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The Witch of Illusion
In all the long history of the Witching Cities, no Witch had appeared before the citizens of another Witch’s city. It was Lusa’s idea to break with the tradition, and Ardis contributed new looking-glass, the Witches stringing the massive ovals of liquid silver together and suspending them in their cities where the citizens might easily see them. Vrai and Faux none of the Witches could reach, and so Illymere alone did not see the new covenants formed.
In Eriahmys, the Witches of Ice and Cinders stood together at the summit of a sun-soaked stair, Ahlbrecht and Jehf diminutive at their sides. In Selemay, the Witches of Storms and Winds waited upon a fine-silt beach, the gray ocean behind rolling thoughtfully, Camrys at Selemay’s side and an individual from Ardis called Henza at Ardis’s, as strict in expression as Ardis herself. Ahlbrecht thought the arrangement made sense—she suspected Camrys would be happier with Selemay. Like Ahlbrecht and Jehf, Camrys and Henza had been marked by their Witches, a wisping white fog flitting around Camrys and an occasional crackle of blue electricity setting Henza’s fine hair upright.
To all four Partners-to-be, the Witches buzzed with an invisible energy; it sometimes seemed that they wavered like the air above a road under extreme heat. Though the citizenry did not see this effect, they did share with the Partners-to-be a taut feeling in their stomachs. Not uncomfortable exactly, it felt as if each among them bore a string which led to the Witches’ raised hands and these strings, now pulled, could not entirely be resisted. Some among the crowd leaned back in subconscious resistance while others listed slightly forward as the ceremony began.
Unified, the Witches’ voices spoke aloud, “In your mind, there is a life lived full and happy, marred only by those usual bickerings of a life lived among people. In your mind, there is companionship both intimate and broad, a people, a culture, a community, growing and collaborating and creating as only people do. In your mind I see this, and I offer you covenant.”
The Partners-to-be lacked organization; the Witches had refused rehearsal and encouraged only meditation—clear minds that would not remember cities that once were nor the cities that surrounded them, and instead would see only a desired community, a people they wished to cultivate. And so it was Jehf who stepped forward first, saying, “In my mind there is a people defined by camaraderie. They are builders, yes, but not only of things, also of each other. They are humble, yes, but this is because they believe in ambition, in the right of an individual to seek their own happiness, in the freedom and space needed to achieve that happiness. A society that supports one another. A community that comes together for those in need even as it allows the singular to reach their full potential. If this is what you offer me, Eriahmys, Witch of Cinders, then I offer you in return a home—a place in that community.”
Eriahmys took his hand, grinning in a way that set his pulse racing, and said only, “It is done.”
Her crown of flame burst, the sparks scattering, a ring of tiger lilies taking its place, glowing like embers. Her raiment, too, changed, shedding the brass armor in favor a sleek ash-gray tunic. The base of her gown fell away piecemeal as charred wood does, revealing carbon-dark pants whose wide legs disguised sturdy boots beneath. The circlet of sunlight which surrounded Jehf’s head shimmered and shattered, leaving glittering sparkles of light to fall like a cape around him as it reformed into a shining torque.
The pair remained so posed, grasping one another’s hands, as Ahlbrecht caught up Lusa’s with urgency. “With you I would build a strong people—a people able to weather all of life’s deepest cuts with aplomb and determination. For them, no winter will be too cold, no summer too hot, for their ingenuity and will shall see them out of any trouble. Protected and protecting, they will march into a future of their own making, inhibited only by the limitations of their own minds. And so uninhibited they shall be that I will say no more of them, ‘lest I place my own expectations upon their nascent community. Lusa, do this with me. Let us march into the future together, as strong and willful as our people shall be. Can you see it?”
Lusa squeezed Ahlbrecht’s hands saying, “Of course I can, dear one,” and in the saying the ice sloughed from her gown, puddling and streaming down the steps. Her long hair twisted up into a series of braids which coiled onto her head, a burst of tiny forget-me-nots decorating them. A fine shawl, twinkling like frosted snow, settled around her shoulders, complementing a simple navy shift paired with tall boots. As Jehf’s had, so too did Ahlbrecht’s circlet dissipate into shimmer, melting down to a fine torque laid against her collar.
