Chapter 26: A Betrayal of Tears


Carina had never considered the possibility that ice, even in the form of a beautifully forged elemental blade, could give off such dangerous sparks. Spared as she was from the sensation of pain, the numbness in her hands and arms soon spread to the rest of her body as she endured each of the Scarlet Witch’s aggressive blows. Training had begun the moment the Duchess’s head touched her pillows after the eventful trip to Gilwren Manor.

Whatever reservations Carina had regarding Kirsi’s presence inside the frozen cortex, they had been smothered beneath the brittle anger billowing inside her chest. Borghese and the Royal Faction were clearly coming after her, and judging by their blatant attempt at blackmail, they were not above targeting anyone associated with the Duchess. Viscount Stafford’s blunderbuss insult had likely been a measured attack to test her resolve. Although Captain Beaumont’s unexpected interference had placed the Viscount in a dangerous predicament, Carina doubted that Borghese and his impetuous daughter were done playing games.

“Focus, little ice witch!” Kirsi taunted as she hooked the quillion’s forked edges against the Duchess’s blade and ripped it free from her student’s fingers. The two halves of the same soul spun away from each other with opposing expressions of amusement and frustration.

‘Damn it.’ Carina shook out both numb hands as she moved to retrieve the fallen blade. She couldn’t be bothered to keep track of how many times her teacher had disarmed her already. The frustration of her slow progress grated against her subconscious awareness of time ticking by as dawn rapidly approached, heralding the first day of the Royal Hunt.

The Duchess clasped the hilt of the elemental blade tightly as she rose and turned to face her instructor.

“You’re gripping it too tightly,” Kirsi muttered, dismissing her own blade with a flick of the wrist before stepping forward to wrap her hand around her student’s wrist. “Relax. You can tighten the bottom two fingers but keep the top three looser. You want some flexibility to your movements and range of motion, after all.”

Carina attempted to correct her grip as the Scarlet Witch stepped away, summoning an ice sculpture in the shape of an armored man with the snap of her finger.

“Since you lack even the basic knowledge of swordsmanship, a stationary target should at least help you keep hold of your sword.”

The Duchess winced under yet another poorly veiled insult as she stepped forward to repeat the drills her instructor had grilled into her earlier.

“It’s not enough to simply swing your sword about like some possessed madman,” Kirsi growled, summoning her sword, which she used to tap the back of her student’s leg guard. “This is not a stationary chess game where each opponent makes only one move at a time. Sword fighting is not as simple as thrusting, blocking, and evading. You need to combine your movements so that an attack becomes a feint that opens your opponent to a critical strike or a kick to knock them off balance. A block or parry becomes a counterattack, a retreat becomes an opportunity to strike an over-extended limb, while a dodge allows you to grapple or pummel your opponent.

“But how do I know—when and where?” Carina protested, wiping sweat from her brow and neck as she glared at the stationary target.

“Distance and timing.”

The Duchess raised her brows and sighed in exasperation. She quickly winced as her teacher smacked the flat of her blade against Carina’s back plate. Both ice witches wore similar full plate armor of elemental steel forged from ice magic, reinforced with chain mail and leather padding. Carina had been surprised and rather grateful by how light the armor was, but the magical gear did little to stop the muscle fatigue that followed Kirsi’s relentless training.

“Guard,” Kirsi barked, forcing her student to raise her sword into a defensive position. “When it comes to reading your opponent, there are two important lessons to remember. First, avoid getting hit.”

Carina scoffed, then flinched as the Scarlet Witch’s sword clanged forcefully against her own before Kirsi retreated with a playful smirk.

“Second, the best way to predict your opponent’s movements is to force them to move—”

The Duchess’s eyes widened as the Scarlet Witch charged toward her again. She moved to block her instructor’s swing once more and blinked as Kirsi spun and sidestepped around her. In a blur of motion, the Scarlet Witch rammed her full weight against Carina’s unguarded shoulder, then kicked the Duchess’s legs out from beneath her and swiftly pinned her stunned student against the icy lake of the frozen cortex.

