Actions

Work Header

Witch Hunt

Work Text:

✩ WITCH HUNT ✩

 

“Cow tongue, muskrat pelt, coriander...”

The witch’s wrinkled, white fingers grazed over the ingredients as she named them. She scooped handfuls of each product from their containers and tossed them into her cauldron where they fused. She dipped her elongated nails into the mixture, capturing the gooey essence. Steam curled past her hands, drawing up to darkened rafters. The occultist’s slimy, steel-gray tongue lapped up the nourishment from her fingertips.

“Now then, where is...” The tongue and fingers receded into the shadows as she searched the deep cavern. “Ah, yes.”

The whispers reverberated off slick stone, as the witch reached for a young man. The boy, a prisoner, stirred, sliding up against the jagged wall. Near death, he barely mustered the strength to move at all. Blood from his fresh wounds dribbled into a nearby bucket, smeared against the wall, and seeped into the cool stone. His hands hung limply above him– bound by a rope wound so tightly that it had turned his wrists a dead shade of violent. His bare chest shuddered with every painful breath. His body shone with sweat, tears, and other undesirable bodily fluids. His undergarments barely clung to his thin pelvis.

His mangled legs curled closer to his body as he noticed the woman’s beastly eyes on him. The broken man released a breathy, fearful whimper.

Chuckling as if opening a delightful birthday gift, the witch grazed the man’s neck with her fingers. He squirmed ceaselessly, his body concaving to avoid his kidnapper’s grasp.

Her bony hand rested on the young man's chest, gradually increasing pressure until his ribs and sternum protested. She could feel the quick palpitation of his heart. She pressed harder until his filthy skin stretched and tore. The prisoner’s body convulsed as he screeched, the pain unleashing fresh adrenaline.

Ignoring his writhes, the witch poked her fingers deeper into the wound she’d created. Her nails clawed past muscle, tendons, and even bone, until they tightened on what they wanted.

With the last of his strength, the boy swung his arms down, fraying the rope enough to allow him to touch the creature's hand.

“P...lease...don’t...NO!”

They stared into each other’s eyes. Both of them possessed irises of a garnet color, but the witch saw no similarity; She saw another container that needed to be opened.

The man’s heart began beating faster against her hand until the sorceress swifty punctured the ventricles and tore it from the body. The organ twitched then stopped. Its former owner blinked as if, just for a moment, he failed to recognize what had just happened. His body lurched one last time before falling limp.

Before any more blood could leak from her newest ingredient, the creature flung the heart into a deep clay bowl. She poured in the coriander, pelt, and tongue before mashing the concoction into a thick burgundy liquid. The hag did not even allow the substance to cool before lifting the bowl to her mouth and ingesting it whole.

Steam floated above the shadowy witch as she morphed. Her fingers were no longer wrinkled and gray, but smooth with youth. The beastly woman was no longer a monstrosity, but an exquisite young woman. She fluffed her hair and pinched the cleansed skin of one arm. Stepping passed her victim, the woman’s lips curved into thin smile of satisfaction.

 

゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ┊        ┊

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ˚✩ ⋆。˚ ✩

┊         ┊       ┊   ✫

┊         ┊       ✩    

┊ ⊹       ✯

 

“We...are gathered here today, not only to mourn a death, but to celebrate the life of a young man who left us too soon.”

Makoto Naegi inhaled quickly and released the ragged breath. He raised his clover eyes to an open window in the back of the church. The little town rarely saw cheerful skies, but today the charcoal clouds felt even bleaker.

A sleek crow cut through the air and dropped into the arms of a nearby tree, scrunching up to roost. Naegi found it strange how the bird also seemed ready to pay respects.

Realizing that he’d remained silent for too long, the young priest glanced at the portrait of Kiyotaka Ishimaru. Just past the image lay a vacant wood coffin. The portrait’s soulless eyes lanced Naegi’s heart, urging him to continue with the speech no matter how many weak reassurances he had to spout.

