The Witchhunter and Juonte

This is a sequel of sorts to this story.

The bodies were arrayed haphazardly about the camp fire, the faces on each frozen in death masks of pure fear and horror. Forms were contorted unnaturally, rendered into rigid shape by both rigor mortis, and muscles torn by unearthly fury.

Thobir of Kilvisti wandered among the carnage, kneeling at various spots that interested him. Thirteen men, all destroyed by a creature Thobir had laboured long and arduously to capture. There was the armoured carriage, its covering tarpaulin laying uselessly on the ground. The lock of the carriage door, made of priceless rhodium metal, also lay in the grass. Thobir picked up and turned it over in his hands. The ruck of Fels would be ignorant of this lock’s worth. To them, it’d be simply another device to secure a door, not given a second glance. To a professional witchhunter like Thobir, it was an invaluable tool of his trade.

Rhodium metal had a peculiar repugnance to the undead. The more intelligent of those who lurked in the night would not come near it, as its touch was annihilation. The metal itself was exceedingly rare, and its smelting a closely-held secret by the Hanse’s alchemists.

The man who liberated the creature had clearly not known its worth. Thobir grunted and placed the broken lock in his pouch. There was far more to be concerned about now than a mere scrap of metal.

Three sets of tracks led along the rough road to Hiani to the north. Two of these were significantly smaller than the other, and Thobir guessed the creature’s liberator was accompanied by either two slight women or children. They were walking too, as there was no sign of urgency to their steps. Girkent Miel was being casually left behind.

By the light of a gibbous moon, Thobir stared northward, debating whether to pursue this uncommonly chivalrous individual who freed ghastly terrors of the night from their prisons. The man had cost Thobir almost six month’s bounty with his deed, and the witchhunter’s purse was light. Girkent Miel was living up to its reputation as a dead-end town and a dasher of dreams. He had no desire to return to Kilvisti empty-handed. The Hanse’s capital was even less forgiving to the indigent.

He sighed angrily, and kicked at the road’s hard sod. Chasing the man down would only bring the sterile joy of revenge, and in the long run, that would avail Thobir little. He doubted the liberator carried wealth of any size. Certainly nothing that compared to the bounty that awaited him once the creature was delivered.

There was no help for it. The creature had to be recaptured, and swiftly. He knew where it laired, and he also knew this time, it would be expecting him.

Thobir returned to his lodgings in the town, and prepared his gear before he turned in for the night. There was a circlet of enchanted platinum that he had procured at great cost. Wearing this would be proof against the creature’s considerable mental assaults. There was also his finely wrought net of spun crystal. It was supple enough to be folded and stored in a simple knapsack, but expanded to a size where it could ensnare a beast twice the size of a living man. The dire creature of the night was of this magnitude.

Then there were the aids the priestesses of Tutanai had given him. A small periapt to be worn about the neck, which would stave off the waves of loathsome fear the creature radiated, and a tiny jar of special ointment to be applied to bare skin, which would assist him in resisting the creature’s deathly touch.

With his gear sorted, he crawled into bed and slept.

Thobir awoke to a chilly dawn, a miserable fog rolling down the eastern foothills of the Chain. He settled his score at the inn, and struck out into the pale misty light, his jaw set, and his intent clear.

The creature’s lair was two day’s trek through the lower reaches of the Chain, roughly northwest of Girkent Miel, nigh on the border with Oloi. It was Thobir’s hope he could have the creature captured and given to the Temple of Tutanai in Maepes before the fortnight was over. After that, his worries were over, at least for a goodly portion of a year.

But, as he thought again, this creature would be alert to him now. It was a being possessed of a cold, dark intellect, almost as if it were an avatar of unholy Maorth herself. It would undoubtedly lie in wait for Thobir, and possibly have a number of stratagems devised to not only thwart the witchhunter, but destroy him.

