Gretel loved killing witches. She had built an entire life around it, reveled in the horrified looks that superstitious townspeople gave her when she held decapitated witch heads aloft, loved putting misogynistic fools in their place. It was even a little flattering to have Ben trailing around and taking notes, categorizing weapons and uses of poisons. That was much easier than doing it herself or relying on her and Hansel's memory.
But now she was a witch. A white witch, to be exact, and she didn't know what to do with that kind of information.
Ben held all of Mina's books and whatever they had found that likely had once belonged to Hansel and Gretel's mother. Gretel wished she could break something, if only to expend the nervous energy running beneath her skin. She had no training in magic, didn't know if she could even do anything useful, and all her life had believed that all witches were evil and ugly. She knew she wasn't evil, and wasn't likely to turn that way. She had seen far too much in her years as a witch hunter to go down that dark path. Hansel, Ben and Edward wouldn't allow it to happen, either. But she wished Mina was still around, if only to help her harness this power she didn't know how to control.
Because if she was going to be absolutely honest with herself, that was what she was really afraid of: losing control.
She had lost control over her life the moment her parents sent her and Hansel out into the woods, and killing the witch that had captured them was the start of getting it back. At least, it made a sort of sense in her head. She was in control of herself during a hunt. She couldn't control the exact details, but she was prepared, Hansel was prepared, and they cut down the ones responsible for hurting others. Innocent villagers wouldn't be left hurt and stranded. That was supposed to make her feel as though she had some kind of purpose, that the miserable experience she'd had as a girl meant something.
Looking up, Gretel saw Hansel looking at her in concern. Dammit. She didn't want pity, didn't want anyone to think her weak. Especially not Hansel.
"What?" she asked, an edge to her voice.
Instead of responding right away, Hansel sat down beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Gretel stiffened, but he pulled her into a tight embrace anyway. "I miss her, too," Hansel said softly, looking back to the stack of Mina's books that Ben was reading. They were sitting around their camp, resting from their last hunt. Gretel was always itching to do something in the downtime; sitting idle made her uncomfortable.
"I didn't say anything," she snapped.
"Sometimes, you don't have to," Hansel replied. His voice was gentle, but not full of pity, thank God. "She could've made sense out of everything that happened to us."
Oh, no. He wasn't about to go down that pitiful road, not if she could help it.
"What happened," Gretel said, forcing a smile to her lips, "is that we have another weapon to use against them, if I can just figure out how to use it."
He blinked and leaned back a little, out of the hug. Gretel missed the closeness, but didn't lean back into it. "Really? I would've thought you'd be freaked out about this."
"Those blessings Mina did were useful. If I can figure out how to do them myself..."
Hansel looked fairly pleased by that, and Gretel inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Now if she could just push away her own misgivings and actually mean what she said, it would go a lot better for their team.
"This is a bad one," Ben commented after running a few feet away from the latest victim's corpse to throw up. He still looked a little worse for wear, but Gretel wasn't about to tease him for it when she felt a little queasy herself.
"Anything in the notes like it?" Gretel asked him, resting a hand on his arm. She didn't much care for physical intimacy, as it was too much of a distraction from their work, but Ben always seemed to settle down a bit more when she touched him. Edward was like that, too, but he was currently hanging back so that he wouldn't scare the villagers.
Hansel was talking with the family, trying to see if there was anything to tie this girl with the others that the witch had taken. Gretel assumed that it was simply expedience, not any particular trait that the girls had. None had the same birthday or physical characteristics besides their gender. They had all been snatched away while doing errands for their families, usually busy work to keep them from being underfoot in the fields. Parents all had commented on the sky darkening suddenly, and a flash of lightning without thunder before they realized their daughters were missing.
Ben shook his head gently, not garnering any attention from the others. "But there are parts of Mina's grimoires I can't read or won't open for me." At Gretel's sharp look, he shrugged. "I tried cross referencing the lettering, but it doesn't even look the same for me each time I look at it, and my drawings don't make any sense to me."
"Which means they're spelled."
