Listen to this post:
Among the Ruins
The Partners stared after Lusa and Selemay long after they’d departed from the library.
“I mislike this idleness,” Ahlbrecht griped. “Surely we can be of more use than this.”
Speaking to himself, Jehf said, “Perhaps we can be. Eriahmys told me of this city’s history through yesterday’s evening. She didn’t mention a path to the first city, but… she said the first building she ever raised for herself, rather than for someone else, now lies outside the city limits. I think it is the place I found her when we first met.”
“A path to the first city?” asked Camrys.
“I think she must have one,” Jehf replied. “If it was her charge, wouldn’t she?”
“It’s logical,” Henza agreed. “Why this line of thought?”
“I think we should go there,” said Jehf, “and take that path.”
“And do what?” Camrys asked.
“Tell the people there the history of the land they live on, I suppose. I’m not sure if it will help anything, but… something feels unresolved still. Perhaps it is more for us than for them, but I feel they should know something of what has happened.”
The others contemplated this idea, and it was Camrys who accepted it first. “Well I don’t know if it’ll accomplish anything tangible, but it’s better than waiting for something to happen,” she said.
“Perhaps telling them of the covenant would include them in it?” Henza mused. They laughed abruptly, saying, “No, it doesn’t work that way, does it? Still, I must agree with Camrys. I’d rather not wait here like an anxious spouse.”
Once Ahlbrecht indicated her consent as well, Jehf said, “Then I will guide you. Be careful now. We don’t know what state the city is in.”
The Partners pushed through the crowd and passed from the library into a series of side streets, jogging to Eriahmys’s cabin outside the city walls. The path from the cabin to the Witches’ origin lay beneath the cottage’s hearth. Henza located it moments before the Partners gave up on the effort, and it required three of them to move enough of the hearthstone to access the passage below.
The group walked a short distance through the adjoining passage, though it appeared to wander in the wrong direction. Below ground, the northern chill’s reach was reduced, and the events of the day felt far away. Coming to the end of the meandering subterranean path, they discovered a large, ovoid mirror identical in material to those they had seen perched upon the mirrored orbiters tucked within each of the Witching Cities. In the light of a lantern Jehf had procured from the cottage, the inert mirror reflected their surprised faces and the darkness of the passage behind.
“It must be a portal,” Jehf said. “We’ve traversed these before.”
“With the Witches’ help,” said Camrys. “Ardis had to do something to the mirror in the House of Justice to even see into the other mirrors, never mind send me through to Selemay.”
“Witch magic,” Henza said with disappointment. “We’d need one of them with us to use this.”
Thoughtfully, Ahlbrecht approached the mirror. “That would seem logical, but have any of us tried to use the orbiters ourselves?” She glanced at the others for confirmation, and indeed none had made such an attempt.
“I didn’t even know they existed until all of this started,” Camrys said.
“Indeed. There was rarely cause to visit the Shrine of Inquisition or the House of Possibility, and I can’t recall seeing the orbiters when I did,” said Jehf.
Henza mulled that over for a moment. “I wonder if they were hidden to visitors?”
“It’s possible,” Jehf agreed. “Eriahmys seemed to have disguised her nature from her citizens, when I first found her. I met people who knew of her, but they did not think she was the Witch of Cinders.”
“Then perhaps we can use it,” said Ahlbrecht, placing her palm over the mirror’s surface. As she had seen Lusa do before, she swept her hand over the mirror. The group held their breath, but nothing happened.
“Try thinking at it really hard,” Camrys suggested. Ahlbrecht’s mouth quirked in a half-suppressed smile, but she took the suggestion. Where her hand passed over the mirror, the glass frosted, eliciting a gasp from the group and startling Ahlbrecht sufficiently that she lost her concentration. The frost vanished as she did, and the excited group began urging her to try again. She did so, focusing all her will upon the mirror, demanding it take her to the ruins of the Great City.
Frost blanketed the mirror and as it melted, the light within warped until it showed not the Partners in the stale tunnel but rather the disused remains of a root cellar. They let out a collective sigh as Ahlbrecht lowered her hand and the image remained. “You should go through first,” she told the group. They did as she bade, Ahlbrecht stepping through the portal last, into the dusty cellar. An equally large oval mirror stood behind them which briefly reflected the passage they had come through before shivering and returning to the appearance of a simple, out-of-place mirror.
They took a nearby ladder out of the cellar and emerged into the nearly indiscernible remains of an unidentifiable building that had long since succumbed to time. A pale sun awaited them in the cold air above, and all the landscape around them seemed gray and tumbled, yellow grass grown over unrecognizable, dirt-covered ruins and then mashed down by snow and ice.
