Eliza was warned that getting through to Callis, head of the Twilight Wanderers, was a fool’s errand. Callis was notorious for hating all born without magic. Soldiers especially.
But this...was completely unexpected.
The fear pounding in her chest. The pain and grief making every breath heavier and more labored. The anger lit the pit of her stomach.
None of these emotions made sense.
She stared at the well-built house. At least 3 stories high and strangely empty-looking. Haunted.
“Be warned, little warrior, that coven is well-known for very good reasons,” said Romie.
“And what are those reasons?”
“They are exclusive- and extremely powerful. They are also hard to track...you’ll have to through a series of mind games before they decide.”
“Decide on what?”
“Whether to talk to you or...kill you.”
Was this why she was choking back sobs?
Unsure of what to do next. Eliza moved forward and knocked on the door. The second her fist rapped against the frame, faces and voices filled her head. Sort of like a dream. Except with her eyes open.
A girl with beautiful blond hair was laughing, pale green eyes shining as she chased a shorter boy with dark hair and brown skin up a hill. She was yelling and young. Unburdened only the way the innocent were.
The boy was laughing, hindering his ability to run let alone answer.
A voice, too mature to belong to either of the laughing children, spoke, Isn’t she lovely?
Eliza panted with the effort to not cry, sudden pangs of sadness were running through her. She took the moment to be glad she insisted that Hames, Romie, and Adelie stay behind. “She is.”
The same girl but older was now cross-legged and whispering to another girl, the girl had frizzy black curls and freckles.
She was so talented, even for our covens. With the ability to possess and control minds.
The frizzy-haired girl started to writhe, “Ki-Kiara!”
The blonde, Kiara, stops hastily.
“Does it hurt?” The other girl nods, and Kiara’s eyes filled with tears, “I’m sorry, Jean.”
Jean smiles shakily and kisses Kiara’s forehead, “I just need to sleep.”
Kiara faces the front, glaring at someone,- oh, was this a memory? If so, who's?- “I hate my magic!”
She never wanted to hurt anyone.
Doubling over Eliza trembled as she emptied her stomach into the bushes. “What,” she heaved, “are you,” more vomit spilled out, “you doing to me?” Eliza never felt such pain.
Kiara reappeared, a few years Eliza’s junior, the imagery was framed by foliage. And seen from an angle, the only reason Kiara was recognized was because of her long shimmering blond hair.
She was walking, intimately close to another girl with auburn hair that was dressed finely. She was laughing, smiling and the other girl was smiling and blushing right back.
Look at her? Sweet, pure, and falling in love with that wretched-
Eliza sucked in steady breaths, wiping her chin with her bare forearm. Sweats clunch to her hairline and temples.
She did nothing wrong.
Kiara’s smile was wide and toothy, as she tugged on the other girl's hand.
Except for fall in love with a princess.
The princess was stunning and regal- but at the same time, she was awkward and young and so clearly in love.
Except trust the princess.
Something akin to rage heated Eliza’s cheeks.
For that soldiers beat her. They saw her as a witch and they beat her.
Men in armor were dragging a beaten bloody girl to a cross.
It was Kiara. Her beautiful blond hair stained with red blood, green grass, and dirt. She was stone-faced and silent, stumbling to keep up with the men and women who tied her to the cross.
Heads framed the bottom of the scene- it was blurry, almost as if the person was crying. Hands covered the scene before it fixes back on the horror show.
They tie her to the cross- and light a fire beneath her feet.
The fire blazes around her. And for a second she looks unearthly- and then the smoke surrounds her. Nipping at her dress, and she’s mortal again.
She could have fought out.
She smiles sadly, looking straight at Eliza almost, mouthing ‘I’m sorry.’
But she died instead.
An arrow flew from behind the crowd and the scenery shifted to show the boy from the first scene. Now older and handsome, crying as he drops his bow.
She was blessed with a swift death. And I was cursed to live with the pain of losing my chi- a witch.
And, you, soldier- you dare to show yourself in front of us? To what? To kill me too?
To kill my coven?
The overwhelming, all-consuming emotions leave her. But the throb in her chest doesn’t, tears fall from her eyes.
“It’s terrible,” Eliza finally said, “what happened to her. What you have to suffer through- but I’m not here to harm you. Just for wisdom. A little knowledge. I mean no harm.”
The hairs on the back of her neck stand on edge, second, later a fierce wind smacked against the trees and house. Eliza ducks her head.
You're a soldier.
“A warrior,” she corrects. “And I think what happened to your daughter is terrible.”
Rubbish. She’s not my daughter.
“Was she not family? You speak of her like she was.”
Of course, she was family, we are all intertwined. But daughter? I- Sh-she was not my daughter.
