Matthew Eaton

I am a writer of Flash Fiction, Microfiction, Dark Poetry, Fantasy, Sci-Fi and more!


Caster’s Web of Deceit Chapter 7

Johnson saw the large building first, and he sat there in stunned amazement when the gouts of steam poured out from the rooftop. He turned to the water caster and pointed at it, but she shrugged at him as though it were a common place everyone already knew existed.

“When you’ve seen one great library, you’ve seen them all,” she said.

“I’ve never seen a library before.”

“Well, this would explain why you are a pirate.”

“We’re privateers.”

“Doesn’t being a privateer mean you have a king to serve and a war to fight?”

Johnson felt the color in his cheeks and glanced away from her ice colored eyes. He watched the men talk among themselves and look at him with suspicious awe. The embarrassment shifted to anger when he realized he lost control over them.

I’m not doing well as a first mate.

A blue blur passed his eyes. A small, heavy weight landed on his shoulder, and a black eye gazed at him.

“Captain,” Johnson said.

“Johnson, ye ne’er had an edge to ye before. What got into ye?”

“I’d rather not discuss the problems I have. We have a mission to complete, and we should finish it before we lose any more men to this suicide mission.”

“Remember lad, I be th’ cap’n. Ne’er allow ye emotions t’ get th’ best of ye.” Bluefeather turned his head and whistled at his crew. The rest whistled in return. The macaw stretched his wings and flew out toward the library. Johnson clinched his fist and felt his jaw clench.

“He is right,” the water caster said.

“I didn’t ask you,” Johnson replied.

“Oh, but you are the spitting image of your mother. Are you sure you aren’t really her hiding in a man’s body?”

He glanced at her with his jaw slack and eyes wide.

“Of course I knew her. She helped push the movement for water casting along the Nimerian coast along with the princess, Fodd, and Natt.” She walked toward the library and stopped when she realized he didn’t follow her. “She suffered a terrible fate, all because her emotions ran her life instead of her mind.”

Johnson bit his tongue and passed the water caster. Every part of his mind screamed at him to find out more about the woman he recalled as a myth and a shadow than a mother.

The water caster hovered next to him while they traveled across the winding road to the massive building. Johnson kept his eyes locked on the brass and oak walls, shaped and stylized with sweeping swooshes and twists he never saw in anything as glorious in his life.

“Tell me, what do you remember about your mother?”

“What does it matter? There’s no way I would tell you, even if I did remember anything.”

“So you do remember something.”

He bristled and clinched his fists, but continued to walk along the path until they reached the giant doors. They stood taller than the height of twelve men standing on one another’s shoulders, and as wide as a ship’s hull. Built into the door was another entry with brass inlays and large carvings of dragons perched on a bridge.

“They guard the path to knowledge,” the water caster said.

“What, the doors?”

“No, the dragons.” She stifled her patronizing giggle and placed her hand on the door, letting her finger run across the etching as though she touched something made by her artistic skill. “The Jiri are superstitious people. They believe in many things considered silly by the rest of the world, but they were right about the demons distracting people from finding the truth and knowing more about themselves in the process.”

“Are you trying to tell me something witch, or are you enjoying tormenting me with arcane secrets?”

Her slender fingers pressed against the dragon’s head. The door clicked and opened wide for her to float through the entryway. She stopped before she disappeared into the building. “Bryn.”

“Is that your name?”

“No, look for her in the Annals of Notable Foreigners. The Jiri arranged their information by the first name, since their naming structure is reversed.”

He watched her disappear into the dim cave and thought he saw a smile on her lips. He waited until the other men arrived and entered before he followed them. They scowled or averted their eyes from his gaze, their voices meek and mild while they offered greetings and thanks for holding the door for them.

They all stopped and gawked at the sheer magnitude and scale of the library in front of them. One shelf contained thousands of scrolls, and it towered higher than the doors. There were more shelves stretching out along the walls than they could count, and far more somewhere within the building.

