I don’t want to say goodbye, but with dawn brushing Ri’s warm forehead, I can’t help kneeling by her bed and saying, “Wake up, darlin, Ma’s going out.”

Jer’s look asks why I’d ever do anything different, and why’d we have that whole fight about it last night. I ignore her because Ri’s eyes are open just a bit now, and that means I’ve got maybe thirty seconds before she curls her hand around the rag-stuffed crab she sleeps with and nods back off.

“Ma’s going out?” she says in that muttery tired kid voice. “When’s Ma coming back?”

“Um...” I make the mistake of glancing back at Jer, who won’t look at me anymore. She’s stirring something over the fire, something I wish I’d be here to eat in a couple hours. “Might be a while this time, kiddo.”

“How long’s a while?”

“Couple weeks. Maybe a couple months.”

“Maybe my whole life?”

Her whisper hurts more than that month I spent with my throat hexed. Thought it was a bad cold. Should’ve known better when I’d been dealing with a pissed off bloodwitch—

I plant a kiss on Ri’s sleep-sweaty forehead. “I’ll be back, baby girl. I’ll always come back. Go back to sleep, huh?”

She fishes under her soft blue blanket and holds out the knit crab. “Take him with you.”

“Your crab?”

“He’s a good-luck crab.”

I hesitate. I made this for Ri, Jer’s hands guiding mine, the first time Ri was old enough to understand I might not come home. It’s supposed to be there, be me, when I can’t be. If I take it, if I’m gone longer than I hope—

“Take it, Rennie,” Jer says softly at my back.

I raise my hand, willing it not to shake, and Ri puts the little rainbow crab into my palm.

“There,” Ri says. “Now you’ll come back.”

I clear my throat. “Thanks, kiddo.”

I don’t know if she hears me. She’s already back to sleep, nose buried in the curl of her fingers, dark hair nodding with her breath. I want to slide onto the straw mattress with her and forget the skywitch exists. Anything to cradle my little girl against my chest. Anything not to walk out of this hut and let another witch steal away more of our time.

I walk out onto the dirt path anyway, and I know Jer will follow. I don’t know if it’s because she wants to or because I expect it. But she does.

“Give this back to her,” I murmur when she closes the rough wood door behind her. I hold out the stuffed crab. “If the witch... if I...”

Jer’s mouth gets that familiar bitter twist to it. “You take that gods-damned thing with you, Rennie. You know it’ll hurt her if you don’t.”

My heart squeezes like I’m making some split-second choice, life or death. Only I’m not, I’m home with Jer, and it’s not supposed to feel like battle here. Is it? “Fine. All right. Are we okay?”

“We’re okay.” Jer looks like she wants to take my hand, then doesn’t. “Not perfect, but okay.”

“Will you be here when I come back?”

“Are you coming back?”

“Jer—”

“I’ll be here,” she says. “Even if you don’t come back.”

I take a deep breath. I can’t leave without saying it, not with Ri’s maybe my whole life echoing in my head. “I love you.”

Jer closes her eyes, and I wish I could see their soft brown again, but it’s too dark. “I love you too.”

I leave before I can make things worse. My cadre of witchbreakers waits at the edge of Springfall, where the huts back up to the forest. Before I meet them, I tuck Ri’s good luck crab into my belt beneath my shirt. It’s stupid, it’s sappy, it’s exactly the kind of shit that would make the other breakers’ eyes roll, but I do it anyway.

You lose a lot of time in a skywitch embrace, that sphere where her presence compresses everything. More than any witch we normally deal with. Even earthwitches aren’t that bad. An hour in an earthwitch embrace is only a week to the ones you leave at home, a week of worried maybes and broken sleep.

An hour in a skywitch embrace? Well. No one alive has seen a skywitch. It’ll be more than a week, that’s for damn sure, but months? Years? We don’t know. We can’t tell. So I don’t even know how many nights of tucking Ri in I’ll miss. Or how many mornings of Jer’s bad breath in the hollow of my throat.

Or if I’ve already done those things for the last time.

