Chapter 94: The Rot of Power

The nuns cackled as they tore into their feast and drank the red fluid in their goblets that looked suspiciously like blood—but could have been wine. Nero remained perfectly still as he watched them feed like a pack of hungry wolves. The sight made all the more unpleasant by the splatter of grease and other fluids that stained the nuns’ religious robes.

“Don’t let a little bit of cannibalism put you off,” Mercy commented as she lifted a human eyeball from her plate and dropped it between her plump scarlet lips. She chewed for a moment and then swallowed. “There’s no better way to see through a man’s lies than to eat his eyes.”

Nero tried to take a breath without actually breathing in the depravity around him. Cannibalism was not a common practice among witches. It was thought to have been all but extinguished in the purge of the old world. Occasionally though, the church would get reports on some rabid covenless witch, hunting and consuming human flesh. Those were usually the easiest to track down and burn since they were ostracized and lacked a coven’s protection.

But sitting at a table with an entire coven of cannibal witches was beyond blood-chilling. With his right arm gone and the Witch Star unstable, Nero was feeling unpleasantly mortal.

In the old practices of witches, cannibalism began as a means of stealing another witch’s powers. Wear the bones of a wind witch, and one could fly. Drink the blood of a water witch to control the weather. Eat the heart of an ice witch and live for a thousand years. Consume the flesh of an earth witch, and gain the strength to tear apart mountains and topple palaces.

It was the witches’ insatiable greed for power that had led the second Saint to create the Witch Star. A jewel forged from the heart of an ancient dragon that could steal a witch’s powers. Naturally, the process of draining their powers still killed the witches; but no form of cannibalism was involved.

And because half-witches were born with magic they themselves could not use, they were often viewed as a stepping stone to gaining power. In the old days, a child born as a half-witch was reared like livestock to be slaughtered. A tradition viewed as a necessary sacrifice to wean out the weak and strengthen the coven.

There was, however, nothing to be gained from eating a mortal—at least as far as Nero knew. He certainly had no intention of eating anything served upon this table.

Mercy chuckled at his discomfort. “What’s wrong, witch hunter? Cat got your tongue? You have questions, I can tell. Speak.”

“Why kill the priest?” Nero blurted out.

“Mmm, the same reason you came to kill him, I suppose,” she replied with a shrug. “We didn’t want Father Alden tattling to Jericho about what he had witnessed. The last thing our coven needs is the Pope of Zarus interfering with Lafeara. Fooling mortals is one thing—” she waved a hand dismissively “—even a witch hunter can be tricked if you’re clever enough.”

‘She certainly had me fooled.’ Nero admitted reluctantly. “But the eyes of the Pope would see right through you.”

“You more than anyone should know this,” Mercy commented dryly. “I have to admit; I’m surprised Jericho hasn’t figured you out yet. To think the Pope and Emperor have searched nearly two decades for the Witch Star and all this time, it was in the hands of some lowly church hound.” Mercy folded her hands together as she leaned across the table towards him with interest. “Just how do you keep your stolen powers hidden from the Pope?”

“I’m not the first witch to fool him,” Nero answered vaguely.

“Hmm, yes—that old hag,” Mercy muttered sourly. She picked up the second hazel-green eye and chewed it thoughtfully. “I suppose that frigid bitch taught you a few of her secrets before sending you off to the Church.”

Nero smiled tightly but offered no reply.

Mercy snorted in amusement. “Well, this isn’t much of an exchange. Perhaps I should be eating your eyes instead.”

The nails of his left hand dug into the armrest as Nero cleared his throat. “Why not just give us the ice witch? Surely that would eliminate any potential risks for your coven.”

“And let such a rare and precious lamb slip through our fingers?” Mercy laughed, though Nero detected a hint of bitterness in her eyes.

“One way or another, Jericho will learn the priest is dead. He will send more witch hunters to investigate,” Nero prodded curiously.

“And what were you planning to do after killing the priest? After killing all of us as you intended to do a moment ago when you walked through those doors?” Mercy offered an amused smile. “We have our own plans for the ice witch. As for the priest—what’s left of him will be sent back to Zarus soon enough.” She leaned back and studied him over her goblet. “But, shouldn’t a person in your position be more concerned about what we will do to you?”

Nero did not like the tone or the look in her eyes. “And what do you plan to do with me?”

