The Riddle of Witch Flesh: Part 9

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No right way to approach Renata about this came to mind, so I just went where Panna pointed me, intending to say I came because of the Info-cyte right off the bat.

There weren't any scribes in here, though the room was filled with packed computers and printers on pallets, most of them gathering dust. I saw a wheelie that seemed used, but otherwise I had no idea by what magic could all of this stuff be transported all the way down here.

There still was a fair amount of bookshelves, but this was still the only place in the Library with this many computers. You could occasionally see a computer in the outer Archive, used for writing, and Vanus sometimes use their phones as notepads, but they have to leave for above if they are internet addicts. We have nothing such as an Officio-wide wi-fi. It would make it too easy to get things out of here. That's why we use books for everything. Books don't betray you, they would have to get stolen whole.

The fellow redheaded Librarian sat at a massive console of screens, on an elevated platform in the corner. Didn't even respond for a while, then she said "Uh yeah, give me like five minutes.", and absolutely nothing about the situation had changed in ten. I know a Librarian technically outranks me in the Archive, but that is just bloody disrespectful.

Once I got fed up, I came close and crossed the few stairs. She would just keep clicking on it. I wish I could say I could read anything from the screen, but it was machine code.

"INFO-CYTE! Helmet-head!"

She turned around to me, with a hint of anger in her eye, but fortunately could tell who I was.

"Oh, I know you. You're the chick for Eversors. What happened?"

"Yeah, the girl you sent to the hunt with the Info-cyte. She's dead. Witched out. Right when she took it off. From clean to pitch black in a few seconds."

Maybe Karla would have been happier if she saw how troubled this made her superior look. Too bad, though there was a hint of guilt in Renata, she hosed it right down.

She also started fencing the pair of her grey, metallic, actually quite nice arms on me. "That, that's bullshit right there. I use it myself. It doesn't hold the Grief back or anything, so it wouldn't, like, stack up and release all at once." she looked back at me. "You think she could have just caught a really bad stream?"

"Figured I should suspect Panna's shenanigans before I suspect you of being a total bitch. You're shit out of luck, though, there was a whole squad around her. If it was a stream going haywire, someone else would at least notice it. If it didn't take them too." That's what you call crying on the wrong mass grave. I went on, not wanting to give her quarter. "Plain and simple, you fucked up. Or she took the Potion, maybe. Could have been afraid she can't handle a fight."

She stared at me like I was the murderer, obviously understanding what I meant to say. "But that's not supposed to happen. The Vanus are supposed to be safe. And I needed the performance information from her. Did you at least bring the Info-cyte? The device itself?" Ha ha, she was losing it.

"The circlet got broken in two. Girl got hit by a lightning bolt. I brought the bloody pieces, yeah."

"Oh! That makes a bit more sense." She lit up. "Could you hand them over?" At the same time, she slightly betrayed the pretense of care for her subordinate.

"Seemed like there's enough time for that. Since then, you dumb cunt, I ate two meals and had three important meetings. Why are YOU only dealing with this now? Didn't you even notice she didn't fucking come back? Isn't this supposed to be your special important research? Or did you play video games on that shit?" I was furious, and it felt good.

"I've thought she got wounded or something. Or the hunt was too much stress for her and she locked herself up. They do that sometimes." She did a curious thing then, sipped coffee from a cup on the table, with her bare foot. Held the handle between her toes like it was nothing. "They always come back, though. We're all they have. Actually, wave that broom before your own door. Your Eversors may fall to the rose, but our girls always come back when they run away."

"Don't you fucking bring up the rose to me. I'm keeping mine clean, you know? They don't fucking "fall" to it. You're either pure or you are not. If you aren't, we know right away. The cult is the people that the cat recruits in orphanages and wackhouses. They get sent to the cult from the start, or like a week in."

She didn't argue further. At first I thought she may have had first hand experience with the cultists, or the Librarian who supervises the separation. Upon closer inspection, though, she was lost in thought. Folding in her spinning chair like a monkey.

"You say she might have taken the potion. Wouldn't you be able to tell? She was a pretty nihilistic person, the change in attitude would be huge. I had her on antidepressants, but she didn't want to take them. Kept saying she's okay."

"So you've wanted to first drug them and then mindfuck them. Wow. No, she was a huge downer. Looked like she took drugs, though." That's not to talk about how antidepressants for a Magical Girl are probably some really heavy stuff.

"That she always did." The Librarian kept rocking in her chair, using her toe to spin away from the table in a very slow, annoying way. "Say, do you know who the Witch Libuna is?"