Dawn doesn’t come when it should. Another thing I didn’t know skywitches could do, like blotting out the moon and painting over the stars. But how long has it been since anyone saw a skywitch? Bas, our leechwood, says her best friend’s great-great-gran fought one, and that hurts, because I thought I was her best friend. Elia, our muscle, says her family’s descended from a line of skywitch breakers. The rest of us pretend not to remember that last time we hunted, Elia said she was from a line of metalwitch breakers. Darra, our light, isn’t worried. She insists, as she always does, that she’s the best witchbreaker who ever was.

“Hey, Rennie,” Darra calls as we climb a gentle grassy rise. Our boots make disembodied whispers in the dark. “You ever see a skywitch?”

“How fucking old do I look?” I snap. My patience for the pre-battle puffing and blowing is thin today.

“What now?” I can practically hear Darra rolling her eyes as she conjures up a dim glow to light our path. “Jer’s mad at you again?”

Elia shoots her a warning glance. “Darra.”

“What? She think these witches just go away on their own?”

“Course she does.” Bas grins. “They do, don’t they? If you’re seeing it like a villager.”

The lump of knit crab presses against my belly beneath my shirt. I don’t join the banter. Not today, not under this eerie un-dawn, and not after I said something a little too similar last night.

“Hey.”

I startle at Bas’s fingers biting into my shoulder, her face both fierce and gentle. She smells like something warm and herbal and good.

“Whatever it is, girl, snap out of it. Can’t have you distracted with your claws in a skywitch.”

“I’m fine,” I say.

Bas gives me a look of pure skepticism.

“Come on. Have I ever not been?”

“Only because I kick you back in line.”

“Yeah, yeah. How far is she? The skywitch.”

Bas lets her fingers brush by a half-rotten tree trunk while she thinks, sending softened splinters of wood to the ground. “Probably see her embrace in a couple miles.”

“Good,” I say, and double-check the pouches at my belt, for probably the fiftieth time. I want this done.

Elia’s partner, when they got married, was only two years older than she was. I think it’s six now.

Darra’s husband is ten years older, but she swears he doesn’t look a day older than she does. As if that’s what really matters.

Bas’s ex-wife is twenty years Bas’s senior and looks at least five older than that. Marrying a witchbreaker will do that to you. Bas’s son is about Bas’s age now.

I’m lucky. Jer was younger than me when we got married, so she’s only about a year older than me now. Ri’s the one that hurts the most. I haven’t missed much time, not in the grand scheme of things. But I missed making Ri’s first birthday cake. I missed watching Jer feed Ri the first bite, and Ri’s gasp at the sweetness. I missed the last week before Ri stopped singing the little song we’d made up together.

I keep telling Darra it’s not the quantity of time that matters. Darra keeps telling me I’m wrong.

We don’t see the edge of the skywitch’s embrace, but everything goes pitch black the second we’re inside, and that’s where it hits me that something’s not right.

The dome marking a metalwitch’s embrace is a shimmery marbling of silver, copper, and gold. Even the occasional glasswitch has a visible embrace: colorful stained-glass patterns or jagged bits like lightning-struck sand. I’d imagined a skywitch’s embrace would be blue, maybe even pink-orange sunset shades.

But there’s nothing.

Not even the faintest shimmer.

Elia’s voice rises from the darkness: “Bas?”

“Here,” Bas says from my left. I reach out, fingers brushing the rough weave of the jacket her son made her.

“Bas, something isn’t right,” I say in a low voice. It shouldn’t be this dark.

“I know,” she says. “Darra?”

“What the hell is this?” Darra says, and she’s got that growl in her voice like she’s angry, when we all know she’s shaking scared.

Bas’s hand closes around my forearm. “I don’t know, but Darra, honey, we need some light.”

“Yeah, okay, I’m working on it, just—”

This isn’t right, oh gods, this isn’t right. Darra doesn’t work on light. Darra just makes light.

Something shifts in the darkness. Something that sounds like rough scales on cloth.

“Bas?” I say, tightening my grip on her jacket.

“I know, Rennie. Darra.”

“Shut up, Bas, I said I’m working on it.”

“Rennie, get your other hand on someone.”

There’s a hiss, like air going through teeth, then a wet, bubbling chuckle. “Oh,” says a whispery, double-timbred voice. “More little ones to eat. A delight. A treat.”

