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36 – Conviction

The tower isn’t just shaking, it’s becoming transparent. It’s fading fast.

I’m yanked into the air by the harpy sisters just as I lose footing. The tower I was just standing on disappears from existence in the form of voidal collapse. By some complex runic machinations, the soul stone was acting as an anchor for the tower.

Without the stone to keep it in place, not even the magic crystals inside could sustain a world spiraling to its destruction.

The four of us begin our descent while I clutch onto Red for dear life. But just as I think the worst is over, a barrage of fireballs are launched at us from the surface. One flies too close for comfort, singeing Red’s crimson plumes.

“Eudora—!”

Instead of descending, the harpies pull up to avoid the attacks.

I fight back, casting my own projectiles to deflect the assault.

Igni vas m’lanthra o’rea ventus!

The Cackling Witch stands firm despite the hail of fire exploding around her.

We’re getting close. It shouldn’t be long before we breach the canopy and leave Eudora’s line of sight.

I turn around in time to see Eudora plunge an obsidian knife into her heart. Blood gushes from her chest, spilling into the ground and then coming to life. Dozens of bloody tendrils shoot up and latch onto Red— I lose my grip on her and begin to plummet.

“S***, s*** s***— ventus!

I cast in vain, but no amount of wind magic is going to soften the impact. I’m about to accept my inevitable death when I’m tackled in midair. Green catches me but the momentum sends us both barreling to the ground.

“Uuugh…” I pick myself up, clutching my head and see blood dripping.

Pain I haven’t felt in some time comes rushing back. My savior lies unconscious, fresh bruises stain her battered body.

The harpy sisters stand their ground in front of me, but a single wave of Eudora’s hand sends them crashing against a tree.

“The soul stone. Hand it over.” Eudora demands, a powerful black miasma trailing behind her as she approaches. The horns on her head seemed to have grown larger since I last saw her.

It’s as though I’m witnessing a demon given form.

The cuts I received from the harsh landing are beginning to close. The elixir is wearing off, but there’s still some effect. I don’t have a choice.

“What are you— no!” 

Eudora lunges forward too late. 

I swallow the soul stone in front of her. It slides down my parched throat with great difficulty. 

We’ve traded places. She watches in horror, fuming at what I’ve done. But now…

“You can’t get it.” I say, smirking.

The victory is short lived. My body heats up like a furnace, every inch of skin begins to blister and boil.  My breath is taken away from me, as though the air in my lungs fuel the fire inside. I’m being incinerated from within.

I hit the ground, suffocating.

This unimaginable pain that I can only call nightmarish.

I thought the diminishing effects of the elixir was enough to keep me alive, but I might have made a fatal miscalculation. My bag is nowhere to be found, I reach for nothing but the cold dirt.

As I begin to lose consciousness, the eternal damnation closing in on me, I’m picked up from the ground. Eudora’s disapproving scowl glares down at me.

“Fool. This was supposed to be my burden to bear. I cannot let you die just yet.” 

Cool liquid pours down my throat. It’s a welcome sensation before my world goes dark.

***

Streaks of moonlight escape past the canopy. Every once in a while the winds blow a large enough gap between the trees to reveal the full moon behind it.

When I try to get up, a weight on my chest keeps me from moving too much. The harpy sisters are all curled up around me, Red lies on my chest, while the other two grasps my arms on each side.

“I thought about ridding you of those pests.”

My heart lights up hearing my friend’s voice. Mira sits on a fallen tree carving into her staff with the point of a dagger. A small crackling campfire is set between us with what looks like two skinned hares being roasted over it.

“But I surmised they were protecting you, not scavenging for a meal.”

“I’m so glad you’re alive.” My voice comes out quivering with relief.

The harpy sisters awaken too, attracted by the smell of roasted hare. Mira picks one off from the fire and tosses it to the side. The three of them chase after it and dig in like the vicious predators they are.

