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It was so, so cold.
The snow felt like it had stripped flesh from bone, and the thought almost sent her shivering again. Alma grabbed the edges of her coat and pulled them tight, trembling under thin blue felt and cursing the cold. She had never taken to the idea of a winter wonderland; a sudden snowfall could only have been a bad omen, a sign that things would turn sour.
She and Calvin were sitting at the front of the carriage, the bench beneath them frigid like ice. The village was decked in snow. What a shoddy place to live, Alma thought. It was mid-autumn everywhere else; but here, it was the dead of winter. The town before this had had apples and roses and green ferns. Even with ice magic in mind, the shift was unreal. She couldn’t believe her eyes at first the moment they hit the next stop, as she stepped out of the carriage, and had fallen from her high seat right into a pile of snow.
“I tried to warn you,” Calvin said. He had been driving at the front when she fell, and rushed to pull her out of the snowdrift. Now they both sat on the driver’s bench, shivering as she huddled in her autumn clothes. For once, he looked justly irritated.
“I didn’t think it was real.” She gazed up, staring at the snow-laden landscape, the overcast sky. There were people with coats and scarves crossing the street. “It’s s-so cold.” Her teeth clicked when she spoke.
“I would have passed this place, but we don’t have a choice. The roan can’t last much longer today.” He held the reins in his hand. They only had one horse, the single mare she had taken from her stables. It had pulled her carriage through almost a month of travel, working diligently, and now it shivered and panted from both the cold and the heat. It needed to take a rest.
Alma wasn’t sure how much longer she could last, either. Her carriage was plush, lined with cushions and silk, but it couldn’t support a fire to warm themselves. The village was half-desolate and freezing, but at least it meant that the people were accustomed to living through the cold—and perhaps helping frozen travelers survive the night.
“We’re staying,” she decided. Alma stood, the coat wrapped around her tightly. She put her arms through the sleeves and snapped flat the gold-embroidered front, then stepped down.
They passed dwellings with blue tiled roofs peeking through the snow. A bucket, crusted with frost, sat abandoned under a well. “I bet there’s something wrong here other than the weather,” Calvin warned as he led the horse. “Look around. There aren’t any kids playing outside at all.”
She gave the area barely a glance. It was cold enough outside to freeze a kid’s lungs; she didn’t think it was strange that none of them were playing in this death weather. “We’ll be cautious,” she promised. They trekked down the road until she felt her toes go numb, and found a modest-looking inn and a stable to take in their horse. Calvin handed the reins to the stable boy, a kid whose face was muffled by a cap and a thick scarf, and winced at the way he was trembling as he threw a blanket on it and led it off.
“See? There’s one kid,” she said.
“One is just one,” he insisted. “Normally we would’ve seen four or five by now.” He called out to the stable boy as he came back to secure the carriage. “Hey, kid, where are all of the people our age?”
The boy jumped. He looked Calvin wildly up and down. Her bodyguard had the fair looks of a wind mage, with blond hair that hung above yellow eyes. He stood out in the small, homogeneous eastern village. Alma knew that she did too, in her expensive clothes. “T-they left,” the boy answered, still shivering. “All t-the older ones left for the capital.”
“Damn,” he said. “Is it that hard to hire a couple of fire mages?”
“Maybe the fire mages quit,” she joked. Then, looking at how small and dilapidated the village seemed, thought better of it. “It’s hard to find good talent in a small place like this. The cities draw them all away; you should know.”
“You’re getting paid good coin,” Alma said. She led them out, passing the doors to the inn.
He turned back. “Shouldn’t we ask there?”
“Not if we want the truth. They’ll be afraid of driving customers away.” She glanced at him. “You told me to be careful.”
“Not like that,” he said. “But that’s also smart, I guess.”
The two of them continued down the road. She dug her satin and leather boot down until some grass peeked out, yellow and dead. The village had been this way for awhile—all the more suspicious.
