Chapter 65: The Faith of Men


The smell of foul, putrid flesh clung to the boy’s tattered, linen shirt as he huddled in a corner on the farmhouse porch step and watched the Baron’s men drop his older brother’s rotting corpse into the fourth casket. The boy’s father, mother, and baby sister were already laid out inside the other three plain pine boxes lined up in front of their family home, which meant the fifth and final coffin was for him.

“This one’s still alive,” one of the plague collectors commented as he prodded the boy’s bony shoulders with the metal tip of his shovel.

“Has he got it?” Another collector called out. His voice muffled behind his beastly mask.

“Bound to after being stuck inside with them.”

“Should have starved with them then. Saint’s mercy—most of this village is already dead and rotting.”

“We’ve got three more houses left to clear out and burn before we head back,” responded the taller of the three masked men, with the most pronounced gut, who appeared to be their leader.

“So, what do we do with him?” asked the plague collector standing over the boy.

“Orders were to collect the dead and burn this village down by sunset.”

“I know, but—he ain’t dead.”

The boy watched from beneath his matted brown hair as the talkative men closed and nailed the four coffins shut. The loud bang of the wooden mallet against the nail and pine wood grated the boy’s ears as he dug his ragged nails into his dirty nightgown.

Soon enough, the plague collectors loaded the five pine boxes containing his family into the back of a wagon pulled by a skinny gray mare. A part of the boy ached to join them, but a stronger, sharper instinct warned him that he needed to hide before the Baron’s men worked their way around to killing him just to be done with their task.

There was no hope left in the boy. He had no family to rely on or friends to turn to, no food to grant him strength, and soon enough, he’d no longer have a home or even a bed to crawl back into. His family’s village would soon join the countless others erased by the plague and the crown-endorsed burnings meant to eradicate any lingering danger of contamination.

The boy’s muscles tensed as he observed the men now huddled together and whispering. The dull tingle of fear that crept down his neck and spine told him that he should run, but the boy lacked even the strength to stand.

It had been a week since his mother and baby sister got sick after their weekly washing in the river. The Baron’s doctor and men were swift in declaring the red soars and rash a sign of the plague, promptly barricading the family inside their home without access to additional water, food, or even a means to dispose of their sanitary waste. His mother and sister died two days after the house windows and doors were boarded up. The sound of his mother’s helpless sobs and baby sister’s agonized screams still echoed through the boy’s sleepless nights. His father followed them three days later, cursing the gods, witches, and Saints in the same ragged breath.

On the fourth day, his older brother collapsed shortly after getting out of bed. His condition quickly worsened as he refused to eat the last raw grains left in the kitchen pantry. While his older brother sobbed and writhed in pain, vomiting up vile black rotting sludge, the boy hid beneath the kitchen sink, slowly gnawing through one dry kernel of corn after another until the pot was empty. He gave the last of their water to his dying older brother before his suffering ended, and the boy was left alone.

Every day, the corpse collectors knocked on the door and checked if they were still alive. Each time the boy begged them for food, water, and medicine until his voice went hoarse, only to hear the Baron’s men curse and spit outside before moving off. After the fifth day, he stayed quiet and waited until finally, on the seventh day, at the crack of dawn, the corpse collectors ripped the boards off the doors to collect his family.

The masked men nearly jumped out of their skin when the boy picked himself off the floor and walked outside to collapse on the porch steps for his first fresh breath of air in days. If his legs could have carried him further, the boy would have kept on walking. Instead, he sat and watched as the men collected his family one by one. It was strange how serene their faces looked as they were lowered into the waiting caskets, as if they were relieved to be free from the house of pain and suffering.

The boy’s thoughts drifted as the men worked. He wondered why they bothered to collect the bodies in caskets instead of leaving them in the house, which they would soon burn to the ground. As he watched their leader, he realized they were keeping count of each family member, verifying their deaths in some sort of record—before digging through the family valuables when they thought the boy wasn’t looking.

After three days of no food or water—and very little sleep after the rats began gnawing their way through the floorboards—the boy wasn’t sure why he was still alive. To some degree, it made sense to follow his family in death so that they stayed together. But even after a week of staring death in the face, the boy was still afraid of what awaited him beyond the eternal veil.