Mercy’s teeth gleamed with malice. “What should we do to you? The pretender. The malignant betrayer. The half-witch who killed the Phoenix.”

The sound of ripping flesh ceased as the nuns all turned their hostile gaze towards Nero. The witch hunter tensed but focused on Mercy as her perceptive gaze lowered to the Witch Star beneath Nero’s cloak.

“It’s not often that a half-witch presents themselves so willingly to our doors,” Mercy murmured with a cat-like smile. “Let alone one bearing such a rare artifact.”

The Witch Star hummed as Nero lept to his feet with an ice spear in hand. The chair clattered to the floor behind him as he froze, surrounded by over a dozen sharpened dinner knives that hovered inches from his face and body.

“Sit. Down,” Mercy commanded coldly. “I could kill you with a snap of my fingers if I truly wanted to.” She glanced down at the witch hunter’s ice spear, which vibrated between pale pink and sky gray. “Bit off more than you can chew, didn’t you?”

Nero grit his teeth as the chair flipped upright behind him. With a painful gasp, he released the spear that splashed against the floor below, then sank slowly into his seat. The knives returned to their place beside the nuns, who happily resumed their grotesque meal.

“Good hound,” Mercy murmured with a mocking smile. She raised a single finger in his direction then moved her fingertip with elegant purpose. The Witch Star slid free of his cloak and hovered before the witch hunter’s electric-blue eyes.

Nero growled as he snatched it back with his left hand.

“Is that how you did it, half-witch? You drained the Phoenix and other witches of their magic and killed them to make yourself a cheap imitation of a coven-witch?”

Nero ignored the murderous glares from around the table. “My transformation was by no means cheap.” He could see the hunger in Mercy’s gaze that lingered upon the jewel in his fist. “If you want it that badly,” he taunted. “Come and get it.”

Nero might not be able to take on a pure-blood, but he’d be damned if he let a coven of cannibals use him as a snack. They were not likely to let him walk out in one piece either way. His grip on the Witch Star tightened as he focused on the air around him and waited for an attack.

Mercy broke her gaze and stared down into her goblet with a sigh. “No,” she declined with a note of disappointment. “I won’t kill you for that cursed artifact. I may want you dead as much as any witch here—but your fate has already been decided. The foul stench of your magic tells me you will be dead in a month, if not sooner. But then I suppose you knew that already, Witch Killer.”

Nero swallowed and took in a slow breath. “Is this some sort of witch pity?”

“Pity?” Mercy chuckled and arched her brow. “You have no idea what’s in store for you? The cost of stealing all that magic. You traded your soul for power, and now your body rots from within.” Her repulsed gaze settled once more on the Witch Star. “Your demise will be agonizing and endless as befits your crimes. The only reason a half-witch like you even lasted this long is the ice magic you inherited from your bitch mother.”

“Leave her out of this,” Nero growled as he tucked the Witch Star inside his tunic.

Mercy offered a crooked smile. “The old queen will get what’s coming to her soon enough.” She drank from her goblet and licked her lips slowly. “I have been told to allow you to leave here alive—” she explained bluntly, “—but you are forbidden from returning to Lafeara ever again.”

‘Is she toying with me now?’ Nero cracked a smile. “Forbidden by who?”

Our King.” Her voice echoed across the table as the crows above fluttered and cawed anxiously.

“King?” Nero scowled in confusion. “Do you mean—Prince Nicholas?”

Mercy sputtered out a dark laugh that vibrated against the chapel windows. “A mortal?” she asked with a sneer. The nuns cackled maliciously and then returned to their feast.

Nero inhaled sharply as her meaning became clear. Witches only chose a king when a pure-blood strong enough to control multiple covens had appeared. The last Witch King to have risen this way was the current Emperor of Ventrayna. “Who then?”

‘Perhaps this information just might save my skin—then again, why is Mercy even telling me this?’

Mercy offered him a pitiless smile and shook her head. “Pray you never find out, Witch Killer.” She flicked her fingers towards the dining room doors. They opened with a bang as the nuns around the table stopped eating and focused their dark eyes on Nero.

“It’s time for you to leave, Nero the Witch Killer,” Mercy ordered as she rose from her seat. “Set foot in Lafeara again, and our Coven of Crows will happily tear your cursed body limb from limb.”


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