The Witching Cities: Chapter 1

The Witching Cities: Chapter 1

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The messenger found Eriahmys in a smoky cottage settled in the pine forest beyond her city walls. On his entering, the tall woman turned her hooded eyes upon him without concern or even reproach, though he had barely knocked before entering.

“Greetings, Eriahmys,” he said. “Your acquaintances speak well of you, though they don’t seem to recognize the Witch of Cinders when they see her.”

She smiled then, letting loose a sighing breath as she faced him fully. “It has been a long time since I answered to either name. I use Eri.”

“It doesn’t suit you.”

“Perhaps not, but it is a bit pretentious to go by the name of one’s city, no?” She studied him for a heartbeat and continued, “There was once a time when I knew the name of every inhabitant here, but the growth has outmatched me. You have me at a disadvantage.”

He grinned, his beard seeming the bushier by the action. “I would regardless. I came from Illymere in search of you. They call me Jehf.”

That gave her pause. “And what portents do you bear, friend Jehf?”

“Ill tidings, my lady. A dark cloud hangs over Illymere—the Faux Burg is ravaged by crime and stalked by death. Illness now spreads to the Vrai Hectare and with it the first threat of serious crime. Such things are unheard of in all the Witching Cities, and it was my people’s first recourse to seek the consul of our Witch.

“The Bright Witch we found first, but she had no words for us. Almost she behaved as if we were not there. We sought the Dark Witch next, but when she chose to show herself, she did so in a rage. In her fury, she slew many of the citizenry and before our eyes the city began to crumble to dust, like a mirage. She ceased her assault, but now the Witch of Illusion together struggle to stay the city’s deterioration.

“I have come to you to seek wisdom and guidance,” Jehf finished. “The Witch of Illusion spoke sporadically of covenants, but in these words we could find no sense.”

“They have such a habit of contradicting each other,” Eriahmys said with a click of her tongue. “What do you hope to return home with, Jehf?”

“A solution,” he said.

Eriahmys nodded. “It may be some time before I can offer you that. For now, follow me.” Without waiting, she strode from the house, her common garb transforming in an instant to the golden armored gown worn by the Witch of Cinders in the myths of the Witching Cities’ founding.

In short time they attained the city called Eriahmys. Its activity halted wherever the Witch of Cinders stepped as the citizenry boggled at a myth made flesh. The symbol of Eriahmys’s armor lay beyond doubt, her very presence so definitively divine that none questioned the evidence of their eyes. A procession formed in Eriahmys’s wake, Jehf humbly following just a step behind her, and by the time she achieved her goal, nearly half the city had come to see their patron. On the steps of the Oracle Shrine, the Witch of Cinders paused to address her people.

“Citizens of Eriahmys,” she began in a voice calm yet mysteriously amplified. Her hands flowed through the language of the deaf as she spoke. “I return to you now in time of crisis. One of my sister cities faces danger, and to them I must lend assistance. Go now back to your business, that my heart may rest with you in the succor of thriving life, despite this grim omen.”

Having said this, she proceeded into the Oracle Shrine, past its fountains and the solar arrays which powered its working, to its heart where aged wooden panels, ringed with curled ivy, told the mythic origin of the city of Eriahmys and its Witch of Cinders. Among them a series of large, circular mirrors spun around one another like the planets waltzing in orbit. The second largest of these she passed her hand over, murmuring softly to herself as she did so. The mirrored surface became fogged with steam and wavered, the light caught in it wobbling out of focus and back into clarity upon a new scene depicting another woman’s face, this one rich brown and snub-nosed compared to the tawny skin and sharp profile of the Witch of Cinders.

The white-haired woman in the mirror started, the sparkle of her raiment sending a spray of nervous light across her glassy surroundings. “Sister?” she asked softly.

“A messenger from Illymere,” the Witch of Cinders answered. She bade Jehf come forward, which he did.

The silver woman’s expression darkened. “Ah, then I share your mind, if not your order. I have also had a missive.” She stepped aside to reveal a woman of Jehf’s race, her mousy hair mussed by wind, her cheeks stained by sun.

