“Where I come from…” Erika repeated, an uneasiness settling in her stomach.
Now that Liam said they were safe, Erika couldn’t get the image of the wasteland she had seen out of her head. That was what the world looked like now. Destroyed and devoid of any life. The faces of the two officers lying dead in Giovanni’s flashed in her mind and suddenly all the adrenaline drained out of her. Trying to be as steady as she could, she walked over to the only couch in the room and sat down.
“What do you mean?” she asked then.
Liam did not join her on the couch. Instead, he started pacing, words pouring out of his mouth with practiced ease.
“In the year 1786, during a solar eclipse, time stopped for approximately thirty seconds and the world went still. Thirty seconds were enough for Grimsbane, the most evil warlock of that time, to reign chaos and terror across the kingdoms. Till now, no one knows how he managed to make time stand still, no witch or warlock has ever been able to do that, but Grimsbane was powerful, more powerful than any being, magical or otherwise, to walk the face of this earth. When time started again, there was anarchy. A major part of our land looked like this,” Liam waved a hand towards the window and the sight outside involuntarily drew Erika’s eyes. She looked back at Liam and opened her mouth to ask something but he continued determinedly, “Kingdoms were overthrown, several of the magical community were found dead and, worst of all, the Moonwood was stolen from right under the noses of the Guild.”
“Wait, wait… the Guild, the Moonwood?” Erika spoke up, utterly confused. “Warlocks? What are you saying?”
“Warlocks are real.”
“Are you a warlock?”
“Am I a warlock?”
“You’re a witch.”
“Right. Of course I am.” Erika stood up. “This is obviously a dream. Or rather, a nightmare.”
Liam caught her elbow, his eyes flashing. “Sit.”
Erika narrowed her eyes at him. “I don’t take orders from anyone,” she said challengingly, but her voice caught on the last word and Liam knew she was scared. He sighed and let go of her elbow. He took it as a good sign that she didn’t move away.
“Erika,” he said, as gently as possible, “this is not a dream, this is very real and we are running short of time. If you don’t go back out there in 3 days, this safe house will longer be safe and both of us will die.”
“But,” she interrupted.
“Please,” Liam said forcefully. “Just listen to what I have to say. I’m trying to help.”
He could see the conflicting emotions on her face but he was relieved when she nodded and sat back down. “So what’s the Guild? Is it a cult or something?” she asked.
“The Guild of the Burning Witch is an institution that protects the magical community and their magic. It passes secrecy laws, decides the good spells and the bad spells, guards powerful artifacts and the Guild is usually the one that steps up in the face of a new threat. Four ordinary witches formed the Guild during the Salem witch hunts but over the years, more witches and warlocks have been recruited. No one truly knows where they operate from but the Guild of the Burning Witch is an all-powerful entity and will stop at nothing to protect its kind.”
“Are you a member of the Guild?” Erika piped up when Liam stopped to take a breath.
“But do you work for them?” she pressed.
“No, but I do report to them,” revealed Liam. He intrigued Erika. Who was this guy and why was he helping her? She opened her mouth to ask another question but Liam continued like he had never paused. “The disappearance of the Moonwood was a blow to the Guild. Its security was of the utmost importance, not only because it is the most powerful artifact in the world, but also because the Guild has never been breached… except that one time during the eclipse, by Grimsbane.
“Enraged by Grimsbane’s schemes, the Guild declared war against him. The war lasted for almost 8 years. Many good people lost their lives and there was a lot of destruction and yet, Grimsbane came out the victor.”
An explosion rocked the safe house and Erika screamed. Liam stood very still and waited for her to calm down.
“This, all this that’s happening right now,” Liam said, “is the result of a defeated Guild taking action against Grimsbane’s evil. The war taught them that their ranks hadn’t been strong enough. To vanquish a warlock like Grimsbane, they needed equally powerful witches and warlocks. So a test was created. A test every potential witch and warlock had to pass in order to join their ranks. The test was different for everyone yet the base remained the same. Pass and you were a part of the magical community, but fail and you would be stripped of your magical abilities.
“But times have changed. For the past 50 years, not just potential Guild members but every witch and warlock has been going through this test. Typically, at the age of seventeen.” Liam paused and shot Erika a meaningful look.
