Chapter 64: The Chill of Death

The great horned owl perched upon the rafters peered down into the dark slums in search of vermin. But even the experienced night hunter’s perceptive gaze could not detect Nero, who slithered through the shadows below. The witch hunter had learned the art of pursuing unseen during his early years in the order. After all, to be seen invited death.

Few people were as paranoid as a witch who knew they were being hunted. Arrogance was a witch’s greatest weakness. Hubris led to mistakes and exposed vulnerabilities. A cornered witch, however, could kill a dozen witch hunters. To someone who has nothing to lose, death becomes an ally.

The lantern Nero followed was not one of flame but moonstone. It provided just enough light for the five men and the woman who accompanied them to make their way through the slum’s darker streets. Thanks to the enchanted piercing of his left ear, he could follow their movements and even catch a bit of their whispered conversations as he trailed behind them.

They were heading to the docks where the woman would take passage on a prearranged ship to leave Lafeara.

So far, the contents of the anonymous note Alden had received appeared accurate. Although, the idea of the Fox Den, a gang of reputed cut throats, protecting a witch had caught Nero by surprise. Still, anything was better than being penned up in the stuffy confines of the cathedral’s underground archive. So Nero agreed to check the information while Alden continued his search for the ellusive Turnbell name. A quest that had proven futile thus far given the only family record they had found belonged to a nobleman who had died two years ago and left no children behind.

The Foxes walked confidently through their turf, blissfully unaware of the predator at their heels. Nero remained in the dark, content to follow at a distance, as the presence of other Foxes on the rooftop above invited attention he did not seek.

The stench of the slums soon mingled with the cool breeze of the Serpentine River. His quarry had long given up any attempt of conversation and focused on the path ahead. Probably because the docks did not fall within the Fox Den’s territory, or so Nero reasoned as the presence of watchful vermin disappeared around them.

He quickened his silent steps and dashed the length of two buildings before he slid soundlessly behind a stack of crates. His attempts brought him close enough to check the woman’s scent, but the two men at the back of the pack turned instinctively and drew their blades.

‘Perhaps the Foxes deserve their reputation after all.’

“Whose there?” the first Fox challenged as his comrade strode purposely towards Nero’s hiding place. The other three men and the witch hasted their steps towards the harbor. “Show yourself, you worm-bellied rat!”

Nero chuckled as he stepped out of the shadows and raised his empty hands. The second Fox immediately lunged forward and swung his sword. The witch hunter ducked under the man’s blade and slid his needle-thin dagger into the man’s lungs. A neat little twist and the blade’s jagged end ripped a gaping hole through the organ before Nero pulled it free.

The Fox gasped, clutched his chest, and tottered to the side as his comrade switched from sword to pistol and aimed at the witch hunter.

“Now that won’t do at all,” Nero growled as he snapped his fingers.

Ice-magic twisted around the gun and coated the man’s finger on the trigger within a chunk of ice before the flintlock could ignite.

“Hells Teeth! He’s a witch!” The Fox gasped as he beat against the ice that crawled up his arm and staggered back.

Nero snickered even as he danced away from the second Fox’s futile attack from behind. The witch hunter caught the man’s wrist, sliced it open with his knife, then delivered a brutal kick to the Fox’s sternum that sent the man crashing into the stack of crates.

The man crumpled face-first onto the ground. His countenance contorted in silent agony as his lips darkened, and he flailed like a fish out of water amidst the crushed crates.

“Its amazing isn’t it? How the smallest wound can inflict so much pain,” Nero observed as he kicked the man’s sword away. “The very air you breathe is killing you even as its keeping you alive and overwhelming your senses with pain.”

A strained gargled response that escaped the Fox’s lips was intelligible, but the resolute look of disgust that battled against the pain in the man’s eyes spoke clearly.

“I suppose you accepted this kind of fate a long time ago,” Nero observed with a hint of approval. “After all, men who live by the sword will die by the sword—or magic in this case.” He extended his wrist, and the soft glow of magic stretched into a blade of ice that he held against the man’s throat. “I would ask if you had any last words but—”

Nero spun and sidestepped the blade of the first Fox. The man’s awkward attacks to skewer the witch hunter with the sword in his left hand, or bludgeon him with the frozen pistol in his right, were desperate and laughable.

With the flick of Nero’s wrist, three ice blades swept the man off his feet and impaled him through his heart, shoulder, and throat against the nearest building.

“Vermin should learn to die with dignity,” Nero commented as he turned back to the second Fox, who still wheezed upon the ground and glared at him with dark eyes.

Nero finished him off and left his already dissolving sword in the dead man’s chest.

The Serpentine River, which stretched nearly 100 miles in length, spread out before him like a black sea. The closed sails of fisherman slips and riverboats speckled the shoreline as their hulls knocked idly against the docks. Nero caught sight of the moonstone lantern beneath the open canvas of a small sailboat. The witch had already boarded while her three escorts appeared to be conversing with the boatman.

The witch hunter made no effort to mask his steps as he thundered down the pier. The moonlight illuminated his scarlet armor, rippled upon his flowing robes, and drew his quarry’s startled gaze.

“Is that a bloody witch hunter?” growled the third Fox, who quickly drew his sword.

“Time to go, Marc!” shouted the fourth Fox even as he aimed down his pistol at the witch hunter.

‘This again!’ Nero dodged as the bullet sped past him and splintered against the dock boards. ‘No hesitation there.’ He waved his hand across the wharf. Ice spread beneath his feet and latched the two thugs in place as Nero slid under the blade of the second Fox and rose to plunge his needle blade through the fourth and fifth rib of the other.

