I stared deep into the eyes of the woman in white. Unease settled over me, and not just because the smells of ashes and smoke and blood were heavy in my nostrils. I stood before her, trying to appear tough and dignified. But I was weak, wounded, soaked and chilled from Pyry’s rain. Though Petrovin had restored my mana earlier with his dragonfire potion, the recent fight and the wound I had received from the imp had taken their toll. If it was a fight she wanted, a fight she would get, but I would not be the first to start it. Not in my condition.
The woman had watched us patiently while we fought the imps, the fire elemental, the flaming skeletons, and the bone devil. I don’t honestly know if she was helping the bone devil (possible), or helping us (very unlikely), or if she had simply remained a spectator. Regardless, if she hadn’t helped us fight, then she hadn’t helped us win; and if she hadn’t helped us win, then perhaps she hadn’t wanted us to win. To be honest, I had the feeling she watched the fight to see who was stronger—us, or the demons—and that either party would have served her purposes equally well. I think if they had killed us, she would have offered the demons the job. No, she did not want to help us. She wanted to take advantage of us, to control us, manipulate us for her benefit.
I didn’t want anything to do with her. But when the fight was done, she approached us anyway. There was no avoiding her, though I wanted to so badly.
Tired, wounded, and concerned for the others in my group, I did not want to remain in her presence a second longer than necessary. I wanted to get somewhere safe where my companions and I could rest and eat and heal. They were my first priority, not this dangerous stranger. So when she asked who the leader of our group was, I raised my hand and immediately asked her to say what she came to say.
She took my first statement as an insult. I suppose I could have said it a little softer, with a smile. Like my mother, I can be charming and diplomatic if I wish (in fact I prefer to be), but I never did have the additional touch for deception that she did. How else do you think my father came to become such an important businessman and politician in our city? How do you think my oldest brother got a position as an assistant to the governor? How do you think she secured smart marriages for my brothers and half the other influential bachelors in town? My father wasn’t pulling the strings alone. I could do it, too—pull strings, put on that mask of joviality and diplomacy—but not so effortlessly as she did. Not without great thought and preparation. Improvisation is not my strength, especially socially. Approaching me unprepared, in poor emotional and physical condition, was not ideal for the woman in white nor for me nor for my companions.
The woman in white curled her lips into a sneer and reprimanded me for my greeting. I made no apology, as I had done nothing wrong—though perhaps it would have been the cunning, deceitful thing to do. I suppose I was out of the energy required to be cunning and deceitful on command. Still, that’s no excuse. I have to learn how. I am a leader now. They chose me. I will become what I have to become—for them.
The woman, still eyeing me angrily, continued on, and asked who we were. I replied we were Aralondil, the Determined Light. I don’t think she liked that. Nor was she impressed. She did not give us her name.
She did give us a deal. Information on where our friend Asura was—if we would finish a job for her. It sounded suspicious to me. Just the way she worded things, the disdain in her voice, I didn’t trust it at all. It worried me that my companions seemed to be engaging with her in a friendly way, but I let them ask questions and say their piece. She did not describe what the job was. In fact, even when I asked, when I insisted, she would not describe the task that she wanted us to perform for her.
In no possible scenario would I ever agree to a deal like this without first defining the job that she wanted us to do and then consulting with my companions about it. The woman in white seemed to want to stop me from doing either of those things. She was pushy—and if there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s being rushed and pressured. My father taught me that’s the mark of a shady salesman—that’s the way to lose customers, by trying to push them into a deal too quickly and making them uncomfortable, losing their trust. This woman in white was not selling herself or her deal, at least not to me. Unfortunately, Kai seemed hooked immediately. Anything to get back his sister as fast as possible, regardless of the cost or consequences. I could see her working on that, on his weakness, on his desire to see his sister safe and whole. Preying on him, using his love for her to needle tiny bits of information away. And Ohm, ever the innocent one, ever the good-hearted friend, also began to show our cards when he attempted to bargain for the information himself.
The woman in white seemed to soften for Ohm and Kai, but I think that is only because she was pleased at their compliance. I had no such desire to comply, and so she disrespected and disdained me when I again insisted that she reveal to us the nature of the task she wanted us to complete. I made it clear that I would not accept her bargain without knowing the task first. The woman in white threatened to take back the deal, asking what I could possibly give her that would cause her to entertain this “fantasy” of revealing the task. Fantasy? Is it fantasy to want to know the terms of a business arrangement before entering into it? No! If a prospective businessman had treated my father like that, he would have walked away from the negotiating table and never looked back. I was tempted to, right then and there. This woman was going about the process of persuasion all wrong. Now I was the one insulted. I would rather spit on her hand than shake it. I wished I were Mercanis. He was a ruthless businessman, even more than my father—he would have sent her running for the hills with her tail tucked between her legs.
