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It was a good 40 minute walk until I reached the correct mineshaft. I met a few miners along the path, and they confirmed I was headed in the right direction.
The nearer I got, the more nervous I felt. With a hand pressed flat over the brown fabric of my sturdy dress, I tried to chase my fright away with my thoughts.
I could do this.
I was powerful.
As a natural witch, I didn’t need to rely on ether from the ground; magic ran through my blood.
I could incant a quick spell under my breath or trace my hands over a knife to set it alight. And if I was really in a pickle, I could cut my finger and draw a few spots of blood. My blood was extremely pure and powerful. A few drops on a talisman would suffice to give me sufficient power to move a boulder, despite my small size.
I told myself that – over and over again – as I made my way along the winding path that led to the mineshaft. It was set into the side of a long and almost sheer cliff face. The path was barely eight inches wide, and in sections grew narrower. I had to be mighty careful where I put my feet.
But I’d grown up in these hills, and I knew how to keep my balance.
The morning did not warm. Even though the sun was now high in the sky, there was a chill wind whistling through the valley.
By the time I’d made it to the mouth of the shaft, it had turned into a gale.
The mouth of the shaft was secured; there was a string of sacred enchantments strung up between the supporting beams.
The enchantments would ensure nobody crossed into the cursed mine shaft.
As a witch, all I had to do was lick my finger, say a quick prayer, and unhook the enchantments. There was a spark over my fingers, one that sunk into my hand with a crackle, but it didn’t hurt.
I dropped the enchantments to the floor, and walked into the darkened mouth of the mine.
I shivered. Not just from the cold and the whistling wind, but from the feel of this dark tunnel.
I could definitely sense magic down here. My whole body buzzed with it, in fact.
That was another advantage of being a natural witch – I was extremely good at rooting out magic. Old Betsy said that if I continued to refine my skills, I would be one of the best witches in all of California.
I smiled at that thought and I let it bolster me as I curled my hands into fists and walked into the mine.
With a few more steps, I thrust my hand into my pocket, pulled out a special kind of candle, and lit it with a spell.
Though the candle was small, the light it cast was not. It reached far into the tunnel, chasing away every shadow but the furthest.
“I can do this,” I said to myself under my breath.
I would have to do it, too – as technically I’d already been paid.
With that sobering thought, I pushed further into the mine.
Captain Benjamin Carmichael
It was an uneventful ride to the mine sites. Still, I kept my eyes peeled. If the least I could do was try to detect a Federation in the woods, that was what I would do.
Yet on a morning as cold and drab as this one, all I saw was the occasional bird flitting through the sky.
Miss Campbell quickly stopped her incessant chatting. I could tell from all her fidgeting that she was regretting wearing such a voluminous skirt on horseback. Fortunately she didn’t scare the horse, and the resolute beast bore her all the way to the central campsite.
There, our party dismounted and the show began. For it was a show.
A fine young lady dressed in fine clothes surrounded by an entourage of gentlemen in bankers black suits, and a cavalry unit.
Why, these miners would never have seen anything like it. Nor should they have. It was a waste of their time.
They had valuable roles to play. The raw ether that they mined in these valleys and hills was the lifeblood of the Coalition.
I shot several of the older gentlemen apologetic looks as Miss Campbell wafted on by.
Not too soon after, I found myself pulling away from the group to survey the grounds.
The rest of my fine men were still with Miss Campbell. They would be more than capable of looking after her.
Instead I followed my curiosity. There were various paths, well-trodden and worn by heavy footfall all through the camp.
I followed one until I reached a group of bedraggled men. Scratched with numerous cuts across their faces and mud slicked over their brows, they looked as if they’d seen a fight.
“What happened to you?” I asked without an introduction.
One of the older men pulled himself to his feet with a grunt. “They haven’t sent the cavalry, have they?” He asked as he scratched his beard. “It’s a bad curse, aye, but I’m sure Miss Mason can deal with it.”
