in collaboration with @Shagranoz
The carriage was nice and spacious, thanks to its enchantments. Saen had coiled up on one of the benches, lazily flicking her tongue in and out. "Alyssa, I'll admit to not knowing much about this coven we're going to. Any special customs or the like I should be aware of?"
Alyssa had been watching Saen's tongue in amusement. She was aware that the near constant flicking served a neccessary function, but the similarity to a lewd gesture favored by succubi was striking. She colored lightly when she realized she was being spoken to. "Uh... yes."
She smiled sheepishly. "Lorelai tells me they're... natural folk. Nature witches so to speak."
She laughed, "More of a concern for me than you, their hatred of demons is nearly matched by their fascination with the... um, hybrid human races?"
She offered, hoping not to offend.
"So, they'll worship the ground I slither on, but there's a chance they'll lash you to a cross?" Saen chuckled. "Well, you have no need to worry, Alyssa. I'll keep anything from happening to you." A quiet pensiveness came over Saen's face. "I'm sorry if this is too forward, but... I thought Lorelai was the last living Von'Strauss. How did you survive when Hector Digard struck?""I'll try to keep my blasphemies to myself, as much as it may pain me."
Alyssa winked."My mother was on her pilgrammage to our family home in the abyss when... the purge began."
Alyssa's face darkened as she spoke. No matter now much time would pass, sometimes she thought the rage would always be there, waiting. "She rushed back to try to see what could be saved, leaving me in the care of my familiar and the family servitors."
She paused a moment, gazing out the window as she strove to calm herself. "A couple year went by after that. The first word I ever heard of my family's demise was when they threw me out of our citadel, as the abyss saw no purpose in serving a dynasty with no strength."
"I -I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." Saen's tail tip gently brushed against Alyssa's cheek, trying to keep her lover calm. She whispered, "I'll make it up to you when we stop for the night.""If I say it's quite alright will I forfiet the make up?"
Alyssa winked, her foul mood largely dispersed by Saen's timely interference. Her hand snatched the lamia's tail long enough to plant a small kiss on its tip. "Thanks.""Tell me about you though, what of your family? I don't think I've heard you mention them with any specificity."
"No, my dear." A quick thrill raced through Saen as Alyssa kissed her.
"There really isn't much to tell, honestly. They were traders, wandering all over the place. They didn't have the gift, but they accepted me when I found out I did. About a decade ago, I left them to make my own way in the world. Found a place crewing a trade cog. They didn't figure out what I was, besides a lamia, but I did have a knack for for finding exactly how much someone was willing to pay."
"Three years ago, I came to Castle Bloodrose, and Medusa immediately put me in charge of artificing. I can't enchant something to save my life, but I had the contacts to get rare materials for the process. And that's my story, pretty much.""Me'thinks you're leaving all the good bits out!"
Alyssa put on a faux pout. "Tell me everything. Your darkest hour, brightest moment, and how many lovers I have to live up to."
"Hmm... Well, I didn't tell you why I left the ship. To be honest... she kind of stopped floating underneath us. I don't care how scary any demon you bound is, they aren't as frightening as a storm at sea." An involuntary shudder ran down Saen's long spine. "You can at least reason with the former. When the latter comes for you, all you can do is pray.""I spent precious little time on ships fortunately,"
Alyssa laughed. "And I spent most of that below deck retching up my sorry attempts to eat, and that was a calm sea. I'll take demons every time, thank you.""Still, life at sea must have been exciting."
Alyssa mused. "Seeing the world and meeting new people. Why would you ever settle into a coven after that?"
"Like I said, the ship sank. I actually washed up not that far from Castle Bloodrose. Lived on my own for a few weeks, until one of the younger witches found me. She told me where the castle was, and after that... well, I told you the rest.""Oh! I guess I can understand that then, why put your hand back into the fire and all that."
Alyssa blinked several times, she couldn't even swim. Were it her the only thing that would have washed ashore would have been a long dead corpse "It... occurred to me that part of our trip will be by boat."
She smiled weakly. "It now a bad time to mention that I can't swim? Also that I've just discovered a lovely new phobia of boats and ships of all kinds?"
The lamia's warm laughter echoed through the carriage. "Don't be afraid. Most of our journey should be along the coast, and I'm certain there's some sort of charm to calm the winds and waves. Although in that case, we might have to row."
Alyssa rummaged through her bag for the book Lorelai had loaned her, in addition to her own. "Let's just say I'll feel better once I find that charm hmmm?"
Saen peered over Alyssa's shoulder as she looked through the various spells. "Interesting... Can't see a use for that... Might have to try that one out tonight
... Aha! There you are! And it doesn't like like we need anything special for that, either."
Saen gently wrapped herself around Alyssa, letting her feel the lamia's warmth. "But let's not think about that right now. Let's just sit back and enjoy the travel."
Saen had been sleeping soundly when a small bump awoke her. At first, she thought Alyssa had tapped her, but as she looked around, she realized the demon summoner was on the other side of the carriage. Then, she glanced at the eggs in their imp skin blanket. They were cracked through, all three of them, and new fractures were started to appear as they rolled around.
The lamia was over the moon with joy. She just had
to wake her lover up; this was too important an event for her to witness alone. She placed her hand on Alyssa's forehead and whispered in her mind. "Darling, you'd better wake up. Our eggs are hatching!"
Alyssa woke with a start. "Eggs! Huh? What!?"
She bolted upright. Her eyes fell on their eggs. They were moving about, cracks forming in their shells. She was unsure in her barely concious state of whether or not to be horrified at the small fractures in the once perfect eggs, or elated because this was normal. She turned a wide eyed glance towards Saen, and from the joy and excitement on the lamia's face she elected to settle on the second."It's happening? It happening!"
The excitement left her bouncing in her seat, leaning forward to examine the wondrous process. She turned a panicked look towards Saen. "Is there something I have to do? Do they need milk? Blood? Anything?"
"They don't need blood, but they'll need milk once they've hatched. Which reminds me- drink this." Saen pulled out a clear blue potion. "It's antivenom. They'll have their fangs grown in, and they won't know not to use them. They won't have enough venom to do much, but better safe then sorry."