Gretel sighed; she hadn't touched the grimoires herself, not feeling ready to handle her memories of Mina and maybe of her mother. Revenge was easy, and that she had gotten when they had killed Muriel. But reading through the grimoire would be a more direct tie to Mina, and she would have to deal with her grief more directly. "I'll take a look at them when we're done here."
"Hopefully soon?" Ben asked hopefully.
Standing, she gestured for Ben to follow her. "There's nothing on the body anymore that would be helpful for us. We know more from the stories they've told us about the abduction."
The grieving parents were glad to have the siblings' blessing to bury their daughter's body, and the team retreated to their camp in the forest. Edward had gathered plenty of firewood and whatever he could find in the forest to eat. Gretel offered him a grateful smile and pat on the arm, which had him preening a little. She spread out their map of the local area on the ground, and Hansel started recounting the deaths that they knew about. She marked the areas with a piece of charcoal, x's for the abductions and circles for the dumping grounds. As she did so, it soon became clear that the random abductions resolved into a jagged line. The dumping grounds, however, were truly random.
"This looks like the edge of the land they all farm from."
"Something has to be important about that area," Hansel said, frowning at the map.
"I can look and see if there are any other stories of the area," Ben offered. "But I don't remember anything offhand."
"Worth a look," Hansel said with a nod, then turned to Gretel. "We can check out the farmland directly, see what happened in the other locations."
"In a moment," Gretel murmured, getting up. "Let me see if I can read that section Ben was talking about."
Hansel frowned and turned to look at Ben, obviously feeling left out. Ben studiously sat and looked through one of his books, a stubborn look on his face. Gretel got out Mina's grimoire, hiding the trepidation she felt. "Gretel..."
"Maybe there's something in here that can help us. Like her blessing spell."
She could read every page in the book, and none of them stuck together. Not that the spells made much sense to her, but she supposed it was a measure of not having been taught about magic or potion making. She wasn't sure if she had the patience to try to learn it on her own, but she could at least look through Mina's books to see if there were any mentions of these villages or what could be done about tracking witches by magic.
"This isn't another blood moon spell," Hansel said after a moment, sitting down beside Gretel as she paged through the grimoire. "That doesn't mean there aren't other uses for the blood of little girls. I don't think Mina would make mention of that in her grimoire, though."
Gretel looked up when she realized there was no censure in his tone. "No, I don't think she would, either."
"Come on, warrior witch," Hansel said with a smile, patting her knee gently. "We've got a witch to catch."
She punched him on the arm. "In a hurry to get strung up and caught?"
"It was that one time!" he huffed.
Gretel arched a brow at him. "One time? I'm constantly saving your ass."
"Hey, I save you, too," Hansel replied as he got to his feet and headed to where he had put down his shotgun. He would need an injection soon, she knew, but he still had two syringes left. If she could find a spell in Mina's book that would replace the injections, they would be better off. Money was getting low, though it was lasting longer thanks to Edward scouring the forest for food and camping goods that he could find.
"You two will be okay here?" Gretel asked Ben and Edward after snorting at her brother in derision. Edward nodded and Ben gave her a confident smile. "All right. I don't think it'll take us too long to scout the area. We ought to be back in time for dinner."
She really had to stop making predictions like that.
The area the girls were abducted from gave Gretel a sharp chill down her spine. Finding witch signs always used to trigger that; now that she knew she had some white magic, maybe that was her inner sense reacting to the presence of evil. Walking along the line gave her that chill, but moving even five feet to either side alleviated it.
"This must be a place that heightens their powers," Gretel told Hansel, frowning. She kept her crossbow out, the chill along her spine growing stronger as they walked north. Hansel followed her lead, his own shotgun out.
"You feel something, then?" he asked, eyes sharp as he looked around for signs of the witch they were looking for.
"Cold," she murmured, looking around herself. "Like a constant chill I can't shake."
"Witch sign, then," Hansel replied in a firm voice. His steps grew a shade faster, his posture a little stiffer. If the chill wouldn't leave, it wasn't just the sensation of witches lingering after their work. The earliest abduction had been months earlier, so any witch sign from that should have been long gone, not stronger.
