Short Story: The True Tale of Viveet

To get you excited (and ready for) the launch of Bianca Book 6—RISE OF THE DEMIGODS—I wanted to make sure you received all the background information that you needed. 

This is a very long short story that is part of my ebook collection SHORT STORIES FROM THE NETWORK SERIES. I'm pulling it out of that exclusive, novel-length collection so you can dive deep into the magic of Alkarra. 

Each short story in that collection had an explanation that precedes it to you give you more context. I include that below here.

This very interesting short story about Viveet will be key. I'm not promising anything. 

I'm just saying that you might want this information for RISE OF THE DEMIGODS.

*wink*

* * *

Mildred’s appointment of Derek as Head of Protectors turned the tide for the Central Network against an unknown enemy that lurked in the shadows—although that wouldn’t be obvious until later years.

When the next scene opens, Derek has been a Protector for several years under a witch named Jeramy, the current Head of Protectors. Derek and Marie have been hand fasted for three years. Bianca is two years old. No one knows about his family 

In the following scenes, you’ll meet a witch named Andrei. His novel, The Swordmaker, is slated for publication as part of The Historical Collection.

* * *

The silence seemed to cling to the snow. 

Evergreen boughs, heavy with ice, drooped to the ground. Snow drifts higher than Derek’s hip rolled through the loosely packed forest. The tip of his nose—no doubt red—prickled every now and then. Despite the cold, the air was dry. The snow like dust. Too cold to melt, it just whirled around, catching him in the eyes. Twilight had fallen, masking the winter wonderland in strange shadows and shifting light. If it hadn’t been so eerily quiet, Derek could have appreciated the quiet majesty of such a forgotten place.

“There.” A witch named Andrei pointed to a cottage in the distance. “That’s the place. Ve have been vatching for days. Just in case.”

Derek tracked Andrei’s arm, which pointed to a slipshod shanty in the distance. The boards, warped from exposure and age, seemed to trip over each other, some lying at haphazard angles, others separated with large gaps. Whoever lived inside was likely dead from the cold.

“You’re sure?” Derek asked.

“Yes.”

“It’ll collapse the moment we go inside.”

Andrei lifted an eyebrow.

“Not everything is as it seems.”

Andrei’s thick accent, slant nose, and teardrop shaped eyes made him a prime example of a Southern Network witch. He wore thick pelts and furs across his shoulders with pride. Despite the danger of being outside on such a night—predators grew hungriest in the winter—he showed no concern. His thick pants were tied with sturdy twine and rumored to be reinforced with enchanted strands of special silk.

A witch transported into place on Derek’s left.

“Not much of a place, is it?” Jeramy, the Head of Protectors and Derek’s boss, murmured. His eyes darted through the forest, the ground, the shanty, and everything else. A dusting of snow glittered in his red hair. Like Derek, he wore the fur caps and woolen coats of the Southern Network. Instead of blending in, they looked more out of place than ever next to Andrei.

“Trust me. This is the place.” Andrei’s eyes glittered. He motioned to the dilapidated structure. “They take our young girls. Two are missing. Some have run away and not come back. One, Viktoria, vas just taken last night. My tribe is too frightened to act.”

“Why?”

Andrei’s nose scrunched. “They believe the gods punish them for not obeying the High Priest. That more punishment vill come.”

Jeramy hitched an eyebrow. “Do you believe that?”

Andrei scowled. “Ve vant these bad vitches gone. You must do this. Our Netvork does nothing. Ve are not strong enough vith magic.”

“Your Network has done nothing?” Derek asked. It had been a stroke of luck that he’d stumbled on Andrei hunting in the forest that morning. After hours of stumbling around, transporting from place to place in vain, Derek had believed he’d never find the missing girls. Then he saw Andrei peering at him from the trees. A few well-placed questions later and Andrei had guided him to the right place. 

This place. 

Andrei shook his head in a sharp motion, cutting back and forth. 

“The Netvork does nothing for the tribes. They hate us. They lie. They take advantage of my vitches and try to take our silk and swords.”

“The Network is the one buying the girls,” another Protector, Nathaniel, muttered from behind Derek. Nathaniel’s invisibility incantation disappeared. His umber skin, smooth and rich, hid him in the approaching night. 

