They evolved after the plagues, these witch hunting groups. Most had been the dregs of rural church congregations; isolated from the catastrophes the cities had become. At the breaking point it simply takes a charismatic leader, and the people will follow. The most successful of such bands was led by the infamous Tanner Villeronga, of bastard French/Spanish blood. Before, he had achieved some small acclaim as a judicious Shepherd of men, settling disputes and adroitly playing church politics with an even hand. He was the rarest of priests: one with true faith.
But he had grown dark. A scar ran down one side of his face, and he wore a scowl, night and day. The only thing that softened his countenance was his work. His work brought him great calm.
In the courtyard of the church, the righteous would train for upcoming raids. Marksmanship, hand to hand combat, and exorcism of demons. Tanner would stroll between the lines of grunting men, reading out loud from his Bible, using the text as a source for training axioms.
It was summer full of speeches, of prayers, and of espionage. They collected information on heretics from their various spies. Medicine women who had taken advantage of the catastrophes to settle old scores, petty thieves that embraced the darker arts. Most were easy targets. And that, in Tanner’s mind, was the problem.
He had promised them glory, the chance to exult themselves before the almighty. What he delivered was one unsatisfying coup de grâce after another, snapping the necks of feeble heretics and delirious soothsayers. There needed to be a battle, a grand day of glory. After running his sword through the coven of fourteen, a group alleged to have engaged in bacchanals with The Dark One, the decision was made: They were going after The Madame.
Several attempts had been made on her life in the past year, from both sides of the Manichean divide. It was her lack of affiliation with any side that angered everyone. But nevertheless, every party that opposed her, had been destroyed. The Madame didn't allow survivors.
The Madame resided in an estate known as Ravenwood. It was a sturdy fortress to begin with, placed atop cliffs overlooking the sea. For this reason an attacking party was forced to come up the hill, or climb the cliffs. It was unclear how many men she had at her disposal, but they were all fiercely loyal to her. The people of the underground whispered about a chamber in her innermost sanctum that was a repository of all of the men's souls. It is not known whether or not this was true; only that it was spoken of as if it were.
Even if one surmounted all of these other things, there was still the woman herself to contend with. All that was known about The Madame was that she had been born in Prague, she wore a pendant around her neck containing a man’s ashes, and she had killed Melquiedes the Red. Melquiedes was a brigand and a thief, a mountain of a man. He and his men had caught The Madame outside of Ravenwood, on one of her expeditions. After gutting most of her traveling servants, he had unwisely tried to ravish her. He had barely started unbuttoning her waistcoat, when he felt an obsidian knife slide up under his ribs. He sank to his knees, saliva spilling from his mouth. She then wrapped two gloved hands around his head, and snapped his neck.
The wives of the Melquiedes unfortunates found their husbands bodies lined up in a row, all of them missing their heads. The Madame had carried them back to her estate, and posted them on stakes outside of her stone wall.
Tanner's men spent the autumn training. They would need it.
Ravenwood had been the home of a sea captain whose name has been lost to history. It was equipped with several sentry points, with men appointed to each. These men, while loyal, were not always attentive to their work. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know what was at stake, all of them were veterans of the estate, had seen it through many sieges. But still, staring out at the hillside for hours on end became tiresome, and they grew less vigilant as the hours dragged on without incident. Most of them were looking the wrong way, in any case.
As Tanner’s men made their way slowly up the hill, they took their time, blending in with the terrain. But as they came closer to the edifice, they began to make mistakes, due to their eagerness for a real fight.
The Madame was in her room, reading, when Jaques
, her most trusted advisor and sentinel
, burst in with the news, out of breath.
“Madame, there are men on the lawn!” He said heaving. He had rushed across the manor, up the stairs to her room.
“Of course there are.” She said, without looking up.
“But, we have…” He started, but she put up a hand to stop him. She finished the page she was on, put a bit of lace
in the book, and closed it.
“I was wondering when your sentries would notice the men insinuating
themselves onto the estate.” She said, looking disappointed, standing, and straightening her skirt.
“But why did you not say anything?” He asked.
“That is not my job.” She paused just a second. “Send your men out to meet Monsieur
He knew better to question her judgment in withholding her knowledge of the impending attack, or how she knew who it was. Neither would elicit anything but a dismissal.
Tanner’s men didn’t know they had been discovered until a volley of arrows came flying towards them. Nearly all of them were hit. They were short, these arrows, and easy to extract. They barely broke the skin.
The Madame’s men rushed toward the mauraders, swords drawn. Both forces collided on the lawn, in the moonlight, and the clanging could be heard for leagues. Within minutes, it was clear who would be victorious.
Jacques rushed back to The Madame to tell her the good news.
“Madame, we have almost won!” He shouted, proud of himself.
