Witchbound – Chapter 9

They stepped into the thin bridge spanning the Catacombs. Andronikos slowed down every three steps, which she understood – he must be a little weary, also due to his advanced age.

But when she turned she saw the Chancellor just marveling at the chamber, lifting his lamp above his head as the light reflected over the volutes of foam from the rumbling waterfall of the blind Alph. They were surrounded by the roar of crashing waters and towers of vapor, glittering gold at the light of the lamps.

What is this place,” she saw hi mouth, though his words came muffled to her ears.

Let’s reach the end and I will tell you!” She shouted over the echoes of the waterfall. He followed her across the bridge. They slowed down even further at a spot close to the middle where the seamless stone bore a few holes and cracks. As if someone had tried to set five thin spokes into the marble, long ago.

For some reason she did not understand, Alba shivered.

As they reached the end and walked now amidst the ruins of the many houses set against the ramparts of the eastern bank, Andronikos stopped against the main breaking wall, looking down into the inky depths of the Alph, but his feeble lamp could only brighten a few ribbons of foam and little else.

“All this, hidden right beneath our nose. How?”

“I suppose the same force that created the walls and the Cittadella had a hand in this.”

He sighed.

“I owe you an apology. And to your father as well. I doubted his words all this time, thinking they came from malaise. And instead they came from foresight!”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” she replied shaking her head. She walked closer to him and the old man set a hand over her shoulder. She leaned into the touch, grateful. “I doubted it as well. We are here for him as well, not just for the city. To honor his memory – something I hope I’ll have the strength to do.”

“Your Highness,” he chuckled, “you managed to find this passage right beneath my nose and that of the Captain of Grace and Justice. Ah, me!” The chuckle turned into a bout of laughter that made his lamp rattle. “Alfiere will lose his marbles.”

“I’m sure he will, but let’s wait to involve him in this. There is something I need your help with – this detour wasn’t just to show you this place.”

“What can an old man with a stiff heart help you, Your Highness?” He mused as they walked back from the parapet and away from the rumbling tides. Air began to feel less humid with each step – Alba guided him through the ancient hallways of the abandoned village, until they reached an opening in the rock that seemed to have been cut by a sheer blade, folding stone like paper.

“It’s here,” she muttered.

“You truly believe one Witch has remained? How?”

“I do not know the answer yet.” They entered the passage. Unlike the tunnels or the hallways, it was painfully narrow and so smooth the stone reflected their shadows and the lamps. It curved into a series of sharp turns, until it finally unfolded in what looked like a bloom of oblique layers, as if someone tried to make a flower out of blades.

At the center of the fan welcomed them the last obstacle. It was a large shrub, made out of chalk-white brambles, as tight as a closed fist. They reached it, and Alba sighed and gave a kick at some of the tolls she had brought here during the last few weeks, trying to pry it open: a hammerhead sled over the polished floor.

“I see you have tried to bash it open,” the Chancellor mused picking up another hammer.

“That and more. Acid…” Alba pointed at a few empty glass vials sitting about on the closest of the room’s tilted planes and made a face. “Even something more… radical.” She took in a sharp breath and showed him a pale mark on her lower left arm.

“Princess! You-“

“Blood is a common currency for Witches. The Pact stated it would be paid in kind. But I had no luck.” She pointed at a spot on the thorny bush. “I poured it right there, and see? Not even a mark.”

“Hmm…” Andronikos took a look at the bush, and the surroundings.

“There’s also this,” Alba said pointing at the zodiac etched on the floor, spreading in a circle from the shrub. “But I wouldn’t know how it might help.”

“What are these other marks? Here on the… brambles.” He put his finger against the weird signs that marked the branches. She wouldn’t know what to do with those.

“I have no idea. Neither did Father. He never reached this point, or if he did, he did not write anything in the Brazen Book.”

“I see… in fact, I dearly regret not listening to him. I might have been able to help. This is Saint Jerome’s Script.”

“The what now?”

“An archaic form of what would become Cyrillic. I am quite confident I did make at least a couple lessons on the subject, a few years ago.”

“That was then. How can it help us?” Alba replied, even though her cheeks di grow a little flusher.

“You did seem to have become more attentive as a student over the years, at the very least,” he mused. “Perhaps not all my efforts were lost. Now… these are but a bunch of letters, spread all over the place. Why would they put it like this? I suppose if the last Witch is in here, there would be a way to set her free, don’t you believe so?”

“That is indeed what I hope… but so far I had no luck in prying it open!”

“Perhaps you should not…” he scratched his beard. “Ah, me! It’s the end of a long day and my bones are so tired. If only I could feel the same lucidity I used to have twenty years ago…”

“You weren’t even Chancellor twenty years ago,” Alba reminded him. “If Father put you there, I think he must have had his reasons.”

They shared a look.

