The Snake and the Mirror

The Witching Way

September 15th, 2024

The forest was growing darker as day began to settle into night. The waning red and amber light that came down in rays between the tree branches was being replaced by the great black curtain of night. Shadows were long, and as they grew longer, a lantern needed to be lit to fend off the coming darkness. As the air filled with the wafting evening smells and the tuning of the nightly chorus from the insects and the frogs, a last lone figure tried to finish their work for the day.

Illuminated by the glow of the lantern, the last refuge of light in the darkening woods, was a simple toadstool. It was a bright yellow-capped mushroom with a stubby white stalk that sat grumpily on its own amidst the leaf litter and weeds. This seemingly unremarkable toadstool was now the center of attention for the only person still out in these woods at night.

Before it, squatting much like a great mushroom herself with a sketchpad and charcoal clutched in hand, was an unusual young woman.

“Gills are non-decurrent, stopping right below the cap line, and they…yes they have the same z-shape to them despite radial habit” Tegwen muttered to herself as her hand moved rapidly over the sketchpad, eyes straining against the fading light to catch the last details she needed, her lantern a stop-gap measure at best before the harsh contrast of true night ruined the values in her work.

“No veil patches evident on the cap, stalk is centrally located…”

Her finely-detailed sketch of the mushroom was surrounded on all sides by notes, many with arrows or lines pointing towards the mushroom to indicate specific characteristics. When she was finally finished, just a moment before full nightfall, she packed up her sketchpad, the large sheaf of papers carefully wrapped in waterproof leather, and then idly plucked the mushroom free at the base before dropping it into a small leather pouch filled with others like it, but all slightly different. With that completed, she stood up and began to walk back towards the nearest path.

**********

“I don’t see it.”

Three thousand miles away, in the dark woods of Eastern Europe, a number of curious faces all peered into the bubbling cauldron of the infamous Baba Yaga. Within its boiling depths, all of them could see the furtive shape of Tegwen packing her belongings and heading off into the woods. The old crone, keeping the best view to herself, seemed the most impatient as she turned her head towards the Norse witch-goddess Huldra.

“I hope you didn’t drag all these ne’er-do-wells to my house to watch a little girl pick mushrooms in the woods!”

“Nothing so simple,” Huldra said. “This was a lead I found while under Nidhoggr’s control. I expect Ceridwen sensed something similar.”

“I have felt…something,” Ceridwen said, non-commitally. “But she’s no mage and certainly no witch. She’s some kind of…pharmacist.”

“Nothing so mundane,” Huldra said. “The devil is in the details, ladies; listen to what she says.”

**********

“Results still inconclusive” Tegwen kept a running monologue going as she stepped through the trees, not minding the dangers that the woods at night could bring.

“Newest fungal subspecies to depict anomalous properties. The species, thus dubbed Amanita sussexia quintexa appears to be the fifth distinct subspecies. Oddities remain, however, as the subspecies is defined by…mutations,” she paused as she jumped over a small creek.

“Ah, mutations…that are consistent across several other species to create analogous mutations across kingdoms almost like a…cancer really, but with none of the signs of a distinct cancer. A. quintexa’s unusual gill patterns are consistent with the vein patterns found in the third Acer subspecies and the muscular striations of the second Oryctolagus subspecies…hmmm…”

She stopped mid-stride, looking up at the dark knight sky. It was a clear night, and the stars were plainly visible. When she started walking again, she spoke with a much more hurried pace that was matched in her quick and light footsteps.

“I want to present a new hypothesis,” she spoke to the trees as if they were an audience at a conference.

“We are looking at a mutating strain external to these subspecies. As such, they are not true subspecies but aberrant mutants that have been affected by this strain. This strain can’t be biological, no virus or bacteria works on a cross-kingdom basis with consistent results like this. I propose that magic is the cause, specifically magic…viral strains? That doesn’t sound right…”

She put her hand over her mouth, thinking deeply as she continued to walk, seemingly heedless of where her legs were taking her.

“There is a truth beneath all this,” She said quietly. “Beneath the spirits and the gods, the knights and the strange patterns across the world. I can see it now, like it’s through a veil. So close to understanding…”

**********

“She sees nothing,” Baba Yaga complained. “These men of science near-conquered the world they lived in, but it is their world no longer. She’s just a lost child in the woods now.”

“Agreed,” Nimue huffed. “The deep secrets of magic cannot be found by staring at mushrooms.”

“No, you just need to find a better sorcerer than you, seduce him, then trick him out of his magic,” Ceridwen sneered, and Nimue shot her a nasty look.

“That’s not how these scientist people work,” Anansi waved their complaints aside. “They see a small thing, and from it they can divine things much larger. There was a story I heard about a man named Darwin, and this man Darwin managed to draw the great secrets of life, those that had eluded many scholars and wise men of his time, by watching how mere finches ate their food. In a way it is not unlike magic, to use the world around us to draw out the secrets of the universe.”

“And you’re all missing the most important point,” Huldra said. “Simply put…she’s right.”

All heads in the room turned to stare at her.

“Excuse me?” Nimue finally broke the silence before Huldra continued.

