Chapter 100: A Grave of Mercy
The scent of pine and forest decomposition greeted Kirsi as Lumi halted just outside the dense forest. A barrier of prickled briar bushes and overgrown vines had formed a solid wall along the exterior.
“Well, this is bothersome,” Kirsi grumbled as she slid down the scriva’s back. The Scarlet Witch extended her hand and sunlight glittered off the translucent shaft of ice that appeared below her palm. Kirsi wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the weapon stretched into a long curved sword. “I’ll have to clear a path, go on ahead and be my eyes and ears, Lumi.”
The white wolf bowed its head and shimmered, becoming translucent as it shrank to the size of a rabbit. The Scarlet Witch watched the miniature wolf dig beneath the briar bushes then bound deeper into the forest.
With a resigned, drawn-out sigh, Kirsi glanced over her shoulder as the distant sound of singing from the funeral carried over the breeze. Her lips curled with disgust at the idea of a weak coven witch being honored by the Fire Coven’s warrior song.
‘Do the old ways of honor and respect hold no meaning anymore?’
The Scarlet Witch shook her head as she extended her sword arm and smiled at her reflection on the blade’s surface. “Should we teach them what true power looks like, old friend?” Kirsi’s eyes darted to the bracelet on her wrist, and she sighed. “Yes, I’m going. Pay attention to how I draw and control our magic, Carina. You will need to master it yourself.”
Kirsi lowered the ice weapon to her side then raised the sword smoothly upwards as she released the frozen heart’s power. A cold, sharp blade of pure blinding magic pulsed free of the sword’s edge and sliced its way through bushes, limbs, and tree. Before her, the two gnarled red alder trees groaned and twisted together as they fell, taking down a third tree between them and crashed against the woodland floor.
“You like flowers, don’t you, Carina,” Kirsi murmured with a smirk, “Well this is even easier than pruning a bush. Still, you’ll have to be careful how much power you release with each strike, or you might end up culling the forest.”
A squirrel scampered down a branch of the fallen alder tree and quickly dashed off through the underbrush. Kirsi hopped lightly over the fallen tree trunks, then grimaced as her heels caught in the muddy soil.
“These aren’t exactly built for battle or a stroll through the forest,” the Scarlet Witch muttered as she sat down on a fallen tree and removed the muddy black heels the Dowager had chosen to match her dress. “We need to upgrade your wardrobe to something a bit more conducive to battle and survival. But for now—” Kirsi wove her hand around her bare feet as ice materialized and folded into layers that formed a glittering pair of ice boots. “They won’t be comfortable, but we can move faster in these.”
The Scarlet Witch stood, glanced at the heels in her left hand, then hung them from a nearby branch and promptly forgot them.
Despite the abundant foliage above, which shielded Kirsi from the sun, the Scarlet Witch soon found herself out of breath and panting by the time Lumi caught sight of their target ahead.
‘This body is so out of shape it’s ridiculous. The lungs, muscles, and even the joints are weak. Was Carina starved as a child?’ Kirsi slapped a bit of cold magic against her cheeks and neck to cool down as she paused to catch her breath and focused on Lumi’s discovery.
Through the scriva’s eyes, Kirsi could see three men standing around a moderate-sized hole in the ground. ‘A grave?’ The largest of the three was the knight captain Carina had been so worried about, while Lumi identified the other two as earth witches. ‘I saw no trail on my way here nor any breakage in the barrier at the edge of the forest. I’m guessing these earth witches have something to do with that, but what do they want with a knight of Lafeara? Is the knight captain some sort of spy?’
With a mental command to Lumi to continue her observation without giving herself away, the Scarlet Witch moved forward steadily.
Perhaps because of her fatigue, or her rather unorthodox footwear which lumbered loudly through the forest, or more likely the fact that Kirsi was breathing as heavily as a cow about to give birth—but the earth witches ahead appeared to sense the Scarlet Witch’s presence and hurriedly pushed Beaumont into the hole.
Kirsi hissed with irritation as she picked up the pace and sliced through the obstructive tree branches. A few fallen trees later, she staggered out into the small clearing. Feeling elated, exhausted, and more than a little irritated, the Scarlet Witch glared at the two earth witches who appeared to be burying Captain Beaumont alive.
