Rain drizzled from the sky onto her coat, pattering against the brim of her hat. The witch sat across the clearing, grotesquely hunched over. Her hair was black and long, akin to a mane, and her dress was caked with dirt and blood. A thick leather belt girded her waist. Her exposed arms were muscled and strong-looking, but a deep gouge was laid into her left arm. It bled into the rain beneath her. She seemed like someone who worked since birth. One hand was holding something out of Ana’s sight.
Ana spoke first. She had to follow the protocol.
“You can come peacefully. I won’t hurt you if I don’t have to.”
The witch raised her head and her wild hair exposed eyes that shone in the thin fog like torches. The voice came to her like a whisper in her ear.
“You can leave now.”
Ana didn’t flinch or show fear. She took a step back, and nothing stopped her. What was in front of her wasn’t an illusion.
“You’re very good at throwing your voice. Did your devil teach you how to do that?”
She must have been the one screaming, too, leading the rest of the hunt away from the trail. If she could control sound, there was no point in calling for help. Ana was alone.
Two voices came at the same time, one deeper than the other.
“He taught me many things. I know you’re here to lock me up.”
Ana thought about her response carefully.
“I’m here to bring you somewhere where you won’t hurt anyone.”
A chorus of whispers erupted around her. They intoned accusations.
“No. You’ll chain me and take me away to rot in some hole,” said one voice, clearly a man’s.
“I didn’t want any of this,” another added.
“I won’t be a prisoner again.”
Ana was quiet, waiting for her to finish.
The witch didn’t answer. She stood slowly. She was taller than Ana by a head. She was holding a rather large needle-like instrument, nearly as long as Ana’s forearm; a makeshift eye had been bored into the head, and half a dozen cords of leather had been looped through it. Ana looked a second time and saw that it was covered in carvings and scrimshaw patterns. On her belt she had a handax, a sickle, and what looked like a sheathed knife. She hadn’t suspected sorcery to be at play before, but if she was going for the needle first when she had an ax at her disposal, then the odds were that she was going to use it as a focus.
“We don’t have to do this. I’ll speak in your favor at your trial if you cooperate. You could help people.”
“I know that being a prisoner – committing a crime – can put people in a bad position in a small town,” Ana said slowly, “It can tempt them to act out. To do terrible things. To betray what the Church of the Sepulcher and the Saints have taught us. It’s a weakness, a sin, certainly, but understandable. One can go down awful roads when feeling desperate.”
“Yes,” said Ana, “Desperate. I once-”
“I was desperate.”
The witch stretched, sinew and muscle shuddering in the rain. Even as she continued to shift between different voices, her accent was distinct. The villagers had sounded rural. The speech of shepherds and swineherds and men who gardened and grew grain for a living. She was different; tinged in equal parts by isolation, teaching and something alien, something ancient; vowels set out of place and spilling awkwardly where they should not, and consonants piercing the rain’s heavy ambience. Each voice was different and distinct. None matched the speed or shape of her cracked lips.
“I am now a little more, or less, I think. I was a wretch, yes. But the man in black, that man that you call devil – he’s shown me things. He has girded me with new desires. And taught me a better way of things. How things ought to be. I am not desperate, witch hunter. Not anymore.”
The last word was unsteady and heavy. She wasn’t confident in this, but she wanted to be.
The rain would make her pistol less reliable, and she was trying to bring the witch in alive at any rate. Ana retrieved a trick mancatcher from her belt. It was about as long as her forearm, a thick wooden rod ending in an open steel bident. She readied it at her side.
She stared into the luminous eyes of the witch, trying to discern something human – some way of ending this more easily.
“You don’t have to die. Whatever your devil taught you, you’re outmatched here.”
It was a lie, but a useful one – in all likelihood, she would be sentenced to death. A lenient judge might give her life in the Antipode if she was cooperative and Ana gave a testimony in her favor. Based on everything she had seen, she wasn’t inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’d seen witches who had made deals with devils for all sorts of reasons – for revenge, for riches, to conceal other crimes. They had received the reports, though. None of the attacks were provoked, and all were so savage and violent that at first they thought they belonged to a wild animal. She searched her heart for a fleeting moment for the words for the kind of thing that would kill and eat seven people over the course of three months.
Sinner and monster came to mind immediately. Evil, too. A bestial, base kind of evil that sprung from the worst of the world. She had met misguided witches, people who had strayed from the upright path. This didn’t seem like one of them. And still, some part of Ana’s heart felt pity for her – for a person so separate from compassion to commit acts like this.