"You think she's here?" Gretel asked, looking around. They were at the edge of the farmlands that the different villages used, and there was no one out tending the grounds at the moment. There was empty grassland beyond the farmland, with only a mound of bare earth serving as the fencing to mark off the boundary of the area farmed. Gretel clambered up on top of the mound, looking out at the grassland. It was mostly dingy and brown, and crunched beneath her boots when she hopped down to explore it. Hansel helped her back across when she realized that there was nothing there to see.
"There has to be something about this place that—"
Gretel held up a hand suddenly. "It's silent. The birds and insects stopped making sounds."
Hansel gripped his shotgun tighter as he nodded in acknowledgement. There was nothing moving around them, and he looked up to see if there was anything there as Gretel looked down at the ground. She stepped forward, feeling the chill along her spine get even colder. It seemed to be worse the closer she got to the bare earth mound. "That boundary has to be it."
"Why wouldn't the villagers notice something like that, then?" Hansel asked. "It's so obvious, even I could figure out something like that."
The sky above them suddenly darkened.
The siblings broke out into a run, heading away from the mound and into the cornfields, ignoring the way the stalks cut at their faces and limbs as they ran. Behind them came a flash of lightning, and there was no sound of thunder following it.
"Looks like we got her attention," Hansel said, laughter in his voice.
Adrenaline running through her veins, Gretel would have replied. Instead, there was a feeling in the back of her mind that she had forgotten something.
And then the cold overwhelmed her, freezing her midstep. She couldn't even call out, and the last thing she saw was Hansel's expression of horror as he lifted his shotgun.
The world went dark before she could even hear it go off.
Black magic still slid off of Gretel's skin, apparently. The knives, coated with black magic, couldn't cut her. That didn't stop her from getting hurt, or from other spells being able to work on her, which is why she ached from being hurled into the wall. It was packed earth and not stone, at least, so she at least didn't have any broken bones.
Pushing herself up to a standing position, Gretel eyed the witch. "You took the girls that strayed over the border, didn't you?" she asked.
The witch looked at her in surprise, harsh curses stopping for a moment. Her skin was gray and mottled, her hands hooked and knuckles knobbly from gout. Her hair was the gray of old, bleached stones, her eyes completely black. The facial features were girlish, however, and her skin was completely unlined and free from traditional signs of age. The side of the cavern where Gretel had been tossed was dark, but there was a faint light source near where the witch was standing. No crossbow in sight, dammit.
"Your blood is mine, girl," the witch howled. "I'll get it somehow!"
"Yeah?" she asked, not impressed in the slightest. "Come and get it, then."
Gretel was almost surprised when the witch attacked with her fists instead of magic. Perhaps the ineffectiveness of her spelled blades was the reason behind it. It was easy to dodge the first few punches; the witch was more used to handling little girls that were frightened of her than a fully grown woman, and it showed. Gretel didn't mind fighting dirty or taking a few hits to the torso or even her face if it meant she could grab the witch and push her back into her work table. It knocked everything over, toppling her spell books and spilling items the witch had been using to create some kind of potion.
The witch tried to make some kind of gesture, but Gretel caught her fingers and twisted them sharply, making her cry out in pain. She brought her fist down on the witch's face repeatedly, feeling the flesh of her face shift like malleable clay. "What the hell?" she cried in disgust.
Even worse, congealed blood started to flow when the witch's nose tore off.
"Now I will get your blood," the witch snarled, lashing out to scratch at Gretel's face.
"Oh, no, you don't!" Gretel cried, backing up out of the way. Something told her that the witch getting her blood would be a Very Bad Idea, not even knowing anything about magic. Maybe it would take away her immunity to black magic. Maybe it would let the witch cast white magic. Who knew? She certainly didn't.
Reaching to the side, Gretel grabbed the mortar the witch had and brought it down on her head in a vicious downward stroke. The remnants of whatever she had been grinding came out, scattering across the witch's face. She hissed in pain, and the congealed blood bubbled and smoked. It smelled like sage, one of the few herbs that Gretel knew had magical uses even before Mina had told her about the white witch inheritance she had.
Well, now. That gave Gretel an idea.