“What the devil are you talking about? Curse? What happened to you exactly?”
“One of the new mines has a curse. It’s a bad one. We barely got out with our lives. But that Miss Mason of ours will be able to deal with it. Strong one that one.”
“Am I to understand an unarmed woman has gone to lift, as you say, a bad curse that almost killed a group of sturdy miners?”
“Oh no, she’s got arms. She’s a witch,” he protested.
“Curses can be unpredictable. Especially around raw ether,” I said quickly. “In which direction is this mine?”
“Up that path there.” The man stabbed a thumb behind him indicating a path that wound into the steep hill behind. “But I don’t recommend you go after her, cavalryman. Curse lifting is the job of a mage. You’ll just get in the way.”
I pressed my teeth together. “I am a mage. I’m a Captain of the White Cavalry,” I said pointedly.
There was a low and surprised mumble amongst the miners.
The old man looked particularly shocked. “What’s a White cavalryman doing around these parts? We haven’t been attacked, have we? Are the Federations coming?” He leapt to his feet.
I put up a hand. “No. I am here on other business. But now I will follow that path and lift that curse and save this Miss Mason,” I said pointedly. “If my men ask where I’ve gone, you will tell them.” With that, I turned and marched towards the aforementioned path.
This was the first time I would have done something useful in what felt like months.
For a Captain of the White Cavalry, I had done precious little magic work in a long time. I needed to keep my skills refreshed for the coming war.
So I took to that path with alacrity.
This was quite an infection.
The further I walked into the mine shaft, the more I felt it. Something was feasting off the raw ether.
The skin along the back of my neck prickled and quick tight shivers kept racing down my arms and into my palms.
I was way beyond telling myself I could do this. Instead I clutched my hands into fists, driving the fingers deep into my palms as I gritted my teeth.
To lift a curse, you had to find the origin point. Somewhere in this dark, winding, treacherous mineshaft would be the root of the curse. It often looked like a particularly malignant patch of lichen or moss. In reality, what it was, was an infection. Just like a man’s limb could become gangrenous with a wound, so could the ether.
To lift the curse, you had to cure it.
Which wasn’t so hard, as long as you came prepared.
I shoved a hand into one of the capacious pockets of my coat, and withdrew a small blade. Licking a finger, I touched it to the tip of the blade.
It began to glow a soft white.
My hand shook as I held it, but with a quick command, it steadied.
Not only did I have to find the source of the infection and cure it, but I had to be careful it didn’t find me first.
The infection would try to defend itself. It would not, how
ever, consider me as much of a threat as the miners had been. They, after all, had been depriving it of ether – stealing it right from the ground.
Me, I didn’t need ether to practice magic, so I was perfectly placed to cure this infestation.
Still, as soon as it realized what I was up to, it would defend itself.
In my time of working with old Betsy, I’d seen the various ways a curse could manifest. Sometimes it would cause clouds of dust to kick up into the shaft that would chase you and try to shred your skin to scraps. Other times it would shake the floor and ceiling, trying to loosen rocks large enough to squash you flat – and dead.
I had my own defenses, though. As I walked, I kept repeating a quick spell under my breath, one designed to calm the curse.
Still, this was admittedly dangerous work. And the further I walked into the tunnel, the more dangerous I realized it was.
Most of the curses I’d addressed previously had been at the mouths of mines, and never this far in.
The further I walked, the more dangerous it became, because it meant the curse had access to more ether. Ether was sunk deep into the bowels of the earth. So the further down you went, the more of it you came across.
These hills had already been mined for years, and the miners were having to dig further and further down to find any ether.
Just before I convinced myself to turn back, I saw it – a light right at the end of the tunnel.
There was a large rock wall in front of me, and it was black from precipitation – some strange foul liquid covering it completely.
It gave off a peculiar glow, and as soon as I saw it, I shivered, feeling magic race deep into my bones and tingle across my tongue.
