An End To All Things (Witch Origin Story)
Hey everyone, after a longer delay than I wanted, we've finally reached the end of our journey. In this, we find out what happens to the Ranger after her cliffhanger ending, and we get to meet the Witch, perhaps the most complicated of PoE's characters. As always, a huge thanks to Edwin McRae for assisting with background information to make sure everything is internally consistent with the game's lore.
If you want to read the series in its entirety, the order in which I list the previous stories is the order you should read them - from the very first one I had a plan in mind to weave them all together, and I think I came pretty close to what I envisioned. No Templar pants in this one, though, and I apologize, but it felt like it would break the flow (and seriously, he should have pants by now, what's wrong with that man?)
Anyways, enjoy, as I know it was a pleasure to write them!
Templar - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1403133
Scion - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1414654
Marauder - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1419489
Duelist - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1457891
Shadow - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1488082
Ranger - https://www.pathofexile.com/forum/view-thread/1563285
An End to All Things
“Healer! Healer, you’ve got to come quick! Healer!”
I rubbed a hand across my sleep-crusted eyes and pushed myself upright, stifling a curse at Tayla’s shrill tone. I know she meant well, but it was always ‘come quick and save a bird I found’ this, or ‘poor badger has a broken paw, can you fix it’ that, frequently at inconvenient times, like when I was supposed to be sleeping, and hexing the one person in this shabby village who bothered to get along with me seemed... rude. I tucked my long, dark hair behind my ears, pinning it back with small bone needles, sighed, and pushed the hut’s door open.
Silvery moonlight greeted me, a pale crescent gleaming above fluffy midnight clouds, like the winking slit of a goddess’ eye. I felt energy rise within my veins, a cool tingling not unlike dipping a toe into a burbling summer stream. I paused for a moment, throwing my head back, basking in the sensation, but as always, the joy of communion quickly tarnished under the oppressive weight of loneliness.
There should be others standing next to me in this gentle light, those with whom I shared a bond deeper than blood. My sisters, now dead, burned alive at the stake, and for what? The crime of healing those in need? Of being too tempting a target for angry demagogues? Had I known then the skills I now possess, things might have turned out differently, but...
Tayla’s panting voice snapped me out of bitter remembrance.
“Healer. Look, I found her in the forest. Can you help her?”
I turned my head away from the night sky to see what Tayla had brought me this time.
Well. This was new.
Tayla, her dark skin nearly matching the ebon cloaked clouds, sat crouched next to a body, her long braid twitching up and down while she gasped for breath. The body appeared to be that of a young woman, her blond hair tied back in a simple ponytail, forester breeches covering her legs, a tattered white tunic fluttering over her torso, and a heavy layer of dried blood caked along her right side. A longbow, made of what looked to be ash, lay next to her, along with a bulging backpack, a malicious presence throbbing in its depths. Her chest moved up and down in ragged spurts, and I walked over to stand next to Tayla.
“She doesn’t look much like one of the normal animals you bring me, Tayla. How’d you find her?”
“I was searching for berries, and then I saw... explosions of fire... deep in the forest. I went to go look, but before I could get there, I ran across her stumbling through the trees. She fell over, and then I carried her back. I’m pretty tired now. She’s a lot heavier than she looks.”
“I can imagine,” I said absentmindedly, mulling over her earlier words. ‘Explosions of fire’ didn’t sound like anything worth getting involved with, not to mention that familiar sense of corruption from her backpack, but on the other hand...
Some small part of me was still a healer. Still that young girl from what seems like so long ago. My goddess might be dying, might already be dead, but enough of her power remained in the silver orb above me to still make a difference.
“Go fetch a bowl of water from the hut, and one of the mouse cages. Quickly.”
Tayla scrambled to her feet and into the hut, her braid swinging behind her. I watched her go, then knelt next to the almost-corpse of the woman, her breath coming in laboring gasps. I tilted my head back again, drinking of the moonlight more deeply, letting the cool tingling expand into a roaring flood, remembering my lessons from the temple. Swiftly, I traced a pattern over her face with my right index finger, then the opposite pattern over her wounded side with my left, before bringing both hands to rest on her stomach. A delicate embroidery of light glowed above the surface of her skin, then sank into her flesh. I felt the presence of Tayla returning to my side.
“Place the mouse cage to my right,” I murmured, “and be ready to hand me the bowl of water when I ask for it.”
Soft scuffling noises indicated Tayla had done as asked, and I drew in a breath, holding the almost unstoppable flood of moonlight gathering behind my lips. Carefully, I raised my right hand from the unknown woman’s stomach and placed it into the mouse cage, gently clasping the squeaking rodent. Leaving my left hand on her belly, I let out the gathered moonlight in an explosive exhale, watching the world twist.
