Chapter 91: A Storm of Crows
Father Alden beat his horse without restraint. Beneath the darkening sky, his heart thundered as the rain clouds gathered in with the sinister flicker of lightning. The harsh storm winds raged and shoved beast and man about the road with distracting force. It whipped around his face, slammed against his chest, and fought his every breath.
Alden battled the wind and rebelling chestnut mare with one thought in mind. ‘I have to get back to Zarus. I have to warn Pope Jericho!’
What he had witnessed through the burning chapel window was bigger than any humiliation Alden would face for failing to bring down the ice witch. What his mortal mind struggled to comprehend—to accept as reality—even more terrifying than any punishment he might receive for abandoning his mission.
‘One of the highest-ranked hounds of the church—was a coven witch? And no one noticed? How?’
Alden thrashed the exhausted chestnut mare’s flanks with his whip as cold realization sank in with the first drops of rain. Nero had gone through seven priests over his lifetime of servitude as a witch hunter. Five of those priests had died pursuing wanted witches with the hound while the other two had requested a different witch hunter to work with.
The death of a priest was by no means an unusual occurrence; after all, witches could be notoriously crafty. Some willingly became hunters the moment a priest and his hound entered their domain. But most priests who died in combat were new and inexperienced—like Alden.
Judging from Nero’s history, these were the sort of priests he preferred to work with, and now Alden suspected he knew why.
Nero had come back from death’s door more than once with a priest’s body dragged behind him. Only the body of his first handler, Father Pallas, had been left unclaimed.
‘What if it was Nero who killed Pallas? What if he killed all of them for seeing what I have witnessed? For uncovering his secret?’
Ever since Nero had been assigned to help Alden hunt down the ice witch, the hound had proven difficult to control. After the trail went cold under Alden’s leadership, Nero had grumbled and complained until Alden, reluctantly, agreed to follow the hound’s experienced advice.
In the end, it was Nero’s suspicion of Lafeara church’s involvement in the cover-up of the noble’s death that had led them to monitor Lincoln’s body and follow it to the elusive Turnbell family.
‘But instead of the ice witch, we found that pure-blood bastard—and somehow Nero can use ice magic himself?’
The moment Alden had seen Nero summon his ice spear; the priest knew what he had witnessed. But it wasn’t until the witch hunter trapped himself and the pure-blood in that ice prison and survived—that Alden accepted what he had seen.
‘A coven-witch disguised as a half-witch?’
It was the only possible solution for the magic Alden had witnessed Nero perform, and yet—it was impossible. Nero had grown up in the church and lived around other half-witches for over two decades.
The rain pelted down in a deluge of suffering as it soaked Alden to the bone and made the path before him treacherous. The road, field, and evening sky blanketed by the storm clouds that billowed above, swallowed him in obscurity. Alden’s teeth clattered behind trembling wet lips. His hands on the reins grew cold and numb. Yet every time he closed his eyes to block out the drizzle, Alden saw Nero in his scarlet red armor, surrounded on all sides, fighting assassins, shadow guards, and a pure-blood witch.
It was when he had seen Nero, crouched behind the statue of Harmonia, pull the strange jewel from beneath his armor—that the answer to the hound’s hidden magical powers became vividly clear.
The star-shaped sapphire necklace was easily recognizable as the most coveted magical jewel in the history of the Saints. The cursed heart of an ancient dragon, capable of draining even a pure-blood witch of their powers—in the hands of a coven witch wearing the robes of the Witch Hunter Order.
‘Just what unholy conspiracy have I blundered into?’
The sight of that jewel had been enough to send Alden scrambling to his horse and racing away from the burning chapel like some whimpering pathetic little girl.
The history of the forbidden gods and the unholy magic they had gifted witches were all a part of his training as a priest. Once, the Witch Star had been the Holy Church’s most prized possession. The sacred tool crafted by the First Saint that had single-handedly turned the tide against witches and pushed them to the brink of extinction.
That was until the rise of Emperor Arius. A pure-blood fire witch, who, with his covens of desert witches, vanquished the Holy Army and stole the Witch Star through betrayal and deception. The conquered lands of Zarus had been transformed into the Witch Nation of Ventrayna. It’s previous citizens massacred or enslaved by the thousands. Many noble families that carried the last bloodline of the Saint’s had perished in the war that made Arius the first Witch Emperor in history.
