"What is it?"
"Merin found it. Somehow, it got through the barrier."
"No way! No way! Nothing gets in without The Elder's permission! One time I went to the forest to pick flowers and I was stuck outside for three hours when I tried to come home!"
Voices flitted through his mind, but meant nothing to him. What was he? What was his purpose? It felt like there was just a void where his identity had been.
The bickering continued as his mind slowly reassembled itself. The sounds around him began to take on meaning, though they were still so faint and distant.
"It's a male," one voice spoke calmly, "The Elder has mentioned them before."
"Like a warlock? No way! If a warlock was coming here, The Elder would have warned us!"
"Stop saying 'no way'!"
"Enough. Are you sorcsourd? It's not a warlock. It has no magic at all."
"Why would you ever use that word, Merin!? You and The Elder are the only two who can even pronounce it!"
"There are no other terms for 'unable to sense magic', though..."
"Then I'll make one, and everyone will want to use MY word!"
He tried to say something, but all that came out was a murmur. Still, it was enough to summon the presences nearby to encircle him. His eyes slowly opened, and the blurred shapes above him focused into a ring of youthful feminine faces of varying shapes and colours. All unique, but all attractive. A sensation jabbed at him from the recesses of where his memory used to be and quickly subsided. Had he been able to hold the thought, he would have said "I've had this dream before." Instead, he twitched in shock.
"Ah!" one of them exclaimed, "he's awake!"
"He's kind of cute, isn't he?" another girl commented.
"Cute? Like a zurrel or something?" a third replied.
"Nooo, cute like Ginger! Except...not exactly the same. You know?"
At once, all of the others gained a look of concentration. He felt his face turn red.
A calm, silvery voice spoke from outside his field of vision. "He is looking back at you all, you know."
Some of the faces vanished as their owners stood upright, some took on blushes of their own, and one continued to stare exactly as intensely as before. What she saw was an attractive, not entirely unfit young man of 5'7", with untended short brown hair, violet eyes, and a deeply concerned expression. Over time, the other faces receded, and the one who refused to was pulled away.
The boy sat up, surprised at his sudden ability to do so. Looking around, he spotted a girl behind him with raised hands with a green glow around them. She promptly placed her hands behind her back and shuffled away wordlessly.
Gingerly, he raised a finger as he struggled to choose one of his many questions. After a long pause, he finally spoke. "...what...is this?"
At once, a chorus of voices answered him, some conflicting, some in unison, but after they all died down, the calm one he had heard before gave him an answer. "This is our village. Nobody should be able to enter it, but you have."
He turned to see a girl wreathed in wavy dark red hair in the nearest corner, calmly sipping from a teacup. She continued. "To be honest, even I'm concerned. Aside from The Elder and perhaps Merin, I'm the most powerful seer in the village, and your arrival caught me completely by surprise. It's almost like there's a sort of void around you..."
The other girls gasped, some of those closest to him shuffling away. Clearly, this girl's words were given reverence. He faced her to reply, but when her head rose from her teacup to return his gaze, her milky white eyes put him off-balance.
"I can see just fine, by the way," she preemptively informed him, "one doesn't need to be clairvoyant to anticipate concern over my appearance...my name is Tel. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Before he could give his name, the other girls clamoured to tell him theirs. He counted perhaps ten of them, and saw that they all wore similar outfits, apparently handmade from simple cloth. In a meek tone, he managed to murmur something. "Well...I'm glad I'm so popular..."
"Oh, you aren't," Tel replied bluntly, "at least, not outside of this hut. You see, Merin only found you a little while ago and brought you here. Only the most curious and carefree of our coven came to investigate the news. I'm sure many here won't take kindly to an invader of our home, especially a human one."
As if on cue, a gust of wind rushed through the room, and the wooden door to it burst open. Once again, the girls all backed away from him as the dark figure silhouetted against the grey sky outside entered. The form of a tall woman came into the light, with long, straight black hair billowing behind her. A chill ran down his spine as she opened her crimson eyes and he heard a whisper from one of the girls pressed against the back wall.
As she came closer, he saw that her outfit was not like that of the others. The coat around her shoulders was pitch black, as opposed to the simple white blouses most girls were clad in, and a buckled choker adorned her neck. Between the bands holding the coat's front together, he saw white fabric which somehow looked brighter than the other girls'. When he scanned lower, he saw that her long legs were bound in a tight-fitting ebony cloth, and that she wore boots of black leather instead of the slipper-like brown shoes of the others. Standing at a height notably greater than his own, she deeply scared him.
"So," she spoke, her voice a light, chilling euphonic, "this is what a human looks like. I was expecting something a little more...intimidating."
A soft breath escaped her lips, sending a chill down his spine. He took a step backwards, but was answered with a slightly longer step towards him. A low chuckle emanated from her throat.
"Merin thinks there's something special about you," she continued, idly toying with her choker, "personally, I don't think you're worth concerning The Elder over. She's probably just going to order you exterminated."
