Too much smoke.
It’s the first thing I notice as I move up the narrow road toward the village of Chathel, my boots crunching in the snow that fell last light. The soot from the village fireplaces should be trailing up into the sky, shredded and blown away just above the treetops from the icy wind coming down off the nearby peaks.
But the thin columns are missing. I count nine large dark plumes billowing up into the sky like grotesque, misshapen trees.
There are homes ablaze in the village.
I curse silently and pick up my pace, laying a gloved hand on the pommel of my sword. My breath clouds around my head as I move through the frozen landscape, the scattered trees offering scant protection from the wind though they obscure sightlines well enough. My belly fills with a cold dread.
If the girl is responsible for whatever has befallen the village, it’s my fault. I lost her trail two days ago and had to backtrack. A forced march has made up for much of the lost time, but it looks like it won’t be enough.
It’s never enough.
How long have the homes been burning? They are mostly stone and mud around a wooden frame. Add in whatever furniture the villagers might own—a few beds, a table, maybe a desk, some shelves—and a wooden floor in the better-built houses. All that might take only an hour or two to burn, perhaps a bit longer.
If the girl is responsible, she may still be near. She may still be in Chathel. I pray she has tarried long enough for me to catch up with her. I know the talisman still hangs from my neck, pressed against the center of my chest, but I want to reach into my heavy furs and touch it anyway, just to be sure. I resist the urge—I don’t have time to waste on reassurances.
I still my breathing for a moment but I can hear no sound from the village. I’m close enough now to hear shouts or screams if something is still happening. If anyone is still alive. But it’s as if I’m alone on the side of this mountain.
Aside from the girl—the witch—and her protectors, I might actually be alone. I shove that thought away and draw my sword as I catch glimpses of the outlying houses between the tree trunks. The road curves up ahead and I brace myself for what I’m going to face as I reach the village.
I finally round the bend and get a good look at the main road that runs through the tiny village, and I know I am too late by far. Bodies litter the path—men, women and children sprawled out on the cold ground. The glint of weapons in the hands of some of the men catch my eye.
They had been trying to fight for their lives against…what? I see no sign of any attackers.
I slow my pace as I draw near the first homes while I search for any signs of the girl or her protectors. Despite my protections, there are still ways for her to harm me. And the talisman won’t protect me from mundane blades wielded by the corrupted members of the girl’s family.
There’s no blood on the ground, none on the swords or clubs the villagers tried to use to defend themselves. I approach the body of a young woman, her face turned to the sky above. Her eyes are two blackened holes, as if a searing flame has been thrust into her face. She wears an expression of terror like a mask over her real face.
I back away and examine some of the other bodies, including that of a little blonde girl who appeared to have been running outside in just a thin shift, despite the freezing temperature. All the victims have undergone the same torment as the first young woman—eyes burned away, horror and fear frozen on their faces at the moment of their deaths.
What happened here? What did the witch do to these people?
In my years hunting these abominations, I’ve seen many atrocities. But each witch is different, and their crimes have no overall pattern or symmetry.
The village square is small, barely more than a widening of the road and a single stone pillar planted in the center with a wooden plaque mounted at its base. I stop just before I reach the square. To one side, a home burns fiercely with unnatural flames. The stones themselves have ignited, the wood long since consumed. My skin creeps under the caress of the corrupt power flowing through the blaze.
Other burning buildings are scattered around the village, all but one collapsed without their wooden frames to support them, the large stones fueling a fire that does not die. If the witch is no longer here, has she left something else in her place to keep the homes burning?
Is this for my benefit? Did all of these innocent people die just to delay me?
The first order of business, of course, is to find any survivors. I return to the first home I had passed as I entered Chathel and step inside. The three small rooms are clean and tidy with no signs of violence.
The next four homes are similar, though I find further bodies, all in a similar state to the ones outside. Whatever attacked these people, hiding in their homes didn’t keep them safe from the danger.
Over the next hour, I proceed from house to house, checking to see if anyone has survived. I find many more victims inside their homes, though it seems the younger inhabitants are mostly out in the street. But not a single living person remains in the village.
Eventually, I turn to the small church that sits on a short side path from a cluster of homes. This close to the capital of Ythis, the church is dedicated primarily to Iathephos, the god that dwells in the bowels of the Temple at the center of that vast city. The doors to the church are closed, the symbols on them wavering in the light of the sun.
There’s always a chance the local priest knew enough to keep the most malevolent powers at bay, though I hold little hope. A tiny village such as this wouldn’t have a priest with the skill to commune with Iathephos. Priests with such ability are not suited for life in the small villages and towns that dot the Empire. Their madness manifests in ways that make them unwelcome.
I give the pair of wooden doors a shove, expecting them to be barred from within, but they swing open easily. The interior is dark, all lamps extinguished. The smell of wet earth and mold fills my nose.
