Chapter 86: A Baptism of Fire

Nero had traded blows with death on more than one occasion and crawled his way back from the grave. No matter what public visage a witch hid behind, the dominating scent of their magic was like a drug the church’s hounds had been bred to sniff out and track down.

Powerful and dangerous, chosen and gifted, each witch was born fully capable of twisting the world to their will.

And yet all witches paled in terror and anger when faced with the witch hunter’s scarlet armor—the color of the church’s conscripted warriors, each trained by legacies of witch killers. They might have been born as half-witches, as failures, but the Pope had forged them into the witch coven’s worst nightmare.

If normal humans were mortals, then a witch hunter was half-mortal. By the Pope’s decree, they existed to quell the unholy magic that had brought them into this world. The same magic that rejected them at birth now bent to their will through magical tools crafted by the Second Saint. Gems and enchantments forged into rings, armor, weapons, and even their cloaks. All to ensure a witch hunter lived long enough to accomplish his mission and slay the church’s nemesis.

The priests were but a leash meant to keep the hounds in check, but Nero was used to fighting alone. He preferred it that way. Priests who stuck around to watch him defeat powerful witches tended to end up in coffins. Most knew better than to risk their lives when faced with a coven witch, even if they were confident in their witch hunter’s abilities.

But this was no coven witch. This pure-blood’s aura was stronger than any Nero had ever witnessed. It was even comparable to that devil he had hunted decades ago with his mentor.

But there was something wrong with the magic that enveloped this witch. Instead of flowing like a tide or stream, it crashed and writhed against itself as if two wills were at war within the pure-blood’s body.

It could only mean one thing, something that just might give Nero an edge. This witch had a weakness—this pure-blood lacked control and training.

Almost all pure-bloods were raised within the protective confines of their coven. The more powerful a pure-blood, the more ferociously the coven would fight to protect them. After all, a pure-blood was the only weapon the coven could wield against the church or other covens.

But this pure-blood had grown up without a coven and that weakness was a flaw Nero was determined to exploit.

A cross-bolt smacked into the front of his chest armor. Nero hissed with irritation as he glanced towards the pesky foxes that slinked behind whatever cover they could find. He would deal with them later.

Never take your eye off a witch, pure-blood or not,” his mentor’s training reverberated through him as Nero ripped the arrow free, and barely noticed the small chink it left in his armor.

The pure-blood levitated over the casket, and the cowering woman beneath it, down to the church floor. Flames hissed awake beneath his black leather boots the moment the witch touched holy ground.

Nero was not surprised to see the pure-blood unphased by this. ‘His magic would have weakened the moment he crossed the threshold if this were an ordinary coven witch.’

“We have a score to settle with you, witch hunter,” the pure-blood whispered. His words, laced with a dangerous tension, awakened the flames at his feet, which writhed and spiraled across the floor like disembodied hellspawn scorpions. They surged across the carpet towards the witch hunter, leaving a trail of flame behind them.

Nero yanked off his glove and whispered against the pearl ring on his right hand. ‘Fustibus saxisque.’ With a sharp movement of his hand through the air, the enchantment ripped the chapel aisle carpet into shreds as a protective wind barrier spun around him and lifted the witch hunter off the floor, out of the scorpions’ reach.

The hellspawn hissed and circled below. Their fiendish shapes morphed back into flame as they climbed each other and piled above the floor towards him. Soon enough, they formed a mound that reached the edge of the barrier beneath the witch hunter’s feet.

Nero didn’t want to know what would happen if they broke through the wind barrier and reached his body. He had seen a hunter eaten by earth bugs before—It was not a fate he envied.

“Is that the best you can do, witch hunter?” the pure-blood called out mockingly as he strode through the flames towards Nero. The twin serpents, coiled around his arms, snapped out and ate the hellspawn scorpions. The flame serpents appeared to grow larger with every gulp.

In the pews to the right of Nero, Josiah squealed in terror and backed away from the crawling flames as the hellspawn climbed hungrily over the wood and cushion. The nobleman scrambled over Judith, ignoring the pale young woman’s feeble protests as she clutched her stomach and struggled to rise.

“Excuse me!” Mercy called out with shrill authority behind the pure-blood. “But could you please take all this chaos and destruction outside?”

“Take the living and go, Abbess,” replied one of the foxes. The man moved confidently towards the chapel doors, his gray mask streaked with red, distinguished him for the rest of his skulk. “We’ve come for the witch hunter, but if you stay, you’re welcome to die with him.” The Fox Master yanked the doors closed and turned to face the Abbess. “Best if you went out through the back entrance—quickly now.”

“Nero,” Alden called out anxiously from the edge of the pews.

“Leave, Father,” Nero ordered coldly. “You’re a hindrance to me here.”

