Chapter 51: The Bait of Enmity
Malachi glared at the sparkling forest river that seemed to serve as a tether for the mortal Shadow Army he was now tied to. Once more, Captain Weylin and his impatient mercenaries had gathered at the river to await orders from their Marquess. The scent of the men’s uncertainty and unease only added to the pureblood’s distaste for these stray dogs pretending to be wolves.
All Malachi wanted was a chance to get even with the ice witch that had cost him his prized sun hawk! Pyrrhus had been more than just a military raptor; he had also been Malachi’s eyes, ears, and protector through many battles. Now all the pureblood had left of the once majestic bird was the small egg-shaped black agate stone he’d dug from the river where Pyr had fallen. It wouldn’t bring his feathered friend back, but it still held a spark of the bird’s flame that flickered in recognition whenever Malachi fed the stone his fire. He would carve it into a necklace and wear it proudly in memory of his fallen comrade.
“He’s late,” one of the mercenaries called out, pulling Malachi’s attention from the black stone gripped in his hand.
“He’s being cautious,” Captain Weylin replied, smoking leisurely from his pipe. “Anyway, we can’t do much until he gets here.”
“Bloody cowards,” Malachi snarled, ignoring the glares sent in his direction. They had gotten used to his rudeness to an extent, but after Pyrrhus’s death, the fire witch’s contempt now carried with it a sadistic sting. “Your Marquess has been arrested. Maybe his spy has been arrested too! Maybe they’re both swinging from a tree somewhere in this godforsaken forest.”
“We’ll give him till the sun comes over the ridge,” Weylin responded with forced calmness as he gave his men a warning look that clearly said, ‘Don’t engage with him.’
The Captain didn’t respond as he blew puffs of green smoke out over the gurgling glassy river.
Malachi clutched his sun hawk stone and stormed off, scanning the forest line for Rhydian, who had slipped away some time ago to track down the Marquess’s delinquent messenger.
‘Damn it! Pyr would have found him by now.’
The fire witch was just about to bury a burning fist into a nearby oak tree when a soft whistle stilled his hand, turning him to where the sentry waved his white scarf.
‘The messenger is here. Finally!’
The same royal knight that had appeared the morning before emerged from the forest ridge, slowing his brown mare as they made their descent to the river.
Captain Weylin exhaled a large puff of green smoke with heavy relief as he offered the messenger a friendly wave. “I was starting to get worried, Lieutenant.”
“It wasn’t easy getting out,” the royal knight replied with evident frustration.
“Were you followed?”
“No. But they already know you’re here.”
The Mercenary Captain sighed, tapping his pipe against the heel of his boot to empty the last dregs of tobacco on the rocks below. “What orders do you bring.”
Malachi clenched his fists as the Lieutenant drew in a tired breath before turning his hooded gaze away from the Captain. ‘Shit.’
“Your orders are to stand down, Captain. Our Master wants you to break camp and return to Brigovia before mid-day.”
“What!?” Weylin dropped his folded arms in stunned disbelief. “But—the Marquess was arrested!?”
“And tried and found guilty,” the Lieutenant retorted with an edge of cynicism. “Duke Stryker brokered a deal with the Crown Prince to protect Lord Borghese from treason.”
“Oh, fuck the crown’s deal! We can break him out now!”
“No!” the royal knight barked, his grip on the reigns tightening, drawing Malachi’s gaze to the pistol tucked under his cloak. “There is another deal contingent on your swift compliance. One that grants the Marquess more power than ever before.”
“What deal?” Weylin growled as the mercenaries behind him stirred restlessly. “And what happens to us now if the Marquess is in chains?”
“You’re a soldier, Captain,” the Lieutenant responded with an audible sneer. “You know better than to ask questions.”
The Mercenary Captain glowered silently in response before whipping around to face his men.
“So, you’re going to tuck your tail and run?” Malachi interjected, stepping forward with his hands on his hips. “How disappointing. My Master will not be pleased.”
“I couldn’t give a fuck about your Master!” the Lieutenant retorted bluntly.
The pureblood blinked, disbelief twisting his lips into a grin as a hair-raising laugh roared free. “You Lafearian pigs have grown too damn comfortable fighting for scraps amongst yourselves. You forget who your true Masters are!”
The brown mare flinched away from the heat that rolled off the fire witch, wilting the thin vegetation that grew amongst the stones of the riverbank. Weylin and his mercenaries retreated cautiously. The Lieutenant gripped his pistol but did not pull it free as he stared down the angry pureblood.
“Perhaps I should deliver your burned corpse to the Marquess as a message to remind him of that fact!” Malachi growled as he opened his palms, igniting them in deadly flames.