And then a pair of eyes opens in the shadows at the far corner of the church, glowing red with a horrid malevolence. I immediately back away from the door into the sunlight. The creature within closes its eyes and becomes invisible in the shadows once more.
Chathel is dead. Every individual who lived in this village has been slain by whatever power the girl brought with her. There are no survivors, no one to mourn, no one to remember, no one to rebuild.
But it’s worse than just the deaths, much worse. The creature in the church is a kadaever, only the first of many. It’s partially awake right now only because it was slain away from the light of the sun. But when that disk drops behind the ridge to the west, when the last light fades from the sky, the other villagers will awaken, too.
Probably not all of them—there has to have been some who had what could be described as natural deaths, even if by violence. But those who were killed by the girl, they will rise up and begin to hunt. Other towns and villages will be decimated.
Chathel is only the beginning. From this place a wave of death will spread out and take so many more lives. Destroy so many more families.
And I could have stopped it, if only I had been fast enough.
Cursing loudly, I march to the small tavern I passed earlier. The wooden sign swings on its chains in the wind, a rough painting of a ram’s head glaring down at me as I approach.
The body of an old man lays sprawled in the doorway. The pieces of the shattered door lie on the floor around the opening. It’s warmer inside, but just barel-—the fire in the hearth has gone out and the wind gusts through the doorway every few minutes. But I’m not here for the shelter, and I step behind the bar and grab a bottle.
I briefly consider using a glass, but my hands are noticeably shaking and I’d waste more than I’d drink. Not that it matters anymore to these people. But I need the whiskey to calm my nerves and prepare me for what I am about to do.
The face of the young girl on the road near the entrance to the village keeps coming back to me. I picture her blonde hair flying in the wind and wonder what she had been like when alive. My thoughts drift back to childhood friends, all long dead.
How many years has it been since we all played together? Sometimes I can’t remember and have to count backwards. I’m always surprised at the number, at how fast it grows.
Raising the bottle to my lips, I say a silent plea to the gods to let the little blonde girl sleep peacefully tonight. Not that such beings grant anyone’s prayers without something in return. But I’ve already paid in advance, many times. I’m owed a favor here and there. It’s such a small thing to ask, to have this girl not be one of those who will rise at the moment of dusk.
My face is wet, and I look down to see small dark circles on the wood of the bar. My hand shakes as I take another swig of whiskey. It burns a path down into my stomach and my eyes well up further. I try to convince myself it’s because of the harshness of the whiskey.
Not because of the memory of childhood friends. Or the face of that little girl.
One life for another. If I had done my job properly, a different girl would be dead already, and this one would still be alive. Or perhaps if I’d caught up with my prey earlier, I might now be dead, never knowing the fate of the people of this village.
Considering what’s waiting for me when the sun goes down, it’s possible the witch would have turned me into a kadaever as well.
There are too many “what ifs” to think about. I take another swallow of whiskey and gently place the bottle back on the bar. I have to be careful. I need to calm my nerves or I’ll make too many mistakes with the ritual. But too much alcohol will impair my ability to do what needs to be done.
I’m sweating under my heavy coat and almost throw it off, but I know I shouldn’t. I’m wasting time, thinking about the past and trying to calm myself when what I need is action. I need a fight, a target to attack, someone I can hurt for what they’ve done to these people.
But the girl—the witch—isn’t here and there is no one to fight. With a snarl I grab the bottle of whiskey and throw it across the room. The glass shatters on the rough, wooden wall. I grab two more bottles, heaving them at the wall one after another.
When the bottles are gone, I come out from behind the bar and kick over the tables, upend the benches, smash anything I can reach.
I stumble outside, gasping for breath, the wind hitting me in the face like a hammer. The cold is enough of a shock to bring me back to my senses, and I slump against the outer wall of the tavern and bury my face in my hands.
“I will kill you, witch, and the men who protect you will not stop me. This I swear to the gods of the Empire, to the nature spirits who hide in the deepest forests, to any being of power who can hear my oath. You will die at my hand, and know it was me who ended your life.”
I grab my knife and cut my palm, where a series of white scars reflect the many times I’ve done this before. But this time I’m not doing it to power a ritual. This time, I’m binding myself to my words, to my intention. I’m no longer just a man doing a job, if I have ever been.
I clench my fist and my blood drips onto the snow, steam whirling up from where it landed. The amulet on my chest goes cold and I can suddenly hear the crackling of the unnatural bonfires over the sound of the wind, over my own breathing.
I push away from the wall but my legs are weak. I stagger out into the road and trip, sprawling out in the snow. Stars swam in my vision for a moment—I look up thinking it’s snowing—and then understand that I’m dizzy from the power of my oath.
