Chapter 93: A Feast of Crows
The pure-blood’s magic, trapped in the Witch Star, kept Nero warm even as the deluge continued to blur out the road before him, what little of the road he could see. Five inches of rain had made the road and the fields around it all but indiscernible. Only the scattered stone walls and wooden posts offered any guidance through the vast flowing water. The pinto stallion he had taken off an unfortunate elderly gentleman fleeing the storm, bucked its head unwillingly.
“Damn beast,” Nero snarled and hissed as another wave of pain shot out from the throbbing stump of his right shoulder. “Keep—moving!”
He had beaten most of the spirit out of the animal when it had tried to buck him off shortly after Nero had left its owner in a ditch. Even now, the spiteful beast still glared at him with its ears pinned back. Nero grinned as he summoned another ice needle and jammed it into the horse’s flank. That got the pinto moving, though it almost unseated Nero in the process.
This would be much easier if he were a wind witch. Those temptresses could seduce man or beast with a single word. They were also notoriously tricky to find and even harder to track given they could control their scent far better than most.
Nero doubled over against the saddle as another wave of pain flared down his back and stump where his right arm should be. “Mercy’s Tit!”
He did not have time to be thinking about witches. Not with Father Alden scurrying back to Zarus to spill Nero’s secrets to Pope Jericho.
‘There’s no way that spoiled runt made it past the border in this storm.’
The pinto’s owner not only provided Nero with a mount for his journey but also information about a priest that had ridden by the man earlier with “great haste.” Nero very much doubted any other priest would be out in this storm heading towards the border. He was not at all surprised Alden had taken the same route they had both traveled on their way to Lafeara.
‘Runt probably assumes I’m dead already.’
A flicker of light appeared through the dense curtain of rain ahead, and Nero urged the pinto forward. They came upon a river that had burst and washed away road, fence, and field. With great reluctance, given how hard it was to mount this stubborn animal with one arm, Nero dismounted and approached the churning dark water.
“Immortalitatis potential,” Nero called out as he spread his left hand over the river. The pinto bucked nervously behind him as ice glowed eerily across the surface of the river. Instead of its normal pale-blue color, this ice was a coral pink. Nero dropped to his knees with a quiet cry of pain as he clutched his throbbing right shoulder. “Damn it. It’s too much—” he hissed through his teeth.
The pink ice stopped before it reached the other side of the drowned road. Then it broke into chunks beneath the vengeful tide that quickly carried it out across the flooded field.
‘Too much fire.’ Nero laughed at the irony. He wound his left hand around the pinto’s reins and pulled himself back up. Whether from weariness or pity, the beast stayed still long enough for Nero to hoist himself back into the saddle awkwardly.
“Neither of us wants to do this, but I need to get on that side of the road,” the witch hunter growled. With a quick kick to the pinto’s flank, Nero urged the stallion down into the flowing stream. Water rushed quickly up over the witch hunter’s knees, then climbed his chest. The pinto’s ears twitched wildly as it raised its head and neck above the swirling tide.
The river pushed them slightly off course, but the stallion never lost the ground beneath him and soon waded up onto the other side. Ignoring his waterlogged boots and muddied garments, Nero clicked his tongue and pointed the pinto towards the town in the distance.
The guard post was vacant, no doubt due to the storm, but the dull echo of a bell, which swayed in the gale’s breeze, pulled Nero’s attention towards the bell tower and the building beside it he instantly recognized as Averly Chapel.
“Quaerite et invenietis,” Nero murmured. The garnet stone on his left hand hummed, and he felt its matching partner, hidden inside Alden’s belt, flicker awake within the chapel walls. “Found you, priest.”
He hadn’t expected to use the tracking gem. Alden was little more than a spoiled noble brat who couldn’t inherit his father’s estate or run a business, and thus took on the robes of a priest. Still, if Nero had learned one thing while hiding his powers within the Witch Hunter’s Order, it was that even a harmless crow can become a menace when provoked.
He slid around back to the chapel’s stables and led his horse inside. The pinto’s hooves echoed on the wood floorboards beside Nero’s squelching boots as he guided the stallion into an empty stall and tied it to the doorpost. The stallion shook itself and fed from the hay tied up in fishing nets in the corner.
Nero returned to the open stable door where he studied the lights of the chapel. It was easy enough to determine which side would hold the congregation and prayer rooms and which section was used to house and feed the resident sisters.
A scuffle of feathers snapped Nero’s attention to the rafters above, where a cluster of crows nestled together on the beams. Their dark, judging eyes gazed down at him with a contempt that sent a chill down his spine.
Nero scoffed as he pulled up the hood of the cloak he’d also snatched from the pinto’s owner. He pulled it about him as best he could to hide the disheveled state of the tattered red tunic beneath. Then he slid back out into the storm and slunk through the pouring darkness towards the chapel.
The bell boomed loudly through the incessant rain. Nero hastily pressed himself against the wall beneath a stain glass window and grimaced as he bumped against his right shoulder. Beyond the glass, he could hear the murmur of women as they passed by, heedless to his presence.
