Chapter 1

5 0 0

The old man could evoke no mystic powers, nor weave hexes of his own. Months spent scouring the most forsaken regions of the southwest had armed him with enough knowledge to disrupt the magic of others, though. With strong hands the color and texture of rawhide, the old man popped the iron cap off of one of his rounds. In a careful, deliberate manner, he poured black powder from the bullet, tracing a portion of the blood-etched circle that guarded the shack.

He pocketed the empty round for reuse later and withdrew a box of matches. There was a fair bit of wind that day, cold fronts from the east dancing violently with warm, native air, so the old man knelt down close to the powder before striking his match. With a hiss and a puff of smoke, the gunpowder dispelled the ward so that he could safely cross.

The old man stepped over the scorched blood and moved toward the decrepit, one room shack. Early morning sunlight streamed through the canopy of leaves above, hitting the broken facade like a sepia tone kaleidoscope.

The door was uneven in the frame and didn't close correctly. A nauseating stench, that of gangrenous flesh, wafted out from the shack, mixed with the pleasant smells of spices and broth. Like farmers and apothecaries, witches tended to be fine cooks.

The porch protested with a loud creak as the old man stepped up to the entrance. An even louder screech came from the rusted hinges of the shabby door. The witch slept soundly through the warnings that its abode issued, much to the old man's relief.

The old man placed his pack on the floor and surveyed the witch's home. A large, black pot was propped up over a makeshift fireplace, the remnants of a hearty rabbit stew from the night before still lining it. Bones of rabbits and squirrels lay in one corner, mixed with poorly skinned hides waiting for repurpose. An old board propped up on two wooden crates held leaded bottles and burlap pouches full of oils and spices. Rooted deep within the dirt floor, right in the center of the room, was a massive tree stump, a yard and a third across. It looked to serve as dinner table, work desk, and altar. The old man guessed that the stump had been key in deciding where to build the shack.

The witch itself lay deeply asleep on a small cot with its matted, white hair covering much of its face. The cot was the kind used for battlefield surgery, and it bore the stains of many a soldier's blood. The pillow that lay under the witch's head had at one time been a fine, frilly piece with golden tassels and embroidery. It was the kind of thing the old man had seen in the brothels of his youth. Now the pillow was stained and frayed. Its once deep burgundy tone had bleached over time into a dull, reddish gray. A reflection of the witch's own heart, perhaps.

The old man unsheathed the sword that was strapped to his back. The blade was a Confederate artillery sword, the last-ditch weapon of gunners who fought for the stars and bars. Modeled after the Roman gladius, it was a hefty weapon, thick in the middle. A design that had proven itself for millennia. Some didn't like its weight. The old man, however, was accustomed to heavy burdens, and it felt comfortable in his hands.

He positioned the sword's tip above the witch's belly. Taking a deep breath, he looked down upon the mangy, gangrenous wretch with its sunken eyes and matted hair. Its chapped lips parted, revealing its white tongue and rotted teeth. As he had done with every tainted thing that he had killed over the past months, the old man took a moment to see the woman beneath.

It was important to the old man that he recognize that every witch had once been something more than a vessel of chaos. They had been soldiers and farmers, mothers and fathers. At one point in time, each was a child whose smile meant the world to someone. Or perhaps some were the unwanted offspring of degenerates, making them easy pickings for the Devourers. Whatever their history, there was something human in there. Something more divine than any god or devil. For every evil thing he had crushed, the old man knew that he had also murdered the human left inside. He never wanted that to become easy.

The DevouredRead this story for FREE!