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Fantasy The Wizard and the Witch


Just a demi kind of moon...
The Wizard and the Witch
With Owl Knight & DemiMoon

Valpurga’s cage scarcely jostled her on the freshly laid road that carved a smooth, straight gash of rock, ash and sand in layers of construction she could not conceive. There was only the sense of the wound the Empire Arcanum wrought in the earth below her, salted with sand from lands she did not know. It was an unfathomable road, as incomprehensible as its architects and their obsession with the mingling of things from every corner of the world. Wonder and abomination at once.

She spoke against it. They did not hear. Did not feel the damage they did in the carving up of lands with their civilization. It was not a matter of felling trees or killing animals. Death was part of life. It was the way they reshaped the world. They carved into the very veins and arteries of magic that sustained the pulse of magic or delved into her organs to make their artifacts. They left wounds that they did not know how to tend. They festered and rotted. And such wounds come to rot. The feeling of it was sure and strong in her but absent to them. It was like trying to describe color to the sightless. None of them felt it. Not their soldiers, not their Wizards, and not their Inquisitor dogs. Instead, they bound and blinded her, in cages with their sigils and symbols of fused metal. She was left only to feel absence.

It was not the only wound that hurt her. Not the only loss that filled her heart with terrible emptiness. When words did not work, war must serve. Her Coven, her sisters united with the Ostmani Tribes the Empire pushed from their homes and lands in their relentless expansion. They won battles. Tore down edifices of stone and metal, Empire and civilization. Tore open scars to allow them to heal.

But the Empire Arcanum was vast. The Ostmani and her Coven came to know the true strength of their machinery of war, formations of seemingly endless soldiers - clever magic and devices that didn't have their raw power but weathered them in endless conflict. They were few, and their Coven only three. Now they were one. Her fists clenched, shifting the iron manacles that bound her wrists to the cage floor. Grief and anger rose in her, a demand to marshal power in terrible vengeance upon her captors. But nothing came. In their cage on their road she could call on no shade to freeze their soul, no primal beast to gore them with fierce anger, no balefire to give form to her rage and burn them to ash. A sob shook her frame and she slumped, bent and broken. She could do nothing. Nothing but wait to be burned as a spectacle in the heart of this cancerous Empire.

Her wagon rolled to the stop at the foot of a stone bridge over a slow stream. The Inquisitor and their soldier lackeys stopped for their midday meal, to water and refresh their horses. She watched them. The Inquisitor did not meet her gaze, swaddled in their ebon robes. Their imperious expressions broke almost no humanity, it was almost drilled out of them in their terrible purpose of finding 'unsanctioned' magic users and ending them. The soldiers looked back, sneered at her. They at least showed their feelings, even if that which played across their expressions was anger, hatred, bitterness and disdain. That at least was comprehensible. She had killed many of their kind.

"Water," she croaked. Her throat was dry as gravel. They had no interest in her comfort, only that she survived to be killed. They barely fed her, gave her too little to drink. She longed to plunge into the sweet stream and cleanse the drought that suffused her whole body. But a soldier sneered at her, beat his fist against her bars. "Quiet wretch!"

The Inquisitor pulled the soldier's hand back sharply, glaring at him. "Do not touch the bars."

"Why not? What's she going to do like that?" the guard scoffed, forgetting his discipline.

The Inquisitor regarded him with steel eyes and spoke slowly, as if to a child. "She would tear and bite your arm and use your very blood to boil you from the inside, fool."

The soldier looked at the Inquisitor sourly, then his expression fell and he looked back at Valpurga. She gave him a slow, grim smile and very slightly moistened her dark lips with the tip of her tongue. She saw a moment's fear on the soldier's face, felt it in the way he shrank back.

"You want water? Here!" Another soldier hurled a bucket of water through the bars, soaking her. The cold shock of it stole her breath and she gave a hoarse cry, the chill seeping into her fur and leathers to prickle her pale skin. Even still, she pushed her lips to her skin and suckled the moisture from it. Pressed it from the dark violet strands of hair that now clung to her cheeks. Sucked moisture from her gloves or sodden fur mantle. None of these tastes were clean, mingled with sweat and dust from her torment and travels. But thirst had its way with her. The soldiers took comfort in her pathetic state, laughed at her as they feasted on their waybreads, cured meats and cheeses. The sight was a reminder of hunger pain that gnawed at her gut. Would they throw her so much as a heel of bread or a rind of cheese? How much longer, how much worse, would this dread journey become on the way to her death?

Valpurga could not know, and they would not tell her.
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Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor Valderian raised a hand to shade his eyes against the midday light that filtered down through the stone grey clouds. The stony hills of the high Ostmerlands rolled out ahead of him like a roiling sea of ancient stone and pale grass, broken only by the line of the Emperor's road, a scar that cut it's way through the untouched hills, unwavering, unyielding. The road felt wrong, incongruous with the ancient serenity of the land. It was modern, cold, efficient, stripped of the majesty of nature. Times were changing, and the simple brutalism of the road was a symbol of that change. The Empire's march ever outward into the wild borders of its world would leave indelible marks in its path. But then, Astor thought, uneasily, such was the price of securing the world against darkness.

He finally spotted the inquisitor's cadre, their wagon and horses circled near the foot of an ancient watchtower, the topled stones long ago overgrown with lichen. The chaotic and consumptive beauty of nature reclaiming man's efforts back into herself. They were a small band, five or six soldiers and the inquisitor. Some sat on logs, some stood watch at the borders of their temporary encampment. He could see some men unloading provisions from their packs, though it did not look like they intended to offer any to their unfortunate captive. The woman sat hunched in the Inquisitor's wagon, looking for all the world like an Arcanum raven in an iron cage. He spurred his shaggy hill horse onward, the stout creatures hooves finding uncertain purchase in the shifting gravel of the road as they moved down the hill towards the encampment.

Minutes later, as he approached the encampment, one of the sentries leveled his spear and barked a command.

"Hold! Who goes there?"

Astor smiled and raised a fist in salute.

"Prosperity to the Empire."

"And life eternal," the sentry replied, returning to the salute, still keeping the spear at the ready.

"I've come from the Arcanum chapter at Vels Rueges," Astor said, opening his robe enough for the sentry to see the gilded Arcanum medallion that rode on his breast. "I was told I could find Inquisitor Noctus along this stretch of the Emperor's road."

"You can indeed, Arcanist." A tall sallow figure rose from the stony hummock where he had been seated, chewing on a knob of dried sausage. He was clad in the black cassock of the inquisition, his waist belted with an iron chain from which jangled an assortment of charms and wards. The man's right eye was chill blue, like a marble of ice under his dark brows, the left, lined with a scar almost as ugly as the emperor's road, was milky white. Astor was uncertain which side gave him more pause. The inquisitor's nose almost twitched, as if sniffing for some concealed truth. Astor had once heard a rumor that there was more done to the inquisitors than simply outfitting them with fancy charmed baubles, but he never believed it until now. He felt unsettlingly like he was staring into the face of an enormous white rat.

