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The Witch of the Rotten Borough, Chapter Seven, Part One

by Horisun


Author's Note: I decided to split this chapter in two because it was obscenely long, lol

Jo can’t pick out which staggering behemoth is King’s Mountain. The height of each cliff is ludicrously oversized, and ever more apparent when they stand nestled in it’s foothills, like ants hovering at the base of a castle- but what nature has wrought here dwarfs anything manmade.

The sun has not risen above the mountains when they wade through the tall grass to the abandoned well, where Angelique and her party of twelve wait for them.

She raises a brow at the gun hitched to Oscar’s side. “That’s a fine Ignis you have there,” she says.

An Ignis is an enchanted weapon mass produced during the war. Pulling the trigger ignited a small spark that- through a combination of mechanical and literal wizardry- activated a series of spells that did a myriad of deadly things, depending on the make. Oscar’s, as it happened, was the rather explosive variety. He smiles. “I had the runes polished just for this.”

“My grandfather had a gun like that,” Angelique says, “he was a veteran. Used to keep it above the mantle and tell me all sorts of stories about the monsters he shot dead. It’s almost a comfort that Susie stole it. Almost.”

Oscar’s eyes widen, and his hand flies to touch the gun.He had considered not bringing it, considering it weighed practically as much as he did. He shakes his head in disbelief, “But she can’t possibly know how to use it.”

“Aye, but that’s where your wrong,” Angelique says with a wry smile, “that was one of the last things grandpappy did before we buried him; teach her how to fire the damned thing.”

Oscar sucks in a breath, but Jo cuts in, “Is that why you think she’s alive? Because your gun is missing?”

Angelique drums her fingers against her folded arms while she thinks. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” she says. “Either Susie stole the gun to slay the dragon herself; or she happened to be taken, and we’ve got someone else with sticky fingers back home.” Guilt reshapes the features of her face, “If I’d noticed it was missing sooner, I could have gone after her.”

“Your sister has an awful lot of confidence in her capabilities,” says Jo, “surely there’s more to the story?”

“That’s just how Susie is,” Angelique levels her a cool, defiant glare, “Mama always said there was too much space left between her ears; I call her my little dreamer. She was angry about the dragon. Properly so, and not in the way the rest of us were. She didn’t want to wait for the duke to send for a witch.”

Jo squashes the itch to correct Angelique again, like a particularly pretentious bug beneath her heel. She clears her throat and asks, “Why didn’t Monsbury summon for us immediately?”

“Barnes wanted to, but the duke wouldn’t let him. I’m under the impression that Mons has something on Fitzgerald. Something that keeps him in line with whatever the manor wants. As for why the duke didn’t want word to reach you…” she shrugs, “But it’s not like that matters anymore.”

Jo wants to keep pressing, but she shakes her head and let’s the matter slide. “Very well, then. What’s the plan for how we’re going to get up there?”

Angelique shifts her weight as the subject changes, “We’re taking the Rat’s Mouth trail up the Eastern side of the mountain. It’s slow going, but simple enough terrain. It’s the path Susanne would’ve followed. I took her on a hunting trip there a few years ago, for it’s an easy hike. From there, we pick up her path.” she says.

“And when-” Jo decides to leave the if unsaid, “-you find her, what of us?”

“You’ll be on your own- I made that clear to you two days ago. Unless you can find someone among our company to take you all the way. But I’ll tell you right now, there’s no one else crazy enough to go further than the Overlook. You might be able to weasel your way into getting a guide just past there, with a little extra coin... but I wouldn’t count on it.”

Jo scowls, but knows she’s right.

“I’ll lend you a map and supplies,” offers Angelique, “It’s a two-day climb, extremely strenuous; but nothing you fine folks shouldn’t be able to handle.”

“Fine.” Jo adjusts the pack on her back, which has begun to slide from her shoulder.

Angelique raises a brow, but turns around and begins to walk, her back fading into the shadows. She calls to the small encampment, “All ready? Let’s move.” And there, with the discipline and haste of a trained battalion, the group sets rapidly towards the mountains. Jo and Oscar scramble to their senses, and without so much as a word, race after them.

-

It is winter, but the leaves on the trees are eye-scorching shades of bloody orange. Add to that the sun’s rays piercing the mountain peaks, and waterfalling down their sides, and Jo is left with the distinct feeling that the world is on fire.

It is a hot, sticky, smoky, uphill climb. Far away from the smoldering remains of the Peterson’s farm, the smoke is less profuse. But Jo still notices her breath hiccupping, catching on itself, in out in out in out in out. Or perhaps she is more out of shape then she thought.

At the very least, Oscar suffers right alongside her. His face is beet red, and his arms wobble from the weight of his pack. The rest of the group blaze ahead of them, ploughing through hill after hill with the strength and endurance of oxen. Angelique leads the charge- carrying twice the weight, and covering twice the distance.

