Chapter 44: The Priest’s Witch Hunter
“Lieutenant Declan!” Captain Sloane’s voice and fist battered against Declan’s barrack-room door and woke the knight from his slumber. He rose stiffly from the books and cluttered notes scattered across his corner desk, a page of which clung to his cheek.
“Yes—I’m coming!” Declan grumbled as he plucked the paper free, wiped dried saliva from the corner of his mouth, and shoved the notes and book inside a desk drawer. As he stumbled to the door, he ran a hand through his chocolate-brown hair, then slid back the lock and opened it. “Yes, Captain?”
Sloane gave the arrangement of Declan’s hair a curious look and cleared his throat. “A visitor for you downstairs,” he said gruffly.
Declan’s olive-green eyes narrowed at the unease in the Captain’s voice. “Who exactly?”
“That priest, Father Alden, I think his name was,” Sloane answered as he stepped back. “And one of the Pope’s hounds.”
‘A Witch Hunter?’
Declan swallowed past the fear at the back of his throat. “Why do they want to see me? I thought you said we were dropping the investigation?”
Sloane shifted uncomfortably. “We are,” he said evasively. “But Father Alden put forward a request with the backing of the Holy Church—he asked that we loan you to them as a—guide of sorts.” Sloane avoided Declan’s gaze as he glanced along the empty hall. Most of the rooms were empty at this time of day and wouldn’t fill until after dinner.
“Look,” Sloane muttered tensely as he placed a hand on Declan’s shoulder. “The Knight’s Compound may have dropped the investigation, per the request of someone high enough for Knight Commander Quentin to give a damn—but we both know the Church won’t turn a blind eye to a witch killing.” He squeezed Declan’s shoulder. “I’ve also been instructed to cooperate with the Holy Church’s demands in this investigation. If they want you to act as a guide, so be it. What you do or say beyond that, I’ll leave up to you.”
“How long?” Declan stared over the Captain’s shoulder out the window that faced his doorway, through which the Royal Cathedral’s bell towers could be seen.
“A few days—or until they find her—whichever comes first,” Sloane answered quickly. “Don’t worry, the first excuse I find, I’ll bring you back. Using a lieutenant as a guide is a bit much, even if it is by Pope Jericho’s request.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Just keep out of trouble, Declan,” Sloane cautioned with an anxious gaze. “I mean it. That priest and his hound are trouble, I can feel it in my gut.”
Declan’s lips twisted into a mocking smile, but he nodded in acknowledgment. “I will, Captain.”
“Good, clean up, and head downstairs. Odds are they’ll want you to take them to the slums first—just steer clear of the Foxes.”
Sloane shook his head. “I’ll take handling riots and murdering scum over witches any day.” He shivered and headed back down the hall.
Declan stepped back and shut his room door.
Then he pressed his hand against it and closed his eyes.
‘A Witch Hunter.’
Declan chuckled bitterly as he pulled off his wrinkled uniform, then pulled a new shirt from his closet and tossed it on the bed. He paused for a moment to look down at the black mark across his chest over his heart. The sight of it was enough to bring back old memories he could never quite shake.
The smell of fire and burning flesh—and the look in his mother’s eyes as her fingers tightened around his neck.
“Lieutenant Declan!” Alden greeted him with a pleased smile. “I do apologize for the abruptness of our visit.”
“The Knights of Lafeara are happy to assist the Holy Saints Church when and where we can,” Declan answered as he inclined his head politely.
The smell of sulfur singed his nose, and he rose stiffly. His gaze flew past the priest to the man dressed in scarlet robes, who stared back at him with electric-blue eyes and a knowing smile.
“Ah! This is Sir Nero, my comrade,” Alden explained as he turned to face the terrifying man.
‘No, not just a man—a witch hunter.’
Nero was older than Declan, perhaps in his mid-thirties, and yet there was an air of agelessness that clung to his all too perfectly sculpted face. Dark ash-brown hair swept back into braids were pulled away from high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and a narrow, clean-shaven jawline.
“Not a knight like you, of course, but not exactly a priest either,” Alden continued.
“He knows what I am,” Nero replied through curled lips. “Now that we’ve picked up your half-witch, can we go, Alden?”
“Forgive my comrade, his poor manors,” the priest apologized hastily. “We’ve met with a bit of a set back as far as the investigation goes. Your reports and information about the only witness seem to have mysteriously vanished. So we—the Church that is—have been forced to begin our witch hunt anew.”