The pureblood’s amber eyes burned with fury as he turned to roar across the river, “What?!”
Weylin and the royal knight flinched in surprise as Rhydian seemed to emerge from the shadows themselves, his burning arrow pointed toward the Marquess’s messenger.
“It’s time to go.”
Malachi sighed heavily and then rolled his neck, releasing his anger and tension in the audible pops of muscles and joints. “You’re right. We don’t need these useless sheep anymore.” The pureblood trudged into the river, muttering curses under his breath as he walked past the royal knight without so much as a glance as he joined Rhydian on the other side.
“Where are you going?” the Lieutenant demanded, turning his mare toward them.
“Follow us, and I’ll burn you to a crisp,” Malachi snarled as he reached the opposite shore. “Our cooperation ends here.” He spat on the ground, then stormed past Rhydian, who extinguished his arrow but continued to stare at the frozen mercenaries until Malachi crossed over the ridge above. Then the dark-skinned pureblood slipped back into the shadows of the forest, where he also disappeared.
“Fuck,” the Lieutenant hissed, turning quickly toward the Mercenary Captain.
“What?” Weylin snapped irritably, already signaling his men to return to camp. “I couldn’t control them when they worked for us—what makes you think I can do a damn thing now?”
The closer they got to Gilwren Manor, the more Malachi’s urge to burn the whole damn forest to the ground grew. In his mind, he rationalized it as a ploy to distract the knights from the manor, allowing Rhydian the perfect opportunity to slip inside and fill the puppet half-witch princess full of holes.
But he knew Rhydian would have a better plan that would not risk exposing them to the Crow King and his covens, who lurked among Lafeara’s nobles.
‘But how dangerous can this bird king be when he bends his knees to a mortal prince?’
The pureblood scoffed, smiling as he crushed a young sapling beneath his boot. He made no effort to cover his trail, following Rhydian’s advice to carve a path that would lead directly to the Shadow Army, who would end up taking the fall for Eleanora’s brutal death.
Malachi smiled as a trio of deer froze in his path before sprinting in opposite directions. A good hunt, some well-deserved venison and wine, and then a plump mortal bitch to beat his grief into would make a welcome treat on their return journey to Ventrayna. He could practically taste the blood dripping from the tenderized, savory meat.
A tree creaked ominously in the distance, pulling Malachi’s gaze toward the suspiciously darkening forest. Rhydian had found traces of a large earth remnant defeated by the air coven during his previous scouting missions. An impressive feat for the trussed-up fowls who hid among mortals like the cowardly, domesticated chickens they were. Invading this country would be a piece of cake, no matter which bastard led the Emperor’s legions. The air covens were weak, and the mortals—never stood a chance.
Malachi’s job was to give Ventrayna the excuse it needed to plunder Lafeara’s harvests and wealth. And he was determined to see it through, no matter what chaos was left in his wake.
The flutter of dark wings redirected the pureblood’s gaze to the pillar of crows that circled down, directly blocking his path forward. The fire witch skid to a halt and sniffed the breeze, frowning at the lack of scent despite the evident magic at work before him.
‘So, one of Lafeara’s purebloods has come out to play?’
Malachi smirked confidently as he ignited his fists and strode toward the storm of wings. He would follow the usual plan of distracting the enemy while Rhydian circled around to put an arrow or blade in their back. “If you want to speak to me, then speak!” he barked, half hoping the fool would show themselves and offer his comrade a quick and easy kill. “I’m in a hurry, so—”
He blinked in surprise as the pillar of crows burst apart to reveal a single young male pureblood, elegantly dressed in a nobles waistcoat, jacket, and trousers, holding a silver cane with an ornamental crow head as its handle.
“So—you must be the Crow King.”
The young air witch smiled, then chuckled with amusement as he lifted his cane and walked boldly towards the fire witch. “My name is Percy Hawthorne, but you may address me as Earl Hawthorne. I believe your Mistress has heard of me.”
Malachi flinched, then scowled at his mistake. ‘So, it’s true what they say about crows being clever.’
The Earl’s smile stretched further as if feeding off the fire witch’s irritation.
“What do you want, Percy Hawthorne?”
“Want?” Percy shrugged as he tapped his cane against his shoulder. “I made my offer to the Empress clear enough. Unfortunately, she sent you here—” he gestured the cane towards the fire witch as he came to a halt just out of reach of Malachi’s sword “—which tells me that she’s decided to reject my offer.”
‘Arrogant prick. Let’s keep him talking until Rhydian makes his move.’
“What makes you think I serve the Empress?”