"I am well familiar with Vels Rueges," Noctus said, squinting up at the wizard where he sat, perched in the saddle. "I can't say that I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance, master." He said master with a tone of due respect, but also an unmissable hint of disdain. Astor slid down from the saddle and approached the inquisitor, flashing an easy grin.

"Nor should you," he said. "I am master Astor Valderian, newly arrived from the capitol. Word of your successes travels swiftly, Lord Inquisitor."

"What do you want?" Noctus asked, curtly.

"The prisoner you are transporting," Astor replied, his eyes darting covertly over at the witch in the cage. "I've been sent by the Arcanum to personally escorting her directly to the nearest chapter for interrogation." he reached out and patted Noctus on the shoulder. "You've stumbled on a key figure to the resistance in this backwards country, Inquisitor. They'll have you in front of the Emperor himself for a commendation, from what I hear."

Noctus brushed the wizard's hand away with a scowl.

"I've received no missives about a change in custody," he said coldly. "This witch is bound to the capitol to be burned in the public square for her manifold heresies."

Something in the Inquisitor's milky sightless eye made Astor's skin crawl. He felt as though it were somehow probing him, seeking out the lie he was so casually spinning like a web in the air between them.

The soldiers were gathering near them, forming a loose circle behind the wizard and his shaggy horse. Like their commander, they had a deep mistrust of the political maneuvering of the Arcanum.

"I have documentation, if that will satisfy you," Astor said, maintaining his insipid smile as he reached into the folds of his robe for a folded document.

He offered the folded parchment to Noctus, who took it impatiently. The Inquisitor's nails were long and filed to points. Astor didn't miss the look that passed between Noctus and one of the soldiers.

Noctus unfolded the paper and eyed it closely.

"What kind of joke is this?" he hissed, shaking the paper under Astor's nose. "This is the receipt for a horse shoeing!"

"Is it?" Astor said, feigning confusion. "I must have left the papers in my other robe."

"Seize him!" the Inquisitor screeched.

The soldiers closed in. Astor dropped the rose branch he had secretly removed from his pocket with the decoy document to the ground at his feet.

"ꪖꪶꪖꪜꪖᦓꫝꪖ᥅" Astor commanded, his voice echoing even in the open air. The hex seemed to wind around him like a serpent until the words found the rose branch. At once, wild tendrils sprang up, thorny vines that wound and lashed around the soldiers, digging into the seams between their mail. The men screamed and struggled against their bonds, but the wild tethers dug in deeper, the thorns drawing blood.

Noctus lashed out at Astor with a dagger from his belt. Astor dodged the blow clumsily and weaved away from another slashed aimed at his head. The rose vines seemed unable to touch the inquisitor

"Traitor!" Noctus screeched. "Witch friend!"

Astor slid past the Inquisitor and reached out to get a grasp of the belt of charms around his waist.

"᥅ꫀꪶꫀꪖᦓꫀ," he commanded. The chain unlinked and slipped free, taking the Inquisitor magical wards with it.

As if on cue, a rose vine snaked out and lashed its way around Noctus, who screamed and writhed as it encircled hkm, trapping one arm at his side and the other out where it stretched to try and snatched back his belt.

"ᦓꪶꫀꫀρ," Astor said, almost in a whisper. The word seemed to hang in the air above the encampment like a cloud. Noctus and his men almost instantly grew silent as they fell asleep, still held upright by the rose vines.

Astor closed his eyes and sighed deeply. He retrieved his staff from where it was strapped to his skittish horse and returned to the trapped soldiers. He planted the staff in the earth, grounding himself. He then raised his hand, positioning his fingers in the symbol of Nyr, and traced the ward rune of memory in the air. Blue lines glimmer Ed in the midmorning light as he worked, muttering an incantation under his breath.

It was weary work, but he managed to complete the incantation without error. It was the Febrium Axi, "the fool's wisdom", an incantation that had long been deemed heretical. When Noctus and his men woke, they would remember precious little about the encounter.

His work completed, Astor retrieved the incriminating document from the dust at Noctus' incoherent feet and stowed it back in his robe.

He was operating outside the bounds of his oaths now. He had used magic against agents of the Empire, he had cast forbidden incantations and had made use of a heretical witch's hex.

"This had better be worth it," he chided himself. In the cold light of day he was suddenly deeply unsure off all the choices that had brought him to this moment.

He approached the wagon, and the prisoner within. The wards engraved into the iron bars were still active from what he could see, but all the same, he kept his staff at the ready. He had never encountered one of the heretic witches outside of an Imperial trial. He felt like a boy approaching a tiger in a cage.

"Well," he said, mustering an air of nonchalance as best he could. "This is quite a pickle."
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Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga tugged at her manacles, strained against their constraint towards the edge of the cage, her neck bent as she watched and listened - her body twisted almost to the point it seemed like an arm might pop from a shoulder joint. Her eyes were wild as the Arcanum Wizard spoke with the Inquisitor and the soldier, dark irises flitting about like flies hovering over a corpse. Was there something the soldiers missed? Did they park her cage too close to a branch or bush? Was there some weakness or oversight in it to be exploited? No. It did not relax her. Instead, she strained to absorb the conversation. There were many kinds of power. Information could be a potent one.

"Vels Rueges. Noctus. Arcanist. Astor Valderian," she whispered the words like a curse, committing each to memory. She did not know the first place. Den of Arcanists. She knew them. Scheming, thinking, controlling Wizards. Magic for them was bound up in word and device, until it was left devoid of any feeling or rhythm, devoid of pleasure of pain. She might pity such empty casting, if they did not then make it their charter that any other magic was illegal, immoral, barbaric. Criminal. They used many words to describe what was not their own.

Noctus. Anger rose in her. She longed to crack that marble facade, see those inhuman mismatched eyes pop in terror. She drowned that anger in disdain. Empire's tool. What was it that gave rise to such twisted and distorted humanity, to make edifices to their artifice in defiance of all that was natural instead of harmony with her? She could not understand. She had only seen the outward face of the Empire. The sword and shield, the armor and the fist. What lied beneath? What made that twisted heart beat? She pinned for understanding.

Astor Valderian. She thought she recognized distrust between these Empire factions before words exploded into violence. She broke a slow, savoring smile as the soldiers and then Noctus' screams filled the air, tasting their shouts like honeyed mead. She moistened her dry, cracked lips, dark eyes half-closing in raptured delight.

The violence stopped. Her expression drew into a pout. But she watched Astor. She knew the magic the Wizard worked. A memory charm. It was a strange bastardization of how she knew the incantation could be wrought, but it seemed to serve. It spoke more than his words. A man willing to betray his people, but not kill them. Death would be cleaner, safer. Death did not leave questions for the soldiers and Inquisitor bound up like twisted flowers in the Wizard's thorny vines. But this was not a hardened soldier, no callous killer. She would remember that.

