Well. At least this would be a quick visit.
On the outskirts of Weatherly, the wind blows strong and cold. She'd never liked it very much. Yet somehow, not only does it work well as a reminder of home, it always seems appropriate.
She returns here so often. Not all the time – and sometimes, it's not always recognizable at first. But at least this time there aren't any sentient fang shrimp taking offense that a human is on the loose in the tropical area around their capital.
That had been a very unfortunate dimension to travel to.
She sighs and lets a hand trail over a small grave marker listing the names of her family. Sometimes it is a marker for her. Sometimes for her parents.
All too often, it is for her sister.
And that is all the reason in any world to move on.
She takes a token look around anyways, cautiously exploring around Weatherly with a ready account of an obscure cousin who tragically hadn't heard of what had happened to the small family on the outskirts of town, but the explanation is unnecessary. The inhabitants are all elves, who send one look her way and then immediately turn away with hushed, scandalized whispers. A human. Here! What is the world coming to!
In less than an hour, she is certain. There is no hope to be found here. She returns to the grave marker because it always seems right, to quit a world where they did. As her mentor taught her, she takes a moment to judge her reserves, to check the magics she has available and how reliable her body will be after another jump.
It will do, but she will need a rest in the next leg of the trip or two. There is enough magic within her if some emergency arises. And so she raises her hands, pulling magic from her soul and weaving it into a doorway that she pulls open, tearing the air asunder to step between worlds and realities.
This time it is not Weatherly. It is a northern forest, full of pines and dappled shadows that leave her feeling almost chilled. Some of that, of course, is the part of her soul that she just sacrificed for the power to travel. Her mentor, Strega Emila, has cautioned her time and again – world and dimension again - to not try magics that surrender that much of her to the gods, the ether, whatever it is in any world that allows magic users to use magic.
Penny has never been very good at listening to authority.
Since this time, there is not the immediate giddiness of her magical reserves – a constant for most people, something one just cannot change at all – filling back up, growing in many cases, so that means this is a world where she's not dead.
Possibly also that she hasn't been born, but the former point is usually more important.
It means there might be hope.
She manages to find a small stream, and she has been world hopping long enough that finding safe water to drink and bathe in is a wonder in itself. She forces herself to eat some of her rations (five to ten more worlds' worth left, if she's lucky), filling her water skins and just enjoying the peace of a decent meal and a few minutes rest.
Of course, that means a woman comes striding out of the woods and right up to her as if her presence is expected.
"Greetings," the old woman declares, bowing and clutching a walking staff as if she desperately wants to whirl around and strike something. "Your arrival is fortuitous, sister."
For one heartbreaking moment, Penny scans the woman for some evidence that this might in fact be the one she seeks (curse it all, time travel within a particular dimension, and for a narrow target is blasted difficult!), but the shape of the face is all wrong, the eyes glow with a faint touch of green instead of highlighting a natural blue -
No, not her literal sister.
"You're a witch," she states flatly.
The woman bows her head in strangely deferential acknowledgement. "Yes, Bright One. Our greatest Augers foretold your arrival "
Penny isn't sure what an Auger is (though it sounds like a particularly unpleasant mushroom, or maybe a lizard), but seeing the future – that she understands.
"Fantastic," she declares flatly. She thinks it's more than understandable that she's less than thrilled about this. "You want something from me."
"Yes, Bright One."
"Stop calling me that!" She glares at the woman, who doesn't shrug but somehow gives the impression that she does. "Why are you calling me that? It's ridiculous."
Finally the old woman looks a little bit repentant. "That is how the prophecies referred to you."
They glare at each other for a little while, then Penny sighs and runs hands though her short red hair. Somehow, her arrival has been predicted. It's a silly name, and she's not really ready yet to ask what it is she's supposed to do, but she suspects it won't be fun. There probably aren't too many prophets who want to send a nice guide to "lead the foretold one to a nice, safe place to rest and get a good meal before sending them on their peaceful way, and literally totally not euphemistically at all."
