Chapter 1:

My First Encounter With the Witch

Enchanted by a Witch From a Realm Called Earth

It was supposed to be an uneventful journey, but it turned into the most important of my life.

Accompanied by a caravan of military supplies, I set out on horseback for the city-state of Aelirynth. The emperor had amassed a large army on its southern border and had sent for me, confident that its capture was imminent. As his chief advisor, I was needed to help secure a smooth—and lasting—transition of power.

The route had been thoroughly scouted, and there were no signs of danger, but one week into our three-week journey, we were beset by a pack of frenzied vormarnok. Our scout spotted them first, charging directly towards us across the sandy dunes.

“There are too many. Run for your lives!”

Panic and confusion ripped through the few dozen soldiers who guarded the caravan. Some began to flee, but a powerful shout from their commander froze them in their tracks.

“Hold! We won’t survive long in this desert without the cargo. Untie the oxen so they won’t run away with it. Spears to the front. Archers, aim for the eyes.”

The commander stood out, even amongst the soldiers, for his impressive physique. In a battle of brawn, I could wish for no better ally. Unfortunately, even the strongest of men were no match for the gargantuan vormarnok. This was a battle that could only be won by superior intellect. Riding up next to him, I shouted my own orders.

“Light fires around the caravan and use torches to hold them at bay. The beasts fear only flames, as their thorny scales protect them from all else.”

The soldiers ignored me and continued pointing their spears in futile defiance at the oncoming lizards. I was merely a court official. What did I know about fighting?

Ignorant fools! Their inaction was going to get us all killed, and if I was a lesser man, I would have berated them with a torrent of insults so sharp that they would eagerly throw themselves upon the vormarnok’s claws to escape the pain. Luckily for them, I make it a policy to keep a cool head. Emotional outbursts, especially in the midst of imminent danger, lead only to careless mistakes.

To my great relief, their commander had a better head on his shoulders.

“You heard him. Fire, NOW!”

Dropping their weapons, all of them, the commander included, scrambled to pull kindling from the wagons. Soon the clacking of wood and the chirping of flint striking iron could be heard. They were still working as the vormarnok crested the closest dune, but the vanguard managed to light torches just in time to make the gigantic lizards hesitate.

They did not back away, however, and by observing their shrunken cheeks and shriveled stomachs, I could tell how desperate they were to plunder our cargo. Though herbivorous, they possessed claws as long as a man’s head, making them the most dangerous animals in the known world.

Despite this, the commander advanced towards them, a torch in each hand. His bravery inspired others to follow him, but unfortunately, that left a gap in our defenses. The vormarnok split into two groups, rushing past the soldiers and towards the middle of the caravan. This was the worst scenario, for the sparsely-defended wagons they ran towards held our supply of vitafelars. Even if we ran as fast as we could, we were four days from the nearest city. Without the life-saving fruit, we would perish long before we reached it.

In an act of pure desperation, I pulled on my reins and aimed my horse directly at them. The steed bucked and neighed in protest, and the clamor caught the attention of all around me, including the vormarnok. Shouts went up from the soldiers, who realized nearly too late what the lizards were after.

“Protect the vitafelars!”

Everything at that point seemed to move in slow motion. As the soldiers rushed the vormarnok with their torches, one of the lizards swung its massive tail, slamming it into the nearest soldier and knocking him to the ground. As the tail swung back, I saw the commander—who had somehow returned more quickly than the others—grab the creature’s tail, and, straining all the muscles in his body, hurl the lizard into one of its fellows.

It was a martial feat that would earn him fame for generations, but it did little more than buy time. As the two vormarnok snapped at each other in surprise, more surged past them. Taking advantage of the brief gap between them, my horse bolted, throwing me from its back when I tried to stop it.

Never in my life, before or since, have I felt such terror. Outside the ring of fires, with nothing to defend myself, my only hope was that the beasts would ignore me. As I scrambled backwards, I happened to lock eyes with a particularly large vormarnok, and though I am no expert in lizard expressions, my instincts told me that it intended violence.

Just then, a horn sounded from the north. All heads, human and vormarnok, turned in its direction.

My heart soared at the prospect of rescue by reinforcements, but when I looked, I saw just a single figure atop a nearby ridge, and I sank further into despair. I did not know it at the time, but this person would be my savior.

Faster than the speediest messenger, the figure raced towards me. Much to my shock, it was a woman, clad in tan Aelirynthian robes, with a pointed black cap atop her head. As she ran, she held the hat in place with her left hand, and in her right, she carried a peculiar staff with what appeared to be canisters attached near the top. She was shouting something, but I had difficulty making it out over the din of battle.

“… the drums. Bang… drums.”

As loud as I could—so loud I feared my lungs would burst, I repeated her order. “Sound the war drums.”

I had no idea if anyone could hear, but I kept yelling as I watched her get closer. Looking back on it, my sudden outburst must have given the largest vormarnok reason to pause, for it did not advance on me as quickly as it could.

Near the back of the pack, however, another moved to intercept the woman. She pulled a pouch from her belt and flung it at the lizard’s face, and it burst open in midair, spilling a yellow powder in all directions. The vormarnok got a faceful of the powder and immediately retreated.

Before any others could attack, I heard the mighty rumble of the caravan’s war drums. The vormarnok heard it too, and, taken by surprise, the more skittish of their group turned tail and ran. The reprieve gave the soldiers room to press forward, meaning I was no longer the vormarnok’s most pressing concern.

“Hey, you. Guy with the hat.”

In the moments it took me to regain my footing, the woman had closed the gap and was standing before me, holding her staff out in front of her. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I scoffed inwardly. Guy with the hat? Her hat was much larger than mine. Before I could retort, however, she shoved the staff into my hand.

“You look strong. Hold this for me.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. Compared to the trained soldiers, I was as weak as a babe. It was all too much for me to process, and, I’m embarrassed to say, my mind completely stopped working. I could only stammer the first question on my mind as I took a firm grip on her staff.

“W—Who are you?”

“Introductions can wait. Point it at the big one.”

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a tiny twig. Sliding it across a strip of sandpaper, the tip burst into flame. Recoiling in shock, I nearly dropped the staff.

“How did you do that? Are you some kind of witch?!”

“That’s what everyone calls me, and I suppose it’s fitting. I’m Yasutake Chika, and I’m about to save you with my magic.”

True to her word, what happened next was absolutely magical.