It starts – like most disasters are wont to do – with Winn.
Kara likes the bard, really, has grown reasonably fond of him over the years with all his swaggering and pompousness, even the incessant singing. She’s come to think of him as a friend, one of very few in the witcher’s life.
But his penchant to get them into trouble should be the stuff of one of his bloody songs, and it’s no different in the case of this blunder.
It starts when an innocent, earnest attempt at fishing lands them with the goods of some old wreckage in the river, a small, black amphora with a brass seal sticking out from the questionable loot. It starts when Winn, despite Kara’s all insistent warning and wishing a pox on the bard’s head, fumbles and drops the vessel, freeing the spirit trapped within it.
It evolves into an utter, nightmarish chaos from there. Winn, ever the airhead, starts listing his wishes as the djinn rises before them, a great monstrous figure of red mist. He manages to declare his desire for a rival’s defeat and a love requited before the djinn wraps a monstrous hand around his throat and stifles his words. By the time Kara’s sword cleaves through its head, the djinn’s already lifted Winn into the air, trying its best to shake the life from him. Her charge is enough to free Winn, but only for a moment: then the djinn attacks again, not to be repelled by blows or spells this time. It strikes Kara down so violently that she feels the breath knocked from her lungs, her bones rattling in her body. The sword falls from her hand and she claws around for it in the dirt, desperate, until her fingers finally close around a piece of metal, scorching hot and jumping between Kara’s fingers.
It is, as it later turns out, her first mistake of many. In the moment, though, Kara doesn’t spare time to think: she jumps to her feet, holds out the seal, and bellows an old incantation she learned a long time ago, an unknown spell in an unknown language, as her last resort.
Against all odds, it works . The djinn stops mid-air and hangs, its roaring mouth wide open, then turns and flees, gone as quickly as it emerged. Wincing and still shaking with the pent-up energy of the struggle, Kara is left with a burnt hand, bruised ribs, and her good friend curled up on the ground, vomiting blood.
Ill fortune follows them to the gates of Rinde.
“You cannot enter,” the guard tells her, slinging his halberd to the side and blocking her way. He watches Kara with obvious unease, as common men tend to at the sight of the witchers’ eyes, the streaks of ghostly white in her hair, and the two greatswords strapped to her back. Kara knows well enough that witchers tend to be oft needed, but rarely well-liked. “No commoner may pass through the gates from dusk till dawn, unless they hold a letter of safe-conduct from the king or the mayor.”
“My friend needs help,” Kara tries. As if on cue, Winn coughs up another mouthful of blood, drooping dangerously lower in the saddle: Kara has to reach up to keep him steady. The guard’s face softens, but he doesn’t move.
“I’m sorry. Orders are orders.” He hesitates for a heartbeat, then steps to the side, nodding to the doorway behind him. “You can come into the gatehouse to lay him down. There are a couple of other travellers too, they might be able to keep your friend till dawn.”
Profusely cursing in her mind, Kara murmurs her thanks and does as she’s offered.
The men inside the gatehouse are of no help either: three young burghers, marked with the dust of the forest roads, roasting their supper at the fire-place, and utterly lacking in anything that might improve Winn’s condition.
“A djinn?” The one who introduces himself as Jack marvels as he holds up Winn’s head, helping Kara wash his face and force a pain-killing elixir down his throat. “We’ve not had much of any superhuman activity in these lands, I’ll tell you that. You have rotten luck to stumble across something like that here, my friend.”
“Occupational hazard.” Kara presses her fingers against Winn’s neck, and curses to herself again: his pulse is faint, almost as slow as her own. “Have you any mages here? A wizard, anyone who might be able to cure him?”
The three men exchange a strange look.
“You won’t be able to leave till dawn, witcher,” one warns her. Kara glares at him in turn.
“Leave that to me.” They fall into awkward silence, only broken by Winn’s ragged breathing and the fire’s merry crackling. Kara reaches out, grabbing Jack’s arm harder than necessary. “Just spit it out, my good lord.”
He looks at her, pained, though not from her hand.