The dark beauty sighed remorsefully, "ahh, it's a shame Merin's The Elder's favorite. Why should she be the one to have all the fun?"
He shivered, waving one hand in the air behind him as though he could find something to save him. "Wh...what fun...? Wh-why would executing someone be fun?"
As she leaned in to whisper in his ear, a smirk slowly spread across her slightly Oriental features. "Because," she told him, her voice becoming low and sultry, "we're witches. And one of the ways witches deal with things they need to disappear...is to eat them."
A jaded voice called from the doorway, which the boy could no longer see. "That's enough, Raven," it said dismissively, "the human isn't for you to play with. It's an intruder in our home, and only The Elder may decide it's fate. You would all do well to keep your distance from it."
The voice was obviously familiar to the others, as they all breathed sighs of relief and removed themselves from the wall. Raven seemed deeply embittered as she turned to face the mysterious speaker.
"What business of yours is it if we want to have a look at him!?" she snapped, "Maybe you're content to just let The Elder tell you everything you need to know, including what you need to know, but some of us actually care about the world outside of class!"
The boy leaned to one side, peering over the enraged girl's shoulder. Across from her was a girl of his height with a serious look on her face. She had loose, almost neck-length brown hair, piercing green eyes, and a perfectly proportioned figure. Despite its coldness, her found her face to be quite beautiful, perhaps even moreso than Raven's.
"I have plenty of interests beyond The Elder's teachings," the beauty solemnly retorted, "none of them, however, involve antagonizing creatures which can penetrate the barrier around our village. The Elder only seeks to protect us, Raven. There is no need to resent her instruction."
The black-haired girl irritably crossed her arms. "The last time I checked, Merin, I was capable of deciding for myself what is and isn't dangerous," she quipped before her voice took on a more self-assured tone, "Have you actually seen the creature we're talking about? He was quivering at the sight of me mere moments ago. He couldn't harm us if he tried."
Merin...the one who found him. Her eyes narrowed, and slight signs of agitation showed in her otherwise calm body language. "You're calling it 'he'...where are you getting that from? Have you begun to develop an attachment, Raven?" was her silently biting reply, "At any rate, I must ask you and the others to leave. The Elder has instructed that nobody is to interact with the human until her decision is made."
Gritting her teeth, Raven moved to reply, but was preemptively cut off by the girl in the corner.
"Alicia," she began, evoking a jolt as she sipped the last of her tea, "I believe Merin is right. The Elder wishes for us to stop crowding the poor boy, and for what happens next, it would be best if we left. I understand you were enjoying yourself, but I have a feeling there will be time for that later, okay?"
Again showing their respect for Tel's words, the other girls hastily moved towards the exit, many shuffling along the walls as they passed by Raven. The boy caught several glances back at him as they left, including one from a pigtailed blonde which lasted for an uncomfortably long time. A few moments later, Tel rose from her cross-legged perch, and finally, even Raven abandoned her standoff and, as coldly as possible, pushed past Merin to leave.
The brunette sighed and turned to make her exit just in time to see the door slam shut. Instantly alert, she rushed to the nearest window just as a shimmer fell over it, then to the farthest in time to see that there were no more exits. Her agitation from before became visibly more intense.
"Tel, I know you're behind this! You're the only one capable enough with barriers to cast them so quickly! Release me now and I will tell The Elder nothing of this!"
Tel's relaxed chuckle came from the other side of the door. "Oh, but this isn't the type of barrier I can simply dispel, Merin," she explained, "do you recall my discovery a few weeks ago? The Barrier of Fate? Well, I saw some shades of things to come and decided that now was the perfect time to try one! Until you learn what you're meant to, releasing you is impossible for anyone with less power than The Elder herself."
"Then I'll wait for The Elder!" Merin snapped, all pretense of calmness evaporated, "she will know within minutes that I've been imprisoned, and when she comes, I will tell her every violation of her wishes you have ever perpetrated!"
"Very well," Tel replied coolly, "I accept your terms. I would love to stay and chat, but there are other matters I must attend to. Farewell, now!"
The gorgeous brunette let out a growl of frustration and angrily strode over to the window nearest the door. As she moved, wavering green flames rolled down her sleeves, quickly engulfing her hands. Her stance shifted and the fire became opaque a moment before she thrust her palms towards the opening.
An emerald beam erupted from her body, crashing against the shimmering barrier and rolling across the adjacent wall. Recoiling in shock, the boy tripped over the bed behind him and landed on his head, which hurt significantly less than he expected it to. After a few seconds, the ordeal was over, and the girl called Merin stood alone, smoke pouring from her clenched fists.
Once he had climbed to his feet, the boy cautiously peered over the bed. The girl there seemed almost depressed, despite all of her body language showing indignation. He took a few timid steps towards her, then staggered back as she raised a blazing hand towards him.
"Keep away, human," she commanded as the fire enveloping her hands shifted to blue, "you would do well to wait for The Elder's judgment without trying my patience."