I nodded. Strange coincidence. "Literally just had a talk about her half an hour ago. She's the precognitive Witch."

"Possibly omniscient. Definitely self-aware. But she's bound to an area, to this town. She can't go very far from Prague. Yet, she never gets caught, despite being relatively low on the real power scale, and having no protection whatsoever. One of the many enigmas we work with. The final experiment we have considered making with Info-cytes was making Info-cytes out of several precognitive girls, and figure out whether they could match her skill. And checkmate her. We wouldn't actually kill her, since we're actually banned from doing that. Just, have her at our mercy for a while, and then let her go."

If I was her, I'd let myself be caught and freed, just to fuck with them a bit. "Why did you just ask me that?"

"No reason. You either are pure or you aren't. Huh."

Renata stood up from the chair, and leaned in a bit, in an awkward motion compared to how nimble she was before. I was now almost sure, from her body language, that she must have lost arms at some point her life, and gone long without them, because she was just letting them lie, only moving one when she needed to do something with it. She was looking at the locker on my pendant, which she must have guessed I had my Soul Gem in. "Say. What was you wish?"

That is basically the single rudest thing possible to say to a Magical Girl. Not even lovers share these. What the hell?

"I collect wishes, you know. I've wished to understand art. Yours must have been similar, I think." She leaned in further. "Is the wish in your pants?"

I hope I didn't blush there. I didn't laugh, at least.

Then she raised her head and looked me square in the eyes. "Do you demand satisfaction?"

"What. No, I don't, really. The girl is dead. You're a fuckup, I've got nothing to prove here anymore."

She straightened back up, eyeing me further. "Just so you know, I dislike the way Panna does her thing. It's a strange game," she had said, "the only winning move is not to play. So yeah, this feels much more honest. I challenge you to a fight."

I had to take a long time to process that, in my dumb jock head. I came in hoping to shout her out, but could not have been prepared for nonsense of this level.

What the hell was this girl saying? A challenge? She was a Librarian, sure, I could expect competence, but she just challenged a Rank Leader to a fight. A Rank Leader who, as it just turned out, could compete for the Warmaster's seat.

Of course, it's silly that we consider a "competent Vanus" one that has learned to not just be a Vanus. But they aren't usually much more than that, anyway. They don't train or eat right, or even go outside. It's just that whatever weird gimmick they came across on the mutant cat roulette has also turned out to be marginally useful for making things others can use, or enhancing our logistics, or frying the potential Callidus spy in a torrent of warpfire. The Librarians are still, and will forever be, a bunch of nerds.

Nothing about the way Renata carried herself suggested she was a warrior. This girl was either very good at deception, or insane. Taking the whole conversation into account, I was willing to bet on insanity.

I liked it.

"Next! Come here, you skank! We don't have all day!" The Squad Leader in charge extended her gesture with the wooden club she held. She was sweating, so, to an experienced observer, she must have been at it for at least an hour. I knew it was almost two hours, though, and that they should actually be just about done. She was a tough one, still red in the face and worked up.

The girl who just was on a five hit win-streak against the other squaddies parted with her defeated partner, to get a shot against her boss, getting into stance at the deceiving gap of ten meters. The fencing hall is spacious and has to accommodate for fifty girls at a time - but you could tell that they now belong together by the stripe painted on the floor. She would usually be on one of the blue ones, but the instructor's on the far right was red.

The Squad Leader itching for another fight looked on me with a question on her eyes, knowing I wasn't supposed to be there. Did I intend to conduct the sparring out of order?

I handwaved her away, and led Renata through the competing pairs and groups to a side of the room, right next to the stands. I didn't intend to shame her publicly or anything.

On the bench in the corner, we saw the familiar face of our resident necromancer. In it, the eyes that didn't lose their glitter through seeing much, framed in slight wrinkles. It was outlined by raven haired hair, and belonged to a lanky body.

The time has come to introduce Jackdaw.

Jackdaw can be really creepy, despite never trying to, and is very much a character that attracts rumors.

One such rumor would be that once on an assignment, she got shot in the face and choked the guy with her gut for it.

Another, much more believable, is that she has a lot of organs she pulls out of her patients left over, and sells them on the black market for a little extra profit. If that is true, it makes you, like many things, question the value of money to a grief seed, since creating a body part is not all that difficult for some Venenum.