Off to my side, Darra whimpers. Bas’s hand is a vise on my arm.

“Bas, oh gods, this is not a skywitch,” I choke out.

“What the hell is it?”

My right hand twitches toward my belt for the herbs that’ll grow my claws. “It’s a fucking darkwitch,” I say, and that’s when Bas’s arm is ripped out of my hand and I hit the ground, hard.

I’d say darkwitches are unheard of, but they’re not. They’re heard of. And that’s all. They’re campfire stories. They’re something to scare little siblings into nightmares. They’re what parents use to threaten their kids into behaving.

Because that’s all they are: stories.

Because no one in living history has ever seen one, much less fought one.

And now this heard-of-never-seen darkwitch is a few short miles away from Ri and Jer.

And I’m in her embrace.

Ri’s knit crab is a dull spot of pain against my belly. Coarse grass presses against my cheek. My left shoulder radiates pain like Darra should be shedding light. Dislocated? Probably.

The dark is gathering, thickening, pressing on my eyes, rushing down my throat. A draft stirs my hair. Something is moving.

Something snaps, then squelches off to my left. Off where Bas should be but isn’t.

Oh shit.

“Bas?” someone whispers. “Rennie? Elia?”

“I’m here,” I whisper back. I don’t know why we’re whispering. It’s not like that thing doesn’t know exactly where we are.

Scents of musky fear-sweat and Darra’s lemongrass soap mingle with damp earth and dying grass. “Can you get up?”

“Yeah.”

“We need to go.”

“No.” I heave myself up on my good arm, and my head swims. “Pop my shoulder back in.”

“Are you insane?” Darra hisses.

“What, you think it’s just gonna go back on its own?” I snap. “Darra, pop my gods-damned shoulder back in.”

More crunching from my left, and a contented humming noise. I want to puke. I try to think of anything but teeth and bones.

Oh, gods. Oh, Bas. Please no, please no.

“I’ll do it,” says Elia from behind me, voice low. Her hand finds my shoulder blade. “Which one?”

“Left. Darra, figure out that light while it’s still eating.”

“I’m sorry, did you not notice that this is a darkwitch?” Darra’s voice climbs as Elia feels along to my left arm.

I take a deep breath, then another, steeling myself for the pain. “Figure it out, or are you not the best witchbreaker who ever was?”

“Fuck you, I’m working on it!” Darra snarls.

“On three,” Elia says softly.

I suck in another breath. Elia’s fingers are gentle—for now—but her touch still hurts. There’s another of those scales-over-cloth sliding sounds, and my heart seizes.

Elia’s grip tightens. “Three.”

“Wait—”

She doesn’t. I bite off a half-yelping scream before it gets further than my throat. I can practically feel the darkwitch’s breath on my face as I reach for my belt, shoulder still throbbing.

“Darra!” I yell.

“I’m—trying—YES!”

There’s a crackling, spitting sound, then an explosion of white light.

A massive ragged shadow, like a void in the yellowing meadow grass, twitches upright in the glare. I slap shining gritty powders across my bare forearms and bite off a hunk of blightroot, swallowing the dry stems, trying not to cough them right back up.

The familiar ache of silver claws growing from my fingertips is just starting when the darkwitch, twenty feet tall and all sorts of hungry, leans down and roars directly into my face.

Her breath is dank and coppery, and her teeth, tinged pink with Bas’s blood, are the length of my fingers. Her eyes are massive, too big for her head, and jet black, all pupil and no white.

Darra’s cackling with her light’s victory against the witch’s dark as I shriek defiance straight back into that mouth full of my best friend’s death.

“Elia!” I bellow. “Bas’s leechwood! Go!”

I don’t wait for her reply. All Elia’s grandstanding comes before the battle. She fights quiet. I know she’s scrambling for what remains of Bas as I slam my new-grown silver claws into the darkwitch’s face. My shoulder howls with pain, and so does the darkwitch, but I don’t hesitate. I vault up over the top of her head, tearing my claws from her flesh, and lock my knees around her neck.

“Come on,” I mutter as the darkwitch shrieks and twists her shoulders. My claws can’t kill a witch without that leechwood. “Come on, Elia, come on.”

