The rain lashes against the windowpane, thuds on the roof, leaks a steady tap into a puddle growing on the floorboards, inches from Clove's rain boots. The wind outside howls and the wind inside purrs, twisting around the candlelight, flickering elongated shadows on the walls and over her still features. One of Clove's hands rests unmoving over a hovering bowl, fingers poised like long claws, each a centimeter above the unmoving black contents of the bowl. The other swipes symbols of red light into the air, each flashing once before vanishing, quickly being replaced by another.
Lightning flashes, illuminating the darkest corners of the room and the monsters hidden there, waiting without breath, watching without impatience.
The candles wink out once.
Clove's hand tenses over the bowl. The other holds a symbol for fire, pointer finger smoking at the very tip.
The contents of the bowl begin to bubble, black sludge popping and spraying over her nails, scalding hot. Clove grits her teeth and ignores the pain.
(It's not the first time, nor will it be the last. Magic done right, her mentor had said, is magic that hurts. Clove hasn't found that to be untrue yet).
A bead of sweat trails down her temple.
The symbol sizzles, the sludge simmers; tension lines every jagged edge in the room, in her own solemnly observing reflection in the hanging mirror and the eyes of her familiars.
Magic builds, swells like a wave in a hurricane, and the rains outside quiet, muted- just for a moment-under the weight of the spell. At the crest, when her stomach rests a fraction of a second away from the precipice and the fall, Clove speaks.
The spell bursts in a plume of blue fire, centimeters from her fingertips and strands of loose hair, drowning the orange candle flames in its brilliant glow. After a second it settles snugly into the bowl, eating away at the black sludge with a happy crackle and grumble.
Clove stares at it for three seconds, blinks twice, then allows a huff to pass her lips and a smirk to settle a moment after.
"Knew it'd work. Fucking pay up, Coal." Clove wipes the sweat from her eyes as the shadows converge around her, some plucking the bowl from the air to ogle the fire closer, another depositing five long, shiny blue scales in her hands with a snarl. She snaps her teeth at it.
"That's your own fucking fault for doubting me. The fact that you gotta look for more super rare mermaid scales ain't none of my business." The glassware laying around her workstation jingles in an imitation of laughter, and Clove grins roguishly at the shadows.
"You're far too eager to piss off the Shadows, especially so close to the Split," a chiding voice says, just as plush fur brushes against her feet. Caramel twines around her legs twice before catching her claws into the fabric of Clove's pyjamas, climbing into her arms to scold her face to face.
"Somebody's gotta teach 'em who's the baddest witch in these parts," Clove replies with a smirk, "and it might as well be me."
Caramel doesn't roll her eyes, but that's only because she's a cat and physically can't. Instead she reaches across their bond and tugs sharply on her magic reserves in retaliation; a wave of dizziness washes over her so severely Clove stumbles back right into her workbench, tripping over the leg. Clove would've fallen if not for the mass of shadows that converge and cushion her back, propping her right back on her feet.
"That's cheating," she says to Caramel, who jumped out of her arms to save herself, but decides against arguing. It hasn't made a difference and Clove won't change her mind on putting up wards.
(She hasn't seen another human in weeks. They might be malevolent, but Shadows are still better company than witches).
Instead she snaps her fingers, snuffing all the orange candles, much to the floor-rattling dismay of the Shadows.
"Shut the fuck up," she says with no venom as she flits around the room, turning over the rest of her materials to cool and drain for the night. "You don't have mortal vessels so you don't gotta sleep, but I fucking do. Goodnight and clean up after yourselves or I'll set up wards for the next six months."
Empty words, they all know. Cold, shadowy tendrils tickle her cheeks as she leaves.
Locking the door behind herself, Clove sighs and rests her back against the wood. Eyes closing, she allows herself a moment to slump, to feel the toll the blue fire spell took on her, especially in the middle of a storm.
(Conditions should match results, always. Another rule. She smashed that one to pieces as quickly as she could).
But the moment is over and Clove shakes her exhaustion off enough to trudge up the creaking stairs and into her room where she falls face first onto her mattress with a drawn out groan.
The storm is still raging fiercely outside, branches from the trees thudding against her glass paned windows, thunder drumming overhead, so loud it's deafening, but Clove doubts it'll be a problem with the weariness that drapes over her like a substitute blanket. She's too tired to get her real one, but she's gone without enough times for it to be a real issue.
"It's unbecoming, your relations with those Shadow-creatures." Caramel says, and when Clove groans, she just talks harder. "What would the other witches say?"
"Don't care. I'm better than them anyway."
Caramel sighs, trotting over the bedsheets and Clove's back to reach her fingertips. When she's in range, she lowers her mouth to nip at the burnt, red skin. Clove winces for a second, but her features relax as they tingle with healing magic.
