Chapter 89: A Trail of Destruction
The black-diamond signet ring flickered ominously against Percy’s knuckles as his fingers tightened around the crow cane pressed across his lap. ‘To think Constance would go this far to undermine me.’
The wind rushed against his ears as the turbulent sound of worried voices echoed through the lowered carriage windows. The diamond darkened. A hum of whispers filled the Earl’s ears with a soothing ancient tongue that calmed the storm raging within.
The carriage lurched, and Percy caught himself against the edge of the seat. A quick look out the window showed pedestrians clustered together with panicked white faces standing in the middle of the street. Percy turned, unclasped the small glass window at the back of his seat, and called out to the driver. “What is it? What’s happening?”
“My lord, there appears to be a fire.” Fear resonated in the man’s strained voice even as the scent of smoke floated in on the breeze.
“Stop the carriage,” Percy ordered.
The driver complied willingly, and the footman quickly moved to open the door. Percy stepped down and gazed across the crowd that jostled against each other as they pointed towards the tower of black smoke that filled the horizon with malicious dark clouds.
“That’s the direction of the Sister’s Chapel,” Percy muttered aloud. “Can you get us there?”
The driver looked down at him wordlessly and shook his head.
“With the streets this packed, it will be difficult,” interjected Captain Flint as he moved his horse beside the Earl and dismounted. “If the fire spreads, we could get caught up in the panic.”
“These people are already afraid,” whispered another mercenary as he observed the crowd.
“As well they should be,” Percy muttered. He glanced towards a crow that settled on the street post across the street. The black bird tilted its head as it listened to his whispered command than took flight, its dark shape soon lost in the darkening sky above.
“Is it witches, my Lord?” The footman asked even as his face went pale.
“I aim to find out,” Percy replied as he pulled on his riding gloves. “Captain, I’ll need to borrow a horse.”
“I suppose there’s no stopping you,” Captain Flint grumbled with a sigh. He signaled to one of his men who dismounted and led a white mare towards Percy.
The Earl nodded his head in thanks, mounted, and settled into the saddle as he surveyed the street. “Captain, half of your men with me, send the rest back with the carriage to ensure the Countess is safely escorted to Hawthorne Manor when she leaves the palace.”
The mercenary quickly split up his men, half of which helped block the street so the carriage could turn around.
“Right then,” Percy murmured as he leaned over the mare’s neck and whispered into the beast’s ears. “Let’s see who dares to burn my city.”
The dancing white beast quickly led the way forward as wind channeled through the crowd and a path cleared for the Earl and his men to ride through. Above the capital city, a flock of crows gathered, swarmed, and glided towards the unholy fire that blazed from the chapel.
A line of knights waited before them on the road, which led out of the capital. The senior knight rode towards them quickly and raised his hand. “This road is blocked, my lords. The way ahead is not safe.”
Percy reigned in the mare as he examined the olive-green eyes that peered at him over the purple scarf worn around the knight’s lower face. “You mean to bar my way?”
“By order of Knight Commander Quentin, all roads which lead to the chapel fire are sealed until the safety of civilians can be assured,” the knight replied firmly.
“The Knight Commander thinks he can command the Earl of Hawthorne?” Captain Flint retorted with a hint of sarcasm.
Percy smiled as the half-witch hastily dropped from his saddle and knelt.
“I have offended my lord.”
“What is your name?” Percy asked.
“Lieutenant Declan, my lord.”
“I am willing to forgive your ignorance, Lieutenant,” Percy replied with a dismissive wave. “As long as it stops here.”
“The Earl means, as long as you are not foolish enough to continue standing in our way,” Flint added as his hand shifted from the reigns to his sword.
“My lord means to investigate the fire?” Declan inquired as he rose.
“And aid any survivors that might still be trapped near the blaze,” Percy confirmed.
“Then I will not stand in your way,” Declan replied as he turned to the man behind him. “The Earl will go through!” The knights hastily moved aside while Declan offered Percy a salute. “Saints be with you, Earl of Hawthorne.”
“And with you,” Percy replied with one last curious look at the half-witch that had led the church’s dogs to Maura’s scent. “Half-blood.”
Declan stiffened in surprise. Percy tapped the mare’s flank lightly with his cane and she leaped forward eagerly. Flint kept pace beside the Earl while the rest of the mercenaries trailed steadily behind.