… I’d never seen one like it. I was used to small patches – not great swathes like this.
Before the fear could eat into my limbs and unsettle my balance, I continued forward.
I held on to my small blade, readying the appropriate enchantment.
That would be when the floor pitched violently. Not violently enough that I was thrown to my knees and I lost hold of my blade, but I did pitch into the wall beside me.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed up immediately, now letting my voice rattle out as I practically hollered the calming spell.
I had a good set of lungs on me, and as I bellowed, it echoed off every wall.
The pitch to the ground stopped. Only a few small stones were unsettled from the ceiling, and though they sailed close by me, with a quick protective spell, none reached me.
I stopped about a meter away from the wall, sucking in a quick breath. Hand trembling around my blade, I leaned down and carefully put the candle on the ground beside me.
Still bellowing my enchantment, I snapped forward.
I plunged my small knife into the wall.
Immediately I felt the magic. It burst through my body as if I had swallowed a lightning bolt.
It tried to rebuff my knife, tried to push it out of the wall. But I struggled, planting my feet into the ground and shoving my shoulder hard to ensure the blade did not move.
My voice echoed as I shouted my enchantment, my throat becoming hoarse and raw.
But I did not stop.
The ground began to pitch again, and gave one more violent shake before stopping suddenly.
I shifted to the side, yanking my shoulder away just as a large stone sailed past. It struck the ground and rolled to a stop against my boot.
With a single crackle, the black sludge-like substance covering the wall began to recede. It drew into the tip of the knife.
I began to relax.
Just before the last pool of sludge could disappear, it stopped. Then with an almighty bang, my knife shot from the wall, pulling me with it.
I fell to my knees a few meters away, tumbling and rolling, but fortunately keeping the knife away from my middle so I didn’t gut myself.
Before I could process what happened, I threw myself to my feet.
I ran towards the wall.
The sludge was bursting out of it again, now not only covering the wall, but spilling from the hole I’d made in it with my knife. It was pouring over the rocks, pushing towards me.
Without a thought, I brought the knife against my thumb, nicked it, and let a few trickles of blood travel down the smooth steel. I leapt towards the wall and I shoved the knife back into it.
There was an almighty crackle.
Then, with a single word, I neutralized the curse.
Whenever I used my blood, it made me 100 times stronger. I didn’t like to use it unless I had to, though... it felt... wrong.
I didn’t know why, and now was not the time to explore that thought.
Instead I flattened a palm onto the now clean wall. I closed my eyes and I waited. Waited for any sense of magic within.
When there was none, I withdrew the knife, let it fall beside me, and I breathed.
“Well, you managed it,” I told myself.
And I had.
But it’d been a darn sight more dangerous than I’d imagined.
As I turned, I glanced to the rock that had tumbled from the ceiling beside me.
It was big enough that had it struck me, it would have killed me.
I should not linger.
Cleaning my knife of my blood, I pushed it back into its sheath and back into my pocket, grabbed the candle, turned, and walked back.
Though it had seemed like an age as I travelled into the mine, it was a relatively short walk back to the mouth.
And that’s when I heard a man.
Calling my name.
“Miss Mason! Miss Mason, are you in there? Are you alright?”
Rather than answer back, I turned around the last corner in the tunnel, and faced the opening to the mine.
And the man.
He was dressed in the Prussian blue of the Coalition cavalry. His uniform was smart, and suited his large build.
He had stone grey eyes and strawberry blond hair that sat neatly to his shoulders.
He was really quite handsome.
There was a scabbard by his side, and a sword in his hand. The sword was glowing with magic.
… Strange I had noted that fact last.
“Miss Mason,” he said in a commanding tone as if I were in trouble for something. “There you are.” He waved me forward.
“… Do I know you?” The answer was no. I did not know this man. Nobody who looked like that lived around these parts.