Her eyes were more than intense; he saw now that a faint light was emanating from them, the same bright green as her gaze. His recollection of his past was tenuous at best, but he didn't feel like he had much experience with diplomacy, especially with infuriated superhuman beauties. Still, he spoke. "Listen," he began, raising his hands in front of himself, "I get that I'm a stranger here, but you have to believe me when I say that I never meant to upset anyone."
"Of course you didn't," she replied coldly, "only an idiot would intentionally anger a coven of witches. You just underestimated our protection. You probably thought whatever it was you were trying to do would be a simple in and out job, didn't you?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about!" the boy cried, "I had no idea witches were even real!"
"Then why were you anywhere near our village? The Elder established it quite far out of the way, and the barrier protecting us renders it invisible and repellent to the outside. You'd only be near it if you already knew where it was, so what's your excuse, human?"
His fists clenched. "I have a name, you know! If you're going to treat me like your enemy, you could at least use it!"
She brushed her hair away from her eyes with the back of her hand. "Fine, then. What is your name?"
He inhaled to reply, but no answer came to him. After a few tense seconds, he turned his gaze to the tatami-like floor. "...I don't know..." he murmured weakly.
She hesitated as she tried to find the right response. "...what do you mean you don't know? And you didn't answer my question from before. Who are you, and why were you anywhere near our village?"
"I...I don't know!" he repeated, "I can't remember! I...all I have are these vague feelings now...I think I had parents...?"
As he sank onto the bed, Merin saw an overwhelming sadness overtake him. This human had no past now. No identity. Her arms lowered, and the flames rippling along them dispersed. "You really can't remember anything?" she asked, a hint of sympathy creeping into her voice, "Friends, family...aspirations?"
A sorrowful head shake was her answer. Besides that, the boy didn't move.
Merin found that her fists had unclenched, despite her best efforts to keep her guard up. Either the human was a master of manipulation the likes of which she had never encountered before...or he really was just someone who got lost.
"I just thought 'he'," she realized, "instead of 'it'. When did I start doing that? Why do I feel such sympathy for this intruder?"
"That girl before -Raven- she said that The Elder's probably going to have me killed," his voice broke into her thoughts, "...is that true? I mean, I know she was just toying with me, but...I don't know how much she was making up."
The brunette sighed. As much as she felt she was obligated to, she couldn't bring herself to resent him any longer. "The Elder is a mother to all of us, and I, above all others, trust her to make the right decision."
"What's the right decision, though?"
She pressed a hand to her cheek. "...I'm not so sure anymore. But it isn't killing you. You're a very curious specimen, human. I...we could learn a lot from you."
For just a moment, he could swear he saw her one visible cheek redden, but then she turned away, "You aren't what I first thought you were," she murmured, "...I'm sorry for being so quick to assume."
Merin wistfully aimed her gaze out the window, and immediately noticed that the shimmering barrier was gone. Her heart quickened as she rushed to the door and opened it with ease, finding the space outside completely vacant.
"The barrier's gone," she breathed before remembering the human behind her. She stepped outside of the hut and turned to face him. "Maybe you aren't trying to harm us, but I still can't let you leave here. I'm sealing the door off until The Elder's decision is made. Don't take anything anyone in the village says at face value; not all of us are perfectly grounded."
Before he could reply, the door was shut, and he heard footsteps rushing away. With a sigh, he sat back down on the bed, lay back, and wished he could remember his name.
As she approached The Elder's home, Merin saw that a large crowd had gathered. It was obvious that she had made her decision, and been waiting for her star pupil to arrive before disclosing it. She quickened her pace and pushed through the crowd, panting on arrival more as an excuse to not meet her mother's eyes than out of actual fatigue.
"You have arrived, Merin," the elderly woman's voice came from beneath her hood, "please, relax. There is no need to concern yourself with my patience. I was just enjoying a relaxing cup of tea with Tel. Isn't she a dear?"
"Tel!" the girl exclaimed, "Elder, listen, Tel-"
"Is very eager to hear your decision, Elder," the white-eyed girl spoke, gently cradling her teacup, "as you know, my clairvoyance has no ground against your mystical aura, so your decision is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone else."
Cracked lips formed a smile, as the coven's leader set aside her own cup. "Yes, that's right. You girls have all been waiting long enough," she said kindly, rising from her throne.
"Ever since I found you girls, you have been the most important things in my long life..." she began, "and I couldn't bear to see any of you led astray or harmed. It is for this reason that I have made the decision..."
Though she only paused for a moment, minutes seemed to seep by as all of the girls held their breath.
"...to have the intruder executed."
A disturbing silence swept through the crowd. Though some of them had expected such a verdict, to actually hear it filled them with a sense of dread. Death was something they had only heard of, and the thought of one occurring in their village was unsettling.
"Merin will do the honours," the Elder continued, undaunted, "if I can rely on any of my beloved daughters to handle such a task, it is certainly her. Bring him to the center of town, and we will begin as soon as these old bones can work their way there."