With a start, I realize I’ve made a dreadful mistake. The oath, the invocations of the gods and other powers, the blood—all combine with the dreadful energy surging through those flames. I’ve gained the attention of something monstrous.
Trying to remain calm, I force myself to close my eyes and take a deep breath. I have but one mission now, to complete my ritual before the sun fully sets. I’m being watched by some spirit or entity that serves the witch.
With renewed focus on the task at hand the nervousness drains away. My hands stop shaking, and calmness settles around me. The time for emotion, for anger, for sadness is past. This is what I’m here to do—to lay to rest the unquiet dead, to give them the peace they deserve.
And once I’ve done this last service for these people, then I will go on the hunt for the witch and her protectors. I’ve made an error that cost these people their lives. I will atone for that error as best I can.
The buildings surround me, devoid of life. When the ritual has done its work, most of these structures will be nothing more than smoking ruins, many will be reduced to ash.
I look down and realize my shadow stretches out to one side. I jerk my face toward the sun and see there is less than an hour until the sun moves behind the far slopes and drops Chathel into darkness. But that doesn’t seem right. I should have a second hour at least.
The pain from the cut on my hand reminds me of the surge of power from those unholy bonfires only moments ago. Only it hasn’t been just moments ago. When I fell, I must have lost consciousness, or been in some sort of daze.
I have somehow lost an hour of my life. And now I’m not sure if I have enough time to do what needs to be done.
I toss down my pack and yank at the drawstring. Ice has formed on the cord and I have to pull off my gloves and work at it to get it untied. I can feel every second ticking away, can feel the power building around me. The cold bites into my fingers as I finally tear my pack open.
I force myself to spend the time to pull my heavy leather gloves back on. If my fingers go numb I’ll never be able to finish my task before the sun slips behind the mountain.
The wind changes direction and the smoke from the closest fire blows into my face, bringing with it the smell of blood and feces. I retch and twist away from the smoke, trying not to inhale any of it. My talisman has only so much power, and I’ll need all of it to stop the witch.
Returning to the spot where the road first entered the village—the eastern-most point of Chathel—I clear the newly-fallen snow away from a large spot, perhaps ten paces in diameter, revealing the hard-packed snow beneath. Breaking a branch off one of the trees and fashioning a short stick, I begin to carve out an intricate pattern.
It takes some time to get it exactly right. I can’t afford to make any more mistakes. When the pattern is complete I pull a pouch of red dust from my pack and sprinkle it into the grooves. A high-pitched keening comes to me on the wind, a sound only I can hear.
Once I’m finished in this spot, I move off around one side of the village until I’m standing behind a small house at the farthest northern point. Once again, I clear a spot and begin carving a pattern in the hard snow beneath. By the time I’m done, the sun has crept much closer to the ridge that will cut the village off from its light. With a sinking feeling, I realize I’m not going to finish in time.
The third pattern, on the southern side of the village, goes much faster as I get into a rhythm. Before I pour out the powder, I carefully examine the pattern for any mistakes or omissions. If it seems too easy, it’s probably because I’ve missed something. To my relief, I can find no issue and so pour out the powder and move back onto the road.
The sun is just about to caress the slopes as I run to a spot on the road just outside the western edge of the village and begin working on the final pattern, my shadow stretched out on the ground before me. The keening in my ears is loud now, a vibration that sets my teeth on edge. I glance up and see the flames in the burning buildings begin to shrink and fade. I’m in a race to complete the pattern before the final rays of the sun leave the village in darkness.
Surprisingly, I complete the last pattern before the sun is halfway obscured by the mountainside. I pull out the pouch of powder and open it as something catches my eye. Across the village, one of the children slowly sits up.
My heart lurches as see an an error in the sigil I just made. A movement in the corner of my eye tells me a few more of the villagers are beginning to stir, but I pay them no mind. I grab some loose snow and pack it into the spot where I made the mistake, and then carve the correct symbol over it.
And then the sun disappears behind the mountain. And all the flames finally wither and die.
I risk a glance up and see four children standing at the other end of the village. Their eyes glow red in the darkness as they watch me, but they haven’t started moving yet. It will take them only a moment or two to gather their wits and their strength, and then they will be over here and on me in a flash.
Concentrating on the powder in my hands, I carefully fill the symbols in the snow as I hear their booted feet begin running toward me. Other villagers slowly stand and look around, and I know they will soon focus on me as well.
The keening has become a wild sound, full of energy and pain and victory and despair. I dropped the last of the powder onto the final symbol and grab my knife. As I draw the blade across my other palm and press it into the snow and powder, two of the children launch themselves into the air at me from less than five strides away.
A flash of light blinds me as the surge of power punches me in the chest and tosses me backwards. I land on my back on the road. An inhuman scream sounds from the dead villagers as the creatures that had once been children are blasted apart by the energy of the sigil I’ve barely managed to complete.