The first egg was well on its way, and a chunk of shell fell off, revealing the child within for the first time. Unfortunately, all the two witches could see was a single golden eye. Still, more cracks were forming every second, and it was clear the child would be out in under a minute. "Don't help them out. It's something they need to do on their own. We have to be sure they're strong enough to survive. One of my siblings hatched early, and died as a result."
Alyssa immediately snatched back a hand that had been reaching out to do just that. "Do you have anything for 'new-mother panic'?"
She laughed weakly as she drank the contents of the offered potion. She was elated, but once again aware of how staggeringly unequiped she was to tackle this new adventure. She stole a glance at Saen, maybe she'd just have to watch and learn."Do you make milk now? Should I figure out how to produce milk?"
Alyssa asked her lover, her eyes fixated on the small golden eye peeking out from the ruins of its shell.
"No, I don't have anything for new mothers, and if I did, I'd be taking it too. I just know more about this than you do; you haven't been prepared for a child with scales." She couldn't help winking at Alyssa.
"I can make milk, and feeding them shouldn't be too much of a challenge. This is a small clutch; six or eight is the norm. That said, I wouldn't mind if you found a spell to help in this process. There's going to be times when I'm asleep or occupied, after all."
The first baby had made its way out of the shell, and Saen picked it up. It was a boy, and above the waist, he was indistinguishable from a human, but his legs were covered in argyle scales. "I know very few human names, Alyssa. Would you take the honor of naming him?""Really?"
Alyssa's heart thudded as the infant's first cries filled the carriage. He was beautiful, to her anyway. Even the sight of the scales covering his lower half was endearing to her. She smiled weakly, reaching out to poke the newborn's nose. "I think William's a fine name, if that's alright.""He's gorgeous... did we really do this?"
Alyssa smiled brightly at Saen. "I never expected to feel like this... tell me its normal."
Saen burst out laughing as Alyssa tweaked the child's nose. "William's an excellent name. And I gather you're just as happy and proud as I am, so yes, it's normal."
The other two eggs had hatched by this time, both girls with the same scale pattern. She picked them up and cradled them, one in each hand. "They're beautiful. They're ours. Gods, this is the best feeling I've ever had.""Yeah, leagues above."
Alyssa said reverantly, taking William into her arms. His warm weight was fragile, and impossibly precious. New life was every bit the miracle she'd heard it was, and more. "Seeds of a new life huh? We'll have to be better now. Braver too, we just earned a whole lot to lose if we fail."
"I think we'll name this one Samantha," Saen said, bouncing the child in her left hand slightly, "And the other one will be Jennifer." Saen placed Jennifer on the floor as Samantha let out a cute little burp. A quiet edge slipped into Saen's voice. "So we won't fail."
Two days later, Saen and Alyssa reached the coastline at a thriving port. Saen crawled out of the carriage, carrying the three precious bundles. "We'll need to get a ship, Alyssa, but we can't crew it ourselves. Either we hire a crew of humans, or you call up some demons to do the heavy lifting.""A crew of demons is a little beyond me, unfortunately."
Alyssa admited. "So we'll need a human crew."
She looked around the port. She hated humans, always had. They were good for little more than manual labor and reproduction. Seeing as she'd circumnavigated the latter use she was hoping to never need the former, and yet here she was. "Where to start... maybe we'll get lucky and find a ship heading in the right direction."
She made her way from the carriage into the small city.
"The best bet is to find the harbormaster. All the ships have to file with him before they leave, so that they have records of the cargo. Unless they're smugglers, which honestly might be our best bet. More coin, but fewer questions."
The harbormaster's offices were in a large building right by the docks. The man himself was a grizzled old bastard, with a gray beard hanging down to his chest. He shook his head when Saen told him where they were going.
"Altmeri lands? Few enough head that way. Only ships we've got going there are the Red Duck and the Windsgrace. Honestly, neither one's in the best of shape, but they'll get there if the weather's calm. Back, that might be another story.""Our trip is one way, for now."
Alyssa visibly paled as her mind conjured images of rickety ships breaking apart in stormy seas. She turned to Saen. "You're the expert here, love, I'll defer to your wisdom. Just remember I can't swim, okay?"
Saen looked at the manifests of both ships. "The Windsgrace seems to be the better option for us. Point us to her."
The Windsgrace was a small, two-masted vessel, with an older woman for a Captain. She greeted the two witches with a neutral expression. "I'm Captain Emisse. A woman and a lamia," she said, with a hint of distaste upon the last word, "with three little ones. The fee for a passage will be twelve gold coins, and I'll expect you to lend a hand if it's needed. We also can't spare anyone to be a nursemaid; I'm short crewed as it is."
Saen could have talked Captain Emisse down a little bit, but the price was already reasonable. "Agreed," she responded. "Come along, Alyssa. We'll need to get ourselves situated."
Alyssa followed Saen onto the ship, not bothering to hide her glare at their new captain. Once they'd found themselves a small bunk, and claimed it with their belongings, she leaned it to whisper in her lover's ear. "Are lamias unpopular around these parts? Or is it just our captain?"
Saen shrugged. "I have no idea. Either way, we'd better keep from antagonizing her. Best we avoid getting thrown overboard." A thought came to Saen's mind. "Alyssa, this is going to sound bizarre, but... how good are you at tying knots?""I suppose that include hexing or otherwise making her life miserable, fair enough."
She sighed nodding. "Tying knots? Sure, I'm well practised at that, I used to-... let's leave it at that. Why?"
Saen decided not to pry any deeper into Alyssa's past. "Usually, when a ship like this takes on paying passengers, they're expected to help tie down the sails and do other minor tasks. Passenger doesn't have to pay as much, and the ship captain gets to cut down on costs. Both sides win. If you're familiar with ropes, then I don't have to teach you."
The lamia slid outside, feeling the warm sun on her scales. Captain Emisse called out, "Cast off and give me full sail!" With that, the Windsgrace got under way.
Two days into the journey, and things had been fairly smooth. The winds were at their back and they had following seas, so the Windsgrace was making excellent time. Saen had come out on deck and was enjoying the beautiful weather. She turned to Alyssa. "Find your sea legs yet, or are you still struggling? I know it's not easy for landlubbers.""I'm managing, mostly."