The silence persisted as everyone turned to Merin for her reaction. Her fist tightened for just a moment before she met the Elder's eyes. "...I will go prepare."
The boy perked up as the door to the hut opened, but his heart sank when he saw the girls' expressions. They were grave. Actually, it was worse than that. The dark-skinned taller girl looked like she was about to cry.
"The Elder made her decision..." the lighter-skinned, bandanna-wearing shorter girl murmured, avoiding eye contact, "...I'm sorry. Please come with us..."
He stood, his heart accelerating. "...what did your elder decide...?" he breathed.
"Telling you would only make this harder," their speaker replied, lifting a glowing blue hand, "please just come with us..."
The boy tensed for a moment, but stepped forward. Whatever the situation, these girls didn't want to harm him, and he didn't want to harm anyone. As they escorted him towards the village's centre, nobody made eye contact.
Soon, a crowd came into view. They were gathered around what looked like a temporary altar, overseen by a black throne seating a being cloaked in tattered green rags. The boy took note of his surroundings. Scattered huts, no two quite alike. There was no conformity to their orientations, shapes, colours, or materials; the only thing which could be said that applied to all of them was that they were huts. Presumably, the girls of the village had all built their own homes to their tastes using the vast amount of clear land available to them.
As they neared the crowd, he leaned over, between the girls' heads, and whispered "I'm sorry."
A fierce shove threw both girls into the crowd, throwing many of them off balance and stunning many more. By the time anyone regained their balance, the boy was already sprinting between the huts, barely keeping in sight as he weaved around them. Infuriated, the Elder rose from her chair quite suddenly. "Insolent human! I shall obliterate-"
"Wait!" Merin interrupted, hurrying over to the altar's edge, "You wanted me to execute him, so let me capture him. To destroy him yourself would be wrong, Elder."
A low growl of displeasure came from the hag, but there was little time to argue. "...very well, Merin. Bring him here, but know that if he leaves this place alive, you will take full responsibility," she conceeded.
The young witch bowed. "I expected nothing less, Elder."
His heart raced as he ran, faster than he knew he could, but what still felt painfully slow. He wasn't quick to frighten, but that person in the green rags had some sort of aura, and it chilled him to the bone. He had to get out of this village. To find the exit. Just run in one direction and maybe on the other side he'll forget all of this and get his old memories back. Anything he had to tell himself to keep running.
As he passed in close to one of the outermost huts, something grabbed him. In a flash, his arms were bound and his mouth covered, and he was lifted slightly off the ground. From the pressure against his back and the smoothness of the arms binding him, they were clearly those of a girl, but she was strong. Impossibly strong. He wasn't overly fit, but he should have been able to at least budge his captor with his struggles.
"Stop squirming," she whispered in his ear. For some reason, he worried she planned to bite it, "we're trying to save you!"
The girl moved back and he was pulled into the hut, the door magically sealing behind him. His captor then released him and stepped back, allowing him to look around the room. Tel was the first thing he noticed, looking slightly troubled now and without any tea, but still sitting in her usual cross-legged position.
"There is a silence enchantment over these walls," she commented, "you may speak without fear of your pursuers hearing. Though I suspect that your first question is who they are."
She pointed, and he followed her finger to a cute little blonde with pigtails in a shimmering short dress, and a dark brunette coolly leaning against an uncomfortable-looking wall, with a short-sleeved shirt exposing unusually muscular arms.
The brunette opened her mouth to speak, but the blonde instantly jumped towards him and introduced herself first. "My name's Ginger!" she greeted cheerily, "I'm a witch! Though, I guess you already knew that..."
A sigh came from the other girl. "Name's Erica," she murmured, pushing off of the wall to gesture around the room, "this is my house. Tel predicted that you'd come by here, and The Elder had it soundproofed because apparently my training's too loud, so it's a pretty lucky break."
Tel chuckled. "Yes, I was quite disturbed by The Elder's ruling, but it was fortunate that you were bold enough to flee," she added, "though I'm even more pleased that I'm not the only one willing to take such a risk for you. I doubt I could do much to protect you unaided."
The boy shook his head, stepping back from the girls to look at all three at once. "I don't understand, though! What's going on!? That girl...Raven...she said the Elder would have me executed or eaten or-"
Tel held up a hand, causing him to pause almost subconsciously. "Alicia was just toying with you," she explained, "but The Elder's verdict actually WAS execution, something I was unable to foresee due to her magical superiority. I sensed a great...let us call it displeasure among the crowd at this decision, but very few girls, if any, would even question, let alone disobey The Elder. Fortunately, these two wear their emotions on their sleeves, and I was able to tell that they, at least, shared my belief of what is right."
Strangely humbled, he looked back to the girls. Ginger's hair was bright and wavy, and her blue eyes were...the same pair that had refused to stop staring at him when he first woke up. Their eye contact excited her, and she soon turned away, apparently entertaining some strange fantasy.
