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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Roy

The Grey Witch

Updated: Apr 9

He was tired. His arms ached with fatigue. Swinging his sword was less of a practiced technique and more of building up enough momentum to get it swinging. Breathing was a constant labored task, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps while he struggled to move. How many more would come from the surrounding fog to challenge him? To end him? How many of his men had died? She would see them all dead before everything was said and done.

             Turning, he searched around him. The heavy fog hid everything beyond ten paces and distorted sound, making it challenging to locate the source. The sun was a pale spot overhead and did nothing to dissipate the mist. The ground was a churned-up mess of mud and puddles. Bodies of horses and men littered the field, some already half-buried, the thick mire threatening to swallow them whole. There was no lack of discarded weapons and war machinery discarded in death. The scavengers would have their feast.

             "WITCH! I'M HERE!" He'd been fighting since the morning. Judging by the pale spot in the sky, it was now late afternoon. He'd not seen her the entire time. Besides the dead remnants that littered the field, he'd not seen his army in hours. His essence was gone. He'd run out a long time ago. It was hard to tell. All that was left to him was his life and his blade. "Which will leave me first?" The sword still shone brightly despite the mud, blood, and gore that covered everything else. His armor, dented and scratched, was varied shades of brown and red.

             "Are they all dead? Am I the last one?" He couldn't begin to guess. Her army was more extensive than they'd planned for. She'd been stronger than anyone had expected. Her essence had changed.

The grey. No one knew where the essence color came from. There were no records in the church or lore from any elders. It was odd. They had knowledge of even the rarest essence types, but not one of them had heard of grey. They knew enough now. It consumed everything.

             "RRAAAAAWWRR!" The mist swirled and clung to the knight who charged him, sword raised overhead. The heavy overhead swing would've ended him if the man had not roared a challenge. As it was, he barely managed to stagger away. The falling sword passed within inches of his shoulder and sank into the dirt.

It took him too long to recover. He knew that. Still, he brought his sword across and down in a two-handed swing. He aimed for the gap in the armor where the neck met the shoulders. The knight, fresher than him, could recover. Two blades slammed together with a dull clang, the impact jarring his hands to the elbow. He put his weight against the blade bearing down, forcing the knight back a step. Metal ground on metal, screeching in protest.

The knight twisted away from him suddenly. With all his weight behind it, his sword slid down the length of the blade, taking him with it. Staggering in the thick mud, desperation filled him. His opponent was now at his back. Instead of staying upright, he let himself fall forward, turning to swing blindly behind him.

             The other knight continued his spin, turning full circle, using the momentum for the next attack. The blade hummed as it cut through the air, hitting with a loud clang followed by the slight ping of something bouncing off his breastplate. The blow's force yanked his sword from numb fingers and drove him into the mud. Sunk partially into the mire, lifting his head came with a wet sucking sound. The knight stood over him, blocking what little light there was. The knight's sword was shattered with barely a foot of steel left. It didn't matter. It was still enough to finish him where he lay.

             The knight dropped knees first, straddling his torso. One knee pressed his left arm further into the ground, trapping it. The knight's other hand pressed down on his throat, pushing his head back into the wet ground under him. Cold water poured into the sides of the helmet, filling his ears. He watched as the broken blade drew back for a finishing strike. The fractured sword started to descend, the arm cutting a path through the thick mist as it passed.

             "This is it." The thought of letting it end crossed his mind. For a brief moment, he welcomed the jagged, bloody piece of metal headed for the gap in his armor. If he had to guess, it would be the joint at the neck. A slight cut in the right place, and he'd bleed to death. Maybe the eye slit?

"Does it matter?" He was tired. This wouldn't be the last fight; eventually, he'd lose anyway. Why bother?

             CLANG! Metal against metal sounded from somewhere close by.

             "EEEIIIIgghhh…" A scream of agony followed quickly after, then silence again.

             The shout jolted him, and his free hand caught the falling hand, stopping the blade just short of touching. He could just make out the knight's eyes staring at him from the helmet. The narrowed slits didn't show expression or intent, just two eyes glaring down on him. Grey essence flowed out from the eyes and washed over the man. His arm gained strength, and he pressed down harder. Their arms shook as they strained against each other.