Alyssa'd spent most of the first day below deck bemoaning her fate, between helping with the rigging, which had proven a miserable task to her churning stomach.
The second day had been much better. Their charm had ensured smooth sailing, and the witch had begun to get her stride. She'd also familiarized herself with her tasks, meaning Emisse spent far less time yelling at her. That was probably best for the both of them.
She grinned at Saen. "This landlubber's doing alright, and the weather is gorgeous."
She looked out over the calm sea. "I can almost see where someone would want to make a career of this."
"I agree. That's why I did. Maybe one of these days, I can persuade Medusa to buy us a ship for the long term." Saen's eyes cast out across the water. "Say, what's that?" Looks like the biggest darn fish I've ever seen."
The mate in the crow's nest had seen it, too, and had a far better view. "Captain, person in distress in the water off to port amidships! It looks like... It's a mermaid!"Everyone
raced over to the port railing to get a better view. Normally, a person in the water would be considered the highest priority, but mermaids could obviously breathe water, so they were never in danger of drowning. So, why on earth was this one flailing about?
Alyssa approached the rail of the ship cautiously. She was as excited as everyone else about the prospect of seeing a mermaid. Their elusive race had little enough reason to involve themselves in the troubles of surface dwellers, and she'd never gotten the opportunity to see more than artist's depictions.
However, it was obvious that the creature wouldn't be drowning, meaning there was a predator beneath the waves somewhere. Or worse, it was a ploy, and things were about to get difficult quickly. She called her pacts to the front of her mind. "What do you make of this, dear?"
She turned to Saen.
The water was slowly turning pink, and that told the story in full detail. If anyone needed further confirmation, the mermaid rolled onto her side, exposing to the air a large gash just below her right arm. Several of the sailors turned visibly pale. Blood in warm water was like a seeking stone to the ocean's most feared predator, and a triangular fin could be seen about thirty feet away, its owner patiently waiting.
"I think she's going to be lunch if we don't help her. Captain Emisse, what are you doing? Throw her a rope!"
"But it's bad luck to bring a mermaid aboard ship!"
There wasn't enough time for this. Forgoing all her cover, Saen grabbed the captain by her hand and steamrolled into her mind. "And it's bad ethics to let one die. Throw. Her. The. Damn. Rope."
A trembling Emisse threw the rope, and her aim wasn't that bad. The rope landed about ten feet away, and the mermaid slowly grabbed it. "Everyone, pull her up!"
Alyssa did her part, grabbing the rope and heaving with the rest of them. She cast a frantic gaze at Saen. The captain's sudden change of heart was suspicious, at least to her who knew what the lamia was capable of. She silently hoped her lover had the presence of mind to do something to prevent repurcussions, otherwise things were going to get complicated.
The mermaid was about four feet clear of the water when it happened. The shark charged faster than Saen would have dreamed possible and leapt straight out of the sea, taking deadly aim. Unfortunately for the beast, it was young, and its inexperience cost it dearly here. All the shark got was about an inch of tail.
The mermaid was hauled up on deck, but she wasn't out of trouble yet. The wound was bleeding profusely. If not treated, it would only be a matter of minutes before she passed out from shock, and soon after that... Saen pointed at two of the crew members. "You, and you. Give me your shirts, quickly."
The clothing was passed over, and Saen started tearing it into strips. "Somebody, put your hands on her wounds while I rip up some bandages."
Alyssa quickly moved to crouch at the mermaid's bottom. She applied pressure to the seeping wound, blood still leaking around her hand. "You don't have much time here, Saen. Not much longer and there won't be much to hold in."
She debated whether or not she should pass a demon into the wounded woman. Something to lower her heart rate, or increase her vigor.
Ultimately Saen had already risked herself in saving this woman, what more damage could she do? Her insides rippled as a servitor flowed down her arm, and into the mermaid's tail. She smirked in satisfaction as the bleeding slowed, but they were far from out of danger.
The bandages were ready, and Saen started tying them on. It was a delicate, tricky little business. Too loose, and they wouldn't staunch the bleeding. Too tight, and her lungs wouldn't be able to breathe in, forcing them to run barrels of water over the gills. Ultimately, Saen managed to find the right balance, and though the mermaid fell uncouscious near the end, she was still breathing as the blood slowed and finally came to a stop about three minutes later.
"She needs bed rest, but she'll live. Get her into quarters."
Emisse glared at Saen and Alyssa. The mermaid might have been out of danger, but the witches' troubles were only beginning.
"Alright, back to work everyone!" The captain called out. "Except you two, you have some explaining to do don't you think?"
The men dispersed, returning to their tasks. Fortunately all the excitement had left them chatting amongst themselves, affording the two witches and their captain a small measure of privacy.
Alyssa returned the captains glare defiantly. 'This is where the killing starts. That, at least, I'm good at.'
Her hand rested on her hip, just above the hilt of her blade.
"What do we need to explain? We saved someone's life, isn't that enough?" Sean reared up to her full height, baring her fangs just a little. Hopefully, she could bluff Emisse into backing down. The lamia was barely competent as a fighter; she didn't fancy her chances one-on-one, and even with Alyssa backing her up, it was still far from a sure thing.
"Listen here, you saved a life." Emisse spat over the side of the ship. "But you're still... odd."
"I feel you in my head again, or even think I do. I'll have the pair of you tossed over board with more holes in you than is probably necessary to kill a witch and her pet." She glared at the lamia. "For now, why don't the two of you head below deck, I'll figure the rest out later." She huffed and stormed towards her quarters.
Alyssa relaxed. She turned to Saen. "Maybe you don't risk our lives again? That would be great, thanks."
She understood the impulse, but given the same situation Alyssa would have either figured out how to save the mermaid without blowing her cover, or let her die. "Come on, I've got to get ready to make a mess anyway."
She turned and started towards the bunks.
Alyssa was right. Gods damn her a dozen times, but she was right. Saen slunk away behind the demon mistress, not daring to meet her gaze. She sighed as Alyssa opened the door to their bunks. "I know I shouldn't have done that, but I couldn't just let her die. I apologize, my dear."