Naegi understood that the words he spoke to his fellow villagers could be sometimes sound hollow– more hollow than even Ishimaru’s empty casket. Even so, the priest had no better approach to honoring a dead man who’d shown had no faith during his life.

The men, women, and children who occupied the splintering pews wore blank faces, as they burned holes in Naegi's skin with expectant eyes. He understood that they wanted him to fill them with a sense of hope that they could not conjure for themselves. Funeral aside, in this particular village, the townspeople went about their daily lives with grim souls. The church was the only home for emotions of any manner.

As he continued his eulogy, Naegi couldn’t help stealing a final glance at the cracked oil pastel portrait. Ishimaru may have been a well-respected man in the past– top of his class, apprentice to the governor– but he hardly ever attended Sunday service, so the townspeople often belittled his passions.

“Drunk,” they had claimed. “The only time a man is so red-faced and fiery is when he's drunk.”

Naegi barely paid attention to his own speech until he finished and the church house rang silent. The villagers took the completed eulogy as a cue to visit the coffin for last remembrances. As they passed, Naegi received nods of approval and words of praise for his service.

One particular congregation member, Celestia Ludenburg, closed in on Naegi's podium. Though she remained mostly hidden beneath the veil of her black pillbox hat, Naegi could see the tears dripping down her soft cheeks, the streaks dark with eye makeup. Even with such a distraught expression, she easily kept her title as the loveliest woman in the town. Clear skin, glowing eyes, and midnight hair… even a dollmaker would struggle to create a prettier girl.

She picked at the sides of her elegant gown and curtsied. When she released the fabric, the obsidian lace brushed the floorboards.

“Thank you, Father, that was an excellent service, one well-suited for such a great man.” Celestia sniffled as she pulled out a handkerchief from between her breasts and dabbed her eyes.

Naegi smiled. “It was my honor to send him to Heaven properly. I… I’m glad the sermon came across well. I couldn’t help but feel distracted. I guess that even I get shaken by tragedy.” He carefully laid a hand on her delicate shoulder. “But how are you feeling? It was my understanding that you two were very close.”

Celestia stifled a sob before answering. “His death just feels...too sudden...almost like a nightmare...and I need to wake up soon.”

She shook her head as if wishing to shed her grief and failing to do so. Naegi watched her dainty fingers lace around her handkerchief.

“Father, I was… I wanted to speak with you because I was wondering if you might visit my home this Friday. I’m sorry. This is all very difficult for me and I cannot do it alone. Please, if you could just come by for a few hours. We can discuss things and… I have a few confessions to make, loose ends I never tied up with Taka that I just need to talk about.”

A cloud passed over the sun, shifting the lighting that passed through the stained glass windows. The blues, greens, and reds flowed across Celestia as she flipped her veil up to rub her eyes. Naegi felt a burst of heartache for the young lady.

“Yes, of course. I will do what I can. How about I come by after daily mass. About noon?”

She flipped up her veil and dabbed at her lashes.

“That sounds wonderful. See you then– oh!”

The black-clad woman turned and gasped. Two other members of the congregation had also stayed behind. The first, a woman in a chocolate colored overcoat stared down the priest and his companion with amethyst eyes. Beside her sat yet another young lady whose hair hung free from its unusual brunette ponytail and tumbled down her shoulders.

“Are you finished?” asked the amethyst-eyed woman. Everyone in town knew she disliked Celestia Ludenberg, but here she came across as more impatient than intentionally spiteful.

“Er– Yes.” Celestia replaced her veil and hurried past the other ladies and to the entryway, a door beneath an arch of bone-white lilies. She peered back at Naegi before heading out.

The priest sighed.

“Kyoko, you could have said a few soft words to her. You know, extended an olive branch? This is a trying time for us all.”

Flipping her hair braid behind her collar, Kyoko Kirigiri let out a short, humorless laugh.

