The sun was high in the sky as Hitori reached a crossroad in the forest that bordered Meiron. She had been walking through the forest for over three days, ever since she left the Goddess temple to the south in the small town of Miles, and she was getting tired of the evergreens that dominated this land. When she saw the wooden sign pointing towards Farmshead with Meiron in the opposite direction, she was sorely tempted to get out of the forest. Farmshead was a small town, but Lisa from the temple said that it had the biggest market of fresh produce after Meiron. Farmers from all around came into town every week to sell their harvested goods to the merchant townsfolk who bartered other services in return.
‘My supplies are getting low,’ she thought, eyeing the sign. ‘And it is only a couple hours in that direction. I can be well on my way to Meiron by nightfall, with more supplies, maybe a treat or two...’
She was walking towards the town before she even finished justifying it to herself.
The forest broke after half an hour, the tall trees with thick underbrush thinning out into more harassed-looking trees and shrubs. The outer line of the forest bordered a meadow of tall, rough grass that was hard to wade through if she left the beaten path to explore. She saw a couple rabbits and many field mice as she passed, but it was not the time to hunt. The town of Farmshead was within sight and she did not want to offend the locals by trapping game without permission. For all she knew, the meadow was a holy place, not meant for hunting under any circumstance. With all the tended farmland she could see beyond the meadow, the people could probably afford leaving this area to the wilderness.
Farmshead was unwalled and undefended one-street town. Hitori stopped at the start of the sandy street, unnerved by the silence in the town. People stood at their stalls and others shopped, but the usual dim of a marketplace was absent. No stall owners called customers to see their wares, no children ran around laughing and screaming in their games, she could not even hear small talk going around. Everything went on without energy, the children meek and silent behind their parents.
Nobody looked at her or called her over, something practically unheard of in the face of a traveller to a small town. Most places she had travelled to had welcomed her into their arms for tales of the world, for fresh coin, or for the work of an accredited mage. Many people did not trust her in those places, nor did she blame them for trust worth having has to be earned, but they talked and laughed and gave her a warm meal. Other towns were afraid of her at first, hiding behind their shutters and their weapons, but they were always ready to talk before condemning her. Even those who did end up condemning her for being a mage on the road showed civility until the decision was made, or at least acknowledged her existence.
She wrapped a magical shield around her body. It would not prevent her from taking damage from physical attacks, but if there was a mage around here that was causing this odd behavior she wanted something to protect herself. For physical threats, she always had the knives sheathed in her boots and in the small ones in the sleeves of her jacket. Those were bound by well-placed stitches that she could undo with a touch of magic.
After a moment of thought, she also undid a veil over her magical sight. It was enough to see the silvery threads of magic that were woven haphazardly throughout the town, a tangle of spiderwebs that attached themselves to the people. She did not probe the magic, not knowing what kind of traps might be inlaid in it. ‘Powerful, but not structured,’ she thought looking around.
Figuring that she had stood still long enough, she walked into the town, careful not to touch anyone. The people went about their business without giving her a glance. Up close, she could see that their bodies were covered with the cobwebby lines of power as if they had a new set of nerves on the outside of their body. Glazed, uninterested eyes were everywhere, even the merchants were not paying attention to the shoppers as they acted out their parts. No one bartered, no one talked, they were acting out the complex dance of society without being aware of it.
She untucked the hourglass pendant that marked her as a mage from its place of concealment under her coat. If needed, she would use her authority as a member of the mage council of the Goddess. As a member she could travel and use the services of the temples across Cypressia without paying for her lodgings, though in return she had responsibilities. She was to help those within her power to help, to take untrained mages under her wing until she found a suitable teacher, to bring news and messages from one temple to the next if no other messenger could be found, and to bring mages who abused their powers before the council to stand trial. She hoped that was not the case here.
Mages were largely a law unto themselves due to the destructive forces they could wield. There were many tales of rogues who managed to destroy a town or cause irreparable damage to the land before they were killed or arrested. The mage council was established to provide a balance between their kind and normal humans. They were charged to train and shape young mages to benefit society, and to act as judges for those who broke the code of behavior.
‘Do not kill unless necessary, do not do more harm than necessary, and do not forget about the consequences of betrayal.’ Hitori started to gather her power as she walked to the source of the magic, where the cobwebs became cords of power and the people were as still as breathing statues.