A small woman hiding in a bright pink robe too big for her with hunched shoulders and her gray hair tied in a bun shuffled toward them. Her knobby finger waggled at them while she spoke. “No slaves inside. This is a fine establishment. We do not allow the rabble to run rampant in here.”

“These people are not rabble, wise woman. They are guests from a foreign land, and they don’t speak our language very well.”

She stopped in her tracks and lowered her hand. She slipped it into the robe and offered a wan smile. “Ah, dignitaries are my favorite. Where do these savages hail from, young dragon?”

“They are from a small principality within the former Nimerian kingdom along the coast.”

“You brought lions with you?” The woman giggled, causing a rush of pinging bells to chime from her hair. She glanced away and saw two older men scowling at her. She rolled her eyes, walked to Johnson, and slipper her arm around his. “This is a fortuitous sign indeed. It is so rare these powerful creatures exist in one room, much less in the same nation. Please, you must tell me about their travels.”

Johnson smiled and patted her on the hand. He marveled at her grip, even though she looked more than a century old. “What would you like to know, wise woman?”

“Do they eat their young?”

“No, they do not.”

“Do they travel in packs and urinate on things they claim is theirs?”

“I do know they urinate, but they do not musk things.”

“Do you believe they will mate with anything that moves?”

His left eyebrow lifted, and he turned to his men. They blushed or retched while hiding their ability to understand her words by looking around the entry hall with awe and wonder. “Is there a reason you ask?”

“I might be a toothless hedgehog, but I still have needs.”

The heat overwhelmed him, and he fought the urge to sputter while patting her hand once more. “I believe you are more than welcome to lead our dignitaries around and show them the wonders of this place. Be sure to speak slow and make exaggerated movements.”

“The wisdom in young dragons never ceases to amaze me.” She pulled him to her and kissed him on the cheek. “You will make many hatchlings and take over the world with the strength you have in your loins.”

He yelped when her hand grabbed him in a sensitive area. She winked at him, released her hold, and shuffled away to speak to his crew.

It took him a moment to gather his senses before he thought about what he needed to do next.

Where do I go now?

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Caster’s Web of Deceit Chapter Six closed

My apologies for the severe delay, but I wanted to make sure a clear choice was made and not left to my own devices. I am also calling for another delay, only because I have a deadline I must meet. I hope it isn’t for any longer than a few days, but shooting for less.

Thanks for bearing with me on this. It is much appreciated.


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Caster’s Web of Deceit: Chapter Seven

Johnson watched the daggers glint the midday sun, and he waited for something to give him pause. The white-robed women behind the prisoners hummed a tune that sent chills to his heart, and he couldn’t understand why he felt the way he did now.

“Let the Eight decide their fate.”

The water caster glanced at Johnson and raised an eyebrow, a wicked smirk creeping across her face. Johnson ignored her visual taunt and watched with his chin jutting, and chest thrust out like a bronze statue of an ancient hero. He wondered if he would regret the decision.

The women started slitting throats down the line, their blood-stained  blades cutting through the prisoner’s necks with ease. Fonts of blood exploded from the Ice Realm’s two prisoners, and the crowd cheered with a mixture of religious awe and bloodlust.

“The gods have spoken. The Ice Realms will feel the fury of their parents scorn,” the announcer said.

The next person to fall to the blade was the Drekmöhrg prisoner. The blade had a tougher time cutting through, and the blood didn’t flow through the wound. The crowd gasped and spoke among each other while the large, bearded man fell to his knees and clutched at his wound. When it was evident, he wouldn’t die from the injury, the woman behind him grabbed his head and slammed the dagger into his sea blue right eye. The corpse fell forward and twitched before the blood flowed free from its vessel.

“The gods have spoken. We will leave the spoiled, unholy Drek alone from our love. They are too set in their rebellious ways to be saved.”

