Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Stranglehold

by Albert Betzler



"Well, Witch-hunter? Did she die of natural causes or was it something more...sinister?"

Outside, thunder rumbled in the distance and sheets of rain began pelting the shutters of the apothecary. I stooped over the old crone's bed and examined her body by candlelight. She was still wearing her small clothes from the night before. They were soiled and filthy and the stench of feces and decay made my nose wrinkle.

"I'm not sure yet," I said, motioning to the body, "but take a look at that queer body position."

The Sheriff nodded. "I noticed. It's what prompted us to notify the Bishop. It doesn't seem natural. "

He was right. It wasn't natural. The crone was lying on her back, her body entangled between the sheets with one leg thrust straight out and the other bent back and away. But it was her hands that gave me pause. They were wrapped around her throat as if she had strangled herself. No matter how I tried to picture it, I couldn't imagine anyone killing themselves in that manner.

"I say, is it possible she was choking and put her hands up to her throat reflexively?" asked the Mayor, a small, nervous man named Bainard.

"Let's find out." I set the candle down and gently pried her hands away. It was no easy task. Rigor had set in and her fingers were digging into the flesh leaving small purple bruises and nail marks around the larynx. "The contusions match the size and shape of her fingers and thumbs," I said."It looks like she was purposely applying pressure to herself."

"Any other signs of struggle?" asked the Mayor.

The Sheriff shook his head. "No. The body is otherwise unmolested. I might add the doors were locked, bolted from the inside and there were no signs of forced entry."

I examined the throat more closely then slid my dagger from its sheath. "You didn't perform an autopsy?"

"I'm no mortician, ser," the Sheriff huffed. "Besides, we are civilized folk. We do not desecrate the dead like some people do."

I knew what he was referring to: the salting and burning of bones, a tactic used by witch-hunters against vengeful spirits and ghosts. I ignored him and slit the old woman's throat with one smooth cut. Behind me, I heard the Mayor gag.

Peeling back the skin I gently probed for any impediments or blockages within the windpipe. I found none. I raised the candle up to her mouth and examined her lips and teeth before moving down to her fingernails. There was no discoloration, evidence of froth, or changes in skin tone.

"Did she complain of headaches, nausea, or vomiting before she died?" I asked them.

"No," said the Sheriff, "but her customers did say that she appeared distracted in the days leading up to her death."

"Did you ask why?"

"Some nonsense about bad dreams," the Sheriff snapped. "Rubbish, all of it. Bandits run rife through this county, ser. I do not have time to investigate such stupidity. Don't tell me how to do my job!"

"Do I have to tell you how to be thorough?" I asked. The Sheriff's eyes turned cold and I swear, if looks could kill...

"Gentlemen, please." The Mayor stepped in between us. The Sheriff and I are both big men and Bainard looked like a mouse trying to keep lions at bay. "We have a potential murderer on the loose. Please, stay focused."

"Fine. Was there any indication of suicide?" I asked. "A note? Poisonous herbs found next to the bed? Anything?" When the Sheriff shook his head I knelt down and unlocked a large leather bound box I brought with me from York.

"What's that?" asked the Mayor.

"Tools of the trade," I said with a smile. I removed a thermoscope, a compass, and a pair of specially crafted eyeglasses designed by my sister to pick up spiritual energy.

"What, no saws, knives, or pliers?"quipped the Sheriff. "I thought you paladin types loved torturing innocent people into confessing crimes they didn't commit."

Someone doesn't like me, I thought. "On the contrary, Sheriff, the Church does not arbitrarily torture people on suspicion of witchcraft. We hunt the supernatural. If a templar finds anyone guilty of sorcery we urge them to seek confession from a priest."

"And if they refuse?"

"The responsibility of punishment belongs to the lord of the province," I said. "However, the Church may, on occasion, issue a Writ of Nullification in which case I would receive a purity seal."

"You mean an execution order."

"Sorcery is an abomination," I pointed out rather harshly. "People who dabble in magic risk becoming possessed or worse, freeing things best left unmentioned."

"What if they're born with some innate ability?"

"Then they're tainted and need to be put down."

"Bastard!" His lower lip began quivering uncontrollably and I wasn't sure if it was from burning rage or overwhelming grief. He laid his hand on his hilt and for a moment I thought he might actually draw his sword. Instead he grunted something unpleasant, turned on his heel and stormed out of the apothecary.

