Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia jerked out of the astral plane, hissing. Her face was dry and flaking, cracks snaking from the corners of her eyes as steam rose from her face. Fangs bared, she snarled and swiped at the now-closed portal. “That bitch!”
“Tamiyat?” I resisted the urge to check the transcendent plane myself.
“Yes.” She dragged out the s-sound, eyes narrowed. “I didn’t see her, but her power was everywhere.”
“That would explain the blocked maas.” I pulled Malia forward, guiding her around the trees as we pressed on. Although I was gentle, I couldn’t avoid the growing unease nipping at my heels. “Did you get a glimpse of the witches?”
“I couldn’t see anything!” Malia snapped a sapling with a flick of her tail as we passed it. “She’s irradiated this whole area with her toxic aura.”
“Well, that’s concerning.” I swatted at a branch that didn’t know its place, scraping my bones against its knobby bark. “If she did it intentionally, then that means she either predicted our movements or has a source.”
Malia touched her burnt face and hissed. “Assuming she knows what we’re doing. But what worries me is, if she does know, what’s more important than stopping us?”
I growled. That was an excellent point. What made predicting Tamiyat difficult, besides the obvious generational gap, was her inability to directly influence the physical realm. With her mate literally interred beneath Jade’s mines, she’d need some way to actually reach the crypt before she could breach it. If she were looking for a new physical avatar, she could be searching practically anywhere—assuming she wanted another proxy like Lazuli.
But if she wanted her own body, she could be off in a remote mountain, organizing the construction of one through weak-spirited or easily influenced mortals. Or a hidden cult of secrets, dedicated to her memory, working in the shadows to bring about her return. Or a foreign nation completely hijacked to her purpose. Or any number of things. We just didn’t know, and being unable to track her in the astral plane was going to make things even more difficult.
Without any fanfare, Malia and I stumbled into a circle of sunlight and laughter that took our breaths away. The golden rays were warm yet blinding, the floral fragrance filling the clearing choking in its unexpectedness. Seated in the middle of this glade was Hasda, surrounded by a handful of tanned women, scantily clad in flowering vines and all of them with long, flowing hair the same earthy shade of brown. Though of similar builds, their faces were just different enough to be distinguishable.
To his credit, Hasda kept his eyes where they belonged. He smiled as he chatted with the coven, and they tittered like a pack of sparrows as they hid falsely bashful smiles. The witches turned as one as we stumbled into their sunny space, their eyes intense though not openly hostile. What set me off, however, was the lines of green energy that crisscrossed amongst them, weaving a web around Hasda. The witches’ look sent threads lancing towards us.
I stepped forward and caught them all right before they impacted with my chest. Hasda couldn’t see them, and from the confused noise Malia made I wasn’t sure she could perceive them, either. But I wrapped them around my fist once, so the enchantresses couldn’t withdraw them, and sent a burst of power into the silk. The threads crumbled to ash, the destruction racing down the lines like fuses, and ethereal flakes winked out as the energy dissipated.
Whatever trance had ensnared Hasda immediately shattered. He blinked, coming to himself, and looked around in bewilderment. Three of the fae flocked to his side, cooing and murmuring reassurances while the other five or so slid to their feet and glided towards us. The leaves of their coverings fluttered as they spread out, coming at us in an arc. Although they’d kept the antagonism from their faces, their demeanors had certainly changed.
“A Skeleton and a Snake, in our sacred forest?” the left-most one asked.
“Could they be lost?” asked another.
The middle one shook her head. “Certainly not. The pup carries their scent.”
“His parents, then?” said the fourth.
“In a manner of speaking,” answered the fifth. She was the first to show actual emotion, a disgusted sneer. “They reek of the divine.”
Malia snapped her wings and tried to scowl, but winced when she split fresh cracks in her dried face. I shoved my worry that she wasn’t healing quickly into the background. Deal with the immediate threat first.
Angling myself back in front of Malia, I stared down the sorceresses with my hollow eye sockets. “I’m afraid, ladies, that whoever promised these woods to you as a holy grove had no authority to do so. If you’ve the time, we could sit and negotiate your stay so that you’re not trespassing on the territory of our pantheon.”
