Little Red Riding Witch
Fourteen years ago.
“Again with wild meat? Can’t you just sell the things you hunt already?” The angry shouts of a certain woman echoed through the small hut in the corner of the village.
“Do you think it’s that easy, woman?” Another shout, this time of a male, returned. “We can’t even get out of this forest to trade, let alone sell! And who the hell in this backwater village would want things they can already hunt on their own?”
“Then think of something you good-for-nothing husband!”
“Speak for yourself! Every day I get home, and what do I see? Sloppy kitchen, dusty floor, unwashed clothes, this house is like a pigsty! And you call yourself a wife?”
The arguing between the married couple would then go on for hours and hours, making it somewhat of a daily routine in the small village. Its inhabitants, upon noticing the ruckus, would only shrug and continue on with their lives, for they knew that there was no stopping Dario and Aife Starling – the two ticking time bombs in the settlement always eager to explode at anyone.
The indifference, however, didn’t go unnoticed. Sitting by himself at a corner of the house, the young Jack Starling would sometimes gaze outside the windows and straight towards the unsuspecting bystanders outside, mumbling to himself:
For a three-year-old that had his entire personality formed by always-arguing parents, naturally, Jack had developed a disdain towards people. He detested his mother and father for never taking care of him. He detested the villagers for never coming to help him. All while he sat there in his corner, sulking and starving.
Until one day, he snapped.
There wasn’t a particular trigger for Jack to come to do what he did, but rather it was only a constant trickling of petty arguments, slowly but surely building up until his immature mind could take no more. Jack decided that he had to do something to get back at his parents, to make them finally look at him.
Father would always come home late, so today I’ll make him go early! Thought Jack. I saw him always carry that small pouch with the lion stitch on him whenever he went on a hunt, so I’ll just empty its contents! That’ll force him to return earlier than usual!
And mother… the boy continued to scheme. Mother would always lock me in my room after Father left. But little did she know I’d already dug a hole through the wall with my spoon this past six months! Now I’ll finally be able to leave the house and check to see what she’s been doing all this time! Then I can get back at her!
And got out he did. As soon as Jack heard the sound of his room’s door being locked, the boy quickly made his way to the secret passage he created – cleverly hidden by the small empty chest that was meant for his toys.
As soon as his feet touched the rustling, damp feeling of the morning grass, Jack stretched out his shoulders and breathed the long-awaited fresh air he’d been dying to try:
“Ah, sweet freedom! … Now, onto spying Mother!”
Jack made his way to the front door, carefully crouching to not be seen through the kitchen window. However, his effort seemed to have been futile, as the moment he got a glance at the scene inside, he was left with nothing but disappointment. There was no one in the house in the first place.
“Well, that explains why nothing was cleaned…” the boy exclaimed in disappointment. “Should I go back in… Nah, it’s finally a day I can spend outside! Of course I wouldn’t!”
With this thought in mind, the boy gleefully made his way through the village to experience the things he could never have before. The colorful flower stands, the bustling air of a working town, people laughing, joyously gossiping, to finally spread his wings and see a happy atmosphere was a dream come true for the young Jack.
Little did he know, Jack would soon run into a person he never thought he would at this time of the day. But nonetheless, his eyes widened in surprise as the familiar hunched silhouette appeared in his sight.
Jack, realizing that his chances were dwindling, tried to ignore the person and turned around. However, the target had noticed him first.
“Is that you, Jack? Are you playing outside?”
“… Nana, what a surprise!” Jack tried his best to form a smile on his face. His maternal grandmother lived out of town, all the way on the other side of the forest, but whenever he met her, she was always the same kind old lady. “What are you doing here in the village? I never heard Mom saying that you’d come to visit us!”
“I was going for a… um… surprise, dear!” His grandma let out a hearty smile, showing even her half-fallen teeth. “Is Aife home?”
“Nope,” Jack firmly shook his head. “I don’t know where she’s off to.”
Upon hearing the answer, the grandma took a heavy sigh. “Well, that’s a shame… Say, Jack, do you want to go and play with Nana today?”
“… Promise you won’t tell Mom about it?” Though his grandma was never a tattletale, he still remained skeptical.
“Of course! Why would I?”
But it would only need so much to clear away his doubts. “Okay then! Let’s play, Nana! Where are we going?”
“I have this place just full of fun, dear! You’ll love it!”
“Well, what are we waiting for, Nana? Let’s go!”
And so, the grandma–grandchild pair set off to their playtime.
Their trip soon took them to the outskirts of the village, right at the border of the surrounding forest. Though Jack was still very much enjoying himself, the boy also had no intention of going deep into the woods, as much as his curiosity was getting the better of him. After all, his father was the person that Jack wanted to avoid being seen the second most.
“Um, Nana…” Jack meekly tugged on her skirt.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“Can we… not go any further?”
“… Is it because of that good-for-nothing dad of yours?” Normally, one would be surprised to see an old lady saying those words of anger, but Jack had already seen it many a time, whenever his grandma and his father were at the same place.
