The embers were still burning from the sudden burst of flame that had enveloped the man. Karlana sifted through them, annoyed that she was not alerted as soon as it happened, but finding what she was looking for anyway. It was subtle, but the small flames that sprung up from the disturbed embers were an unnatural deep red, like the color of blood. Hellfire. Karlana smiled, it meant she could confirm that she was indeed dealing with a follower of the occult. She had trusted that the soothsayers had not given her bad information, though she had worried that the information might be old by the time she arrived. The small, unimportant Zetian town she had been investigating for the past two days was the perfect place for a witch or one of her pawns to hide, but Karlana was having trouble finding any real leads before this. Though there had been other murders the townsfolk had not known what to look for. Now that she had seen it herself she could narrow down the list of suspects to something manageable.
Whoever she was looking for had to have access to magical reagents, a private place to prepare them, and the knowledge to do so without harming themselves or becoming possessed. The most obvious choice would be the town holy man but she had spoken to him when she first arrived and he did not strike her as the killer. Mainly, he was too old to perform any of the lengthy rituals. Even if he did manage to gather the ingredients needed to prepare a hellfire spell, he would not have the vigor to do so. With him out of the question Karlana was left with one other person that she could think of. A medicine man who lived just outside the town that, according to the other townsfolk she talked to, kept to himself unless someone asked for his assistance. Going off of the directions a frail old woman told her two days prior she made her way to the man’s home.
Karlana spent the better part of an hour walking to the place the old woman had described. It was farther than she expected, but that only made her feel surer of herself since it is easier to hide evidence out in the country. Once she arrived, Karlana spent a few minutes taking the area in. The forest that surrounded the town gave way to a small clearing, which had a well, a small outbuilding, and the man's home inside of it. There was also a garden, which had various medicinal herbs growing in well-tended soil, though none of the plants were specifically related to witchcraft. The house looked decent, with glass pane windows and no peeling paint. Its slanted roof had a few badly patched holes in it, but besides that, the rest of the house was in good repair. Walking around the house Karlana saw a cellar entrance, which she took a mental note to explore after she spoke to the medicine man. The well and outbuilding were also worth taking a look at, but she wanted to talk to the owner of the place before investigating further.
Before she entered, however, she needed to prepare herself. She opened her jacket and removed three small, thin boxes. After placing them on the ground and unlatching them, Karlana took stock. It had been months since she had last resupplied in Cirris, so the velvet-lined boxes were for the most part filled with empty vials and spots where specialized ammo used to be. She was down to two vials of Retimine out of her original seven. The potion was one of the Witch Hunt's most potent tools, it that enhanced the senses, particularly eyesight and hearing. Besides that, she was out of almost everything else including healing salve, silvered bullets, and philters. The only other nonmundane item she had left was a bottle of holy water. Sighing at the lack of tools at her disposal, Karlana took out one of her vials of Retimine and held it up to the light. She grimaced for a moment at the dark green specks floating in the otherwise clear liquid and then drank it in one swig. Karlana sputtered; she had never gotten used to the taste of the potion, and the feeling of shortness of breath along with a rush of blood to the head was something even experienced Hunters needed some time to overcome.
Once Karlana calmed herself with breathing exercises, she returned the now empty vial to its designated spot and closed the cases, placing them back in her jacket. She swung her rifle from her back to her hands and walked up to the small porch. She knocked on the door and after hearing a soft “Come in” she slowly opened the front door.
The interior was quaint if a little cluttered. Vial shelves and herb drying racks lined the walls of the main room, with desks placed about the middle of the area with various alchemy supplies that seemed to be almost thrown onto them. As she stepped inside, she noticed a wiry middle-aged man that stood hunched over a glass alembic, watching its contents coalesce. The man looked up at the sound of her entrance, revealing his acid-scarred face. His eyes widened and his muscles tensed as he saw who she was, Karlana noted, though she supposed that nervousness should be expected considering what she was wearing. Her dark green shirt and britches alongside reinforced black leather armor could frighten by themselves, but with the addition of her silver rifle, and tall triangular hat that marked her as a Hunter, she could intimidate almost anyone without even trying.
After his brief moment of shock passed, the man bowed with unexpected grace and said in a deep voice, “A member of the Hunt, are you here to restock on something? I’m afraid I can’t make many of your more specialized potions but I’m sure I can create something of similar effect.”
Karlana thought about how to handle the situation for a moment. Ordering supplies might make him drop his guard, but putting him under pressure could work just as well to get the information she needed. Since she was more practiced in the latter, she made her lips into a line a spoke in a lower tone that would force him to strain his hearing, “No, I have come to investigate the town for witchcraft. You are among the suspects."
