Chapter 85: An Unholy Reckoning
The small group of shocked nobles turned towards Nero and his priest in silent confusion. Nero offered them a sinister grin that made the gentlemen recoil while the women cowered behind their pews.
‘Pathetic mortals. They were a far cry from the Earl of Hawthorne.’
Nero hadn’t forgotten the curious prickle of power he had felt just looking into the young Earl’s intimidating winter-grey eyes.
The nobleman who stood before him now, a man of about forty years, stank to high heaven of spirits and appeared to be nursing a broken wrist. The young woman who cowered behind the nobleman could have walked out of a brothel with her gaudy dress, dense perfume, heavy makeup, and that all too visible bruise.
“I’ll ask again,” Father Alden said with evident impatience. “Is this Lincoln Turnbell’s funeral?”
Nero glared at the nobles and refrained from rolling his eyes. ‘You know it is, runt. The knight I paid to keep track of the body told us the Abbess brought it here for a family funeral.’
The Abbess circled past the frozen nobles and marched towards the priest. “This is a private affair,” she declared briskly. “You and your witch hunter are not welcome here.”
‘Ah, so this is the Abbess who controls the churches of Lafeara.’ Nero smirked as he watched the young priest bristle beneath the older woman’s disapproving glare. ‘Come on, runt, put her in her place.’
“Abbess,” Alden greeted her with the faintest of nods. “How strange that we should meet now after a week spent hunting for a witch in your diocese*. To think, Nero, if the Abbess had only been available during our numerous visits to the cathedral, or even responded to any of my messages, we might have found the Turnbell family sooner.”
“Indeed.” Nero leaned over the priest’s shoulder as he studied the woman before him. “How curious.”
A strange sense of déjà vu washed over the witch hunter as the woman’s dusk-blue eyes turned in his direction. Even more irritating was the surprising lack of fear in the Abbess’s steady gaze as she stared back at him defiantly. ‘Strange—and yet familiar.’ The flicker of a memory, so similar to this moment, he could almost taste it, teased at Nero’s brain with distracting uncertainty.
The Abbess refocused on Father Alden. “Since you are aware that I am the Abbess, you should also know I have a lot of responsibilities which keep me busy. I also command full authority over all church property within Lefeara’s borders.” She took a step towards the priest as she crossed her arms and stared down at him imperiously. “Therefore, priest, remove yourself and your filthy hound from this chapel, at once.”
‘Okay, even if the runt was a bit annoying, wasn’t the Abbess reacting a bit aggressively?’ Nero chuckled as the priest crossed his arms and mimicked her stance. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got, priest.’
“You forget, Abbess,” Alden snapped back, “that I have come to Lafeara invested with the authority of Pope Jericho.”
Nero noticed with interest the look of distaste the rippled across Mercy’s face when the priest dropped the Pope’s name. ‘Interesting.’
With a gratified smirk, Alden brushed past the Abbess towards the elusive Turnbell family. “By that authority,” the priest continued haughtily, “I am allowed entrance to even the King’s bed-chamber if necessary, to say nothing of your quaint little chapel.”
Nero grimaced and closed his eyes. ‘Never trust a noble runt to know when to keep their trap shut.’
Mercy laughed cynically, and even the noblemen scowled at the priest’s daring claim.
Alden cleared his throat loudly and focused on the trembling young woman with the bruised cheek and fearful brown eyes. “Tsk,” the priest muttered as he continued on his way. “Apparently, even prostitutes are welcome within this church.”
“Excuse me!” the older nobleman growled. “That is my wife you are insulting!”
Nero stepped around the Abbess, careful to keep a close distance behind the priest. As with any witch hunt, he was expected to ensure his handler made it back to Zarus alive, preferably in one piece. Not the easiest of tasks. Nero had lost a few priests along the way that couldn’t be helped, but it was a responsibility he couldn’t easily shake—especially if the priest lived to complain about it.
Judging from the glassy glare the offended nobleman was giving the priest right now, Alden was one hot poker away from earning himself a well-earned punch to the face.
