This is a part of my Fourth Age Witches series; you can find them all here.
The rain was heavy with purpose, landing with resounding thuds all around them; Taks thought it might be trying to cleanse the ground of battle, to remove old sins from the soil and soak the earth with hope instead. Maybe it was sick of the old world’s scars and wanted to wipe the slate clean.
With what had happened here, that was a losing battle in itself.
“Taks, damnit!” Marta bellowed as the tarp Taks had been holding slipped and flapped in the wind. “Hold it steady! Hog’s teeth, I don’t want to spend all night at it!”
Their mind was wandering again. Taks half-yelled an apology that was eaten by the storm and groped in the dim light for the tarp’s edge. Their fingers connected with the Orb’s eerie metallic surface, centuries of detail exposed to the brutal elements; it still felt hot even after so much time. They helped Marta stake down the rest of the tarp in embarrassed silence, covering the gaping hole in the Orb’s top; of the field’s choices, this one had the most intact structure, which wasn’t saying much.
A gust howled at the two of them as they rushed inside, stripping madly to their underclothes and shivering despite the warmth of the rain. Young Jun was in the corner weaving out blankets from spider’s silk, and Gorlak, their troll guide, had made a deal with the Orb’s spirit to turn some of its heat into a small fire. Taks wasn’t sure what trade the troll had offered, but ancient leftovers like this metal husk had bizarre tastes. Better not to ask.
Taks hated this place. The smell alone should have kept the lot of them at bay: iron and bone dust from the old wards, the itchy scent of peat-moss and spider-worms, and a hint of saltpeter as ancient machines decayed in the rain and sun. But Marta and Jun had needed a Nose for a story-hunt, and Taks had enough sense to know the coven would want them gone for a while after last month’s incident. They discretely checked the wound on their leg out of habit; it was still festered and bruised, with no sign their runes were healing it properly. Taks shuddered and wrapped a fresh bandage back around it before joining the group.
Gorlak was happily stoking the fire, which danced up from a picture carved neatly into the dirt by his words: a volcano, erupting wildly. He muttered in a sing-song way and absently nodded at Taks as they sat nearby. Jun draped the spider-silk blanket over Taks with surprising care, and though it felt a little too soft, it helped Taks’ shivering.
“Marta, would you sit down?” Jun called out, gathering some dried food from their supplies and setting to work on dinner. “The rain isn’t going anywhere, except down.”
Marta sighed and let out a low chuckle, moving from her place at the door of the Orb and seating herself roughly next to the fire, warding off Jun’s blanket. She looked firm in her resolve, but Taks knew better: she was just as haggard and worn out as the rest of them.
“The heat will do me just fine, thanks. That spider of yours gives me the willies.” She outstretched her beautiful, gnarled fingers into the blaze and let the flames lick away the moisture, a thin mist rising off her weathered skin.
Jun pulled a face but Taks knew the banter was playful; the first two weeks had been an education in their jabs and constant pecking, and just how exhausting it could be. It was all Taks could do to keep out of it – keep their head full of smells instead of “happy bickering”. They turned their attention to the roof of the Orb, watching the tarp flap and sag under the wind outside. They could smell the age of this place as if through the years – there had been a period of heavy moss growth, right after the roof collapse nearly thirty years ago. Recently, a pair of hoarsehogs had lived here, but moved on a few days prior when something disturbed them – what would spook those beasts, Taks couldn’t guess.
There was something else, though, something…dormant. That same smell Taks hadn’t been able to place since their group arrived in the field yesterday. It seemed strongest in this Orb, which was the real reason Taks had suggested it as shelter – no matter that it was also in the best shape. Half the Orbs in this field were torn asunder, most from the inside out, and Gorlak had told the witches that this place was avoided by almost everyone he knew. Marta had to bribe him with extra pay just to step foot in the fields.
Jun handed some dough to Marta, who held it in the flames and kneaded it gently to keep its shape as it baked. Gorlak watched with some fascination, finally relaxing and ceasing his stoking reverie.
“It makes no sense to me,” he drawled, leaning back next to Taks against the Orb’s inner wall, “that even a witch as wise as you should trust a flame like that.”
“Why?” Marta grinned at him through the tendrils of steam rising off the bread. “Should I fear your fire, Troll?”
Gorlak chuckled and gestured crudely, a smile – bisected by an old scar – cresting his lips. “You should fear anything as hungry as that, flame or no. You witches have more scars than anyone I’ve seen, and now I know why.”
