The Fourth Seal

Chapter 2: Stonesong

Magaera's dreams were full of beautiful, naked, daemon-eating angels with golden hair, glowing green eyes, and perfect breasts. They brandished giant flaming swords, slicing gracefully through the miasma of the Eight Hells. After engorging on the damned the seraphic host flew back to Elysium on gloriously pure-white feathered wings, passionately kissing each other, bodily bulges and curves rubbing in heavenly ecstasy.

Magaera awoke abruptly. There was no heavenly ecstasy to be had in reality. The moment she was ejected from sleep her brain ached. Every noise of the bustling city outside came in from the open window and hammered her skull like a blacksmith working hot iron.

Where am I? The cleric blinked bleary-eyed at the familiar planked ceiling of her temple. Everything was so bright it hurt, her eyes barely able to focus on the ceiling long enough to stop herself from being dizzy. She turned her head away from the windows but recoiled in sharp pain. She could feel her brain roll into the side of her skull, the noise echoing painfully in her cranial cavity. Her stomach lurched, uneasy pain and confusion rolling around the empty organ.

“Oh. You’re awake,” a nearby voice said with palpable disappointment.

Magaera had been so disoriented she didn't even realize that her temple-sister knelt beside her cot. Alekta Winn stood up abruptly.

“Wherra’ you goin?” Magaera managed to cough out, her own voice disturbing the momentary peace she’d found in her still-wasted brain.

“To let Eda know that you’re alive,” she stated simply. Her hands slipped into her robe and she sauntered away, turning back a few paces later. “And to tell her that you are a drunken and ungrateful orphan.”

Magaera glared blunted daggers through blurry eyes at the woman as she left the communal sleeping chamber.

“And a whore!” She said before disappearing.

I can’t believe that she’d bring that up again. I didn’t do anything this time! Her brain ached as though to remind her that she was supremely hungover and not necessarily in the right state of mind to be making such judgments. At least... I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I’m not in bed with that vixen from last night... Gods, I hope she was real.

She recalled the first time she'd been caught cavorting with one of her sisters. Not technically of the same blood - she had been adopted as an orphan by the Headmother in Runasla at a very young age - but the affair had still been illicit and uncouth. Her deity, Magen, wasn't judgmental about the genders of lovers, but his disciples were meant to share their affection and support with those who needed it, not for their own self-indulgence. Magaera had been sent to Whitehaven as punishment and for “pious re-alignment”, where Headmother Milgore had been forewarned about her “lascivious trouble-making” before her arrival. As a result, Magaera hadn't been able to break any ground with the other sisters beyond basic pleasantries.

She shuffled on her ragged cot, pausing cautiously when a crinkling sound came from her chest. She wearily checked under her blanket and found a folded note stuffed into her cleavage beneath her robes. Upon opening it and a twig with red-spotted leaves fell onto her. The weary cleric picked up the tiny branch and eyed it curiously, then the note. The message was written in Celestial and stylized with huge swooping letters in neatly arranged lines. A huge smile spread across her face as she read the instructions.

MAKE TEA WITH THE LEAVES, STIR WITH THE TWIG. SMITE UNTIL VERY HOT AND LET COOL. DRINK ALL, INCLUDING TWIG. DO NOT SPEAK TO MOTHER.

When she finally managed to stagger into the kitchen, Magaera silently said a quick prayer as thanks for there still being hot water on the hearth. Hastily crushing the leaves and dropping them into a wooden cup, she looked around the temple kitchen watching the entrance carefully, hoping that Headmother Milgore wouldn’t discover her hiding place. Her biggest concern was that being in close proximity with another speaking creature might cause her head to explode from the pressure pounding inside her skull. She could imagine a jumble of words painfully bouncing around her brain, growing louder and louder with each rebound until she just popped. The noise of the city outside the temple windows were already grating to her senses and wracked the pain centers behind her eyes and ears - she wasn’t sure she could handle a high-impact aural beratement right now.

“Mag? Are you alright!”

Magaera nearly jumped out of her skin as a very round young woman waddled over to embrace the peppered cleric, a warm smile on her face. The newcomer’s human-sized protruding belly bonked into Magaera before the rest of her did, and she eventually settled on an awkward sideways hug.

Jules'sin Farrendove was a half-elf who stood slightly taller than Mag. A pair of gently pointed ears poked out from a tangle of curly black hair. Far from the dignified grace and appearance of a pure-blood elf, Jules – as her friends called her – had inherited the unruly locks from her human lineage at least two generations prior. With it also came a more bronzed skin tone than her elven heritage would naturally imply. She carried more muscle and definition than a slender elf her age would, though, in her current form, the bulkier aspects of her human side showed. Her grey robes struggled to contain her engorged and occupied stomach, her comparatively meager frame somewhat inadequate to support two people.

“Please keep your voice down.” Magaera replied, cradling her warm cup carefully as the taller woman's girth invaded her space. The intrusion had initially been unwelcome, but Jules unstoppable cheerfulness was a comfort against the tide of anxiety flooding Magaera’s mind.

She took a sip of her tea, contorting slightly to bring the cup to her face through the embrace of her sister. She slurped a small amount, hot liquid filling her mouth temporarily before-

Unpleasant strain wrinkled her face and she nearly spat the tea onto the floor. Blech, this is awful. Wiping the film off her tongue with her teeth, she wondered if swallowing it was at all advisable. Jules caught the disgusted look on her face - disgusted, yet immediately curious - and both girls looked over the lip of the cup inquisitively, as if to ask, “What is that?” It bubbled once, the twig bobbing among the ripples.

They shared a brief look, sniffing the air for the rank scent of the tea but surprisingly found nothing. It tasted like a slush of rotten grain and fat, yet emit no odor to indicate such. Only the faint smell of crusty bread from Mag’s hastily prepared breakfast lingered in the air.

Mag shrugged. Neither girl further broached the subject.

“Sorry. I'm just glad you are okay. Headmother told us you were attacked by bandits at an orphanage! I was so worried about you!”

I was? False news travels fast, I suppose. She slipped out of the hug without spilling any of the foul liquid, partially out of fear that it would burn a hole through the wooden floor, and partially because Mag worried that her angel would find out that she had wasted the gift. She held her nose and chugged the rest of the warmish remedy.

Clarity washed over her immediately. Her mind was free to think again without everything hurting. Magaera popped the twig into her mouth and chomped it into a manageable pulpy lump before swallowing. It tasted no better than the drink had, but she wasn't going to take any chances with her hangover panacea.

“So, what happened this morning?” Mag said, suddenly chipper. She nodded towards the bulge under Jules robe. “Are they going to be alright?”