Thobir tightened his sword-belt, from which hung a panoply of weapons both sharp and deadly. The tools of his trade, though most of the punch-daggers and poniards he bore would do little harm to the beast. He had other methods at hand to defend himself against the creature’s life-sapping ferocity.

By noon, he had discovered clear signs of the creature’s passing. A dead deer lay clumsily on a rocky outcrop, its head at an unnatural angle, and its vital forces sluiced from its body. Manifestly, the massacre at the campsite was insufficient to slake the creature’s lust for unsuspecting life. More importantly, the kill was recent, within the last hour. Thobir fitted the circlet over his brow, and covered his hands and face with heavy cloth. He had nothing to fear from the creature while the sun was out, but there were many caves and crannies that daylight never reached, and he knew well how swift it could move.

The Chain climbed high in the sky before him, and the path that led to the creature’s den was a faint one. There were many ravines and clefts on the way, where once bridges spanned, but these had long fallen into the depths, gone and sundered along with whoever had built them so long ago. Perhaps it was the Oloii themselves who had made them, but Thobir had no answers. In truth, ancient architecture was far from his mind. There was a darkness clouding the higher elevation of the mountains. With senses alert, he scurried uphill among the boulders and thorny shrubs, ever higher and higher. It was not only the malice of the creature he had to be wary of, but nature itself. A careless trip would see him tumbling helplessly to his death, or at the least broken bones. In this wilderness, a severe injury such as a fracture was tantamount to death. Then, he would be easy prey to the vengeful creature or some other soulless predator.

Even though he had crossed all manner of terrain in pursuit of the unholy and profane, he never let his attention wander, and even now, he found ways around obstacles and chasms that a lesser man would fail at.

Thobir drew in range of a landmark he recognised. It was an old ruined temple to some forgotten mountain god from Fels’s deep history. Little remained of it now save for an overgrown plaza and a tumble of fallen stonework. Pines, deodars and birches grew haphazardly about the periphery, making a change from the monotony of shrub that Thobir had passed so far.

He had often camped here in his ranging. Mostly, he was troubled at night by nothing more than the chirruping of insects and the seasonal chill. Dusk was settling over this part of the Three Rivers, and Thobir sought to rest for the night, and renew his hunt in the bright morning.

He set no fires, instead settling himself an old pillar facing the east, and ate a portion of hard tack, and a mouthful from his canteen. After setting out his magical ward against ambushes, he placed his knapsack on the ground as a pillow, and laid himself out for sleep. For a while, he watched the stars above before sleep overtook him.

It was still night when his ward triggered. He sprung to his feet, adrenaline cancelling out the fatigue of sleep. Some large animal lumbered down the slope away from him, growling as it went. Thobir took shelter behind a pillar and observed its progress. Was it a bear? He was not certain but he felt in his gut it was too large, and too swift to be a bear. All kinds of beasts dire and benign dwelt in the Chain, and some of these had no common names, such was their rarity. More often, that rarity was a result of the beast killing the would-be describer.

The growling receded down the slope, and that was truncated by a brief whimpering noise. The air grew still, and with nerves afire, Thobir prepared himself against attack. The sky grew blacker than black, and there was an awful pressure at his temples. He knew without a shred of doubt the creature was near.

He held his sword in one hand, and the enchanted net in the other. With his back to a high pillar, he stared this way and that, trying to glimpse this elusive denizen of the night. He knew from experience it could not be seen directly. There was some sorcery about it that prevented clear scrutiny. One’s eyes simply slipped off it.

There was a sudden rush to his left. He flung the net in that direction, twisting his hand as he did. Something powerful tugged at it, and he was pulled to one knee. The net went limp and he swore he heard a chuckle.

A feminine chuckle.

So the creature was female. A part of Thobir’s mind made note of that piece of information as he retrieved the net. He gathered it for another throw, his body tense and poised. Dust and small motes of rock fell on his head, and he rolled forward in time to avoid a massive dark shadow coming down the pillar.

At once, he was up, and the net flew from his hand. It caught nothing but night air.