But her words and threats frightened Kai into appeasement. He whispered to me, saying that this could be our only chance to find information to rescue Asura. I replied that we didn’t know that for sure. In fact, I had faith that we would discover a way to Asura, no matter what. But being manipulated and frightened, Kai used the only bargaining chip he had at his disposal: bribery.
He offered the woman in white a sum of 1,000 gold for her to tell us the task. The woman accepted. I did not think it was fair at all. How could it be? She had manipulated and frightened Kai into giving her money for something we should never had had to pay for in the first place.
Something fierce inside me awoke, something I didn’t know I had. I felt what my brother Ferrous felt when he beat down a bully for me—Ferrous, who was normally about as dangerous and menacing as a cinnamon roll. I felt what my father felt when he sat on the judgment seat of the city, sentencing criminals. I felt what my mother felt when my father was slandered by political enemies and business rivals. Responsibility for protecting the people that are mine. When I was alive, I was never responsible for anyone but myself, so I never knew what it felt like before. The emotion quickened my mind, my blood, and my temper. I nearly ordered Kai to stop, not to hand over the money, for all of us to leave. But I knew that’s not what the rest of my companions wanted. Especially Kai. So I held my tongue.
She told us that she wanted us to kill Leicherous. That’s it. That’s all that 1,000 gold earned from her.
A mocking reply escaped my lips. “Was that so hard?”
Her eyes were daggers when she looked at me, and I deflected them back with my own gaze. Perhaps I was a tiny bit intimidated on the inside, but at least I didn’t look it on the outside. Appearances are half the battle, mother always said. If you look confident, people will believe you are confident.
Asche was immediately wary, and after she told us more of her observations of Leicherous in the Shining District, I knew she was wise to be. Killing him would be no easy task. It would require resources, forethought, strength, and skill. But all of my companions agreed that—especially since it seemed that Leicherous was competing with us in order to break the seals—killing him would align with our ultimate goals of completing the Trial of the Requiem. I don’t think a single one of them voiced an opinion against it, though each of them had a different reason why they agreed. I think perhaps I was the only person who didn’t want this deal. But I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t dare. I was a leader, not a dictator. If this is what my group decided they wanted to do, I would become what they needed me to become. I would do what they needed me to do. Even if it meant shaking hands with this evil woman on a contract for another evil man’s life.
The woman in white held out her hand. I took it, looking her in the eye, saying nothing. A flash bound our hands together for a moment, accompanied by magical symbols. The seal was complete. The contract was signed. I let go as soon as I could, flexing my hand involuntarily.
The woman in white proceeded to define the terms of the deal. We had two weeks to kill him. If we failed, we owed her 10,000 gold. For what, I have no idea—that’s not how business ventures work where I’m from. Where I’m from, the client pays for a service, and if that service fails, their payment is restored. Yet the woman in white has not paid us—in fact, the only good we get in exchange here is information, and yet she wanted to charge us gold in the case of failure? That didn’t seem fair to me. The only consolation in my mind was that we were about to put all our money in a bank, and if we failed, we would likely die trying, and if we died, then she would hopefully never be able to collect on her 10,000 gold, what with it being locked up in a goblin vault somewhere. A slim hope, but a spiteful hope nonetheless.
She warned us that Leicherous was a powerful chaotic magic user, that he would have Asura with him in the hidden mountain, and that Lorena and Arturia were likely being held on another plane of existence.
She did add an addendum of sorts—that if we completed this task for her, she would stay out of our way forever if we also stayed out of her way. And that if either one of us broke this addendum, we would have the full legal rights to kill one other. This was the only part of the bargain that I liked, because I hoped it meant that we would never see or hear from her again once the contract was fulfilled. But I was wrong. The woman in white hinted that she may return to us for future business contracts. If I were a dog, I would have growled at her. One contract with her was bad enough. I didn’t want us involved in whatever her machinations were. Like I said. She wanted to control us, manipulate us. Everything in me screamed that this was a trap. But it was too late.
Finally, she introduced herself, saying only that we could call her The Witch.
They say the road to hell is easy. Shaking hands with The Witch was definitely easy.