“Do you think us mad, Gorlak?” Jun smirked, taking the finished loaf from Marta’s hands and giving her a soup to set up.
“Oh, most certainly.” His smile grew wider, and Taks could smell his warm, smoky breath. It reminded them of a charming forest fire. “But then, that’s why I agreed to this farce.” Gorlak gestured around him at the Orb’s walls, cackling. “Mad witches have the best stories to trade.”
Marta finished arranging the tines of a kettle stand and set the pot to cook. “We’ll make sure you’re well-paid, don’t worry.” Marta nodded to the pot. “Mind the heat on that, mm?” She then beckoned Taks over and started detailing points on the map, asking after Taks’ memories of smell for the notes. She treated Taks’ abilities with respect and interest, something few other witches her age afforded them. It didn’t stop her trying to question Taks’ descriptions, though, and they fought for a full five minutes over what “wet clothes on a sunny day by the sea” could mean.
The afternoon went on slowly, the deluge outside turning into a full-on tempest – the smell of cold copper and a wicked stench of old wood permeated everything. Jun wove well into dusk, sticking protective webbing along the seams of the Orb that let the wind in. Gorlak kept the fire fed with wyrds – at least, Taks thought they were wyrds – and Marta stood by the door for long stretches of time, peering into the gloomy downpour.
Taks knew Marta had the fellsight – that impurity-turned-tool that had helped the first covens to steer clear of the old world’s nightmares. She said it was like seeing with two sets of eyes at once, much like how Taks was able to smell in two distinct ways. It didn’t really translate, but it was still humbling to see her use it: they had nearly set off a landmine coming into the Orb field, but Marta spotted it just before Taks stepped down. Something about the Faustian energies being particularly bright in that spot.
That day had been the longest mile Taks had ever experienced – every step taken a monumental success towards escaping certain doom, every unsure footstep an eternity spent in fear.
Jun reached over Taks while they were lost in thought, patching up a thin hole near their head. Taks distractedly watched as he worked, nimble fingers somehow sticking the webbing to the Orb without becoming tangled in it themselves. The spider he spun the web from rested on his forearm, supping on the remains of a large fourth-age roach he’d herded into its web days before. It seemed content with its lot in life, odd though it seemed.
Jun finished his task and plopped down next to Taks, smiling as his hands shook, his body slumping wearily against the metal wall. “Must be nice to only have to smell stuff,” he joked, elbowing Taks lightly.
“Uhm. Well, sort of.” How to explain it, Taks thought with a sigh. “Do you remember Undal?”
Jun quirked an eyebrow. “Who, the old watchmistress? What about her?”
“What do you remember about her?”
Jun furrowed his brows and glanced around, pointedly avoiding their gaze. “Well, she used to give people hell for leaving without notice, and she had a nasty habit of smoking indoors. Sort of a grisly woman, right?”
Taks nodded. “But she also had three children, who she loved deeply and missed sorely. She still wore the perfume one of them gave her on special occasions – it had a deep smell, like a cave lichen might – and the smokes were a reminder for her brother, who had gone missing in the third age. She thought the smell might guide him home.”
Jun looked perplexed, his eyes finally meeting Taks’ with some trepidation. “So you knew her better than me. What’s that got to do with your nose?”
“I never spoke to her more than a handful of times, Jun.” Taks stroked their leg absently, the old wound throbbing with the thunder crackling outside. “But I learn things through smell. I’ve learned more than I’d have liked about all of you during this trip,” they muttered quietly and glanced pointedly at Gorlak, who was staring into the fire with glazed-over eyes. “and I didn’t have a say in the matter.”
Jun quirked an eyebrow, then his face suddenly pinched up, his expression one of shock; the stench outside masked most of his sudden anxiety, but Taks had been with this group nearly two weeks. He wasn’t subtle about his looks and even less subtle in the evenings when he thought people were asleep. This was his first outing since coming of age a few years ago, so Taks didn’t begrudge him, but it did make looking at him uncomfortable sometimes.
“I, uh-” Jun stood suddenly, wobbling from exhaustion. “I need to- to relieve- I’ll be-” He murmured as he brushed past Marta at the door, her curses following him like daggers for breaking her trance.
Gorlak muttered under his breath and chuckled idly, his voice like a whisper in the din.
“Something funny?” Marta half-smiled, laying gingerly on one of the silk mats.