Smoke billowed like great whales across the opening countryside and soon obscured their vision and sense of direction. Percy stopped only when he caught the scent of brimstone. “Captain, best if the men covered their faces. This smoke is toxic.”
“Understood,” Flint replied over a muffled cough. “Though we appear to have lost a few of them in this dense mess.”
“I shall press on,” Percy said determinedly. “Keep your men together and don’t get separated. Getting lost in this smoke is dangerous. Follow the road, and you’ll find the chapel.”
“My lord?” Flint protested. “At least one of us should be with you.”
“You are slowing me down,” Percy snapped. “And others are watching over me.”
The mercenary captain nodded reluctantly and bowed his head. “Then please stay safe on your journey, my lord.”
Percy nodded as he tightened a neck scarf around his nose and mouth. With a little more encouragement, the mare raced forward; her white coat quickly shifted to a dark gray as the glowing light of the chapel came steadily into focus.
Crows fluttered in and out of the dark wall of smoke that encircled the burning rubble of the Sister’s Chapel. The wretched howls of the inferno within terrified the mare who bucked, twisted, and refused to get closer. Percy dismounted and covered her eyes with his stain neck scarf. With gentle hands and a calming whisper, he soothed the beast, then held a handkerchief around his nose and mouth before moving closer. The blind mare reluctantly followed as he led her forward on foot.
The chapel’s steeple appeared in the smoke before him, pierced upside down into the road. Percy circled it carefully as he took in the discarded rubble that still flickered with flame scattered half a mile in each direction.
‘What happened here?’
A crow swooped through the smoke to land on his shoulder. It whispered in his ear, and Percy nodded. He tied the mare to the steeple before he approached the blaze. Past the crumbled stables and burned mounds of dead horses, he saw burning jagged lines that had carved through the earth. Four deep, evenly spaced claw marks of a massive, terrifying existence.
‘Impossible. Unless—’ Percy knelt and held his hand over the charred ruts of earth. His signet ring flashed red. ‘Kritanta.’
A crow fluttered down and danced across the dry gray grass as it observed him silently.
“Survivors?” Percy asked without looking at the bird.
The creature bobbed its head and hopped onto his extended hand before it flew off once more through the smoke. Percy followed, his face and clothes becoming more ashen by the minute as he circled the inferno at a safe distance.
He retrieved the mare and continued across the matted, burned wheat field. ‘A whole year’s harvest gone. And these crops were put aside to feed the homeless. This will place another financial burden on the church and palace.’
A pitiful sight awaited him among the shattered remains of the chapel’s granary. The upper torso of Lafeara’s saint, minus the head, lay burning at its center. Nuns stood by numbly, some holding buckets of water, but most of the buckets were empty. One look at their defeated expressions, and Percy knew they had given up putting out the witch fire.
One of the sisters turned towards him. Her smoke covered face squinted then brightened with recognition. “Lord Percy!” She rushed closer as her sisters stirred from their disheartened state to greet him.
They knelt before him with tear-stained faces. The first among them to recognize him took Percy’s hand and kissed his signet ring.
“Where is the Abbess?” Percy asked gently.
“She is tending to the injured,” the nun answered as she and the other sisters rose to their feet. “There were civilians—”
“Who attacked us?”
“The priest of Zarus and his witch hunter came looking for Lady Maura’s family,” Abbess Mercy answered as she appeared through the veil of smoke. Like the sisters before him, her white habit was now ash-gray; and stained with quite a bit of blood.
“The Turnbells?” Percy turned towards her with a raised eyebrow. “Why were they here?”
“Lincoln Turnbell was to be buried this afternoon,” Mercy explained.
Percy sucked in a sharp breath as he stepped towards her. “You were giving that craven rat-spawn a burial—here—at our church?!”
“The sooner Lincoln was put in the ground, the sooner this witch investigation would be forgotten,” Mercy replied patiently.
“Or so you thought,” Percy snapped as he gestured to the fire and smoke around them.
Mercy sighed and looked down at her blood-stained hands. “I confess I did not expect the priest to follow my trail that easily—nor did I anticipate that the bastard pure-blood would choose to interfere.”
“A pure-blood?” Percy’s grip tightened on his cane. “Tristan.”
‘But Tristan shouldn’t be this strong. Not after years of being poisoned by aconitum. And the marks I saw beside the chapel—’
“I got the Turnbells and my sisters out of there as fast as I could,” Mercy continued wearily. “But Lord Josiah’s new wife is unaccounted for.”
