The chamber in the cathedral to which the young friar led me was not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but I found the neat and tidy room quite agreeable. I sat before a roaring fireplace in a chair that squeaked in protest at the slightest movement, and thought back on the events of the previous few hours as I gazed into the dancing flame...
"Lady Gertrude, welcome to the Kingdom of San d'Oria."
An elderly Temple Knight of gentle manner--an agent of my client--greeted me upon my arrival.
"We are most grateful that a noble exorcist of your esteem has consented to travel the many malms across the ocean to answer our plea. After twenty years of tranquility, the legendary witches of the Dark Lilies have returned!"
The elderly knight lowered his gaze before continuing with his tale.
"Surely even a lady of your tender years would have heard the name. The deeds of those six witches shook the very foundations of Vana'diel.
"My order has recorded their infamy. These innately powerful witches mastered even greater magic through the formation of their coven--the Dark Lilies. They revived ancient dark arts, and no corner of the world was left unscathed by their ambition.
However, soon after their success the Great War descended upon Vana'diel and the Dark Lilies vanished without a trace.
"In the twenty years that followed, stories of the Dark Lilies gradually became nothing more than frightening tales used by harried parents to scare children into bed. And now, it seems, those witches have appeared in the three capitals to terrorize the citizenry once more."
"They have returned...as spirits?"
The knight lifted his gaze to meet my own and nodded.
"There are reports by travelers and children who have witnessed ghosts wearing hats with crooked points even along the roads through Ronfaure. No matter how skilled in arms the Temple Knights may be, we have not the means to fight an insubstantial enemy protected by mighty and ancient sorcery.
Lady Gertrude, I beseech you to employ the far western art of exorcism to banish the spirits of these malefic beings."
The logs in the fireplace suddenly collapsed, causing the flames to leap and writhe like tormented beasts.
The wandering souls of witches...
What had caused their disappearance? What had befallen their physical bodies? Why were they haunting the towns?
There had to be an explanation.
I took my cloak from a hook on the wall, and left the cathedral behind.
* * *
I passed through the majestic Ranperre Gate and found myself outside, where the densely packed trees of Ronfaure seemed poised to march upon the capital. The spirits of the witches had been seen within this very forest.
I knew not if the rumors were widely known, but as I followed the road south through the towering boughs, I passed many a traveler urging his chocobo on to the safety of the city walls.
Daylight faded into dusk, and a solid mist rose to obscure my vision.
When I strayed from the path into the gloom between the trunks, I felt as if the creatures of the forest had begun to stir all at once.
And then bats filled the air around me, rapidly beating their wings with frantic fury. I swung my wand like a club, scattering the tiny vermin in all directions. They soon returned to renew their assault, but did not seem interested in feasting on blood. I couldn't help but feel I was being herded, and when I quickened my pace I suddenly felt the air grow heavy and suffocating.
A sensed an overpowering aura from up ahead.
Following the supernatural beacon, I found her waiting for me beneath the branches of a huge tree.
She wore a pointed hat just as I remembered from childhood stories. Her face retained a trace of innocence and we seemed to be of a similar age.
However, her transparent form left me in no doubt as to her true identity.
I began to softly intone the words to a spell of exorcism, and walked boldly towards the apparition, both arms outstretched.
"Witch of the Dark Lilies...!"
My voice echoed through the silence of the night-cloaked forest.
The witch peered at me from under the brim of her hat, her emotionless eyes glowing faintly.
"I am a disciple of Altana, here to save thy soul...
What dost thou seek here?
What brings thee to the land of the living?"
The spirit opened her mouth slightly and whispered. She spoke no tongue that I could understand... It was more akin to a moan, or a chant...
No matter how practiced the exorcist, if I could not hear and understand the words a spirit spoke, I could not send it to Altana's side--especially if that spirit was a powerful witch.
As I stood there debating my course, the witch suddenly charged forward in eerie silence, her eyes opened wide, and a twisted smile playing about her lips...
I braced myself.
The spirit flowed into my body, and I could feel myself losing control.
My arms and legs grew rigid, and cold beads of sweat ran down my neck and spine...
In the instant of that single shouted word, the force binding my limbs dissipated, and the presence of the witch melted away into the darkness.
Sighing deeply, I raised my face to the sky and saw how the bats that had tormented me were still fluttering about in agitation.
At that point, I was certain that they had been commanded to lead me to her.
Creatures of the night have an understanding.
Which would mean that those bats would comprehend the unfamiliar words spoken by the witch. How, then, was a flesh-and-blood mortal to learn such a language?
"A mortal must become a monster..."
I shook my head even as I uttered those words.
It was forbidden. A devout student of the Goddess would not be permitted to commit such an act.
I walked back to the road, my mind racing with the events of the evening.
By the time I thought to look again, the bats were gone.
* * *
The following day, the streets were filled with crowds of townspeople preparing for the event known as the "Harvest Festival." Children laughed in delight as they helped to put up the decorations.
This grand event was not exclusive to the Kingdom of San d'Oria, but also took place in the nations of Bastok and Windurst.
"Perhaps these witches have been lured into the towns by the bustle of the festivities?"
"Ahaha. Spirits are famous for their tormented solitude, I agree."
I recalled a linkpearl exchange from the night before; two colleagues of mine--Brian and Roger--had been called to the capitals of the other two nations on the exact same errand as I.
After I had reported the events in Ronfaure, Roger, the most senior among us, mentioned having an idea about the witch's mumblings and went out to conduct some research. I wondered if he had discovered a solution to our quandary...
As I passed the sluice gates of Northern San d'Oria, worrying for my fellow exorcists, I noticed a knot of people formed around the passage that led to the port.
As I approached the crowd and peered into the center, I could make out a man in merchant's garb sprawled on the stone-cobbled ground. All the blood had drained from his face, and his lips quivered spasmodically.
"What happened here?" I asked a guard who stood near the scene.
"Just horrible... These witches are appearing in broad daylight now."
Our worst fears had been realized.
"Terrible timing, what with the Harvest Festival just around the corner and all. If an actual fiend should sneak into the parade of costumed merrymakers, why, it would be a disaster."
"Did you not know? All the townspeople, young and old, dress up as monstrous creatures and join the parade."
"Thank you, sir. You have given me hope. Blessings of Altana be upon you!"
I left the confused soldier and the growing crowd of people behind, and began to devise a plan...
- Illustration by Mitsuhiro Arita