Chapter 51: A History of Witches
Declan started and regarded the witch hunter with alarm.
“I’m joking,” Nero said with a dry chuckle. “Anyway, with two witches active in Lafeara, especially one of this caliber, the Pope will likely want to pay a visit himself.”
“The—Pope? Pope Jericho?” Declan stammered.
“Yeah,” Nero muttered, not looking at all pleased. “Chances are this witch won’t hang around long enough for him to get here.”
“So, then what do we do now?”
Nero smirked and tossed the branch back at him. “We keep after the ice witch. Who knows, with a bit of luck, these two know each other. If we find her, she just might lead us to the pure-blood.”
The witch hunter turned towards the gate as Declan discarded the branch.
“Wait.” Declan chased after him. “What’s the difference between the ice witch and this pure-blood?”
“What?” Nero glanced over his shoulder. “You don’t know a damn thing, do you, half-witch?” The witch hunter smirked, glanced across the grounds towards the priest, then stepped closer to Declan and slid an arm around his neck. “If you want to know, then follow me.”
With that parting invitation, Nero headed for the horses and Declan, once more weighing curiosity against his instinctual distrust and dislike for the witch hunter, reluctantly followed.
Nero mounted his horse, waited for Declan to do the same, then turned his mount back onto the road.
Declan sucked in a breath, kicked his heels into the mare, and followed the witch hunter. They galloped away from the blaze along the silent road towards the rising dawn. The sun’s yawning blush illuminated a small dirt path that led across a wheat field. The Nero turned onto it without hesitation.
A prickle of unease bubbled up in Declan’s stomach as he slowed the mare and guided her off the road after the witch hunter. The world grew quiet as the open field swallowed them under a soft blue sky. The breeze, tainted by the scent of fire, kissed Declan’s chocolate-brown hair and cooled the sweat along his neck.
Nero turned his black stallion off the path and kicked his heels against the dark beast’s flank. The witch hunter’s ash-brown braids danced against his red robes and scarlet armor as beast and man rode in a circle.
Declan reigned in his mare uncertainly as the witch hunter circled him once, twice, and again until the wheat flattened, and Declan felt dizzy. Whispers tickled against his ears. Though whether they came from the witch hunter or the wind, Declan could not tell.
“Somnus enim mortuus est.”
The wind seemed suddenly alive and vibrant as Declan sucked in a breath to steady his nerves—and felt simultaneously as light as a feather and as stiff as a corpse.
The mare shrieked and bolted. Declan, unable to hold the reins, was flung from the saddle. The world spun, and his gut clenched with anticipation as the air whooshed around him—and fell silent.
When Declan opened his eyes, heaven and earth had switched places. Wheat tickled his nose as he hovered suspended, face down in the breeze.
The sound of applause drew Declan’s attention to an upside-down Nero, still atop his horse, clapping with a sarcastic smile.
“Knew you had it in you, half-witch.”
Declan could not answer, for beside Nero stood the woman. Her figure, as dark as night, rippled through the swaying wheat—her gaze two empty chasms of pain. And when she opened her mouth, Declan heard his mother’s dying screams once more.
He crashed into the wheat and ground as the earth resettled around him.
The sound of hooves forced the shaken knight to roll over. Declan glared up at the witch hunter’s boots as Nero reigned in the black stallion beside him.
“What—did you do to me?” Declan panted.
“I woke you up,” Nero replied with a shrug.
Declan grit his teeth against the sudden wave of nausea. With a hand pressed to his mouth, he rose to his feet with surprising swiftness.
“I—never wanted to wake up.” He gestured to where the black specter now faded into the breeze. “I never wanted—any of this!”
“No need to be afraid of a ghost,” Nero returned with a crooked smile. “Death won’t allow her back here so easily to meddle with you.”
“That’s not the point—I don’t want anything to do with magic!”
Nero’s gaze hardened as he leaned against the saddle. “And that my friend is the difference between a coven-witch and a half-witch—the right to choose.” He slid down from the saddle and surveyed the quiet field around them. “A coven-witch can’t escape the power they are born with. If they bottled their magic up and refused to use it, they’ll either go mad or become consumed by the very magic they reject. Most apocalypses you’ve read about are the result of a witch repressing their magic. The droughts, tornados, swarms of locusts, earthquakes—all the result of a witch who went out of control.”
Nero shrugged. “Most witches consider us impotent because, although we have magic, we can’t control it. Or at least—that’s how it used to be.” He pulled off his glove and held up his right hand. Three rings of jade, amber, and onyx adorned his fingers. “But now—with the right tools and enchantment, we can use enough to mark our place in the world.”
The witch hunter flicked his fingers. A spark of fire ignited against his fingertips then danced across his knuckles like a coin. “These are low-grade magic gems with weak magical abilities, but they come in handy.”
Declan stared mesmerized at the dancing flame. “Then—what just happened earlier—I can’t control it?”
“Intentionally no, but subconsciously yes,” Nero answered as he snapped his fingers and extinguished the flame.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Earlier, you subconsciously wished to avoid the pain of falling, and the wind magic you were born with interceded based on your instinctual desire.”
“Lafeara was a native homeland for most wind witches before the great purge.”
Declan nodded slowly. “Then what kind of half-witch are you?”
Nero offered a twisted smile and shrugged. “For most witches, deep emotions and desires are all you need to conjure magic. But a half-blood—you’re just as likely to break your neck if you tried something like that again. So, lesson number one, don’t get cocky. You’ve merely dipped your toes into the abyss of power a coven-witch can possess.”
“You’re giving me lessons?” Declan raised a sarcastic brow. “Then what is a coven-witch?”
Nero rolled his eyes and pulled a golden crescent from his pocket. “Your mother was a coven-witch, but your father was mortal, right? Becoming a coven-witch is like the toss of the coin. Heads, you’re born with near-immortal like powers.” He flipped the coin into the air. “Tails, you’re a tainted half-breed. However—” Nero snatched the still spinning crescent and raised a single finger “—the weaker the coven-witch blood, the lower your chances of being anything more a half-witch.”
“So, it’s like inheriting a disease?”
Nero scoffed and shook his head. “Any witch would be offended to hear you call it that. No, unlike nobility, witches don’t give a shit if you’re mom was a prostitute or your dad some duke or the bloody king himself. They only care about the purity of your witch blood. The purer the witch—the stronger their power after all. As a half-blood, however, you’re nothing to them but a failed result.”
“Right,” Declan muttered.
“The ice witch, on the other hand.” Nero licked his lips as he flipped the coin again. “Her mother was a mortal, but her father was a strong coven-witch, so the coin flipped the other way for her.” Nero caught the crescent and pocketed it.
“How can you tell all that?” Declan asked quickly.
Nero tapped his nose. “You’ll be able to pick up the difference given time. Our ability to smell each other is the one trait all witches and half-witches possess. That’s why the church gathers up failures like us and trains them into hounds.”
“Father Alden’s already tried that sales pitch on me,” Declan returned sourly. “So then, a pure-witch comes from two coven-witches?”
“A pure-blood witch,” Nero corrected. “And no, it takes a few generations of coven-witches to create a pure-blood.” He gestured towards the horizon where the long arm of black smoke spiraled defiantly towards the heavens. “Which is why something like this means trouble. Where there’s a pure-blood witch, there’s a coven of witches that created them. Hell, some witches will even inbreed just to ensure the purity of their bloodline and create a strong successor. And those bastards,” he exhaled as he turned back to face Declan, “They’re the most dangerous form of witches in existence. Pure-blood devils.”