“Which is why it would be helpful if you could lead us to the spot where the witch killed the noble,” Nero added as he turned abruptly towards the door. “The sooner, the better, before the scent of her magic fades.”
“You don’t need me for that,” Declan said, unable to shake his distaste for the witch hunter before him.
“Actually, we do,” Alden replied as he took Declan’s arm and pulled him firmly along after Nero. “You see, Captain Sloane told me that it was you who found the original spot where that young man was murdered in a different alley. Something you included in your report, I’m sure—but alas, as that is gone, and no one else recalls the information—”
“I got it,” Declan said as he pushed the priest’s hand aside. “I’ll take you there.”
“I knew you would,” Alden said with a satisfied smile.
The alley was warmer than the last time Declan had been here. He surveyed the rooftops warily. The sun had just begun its descent, but the Foxes were keeping a discrete distance. Declan hoped their fragile truce would hold long enough for him to get the priest and witch hunter out of the slums.
He followed the familiar trail of filth, sewage, and violence. The debris and alleyway were all starting to look the same when he picked up the familiar scent. Roses and Jasmine. They were almost there—but there was another scent in the air.
‘The smell of burnt wood?’
He jumped as Nero grabbed his shoulder and stopped the knight in his tracks.
The witch hunter’s sharp gaze narrowed in on Declan with what might have been an approving smile. “It appears we’ve arrived,” Nero observed as he sniffed the air. “I’ll go first if you don’t mind.”
The witch hunter moved on ahead. His sulfuric scent lingered unpleasantly in the air as Alden walked up beside Declan.
“It’s a gift of all half-witches,” Alden explained patiently. “The ability to smell a witch or her magic anyway. That’s why they make effective hounds for the Church.” He glanced towards Declan with a knowing smile. “But then, you would know more about that than I would, Lieutenant.”
“Save your sales pitch, I’m not interested,” Declan growled.
“A pity,” Alden said with a shrug. “A waste of your potential if you ask me.”
“I clearly didn’t.” Declan moved ahead. The burning scent quickly made sense as he spotted the pile of charred wood and what appeared to be the remains of the burnt mattress.
Nero knelt beside the scorched debris and stared into the air just above it. He turned at Declan’s approach and grinned. “Someone tried to cover her scent.”
Despite the stagnant odor of the witch hunter, the incinerated mess before them, Declan could still pick up the intoxicating floral scent. He inhaled reflexively, and Nero chuckled.
“Yeah, there’s still plenty of her magic left. They torched the mattress with dried kindling but left the rest of the alley untouched,” Nero observed as he stood, inhaled, and gestured to the walls around them. “It’s everywhere. She must have blasted everything within a three-foot radius. Not a typical witch either,” he took in another breath of air hungrily. “Young, powerful, and—ice magic? That’s not something we’ve come across before. Father Alden said she was attacked?”
“That’s what we believe,” Declan confirmed. “When I originally found the mattress, there was a bit of blood left on it.”
“Not the ice witch’s, I’m guessing?”
“No,” Declan replied. “Mortal blood. It belonged to the noble we found just a few streets over.”
“So, he dragged her here to rape her and got fucked himself?” Nero chuckled darkly. “Got what he deserved then.”
Declan snorted in disbelief. “So you agree she defended herself, but you’re still going to hunt her down?”
Nero turned towards him with a raised brow. “I’m surprised you care—considering what your witch mother almost did to you.”
“Have you got it then?” Alden asked as he stepped up beside them with a dubious look at the charred remains.
“Yea, I’ve got her scent,” Nero replied confidently. “Where to next, half-witch?”
“It’s Lieutenant Declan. And as to where, I think that’s up to you.”
“The witness, the driver, I believe he said the nobleman claimed to be related to the victim,” Alden mused aloud. “Do you happen to remember the address or family name?”
“The address, no, I never saw it,” Declan answered honestly. “But, the family name was Turnbell.”
“And every noble lord’s family name is documented at the church,” Alden said with a satisfied smile. “We’ll begin our search there.”
The priest turned and headed quickly back through the alley.
Nero sucked in another breath of air and rolled his neck back with a moan.
‘I really don’t like this guy,’ Declan thought as he turned to follow the priest.
“When you’re tired of pretending to be normal,” Nero called after him. “I’ll show you what your half-witch blood can really do.”
Declan shuddered and ignored the man. As someone who had sent his own mother to the flames—Declan wanted nothing more to do with witches or their kind.