Witch’s Pyre – Josephine Angelini

Lily Proctor was not asleep. She wasn’t unconscious or dreaming, nor had she accidentally slipped into another universe. She was here, she was alive, and for good or for bad, she was in charge. She had to keep telling herself that or she knew she’d fall apart completely. To stay calm, Lily quickly listed off the things she knew to be true. The last thing she remembered was fighting the Hive somewhere in the center of the North American continent. In her version of the world, that meant somewhere out on the prairies of Kansas. But in this world, the center of the continent was an uncharted area, long abandoned to a little-known and nearly mythical subspecies of the Woven called the Hive. Lily and her small band of braves had lost the battle; nearly all of those who had followed Lily west had lost their lives. The few that had survived had been anesthetized by the Hive, rather than killed, and brought to an enormous field that lay outside the gates of a city, all the way across the continent on the western coastline. Above the main gate was a large inscription, declaring that this place was Bower City. It was a city that Lily knew shouldn’t exist. Lily also knew that Tristan, her Tristan, was dead. He had died fighting the Hive. She got stuck inside that thought, unable to go forward or backward.

All she could do was stare at the city walls in front of her and repeat it in her head. Tristan is dead. And he’s dead because of me. “Lily?” Lily turned around at the sound of her name and tried to discern who had spoken to her. Standing in a vast field of flowers that surrounded Bower City for miles were Juliet, Caleb, Breakfast, Una, and the other Tristan. They were all she had left. Everyone else had either abandoned her or died on the Trail of Tears. Even Rowan had betrayed her and left her to starve in a cage. A cage that Tristan— Lily’s Tristan—had somehow broken. Tristan had saved her from Rowan.

He’d saved her and now he was dead. “Lily?” the other, and now only, Tristan repeated. His clothes were in tatters, and his eyes were wet with tears and rimmed with red. He felt the loss of his other self deeply, but he didn’t feel it the same way that Lily did. He wasn’t responsible for it the way Lily was. “What do you want to do?” Tristan asked as she stared at him blankly. The place high up inside her chest, just below the U-shaped divot at the bottom of her throat, was rubbed raw with held-back sobs. She couldn’t give in to her grief, not now, so she floated above it, her sadness burrowing deeper and deeper inside like a swallowed splinter. Lily looked down at the bees flitting around the flowers at her feet, trying to reattach herself to the moment. Her ears buzzed and she couldn’t tell if the sound came from outside her head or inside it.

She stared at the bees, wondering whether they were natural or the Worker members of the Hive. Workers looked the same as regular bees, and there was something about that—their seemingly innocuous appearance—that made them more disturbing than if they were monstrous. “They didn’t kill us,” Lily said, not answering Tristan’s question. “The Hive.” “It’s been said the Warrior Sisters sometimes carry people off,” Caleb said, referring to the terrifying half-human, half-bee members of the Hive. Warrior Sisters were over seven feet tall, covered in a plated exoskeleton hard as armor, and they fought with barb-tipped whips that they coated with powerful venom milked from their own stingers. “Maybe this is where they take their captives,” Caleb finished in a hushed tone, as if simply mentioning the Warrior Sisters could conjure them. “We must have been unconscious for days,” Una added, scanning the skies. “There’s no way they could have flown us from where we were to the West Coast in less time than that.” Lily nodded vaguely at Una’s logic.

Her mouth was dry and coated with the bitter residue of a drug-sleep. She focused her witch’s sense on traces of the chemical cocktail still left in her bloodstream from the Hive’s stings and decided that it could have kept them unconscious for days. It was an ingenious substance, and Lily’s wandering mind wondered whether something so elegant could have evolved naturally. She also wondered at the intelligence of a creature that could choose to kill some and kidnap others, and supply the proper venom to do either as it saw fit. “Where are you going?” Juliet called out in a shrill voice. She raced to catch up with Lily and took her sister by the arm. Stopped short, Lily realized she had been staggering toward the city gate. “In there, I guess,” Lily replied, shrugging. “It’s not like we have many options.” Juliet looked over Lily’s shoulder at Caleb.

“She’s in shock,” she told him. “I think we all are,” Breakfast added quietly. “Let’s take a second and think this through before we go marching into some strange place.” Lily felt Juliet lead her back to the group. Her hands stung at Juliet’s touch and she shied away. Lily’s palms were only half healed from gripping the burning ground. She licked her cracked lips and imagined she could still taste the smoke and dirt of the prairie as the wildfire blazed around her. She recalled digging her fingers into the ground to anchor herself against the witch wind and dragging herself forward as the fire line moved, one agonizing fistful of burning ground at time. “Here,” Tristan said, reaching into the mechanic’s pack that was still strapped across his back. “I have salve.