I try not to think of what would happen if the darkwitch swallowed the leechwood spike Bas keeps in her belt.

Kept.

The darkwitch reaches up colossal hands tipped with glossy talons, to rip me from her neck. Down in the guttering spitting light, Darra throws magic like throwing a spear, and the impact shudders up the darkwitch’s body. She stumbles, hands darting to her side, then straightens back up. Suddenly I’m twenty feet off the ground, clinging to the neck of a pissed off darkwitch, and that seems a lot higher up than it did two seconds ago.

“Elia?” I yell, promising myself I sound more scared than I really am.

“Here! Darra, give me a hand!”

The white light sputters for a moment. My heart sputters with it as the darkwitch’s hands grab for me again. My claws have to be back in her temples when Elia gets here. Do I move or stay? Elia’s scrubbing something on the soles of her boots. Darra’s on one knee, her fingers laced and smudged dark with crackling magic. Normally I’d trust Bas or someone to keep those hands off me, but Bas isn’t here. I’m not on my own, but it feels like I am. Do I move or stay, move or stay, move or—

My heart does that split-second squeeze again, and I move. I reach up for the darkwitch’s oily braid, dig my fingers into the strands, and haul myself up to hang there just as she slaps a hand into the back of her neck. My shoulder trembles, threatens to give, then holds.

I cling as tight as I can as Elia vaults off Darra’s hands, hurtling into the air, one arm reared back. She punches Bas’s leechwood spike into the darkwitch’s shoulder. Her feet scramble for a hold as the darkwitch shrieks again.

Darra’s making frantic motions with her arms, like stretching out ribbon then stabbing something into the ground. Making more spears. Good.

The darkwitch chuckles deep in her chest and makes to snatch for Elia and me. Darra heaves another spear straight into the back of the darkwitch’s hand.

“Is that supposed to be scary?” Darra calls from below. “Try again, you murdering fuck!”

“Go on and climb! Go!” Elia shouts to me as she locks her legs around the darkwitch’s neck.

Another impact from Darra’s spears slams through the darkwitch’s body, jarring a snarl of pain from my throat.

The darkwitch leans down suddenly and swats Darra aside. Our light’s snuffed out without even a sputter. Darkness snaps down over us so quickly I almost hear it. I don’t let myself think about what that means, just use the opportunity to do a half-scrambling crawl up to the edge of the darkwitch’s forehead.

“Elia!” I shriek as I jam my claws into the darkwitch’s temples. “Now! Go go go go—”

I know the moment the leechwood spike hits the darkwitch’s spine. It’s like someone struck a match the size of the world, dawn flooding in.

The darkwitch shudders, stiffens, her hands trying to come up to slap us like flies. And then, without ceremony, she shatters into bits so small they might have been dust. I turn my fall into an ungraceful roll across the dirt. My shoulder howls again.

“Darra?” I shove myself up, dirt loose and dry on my good hand, legs shaking. I don’t like that no one answers me. The press of Ri’s knit crab is still there under my shirt, tucked right where I left it.

And then Elia’s voice: “Rennie, get over here, now.”

She’s on the ground next to a lump of cloth that might be human. That’s not Darra. Not. Darra.

I stumble over, drop to my knees next to a huddle of misshapen fabric and flesh that looks like it might’ve once been Darra.

“Do something.” Elia’s voice is still low. “Rennie. She’s not dead. Do something.”

I’m pretty sure this is what I would’ve looked like if I hadn’t dodged the darkwitch’s attempt to flatten me on the back of her neck: deformed, squashed, like clay on a potter’s wheel smashed by a child’s flailing hand. Only Darra is still breathing—this awful, wet rattling in her chest. I’m scared to touch her.

“She needs a healer,” I whisper.

“You are a healer.”

“I’m not a healer, Elia.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I can close up cuts. I can’t do broken bones. I can’t do this.”

Elia sinks her fingers into my shoulders, and it’s all I can do not to scream. “Well, you’re what she’s got, Rennie, so do something.”

“I might make it worse! Do you not see that? I might kill her. She needs a healer!”

And that’s when Darra dies anyway. Takes one last rattling, whooping gasp and lets it out and doesn’t take another.

