In which Cassin gets extremely angry
I sprint past rows of straggling grapevines and glance behind me with terror resounding through my body. Footsteps pound the earth behind me - probably Ebro's, chasing after me to laugh at me some more, to sting me with superficial sword wounds, then to harm me with deeper, dangerous cuts. At the thought of him, I growl - in animal pain as well as anger - and push myself harder, turning a sharp corner.
I look back, and I see nothing, hear nothing but insects among the grapes. He's gone, I assure myself. All the tension rolls out of my shoulders. Flinging myself down onto the ground, I kick my legs and watch the slight sway of the broad grapevine-leaves above my head.
The sky is hidden from me apart from slim snippets of blue. I roll my iron pendant in my fingers - it which will soon be traded for bronze - and dream, facing the heavens.
I dream of a place where there is no Ebro. No one who hates me for no reason other than that he needed someone to hate - and I don't fight back. There are people with real love for me - no one cares about me only because of a twisted sense of duty. I have the gold pendant of a Lord, and my Holding is named after me.
In the Cassin Holding, no one dares challenge me because the power deep within my core, the power I am terrified of, has been unleashed.
At its mention - even ruining my wildest, most carefree, impossible dreams - I snap back to reality.
It's always there, dark and snakelike inside me. I don't know what it is; maybe magic, but I don't want it to be. The witches always find out. The proverb whispers in every citizens' mind, and we all know it's true. We hide any children we think might be magic, stop them from being taken away. If they make their thirteenth birthday, any power they might have had vanishes away.
The witches come seeking the magic, and then they send them to the Castle and teach them to use it. I can't let that happen, I don't want to use it, because it scares me, this darkness: like I could hurt somebody. There is a strange... yearning to use it, and I'm terrified that it will make me... lose control. That's why I don't dare fight back. The power hiding below my subconscious seems ready to throw off the reigns of my control at any time.
Waiting, lurking in the depths of my mind.
I still say you are stupid. How can you not use it? Karon argues, ever slighted by my long-ago choice. What you could do, what we all three know you could do... how can you leave that unexplored? Unexploited?
Leave her alone! Ela replies, and I sigh, bracing against another painful argument behind my eyes. She's made her decision.
When I chose this, I didn't think that the people who had been gifted with my voice would refuse to listen to me, Karon huffs.
I smile, though I am careful not to let him feel my mirth. (How quickly my emotions change.) His speed to hot dignity, the ease at which he is offended, his superior sense of righteousness - all I know, and they are dear to me. "Gifted," I snort, projecting outwards an image of scorn. Karon and Ela are only voices, but they have their own personalities, their own names, and I almost think of them as their own people.
Yes, Karon, that's how I felt, Ela adds, clearly relishing the implied insult. Gifted... more like cursed.
I almost avoid wondering what she meant. Then I hear it.
A rustle in the vines behind me. I blur around, freezing my hand a hair width from my never-used Rane iron dagger and drawing it away again. I will not fight back. I know who it is - Ebro. My tormentor. I decided long ago, and I refuse to go back on that - I will not. Fight. Back. Every time we meet, alone, out comes the sword.
I have learned to take the blows. Our... sessions... never last long. They are quick, sweeping torrents of pain like a monsoon, coming fast and going faster.
"Cassin," comes the familiar voice. Standing, I smile and a dull ache gnaws at my insides. He will never know what this costs me, a pale attempt at uncaring. My pathetic rebellion.
"Ebro." I honey my tone, and try to hide the underlying fear.
He moves towards me, slowly because he knows I never respond. He has all the time in the world. I use this time to steel my nerves, standing rigidly and tensing. I am ready. Ready for the new cuts to join the old scars that mark my body. I've been lucky this last week, but I should have known he would never stay away. No matter what happens, he will never leave me alone.
Not even if a witch came would he turn to the newcomer. I am too tempting. He would ignore her and continue his storms of flashing sword, of screaming pain. Continue them on me. And why?
The power rises with familiar fury inside me and I suppress it. Always I suppress it. I can't risk using it - I have no idea what would happen if I did. I will not fight back I will not fight back I will not fight back -
No. You can use it! Karon screams. This is not the way it has to be! I ignore him, projecting an image of cold - I make my own choices. Ela remains silent, clearly not wanting to tell me to do something I don't want to do, but I can feel it - she, too, thinks it's time.