“Damnit,” Jo hisses through gritted teeth, as Oscar stumbles to a stop.

“I’m sorry,” he says, panting, placing both hands on his knees, “I just… need… to catch my breath. You… go on without me.”

Jo’s eyes drift to the distant mountaintop- which Angelique begrudgingly pointed out to her as their destination. Fotia seems to splice the sky in two, teasing them, in it’s hulking monstrosity.

“Give me your pack, you’ll travel easier without it.”

Oscar looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t have the energy to do it. He let’s his pack slide off his shoulder, and Jo catches it before it hits the ground.

She grunts from the added weight, but forces herself to take a step forward; one foot in front of the other.

-

At the top of the steepest hill yet, Angelique waits; her foot drums impatiently against the frozen ground.

“You’re slowing us down,” she informs them, watching as they scramble over the final incline.

“We know.” Jo snaps. Oscar lowers himself carefully onto a fallen tree, his face flushed with exhaustion, and with shame.

“I agreed to help you under the assumption that you wouldn’t be a burden.” Her voice lacks accusation, only a deep, soul-crushing disappointment.

The strap of the Oscar’s pack digs into Jo’s shoulders, stopping blood pumping like a tourniquet would. She shifts. “Neither of us have much experience in the mountains.”

Angelique laughs, “Well, then, I have sorry news…” Fotia is a dark halo above her head, blocking the setting sun. Her smile fades and she places her hands on her hips. “Not far ahead is a is a bugbird territory. Last summer we counted about two hundred nests- they should be in the beginnings of hibernation, but it’s best we don’t test that theory, and stick together- can the two of you keep up?”

“Bugbirds?” Oscar’s voice is a rasp.

“Why haven’t you eradicated them, per the post-war commandment?” Jo asks.

Angelique shrugs, her shoulders reaching her ears, disinterest plastered across her face. “They’re great pollinators,” she says, “and their bite hurts like hell.”

Jo rubs the base of her neck, where a small, white scar lies beneath her shirt; she knows firsthand how true that is. She is aghast at Monsbury’s apathy to fae- even the more benign sort- living on their doorstep. But given the present circumstance, she can’t quite bring herself to care.

“Very well, then. We’ll keep pace.”

-

A merciful woman, with warning orange hair and strong arms takes Oscar’s pack from Jo. Her name is Amy Rose. Her help runs at the hefty price of small conversation, but Jo is too exhausted to bother bartering.

But regardless, she is unlike most people Jo has become acquainted with in Monsbury thus far: gentle, softspoken, and terribly blunt, she speaks without abandon, “There mustn’t be many hills in Sol,” observes Amy Rose, “The two of you haven’t got the legs for this.”

“No,” Jo agrees, startled into a breathy laugh, “Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in myself.”

“Don’t worry. A couple more hills, and you’ll your feet beneath you.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence.”

“Not at all,” says Amy Rose, smiling, “Anyone with the gumption to bring down a wyrm should absolutely have the willpower to see through this hike.”

Jo doesn’t know why she’s surprised, “You know about that?”

“That’s right.” They crest over the top of the hill, Amy Rose beating her by several feet, but stopping to wait all the same. “Word travels remarkably fast in Monsbury. Believe it or not, Doctor, we’ve all staked a lot of faith in you.”

Jo stops to catch her breath, bracing her palms against wobbling knees, “Really?”

I do, anyhow.” Amy Rose says with a smile, “Do you need me to get your other bag as well?”

Her face, already the color of a tomato field the scene of a massacre, reddens. She does, for a moment, consider the offer- her back and shoulders throbbing with second, third, and fourth heartbeats- but she catches the withering glare of Angelique, standing some twenty feet ahead.

“I got it,” Jo says, straightening upwards. “Thank you, though.”

Amy Rose eyes her skeptically, but she is cut off by Angelique’s loud and commanding shout. She calls from the front of the procession, towering over the hill, “The first hives are just up ahead. Let’s not play games and risk waking them, yeah? Remain quiet until I say so. And stay close.

Jo suspects that last order is directed at her and Oscar, (who stands on spaghetti legs, wavering beside her,) but it’s hard to smother the rising admiration she feels for how Angelique leads the group; everyone, who previously were laughing and chatting, fall into immediate, unwavering silence.

That could also be borne of fear for the bugbirds, who were in reality more bear than anything else. As large as an average labrador, and with a mosquitoes penchant for blood, the pollinators lived in packs of twenty or more. They wore iridescent wings that only half worked; they climbed trees and dropped on unsuspecting prey, with only a slight hum warning their prey of their arrival. Jo has had a strong distaste for the freaks of nature ever since her trip to Barnhill. The relief she feels that they hibernate during the winter is incalculable.

The group walks in a slow procession through the vibrant trees, the only sound the crunching of dead leaves beneath their feet, and the wind rushing past them downhill. It’s quite nearly peaceful, but for the ever-duplicating sense of dread.

