A Cold Flame
Three shrouded women walked quickly through the heavy rain, their feet leaving deep depressions on the now-muddied forest floor. A small frog jumped and landed in one of their depressions, leaping again to follow the footfalls of the three women. The deeper the women moved into the forest, the more frogs started to gather in their footprints, the footprints that quickly turned into wet remains on stone as they began to walk over the remains of a tall tower. The tower was scattered across the ground, snapped trees strewn under its fallen form. The three women made their way to the center of where the tower initially stood. The dead center of the tower floor was an intricate design poured from molten gold. The three women took place on a partially destroyed bench chair. They waited, staring eagerly at the circle as the frogs started to amass around them.
“I am starting to see why affinity of amphibians was a punishment,” one of the three women said.
The other two turned to face the one who spoke with a face of disbelief.
“Being followed by frogs is the punishment, not when the salamanders burned down the hut? This is why you are Three.”
“Shush Two, arguing is why we have to walk and not use the teleportation circles.”
“Don’t shush me, One, Three was the one making stupid statements.”
“I am just trying to lighten the mood. Two, not often the Witch Queen demands an audience.”
The golden design started to glow, silencing the three women; the frogs surrounding them all turned, attracted to the light emanating from the golden sigil.
The light remained dull as black energy started to swirl in the center, its swirling causing an uproar that made the variety of tiny frogs fly off the stone. The swirling energy took the form of a tall woman, hunched, and appeared as though she were a tree grown from the ground. Her gnarled hand extended towards the three women sitting before her.
“Coven of amphibian affinity, you are needed for this.”
The Witch Queen raised her hand, and the collection of frogs levitated and gravitated toward her.
“We have a deal struck with a champion of a god; if we bring it enlarged Salamanders, we will be rewarded with the resources of its land.”
Three stood up and spoke.
“What are the resources?”
The Witch Queen’s hand caught alight with a black flame; her gaze changed from the floating swarm of frogs to the standing Witch underling.
“I assume you are the Three. Sit before I scorch your eyes from your skull and turn you into the frogs that love you oh so much.”
Three sat back down, and as three sat, the flames calmed at the same rate until she was fully seated once more.
“The prize is irrelevant to you as it benefits our society, not just your coven.”
The Witch Queen dropped the swarm of levitating frogs and returned to the center of the circle.
“You three are first to follow me; we have something to do before we attempt to gather that which is needed.”
The coven walked towards the queen, and quickly, all four individuals disappeared; the frogs on the ground slowly dispersed back into the forest, enjoying the rain that kept the air cool.
The coven, however, found themselves separated and caged in separate corners of a triangle arena. Surrounding them in raised seating was a sea of Witches waiting for the queen to speak from center stage.
“It is best practice for witches to study alone; never before has a group of powerful witches been formed. Those who form permanent Covens are always the weakest of our kind. Tonight, tonight, we remove two-thirds of the lowest of our kind.”
No applause, no cheers. The crowd sat in silence; those at the front of the seats stood, waving hands. A shimmer started to raise the edges of the triangular arena, and the shimmer began to form a pyramid shape.
“This is a standard duel, the only rule being that only one can leave this arena.”
The Witch Queen started to grow and take the form of a large leafless tree that formed the central decoration of the arena. Roots began to burst from the ground, dragging large rocks, creating barricades and shelters around the arena. As the last of the roots stopped moving, the barrier reached the climax of its form; the cages were opened, releasing the three Witches into the arena.
Almost immediately, Three ran forward behind a small piece of cover as her breath started to deepen. She peaked over her barricade to see the others had taken the same idea.
“In such a small arena, Two has a clear advantage.”
Three peaked around another corner of her barricade to see One’s foot slipping out the back of one of the stone barriers. Her tattoo on her ankle gives away her identity. Not wanting to waste her time, Three grasped loose soil from beneath her and let it sift through her hand as she whispered an incarnation. Across from her, she could see a small hand made from the same soft soil appear next to One’s foot; at the peak of one finger, a green nail grew. Striking like a viper, it dove the point into her foot but passed straight through. The hand grasped repeatedly at the foot just to glide through each time. Three slunk back behind her barrier.
“Fucking Two and her illusions, got to play my game then.”