I think I do, anyway.” Lily couldn’t look him in the eye. As he cupped her hands in his and dabbed at her red and broken skin she fought the urge to pull away from him. He’s not my Tristan, she reminded herself. They all took a moment to tend to their injuries with Tristan’s salve, although everyone seemed to be on the mend already. “Whatever the Hive injected into us must have had an antibiotic in it,” Tristan said. He paused to look at his own arms and hands, which were only slightly burned, his face twisting with puzzlement. “But even still. Considering we were fighting inside the fire, you’d think our injuries would be much worse.” “I thought we were dead when Lily’s wildfire caught up with us,” Caleb added.

“But it only killed the Hive. Not us. How’d that happen?” “I did something to you,” Lily admitted. “Directed the energy. I don’t really know what I did.” “Could you do it again?” Una asked, dabbing at herself with salve. “Because it came in handy. Killed a ton of the Workers and left us barely singed.” Lily tried to recall exactly what she’d done, but all she knew for certain was that she had broken her promise. She’d possessed her mechanics and had become something different.

An Us or a We. And when members of the We had died, a part of her had died with them. Lily felt the holes in her still, like the bleeding gaps left by knocked-out teeth that she couldn’t stop probing with her tongue. The biggest and most painful was Tristan-shaped. He should be getting ready to go to Harvard right now. But instead he’s dead. “I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what I did,” Lily mumbled, not wanting to examine the episode anymore. Luckily, they either hadn’t felt her possess them in the chaos of the fight, or they hadn’t figured it out yet. Lily hoped they never did.

Lily looked at Juliet, who was regarding her with a furrowed brow. “What?” Lily asked defensively. “I’ve spent my whole life around witches and I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before,” Juliet replied. “You said you were directing the energy inside of them, not just giving it to them. It’s as if you could control—” Juliet broke off with a frown and didn’t continue. “Control what?” Lily asked, but Juliet shook her head, dismissing the thought. Lily let it go because she didn’t want Juliet, or any of them, to think about it too deeply. Caleb, especially. Lily knew he, out of all of them, would never forgive her for possessing him if he ever figured it out, and she couldn’t lose him, too. She couldn’t bear to lose anyone else.

A desperate, clawing panic started to rise up in Lily’s chest. She cast her eyes up and tried to breathe. How could I have done this? How could I have put them all in so much danger? You had no choice, came the answer. Lillian was there with Lily, sharing the echoing loneliness of her head. Help me. I feel like I’m drowning, Lily replied. She looked around her, stiff as a statue. How long have you been with me? Since you woke. You were reaching out, Lillian told her. Lily could feel Lillian’s shock at the view they were sharing.

What are you going to do? Lily turned toward the city. “We only have two choices,” she said. “Go into the city, or not. I have no idea what to do.” Her coven shot one another looks, obviously exchanging mindspeak. “You’re not yourself,” Caleb said gently. “Each of us has tried to connect with you in mindspeak and it’s like hitting a brick wall. You’ve totally shut us out.” As she considered it, Lily realized that she had been feeling her claimed brushing up against her mind, asking for entry, but she’d been blocking them out subconsciously. She didn’t want anyone inside her mind, no one but someone who was as culpable as she was.

The enormity of what Lily had done hung like a sword over her head, and only Lillian knew what that was like. Only Lillian had sent people she’d loved to their deaths. How do you keep it from eating you up? You don’t, Lillian replied. Let it eat you, and be grateful for the pain. If it goes away, then you know you’re dead inside. Lily didn’t feel pain. She didn’t feel anything. She was numb, her head full of white noise to drown out the shouting inside. As soon as she named the numbness it went away, and hatred bubbled in her throat. Hatred for herself so thick and dark it was like drinking tar.

I can’t do this. Yes, you can. You can because you must, Lillian replied. I’m here. I understand what it’s like to wake up changed. “Lily?” Juliet said, moving toward her with an outstretched hand. “Say something.” Every choice I make gets someone killed. I don’t want to make any more, Lily thought. I’m stuck.

Doing nothing isn’t an option, Lillian said. You had to be ruthless when the Hive came for you, even with Tristan. He died to protect you and the rest of the coven. No. He died because he wasn’t ready for the burden I put on him. He never should have been in this world. You’re past that. What’s done is done. All that matters is the task at hand, the city in front of you, and what you’re going to do about it. Don’t waste Tristan’s sacrifice.

Swallow your guilt and get moving. “Eyes up. Someone’s coming,” Una said sharply. The coven turned and saw a small party approaching from the direction of the city gates. “Do we have any weapons?” Caleb asked, his hand going to the empty sheath hanging from his belt. Tristan’s arm flexed to look for his knife as well, and he shook his head at Caleb, his eyes anxious. “Easy, boys. We’ve still got our witch,” Una said after coming up empty for weapons herself. She turned to Lily. “How much juice you got left?” Lily grimaced.