“You don’t sound so sure.”
Don’t think that just because I’m not physically with you that I can’t-!
“Why do you deny it so fervently?”
Eliza stiffens. The tone was no longer full of indignation, anger, or sorrow. It was cold and brittle. It was dangerous.
All of her survival instincts were awake. Warning her to leave- telling her that there has to be another way.
But the idea of going back to her team empty-handed had her rooted to the spot.
She drops to her knees, “I’ll do something for you- to prove my fealty...if you hear me out! Please!”
I’ve never seen a warrior beg before. Introduce yourself.
“I’m Eliza of Lertahan, the gods chosen...and I’m in desperate need of your aid.”
The laugh that follows was chilling.
“There is a prophecy that looms over me- assuring me that I’ll go down in history but whether as a tragedy or a hero is yet to be said.”
Ah. I see. Little chosen One. What do you ask for and why would I be able to help you? More importantly...why should I?
“I’m open to negotiation- all I ask for is directions. Clear correct directions to the Runed Paradise.”
“Please,” Eliza pleaded, “I’ll do anything to prove myself worthy of your help!”
Eliza instantly winced at her word choice.
The emotions coursing through her made her careless.
“Within my power, of course.”
Go to where the monarch castle used to stand and collect some ashes. Of a stone castle burned down.
A castle of stone? Reduced to ashes?
It is not impossible. Whether you are capable of making the trip isn’t my concern.
“May I ask why you want the ashes?”
It wasn’t easy, the ruins of a used to stand castle were sacred ground and Eliza had to be sly to collect the ashes. She was almost caught twice- almost drugged three times, almost killed once.
The whole place- it was almost as if cursed. The people were unreasonably cruel, extremely selfish, and erratically violent.
Everyone who walked there seemed to have ice blood and steel hearts. If they had a heart that is.
No one would talk to Eliza without her offering compensation for directions- and most of the times the ones who offered directions also tried to mug her.
They were no match for her of course- but still. It was a cruel mission. On where she ended up barely escaping with her life one too many times.
You got the ashes?
How do I know they're authentic.
“You may study them if you like.”
The vial was pried from her hands by another hand- invisible and strong. Suspecting something like this Eliza didn’t start.
Eliza tightened her braid, waiting for the verdict.
Alright, soldier. It’s legitimate.
The voice in her head sounded displeased.
“May I have-”
Ah ah ah! I have a few more favors to ask.
She grits her teeth against the mocking voice. Hames has written to her recently, assuring her that he was taking good care of Romie and Adelie both...that’s good.
Focus on that and not on-
Here are your tasks;
Eliza lay the vial of crystalized salted oxblood- which she had to haggle from a cannibalistic witch- on the floor.
She watched as it disappeared. She felt a slight stir in the wind like someone ran past her...was the force that retrieved the items not magic but an invisible person?
"I have completed all your tasks,” Eliza rasped out, her lip bloodied, eye swelling. A jagged scar ran across her collarbone and some burns fresh on her left palm.
The tasks were not idle.
Most were suicidal.
It was clear that Callis wanted her dead.
It was made obvious when she angrily asked, Why aren’t you dead?!?!
Despite herself, Eliza laughed. She laughed so hard she cried and once she started crying she couldn't stop. She was angry and humiliated and hurt and in pain and some of her body was sore and other parts were throbbing with recent pains.
“I, it’s- what happened- you cannot punish me for your daughter's death! I am not responsible and I’m sympathetic to your plight- but you cannot do this anymore! Help me or let me leave- but I will no longer stand to be toyed by you.”
Eliza had gathered that Callis was manipulating her emotions- to get her to leave on her own. But Eliza has spent years ignoring her emotions...she could do this.
“I demand compensation,” she says calmly, “for all the items that I earned to win you over-”
A hand wrapped around her wrist. Eliza’s eyes darted to see how it was but there was nothing.
The invisible stranger.
Eliza feigned surprise but before the invisible person could make their move Eliza struck first, elbowing their face then sweeping her legs under theirs. She pressed her nearest knife to the stranger's throat.
“You can see this, correct?”
“Tell me where I can find the Runed Paradise and I’ll let the fellow live.”
He can burn you alive, brute.
“I will slit his throat the second I suspect flames,” admitted Eliza unabashedly.
I’m in control here!
Yes, Eliza noted, then why is your voice so high?
“Either way- this boy is dead. Another preventable death…” Eliza trailed off, knowing from hearing weeks of hateful remarks and emotional torture that this remark would set Callis off.
Eliza shifted her grip on the knife, so that it was placed on the skin, at the slightest flick she could cut him. At a slight twist of the wrist, she could end him.
You kill him and you die!
“But...so does he.”
