The Riddle of Witch Flesh: Part 5

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Jarmila casual2.jpeg

The Twelfth Incubator's Office is positioned at a surprising place - in one of the National Theatre's loges. The Archive was rebuilt just under it, so we can simply take a lift from there. Our Incubator has always boasted being something of an anthropologist, and since we were moving everything years ago, he used the opportunity to enjoy music arts during work, and focus on our culture more.

When I've entered the office, he was doing something with the computer alright, but through the one-way glass, I could also see the actors on the stage rehearsing something, repeating lines, occasionally starting a song, but never getting past a few verses before the director would yell at them.

"This is a good example of how narrow human perception is, Jarmila." He responded to my silence, not caring to face me, but using my given name as always. It definitely leaves a sense of pretense. "The play is quite interesting, and could provide, to the more curious viewer, a gateway into a whole new unique theatre genre. But, as it often happens, all you humans remember is the title song. The need to translate it also obscures much of the meaning here."

On a wagon, bound for market

there's a calf with a mournful eye;

High above him, there's a swallow

winging swiftly through the sky;

How the winds are laughing,

they laugh with all their might;

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

and half the summer's night.

Donna Donna Donna, Donna ~

"It's also quite fitting to our cause, what do you think?" Was he gloating about how he's got us under his thumb?

I did know both the song and this cattle allegory. It especially starts making sense once you spend enough time in the Twelfth, and understand that under all those esoterics and difficult words, there's really just a huge slaughterhouse of the Witch flesh. You get good or go Witch. I know the Twelfth is special in this way, but don't see into the exact methods of this being handled, except for having to purge what's left of the newbies all the time. Grief must flow, or so the cat says.

But now that I thought of it, does participating in it all make me a cow?

"I don't understand art, sir. I came to give you report on Barbara, as obvious. She wasn't a cow or a swallow. I guess she was a bitch to kill."

"Make sure to pass the story of your heroic prevailing to one of the Gatherers. More importantly, how many causalities did you have?" Damn cat kept watching his screen, like I was the pet in this room. He looks so silly, I keep forgetting all the jokes are lost on this guy. He may be good at mimicry and has got a definite talent for ad-libs, but under his act is a mask of cold steel.

"Only one squaddie girl had died, and no expensive wounds were sustained." Well, the one I got from having to perform the Mach Lunge hurts, but won't send the limb to Jackdaw's ice box just yet.

"I've noticed that your arm-"

"Though wait, damn, actually, sorry. Two girls are dead. That's why I came late. Jackdaw should already have gotten both the bodies a hour ago or so - we sent them in advance."

"How rude. Don't jump into your boss's speech like that. And don't make this kind of a mistake when reporting." Wiggle, wiggle. If only you could make a key charm out of that tail.


"I am sorry. The Info-Cyte girl had witched out."

His tail slowed down to a still, with a very controlled movement. "That is... actually very interesting, Jarmila. From the Info-cyte's maker, I hear that was out of the question. You should talk to her, it's Renata Lichtenberg, the Librarian with synthetic arms. Our main hacker, formerly of Fourth." An incubator using given names and nicknames is also odd, girls who transferred here say that a lot. "I'll go over your account of her later, assuming you didn't let her get away. Renata will need it as soon as possible, though."

I've seen that one with metal arms a bunch of times. Obviously she would be a transferee from the Fourth, but. "Was that girl really ranked?"

"The thing to consider here is," he kept going on, "Figuring out how much corruption could mechanization of thought save on somebody other than herself was one of the experiment's purposes." The ugly mascot had finally moved, and, for once, his step seemed oddly unsure.

"This is a very strange situation we may have gotten here, mhmm. I understand that you are quite the ideologically driven person. You should be glad, because today is a very special day - you will get to discuss ideology." He turned his head slowly towards me, in a way that shouldn't be possible for any animal with a spinal column. That actually had more shock value than whatever turn scare setup he could have had planned to try out, what with delaying eye contact.

"Well then, Jarmila. Are you familiar with the Riddle of Witch Flesh?

I've resisted the urge to scratch my head here. The Riddle of Witch Flesh? Don't care about these occasional heated debates the Vanus have, but they really wouldn't shut up about this one. "Isn't it basically asking what's the right amount of emotion in life, and how to tell?"