“Oh- I, umm. It's Nils,” the half-elf explained nervously. Mag's heart almost leapt out of her throat.

Nils Rosen was a bushy haired blonde boy who had traveled with Magaera to Whitehaven five years prior. He wasn't a guard then - just happened to be on the same wagon - but he had gotten a job patrolling the city with Captain Dahlan three months ago. Since then, he'd been coming to the temple of Magen for relief from his practice injuries. He wasn't the only rookie from the guard who had been visiting the temple, but he and Magaera had built a rapport from their shared history.

She waved her hand like she were flagging down a carriage. “And before you ask, he's fine.”

“What happened?” Mag asked, concern filling her. Her friendship with Nils was important to her, and not being able to tend to him personally this morning caused a frustrated lump to form in her chest. His injuries had to be fairly severe to need internal healing.

“He told me he'd gotten a black eye, and like, other injuries, from a half-orc. But he had a pretty bad gash on his arm and he was, like, woozy. There weren't many of us here, and there was a group of imperials that needed more attention - they’re resting in the infirmary now. So yeah.” She spoke at a mile per minute, without a breath between thoughts.

“This was the best way to help everyone.” She patted the top of her stomach lovingly. “He’s fine, just sleeping now. I didn’t want to wake him.”

I should have been there. Seeing Nils under the care of her sister - not Alekta - comforted Magaera, if not inspired a bit of jealousy. Cured and fully awake, she was going to make up for her mistakes by working extra hard today.

“Miss Farrendove! Step away from that girl.” A grating voice shouted at them like a rolling boom of thunder. A solidly built elderly woman entered the kitchen, an aura of stern intimidation flooding the room. It unnerved the half-elf immediately, Jules hurdling straight up to the edge of jittery panic. She fled.

“Should be careful Jules - can’t be sure what you’ll catch from her.” Alekta sneered from Eda’s shadow as the stuffed woman scurried past without a word. The warmth in the room left with her.

“Magaera Runa.” Headmother Eda said the cleric’s name as though weighing it’s worth. She frowned, apparently finding it insignificant.

“Headmother.” Mag ducked her head sharply. Oh crap! I'm in so much trouble: missing evening prayer, shirking my chores this morning... getting drunk last night! Shit shit shi-

“Are you feeling better?”

Magaera answered on reflex. “Y-Yes, Mother.” Magaera kept her gaze downward, stumbling over her words slightly. Okay, I was not expecting that.

“I heard about your... little adventure last night. A woman showed up with your body in the middle of the night; I was afraid that something dreadful had happened.” She tapped steepled fingers together as she spoke. “She said something about a head injury, but your sister Alekta, couldn't find anything.”

Magaera roiled. The perfect Miss Winn was a fully initiated cleric of Magen, despite having been a disciple for less time than Magaera had been, and being two years younger. She was Eda's little pet who could do no wrong. The fact that she had been the one to check Magaera for injuries was offensive, but, despite her status as the golden child, the healing prayers and holy spells that the sisters practiced had a strict limitation: they could not affect the heart or the mind. There was no curative magic among Magen's repertoire which allowed them to repair mental or emotional damage, let alone detect it in others.

This fact gave Magaera a way out.

“It was a spell, Mother.” She said as politely as possible, keeping her voice straight. Eda knew the limits of the sisters' healing abilities – even her favorite couldn't broach the fortress of the mind.

Tch. The matriarch clicked her tongue. It was a dismissive regard for an answer that Milgore deemed unsatisfactory, one that Magaera had heard hundreds of times from the Headmother before. She handed down judgment upon Mag's performance at the temple like a madcap baron handing out execution sentences.

“And what of the orphanage... and the puppies?”

Orphanage? Puppies? What in the Eight Hells did I do last night? Mag averted her eyes from Milgore's gaze.

“The spell. I cannot recall.”

I am never drinking again.

Eda went silent for a long time. Magaera chanced a glance only to catch a wicked grin on her sister’s face. Alekta was thoroughly enjoying the reprimand.

Bitch.

“Miss Runa? What do you think my role is at this temple?” Eda finally spoke with carefully chosen words.

Magaera hesitated to answer, a decision which initially caused her to flinch. Being too slow to answer had led to verbal flogging in the past, but today Milgore was feeling benevolent.

“To guide our sisterhood as exemplars of the Martyr’s faith.”

Tch. “And you? What do you think your role is here?”

This answer she supplied immediately from memory. “To carry out Magen’s will.”

“And what is that will?”

“Protect the innocent and heal the sick and wounded. Share everything I have: food, shelter, patience, and compassion. Shoulder the burdens of those who revolt against greed.” The tenants Mag had abided for most of her life came to her swiftly, yet she struggled to remember the final burden.

Temple chores? Under Magen’s roof, communal cooking, cleaning, and upkeep was shared by all. They weren’t staunch warriors nor bulwarks against tyranny or anything so grand. Unlike his brothers, Magen’s mission was simple by comparison.

“Discard the yoke of material possession.” She said with finality.

Alekta muffled a derisive chuckle.

“And the last one, child? The one you seem so fond of ignoring.”

Crap. I'm dead. I’m dead. Milgore's going to excommunicate me and banish me to the streets. Alekta, you prissy bitch. Magaera shook as she answered. “Gifts from Elysium - Magen’s hallowed dwelling - are not for my own indulgence.”

The room was silent, crippling seconds passed as Magaera considered her fate. She had personally tended to many who lived in the worst parts of Whitehaven: the destitute, the drug-addled, the leprous. She had healed their afflictions, fed their malnourished bodies, shared the temple’s warm hearth during cold winter nights.

They would help her as she had them, right?

Tch. “You’ll do well to remember that, child,” she said with scorn. “We wouldn’t want you to stray again - there’s no temple that will take you now. Get to work - you are dismissed.”

The berating ended quickly without much damage to her ego, only leaving Magaera with some curiosity to Headmother’s particularly merciful behavior. Her every move was usually made with scrutiny, every practiced prayer criticized carefully. Before she’d even arrived in Whitehaven her bunk had been pushed into the corner of the sleeping area - as physically far away from the others as possible. Her sisters, save for Jules, rebuffed her attempts at companionship - even platonic advances. She had been marked, but the charitable nature of Magen didn't cause her life to be uncomfortable, merely occasionally lonely.

But she was out of the temple daily, meeting people, giving alms, and collecting donations to perpetuate the charity of her deity. She considered herself lucky to have the opportunity to meet many travelers. Injured soldiers and sailors that would thank her with stories of far away places and fantastical beasts and places that made her yearn for adventure. Merchants passing through the port would spill the secrets of economics and distant religions in exchange for medicines.