The priest studied the nobleman’s injured arm then raised his gaze curiously. “You are—the father of Lincoln Turnbell?”
“I am Lord Josiah Turnbell,” the annoyed nobleman snapped as he puffed out his chest. “And yes, Lincoln was my son. What business do you have with my family?”
Alden glanced towards the younger noble. “And you are?”
“Lord Asher Winslet, fiancé to Lady Sophya, whose brother lies just there,” Asher replied grimly as he pointed towards the casket.
Nero ignored the noblemen and focused on the two women seated in the pews behind them. The pretty maiden with eye-catching scarlet-red hair—the same red color as the corpse Alden had shown him in the morgue of the Knight’s Compound—stared back at Nero with timid but confused glossy green eyes.
His attention shifted to the older woman beside her. Another strange tug of déjà vu pierced his gut as he registered the noblewoman’s ash-blonde hair and pale cheeks. Her hazel-brown eyes raised hesitantly to meet his gaze, and Nero recognized the fear he saw there—no, more importantly, he recognized her.
“So, you are Lincoln’s sister?” Alden said with a note of victory as he turned to face the women.
“I—” the red-head rose cautiously from the pew, “Yes, I am—was.”
“Nero.” Alden turned towards him expectantly.
Ripping his gaze from the trembling mother, Nero strode past Lord Asher and grabbed the younger woman’s arm.
“Sophya!” Helena gasped but quickly shrank away from Nero’s silent glare.
“Wh-what do you want?” Sophya babbled. She cringed as Nero leaned over the pew and pressed his face into her scarlet hair. “Asher!”
“Let her go!” The young nobleman appeared behind him and seized the witch hunter’s shoulder.
With an annoyed sigh, Nero released the girl, who scampered behind her mother with a frightened whimper. “It’s not her,” he said as he turned to face the priest.
“You bastard,” Asher growled as Nero shrugged off his grip and returned to the aisle, keenly aware of Helena, trembling in the pews behind him.
‘How long has it been since we almost caught that pure-blood in bed with her? Almost two decades surely.’
Alden scowled as he spun in place and glared at the nobles. “Are you sure? Is it any of them?”
Nero glanced back at Helena and shook his head slowly. “None of them are witches.”
“I should think not!” Josiah roared indignantly. “What is this all about?”
Nero studied the man before him. The memory of Helena babbling out excuses while pleading for her life at the edge of his blade suddenly made flesh. ‘So this is the pig of a husband she was trying to punish by having an affair.’ His gaze shifted to the trembling red-head and then the coffin. ‘And they are the children she mentioned to Abbot Grendel.’
“The reason your son is dead is because a witch killed him,” Alden growled as he rubbed his chin. “A witness claimed he was in the alley where he died looking for his sister.”
“What?” Josiah sputtered as his brows rose and fell in confusion.
“Sophy is not a witch as your hound has just proven,” Mercy interjected coldly. “Since your business here is concluded, priest, I think its high time you left.”
Nero narrowed his eyes at the Abbess. ‘That’s where I remember you from. You were just a nun then when Abbot Grendel left Helena in your care.’ He had sensed it earlier, but now he was confident the Abbess was hiding something. His gaze shifted back to Helena, who flinched visibly. ‘No, they are hiding something.’
‘It’s no small coincidence that the woman we found in bed with a pure-blood ice witch became the mother of the noble killed by a young coven ice witch.’
“Finished?” Alden echoed as he whirled towards Mercy. “I haven’t even started with you, Abbess. Using your authority to remove Lincoln’s body from custody before our investigation had concluded was one thing. But removing a family name from the Lafeara’s church archives to thwart our investigation—only a Bishop or Abbess has that sort of power.” The priest advanced upon her as he spoke. “And Lafeara no longer has a Bishop.”
“I have no idea what you’re prattling on about,” Mercy replied as she stared down at the priest with a mocking smile.
“Pretend all you like. I know you’re hiding the ice witch,” Alden hissed as he stepped back and snapped his fingers.