“The day I suddenly wake up unbothered by complete sycophants is the day I will like that woman.”

Naegi watched the purse of her lips and decided to let the subject lie.

“Hm. Fine. So… what did you need to talk about?”

“The topic that everyone else is too stubborn to.”

Naegi inhaled, understanding the direction the conversation was to take. For as long as he’d known Kirigiri, he’d never once seen her dismiss a coincidence or jump to a conclusion. She’d developed a frosty reputation from her arctic stare that could wither anyone who tested her. Despite her stony additude, everyone knew how much she valued justice and the power of the law. That was the reason they’d elected her constable.

“You believe that this was a murder,” Naegi said softly. “I’ll admit that I also wondered about that…”

“Hina and I met for tea yesterday.” Kirigiri flicked her head towards the brunette behind her. “She voiced some concerns as well.”

Naegi bobbed his chin, acknowledging Asahina.

The town knew Asahina for her bubbly disposition, love of midnight dips in the lake, and near-insatiable appetite for pastries. The town loved her and grew so used to affectionately calling her “Hina” that no other name stuck, even when she got married. But now, her lapis eyes showed none of her energetic attitude, only deep concern.

“I… yeah. I’m worried. I mean it’s strange. First Hifumi and Byakuya. Now Ishimaru… What if it’s my husband next o-or Hiro? Or even you?”

The priest leaned his back against the front of his pulpit. Both woman came across as genuine, truly concerned and not intending to waste his time, but even so…

“That’s quote a loaded question, Hina,” he replied. “You’re assuming the deaths are on purpose and the killer only targets men.”

Asahina tapped one tan cheek, both embarrassed and persistent.

“There are trends though. Kyoko says we can’t ignore those.”

“Exactly,” Kirigiri said. Her eyes darkened, dulling slightly, the sort of glaze that fell upon the eyes of someone thinking deeply. “There is another trend, one that gives me further reason to dislike Celestia Ludenberg.”

“You think she did it?” Naegi shook his head with grim amazement. Once again, he could follow his friend’s reasoning. Celestia did have a connection to all those who had died in the past year. She’d forged close friendships with Hifumi Yamada and Kiyotaka Ishimaru. In Byakuya Togami’s case… she’d been somewhat of an admirer, though anyone with a nick of sense could see she loved his class and money more than him.

“Very well,” said Naegi. “She has a connection. I’ll give you that. But what about a motive? Or a means? That woman barely looks strong enough to lift a teaspoon and, well, her illness last summer probably makes her even weaker, so how would she kill three grown men? Besides… why would her methods be so different? Byakuya and Hifumi were killed close together and found beneath the waterfall. We all assumed they fell while hiking. And Ishimaru… we never found him.”

Kirigiri brought a gloved hand to her lips in thought. The constable was one of two people Naegi had performed last rites for who had gone on to live. Her gloves were a bleak reminder of the tragic house fire she’d endured years ago, a blaze that had claimed her father and nearly taken her hands.

The other survivor had been Celestia Ludenberg herself. Naegi shivered, recalling her bedridden body, disfigured by sores and scarring. She’d writhed with pain, no doctor able to determine the cause of her disease. Only a week after Naegi had anointed her for death, she’d recovered miraculously. She’d regained her healthy glow, but never quite the same spunk she once had. She sat like a porcelain doll on the verge of cracking, scowling at the occasional look of pity, but ultimately going about life with grace.

Naegi would never say so, but he too found himself pitying her. He hid his melancholy well, but his friends’ bad luck pained him. First her unfortunate sickness and then the deaths of her favorite companions. He didn’t like to think that she’d had anything to do with the untimely end of Togami, Yamada, and Ishimaru.

But he had to consider it.

“She could have murdered in different ways to throw off her scent,” said Kirigiri. “I admit, I do not know how she could have killed healthy men. I am not even fully convinced she is a murderer at all. But, I want to investigate.”