The plague bearers returned, holding a small sack and a clump of bread, which their leader offered to the squatting, thin boy. “Here, you must be hungry.”

The boy stared at the hard, moldy bread as his empty stomach stirred with a feeble rumble of hunger. He looked up at the men who towered above him and instinctively knew something was wrong. Then he remembered his mother’s warnings, how the Baron’s men were laying out poisoned food to kill the rats that came to feed off the corpses left by the plague in the neighboring villages.

The boy tore his hungry gaze away from the moldy bread and quietly shook his head.

“Come on now, don’t be difficult,” the leader growled as he grabbed the boy’s frail wrist and shoved the slice of bread into his hand. “Eat up.”

The boy bared his teeth in warning as the pain of the man’s grip roused his dull senses. He quickly shoved the slice of bread away when the man tried to force it into his mouth.

“This stupid feral brat!” the leader hissed and then, without warning, smacked the boy across the face, knocking the child down on the porch where his head cracked against the top step.

The boy blinked against the stars that danced in his eyes as pain clouded his vision and swam up from his gut. He rolled over and wretched what little slimy film remained in his stomach, then gasped as the man’s large, gloved hands grabbed his neck from behind and squeezed. The boy kicked and scratched at whatever inch of the man he could reach, but his feeble ten-year-old limbs lacked the strength to do any significant damage.

Acceptance and regret battled erratically within his chest as his lungs strained for air. His vision slowly blurring with tears and lack of oxygen. The blood from the cut along his temple dripped onto the ground below him as the boy’s body slowly went numb, even as a sharp whistle tickled against his ears.

The corpse collector who straddled the boy grunted in surprise, his grip on the child’s neck stiffening before falling limply away. Another trickle of dark red fluids mingled with the boy’s blood on the ground before the man slowly sagged forward and fell on top of the gasping child.

The boy blinked as he sucked in one strained breath of air, followed by another. The dull, cold morning light greeted his vision as his left eye cleared while his right remained blurred and unfocused. The boy turned his head to where the other two plague bearers now knelt with their hands raised, surrounded by knights that glittered beneath the sunlight in their silver armor and white tabard that bore the sigil of the winter wolf.

Heavy and light footsteps grated against the dirt, headed in his direction. The boy blinked and groaned as the weight of the dead man’s body was lifted off him. A woman with braided reddish-brown hair, startling blue eyes, and strange leather garments knelt to grab the boy’s chin, turning his head from side to side and checking his eyes, ears, throat, and then stomach before dragging the child to his feet.

“The boy’s immune. He must have some witch blood in him,” the woman stated bluntly as she pushed the unsteady child towards a waiting knight. “You might want to have a medic look at that cut.”

“Will do. Might as well for other survivors while we’re here,” the knight replied as he caught the boy and knelt to meet the dazed child at eye level. “Where’s your family?”

The boy pointed wordlessly toward the coffins in the plague collector’s cart.

The knight sighed and nodded. He lifted the boy with ease and placed the village’s sole survivor onto the empty saddle of a sweating chestnut warhorse. “What’s your name, boy?”


“Well met, Jesse. I’m Lieutenant Quinn, a knight of the Duchy of Bastiallano. And this is Lady Larissa.” The boy glanced towards the pretty but scary-looking lady who scanned the village around them with an impatient frown. “Don’t worry, you’re under our protection now. Edward!”

The boy flinched as the knight bellowed, beckoning over another knight, who hastily joined them.


“See to the cut on his head.”

“Where does the village get its water from, boy?” Larissa demanded as she stepped suddenly between them.

Jesse avoided her cerulean-blue eyes, then pointed north of the village. “We drink—the river water.”

“Seems the likely culprit,” Quinn observed as he helped the boy down from the saddle and handed him over to the waiting knight. “The last two villages used the same water source.”

“They had more survivors, too,” Larissa responded with an affirming nod. “Sounds like we’re very close to finding another seed of corruption.”

“Should I inform her Grace?”

“No. I’ll message the Duchess once we’ve confirmed its location.”