“Nothing,” she replied. “I need salt.” “They might be peaceful,” Juliet said optimistically. Everyone looked at Juliet sideways. “Because peace is something we’ve had so much of since coming to this world,” Breakfast groused. “There’s no reason to go on the defensive. It’s not like they’re charging toward us with weapons drawn,” Juliet persisted, squinting in the direction of the approaching group. Juliet. Always making the best of a terrible situation, Lillian whispered to Lily. Yes, Lily agreed, feeling something beginning to thaw inside her as she watched this other version of her sister.

Juliet smoothed her charred linen shirt, tucking its tattered hem into her dusty wearhyde riding pants. She squared her narrow shoulders, making Lily smile. Juliet never looked more delicate than when she was trying to look tough. “Let me handle this,” Juliet said confidently. Caleb looked like he wanted to argue, and Lily realized that if she was going to lead this coven, she had to start taking control—first and foremost, of herself. Lillian. I need to allow my coven in, so you must leave me now or they may sense you in my mind. I’ll reach out to you again when I can. Yes, Lillian agreed. We both have a lot of work to do.

Lily caught the edge of Lillian’s cold determination as they stared at the emissaries from the foreign city before Lillian severed contact. Lily turned her attention to her coven and reached out to Caleb in mindspeak. Let Juliet speak to them, Caleb. She’s a lot less threatening than you. She’s a lot less threatening than a kitten. And I wouldn’t send either to meet a bunch of strangers. Caleb shot Lily a half smile, and she felt him relax some. As the foreigners approached, it was clear that they were not hostile. The two women and two men who approached were unarmed. They were dressed in flowing kimonos or tunics and adorned with jewelry.

They joined Lily’s coven with concerned looks on their faces. “Do any of you need medical attention?” asked the handsome woman who seemed to lead the party. She’s an Outlander, Caleb whispered in Lily’s head. But her paint is from no tribe I know. The woman’s face, hands, and bare shoulders were decorated with painted stripes and dots. She was in her late twenties and had the kind of cut-glass features that would only look more attractive as she aged. Strands of her silky black hair were braided with multicolored thread and eagle feathers, and her arms jingled with gold bangles. Lily noticed that the brief kimono she wore was made of silk. She couldn’t recall seeing anyone else in this world wearing silk before. Lily’s eyes went to the smoke-colored willstone around the woman’s neck and stayed there.

It was not as large as Lily’s smoke stone, but it was onyx black. She felt Tristan brush against her mind and allowed him entry. That’s the darkest willstone I’ve ever seen, Lily. It’s even darker than Una’s. Warrior black. What do you mean, warrior black? Just keep your guard up, Tristan, because trust me—this witch can fight. Lily had a theory about willstones that wasn’t common knowledge, not even among highly trained mechanics like Tristan. Having three willstones, one of every color, had given Lily a unique understanding of how they worked and she’d noticed that each of her willstones seemed to be better suited to different types of magic. Her medium-size pink stone seemed to glow brightest when she performed healer magic. The small golden stone excelled at kitchen magic.

It was Lily’s smoke stone, the largest and most powerful of her willstones, that came to life when she performed warrior magic. Lily quickly hid her pink and golden stones but allowed her larger, if not quite as dark, smokecolored willstone to show on her breastbone. “None of us are seriously hurt,” Juliet said cordially in reply to the strange witch’s question. Juliet’s eyes narrowed at the woman’s stone as she noticed it, and she smiled broadly to cover her hesitation. “But we need water . and salt for our witch.” Juliet stepped aside to give the strangers a clear view of Lily, flanked on either side by Una, Breakfast, and Tristan, with giant Caleb looming behind her. Nice one, Juliet. Just a little reminder that we aren’t completely helpless, Lily. I hope you don’t mind.

Of course not. “Certainly,” the foreign witch replied unflinchingly. Her eyes skipped to Lily’s willstone and away again as if the huge jewel were of little notice. She waved a hand and the three people accompanying her stepped forward with brightly glazed ceramic jugs of water. “My name is Grace Bendingtree. I’m the governor of Bower City. Welcome.” “Thank you, Governor Bendingtree,” Juliet replied in a voice that even the smoothest politician would envy. “We’re honored to meet you.” “Please, call me Grace.

We don’t stand on ceremony here,” she said with a wide smile as she watched Lily’s party drink thirstily. “I’m Juliet Proctor. This is my sister, Lily, and her mechanics—Caleb, Tristan, Una, and Stuart.” They tipped their heads in greeting as their names were spoken and Grace faced each in turn, meeting their eyes with an open and accepting gaze. “Welcome,” Grace repeated warmly. “You look like you could all use some food and a lot of rest.”

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