Chapter 34: A Weakening of Truths
Carina stared at the immortal god of wind with mounting unease. The faint tingling of Kirsi’s resentment beneath her skin offered a strange comfort as the Duchess faced Veles alone in Gilwren Forest. At first glance, the cunning deity of the Air Covens resembled an old man shrouded in a simple black cloak. However, upon closer inspection, the mantle’s dark fabric gave off a strange sheen and rippled with the immortal’s movements like a shroud of woven tiny black feathers. A sharp nose, framed by two crimson eyes, pierced the shadows of the cloak over thinly drawn lips that conveyed an indecipherable expression.
“I see much of Viktor’s power in you,” Veles observed in a hoarse, accusing tone. “It would seem that reuniting you with your missing fragment has not altered your decision.”
Carina grimaced as she reigned in the Scarlet Witch’s flaring anger. While Veles was not the first immortal she had met, he was notably more powerful than Viktor—and more alive.
‘Is he simply well informed, or was he involved in some way with Arachne’s plot to weaken Kirsi and Viktor.’
“Why are you here?” The Duchess asked pointedly, wishing belatedly that she had not dismissed her ice armor.
“My chosen informed me that you were in peril,” Veles replied with a not-so-subtle sigh. “I was concerned that you might perish before you had a chance to correct your past mistakes.”
‘Mistakes?’ Carina’s lips twitched with a faint mocking laugh as she raised her arms in a dismissive shrug. “As you can see, I am quite unharmed.”
“It is no coincidence that remnants of your past lives have awakened, Kirsi.”
The Duchess frowned as the Scarlet Witch’s energy rippled with rage. Carina’s fatigue from battle gave her predecessor all the edge she needed to break free as the two souls uncomfortably aligned with each other.
“You mean the souls that you and Arachne twisted against me?” Kirsi retorted with a cynical chuckle. “Let them come. I am more than happy to settle past scores.”
“It is not the past but the present you should concern yourself with!” Veles snarled as he studied the ice witch critically. “This is your last life, Kirsi! I have exhausted nearly every member of the Hawthorne bloodline to give you every opportunity to make your decision. Once the Saint awakens—there is nothing more I can do.”
“Sacrificed?” Carina echoed in confusion.
“The most valuable resource to mortals and immortals is time!” Veles retorted. “Even I cannot bend the rules of the heavens without paying a price.”
“So you sacrifice—your own followers?”
“The Chosen know that the powers granted to them by the gods come at a price!”
“Then does Percy know what that price is!?”
The immortal hesitated. Beneath the folds of his robes, rough, dry fingers with long black talons curled around the tall, winding staff the god leaned heavily against. The more the Duchess looked at his hands, the more their texture reminded her of a bird’s foot. ‘Perhaps he is more bird than man?’
“It’s not like you to be so concerned with the lives of others,” Veles observed speculatively. “I suppose that part of you has altered—and yet you still insist on pushing Viktor to his doom?”
“You make it sound so simple,” Carina retorted defensively. “I have no desire to see Viktor suffer any more than I wish to die myself.”
“Ahh, the selfish love of a child.” The immortal chuckled dryly. “I suppose that is the affliction of mortal behavior. Each expecting the other to sacrifice themselves for their own personal happiness.”
“You speak as if the gods will not benefit from my sacrifice!”
Veles’s crimson eyes flashed with annoyance. “How many lives have you been granted, Kirsi? Far more than any mortal—yet you still refuse to return Viktor’s heart!”
“It is not ours to give or take!” Kirsi snapped, overriding Carina’s irritation with deeply seeded outrage. “Nor is it yours to demand. We are not to blame for Arachne’s actions or Ramiel’s ultimatum.”
‘Stop saying we!’ Carina hissed internally.
The immortal’s gaze narrowed as he tapped a long nail against his staff. “I have never condoned the actions of my sisters against Viktor—but they were clearly provoked. A child for a child. Viktor should have let the matter rest there, but he and Minerva broke the rules by bringing you back and meddling in the bloodline of Saints.”
‘Viktor also mentioned something about the blood of the First Saint. Is that why Ramiel is so set against us?’
“Regardless of what seems fair and right to you, Kirsi, you know you cannot win. Even if you somehow manage to survive, you lack the support and power necessary to reach your goal. Not only that, but three out of the four surviving gods stand against you.”
‘Kritanta, Arachne, and Ramiel.’
“And what position have you taken?” Carina pressed cautiously.