Calvin nodded ahead. “There’s someone else.” There was a girl walking toward them, a leash in her hand and a goat trailing at her back. She looked young, with a tumble of thick blue-brown hair. Like everyone else, the girl was dressed to the chin. The two of them must have been the ones standing out, with only autumn clothes to tide them from the cold.
She pushed Calvin behind her. “I’ll talk to her. I look more presentable.”
“Well, sorry I’m not rich,” he said.
She adjusted her gold and navy coat, fixed her ponytail, and they met up with the girl halfway down the road.
“Oh,” the girl said. “Travellers.” She sounded sour about it. “Welcome to Glenwood. You can see that we don’t have a lot here.” She tilted her head, studying them both with big doe eyes. “You look cold, mister.”
“The cold won’t kill him.” She held one gloved hand out, the other balled behind her back. “Alma Shuling,” she introduced. It was a business greeting, one for those in higher positions to give. As a peasant, the girl wasn’t supposed to take it. Calvin had, the first time they met, and it had made an awkward first impression. Apparently nobles didn’t visit adventurers’ guilds very often.
Like most people, her attitude changed, her eyebrows shooting up. “We didn’t prepare anything,” she said. “We didn’t know you were coming. I’m so sorry; please don’t think badly of us.” The girl bowed, the correct response to her greeting. “My name is Analaise, milady. Should we prepare for the rest of your retinue to arrive?”
“No, it’s just Calvin with me.” She glanced back at him, his arms crossed and his yellow eyes narrowed. He had taken his bow and arrows when they left. “Please, nothing so formal. I’m in the middle of a pilgrimage.”
“Er…I see.” She didn’t know what that meant. Analaise straightened, coming up a head shorter than her.
“What’s with the animal?” Calvin cut in. The goat had stood there the whole time. She stepped aside, letting them see, and patted the white fur on its neck.
“This one slipped through the fence,” she explained. “But she’s a good goat, isn’t she? I’m just leading her back.”
The goat bleated.
Calvin looked confused. “That’s a goat?” he asked. He walked around, trying to look at it from a different angle.
“So what’s with the cold here?” she asked. “It was fall the last time we checked.” They had begun with greetings at first, mindless chattering, but now she cut straight to the point. The issue was large and obvious; anyone else would have asked by now as well.
Her brown eyes saddened, but she must have known the topic was coming. “I’m afraid it’s been cold for a long time, milady. Even in the summer months. It’s a curse of some kind. Nobody here knows how to dispel it; we’ve been surviving off imports.”
Her jaw almost dropped. “We’re talking months?” she echoed. “That’s no small matter—no small curse. What in the world happened?”
The gears in her mind spun. When she thought of cold, she thought of ice. Stereotypes associated the white-haired mages with witchcraft. But fire, too, could cause a change in weather—with the absence of heat.
Calvin took his thoughts to his mouth. “I bet it was a witch,” he said. “You guys got anybody suspicious here? Anyone with white hair?”
She shook her head. “Not white.”
“Black, maybe?” Alma ventured a guess.
“No.” Analaise turned, looking beyond them. “There’s no question about who it is. We just don’t know how to stop her.” She pointed upward. “On top of the hill. The houses next to it are all abandoned. You can’t tell, because it doesn’t have a smokestack, but she lives at the top. There are five graves behind her house.” She looked at them. “We call her the Red Witch.”
“Red?” Calvin asked.
The girl nodded. “They say she eats flesh from live animals,” she said. “They say she steals heat only to sell it back at a price. They say her hair is red because she dyes it with blood, so the guards won’t catch her.”
They eyed the house on the hilltop together. It looked like the rest, the roof burdened with snow, a wooden porch and a fence sitting outside. All of the shades on the windows were drawn.
“…Red Witch?” Alma echoed.
She didn’t think Analaise should have pointed at the house. Alma gave her back to it, a chill other than the cold shivering down her arms. “You’ve met her?” she asked.
