Content Warning: Blood, violence
In the market square of the village was the statue of Saint Anselm, the patron saint of reavers and millers and all those who worked to feed the hungry. Every year, whenever fall turned to winter, the statue cried tears that smelled like dust in the rain. A miracle from God, the Patriarch claimed. Once, a scholar had come and said the tears came from moisture stored in the eyes that released as the weather cooled. For this high heresy, he was driven from town, his flesh a red ruin from the Patriarch’s lash. The blood spilt that day was living proof that the people of that village held their God close to their heart. The same God, at least in name, worshiped in the cities, but a crueler God than that, a God not of scriptures and poems and songs but of flint and iron and fear. That winter’s morning, however, was different.
The devout were the first to notice, with pewter bowls in one hand and cudgels in the other, ready to gather the tears and beat back any who tried to stop them. But it was not long before the message reached everyone in town. It began in half-murmured whispers and grew into screams and clamors of alarm and fright.
Saint Anselm was crying blood.
Lallibella breathed in through her nostrils and out through pursed lips. Eyes closed, she was kneeling on the forest floor, cold pine needles grinding into mealy foam under her weight. For the third time that morning, she attempted the meditation.
There is no death. There is no self. There is only the Grey. She breathed in, hesitated, breathed out. Still, no change came over her. Lallibella opened her eyes and cursed.
Suddenly, she heard hooves against the forest floor, moving towards the clearing. Slowly, Lallibella lifted herself from the forest floor and dusted the pine needles from her cloak. A rider arrived in a spray of loam.
“Grey Witch,” a voice intoned. “I come on the word of Castigair De’Morazia, Castellan of Coldreek, Bluewatch, and the Seven Stones. He seeks your most urgent counsel.”
How odd… Lallibella thought. She knew of Castigair, to be sure; one of her Sisters had delivered him into this world. Yet to Lallibella’s knowledge, the Castellan had never once sought the aid of a Grey Witch. Lallibella remembered why, and asked, “Does he not have his Priest to attend to him?”
The rider shook their head. “Father Gracchi calls himself Patriarch now, my lady, and it appears that he can be of no help, may God forgive me saying it.”
“What manner of thing is it?” she asked, feeling a sense of fear and purpose bloom in her chest.
The rider swallowed in a dry throat. “Demons.”
The statue was a plain thing, hewn from the drab grey stones that were common in the shale cliffs of the South. Its head was bent low, eyes downcast, hands folded before its waist. Why do you cry, good Saint? Lallibella thought. Rivulets of red were running down the old Saint’s face. Lallibella stepped onto the pedestal and, without thinking, dipped her fingertip into one of the streams, and tasted it. It was blood.
“Must you?” the Castellan said, behind her.
Lallibella jumped, startled. Trying to conjure the authority of her Grey Sisters, Lallibella cleared her throat and turned towards the Castellan.
“Water can look like blood, if there are motes of clay in it. Yet water of that kind tastes of mercury and magnesia. Blood tastes of iron and fire. Just so.” She clambered down from the pedestal and stood beside the Castellan, wiping the blood from her mouth. Castigair was young, and handsome by the standards of those days. A beard like a trowel spiked from his chin, and his eyes were like two chips of clear river ice. A dueling sword was at his hip. Beside him was the Patriarch, a man of perhaps seventy years. Lallibella knew to treat him with the utmost deference, averting her gaze and calling him “Your Grace ” whenever possible. Countless Grey Sisters had met their ends by the word of men like him. She felt nervous.
“It is human, by the looks of it,” Lallibella continued. “I would need an apothecary to confirm it, but like as not I am right.”
“A Demon!” the Patriarch spat, his voice leaden and cold. It was a voice full of heavy purpose, filled with the fearlessness only the Godly can muster. She tried to ignore her own fear, which rattled in her chest like a broken gear in a music box.
First she addressed the Castellan, curtsying. “I will need to purge the evil from the stone. It will take time.” She turned to the Patriarch, bowed her head, and said, “I will need anointing oils if you have them, and smelling herbs as well, your Grace.” The Patriarch nodded professionally, yet still Lallibella felt his smoldering impatience. For the fourth time that day, she tried to bury her doubts.