Whitehaven had been her home for five years now, it's vital spirit ebbed and flowed through her. She knew the locals who worked at the docks, the regulars among the merchants in the market district. She even knew some of the scoundrels and thieves in the city - one’s past behavior didn't matter to Magen. If one needed relief from pains, aches, or loneliness, the Martyr God would be there to help shoulder their burdens.

Magaera was put on Hara to help, and she was good at it.

The Redeemer, however, gave his followers no tools for determining if someone's pleas for help were genuine. So his disciples helped all, blind to race or creed. This occasionally led to temples of Magen to become the target of cons and deceptions, but most cities within the Saccrian Empire took extra steps to protect the do-gooders. Military and constabulary forces found themselves easy allies with the sisters and would often safe-vouch their integrity. Disciples of Tyv and Omlo - Magen's siblings among the Naarus gods in Elysium - also looked out for their 'younger sisters'.

Following the reprimand, Magaera set herself to catching up on her chores. Her monastic sisters took note of her and some dared to ask if she was uninjured after mentioning harrowing tales of bandits and orphanages. Already confused, Mag stuck to smiles and nods as she weathered their questions.

She found herself on the front steps of the temple, sweeping away the dirt and dust that the foot traffic of the city inevitably pushed around - like how a fussy child would push bitter greens to the far side of their plate - entirely lost in thought.

My lot is simple, safe. Simple devotion and compassion. I am so close to being fully initiated, and when I am, I’ll be able to go anywhere and help people. I know I’ll pass this time.

Everything I’ve ever known has been as a devotee of the kindest god in Elysium - so why do I want to run away from it all?

Her mind continued pondering as she swept the steps of the temple, Eda watching from her perch at the orator’s balcony.

Why wasn't I afraid last night? By all rights, I should have been terrified, but instead I was... determined? I felt determined to get away from that wizard, but then I felt... excited? It was like adrenaline invaded me from outside my body.

She ruminated on the thought deeply, searching her soul for answers. It was probably just my nerves kicking in. I was surprised, after all. That must have been it: I was just slow to recover from the shock.

At the same moment Magaera began to wish that she might go on another adventure, she saw an angel walking towards the steps of the temple, dark blue tunic laced across her torso and a plain white skirt dangling around her waist. Magaera blinked twice to confirm that she was awake, then shook her head in disbelief. Any doubt she had about the last night being a beautiful - albeit drunken - dream vanished.

"Miss Sorell! What are you doing here?" She called to the paladin and rushed down the temple steps to meet her. With the height advantage of two steps she could see eye-to-eye with the warrior.

The other woman curtsied. "Miss Runa."

Oh my goodness - she's mighty and adorable.

"Please, Mag is fine." She ran her hand nervously through her hair, twirling a red lock into a coil around her index finger. She was having trouble maintaining eye contact. She’s so good looking - even moreso in the light of day.

"I was running errands, and I walked by and thought of you, Mag. I wanted to make sure you weren't rattled after last night. Did you make the tea?"

"Ye- Yes. It was very… helpful, but, um... what exactly was it?" She curbed a line of questioning in regards to it’s foul flavor, not wanting to be rude to the woman who had rescued her from a morning of headache.

"Tastes awful, don’t it?” Keziah smirked as if it were a long running joke of hers. “Rearbs are ugly, gnarled trees - a favorite among apothecaries. They're useful for a lot of potions and tinctures, but the main reason they're sought after is the leaves: instant drunkenness cure. Not having to suffer through a hangover is worth quite a bit to a lot of people."

“Rearbs? I’ve never heard of them.”

"They grow way up north. The translation might be off... I believe Rearb is Dwarven for 'herbalist moneymaker'."

Mag cocked her head. "You speak Dwarven?"

A smirk flashed across Keziah's face. "A little." She held her hand horizontal at her waist to measure the height of an imaginary dwarf beside her.

Mag chuckled. "Oh! That is so rude!" Surprised that she’d laughed at the improper joke in the first place, she was relieved to see Keziah laughing along with her.

"Anyway, I'm glad you’re feeling better. Stay out of trouble from now on-"

Magaera's confidence surged. She stood tall and looked the warrior directly in the eyes.

Beautiful emerald eyes.

"Actually," she interjected, "I was wondering if I could come with you? Please, just for the day? I promise to stay out of your way."

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? Your handler’s been giving you the stink-eye this whole time.” Keziah nodded discreetly at the Headmother’s perch. “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”

Magaera dared not look back and betray the sudden confidence she’d gained. But then, understanding struck her like a shooting star. “You lied to her last night - something about orphans and puppies?”

Keziah nodded, a grin spread across the paladin’s face. She appeared to consider something for a brief moment, eyebrow raising slightly and her lips curling into a nascent devious smile.

"Headmother! I need to borrow your disciple again. It’s very important.” Keziah sang the words out cheerfully like a playful barroom jig. “Would that be alright?"

"Stop- Wha- What are you doing! I'm already in trouble. I shouldn't even be talking to you, I've got to make up for missing prayer this morn-"

Eda Milgore placed her arms akimbo and cocked her head. "Alright, but bring her back in the same condition this time." She called back merrily. Confusion spread across Magaera’s face.

"Of course! Thank you!" Keziah waved and put her arm around Magaera's shoulder. "Ready?"

Mag nodded and followed the woman towards the heart of Whitehaven, practically skipping like a child.

Keziah led the pair through busy streets of Whitehaven under the soothing afternoon sun. People and horses pulling wagons loaded with crops scrambled around the heavy foot traffic. More than once the duo had to wait for a line of timber stacked on carts to pass before being able to cross the busy cobble roads.

Her guide frowned and steered her into an alleyway. They ducked out of the bustle of the main roads and sidled their way between buildings. Keziah hummed a catchy tune as they traveled. It appeared to help her focus, and Mag found herself wanting to chase after the melodious music as much as she wanted to the illustrious woman.

"Miss Sorell? How did you get her to like you so quickly?" Mag asked sheepishly.

Keziah shook her head. "Hmm? Oh - the Headmother? That's a secret. Kez is fine, by the way. No need to be formal with me - I don’t bite." She seemed preoccupied as she answered, looking around as though she was trying to remember every nook and cranny of the city.

"Pardon my asking, Kez, but you are an adventurer, correct? Why haven't we met before?"

"Do you usually meet a lot of adventurers? Oh, of course - Magen offers free healing. And... Whitehaven is a port - you've probably met a lot of interesting people."

None like you.