Erica resembled Merin at a glance, but was significantly different. Her shorter brown hair had more jagged edges and a darker colour, her skin was tanned where Merin's was paler than most villagers', and her grey eyes shone with a competitive spirit Merin's were utterly devoid of. She was also an inch taller, and seemed larger than that due to the muscle mass no other villager seemed to bear.
"...you're all undertaking a terrible risk just to protect me..." he breathed, "I...no. I can't let you do this. I don't have a life anymore...I've forgotten everything. I won't ruin what you have just for a chance to keep going nowhere," he strode over to the door as he continued, "I appreciate that you cared enough to help me, really, I do, but...it's not right. I'm either going to escape on my own, or die trying, but either way, I won't let you be harmed!"
All three of the girls attempted to protest, but before they could, he threw open the door and found himself face-to-face with the witch known as Raven. "Going somewhere?" she quipped in her usual smoky voice.
"How did you find him?" Tel asked, her voice hardening, "Nobody saw him come in here."
Raven lightly pressed her fingers to the boy's chest, pushing him as she stepped inside and closed the door. Once they were inside, she held up a strange trinket, causing Ginger to gasp.
"Th-that's mine!" she cried, "I made that! Give it back!"
Surprisingly, she complied. With a flick of her wrist, she tossed the charm to the smaller girl, then retrieved a second, identical to one half of the first, from the boy's pocket and returned it, as well. "I only needed them to track him," she replied, "and believe it or not, I wouldn't have stolen from your house for anything less."
The sense of confusion he thought he had finally been coming to terms with was fully renewed. Was Raven, the young woman he had begun to think of as the Mistress of Cruelty...being considerate?
"I was just going to use the tracking charm to play with him for a little while," she explained, "but when The Elder ordered him executed...I had a change of plans. I went back to borrow that listening charm so I could..." she paused, something she'd never let herself do unless she was being sincere, "...I wanted to know him better. To be sure I was making the right decision..."
Ginger was the one to break the silence. "Do...do you mean...that you want to protect him, too, Raven?"
After shooting him a chilling glance, the young woman nodded. She seemed embarrassed to be showing humanity in the presence of others, but couldn't find a way to cruelly commit to safeguarding someone's life.
The boy laughed slightly. "S-so...after that huge terrifying show, you actually care about what happens to me?"
An unsettling smirk crept onto her face. "Of course I do," she replied, her voice sinking back into the exaggerated provocativeness it had possessed earlier, "when I heard Merin would be the one to execute you...well, I just wasn't satisfied. I want to be the one to eat you."
For a moment, he thought he saw a flicker of gratitude in her crimson eyes, but the thought of addressing it terrified him. Instead, he stepped back, closer to the girl known as Erica. If anyone could protect him now, it would be her.
He felt her arms drape over him as she brought her lips to his ear. "Mmm," she interjected, "he does look pretty tasty..."
Turning his head, he saw a wide grin on her face, then discovered that he was unable to break free of her grip. "...but we went to a lot of trouble to save him, you know?" she finished, "Let's not be wasteful."
The amused smile on Tel's face confirmed his suspicion that the girls were just toying with him, but his emotions gave logic little weight, so he remained palpably unnerved. He struggled to speak, in hopes of loosening the toned arms around his neck. "I-if you ladies are done joking around, there is still the matter of the rest of the village trying to kill me..."
"Don't worry, little human!" Ginger said reassuringly, standing up to her full 5'4" height, "We won't let anyone get you! Aside from Merin and the Elder herself, we're some of the strongest mages in the village!"
"Except for Lydia," Erica murmured, "oh, and Venthi, Alyss...Tomeri...half of the village..."
"I meant in our areas of expertise!" the smaller girl barked, visibly upset by the contradiction, "With all of our strengths combined, we have no weaknesses!"
A light chuckle came from Tel. "Ginger's greatest strength is her optimism," she quipped, "but there is some truth to what she says. While many of us lack noticeable expertise or choose to study several fields instead of one or two, history's greatest mages often had a solitary specialization, with other arts being embraced after complete mastery was attained, or to supplement the main field. If we four stay together, we can function as a single mage of vastly superior capability to even Merin."
Their captive winced. "Is that girl Merin...is she really that powerful?" he ventured, "I...I mean, she couldn't break through that barrier, and the way she reacted to me...it was like she was kind of afraid..."
"She probably was," Tel replied, "although not of you so much as what you're capable of."
"You mean passing through the barrier?" Ginger chimed in.
A gentle shake of the head. "No. I mean being something Merin cares about..."
At the boy's baffled reaction, Raven spoke up. "Merin was the first of us The Elder found," she explained, "she was a lost infant, with nobody around to care for her. It was because of her that The Elder started this village, and more than any of us, she is The Elder's daughter. She allows herself to care for us because our mother does, but were she to ever find herself at odds with The Elder..."
"I understand," he cut in, "...so how do I get out of this village?"
