Chapter 2

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After a while and wiping away her tears, Elise peered around the stone chamber and saw, opposite her, stairs descending into blackness. Like the antechamber the stairwell was greened with untamed flora, and although forbidding, she would rather travel below than back. With luck, she would find another way out and escape into the light of a new day.

Because Elise couldn't—didn't want to—think about the one she had just escaped. She was young. She didn't understand sudden evils, and thinking upon what she had just survived... it had very nearly paralyzed her. The feeling began in her throat, but rapidly metastasized into something far worse than the urge to cry... It had made her want to curl up on the ground, never to move and never to think about any thing ever again.

These feelings were simply too frightening for her to face. Elise didn't know it, but all the animal things that help us survive, even at a young age, had fired inside her and made her stood straight again.

She was stronger than she knew, so she went on.

The steps swirled into the earth, but once she reached their crumbling foot she emerged into another stone chamber. Careful archways licked by arcane obsolescence prefigured a network of branching passageways, all of which catered to the dark. Were it not for certain stones, some solitary and some in the masonry, she wouldn't be able to see her finger beneath her nose. They glowed iridescent greens and blues.

Although on the farm she had gotten used to doing chores on her own, nothing could have prepared her for this derailment of her life. It was beautiful here but terrifying, and she hadn't the slightest idea where or what to do. She trembled as she walked among the arches of this lost world. They were perhaps even more lost than she.

Looking into the tired faces of these long-forgotten ideas, Elise surged with a kind of awe for a time she never knew. She recalled her history—that ancient warlocks once ruled this land—but few people today, and certainly not her, ever visited these distant places filled with the signs of former dominion, which dotted the island continent of Unum. From the little white homes of Mirborne Harbor all the way to the great coal contraptions of Henden, how many wonders existed in her world that she never knew? How many more over the ocean waves?

"Sh'a lot more where dose came from, misshy."

Elise hadn't realized she had said so aloud, and startled to see a colossal crab clacking toward her.


Elise almost fell on her rump, scared at first. Minding his stony coloration and broad, hard shell cracked by lichen, however, he looked natural there. In spite of the beast's largeness, he didn't make any provocations, either. In fact, he said quite to the contrary,

"Didn't mean ta bovva you," it said.

"Oh, no, I'm... I'm just..." Flummoxed. Bandied about by fire and fright.

"I'm... fine." She tried to strengthen her wobbling legs. Like a loose eve she was liable to fall.

"I've—I've never been to a place like this before," she said. "I wouldn't know about the world... about places like this."

"Wellsh, that's why I told ja," the crab said, gesticulating with a massive claw. He could have cloven her by the bye, but he seemed to be only as much a monster as his appearance suggested. Maybe she would be okay after all.

"Theesh hills are full'a places like thish, left by dose ancients," he drawled on. "Witchez, the whole lot of 'em, me shinks. Even now jay still come here, ja know."

'Jay' meaning they, meaning witches? Elise balked at the idea. She didn't need witches to contend by, not now.

"No means to shpook ja. Ju really mustn't be from hereabouts..." Elise indeed was not. The continental railway only passed through her tiny hamlet a few times each year, and in that dull pasture of 'meanwhile' she had learned so little of the things her parents didn't want her to hear. One such thing had been witches.

She hardly believed in them, and she wasn't about to start!

"But wuch the difference?" the crab continued. "We's all from someplacewhere." He stopped before Elise and held up his—hand. "Da name ish Crab by the waysh. Nisch to meetshja."

Extending her own, the girl nervously touched the sociable crustacean. "Thank you. I'm Elise. I'm... just passing through, Crab. Is there another way out of here besides the way I came?"

"Oh yesh. Show ja da way out?"

"Thank you. That would be very generous."

As the crab, Crab, led her a certain way, he hummed a chipper yet terribly off sort of tune which echoed through the halls. Although accustomed to talking animals, she had never expected to meet another one, and certainly not a talking crab. Certainly, certainly not a singing one!

"If I may ask, sir, why are you here? I thought crabs lived by the ocean."

"Imma fresh wada crab. Thish 'ere is my 'ome. 'afta keep eyes open, dough, wif all da shings appenin' round ere..."

"Like what?" She hoped not pirates.

"Oh, jay come and jay go... Some... Somefin to do wif dese rocks, me shinks." He tapped a heavy claw against the stones. "I shtay here because da water is good. Builds in wellsh..."

Elise didn't like the sound of that, but her spirit lifted somewhat when the passageway lightened ahead, and within moments they entered a domed room space with pillars. Daylight burbled from the top of another stairwell.

Splash! Elise gasped as she stepped in shallow, algae-frosted water. It had taken her unawares, but the entire room was flooded thus.

"Thish way."

The pool stirred hardly in their wake. It was the strangest thing, and she wondered if the ocean had a similar hue. Was it blue, black or grey, or a great turquoise pond without borders or bottom? In stories handed down, she'd heard that for centuries men had tested their aspirations and their airships in an attempt to cross it, but that none had ever returned.

"Wellsh, no..."

They kept turning. The pillars kept shifting, out of sight like puzzling trees. There was but one way out, and yet they had produced a ponderous path to somewhere neither where they began nor where they wished to go. She turned to Crab. 

"Are you worried about something, or have you simply lost your way, sir?"

"Wellsh, it's just..."

The water stirred soundly. A third set of ripples, but Elise noticed too late. In an instant, a shadowy figure stepped from behind one of the great columns of stone, and—CRUNCH.

Crab splashed dead into the water, a slender foot planted in his skull. After sliding it out again, effortlessly like drawing a blade, its owner stepped forward into the dead green light.

Although scarcely older than Elise, the girl that rose before her could launch a fleet; whether in love or hate only a moment knew, for her beauty inspired a different answer than did those rags and wicked smile.

Her skirt, checkered ugly and harnessed by suspenders, was heavily patched. She wore dirty fingerless gloves, a black cravat, and, in her hair like a hat, a stocking of weasel brown. She wore no shoes, only patchwork hosiery, and in her hand carried a collection of sticks bound in the shape of a staff, at the end of which hovered a brilliant, mint green crystal.

And yet, beneath the dirty and lich-frayed threads... golden ochre hair flashed in a winning mess above black eyelashes... Eyes, clear and impossibly red as wine, glared in malicious allure. Puberty had struck this being like a bolt of animal lightning, so fast and so hard that it had shocked a society into silence. Her parents had spoken not a word.

Monster or maid, Crab had not been wrong. This was a witch.

 This was a witch

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