They were watching him again.
Lucius could feel their eyes slink across his skin. Over his worn leathers and too pale face, as if he were the strange one. Perhaps he was. He promptly ignored their stares, long used to them by now. The torpid passage of days had guaranteed that. Still, it was unnerving. And his body reminded him of that fact when he couldn’t quite find it in himself to lean comfortably against his seat.
They did the same thing when he’d first arrived in their small backwater village—at the end of his wits and completely out of coin—“our Haven” they’d called it, with the sort of smile he only saw on children and the embalmed. As they welcomed him with open arms. Kind-hearted folk, despite their lingering glances.
“Poor Lucius,” he heard them say behind his back, sometimes even to his face. Not demeaning, of course. Because apparently that was possible. They said it in the way a grandmother would—terribly disturbing.
But he couldn’t stay.
He had somewhere to be, as all men did these days. Lucius couldn’t afford to waste any more time here. He’d already spent too long and too much in the last two towns. Gathering information, he told himself. But deep down, he knew that he’d simply grown tired of his search. That there was no witch here. That the rumors were the over exaggerations of a coward, and the bounty placed was a lie.
He was quickly proven wrong, however, by a smelly vagrant just outside the Haven’s local tavern, lying flat across a garbage heap. Who, with the help of a little unfriendly persuasion, warned him of a witch that liked to fool people. Trap them, too, or so he murmured with that atrocious look of fear clotting his voice. Lucius didn’t entirely trust his words. Who would trust the stutters of a man with a knife against his throat? But cowards weren’t known for their lying tongues, and that drifter was undoubtedly a coward.
Now, the only problem was leaving this place.
He could go whenever he pleased, but with no money and no food, that certainly wasn’t the smartest move. The people were kind enough to put him up free of charge, would they be kind enough to provide him the provisions he needed to continue on his way? He hoped so.
A woman approached him then. A bottle full of his favored poison balanced atop her tray. She was the same one that came to him every night when he’d leave his leaky hostel room for an extra sip of wine. She knew him well enough by now to leave the bottle and scurry away. He wasn’t one for idle chatter, neither did he touch the food, despite his grumbling stomach. His diet of wine would kill him one day, he mused, but secretly found it preferable to what the local markets had to offer.
Lucius considered himself well-traveled, but he’d never seen food quite like theirs. Sticks. Brown, thin, and horribly unappetizing. They seemed to enjoy it, however, and he didn’t dare say anything on the subject. Because the food’s form wasn’t what deterred him.
It was the people.
Wretched things, they were. They looked four times older than their years. And those very same sticks they ate protruded from their backs and shoulders like a diseased parasite. It crippled the unluckier ones. There was no other food, they claimed. Lucius didn’t believe them. And the water they drank to prevent their illness from spreading made the back of their throats go blue. It scared him witless when he first saw one of them open their mouths. He’d gagged and fallen into a seat over his own bile like a fool.
Here, he truly learned how not to judge a person for their appearance.
As if on cue, someone dropped gracelessly into the seat across from him. A woman, a few years younger than himself, he guessed. Though she certainly didn’t look it. She was lovely—once. An angry looking stick had erupted from one of her eyes, rendering her half-blind. But her one good orb was bright and blue and shining audaciously in the gloom.
“Lucius Flask,” she said, rolling the name on her tongue. Her voice was a harsh and guttural thing, as if she wasn’t used to speaking. “You the outsider everyone keeps yakking on about?”
“That depends,” Lucius replied, leaning back in his seat, “what kind of things have you been hearing?”
“Too many good things, unfortunately.” She shook her head and cast a sidelong glance at the group of young—still lovely—women lingering by the door. Something dark and envious crossed her face, before it was covered by a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“The name’s Ettie Larce,” she said, offering her hand. He didn’t take it.
“What brings you here, Larce?”
“Ettie,” she corrected, then dropped her voice to a whisper, “and I hear you’ve been hunting a witch.”
Lucius snapped to attention, his fingers flexing under the table. “And where did you hear that?”
“Oh, here and there.” She smiled again. All false innocence. As she wiggled her fingers and urged him to shake. “You know what they say, everyone always has at least one rumor following them. And they also say that everyone follows a rumor. It just so happens that I’m following yours.”
Her grin was beginning to scare him. He grasped her hand all the same, small and bony. Just like the rest of her. Clearly malnourished and certainly not a threat. Perhaps it was just because he wasn’t used to being smiled at. He didn’t discount the possibility. He could be unpleasant when he wanted to be—which was often.