I raised my eyebrows. "What the hell was that all about?"

"Peter's mother was executed for being a witch," the Mayor explained.

"Was she?"

Bainard shrugged. "I don't know. Peter doesn't seem to think so." The Mayor walked to the window and stared off into the rain. "She was executed right before his eyes. He was only a small child. Poor boy." He sighed. "Tread carefully, Witch-hunter. Peter is a good man but he has no love for the Church."

"I can see that." I picked up the thermoscope and began searching the room for cold spots. It didn't pick up anything so I shifted tactics and grabbed my compass. It's made from dark iron, a metal in tune with the arcane. If there were any magical residues present, it would disrupt the magnetic field causing the compass to spin erratically before locating the cause of the disturbance.

I slowly moved the compass over the old woman's body from head to toe and back again. Nothing registered and that surprised me. If she was murdered by some sort of hoodoo I would expect a reading, no matter how minute. Perplexed, I stood up and walked towards the counter moving the compass in front of my body in a slow to and fro pattern. There were a number of antiques on the back wall and as we approached, the point of the compass began to spin intermittently, causing my anxiety to grow with every step. The Mayor was beside me now sticking to me so close I could smell the tobacco on his breath.

"Wha-wha-what's causing that?" he stammered, clutching my arm.

"There can be no doubt now," I whispered ominously, "the murder is supernatural in origin." I pried my arm free and let my eyes quickly dart over some of the curiosities the crone had collected over the years. She had quite an assortment of star charts, talismans, and other bits of junk. Were any of these items cursed?

Suddenly the point of the compass shot due south and the Mayor and I slowly craned our necks in that direction.

There, staring out from the shadows were a pair of burning green eyes. Snake eyes! They widened in surprise when they saw us. That caused the hairs on my arms to stand up on end. Surprise is a human emotion not shared by reptiles. Whatever it was it clearly expected to remain unseen. I gently nudged the Mayor aside and let my hand creep down towards the dagger I carried in a sheath at my right side. It was an agonizing process that seemed to take forever. The thing just stared at us, waiting. I swear I could feel it smiling at us from the darkness, the bastard. Finally, my hand reached the hilt and in one deft motion I drew and threw.

"What the hell!" I exclaimed. Turning, I saw the Mayor stagger into me as he fainted dead away. It was too late to catch him. With my aim spoiled, I drew my sword and whirled back, only to see a large black cat with green serpentine eyes and an amused look on its face sitting on the window sill. It hissed a single word at me: "witch-hunter," then turned and bolted into the rain. I ran to the window but it was too late. All I saw was the evening gloom.

"I hope you get soaked!" I shouted into the darkness.

"Wha-what happened?" Bainard was coming to. He had pulled himself into a chair and was dabbing the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. His legs were shaking something fierce and he was unable to stand. I sheathed my sword and helped him to his feet.

"You took a nasty spill," I said. "Are you all right?"

The Mayor nodded, red-faced. That's when I realized there were tears in his eyes. "That thing got away because of me," he said, his voice rising in pitch. "More people will die because of me!"

"Calm down," I said, gently. "Here, take a swig of this. It will settle your nerves." I removed a flask from my pouch and handed it to him.

Bainard took a sip and nearly retched. "My God, what is that?"

"Fire ale," I said with a smile. "Guaranteed to put hair on your chest -- provided you survive."

The Mayor didn't reply. He stared at the window through haunted eyes."Tell me honestly, John. What was that thing?"

"A shapershifter or familiar," I said. "It was probably sent to spy on us."

"What do we do now?"

I smiled. "We go on a witch hunt."

####

You shall not permit the Forbidden to live. That single commandment from the Book of Origins resonates with me like no other. It is my motto, my sole reason for being. I never question it and I never will. And with good reason.

Magic can trace its origins back to the Fall when Lasifarus, the Peacock Angel, rebelled against the All-Father. He was charged with protecting man and preserving his state of grace. Instead he rebelled, and with two hundred of his fellow angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women and corrupt mankind.

Their offspring were called the Maleficari, the forbidden, and their evil was so great the All-Father sent the Great Flood to eradicate them.

