“What are you doing here, child?” The voice echoed quietly through the ruined temple courtyard, emanating at once all around the young witchling and from nowhere at all. With it came a certain chill to the air, the cool fall breeze that might put one to sleep by a fire. “There’s no magicks left here for you to sap.”
“Hiding,” the boy pulled himself unto a collapsed pillar, arranging a pile of leaves to lay on as he nestled his pack against the crevice to act as a pillow. He didn’t seem perturbed by the presence of the disembodied voice, or the cold that it brought with it. “I made my Mother upset again, so I came here. She doesn’t like coming to these ruins, so I can wait until she’s not mad anymore.”
“Curious.” The voice moved closer, the leaves fluttering as the presence took a closer look at the witchling. “Do you know why this witch doesn’t wish to disturb these stones?”
“A curse of some sorts, probably.” The boy nuzzled into his pack, pulling his cloak over as a blanket. “My Mother’s always worried about curses.”
“It’s because her magic isn’t welcomed here.” The voice trailed off for a moment, distracted by the noises of animals in the distance. “Nor are yours. You should move on, son of Eve.”
“I can pay you.” The boy stuck out his hand, a ritualistic blade tied around his palm in a witch’s glove. “I don’t have many magicks, but I’m just using the pillar. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
The voice seemed confused, an uncertainty to the air as leaves moved in place, caught in indecision. Finally, it seemed to settle near the witchling, watching the boy with ever greater curiosity. “This isn’t a home for you. Bandits, mercenaries, other witches… they come through here. You won’t be safe. Your witch may be cruel, but better than the fate that awaits you if you’re captured by one of them.”
“Could you protect me from them?”
“Once, I could. When this place was still my home. Priests and priestesses to worship me… zealots who spread my name to kings and emperors to every corner of the world.” It sighed. “Now it’s a tomb, and with it, my power gone. Leeched away by rivals and witches and witch hunters and the priests that now dominate this world.”
“I could protect you, then.” The boy was already losing himself to sleep, yawning as he drifted further along. “I like helping.”
“The offer is appreciated, child.” The voice laughed for a moment, until a realization began to come over it. It grew silent, until a few minutes later, as the boy was nearly completely asleep, it spoke quietly once more. “…Listen close, witchling. When you awake, return to your coven. But before you do, go beyond this chamber, and find a talisman in an altar. Take it with you. I will be with you, through it. Protect my name, and I will ensure none raise their hand against you again. Do you agree to this pact?”
“Sure…” The boy murmured back. “So long as I can sleep here…”
“Of course my dolls work!” The witch protested, trying to keep a frustrated client from storming out “Look, they’re sensitive things! Did you say something to offend it by chance?”
“It’s a doll!” The client shoved the witch aside, opening the door with a huff. “What good are they if they get offended?“
“They have delicate sensibilities!” The door slammed in his face, leaving the witch to stand there, dejected, as the client complained loudly in the street to anyone who’d listen.
“Did this one not do a good job, Miss?” The doll behind him asked, tilting its head inquisitively. “It did what it was asked.”
“You did fine, Nightshade. You just… also caused his husband some grief.”
“He told this one that its Miss was an ugly hag. It corrected him.”
“By breaking his nose?”
“No, it corrected him sternly, and then he voided the client agreement by attempting to break this one’s arm. It became necessary to use force after that.”
“Okay, yes, that makes sense.” He sighed, flipping the sign on the door over and opening it again as he grabbed his cloak off the nearby rack. “Clean up for me, would you? I need to make a few errands before getting home.”
“Of course Miss!”
The witch took to the streets, pulling his hood up as he joined the milling crowd of office workers beginning to end their shifts and head home. The city always felt serenely quiet to him at times like this; thousands of humans around him, conversations murmured to each other, with only the sounds of shuttles against whispering tracks to be heard in the distance. The noise blurred and blended together until it was just the wind, passing over in the occasional gust, allowing him to stay in his head as he found his way through the crowds without much conscious decision.