“Much of this I’m gaining secondhand from Hecate, but what she’s describing, the way that magic is changing the natural world along consistent paths…it’s true, we’ve seen it.”

“But that’s not how magic works at all!” Baba Yaga spat.

“No, it isn’t,” Huldra nodded. “But it is for her.”

The atmosphere in the room grew darker with doubt and worry. Hecate now was the one to take over and break the silence.

“The signs are still hazy, but what we see cannot be ignored. We all recognize the process. The great eye-opening that redefines reality, the truths we make real through our own force of will. This is not merely some misguided scientist lost in the woods. Her notes and theories and suppositions are the stuttered chants, fumbled incantations, and deep truth-seeking we all went through. These are the timid wingbeats of a fledgling True Witch.”

**********

Tegwen arrived back at her campsite well into the night. The moon was high now, and was casting beams of silver light among the trees. Tegwen was thankful for her good night vision as she worked in the darkness, getting a fire going near her tent before retrieving her hidden food supply. One of the few upsides to being a well-read naturalist was knowing what you could and could not eat, and while she never went so far as to eat her specimens (partially for fear of unforeseen side-effects) she never wanted for more than what she could forage. As the clearing that her campsite was nestled in began to fill with flickering orange and yellow firelight, Tegwen began to sort through her specimens and notes for the day, her journal in her lap as she took more detailed and organized notes.

**********

“This is unprecedented, is it not?” Anansi asked. “For so many of us to be aware of a new one being created, gestating like a child in a womb of magic.”

“It is,” Huldra nodded. “And that alone is dangerous. Knowledge breeds the desire to interfere. All of us were born alone, without knowing there were others like us out there in the world.”

“Then why share it?” Ceridwen asked. “The more people can know, the more they can try to interfere.”

“Culpability,” Huldra said. “Just as we are all now capable of interference, we are all now responsible for her protection. None among us now can claim ignorance of her existence.”

“It’s not our job to protect her,” Baba Yaga spat. “It’s not easy bein’ one of us. The world puts ya through the ringer first, and ya ain’t human once you come out.”

“I have no intention of protecting her from herself,” Huldra said. “And I believe you all feel the same…but I likewise do not believe any of us should be allowed to interfere with her development.”

There was a general wave of nods across the room.

“Besides, there is another enemy that all True Witches know, and it is our job to ensure that she is hidden form their sight,” Huldra said. “They let us slip through the nets of fate one by one, but they are being very careful now, watching the threads closely, and this young witch is vulnerable to their machinations, or their dark-haired Valkyrie.”

All of them knew who she spoke of, though they took different forms across the world. True Witches were aberrations, unbound by fate and naturals at creating snarls in the threads. When a being becomes able to warp reality, reality tends to lash back. There was nothing in the cosmos that hated the True Witches more than the arbiters of ordered fate, the scions of Past, Present, and Future. The Three.

“Where is she?” Anansi asked. “Surely some of us are better placed than others?”

“Britain, presently,” Huldra said, and there was a groan from several.

“How many witches are going to be coming out of your damned country!?” Baba Yaga growled at Nimue.

“One more clearly,” Huldra said flatly. “Ceridwen, I’m putting you on point duty to keep her shielded from Fate.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” The dark-haired Welsh witch said. “But she’s closer to Nimue.”

“And I am plenty capable!” Nimue boasted in turn, proud smile on her face.

“That you are,” Huldra did not raise her voice. “But your actions tend to draw the eyes of others. If there is any witch that would want to bend the rules and throw her development into chaos, it’s Morgan le Fay.”

“Fine,” Nimue folded her arms over her chest. “I’ll keep to my work in Camelot. It’s more important anyway.”

“There’s more to this than what we know,” Hecate spoke up from where she had watched quietly. “Morgan is one factor, the Three are another, but there’s something else in the world that can bypass us as easily as we slip through the threads of fate.”

Curious eyes now turned to Hecate as she continued.

“All of you are so focused on the Three, the order of things, that you never considered that the absence of order might be its own entity. Watch the signs and always keep an eye on your back, and you might be able to spot it.”

“Spot what?” Baba Yaga asked. Even the furious crone kept quiet when Hecate spoke.

“The Fourth Sister.”

**********

Contentedly Tegwen munched on the rabbit she had charred over the fire as she worked. There was a zen-like quality to what she did. There was no expected end, no goal save perhaps for the next conclusion reached, like pit stops on the road of knowledge. The pursuit of truth and explanation through science was endless, and her approach was disciplined and steady. Like an army marching down an endless road she was intractable and unrelenting. She lacked the impatience and the desire that marked many great knowledge-seekers who sought the answers quickly. For her, the truth would out itself as she burned away the brush of needless ritual and all the other shadowed spots of ignorance it fled to. Her intelligence and drive could have made her a prominent philosopher, researcher, magician, or politician had she chosen any of those paths, but she had chosen a road entirely unique to her, the sole scientist of a field that did not exist, and it would make her something else entirely.

“Aw damn,” She pouted as the last juice bit of rabbit fell off of her stick onto the ground. It had been the tasty greasy part too.

Tegwen, the witch without magic, settled in for another night of reading and writing, fully aware that the world was changing around her, but unaware of just how much she was changing it.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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