Alyssa paused, and slipped a hand into one of the lamia's. "I forgive you, of course. What you did was admirable if reckless, and I can hardly fault you too much for a valorous heart."
She flashed her lover a weak smile. "I'll see us through this, that's my job right?"
She laughed and lead them below deck. "That mermaid had better be grateful huh?"
Saen burst out laughing. "Alyssa, you don't know the half of it. It was several years ago, but the first mate of the ship I was on actually saved the life of a merman while we were in port. The merman got down on his knees and mentioned something about a 'savior's debt.' Near as I can tell, if you rescue a merfolk, they consider it a gift that can literally never be repaid, so they serve the person who helped them in return."
She grinned. "If she has any magic, and I'm not sure if she does or not, then the Bloodroses have picked up a new member."
Obviously, the mermaid had been the talk of the entire ship, so when she came to early the next morning, the whole crew turned out to meet her. She wasn't up for walking much yet, so she resigned herself to greeting a few wellwishers at a time. Thus, the process took a good long while. Alyssa and Saen were last in line, but there was good news to that as well. Namely, that they had plenty of time to talk to her. "Hi,"
Alyssa greeted the woman as they approached her cot. "I'm Alyssa, and this heroic young lamia is Saen. She's mine, so don't get too creative with your 'gratitude'."
She grinned, her eyes twinking with mischief.
The mermaid tried to smile, but grimaced. "I'm Blackfin." One look, and you could tell the name fit. Even though she was currently in her mostly human form, her skin was the color of dark charcoal. She had legs in this state, but her gills were still visible on her neck. "Apologies, but I'm still getting back to normal. It'll be a couple of days before I can really move about."
The mermaid's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "So, which one of you shoved that spirit inside me? I'm grateful for the help, but he's getting to be a pain in the arse. Mind taking him back?""I suppose so."
Alyssa placed a hand on Blackfin's arm, drawing the vile creature back into her own flesh. She suppressed a shudder as it settled back into her limbs, but she'd been free of it for a day or so at least. "So, what leaves a mermaid stranded against a shark? Foul luck? Or something more interesting?"
"One part foul luck and many, many parts stupidity," Blackfin responded. "My family farm kelp beds, and I'd gone out to start the harvest early. Wasn't looking behind me, and the swordtooth caught me. I was so surprised, I dropped the knife I was using to cut the kelp. Got away, but he was between me and home, so all I could do is swim. Blasted things are persistent, I'll give them that.""Fair enough, I've gotten into more than enough scrapes due to my unfortunate lack of eyes in the back of my head."
Alyssa leaned against the wall. "I usually don't drop my knife though, belt helps with that I suppose. So, what's next for Miss Blackfin?"
"Depends on what you want, Miss Alyssa." Blackfin coughed a little bit. "You and Saen, you saved my life. There's a concept among my people, the 'savior's debt.' Basically, if you save someone's life they're beholden to you until such time as they repay you by saving yours. Whatever coven you belong to, consider me a part."
Saen's mouth turned up in a wry smile. "Oh, and what gifts do you have?"
At this, Blackfin's right hand transmuted itself into water, still retaining its shape. "I'm a hydromancer. and a pretty good one, too. I can control a pretty large amount of water, and transmute my entire body. At least, I could if I was feeling better."
Alyssa whistled in appreciation. "Self transmutation is a hell of a trick Blackfin. Impressive."
She turned to Saen. "What's the call, dear? We can either send her back to the castle, or have her tag along with us."
She shrugged. "I'm largely ambivalent on the topic."
"Hmm..." Saen's hood closed up as she thought. "Don't know of any good teleporting spells, and I don't think she be up for that anyway. She can stay."
"I'd prefer to stay myself. To be honest, I've never talked to a drylander before today." Blackfin smirked. "And after you show me the surface world, I can show you my home. Deal?""We're all troublesome and a little insane, you'll tire of us soon enough."
Alyssa laughed. "I hope that isn't an offer to drown me. It'd be easy enough, but I can't say I like the prospect.""Alright, welcome aboard Blackfin, with any luck our buisness will be brief and uneventful."
She gently patted the woman's shoulder. "Then we can all get back to that war thing that's brewing."
Well, this was an interesting development. Perhaps this debt would be paid back after all, and soon, too. "I know I'm going to regret asking this, but what war? Is there trouble where you're from?""Always a little. Us surface dwellers count killing our fellows amongst our favorite passtimes. Especially witches."
Alyssa smiled bitterly. "Our coven's been discovered. The predictable result is ensuing. Torches, pitchforks, hunters and all that. Going to be a bit of a party."
"We have that too, sometimes. Well, the torches are very rare..." Blackfin had a little chuckle at her own joke. "But I'll say that there are a few of us without magic that care about those with it. Would that things were the same here.""We do too, but that's just not how it is."
Alyssa turned to leave. "I'm going to get back to work. Once you're up and about we'll finish filling you in."
Saen waved goodbye to Blackfin. "I have duties to take care of as well. It was a pleasure meeting you, Blackfin, and I hope that we work well together."
The rest of the trip was largely uneventful. Alyssa and Saen spent most of their fortunately little time aboard the Windsgrace working under the suspicious eye of Captain Emisse, and sleeping in shifts against the inevitable attempt on their lives. Much to the demon-binder's surprised they arrived in the large port city intact, Emisse had proven true to her word.
Witches had little to fear in Altmeri lands. The small island chain was dominated by the Altmeri coven for which it was named. So the trio made their way inland towards the moutain that served as their base with little incident.
Griffons swarmed in the sky overhead as they made their approach, their cries a constant cacophany. Stone steps had been carved into the moutain before them, leading up to its peak in a winding and treacherous path.
Alyssa sighed. "Nature witches and their damn staircases. Why can't they ever just live in a castle? Or maybe make their lair a little easier to access?"
She shook her head. "You're up Saen, you're the negotiator and all that. I'll just stay quiet and hope they don't eat me."
"Don't worry, they won't touch you." Saen paused for a brief second. "You taste terrible anyway." The lamia worked her way to the top step. Stairs were uncomfortable for her. Too many sharp corners digging into her scales.
