I’d brought charm after charm into existence, hoping there was some way to break through the cell’s bars, to no avail. Shoving with jump-charmed legs, trying to use a springtime charm to force the tree to grow and break the bars, completely failing to get a heat charm to function, nothing would let me break free.
The other three didn’t say anything beyond tentative suggestions of things I could try. Now they were silent, and I was lying on the floor, panting. The exhaustion made every bruise I’d suffered at the hands of the Crown leap into the forefront of my mind, shoving everything else out. And then I heard Flare say, “Hello, apprentice.”
I pushed myself onto my elbows, groaning a little, and looked up at her. She looked almost bored. She made no moves to break herself out, and she didn’t look fazed at all from being cuffed and caged.
“You’re awake!” Vin said.
“We need help,” Grint said.
“Can you escape?” Marz asked.
Flare stared them down for a long while. Grint took this as an invitation to elaborate. “The Steward’s gone mad. He’s killed the King, he’s imprisoning people every chance he gets, he’s making people disappear, he’s–”
“We don’t know he’s making people disappear,” Vin said.
“Or that he’s mad,” Marz said.
“The point is you’re a witch and we need help,” Grint said.
Another long moment crystallized in front of us, and then Flare said. “He’s not mad. He’s desparate. Monsters do that.”
“The Steward is a monster?” Grint mumbled to himself.
“I think she means he’s acting like a monster,” Vin whispered to him.
Flare, ignoring the whispering, stuck her tongue out, and then carefully used the tip of it to start drawing a charm in the air. I stared. Everyone stared. The people in the surrounding cells were probably staring. The tip of her tongue glimmered with magical light, dragging the charm into being.
I racked my brain. Was this possible? Was this something all witches could do? Was this something I could do? Slipping your fingertips into magic was a skill in and of itself, easy to learn and very, very difficult to master. To do it with your tongue-tip was, as far as I knew, absolutely unthinkable. The thought simply hadn’t existed in my mind until now.
The charm she was tracing was a wildly complex one. An abstract one. Her tongue whirled and danced with an easy uncaring grace, as though charm-casting without your hands was easy, somehow. The charm was, as far as I could tell, width.
She gingerly brought the charm and her tongue down to one cuff, and it distorted and widened slowly, yawning until Flare’s hand slid neatly free. With that hand she traced width again, and touched it to her other cuff, and that yawned too.
Flare stood up, and walked to the bars of her cell, and traced width in the empty space between the bars, and slowly the bars bent out of her way. Behind her I could see the cuffs slowly ending their yawn, relaxing back down. Flare stepped out through the bars. She widened our bars, too.
“Come on, apprentice,” was all she said, and then she was walking off down the hall. Grint, Vin, Marz, and I all scurried after her.
A Crown, patrolling the halls, saw her, but Flare simply looked at him, and charm-light began to dance off her fingers in a peculiar golden light, and the Crown got the message and stood down as we passed.
We came to a supply closet. Flare opened the door, hummed appreciatively, and said, “You three wait out there. Apprentice, with me.”
I followed her inside without hesitation. She cast a charm with her tongue. What else would I see today?
She closed the door behind us, leaving us alone in the dark cramped closet. I cast a light charm, to save Flare the trouble, revealing a broom, a mop, and cleaning equipment stacked up around us. There were several jars labeled, “Birum’s Wood Polish”.
Flare stood there. I asked, “So, what are we doing?”
Flare said, “Finding the monster.” Then, she took a deep breath, gathered charm-light on the tips of her fingers, and began to scream. The charm light unfolded into two more light charms, painting the closet in an intense white glare. I clapped my hands over my ears and shut my eyes, but the light and the noise pierced through regardless.
Then the screaming began to taper off, and I heard a very soft dripping noise. I opened my eyes.
The Driss family back home had a pond full of frogs, where they got them from I never knew, and sometimes I was invited inside to watch. This reminded me of that: a translucent-skinned tadpole as big as my head and with a tail as long as my arm was floating in front of Flare. Flare said, “Shear Toads. An infestation.”
With one arm, she reached out, and slowly inserted her arm up to the elbow into the tadpole’s forehead. I could see her hand inside it as she began to trace out an unfamiliar charm inside the tadpole. She cast, grabbed, and then yanked.
The tadpole exploded, and a cloud of outward-expanding translucent veins struck me, and suddenly I was seeing double. I was seeing the supply closet, now tadpole free, but I also saw past it. A branching network of vein-roots throughout the body of the tree, and every one of those vein-roots connected to a room, and every room held a translucent, ghostly image of a ghastly creature. Toads standing on their hind legs, with arms that looked warty and knobbly and all too human. Toads with eyes that flickered madly to and fro. Toads wearing torn clothes, with blood running from gashes in their chests, staggering with gooey flops around the ruins of the rooms.
“Getting infected is painful. Eats your stress, you writhe painfully and break things, and then that’s it,” Flare said, in an almost disinterested tone.
“Can you save them?” I asked.
“They’re dead already. Now they just wait for stress to enter their rooms, so they can materialize and eat and add and multiply.”