One that I know is true, more a legend than a rumor, is that during the last Walpurgisnacht, she fought an Alpha Witch in Egypt among other magical girls, and used dozens of dead Eversor bodies from the Fourteenth for a literal meat shield against her attacks, in an attempt to hold her down, and provide time for others to finish her off. It seems that this was quite gruesome even next to an Alpha Witch, and left many people mentally scarred. Only a few of the Vindicare that traveled there with her talk to her anymore. The Fourteenth had added this to the list of grudges, although after the Walpurgisnacht, they had enough trouble with rebuilding their own ranks,and never pressed the issue.

The only one of these rumors that I can really confirm false is that she can speak to the dead with just shards of their gem. I am sure we all wish there was someone like that, but that just isn't possible.

The truth behind Jackdaw would be, that she is really a boundless optimist. Only a doctor can reach such a level of harmony with their surroundings. It makes you wonder whether she was always like this. It's difficult to imagine her in genuine distress. Perhaps Jackdaw is the ideal of zen acceptance I have been looking for, in order to not go insane from what my new job may be.

To get back to the fencing hall - Jackdaw would sometimes hang out here, despite not belonging in. She would justify it by hauling bodies for the Venenum to treat faster, since she isn't actually a Venenum herself. She is pretty much a doctor by education, even, just not a magical one. She says that watching different bodies compete is really interesting. I saw her in the stands this time as well, talking to a girl I've recognized as a Venenum.

Jackdaw is handy, because she can allow Eversors to be more serious in spars, just by letting them not hold back and use real weapons. Sometimes, you need a thing like that. You see, Venenum can deal with even most lethal wounds on the body, but there is another problem: Most soul gems can't really travel very far from you. You can put them, for example, under the floor, and then let the girls get more serious because a lethal injury would be impossible without a gem, but you can only do that in a boxing ring , or in a cage, something. A proper fencing hall needs to be large, because there is a lot of pushing back and forth in a real fight. Before most girls learn to move to the sides and, anyway. If someone uses a foil, I want her to get as much space as she needs.

So, Jackdaw can follow the girls, and carry their gems, without fearing she'd get hit by a stray swing herself. If she would, she's just going to pull back such a swing by redirecting the girl's hand a bit. And if she still gets hit for some reason, no big deal. Several Eversors - ones with no nonlethal variation of their preferred weapon, like the two girls with whips - already use her services. Unfortunately for them, she's only hanging out here in her free time.

Jackdaw also said once, much more disturbingly, that she could take a dead body, give it a weapon, and have someone fight it. It would give them experience in fighting foes that don't feel pain and attack suicidally, which comes in handy.

Myself, I hate the idea of having someone always clean the floor. That's already enough of a bullying job now. Wooden weapons had worked just fine for training in the entire recorded history of combat.

To this Jackdaw said that we are writing a new chapter right here, because we also kill monsters aside from just humans. Which prompted me to start considering what a fencing school meant against monsters would look like. After all, there is technique to the proper krump. I ended up just as confused by the end of it all, as Witches always make you.

It made me angry that there would be anyone in these stands today. If the Venenum was supposed to be on service in the hall, she was straight up slacking off. There wasn't a break of any sort right now, and while she should keep her distance from the combatants, she had no business sitting all the way there. The stands on this side were only supposed to be used during tournaments, anyway. You couldn't see whatever was happening on the other side of the hall for all the pillars keeping the space standing, that's why I thought we could be alone. Like this, we would still have somebody watching, and I didn't want that.

I waved at the necromancer to get her attention. It may have been rude to the Venenum, but I wanted to be rude to her. "Watching the game? Did anyone get hurt?"

"A few broken ribs, I think. This new girl here has iffy magic that could screw someone up, so I've been asked to give her a lesson in chiropraxy."

Her eyes then widened when she noticed the second person. It didn't make her look any less phlegmatic.

"Well," she said, pointing to the circlet in Renata's hand "this is going to be interesting".

Renata held the thing out, so that we could all see it clearly. "This is not actually an Info-cyte, it's a bit different. I am building off the old design, but dislike the limitation to Vanus. So, I'll lose any edge my Vanus trance could give me. Not losing much. Then, I'll be fully conscious, and the machine spirit will lead my limbs a bit and offer tactical advice. I'll also get perfect control over my body - simulating an Eversor trance in a way, though I won't be as tolerant to pain, and the muscle memory will still be forged, and just provided. Not, you know, natural. That's something you are going to notice. A bit of a delay in response, probably."

She then put it on her head. "It interfaces with the brain in the same way the old ones did. Still, the original maker had been too narrow-minded. All I really needed to do was exchange a chip, even though I wouldn't understand how it works without reverse engineering a bit of Incubator tech first. Not like they ever banned me from doing that in THIS Officio. Once it's a finished piece of work, anyone will be able to use it."

