The prairie soon began to deepen into the Sagescrub Valley, a relatively gentle fissure that ran up into the mountains to the west around a small but fierce glacial stream. Feris had only heard of about seven families homesteading up there, and Jinny Witchazel was perhaps the best-known of the lot. Gifted in the Art, she had a reputation as a healer and winder of clever cantrips.

Her homestead was just off the main road, a small cabin built to strongly resist the worst winter could offer. Its barn was integral to the structure, with a second story build high enough that, if necessary, the inhabitants could escape from them and snowshoe to safety.

“I think something’s wrong,” Feris said. She pointed to the field, where ensorcelled farm implements lay amid unharvested grains. They were weakly twitching, as if the complex enchantments needed to weave them into independent action were unfinished or unraveling.

“She must be an impressive mage of the Art if she can coax a harvest out of the inanimate,” said Eggebrecht. “Even the rebels tended to use thralls for that kind of labor.”

“And today you can just buy a horse-drawn harvester and get it done with no magic at all,” said Feris. She took the lead, tying the horses to a fence post and walking slowly toward the homestead with her hands up. “Jinny?” She said. “Jinny Witchazel? It’s Feris Skulljelly, from Smokewood. We’re here to talk to you.”

Nobody answered. Dr. Eggebrecht stepped forward. “Hello, miss? I’m Dr. Dana K. Eggebrecht, a researcher and scientist of some reknown, and I have a few questions for you about the edor!”

Still nothing. “Maybe we should try the door,” said Feris. Before Eggebrecht could intervene, she walked up and pushed. It swung open, and she trotted it, with Eggebrecht dashing after her.

The interior was a bit flavorful in its odors thanks to sharing a wall with the barn, but it was crammed with things useful for the Art, herbs and dried mixtures, with tanned and canned animal bits in equal measure. Embers were still smoldering in the fireplace, and a kettle of what smelled like coffee was heating in a magical blue flame on a nearby tabletop.

“Seems like we just missed her,” said Eggebrecht.

“I don’t think so,” Feris said. “She’s still here. There’s no way that, even with the Art, she could have gone far.”

“How do you know that?” Eggebrecht said.

“Like this!” Feris threw back a rug to reveal a root cellar; grasping the iron ring in its trapdoor, she pulled.

The light revealed Jinny Witchazel, on her back in the darkness, with a repeating rifle aimed upward and a cast-iron plate from a potbellied stove hanging around her neck and over her torso like a piece of armor.

“Hiya, Jinny,” Feris said. “Remember me?”

“What do you want?” Jinny shouted. Her voice was louder than it might have seemed, and Eggebrecht suspected that she was using the Art to amplify it a bit. He also noted that the azure runes that regular Art users tended to brand themselves with–to avoid having to constantly reapply them–were visible and luminous on her hands.

“Well, for one, we want to know why you’re hiding in a root cellar with a repeater,” Feris said.

“We also want you to know we don’t mean any harm and are just here to ask some questions,” Eggebrecht added hastily. “We can pay for your information.”

Jinny’s eyes flashed red, but it seemed that whatever cantrip she had used put her at ease. “Sorry about that, love,” she said to Feris. “You know I never was very good at reading you.”

“My life is a closed book, after all,” Feris said.

Jinny struggled for a moment and then got up, slinging her repeater over one shoulder as she slowly climbed the ladder up. Eggebrecht quickly saw another reason why she might have been hiding: she was heavily pregnant, her wiry frame looking fit to pop at any moment, and the makeshift armor she was wearing appeared to have been chosen specifically to protect her unborn child from gunfire.

“You’re…with child,” he said.

“Yes, thank you for that observation, love,” Jinny said, kicking the cellar door shut behind her. “I wasn’t sure if there was a baby in there or if I’d just gone fat, but with your say-so I think I’m more confident.”

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