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Through her window, past the leisurely snowfall settling upon the barren flowerbox, Eri could see in the far distance the two remaining walls of Eriahmys glinting against the noon sun. In the ten generations since the failing of the Witching Cities, Eriahmys had dulled down to brass and steadily transformed to fit those residents who chose to stand by their home, even without the magic of a Witch to sustain its greatest wonders. The other cities had fared similarly, though Illymere became naught but ruins and Selemay relocated to a less disaster-prone part of nature.
With the exception of Ardis and Henza, the surviving Witches and their Partners left their cities behind with a small contingent of their former citizens, finding new lives and new homes, sometimes in unoccupied lands, sometimes among the settlements built by humans who had never known a Witch’s influence. In their new homes, they worked alongside their Partners to build the communities they had promised so long ago, though the work was, by its nature, not one of etheric power but one of dedicated labor, pushed a tiny morsel at a time—the human way. So it went until at last the Witches themselves faded back into stories half-remembered among the societies they had touched.
A knock at the door took Eri’s attention away from the window, and she called back in a cracked voice. Kaela stepped in, long skirt swaying with her characteristically decisive motion. Eri smiled upon her as the young woman settled on Eri’s bedside and took one of Eri’s cold, knobby hands into her own, chafing warmth into them.
“How are you feeling, great-gran?” she asked.
“My age,” said Eri with a chuckle, “which is saying something.”
Kaela rewarded the joke with a smile tightened by anxiety, and Eri brushed a lock of the girl’s hair back. Kaela so much resembled Jehf, sometimes Eri felt interacting with her as echoes, but this she had seen before for always humanity operated in cycles, even in its genetics. In that, Illymere had been right.
These thoughts flitting through her mind like stray embers, Eri said to her many-times-great granddaughter, “Don’t fret, my dear. My life has been well-filled; this is not so sad a thing.”
Kaela studied their joined hands rather than meet Eri’s eyes. “I understand, great-gran, but… I can’t feel that way about it. You’ve always been just… my great-gran, to me.”
Eri tilted Kaela’s chin up, better to convey her resolution. “And that has been my greatest honor, Kaela. I would not trade any of you for the power I once held, though it is selfish of me to say so.”
Kaela smiled weakly at this and pushed the subject away. “Would you mind a guest? Lizbet has come from Ahlstead. She said she had a feeling.”
“Of course! She is always welcome.”
“Then I’ll go get her.” Kaela rose and disappeared through the doorway, returning a few minutes later with a miniature Lusa, clad in the stiff slacks and starched collar so much the fashion in Ardis now. After swift greetings—for in many ways Lizbet felt more of Ardis than Lusa—she struck at the matter most pressing in her mind.
“How soon, Aunt Eri?”
“Very,” Eri tempered.
“Grandmother Lusa knew to the hour,” Lizbet pressed. When Eri didn’t respond she added, “They say she knew Grandmother Ahlbrecht’s time to the hour also.”
“Well,” said Eri, “they were so in love. How could she not? Has it been five years since we last saw each other?”
“It has.” Shifting her weight to another foot in discomfort, Lizbet added, “I’m sorry I haven’t visited since then. They say funerals have a way of bringing people together, but… Well, I’m sorry. I should have come sooner.”
Eri held out her hand, and Lizbet placed hers into it. “I don’t begrudge you it at all, dearling. You had a feeling and so you came, yes? That is plenty.”
Lizbet squeezed her hand. “I thought I’d lose it. The foresight, I mean—once she passed. But I suppose it doesn’t work that way.”
“Not at all,” laughed Eri. “What made you think so?”
Kaela and Lizbet exchanged a look, and Kaela provided, “We found old documents, from the first Partners. It took a while to find anyone who could read the old language well enough, but once we did and got a translation… well, Jehf and Camrys both wrote so much about their worry that the covenant they made with the Witches wouldn’t take.”
“Jehf explained it in his,” continued Lizbet. “About how the Witches—how you would fade away eventually if it didn’t work. And, well, you have.”
“There’s really old footage of you, great-gran, from before the power left. It’s poor quality, but it’s you, and Lusa. Selemay is there, but she’s already old, and Ardis is still youthful, but it’s clear she’s lost the power too. It’s some sort of ceremony, I think.”
