Mercy Killing 4: Mea Maxima Culpa

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I am Shimizu Yumishita, formerly of the Third. Traitor, outcast, fugitive, murderer, soulless. I am all of these, yet with the witch of this godforsaken barrier as my sole witness, I swear that I am innocent.

A funeral march rolls past for the thousandth time, to the crackling of a thunderstorm and the cries of distant familiars, styling themselves after banshees, and carrion birds turned mourners. The witch lies within the coffin, A nameless tombstone with the face of a young girl, staring out at the sprawling night sky of her barrier with lidless eyes. The bearers sing a song in their unfathomable language, making endless rounds with no destination in site, a march for the sake of marching. One among their numbers glances my way, with a face that is nothing more than a writhing mass of earthworms, its wriggling arms giving way to a pair of stiff, dead rats in place of hands, a lily planted in and growing from each of their skulls.

It pays me no mind, and resumes its journey once more, as I knew it would. I pluck a white lily from the ground and place it in the casket, only to be met with a smile from the witch herself; one that leaves me resisting an immediate compulsion to join the procession.

These familiars are not alone. Vultures circle far above, whether for the witch or myself, I can hardly tell. Curious beasts of shadow and earth, held together by only the barest features of the birds they emulate. Some flesh and bone clings to the muddied darkness, however, and in my time here I have come to learn that they are approximately edible if shot down. I choose not to dwell on any effects this may have, as long as it sustains me. Here I will wait, until the time comes to leave my retreat and strike again to free another soul.

...Her name was Atsuko. Atsuko Yumishita. My late, older sister. I would say that she was the catalyst to these events, but I know well enough that ultimately, I was the cause of her fate and my own.

I still remember the announcement from three years past. Leukemia. Untreatable, as we soon discovered. I would have a year or two, at best. I will not say that I broke down at the time, that I felt any sense of loss or grief over it all. The entire experience was a dream-like one, some fevered vision that I would no doubt wake from soon enough. It never seemed real enough to merit any reaction until it was gone. Half a year later, I was saved.

Atsuko had taken a contract with the incubator of the Third. I knew nothing of it, of course. She told me... she told me it was a miracle. I would later learn that she had wished her way into the Venenum rank. Wished not to cure my illness, but in her kindness, to provide salvation for all who fell in her presence, demanding only that the incubator make her able to heal any wound, cure any sickness. It would require her constant care, but she did not begrudge that for a moment, tending to me night and day. For a time, I was the very picture of health, at the low price of her soul.

I realised so little then.

I confess, I... barely knew anything of the circumstances behind this miracle. Of what her life had become, and the trials she faced daily. What Atsuko herself had become, growing somehow less familiar by the day, as kind and caring as she might remain. I saw no signs, found no omens, and to this day I cannot say what led her to her final fate. It may have been her willingness to mend what was broken that drained her of her own soul. Her own spirit.

I was there, the day she fell. I saw her in our home, becoming a witch before my eyes. I was there when the creature that wore her face - that helpless victim of the incubator's sins - tore apart the home we had lived out our lives in, and spread its pestilence everywhere, as the skin of our family and neighbours sloughed off their skin. I met her broken, hopeless stare as the barrier spread, and she reached towards me to snuff my life out.

A gas leak, they would say later. That was all that her death would mean to the world.

It was a Culexus who saved my life, one Megumi Minakata. The one who thought my own sister a monster like any other, never recognising her as anything but - ironically enough - Atsuko's killer. The one who dealt the killing blow. I cannot, and will not fault her for that; she could not have known, and I realise that now. I told her who the witch had been, at the time, while barely understanding the world they came from. She dismissed it immediately, thinking me delirious from the encounter, and promised that she would tell no one of my delusions. I never spoke of it again, after that event.

With my own health failing, it was not long before the visit came from the incubator, that inhuman tempter who had swindled so many souls away. I did not know his nature - his life's work - at the time, but I remembered what his last miracle had yielded, and bided my time, asking for time to consider my offer. I hid as best I could, spied upon the Third, and was fortunate enough - it was luck, in the end, and not skill that saw me through to this - to learn some scraps of information. Not the full picture, but quite enough. He and his kind harvested the souls, the hope and despair of countless humans. Turned them into enchanted servants fated to become abominations. All the while, he told them nothing. Not a word of what they had become in his service.

I do not know what his ends are in doing this. It scarcely matters; nothing could excuse such deeds.

Armed with knowledge, I went to him personally and all but begged for a contract. He was all too pleased to grant one, barely remembering who I was; the Officio at large seemed to have forgotten both myself and, to a degree, even Atsuko. Thus, I joined their ranks. I wished to be able to seek out and hunt down my enemies without fail, and to evade them at every turn. The deceiver was as blind as those he led - he must have seen many a wish used as a tool of vengeance - and granted my request, never knowing who my enemies were. Perhaps it never crossed his mind that I would know his secrets, or take him to task for it.

Thus far, the wish has served me admirably.

At the end of my training, I sought out the Third Incubator himself, and shot him on the spot; my weapon took on the form of an arbalest, firing several bolts through the creature and barely leaving a scrap of the body behind. That was when I learned the futility of attacking him. The counterattack from the Officio's blind servants began not long after, and I was forced to retreat, seeking shelter from the barriers of witches as I do now, made oblivious by my powers.

What a strange world I have come to inhabit, where somehow, I can only trust witches to protect me until I destroy them.

When I saw how little I had accomplished, it dawned on me that I could take only one path. I would whittle down the numbers of the Third one by one. Destroy their soul gems and free them from their fate to come, their inevitable transformation. Each and every one would be a mercy killing, the most that can possibly be done for them after all they have endured, though I do not expect this to wipe away the blood on my hands.

In time, with his guards wiped away, I will be able to set my sights once more on the beast himself, and find some method to destroy him permanently. Surely, if there is any justice in this world, there must be a way. My sickness eats away at my body, but for now the power of the soul gem keeps it at bay. I will not fall as the others did. To become a witch is to lose hope; I will not rest until either I have fallen or the incubators have, beginning with the Third. Their fate is not mine. Such is my duty. My purpose. I cannot pretend that this is what anyone would have demanded, nor will I claim that it absolves the very deeds carried out for it. I will say only that I do what I must.

...When she hears the end of my tale, the tombstone witch gives off another weak smile, oblivious and uncomprehending. With nothing else to do, I join the ranks of her wailing mourners unseen, ears ringing as I help to carry her casket on another pointless loop. I suspect I will miss her silent company, somehow, when the time comes to end her.