Chapter 8:

Blood And Water

Little Red Riding Witch

“Since when did you know?” Dario asked, his finger not leaving the trigger.

“Since Jack was born. I really had thought that I’d marry myself into a normal human family, but then I discovered the emblem in your bullet pouch. That’s why I didn’t attempt the Changeling ritual immediately after he was born… if you know what it meant.”

“The Changeling ritual…” Dario’s face paled at the shocking news. “So that’s your gain. Tell me, who are you planning to send over with Jack’s life?”

“That, you don’t need to know,” answered Aife. “Since you’re not making it out alive anyway.”

“Try me.”

“… Aren’t you forgetting something, hunter?” The hooded man, finally breaking his silence, gestured towards a still-squirming Jack. “Drop the gun if you want the boy to live.”

“And you thought I’d listen to you, damn Mythic? I know about the Changeling ritual. If I let go of my rifle now, Jack is as good as dead.”

“Heh… It’s worth a try, at least. After all, you humans are always so hung up on things like camaraderie and sentimentality.”

“Better than you cold-blooded fiends who only think about your kind!” Putting his anger into his shout, Dario pulled the trigger at last. However, before the bullet could hit the hooded man, a giant bubble had already formed from thin air, trapping the bullet dead in its track.

He had his doubts as soon as he saw the state his son was in, but upon witnessing his bullet floating around in the aquatic prison, Dario was sure. His hands couldn’t help but shiver before the opponent he knew he was facing.

“As expected… from the third-in-command of the Mythic Ops…”

“Ah, so you know of me,” nodded the man, who finally removed his hood to reveal a young, handsome face in his teens, with hair blue as the ocean waves. “Well, that makes you much dumber than I expected, Vestur’s Captain. Does the name Aqua not strike fear in you, or are you swallowing all that terror in?”

“Prince of the Four Seas, Aqua… The western front is not your battlefield. Why are you here?”

“I may have been the commander of the eastern front, but I also specialize in reconnaissance and assassination, hunter. For something like the Changeling ritual, wouldn’t you say that I’m the best guy for the job?”

As the last words came out of his mouth, a sudden gunshot had already been fired towards the young man once again. However, just like the first strike, it was also stopped by a timely bubble spawning almost instantly.

“You sly dog!” Aqua chuckled in excitement. “Taking advantage of our talk to launch a surprise attack, smart move!”

“Tch. Would have been smarter had I hit,” Contrary to his opponent’s elated expression, Dario grunted in frustration. But as soon as he decided to take a step forward, he had already realized the kind of predicament he was in.

The flashy bubbles to block his rifle were mainly just for show, while slowly but surely on the ground, small, but steady streams of water had been creeping into his shoes, and froze his feet in place on the ground, creating a natural, icy cold pair of shackles.

“But… how…” Dario muttered. “I must have felt the cold…”

Replying to him was a simple smile from Aife. “You never knew why exactly I was called ‘Witch of A Thousand Faces’, did you? My disguises work on many levels, from transformation, light refracturing to even hypnotic suggestions… fooling your senses was the least I could do.”

“Even if it’s two against one, and both of you have more power than I do… cowards…” Dario gritted his teeth in anger but was only met with a smirk from the young man before him.

“All’s fair in love and war, human,” answered Aqua. “And there’s no love between us.”

As the young man raised his hand, from his five fingertips, five spheres of high-pressure water, each only the size of a marble, spun wildly yet compactly like a set of vortexes waiting to be unleashed. Their conjurer, meanwhile, turned to his partner on the side:

“Hurry up with the ritual. I’ll handle the hunter.”

“Y-Yes, Sir,” Aife gave a quick nod and turned to the trapped child. Her hand glowed a blue hue once more, but contrary to Jack’s fear, he wasn’t meant to die just yet.

Instead, a circle appeared under him, and inside of it formed a six-pointed star. In mid-air spawned symbols of different shapes and forms, and they only took a second to settle on the outer rim of the circle. All preparations were complete, and Aife only had one thing left to do.

She slowly approached her son, ready to finally lay his life to rest.

At the same time, the water bullets on Aqua’s fingers had reached their peak rotation, and all five fired away in Dario’s direction, all aimed straight at his head.

However, at the last moment, Aife hesitated.