“The kingdom does not welcome magicians, and neither does this city. But there is one sorceress who has taken up residence here, in spite of all foul sentiment, and having no competitor, she’s making a rather marvellous business of it.”
“So they hate her but they need her,” Kara summarizes. It’s not an unknown situation: peasants and mighty kings alike may fear and disdain users of magic from time to time, but there are always the ones with purses full and minds hungry for the wonders that magic can provide. “Does this sorceress have a name too?”
“Oh, yes.” A ghost of a smile graces the man’s lips. “Lena Luthor.”
Sneaking out from the tower and stealing away into the night, Kara ends up stumbling through the wide streets of Rinde like a drunkard.
She has not faced a Luthor since she’s had to drag Kal’s half-broken body away from Lex’s broken one. She has not had to think about what she might do (and what they might do) if they were face to face again since she was nursing her cousin back to life within the ruins of Argo.
But she has heard all about Lena Luthor.
The White Raven, as they call her mockingly, the only goodly one among all vile monsters of the Luthor clan, or as goodly as that family can get. They say that her power is awing and her temper is uncontrollable, qualities that make her reviled in one half the Earth’s courts and most desirable at the other. They say the Chapter of Wizards lets her roam almost unchecked, as they fear what the last Luthor might do if they tried to control her. They say she must be mad like her brother, only having the good sense to pretend otherwise.
But then, there are the stranger kind of news, of the Luthor stopping floods in Touissant, toppling cruel lords from power near Brokilon, disappearing into the Forest of Death and emerging unharmed, walking fearlessly in the kingdom of Cintra when plague strikes it, healing the ill. Kara listens closely every time she hears her name from the lips of bards and drunkards alike, feeling her heart twist in curious ways, and avoids all regions whose hospitality the sorceress is enjoying. Witchers are not ones for seeking revenge or concocting elaborate plans of retribution, but the possibility of meeting the only living blood relative of the man who wiped out the School of the Dragon fills her with no joy either.
It is nothing but ironic, a cruel twist of fate that their paths would cross now, in such an unremarkable location, for such an unremarkable cause. Kara doesn’t believe in destiny, in any predestined path of life: what goal with the heavens have in throwing the woman whom Kara so studiously evaded for years into her life now?
But she has only so much time to ponder on the workings of the cosmos before arriving at the destination she’s so urgently sought.
The house of the sorceress stands in the inner city, among the most imposing palaces, all white marble and limestone. A small garden of pines lines its sides, a most unusual feature for its surroundings, the rest of the houses standing tightly pressed against each other to make use of what small space there is to build on. What is most usual, though, is the gruff guards posted at every gate, armed to the teeth and watching the streets like a hawk.
“Beat it, you rogue,” one immediately barks at Kara when she’s in shouting distance. His hand is already on the hilt of his sword, likely thanks to the sight of the two of Kara’s own. “My lady’s not to be disturbed.”
Kara raises her hands placatingly.
“I’m only here to–”
“Shall I give you a cuff on the ear to improve your hearing?”
Kara could snap his neck in a heartbeat, or put him to sleep fourteen different ways, one more creative than the other. She performs none of them. There’s already a good chance that the Luthor would just turn her into a toad on sight, on account of walking into her home unannounced, in the middle of the night, and being a witcher to boot. There’s no need to raise that chances of it by entering through a bloody heap of her servants.
The route she takes instead is that of a thief’s instead: sneaking into a back alley, climbing one of those trees, so helpfully planted, and swinging herself into a third-floor balcony. She feels a moment of fleeting glee as she straightens up, smoothing down the leather straps across her chest. How easy it is to gain entry into the stronghold of the sorceress . But then, Kara shakes the gloating from her mind as quickly as it came, and pushes in the door, stepping into the hallway inside.