“You’d better hurry. We’re inside Duke Hargreve’s territory, and there’s no telling how long his knights will tolerate our presence.”

“If it’s hiding in the river, I’ll find it.”

“Right then, Edward, see that Jesse gets some water and something to eat, then send him back to the Duchy with the other survivors.”


The Duchess looked up from the four maps on the dining room table in front of her as Colonel Isaac burst through the double doors with a somber expression.

“Your Grace, they found three more villages struck with plague inside the Hargreve Territory,” Isaac explained as he pulled out a chair and then selected the red stamp before marking the locations on one of the four maps with three x’s.

“What of the plague seed?”

“Lady Larissa believes they’ll find it soon. She’ll report back once she has a confirmed location.”

Carina nodded and then sighed wearily as she scanned the well over twenty red x’s marks scattered across all four maps. “And the plague victims?”

“Those that weren’t dead or too far gone, we gathered at the border. Figured it was better they heard from you about the reality of their chances.”

“Fair enough. How many?”


“From all three villages?”

The Colonel nodded silently.

“So few…” The Duchess’s brows furrowed. “A village should have at least sixty residents at minimum.”

“It seems these villages all shared the same contaminated water source, and the only ones we found who were immune were witches or half-witches. The rest are barely holding on. Ah! A trader we found at the second village mentioned a witch in this village here—Thornburrow—by the name of Mary Turner. The trader said that he and his brother bought tonics from the witch to ward off the plague on their journey home. He claimed the tonics seemed to help initially, but the effects wore off rather quickly once they ran out.”

“Have one of Larissa’s unit investigate this Mary Turner. She might be a fraud, or maybe she’s stumbled onto something we haven’t considered. Either way, she could be in danger if word of her plague-warding tonics reaches the wrong ears.”

“Maybe—the trader said the witch’s husband is a Baron. It seems his title has helped keep her safe from persecution so far—but with a plague spreading throughout the countryside—it’s only a matter of time before the church’s believers start burning anyone accused of practicing witchcraft.”

“Agreed. If Larissa’s scouts can confirm Mary Turner’s identity, then we’ll extend an offer of sanctuary for her and her family should they require it,” Carina replied determinedly. “If they suspect she is in league with the plague witch, they are to detain her if possible and send for me immediately. In the meantime, I should head to the border to inform Morgana’s most recent victims of their limited options.”

The Colonel nodded as he straightened. “Then I shall send word to Viscountess Hana to prepare space for more patients in the Winter Crypts.”


With Lady Larissa’s knowledge and insight about the plague created using Arachne’s power, Carina was able to shift her focus from curing the plague to finding a means of slowing the spread and the rot that set in once a patient had been infected. It was odd to think that the simplest plausible answer she could come up with, while still a relatively new scientific discovery from her old world, could be used in this world with the help of magic—though the results were equally indeterminable without long-term experimentation.

‘There’s still a significantly high chance of failure, but it’s the only hope I can give these people.’

And so it was with a modest amount of humility that Carina faced the group of coughing, groaning, and grumbling villagers gathered at the border of Bastiallano territory and offered them a choice.

“I thank you for coming all this way. As Duchess of Bastiallano, I have pledged to end the plague that has taken your friends, family, and home from you. However, at this time, we do not yet have a cure, so I am left with two options by which to assist you.” The Duchess paused as two water witches stepped forward with two trays of prepared vials. “The red vials to my left are poison. If you drink them, you will grow drowsy and numb before slowly falling into a sleep from which you will never wake. The blue vials to my left contain a magic potion with a similar but non-lethal effect. You will fall asleep, after which your body will be frozen and preserved in the hopes that when a cure is found, we will be able to wake you and offer you a second chance to live.

“At present, this is all I can do, given the speed with which this plague attacks the body. I urge you to consider both options carefully. Of course, you are free to walk away and choose your own fate; just know the average life expectancy is a mere three to four days once the first symptoms of the plague begin to show. You can spend your last remaining days or hours on the road being hunted by plague collectors, or you can rest comfortably in the temporary tents and villages we have arranged before making your choice.”