Gods, I know it wouldn’t have helped, but I wish I’d at least tried.

When we’re about halfway home, dawn ripening to day through the bare forest canopy, Elia punches me. Half-heartedly. And only in the good arm. It sort of makes me feel better. But only until she starts crying bitterly into one hand, the same one she punched me with.

She lets me wrap an arm tight around her shoulders, so she isn’t mad at me for not saving Darra. Or Bas. Probably.

I hope.

“Least it’s still just past dawn,” I murmur to her. “Can’t have lost too much time.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I... want to be home,” she says.

I want home, too: my wife and my little girl and maybe a solid week of sleep. It’s enough to keep my feet dragging through the undertow of exhaustion and grief.

We don’t find home.

Or, well, we don’t find the home we expect. Springfall’s been reduced to ash, busted timbers, shattered clay and stone. It’s not even smoking anymore, so I can see the fields beyond, all the crops burned to black char that spins up in dark, feathery dust devils.

I did okay with Bas and Darra dying. I didn’t turn into a teary, snotty, babbling mess over them, at least not yet, but I do when I find out Ri and Jer are gone too.

Suddenly I don’t want to know how much time we missed. I don’t want to know by how long I missed being there to fight whatever’s killed my wife and daughter. Not knowing is better. Because, what’s worse? Coming back to what you thought would be home and finding out they’ve been dead for years? Or finding out you missed it by an hour or two, one that only felt like seconds to you in a witch’s embrace?

No. Years would be worse. Because it would mean more missed birthdays, cakes I didn’t get to bake, or maybe Ri started singing again before she died and I missed that too.

“We should go,” Elia says. Her voice is low. It’s like someone scraped out her insides and left them to rot in these ashes.

“Go where?” I ask softly.

“Up the road. To Pinebend. See how far... this... went. Survivors, maybe.”

Does it look like there were any gods-damned survivors? I don’t ask.

Instead, I say, “Yeah.” I say, “Let’s go.”

And then I look at the ash on my hands, wonder if any of it is Ri or Jer. It might be all that’s left of them. I can’t bring myself to wipe it off.

Pinebend is more of the same. And so is Meadowrise, farther up the dirt road. But Redpool’s still standing when the first of its chimney smoke shimmers into view under the noon sun.

We’re hungry now, reeling a bit in the heat, our feet kicking up little puffs of dust. My claws have long melted away, but my forearms still glitter with that silvery powder Jer helps me grind from dried glintleaves.

Helped.

I twist my mouth and sniff back another hot wave of tears. Elia gives my good shoulder a brief squeeze. The bad one has bloomed into a stiff, swollen, throbbing mess.

The first pair of people to see us dip hands to belts, fingertips on leather knife handles. I scan their faces frantically even as I put my hands up to stop them killing me. I don’t recognize either of them. Shouldn’t have hoped to in the first place.

“We’re witchbreakers,” Elia says. “From Springfall. The whole village... when we got back...”

Their faces soften. I still don’t want to know how long, but the question burns on my tongue anyway.

“Come,” says the one with shorter hair. “You can clean up, stay while you sort a new place. I’m sorry.”

“Were there any survivors?” I blurt at their backs. “From the burned villages, were there any survivors?”

They exchange a look.

“Three,” says the one in a sun-faded blue tunic. “Don’t get your hopes up, honey.”

“Who?” Elia says.

“How long?” I say over top of her.

The villager presses their lips together. “I—”

But just then, someone walks around the bend in the road, and I’d recognize those soft brown eyes anywhere because they’re Jer’s. Only they’re in the face of a teenage girl.

Her feet scuff as she comes to a dead stop.

“Ma?” she says, in a voice like all the air’s been sucked out of her.

My knees threaten to give out. “Ri.”

“Mom said you really weren’t coming back this time.”

Something resembling a laugh escapes my mouth. “Course I came back.” I fumble beneath my belt, pull out the rainbow knit crab. Ri’s face looks like she’s eight again, watching me go out, not knowing if I’ll be back. “Had this the whole time.”

It was a firewitch, one we’d have fought off if we hadn’t already been gone three years.

