A flash of inspiration has allowed me to present this next installment to you on a much shorter timeframe. Hope it was worth the (shorter) wait!
People often talked of time seeming to slow during an instant of extreme crisis, but it was a phenomenon that Etienne had, up until this point, never himself experienced. By contrast, he prided himself on being the man who could subjugate time to his will and take control of moments. This particular moment, however, was bombarding his senses with information he couldn’t process fast enough, let alone contemplate reactions to. Each impulse required dragging his limbs through a morass of glue. Breaths themselves had to be forced. He gulped at frigid air and tried to concentrate on the simple action of putting one hand in front of the other, hauling himself along the ground as the world went mad.
He heard yelling, but it too was stretched and deepened by elongated seconds such that he could not decipher the words. He tried to follow the line of sound to its source, but could see nothing but blurry shadows slithering beneath a sky too old for the sun and too young for the moon and stars. Sparks and clashes of metal were next, followed by screams. Etienne kept pulling himself forward, out of the thorns and branches that stabbed into his flesh like probing, skeletal fingers. He winced at the unfamiliar sensation of pain.
“Valnier!” he heard himself call out, hollering through the soup. Where was his reliable corporal? He could not distinguish any of the voices out there in the dark; he knew that they had to belong to his men, but he could not recall ever hearing them so full of panic, chaos, and worst of all, fear. Etienne needed to take command again, to unite them against whoever – whatever – was attacking them. Yes, that was it. It was an attack. Perhaps a company of thieves, waiting in the wilds for a wealthy company to blunder by. But how could that be? Mere thieves couldn’t swing the temperature from sweltering to freezing in a heartbeat.
He needed to reach the road.
More yelling now. The shrieking of escaping horses, apparently the only ones in their company with any sense. Boots trampled the ground near him. Shadows had graduated into silhouettes, and Etienne could see outlines of his soldiers, the cut of their standard uniforms comfortably familiar, blades raised as they hurled themselves into the fray. He watched them run towards the road, back up the hill the company had just descended before they were besieged. Etienne tried to glimpse who they were charging, each logical part of him expecting to see an opposing line of cutthroats with swords and bows, perhaps even a catapult judging by the level of destruction the enemy had been able to wreak thus far.
And each logical part of him denying the truth of what was actually there: a solitary figure, shrouded in hood and cloak, arms raised and held out, and pulsating bands of eerie purple energy swirling and sparking about each extended hand.
Etienne’s men converged on her, but the slightest motions of those glowing hands were adequate to sweep them effortlessly from her path. Her fingers twitched and Etienne watched the bodies of veteran soldiers contort as they were sent careening away over the treetops before they could get within ten paces of her. The witch was not even granting them the courtesy of a straight fight. Etienne froze in place and fought to keep his teeth from chattering at the cold, lest he give away his position in the scrub.
Etienne did not remember offhand, and certainly would not have if asked then and there, how many witches he had captured and delivered into the custody of the Bureau Centrale in the course of his brilliant career. They all had their tricks and their unusual abilities which made oftentimes for a challenging hunt, but he had never seen a witch with this much power. Someone who could dispense with a full platoon of soldiers as if she were brushing dust from a table. This was why the Bureau Centrale existed, to prevent witches with such powers from tearing their country asunder, but Etienne wondered if his superiors back home in their comfortable suites had vastly underestimated the reality of the threat out here. What were soliders, indeed, what were entire armies against such overwhelming magic? True, she might be unique, but worse still, she might only be the first.
He could not have admitted it to himself – indeed, a Commissionaire’s pride would never dare allow it – but he was afraid. Raw cold dispersed into his veins by a frenzied heartbeat stole all mobility from his legs, and he tucked his arms into his chest to retain his few lingering shreds of warmth. And he wondered, probably for the first time in his life, whether he would survive the night.
Another soldier ran towards the witch, confident sword poised to slice her in two from shoulder to thigh. Etienne wanted to warn the fool, but his jaw held shut. With a gesture she immobilized the man and hoisted him into the air. His head lolled back and yelps of pain became choking gurgles as she lifted him higher. The sword fell from his hand and clattered upon the frozen ground. She swatted her fingers and tossed him aside. Visible adversaries dispensed with, the witch proceeded along the road, toward the overturned carriage, her stride unbroken and casual, more of a stroll than a tactical advance. Etienne watched her pass directly in front of him, the light enveloping her hands like twin beacons draping the night in shadows of amethyst. Did she know he was here? Did he dare risk revealing himself?
From bleak prospects suddenly arose a sliver of hope in the form of a single word spoken in a hushed tone by a familiar voice: “Monsieur.” Accompanied by a leather-gloved hand laid on Etienne’s shoulder with an atypical reassurance. Corporal Valnier. “Restez ici,” he barked, and he was gone again, sword drawn, making a bold line for the witch whose back was to them now. Valnier did not seem to care whether she heard him. His steps were heavy and defiant, characteristic of a man who from the day he learned to swing his fists had never backed down from a fight. Etienne dared to begin to think that his reliable corporal might in fact win the day for them.