“Step away from him,” Kirsi commanded sharply as she straightened and raised her blade.
The two witches standing on either side of the shallow grave froze and then turned in her direction. Meanwhile, Captain Beaumont, who knelt half-buried inside the dug hole, gave no indication at all that he was aware of her arrival.
A flash of light pulled Kirsi’s gaze to the edge of the clearing where the Captain’s armor and shirt had been neatly set aside. ‘Well, that would explain why he’s half-naked, but what is he doing kneeling in a grave?’
“You-you can’t interfere!” snarled the first earth witch. His outstretched hands glowed with a muddy green color as the earth he had been pushing into the grave trembled and slid unevenly over the edge. The witch had long dark chestnut hair roughly braided in straps of leather adorned with gemstones and feathers. His garments were dark leather brown, painted to match the landscape of the forest.
‘A Tharyn warrior this far east?’
“Please,” murmured the second earth witch as he raised his hands placatingly. “We’re trying to save him.” This witch was dressed in similar leather pants, but with the pale fur of several gray foxes draped around his bare shoulders and chest, pinned with a glittering onyx stone embedded into a wreath of wooden leaves that identified him as a priest of Minerva.
“What are you doing to him?” Kirsi murmured curiously as she glanced from the witches to Captain Beaumont and noticed the long necklaces of seashells that hung down the knight’s back and chest.
“As I said, we’re trying to save him—so please let us finish our work,” the priest replied tensely. His braided blonde hair and blue eyes were unusual for an earth witch, but Kirsi could feel the Tharyn witch’s power trembling through the earth around the clearing.
“You’re trying to remove the Death Mark?” she queried as she circled the clearing towards them.
“Yes,” the priest replied firmly. “May we continue, or do you have a problem with that?”
The Scarlet Witch tilted her head as she studied the burning, swollen mark upon the Captain’s abdomen. “I have no interest in stopping you,” she replied dismissively.
The dark-haired earth witch narrowed his gaze at her sword. Kirsi laughed and dismissed the blade with a wave of her hand.
“Thank you,” the priest murmured and quickly resumed his work.
The Scarlet Witch watched as the dark-haired witch buried the kneeling knight in the earth while the priest carved runes into the soil around them.
“Not to interrupt,” Kirsi said conversationally as the pile of dirt covered the colorful seashells on the Captain’s chest. “But you know removing a Death Mark is impossible, especially for an inexperienced priest such as yourself.”
The blonde witch flinched but continued his work as he connected each of the runes drawn into the earth around Beaumont together. “Water,” he called out to his comrade, who carried over two heavy water skins from a tree branch.
The earth witches moved quickly but carefully as they poured the water into the hand-dug runes. Smoke billowed and rose from the earth compacted around the knight captain’s chest as the witches finished their work.
Kirsi moved around the edge of the runes until she was directly in front of Beaumont, whose eyes remained tightly closed as he focused on breathing through the burning pain that dripped off his brows, cheeks, nose, and chin.
“What did you expect to gain by taking on such a dangerous curse?” Kirsi muttered as she studied him.
“Please—don’t disturb him,” protested the earth priest as he noticed her changed location. “The slightest disturbance could break his concentration!”
Kirsi turned to study the fear in the witch’s blue eyes and laughed. “And why are you so concerned? Who is this knight that two Tharyn witches would risk capture and death to save him?”
“That has nothing to do with you,” snapped the dark-haired witch as he flung his empty water skin aside. “You must start the ritual, Vivek.”
“Yes,” Vivek, the priest nodded as he positioned himself at the edge of the runes, sat down with legs crossed, and dug his fingers into the damp earth. “ᛗᛁᚾᛖᚱᚡᚨ ᛗᛟᚦᛖᚱ ᚺᛠᚱᛗᛈᛚᛠ.”
“Interesting,” Kirsi murmured as she studied the Tharyn priest. “And who taught you the old language?”
“Stop interrupting him!” the brunette snapped angrily. “Are you trying to get them both killed?”
“His parents come from two covens, water and earth, yet he became a priest of Minerva,” Kirsi replied conversationally. “Water and earth are two strong counters to Kritanta’s fire magic. This rune—” she gestured to the symbols drawn in the soil that glowed as Vivek continued his prayer, “—might have worked if you had gotten to him sooner.”
