Chapter 2
The Witch and the Seer

Near the Death Marsh, Gladius

"Witches have a bad reputation. So many are portrayed as malevolent hags bent on harming youths and children. I have only met one witch in my experience and she was nothing like the stories. Maybe they're all misunderstood... or maybe I was just lucky..."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

With Teresa's life hanging in the balance, the group pushed their borrowed steeds hard and stopped for nothing. Though the horses were on the brink of collapse by the time they got there, they managed to reach their destination in less than a day. There they found a ramshackle hut near the edge of a marsh. Once they had dismounted, Mark carried Teresa to the door. The others followed him, but Edward stopped a few paces back.
"The witch will put a curse on us all!" he yelled. "We should forget about the nun and save our own skins!"
"Stop being such a coward," Sonia sneered.
Having his fears mocked by a woman was all it took. Edward cursed and reluctantly followed them inside. Once Mark passed through the door, he broke into a short fit of coughing. The interior of the hut was cloaked in a thick haze emanating from the bubbling contents of a heavy black iron cauldron. Hunched over the cauldron was a withered old crone. Thins wisps of wild grey-white hair were like cobwebs clinging to her head. Upon seeing her guests, the crone's beady brown eyes flashed and she cackled at them, exposing a largely toothless mouth.
"A customer, methinks. Is a rare sight indeed. Not here for my tenant, I pray?"
"Your tenant?" Mark asked.
"Lucius is his name." The crone rolled her tiny eyes. "A great diviner, or so he says. A witch I am. Hildy's the name."
Holding up Teresa, Mark took a step forward. "We need your help. This woman has been poisoned. Her antidotes are not strong enough to neutralize it."
Hildy shuffled over to him and looked at Teresa. She touched the novice's skin, put her ear to Teresa's heart and waved a hand over her mouth. The witch's brow furrowed while she was doing the examination and she made some unintelligible noises in a low voice, apparently talking to herself.
"Very bad it is," Hildy said, "but not beyond my ability."
Mark looked to the witch hopefully.
"Then you can help her?"
She tilted her head. "Ah, the herb I need, I have not. The marsh is dangerous this time of year. Too dangerous for an old woman like me."
"Show us what you need," Mark said. "We'll find it for you."
Hildy took a parchment and a stick of charcoal and drew the desired herb. She handed it to Mark. With a grave expression on her face, she left no doubt of how the situation was.
"Alive I can keep her only a little while longer," she said. "On the cot you may leave her. Now make haste!"
Mark did not need to be told twice. After setting down Teresa on the threadbare cot along the wall, he went to the others and showed them the parchment.
"We need to look for this in the marsh,' he told them. "Be one guard for any wild beasts. She said it would be dangerous." He looked to the Crusader. "Felix, could you stay here with Teresa?"
"Of course, Mark," he replied. "But do not tarry. That young woman's time is short."
Mark was all too aware that time was against him, but he did not realize how difficult the task would be until he entered the marsh. It was nearly impossible to distinguish any single plant in the mottled masses of vegetation poking up out of the brown water. The coverage provided by the scraggly trees was just enough to limit the sun's illumination and complicate the task further. He was glad he had Jill and Jasper's sharp eyes searching as well.
He could hear Edward noisily sloshing around and cursing in the distance. Looking around, he watched a snake swim past his leg, thankful he did not attract its attention. He had heard that water snakes were particularly venomous and had no desire to find out if it was true or not.
While the swordsman was sorting through a clump of verdure, it occurred to him that the herb could be an underwater plant. He reached into the water grasped a handful of whatever was on the bottom. When he pulled his hand out, he only found weeds and few wriggling worms. He pulled out a few more handfuls when he heard something rise out of the water nearby.
Mark froze in his tracks when he caught sight of it. It was one of the same creatures he had fought in the Crimson Field. His still-healing forearm ached just looking at it.
The creature took notice of him, but did not attack right away. Instead it opened its large jaws and hissed. Mark drew his sword. As he was channeling energy into his sword, he remembered a warning from his training.
"The one lesson an aeromancer seldom lives to pass on is this: Never cast a lightning spell in the water."