“Once. She looks like a girl with a cute face. She’ll act all innocent in front of you. It’s all a guise.”
“Send a letter to the capital,” Calvin said. “Get help from the adventurers’ guild. They’ll do it for free if your entire village is at stake.”
“I would,” she said. She raised the flap of her winter coat, masking the frown on her lips. “But some people here don’t want her gone. She sells her witchcraft to them.”
“At what price?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Analaise closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry, Lady Alma. My goat is getting cold. We should head home.” The animal didn’t have a blanket, only an out-of-season hair coat.
“Of course,” she said. “Sorry for stalling you.”
The girl passed them, leading it away by the collar. Alma waited until they were out of hearing range.
“That story didn’t sound complete,” she said.
“No kidding,” Calvin grunted.
There had been no mention of demons, of deaths, of either of the main things associated with witches. Plus, the girl’s hair was red. If she really dyed it to hide, red was the wrong color among a village of blue-browns.
“I say we take the roan and hit the road,” Calvin said. “I don’t want to be watching my throat all night.”
“You said that she couldn’t handle another ride earlier, and I strongly agree. If we don’t stay here, we’ll be camping in the woods.” She left the path, picking her way up the un-shoveled side trail, dotted with trees. “The last time I decided to stay a night in the wild, a giant frog demon attacked us. I only got out alive then because of a fire mage.”
“It’s still a risk,” he called up.
“It’s an investigation.”
She heard the crunch of boots on snow running up the slope, and then Calvin’s voice came from behind her. “You’re not doing this because you want to. You’re doing it because your deity is watching.”
Because you want a favour, she finished for him. She smiled tightly, though he couldn’t see it.
Her father was on his deathbed. Alma had already taken her belongings, taken a horse from his stable, taken a travelling carriage from the mansion and a heirloom dagger from the wall. She had taken on a journey, a pilgrimage, and she would give a thousand favours if it meant Mazu would grant her this one. So much was riding on that one wish already.
Alma didn’t turn back. “I want to help people,” she answered. “And I want to be helped. That’s all.” Her eyes flickered to the houses on the hill. Five graves, was it? She didn’t say who died. The small cottage at the top seemed empty, but not dilapidated. There must have been someone taking care of it inside.
They were just at the fence when Calvin stopped her again. “Come on,” he said, sounding tired. “We’ve done so many other good deeds already. Oceana is two days away.”
“It’s because we’re so close that I need to take this on. It’s important; I can feel it.” She turned to him. “An entire village trapped in snow, a red witch, and an incomplete truth. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Like the plot of a book?”
Calvin gave her an uneasy shrug. “That’s like saying that these people aren’t real, or that the water deity made these problems just for us to come and solve them.”
“No. These people are real, and their problems already existed.” Alma put a hand on her hip. “The deity only led us to each encounter by her will. I warned you what kind of path I was on when we first met.” Her sharp eyes narrowed. “Brigands, thieves, demons, city cut-throats…Always problems to solve and people to save. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
He sagged. “It wasn’t enough?”
She nodded. “Mazu pulls the strings…and look where we are now.” She glanced at the frosted door of the cottage. “This is the final trial, and she’s made it obvious for us. You know we can’t back out of this—that would undo all of our hard work. Perhaps we even became stuck here the moment the two of us entered.”
Like every other fate-driven encounter, they couldn’t bail out. The event—the plot of the trial—was compulsory. But who would even leave at the final stage?
She watched Calvin cover his face, finally understanding. He breathed in for a moment, letting out a sigh before he straightened and looked at her. “Alright. One more. I’ve got this.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What was that for?” Alma asked. “You make it sound like torture.”
They climbed up the porch. The snow there hadn’t been touched—not by shovel or boots. The rest of the village was covered in footprints, but here, fresh snow covered the ground. Whoever lived inside must have been a recluse.
“Ready?” Alma asked. “I’ll start us off.”
Calvin nodded, and she raised her hand and knocked on the door.