“The same position I held when Viktor broke the balance of the gods,” Veles replied firmly. “I am a neutral observer.”
“Who has sacrificed countless witches to keep me alive.”
The immortal drew in a sharp breath. “If you are at all grateful—then consider my request. Let Viktor return to his rightful place so that peace may be restored.”
‘Easy enough for an immortal to suggest.’ The Duchess clenched her jaw and hands. At this point, she was beginning to understand Kirsi’s hatred for gods in general.
“Tell me something, Veles,” Carina continued cautiously. “Why expend so much effort to achieve your goal? What would happen if Viktor and I both perished?”
The wind stirred uneasily around them as Veles’s rough fingers tightened around his staff. The Duchess flinched as the immortal threw back his cape and spread his arms wide. The glittering material stretched and transformed into dark, powerful wings that propelled the god toward the ice witch with terrifying speed.
“If Viktor yields the last of his power to you, then he will die, Kirsi!” Veles snarled as his crimson eyes bore into her with a tangible pressuring threat. “If that happens—you will suffer. None of the gods are on your side. And while we cannot intervene with your decision, once Viktor’s seat lies empty, we will be forced to remove any impediment to the birth of a new immortal.”
‘That impediment being me.’
Carina swallowed a lump of fear as she focused on the black veins that spread down his neck into the dark plumage of his chest. “If that is your ultimate decision, what’s stopping you from killing me now and returning Viktor’s heart yourself?”
“As I said, we cannot directly intervene—”
“Why? It’s not like Viktor has the power to stand in your way. All the gods are against me, as you’ve already stated—so why not end this ridiculous farce instead of sacrificing, threatening, and twisting the lives of so many to pressure me into yielding to your demands!?”
“You—foolish—stubborn half-blood!” Veles shrieked. “By what authority do you demand answers from me? I am the god of air! The god of wealth and knowledge! I do not bow to the will of a mere half-immortal!”
The Duchess scoffed and rolled her eyes, biting back the terror that crept up her spine as the forest around them darkened beneath the immortal’s anger. “If you’re the god of knowledge, then it should be easy enough for you to clarify the matter!”
“The answer should be obvious, even for one as dull-witted as you!” Veles snapped. “Even the gods have rules they must follow!”
“And yet Kritanta and Arachne suffered no punishment for what they did to Viktor!”
“You—insufferable—waste of a god’s excrement! Viktor’s downfall was his own doing. Per the rules of the gods, he could have claimed his revenge, but he made a deal with—” Veles cut off sharply, then spun away, his wings knocking the Duchess off her feet as he stormed off.
“Made a deal about what? With whom?” Carina demanded as she struggled to rise, only for her shaking legs to give out beneath her.
“It doesn’t matter!” The immortal whirled about to face her and exhaled forcibly as he calmed himself. “Even after all these years, you have yet to meet any of the necessary conditions. So, in the end, Viktor will have sacrificed everything—for an impossible dream.”
The Duchess opened her mouth to demand more answers but felt her throat close beneath the invisible pressure of the immortal’s power.
Veles smiled at her cynically as his wings relaxed and lowered to resume the appearance of a tattered cloak. “Take your questions to Viktor. If he cannot answer them—then why should I? Just know that if you refuse the will of the gods, a great many mortals and witches alike will suffer because of your selfishness!”
Carina coughed as the pressure around her neck lessened. “Why? Because I’m the Witch of Calamity?”
The god of air did not respond as his figure dispersed into another cloud of crows that quickly scattered toward the darkening sky above them.
‘How like an oppressor to blame the oppressed.’
The Duchess scoffed as she rubbed her neck and tried again to rise but found her body lacked even the minimal amount of strength to do so. She shook her head and slumped against the leaves of the forest floor, fighting the fatigue that clung to her heavy eyelids as the shadows crept in around her.
At first glance, the Duchess hardly appeared to be breathing. Percy hastily dropped to his knees beside the unconscious ice witch, flinching as his fingers grazed against the shockingly cold skin of her wrist and found a pulse. The Earl closed his eyes tightly, then pressed a hand over his mouth as he exhaled in relief.
Behind the Witch King, Marquess Winifred settled onto the forest floor, accompanied by his eldest, Lord Ernest. The purebloods exchanged glances as they watched Percy fold Kirsi’s hands across her stomach before scanning her body for injuries.
“Your Grace, how is she?” Winslet asked tentatively, signaling for Ernest to search the woods around them.