(You can't hide secrets from me Ela - you're a part of my mind.)
One stinging cut marks my back as Ebro raises his sword to strike again. I watch, the feeling numbed by my being used to it. It's like a whisper in the distance. Well, maybe whisper is not strong enough. I feel it, but it does not penetrate. An outer pain. Nothing compared to the turmoil inside me.
Fight back! Karon yells at me.
No, I whisper in my mind.
Revenge, Karon cries, melodramatic as usual. I flinch and Ebro's sword catches on my clothing before tearing again into my suddenly-weakened flesh.
No, I growl, serious now. He has never mounted such a resistance before.
Avenge the wrongs! Don't let him use you anymore!
NO. It is forceful enough to deter even Karon's mad raving. Or it has been in the past. But, it seems, something has changed.
This is not the past.
Cassin, FIGHT BACK.
That is enough, Karon, I tell him in a deadly whisper, and I think he knows I have been pushed past my breaking point - but my anger is not directed at him. I don't know what made him force me to snap, but it has been so long, so long, and I am sick of it.
I feel power rush through me and forwards and up, like a wave coiling, preparing to break.
My next impressions are only of scattered thoughts. I don't know much other than rage. Anger... power, and memories. Ebro when I was five, the first time he sought me out, when we were all trying our strength. "Who are you?" I remember asking. Even then his eyes housed this peculiar, fanatical anger, and he had his father's knife.
I descend into a strange dreamlike state, isolated within my mind. Every sound seems to echo. On the outside, I can see carnage, fire. I can barely feel the rage, though. Everything is diminished and seen through distant eyes. It is time, I whisper, though I really unleashed long ago (or so it seems. I cannot perceive time locked in this pale reflection of reality).
We are seven, and Ebro has a new sword. I saw him with it earlier in the day, but the sun is high, and he is searching now. I watch the rhythmic motions of the workers in the winehouse, squinting in the low, reddish light. It will be worse for me after hiding. But I can't bring myself to uncoil from my hiding place. Every time I begin to stand, I picture the dark new blade, almost as tall as we are, black iron, and squat right back down behind my barrel.
He finds me, evading the glances of the adults working, leads me outside. Starts to strike. I don't know why. I have never known why I deserve this. I feel power rising, and instead of supressing like I know I did, the dream-me releases and flames swirl around both of our bodies.
We are nine, and tomorrow we start grapevine work. Ebro will want to enjoy his last day of freedom, I know, and I have been dreading it since the moment I woke. My first instinct is to hide. I don't leave my bedroom until I hear Kinni call my name downstairs, and then Neet, and that brings me running - I've told them never to call for me unless it's our father. I pull them both behind me and scream at him, defiant. "You won't touch them." My voice is guttural and raw. "You won't touch them as long as I'm here."
Ebro enters the house later in the day and pulls me away. I fight this time - I cannot leave Neet and Kinni. But then I feel the power rearing its snakelike head. I know what happens next - I stop fighting. But again the dream surprises me, proving that it is not a real memory but a twisted one. Fire blossoms on my arms, my legs, my face. I force Ebro away and then I run back to protect my siblings.
We are twelve, I am almost thirteen, and I have no idea what I'm doing or how I'm doing it. Only that I'm unharmed, and Ebro is burning. Karon is screaming congratulations, and I push and push and push, reflecting every scar's worth of pain he's ever given me back at him. Yes, you can feel my pain now, feel the terror that you always inflicted on me. It's my turn now. Forever it seems to go on, and then I realise how low the sun is. The meaning of my situation hits me for the first time – the witches will come. When do I stop? How do I stop? What do I do once I have? But part of me doesn't want to.
Calm, Karon whispers. His word brings me ascending out of the tranquility - though half of me wants to stay behind - and into the hot world of destruction around me. Now I can feel the rage again, and can see his face. I inhale, but... Ela whispers to me. I can barely make out the words, but the soothing tone brings the fire burning inside me, and the fire burning outside me, to a stop. There is a strange sensation inside me. It's like a white dragon curling back to sleep at the back of my mind, and another, darker feeling, closer to my heart.