They all reacted in their own way. Erica gasped and whirled to face the speaker, Tel's expression hardened, Raven casually turned her head, and both Ginger and the boy jumped away from the sound. Merin stood in the far corner, arms crossed.
"No matter what, I cannot allow the human to leave this village alive. And all of you..." she paused, momentarily gripping a jade pendant around her neck, "...have done very well to capture him for me. Hand him over now, and I promise that I will take care of everything."
Ginger and Erica prepared to protest, but the boy held up a hand to silence them. "...I never meant to intrude here, and if I could, I would just leave you in peace," he told the young witch, extending a wrist to her, "...but if taking my life really means so much to you, then I cannot resist. Take me."
Merin suppressed an audible reaction as a blush spread across her face. Did he know The Elder was listening, or was he truly this courageous? Either way, she could tell that half of the group was itching to incriminate them all, so she hastily gripped the extended wrist and pulled her captive out the door.
Hands in his pockets, the boy ascended the small stairs to the stage. Perhaps the miniature altar was meant to be practical, but it made him feel like his execution would be getting sawn in half.
He felt various objects brush against his fingers, but it was too late to check them. If he suddenly drew an object, he was likely to be struck down and incriminated. At least with this death, he wouldn't be thought of with contempt.
"Lie down here, please," Merin spoke from behind him, "and if there is anything you want to say, you have nothing further to lose by doing so now."
With a sigh, he gently lay back on the decorated stone slab. "Actually, I have a lot of questions...mind if I ask some?"
Hopeful eyes turned to the brooding Elder, whose lip twitched slightly in agitation. "...very well..." she growled, unable to resist her daughters, "...the human may ask two questions..."
"Isn't three more traditional?" Tel remarked calmly despite the troubled expression on her face, "after all, a death without peace could bring about a haunting, so the legends say..."
Emaciated hands clenched beneath thick cloth as she strained for an argument. "...three, then!" the hag barked, "but no more! Choose them wisely so that you may rest in peace, human!"
He sighed in reply. "Thanks...that should be enough for what matters...first of all, why does it have to be like this?"
"You are a corruptive influence," Merin answered, "a threat to our sanctity, loyalty, and focus, and if we allowed you to leave, possibly our well-being, as well. With your execution, we protect ourselves, and further our understanding of the world."
There was a pause. "...I have followup questions about that," he began, "...but I need my other two. What I meant, though, was why am I being executed on this slab of rock on a stage for a magic show?"
"You mock the old ways, child!?" the Elder exclaimed, her tone conveying more offense than was truly there.
"No, I'd understand if there were a full altar or something here, but this was clearly just put together. It can't have any history or sacred status, so there's no way I'm an offering...why all the ceremony?"
A murmur ran throughout the crowd as the ancient witch grit her gnarled teeth. "You will be destroyed as all violators of the ways I teach have been!" she barked, "Anything less would be belittling to my daughters!"
The young man sighed, dissatisfied with and intrigued by the hag's outrage. He noticed some of the audience members murmuring amongst themselves, contributing to her agitation.
"My second question," he spoke again, "is really more of a request...I don't know who I am. There are some things in my pockets which might help me learn, but I didn't want to alarm anyone by taking them out, especially since I'm not entirely sure what they are. May I check them?"
Sympathetic sounds came from the crowd as Merin leaned into his field of vision. "If you truly mean only to inspect these objects, then it doesn't need to be you who collects them," she reasoned, prompting a rush of elevated hands and audible volunteering, "...I'll empty your pockets for you."
The other girls looked on with interest as their sister reached into the boy's pants, a blush slowly filling her face. One by one, she withdrew the items, studying each in turn before setting them down by his shoulder. She cleared her throat.
"Your right pocket," she began, holding the items out for him to see, "contained an ornate key, a folded leather pouch-"
"Wallet," he interrupted, "that could-"
"Be quiet or I'll rescind your final question," the girl replied coldly, clearly resentful of being spoken over, "I...I'll show it to you in a moment. Your right pocket also contained a notepad with only seven blank white pages, a broken, apparently inkless pen, and what appears to be a wrapped piece of candy."
Ginger, who had pushed her way to the front of the crowd over the course of the show, gently stretched an arm towards the treat, but was met with a cold stare and receded.
"The contents of your left pocket, however, are less innocuous," she continued, "A knife between two lacquered metal bars, a pebble, a handful of what I believe are called bullets, and..." she held out a gleaming ruby the size of her palm, "...this."
Many girls in the audience leaned in, enthralled by the crimson stone. It seemed to have some significance to them, even though now it had none save for monetary value to the man who had carried it.
"I believe you now when you say that you have no memory of your life outside our village," Merin commented, "Were you a mage trying to infiltrate us, you would never have succumbed to the barrier's influence with this, and you certainly would never have been foolish enough to let your quarry handle it...you're clearly oblivious of the workings of magic."