‘I fear I’m too quick for you,’ came a throaty female voice out of the night.

‘So you can speak,’ Thobir said, readying his net for another throw. ‘Tell me of your saviour who freed you.’

‘A saviour he is.’ Something darker than any night flitted across Thobir’s vision, leaving cold and fear in his wake. ‘He gave me a name.’

‘Indeed. What may I call you?’

‘Juonte. It is as good a name as any. I know you are Thobir of Kilvisti, witchhunter for the Hanse. I have watched your progress since you left Girkent Miel.’

There was another pull at Thobir’s consciousness, and a fearful iciness gripped the air. ‘Then you could have slain me while I slept.’

‘Yes,’ Juonte agreed. ‘I could do so now. Your protections and wards will do nothing for you. I will wear down your calmness until you are a quivering shape, writhing on the ground, crying for the mercy of death. You were brave to hunt me again, Thobir, but oh so foolish.’

Thobir waited breathlessly for Juonte to cross his path again. When her ominous shadow passed before him, he hurled out his net. He felt it envelop his target, and he triumphantly gave it a twist to secure his prize.

But his victory was fugitive. He was thrown off his feet by a titanic force, hitting his head on the ancient stones of the plaza. He swooned, and his platinum circlet rolled fitfully away. There came another deep, brassy chuckle as Juonte shed the net, flinging it far away into the night.

‘Awake, little man,’ she said.

Thobir struggled to his feet, feeling his head for his now lost circlet. His sword had broken when he fell, and he dropped the remnant in defeat. ‘Do your worst, spirit,’ he said to the lurking form at the periphery of his vision.

‘It’s not to your advantage to dare me so,’ she said. ‘You don’t even begin to understand what that worst could mean.’

‘So I’m to become your chattel now?’ he asked.

‘From your actions, I would’ve been destroyed by the zealots of Tutanai, immolated on their ever-burning fires. What was to be your reward for that? Riches? Slaves? Women?’ Her voice bit into him, each syllable a frozen rasp of terror. Dread made his legs tremble and his mind to cloud over with sickening helplessness. ‘For sure, I could kill you now for your arrogance, and feed from your pitiful body. But I have fed well of late, enough to keep me sated for years, and your destruction would be a hollow symbol of revenge. But tell me, Thobir of Kilvisti, if I were you, what would you do?’

‘Kill me,’ he admitted.

‘Your capturing of me had an inadvertent effect, one which pleases me. I have formed a bond of sorts with he who liberated me. So I find myself in a buoyant mood, and that’s something I’ve not experienced in untold years. I should thank you, Thobir of Kilvisti, whatever your motives were.’

She glided closer to Thobir, to where her nebulous shape blotted out the night. His fear peaked, and he fainted, collapsing slowly to the cold ground.

Juonte tinkled a laugh and swirled about the insensate man. What was she to do with him? She needed no more undead slaves, and she was of no mind to keep a living man as an amusement, especially when the man she truly desired moved farther away from her with each moment.

Perhaps she should just kill Thobir, and let his corpse moulder here in these decayed ruins. It’d be a rightful end for a man who made his living hunting her kind.

She could feel his vital forces circulating throughout his body. His heartbeat thrummed and the darker part of Juonte’s conscience desired to still it. She stretched out long, ghostly arms and sensed his body heat radiating into the night.

Her mind reached out to Horoth, but he was too distant now, even though she felt the faint echo of his being. Staring down at Thobir, Juonte realised how utterly alone she was. She was separated from her old existence by countless centuries, and of that previous life as a living woman, she knew nothing.

‘Maybe you will amuse me after all,’ she whispered. ‘I will keep you until your living years have ended, and then perhaps you will serve me still in death.’ She lifted her far-seeing eyes into the night, piercing the veil of darkness. Far away to the northeast, a man walked along a broad road with two girls. Juonte let out a baying cry that reverberated among the gullies of the Chain, and even in Girkent Miel, men were awakened by a fear they couldn’t name.

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