The Riddle of Witch Flesh: Part 7

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Panna raised her arms and made a single loud clap with them, as to break Martina out of the trance. "So," she had said, "what have we learned?".

Martina massaged her eyes a bit, and looked at her. "That stuff happened. That's not how you teach anything, though. You've left out the part where you always tell us what to think." That's right. Facts are boring without perspective. You need to add an opinion. People learn from comparing opinions, and all that.

The gypsy had responded first with a nod. "I believe we have already gotten yours, unless you'd like to add something. I can add mine, then we can listen to what the others think."

Toyen had commented on that with an incredibly annoyed expression, raising her face from the table. "Fuck, I know this. The point of this is going to be that the truth is in the middle and that nothing is anybody's fault. Yeah, Panna, that's totally fucking watertight."

Martina was too interested to let Toy derail the conversation, though. "Let's all agree it's the cat's fault and move on." Usually, we think alike. I still had something to confirm, though.

"So, if I understand this correctly, she was a Witch hunter and nothing else. Did the same job as me, except without a right to vacation."

"Yes." Panna answered right away, since she had probably expected the question. "Extermination of newborn Witches. That is what the Warmaster of Twelfth does."

"How many did she kill?"

Again, she replied without a second thought. "Let's see. The exact number would be in her file, but I'd say a bit over five hundred would be about right."

Toyen gave that a low whistle. It really was amazing. "Shit, that's four every day. If it's all in the four months, then she's giving even the Second and the Sixth a run for their money. Is that, like, all the Witches we make?"

"We make a lot more. They get rid of much of ours already. Along with the Fourteenth." Having sat on the edge until now, she sat deeper back in the chair. She must have been feeling tipsy, too.

It seemed quite far fetched to me, though. "Numbers are cool and all, but Witches can be pretty deadly. Did you really have one person with no assistance handle so many? Sounds stupid." It made me feel useless, too.

All the time, I am complaining that Witches are too crazy to reliably approach from the tactical standpoint, and there was a girl that brute forced her way through hordes of them, just behind the corner? Looks like power does beat technique in the long run.

"Yes. Despite the lethality, a Warmaster of Twelfth stays for four months at minimum. At least so far. Well, I wouldn't risk deploying her against an alpha, because that's a suicide mission every time. There had been ninety of these so far, though obviously, they weren't called Warmasters until the Officio system was established, so the ones that didn't last as long don't count. It really all began when the potion came in use. Juunibei contracted a lot of girls over the years, and they've formed several groups. I do believe that the Potion is why he chose the one I led, the Cult of the Black Rose, to be the one that forms the Officio's core."

"So, ninety, by four... that makes you... at least forty years old."

Panna giggled. It might have been something else, but the wrinkles on her face made it hard to tell. We had to assume that she's dying and laughs about it.

"Can't you prolong your life? I mean, you're a Venenum, you've gotta have some ways."

"I do, but I don't like that perspective. It would not be natural". Irony in the room was reaching critical levels. "More seriously, I'd be a brain in a jar sort of a thing. Or a gem, rather. I have sent a lot of people to their end, it would be just distasteful if I couldn't accept mine."


I wasn't sure of the extent to which she was joking, but she still touched upon something important. "This is the first time in ever that I've heard you talk morals. If I didn't know you've got grandchildren, I'd have said you're just a psychopath."

Martina joined in with a wry face. "Don't forget what Jackdaw says. Someone so obviously evil cannot possibly be a bad person. Too much evidence."

"It is debatable." Panna had said. "I've only ever gone against the Incubator's wishes once, and that was a very special case. My life is one of making ends meet."

The Vindicare took a moment to stomach that, while Toyen was playing with a cigarette in her hand, frustrated that she can't light it here. "How the fuck are we even going to go about this? Do you want me to like print out a paper with these, like, check boxes, look at my girls, go 'yeah, these dozen are good to go' and then just like pretend to forget to give them Seeds or something?"

This question, in its bluntness, seemed straining to Panna, and even made her shrug. "It's much more complicated than that. This will take time to-"

"I'll listen to that shit later. I've heard just enough that I can walk out on you now." She had straightened up, and rammed her cap, which she would usually cover her millimeter cut hair with, on her scalp. "I've got a standing assignment, and people to stalk. Or something. My boss is the cat, not you, and this time he didn't order me to do what you say. He said to talk to you, and I did. Fuck this, fuck you, I am out."

