Chapter 66: The Crypts of Winter
Hana did her best to put on a benevolent smile as she faced the eight sickly villagers who had chosen to trust Kirsi’s magic. Even from a distance of at least ten feet, she could smell their unwashed, rotting bodies mingled with the scent of charred wood they carried from their destroyed homes—which only triggered memories of her childhood that the Viscountess preferred to forget.
“Welcome. I am Viscountess Hana of Sommerset. You may call me Lady Hana. I will be assisting you in preparing for your long rest. The process is simple, relaxing, and even enjoyable for some. Our first stop will be the bathhouse you see right behind me. The men’s bathing rooms are situated to the left, and the women’s rooms are to the right. Children may go with either parent or guardian. Once you’ve finished bathing, you will be given a simple pair of robes and slippers before you’ll be guided to the next building.”
The Viscountess gestured over her shoulder toward the towering icy walls of the Winter Crypt that overshadowed the faint smoke rising from the single-floor bathhouse. “Once inside, you will be led to your individual preparation chambers, where you will drink the magic potion the Duchess has prepared.”
“What—happens then?” one of the women asked stiffly around the crusty sores that framed her mouth.
Hana smiled as she stepped forward and gently placed her hand on the villager’s shoulder. “I have seen it countless times. You fall asleep, a peaceful and painless sleep, and then you join the others waiting for a cure inside the Winter Crypt.”
“How did you make a building of ice?” one of the children asked, her inquisitive hazel-green eyes widening beneath the bandages on her face. “It’s not even winter.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Hana answered with a beaming smile. “The Duchess made that building with her magic to ensure those of you sleeping inside remain safe until it is time to wake up. You can think of it like hibernation. Just pretend that you’re a bear who needs to sleep for a very long time so it can wake up when spring returns.”
“But don’t bears eat lots of food before falling asleep?”
“Indeed, they do.” The Viscountess tapped her chin thoughtfully. “As it happens, the bathhouse kitchen makes a very delicious treat called chocolate milk. It’s the perfect dessert to enjoy before going to bed. Would you like to try some?”
The child’s eyes widened with interest as she nodded eagerly.
“But—is it safe?” The child’s mother asked nervously.
“Perfectly safe—and delicious,” Hana affirmed with a smile. “I’ll have some prepared for all of you after your baths. Once you’re taken inside the private preparation rooms, I ask that you remain there until the staff or myself bring a vitrification vial to help you sleep.”
The villagers nodded and then followed the water witches, who guided them toward their respective bathing rooms. The Viscount maintained her friendly smile until they disappeared through the bathhouse front doors, then exhaled sharply as she moved to a waiting bucket to wash her neck and hands. The smell that lingered in the air behind the plague victims was enough to make her want to bathe all over. “And where is the Duchess?”
“Dealing with a minor inconvenience,” replied one of the two knights who had escorted the villagers to the Winter Crypt.
“Seems like a priest was hiding among the villagers. Idiot lost his mind when so many of them chose to accept the Duchess’s potions. He tried to strangle one of the children to—save their soul from damnation.”
“I see, and what happened to him?”
“The Duchess cut off his arms,” the second knight replied with a faint grin. “The stupid priest shat himself when he saw his two frozen stumps. It was brilliant. Then Lieutenant Hadley forced the fool to drink one of the poisoned vials on the spot.”
“Pity, if you ask me. Should have burned that priest the same way they burn witches,” grumbled the first knight. “Man of Faith, my foot. Did you see the blood and scratches on that priest’s arms? Something tells me he’s killed more than one woman or child recently. The Saint’s only know what he was doing in that village before he caught the plague.”
‘It looks like their admiration for the Duchess has also changed their stance on witches,’ the Viscountess observed quietly.
“So then, if the priest is dead, what’s the hold-up?” Hana inquired impatiently as she dried her neck and arms.