“She survived by some miracle,” Percy replied gruffly, brushing the damp clumps of frost from the Duchess’s ash-brown hair. His eyes narrowed at the faint bruise just below her left ear. He tilted her head gently to the side and blinked as he took in the vibrant section of white hair at the nape of her neck.
Ernest returned, eying the Witch King and Duchess as he strode over to join his father. “No sign of the remnant anywhere. Nothing out of place either, other than her.”
“Odd,” Winifred murmured pensively before moving closer to examine the unconscious Duchess.
“A few scrapes and bruises,” Percy commented before gesturing to the curl of white hair. “Although it appears she strained the limits of her mana reserves.”
“Safe to say Lady Kirsi was incredibly lucky if that’s the only injury she walked away with.”
“What? It doesn’t look serious,” Ernest muttered as he brushed a stray pine needle from his hair. “Don’t most ice witches have white hair anyway?”
“Only because they lived long enough for their hair to turn white naturally,” Percy growled, his winter grey eyes shooting the Marquess’s firstborn a warning look. Ernest quickly dropped his gaze and retreated to a safe distance while his father removed his cloak and passed it to the Witch King.
“We should return, your Grace,” Winifred murmured with a glance at the storm clouds gathering above them. “Now that the Duchess is safe, the Twilight Coven can release a rainstorm strong enough to wash away any traces a remnant was here.”
“A storm will drive all the other hunting parties back to the manor,” Percy replied as he folded the cloak into a pillow and placed it under the ice witch’s head. “We need a reasonable story to explain Lady Kirsi’s condition as well as the loss of her huntsman.”
The Marquess frowned as he watched the Earl remove his cloak and jacket, draping both over the Duchess to provide her with warmth. “It’s true—the Crown Prince is certain to raise a fuss if the Duchess returns in this state.”
“Why not say it was an accident—or perhaps pin it on the missing huntsman!” Ernest suggested, eager to correct his earlier lousy impression.
“Blaming the huntsman lays responsibility at Viscount Gilwren’s feet?” Percy retorted with a glance at the Marquess. ‘This is why I favor the second son when it comes to inheriting his father’s position.’
“We need a believable excuse that won’t weaken Lady Kirsi’s image or cause harm to our allies,” Winifred pondered, furrowing his brows as he studied the ice witch’s pale face. “Her Grace might be out for a day or two, depending on how depleted her magic reserves are.”
The Earl frowned as he tucked the edges of his cloak under the Duchess’s arms. He checked her pulse once more, this time at her throat, and measured the sluggish pace of her heart worriedly.
‘Winifred is right. If we want the mortals to remain ignorant of our world, we need a plausible excuse to buy Kirsi time to rest.’
“Perhaps I could be of some assistance?”
The three purebloods whirled in surprise toward the huntsman, who strode towards them with his hands cautiously raised.
“You!” Percy blurted out as he rose to his feet. “Weren’t you originally with the Duchess’s hunting party?”
“Careful,” Winifred growled, drawing a line in the forest floor with a flash of wind. “He smells of the sea.”
The Earl’s eyes narrowed as the huntsman lowered his hands with a grin, then presented them with a bow.
“They call me Jasper, and yes—I was originally the huntsman for the Duchess before Viscount Gilwren replaced me.”
“What’s a Strugna witch doing this far west?” Ernest demanded warily. “And how did you get past my barrier? There are no water sources near here.”
“Ahaha,” Jasper chuckled as he tapped the tree beside him. “Water exists in more places than you realize.”
“Nevermind that now,” Percy interjected sharply as he moved to stand between the Strugna witch and Kirsi. “You said you could help?”
“I just happened to run across one while searching for a means to assist the Duchess—” the huntsman shrugged casually, “—but it should more than do the trick.”
The purebloods watched with baffled frowns as Jasper knelt and scraped a hole in the ground with his hunting knife. A moment later, he filled the hand size hole with water from his canteen, then glanced towards them with a smug grin of satisfaction. “Air witches may have speed and other handy tricks, but even you can’t cross a continent or the ocean as quickly as we can.”
“Save the boasting for after you’ve provided a—” Ernest stumbled to a halt as a massive brown bear appeared at the huntsman’s feet with the snap of his fingers. “What?!”
“Large enough to spook a horse and cause an accident,” Jasper commented as he took a seat on the animal’s giant neck.
“Also ferocious enough to maul a man alive,” Winifred murmured with a nod of approval. “We just need a corpse to pass off as the other huntsman.”