Andrei stepped back, startled, and studied Nathaniel. His thin eyes narrowed. “Is this true?” 

Jeramy confirmed with a nod. 

“Nathaniel has been following the buyers for a week now,” he said. “Your local leaders are funding the kidnappings. We haven’t been able to track them to your High Priest, however. I can’t confirm that he knows he has witches crossing the Network border to steal our girls.”

Andrei’s wide nostrils flared. For a second, his face flushed red. He paused, allowing it to fade. 

Derek stepped back, observing, while Jeramy explained their plans to invade the shanty and save the girls. Every now and then, Andrei inserted a comment or direction. The common language worked well. Even though Derek knew the Yazika language of the Southern Network, Jeramy hadn’t directed him to use it.

“We’ll act once it’s fully dark,” Jeramy said. “An hour, give or take. Nathaniel, stay on the perimeter. Leave no tracks.”

Nathaniel glanced at the trees. 

“Acknowledged, Brother,” he said before fading into another invisibility spell. The slightest wisp of snow drifted from the top of an evergreen nearby immediately after. Derek would have laughed if it weren’t so cold. 

Jeramy clapped a hand on Derek’s shoulder.

“Derek, go to Andrei’s so we know where to transport. Once we recover the girls, I’ll follow your magic there.” Jeramy turned to Andrei. “We’ll transport them to your place.” His eyes slid back to the shanty. “Better build up the fire.”

Andrei nodded. 

“I vill do this.”

Jeramy’s hand fell. His eyes locked with Derek. “I’m going to update the High Priestess. I have a feeling we’ll need apothecaries. Meet me back here within the hour.”

Jeramy disappeared with a whisper of magic. Andrei caught Derek’s eye and motioned him closer with a jerk of his head. 

“You are the vitch that discovered this problem, no?”

Derek hesitated. It wasn’t that simple, but it wasn’t that complicated either. Over the last month, he’d been researching reports of young girls in the Southern Covens of the Central Network going missing. It had taken him weeks of scouting, tracking, following hunches, and waiting in the cold forest, hoping to see something, until he’d finally caught sight of the criminals and followed them here. The scheme had been bigger than he’d expected, encompassing not just Central Network girls, but tribal girls as well. Perhaps more.

“Yes.” Derek nodded. “I stumbled on it.”

“I make swords.” Andrei held up thick, knotty hands. “The best swordmaker that you vill find. Come. See them. Perhaps I have something for you. You vill not regret.”

* * *

Derek followed Andrei through deep drifts without a word, soaking in the strange silence of the forest. Snow spiraled from a smoky sky in lazy circles. Every other step, Derek sank to his thigh. Andrei seemed to float on top of the drifts, aided by his wide netted shoes and lean legs.

A cabin made of hewn logs, nestled deep in the thick, silent pines, came into view half an hour later. Rough shingles layered down the steep pitch of the roof, leaving room for a generous attic. Evergreens loomed high and close around the cabin. The thought of a warm fire made Derek’s fingers ache.

“This vay.”

Andrei led him around the back where a hidden shanty, not unlike the one Derek would soon invade, waited. Andrei used an incantation to blow the accumulated snow away from the door and then shoved it open. Derek eyed it warily, but followed Andrei inside.

A blast of warmth welcomed them. Derek stopped abruptly. Despite the shoddy appearance from the outside, a full blacksmith shop filled a spacious interior. Bellows. Healthy fire. A stack of wood that rose all the way to the ceiling. Swords crowded every wall, nook, and cranny in glittering, metallic shades.

Andrei spread his hands. “My shop. Touch nothing.”

“Impressive.”

Andrei waved it off. The door closed behind them. He shucked off his heavy coat, revealing a silk shirt of deepest black. It flowed in long, beautiful lines down his lean arms and slender frame.

“Ve cast spells to make it look not-so-impressive outside.” A brief flash of teeth illuminated Andrei’s face in a rare, toothy grin. “Less taxes. The tax vitches don’t come in. Just look.”

