Chapter 103: The Seed of Calamity
Nero’s clammy right hand tightened around the knife as the Witch Hunter clenched his teeth. He straightened his spine and stood a few inches taller than he had in days. As the numb opiate of fear washed over his rotting organs, momentarily dulling the pain, Nero’s mind sharpened with the gleeful anticipation of death that awaited him in this abandoned alley.
‘But not before I take one of these bastards with me.’
It had been by a mere fluke he smelled the witch earlier and noticed Ivy chasing the boy past him into this deserted corner of the market with boarded-up shops. He remembered the maid’s face vividly from their first encounter and the smell of the ice witch she had carried back then. Curiosity and foolish hope that she might lead him to the frozen heart he desired so desperately had driven Nero after the pair—and into two pure-blood water witches.
‘No, they’re more than that. They both reek of Arachne’s toxic magic. These must be what the church refers to as Arachne’s children.’
Benjamin curled his lips in a savage leer as his body swayed in an attempt to draw Nero’s gaze away from the water witch’s feet, but the one-armed Witch Hunter was no amateur. Water witches were trained in a fighting style meant to throw off their opponent. All Nero had to do was ignore the distraction and anticipate which direction his opponent was likely to attack from by analyzing the situation from Benjamin’s perspective. And it certainly made sense for the water witch to target Nero’s left side since the Witch Hunter had no weapon or arm to protect him there.
‘But I can’t ignore his magic either.’ Unlike Tristan, Arachne’s children wouldn’t care about innocent casualties. ‘At least with the festival ongoing, most people won’t bother to travel in this direction or notice the extra noise.’
“Come on then, brat,” Nero taunted as he summoned what little magic remained in the enchanted dagger he held. “Give me a good death.”
“Kneel and beg for it, Witch Hunter,” Benjamin replied as he pulled a vial from his trousers and poured venom-yellow liquid across his elongated fingernails. The excess toxin splashed onto the street, where it hissed and smoked as the cobblestone below eroded. “I’ll make it quick if you ask nicely.”
Nero took his eyes off the water witch for only a moment as he glanced towards the tentacle witch and her captured prey. He closed his eyes and pressed the hilt of his dagger against his lips as he muttered out a quick spell.
“Benjamin, even a one-armed Witch Hunter can be dangerous,” Jade hissed in warning. “Deal with him quickly.”
Her protégé narrowed his brown eyes and lurched towards the witch hunter. Benjamin’s body wove and blurred as the water witch shifted directions, slid past Nero’s swing, pushed off the corner of the wall behind the witch hunter, and then sprang upwards to land on Nero’s back.
Benjamin’s nails seared as they dug into Nero’s face and neck. The acid they had been coated with burned away at skin, muscle, and bone. The Witch Hunter growled, flipped over onto his back, and crushed the water witch beneath his weight. Benjamin let go with a faint grunt. Nero rolled and wobbled to his feet as pain burned from the dripping lashes across his face and blurred his vision.
A leg kick took out the Witch Hunter’s feet and slammed Nero onto his stomach against the pavement. Benjamin quickly rolled over onto the Witch Hunter’s back, and this time his poisoned fingers wrapped around Nero’s throat and dug into his flesh.
Nero rammed his dagger back towards the knee pressed against his ribs and smiled at the satisfying strangled scream of agony that erupted from the witch above him.
But Benjamin did not let go. Instead, he lifted Nero’s head by the neck and then slammed the Witch Hunter’s face down into the cobblestone again and again. The pounding in Nero’s ears bled into the burning pain of his face and vision. Benjamin yanked Nero’s right arm behind him and bit into the wrist that held the dagger.
‘Fuck this toxic devil bastard!’ Nero tightened his grip on the dagger and activated the defensive enchantment. A shrilling surge of wind blasted against Benjamin and hurtled the startled water witch through the air into the side of a wall.
Nero rubbed his already numbing right hand towards his bleeding neck as he crawled to his feet. The Witch Hunter glanced warily towards the tentacle witch, who appeared more focused on forcing something into Ivy’s mouth than the fight between Nero and her protégée.
‘What is that—an egg?’
His mentor’s old stories about the legends of water witches resurfaced in Nero’s muddled mind as Jade, Ivy, and the well all swayed and blurred before him. ‘Something about Arachne’s children taking over the shells of the living after they hatched inside of them.’