Only vaguely aware of what the blessing rituals entailed, Gretel dumped the rest of the sage inside the mortar onto the witch's face. As she tried to brush it off, howling in pain, Gretel let one hand hover over her. "Light this sage," she said, feeling almost stupid for making up a spell as she went along. "Purify the evil beneath it." Nothing yet. Spells had to rhyme, right? "Purify the rage. And set free souls she er... queath it." That made no sense. But it rhymed! That should count for something!
Apparently, it did. Or maybe it wasn't the rhyme but the intent behind it.
The sage lit up, burning the congealed blood beneath with green fire. The witch howled and clawed at her face, but now the claylike consistency meant that she was scooping out fistfuls of her own head. It was gross, and Gretel hastily clambered back away from the witch, kicking out to keep her from getting closer.
When the witch grasped her ankle and tried to pull her closer, Gretel panicked. She held out her hands and pushed, as if she could move the very air between them to make the gray witch fly back and away from her. "Don't you touch me!" she snarled.
The witch flew backward into the dirt wall and collapsed, the sage fire beginning to consume the inside of the witch's body.
Gretel stared, dumbfounded, and then skittered backward until she fetched up against the witch's work table, not taking her eyes off of the burning carcass. Her breathing was ragged, and she couldn't quite believe her eyes. Had she really been able to do this?
She watched until the green fire died, leaving behind a twisted husk of charred bones and dried up skin. Shivering, Gretel looked around her. The knives had been altered with black magic, but the sage hadn't yet. Apparently, Gretel's appearance over the earthen mound had interrupted her spell work. She looked at the grimoire laid open on the table, and was almost relieved to see that she couldn't read it. There was a distinct difference in the types of magic intent and ability, then. Having this skill didn't make her evil. It didn't mean she had to lose control.
Getting to her feet, Gretel cast her eyes across all of the belongings there. She held out her hands and whispered "Bless these things. Take away the evil that rings and the taint it leaves behind. Um. And let no other kind of magic be done. So that we've won."
Ben was definitely going to have to help her create some rhymes for these spells. Her own skill at poetry was rather sad.
In any case, the same green fire spread across the work table and soon turned everything into blackened, misshapen lumps of ash and debris.
Feeling much more confident, Gretel started searching for the cavern's exit.
"I was scared I'd lost you," Hansel said, his voice a rough growl from emotional overload.
"Pft. Like I'd let a stupid witch fuck with me," she said, trying to sound more lighthearted. It didn't quite work, not with the tremors there. Because for a moment – maybe more than a moment, if she was really honest with herself – she had felt out of control and frightened, and she had thought that she wouldn't see Hansel or Ben or Edward again.
"C'mon. Ben is probably worried sick and close to searching for us."
Gretel lifted her head and looked around the empty field. It was still barren, but somehow didn't look so dry and wilted in the bright sunlight. The sun was overhead, and she could hear the usual sounds of insects and birds flying overhead. The witch's taint was gone, so the field would eventually revert to its wilder state, and the villages would probably expand into it if they realized that the witch was gone and no longer able to enforce the boundary.
"We'll need to work on this magic thing," she said quietly. "That really helped me a lot. I didn't have my crossbow with me."
Hansel let go of her and unstrapped her crossbow from his backpack. "You dropped it when you froze and she sucked you into some kind of portal."
She went through the check of her bow and its hidden weapons on autopilot, feeling the usual relief that went through her when it functioned properly. "Thank you," she murmured, looking up at Hansel. "I knew you wouldn't give up."
"Never," he told her gravely. "None of us would."
Nodding, she felt a genuine smile creep across her lips. "Let's gather our reward and see what Mina's books can teach me. There's got to be some useful rhymes in there somewhere that I can use. I can't make up spells worth a damn."
"Weapons are your thing," Hansel agreed, dancing out of reach of her automatic swipe at him. They laughed, relieved and settled back into their usual banter. "We'll figure it out, Gretel," Hansel said after a moment, falling into step beside her when she started walking toward the village that hired them.
Gretel grinned at him. "Those evil witches won't have any idea what's coming for them."
That was the easiest way to get control of the situation, and Gretel was looking forward to it.