Five minutes was all she needed. If Alma could keep up the conversation for five minutes, she was certain that she had enough details to convince the other side to let them in.
Then, inside the house, they could get straight to the matter.
This was the start of the final trial of her pilgrimage…and it began to silence.
A moment passed, then another, and then Alma knocked again. No reply.
She would bait her out if she had to. “We need your services,” she called out. “Give us a price and we’ll take it. It’s urgent.”
She felt Calvin twitch. “You’re crazy,” he hissed.
“Please,” she called. It sounded more forceful than desperate. Acting wasn’t her forte, but she’s pull everything else she had.
She raised her voice. “I am Alma Shuling, heir to the noble house of Shuling. I’ve heard what you can do, and I will not back away from any price. You only have to name it: money, position, influence, people…” All things she couldn’t pay. Alma trailed off, and still there was no answer. She looked down again at the thick layer of smooth snow, frowning. “Just help us this once. We won’t sell you out.”
They waited a minute more, then Calvin had had enough. He stepped forward, rolling up his sleeve. “Alright, plan B,” he said.
Her hand shot upward. “Don’t. We’ll make more enemies than we need. If there really are villagers who are partial towards her, they’ll probably take her side instead of ours. We’ll look like the aggravator here.”
His arm dropped. “You actually bought that girl’s explanation?”
“Part of it.” Her eyes darted to the window. “But I’m starting to have increasing doubts now. Maybe we approached this wrong.”
No footprints. Nothing out, and nothing in. Would this count as an alibi?
A witch always had a demon familiar—and demons always fed on human flesh. Yet Analaise hadn’t mentioned any deaths, despite being to staunchly opposed to the witch.
She needed to think broader. Calvin had made a point earlier; the villagers could have sought out help, but hadn’t. What if it was because nobody in the village knew about the deaths?
If so, why did Analaise think it was a witch that cursed them?
Alma slowly, quietly raised her head. “Cal…” she said, “listen to me, but don’t panic. Don’t make any movements.”
His eyes widened.
“I was right earlier. We were trapped the moment we entered this village. The witch kills travellers, and she kills them right after they pass through the village, deterred from staying the night because of the snow.”
The travellers would see the snow, feel the blasted cold, and ride away without a turn of the head. Then, right at the edge of the village, the real axe would drop. That’s how they knew nothing of the deaths.
Under any other circumstance, it would have been the two of them the morning after.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “So we’re fine as long as we don’t leave, right?”
She was silent, her brain turning, connecting the pieces. Everything had to be shifted.
The so-called ‘Red Witch’ was suspicious…but only if the person proved to be real. Likely, she was real to an extent—Analaise had been convincing, which meant that she had woven lies and half-truths. But she had been suspicious as well; suspicious enough that, along with Alma’s confidence with Calvin by her side, they had gone to the accused to find another side of the story.
“…We’ve been mislead,” she told him.
“So the Red Witch isn’t real?”
“I’m not sure. I only know that someone still lives in this house. And they’re secluded for a reason.” She glanced back once, then climbed down the porch, leading them back through the fence. “But we won’t find a lead here. We need to ask someone else…someone old, who knows everybody in the village.”
They continued down the slope, passing into the trees. So the real witch is most likely Analaise. Why lead us investigating a dead end? Why not downplay the problem and wait for us to ride off tomorrow morning?
Was she hoping to kick a competitor out of the playing field?
“I almost have it figured out,” she said to Calvin. “At this rate, we’ll just need the evidence.”
A hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Shh,” Calvin said.
They had paused among the trees, the circle of empty houses behind them. Alma listened. Their surroundings didn’t move, but now she could hear the faint crunch, crunch of something on snow. They had been followed.
She held her breath and pressed her lips together.
Something lunged out, a blur of white and flashing fangs. Calvin snapped around just as quickly, his hand slicing down, drawing a blade of wind magic that tore through air.