“No, he is stronger than you think!”
“He must be to still be alive this long after receiving a Death Mark,” Kirsi muttered as she turned her gaze once more to the knight buried up to his neck in the earth. “Captain—Beaumont,” she tested the name but found no memory of it.
‘Then why do you feel so familiar?’
The earth around the knight captain turned black as more smoke poured free from the ground.
“Vivek?” the dark-haired witch whispered worriedly as his pale companion began to sweat visibly.
“You should stop your priest friend before he seriously hurts himself,” Kirsi commented without glancing in their direction.
“I can’t—let him die,” Vivek panted as he hoped his bloodshot blue eyes. “Fenn—the water—it’s drying up too quickly. Add more water!”
“We only have two waterskins left,” Fenn replied even as he moved to obey, stepping carefully around each rune as he reapplied water to the ones carved into the ground closest to Beaumont. The runes hissed as the smoke beneath them turned a cloudy white and billowed up towards the tree branches above.
“It’s not working,” Kirsi hummed in amusement as Vivek pulled out a trembling red hand from the soil. The ground had grown dry and brittle throughout the clearing. The Scarlet Witch knelt and brushed her fingers against the forest floor to get a sense of the powerful fire magic that pulsated from the knight’s trapped body. “Ahh—of course. How unfortunate.”
“What?” Vivek gasped with a sharp look in her direction.
“As I said, you’re inexperienced,” Kirsi replied with a shake of her head as she rubbed the dry dirt from her fingers. “This Death Mark was created by one of Kritanta’s consorts.” She tilted her head in the priest’s direction with a condescending smirk. “So unless one of you has been blessed by the Goddess Minerva herself—But wait, she’s dead.”
“You dare!” Fenn growled as he yanked a jagged metal ax from the strap on his back.
“Fenn, don’t!” Vivek protested with a wave of his hand. The priest groaned and clutched his chest before slowly pulling his left hand, which had gone a dark purple, from the dry soil.
“You’ve done enough,” Kirsi remarked with another shake of her head. “Any more than this, and you will lose a limb, if not your life.”
“My life is nothing—compared to his,” Vivek whispered as he cradled the burned hand to his chest. “Can you—help him? Isbrand Witch.”
Fenn flinched with evident surprise while Kirsi’s lips spread into a slow smile.
“Perceptive,” the Scarlet Witch murmured as she stood. Fenn glanced uneasily between the priest and Kirsi and tightened his grip on the ax. “I did come to see if I can help, but ultimately I have no interest in this knight’s survival—or should I say, it would benefit me more if he were not around to interfere with my goals.”
“Always so—calculating,” Beaumont muttered hoarsely.
Kirsi arched a brow as she turned to study the knight, whose chin now dropped against his chest behind the curtain of smoke. “I’m realistic, Captain. Why save you now when I will likely end up killing you later.”
“Then why come at all?”
“Because—” Kirsi blinked as the bracelet on her wrist flashed. She looked down at it and laughed in annoyance. “I was curious, I suppose. Why would I feel conflicted about saving someone who killed me in another life? And why should I help someone who killed a member of my bloodline?”
“Are you—asking on behalf of Maura—or Kirsi?” The knight raised his head and opened his violet eyes, which glowed like stars from the night sky.
“Ahh,” Kirsi murmured as her eyes widened in recognition. “So that is how it is.”
“Wait—” Vivek protested as the Scarlet Witch stepped briskly through the dried runes that scattered beneath her feet.
“Vivek—Fenn,” Beaumont called to them while his gaze remained fixed on Kirsi. “You should leave—now!”
“No!” Vivek protested even as Fenn grabbed him by the waist and slung the squirming earth priest over his shoulder. “I cannot!”
“Get as far from here as you can,” Beaumont commanded firmly before adding in a softer voice, “And thank you.”
Fenn bowed towards the knight and shot Kirsi a vengeful glare, then turned and sprinted through the forest.
“I suppose that means you’ve accepted your death?” Kirsi asked as her ice boots stopped a foot away from the knight’s head.
“What is death to us?” Beaumont replied with a raised brow.