“Why not use him then?” Ernest snapped, scowling at the grinning water witch.
‘Why not indeed.’ Percy eyed the huntsman warily. He knew enough about the water covens to know they were dealing with a pureblood from Strugna. One who had managed to insert himself into the Duchess’s hunting party, no less.
The Earl glanced from the bear to the sleeping Duchess and heaved a sigh. “Marquess, bring Colonel Isaac and the Bastiallano knights to our location. Lord Ernest, you have two hours to find a body to pass off as the dead huntsman—”
“No need for that,” Jasper interjected with a scoff. “Besides, I’d rather not know how you plan on finding a body, recently deceased, close enough to Harry’s size and build.”
“Do you have a better solution?”
Percy frowned. The more he interacted with this water witch, the more the huntsman’s cocky confidence irked him.
“Perhaps you could explain?” Winifred pressed, attempting to keep the peace.
“I’ll just show you,” Jasper retorted as he jumped up from the bear and poured the rest of the water from his canteen into an open palm. The clear fluid piled up within invisible restraints between the water witch’s fingers. The Earl and his purebloods watched in pensive silence as the huntsman pressed the congealed liquid against his face without losing a single drop.
Percy’s annoyed expression shifted to one of surprise as the young man’s face shifted, his cheeks growing wider while his skin lightened and aged with spots, wrinkles, and a familiar wispy, raggedy beard.
“Well—I’ll be—” Winifred murmured in surprise.
“How long will it last?” Percy asked quickly as the huntsman stroked his new beard with a confident smirk.
“Only be a couple of hours since I lack the target’s blood for the spell,” Jasper explained with a hint of regret. “I’ll need a decent cloak to mask other differences in height and build.”
“You can only do the face?” Ernest questioned curiously.
“Yes, that is, if I want the illusion to last long enough to clear the Duchess of any involvement in his disappearance.”
“What about your voice?” Winifred pressed.
Jasper offered a resigned shrug. “There’s only so much I can do with an incomplete spell unless you can retrieve some of Harry’s blood for me?”
“Afraid not,” Percy replied grimly. “A simple charm spell should cover any flaws in your disguise. As long as people see you return with the Duchess—we shouldn’t have any issue creating an excuse for this Harry to disappear of his own volition.”
‘At which point, I’ll find somewhere nice and quiet to interrogate you properly.’
“Excellent,” Jasper exclaimed as he slapped his hands together. “Ahh, just one more thing—do you happen to know where the Duchess’s crossbow is.”
The Marquess and Earl exchanged glances before Winifred replied. “Perhaps. Why?”
“I drowned the bear, so if we want to pass it off as the Duchess’s kill, we should at least shoot it!”
Percy’s scowl deepened. ‘If he’s gone through all this effort to help the Duchess win the Royal Hunt—he’s probably not an enemy. But I still don’t want him anywhere near Kirsi.’
Acheron couldn’t make heads or tails of the giant bear tracks before him. The Crown Princess’s hunting party had spent the last hour tracking the ferocious animal after spotting its tracks earlier that morning, hoping to pin it into a small ravine.
By pure luck, he had spotted the giant predator lumbering through a small clearing that led down to a small creek. After rousing Eleanora, their huntsman, and the rest of their eclectic hunting party to this unexpected challenge, the rogue had crept down the trail after the beast.
He had seen the bear drinking from the creak one minute—and then it was simply gone.
“I don’t understand,” Acheron murmured numbly as he traced the frantic claw marks along the bank. “It’s almost as if it got dragged in—” He shook his head incredulously. Even at a glance, the modest stream could hardly be more than a foot deep, less than half that in the shallows.
“Nevermind, it’s gone now,” Eleanora said with a disappointed sigh as she eased the tension on her bow while scanning both ends of the creek.
“We should probably head back. Weather looks like it will turn for the worse any minute,” Marco added, sniffing the breeze with a faint scowl as he studied the darkening clouds above.
“Yeah,” Acheron muttered, shaking his head again in disappointment. “Yeah, let’s do that.”
‘A bear that size would have helped us catch up to the Duchess’s party at least. Perhaps the gods are simply set against me.’
“Shame,” Eleanora murmured as she clapped the rogue’s shoulder sympathetically before moving off to join her cousin. “I was rather looking forward to showing off such a prize. Even if we don’t win the competition—I doubt Nicholas could catch anything that will outmatch a mountain bear.”