“Ahlbrecht!” Jehf cried. “We made it at nearly the same time.”

“Only we two thus far,” Ahlbrecht said. “The Witch of Ice has just contacted the Witch of Storms—no messenger yet.”

“And all seemed well?” Eriahmys asked.

“She shared no new troubles, nor could I detect aught wrong with her,” the Witch of Ice answered. “I haven’t spoken to the others.”

“Check with Selemay next,” Eriahmys said. “I will handle the twins.”

“That may be a risk,” said the Witch of Ice.

“One which I am best prepared to bear,” Eriahmys affirmed. She wiped her sleeve across the mirror and its image faded. With precise motion she spun the orbiting mirrors until the two smallest ones—each only a handspan—faced her. She passed her hands over both and as before the reflections shook until they took on the shape of two new scenes, each of which Jehf recognized after a few moments of study: the Shrine of Inquisition and the House of Possibility in Illymere. No faces appeared there to greet them.

“And now I must set a dangerous quest for you, Jehf. These mirrors are more portal than view, but I dare not risk straying so far from my city under such uncertain circumstances. Such a mistake belongs to my forebear, and I would not repeat history, for if I were to fall, so too would all the Witching Cities. Yet I must speak to the Bright Witch and Dark Witch each, if we are to make progress.”

“I will go on your behalf,” Jehf said. “I only ask safe passage to return.”

Eriahmys smiled and placed a hand upon his brow. “Go with my blessing, Jehf—a measure of protection to guide you safely back to the hearth.”

A bloom of sunlight opened upon Jehf’s brow and melted to curl around his head as a circlet. It warmed him to his toes, and he stepped to the twin mirrors with a sense of pride.

“Seek the Bright Witch first. Often she is more coherent than Faux. Now, look deep into the mirror; focus all your intent upon it!”

He did as she bade and, feeling only a gentle push between his shoulders, fell through the left-hand mirror so that he stumbled out onto the floor of the Shrine of Inquisition. Glancing back, he saw a mirrored apparatus quite like the one in the Oracle Shrine in Eriahmys. Glimmering in the largest mirror’s surface was Eriahmys’s face.

“Allot yourself no more than an hour,” she suggested. “If you cannot find Vrai in that time, return here and we shall try the other.”

Jehf took her words to heart and swiftly made his way through the Shrine of Inquisition’s many tulle drapes and spindles of liquid crystal. In all the blank building he saw no sign of the Bright Witch, and so he passed out of the pale, rambling corridors into the Vrai Hectare.

Corpses littered the streets, most gaunt with illness and near-purple in their suffocation, but others appeared burnt or mutilated by human hands. What little life roamed the streets did so in robes of garnet whose hems swept the tight cobbles and whose sleeves hid their hands. Cowled and masked, the anonymous inhabitants of that ominous cloth gathered the strewn bodies into carts with professional apathy.

Jehf drew his wooly scarf over his nose, tying it tight there, and hurried away from the devastation toward the Faux Burg. As he neared the border of the two halves of Illymere, the stone and tile that made up the city’s architecture grew less white and more gray until at last he achieved the Burg and onyx replaced porcelain.

He stood before the bathhouses, now devoid of steam. A fetid stench rose from them, but Jehf pressed on into their columned depths regardless, for he had seen that the corners of the building had begun to dissolve, scattering into the air like so many flower petals, only to freeze in place, trembling.

Death filled every corner of the bathhouse, and its once-jade waters had turned a vile ochre, tainted by the pus oozing from the afflicted abandoned there. A strange, moist heat lingered in the air, and Jehf did not look too carefully at the floor, fearful of what he might discover in the slickness there. He came upon the Bright Witch as his mind began to writhe away from the oppression of the bathhouse and its hungry death, taking his sense with it.

Vrai knelt over the body of a child, weeping. Around her, the dissolution of the bathhouse had begun, each particle of its structure hanging like dust in a forgotten room, stalled, shivering. That this place had not already vanished, Jehf suspected, was the Witch’s doing.

“Bright Witch,” he rasped through the thick terror that lay on his tongue, “your eldest sister beckons in the Shrine and the House. Please, leave this place and speak to her, that she may help Illymere.”