For a moment, she just feels terribly, horribly exhausted, the bone-deep fatigue that has shadowed her since a long ago bloody day in Weatherly. She lets herself feel it for a moment, the weight of worlds pushing down upon her shoulders, then she straightens them and looks the annoying witch in the eyes. "All right. So what is it I'm supposed to be doing? Or is this one of those vague riddle things I have to figure out? I hate those."
At least the witch looks a little bit offended. "Our order is not given to obfuscation. It's quite clear and concise – you are the one to stop the rampage of one of the Demon Princes."
She gapes for a moment, all sorts of words and incredulous questions screaming through her mind. Somehow, ridiculously, impossibly she limits herself to "Are you out of your MIND? Why the blazes do you think I could do something like that?!"
"It's obvious just looking at you – you have magical power far beyond any witch I have ever seen. I am considered quite powerful, yet my abilities are clearly but a fraction of yours."
Oh. Oh blast. That is nothing she wants to hear, in no small part because it is readily truth. It's not natural, of course. She'd had only a minor talent back in the day, before horror came to visit.
Afterwards, the witch passing though (responsible for the trouble in so many ways, savior and too late all at the same time) took her in, took her away from Weatherly.
She spent a handful of years learning from Strega Emila, of life and the world and the Witches' Way. Witchery is not particularly complicated, but it can be brutal on an incautious practitioner. It uses part of the witch's soul to change the world, the bigger the change the more the practitioner suffers. Eventually, if one spends enough magical energy, they simply die.
Strangely, if one travels to a different dimension where one's counterpart was born and already died, one gets that inherent power added to their own.
Penny's been to more dimensions than she will ever care to remember. Since so few people even believe in dimension hopping, she's probably a good sight stronger than most anyone she meets, no matter how much magic she expends traveling.
It only makes things lonelier.
She's not certain what this witch expects of her. Oh, fine, there's some nonsense about some elves and a tree and one of the demon princes, and dwarves doing something unsavory to another, but apparently humans drew the short straw and now it's on her to Do Something about Virbane the Mindtwister.
Why her? Well, it's obvious with a little bit of time and no one prattling on about prophecies. She's the outsider, and if she dies or worse in the attempt, the locals will have gained some time to figure out something else they might be able to do.
She's never liked being the odd one out. It's tempting to just toss some magic at the problem, to hop out of this ridiculous dimension, but she's just suspicious and superstitious enough of prophecies that she decides to give it a whirl.
Worst case? She teleports out of this dimension screaming away from a Demon Prince.
It'll be fabulous.
The best news she gets is that the Demon Prince is probably at least half an hour away. She has plenty of time to use her nice stream to wash some of the nastiest stains out of her spare clothes (not that there's a lot of that) and ponder the details the local witch shared. It's not even a century past the Third Dawn, so not a surprise that Penny didn't gain any new magic – her parents are generations from being born, let alone her.
So for now she has her clothes to clean, and the words of Strega Taya to ponder. The old witch had been fairly open about what was what – there's some vague prophecy claiming a "Bright One" with loads and loads of witchy magic will appear, where and when, and that she will cage the demon Virbane.
No details about how, of course.
So for a little while, Penny just cleans her clothes, letting the cool water trail over her fingers and enjoying the pleasant afternoon.
Life is like that, she's found. There's pleasant days and moments to be found, but usually in the wrong places or at times when you know Death is breathing down your neck.
She's kind of gotten used to it.
Virbane the Mindtwister has been taking his sweet blasted time. She's not sure how long it's been since Strega Taya wandered off and hid, but it's definitely been more than that, since her clothes are mostly dry, and packed, and she's taken a quick dip in the water.
It's when she's wringing the last drops of water out of her hair that it happens.
"Excuse me," a voice purrs. It's masculine, deep, resonant in a way no human's could be.
It's also right behind her.
