The warm Spring breeze was almost comforting if the bright sun wasn't so distracting, blinding Nero with the light reflected from the pale stairs and the vivid grass on the side of the hill. Impatient and hungry, he just wanted to rush to the top as fast as he could, but the old priest, his client, was slowly dragging himself up while mumbling the story of his life.
"Ah, excuse me... I am not used with the exercise even though I live at the chapel. You see, I don't walk all the way down anymore, the town's getting bigger, and all that noise isn't healthy for my poor old heart." He managed to say while wheezing for air. It was the fifth time he told the young man that part of the tale.
Nero zoned out, fidgeting the heavy aluminum case that concealed Red Queen. He didn't like hiding his weapons or pretending to blend in the crowd, but at least he convinced the clients that a disguise wasn't necessary. The hunter was instructed to be absolutely discreet, despite the priest's insistence to call him the "hunter from the Redgrave incident" out loud, fearing that a devil hunter armed to the teeth in a place known for its supernatural phenomenon would scare the tourists away, a week from their big festival.
While the old man made another snide comment about the youth, Nero mentally recapped the story. Ages ago, a witch was horribly executed on the hill and, in one last act of revenge, she burned the whole place along with her body. Centuries later, the top of the same hill bloomed with unique lilies that glowed like embers, then faded into ashes a week later. The event happened every year, after the last snowflake melted and the first leaf was born.
Such unique sight turned the hill into a touristic spot, and the locals decided to do an annual festival just when the lilies started to bloom. This year the woman that was invited to sing during the event mysteriously disappeared two days ago, during a visit to the chapel. The authorities, a superstitious bunch, panicked immediately, speculating the ghost of the witch kidnapped her in an act of revenge, and had to move fast and hire the hunter before the woman's absence was noticed.
Nero didn't believe in that theory, and he didn't like the clients' attitude, but it was a slow month and the payment was rewarding. On top of that, regardless of his feelings, there was a woman in danger and he couldn't just ignore it.
After wasting an hour following the priest, he finally reached the top of the stairs. There few rustic houses at the entrance were heavily decorated, complete with a small medieval fair and actors playing knights and witches. Even though the main event was a week away, tourists were already crowding the location, buying gifts and taking pictures.
Around the busy scenario, shallow woods and smooth grass covered the hill, where the famous lilies would bloom. The farthest building was the chapel, an old and small structure built with stones and wooden pillars, used mainly as a touristic spot nowadays.
Since the priest wanted to stop by every single booth in the fair, Nero decided to ignore him and go to the chapel already, carefully avoiding the crowd. Unfortunately his sword case kept bumping into every surface it could find, and eventually he heard a small squeak after hitting something soft.
A little girl just turned a corner and went head first into the hunter. She looked exhausted with bright reddened eyes, almost in tears. Nero had no choice but to stop in his track and kneel down, offering a hand.
"Sorry miss! Do you need any help?" He chirped, knowing from experience that she had more problems than a simple bump.
"My dog!" She cried with small hiccups. "He got scared by the witches and ran to the chapel!"
Nero nodded. "Gotcha, you can wait here and I'll fetch the puppy for you." At least it was an excuse to go ahead, in case the priest complained about him again.
The girl shook her head. "No! I have to go too! He doesn't like anyone but me!"
"What about your parents-"
"My brother brought us here, but he's too busy kissing his girlfriend!" She pouted, looking at Nero like he owned her something.
"Oh." The hunter neither couldn't verify that claim, nor he wanted to ask about that. He simply nodded and agreed to take her to the chapel.
Pleased, the girl grabbed his hand and dragged him along, conveniently forgetting about her tears. Nero could only sigh in protest, but ultimately didn't mind a side quest.
"By the way, what's the dog's name?"
"His name's Goliath!"
The inside of the chapel was deceptively big and well preserved. Near the entrance there was a large painting proudly displayed to visitors, a gift commissioned to celebrate the building's survival when the witch burned the hill.
Bayonetta elegantly clacked her heavy heels on the stone floor, approaching the art proudly displayed in front o her. It depicted a woman tied to a pole, turning into a demon and burning with rage, while white robed knights shielded themselves and the chapel from the attack. Angelic figures floated above the incident, apparently dancing at the scene.
"Such a tacky painting!" She scoffed, running her fingers on the little metallic plaque describing the painting. "But I guess it fits a place like this."