The slaughter continued, with each injury determining what direction the nation would take on the ear effort. Johnson heard his men murmuring behind him, talking about the barbarous acts they witnessed. He didn’t feel sorrow for not intervening, but he did wish the pointless public murders would stop.

His opinion changed when they reached the final captive.

The bald headed, olive skinned man stood with defiance and glared down his nose at the people gathered in the square. The crowd grew quiet, and three babies cried in unison. The man smirked and stepped forward, unafraid of the knife cutting into his throat.

“I am Rabin el-Visa em-Rasha ilm-Shirah, the godchild of the true emperor of Asrathi and the rightful ruler of the Shirah province. My death will not cause war amongst our people, but will start the fires of civil war in my homeland. They will sing praises of my sacrifice, and I will be greeting by the Eight—”

A guard standing off to the platform’s side stepped on the stage and stopped the man’s rant with a quick punch to the stomach, followed by a deafening crunch when he brought his brass covered knee up to break the Asrathi’s nose. The crowd roared in blood lust, and Johnson found himself caught up in the frenzy.

He remembered being a young pirate, and the first lesson on why some people deserved to have their goods plundered from them. His former crew members returned stolen goods to the Shirah in hopes of earning some downtime in a safe harbor. When the captain and quartermaster to the holy palace, they said to set sail and find another harbor. Johnson didn’t believe them, and was one of the few who wanted to stay and wait for their safe return.

He almost lost his life for that decision.

His mind drifted to the current day, and he felt the heat in his cheeks from his crew’s astonished stares. Captain Bluefeather tilted his head before he hid his eyes under a wing, and the water caster continued to smirk at him.

“What are you smiling at, witch?” Johnson asked.

“I’ve never seen someone caught up in the Jiri Blood Fury before. It makes me wonder…“

He ignored her barbs and watched the woman step forward with her dagger lifted in the air. The crowd chanted for his death. The guard grabbed the Asrathi’s head and pulled it back. The white-robed  woman stepped forward and placed the dagger against his throat. Johnson watched the man’s eyes shift to glare at him. He saw the faces of his captain and quartermaster after they were carved from their bodies.

The blade cut, and blood exploded from the wound with such fury that it caused an orgasmic rush in the crowd. The crew gasped and looked away, but Johnson felt the smirk on his lips grow wide. “You know what they say. You can cut an Asrathi into ten pieces, and you still haven’t rid the world of one. You’ve only made ten more Asrathi.”

“My, you are a racist too? You never cease to amaze me, Johnson. I do enjoy this darker side of you.”

“Aye, don’t encourage ‘im,” Bluefeather chimed.

Johnson turned on his heel and walked away, not waiting to see if the others were following behind him. He walked through the gathered crowd, using his disguise to muscle through some of the throngs until they reached a place where they could be hidden from others. He motioned for them to walk down the alley into a sunny alcove with a small public garden built into the center. When the last man disappeared into the alcove, Johnson shot a glance at the platform and saw the masses no longer caught up with the frenzy, continuing on with their bartering.

When he arrived in the garden, he noticed his men glaring at him. When he approached the first man to confront him, he saw the eyes shift away. He went to every man standing with him and tested this theory. No one confronted him.

“I know what you are thinking, and at this point I don’t care. We are in a hostile land. We cannot risk taking on a city of thousands by ourselves. My hatred of the Asrathi aside, it was wiser for us to observe what happened and take note of the customs of this land,” Johnson said.

“What about the battles? My family is in the Ice Realms. They should know—”

“If we survive this journey, I will be happy to play messenger to warn the nations of the oncoming battles.”

The water caster chuckled, causing Johnson to falter in his bravado. He turned to look at her, and she shook her head.

“Is there something I am missing?” Johnson asked.

“We have a priority, Johnson. If we can’t stop Unne and her ways, there won’t be a world to worry about. Our goal is to stop her before anything happens. Never forget this is why we are here,” the water caster replied.

