by Steven Underwood
Support the full novel, Into the Ashe and Fire
“Damn these Jungle Witches and the whores that breed them,” the Blue Blood barely broke past the threshold into the café before he started at it. His jacket dripped a train of water across the linoleum floors.
Arrica Tre, the serving witch, flinched at the word as if he’d walked in and slapped her. She waited for someone to correct the man, but only heard the welcome ticking of the clock on the wall. Instead, she spent better time worrying about the cost to magick the water out of the floorbed.
There were dozens of other cafes in Antebellum, but only the Chalice on Heaven’s panel catered to government secretaries. They tipped well, but they were a nuisance, especially during the witching hours — when Adversary crept out of their hiding holes and Marshalls began their rounds.
The Blue Blood gestured for a coffee and claimed a seat at a long oak table occupied by a communal group. Their implements were on the table — racking up a hefty tab.
A cool financemage with a pointed nose and crescent spectacles arched his eyebrows. “That’s very strong language there, sir.”
To Arrica’s repulsion, he winked at her for the second time that night. It was off-putting, but by the Ancestors, he at least kept his hands to himself.
“Some jungle w — slumrat employed whatever dark unsavory magicks travel their streets teach and almost bewitched my youngest niece into his bed.” The Blue snorted hideously as Arrica assembled her tray, her eyes fading toward the clock. Twelve minutes till shift rotation. Perfect, almost home for the night.
“Certainly, I’ve made sure that bastard won’t be doing it again. My employer has the number to a Marshall — a friendly lad, good breeding with fair prices. Dialed them upright, paid my worth and I haven’t seen the rat since!”
Arrica stifled a snort. As if a Blue Blood needed to be charmed to cross the Wall. She’d been to a lot of functions back home where their precious darlings were willfully engaged in the “dirtiness” of the Browns. Besides, who would waste the Presence or Power on enfeebling some Blue’s baby when there were bills to pay? Mouths to feed?
“Saviors! When was this? Imagine if it was my little girl getting mixed up in dark magick,” a curly-haired mage said. “I heard it causes, you know, Taint.”
The Blue Blood nodded sharply. “I’ve word from several high-ranking healers that there is a correlation. I mean, have you heard? Taint is practically in the air over there. It’s also the one place they practice the low magick.”
“See? That’s why I told my Lyanna that if I ever caught her dabbling over there with one of those, I’d throw her off the side of the Wall myself!”
A scowling sorcerer whom Arrica assumed he worked somewhere in construction, stirred the ice in his wine. “That sounds a little harsh, Vincent. Maybe she went over there looking for her dear dad! She wouldn’t be over there long if she knew to dip her head into a pleasure house.”
They laughed and the scowling warlock knocked over his glass, sending wine spilling across the table. Arrica quickly attended to the mess. It would’ve been faster with magick, but her employers didn’t cover her expenses while working. Any Power she had was gathered to get her home. She could offer her Presence instead, but the penance she had wouldn’t even get her half-way home to the Browns.
That’d all change soon though. Arrica pressed her hand to her belly absently and thought sweetly of the future she worked hard for. She aced the written exam — nearly a higher scorer than the DuBeau boy himself: he always scored high in class. She did perfectly on the personal interviews, and for extra measure, her background check was spotless. They didn’t even detect her pregnancy; and they definitely had no clue she could use the very dark magick they were bashing now: Ancestry.
Even now, they didn’t see the spectral orangutan sitting squat in the middle of the tabletop, weaving a juju of hospitality throughout the room. That was why her coffee was the best — how a neophyte was hired as a serving witch above qualified culinary mages.
It hadn’t been many years since the Fires. These days, people were just as afraid of dark magick and street shamans who worshipped it as they were of the Adversary creeping about the corners, tormenting Blue Bloods and Brownie alike. That was why she’d turn her life away from it all: the Browns, the Ancestry, all of it.
Just as soon as that Letter arrived. Papa could help take care of the baby for a bit. He already was excited to be a grandfather — he never said it out loud, but he always wanted a boy, and Graham says it was one: she saw it in her mind’s third eye, brown skin just like his mama.
