I stopped my truck in the shady corner of a fallow crop field; hopefully it wouldn’t draw much attention. I certainly never expected that I’d be committing what could be considered a violation of international law in less than two months.
I looked over at Chloe. She was rubbing her hands over her damaged leg, leaving creases in armor I made for her. I wasn’t feeling too great, myself. “Don’t suppose you have any more of those pills?”
“A couple, but we’ll need to make them last.” She struggled to maintain her composure. Am I going to be like that when I start coming down? “And they have diminishing returns.”
God damn it. “You’re in worse shape, go ahead and take one, and the last if you have to. I’ll go without until we get to a healer.” I knew she wouldn’t go for me doing something just to help her, without a pragmatic excuse. In that way at least, she was the exact opposite of my sister. “I can use my metal as a cast if I have to, but we need you mobile to fly us around.”
“I guess you’re right.” Her voice carried some blend of relief and regret, but it was enough that she put one of the remaining pills in her mouth. Her body language changed immediately.
“Let’s get in and out as fast as possible.” I gingerly made my way out of the truck; now that the drug was wearing off I could tell how bady I was damaged. The fact that I wasn’t in a hospital right now proved I was a damn moron. It was through willpower alone that I kept from screaming.
Chloe was waiting for me by the time I closed my truck door. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
I took a breath, solidifying my metal around specific points. “I’m ready when you are.”
Chloe took her position with my handlebars, and we were falling the wrong direction yet again. I distracted myself from my fear of heights with my fear of the Greenwitch, and what approaching her meant for us. The story I knew started a few years before the Civil War and ended with her owning a piece of land that was, technically, no longer a part of the United States.
‘Granny’ Greenwitch’s exact origins are unknown, but speculation by historians assumed her to be a slave who gained powers. She imagined herself a Voodoo priestess, and claimed a chunk of swamp near the Virginia border, where she set up a farm and took in criminals and runaway slaves. She was a ‘safe spot’ for refugees, where law enforcement would not follow, but those who crossed her were sacrificed to her dark gods. Then, like now, the Greenwitch was a refuge for the desperate.
It was during the Civil War that she became too troublesome to ignore. She allowed the Union to run a supply route through her land, so the Confederates tried to shut her down. Five hundred soldiers went in, and to this day no one knows what happened to them. Not long after, most of Virgina and North Carolina’s crops were struck with a blight that didn’t end until after the war.
To make a long, weird story short, when the Appomattox treaty was signed, neither Union nor Confederacy had legal claim of Granny Greenwitch’s property. Promises were made where she ended the blight and her land was recognized as hers and hers alone until her death. They just miscalculated the already elderly woman’s expectant lifespan by a century or two.
Future generations covered the ‘mistake’ by declaring her chunk of not-America a protected wetland, and pretended the Greenwitch had nothing to do with it. A nice fiction, but one that didn’t quite hold up with the fences, warning signs, and rumor of armed guards. Still, every so often some fool would be desperate and stupid enough to rush in where the United States feared to tread, and today the fool was us. If the guard rumor was true, they were kind enough to not shoot us out of the sky.
It didn’t take long for us to spot a patch of unusual swamp. Glowing plants formed some kind of sigil that looked vaguely like one some sort of tribal patterns blended with a crop circle. I assumed it had some meaning, but much like Stormbringer’s arcane weirdness, it held little value to me. Chloe drifted down, landing us near the edge of the circle.
“So… what do we do now?” Chloe set down next to me, standing on her good leg.
I clenched my jaw, waiting for the pain of the landing to subside. Not only was I injured and coming down from that drug, but my muscles had begun to tighten up. I took a couple slow breaths, turning my head to buy time before speaking. “Not sure. Legend has it the Greenwitch always knows if anyone’s in her domain, so I think it’s up to her to decide-”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, thrice-blessed.” I turned as fast as I could, which was quite slow, to the raspy voice behind us. “But this one just so happens to be true.” She was done speaking by the time I got a look at her. ‘Greenwitch’, it seemed, was literal.
I couldn’t identify her race, as aside from the drab brown hides she wore, every part of her was green. Her skin was a green as dark as my own brown; her ratty, matted hair a faded lime, and like my silver eyes, hers were a single solid emerald color.
“Granny Greenwitch?” I hesitated for something, anything, more to say. “We need your help.” Damn I’m lame.
“Here to ask about your Third?” She laughed, or at least I think it was a laugh. It may have been a cough instead. “Yes, I can answer all your questions and more, but there must be a price paid. It is the way of the world, the Law of the Loa.”
“Loa?” Chloe asked. “What are Loa? And what’s the price?”
“The Thrice-Blessed is the one who seeks the Greenwitch. It is he who brought you here, and he whose questions matter, as he already knows. The Greenwitch will form a covenant with him, not you.”
Both women looked at me. I decided to answer Chloe first. “Loa are, well, the Voodoo version of angels, or something like that, I’m not an expert.” I took another slow, painful breath. “But in this case, what she’s really talking about is the source of our powers.”
Chloe’s head turned back to the woman. “Oh. I think I get it.”
The elderly woman did her cough-chuckle again. “You think so, Dawn-Child? You think Granny’s lost her marbles, eh?” Green light so dark as to almost be black radiated from her eyes.
We are so fucked. I started shaping my metal. Chloe floated in front of me. It galled me to be the one who needed protecting, but she was in better shape than I was, and she was more powerful to begin with. I could give her a weapon, maybe a shield, and rely on my armor to keep me safe.
“You’re right,” the woman’s voice was both proud and sad. “Granny is an old, old woman. Too old. The Loa can keep the body alive until the world itself dies, but the mind was not meant to last forever. Every turn of the seasons, a bit less of Granny until nothing remains but the Greenwitch.”