“Oh, just an old saying we have.” Gorlak grinned, still muttering. “‘Tusks grow quicker than brains.’” His split tongue lanced over the bony tusks bordering his lips for emphasis.
Taks wasn’t sure they liked the implications behind that – or the looks the two of them had been sharing. Taks didn’t like a lot about Gorlak’s sudden appearance halfway through their journey or his inclusion on the team, let alone the way he and Marta smelled all too similar some nights.
If she was going to fuck him, that was her business; Taks just wished they would bathe afterwards.
There was a shout from outside, and the party was all nerves at once – Marta leapt to her feet like a surprised wildcat, her head still as a chicken’s as her eyes searched; Gorlak rose cautiously, as if he knew something he wasn’t letting on; and Taks bounded across the room to smell what they could from the doorway. Without fellsight, their nose was the only thing to penetrate this hellish storm.
Jun was nearby – Taks knew his smell a mile away in fog – but there was something else near him. Something indescribable. Marta ranged up to flank the door with Taks, her dark gray eyes shining starkly in the dim firelight.
“Gorlak, kill the fire.” Marta hissed, teeth bared.
Gorlak nodded and whispered at the image, unmaking it in moments as the heat seeped back into the Orb. The inside of the shelter was slowly enveloped in absolute darkness, with occasional lightning starkly outlining them.
“Where are you, boy…”
“Marta, there’s something with him.” Taks pointed in the rough direction they could smell. “Something I can’t…it doesn’t have a smell.”
Marta swore up and down and turned back to Gorlak, though whether he noticed in the pitch black was unlikely. “Gor, grab those blankets. We’re going to get him.”
Taks thought they heard Gorlak mutter something about “pack mules and young kids” but he did as was bidden, and the three of them pulled on the silk blankets before running out onto the freezing metal plates.
“Taks! You take point until I can see him!” Marta shouted, cloaking the group in pixie flame from her ration of last autumn’s leaves.
Taks ran into the gloom, barely-illuminated hunks of metal whistling by them in the haze of rain and night. They had to keep their eyes shut most of the way, their nose guiding them around obstacles that slowed their companions.
What was that thing, that smell that refused identifying? They’d never once been stumped on a smell, even the ones older witches would conjure up from elder wyrds. This thing, it denied the memory of itself, erased it by existing. Jun’s smell was strong, full of fear and piss and sweat, like prey next to the empty void.
“There! I see him now! Behind that-” Marta’s voice trailed off suddenly in the din, stopping Taks in their tracks. Had they hit something?
“Behind what?” Taks shouted back, but no answer. “Marta?” Silence.
That’s when Taks heard it: hard, pounding footsteps, rattling the metal sheets and rain as they thundered through the air. Little droplets of water shivered in mid-flight with every plodding step, and the Orbs around them creaked and groaned with the strain.
Taks whipped around to face it, that unthinkable emptiness, and they saw it there in perfect silhouette: lightning crackled through the sky over the creature, some fifteen feet in height, hunched and misshapen. Thin, antler-like protrusions jutted out at uncomfortable angles from its shoulders and head, and a deer’s skull rested atop it, cocked as if it were curious. The rest of its thin shape was hidden in matted, soaking hair, grey as the metal around them and reflecting the dying light.
In one of its three misshapen claws it held Jun’s body, limp and wrong in the way it hung. He still smells alive, Taks thought, their feet shifting uneasily on the muddy steel beneath.
From behind, Marta’s footsteps came to a clumsily-sliding halt next to Taks, Gorlak panting heavily as he hunched on their opposite side. The two were covered in mud and Gorlak had a thick trickle of blood oozing down his face.
“Jun!” Marta shouted, and the creature turned, body snapping and cracking like an old tree in the wind. It leaned forward, and Taks braced as if it were falling towards them. It stopped mere meters from them, bent at an angle that seemed impossible to balance on, dim crimson eyes gazing with alien intelligence at the three of them.
It smelled like nothing. No smoke, no Faustian rage – not even the stench of its hair was present, grungy strands falling over its skull with disgusting stickiness. It was like having a blind spot.
“A War-Wyvern.” Gorlak spoke so quietly Taks almost thought they’d heard wrong.
War-Wyverns were old witch homunculi, stitched together from second-age demons and equal parts corrupted bone and sheepdog hair. Taks remembered Halsen, the oldest witch in their coven, telling a tale of how they wove these abominations to stand against the third-age infestations. But that was decades ago; any binding magic should have wasted away in a place like this.
Something was Feeding this mistake.