Ebro stares at me, face a mass of angry red welts. I think he wants to run, but we stay locked there for a moment that lasts an eternity and an eternity that lasts a millisecond. Then he tears his eyes away from mine and drags his weeping, ravaged body away.
"Karon? Ela?" I ask curiously, because there is a strange absence deep within my head that I cannot fathom.
Neither respond. The voices inside my head, the ones that have guided me since I was born, are silent.
"Ela?" Now I am baffled. They've never been silent like this before. "Karon?" Then it hits me - what else has never happened before? The half-notion springs into full, deadly life, and tears begin to flow.
Is that what the power was? The power of my... advisers? (I choose the less intimate word, because it cuts them away, makes the loss easier to bear.) And now I have used it... they are gone? But no. It can't be, because I can still feel the dragon in my mind. It's not gone. Sleeping, but very much alive. I open my hand, call the power to wake, and a small ball of flame dances across my palm. A strange control has embedded itself within my skin and I know this will do whatever I command.
I call for them again. What have I done?
And finally, finally, I hear a voice.
"What did you do?" I demand. "Where did you go?"
Cassin, you are... powerful. The voice is Karon's, but I can sense Ela too, a distant tickle pale in my body. Returned, as it seems, from the brink of eternity.
"Why?" I ask. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Cassin, Ela replies with an informal bluntness, we are a part of you. When you're tired, we are tired.
And, adds Karon, when you are strong, we are strong.
The grass swishes at my feet as I walk out of the rows of grapevines for the last time of the day, holding my crate of dead leaves. The secateurs swing in my left hand. My stomach swirls and every sound makes me flinch. A subtle tingling triggers the gag reflex in my throat. My crunching footsteps are thunder-loud in the quiet afternoon as I turn onto the gravel road, and sun beats down on my head. A cool breeze caresses my face as I trudge ever onwards. When I get home, there will be… I don’t know. Something. Ebro will have told his parents. His mother or father will have sent word to the Lord. The Lord will have told the Masterwitch. And the Masterwitch will be coming for me.
Magic always shows by the age of thirteen. And I was so close, so happy that I had made it. My birthday is in four days. Four days, and I ruined it.
I turn my anger inwards, at Karon and Ela. I nearly made it, but you pushed me too far.
You needed to be pushed, Karon responds, almost too quickly. Almost as if he’s hiding something, but that’s impossible. He’s a voice generated by my mind. It’s not like he’d know anything I didn’t. That would just be stupid.
You needed to be revealed, Ela agrees, jerking me back. In my listless state, I run her words over in my mind four times before they gain any meaning.
I grind my teeth. “It’s a secret,” I mutter aloud. No way is anyone finding out before the Masterwitch comes. Who knows, maybe Ebro’s parents’ message will only reach Kail Castle after I turn thirteen, and it will be discounted. I might be worrying for nothing.
The Masterwitch will come, Karon states, full of happy certainty.
“Well, aren’t you optimistic!” I explode.
This was meant to happen, Ela says, just as Kinni opens the door.
“Cassie!” She grins, bright blue eyes sparkling, but turns away just slightly too quickly. Her blond ponytail dances in her wake. I look away, preferring not to watch her. “I was about to go do archery practice with Wila and Rose. Sorry! I have to go…”
Neet looks out of his room as I pass by, but remains silent and sketches another line onto one of his thousands of diagrams, quickly adding a number. He hides behind his dark fringe, using it to block me from view. At least he doesn’t try to hide his indifference like Kinni does. I prefer Neet’s way of doing things – straight-up, open, logical.
Yes, sure. They don’t care much about me. But they’re my siblings. I have to love them. I have to protect them, from people like this man standing in front of me on our stairs, dark beard bushy, who calls himself my father.
I brush past him, heading for my bedroom, and hours pass, which I spend slumped on my bed speaking to Ela and Karon. Our conversations are long and circular, always ending with both making some reference to this being ‘meant to happen’, or that I was ‘meant to be revealed’, or that ‘it was long past time’. Past time for what? I curl deeper into my blankets, blocking out the voices until I’m lonely enough to listen to them some more. The arguments begin again. It finally happened. It’s time, finally time! It was always going to happen.