Three minutes, Arrica counted. Her eyes upon the clock. She didn’t know if the letter would arrive before she got home. Some people said the faster you got it, the more they liked you. Ancestors, wouldn’t that be something?
The feathery feeling rose in her spirits again. A chill ran up and down her arms and, against Arrica’s pessimism, she shivered with joy.
Quinto used to come to their school and talk about this feeling: the sweet succulent of a dream. “Not a lot of Brownies can afford one,” he’d say, surrounded by his lieutenants and advisors of varying magical pedigree. “But when you find one, hold it close and love it. Love it like your child.”
Arrica came to hers earlier than most — maybe that was why it was so humble. To own a small place where she could cook and serve and smile. It was a delight close to that first time her son, Sango, smiled gummy and wide.
A tall, lithe mage whose dark hand fell down behind his back into a braid had been studying a glowing screen of light as letters danced across its display. He wore his Power, his wealth, better than any cloak. “Not all Brownies are problematic. Hell, most of their dark magick is downright necessary. I once knew a Hispanic to cure my wife’s mother’s sickness: saved me months of expenses. Didn’t even charge me much more than a few poultry charms I had in my pocket for it.”
“And we can’t afford to get rid of a lot of it. Takes less training and therefore costs less to ask a friendly neighborhood Slumborn to uncork their old ways on a worksite than it does to pay a whole accredited mage to do it.”
Arrica nodded in approval. It was a weird mechanic of magick that Ancestry could ensorcell things easier than anything else. Especially in strong families. Particularly, the Tres were known to work great with weather and Arrica’s Papa used to make most of his Power on the side by stirring storms for the Agriculture companies in the Blues.
That was until his employer was caught and flipped on him. He spent three years in the Wall, and when he came back out, Arrica never saw his ashe again.
At the time, she hoped her own Ancestry could compensate for the loss of income. However, Ghanda Aje, the orangutan ashe on the table, could only work mojo of Prosperity. Her Papa called it a peace-time mojo, way different than his own workings. When Papa saw it, he shrugged and said the Ancestors have different roles for every one of their children in the community. Mine was for fortune when his, in its time, sowed destruction.
The wet Blue blood shook his head. “It’s still unfair. How can it be fair that we’re expected by the Senate to give them a fair chance at our world we worked so hard to make safe, civil and peaceful when they are so…unruly!”
“They can’t even secure their own home from crime violence and destruction.”
Another mage held a hand up to the wet Blue Blood. “Now now. It wasn’t the senate who decided this. I’m a deputy secretary, I should know. It’s a clause of the Covenant! Everyone gets a fair shot.”
“But does everyone deserve a shot? How’re we to know if these Brownies walking across our property aren’t what’s attracting Adversary? Making the work of our Coven Marshalls all the more difficult,” the blue blood sniffed loudly. “I have to say. I truthfully think the old Senate had it right a decade ago with the Purification, except they weren’t thinking big enough. Burn the lot of them next time!”
The clock chimed loudly on the wall: three loud gongs back to back.
“Finally,” Arrica grunted, snatching off her apron and tossing it to the table.
The pointed nose mage spotted her and waved her down. “Excuse me, are you going? Because I’d love to close my tab as well — ”
“I’m so sorry sir,” Arrica said, desperately swapping her Brown accent for a Blue appropriate dialect. “I’m off-duty now. My replacement server will be happy to help.”
Confused, he looked about. “But, there’s no one — ”
“She’s running a bit late. Patience is key.” Arrica hurried out of the shop, grabbing her purse as she went. It jangled as she plucked it up from a keyring anointed with several magickal charms of stored spells and a turquoise gemstone that glistened in both the darkness and the light.
Arrica checked the gemstone, her implement, for Power as she darted out of the shop. It wasn’t much — she probably would have to walk a bit, but she could hitch a ride on the Rails. She tried not to think about how she’d get by when the baby was born if she was barely scraping by now.
Maybe I should reach out to his father, Arrica thought. But, then she thought against it. He wouldn’t be great for this. She didn’t want him to be great for this — it never should’ve happened. She knew he was too old for her at the time, and now… Why ruin his circumstances?
