The day before Striga left town had been a busy, unseasonably warm one. Their workroom stank, even over the incense they’d lit, the reek of dead flesh permeated everything. But the work was almost done- they leaned over the body they were cleaning, gently scraping under the nails with a fine brush. The door creaked. Striga paused. They could hear soft footsteps, the clink of a chain, and a polite, awkward pause-
“Spit it out, I’m busy.”
They turned to face Brother Howe, a tall, red-faced man all in white, wearing an expression of slight disapproval.
“What do you need, Brother?”
“Must you be rude, my child?”
Striga wiped their hands on a rag and reached for the packet of thin cigars they kept tucked in their belt.
“Sorry. It’s been a long day and I’m working alone, mum’s stomach, you know-”
The priest nodded.
“When she’s anxious, there’s no helping it. I understand. I- Striga, she told me some things. Things I should like to discuss with you. I will not deny I am worried, child.”
His eyes moved over the ugly marks on their face and neck. Striga turned away so he couldn’t see, exhaling a cloud of vaguely herbal-smelling smoke in the direction of the body.
“There’s nothing to talk about. I’m fine. Honest. It’s just nightmares.”
“People do that sometimes.”
Brother Howe made an exasperated noise.
“I’m not trying to fuck with you, Brother. But it’s really not something to worry about. I’m just overworked.”
“I don’t believe you. But I won’t force you to tell me.”
He gave her arm a gentle squeeze.
“Your family is worried about you. Walk in the light, child.”
Then he was gone, before they could deflect again. Striga finished their cigar, staring at the half-washed body on the table, lost in thought.
The door creaked.
“Brother, I told you-”
“It’s wrong to lie, little witchling.”
They turned. Brother Howe was in the doorway, but he looked…wrong. His eyes were wet, black pits, his nose a tattered ruin, his mouth full of broken teeth and a red, red tongue. His priest’s vestments were filthy. And his hands- claws, reaching for them.
“But you’d never lie to me, would you? We know everything about each other, witchling, come-”
They moved, so the table was between them and the not-Howe. And it stared. Grimaced. Lunged forward, mouth agape-
Striga jerked awake, hands scrabbling for something to throw.
They rubbed their eyes. Faces swam into view- the farmer who’d let them sleep in their barn, his wife and children. They all looked scared. Of them.
Striga nodded, reaching for their boots. The family didn’t look reassured.
“How far is Runeheim from here again?”
“Handful of days, if you stay off the main roads.”