Then comes the sound I was dreading. A knock downstairs, distant enough for me to hope I am beginning to dream. Then the voices, then footsteps up the stairs, and finally my door opens.
And there stands my nightmare.
Her black cloak is fastened with a cloakpin shaped like forks of lightning and made of pure gold. (Well, I think it’s pure gold. I’ve never seen gold up close, so I wouldn’t know.) Underneath, she wears long grey travelling pants, a lilac-coloured shirt and the symbol of a Masterwitch - the amethyst pendant, shaped like a pyramid with four sides. She brushes her straight chocolate-brown locks out of her face and regards me, face regal and cool with high cheekbones and cold, icy blue eyes. I don’t know her name - hey, I don’t know the Kail Lord’s name - but I know who she is. The Kail Masterwitch.
“Cassin Ellis Kail,” she says, using my full name, and it is unnatural to my ears. Cassin my own name, Ellis the name my parents chose for our family, Kail from the Holding where I live. I lower my eyes in terrified deference, but Karon’s voice is loud inside my mind.
Do not bow to her. I know her power, and you are stronger.
But I have no idea how to use this power. All I can do is make fire, and I did that once. And she has magic I don’t even know is possible.
“Masterwitch,” I reply, voice quiet and submissive, keeping the turmoil in my head out of my tone.
“Do you know why I am here, Cassin?” she asks, her voice unyielding as stone. She flings a quick, contemptuous glance at my mother, who’s fiddling with the bronze pendant on her necklace, smoothing her gown, preening like a terrified peacock.
I nod, but it’s barely recognisable, as tiny as a flea’s eye.
“Come with me,” she states, decisive. She sweeps out of the room, adding over her shoulder, “You have thirteen minutes.” I don’t have time to ponder the precise timing, because my mother rounds on me and as usual, I cower. Her words sweep over me without registering, until the word disgrace catches my attention. And I don’t have to cower anymore. I can fight back.
Yes, Karon mutters excitedly. Yes!
“Stop,” I whisper, not bothering to guard the emotions pouring into my voice. “You called me a disgrace. Are you saying this is a disgrace?” My anger awakens the white dragon, which is easier than I was expecting, and fire sparks into existence on my outstretched palm. Leera Kail recoils in fear. “Soon I will be gone, and your words are wasted on me anyway. Just leave me alone and I’ll be out of your life soon enough.”
The peacock rushes away, a crawling, rodentlike terror evident in her eyes.
I sigh and, resigning myself to my fate, pull on a travelling cloak. My dagger, made of the same iron as my pendant, is ready in my belt. I don’t have anything else, but I burn two of my minutes worrying about Kinni and Neet. Once I am gone, they’ll be subjected to the conflicting influences of Mother and Father, with nothing to act as a shield. “This is all that matters.” “I don’t care what you think matters, woman. They will do things this way or not at all.” And I won’t be there to absorb the brunt of it. See sense, I beg, and as soon as you’re thirteen and bronze-pendant, get as far away as possible.
Bronze-pendant. Now I will never be bronze-pendant. Now that I have been marked witch, instead of trading my iron for a bronze, the next pendant to hang on my throat will be gleaming orange citrine, the mark of a novice witch.
I descend the stairs, each footstep heavy. They are weighed down by my dread.
In which Cassin realises just how big the world is
I follow the Masterwitch out of the house (which, it strikes me, I have lived in my entire life). We walk the familiar path outside it, and I gain the courage to ask where we are going.
Lara, Ela hisses, answering almost before I speak. The Overwitch.
“Along the Cliffroad to Lara Holding,” the Kail Masterwitch responds without turning. Her stiff back faces me with the dark cloak fluttering in the breeze. It puts me in mind of a bird. “Lara Castle, where the Overwitch holds residence, and then returning to Kail Castle.”
“What’s your name?”
“I am Miris.”