“Why the hell did we travel all the way here just to be offered death at the hands of a witch?” one of the village women protested in outrage. “You could have just given us your poison in the village. I’d much rather die in my home than in some witch prison.”

“What does it matter?” an elder village man beside her demanded. “I’ve seen enough of my family and friends die to this pestilence to know how agonizing their final moments were. I’ll drink your poison, witch! I’ve always preferred the idea of dying in my sleep.” The elder quickly stomped forward to grab one of the red vials. “The rest of you are free to watch me die right here! If I suffer—at least you can make a more informed decision.”

“Wait! Henry!” Another elderly man quickly limped forward on his cane. “I’ll join you.”

“But why would you drink the poison?” A woman clutching her small wailing child demanded. “Wouldn’t sleeping until they find a cure be better?”

“There hasn’t been a Saint in over a hundred years,” Henry retorted as he handed the other elder a red vial. “The chances of an old man like me surviving for that long are slim—and no magic sleep can last forever.”

“How exactly does the blue bottle work?” Asked a middle-aged, frail woman leaning on a staff.

“The process is called cryopreservation,” Carina replied with a polite smile. “The simplest explanation would be that your body is frozen, which stops the plague from spreading.”

“How does that make sense?” Henry’s friend retorted. “I know plenty of dumb folk who got lost in a winter storm and froze to death. They don’t revive even after they’ve thawed out.”

“Three-toe Joe did!”

“He was only stuck out there for a couple of hours. He didn’t completely freeze!” Henry corrected.

“That’s what the blue potion is for,” Carina explained patiently. “The liquid coats your internal organs in a protective layer called vitrification, which prevents any harm or damage from exposure to extreme cold until you are revived.”

‘Granted, I’ve only been able to test this theory on a few deer, rabbits, and pigs over the last three days, but—so far, the results were pretty positive.’

“So basically, we drink the blue potion, fall asleep, and only wake up if your spell works and a cure is found,” the woman with a staff reiterated. “That’s fine with me. Either way, we fall asleep instead of rotting slowly to death.”

“And either way, your souls are damned for listening to this witch!”

Carina blinked in surprise as one of the village men, dressed in what looked like a butcher’s smock with streaks of blood on it, stormed to the front of the line.

“This bitch is the Witch of Calamity the scriptures warned us about. And low, she will offer you sanctuary and promise miracles, but her lies will drag you into the burning pits of hell and eternal damnation!”

“You’re free to leave if you have no interest in the Duchess’s offer,” Lieutenant Hadley growled as he gripped the hilt of his sword. “If you had a problem with receiving help from a witch, then you needn’t have traveled all this way.”

“I came to remind my brothers and sisters that, although we may suffer in this life, our Faith shall redeem us in the next. For the God of Saints has seen the suffering of men and heard our cries.” The man raised his arms towards the heavens as he continued, drawing the ice witch’s attention to what looked like scratch marks around his wrist and forearms. “Only the tears of the Saint may cleanse us of our sins. Only the righteous may look upon the Holy Maiden’s face and be purged of sickness and shame.

“And you shall know his chosen for she holds the spear of judgment in her right hand, and with it, she shall smite kings and devils. A crown of crimson butterflies shall adorn her golden locks, and kingdoms shall rise and fall beneath her voice. Where she walks, men and witch shall tremble, for the God of Saints has blessed her with his divine might and mercy.”

“Gods, I think we brought back a priest,” one of the Bastiallano knights observed cynically as he shook his head.

Carina sighed as the preaching man tapped his forehead and chest before folding his hands in prayer. His indecipherable babbling appeared to have some effect on the sick villagers around him, many of whom quickly bowed their heads and prayed while the rest stepped forward to select their vials.

As always, the old and faithful selected the red vial, some with tears of gratitude in their eyes, others with muttered curses and glares in the Duchess’s direction. Those who chose the blue vial huddled together as far from the praying man and the rest of the villagers as they could while gazing at the ice witch with hope mixed with uncertainty and desperation. Carina could only offer them a smile of reassurance that she hoped would ease their fear—even if she wasn’t a hundred percent certain this method would work.

‘It’s the only chance they have unless the Saint returns.’


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