Chapter 68: The Witch in the Willow
The Duchess’s ice blue eyes blazed with the light of Viktor’s immortal heart as she expanded the ice barrier around them to the perimeter of the bog swamp, deflecting the next three burning arrows into the brush of the forest where they illuminated the dark shadows of the trees.
“There!” Larissa shouted, pointing towards the figures of more than one man who scurried away through the forest.
“Lumi,” Carina snarled as the two witches raced to the end of the bridge.
The elemental wolf spun away from the nervous warhorse, its fur shimmering as it disappeared from view, even as the giant scriva smashed its way through the trees in pursuit. The bog witch quickly yanked the warhorse’s reins free from its branch and mounted the chestnut stallion before offering a hand up to the Duchess. They sprinted down the trail left behind the rampaging elemental as they followed the tracks of the giant scriva and their would-be assassins.
The warhorse snorted in protest as they nearly trampled the first of Lumi’s victims. Carina caught a glimpse of the decapitated body dressed in scarlet armor, half concealed beneath a ripped black cloak and a snapped birch tree.
“Witch Hunters,” Larissa hissed in a far from friendly tone. “Those bastards are never far behind any plague.”
The Duchess said nothing as she scanned the area around them. A riderless black horse could be seen galloping erratically through the trees as it kicked the air behind it in blind panic before bolting away. The ice witch quickly summoned two of the unforgiven as falcons to survey the forest and river from above. While the path Lumi had left for them to follow was unmistakable, she had no desire to be led into another ambush.
‘There’s no way they didn’t see us standing in the middle of the river when they fired that arrow. Depending on how long they were watching us, they would have noticed we were extracting the source of the plague. Did they misunderstand our intentions or just attack us on principle?’
Carina’s momentary relief that their attackers had not been knights of Hargreve slowly crumbled as she pondered a reason behind the Witch Hunters’ presence this far south of the Capital.
‘Let’s not jump to any conclusions. They could just be following the same reports we did. I imagine the local lords in this area are far more willing to cooperate with the Church than they were with us.’ The Duchess locked her arms tighter around Larissa’s waist as the terrain took on a sharp incline. “Lumi, we’re right behind you. Try to keep one of them alive for questioning.”
The scriva whined in response but acknowledged the ice witch’s command.
They found the second Witch Hunter and his horse, neither of which survived the elemental’s attack, just as Lumi’s tracks merged with a deer trail. Larissa quickly averted her gaze and urged the warhorse to go faster as the sounds of snarls and a panicked voice calling out spells echoed faintly up ahead.
Carina flinched as Lumi recoiled from the explosion of flames that set the nearby pine and birch trees on fire. The elemental wolf shook off the falling flames with a snort before it circled back in to snarl at the downed Witch Hunter trapped beneath his horse. The red mare struggled to rise, bleeding profusely from a severed back leg snapped off by the scriva’s powerful jaws.
The Duchess hurriedly dismounted as Larissa pulled on the reins and moved to join her bristling elemental.
“Damn you!” the Witch Hunter bellowed, struggling to free his sword from beneath the panicked mare’s dangerous hooves. A moment later, he flung a small battle axe in the ice witch’s direction, which Lumi playfully snatched midflight before crushing the weapon beneath its fangs. “F-fuck!”
Carina drew in a slow, steadying breath as she summoned an elemental bow to her hands and ended the mare’s suffering with a single arrow. Both the bog witch and the Witch Hunter flinched before the latter gave up on his sword and scrambled for the pouch at his side.
“Careful,” Larissa called out as she snatched the suspicious bag away with a tendril of water. “Nothing’s more dangerous than a cornered beast with nowhere to run.” She plucked the pouch from the fluid, tentacle-like hand, peeked inside, and let out a low whistle. “Would you look at that. You Witch Hunters would have done a better job blowing us up if you had used these.” The bog witch held up what looked like a primitive hand grenade with a single rope fuse. “Then again, the blast radius on these things added to the volatile nature of the plague bog? You must have realized that you’d get caught up in the implosion.”
The Witch Hunter glared in her direction, then punched the dead mare’s body in frustration before letting out a weak growl. “What do you want? I’ve no interest in being toyed with or playing mind games with you witches. So if you’re going to kill me, just get on with it.”