We walk in silence for a time, and I think with dread of how long it will be before we stop. The Cliffroad is a sevendays' journey from coast to coast on horseback, or thereabouts, and that is a long way to travel. Even though Kail is a third of the way from the northern coast, that’s still… two and a bit days each way. No. Longer. We don’t have horses. Each footstep, even these familiar roads, will be fatiguing once we’ve walked all the way to Lara and back. I ask wistfully why we can’t just use magic, and Karon answers, his mental voice competing with Miris’s physical one.
They don’t let anyone use magic on the way to the Overwitch.
“No magic is to be used on this journey,” Miris responds, once again her voice seeming like a cliff face - unyielding, cold and stony. “It is a long tradition, from the first witches on the continent.”
“How’d that happen?” Curiosity drives me to ask. After all, now I am a witch. There is no use shunning their culture, their history.
“A long time ago,” the Masterwitch replies, her face softening and becoming almost human as she slips into storytelling mode, “the first witches travelled here on a great ship that could cross the Vasts.” I shiver at the thought of the cold Deep Oceans no boat can survive. “No one knew where they came from, and no one did they tell. There were eleven, one for each Holding, and they brought the secrets of magic with them: they never had children, and some say that is why magic develops before someone passes into adulthood. It is a vague connection, but apparently every witch is an honorary daughter of the First Eleven. Each witch chose a Holding, and from then on, some children were born with the same gift.”
Then a mask of stone drops back over her face. “Now, we have a long way to travel, so walk faster.”
I watch the sides of the road as we walk. Most people are out working with the grapevines or in the winehouse. But occasionally a figure appears, shielding its eyes from the sun to make out the tall figure with the amethyst pendant and the iron-pendant girl next to her. I spot Ebro, who sneers through a reddened face, and I am tempted to bring flames to my hand, even though I have little control. But as I raise my hand, Karon and Miris snap no in unison.
“No magic,” Miris growls. “Remember?”
We pass through the grapevine fields, seeing only road, sky and vine, for what feels like forever, and the sun sets. Miris takes two apples from her pack, uses two…rocks… to light a fire (you would think a witch wouldn’t bother to know how, but she is clearly skilled) and begins cooking a pot of stew. It’s thick and warm, clearly seasoned with herbs she produced from her pack, and tastes of rosemary and lamb.
Miris places a bedroll in front of me and begins to unroll her own. I feel uncomfortable, sleeping next to a stranger under the stars, but eventually the day’s events cease to roll around in my mind and my eyes slowly close. Ela and Karon, who were having a faint but spirited argument, grow quiet as I fall asleep watching the dying fire.
Finally, we come to the border and enter the Nova Holding. The grapevine fields come to a blatant, abrupt end - word has it that the Nova Lord sees no value in growing what others already do. Which, of course, is logical… I’m just trying to fill the silence. Now that we are in hostile… well, as hostile as it can be when you aren’t at war… territory, the glances thrown our way by people on the side of the road are less curious. Instead, they are mistrustful. Tension prickles on the back of my neck as people crane their necks to see the Kail citizens, and shrink back when they make out the amethyst pendant of a Masterwitch on Miris’s throat. Then the open grassland closes in to become pine forest, and suddenly all the people are gone, save infrequent settlements. Uneasiness permeates my stomach. I’m not used to not seeing the sky, not used to closed-in landscapes. But always the Kail Masterwitch strides steadily on ahead of me.
So this is where they make sapjuice? Well, most of the sapjuice we have is cheap stuff from the Silver Holding, but real good quality sapjuice comes from the Novas’ pine trees. Sure enough, I can see spiles and stepspikes hammered into the bark, golden sap dripping into buckets, occasionally a climber up high inserting a new spile and bucket. Then there are the long, low warehouses, presumably where they make the actual sapjuice. A memory of the one time I had Silver Holding sapjuice fills my mouth, and it is sweet, sharp and strong. Wistfully, I imagine how good the Nova sapjuice would be. I could do with some luxury right now.
The third day, we hit the Cliffroad. Our feet send loud echoes down into the chasm on our right, where the Split River rushes far below. The canyon walls are layered in brilliant colours, deep reds, whites and yellows, blacks and browns, and a layer of pink. I have never seen anything so far down or up, because I’ve always lived among the grapevine fields, and it is all I can do not to throw up. Ela too is intimidated, but Karon throws out bold comments from time to time. Although my newfound strength, the white dragon inside, sustains me, I don’t feel especially brave, but he refuses to back down.
