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Ahlbrecht stood at attention beside the Witch of Ice—who insisted that Ahlbrecht call her Lusa, though Ahlbrecht could not bring herself to do so—as the Witch spoke to another of her siblings, the Witch of Winds. Wherever the orbiter resided in the city of Selemay, it apparently opened onto the sea, for the Witch’s hair wisped around her oval face into tangled confusion and the cry of gulls punctuated her every statement.
“I cannot say I have felt anything strange of late,” Selemay continued, “but I am kept so busy, it’s hard to say.”
“It could begin with something small,” the Witch of Ice pressed. “When I spoke to Ardis, she suggested that the first signs of dissolution would be no more than a ripple in the city’s thrum. Are you sure you haven’t felt anything? Dismissed it perhaps?”
The Witch of Winds contemplated this and for a moment seemed about to say something further, but she closed her mouth and shook her head. “No, I can’t be sure. Human friend, tell me, what did you see in Illymere?”
Ahlbrecht approached the small mirror, smallest save for the two the size of an open hand, and spoke in detail of the strangeness of the Bright Witch and the ferocity of the Dark Witch and the death in the streets guided by illness or ill intent. “The actions of man are not the only manner in which the city crumbles,” she added. “We saw buildings… evaporate into the air as if they had never been.”
Both Witches met these words with contemplative silence which the Witch of Winds at last broke, admitting, “There has been some sickness in the city of late. It is not uncommon for the sailors to take ill while they are journeying, so I thought nothing of it, but now that I put my mind to it, those who came back most recently have not healed, though it has been many days. But sister, I have upheld my covenant all my days, never wavering.”
“The covenants that allow our cities to be the guiding lights of mankind build atop one another,” said the Witch of Ice. “If a covenant made prior to yours was broken, then so too will yours be.”
“There is no justice in that.”
The Witches lapsed into silence again, which again the Witch of Winds broke. “Sister, you don’t believe I am the cause of this, do you?”
The Witch of Ice smiled in reassurance. “Selemay, it is not in your nature to do such a thing. You hold the greatest measure of our Mother’s kindness—I cannot imagine you would abandon your duty of charity for any reason. No, if you are impacted by this blight, then I must assume an earlier covenant has broken… yet I sensed no corruption in Ardis. She was as she ever is.”
“Cold and stubborn,” laughed the Witch of Winds, “and usually right.”
“Always right, she would say,” the Witch of Ice agreed. “Let me speak once more to Eriahmys.”
Selemay’s humor faded into a frown, and Ahlbrecht could hear the roar of the sea grow louder. “If Eriahmys has broken covenant, then we are all lost. She holds the first covenant and the best part of Mother’s power.”
The Witch of Ice nodded. “I find it hard to imagine as well. I will speak with her. Selemay, send word if things change in your city. I would have no harm befall any of us, but if Illymere is lost, then I would have it be only Illymere.” Saying farewell, she wiped the image from the mirror with her sleeve, frosting the edges of the glass.
Lusa pressed the tips of her fingers together and turned from the mirrored apparatus to face her city. They stood in a tower all of glass, and so it seemed she drifted over the city’s flat roofs and bulbous spires as she walked to the transparent wall and pressed her palm against it. Ahlbrecht admired the image of the Witch standing upon the horizon until Lusa interrupted the messenger’s long thoughts to say, “In truth, the situation is dire. I spoke as I did to Selemay because I have sensed a disturbance here in Lusa that I did ignore. The temperature in the city has been rising. Even now the sun chases away the cool air I have maintained here for centuries, and I find that, for the first time, I am powerless to defy that star.”
Ahlbrecht started at this news but swiftly regained her composure. “Then the broken covenant must lie with the Witch of Cinders.”
“That is a logical answer,” the Witch of Ice agreed, “but I cannot imagine it of Eriahmys. I think—”
A crack and a tinkling drew the two women back to the orbiting mirrors whereupon they saw that one of the twin mirrors had shattered, depositing a layer of silver dust on the tower’s ethereal floor.
“It did not go well,” the Witch of Ice said, scowling. She cast a glance back over her city, then took Ahlbrecht’s hand. The Witch’s skin was cool as marble but pulsing with life. “Ahlbrecht, I am going to take a risk.”
Ahlbrecht met Lusa’s bright eyes. “A risk, my lady?”
“There is another covenant, one my younger sisters do not know of, for Eriahmys shared its existence only with me. Whether it is Eriahmys that has broken covenant or our forebear, the source of the problem lies in the north. We must go to them.”
