They say they’re ruled by leaders they chose for themselves. The truth is that they’re ruled by witchcraft.
~The Witherclaw Witch; a letter to Golkorun
Hunting a witch wasn’t as frightening as Giovel had expected. He found a familiar rhythm in sneaking around the crumbling corners of North Hold, keeping weapons ready, tripping on tree roots and dark rubble, never pausing to think too hard about the dangers ahead. Just like any other night, really.
Not that it didn’t scare him. But he’d been afraid every day for twenty years or more.
The night tasted like autumn, with faint smells of wood smoke and frozen grass wafting through the broken streets. It was a red night, too, red like fire and turned leaves. Only Iulen offered much light in the wreckage that was North Hold, a crimson glow from the south sky. Giovel used the red darkness to his advantage as he jogged across another street and climbed a teetering rooftop to scout ahead.
The witch was still moving east. Still looking over his shoulder every score of steps. Giovel gritted his teeth. Did the witch know they were hunting him like hounds on a bleeding hart? Or was he simply as afraid as Giovel was?
Elínla signaled from across the ruined street. She too crouched on a rooftop with her eyes on the witch. Only pale hair and a bit of her face were visible beneath a gray cowl.
“He’s speeding up,” she hissed.
Giovel nodded and dropped to the ground to run around the next corner of moldy wood, fallen stonework, abandoned slate, and slanted cobbles. He might be new to hunting witches, but his experience in the Candleguard had taught him to act quickly when the quarry caught on. They’d followed the witch for hours already. Not about to let him get away now.
The streets twisted in on one another, cutting Giovel off where two immense shopfronts appeared to have collapsed on one another. Too risky to clamber over. So Giovel doubled back, looped around an oblong pond, quickening to a full sprint when he got past the wreckage. Earlier in the war he would have paused to wonder at the devastation in the streets. Not now, though. It was just another example of Redremel handiwork, too widespread to be repaired, too common to be noteworthy.
That street ended abruptly with a turn into a mossy stone wall. The witch stood there, waiting with his back to the barrier and three glyphs glowing red in the dirt. He had a wild look in his eyes. Not mad. Just hungry. Curious, almost. Giovel slid to a halt, ignoring the protesting ache in his knees.
“I thought I saw someone behind me,” the witch said. He inched sideways to see whether Giovel was alone. “Are you a Gray? A Lance?”
No time for new fears.
Giovel raised his hands slowly away from his sword. “I didn’t come here to fight you.”
“I don’t drink the lies you people piss. How’d you find me?”
“We find every witch,” Giovel said simply.
Witch. As soon as Giovel said the word, the witch’s face twisted violently. He threw his whole body forward as if he were trying to shake a hawk from his shoulders. The closest glyph flared as bright as Iulen. A jet of dark something shot at Giovel’s chest. So much for the offer of peace.
Giovel dove to the ground, snapping his right arm out to launch a dart from his concealed wrist-thrower. The witch dodged too, releasing another spell almost as quickly as he’d cast the first. Cobblestones and chunks of frozen dirt exploded beneath Giovel, showering him with debris and hurling him forward in a cloud of dust and smoke.
He rolled behind the rotten shell of a barrel, whipping his sword from its sheath as the witch unleashed his third glyph. This spell shattered the old barrel and hit Giovel just below the knee. An intense itch shot to his thigh before he could even gasp. Then the joints of his leg began to swell like bloated worms. His eyes watered and stung. His face began pouring sweat despite the chill of the evening.
“I’ve got more glyphs ready for you!” the witch shouted from somewhere near the edge of the street. “Call off your hunt or I’ll slice you in half right now.”
But he didn’t have more glyphs ready. There’d been no time to draw or imbue more. So Giovel pushed himself upright and rushed forward on his swollen, stinging leg.
The witch saw him coming. He narrowed his eyes and fled the way Giovel had come.
It was all Giovel could do not to trip on his own boots. He could hardly hobble with his leg as swollen as it was. His eyes seemed to be streaming extra liquid as well, blurring his vision and making him wince and grunt in exertion. Damn spells. The witch was probably half again as fast anyway.
I’m not so young anymore, Giovel thought. I can run if I think of Iremni, though. I know this isn’t one of the witches who ruined her, but I can push myself to forget it.
So he thought of her, how witches had spirited her off and driven her mad. And he ran.
The street twisted up a small hill with still-tidy copses of trees cutting through the roads and slashes of toppled wall intersecting the trees. Giovel veered off to dodge through the thick darkness of the forest. If he aimed true, he could cut the witch off ahead. And if not? He’d probably trip and break the leg that hadn’t been spelled.
His estimation worked. He burst through the frosted leaves on a stretch of clear road barely five paces from the witch. Then he spun around and tackled with all his might, slamming into the witch so hard his own watery sight went black a moment before they crashed into the dirt.
They rolled over one another in a flailing barrage of fists and kicks and jabbing elbows. Something sharp connected with Giovel’s right boot, not piercing but sending a bolt of pain through his already burning leg. He retaliated with the pommel of his sword, managing to smash the cold metal straight into the witch’s chin. Blood and spit sprayed onto Giovel’s face. The witch screamed and stumbled a step out of reach.
Giovel regained his feet just as the witch began drawing another glyph. No hope of dodging it in such close quarters. So Giovel launched another dart from his thrower, taking the witch hard in the neck, while he stabbed above the witch’s knee with his sword in his left hand. The witch gave a shout and toppled over. Blood pooled in the dirt beneath him. And still his eyes looked hungry.