When Astor bent to scoop up his piece of parchment, Valpurga shifted back to the center of her cage. Released the tension in her body and the iron links all at once, sitting on bent knee. As the Wizard approached, she purposefully kept her body in timid, supplicative posture. Her leather skirts laid across her legs haphazardly so that his eye could catch a bit of bare pale thigh if he searched for it. Her arms tucked in to press her modest bust against the leather buckled to her torso, so the top of her breasts could swell in a sort of feral mimicry of how Empire ladies presented their bosoms to their men in contraptions of bone and lace. Valpurga needed no such artifice to ooze sensuality that defied her bedraggled condition.

She watched him. He held his staff ready, but it was more defensive than aggression. Not poised to attack. Good. Her first fear was that he had simply defied the Empire to seek vengeance for some relation or friend she had killed. A distinct possibility. But then he spoke. Revealed hesitation, uncertainty in his purpose - in the simple fact that he failed to take action.

"Water, please," her voice was buttery soft, no hoarse croak like she had given the soldiers. She could thank the insufficient water she had sucked from her skin and clothes for that small mercy. She lifted her hands slowly and presented them outward, pressed and cupped together towards him. Her gaze lifted and took in his expression in a fleeting, meek way. Like a maid's might in meeting a man for the first time. Then darted down almost sheepishly towards the rolled-up parchment that jutted just slightly out from his robe.

"You have horses for us?" Hope blossomed in a small, sweet smile. She did not know if the receipt for the horse shoeing connoted a means of escape from this scene. It did not matter. The question was to ground him back in what she hoped was his purpose, to release her. Just as her meek, sensual approach was meant to bend his thoughts away from fear and apprehension. There was wisdom in such fear. She had no love for Wizards, and for him only that which he had bought by subduing her captors. That was something, of course. But it was bound up in what he wanted of her, ephemeral and easily soured. She was under little illusion that her rescue was simple, moral heroics.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

"Water, please," she implored, her eye flashing up at him with coquettish innocence. She was comely, which he had not anticipated. He had seen the Inquisition bring in witches from the wildlands; hags and crones, uncouth creatures that cursed and spat from the gibbet or the stake. But this was a young woman, in the prime of life, the bloom of youth still flushing her cheek. His eye flashed over her exposed thigh, her upthrust bosom. She was toying with him. The manipulation was subtle, but he couldn't help but feel a degree of soft compassion for this lovely girl in a cage.

Dangerous. He thought.

One of the soldiers had left his waterskin and a rind of hard cheese on the rock that had served as his resting place. Astor retrieved these slowly. He weighed them, eyeing the ward sigils stamped on the bars of the wagon to assure himself that her powers had been truly neutralized. She wouldn't have any way to hex the water or the cheese into some kind of weapon against him. But then, he supposed, judging by her condition, she would be loathe to waste good provisions. He tossed first the cheese and then the water skin through a gap in the bars, baking away to watch her from a safe distance.

"I brought my horse," he said, in response to her second question, troubled that she so quickly guessed that he meant to release her from the cage. If he even chose to do that.

He had felt certain of his path when he departed from Vels Rueges that morning, but now he had committed crimes against the Empire and was set to free a captive of war. He wondered what his venerated master would have advised him to do in the situation. Master Haem Alwidian had been no supporter of the Empires aggressive and unfettered expansion into the barbarian territories, but his stance had always been one of neutrality.

"The Arcanum is not the weapon of the Empire," he would often say, "but neither should it be the weapon of her enemies."

Astor imagined he wouldn't have approved.

"You're Valpurga," he mused, "I can't say you're what I expected. For someone that has given the Empire as much trouble as you have, I was expecting someone more....seasoned."

He ran his fingers through his beard.

"I've come a long way to find you," he said slowly. "I think that we might be able to help each other."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga watched Astor's gaze wander. There was a certain thrill in the subtle art of seduction, a spark of joy that did not dim with time or practice. To be found desirable, pleasurable to the senses was in itself pleasing in such a particular way. It was an art that left one balanced on the edge of a knife. One could be too subtle, too overt. One could push too far and wake a raging beast or spin themselves so deeply in deceitful webs as to lose themself entirely, bound to an illusion that shattered to pieces. And one could fall victim to their own game. She'd seen it happen, though she'd never known that last danger near to herself. It gave her a certain confident edge. She tilted her head slightly as Astor moved away to retrieve the provisions. He was no wizened old man, nor a child. His beard and hair framed handsome features, she supposed. His gaze was thoughtful, even perhaps kind. There could be danger there, perhaps, to a lesser practitioner of the art.

She caught the cheese he threw. He was not an absolute fool, clearly. He did not abandon caution. But she let the cheese drop on her lap in favor the waterskin and opened it with quick fingers, tilting it back and drinking deep, her slender neck working as she swallowed greedily and deep from the skin. Cool vitality blossomed inside her, delicious relief from her parched state.

He'd backed away. She lowered the waterskin and raised the cheese rind up between her fingers as he spoke, defining his possession of a single means of transport. Her reply kept its utterly innocent inflection as she replied, "You wish me to ride.." she raised the cheese and watched him with her dark gaze as she took a nibble of the cheese rind and let the implication of what she might say next hang there between them while she chewed and swallowed gently. "..with you, master?" She used the Inquisitor's term for him, purposefully subverting it - not in mockery as Noctus had, but in submission. She gave not the slightest hint of her innuendo in her vocal inflection, expression or posture. Delivering with perfect innocence a question that was so obviously not.

She gnawed at the rest of the rind yet did not allow her hunger to get the better of her. She was no court lady, but she ate delicately enough, even ravenous as she was. She listened and thought she understood. There was clear evidence to her reasoning. She'd witnessed him use magic that his Arcanum Wizards would frown upon and taken a grave risk in this attack on her captors. It was a typical, understandable desire. Power. Ambition. He wanted more than his fellow Wizard would allow him.

"Free me," she implored softly. "And I will instruct you."

She smiled gently as he admitted she defied his expectations of her. It was not a direct compliment to her youthful beauty, but she recognized the circuitous path he took, nonetheless. Her gaze flicked to the men he had intwined in his vines. "If you doubt me, I will be more than happy to demonstrate on your.. friends," here innocence and her gentle smile fell into palpable malice as she imagined the torturous death she would gladly deliver on her captors if allowed.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor frowned, pondering the impasse at which the pair found themselves. In word she was willing, but there was a crafty glint behind her seductive eyes that left him feeling trepidacious.

He did not trust the witch as far as he could kick her uphill. But she would offer him nothing from the confines of the cage. The cage, however, was currently the only thing keeping her within his reach. It had not occurred to him before this moment that she may have no desire at all to help him, despite their common interests. What reason did she have to help root out corruption within the Arcanum and the Empire when she would be more than happy to see the warring factions within the bloated old beast devour it from within?

Before he released her, he needed to her to know exactly where they both stood.

