Commander Belladonna Brewer was roused to consciousness by the soft touch of fingertips against her cheek, a gentle bulwark against the pain throbbing in her head and the foul, dry taste of a rag tied across her mouth, gagging her. She could not even half-hum to magic away the pain, or to cast light to see by, but somehow she knew that touch, even in the darkness. Rowena Scathlocke may have left her years before, torn from her arms during battle and declared dead, one of too many losses in the terrible, unending Uzbek campaign, but she was here now. Her Fixer, hands deft and somehow all at once both hard and soft as they eased the gag from her mouth, did not hesitate to press tender lips against her own—
“Fuck, this is garbage,” Callie groaned, and closed the browser window.
The phone on the desk was lighting up with alerts, vibrating steadily enough to have sent the cat leaving for the safety of the recliner with a disappointed sneeze, and providing a constant, humming background noise to Callie’s doom-scrolling of social media, interspersed with despondent little keyboard pecks. She picked up where she’d left off before attempting a few lines of inspiration and glowered at the screen.
In theory, any of the multitude of phone notifications might have been a tip, an alert tied to a keyword search, a response to one of her inquiries with her usual sources, or someone drawing a pentagram over her pic to match on Harmony. Hell, maybe Balloon Witch Saga was offering unlimited lives for two hours again out of sheer desperation to get her playing again. But with dread-laced sort of certainty, Callie knew that the only messages were from her editor, pointing out with increasing fury and decreasing patience that her deadline had passed weeks ago and she had absolutely nothing to show for it. Not tender mooning eyes nor a good hard fuck, and certainly not anything in between. Of course, the military fiction types had no end of fodder for stories of spell-slinging precision these days, occasionally daring to hint that the Spree Might Have a Point, Actually and offering needling commentary on tensions in the White House and among the military elite, reading everything from bitter rivalry to catty competition to sexual tension in the relationships between Alder and President Wade, or Alder and her current, particularly power-hungry Bellweather.
It was practically the set-up for a high-stakes prestige show. In fact, she’d heard rumors that the team behind the Emmy-winning, eight-season historical political drama-cum-witch tit titillation hit The Hague were developing a new program with a more contemporary setting, loosely based on current events. A decade ago the idea of treating Alder with anything other than reverence, spotted with a few reluctant nods to charming flaws–even her stone-faced reserve could be shown as nothing more than a necessary mask for a weary warrior–would have been unthinkable. In today’s climate, it might be less a fawning profile livened up with a bit of sex and battle and much closer to a sobering critique than anyone in the military or the government might like.
And yet, with anxiety about the role of the Witch In American Society at an all-time high and the loss of life from Spree attacks and an assortment of front line conflicts around the world giving even the most eager battle-ravens in Congress pause, there was an infuriating lack of good gossip to be had about what any of these fools were doing in their personal time. Callie’s gossip rumor mill was, if not dead, definitively anemic, and none of the attempts at writing a new romance she’d half-attempted in recent months had gone anywhere. While there was a never-ending thirst for stories about the sex lives of witches, from the orgies of the decadent High Atlantic elite to the sexual mesmerism of desperate witches seducing unwary men to bolster the waning numbers of their kind, Callie was utterly lacking in inspiration. It all felt terribly passé, really. Sexual spells, War College barracks antics, passionate relationships lasting only a night on the front lines. Yawn and sigh. She’d written them all, at one time or another, finding a handful of sweet spots in that strangely compelling meeting place between power, sex, and bloodshed, and now none of them seemed worth a second look, however much her editor Emma’s blood pressure was probably off the charts at this point.
She pushed back from her desk with a huff of annoyance and paced into the kitchen, dragging out a half-empty bottle of vodka and unscrewing the cap grimly. While swigging from the bottle had a certain verisimilitude fitting for the moment, Callie splashed out a generous portion into a tumbler and replaced the bottle in the cabinet. She hesitated then, eyeing the glass doubtfully.
“Something about the sweetest drink of all being her lover’s lips- Goddess, no. That’s awful. That doesn’t even rate “trite”, it’s just bad, bad…” she muttered, taking a swig and grimacing.
The problem was, really, that none of these characters felt the least bit real, even the ones in the most successful of her best sellers. Of course Callie had done her research. She’d read both the generally-glowing biographies of Alder and other prominent witches by outsiders and the few primary sources written by witches made public, full of implication and omission, and most impenetrably dry. She’d read the few sympathetic narratives of the life of Dodgers staying just ahead of the military police and the organizations making futile attempts at changing the terms of the Accords; those stories always focused on the tragedy of their lives and the suffering of their children, the question of exactly what they ran from in the military never quite articulated for fear of attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention from those same military police.
But by nature and design—whose, one might ask, without a good answer available—the witches stood apart. Even those who did not serve by virtue of dispensation or discharge kept largely to themselves. In her more eager days Callie had attempted to interview retired or discharged witches, polite smile in pace and a recorder in her hand, but somehow those talks never got around to saying much of significance or more than surface impressions of a battle or a life on base, and without exception her shiny, trusty recorder would somehow stop working not a few minutes into each conversation.
And so she’d stopped trying for even the trappings of accuracy. Who needed them anyway? Everyone had vague memories of the wars from school and then a variety of television and film adaptations. Best to keep the details soft and fuzzy, and focus on the tactile senses, the surges of emotion, and the Happily Ever After. That had served her well, after all, she reasoned, taking another long sip of her drink.
Until now, that was. Maybe it was time for a change.
Pausing only to top off her drink hastily, Callie returned to her keyboard, dropping the glass to the desktop and opening a window, page blank and cursor blinking.
Her Fixer, hands deft and somehow all at once both hard and soft as they eased the gag from her mouth, did not hesitate to press tender lips against her own.
“At last,” she whispered finally.
“But how, Rowena?” Belladonna cried, pain thick in her voice even as it ebbed in her skull from the other witch’s soothing touch.
“I’m sorry. I know it will be hard, my love. But I couldn’t do it anymore, the same fights, the same wounds, my hands covered in your blood and my sisters’. I did this for us. For all of us..”
Belladonna gasped. Out of the darkness stepped others, some whose faces were all too familiar, if impossible.
“We are the Spree. And our freedom is at hand.”