Isla opens her mouth to protest that she definitely isn’t a witch, only to quickly realize that maybe it’s not the smartest idea to say that directly to a witch with scales and fangs.
“I, uh. Thanks,” she says instead.
The witch sits on an old tree stump to eat her food, and Isla stands awkwardly, unsure of what to do. Obviously, she shouldn’t upset the witch, or she might end up getting double-cursed, but she probably doesn’t want to get too friendly, either.
“You may sit down,” the witch says after a long silence. “Stay a while and chat. Goodness knows I do not do much of that.”
Isla’s sure she can guess why.
“Um, I’m okay,” Isla says. “I’ll stand.”
The witch shrugs. “If that pleases you. What were you looking for, sister?”
Isla hesitates a moment before answering, because she’s understandably a bit wary of asking a witch for help. But on the other hand, who would know magical plants better than a witch? So long as she doesn’t make any agreements, she’s probably safe.
“I’m looking for a bluish plant,” she says. “Long stem, broad leaves. It’s supposed to have some magical properties.”
“Ah,” the witch says, nodding knowingly. “The Demon’s Thistle, of course. Why are you looking for that? You have enough magical power without it, sister.”
That’s a concerning thing to hear from a witch who’s done enough curses to visibly lose her humanity. “I’m not planning to use it,” Isla says. “I’m just…they use it in town for their ceremony, and–”
“I see. Have they cast you out of the town as well? Stoned you for your magic and tried to execute you with fire? I am sorry. The townsfolk in this part of the continent are even more suspicious than most, and they are not kind to people like us. I will help you in whatever revenge you wish to cast upon them.” She waves her hand towards the riverside and points. “They gather their plants there, under the willow tree. I will warn you, however, they are very hardy. Poisoning them is of little use–I have tried. Hopefully your plans are more successful.”
“I–poison?” Isla splutters. “No, I don’t want to poison them, that’s awful, and–and what do you mean? Did they…stone you and all of that?”
The witch looks at her with coal-black eyes and nods solemnly. “It was many years ago. I came here asking for food and shelter and they only saw the curses on my skin. They had me drawn up to be stoned and burned. I escaped with my life, of course, but they shall not be forgiven.”
Isla’s shock and silence lasts a little longer than socially acceptable. She can’t even imagine a town doing that to someone, even a witch. How horrible would it be, to be helpless and trussed up to die amidst people she’d asked for help?
Slowly, Isla looks away from the witch. “Then…did you curse the town?”
“Curse the town? In what way?”
“The…the town is stuck in the day of the festival. When it reaches the end of the day, it resets. Did you do that to them?” Isla asks. She doesn’t know what answer she wants to hear from the witch. She’s not even sure if she’ll be angry if the answer is yes.
There’s a long pause, then, “No. That should not be possible, and I would not cast it even if I had such a power. I will only put my magic is this town to burn it like they tried to burn me.”
“That’s, uh,” Isla says. “I see.”
“I don’t know if you do,” the witch replies in a low voice. “But that is okay. One day, you will know the same anger that I do, for these kinds of people are everywhere and always will be. Hopefully, you will not meet them until you are strong enough to exact revenge.”
Isla hopes she never runs into such people at all, but she doesn’t say so. Instead, she says, “Thanks. I guess.”
They lapse into silence and the witch continues eating and not doing anything sinister or magical. Isla’s pretty sure she’s safe to leave–the witch doesn’t seem like she’d follow her or anything–but she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the witch there. Obviously the witch is planning some sort of extreme violence against the town, and while Isla doesn’t really want to hear that, she feels a bit responsible to at least not ignore it, either. After all, there’s still the strange time loop in town, and Em, and–
“Did you curse someone in the town?” Isla asks.
“Perhaps. I do not recall every curse I have cast.”
“There’s this person in town. They’re cursed so everyone forgets them,” Isla says. “Every time someone meets them, they forget right after, and they’re…only my friend and I can see them, nobody else in town can. Do you know what might have happened to them?”
The witch looks out into the distance for a few long moments, thinking. “That is a very powerful curse, to make everyone forget someone,” she says eventually. “I would be capable of it, though. With your power, you would, too.”
Isla decides to ignore that last bit. “How would you do it, then?”
“If it were my curse, I would take their name.”
The witch nods slowly. “A name is very powerful, is it not? Without a name, no one can remember you, no matter how close you once were, and you cannot pass on from this world.”
“Why would a witch…why would you want to take someone’s name?” Isla asks.
“A name has many uses, sister. The most powerful spells must be named or they will fade into nothing with time, and you cannot cast spells to control demons and other beasts if you do not use one,” the witch says. “It is a very valuable thing, so you must be sure to hold onto yours.”
“I see,” Isla says slowly. “So this person…is a ghost?”
“Perhaps. Whatever they are now, they cannot pass on until they recover a name. Doubtless, whoever has taken their name is long gone.” The witch casts a sidelong glance at Isla. “It would be easier to destroy this person completely.”
“Wow, uh, great. Good to know, I guess?” Isla says, not at all comfortable with the concept of destroying Em completely. She’s not at all comfortable with the concept of destroying anyone in general.
“Be cautious if you plan to return to town,” the witch says. “These townsfolk are not kind to witches. If they were to suspect a witch in their midst, well…it would not end well.”
Isla’s not a witch, but she knows enough to know that only witches are supposed to have magic. Even without using magic, it’s not like this witch is the only person who’s thought she was one, either. “Yeah. Thanks. Um, if you don’t mind me asking, if you hate this town so much, why are you here?”
“I wanted to see if it had burned to the ground yet,” the witch says bluntly. “This country is rife with stray demons, and eventually the protective stones will break, and demons will eat them alive. I would rather it happens sooner than later, but even I now I cannot summon a demon strong enough to breach them from the outside and I am no longer human enough to cross it myself.”
“There are other ways to destroy a town,” the witch continues. “Only a fool relies on strength alone. You would be wise to remember that, sister.” She finishes her fruit, then puts the covering back over her face and says, “I have finished everything I aimed to in this town, so I will leave you here. Thank you for the food. It was very good. I wish you luck.”
The witch walks down the road and soon passes out of sight behind overgrown grasses and shrubs.
“Okay,” Isla says to herself once the witch is gone and shows no signs of coming back. “That happened.”