She knocked twice on the gate guarding the Altmeri coven's paradise. "I am Saen, Emissary of the Bloodrose Coven! I come to speak with your matriarch!" Hopefully, she'd get a quick response.
"You come with company, sister." A man seemed to materialize from the stone of the mountain. He approached the gate from the other side. "Bloodrose is friendly to us, but few are. Name your companions and I'll allow you inside."
"Alyssa Von'Strauss and Blackfin, both members of the coven, with three little ones in tow."
Blackfin's gills fluttered a little bit. "Forgive us the intrusion, sir."
"The serpent can wait outside." He glared at Alyssa. "To be clear, that's the Von'Strauss, not you Saen."
The large gate creaked as it swung open. "Our matriarch is occupied at the moment, allow me to show you around while you wait."
"Where I go, Alyssa goes. This is not up for discussion. She is as much an emissary as I. She is to be treated as a honored guest."
As Saen spoke, Blackfin whispered to Alyssa, "You didn't put a curse on their village or something, did you?""Blame my sister, it's probably her fault."
Alyssa whispered back. "She's basically Satan, can't wait to introduce you."
"...Very well, but our eyes are on her, Saen." The man was obviously not pleased, but yielded to Saen's demand. "I'll show you to the commons."
The Altmeri witches lived and worked inside spacious caverns carved near the mountain's top. The tunnels were lit with foxfire and faelights secured inside small glass spheres. The arrangements were simple, but comfortable; Tables were carved from stone as well as the chairs, cushions had been used to make the latter palatable. Decorations and murals lined the walls of each cavern, enlivening the otherwise dreary spaces effectively.
The trio spotted very few young witches. Most of the inhabitants here were old and experienced, working with strange contraptions and conceptual diagrams that indicated fearsome talents. They eyed the emissaries with interest as they passed, confidence gleaming in milky eyes.
Finally they came to the largest space yet. Cushions were strewn about the floor of the vaulted common area. Tables bore chess boards or similar amusements, and the air smelled of roasting meat. The light chatter of the gathered witches added a relaxing element to the cavern, as the women enjoyed their precious freetime with friends and collegues.
"Here you are." Their guide turned to Saen. "I'll return to collect you when the matriarch has finished her buisness."
The triplets, who up till now had been quiet, started mewling. Saen put Samantha and William to her breasts, letting them have a good meal. "You know, I think Samantha's powers might be kicking in already. I think I saw her moving a coin when we were aboard ship, though that might have been the tilt of the deck. What was the first spell you ever cast, Alyssa?""Binding my familiar, or my first one anyway. My grandmother walked me through it."
Alyssa smiled at Samantha proudly. "Unless you count talking to 'shadows'. What was yours?"
"It's kind of funny, really. My birthday was coming up, and my mother had bought a new doll for me. Not some piece of cloth stuffed with straw, but real painted wood. It must have cost her a fortune. She must have just gotten back from hiding it, because when I accidentally brushed against her with my tail, I saw the box where she hid it in her mind. I went and got it when she went to sleep, but I forgot to put it back. The next day, they saw it out and asked me about it. That was how they, and I, learned I was a witch."
"My own mother had the gift... sort of." Blackfin chimed in. "She could talk to fish. Couldn't do anything else. So when I first made a current with my magic, everyone was shocked that I could do something like that.""What was it like for you two?"
Alyssa tilted her head quizzicaly. "My mother, and grandmother, going as far back as anyone cares to remember where demon-binders. So when I displayed the talent it was expected. I've alway wondered how other witches come into their own."
"My parents were stunned into silence when the truth came out. There was nothing in their experiences to help them deal with a daughter who could read minds. Fortunately, we lived in a place where a lot of old texts were stored, and there were some elders among the humans who at least knew what was going on to an extent. Did get a lot of shifty looks, though."
"It was easier for me." Blackfin commented. "Like I said, my mother had magic, so we knew I was going to have powers. I just turned out to be far more powerful than they expected.""I'm starting to wonder if all those sacrifices were actually necessary."
Alyssa looked between the pair. Her mouth opened a few times, closing before making a sound. "My mentors always said that we're drawn to the darker arts. Have either of you two crossed that line? Do you feel the pull?"
Blackfin shook her head. "Not really. It's not like I can call forth a tidal wave or anything truly destructive, and I've never found cause to use blood or other sacrifices. Elemental magic doesn't really need them."
Saen, however, had a much darker tale. "Of course. You can't go rooting around in someone's head without a little bit of darkness. A person's mind is their ultimate sanctuary, and to invade it... Not to mention how simple it would be to place a thought or desire that completely overwhelms them. So far, though, I've resisted that particular urge."
Alyssa nodded. "Just me then. Maybe that's why no one likes my family."
She shrugged, smiling bitterly. "We'll just give the little ones your name, love. It's probably for the best."
"Alyssa, there's something I need you to understand. You are not
your family. We will raise them as Von'Strausses, but we will raise them right." Saen's voice was as firm as steel. "We will teach them to master demons, but we will also teach them honor, respect, and other such things. We will make the name Von'Strauss a name that is beloved, not feared."
Alyssa smiled at Saen. "Perhaps you're right, I certainly won't argue with you."
She turned her gaze towards Samantha, the likely new addition to her legacy. "You hear that Sammy? No blood sacrifices for you, a whole new chapter for us girlie, mommy says so."
"Well, maybe one or two." Saen couldn't help winking at Alyssa. "But we'll try not to make it a habit."
Two hours passed before their guide returned. He beckoned them through the sprawling tunnel complex. The slope of the ground underneath them indicated that they were ascending, so it came as little surprise when they reached a vast cavern near the mountain's peak. Griffons played and ate in the large aerie, several sizable nests lined the cavern walls.
The cavern opened into blue sky, and at its lip stood a woman. She was getting into middle age, grey lurking at the corners of her brown hair. Her weathered face broke into a soft smile as they approached. "Welcome sisters. Bloodrose has long been a friend of the Altmeri, what brings its scions to my roost?"
