Chapter 21: A Bog of Poison
“Eleanora really said that?” Hana murmured as she lowered the ice pack; a stitched folded handkerchief with a bit of wax melted and brushed over the exterior to make it watertight. Carina had filled it with a bit of ice magic and brought it up after dinner for Hana’s persisting headache.
“Mhmm,” Carina replied as she sank onto the bed beside the pale blonde.
“That surprises me,” Hana said as she draped the ice pack across her forehead so that it covered the furrowed eyebrows above her turquoise-blue eyes. “I am sure she did not mean it in a cruel way. She has become more—pragmatic—since preparing to be Nicholas’s wife.”
“Yes. I’m sure her Highness only meant to advise me out of concern,” Carina answered with a hint of sarcasm.
“Still, I cannot agree,” Hana mumbled as she folded her arms across her nightgown. “It’s the Earl that’s not good enough for you.”
Carina scoffed and smiled down at the resting attendant. “And in what way does Lady Hana find the Earl of Hawthorne lacking?”
“He’s too—cold,” Hana murmured. Carina raised a brow and shook her head silently. “Do you like him then?” Hana asked curiously.
Carina sighed as she reached for the Winter Rose beneath her bodice and reclined against the pillows. “What’s not to like? He’s handsome, wealthy, politically connected, well respected, and not horribly ancient.” She added a dramatic shudder with her last statement as her mind shifted from Lord Lennox to the recently rescued children.
“What about kind, supportive, and loyal?” Hana pressed with a concerned frown. “Surely those are more valuable traits in a husband?”
“A husband?” Carina laughed as she rolled over to study Hana. “You know I’m not interested in marriage. Anyway, what about Eleanora? How would you describe her Highness?”
“Elly?” Hana removed the ice pack with a grimace that soon faded into a smile. “Eleanora is a true princess. Strong-willed, kind, courageous, selfless, inspiring, and beautiful.”
“You forgot demure, humble, and patient,” Carina replied in a mocking tone. “Surely those are the qualities of a good wife.”
Hana snorted and winced. “I know she can be difficult, but you must understand the environment that Elly was raised in.” Her expression darkened as her fingers tightened around the cold wrapper. “The expectations placed on her at a very young age shaped not just how she sees the world, but how she views her place in it.”
“Hmm,” Carina thought back to Maura’s memory of Eleanora pushing the maid out of the secret tunnel. “Perhaps.” She closed her eyes and took in a deep, weary breath.
“It’s late,” Hana said sympathetically. “You should head back to your room before the servants start spreading rumors.”
“Your health is more important than a few gossipy old hens,” Carina replied with a wry smile. “Besides, I want to make sure you fall asleep—” she smothered a quick yawn “—after being dragged outside the palace.”
“I wasn’t dragged anywhere. I chose to go—”
“Then let me stay if I choose to,” Carina replied victoriously as she peeked through one eye.
Hana’s face tightened with worry, but then she sighed, replaced the ice pack on her forehead, and closed her eyes. Carina reached over and tucked the light blanket up around Hana’s shoulders. Once satisfied, she laid back down and studied the elegant carvings of dragonflies on the bedpost beside her.
“Have you ever wondered how different your life would be if you were not Eleanora’s lady-in-waiting?” Carina asked a few moments later.
“No,” Hana replied after a brief moment. She let out a soft yawn before adding, “I’ve always been by Eleanora’s side. First, as her maid, then as her lady-in-waiting.”
“But if you weren’t a servant or a lady-in-waiting?”
“I would still support Eleanora,” Hana answered firmly. “It is impossible for me to even imagine leaving. Eleanora is—my home.”
‘I was afraid you’d say that.’ Carina held back a sigh.
“What about you?” Hana countered with a curious smile. “Would you rather be a Countess or the wife of a knight captain?”
“How your imagination does run wild,” Carina joked sourly.
“Hmm? And yet you blush,” Hana teased.
“I most definitely did not.”
“Then—” Hana rolled towards her with a curious frown “—if not marriage. What do you hope to gain by becoming Eleanora’s lady-in-waiting?”
“The power to change my future,” Carina answered with a weary sigh. ‘And yours.’
The Bog of Solverga was a treacherous stretch of wasteland that separated the Kingdom of Strugna from the River of Geotic and, on the river’s other side, the Kingdom of Lafeara.