“Fine, then we should decide where we want to go.”

“We have three places. The palace, the library, or we can explore the town in small groups. The choice is yours.”

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Caster’s Web of Deceit Chapter Six closed

And wow, I thought I was cold blooded.

You all voted to let the people die instead of saving their lives through magical or forceful means…

Right, I’ll get on making a new one… Get ready for some more cultural immersion

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Caster’s Web of Deceit: Chapter Six

When the brass statute of a fire-breathing dragon spit flame over their heads, they finally admitted they were in a foreign place. Johnson turned to the crew members and saw fear in their eyes. One looked to be on the verge of tears, his seventeen-year-old mind unable to cope with his thirty seven-year-old body any longer.

His attention shifted to the water caster and Bluefeather conducting a conversation with one another in hushed whispers. He wished he could listen in, but the hocker’s din interrupted any chance he had to glean information from his superiors.

He marveled over the fact he could understand anything the exotic sellers were saying. The words were stilted and weird before, but now they flowed around him like a rushing stream of words crashing against the river rocks.

“Fresh duck, get your fresh duck here!”

“Fortunes to be told, treasures to be gained.”

“Glory be to the San’s and their religious efforts to spread our holy empire’s words back to the Hrathans we once controlled.”

Johnson adjusted his helmet and turned his head back to his crew once more. The fear they showed with their grimaces and wide-eyed terror of the children who taunted them with harsh words they couldn’t understand.

He stopped and motioned for them to stand at a small watering bowl. They took turns washing their hands and faces while he walked up to the water caster and placed his hand on her shoulder.

“My, aren’t we frisky today, Johnson?” the water caster asked.

“Forgive me, but I must understand why we are here. Isn’t it too important to stop Unne to do sight-seeing?”

“Ah, but nothing is more important than knowledge, my dear boy.” She turned and pointed at the large crowd gathering at a rusty looking giant platform. There were ten women in pristine white hooded robes with bloody hand prints over their hearts. “We are about to witness a religious ceremony that no one else sees unless they are a part of it.”

He watched her glance down the alleyway and smile. She turned back to him and nodded once. His feet shifted under her gaze, and he tugged at the red and tan collar now gripping his neck. “What do you plan on this time, witch?”

“I believe this is a very important moment for your men to understand. I will grant them a way of understanding their speech—”

“Oh no, they lost enough of their lives to your lies. I doubt very much they will want to lose more of it to your tricks.”

“Relax, Johnson. They will not be paying the price, nor will you.”

“Who will then?”

“Him,” the water caster replied. She thrust her thumb over her shoulder and nodded. He turned and saw the drunken elderly man slumped in the alley. He could hear the shuddering weak breath, and it made him nauseous. “He has enough life left to grant everyone an understanding of the Jiri’s speech for one day.”

“But what—”

“My dear boy, this man already lost his life in the bottle. He is dying, and cannot be saved by us or the Jiri doctors, who now stand on that stage.”

Johnson turned and noticed she pointed to the women in the white robes with bloody hand prints.

“He will die within an hour. Will you let his gift be squandered due to your arrogance?”

“Arrogance? It is pride that makes me want to save him from himself?”

“It is pride when you stop the creative forces from plying their trade on you. It is arrogance to think this process won’t work for you because you have a moral objection to taking energy from someone else. Need I remind you the same energy flows through you and your men as well?”

“It is different. We are here to plunder the fortunes of the Jiri, not their souls.”

“Where do you suppose they manifested their wealth from, young one? Did they stumble upon the money through delicious chance, or did they ply their energy trade to make their wealth grow?”

Johnson sighed and shook his head, rubbing his temples to stave off the oncoming headache. He waved at her with a heavy sigh and turned his head from the scene unfolding in front of him. He watched the dancing toxic green energy waft through the air like a living smoke snake writhing in pain. The smoke split into tendrils and buried themselves into his crew’s ears.

