Here’s something I wrote inspired by the Witcher series, set in faux old India. It kinda works as a short story for now, but I’ll probably continue this one.
“Know you, woman, that a blessing given as payment is no blessing at all!” The old woman spat. She had fewer teeth than she had fingers, poking between gums gone betel-orange. Her skin stretched and hung like a rooster’s wattle. With a flick of her bony fingers she made a gesture of dismissal, and all the men and women around her shied back.
“Bullshit. My offer stands, crone,” Nari replied. “I leave at dawn tomorrow. Come to me then, if you change your mind.”
“You give your kind a bad name.” The woman turned and hobbled away. Nari smirked and settled back down. Amidst a few mumbled appeasements the crowd around her dispersed. Many among them would blame any misfortune in the coming days on this ill omen.
It was a small village, small enough that its name depended on who one asked, and who did the asking. Nari had seen hundreds like it. They knew the customs, though. When word had spread that a curseling had come riding her mule through the rice fields, they gathered to receive her. Graciously they had offered her the use of their homes and gracefully she had refused, much to their relief. No one counted on a curseling taking advantage of the tradition. The better villages left out woven mats and clean water. Here, Nari had to settle for a flat patch of dirt in the sunset.
She was like a statue on her knees. Her back was straight, her eyes shut. Children flirted with the thought of disturbing her, but none dared try. Nari cut an imposing figure, even kneeling in the dirt. She wore dark colors. Her eyes were lined with kohl. Her forehead was marked with sacred ash and vermilion. An old patterned scarf was wound about her neck. Her dress cut off at the shoulders, exposing her tattooed arms. Dark orange markings wound down from her elbows in a dozen different languages. Her left hand held all the curses she’d sealed away, and her right every blessing she’d been given. More of them were bound in engraved gemstones on odd bracelets and bangles all along her arms. Some, she wore merely because she liked them, but no ordinary rice-planter would trust even her nosering to be free of enchantment.
She was a curse-breaker, a handywoman of the gods. She had traded away her place on the Great Wheel that she could gain the strength to right ancient wrongs that plagued the land of the faithful. Right now, that meant ridding this village of its resident grain thief.
She awakened and kneeled still for minutes in the morning, savoring the eye-level mist. Villagers walked furtively past her, going about business best carried out early in the day. A child squatted nearby, watching her.
“Good morning.” Nari said, cracking an eye open. The child danced back like a scared cat.
“Grandmother said to do the job. Said she’d pay what you wanted.” He waited not a second longer than needed before scampering for safety. A rooster began to crow. Nari stood up and stretched. It was time to go to work.
She had been given little to go on. For weeks now the village granary had been raided by some manner of creature. It had proven too nimble for a night-watchman’s eyes and too smart for traps and snares. Nari briefly considered asking around, but she doubted the villagers would have much of use to offer in her investigation. She decided to start at the granary and work from there.
The granary was one of the few structures in the village that could probably survive a thunderstorm. It was built of packed mud and rough wood beams, with a thick thatchwork roof. Outside, it was guarded by a boy barely into his teens, perhaps a year too old to be playing hopscotch with the other children. He scowled at her approach. Nari thought it comical. A jerk of her chin had him scampering away, his watchman’s stick left in the dust.
Inside, a single barred window offered ventilation. No human could squeeze between those. Nari saw no sign of a trap. The granary was apparently secured, however, in more mystical ways. Some strange unguent, no doubt something the hag from before had mixed, lined the window. A dried lemon hung on a hook by the door. There were black marks left by burning camphor. A consecrated bundle of dried herbs and fruit sat untouched in a corner – Failing to snare the thief, the villagers had tried to appease it. Clearly this creature had a taste for rice in particular. A patch of white caught her eye in the far corner of the room. It was ash, poorly obscured by dirt and scraps. Perhaps the beginnings of a botched arson attempt?
Nari sighed. She had seen nothing thus far to convince her that the thief was indeed a monster and not a lucky rodent. Too much of her work arose from misplaced superstition and general ignorance. She looked around the room some more, and found little out of place. There were no scuff marks or droppings. The room smelled only of jute and rice. She perked up, however, when she noticed a pile of empty sacks behind the rest. There were holes in them – were these the sacks the thief had stolen from? Nari picked one up for a closer look.