Across the looking-mirror, Henza avowed to Ardis their desire for a land of innovation, of logic—yes—but a logic wise and useful enough to encompass empathy. They spoke of a craft-gifted people whose clever hands would demonstrate the full potential of humanity’s genius, and Ardis, grinning broad and holding Henza’s hands in her own, accepted their proposal, transforming in the doing her own brass armor away from the regal paladin she had once presented and instead to an artists’ garb in the same black and gold coloration. Her spiked crown too vanished as the electricity disrupting Henza’s hair crackled and discharged down to a faintly humming torque of copper.
Selemay and Camrys looked at one another shyly for a time before Camrys spoke. “My dreams are more humble,” she nearly mumbled. “I could wish for greatness of many kinds, I suppose, but I think I prefer peace. A hearth, a home, a people who can trust in those things, who can create them. Does that make sense to you?”
“If that people could carry home with them anywhere, I think that would be wonderful, but I also would want that to mean that they could build any home in any place, if you follow me. I think I would want to be part of a community that needs no unity but kindness and patience, that celebrates variety and curiosity, because home can be about that too. Does that make sense?”
Selemay nodded again, and her effervescent robes unfurled, becoming no less ornate but much more colorful, the gauzy drapery replaced with a soft, more tailored ensemble.
“I guess that’s all there is,” Camrys said. “Should we do that?”
Selemay stifled a giggle. “Well, yes. I think we should.” A ring of braided rushes encircled her head, and Camrys gasped as the fog she had worn condensed, raining her in chilly dew drops which then ran together to form a hollow crystal torque.
The Witches stepped forward, their Partners taking place at their sides. Speaking out to the erstwhile citizens, Eriahmys said, “On this day a new covenant is formed. Grasp it in your heart and follow it—whichever best suits you. The covenants of the Witching Cities are no more.”
All felt the snap of the invisible threads’ severing. A collective gasp and a silence settled over the four cities and likely would have continued for some time had not a raucous laugh rung out from the Shrine of the Oracle, followed by the shattering of glass. Eriahmys stiffened and threw up a hand as a spike of shadow erupted from the Shrine. It exploded in an amber spray before her, and the laughter faded away breathlessly.
To all the cities’ peoples Lusa called out, “To your homes! Our strength is tested—be quick now!”
Faux unfolded from the massive mirror suspended in Eriahmys, darkness swirling through the silver as the Dark Witch leaned out into the city, giddy. “So bold! Foolish sisters? Clever sisters.” Her voice seemed to shift as she spoke, and when she said the next, it came in two voices from one throat. “So rude not to invite us.”
She leapt from the mirror then, tumbling through the air to land before Eriahmys and Lusa. Faux had changed—taller than she had ever been before and clad in an outfit built from swan feathers dyed black. Her face swirled into featureless nothing periodically, coming back weeping or laughing each time it did, the features otherwise unchanged.
Ardis and Selemay arrived through the grand mirror, which wobbled with their passage, and they and their Partners took position, flanking their youngest sister. “What have you done?” Ardis snapped.
“Mourned and wept and ate and consumed and reveled, perhaps? Hard to say, hard to say, hard to—” The alternating expressions vanished, only to be replaced by those same features in an expression of gravitas. “I am Illymere.”
Illymere smiled into her sisters’ reactions of disgust and horror. Ahlbrecht, Jehf, and Camrys understood the implication only a moment later.
“What about the city?” Camrys demanded.
The unified Illymere fixed her with a quizzical gaze. “Forsaken your home too? Embraced your home anew? Hm. The city is there, but not there. Dissolved and dissolving but the people are there, yes? The city is not the people, but the people are the city, and I am not the people, but I am the city, so it is and is not.”
Ardis sneered. “What do you intend, Witch of Illusion? What purpose have you now?”
“Left me out but included me, didn’t you, Ardis?”
Selemay stepped forward. “You had a choice. Ardis told you what we meant to do. We reached out, but you never answered. We tried. You had a choice, and you made it; don’t try to twist the situation to your purpose.”
A flicker of contempt passed through Illymere’s visage before her face resumed its fluctuations. “As I said. I don’t approve. Not at all. Let humans do human things. Let Witches do Witch things.”