She can guess from the quiet menace suddenly thick in the air that she's expected to whirl around and scream, or try to fight, or maybe run. Instead she pauses a moment, twisting red strands of hair and watching water darken the moss in front of her.
"Yes?" she asks dryly (and it is her tone, not her mouth which is horribly horribly dry from fear), and she turns.
There is a... man... standing there, an arm's length away from her – well, an arm's length for him, substantially more for her. He has long, dark hair and a broad face, the lines of his jaw and cheeks highlighted with greeny-copper scales. His eyes are absolutely inhuman, black where they should be white and white where they should be dark, and the iris in between is a green that is purely Ethereal.
His smile is clearly, deliberately unnerving. "I was passing by, and I saw you. I couldn't help but stop, since I'd love to talk with anyone. It's been awhile since I've spent time with any humans."
For just a moment, she entertains the idea of playing coy. She could proclaim something witty and misleading, or fluff-headed and confusing -
But really, she doesn't have the time or patience for that.
She can also feel the magic he possesses. Since she's no fool, she's more than a little terrified.
"Virbane," she says instead, aiming for casual and perhaps achieving it from the way he starts and pulls back, eyes narrowing and the scales disappearing from his skin. There's something calculated and predatory in the way he almost seems to streamline himself into a more human shape that is somehow more disturbing without the foreign little touches. "I've been waiting for you."
He opens his mouth, but she doesn't bother waiting to see if he's going for witty or fluff-headed or to send magic her way. Instead she just reaches into herself, and grabs as much magic as she thinks she needs and throws it at him.
It's the upside to witchery as a system. Magic can be tossed at a problem, and adapted on the fly, with the caster's will and desires shaping the results.
Of course, the downside is that when it meets more structured magic – say, habitual mind-twisting and manipulation – the results might not be as clearly defined as originally intended.
She tosses magic at him, a lot of it, leaving herself open to the flow of power because she's pretty sure she'll need to spend more to bind him. It swoops around the demon, spinning as almost invisible motes of sorcery that attempt to chain him in place, to keep him caught and still and contained.
It slides right off, twisted away and into something else. She's not sure if he's trying to shield himself, reflecting it back at her, but purpose be damned she knows what to do. It takes a bit of work, a quick snarl and a push of power to curve her own magics around her and curling right back around to surround him, and already she can feel his power reaching into her mind.
They stand there for a moment, power eddying back and forth and around them into a figure eight as it grows, feeding on the power they keep pumping into it as his specialties try to crack open her mind.
Penny doesn't fight it directly, since she's well aware magic is a two way street. Instead she shunts his attempts to the side as well, cycling his power into hers and the increasing storm of magics wrapping around them. At the same time, she sends another strand of her own magic back along the same path, coaxing the whirlwind to follow the same paths in a new figure eight.
The actual, physical wind that is careening around them in an infinity sign suddenly stops as they break into each others' minds at the same time.
Meanwhile the magic swirls around and between and through them both, not binding but communing – close enough! She knows, she can feel as he is swamped by her memories, he knows it knows it all he might as well have lived it -
Not that Weatherly was ever a place to live just to survive to another day another generation on and on with no purpose no escape and she had to she had to leave get out get free get alive -
and it had been worse and worse and worst of all was her Sister they'd always been so close her laughing silly older sister who didn't see it didn't see the trap they were all stuck in until the day Penny had finally tried to find the words because if not now then never it had to be now an escape with Strega Emila -
and then The Argument every last desperate hateful word sisters in each others' faces until it was all magic, from her maybe from sister from them and then -
Demons, why was it always demons who destroyed her life?