She knew, as soon as she saw the holes, that the thief was no rat. There were bites in places, but much of the jute had been unraveled into long, frayed strands. These sacks had been worked open by tiny fingers. The holes were small, perhaps large enough to permit the hand of a toddler. This, she found intriguing indeed. Nari searched the granary some more before heading out. Now, she was genuinely curious about this grain thief. Unless this village was home to a most dexterous and intelligent toddler, she had a hunt on her hands.
“What have you found, curseling?” The old woman asked. Nari had gone to her hut.
“Not enough. I have questions for you.”
The woman smirked and shuffled to a seat. Her hut stank of musty herbs and old age. A chicken stalked out from behind a patchy sheet and shot outside in surprise when it saw Nari.
“What else has beset this place of late? Have there been any visitors? Any strange behavior?” Nari began. In all such villages across the subcontinent she knew one thing was certain – People feared change, and deeply distrusted anything that brought it about.
“Only you, curseling. This is an honest place. The people are devout and simple. Every tradition we observe is ancient. The rice thief is a recent nuisance, surely come from someplace far away.”
“Has there been no crime? No disputes? What of your tithes?”
“The Rani of Toshali prepares for war. We pay our dues, no matter how harsh. Hunger will not drive any of ours to steal and connive. There have been no arguments, no feuds for months now. The only mishap of the past weeks was the loss of a lamp, cheaply replaced come the traders’ visit.”
“That gives me little to go on.”
“You do your job, curseling. It is no concern of mine how you go about it.” The woman turned away. Nari frowned. She was likely going to have to camp outside the granary and wait. Every day spent at this village was a delay in her journey north, but she needed this job. Likely the creature would decide to steal no longer, especially now that word of the curse-breaker’s coming had surely spread all about the village.
“I have one more question. I found traces of ash in the granary. Well away from grain or wood, but it might have been an arsonist nonetheless.”
The old woman scoffed. “Arson! None here would dream of arson! Do you take us for savages, woman?” Nari raised an eyebrow and waited. “Tch! Perhaps the thief leaves a trail of ash where he strikes! Scatter every cook-fire in the village if you will, curseling. Perhaps you’ll find it nestled in the embers. Or will you skulk about our cremation ground? I’ve not the slightest how you go about your foul business, and I do not care to know! Now leave me, and do not come back without the thief’s carcass!” She punctuated her cry with a wave of a knobbly stick.
Nari was not excited by what she had found thus far. The villagers avoided her as best they could. Another frightened child brought her a meal of roti and cooked brinjals. She hated brinjals. She ate in silence, sipping water from a pot she’d found by last night’s resting spot. She visited the tamarind tree where she’d tied off her mule, Karappan, and saw to it that the stubborn beast was fed and watered. The mule snorted when she checked his barding. No one had touched the saddlebags, but Nari made sure nonetheless. There was no shortage of lowlives foolish enough to steal from a curseling, out here in the middle of nowhere. Nari wandered about the village afterward, asking any who would listen for information.
It was as she had expected. Few had any words for her at all, and the ones that did were vapid gossips who knew not much at all. They confirmed what the hag had said – Little of note had happened in this village, save for the rice thief’s comings and goings. No one had seen it, though one wizened fellow claimed to have heard chittering and squeaking in the night. No one was overly sour on the subject of tithes, either. They grumbled, but they did not spit or curse. Perhaps she was wasting her time here – A part of her felt these folk could stand a few torn rice-sacks to keep them hardy. Still, she was near penniless. She would take anything she could get.
Eventually, she found herself seated idly by the well in the village center. Women would come by to draw water. They were polite, but wary around her, until one of them approached with an infant in her arms. Nari smiled. The woman bowed and offered the baby. After a brief exchange, Nari rocked the child gently and quietly spoke the words of the Curse-Breaker’s Blessing. Passersby stopped and watched. The blessing was one only Nari and her fellows could give – A gift of virtue from one who had given up their own chance at rebirth. The woman was beaming when she took back her infant. It was not long after when a small crowd gathered at the well, and Nari found herself offering benedictions to every child in the village.
