Chapter 104: The Shackles of Destiny
Declan was tired of trailing after the Witch Hunters. The constant state of fear of being discovered, the crappy sleeping conditions without so much as a tent or fire, and fretful nights he’d jerk awake at even the slightest sound of a cricket’s chirp or the wind stirring through the trees. Declan was more than ready for the pack of church hounds to cross the damn border already and no longer be his problem.
Although the Witch Hunter’s movements gave every indication that the border was their destination, Declan couldn’t cut them loose on a hunch. The half-witch was also unwilling to directly defy the king that he had sworn his service to as a knight.
‘Well, crown prince, but Nicholas will be king soon enough. Hopefully, a better king than his father was.’
The once sunny forest had darkened sometime after midday. Storm clouds rolled in over the verdant pines through which Declan and his irritable steed now traveled. The wind hummed with the promise of rain and more misery as Declan pulled up his hood and resigned himself to another night of frustrating sleep. His stallion snorted in disapproval but obeyed Declan’s command as the half-witch reined the dark chestnut horse in under a tree.
He listened intently, focusing past the din of laughing leaves to the group of Witch Hunters he sensed more than saw ahead of him. This strange discernment was new to him—something that Nero had awaked that day in the field where he had taught Declan about the different kinds of witches.
‘I may not be a pure-blood or coven witch, but still, being able to sense a prey I cannot see through the wind is handy. Especially for missions as dangerous as this one.’
However convenient his gift, Declan did not for a minute underestimate the quarry he had been ordered to trail on their return trip to Zarus. And right now, judging by the lack of hoofbeats and movement up ahead, it appeared the Pope’s hounds had chosen a place to make camp for the night.
‘They’re moving at a leisurely pace today,’ Declan mused as he tied up the stallion and crept through the forest underbrush to get a closer look. ‘Normally, they wouldn’t bother stopping until it was too dark to see.’ In that regard, Declan was fortunate that the Witch Hunters had left their Bishop behind to run the church in the Abbess’s absence. He could only imagine how much slower the journey would have been with such a fancy carriage dragging down the pace.
Declan paused and leaned against a tree as the Witch Hunters’ distant voices carried towards him on the breeze. Once he was sure the men behind those voices were not headed in his direction, Declan pulled out his map and tried to assess where they were.
‘Maybe a day, a day and a half, from the border?’
Declan scratched behind his ear, then down his neck, and sighed at the memory of his barracks bed, the communal wooden tub, and even his old scrub brush.
‘Just hang in there one more day, Declan.’
A sudden shift in tension in the voices ahead drew Declan’s attention back to the Witch Hunters. He pressed his shoulder against the tree beside him and focused his wind magic in their direction. As always, the elusive magic ignored his request until the wind shifted direction again and carried the voices of the Pope’s hounds towards the half-witch.
“Richter, what happened?”
“We found Nero. Bastard drew us right into a fight with two of Arachne’s pure-bloods!”
“Where’s the Commander?”
“He sent us on ahead since Kurt was injured. He’s dealing with Nero now, I expect.”
“About bloody time. I’ll get Kurt’s tent and bed ready. He can rest until the Commander returns and gives us orders.”
“That arm of his doesn’t look good.”
“It might require amputation if we don’t get him back to Zarus quickly. Can’t take chances where Arachne’s witches are concerned. Today it’s his arm; tomorrow, it could be his lungs or heart.”
“Fucks sake! What did Nero pull us into?”
“Save your questions for when Ripper returns. Let’s set up camp now and wait for orders. No point in traveling in this storm unless Ripper insists. But this close to the border, there’s no telling which group of witches we’ll encounter in the dark if we push through.”
The Witch Hunters appeared to agree as they wandered about to perform their tasks and awaited their commander’s return.
Declan let out a tense breath as he crept back through the foliage towards his mount. ‘I didn’t even notice that three of their number had broken away from the group. How the hell did they make one horse sound like three? Damn it. I should have confirmed their number visually instead of trusting this bloody magic. Well, if two of them are back now and Ripper is returning later, then I won’t have lost sight of them—permanently. Even if they did split up, I wouldn’t know which group to follow.’
He sighed and straightened as he stretched his tired back. “Hopefully—after they cross the border—I’ll never set eyes on another witch or witch hunter again.”