“The opening of the Illymere ruins,” Eri provided with a sigh. “Ardis quarantined it for decades. She and Selemay spent so much of their remaining time making it safe, making sure, and then they opened it to archaeologists and historians. An amazing day for those fields—as a ruin, Illymere was so well-preserved. We decided to make an appearance together—our last real appearance as the Witches of Old, as they called us then. We told our story one last time and then we decided to go about our business as if we were simply unusually tall humans. Well, as much as we could, anyway.” She chuckled. “We’d already started living like humans, I think, long ago.”
Kaela settled upon the bedside again, and Lizbet pulled over a spare armchair. “So what the first Partners wrote is true then? The new covenants failed and the Witches… faded.”
“Not at all,” said Eri. “The covenants were entirely successful. If they hadn’t been, Selemay would’ve passed within two generations, Ardis four, Lusa eight, and myself sixteen. You’ll notice that my sisters lasted much longer than that—all of them—and that I am lasting significantly less time. Indeed, we are all of us separated by scarce years in our passing.”
“Then, what’s happening?” whispered Kaela.
“Why, we’ve lived,” said Eri, “as humans do. We walked among the people and worked alongside them, no longer deities protecting a land in isolation, but rather leaders building a community in collaboration. We formed families, each in our own fashion, but families all the same, and as always happens with families, bits of ourselves passed on to those we loved. We didn’t truly love, when the Witching Cities stood bright upon the continent. We didn’t live, either, but a facsimile of it. No, we fulfilled the new covenant to the letter and beyond—we chose the word Partner by no accident, my children. Our fading, our passing, it is because we gave our power in increments to our friends and communities, and those communities have been what we and our Partners envisioned because every hand that has worked to improve them has been a human one, even ours.
“Lizbet, you inherited part of Lusa’s power particularly strongly because you are blood relations, but nearly every individual in Ahlstead and certainly all who are descended from its founders carry a piece of Lusa’s power too. The same is true of this community and you, Kaela. I did not lose my power, but rather I gave it away freely—a gift from the very beginning. And when it was gone, I ceased to be the Witch of Cinders, and finally became that more remarkable thing—a woman.”
Lizbet let out a held breath. “That’s why all of you seem so happy at death.”
“Well, no one likes to die,” said Eri, “but, no, it doesn’t feel sad. Lusa and I spoke of it often, after Selemay passed. This felt to us more right, to scatter the immense power bottled up in each of us among many whose each small action can change a world as surely as our large ones did. Just as our power became our own, that power is your own. It cannot be taken from you. But, as our Mother lived in us always, so too do we live in you. A cycle, sad in some ways, but for us, who lived so long and so frequently alone—it is a cycle worth embracing.”
Eri fell silent, gazing once more out the window at her bedside, as Lizbet and Kaela digested her words.
“I’m not sure how I feel about inheriting magic,” Kaela said wryly.
“If it helps you to think of yourself as a magician, then do,” said Eri, “but to us the power was always a kind of instinct to manifest our will. I think for you it is also an instinct. At its core, it is simply the determination to unfurl your will.”
The armchair creaked as Lizbet leaned back in it. “No spells, no special effects, no incantations—just knowing what to do and then doing it.”
“Exactly,” said Eri, pinning them each with a sharp look. Through it, both women briefly had a vision of Eriahmys as she had once been, radiant raiment and burning flame a set dressing to her personal grandeur. The impression swiftly faded, but for all their lives it would revive in moments of thoughtlessness, like a long-dead memory rekindled by an unexpected scent.
They sat with Eri through the rest of the afternoon, sometimes quiet, sometimes conversing of lighter things. Other relations joined them for an hour here and half-hour there, many driven by the same insistent feeling that had brought Lizbet calling. When at last the darkness of a winter evening fully enclosed them and Eri’s aged body could no longer stand wakefulness, Lizbet and Kaela chased away the remaining guests, blessed Eri with their love, and left as well, switching the ceiling light off as they did.
Eri settled deeper into her many pillows and looked to the dusted sky beyond the frosting glass of her window. Each star wriggled beneath her gaze, and she anticipated the fire within them with a connoisseur’s relish. Below her, the house steadily roamed into sleepy silence, the entertainments and screens and conversation disappearing in footsteps and the creak of wood less old than Eri. The golden walls of the city that had once been hers dimmed to iron without the sunlight, but still she could pick them out among the hills and trees and roofs complicating the horizon. Her sight returned to the night sky and her memories until at last, with a smile, she closed her eyes.