Most people today think that's a myth. It's not. Some of the Maleficari survived to pass their demonic taint on to subsequent generations. Those of the bloodline are born with an innate talent for magic and disposition towards evil. It's in their blood and they can't hide it.

That's what brought me to The Humble Pie. Inns are great sources of information. The locals usually like to congregate, gossip, and throw back a few before heading home. They also feel more inclined to say and do things they normally wouldn't in front of strangers.

I sat at a table set deep in the shadows enjoying the smells of mince pie and roast pork. Tipping back an ale, I let my eyes drift over the crowd taking in names, events, and faces. Faces were most important. The Maleficari of old were said to be vaguely reptilian in appearance, with shining faces, stark white skin, and fiery green eyes. They were also said to be very tall and very strong. Even after thousands of generations the blood taint may still be visible in one's features. I admit it's rare, but it does happen. Unfortunately, nobody here seemed to exhibit any of those traits.

"Would it please me lord for another drink?"

I looked up to see a skinny teenage barmaid with strawberry blond hair and freckles standing over me with a pitcher. "Aye, but I am no man's lord," I said. "At least, not any more. What's your name, lass?"

"Bethanee, but me friends call me Beth." She poured me another drink. "How come you ain't no lord anymore?"

"My family was disgraced," I said defensively. "Tell me, Beth, did you know the old crone who died?"

"Aggy? Aye, right as rain she was. Always be helping us young lasses with love potions, charms and stuff. Once, Samantha Draper pleaded with her to charm young Ser Jeremy Riiker into asking her to the Autumn Dance even though she is only a peasant girl!" Her eyes suddenly went wide and she put her hand over her mouth. "Oh! I shouldn't have been saying that," she said, her voice becoming fearful. "You won't tell Ser Jeremy will you?"

"Mum's the word, I promise. Did Aggy have any enemies?"

"Just that gypsy woman," she said with disdain. "They be at each other's throats since I was a wee bit babe. The feud was endless."

"What about?"

"Business mostly. Aishe would be coming periodically to the village to do readings and stealing customers from poor old Aggy. Hated it she did. They were always hexing and cursing each other."

"Did you ever go see Aishe?"

Bethanee blushed. "Well, she is a fortune teller you know. What young girl doesn't want to know who she'll be marrying?"

"How did she do it? Tarot cards or palms?"

"She used a gate board. Creepy thing, it was. The pointer moved by itself!"

""Quit flirting ya lazy girl!" A deep voice growled from behind the bar. "We be having other customers you know!"

"Owner?" I asked.

"Father," smiled Bethanee. "I'd best be getting back." I gave her a silver denarii for her time and she curtsied to me as if I were the Emperor himself.

I took another sip of ale and pondered what she had told me. Gate boards were bad news. They had been outlawed by the Church centuries ago and with good reason. They were portals into the spirit world. Although limited in power, fortune tellers used them to entice demons into doing their bidding. As if fallen angels had nothing better to do than answer idiotic questions about poor deceased Uncle Harry. Demons, on the other hand, used them as a means of entering our world. They longed to reclaim their supremacy over the human race and the physical bodies the Avatar denied them a millennia ago. If Aishe was possessed...

I pushed that pleasant thought from my mind, downed the rest of my ale, and made for my room. Lighting a candle, I opened up an account ledger I took from the apothecary. There were a number of names on the list. Most of the activity was mundane in nature: cures for infertility, colicky babies, and whatnot. Other entries were far more malevolent: curses on the manhood of unfaithful husbands, hexes on business rivals, and so on. It was unclear to me whether Aggy was a Maleficarum or an apostate, someone who didn't have the taint but stepped outside Church law to learn magic anyway. To be honest, I didn't know which was worse: being born with the taint or wishing you had been.

I found it interesting to note that two names didn't have any reasons listed for their visit. A girl named Clara Banks and Aishe. I didn't know Clara Banks but I found it disturbing that Aishe visited the apothecary the day Aggy died. Was she possessed? Had she trapped a demon into doing her bidding? I shuddered to think of the ramifications.

My thoughts also turned to the Sheriff. If his mother was a witch then it's conceivable he might have the taint. Warlocks were just as common as witches and probably more dangerous. If Aggy discovered his secret it would give him a motive for murder. I would have to look into that.