...If that includes normals, I am willing to bet that they will just seal it inside the Librarium and won't let it get out. Ever.

"I call it the Puretide chip. Remember the name, you will hear it in the future."

It appeared as though we both were ready. Me, in just a T-shirt and having switched to sweat pants, because staying in jeans would be retarded, and her out of costume as well, but cheating nevertheless. Neither of us would be protected by a costume, or spending magic on this, unless Renata's toy actually did.

There wasn't a need to have anyone start us off, though I am sure that Jackdaw would love to shoot a starter gun into the air. Hell, I wanted nobody to see this, but there were already a few curious rascals peeking from behind the pillars.

I took a boxing stance and made a move forward, because it's always better to judge someone's skill while you're on the offense. I figured she would use her metal arms. In case her arms proved much stronger than my magically unsupported body, I could always say that duh, you've got iron hands, so of course a human would lose.

My punch only glanced her guard, but from the contact, I could tell her arms were really light. For all intents and purposes, those were human arms. Huh.

She tried to kick me from the side, and I moved in more, betting on my weight blowing her out. Her knee didn't do much, though I could tell her kick - her human kick - had been really powerful. Then she had to avoid the blow to head by falling down completely, which she somehow managed to turn into damn near a backflip. I should have been more observant there. I should have also stomped on her foot.

Back on her feet, she didn't give me a chance to think, and swung her leg at me again, in a wide sweep - this time with a twist. She caught the side of my raised palm between her toes, and threw it away. If not for my own legwork, the other foot would have smashed right into my chin.

Who knew there was a martial arts monkey like this around? And one of the pencil pushers, too?

She closed the distance, and then threw another pair of kicks on me, this time straight on the stomach. That was notably uneducated of her, since most Eversors worth their salt would just tough it through a hit like that, and only vomit right after the fight. My long legs saved me from that as well, and my long arms saw an opportunity.

She was only using her hands for balance and support, so once she was pulling her other leg forward, I made a step back and managed to catch a few of her fingers in one of my arms. She must have known that maneuver, since she used the other leg she stood on for a high jump right away, as not to expose her ribs to me. I could have tried to punch her in the face with my own left hand, since that face was now close to me, but she would have possibly gone for a headlock if I didn't get out of the way, and that would just be messy. What is this, Blade Runner?

So, I let her hand go. She turned a bit in the air completing the absurdly high jump without me pulling her down, rolled on the fall, and I didn't pursue her, since moving near a leg focused melee fighter while they're on the ground is just a really dumb thing to do.

I just may have missed an opportunity before she landed, when her back faced me, but that's a situation I never had been in. Trying to tackle her felt like the right thing to do, but I held back - there might easily be a counter to that.

She finished her roll, followed it with a backlip to face me, braced against the ground, made a few leaps, and jumped at me again, with a straight pair of kicks this time. It probably made sense to her, because I've only moved back the whole time.

So, I've dodged that to the side, not getting anywhere near those legs, and caught that same hand again. Due to her momentum, a lot more firmly. Then, I made two long steps, and pulled.

I could tell that even with the arms, she weighed about half as much as me. That still makes her a relatively big girl, and I couldn't really throw her around like a grocery bag. I saw an expression of surprise break her focus, though, so I knew right away that I had picked right. She had been already going the wrong way with the missed kick, so I just stepped opposite to where I wanted to get her, twisting the grip a bit.

She covered the first half-turn with two clumsy, heavy steps. The third, she didn't have legs left for, so she used her hand for it, and tried bouncing herself off the ground. That was obvious improvisation, I guess she was trying for a good angle for the fall.

Of course, I wouldn't let her do that. Right as she was almost at the top of the arc, already upside down, I smashed her to the ground as hard as I could. She almost made it into a roll anyway, but alongside the thud of her body, everyone had also heard the clear crack in her shoulder.

She picked herself up, with her healthy arm reaching to her back, looked at me, and hissed through her teeth. "How."

"That's a merry-go-round, uh. At least that's what I think it's called. I guessed it wouldn't be in a martial arts handbook, since it's not an artsy thing. It's a thing that kids in elementary do." Well, in that kind of a gym, you would usually be looking to smash the other kid into a wall, not to spin him around. It's the first lesson about why trying to fight heavier people hand to hand is dumb. It's sort of a bully trick, but I used to be a bully after all.

"You figured out I wouldn't know this, because you could tell I didn't always have hands."