That would be the evening bell, which meant the sisters were heading to supper. Nero continued his crouched approach until he reached a side door. He tested the handle and wasn’t at all surprised to find it unlocked. Religion and faith made people do crazy things.
The hallway that opened before him was empty and oddly quiet. Nero was accustomed to churches that were always filled with the sounds of prayer or hymns. He considered it a game played by members of the cloth, to prove who was more devoted.
He dismissed the silence as the result of the turbulent storm outside and crept further along the hall. The loud squelching of his boots soon stopped him in his tracks. Nero looked down at the muddied footwear and the dripping trail of rainwater that pooled around him and sighed. He was tempted to remove the waterlogged boots but shook the thought away as he headed purposefully towards the center of the four hallways. If a nun did spot him, Nero could always use his witch hunter badge to forestall any suspicion until he found the priest.
The hall opened on one end to an empty congregation room. The statue of Saint Harmonia kneeling in prayer adorned the alter before the stain glass walls. Nero wiped the rain from his face as the memory of the pure-blood levitating through the broken glass frame flickered behind his eyelids.
A flutter of wings snapped his eyes open as a black crow settled upon the saint’s shoulder, its tiny black claws scraped her marble skin as it gazed at the witch hunter with intent curiosity.
Nero didn’t like the bird’s inky black eyes. They made him feel observed and uneasy.
The witch hunter turned and took the left hallway, which led to the back of the church, towards the dining-hall, kitchen, and the dormitories. He reasoned that if the sisters were all at dinner, then Father Alden would likely be with them.
‘What a pity.’ Nero adjusted the Witch Star’s chain beneath his borrowed cloak. After battling a dragon, massacring a handful of nuns felt cheap and beneath him. Still, as long as Alden was dead, Nero could shift the blame and any lingering suspicion to the other ice witch hiding in Lafeara.
He could hear the nuns through the closed dining room doors as he approached. Their voices filtered through the doors as the women laughed and chattered over their meal. ‘Defenseless lambs waiting to be slaughtered.’ Nero sighed even as a cold grin twisted across his mouth. Then he took two steps back, charged, and kicked the door open.
“Evening Sisters!” he called out as the nuns turned towards him with stunned wary expressions. Nero ignored them and scanned the occupied seats for Father Alden, his cold magic already forming a spear beneath his left hand.
The magic sputtered and died as his gaze focused on a platter laid out upon the table before him. The dish contained spinach leaves, herbs, fresh cherry tomatoes, and the severed head of a familiar priest. Father Alden’s empty eye sockets stared back at Nero over stitched purple lips.
“How thoughtful of you to save us the trouble of hunting you down, Witch Hunter,” a familiar voice called out from the opposite end of the table.
Nero glanced up sharply and blinked in disbelief at Abbess Mercy, who smiled mockingly back at him.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised! You’re not the only witch clever enough to hide in plain sight of the church,” Mercy added with a snort of disdain. A crow flew to her shoulder and cawed softly against her dark raven hair.
The once aged and prestigious Abbess was now much younger and dangerously beautiful. Her religious habit was gone, replaced by a black gown with a low neckline that complemented both her curves and the blood-red ruby necklace that glinted beneath the candle chandeliers.
“You—” Nero sucked in a breath as he eyed the nuns around the table warily. They all stared back at him with the same cunning grin. The doors behind him slammed shut. Magic whispered through the air, its invisible tendrils wrapped around the witch hunter’s remaining limbs and pinned him in place. On the beams above, a murder of crows laughed and leered down at the trapped witch hunter.
“Welcome to our coven, Witch Hunter Nero,” Mercy said with disturbing civility. The crow on her shoulder climbed up her arm as Mercy raised her hand. She whispered silently to the bird, which bobbed its head, flapped its wings, and flew towards a small open window in the corner of the room.
Only then did Nero realize the storm outside had utterly died out. “You—are you a sea witch?”
Mercy rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Have you ever heard of a sea witch this far inland?” She flicked her fingers through her hair and leaned back in her throne-like chair. “Come, Witch Hunter, why don’t you join us for a bite.” The red ruby at her bosom flashed. A chair slid free from the wall behind Nero before it took out his knees and carried the rigid witch hunter across the floor to the opposite end of the table. “That’s better, do dig in, there’s still plenty of priest left to finish.”
The magic released its grip on him as a nun shoved a plate of thinly sliced organs decorated with an ear in his direction. Nero swallowed down the unpleasant acidic taste in his mouth. He eyed the freshly prepared meat laid out upon the table. Despite the nauseously aromatic smell of the feast before him, another scent pervaded the room.
“You’re witches,” he stammered and cleared his throat. “All of you?”
“Mmm,” Mercy murmured as she licked a bit of sauce from her finger. “Last we checked.” The wind and witches laughed in his ears as Nero met Mercy’s dusk-blue eyes, and felt a quiver of fear run through him. “Now, don’t be rude. Would you like a bit of leg—or perhaps an arm?”