Hissing, Malia pressed into my shoulder but had the decency not to fling my arm away.
The witches ignored her, keeping their gaze steady on me. “Your forest?” they said together.
“These trees are ours.”
“Those that wander in them, ours.”
“The earth, the air, the birds, the leaves—ours.”
“These undercurrents of magic, ours.”
“In short: ours.”
They took turns chorusing their answer, and I didn’t bother to track who said what. They went on for a couple minutes repeating variations of their claims while the trio behind them stroked Hasda’s face and lulled him with harmless questions and soft promises. The ground swirled with magic as the forest responded, soft breezes that whispered of quiet peace as it washed around the witches’ ankles. It was soothing, really.
But it was no more than mortal conjurings, and I brushed it off with ease. “That’s very nice, but why don’t we—”
I gasped as I blinked, and the scene changed. Gone were the youthful women, replaced by banshees swaying from unseen strings. The clearing went dark blue, a purple underglow highlighting the shadows. The witches themselves were light, pale blue things, flimsy as paper. Their nuptial gowns waved like derelict flags on their incorporeal frames, and just as I noticed the violet fog tumbling from where their legs should be, reality snapped back, all bright and cheery.
Malia pinched my arm just above my elbow. “You need to stop making that sound. It’s unnerving.”
“Sorry,” I muttered. So another vision that only I could see. And while the disclosure of these enchantresses’ darker side was a wholly unsurprising revelation, it hadn’t been one of their own choosing. What on earth was going on? “Was I out long?”
“Out?” She tightened her grip on my arm and slid next to me, doing her best to glare at the fae despite her eyes watering in pain. “You slumped a little and started moaning. Did they do something to you?”
I shook my head. “Not them.”
“Another thing to talk about later?”
One of the three enchantresses uncurled from her crouch next to Hasda and glided over to the five arrayed against us. “It appears these wanderers claim the status of caretakers of the hydra, and have business with him.”
“Better business than those who came before?” one witch asked.
“Most assuredly.” The newcomer took her place on the right side of the middle sorceress. “Perhaps even beneficial to all.”
“That is a tall claim,” said the far right one. “But if it can be backed up...”
“Of course it can,” Malia snapped. “The hydra is ours. We’ve merely come to discuss some business with him.” She frowned. “And would you please organize yourselves better? Not all this scattered jabbering.”
“We would be delighted to honor your request,” the six said in unison. Smiling, they folded their hands and bowed at the waist. “The Sisters Serynis greet you, and welcome you to our humble forest. Come, let us lead you to the hydra.” They turned on their heels, in sync, and returned to Hasda and the remaining pair of witches. As they helped him to his feet, they hummed a wordless tune that harmonized in a peaceful yet haunting way. Its notes crept like a hare through the underbrush, promises of a pursuing fox dancing among the chords.
Malia shivered and clung to my arm as we followed them into the glade. I couldn’t sense any more threads, and I didn’t see any signs of that strange purple smoke I’d seen in the last vision, despite watching the Sisters’ bare feet turn the earth. While I half-expected them to drop the charade at any moment, they simply turned and waited for us with subdued smiles.
“How’s the face?” I whispered. Hasda leaned against one of the witches, rubbing his face. He looked disoriented and not fully awake.
“What, am I not pretty enough for you?” She flashed a smile and ignored my grunt. “I’m having trouble focusing my vision. Your eyes okay?”
My lips formed a thin line. “For now.”
She huffed a laugh. “Ah, the blind stumbling along blindly together.” With a sweep of her hand, she gave the witches a fang-filled smile. “Lead on, Sisters dear. We’ve an appointment to keep.”
If the enchantresses picked up on Malia’s sarcasm, they didn’t show it. More smiles, smudges on their barely emotive faces, and they gestured for us to follow as they led Hasda by the hand deeper into the forest.
I shook my head. Spiders and flies, and all that. There was no way this was going to end pretty.