The Blues — all eight districts on the other side of the Wall belonging to the Blue Bloods — were beautiful at any time of the day when compared to the Browns, but she preferred it under the cold silver of night.
Lanterns of witchfire shone in the darkness, fending off the perils of the witching hours. In the distance, Arrica could hear six thunderous booms in rapid succession: the Coven Marshalls, likely responding to the sighting of an Adversary or some magickal crisis. On this street, chariots pulled by majestic simulacra of hoofed beasts and mighty jungle cats long-extinct since the Awakening swept the world — and humanity in its infinite power tossed an incomplete world into utter destruction.
Despite the activity of the night, Arrica kept her eyes upon the heavens. Waiting for that moment, even if it wouldn’t come now.
For a moment, she closed her brown eyes and breathed in the sweet smell of cinnamon and honey and imagined herself here. Despite the darkness, she felt a bright flash from behind closed lids.
When she parted them, a small square wafted through the air, falling angelically from the heavens. Arrica gestured at it, intent on waiting for it to fall. When her impatience got the better of her, she whispered a word, sending a jolt through her fingers and the paper zipped into her hand.
She cursed herself for wasting Power she’d need to get home, but caressing her belly, she forgave herself, this time.
Lavender binder wrapped in some kind of enchantment that beckoned her to open it. Her legs felt soft and flimsy beneath her. Like they’d melt if she weren’t too careful — and as an Abstract domain, she’d need to be careful about what she’d think could happen.
Hurriedly, Arrica looked around the area for a place to sit. Somewhere, she recalled coming across a park. The image was so clear in her head where to find it that her legs, by some miracle, dragged her away.
It was an inconvenient distance away, but she made it despite how her feet screamed. It was resting on green grass with a sandbox and a swing set. Arrica took a seat on the swings and pushed herself just a little.
The letter lay on her lap, the wind trickling it a bit, threatening to spirit the Letter away, along with her future.
Now or never, Arrica thought to herself. She grabbed the letter between thumbs and fingers before breaking the seal on the back. Four sheets fell open in front of her in gold, silver, nickel and brown. The topmost sheet of gold glew with burning letters:
Congratulations, Arrica Tre! We welcome you to the fold! The Covenant proudly presents you pledge sponsorship amongst these of the Seven Leagues, 1.) the Orthodoxy of Magic, Academy for the civics, servitude and the vanquisher’s arts and 2) the Coterie, Academy for Grace and Demeanor. Thank you for your diligence to the Savior’s wisdom and the Covenant which binds and unites us deeper than skin and blood.
The Senate 66
Arrica had no interest in being a Coven Marshall. Papa called Brown Bloods who went for such a role worse than traitors. He made it clear if she even so much as brought one home: she didn’t want to imagine the disappointment if she became one. However, thee Coterie? That was different.
Arrica’s smiled spread immediately. Her eyes welled with tears.
There might have been a word for her delight if she could think of finding one. If she could afford to float, she might’ve. If she could muster the might to leap up and dance, she would’ve. All she had the energy for at this moment now, was to get home and tell her Papa.
Arrica leaped up off the swing and twirled around. “Hello?”
The air was stale and old around her. Shadows loomed off into the distance. Arrica lifted her hand. “Flicker!”
A bell of light blossomed in her hand, burning out another lump of her Power. Worse, she could feel what she had remaining dwarfing by the moment: light burned out a lot.
“I know I heard you out there,” Arrica shouted out loud. Her left leg began to tremble involuntarily. She listened carefully to a soft song of a thousand crickets, but even that might be a falsehood. Adversary was predators of the magickal and sophisticated: banes of humanity. Of course, they could obscure their being behind hallucination and other weirdness.
Focusing, Arrica reached out with her mind and Awareness. It was likely finally opening her eyes after years of living in shadow. There dozens of scents flowing beneath her eyes; pungencies of spellwork: both inactive and active. She wasn’t too good at this, but she was enough to know there were no Adversary in the area.
She was also talented enough to feel that shadow lurking but ten feet in front of her.