"Me? Well, I suppose I can answer any questions you might have."
"Good. To start, what is your name?"
"Liro, my lady. I don't have a surname. And yours?"
Ignoring his question, she continued, "Are you housing anything that would be considered witchcraft?"
"Witchcraft? A preposterous notion I assure you, there is nothing here of that sort. Everything I have that produces an effect is chemical or an ah, an approved magical recipe. Nothing I do here is illegal.”
The Hunter smiled internally at his poise. If he was lying he was good at it, even his pauses sounded natural, but thanks to the Retimine she could hear his pulse quicken as he answered. It was not confirmation of guilt, but her suspicion still rose.
"I am going to look through your home. If you do not comply I will act with as much force as I deem necessary. Is there any more information you wish to give me before I conduct my search?”
"No, Huntress. Only that many of the things I have stored in vials are delicate and some of them caustic, so if you need to open something make sure to read the labels." He said, moving through a tight spot in between two desks to point out a few jars with skulls drawn on them.
The search was for the most part uninformative. She noticed that Liro had all the ingredients to make a drug that was considered illegal in many places, but as that was not Karlana’s concern she looked past it. Many of the herbs and poultices he had on hand could be used in witchcraft but had more mundane uses in medicine, so there were of little use in her investigation. His bedroom had nothing of note, and the attic only held cobwebs. Karlana was beginning to think the man really was just a healer and chemist, but the way he talked, and his unusual composure in her presence, kept her from discarding the thought that there was more to this man. Something about him was wrong, unnatural. She had killed almost two dozen abominations and cultists, and he shared similarities with them that she could not ignore. During her search, she also noticed that Liro's eyes were too focused and he smelled slightly of decay, common signs of the occult, specifically necromancy.
These traits could be explained away, but the Witch Hunt did not take chances. There was too much at risk, she reminded herself. After taking a brief look at the outbuilding and cellar, both of which were filled with old furniture, dried foodstuff, and various herbs that grew in the dark, she bade farewell to Liro and left. After getting out of view of the house though, she turned back. She made a brief trek through the forest to a spot where she could watch everything going on in the small plot of land but remain unseen and sat down to a comfortable position. It might have been irresponsible of her not to investigate others before deciding he was the one she was looking for, but she had a gut feeling about him. So she decided to wait for the opportunity to investigate the home without Liro present.
It was two days before Liro left his property to go to town. Karlana had watched unmoving for the entirety of the wait, using her training to stay awake and focused as much as she could, only sleeping a couple of hours throughout the stakeout. Almost nothing happened during her watch except that he went to the cellar a few times, presumably to check on the herbs growing there since he never came out with anything.
But why then, Karlana wondered, does he not look after the outdoor garden? Those would need more care than mold and mushrooms wouldn't they?
Once she was sure he was gone, Karlana began to prepare to search the house. Not knowing what to expect but erring on the side of caution, she choked down her last vial of Retimine and fastened her holy water to her belt. Finally, she prayed to Je'Grol, goddess of the hunt, running her finger down a short hymn inscribed on her gun while she did so. The Great Huntress had protected her for years, as she did with all in the Witch Hunt who invoked her name, as long as they were tenacious enough to chase down their prey wherever it may hide. After her prayer was complete, she made her way toward the front door and slipped in.
The second pass through the house was just as uneventful as the first. Everything seemed to be in order, and she even saw a few prayer books to Artival, the god of storms. It was a strange choice of religion for a man who lived in a place sheltered from the worst of the tempests that hit the coast, but it was about as far from the occult as a thing could be. Karlana's investigation of the attic was more interesting, as she kept hearing a high pitched sound that she could not locate even while on Retimine. After five minutes she gave up looking for the source, figuring it a rusty hinge somewhere. Then she went back outside and into the darkened cellar.
Pleased that the Retimine gave her enough night vision to see using the ambient light from the cracks in the ceiling, Karlana searched the cellar, going through boxes and moving furniture. While she worked she wondered if Liro was on an errand or if he was stalking another victim. She had no personal attachment to any of the people here, but she still wanted to avoid more bloodshed, so she hoped he was just buying radishes or getting a hole in his clothing patched.