The Demon that spawned from the air, screaming and cursing and flailing and Penny had stumbled back into Sister who had pushed her, not towards the demon but to the side away and if she'd just stepped back, then it would have been Penny's heart ripped out and bleeding out on the ground instead of Penny sprawled in the dirt staring at Sister's slack dead face and Sister's heart beating its last and when it stopped so did Penny's but she was still pretending to live even if it wasn't in Weatherly even if she could never speak her sister's name ever again she wasn't worthy and maybe if she never said it Sister would never really die since after all -
Names have power. And Penny has lived it, lives this horror every moment of every day and it no longer consumes her like this since she has a purpose, searching through time and dimensions for another Sister, her sister, before Penny got her killed or perhaps where there is no Penny to have killed her at all.
She won't stop until she finds her Sister, and she will never. Ever. Ever let another demon keep her from her sister ever again!
So she dives past her memories, into this demon's memories, and she screams.
It is centuries and more sweeping over her, continents and cities that no longer exist and places almost beyond time and magics almost beyond knowing. This demon -Virbane – she can feel him, she knows him, almost is him from the moment of creation and feeling smugness from the Dark gods that made him and his brothers and oh his brothers they hate each other they vie with each other and he hopes that one day they will destroy each other-
He has allied with them sometimes from distant whim, knowing there will be betrayal and blood and never anything he bitterly desires underneath it all in places he hides even from himself. She knows she sees she lives with him these last few decades as he created a world and a life and love and because love is so foreign and painful he destroys it because it destroys him
but he still lives but that is right because so does Laida though it is hardly living. He is on the prowl looking to hurt and maim and destroy because it used to be enough why can't it be enough again his brothers love it and live it and why does he have to feel anyways and here is easy prey a human little more than a girl child easy to twist and maim and maybe that will help him forget -
And just like that, the demon's memories twist out before her, become too much and her mind screams, unable to comprehend centuries upon centuries of life, and so it all streams past her like a river -
no, a river will never do -
though ordered and regimented as if it were a story she heard once -
wait, almost, there's something to that!
or paragraphs and pages and chapters in a book all neatly laid out and understandable -
yes, a book!
And so Penny cuts the power twining around and through them, leaving just enough strands of power and soul to craft it, knit the ends together into an Ouroboros of magic eating its own tail. She ties the bits of her soul – Nameless it will stay with him he will always have a part of me but better far better this than what would happen otherwise! - into his own magic, his very essence, pulling the Stromblighted demon into clearly organized chapters and pages and paragraphs.
And then she lets it all go, severing the magic and soul-stuff from herself, leaving it entirely his.
There's a dizzying moment, where the world sways and spins and then there's two thumps of things hitting the ground. And blast it, one of those things is herself; she's staring at the stream and feeling sick to her stomach in ways she hasn't in... ever, really. She spent so much magic. Too much, possibly, but she still has enough to leave and go someplace else. What she'd done would have left at least three witches soulless and dead. It mostly leaves her feeling so light and empty that she wonders that she doesn't just float away.
"Ngh... What – what happened? What happened to my body? I'm a -! You WITCH!" Virbane's voice doesn't reverberate the way it used to, since it now comes from between pages of a large, brown tome that tries to flail at the air and the earth around it. He howls curses at her in dozens of tongues, none of it magical anymore but no less scathing.
The words are loud and painful (and since when did she know that many demonic languages – Nameless, that's stuck with her!) and rattle around in her mind, making her more confused than she should be from that much soul loss.
Virbane is flickering – ah, that's it. Virbane. It's a powerful name, names are power, and he still has enough of a connection to that name and shape that she still needs to give this new form a name, and seal the spell for good, for all time.
Of course, a demonic book yammering all sorts of foul things at her, while she's dizzy and confused from soul-loss, is not. Helping. At all. She knows time is limited, that if she doesn't do something soon then they're all in at least one world of trouble, and the chances of her coming up with something right enough to stick look pretty grim -
Wait. Wait, there was a world, a few relative months back, where people had crafted magic like art, pinning it down into books and without one of those books most people couldn't do magic, it was all ritual and silly ceremonies and those books were called -
"Grimoire," she murmurs, and she can feel it reach out to the former demon and slam everything neatly into permanent place. "You're Grimoire now, so get used to it!" She thinks she proclaims the last bit loud enough for him to hear, which sounds impressive and mighty enough for a prophecy – that, or it was still croaked at sub-audible levels, but in that case no one should ever know. So it works.
