Chapter 50: The Taste of Magic
“Lieutenant Declan, you have to wake up, Sir!”
The pounding on his door, this time before sunrise, roused Declan from his tangled sheets. He grabbed a shirt and pair of trousers from the foot of the bed and pulled them on before he opened the door.
The junior knight outside stepped back with an apologetic smile. “Morning, Lieutenant!”
“What’s wrong?” Declan grumbled, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Captain Sloane is looking for you, Sir.”
Declan sighed as he left the door open and wandered back into the room. “What for?”
“Another nobleman was murdered last night. Apparently, the killer set his mansion on fire.”
Declan pulled the dark-plum jacket with gold tassels over his white cotton shirt and grabbed his boots. “What Lord?”
“No one major, just a Baron, but he might have been linked to that sex-slave ring the Captain’s been trying to shut down.”
Declan grabbed his sword, closed the door, and tucked in his shirt as he followed the junior knight downstairs.
“The Captain is waiting for you below with the priest,” the junior knight added as he left Declan at the top of the stairs.
“Priest?” Declan muttered as he strapped the sword belt around his waist.
Sure enough, Father Alden stood beside Captain Sloane, who motioned Declan over impatiently. The witch hunter was nowhere in sight, which struck Declan as odd.
“Come along, Lieutenant,” Sloane ordered after Declan gave his salute. “We need to get this under control before people start to panic.”
‘Panic? Because a sex trader got killed and his mansion burned down?’
Sensing there was more to this than just murder and arson, Declan followed along with a polite nod to Alden.
The fire was like nothing Declan had ever seen. Even from the distance of the manor gate, he could feel the heat from its demonic flames. The first floor had collapsed entirely, and the third and second floors lay crushed beneath the broken roof. What had once been the residence of a noble lord had transformed into a burning pile of rubble.
“Damn thing won’t go out,” Sloane cursed as he gestured to the line of slaves and knights running from the well to the house with buckets. “It will be nothing but ash at this rate. We’re lucky it hasn’t spread from the manor to the tree line.”
“It’s possible the killer used an accelerant,” Declan mused as he dismounted.
“Let it burn and keep your distance,” Alden advised with a grave tone. “That’s not a normal blaze, that’s witch fire.”
“Witch fire?” Declan echoed, unable to keep the disbelief from his voice.
Alden turned towards him with narrowed eyes. “You should be able to determine the truth of that yourself.”
Declan flinched under the accusation in the priest’s tone. Captain Sloane did not comment as he dismounted and left them to speak to the lieutenant in charge. Declan turned towards the burning building and then hesitantly sniffed the breeze.
The scent poured down his nostrils like liquid gold, and he choked. The burning magic continued to crawl down his throat towards his lungs as Declan doubled over and fought to catch a breath.
“Are you trying to kill yourself, half-witch?”
Declan tensed as Nero appeared beside him with a canteen of water and a cynical smile. Declan took the drink without question and drowned his scorched throat in its mildly cold fluids. He choked again as half of it came up while Nero patted his back. The strange taste of herbs and minerals was unpleasant, but the heat in his throat quickly faded.
“This isn’t the work of just any ordinary witch, you know,” Nero commented as he sealed the canteen and hooked it onto his belt. “This one is as pure as they come.” Nero pulled the scarf from around his neck over his mouth and nose then handed a similar cloth to Declan. “Come with me.”
Declan cast a look over his shoulder. Sloane and the priest had moved on to overlook the efforts to dig a trench around the house.
He stared after Nero, who hacked a branch from a sapling, then looked down at the scarf in his hands. Instinct told Declan to stay away from the witch hunter, but a morbid curiosity he had long repressed flickered away in the wake of this unholy magic. Declan wrapped the black fabric over the lower half of his face and followed.
The witch hunter led him towards the left side of the burning manor away from the knights and their shovels. Declan winced as the heat sapped the moisture from his eyes and skin. The blaze howled as it sucked in the air around them with alarming intensity. The hellish tendrils of its ravenous hunger swelled as it consumed the structure trapped within its coils.
“Shallow breaths,” Nero warned.
They approached not the manor itself, but what might have been a small storage building beside it. Only bits of stone and a broken beam remained upright and aflame over smoldering debris and a dark hole that led into the ground. Nero tapped Declan’s shoulder and motioned towards the branch in his hand, which he extended into the flame.
Declan watched curiously as the witch hunter turned the branch over slowly as if he were roasting a bit of pork. When he pulled it out, Declan stepped closer and stared baffled at the undamaged twigs and leaves. Nero repeated the process three more times before giving the signal to withdraw.
When they had returned to the safety of the forest line, Nero pulled down his scarf and tossed the branch to Declan.
“That’s how the Church and other mortals can tell it’s witch fire,” Nero explained.
Declan pulled off his glove to touch the end of the branch that had been in the fire. It was hot, but not a single scorch mark marred even the smallest leaf.
“Another difference is that water can’t put out a witch blaze. We got lucky. This witch seemed to be targeting just the manor. Not all coven witches can control the spread of their blaze. Then again, the ones that can are particularly dangerous.”
Declan pulled down his scarf and tossed the branch back to Nero. “That’s why Alden said to let it burn.”
“Yes,” Nero nodded. “Though letting the populace know this is a witch fire would only spread panic, so that’s why the knights will treat it like normal arson.”
“But—why can’t I smell this witch?”
“What happened when you tried?”
“I felt like—I swallowed an inferno,” Declan answered as he touched his throat. “I thought I was going to die.”
Nero nodded. “That’s the difference between a pureblood witch and a common witch. Purebloods know how to mask their scent, or in this case, transform it into a weapon.”
“You still don’t know how to collect a witch’s scent properly, so you didn’t inhale enough to do any permanent damage,” Nero said with a shrug. “A witch’s scent is different from the air you breathe because its magic. A pure-blood witch can control that magic. Call it an enchantment or curse, but it’s just a trap they leave for anyone too curious for their own good. Depending on the power of the enchantment, inhale enough of their magic, and you might internally combust. One minute your breathing and the next, you’re a walking human torch.”
Declan swallowed painfully. “You’re—joking—right?”
“I’ve seen it happen a time or two. I’ve also seen a witch hunter drown on nothing but air. Another buried up to his shoulders in dirt and crushed to death.”
Declan shuddered and touched the Saint’s medallion beneath his tunic.
“Any real witch hunter would know better than to risk it,” Nero continued as he gestured towards the blaze. “This fire witch is bad news. Stronger than your ice witch that’s for certain.”
“How do you know they’re that dangerous? Didn’t the ice witch act in self-defense? And this noble was involved in a sex ring. Perhaps they deserved to die.”
Nero shook his head and snorted. “The whole world deserves to burn,” he muttered darkly.