Staring over the edge at the Split River, nausea seizes my stomach and twists. But I force myself to keep watching as pale foam crashes at the red bottom of the canyon. The water is golden, presumably from the sand at the bottom, and fast-moving and hectic. Multicoloured rocks that prove obstacles to the river’s course are soft-edged and rounded, clearly weathered by hundreds of years of rushing water.
We turn away from the Cliffroad, and I sigh with relief as I step off the cobbled orange stones onto a smaller gravel road. We’re still in Nova land, but the pine forests are long gone, save for a ragged fringe on the horizon. Instead, the cold is sharper, and there is only flat tundra. I can see a few settlements a long way off, but there is no one nearby. Among the pines, I felt claustrophobic. On the Cliffroad, I had vertigo. Now, more than anything else, I am hit by loneliness. Miris doesn’t speak as much any more, and she never spoke that much to begin with.
Miris and I cross east into Lara, less unfriendly but still different. The tundra remains, and it’s even colder. The stone is blanketed in a thin layer of snow, but I shrug off the novelty, too tired to stop or examine it more closely. We can see the Lara Castle in the distance, but until we get closer, I have no clue how massive it is. Because the castle is simply huge.
I realise this is almost the end of the journey, our fifth day just walking. New calluses line my feet, and I’m already much stronger (though I’m also exhausted). Karon and Ela kept me going. And the power, which acted like a talisman against my heart. Miris and I groan as we stop, our bodies feeling the strain, but I don’t pay much attention to the fatigue because I’m staring at Lara Castle, only about nine hundred metres away now. Crowds bustle around it, acting as if there is no snow at all - traders, mostly, and advisers and, uh, other court people. It’s been built right where the tundra blends back into more pines. The imposing stone towers soar up almost to the same height as the Split River canyon was deep, and that seriously is saying something. Another tower next to it, though not connected, has a massive sapphire at the top, and I simply stare at it. While I was travelling, pain and exhaustion distracted me from my nervousness, but I’m also surprised to find I am no longer scared of my power.
The Masterwitch - Miris - and I trudge the final short distance to the Lara Castle, and as soon as we get within a hundred metres, the guards challenge us. Before, they were in a neat line, but now every second soldier steps forwards. It impresses me, the practised, synchronised movement. The lead soldier, a tall woman in full armour with a long sword, approaches us.
“Who are you?” I notice the moment the woman spots our pendants and a flash of understanding blossoms in her eyes.
“We are from the Kail Holding,” the Masterwitch replies. “This is Cassin Ellis Kail.” (I wince at the sound of my full name.) “She is to become a citrine, and we need to see the Overwitch for this.”
The soldier nods, eyes narrow, and watches along with all her troops as we walk to the door of the Overwitch Tower. I’m surprised that the ending of the longest journey in my life (correction: the only journey in my life) is so normal. It feels like it’s not enough. Nevertheless, I can feel every pair of eyes burning into my back, so I follow Miris into the tower.
In which Cassin finds the way out of a maze
“I cannot go any further,” the Masterwitch mutters, her tone slightly resentful through the cold overlay. We have climbed the masses of stairs, in thousands of colours, and the top of the tower sways slightly in the wind. The Overwitch’s tower is perfectly circular, and burnished brass inlaid with sapphire patterns. Sapphire for the Overwitch. When I look out the window, I feel the same sickness that I did when I stared down the Split River Canyon. Even though I know I’m not falling, my stomach cartwheels.
“Why not?” At first, I was intimidated by Miris, the distant Kail Masterwitch, but now she is a symbol of solidity. She was there every step of the journey, five entire days, and the only other person here from Kail. Lara citizens surround us now and I can barely stand to hear that she can’t just stay here.
“For the changing of iron to citrine, there are only three pendant colours allowed in that room - iron, citrine, sapphire. Amethyst is not permitted.” The Masterwitch indicates her pendant, marking her as the leader of a coven. She flashes me a quick, tight smile. “Good luck.”