"Your voice has not gone unheard," he said. "These vultures have hunted you down because someone very powerful is worried about the little crusade you have been mounting here in the Ostmerlands." He leaned on his staff, carefully gauging her reactions. "The Prime Arcanist AND the Lord High Inquisitor have unilaterally called for you to be immolated in the public square for rank blasphemy, and if you know anything about either of those men you would know it takes an especially prickly burr under the saddle to get them to agree on anything." He smiled, although he could not tell if she was as amused as he was. His face grew grave.

"There are some of us, a small faction within the Arcanum, who have not just heard. We have listened. We have listened because we too have seen the signs. The Empire's disruption of the grand matrix, what your sort might call 'leylines' has agitated the natural order. We believe that the mutagenic plagues spring from these points of agitation."

He slowed himself. He did not want to overplay his hand.

"The Empire has forbidden further research. The boy Emperor is too consumed with his conquest of the north to bear any delay. So we have agreed to come to you. The knowledge of the Arcanum is hobbled."

He tapped the bars of the cage with his staff.

"Only an arcanist can break these wards," he said. "I can free you, but only on condition that you will come with me to Vels Rueges."

He glanced back at the immobilized Inquisition cadre.

"You know as well as I that the hex around those vines will release, and the incantation on their minds will fade. What say you, sister of the coven?"


Just a demi kind of moon...
This Wizard was clearly wound up in his purpose. His frown and the way he steeled himself up behind his forthcoming speech spoke to the fact that he wasn't in no mood to play games, socially or seductively. He sought clarity, and the weight around his actions and decisions overrode any other impulse that she might scratch and claw at. The import of that was clear - any further attempts at innuendo or seduction would fall on deaf ears, or worse - actively vex him. She could not afford to annoy her would be savior unless it would get her an advantage and she could see none in it. Her dark lips formed a little pout. It had been a fun little game. Perhaps if she were clever and careful, perhaps the game could be played anew later.

But what he said next shocked her. A few of his terms were hard to follow. She did not define magic around his Grand Matrix, and his depiction of the natural ley lines disruption as a mutagenic plague.. she did not know what that descriptor meant. Yet she grasped his core meaning.

"You.. believe me?" she asked in a small, girlish voice. Unlike her earlier affectations, this admission was sincerely innocent and vulnerable, childlike and pure. A small mote of soft hope kindled in her dark irises and a faint smile traced her soft, pouting lips. Despite the dark danger around her, the effect was.. sweet.

It was as if she were shouting into the wind, when it came to the Empire. The opportunities for proper convincing and conversation were few, and had to go through intermediaries. It was impossible to have effective conversation when the very way one practiced magic was heretical anathema to one's audience. But there was always dismissal, rejection. So it came to violence. She had the shared secret of knowledge with her sisters, but they were dead now. The Ostmani believed and fought for them, but she was not so naive to assume that it was as much for her truth as for their own anger, regress and ambition.

This man at least, this Astor Valderian, believed her truth. With enough purpose to risk his position, his privilege and his life over it. And he hinted that there were more, others, who felt at least in part the same!

Doubt crept in. Was this deceit? A trap? But she could find no reason for that. What could there possibly be left to take from her? They'd stolen her family, her people, her lands, her freedom and even ravaged the very nature of her magic, a violation so intensely personal that it simultaneously enraged, terrified and hollowed her. The Empire's prowess for torment was vast, but surely even it had limits? And even with the possibility of ensnarement in a new, terrible poisoned web, how could she refuse? If she need suffer to have a glimmer of a chance to end the suffering of others she had seen, it would be cowardice to refuse. To take the easy way of death.

She thrust her arms outward, slender limbs straight and steady with the strength of acceptance and renewed purpose, "Free me. I will destroy these men you have ensnared and come with you to this.. Vels Rueges. I will help you, and yours, Astor Valderian. If you have strength and will enough for what must be done."

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

"Free me. I will destroy these men you have ensnared and come with you to this.. Vels Rueges. I will help you, and yours, Astor Valderian. If you have strength and will enough for what must be done."

Astor's teeth clenched. She seemed willing to hear him, but she wouldn't take kindly to him letting Noctus and his men wake up to shake off their hangovers and move on, blissfully unaware of the treachery they had experienced. (almost unaware at least, a trace would remain, deep in their minds. Memory could be muddled and obfuscated, but never erased.)

He knew what he had to do, and she wouldn't be happy with it.

"I'm going to release the wards," he said, leveling his staff at the bars. "I'm going to need you to sit as still as possible. I wouldn't want to rip the veins out of your body and...well...it's not totally improbable."

He blew out a cleansing breath and focused his mind on the wards, centered his thoughts until he could see the lines of astral connection running between each graven rune, criss-crossing from the bars to the witch within, entangling the living energy that coursed through her body. He imagined how she must feel, trapped, mystically constipated, unable to fully function or breathe. He felt guilty for what he was about to do.

The iron manacles on the witch's wrists were forged of the same iron as the bars of the wagon. He focused the energy that pulsed through the bars onto the manacles. Slowly he could feel the power of the wards on the bars release, transferring from the bars to the cuffs of the manacles. He bound the threads to his staff. He was in control now.

His staff was the key to unlocking her powers and she would not be able to stray more than a hundred yards from his staff before the pain of doing so brought her to her knees. He felt dirty and treacherous, but it was done.

He opened his eyes and heaved a sigh. The transfer of the wards had been taxing. He wondered how long it would take for her to realize what he had done.

"I'm going to open the bars," he said, his throat gone dry. He tapped the lock with his staff and it clicked open, letting the door swing free. "Hold up your wrists and I can break the chains."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga held straight and still while Astor worked his magic. She did not flinch when he spoke of miscasting the spell and tearing her veins from her limbs. If that was how she was to die, would it be any better or worse than burned to death in a public square? Death was a specter she was entirely used to, violence and pain her all too frequent handmaidens. She had fought through an uprising and a small war. It was not that no fear blossomed in her chest, it simply failed to take root and thus blew away swiftly in the storm of hope and exultation as the cage door was opened. Teasing sweet freedom.

She raised her wrists and waited for him to undo her chains. The manacles remained - heavy iron bound to her wrists. She pushed to her feet and felt her limbs protest as they straightened from her length of imprisonment. She gripped the metal bars and held them, flexing her limbs until their protests silenced enough to allow her to walk out on her own accord, without wavering. Even in such a state, half-starved and long suffering she maintained a sensuous grace in her escape, a sway to her hips that spoke to a certain pride unbent and unbroken despite her circumstance.

But something was amiss. Even when she left the cage, when she tried to reach out and tug on the currents of magical energy around her, she could only feel her senses whipped back to the Wizard's staff. She looked sharply at him. Stepped off the road and stretched out her senses again with a deep breath - the same sensation. She understood. Her cage had been traded for a leash.