“I-I know you’re there,” Arrica said boldly. “Come out. Now.”
The air rippled for a moment, like a puddle under rainfall. A figure stepped out, tall and confident with a silver badge with a six-pointed star at his hip: a Coven Marshall. His eyes did not watch her, but saw her: like she was a granite wall, an obstacle in his way.
“Are you… Arrica Tre?” he asked, his voice like rusty stone.
She hugged the Letters to her chest and followed the protocol drilled into her since she was three: watching his feet and not his eyes, silencing her magicks until it was little more than a weak pathetic trickle.
“Y-yes? Am I in trouble? I just found this park and I-I didn’t know I couldn’t be here.”
The man shook his head. “No, no. It’s not that, you’re supposed to be here. I wanted you here.”
Arrica frowned. “I…don’t know what you mean by that?”
“A lure. I brought you here,” he said. “Congratulations on your scores. I’m sure you’re proud.”
“I am …I’m sorry, but –”
“Can you use Ancestry, Arrica?” the man asked brazenly.
No, Arrica tried to say, as was expected of her, but her lips did not comply. She tried again, but her lips were locked together, again. The man kept staring at her. No, not at: in.
His piercing black eyes were staying at her belly with a forlorn knowledge.
Arrica gasped audibly. “Y-yes…”
“I see,” the man folded his hands and glanced around the area mathematically. Something about the gesture made Arrica want to vomit, but even that function seemed to be failing. It was like her body was made of stone.
“I hope you’re all watching. I won’t be showing this twice.”
“W-who — ”
The man regarded Arrica with an eye. “Not you. The other students.” As if they were summoned, four figures flickered into view, each with six-pointed badges of varying metals.
“However, in regards to you. I’d like to apologize. Not because you have to go — that was brought unto you by your choice to practice dark magick. Sorry that your unborn beloved will have to suffer the consequences of your choices. For that, I’ll make it quick.”
Arrica’s rage burned inside her. Desperately, she flailed not for her Power, but her Presence and sharpened it to a lethal point set upon the man before her. “True str — ”
Her lips slammed shut against her volition. Wet tears and snot slid down her face. The man regarded her with an eye. Slowly, it dawned on Arrica what was happening.
Empyrean warlock, she thought.
“Correct. I don’t need incantations to harm you when I can just chant them telepathically.” The man tapped the third-eye chakra between his eyes as he spoke and then at the exposed air.
“And no,” he said, sliding his finger down the empty space as it slit open and unfurled like a rose bud. “No one can hear you. No one will help. I bewitched it all ahead of time to maximize stealth and secrecy, and I am quite good at those things. I am a Coven Marshall after all.”
Arrica could do nothing but watch. In the distance, she could hear a cruel laughter. Someone mocking her.
“We do not know if the person we actually want is you. We were just told to watch for someone with a specific set of skills and qualifiers that you happen to fit. We pray to the Saviors’ grace that it is you, but most likely, it isn’t.”
There was a long arm that stretched out of the pocket world. Covered in scars, dripping in darkness and everything about it — the frequency, the stench, the color — said that it was wrong. That it was wrong because it was everything she, and her unborn child, were not. It was an enemy of her humanity, an Adversary.
“More will likely have to die, but that is what you and yours do best: die. I don’t mean to say that to sound unsympathetic. I am, but I do this to keep the peace and to enforce the Covenant, which is nothing without the will of very specific persons. Those persons have decided the answer to your specific crimes will be death, rather than the condemnation of the Wall like the rest of the monsters of the Browns.”
One of the figures sniffed loudly. “Why did we have to waste this much Power to summon this for a Jungle Witch, sir?”
The man folded his hands “Because, my little bird. As bloody as the work we will have to do, we should do well to keep our work bloodless on paper.” the man said. “That’s our prerogative when in service to the Law.”
The arm firmly grasped hold of Arrica. Her body squirmed internally as a thousand electrical pulses demanded she move, scream, fight — all to be quelled by whatever psychic order was established by this man in black. Instead, she feebly prayed to the Ancestors.
But, in the end, this man was right. If they were so powerful, they wouldn’t be Ancestors. Now, would they?