Keziah continued. "Anyway, I'm not from here. Only been here about a month, but I was an adventurer, once upon a time."

"You seem to know your way around already." Magaera hoped the compliment wouldn’t go unnoticed.

"I'm good with directions. You learn to memorize indistinct landmarks quickly after living in a hut in the forest most of your life."

Magaera stayed behind the other woman as they walked up the steps of a cramped alleyway. She tried multiple times to discreetly catch a peek up Keziah’s skirt, to no avail.

"What brought you to Whitehaven?"

“This’ why I’m here.” Keziah stopped outside a rickety wooden door deep in the bowels of twisted alleyways between the buildings of the market sector of Whitehaven. A circle with meticulously fine chords drawn within had been painted on the door in thick black marks at about waist level, but otherwise gave no clue as to where the women were or what was beyond the door.

What I would give to catch a glimpse of her bare ass. If I were a queen, I'd give my entire kingdom just for a minute with my hands clenched firmly around-

"Do yourself a favor - don't touch anything unless given permission." Keziah warned.

Mag froze. Can she read my mind? Gods I hope not.

She followed the warrior beyond the threshold, arms stiffly at her sides, but was immediately struck by the heavy, malodorous atmosphere. A man with more beard than face sat at a counter littered with various bits and pieces of armor, weapons, and catalysts. The facial hair sprouting from above his lips was a thin silvery white. It flowed over the sides of his mouth like a neatly parted waterfall, splashing into the iron-ringed braids on his beard below. White whiskers cascaded into dull oranges before flaring into fiery reds at the very bottom of his well-kept beard.

“Aha, me favorite pain in the arse,” he said, sitting up in his chair.

“Ethaniel, tell your brother, Chello, that whoever is supplying his sleep powder needs to be paid more. I knocked out a whole room last night using the stuff. It’s damn potent.” She gently handed the thin-haired man behind the counter a small parchment with her shopping list.

The elderly dwarven shopkeep smiled, wispy white mustache curling. “Thank yeh, he’ll be pleased to hear yer praise.” He unrolled the note and inspected it. He nodded and stepped down from a hidden stool behind the counter. The dwarf became eclipsed from view by the littered tabletop as he puttered around the shop’s many shelves and step stools to collect the items on Keziah's shopping list.

“Speaking of that bookworm, is he available for a dweomeralysis? I've found something interesting that I need appraised.” She held a short, rune-inscribed brass pole in her hand.

An even older dwarf staggered out from the back of the shop. He walked with a cane in one hand, a lit smoking pipe in the other. A dainty pair of brass-rimmed spectacles hung around his neck by a fine silvery chain. The top of his head only came up to Keziah’s waist. His beard didn’t come close to rivaling the splendor of his brother’s, as it was significantly more disheveled and grey as if he had lived on a deserted island for a decade.

“Interesting, hmm? I am quite partial to interesting.” He spoke in a dry, gruff voice, like his mouth was perpetually lost in a desert. His mustache and thick grey eyebrows twitched like a caterpillar as he eyed the pole.

Mag perused the shelf of curiosities with her eyes as Keziah conducted her business. The warning she had been given earlier had rattled her. She took careful steps not to touch the potentially dangerous magic arsenal. The brothers kept the magical arms, armaments, and arcane tools at the front of the shop, closest to the counter where they did business. Mag figured the closer an item was to the back door of the shop the potentially more powerful it was. Why else would they put them so far behind the counter and entirely out of reach of customers?

The most dangerous artifacts hung on the frame of the door to the living space behind the counter. A smattering of short, polished wood rods hung from dozens of hooks and hangers. Magic wands - manicured branches that held the latent powers of possibly long-dead spellcasters. In the right hands, a wand was a deadly instrument of potent magic. In the wrong hands…

Mag shuddered to think of the stories she’d heard about savage wizards.

Hundreds of books and scrolls lined a shelf on the wall opposite the entrance. Keziah perused the texts while waiting for the dwarf, flipping quickly through the tomes. She was either a very fast reader, or she was searching for something specific. Mag continued her curious walk through the store, self-conscious about the amount of questions she’d asked her companion on the way over. She played the words over and over in her mind - had they been interesting enough to capture this Keziah’s attention?

She forced herself not to worry about it, carrying on with her visual tour of the wondrous shop.

On the longest wall of the cramped shop stood a series of shelves upon which hundreds - possibly thousands - of bottles rested in what appeared to be total disarray. There was no organization system that could possibly be applied to the scattered bottles. Stacked precariously atop each other in unsteady piles, leaning against the ancient shelves and one another for support, a kaleidoscopic array of variegated colors filled tiny, clear glass phials. Though many were simple tubes, the crystalline structures varied as much as the liquids they held. A small section of a high shelf had been dedicated to the most ornamental and fanciful containers. A crimson red liquid the color of rage sat inside a glass skull, filling it to the eye sockets; another inky black tincture filled an eight-pointed star-shaped glass vial as big as Magaera’s head. The longer she stared at it, the more it swirled like the night sky. She broke visual contact before she found herself lost in it's alluring void.

A nearly empty glass octahedral prism with an amber-gold liquid caught her eye. She gingerly lifted the phial from the shelf and watched a viscous bead of sticky liquid roll along the edge of the bottle towards the stopper. The globule disappeared behind her fingers like the setting sun.

"Curious isn't it?" A raspy voice whispered from behind her. Mag almost dropped the potion when Chello made his presence known.

"What is it?"

"Go ahead, lass, take a whiff.” He prompted her to uncork the bottle, a puff of sweet-smelling vapor escaping as she did.

“Focus on it, breathe it all in and really feel it,” he instructed.

She peered curiously at the vessel. Prayers at her temple required long periods of silent introspection, so Mag found it easy to dim her other senses and focus solely on the potion’s sight and smell. The presence of Chello, Keziah's conversation with his brother, the cooler air inside the shop that was slowly escaping through the door, the distant noise of the city beyond the window - all background sensations fell away from her.

Within the void, a small warmth grew, unobtrusive. Effortless and wordless, it surrounded her slowly like a blossoming light. She wanted to lose herself in the dreamy aura.

"I feel... It feels like spending a night under the stars besides a campfire... far away from home. Like picking wildflowers with a best friend."

The old dwarf murmured in wordless agreement. Magaera opened her eyes. "What is it? What does it do?"

"It be a love potion."

"Out of a faerie tale?" Magaera eyed it suspiciously, holding the bottle at arm’s length.

"Don’t yeh be worried, it’s inert righ’ now. And its effects ain’t permanent - it’s more a charm, aye.’