Nearby, an odd little twig hut stood black against the lingering stonework, unusual for its shape, size, and impracticality. On the horizon, a few white tendrils of smoke curled skyward, visible against dark tree branches, and it was to this that the Partners walked. Behind them in Eriahmys, the Witches followed the thread of their covenants, and Ardis laughed as the Witches made their hasty way after their Partners. “So like us,” she remarked. “Just as restless.”
The township the Partners came upon was small but well-built and well-furnished. Each steep-roofed house had been thoroughly prepared against the cold, and the essentials of a life built only by human hands were all in evidence. Where the town’s people came from, none of the Partners could ascertain, for their features weren’t uniform, and though they spoke much of the trade language shared among the Witching Cities, the accented pastiche of it was unfamiliar. Nonetheless, the townspeople welcomed them without animosity—they knew of Eriahmys and presumed the four Partners had come from behind the golden walls on the southern horizon.
It was with some difficulty that Ahlbrecht explained their purpose to the town’s leadership. For far-flung peoples who did not live within the Cities, the Witches were purely mythical, propaganda become legends—stories invented about the strange, glimmering cities at the points of the compass. Even so, the townsfolk listened to the tale of the Great Witch and her city and the story of how the Witching Cities came to be made.
When this much had been conveyed, Jehf told them of the covenants, their breaking, and the town’s role in it. Here one of the town leaders interjected, suddenly alert. “Are you here to chase us from our home?”
“Not at all,” Jehf reassured him. “We only want you to know the history of it. We and the Witches have found our own way of fixing this, though few things will be the same.”
“Then what has this to do with us?” demanded another of the town’s leaders.
“We aren’t sure yet,” said Eriahmys, stepping into the room unannounced save by her shining personage. “The Witching Cities will most likely crumble—certainly the city of Illymere is no more. As they die, their people will scatter. Among these, some will surely follow the four before you, but others, especially refugees from Eriahmys, will find their way to you. Will you have them if they do?”
The settlers’ breath caught as they took in the sight of Eriahmys and her siblings, all imposing as they entered the small, smoky space. Camrys stood and gestured to each of the Witches in turn. “My good persons, I give you the Witch of Cinders, the Witch of Ice, the Witch of Storms, and the Witch of Winds, each named for the city she built.”
“How strange to have myths in your sitting room,” said one of the town leaders.
Eriahmys’s mouth twitched into amusement. “I can only imagine. But the matter at hand: the Witching Cities dissolve even now. Will you accept immigrants or no? If not, I shall dissuade my former citizens from coming this way, though I cannot promise the efficacy of doing so, for already things are not as they once were.”
The town leaders conferred amongst themselves as the Witches settled beside their Partners.
“How did you find us?” asked Jehf.
“Covenant,” said Lusa in a smug tone.
“Illymere is no more,” Eriahmys informed them. “I would not distress you with the details now, but that is the unfortunate truth of the matter.”
“One presumes it had to be done,” said Henza.
“Yes,” Ardis said decisively, though Selemay looked less certain.
Concluding their conference, the woman who appeared to be chief among the town’s leadership said, “We will accept any who can contribute to our community. Living in the wilderness by our own hands, we cannot afford the luxury of idleness.”
Eriahmys acknowledged this with a tilt of her head. “Then I will convey your sentiment to the people.”
“This Great Witch your companion mentioned,” said another of the town’s leaders. “Have we ought to fear of her?”
“No. She is gone. This land is free of her influence, and indeed my own.”
They exchanged a few more confirmations and tidings and finally rose, the Witches and Partners taking their leave with no rancor but also with no intent to return. When they had passed down into the root cellar and subsequently through the mirror-portal, Eriahmys alarmed them by engulfing the mirror with intense heat, melting it down to a lump of glass and silver on the passage floor. “Let this much be lost to history,” she said at a query from Jehf. “I cannot predict what will come next, but if the future holds any who could use such a device, I would not have this way be open to them.”
On the brief return journey to Eriahmys, Jehf asked, “What if our new covenants are not enough?”
“The dissolution of the cities will occur in either case,” said Eriahmys, “so it will only be we Witches who are notably impacted.”
“Would you… die?”
“Yes, but it would be several human generations in the making. We would first diminish, little by little, until at last we become no more than mortal ourselves and so pass as mortals do—or so I predict. Such a thing, if it has happened before, was never shared with us.”
“We would go in order,” added Ardis. “Eriahmys would be the last among us.”
Their movement through the city now was less a parade and more a promenade. Even in so short a time the glamour surrounding the Witches had lessened, and more and more the citizens went about their own business, noticing the celebrity of the Witch of Cinders but no longer her divinity. The Witches attained the Shrine of the Oracle where Eriahmys and Jehf bid farewell to their compatriots, each returning to what remained of their cities. When they were left alone, Eriahmys asked, “Well, Jehf. How shall we begin?”
“Slowly,” he said.