“Have we?” She asked, her eyes laughing.
“Well yes.” He answered, exasperated.
The heavy cedar door vibrated with a resounding knock.
“That will be Mr. Villeronga. Do let him in.” She said, gesturing toward the door, and strapping her dagger to her bodice. This was yet another example of The Madame taking no concern for her personal safety. It was maddening.
“There is no way I shall open that door.” Jacques shouted, unsheathing his sword, and standing in between his mistress and danger. With that, the men on the other side began to pound upon it. It gave way quickly, and men quickly filled the room.
Only the widow's walk faced the sea, where Tanner and his men had climbed the cliff over two days. They had been inside Ravenwood before the land assault was waged. That had been merely a diversion, allowing Tanner to storm the citadel.
“Monseiur Villeronga, so nice of you to join us.”
Tanner fixed his good eye on The Madame, and quickly assessed her. She was incredibly petite, small-statured, and it was impossible to believe the stories told about her. He attempted to stare her down.
“None of your tricks, demon!” He shouted, making a big show for his men. He had rehearsed this many times in the weeks preceding the attack. “We have you surrounded, by morning Ravenwood will be ours.”
“Your men shall not live to see morning.” She said, coldly.
He laughed, a cold unfeeling laugh. It was as the fly threatening the spider.
“What makes you say that?” He asked, looking amused.
“You and your scouts found a cache of food in the back kitchen, did you not? Unguarded, unlocked, and easily taken?” She didn’t wait for answer, and Tanner blanched.
“If you looked for the rest of your life you would not find the secret ingredient in that food, and in the arrows that struck your men as they crested the hill. Search two lifetimes, and you might find the antidote. But you do not have two lifetimes. You have until the sun rises.”
For a second, everyone in the room held their breath. Tanner pointed at Jacques.
“We shall roast him first, until she gives up the answer.” Jacques eyes held genuine terror.
The Madame was quick, she wrapped her hand around her sword, and ran behind her advisor, her blade swift and deft. She was across the room before Jacques head slid off his shoulders.
Her face showed the exertion of the decapitation. “Best start with me.” She said, her sword clattering on the floor.
The Great Hall was filled with the survivors of both camps. The Madame's men submitted to being bound, once they saw their mistress surrounded on each side. They all held on to the hope that this wouldn’t end in their own death. Most tried not to think of what might happen to their mistress. They had failed her.
They began to break up chairs and furniture for a pyre. The Madame made no motion to struggle, and her face held the marks of a fight. Once the wood was sufficiently high, the men lit it.
“This fire is the fire of God. This fire will cleanse this place of the evil that this demon has wrought. This fire will be one of salvation.” As he spoke, the fire climbed higher, as if in approval.
“This woman has committed unspeakable atrocities.”
Higher the fire climbed.
“She must be judged”
“And we shall judge her.”
The fire shot upwards, and descended down to the stone floor in a resounding fireball. When it had equalized, a figure could be made out in the middle, a man. He seemed unfazed by the heat, and walked calmly out of the center.
Before he could address this new visitor, Tanner was overtaken by him. The man was attired in the finest black suit, was tall and handsome. He picked up Tanner by the throat, and turned to address the Madame.
“Figured you could use some assistance M’Lady.” The stranger said, bowing. This was almost comical, as he still held the unfortunate Monsieur Villeronga.
“Black Jack.” The Madame spat.
“The Dark One.” Tanner moaned, terrified. The stranger smiled, opening his mouth to show several rows of pointed teeth, each row rotating inside of his mouth in a contrary direction to the row next to it. “The very same.”
The Madame cut through the men surrounding her, and none of them moved to stop her, far too frightened. As she ran toward the stranger, she withdrew her obsidian knife. He deflected her attack with a wave of her hand, and the men that survived that night would swear he hadn’t even touched her. This sent her to the ground, the knife falling at her side.
Gasping on the floor, The Madame spat blood. “I made myself very clear the last time we met. You have nothing I want.”
“How about your life?” He asked, looking down at her.
“Not yours to give!” She said, stabbing him in the leg with her dagger.
He vanished, and the scared witchhunter fell to the ground.
She pulled him to her, and put the dagger to his throat.
“Untie my men.” They all hesitated. “Now!”
“Lazarus, get these men the antidote from the vault.”
As she watched the invaders leave Ravenwood, The Madame lamented over the needless bloodshed. Lazarus, her new second in command, was setting her quarters in order. He joined her at the window.
“They will be back.” Lazarus said, heaving a sigh. “I did not think we allowed survivors.” He said.
She smiled. Jacques had learned not to ask questions, but Lazarus was young.
“We do not allow survivors.”
“What about the antidote?” He asked.
“There is no antidote.”