The fact suddenly strikes me that she wants me to succeed. But after all, I will be part of the Kail Coven - her coven - if I ever change my citrine pendant for a ruby. Maybe that’s why they have that journey with only the amethyst and the iron, I consider. To forge a bond between them, so that the citrines do stay with their birth Holding when they make it to ruby.
You shouldn’t, Karon mutters, seemingly for no reason.
I smirk. I can’t change my name. Even citrines can’t change their name. I’d feel weird a Kail in, I don’t know, Silver Holding. Anyway, why?
Ela grins, somewhere in the back of my mind.
Knock on the door, Karon tells me, impatient as usual. I steel myself for the end of the first era of my life.
“What is your name?”
The Overwitch is a middle-aged woman, with neat, clean hands beginning to wrinkle, laughter lines marking her face and the first few streaks of grey in her hair. Her long silver robes trail on the floor behind her, and she wears a silver ring set with a sapphire, on her left hand, that matches the legendary deep blue pendant. The sapphire is shaped like a star, the same way that the Enna Stone is marked on maps. It glows brighter than I believe an average stone should. My footsteps echo on the hollow floor beneath me.
“Cassin Ellis… Kail,” I add, too intimidated to raise my voice or my gaze, which I have dropped to my feet. It is not so much the Overwitch's physical appearance as the power radiating from her body, from her sharp golden eyes as pale as sand.
Why are you looking away? Karon growls in my mind.
I ignore him. “I - I…” I begin, intending to announce I’ve come to be marked a novice witch, to change my iron pendant for a citrine. But I cut off, because it sounds arrogant, next to the quiet might of the Overwitch.
“Kail?” the Overwitch repeats thoughtfully. Her voice is slightly monotonous, low and soothing with an almost hypnotic quality. “You’re an iron… you’ve come for citrine.” It’s not a question.
I nod, unsure what else to do. Will she just give it to me? Or bless me, or something? “Show me your power,” the Overwitch commands, sapphire pendant rustling against her throat.
I shrug, and Ela gives me a fleeting word of encouragement. Then, throwing back the old fear of the darkness inside me, of this urge that awakens when I feel the stirring, I summon the white dragon, and fire wakes on my palm. Hot tingling rushes over my body, but there is not pain where my hand meets the flames. “This is all I know how to do,” I mumble.
The Overwitch nods thoughtfully. “I hope you learn fast.”
I’m taken aback. Why is the Overwitch, the holder of the sapphire pendant, wishing me luck? “Th-” I begin uncertainly. The sapphire-pendanted witch doesn’t even blink, but a surge of tingling washes over me. It intensifies until almost painful, and a bright light shines from nowhere, illuminating the dimly lit room. A fiery heat burns in my core, and then…
everything is gone.
There is a long tunnel, built of damp, mossy stone. Moisture drips from the ceiling, and steam billows about my mouth whenever I breathe. My footsteps seem impossibly loud amongst the dripping of water hitting the floor. The tunnel is cylindrical, and I slip on a patch of mildew, rubbing my arms as goosebumps prick my flesh. There is a faint prickling on my nerves, like the times I feel something is just wrong, but I brush it off. This is not the time for trivial feelings.
I stare around apprehensively, and hear Ela mutter something to Karon about the Overwitch, but her voice sounds too quiet. Not as though she’s speaking quietly, but as though I can barely hear her. It’s unsettling. Everything here is unsettling, and I’m feeling the worst of it.
I set off down the tunnel, not knowing what else to do, and immediately the dead end shimmers and changes to become a three-way fork. A spider watches me, eight eyes gleaming malevolently, and I look away quickly, almost jogging down the furthest tunnel.
This isn’t natural. Everything here was created by the Overwitch. Karon tries to tell me something, but it’s as though the ocean is crashing inside my mind, drowning out his voice completely. My breath catches in my throat. I’m completely alone. As the tunnel doubles back on itself, I stop to catch my breath
I’ve always told myself I’m meant to be alone. I’m independent. I’m a loner, I told myself. But I never have been alone, never in my entire life. I’ve always had Ela and Karon. Beginning to pace, I realise that at the moment, I don’t… I can feel the difference jolting around inside me with every step I take. I don’t even know where their voices came from, but they were always with me.
