Chapter 6:

The Witch in the Garden

The Songstress of Avalon


Droplets rolled down to the tips of Arisa’s hair and then fell to the ground with an inaudible splash. I looked up at the sky. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky, yet she looked as though she had been caught, at least momentarily, in a cloudburst.

“Why are you wet?”

“Huh? Oh, it was raining just now.”

Arisa and I exchanged a few words as we followed the stranger to a mysteriously ornate gazebo in the center of the garden. The wooden structure was of an Amalfi design, but wouldn’t have looked out of place in the gardens of Florence; a cone shape, supported by seven pillars, rising from the ground.

An equally impressive round table, flanked by garden chairs, awaited us and we sat down when our beautiful host gestured for us to do so. She waved her hand again and, in a fit of golden dust, all the bits and pieces of the quintessential tea set appeared before us.

The golden dust floated from the saucers, plates and the teapot onto the surface of the table and then dissipated in the light breeze. This showy display of conjuration elicited an ‘ooh!’ from Arisa, but all I could think about was the portal which led us here, and whether or not this woman was the one who created it. 

Certainly, she seemed to be a magus of considerable skill.

She did not even deign to use her hands, the colour of porcelain, to pour the tea; she merely waved a finger and the teapot stirred, floating to each of our teacups in turn and depositing just the right amount of an aromatic, ochre liquid.

I took a sip. Admittedly delicious.

“You two are the first people in months to visit me,” our host began, and then added with a tinge of irony, “and it just had to be a lovey-dovey couple.”

“We’re not like that at all…” I murmured.

I could hear Arisa, drinking her tea with all the grace of a schoolgirl who just joined the Tea Ceremony Club, begin to choke on it.

“Oya?” the stranger grinned. “Well, then excuse me. Oh, I suppose I should introduce myself? My name is Mab.”

“A-A-Ari-i-i…”

“I’m Ayato and this is Arisa,” I began to pat her lightly on the back; since she seemed to be incapable of talking without spluttering, I took the liberty of introducing the both of us.

“Ho…?” Mab’s eyes lit up. “Ayato the Hero?”

Ah. It wasn’t often that I got recognised here in Amalfi. My surprise must have shown on my face as Mab seemed to be grinning mischievously.

“The very same,” I replied.

“That explains everything. A portal of that level is no problem for the great hero, yes?” she remarked playfully.

"I wasn't the one who realised it was a portal.” I replied straightforwardly, nodding in Arisa's direction. 

She had managed to calm down after her initial surprise, but her shoulders were still heaving softly. She glowered at the teacup, but in a way that was more comical than dignified. She didn't seem to realise that all the eyes at the table were concentrated on her 

“Arisa, was it?” Mab directed her gaze in the girl’s direction, and spoke with a skittish incredulity. “That’s surprising. I didn’t know there was someone with that name in the hero’s party.”

Her comment wasn’t as alarming as it sounded. As we took down the demon lord’s generals and gained momentum in our quest, we also captured the imagination of the realm's populace. Publications featuring the members of my party began to spread in townships across Avalon.

What was worrying was that King Balaam and his generals had their own fans too, but that's a story for another time. 

“The hero’s party?” It was Arisa who spoke. “Ah, Marissa mentioned something about that… no, I’m not an adventurer. I'm in the department of veterinary medical science, or something...”

Could it be that Mab was a fan of mine?

“You seem to know a lot about us,” I ventured.

“Oh yes,” Mab smiled sensually. “You eight were all the rage for a while. I remember Father flying into a rage whenever Forneus told us about your exploits.”

“Eh? Forneus?” The name was familiar to me, but I didn’t recall it immediately. When it did come back to me, it was in a flash; and I could feel myself begin to sweat. “Forneus, the King of Shapes?”

“Oh, you don't know who I am?” she seemed genuinely surprised. “Didn’t I introduce myself as Mab?”

By now, I already had demons on the brain. She hadn't used her full epithet, but I should have made the connection even without having heard it. After all, the demonic connection predictably kept the name Mab out of vogue. You couldn't even hear it without evoking nightmarish imagery. 

Mab, the Queen of Fairies and Dreams.

She was, if my memory was correct, ninth amongst the demon lord’s generals. I had never met her myself, but it was my understanding that the top thirteen generals of the demon lord’s army had been dealt with. So, for her to be here, living in the Kingdom of Amalfi, was freakishly distressing to find out.

I told her as such.

“Defeated, yes,” she admitted without hesitation. “But not killed. Not everyone in your party is as bloodthirsty as you are, hero.”

“Bloodthirsty?” I scoffed. “I’m not…”

“Hmm,” Mab closed her eyes and then raised her cup to her lips. She looked to mulling over something in her mind, and her thoughts had reached a logical conclusion by the time the cup rested on the saucer again. “You’ve killed two of my brothers, no?”

“That’s true, but..!”

“Killed...?” Arisa’s eyes darted between Mab and I, as though in disbelief.

“You’ll say they had it coming, and I agree,” she laughed sardonically. “But please don’t pretend like you’re not bloodthirsty. At the very least, you’re as bloodthirsty as Father. That's why Eisan offered you our father's throne, isn't it?”

“How could you possibly know that?” I clenched my teeth.

“I told you I still get the occasional visitor…”

“In any case, I’m not upset. Life here isn’t bad, you know?” she said; there didn’t seem to be a disconnect between what she just said and her tone of voice. Could she really have bore me no ill-will?

“I get it now,” I sighed. “The portal is one-way. We can get in, but you can't leave."

"Bingo," the reply was curt.

"And you want to leave?" 

"I told you life here wasn't bad, didn't I?" she smiled back.

"Don't you want to finish Baalam's work?" 

“Oh, to tell you the truth, I never was that fond of Father,” Mab laughed. 

"Was it Eisan who trapped you h-,"

My question was cut short; I felt something pressing against me.

“Ayato…” Arisa whispered softly, as her head dropped onto my shoulder. I found myself adjusting my body to support her weight.

“Arisa? Hey, what’s wrong?” I hovered my hand over her cheeks, which were flushing a bright red. Her lashes fluttered, and her eyes slowly closed.

“What, you two are a lovey-dovey couple after all!” Mab tittered. “I’m sorry, that was a joke in bad taste. I couldn’t help myself when I realised just who you were… I knew immediately, you see...”

“The hell are you talking about?” I demanded. “What did you do to her? Ah, dammit…”

My head began to throb. No doubt about it, we had walked into a trap.

Never accept unsolicited hospitality from beautiful women - my occasional trips to Osaka had taught me that.

“I just want to confirm something,” Mab spoke sweetly. “In the meanwhile, I’ll let you two lovebirds see a beautiful dream. How does domestic bliss sound?”

I slouched down in my seat, balancing my body in such a way so as to ensure that it would not move abruptly even when I lost consciousness, a fact that I had already resigned myself to. I was so preoccupied with this that I didn't even have time to curse Mab's name.

As my vision faded, my only thoughts were of the girl beside me.

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