“Well, shit.” Nero glanced towards the rooftops around them, at Benjamin, who had risen to his feet, and finally at the dagger in his hand. “Fuck.”
The Witch Hunter wasn’t sure his plan would work, nor did he understand why he even cared enough to try, but as Benjamin sprinted back towards him, Nero shifted his stance and flung the dagger towards Ivy.
The tentacle witch howled in fury as the blade buried itself into the black egg. Yolk and the unborn monstrosity of clammy flesh dripped out of the broken shell. Benjamin snarled as he grabbed Nero’s arm and hurled the Witch Hunter across the street through a boarded-up window.
Nero crashed through the aged wood and dropped down against an old set of table and chairs. Wooden legs snapped beneath his weight and dropped the winded Witch hunter onto the floor, where he rolled over and vomited up black blood.
‘Get up!’ Nero growled internally as he blinked past the pain. He grabbed onto an intact chair and pulled himself upright as a shadow passed through the window behind him. Instinct made the Witch Hunter turn, flinging the chair he still held into Benjamin’s snarling figure.
The chair broke across the water witch’s raised arm. Benjamin lunged at Nero with all the ferocity of a crazed dog as both men tumbled to the ground. Nero barely registered the thud of the wooden floor beneath his head as the water witch’s teeth sank into his throat. With no weapon and only one arm, the Witch Hunter grabbed the nearest object he could find—a broken chair leg—and stabbed it into Benjamin’s ribs.
The water witch drew back and spat out Nero’s flesh along with a mouthful of black blood. Benjamin’s blackened teeth flashed before the Witch Hunter’s eyes as his vision blurred in and out of focus.
‘What a futile way to die.’
A painful, forceful exhale of air against his face pulled Nero back from the curtains of the underworld. Benjamin sat back on the Witch Hunter’s legs and grasped the spearhead sprouting from his chest with a confused expression. The sharp metal tip twisted and then yanked free as Benjamin gagged and turned slowly to the side to look back at his attacker, then dropped limply to the floor.
Nero cracked a weak smile as the shadowy, towering figure of a man with white hair and scarlet armor stared down at him.
‘You’re finally here—Ripper.’
Ivy was no longer sure if she was still living in reality or trapped in a nightmare. She barely recognized the one-armed Witch Hunter as he fought, rather poorly, against Benjamin. But she had never been more grateful for his presence than when his dagger shattered the egg Jade had been trying to force through Ivy’s clenched teeth.
The smell of the broken yolk was nauseating, but even more disturbing was the eel-like head and tentacle arms that slithered free from the broken shell.
‘Blessed Saints—if this is a nightmare—please let me wake up!’
She whimpered as Benjamin threw Nero through a boarded-up window. Then shrieked as Jade’s tentacles lifted her off the ground and hung Ivy upside down.
“A foolish act of heroism on his part,” Jade spat venomously. “I have more than one child waiting to be born. And you have more than one orifice by which to carry my spawn.”
Ivy swallowed a cry of despair as another black egg appeared on one of Jade’s many tentacles. The tentacle witch’s face loomed in with a vindictive, sickening grin as she wiped tears from the dangling girl’s cheeks.
“Oh, is there really any reason for you to cry? You’re going to become a mother,” Jade soothed as her tentacles tightened around Ivy’s legs and pulled them firmly apart. “Only this time—you won’t be able to murder your unborn child.”
“H-help! Help!!” Ivy shrieked as she kicked and twisted and sobbed and prayed for Nero, Percy, Maura—anyone to come and save her.
A sudden hiss froze the tentacle witch in place as the second egg broke, this time with an arrow spliced perfectly through its shell. Jade’s face twisted in an expression of rage and disbelief as her blazing jade-green eyes whirled towards the rooftops above them. Three cloaked figures jumped down around the well, their dark capes fluttering open to reveal the familiar scarlet armor Ivy easily recognized.
Ivy had never been happier to be surrounded by Witch Hunters in her entire life.
“I think it’s time you let her go,” one of the Witch Hunter’s called out calmly. “Unless you have more eggs you’d like us to crack.”