She swirled the scant liquid around the bottom of its container, watching it stick to the inside. "Why did you ask me to focus on it?"

He shrugged, beard bobbing gently. "It’s different for everyone. Wanted ‘nother datapoint."

"What do you see when you look at it?"

He sighed. "I don’t - it stirs up things that are best left to rest."

"That'll happen if you live long enough. It stops bringing out happy thoughts and instead evokes bittersweet memories," Keziah chimed in. Magaera hadn't seen her approach. She wore a somber look on her face as she and Chello studied one another. "Didn’t think you were that old - a malaxel - Chello Stonesinger."

Magaera caught his face twist slightly upon hearing his native tongue, a constrained scowl appearing amongst the forest of wizened whiskers for an immeasurable moment. It disappeared like a flash of lightning.

Keziah didn’t press him further. “Well, thanks for the supplies. I’ve got other errands to run.”

“Aye, best you leave now. Come back tomorrow. I’ll have identified it by then,” the old man harrumphed as he shuffled away.

The land Whitehaven currently occupied, as the legend goes, was once home to a mad bestial tyrant, a being known today as the Stag King. He was supposedly descended from giants, his head adorned by an impressive pair of gnarled, branching antlers sprouting three feet from his head. His kingdom covered the region well beyond Whitehaven’s walls and surrounding countryside. Upon it, he constructed a great castle, a sprawling cityscape of stone and mortar for himself, his fearsome wife, and countless slaves and servants.

Legend holds that he balked the influence of the gods during the First Age, and that his arrogance was his ultimate downfall. Once mortals began to spread out from the safety of their hovels in the Saccra, the hegemony of the Sacrrian Empire pushed up violently against his territory. Though humanity seemed to be reinforced by their gods, the Stag King held his ground fiercely until one day his mother set the palace aflame in a bout of pious madness.

The Realm of the Stag burned for an entire year. Acrid smoke spread to the rim of Hara, soot from the pyroclasm reaching as far as the Northern Isles. His people fled into the southern wastes to join with any beastmen tribes that would shelter the refugees, but Mad Stag, as the locals liked to call him, stayed in his keep, refusing to surrender his palace.

When the fires had finally gone out, when the last cinders returned to ash, Saccrian mortals found the land entirely uninhabitable. So it sat for generations until a wayward druid sank the entire kingdom early in the Second Age. Mulched and revitalized, the land was quickly inhabited and pioneering mortals laid the foundations of Whitehaven on the charred ruins of the Stag Realm. The docks were the first to be constructed, but afterward, on the elevated courtyard, once a hanging garden who’s timbers were among the first of the King’s realm to burn away, people had built a marketplace. The supports for flora were rebuilt and trussed canopies set up to keep the blackened stones cool during the day. This area of Whitehaven had come to be known as the Black Market.

The irony of such a name was not lost on the city’s inhabitants. For years it had been the prime center of criminal activity, cutpurses and thieves running rampant. Brigands found it easy to evade the meager city watch by escaping into the numerous entranceways into the old burnt city below, only to be seen again in another area of Whitehaven making off with more stolen coin.

Not long ago, however, an endowment had come from the recently installed Baroness Nightengale's estate for new arms, armaments, and fresh manpower to bulk up the security of Whitehaven. The newest regent apparently had her own ideas about how Whitehaven's law enforcement should be executed. It, being the city within the empire with the most transient population, required an extra strong enforcement, lest undesirable criminal elements run amok in Saccrians southern port of entry.

The sun had passed its zenith for the day, and the market below was still bustling from the morning’s activity. Keziah moved from stand to stand as she replenished her spellcasting supplies with various catalysts and components. She sold off some of the loot she’d obtained the night before in a flurry of barters and deals with merchants at their collapsible wooden stands. Magaera followed along, asking questions about the things she bought and what they were to be used for. She seemed particularly fascinated with the bartering process, and would watch with a look on her face that told Keziah that she was making mental notes of how to make a deal.

Magaera followed as they bartered and bargained their way across the Black market towards a tailor shop. In it’s windows, draped across wooden rods and hangers, fanciful dresses danced for passing customers. Kez caught a bug-eyed, awe-struck look on Mag’s face before leading her inside. The girl nearly squealed, fawning over the delightful adornments.

"Welcome to my shop. How may I help you?" A sharply dressed man asked. He teetered out from the corner of the shop where his sewing projects laid in states of partial completeness. His oversized features moved gracefully between the wooden stands where fineware hung on display, thick green-gray skin occasionally brushing against soft fanciful fabrics.

"An orc tailor?" Mag whispered privately.

Keziah nodded. "Don't judge - he's the best clothier in the city."

He lifted a tiny pair of spectacles from his eyes and let them rest on his scrunched brow. Slicked back, neatly combed and manicured hair rested atop his head and curled comfortably behind rugged, gnarled ears.

"Would you be so kind as to appraise this for me? " Keziah produced the stolen jeweled dress from her bag and held it aloft. The orc eyed the maroon fabric curiously, his face lighting up at the challenge, yet visibly restrained himself from reaching out to grab it.

"It is damaged." He stated with a tinge of pain in his voice, like he was observing an open wound on his own body. "Silk - very flexile. From where did you procure it?" He eyed her suspiciously.

"Merchant sold it to me for cheap ‘cause of the tear. I want to fix it if it turns out to be worth anything. Would you be interested?"

The orc thought about her offer, smile returning to his face. He asked the woman's pardon for a moment while he searched his supplies for a matchable material.

"Can you really fix it?" Mag asked.

"With the right materials and a spell, I'm pretty sure I can. You already have some apparent magical aptitude: I can teach you, if you'd like." she offered. The cleric nodded emphatically.

I wonder if that's how I looked when Sybil offered to teach me, Keziah thought.

The tailor returned a moment later with a swatch of dull silk cloth. It was the wrong color, but it appeared to be exactly the same material as the dress in Keziah's hand.

"Will this be enough to repair the gown?" He asked through a toothy smile.

"Yes, that'll do nicely. And a gold needle, too, if you'd please."

"I take it that you'll buy this if everything turns out satisfactorily?"

The orc nodded. "After the cost of materials, I'll pay six gold, up to eight, depending on your skill."

“Ten if it’s as good as new.” She countered.

”Deal.”

It's my lucky day. Keziah tried not to let her excitement interfere with the upcoming spell. She bundled the swatch of off-color silk and fastened it with the gold needle in her left hand. In her right she held the dress with the damaged portion near her thumb. She focused, reaching out with her second sense for the Mantle. It’s mystic weave shivered as she mentally prepared, eagerly anticipating the ripples of the spell focused on her mind. She sang softly, the tune helping her channel the arcane energy from the aether. The materials in her left hand melted away into grey, industrial energy. As she waved the power over the damaged dress very carefully. She filled her mind with an overwhelming sense of wholeness, focusing on the desired outcome: a complete, undamaged garment.