“I am Captain Benjamin Carmichael. I’m here to save you, Miss Mason.”
I frowned. “From what?”
“From the curse,” he growled. “Now come here.”
This man may be handsome, granted, but he was dictatorial and extremely forward considering we’d only just met.
I stood my ground. “There is no longer a curse, sir; I have already cured it.”
He looked thrown. Then he frowned. “Why, then, is there a strange glow emanating from the end of that tunnel?” He pointed behind me.
At first I thought he was joking, and I turned slowly with an unamused expression.
Then I saw the glow.
My cheeks slackened.
The infection was back!
My hand went straight to the sacred blade in my pocket, and I tore it from its protective sheath with a shaking hand.
Before I could incant a single word, I heard footsteps.
The light turned out not to be an infection at all, but Harry Pinker.
Harry was one of the oldest and grizzliest miners in the valley, which was saying something.
I let out a trapped breath of air, and it whistled through the narrow shaft. “Harry, you scared me senseless. What are you doing here anyway? The other miners were...” I was on the cusp of saying evacuated. Then I saw Harry’s eyes.
They no longer had any color. They were black, through and through. No whites, no nothing. Just blackness.
Harry was infected.
Without a word, he swung his lamp towards me.
I doubled backwards, bringing a hand up to protect my face.
Then Harry was upon me. He unhinged his jaw with a click, then screamed. A cursed, deathly, horrifying scream that reached right into me and wrapped hands around my gut.
Before he could reach out to me, Carmichael acted. He had already closed the gap between us, and he threw himself at Harry, rounding his shoulder and slamming it into Harry’s chest.
Now Harry was infected, he was a good 10 times stronger. Though he was old, he’d been a miner all his life, and he had the muscles to show for it.
Carmichael grunted. “Get back,” he screamed at me.
I shuffled away, but I certainly did not run away.
Harry took a swipe at Carmichael, letting out another terrifying scream.
Carmichael let out a grunt of his own, ducking under one of Harry’s punches and deftly dodging to the side.
Carmichael’s sword was still drawn and it still glowed blue with magic.
Fortunately he had not used it yet.
While it was relatively easy to cure rock of a curse, it was much harder to cure a man. If Carmichael plunged that sword deep into Harry’s gut, he might cure the infection, but he would kill Harry instantly.
“Be careful,” I screamed.
“Get out of here,” Carmichael called back. He was light on his feet, always staying just out of Harry’s reach. For a man as tall and muscular as Carmichael, that was saying something, for now Harry was infected, he was extremely fast.
Their boots squeaked and thumped against the rock, the light from Carmichael’s sword catching every shadow. It lit up the underside of his face, glowing along his angled jaw and blazing along his brass buttons.
In order to cure Harry of his infection, Carmichael would have to disable him and force the man to swallow an enchantment.
That I could help with.
With a shaking hand, I grabbed a scrap of paper from my pocket and a small stump of coal. I wrote the enchantment quickly before scrunching it into a tiny ball. “Here, I have an enchantment!”
Carmichael ignored me. He continued to fight Harry. Despite the fact Harry had the strength of 10 men, Carmichael was holding his own. He used his sword expertly, he also plunged a hand into his pocket and withdrew an ether bottle. It wasn’t like the raw ether I was used to – this stuff was darn pure. As soon as he brought up the bottle, it glowed a spectacular white blue almost more powerful than his illuminated sword.
With an expert, deft move, he flicked open the top of the bottle and poured some of the content onto his hand.
Then he started incanting something under his breath in a low mumble that sounded like a far-off earthquake.
Suddenly sparks of blue leapt over his hand and he brought it around in a powerful fist and punched Harry on the jaw.
There was a click, and Harry was thrust backwards.
The old miner was not down yet though. With another terrifying scream that split the air, he thrust himself forward, scrabbling at Carmichael’s boots.
Carmichael dodged backwards, keeping his sword at arm’s-length. Which was good, because at that exact moment Harry leaned down and with both hands struck the floor of the shaft.