The stallion snorted almost mockingly as Declan pulled his drinking flask free from the saddle and checked its diminished contents. “We need more water,” he grumbled as he tapped what little remained into his dry throat. “Perhaps if I were a half water-witch, I’d be able to sense a spring or stream nearby.”
‘Then again, those Witch Hunters also need to water their own horses.’
“I just have to track the one that wanders the farthest from the group,” Declan reasoned as he retied the water canteen to the saddle and headed towards the nearest sturdy tree that didn’t look too difficult to climb.
About eight feet up, the half-witch settled himself comfortably on a branch, gripped the bark tightly beneath his palms for balance, and closed his eyes to focus on the wind. As usual, the response was weak, but with patience, he became steadily aware of noticeable disturbances in the forest that moved at various distances from the Witch Hunters’ camp.
‘Ah, there we go!’ Declan grinned as he focused on one of the Witch Hunters that had moved a good distance to the north. ‘Let’s see if he found water.’
After a quick climb down, Declan pulled his water canteen from the saddle and left his mount there with a promise to lead Jester, as he had named his new riding companion, to whatever water source he found later after nightfall.
‘I know he’s thirsty, but I’m less likely to be spotted if I move on my own.’
The track towards where he had sensed the witch hunter proved a bit further than initially anticipated. Oddly enough, each time Declan climbed a tree to confirm he was headed in the right direction, the witch hunter remained in the same spot.
‘Is he taking a bath?’ Declan grumbled, feeling a tinge of jealousy. ‘Nevermind, I can grab one myself on the way back after these bastards finally cross the border.’
Before long, the wind carried the sound of a lively stream—or perhaps a river—to Declan’s ears. His mouth watered in anticipation, but the half-witch remained cautious, aware that a Witch Hunter still lingered nearby.
‘I wouldn’t want to fight one personally. I can only imagine what kind of training and environment they’re used to hunting witches all over the four kingdoms.’
With this cautious reminder, Declan almost belly crawled down the embankment towards the now visible river. He listened intently as he slid beneath the bowed branches of a gnarled tree covered in moss and leaves. No movement or sound betrayed the Witch Hunter’s presence, and when Declan closed his eyes and tried to sense the unseen foe, he was surprised to find all presence of his quarry’s existence had vanished.
‘Maybe he headed back just before I got here?’ Declan frowned, but another broader search still turned up no sign of the man he had expected to find. ‘Oh well, I did find water.’
Despite the reassurance that he was alone, Declan still approached the river carefully. He tested the water, which tasted better than the well water back at the knight’s compound, and filled his hands with several satisfying mouthfuls. Once his thirst was quenched, Declan dipped his canteen into a less cloudy section of the water to fill it.
‘I’ll have to bring Jester here later after—’
Declan stiffened as a cloud of disturbed river soil flooded over his canteen. His gaze snapped up towards the two red eyes and flowing white hair of the submerged man who observed him from the center of the river.
Declan sprang back, but the white-haired witch hunter crossed the distance between them with inhuman speed. Before the half-witch could dart under the mossy tree branch, a hand grabbed his shoulder, and then the witch hunter lifted Declan like a child and hurled him into the river.
‘Shit!’ Declan’s body slammed against the water. He grimaced as the murky river rushed over him. The half-witch twisted under the surface, planting his feet against the stony bottom before he kicked upwards, drawing his sword as he emerged.
The Witch Hunter sat calmly on the now snapped tree branch. His pale white hair streaked down around his hardened face, those alarming red eyes, and his muscular shoulders and torso. His features made him instantly recognizable as the Witch Hunter’s Commander, a man otherwise called Ripper. Declan could only imagine how such a man obtained his position along with such a morbid identity. He didn’t want to find out either way.
‘Bastard must have hidden under the water to avoid being detected,’ Declan realized as he glanced about the river, hoping to find a path of retreat.
“You’ve been following us for days now. You needed a bath,” Ripper observed in a mocking tone as he flipped his white hair over a shoulder and wrung the river water from it. “As much as your pitiful grasp of wind magic allowed you to track us, it also allowed us to smell you from a mile away.”
Declan glowered, even as he acknowledged his mistake. ‘What the hell would I know? I was a soldier, not a scout in the army.’
“Let me guess. The Crown Prince told you to follow us to the border?” Ripper continued conversationally.
Declan blinked but saw little point in denying the obvious. “Yes,” he grumbled, trying to maintain his balance as he treaded water towards the shallows on the opposite side.