“Sorry.” Chloe sounded as horrified as I felt. “I didn’t realize. How long do you have… until?” Chloe left the question there.
“Oh, the year before you were born, I’d say.” Granny’s grin was wide and toothless. “Remind me, Thrice-Blessed, what were we talking about?”
Right, that. I’d been dreading this part, where I ask the Greenwitch for her favor, and she lays down her demand. Legend had it that those who displeased her, or refused to pay her tithe, would envy the dead.
“We need help. There’s a pair of psychotic Imbued, and they’re killing a lot of people. We’re not strong enough.” I stopped to breath; I’d pushed myself too far again. This is pathetic, I can barely breathe, let alone do anything.
“But that is not what you want to ask.” Granny Greenwitch hobbled toward us. “Is it, Thrice-Blessed?”
No, it’s not. I want to know what Chloe’s keeping from me. I want to know what happened when Hunter made contact, and why our powers changed. I want to know if what I felt was real. “It isn’t what I want.” Lying to Imbued was stupid. Lying to the kind of Imbued that other Imbued spoke of in hushed whispers was insane. “But what I want doesn’t matter compared to what the city needs.”
Granny Greenwitch nodded along. “Good answer, Thrice-Blessed. When the time comes, you shall make a fine king.”
What. I mean, it’s a better reaction than I was expecting, but still. What.
Chloe asked the question for me. “What do you mean king? We don’t do kings anymore. And what’s with calling Damascus Thrice-Blessed? You don’t make sense.”
Granny’s hand came up, one bony finger pointed in the air. “Take care, Dawn-Child.” Granny’s voice carried a threatening undertone. “Your Loa does not approve of the secrets you keep. Be glad it is not you who comes bearing gifts for Granny’s wisdom.”
I better take control of this before Chloe manages to piss off the Greenwitch and kills us all. “Right, my questions. The ones I need answered, not necessarily the ones I want answered. I suppose the first thing I must know is what it will cost me.” What weird ritual will she demand? My blood? A year of servitude? Some arbitrary amount of my life force? The stories about Imbued such as her were often self-contradictory.
“A price to be named after you agree, as all Loa demand when granting their gifts to their chosen.”
That’s probably the worst thing she could ask for. It could be any thing, at any time, and I’d anger a being far more powerful than myself if I refused.
“I won’t hurt anyone.” If she wanted me, then I’d deal with it. “I won’t kill anybody in cold blood, and I won’t commit a crime I feel is immoral. And whatever you make me do, I won’t drag anyone else in. It stays between us. Those are my conditions.” No one else would pay for my decision.
Granny started sketching something into the dirt on the ground. Another strange geometric pattern, different from the one before. “Granny promises, Thrice-Blessed, that when the time comes to perform your task you will do so of your own will.” Light started to radiate from the drawing in the dirt. Predictably, it was deep green in color. “And more, when the time comes you will be given an opportunity to recant without penalty.”
That is suspiciously generous. “None at all? You swear on these Loa you think so highly of?”
Granny chuckled and shook her head. “Child, the Loa do not care for our oaths. They lay down their Law and it will be obeyed heedless of us creatures chained to flesh and history. Granny gives her promise that there will be no penalty, save that your refusal means the Greenwitch shall no longer aid you.”
“That implies that if I agree, you’ll help whenever I need it?”
She stepped back from the drawing, her face all the more frightening when bottom-lit by the green glow. “All you’ll need do is ask, Thrice-Blessed.” She gestured to the sigil; we both knew I’d made my decision. “To complete the covenant, I require a single drop of your blood.”
I lifted my arm- she’d drawn it just close enough that I could get my hand above it without walking. Compared to every other pain I was feeling, the tiny cut I made to my finger barely registered. A drop of blood hit the ring, and dirty red flame burst out. No heat or sound came from the fire, only a blue-gray smoke. What was left behind was mere dark gray ash.
“The covenant is complete.” Granny’s voice took on an otherworldly tone, like the wind spoke for her. “Ask your questions, Thrice-Blessed.”
“Uh, can we start with what that Thrice-Blessed means?” Chloe asked.
“Yeah, I kinda want to know that answer, myself. It’s not going to cost extra, is it?”
“The covenant with the Greenwitch was a promise to aid you in any way you needed.” Granny stepped forward and began scooping up the ash in her bare hands. I briefly considered crafting her a trowel, but for some reason didn’t. “Your question answer is thus: the Loa came to you thrice, and you rejected them all but the last.”
“You can tell-” I shouted, and regretted it.
“You did what!?” Chloe, too, shouted.
Right, I never told her about that. “Yeah. You remember it, when you had a chance to get powers? I… I had a chance, but said no.”
“The Loa come in times of great weakness, to those most vulnerable.” Granny didn’t look at us while digging in the ash. “Only those of great wisdom and strength turn them down, and fewer still do it twice. It is they who are blessed by the Loa, granted the greatest gifts. Legend has it that Solomon was approached no less than five times before his blessing. But even Greenwitch is too young to know the truth of the story.”
Chloe just stared at me. I shifted a bit, feeling quite awkward. “I only said no once, though. The second time, I didn’t have a choice.”
“Memories are funny things.” Granny had apparently collected what she desired. “Our minds so prone to distraction and forgetfulness. Granny forgets many, many things. So too does a child grieving his dead mother.”
Chloe gasped, her hands going straight over her mouth. “Oh god. I didn’t. Your mom died six years ago?”
“Five and eight months.” I felt myself shaking for reasons not related to fatigue and injury. “Chloe?”
“I… I think my mother killed yours.”