In under an hour, Karlana found what she was looking for. She had not thought to look up until she noticed that a certain spot at the back of the cellar was completely dark. Unlike the rest of the room, no light leaked through from the floor above, making the area stand out. Karlana thanked Je'Grol for giving her the wisdom to look around in the dark, as the lack of light would have been unnoticeable if a candle or torch was lit inside the room. Karlana inspected the area and at last found what she was looking for: a trapdoor disguised perfectly to look like the surrounding ceiling. Working fast, she stacked a few of the wooden boxes that were around her and climbed up, and opened the hatch with care, ready to hear a drawstring snap or a soft 'whoosh' from a rune activating. When nothing happened, she poked her head through the opening and looked around. The trapdoor led to a shaft which contained nothing but a sturdy looking ladder leading further up to the attic.
‘Clever,’ she thought, 'Use multiple floors and a cramped, difficult to define space to conceal a hidden room.'
Most of the time people just left their things under the floorboards or in a box in the corner. It was rare to see actual construction was involved. The man was not an amateur, she decided, so she was careful when climbing up to the hidden room, checking for traps along the way. Halfway up the ladder, her suspicions were confirmed. A thin silver thread was stuck to the lining of the hatch, invisible and silent to anyone coming from below. The thread had been used to define an alarm spell's active area, and she had sprung it simply by reaching up to grab the pull to open the trapdoor. Karlana sighed. Even after she had been as careful as she could, she still messed up. Now she had a timer. Knowing she did not have long before Liro either returned or fled, Karlana heaved herself up the ladder and into the hidden room in the attic.
The room was small, only five feet deep by fifteen feet wide with slanted ceilings, but it held everything Karlana was looking for. Even from her low vantage point, she could see a table with a leather bound book sat on top of a set of runes. As Karlana finished pulling herself up she also noticed that a thin layer of ash, a byproduct of infernal magic, coated the surface of the floor. Two chests flanked the sides of the table, which looked to be unlocked, judging by the open latches. Leaving them for later, she stepped up to the book and opened it. Inside were copious notes on blood magic, necromancy, and a guide on infernal spell casting. She now had all the evidence that she needed to condemn this man, though she did not need to present it to anyone. In fact, she could have killed Liro without even speaking to him thanks to her position as a member of the Hunt, but her conscience would not allow it. Hesitation to kill was a trait that the Frayes, a family of Hunters that have been with the Witch Hunt since its inception, told her she needed to suppress, even if it meant killing an innocent every now and then. It was the one teaching that she did not fully accept from them, though so far it had only made things harder for her.
Now for the chests. Karlana thought, turning towards the ladder and climbing partway back down. Once she was sure she was in a safe enough position, Karlana focused hard. An ethereal hand appeared in mid-air, still except for the motions of Karlana's left hand that it copied. The Mage Hand was the only spell she could cast, taking her months of training to make it appear on command, but it had proven itself worth the effort time and time again. With her mind, she ordered the Mage Hand to float towards the chest on the right and manipulated her left hand to cause the fake one to lift the lid. She waited for five heartbeats before deciding that nothing was going to happen and then sent the ghost-like appendage to open the other chest.
A burst of freezing cold air hit Karlana from above her as soon as the lid was lifted a fraction of an inch, the trap she had a hunch would be there had been sprung. Its usefulness exhausted, Karlana dismissed the Mage Hand and pulled herself back into the room, surmising that the spell would have frozen her in an instant had she opened the container herself. A sheet of rime coated the ceiling and floor around the chest, but she was glad to see that nothing had been damaged by the blast. Seeing that the first chest had only a few vials of ink and some parchment inside, Karlana looked to the second one. Inside were various magically preserved body parts and organs that could be used in necromantic rites, and joining them was a steel pendant in the shape of an eye, its iris made of copper and its pupil onyx. Karlana held the pendant up to inspect it further.
The eye gave off a high pitched chirping sound followed by a deeper thrumming sound, and it radiated warmth. To Karlana's dismay, the chirp was the same one that she had heard in the main section of the attic. It embarrassed her that she had explained it away without much thought, and made a mental note not to do something like that again. The negative thoughts faded though, as she continued to inspect the pendant. It was so beautiful and mysterious that she for a moment she forgot herself, running her fingers along its smooth surface while listening to the faint thrumming sound it gave off.
Obviously it's magical, but what is its purpose? She thought, looking close at the finely engraved iris. Is it dangerous? Not everything that witches and cultists have in their possession is evil, just useful.