The four sigils around the perimeter of Chathel begin to pulse with a blinding light, and the tenor of the dead villagers’ screams change from rage to fear. They had all been slaughtered by…something…and have awoken to a new kind of unlife. But now they’re going to die again, a final death, one from which there can be no return.
The sigils surround the village prevent any of the kadaever from escaping, and their agony echoes across the mountainside as I move to one side of the road and prepare to make camp. As much as I don’t want to stay here, it’s too dangerous to travel down the mountain in the dark.
I realize it’s possible one or two villagers died outside the circle of my ritual and are free to roam the night. But I scarcely had time to complete the sigils as it was.
I scan the growing darkness for any threats. I can’t allow myself to sleep tonight, in case any of these creatures are out there among the trees along the sides of the road. But I don’t want rest. I’m counting the minutes until it becomes light again and I can resume my hunt.
The girl can’t be that far ahead. Tomorrow, perhaps the day after, I will catch up with her.
And there will come a reckoning.
Clouds blanket the sky as I trudge through the snow after my prey. They came during the night, low and heavy with moisture. There will be a fresh snowfall before the day is over.
I leave the blackened ruins of Chathel at daybreak. The creatures that had once been innocent villagers were consumed by the cleansing energy released by my ritual. I know I should check the area to make sure no kadaever escaped the village before I completed the sigils, but I can’t waste any more time checking the area to make sure.
If any of the creatures are free out there, more innocent people will die. But I’m only one man, and the witch is by far the larger threat. Once she’s dead, I can return and hunt down any remaining abominations. But those creatures don’t have the power to create more of their kind—they can only kill.
These are the choices I despise. To know that I might be dooming some innocent family to a horrid death if I chase the witch, but dooming many more if I spend time confirming the area is safe. I have to accept that dangers threaten all citizens, even here in the heart of the Empire. But I’m a Witch Hunter, and I can only focus on the greatest peril and trust to others to protect against lesser threats.
I keep to the main road—little more than a path for wagons—that leads down the mountainside. The trees are dense enough that anyone moving off the road will leave a noticeable trail I can follow with ease. The witch likely wants to quickly put as much distance as possible between herself and the village. Running will serve her better than hiding in this environment.
But a few hours later, the landscape has opened out into a wide valley broken up by stretches of exposed rock, and the road is no longer the only, or best, option. I keep careful watch for any signs of someone leaving the road. I’m fortunate that the path doesn’t come close enough to the ridges and buttes to allow my prey to switch direction without leaving at least a short trail through deep snow.
The sky continues to darken as the clouds thicken above my head. A heavy snowfall is coming, and I estimate I have at best a few hours before a fresh blanket of snow covers any signs of the witch and her companions. If I can’t find them before the storm breaks, I might lose them for days. It’s another delay I can ill afford.
I’ve stopped to watch the sky for a few moments, to gauge the coming storm, when I lower my gaze and notice a blackened spot in the snow to my left. My heart lurched as I realize it’s the remains of a campfire on a small patch of bare stone a few yards off the road.
I carefully examine the tracks in the snow that lead from the road over to the rock. They were made late yesterday, probably around the time I was completing the ritual at the edge of Chathel. There are three sets, two large and deep, made by the witch’s father and uncle. The third is smaller and shallower—the tracks of the girl I’ve sworn to kill.
From the signs I can see, the fire burned most of the night and was extinguished this morning. From the rocks, another three sets of tracks lead back to the hard-packed snow on the road. I kneel down to examine these closely. The sizes of the tracks are the same as those that lead to the fire, but deeper and more ragged around the edges.
Could they have been running? No, the strides would be longer, not shorter. I move around the bare patch of rock and examine the snow on all sides. I spot an irregularity in the snow and brush away a scattering of flakes to reveal another set of tracks leading directly away from the road.
They had tried to draw me off by walking to the road, and then backing up by stepping into their own footprints to return to the rock. The witch must have summoned a gust of wind to blow the snow around in an attempt to disguise their real tracks.
I remind myself that these aren’t hardened criminals or experienced outdoorsmen who escort the witch. They were all normal villagers before the girl made a pact with her incubo and gained the witch’s abilities. This was a desperate attempt to throw me off their trail, or perhaps an added precaution in case I survived the trap set for me in Chathel.
The trail leads toward one side of the valley where exposed ridges and scattered trees offer concealment and possible shelter from the coming storm. I follow the tracks, my long strides gaining ground faster than the young witch will be able to travel in the deeper snow.
For the first time, I start to feel confident I will catch up with them before the storm breaks over this valley. I will still have to be careful—I’m outnumbered and don’t know how good the witch’s father and uncle might be in a fight. And while my amulet will prevent the girl from attacking me directly, she might be able to bolster her protectors’ strength and speed, or keep them going even if they take a mortal wound.