The sinner bared her sharpened teeth. Each was long and yellowed, and Ana could make out the faintest hint of a tongue sliding beneath them. She stepped foot over bare foot, circling like a wolf. Ana responded in kind and waited for movement – for her to make the first move.
The witch did, in the end. She charged with a surprising speed, either undeterred by pain or too calloused to notice the branches and mud that bashed against her bare feet. She was twenty paces away.
Ana waited and braced herself, her other hand falling to the mancatcher. This wretched, awful thing had killed too many. It would stop here. She inhaled, and let her chest tighten with the breath, ready for what came next.
She was ten paces.
Ana exhaled and let azure mana flow through her right hand, and the haft of the catcher sprung outwards as she approached, closing the distance between the two. It grew from the length of her forearm to being nearly as tall as herself in an instant – a forceful, cool sensation that spread from her fingertips into the haft and outwards. The witch tried to dodge out of the way, but her momentum was already too much, and the bident caught her around the neck. The impact rattled the focus, and Ana forced her feet forward as she twisted the mancatcher about the witch’s neck. She stumbled and Ana forced her to the ground, loosely piercing the dirt with the blunted metal points. The witch flailed and yelped wildly. The slickness gave her no purchase.
“Drop your weapon, yield and live!”
The witch didn’t respond, instead slamming against the wooden haft of the catcher with incredible force. The first blow nearly pulled the tines straight from the earth, but Ana stood steadfast, trying to prepare her next move. Before she could, the witch spoiled it. She hammered at it with a horrible force that seemed more than her mere muscles could have ever produced, and splintered the strong wood beneath her clenched fist. Ana stopped the flow of mana and retreated, reaching for her knife and the ward by her chest.
She pulled it as the witch leapt to her feet, climbing up past the stump more like an animal than a person. It was what they had called an arming-knife; an intermediary between a full sword and a short blade, the steel dulled by the overcast light. In her left, she interlocked her fingers with the seven-pointed star on the ward. The witch advanced again. A faint blue spark ran across the cords.
That was one type of mana pinned down – azure. A mutative energy, which reshaped the physical form of an object to its purpose.
As she advanced, the strands spread and extended out without consideration for the wind or the witch’s momentum. As she took another step, the strands cracked as they whipped towards her. She raised the ward to the oncoming tentacles, forcing verdure into it. The seven points lit, but it was too late.
Three cords wound themselves around her leg tightly, two more to the arm with her ward; the rest sparked against the ward, the closest points flaring with raw verdure as it repelled them. The witch heaved and pulled the cords in. Ana nearly fell straight off her feet, boots skidding against the mud until she could find purchase on an outcropping of granite. Ana gritted her teeth and sliced through the cords on her arm, feeling yet more verdure drain from her as the other cords made a second advance.
The cords went slack in an instant, and heard the rush of the witch before she was upon her. She had drawn something into her left hand, hidden by the mass of her palm, the other with the needle raised to kill. Ana lunged towards the witch’s face, hoping to make her flinch.
The witch’s left hand sparked a bright orange-red and a shift of the hand revealing a carved piece of stone. Ochre mana. Ana realized her mistake a fraction of a second too late.
The knife’s edge scraped across the witch’s face harmlessly. The witch riposted by bashing her in the gut with the blunt end of the needle. Ana stumbled and choked on her own breath, trying to get her bearings and reassess her opponent.
A stoneskin technique. Crude, primitive, inefficient and terrifically effective if your opponent wasn’t expecting it. Ana had assumed that she was less experienced and sloppy. The devil had clearly tutored her well. She retreated backwards as the witch made another wild swing, wracking her mind for responses.
The first was purely offensive. Stone chipped. Stone fractured. Under heat, a stone could melt. If she could reach for her the blade of mercy, she could deliver a blow strong enough to draw blood. Blasphemous, to a degree, certainly, and besides that the blade was also unwieldy and heavy. It was for executions on someone who was already under your control, not the heat of combat. She had just as good a chance getting herself killed before she drew enough blood for the weights.
The other option was based on stamina. Assuming that this sinner wasn’t some kind of savant, and that she hadn’t been training for the past eight years, she’d have quite limited reserves of mana. She could goad her into using it repeatedly, and eventually she’d pay the backlash for it. And she wasn’t confident. The witch had continued to channel through the focus even a few moments after.