Reality itself seemed to alter, agonizing pain briefly flowing through me - a sharp slice against my right side, the dull throbbing of overtaxed muscles, a grim finality of failing organs - but then the pain was quickly replaced by new vitality, a cleansing bloom washing away the hurt, like springtime rain scouring a stone free of mud. The mouse in my right hand trembled, then went limp, and I cast it aside. In front of me, the woman went rigid, the rigor mortis of death, her mouth and eyes opening in a silent scream.
“The water bowl, quickly!”
Tayla held the water bowl in front of me, and with my now free right hand, I grabbed one of the bone hairpins from the side of my head and jabbed it into my tongue, drawing forth a fat drop of blood. I spat it into the bowl, red swirling through the clear liquid, and then a silvery light suffused the contents, like a sliver of the Moon itself lay inside. I grabbed the bowl, never letting my left hand leave the woman’s stomach, and tilted it into her mouth, letting the glowing mercury gently pour down her throat. It wasn’t until the very last drop slid out of sight that I raised my hand from her taut abdomen.
The instant I did, she drew in a juddering breath, muscles clenching, then her eyes slipped closed and she relaxed into the rhythms of normal sleep. A soft snore escaped her nose, and Tayla giggled. My mind was elsewhere, however. A blessing had been sought, and now the price demanded payment.
Waves of aching nausea surged through my veins, alternating floods of burning pain and freezing numbness. Underlying it all was a filthy sensation, like a three week corpse floating in a well, flies circling its bloated husk. I fought against it, fought against the putrescence trying to rip my sanity apart, and slowly, oh so slowly, I was able to beat it back.
It hadn’t always been like this. Communing with the goddess had been a privilege, a joy, but then that night in Theopolis changed everything. Changed my sisters. Changed my goddess. Changed me.
I groaned, pulling myself out of the pits of recollection, and pushed myself back to my feet. I lifted the water bowl, now just a plain wooden hemisphere, and pointed it at Tayla.
“You’ll need to make sure she rests for at least three days. Give her soft bread and water, as much as she asks for, but no meat until after the third day. Tell her not to do whatever it was she was doing anymore.”
“Thank you, healer,” she smiled, and threw her arms around me, green eyes dancing. I stiffened, my normal reaction, but then let her hug me. Tayla was the only member of the village that dared even talk to me, and without my sisters, I feared losing human contact.
Feared what I might become, the darkness I had embraced before.
Deep within me, the broken fragment of my goddess coiled in on itself, and laughed, and laughed.
The next day, I woke to the sounds of Agrippus crowing, early morning dawnlight creeping past the edges of the hut’s wooden shutters, the beginnings of a headache already throbbing behind my skull. I flopped a hand over my eyes and tried to fall back asleep, but Agrippus crowed again, a piercing screech that seemed to rattle my very mind, and I felt my fingers twitch. Reluctantly, I stilled them, before I could indulge the impulse to roast the brainless rooster alive. I needed at least another three hours of sleep to recover from the healing, but it looked like I wasn’t going to get them.
“Stupid bird,” I muttered, and forced myself out of bed, wrapping my shift over my undergarments in a loose bind. Grumbling, I gathered a bag of millet and went outside to feed Agrippus and his flock.
As soon as I opened the door, a cluster of chickens gathered around my feet, their wings flapping in excitement, a large, black streaked rooster looming in their midst. I gave him a gimlet stare, and then started scattering seed across the dirt in sweeping handfuls. The chickens settled down, pecking up their breakfast in quick head bobs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Agrippus stretch his neck to the pale dawn sky.
“Don’t you dare,” I snarled, “or I’m filleting you on the spot. I am so not in the mood right now.”
Almost sheepishly, he ruffled his feathers, then joined the rest of the flock in eating. I stalked over to the coop, a small, tightly joined wooden structure I’d built myself, and reached in to snag several eggs for my own meal, along with some fresh herbs from the adjacent garden patch. Hopefully some food would help keep the headache at bay. I tucked the eggs and herbs into a pocket, then grabbed three logs from the pile stretching up almost to the hut’s low hanging eaves.
Back inside, I set the logs into the firepit, then went to work with a flint to ignite the tinder beneath them, a heavy iron skillet next to the hearth, my breakfast ingredients carefully stacked within.
Sparks showered from the flint, but the fire failed to catch. I sighed.
Fire failed to catch. Again. The throbbing in my head intensified.
A third strike. No fire. I felt my teeth grind, a sudden surge of anger flushing my cheeks, and I pointed a finger at the logs. The slimy thing within me uncoiled, and the world twisted.
A surge of heat and dirty red light filled the interior of the hut, fire bursting from my hand and exploding the logs into flaming splinters. A sense of gleeful frenzy poured through me, the joy of wanton destruction, but seconds later I recognized it for what it was, and swore. I would not give in to the temptation of the twist. My life was mine.