Emerging from a small copse of trees, I examine the direction of the tracks and scan the landscape ahead. The skin on my lips cracks as I smile. I know where they’re heading. There is an old camp a few miles ahead, where a small mine was dug into the mountainside. It played out a few years ago, and the camp is abandoned.
I know this area, know of at least two good spots for an ambush between here and the camp. The question is, have they already reached one of those spots and are waiting for me, or can I circle around and get there first?
I make my decision in an instant and immediately angle away from the tracks I’ve been following. I’m sure I can move faster than my quarry, and taking them by surprise will be a huge advantage in this situation.
I’m no longer hunting. Now I’m in a race.
The wind has picked up again, and I figure the snowfall is imminent. I keep my hand on the stock of my crossbow, already cocked and loaded but covered with a small blanket. My vantage from the top of this rock will allow me to see the witch and her family well before they come in range, and I don’t want to expose the weapon to the elements until it’s time to attack.
There’s no sign they have passed this area yet, but it’s the best approach to reach the camp just over the next hill. It took me some time to find the right spot on which to lay myself and my gear—there are many loose stones and small cracks across the surface of this ridge that make finding a comfortable position difficult.
I wait, alert for any sign of the witch, her father, or her uncle. They can’t possibly know I’ve caught up with them, have passed them, and so it’s only a matter of time before they walk right into my ambush. I can only hope the snow will hold off long enough for the fight to be over before visibility is reduced by the falling flakes.
Without warning, I spot them emerging from among a few trees a short distance away. I realize I’m holding my breath, and force myself to relax and breathe normally. I need to be calm and in full control of my abilities if I’m going to succeed here. There’s too much at stake to allow myself to make any mistakes.
I watch them approach the ridge where I’m perched. All three are bundled in long coats and high boots, and the two men carry heavy packs on their backs. The girl walks between her protectors, one man in front and the other behind. From this distance and angle, I’m unable to see their faces under their hoods, but I know it’s them. The amulet pressed against the skin over my heart begins to grow warmer for each step the girl takes toward me.
The three figures move behind another exposed rock and I whip the blanket off my crossbow and pull it into position. When the witch emerges on the other side, she’ll be close enough for a shot. I carefully place a special bolt into position on the weapon, one carved with arcane patterns on its shaft and the head made from erenth, a metal found only near the city of Yintoq on the eastern edge of the Empire, a metal whose touch is like acid to a witch.
I sight down the stock of the crossbow as the first figure comes into view, not more than fifty paces down the slope of the hill. I wait for the witch to emerge, my finger just touching the trigger of the crossbow. I will wait until the best moment to release the bolt—I’m only going to get one shot.
The first figure continues to walk on, but the witch doesn’t appear. I hold perfectly still, breathing normally, waiting. The gap between the first figure and the rock continues to widen, but there’s no sign of the witch, nor the third figure. Have I been spotted? I flick my eyes around to scan the surrounding area without moving my head.
I can see no sign of the witch or her other protector, whichever of the two men it is who was directly behind her.
“Before you kill me, I wish to speak with you.”
I spin around at the girl’s voice, only a few paces behind me. As I roll, a couple of small stones break loose and I begin to slide. I involuntarily clench my hand and the crossbow releases the bolt to shoot harmlessly into the snow far down the hill. I let go of the weapon and catch myself on the rock before I can slide over the edge.
The girl stands on the ridge behind me, her hood thrown back so I can see her face. She stands at the eye of the storm—despite the wind blustering across the rock face, her hair does not blow about and she seems unaware of the cold.
I slowly raise myself to my feet but say nothing.
“If you are going to take my life, the least you can do is hear my final words.”
She appears calm, and there’s no anger in her voice, only resignation. She’s a pretty girl with large, dark eyes that peer out at me from under long, black hair. Her name is Saeda, I recall, though I prefer to think of her solely as “the witch.”
“I don’t care what you have to say, girl. I doubt you gave that same consideration to your victims in Chathel.”
I draw my sword as the girl looks down at her feet. As I take a step toward her, a figure rises up out of nothingness at my side. I have an instant to register that it’s the other man who had been behind the witch down below, and then he tackles me and knocks me off my feet.
I bring my knee up into my attacker’s gut as I fall down, but the heavy coat absorbs the impact and my head smacks off the stone as I land. The man grabs my sword-arm as I lay there dazed by the impact and I feel the sword get wrenched from my grasp.
The man doesn’t bother trying to use my own sword on me. Instead, he yanks a long knife from a sheath at his waist and stabs downward at my chest. I manage to get my arm up and block the other man’s wrist, and then I’m in a desperate struggle to keep that blade away from my heart as the man bears down on me with as much of his weight as he can balance on the shifting stones.