The Fox bent over the witch hunter’s blade with an expression of stunned disbelief as he stared past Nero to the other trapped thug. “Darwin—kill this—”

Nero yanked his dagger free. The Fox collapsed awkwardly against the dock, his feet still frozen in place.

“You bastard!” Darwin howled as he struggled against the ice wrapped around his ankles. “You hag spawn witch cu—”

Nero flung his dagger across the short distance and smirked with satisfaction as it impaled the man’s throat. “You picked the wrong side of this one, vermin.”

He didn’t bother to watch the Fox bleed out. His quarry had already gained some distance from the dock. The boatman and Marc paddled furiously with a bucket and paddle as the wind swept them lazily from the shore.

Nero stopped at the edge of the pier and sniffed. ‘Still nothing!’ Disappointment shifted to anger as Nero glared across the black waves at the pale, shivering woman. ‘Are you even a witch?’

With an impatient sigh, Nero swung his hand across the dark waters towards the ship. “Pulchritudo dolore!” Beneath his scarlet chest plate, a flash of light pierced the darkness and vanished. Then ice formed and crackled upon the choppy waves below. It spread at his command and wove across the river like a serpent, heedless of the tide as its icy coils wrapped around the sailboat and sealed it in place.

“Marc!” the woman cried. The men beside her stared at the frozen river around them then beat against their prison with their flimsy paddles.

Nero touched the jewel hidden beneath his robes with a scowl. ‘Even this much requires me to drain magic from the Witch Star?’ He stepped down onto the icy path and headed towards the sailboat. ‘No matter, as long as she’s a witch, I can regain what was wasted easily enough.’

At his approach, Marc flung aside the bucket, drew a dagger, and stood on wobbly legs. Rachael scrambled behind him with panicked sobs that only fed the growing rage in Nero.

‘Why doesn’t she use her magic? Why haven’t I felt so much as a spark? If this is another dead end…’

“What do you want?” Marc demanded with trembling bravado.

Nero barked out a laugh. “Isn’t it obvious? I’ve come for the witch.” He extended his arm, palm down, and the ice-magic twisted into a long sharp spear. Nero closed his fingers around the cold weapon, took aim, and released.

The ice spear glittered through the air and then buried itself in the pitiful man’s chest. Marc looked down, dumbfounded, as the knife slipped from his fingers and he tipped backward off the boat.

“Marc!” Rachael screamed. She reached towards his corpse, which slid away from her across the ice. The spear’s tip caught against the uneven edge of the frozen river and kept the body from tipping over.

Rachael cast one last terrified look at the witch hunter who had almost reached the boat and scrambled after the dead man. The shivering boatman remained seated. One hand wrapped around the hull, the other still gripped his paddle. Nero circled the vessel and, with another snap of his fingers, decapitated the boatman.

The witch hunter closed in on the sobbing woman as she clutched Marc’s head against her chest. Her terror and grief gave him no pleasure as he contemplated the cost of this fruitless hunt.

Rachael screamed again as Nero grabbed her hair and yanked her up towards him. He inhaled the scent of her raven locks and clenched his teeth with a growl of disgust. “Not a witch after all. Not even a flicker of one,” he snarled as his grip tightened.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Rachael sobbed as her fingers clawed desperately against his leather glove.

“And yet here you are stealing away into the night like a thief,” Nero hissed as he shoved her onto her knees. “And this—” he pulled the sack of coins from Marc’s belt. “—well, it’s just a tad bit suspicious, don’t you think?” Her brown eyes stared up at him in silent terror, and Nero yanked her head back. “Speak, woman!”

“Please! We—did it for the money,” Rachael sobbed. “I don’t know anything else—only that the Fox Master was willing to pay us 15,000 crescents to leave Lafeara.”

“Why would he pay you to get out of the country?”

“To—fool the knights and the church,” she whimpered. “He was going to leave—evidence at our house—enough to convince the church I was a witch.”

Nero cackled as realization sank in. “So—you’re a decoy. Well, I suppose 15,000 crescents is too much temptation for a mindless sheep like you. But where did the Fox Den obtain such exorbitant funds?”

“I’m sorry—I don’t know! I’m sorry! P-Please—Please don’t kill me!” Rachael sobbed as he pulled her back to her feet.

“Now, now,” Nero shushed. “I enjoy a good squeal as much as the next witch—but your tears have soured.” His hand slid around her throat. “Even you should know that no mortal who has seen a witch can live to tell the tale.” His grip tightened against the woman’s trachea as her skin turned pale blue.

“Pleas—” Her dark eyes glazed over with panic and frost as her last breath rattled free from purple lips and hovered in the air between them before it was carried away by the river breeze.

Nero wrapped his arm around her neck, twisted, and pulled the dead woman’s head cleanly off her shoulders. Her body slumped down against Marc’s corpse and dislodged the ice spear. The dead couple drifted over the edge and vanished beneath the waves of the black river.

Nero held the woman’s head in his palm and smoothed the dark hair away from her frozen, blue pupils.

“So, the Fox Den is shielding the ice witch,” Nero murmured as he twisted his fingers through her tangled locks. “I think I have the perfect gift to help them change their minds.”

The moon silhouetted his red robes and the woman’s head that dangled from his grip as Nero returned to the docks and the sleeping city beyond. Behind him, the ice cracked and crumbled, before it was carried out to sea with the empty sailboat and the dead boatman.

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