Nero had fled across Geotic River at early dawn with the aid of a small slip he’d obtained from a recently drowned fisherman. The craft drifted lazily beneath the fog that rolled off the shores of the bog as the witch hunter waited, sweating and shivering as the muscles around the stump of his shoulder cramped and spasmed. And yet, the phantom pains of his lost limb were nothing compared to the agony that burned within his chest and stomach.
It had taken the witch hunter nearly a week to cross Lafeara’s outlying terrain and reach the Geotic River. Only after he launched his vessel into the dark waters had the cloud of crows that shadowed his every movement lifted. Even with those malevolent scavengers finally gone, Nero could not shake the sensation of being—observed.
The witch hunter grimaced and spat black acid over the side of the boat. He didn’t have much of an appetite these days, especially when grotesque visions of his meal with the Coven of Crows resurfaced every time he thought of food.
An even more pressing matter was the chaotic and destructive state of his internal magic. Tristan’s fire magic was wreaking havoc on Nero’s natural affinity for ice magic in ways he had not imagined possible. Whereas before the Witch Star aided in subduing whatever magic it obtained for Nero’s use, now it struggled to retain the power it had stolen from the pure-blood devil beneath its muted surface.
The toxic ramifications of this stolen magic were becoming physically visible as well. Nero’s ash-brown hair was now heavily lined with silver. His complexion was an off-colored gray, his skin coarse and dry, almost brittle to the touch, his joints swollen and bruised purple, while the fingertips of his left hand—his only remaining hand—turned black. Nero could no longer deny that the Witch Star’s curse, as Mercy had foreseen, was consuming him at a much faster rate than before.
“Arachne is my only hope.”
The witch hunter pulled himself upright and dropped over the side of the boat to slog his way towards the shoreline. The wasteland’s stench accompanied the ravaged floating corpses of fish, birds, and other unfortunate animals caught in the outskirts of the dense bog grass. The murky vegetation that formed Solverga’s natural barrier entwined itself around Nero’s legs and made every step inland a battle of will, perseverance, and strength.
The glittering, dark serpent-like bodies of the bog’s notorious predators soon slithered in his direction, hungry for a bite. Nero focused on the Witch Star and released a small dose of Tristan’s fire magic. A burning flash shot out like an explosive wave and nearly knocked him off his feet as it rippled across the bog. The eels not immediately singed to a pulp quickly turned tail and slithered off to find less troublesome prey.
Nero gripped his chest and steadied his breathing for a moment as the Witch Star vibrated dangerously beneath his hand. Once the gem was calm, he continued forward and determinedly marched his way free of the scorched bog grass.
As the witch hunter progressed, the faint echoing sounds of small bells whispered through the fog, and he imagined at times that he saw dark figures standing beyond the mist only to lose them whenever he focused his attention. His progress remained eel free but agonizingly slow, mentally draining, and physically exhausting.
The sun cast his shadow across the bug-infested eyot as the fog receded and Nero waded through the ankle-high sludge. A cluster of black gnarled trees lined with faded blue ribbons and silver bells came into view across the flat horizon of mist. Nero coughed with painful effort, then took a drink from his muddied water skin before he continued forward cautiously, mindful of each step.
Solverga was the native homeland of Strugna’s oldest witches. The notoriously fatal bog was one of the few places witch hunters refused to enter. Not because of the wasteland’s natural predators and dangers, such as the eels or bubbling quicksand, which effectively dealt with any overly curious mortals. No, the hounds of the church were more concerned about the toxic waste of poisonous vegetation that thrived off the decayed, rotting corpses left by the eels. They were rumored to have mind-altering effects and numbing properties, which made losing a limb unexpectedly to carnivorous eels or the skin-eroding oil which tended to gather around the quicksand pits far more worrisome.
Nero was vigilant to avoid any area where deadly small bubbles gurgled to the surface and popped with a painful, ear-splitting screech. His careful navigation forced him to wander around the grove of trees and their taunting bells for nearly two hours until he stumbled upon a path clear of the skin-melting bog pits.
The mist returned, and beyond it, Nero could feel the weight of a dozen eyes pressing down upon him as he followed the path, which wove through the dense, waist-high bog grass and split halfway through the center grove. Nero stopped at the fork and took in the skeleton entangled by a dead tree with bells tied to his ribs, fingers, and toes.
A faded bronze coin, which bore the emblem of a burning witch, hung from the dead man’s neck—a witch hunter’s medallion. The pointed notice drew a grim smile across Nero’s face, the warning all to clear. To step beyond this point uninvited would only bring him death.
The witch hunter turned to search the heavy mist with bloodshot, ice-blue eyes; but could not locate the witches that surrounded him.