“And,” he began, “what can you tell me about the one I’m following?”
“Not much.” Ettie shrugged. “There aren’t any witches here. But I do know one too many ghost stories. This place is pretty haunted, y’know? Then again… most places are.” Her entire face abruptly lit up in barely restrained excitement. “But if you’re really set on looking for a witch, then there’s only one person I can think of. It’s terribly obvious, but if there was ever a witch in Haven it would have to be her.”
Lucius leaned closer. “Does she have a name?”
“Why, of course she does! Everyone has a name, silly. It’s—”
“Stop crowding!” the innkeeper suddenly yelled, drowning out the rest of Ettie’s whisper. They turned to find the fat man shooing away the women by the door with a bottle in hand and an awful sneer marring his lips. “Kids these days, really,” he grumbled, “they see one good looking man and they…”
Lucius didn’t bother listening to the rest of his words. He quickly turned back, only to find Ettie already standing.
“Wait,” he called, but she ignored him.
Ettie dodged his hand with practiced ease, before running outside and yelling at the top of her lungs. “Mistress Constance!”
Her shriek attracted the attention of the rest in the inn, and soon enough, they were all pushing and shoving their way outside. Even the ratty bartender Lucius had never seen leave his domain, jumped over the counter to squeeze through the much larger men. And when all had gone, screaming and kicking their way out, he was left with silence. Wordlessly, Lucius raised his glass. His reflection on the empty bottle toasted him in his isolation.
Lucius smiled, as he downed his drink. He had a feeling that he was about to find what he’d been seeking. The timing of Ettie’s sudden appearance was no coincidence, and by the time his feet met the inn’s porch, he wasn’t disappointed.
She was stunning.
Being a witch, beauty was simply a matter of course. Though it was different when she was the only youthful appearance in a sea of the diseased. Her eyes briefly swept across him, and he couldn’t quite stop the tremble that wracked his body at her unexpected attention. She smiled kindly at him, nodding her head in acknowledgement. A personal welcome into her den. Before she turned and continued on her way, going to wherever it was she needed to be.
Lucius saw Ettie follow after her. Briefly, he watched her turn and wave in his direction. Her smile was a little more thrilled than before. As she gestured ridiculously toward the enchanting figure disappearing down the road. Lucius felt a twinge of disappointment churn his insides. She was right.
The witch was obvious.
The following morning, Ettie banged on his door.
“Get up!” she yelled, shaking the knob. “You can’t hunt witches if you’re holed up in your room all—”
“Stop shouting!” he reproached, throwing the door open and almost socking her last good eye.
“—day,” she finished lamely.
Lucius glared when she smiled innocently, and not ten minutes later, he found himself traversing the crowded streets with Ettie skipping by his side. She frolicked about, greeting others as she passed, seemingly unaffected by the heat. He envied her tolerance. As well as the clouds that drifted along the horizon, uncaring for those beneath them. The day was too beautiful not to grumble about. Especially since his own responsibility and pride loomed over him.
He came here for a reason, and he’d be damned if he returned empty-handed.
“Wait!” Ettie called from somewhere behind him.
Lucius turned to find her seated on the edge of a stone fountain. It was a decidedly simple thing. Too artless to be sitting in the middle of Haven’s town square. Tin cups hung from chains embedded near the fountains spout. A waterhole, he realized, confused by its location and shape. Before he remembered that the local water supposedly slowed their disease. It must have been enchanted.
“Are you in pain?” he asked, more out of curiosity than concern.
“Nothing a quick drink won’t fix.”
Lucius watched in feigned disinterest. As Ettie bent to scoop a cupful, bringing it to her lips like a starving man unearthing moldy bread. Her throat that usually only glowed when she opened her mouth was radiating in full now, momentarily blinding him with its sudden light. It was brighter than the sun—somehow. The townspeople didn’t seem to notice, continuing on their way as though random flashes of light were a common occurrence. Perhaps they were. But certainly not to him.
He stared at a stray droplet that trickled down her throat, slipping over a particularly painful looking stick speared into her collar. The stick receded ever so slightly, but not enough to look any less hurtful. And by the time Ettie drained the cup dry, she was panting from exertion. As if the act of drinking was a chore in itself. It certainly looked it. Her face was more contorted than when she’d supposedly been in pain.
When Ettie turned to face him again, the crow’s feet around her eyes were more prominent than ever. Her smile was a tad dimmer, and the subdued look she gave him spoke only of age. There was no wisdom to be found behind her gaze, however, and right then, he pitied her. Pitied all of them.