“It seems you’re not fit to be a mother after all,” Jade hissed. The tentacle witch held Ivy suspended in front of her while her twitching limbs squirmed around them, creating a defensive barrier. “But it is too soon to reap her tears now.”
Ivy’s confusion turned quickly to terror as Jade flung her prisoner towards a far building. Ivy closed her eyes and choked on a scream as her face and body slammed—not against a wall or cobblestone—but hard steel armor.
Howls of pain filled her ears as buildings spun around her, then a face shrouded by white hair filled Ivy’s vision.
The Witch Hunter who had caught Ivy quickly carried her to a street corner, where he braced her against a building wall. “Stay here,” he snarled, sharp teeth glinting far too close to Ivy’s woozy vision. She looked up into red eyes as the Witch Hunter turned, hefted his spear, and flung it past Jade towards the building where Nero and Benjamin had disappeared.
The image of the Witch Hunter sprinting after his weapon, white hair fluttering in the breeze as his hood fell down between his broad shoulders, was the last thing Ivy saw before she slumped to the ground in a faint.
“Ripper!” The tentacle witch slapped away spears and arrows as the albino Witch Hunter reclaimed his spear from her dead son and hopped back through the window to join his comrades.
“Arachne’s bitch,” Ripper replied with a mocking smile. “So which of her daughters are you? Or did she even bother to give you a name?”
“Foul swine,” the witch hissed as Jade’s mouth stretched to reveal the eel-like head hidden within. “Always interfering with fates that are none of your concern.”
“I’m a witch hunter,” Ripper replied with a leer as he tapped a hand against his scarlet chest plate that rippled with glowing red magic. “And you’re a witch—or close enough anyway. Even one of Arachne’s offspring should know better than to attack my men if you don’t want to face me.”
“One of yours?” the eel hissed out a mocking laugh. “I wonder how much longer your protégée will survive now that he’s given up his location to you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Ripper replied with a subtle sign to the spearman who had moved into the tentacle witch’s blindside. The Witch Hunter hurled his spear towards the witch’s exposed back but caught one of her tentacles instead as Jade blocked his attack.
“Well, as much as I would enjoy savoring each and every one of you—my mission is far from finished,” the eel snarled.
“And what mission would that be?” Ripper asked conversationally as yet another unsuccessful attempt from the bowman failed. Ripper’s red eyes narrowed as the tentacle witch glanced towards the building where Nero had fallen.
“Oh, you will find out soon enough,” she hissed maliciously. The eel offered Ripper a fanged smile, then dropped down into the well. Jade’s head and torso quickly disappeared from view while her tentacles tangled up together as Ripper and the spearman laced their spears over the opening.
“Grab her!” Ripper yelled as he pressed his hip against the end of a spear and reached for one of the fleeing witch’s slippery limbs. The tentacle’s flesh ripped. The acid that flowed free quickly burned and snapped the spears that trapped her. The white-haired witch hunter stumbled back with his broken end as his prey vanished into the dark, murky water below. “Damn it!”
“Mercy’s tit!” The spearman cursed as he stumbled down on one knee, clutching his arm where the splattered acid had burned through his armor.
“Hold on!” The bowman ripped the melting armor away and poured a bottle of white liquid over the spearman’s burned flesh, neutralizing the toxic poison that had already burned through to the bone. “This is bad, Ripper.”
“Take him back to the others. I’ll be fine here,” Ripper growled, still glaring into the rippling water below.
“What about Nero?”
Ripper glanced sharply towards the bowman, who averted his gaze and focused on helping his comrade to his feet. “I’ll handle it. Tell the others I’ll meet them at the border by sunrise.”
“Yes, Commander,” the witch hunter bobbed his head submissively. Then the bowman looped his arm around his comrade’s waist and leapt up onto the rooftops.
Ripper watched them disappear, then strode back towards the building with the broken window.
Nero still laid inside beside the dead water witch. The one-armed Witch Hunter’s eyes were hazed over with pain and the sickness that radiated from him like the smell of death.
Ripper crawled through the window and stood over his fallen protégée.
“Ripper,” Nero whispered with a half-hearted smile. “Come to finish me off?”
“You were doing a fairly good job of getting killed all on your own,” Ripper observed. “How noble of you to drag an innocent into your mess.”
“No, they-they were—after her,” Nero wheezed out. “I just—got in the way.”