“Very well. But.. just where do I fit into this whole thing.” Naegi raised an eyebrow. “I hope you’re not expecting me to divulge anyone’s confessions. You know I have vows against doing that.”

For the briefest of moments, a light smile passed across Kyoko Kirigiri’s face, a grin of admiration. In the past she’d grown quite cross with him for refusing to discuss the confessions of criminals on the witness stand. Nowadays, she’d accepted his reasoning and had even show a bit of respect for his unwavering decision.

“No. That’s not what I want. I just know this is your area of expertise.”

Naegi cocked his head.

“What do you mean? This isn’t my realm at all. I can maybe change someone’s heart, but not necessarily catch them in sin.”

Once again, Kirigiri touched her face with her gloved hand. She appeared as though she were considering the damaged skin beneath, the slender fingers ravaged by scars.

“As a theologian, you know what the Church holds to be the one unforgivable sin, don’t you?”

The priest shivered, recalling countless nights with his books and documents. Beneath lamplight, he read doctrines and catechisms, preparing for tests. He knew everything humans could hope to know about the spiritual and accepted his ignorance on things unknowable.

“A sin against the Holy Spirit,” he told her, thinking back to the exact wording of his textbook. “In simple terms… despair is the one sin God does not forgive.”

Kirigiri nodded as if the subject were a teatime topic and not something that chilled Naegi to the marrow.

“To despair is to think things are too lost. Those in despair do not seek self-betterment and do not seek forgiveness, believing they’re too far gone. It is a state that quite frankly… you might be able to understand best.”

Asahina coiled a lock of coffee-colored hair around her finger. “There’s been a lot of despair in the atmosphere lately… at least that’s what Sakura has been saying. And she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’s the wisest person I know. I—“

As if on cue, the chapel doors swung open and two tiny children, a boy and a girl, rushed in. The boy nearly tripped his sister as he halted before their mother. The girl spat strands of fiery hair from her mouth and said,

“Mama! Why are you still here? You promised we could visit Mr. Oowada’s new doggy!”

Before Asahina herself even had a chance to respond, the boy pushed his twin and said,

“Dummy! Mama is still sad.”

Startled, Aoi Asahina shook her head and pat both her children on the cheeks.

“I just can't believe Taka’s gone,” Asahina wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She pressed her two young children to her sides protectively. “I wanted to talk to Father Naegi about it. But Mama’ll be all right”

“The light of his soul still shines on us,” Naegi attempted to comfort the woman and children as well as collect himself. He hadn’t realized how much the discussion of murder and despair had been affecting him.

Naegi led Asahina and her family to the exit and pushed the looming white-washed doors open. Kirigiri followed closely behind, remaining silent.

They all stood together atop the concrete steps, their heads raised to the skies.

“It’s going to rain,” Asahina finally mentioned. She held out her hands, palms outstretched, in disbelief as the first droplet shattered against her skin. “It's raining for the first time in...nine months! The drought must finally be over!”

Naegi closed his eyes, and let the raindrops fall onto his face. “It almost seems like...some kind of miracle.”

“But why now?” Asahina whimpered sadly. “Why so soon after someone has died? Is it some kind of omen?”

After the words left her tongue, she tried to suck them back in, only managing a hiccup. She glanced at her kids, offering a faint smile.

“Oh, don’t worry. Mama is being a downer. Come on you two, let’s go see that puppy.”

The woman sheltered the children from the drizzle with her shawl, appearing much like a mother hen. She gave Naegi and Kyoko one last small nod before ushering her kids away.

“They look more and more like Hina and Leon every day,” said Kirigiri softly.

As Asahina has done moments before, Naegi extended a hand to the rain. He watched the water sprinkle his skin.

Miracles… Omens… Good luck… Bad luck… The priest was beginning to understand why Kirigiri had decided to come to him. No one knew more about those subjects than he did. He knew that tragedy could birth great evil or reveal a steadfast heart. In the end, everything boiled down to whether or not the unlucky one chose despair or hope.