Martina had opened her mouth on her, and I don't know whether she had meant to tell her to cut it out, or to just remind her of her own shift at the gate in a few hours. Either way, she ended up saying nothing, because Toy wasn't there anymore. Ripples were spreading over the concrete wall she walked into, and she must have already been swimming through the hundred meters of ground and steel, towards the surface.

"Flashy," I've said, "she should have just used the door." What a waste of her reserves.

"She had always known this,", the hag had noted to nobody in particular. "She'll come back. In a way, only flipping out now makes her the biggest hypocrite of us all."

That's hard to argue with. So I didn't. I took a swig instead, the last bottle of beer now almost done with. "It's amazing how you admit that this is being a hypocrite, though."

"See, Jarmila. Hypocrisy is being in a conflict of interests with oneself. And that describes what we do perfectly. But it cannot stop me. Because... well. It's an imperative, I can't reason with this. I've seen the Incubator's purpose, and now it's my own."

She had taken off her crown and turned it around, staring at the Soul Gem in it intently.

"There are causes that go beyond good and evil, beyond right and wrong. The Librarians may look detached from reality, but their field of study is so expansive, it can't be avoided that they get a bit lost. Each of them has a pointer of her own, and when they argue, it's good, because it brings them a bit more together."

I don't even think I remember most of this right, but the next part is clear in my head as day.

"For example, take the Riddle of Witch Flesh. There is a very particular meaning to it. You know the Hegel point theorem, about Witches? The Riddle is tied to it's proof."

That was the thing about quantity becoming quality, right?

"Yes. All mass is attracted to itself and will grow, as a result of a basic universal rule. But there is a point at which it ignites, and transforms. And another, where it collapses. Like a boiling point. The Riddle is like that. There is a power gap, a jump, that makes a Witch become an Alpha. What causes it? It must have to do with emotion, and it must be a special feeling that not every person had ever truly felt. In those handful Magical Girls, it must have been nurtured into full bloom."

This sounded familiar to Martina. "Are you just talking about love here?"

"I... wouldn't say that. If you had asked me twenty years ago, I would say yes, but now, I am not so sure." Another shrug passed through her face, like she was recalling something unpleasant. "Love, my dear, is like a poison. It's too destructive and messy, too much of a double edged sword, to be the right answer."

The bottom of the bottle was accusatively glaring at me, reminding me of my last - and only - boyfriend. Sometimes, I even have trouble recalling his name. Would you believe that?

"What about faith?" I've proposed, "That seems like a pretty leading human thing to me, maybe it gets passed because you wouldn't normally call it an emotion? I mean, if I get this right, this is all about power. When I look at the Fourteenth, and then us, I see their beliefs making them strong. And we are taught to doubt everything but orders. The point of forcing everyone to read is to encourage critical thinking - and we are weak. How about that?"

Panna had smiled. I've really never seen her display this much emotion, or talk this much. "Belief is a good answer I think, right up there with hope. But neither really satisfies me. Maybe the emotion I am searching for doesn't have a name, or it's something as basic as "awareness" taken to an extreme. An underlying human emotion you wouldn't even know about. My favorite answer at this moment is 'understanding', though."

Martina ran fingers through her bangs, she probably felt pressed to also thing of something smart. "We use it as a meditation puzzle anyway. Like, a question that's meant to be asked, a character defining question."

That's how esoterism is born, I hear. When a question torments you for too long, even a simple one, you make it into a divine mystery in your head. Being governed by something you don't understand, you can't expect others to understand you. So, you lock yourself up in your tower.

I've completely forgotten about my hatred for Panna at this point. "What about Kamile? She is an Alpha, and she wasn't a love struck girl, or a nun, or anything."

"In Kamile's case, I think, it must have been "fear". She had wished to be a child forever. So, she could never get over such a basic thing. I should have known. She grew, as a child, and the childish fear of the unknown grew with her. You know, I never was like you, a believer. In anything. I never thought persistence had merit. But she proved to me that purity does. Perhaps, if she were at it for an absurdly long time, for thousands of years... I am sure human souls have it in them to surpass even Kamile."