And now they aren’t.
I steel myself and sigh. I know walking won’t get me anywhere, not here. The only way out is magic.
I close my eyes, unsure what to do. The only magic I have ever used is fire, from the analogy of a dragon curled up inside me. But hang on, that’s it! That’s how I did it. The analogy. What do I want to do now? I ask myself, trying to focus. Learn, I suppose, what I need to do to escape. Or… look, no, feel, for information. The choice is easy. An owl.
And if this doesn’t work, I am absolutely… screwed.
I imagine the outline of an owl, burning on my closed eyelids. A simple black outline. Two wings, a body, a tail, a head. Large eyes, because if I focus on this detail, the senses associated with it will be sharper. Then slowly, pushing my imagination to do as I say, I begin to fill in the detail. Grey feathers, more pointed on the wings and more rounded on the body, ruffle in the wind. The eyes blaze with life and I focus on them, sending myself rushing into the deep shifting grey of the irises…
Yes, it’s working. I can feel magic all around me, the same tingling feeling as when the Overwitch first summoned it. It’s like a web, loosely woven and with thin strands… thin but extremely strong. The Overwitch is the most powerful witch on the Continent, so I’m not going to break her power. It would be like… I don’t know, like trying to break a steel cord with a blunt sword that I’ve never used before.
But it is loose. I have a feeling the Overwitch did that on purpose, and that if I try to break through, she will know. I can’t break it, but maybe I can slip through. Through the gaps. The chinks in the armour.
I step blindly up to a wall, eyes still closed, still focusing on the owl image at my core. Placing my palms on the cold stone, I try to feel the weave, find the strong places where the threads run, and the weak places in between. I move slightly to my left, and I can tell. This is the best place for me to break through. (Though is that right? It's more like it's the best place for me to... fall through, like sand through the cracks between your fingers.)
I know this must be an illusion. I can feel the Overwitch’s power working to sustain it. So I just have to slip through the walls, like it’s not real. Because it’s not real. Not real… I focus on that fact, trying to block out the silence in my mind.
Not real. Because the loss of Ela and Karon, guiding me, has left me jarred.
Not real. I focus with all of my power, drawing it out of the recesses of my mind. This power that, a week ago, I tried to pretend did not exist. Not exist. The illusion does not exist. My power does.
Not real. My palms slip through the stone, the rest of my body following, and I am back in the room at the top of the Overwitch’s tower.
“You’ve done it quickly,” the Overwitch intones in her soothing voice.
I nod, slumping against the wall. Fatigue aches through my long body, my arms and legs weak and trembling. Slowly, strength trickles back into my limbs… and back into Ela and Karon. I can feel the moment the silence breaks, the moment my friends return.
Yes! Karon screams. You figured it out!
Don’t sound so surprised, Ela warns him. She’s a citrine now.
I finger the iron pendant on my leather necklace. “Hey. Did I pass? Was that a test?” I try hard not to resent her, throwing me into a cold, wet maze with no warning at all, but it’s difficult.
The Overwitch nods, her face a wall of iron. It gives nothing away. “Show me your pendant."
I hold out my leather necklace, as far as the length allows. The smooth black sphere dangles on the end. I have worn it all my life, and that’s about to change. I turned thirteen yesterday. I should be trading it for a bronze. Instead, I will soon have a kite-shaped pendant hanging from my neck, the mark of a novice witch.
The Overwitch opens her palm, and I gasp. It’s smaller than I thought it would be, but gleaming orange – however, closer to yellow than I imagined. Then again, I’ve never seen citrine before in my life, only told that it’s orange, so can I be blamed? It’s closer to a lord’s gold than a fullwitch’s ruby (in colour, anyway). The smooth kite shape is marred only by a hole bored through the top. I reach out to touch it, unsure what to do. I have never experienced a pendant-change before.
The Overwitch touches the iron sphere on my necklace, and without so much as a flash, it is in her palm, like the space between one blink and the next. Then the citrine is on my neck, and it’s cold. My iron was never cold.