“Perhaps you could help me understand something first,” Carina replied, holding her elemental bow at the ready as she approached the man. “What business brings you here, and why did you attack us?”
The Witch Hunter blinked up at her before coughing out a laugh as his incredulous gaze swept toward the bog witch. “Is she serious?”
“Hard to tell sometimes,” Larissa replied, turning to offer the Duchess a bewildered frown. “Why not humor her.”
“Well, it should be obvious,” The man sneered. “We’re Witch Hunters,” he stated, gesturing to his scarlet armor sarcastically. “We were sent here to deal with the plague and the witches responsible for it.”
The Duchess grimaced and then lowered her bow to stare at him incredulously. “And so you what—assumed that we were plague witches?”
“Caught you red-handed, didn’t we?”
“Removing the plague seed—surely you saw that!”
“Aye, to transport it and poison another village, no doubt.”
The ice witch stared at him wordlessly as her expression shifted between frustration and disbelief, then whirled around to meet the bog witch’s unsurprised stare.
“What were you expecting, Kirsi?” Larissa commented with a slight shake of her head. “The Church’s hounds are bred and brainwashed to believe the sun shines out of the Pope’s ass. They see what they want to see and interpret it according to what the Church says. You can’t argue with someone who believes every word that falls from your lips is a lie simply because you were born a witch—their natural enemy.”
“What are you playing at now?” The Witch Hunter growled warily. “You’d think I’d buy some fabricated account about the Scarlet Witch and a bog witch working together on some charitable mission of mercy under cover of darkness that just happens to involve a plague seed near villages that were only recently wiped out by the witch plague?” He turned his cynical gaze between the two of them before cackling madly. “Oh, I’m sorry. How did you expect the Church to interpret this, your Grace?”
“We’re not spreading the plague. We’re trying to stop it!” Carina snapped, summoning the torso from the frozen cortex and dropping it on the bloody leaves beside their trapped accuser.
The Witch Hunter barely flinched at the grizzly sight before returning his focus to the Duchess. “It will take more than that to intimidate me, bitch!”
“Why are you—”
“You’re wasting your breath, Kirsi,” Larissa interjected sharply. “Might as well kill him and be done with it. Whether he believes us or not, it’s best the Church doesn’t know what we’re up to before that theory of his becomes public fact spread about by the Pope’s believers.”
“I don’t understand,” Carina murmured tensely as her grip tightened around the icy bow. “All I’ve done since arriving at Lafeara is try to stop the plague, and yet—everywhere I turn….” A thin mist floated across the leaves surrounding the ice witch as frost spread out to cover the blood-splattered ground around the dead mare.
“I don’t understand what part of this is so difficult for you to grasp,” Larissa retorted as she hastily recalled her stiffening water tendrils, snapping the bottle caps closed one by one as she turned impatiently to face the Duchess. “The Legacy of the Scarlet Witch speaks for itself. This isn’t a game of truth or innocence. You’ve always been their number one target. Any plague, famine, war, or insurrection during your reincarnation is automatically attributed to the Scarlet Witch and her followers. That is the dogma of the Church. That is the core, universal belief of its believers.
“Instead of wasting your time fighting a campaign of lies, religion, and politically charged superstition—you should be thinking about why it is the Church and god it represents are trying so hard to defeat you.”
A tense silence fell around them, disturbed only by the Witch Hunter’s angry breath as the autumn moon rose slowly across the tree line to illuminate the Duchess’s pale white hair.
“I know why they are afraid of me,” Carina whispered with a note of defeat as she turned to meet the bog witch’s gaze.
“Then stop allowing them to distract you with these—pointless games of reputation and slander,” Larissa retorted swiftly, her tone still hinged with exasperation but calmer than before. “Stop investing so much effort and resources into saving a handful of mortals here and there—most of whom will still resent you at the end of the day for being the Scarlet Witch?
“I don’t—understand why you concern yourself with these mortals at all, whether they be plague victims, kings, or the Pope?” The bog witch shook her head, her bewilderment tangible. “You have been given the rare opportunity to become immortal. If you want to change the world, what better choice is there than to become a god capable of creating that change?”
“Blasphemy!” the Witch Hunter hissed as he glared between them. “You witches would make her a god even if that means the destruction of this world and every living thing upon it.”
“And why not, Witch Hunter?” Larissa retorted with a sinister smile. “If the Church, the Pope, and all its believers had their way, they’d eradicate every single witch from this world. So why should we care about saving it?”