I genuinely never guessed that. "You told me too much when you said it uses manuals. It's more like, I've been looking to get you by doing something wrong but executing it right. I kept fucking telling this people - that's why these things are useless against Witches."

Her eyes were narrowed at me. "Interesting. Would you say hand to hand combat is like chess? Is this like Deep Blue losing to a sub-optimal strategy?"

What a loaded question. Of course she would point out that the piece of junk won in the end. "Bad comparsion. You could program it to beat me, but not a Witch. Besides, with a fighting style like that, you in particular will be fucked when I start actually using my magic. What then? And it's not just that. Like I said, it's also about the art of fighting."

Jackdaw smiled, and asked me "What do you know about art, Jarmila?"

"Nothing, I guess. But she knew perfectly well what she was doing! And I think that's wrong. I say that as a technical fencer. You really need to put your heart to it."

She was visibly angry now - she never was up until then. "Well, fuck you too. If you don't understand what you're doing, how can you be so sure you're doing the right thing?


The girls in the stands cheered on me. It was pretty disgusting. A jock beat up a nerd for speaking up against her, and they liked it. I've got to talk to those girls later and set them straight.

It seemed that Jackdaw was helping herself by restraining Renata a bit with her power, while she was moving the bones into the right spot for the Venenum to fix up proper. Renata's inner civilian showed here, and she nearly broke to tears from the pain. Still, she did not in the end, there is a tough core to the girl.

This brought back unpleasant memories for me. I have seen Jackdaw in battle a few times. She gets sent out the most of all the Librarians, since she's hard to kill. Like Řeřicha, she's frightening in offense too, but letting Řeřicha get anywhere near a battlefield equals a war crime. Jackdaw, on the other hand, is extremely precise in killing. The only collateral damage is the blood to wash from the floor, and the bodies she regrets not owning.

Jackdaw would tear the attacker limb from limb, looking at them with what I hope was pity. In the case of a Witch, she would explode them to bits part by part. After all those years, I understood why she is sad when she fights. It's all those joints, spinal fluids, and Witch flesh, going to waste.

Whether she was helping people live on, or taking their life, though, she needs no torrent of fire like I do. She can just do so with a gesture of her hand.


With her shoulder fixed, Renata leaned her arms forward, squeezing her fingers, which produced a faint, metallic crack.

Seeing those two next to each other reminded me of a passage in Moby-Dick, actually. Ahab had an artificial leg, too. Allow me to find the exact quote:

Then, with every mast-head manned, the piled-up craft rolled down before the wind. The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breeze filling the hollows of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her - one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal. And had you watched Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked.

Renata only wrought death with her hands, while Jackdaw, a necromancer as she were, was all about life. But machines are simpler to understand than humans, and death is easier to deal with than life. Really, Jackdaw was the terrifying one.

So, after seeing her in action once again, and having things put a bit more into perspective by it, it was much easier to talk to Renata casually. I tried to. "Why didn't you use your arms at all?"

Of course, she could expect the question. "I have data on it, but it would set a bad precedent with my arms being abnormal. The Fourth was like that too. Flesh is weak, steel, you can trust. But I don't like that. It would be like being a runner with a crutch. In the words of Valeria Kheredar - a magical girl greater than I: These hands are strong, and they have created great things, but they are not mine. The time will come when I get rid of them, lest I lose the power to master myself forever."

Well, there you go. I guess I could understand why the Fourth would have trouble with someone like her, or why she would have trouble with it. She seemed to know what I'd be curious about again.

"Not the only reason I left. Power struggles got annoying, too. I understood that the way the Fourth was is wrong, and that it wouldn't be changing anytime soon." She wasn't looking at me anymore, practically talking to herself now. " Hell, the whole leadership could use more humility. The conservatives are too passive, and the progressives are fools. The Blessed Lady of Machines is waiting for them behind the last theorem."

Oh. I picked up on the fact that she was a believer, and that their faith would be a bit different, but it never occurred to me that Fourth could actually have those kinds of problems to go with it. You would think they would all be brought together by their love of wires and moving bits of metal, but this instead sounded like a theological schism brewing.

She stretched a bit more. "Well, I trust you are satisfied with a punishment like that. I have learned a bit as well." She turned back completely, having to shove aside the first girl from the gathered mob, before the others got the message and made way. For a while I have been scared somebody would get the idea of giving her a walk of shame, or something stupid like that, it could get them into serious trouble.

Halfway through, though, she stopped, and turned back at me. I still felt slightly guilty under her glare.

"Iron Within."