. It was here she permitted her thoughts to drift.
If the chylde were a new acolyte, what would become of her?
As for birth rites, she knew nothing of the two and this Morgan was an orphan. Was she going to be replaced? Scorn ripped through her, these were not ties of blood. Orphans and bastards did not make rites of ascension. Something was changing.
Thoughts like these were kept locked deep in her mind in a conjurors box. She knew it was aware of many such boxes, but privilege prevented further advancement on them. She was the public face. The one controlling the horde and an Empire that sent adversaries fleeing in terror. If it intruded then that would all fall away. The wretched, however, were not hers to command. Their number was unknown. This was unsettling.
She cast the rune stones again. They fell, as always, on a toppled stone megalith. One she knew was once an elder portal. Like everything they had decayed and gone from the earth. Was that her fate too? It said not. Not just a world, but all planes of existence.
She scanned the stones. Thirteen times now they had fallen in an identical pattern. Her life ending and a new Empire of blood rolling ever on. A crow released, one of two crossing into this world and a man that gave his life freely for hers.
It was vague, few lived forever. Death was the way of life. It was the when that remained an enigma. If she ruled well then continuity was assured. The crow meant nothing. One of two could be anything. Even a twin, but that was fitting known reference into the rune cast. Fixing foresight to such was not the path. That lay with charlatans inside market tents.
But the man. Each time his rune fell her heart beat faster. Why should that be?
She gathered the stones and left this distracted thinking to atrophy. Her task now was to remove the witnesses. Blood would flow before sunrise.
Morgan left the woman’s plate empty. She felt better than before, but still held her mind hanging on the edge of a precipice. Hope was beginning to fade and give her back the emptiness left when her mother died leaving her homeless. Raz was the one who gave her life back. A kindness that was both random and unexpected. He couldn’t be dead. Of this she was certain.
The witch sigil she now kept wrapped in a bandana around her forearm. Who had etched it was a matter for later. Raz knew people that could undo sorcery. One in particular he was friendly with. An elf called Yish.
“You’re awake again child.”
“I have a name.” Morgan looked up smiling.
“I know, but here I take in many and none stay so it’s better if I don’t bond too closely.”
Morgan nodded understanding. She knew what it was like to live through broken attachments. It hurt. Not this time though, she had an urgent desire to find Raz. Then the elf to get rid of the witch mark. She was slave to nobody.
“You look like you’re ready to leave.”
“Do I?” Morgan looked surprised.
“The eyes speak more than the tongue. Yours say you’re searching for answers and staying here won’t provide them.”
“I have to find someone.”
“Aye, but don’t set yourself up for a fall. There were no signs of life after the battle. Save for the carrion and worm.”
“So you said, but neither did they find his body. Burned or charred it might have been, but to render it ash is beyond a simple fire in a tent.”
The woman looked distant for a moment. Her eyes flickered as if lost in thought. “Some fires are hotter than…” she flinched as a powerful send hit her.
Morgan noticed the grimace. “What’s wrong?”
“Getting old. Aches and pains catch one unawares. More so if I forget the apply the unguents. Which, of course, I have.” She smiled. Being a pawn wasn’t something her own childhood had chosen. Life turns and sometimes a trap is sprung before you even notice. “When you decide to move on I’ll prepare some dry foods for the journey.”
Morgan felt it odd that the woman had shown no reticence to letting her leave. Not that she owed her anything, but to allow a young girl to walk into the world was not wise. At least Raz used to say such. Although in truth, her past had found her wandering far younger than she was now.
Two hours later she was back on the hill. As told, there were the relics of ash ground into mud by rain. How long ago this place screamed of battle, death and destruction was unclear. Another bandana covered her face. Despite the long extinguished funeral pyres the place still stank of death. Weapons left where they fell, tarnished now and some already rusting. More than once she stumbled leaving her knees wet and coated in dirt.
Her mind remembered the rock where she’d fallen. What had he said? “Get out now, before the force wall hits.” She frowned trying to think. Even now that meant nothing. How had he known?
Little remained amongst the debris. Likely anything left had already been looted. She stood looking down the hill behind where the field hospital had stood. At the bottom was a trail leading off into the distance. If he hadn’t burned then that was where he’d run. At least that was what she would have done. Away from the battle. If the enemy was here then the day had been lost.
She descended. The slope favoured her. Night would be drawing in soon so she decided to spend it near a boulder that stood like a way point. Below it was evidence of a campfire. Her heart beat faster. This was where anyone fleeing might have rested. Hidden from view in a gully. If he had escaped then surely this was his path. But to where?
Mountains lay across the tundra. The gully followed what was once a stream before the land dried. Run off from the mountain range. Choices were slim. This had to be where he went. She drew a cloak tight. Rain didn’t seem likely and a fire might attract attention. She ate some of the woman’s dry food and took a sip from a water skin. If any predators lurked then she might have problems, although they would probably keep the the foothills nearer the range she was destined for.
“Naz.” Yish started slowly.
The dwarf looked up.
“I think we are being hunted.”
He sat up, “What makes you say that?”
“Nothing more specific?” He watched her face for clues.
“You know me better than that.” She was staring into a camp fire.
“Aye, but by what?”
“Many things. My father for one. But this is different. It’s older, much older.”
Naz felt his skin crawl. Maybe it was time to call it a day and head back to the Keep. Reset and stop dripping from one encounter to another. Find out once and for all where their temporal trail was. So far he’d heard the place had been sacked then not. Found it in ruin then told he’d crossed a chronomantic boundary. How on earth was a dwarf supposed to make sense of anything but rock and stone? With that he clenched his hand over the moonstone in his pocket. It still vibrated, though the magnitude had lessened. It sleeps he thought.
Yish smiled, “Your eyes say it all.”
Naz looked quizzical.
“You want to see if it’s still standing don’t you?”
“And you want to know if he’s still there.”
“In our time stream it’s both yes and no.”
Naz threw his head up in despair.
“Portals Naz, we’ve travelled back and forth. We have no real reference frame telling us exactly which time we are in. He can reach me, but not as the one we knew. He wasn’t powerful enough. To do so puts him in the future.”
“So you have no idea of when we are?”
She shook her head.
“And this hunter?”
“Scares me. It’s old magic. It might be even older than the Elder Mages.”