BN Chapter 1: Cordially Invited…

Out past a sleepy metropolis, as dense urban construction began to give way to scattered buildings and agriculture, a long side road began. It twisted past the hills and nooks surrounding the city, taking any would-be visitor ever deeper into the creases of the landscape. Tucked away on a dirt path that faded away if not watched carefully, a modest house had been built in a field of wildflowers and weeds that had been left to their own devices. At first glance it looked to be a simple modern construction, not unlike any house one would find out in the countryside, but a closer inspection would invariably find what that facade was hiding: a much older, much more involved structure, softly glowing sigils and runes poking out just past the synthetic paneling.

Inside, the house was still under the morning quiet, its residents not yet having stirred. A single maid doll was going about its duties silently, picking up odds and ends as it did its best to not disturb anyone or anything else. Old pictures, certificates, and posters adorned the wood and plaster walls, leaving barely any space for the shelves of memorabilia and figurines. In spite of the crowded walls, the floors of the manor were impeccable, furniture neatly arranged with not a mess or stain to be found. If not for the polished scuffmarks of visitors past, a casual observer might think that nothing ever disturbed the picturesque scene.

In the upper floor, the witch of the house awoke, eyes blinking open as he rolled over to see an alarm clock seconds from going off. With a lazy bump, he turned the thing off, rolling back over to look at the empty spot on the bed next to him. His mornings alone were becoming more infrequent, making them ever more melancholy when they did happen. With a long yawn and stretch, he slipped out of the bed, tugging on a nearby robe and looking around for where his courier bag had wound up last night. For as much work as he put in, it was a shock that he felt as rested as he did now.

The door cracked open, the maid doll stepping in and smiling at the witch. “Up early today Miss,” it chimed at him, holding out a neat pile of prepared clothes. “Did he sleep well?”

The witch looked the doll over, smiling back. “For the most part,” he murmured, taking the clothes and beginning to separate them out. This doll went by Lilac, and was his oldest doll by far. The two of them had been inseparable since he graduated all those years ago, though neither of them were then what they were now. It never stopped being just a bit amusing to him to see it in its maid uniform, intricate lace and layered skirts that hid a shocking amount of practicality and range of motion. “Was a little too excited at first but the exhaustion won eventually.”

“Another full day of errands?” It inquired, shifting around the room to begin picking up last night’s mess.

“Just one more.” He slid a blouse on, looking at himself in a nearby mirror for a moment. His hair was still a mess, even with as short as he’d cut it now. “A few deliveries, a couple consultations, a coven meeting at the end of it all, and then it’s vacation for two weeks.”

“It’ll miss seeing Miss around,” the doll murmured back, setting a book back upright. “Will his partner be accompanying him?”

“For some of it, at least. She only has a week off from classes, but I’m sure we’ll make it work.” He finished tying off a bow to secure his outfit together, looking himself over once more. A practical outfit for the practical witch, while still adhering to the traditions his coven demanded. A long but snug skirt that split, covered in the floral spirals that denoted his rank within the coven, accented by a solid silver blouse with his manor’s emblem on the breast pocket. Without a word, Lilac had already stepped behind him, fussing inaudibly as its fingers made quick work of his disheveled hair. “What’re you planning with the rest of the day?”

“It’ll be training new dolls.” It uttered some inaudible curse as it pulled a knot out of one of his locks and began a new braid. “Other witches have begun to commission this one for, hmm, ‘tutoring’ services.

“Oh? That’s exciting! The coven sisters starting to come around to you then?”

“In their own way.” It finished its task, stepping back and beginning to work on the bedsheets as the witch stood. “Miss ought to hurry, before he’s late for his errands.”

The witch looked back over at the alarm clock, perking up with a welp as he grabbed his satchel and rushed out of the bedroom. How did he always take so long to get ready? It wasn’t as if he had that complex of a morning routine… He bolted past the upper rooms of the manor, clacking down the stairs as maid dolls murmured greetings at him. He could hear some distant voices calling out for him, but he knew if he entertained them right now, he’d be even more late than he already was.

