Chapter 67: An Act of Desecration


The stench was overwhelming by the time Lumi slowed down to cautiously approach the bubbling bog that gathered beneath the sickly black willow tree. Despite the water rushing into the stagnant section of the river from above, the bloated area around the willow had thickened beneath a bubbling foam enmeshed with the bodies of thousands of dead insects that gathered around hundreds of floating corpses of fish, several dozen birds of various species, and the even larger bloated bodies of deer, stray cattle, and even a stray black dog that lay dead along the riverbank.

“Gods, that smell is—vile,” Carina groaned as she pulled free the long linen scarf stuffed inside her chest armor and wrapped it securely over her mouth and nose, insulating it with ice magic for good measure. “Well, Lumi, how much you want to bet they stuffed whatever bit of rotting corpse they dumped here inside that willow?”

The scriva whined and then sneezed before shaking its head and circling away from the revolting mire of death.

“Waiting for Larissa probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

The elemental wolf moved them to a safe location upwind from where they could safely observe the toxic portion of the river while avoiding the awful stench carried on the breeze. There, the Duchess eyed the large bubbles of noxious gas that floated to the surface of the dense film, where they grew in size until eventually bursting with a sinister hiss. Every time the breeze altered its course, her ice-blue eyes would tear up beneath the toxic fumes that gathered around the plague swamp.

‘It’s no wonder the poison spread downriver as far as it did. Thankfully, the knights carry their own water while out scouting for plague villages.’

With Larissa and her water witches serving as guides, the knights of Bastiallano avoided getting too close to any contaminated water sources. They were also cautious and alert when dealing with the victims of the plague, avoiding direct skin-to-skin contact, masking themselves before entering close quarters with the afflicted, and washing and bathing frequently whenever they made camp or returned to Bastiallano’s defense towers and fortress.

While these scouting and recovery missions were voluntary, Carina couldn’t shake the lingering guilt and fear that these men might succumb to the plague and die or be otherwise persecuted and punished like the doctors and nurses at the slum hospital.

As if the Crown Prince’s actions hadn’t been shocking enough, the carefully constructed cover story of the slum’s notorious Fox Den being the culprit behind the attack had led to the Capital Knights’s rapid raid and violent clearing of the slums until every last member of the thieves and assassins guild were either dead, arrested, or on the run. Their wanted posters lined the streets of the Capital even as the fire in the slums raged on until most of the dilapidated houses had been burned along with any hint of the sickness that had struck so close to the heart of Lafeara’s kingdom.

In the end, the blame for the deaths of Physician Devin and Eckard and their staff had been laid at the doorstep of Duchess Kirsi by Devin’s own brother, Physician Lazar, who accused the Duchess of failing to secure the hospital with adequate men even though she had ample knights to spare. With no recourse by which to defend herself that would not pin the blame, however rightly, on the crown, Carina could only offer her condolences and handsome compensations to each family affected by this tragic loss.

Shortly after this cutting blow, the Royal Medical Office, led by Viscount Walter, retracted its promise to assist with treating the victims of the plague once the suspicions of witchcraft, confirmed by Bishop Murdock, began to spread among the populace.

And so the Duchess returned to Bastiallano with her knights, where she ignored all summons from the House of Lords to focus on the plague. While Earl Percy Hawthorne and the Noble Faction busied themselves propping Kirsi up as a public hero and defender of the crown, the Royal Faction appeared equally determined to paint her as a tyrant for executing Lord Borghese without a legal written royal command.

Thus far, Nicholas seemed in no particular hurry to set the record straight and clear the Duchess’s name. And so Carina chose to remain in Bastiallano, stubbornly ignoring the Crown Prince’s summons, as she delved into the history of witch plagues with the help of Kirsi’s memories and Larissa’s knowledge.

So far, their current hypothesis that the plague acted more like poison seemed to hold. Thus far, all the victims had relied on contaminated water sources, which they used for drinking, cooking, and even bathing. The few traveling merchants and traders they had found dead or otherwise afflicted with the plague also acknowledged drinking from the contaminated wells and rivers.

They also quickly learned that animals and crops were just as susceptible. The long-term effects of fields of dead cattle and withered wheat were not lost on Carina or her knights, who did their best to burn any corpses they found, man or beast, to avoid the poison from spreading further.

While she ignored their summons, the Duchess continued to send regular reports to the crown and House of Lords on her findings. This led to an official order for plague collectors to record, gather, and burn the dead and any home or property they believed to be contaminated.

The crown had even promised tax relief and compensation for every family and home lost to the plague, provided a local priest or tax official verified the necessary records. Which all sounded very fine on paper until the tax collectors who visited Bastiallano’s fortress explained that it was the Duchy and its Duchess who would receive these payments and benefits, not the families of the victims themselves.