The sacred order of Cardinals barely managed to escape persecution with the sickly son of the assassinated Pope in their care. Jericho, last prince of Zarus, and now its current Pope, remained in exile in the Holy City. The one place no witch dared to tread. The Holy City’s sacred grounds, blessed by the first Saint, was the final resting place of three saints and nine Popes.
With Zarus all but crushed, the Emperor turned his forces to subjugating the neighboring kingdoms. With fire and steel, Arius forced the kings of Tharyn, Lafeara, and Strugna to kneel before him or perish. Witches, who had lived in fear of the church, flocked beneath the banner of the Burning Scorpion. Lafeara was the first kingdom to cave before the Witch Emperor’s forces, followed swiftly by its long-time ally Strugna. Tharyn had a long history of enmity with the Holy Church but refused to bend the knee. It was only after Arius rained fire upon the ancient temple of their dragon god that they unwillingly accepted him as their Emperor.
The Witch Star remained Arius’s prized war trophy for many years. It was renamed the North Star when he presented it to his favored cousin, Lady Catalina, as a wedding gift before she became Queen of Lafeara.
Pope Jericho had made it his mission to reobtain the Saint’s jewel, but with Catalina’s marriage, King Henri shut his doors to the church and its witch hunter order. But then five years later, without warning, Catalina suddenly died, and the Witch Star disappeared. Naturally, the first person Arius suspected of killing his cousin and stealing the jewel had been the Pope.
“So why does that bastard have it?” Alden whipped the mare harder. The beast groaned in agony as it struggled to breathe against the strangling winds. Lightning flashed above, and the ominous rumble of thunder quickly followed. In the storms fading light, a dark cloud that covered the horizon before them suddenly shifted and seemed to loom closer.
The horse stumbled and snorted in panic as the buzzing drone of a hundred wings drowned out the sound of rain. With a startled cry, Alden raised his arms as a swarm of crows crashed against him. The mare shrieked in pain as the black devils ripped at her face and neck with deadly talons.
Buried beneath an assault of feathers and pecking beaks that jabbed through his robes and arms, Alden jerked the reins to the side, and the mare bolted into the blackness.
Angry squawks followed as sharp talons tore at the priest’s hood and ripped it free. The vicious creatures pecked and scratched his scalp, neck, and ears. Alden swung his whip towards them widely and screamed as a talon nearly ripped out his right eye.
Blinded by the pain, Alden buried his face against the chestnut mare’s mane and desperately kicked the stumbling beast with his feet. The road vanished in a storm of black feathers and blood. The mare screamed beneath the swarms’ assault as they continued their savage barrage on her face and tore out the beast’s eyes. She reared and tore heedlessly through the shadowy plane around them.
And then, as suddenly as the swarm had converged, they scattered. Alden looked up as a fence appeared in the field before them. His lungs slammed against his chest as the mare hit the center post with a smothered cry of pain. Then they tumbled down into the wet grass and soggy mud.
Alden rolled free of the saddle and scampered away from the mare’s thrashing legs. He clutched his chest and pulled the dripping hood over his blood-soaked hair. One frightened glanced confirmed the swarm of feathery devils were not yet done with him. The crows circled above and descended as the priest pulled himself over the fence and ran.
A light glowed in the distance across the field of matted wheat. Alden’s chest heaved with effort as he lumbered towards it. The soaked earth below made each step heavier than the next, but his legs were fueled by fear and faith.
Blood ran down the priest’s face and blurred his vision as the storm continued to howl around him. The crows heckled and laughed as they swarmed and tore away pieces of him in turn. Another fence rose ahead of him. Alden clambered over it and fell as his damp robes twisted around his legs.
“Harmonia—protect—me!” His breathing was labored. His hands were numb from the cold and pain as he clawed his way back to his feet.
A village of lights came into focus as the road reappeared. Beneath the oppressive rainfall, Alden beheld the bell tower of Averly’s Chapel illuminated by the storm against the horizon.
“The Saints—have guided me,” Alden panted with relief as he stumbled onwards. The menacing presence of the crows lifted the moment he crossed the threshold of the village. ‘Sanctified ground—I’m saved!’
He might have wept for joy, but even faith could not quiet the fear that lurked in the dark night around him.
Lightning crackled through the angry storm clouds above as Alden fled towards the bell tower, eager to be indoors. His mud-caked boots thudded dully against the stone steps that led to the chapel’s front entrance.
Behind Alden, the crows settled onto the fence as they watched the pitiful priest beat his fists furiously against the sanctuary doors. Their dark eyes glinted over blood-stained beaks as the door creaked open, and the priest disappeared into the bright glow of safety.