"I need a bed," Hissed Minerva, as she slammed a gold coin onto the counter. "And breakfast."
The attendant eyed the coin. "Er, sorry miss. That needs to be two gold for the bed and a silver for breakfast."
She squinted evilly from beneath the brim of her hat. "How about two gold and I don't turn you into a frog?" She placed another gold onto the counter.
He looked at her. "Yes, ma'am!" He replied with a frightened squeak.
She followed him upstairs as he showed her to her room. "The key ma'am. We hope you enjoy your stay!"
Exhausted, Minerva staggered from the alleyway and into the bright sunshine. She looked around and was relieved to discover that the alley she'd just come from was bordered by an inn. After extending herself so much what she needed now was sleep. Travelling well over a hundred miles in a matter of moments, Irregardless of being waylaid by the lord of shadows, was exhausting. It didn't matter how fit she was, right now she needed a bed.
She headed into the inn.
"Welcome to the laughing duck. How can I help you madam?" Said the smiling man behind the desk.
"Mark this day Witch. Mark it well. I give you permission to walk my lands. The price? The price is knowledge. Be my eyes in the light-lands, and keep me informed..." There was a pause. "Thank you, Witch. You may go."
Minerva would have breathed a sigh of relief there and then but waited until she stepped into the noise and bustle of the town. Behind her the alleyway seemed darker than the others.
The sacking of Hammords Reach had not only destroyed it here but had wiped it from the shadow lands.
And the shadow lord wasn't happy.
"I only hold you here to answer my question Witch. No harm will come to you. I have seen you before, and you have always treated my lands with the greatest respect. You have never trespassed without good reason, and so I turn a blind eye."
Suddenly the alleyway was filled with stark contrast.
"Not all who trespass are so, wise."
"Please my lord. I swear to you to that I will find what is happening and stamp it out. My sisters, my sisters..."
"I know Witch. I watched as the battle tore the mountain apart to defeat your enemy."
This shocked Minerva to the core. The lands of shadow were dangerous at the best of times. It would be so simple to just wander in amazement at the shadows on the faces of people without the face behind it. Watch them dance as a person spoke or turned their head. Just watching the shadowy outlines of trees and bushes could fascinate. Draw you in as you wasted away.
For there to be a place where the lord of shadows could not tread. Where there was nothing but void...
"My lord. I beseech you. Let me return to my land."
"I, I don't know how to answer that my lord. The city was attacked, ransacked and burned."
"Ordinarily this would be of no concern to me. There have been many wars in the light-lands. And yet the sun still shines, the plants grow in the bloodied earth and cast their shade. I am able to walk the fields of poppies and enjoy the shadows of their scent. But I become concerned when land falls dark, when cities fall silent and still in the blackness where no shadow may exist. Please tell me Witch. What magic can be so brutal?"
"You walk my lands without care Witch."
"I walk them with respect my lord." She bowed. "It is not often that I pass this way. You honour me, my lord."
"Yet... Twice in one day?! Should the honour be mine?"
"My lord. Shadow of shadows. These are troubled times."
"And that is why I wish to speak to you walker. I wish to know why my lands turn black. I wish to know where the nuance of shade has gone. The city you left behind you, it flickers in flame and dies. Leaving nothing behind but true darkness."
Around her the shadows of leaves in the trees rustled silently. Blown by the same wind that passed through her world. Walking a street filled with only the shadow remnants of those in the real world was strange. Technically she could use any shadow to pass back, but past experience had taught her that popping out of someone's shadow in the middle of town was not a good thing to happen. She headed for an appropriate alleyway, where the only surprised occupant would most likely be a cat rummaging for leftover food.
"Leaving so soon Witch? Stay a moment... Pleeaassseee..."
She was approaching the capitol. But the shadow lord was here somewhere. She could feel its presence. A gathering menace that clawed at her back and made the skin on her neck crawl.
She changed perspective as she approached. The scale altered before her as she came down, moving from her height felt strange. But as she did so, the feeling of menace grew.
Was she walking towards the shadow lord?
It didn't matter. She had to shift her perspective in order to leave the shadow lands. She did so again, and again until the world seemed normal in size.
At her feet a miniature version of the woods. She turned briefly to glance at the burning city, here it was filled with the ghosts of the newly dead. Still screaming, not yet realising that the pain had gone now. Here in the cold.
She took a step. The distance was likely fifty miles, at least. In the distance she could see the capitol. Another step. It felt monstrous. She knew the lord of this place would feel her presence. Would come for her. And it would not be merciful.
Another step, and another. This place wanted her gone. Destroyed.
If there were any magic users nearby, this was going to look like a beacon flare, but it was the fastest way.
It would also cost. A lot.