I only have a few seconds before the knife plunges into my chest, so I kick my legs in an attempt to throw this man off balance. At first, my efforts seem futile, but then the stones under me shift again and suddenly both of us are sliding to one side onto a patch of ice that has formed on top of the ridge.
The other man tries to regain his balance and bring the knife back into position when a loud crack sounds beneath me. I hear the witch scream “Uncle!” as the ground beneath us opens up and we plunged down into darkness.
I slowly drag myself to my feet, squinting my eyes against the blowing snow. The wind howls around me and the flakes feel like tiny pinpricks on my skin. I can’t tell where the sky ends and the ground begins, can see nothing but walls of swirling snow in every direction.
I turn in place, but can get no bearings. Where is the rock ledge? Where are the trees? They should be close enough to make out in the storm, the shadows of giants on the edge of my vision. But I’m alone, adrift on this ocean of white.
I can’t stay here. I’ve got to find shelter.
My pack is lost somewhere, and once I start moving I’ll never find my way back to this spot. But I have to take the chance that I will stumble upon some feature of the landscape that will give me an idea where I am, where I can find a place to get out of the direct fury of the storm.
The abandoned camp is too far away to attempt, at least for now. I need that rock ledge, at least to cut off some of the wind that seems to change direction every few moments. But once I start moving, there’s an equal chance I’ll head directly away from it as there is I’ll reach it soon enough to make a difference.
I turn around once more to see if I can spot any feature I had missed the first time.
Once again, the girl stands a few paces behind me.
I step back and the snow clutches at my feet, nearly tripping me up. I reach for my sword but it’s gone.
I’m about to charge at the girl when a shadow at my side catches my attention. I spin to see the girl’s uncle leaping at me again, and the man’s eyes are blackened holes in his face, pits of darkness leading to horrid revelations about death.
I try to grab the corpse’s wrists as I throw myself backward, but a gust of blowing flakes blinds me as I land on the cushion of snow.
And then I sit up, gasping for breath, and look around wildly. I’m sitting up on a bed in a small room, my clothing and equipment tossed in a corner, sunlight streaming in through the single window. The room is simply furnished with a bed, a plain wooden wardrobe, and a rocking chair in the corner.
I throw back the blankets to find myself wearing only my underclothes. From the corner of my eye, I see the rocking chair begin to move. I try to stand, but dizziness overtakes me and I’m forced to remain seated.
The girl is now sitting in the chair, rocking slowly back and forth, watching me.
She’s wearing a simple homespun dress and her feet are bare. She says nothing, just rocks back and forth, her small hands cupped over the ends of the armrests. I notice her eyes are a vivid blue, though they had been dark before. Looking at them, the color seems to leach out of the rest of the room.
The girl blinks slowly. She opens her mouth slightly, and I can hear her words, though she does not appear to speak them.
“My incubo wants me to kill you. But there are things you must do first.”
I have to clear my throat before I can speak.
“Where am I?”
“You fell in the hole.”
I raise my head and twist around to see up to the sliver of light far above. Walls of rock surround me. A scraping sound catches my attention and I climb up to my hands and knees to look around. Out of the darkness, the girl’s uncle claws his way towards me, the blackened pits of his eyes drinking in the feeble light from above.
I fall back and feel the rough bark of a tree at my back. The rock walls are gone. A field of grass stretches out before me, a line of low hills hazy in the distance. I push myself away from the tree and hear the creaking of the rope. A body hangs from the branch above, the girl’s feet swinging just above my head.
Her eyes are open. She’s watching me.
“You killed my uncle. It is the first of the final eight deaths you will cause.”
“You…” I falter as I try to make sense of what I’m seeing. “This isn’t real. I never followed you down onto the plain. You’re not—”
“You think I’m running away from you, but once again you have it backwards. I’m the pursuer, not the prey.”
I try to concentrate. I had been on the mountain when she…
I look up to see the ridge above Chathel, the sun just dipping below the edge. The sky is the color of blood and I turn to see the villagers standing silent, motionless, in a semicircle around me. There are no red pinpoints in those dark pits that stare at me—just blackness.
The girl steps out of the crowd.
I take a deep breath. My head feels like it’s full of fog, and thoughts keep getting lost in the grey blankness. I remember the incubo is the spirit that gives a witch her power. And the being who will, eventually, consume her.
“Did your incubo murder all these people, or was that you?”
The girl looks at me, her expression one of sadness.
“Neither. There is an intrusion in our world, a foul beast that travels ahead of me, and it must be stopped. That is my duty, to help and protect my people.”
“But you…you’re a witch. One day you’ll—”
“You still don’t understand,” she says sadly, interrupting me again. “You serve a priesthood ruled by madness, worship an alien god. My incubo—and the spirits to which I speak—are of this world.”
She tilts her head slightly and gazes at me with eyes that pierce my soul.