She’s immediately struck by the sheer warmth of the air inside, like a greenhouse, heavy with the scent of flowers. Lilac , Kara recognizes the most prominent of them, then, underneath, subtler, linden . Kara follows it down the hallway: it’s growing stronger as she walks, so heady that she almost bumps into a maid hurrying towards the same heavy door that Kara’s steps are drawing her towards. The girl looks at her, fright rising in her eyes, and Kara doesn’t hesitate for a second before she raises her hand, fingers drawing a hasty sign.
“I’m a guest,” she says, and the girl nods as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Kara looks at her again, then gently takes the jug out of her hands. The liquid inside is, to her surprise, not of wine or brandy, but fresh apple juice. “Return to your post. I will take this to your mistress.”
She waits until the maid disappears from view until she’d press on towards the sorceress’ room.
When she comes to a halt before the great wooden door of the sorceress’ chamber, Kara hesitates. It suddenly seems all surreal, standing on Lena Luthor’s doorstep, a jug of apple juice in hand and a plea for help on her lips, that Kara almost lets out a laugh. But then, she shakes herself, raises her hand, and knocks on the door.
For a heartbeat, there’s no response. But then, a muffled Come in! sounds through the doors, and, strengthening herself, Kara pushes inside.
She’s greeted with a veritable lap of luxury: rich tapestries lining the walls, elaborate rugs covering the floor, gilded tomes on the shelves, and expensive trinkets strewn across the desk standing to the side. And in the air, the scent of flowers, intoxicating. It makes Kara’s head spin for a second, makes her reminisce of the springs of her youth when she was merrily chasing girls in city gardens filled with linden and lilac. Then, she focuses her eyes again, staring ahead at the great canopy bed standing at the other end of the room, and waits for the sleepy figure stirring in it to emerge.
The moment Kara finally sees the sorceress, the hair on the back of her neck stands on end.
She’s not fearsome , really. If anything, she almost looks harmless there, peeking out from under her furs and duvet with eyes still half-lidded, hair tousled from her slumber. Adorable , if witchers were inclined to think such sentimentalities.
But Lena Luthor, small, pale, and sleepy, also exudes such force of magic that it sends Kara’s medallion rattling madly against her chest under her shirt. The witcher’s senses alight with a power unlike any she’s encountered in years and years, a might more fearsome than a roaring dragon’s own. The rumors have not lied, after all. Way more alarming, though, is what burrows under this alertness, this sense of danger: a soft, inexplicable draw, greater than the danger every last nerve in her body is screaming of.
She has no time to ponder over it. The sorceress sits up in her bed, the duvet slipping down from her shoulders, and Kara fixes her stare on one of the bedposts the second she realizes that the woman’s sleepwear consists only of the velvet choker around her neck.
“You’re not my servant,” the sorceress says. Her voice is raspy, deep, like the murmur of the sea. One could drown in it. “What are you doing here? Quickly, stranger, before I hang you in the air upside down and shake the truth from you.”
“I’ve brought you apple juice,” Kara replies, lifting the jug in her hand. She risks another glance at the sorceress’ face, and regrets it immediately. For perhaps the first time since she left the Fortress and set out on her path as a witcher, Kara’s left utterly, stupidly tongue-tied. “And I need your help, my lady.”
“How courteous.” Her tone turns droll, bemused. From the corner of her eye, Kara can see her slipping out of the bed and into a nightgown before she’d lean against a bedpost, arms crossed. “Come closer, then.”
She crosses the room with swift steps until they are face to face, and for a second, Kara’s amused that Lena of the accursed House of Luthor, famed and feared across the lands, barely reaches the height of her shoulders as she stands. But then their eyes meet, and Kara finds herself dumbstruck once again.
Over the long decades of her life, Kara has seen wonders beyond imagination, beauties beyond compare, acts of magic so powerful and monsters so foul that no bard’s song could do them justice. She has seen mountains torn down, rivers moved from their beds, shining palaces rising from mud within the blink of an eye.
None of it has ever struck her heart so deeply as setting her eyes upon Lena Luthor’s face.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, there is a voice reminding Kara of the urgency of her visit and the rudeness of her staring. The rest of her, however, is lost in those pair of mismatched eyes, drowning happily in their depth. The sorceress must be aware of her effect, too: she’s smirking as she lifts her cup, raising her eyebrow expectantly.