“You interfered this time,” Kirsi growled as she folded her arms. “Why?”
“Maura wasn’t ready—to deal with something as dangerous as this,” Beaumont replied with a shrug of his head.
“Maura?” Kirsi laughed. “As close as you’ve been—you still haven’t figured it out.”
“That she and you are two halves of the same soul?” Beaumont countered, then shut his eyes with a sharp groan as the dry earth around his shoulders glowed red, then cracked and crumbled away. “I admit—I was slow to pick up on that—I thought—that you had changed this time.”
“Changed?” Kirsi threw back her head and laughed scornfully at the branches above them. “So it was the weak and pathetic version of me that finally convinced you to choose a side.”
“I haven’t taken a side—you know—I can’t,” Beaumont retorted sharply.
Kirsi stared down at him scornfully, then knelt slowly against the brittle hot ground as she stared into his eyes. “Then why?”
“For her,” the trapped knight growled and shook his head. “I have no other answer to give you.”
Kirsi’s lips twisted with scorn and anger as her eyes flashed with cold resentment. “What makes her more worthy of your—concern—than me?”
Beaumont closed his eyes for a moment, then met her gaze again with a resigned expression. “Because that part of you still remembers what it is to be a mortal.”
“She is weak!”
“She is stronger than you will ever be!”
“So says the dragon hiding behind a mortal shell,” Kirsi snarled as her left hand shot out to grip Beaumont’s throat. The knight’s dry skin chipped beneath the Scarlet Witch’s fingernails and fell onto the crumpled earth below him. Ice-blue eyes gazed into the amethyst glow of the buried immortal as Kirsi struggled against her desire to punish Minerva’s son for his arrogance and indifference. Only Carina’s compelling demands to save him stayed the Scarlet Witch’s hands.
‘Kirsi, what are you doing!’ Carina shouted against the cold reflection that kept her submerged beneath the Scarlet Witch’s dominating will. ‘Help him!’
‘He is too far gone. Even those earth priests couldn’t save him.’
‘But we should still try!’
‘Not everyone is worth saving.’
‘Damn it, Kirsi. If you won’t even try, then switch places so that I can give it a go!’
‘What do you mean why?’
‘Because he wouldn’t be in danger if he hadn’t helped me. Why is that so hard for you to understand!?’
A moment of silence passed before Carina heard Kirsi speak to Beaumont again. “Just to be clear, I’m only doing this to repay the debt of you helping the other me. Nothing more.”
Carina sighed in relief as Viktor’s cold magic flowed around her and transferred to the exterior world she could barely make out through the icy reflective barrier.
‘I’ve bought you some time, Carina.’ Kirsi’s voice echoed through the cold chamber as it shimmered and faded away from Carina’s vision. ‘But if you want to save him, then do it yourself.’
‘What?’ Carina blinked at the potent source of heat beneath her hands and stared with widening eyes as Beaumont’s face appeared before her, clutched between the ice witch’s cold fingers. ‘Kirsi!’
“If this is all you can do, then you should leave, Kirsi,” Beaumont whispered tiredly as he blinked slowly against the cold that seeped out from Carina’s hands. “I would prefer it if she didn’t witness how this ends.”
“No!” Carina hissed forcefully as she lowered her hands from the knight’s face and clawed away the dried earth around his chest. Broken shells fell away with the dirt, their color now faded and dull. Beneath them, glowing orange veins stood out against Beaumont’s muddy skin. The Death Mark had spread, leaving behind a charred blackened hole in the knight’s chest.
‘How is he even still conscious, let alone alive with this kind of burn?’
Carina quickly pressed her hands on either side of the Death Mark and focused on her connection to Viktor’s heart as she channeled and pushed the cold magic towards the blistering heat that rippled off Beaumont as if he were a lump of metal pulled from a furnace.
“You—” Beaumont studied her uncertainly. “Why are you here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Carina replied without meeting his gaze. She could feel the storm of fire blazing inside him. Some of it had been drawn out into pockets dug beneath the earth around them, but not enough. Still, despite Carina’s every effort to subdue the deadly magic burning away at Beaumont’s internal organs, she could feel the curse winning.
‘Why? With Viktor’s magic, we should be able to stop this!’