I jumped up and started beating out the scattered debris smoldering against the walls of the hut before the entire structure caught blaze. Several tense seconds passed, the acrid scent of woodsmoke stinging my lungs, but finally I crushed the last cinder and stood panting in the center of the hut. A fine layer of ash blanketed nearly every visible surface, including my sweat dampened hair.
When I looked down, and saw the melted remains of my skillet, I groaned. Explaining why I needed my third piece of cookware in as many weeks to Jonias, the village’s blacksmith, had the potential to raise questions I would rather not have to answer. Though the small farming community tolerated my presence for the occasional poultice and ointment I provided them, hostility and distrust were an everyday part of life, and this would only make it worse.
Glumly, I gathered a broom and started cleaning what used to be the pristine interior of my hut. Outside, Agrippus crowed again, setting my headache into full bloom.
Inside, the twist coiled back into itself, dark satisfaction radiating into my mind.
Several days later, I headed into the village for supplies, a new skillet foremost among my needs. As I walked the narrow forest path, a light breeze rustled through the overhanging leaves, setting beams of sunlight dancing across the beaten dirt, and despite myself, I smiled. There was a serenity in the solitude, a peaceful acceptance of a world much vaster than a single person that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I allowed myself a moment to simply be, uncaring of anything else other than the play of sun and shade on my face, day’s bright contrast to night’s hidden depths.
Naturally, the feeling vanished the instant I stepped into the outskirts of the village, a wave of slamming window shutters and whispering stares announcing my arrival like a pestilent herald. Grubby farmer’s wives darted into their rude huts, dragging protesting children by outstretched arms, and Old Filius, the village drunk, spat at my feet. I felt the familiar rage boiling inside me, my fists clenching at my sides.
It didn’t matter that I’d never harmed a one of them, didn’t matter the lives I’d saved - to them I was something to be shunned, despised... and for what reason? Because a madman on a throne couldn’t control me and my sisters, and so sought to execute us all instead? Because I dared, a woman, to live alone in the woods, unafraid? Because they feared what they couldn’t be bothered to understand?
The twist writhed inside me, its sibilant presence like a rotting snake slithering through my veins. I could burn this entire village alive with a flick of my wrist, flay the skin from their bones with a single potent curse, or shatter their bodies with ice and lightning. I could make their miserable lives such torment that they would beg for the sweet release of death, and then force them to do my bidding afterward, ghoulish slaves subject to my every whim. I could dance amongst their children’s corpses, obliterate every hope and dream they’d ever dared to have, but did I do any of these things?
Unbidden, my mind drifted back to that fateful night in Theopolis.
My sisters and I, gathered in our temple, the day’s last supplicant walking out the moonlit door, his infirmities mended.
A sudden crash, Templars shoving their way inside, blades drawn and torches crackling, a white robed man behind them, a women in red at his side.
Dominus. Piety. Names that held no meaning for me then, but that I now understood were the architects of my life’s destruction, mad servants in thrall to death itself.
The screams of my sisters, cut down by merciless steel, their agonized wails when the fires caught light.
Reaching out to our goddess, searching desperately for a means of defense, and the horror of finding only the tainted presence that had consumed her, a maggot wriggling out of a once pristine eyeball.
The feel of its vile essence worming into my bones as I embraced the foulness, embraced the power it offered, the urge to live stronger even than my horror.
The hideous glee with which I killed, driven by the animalistic rage, turning bodies inside out in grisly welters of ruined flesh and fountaining blood, none able to stop my flight into the night-shrouded streets.
The fight to keep from fully succumbing to the hate, to try and find a way back to the woman I was before, yet knowing that things could never be the same.
Slowly, deliberately, I made my hands unclench, and continued into the village. No. I would not do those things. Not today. Not ever again.
I would not be the monster they wanted.
Forcing calm into each step, I headed deeper into the town that hated me.
On my way back to my hut, supplies stacked neatly in my new skillet, I came up behind Tayla on the forest trail, her brightly colored clothes contrasting against the darker greens and browns of the trees. An unfamiliar figure leaned on her shoulder, the two of them walking in a sort of staggering lurch. As I got closer, I realized it was the woman from the other night, her blond hair tied back in an intricate braid over a white shift and what looked to be a scuffed pair of ranger’s leather pants, neatly seamed patches indicating Tayla’s steady hand at stitching. I called out to Tayla.
“I thought I told you to keep her in bed.”
“I tried, healer,” Tayla said, laughter in her voice, “but I couldn’t stop her. The first two days were fine, but then she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Something about ‘needing to feel the forest,’ so I figured I’d bring her to you to examine.”
The woman looked at me, her pale green eyes revealing nothing, a guarded expression on her face.
“You... are the one who saved me?”
“Yes. Don’t make a habit of it.”
“I do not plan to. There were men following me... before...”