Nero suppressed a growl at the priest’s infuriating gesture. ‘As if I am some beast you can command with the flick of your finger.’ He had already moved behind the Abbess beforehand. At the priest’s command, he seized Mercy’s arms and held them against her back before she could react. Instead of struggling, the Abbess merely turned and offered him a cold stare.
‘Arrogant bitch.’ Nero twisted his grip and was rewarded as a twinge of pain flickered across Mercy’s face, and she let out a sharp breath. He leaned over her shoulder and carefully whispered so that no one else could hear, “You let that devil’s child live, didn’t you?”
Mercy bowed her head, for a moment Nero thought she was trembling in fear, but then a laugh bubbled past her lips as the Abbess straightened and shot him a spiteful smile.
“Before you and your hound continue to threaten me, priest,” Mercy said with a note of amusement. “Perhaps you should deal with the trouble you’ve brought to my doorstep.”
Nero’s brows furrowed in confusion, then he glanced towards the chapel’s doors. Five men in fox masks stood illuminated by the mid-day sun, their black cloaks rustling faintly in the breeze. They were armed to the teeth with glistening blades, pistols, and ruthless eyes that glared through the cut-out holes in the masks, down at the priest, witch hunter, and Abbess.
Alden cleared his throat and glanced nervously at Nero. “Friends of yours?”
Nero relaxed his grip on the Abbess and chuckled as he glanced up at the choir loft where four more masked thugs aimed their crossbows at him. “Just some vermin that crawled out of the slums. They won’t be a problem.” He shoved Mercy in Alden’s direction as he took a step towards the brave group of thugs.
A ringing bang exploded through the church as the stain glass windows behind the altar shattered inwards and rained down upon the statue of the Saintess and Lincoln’s coffin.
The priest let out a small startled squeal as he ducked. Mercy quickly shook her hand free of his grasp. Alden turned, and belatedly tried to grab her robes, but they slid through his fingers like water. The Abbess dashed towards Helena, yanked the frozen noblewoman out of her pew, and then shoved her under Lincoln’s coffin.
A second explosion shattered the side windows and death poured like a tidal wave of rose-colored daggers onto the frozen congregation below.
Nero crouched beneath his enchanted cloak as bullet zipped overhead. He glared at the Foxes, who crouched behind the back pews, still guarding the doorway with guns drawn. ‘Just what sort of explosive device had they set up?’
With a guttural snarl, Nero grabbed the priest by the collar, tossed him on the ground beside a pew, ripped another pew’s bolted legs from the floor, and tipped it over the priest. “Stay there!” he yelled, then hissed as a bullet smacked against his shoulder armor and ricocheted.
The nobles screamed as they ran for cover. Asher pushed Sophya against the nearest column where they crouched beneath his jacket. Josiah dragged his panicked wife between the pews towards safety, then slipped and disappeared from view, dragging the poor woman down with him.
Nero remained crouched beside the priest’s wooden shelter as the last pieces of falling glass shattered against the floor. The piercing ring in his ears throbbed into a dull ache as he shook the glass from his cloak then peered around the pews to search for the pesky Foxes.
The scent of brimstone hit his senses, and Nero whipped his head towards the altar and the visage of Lafeara’s Saintess, Harmonia.
“Nero?” Alden called hesitantly from beneath the glass-covered pew.
Nero ignored the priest as a shadow stretched across the chapel floor towards him, and the pure-blood witch appeared.
Twin serpents of fire spiraled around the witch’s arms and melted the broken glass edges of the arch window he levitated within. The hellfire spread along the stone frame, illuminating the blue mask that covered the witch’s face. The ghoul’s eerie grin and sinister black eyes focused on Nero with murderous intent. The flame serpents swelled in size and snapped in the witch hunter’s direction hungrily.
“Oh—Holy Fuck!” Alden whispered as he crawled out from beneath the pew behind Nero.
“Alright,” Nero growled as he unclasped his torn, red cloak and let it fall to the floor. He stood, and the scarlet armor he wore underneath flickered awake as it reflected the pure-blood devil’s fire magic. “This one might be a problem.”