The Bright Witch looked at him in silence and shook her head. When he persisted, she flung her hand at him. Wide linen strips grew from her open palm and encircled him, blanketing him in confusion as he struggled against the unexpected bindings. Breaking through, he found himself writhing upon the cold, marble floor of the House of Possibility, tangled in a thin, cotton sheet. He sat up, thrusting aside the white cloth.

The room lacked furniture or notable detail, seeming to be just a carving of a room, made from a single block of black marble. Four doorways promised a route out of the place, though a paper screen whose wood had been stained to sable hid the contents of the space beyond. Eriahmys’s circlet burned upon Jehf’s brow, and the skin at his back prickled with anxiety—the recommended hour had passed.

He chose a direction at random, thrusting aside one set of screen doors and entering a room identical to the first. This he moved through in a straight line and again he met a room cloning the previous. Three more times he proceeded thus, but on the fourth he halted in the heart of the new room and looked back the way he’d come. In so doing, he saw himself in repetition, each version looking away from him, at the next version.

Quickly Jehf looked to the door opposite the one he’d come through, but this remained sealed. Returning his attention to the open door, he saw his doppelgangers begin to move, some to run through the doors to left and right and some to run toward Jehf, vanishing when they crossed the threshold. Each Jehf returned to his room from the door opposite the one he’s used. Each remained confused. Four times Jehf watched this cycle repeat itself, the copies of room and man multiplying every time, but on the fifth cycle Jehf noticed one version of himself exited its room through the door it had entered by. As the other copies reentered their rooms in increasing terror, that Jehf’s room remained empty.

“The House of Possibility,” the true Jehf—which was what he believed himself to be—murmured as he ran toward his innumerable replications. Crossing the threshold, he came face-to-face with a duplication of himself and in the moment that their noses and fingers brushed, the air framed by the doorway rippled like water under the influence of a steady rain. The duplicate Jehf’s arms broke through the liquid surface, changing as they did to be not the ropey arms of Jehf but the slender, milk-white arms of the Dark Witch, her hands blackened by blood.

She embraced him around his waist and drew him through the doorway. Pulled through its liquid surface, Jehf came up through a rectangular pool of shallow water set into the heart of the House of Possibility, defying gravity as he fell upward and landed upon his feet beside it—a man falling backwards in reverse. The Dark Witch was not there, but another mirrored apparatus greeted him, the Witch of Cinders’ face turning in its largest mirror.

“Eriahmys!” Jehf cried with relief. He ran to the mirror and would have jumped through had not a hand on his wrist held him in check. Looking up, he met the glimmering eye of the Dark Witch whose smile encompassed the whole of her expression.

“Borrowing your sisters’ things?” she inquired of Eriahmys.

“Seeking to aid those in need,” replied the Witch of Cinders, unruffled.

The Dark Witch extended her hand to Jehf’s brow where Eriahmys’s circlet of sunlight still glowed. The Dark Witch did not touch the circlet and withdrew her hand after a moment. “And yet you’ve staked a claim,” she said. “You hoped to see me?”

“I hoped to see both of you,” Eriahmys replied. “Where is Vrai?”

The Dark Witch shrugged languidly and, without preamble, thrust Jehf bodily through the large mirror. He fell into Eriahmys’s arms, shocked by the warmth of both the Witch and her city; he hadn’t realized the chill his home had filled him with. “Did it start here?” Faux asked her eldest sister.

The Witch of Cinders considered Faux for a moment, frowning. “No. Yours was not the first covenant to be broken,” she said. “But I do believe you broke it. Faux, spare me your riddles: what has happened?”

The Dark Witch laughed with the mania of her forebear and said, “We can only be what we are, sister.” She thrust her fist toward them, and the tiny mirror that had looked onto the House of Possibility shattered, pooling as a fine dust at Jehf and Eriahmys’s feet.

Eriahmys studied the pile, Jehf still supported loosely in her arms. To him she said, “I am sorry, Jehf, but I don’t believe you can go back to Illymere anymore.”

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