It shook, and several large rocks loosened from the ceiling above, scattering around Carmichael. He dodged most of them, slashing a particularly large one with his sword and smashing it into dust.
As for me, I skipped back and dodged everything but a few small stones that scattered off the shoulders of my large jacket and struck the floor by my shoes.
“Get out of here,” he hollered at me again, “It’s dangerous!”
I could see that. That’s why Carmichael had to hurry up and accept my enchantment.
Instead, he swung forward with another fist, and managed to collect Harry on the jaw again.
There was a crack of broken bone, and Harry did sink to his feet, but he did not stop.
I was no expert, but Carmichael could not keep this up; his magic would run out. Despite the fact it was pure, it was limited.
Indeed, as they continued to fight, Carmichael continued to dodge expertly, delivering blows with blinding speed and cracking force. And yet, I saw that brilliant white blue light of his magic start to ebb. Every time he withdrew the bottle from his pocket, there was less and less left.
“Get out of here!” He yelled, his voice now so insistent and loud it echoed like a thunderclap through the shaft.
Harry responded with a bellow of his own. He unhinged his jaw with a sickening click and let his shout blast over Carmichael’s.
Carmichael shifted on his boot, retreating backwards a few steps, then repositioning himself and bringing his sword around.
I knew what he was going to do. He was going to slice Harry through.
I couldn’t allow that.
Harry was powerful – this curse was the worst I’d ever seen.
Which meant I needed power to fight it.
Bringing up my sacred blade, I cut it across my finger, and I pressed my finger to the rolled up wad of enchantment paper.
I soaked it through, and I pushed myself forward.
Carmichael saw me moving, and tried to grab a hand around my middle, but I dodged out of his way.
Harry saw me, and screamed once more, his scream carrying so far it was as if it pierced the very center of the earth.
His eyes widened as he stared at me, then he moved, snapping forward with the sickening crack of bone and muscle.
Carmichael shouted something, but I didn’t hear him. I concentrated. I kept pressing my bloody finger into the enchantment paper until it practically burned with magic. A powerful white light leapt over it, letting out a ferocious glow.
With this much blood and this much magic sinking into the parchment, there was no need for an incantation.
Harry swiped towards me, grabbing my arm and dragging me towards him.
I heard Carmichael behind me, he was readying his sword, maybe just a meter away now.
I had seconds.
With a scream, I threw myself at Harry, and I slammed the parchment into the center of his head just before he could use that unhinged jaw on my neck.
He stopped, frozen by the magic as it swelled through his body.
Steam started to issue from every pore, and he jerked backwards and forwards as if a whole group of men were shaking him.
I stood there, keeping that enchantment pressed against his skull. His hand fell from my arm, and then with a gasp like the last breath of a dying man, he fell to his knees, then fell to his side.
I staggered back and watched the last few wisps of steam escape. If you observed carefully, you could see trails of magical light disappearing into the air. The last few traces of the infection.
With a massive sigh of my own, I got down on my knees and briefly checked Harry.
He would be fine.
I turned and stood up.
Carmichael was staring at me. I could see how wide the whites of his eyes were as they framed his stone grey irises.
“What was that?” He asked through a rattling hiss.
“That was an enchantment,” I said as I patted down my skirts. “It’s the only way to deal with a curse like that,” I said knowledgeably.
Carmichael didn’t say a word.
I walked past him to the mouth of the mine. I would have to call down to the main camp to tell them about Harry. I would have no chance of moving him on my own, and somehow I didn’t think this Carmichael character would deign to help me.
Before I could walk from the mine shaft, Carmichael was upon me.
He snapped to my side, latching a hand on my wrist, and he turned me around.
He looked at me sharply, those stone grey eyes suddenly alight like topaz under water. “What on earth?” he asked through a halting breath. “What happened to your cut?”
I tried to tu
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