It’s not long before they spot their first hive, an almost perfect circle drilled into the cliff face, disguised by creeping ivy vines and moss and other such flora. Oscar, who has recovered slightly, points out the second and third to her.

“Blimey,” he whispers, bleary eyed, “That’s a lot more nests than there should be.”

“We’ll have to knock them out on our way back down,” Jo makes note of their location on the trail, already despairing of the notion. “Or fill out a report when we return to Sol. But knowing them, they’d just send us straight back here again. And I don’t think your gut could handle the train ride.”

“That’s probably right.” He says, before Angelique shushes them.

From there, the hives grow more and more prominent. Jo counts ten, twelve, twenty!

Screw the dragon, she thinks, fuming, I could spend the next six months ridding this area of their blubbing bugbird infestation!

And by the gods, would she much, much rather face the dragon.

For the next hour, Jo thinks very violent thoughts- primarily directed at Angelique, who showed such apathy toward the situation- but also towards the duke. After the war, fae of all kinds were to be eliminated. Even Barnhill’s aristocracy, (who could be accused of many things) could not be accused of the irresponsibility, the corruption, the laziness that has thus far seemed to define Monsbury.

So consumed by her stewing anger, a boiling stew that fuels her single-minded focus, Jo does not hear the low, incessant buzzing, until it is almost too late.

She pulls Amy Rose out of the way, just as a birdbug plummets into the ground where she was standing. It rears onto its hindquarters, unsheathing rows of glittering teeth, glaring at them with dozens of beady black eyes.

Amy Rose screams.

A gunshot, a spray of scarlet blood, and the creature folds onto the floor. Angelique grips her gun with quivering hands.

“Take cover!” She shouts, as the air fills with a chorus of static.  

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266 Reviews

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Wed Apr 10, 2024 4:23 pm
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RavenAkuma wrote a review...



Hello Again, My Friend!

It's me, Raven, and I'd like to review the next chapter in this great story using my Familiar method! Let's dive in, shall we? Heh heh heh...

What The Black Eyes See...

Ah, the mission begins, and it seems like the struggle is on! Following Jo and Oscar, you built up the trip with natural elements, gave us more ideas of the main duo's strengths and weaknesses, and the casual conversations gave us even more to think about regarding this town. Let's get into the details though.

Where The Dagger Points...

Not much to put here at all! Your descriptions were once again lovely, with incredible visuals and sensory notes to bring them to life, and the dialogue was so natural and greatly detailed by inflections and body language. There was just one tiny moment where a sentence may have gotten a little botched, here:

“Don’t worry. A couple more hills, and you’ll your feet beneath you.”


The last part just read a bit awkwardly, perhaps "you'll feel your feet beneath you"? Or another term? Either way, very minor thing. Great writing job ~

Why The Grin Widened...

Ah, once again, plenty of lovely moments to sift through!

Once again, points for descriptions! Everything felt vivid and easy to picture. I mean, right off the bat, we're hit with an amazing visual of this mountainous area:

The height of each cliff is ludicrously oversized, and ever more apparent when they stand nestled in its foothills, like ants hovering at the base of a castle- but what nature has wrought here dwarfs anything manmade.


And not only did the visuals hit, but the way you describe what this trek feels like to the characters was brilliant:

It is a hot, sticky, smoky, uphill climb. Far away from the smoldering remains of the Peterson’s farm, the smoke is less profuse. But Jo still notices her breath hiccupping, catching on itself, in out in out in out in out.


Great attention to detail, great impact, very much enjoyed that. I also enjoyed some of the information that got dropped by Angelique along the way, especially as it relates to the Fitzgeralds and the Mons:

I’m under the impression that Mons has something on Fitzgerald. Something that keeps him in line with whatever the manor wants.


Ah, the tea! I thought something was shifty about the duke, but the idea that he has something on Fitzgerald, like there may be a sort of behind-the-scenes blackmailing going on, makes this even more interesting. The deepening questions on whether it's correct, what that blackmail could be, and why there was reluctance to call on professionals for the dragon make the mystery so much more inky and convoluted, I love it ~

Also, I like this new character, Amy:

Believe it or not, Doctor, we’ve all staked a lot of faith in you.


Not only was it sweet of her to say that, and Jo finally gets to be indulged by her proper title instead of "the witch," but also interesting given that much of the town seems to have thought the opposite. Either way, I would hope that revelation helps build more rapport between Oscar, Jo, and the townsfolk.

The introduction of a new creature was brilliant, they already sound like a creepy and annoying pest for the travelers. Now, I like that you decided to split the chapter because this is a nice length, but I also like it because of the great cliffhanger we're left with:

“Take cover!” She shouts, as the air fills with a chorus of static.


Very cool!

Our Mad Thoughts...

Overall, this was another great chapter in the story! Nicely done! :D

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