Kara responds dutifully, filling the cup with the damn juice. Even that smells too sweet somehow. The sorceress nods, then brings the cup to her lips: she continues to eye Kara over its brim as she empties it with long, slow sips. Kara only allows a very brief look at her lips in turn, shimmering with the last drops of her drink, and the words devastatingly kissable spring to her mind before she could think any better. As if she’s read her thoughts, the sorceress smiles again, tilting her head.
“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of a witcher in my bedchamber in the middle of the night when it’s not even my birthday?”
Kara takes a deep breath to clear her head. She needs to shake the sorceress’ enchantment and whatever spells must be working in the oppressing heat and the overbearing scent of flowers to dizzy her so, whatever it is that makes her heart sing in such confusing tunes instead of contracting in horror and disgust upon seeing a Luthor .
“My friend has been gravely wounded,” she finally says. “I’ve come to plead your help for him.”
Her words don’t fall on open ears.
“There are plenty of healers in the city,” the sorceress shrugs, unaffected, and Kara quickly shakes her head.
“His injury is of magical nature. A djinn, or something much like it.”
“A djinn?” The sorceress perks up at that, a dangerous glint sparking in her eyes. Kara feels a shiver running down her spine. “I’m intrigued.”
“Then I beg of you to come and help him without tarrying.” That earns her an amused look, who are you to rush me written plainly over the sorceress’ face. Kara leans forward a little, making sure her shoulders hunch and her face turns supplicating, the image of Winn with blood bubbling on his lips tugging at the back of her mind. “My lady, I have stolen through the city gates and into your home like a thief, against orders and in defiance of the law–”
“You have forced your way into my home and disturbed my slumber, crudely and insolently,” the sorceress cuts Kara off. She draws herself up, icy and severe, and stares at Kara, those mismatched eyes glaring with such a shine that the witcher thinks she’s only seconds away from being turned into some slimy beast. Then, inexplicably, their lights soften and the sorceress smiles. “But in your hurry to help your wounded friend, you were still kind enough to bring me my drink. Curiously considerate of a mercenary.” She tilts her head, regarding Kara with a curious look. “Do you know who I am, witcher? Not what, who. ”
The question, confoundingly, carries no pride, no haughtiness. There’s only bitterness in the sorceress’ tone, a hint of deep-seated shame: she suddenly seems no more than a woman of four-and-twenty as she’s standing there, waiting for Kara’s answer, small, fragile, vulnerable . The realization that Lena Luthor might just feel genuinely awful facing one of the rare survivors of her brother’s mad rampage strikes Kara like a jolt of electricity.
“I know exactly who you are, Lady Luthor.”
The words come out more softly than she wished, more breathy than rough and cruel, a condemnation in itself. They still serve to make the sorceress’ face twist in confusion.
“My brother massacred your kind. And you would still ask for my help?”
Kara could be mean then. She could snarl out some insult, sneer and growl, tell the sorceress that she’s here against her will and better judgement, that she’d only ever think about employing her services as a very last resort, that she’d rather face a hundred monsters with nothing but her bare fists than to join hands with a Luthor. She could tell Lena Luthor exactly who she is, and bear whatever follows with content.
But it is no time and place for such a clash. Winn is lying on the other side of town, near death, and Lena Luthor is looking at her with such pleading in her eyes that even the heart of stone witchers pride themselves on cannot stay unmoved.
“You are not your brother,” Kara replies.
It’s a simple statement, almost feeble, but she says it with enough conviction that it cuts through the heavy silence between them like a swordstroke. For the first time during their conversation, the sorceress smiles with genuine warmth, gratefulness , even. It unnerves Kara more than any threat of transfiguration.
“I will help you, witcher,” the sorceress declares. “But I will need you to tell me of your encounter in full first. Not here,” she raises a hand before Kara could even think to open her mouth. “There’s a bath-chamber on the ground floor. I can smell not only your horse on you, but the last five towns you’ve passed through as well.”