It's almost euphoric, the shock of goodness that rolls through her body at every small bite, and Clove's dozing off when Caramel speaks again.
"Lady Thyme won't be pleased either." Caramel's voice is quiet, but no less firm. Thunder crashes down, loud and terrible.
Even in her exhaustion, Clove still finds the strength to curl her lips in a scowl, even if it just as soon gives way to a jaw creaking yawn. "I'd like her to show her face and tell me herself. She's the one that fucking kicked me out of the house when she was done with me."
Like I was less than nothing. Like I didn't mean a damn thing to her after everything.
Clove glares at her duvet so she won't glare at Caramel, and scowls even more when it starts to blur. Something hot and raw rises in her chest, over the wall she's made herself put up when was she twelve, the one she has to add a line of bricks to every time the tide gets higher.
She won't let that woman have anything else from her. Not her tears, not her anger, not a single drop more of her magic. Nothing more for as long as she breathes.
It's hers. This house is hers, the familiars are hers, her magic is hers, and she can use it however she wants, or not at all.
(But not really. She's a witch, and always will be. Magic is just another form of creation, another way to breathe.)
Clove slams her eyes shut and buries her face in her pillow. Caramel settles down on the pillow, and her fur tickles her forehead.
No matter what anybody says, Clove is Clove, and she refuses fit in anybody's puzzle.
"What in the Twelve Celestials is this?" Clove whispers, staring out into the mess her garden's turned into overnight. Vegetables are strewn everywhere, herbs crushed under fallen tree trunks, flowers uprooted and ripped from their stalks. She takes a step forward, despair sitting heavy in her chest. Gods, this had taken her the better part of the past year to perfect, and most of it is gone now, destroyed in a single night.
Why? She thinks to herself. The wards should've held.
It didn't even occur to her to protect her plants before the storm; she's never needed to before. The storms were never this bad, because the Silva Pythonissam Lady Thyme always protects the forest.
A spark touches Clove's despair and reignites it into fury.
She clenches her fist, grinds her teeth together, and barks: "Mint!"
From a puff of glittering smoke a sparrow appears, flitting down to her shoulder. He pecks her jaw in greeting and Clove softens a little; just enough so her words almost sound like a request rather than a command. "Go to the town and check on any damage or injuries. Look for Rose or Mary and let them tell you what they need. Don't stray from the path and hurry back."
Mint tilts his head. "Aye mistress. Will you be alright here?"
Clove purses her lips, surveying the damage to basically her livelihood. Most likely she'll be going hungry for the next few weeks unless she can convince the towns people to share. Maybe, if Rose and Mary vouch for her, but she isn't keen on owing them. Which means she'll have to hunt, something she hadn't attempted even at Thyme's place.
The path was carved from magic and protected from any dangerous wildlife, bad intentions or malicious corporeal powers. It says something that Clove has never seen a wolf in her nineteen years.
She swallows down her anxiety and nods silently.
Mint hovers slightly, but doesn't leave instantly. Instead he zips on front of Clove's face then upwards, landing in her hair. "I think I want something crunchy for lunch, so you better make it good."
This time Clove does laugh, chest lighter than before. "Get outta here greedy fuck, and if you get back early I'll consider it."
With a delighted thrill, along with a burst of speed and smoke, Mint disappears into the trees, and Clove allows the tugging on her magic container to solidify her resolve.
Feeling bad isn't going to repair her garden. Being angry isn't going to keep her full (no matter how much she's tried it before). The only thing she can do now is clean up, salvage what she can, and come up with a plan to survive the next few weeks while her new crops grow in.
Clove rolls up her arm sleeves and steps into the mud, wincing as her boots squelch and sink into wet sludge. Most of it is damp while other parts still have puddles of water on the surface, the soil too saturated to hold another drop.
That can be her first step then; drying the ground so she doesn't have to do laundry.
With practiced, single handed motions Clove draws the symbols for gravity, motion and finally water, lingering on the last stroke to build her magic up.
The word and magic leave her in a rush, the puddles rippling and soaked in water in the soil rumbling. Clove holds out her other hand for stability and finally the water moves, slowly rising from the ground and sticking together, forming five spheres of floating water, about three gallons each. The ground is still wet, but not drowning like it'd been before; now it's something she can work with.
Now to get rid of the excess.
Clove stares at the water, at her stable hands, and taps into her bond with Caramel. Her familiar responds quickly, stabilising pat her spell, allowing her room to do the second one.
Her left eye flashes blue while the other steadily turns purple, then abruptly deepens to a burning apple red. Her right hand twitches before relinquishing control of the water to the left and Caramel's hold. The spheres dip but remain in the air.
Quickly, she draws two symbols for heat and one symbol for power and folds her fist over the final one; feels it burn as she calls the spell.
A single bubble erupts in the sphere closest to her. Clove tightens her fist.