“Sometimes I wonder what went through his mind as well, do you know? But at least I have one more chance to honor his trust tonight. Let’s see…” He picked up one of his notebooks and began to write down each of the symbols as he patiently made sure not to miss anything.

Meanwhile, Alba sat on a nearby step, raking her mind to find a way that might help. Strange letters… what could they mean? An ancient form of Cyrillic.

Who used Cyrillic again? The Russian Empire, mostly.


Something took form in her mind, a slippery slug of thought.

None of the Witches of Eridania came from there, save for…

“Yrima of the Ravens.”

“I beg your pardon?” Andronikos lifted his head from his notebook.

“She was from the steppes of Asia! She would have had a reason to use this alphabet, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps… legends have it she dwelled in Rome for a long time, though. Wouldn’t she use Roman letters for her spells?”

“You pray in Greek, don’t you?”

“Why, of course. I’d never get caught praying in the language of Papists.”

“Then she might have used a more familiar language as well. So… let’s suppose she was the one who put the letters there. What could they mean?”

“I have almost finished dotting them down: they follow a spiral pattern, but I can’t say where it should start or end.”

“Alright, so…” her eyes fell to the Zodiac. It was used to make predictions, but also to count time, so…

She traced back to the bas-relief: each of the Witches were associated with a phase of the moon. The full moon represented Yrima.

“I’m just following a hunch,” she tried.

“Go on, Princess. Might be Divine insight in baggy clothes.”

“Alright… Yrima was the one who made the Pact. It’s logical to assume she was also the one to build this… prison. She was their leader and always depicted at the wisest. She hides their last member, for some reason. But she doesn’t kill her. And she leaves enough hints behind her that even centuries later people like my father and I manage to pick them up and string them together.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” He finished writing down the letters and sat next to her, keeping the book open in his lap.

“This means that there must be a key to open this up, and the symbols point at that. Also it’s not tied to my blood. Which is weird.”

“Let’s conclude our thesis first. We’ll deal with cracks in your reasoning later,” he gently reminded her.

She blushed slightly again, feeling like she was once more attending one of his classes. But this time she was engaged and willing to find the solution.

“We have a bunch of letters. We need to understand how to string them together. Yrima likely made this on the day of their disappearance.”

“Which was?”

“There are no exact records. Spring of 1509, most likely. During the War of Cambrai.”

“So you are saying she must have marked… the starting cypher with a full moon during spring of 1509.”

“Yes! And by finding the full moon in that spring we can see from which of these symbols to start with! And solve the cypher, assuming the length of the cypher is… what should it be? Seven letters?”

“At this point it’s a pattern. I think it’s a good way to look at it, Princess.”

“Now… oh, Heavens, I’ll just have to sit through astrology records for a few weeks until I recover the exact days of the phases of the moon in 1509…”

“That won’t be necessary. Hold this for me, please?”

He handed her his notebook and shut his eyes. He began to trace signs in the air with his fingers, as if he was using an abacus. Alba watched him, transfixed, as he whispered calculations going on in his mind.

She felt each moment running down her spine, each breath racking her chest, but at last he opened his eyes again and massaged his brow.

“Either 11th of May or 11th of April.”

She nodded, still a bit in awe at his mental capabilities.

“Let’s start with April.”

But after a few attempts Andronikos shook his head.

“This gives me gibberish.”

They tried to switch with the second date and start to count from the branch sprouting from the House of Taurus.

Alba watched him jot down letter after letter and she felt her heart almost stop in joy as he smiled.

“Now that makes more sense! The alphabet is Jerome’s, but the language, by Heaven’s grace, is Greek. I wouldn’t be able to help if it was the raspy bark of Slavs.”

“Let’s all be grateful for Yrima’s poetic affectations, then. What does it say?”

“It’s a few verses. Should I tell you the original or…”

“… the translation, yes. Please, Andronikos.”

He huffed, but reached the end of the symbols and began to recite:

“Malcastria the name that bound us and us betrayed.”

Betrayed? What did the Witch mean?

“Cordelia the name that last was spoken. May she sleep until the final hour. Roused may she be by royal lips, and not in blood but in bond.”

Not in blood… that explained why her attempt had amounted to nothing.

Andronikos looked at her with a quizzical glimpse in his eyes.

Their lamps were growing dimmer.

If she had a chance, she had to use it now.

Alba put her hand against the bush.

“Cordelia,” she called.

And beneath her fingers, the stone brambles began to quiver, chafe and open up.

Author’s Notes: very long chapter, one of my favorite to write so far. I especially loved setting up the cypher and the way these two solved it: I had to actually look up dates and moon phases. There apparently was a full moon on the 11th of May of 1509. The more you know!

At any rate, from now on we’ll deal with Cordelia as well. Hope you’ll like her and thanks for reading!


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