The Earl sighed, his winter-grey eyes narrowing as his voice thinned with apparent menace. “I really don’t have the time or patience to explain the obvious to a desert newt.”
Malachi’s fists burned brighter, the flames coiling up his arms as he ground his teeth. ‘What the fuck are you waiting for, Rhydian?’ The pureblood turned his amber gaze toward the forest, tensing as he caught a glimpse of the crows resting in the branches around them, staring down at the two witches with soulless black eyes.
‘Fuck this. Change of plans!’
“Are you looking for your friend?”
Malachi flinched as Percy’s whisper seemed to echo from inside his head. His gut twisted in warning, even as his gaze followed the Earl’s pointing finger to where Rhydian hung limply from a tree branch only a few yards to their left. Dried blood seeped down from the dark-skinned fire witch’s empty eye sockets as the pureblood swayed from a creaking rope.
‘Kritanta’s flame. How? When?’
The sense of foreboding that tickled down the pureblood’s spine only added to his building rage as Malachi drew his sword and charged toward the cunning air witch, determined to burn down this Crow King and the whole damn forest with him.
His burning blade hit nothing but air as the Earl blurred and vanished before his very eyes. Malachi rolled with his swing, spinning away from the empty forest to search the trees around him for the Crow King. Only shadows and the mocking caws of the heckling audience above awaited him.
Perhaps for the first time, Malachi contemplated running from a fight, but with so many crows at his enemy’s disposal, he knew that his chances of escaping were slim to none. He didn’t have Rhydian’s stealth abilities, not that it had helped his companion in the end.
‘Pyr would have clawed the bastard’s eyes out by now. Damn it! This doesn’t make sense. Rhydian would have been able to burn through that rope in a second. How the hell do you hang a fire witch?!’
“Giving up already?” Percy’s voice teased, spinning the pureblood from one direction to the other as he searched the forest for the disembodied voice laughing in his ears.
“Grrr, what are you waiting for?” Malachi bellowed, adjusting his defensive stance as he pivoted in a slow circle, bracing for an attack. “Come face me, you fucking coward!”
“A coward would have sent his covens to fight you. A coward would have sent two pureblood witches to attack a single defenseless half-witch with no powers. A coward would secretly poison the offspring of her husband’s consorts to avoid the possibility of any heir challenging her daughter for the throne.”
Malachi trembled, though whether in fear or rage, he could no longer discern. He could feel himself losing reason beneath each of the Crow King’s taunting words. With a grunt of desperation, the pureblood lowered his sword and hurled burning balls of fire into the shadowy trees around him, hoping to flush his enemy from whatever branch he hid behind.
The crows scattered, cawing uproariously as they soared into the sky, away from the rising smoke.
A twinge of danger crawled across the pureblood’s skin as the flames suddenly thinned, then died. Malachi staggered back and clutched his throat, gasping as he searched for air that simply wasn’t there. The flame on his sword withered and extinguished as the pureblood stumbled to his knees and then dropped to all fours, wheezing desperately as his vision slowly blurred.
“Bravo!” Percy cheered mockingly as he knelt beside the suffocating witch. “This is exactly why I chose you.”
Malachi clenched his teeth together as his body seized up, his brain losing its ability to function.
“Now, I will allow you to complete the Empress’s mission, but you will do it when and where I tell you to. Agreed?”
The pureblood glared helplessly at the ground before him, then slowly nodded. While he didn’t trust this Crow King, the offer didn’t seem unreasonable when faced with a slow but certain death. The air that kissed his lips felt like a cold drink of caligo wine, giving life to his feeble lungs, straining muscles, and fading magic core.
“Fuck,” Malachi groaned weakly as he collapsed, completely exhausted.
‘I better lay low until I regain my strength. This fucker’s too damn strong, but with him this close to me—I might—’
The fire witch flinched as the Earl grabbed a fist full of his braided hair and yanked the Ventrayna Witch Warrior’s head back until his neck almost snapped. “Do you know why I like stupid people?” Percy murmured, his words slithering into Malachi’s ears like the legs of a poisonous centipede. “Nicholas, Tristan, even your whore of an Empress. Their clumsy moves are always so damn easy to read. But compared to you—well, let’s just say that minds as dull as yours—are so much easier to break.”
The flame within Malachi’s core shriveled up in terror as he stared into the six bloody, crimson-red eyes of Veles’s chosen King. He whispered the name of his goddess in quiet desperation as the Crow King’s magic reached into his mind taking the shape of a giant carnivorous crow whose talons ripped through every strand of reason and sanity until nothing of the proud pureblood’s identity remained.