(Morningstar: I don't count the Prologue as a chapter, no.
Everyone: Thanks for your patience! I appreciate your sticking with this story so far! This is a huge update, thanks in part to Molly Mae's perceptive low blow with the Blue Truth, which forced me to move a ton of material forward.)
Provided the Red Truth tells no lies, twisting the timing of events for effect is a Witch's prerogative. Thus, as the duel drew near a close, Molly Mae moved first:
But even as Molly Mae's rose drifted to the floor, TheChad and Thalia were already lunging in tandem, uniting their Blue Truths into a single devastating move.
Through its efforts, the Human Side has unlocked this chapter's Banquet.
Some, but not all, of the veils of metaphor have been stripped from the Witch's tale. Will you join us?
Banquet of the First Chapter:
The rain fell, streaking the windows and pooling on the ground outside. The group had set up chairs and flashlights in the foyer while they waited and reread the clues they had, giving the gathering the atmosphere of a camping trip in a moonless forest. Jaime LaSalle had passed around a basket of snacks and now, with the help of a camp stove from his van, had boiled up a pot of water to make tea and coffee. "Strange weather, huh?" said Alicia, chewing on a cucumber sandwich. "Warm one day, soaking rain the next. That's California for you."
"Heh," chuckled Otto. "Think Ann'd laugh if she could see all this? She did so much to make sure it'd run smoothly without her. And here we are. In the dark, three of us lost."
"I'm sure they're fine," said Walter Sexton. "That boy doesn't know how to keep still."
"Hey! Mark's a great kid. Bet he misses Ann as much as any of us," said Batsheva. Margaret's son had spent a lot of time with Ann, before her illness worsened. How had Margaret broken the news to him? "He really believes in the Sapphire Witch, y'know, really believes," Batsheva continued, and then turned to Nat, whom she leaned against in the dark. "Of course I'm sure he believes in you, too. Mmm."
"I wasn't talking about Mark," muttered Walter. "I meant our Heir Apparent." But either nobody was listening, or Nat wasn't interested in defending L.V.'s maturity.
Nat blushed a little and said, "It's all a little - well, if the person I was thirty years ago could look at me now, he'd be shocked. Appalled. I'm writing poetry, acting..."
"But you were very rich. She was, too," said Kenichi. "If you had money, what's the problem? I don't understand why you're leaving us."
Nat fiddled with his gloves as he considered his answer. He had many reasons, some of which he preferred not to share. "It isn't the same without her. If she decided to give away her title, I don't need mine anymore, do I? I'll play this last game in her memory."
"That's sweet," said Batsheva. Though some among the staff disagreed, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Ann had given Nat the sealed envelopes containing the puzzles, but she had left the props with Margaret and Lana, two of her oldest friends, with instructions on how to carry out the games. Supposedly, this was so that Nat and L.V. could compete themselves without being accused of cheating.
Of course, it couldn't be that simple with Nat, could it? He'd tried to pretend that this Epigraph game had been at least partly his decision, to salvage his ego by framing the contest in terms of his 'retirement.' L.V. was almost as bad, in the opposite way; every time Nat tried to downplay Ann's role, L.V. would play it up. Even when Nat wasn't there, when he was inside checking up on the riddle pages, L.V. had been so showy about the keypad lock on the front door. Like Hamlet jumping into Ophelia's grave, thought Samuel.
Suddenly, sharp footsteps rang through the room. Margaret Ye had returned, pulling Mark behind her. The boy resisted, kicking and throwing a tantrum, tears streaming down his face. "I'm taking Mark home," said Margaret, a little apologetically, "Mark, stop that right now. I'll be back later." She shot Nat a glare as she left, though he couldn't have seen it clearly in the dim light. The front doors swung upon, letting in a blast of cold air, and then Margaret and Mark were gone.
"It's too bad," said Alicia. "I know Mark was really looking forward to this. Maybe a little too much. I don't think he gets how death works, does he?"