“What is the risk then, my lady?”
Lusa squeezed Ahlbrecht’s hands. “In leaving the city, I leave it undefended. I risk breaking my own covenant. But I cannot sit here and wait for death to descend upon us. Ahlbrecht, I am not human, but you are: is this the right answer? To go to the source?”
Ahlbrecht gazed at the otherworldly woman before her and heard herself answer with her own truth: “Action is the only answer.”
The Witch of Ice smiled and held Ahlbrecht in embrace briefly. She then turned to the orbiter and woke the image of the Witch of Cinders in the largest mirror. The Witch and Jehf stood in conversation, turned away from the mirrors, their voices too soft to hear, but this the Witch of Ice ignored as she pushed her hand through the mirror, still holding one of Ahlbrecht’s, and fell through it, drawing Ahlbrecht past the surface as she did. Without fully knowing how she had gotten there, Ahlbrecht stood in the Oracle Shrine, buffeted by the heat of Eriahmys.
“Sister,” said the Witch of Ice.
The Witch of Cinders turned, and her face went slack with shock. “Lusa, your covenant—”
“Crumbles from no action on my part. That leaves only your covenant… and Mother’s.”
Eriahmys’s eyes darkened. “Both are my duty. My covenant remains whole, but Mother’s… I have no innate sense of it. If it is the covenant that has broken, then we are all lost.”
“I do not accept that,” said the Witch of Ice. “Our covenants may have been predicated one upon another, but that is not to say that we cannot forge something anew and undo what has been done.”
“We are but part of our parent,” said the Witch of Cinders. “All we know, we have derived from mother. There can be no covenant that is not made in her shadow.”
“We have lived thousands of human lifetimes. Our experiences far outstrip those of these messengers who risked their only life to seek our aid. The power is no longer Mother’s; its ownership belongs to each of us, and so we may choose the manner to use it. I will not allow you to turn away from this, Eriahmys. You are the greatest part of Mother—her power, her wisdom, her kindness, everything that she was and had she gave to you in greater measure than to the rest of us, and it makes you prone to repeating her mistakes. In the depths of your fear of them, you shirk your duty—not to your city nor to your sisters, but to yourself. Act, Eriahmys, as these messengers have,”
So saying, Lusa stood before Ahlbrecht and placed her palm on the woman’s forehead. “A home they have lost,” the Witch said, “and so we take them, in their bravery, into our hearts.” Ahlbrecht felt a bloom of ice erupt from her forehead and swiftly melt away, settling as a fine, silver thread which spun lazily around the top of her head. “And with their help, we will solve this.”
The Witch of Cinders weighed her sister, who did not waver as she turned to meet Eriahmys’s eyes, her hands upon Ahlbrecht’s shoulders. Beneath them, Ahlbrecht felt warmth flood her cheeks.
At last Eriahmys said, “What do you suggest?”
Jehf and Ahlbrecht followed the two eldest Witches from the Shrine of the Oracle, out into the rich sunflower streets of Eriahmys where the Witch of Cinders looked so well-placed and the Witch of Ice seemed a dash of bright acrylic in an aged oil painting. Jehf, his head rimmed with the sun’s halo, and Ahlbrecht, her crown a quiet winter’s stream, spoke little between one another, sharing only the briefest reports of events as they had transpired thus far.
“You suspect me,” Eriahmys said, “as you should.”
“Reluctantly. You’re not one to take offense, I know, but I am sure it is an imposition even for you,” Lusa replied. “You seem yourself, if it is any comfort.”
They passed through a series of grand arches, each clad in bronze and copper, out through a field of solar collectors and thence to the aqueducts which flowed freely above the city. After about two miles, the aqueducts dipped down to release their water into subterranean filtration, from which it would flow into the homes of Eriahmys’s populace. Eriahmys led them up a thin stair onto an equally slim walkway running the length of the aqueduct, separated from the flow by a gauzy chain fence, shimmering like soap bubbles in sunlight. Where the aqueduct began to dip, the Witch of Cinders took them into a previously indiscernible portcullis built into the wall of a decorative arch. This brought them spiraling down through the arch’s columns, past the cobbled streets and hot pipeworks, through the permafrost and at last into a cool chamber formed from salt.
“Salt mines,” Lusa remarked in some surprise.