Mira grins. “I told you. I’ve fought worse than manticores.”

Rio and Talos fly down from the branches, each with a fresh kill in their clutches. As soon as Rio deposits the hare from his mouth, he hops into my lap purring, rubbing his head against my leg.

“What happened?” I ask, still dizzy from waking up.

My memories are still hazy, but I vaguely remember doing something that I shouldn’t have. Someone else other than Mira was here.

“I wanted to ask you that. I found you lying unconscious, guarded by those harpies. More importantly, what happened to the tower?”

“The tower…” The images gradually become clearer as I focus on it.

At the top of the tower, surrounded by an anti-magic zone… the runes surrounding a— 

“Soul stone!” I shout. My stomach lurches, but because I haven’t eaten anything my body expels nothing but my own spit. “Mira… I—”

Mira springs from her seat, surprising even the harpies. They crawl back around me as though ready to protect me from danger.

“I see… but you are alive?” She chokes out, already aware of what I’d done.

My heart is still beating, and my skin is warm if not a little cool from being exposed to the elements. I know I’m very much still me.

“I remember Eudora. I swallowed it to prevent her from taking it.” The sensation of being cooked alive returns to me along with the rest of my memories. I shudder recalling the dreadful embrace of death. But it never came. “She gave me something to drink. I think that’s the only reason I’m still alive.”

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Ventus.

A gust of wind pushes the harpies away. Mira closes the distance in an instant. She puts a hand on my cheek and another on my stomach. Her arms slowly wrap around me, pulling me into an embrace.

“You would do something so rash?”

“I’m sorry… I was out of options.”

We spend the evening eating the rest of the captured hares. The harpies seemed to have given up trying to approach me while Mira was by my side. Instead, they watch from across the campfire with envy.

“Esmerelda shall be pleased to know her orchard is free. The issue with the harpies vanished along with the tower..” Mira explains, flicking her half-eaten critter into the air. Talos snatches it and flies off, and the harpies go after him for a piece of the grub. “I believe they were originally attracted here by the tower under some influence.”

“Then how come those three haven’t left with them?” I ask curiously.

“I’m not sure. Perhaps you did something that made them take a liking to you?” 

“Ahh… if I did, I don’t remember.” 

Come to think of it, we’ve been out in the forest for some time now and have yet to come across a wyvern or manticore. The creatures in the area appear to have dispersed. It was like that after dealing with the first tower as well.

They did suddenly start appearing when the towers emerged. It stands to reason they’re connected somehow. 

“We’ll start heading back when you’re able. There is much to discuss when we return— and politics to be resolved.” Mira says, stroking my hair.

She hands me her waterskin. Cold water has never tasted better than this moment. When my body was on fire, I could think of nothing except wanting to die. 

Eudora must have gone through the same pain. How many has she consumed at this point? Why does she go at such lengths for this power?

We make our way back first thing in the morning, and what Mira had said before makes a lot more sense seeing it in person.

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The orcs and kobolds bicker over each other for space around my great hollow. Kati demands the wide open space around my tree so that his people can worship it. Clem and the other orcs believe it necessary to surround my home to act as my personal guards.

Fortunately, no fights have broken out. The moment Mira and I returned, everyone started behaving. The reason for that likely has more to do with Mira’s presence than anything else.

My anoragrathi field appears to have been disturbed multiple times. Large puddles of white substance layer the immediate surrounding. Whether someone stumbled into it on purpose or by accident, I don’t want to know.

“See what I mean?” Mira remarks, amused by the sight around us.

Having this many demihumans so close to the border of Parthun, it’s inevitable that King Marcus and Magistrate Semyon will hear about it.

The harpy sisters— Red, Blue, and Green followed us back. It’s not like anything we said could have stopped them. They wag their tail feathers like excited dogs, exploring the upper strata of this side’s forest. Eventually they settle in the branches of my great hollow, building their nest humming and cooing.