“It’s alright,” Beaumont whispered soothingly. “I told you not to worry—”
“You idiot, if we had done this sooner—”
“It’s not as if I don’t deserve it,” the knight captain interrupted with a wry smile. “After all, I did kill you in another life.”
“That wasn’t me, that—” Carina shook her head. “I’m not Maura.”
“You’re not the Kirsi I know either,” Beaumont replied with a faltering smile before he sucked in a sharp breath. “I’m running out of time—you should go.”
“No! There has to be another way!”
“You should be cautious of letting Kirsi have her way. She doesn’t have your empathy or—restraint.”
“Is that really what’s important right now?”
“Perhaps not. But—I don’t want to leave—without knowing your name.”
Carina flinched as the flow of magic through her hands faltered. “My name?”
“You’re not Kirsi or Maura,” Beaumont replied as his steady violet gaze filled her vision. “So—who are you?”
“No,” Beaumont shook his head with a smile. “I know Kirsi too well to believe that.”
Carina dropped her gaze and focused on forcing more magic from the frozen heart towards the Death Mark.
“Won’t you tell me? I promise to remember it next time we meet.”
She looked up again and watched as the violet glow of his eyes flickered and dimmed as his gaze grew unfocused. ‘No!’ Carina pulled her hands away from the knight’s burning chest and cradled his head in her arms as she enveloped him in the chilling embrace of her magic. “Don’t—don’t you dare—”
“Tell me—please,” Beaumont whispered beneath her arms.
‘Do not tell him, Carina!’ Kirsi snarled as the Scarlet Witch bulked against Carina’s restraint. ‘Nothing is more dangerous than giving him your name.’
‘Then, if you don’t want me to give him my name, tell me how to save him!’ Carina shot back defiantly. Frost spread beneath the ice witch’s skirt and spread around the runes before it sank deep into the earth. It coated Carina’s skin, hair, and dress but melted away the moment it touched Beaumont’s burning skin. ‘Now, Kirsi!’
A brittle chill of anger filled Carina’s stomach before the Scarlet Witch finally answered.
‘If you want to save him, you can’t just cool him externally.’
Carina blinked and pulled back as she focused on Beaumont’s closed eyelids. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Right, you’re a bloody virgin. I mean our magic has to go directly to the source of the Death Mark. Either cut open his stomach or—try kissing him. Mouth to mouth should work if you can maintain the connection long enough. Or you can dig him out and—’
‘I got it!’ Carina snapped back as she shut off the mental link to Kirsi and Lumi and focused on Beaumont. ‘Okay, it’s just a kiss. No—think of it more like CPR. I’m just doing this to keep him alive—no big deal.’
“Beaumont,” Carina whispered uncertainly as she focused on the knight captain’s closed, unmoving eyelids. He was already closer to her now than they had ever been. His flushed cheek rested against her arm, defenseless and pale. Carina brushed her fingers through his short, damp blonde hair as she drew in a breath. As battered and defeated as Beaumont looked then, somehow, he still maintained a presence of regal dignity. Perhaps it was his perfectly shaped nose or the way his blonde eyebrows were drawn together into their usual expression of focused disapproval. “Beaumont—can you hear me?”
‘Don’t blame me if he dies while you sit there hesitating—not that I think we should save him at all,’ Kirsi quipped pointedly.
“Beaumont, if you can hear me, then—focus on staying alive,” Carina whispered as she tilted his head awkwardly in her arms. The soft blue light of the ice witch’s heart illuminated Beaumont’s face as Carina leaned in and pressed her mouth against his parted lips, which burned to the touch, and breathed her magic into his soul. His lips tasted of earth, salt, and something sweet like honey.
A moment after the knight’s lips cooled to the touch, Beaumont’s shoulder jolted against her legs, and his eyes flew open. Carina gasped in surprise and pulled away as the earth below her shifted unsteadily. Then Beaumont’s arms wrapped around her as his rough hand turned her cheek towards him and his lips devoured hers. The same cold magic that had flowed into him steadily before was now being pulled in like the tide as Beaumont drank it in from her lips greedily. His mouth was rough but gentle as it moved over hers, kissing and tasting her one moment, then moaning softly as his arm tightened around her waist the next.