He was disabused of that notion in the fraction of a second it took for the witch, without showing the barest acknowledgement of the brute closing in on her, to nonchalantly lift her right hand as though tossing a superstitious pinch of salt over her shoulder, and consequently fling the esteemed Corporal Valnier, arms and legs flailing against invisible forces, into the distant woods like a limp chunk of unwanted carrion. Etienne did not hear him land. He could not see any more of his men anywhere, not that it would have mattered now. If Valnier could not handle her, then what chance did any of the others have? Especially himself?
The battered carriage lay on its roof in a gully not far from where Etienne was crouched. He could see everything now. Again, the witch made a simple flicking motion with her finger, and wood and metal cracked and whined as component fibers and filaments rent themselves asunder and the entire rear section of the carriage helpfully detached itself and tumbled out of the way – revealing the bound and rattled form of the young Genvieve, Etienne’s ostensible prisoner. She was slumped against one side of the carriage and had a fresh gash across her cheek, a result of the crash. She and the other witch did not speak. Instead the witch posed her hand over the magic-inhibiting manacles, and the purple light sharpened into a quick, direct blast from her fingertips that seared the metal instantly into ash. The collar also sizzled into nothingness in short order, and Genvieve rubbed her throat in disbelief. Task accomplished, the witch let the energy fade from her hands, and ceded the duty of illumination of the scene to the rising moon.
Freed, Genvieve rose from the wreck. White light wreathed itself around her, reshaping her body into another feline form, this time much larger than a stringy tortoiseshell, and one Etienne had only ever seen in illustrations of animal life on the jungles of the Lower Continent: a panther, sleek and black and indistinguishable from the night into which it promptly raced away. Etienne’s failures were compounding upon themselves with each passing second, and yet it seemed like it had only been a handful of minutes since this had all started.
Perhaps he was dreaming. Perhaps he had fallen asleep on the long road to the garrison of the maître provinciale, and soon he would be roused by one of his men and see that all was as it should be, the caravan in formation riding quietly south in the hot and still night air. But the pain in his lacerated legs, the ice making his teeth clack and grind, and the growing desperation seizing his thoughts left little room to wish that this might be resolved only by opening his eyes.
They had lost their prisoner, their custom-bred horses had all fled, the Bureau’s valuable property had been destroyed, and his men were beaten and probably dead for all he knew. Etienne was his detachment’s last chance to salvage some honor from this near rout. Drawing upon a depleting resolve, Etienne stood. He had no sword, and he could spot none within easy reach. He had only a small dagger tucked inside his uniform jacket, and it was mainly for ceremonial purposes. Etienne did not recall the last time he had it sharpened, if ever. He loosened a button and reached in to wrap his fingers around its jeweled hilt. Touching a weapon usually provided comfort, but this felt to Etienne like the ultimate gesture of futility. A scary old butter knife with which to challenge the most powerful magic he’d ever seen. Even the most crooked oddsmaker on Rue de la Reine would not dare touch that wager.
Etienne held the dagger next to his waist, the blade pointing forward. The Commissionaire swallowed a rock in his throat. Frozen air filled his lungs. He took a step.
The witch turned. She looked straight at him.
His training, and his years of experience, had taught him to hate witches, to mistrust every last thing about them, no matter how innocent it might seem. His adult life had been devoted to the eradication of their blight upon his cherished country, for the greater glory of the King and the people. So he knew better than to allow himself to be beguiled. He knew, as indelibly as words chiseled into stone, that a pretty face was merely another deadly weapon, and that the briefest hesitation in the sight of beauty could mean the difference between triumph and death.
Yet years of training and experience vanished tonight in a breath as he beheld the witch’s face, revealed beneath the hood of her cloak.
She was that beautiful.
Monsieur le Commissionaire Etienne de Navarre admired poetry, though he could not compose it himself. He had forgotten more literature than the average thousand ordinary peasants combined had read, but the ability to describe the sublime perfection of the face looking back at him was beyond even his highly educated means. Calerre had so many attractive women floating about its societal echelons, and each could boast of a particular feature of her visage that might elevate her above her kin; the sly, sharp, artistic arch of a dark eyebrow, the deep shade of rose upon a sculpted cheekbone, lips that blossomed like spring flowers and ran red with the hottest blood, to name but a few that had crossed his path. It was as if someone had measured and catalogued the highest attainable degree for each of these rare and becoming physical traits and bestowed them all into a single woman. And here, beholding this inconceivable objet d’art made flesh, Etienne could not muster a move. He looked back at her, stupidly, like a boy touched with the first stirrings of puberty and beginning to comprehend the depth of his helplessness before this most feminine of all imaginable worldly and otherworldly powers.
With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him.
Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips. Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing. The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew.
Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin. Each extremity seemed to disappear in turn, the sensation of numbness racing through his body until he felt like nothing but eyes and a mouth floating in space. Then even that was gone, and he fell into slumber with the witch’s face etched into his dreams.
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There’s more, honest! We’re just getting going. Stay tuned! In fact, just tune in here!