She stumbled and winced, clutching at her side. Tayla quickly tightened her arm around the woman’s waist, holding her upright. I frowned.
“You should be resting. Your body still needs time to recover. The healing does not work miracles.”
“Based on what this one here, Tayla, has told me, it seems that it does.”
I glared at Tayla, who shrugged at me, abashed. The ranger coughed, then straightened back up, her mouth set in a determined line. “You are sure there were no men? No soldiers have come through, asking questions?” A mix of terror and rage pulsed behind her eyes, like that of a hunted animal ready to spin and fight.
Troubled thoughts raced through my head. If the Ebony Legion pursued her, they might discover me. Should I have left her to die? Should I kill her now, hide any trace she was ever here? The twist stirred within me, a roiling pit of nausea in my stomach.
I looked at Tayla’s worried face, her arm cradling the ranger’s side, bright clothes seemingly so out of place in this dark forest, and knew I couldn’t.
“...no. You’re safe here. Well, as safe as an unknown woman in a town of backwards peasants can be, anyway.”
“Hey,” Tayla squawked. “Are you calling me a backwards peasant?”
“Hush. You’re not like them. Now, go, take her back to get some rest.” I caught the ranger’s eyes. “And I mean it - no walking for another day at least. Else whatever’s chasing you will only find a corpse.”
“As you say, healer,” Tayla chirped, gently turning the ranger back around on the path. “See you later!”
I watched them leave, one figure dark of skin yet light of heart, the other her opposite, and wondered if I was making a mistake. Wondered if my actions would end in fire and screams, just like before. Wondered if it would be better to leave now, find someplace even more secluded to hide.
Down the path, Tayla turned to wave, and I found my hand rising in response.
The days passed in their usual monotony, my waking hours spent tending to Agrippus and his flock, weeding the herb garden, mixing salves and tinctures for fevers, aches, broken bones and more. Occasionally, a villager would approach my hut, their eyes darting around like they expected the earth to swallow them whole, furtive steps scurrying along the dirt path, and after a mumbled request and a gift of some food or trinkets, they would leave with a cure for what ailed them, feet nearly tripping over themselves in their haste to be away.
I loathed each intrusion, loathed their petty hatred and inability to see me as anything more than some sort of demonic witch, but I never turned them away. I refused to play into their projected spite, give them reason to hunt me down like my sisters. I would not succumb to the twist curling within my bones, demanding their blood. My life was mine, not anyone else’s to control, and if they thought to brand me a monster, I would heal them instead.
The one visitor I looked forward to was when Tayla would stop by to show off a new outfit she had created, or brought one of the endlessly injured forest creatures she somehow managed to find, their expressions nearly as pitiable as her own. Those times felt like being back in Theopolis, with my sisters, our younger selves unaware of the miserable future we faced. During one such visit, I asked her how the mysterious woman was doing.
“Oh, the ranger? She’s doing great!” A smile spread across Tayla’s face, seeming to light her from the inside, and she leaned forward on the small stool on which she sat, her fingers flashing through the intricate stitches with which she was darning one of my shifts. “She’s a fantastic hunter. It’s like she was born to be in the forest. I told her she should start selling some meat in Theopolis - Jonias says the nobles there love that kind of thing. It’s a bit of a walk from here, but her side doesn’t bother her at all anymore, and I have that old cart Farmer Gunfrell let me have. It shouldn’t take much to fix it up.”
I looked up from the mixture of herbs I was mashing into a paste.
“So she’s still living with you then?”
“Yeah... at first it just made sense, because of the injury, and then, where was she going to go? But now...” She paused, seeming unsure of herself, then took a deep breath. “I... I think I like her, healer. A lot. And I think she likes me, too. I mean, she hasn’t talked about wanting to move out or anything. I was hoping she would stay. What do you think?”
“I think you should do what makes you happy, Tayla,” I replied quietly. “This world is cruel, cruel beyond belief. Find your happiness where you can, for as long as you can.”
And pray you die when it gets taken away, I mentally added, so you don’t have to live with the knowledge of what you lost. Of what you had to do to survive.
She smiled at me tremulously.
“Do you think... do you think the villagers will talk? About us? Being together?”
I reached out to put a hand on her knee.
“The villagers will talk, but they always do. Forget them. Live your life, Tayla, live it for yourself, not what others think of you. If you make each other happy, then be happy. Together.”
“Th... thank you, healer. It means a lot to me to hear you say that.” She sniffled, and wiped a sleeve across her nose. “You must think I’m such a bother, always coming to you for help.”
“Not at all, Tayla. I think of you as a...” I felt my throat tightening, wanting to choke off the words, spare myself the pain of acknowledgement, but I forced them out anyway. “I think of you as a friend.”
And please, Goddess, if any part of you yet lives, let her meet a better fate than my sisters.