“There’s no point in running,” Ripper commented with a cynical smile. “You might as well join us for the remainder of the trip. We have no interest in harming you.”
‘How comforting. If only I believed you.’
Ripper laughed, perhaps seeing Declan’s doubt written across his face. “Suit yourself, but tonight promises to be a bit of a thunderstorm. If you prefer to sleep in the rain, then who am I to judge, but you will at least join us for supper, that—I insist upon.”
A ripple of fear slid down Declan’s spine, and before he could fight against it, he was wading back towards the embankment where the white-haired witch hunter waited.
The wet river stones provided a somewhat tricky path as Declan lumbered up to the shore. Ripper was standing by the time he fully emerged. The Witch Hunter showed little concern for the sword Declan still gripped and merely gestured for the half-witch to follow as Ripper climbed the embankment and circled the river to where the rest of his uniform layout beneath a tree.
Declan shivered in his damp clothes while Ripper got fully dressed, paying Declan no more attention beyond a passing glance when the knight sneezed abruptly.
“Sorry—” Declan mumbled out only to feel like an idiot afterward. ‘Why am I apologizing? He’s the one who threw me into the river.’
“Your physical conditioning is pathetic,” Ripper observed as his red eyes ran over Declan. “But that is usually the case with half-air witches. The fact that you could keep up with us this long while maintaining a safe distance is commendable, though. If I didn’t have a trained half-air witch in my party and my own heightened senses, you might have gone undetected a bit longer.”
“Are you—evaluating me?”
“Yes,” Ripper replied with a grin that reminded Declan of a nightmare he once had as a child.
Ripper tightened the shoulder strap of his chest armor without comment, then pulled a dark cape from a satchel beside the tree and flung it over his shoulders.
“Where did you go?” Declan continued, feeling awkward as he stood there watching a stranger get dressed. “You broke away from the rest of the group.”
“I had some business to take care of before leaving Lafeara.”
Ripper’s hand paused on the sword belt he wore around his waist before answering. “Yes.”
Declan opened his mouth to inquire what sort of business Ripper had with Nero, but a sharp glance from the Witch Hunter warned him that any further questions on that topic would be a bad idea.
Instead, the half-witch sheathed his sword and attempted to wring river water from his travel pants and jacket. Declan had already determined that he stood no chance against the Commander of the Pope’s Witch Hunters. And the fair bit of physical prowess Ripper had demonstrated earlier only affirmed Declan’s odds of survival if he pissed the man off.
‘I’ll just accompany them to the border and be done with it.’
He shifted uneasily as Ripper appeared distracted by—something tucked inside his satchel. The white-haired witch hunter closed the bag and tossed it over his shoulder before he motioned for Declan to follow him again.
“Ahh—where’s your horse?” Declan asked as the witch hunter walked confidently in the direction of his comrade’s camp.
“I left it with the others,” Ripper replied with another devilish grin over his shoulder. “It would have only slowed me down, and in any case—it appears to have worked since you didn’t notice us leaving.”
‘So that’s why the number of horses didn’t appear to change.’ Declan refrained from slapping himself at the now obvious oversight and trailed behind the intimidating witch hunter.
“What’s this?” grumbled the first witch hunter to notice their approach. “I thought we were leaving the drenched skunk alone?” Declan recognized the man as Richter, one of the two witch hunters he had encountered at Lafeara’s cathedral when he had first been pulled into the church’s inquisition.
“The Commander changed his mind. What’s it to you?” Everett grumbled as he shot Ripper a respectful salute. “I trust your mission was successful?”
“It was,” Ripper replied as he brushed past the man. “And Sir Declan will be joining us for the remainder of our journey.”
Richter laughed at some joke that Declan appeared to have missed. “Aye, he can share a tent with Kurt then.”
“Where is Kurt?”
“In the only tent that’s up. We made him as comfortable as we could,” Richter answered with a glimmer of anger. “But I’m not sure we can save his arm unless—”
“Stay here!” Ripper ordered with a sharp look at the Witch Hunter.
“What are you—” Richter broke off as Ripper drew his sword and swept through the tent’s flaps.
“Shit!” Everett muttered while Declan looked on in confusion.