Kara bows, elated enough to resist an eye-roll at her demand. She’d start towards the door, but they are not done yet: the sorceress calls after her.
“One more thing, witcher.”
Kara turns. Head tilted, the sorceress is playing with the tie of her gown, regarding Kara with an indescribable look.
“You may call me Lena.”
Kara shivers again.
When Lena enters the room, Kara’s already soaking in the bath (an actual pool , no meagre cauldron or tub), energetically scrubbing her arms with a sponge. She sinks a little lower into the water when she senses Lena’s presence, burying herself up to the shoulders in bubbly foam. It’s more for the sorceress’ sense of modesty than her own – Kara’s long treated her body as an extension of her trade, a tool of her mission. But Lena seems to be interested exactly in what she tries to conceal.
“Seems like you’re carrying a veritable tapestry of a bestiary on you, witcher.” She moves so swiftly and silently that Kara’s startled when the sorceress suddenly stands above her at the edge of the pool. One hand is tentatively extended, pointing to the bite marks mapping over Kara’s shoulder and neck. “May I?”
“It’s nothing special,” Kara shrugs and Lena hums, non-committal. She waits patiently until Kara gives her a curt nod, only then pressing her hand against Kara’s skin, her fingertips just skimming over the surface of the scars. Kara tenses for a moment, the thought that she’s stripped herself bare and surrendered herself into the hands of a Luthor striking hard. But no knife is pressed under her chin, no spell is charged from the hand resting on her shoulder, no warning tugging comes from her medallion under the water and soapy foam. There’s only a gentle, tingling sensation where Lena’s fingers make contact with her skin, reaching down to the very marrow of Kara’s bones.
“Remarkable,” Lena whispers. Her fingers press against Kara’s body more firmly, circling the tensing muscle in her shoulders. It almost tickles. “Tell me, is your musculature magically enhanced too?”
“My musculature is the last thing you need to worry about, my lady.”
That draws a laugh from Lena, high and tinkling.
“Oh, it’s not a question out of worry,” she promises. Kara can hear the wicked smile in her voice without even looking. “You witchers are so cagey about the processes of your training.”
“No good tradesman shares their secrets,” Kara retorts.
“Just so.” Lena’s fingers gently slide to the crook of Kara’s neck, pressing lightly against the artery. “Your pulse is unnaturally slow,” she marvels, and Kara huffs.
“Are you looking to take measurements too?”
“Forgive me, witcher. Professional curiosity.” Lena takes away her hand and despite feeling relieved to have broken from the sorceress’ spell, Kara immediately misses its warmth. “Relate to me the tale of your encounter with this djinn.”
Kara turns her head to stare up at her.
“I’m not used to making reports in the nude, sitting in a bath.”
“Then I shall simply make sure we’re on equal footing,” Lena smiles. She reaches for the tie of her robe, and Kara whips her head around, turning her whole body away. She hears the rustling of silk, then the splashing of water as Lena slips into the pool, her hair brushing against Kara’s back. “Better?”
It’s worse, because Kara can now feel the gentle heat of Lena’s body just an inch away from her own, the bareness that was accidental in the bedchamber now being freely offered. It’s worse, because Lena has not asked her name and Kara has not given it, and she’s quite sure she would not be sitting in a bath now if Lena knew it is Kal-El’s cousin that she’s relentlessly flirting with. But things are too far gone for Kara to unmask herself, too bewitching to break the spell now. Though witchers do not possess the ability to blush, neither of arousal, nor of shame, Kara can feel the tip of her ears burning with the sensation. Her voice is hoarse as she replies:
“It’s certainly a change.”
She starts haltingly at first. The night has been long and the hot bath lulls her attention rather than sharpening her senses, while the thought of sitting back to back in a pool with Lena Luthor, as naked as she’s enchanting, focuses her thoughts anywhere but on the accident with the djinn. But Lena listens encouragingly, without interruptions, only the splashing of water and the occasional brushing of her back against Kara’s own proving a distraction as she bathes and Kara speaks. Only once Kara is already out of the water and busy drying herself with a towel, back still stubbornly turned to the sorceress, does Lena interrupt, towards the very end of her tale.