Valpurga glared at him. He seemed weary and worried. She was unmoved. She turned from him and went to where the men had taken their meal before Astor's interruption, avoiding him by scrounging for any other scraps of food that they had left unfinished. Scooped up a crust of bread, a portion of cured meat. Her dark gaze caught something more. A small knife, a blade no longer than her index finger. She made sure her body was between herself and the wizard and gathered it too, found a small leather sheathe for it and returned it home. She made it obvious that she was storing the provisions but slipped the knife into her long boot. She considered murder. She looked to the Inquisitor. Opening up his throat had a palpable appeal. It felt clear to her that Astor did not want her to do that, though he had not found the will to deny her directly.

She looked over her shoulder at the Wizard. Considered stabbing him. Perhaps killing him, perhaps burying her blade and twisting it in torment until he yielded his yoke upon her. Dangerous, yes. He was wearied. She was weak. But she'd seen his clumsy dodge earlier. This was no war mage, but she could easily falter or fail.

The murderous thoughts passed. She needed him. Needed what it was he offered, a chance at understanding - and change. Something to shift the tide away from the terrible plague that she was certain was only stretching its first fingers into the weakest of the world and would soon, she was certain, hold both hands on the throats of their people. For that she would endure the indignity of this leash upon her. She'd not forgive it. Not in the least.

Men made it an all too frequent habit to constrain the power of women. An ancient inequity played out yet again. She'd endure it. Like most women, she'd long since learned how to suffer through.

Valpurga walked back to him. Did not meet his eye. She looked past him and stood removed from arm's reach. "Let's move, master," the bitterness in the way she spoke the title the Inquisitor gave him was the final nail in the coffin of any uncertainty that she was all too aware of what he'd done. She did not demean herself bemoaning it yet withheld her earlier playfulness and the eagerness that he had stoked with his hopeful offer. She did not want platitudes or excuses. She could guess his reasons, even understand them. May have respected them more if he did not omit his full intention. Perhaps he was right to fear her anger, but more terrible still could be the bitter frost of her disappointment.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor glances about the remains of the campsight. Several of the horses had scattered during the skirmish and stood about the surrounding hills, tossing their manes and whickering anxiously. When the Inquisitor's men awoke from their enchanted slumber, they would have to spend some time rounding the beasts up, which was well for the pair of fugitives. They would be long gone by that time.

As the witch scavenged among the men for supplies, Astor approached one of the beasts that had lingered near the campsite. The animal eyed him suspiciously as he approached, tossing its head and stamping an iron shod hoof in the dark earth.

"Easy now," Astor said softly, his hand outstretched for the creature to smell. "There, there." The dark mare stared at him, as if trying to work out if he could be trusted. She had a wild and untamable streak. This was no threaded Imperial courser, she was a stout Ostmani Hill horse. Her sire probably still roamed wild in the hills, free as the winds.

She let him touch her brow, gently rubbing the thick fur. There was a profound sadness about the creature. She was yet another wild and free thick shackled by the Empire's unstoppable expansion.

He took her bridle and led her back to the witch.

"At least you won't have to go on foot," he said. "She looks like she needs a better master than she had."


Just a demi kind of moon...
"We share that need," Valpurga replied, frost left her words bitter and hard. But the cold that clutched her heart melted some when he brought forth the mare, black mane and dapple gray with sad eyes.

"You are not theirs," she murmured as she approached and stroked her broad neck, casting the mane back and baring an old brand, crescent surrounding a circle. "This is my work, we have met before," she cooed softly, her voice falling into a soft, sonorous hum to some strange melody as she laid her brow to the mare's broad head.

Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder;
suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun,
suma clubodun umbi cuoniouuidi:

insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun.

Despite her manacles - despite the restraint on her magic, the mark glowed silvery white like the moon on a cloudless night. She wrought nothing anew, but the reminder of the old charm spell she had put on this horse and her herd hadn't dimmed with time. It shone with the reminder of the original incantation. It was an ancient spell, passed down from coven to coven. The sort of magic wrought with the very bones of the earth, etched by the babble of brooks and whispered by the wind in the leaves.

And as the incantation ended, she raised her head and both mare and Witch's eyes met. And they remembered.

"Semra," Valpurga spoke the horse's name from that memory. Their traditions were not of the written word, but the spoken. And with the old recitation her name came back to her, even heard once, long ago, among many she had charmed during their branding. "They've taken my magic, I've need of yours. Soon we will both ride free again. Until then we must bear the bit and the bridle."

Semra lowered her head, and it was clear in her bearing that she accepted Valpurga as a rider, for she stopped stamping and shifting and stood still as she was mounted. The Witch was no expert horsewoman, but she knew how to ride and her comfort on the saddle showed in her posture and the ease with which she took the saddle.

Valpurga cast her dark gaze back upon Astor. "You have a way of finding wild women of the hills, Wizard," there was a touch of former playfulness in her tone, but her expression was still stern. Winter had not passed in her heart, but the arctic frost had perhaps thawed.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor watched the exchange between the witch and the mare with a mix of surprise and bashful shame. He felt as though he were an invader in this intimate moment and he had to fight down the instinct to avert his gaze away from the tender reunion. She was so different than he had expected. She was equal parts childlike and fearsome, like a black fox that would accept a scratch behind the ears in one instant and offer a toothsome bite in the next. He had thought that fettering her magic was the only recourse, but now he found himself wracked with guilt over his choice.

His certainty felt muddled. He had felt so clear in his mission on his long journey from the capitol, but it was growing clear that there would be no simple path forward from here. Already he had acted in treachery, and now he was ready to willingly guide a very dangerous and unpredictable enemy into the heart of the Arcanum's foothold here in the north.

He hoped Master Elemar knew what he was doing.

He whistled sharply and his own stout Ostmani hill horse trotted over docilely. The creature was willing enough, if not a bit demure for the treacherous road ahead.

"It's three day's ride to Vel Rueges," he said, strapping his staff to the side of his steed's rough-stitched saddle. "And we will need to cover a fair distance to be out of the hill lands by evening." He didn't particularly relish the idea of sleeping in close quarters with a wild northern witch, but he supposed the wards on her manacles would be enough to keep her from running off or strangling him in his sleep.

He patted his saddlebags.

"I have provisions enough for us both if we ration carefully." he eyed the soldiers, who had begun to stir ever so slightly in their enchanted slumber. "We had been be over the next hill before they start to wake."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Three days. Valpurga followed Astor's gaze in the direction he intended to lead her. A considerable amount of time to affect an escape. Or to convince him to release his hold on her magic. She had any number of means towards persuasion at her disposal. She had not removed the point of a knife as one of those options, but it would not be her first choice. Certainly not with so much time on her hands.