Jer lived through that one. She didn’t get so lucky when the firewitch followed them to Pinebend.

I will myself not to cry in the middle of Ri’s adoptive parents’ kitchen. They seem nice, now that they aren’t threatening to pull knives on Elia and me. But I’d hoped again, when I saw Ri was alive. I squeeze down on the knit crab, which Ri wouldn’t take back. Elia stares at me from the chair she’s pulled into a corner.

“Where,” I say, and clear my throat. “Where’s the firewitch? Did she—did someone—”

“Witchbreakers here chased her off,” Ri says.

“Chased her off? Not killed her?”

“No one wants to be gone a year,” Ri’s adoptive father, Dion, says softly.

I bark a laugh. One year? I just lost seven of them, to what we thought was a skywitch and turned out to be so much worse. I don’t want to lose another, either—the thought hurts in a raw, bloody way—but I hate them a little for having that choice.

What I say out loud is, “So the firewitch will be back.”

“No one knows that,” says Ri’s adoptive mother. Sera, I think her name is.

I snort. “It wasn’t a question.”

“Ma.” Ri’s voice has a warning note I’ve never heard. That hurts, too, but more like a bruise, like it’ll keep aching beneath my skin for as long as it wants. I want to know what happened to Ri. Exactly what happened, spoken into my shoulder in a safe, warm place that’ll drain whatever poison made her sound so... adult.

“Your breakers only chased that firewitch off,” I say, “and she’s terrorizing some other village, and then she’ll come back anyway, and that’s all right because no one wants to lose a year.”

“Rennie,” Elia says from her corner. “You can’t force anyone to make that choice.”

I open my mouth, then glance at Ri and bite down on my reply. Which would’ve been Oh, but it’s all right for them to put that year on someone else. Bas would tell me that wasn’t fair. Bas is the only one I would’ve listened to, Bas with her failed marriage and her son as old as she is. Was. Gods, I keep running up against that like a wall of needles.

“How long ago?” I ask.

“About three years,” Dion says. His mouth twists like he knows what I’m about to say.

“So she’ll be back soon.” I glance at Elia, whose eyes are hard. And who knows, now, that her partner must be dead, has been for four years.

“Ma?”

I look back at Ri. At how she’s clutching the hem of her shirt, kneading the fabric between her fingertips.

“Ri, darlin—”

“Don’t. Don’t leave. Not again. Please.”

Her voice catches at my chest so hard I have to breathe deep before I can answer.

“We don’t have to go looking,” I find myself saying, despite my earlier admonishments. I dart another glance at Elia. “But if she ever... when she comes back...”

“I said no.” Ri squeezes her eyes shut, like that’ll give her the final word.

I almost want to pretend I’m normal; scrub the glittering powder from my arms and toss my belt of herbs into the river.

Almost.

“I will not stand by and let you die, Ri.”

I catch Sera and Dion exchanging a knowing look. I don’t like it—that’s supposed to be my look to share with Jer—but as far as anyone knew, I died seven years back. They’ve made decisions, cared for Ri when I didn’t—couldn’t—and I should let it go.

I clear my throat. “Who knows. Maybe she won’t come back. Maybe another set of witchbreakers got her.”

But we all know that’s not true. Because the smoke I saw hanging over the village earlier wasn’t chimney smoke, Sera tells me later. It’s smoke from the next town up, where there was only one survivor.

Lucky for us, witches move slow.

Here’s what that week of happiness looks like, however uneasy it is:

An extra bed for Elia at Sera and Dion’s place.

No extra bed for me, because I share with Ri, snuggling her to my chest like she’s still just eight.

Nice, hot baths, of which I take several, because it feels like I’ll never get the oil from the darkwitch’s hair off my skin. Or Bas’s blood. Or Darra’s.

Plenty of good food, though nothing as good as Jer’s.

Realizing no food will ever be as good as Jer’s, crying into my bowl of stew, and no one at the table looking at me like I’ve got six heads when I can’t explain.

Stretching and regaining the range of motion in my witch-torn shoulder under Elia’s quiet, patient care.

The beginning of Ri’s story, whispered hesitantly into the dark of the sixth night spent in her bed, the knit crab clutched in a hand that’s not so little anymore.