“They predate my arrival,” Eriahmys said, a small smile ghosting over her lips. “My Builder established a tiny settlement prior to seeking Mother and began to build economy through the trade of salt to other peoples scattered through the wilderness. We kept up the mines for a few years, but when the need passed, well.”
She extended her hand. Sconces set back into the walls sparked into life—not quite flame, but certainly not electric. The shimmering of the fairy lights dazzled the walls in glitter and revealed a chamber similar to a church or other large oratory. Pews had been carved from the ground, and the remnants of wine-colored cushions and drapery lay musty as they had surely done for centuries.
“Why bring us here?” Lusa asked.
“Because we must ascertain that it is Mother’s covenant that is broken, and the last reflection into her realm slumbers in these catacombs, forgotten by mankind. Jehf, Ahlbrecht, look past the pulpit—you see the ironwork there? I am sure the mechanism is long-rusted, but the lattice itself is surely brittle as well. Go together and follow that path. You should find along the way a scrying bowl and ewer, both of pewter. Fetch them here, while Lusa and I seek the second part in the adjacent hall.”
So saying, Eriahmys cupped her hands before the two messengers. In her palms a liquid light as of molten metal erupted and spat, stretching and shrinking and at last cooling into the shape of an ornate lantern, its core lit by the same ghost light which filled the sconces around the nave. Jehf took the lantern when she offered it. To Ahlbrecht he said, “Ready?”
As predicted, the delicate iron gate had rusted thoroughly, the hinges no longer able to swing. Ahlbrecht pressed a hand to the lattice of the gate and much of it crumbled at her touch. She wiped the oxidized dust from her fingers and took the small blade strapped to her belt—little more than a utility knife—and smashed its hilt against the rusted areas of the gate. In short time, she had sketched with punctures the shape of a hole both messengers could reasonably fit through. Jehf, who had taken hardy gloves on his journey to the north, completed the work, forcing the loosened oval of lattice from its place with his weight.
The pair stepped through the lattice into a darkened hall, the salt-dried air of which prickled their cheeks and noses. Jehf led them as lantern-bearer, and for a long way the hall provided nothing of interest, merely empty sconces and the occasional indistinct tapestry. When at last they encountered a door, they found it locked and of a sufficiently sturdy wood to prevent their entry. The next proved similar, but the third swung open at a touch, revealing a modest study, its books removed but its furniture intact. Nonetheless, they searched the room to no avail and subsequently the fourth, fifth, and eighth, finding the sixth barred and the seventh collapsed.
In the ninth lay the pewter scrying bowl, set in solemnity upon an altar of salt inlaid with gold. The bowl itself lacked particular decoration or ceremony, being no more than a wide, shallow bowl of dull gray. Jehf knew it by the heat rising upon his brow, and when they laid bare hands upon it, both messengers felt a peculiar warmth which denied the pleasant chill of the mine itself. Ahlbrecht took the bowl up, holding it to her chest like a friend as they walked.
The pewter ewer had been tucked away in the twelfth room, which the messengers judged to have been a pantry at one time. The ewer sat upon a shelf among a host of other forgotten containers, but as before Jehf recognized it for what it was, as though the light the Witch of Cinders had placed upon his brow had given him access to a previously unknown sense. Unlike the scrying bowl, the ewer held no unnatural warmth, but even so Jehf carried it in his arms like a child.
As they made their way back to the chamber in which they had begun, Ahlbrecht asked, “How do you find the Witch of Cinders?”
“Admirable. Wise. Kind, if taciturn. I know Illymere is lost now, Ahlbrecht, and imagining it gone, that we will never return home—it’s beyond my capacity. Yet at the same time, I know that in marking me as she did, Eriahmys made her city mine as well, that the bond is as strong as birthright. Somehow Illymere and Eriahmys are both my home now, with the same intensity, and so I find my heart mourns my home even as it revels in the marvel of being home. Does that make sense to you?”
“It does,” Ahlbrecht said. “I had not expected it, but I believe the Witch of Ice made me a part of Lusa, just as I have always been a part of Illymere. I feel as you do, Jehf, about that city and its Witch—she awes me in a manner I cannot fully declare. I remember a similar sense of divinity and worship when the Witch of Illusion would stroll the city, but there is something to Lusa that intensifies the feeling—a sense of homecoming, as you said.”
Jehf nodded his understanding. “I fear we have been enthralled,” he said with a smile, “and yet I cannot resent it.”
At this Ahlbrecht chuckled, saying, “Then surely this is a kind of love, too.”