Ingrid had never seen any being that did not look like her — in general terms. She had heard rumors of such, but like most of the folks in the valley, thought anyone who told those tales were deranged. With the appearance of Liz, and now the ánthropoi, it was as if her childhood fantasies had suddenly been validated. Oh, there was still darkness behind her eyes, but I think she had opened her heart a crack and accepted the possibilities of a more diverse world.
They were back before dawn, Lilith and Ingrid. Ingrid presented me with a double handful of spider webs which I accepted with as much gravitas as I could. She had such a look of joy on her face it lightened my heart. I let her sit in front of me as I aligned the bits of wand, which were pieces of some old dead ánthropoi’s finger or other long, thin appendage. Nothing creepy about that. Once I had the web gently placed over the pieces, I called the divine and let the brightness of the green magic remind me of my obligations to Semaunzilla (may she continue to guide me even though we have left the great swamp).
The pieces tried to knit together but the magic was not working.
“Maybe you need to heal it, not mend it?” Ingrid suggested. Clever for a girl who had thought Liz was a demon and magic was evil.
I gave the girl a wink and put a touch of Kithri’s power into the weave. Like a snap, the pieces fused together and the wand sparked twice before settling into my lap with a hum.
Ingrid backed up at the sparks, not clearly deciding to bolt or stay. I smiled at her and picked up the wand. There was definitely power there, and some I could wield myself if I concentrated hard enough. But the magic it held dwelled outside my experience and comfort zone. While the wand would acquiesce to my use, it would only do so grudgingly.
It did not surprise me that the wand had a preference. After all I had experience with the red stone buried in the bottom of my pack, the one that no matter how far I threw it, it always found its way back in my possession. That one was attuned to me by blood. This wand was attuned to the caster of the ánthropoi and would only truly work for her while she lived. If she died, I felt sure another could take up the wand and it would decide if the new wielder was worthy. Magic was funny that way.
Once I was satisfied that the wand was whole again, Ingrid scuttled off to retrieve Lilith who had been standing on the road, just staring northward along the path we were supposed to have taken yesterday. We were to have met Liz, Chloe and Pavil’s squad a league or so further in that direction, but the day had gotten away from us and while we were in no danger, I was surprised they had not back tracked to us. I’d have to talk to Liz about that later.
In the meantime, Lilith took the wand and tucked it behind her ear, then gave me a hug that erased all the anxiety and petulance I had been experiencing since the ánthropoi had arrived. I went back to my spot in the verge and scratched Brindle’s belly while we waited to see what would happen next. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait.
When the sun finally began to cast its golden rays over the rim of the mountains to the east, the ánthropoi appeared in the shadows that pushed westward from the tree line. They had their spears out and ready, all but the caster who strode toward Lilith and Ingrid with a garland of spring flowers in her hands. I could not hear what was said, but the garland was placed around Ingrid’s neck. Then a second garland was handed forward and placed over Lilith’s bowed head. This second had a huge black flower with golden veins shot threw it as the center piece. I was able to tell this, because the golden veins throbbed with power.
At first I thought of the flowering vines that had enthralled the elves in the blight, but with a modicum of observation, I could see that the flower was of a different variety. It did give off an otherworldly aura, however. I shifted to the green sight and saw that it glowed like staring into the sun. I had to cover my eyes and look away until I could drop the magic.
Lilith bowed at the presentation of her wreath and when she stood upright once more, she held the wand above her head. Remember, the ánthropoi stood at least two heads taller than I, and Lilith barely came up to my chest.
When Lilith presented the wand, the caster fell to her knees (which was weird since they bent backward) allowing her to be more on the level of Lilith. She tentatively touched the wand, hesitant to remove it from Lilith’s care. Of course, she was dubious. I had broken it after all.
Was that tantamount to elder abuse?
Okay, I thought that was punny, but Brindle sensed my inner monologue and bumped me in the chest with his head. Everyone’s a critic.
The caster took up the wand after a moment and twirled it in the air. Then she rose, glanced in my direction, and aimed the wand toward the town. A column of fire fell from the sky and struck the central village meeting house that had been stuffed with the dead. For a moment I didn’t think there was anything left to burn, but the column of fire held steady for three, then six, and finally nine heartbeats. When she lowered the wand, the great building had been reduced to cinders, and the bodies of the dead villagers had been obliterated.
There was an amazing amount of power displayed in that act. Maybe giving the wand back had not been the brightest idea.
The caster looked my way again, said something in a tone and volume that caused me to rise to my feet and clasp the mace at my side. She was not talking in her chirping and warbling language, but spoke in the halting tongue of the lost paladin Ezekiel. The voice of the sorceress in my head interpreted words such as retribution and vengeance. Then she raised the wand in my direction.
Ingrid stepped forward, holding her arms wide, placing herself directly in front of the caster, blocking her from me. She said something stern and forceful which Lilith interpreted for the ánthropoi.
The caster, glanced back to her cohort for a moment, then strode forward and placed her hands onto either side of Ingrid’s head. She still held the wand and crystal and those were pressed against the girl’s temples.
They stood there, the caster sharing Ingrid’s memories. After a few moments the caster stepped back and bowed to girl. Without another word she walked back to stand with her people, waiting.
Lilith turned and walked toward me, shaking her head in wonder.
“Oh, Merric, you lovely and ever so lucky man. Ingrid here has bought you a reprieve from ignominy. This lot had been set on killing you at the word of Eronel. They had come across the witch and her lover in these woods before the village had been slaughtered. Eronal and Reginald perpetrated a crime of reality, convincing these naïve and powerful people that he was the true bearer of the armor of Kithri, just as their paladin Ezekiel had been. They have been waiting to kill you to allow the witch and her retinue time to escape. Now that they know of the truth of the matter, thanks to Ingrid’s memories, they have decided to let you live after all.”
Glad my life was spared by the memory and will of a girl barely in her seventeenth summer. Must be all that clean living.