“—when and where you want them to,” Kirsi finished with another look of smug satisfaction. “Control the flow of battle by controlling your opponent. This is a far more effective tactic than wasting time dawdling on the back of your heels for them to make a move.”

“In other words, the best defense is a good offense?”

The Scarlet Witch raised a curious brow and chuckled dryly. “Clever words won’t save you on a battlefield, Carina.”

The Duchess’s pale blue eyes narrowed as the point of her instructor’s sword tapped against the chainmail at her throat. The blade vaporized instantly into a flurry of snowflakes as a low, threatening growl came from the frozen skeletal figure of the immortal dragon. Kirsi rolled her eyes and sighed as she shook the white flakes from her glove and extended her hand to her student. “Up you get.”

“I see your point,” Carina growled, accepting the offered hand reluctantly. “But surely there is a better way to teach me—preferably a quicker method—as we’ve already used up what little time I have tonight.”

The Scarlet Witch shook her head as the Duchess got to her feet and freed her hand. “That depends on what you’re after, Carina. If you want to learn more than the basics of swordsmanship, it will take more than a few nightly lessons to get you to the baseline skill of a knight, even if you pick up things quickly through my memories.”

“It’s not just swordsmanship I need to master. It’s archery, magic—military strategy and—”

“We’re talking about lifetimes of my experiences on the battlefield against mortals and witches. That’s not something you can learn in a single night or from reading a book. I doubt it’s something even an extraordinary person could pick up in a single lifetime,” Kirsi pointed out with a hint of exasperation.

“But I can’t—I don’t have lifetimes to learn everything from you!”

“You don’t have to.” The Scarlet Witch shrugged before stretching her arms and back leisurely. “You have me.”

“Ha!” The Duchess growled. “Too bad I don’t trust you.”

“Does that matter?” Kirsi retorted with evident impatience. “Need I remind you that if you die, it’s over for both of us? This is our last life, Carina!”

“Then find a faster way to train me!”

The Scarlet Witch sucked in a sharp breath and took a step towards the Duchess, who flinched but held her ground. Kirsi laughed mirthlessly as she pressed two fingers against her brow. “If you must know, the fastest method involves memory transference. Something the purebloods use to pass on the history, spells, and unique bloodline abilities of their coven or household to its next leader.”

“Memory transference?” Carina perked up as she glanced over at Viktor. The slumbering immortal’s translucent form lay beneath a blanket of snow in the center of the frozen cortex that glimmered like a blinding star. “Viktor did mention something about sharing memories, but—”

“As a means of mending our broken souls together again,” Kirsi interjected with a cynical smile. “Yes. I’m aware. In our case, the transfer is likely to go both ways. You would gain the memories of my many lifetimes, experiences, skills, and abilities—while I would get nothing.”

The Duchess flinched beneath the Scarlet Witch’s cold, harsh glare. “Excuse me?”

“Or perhaps I’m mistaken? Is there some incredible feat from your past life that I could glean something of value from?” Kirsi retorted innocently as the light coursing around Viktor’s remains flickered. “Did you rule a nation, wage war, defend your kingdom from invasion? Or perhaps you mastered and developed a unique style of fighting that would allow you to stand toe to toe with Ramiel’s dogs, Arachnid’s spawn, and Kritanta’s consorts? No? Oh! Maybe you were successful in stopping a plague in this other world?”

“Shut up!” Carina sucked in a sharp breath as the light in her chest vibrated erratically. “I get it, okay. Our worlds are nothing alike. There were no magic or gods in my world—or at least, none that I knew of. I wasn’t born a princess or a half-immortal, either. I never even knew my parents! And the only parental figure I had—was shot to death in front of me while I was a child.”

“Spare me the tears, Carina,” Kirsi hissed with an annoyed eye roll. “You’re not the only one to lose their parents tragically or have close friends and acquaintances die in front of them.”

“My point—” The Duchess clenched her hands and looked down at the longsword briefly, “—was that the differences in our worlds do not make my experiences any less valuable. Instead of witches, we had terrorists bombing schools, hospitals, and any government building they could use to make a statement. Instead of a witch plague, we had biologically engineered diseases that require governmentally controlled vaccines which had to be administered annually through mandated health checks. Instead of Kings and Emperors, we had elected officials.