Yawning, I stripped into my small clothes, crawled into the soft feather down bed and blew out the candle. In no time at all I had drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

####

"John! Wake up! John!" I opened my eyes to a pounding at my door. It was Bainard. He was nearly hysterical. "For god's sake, man, open the bloody door!"

I cleared the sleepers out of my eyes, forced myself out of bed, and opened the door just as Bainard was about to knock again. He did it so forcefully he stumbled through the doorway and fell down. Arse. "What the hell is going on?" I asked, helping him to his feet. Outside a crowd began to gather and stare. And me in my small clothes. Great.

He shut the door and began ringing his hands. His face was deathly pale. "There's been another murder," he said. "Some gypsy woman named Aishe. She...she died in the same manner as Aggy."

My blood ran cold. Had the demon escaped and killed her? Or was it someone else? "Where is the Sheriff?"

"At the gypsy camp. It's a half day's travel from here." He nodded to my clothes. "We'd best get moving."

I threw on my breeches, boots, and shirt. I grabbed my sword, Mercy, and strapped it to my left side, edge up. Within minutes I was ready to go. By then the crowd in the hall had thankfully dispersed and Beth was waiting for me downstairs with a loaf of rye, a wedge of cheddar, and a jar of berry juice.

"I be squeezing it early this morning just for you!" she said with a wink.

I guess a denarius goes a long way in the north. I thanked her kindly, grabbed the pack and made haste for the gypsy camp.

The Mayor was a good judge of distance. By the time we arrived half the day was indeed gone. The horses were lathered white and breathing hard. We had ridden them almost to the brink of exhaustion. To be honest I was surprised they made it as far as they did without rebelling. That all changed as we approached the camp. They began stamping their hooves and whickering nervously. They refused to budge no matter how sweetly we coaxed them. The Mayor and I glanced at each other, faces taut. Evil was in the air and the horses knew it.

Giving up, we dismounted, tethered them to a nearby tree, and found our way into camp. My purity seal identified me as a witch-hunter almost immediately. Many of the gypsy children stuck their tongues out me and made faces while the adults made the sign of the horns to ward off my apparent evil.

What they didn't realize was the horned one, Cernunnos, was a fallen angel, a demon who set himself up as a god and tutored the first generation of witches in the use of magic after the Fall. Not that I think they cared much. Most gypsy families were roaming nomads that lived outside of Church law. They worshipped demons in the guise of gods and many made their living through fortunetelling. The head of the family was usually the matriarch, a Maleficarum or apostate of great power.

Although banned by the Church, gypsies freely roamed the Empire with impunity. Fortunately, clans were few and far between and the ones that did exist stuck mostly to the north where the barbarian tribes still worshipped pagan religions.

I followed the Mayor into the center of camp. At its heart lay the great yurt, home to the family matriarch. This one was immense, a testament to Aishe's ability as a fortune teller. Embroidered into the felt on each side of the entrance were characters written in the Old Language.

"Those are some wicked looking pictographs," observed the Mayor.

"They represent the five elements. Apparently Aishe excelled at this kind of sorcery." I grabbed Bainard by the shoulder and yanked him backwards just as he was about to enter the yurt. "Aishe was afraid of something," I said pointing towards the ground.

"What is that?" Bainard asked.

"Salt." I knelt down and tasted some to be sure. "The whole yurt is surrounded by it."

"I say, why would she do that?"

"Salt is a symbol of purity," I said. "Demons and spirits won't cross it." I circled the yurt looking for any breaks in the circle. There were none. "Come on. Let's go inside."

I've never been inside a yurt before. To be honest I was expecting a shithole but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at how large and elegant it was. The frame was an outstanding piece of engineering consisting of several expanding lattice wall sections, a doorway, roof poles, and a crown. Surrounding the crown were several ornate columns and in between the columns were hanging braziers that kept the yurt warm and cozy.

The smell of jasmine permeated the air. I found this irritating as it would impede my investigation. Incense burned on several candleholders scattered throughout the room. I was tempted to extinguish them but didn't for fear of offending the gypsies. I wasn't sure if it was part of some mourning ritual or not. Behind the braziers were a pile of silk cushions and a small lacquer table where Aishe did her readings. Unfortunately the gate board was nowhere to be seen.