The water was definitely enchanted.
“I feel so much better,” she said, shifting on the balls of her feet. He couldn’t tell if she was lying.
“You don’t look it,” he said carefully.
“Nonsense.” Ettie dismissed his words with a wave of her hand. “Mistress Constance blessed this water herself, you know? Four decades ago, Haven suffered a terrible drought. Crops died and people withered. But one day, Mistress Constance came and dipped her fingers into this empty fountain and water suddenly welled up. It’s never gone dry since.”
Four decades ago, Lucius thought, the woman’s youthful appearance flashing in his mind. “And this disease?”
“Disease? Oh, the sticks,” she muttered. Her condition clearly only an afterthought. “It’s the only food around. Nothing grows here. They say the land is cursed. And the sticks do have their side effects, but Mistress Constance has been kind enough to help us with that, too.”
“You’re fond of her,” Lucius observed, eyeing her warily.
“And she, of us.”
“So, why would you point me in her direction?”
Ettie’s grin grew. She twirled and clapped in unbridled delight. “I’ve always wanted to try playing a game like this!”
His eyes hardened. “I’m serious.”
“Why, of course you are! It wouldn’t be fun otherwise. It’s been so long since I’ve had anyone genuine to play with. Everyone else gives me these funny faces when I try to participate. But it’s fun watching them.”
Lucius had to hand it to her—she knew how to make someone feel terrible. Before he could open his mouth to respond, someone clasped his shoulder. The hand that held him in place was spindly and thin, its owner was even more so.
“Mistress Constance would like to have a word with you,” he said intimidatingly. Lucius wasn’t frightened. The man looked like a drowned rat.
He wasn’t thrilled by the idea of meeting her—not yet anyway—and he made no effort to hide it. “Why?” he asked. The animosity was clear.
The man merely tightened his grip in answer.
Just as he was about to refuse, the man grasped his arm and yanked him back with strength he didn’t believe his lanky frame capable of exuding. Lucius instinctively reached for his dagger. Only for the man to place his palm over its hilt, effectively preventing him from drawing. They stood in endless silence. Deaf to Ettie’s shout of terror and the splashes of water from the fountain. Their eyes met for the span of a moment and an age.
The man was the first to withdraw.
He stepped back with both arms raised in apologetic surrender. “No harm, friend,” he said, his voice dead of all inflection. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Lucius didn’t believe that. But he swallowed down his uncertainties, along with the string of colorful invective that still sat fresh on his tongue. His fingers never left the dagger’s hilt.
“Ettie,” Lucius called, eyes refusing to leave the man in front of him. Ettie squeaked, cautiously padding her way beside him like a startled duck. “I’ll be back. Don’t follow me.”
Ettie swallowed in an effort to dislodge the lump that had settled in her throat—once, twice, three times—to no avail. It was a stubborn thing. She settled, instead, for a hesitant nod and then darted away.
Lucius spared her a glance, before nodding to the nameless man. “Lead the way.”
Their walk was a silent one. Neither wanted to be there. And awkward tension hung heavily between them. Lucius was tempted to dive through an open pair of shutters he saw a short distance away. He would have acted on the urge, too, had his silent companion not eyed him threateningly, just daring him to run off. Lucius smirked tauntingly at him, satisfied when his eyebrow twitched in annoyance. After a full two minutes under the man’s unrelenting gaze, however, even he grew tired of constantly grinning.
So, the sight of Mistress Constance’s cottage hidden behind a bend of stone was almost a welcome sight. Almost. As soon as he stood before the door, hand poised to knock, it flew open with an urgency that made his blood burn.
Witch, his mind screamed when he stepped inside. His instincts urged him to turn and run far, far away. Self-preservation told him to return only when he wasn’t walking into such an obvious trap, but his feet continued onward. As if compelled by some unknown force—his own curiosity, perhaps?—his own predispositions were quickly damned, he wasn’t going to run. If he had to fight and kill this woman and her sick batch of loyal followers, then so be it.
His eyes roamed her guards out of instinct. Two women, they looked noticeably younger than the rest. No wrinkles and only the occasional stick breaking their skin. The one beside him had sharp eyes, but untried hands. She held her spear the way someone with too much pride and not enough skill did. Lucius had seen enough of her kind to know she wasn’t a threat, despite the snarl on her face. The other, however, calm and unconcerned. A crossbow on her back and scars along both arms. He needed to watch out for that one.