Gurk races up to throw his arms around me. “Mistress is safe! Gurk was worried. Worked with orcs and lizardmen to rebuild home.”

“I saw. Good work.” I bend down to stroke his head and lower my voice so Mira can’t hear. “I’ll have to reward you when everyone goes to sleep. Until then, behave alright?”

I notice his pants beginning to bulge. Gurk nods excitedly and then takes off in the direction of the orcs’ new encampment.

I sigh heavily. “My peaceful life in Parthun was so short lived…”

“Hah! Your first mistake is believing witches can afford to live in peace.” Mira smacks my butt and turns to head inside. “Now come. I shall like to bathe before we discuss our next move.”

***

After a much needed bath, Mira wanted to speak in complete privacy and even urged our familiars outside. She unveils a tattered journal from her satchel and lays it in front of me.

“I have here every proof that Headmaster Anora is not who she says she is. I don’t think she has been completely honest with us.” Mira’s expression becomes grim. 

I know she’s never liked Headmaster, but I always passed that off as the typical student-teacher relationship.

“I don’t understand. Headmaster has never done anything to make me suspect  wrongdoing.” I say, trying to defend the very instructor that shaped our lives.

“She has, since the very beginning, known this would happen. Eudora, my coming here, the towers’ emergence— everything.”

I listen to Mira as I piece together what I can glean from the journal. It depicts in great detail the towers’ architecture and forged worlds, the purpose behind the soul stones, including an ancient ritual describing the consumption of souls to reach deific ascension.

Soul stones are unique in that they accumulate mana indefinitely. What is strange is when they are used to summon a familiar, that pool of mana disappears. The phenomenon is a highly debated topic in the scholarly community of the Academy.

This journal answers that age old question— it is stored into these towers, fueling forged worlds to create additional soul stones.

At some point, it reads like a diary, and I realize this entire thing has been written by Headmaster Anora herself.

One concerning spell in particular, a surveillance spell different from our ability to hijack our familiar’s eyes. It enables experiencing the sight and hearing of a familiar by someone other than their bonded witch.

“When I was looking for you, I came across witches who were without familiars. Eudora herself has no familiar. I mulled over why, but once I read the journal it became clear— Headmaster Anora is spying on us.”

Mira’s hypothesis is disconcerting at the very least. On one hand, it makes sense for her to watch over us. On the other… for what purpose?

Mira gets up from her seat and glances out the window, watching the commotion going on outside.

“I was with Rio when I discovered this journal. No doubt Anora knows that I’m aware of her past now.”

I see. It’s beginning to make sense why Headmaster Anora sent Mira here without receiving the Council of Kings’ permission. Now it will look as if Mira acted on her own and be branded rogue. Two powerful witches— Eudora, the Cackling Witch, and Miracella, the Witch of Envy— having betrayed the covenant is enough to force the council’s hand.

At worst, they will invoke the Rite of Cleansing— a measure put in place to purge any and all witches that are believed a significant threat to the Council of Kings.

But why would Headmaster Anora want that?

“But last night… Headmaster knows I’ve swallowed a soul stone.” I ask desperately. 

“For now we—”

My cauldron begins to bubble with activity. I didn’t put any ingredients in there, so it shouldn’t be happening.

Mira wastes no time diving downstairs to hide in the baths.

“Ellori? Where are you, damn it?” 

Headmaster Anora’s voice erupts angrily from the cauldron. The smoke coalesces to form her face. 

“R-Right here! Is there something you need?” I try to act as calm as possible.

“You haven’t reported in ages, but never mind that. Is Miracella with you?”

I glance over to where Mira is hiding.

“Not right now, no. We returned a moment ago, but she’s heading back into the forest to investigate something. Why?”

I can make out the Headmaster’s growing impatience. Her eyes rise to meet mine.

“The King of Randover is dead, and his kingdom is in flames. Miracella Dawncrest has betrayed the covenant.”

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