“Resist all you want. The signs of the prophecy are already here: the plague, the Scarlet Witch, and even the return of dragons. Soon enough, the Saintess will awaken and purge the corruption of magic from the world of men with righteous divinity. And they that deny her power and glory shall become as shriveled worms of the earth laid bear upon the cobblestone to be crushed beneath the feet of the one true God!”
The Duchess flinched slightly as the Witch Hunter’s tone reminded her of the butcher priest from earlier.
‘I think I’m beginning to understand Percy’s distaste for mortals now.’
“The more he speaks, the more I want to cut his head off,” Larissa declared in a song-like pitch while her fingernails danced erratically against the bottles of fluids she carried at her waist. The bog witch sucked in a sharp breath and restrained her homicidal urge by folding her arms. “Are you satisfied now, Kirsi?”
“Enough!” Carina snarled, then closed her eyes as she dismissed her bow and sighed tiredly. With a flick of her wrist, she returned the plague seed to the frozen cortex and then focused on the Witch Hunter. “Your Prophecy—the one that claims I will destroy this world in ice and fire—how exactly do I do that?”
“What?” the Witch Hunter mumbled, blinking in confusion.
“Never mind.” The Duchess extended her left hand as an orb of blue ice magic whirled into focus against her palm. “Whether I like it or not, the blood of your comrades is on my hands. So I’ll give you a choice, Witch Hunter. Ice or Fire?”
“Ha!” Larissa chuckled as the confused Witch Hunter glared between them. “The Scarlet Witch is allowing you to choose how you want to die, Witch Hunter.”
“Just be done with it, witches!” he snarled in response, wincing as the ice witch’s magic bound his wrists and forced them behind his back. “If Ripper and the Pope don’t finish you first, the Saint will certainly make you regret that you were ever born.”
“Then what is she waiting for?” Carina retorted with a faint laugh as she dragged him up onto his ice-bound legs. “For that matter, what is your true god—Ramiel—waiting for?”
The Witch Hunter sputtered, then clamped his lips shut defiantly though his teeth visibly chattered beneath the frost that crawled up his bound legs and chest. His scarlet armor glowed in response as the runes activated, trying to stabilize his body warmth faster than the cold already turning his skin a pale blue.
“Nothing to say now? Surely, the Pope has realized that his sister, Nesta—your Saint—stands on my side this time. That must be rather vexing for your Master, being forced to stand on the sidelines until the Saint chooses to accept her awakening. Or perhaps Jericho enjoys clinging to the power and glory that will automatically revert to the Saint when she appears?”
“You will not provoke me into giving away any secrets or weaknesses,” the Witch Hunter snarled.
“Ahh, meaning that there are secrets and weaknesses to be revealed,” Larissa taunted with a sinister laugh.
The Witch Hunter’s pale face spasmed between shivers of pain, cold, and fury before he forced a sneer. “What makes you think the Saint is on your side? Maybe she’s exactly where we want her to be.”
“I highly doubt that,” Carina retorted with a faint snort as she sealed his lips shut. “Let’s clean this up quickly. I have a promise to keep.”
To avoid starting a potential forest fire, the Duchess covered and surrounded the bog swamp with a towering wall of ice, leaving only one entryway through which Lumi dragged each of the Witch Hunters and their horses. The unforgiven gathered up any fallen or discarded gear, from which the ice witch selected a sturdy bow and arrow before adding the rest to the pile of bodies to burn along with the oily, rotten limbs of the willow. The last addition to her grizzly burial offering was the ice-bound Witch Hunter, whom Lumi propped up against the pile of corpses with a parting snarl.
“Since you couldn’t decide, I chose for you,” Carina commented neutrally as she draped the bag of hand grenades around the stiff man’s shoulders. “Take comfort in knowing it will be a quick and glorious death.” The ice witch smiled at the Witch Hunter’s blinking eyes and ignored the strained screams of protest locked behind his frost-sealed lips as she turned to where the bog witch knelt before the willow stump.
While the Duchess prepared her bonfire, Larissa prepared her own offering to the priestess trapped in the willow’s trunk: a necklace of shells, three of the Witch Hunter’s daggers and small axes, a lock of the bog witch’s braided hair, and an assortment of feathers.