“You say you chased it away,” she echoes, intrigued. “How did you achieve that?”
“A spell or an incantation, I don’t rightly know,” Kara shrugs. “Something a priestess taught me once.”
“Repeat it to me.”
Kara stalls instead, putting on her shirt and trousers first, fumbling with the laces. She mulls over the words, carefully drawing them together in her mind: they are in an obscure dialect of the Elder Speech, it’s a small wonder that she’s remembered them in a moment of need. She wants to remember them now too, enunciate them clearly and properly; she wants Lena Luthor to look at her not just with playful amusement for the curious brute, but impressed with the witcher’s arcane knowledge.
Her wish is not granted.
Kara does remember the words, she even manages to pronounce them with the necessary precaution of leaving out the e s. But instead of the stunned silence or the scholarly comment that she expects, Lena bursts out in laughter, earnest, full-bodied, and ringing, and Kara’s left to sulk in confused silence.
Lena is still laughing when she climbs out of the bath and wraps herself in a towel.
“That was no spell, witcher,” she admonishes with a barely suppressed giggle. “Nor should you go around repeating it to any passerby, and especially not to any other priestess.”
“What is it then?” Kara asks, morose, slinging her swords over her shoulder again.
“Something rather crude. Maybe your djinn just had a sensitive soul.” There’s an edge of gentle teasing to Lena’s tone. Kara hears the towel being tossed to the floor, then the rustling of garments again. “Come and help me fasten up.”
Kara turns so slowly as if she was about to face a basilisk. Lena’s already wearing a dress: an ornate, elaborate creation of black silk and lace, more like a courtly gown than one’s everyday attire. But Lena Luthor is not just any common sorceress, of course, and Kara moves obediently across the room and sets to task.
Lena busies herself with brushing her hair as Kara takes her sweet time with the laces. She lets herself revel in the sight a little now, drinking in the way the long, black locks fall over the creamy skin of Lena’s shoulder and down to the bold neckline of her dress as she runs the comb through them again and again, slow and thorough.
“I must doubt that it was your uncouth language that sent your djinn fleeing,” Lena says, interrupting Kara’s reverie, then waves with one hand. A small bottle rises from the table, unscrews itself, and flies to deposit a modest drop of perfume on each of the sorceress’ wrists. The scent of lilac and linden flood the room again, as potent as the look Lena shoots Kara over her shoulder. “You can pull it tighter than that.”
It fascinates Kara, this quiet, confident air of hers, the manner that sees it self-evident to order a witcher around as she pleases. She’s used to being treated as something odious and frightful, a freak of nature that’s better to not even look at, much less directly address: the nonchalant commands are a new and exciting experience.
“Yes, my lady,” she replies, not without a sarcastic edge, and Lena carries on, smiling.
“As I was saying. I find it more likely that the djinn simply found his rage sufficiently spent on your friend and left. All very little comfort to him, of course.” She leans back a little into Kara’s touch as she ties together the top laces, then spins around, abrupt, bringing their faces all too close again. “The seal, the one on the amphora. Does your friend still have it?”
Caught off her guard, Kara freezes, though she takes great care that her surprise doesn’t show.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, her face as stoic as ever. “Perhaps. Is it important?”
“Is a stake important for defeating a vampire, witcher?” Lena returns with a quizzical look, eyebrow raised, and Kara has no trouble playing sullen.
“He might have it with him. I was more concerned with keeping him alive than to look for whatever accursed item may have been left there lying around.”
“Very touchingly unprofessional,” Lena nods. “Oh, don’t look so sour now. Noone is infallible, no witcher, even, but it might serve as a good lesson for another time. When you don’t have a sorceress at your beck and call.”
“I’ll be sure to make a note of it.” Kara makes an effort to wipe the grimace off her face. “Are you ready?”