The grandma gently stroked Jack on the head, trying her best to ease the boy’s anxiety. “But don’t you worry about him one bit, dear. Nana’s here for you, and that guy wouldn’t leave the forest at this time of the day. As long as we don’t go inside, we should be a-okay.”
Jack tilted his head in confusion. Grandma lived on the other side of the forest, so, naturally, to get to her place, one would have to go through the forest. But if they wouldn’t continue through the forest… then where were they going?
Jack glanced at his grandma, hoping for an answer. However, the answer never came to him. Instead, even more questions started to arrive, as appearing before them was a mysterious young man with his face hidden beneath a red hood.
“This is the boy?” Without letting the two of them react, the man had already asked.
“Yes, here he is, Sir,” answered the grandmother. It didn’t take a genius to understand the predicament he was in, and so, Jack tried to turn around and run away. However, before he had noticed it, his grandma’s hand was already holding onto his own, and strangely enough, no matter how hard he tried to struggle, her grip was as strong and hard as a steel cuff.
“He’s struggling,” the hooded man gestured. “You shouldn’t have kept him awake.”
“My apologies, Sir. There were certain… unforeseen circumstances.”
“How many times has it been now? Three years ago, you already failed us. And now…”
“It won’t happen again, Sir! I promise!”
“Nana, you’re hurting me!” As the two adults were having their conversation, Jack’s grandma unconsciously tightened her hand, causing the boy to squeal in pain.
“What are you waiting for? Just silence him already!” The hooded man was starting to lose his patience.
“I-I’m sorry, Sir, but holding onto the child and casting my spells at the same time is still…”
“Tch, you’re useless,” The man scoffed, waving his hand forward.
From beneath Jack’s legs, a sudden chill and wet feeling crept all over him. As he glanced down his body, a look of sheer horror formed on Jack’s face as he realized his feet were covered by water – but not just any water from a river or lake like the kind he was used to – water flowing in mid-air, with nothing holding it in place.
As the water rose higher and higher, slowly engulfing him altogether, Jack struggled to break free. But alas, his strength could be of no match compared to the power of nature, and soon enough, he was completely trapped inside a water sphere.
The pressure grinding on his body was too great. Jack squirmed around, desperate to find an escape, but the unforgiving flow was still too much for the boy to handle. However, as Jack’s lungs were at their last ropes, the sphere showed a final sense of mercy and opened just enough for his head to be free.
As the boy gasped for air as if it was the last time for him, the hooded man grunted:
“Keep your mouth shut, or you won’t be needing air anymore.”
As the boy finally gave a frightened nod, the hooded man turned to the grandma.
“Is the ritual ready?”
“It can be done any time, Sir.”
“Good. Cu Sith is losing her patience, and no one could stop that girl when she loses it, not even me.”
“With all due respect, Sir… wasn’t she just born?”
“Precisely because she was just born. Do you expect a newborn child to keep herself stable?”
“… Yes, Sir. I understand.”
“Good. Now move along. We haven’t much time, anyway. Not when that man you called husband was still in the forest.”
“My apologies, Sir… who would have thought that he’s also part of the Red Lions…”
“Even when your specialty is perfect for the job, Aife, you were always subpar when it comes to information gathering… consider yourself lucky that he hadn’t noticed you yet.”
Jack was still scared half to death about what had just happened, but the moment the name was uttered, he felt alive again. However, it was not a feeling of safety that arose in the boy, but a feeling of dread and chill.
“… Mother? Mother… where are you?”
Letting out a sigh, Jack’s grandma snapped her finger. As a chilling wind circled the old lady, her back straightened up, her wrinkles soon disappeared, and her gray hair turned into a beautiful auburn color.
Gone was the grandma, and instead, Jack’s mother, Aife, stood in place.
“I’m always here, Jack. Always.”
“But… Nana…” Seeing Aife in the flesh made Jack lose the little hope he had left in the situation. However, his mother would still choose to rub more salt in the wound.
“There is no ‘Nana’, Jack. There’s only me. I have no mother… at least, no mother alive anymore.”
“Rest in peace, Jack. I’m sorry that it had to be this way,” saying goodbye to her son one last time, Aife readied her hand. An icy-cold blue glowed on her hand, as it slowly approached the trapped young boy.
Jack’s heart beat uncontrollably as he saw his impending doom, caused by none other than his own mother. But there was no way for the boy to escape anymore. A silent, frustrated stream of tears flowed down his cheeks as he looked at his mother with pleading eyes for one last time.
However, just when they least expected it, a gunshot sounded.
Facing Aife was Dario himself, tired and battered, but still standing tall, rifle in hand.
“Tch, see what you did, Aife?” The hooded man clicked his tongue in frustration. “Now you’ve led him here. Finish him before the rest of them arrive.”
Dario, meanwhile, was seeing red as he saw his son almost murdered by his own wife. “Aife, you little shit…”
“… I guess there’s no point hiding it now,” answered his wife with a sigh. “Dario… or should I say, current captain of Vestur’s Anti-Mythic Squad, the Red Lions’ Dario Starling. I am Aife, the Witch of a Thousand Faces. Be grateful, as your death will be a swift one.”
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