“I would ask you to join me, to hunt this creature that killed all these people. But the time for that has passed. You have taken an oath that binds you in chains even I cannot break.”
“My oath is to kill you,” I say to her.
“But I can’t see that far. My uncle was the first, and there are seven others…”
Her voice takes on a singsong quality, as if she is repeating a macabre nursery rhyme.
“The woman who cannot weep, the whore in the golden chariot, the child in the earth, the lord with the silver tongue, the lover of demons, the blinded priest…”
“Who is the last one?” I ask her. “My oath…”
“There was power here when you said the words, Witch Hunter. Your oath bound us, you to me and me to you. Is the last of the eight deaths mine?”
Her gaze drills into my head, and I can almost feel her searching through my thoughts, my memories, my emotions. She grabs ideas and tosses them aside like a child picking through the stones on a beach, searching for one of the right shape, the right weight. She doesn’t seem to find what she seeks, and I gasp for breath as she withdraws from my mind.
“Or is it yours, Witch Hunter?”
I look down and see my feet are bare, though I do not feel the cold. I raise my head and see that we stand on the ridge as the first flakes begin to fall around us. My crossbow lies at my feet and there’s no sign of her uncle or of the villagers that had been surrounding us. To my left lies the thin patch of ice hiding the crevasse that waits to swallow me.
“You will not kill me today,” she says. “I hold your thread in my hands, and I could snap it if I wished. But I want to see how it ends. So I’m giving it back to you. If you live, you will follow the thread. And if you choose, you can break it yourself.”
I know without asking what she is saying. No matter what I do, I will end up fulfilling her prophecy. The only way to change the outcome is for me to die. But my oath, carried on the power of the blood and death in Chathel, will not allow me to escape so easily. My death will be uneasy, restless, an endless torment for one who has broken his vow.
I know what I have to do and I’m moving even before the thought is fully formed. I lunge at the girl, my arms outstretched. I will kill her now, while I still have a chance. I will crush her throat and beat her head into the rock until she can do no more harm, to me or anyone else.
As I leap toward her, a figure rises up out of nothingness at my side. I know it is the girl’s uncle even as I’m knocked sideways away from my target. The man tackles me and knocks me off my feet. There are no weapons this time, just a savage brawl as each of us tries to end the life of the other.
The result is inevitable, the weight of time pushing us to the foregone conclusion. This time, as the ice breaks underneath us, the girl doesn’t scream for her uncle.
I slowly open my eyes. I’m sprawled face-down, my right cheek numb, my left knee throbbing with a dull roar. I stay still, taking quick stock of any other aches and pains. I know I’m bruised and battered, but can’t tell if anything is broken unless I move.
There’s no sound other than the wind whistling through the crack in the rock above. If I’ve survived the fall, it’s possible the girl’s uncle is also alive, though I seem to remember us twisting as we tumbled and bounced off the rock walls, and I think the other man hit the ground first.
I pull my arms up and raise my head off the ground. In the dim light from above, I can just make out the other man on the ground beside me. The girl’s uncle is clearly dead, the back of his head shattered on a rock protruding from the snowy bottom of the crevasse. A light dusting of snow has already covered him, obscuring his sightless eyes as they continue to stare up at the clouds far above.
I slowly roll over and sit up. I have trouble bending my left knee—it took a solid hit in the fall—but upon examination I’m confident nothing was actually broken. I pull myself to my feet using the rock wall as a support. I’m able to rest my weight on my left leg without too much pain, but I worry about my ability to climb.
And I will have to start climbing right away if I’m going to make it out before night falls. Already, the snowfall is increasing, and I have very little time before the full force of the storm blankets this area.
I can’t start a fire down here, and while I’m protected from the worst of the wind, this pit is open to the sky and there’s no shelter from the falling snow.
The girl’s words come to me, her prophecy about my future. Eight deaths, she said, and her uncle was the first.
The woman who cannot weep, the whore in the golden chariot, the beast in the earth, the lord with the silver tongue, the lover of demons, the blinded priest…
I can climb from this crevasse and start following the thread. If I do, my future will no longer be my own. Any choice I make will be an illusion, inexorably bringing me closer to the next step in my preordained journey.
Or I could stay down here, let the cold and the snow leach me of my warmth, let myself drift off into a slumber from which I will not awake. But I know there will be no final rest for me–my oath will never let me find peace in death, with no way to ever resolve my unfinished task.
It seems like a simple decision—to live even a predetermined life is better than a future of eternal frustration and torment. But there’s no guarantee of success at the end of my path. I might follow the thread, live my life as a puppet on a string, yanked back and forth as destiny decrees only to fail at the end. The girl can’t tell me if the last death was hers.
It might be my own. And then, after a life of despair, I might still face an eternity of the same.
This, then, is my choice.