The moon had come out when she had finally finished. The sky was streaked with the first smears of pink and gold as the sun began its dip toward the horizon. Folk were returning from their work in the fields. There was yet daylight left, and Nari decided she would not spend the evening idle. At night, she would camp outside the granary, awaiting the thief. Before the sun properly set, however, she would see to one more thing.
She had learned of the village cremation ground’s whereabouts earlier that day. The hag’s parting words gave her the notion to investigate it. A large part of her work, after all, was in dealing with the unsettled dead. Like as not she would find nothing amiss, but it would not hurt to look. As the night’s first stars peeked out from behind the clouds, she set off through the brush to find it. It was a half-hour’s trek away through sparse woodland, far away from any fields or roads. A narrow footpath, grown over in places, was all that pointed the way. The ground itself was only a clearing. Blackened patches of soil and ash were all that indicated the clearing’s purpose. She knew that no one in the village had died in recent days. Fresh shoots grew amidst the charred twigs. The place smelled earthy. It looked quite undisturbed.
Still, Nari moved in to investigate. She stepped gingerly despite herself. Her work had taken her to many such clearings, and yet a preternatural unease followed her into these places where the dead were sent onward. The ground was ringed by ancient trees. Nari checked the perimeter and found little to indicate recent fires. Near the center, where the soil was darkest, Nari noticed something off. Dirt had been scattered over old ash. There looked to be deep imprints in the ground, too uneven to be human or animal prints. In places, she found the soil was loose. Nari rubbed her hands and knelt to dig, and her suspicions were confirmed – Something had dug here before her, and disguised its tracks after. The holes had been large and shallow. The loose dirt Nari moved revealed more charred soil beneath. It smelled, faintly, of something foul – Something alive, and with very poor hygiene.
Nari heard movement in the trees behind her. Immediately, she was alert. A frayed bracelet on her wrist grew hot to warn her of an otherworldly presence nearby. In the dim twilight she caught a blur disappearing into the trees. Nari hesitated not at all. The hunt was on, and she gave chase.
She sprinted through the brush, losing sight of the creature only to catch up again. She could sense it. She had an amulet twined about her fingers, ready to invoke an enchantment of binding. Failing that, she had her trusty knife dangling at her hip. The creature was small and nimble. It dashed from tree to tree rapidly, just beyond the edge of her sight. She relied more on her bracelet than her eyes keep track of it. So intent was she on the chase that she did not realize the direction she’d been headed in, until she saw the village itself not far away. Nari slowed. The creature had led her here. When she neared the granary, she saw a flash of pale fur disappearing between the window bars.
She caught her breath and hurried to the door, ready to confront the thief. Inside, she saw only a torn sack. Threshed rice spilled from the hole. She heard chittering outside, behind the granary. The creature fled when she emerged. It was headed back into the woods. Grain was scattered in its wake.
When Nari closed in on the creature, it did not run. It was occupied. It chittered at the sight of her. It was perched by a lit diya, a tiny clay bowl with an oiled wick that burned weakly in the breeze. Nari moved cautiously, her eyes locked with the creature’s own. She had abandoned all thoughts of the hunt now. She was curious. The creature was surely intelligent. It had led her knowingly. It could certainly have evaded her with little effort.
Nari sat down, cross-legged, near a white-furred monkey.
The monkey had deposited an armload of grain by the diya. As Nari watched, it proceeded to tip the diya just enough to set the grain alight. The fire caught and spread, only to be tamped down by the monkey before it could burn away the grain entirely. The monkey chittered and shrieked at the heat. Its fur was nearly singed, but it was left with a pile of fresh ash.
Nari looked on, silent and questioning. The monkey gathered ash into its hands and hopped away. It turned back and clicked its teeth once, twice, before scampering off into the darkness once more. Nari guessed it meant for her to follow, and follow she did. At an easier pace this time, Nari made her way back to the cremation ground.