“You always knew when a presidential election year was coming up because the very air we breathed became toxic with biochemicals. A subtle yet unmistakable reminder that there was only one way to vote if we wanted to be able to breathe without wearing a mask, most of which wouldn’t stop the worst of the contaminated agents from getting through.”

The Duchess lifted her blade in one hand. The longsword, which weighed roughly four pounds, shimmered as its density shifted. Its weight tripled while the elemental weapon took on the shape of a semiautomatic rifle. “Instead of bows and swords, we had guns and bullets—well, the government, military, gangs, and terrorists had them.” She shifted the butt of the rifle against her shoulder and aimed down the sight at the Scarlet Witch, who looked back at her impassively. “But no, I didn’t lead or fight in any wars. I was just an orphan, a student, who woke up each day wondering if it would be my last.”

Kirsi scoffed. “Meaning, everything you’ve done in this life, from setting up your little frost empire under my sigil to developing medicinal herbs, was done using the knowledge you stole from either Maura or myself.”

Carina blinked at the Scarlet Witch’s accusatory tone. “It wasn’t exactly intentional. I wouldn’t have survived without Maura’s memories. But yes, I used Countess Constance’s library to learn about herbs until I could buy a place to build a library of my own. I did what I had to do to survive. And the Holy Maiden Boutique—”

“Ha! Yes. Your little dress-making business has nothing to do with me,” Kirsi interjected dismissively. “When would I find the time to enjoy sewing, much less wearing beautiful dresses, when most of my past lives were spent struggling against the will of the gods.”

The semiautomatic rifle shimmered in the Duchess’s grip before she dismissed the weapon and crossed her arms defensively. “You needn’t ridicule me just because of our differences.”

“And you needn’t distrust me for the same reasons!” The Scarlet Witch gestured between them with apparent exasperation. “We need each other to get things right this time. You have nearly all of Viktor’s magic, and I have all the knowledge and experience you need to survive everything that lies ahead.”

“But you want to kill Viktor!”

Kirsi’s pale blue eyes narrowed dangerously. “Surely even you have realized what Viktor has sacrificed to keep you—us—safe. The more magic you gain, Carina, the more he loses, and a god cannot survive without their magic.”

“What?” The Duchess flinched as the Scarlet Witch closed in, pointing over her student’s shoulder to where the frozen cortex had all but absorbed every bit of color from Viktor’s bones.

“I did not choose this path out of greed but necessity,” Kirsi growled as her pale blue eyes flickered a mere inch from Carina’s. “The only way to defeat the gods is to become one. And the only way for us to become a god is for Viktor to yield his magic completely.” The Scarlet Witch’s eyes widened slightly when the Duchess grabbed the edge of her elemental collar.

“Do you know why I don’t trust you, Kirsi?” Carina growled back as she pulled her mentor’s face closer. “Because someone who would willingly sacrifice a parent, or any person for that matter, all for their own self-interest isn’t someone I’d entrust my worst enemy to.”

“Funny you should mention that.” The Scarlet Witch laughed as she grabbed the Duchess’s wrist and pried her fingers free of the collar. “Given the enemy you’ve kept close at hand.”

“Enemy?” Carina scowled. “You mean the Dowager?”

“Octavia is little more than a relic of the past. What little power she retains is a double-edged sword forged from blackmail and threats. The greatest asset she possessed, Bastiallano, has returned to its rightful owner—us. Without it, she is little more than a toothless wolf.”

“Last I checked, you don’t need teeth to poison someone.”

A peal of oddly genuine laughter burst from the Scarlet Witch’s lips as she stepped back. “Criticize Octavia’s choices all you like. She is nowhere near as deadly as the Pope’s beloved sister, Nesta.”

This time it was the Duchess’s turn to scoff as she crossed her arms and shifted away from her teacher. “Hana is not our enemy.”

“Perhaps not now,” Kirsi observed dryly. “But it will be a different story when Nesta awakens as the Saint.”

