Eudora Faust tips a tiny vial filled with black liquid into her mouth. The soul stone’s outline slides down her throat like water.
“Hahaha! Ahaha— ack… arghahaha!”
The Cackling Witch’s rapturous laughter quickly becomes a gruesome wail like nails on chalkboard. Like a marionette performance gone wrong, her body begins to contort, limbs bending at abnormal angles. The sound of her bones snapping disturbs the otherwise quiet forest.
The sound and sight of my companions should fill me with joy, but I remain horrified at the scene unfolding before me.
“Stay back!” I warn them just as a powerful gust knocks me off my feet.
Mira picks me off the ground. Her worried look is quickly replaced with a scowl seeing our quarry.
“Allow me to reacquaint myself, Eudora. Mortis o’rea sleuth!” Mira incants a forbidden spell.
I recognize it immediately. A taboo school of magic outlawed by the Council of Kings, necromantic magic— black magic.
Talos flies above Eudora’s position and unleashes a gray mist upon the area. The earth beneath the smog begins to blacken and wither. Mira twirls her finger, compelling the smoke to condense around our foe.
A bead of cold sweat trickles down my face.
Nothing short of dragons and magical immunity should be able to survive that. Eudora should be a heap of decayed flesh.
The mist suddenly shrinks, compressing into a single space on—
Eudora’s hand. A simple clench of the fist vanishes the spell.
The genocidal witch lives. Her body is perfectly intact, not a single limb or bone out of place. However, on her forehead and just barely visible under her cap, two tiny red nubs protrude from her skull.
“She swallowed a soul stone…” I mutter to Mira.
She spits on the ground and takes a step forward. “I know what you’re doing. How many does that make?”
Eudora takes her hat off and bows. “I’m telling you, I am not your enemy. Oh, Miracella. I thought you and I could come to an understanding. After all, the difference between you and me is only in the mere thousands.”
Mira snaps. She launches a barrage of fireballs from both her staff and Talos. Their efforts are in vain, scorching only dirt and grass.
Eudora is nowhere to be seen.
All of us return to Kati’s tribe to digest what we have seen.
The difference in atmosphere since I last came is night and day. No celebrations, no joyful chanting, or frolicking in the open.
Kati is leading his tribe through a tearful funeral ceremony. It seems the time between the towers first emerged and the moment we arrived, Flora and the kobolds fought fiercely without rest against the new threats. Many perished, slain or made food of by the wyverns.
“Eudora is attempting to ascend to godhood.” Mira began, taking a seat next to me under the shelter of our tent. “There is a rumor whispered amongst the higher echelon of witches, that consuming all seven souls of the cardinal sins will grant them deific powers.”
The Academy taught us that if a human ever consumed a soul, it would tear us apart. Yet, what we saw today defied everything I learned.
Soul stones are an amalgamation of many souls crystallized into a pure form of mana. A familiar in the body of a small critter can take it because it is a magical construct. Humans on the other hand…
“But is that even possible without the body decaying over itself from volatile magic?” I ask, my inquiring mind taking over.
Mira shakes her head. “Witches who have attempted this in the past flew too close to the sun. We may wield powerful magics, but we are still a fragile cage of flesh. The risks, and lack of palpable results should scare most of us into not pursuing it. But not her. She’s found some way to keep her body from collapsing.”
“A vial!” I shout, recalling the black liquid. “She drank something right after swallowing the stone. It was a dark substance. An elixir of panacea, maybe?”
“Nothing short of the elixir of life should be able to keep her from dying. I dread to wonder… could she have synthesized a philosopher’s stone?”
The philosopher’s stone, the pinnacle of alchemical pursuits.
Mira throws her arms over me and pushes us onto the leather pelts. She nuzzles her head into my neck. Her hands find their way under my robes and caresses my body that’s still sensitive from being with Taurac.
On the topic of him, I should probably keep that a secret. Though, I’m still hurt that I couldn’t save him.
“Wait,” I say, trying to push her hands away. “We still have a lot to discuss.”
“I suspect Eudora may have constructed these towers through pure magic, but cannot enter them herself. It stands to reason why she waited until you emerged from it to make an appearance.” She says, lavishing kisses on my neck and squeezing my breasts.
I’m weak to her touch, to her slender fingers gliding across my chest. If I let her be there can only be one outcome to this. There’s still so much I want to ask. I feel like Mira knows more than I do and is hiding it from me.
“Eudora mentioned something about you being similar to her. What did she mean by ‘mere thousands’?”
Mira’s touch leaves my skin. She sits up, rises to her feet, and opens the tent to look outside.
“Randover was not won through simple talks and negotiations. I thought the end of the civil war would be it. I was wrong. A kingdom’s misfortune invites starving vultures desperate to carve their own slice of the land. I ended scores of human lives at the flick of my wrist. Just as easily as I cast black magic, I felled countless before me. That is who I am and what I’ve become.”