“If I heard correctly, you’ll be visiting Miss Ludenberg this Friday at noon?” said Kirigiri.

“That’s right. I’ll see what I can do in regards to your case.”

“Thank you. Hina and I will be there too. I’m not giving you a choice on that, Makoto. I think Hina and Sakura are right. There is too much despair in the air of this town. I’m worried.”

Naegi blinked. He hadn’t been expecting Kirigiri to use his first name. Since he’d joined the clergy, only his parents and sister had ever used it. The sound of the vowels and consonants carried a calm, pleasant cadence. He knew his old friend truly feared for him.

“All right. I won’t fight you on that. But leave Celestia to me.”

 

゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ┊        ┊

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ˚✩ ⋆。˚ ✩

┊         ┊       ┊   ✫

┊         ┊       ✩    

┊ ⊹       ✯

 

Naegi arrived at Miss Ludenberg’s house at noon sharp. She swung open the door just as the front bell stopped shaking.

“Father! Right on time. Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this all day. I really do feel at peace with you here.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

Naegi stepped past the threshold and into the vestibule, wiping his black shoes on the mat. The rain had persisted for several days and, though he’d tried to keep clean, he couldn’t avoid all patches of mud.

Celestia took his dark coat and hung it from a silver hook at the doorway to her parlor. The raven-haired woman certainly kept a exquisite home. Naegi couldn’t help by admire the velvet slips on her sofa and the polished glass table which had been covered with a large doily. On the other side of the parlor sat a roaring fireplace which warmed Naegi’s chilled skin.

His hostess had set out an array of snacks and sweets on the table. Lain out beside the two plates and wine glasses were a tray of miniature ham sandwiches, a dish full of truffles, and a cornucopia full of marzipan. Though Naegi had never been a fan of the sweet, he loved the artistry of it. Each candy had been shaped as a different autumn-themed item from maple leaves to apples to little squirrels. As the priest sat, he caught a strong whiff of the almond candy; it smelled slightly bitter.

“Feel free to take what you like. I’ve been so anxious. I couldn’t help cooking all morning.”

Celestia’s laugh rang like little jingle bells. Then she sighed and took her seat at the plush sofa across Naegi, crossing her legs. Today, she wore a black silk dress with poofy sleeves and a hem embroidered with scarlet ribbon. A slight dusting of rouge tinted her pale cheeks.

“I’ve been considering what to say to you,” said Naegi. “In the end… I decided it was most important to ask… how are you doing emotionally and spiritually? I don’t think this should be just about Taka. You’ve been at the center of a lot of tragedy lately. First was your illness and then the deaths of your friends. I want you to know that I’m here for you. God is here for you.”

A gloomy look crossed Celestia’s cherry eyes. She drummed her long nails on her thigh.

“Yes. I know you’re here for me. You always were. Heh… I still remember you coming to visit me everyday last summer no matter how wretched I looked. You have a kind heart, Father.”

Naegi folded his hands and leaned in. The marzipan was making his stomach churn. Somehow, it managed to smell both syrupy sweet and strongly bitter. He ignored it and said,

“I’m glad you think so. I want to practice what I preach. And I know that I preach more that most. But, Celestia, it would help me a lot if you could be honest. Listen. Despair, depression, and faithlessness are diseases too. You’ve overcome so much already. Who’s to say you can’t overcome more?”

Celestia’s tiny lips parted slightly. Her lashes fluttered. From her mouth came a ghostly whisper.

“Despair…?”

She shook her head. “Oh, dear. I’m going to need some wine for this. You’re allowed to drink, aren’t you?”

“Yes. It’s fine if it’s not in excess.”

“Lovely.” She began to rise only to gasp and sit back down. “Darn it… this muggy weather has me really out of it. My joints aren’t the greatest. Could you.. could you grab the bottle? It’s in the cellar. First rack. Can’t miss it.”