Carina flinched as a cold flash of lightning streaked soundlessly across the horizon above them. She glanced warily from the clouds to Viktor before her gaze returned to Kirsi. “How—can you be certain?”

“Much like you, I came upon Harmonia’s frail descendant in dire straights and offered her my protection.” The Scarlet Witch’s cold gaze grew distant as her pale blue eyes rose to the silent clouds above them. “I rescued Nesta from the Slave Markets of new Ventrayna after the fall of Pope Ivan and old Zarus. She was a child then, lost and helpless. Even her sacred bloodline couldn’t protect her from the cruelty and hatred built off the back of a hundred generations of witch persecution.”

“What—were you doing there?” Carina asked warily.

“I had traveled with King Alexios of Strugna, whom I served as an advisor of sorts, to pay our respects to Emperor Arius and his newly established court. However, through some trickery between Arachne and Kritanta, my identity was leaked to the Dukes of Ventrayna. Each of them wished to place their daughter on the throne by Arius as Empress, and I suppose an ice witch’s immortal heart seemed like the perfect token to win the Emperor’s favor.”

The Duchess scoffed but said nothing as she listened intently to the Scarlet Witch’s tale.

“I realized who and what she was immediately, but I—I still couldn’t leave her behind to face such cruelty.” Kirsi sounded almost resentful as her gaze returned to the frozen cortex. “I had given up finding Viktor’s remains, so I thought—if I could at least win over the Saint—then perhaps—perhaps this life would be different.” The Scarlet Witch’s pale blue eyes turned sharply on Carina. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. Nesta used to look at me with the same adoration. I never understood how or why she loved me, but her innocence blinded me. It was the only life where I hesitated to pick up the sword and clash with the gods wherever they might find me. She lulled me into a peaceful existence—she filled a part of me I didn’t even know I was missing, and then—she killed me.”

Carina’s throat went dry as she watched a range of emotions flicker across Krisi’s face like a storm.

“I should have killed her first. I only saved her to increase my chances of surviving.” The Scarlet Witch shook her head with a mocking, self-deprecating laugh. “After she awakened—the Nesta I knew disappeared. Like all the Saints before her, she had become little more than a tool Ramiel used to strike me down. Even when she raised her hand against me, I pitied her. It was the first time I had ever seen a Saint shed tears—for me.”

The scales of Kirsi’s armor rippled with tiny spikes as the Scarlet Witch rolled her neck and let out a weary sigh. “And because I pitied her—I hesitated.”

The Duchess exhaled slowly as she wrestled with this rather strange image of Kirsi, as the Saint’s guardian and Hana, as a child Saint. ‘It certainly explains why Hana acts fearful of losing me in the future. But why would she cry over Kirsi after becoming the Saint? No, more importantly….’

“If Hana became the Saint as a child, then why has she yet to awaken in this life?” Carina asked sharply.

Kirsi arched a brow and then shrugged. “The arrival of the Saint tends to coincide with the appearance of the Scarlet Witch. Since I didn’t rescue her in this timeline, her awakening appears to have been delayed.”

The Duchess shook her head. “That can’t be the only reason. If all that was necessary was for Nesta to meet the Scarlet Witch, then well—we’ve already fulfilled that requirement.”

“The Covens have long believed that the Saint would only return when the last of Harmonia’s bloodline has been eradicated. That’s what stopped Arius from killing Jericho after the fall of Zarus. Even Kritanta’s beloved consorts are no match for an awakened Saint.” Kirsi narrowed her eyes as she studied her student’s pensive expression. “Do you have a different theory?”

“In the timeline between your encounter with Nesta and my encounter with Hana, she lived and died a mortal without awakening,” Carina replied. “I was simply trying to understand why there was such a stark difference in the timelines when it comes to the appearance of the Saint. Perhaps—Ramiel chose a different descendant.”

“If Ramiel could pick and choose, Hana would still be his best bet, given her proximity to you,” Kirsi countered with a subtle headshake.

“Then, the only other reason I can think of—is that Hana is resisting Ramiel.”