He watched their faces and saw the green light flicker to life before fading a heartbeat later. They rubbed the ears the smoke entered and twisted their noses like they had water in their skulls. When they stopped fighting the sensation, they looked at one another wide-eyed and jaws slackened.

“Johnson, we can—”

“I know, but now is not the time to draw attention to ourselves.” Johnson motioned with his head toward the figures standing upon the platform. “Pay attention and understand what you’re seeing here today is something no one else will ever witness themselves.”

The men nodded and watched the scene in front of them. Johnson shifted his attention to the water caster for a moment to offer a scowl, but she ignored him and kept her eyes on the pedestal where one large man stood with a book in his right hand and a rusty dagger in his left. He cleared his throat and addressed the crowd gathered in front of him.

“Fellow Jirians, listen to what the gods tell you this day. We are a struggling empire, suffering from the sins of hubris that retracted our grasp on the world by inspiring freedom for other nations. If it weren’t for our influence, the Asrathi Empire and the Drekmöhrg wouldn’t exist. They defy us by throwing our greatness at our feet like a spoiled child discarding their parent’s swee gift.”

The crowd grumbled and shouted phrases that sent chills through Johnson’s body. He motioned for the others to remain calm, but his hand trembled more than he expected. He drew his hand to his body and listened to the booming voice grow louder with every word.

“We gather her to offer our gods lives to dictate our actions today and for the rest of our days. They are our children, the people who threw off their masters loving to embrace and stabbed at us with their own hubris. Our actions here today will be carried to the San-Mijhi, our capital and epicenter of our religion, to dictate our emperor’s actions.

“If the sacrifice goes well, we will send fleets to take back the lands that once flew our flag.” The man stopped and pointed at the red flag with the black eagle snapping in the breeze. Johnson looked up at the symbol and was shocked to see that he could read the words emblazoned on the flag itself. Before he could mention it, the preacher continued his fervent sermon. “Bring forth our wayward children and let it be known their sacrifice will determine the fate of their lands.”

Johnson watched ten men walk up the small steps. They wore chains that restricted their arms and legs, forcing them to shuffle along the platform until they stopped in front of the women in white robes. He noticed each one of them were from a different nation. The dark-skinned and curly-haired  Asrathi, the pale skinned, blonde-haired  Drek, the bright red skinned and flamed haired woman from the Fire Kingdom, and even one from the great Ice Domain.

The women behind them spoke their words and lifted their hands to the heavens. Johnson noticed the same rust color that covered the dagger, and the pedestal covered their hands as well. He narrowed his eyes and kept staring until something clicked in his mind. He felt ill and wanted to drop to one knee, but the act would draw more attention than he wanted.

It isn’t rust. It’s blood.

Blades slid out from their sheaths, and before anyone knew it, daggers were pressed against the prisoner’s throats. Some offered muted prayers, while others screamed in their native tongue for their release. Johnson glanced over his shoulder and shook his head, understanding they wanted to charge up the steps and save the men from this horrible fate.

“We have one chance Johnson, but you must choose fast,” the water caster said.

“What choice do I have? We can’t fight our way up there, and we can’t let them die either.”

“It is simple. You can allow your men to make fools of themselves and interrupt the ceremony, thus blowing our cover and destroying any chance we have at saving this world. We can let the sacrifice continue and wait to see what fate holds for the world, or we can give fate a helping hand and give them an answer they wouldn’t enjoy seeing.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can stem the blood flow enough to make them think attacking isn’t the best idea. It might even save more than a few lives, though they will be scared for the rest of their days.” The water caster clinched her fist, and he noticed a green-blue flicker in her irises. “Hurry, you must make a choice!”

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Caster’s Web Chapter 5 closed

My goodness, I have been in such upheaval that I forgot about this. My sincerest apologies, I will work on improving my attentiveness.

We are now going to visit San-Jiri. I have a lot to get down, so please bare with me and I’ll make the city worth your while. Again, my apologies!