‘I can’t fight a devil with an arm tied behind my back.’ Unleashing his ice-magic in front of the priest guaranteed the runt’s death—not that Nero had a problem with that.

“We weren’t supposed to engage with this witch!” Alden hissed with a nervous glance at the pure-blood.

‘So you guessed his identity as well?’ Nero grunted. ‘Then again, rumors of the Emperor’s pure-blood bastard lurking about Lafeara had been circling for about a year now.’

“Well, the brat came looking for me, didn’t he?” the witch hunter replied as he rolled his neck from side to side.

‘The question was—why did the pure-blood come looking for me? Does this have something to do with the ice-witch hiding in Lafeara?’

In most cases, several units of witch hunters were required to take down a pure-blood. Even then—Nero’s last experience with a pure-blood had ended with most of his comrades skewered on ice spears like pigs or torn apart by wolves.

Even if this pure-blood was untrained, the moment the bastard lost control of his magic, the fight would be over for Nero and everyone else in this church.

The odds were not in his favor—and yet Nero could barely restrain the hungry grin that twitched at the corners of his mouth, impatient for the gallery to clear and the real performance to begin. ‘Let’s see if you’re half the witch the Emperor is, brat.’

“Going up against a pure-blood on your own is suicide,” Alden hissed, with what might have been a hint of worry. When Nero gave no reply, the priest shook his head and headed to where the Abbess stood, guiding the nuns that had escaped the choir loft above, and the nobles, who had abandoned their hiding spots, towards the back exit. “Saint’s blessing on you then, Nero.”

Fuck the Saints.’ Nero grinned as he touched the jewel at his chest hidden beneath his scarlet armor. ‘I have the Witch Star.’

The red-head and her fiancé, followed by Father Alden, quickly scurried after the nuns towards the exit. Josiah bolted after them just as Helena came out from her hiding spot beneath her dead son’s coffin and dashed around the front pew. The pair collided, and Helena slipped and fell on her side against the fallen glass scattered across the floor. Even from a distance, Nero heard the noblewoman whimper in pain.

“Stupid bitch!” Josiah hissed before he continued towards the exit.

“Josiah!” Helena sobbed angrily after him.

“Take my hand, Lady Helena,” Mercy said patiently as she knelt beside the fallen noblewoman and helped her to her feet.

Helena struggled to stand and clutched her side, where a small stream of blood flowed from her waist and blended into her dark mourning dress.

“No, don’t-don’t touch it!” Mercy pushed the noblewoman’s hand away from the glass protruding through her ribs. “Let us—leave first.” The Abbess supported Helena on her uninjured side, and the two women made their way slowly towards the back door. Two Foxes slid over to guard the exit behind them.

“They’re gone now!” a Fox in the choir loft above called out impatiently. “Let’s roast this cocksucker!”

Nero chuckled at their optimism but kept his gaze focused on the Emperor’s bastard.

“Keep your distance from him,” the pure-blood growled in warning. “And stay out of my way!”

‘Interesting, so you’re an ally of the Fox Den?’

“Fuck this witch! And fuck you too, Ghost, you witch-bastard!”

Nero followed the sound of the voice and spotted the Fox as he emerged over the rail of the choir loft, with the witch hunter in the crosshairs of his mahogany steel crossbow.

Nero flicked his wrist in the pest’s direction. A blade of ice hissed through the air as the bolt launched free of its string. The cold weapon penetrated the thug’s throat just below his mask while the cross-bolt screeched to a halt and shattered as it hit the wind barrier around the witch hunter. The Fox gargled incoherently as he dropped his weapon, then collapsed and toppled over the loft rails where he landed with a thud between the pews below.

“Pulchritudo dolore.” The witch hunter spun in a dance as a thousand ice daggers splintered from his fingertips and spiraled out through the wind barrier across the church, piercing stone, wood, flesh, and bone. Two more foxes fell as their comrades hastily sought cover.

The pure-blood’s flame serpents crisscrossed over the witch’s body, deflecting and swallowing any attack that came within range as the pure-blood drew his sword. The witch steel ignited with flame at a single touch.

‘Three down, six to—no wait.’ Through the frozen mist that obscured his vision, Nero watched one Fox rise sluggishly from the floor with his left hand pressed to the side of his bleeding neck, his right gripped a gun aimed at the witch hunter.

The flint spark ignited, but the bullet’s path glowed like a torch as it sluggishly crossed the wind barrier. The witch hunter dodged it effortlessly. “Children shouldn’t speak when the adults are talking,” Nero snickered and finished the Fox off with an ice dagger through his right eye. “So the Emperor’s bastard goes by Gho—”

Nero realized his mistake just as the pure-blood’s flaming sword crashed against the wind barrier four inches from his face. Glowing veins of power spread across the screeching wall of wind and barely gave Nero a chance to dodge the attack as the barrier shattered, and he dropped towards the waiting hellspawn below.

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