Chapter 18: Shadow of the Witch Hunters
Acheron scowled up at the mosaic doors of Lafeara’s great cathedral as he slowly ascended the sun-glared steps. It had been over a week since he had woken up in Rosamund’s bed. In the last several harrowing, soul searching days, Acheron hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol, hadn’t fucked a single woman, and had barely slept or eaten since fornicating with the crown prince’s mistress.
His mother, Lady Lucy, had fussed over his waning health, while his father, Prime Minister Attwood, coarsely suggested Acheron lay off drinking. Acheron could only imagine how horrified and disappointed his parents would be if he revealed the truth behind his changed demeanor.
His mind kept envisioning the moment Nicholas uncovered his betrayal. Because Acheron knew—Nicholas would find out. There was no way the crown prince, the Dowager, or even one of the other high ranking nobles didn’t have someone watching Rosamund’s house.
‘Mercy’s Tit. I wouldn’t put it past Marques Borghese or even my father to be keeping tabs on Lady Rosamund, but for now—somehow—nothing has happened.’
Acheron almost collided into a witch hunter’s back as the group from Zarus stopped abruptly in front of the cathedral door.
“No welcoming reception?” Acheron heard the cardinal murmur with evident disapproval.
‘Fuck, please tell me the nuns have rooms prepared so I can leave and find a dark corner to crawl into.’
“Lord Atteron?” the terrifying Emissary called out gruffly.
“Acheron,” he corrected under his breath, then swore and meetly circled the formidable group of scarlet killers. “Lord Acheron Hargreve.”
The Emissary stared down at him with those inhuman red eyes and an expression that suggested he did not care before his thin brows shifted together, and he replied, “The Prime Minister’s son?”
“Yes,” Acheron confirmed stiffly as he dropped his gaze and moved past the cardinal and the Emissary to bang his fist on the cathedral doors. After about ten minutes, by which time Acheron’s fists were aching and his arm sufficiently tired, the doors finally opened.
Despite the humble, constrictive habit she wore, Acheron immediately recognized the nun who stood before him. “Lady Carmen?”
Shame flushed across the nun’s cheeks, but Carmen nodded to him stiffly. “Lord Acheron.”
“I haven’t seen you since—”
“You are here with the Emissary’s party?” Head Sister Joan’s cold matriarchal tone interrupted him as the senior nun nudged Carmen aside and stood in the doorway. “Sister Virtue, you should be heading back to class.”
“Yes, Sister Joan,” Carmen replied in a muted whisper and then dipped a curtsey before she swiftly departed.
‘So, Lord Bennet forced her to become a nun after Carmen failed the first examination during the Selection?’ Acheron quickly shook away his surprise. “Sister Joan, I am here with Cardinal Murdock and the Pope’s Emissary. I trust you have rooms prepared for his Majesty’s guests?” He stepped aside and gestured to the cardinal and witch hunter as he introduced them.
Sister Joan’s face turned a strange off-white color as she took in Ripper, but she averted her gaze and nodded politely to the Cardinal. “I believe we have enough rooms prepared. I trust the Cardinal and Emissary will let me know if there is any way the Sisters of Lafeara can make their stay more welcome.”
“You can tell your Abbess we wish to speak to her immediately,” Cardinal Murdock replied haughtily as he stepped through the door. The Emissary moved to follow with his comrades in tow.
Acheron stepped aside, deciding that now would be an excellent time to shake off this unwelcomed burden. Unfortunately, two of the witch hunters blocked his way through the open cathedral door.
“The Abbess is away and not expected back until tomorrow, but I will pass on your message and request then,” Sister Joan replied with forced civility.
“Request?” Ripper hissed through his filed fangs as he advanced upon the Head Sister. “I am the Pope’s Emissary. There stands a Cardinal. We do not make requests of a mere Abbess. You will send word to wherever Abbess Mercy is hiding and tell her to return immediately. If she is not here by dinner this evening, you will bear full responsibility and punishment.”
Acheron felt a wave of sympathy for the senior nun, who trembled as she cowed beneath Ripper’s threatening tone.
“I will do my best—but the Abbess is not always reachable—nor does she leave word where she will be staying when away from the cathedral. So it may prove—difficult.”
“Your Abbess seems to enjoy a rather mysterious lifestyle for a woman of the cloth,” Cardinal Murdock interjected with a note of suspicion. “Which is why I will be taking over as head of Lafeara’s churches as of this moment.”
“Cardinal—yes, I understand,” Joan murmured and lowered her gaze to the floor.
“You will show us to our rooms, then gather all members of the church within this cathedral to the congregation room within the next hour,” Murdock continued with an air of impatience. “I will address them there about the change in leadership.”
“Yes, your Eminence.”
“In the meantime, I require a private room in which to conduct an interview,” Ripper tagged on as he motioned to the witch hunters who entered the cathedral and crowded beside Acheron. “And my hunters will need to examine every member of the church after Murdock’s announcement. I trust you will provide them with the cleric’s official roster and full account of every nun or priest who is not within cathedral at that time.”
Acheron jumped slightly as a witch hunter closed the door behind them with a bang. ‘What in the—Now how do I get out?’