I could live like this, I think, as if I had never seen smoke on the horizon at all. I could. I swear. Just give me a chance.

And here’s how that week of happiness ends:

No more smoke on the horizon. No more leisure, that increasingly precious thing. No more quiet nights. Just the orange-yellow bloom of a firewitch’s embrace as she moves up the road.

A little more of that adult poison leaking into Ri’s face when she sees I’ve got my belt on.

The broken way she says, “Please.”

Knit crab legs leaking between Ri’s white knuckles as Dion closes the door behind us.

And that urge, still strong as hell, to throw my belt of herbs into the river.

Even though the firewitch is a good mile out, the air’s too hot. Each summer breath scorches my throat.

“Think your shoulder will hold up?” Elia says at my side. Her voice is rough.

“You probably know better than me.”

“How’s it feel?”

“Hurts.”

She punches me. A solid one, but in the good shoulder.

We’re silent as we walk, our boots scuffing the dirt, me rubbing glintleaf powder up my forearms and Elia braiding flexible stems of something leafy into her hair.

“I’ve never asked,” Elia says when we reach the firewitch embrace. “What’s that stuff you eat when you grow your claws?”

“I’ll tell you when we get out,” I say.

Her eyebrows say Are you goddamn serious. Her mouth says, “Why not just tell me now?”

I bite off a hunk of blightroot and swallow, grimacing. “It gives you some incentive not to heroically sacrifice yourself. Come on.”

I ignore the gut-punched crease of her forehead and yank her into the embrace after me, keeping my growing claws away from her skin.

The heat is like slamming face-first into a wall. I can’t breathe for a second because it feels like sucking in fire. And then I look up, and I can’t breathe for another second because this fight is going to hurt.

Mainly because firewitches are made of gods-damned fire.

She doesn’t reach the twenty-foot height of a darkwitch, not even close, but her crackling hair and roaring dress sure make it feel that way. Her fingernails smolder. Smoke pours from the coals she uses for eyes. Her skin is the gray of ashen wood, orange cracks blazing up her cheeks.

Elia doesn’t hesitate, and I’m only half a second behind her. The longer we’re here, the longer I’m away from Ri.

Elia kicks out at the firewitch’s knees. The firewitch twitches aside, then back from the handful of claws I swipe at her face.

“Oh, you’ll crisp up nicely,” the firewitch says in a voice like wood knots popping in flame. She flicks a tornado of fire from the ends of her fingers. I spin out of its way and rake my claws across her eyes, but fuck it burns.

And then I hear the most panic I’ve ever heard blazing through Elia’s voice: “Get out! Go home, run, what are you doing here? Go!”

I dance out of the firewitch’s reach and fling a glance at who the hell would be in a firewitch embrace with us. And I have to stop myself from puking, because that’s my daughter in the witch’s embrace with us.

“I want to help!” Ri screams.

The firewitch’s laugh is the slow bubble of lava oozing from cracked ground. She leans forward to look at Ri. “Hello, little one.”

Something in my mind simply turns off. As the firewitch draws in a crackling breath, I stop caring that it hurts just to stand near her. As she opens her blackened, brittle mouth to eat Ri, all I’m thinking is Not my daughter, you stay the hell away from her.

The firewitch bends down where I can reach her. This is what she gets for being distracted.

I sink my claws into her temples.

The firewitch howls and whips her head back, but I hang on. Distantly, I can feel my hands blistering up. My shoulder is sending molten pain through my arm again. Something in me has decided it doesn’t matter. Ri is screaming behind me, but right now that just means she’s alive.

At the corners of my vision, the firewitch’s hands are coming up to grab me. This time I won’t move. If I move, the firewitch lives. If I move, Ri dies.

When the firewitch grabs me, I hold on as long as I can. I don’t know what Elia’s doing. I don’t know if Ri’s safe. I just hang on, burning, shaking, because if I don’t, then Ri’s dead for sure.

Something rips my claws out and throws me. My head catches a rock. My last thoughts are of Ri, wanting her to escape, wanting her to—

“—run, Ri, get out now—”

“S’all right, Ma. It’s over. She’s dead. Don’t move, you’re all burned up.”

