I was close to death, and this time for good. The witchfire in my blood had cooled, with most of it having already evaporated. Were the last drop to have gone, so would I be too, awakening in Hell.
The rescue, unlikely as it was, came thanks to human greed and stupidity. The old nag, one that I had commandeered in a nearby village, had escaped no more than two prayers ago, frightened and terrified. A clear sign that I was in the realm of the witch. I knew it, but the band of robbers concealed in the roadside bushes apparently did not. Were it otherwise, even desperate men like those would have long ago retreated to less nasty locales.
In my weakened state, I could not sense each and every bandit, but the group did not seem large. I moved forward, pretending I knew nothing of their presence.
Shrieking, they leapt out onto the road, excited by the prospect of easy prey. Sick and famished, crippled and filthy. Wretches ready for anything, just seeking to survive another day in a world that hated them.
The mask on my face seemed to confuse them, but only for a brief moment. Their chief was the first to regain his resolve. Must be why he was their chief.
“I do not know what kind of freak you are, sire, but you do not look poor. So, you will share with those in need… And get that thing off your face. We’ll melt it down and sell it – should be enough for some bread.”
It crossed my mind that removing my mask would serve my purpose whilst being a less engaging solution. Then, the usual story would unfold. Panic and flight. The terrified bandits would scatter, with some of them going deeper into the witch’s realm, where the ghouls and wraiths would take care of them.
But no. No. I needed to be in complete control of where the bodies would be.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. The sight of my face cannot be forgotten. Or endured. Crawl back into bushes, we will pretend you have not seen me, and all will be well” – I lied, just to ease my conscience slightly when they inevitably refused.
The leader shook his head in disbelief. He looked around, confirming that I was alone, and his companions numbered half a dozen.
“Well, mate, you were meant to die quickly, I usually slit throats nice and quiet like, with no fuss. But in this case, we’ll make an exception and cut off a few other things first. Get him!”
The fight did not last long. Whether half a dozen or two it makes no matter – they are a meagre challenge for even a half-dead preyer. Before death, each of the thugs had a chance to see wonders they had never before experienced. My revolver, spitting out hot metal. The sight of my form teleporting from one slit gut to another. My freezing and burning spells, for it is common knowledge that only women can wield magic.
It ended quickly, but the price was considerable. I felt dizzy and somewhat out of breath. However much cursed magic I still had in me, it certainly would not be enough for another encounter.
I found an axe belonging to one of the thugs and chopped off the heads of all their corpses, all except for the leader. In a sack, I found an old rope. I tied his corpse, threw the rope over a branch, and hauled it up so the body rested against the trunk.
I sat nearby and waited for nightfall. As always in the lands taken by witches, it was silent, without any animal sounds. The birds had flown off long since, and the wolves had skulked away.
When the witching hour struck, the air thickened and sparked with magic. The leader slowly opened his magic-infused eyes and looked at me. Somewhere in his depths, a remnant of humanity still simmered, but the flame was too weak. The ghoul growled and started to toss wildly, seeking to free himself from his bonds.
I waited until he had regained all of his strength. I aimed my revolver at the centre of his forehead and fired. His head erupted into thousands of particles of witchfire, which hung in the air like a cloud of orange-red fireflies. I warmed myself in its glow, recovering some of my powers with each passing moment.
There was nothing I could do for the bandit leader now. As long as the witch was alive, he would continue to reanimate. From witchfire he had come, to witchfire he would return.
She must have already known that the preyer had come. A normal man should have already been dead and become another of her minions. And yet this one still roamed free, with his insolently unperishable soul.
Oh yes, she knew. The forest was no longer silent. From both near and far, and from every direction, I could hear the growls and howls of the undead. They were thirsty for my blood. But I was thirsty for theirs.
I caressed the cylinder of my revolver, crossed my heart, and charged towards the eyes that glimmered in the darkness.