I lean against the rock wall and look down at the body of the girl’s uncle. This man tried to protect his niece from me, the Witch Hunter. Did he do it because he was compelled by the girl? Was it fear of what she might do to him that drove his actions? Or did he sacrifice himself for his family because he loved his brother’s daughter and couldn’t just let her die?
I think about the girl’s words. She was hunting another creature, a beast that was responsible for the deaths in the village…
Did any of that actually happen, or was it all a creation of my own mind? Were her words just part of my dreams while I lay unconscious on the floor of this pit? Is it possible the prophecy is only the result of my imagination?
I begin to search for a path up along the rough, broken rock wall. I pull myself up with my arms and push with my good leg, only using my injured leg to brace myself while I climb.
I will live my life, continue my hunt for the witch until I have fulfilled my oath. My path will be my own until fate proves me wrong. I might never know the truth, or at least not until it’s too late. But I can’t accept the alternative, will not just give up.
I look at the crack above and see I’m perhaps halfway up the rock wall. I reach for a small stone lip and make sure my grip is secure before shifting my weight off the rock below my feet. But as I’m reaching for another protrusion with my other hand, the stone holding me cracks.
I began to slip sideways as one of my feet lodges against a rough spot on the wall. I almost flail my hands to regain my balance and nearly push myself away from the rock face to plummet back down to the floor of the crevasse. But I manage to jam my hand into a crack before I topple over too far, arresting my descent but slamming my injured knee into the stone.
A river of pain flows up my leg into my chest and I gasp for breath as I cling to the wall. The wind is getting stronger as I ascend and for the first time I began to have doubts I can make it up and out. A blanket of snow is coming down over this area now making it look as if the storm clouds are crawling across the ground rather than spilling their contents from above.
I’m rapidly running out of time. I carefully pull myself back to an upright position and continued my climb. I have to force myself not to rush, not to make a careless mistake in my growing desperation to reach the top before the air gets so thick with snow I can’t find my way to shelter.
Time seems to stretch as I search the rock face for places to anchor my hands and feet. My muscles scream for rest, and the pain in my knee is a living thing trying to drag me back down into darkness. I concentrate on one move at a time.
I’ve been climbing forever. I understand now that I’ve died in the crevasse and this is my torment, to spend eternity dragging myself up this wall, the storm forever hammering down on me from above. There will be no respite, no reward at the end, for the wall has no end.
I reach up and place my hand on a ledge, causing a shower of snow to come down on my head. I shake the flakes out of my eyes and look up.
I’ve reached the top.
The blowing snow makes a curtain around me as I struggle to pull myself up over the lip of the crevasse. When I’m fully free of the pit, I crawl away from the hole, dragging a trail through the deep snow. Finally, only when I feel it’s safe do I push myself to my feet.
For a moment, I’m back in my dream, surrounded by nothing but blank whiteness with no features to give me any sense of direction. And then the wind shifts direction and I spot a copse of trees down to my right, giving me the direction of the hill, beyond which is the old camp.
I stumble toward the trees, favoring my injured leg as I will myself to reach the scant shelter they provide. Once among them, I’m able to rest for a few minutes and regain my breath. I have to keep standing—I know the risk of getting too comfortable before I’m fully out of danger.
When I emerge from the trees once again, I’m confident I can reach the camp without further incident. It’s possible the witch and her father are already camped in the only good shelter in this area. I might arrive to find myself with another fight on my hands.
The distance to the camp isn’t far but it takes me almost an hour to reach it. The sky grows darker as night approaches, but I see the two remaining cabins before I lose the light entirely. By the time I reach them, I cannot possibly stand against the witch and her father if they are here.
But both cabins are uninhabited. There’s no sign anyone has used these for many weeks. Firewood is stacked inside one, and I find a small wooden box with a flint and steel kit inside. It takes me some time to start a fire in the small stone fireplace, but once the flames take hold the cabin warms quickly.
I rest, knowing I can not possibly do anything more tonight. I have no provisions, tools, or weapons and I’m grateful to find a small metal bowl that allows me to melt snow for fresh water. Tomorrow I will have to take stock of my situation and decide on a course of action. My first objective will be to get supplies.
The witch is out there, somewhere. I’ve taken an oath to end her life. I can pursue her, across the Empire and beyond, if need be. And when I catch up with her again, I will…
What? Kill her and fulfill my oath? Help her slay the beast she claimed she was hunting? I’m no longer sure if her death is the end of my path. Where will the witch lead me? Is her prophecy real or just a dream?
Maybe it’s just my fatigue, but I’m now filled with doubt. I will follow the girl, but perhaps it’s just as important to find answers than it is to slay her. I have a feeling there is a long journey stretching out ahead of me.
But for now, I’m exhausted. I feed the fire, make myself as comfortable in the small cabin as I can, and fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
© 2016 Andrew J. Luther