In an instant heat and steam cloud the area, hot enough to choke and water her eyes. Clove coughs but doesn't relent until the water spell abruptly drops, making her stumble before righting herself. She releases the heat spell and waits for the steam to dissipate, hands on her knees and gasping.
When she opens her eyes, she sees first the newly dried out ground, and next Caramel's disapproving-for-a-cat face.
Clove grins cockily, cause her reserve isn't even half empty. "Baddest witch ever."
Caramel sighs, defeated, and hands her garden gloves over from her mouth.
Clove spends the next few hours on her hands and knees, pulling up what's destroyed, flattening back down what isn't, and salvaging what she can from the wreckage. Caramel pulls a bit from her magic to take a human form and helps out, talking about any and everything to keep Clove's mind from wandering too far into her theories and suspicions and worries.
Clove finishes filling a basket and sits back to wipe her face, smearing dirt on her forehead. She squints her eyes at the sun now overhead, midday yellow peeking through the spaces where trees once stood. That's not what concerns her though.
"Mint isn't back yet." Clove says quietly, trying not to think the worst but unable to help it. Her hands squeeze the shears in their grip.
Caramel pauses in tending the herbs, sitting back on her haunches. "When did you send him out?"
"This morning. He said he'd be back by lunch. It's lunch, so where the fuck is he?" She tries not to shout, but it's a close thing, her swirling thoughts mixing into a muddle of not quite anger, but something close enough that she wants to lash out that way.
"Maybe he got distracted by something," Caramel tries, but Clove is already throwing down her tools and shucking her gloves. She's seconds away from calling for her broom, but Caramel's suddenly furry body slamming into her chest halts Clove in her tracks. Her hands automatically come up to catch the cat before she can fall.
"I know you're worried," Clove wants to scoff, but finds that she can't even put up a front, "but with your relationship with the town, showing up this soon after such an awful storm is bound to cause some problems." To hell with the town rests on her tongue, but Caramel doesn't give her a moment to speak. "Trust in Mint; he's your familiar, isn't he?"
Clove stares into Caramel's eyes, eyes that have been around more than five lives now, holding wisdom far older than Clove's been alive. If she can't take advice from her own familiar, she won't listen to anyone, will she?
The other witches would probably scorn me even more if they knew I actually let my familiars boss me around. This time Clove does scoff, affronted at her own thoughts. She turns on her heel back to her home.
"Whatever. We're making a bomb ass lunch for when Mint gets back, got it? Then I'm gonna beat his ass for breaking his word."
Caramel purrs in her arms.
The sun goes down. The meal goes cold. Mint does not return.
"I can't fucking stay here."
Clove's throwing things into her basket-a health potion, fire in a bottle, bandages, Mint's leftovers. Caramel stands on top of the workbench, watching her go through her things with the wildness of a windstorm, tossing things when they prove to be useless in a fury that only reflects a quarter of what she really feels.
Still, Caramel tries to reason with her.
"Maybe you should go when it's light out. It's not safe for you out there-"
"It's not fucking safe for Mint either!" Clover yells, and the water bottle in her hand bursts when she crushes it in her anger. She doesn't even notice, only flings the bottle to the other side of the room, skidding into a corner, instantly forgotten.
"He's fucking out there, stuck in that shitty form, unable to defend himself-I can't do it." She shakes her head and snatches up the now full basket, moving across the house in large strides, "I can't sit on my fucking hands and wait when he could be injured, or worse."
Clove puts down her basket to tug on her witch hood, the furious carmine fabric reflecting the fury in her eyes. It settles on her shoulders and swishes around her thighs; the hood hides her hair but illuminates her eyes in the shrouding darkness.
Caramel stares at her master, at the tenseness of her shoulders and whiteness of her visible lips and even deeper, at the rolling, churning melting pot of emotions (worry, fear, curiosity), and the anger she clings as both a lifeline and her fuel.
"If you need me, I'll come. If you get scared, or worried, or you just want me there, I'll come. Just promise me that you'll be careful. The forest is a dangerous place."
Clover pauses at the door, basket on her arm, broom hovering parallel to her body. Then she bares her teeth in what could've been a smile, but stretches too wide without discernible feelings to call it such. Caramel shudders and Clove opens the doors to the setting sun, the still not completed garden, the dark, seemingly depthless forest.
Clove waits til she's seated on her now horizontal broom to address Caramel. Her voice is calm, false cheer sticky and sickening, barely hiding the darkness looming blacker than the one ahead.
"You don't gotta worry about me, I'll find Mint and come home real soon." Some of that darkness leaks forth, staining the bubblegum frosted tone with crimson, "I'm the baddest fucking witch in this forest; there's absolutely nothing that could make me turn and run."
Caramel hears the underlying message loud and clear.
It's not me you should be worried about.