“Oh? So you were what—trying to save a mortal?” Ripper retorted doubtfully. “That would be a first.”
“I have enough bad karma—stored up for my—trip to the underworld,” Nero replied with what might have been an attempt at a shrug before his face went white. He coughed, spraying droplets of black blood onto his lips, chin, and cheeks. “Any amount—of good karma—I can grab now—”
“Where’s the Witch Star, Nero?” Ripper interrupted mirthlessly.
Nero grimaced and wiped a shaking hand across his mouth. “The bog witches have it.”
Ripper closed his eyes, inhaled slowly, then let out a sharp, angry growl. “Damn it, Nero. Why!?”
“Foolish desperation,” Nero whispered in a defeated tone. “I didn’t—I still don’t—want to die.” The dying Witch Hunter’s voice trembled with hopelessness and fear.
“You set yourself upon this path, knowing what that cursed jewel would do to you,” Ripper observed unsympathetically.
“You were the one—who told me how—it could make me stronger.”
“I also taught you that power comes at a price!”
“Yes, you did,” Nero acknowledged with a weak smile. “I wanted you to recognize me. I wanted to prove my mother wrong—instead, I disappointed you both and doomed myself.”
“Don’t guilt me with your excuses,” Ripper growled. “You betrayed my trust and your oath to the church!”
“As if you care whether the church or the Pope survives!” Nero snarled then coughed up more toxic blood.
“I care about the fate of this world. You and I both know what will happen if it is left in the hands of power-hungry witches. Power corrupts even the purest soul. Give a mortal a taste of immortality, and you will see what demons lurk behind his penitent smile.”
“But we can’t—beat them,” Nero coughed out.
Ripper slammed his spear down into the ground beside Nero’s head and leaned towards his dying protégée. “A Witch Hunter does not fear death or failure. The very purpose of our existence is to rid the world of these corrupted devils.”
“Save your speech for the new recruits,” Nero leered back. “Pope Jericho wants power just as much as any witch.”
Ripper’s left eye twitched even as he glared down at his dying protégée. “The Pope is the descendant of the Saints.”
“And yet Jericho is not a Saint himself,” Nero replied grimly. “And neither was his father.”
Ripper exhaled and changed his focus from Nero’s face to the black veins that streaked down the witch hunter’s neck. He reached down and ripped back the flimsy rags of clothes to reveal the pale purple and gray skin of a corpse. “Oh, Nero,” he whispered in disbelief.
“The bog witch’s tricked me—” Nero whispered back as his expression relaxed into a mask of defeat “—I asked them to cure me, but they—”
“They gave you the Witch’s Plague,” Ripper replied as he trailed his sharp nails down Nero’s icy cold chest. “How are you—still alive?”
“You forget—my mother was an ice witch,” Nero retorted with a cynical grin. “You’ll have to burn this corpse when I die—or else—”
“I will do what is necessary,” Ripper cut him off. “For now—you’ve suffered enough.”
“Are my sins washed clean then?” Nero raised a mocking brow.
“Your sins will follow you into the underworld and any life you are reborn into after that,” Ripper replied heartlessly.
“And I—deserve no less,” Nero whispered as he drew in a shaky breath and sighed. “Finish it then. Please.”
Ripper stared at his protégée for a long moment, then reached up to tidy the oily hair streaked across Nero’s face. At the same time, he deftly pulled Nero’s fallen dagger from his belt and plunged it cleanly into the side of the witch hunter’s neck.
Nero’s face barely registered the blow, or perhaps there was already too much pain within him to notice. Relief lit up the dying man’s electric-blue eyes as a smile touched his lips. Ripper pulled the dagger free and dropped it to the floor as he waited for the moment of death. When all life had gone from the dead man’s eyes, Ripper drew his sword and sliced Nero’s head from his body.
The albino Witch Hunter continued his bloody work, dismembering each limb, before finally piercing his sword through the corrupted corpse’s chest. His gloved hands reached inside and pried the ribs and sternum out of his way until he located the black and frozen organ that had been Nero’s heart.
“Our trip to Lafeara has borne unexpected fruit,” Ripper murmured as he pulled the cold, corrupted heart free and turned it over in his hand with a cynical smile. “Nothing brings mortals back to the Saints and the Pope quite like a Witch’s Plague.”