The Sheriff and another man were standing towards the back of the yurt gesturing towards the body and speaking in hushed tones. The Sheriff looked up when he heard us approach.

"About time you arrived," he snapped at me. "Where were you? Desecrating more bodies?"

"Actually I was doing your job -- investigating a murder. What have you found out?"

"Not much. She appears to have been murdered exactly like Aggy. However, I did receive a communiqué from the Imperial Guard last night. It appears three more such murders occurred along the Emperor's Highway in the last week. All the victims were astrologers, herbalists, and fortune tellers."

That was telling. It meant the killer had just arrived in town and harbored extreme hatred for witches. That should narrow down the suspect pool a bit. But who could it be? A rogue witch-hunter? An apostate on a holy mission? They were both interesting concepts.

I glanced at the man beside the Sheriff. He was short and squat with a barrel chest and bandy legs. He wore bright red trousers cut off at the knees, a white silk shirt with red ribbons intricately looped around the collar, and a red floral patterned vest. His black moustache glistened with scented oils and his hair was slicked back and tied in a short ponytail. A gold hooped earring dangled from his left lobe. Classic gypsy. He appeared agitated and kept repeating the words "mágia, mágia!" over and over again through pursed lips.

"What's he on about?" I asked.

"Mágia is the gypsy word for magic," said the Mayor. "Apparently he thinks Aishe was killed by magic."

"I would have to agree with him," I said, removing a pair of spectacles from a cloth bag. I peered through the lenses before handing them to the Mayor.

"Three dimensional writing on the walls," exclaimed Bainard. "They're glowing! How wonderful! What are they?"

"Glyphs," I said. "They ward off evil magic."

"Doesn't look like they worked too well," said the Sheriff. "She's still dead."

I nodded in agreement. "She was clearly attacked from the outside," I said. "There are no binding circles or traces of sulfur, although I can't smell anything with all this damned incense in the air. That, and the unbroken circle of salt outside rules out demonic attack." I turned to the gypsy man. "Can you tell me anything about the days leading up to the murder?"

His words came out in such a rush that poor Bainard had difficulty translating. "A few days ago Aishe began suffering from terrible nightmares," he said. "Each night they got worse. Eventually Aishe stopped sleeping all together.

"Did she ever confide to you the nature of these nightmares?"

The man shook his head as Bainard translated. "No, but she was convinced she was under the evil eye. When she heard Aggy was having similar difficulties she went to visit her in the hopes they could put aside their differences and fight this new threat together."

That would explain Aishe's mysterious visit to the apothecary on the day Aggy died. "What happened next?" I asked.

"The next morning we heard Aggy was dead. Aishe was beside herself. Poor woman cancelled all of her appointments, circled the yurt with salt, and cast protective glyphs on the walls, floor, and ceiling. She even posted two guards outside the door."

"And no one came in or out?"

The gypsy man shook his head. "Nothing natural," he said.

"Did Aishe keep a client list?"

The man smiled, flashing a gold tooth, and went to a scroll rack near her bed. After a moment of searching he produced a piece of parchment and handed it to me. I unrolled it and began scanning the names on the list. One in particular caught my eye.

"Who is Clara Banks?" I asked.

The Sheriff stiffened. "My niece. Why?"

"She visited Aggy and Aishe on the days they died."

He let his hand drift to the hilt of his sword. "What of it?"

"In each case no reason was listed for the visit."

"I say, Peter, don't you think that damned peculiar?"

I noticed Bainard had once again situated himself between me and the Sheriff. The Mayor might be a nervous, jittery little man but he certainly was no coward.

"And doesn't she live near Goosebury? That's right off the Emperor's Highway. She must have killed the others on her way here to visit."

"You must have suspected," I said.

The Sheriff's shoulders slumped as he nodded. "I didn't want to believe it, but after the communiqué...," he let his voice trail off. "What will you do?"

"If she's an apostate she will be handed over to Lord Hood for trial."

"And if she isn't?" The fire was coming back into his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Peter, but the Law is clear. She will have to be purified."

"I don't understand your blind faith in an organization that kills little girls!"

"I support an organization that has protected mankind from demonic invasion for over two thousand years," I said. "Unfortunately, that doesn't come without sacrifice."

"We'll see about that," he sneered.

As I watched him storm away Bainard grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. "I say, John, you're not seriously going to execute a twelve year old girl, are you?"