She chose the shadow of an ancient oak that was nearby. Shadow step was not to be trifled with, and she hated using it at the best of times. This was an extended travel.
Pulling on the strands that bound the world, she gathered her strength and then stepped into the shadow. And through.
The shadow lands were dangerous to the living. But distances were very different here in the grey world.
She backed out of the bramble bush, brushing aside the thorns. Dropping down into the drainage ditch behind the bush, she brushed herself down and sat her hat back onto her head.
There was nothing to save here. But one city did not make a kingdom, and the capitol was a good few weeks' ride away by horse. She didn't have weeks. So, she was going to have to do something drastic and about as dangerous as you could get.
She had briefly used it against the world snake earlier, but now this was going to take much more effort.
Hitching up her skirt to make it easier to crawl, she peered through the brambles. Her hat sat on her shoulders.
It was all gone. The city was an inferno. The wooden buildings around the central castle sat in ruins. But the castle itself was broken too. The walls had been smashed open. Eggshells sprang to mind, as a tear sprang to her eye.
As a War Witch, and the coven's focus, she could wield this kind of power. And she had. But similar power had never been used against her. She'd always managed to do it first.
As the couple and their donkey disappeared farther into the woods, Minerva looked up and found a bird to borrow.
The sparrow flew close along the treetops, avoiding predators from above but high enough to show her that she was a lot closer to the city of Hammords Reach than she'd originally thought.
It was in flames.
She let go of the sparrow. She was only half an hour away from the ridge and she had to see it with her own eyes. Smell it herself. Her coven was gone, now the reason she'd fought for had gone as well.
Minerva rolled her eyes and stood up. She patted down her thick dress and straightened her Witches hat.
"Damn. I was hoping to report in about the battle of Colonnade pass."
"Did'ja win missy?" Asked the man.
"Yes. Yes, we won the battle. But now I'm thinking we lost the war."
"Ere!? Donal' if we can't go int't mountains, where're we goin'?"
The man looked downcast. "I don't know Lillybet'. Along't coast I suppose?" He looked at Minerva. "You could come wit' missy?"
She shook her head. "I think I need to see the damage first. I will catch up."
She rubbed her eyes. There was a man in front of her. Covered in mud and grime. Behind him was a cart with a woman and a very tired looking Donkey.
"No, no. I'm fine. You're not headed into the mountains I hope?"
"Yerp! That's where'we're headin'. Don't want'a be anywh're near thar city. Tis'been overrun it'as."
That woke her up.
"What do you mean overrun?"
"Well, missy. There were these monsters ever'where. Big'uns and little'uns. We saw it from't farm, load'd up ol' Bessy'ere and done us a runn'r" said the woman on the cart. "City'll be're gonner surely."
"Ere! Don't'chu goin pokin'er now!"
Minerva was groggy from the display of power the night before, so the words floated in the dark.
"I ain'tnt goin ta be pokin' anybody Lizzybeth. Poor lass is jus'asleep is all."
"She lookin' deader'n dead I be finkin'"
"Oh shaddap woman! She's jus' sleepin' I tells ya!"
"She's one'a them there witchin's the queen has in'er army. Look'it all the dead stuff'ere! There's bit's'a snake all over. Not to mention all the trees from 'ere to tut'road!"
Sleepily, Minerva slowly opened her eyes.
"Ere? Are you a'right missy? Anyfin' we can do fer ya?"
The snake catapulted is bulk across the clearing. It's speed belied its size as it flashed through the intervening space.
Foot long fangs bared it cannoned into the tree with a loud thwack.
There was no witch.
Reeling from the impact, confused, it shook its head. Then turned, the witch was behind it somehow and it was pointing the stick it was holding. There was a bright white flash.
Minerva collapsed onto the ground. Around her the forest blazed, but at least the thing was dead now.
Maybe now she could take a proper moment to rest. Time for sleep.
Three days south was a lot longer on foot than hoof. On the evening of the third day, the thing that had followed her out of the valley caught up with her.
It was one, from many. It was hurt and exhausted. It was hungry and remembered.
The world serpent, slithered noiselessly through the loam. Leaves rustled quietly against its body as its tongue tasted the air.
The witch was close.
It spied her. Tucked into the crook of an ancient oak. Keeping its head still, it gathered the rest of its long body in order to strike. Silently... Deadly...
She hoped she was making good time. While her entire unit had been killed in the onslaught, the kingdom she was defending was only three days south of the Valley. They'd chosen there because it was a perfect choke point and presented them with an easily defended position. Or so they had thought.
She moved easily down the animal paths, staying away from the main road for fear of being seen by the enemy. She checked it every now and again, but there was no sign. Her paranoia, however, got the better of her. So, she stayed well, well away.