Ana would split the difference. But first, she wanted to throw her off guard.
She leapt forward into a run. The witch stepped back to take the charge on, mana sparking in both hands now. She jutted the bone needle towards Ana’s and missed by inches as she rushed straight into the witch’s chest. She tumbled off-balance on the slick ground, the two falling into a heap. Ana found herself on top, pinning the witch to the floor. Before the witch could react, she brought the knife down onto her.
The edge bounced off of her neck. A glimmering chip of metal flew away from the impact.
Ana didn’t need a whole knife. Just something sharp enough to draw blood.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see orange mana collating and pooling around the carved stone in her hand. The witch was strong, nearly bucking Ana by merely scrabbling against her with all her force. She wildly swung the needle towards Ana’s face, and it grazed her.
Ana’s skin was not made of stone. The point tore her cheek, and hot pain spilled across her face. She yelled, and pushed through it, aiming for the witch’s face again. She flinched as the steel point landed squarely against her closed eyelid. Ana forced the advantage, drilling it against the same point.
The sinner blindly flailed, ochre flares spitting from her hand. She must have chipped her skin. She dropped her needle, then punched Ana in the gut. The blow hit like a hammer, and the next slammed into the side of her chest, taking all the wind from her. She heaved against Ana with all of her might, throwing her off and to the ground. Ana scrambled to her feet as the witch rose, dropping the stone. It sparked as it fell, rain steaming against it from residual heat. The witch’s hand looked red and raw from clenching it so tightly. She must have been very new to sorcery to be that unaccustomed to backlash.
“This is over,” said Ana.
The witch wordlessly pulled out the hand ax from her belt, and spat blood from her mouth. Another crimson stream trickled from her eyelid.
“I was promised to be his servant in the next life. Why should I be afraid of an empty threat?”
Ana could feel the bruises already blooming on her chest and gut. In the tumult, her hat had fallen away and sat crumpled and plaintive on a stump. Sheets of rain soaked her head and face, drops streaming down her eyes and soaking into her hair.
“You poor fool. What they promise you in the next life is nothing but Torment. Devils can and do lie. They make good on their contracts, but they will lie to you in all sorts of ways to make you believe that they’ll help you. You can just stop, and save yourself the bruises and humiliation.”
The devil twitched her neck and stepped back.
“Hunter, I already bargained on my life. When he visited me in my dream, he was so kind to me. Honest and quiet. And he said that he would give me many gifts if I swore my fealty to him until my death.”
Ana’s heart sank in her aching chest. If she had made a temporary deal, there might have been a chance for her. This would certainly consign her to life in prison. With everything she had done, she couldn’t become a thaumaturge either. And then, when she died, she would be consigned to the Torment. There would be no escaping it for her. She was damned. Fear gave way almost entirely to pity.
“I’m sorry,” said Ana, readying the knife again.
“I’m sorry for whatever drove you to this,” she said.
The witch shifted from foot to foot, uneasy, on the verge of fleeing or charging once more.
“I’m not sorry. Before I was weak. Now I’m strong. I can’t and won’t be sorry for that. I don’t intend to lose to you.”
There was that odd quaver in her voice again – an unsteadiness that Ana made out through the distortion and shifting tenor. She tried to place it. Fear? Guilt? Anger?
The witch placed both hands on the ax, and pushed herself forward, bounding over a outcrop, over mud and dirt and stone. Every step seemed to have additional effort put into it, her feet tearing away the earth as she passed. Azure mana sparked in her hands, and the ax shot outwards to the length of a full wood-cutter’s ax. She swung wildly at Ana’s body.
With a single step, Ana brought herself out of harm’s way, and riposted. The knife struck home in the witch’s shoulder. It sunk deep, and she howled in pain, and Ana could feel her shudder through the blade. They both withdrew in an instant and Ana pulled the wooden weight from her pocket. She pushed the knife into the broad slot. Dark blood flowed into the groves with the rainwater, and she tried to cover the opening with her hand. She let the verdure mana leave her again, green sparks mixing in with the black-red of the blood. The flow required deepened from a trickle to a torrent. It was draining, but it would be enough.
The witch charged again. This time it was slower, wilder, sloppier. Another side-step was all that was needed. The witch tripped and stumbled over herself, swinging again as she did. Ana didn’t even need to get out of the way for it, the ax instead lodging itself in the ground. The witch panicked and tried to pull it from its place.