When she emerged once more in the clearing, the monkey was scattering the ash in the air. Nari knew not what the pale creature was trying to do, but she watched on, and waited. She did not have to wait long. The monkey had gone still and watchful after it had scattered the ash. Suddenly, it perked up at something Nari could not see. It shrieked and dashed to a tree behind Nari. She moved to follow, but the creature shrieked and pointed at something off in the distance. Nari drew her knife and wound a dyed cord about her knuckles. She stilled her breathing and focused, prepared.
There came a growl from the bushes. A bird fled shrieking, skyward. Nari tensed up. Twigs cracked and leaves rustled. With a howl, a four-legged creature burst into the clearing. No – It was not four-legged, but walked on its arms and legs. Indeed, the wizened, wretched thing seemed more comfortable on all fours than it did on its feet. Its eyes were sunken and full of hate. Black claws tipped its fingers. Its grey skin oozed with dark sores. Its mouth was filled with yellowed, narrow teeth, more teeth than any man or woman could ever have.
It was a preta – a hunger wraith. Nari watched, ready to defend herself, as the wraith drew deep breaths of the ash scent that hung in the air. The monster screamed and swiped at the ground, maddened by the smell. In shriveled fingers it scooped up dirt and ash alike and filled its mouth, only to spit it out and howl in rage again. The wraith shuddered and moaned. Again and again, it scraped ashen dirt into its mouth and spat it out, enraged. Nari stood fast, unmoving. When the wraith slowed and took notice of her, it bared ash-covered teeth in a monstrous snarl.
Moments passed as the two stared each other down. Then with blinding speed the wraith pounced. Nari was ready, bringing up her knife, but the wraith knocked her back to the dirt. The monster howled in her face. Strings of spittle broke and flew from its maw. Nari warded off its bite with her forearm. She pressed the cord on her hand into the wraith’s flesh, and it burned. The wraith recoiled and leapt away. It came at her with a clawed swipe, but she danced back and answered with her knife. The blood she drew was black as tar.
The wraith howled once more and threw itself at her, but this time she brought her knife up in time. The broad leaf-shaped blade pressed between the wraith’s ribs, driven by the force of its own leap. Nari let go of the knife and wrestled the wraith to the ground, restraining its flailing claws. It bucked and squirmed beneath her, but she was stronger than she looked. Viscous blood oozed about the knife-blade in the wraith’s chest. Nari punched the wraith, a solid blow to its jaw, and before it could recover, she wound the cord from her hand around its neck. Oh, how it screamed. The consecrated threads seared the wraith as she wound it tighter and tighter. Fumes began to rise from its skin, curling away into the air.
Nari held fast against the thrashing monster. When it began to weaken, Nari broke into a chant – one she had uttered many times that day. The creature had lain still for many moments when Nari finally finished the curse-breaker’s blessing.
Panting, smarting from where black claws had dug into her skin, Nari rose and checked the wraith’s body. She was certain now that it had been a hunger wraith – Likely cursed with a ravenous appetite for cadaver ash and nothing else. Hopefully, she had sent the poor soul onward. Its body was steaming gently. Nari cut away a leathery ear to show as a trophy, before turning to search for the monkey.
She found no sign of it. With a sigh, she cleaned herself up and checked for wounds. She left the cord where it was, its blessing spent. The job was done. The moon was out in full amidst a starry sky. Nari took a deep breath and set off once more for the village.
Villagers had gathered in the dark, disturbed by the hunger wraith’s howls. The old woman stood at the head of the crowd, squinting into the night. She silenced the crowd when Nari emerged, victorious.
“Your thief is dealt with. A hunger-wraith haunted this village, but no more.” Before the hag could ask for proof, Nari dropped the ear at her feet. The old woman recoiled and kicked the thing away.
“Bah! Do not bring such filth where people live!”
“My work is done.” Nari walked past the crowd and knelt once more where she had the previous night.
In the morning, Nari set off on her mule after a cold bath and a hot meal. She wore a new bracelet on her right hand, a pretty thing bound with a piece of wrought silver. The hag had parted with it bitterly. She’d blessed it through gritted teeth, but it was genuine. Nari could feel it. She was quite satisfied with herself. It helped that her purse was a good deal heavier after a job swiftly done. Nari rode away into the predawn mist, headed northward.