She turned Semra to the stream and rode directly to it, riding her in the shallows of the slow stream around the curve of the hill rather than take an overland route. The water would obfuscate their tracks, since Astor seemed unwilling to do take the wisest course of murdering these soldiers and their Inquisitor leader. She bent down as they rode, low in the saddle and leaned over to fill her stolen waterskin full. At the least they would not give them a clear trail to follow. When the stream reached a crook between two hills, she rode up the gradual slope then at the hill's crest she turned aside and let Astor lead. She regarded him with her dark gaze but said nothing, plucking a morsel of the bread and swallowing it with a mouthful of water. Hunger gnawed at her, but she would eat only sparingly and with the water to slowly ease its hold on her. He expected them to ration carefully, and so she would.

As she fell in behind him, she took in the pines around her, inhaling deeply the rich taste of the forest air. At times the conifers gave way to oak and ash, beech or maple. She hissed under her breath as Astor let a beech tree's boughs brush over his shoulder. She ducked under them, low in the saddle, then rode up beside him as the trail broadened. "You should be careful, under the beech," she chided. "Do not let her branches touch you!"

She huffed and shook her head, her expression was as if she were scolding a child. Did he not know that a curse was particularly effective if woven under the touch of a beech's branch? Or that a restless spirit might take home in them and madden the mind, even with a careless touch? These small kernels of wisdom were common knowledge among the Ostmani, dismissed as superstition by the Empire Arcanum at large, and the truth held its place somewhere in-between.

She'd broken the silence. She decided to break it further, "Why are you doing this?"

Astor told her of his particular faction's reasons, at least in part. They saw what the Empire was doing as dangerous, and at least were willing to listen to her. Her question was not aimed at a retelling of that - she understood enough of it. She wanted to know his reasons. What moved him to risk his position and privilege, his place in the swelling structure of the Empire in which he could live in relative wealth and comfort? His very life? Why was he willing to act as the agent of his particular faction of the Arcanum? She regarded his expression keenly with her dark eyes. His answer was important. She had not quite decided how to treat him, this Wizard who both freed her and leashed her in the same breath.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

"Why are you doing this?" The question was as pointed as an Ostmani spear and the witch held back nothing. Astor nearly lurched in his seat. He ducked under a sweeping pine branch and pondered his response.

It was because of Illeum, of course. There had been many many straws along the way, but Illeum had been the one to break the donkey's back.

"I was with the Arcanum clerics that were sent into Ileum after the plague struck," he said, curtly.

He could still picture it, the horror of the town square, overrun with the infected townsfolk, shambling on twisted and mutated limbs, drooling from distended purple mouths full of triple rows of crooked fangs, staring with milky lifeless eyes. They had been good simple folk; loyal citizens of the Empire. He could still smell the stench as the clerics rounded up the infected and set fire to the village. He could still see the eight legged thing that had once been a cow come barreling out of the blaze, burning alive as its vestigial limbs flopped uselessly. He saw it in his dreams, he saw it whenever he closed his eyes.

"I saw things there that convinced me something was wrong, and that the Empire was more keen to sweep it under the rug than to try and fix it."

Illeum had been the first plague town within the borders of the Empire, though there had been rumors of others since then.

"When a few of us began to ask questions, we were silenced, censured, encouraged to look the other way. I couldn't live with it... So here I am."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Illeum? Valpurga had not heard of it. Testament to the Empire's effectiveness in sweeping it under the rug. Though she did not know Empire towns and villages by name, with some exceptions near the border. His depictions were vague, but she could make guesses on her own experiences. Ostmani with clouded eyes and strange teeth. Horses with strange appendages and foul organs that pulsed with strange ichor and organs when they were put down. Even in tree squirrels and field mice, which was an ominous portent of increasing spread. It seemed wherever the Empire came in greatest contact these first fingers of strange, chaotic magic were felt. She'd spent time trying to manipulate the chaotic knot of energy that wound these poor creatures in unnatural knots. But she did not know all the threads. She could only assume they were woven from other lands where she had no understanding, no affinity for their magic. Would these Arcanum be able to help her? She frowned. She suspected they would have knowledge but lack understanding. There would be detailed notes scribbled in their books, but little experience with other lands. But she could never have the freedom to travel the Empire to glean such experience herself, how could a Witch of the Ostmani navigate such civilization? She sighed. She would need to find some way, through these Wizards or otherwise.

But her thoughtful gaze turned back to this Wizard. He had seen. And chosen to believe the truth of his eyes rather than the easy lies of his masters. That was something. Principle could be a strong motivation, but it could also fracture and break under strain. Astor had made a hard choice, but how many more lay before him? Was he made of stern enough steel for them? Valpurga could not say. But she did not question his motivations further.

"Illeum. What was the Empire doing there? Was there mining, farming? Some other industry? Did they bring plants, animals, earth or stone, people from far removed lands? Was there any particular oddity in this place you saw, that might speak to why the plague appeared there?" Perhaps these were questions the Arcanum had already considered and answered. She might hope for some that. There was a difference between secondhand observation and firsthand experience, but the former could still suggest something.

Distantly a wolf howled. Valpurga perked up her ears. The sound was strange. And there was no answering howl. That was odd, wolves typically only travelled in packs. Unless they had excised one member.. or that particular beast had brought them all to harm. Her expression clouded. "We should not linger here," she whispered.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

"They had dammed up the Illeum River, west of the town," he replied in answer to her query. "To build a hydraulic mill for the granaries in the town. The farms around Illeum are a major supplier of grain to all of the Empire's northern provinces." As they rode, he went onto explain that the Empire had dug out large portions of mountains and felled a swathe of forest on either side of the river to accommodate the construction.

"I can still remember how it had felt, standing in the shadow of the great dam, seeing the broken land below it spreading like great arms, as if the earth itself had been touched by plague." He frowned and fell into taciturn silence. For the whole of his youth in the capitol, the Empire had seemed like a dream, a shining beacon of progress, prosperity, and order in a barbaric world. Even after all he had scene and the risks he and his friends had taken to come to this point, it was hard to reconcile the warring realities of his mind. The ugly present was strangling the optimism of his childhood. He rode in obstinant silence for some time.

The howling of a wolf broke his weary reverie. It was distant, but the horses shied and tossed their heads nonetheless. He had not encountered the fabled northland wolves in his travels, but he had heard the frightful stories from the Imperial soldiers from the front.

"We should not linger here," the witch whispered. This, more than the howl sent a chill down Astor's spine. He kicked his horse into a trot.

"Yes," he said. "I imagine you're right."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga frowned. She tried to imagine what he described of Illeum. She knew the Empire Arcanum as a vast lumbering organism, an ocean of humanity organizing itself in a way that baffled her. It seemed by his depiction that the Empire upending the earth and moved the very rivers to provide for all the needs of the many, many people they held under their sway. For her, one of their roads - one of their fortresses or lumber mills was behemoth enough. What he described was on another order that she could not comprehend. What could a person do in the face of such relentless industry? She might just as well try and hold back a storm with a finger.

She cracked a wry smile. Well. Perhaps with enough power, anything was possible. But the magic she called upon worked with what natural cycles were already in play, the Empire's actions actively disrupted it. Left unchecked, would the Empire mold the whole of the world in their image of what it should be? Would there be anything left of the world as it was?