Ana kicked her in the chest and maintained the flow. The witch yelped and scrambled backward on all fours, trying to find purchase. She struggled to her feet.
“What are you- what did you do?”
“Sin is a weight, witch. Saint Gelon said as much. Some theologians say it accumulates in the blood like a disease.”
The witch stumbled like a drunk and made a wild swing with her fist, narrowly missing Ana once more. The drain on her reserve of verdure felt severe now. Normally, she’d have Edam help with restraining her safely. This witch was strong, though – she wouldn’t risk it until she was already on the ground.
“I wouldn’t go that far of course. Too close to the old heresies of the Upheaval. All the same, it’s a useful metaphor for how bad action leads to bad consequences. I feel like you’d agree with me now if your jaw wasn’t so heavy.”
Somehow, the witch found the wherewithal to stand again, and took another wild haymaker. Ana stepped again and was met with a second fist slamming down on her shoulder with all the weight she had added to it. It shook her bones, sending her reeling.
She kept her grip on the weight, her other hand secure on the knife. The witch fell to her knees, and Ana kicked her again. Somehow, she kneeled steadfastly, taking the blow like she was kicking a wall. She snarled and looked up at Ana with eyes alight with rage. Her mouth didn’t move. Thin air spoke for her instead.
“Your Godhead is dead. Only devils are left.”
“You’re wrong, witch. My faith is steadfast, and the Saints protect me from harm. You’ve prostrated yourself to a false divinity, and I’m sorry that you’ve been lead astray.”
Ana coughed. Her head started to pound with the backlash. The weight must have been spoiled; she knew that she might have gotten one of the carvings wrong. Between that and her previous usage, she was burning through her reserves of verdure far too fast. She needed to end this.
As if on cue, the witch collapsed, now only able to sit in a hunched heap. Ana forced her further down with her foot until she was flat along the ground. She rolled her over with great effort, and pulled the heavy iron manacles from her coat. All the witch could manage was a weak struggle in her arms, barely able to lift them above the ground. One-handedly, she managed to loop the manacles around the witch’s wrists, chaining her up and locking her.
Ana exhaled a sigh of relief. It was over for now. She would be in awful trouble for hunting a witch alone, but it would be alleviated by the fact that she brought them back alive and well for the trial.
And then her vision gave way to black, and she was falling into nothing. It was only a moment before she came back to reality. In the space of the second, she had dropped the weight, falling squarely onto the point of the knife on the other side and embedding itself into the soft earth.
Rainwater trickled in. Blood trickled out.
In an instant, the witch rolled out from under her and slammed her chained fist against the weight. She had leveraged all the added gravity, forcing it into her blow against the focus. There was a sickening crack, and the spell was fully broken. Ana sat in dazed shock, still feeling the backlash course through her head. The witch seized the moment and put the chain around her neck, sliding it back and choking her.
Her throat burned. Her eyes watered. Her head pounded. She grabbed at the chain, trying to pull it away, but the witch had already regained her strength and leveraged it such that she was now behind her. There was no moving. No escaping it. This was where she died.
What an idiotic way to go, she thought.
Dying in the mud because I ran from my partner when she was on a sick leave. A sick leave that was my fault in the first place.
Her heart thudded in her eardrums. The sky dimmed. Her chest heaved.
When she let out the breath, consciousness left her, staring at the grey-black sky. Some awful hand grabbed at her face; an sightless hallucination intruding on her last waking moment.
3 thoughts on “Hungers of Their Iniquity 1.2”
The witch did, in the end. She charged with a surprising speed, either undeterred by pain or too callussed to notice the branches and mud that bashed against her bare feet. She was twenty paces away.
Its supposed to be “calloused”. Could you please edit the typo when you get time?
In regards to the story itself, I like what I see. You can find me in this spacebattles thread, under the username “FunctionalityOfSystems”.
Thanks. Should be fixed now.
I guess it makes sense why the church would insist on sending witch hunters in pairs. The blood weight technique seems pretty taxing, but as long as you have a partner that can lock the manacles quickly on the convict it is quite worth it. I wonder if there are people badass enough that the church lets them hunt alone.
Also, I got the silly idea of someone using their pet vampire to get the blood to not go through the trouble of engaging the witch in combat first. Or hiring someone to get the blood in their sleep.