I knew Mira would inevitably kill someone when she left for a wartorn country. I wish I could have gone with her, my best friend.
Mira extends a hand out the tent, and a moment later Talos lands on her arm.
“Do you resent me, Ellori?” She asks without turning around.
I get up and hug her from behind. Her body jerks and she sucks in a breath filled with relief. Talos takes off as her hand drops to the side.
“I could never hate you. I’m glad you told me.”
Mira turns around in my grasp and lifts my chin. “You reek with the stench of lesser creatures.”
“No matter. I shall simply not let you rest until you think of nothing but my touch.”
Our lips meet, and then our tongues follow after. That night, we would not leave the tent, and I indulged in Mira’s lust until morning.
I wake to the sight of Mira sitting naked by the open tent flap, smoking from her pipe. Gurk sits beside her. She hands him the pipe, but as soon as he pulls from it he goes into a coughing fit.
“Haha! Good, good. Another and you shall be soaring over clouds.” She says, chuckling.
“Haacck… feels like Gurk dying. Humans breathe smoke?”
I thought Mira wasn’t particularly fond of Gurk for having a sexual relationship with me. But there they are, the unlikely pair sharing a pipe to get high.
Gurk sees that I’m awake and jumps to his feet. “Mistress awake!”
He hesitates to come into the tent, and glances at Mira.
“Go on. Your mistress awaits.” Mira says to him.
The goblin takes Mira’s permission as consent to race into the tent. He jumps into my arms and hugs me, burying his head into my chest.
“Hehe. Awww! Were you worried about me?” I coo, stroking his head.
Mira blows a lung-full of smoke outside and shuts the tent. “I woke up and found him sitting by the tent in the morning. He’s jealous that I monopolized you all night.”
“Didn’t want to disturb Mistresses. Waited outside, patient.” Gurk says.
“You warmed up to him, haven’t you?” I tease Mira.
“If he chose to serve you, I can at least commend his tastes.” She shrugs. “More importantly, the kobold chief and the dryad came looking for you. I told them to let you rest, and that you would see them when you awoke.”
“Then let’s not keep them waiting.”
We change into our robes and head out.
The first thing I notice are two flying specs in the sky. Rio and Talos chase after each other, weaving through the branches of Flora’s great tree. I see my familiar’s gluttonous soul has earned him wings from eating the wyvern.
“It appears your affairs are much more complicated than expected.” Flora says, emerging from the tree. “The dangers that now threaten the Weeping Expanse make it unsafe for Kati and his tribe. They will soon move from here.”
My heart drops when I hear that they are being displaced by these strange turn of events. The forest has long been their home, and a shelter from humans fearful of their kind.
But what if they didn’t leave?
“I can help them.” I suddenly say aloud. “There’s no telling if they’ll be attacked when they leave the forest. My great hollow is going to be the next safest place. They can rebuild their settlement around my home.”
That way, they’re enough out of range from any creature that may emerge from the towers and close enough for me to help.
Flora is taken aback. “You would do that for them?”
“Of course!” I squeeze her hand to reassure her.
She squeezes back and deposits an acorn into my palm. “If I can be so bold as to ask for a favor— will you plant this for me?”
There’s only one thing that she could have given me with such a serious expression on her face. The acorn almost beats like a heart in my hands.
If Flora could shed tears, the droplet of dew streaking down her cheek has never made her look so human. “I will relay what you have told me to Kati. Thank you, Savior.”
It doesn’t take long for the tribe to pack up what few things they have. What does take some time is each of the kobolds bidding their guardian tree goodbye.
Once we give Kati directions, he’s more than confident enough to find the rest of the way. I still have business in the forest before returning home.
“Next is the orc settlement of Shallowglade, I presume?” Mira slings a satchel over her shoulder.
“Flora says she can open a portal to one of her sister’s trees. It’ll be a one way ticket.”
“As long as we go together this time, I have no complaints.”
“Oh! That reminds me, how long was I gone for?”
“Time slows down in forged worlds. You were gone for no longer than a few hours.”
Few hours…? It felt like ages in there.
Mira taps her chin and says, “I wager you must have been there for a week at most.”
That means I was having sex with Taurac nonstop for a week’s worth of time. Oh, god. Just thinking about how long we were in there making love is getting my blood pumping. If the world hadn’t begun to collapse, I can’t imagine how long we’d keep at it.
Speaking of which, I’m still juiced up by the elixir of panacea. Helping the orcs and women evacuate shouldn’t be much of an issue. Ideally, with the kobolds already on the way to the great hollow, inviting Shallowglade could give us the manpower needed to fight back.
Flora traces a finger along the length of the trunk, leaving a thin trail of light that opens up into an oval portal.
“Gurk go see orc friends first!”
With that, he charges through the portal headfirst. Our familiars dive in right after him.
“That goblin… ” I sigh.
Flora puts a hand on both mine and Mira’s shoulders. “My sister’s name is Esmerelda. Beseech her help.”
And then pushes us through.