“Oh well, the other villagers who chose poison opted to spend one last meal together in one of the plague tents. So, the Duchess stayed to ensure they were served something suitable for their—rotting stomachs.”
“Ah,” Hana murmured with an understanding sigh. ‘As always, Kirsi. Your desire to put others’ needs before your own is bothersome.’
“Her Grace said she’d be a half-hour late at most and to offer the villagers whatever comfort they need while they’re waiting.”
“Of course.” The Viscountess set down the towel and then turned to offer the waiting knights a quick smile. “In the meantime, you can stop by the kitchen for food or drink if you like.”
“Ah—thank you, but no, my Lady,” the first knight responded quickly. “This place—frankly, it gives me the creeps.”
“All those plague folks sleeping on ice,” the second knight tacked on with a visible shudder.
“Then perhaps you should return to Lieutenant Hadley for further instructions,” Hana replied with a note of coldness.
The knights sheepishly bobbed their heads toward her and returned to the waiting horse and cart. The Viscountess sighed and rubbed her aching shoulders as she watched them leave before turning around to enter the bathhouse and continue her efforts to assist Kirsi’s mission of mercy.
The spacious interior walls and ceiling of the Winter Crypts, which were dense enough to deter even the setting sun from entering, were elaborately decorated with chiseled landscapes of snow, accented with the occasional white animal or bird and several glittering runes. The building had two floors with a single central staircase connecting both and ice lanterns with fragrant candles that illuminated the open space of the foyer where the villagers gathered after their baths.
The gleaming ice floor was covered in animal fur rugs to protect the feet of the patients who, even inside their warm slippers, bandages, and robes, shivered as they followed Hana around the staircase towards the open doors of the preparation chambers.
The water witch physicians who had examined and bandaged the villagers after their baths had also taken down their full names, ages, and village of residence before handing them over to the Viscountess, who confirmed their names before separating them into private rooms and then returning to give them the vitrification potion.
When asked repeatedly how Kirsi’s magic worked, Hana relayed only what the Duchess had told her, then waited patiently as each patient slowly drank the chilling potion down. After collecting each empty vial, she helped them lie down on the wood table, prepped with a tarp and roll pillow. As their breathing slowed and their eyes fluttered shut, the Viscountess watched silently as the color slowly drained from their skin, lips, and fingernails. One of the physicians then measured their pulse against a pocket watch before noting the time between dosage and unconsciousness.
As promised, Kirsi arrived shortly after the last pair of patients, a mother and child, emptied their vials before falling asleep huddled close together. The Viscountess escorted the Duchess to each room in turn before finally returning to the sleeping pair.
“Another child,” Kirsi murmured quietly as she hesitated on the threshold.
“Yes,” Hana confirmed neutrally as she pulled over the wooden stool from the corner.
The Viscountess checked her notes before responding, “Eight.”
“Eight,” Kirsi echoed softly as she moved to the table’s edge to study the mother and child. “What stage is she in?”
“The physician said she shows signs of some internal rot.”
The Duchess grimaced. “And the mother?”
“The mother has the rash and a few open sores but—no discoloration inside the mouth,” Hana replied after reading over the physician’s notes. “So she’s in better shape overall.”
“Let’s hope we find a cure that can save them both then.”
The Viscountess gripped her notebook tightly as she closed it. ‘We both know that won’t happen without the appearance of the Saint.’
“Larissa found another seed of corruption,” Kirsi continued as she sat down on the wooden stool. “So I’ll have to leave to deal with that once we’re finished here.”
“That makes four, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” the Duchess affirmed as she placed a hand on the foreheads of mother and child, careful of the girl’s boils. “Though after pulling corrupted stomach guts, intestines, and liver from the eastern sea coast… It’s hard to tell how many seeds we’re dealing with.”
“Still, at least they’re not impossible to find,” Hana reminded her with a hopeful smile.