Even Aife herself didn’t know what went over her. In her mind, she had settled on sacrificing Jack for her own goal. She was ready to take his life with her own hands. But when he gave her the kind of face that was begging, not for his own life, but for her love, she flinched for just one moment.

Be it guilt, regret, or just the natural instinct of a mother, but Aife hesitated nonetheless.

And in that single decisive moment, the first one that was able to see and react to it was none other than Dario himself.

In just an instant, the hunter reached out to the right, passing Aqua’s body, and aimed his rifle at the central point of Aife and Jack. The movement caused Aqua’s bullets to miss their mark, slicing just over his left eye instead of piercing his skull. But Dario did not care about such trivial pain. In his mind, there was only one thing left – the sight of his son about to die, and the bullet that could save his life.

Dario pulled the trigger. The fated bullet tore through the air, making its way straight at the target – Aife’s hand. No one could have blocked the shot. Not the witch murdering her own son. Not the opposing commander with a powerful water blast.

Like a thundering blow, the bullet blast through. And with that, everything changed.

The Changeling ritual was a complex spell that required extreme precision. Having to do it on the spot while simultaneously fighting her inner battle was already taxing enough for Aife, and this bullet was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. As soon as her hand spilled blood, she knew that she had made a grave mistake.

An encroaching darkness engulfed all but Dario, trapping them in an endless void. Facing the great unknown, the man dared not react, for his primal instinct urged him to stay in one place if he valued his own life. Frustrated, Dario had no choice but to grit his teeth in wait for the darkness to clear.

As soon as the last of the dark mist disappeared, however, the old hunter would forever despise his decision.

In front of him was still Aife, now with a bleeding hand, and Aqua, who had finally shown anger for the first time since their battle. However, Jack, as well as the bubble that was trapping him, was no more to be seen. In his place was not one, but two living beings, and yet, none was the same boy that was in the center of it all.

Standing in Jack’s place was now a small wolf cub, yelping in pain and panic as it chased after its own tail. Next to it was a small baby, now nestled safely in Aqua’s red hood. The baby did not cry or smile, but even then, Dario could still feel around it the suffocating air of death.

“You had one job, Aife,” cradling the baby in his hands, Aqua grunted, trying his best not to raise his voice. “And now the child is not dead, while Cu Sith can’t even maintain her true form. What are you going to do about it?”

“I… I can fix it, Sir!” Aife, in a last-ditch effort to beg for her life, wasn’t going to be so quiet. But little did she know her raising her voice would spell her own doom.

Aqua was the first to notice. Immediately, he dropped the baby down on the ground faster than the eye could see and quickly took out a small piece of paper with strange crimson symbols. Before anyone else could react, Aqua ripped the paper in half, and from the rift between the pieces, a burst of flame engulfed the young man.

“Sir?” Aife gasped. She knew what that paper was for – an emergency rune for people on their side to escape from a dangerous situation. But she never expected her superior to just up and use it so suddenly.

“No one can control her anymore. This plan is a failure, and you’re banished, Aife… that is, if you make it out alive.”

As the young man disappeared along with the flame while the wolf cub ran away, what was left with the hunter and the witch was a murky shadow and a pair of crimson eyes.

A large howl echoed through the area, and Jack woke up from his vision.

In front of him was still his mother, her face filled with perplexing emotions. A combination of pain, anger, regret, guilt, sadness, and the like. However, next to him was Lucy in her most distressed state. Even when her father would beat her up, even when her life was on the line, nothing could hold a candle to what she felt at that moment.

The pieces were all present, and Lucy could easily make a picture of everything up until now.

Her father didn’t find her, she was the aftermath of the battle between him and his wife.

He mistreated her not because she wasn’t his flesh and blood, nor it was because he was just that kind of person.

It was because she wasn’t human in the first place. She was a pest that needed to be killed, but she persevered through them.

“It seemed like Sith had also remembered,” Aife twirled her finger in the air, dispelling the final scene from the imagery she had shown the two children. “And there you have it. You ruined my life, o’ child of mine, and this time, I won’t hesitate anymore. For the ritual to finally be completed, for Sith to regain her lost strength, without having to rely on her unstable mentality… But most importantly, for me to return home… Jack, I need you gone from this world.”