"We seek a firmer alliance, Matriarch. In particular, we request the use of your griffons to deliver supplies by air." Saen's voice carried throughout theaerie. "Hunters threaten us with war, and they have numbers enough to clamp down our supply lines. We need a way to get food and ritual elements into Castle Bloodrose despite this.""Hmm..."
She whistled and a hulking griffon stalked over to them. She ran her hand over its fur affectionately. "Obviously we're more than capable of that, but as friendly as we've been, nothings comes free. What does Bloodrose have to offer us?"
"It is true that we have little to offer... yet. But I have traveled far and wide, and come across stories of many relics. Perhaps if I could bring one of these to you, you would lend us the use of your griffons."
Saen could tell she had the Matriarch's attention. "Even the gods do not have the gift of true sight, save one. When the world was young, Odin sought this gift, so he walked for nine days and nights, until he reached the Well of Knowledge. Any who drink from the well shall see all, and know all... provided they provide the well's guardian a worthy offering in exchange. At first, Odin offered the life of Thor, his only son. But while the guardian said it was indeed worthy, it was not yet Thor's time. So Odin made a second offering; this time, one of his blue eyes. This offering was accepted, so Odin plucked out one of his eyes and drank from the well. That eye is still out there, still imbued with incredible power... and I shall retrieve it for you."
The witch's eyes widened. "That would be a fine gift."
She considered the trio, appraising them. "I may be able to spare some soldiers as well, should your expedition return successful."
"That is more than we could hope for. We shall speak again when we return with the Eye."
As they turned to leave, Blackfin whispered to Saen, "Um... do you know where this eye is?"
"Sort of. I know it was being transported by a ship which sank, and I know the rough area where it sank. Find the ship, find the eye. Simple enough." "... I'm going to need swimming lessons it seems."
Alyssa groaned. "Nice play, Saen. The witches around here look tough, I'm sure they'll more than make it worth it."
"I have another option," Blackfin commented. "But if you and Saen are as close asyou say, she might not take kindly to it."
Saen's hood turned scarlet, the lamia equivalent of a blush. "I think I know what you're going on about, but if there's any tongue involved...""I love hearing things I don't take kindly to, good way to get the blood flowing."
Alyssa grinned at Saen's expense. The lamia was cute while embarassed, and it wouldn't hurt to see how red her hood could get. "What do you have in mind?"
"A... um, kiss? It's not what it sounds like." By this point, Blackfin herself was starting to redden a little bit, and Saen had her head buried in her palms."A mermaid's kiss grants drywalkers the ability to breathe underwater. It's permanent, so we don't need to worry about it wearing off..."
"Ugh. Fine. Will a peck on the cheek do? I don't want you making any inroads on Alyssa, seawitch."
Alyssa looked between the two, delighted at this turn of events. "Well aren't you two a pair of maidens."
She squeezed Saen's hand. "One kiss isn't going to get my heart wandering, dear."
She giggled. "Although, if your faces get any redder they might burn. Not the usual way I light fires in women, but perhaps more amusing."
She turned to Blackfin. "Go ahead whenever you're ready."
As it turned out, a quick tap on the cheek was enough. Blackfin did Alyssa first, then Saen, with the latter glaring daggers at her the whole while. "And that's that. Saen, do you know where we're going to start looking?"
"Yes, and fortunately, it's not all that far." Saen voice dropped so low even Alyssa and Blackfin could barely hear it. "Honestly, don't know why these Altmeri idiots haven't pulled it up already."
The search site was about a day's sail from Altmeri lands. For what seemed like the millionth time, Saen checked her map. "Alright, this looks like the place. I think we'll have a better time if we scour the seabed directly." Sheslipped over the railing. Blackfin followed close behind, changing into her tail once she was in the water. "Come on in, Alyssa. The water's nice and warm.""I'm sure it is."
Alyssa eyed the water suspiciously. "Why couldn't it be a lake of fire? I'm good at lakes of fire."
She sighed and retrieved her spear from its position against the railing. "Alright, enough complaining from me."
With one last breath she lept overboard, splashing into the calm blue with little grace.
Fortunately the water was indeed warm, and would have been pleasant had Alyssa not hated it so. Panic rose momentarily in her chest, before she realized that she was still breathing fine. She rose to the surface, and glared at her companions. "Yay, water, let's get this show on the road huh?"
Blackfin took the lead diving downwards. The bottom was about sixty feet down, sandy, and flatter than a pancake. A long ridge rose in the distance, seemingly stretching off to the horizon. A wreck lay near it, her mast still standing tall. Saen gulped a little bit. "It seems like my navigation skills are a little rusty. We have some swimming to do.""Anyone think this whole process has been too easy?"
Alyssa followed her companions, her grip on her spear tightening. "Keep your eyes peeled girls, there's a reason this hasn't been claimed yet."
The ship had been somewhat damaged by the forces of nature, a hole ripped in the bottom of her hull. "It should be in a small, dark wood box somewhere in the hold. Let's get to searching."
It was Blackfin who found the target first. She opened the box to see a beautiful blue eyeball staring back at her. "Well, this isn't creepy at all." She swam up towards the surface with her loot."Maybe just a little."
Alyssa grinned, and turned to make her own way back to fresh air. "All in all, rather une-"
Behind her the 'ridge' opened its eye. A brillant serpintine pupil nearly the size of the witch gazed at the trio as the titanic serpent shook off decades of sediment, staining the waters with black murk. It head lunged at Blackfin, cutting off the murmaid's escape. "Robbers, come to claim the eye?"
The serpent coiled around the witches, its mountainous scales trapping them. "Explain yourselves, or join these sailors."
For the second time in less than a week, Blackfin managed to dodge snapping jaws. But this time, escape wasn't a simple matter of climbing onto a ship. Her jaw dropped as she realized just what she was facing."Jormundgandr," the mermaid said in an awed tone. "I thought you were a story told to scare fry into being good children.""No such luck, little one. I was hunting the crushing depths before your people invented language."
The serpent brought one of its eyes near Blackfin. "What brings a child of the sea, with two land witches in tow, to steal the Eye of Odin? Your prescence has stayed me wrath, for now, speak quickly before I tire."