‘They’ve created the perfect storm to motivate nobles to cull through their territories, corral and starve the sick, all for a plague tax break and easy payment. Meanwhile, no one goes looking for the source because finding and ending a witch plague is something only the Church can do….’

Strangely enough, aside from the slums, all other sources of plague seemed to focus on segregated towns and villages mainly comprised of commoners and low-born nobles. The loss of property, primarily stone and brick houses with thatched roofing, was an easy price to pay to avoid potential spread caused by grave robbers and opportunists who raided plague villages, often carrying the disease with them after drinking either the water or coming in contact with contaminated blood.

Colonel Isaac had put a swift end to such criminal behavior inside Bastiallano’s territory, hunting down and executing all but the youngest member, who was left hanging in a metal cage along the Duchy’s borders with their tongues, eyes, and limbs removed.

While it was difficult for Carina to accept her overwhelming authority to implement such barbaric forms of punishment, she couldn’t argue with the results. Colonel Isaac continued to increase security and patrols along the border while assisting the Duchess with managing the Viscounts, who worked the territories within Bastiallano’s vast domain. Meanwhile, Carina focused on removing the seeds of corruption within and around her region.


The sound of hooves alerted the Duchess to Larissa’s arrival as the bog witch appeared, riding somewhat awkwardly on the large chestnut warhorse she seemed to have borrowed from Lieutenant Quinn.

“You know, if you want a horse of your own, we have plenty in the barracks,” Carina commented after Lumi brought them over to join the bog witch.

“I appreciate the offer, but horses don’t like being submerged underwater,” Larissa replied with a faint sigh. “They’re land animals for a reason.”

“They can swim though—”

“But holding their breath doesn’t come naturally.”

“Ahh.” The Duchess shrugged, letting the matter rest as they dismounted and approached the toxic river. “I was thinking the seed might have been chucked inside that tree hollow.”

“Could be,” Larissa muttered as she untied the scarf from her hair to wrap around her face. “Could you make us a bridge, your Grace?”

“Easy enough.” The ice witch stepped to the side and quickly formed a path of ice across the bloated corpses and oily blackish-green substance that stretched to meet the roots of the willow tree. “That should hold us.”

The bog witch nodded as she walked across the ice bridge without even a second of hesitation.

‘It’s strange. I’ve known Llyr and Larissa the least amount of time, but sometimes they seem to trust me more than people I’ve known for months.’

After giving Lumi the order to keep watch by the chestnut warhorse, the Duchess followed behind her new companion. The occasional mosquito buzzed faintly through the smog above the bog toward them, prompting the ice witch to curtain the bridge within a net of ice, which seemed to deter any further interference from the pesky insects.

‘It might be a good idea to develop some sort of insect deterrent for the knights while they’re out on patrol.’

The creaking limbs of the willow baren branches swayed threateningly above them as they approached. Black sap oozed from the rotting limbs and hissed as it dripped down slowly, burning through the curtain of ice to strike the bridge below. Carina strengthened her barrier in response as they passed beneath the acidic rain. She grimaced as she watched the corrupt tree sap splatter above them before freezing in place against the elemental veil.

‘It’s terrifying to imagine what something like this would become if left unchecked. How far would it spread? How many lives would it claim?’

The closer the two witches got to the willow’s roots, the more explosive the gaseous bubbles in the thickened tar-like substance became.

“Looks like this seed is bigger than the others,” Larissa observed in a cautious whisper as she stepped over the twisted roots and leaned toward the dark cavity near the willow’s trunk. “You might be right about them using this willow as a hiding spot. Look at the discoloration in these marks along the bark. They’re clearly manmade and roughly a week old.”

“Great, so how do we get it out?” Carina asked, flinching as the bog witch stuck her head inside the dark hole without hesitation.

‘Or maybe Larissa just lacks the ability to be afraid.’

“Ah ha! There are runes inside—strange…Oh! I can see it and—just about reach it.” Larissa grunted before she stepped back to examine the rotting willow above them. “Looks like a man’s upper torso. Unfortunately, it’s shoved in there pretty good. The runes were left to preserve it, but after a week in these conditions, it’s likely to rip apart if I try to force it out.”

The bog witch rapped her knuckles against the willow’s bark and nodded as several chunks of the tree’s exterior crumpled and fell away, leaving behind a sticky, foul black sap that seeped down like blood. “Might as well just take down the entire tree. What’s dead cannot be saved, and it will make our task easier.”

The Duchess tilted her head at the curious saying. It felt strangely familiar, but then so did a lot of foreign witch concepts she had learned from Kirsi’s memories. “Sure. Let’s do it your way.”

The ice witch quietly stepped back as Larissa motioned for space and watched as the bog witch removed the caps from several glass bottles tied to her belt. The seemingly living fluid poured free from each vessel, forming spinning spheres of brackish water beneath Larissa’s open palms. With decisive movement and placement, the bog witch quickly carved her way through the drooping limbs and branches that crashed into the rotting shore or sank into the dense bog.