“Need anything else?” Carina whispered as she knelt beside her companion.
“You can make an offering if you like, Kirsi. Something to ease the Priestess’s anger and allow her to return beyond the veil.”
The Duchess frowned as she turned her ice-blue eyes to the black willow trunk. “What sort of witch was she?”
“A Priestess of Minerva,” Larissa replied somberly, her voice tight with emotion and even an inkling of fear.
“So—an earth witch.” Carina leaned forward, placing her hands on the ice-locked bog as she opened the channels to Viktor’s immortal power.
The bog witch shivered violently as a silent and surprisingly gentle storm of winter exploded around them, coating the bark of the willow tree in soft snowflakes as a ghostly white willow tree took its place, the swaying reed-like branches filled with blooming white flowers as songbirds of ice fluttered in and out of the dancing branches to fill the frost-covered dome in the idyllic scene of a frozen spring.
“It’s—beautiful,” Larissa commented quietly as the Duchess sat back beside her. “Sometimes I forget that there is more to winter than death.” The bog witch’s black eyes resumed their clear cerulean-blue color as she watched her breath rise into the cold air above them. “I think it’s time.”
They moved to the safety of a distant hilltop, where Larissa prepared a torch while Carina wrapped a strip of cloth torn from their attacker’s cloak around her arrowhead. Once the bog witch lit the arrow, the Duchess pulled it back, taking careful aim as she arched her shot above the tree tops between them and the frozen swamp. The burning missile released with a gentle hiss as the ice magic along the lake began to crack and melt away. The distant, distorted sounds echoed through the forest as the Witch Hunter and his dead comrades slowly sank into the mire of putrid filth while poisonous gas hissed through the crumbling cracks of ice around them.
The blazing arrow fell silently towards the crumbling lake but never reached the Witch Hunter or his bag of grenades before the river vanished beneath the blast wave of sickly green fire that shook the ground beneath the Duchess’s feet as the flames crashed against the walls of ice like a tidal wave, howling as they climbed up the frozen barrier and licked the swaying branches of the trees around the river.
Even from a distance, Carina felt the warmth of the blast graze against her skin before the negative pressure left by the quickly consumed toxic fumes dragged the green flames back toward the center of the river, where the charred remains of the black willow’s trunk crumpled into the pit of earth below.
Only then did Carina see the pitiful skeletal form of the priestess. Her body lay wrapped tightly in a ball of chains, her tangled gray hair adorned by amethyst gemstones wrapped around the pale white skull contorted between her feet. It took the Duchess a moment to realize that the priestess’s body had been deformed, hacked apart, and shoved back together in an act of callous disrespect.
As the ice dome collapsed to allow the river to resume its natural course, the ghostly image of the priestess appeared, her soulless eyes dripping with tears of venom and fury before the waves crashed over her mutilated corpse and shattered the bones from their prison.
“Is she—free?” Carina whispered silently as she searched the swirling, brown, chaotic waves that filled the scorched riverbed.
Larissa exhaled tensely as she watched the river with narrowed eyes. “Hard to tell. She hasn’t attacked us, so—that’s a good sign. Either way, at least we stopped them from turning her into a remnant.”
“It’s—just a suspicion.” The bog witch reached up to tap the seashell talisman she wore beneath her armor. “While I’d like to believe that no witch would ever disturb the burial ground of another—I doubt even a plague witch would dare to desecrate the sacred remains of Minerva’s priestess. And—given how easily those Witch Hunters found us.” She shook her head before turning to meet the Duchess’s gaze. “It all feels a bit too coincidental to me.”
“I know what you mean, but—why would the Church want to make a remnant—let alone take any part in spreading a witch plague?”
“I’ve said it before, Kirsi. You’re too distracted. You have the plague sacrifice in one hand and the Saint in the other—yet you choose the hardest path between the two. If mercy was your true objective—”
The bog witch sighed and then turned to retrieve the warhorse that waited nervously beside Lumi. “The death of a few thousand mortals doesn’t concern me, Kirsi. It’s whether you’ll be prepared for whatever trap the Pope, Ramiel, and Arachne have set for you.”
Carina gritted her teeth silently as she watched the swirling river slow to a resonate comforting babble as the last of the green flames withered and died, leaving only the moonlight to shine upon the quiet forest below.
‘I guess this means—it’s time to say goodbye.’