She looked around the room, bored out of her mind. It was dry and dusty, but there were a couple of fancy decorations from the Inquisition era, like a broken golden sword on the wall and a fan made with feathers used by Lumen Sages. The witch was tempted to give a little renovation to mock the place, but she knew it wasn't worth her time. Before turning away she gave a gave a small, sympathetic look to the burning witch, barely discernible between broad red strokes.
"Besides, that's your honor, isn't it? If you really are here..."
There wasn't much to do in the area, and she didn't have enough evidence to credit simple rumors, but there was still a sliver of hope that the witch was alive. Apparently, a couple of days ago some lesser demons scavenging the region were severely injured near the chapel, and claimed a witch tortured them with a furious inferno.
Of course, no one believed in the story. Then other accidents happened. A tree spontaneously caught on fire, candles suddenly exploding and cars inexplicably overheating. Nothing too impressive for a child with a lighter or an Umbra Witch, though enough to make Bayonetta to give a little tour around and maybe watch the mysterious lilies bloom.
Distracted in her own world, the witch barely noticed the big puffy dog, a Leonberger, prancing near her. Then a young man intercepted him with a little girl, who ignored his instructions to leash the pet and looked at the painting.
"What is this?" She asked the man.
"Uh, it's a painting." He joked, casually lifting the large animal and nestling in his arms.
"No!" She huffed. "I know it's a painting! I'm asking what it's about"
The young man looked distracted at the art, not hiding the lack of interest in his eyes. "It's just an old painting of a... Burning woman, with some dudes hanging around."
The girl shook her head. "But what does all that mean? And what about the angels? Why aren't they helping her?"
"Because angels don't exist." He dismissed. "This painting was just made because some people were way too full of themselves a long time ago."
Bayonetta eyed the scene with passive interest, amused by their ignorance. She chuckled, realizing how dull her day was to actually listen to some strangers' small talk. The witch could let them go and forget their exchange, but the playing with innocent kids before doing business was too tempting. For educational purposes, of course.
"Angels do exist, honey!" She suddenly beamed at the girl. "Don't let this boy's hard head fool you, because angels don't like liars!" She winked, looking at the young man's react with the corner of her eyes.
The girl's eye widened with the revelation. "Really?"
"Of course! Can't you see the painting? The angels are helping the knights fight the witch."
She could hear the boy groaning into the dog's fur, as if she told them something absurdly stupid.
The girl gasped at the summary. "They're hurting that poor woman? Why?"
"Oh, dear. She was a witch." She answered with levity. "But don't worry, witches are naughty girls, and they can bite back just as hard."
The boy sneered at her. "Sounds like a load of bullsh- nonsense justify something horrible."
"It's not nonsense. Trust me, I'm a nun. Part time nowadays, but don't test me!"
"I- what?" He coughed, letting the grip on his arms soften and the dog leaped on the ground.
The little girl, already growing bored by the exchange, used her pet as a less than subtle excuse to go outside after thanking them for their time. Bayonetta gave her a polite goodbye.
"You should keep your pets on a tighter leash, that's how I take care of mine."
The boy looked away, pretending to ignore the tease. "You sure don't act like a nun I know."
"And what do you know about nuns, angels and witches?"
"Well, I did work at a church once as a... Security guard. Full time. It was a load of crap."
Bayonetta eyed him with curiosity before the priest called the boy, who hastily followed him after giving and awkward wave. He was a curious figure in that boring part of the world, saying lots of interesting opinions that made her suspicious of his , though he was too honest to imply there were deeper motivations behind his words, even if he tried to mask it with his attitude.
"Protected a church, yet he rejects angels. I wonder..."
Nero didn't imagine there was a catacomb below the chapel, somehow carved inside the hill centuries ago. The priest assured that, besides its existence, he didn't know anything about the place, remarking that him and everyone else were too scared to explore and any official documentation about it faded away a long time ago.
Negligence aside, the hunter could feel something was different about the atmosphere, too bright for a catacomb, and too cold and dry for that time of the year. The large tunnels were made by inhuman means, like something with large claws dug its way in. A couple of barely intact bones had unnatural shape, at the very least not human. Instead of torches, the walls had bulbs that kept well preserved petals of the famous ember lily.
According to the priest, about a week ago a loud cry was heard from the catacombs and during the night something busted the door open. Nero could find a few fresh scratch marks, but nothing useful. Fortunately, both his hunting experience and demonic instincts were sharp enough to walk through the maze and ignore most of the distractions.
While he examined the environment, a lizard crawled out of the shadows. It was a Blade that carefully prepared to leap towards its prey, only to be unceremoniously shot in the face.