Before the witch could do anything else, Giovel yanked his blade back and raised the witch’s chin with the red tip. The witch howled in pain but held half-still when the sword tapped against his skin.
“Elínla!” Giovel called. “I’ve got him.”
The witch shuddered, gripping his red knee. “You brought a Divine Mage with you?”
“You could say that.” Giovel tapped his sword upward again. “Hold your hands in front of you.”
A dazed emptiness began spreading in the witch’s eyes. The dart Giovel had launched was miniscule, no bigger than a fingernail, but the serum on its head would be starting to spread, slowing the witch’s reflexes and loosening his muscles. Another few minutes and he’d be helpless. He did manage to push himself half upright, spitting more hot blood at Giovel before he extended his arms away from his torso. As he turned his body upward, he slid one foot through his half-finished glyph. It mangled the shape of whatever pattern he’d meant to draw, but the glyph flared to life as soon as it connected with the witch’s foot. Giovel flinched.
There’d be no telling what the spell did, no way for the witch to control an unknown glyph like that. But unknown, unshaped spellbuilding was a witch’s mark. And Giovel was too close to escape the effect of this spell as it erupted from the witch’s haphazard glyph.
A flare of gold. Snapping sounds like ropes pulled in half. Giovel’s sword broke into pieces, hurling steel upward right past his face. The ground split like a crust of hot bread. Liquidy torrents of violet something spewed out between Giovel and the witch, and fiery waves of pain shot through Giovel’s swollen leg, his chest, his neck, his face.
It was what he’d feared. Spellbuilding he couldn’t anticipate, dying at the hands of a witch the first time he really faced one. Would Elínla be near enough to avenge him?
The hissing spout of liquid magic tore off up the street, shooting away from both Giovel and the witch. The witch screamed in frustration and tumbled to one side, clutching at his wounded knee. He must have lost control. Couldn’t have anticipated the spell’s effect anyway, not with his glyph so misshapen. Little wonder it had broken free of his command as even known spells often did. The flare of energy blasted through the trees and dissipated with a loud crack against the side of the nearby hill.
Giovel didn’t wait. He dropped the pommel of his broken sword, rammed another serumed dart into the witch’s neck, and pushed the witch hard down on his face. Then he twisted the witch’s arms to hold his hands apart, pulled both ankles off the ground, and locked his own feet under him to hold the witch in place like a landed fish.
He almost felt a thrill of triumph. As if he’d caught the one he was looking for in the first place. But it faded as quickly as it had come, because Giovel knew this was a new witch, so new he and Elínla hadn’t even got proper authorization to track him down.
Not the one who spirited my wife away and left me behind.
Elínla skidded around the bend in the road a few breaths later. She had her sand tablet out with a glyph Giovel thought was the Tremor already drawn. Her face looked like a mask in the darkness, the blue threads of her sept tattoo slashing across her cheeks in a twisted pattern.
“That’s a lot of blood,” she said, slowing to a halt just over the witch.
“There’ll be more if we don’t stitch him up,” Giovel said. “Help me.”
“You think you can capture me and make me talk?” the witch shouted. “I’ll bite my own tongue out before I work with the Divine and their dogs.”
“You hear that?” Elínla asked. “He’s going to kill himself if we don’t Tremor him and tie him up. What a gutsy fool.”
“Go ahead, then,” Giovel said, still straining to hold the witch in place. The strain was lessening, though, as his leg recovered from the witch’s spell and more serum spread into the witch’s blood, relaxing his muscles.
“You do it. You need the practice,” Elínla said.
Not more magic practice. “Is this really the time for that? You’ve got the glyph, so use it. Or just tie him up and be done with it.”
Elínla grabbed the witch’s ankles and wrists, shoving her tablet into Giovel’s hands as she did so. “Protocol is to Tremor first. And I order you to do it.”
The witch gave one more twitch of effort, trying to break free of Elínla’s grasp. “You’re a Gray?” he spat at Giovel. “And you never even tried to hex me?”
“More than a Gray, witch-boy,” Elínla said. “New member of the Divine Order. Giovel, Tremor him.”
He hated orders like this. Pointless, misguided ones that steered subordinates—like Giovel, as the newest and most junior member of the Order—in what their commanders only thought was the best way to proceed.
He’d followed orders for twenty-five years with the Candleguard. Now was not the time to stop.
He touched the glyph with his fingers, careful not to displace the rivulets of magnetic sand in Elínla’s tablet. Then he reached out to Iulen in his mind, imbuing the glyph with life from the red orb in the southern sky. It began to glow.
The last part was the most difficult one. Controlling the spell. And not hating what it felt like to use Iulen’s power. So Giovel thought of Iremni again and wrenched his mind around the glyph, bowing his head sharply in time with his efforts. The glyph flared and winked out, pushing the tablet’s sands out of shape as the spell took form and hit the struggling witch.
The Tremor made Elínla’s part easy, especially with two darts’ worth of poison already spreading through the witch’s system. His whole body began to shake violently. His mouth sloshed open. His head rolled back and forth against the ground. His knees jittered. He soiled himself loudly a moment later and went still.
“Now we tie him and bandage that leg,” Elínla said. “That’s how we hunt them, Giovel.”
Maybe for now, Giovel thought. But when I lead my own hunt, I’ll do it without shows of authority, without degrading orders, without glyphs.
He promised himself so ten times over as he returned Elínla’s tablet, feeling dirty all over.
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