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Covenants New and Old
A third messenger had fulfilled her quest and stood now at Ardis’s side, greeting Ahlbrecht through the mirrored apparatus with a wiggle of her fingers. In Lusa’s crystal tower, Ahlbrecht could feel that the cool of the city had retreated somewhat since their departure, and it seemed to her that the tower itself was somehow smaller, slender like an icicle in late season. Past Ardis and the third messenger—Camrys—a sea of tiny lights, some streaking through darkness and some sparkling in a vast array of colors, stood against a gathering night. The details of Ardis and Camrys’s immediate surroundings Ahlbrecht could not discern, but she thought she heard a hum through the mirror.
“You move too slow,” Ardis said, scowling. “Decisiveness is the better part of wisdom.”
“Only with sufficient information,” Lusa replied with straining calm.
“What more information do we need? A colonizer has arrived, and so we must remove them. Would that Eriahmys had seen fit to share news of this covenant with her sisters—we might have prevented this.”
Camrys pouted in Ahlbrecht’s direction, but Ahlbrecht did not react. Lusa said, “It is too late for what-ifs, and removing the settlement would do nothing to restore the covenant. It is broken. Another solution is needed, Ardis. We need your help for that.”
Ardis sighed with impatience. “Of course. Difficult, but not impossible. Have you considered forging new covenants? It will do little to save the cities as they are today, but it may save lives.”
“Yes, if we can build without reference to Mother’s work, but it will be tricky to hold in the mind.”
“And it will not save Illymere,” Ardis intoned, causing Camrys to start. “The witch of Illusion hardly seems to be in a state to make promises.”
“Yet we will try,” said Lusa.
Ardis waved a hand, as if dissipating smoke. “Very well. I will think on an adequate covenant that we might use. But, a covenant requires two, Lusa.”
Lusa placed a hand on Ahlbrecht’s shoulder. “I know.”
“Camrys,” Ahlbrecht said, startling the listeners. “Put your trust in Ardis.” She held the younger woman’s eyes.
“I think I’m out of the loop,” Camrys said with a sigh.
“What refreshing honesty,” Ardis said dryly. “Well, to urgent matters first. Lusa, I will send word once I’ve thought up an answer. Set Cinders to the task, too. She is, after all, the greatest part of Mother.” This last Ardis said with a sneer, and her mirror winked back into commonplace silver.
Lusa sighed and surprised Ahlbrecht by slouching. Seeing her expression, Lusa laughed and squeezed the shoulder her hand still rested on. “It is time to remove the veil. Come sit with me, Ahlbrecht, and I shall share with you the full mind of we Witches.”
She led Ahlbrecht two floors down to an icy nook which formed a covered balcony perched over the city’s grand arboretum where a panoply of plant species grew healthy and free within the safety of Lusa’s care. Plush, jewel-colored cushions and soft, pale blankets filled the space, and as Ahlbrecht settled among them, taking place across from Lusa, she noted that some of the trees below had begun to lose their vibrant hue, leaves crackling.
Lusa followed her gaze and said, “The city is slipping, as you see. There are many legends about us, I know, and many hold truth, but this is the heart of the matter, Ahlbrecht: the power of we Witches comes from our bond with humanity. The woman we call Mother some legends remember as the Great Witch, and she alone held power in her own right.
“Thousands of human lifetimes ago, a human sought out the Great Witch, earned her trust, and formed covenant with her, creating the first Witching City, remembered now only in half-forgotten legend as a grand utopia whose greatness shone light upon all humanity and whose destruction meant a blight upon the species. The city’s destruction came about due to the Great Witch’s actions. Her covenant required two things of her: that the city never be invaded, and that it never be colonized. She left it for a time and in her absence the city was invaded, and so it fell to ruin. She subsequently remained within the ruins to ensure that it would never be colonized, mourning forever its loss. In doing so, she ensured that the covenant held a portion of its power still.
“It was from this end that my sisters and I were born. When a human sought the Great Witch among her ruins, he did so with the image of her lost city in mind. She summoned up the remaining power of that first covenant and used it to split herself into parts and form a new one with him—that is how Eriahmys was born, both the city and the Witch. The rest of us came to be in like fashion as the Second Builder brought more dreamers to our Mother, until at last Illymere, one Witch as two and two Witches made one, was born, consuming the rest of Mother’s power.”
Here Lusa paused, collecting her thoughts as she looked upon her city. Ahlbrecht looked out over it, too, and imagined how Lusa must feel to know the city’s doom as intimately as she did.
Resuming, Lusa said, “Or so we say. But in truth, she was never gone. Our Mother did not split herself haphazardly but did it by halves, and so Eriahmys is half of her, and I am a quarter. Ardis is an eighth, Selemay a sixteenth, and Illymere—together they are a thirty-second of our Mother. This perhaps allows you to imagine the raw power of the Great Witch, but it should also tell you this, Ahlbrecht—our Mother is not truly dead. A thirty-second of her lingered in the air around the first city’s location after Illymere’s birth. Born in this way, we exist by Mother’s covenant alone, carried upon the innumerable shoulders of our Builders’ lineages. Because we exist only through them, the covenants are the source of all our power.”