Deep in his core, Naegi felt cautious. He ignored the little bit of unease in the back of his brain as best as he could. Suspicion had no place in his ministry. If he was to reach Celestia, he wanted her to be comfortable, at peace. He told himself to stay as pleasant and alert as possible.

“Of course. I’ll be right back.”

Naegi cut through the opulent foyer and reached the door to the basement. He headed down the creaking stairs. In the dim light of a cobweb coated window, he noticed a gaslamp on a dusty end table. He lit the lamp and placed it back exactly on the clean circle where the grime hadn’t reached.

As he ventured deeper into the cellar, a rancid smell grew more potent. The young man listened to a faint buzzing from just beyond the wine shelf. He grabbed the bottle of wine and almost turned to bolt back up the stairs. But, a knot in his stomach urged him forward, curiosity and dread driving him on.

As he turned past the shelf, the rotten odor hit him, stopping him in his tracks like a barricade. The source of the buzzes lay directly in front of him.

The body of Kiyotaka Ishimaru watched the priest with filmy eyes that resembled a gutted fish’s. In fact, the man had actually been gutted. His naked chest bore a nasty wound which revealed a jutting rib cage and damaged innards. Maggots, like crawling grains of yellow rice, swarmed around the putrid nutrients. Above them was a cloud of thick black flies.

Naegi felt any composure he had shred off of him. He let out a long, staggered scream, dropping the bottle to the ground. The container shattered and spilled its contents across the stone.

Though his body convulsed slightly and threatened to slip into unconsciousness, Naegi whirled around by instinct alone.

He found himself face to face with a hideous beldam of a woman.

With a withered face shrouded in miasma, she watched him. Her long, wrinkled fingers hooked like sickles. She cackled with a voice that sounded like a choir.

“Here’s your answer, priest. Everything you wished to know.”

Naegi backed up, eyes wide. He shoved his hand into his pocket where he kept his rosary. Pressing his thumb onto the crucifix until it ached, he stammered,

“Celestia?! Is that you? How— how did this happen?”

The witch snickered and drew closer. Her movements contained a certain gentleness that bothered Naegi. Something about her ladylike stride came across as ironically lethal, like the scent of a toxic flower.

“It’s just as you suspected. Despair.” She sighed. “It was one thing after the next. Just when I thought I’d try to get up, something always pushed me down.”

She reached for Naegi’s face, but he ducked away which seemed to irk her. She clicked her tongue and readjusted her position to face him again.

“I wanted to be wealthy which seemed like a real possibility. I mean, men are shallow little things when it comes to beauty. Being as pretty as it comes, I knew I could probably marry into money and be set. But then… then I got sick…”

Celestia let out a pained hiss. Though Naegi could barely see her eyes beyond the sable cloud which encased most of her body, he knew they were wild with rage.

“No… I didn’t just get sick! I contracted some disease that no doctor had any damn idea about. I had no hope of recovery! I lay there wasting away— losing my hair and skin. I knew everyone must have felt disgusted but me! But…”

Her tone dropped like a bird shifting from a rapid flap to a clean glide. Affection laced her tone, weaving with the bitterness.

“You never seemed bothered. You visited me so much. You spoke softly to me, but never once used that pitying baby-voice everyone else did. I looked forward to seeing you. For a bit… I even thought things might be okay even in my circumstances. But, you know, bedridden people have an awful lot of time to think and overthink.”

She giggled and kicked Ishimaru’s ankle away. Naegi felt as though she’d locked in on him, shot him with an invisible harpoon and now was just following the line forward.

“I couldn’t ever love you the way I wanted. No one would allow that, you least of all. Realizing that caused my second wave of despair to hit. I really felt cursed. First, I contracted some unheard of disease and then I fall for a damn priest. I must have been a joke to the Fates, the angels, God— whoever the hell it is arbitrating destiny! WELL I’VE HAD ENOUGH!!!”