The man was surprisingly still. Like- like he felt no fear.
Let him go...he’ll lead you to me and then I can get you a map.
“How do I know you won’t kill me once I let him go?”
Take it or leave it, brute.
“Swear on your coven,” said Eliza, keeping the fear Callis was trying to force into her at bay. “Swear that you’ll give me a fair bargain.”
Eliza pressed the knife so it nicked his skin, his blood wetting her fingers. Visible for anyone to see.
Fine! Fine, brute! I-I swear it.
Smiling Eliza took the knife from his skin and wiped the blood with the hood of her cape.
“Sorry about the cut,” apologized Eliza, “it wasn’t personal.”
A man blinked into sight, “Hardly ever is.”
The man was stunningly good-looking. A beautiful smooth olive complexion with high cliff-like cheekbones and the oddest eye color. It is classified as brown but with the lights bouncing off of it, it looked like its own sunrise. Like a campfire.
‘He can burn you alive, brute’
That’s what she said.
Was he the fearsome mage? The infamous one from the village gossip? The one that burned a stone castle to ash for the sake of it?
Did she really… threaten someone so powerful.
The mere thought set her on edge.
Pushing aside these thoughts she smiled her most charming smile, “Lead the way, good sir.”
Silently he led her through the forest, stepping over bushes and roots like he had the steps memorized.
Soon enough they made it to a clearing, in the center stood a sole cottage.
All the curtains were firmly blocking any outside view of the house but a women's studio outside the door. She, like the man who had quietly escorted her, was also stunningly attractive.
Her hair was the color of sunset. And her eyes a deep blue. She was beautiful the way great lakes were beautiful. In the timelessness of it.
This was Callis, she thought, the head matriarch of the Twilight Wanderers.
Eliza nodded in acknowledgment.
“What do you want?” Absently Callis touched the younger man's shoulder as if checking that he was still there. “A map?”
“It would be most appreciated.”
Callis observed her cooly. Distaste was written all over her timeless features.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Callis, her tone clearly implying she doesn't care what Eliza minded, “why does a soldier want to reach a magical paradise? Are you certain you won’t combust from sheer distaste? Magic is bad, no?”
Acid dripped off her words.
“I think of magic the way I think of anything,” Eliza smirked, “of no importance unless it is in my interest.”
The man let out a breath, smoke spilling from his lips. He paid it no mind.
These people, Eliza reminded herself, are powerful. Powerful allies or powerful enemies.
Best to keep it simple.
“I seek the Reader of Runes- for their aid.”
“Why would they help you,” Callis challenged.
“That’s between me and the Reader.”
Callis nodded before turning on her heel and walking into her cottage. Eliza moved her gaze to the man.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He hesitated before answering, “Torin.”
“Have we met before?”
“You look familiar,” she mused out loud, “I'm sure I have seen- oh! You're the boy from the visions! The one who killed Kiara!”
Her filter must be broken.
Torin narrowed his eyes, steam puffing out of his nose. “Come again?”
“Kiara’s friend, you were her friend,” she amended.
He stared at her as if wishing he could set her on fire. Could he set her on fire with his stare?
“I apologize for my careless wording.”
He ignored her, staring at the trees instead.
Curiosity got the better of, “Why...why didn’t you save her? I mean- you can turn invisible- and you are clearly powerful-”
He studied her before releasing a breath, his face showing brief vulnerability, “It was not from lack of want.”
“It’s illegal- against the code to interfere with the consequences of another mage’s actions. Mage or witch it applies all the same. No one could interfere no without cursing the coven.”
She stared at him. “Do you regret it? Not saving her?”
He kept talking, “I regret it at times when I miss her most prominently.”
“It’s terrible to face the loss of someone so close.”
She massaged her own chest.
Rodney- he was always smiling-
She dismisses the thought.
Callis returned stone-faced and cold. But her voice softens a degree, “I will give you this on one condition.”
“What is it?”
Callis presses a vial of some liquid into her rough palm, “If you are ever to meet the Princess Bianca of Genea, place the scent of this mix under her nose.”
Eliza accepts the vial and the map, checking the map for authenticity. “Will it kill her?”
The setting sun lit Callis’ hair up as she answered, “No. It won’t.”
Her gaze flickered from Torin to Callis. Both of them were stone-faced, staring at her.
Adelie was the first to throw herself at Eliza when she returned to the camp where they were faithfully waiting.
Then finally Romie joined the on the pasture, but he kept his distance, smiling from the side.
“Where were you?” “What happened?” “How’d you get that scar?” “Do you need to sit?” “Did you get the amp?”
Eliza only answered one of their questions, pushing the vial further into her pockets, “Yes, I got the map. We’re on route for Runed Paradise.”