As the oils smoked and the herbs burned, Lallibella prepared to lower herself into the Grey State. It was hard enough in the peace and silence of the wood; now the eyes of the village were on her, clouding her thoughts and slowing her will. She half expected to fail then and there, and face the Patriarch’s mockery. Yet as she began to breathe rhythmically, she felt an ease flow through her. The Grey State was welcoming her with open arms. Slowly, her selfhood began to abate. She began to hear, for the first time in months, the song of the wind and the poem of the earth.
The Patriarch and the Castellan could only stand aghast as Lallibella began to unconsciously speak in tongues. Birds scattered, and a nearby pair of horses reared and gnashed against their bridles, terrified of the otherworldly noises that emanated from her mouth. Across the market square, villagers boarded windows and prayed solemnly over whatever meager relics their families had, just as their Faith told them to when magic was afoot.
Beside her, the Castellan began to shake. He had witnessed such episodes seven times in his young life, yet no two were the same. Some Witches grew silent upon contact with their Grey State; others screamed in terror and pain; others still sung songs, hymns and lullabies. The Castellan swallowed his pride and doubled back in fear. The Patriarch, meanwhile, prepared to grab her if she so much as scratched the statue. No heresy would go unpunished, especially from one such as her.
Still in her Grey State, Lallibella opened her eyes and looked at the statue before her. It looked new and unfamiliar. She saw not just the stone and the craftwork that shaped it, but felt the hearts that loved and feared the Faith it stood for. The tectonic weight of the emotion was like tasting every fruit in a garden all at once, yet she bore it with an ease she had never felt before.
Effortlessly, Lallibella placed her mind into the deepest core of the stone. In a human soul, Lallibella knew, it was in the deepest core that the gravest sins could be found, unearthed—by more skilled Witches than her—with gentle words and subtle flatteries. But in the soul of a stone, the sins were pried out by strength and will alone. And so in the world outside the Witch’s mind, Castigair and the Patriarch watched as Lallibella ceased her chanting and, in words they all could understand, spoke to the statue:
“Wound of Evil, Red Stain, these words are for you and you alone! Deliver yourself back unto the Rotting Hells whence you came! In the name of the Grey, of the wood and beasts, I command you!” Lallibella approached the stone and placed her fingers on it. Twice more she repeated what she had said before with a voice no mortal craw could bear for long.
It stopped as sudden as a whip crack. Lallibella’s Grey State scattered like fog.
“No! I was so close! What happened?” she cried. She received no answer. There was a long and terrifying pause.
“By the Hells, what is it?!” the Patriarch exclaimed.
There, in reach of them all, was a figure. An affront to all but the most perverted delusions of the flesh. Seven feet tall, yet lithe and thin as a spear. All carbuncle hackles and muscleless bones. A mane like a timber wolf’s.
Hours later, as the sun set over the wood, Lallibella finally collapsed. Her face half an inch deep in pine needles, she vomited into the waiting lap of the forest floor. She cradled her chest as if the blood on her robes was hers. The last of the Castellan’s life, she thought numbly, as she removed her hands from the stain and they came back sticky and red. The village was all but gone now, she was certain. The way the Beast had moved… no warrior of this land would have stood a chance. She tried to bury the memory of the villagers screaming. She failed.
Behind her, Lallibella noted distantly, the Patriarch collapsed as well, cursing the name of every Saint he knew, heedless of the heresy. Straining against exhaustion, Lallibella sat up, breathing in slowly as much as her heart could bear.
“What… what did you do?” the Patriarch spat once his screed was done. When Lallibella was silent, he asked again, “Answer me, Witch. What… what unspeakable heresy have you wrought?”
Lallibella’s heart was racing, and only half from fear of the demon. When she was a girl, her mother had taken her to a Witch Burning. She knew what men like the Patriarch could do when they were angry. She tried her best to placate him. “I didn’t… that was not me, your Grace.”