Mark drew the energy back into himself. Though he might be able to resist the electricity surging through the water, he strongly doubted the others would be so lucky. He had to weigh his options carefully. Maneuvering would be difficult in the waist-deep water, leaving precision as his best weapon.
The creature submerged and began swimming toward him. In water so murky, its wake was the only clue to its position. Mark drew his sword back, waiting for the right moment. When he plunged the blade into the water, he was rewarded with the sight of red mingling with brown. The creature erupted from the water howling and flailing its limbs. Mark severed an arm and thrust at its chest. Undaunted, the creature clutched his pauldron with its remaining hand. He drove his blade ever deeper until the crossguard pressed against its ribs. The creature opened its maw, threatening to overcome him with its weight alone. Before it could attempt to bite him, its eyes rolled back in its head and its body went limp. Its grip on him loosened and Mark pushed away as it collapsed into the water.
The Guardian stared at the body floating face-down before him as he tried to catch his breath. He could hear someone furiously sloshing to his position. He turned to see that Sonia was the one approaching him. Upon seeing the body and the red in the water, she looked at her cousin with concern.
"What happened?"
Mark wiped off his blade with a rag as he walked over to her. "One of the monsters I fought in Crimson Field... Who knows how many more there could be?"
Sonia eyes darted around. "We need to find that herb and get out of here fast."
"Any luck?" Mark asked.
Sonia shook her head. "No, but I can't say I'm good with plants."
"Me neither, but we have to keep looking."
Jill suddenly appeared behind Sonia, apparently able to move as stealthily by water as she could by land. In her hand was the herb they sought.
"I found it," she said curtly.
"That's great!" Mark exclaimed. "Hurry back to the hut. I'll get the others."
She nodded in agreement and was gone as suddenly as she appeared. Mark looked around to see if any of the others were in sight. He could not see anyone else, but he hoped they would be able to hear him.
"Head back to the hut!" he yelled. "Jill found the herb!"
Mark and Sonia made their way out of the marsh. Jasper was not far behind, muttering to himself about something. There was still no sign of Edward.
"Edward!" Mark yelled. "Are you out there? Come out of the marsh! We have the herb!"
They heard a great ruckus in the distance. Mark looked toward the source of the noise, tightening his grip on his sword.
"Go back to the hut," Mark said to Jasper. "We'll take care of this."
Mark and Sonia went back into the marsh and followed the sound of the commotion. By the time they reached Edward, everything had gone silent. The Prince just stood there, covered in blood. His axe and mace were rattling ever so slightly in his hands.
"Are you hurt?" Mark asked.
"It's not my blood," he replied unsteadily. "One of those damned beasts..."
"There could be more," Mark said warily. "We need to leave now. We already have the herb."
Edward grunted and hooked his weapons back on his belt. By the time they made it back to the hut, Hildy was already busy concocting the antidote. Teresa appeared worse than before. Her skin was deathly pale and her breathing had become so slow and shallow that it had all but stopped.
"How is she?" Mark asked.
"Moi gel's a strowng un," Jasper said.
"She resists the poison better than most," Felix said. "I have seen many fall much faster than this to far less deadly poisons."
Hildy chuckled at the completion of her antidote. She swished it around in a flask before walking up to Teresa. After shooing away Jasper, she put the flask to Teresa's lips.
"Drink up, dearie."
Teresa drank the fluid and broke into a violent fit of coughing. Everyone except fro Edward rushed up to her, but Hildy raised her hand to ward them off. After the coughing subsided, her body stilled. They stared in silent apprehension. As the tense moments passed, Jasper audibly gritted his teeth. The silence quickly became too much for him and his emotions boiled over.
"Ye k'll'd 'er, ye bluddy mownstah!" he yelled angrily.
"Not dead, but asleep," Hildy replied calmly. "A night or two and right as rain she'll be."
Shamed for making the accusation, Jasper sheepishly looked down at the floor. "Sowrry, mum, Oi tend tah gi' exsoi'ed an' owl..."
"No need to worry," she assured him. "Young ones slaves to heart. Way of the world it is."
"Thank you," Mark said. "How much do we owe you?"