Valpurga considered these dark thoughts in silence, riding swiftly with Astor. The slow breeze that drifted through the trees favored them at least, their scent would not carry towards where she heard the howling. As the daylight faded and the shadows started to lengthen, she did not hear another howl. Her wariness subsided somewhat - perhaps they had eluded the danger.

Perhaps it simply stalked them quietly.

She tore a hunk of the cured meat she'd purloined and ate it with another mouthful of water. She could sense that Semra was wearying, her breath coming in more ragged snorts. Her head strayed towards bushes and picked small meals from the boughs that lined the game trail they followed. She checked her pace to a walk. She looked to Astor. Had he prepared for camping afield? How far had he travelled, and had it been by the road? Was he used to camping afield in any form, or had he stayed on feather beds at the wayhouses and inns along the Empire's road?

"We should stop soon," she commented aloud. "The hills are flattening. The water will not be as good if we go much farther."

She wouldn't assume his knowledge of the terrain or camping but was she unwilling to leave it to chance that he set them up at a poor campsite or had them ride into a bog in the night either.

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

She was right, of course. Though he hated to admit it, the sun was already beginning to drift down towards the horizon and the thick scrubland would not be safe to traverse after dusk. Water too would be in shorter supply.

He groaned inwardly. He was not looking forward to another night on the ground. Try as he might he simply could not get the knack of finding a place to spread out his bedroll that didn't conceal a few hateful knotty roots.

"Fine," he said. "But keep a weather ear. I'm not keen on the sound of that howling."

They came to a hollow patch, sheltered by a copse of trees and dismounted. Astor told Valpurga to see to the horses while he busied himself gathering loose sticks and dead branches from the nearby brush. He glanced back as he did so, sometimes at the trail behind them, looking for signs of pursuit from Noctus and his men, and sometimes over at Valpurga, both out of caution and curiosity.

He was fascinated by the witch, at her gentle touch with the horse she had reclaimed from the inquisitors, but also her fierce cunning. He had most certainly never encountered her like in the genteel upper echelons of Imperial society.

He built a fire and thrust the head of his staff among the branches.

"Feregas," he commanded and a sparking flame leapt up at once.

Night fell as Astor fed the flame. He had brought no provisions to cook, subsisting in cured beef and hard tack, but from his saddlebags he produced a small iron kettle. This he filled with dark curling dried leaves from a leather pouch and water from one of the water skins. He placed it beside the fire and within minutes the smell of a richly spiced tea began to rise with the smoke.

He helped himself to a cup.

"Tea?" he offered. "The leaves are spiced with cinnamon from the land of red sands."


Just a demi kind of moon...
The Wizard sounded sour. It came off in the way he spoke. Orders, without the veneer of politeness. Consoling himself in his perceived mastery. It was an Empire attitude, replacing fear with control. Enslave the world to one's whim, and it could not harm you. But the world would always be larger than the Empires of men, dismissive of their ambitions. Her way was to embrace fear. She'd drowned herself in it, lost herself in the great inky well of how infinitesimal she was in the timeless rhythms of this world. She'd emerged strong, where fear could not bind her. She glanced down at the manacles that shackled her magic. What was this restraint on her ability against the weight of the certainty of how small she was? She laughed, a manic sort of cackle that came unbidden in her moment of clarity.

It would all come to nothing, undone and washed away in the end. That certainty gave her strength. Fear could not shackle her. Slavery, service or submission. These were Empire constructs. She was unbound. There was nothing that could change that, for it was within her - beyond anyone's reach.

Valpurga unsaddled the horses, tended to their needs. Brought them to the stream to drink their fill. They followed her lead with ease. She watched the stream, a frog hopped away from her approach. It brought memory from long ago, when she was a girl with her grandmother. She crouched by the stream. Smiled as she held perfectly still. A glare from her grandmother had stilled any flinch or motion she made then. She'd been angry, restless, despairing. But she was made to hold still then, until all of that passed. Until she learned patience. To observe. To let the world come to her, and only then reach out to take what she needed.

Her thin arm lashed out and she grasped a frog as it tried to leap away in tight, clawing fingers. She repeated this in different places at the stream, time passed and the shadows stretched into darkness, but she came away with three squirming frogs.

Valpurga shielded her slender frame behind the grazing horses and withdrew the knife she stole. She ended the life of each frog quick and clean, then cut the rubbery skin and yanked at the joint of the legs where it met the body, tearing shanks of frog legs. Using her knife, she peeled the rubbery skin back until she had six legs of good meat - small but serviceable as a meal. She yanked a young branch protruding from a trunk and skewered and washed the meat and skewer both.

With her skewer of six frog legs on a stick, Valpurga walked the horses back by the camp. She thrust the skewer over Astor's fire, the meat sizzling as the flame seared the legs. She sniffed the air as he made his offer, her nose wrinkling delicately. She leaned closer to sniff the cup of cinnamon tea, then drew back and sneezed almost delicately, shaking her head like a feline offered an unfamiliar treat.

"It is strange!" she hissed. But he'd roused her curiosity, she turned her skewer as the frog legs took on an appetizing seer at one side.. "A land of red sands..? What leaf could live in such a place?"

She hesitated, then slowly nodded in response to his offer. There was an appeal to the scent that his kettle cast off, despite her initial reaction to it. She withdrew her skewer as the meat finished cooking and glanced at it, considering Astor for a moment, then plucked one of the cooked frog legs off the end - not seeming to mind the heat of it on her fingers and held it out to him as if in offer of trade for a cup of his cinnamon tea. Whether he claimed it or no, she was swift to take another and tear the meat off the bone with her teeth and savor it with obvious relish. "Mm.."

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor took the proffered leg gingerly, holding it between two fingers.

He took a bite.

Despite his initial revulsion, he found the taste mild, almost like roasted fowl, though with a fishy undertone. He wouldn't be ordering it in a pub, but the taste of hot meat was a welcome reprieve from 3 days of hardtack and salt beef.

In the distance, the wolf howled. Distant, but getting closer. The horses stamped uncomfortably at the sound and flicked their ears. Astor stared out through the trees, trying to see through the gathering shadows, but all he saw was the darkness.

The night was growing colder, the afternoon heat slowly fading as the crescent moon rose over the jagged teeth of the mountains. Astor pulled his cloak closer about his shoulders and inched closer to the fire, holding the small iron cup between his hands to ward off the cold.

"Where are you from, witch?" he asked. "If we are to share a fire, we can also share a story."


Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga watched him eat the leg with a slow, knowing smile. But she did not offer another. She had caught the frogs, all three of them and done the work of cleaning and cooking them. They were hers. She finished them and threw the rest of the carcasses and bones into the fire, so nothing would attract predators. She perked her ears when the wolf howled. The horses were spooked as well. Closer. Not too close, maybe. But not far enough.