He completed his errands with the same autonomy, running new spells and enchantments in his mind as he grabbed the same groceries he always did. Current client troubles aside, he had a larger order for civic dolls coming up; if he fell behind on that again, his contract was liable to be cut. The city could always find another witch; he couldn’t just find another city. Still, if he wanted to do more than pay the bills this month, he’d need to find clients willing to take the dolls with more of a sense of independence…
He returned to awareness in front of a bulletin board at the train station, countless advertisements and personal pleas stapled haphazardly to it. At the bottom corner, now beginning to fade after the years, was an illustration of an elemental being, along with an explanation of who and what they were. A strange sigil ended the text, and he looked glanced down at the talisman around his neck, adorned with the same symbol. The same symbol that was now branded into every doll he’d made, every letter he’d sent back home. His symbol.
How long had it been, all those years ago? He stood in the passenger cabin of his train, the rattle of the tracks fading back into the background. Nothing more than a dream, his coven Mother had insisted, all the way to her death bed. But she’d never hit or scolded him again, after he came back home with that talisman. His coven sisters were always jealous of that. They never tried stealing it, though. It was something uniquely his. His to keep, his to guard, his to protect. No matter what else happened.
He opened his condo door, placing the groceries on the entrance table as he removed his cloak and opened the mail. More bills… and another inspection notice. The witchhunters were getting bolder about harassing registered witches. Rooting out heresy on behalf of the Church, as ever. He barely noticed the maid doll as it passed him by, chirping a greeting at him before returning to its tasks. He’d pass the inspection, like he always did, and get back to the city order. Life would continue on.
“Witch Opal, you stand accused of promoting a false god in your works and your dealings. How do you plead?”
The aged witch coughed blood as he lay sprawled on the concrete, looking past the flaming sword at his neck and to the witchhunter holding it. A younger woman, adorned in holy armor, glistening in the inhuman magics that so defined anything enchanted by the Choir. They rejected and repelled his own, making him feel as though he was suffocating, closed in and out of air. The remnants of his guardsdolls lay strewn around them, two apprentice witchhunters kicking through the debris to ensure their cores were extinguished.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he coughed again, feeling the pressure in his chest continue to build. “You don’t cough have jurisdiction here…”
“Your works make it our jurisdiction, witch. Hundreds of your dolls have infiltrated countless homes, businesses, even governments, all adorned with a sigil belonging to your patron. Your even took the name of this false god for yourself, in contradiction of your coven’s own laws.” The sword pushed closer to his neck. “The evidence of your crimes is sufficient for summary execution; only recantation and service can commute your sentence now.”
The witch was tempted to argue further, but the pain in his lungs pushed those thoughts aside. He was going die here, or worse, become trapped in some witchhunter prison for the rest of eternity. All over a dream…
Lighter pieces of doll fabric and porcelain began to rustle, a once-forgotten chill coming over the witch as the memory returned in his mind, his talisman growing ever colder against his chest, until finally, a voice spoke again.
“You kept my name, child,” the voice spoke in his ear, the rest of the world growing more distant as it did. “Humans know it once more, through your words and your works.”
“Didn’t do it intentionally…” He murmured back. “Didn’t really remember.”
“Ignorance is no excuse, witch. You know what you did,” the witchhunter’s words were distorted, caught in some eddie of the air, slow and far away. “May the Divine have mercy on your soul.”
“No one will raise a hand against you. This was the promise.” The voice grew louder, debris beginning to clatter and lift as the winds grew stronger. “I cannot save your life, child, but I will fulfill my promise. Sleep, and return to the First Mother.”
The sword dove down into his chest and shattered the talisman sitting on it. His vision blinded with an infernal light and his body filled with the pain of its magicks being stripped from him… and then a quiet solace, as it all drifted away, the world fading into the void as the screams of surprise and terror from the witchhunters accompanied him into it.