Marta shouted a wyrd into the air between them and the creature, a burst of light exploding directly into its face. The Wyvern barely flinched, beady red pinpricks of light fixing on her.
From next to Taks, Gorlak shouted and launched from the ground, clinging onto the hairy beast as it thrashed around, skeletal jaws snapping at his feet.
“Taks, get Jun!” Marta commanded, gathering mud in her hands. “Once you’ve got him, go! We’ll meet at Olson’s cabin, by the river!”
Taks didn’t have time to argue as Marta charged the wyvern, her wyrds singing the mud into a hard shell around her body, turning her into a clay battering ram as she slammed the thing’s leg. Jun lay motionless in the Wyvern’s talons, arms and legs swaying with the erratic movements as it tried to chase Gorlak around itself. Taks picked out a handful of stones from their pouch and whistled them into life, then whipped them at the creature’s hand; they were rewarded with a shriek that froze the rain in place for a moment.
“GO!” Marta screamed, and Taks could hear the sound of ceramics shattering in the darkness.
The things fingers loosened, and Taks snatched Jun’s hand, tossing him over their shoulder and running, ignoring the wails and earth-shaking thumping of dread feet.
They didn’t stop running until daybreak, soaked and weary, just down the hill from the little cabin once owned by Olson, witch of the iron wastes.
“Praised be his damned name.” Taks managed to murmur. Jun’s weight had become leaden, and Taks finally gave in beneath it, collapsing into the firm grasses and heather that grew there. The earth here stunk of renewal, of growth spurred on by ages-old magic still seeping through the dirt. Taks rolled out from under Jun’s body and stared skyward, ragged, heavy breaths forced their chest to keep pace, and their vision blurred painfully.
At some point, the view of the clouds had drifted into that of a dream: there Taks stood at the top of the hill, pointing out puffy white clouds, and joking to their friends that they looked like bristle-pigeons fighting over a mate. But when they turned around, their friends were empty-eyed, smiles wide and false – like ashen dolls pretending to be real.
Taks couldn’t smell them. Couldn’t smell the rain on its way, nor the rocks underfoot. Couldn’t smell themselves-
Taks woke with a scream, the blue sky above replaced with a rapidly-dimming dusk sky, the stars twinkling in their stellar laughter. Jun stirred next to them, reaching out a hand and pulling it back with a grimace. His face scrunched and Taks could smell how hurt he was; smells of bone marrow and torn hemlock.
“Don’t move. You’re pretty fucked up.” Taks said with the best smile they could muster.
Jun returned the smile through the pain. “Thanks. I wasn’t sure, but now I know. So helpful.”
Taks almost slapped him on the arm in jest, but caught themselves and made to stand instead. “I’ll be right back – the cabin should still have some supplies, I’ll make up a travois.”
Climbing up the hill the first time felt like crawling through a fire, hot coals popping all over their tired muscles. The descent and subsequent second climb was decidedly worse – now they were dragging a rock through burning pain, trying to keep from bumping Jun’s bruised and broken body on the hillside.
Taks kicked the door fully open, regretted it immediately, then slid the travois Jun lay in onto the low table in the living room.
“How bad is it, you think?” He didn’t move as Taks woke the chandelier sprites, feeding them bits of dried thistle and sage.
“You’re alive. What else remains to be seen.” Taks forced a bigger smile, dread creeping into their thoughts. They were a good Nose, but their healing magic had a long way to go.
Once the sprites were active enough, Taks set about cleaning Jun up, lining the table with a green toadstool paste to soak up the worst of the pain; it turned a bitter slate colour by the time the sun was fully down, and poor Jun’s teeth scraped together under Taks’ ministrations.
“Dog’s tits!” He finally cried out, and Taks laughed nervously. “That really hurts, you know, when you go digging around in my chest!”
Taks’ hands were coated in midnight-black ink, buried nearly to the wrist in the upper part of his chest. They sighed and tilted their head, shaking away their anxiety for a moment.
“You know, I could have left you down there to starve, Jun.” They carefully eased a rib back into place, watching his entire head flexing in anguish. “The least you could do is stay still.”
“Easy for you to say when you’re the one pawing at my insides!”
Taks was about to return his sass when the door swung open and Marta staggered in, Gorlak propping her up.