It met the creature with a spurt of blood, and then the demon fell with a squeal, landing in the snow.
There was a pause, a moment to see if any more would come. Then they both straightened in relief. Alma let Calvin walk over, bending to examine it with a grimace.
“Sheesh,” he muttered. “Don’t tell me this was the witch’s familiar. It’s got toothpicks for teeth.” He kicked at it a little. Mutated by wild magic, the once-rabbit had grown packed with muscle and armed with rows of tiny fangs. In the wild, they were as common as squirrels.
“Cal, leave it,” she ordered. “We need to get out of here now.” They weren’t safe away from the main part of the village. Analaise had led them here, and now she was the only one who knew where they were.
“Right,” he said, straightening.
He turned, took two steps, and stopped. The expression on his face froze.
Alma knew him well, and Calvin only went so still when something seemed like it was about to lunge.
The warning didn’t come. She only saw the alarm spark across his eyes before he ran forward, tackling her, knocking a scream from her lungs, and the two of them crashed onto the ground with a thud and a spray of snow.
His arms wrapped around her as a dozen spines rained from the air. The ground shook with blasts, rumbling at Alma’s back, and she braced herself as the ones pointed at them fell.
They didn’t land. A swell of wind magic rose and blew, sending the spines flying.
Something else came. Calvin was scrambling up already, twisting to face the enemy, but it shot out, faster than the demon rabbit had been, faster than he could react, and wrapped around his abdomen.
The long, scaled thing pulled, then threw, sending him flying until he hit a tree with a crack.
It whipped out in front of her face. Pain exploded, a burst of black and copper tang, and she flew over the ground, tumbling and tumbling as she screamed. Everything seemed to spin, hitting Alma front and back.
She came to a stop, stunned with pain. The skin on her throat felt ripped and raw. Her sight sparkled with black in one corner when she forced herself up, arms shaking, as she tried to orient where she was.
Calvin was far, far away, while she had landed back, out of the trees and among the empty houses. In one second, it had ripped the two of them apart.
Her bodyguard recovered just as the white tail came for him again. He ducked and ran as it swung, and the giant limb mowed down trees like sticks. There was the low moan of wood as they fell.
The tail swung back down again—but by this time, he had a hand raised, a spell on his lips.
The magic in the words echoed.
An explosion of wind blasted out, blowing the tail away.
Alma tried to scream, to shout a warning, but the strength in her legs had left and the air in her lungs were trapped.
Behind him, the sound of its lunge buried, a second tail shot up.
The giant head of a snake emerged. A clear fluid squirted from its mouth, curved with two venomous fangs, and it splashed onto Calvin from the back. Its tail wrapped around him and jerked this time, pulling him away with a scream. They disappeared from sight.
“Calvin!” she cried out.
Suddenly everything had disappeared from sight. She turned her head, her arms trembling under her weight, and looked back at the silent houses.
The snow around her seemed to crunch in a slow circle. Something long and white slithered.
No, she thought.
They had been led there to die, brutally murdered on the Red Witch’s doorstep, as fake evidence to be found the next day. Evidence so that one witch could kick out another.
Now the second familiar was coming for her, and she had no way to run, no strength to fight back. Alma was weak; all it would take was a bite. She would die so, so close to the end of her goal. Her father was waiting, and she hadn’t even asked before she left. Too many people were waiting at home.
Now the desperation came, the real pressure she hadn’t been able to fake out—desperation that made people trade anything.
The giant snake slithered closer, faster, spiralling inward in a circle. The rumbling crunch of snow grew like the whistle of a falling blade. She squeezed her eyes, pleading, and covered her ears from the sound.
And everything stopped. Went still.
A hollow silence dropped, and then the crunch of shoes on snow broke it like bursting a membrane. Even through her hands, she heard the girl bend down, her voice next to her ear.
“Did you mean it?” It sounded soft and kind; nothing like the voice of a murderer or a witch. A breath brushed her cheek. “Would you pay with human lives?”