“I am.” Lena turns away from her, extending a hand. She murmurs something, soft and low, and Kara’s medallion starts tugging on its chain again. Lena turns back towards Kara as a great, swirling gateway of dark smoke opens up in the middle of the room. “The gatehouse at the western gate?”
“The hall on the first floor,” Kara replies, then swallows hard. She dislikes portals immensely – they might be the quickest way to travel, but they are also cold, terrifying and unfailingly nauseating, and that’s only counting the issues of using a portal created by a mage who has her wholehearted trust. “It’s not far on foot–”
“Charming company as you are, this is no time and place for a nighttime stroll, witcher,” Lena cuts her objections short. “Not for me, and certainly not for a stranger who has not been allowed past the gates of the city.” She draws closer and places a placating hand on Kara’s forearm. The look in her eyes is earnest this time, not murked by teasing, nor devious airs. “Don’t worry, my portals are safe.”
It feels almost inconsequential compared to everything she’s already decided to trust the sorceress with, but Kara takes her time to chew grimly on her lip grimly before giving Lena a reluctant nod. If Lena Luthor did not stab her in the back while naked and weaponless in a bathing pool, Kara can let herself trust her enough to step into a portal with her.
“Good,” Lena smiles. She takes Kara’s hand, drawing her closer to the portal, and Kara feels that gentle buzz again where Lena’s fingers meet her bare skin. “Come, hold onto me now.” Kara decides for a chaste hand on her waist: Lena flashes her a wolfish smirk in turn. “I’m not made of porcelain, witcher. You can hold onto me tighter than that.”
Kara’s lungs fill with the scent of lilac and linden again as she wraps her arm around Lena Luthor’s waist and presses her close against her chest. She inhales it deeply, sees the blue-green eyes of the sorceress spark with a dangerous glint: then the blackness of the portal swallows them.
Jack Spheer springs to his feet when they materialize in the middle of the gatehouse’s hall.
“My lady!” There’s a curious blush on his cheek again. It deepens when he notices Kara’s arm is still wrapped around the sorceress’ waist, the aftermath of their travels. He turns his gaze to Kara then. “I’m happy to see you’ve found the help you needed.”
“Enough pleasantries, Jackie,” Lena interrupts, and Kara feels herself frowning for no apparent reason. It must be the damn teleportation. “Where’s the wounded man?”
“We’ve laid him down on a proper bed. One of the guards’ rooms.” Jack indicates a small room to the side of the hall with his head. Lena nods.
“I will need to be alone for the healing,” she declares, turning to Kara. “Do not disturb me.” Kara tenses, and the sorceress’ face softens for a second. She gently pats Kara’s arm. “And do not fear, witcher, I keep my word. Your friend will be whole again.”
Wordless, Kara bows her head, and watches Lena disappear through the door. She catches herself staring after her for long moments still, only shaken from her reverie by the gentle tugging of her medallion, first, then Jack Spheer clearing his throat. Kara turns towards him, meets his troubled look with her own heavy stare until he turns his eyes away. Only then does she walk over to the table where he sits and settles down across from him, stretching her legs.
“You seem disconcerted.”
“I’m only surprised,” he replies, slowly, as if he was carefully picking out his words. “That you’ve so quickly managed to convince her to help you. She rarely deals with strangers. Much less witchers.”
It’s not exactly a surprising statement in itself, but Kara still finds herself wetting her lips and leaning on the table, looking at Jack with renewed interest.
“You know her well, then.”
“I’ve known her for some time,” he nods, a melancholy smile playing on his lips. “I’ve known her when that palace was still her brother’s residence, and she was still an apprentice at Aretuza. She never liked this town much.”
Kara feels her skin crawling with the mention of Lex, with the thought that she was enjoying the hospitality of what was once his home. It’s a nasty, irksome sensation. But Jack’s last words are even more curious, tugging more intently on Kara’s mind.