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Caster’s Web of Deceit: Chapter 5

Johnson felt the pressure of every man that served under him, both alive and dead, when he saw the trembling hand of the water caster beckoning him to take her offer. He glanced at Bluefeather, but the bird game him a curt nod and hopped away before he could say anything. When he turned around again, he heard the Jiri soldiers slide blades from their sheaths and yell something he couldn’t understand. He looked at the water caster, who kept her quivering arm outstretched and glared at him. “I suppose I’m not lucky enough to understand them after a few hours.”

“In a few decades, you might pick up on the subtle accents and lilts hat you wouldn’t make a complete ass of yourself. There are many travelers who pay solid coin to Jiri translators, just because they value their heads on their bodies more than they care for the gold they will lose.” The water caster turned and bowed her leathery head once, causing the Jirians to stop in their tracks. “There is no more time, young one. Make your decision.”

Johnson grabbed his chin and scratched the scruff on his face. He turned to see his surviving men nod their approval before hiding behind the trees once more. “Fine, I will—”

HIs words were cut off by a large blast of energy that arched from his chest to the Jiri soldiers standing at the ready. They screamed and fell to their knees, and he watched in helpless horror while the life drained from their bodies, and they turned to piles of glowing dust. The third man fell to one knee and gripped his sword, but the siphon that stretched from his chest to her hand grew brighter and sucked away his life force until he looked as old as she once did.

He looked down at his hands and saw the unnatural aging disappear within seconds. He shifted his eyes to her and saw she looked at least in her forties once more. “What did you do?”

“I gave you a gift, and I extended your life.” The water caster smiled, and he felt chilled to his core. “Or, rather, I gave you more life than you would have if you didn’t take his in the first place.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Gauging on what I took from everyone onboard to get us to shore, you would have died in your fifties. Now, with their energy in your soul, you will have a normal lifespan of seventy plus years.” She shook her head when he opened his mouth to reply, and she smiled wider. “There is no guarantee for this, of course. The way it works for casters like me, we often run out of borrowed energy and keep taking from whatever we can. You may not have to do more than live a long life and not experience any issues. However, I cannot say you would burn through the borrowed life through vigorous activities.”

“You mean—”

“My, but you are young and virile.” The water caster snapped her fingers, and the ethereal tethers connecting them to the Jirians disappeared. “If you believe that is vigorous for you, I may have to take you up on the challenge.”

Johnson felt her eyes ogling him and turned away while covering his privates with his hands. The act caused her to laugh harder and slap her thigh with a heavy snort. “It has been two centuries since I was last with a male, Johnson. I doubt I know the correct way to handle one, even if I wanted to. Sleeping with buxom beauties is more our style.”

He ignored her and took a step away, but she shook her head and motioned for him to go to the Jirian soldier now dying on the ground. After some choice movements and odd gestures, he walked up to the man and knelt down next to him.

“You were pirates all along, weren’t you?” the soldier asked.

Johnson turned to look at the water caster, but she waved away his question with casual disinterest. “Yes, you can understand every Jiri accent and inflection from here until you die, and perhaps longer if you are fortunate. Ask him about Unne.”

He turned back to the soldier and repeated the question. Even though his mind screamed out that it was impossible for him to know the language, he spoke and understood everything he said without question. The soldier looked at him in amazement, but the look was replaced with a great wave of pain and coughing up of blood.

“I know of one wizard that arrived two days ago, though she hasn’t done more than stay at the consulate and answer questions pressed to her by the government. She flies the orchid over her estate, though we doubt the Great Lady would send someone so cruel under her banner.”

“That is her,” the water caster said. “Ask something else.”

“Did she mention any official business she needed to attend to? Were there any others with her?”