The next day, after successfully not killing Agrippus for raking his talons across my bare feet, the twist spurring my rage into volcanic incandescence, I headed into the forest to track down the ranger. I wanted to talk to her, make sure she wasn’t going to do something to hurt Tayla. Something to hurt me. I wasn’t going to lose anyone else.
After what felt like hours later, I swore and sat down on a fallen log near a clearing, massaging my toes, and cursed myself for an idiot. Tayla had told me the woman was a hunter, and clearly my limited skills weren’t enough to find her. Birdsong echoed all around me, the frenzied chirps and trills of tiny creatures wishing they were giants, and I sighed. I wanted to talk to a woman, not birds.
“My uncle would have laughed to see you moving through the trees.”
My belt knife was in my hand without conscious thought, its razor edge gleaming in the noon light. The ranger glanced at it briefly, then sat down next to me, leaning her longbow against the log, a brace of rabbits next to it.
“Of course, he laughed at me, too, when I first started learning. It’s not easy to become part of the forest. Requires you to give up a part of yourself, submerge it into something bigger.”
I slid the knife back into its sheath, and thought of my sisters. Of our communions with our goddess, moonlight filling our lips and veins, Her presence filling us near to bursting, and a part of me wept for that loss, like it had since the day they burned. I turned to face her.
“I have some experience with that, yes. Do you have a moment to chat?”
She leaned back against the log, resting her head on her hands.
“What other reason would you have for coming out here? This is not your element, witch.”
I bristled at the word, but when I looked at her, there was no malice on her face. Simply a recognition of a fact, calling a thing by its name.
“And what do you know of witches?”
“What my uncle told me. He served in the Ebony Legion. To protect my mother. Said that if they’d had sisters with them when they went to Wraeclast, some of his friends might have made it back. Of course, there was no chance of that, not with the High Templar in charge.”
“No,” I said softly, my mind filled with flames. “No chance of that at all. Dominus means to end us, and I fear he will succeed.”
“Well, I’m not one to anger a woman who saved my life. What is it you want to speak of?”
“The seamstress? What of her?”
“She cares for you. Deeply. I need to know you won’t hurt her.”
The ranger closed her eyes, like a cat napping on a ledge.
“Do you know how I ended up here?”
“A man tried to take what was not his to own. I hurt him, but I did not kill him. That was my mistake. In exchange, my uncle and five soldiers are dead, and I...”
She sat up, her eyes opening, anger burning in their depths.
“I have had my fill of men. I will not hurt your Tayla, though I cannot promise that man will not try to find me. If he does, it will end in blood, either mine or his. There is risk for her. I cannot change that.”
“You could leave. Find someplace else.”
She laughed, a sharp cough of sound.
“I could, but I find that I have grown fond of Tayla. She is a good heart, in a cruel world. I would not want to cause her harm. I would rather stay, and protect her.”
I examined my fingernails, picking at a speck of dirt lodged beneath one.
“Then if that man shows up, if soldiers appear, you will do what needs to be done? Whatever the cost?”
Her eyes darkened, a curious shadow lingering in their depths, and her hand drifted down to her belt pouch, caressing the outline of what looked like a gem. Within me, the twist stirred.
“Yes. I have some experience with that. But I do not think I will act alone, not with a porcupine such as yourself watching over her too.”
I paused, momentarily taken aback.
“Yes. Your exterior is sharp, dangerous, but beneath it all is a soft part you wish to hide. Vulnerable. I will help you guard it, do not fear.”
I shook my head, bemused.
“A porcupine. You are a strange woman, ranger.”
“No stranger than you, witch. Saving me was a risk you did not have to take.”
The coil tightened within me, and I forced it down, amongst the screams and the flames.
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
Weeks passed, then months, life settling into a new routine, like a river shifting its course, yet still flowing to the sea. I continued healing the villagers and Tayla’s forest rescues, and tried to visit the town itself as infrequently as possible. The few times I went, I saw Old Filius with unknown men, their dress painting them as lackeys to some noble or another, but he always pulled them away into the inn whenever he saw me. I suspected treachery, but were those my thoughts, or the twist?
Tayla convinced the ranger to start selling wild game in Theopolis, and though a part of me was tempted to join her for a trip, see the city in which I’d been raised, I knew that if I were to go back it would end badly. There was too much pain waiting for me there, too many dark memories waiting to bubble to the surface, and I did not trust that I could control my emotions any more.
My life was here, now, amongst the dirt and the trees, and though I longed for the life I once had, every time the twist clenched my guts, I knew I must live the life I now possessed. My goddess might have been defiled, but I would not let that turn me into a monster.
I began to worry the choice was not mine to make.