I turned and stared coldly into his eyes. "This twelve year old girl appears to have the ability to kill people in their dreams," I said. "Do you have any idea how rare that is? In the history of the Church only two people have ever displayed that kind of power. Both were Maleficarum druids from the North: Myrddin and his apprentice, Morganna. No one has seen that talent in anyone since. Can you imagine the kind of havoc she could wreak if left unchecked?" I shook my head. "No, she must be stopped."

"She's just a girl..."

"She's a killer." I spoke more harshly than I intended to. When I saw the fear in Bainard's eyes I softened a bit. "When a person feels the taint or has a desire to become an apostate, their moral conscience begins to erode," I said. "They cease to be the person they were in favor of their new power."

"Absolute power corrupting absolutely?"

"It's more than that," I said. "You have to remember they have demon blood coursing through their veins. It speaks to them, driving them ever forward, making them do things they would never have contemplated before they turned. Mothers will kill their children, husbands their wives, and fathers will abandon their sons to the mercy of the streets." With that last comment I grit my teeth and turned away to compose myself.

"Is that what happened to you? Does your family have the taint?"

I whirled on him in black rage. "Tell the gypsy to burn his goddamn gate board or I will come back and purify his entire clan," I said, ignoring the question.

The gypsy man barked something in his guttural tongue, spat at my feet, and made the sign of the horns.

Bainard's eyes widened. "He says --,"

"I don't need a translation. I know what he said. Just make sure he does it."

####

We rode home in awkward silence. I should have apologized to Bainard for the way I acted but I couldn't. I didn't have the words. Betrayal is a bitter pill to swallow in the best of circumstances but when it's your own father that plunges the knife into your back, sometimes nothing you do can heal the wounds.

By the time we made The Humble Pie it was nearing midnight. The inn had slowed down as descent folk made their way back home to their wives and children. I stabled the horse in back and instructed the Mayor to meet me in the common room around nine the next morning.

He replied with little of his usual enthusiasm.

I felt guilty about that but said nothing. I'd make it up to him in the morning over eggs, bacon, and mulled wine. He'd like that.

Just as I expected, the common room was empty. Serving girls, tired after a long night of service, were laughing, counting tips, and rubbing sore feet at the bar. It must have been a busy night. The stench of stale wine and sweat overpowered the usually prevalent aromas of mince pie and roast pork. Beth saw me and gave me a big smile and a wave while her father saw me and gave me dark looks and a curse. I smiled back at Beth, nodded to the old man, and made for the upstairs. I was inclined to stay longer but I was just too tired to socialize.

Hauling myself to the top of the stairs, I unlocked the door to my room and entered. As I passed through the doorway my eyes were met with a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. I watched, awed, as the landscape of my room was virtually transformed and repainted into someplace else. When it was done my eyes widened in disbelief. I was no longer standing in my room at the inn but stranded on a marble terrace somewhere in the jungles of the deep south!

Above, a weird nimbus played across the sky and the air was charged with an eerie supernatural electricity that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to standup on end. It was such a surreal and unnatural experience that when I moved I felt like I was wading through a dream.

At the center of the terrace stood an alabaster statue carved as beautifully as anything I'd ever seen. Incredibly tall and well proportioned, its facial features were slightly elongated and reptilian in nature. Green gem stones, possibly emeralds, gave the eyes that fiery green glow that seemed to pierce the soul the same way paintings of the Avatar seem to follow you around a room. Large feathered wings sprouted proudly from the shoulders and enveloped the back. Was this one of the Fallen? Was this Lasifarus?

Suddenly, I heard a young girl giggle. I turned, and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of flowing black hair and nothing else.

"Who's there?" I called.

I heard another giggle. This time it was closer. I stepped back from the statue and rested my hand on my sword hilt.

"Show yourself," I said.

More laughter.

I won't hurt you!"

"Did you know if you die in your dreams you die in real life?" My eyes went wide when I heard that voice. It was small, powerful, and directly behind me.

My mind began to race. What should I do? One wrong move and I was dead. Then, summoning as much holy contempt as I could muster, I clenched my fists and spun to face whatever horror lie behind me. I was confident that no matter what it was my abilities as a witch-hunter would prevail.

I was wrong.