“There were two more with her, though I didn’t see them with my eyes.” The soldier struggled with his words and coughed up more blood. His eyes rolled back into his head for a moment, but the water caster donated some of the stolen energy to allow him to complete his thoughts. “She visits the great Jiri shrine to pay respect for someone. She also retrieves old maps and studies them for hours on end without rest. Since she is an emissary, we do not question what she does with them.”

Johnson glanced over his shoulder and waited for the water caster to say something. She shook her head and snapped her fingers again.

“Please, return to me what is mine. Do not let me die…”

He felt terror grab his chest while watching the man age and die in front of him in less than two heartbeats. When he turned to look at the water caster, she pointed at the man and motioned for him to take his clothes.

“No, I refuse—”

“We are not going through this again, Commander. If you want to stop this, you have to play by the rules. We cannot survive in this forest, and we cannot enter San Jiri without you helping us now.” She turned and motioned for the others to come out of hiding. “Do you really want to let your remaining crew down by leaving them here to die?”

Johnson grumbled and turned to remove the clothes off the desiccated corpse. While wrestling with the jacket, he whistled to two more people and motioned with his head for them to put on the other guard’s clothing. After they all changed their clothes, they stood like stiff rods and looked at one another in disgust. The water caster placed her finger on her chin and gave an amused chuckle, glancing down at Bluefeather and giving the bird a wink. “What do you think?”

“Me think ye be daft, tosser,” Bluefeather replied.

“All right boys, we have some choices to make. We can go to the governor’s building and see if we can find a map that Unne might need. We might lose a lot of time in looking, but we might get the drop on her. We can go to her estate and see if she is there, but I doubt you want to get into a social pissing match in a foreign country.”

“Are there any other choices?” Johnson asked.

“Of course, there are always choices.” The water caster spread her arms and offered a bright smile. “We can walk through San Jiri proper and discover the information we need. You will see amazing things that will stump your senses, and will change you forever.”

“It sounds like you’re making this up.”

“When the Western Witches apply their trade, you will understand why you will change forever. We must choose now. The ghosts gather and will attack if we delay any further.”

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Delay in Caster’s Web

My apologies for the delay, I will post the next entry soon (in the next day or so). Between the fumigation and contract signing to get a small book published, things were a bit crazy since the last time we spoke.

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Caster’s Web of Deceit Chapter 4 closed

Good morning all,

I just checked and saw the votes, so we’ll have Johnson step up to the plate and continue the adventure. My home is being fumigated, so if there is a slight delay, you know why.

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Caaster’s Web of Deceit Chapter 4

The remaining crew stood in front of a giant tree, waiting for the next ghost to find them. Two men peered around the large trunk where the rest of them hid from the carnage unfolding deeper in the woods. They murmured to one another while errant streams of light shot over their heads and wilted all the trees in its path.

Hiding inside one of the larger hollowed out trunks was an older feeling Johnson and a cowering Bluefeather sneaking a peek and squawking whenever another stream of light shot over their heads. Johnson leaned forward and grabbed the bird around the neck, yelling at the top of his lungs over the screams of terror erupting outside. “What do you mean we’ve lost three more men?”

“Ye heard me, lad. There be ghosts devourin’ the boys left and right. If it weren’t for th’ tosser, we’d be scattered ‘cross the seven seas”

“Where is that unpleasant witch? I’d—”

“She be over there, best ye stay away while she be castin’.”

Johnson peered out from the stump and turned his head to catch the robed witch dancing in the middle of a swirling cloud of ghosts. Small balls of blue-light shot from her palms and raced across through the air at the spirits. The first ball hit the specter in the chest, and exploded in a bright blue fire. The ghost caught fire and burst into flames a moment later, leaving small smoldering fragments in its wake.

In the same fluid motion, she thrust her hand into the nearest ghost and smiled. The spirit moans turned to screams when it started vibrating so fast that it disappeared from sight. The blue energy forming on her hand quickly turned into another sphere roiling with fire.

“How does she do that? If we were with the priests, they’d fall to their knees and pray to the Eight to banish the monsters before they were devoured.”