She kept looking at her own soul all the while, just as if it was a holy symbol that confirmed her beliefs.

"Well, not me. Somebody else will have to figure out where it all leads. I should go too. It would be absurd, for me to get emotional."

Following Toy's example, she put the crown back on and stood up, but unlike her, she stopped at the entrance. "I'll tell you the rest later today. Karmic spots inside the city will take a while to go over, I should prepare some maps for it, too. Since I don't feel like dying just yet anymore. There's also the Librarius, that's it's own can of worms." Would we really get access to that? Us?

It seemed that this session was done with, though.


My next steps led to the Archive. I didn't want to give Renata the pleasure of news and the displeasure of being yelled at just yet. It would have been better to prepare for this, and so I've asked the Japanese Librarian - her name being 'Umika', as she had already told me many times, and said so with a sour face - for two operative files.

The first had belonged to Karolina Sokołowska. The girl who held her sword like a virgin holds the prick, and then seemed to grow so much further without my guidance. Unsurprisingly, most of that was classified with an A, and stashed elsewhere, so not even I could see it.

I was allowed to get my hands on her background, though.

I've expected an abusive household, and her killing her father or something grim like that, but it wasn't really anything of the sort. Her family was poor, and she ran to fantasy books from her bad grades and lack of other things to do. Then her parents had her to do a retail part time job when she was fifteen, to get money for her family, and that seemed to emotionally drain her enough to agree to the cat.

It's not even inhumane, compared to other stuff that goes on in Poland. Definitely boring, compared to all the other life stories we've got here. Martina's in particular is a real gem of Hussar pride, next to this one. Karolina's story was even boring compared to mine - and it just adds up to my guilt, how meaningless my own case was. In the end, it seems she really did make the wish out of boredom, because she had wanted to spice her life up so desperately.

And did she succeed at that. Kája, you stupid, stupid bitch. You should have just stayed home on your arse. You should have only fenced with nerf swords in your nerd clubs, you should have only been killing monsters in video games.

Who did she kill in the end? I couldn't tell then, but I know that now, so why not say it already. It's not like it affects anything anymore. He was a loan shark's son, twenty six years old. I guess he must have been into something seriously bad if she considered him enough of a monster to kill him with the sword for Witches. The cops just did the "did he have any enemies" thing, and after they went through the list, assumed that it was his father's former client or a hired gun.

The fact that he was killed without torture, cleanly, by a long blade through the heart, was the slightly baffling part. If I was the detective on that, I'd conclude that he screwed with some sparklies, which was exactly the case.

She must have teleported into Prague from Krakow to do that, though, which proves Panna outright wrong about how much time Kája may have left. Just an interesting note.

I should also say this: Incubators seem to have certain tolerance towards long-time employees. Not everybody is necessarily as trigger happy on civilians as the Assassins or the Murderers, but there's still an us vs. them mentality we have for the normals. This is going to sound awful, but it's the truth: she could have gotten away with straight up murder. She was the goddamned Warmaster, even if only in name, and I somehow doubt Panna would mind, either. As long as Kája did her real job right, didn't get caught red handed, and only did something of the sort once.

There, that's all there is to Kája. Any more words would just further spoil the already miserable tale.

For the second file I've asked for, I had to know the person's name first.

"The girl who left with the circlet this morning? That would be Karla Wagner." Umika sat across me, whatever she was doing in the bookshelves before was not that important, apparently. "Worked right here, in the outer circles. I had her look things up for me a few times. Do you know if she was on meth or something? She really looked that way. Or was she somehow tied to that... Kuchekuchika? I still can't spell her name. It's like a tongue twister. The one that soaks her gem in red absinthe before scrying. The head seer here."

"Haha, she does worse than that." It wasn't really possible for me to redeem Řeřicha, that's just the way she is. "Pretty sure that this girl must have been taking something she wasn't in control of, though, Řeřicha wouldn't allow her to do as much."

"She rammed into a shelf, hit herself on my door handle, and would drop books, or leave them lying, yes. That shouldn't be allowed. But I remember she also fell from a ladder once, so she was probably just that inept. Still focused underneath it all, though. As long as you actually got her attention."

Umika had then leaned in, quizzically. "Say. Do you have a lot of experience with addicts?"

What an odd question. I couldn't say yes to it.