He pulled at his legs, freeing one from the muck, and tried to push himself out from under the knight. His foot sank to the calf without moving him an inch. His arm began to burn as the knight leaned onto the blade, forcing it down slowly. It tapped against the metal of his breastplate while their hands shook from the struggle. The broken tip crunched and scratched as it slowly sank further with each passing second.

           

 "SCCREEECH!" The blade scraped slowly across the metal with an ear-piercing screech. He bucked and gave one last push with his arm, throwing the weapon off course. The broken blade bounced up and sank into the mud by his shoulder. He brought his arm up and around, clamping the knight's arm against his side. The knight gave a few rough tugs, grunting loudly with effort, but couldn't pull the weapon free of the hold.

             "Raaaa! The knight's helmeted head slammed into his own with a loud clang. The shock from the impact rattled his teeth, burying his head further. The water in his helmet threatened to cover his eyes now.

             BANG!

The helmet slammed down again.

             "Not good."

             BANG!

             BANG!

Spots floated across his vision with each repeated blow. There was a pause, and then an unexpected tug jerked his head up. Cold metal touched the skin under his jaw. It was the gauntleted hand of the knight trying to rip his helmet free. Panic crept in. He twisted his head back and forth desperately to shake the hand loose. The effort was wasted while he was pinned to the ground. If he reached to pull the hand away, the knight would have his weapon again. The muscles in his neck burned from the strain of resisting the pulling. The tugging stopped. The knight reared back and brought an armored forearm down across the helmet.

             BANG!

             Through the sparks of white lighting up his vision, he could see the knight rear back for another swing.

             BANG!

His face bounced off the inside of the helmet. A pop was followed by a hot rush of blood from his nose, coating his lips and chin. Fresh pain blossomed between his eyes, making them water and clouding his vision further.

             BANG!

             He hadn't realized the knight had reared back for another blow. His vision narrowed down to a small tunnel of light. The darkness was coming to claim him.

             "AAAAAGGHHHHHH!" He screamed with everything he had. "AAAAGHHHH!"

The grey essence thickened around the knight. A hand locked onto the bottom of his helmet again. Struggling to stay conscious, he wasn't prepared for the vicious jerk that pulled his head up. Just as quickly, his head was shoved back down. His neck screamed in protest. The hand yanked viciously at the bottom of the helmet again, ripping it away, taking some skin with it.

"AAAGGH…" He started to scream again. A metal fist slammed into his mouth, silencing him. Mud filled his ears, dulling the meaty thud of the next blow. Another blow hit him in the eye. Sparks erupted, blocking out the knight above him. Through a narrowing tunnel of darkness, he could feel the essence as it started to flow. Grey essence stretched from the knight and flowed over his chest and face. It was trying to get in. Feint whispering echoed in his ears, or maybe it was his mind. It was hard to tell which. Promises of sweet release, the end of pain, and the end of struggle were all promised. Then revenge, rage, hate. He pushed back against it with what little essence remained in his core, straining to keep the grey at bay. He'd rather die than let the grey in.

             A spear shot forward, catching the knight in the throat and piercing through half the length of the shaft before stopping. A foot passed above him, the leg blocking the view of the hazy sky above. It slammed into the knight's chest. The choking knight fell back, folded at an awkward angle. The spear stabbed into the ground, keeping the knight's body from fully touching the ground. The torso floated inches from the thick mud.

             "Kack, gurgle…" The knight's body twitched for a few seconds and then went still.

He'd survived again. Barely. The mud, his captor before, now embraced him like a lover. He felt like he was floating. He closed his eyes and let the darkness consume him while the world rocked and swayed beneath him as if he were at sea.

             "Is he okay?"

             "I don't know… SIRE!" A metal-clad hand jerked him from the mud by the top of his breastplate with a wet sucking sound. He cracked his eyes open and winced in pain. His right eye was swelling shut. He'd been blissfully numb for a few brief moments while his body was attempting to pass out. Now, everything hurt.

             "Alright, alright… ALRIGHT! Get off." He looked at his savior and grimaced. Saved by the very man who slept with his wife. He'd made up for destroying his marriage by saving his life. He hadn't told either that he knew about their infidelity. The outcome of this war was too important.

