They were eating a quiet supper in the great hall when the witch hunters arrived. Symond felt a brief flash of annoyance that the watch had not warned them, but then let it go. Witch hunters were announced only when they desired.
There were three in total, dressed in the distinctive dark blue, ankle length tunics and matching fur-lined cloaks of the Order of the Hunters of Night. Across their chests was embroidered the wing and sword crest of their Order. Their spurs jangled in the silence that fell throughout the keep.
Stupidly, Symond was surprised by how ordinary they looked, as they shoved back the deep hoods of their cloaks to look around. He did not know what he had expected, really. Tales of the witch hunters were wide and varied; people whispered that they were little better than the witches and demons they hunted, and pity the man who fell beneath their gaze.
Aside from the witch jewels in their foreheads, the witch glow to their eyes, they could have passed for ordinary knights. They were muddy and worn from travelling, and one of them had a crossbow in addition to his sword, and any other time Symond sensed his father would have welcomed them simply out of curiosity.
The one who seemed to be in charge was older, gray and grizzled, with the haggard look to him that all old knights seemed to wear. Age and experience were dangerous things; he would bear watching. The second man, holding the crossbow, was young and fresh of face; he was far too bright of countenance to be anything but new and possibly still in training. Symond ignored him and turned to the last witch hunter.
He was neither young nor old, but right in the middle; a knight in his prime, most would say. His hair was an unremarkable brown, mussed from the hood of his cloak, not quite long enough to fall into his eyes. His nose had the look of having been broken at least once, and beneath the collar of his tunic Symond could just see long, jagged scars—claw marks, he realized.
His lips were full, a trifle too big for his face, set in a solemn line as he looked over the people in the great hall. Like his hair, the rest of his features were unremarkable—save for the eyes, which glowed green-yellow, clashing with the pale purple witch jewel set into the middle of his forehead.
Symond jumped as the man looked at him, staring back, surprised and terrified. He managed to nod in reply, then hastily looked away. He stared down into the bowl of venison stew he had been eating. Normally it was his favorite, but he had been picking at it all night. Now, with the arrival of the witch hunters, his appetite was gone entirely. Reluctant to draw attention to himself, however, he slowly made himself keep eating it.
The eldest witch hunter spoke, making him jump again. “Where is the lord of this keep?”
“The Lord is gone, away on a trip across the sea,” Symond’s father, Raulin, replied. “I have charge of the keep while he is away. I am Raulin, Master Huntsman here. Begging your pardon, but we’ve not called for witch hunters.”
“If you had called for us, you probably would have no need of us,” the witch hunter replied. “Will you invite us to your table, Master Huntsman, or must we make this difficult?”
Raulin shook his head and gestured, then realized just how rude he was being and stood hastily to give a clumsy bow. Though not nobles, witch hunters were treated with much the same accord. Those who wore the jewels were not to be treated lightly. “Please, my lord knights. Sit and have super, if it pleases you.”
“Thank you, good sir,” the witch hunter replied, and led his men to the table before the fireplace where Raulin, Symond, and the rest of the huntsmen sat eating. “With whom do I have the pleasure of breaking bread?”
“My son, Symond, and my men, Nichol, Piers, Olever, and Ivo. And here comes Collys with your food, my lords.”
“Thank you,” the witch hunter replied. “I am Geerdart, this is Erasmus,” he indicated the youngest of the three, then rested a hand briefly on the third witch hunter’s shoulder. “This is Cyriac.”
“An honor to have you in our humble keep,” Raulin replied, making it clear it was anything but. The hall fell silent again, and Symond finally gave up on eating, abandoning his stew in favor of his mulled wine.
How would they get rid of the witch hunters? The demon would expect him soon; he could already feel the crawling inside him that spoke of its waking. If he did not meet it tonight, then the hunt tomorrow…
He shivered, thinking about, and gulped down his mulled wine, uncaring of the way it burned his tongue. “Cold?” a strange voice asked, causing Symond to jump yet again. He had not always been so pathetic. Stifling a sigh, he looked toward the speaker—another shiver rand down his spine as he met glowing green-yellow eyes. The witch hunter smiled at him. “Though as to that, I suppose it’s impossible to be warm in these drafty old piles.”
“It’s not so bad,” Symond said stiffly. “She’s a good keep.”
“And beautiful by moonlight,” the witch hunter agreed. “I am Cyriac. You are Symond, correct?”
“Yes,” Symond replied. “Why have witch hunters come here?”
Cyriac exchanged a look with the other two hunters, then replied, “Because we have heard tales of an unusual hunt—a band of hunters who chase a black fox by the light of the full moon. Careless words were spoke, we fear, to summon such a hunt. We have come to find the truth of the matter.”
“You are mistaken,” Symond said flatly, blood running cold with fear. He stood up hastily, and strode from the hall, not giving anyone a chance to impede him. He fled out into the ward, down to the gates. The watch did not wait for his cry, but raised the portcullises and let him go.
When he was beyond the keep, and the portcullises slammed down again behind him, Symond breathed a deep sigh of relief. Bad enough the wards carved into the walls seemed press upon him. The nasty shock of the witch hunters’ arrival only made the situation that much more unbearable.
His eyes burned as he felt the familiar prickle along his skin, the cold that sliced through his blood as the demon lurking somewhere in the dark felt his presence. Damn his father, anyway, Symond thought bitterly. Reckless enough to call forth a demon to hunt but too cowardly to pay its price—and now they were caught in the demon’s web, until it finally tired of them. Whether it would keep its promise and leave them in peace…
Well, he rather doubted it. Every hunt was a nightmare, now, of wondering when the game would end and the prey would act the predator it truly was.