Beneath her hands, Carina could feel Beaumont channeling her magic into his core. Something dark writhed within the cold storm as it struggled to break free of her ice magic, then splintered and shattered as Beaumont pulled suddenly away.
Carina sagged against the ground as the knight captain released her. She watched numbly as Beaumont tore through the frozen earth around his waist with his bare hands, then crawled to the surface where he retched dark, clotted blood into one of the frost-covered runes.
Around them, the stillness of the forest faded beneath a gentle, reassuring breeze, as if someone, somewhere, had exhaled suddenly in relief. Carina blinked as she raised a trembling hand towards her mouth, feeling light-headed, shaken, and completely drained.
“That was—incredibly dangerous,” Beaumont murmured, his voice still raspy. He rolled slowly onto his side as he turned to face her. “You should be more careful; being drained of magic is one way to get yourself killed.”
“Is that a Thanks for saving my life?” Carina remarked wearily as she glanced towards his chest, relieved to see the burning veins of the curse gone. The Death Mark itself was still red and swollen but appeared more like a rather bad sunburn.
“Perhaps,” Beaumont whispered tiredly as he ran a hand over the Death Mark with an uncertain expression. “Vivek!” he barked suddenly, startling Carina. “I told you to get far away from here.”
Carina turned as the two earth witches stepped out cautiously from behind a tree. Vivek, the priest, stepped forward suddenly and dropped to his knees as he bowed towards Carina.
“Thank you, Isbrand Witch. I am—more grateful than I can express in your language.”
Carina raised a brow and glanced towards Beaumont.
The knight captain shook his head before turning his violet eyes back on the ice witch. “I am indebted to you as well—”
“No, with this, we’re even,” Carina corrected hastily as she rose unsteadily to her feet.
Beaumont nodded and rubbed the curse on his abdomen awkwardly. Fenn moved over to stand beside the priest but narrowed his hazel brown eyes at Carina suspiciously.
“Ahh,” Beaumont cleared his throat. “Could you give us a moment? They need to help me clear away any residual aftereffects.”
“Oh, of course,” Carina nodded and grimaced as her vision blurred slightly. “I should—be getting back.” She extended her hand and smiled as Lumi appeared to provide her with much-needed support. The scriva nuzzled Carina’s neck worriedly, then dipped her head under the ice witch’s arm to growl at Vivek and Fenn, who stared back with mingled alarm and delight.
“You can summon a scriva?” Vivek whispered with evident astonishment as he inched closer to the growling elemental. Fenn yanked the curious priest back and shook his head in warning.
“Vivek,” Beaumont growled as he clutched the remnants of the Death Mark. “Before it mutates.”
“Oh, yes!” Vivek scurried as he dug into the pouch at his side. Carina watched as the priest applied what looked like a mixture of mud and herbs to Beaumont’s abdomen. Once he was satisfied, Vivek pressed his hands over the earthy mound and whispered something in a strange language. “ᚱᛖᛗᛟᚡᛖ ᚨᛚᛚ ᛁᛗᛈᚢᚱᛁᛏᛠᛋ.”
“What are we supposed to do about her?” Fenn asked grimly as he crossed his arms, still glaring at Carina.
“Leave her be,” Beaumont answered with a sharp look at the earth witch.
“She saved him, Fenn,” Vivek admonished with a worried look at his comrade. “You saw it just as clearly as I did.”
“Strange form of help,” Fenn muttered darkly. “Taking advantage of someone trapped in the earth.”
Carina felt her cheeks burn as she nudged Lumi to kneel so she could climb onto the scriva’s back more easily. “Well—as you appear to be safe and in good hands now, Captain—I have to head back.”
“Wait!” Beaumont called out quickly as Lumi turned in the direction of the forest tree line. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“No,” Carina replied with one last hesitant look at the half-naked knight. “Not today.” Lumi needed little encouragement as she bounded away. The pair became translucent and quickly left Beaumont and the two earth witches behind as the scriva wove through the forest to find the least hindered path back to the capital.
No matter how many times Carina told herself that what she had just experienced wasn’t a kiss—just life-saving magic—she couldn’t shake the feeling of Beaumont’s mouth upon her lips—or the thrilling feeling of serenity she had felt in his arms.
‘Damn it, Kirsi. This is all your fault.’