Percy blinked at her in confusion. “His new wife?”
“Lord Josiah and Lady Helena were divorced early this morning. This afternoon he showed up at his son’s funeral with a new bride who used to be one of his slaves,” Mercy explained with a shake of her head. “She is either missing or dead.”
“Divorced, married, and widowed within a day?” Percy exhaled sharply. “How the Turnbell fortune has changed.” A sharp wail close by drew his attention, and Percy turned towards the sound. “They’re here, aren’t they?”
“My Lord,” Mercy protested even as she followed him to where two tattered blankets had been propped up and tied to the end of pitchforks to form a small half-tent enclosure. A young man and woman knelt over an older noblewoman laid out upon bloody sackcloth. The dead woman’s brown-hazel eyes stared blankly at the dirty canvas above her.
Percy almost didn’t recognize the scarlet haired young woman, coated from head to foot in soot, who wept as she clutched her mother’s hand.
“Another casualty,” Mercy murmured as she stopped beside Percy. “Lady Helena. A piece of glass pierced her lungs.”
Percy nodded mutely as he surveyed Maura’s dead mother. ‘Your death has finally freed her—for that, I should thank you.’
“It is a pity, I would have preferred to keep her alive,” the Abbess lamented with a weary sigh. Percy frowned but said nothing as Sophya continued to weep.
“Lord Percy?” whispered the young man beside the grieving daughter.
Percy studied the man’s darkened features for a moment, then nodded in recognition. “Lord Asher.”
‘So Sophya still managed to get her claws into you.’
The young lady stiffened when she heard his name and clutched Asher’s arm tightly.
Percy repressed a snicker as he left and moved to study the two bodies laid out beside the tent. “Who are these men?”
“I’m sure you’ll recognize them,” Mercy murmured as she knelt and pulled back the cloth that covered their faces. Steel black masks stared back at him, mangled and warped, but still recognizable.
“The Foxes were here?” Percy muttered in surprise.
“They came looking for the witch hunter.”
Mercy straightened and shrugged. “None left alive to ask, unfortunately.”
Percy exhaled slowly and knelt to examine the dead men’s masks, which had melted against their skin. “Were they all this color?”
“Were any of the masks gray?”
Mercy nodded. “Their leader. His mask was gray with red stripes.”
“And he’s dead as well?”
“As far as I know, he never made it out of the church.”
Percy smiled and nodded, satisfied. “Then the Fox Den is finished.”
“There are likely to be a few survivors who weren’t involved in the attack.”
“These black masks belong to their lieutenants. If the Fox Master himself came, you can be sure all his lieutenants did as well.”
“So essentially all your father’s killers have been wiped out,” Mercy murmured thoughtfully.
“Not all,” Percy replied as he stood. “But it looks like I’ll have to thank the Emperor’s bastard the next time we meet.”
Mercy chuckled as she hooked her arm around his. “I can always trust you to look on the bright side.” She sighed as she took in the burning granary before them.
“I’ll see to it your chapel is rebuilt,” Percy said as he followed her gaze. “And your granary and field repaired.”
“The sisters and I are grateful as always,” Mercy replied with a sly smile.
“What of the priest and his witch hunter?”
“Witch hunter,” Mercy spat. “A half-witch with stolen coven powers working for the church. Never thought I’d live to see such an atrocity.”
“So, he does have the North Star?”
Mercy nodded. “He wouldn’t have stood a chance against a pure-blood without it.”
“Did anyone else see it?”
“The priest may have caught a glimpse,” Mercy answered thoughtfully. “He was peeping through the windows up until the pure-blood went out of control. Took off without a word immediately after that.”
“Then the priest is on his way to Zarus.”
“It would be easy enough to stop him before he reached the border,” Mercy replied with a sinister smile.
“Best if he met with some misfortune before he can slip away,” Percy agreed. “Send word to your sisters.” He removed her hand from his arm. “It would be beneficial to our cause to keep whatever secrets the priest witnessed here in Lafeara at present.”
“I shall see to it personally, my Lord.” She smiled benevolently, curtsied, and then vanished into the smoke.
“Lord Percy!” The nun who had greeted him earlier rushed towards him. “Forgive me, but Lord Josiah is attempting to steal your horse.”
Percy let out a strained sigh. ‘Of all the Turnbells to survive.’ He motioned for her to lead the way.