"Yes, that. You know, it's not just sophistry, it's a matter of life and death for you girls. Panna wants to talk to you today, among other people. And discuss this riddle. So, that's another thing you have to do today. She said she would come at the Archive's reception, and that the other Rank Leaders have already been notified."

"Well, it's where they both live. That's... okay by me. I've wanted to stop by there anyway. Drink some beer with them and complain about my day." I couldn't help being kind of blunt, compared to his curly speech

"I know you have just done a lot of work, but this is really important, and she's adamant that she must talk to all of you Rank Leaders together today. You'd better go. Seeds go to the Librarium, I can't take these just yet." He turned back, apparently considering me dismissed.

"I'll be going then, sir. I've told Popelka to report to you in person. She would understand how Squad Libra had performed better than I do."

And so I've left the cat to his own thoughts, which were, in all likelihood, him plotting to screw us all over with the least effort. Like a twisted child that mechanically plays with its toys because that's what they are for, but never has fun. A toy breaking doesn't even make it flinch.

Or like a farmer who grooms his animals and plays with them for years on the end before having to butcher them, because that was the point all along. He doesn't enjoy the act of betrayal and killing. Happy meat just sells the best.

Such is the painful truth. He doesn't really care about humans at all.


Following the familiar branch of tubes out of the Elevator, I've arrived to the Archive's gate, and the booth built into the wall next to it. Anyone who would happen to wander this deep would be put off by the single led light illuminating a massive steel door.

That is, if they could see it. Which they would most likely not, because the girl standing guard next to the gate would usually either be a Callidus trainee maintaining the Rank Leader's double illusion of seeing darkness along with a touching a stone wall, or the Rank Leader herself. For a third of a day, though, and as was the case when I came there, the Vindicare Rank Leader would sit at the booth instead

Martina, who should, by all rights, have seen them coming from a hundred meters away and could make precautions. Provided she actually physically looked where she was supposed to, which no guard really does. Nothing bad ever came out of it, though. I could actually see the light when I've turned corner, so it must have been her shift.

"Papers please - oh yeah, figured the huge person there was you." The booth girl's voice had skipped a whole octave, to accompany the shift of her social gears from seeing a friend. She had her blindfold pulled over hair, with one hand remaining on it like she wasn't sure which way to pull it, making her look like a scatterbrain. That was precious, because it was far from the truth.

Since it seemed a bit like I've caught her reading porn mags on the job or something, I've decided to tease her a bit more on it. "Won't you still have to probe me with clairvoyance, though? What if I am a Callidus? I guess this looks like a bunch of halves in a bag to you, but it's totally a bomb or some shit."

Martina casual.jpeg

"Oh, you're okay. Still saw you with one eye. It's the only way I can do something else on the boredom shift." That sounds like it must make her head hurt, though. She had already hidden whatever she was reading under the desk, it really must have been something disgraceful. "You've got magic on your hand, though, did somebody wreck you? My day was shit too."

This already seemed like a beginning of a good, long dudebrochick talk, one of those that will take hours, but in which we won't actually say anything we haven't said before. So, let me tell you about Martina for a bit, instead of showing, since the way this had happened doesn't show her off enough.

In order to be granted the title and rank "Librarian of the Twelfth", a magical girl has to meet a set of requirements:

To be at the peak of her Vanus potential, showing consistent perfect results in mundane tasks. Martina made her Vanus marks with flying colors.

To be resourceful, knowledgeable, and experienced with both inner mechanisms of the Officio and the groundwork, able to fill different roles than just those usually expected of a Vanus: She must have some at least basic combat training and skill, and deep understanding of magic arts, along with the ability to widely apply them to most problems. Martina can do some crazy things with her magic, and both kill and fix problems like nobody's business.

And lastly, to prove with a clean track record that she is worthy of trust, disciplined, and in general fit to become the Incubator's confidant in some manner, dusting off one of the Officio's closet skeletons, never telling anyone what she came to know. As I understand it, this is where it breaks, because Martina is not dependable enough. Her results are too wall-to-wall to handle the subjects that Juunibey needs clean and safe.

But, much like me, she does pretty good when you leave her to do her own thing.

That's why, after she had beaten on Liliana's skin with two Grief Seed's worth of enchanted sticks and stones, even if it had little effect and even if she had needed a flying friend's help to accomplish it, Juunibey didn't have her replace one of the dead Librarians, but rather the Vindicare Rank Leader, who got gulped down like a chump.