She clutched the cup he had given her and lifted it, carefully sipping it. She flinched again, the cinnamon taste again strange to her. But it was curious enough to draw her for a second sip, then another. It was warm, earthy. It drew her in, made her want to know more about the lands in which it grew, the people who grew it. But Astor was not forthcoming to her questions, so she was left only to wonder.

She was used to nights here. In truth, the homes that the Ostmani knew were far simpler, bare shelters compared to what structures the Empire erected. They did not know creature comforts as someone like Astor would, but neither then was a campfire very far to fall. And she had come from a cage and before then a cell. By comparison, this was a vacation. The cold did not vex her, nor the onset of night.

The tension she'd sensed earlier had not left his tone. It just made her smile. There was a primal security in sharing stories around a fire, something instinctual to soothe against the dangers of the night. So might a child ask his mother for a bedtime story. So might a tribe seek solace from a Witch's wisdom. It was a familiar pattern.

Valpurga gestured at the jagged mountains with a fling of her arm, "Under the arms of those mountains there are many valleys, clear lakes and hidden villages in deep mists. Small places, little use to your Empire. My mother took a man there and had me. I was the second of her three children, the last took her from us. Our grandmother took us from our father, from that village." She was thoughtful for a long moment, "I imagine he no longer lives. It was many moons ago and he was not so young then. Maybe. Maybe not. He was a good man, simple and true. I think he was sad that we left him. From there we took no home, but moved from tribe to tribe as my grandmother wished it. All these lands are my home and now that your kind have murdered my sisters and much of my people, and their ashes are scattered to the winds - they too are my family."

She sipped the tea again and regarded him with her dark gaze over the rim of the iron cup. "Who and what are you from, Astor Valderian? I do not think it these lands with red sands and strange tea leaves." She shifted closer, the firelight casting her pale features in ominous yet somehow enticing shadows. "What have you known of family, love, friendship and loss? What moves the heart of a Wizard to pity those who suffer, so much to cast off their own comforts?"

Owl Knight

Don't let it ruffle your feathers, my liege.
⊰ครՇ๏г שคɭ๔єгเคภ⊱

Astor listened to her story, staring into the flickering flames as the evening purple gave way to a gloomy and starless night. The trees and hills around them loomed in the darkness like watchful sentries and he imagined he could feel unseen eyes peering at him from between the branches. The night brought with it doubts and fears and his thoughts swum in catastrophic circles as he thought back to his boyhood in the merchant district of the capitol.

"I was raised by my father and mother among the merchants," he said. "A class above the plebians, but below the senators and generals." He prodded the flame with a stick, coaxing some more light out of the smoldering branches. "Of course, with enough money, one's class becomes what one makes of it. My parents were wealthy, comfortably so. My father attended the bathhouses with senators. He even attended a dinner with the Emperor once or twice." He finished his tea and set the iron cup gingerly down on a stone beside the fire. "When my affinity for channeling magic became apparent, my father used his connections to get me a seat in the Arcaneum."

He shifted uncomfortably. Spoken out loud his childhood sounded indolent and decadent. What had he earned on his own?

"I did well enough, I suppose. But not well enough to choose my first assignment after my investment. They sent me to the Valkan islands, to assist the governor there in dealing with a tenuous standoff with some of the local sav..." he caught himself sharply. "The local natives," he corrected. "It was a brutal stalemate. Negotiations for land and tribute had given way to patches of guerilla warfare and no one knew how to stop it. I was over my head, but I was able to negotiate a treaty of sorts. Of course the year after I left, the natives were finally driven off the island by a legion of Imperial dragoons, so I can't say that I helped much of anything."

Somewhere the wolf howled again, it was closer now and there was something behind its almost human moan, a ravenous hunger that cried out to be satisfied.

"I was disillusioned after that, I suppose. I always thought the divine mission of the Empire was to refine the world, to bring order and culture and peace to the unfortunates squabbling in the darkness of ignominy, but..."

He swallowed, his throat felt dry.

"The people on the island, the natives. They had such music and richness of culture. I don't know how I could see it when no one else could. I spent a month with them, speaking, elarning what I could, trying my best to broker a peace. I suppose that was the first finger of doubt, probing in."

He added a branch to the fire, and watched as the swirling embers climbed up to dance against the violet sky.


Just a demi kind of moon...
Valpurga struggled again with some of his terms. Plebians. Senators. These ranks had no meaning to her. Both in form and the way it fit into the Empire's society. Conceptually it was strange to her. Some led, others followed. That was how she understood things. But the Empire was so expansive it seemed necessary to break down society into more ranks than that, a social order that even the oblique reference seemed dizzying to her. She shook her wrinkling her nose again. Bathhouses? She'd never known such a thing either. She could put it together easily enough, but what excess must go into such a thing, a house to contain a bath? Was it built around a spring or did the Empire divine some way to funnel water from natural sources for its purposes and heat it also? She did not want to believe the later, but considering what she knew of it - she suspected the later.

She did not ask about such terms because it was not material to his tale. She understood well enough. He was born to privilege. She looked at him sharply when he began to call the islanders savages. He corrected himself so she did not say anything. That term she knew well. It had been thrown at her countless times. That was a story she knew from the Islanders side of things. Resisting the Empire always seemed to give rise to a larger, more terrible response from them. It was enough to cow most into never resisting its advances, its endless demands for lands and resources. She glowered at the attitude reflected in that near slip. Even someone like Astor, who began to see that the Empire was unnatural in its methods still considered a more natural existence savage. The comforts of its civilization were an insidious poison.

She leaned back as he wrapped up his tale and fed the fire. She nodded her approval of that. The wolf's howls were nearer. Were it completely natural and untouched by corruption, banking the fire would be enough to dissuade it. Even altered, perhaps it still might. But she could tell that his experience vexed him in the soft, almost thick way he spoke of the folk of the Valkan Islands. "Had you resisted with your all, fought against the Empire then for those people, what of it?" She flung her hand in a dismissive gesture. "They would have killed you along with them. Then you would be dead. No one would come to save me from fire and death. You were meant to have your eyes opened then, not to fight a doomed battle. Remember, but do not let it weigh down your heart."

Valpurga shifted closer, she felt the heat of the flames as they cast her face in shadows that gave her expression a malign cast. "Do you hear those howls drawing closer? They are not natural!" She held out her arms and the manacles on them. "The fire may dissuade it. It may not. Will you leave me powerless should it come?" She reached down and plucked a burning brand from the fire and held it up. "Will you reduce me to this?!"

She was neither without manipulation nor without truth. The wolf was getting closer. Close enough to attack them tonight? Maybe, maybe not. She offered him absolution for his guilt, then touched on the guilt again in her demand to be unshackled. But the captive could not afford to be merciful to the captor, no matter how gentle the nature of her captivity. And if the wolf came upon them, nothing would be gentle. Such creatures twisted magic around them, like a knot in cord. Magic was not a guarantee. But it was much more than a crude torch in hand.

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