She stared at him, realization dawning. The explosion had happened just as the clock had struck midnight, signifying the end of her seventeenth birthday. She could only attribute her next question to the shock she felt on learning this was a test. She was in a test!
“Can you tell my parents I love them?”
Liam came over and sat down beside her. “You’ve not even started, Erika. Don’t give up now,” he said patiently. She didn’t seem to be listening to him. She was looking out the window, her eyes slightly glazed. Liam grabbed her shoulder and shook her slightly. “I’m going to train you. You won’t fail.”
She looked at him blankly. Then asked, “Why is the Moonwood so important?”
Liam sighed. “Erika,” he began but she shook her head. “It can give life,” he divulged, “in exchange for another. It’s a dark artifact, to be protected from falling into the wrong hands at all costs.”
Erika nodded but didn’t say anything. Liam supposed she was still in shock and maybe trying to process everything he had just told her. But he had had enough. They were wasting precious time sitting here staring at the horizon. They needed to train. Erika needed to train. He couldn’t let her fail now. He had never wished failure on anyone under his guidance notwithstanding their attitude and temperament. So he stood up and ordered her up as well.
“Training begins now!”
Training, as Erika later found out, wasn’t just about learning to do magic. Liam taught her basic fighting as well. She asked how it was possible to learn everything within three days. He laughed and told her that time worked in a different way in these tests. “Three days is equivalent to three weeks,” he informed her. Erika couldn’t quite wrap her head about that theory but then there were a lot of things that escaped her logic. Like magic.
She had easily learned the energy blast spell because a large part of it required her to channel her anger and frustration. Considering her current situation, it wasn’t so difficult. But moving things with her mind felt like someone was squishing her brain with a boulder. All she did was pant and grunt and absolutely nothing seemed to move. Liam kept telling her to clear her mind but how the hell could she do that when he had just informed her that she was a witch and that she had the power to decapitate someone just by looking at them!
“You can’t do that. There’s no such thing as a decapitating spell,” Liam said, watching raptly as she tried to light a candle with her mind.
Erika opened her eyes to glare at him. “Shut up, I’m concentrating,” she scolded.
He obliged. Fire sparked on the wick. Erika squealed in happiness. Liam’s eyes widened. And it all lasted for about two seconds and they were again left with an unlit candle and small line of smoke wafting above and disappearing into the air.
Erika’s shoulders slumped. She looked sheepishly at Liam. “At least there was a spark, wasn’t there?”
He nodded and then demanded that she show him her left hook.
That is how her training continued. They would divide their time between magic and sparring. Erika was doing better at former rather than the latter. She mostly liked to blame it on the fact that Liam himself was not a very good fighter and more often than not, Erika beat him in a fighting match within minutes. He had then ruefully informed her that every test drained him of power and that if he were to somehow retain his power in these tests, people would just depend on him and not reach their full potential. Erika agreed with him and continued kicking his butt in fights. She still had doubts about being fully trained by the end of 3 days, even though they were equivalent of 3 weeks. But Liam assured her that she didn’t have to be fully trained. Apparently, these tests were more focused on a person’s strength, determination and resourcefulness in the face of danger. Power was secondary as no one could fully learn magic in the span of a mere 3 weeks.
And boy, the days were long! Erika could barely walk straight by the end of the day. She was beginning to understand the significance of shorter days in real life and the 24 hour limit. Living a day which was similar to one week was terrible and felt like a cruel joke. That was not to say that the day was one week long. It merely felt long because Liam made Erika train like crazy, with less or no breaks in between at all. She was constantly complaining and bad mouthing him behind his back (sometimes, she punched him harder as well) but she never stopped obeying him and often did as she was told. She was determined to pass her test.
But she had questions, too. And she would mostly spring them on Liam when he was least expecting them.
“What happened to Grimsbane, Liam?” she asked on the second day when he was explaining to her the bond between nature and magic, and that she could pull her magic from nature if she tried.
It took a few seconds but he answered grimly, “He died.”
“How? I thought he was the most powerful.” Erika could see he was disturbed. Had Liam known Grimsbane? Because if he did, how old would Liam be now? Was he even real or was he just a figment of her imagination, there only to guide her through her test? She knew they didn’t have a lot of time on their hands to sit and exchange life stories but there were some questions that just piqued her curiosity enough to voice them.