Derek advanced into the room, eyeing the open rafters where strips of metal hung, glinting in the firelight. Tallow candles illuminated sconces along the walls, casting warm curlicues of light throughout the space.

“Do a lot of witches around here use those spells?” he asked.

“Most of the vitches in my tribe, yes. Others, too.”

“Do you think the kidnappers are in your tribe?”

“No.”

In the back of his mind, Derek accessed a familiar, often-used spell that only the Brotherhood of Protectors knew. It gave them the ability to send thoughts to each other without speaking. The closest approximation was transporting a thought into the mind of another witch. It gave no access to their mind, just the ability to mentally speak. 

Things may not be as they seem at the shanty. He sent the thought to Jeramy and Nathaniel. Likely magic on the outside. Could be different inside.

Within seconds, Jeramy responded with a thought of his own. It came into Derek’s head clear as a bell and quiet as a whisper. 

Nathaniel, look into it. I’m just about to speak with the High Priestess before I return for the raid.

Nathaniel’s voice immediately followed.

Understood, Brother. Will report in ten. All quiet here.

The warmth beckoned to Derek, so he stepped closer to the stone fireplace. Andrei stood at a wall cluttered with gleaming metal shafts. Wooden pegs held the various swords in place. The sultry room left space for Andrei to move freely while Derek hovered close to the flames, thinking.

After a minute of silence had passed while Andrei shifted through the room, mumbling to the walls, he turned to Derek. 

“I have a sword for your daughter.”

One second passed after Derek heard the word daughter, registered what it meant, snatched the front of Andrei’s shirt, and slammed him into a wall. Before he could demand an explanation—how could a witch like Andrei know about Bianca when Jeramy didn’t even know?—seven glinting swords pressed against his neck with the cool kiss of metal. 

Derek froze. 

How had Andrei pulled seven swords in such a short time? No one outside the Brotherhood had ever bested him with a weapon.

Andrei’s eyes tapered into slits. “If you move, you vill die.”

Derek opened his hand, releasing him. Andrei stepped back. The swords remained, pressing against Derek’s skin with the lightest of pressure. Andrei studied him for a moment, his mahogany eyes dark and wary. A light, strange thrum of magic seemed to reverberate in the back of Derek’s mind. One he’d never distinguished before.

Well, well, Derek thought, eyeing the swords. How very interesting. 

“So . . . you’re an Ensis,” Derek murmured, swallowing. One sword retreated into Andrei’s palm; the rest returned to empty slots along the wall. “A Swordmaker using the ancient magic.”

Andrei held out a hand, his face a blank slate. Derek inferred his lack of rebuttal as agreement. “Your sword,” Andrei said. “I vant to meet it.”

Derek had a loyal sword that he’d trained with since he started the Guardians—a surprisingly well-built, agile thing that he’d been given when he joined. Most Guardian swords were functional, but not invincible, and yet his had never failed him. A strange puzzle he’d pondered often.

Derek pulled it free. Andrei grabbed it by the hilt and shuffled across the room with expert footwork, swinging the sword in wide arcs. Once finished, he returned it without a word. 

“Can you tell anything about it?” Derek asked, driving it back into the sheath. Andrei shook his head once. 

“Doesn’t speak.”

The Ensis, or Swordmakers of Southern Network legend, used an ancient magic to communicate with their swords. The swords responded like living things. According to lore, only certain witches had the talent, and even fewer knew enough to explore it. Rumors of the Ensis had faded in recent centuries with the oppression of the Southern Network leadership.

“You have an impressive workspace here.” Derek glanced around. A rumpled blanket and flat pillow lay in the far corner. “Do you stay here much?”

“I live here.”

“Here?”

“Yes.”

“What about that house outside? It seemed quite large.”

Andrei acted as if he hadn’t heard. His smooth brow had furrowed into a pile of lines. He tapped his teeth together, alternately mumbling and jerking his head back and forth, as if speaking with someone—or something. Derek couldn’t explain it, but he had the distinct impression that Andrei spoke to the swords. 

Finally, Andrei held out a hand and whispered something so quietly Derek couldn’t hear. A smaller, shorter sword hanging near the ceiling lifted itself free and drifted into Andrei’s hand. He studied it, nodded in satisfaction, and extended it to Derek.