A strange silence stretched between them as Carina studied the Scarlet Witch’s guarded face. Eventually, Kirsi cleared her throat and looked away before replying. “I’ve only seen the Saint awaken once before, but even with my limited range of experience—the power of a god is not something easily resisted.”

The Duchess nodded and uncrossed her arms, then offered her hand to the Scarlet Witch as she stepped forward. “Can you show me? Through memory transference.”

“You want to see Nesta’s awakening?”



“I believe Hana wants to stop the past from repeating itself at all costs. For her sake—and ours—I’d like to help her if I can.”

“It won’t help much,” Kirsi retorted with a scowl. “Memories near the point of death are fragmented and difficult to decipher thanks to Arachne’s meddling touch.”

“I’ll take whatever hints I can get,” Carina replied stubbornly. ‘If even Kirsi can’t stop the Saint—then my best bet is to keep Ramiel’s tool dormant as long as possible.’

“Fine.” The Scarlet Witch rolled her eyes in obvious irritation before snatching the Duchess’s offered hand in her own. “Broken memories or not, death is not a pleasant experience. It is the only time you or I experience pain.”

“I got it,” Carina snapped. ‘Maura’s all but broken me in on that end.’

“I still think the smarter choice would be to kill the Saint now before she awakens.”

“That’s not happening, Kirsi.”

The Scarlet Witch offered the Duchess a cold predatory-like smile that sent a chill of warning down Carina’s spine before she was plunged into the icy cold waters of the immortal witch’s memories.

As Kirsi had predicted, the images were scattered. The seaside palace barely came into focus before Carina was ripped from one room to the next, each filled with memories of a small child with golden blonde curls and turquoise blue eyes. Nesta was dressed like a princess in silks, pearls, and jewels. Her small hands were always wrapped around the Scarlet Witch’s hand, pants, dress, or leg. This child version of Hana always seemed to be laughing, smiling, or humming happily to herself. The sun appeared to cling obsessively to her skin, eyes, curls, and teeth.

Carina could feel Kirsi’s inner turmoil despite the discordant, rushed memories. It was one thing to recognize that someone was a potential threat and danger; it was another to impose that view on a child who looked at you with absolute trust and love. And even the Scarlet Witch was not immune to the small arms of a child reaching out to her for reassurance.

But the scene altered just as suddenly as it appeared. The brightly colored walls of the seaside palace now lay shrouded beneath storm clouds that gathered ominously outside the rain-battered windows. Carina could feel Kirsi’s heart pounding frantically as the Scarlet Witch raised her elemental sword towards the small child with glowing golden eyes that faced the immortal witch across the chaos of the disheveled room.

Behind Nesta stood a man Carina recognized from Maura’s memories. The proud Pope of Zarus, with his scarred milky-golden eyes, gripped his sister’s frail shoulder tightly. Nesta trembled like a kitten caught in a storm as the Divine Heir forced a strange sacred relic into her clenched fists.

“Jericho,” Kirsi seethed as she summoned and fastened her elemental armor into place. “What have you done to her?”

“You give me too much credit, Scarlet Witch. It has always been Nesta’s fate to destroy the Witch of Calamity. My role is simply to aid her in eradicating you and every last witch that wonders this earth.” The rest of the Pope’s droning words filtered out beneath the blinding light of the Saint’s power that burst free from the holy scepter. Moments before the lethal attack pierced through Kirsi’s armor and chest, the Duchess watched as golden tears spilled down Nesta’s cheeks.

Agonizing pain splintered through Carina’s chest and vision as Kirsi’s memories shattered. The Duchess collapsed in complete darkness as Nesta’s wailing pleas echoed through her ears.

The sensation of being dragged came and went. The clang of metal echoed against her ears and grated painfully against Kirsi’s skin before they fell from a dizzying height and crashed into the waves below the seaside castle. Only after the water burned its way down into the Scarlet Witch’s lungs did the Duchess realize Kirsi had drowned in this lifetime. The Scarlet Witch did not resist the darkness that swarmed around them, echoing with familiar yet sinister laughter that filled Carina with dread.

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