She lashed out at Lusa. A twin shower of fire and electricity greeted the lancing shadows, thwarting them. Nonetheless, Lusa flinched and Selemay took a step back. Illymere giggled. Lusa and Selemay laid their hands upon the Partners and fled, dragging all four in tow, as flame and lightning combined to swirl about Illymere who laughed through darkness into the storm.
They took refuge in the marble hall of a nearby library, swimming in among like-minded Eriahmys citizens. Jehf and his two Illymere-born companions felt a buzzing around their brows, almost electric but dense with pressure.
Henza said, “As I understand it from Ardis, Faux and Vrai were always one being. I imagine it wasn’t too much of a jump for them to become one person.” Camrys greeted this statement with a loss of color.
“Illymere is more powerful,” Lusa said grimly, “and less stable. The nature of the Witch of Illusion was always to be in opposition, though not in conflict. Containing the two parts of that binary in one form destabilizes the mind of the remaining one, as we’ve seen.”
Selemay looked over the heads of the clustered citizenry to the door where the crackle and roar of the Witches’ battle could be heard muffled but reverberating. “She may have done it to preserve Vrai in some way.”
“We can’t leave them alone out there,” said Jehf.
“We’d be a liability,” Henza countered. “Pawns for Illymere to use against our Witches.”
“But, you’re not entirely wrong,” said Selemay, hugging her arms to herself. “Idleness serves us not at all. Eriahmys and Ardis should be enough to contain her, but… this is a family matter.”
“No, we should join them,” Lusa affirmed. To the Partners she said, “Wait here.”
The Partners resisted this command, but Selemay and Lusa would not be swayed. When the Partners finally submitted to the Witches’ will, Lusa and Selemay left the library and returned to the place they had last seen their sisters. The plaza there had become blackened and burned, and the sky above had darkened in places with storm and in others with unnatural darkness that defied the lights of the golden city. Some segments of the architecture seemed to dissolve into the atmosphere, hovering like sun-caught dust, and in the distance a flash of fire and lightning showed that their sisters had moved on, into the once-ribald open marketplace.
Lusa and Selemay took off swiftly after them, finding their siblings in short time. To their relief neither Eriahmys nor Ardis appeared harmed nor indeed fatigued, but Illymere lacked any sign of disruption as well, though the angrier of nature’s forces stabbed at her eagerly. The places where Illymere’s darkness touched began to dissolve, as though Illymere had somehow absorbed the power of the breaking covenants, accelerating their destruction.
A breath of hesitation passed through the battle, and into it stepped Lusa, ice chips swirling about her as a wall of glacier-blue drew up as a cage around Illymere. Stepping to Eriahmys and Ardis’s sides, Lusa whispered, “The Partners and your people are tucked away in safety. How goes this?”
“Poorly,” said Ardis with a twist of her lips. “Illymere is stronger than she ought to be, more resilient.”
The fresh ice shattered and a crackle of Ardis’s electricity ensnared Illymere in its place. Selemay joined her sisters in the respite. “If we strike together?”
“We’d have to do it carefully” said Eriahmys. “Ardis and I have been trying to contain her in safety, but…”
The electricity fizzled away, and Illymere strode toward her sisters, laughing in two voices. “Sisters, Witches, so hasty, and so slow. A riddle, yes? Confused, are you? ‘How did my sister become so strong? How is this possible?’ The little ones thought Faux did wrong, no? Always they thought this. Faux the liar, Faux the black one, Faux the false one. But we, I, are the Witch of Illusion. Would that not be a lie also?”
“You’re getting more coherent,” Ardis replied in a sardonic tone. “I don’t suppose you’re calming down?”
“Yes and no, no and yes—do you remember Mother? Do you remember what she was in the end? Or do you only remember her as she was in the beginning?”
Eriahmys and Selemay flinched at this, prompting a burst of laughter from Illymere. “Yes yes yes! We hoped you might. We thought, surely, surely we were not the only fools who noticed the cost of making us for that ungrateful man and his silly, ungrateful friends?”
Lusa shook her head. “You were all that was left of her, Illymere. All the good that remained went to you.”