Time passed, like it always does, but the wounds inside me did not heal. Every day I felt a little more on edge, a little more willing to lash out at those who wronged me. Every night I dreamt the same dream, a chaotic jumble of death and destruction. I tried everything I could think of to numb my senses, but no sleeping draught, no herbs of relaxation seemed to help. I took to walking deep into the forest, late at night, unleashing my power on hapless trees in uncontrollable gouts of flame and hissing shards of ice, hoping that might satiate the twist’s ravenous demands, but such expeditions only seemed to hasten my feelings of despair, amplify the twist’s influence over me.
My need to destroy.
I tried communing with the moon, seeking any last remnant of the goddess, but what was once a pale and welcoming orb now seemed a cold and gibbous wound, glaring balefully down from above.
The only centering influence seemed to be Tayla, her visits to my hut the lone bright spots in an ever deepening darkness, but even that seemed to pale as the months dragged on. I began to worry, that I might hurt her, might accidently snap while she was visiting, further reinforcing the malaise crushing my spirit.
I felt myself withdrawing from humanity, that wretched twist dancing delightedly through my limbs, and I worried where it might end. What I might become, like I had before.
Then, one day, the past returned.
Mine, and another’s.
It began normally enough, a miserable day in a series of miserable months. I woke up, tended Agrippus and the flock, then set off to town to replenish my supplies of soap and candles. I was greeted by the usual slamming of doors and shutters, but something felt... off. The crack of wood against plaster just a little bit louder than normal, farmwives scurrying away a touch faster. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle, but I told myself I was imagining things. That I’d been on edge for too long, letting it influence my view of the world.
When I walked into the market square, I knew I was wrong. I saw Old Filius, firewine bottle in hand, talking to three men in the light-drinking armor of the Ebony Legion, scabbarded shortswords hanging from their hips. He pointed at me, a sour expression on his face, then scuttled to the porch of the village’s inn, a ramshackle affair of crudely dressed logs and bricks. The three walked over to me, and I felt my muscles tense.
The lead soldier, a man with a bushy black mustache, spoke brusquely to me.
“Citizen. A moment.”
“We’re looking for a woman. A poacher, hunting deer in the forest. She has committed crimes against a member of the nobility, and we have reason to believe you know of her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied easily, my voice flat. Giving up the ranger would destroy Tayla, and there was no guarantee they wouldn’t turn their attention to me anyway.
“That’s not what the other villagers say,” he said, hand slowly dropping to the hilt of his sword. “They claim to have seen you and her together frequently, along with another woman. A foreigner with dark skin. They also claim knowledge of a witch operating in these parts, casting spells and consorting with demons. ”
I wanted to spit in rage. This is how they repaid me, for curing their illnesses? For keeping their children healthy and hale? I thought back to Old Filius’ meetings with the strange men, and the urge to kill him nearly overwhelmed me. I tried to keep the anger from my voice.
“I have no idea what gossiping farmwives and senile drunkards might have told you, but they’re mistaken. I haven’t seen a poacher, and I certainly haven’t seen a witch around here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have shopping that must be done.”
I took a step forward, and paused at the steely whisper of drawn steel, a gleaming point inches from my face. The lead soldier stared at me, his eyes cold and dead.
“I think you should come with us, citizen. I’m not done asking questions.”
“And what if I’m done answering them?” I replied pleasantly, white-hot bile scouring my innards.
“Oh, I think you’ll have plenty of answers,” he chuckled nastily. He beckoned to the other two, still keeping his sword pointed at my face. “Marcus, you track down the poacher in the woods. Keep her alive, though. That noble’s paying good money for her. Vanadius, you check the seamstress’ house. If she tries to slip past, I want you waiting. I’ll take care of this one.”
My blood ran cold as I watched the other two soldiers run off. Tayla was in danger. The touch of steel on my throat brought my thoughts back to the current situation.
“Come with me, citizen. A woman living by herself, out in the woods?” He shook his head in mock sadness, but the dead look never left his eyes. “I think you might be able to tell me more about this witch the villagers speak of. Nasty creatures, witches.”
“You have no idea,” I said, and then let the twist come alive.
The curse flew from my lips like an arrow, impaling his forehead, and I casually stepped around his now-immobile form, his sword beginning the glacial motions of a thrust.
“Why, just imagine if a witch decided to slow down time itself. There’d be no way for you to defend yourself. You’d be at her utter mercy.”
I pulled my knife from its sheath, and rolled the tip around on one finger.
“In fact, imagine you just threatened not only a witch, but someone she cares for. There’s no telling what she might do to you.”
With a quick slice, I opened his throat, and watched his life spray out like a crimson fan. His body toppled over, blood pooling underneath, staining the rich dirt an even deeper shade of brown.
“Imagine what a witch could do, were she roused to anger,” I whispered, trying to contain the furious rhythm pounding in my breast. “Just imagine.”
I spat on his corpse, then sprinted towards the path leading to Tayla’s house. I would not lose my friend.
The twist laughed in time with my pounding feet.