Swinging his satchel over his shoulder, the witch grabbed the awaiting broom by the front entrance and crossed the threshold, crisp autumn air hitting him as he tucked himself atop the implement and willed it to life. Seconds later, he was in-flight, soaring well above the rolling hills that hid the manor away and heading directly to the now-waking cityscape ahead. Sitting off to the side of the once-cleaning-instrument, despite the haste, he could relax and enjoy the sights below. For all the places he had visited, for all the worlds he’d traveled to, flying never lost its simple charm. The feeling of wind in his freshly-braided hair, the connectedness he felt as the magicks in his veins mixed with the broom’s to keep them both aloft. For all the traditions his coven kept up, this was easily one of the most enjoyable.

The witch landed atop a train station rooftop, slipping off the broom saddle and placing it gingerly in an awaiting locker. After ensuring it was locked appropriately, he did his best to walk briskly without being too obviously behind schedule; now, appearances became important.

“Ah, Miss Ides!” A rooftop attendant flagged him over, smiling warmly. “Just in time, the train’s departing within the minute!”

“Exactly on time then.” He smiled back, fishing a card out of his front pocket and tapping it against the attendants stall. “You really should just call me Amber; Miss Ides makes it sound like I’m going to be a matriarch.”

“Less than a minute, Miss Amber.” The attendant waved him off, and he once more tapped his ways quickly down a set of stairs, hitting the ground floor and breaking into a proper dash to slip into the awaiting train. Sure enough, he slipped past the doors and into the crowded interior seconds before the pneumatics hissed and began to shut, the hum of the overhead lines increasing as the train’s motors began to turn while he snuck down the rows to an empty seat. For all of his morning rushing, for now, he was back on schedule and could afford to relax.

He took the time to scoot himself to a window seat, looking out as the train picked up steam and began its journey into the city proper. The buildings grew denser and taller the further they went, the other occupants of the train murmuring amongst themselves as the vehicle gently lulled over the turns of urban growth. It reminded him a lot of his first home; the brick-and-stone streets in a constant fight with tree roots, the people milling about down snug business corridors. Time bled away as he let his mind drift, back to those memories, before…

The train began to slow to its stop, an announcer calling its first stop of the day, and Amber stood once more, slipping his way back to the doors as others stood with him. Plenty of errands to be done without letting his memories get the best of him.

With an exhausted sigh, Amber waited for a sliding door to recognize his presence, quietly sliding open and letting the witch into the building. The sun had by now completely dipped behind the waiting mountains, casting long shadows across the city as its nightlife began to rouse. Inside the building’s lobby, a handful of witches were milling around, quietly chatting with one another as they began to trickle further through the foyer and into the awaiting chambers beyond. For his part, the witch took a seat in the lobby, holding his head back and taking a few deep breaths as he waited for the rest of the world to catch up to him. That was entirely too many deliveries for a single day, not helped by an overly long consult…

“Acolyte Ides?” An older hostess stepped into his vision, holding a letter. “I’m glad to see you could make it this month. The Matriarch had begun to ask questions.”

“My excuse slips are all signed and filed if that’s a disciplinary letter.” He took the letter as it was handed to him, retrieving a knife from a skirt pocket to break the seal on it. “How’s the hotel managing?”

“We’ve started to receive more fae dignitaries, they have rather peculiar tastes but they pay handsomely and they tip the staff well.” The woman smiled and raised an eyebrow. “I couldn’t help but overhear one of them talking about a missing member of their court. I promised them I would inquire with the local witches at the next coven meeting. You wouldn’t have happened to see a roaming fae princeling around, would you?”

“You know me, I do my very best to avoid the fae.” He finished cracking the seal, retrieving the letter inside and inspecting it for a moment.

Dear sister,

You are cordially invited to the tenth anniversary party for the Emerald graduating class. Enjoy talks by visiting coven matriarchs, network with witches in your field, and participate in the largest familiar hunt yet. Dinner and drinks provided free of cost.

Amber blinked, unsure what to make of the letter at first. Ten year anniversary? It’d been ten years? Somehow it felt like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at once. Maybe more importantly though… networking? Was he supposed to be networking with other witches this whole time? All he remembered from his days in the coven was the sisters squabbling with each other as they ran countless petty feuds with their rivals. Fellow coven sisters or not, he certainly didn’t recall much networking.

“I see you got your invitation too.” Another witch sat beside him on the couch, muted green locks obscuring most of her face. “It’s been a moment, Amber. Not like you to show up to one of these meetings early, or at all.”

“I- I get busy.” He straightened up in his seat, looking the other witch over. She wore a similar uniform to his, though her floral marks showed she’d gained two ranks since last he’d seen her. “Climbing the hierarchy as always I see, Brandi.”