The street opened into a broad square before continuing on to loop back at the left side of the square. In the square was a pedestal upon which a man with the finest clothes sat. He was a big man, his broad chest and shoulders giving way to an equally trunk-like neck. His face was sturdy and rough from a life of working outside, his eyes a dark blue like most of the population of Farmshead. He wore a black opal set into a pendant around his neck and it pulsed with the strange magic. His were the only eyes that seemed to have any life in this town and they burned with hatred at the sight of the hourglass around her neck. “Witch!” He glowered from his seat. The people around her shifted to a more aggressive stance like puppets.
All but one girl who cringed. She was dressed in a child’s rough smock though she was old enough to start developing a woman’s body. Her face was filthy enough that Hitori could barely discern her features. She could see that the child was horribly underfed, but her eyes were the only alert ones in the crowd and they were a breath-taking stormy blue-gray. Hitori gasped as she saw a thick cord of power being drawn from the girl’s ravaged body to the black opal around the man’s neck. The opal’s power pulsed against her senses as the girl fell wearily to her knees. “Run.” She whispered, those lovely eyes wide in fear.
“Look at me witch!” The man rumbled, standing up finally and making his way towards her. Hitori watched as the opal shot out a strand of power, trying to bring her under the spell. It bounced off her shield, impotent. “So you really are a witch, like that trash over there.” He spat in the young girl’s direction, and she trembled in fear.
“What have you done to her?” Hitori asked, trying to buy time to find a way to cut the ties between them without exposing the girl to the magical backlash.
“I purged her demon as soon as her parents were punished for their sins.” He gloated, fingering the opal. “My sister was a fine woman before she married that man, then she became as depraved as he. He spawned this child before they were even wed, and then they tried to raise it the way woman were in his land. Filthy foreigner.” He looked at Hitori again, seeing the jet-black hair, the narrow gold-green eyes, and the natural golden skin that was not seen around this part of the world. “You’re a foreigner.”
Hitori smiled toothily, her anger clear to all. “If this foolishness is common here, than I’m glad of it.” She looked at the child, then at the man. “How could you use your niece’s magic like this? Can’t you see that you’ve been taking so much that her body is consuming itself to make up for the lost energy? She will die if you don’t stop this!”
“So?” He smirked. “That means that her soul will go to the heavens, finally purged of the demonic taint.”
“So any mage is a demon then?” Hitori snarled, standing beside the young girl. The child was staring at her, stunned that anyone would stand up for her, much less a total stranger. “Mages work to benefit society, to keep a balance between the land and humans! You say that those born with the gift are the bearers of sin? I think a man who would use his own relative to gain power he’s not suited for is far more shameful! Who taught you how to use that opal to store magic? Who initiated the spell?”
“Be silent, witch!” He roared, the stolen magic striking her shield with more strength than before. It held. His puppets lunged towards Hitori en mass at his unspoken command.
She struck out with her magic, cocooning them in their own clothes. Trousers and skirts melted into vice-like restraints, sleeves knit themselves together behind the population’s backs. The strings that held her arm knives in place loosened, ready to fall into her hands should she need them. “Give me the opal and I will leave this place relatively undisturbed. I am a representative of the Goddess temples throughout Cypressia,” she showed the emblem carved onto the base of her hourglass pendant. Her eyes met his, unflinching. “If I need to, I will take you by force.”
“I would like to see you try, little girl.” He sneered, walking towards her with all the confidence of a man his size in a fight. “I will purge your demon and send you back to your heathen land. A gixie like you has no chance against a grown man.”
Hitori said nothing and stayed in front of the young girl. When the man lunged at her, she ducked under his reach and gave him a sharp jab to the throat. He recovered almost immediately, stopping her kick before it hit his groin. He held onto her foot, spun her around, and slammed her into the ground. Temporarily stunned, she barely managed to throw her arms up in defense to stop him from kicking her in the face. Her knives fell into her hands as she rolled to her feet, swiping at his arms as they went to grab her again.
The shallow grazes did nothing to stop him from throwing her to the ground again. He kicked the knives out of reach and pinned her to the ground, knocking her head against the hard dirt road to stun her again. She tried to grab her boot knives, but he was too fast. One massive hand held her wrists together above her head, a leg the size of her torso pinned her legs to the ground, and the other grabbed the pendant around her neck. “So this is what made you so arrogant that you thought you could take on a man twice your size.” He muttered, “or maybe even more, you’re not built like a farm lass.”
She tried to say something pithy, but her head was still spinning. “Nrg.”