“This is Viveet. She belongs to your daughter now.”

Derek pulled the sword from the sheath. The blade rang as it slid free. Andrei’s placid expression didn’t waver. Derek had no reason to trust him, but he did.

“And how do you know I have a daughter?” he asked as he swung Viveet through the air. She sliced it without a breath of resistance. Andrei nodded to the sword with a shrug. 

“The sword knows.”

Etchings in the metal shone bright blue, climbing in an intricate pattern of leaves and twisting vines. 

“They all know vat they vant. I tried to make it something else, but no.” He sliced a hand through the air. “The sword vanted the leaves. So, I made leaves. She vill be bright, more agile, vith your daughter.”

Derek ran the pad of his thumb along the edge of the blade. The metal felt cool and certain. Hummed, almost. The color spiraled up through the sword with twists, hidden nuances of color and light and hue. When he touched it, it felt like Letum Wood. Home. Safety. He knew, but couldn’t explain, that this was not his sword.

Andrei gestured to it.

“The sword is patient. It vill vait until your daughter is ready.”

Derek inspected it again. The blade was light, short—just the size for Marie, which meant it would eventually be perfect for Bianca.

“How old is your daughter?” 

Derek hesitated. “She just turned two.”

“Ah. You vill start her with a shield first?”

“Of course.”

Andrei nodded once. “I vill trust you, then. You vill be good with this. You teach your daughter the vays of the shield, and then the sword.” 

“Andrei, I can’t just take it.”

“You must.” He shrugged. “It is not for me to decide. The sword has decided. I obey.”

Derek bowed only his head, holding it in place for three seconds before straightening. Andrei closed his eyes to accept the gesture of gratitude. Derek strapped the sword to his belt.

“Bianca will cherish it.”

“She vill. Viveet vill require it. Now go back to your vitches. Find Viktoria. I vill vait here.”

* * *

Less than an hour later, the rough animal hair of Derek’s fur cap itched. The sharp sting of winter bit at his nose again. Cold seeped into his boots, attacking his toes. He longed to return to Andrei’s shop. Or, better yet, to Marie, where the fire was bright but her smile brighter. He tried to ignore all the discomforts by setting his mind on the mission.

Get in. Save the girls. Get out.

Nothing had changed in the last hour, according to Nathaniel’s report. He detected no magic in use around the shanty. No smoke streamed from the chimney, which concerned Derek. Were the girls inside without heat? Layers of snow, thick as frosting on the sparse evergreens, sparkled in the moonlight. Flakes fell in torrents now.

Jeramy appeared at Derek’s side, his gaze hooded, so not even the whites of his green eyes showed.

“No magic in use to protect it from intruders,” Nathaniel said from just behind them. “I haven’t sensed any active spells, anyway.”

“Me either,” Derek murmured in agreement. The forest lay as dormant as a tomb. The unlikely possibility existed that a different, unfamiliar magic was in place, but he still would have been able to sense something. Or so he hoped. Yet, he’d felt nothing at Andrei’s, and his shop was full of active magic. Unfortunately, Derek had learned long before that even being a well-trained Protector did not equate with being invincible. He didn’t like the variables of this equation, but the decision wasn’t his to make.

“I think they’re rookies.” Jeramy rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Incompetent. Trying to make a little currency on the black market.”

“Rookies are wild cards,” Nathaniel said.

Jeramy set his hands on his hips. “Indeed. There’s no telling what they’ll do.”

Nathaniel punched his chest. “It’s bloody cold out here. Let’s go. I hate the Southern Network.”

Derek silently cast a spell. A powerful, invisible layer of protection rippled down his arms, torso, and legs like a warm rush of water. It would provide at least twenty minutes of defense from most known, dangerous spells.

“Just like always, brothers,” Jeramy said. “In and out. We were never here. Derek, get your hands on the scumbag. Andrei said he’ll take it from there. Southern Network tribal justice is sufficient, I believe. They’ll disembowel the witch alive and hang him from a tree for their gods to torture in the next life.”