“I have come seeking the oracle,” he shouted across the bog. “I have come with a question for Arachne.”
“But can you pay the price, half-witch?”
Nero started as a laugh seemed to boom from the skeleton’s leering jaw. ‘No, just an illusion.’ It appeared that even the fog in Solverga could mess with the mind.
“I am willing to pay whatever price the oracle demands,” Nero responded boldly.
Bells mixed with laughter that jingled eerily throughout the fog. The sun beamed down overhead as the oppressive smog cleared, but still, the bog witches remained invisible to his searching gaze.
“What is your name, half-witch?”
Nero took in a slow breath and then answered, “I am called Nero. I am a witch hunter.”
The fog trembled, then billowed and crashed against him like a tide. Sharp nails hissed against his neck a moment before his legs were savagely kicked out from beneath him. Another kick emptied his lungs as Nero rolled onto his side. Then strong hands grabbed his left arm and pinned it painfully behind his back as a rope slid around his neck.
The rope tightened, and Nero’s spine almost snapped as his captor yanked his head back savagely. The fog suddenly cleared, and before his blurring vision, Nero beheld the water witches of Solverga.
The witches each possessed similar physical characteristics: damp, dripping hair, pale skin, and enlarged pupils from the poisons they consumed for pleasure and power. Their eerie beauty and youthful appearance were a testament to their tempestuous lifestyle, which tended to shorten their average life span. As a result, they bred young and repopulated like the eels that guarded their borders.
Solverga’s witches were fiercely territorial and just as vicious and relentless as the Coven of Crows, but they were not cannibals. With their capability to spread death and disease came strange respect for life itself, a distinction that offered no refuge nor comfort to those who angered them.
The water witches of Solverga possessed many poisons designed to extend life with the certainty of a more painful death, and none wielded that power better than the Coven of Wretches.
Even now, the shallow wounds left by their claws burned against the witch hunter’s neck beneath the rope that cut off his air supply. Nero struggled to stay conscious as poisonous foam filled his throat, while his words of protest remained trapped beneath the rope’s chokehold. The young male witch who controlled its pressure leered down at him with glowing green eyes.
“Azriel, do not kill him—yet.”
The distorted but commanding voice of a female witch drew Nero’s gaze over to the woman dressed in a gown woven from bog grass, reeds, and seashells. Her oddly painted face did not hide her otherwise striking dark features nor her cold black eyes.
The rope on Nero’s neck slackened so suddenly that he bit his tongue as his chin slammed against the ground. The knee between his shoulders made his initial gasps for air all the more painful.
“I am Thetis, High Priestess of Arachne.” She knelt and yanked the rope and his gaze towards her. “We do not welcome your kind here, witch hunter. State your business quickly, or I will allow Azriel to finish what he started.”
“O-oracle,” Nero choked out.
Thetis laughed darkly. “Foolish half-witch. I am asking why we should permit you to speak at all!”
Nero spat out blood and black acid. Thetis’s gaze followed the curious bile as her purple lips twitched with cynical curiosity. She released his binds and stood.
“Azriel is not known for patience, witch hunter,” she cautioned impatiently.
“Perhaps if I cut off his left arm, that would motivate him to speak faster, High Priestess,” Azriel suggested maliciously.
“No,” Nero growled. “I come seeking the Oracle—to remove—an ancient curse.”
Thetis scoffed and nudged the black fingers of his left hand with her boot. “I can see clearly that it is no natural disease which consumes you, half-witch. Medicinal herbs will do nothing to save you or spare you from pain. A quick death is the only mercy we can offer.”
“There must be another way—”
“If you wish to risk your immortal soul on such a futile endeavor, so be it—but can you pay the price, witch hunter, half-dead as you are?”
Nero hissed in a breath, then gestured to his neck. “My necklace.”
Azriel moved the rope aside, twisted his hand around the chain, and yanked the necklace free. Nero shuddered as the Witch Star’s magic was ripped from his body the moment Azriel tossed it to Thetis.
“This—” The high priestess murmured darkly as she studied the jewel “—are you aware whose magic you have trapped in here?”
“The magic of a pure-blood,” Nero answered bitterly. “The bastard son of the Emperor.”
Thetis turned the jewel over slowly. The green braids of her hair trembled over enlarged dark eyes as she shook her head. “You fool. That pure-blood was but a vessel. This magic—comes from the goddess of destruction herself, Kritanta. The bastard of which you speak—is her Consort.”