The sun was lowering in the sky by the time I reached Tayla’s neatly kept hut, with its rows of wildflowers out front. I quickly scanned the surrounding area, but didn’t see anyone.
“Tayla!” I shouted. “Tayla!”
The door creaked open, and I tensed, raising a hand, but then lowered it as I recognized the figure stepping out. The ranger’s eyes met mine, her longbow strung, and an arrow loosely nocked in her hands. Ice shimmered briefly on its tip, then vanished, and a glint of green caught my eye. A gem, inside the bow’s haft. Behind her, inside the hut, I saw the still form of an Ebony Legion soldier, arrows protruding from where his eyes used to be. His corpse was otherwise unremarkable, except for being completely frozen.
I ignored it. Tayla was in danger.
“She’s not here?”
“Shit. She must have gone to my hut. We have to hurry. Those men who were chasing you, I think they found you. I’ve seen outsiders in the village over the past few months, but damn fool I am, didn’t think to investigate further. Now those soldiers are here. I heard one mention an Oriathan noble. I killed him, but there’s one more out there.”
The ranger’s eyes darkened.
She took off into the woods, booted feet noiseless on the forest floor, and I pumped my arms to keep up, trying not to trip on anything. The light grew dimmer as we ran, forest shadows lengthening, and I made a quick gesture, calling on the goddess. A small ball of silvery light popped into existence in front of me, illuminating my path. The twist roiled briefly, but then settled back down, uninterested in such a modest display of power. The ranger glanced back, her stride never slowing.
“Yeah... you know... where... we’re going...?” I panted, legs still churning.
“Of course. This is a forest.”
“Take... your word... for it...”
After that, I had no breath left for talking. Only for running.
Night had completely fallen by the time the ranger held up a fist, and I stumbled to a halt, gasping for breath. It was then I noticed the red glow ahead of us. My heart turned to stone.
“Try not to make any sound,” the ranger whispered, and I nodded. She slowly crept forward, pushing branches out of the way, until we emerged at the edge of the clearing where my hut once stood.
I had thought my heart was stone. I was mistaken. My heart was a void, an empty space where life should have beat.
The smoldering ruins of my hut crackled in the cool night air, occasional sparks flying up from a collapsing beam. Around it were what looked to be the entire village, torches and pitchforks in hand, the fire throwing leering shadows on their faces. Through the pounding in my ears, I became aware of the voice of a man yelling triumphantly. Beside me, the ranger hissed.
“Priapus. You were right. He found me.”
The man’s voice was jubilant, the malicious glee of a bully cornering his victim.
“You see! There is nothing to fear from a witch’s familiar!”
I finally saw who was talking, my eyes lighting on a man on horseback, a tattered shred of cloth in his hand. He wheeled his horse, brandishing the cloth at the villagers, and I felt myself break.
The vivid patterns illuminated by the fire were unmistakable.
“The witch led her into damnation, tricked her into wicked and unnatural behavior, but you have cleansed her spirit! You have saved her, and yourselves!”
My hands clenched, fingernails drawing blood from my palms, but I didn’t care. There was nothing left in this world to care for. I felt a light pressure on my arm, and turned to see the ranger kneeling next to me.
“We will end this. Together. He has hurt us both, and I will do what I should have done the first time. Before he murdered my uncle.”
She caressed the green gem in her bow, fingers lingering on its faceted surface. An odd sensation flitted through me, the twist shivering in recognition, but I ignored it. There was only room for one thought in my mind right now.
The ranger socketed the gem into a cunning notch in her bow, then whispered again.
“I will kill him. The villagers are yours.”
I nodded, my fingers outstretched into claws, the twist thrumming along my nerves. They wanted me to be a monster. I would grant their wish.
We stood, and walked forward.
“Priapus,” the ranger called. “You should have never hunted a hunter.” The man circled his horse, his eyes widening in recognition, but whatever he thought to say never left his lips. Her face curiously blank, the ranger drew her arrow back, frozen crystals forming along its tip, then let it fly.
A blue line ripped through the air, and Lord Priapus exploded into shards of ice, two villagers behind him shattering as well, their broken pieces quickly melting from the smoldering hut’s blaze. The ranger sank to her knees.
“It is... done... uncle...” she whispered, then toppled over, unconscious, but I had no time to spare a thought for her.
I gave myself over to the twist.
Power funneled into me, the silvery light of the goddess, but defiled, broken, corrupted. The taste of sewage and decay filled my mouth, a familiar charnel scent suffocating my nose.
The same scent from that night so long ago. The night my sisters burned, and I lived.
“You called me ‘monster,’” I screamed at the villagers, lightning flickering from my body, “when all I did was help you!”
I pointed a finger at Old Filius, watching him writhe and twitch in a cage of crackling light, then I clenched my hand and turned his body to ash. The twist danced gleefully, rage throbbing through me.