“Our hope is that once we remove enough of them, Morgana will show her face,” Kirsi replied before shutting her eyes to focus on the cold mist of frost that quickly enveloped the pair before her in a glow of white magic. “In the meantime, fewer plague seeds means fewer plague victims.”
The Viscountess remained silent as she watched the Duchess work. Her turquoise-blue eyes reflected the pale blue light of Kirsi’s magic that glowed through the ice witch’s arms and white hair, making the few remaining strands of brown hair at the young witch’s neck all the more visible.
‘So, you’re still mortal—but for how much longer?’
Hana set the record book aside as the magical glow slowly faded from the frozen figures of ice that now lay locked together in eternal slumber. The Viscountess moved silently behind the Duchess and supported Kirsi’s shoulders as the ice witch dropped her arms tiredly. “You should rest, Kirsi. At least take a few hours to sleep.”
“I will—after I deal with the plague seed.”
The Viscountess sighed and supported the Duchess as she stood. “Why not take a break tomorrow? The Rose Dawn Orphanage will be opening. You said you wanted to visit and see how Lady Ivy was doing.”
“I need to make more of the poison and sleeping potions tomorrow,” Kirsi replied tiredly as she turned to offer her worried friend a meek smile. “Lady Larissa and my knights are working just as hard to find the remaining seeds of corruption.”
“I don’t think they’re avoiding sleep altogether like you have been. If you keep this up, Kirsi, you’ll collapse soon.”
“I know, but—I just don’t need sleep as much as I used to.”
“You may have access to most of Viktor’s power, but your body is still mortal, which means you require sleep!” Hana hissed, allowing her frustration and worry to seep through. “Three days and nights of putting deer, pigs, and now people into eternal slumber, and you act as if you’re afraid to fall asleep yourself.”
The Duchess stiffened, her blue eyes narrowing with an expression the Viscountess barely recognized before the ice witch sighed and bowed her head. “Your right. I can’t put it off forever.”
“No, not if you want to be standing for the King’s coronation,” Hana joked as she stepped away to return the stool to its corner. “Besides, you still need my blood to make these miracle sleeping potions, and I can’t rest properly while you’re burning yourself low like this.”
Kirsi frowned, then chuckled wryly. “Alright. I’ll deal with the plague seed, then return to Bastiallano’s Fortress and sleep until morning. Will that be satisfactory?”
“I suppose it will have to do,” Hana conceded, frowning as the diamond bracelet the Duchess always wore flickered erratically.
“That would be Lumi. It seems Larissa has returned and is waiting for me outside,” Kirsi murmured as she tapped the jeweled bracelet before turning her focus back to the Viscountess. “You are—still okay with me using your blood for this? I might be wrong. There’s no way of knowing how long a mortal’s body can stay frozen even with magic.”
Hana smiled as she took the Duchess’s arm and leaned in to kiss the ice witch’s cold cheek. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, Kirsi. Who else would have thought to use the Ice Coven’s hibernation technique to preserve the life of plague victims? Besides—even if it doesn’t work—they’ll be too numb to feel anything. Death is inevitable, whether now or in a few years. At least you gave them some hope while sparing them the worst of the pain.”
“You’re right. I should focus on hunting down Morgana and ending this witch plague.”
The Viscountess rolled her eyes and laughed. “Alright, go on then. Happy hunting, your Grace. I’ll be waiting for you back at the Fortress.”
“You should get some rest while I’m gone,” Kirsi replied as they moved to the side while Larissa’s water witches began transporting the frozen patients to the second floor. “I’ll check in on you when I get back.”
Jesse didn’t remember falling asleep, but at some point, the dull headache throbbing beneath his bandaged right eye, the swaying motion of the horse beneath him, and Edward’s firm, warm back had lulled the tired boy’s left eye closed. He woke up later as they lowered him from the saddle onto someone’s waiting back, and for a moment, the boy’s heart skipped a beat at the firmness of the man’s broad shoulders, so similar to his father’s. But reality quickly set in, and Jesse shut his left eye pretending to stay asleep as they laid him down on a bedroll and covered him in a blanket.