“She mastered the art of borrowing, she did.,” Bluefeather replied. He hopped out from the stump and stretched his wings while casting a wary black eye at the woman. “If she stays the course, she’ll die ‘fore long,”

“Wait, she’s—”

“Aye, she be th’ one who keelhauled the crew and stole souls to power her magic.”

“And she’s on or side?”

“Lad, ye haven’t seen th’ bad side yet.”

The screaming ghost interrupted Johnson’s rebuttal. It was loud enough to make the trees shake. When they turned to see the commotion, they noticed the drifting blue embers dropping to the forest floor like dead leaves. When the last fragments fell, they noticed the water caster quivering and panting for air. Johnson climbed out of the stump and stood, making a move to help her stand straight. She shot him a glare that chilled him to his core. Her feet floated above the ground, pushing the embers and dried leaves away with an unseen gust under her body.

When she arrived at Johnson’s side, she looked every bit of the two-hundred years she claimed to be. Black irises hid under wrinkles were so deep in her flesh that it looked like a leather doll held together with glue. When she cast her eyes to Johnson, her face sagged even more, and she folded her trembling arms until her bony hands hid under her sleeves. “You do know it is impolite to stare at a lady unless you plan on taking her to bed.”

“Forgive me, I haven’t seen a spell caster do what you can before in my entire life,” Johnson replied.

“Why did you shelter this boy, captain?” When she turned, Johnson swore he heard the woman’s neck groan like a rusty door hinge under the strain. “How can we fight a demon like Unne if he doesn’t understand how magic works?”

“I think th’ lad be sayiin’—”

“I don’t care what you ‘think th’ lad be sayin’. He should know everything we understand if he hopes to—”

Bluefeather jumped and flapped in front of the water caster’s face, squawking loud enough to stop her from continuing. Johnson looked at the two of them and shook his head, but he stopped when he heard limbs snap and break nearby. He turned and chirped like a bird, grabbing the hilt of his sword and slamming it against the sheath three times. The men turned and nodded before they scattered and hid in the woods.

Five Jiri soldiers stumbled from the tree line, thin swords in their hands and their brown and gray uniforms standing out against the green canopy behind them. The oldest one of the group looked not much older than Johnson was before the water caster aged him. They stopped when they noticed the group standing by the large hollowed stump and tensed their muscles at the surprise. The leader turned to his men and shook his head, turned to face the group, and spoke in a tongue no one could understand.

“What is he saying?” Johnson asked.

“He’s speaking in a slight Jiri accent. Each province in the Far West has its own dialect and—”

“I don’t think they’re here to give us a linguistic lesson.” Johnson fidgeted and struggled to keep his hand away from the sword on his hip. “Is there anything you can do to help us understand them?”

The water caster turned and offered him a smile that sent ice down his back. “Do you trust me, Johnson?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“That is an acceptable answer.” The water caster smiled, and Johnson thought she looked like an old hound dog he once had when he was younger. “I will need someone’s energy to translate what they are saying, since I used most of my essence to destroy the ghosts.”

“You’re asking me to pick someone?”

“If you feel so squeamish about it, you can volunteer yourself to sacrifice some more of your life to understand what is happening. Of course, with great risk comes an even greater reward.”

Bluefeather fluttered up and landed on Johnson’s shoulder. When the bird’s talons dug into his shoulder, he felt not only the sharp pain but a deeper groan in his muscles. He gasped from the shock, but maintained his composure. He looked past the water caster’s fragile frame and saw the annoyed look on the leader’s face. The man repeated his question again, this time with enough force to make it clear he didn’t appreciate the delay.

“Couldn’t you just translate it for us without magic?” Johnson asked.

“Where is your sense of adventure, Johnosn?” The water caster winked at him, giving him an uneasy feeling. “Besides, you have no idea what I will bestow to the volunteer for their kindness. Aren’t you the least bit curious to know what boon I can grant?”

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