The orc inspected the cloth when she was finished. He carefully returned the gold needle to a small jar, then reached for a sack of coins. The tailor counted out the full amount of coins - Keziah watching him with silent excitement upon seeing his reach for a tenth gold coin.

Realization struck her. “Keep that.” She said suddenly. He looked at her apprehensively, the last coin grasped in his meaty fingers. “In exchange, can you tell me where it’s from?”

He nodded, content with the new deal. “This silk is harvested from giant spiders. Something my tribe was very good at - or so I’ve heard.” He studied the pristine dress, admiring the quality. Keziah could almost see his eyes turn to a stack of gold coins much higher than the one in her palm.

“Aye! Get back here, ya’ git!”

A shouted threat blasted from a throng of people crowded around a jeweler’s stand. A teenage boy popped out from under a large woman’s dress in a tumble. He toppled a stand of vegetables as he fled, onions spilling everywhere. He shoved an elderly couple from his path before pivoting.

A guard escaped from the same mess of people a moment later, shoving and swearing in a thick northern accent, her helmet bobbing on her head on the verge of flying right off. On her heels, a harried merchant followed, clumsily dancing over the fallen veggies.

The boy sprinted towards Keziah, shoulder down at ramming speed. She feigned bracing herself before intentionally stepping into his path, catching the fleeing man with an extended arm. He ducked too late and ran into her outstretched forearm, clotheslining himself, collapsing painfully to the ground with a rasp. He wheezed. A coin purse plopped to the ground with a metallic jingle.

His pursuers scurried to catch up with the fleeing boy. The guardswoman stomped through the mess - much to another merchant's dismay - before stopping in front of Keziah and Magaera. Keziah lifted the young man from the ground and held him aloft by the back of his collar.

"Ma'am!" the guardswoman saluted. She stood upright and adjusted her helmet to fit snugly over her vast curls as though she were about to have her armor inspected.

Keziah waved her off. "Stop that - I'm not your captain.” The guard relaxed slightly, armor clinking as she settled into a more comfortable posture.

“Did you lose something, Corene?" Keziah asked, the young man flailed in her grip like a cat that didn't want to be picked up. She wedged her foot under the bag of money and kicked it up into the air. Corene grabbed it, relieved, and returned it to its proper owner.

"Thief! Whatay've you say for yarself?" Corene demanded of the boy. She stared at him with determination. He spat at her, missing terribly, and feebly swung an arm in her direction.

"I'm placing ya' undah' arrest for thievin'!" The guard barked at him, grabbing his feet and binding them with a short length of rope. Immediately after, she took them into her mouth, and set to swallowing the thief's legs whole as efficiently as she could. He disappeared, trousers and all down her gullet, and she was engulfing his hips before he started to protest verbally.

Keziah restrained his arms long enough for Corene to gulp them down, before releasing her hold on the young man. The guard was slow to eat him, but the paladin didn't want to be caught in the process. Once she was a safe distance, she could watch the armor plates down the front of Corene's suit shift and slide away as her form beneath expanded to accommodate her impending prisoner. When she was done, the guardswoman adjusted her armor, her brow furrowed in tight focus as she adjusted the straps and displaced plates. Once everything was in its proper place, she took a moment to appreciate the living swell in her midsection..

The armor had been a recommendation from Keziah, based on suits she'd seen - and worn herself - during the Second Age crusades against bestial hordes. It’s make was that of a standard platemail for the appendages, however the suit strayed from the original design along the front of the torso. Where a solid metal plate usual sat to protect the vital organs of the wearer, instead rested dull floating, overlapping iron plates. When closed, the plates created a bulwark against incoming attacks, however with adequate pressure from within, they would reconfigure to allow sudden expansion without the hassle of removing one’s armor.

A few people from the crowd stopped to watch Corene close her lips over the top of the thief's head. When she took the final swallow, the onlookers returned to their bartering, the show over. This wasn't an unusual sight in Whitehaven, as this method of temporarily detaining criminals was as old as the Saccrian Empire itself.

Mag had already begun cheerfully helping the merchant round up the stray onions, as though it was her habit to be overly helpful. She crawled on her hands and knees herding the produce, brushing off the accumulated debris from rolling around the charred stone floor of the marketplace.

But watching Corene, Keziah could tell that she had little experience operating with the extra load in her midsection. She frowned while watching the stuffed guard struggle to bend over and help with the produce collection. The bulge in her midsection squirmed relentlessly as she went about the task and nearly toppled her on more than one occasion.

That won't do, she can’t pick up onions, let alone defend herself in that condition. I’m going to need to get the female guards to practice, a smile spread across Keziah’s face, maybe with some of the male guards. The question is, who needs the extra attention?

"Thanks fer ya’ help, ma’a- Ke- Miss Sorell."

"You're welcome. How long until your shift ends?"

"Until sunset - so weh've a while to get 'quainted." She said, patting her stomach gently with a gloved hand. "Should be fun though - an’ good practice for meh', like ya' always sayin’."

Corene covered her mouth and belched. The occupant of Corene’s engorged stomach thrashed and struggled fiercely. She pounded a fist against it, childing it’s occupant. “Aye! That wer’ a compliment, ya git!”

“See ya’ for trainin’ tomorrow!” Corene waved the women farewell.

“Where to next?” Mag asked as Kez led her out of the Black Market and through the warehouse district. They carried onwards until the skyline caught a chance to breathe, free of dense, urban sprawl. Without mortar and timber to obfuscate it, the vast ocean became visible as they wandered towards open piers, and to the docks.

Most of the fishermen had already gone home for the day, but the ones that had remained behind indulged her questions. She first asked if any had seen the wizard from last night, and then honed in more specifically about anyone who recently bought a single eel - all to no avail. After a dozen inquiries with the fishmongers, Keziah had just about given up.

“Why do you keep asking about eels?” Mag chimed in, leading them towards the back of a four story residence.

“I thought I recognized a spell that our wizard friend cast last night - one of the components is bits of eel. It needs to be fresh, so I’m trying to find out if anyone remembers her.” Keziah shrugged, following the cleric up a set of stairs, waving to a smiling child inside the home watching their ascent. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see! So, the spell needs an eel? How does that work?” Mag asked, shuffling excitedly up the sloped roofs of the house.

How does it work? That’s an extremely complicated question. What do you know about magic, Miss Ru- Mag?”