“I am called Patriarch now. Forget it and I shall purge you with iron and fire!” He gulped in a lungful of air. “The Castellan is dead. You have committed treason. You… you monster.” The Patriarch dropped his gaze down onto the forest floor. Lallibella prepared to face his iron wrath.
Then, she noticed that he was crying.
A realization came over her then. His entire life, the Patiarch had worn his faith like a cold iron sword, fit to rip and tear at his enemies and defend himself. The Beast had shattered that faith. Now, he was nothing more than a scared ignorant man, lashing out at what he did not understand. No more sure of his God’s unconditional love than Lallibella was of her Grey State. The fear of death, of burning in fire or hellfire, melted away. She pitied him, at that moment. And hated how he had made her feel. Pity and anger became cold purpose.
“Thank you Gracchi,” she said, and before he could correct her, “You’ve shown me the wisdom of our late Castellan. He was right to call for me and not for you.” She stood up.
Before, in the market square, she had needed to bury her doubts. The doubts were there, Lallibella was certain, but they were weaker, in spite of the Patriarch’s words. She could banish them now. She breathed in through her nostrils, and out through pursed lips.
A broken wagon wheel spun idly about its axis, making a sound like a keening bird. The body of the wagon had collapsed, the wood pounded into splinters. A fire thundered near the rear of the wagon.
Ahead lay the wreckage of the village. Half a hundred houses had been raided, tools—plowshares pounded into blades, pitchforks wielded like lances—were scattered, and through it all was the stench and sight and silence of blood. Lallibella entered the village square. The statue of Saint Anselm was no more, its stone surface annihilated by titanic force. The body of the Castellan clung to one of the resulting chunks of rubble. A voice emanated from nowhere.
“Little Witch. How far your kind have fallen. In the Days of the Sun, your Ancestors shaped Names as a potter shapes clay. How weak you are now.”
The voice was slow and predatory, as ageless and pitiless as the sun. “Where are you?” Lallibella called, making her own voice as strong as she could.
“I am here, before you now. And I am within you.”
Lallibella paused. “What do you mean?”
“Did you really think your Grey State came as easily as it did by your skill and your skill alone?” it cooed. “I yearned so desperately to be free of that stone, I lent you some of my own strength. This power and more I could give you. The strength of your foremothers, your own to wield.”
The voice passed through Lallibella, a deep susurration that called to all her deepest, oldest dreams. She felt a young girl again, dreaming of wielding the fire in the sky and the water in the earth. The promise of power ringed like a clarion call to that inner, half-forgotten dream.
“No…” she called, with the barest hesitation. “I have to stop you.”
The Demon rasped. “You’re so weak… too weak to claim even the barest strength. You become your own weakness and you learn to live with it, even as it kills you.” Lallibella felt the truth within the words, the vast and inescapable certainty of it, the ironclad fact of her own self.
Then, she spoke in cold reply, “There is no death.”
A cackle passed over the market square, loud as an autumn storm. “You pathetic little thing.”
“There is no death. There is no self,” Lallibella recited. The anger of the Beast became potent, bubbling up like a cyst.
“Silence, Grey One,” the voice growled. “I will slaughter you like a hog.”
“There is no death. There is no self. There is only the Grey.”
Footsteps, silent as silk, approached furiously. To Lallibella’s senses, they were as loud and obvious as rain on a steel roof. A brimstone heat filled the air and a rasping call grew louder and louder. Lallibella felt her death approaching.
“Be unmade,” she said to the Beast. And it was so.
Hundreds of miles away, the one they called Stonetongue asked, “What does it mean?”
The candle guttered and spat, sparks cascading from the pure white flame that burned at its head. The flame was unbearably hot, even five paces away, but the grey wax refused to melt. “What does it mean, my lady?” the boy asked again.
A woman’s voice replied from the dark.
“A Grey Omen, little child,” it said. “This candle has not burned this hotly for seven hundred years. Ready yourself. The Grey Witches live again.”
And in the dark, the speaker felt a tear bead up on the corner of her eye. She wiped it away, and in the dark did not notice.
She was crying blood.