The sun, directly overhead, peeped down at the boy through his dirty bangs and the flickering branches of the trees that swayed gently above him. Jesse took cover beneath his blanket, listening to the quiet conversations of the knights taking their rest by a nearby river as he touched the bandage over his swollen right eye. They spoke of the plague, of some attempted rebellion against the crown, and more often than not, of the Duchess of Winter whom they served.
‘I didn’t even know there was a Duchess. I’ve only ever heard of the Duke that rules these parts.’
The sound of the babbling waters soon melded into the hushed voices and footsteps of the knights as they moved quietly around him until the boy fell into an even deeper sleep.
When Jesse woke again, the sun had vanished. The eerie silence that crept in around him quickly bolted the boy upright, and he was greeted by a loud snore from Edward. The knight sat leaning against a nearby tree, still in his uniform and armor, with his helmet and sword resting at his side. A quick look showed half the knights were sleeping while the rest gathered around a fire with their swords and rifles nearby.
Jesse gingerly touched the bandage over his swollen right eye, then noticed the canteen of water set by his bed. He quickly guzzled down the still faintly cool, clean fluid. By the time his thirst was quenched, his stomach began grumbling. The boy considered waking Edward but felt guilty as he watched the knight’s head slowly bob down toward his armor chest plate before another loud snore jolted it back up again.
‘He probably needs his sleep.’
The boy’s nose told him that the large gathering of knights around the fire would likely lead him to some food, but he felt uneasy at the thought of approaching them alone. While his mind refused to acknowledge his near brush with death, the corpse collector’s hands had left their mark around Jesse’s neck, a lesson he would not soon forget.
‘It looks like we might be camping here for the night.’
Jesse turned his attention to the north, where the sound of rushing water carried over with it the soothing melody of humming, chirping insects.
‘It’s still early autumn. I might get lucky and find some blackberries near the river.’
The boy stood up, moving awkwardly on his stiff legs, and carried his blanket over to Edward, tucking it around the snoring knight’s shoulders cautiously. For a moment, the boy’s hazel-green eye settled on Edward’s gleaming sword, but he quickly stepped away, then crept silently through the shadows toward the nearest line of trees.
Jesse was panting, and his right eye throbbing with pain beneath its bandage by the time he reached the cover of the forest. Hunger and fatigue slowed his aching limbs, followed by the sudden urge to relieve himself. The boy bit his bottom lip as he moved stubbornly and silently towards the river, where he spotted Lieutenant Quinn standing stoically by the dark flowing water, waiting for—something or someone?
The croaking choir of river frogs tickled distractedly against the boy’s mind as memories of summer spent by the river with his father and older brother surfaced in his tired brain. Jesse shook his head, half-resolved to leave and find some privacy to use the bathroom, when a strange glimmer of blue light caught his attention.
The magical pale glow appeared beneath the river’s surface, illuminating the dark stones, small crawfish, and the ghostly strands of waterweeds growing along the riverbed. Jesse perked up at the sight of a blackberry bush on the opposite side of the river while Lieutenant Quinn hastily adjusted his cape and hair before moving closer to the water’s edge. The boy watched the knight curiously as the hairs along his arms and legs tingled in anticipation.
The water spiraled upwards, creating a mirror-like sphere through which the pretty young woman Quinn had introduced as Lady Larissa appeared. The boy’s mouth dropped open as the water witch walked across the river’s surface towards the Lieutenant, but his attention was quickly diverted by the second witch that followed her.
The moment the white-haired witch stepped through the rippling blue mirror onto the rushing current, the river water froze in place beneath her armored boot, then crumbled and dissolved as the witch continued forward. She was younger and shorter than both Quinn and Larissa and appeared closer in age to Jesse’s older brother despite her bizarrely beautiful white hair that glowed beneath the sparse moonlight.