The two groups stared at one another in stunned silence: Gorlak had lost a tusk and most of his cheek, the old lip scar looking minuscule in comparison; Marta was caked in blood and mud, and her leg had a funny tilt to it; Jun lay on the table, his clothes a mess of dried dirt and stale rose petals for the blood. Taks was sure they also looked like hell, but old Olson hadn’t left a mirror to spare and they hadn’t been bothered to look for a pool.
Then Gorlak laughed – a big, barrel of a laugh that turned into pained chuckling. The awkwardness melted away, and even Jun was giggling at the absurdity of it all. Marta sat in one of the dining chairs, favouring one leg, and eyed Taks.
“You learn that in class?” She nodded to Taks’ hands, and they remembered they were still holding Jun’s rib.
Taks hastily withdrew their hands and wiped them on the borrowed apron, already slick with fluids and ink. “Uh, actually, I used to help out on the farms. Vet stuff.” They covered Jun’s chest and moved over to Gorlak. They could smell the infection in his head wound at a couple of metres. “Pigs and humans aren’t too different when it comes to fixing breaks and cleaning wounds.”
“Hey, hey!” Gorlak grinned, the flesh moving over his exposed jawbone like a wave. “You callin’ me ‘human’, little witch?”
Taks slapped him in the stomach and pointed to a chair, smiling back. “I’m calling you late, is what I’m doing. Now sit so I can clean that up, it reeks of bug shit and stale ass.”
“Hear that, Jun? I smell like you and your spider!” Gorlak waved at Jun, and he weakly flipped him off in return. Marta started rubbing numbing salve on her leg between traded verbal jabs with Taks, and the evening was spent tending not only Marta and Gorlak, but Taks’ own injuries as well: they’d torn an ankle muscle and were still running on pure adrenaline, which was rapidly running out. They didn’t fight Marta’s rough, gorgeous fingers as they sewed the sinews back together with perfect precision.
“The Wyvern,” Jun piped up, and Taks had forgotten he was in the room, still laid out on the table behind the couch as he was. “Did you kill it?”
Gorlak sighed, glancing behind him at Marta from his work at the fireplace.
Marta shook her head. “Bastard thing wouldn’t go down, no matter what we threw at it.” She patted Taks’ repaired ankle gingerly. “Light steps for now.” She said to Taks, but it felt as though she were talking to all of them.
Taks helped prepare dinner under Jun’s patient guidance with potatoes and herbs from the wild garden out back. Meanwhile, Gorlak had sussed the location of a wine cellar out of the floorboard mites in return for some Wyvern hair he’d stolen, and Marta was busy braiding buns for the fire.
The food tasted too good, smelled too good, and almost left Taks nauseous with the bounty of flavours. They ate and drank to the point of bloat, then played a game of cards on Jun’s unconscious chest – since he hadn’t woken when Marta painted charcoal symbols on his face, he had volunteered as a table.
Gorlak and Marta then set up some sleeping bags from the cabin’s storage and Taks tucked Jun in with one of his silk blankets they had escaped with. With any luck, he’d pull through without any serious problems, but they weren’t about to tell the others how unsure they were.
“Taks.” Marta whispered in the dim light, raised up on one elbow from her sleeping bag. Taks could just make out her form next to Gorlak’s, his soft breath smelling like sea salt and too much wine. “Come here.”
Taks tiptoed over, squatting down and nearly toppling over as their ankle protested. “What is it?”
“I wanted to thank you.” Marta nodded in Jun’s direction. “For getting him out safe.”
“Oh.” Taks was thankful for the low light as a blush crept up their cheeks. “You’re, uh- you’re welcome.”
Marta patted them on the shoulder and smiled. “I’ll tell the council what you did, and ask them to pardon you.”
The blush spread like wildfire. “R-really?!” Taks half-shouted, then pulled their body inward as if to quiet themselves. “That is, you’re sure? You don’t even know what I did…”
“I know what you did out here. You’re a hell of a Nose, and you stood your ground when that Wyvern was breathing down our necks.” Marta smiled in the darkness. “I don’t care if you burned down the council house, you more than earned my trust.” She glanced down at Gorlak, his head expertly cleaned and bandaged. “His, too. And Jun’s.”
A voice murmured from behind the couch. “You can put your hands in me any day, Taks.”
Marta snorted loudly at that and Gorlak stirred awake, his eyes blearily glancing around. “What? What? Was I snoring?”
Taks and Marta fell into stitches of laughter as Gorlak smiled back curiously, and Jun fell back asleep on his table. They all slept deep and peaceful that night, safe in that old cabin overlooking the Orb fields and the tumbling Tummel river.