Lusa looked hard into Ahlbrecht’s eyes, but Ahlbrecht had already caught the significance. “If you are to save any of the cities, you must do it before all covenants are dissolved. Your power will vanish entirely then.”
“And ourselves, also. So we come to it: your kind has lived long under the impression of our grandeur, our divinity, our unimpeachable perfection—but these are all illusions, Ahlbrecht. The Great Witch’s last secret is that she was simply a person. An entirely different kind of person than your species, yes, but a person nonetheless, and as the gestalt of humanity and the Witch, we shades of her power are even more people in the sense familiar to you. In private we slouch, we cry, we struggle; together we argue, we comfort, we influence—and this we hide from humanity because it is better for the covenant, for the city, for the Builders’ descendants, to believe we are something beyond. It creates a bedrock for the kind of belief and trust which sustains our power. Humanity can break the covenant as surely as a Witch can, but always the bulk of humanity has believed in the vision of the cities, and always they have put in their own work toward creating that vision. And so, we have always been able to uphold the covenant and deliver upon that promise.”
She reached across the space and took Ahlbrecht’s hand. “Ahlbrecht, we cannot repair the covenants that exist. We cannot even make new covenants similar to them, for those will crumble under the weight of prior promises broken. We must form entirely new, entirely separate covenants if we are to hold on to power, if we are to ensure survival. We cannot sustain—we must survive and evolve into a new role, and to build those covenants, we need humanity—no, that is not enough—I need you.”
Ahlbrecht flushed, her hand seeming to steam in Lusa’s cool palm. “My lady—”
“Lusa. I believe I would follow you into destruction if you asked it, though I can hardly explain why in coherent terms. What do you ask of me?”
“Partnership. The unbreakable kind. I don’t know what would be best to promise, Ahlbrecht, but I know in my heart that I can trust you, and so I do. I mean to share with you the person who is Lusa, rather than the Witch of Ice, and I mean to be your companion all your life. I mean to save whatever can be saved with you, and I mean for that saving to include the both of us as well. I mean to build a life with you, if not a world, and in so doing fulfill the dream of each our hearts. In the Witchly terms in which I have robed myself for long millennia, we call this a covenant, but I think in human terms you call it love. Will you do this with me, Ahlbrecht?”
It seemed to Ahlbrecht then that the silvery icicle crown and the sleek glittering gown were little more than props, well-tailored but ill-suited to Lusa’s shivering frame. It seemed that what Ahlbrecht had mistaken for austerity and grandeur in Lusa’s expression were in fact uncertainty and the kind of leadership born of the willingness to be wrong, rather than the certainty of being right. In seeing these things, Ahlbrecht ceased to see Lusa as the Witch of Ice—which suddenly sounded no more than an opulent title—and instead to see her as a human being. So seeing, she pulled Lusa into her arms and, the icicle crown melting away as soon as she did, said into Lusa’s hair, “Of course I will.”
In Eriahmys, a similar conversation took place, with similar result, though it was Jehf who found himself in the tight embrace of a strong-armed woman, and rather than the quiet and happy tears which rolled down the face of the Witch of Ice, the Witch of Cinders laughed long and hard, all the lights in her city sparkling with it, as she had not since she and the Second Builder raised her city’s first building.
Ardis’s message rang out from the mirrored orbiters in each of the Witching Cities two days later, pinning each Witch to attention and sending a shiver through the cities’ populaces, whose suspicions that something was wrong solidified with the rise and fall of Ardis’s grave voice.
“Protect the Witching Cities with a covenant of life, not structure. Think not of the cities at all, only of the safety of the people. Erase your city from you mind—think only of your community. Find a Partner, not a Builder, and erase the building from your mind—think only of human bonds and the power therein.”
In Eriahmys, the Witch of Cinders nigh immediately appeared before her people, a quelling speech—a reaffirmation of protection and growth—settling the pins-and-needles fear that had begun to telegraph across her skin from the human mass. In Lusa, the Witch of Ice shared the sober truth with her citizens, confirming their trust with her honesty and already in-progress plan. In Ardis, the Witch of Storms had already hardened her people’s resolve against the blow, and so they merely paused in their daily activities, determined to uphold the city no matter the Witches’ results. In Selemay, the pronouncement came as a shock and the Witch of Winds rocked with the blow, spending days subsequently visiting each person individually to offer succor and encouragement. And in Illymere, half-dissolved and shattered, a miasma of death staining her once-stark spires, Faux raised her head from the cup in which lay all that remained of Vrai, and smiled.