“Your Grace,” Lieutenant Quinn greeted with a respectful bow. “Lady Larissa, welcome back.”
“Sorry for the delay,” Larissa responded absently, focusing on the young witch beside her. “Shall we head there straight away, your Grace?”
“How far is it?” The white-haired witch glanced between them before her cold blue eyes turned to study the dark shoreline around them.
“Less than a mile downstream,” Larissa answered swiftly. “I didn’t think it would be wise to transport you any closer just in case Arachne’s spawn are monitoring the area.”
“Any trouble from the Hargreve Knights?”
“No, your Grace,” Lieutenant Quinn replied. “Though we spotted what might have been a scout two hours ago, just before sundown.”
“Then we shouldn’t overstay our welcome. Lieutenant, have your men return to the tower at the border. Lieutenant Hadley will take over tomorrow’s mission, so use that time to rest and replenish your supplies.”
“Understood. Thank you, your Grace.”
‘Why do they call her that?’ Jesse wondered as he leaned his shoulder against a nearby pine tree while crossing his legs, the pressing need to empty his bladder growing stronger by the minute. ‘Could she be the Duchess of Winter the knights were talking about earlier?’
“You did well today,” the white-haired witch replied with a quick smile that carried with it a sense of weariness. “Larissa and I will handle the plague seed on our own, so you may head out whenever the men are ready.”
‘Plague seed?’ Jesse’s ears almost twitched in response as he focused his senses on the trio by the river.
“Then I shall wish you good luck and happy hunting, your Grace,” Lieutenant Quinn replied with another respectful bow before turning sharply back to camp.
‘Shit! I need to head back soon then,’ Jesse realized as he slowly inched back from the glowing river. ‘Before Edward gets in trouble or I get left—’ The boy froze as his heel came down on a twig with a startling snap. The blue eyes of both witches snapped in his direction with predatory-like accuracy before Jesse could bury his head against the forest floor. Panting against the leaves below him, Jesse contemplated his chances of escape, then stiffened as the dry leaves below him stiffened beneath a sheet of glowing white frost.
The boy lunged in the direction of the knight’s camp, only to be pinned in place by the pale icy white vines wrapped around his ankles and legs. His hazel-green eyes widened beneath the burning chill. Jesse quickly reached for the root of the nearest tree to try and pull himself free, only to almost wet himself in terror as the white-haired witch appeared suddenly before him, her pale brows furrowed in confusion.
“Oh!” Larissa murmured as she stopped just outside the field of frost. “It’s the boy. He’s a survivor we found at the last village. The only one—in fact.”
Jesse felt his lips tremble and quickly clenched his teeth together as the ice witch stared down at him with a look of embarrassment that almost matched his own. The Duchess quickly waved her hand through the air, and the icy vines evaporated, freeing his limbs. The boy wasted no time as he scrambled away from her.
“Please, wait! I’m sorry for scaring you,” the ice witch called after him. “I mean you no harm!”
Jesse halted as his back hit a tree and watched her warily as the Duchess approached and then offered him her hand. The boy’s hazel-green eyes caught on the sparkling diamond bracelet that slid down her slender wrist. ‘How much food and medicine could such a treasure buy?’ He looked back into her ice-blue eyes and blinked as the ice witch offered him a friendly smile.
“My name—is Kirsi,” she murmured, still patiently holding out her hand. “Would you like to tell me your name?”
“You aren’t supposed to tell a witch your name,” Jesse mumbled before quickly lowering his gaze. “Sorry.”
“But—you’re a witch too?” Kirsi replied, her gaze and smile twitching with confusion. “Or—did you not know?”
The boy looked up at her angrily. “No. I’m not!”
“His name is Jesse. And he is a witch,” Larissa interjected, folding her arms as she leaned against the same pine tree Jesse had hidden behind. “His powers are just dormant at the moment.”