"You probably do, though. You only think of her doing drugs right now, but addiction is the way people work. One of the many ways to approach psychology from ground up. This is something that really helps you understand people. We are different by what we choose to be weak towards. Or don't choose, but end up being, and that's the worse case. Think about it for a while."

That's an old one. As old as mankind, even.

Humans are born dependent without doubt. This is instilled in both genes, and in how we've built up society. You can argue that being born is an asset by itself, but after that, you'll grow up in debt. If you refuse this notion, you will start affirming what you can't help but subconsciously feel with artificial dependencies, up to even the drugs. Former addicts are usually religious. They were weak people to begin with, they needed guidance of some sort, and this kind won't get them killed.

But you see the exact same pattern in people that never did anything as dangerous and socially reprehensible. Such as, when rich kids become vegetarians. They don't do it just because, as they'd like to claim, they do it to compensate. And there is nothing wrong with that. Anything to believe in works.

Because the important part is, that they couldn't choose how they were born, but they chose this. Even if it looks nonsensical from an outsider's point of view, for them it's the kind of restraint that makes you strong. Something to hold onto, that makes them confident. Like an oath, a geás, if you will.

It's because limiting your options and allowing yourself to think less makes it easier to focus, an atheist would say.

While Umika was looking up the second file in the endless office drawers, mumbling letters to herself in funny English, I've tried to figure out where she was actually going with this, just like when I've been getting similar lessons long back in the basic training. She must have had something else to point out about Wagner, but wanted me to come to it on my own.

So, I thought on her some more. She didn't seem to care for herself a lot. She was without doubt an addict of some sort. She had an utter lack of presence. She threw arms around, which means lack of control over her motor functions. Umika was obviously implying that she was just obsessive about something, like stalker girls always look horrible. But that's just the start of the thought line, and it didn't really seem to be the case either. It probably wouldn't give me the best grade on the test she gave me here.

I've wanted to believe that a Librarian would be beyond saying things just to look smart.

There wasn't much else to say about herself, but thinking outside of the box, there is always the context to look at. From the standpoint of the commanding officer, Umika seems to say that she lacked skill and talent, but not discipline. At least not in the sense that Vanus understand it. I would call it Orwellian, but that's not a good comparison, since we are actually encouraged to realize. It's just that it also makes us realize how powerless we are against it, when we consider the scope.

Hence, Wagner was the perfect product of the Twelfth. She wanted to be used.

Does the Incubator groom these dependencies in us, when he strongly enforces vague rules? Resulting in discipline?

Or does he encourage thinking for ourselves and trusting nothing, because you can't rely on the rules? Resulting in personal empowerment?

With Wagner, it seems that the ideal is somewhere in the middle, resulting in weak will, but strong personality, if that makes sense. I guess that's not strictly a bad thing, considering our purpose. But it is "corruption", in every sense of the word.

By becoming blind to what has power over us, like an addict, we become led by wires we don't see. By becoming focused on our path, like an actor that reads his lines rather than like an athlete that would seek to expand his freedom, we lose our strength. Still, there is power to be found within this - we become tools, just like that train.

It causes cognitive dissonance, if you don't live in it for years. It's easy to mistake power for strength. You will generally ignore one or the other side.

Even I didn't realize this with such clarity until then. I guess an outsider like Umika would better know just what to point out. Because I revel in my perceived self-sufficiency, and wouldn't normally consider myself an addict, I didn't really think this way until then.

Wagner's file was resourceful and confirmed what I've thought. Made a wish to save family business which apparently dealt with furniture. Her most unique magical girl gimmick was her skill at math, which is just about the lamest one I've ever heard of. The Librarian who taught her was indeed Renata Lichtenberg - the non-deformed surname making it clear that she is not native. Her notes gave off the feeling of a teacher that tears the skin off you, and expects nothing less then perfection. They seemed anal to even me, and I am no expert on the topic. From memory, these are supposed to be offenses:

"Fixed a few letters with a liner and thought she could get away with it." "Interrupted a scrying session. Argued she couldn't use a Seed in her trance state. Convinced she can't learn to." "Questioned the reliability of wording the Gathering contracts with Sixth had, but only after having finished sealing them all." "Still couldn't work with Pascal after two weeks." "Woke up from only a ladder being moved near by." "Has never heard of the Blood Knight." "After being taken off the task for ruining too many, inquired whether weaving a magical signature seal on documents ranked E is a waste when we could just stamp it with ink. Couldn't do them right any more today. Rest granted, still has two whole stacks in F-4 to go through tomorrow. Assigned to a cram course afterwards."

