Chapter 88: A Spark of Chaos
Hellfire caressed Tristan’s black leather armor as he stalked through the flames towards the statue of the Saintess. The witch steel blade in his hand sparked and hummed as his magic channeled through it. He caught a glimpse of movement as Nero pulled his scarf up around his face.
Tristan scoffed. His personal expectations of witch hunters and subsequent disappointment aside, it was time to end this fight. The chapel was irreparably damaged. Two of his Shadow Guards had fallen to the ice witch’s blades, though Alex and the Foxes had fared much worse.
Even more concerning was the increased effort it took for Tristan to contain the violent destruction that thrashed within his core. The longer he tapped into this wretched magic, the stronger the beast became. Tristan had not forgotten the carnage of two years ago. The scars of that devastation still marked the craters where the evergreens of Wolfthorn Forest once grew.
From the corner of his eye Tristan saw Alex dance through the flames towards a column at Nero’s right. Tristan bit back a growl as he signaled the Fox Master to stay back, only to be ignored.
‘Damn it, Alex. How many more men do you want to lose? Stay out of this!’
Tristan was still furious he hadn’t realized the Fox Master’s cunning plan. Alex had tracked Tristan while the pure-blood had tracked down the witch hunter. Because none of the Foxes were witches or even half-witches, Tristan had not been able to sense their presence.
His original plan had been to lure the witch hunter away from the chapel and then execute him. That plan had gone out the window the moment Fox Lieutenants had shown up in full force and stormed the chapel.
‘Alex’s stubborn need for revenge is turning him into a reckless fool!’
“It’s too bad,” Nero taunted as he slowly rose and leaned against the statue for support. “To think a pure-blood would be forced to hold back on account of a few mortals.”
The hell beast sauntered between Tristan and the witch hunter. The creature shook its fiendish head; its lion-like mane rippled with flames while its lower body formed four separate limbs that burned and clawed the stone floor.
“Shame,” the witch hunter muttered with a hint of disappointment, “I thought I would at least get a glimpse of your full power.”
“They’re in the way,” Tristan admitted as he twirled the sword in his hand. The taut muscles of his body, charged by the power that coursed through his veins, were ready to spring into action. “But I don’t need to be at full power to defeat you.”
Nero laughed beneath his scarf. “Cocky words from a cocky prince bastard.”
‘There it is again.’ Tristan’s gaze narrowed as his grip on the sword tightened. “You keep calling me prince,” he observed and paused a few feet from the statue. “Do I know you?”
“Well,” Nero grunted as he slid down to sit at Harmonia’s feet. “Not officially. To be honest, I wouldn’t expect you to remember. You were what—five-years-old?”
“What?” Tristan snapped. A Shadow Guard moved to cut off the back exit to his left while the rest dispersed themselves to cover the windows unguarded by flames. Tristan raised his sword and leveled it against Nero’s throat. “What are you babbling on about?”
“Mercy’s Tit.” The witch hunter’s electric-blue eyes danced with fear—and something sinister. “I know it’s been seventeen years, but surely you still remember the night she died.”
Tristan’s throat constricted as the witch hunter cautiously raised his right arm.
Nero turned his hand over slowly to reveal a glowing sapphire gem tinged with red. “Does this jog your memory?”
The deep guttural growl of the hell beast filled the church even as Tristan’s senses went numb. ‘The North Star?’ He stared at the sapphire gem Queen Catalina had worn as a necklace. His sword arm trembled. ‘Why does he have—the North Star?’
The muffled sound of panicked voices roused five-year-old Tristan from his warm silk sheets and fur blankets. He picked up the lantern his mother had left on the bedside table, the metal art of rabbits, wolves, and deer danced like stars across the furniture and walls as he rubbed his heavy eyes and headed towards the door.
A scene of chaos filled his view as he entered the hall. Lafearian knights led his mother’s sobbing ladies-in-waiting down the hall towards the stairwell. The Queen’s chamber door stood half ajar, and the sound of a voice wailing could be heard from within. His father’s voice.
Tristan barely took a step from the room when a Lafearian knight snatched him up.
“Sorry, little prince. You can’t go there.”
Tristan twisted in the man’s firm grasp. “Put me down!” he shouted.
Electric-blue eyes stared into his. The knight’s cold smile sent a jolt through Tristan’s chest as the tiny hairs on his arms and neck stood on end. ‘I—don’t know this man.’