“They’re just technical certs, nothing I can hold over your head… yet.” She opened her arms, smiling as he cautiously accepted the embrace. “Comeon; it’s been forever. We have so much to catch up on, and you have a meeting with the Matriarch with me after the assembly.”

“I do?” One-on-one time with the Matriarch was never good; one-on-two time was even worse. “If it’s about the absences, I can explain-“

“She already knows about your absences Amber, if that was what it was about, you’d already be in Her chambers.” The fellow witch laughed, grabbing Amber’s hand and pulling him to his feet. “It’ll make more sense after the assembly, I promise.”

The two slipped in with the final milling of witches that were entering the grand chambers, quietly finding a few empty seats in the candle-lit auditorium. There were at least a hundred other witches present, all sisters of the coven, and all very quickly adopting a respectful quiet as a woman took the stage. Very clearly in her later years, though looking remarkably healthy as nearly all elder witches did, there was a distortion in the air around her that trailed and faded slowly behind her as she walked. To unsuspecting, unattuned eyes, it was a trick of the light; to witches, it signified someone who’s blood was so thick with magicks that their body had become a mobile leyline. She was a woman Amber had grown used to seeing as a teacher, well before she took her current title of Matriarch.

“Thank you all for your attendance as always,” the elder witch began promptly, donning a pair of glasses and shuffling through a bound journal in front of her. “This monthly meeting of the Winter Harvest Coven is hereby called to order. I don’t intend to drag things out tonight, so we’ll get straight into our main agenda item today. I’ve returned from this quarter’s session of the Sisterhood’s Lower Council with priority instructions; all covens within the Perpetual Union’s jurisdiction have been instructed to adopt immediate cease-fires and to begin the process of federation.”

A wave of murmuring and surprise swept over the assembled witches, Amber looking around at the confusion with a look of uncertainty on his own face, before turning to Brandi. “Did… did you know about this?”

“I went with the Matriarch to this last session,” she murmured back. “Exciting, isn’t it? The last time the Sisterhood ordered federation was nearly six centuries ago.”

“The last time that happened, the Inquisition had declared the final crusade against it. Not exactly what I’d call exciting.”

“Well, there’s no crusade this time.” Brandi motioned for Amber shush, as the Matriarch began talking again.

“I understand this comes as a shock to many of you; let me reassure you, there’s no imminent threat to our coven. There has been… discussion amongst the Sisterhood for as long as I can remember about… revising our ways, our traditions. Many covens had long ago abandoned any traditions they deemed too arbitrary or regressive, and this idea has finally caught up to the ruling councils.” The Matriarch sighed, making a face at her journal. “Much as I’m loathe to admit it, I agreed with the Lower Council’s decision. Given the current state of human nations, the ever greater scrutiny on our practices, and declining apprentice rates… fellow witches can’t afford to hone their craft through the scheming of their sisters any longer.”

“Eve, not what I was expecting to hear today but it’s certainly a relief.” The witch looked through the crowd, seeing how others were reacting. “No one seemed especially shocked? Surprised, but not taken off guard.”

“If you’d been attending the meetings, you’d know this was a long time coming.”

“Miss a couple meetings…” The Matriarch had continued on with her presentation, going over the standing business, but Amber’s mind was already lost in thought. His whole life, he’d been brought up under the traditions of his coven, taught the things that ought to be followed, must be followed… and now this. It was an odd combination of emotions; happiness that maybe, finally, things would be better. Bitterness at the memories of his training, the lectures and scolding he had received… Confusion, at what this meant for the coven. Without the disputes, without the fighting, in a permanent alliance, what would define the individual covens at all? Would they all just become honorary members of the Sisterhood?

“Now, Sister Rosemary has a presentation on recent advances made in applied hydrothaumaturgy…” In the physical, he heard the Matriarch still talking, but in the adjacent, a hand fell on his shoulder. “Amber. Find your way to my chambers, won’t you?”

He looked over at Brandi, who was still intently listening to Rosemary’s opening remarks. “I thought we were meeting together?

After I talk to you first.

Can’t get out of this?

I haven’t had drag you into my chambers for ten years; please don’t break that streak.

With a sigh, he tapped Brandi’s shoulder, giving the fellow witch a knowing look and getting the same in return before starting on his way back out to the lobby. Hopefully, it’d be nothing…






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