The damage was staggering. Even seeing the sheer quantity of it laid out in front of me thanks to whatever it was Flare had done didn’t communicate the scale of it. The tree was massive, and there were enough people living in it that it probably could hold four or five Scorched Rocks. And at least a fourth or a fifth of the entire city was gone already. Consumed. Vanished.
“What do we do?”
Flare looked levelly at me. “We clean it out.”
“How?” The word was forced to bear the weight of not only my curiosity but all of my fears and worries besides.
Flare waved a hand, and the visions evaporated in front of me. “We get my coat back.”
Flare threw open the door. She asked “Where do they keep prisoners’ belongings?” to nobody in particular.
Vin’s response was immediate. “Follow me. It’s up two flights of stairs and a bit of a ways this way.”
We all set off again. Nobody spoke, this time. Flare’s presence was smothering. There was a persistent feeling hanging in the air that if anyone talked, Flare would do whatever it was witches did to people who bothered them. Considering what I’d just seen, I didn’t want to test whether or not being her apprentice would change the doubtlessly horrific punishment she might enact. I also didn’t want to risk not getting to see what came next.
There was a Crown guarding the storage room. Flare told them to open the door. The Crown hesitated. Charm-light gleamed on the tips of Flare’s fingers, and the Crown flinched backwards from her. Flare told them to open the door, but slightly slower, and with her glowing fingers raised towards them. They opened the door. Then they ran. Flare walked into the room, plucked her coat off a hook, and put it on. I scrambled to find my pack. Flare was already standing impatiently in the doorway by the time I found it and put it on.
She turned and began walking. “We want to cure it from somewhere central. It’s an infection. Take us to the throne room, please.” Again, Flare didn’t bother to direct her words, and again, Vin simply took the lead. I jogged to catch up to Flare and watch what she was doing.
Flare had in her hands a large jar of a dark liquid, and a block of copper. The top of the jar was unscrewed, and I could see on the underside of the lid a gleaming charm I didn’t recognize inscribed into the metal. She began to trace a charm into the copper, and that revealed something new to me that I had never noticed due to Flare’s gloves: the fingernail of her pointer finger was somehow made of a dark metal. The charm traced on the copper, she placed the copper gingerly into the dark liquid, and the liquid began to froth. She placed the lid back on the jar but kept the jar out. I could see the liquid beginning to turn an eerie bluish-green, pulsing slightly as it frothed.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A cure.” Flare said. When I continued to stare curiously at the jar, she elaborated. “Fake anxiety, hooked to a substance poisonous to Shear Toads. They circulate it like nutrients, they die, they spread the substance all over to stop future infestations. Simple.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You’ll learn,” Flare said.
“Oh,” I said again, lacking anything more intelligent to say. Pain had drained that out of me, and the only thing left animating me at that point was the bloody-minded desire to see how it all ended.
No Crowns patrolled the halls as we made our way up, and once we reached the floor where the throne room was we could see why. Our way to the massive gilded double doors of the throne room was barred. The Crowns had begun corralling civilians out of our way, and grouped up in our path. The Steward stood with them.
“Witch, you are not allowed to enter the hall of our King,” the Steward said. “You are a criminal and a thug, and no matter how many people you think you can scare here, you cannot scare me.”
Flare stared at him, and then she rose one hand and began to cast a charm. The Steward flinched back as she did, as did everyone in the charm. Witches carried weight here. It was funny how different Scorched Rock had treated her.
Then the Steward yelled, “Get her arms, stop her!” and three moss-coated Crowns, braver than the rest, raised their gauntlets and launched the branches at Flare. Without missing a beat, Flare simply and smoothly transferred the charm-casting to her tongue as the branches enveloped her, and this time some of the Crowns really lost their nerve and began to back away. The bravado streamed off the Steward’s face.
The charm went off, and a pulse lanced through the hall, and suddenly my double vision was back. The screams of the crowd and Crowns told me they could see it just as well. The network of translucent veins crowded the air in the entry hall, piercing every wall dozens of times over, spreading outwards through the tree. Ghostly images of the toad-beings began to phase in through the walls, and the screams became panicked. The Steward babbled something about ceasing this hellish attack.
I asked Grint if he could snap the branches off from around Flare. To his credit, he did it, though he never stopped staring at the toad people. Flare said a brief, “Thanks,” when freed. She walked forwards toward the hall. Nobody stopped her. I ran after her and slipped in right before the doors slammed shut.
Tapestries on the walls had been shredded. Not one torch stood where it used to. The hall was dark. At the end of it, a large, fat toad man with a crown wedged onto its head sat on a wooden throne. Flare held the jar out to it, offering.
The toad’s mouth closed around it.
The toad began to glow that ethereal blue-green from the inside out, the light spreading like ink in water through its body as it started to convulse. The veins in the area began to spread the light too, and the light had just began to pass through the veins out of the room when the toad began to flake apart and vanish into nothingness.
I collapsed to my knees. My knees hurt. I collapsed onto my side. My side hurt.
Flare said, “Alright. Rest up, I’ll make preparations for our departure.”
I passed into a smooth, dreamless sleep, and when I awoke again Flare was carrying me on her back away from the tree-city.
I wouldn’t miss it.