“Why did you come here alone? Are you foreigners so backward that your men would not defend a young thing like you, even if you are a witch? Or do they stay away because you think this gives you so much power?” He sneered. “Witch or no, a woman who can’t think straight can’t do anything to overpower a man more than twice her size. I shall take your power, and maybe you can become a proper woman.”
She bared her teeth, and tried to buck him off but he had a good hold on her. She snarled and tried to blast his clothes to pieces at least, a naked man usually was too concerned about being naked to fight properly, but the power was absorbed by the opal.
“You are a powerful witch,” he said mildly, having felt the power as it was absorbed. “But the girl’s demon is stronger and wilder than yours ever wanted to be. My opal is full of her power to control.”
“Everything has their limit.” She gasped as he knocked her head against the floor again. Her eyes started to close as her hold on consciousness became tenuous.
“Uncle, please let her go!” The girl finally yelled, unable to keep quiet any more. No one ever tried to stop her uncle, not once he became able to use her demon to control them. “Uncle Kyu, please!”
“You lost your right to call me that when you called my son to his death.” The man rumbled, not looking away from the weakening mage.
“It was an accident! John fell!” She wailed, trembling as his anger pierced her mind like many small needles.
“You called him to his death, you filthy girl.” He looked at her, raising the hand that had been holding the hourglass. “Do you want me to beat some honesty into you now in front of this witch, or should I do it later?”
“She’s done nothing to you!” She yelled back, “just let her leave!”
“She has challenged me in front of my people, she drew my blood. She must pay.”
“No!” The girl flung herself at his back, trying to push him away from Hitori. “Stop!’
“Leave me be!” He back-handed her, making her fall to the ground stunned. In doing so, he took away the arm holding Hitori’s arms together. When he looked back, she was holding the opal, a ferocious gleam in her eye. The girl had given her enough time to find her wits.
“Shatter.” She said, channelling her power in the rawest form into the opal in her hands. Black opals were able to hold a lot of magic, but the sudden inflow of a large quantity of potent magic challenged the faults in the gem, pushing limits until it shattered. Shards of the gem fell to the ground like broken glass, releasing all of the magic stored within. She put a shield around the girl just before the magical backlash hit.
The girl watched in confusion as her uncle fell to the ground, unconscious but still breathing. Then she felt the energy hit her and was glad she was already lying on the ground. It would have been impossible to stand. She crawled over to the woman who had fought so hard to save her, hoping against all hope that she was still alive. She was not worth another life. Not after everything that happened because of her. “Are you okay?” She asked, patting the strange woman on the cheek.
“Mmm...” Was the coherent reply. Golden-green eyes squinted at her somewhat unsteadily. “You’re okay... M’ glad.”
“Why did you do this?” She asked.
But Hitori had already passed out. Around her, the villagers were starting to recover their wits, blinking at the unconscious woman in the square, the farmer Kyu, and his strange niece that none of them had ever been formally introduced to.
One of the quickest to recover was a rather large woman with kind -if confused- blue eyes. She looked like a loving mother out of the stories the girl had read, a gentle woman who would cradle a child to her plump body and give them comfort if they needed it. She had been one of the first to succumb to Kyu’s control so the girl had never really known that her face could be so kind. “Are you okay dear?” She asked, kneeling down beside her and Hitori. “What happened here? My memory is so hazy...”
“Take care of her,” she whispered, struggling to remain awake. She felt really strange inside, as if she were being stretched like a rubber band for so long that without tension she was just thin and out of shape inside.
“Of course, but who is she?”
“She saved us.” She managed before slipping into sleep.
The woman looked at the two unconscious girls and the man with unease. She was forgetting something really important, something horrible if she acknowledged the fear she felt when she looked at Kyu who had always been a decent, if somewhat closed-off man. Whatever had happened, it looked like the people around her were feeling as confused and uneasy as she was.
“That girl’s a mage.” A small man with a bushy mustache and smudged classes said fearfully. “See the necklace?”
“What does a tax man know about mages?” Another asked.
“Why do you think none of us can remember what happened?” He twittered. “She did something to us! Haven’t you heard the stories?”
“Leave those rumors be!” The matronly woman decided, steel in her voice. “We have two injured girls and one unconscious man. Let’s take care of them first.”
“As you wish, Lady Gerard.” The men obeyed the mayor’s wife, but their hearts and their minds were divided. If it were just a woman who laid down on the ground unconscious, they would take her to a safe place to recover without question. That’s what men in this town did. But a mage... There were so many stories about mages...