The cleric thought about it for a moment, sitting herself on a flat portion of the roof. “Magic exists on Hara because the gods allow it to exist. Deities grant holy spells to chosen followers from their own pool of power, which is replenished through worship. By abiding to a deity's particular ritualistic requirements for worship, and by embodying traits, ideologies, and attributes, the most devout mortals are granted holy spells. The most intense spells are only castable by a few select people - those deemed the most loyal or worthy to channel such divinity. We often call these practitioners clerics, although priests and paladins also fall under this purview. There are nuanced differences between these roles which vary from religion to religion.” She recited, beaming.

Keziah nodded approvingly. “Yeah, you’ve got the gist of it - the gods, basically, pick their favorite mortals and impose their will on Hara through those seneschals. Compared to other types of magic, ‘holy’ spells are not truly spells, they’re... more like conjurations. Or a conduit for a deity's power.

“That’s all pedantic nonsense - most people call them holy spells for the sake of simplicity . And they’ve been around since there have been both gods and people to worship them.”

“The second oldest kind of magic is practiced by bestial shamans, though some say that the fey were the ones to pioneer what we know as ‘natural’ or ‘primal’ magic. Some cultures worship nature as a god, but the world around us is more aptly described as the ‘being of Hara’. It’s essentially the embodiment of the trees, the earth, the sky, the oceans - and all the energies that bind these things together. It’s the breath of life imbued into all living beings.”

“Are you saying the whole world is a single living being?” Mag asked, skeptical.

“Hmm. I wouldn’t say that Hara itself is alive. The oldest fey have thought about it for nearly a millennium and couldn’t give me a straight answer about what Hara is.” She shrugged, her ignorance not bothering her in the least.

“The fey? You’re talking about faeries and spirits and the like, right?”

“Among other creatures, yes.”

“You’ve… talked to them?”

“Yes.”

Mag shook her head. “Okay, sorry - this is a lot to take in all at once.”

Keziah nodded, waiting a moment for the cleric to catch up. She proceeded a pinch slower. “Anyway, ‘primalists’ know how to manipulate Hara to do their own will. It, unlike holy magic, doesn’t require any particular belief - a caster makes a material bargain with nature according to an obscure and fluid set of rules - as nature is willing to make a deal with anyone willing to pay its price.”

“What does primal magic cost?” Magaera asked.

“Depends on what the caster is trying to do. For instance, by slaughtering a goat and burying it’s remains in the right place, at the right time, a shaman could gain the favor of nature itself, perhaps as a burst of impossible strength, shape-shifting abilities, or a season-long bountiful harvest. True dragons, when they were still around, were supposedly masters of this kind of magic.”

“Sometimes primal magic is more mundane and doesn’t need a specialized practitioner. You plant a seed in a field, water it, nurture it, and it one day comes to nurture you. Is that not magical? Certainly, yes, but we mortals - humans, dwarves, elves, orcs - don’t get much say in the matter.”

“So, where does that leave us mortals?” Mag asked, a tinge of curiosity in her voice.

Keziah smiled. “We mortals are endowed with a spectacular gift: we can shape the world around us. Imagine: a farmer works his fields, fertilizing and sowing seeds. We’ve turned otherwise uninhabitable areas into sustained agricultural havens and works of art. But, this comes at a price: the farmer needs animals to pull the plow, time to separate the produce from the chaff. He must keep a healthy diet to remain in good enough shape to mold his small slice of the world.”

“With arcane magic, the third and final type, humanity can cheat. Instead of waiting for the sun to rise or burning oil inside a hooded lantern, light can be created ex nihilo. Heat, fresh water, fire - all can be made without costing anything more than the moments needed to speak the words and make a few gestures with mundane components like the wing of a bat or a pinch of salt.”

“Plus a whole lot of willpower. All magic takes a toll on you, mentally and physically - but arcane is, by far, the most exhausting.”

“Magic isn't exactly free, but it's costs are incongruent with it's outcomes. Arcane magic is the ongoing triumph of mortals. We continue to experiment and develop new ways of making more and better magic. All our efforts, however, are to imitate the divine functions of reality, and as such, a lot of arcane magic ends up looking like holy or primal magic.”

The cleric asked, “What do you use?”

“I started by learning primal magic first, so my roots lie there. But I learned holy magic after my childhood, and then arcane magic after. I’d like to think I use the spells I know from each school effectively, but there is always more to learn. I’m certainly no master of any.”

When the basic lesson on magic was over, Keziah waited patiently while her companion processed the litany of information. They watched sailors climb aboard a ship for half an hour, Keziah telling stories about her past travels. She didn’t divulge any of the really juicy stuff, but Magaera clung to every tale with childlike wonder.

Over the course of an hour, they bore witness as the sailors stowed an uncountable number of barrels and crates. It wasn’t clear who was in charge of the operation until

"Raise the anchors ya' sea dogs! Playtime's over! Quit diddlin' yerself, pull up yer' trousers yeh bastards - we're setting off!" A gruff woman towered over her crew as she barked orders at them. Her prominent, orcish jaw vacillated as she yapped instructions to her underlings, all of whom were already moving in anticipation of the tasks at hand. They scurried about the deck of the modest ship with practiced ease.

Keziah sat beside Magaera on the edge of the rooftop. The younger woman watched with fascination as the vessel slowly pushed away from the dock it had been parked. The waves rippled in the wake of the boat, ebbing gently onto the rocky shore below the wooden planks of the docks.

"Isn't it majestic?" The redhead said as though it was the first time she'd ever seen a boat. She sighed, staring into the horizon. "The gold of the setting sun against the waves, the promise of adventure. Enchanting nights on the ocean; it's all so romantic."

Keziah nodded. Who am I to ruin her enjoyment? She began to hum to align herself. Once she was confident she wouldn't botch the song, she sang a dwarven creation hymn she'd learned when she was a child.

Inside nonexistence, I know too well.

All directions and potentials, belong to me.

In solitude, I measure out the edge of Hara.

I forge my flesh, the horizons.

I forge my wisdom, the depths of oceans.

I forge my strength, a dome all-heavens wide.

The red of iron, my veins.

The blue of steel, my bones.

The glimmer of gold, my heart.

Brother to the fire, I am.

Sister to the sky, I am.

Smith to the Lifegiver, I am.

I am the forger of land.

It is my haven, it has my shape.

It is my masterwork, envy of gods.

When she had finished, a half dozen people below had gathered. They stared up at her, eagerly expecting more. One looked like they wanted to drop a copper at her feet, which was impossible given that they were dangling off the roof. She shooed them away with the wave of a hand. Shows over, get out of here.