Three placed her hand onto the nearest root, and her eyes turned green; again, she started whispering at a hastened place. The roots all started to sprout, thick bushes flourishing where smooth roots once grew. The central tree developed a thick bush from which a plethora of vines drooped down.
“Ok, I just got to get to better hiding space.”
Three grabbed a small hand full of leafy sticks.
“One with the tree, one with life. One with the tree, one with life.”
Three breathed deeply and felt herself suck into the nearby roots. Her vision morphed, every leaf transforming into a window, showing her the whole arena. She immediately spotted Two hiding under the full growth of a big bush. Three continued to look but could not see One anywhere.
Two ran her hand over the nearby root, feeling energy pulsating through it.
“Ha, let’s see where your vision gets you, Three.”
Two leaped from her spot, throwing small branches at the ground, each one shining as they flew from her hands. As each one landed, they flickered, and an image of Two appeared, each of her images running around as she was. Three was flustered as she tried to pick out the real Two when she felt her body being pulled from her natural hiding space. Her throat was met by a choking embrace, her body entrapped, and her vision went black. She struggled against her new restraints.
“You are too predictable. Always focusing on nature, while Two focused on illusions. Before you both I focused on curses, but in my own time, I trained in blending.”
An air pocket opened wide above Three, and in it appeared One’s face. Her eyes and teeth glowed dimly, filling the void with light.
“I have waited so long for this; I knew what would happen. This isn’t a first-time event. Enjoy being buried alive.”
One disappeared, allowing the dirt to fill the void. Three started to choke, incapable of casting a vocal spell or moving her body for any incantation.
“Only two remain.” Spoke to the central tree.
Two, still running around, realized she could see neither of the others.
“Oh shit, where is–“
One rose from the dirt behind Two, pumping the ground with air and binding her feet, causing Two to sink in. Once she was knee-deep, she started to fall backward. With her head tilted back, One forced loose soil down Two’s throat.
“Enjoy a similar grave to Three.”
Two’s hands started to spasm, minor illusions appearing as her life force fell from her body.
The arena started to fade as the Witch Queen returned to her normal form; the leaves and small twigs that three spawned dropped to the ground.
“That bitch had the audacity to cast magic on me? Filthy dead bitch.”
The Witch Queen turned to One as the magical barrier faded, and light applause sounded from the audience.
“That was some remarkable magic from an individual that partnered with unremarkable friends.”
“Sometimes it pays to be the smartest in a room, for when someone who has achieved nothing does anything, they brag. With minimal effort from me, they would show me exactly what they could do and how they did it. I could focus on my field and still learn others.”
The Witch Queen walked passed one and gave her an impressed expression.
“Do this for the society, and you will be rewarded with a name. Providing you don’t embarrass us. Take time to prepare; once you are ready, we will head to the lakes in the area till we find what….”
The Witch Queen trailed off as she spied frogs and newts surrounding One and Two, and there were corpses also.
“It seems we have use of the others yet.”
“I get their supplies, none negotiable.”
The Witch Queen turned to look at One.
“You dare give me an order?”
One stood her ground, staring down the formidable titan of power standing before her, One knew she had spoken out of turn, but it slipped out without thinking. Calming her nerves, she stared deeply into the Witch queen’s eyes, her dark eyes that seemed to be a pit into which One could fall in. The surroundings faded, and the landscape turned black. Sconces of black flame appeared and emanated a chilling ambiance.
“Are you ready to negotiate?”
One stayed still, silent and unwavering. She knew the only way out of this was to appear strong; if any weakness was found, she would be destroyed. Nearby sconces overfilled, and the flames started to spread across the floor. The fire, although cold, burnt far worse than any heat One had felt. A snake-shaped sliver of flame coiled its way up One, burning her flesh as it went. It traveled up her neck, over her cheek, under her eye, passing her nose, and finishing in a striking pose on her face.
“I admire your resolve, but If you demand something from me again, you will be consumed by my flame.”
Once again, they found themselves in the arena, standing before the large gathering of other witches. One felt her skin, but there were no marks; it had all been an illusion.
“This one has proven her strength, her old coven’s belongings will not be touched by anyone but her. Let us all get ready, I will take the two dead ones, and we shall head to the lakes in the area. We are going hunting.”