The young girl lurched for my throat with a speed I never thought possible. Her arms, strong as steel cables, seem to elongate to accommodate our height difference. In seconds she had driven me to my knees and was standing over me, her skin peeling away to reveal the molted flesh colored scales underneath. I struggled to pry her hands away but to no avail. We both knew Mercy was useless at this distance. We were too close and I didn't have my dagger. Fear must have shown in my eyes then. The girl smiled, revealing a row of human teeth and serpentine fangs.

Her fingers dug deeper into my throat cutting off my air. Pressure began to build in my head and stars danced across my vision. The end was near. I could feel it. I closed my eyes, made peace with myself, and began to recite the Lord's Prayer.

As soon as I said the word "Father" there was a flash of purifying white light. I opened my eyes, astonished to find myself back in my bed at the inn. Bolting upright I mentally willed my hands away from my throat and began gasping for air.

There could be no doubt now. Clara was a dream walker. I'd been hoping she was dabbling in some form of astral projection. Apparently I don't have that kind of luck. Dream magic was bad news. With it, Clara could conceivably enter someone's dreams, plant a suggestion, steal their inner most thoughts, or simply kill them.

Massaging the bruised muscles of my throat, I opened the box I brought with me from York. Clara's strength had been superhuman, no doubt fueled by the power of the dream realm. "If you die in your dreams, you die in real life," she said. While she was murdering people in the dream world, her victims were apparently killing themselves in the real one. Great. That's why the glyphs Aishe cast didn't work. They only provided defense against magic in this reality. But what was her motive? Why kill other Maleficari? It didn't make sense.

I rummaged through the box and began skimming through my most prized possession: The Compendium of Light and Shadow. It was an encyclopedia of knowledge compiled by all the paladins that came before me. The section on dream walking was scant to say the least. Most of the lore came from the barbarian tribes of the north. There was a section entitled "Dream Weaver" written by Myrddin himself. Considering Morganna used dream magic to banished him from this reality and bring down Arthur's kingdom didn't inspire much confidence on my part. Still, every little bit helped.

I paid the stable boy good coin to rouse the owner of the general store out of bed and pick me up some much needed supplies. By the time the cock crowed I was ready to go. I met Bainard and the Sheriff in the common room around nine. Bainard nearly choked when he saw my appearance.

"Good god, man! What happened to your throat?" His concern seemed genuine and any ill feelings he may have harbored from last night seemed to vanish as his usual enthusiasm reasserted itself.

"I was attacked," I said, "while dreaming. There can be no doubt gentlemen. We are dealing with a very dangerous little girl."

The Sheriff scowled. "Are you still going to question her? Or just execute her on sight?"

"I assure you my intentions remain the same. We'll speak with her first." I eyed him suspiciously. For some reason the Sheriff seemed different today. "Unless, of course, you've already done so."

"Don't be ridiculous," he said, irritated. "I know the Law and I will follow it no matter how asinine I think it might be."

"Fair enough," I said. I treated the men to a large breakfast. It was difficult to eat with my throat but I managed to choke down my food. The mood was solemn. We each feared what we had to do but for different personal reasons. When we were finished, I paid the tab, said my goodbyes to Beth (much to the relief of her father), and made for the Sheriff's house.

The door was open when we arrived. I thought that strange but the Sheriff didn't seem bothered by it so I let it slide. We entered the foyer and were immediately greeted by the sweet aromas of apple pie and cinnamon rolls.

"It seems Clara is a talented baker, ser," said the Mayor. He was right. Despite a large breakfast my mouth was watering.

The Sheriff nodded. "She's been fattening me up since she got here," he said. "Clara! Where are you, girl? We have visitors!"

The Sheriff and I went to search the kitchen. Flour, egg shells, and other baked goods were scattered all over the kitchen counter.

"John!" the Mayor screamed from the living room. "John, get in here. HURRRYYYY!"

I bolted into the living room leaving the Sheriff far behind. I wish I would have brought him with me. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I arrived. Nothing. Bainard was sitting on the floor hugging his knees and rocking back and forth. He kept muttering something unintelligible under his breath. He appeared to be in shock.

"What? What is it?"