We're similar people, in that we're both thick headed and hard to put a leash on, but also the strongest around. I'll repeat that I never felt like a leader, but Martina apparently does, and says that both prodigies and leaders must be selfish, else they'll never get anywhere. I've got some real issues with her personality, but due to circumstance, she's the closest thing to a friend I've got.

Well, we're friends now, but Martina is a very inconvenient person at first. You will find that she's such a massive pile of issues, it almost makes her seem capricious and many-faced when you get closer to her, because you can never tell what she's projecting at right now. Through her concealed misanthropy, and constant trying to weed her own banes out of others, she gets her job of a Vindicare Rank Leader done.

Panna says she's just histrionic, that I am a jock, and Toy is too soft for our trade, but that's because Panna always has to be a complete cunt to everyone.

I fell on the sofa in that tiny crib, having seen the bed already occupied by Toy, who must have come earlier and tried to catch a nap before the meeting. "Seriously. That fucking cat. If I see that fucking cat try to turn scare me one more time."

Martina immediately gave me the mirror of reason that I've needed, twisted as it was. "He's trying, though. Isn't that worthy of respect? Like, keep in mind this, he must have been at it for eighty years. That's amazing. You've got to respect that, you've got to."

"...It's amazingly stupid of him, if that's what you're getting at. At least it wasn't the fake laughter. That was horrible, god damn."

They don't -and aren't allowed to- keep a bottle opener around for me, so I've always had to conjure up a tiny metal spike and use it to open the bottle cap, which was kind of wasteful. It's always the annoying routines like this that really get to you. I also have to carry my bottles back with me, but Toyen still has it worse, since she can't smoke underground. It also seems to disgust the Vanus when she brings it up, since the Officio spaces are always kept so sterile. You would think that they wouldn't mind, since they so often pretend that shit doesn't stink.

"Sure, but. If my laptop had worked for eighty years, that would be an amazing laptop. Say it runs one of these programs where it tries to learn to speak by talking to you. Except, if you talk to it for eighty years, who cares if the conversational program on it passes the Turing test yet. You grow so attached to it, you even start talking like it, there's no difference anymore."

That was a new thought right there. It had me thinking about it for a while. "Is that like what happened to Panna? Did she talk to an Incubator for so long that she forgot he's fucked up, and became like him? Started seeing the world through the beady eyes?"

"You can ask her herself in a short while.", she turned again. "That reminds me, Toy, I am going to need the bed. Panna insists that since I used to be a Vanus, she wants me to give my account in trance."

Hearing her name called out, the second resident of the booth came to her senses, and sat on the bed's edge. "Sorry. Fell asleep waiting." Then, her mind caught up, and she gave Martina a long, tired stare through her sleepy eyes. "Like, in trance? Vanus trance, like they do in rituals? Like when Řeřicha gets high? So that you can't lie or backtrack on what you've said? What a bitch."

Toyen Casual.jpeg

Martina must have been overjoyed, being able to correct somebody that hard.

"Right, except none of what you've said is a given. It differs by person. Like, it usually allows you to focus more on whatever you are doing in the Administratum. Scryers or seers are usually unconscious during it, but enhance their results like this. They get more worked up. Gatherer candidates would stay conscious and focus on digging in their memory, so they can remember what you've said better, and add notes to the account, down to subtle stuff like the faces you were making. My version is that too. And since the blindfold already allows me to see EVERYTHING down to the pimples on their butt and junk food in their stomach, and you can only do so much sparring, I've tried to push the trance a bit as well, when I was bored."

Married to the job alright. Dirudo, was it? But I have no right to poke fun at her here, since I like to abuse the Eversor trance too.

She held her head in her hands now, staring outside. "It took years, but when I focus these days, I basically get photographic memory of everything I've seen lately. So, the Gatherers really like me now, is what I am getting at." she made a short pause, probably realizing that wasn't what she had originally wanted to say. "Besides, it's not like I would lie to Panna now. It's the opposite - I want to throw the whole thing in her face. Because it's all her fault."

I took a swig from the flask. My sincere pity goes to all the poor foreign workaholic magical girls who will never taste bottled bohemian beer after work. "Was it so bad? I mean, sure, retirement missions suck, glad to have them off my back, but still. Don't you do a lot of those?"