Her voice was awful. Naegi imagined that a mandrake might sound similar. Even a fictional root that could kill with its shriek couldn’t be much worse than Celestia’s shrill wail.

“Please! Please calm down!” he begged. Inside, her admission unnerved him. He’d arrived at her doorstep prepared for a more typical murder confession. He’d suspected she’d cry and apologize and say she’d been in a dark place, and that she hadn’t really wanted to hurt anyone. The truth was far more hideous. For a moment, he wasn’t sure he could handle a despair this potent.

But he had to try.

“Celestia… I hear you. I want to help. There’s no way you’re happy like this. I know it seems impossible, but my advice really will make things better. It will just take time.” He whimpered a bit as she drew close enough to graze his chest. “But just explain how you got like this.”

The witch jabbed her hand forward to try and grab him once more, but he stepped back quickly until he felt stone against his back. Celestia shook her head as if scolding an annoying child.

“For someone who loves his long sermons, you really aren’t patient when others speak. I was getting to that, sweetie.” She flexed her knobby fingers. “The truth is that I never really got better. My body only decayed more. The night you gave me my final rites, I really did almost pass on. But then the witch visited me.”

“A witch?”

Naegi clutched his rosary with all his might and inwardly prayed the fastest prayer he could think of in the moment. He hadn’t given up on Celestia, but he felt weak and unsure. The talk of witches only left him feeling even more out of his element. He’d known a few exoticists during seminary school, but they rarely spoke about what they’d seen. The few stories Naegi had actually heard weren’t at all similar to the situation he found himself in.

“Yes. An attractive woman with blonde-pink hair. She offered to make me a witch like her and, well, I’d really given up on my dignity and righteousness at that point. I think that’s why she came in the first place. People who have hope probably don’t accept her offer as I did.”

“Oh, Celestia…” Naegi swallowed. No. Even if she didn’t, *he* still had hope. He couldn’t help but smile. His various vows had seemed to be pissing off a lot of people lately. But for all the things he promised never to do as a priest, giving up hope was the most important.

That was the one that would save him.

“All these people you killed; none of them had to die!” He gestured towards Ishimaru’s body. “None of it had to be that way or has to continue that way.”

Celestia let out a long, girlish laugh.

“I’m not going to have some divine moment of metanoia, Father! Give it up! I made my choice and I’ve committed to that choice. As long as I kill, I can keep up the smoke and mirrors, the glamor. I can fill this stupid little town with hopelessness! The same I felt!”

She calmed down from her craze, falling once again to her gentle tone.

“I’ve found that the more I cared about the person, the sweeter they taste. Byakuya was a disappointment. People really were correct when they said my feelings for him were shallow. By the time I got to Taka, I’d picked up a few tips from some books the witch had given me. Turns out a little blood isn’t enough. The best part is the heart itself.”

Naegi pushed off the wall when she attempted to grab at him again. He nearly fell straight into his knees, but regained his balance and increased the gap between him and the witch.

“Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person,” said Naegi. “If you murder me, it would hurt. I’d be in fear and pain. I-I’m afraid to get killed. But… things would end. When you finish, I’ll have moved on. It’s not the same for you. You’ll hurt more and more and more. You’ll despair more. There will never be a release! For *your* sake, don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt anyone else!”

“SILENCE! Enough! I’ll make sure you don’t spout another platitude ever again! DIE–”

Before Celestia could take another step, the stairs sounded off with a series of “thunks.” Someone let out a deep grunt, punctuated by the sound of something striking the witch.

She squeaked and tugged a sharp fireplace poker from her back. Inky blood splattered onto the stone and ran into the spilled wine.

“Get away from him,” said Kirigiri. Her command startled Celestia enough to remove her attention from Naegi completely.

Asahina appeared on the staircase next to her friend. The woman’s eyes burned like the blue flame at the bottom of a wick. Her nose wrinkled at the stench of Ishimaru’s decomposing corpse— an unpleasantry Naegi had nearly forgotten about.

