Bonus Story: The House of Seven Smiles

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Never venture far from the Mire's roots.

It was the mantra of her childhood. The world was a dangerous place, even for the witches of the Mire. The Above squatted at their borders, just beyond the warded cypress roots and poisonous vines, waiting with open jaws to snap up a wandering child.

"The Snatchers will scoop up a little gem like you," said Mama Fiend, stalking around the bed, fingers curled in imaginary claws. Her hair fell forward, obscuring her features like a curtain of flame colored moss. The little girl giggled, pulling the blanket to her chin. "They'll grab you!" Her mother ducked in, tickling her ribs. Peals of laughter soaked into the gnarled walls of their living home.

"Then what happens?" said the little girl, trying to catch her breath. The humor drained from Mama Fiend's eyes. She sat on the bed, tugging on her daughter's fiery curls.

"They take you away, spirit you up the rivers, between the mountains. Far, far, to the north, to Avergard."

The name made her daughter's eyes widen. The Snatchers were the boogeymen but Avergard was the home of real monsters.

A smile crept back into Mama Fiend's tiger bright eyes. "Go to sleep, Safiya. The roots hide us. The wards protect us. Mama shall you keep you safe."

The witches took many precautions, the magic ran thick in their veins, but even the best wards fail.

The witches took many precautions, the magic ran thick in their veins, but even the best wards fail

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No matter how benign a witch's abilities, magic complicated the natural. It made childbirth as dangerous as wrestling a pyguara, the vicious reptilian felines that hunted in the swamp. Mama Fiend was a skilled mid-wife, her babies lived more often than then didn't. A frantic knock at the door was not uncommon, and Mama Fiend knew Tilda was expecting twins.

"Seraphine! Quick, it's bad!" The young man on their step was covered in sweat and blood. One look at him spurred her mother into action, grabbing her emergency satchel.

"Can I come Mama? I could help," said Safiya. She'd aided her mother before, pulling a mother's pain away, like a thorn embedded in the skin. She wasn't as skilled or precise as Mama Fiend but she provided an extra set of hands.

Her mother looked to the young man, who gave a slight shake of his head. "Not this time, dear. Too dangerous. I'll send Gran to peek in on you." She planted a kiss on Safiya's cheek, trailing her fingers along her daughter's arm in a lingering touch. Safiya laid back against her pillow with a sigh, sinking into peaceful sleep.

She woke to screams.

Had Tilda lost her babies? No, these screams were sharp edged, threaded with panic and fear. The air tasted like iron and river mud. Safiya scrambled from the bed just as a body fell through the doorway. She froze as Gran's cloudy eyes met hers. Dark blood overflowed from the old woman's lips, seeping into the cracks of her ancient face. Her hand reached for Safiya, as choking sounds snagged in her crushed throat. The hand fell and went still.

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