The unmistakable sound of jangling spurs drew him up short, and Symond whipped around—but there was nothing there, only the dark. Frowning, he watched a few minutes more. When nothing stirred, he turned and resumed his walk deeper into the woods.
When he reached the clearing where the entire debacle had begun, he sat on a large, flat rock by the pond and waited as the demon crept into view. It had taken the form of a fox with perfect, unmarred black fur. Its eyes glowed like embers, and Symond shivered as he always did when he saw them. You are nearly late.
I am on time, or I am late Symond replied without thinking. There is no such thing as nearly late.
The demon barked in that eerie way foxes had, and pain shout through Symond, sending him tumbling off the rock and curling into a ball on the ground, sobbing in agony. Be here sooner next time the demon said.
I had to be careful of the witch hunters that suddenly arrived. We do not know who brought them here.
The demon’s laughter ripped through his mind like shards of broken glass. It would take much more than a simple witch hunter to be rid of me, gallant huntsman. I told you, I will go only when I choose.
I know Symond replied, and he did—all too well. His father had summoned a low-level demon. No, his father was far too foolish for anything that simple. Witch hunters were not men to be trifled with, but they were not powerful enough to kill a top level demon. They would only do more harm.
The demon drew closer, rubbed against him, fur softer than the finest linen, warmer than the fireside he had just abandoned. Symond fought to stay still and not resist the taunting, because that would only give the demon an excuse to do worse.
He jerked unwillingly at the sound of spurs, the even cadence of the jangling metal. It was matched by the sound of snapping branches, rustling leaves—and then a figure appeared in the clearing, witch stone and eyes glowing with magic, the rest of him little more than a slice of shadow more solid of shape than those around him.
In front of Symond, the demon barked, ember eyes flaring up hot and bright. Demon killer, you will not find me so easy a conquest.
“Just leave!” Symond cried out desperately. “This has nothing to do with you!”
Cyriac said nothing, only walked across the clearing to join them. Whatever Symond had expected him to do next, it was not for Cyriac to kneel and hold out a hand to the demon, as though trying to coax a hound or cat in closer for petting.
The demon laughed in a distinctly non-fox way and padded over to the witch hunter, allowing Cyriac to pet and stroke him. Symond felt sick. He pressed a hand to his chest, where the mark the demon had inscribed there burned. What sort of awful game was being played now?
“Well, you are certainly correct in that you are no ordinary conquest,” Cyriac finally said, scratching it behind the ears before finally standing. He approached Symond and laid a bare hand abruptly against his chest, eyes flaring brighter as he clearly felt the mark beneath Symond’s worn tunic. “So the demon has made you his pet,” Cyriac said. “I thought as much, between what we were told and seeing you when we arrived.”
“Just leave,” Symond said bitterly. “There is nothing you can do, you have admitted as much yourself.”
Cyriac laughed, “I acknowledged only that he was no ordinary conquest. I never agreed he was not an easy conquest.”
The demon hissed as Cyriac spoke—but reacted too late as Cyriac abruptly move closer and bent his head to cover Symond’s mouth with his own. Symond started to recoil, because he remembered far too well the bitter, ashen, and bloody taste of the demon’s mouth when he had first taken Symond as his pet—
But Cyriac only cupped his head, kept him close, and he tasted like sweet wine and fresh bread; his kiss was firm but gentle, almost seeming to give more than it took. Symond heard an angry scream, and pain shot through his body, but he was kept from falling by Cyriac’s arms.
Finally Cyriac drew back, and Symond’s eyes widened as he saw that instead of the ugly green-yellow they had been before, Cyriac’s eyes glowed the same purple as the jewel in his forehead. He let go of Symond and whipped around, reaching down and snatching up the demon that did not even resist. Murmuring words that Symond did not understand, he then snapped the fox’s neck.
He dropped it to the ground, where it was no longer black, but a much more ordinary russet fox.
“What—” Symond licked his lips, tasting sweet wine and something he could not name. “What in the world? What are you, to kill a demon like that? What is going on? Why did your eyes change?”
Cyriac reached out and stroked Symond’s cheek with his knuckles. “A demon of the innermost ring cannot be killed, only sent back to whence it came—but it takes an angel, a top ranking witch hunter, to do it. Like many of his kind, he saw only the low level witch hunter he expected to see. He never looked past the eyes I let him see. Come, Symond, your father worries for you.” He left his hand fall from Symond’s cheek, and held it out in offer. “You have done well, you should know that. Few survive being enslaved by a demon.”
Symond laughed shakily and took the hand Cyriac offered, liking the warmth and strength it offered, until he could rely on his own again. “You make it sound like I had a choice.”
“There is always a choice,” Cyriac said softly. “You made the right one, though it brought suffering upon you.” He let go of Symond’s hand to draw him into a warm embrace, brushed a kiss across his brow. “Someone of your strength would make a fine witch hunter.”
“Me?” Symond asked, startled. “I’m just a huntsman.”
Cyriac laughed. “A huntsman who has survived a top level demon—you are a witch hunter born.” He lightly touched Symond’s cheek again. “But the choice is yours.”
Symond looked up at him, into the glowing purple eyes, the taste of Cyriac still on his lips, arms warm and solid around him, and wondered what else might be his someday if he started down a path he never thought to come upon. “I think I would like to try; I never want to be claimed by a demon again. I don’t want it to happen to others.”
“Then your choice is made, novice,” Cyriac said with a smile, and brushed a soft kiss across his mouth again, leaving Symond’s lips tingling. He stepped back, and took Symond’s hand again, and led the way back to the keep.