"That isn't news to me," he replied distressedly, "what is news is that I am, apparently, either a jewel thief or some sort of butterfly knife-wielding delivery boy who has failed miserably in his duties."
The word seemed alien to the brunette, who repeated it to herself as she turned the ruby over in her hand. "...one who takes that which is not theirs, correct? But, without an understanding of magic, why would this...?"
"Enough!" the Elder cried, slamming her palms on the arms of her throne, "Merin, you are wasting everyone's time! Reveal to the boy the contents of his wallet, answer his final question, and then fulfill your duty to this village!"
The girl was visibly rattled by her mother's shouts. The look of fear and remorse on her face was one her captive had never expected to witness. "...at once, Elder." she weakly replied.
To the boy's disappointment, the wallet contained nothing in the way of identification. It contained money, the coins of which fascinated the girls, a few crumpled notes likely from the blank pad, but written in a cipher he no longer recognized, and a few plastic cards for stores, none of which revealed any personal information about him.
"Can you glean anything?" Merin queried in a harsh tone which failed to hide her interest, "Or at least tell us what these items are?"
He shook his head, which was uncomfortable against the stone slab. "If I ever could read those notes, I can't now, and the cards clearly have no significance to me or my name would be on the back...the other stuff is money, though. More than most people would carry..."
"Ask your final question!" the Elder interrupted, her agitation rising once more, "Your musings are soon to have no meaning, human, so spare my daughters them."
A sigh. "...okay, last question," he murmured, meeting Merin's emerald eyes, "...will it hurt?"
A slight blush tinted her cheeks as she turned away. "I don't know," she replied, "I've never done this before, and obviously nobody who has been subjected to it can be questioned. I wish I could say it would be painless, but...I don't know."
His head bobbed in something similar to a nod. "I was afraid you'd say that," he confessed, "and now I'm out of questions."
"Finally," the old witch grumbled, rising from her seat, "Merin, it is time. Fulfill your duty to your sisters and to me. Execute him."
"I wonder if I had any last words I wanted to say..." he mused to himself.
Eyes closed, Merin took a few deep breaths as crimson flames rolled down her arms. Her focus was absolute as she turned and lifted her arms over the boy. Before she began, a faint whisper escaped her lips. "I'm sorry."
They both closed their eyes, and a beam of mystic power surged down onto him. If it hurt, there were no signs of it to be found in the ruby blaze which engulfed his body. Many of the girls in the audience found themselves without the strength to look on as the dark deed was done.
The flames left the body unscathed, but motionless. Long seconds passed as Merin looked down on her victim before the Elder spoke once more.
"You have done well, Merin," she praised, "I am very proud of you. Leave now, if you desire. Rest. I shall take care of the body's disposal."
The young woman quivered with tension as she readied her reply. "...you assigned the task of dealing with the human to me, and I intend to do so fully, Elder. With your consent, I shall take him to my home and finish my duty there."
A grin came to the hag's face as she descended from her throne. "Well, Merin...I'm very impressed. The first time I was made to take life, I could barely stand, yet here you are, strong enough to finish the job. The rest of you girls could learn a thing from that."
Despite her best efforts, Merin was unable to steady her body. "I would like some assistance, though..." she murmured, "and it would be wrong for me alone to gain the lessons this task will teach. I trust none more to aid me than the four who captured the human in the first place."
A light cackle escaped the witch. "Splendid, Merin," she replied, "yes, of course those four may join you. This is, after all, a rare opportunity. My children, come hither."
The crowd around each of the girls parted, letting them begrudgingly approach the altar. Ginger and Erica wore deeply troubled expressions, while Tel and Raven seemed hesitant to make eye contact despite their calm exteriors.
"Gather the human's belongings," Merin instructed, sliding her arms under the body and lifting it with magically-induced ease, "and meet me at my house."
Silence hung in the air as the girls stood around the motionless body. Each of them seemed to radiate their own variety of sorrow or contempt. After seconds which felt like hours, Merin turned to face the others.
"I have betrayed the Elder," she confessed.
"What are you talking about!?" Erica shouted, "You killed him! What, you had it in you to do that, but you can't bring yourself to incinerate him!? That's where you draw the line!?"
"No," Merin replied; calmly, yet morosely, "I have betrayed the Elder because I did not kill this human."
"What exactly do you mean, Merin?" Tel asked suspiciously, "I can sense nothing from his body anymore, and the Elder's senses are even more acute than mine. He is more than just unconscious..."
"Correct," she replied, blue flames spreading along her open hands, "the spell I used puts its victim into a mystical coma for about 48 hours. A form of stasis, essentially dead to the outside world."
"But we saw you casting," Ginger pointed out, "the spell you used was dark red, not blue..."
"That is why I used a masking spell beforehand to change the colour of the flames," Merin replied, eyes narrowing with focus as the sapphire flames on her outstretched hands gave way to red, "the spells are similar in form, so disguising one as the other requires little else."
"You cast and maintained two spells at once?" Raven assessed, her voice tinged with disbelief, "One of which you mastered on your own, no less, because we never learned anything about stasis..."