A muffled sound of pain proceeded the sickening ring of steel through flesh. Declan’s mouth dropped open as the Commander reappeared before them, his blade now stained a bloody red. “Burn it,” he commanded with a nod to the tent. “And Richter—”
Everette flinched but nodded. “Yes, Commander.”
“Drink this,” Ripper pulled a vial from his belt and tossed it to a startled Richter.
Everett eyed the vial his comrade greedily consumed while Declan stared at Ripper’s bloody sword, horrified.
“You—killed him? Why?” Declan sputtered.
“He was carrying the Witch Plague,” Ripper replied without a glimmer of remorse.
‘Witch Plague?!’ Declan could feel the blood draining from his face as Ripper turned his attention to the two grim-faced hunters.
“You both know that there is no cure for such a disease, nor could I allow it to return with us to Zarus. I made his death quick and merciful.”
“That—tentacle witch?” Richter asked in a tone brimming in anger. “Shit—this is all Nero’s blasted fault. I hope you ripped out his lungs or at least tore off his balls before sending him off to the underworld.”
“Nero was the source of the plague,” Ripper replied dispassionately.
“Fuck!” Richter stared down at the empty vial and shook his head. “How far has it spread?”
“Not far. The carrier just finished the final stage of incubation.” Ripper lifted the corner of Kurt’s tent and wiped his blade clean. “Now burn that, and let’s get dinner going.”
Declan’s gut clenched as Everett calmly seized the end of a log from a freshly started campfire and carried it over to the tent. The Witch Hunter pulled a bottle from his belt and sprinkled something that resembled red sand inside the tent before he tossed the torch inside and stepped back.
A brief explosion rippled through the tent before the quivering fabric caught flame and turned into a hellish blaze.
“It will take about a week before people realize the Witch Plague has started. Perhaps two before the nobles and crown prince take notice and try to fight against it,” Ripper commented in a casual tone as he took a seat beside the fire and prodded the flames with the tip of his sword. “That gives us more than enough time to report back to Jericho and prepare for a second inquisition.”
“A second—” Declan whirled around towards the albino Witch Hunter. “Why would you—” he stopped himself as a sudden sinking feeling filled his stomach. “Thank you for the invitation to dinner—but I’ve decided that I should return to Lafeara as soon as—”
“Sit down,” Everett growled as he grabbed Declan’s shoulder and pushed the half-witch closer to the campfire.
“Idiot, you’re not going nowhere,” Richter confirmed as he tossed a bag of dried meat over to Ripper.
“What?” Declan glanced between them as his hand moved to his sword, only to find the blade missing.
“Looking for this?” Everett taunted as he sank the blade into the forest floor and sat down beside it. “It’s a pretty sword.”
“Doesn’t suit a witch hunter, though,” Richter commented dryly.
“I’m a knight, not a witch hunter,” Declan snapped, even as he gave up on the idea of regaining his weapon. ‘I have to get back to Lafeara and warn the Crown Prince as soon as possible. The sooner we identify where the plague is coming from and stop it—if we can stop it—’
“The way I see it, Lafeara took two Witch Hunters and a priest from Zarus,” Ripper said coldly as his red eyes leveled with Declan’s panicked gaze. “While this would hardly count as a fair trade, perhaps you have more potential than what you’ve shown me thus far.”
“What?” Declan sputtered, not comprehending—or refusing to acknowledge—the albino Witch Hunter’s meaning.
“He means you’ll be taking Kurt’s place,” Everett spelled out with a glower. “He was a half-air witch.”
“Congratulations, Sir Declan,” Richter added with a malicious smile. “You’ve just been volunteered into the Witch Hunter Order.”
“What? Like Hell I am—I refuse!” Declan shouted, his gaze burning into each of them in turn before Ripper rose to his feet.
The tip of the Commander’s sword glowed orange from the fire and gave off a metallic smoke as it hovered in front of Declan’s face.
“You can swear the oath,” Ripper said coldly. “Or you can join him.” He gestured to the blazing tent, where the smell of Kurt’s burning flesh floated towards them. “Your choice, Declan.”
Declan’s entire body trembled with rage as he realized the futility of his position.
‘No, perhaps—’ Declan’s gaze drifted over Ripper’s shoulder towards the dark specter that lurked behind the trees along the edge of the campsite, ‘—Perhaps this has always been my destiny.’
The ghost of his mother smiled in cold acknowledgment before she withered up in a cloud of dark flames and left Declan to his fate.