             "Are you not happy to see me? Perhaps some blows addled your brain."

             "Shut up." He looked up at the man he'd considered a brother and the young knight behind him. The boy's name eluded him. The boy's breastplate was cut open across the stomach, and the armor from his right arm was gone. He looked exhausted. Was this all that was left of them?

             "Rise my king! We will slay the grey witch still!"

             He chose not to answer. He jerked at his leg with both hands until the mud gave up its hold. Carefully, he rolled to his hands and knees before pushing himself upright with a groan of pain. It took his remaining strength to remain upright. Where had his sword gone? He turned full circle, searching the battlefield around him. There it was. He could just make out the pommel sticking up a short distance away. Slowly, his steps dragging, he crept painfully toward it. One small sliding step at a time. It felt like forever before he reached it.

             "NNNGGHH." He groaned. He bent slowly, supporting his weight with his hands on his thighs to avoid collapsing. On one knee, he took the sword from the mud. He heard the loud gasp behind him, or maybe it was his own. He knelt in the dirt, unmoving, holding up half a sword. It had broken. Impossible! It was enchanted during the forging, and the blade was quenched in solid rock. It could not break… yet it had. A loud plop pulled his eyes to the mud in front of him. He'd dropped the blade, what was left of it, back into the mud.

             "We can still defeat her!" The optimism in the statement couldn't be heard in his friend's voice.

             "No… We're done. Regroup and fall back."

             "We only need defeat HER, not her army."

             He snatched the broken blade from the mud and whirled on the would-be friend.

             "It's broken! I cannot beat her without it!"

"The smith can fix it. She made it once; she can do it again."

"She will not leave her lake, nor will she see me again. Not while I live."

"But…"

"NO!" The rush of anger left him. He'd given up in his heart. "I have not the strength. We are beaten. We've been reduced to all of six seated at the table. My kingdom is fractured. The mage has hidden himself, refusing to fight his sister…. My wife, the queen, beds down with my friend…." He slowly sank to his knees and sat on his heels. Dirty hands rested limply on his thighs, and tired fingers loosely gripped a broken sword. The younger knight fidgeted uncertainly. The king raised his head. His friend stood in shocked silence.

Uncertainty, fear, and hurt warred across his face. There was no denial.

"Art…" The knight took a small step forward, hand lifted toward the king.

"Stop." It wasn't loud, the defeat in his voice wouldn't allow it. "Fall back, regroup. Save who you can." He locked eyes with the man. "Protect the queen. I will hold the witch as long as I can." He saw understanding in the other man's eyes. The hand lowered, the shoulders slumped. Hope was lost.

"Come." The knight waved for the young one to follow as he strode into the fog. In a matter of seconds, the sound of their passage was swallowed by the dense fog.

"I'm king no more." The still air swallowed the statement. How long had he knelt there after the others left? His legs had grown numb underneath him. If there was hope, it hid itself well in the carnage around him.

"DO YOU HEAR ME WITCH?! YOU'VE WON! MY KINGDOM IS GONE!" He shouts at the sky above him, praying the evil bitch would hear him.

"My army is gone." He quickly climbed to his feet and stood swaying in the fog. Slowly turning a full circle, he tried to peer into the dense wall of fog around him. Nothing.

"My friends are gone." Water drops rang off the plate armor hanging on him, first as a light sprinkle, then growing to a hard rain in seconds. "My love… is gone." The heavy rain beat down the sound of his voice and dispelled the surrounding fog. A mud-filled plain of death and destruction surrounded him like a garden of death waiting to be harvested.

"How the mighty have fallen."

The voice came from behind him. Sickly sweet and mocking while dripping with malice, it traced a shiver down his spine. He suppressed the shudder and turned slowly, trying to appear calm. She stood ten paces away, dressed in a simple white dress. Her long black hair flowed down her back almost as long as the dress. Oddly, the dress was spotless, free of mud and dirt, even where the hem met the ground. If not for the evil in her voice and the hatred on her face, she would have looked like any other average woman. He knew differently. The group of knights with her, her personal guard, stood behind her.

"Everything is gone." He waved the broken sword in his hand at the field of destruction surrounding them.