“YOU BITCH!” she shrieked. She clutched the banister until her knuckles quaked.

The hag grunted out an inaudible statement and staggered. Even in her stronger form, an iron poker to the back certainly had damaged her. She swayed on her crooked feet. Naegi stepped forward to catch her only for Kirigiri to let out a short, sharp whistle and wave him away. He allowed Celestia to fall, the shadow drifting off of her until nothing more than a deformed body barely resembling a human female fell to the cellar floor.

Kirigiri descended the stairs with a fuming Asahina close behind.

“Aren’t you glad I insisted we come too?” Kirigiri said. Naegi couldn’t tell if she’d meant to make a joke or if his near-death experience had rattled her. “I’ve been looking out for you since childhood. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.”

The woman knelt by the collapsed form of Celestia Ludenberg. Lavender hair fell past her shoulder, and she quickly tucked it back.

“She’s still alive,” the constable confirmed.

Asahina shifted uncomfortably as if waiting for the witch to jump out and attempting to bring them all down with her sharp nails.

“So, what’s going to happen now?” Naegi wondered. He wanted to fly from the hellish basement as fast as he could, but kept still and solemn.

“What do you think happens at the end of a witch hunt?”

 

゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚ ゜゚*☆*゚

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ┊        ┊

┊         ┊       ┊   ┊ ˚✩ ⋆。˚ ✩

┊         ┊       ┊   ✫

┊         ┊       ✩    

┊ ⊹       ✯

 

That Sunday, Celestia Ludenberg refused to meet Makoto Naegi's eyes, daring instead to bear her face to the heavens. She frowned and he hoped she’d considered everything he’d told her in her cellar. The past few days, he’d kept in touch with the authorities, but nothing he said would make them reconsider capital punishment.

She has blackened herself. There’s just one punishment for that,” everyone had said.

The stake.

The woman’s skin sagged and begged to melt away, dragged down by the weight of her sins. Her bound, outstretched arms hung limp against the constraints of rope and the wooden stake they were attached to. Her feet shifted atop the sea of hay, dead wood, and kindling.

Asahina stepped forward. She’d left her young children at home with Leon, but had insisted on coming to stand with Naegi and Kirigiri. Had she not felt a duty to see things through, Naegi wasn’t sure she’d have attended the execution.

“Celestia! Explain yourself,” said the woman, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. “Why did you kill them? Hifumi and Byakuya and Taka! They— they didn’t do anything!”

Naegi remembered Celestia’s statement and cringed at the thought of her cannibalistic destruction of her victim’s bodies. He tried not to imagine Ishimaru’s body which had finally gotten a proper burial despite the lingering worms which crawled through him.

The witch kept her eyes squeezed shut. She spoke every word crisply.

“Am I not the source of your chaos, the tangible manifestation of disorder? When your perfect little town required misfortune, I brought it. When you needed a scapegoat for your misdoings, every little inconvenience or disaster, I became it. When you required emotions that contradicted hope and positivity, I deliver it promptly to your little church doors. And when the cycle threatened to end, I used every power imaginable to recreate myself.”

The statement sounded like lines to Naegi… as if Celestia herself were not speaking them, but someone else entirely. Someone who took great pleasure in disturbing peace and igniting despair. Before he could voice his concerns, the executioner huffed and grabbed his torch.

The flame bled into the dry straw.

The priest turned his head, second-guessing his decision to watch.

His heart patterned unevenly when he caught sight of an unfamiliar young lady in the distance. She stood beneath the tree by the church where the crow liked to nestle. The woman donned a striking dress split between black and white. However, the thing that stuck out most to the young clergyman was her hair.

A lovely blonde-pink

The girl winked one clear blue eye and held a finger to her ruby lips. Though she said nothing aloud, made not one peep… Naegi could understand exactly what the witch wanted to say to him.

This was her declaration of war, her promise to challenge hope again someday.

 

✩ The End ✩