Oh good. He shuts up at that – shock, maybe? Feeling the truth of it? - and it's quiet enough for Penny to push herself upright and unsteadily get to her feet.
"You. Will. Pay," he snarls, pages curling and cover arched with ferocious menace – for a book.
"Going to give me lethal paper cuts? Try to smother me in my sleep?" She snorts. "Please. You know I'm not from around here, and I'm not about to stay here. I've done my duty, and you'll never see me again."
"I will find you! I will hunt you down on whatever pestilent little world you've settled on, in whatever dimension, and I will slaughter any remnant of you or your family that I run across in the meantime! You haven't even been born on this world, and I will gleefully find a way to squash you in the cradle!"
She snorts, impressed only a bit, and really only by his persistence of delusion. "Good luck trying." She's had quite enough of this, and the ancient ache is back now that her life and soul and possibly the world aren't at stake any more.
She has a Sister to find.
Penny deliberately turns her back on the incoherently screaming Grimoire to pick up her pack, shouldering it with a quick, narrow-eyed look towards the woods where the witch claimed she'd wait. If that woman believes this prophecy nonsense, she'll be by quick enough.
Or perhaps the great and mighty former Virbane will have his first violent encounter with a squirrel.
Either way, not her problem.
She tilts her head in a sarcastic bow to the still screaming book, and then opens another doorway between worlds and steps through.
It's past time to go.
The witch called Taya slowly moves out of the trees, once again feeling dwarfed by the Bright One's power. She knows that this is the greatest feat of magic she has or ever will see, and somehow she still can't quite comprehend it. A demon prince was just changed, transformed right before her eyes, into a book.
It does explain a few things, at least.
Though the chosen name could make them just as complicated.
Grimoire. Powerful, but ominous.
"Book!" she calls, cautiously walking towards the tome which stops howling incoherent and probably profane syllables. It doesn't swivel towards her – it can't, or at least she hopes it doesn't have that sort of leverage on the ground – but she can nonetheless tell she has its undivided attention.
"Do not call me that! I am Virbane the Mindtwister-"
"Enough!" she shouts back, thumping the butt of her staff against the book's cover. At least astonishment seems to make him quiet. "You are Grimoire," she declares as calmly as she can, given the strange things she has seen. "This is your form now. My coven-"
"To the Abyss with your coven, and you can join them!" The book's pages span wide, as if it wants nothing more than to take a huge bite out of her.
She is not impressed. She has no children herself, but she has many nieces and nephews, she has taken care of their children as well, and temper tantrums are nothing to even blink at. So she shrugs instead, and moves swiftly enough to pick him up and start walking. She ignores his furious raving just as readily as his failed attempts to bite. Her coven is waiting, and their plans to sell a "magic talking book" to the Mages Council need solidifying. They also need to make sure that the Grimoire himself realizes that being a book is a good disguise, instead of declaring himself Virbane to all and sundry which really is incredibly stupid, but that will take time.
Time, they might finally have.
As she walks along, she finds herself praying that this will be the only prophecy she needs to encounter in her life. There's not really any estimate for how much time will pass between the two prophecies, but it's unlikely that the next Spellstorm will come soon.
The prophecy she did not tell the Bright One is worrying enough. Let that be for the next generation.
The Bright One's Grimoire shall be torn asunder by the Dawnbreaker, to unleash the demon princes' hell or to guide in the Red Dawn. It is a heart that shall guide the decision, formed from lovers old and children new, companions fair and foes most foul. Only the Sister and the Book can sway the world from a grim Dawn into darkness.
Another world, another Weatherly. Penny takes a breath, and approaches the gravestone, already rejuvenated by magic from a death of her alternate self. Perhaps here....