"Ah, 'tis free this time," the witch replied. "The woodland girl brought enough to last a while, she did. More than pays for the cost of the potion it does. However, my tenant you should see. Without customers, rent he cannot pay. A while you will be here anyway."
Jasper stayed by Teresa's side while the others parted a purple curtain dividing the hut. In a room draped in purple curtains all around, a man in a purple cloak sat behind a table covered with a purple tablecloth. In the center of the tablecloth was a circle embroidered with silver thread and surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. In the center of the circle was a translucent crystal ball. The man's face was shrouded by the shadow of his hood and he spoke in an ominous, resonant voice.
"Seekers of destiny, the mists of time conceal nothing from me. I am Lucius, the light that pierces through the mysteries of the future. Does fortune await you... or tragedy? I alone can tell you. My fee is small, but your reward is great. Who will be first?"
Edward tossed a couple silver coins on the table.
"Tell me what you can see. Will I regain the throne?"
The crystal ball glowed as Lucius' hands hovered over its surface.
"The Mountain King shall be crowned again," he said.
Edward grinned at the favorable oracle, but Lucius was not finished.
"His time will be short. The hammer will hold his place for a while. When the hammer breaks, a lesser mountain will rise up and he shall see the sword-tree shattered. That is all I see..."
Edward frowned. After a brief moment of silence, he snatched the coins off the table. Returning the money to his coin pouch, he growled at the seer, "You chose the wrong man to insult."
"I speak only what I see," Lucius replied dispassionately.
Mark put a few coins on the table.
"I apologize for his rudeness."
Edward grumbled. Lucius' head turned toward Mark.
"Shall I tell you what I see?"
Mark shook his head. "No, I don't believe in fortune telling."
Lucius spoke anyway. "I will tell you one thing: The wolf and the eagle are not two."
"I told you I don't believe in fortune telling," Mark insisted.
"It is not fortune," Lucius said grimly.
Sonia tossed a few coins to draw the seer's attention. "You can tell me something since he doesn't want to hear it."
Obligingly, Lucius swept a hand over his crystal ball and said, "The cub that was lost still lives. The young lion will return."
Sonia's eyes widened. She slammed her hands on the table, causing the coins to rattle.
"What did you say!?"
He repeated his words without the slightest change in tone or pitch. "The cub that was lost still lives."
Sonia lifted her hands off the table and stepped back.
"It can't be..." she muttered to herself. Her expression quickly became angry and she shouted at the seer, "I don't believe you!"
"The truth is difficult to accept," the seer replied.
Sonia stormed out of the room, angrily batting the curtain aside. Mark followed her. She had already left the hut when Mark went past the curtain. Jasper briefly looked away from Teresa.
"Wo's ap wif th' v'rago?"
"I don't know," Mark said as he kept walking.
Sonia had not gone far, only several paces from the door. Her fists were tightly clenched, so tight they were quivering. Mark approached her slowly.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Sonia sounded as if she was fighting back tears. "I'm such a fool. I shouldn't let him get to me. It's just parlor tricks. That's all. Maybe he's of those mind walkers. Peeks in people's hearts and finds stuff that'll set them off..."
"What was he talking about?"
Sonia was hesitant; her words came with noticeable difficulty. "The lion is the heraldic beast of the Defenders, just like the eagle is for the Guardians. They call me the 'lion's cub'. because I'm the daughter of Julian." She paused. "But I'm not an only child. At least, I didn't use to be. I had an older brother, but he died when the pirates destroyed Sandstone. That's got to be what he meant by 'the cub that was lost', but there's no way my brother's still alive. That worm just wants to scare and upset people."
She turned to face Mark. "Like what he said to you. The wolf is the symbol of the Conquerors. Does he really expect us to believe that there's some connection between you and Randwulf? It's absurd!"
Sonia shook her head. Having vented her anger, her fists loosened and she exhaled slowly. "I'm okay now. We can go back in."
When they walked back in, Hildy cackled.
"More unsatisfied customers, eh? Back to the roadsides he'll go if this continues, hm?"
Mark ignored the witch's comments and turned his attention to Teresa. The color was beginning to return to her cheeks and her tremors had lessened. It seemed that they would be able to leave soon. Mark was grateful to Hildy for curing their healer, but he was more than ready to be rid of this place.