Her concentration was broken by a soft thud coming from below, quiet enough to where even her sharpened sense of hearing almost didn’t catch it. Liro was back and coming for her. He was confident enough in his abilities to try and take on a Witch Hunter. Karlana took this as a bad sign; usually, they ran. Pocketing the pendant for later investigation, Karlana dropped two stories down into the cellar. There was more room to maneuver, and in her experience, that was of the utmost importance when dueling a spell caster. They had the advantage in power, not to mention Liro was already familiar with the space. Her only hope was to rush at him like a cornered dog. She rolled forward upon landing, bringing her rifle to bear as she stood, looking for a target. Karlana found Liro standing in the center of the room, not expecting her to be down from the room in so little time. He had been in the middle of casting a spell, but he cut it short as he saw her and sent a wave of dark red and black flame in her direction before she could take proper aim. It caused her shot to go wide as she hopped back to avoid the hellfire, remaining unharmed but now stuck behind a wall of fire that was setting the room ablaze.
"You shouldn’t have meddled, Hunter,” She heard through the flames. "I’ve worked hard to ensure that I can kill anyone that gets in my way. I will bring about the return of the Great Witch, and then all will see her wisdom.“
Karlana mentally rolled her eyes, she had heard that name many times before. The Great Witch, also known simply as Nordea, was a famous character from history and the reason the Witch Hunt was founded, but she was long dead and her body had been torn apart and burned to prevent resurrection. It still did not stop people from trying to bring her back though. Remaining calm, Karlana pulled out her holy water. She would have to act fast if she wanted to escape. The flames were consuming the cellar, forcing her back by the second, and if the fire did not kill her, the smoke would.
"Once she’s back, I’ll be her right hand and be told the secrets to immortality!” Liro ranted, becoming louder by the second so that Karlana could hear him over the fire. "Once the materials are collected and the ritual is complete, no one will have to die anymore, we can live forever in unity!“ Karlana ignored him, uncorked the bottle, and doused herself with the cool liquid as evenly as she could. There was not much water in the vial, but she hoped it would be enough to prevent the worst of the flame's effects. "Let me have my quarry, even if it is my last” she muttered, praying to Je'Grol for a successful hunt. She had very little time before escape was impossible, so Karlana gathered her courage, and dashed into the fire.
The hellfire was just as hot as the place it got its name from. Even with the holy water preventing her from the stygian effects of the spell, she would still have burns even with the added protection from her leather gear. It what felt like an eternity to Karlana, but in reality was just a few seconds, she emerged from the other side of the flames. Liro had stopped bragging and was standing there with a smug smile on his face, waiting to hear her screams of agony and see the shadow of her burning corpse in the fire. Instead, he saw a flash of silver, green and black rush past him. Finishing her mad dash, Karlana turned toward him from the top of the cellar stairs. He wasn’t as dangerous as she had first thought. Skilled yes, but unpracticed and overconfident in his abilities. He turned to her, his hand held to the side, conjuring another burst of hellfire, but this time Karlana had the advantage —and he was at point blank range.
She considered, for a brief moment, to shoot him in the leg and let him burn in the inferno he himself made, but her sense of irony was overridden by discipline. So instead, she swung her rifle upwards and fired at his face, watching the spray of gore fly outwards behind his now shattered skull. She liked the hissing sound the blood made as it hit the fire, it meant her job was done.
The victory was not without cost though. Once she left the cellar and walked out into the clearing, she realized that her left leg had a bad burn. She had missed it with the holy water. Without proper care, the wound would become infected, and in Karlana's experience that rarely ended well.
Damn, She thought. Of course this would happen. It's never an easy kill with spellcasters.
She limped her way back toward town, the pain hitting her harder every second now that shock was wearing off. By the time she got there, she was losing consciousness and had to be helped by the townsfolk. Karlana stayed in the small town for a little over two weeks after her encounter with Liro, recovering from her wounds and explaining the situation to the locals. Once she was sure she was up to travel, she bid farewell to the villagers and departed to get a ship back to Mistmoore, the capital city of Cirris. With all her supplies expended, she would need to go back to her homeland to get more, which meant she had a long time to write her report. There was little collateral damage and she did not have to purge the town, so she hoped she would be congratulated on a job well done by her peers.
She smiled at that, considering she was still new to the Hunt compared to the ancient Frayes, even they would have to admit that this trip had gone well all things considered. Only one bad burn over the course of four Hunts and that could be healed to look like it never happened once she was back in Mistmoore. Her smile faded when she remembered the pendant she found. Karlana had studied it a bit more over the course of her recovery and though she had yet to find out the exact nature of the thing she had grown attached to it. Deciding that she would ask the soothsayers if she could keep it if it was not based in the occult, she tucked it back into her jacket and headed towards the nearest port city.