“I will also need keys to all dormitory rooms for a private inspection of each member’s living quarters and possessions,” Ripper continued casually as if he were ordering about a servant.
“I understand—your Grace.” Sister Joan looked just about ready to wilt beneath these demands, but she gestured limply towards the back of the church. “Then, shall I take you to your rooms first?”
“Well!” Acheron cleared his dry throat. “It would appear you have everything well under control, Cardinal. Perhaps I should leave and check back in later?”
“I will be sealing the cathedral until the Abbess’s return tomorrow,” Ripper replied with a nod to one of the witch hunters who pulled a chain and lock from his saddlebag. “If you leave now, Lord Atterun, you will not be permitted back inside until then as we will be quite busy for the duration of the night.”
“But—surely you don’t need me here,” Acheron responded quickly.
“I do not need you at all,” Ripper returned bluntly. “Your crown prince was the one who requested a noble be present during the investigation. You can interpret for yourself if that means you should stay or go.”
“I—” Acheron hesitated as Ripper turned and joined Murdock in following Sister Joan towards the back of the cathedral. “Pope’s balls,” he muttered under his breath.
Behind Acheron, the rattle of chains sliding through the cathedral doors handles sealed his decision.
‘This is going to be a long night.’ He sighed and followed the Emissary. ‘Just how long will it take for them to hunt down these witches?’
Declan dismounted before the cathedral steps and followed behind Lord Tomberline, the noble who had demanded a leave of absence from Captain Sloan so that Declan could join the Emissary’s investigation.
‘Why do I keep getting dragged into this mess? The church should have plenty of half-witches.’
He still remembered the horrifying scent that had lingered for miles within the capital. He’d spent the last week combing over the sight of the obliterated chapel and cross-examining any witnesses who had been near the holy structure before its unfortunate demise. Declan had recognized that particular scent of brimstone as the same one left by the pure-blood fire witch that had burned down the manor of Lord Lennox and murdered the noble and his eldest son.
Then again, Declan didn’t have much experience with fire witches. ‘Perhaps they all smell that way.’ Either way, he suspected the Emissary’s interest in meeting him related to the chapel burning incident or the ice witch that Father Alden and Nero had been hunting down.
‘What did happen to them?’
Lord Tomberline knocked on the cathedral door and turned to Declan. “Remember, try to get as much information from them as they get from you.”
“Understood, my lord.”
Tomberline nodded distractedly as he glanced at the door and muttered under his breath, “The sooner the church’s dogs finish their business and leave, the better for everyone.”
Declan offered no comment as they waited. The silence stretched on, and Lord Tomberline, with an impatient shake of his head, knocked on the door, louder this time, and then attempted to open it.
“What the—it’s locked?”
Declan raised a brow then caught movement in the far window. A flash of red before the curtain dropped in place sent a wave of unease through him.
Behind the cathedral door, the sound of chains sliding away made Tomberline step back. The doors soon opened, and two witch hunters, dressed in their haunting scarlet uniforms, shifted their gaze from Tomberline to Declan.
“Ho?” said the first witch hunter with amber eyes. “So this is the half-witch knight?”
“Lieutenant Declan,” Declan corrected with a curt nod. “I was sent at the Emissary’s request?”
“Well, Lieutenant,” muttered the older witch hunter in a deep accented voice. “You had better come with us.”
Hoping he wouldn’t regret becoming further involved with the church, Declan reluctantly entered.
“Just the half-witch,” the first witch hunter said as he held up a hand to halt Lord Tomberline.
“Excuse me?” Tomberline sputtered. “But—”
“You can relieve Lord Acheron in the morning. His lordship will be needing a break by then,” the witch hunter replied firmly.
“Come along, half-witch,” the older witch hunter urged. Declan trailed behind the man, one hand moving cautiously to the hilt of his knight’s blade. The sound of the cathedral doors closing behind him sent a chill down his spine. The rattle of chains only prickled against his rising nerves as the knight surveyed the large empty congregation room.
‘How long has it been since I last stood in a church?’
It had been two years since Declan had knelt in this very cathedral for his knighting ceremony. And a decade before that, he fled to a church to escape his mother.
“Come to think of it,” the older half-witch muttered. “There was a story about a half-witch kid who turned over his witch mother to the church what—almost eleven years ago.”
“Oh right, I remember,” the amber-eyed witch hunter joined in from behind Declan. “They said she was a cannibal—ate a few other people before she started to eat her own flesh and blood.”
Declan’s jaw twinged with pain as he ground his teeth.
“Would that lucky bastard happen to be yourself, Lieutenant?” asked the older witch hunter with an inquiring brow.
“Veles breath,” murmured the younger hunter softly. “Killing your first witch at ten years old, a rabid cannibal witch, and your mother at that. Pretty cold. Pretty bold, Sir Knight.”
“Survival of the fittest,” responded the older witch hunter with a shrug. “Still, I’m surprised you didn’t join our brotherhood.”
“I took no pleasure in her burning,” Declan replied stiffly.
“He means he’s got no stomach for killing,” snickered the young witch hunter.
“But he might have the skill for it,” replied the older witch hunter solemnly. “This way, half-witch. Ripper is waiting.”
Another shiver of unease rippled through Declan just as he caught the first whiff of witches.