“His family?” Kirsi asked, glancing over at her companion.
The water witch shook her head before responding, “They were all mortals.”
The ice witch frowned. “But—”
“I don’t know,” Larissa retorted bluntly with a resigned shrug. “Maybe they found him and took him in, not knowing what he was. Either way—he’s a coven witch. Earth witch from the smell of him.”
“I’m not!” Jesse growled, his fingers digging into the leaves and soil beneath them.
“It’s all right,” Kirsi replied, kneeling slowly to meet his eye level. “I was scared of the idea as well the day I found out I was a witch. I had just lost my home and friends—my entire world, it seemed like.”
The boy glared back at her silently. Jesse was struck for a moment by how much she resembled the black and white ink drawing of the Saint in his mother’s holy book. He quickly banished the blasphemous thought and clenched his fists as he sat up, absently noticing that the frost had gone, leaving only a faint residue that resembled morning dew on the leaves around him.
Kirsi sighed quietly before offering him a reassuring smile. “You should get back to camp, Jesse. The knights will be leaving soon. Since you no longer have a family here—there’s an orphanage I can send you to. It won’t replace the home you had, but you’ll meet other children your age who have lost their families as well. And if—you want to learn to control your magic—I have a friend who can help with that. He’s very strong and reliable.”
Jesse said nothing as the ice witch cleared her throat, then straightened as she backed away as if he were a frightened pup that might bolt and run if she startled it. He glowered at the thought and jumped suddenly to his feet, only to grimace as his bladder threatened to burst. “I—I need to go!” he exclaimed before rushing off to find a bush at a safe distance. His cheeks burned with outrage and shame as Larissa’s laugh echoed through the trees behind him.
“Shall we continue, your Grace?” Larissa asked, wiping a tear from her eye.
“Yes, I—suppose we should,” Carina murmured as she stared after the boy worriedly. “He was practically skin and bones. Was there a famine in the Duke’s territory?”
“A famine? No, they—starve them out.”
“The Baron who supervised the three villages—although I’m sure he’s only following orders from on high,” Larissa replied with a note of disgust. “The common practice seems to be that if someone is found carrying symptoms of the plague, then they and their family are boarded up inside their residence until they die from either sickness or starvation.”
The water witch shrugged. “The Nobles are scared of the plague spreading out of control. And since the crown has expressly forbidden burning plague victims alive—that’s the loophole they’re exploiting to slow the spread.”
The Duchess closed her eyes as she inhaled a slow, angry breath. After berating Nicholas for what happened to her hospital in the slums, the Crown Prince had offered the Duchess a compromise that only permitted the burning of bodies and homes contaminated with the plague after the residence had either been removed or died.
‘To think that would lead to something like this. What the hell is wrong with people?’
“Lead me to the plague seed,” Carina muttered as she turned around to face the river.
“It will be faster if we go on horseback,” Larissa replied, following the ice witch nonetheless.
“My scrivas will have to do then.”
The water witch blinked as Lumi and one of the ice witch’s unforgiven materialized on the shore before them. “Well—this is different.”
“It’s not that different from riding a horse,” Carina replied as Lumi bowed to assist the Duchess in climbing on.
“No reins or saddle?”
“But plenty of fur to hold onto, and they don’t care how hard you pull.”
“Right,” Larissa muttered, climbing awkwardly onto the smaller scriva’s back. “Gods, that’s—cold and—prickly.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
The water witch rolled her eyes. “I don’t think anyone but an ice witch could get used to this.” She tried adjusting her position but quickly gave up and dropped back down. “Nope. If I’m going to travel by land, then I prefer horses.”
“Alright then, I’ll wait for you up ahead,” Carina replied with a wave before granting Lumi permission to head out.
“But you need me to lead you, your Grace!”
“You’ve done more than enough,” the Duchess shouted before lowering herself against the giant wolf’s neck. “I can smell Arachne’s poison from here.”