I pause for breath, and the air I suck in is a cool balm to my burning throat. There’s a hand on my shoulder that feels too sharp. I can’t open my eyes, because it feels like the skin might slough off my face.

“Ri? Darlin, where are you?”

“She’s here, Rennie. Easy.” Elia’s voice. Another hand guides mine to skin, a face, the same cheek that’s been on the pillow next to mine for the past week.

“What did you do?” I can’t stop talking even though every word is agony. “What happened, why did you come, Ri, oh gods—”

“We need to move her.” Elia’s voice again. “It’s going to hurt. She’s going to scream, a lot. Can you handle that?”

“I won’t, I promise, I won’t scream,” I babble. “Ri?”

“Here, Ma. I can handle it. Is she gonna be okay?”

“If we get her moved now, yes. Let’s go.”

Hands that might’ve been gentle if my skin wasn’t tight and alive with prickles of agony slide under my shoulders, my ankles. I lock my throat down on the scream I promised I wouldn’t voice.

“On three,” Elia says above me. I pull in air through my teeth. “Right. Three.”

They lift me, and it’s like fire raking across my skin again, but the good part is that I’ll be quiet, because I black out.

“She’s like a little demon,” Elia tells me when I finally wake again. My eyes are bandaged over, but there’s a weight on my unburned shoulder, and it smells like the sleepy little girl who handed me a rainbow knit crab seven days or seven years ago.

“Not...” I whisper, “...what I was worried about.” Even that hurts. I wonder how long I’ve been out, and I can’t summon the will to ask.

“Yeah, well. You don’t have to worry. She’s better with those claws than you were at that age.”

I swallow and tighten my arm around Ri’s shoulders. “Never happening again.”

Ri stirs. I hold my breath.

“Ma?”

That tired voice sounds almost like the one that asked me, seven years that feel like seven days ago, when I was coming back. My answer catches in my throat.

“Back to sleep, darlin. It’s okay.”

“Uh-uh. Didn’t mean to sleep anyway. I fought a firewitch.”

I squeeze her shoulder hard. “Never. Again.”

“I know,” Ri says, and it’s not what I expected. “I don’t want to.”

“Then why,” I say, and pause as burn pain needles my skin. “Why’d you come—”

Her forehead presses harder into my shoulder. “Missed you. That’s all.”

Nearly had to miss me forever, you little shite, I don’t say. Will never say.

“Have to tie you down next time I go,” I say instead.

“Next time isn’t happening, Rennie,” Elia says.

“What?”

“Are you kidding? Ri can’t lose you again. That isn’t right.”

“But you... alone... Elia, you can’t—”

“I’ll join up with the witchbreakers here. There are other claws in the world, you know. And I’ve got Bas’s leechwood.”

“Elia,” I say again, and for some reason there’s panic in my voice. Why does it feel like she’s leaving for good? Why does it feel like me giving up witchbreaking is some sort of betrayal?

And then Ri sniffles on my right, and I wonder if this is how she and Jer felt every time I left. If this is why Bas’s wife left her, or why she hardly knows her son anymore.

Knew. That needle wall again, the same thing Ri will run up against if I die out there. Ma was a witchbreaker. I had parents.

I decide, suddenly, that I can’t make her say that about me.

“Okay,” I whisper, and run a thumb over Ri’s shoulder. I wish I could see Elia’s face, to see if she’s taking this as a betrayal.

“Good,” Elia says. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Hey,” I call before her footsteps fade.

“What?”

The smile I give her hurts too much to last long. “You stay alive long enough to get out of witchbreaking, I’ll tell you what that plant is called.”

“I can ask any other claws on this earth what it’s called, Rennie.”

“Yeah, but you won’t.”

Elia’s silent for a long moment. “Just don’t die of old age before I’m back, all right?”

She’s gone before I can say I won’t.

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Leah Ning lives in northern Virginia with her husband and their four pets: two cats, a dog, and a sugar glider, all of whom are exactly as cute as they sound. She spends her non-writing time drawing, playing video games, and playing piano. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Writers of the Future 36, Cossmass Infinities, PodCastle, and Apex, among others. You can find her @LeahNing on Twitter and on her website, leahning.com.

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