“Then how come–”
“That she’s here?” He finishes her question, then shrugs. “The White Raven’s not one for explanations.” He smiles again, fond, proud. “She appeared and took over his estate about half a year ago. Rarely moved from the palace ever since.” Kara has a thousand questions at the tip of her tongue, but Jack wraps his cloak around himself, exhaling deeply. His face shifts to something tired, frightful, as he looks deeply into Kara’s eyes. “Rest, witcher. The night is almost over and you might need your strength soon enough.”
He shuts his eyes and lays his head down on the table then, the sound of gentle snoring soon following his words. Kara, however, doesn’t take his advice.
It’s not out of pettiness, really. For one, she’s well-trained in waiting, staying motionless yet alert for entire days if need be: not all monster-hunts are resolved in bloody brawls. A common human’s endurance is no match for a witcher’s. But Kara needs no training, no enhancements, no potions then to stay wide awake, feeling the excited uptick of her own heart. Her mind buzzes, filled to the brim with thoughts of Lena: the woman she’s never wished to meet, the woman against whom the entire world would caution Kara, the woman by whom Kara finds herself, in turns, fascinated, endeared, bewitched. It makes her almost feverish: only the light, continuous tugging of her medallion keeps her grounded.
The sky’s dark blue only just starts to lighten when Lena finally reappears in the doorway. She leans against the doorframe, regarding Kara for a second before slowly smiling, victorious.
Kara springs up from her seat immediately, crossing the space between them with wide, hasty steps until she all but towers over Lena.
“May I see him?”
Lena watches her for a long, confusing second, then draws aside and motions Kara to step inside.
Her medallion tugs heavily on her chain when Kara does so, but she doesn’t care for its warning, her gaze closing in on the dormant figure of her friend. Winn is laid out on the bed, a small, rough thing that he’d no doubt complain endlessly about if he had his wits about him. Now, he’s motionless, still unconscious, but Kara can see the immediate signs of change in him: his chest rising and falling steadily, his pulse even and strong, his cheeks rosy again instead of deadly pale.
“He will awake having recovered his abilities,” Lena says. “This ordeal will have been nothing but a bad dream.”
Kara turns to face her again and bows deeply, reverently, one hand pressed against her heart. She feels herself smiling, elated, and doesn’t care to order her face to remain more stoic this time.
“You have my eternal gratitude, my lady.”
Her words, confoundingly, are met with silence. Instead of the witty remark or a coy reply, Lena simply walks away from her side, across the small room. When Kara straightens up again, she’s sitting in a great armchair, head tilted, watching her with an amused smile.
“A silly boy, your friend,” she says, flicking some invisible speck of dust off her sleeve. “Risking so much on an illusion. One would think a learned troubadour would have enough sense only to fabricate fairytales, not chase them.”
The medallion around Kara’s neck tugs heavier and heavier, growing more insistent in its alarm. The witcher finally looks at her surroundings then, not just the people in it, looks at the great pentagram drawn on the floor and the half-lit black candles at their peaks, feels the dormant magic stirring within the mark and feels her blood run cold, feels her heart sinking bitterly. She knows a symbol for summoning when she sees it.
“We all have wishes we long to see fulfilled,” she replies, staring coldly at the sorceress. If her plans being uncovered rattle Lena, she doesn’t show it.
“Do you , witcher?” There is the teasing lilt in her tone again, but Kara is in no mood to reciprocate now. Lena presses on, undisturbed. “Do you think you’d achieve them through the powers of a spirit trapped in a bottle? You wouldn’t, certainly. Our kind doesn’t daydream, we act and we take what we want. And I always get what I want.”
In her mind, Kara curses, profusely, bitterly, and desperately. Yet, she makes no move: she doesn’t draw her sword, doesn’t erupt in rage; she only allows her lips to twist into a bitter, mocking smile in her defeat.
“And what is it that you want now, my lady?”
Lena sits up a little straighter at that, raises her head to look Kara straight in the eyes, haughty and triumphant. The transformation is striking. Kara has seen Lena the sorceress before: now, she sees Lena Luthor, in all her dark, regal glory.
“I want to talk about how you might serve me now, witcher.”
Kara can hear the lock on the door click itself shut behind her.