"Not everything."

"WHAT IS LEFT?!"

"You." Grey essence pooled at her feet and dripped from her fingertips. She motioned with her hand, tracing a grey streak through the air, and the knights spread out surrounding him. He kept his eyes on her.

"Why cause all of this?" He knew why. His own pride kept him from admitting it.

"You know why. I want you to say it." Her knights pressed in, closing the circle one small step at a time. Were they being cautious or toying with him?

"Jealousy."

"NO!" Her anger signaled the knights around him. The first charged from the right and behind him. He deflected the sword away but couldn't turn in time to stop the next attack. A blade bounced off his armored shoulder and struck him across the side of the head. Luckily, the deflected blade struck him with the flat side. The force behind the swing staggered him. He caught his balance and raised his sword to meet the next attack. There wasn't another. The knights waited, keeping the circle tight.

"Sweet words to bed me, then cast me aside for that whore! It isn't jealousy that cuts you down. It is revenge. It is spite. It is justice!" Grey essence poured from her. The pool at her feet had grown and stretched, covering most of the ground between them.

"You drugged me, seduced me. That is not…"

"AAAAAAAAAAA!" Her mouth stretched impossibly wide as she screeched over his words. The sound couldn't possibly be human. Grey essence poured from her mouth with the sound. The grey had taken control. What stood before him was no longer human.

CLANG!

The attacker slipped during the attack, and the blade struck lower than intended. It struck the collar, protecting his neck instead of taking his head off. As it was, the attack sent him reeling into the mud. He rolled with it as best he could but only managed to get halfway to his feet before the next attack. His sword arm supported his weight while he tried to regain his feet. All he could do was raise his other arm over his head defensively. The blow sent a shock of pain through his arm and into his shoulder. The blade cut through the armor and partway into his arm, but thankfully, it stopped.

"AARRGGH!" He wrenched his arm sideways, taking the sword with it. The knight, refusing to release the blade, was pulled off balance.

He swung upward, thrusting the sword between the knight's legs. His broken blade found a gap in the armor and slid up to the hilt with a squelch that was drowned out by the knight's agonized scream. A boot slammed into the side of his head, throwing him away from the screaming knight. It was pure luck he managed to keep his sword in hand. He rolled with the kick while throwing his sword up instinctively as he came up, deflecting another strike.

Another knight was already on top of him, giving him no chance to catch his bearings. Instead of standing straight to meet the attack, he stabbed downward, and the broken blade found a gap between plates at the ankle. The blade twisted in his hand as it slid against hard bone, severing tendon and muscle. The man dropped, clutching his ankle and screaming. The rest of his attackers backed off wearily, giving him time to regain his feet.

"You cannot win this. Give up. Join me." The voice came from where the witch stood, but it was not a woman's voice. Guttural and rasping, it unnerved him. He couldn't win this without his own essence.

"To what end? What do you want? THIS?!" He waved his hand at the death around them. The groans of the wounded nights filled the gaps in their conversation. He searched for the tiniest scrap of remaining essence. Only a small spark remained at his core. It would kill him to use it, but that was inevitable anyway, wasn't it?

"HAHAHA," Deep rasping laughter mocked him. "Yes, this. My war with the originals will be over. Everything will cease. I will never be imprisoned again!" The pool of essence at her feet shot forward, overtaking the knights around him. The group went rigid awash in the grey glow, then relaxed as the essence sank into them, taking over completely. "Beg me!"

He heard the movement but couldn't turn in time. The sword slammed into his shoulder, denting the armor and lifting him off his feet. He landed heavily, unable to move before the next attack caught him. The foot slammed into his gut, sending him flying again. He tumbled through the mud like a rag doll before stopping against the corpse of a horse. His breastplate was dented in, and he couldn't draw breath. His saving grace was the kick had launched him clear of the surrounding knights. It gave him time to regain his feet and try to pull from the small reserve of power he had left.

Warmth flooded him. This was it, all that was left. Once he used this, he was done. The people had thought it was the sword that gave him the power. In fact, the sword was just a tool, only slightly more helpful than a typical, well-crafted blade. The enchantment kept the blade sharp and hard. It allowed him to store some small amount of essence, but that was it. It was his power, his essence, that had united the kingdom. It was a lone woman who brought it down.