“You murdered the only good thing in this village!”
Fireballs ripped forth from my palms, obliterating another four figures in agonized shrieks. Others threw down their pitchforks and tried to run, but I raised a hand to the midnight sky and stopped them in their tracks. I felt parts of me, connections to my goddess, splinter and vanish, but I had no room to care.
“You took from me the most precious thing I had left! My friend!”
Shards of ice whirled around my head, spreading to cover the entire clearing, and I drove those still standing to their knees, gashing their huddled forms with winter’s biting fangs. The twist roared through my veins, blinding acid trembling my entire body, and I arched my back and screamed, feeling myself withering from the strain.
“Be repaid in kind!”
Power surged from my hands, a fountain of black lightning, ugly red tracing the outlines of each bolt. Faster and faster they swirled together, a whirling orb rising like a second moon, and the noxious touch of the twist flayed my very soul, but I was past caring. A monster was what they demanded, and so a monster I became.
In a deafening thunderclap, the orb split the night apart, searing lines of negative fire arcing over the trees towards the village. Though I couldn’t see their impact, I knew exactly what was happening.
The hopes and dreams of the village, withered and crumbled to dust, nevermore to brighten their days.
They took from me my heart. In exchange, I took their children.
My connection to the goddess vanished, the twist scouring itself from my very being in an orgy of hate and pain, and it was then that unconsciousness claimed me.
Now I sit, alone at last, in this stinking hold, the terrified faces of other exiles surrounding me. Their whispers fill my ears, and none dare approach. I do not care. There is nothing left within me. Nothing but rage.
The twist is gone, burned out by that vile night, its echoes still lingering in the shadows of my soul, but growing fainter every day. My goddess is gone, the link I thought inviolable, violated. I do not care. There is nothing left within me. Nothing but sorrow.
A part of me wants to wonder what happened to the ranger, my last link to Tayla. Wants to know whether she was taken by the Ebony Legion as well, or whether she escaped, but I do not care. There is nothing left within me. Nothing but hate.
As we approach this forsaken land, this continent of Wraeclast, my lips pull back from my teeth in a snarl. I can feel a power deep within it, an ugly, vile, familiar thing, beckoning me towards its dark core. Seeking to claim me for its own. Dominus killed my sisters, Piety murdered my dreams, and now they think to let me die here, alone, unwanted, with nothing left to live for, another victim of this cruel and uncaring world.
That is where they are wrong.
I have something left within me. Something for Dominus and Piety alike, for those who stole my heart, for the twist that tried to damn me forever.
The storm churns, water growing darker by the second. Waves crash against the wallowing ship, threatening to capsize it, and cries of fear rise from its reeking hold stuffed full of exiles. Suddenly, a titanic swell, towering over the flimsy wooden vessel, descends like the fist of a god, cracking the boat in two. Bodies splash frantically in the water, trying to stay afloat, but the storm is relentless. Inexorably, they slip beneath the water, until only a few remain.
Those few, however, fight the clinging depths with a ferocity that rivals the storm itself, willing themselves to live through any obstacle, no matter how insurmountable. In the distance, beneath the wind-whipped clouds, the wracked shore of a forbidding continent grows larger. One by one, their eyes fall on its looming bulk, and one by one, they drive themselves towards its fearsome embrace.
Last bumped on May 16, 2018, 4:47:11 PM
on Apr 19, 2016, 1:24:26 PM
Thanks for the awesome reads!
on Apr 19, 2016, 2:03:39 PM
Absolutely amazing, I loved reading all of these!
on Apr 19, 2016, 3:35:03 PM
Absolutely breathtaking. Your skills at vivid narration are incredible!
on Apr 19, 2016, 3:58:05 PM
Excellent. I've always seen the Witch as a darker character, great interpretation. Let me talk to you about some of the details later on.
Ruby light of Songbird dreaming,
Daring King of Swords deceiving,
Queen of Sirens left in grieving,
Star of Wraeclast evermore.
on Apr 19, 2016, 4:15:49 PM
For sure, I'll probably on later tonight after doing @midnight.
on Apr 19, 2016, 4:18:25 PM
Amazing, thanks for good read on all of the exiles. What to wait in an anguish for now?
on Apr 19, 2016, 5:18:02 PM
I really enjoyed this series, well done and thank you for this!
Ascendancy classes next? Each subclass was a person at one point. :P
*You call into the void. You hear a sound in the distance.*
on Apr 19, 2016, 10:34:10 PM
Lol, that might be a little rough :p
No worries though, I'm working on some stuff and am very hopeful there will be more stories of other parts of the game.
on Apr 19, 2016, 11:56:39 PM
An awesome read, as always. Thanks for this amazing piece of entertainment, Loate!
on Apr 20, 2016, 6:22:33 AM