Alyssa examined her options. Escape didn't seem likely, even if they somehow made it to the ship the beast could simple crush it. Fighting was probably more likely, although by very little, if she could get to an eye she thought she might be able to inflict some damage. Diplomacy then was their best hope, the creature seemed plenty intelligent, perhaps Saen or Blackfin could talk some sense into it.
She certainly couldn't, but she'd make a fine offering to Dagon if things started to go bad. 'Selling ourselves for power, such a fine legacy,'
She thought to herself as she prepared the offering.
To lie, or not to lie? That was the question, and for Saen, the answer was simple. "We did not come to simply take it for ourselves, but to make a gift of it to another coven, in exchange for their aid in our time of need. We do not wish to cause insult to you, great Jormundgandr." Hopefully, that would work. Even the greatest demon Alyssa could conjure would be hard-pressed to scratch the serpent's armor, and with its coils already encircling them, there was nowhere left to run."The Eye is dangerous, Saen, more so than you understand."
The beast seemed to consider something for a moment. "I've slept for a long time, what transpires on the surface? What drives you to this?"
"Madness," Blackfin commented, before Saen gave her a swift elbow in the ribs. "Witch hunters march on our coven, and we seek all the friends we can gather. As I said before, we are going to offer the Eye to the Altmeri Coven, in exchange for their griffins and soldiers. We do not seek a fight, only to go our way.""So the folley of man continues..."
The serpent fell silent for several minutes. Finally its coils released them as it turned back towards the wreckage. "I've guarded the Eye long enough. If it brings ruin on you, so be it. Best of luck Blackfin. Madness is all that awaits you in the affairs of the surface."
Saen let out a deep breath. "That settles it. I'm done with the ocean for the rest of my life." She turned and headed back for the ship. Blackfin followed, not daring to make any snide comments. They had come far too close to death for that.
Alyssa followed suit, trailing behind the pair. "I don't know, I was just starting to like it too."
She laughed away her stress and fear. They'd survived, somehow, and with the Eye in tow. At least she'd have a good story for Lorelai when they returned.
It was just after sunset when the trio's little boat came back into the Altmeri's harbor. Apparently, some lookout had spotted them coming in, so many Altmeri had turned out, including the matriarch. Saen proudly showed off their new acquisition, commenting, "You know, you could have told us that this thing was guarded by a giant sea serpent. We almost ended up as a light snack!""With all your confidence I assumed you knew."
The matriarch barked out a laugh. "I'm pleased to see you didn't, and more pleased to see that you've returned with the Eye."
Saen dutifully gave the matriarch the Eye. "We have held our end of the bargain; now it is time for you to do the same. We request the use of a squadron of griffons, as well as any soldiers you can spare.""Yes, yes, of couse."
She waved her hand dismissively as she examined her prize. "You've earned that, as well as a measure of good faith amongst the Altmeri."
She smiled at the trio. "If Bloodrose doesn't work out, two of you will have a home here. The Von'Strauss will have to go back to hell, or whever they come from."
She laughed. "We'll see you arrive home safely, the Altmeri thank you for your service."
Alyssa rolled her eyes. The fear that came with her name was sometimes useful, but she was starting to get tired of the hatred. Perhaps someday that would change, but for now she bit her tongue and looked forward to being away from so many evil gazes.
Blackfin, Saen, and Alyssa made their way up to the griffon roost. The beasts were still up and about, pacing about their lair. "Saen, you ever ridden a griffin before?"
"No, and I highly doubt you have. I don't even know where to start." She looked at the griffons with apprehension. "Um, do they have saddles or something?""How hard can it be?"
Alyssa approched one of the beasts, stoking its mane affectionatly. "What's the worse that can happen?"
"You fall off, and die." A woman approached them. "And no, they don't have saddles. Are you three the ones I'm supposed to get home?"
"Yes, we are." Blackfin looked at the woman. "I assume you are going to be our driver. And don't worry about strapping Saen in; Alyssa and I can wrap her around us like a giant scarf."
Saen thought about muttering some hexes under her breath, but decided against it. However, she didn't take the joking lying down. "Do that, and I squeeze.""So long as you squeeze gently, love, you know how fragile I am."
Alyssa winked. "Alright, so how does this work."
The witch smirked at the trio, evidently amused by their banter. "Seeing as none of you have any experience flying I'll stick you in the carriage. Much less fun, but also markedly less likely to kill you."
She turned to a large, wheeless carriage. Runes were scrawled over its surface, glowing a dull blue. "This is a sky carriage. Enchanted to be weightless when active, this is how we've managed to become a trading hub in this archipelago."
She placed a hand on its side and whispered a few command words. The runes bursted into a brillant blue for a moment, and the carriage lifted a few inches off of the ground. "See? Hop in ladies, and enjoy the ride."
Saen and Blackfin crawled into the carriage. Saen, utterly exhausted from the day's events, took her children in tow and promptly passed out on one of the benches. Blackfin, meanwhile, curled up in a corner and just watched the world go by.
Alyssa took her seat next to Saen, grinning when the woman passed out. It had been a long day, but she wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to see the world from the sky."Ever think you'd be in a sky carriage with land dwellers, on the way to their coven to participate in a war with hunters?"
She whispered to Blackfin, trying not to wake Saen.
"No, never. When you put it like that, it sounds stark raving mad." Blackfin smiled. "Did you ever think you'd make friends with a mermaid?"
Meanwhile, Saen softly began snoring in the background, oblivious to it all.
Alyssa suppressed a giggle as Saen started snoring. "Not at all, but life's surprising me all the time these days."
She sighed. "Makes you wonder what's next doesn't it?""Have you ever had a moment, Blackfin, when something your elders told you, that you thought was stupid, suddenly made a great deal of sense?"
Alyssa asked. "And you realize that they're right. And of course they're right, they're your elders after all, they've been there."
"I used to think that the elders of Atlantis were idiots, but now that I'm older... I still think that they're idiots." Blackfin chuckled a little bit at her own joke. "Why, has something finally fallen into place for you?""My sister always says that you get enough power to claim and keep what's important. No more, no less."
Alyssa returned her attention to the window. "This whole trip has shown me just how weak I can be, and I've got more to lose now than ever. Maybe I'll take her up on her offer of tutorship."