The three of them fell into their respective duties without another word. Derek transported to a rickety side door. Jeramy to the main door. Nathaniel disappeared underneath an invisibility spell. He would remain outside as backup while monitoring the perimeter. Derek and Jeramy would storm the shanty at the same time. 

The magic of their protective spells and invisibility came with seamless, nearly undetectable strength. Despite years of experience, Derek’s heart still pounded as he stared at the door, prepping the magic in his mind. His fingers tingled. His sharpened vision caught every detail. 

Jeramy gave the signal. 

As one, they used incantations to jerk both doors off their hinges, casting them into the snow with dull thuds, then rushed inside the one-room shanty. 

Six girls lay on the floor in a limp pile of bodies. One girl stared at the ceiling, blinking slowly. Another’s head lolled to the side, her breathing slight and infrequent. White powder dusted their faces. Bright pink circles flushed the apple of their cheeks. Their lips had been painted a bright, cherry red. One of them wore a wig of bright white hair, which had gone askew. All of their hands and ankles were tied, the skin underneath rubbed raw. A hazy smoke filled the air. Not another soul could be seen.

Six, Derek thought to Jeramy and Nathaniel, crouching next to the girls. There were only supposed to be three.

Jeramy swung a sword into all the open spaces, lest a witch attempt to sneak by with an undetected invisibility spell.

Andrei mentioned disappearing runaways, Nathaniel said.

Derek tugged a wig loose, revealing a girl with olive skin and thick brown locks. The younger girl next to her looked like a sister. These two look like they’re from the Eastern Network. This must be even bigger than we thought.

Was it confirmed that the witch responsible for the kidnappings is here? Jeramy asked.

No, Nathaniel responded. Just that the girls were here.

Jeramy cursed under his breath, barely making a sound in the still house. We can’t leave the Southern Network for good until the witch returns. We’ll get the girls to safety, but the mission isn’t complete until the witch is taken.

Agreed, Derek said.

While Derek felt for pulses—all were slight and faint—Jeramy kicked aside a moldy straw mattress. Paper lanterns, no bigger than Derek’s palm, littered the floor. The room smelled foul, with a pungent sweetness beneath. Except for a tattered dress in the corner and discarded tins filled with crimson goo, the room lay empty.

Derek pulled the top girl off the pile. A fake wig of snowy hair fell away, revealing long blonde tresses. He pulled one of her eyes open. Blue. Stacey Vartan. One of the missing girls from the Southern Covens. His stomach churned. She wasn’t much older than twelve. He thought of Bianca at home, her soft black hair, wide gray eyes. She was just walking now, waving her chubby fists. The thought of someone doing something so atrocious as this made his rage boil. He carefully pulled Stacey off the ground and into his arms. Jeramy lifted a girl that fit the description of Jasmin, the other missing witch from the Southern Covens.

I’ll follow you, Jeramy thought to Derek.

The darkness and pressure of a transportation spell took Derek’s breath away. He didn’t maintain the invisibility spell during transporting, and as he released it, a surge of power made the annoying pressure of transportation fade more rapidly. Less than ten seconds later, the High Priestess stared at him with tight lips. 

“Good. That must be Stacey.” She nodded once. “Where is Jeramy?”

“On his way.”

Two apothecaries rushed to him. He transferred her into their arms. Stacey’s head rolled back as the apothecaries whisked her to a bed near the fire. The High Priestess motioned with a jerk of her head. 

“Good work. Leave.”

Jeramy appeared, a body in his arms, just as Derek finished his transportation spell to return—including the addition of emerging from the transportation spell invisible again. Once he returned to the hovel, he paused. With both doors gone, the hazy air had cleared. It felt as brisk inside as outside. The four remaining girls had started to stir. The one from the Eastern Network sat upright, blinking, as if dazed. A thought from Nathaniel entered his mind. 

Something’s changing.

Derek already felt it. A slight twinge in the air. Keep monitoring, he thought. I’ll be back.

The Eastern Network girl groaned as Derek plucked her from the pile and transported away just as Jeramy returned, reaching for her sister. When Derek returned to the shanty, only two witches remained. One sat upright, blinking. Her coiling ropes of silky black hair and narrow eyes fit the description Andrei had given of Viktoria. A smoky, drugged cloud filled her eyes, but her movements appeared purposeful. The last girl, a short, tiny little thing, no older than ten, hadn’t stirred.