That was not entirely fair. While she harbored an unhealthy fixation on him, it had never been this. Somewhere, she'd lost her life, and the grey had crept in, seducing her with desire and power, using her to spread itself and grow. With all his power, he'd barely slowed it down. As a green essence user who could use all essence types, he'd been crowned the king. The mage, a purple essence user, could stop the grey and hold it back but refused to help the fight against his sister. The other purple essence, the smith, refused to leave her lake. His was the only power left. The small amount of essence left in him flickered faintly. He pushed that flicker into his body, removing the fatigue and strengthening the muscles. The pain would have to remain. He hadn't the power.

A streak of grey sped forward. The king twisted his body sideways and thrust upward with his blade. The knight slammed into him, but he held his ground, staggering only slightly. Face-to-face, grey-filled eyes glared back at him. The light left the eyes, and the body collapsed in slow motion at his feet. Pain blossomed in his side. He glanced down to find a sword hilt sticking out of his armor on his lower left side. A searching hand found exposed steel protruding from his back. His leg buckled, and he collapsed to his knees. That was it. There was nothing left. The circle of knights had been reduced to one who approached him wearily. He leaned back into the rain and stared at the clouds without seeing. His mind was focused inward, searching for anything he might have left. Nothing.

"Ah, well." He searched deeper, drawing his mind away from the world. Something there at his core pulled at him, beckoning. The world around him faded to nothing. He'd be cut down without seeing it. His consciousness spiraled into darkness, no longer searching but being pulled by something. Was it escape? Salvation? Destruction? It didn't matter. He couldn't stop now if he wanted to. The world exploded into color, blinding him momentarily. When the light dimmed, he faced… What was he facing?

He hung in the air, surrounded by swirling colors. Something was in front of him, but he couldn't tell what. His eyes searched up, down, and side to side. It stretched as far as he could see in every direction. Something shifted, and he felt himself moving backward, away from the object before him. No, it wasn't an object. It was the pupil of an eye, then the eye itself, then a part of a face as he moved further away. A vast ocean of space separated him from the eye, yet he couldn't see it all without moving his head.

"YOU ARE DYING." The voice resonated through him, loud and yet making no sound. He threw his hands to his head, pressing against the pain.

"What…" What did he want to ask? What are you? What's happening? Did it matter? "Are you?"

"YOU'VE FORGOTTEN MUCH SINCE WE LEFT." The pain grew as images forced themselves into his head one after the other. Knowledge flooded into him with the images. These were the first ones, the originals. The forefathers of his people had "merged" with some of the first humans, creating the "elementals." These were the gods themselves.

"NOT GODS, LITTLE HUMAN. WE LIVE AND WE DIE JUST AS YOU. SOME OF US DESIRE, LOVE, HATE, RAGE." The voice no longer caused him pain to listen to. The flood of images and information trickled to a stop.

"What am I doing here?"

"YOU MUST DEFEAT OUR… SIBLING." HE'S FREE AND WILL DESTROY YOUR WORLD UTTERLY IF NOT." The eye pulled away further, or maybe it had never stopped. The face resembled a cross between a goat and a human. Fangs protruded from an enormous mouth below a broad nose and enormous eyes. Horns curled off the sides of the head just above human ears.

"Why don't you do it?" They had the power. He could feel it all around him. The smallest amount would burn him entirely if he used it, no matter how briefly.

"WE CANNOT. WE REMOVED OURSELVES FROM YOUR WORLD AFTER LOCKING THE GREY AWAY. BALANCE MUST BE MAINTAINED. IT FALLS TO YOU, OFFSPRING."

"How?! It is too strong." Desperation carried his words across the vast space between them. "I have no power left. It has taken everything I have and still it wants more. It is insatiable."

"WHAT WE HAVE IN POWER, THE GREY EQUALS IN HUNGER. IT IS THE BALANCE. DARK TO OUR LIGHT. IT IS A HUNGER THAT CAN NEVER BE SATIATED."

"Then what am I supposed to do?!" Desperation gave way to rage. Why bring him here just to tell him he has no hope?

"CALM LITTLE ONE. There is hope but time is short. YOU ARE DYING."