"Correct," was Merin's simple reply, her hands dropping to her sides as the flames dissipated, "and I have used the full extent of my ability to deceive our own mother."
"...why did you do this?" the ebony-locked beauty persisted.
"...because it -he- doesn't deserve to die," the brunette confided, "The Elder has never steered us wrong before, but...the thought of killing this human makes me feel...I don't even know what the word is. I've never felt like this before, but I don't like it."
"That's your conscience acting up," Tel remarked peacefully, "you may not have needed it before, but now it's revealing to you that not everything the Elder orders is right. Even she can be hasty or fearful, Merin."
"Then I betrayed her in her moment of weakness," she returned coldly, "when she needed me most to either confront her or obey her, I did neither..."
"We all know that if you even hesitated to do the execution, the Elder would have herself, and she would have actually done it," Erica stepped forth, "you did the only thing you could given the situ-Ginger, get away from him!"
The smallest of the witches hovered over the comatose boy, cheek resting in her hand as she examined him more closely. "Why?" she murmured, "He was harmless even while awake, and Merin said he'd be like this for 48 hou-"
The boy shot upright, his skull cracking against that of the girl perched over him and flooring them both. "Ow," they groaned in unison as the others hurried over to help.
"I really thought waking up in the afterlife would be less painful..." he whined, "I guess I have punishment awaiting me..."
"Why are you talking out loud?" Erica queried.
"Forget that, why are you conscious already!?" Raven demanded, scaring the boy from the bed, "I'll believe that you convinced Merin that you're a good person, but I won't believe that she messed up a spell!"
"He's magic assimilate..." Merin exhaled, "...that's how he got through the barrier. Why he's even here."
Tel's eyes opened in well-concealed surprise. "You mean to say that this human posesses a trait so rare it is considered a legend? Merin, to suggest such a thing with so much confidence..."
"Now that you're considering it, you know it's true yourself, Tel," she replied, turning to the confused boy rubbing his head, "perhaps this is why mother wanted him destroyed...with that gem he had, if he had kept his memories..."
The look on the redhead's face betrayed her disagreement with the reasoning, but she remained silent. Instead, she allowed Erica to step forth and pose the next question. "So what do we do with him now?"
"You could tell me what's going on," he suggested hopefully, "since I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to be dead right now."
"Merin spared you," Raven informed him, "with a technique so advanced that even the Elder didn't suspect she could use it yet, by the way. You were supposed to wake up outside the barrier in two days, but it's hardly been an hour. We think that might mean you're a legendary creature."
"No, it means we think he might have a legendary trait, silly!" Ginger interjected, "Just about any species can be magic assimilate, it's just super rare among all of them."
The taller girl's crimson eyes shot a glare at the chipper blonde as she signed in agitation. "At any rate," she continued coldly, "you're still alive, and very, very lucky. Now we need to figure out how to get you out of this village without the Elder knowing."
The others all turned to face Merin as she pressed the side of a hand to her lip. "It's impossible to bypass the barrier without magic far beyond our own, or perhaps even the Elder's, and it cannot be broken, redirected, or disrupted without her instantly knowing. She watches anyone leaving with her permission, and she would surely want to see the human's burial firsthand. There is no way to get him out of here alive without the Elder knowing."
"Then it really is hopeless," he sighed, "listen, I can't thank you all enough for everything you've done for me so far, but I can't ask you to do any more for me. I can still cover for you all if I pretend that I broke out. I really am magic assilitate-"
"Assimilate," Tel corrected.
"Whatever," he shot back, beginning to gesticulate as he spoke, "Your Elder should believe me if I say I used that to save myself and pretend as though I can fight her. You can say I knocked you out from behind and she'll have no reason to believe any different. I just need-"
"No," Merin responded firmly.
He became still. "...it wouldn't work?"
"It would work perfectly," she replied, "with the exception of you perishing. I have defied the Elder's will in sparing you, and while I feel guilty, I do not feel remorseful. I did the right thing, and to go back on that now would make me a traitor to all of you and my own ideals as well as my mother. We are leaving this village. Together. Tonight."
Tel focused, trying her hardest to peer into the future before simply inquiring. "...how?"
"Through brute force," was the answer, "if we all combine our power, we can surely puncture the barrier for long enough to escape through it."
"You're wrong, Merin," Raven stepped forth, "you and Tel are the only two with any real sense for barriers. The rest of us would be at a disadvantage. We could dent it, but there's no way we five could break it."
The brunette turned to her doubter. "I said all of us," she returned succinctly, "that includes the human. He's magic assimilate, not merely spell resistant. He stores the properties and energy of spells cast upon him inside his body. Long term, he can develop complete immunities or even limited use of the spells, but short term..."
"The energy's still in his body," Raven breathed, "but how does that help? We can't very well fling him at the barrier without killing him, and drawing from energy from living beings is completely beyond us."
"Unless that being is your familiar."