Strengthening, Nathaniel thought to him. Whatever it is. I can’t tell. It’s changing.

The low, strange percussion, so unlike anything he’d ever felt, forced Derek to pause. He stared at the remaining girls with a frown. The new magic felt too . . . bizarre.

I feel it, too, he thought to Nathaniel. It’s . . . different. 

Edgy. I don’t like it. 

Derek couldn’t shake the strange feeling that something wasn’t right.

Could it be tribal magic? Nathaniel asked. Tribal magic would explain why Derek had never felt it before—he’d never worked with the Southern Network tribes. 

Viktoria’s gaze drifted around the seemingly empty room, with doors ripped off their hinges, eventually landing on the smaller witch in confusion. She attempted to stand, but wobbled. Grateful to be invisible, Derek waited, observing. The smallest witch’s eyes opened, caught his, and quickly shut again. His hand moved to the hilt of his sword. Her eyes had been clear.

And she’d seen him.

Derek felt a familiar shift in the magic. Jeramy had returned, invisibility incantation still in place.

What’s going on? Jeramy asked. Something feels different.

Derek caught something out of the corner of his eye. Viktoria stared straight ahead in horror. He glanced down. His invisibility incantation had started to fade, slowly revealing his shoes, ankles, knees—

Impossible.

Stronger magic, Nathaniel’s thought barked through their heads. Expanding by the second. Jeramy appeared piecemeal as well. Despite Derek’s every attempt to recast the spell, nothing happened. 

Something is forcing our magic out, Derek thought.

No spell can overpower Brotherhood magic.

Nathaniel’s reply came with a chilling response. 

No known magic.

The short girl on the floor opened her eyes again. Her hair had faded white as the driven snow. The skin around her eyes turned to bags. Derek swore. Where the short, young witch had once been, now an old hag, with deep-set wrinkles and glimmering black eyes, sprang to her feet. She bared her teeth, gripping one of the paper lanterns in her hand. It burned with a sudden white-hot flame. She threw her head back and started to chant.

Get out of there! Nathan screamed.

Jeramy threw himself at the hag. Derek barely had time to grab Viktoria before a percussive boom rippled through the cabin, flattening the walls. A blinding flash of bright light followed. Derek transported away mid-leap, Viktoria tucked under his arm. He landed at Andrei’s, on his back, with a heavy thud.

A group of witches stared at him, chattering in a rapid, unfamiliar language. His ears rang. Black spots swam before his vision. The witches stopped talking as Andrei waded from their midst. 

“You found Viktoria!” he cried, reaching for the girl. Andrei stopped in his tracks. He blinked. “Vat happened?”

Derek’s mind buzzed. He had to get back. Now. He shoved a stunned Viktoria into Andrei’s arms and disappeared without explanation. 

Almost instantly, he was back at the destroyed shanty. The bitter scent of sulfur and burnt hair stained the air. Derek waded through tattered boards and snow, shoving them aside. Only bits of blood and skin remained from the old hag. Frantic, he forced aside a portion of the old door. 

“Jer?” he called. “Jeramy?”

Nathaniel appeared from beneath a piece of wood not far away. He coughed. Blood flowed down his nose and over his upper lip.

“All right, Nate?” Derek called.

“Peachy. Where’s Jeramy?”

Derek had been frantically trying to connect with Jeramy through the Brotherhood magic, but without response. Several paces away from the shanty, a familiar head of red hair peeked out against the snow. Nathaniel and Derek reached Jeramy at the same moment. Derek flipped him over.

“The good gods,” Nathaniel muttered.

Blood poured down the right side of Jeramy’s face. A gash covering his forehead filleted the skin above his eyes. Soot stained the rest of his face and neck. Derek grabbed his neck. No pulse. 

The rush of adrenaline had started to fade. His knees collapsed. 

We gotta go, Nathaniel said to Derek’s mind. Southern Guards will come after an explosion like that. Gotta go. Can’t be found here. Can’t be found across the borders.