“No,” said Eriahmys, and Illymere’s darkness subsided, her predatory pose softening. “That was after us. Ardis, you do remember, don’t you?”
Ardis held her tongue for only a moment. “Yes. When she gave me all that remained of her wisdom, she became foolish, but by then she was already less wise, less kind, less strong, than she had been when you and Lusa were born. She merely stripped away the last of it in that moment.”
“I am the last of her kindness,” said Selemay, grim. “She became mean, if not cruel, when I was born.”
“Just so, just so!” crowed Illymere. “Then what were we? A binary opposition, a contradiction, and the dregs, just dregs—powerful dregs, true, but so empty of what she had promised. Did you not marvel at the pragmatism of our people? Did you not wonder at their determination, to seek you as they did? Did you not think them made of steel, to turn away from their home so resolutely, all four—though one died, poor soul didn’t make it far before Vrai found him—”
“Vrai! The white one, the true one, the good one, as they thought, as they said, but as we said, as our Builders said, we are the Witch of Illusion, so why should we be what we seemed? Why should our contradictions be even, clear, logical? Cannot Vrai speak truth on some things and Faux on others? Cannot Vrai be cruel in some ways and Faux good and pure in others? We made a clean, delineated city! It was so clear, so clear, where the lines lie—but we are the Witch of Illusion, and poor citizens of Illymere, they did not see through it.”
“I know you checked each other,” said Eriahmys. “I visited the origin many times after the Second Builder’s passing, and in the rustle of its gray trees I heard Mother’s will, her intent. You were meant to hold each other in place.”
“We did. For so long we did, but, Eriahmys, you retired from the public eye too soon. You did not experience the shifting of the world for as long as we. Human beings live in cycles, cycles not of their choosing. Our city was cruel in this way, for the black-and-white vacillation of humanity was the very picture of our city, and our city was a lie. Together, together we might have lived that way, but separately, it was pain. And we were separate, after so many years shaped by the Builders’ children. Vrai grew tired, and Faux distracted by the performance of their shared falsehoods. And so I, Vrai, I, Vrai, Vrai left the city.
“Yes, she-I-she did as Mother had done, and Vrai journeyed to the origin, Eriahmys, though you did not notice, and she sought Mother’s revenant and consumed it. Years ago, Eriahmys. You, like the Builder who thrust his responsibility upon you, have been so negligent of the origin, so secure in Mother’s watchful ghost, upholding its covenant in perpetuity—you did not even notice she was gone, did not notice another people come the moment the great evil that had scared them away for so long was gone, tangibly so, and you did not see.”
Illymere dropped her pointing hand, falling stoic once more, both fluctuating faces showing the death in her. “Vrai returned to Illymere swiftly, and Faux soon understood what had been done, but they did not know of the first covenant. They did not know to tell you of the unprotected lands, and so many years later, the covenants are all shattered because Vrai wished to be a little more whole than she had been raised to be. It is all of our sin, and I, I am three, not two, and now, are you still confused?”
All the city seemed still and dead in the silence that followed this pronouncement. The hidden people held their breath in dread, and the Witches processed their shock alone. With the finality of a coffin closing, Eriahmys said, “No.”
Fire spun up about Illymere, turning blue in its heat, the stonework beneath her feet melting into volcanic ooze as the Witch of Illusion’s initial laughter changed to high shrieking. Darkness whipped out from the fire in desperate tendrils, quickly consumed by the brightening flames, and when the screaming stopped, the fire still burned, down through the street into the earth far below, becoming a deadly well in the midst of the city. When the inferno blew out, Lusa cast ice over the top of the molten column, swiftly cooling the lava to a tall pillar of obsidian. She turned cold eyes upon Eriahmys who still stood grave, hand extended.
As if it provided an explanation, Eriahmys said, “The remnant of the Great Witch, combined with both halves of Illymere, is still less than the power I was given.”
“You killed her,” said Selemay.
“She didn’t want to,” said Ardis.
“But she did.”
Eriahmys turned away. “I will tell the citizens it is safe to come out, to rebuild.” She marched toward the Shrine of the Oracle, and her remaining sisters followed behind at a short distance.