“Put his Highness down now!” The commanding voice of Colonel Durante filled the hallway as even more Lafearian knights jogged past the Commander of Lafeara’s Red Wolf Army. The knights took their position at either end of the hall and drew their swords.
Durante continued towards Tristan and the strange knight with one hand on his hilt, and two blood-red war hounds on either side. The wolf-like dogs snarled at the knight who held the young prince. The fear in Tristan’s gut coiled. He knew the hound’s wrath was directed towards the knight who held him. They had never growled at him before.
“Pardon, Colonel Durante,” the knight said tensely as he slowly, almost reluctantly, lowered Tristan to the ground. “I simply didn’t wish for him to wander off unattended or accidentally witness what happened to—”
“That’s enough,” Durante cut off as he scooped up Tristan and turned towards the Queen’s bedroom door. “Be brave, young prince. Your father wishes you to say your goodbyes now.”
The confusion that had clouded Tristan’s mind since waking slid away as the knights opened the doors before them. A woman lay dead on the floor with her throat slit, Lady Vanya, his mother’s trusted maid from Ventrayna. A knight hurriedly placed his cloak over the dead woman as Durante continued towards the curtains that obscured the Queen’s bed from the rest of the room.
Beyond those curtains, King Henri knelt beside the bed, his hands wrapped tightly in the sheet that covered Catalina’s arm.
“Your Majesty, I have brought the First Prince.”
Henri turned his blood-red eyes towards them and focused on Tristan for a moment before he dropped his gaze. “Come to me, son.”
Durante lowered Tristan to the floor. The young prince walked obediently to his father’s side; his gaze focused on the white lace handkerchief that covered his mother’s face. It did not move.
‘Why is her face covered? Why has father been crying?’
He knelt beside Henri on the floor because he didn’t know what else to do. The air smelt somehow foul and tainted. King Henri clasped his shoulder firmly than pulled him in for a tight hug. “I’m sorry, my boy. I promise I will find them—the ones responsible—and make them pay.”
“Say goodbye—sweet Catalina—your mother is dead,” Henri’s voice broke even as he pushed Tristan up to his feet and towards the bed. “We will burn her on the pyre at dawn, as was the custom—for her people.”
Tristan’s throat clenched as his lungs bled dry. He stared once more at the white lace that covered his mother’s face. He willed it to move but not a breath stirred beneath. He wanted his mother to sit up and laugh because this was all just a silly game.
“Say goodbye while her spirit still lingers!” Henri urged gruffly.
But Tristan didn’t want to say goodbye. He wanted to look behind the lace and see those lively, fiery amber eyes of Catalina open once more. Desire and fear channeled through his small limbs as he leaped onto the bed and pulled back the lace.
“Highness!” Durante cried even as Henri grabbed Tristan around the waist and yanked him back—all too late.
The nightgown was his mother’s—but the dry corpse that lay upon her pillow was not the Queen. Pale, withered gray skin and dull, lifeless eyes stared back over a mouth twisted into a silent, horrifying scream. A faint bruise circled her neck, and the sapphire gem, the North Star, his mother always wore was gone.
Henri crushed Tristan’s face against his chest with trembling arms. The world grew dark and cold as the King angrily shouted, “Take it out and burn it.”
But the flames could never erase such a memory that etched itself into Tristan’s mind, heart, and soul—and awoke his thirst for revenge.
“Shameful when you think about it,” Nero continued as Tristan staggered back. Light from the flames flickered against the witch hunter’s aged face, but those electric-blue eyes that stared back at him were as familiar as the cold smile that now twitched at Nero’s lips. “A powerful pure-blood witch like her taken down by a mere half-witch.”
“You—” Tristan grabbed at his own throat as the chaos inside him battled against the strained, snapping threads of his restraint.
“You must have wondered. How the Emperor’s cousin, the third most powerful witch in existence, could become so weak and die so tragically.”
Tristan retreated as the flames swelled around him. The hell beast lunged forward. The witch hunter rolled off the foot of the statue just before the hell fiends fangs ripped a stone foot from the Saintess’s figure.
“Mother—was never—weak,” Tristan wheezed. Sweat poured down his back and chest. The ghoul mask that covered his face seemed to suffocate him. His body was too small, too tight. Kritanta’s magic, fueled by his anger, wanted to break free—even if that meant breaking him.