Bainard looked towards the ceiling with crazed, haunted eyes. I followed his gaze upwards and gasped. Hanging from the rafters by his neck was the Sheriff! His hands were tied behind his back and it was clear by his skin tone that he had been dead for hours. That's when Bainard whimpered "Sheriff" and I heard the creak of a floorboard behind me.

My hand dropped to my hilt. I am considered one of the greatest swordsmen in the Empire. I have killed eleven men in single combat. By feel I can judge the distance between me and my opponent blindfolded. In one smooth motion I drew Mercy, turned, and aimed for the Sheriff's head. As soon as the blade bit into his neck he exploded into a murder of crows.

When the dust and feathers settled I was no longer in the Sheriff's manor. I was once again standing in the garden. The sun shone like a big gold ball in the sky and white rose petals fell gently like snow.

"I know what you are thinking," said the Sheriff. "Am I awake? Or am I sleeping? Or am I sleeping, dreaming that I am awake? Confusing, isn't it?" He smiled. "The truth is often difficult to ascertain. Am I really the Sheriff? Or is he truly dead, stretching in the hall of his own home? Maybe I'm Clara. Or maybe she's dead, too. Is that the truth? Or a great lie like the Church?"

"The Church does not lie," I said.

The Sheriff frowned. "Keep silent, boy, and don't move. I don't need you invoking the name of the Great Tyrant or doing anything foolish." He waved his hand and I dutifully stood still and shut my mouth. "The Church does, indeed, lie," he said. "It is the biggest lie of all. God is not some all loving father that wants everyone joined to him in harmonious bliss. He's a tyrant! Why do you think the angels rebelled? To rape women on earth? Please! They were trying to free themselves from his oppression."

"You're...full...of...shit," I said through clenched teeth.

The Sheriff laughed. "My, strong willed, aren't we?" He stepped closer and slapped me across the face. "We are not rebels. We are revolutionaries trying to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Think about it! What is "free will?" A lie! The Church teaches every person can "freely" choose to obey or disobey God, right? A deception."

"How...so?"

"If you obey God you will be allowed to join him in the everlasting glory of Heaven," he said. "If you don't, you are cast out forever. Is that truly free will? Or is it free will through extortion?"

I forced a laugh. "You're...delusional," I said.

"Am I? Your father knew the truth. In fact it was his idea that brought this all about."

"What...do...you...mean?"

"The Maleficari are organizing! Secretly, of course. A rich merchant here, an Emperor's advisor there. Before you know it we'll be running the Empire."

"That...will...never...happen."

"You think not?" He flashed a devious smile. "The hour is later than you think, boy. Why do you suppose I killed those witches? They refused to join the Cause."

"Your...idea...of...free...will?"

"For your father's sake I will extend you the same offer. What do you say?"

"I'll make you a counter proposal." I leapt forward and wrapped my fingers around his throat. The surprise on his face was priceless.

Peter grunted as he struggled to free himself from my grip. "How?" he croaked.

"In the north, beyond the mountains, where the barbarians paint themselves blue, there are druids known as dream weavers," I said. "To protect themselves from nightmares they create these." I yanked open my collar to show him the dreamcatcher I fashioned earlier that morning. "I blessed it. You have no power here."

"NOOOO!" Peter's eyes burned green with hate. His efforts became more frantic as he struggled to pry himself loose. His voice went from demonic and powerful to childlike and innocent. Clara reverted back to her original form. I was no longer strangling Peter. I was looking into the angelic blue eyes of a twelve year old girl. God help me. I knew what I had to do.

"Please," she begged me. "Don't."

I closed my eyes and squeezed...

####

I woke with a start on the living room floor of the Sheriff's manor. Clara was beside me, her eyes wide with fear, her hands wrapped around her own throat. I stared at her a moment, then covered her face with my cloak.

I cut Peter down and took Bainard home. He was nearly comatose and not very responsive. Hopefully a hot meal and a good night's sleep would do him some good.

The next morning I prayed for Peter's soul and buried him next to his Mother. It was the least I could do.

I salted and burned Clara's body. I didn't want her coming back as a vengeful spirit. Now I faced the unpleasant task of telling her mother she lost a daughter and a brother.

Bainard made a full recovery. I was glad. To make amends I gave him my dreamcatcher.

"What should I do with it?" he asked.

"Keep it," I said. "Just in case."

THE END


© 2012 Albert Betzler

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