"Then tell me!" A tremendous dry chuckle answered his outburst.

"THE GREY HAS A WEAKNESS. IT CANNOT EXIST IN YOUR WORLD WITHOUT A HOST."

"The witch."

"THE POWER YOU SEEK COMES AT A COST."

"I'll take it." He didn't care about the cost. All was lost anyway. If there was even a slight chance…

"IT WILL DESTROY YOU UTTERLY. YOU WILL NOT HAVE LONG. IF YOU FAIL, ALL WILL BE LOST."

"What do you mean "ALL"?" Something about the beings' tone made him think it meant more than just his kingdom and the war he fought.

"THE GREY CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO EXIST UNCHALLANGED. THERE MUST BE A BALANCE. WE WILL RETURN. YOU'RE WORLD WILL BE DESTROYED."

"How ca…"

"YOU ARE OUT OF TIME, LITTLE ONE. CHOOSE."

"Choose what?" What were his choices? 

"The power to save your people or oblivion."

"Yes. I…" the world exploded in a wash of colors that faded to a dull sky full of heavy rain clouds. He was still staring up at the sky. How long had it been? His body burned on the inside. Pressure was building inside him, begging for release. The flood of essence gifted him by the first one was too much. He couldn't cut it off or stop it. It poured into him relentlessly, begging for release. He pushed everything he could into his body. The sword in his side slowly slid free as the wound healed. His bruises faded along with his fatigue. His muscles bulged, making his armor feel tight. It wasn't enough.

The final knight stood over him, arms raised high, ready to deliver the final blow. The king shot to his feet and grabbed the man by his neck. The knight had no chance to move or fight back. The king's hand crushed the neck with the sound of crumpling steel armor. Blood splashed across his hand and forearm, and a sickening gurgle filled his ears.

The king, eyes on the witch, casually tossed the body aside. It shot across the muddy field, tumbling end over end before finally coming to rest more than a hundred meters away. He was struggling to control the power. The burning sensation pressed at his insides, and his knees buckled. He'd been told his time would be short. He didn't have much longer. He charged the witch, shooting across the remaining space between them in a blink. A wall of grey shot up in front of the witch just as fast, stopping his outstretched hand just short of her throat. The burning inside grew, and pain coursed through his body, growing more intense with every second.

The witch's face, mere inches from his hand, mocked him. The grey pooled at her feet, swept up his legs, and oozed over his outstretched arm. Green Flames burst from his skin, sending the grey in a puff of greasy smoke. He screamed in pain as the essence flame consumed him.

"This is my essence." Blinding pain was his world, and it was his own essence, burning him alive. Greasy grey smoke curled into the air everywhere the grey essence touched him. The grey pool moved away, trying to avoid him. His hand was now free. The witch recognized the danger too late. The fiery hand closed around her throat in a crushing grip. Her hands scrabbled at the armored hand holding her throat. She tried to scream in defiance, but the air couldn't get past the crushing grip. Her efforts grew more desperate as the flames licked the skin on her face. The smell of burning hair and skin filled the air. The bones in her throat grated against each other as the king lifted her from her feet with a single hand. The smile on the king's face filled her vision, and then she felt a pop. Then there was nothing.

The king pushed his essence into the witch. Her body, the grey's body, pulled at the essence, drinking it up. More and more, he pushed until a tower of green flame consumed them both. He felt when the body reached its limit. It could hold no more; still, the grey pulled it in. Even with all the essence he was feeding it, the power in him still grew. More and more. He could not push out as much as he came in, but still, he pushed. He would win. His cry of triumph was drowned out by a shriek of pain and terror. The grey would be denied. He felt the power cresting inside of him. A tsunami of pure essence swept out, exploding like a bomb and sending a shockwave across the battlefield.

The bright green flash could be seen from the emerald aisle. Several minutes later, a boom echoed out for hundreds of miles. Sending faraway birds into the sky. Of the king and the witch, nothing but a crater remained. The blast cleared the remaining fog and clouds, leaving the countryside clear for all to see. Bodies litter the landscape in all directions for miles. It would be years before the land was suitable for planting again.

The king was dead. The table was empty. The kingdom had fallen.


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