“Not before Catalina became Lafeara’s Queen. But then they started drugging her with aconitum after she became pregnant with you. It’s a mystery to me how you were able to resist the effects of the drug. Your magic should have been weakened and neutralized the same way Catalina’s was, long before Henri discovered what you were.”
“The Dowager has sent someone to poison you.”
Words from another life echoed through Tristan’s burning skull, and with them, the pain and anger he had smothered for the past two years roared awake as his hands combusted with scarlet flames.
‘I can’t—lose control. Not again.’
Tristan turned his gaze towards Alex, but the Fox Master’s attention was focused on something above the pure-blood. Tristan glanced up towards the dark wisps of gaseous cores that vibrated and sparked as they flickered into view throughout the chapel.
“Come on, Prince Tristan—you know you want to ask,” Nero taunted.
Despite his apparent bravado, Tristan could still hear the fear in the witch hunter’s voice. The hell beast leaned against the pure-blood, and Tristan gripped its shoulder for support as he drew in a strained breath and snickered.
‘How many years did I question their excuses? How many times did their stories change? I always thought the Dowager could have been behind it—or even the Marquess—and yet the real killer’s face stood before me the very night she died.’
“Your Highness!” the Shadow Guard by the back exit interjected. “Forgive me, but the North Star has another name. It is also called the Witch Star, and it can be used to drain a witch, even a pure-blood, of their powers.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Nero confirmed with an almost casual grin. “And if Catalina had only given it to me willingly—I wouldn’t have been forced to use it on her first.”
Tristan exhaled sharply. The witch steel blade sparked and curled beneath his grip as his destructive magic eroded the weapon’s enchants. His grip went slack, and the twisted sword clanged against the chapel stone floor.
A match snapped in the back of his mind. A lace handkerchief ripped from Catalina’s face, and she smiled at him once more; before she withered and crumbled into ash and smoke. Tristan raised a shaking hand towards the blue ghoul’s mask. The flames at his fingertips burned through the metal even as he tore it from his face. The chapel before him was washed in red that matched the witch hunter’s scarlet armor. As the infernal devil in Tristan’s core ripped free, his mind, vision, and senses filled with the taste of brimstone and rage.
Above the sweltering fire that surrounded the pure-blood and his hell beast, witch sparks filled the air with high-pitched screams and then, one by one erupted.
Nero dodged the deadly acidic flames that rained down upon the Foxes and Shadow Guards and engulfed them with a single spark. The burning specters of men danced, screamed, and fell like charred timber within seconds. The red blaze consumed everything it touched as it spread over the choir loft and filled the pews below with rivers of flame.
“There you are, devil,” Nero crowed, even as the ice enchantments protecting his skin and armor evaporated. He sucked in a sharp breath and clutched his chest as the Witch Star drained away more life from him. Between the rising smoke and dancing inferno, he saw the Hell Beast in the center of the room melt into a liquid pool, then slide beneath the cracks in the floor.
‘An opening?’ Nero was doubtful, but there was only one way forward. He summoned an ice sword; the effort alone made him cough up blood.
A bullet smacked against his breastplate. Nero ignored the Fox Master as he moved behind the statue and cut through Harmonia’s remaining foot. The stone figure toppled forward towards the pure-blood and fell just short of the unmoving burning witch that no longer resembled anything human.
The devil growled as his burning eyes turned blood-red. “I will fucking kill you!” The inhuman voice echoed throughout the chapel as every flicker of flame hissed and writhed violently, then crawled back across the floor like serpents before they wove themselves in a protective barrier around the pure-blood.
‘That’s it. Lose Control.’ Nero ignored the scorching heat that burned down his throat and lungs as he extended the Witch Star in Tristan’s direction. ‘The faster your magic burns—the faster I’ll drain it from you.’
“Tristan, run you fool!” the Fox Master’s strained voice called out before the man doubled over choking beneath the toxic smoke and air.
The cursed jewel in Nero’s hand ignited with blue flames as it hovered at the end of his fingertips, desperate to feed. ‘Drink your fill. Drain him of every single drop of magic.’
A blade spun across the flames. Nero barely ducked in time. He turned just as the Shadow Guard screamed amidst the scarlet flames that devoured him from view.
The witch hunter refocused on Tristan and chanted, “Mortem in deos.”
The Witch Star’s pale blue tendrils spread like a web as it propelled towards the pure-blood.
A muffled gunshot whipped through the roaring flames and pinged against the menacing jewel, that flew off course, past the pure-blood’s protective barrier, and disappeared beneath the shattered burning pews.