Strangely enough, this worked with Wagner, while it almost never does with anyone else. Towards the end of the file, Wagner has got all Bs and an occasional A, where Renata probably didn't manage to find any fault.

And then she sent her to try out what turned out to be a highly volatile piece of machinery, and she died horribly, and the cat said that Renata is going to want to hear just how horrible the death was, with juicy details. I had really wanted to smash that bitch's face already. This was wrong from every imaginable perspective - human, incubator, mine.

Umika had asked casually whether I've learned anything, and I had to truthfully reply "Nothing I couldn't guess." This seemed to tip her off that I am actually really serious about this all, and after slight hesitation, she offered a penny for my thoughts. Kája's Witch being possibly related to the ever-elusive harvest Witch Libuna would probably intrigue her more, but that was classified to hell and back. At least I could still share Wagner's whole story with her.

So, I did that.

After I was done, it turned out that I wasn't. Umika reaffixed her glasses on the bridge of her nose, looking deep into my eyes. She seemed to weigh her upcoming words on her tongue for a while. Finally, she said it. "It's a pretty boring Witch, for a professional. So, well. I'll try to stick my nose in. Why are you so bothered by this? Could you give me a hint on what makes this one so special? You didn't know her yourself, am I getting this right?"

Right. "I am just grabbing the first thing of the sort that I saw, I guess. There's going to be big changes around here soon." The girl before me didn't even flinch at such news, just listened with perfect focus, like a sickeningly well brought up kid. "I may be actually more or less in charge then, so I want to do a bit of a cleanup first.", I told her.

"You seemed like you've got something more to say. Like, your opinion on that story. You shouldn't keep that in. Tunnel vision, outsider's perspective, and all that." She placed more of her body on the table, further lowering her stature, already tiny next to mine. I guess she wanted to look like a humble listener, and it worked. This girl knows how to pull people's strings.

Alright, I could have used advice. Before I knew it, I shared a bit more of my worries with her.

Both files had in common the utter lack of closure. What were you supposed to think? The lives of these two were all sound and fury. Not to say that the laws of storytelling apply to reality in any way, but it really made me want to make these lives count. To make them into martyrs, twist them into something they never were. Immortalize them in form in which they would never want to live. It's absurd. The number of individual girls I see come and go every year has four digits. There was no way I could ever fix anything, lest I forced some twisted justification on in it, completely detached from what I felt.

And that wouldn't be right. Screw what the cat and Panna say, these girls were dying in vain for all they knew. I understood too well why this was happening, why I had to allow it, and the fatality of it all was killing me. Made me want to burn down this whole place, because no world sustained by something like this could be worth it. I couldn't stop thinking about it anymore, trying to reach some sort of a resolution.

But I could still go on and finish my job. It's how I lived for five years. Kill one more Witch, and then tomorrow. I've gotta do what I've gotta do. Martina had once asked me why I never have a breakdown like everyone else, and I honestly didn't know what to tell her.

I can't believe I still consider myself sane. Not a good person, though. In the end, a lot less people suffer, all because I don't care about it as much as I should, and have enough integrity to save the pieces when everything breaks. I hear this a lot. That I am so strong, I can live with anything. I won't be crushed - no matter how much it hurts. "Fortitude" is the right word. But at this point, it's not an admirable trait, it's something monstrous.

Umika laughed at this, to my boundless bewilderment. "Bullshit. That's a good trait. Real talk, I could tell you whatever switch in your head does it and help you fix it, but I guarantee you'd feel robbed." Her voice now on a much lower pitch, it felt a bit like finding the gangster in a group activity game. She was saying some outrageous things, at that. "If you aren't in a hurry, would you come with me? I think I may have some things to share with you myself."

Looking back on it, I realize she acted oddly from the start of this all. Like she knew this wasn't an everyday victim check, like she already knew the news. I suspect she may have cheated with her magic a tiny bit, to get me to open up more.

And, you know what? I'll be damned if that wasn't the start of a good friendship.