“You came,” Constance said, turning to face him. She was as breathtaking as he remembered. All pale skin and silken features. Her bare feet glided over the floorboards with a grace that seemed too perfect to be real. But then he remembered she was a witch, and the world made sense again. Her beauty was the sort that made blood rain. Her youth, a lie. As was the kindness that emanated from her form, constantly spilling forth to envelope him in something that felt quite a lot like peace—was this also a spell?
She stepped forward. Lucius drew his daggers. “Stay back, witch!”
Her guards were quick to react to his sudden hostility. As if they’d expected it, perhaps they had, it wouldn’t surprise him. But by the time they drew their weapons, Lucius was already moving. A swift arc of his blade had the spear holder behind him jumping back for better range. Fool. He threw one of his daggers and didn’t bother watching as it pierced her chest. He only dashed behind her to yank it out, red and gory, before using her body to block an arrow aimed at his heart.
The tip clinked his steel mesh. Well-made, that one.
A quick peek around the dead woman revealed Constance’s lips turned up into a furious snarl and her guard’s bow pointed at his chest. Round two. Lucius kept the bloody carcass upright. The perfect shield against her bolt.
He gripped the hilt of his blade, dripping with fresh blood. “My blade or your bow, whose will break skin first?”
The guard didn’t speak, merely drew the string of her bow back a little further. But that was also an answer. Lucius smiled, slow and deadly. Before he could move, however, the witch raised her hand high into the air. The suddenness of the action made him still in caution, but her guard wasn’t so wary. And suddenly, a hail of arrows rained down upon him. Her bolts went flying through the air, piercing the dead woman’s chest again and again, and forcing Lucius back until he was pressed against the wall with the woman’s blood dripping upon him, disappearing into the gaps of his leathers like paper in the rain.
“Stop,” the witch suddenly said, her arm still held high. “Are you ready to talk or would you like to continue testing your luck?”
“Talk?” Lucius laughed, dry and humorless. “What would I have to speak with you about? With a witch donning the appearance of youth. Youth undoubtedly stolen from the villagers! Tell me, fiend” he spat at her feet, “what spell did you cast in the water? What disease did you bring here? What are you doing to these people?”
“Me?” she asked, with a smile too wide to be considered genuine. “Why, I’ve done nothing but help them. The people here were dying long before I came and still are, despite my presence.”
Lucius scoffed. “You hasten the process, you demented witch.”
“Witch? Now I never claimed that.”
“What then, do you claim to be?”
“I am Constance,” she said, confident. As if he was supposed to understand. “Enduring. Endless. Guardian of Haven and Keeper of the Dead. I have been here since the beginning of this village and I will remain long after it has vanished into dust.” She pointed at him. “You, however, don’t belong here. This is a place of rest.”
“Not for beasts.”
“I see that your mind is already made. What will you do then?”
He tightened his grip over the hilt of his dagger. With the wall at his back and a guard at the door, the only options he had were surrender or fight.
It wasn’t much of a choice.
“I’m going to kill you,” Lucius charged.
As he leapt forward with speed that surprised even Constance, his blade shining and searching for blood, a figure appeared between them. Small and familiar and popping into thin air. There was nothing, then simply her.
And he gasped as he met Ettie’s eyes, resolute and fearless.
In that moment, time slowed. Lucius’ eyes widened, but he couldn’t still his hand, let alone his body. He was going to hit her, nick her right through the throat, the tension wounding around his arm was too strong and then—
She was gone.
He lurched to a halt before Constance, his grip unsteady and his forehead beading with nervous sweat. An illusion? He certainly didn’t discount the possibility.
“Interfering already?” Constance muttered, looking up at the roof like she could see the sky. Her voice was nothing more than a whisper. Lucius would’ve missed it had he not been paying so close attention. The archer behind her kept her bolt steady, and Lucius suddenly realized how open he was. They could kill him at any moment. So, why weren’t they?
“Mistress,” Constance’s guard called, “I believe she’s grown tired of this plot.”
Constance nodded. “I wonder what we’ll play as next then.”
Lucius screamed, as the house suddenly began collapsing. He sidestepped a falling chandelier and grabbed Constance’s arm. She unexpectedly let him, clearly unconcerned by the turn of events.
“What’s happening, witch?” Lucius demanded, pressing his dagger to her throat. “Answer me, or I swear on the gods that I’ll—!”
“God doesn’t exist in a place like this,” she said abruptly, before sighing in resignation at the look in his eyes. “She’s bored.”
“Who? What’s going on? What’s—”
“You shouldn’t trust that little girl. Her mind broke long ago.”
