After carving into the manticore’s corpse, I manage to muster enough strength to rip out its heart. The thick arteries surrounding the fleshy organ is surprisingly tough to cut. Stabbing it a few times loosened the muscle around it, but in the end, brute force was the only way.
Phlegm and pieces of my lungs spill onto the ground.
The manticore did quite the number on me. I couldn’t dodge it forever. Eventually I needed to close in, and the only way was to let it lunge into me. Once it did, one good nick to the carotid artery ended its life.
Unfortunately, doing so allowed a paw full claws to plunge into my chest. I passed out from blood loss and lost track of time. If I hadn’t drank those flash brews, I would be digesting in its stomach about now.
My hands tremble with the intensity of an earthquake. Every step I take, my vision blurs for just a moment.
There’s no time to waste. I need to catch up to Ellori before something happens. Eudora is out there, lying in wait. There’s no telling what the bitch is planning to do next.
The walk to Shallowglade is relatively peaceful. There are no more beasts in the area, as they have seemingly disappeared entirely.
More ominously, the village has as well.
Tracks in the ground shows that a large number of bipedal humanoids are heading west. Likely the residents. Their pacing isn’t in haste, so they aren’t under duress or being chased.
Did Ellori leave with them?
“No… likely not.”
Freshly killed manticores and wyverns lay strewn about the courtyard. There’s a group killed by necromantic magic. Was Eudora here? If not her, could it have been… Ellori?
“Damn it. I wanted to keep her pure from black magic…”
There are random clusters of large plumes scattered about the front of the settlement. Too soft and too colorful to be wyverns.
Slowly, my mana begins to return to me. But it will mean nothing if I’m crippled. The impurities in my body is exacerbating my exhaustion. The wound in my chest has yet to completely close as well.
I tap into my magic and hijack Talos’ vision.
The sky is tinted orange, the sun is already setting. Talos is above the canopy chasing after… harpies? One of them has a woman in its clutches. That’s…
They appear to be heading in the direction of the closest tower. There looks like an opening at the top. Is that a nest?
As soon as I detach my sight, a pressure builds up from my stomach.
A mix of blood and stomach acid pour from my mouth, scorching the ground where it lands.
“I drank too much, and this is the result. As much as I’d like to go after her now… first things first.”
It takes the better part of an hour scouring each abandoned house to find a suitable cauldron. Once I fill it with water and light the kindling underneath, I submerge the manticore heart into the boiling liquid.
A wild hare curiously skitters into the house through the door I left open. I lure it with some vegetables I found inside the pantry and trap it in a wooden crate.
I grab my trophy by its head and neck, and then twist. Its spine snaps with a sickening crack. While the blood is still warm, I slit the neck to allow its life to drain into the cauldron.
“The ingredients are in place, so now…”
I yank out the magic crystal from my staff and toss it into the cauldron. The boiling mixture settles down to a quiet simmer before finally going still.
To make an alchemy cauldron— heart of a vicious beast, blood of an innocent beast, and a magic crystal of any quality.
I pull out a dead mandrake I took from Ellori’s garden. “Good thing I brought this.”
I take a bite into the root, the bitter and spicy flavor makes my nose wrinkle and throat throb. Without wasting another moment, I cup my hands into the cauldron and drink deep in its alchemical waters.
My body burns with the intensity of the sun. I feel my intestines coiling and tightening. It takes everything I have to resist the urge to retch again.
Everything hurts as my body is being used as a makeshift alchemy cauldron, purging the impurities from the flash brewed potions I drank earlier. When the pain subsides, I’m no longer crippled.
I have one more magic crystal on the other end of my staff, so casting spells shouldn’t be a problem. Prolonged use may wear it out quicker than I’d like, but it will have to suffice. I just need to use magic sparingly.
When I walk outside, I see a black cat limping in my direction.
I pick him up and see that his hind leg has been injured.
“The increasing distance from your master is weakening your link to her. But don’t worry, I’ll find her. One way or another, we always find each other.”
We head in the direction of the nearest tower. The harpies must be taking her alive for a reason. For what? I intend to find out.
However, the trek there is anything but smooth sailing. We encounter several wyverns that Rio easily dispatched despite his weakened state. A dragon was bold enough to descend below the canopy for a quick hunt, but we managed to steer clear of that.
Eventually we come across a hastily packed camp that was recently used. The campfire that has since been put out is still warm, and the tracks are still fresh. Three people in total, light footfalls imply they must have been human women.