Derek grabbed Jeramy by the waist and transported back to Chatham Castle.

* * *

An hour later, a weary Nathaniel and Derek stood side-by-side, burned and battle-scarred, in the High Priestess’s office.

Both eyebrows and part of Derek’s hair had been singed off in the explosion. Smoke clung to his clothes. A blister had formed across the back of his neck, and an apothecary had bandaged the wounds on his face to stop the bleeding. The scent of burned flesh lingered in his nostrils. Would he ever smell anything else?

Marten stood at the window, his hands folded behind his back. He stared at nothing. Mildred showed no visible reaction as Derek recounted the final timeline. Once he finished, she gave a curt nod and rose to her feet. 

“The girls have been reunited with their families and, after their withdrawal from the powerful sedative potions they’d been given in the Southern Network, will recover. You have achieved the purpose of your mission, and I commend your work and sacrifice.”

A trickle of relief, so faint he almost missed it, moved through Derek. At least we have that, he thought to himself.

Mildred paused, swallowing.

“But I join you in your mourning and grief.” Her eyes met Marten’s for half a second. “The apothecaries were unable to save Jeramy. He was one of the most talented Head of Protectors I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. His loss will be, and is, keenly felt.”

A rare edge of compassion softened her tone. Derek and Nathaniel both inclined their heads. Having a witch as implacable as the High Priestess reach out with sympathy brought Derek’s exhaustion to the surface. Jeramy had been his Brother, his leader, and his best friend. The Brotherhood would never be the same without him.

Amidst the darkness of his job, so encompassing and deep, he craved good things. The warm arms of his wife. The bright eyes of his daughter as she ran around the cottage, wearing pants under her dress. A hearty meal and time to sleep. Laughter. Bianca’s endless giggle as she ran the trails. All the simple pleasures that everyone else had in abundance.

His mind rolled through the memories. He’d already sent a note ahead, telling Marie to expect him. She’d have a warm dinner. Crackling fire in the hearth. Bianca would be sleeping, but would wake in the morning. She was already running with reckless abandon through the forest. Barefoot, like her Mama. He couldn’t wait to scoop her up. To hear her giggle when he twirled her around—

“Did you hear me?”

Derek jerked back to the present moment. Mildred stared at him, her hands planted on her desk. Nathaniel glanced at Derek out of the corner of his eye.

“My apologies, Your Highness,” Derek said. “I was thinking of something else.”

She studied him. 

“I see that. Marten, you may stay. Nathaniel, you are excused. Derek, you are not.”

With a weary nod, Nathaniel shuffled out. 

Rest, Brother, Derek thought to him. You did good work tonight. 

At the door, Nathaniel glanced over his shoulder, pressed a flat hand to his heart in the Brotherhood sign, and then disappeared into the hallway. Derek shifted his shoulders. Now that time had passed, every muscle in his body reacted to the events of the night. The powerful blast had sent him reeling in more ways than one.

The door closed behind Nathaniel with a light click. The High Priestess sealed the room with a spell and stared Derek right in the eye. For being such a short thing, she had power.

“Derek, I’m appointing you Head of Protectors in the wake of Jeramy’s death. Effective immediately.”

His thoughts sludged through waves of confusion and disbelief. “Your Highness?”

“I didn’t stutter, Derek. You will be taking over for Jeramy.”

Head of Protectors? No. That couldn’t happen. Literally couldn’t happen. Tradition implicitly required that the Head of Protectors be unattached: no children, no family. Derek shook his head. 

He had both.

“Forgive me, your Highness, but that’s not possible.”

The High Priestess didn’t know about Marie or Bianca. No one knew. How could he tell her now without losing all credibility and trust? Your Highness, I’m hand fasted and have been for years. I have a two-year-old daughter that is fierce and wild. I haven’t told anyone because I won’t put my family in harm’s way.

Given how negligent it sounded in his head, it would sound worse out loud. Despite his reservations, his heart responded to the call with a visceral cry. Yes, it seemed to say. Yes. Being Head of Protectors is what we have strained and sacrificed for. This is our purpose. 

“You’re hiding something from me,” Mildred said. “I don’t enjoy being refused. What is it?”