The Duchess reinforced the protective ice barrier while keeping it clear enough to allow the bog witch to complete her task. The toxic, oily black fluid that splattered against the frozen clear dome around them carried the stench of decaying flesh and death that made the ice witch’s eyes water as she gagged beneath the thin fabric of her scarf. Soon enough, a pile of dripping, oozing timber lay scattered around the neatly trimmed trunk, where a throbbing mound of pale flesh peeped out of the willow’s hacked stump.

“That’s new. It looks like this seed melded with the tree,” Larissa muttered with apparent disapproval. The bog witch’s cerulean-blue eyes darkened as she coiled the tendrils of water around the rotting flesh, severing what looked like vines or roots that connected the plague seed to the black trunk. More acidic ooze spilled free with each severed artery as the stench around them thickened.

“Gods,” Carina gagged as she quickly averted her gaze. Even knowing what to expect, the sight of the deformed, dismembered human flesh still managed to unsettle her. “Why is the smell—so much worse.”

“I have my suspicions, but I won’t know until we remove the seed,” Larissa replied grimly. “Let me know when you’re ready. The sooner we put this thing on ice, the better.”

“Honestly, moments like these make me wish we had a pureblood fire witch that could torch these plague seeds where they lie.”

“I won’t argue with that, but—a single flame in this place could be deadly.”

The Duchess glanced towards the still bubbling gaseous bog around them and nodded grimly. “I suppose you’re right. Well, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

The bog witch narrowed her cerulean-blue eyes as she tightened the coils of water woven around the plague seed and then began wiggling and loosening the collapsing torso with care before finally lifting the dismembered mound of decaying flesh free.

Carina tried not to look at the all too human markings on the pale grayish-blue flesh, from the blackened nipples to the white rib bones that pierced through the sunken flaps of skin around the abdomen. The Duchess quickly wrapped the vile monstrosity in a tight cocoon of ice before transporting it inside the frozen cortex for safekeeping.

“We can examine it in more detail later, right now—there’s something I need to confirm,” Larissa murmured as she clasped the edge of the trunk while leveraging herself up on a root.

“Is something wrong?”

The bog witch stayed quiet as she inched her arms and chest toward the severed half of the tree hallow. When she stiffened and fell silent, Carina moved forward quietly, only to step back as the bog witch jumped down, looking pale and oddly shaken.

“Everything alright?”

“No,” Larissa muttered, staring absently at the ooze that clung to her gloves and scaled armor. “Only—I’m beginning to think there might be more to this plague than we realize.”

“Okay…? What did you find?”

“The body of a witch—or the remains of one, at least.”

“Remains of the plague seed?”

“No, someone else.” The bog witch sucked in a slow breath and shook her head before muttering, “She was dressed in the ceremonial robes of a priestess.”

“You’re not making any sense, Larissa.”

“What? Oh, sorry.”

“Should we remove the other body?”

“No! One should never carelessly disturb the resting ground of a priestess!”

“Okay then—so we just leave her here?”

“I’m not sure we can do that either,” Larissa whispered as she rubbed her gloves anxiously against her armor. “Whoever put her here might come back and do god knows what else to her.”

“Okay, now you’re making me nervous,” Carina commented with forced levity. “I’ll do whatever you decide—so just tell me, what should we do?”

“I don’t know—I need to—I’ll have to ask her first,” Larissa murmured and then promptly placed her hand against the trunk. The Duchess held her breath as the bog witch’s eyes turned black before ashen veins appeared along her face and neck. “I—I can’t—”  Larissa blurted out as she yanked her hand back and stumbled into the ice witch, who quickly stabilized her.

“What? What did she say?”

“She—asked me to burn this place and her body with it—so the land can be purified!”

“Okay,” Carina murmured, uncertain as to which part of that the bog witch was struggling with. “Did she say who put her there?”

“No, she—was dragged from beyond the veil by the plague’s poison and has been trapped here since.”

‘Damn. So much for a lead on Morgana.’

“We should—do as she asks,” Larissa muttered reluctantly as she dragged her scarf across her eyes. “So her soul can be at peace.”

“Sure, why not.” The Duchess turned to examine the deadly pool of toxic biohazardous flammable liquid around them. “One burial bonfire coming up.”

“Yeah, let’s just—get some distance from here first.”

The Duchess scoffed, then stiffened as a flicker of light to their left alerted her to the burning arrow sailing directly towards the willow. “What the hell?” Carina quickly snuffed the arrow out with her ice magic before it could ignite the noxious bog around them.

“Kirsi, your barrier!” Larissa hissed as two more burning arrows launched clear of the dark forest beyond the eastern shore.

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