“No!” Nero snarled in terror as he followed the path of the sapphire. He sprang after it, heedless of the flames that crawled their way up his torso. The scarlet armor cracked and splintered as Nero kicked aside the burning pews that stood in his way and scrambled towards where the Witch Star had fallen. ‘I can’t lose it now!’
A glint of blue caught his gaze, and Nero threw aside another burning pew. The unbearable pain of the flames against his skin faded as soon as his eyes fell upon the sapphire star that rested against the bloody remains of a woman’s burnt dress. Nero barely registered the dead woman’s scorched face as he snatched up the jewel.
Cold sweat filled the witch hunter’s gaze as he turned slowly to face the burning calamity that stood in the center of the church. Its massive body, formed of magma and fire, rippled with glowing red scales that spread across its wingless back, tail, and neck. The burning eyes that gazed at him from the devil’s terrifying visage were familiar, and yet Nero was unable to believe what his eyes now witnessed.
“Im-possible,” he choked as the dragon, only ever witnessed in the painted archives of the church, spread its vicious long fangs.
“Time to die—witch killer.”
Nero sprinted towards the nearest broken window. No Shadow Guards blocked his path—if any were indeed still living. Nero spared them not a second thought as he dove through the broken glass frame with blinded desperation.
The air resisted his fall as the dragon inhaled. Then the devil’s blast shattered the chapel’s stone walls behind Nero. Fire, melted glass, and mortar debris impaled the witch hunter’s back as the force flung him forward. The chapel’s stable rushed out to meet him, and his body slammed against the dense wooden barrier.
The Witch Star bounced from his numb fingers as Nero ricocheted against the ground and spun. The wind howled and whipped against his scarlet armor that fell away like dried, cracked clay. His ears bled with the shrill cries of hell as the world tilted and went dark beneath a bleeding sky.
Grim spectators of smoke slid across the smothered grass of the chapel’s back yard. The sapphire flickered just beyond the witch hunter’s reach. Its glowing blue tendrils rippled across the matted grass and dust as it taunted him with its alluring power.
The spinning world resettled, and Nero spit up blood and vomit. He crawled towards the cursed gem. Every inch of his body awakened with pain that drowned out any thought but the glowing sapphire before him. The last of his armor fell away as Nero collapsed, and with the remnants of his fading strength—reached out and clutched the Witch Star.
Magic burned through his skin, blood, and bones. The pure-blood’s power submerged him in unholy ecstasy as Nero’s drained core recharged, and his strength and stamina returned.
‘This much in a split second the gem could drain him.’ Nero laughed as he crawled to his knees then up to his feet. He turned warily towards the chapel. The decimated wall revealed only a torrent of dancing flames. “Fucking inbred devil,” Nero muttered as he clutched his throbbing head. “I should have killed you along with that pure-blood bitch.”
The air rippled with the devil’s snarl. Nero raised his gaze towards the dragon’s jaws that loomed towards him. The witch hunter thrust out the Witch Star instinctively and screamed as the monster’s fangs ripped through his biceps and tore away his arm and the Witch Star.
Fire crawled up the witch hunter’s sleeve as the dragon’s bloody fangs withdrew. Nero staggered back and fell. He smothered his blistered stump in ice magic and howled in agony as the burning pain crashed through his body in waves.
The dragon convulsed. It’s glowing red eyes momentarily flickered blue before it wretched up flame, black blood, and the Witch Star. The gem flashed as it skipped along the ground. The hellish monster shuddered as its body rippled and quivered violently. Scales gave way to flame that dripped and poured upon the earth as the beast roared.
The inferno inside the chapel reached towards the stumbling dragon and dragged the creature back into its fiery womb.
Nero saw his opportunity and ran towards the Witch Star. The moment his fingers touched the burning red gem, he screamed again as pain shot up his left arm. Yanking what remained of the enchanted scarf from his neck, Nero wrapped it around the gem and twisted it into a secure knot before he turned and fled.
He vaulted over the chapel yard wall then staggered as the wind sucked past him once more. An inhuman screamed ripped free from the depths of the burning chapel as it exploded and morphed into a portal to hell.
Nero wasted no time as he sprinted away, determined to put as much ground between him and Catalina’s son as possible. He wasn’t strong enough to take on a pure-blood that could transform into a living, fire breathing dragon, but he would be—as soon as he had that ice witch’s heart.