Her stern expression and short, wispy hair looked odd in the dim light. He struggled to grasp what he was about to say. There were only two ways this conversation with the High Priestess could go, and neither looked good. 

“High Priestess, I have a feeling that you already know why I’m hesitating.”

Mildred held her chin up. “I have an inkling.”

Derek swallowed, careful not to break eye contact. He would give her no reason to believe he felt any regret or shame.

“I have a child, Your Highness. She’s two years old. Her name is Bianca. She has gray eyes and black hair just like her Mama. She lives in Bickers Mill with her mother, my wife of almost three years, and her grandmother.”

“You’ve never mentioned them before.”

“No. I haven’t.”

“Why?”

“To protect them. Tim’s wife was murdered by a cursed witch that broke free from the Guardians while in prison. I won’t let harm come to my wife or child because of my career.”

Her calculating eyes regarded him for a long moment. She drew a long breath. 

“I see.” 

He waited, giving her time to comprehend what this meant. She didn’t need it.

“You could have accepted the position and easily continued hiding them,” she said. “You didn’t have to tell me. It’s likely I would have never known.”

The thought had occurred to him, but only briefly. “I would never lie.”

“Isn’t withholding the truth a lie?” she asked with a haughty lift of her eyebrow.

“Is never asking me if I had a family negligence?”

Her lips pursed and eyes sharpened into flinty daggers. He closed his eyes and pulled in a deep breath through his nose.

“Forgive me, Your Highness. My fatigue should not affect my respect for your position or your decisions. I meant no dishonor. You are not a negligent witch.”

“Tradition states that I cannot appoint a Head of Protectors that has a wife or child.”

“Hence my refusal, Your Highness.”

“I have not accepted it.”

Derek’s response paused on his tongue. He felt a traitorous flicker of hope. If any witch were strong enough to ignore such a foolish tradition, it would be Mildred. But would she? There were so many ways he could help this Network. Traditions that needed to be rooted out. Ways the Brotherhood could circumvent the rising evils. But he couldn’t while bound to the old laws and habits.

“If any Council Member, or any witch in our Network, were to find out that I appointed a Head of Protectors in violation of tradition, they’d be livid. Likely call for your removal, perhaps banishment. If you accept the position despite your family, the Network can never know about your family.”

“I know.”

“You are the only candidate that I trust with the safety of my Network—and myself, although that’s secondary. While I have a great amount of respect for the rest of the Brotherhood, you are the best fit. What do you propose I do?” 

Derek suppressed his amusement. She asked out of curiosity; he could sense that she already had a plan. Mildred never entered any situation blind.

“I wouldn’t presume to make your decision, High Priestess.”

“Do you want to be a part of your child’s life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you do that while being Head of Protectors?”

He hesitated. “I can.”

“Do you want to try to do both?”

A heady rush of power filled him at the thought. Lead the Brotherhood? Every Protector’s dream. Raise Bianca? Every parent’s dream. He calmed the rising emotions through sheer willpower.

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“How would you do it?”

“The same way I do it now. I give them everything that I don’t give to you.”

She pressed her lips into an even thinner line. “That’s no way to be a father.”

“It’s all I have.”

“I suppose something is better than nothing, isn’t it?”

A flicker of something moved through her eyes. She looked away. For a long moment, Mildred stared at nothing, said nothing. Derek waited, breath held, for what she would say. After what felt like an eternity, she turned and met his gaze.

“My offer stands. Derek Black, will you be the Head of Protectors for the Central Network?”

What she asked meant more than he could comprehend after such a long night. Did she really trust him to this degree? Was he really going to accept this position? He held out an arm, clasping her own small forearm in his. 

“It would be an honor, Your Highness.”

“Good. Now go home to your family for three days of recovery. It will be a while before you see them again.”

 

* * *

Phew! 

I hope you loved that very long short story and historical background. It's always so fun to see Mildred again, isn't it?!

If you want more of those short story deep dives that can explain all your questions, then I have a collection over 100,000 words long (longer that Miss Mabel's School for Girls that you don't want to miss. Grab them all right here!)

Or you can read all my other free short stories right here.