"Mmm," said Nat, but made no further comment. Where was that damn ring? It'd been right there in his coat pocket. Let's see, he'd left his coat on the stand by the door while he placed the envelopes (and had a little quiet time with Batsheva), and when he'd gotten back, somebody had taken the ring and put an envelope in its place. He'd told the staff to keep an eye out, asking them to be circumspect about who, exactly, had lost the ring. But the others would figure it out sooner or later.
Damn it! Who could it have been? It would be easy to assume that it was L. V., but that didn't work. He hadn't been inside the building at the time, and the lock on the front door had essentially turned the whole building into a giant safe. As long as the staff hadn't taken the ring, it should have been secure. And that other envelope that had appeared out of nowhere, the one by the trains - where did that come from?
But the worst thing had been the message that had replaced the ring. It read:
Tonight, the Sapphire Witch will return to bear away lost souls to El Dorado.
It is to be hoped that you have behaved yourself in her absence, and have done your part to make this a fair contest.
You may do what you wish with your legacy...
But to cheat would be unworthy of hers.
* * * * * * * * *
When Bruce Wesser married the Sapphire Witch, he insisted that Matthew Ford be his best man. Matthew was more than happy to, and remained close to both husband and wife. Wesser, for his part, was heartened that his friend and his wife were on such terms, for he knew that neither would betray his trust. Even his son admired the man he called Uncle Matthew.
When a car accident took Mr. Wesser's life, the Sapphire Witch was heartbroken. Matthew Ford comforted her with kind words, and tried to help her, just as she had helped him when he had been younger. And over the next year, out of that tragedy, a new love grew. Letters and poetry were exchanged, neatly typed with the aid of an old friend. Walks were taken, reminiscences shared, plans made
And, one warm day in September, over a year after Bruce Wesser had died, Matthew knelt before her on a great staircase and said:
"Ann, will you marry me?"
From his shaking hands, the Sapphire Witch took a brilliant ruby ring. Then she produced a box from her own pocket, and offered Matthew Ford her own gift in return, a sapphire ring. Then, she said:
"Yes. Yes, I will."
And they made a vow:
To be as true as the red,
And as brave as the blue,
And as inseparable as a question and its answer.
* * * * * * * * *
All of these words were spoken in the instant that those blades of Blue Truth struck. Perhaps they were written in advance, on a page that was revealed when the duel was over. Perhaps they were embodied in that blinding flash of blue light. But either way, all was said before Molly Mae made a strike at the heart of the Witch's existence.
You are not the Sapphire Witch!
"No!" cried the Witch, trying to dodge this potentially mortal blow. "You can't - not now -"
Sadistic laughter echoed through the hall. "Well, it looks like this will be over far earlier than I'd expected!" said the Witch of Secrets, emerging from the shadows, scythe in hand. "Accept this failure for what it is."
The Witch re-drew the sword of Red Truth and tried to hold off the attack. It had been a gamble from the start, presenting the tale in this way in the hope of being truly accepted as the Sapphire Witch.
"You have no absolute proof of that!"
"Red Truth ineffective!" declared the Witch of Secrets, brandishing her scythe. "Your own rules make proof impossible! Did you really believe you could fool them with a mask and a riding cape? Ahaha!"
Even if Molly Mae wished to take the words back, it would be impossible now. The blade of Blue Truth had taken on a life of its own, and was rapidly cutting through the Sapphire Witch's defenses.
"The duel was already over! The Blue Truth is therefore ineffective!"
The Witch of Secrets pantomimed deep thought as the Blue Truth circled. "Hmm.... it looks effective to me! This was inevitable from the moment you revealed your story. Be glad the damage is no worse! If I'd been in their place, I would have attacked you far sooner!"
The Sapphire Witch had been forced into a corner, and was forced into a desperate move, a move that was meant for far later in the game. "I wear the ring of the Red Truth!" Indeed, a brilliant ruby ring glimmered on the Witch's hand!
The Witch of Secrets swooped in like a vulture to personally smash this Red Truth with a swing of her scythe. "Anybody with a finger can wear a ring! And the woman whom that ring was given to is dead. If I killed you and took your ring, would that make me the Sapphire Witch?!"
The boy turned to the group. "Um. Do we just let them kill each other?"