Liam was looking at her shrewdly and she was fairly certain that, for whatever reason, he would not answer. But he surprised her. He sat down heavily, facing her, and spoke, “He was killed by his own daughter. She used the Moonwood to bring her mother back to life. Grimsbane’s life was the one she sacrificed to achieve this.”
Erika was shocked. “His own daughter?”
“She didn’t love him. He was a tyrant, an evil warlock. You have to understand that, Erika.”
“I know, I know. Just… I would never kill my father,” she mumbled.
“You would have to if he became anything like Grimsbane was,” Liam said with a certain firmness that made her wonder about his parents and what had happened to them. “May we work now or do you still want to play questions and answers?”
Erika chuckled. “One last question. Is my mother a witch and my father a warlock?”
“Your father’s a warlock. Your mother doesn’t know.”
Erika winced. Shit. Her dad had kept his magic a secret from the family. But why? Why couldn’t he have told Erika about the test, prepared her and protected her like a father should do? The seventeen year old clenched her teeth as she thought about all the things her dad could have told her, about nature, about energy blasts, about any bloody thing that he had never even thought of mentioning!
Liam was looking at her sympathetically. “Don’t be so quick to judge,” he said, as if reading her mind.
“I can judge him all I want,” Erika spat out. “He kept this from us. He never told me about my witch powers. Forget that, he didn’t even tell mom! What kind of a marriage is that?”
“He’s not a practicing warlock, your father,” revealed Liam and Erika just gaped at him.
“He made the decision after he fell in love with your mother. He’s been suppressing his magic for years now.”
“Is that even possible?”
“One can try. But it has consequences. It can make you forget things,” explained Liam. “I’m fairly certain he doesn’t remember his test. And a good number of spells that he previously used to know.”
Erika thought of her spirited and adventurous father and tried to imagine him doing something as bizarre as moving a teacup across the table without touching it. She couldn’t even imagine it. Her dad was just normal. He had always been. “Why would he give it all up?” she breathed, still dazed from the revelation.
“That, I’m afraid, you’ll have to ask him. I don’t profess to know everything.” Seeing Erika’s sad face, Liam said kindly, “If it’s any consolation, he was a pretty powerful warlock in his time, even if he doesn’t remember anything anymore.”
A small smile graced the young woman’s face. “Thanks, Liam. I’m ready to continue our training.”
By the end of the third day, Erika knew how to deliver a mean punch, throw energy blasts, start a fire, levitate objects temporarily, and Liam had even taught her how to use his pistol. She had been surprised when he had informed her that the pistol did not contain real bullets. (“These are thought bullets,” he explained, showing her the transparent bullets. “They confound the brain and make you go into a coma temporarily.”) The safe house was on its last breath. These past 3 days, at least a dozen explosions had rocked the building; they had become used to the explosions but as the third day drew to an end, Erika was getting more and more anxious by the hour. That night, she slept fitfully. She kept dreaming about someone using the Moonwood and taking a life. Erika was pretty sure it was she herself but her nightmare wouldn’t reveal the face of the person.
“Erika.” She opened her eyes to see Liam standing above her, looking grim.
She got ready in a haze, her mind completely blank. But when she stood before Liam at the entrance of the safe house, she felt a heaviness in her stomach, her heart started beating faster, her face began to perspire and she realized that she was terrified.
“I can’t do it, Liam,” she whispered, her voice catching. “I’ll fail.”
“You won’t. You are a Moonwood. You won’t fail,” he said resolutely.
She sighed. “What does being a Moonwood have to do with that?”
“Everything.” And if he sounded a little mysterious, Erika didn’t dwell on it. She was more worried about the bile making its way up her throat.
“Liam,” she began but didn’t get to finish as, with a loud blast, the door swung open and the window behind them shattered. Both ducked instantly. There was a loud crack and the ceiling sagged.
“We need to move. It’s time, Erika,” Liam shouted. “The house is coming down!”
Erika nodded. She took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go!”
And they sprinted out on the battlefield, Erika not knowing her fate, Liam knowing his.