“Enough with your questions,” Constance interrupted again, “kill me if you will. I will return no matter how many times you do so.”
And because he was angry and frustrated and scared, his blade slid across her jugular. Blood seeped out, assaulting his senses. The smell was so strong he could taste it on his tongue. Strangely enough, her guard wasn’t bothered, merely watched on in disinterest. As if she’d seen it happen a thousand times before.
Lucius pointed his blade at her, lined with gore. It was still shaking, but he didn’t care.
“What’s happening?” he asked, deathly quiet.
The guard smiled and suddenly, Ettie was before him again. She whispered, “You’re waking up.”
Lucius’ head shot up.
A glass—when did that get there?—that was close enough to his hand to be considered his, tipped over dangerously, before it was stilled by a fat, bearded man. The innkeeper, his mind supplied, as he righted himself on his stool. Lucius coughed in discomfort when a handful of burly men raised their eyebrows at him, clearly thinking he wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards. Only when their attention was diverted, did he allow himself to look around, frantic for a moment, before he remembered where he was.
The wood under his elbows and the jazzy tune playing in the background was familiar. Yes, he’d been here for a few days. “Our Haven” the villagers called it, with the sort of smile he only saw on children and the embalmed. As they welcomed him with open arms. Kind-hearted folk, despite their lingering glances.
He calmed his racing heart, sighing into his drink, as he futilely tried to recall the fading edges of his dream. He couldn’t.
Well, it wasn’t important.
He had a witch to catch.
“Geneve,” Sern called, his shaking fingers made the lamp in his hands rattle. As he entered the woman’s abode. “Geneve, darling, are you here?”
“Hush, dear, hush!” Geneve chastised, her voice was a dark and raspy thing, made dull from age. Sern stepped closer to find her leaning over a crystal ball.
It was her favorite, he knew. Because she’d play with it every other night, looking inside her conjured world and smiling in a way that made flowers wilt.
“What are you doing?” Sern asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well,” she finally turned to him, “if you must know, I’m playing with Lucius.”
“Lucius?” he asked, not quite sure if he wanted to know the answer. She never talked about her past times.
“Yes, dear—Lucius. Handsome fellow, terrible luck, horrendously single-minded.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“Heavens, no! I would never even consider a man in a ball.”
“In the ball?” he asked, bringing up his oil lamp to illuminate the face of a man within her glass world. He had a strong jaw and a lithe frame. Handsome, indeed.
“Splendid, isn’t it? Everyone loves whispers of scandalous events, stories of hidden treasures, and tales of unknown powers. The hearts of men are fluctuating things, and even the noblest of people can fall to the whims of greed.” She shrugged pale shoulders. “Which proves that in the end, people are just people.”
“And?” Sern urged, wanting a clear answer. “What’s so special about that one?”
“This one…” Geneve said, fondly caressing the orb with one long, spindly finger that made the animals around them rattle and hiss in their cages. She laughed in spine chilling glee. “So much more daring than the rest. So tireless. So brave. Find me, he says. Find a witch! Little does he know he’s held hostage by one already, by the very thing he seeks to kill. How long will he travel, I wonder? Until he grows bored? Until the pretend price is no longer worth it? How many more is he willing to kill for a bounty that doesn’t exist? For a village already gone? Do you believe that, Sern, dear. His poor village lost—to a plague at that!”
“Oh?” Sern said, his teeth chattering more than usual from the power Geneve exuded. How he hadn’t already died in her company was surely thanks to those concoctions she made him drink. “So you mean to say he’s not one of your creations? Wherever did you pick him up?”
“Ettie, the poor, lonely girl. The only one left. Make a deal with me, she said, give them back. Bring them back to life. Reanimate them.”
“Surely, you refused.”
“Why, of course!” Geneve exclaimed, then turned her eyes away. “Well… at first. I’ll give you his soul, she said. Terrible whiner, that one. A real expert. Has a voice that grates on your very soul. But it was such a splendid offer, I couldn’t help but agree. She was such a deliciously selfish and greedy, little thing. Offering her brother for a wish she desired. So, I took them both.”
“You went back on your word?”
Geneve hit his head, horror and anger waging war on her face. “Who do you think I am? That disgusting Tabitha with her spotted cat and lying tongue? Of course not, you blunted fool! The village has been reanimated.”
“In your ball?”
“In my ball.”
Sern shook his head, sighing. As he watched her carefully cover the crystal with a fine velvet blanket. “Poor Lucius.”
“Yes,” Geneve smiled. A bone chilling smile that made his skin crawl. “Poor Lucius.”