Residents of Shallowglade, perhaps? Can’t be. The only other suspects are Eudora’s witches. They also appear to be headed in the direction of the tower.
Following their trail, it doesn’t take long until I come across the ruins of what I believe is the long abandoned settlement Esmerelda talked about. Everything has been reclaimed by the forest, what little remains are bits and scraps of rotting planks. Charred wood tells me this place was purged in fire, and the demolished buildings were their attempt to flatten out and bury its existence.
Broken minecarts and an old forge is all that’s left that tells me this was once a mining venture.
“Just what exactly were you hoping to find… Anora?”
The shuffling of movement emerging from the mines alerts me to their presence. I dive behind the shadow of an overgrown tree to watch.
Three witches, each with a splatter of red on their robes tell me they turned their backs to the Witch’s Academy’s covenant.
“Hmm. Rio, be a darling and invite them over.” I lay the familiar down.
He trots into the open and starts yowling.
“Is that a cat? Out here in the forest?”
His crying successfully attracts their attention and they’re coming over to investigate. As soon as they close in—
I step out and plunge a knife into the heart of the closest one, slit the throat of the second, and press the blade against the final witch. She trembles, whimpering in horror as she watches her companions bleed out.
“M-M-M-Miracella…the Witch of Envy…?” The poor girl chokes out in tears.
“Drop the staff.”
She does and raises her hands in surrender. I kick away the staff for good measure. I don’t see any of their familiars, which is strange.
“Where are your familiars?”
“We don’t have them anymore! I swear!”
“Is that so. A little underdressed to be cave-diving. What were you doing in there, hmm?” I ask, drawing a little blood on her neck.
“Nothing… we weren’t…P-please, I don’t want to die in a place like this…”
I lean in to whisper into her ear. “Rogue witches are to be killed on sight, but Anora doesn’t have to know you… escaped. I just need you to cooperate with me.”
I put away the dagger to earn her trust. The girl collapses to the ground catching her breath. I kneel down and grab her by the chin.
She’s young and cute. I might have taken a liking to her if we met in the Academy. Unfortunately, my heart is already taken by someone better.
“Eudora has us searching for a soul stone that was lost around here. The… The centaurs had it last, but they never delivered it to us. We came back to the mines hoping to find another to please her, but…”
Unbeknownst to them, the stone is in our possession.
“You turned up with nothing?” I say, finishing the sentence for her. “What is Eudora hoping to find in that mine? What’s so important?”
She bites down on her lip as tears well around her eyes.
“There are apparently more like this across the Expanse. Mines brimming with magic crystals that siphon from the forest around it. Eudora thinks there are quality soul stones to be found, but this mine has long since been exhausted.”
Exhausted. Because Headmaster Anora previously excavated it. So there isn’t a scarcity of soul stones because she’s hoarding them. Could she have attempted the same ritual as Eudora?
I stroke the girl’s hair and wipe a tear from her cheek. “What is your name?”
“My name is… Elise.”
“Why do you follow Eudora?”
The fear drains from her face, Elise suddenly comes to life with vigor. “Don’t you hate it? Being under the scrutiny of the Council of Kings. We’re not truly free while we’re under the covenant because there’s a hand at the end of the leash! Headmaster is no different, she’s just another dog of the Council. We just… want to be free. Like we used to be centuries ago…”
“It isn’t foolish! They used Eudora at Saquin. Any one of us can end up like her. Headmaster Anora doesn’t care about us, she only cares about herself! Isn’t it the same for you? Who do you think they’ll blame for Randover’s incident?”
I resolved Randover. However, immediately after, I was sent to Parthun without proper authorization.
Elise isn’t entirely wrong to speculate that I may end up like Eudora— a scapegoat. Even I suspected that would happen. But how can I contest an order from…
As quickly as that bravery came, it disappeared from Elise once she’d finished her tirade. She is once again meek and terrified.
“You can join us. If enough of us witches band together against Anora, if Eudora can survive her ascension, we can’t be stopped. Here…” She pulls out an old journal in which its pages are almost ineligible. “We have proof of what Headmaster was doing out here—”
I lean close. So close she starts to blush.
Black fog snakes up from my staff and into Elise’s mouth and nostrils. Her eyes go wide with horror, clutching her throat and choking until she expires a second later.
I wrench the journal from the corpse’s stiffened grasp and store it into my satchel.
“You have been most helpful.”