"Let me think about that. Hm. Yeah, I do, but no, you're wrong. You can't actually get used to everything. I am not even really a cynic, or fucking Yossarian like Toyen. I have to look into their faces, you know." Martina seemed to struggle with the proper volume to give her voice, like when you're talking to a driver. She wanted us to hear her, without turning back, but also didn't want anyone possibly passing the Archive's gate to hear, since the conversation was straying in a classified direction.

Well, I could take that burden by talking myself, for a while. "Yeah, and get this: I have to look into their heads, and take a trip through their pocket personal hell. How's that not worse?"

That may be when they've also noticed how I've been starting to slip a bit.


"I also keep count, you know? I've seen thirteen hundred and forty Barriers within five years of service, give or take ten. Some of them don't really count, or I only got a glimpse or something." I've lowered my voice a bit too. "Anyway, that's a Witch almost every day. It also means I've purged an entire Officio in my life, or the Twelfth almost twice over. For the record, I normally use three Seeds a month, since I've got a lot of juice and just smash most of them down with a weapon. You'd think that it eventually gets old, like that all girls would mostly think about wanting to have a dick and that the Barriers would have that. Like that psychologist who wanted to fuck his mom, Freud. That kind of a thing. But no. Still new and new exciting silly shit coming my way."


"Anyway, I actually think that this keeps me sane. If they started repeating and I felt like I've figured people out, that would drive me crazy. So, I get what you're saying. I don't mind answering the question either, and my answer is also no. I don't just fire and forget. Hehe, no pun intended."

Martina was trying to keep her eyes on outside of the booth, but still shot me a look over the shoulder. "That's some strange math. You do realize the problems with it, right?"

"Yeah. The coolest part about it is that I didn't even kill half the Witches we've produced in that time. Not even fucking close. Not even a quarter of them. A tenth, more like. It's sort of hard to not figure out the... You know. The thing."

Toyen seemed already woken up by us talking things of that sort, so she asked Martina the good question. "Is this going to be about the thing?"

"Pretty sure it's going to be about the thing. It was real crazy and weird. And it's not like this was my first time doing this. Panna has to do the gatherer's role herself because nobody else is really allowed to, well, even hear it. Except you, today, finally. For some reason."

Clearly, this mission she had ben on must have been super bad. Worse than murdering your friends and telling your friends about it, which is what a retirement mission normally entails.

So, when she came, there wasn't much small talk. It was obviously the first thing we had to ask. Why is this so important?

"Because this time, I happen to be dying."

There was a hint of amusement in her voice, being able to tell this to the three people in the world who had probably wanted to murder her the most.

"...After Jarmila left the garden in the morning, I had my soul gem faint on me. This body underwent clinical death for a few minutes, and wouldn't move when I came to." She waved her palm around, like when you're trying to get the itch out of it in the morning.

Panna casual2.jpeg

"I won't humor you with stories of what it's like to be old. But this means I could basically leave you any moment now. I probably won't, but it could happen. In theory."

Martina showed the most empathy of us all, actually having something to ask after a long pause. "So, this is because you've still got unfinished business. No last will, you're basically passing the Officio on right now."


"Why us? Why not pick a Chief Librarian - or, hell, another Warmaster's Aide like you - and have her just keep doing what you did? Didn't the cat have you make, like, hectoliters of the Potion for future use?"

Panna tapped her knuckles on the table, and laid her shades on it, maybe to indicate that she's finally being level with us. "The problem with that is that I can't really recommend the Incubator any of the Librarians or my Venenum in good conscience. Jackdaw and Řeřicha have what it takes, if we are talking skill, but neither is a leader. They also are too talented, if you know what I mean by that. They lack the versatility. And perspective. And let's be honest, neither has much common sense."

While the Aide was moving her chair to the back of the crib next to the bed, where Martina had already lied, Toyen had to sit by the table too. While she could, she said the thing on everyone's mind. "Don't get angry, Panna, but you're pretty batshit crazy yourself."

Didn't even twitch her brow. She didn't even insult anyone so far, so it really seemed like a grave matter. "Just listen for a while. After you hear Martina's story from this morning, it will all make much more sense."

And then the session was all ready, started, and Martina would start saying all those interesting things. I should get the account itself from Umika, and stick it under this. By now, at least that's going to be easy.