She grinned sheepishly. "Look at me, fatigue has left me a rambling mess. Perhaps I should leave introspection for later, when I've rested."
"I've found that one can only make a good decision on a full stomach and a good night's sleep. For now, I suggest we simply sit back and enjoy the view. Though I'll admit, I can;t wait to see Castle Bloodrose with my own eyes.""It's really lovely."
Alyssa smiled. "And I think you'll enjoy the company. We've got some of the most renown witches in the world, some of the best collected lore, and the Glow wood, which is amazing.""If she's returned I'll introduce you to my sister and her girls."
She grinned. "The former is a terrible, blackhearted woman, and the latter are cute enough to make you forget the former entirely."
"Well, I'd imagine your sister would have to be a walking nightmare to wield the powers she does." Blackfin blinked. "But if her offspring are as adorable as you claim... Strange how far from their parents the young ones swim.""One can only hope, right?"
Alyssa smiled. She settled back into her bench seat, leaning lightly against Saen. "But you'll see it all for yourself soon enough. I'm going to rest while I have the opportunity."
It was several hours before a large, grey stone building came into view below them. Blackfin's eyes widened. "Is that Castle Bloodrose? I didn't know you had such big buildings on the surface!"
"Yes, that's home sweet home." Saen stirred on the carriage bench. "If you think the outside is impressive, just wait until you see what we've done to the interior.""Seems like our sisters have been making good use of their time."
Alyssa mused as the shapes of her covenmates finally became discernable.
All of the training yard's were full to the brim with witches honing their skills. Swordplay was practised alongside kinetic witches hurling flames, lightning, or other lethal elements. Summoners worked in private corners, instilling a warrior's discipline in their menageries. The gardens flashed in hues of emerald and orange as nature witches wove spells to promote growth and hasten harvest.
Everyone moved with an eerie efficiency, but what caught Alyssa's eye were the tents. Large tents had been errected in the courtyard, and bloodied witches limped about their exteriors. "Seems like we missed some of the fun."
Alyssa pointed out the wounded.
"Indeed. Doesn't look like there are many injured, though. That could mean one of two things. Either the attack was repulsed easily..." Saen's voice darkened. "Or they isolated a group and executed most of them."
"Let's hope it's the former." Blackfin hopped out of the carriage the second it landed. "Saen, take the kids. We need to find Medusa and tell her of our success.""And report to my sister or Elizabeth for our next assignment."
Alyssa sighed as she stepped down from the carriage.
Medusa was easy to find. The trio came upon her quickly, as news of a sky carriage had carried through the castle swiftly. She strode down the main stairs to the castle proper as they approached."Saen, Alyssa, I trust you were successful,"
Medusa smiled at them, relief plain in her features. "Judging by the panache of your return."
She extended a hand towards Blackfin. "And you've brought company I see. I'm Medusa."
"Blackfin of Atlantis, Madame Medusa. At your beck and call." The mermaid curtsied delicately. Evidently, she knew something of human social customs. "Yes, we managed to secure griffons for the possibility of a siege. Though the way your greenspeakers are working, food should not be that much of a problem.""Food isn't the only thing witches need for war, but yes, with any luck we'll not starve."
Medusa smiled proudly. "Well met Blackfin, I trust you're joining us formally?"
"Indeed I am." Blackfin's eyes sparkled with mirth. "Perhaps I can teach your witches a few things about water magic, and I can learn from them as well."
Saen shifted off her coils. "As you can see, Medusa, there was more good news. Two witches and a warlock, to add to our ranks down the road. Meet William, Samantha, and Jennifer."
Jennifer let out a little burp, which only added to her cuteness. "I think I'll put the little ones to bed, now." She made her way up the stairs to the main section of the castle."Well, aren't they cute?"
Medusa grinned down at the trio. She turned to Saen as she made her way up the steps. "Congratulations, and who's the proud father? I'll need to get him a cigar.""That would be me, ma'am."
Alyssa smirked. She called to Saen. "I need to check in with Lorelai, I'll check in tonight if we don't see each other before then."
She strolled off towards the rear gardens, leaving Medusa blinking at Blackfin. "Von'Strausses and their oddness."
She winked at the mermaid. "I imagine you'll want to meet our current matriarch as well. Come visit me when you get the chance, I'd love to hear about Atlantis."
"Indeed I would. And don't worry, Madame Medusa." A grin came over Blackfin's face. "One day, I'll show it to you. We get few enough visitors from the surface, and witches fewer still."
Medusa waved farewell and made her way back into castle as Alyssa lead Blackfin towards the rear garden. The garden was one of the few that had retained its previous function, being a lovely place to relax. Morale was an oft overlooked aspect of war."Lorelai? We've returned."
Alyssa addressed her sister, who was putting a new servitor though its paces. "How was your expedition?"
Lorelai turned to the pair and smiled. "Good to see you home safe."
She kissed Alyssa's cheek. "My trip was largely uneventful, the Plague Lord owes me fealty. I did manage to corrupt and tame an angel, that was fun."
She turned to Blackfin. "A face I don't recognize! I'm Lorelai Von'Strauss."
She extended a hand in greeting.
"Blackfin of Atlantis, Madame Von'Strauss, and the pleasure is mine." The mermaid's eyes went wide as Lorelai described her latest exploit. "What... How on earth did you manage such a feat? Twisting an angel... I don't even want to guess how difficult it is to pervent one of God's own servants.""The specifics are a trade secret."
Lorelai winked. "But suffice to say it's not as difficult as one might think. It just requires a certain scorn for 'contemporary morality'.""Serrus! Come show off your wings."
The blonde angel shuffled obediantly to her new mistress' side, and stretched her once radiant wings. Veins of sickly black corruption marred her golden feathers.
Lorelai smiled proudly. "Very good, back to your paces.""Yes mistress."
The angel bowed, and did as she was commanded.
Lorelai returned her attention to Blackfin. "I've never met a mermaid in the flesh. You'll have to tell me some stories of your people when and if we get the time."
"And you'll have to tell me some of your stories as well." Blackfin curtsied and went on her way.