"That was lovely. Where did you learn to sing like that?" The cleric had broken her gaze from the horizon at some point during the performance.

"I learned when I was growing up in Wincardine. My adopted mother taught me." Keziah explained. She braced herself for the inevitable questions that answer always brought on.

Sure as the setting sun, Magaera look at her quizzically. Keziah watched with indifference as the pieces snapped together in the girl’s expression. "You really were telling the truth last night." Keziah nodded, letting her continue. Mag looked awestruck. "You are a genuine worshipper of Loaris... You must have been born during the Second Age, no?"

"I was, yes. But, Loaris hasn’t been too keen on answering my prayers since he was… smitten."

"You'd be over two hundred years old!" She tilted her head, looking at Keziah's ears hidden under gold hair. "You can't possibly be human. You're not an elf, but, even then, two hundred would be a stretch. Are you fey?"

Keziah laughed. "Nope, I don't think so."

"Adopted mother... are you trying to tell me you were raised by the Fey Witch, Sybil?" Mag's eyebrows raised curiously.

Her mind dredged up a thought. The curiosity, the longing - remind you of anyone, Keziah?

She shrugged. "That's what I'm saying. You don't have to believe me - most people don't until I start singing songs as old as Hara. But even that doesn't prove anything."

"No, I- You look good for two-hundred." Mag blushed.

Keziah laughed again. "Thanks! Time passes a little differently in the fey realm. I don't really remember much of it, I feel maybe... twenty five? Old enough to drink Dahlan under the table, that's for sure. But not old enough to be that grouchy."

They went quiet for a long moment, watching the sunset. "Thanks for bringing me up here, Mag. It's a beautiful spot, but I think it’s time we take you hom-"

A chill raced down Keziah’s entire being. The sudden, frigid warning that she had been seeking for the past month. It was here. Her daemon-sense screamed potential danger at her from all directions. Her stomach churned. She looked around frantically, instinctively reaching for the weapon that was not on her back. Every nerve in her body lit up, trembling, all reporting the same thing: something wicked this way comes.

“Are you alright?” Mag’s small voice asked with great concern.

And just like that, the sensation was gone like a puff of smoke from a pipe. Godsdamnit. My daemon-sense is degrading. I can’t even be sure if that was real.

Even if it was, I can’t involve this girl.

“Yeah, fine. Let’s get out of here.”

A gold coin dropped onto the table where the night watch sat. It thunked against the wood and rolled over splayed playing cards in front of the man, who put his hand over it to stop it from rolling off the table. Tonight, that man was Nils. Keziah knew the bushy haired blonde rookie well at this point - and this hadn't been the first time she'd snuck into the guardhouse in the middle of the night. Thom and Nils were usually tasked with watching the prisoners, the boys opting to take turns between the night shifts and the day.

He looked up at her, toying with the coin between his fingers. "The witch hasn't said a word."

"Skip your next walkthrough." Keziah said quietly.

His lips pursed, a slight frown forming at one corner of his mouth. "You don't have to bribe us, ma'am. We trust you."

"Nils Gilden, you're young; this is how the world works. I pay you for the illicit trouble I cause and, when the time comes, you turn on me to protect yourself from punishment, never once mentioning the coffer you've built up from our exchanges. No amount of coin or trust will change that."

“I’m Nils Rosen, Thom’s surname is Guil-

He looked like he was about to protest further, but Keziah waved him off. "Nils, just buy your girl something pretty, okay? I’ll only be an hour at most."

"Yes ma'am." He smiled and slid the coin into a compartment on his uniform with practiced ease. He held the keys out for her to take, his eyes returning to the playing cards in front of him, trying to puzzle out his next move against an imaginary foe.

She snatched the keys and added, "and quit calling me ma'am - makes me feel old."

The hall was dark and mostly empty. The non-violent and disorderly criminals spent their short stays to themselves. They might have been sleeping, or might not have been, but they knew enough to keep their heads down as Keziah passed by the dingy cells. The bandit she had injured was asleep and didn't look like he'd be waking any time soon. She passed him and made her way to the end of the hall. A soggy man sat in another cell. He was the same thief that Corene had apprehended earlier in the day. He slept on the stone cot and didn’t stir at her presence.

All the adjacent cells were empty from the one where she was being kept. Keziah planted herself on the floor a foot from the bars, cross-legged. She waited silently. The witch remained frozen, locked in place by nerves of steel.

Keziah drew a circle on the ground with her magic ink spell. It circled around her and extended into the cell, a chain of runes dancing playfully within its rings. She crushed a small green gemstone and sprinkled the dust around the circle, followed by a pinch of her own blood. Then she waited.

After sitting in silence for ten minutes, she finally spoke up. "I know you’re awake. I'm not leaving until we talk."

Gray eyes sparkled in the moonlight. A shiver went down Keziah’s spine, unaware how long the wizard had been staring back at her or how she hadn't noticed the change. The eyes flickered towards the rune on the ground.

"You know what this is. Let's get this over with already. I paid good money for the components and if I wasted them on you, I'll kick your ass again."

The witch carefully studied the arcane symbols on the ground before crawling off the cot. The metal chains on the collar clinked quietly. She'd been issued rags in lieu of her previous regal attire. Seeing her on her knees, collared and in rags, Keziah couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy.

“Who are you?” Keziah asked

...

Keziah shook her head. This wasn't going to be that easy.

“Why a mnemonic theft spell? Surely there are easier ways to get both information and a meal.”

The wizard’s voice called out from the void, soft as a whisper, created from the magic within the rune. “Taking information is more reliable than asking for it. You will get nothing out of me like this.

Keziah rolled her eyes. “Why are you in Whitehaven?”

The magic mouth spoke again on behalf of the wizard. “I heard the food was delicious. I thought I'd visit.”

“Did you bring anything else with you?”

That caught her attention. Her eyes flickered. “We’re done here.”

Keziah’s arm shot between the bars as the wizard began to lift her hand from the magic circle. She pushed her wrist against the stone blocks, hard, the other woman squirming to break free. Her rags shuffled in the struggle, falling from her shoulders, revealing a mottle of green-black scales spreading down her arms and back.

“Release me!”

“What did you summon!”

A claw slashed at Keziah’s arm, she twisted away and retreated from the cell. The witch scrambled away, clenching her wrist. She resumed her spot on the bed - Keziah knew there was nothing more she would be able to get from the witch tonight. She scrubbed the magic circle from the floor with a wave of her hand and swept the used components into an abandoned jail cell.

There’s something evil lurking in this city - I’m sure of it now.