"About time you bastards did something!" Nero complained. "You're all just stalking and not doing anything, let's just get over it so I can finish this before noon."
The demons, seemingly understanding the taunt, ditched stealth and jumped at the hunter. Without enough room to swing his sword, Nero had to rely on his revolver to blow their skulls and his fists to brutally crush their bodies. It was a delightful stress reliever, without a trace of elegance or care, just a bunch of monsters enjoying the pure violence.
The fight was so sloppy Nero threw one of the Blades into an empty coffin, which broke with the impact and revealed light coming from below and a strong breeze that pushed the molded air from the tight corridor.
"Fresh air? I'm at least in the center of this hill." Nero wondered, pausing the slaughter for a second to kick the remains of the coffin away and finding a tight tunnel that led to a well lit place.
"Well, I'm not gonna complain about a shortcut."
He tossed one of the demons in the hole first, just in case there was a trap below, and follow right after. To his surprise, he was falling on a large ceremonial room, complete with a round altar and dozens of old furniture lying around, most of them covered with a dusty white cloth. The ceiling so tall that Nero instinctively summoned his wings to land more comfortably, while the test subject splattered on the ground, causing a loud echo. The fake windows were so bright it didn't look like an underground temple.
A lot of Blades chased him blindly and fell pathetically to their deaths just like their friend. Nero felt other demons approaching rapidly, attracted by the noise and the smell of fresh blood. He could also feel something stronger, definitely connected to the demon world, like a portal or a large demon beneath the place.
"I thought those two idiots were going to keep demons from reaching here." He sighed and took his trusty Red Queen from the case. "Can't even trust them to keep a couple of doors closed..."
The moment he touched the ground, an unfamiliar creature appeared from a pillar and dashed towards him, wielding a double edged black and carmine scythe, ready to slice his head off. Nero caught the blade with his sword and, instead of countering, he examined the demon. He was tall, purple and sharp, with a lot of spiky details and a cape made of rings.
"New guy? I've never seen you in this neighborhood." The devil hunter asked, then punched the demon with his wing arm.
The foe was caught off guard and was staggered by the sudden attack, but he was quick to recover and resume the fight. Tougher than the lethargic Hells Nero usually massacred in his regular assignments, but not exactly a challenge. After a clashing blades, the hunter kicked his stomach and snatched his weapon, examining it with curiosity.
"Sweet! I Wonder if Nico can make something out of this." He spun the scythe with childish enthusiasm while the enemy flailed on the ground.
Nero stopped playing when he heard something jingling near one of the blades. It looked like a partially burnt charm made of copper, with a lily motif and small, elaborate details decorating its surface. On the center, there was a cracked watch with bent arms and strange letters engraved.
While he wasn't particularly found of those types of accessories, the watch emanated a peculiar dark energy that caught his attention, almost alluring him. His feathered Devil Bringers also reacted to the object, as they usually did around an unusual or magical presence, and the hunter never knew if it was a good sign or not.
The demon, fuming in rage and humiliation, pounced in a desperate attempt of revenge. Nero's senses suddenly flared up. He threw the scythe at the threat just as the foe was sniped with a bullet.
Sitting on a bronze chandelier, a woman nonchalantly blew the hot barrel of her gun after dodging Nero's attack with a swing.
"What do we have here, perhaps an angel that slipped under my nose?" Her distinct voice and style was instantly recognized.
"I didn't know they taught nuns how to stalk- Wait, did you say angel?" Nero blinked. His first reaction was to wonder if the chapel was somehow connected to the Order of The Sword, and their artificial demons were attacking the place. He still raised his gun at the suspicious attacker.
The woman answered by shooting a barrage of bullets at him. Confused, Nero dodged the attack and shot the chains holding the chandelier. She leaped away as the structure fell, contorting her flexible body on the air and shooting in a sadistic pattern, purposefully making him dance rather than going for the kill.
Irritated, Nero shielded his body with Red Queen and used his spectral arms to throw furnitures at the attacker. She kicked right through them and landed behind the hunter, blocking the incoming hot blade with the azure pistol. They stood still, measuring each other's strength through the contact of their weapons.
"Hmm... Heaven doesn't make tender boys like this." The supposed nun commented, examining the hunter like a cat watched a bird. then she raised an eyebrow when her eyes landed on the clock. "But they do make nasty thieves like you!"
"What?" Nero almost stuttered, tempted to stop the fight just to clarify the situation. Although she didn't feel like a demon, there was a powerful wicked aura coming from her, only confusing him further. "You're not a demon... What the hell are you?"
They ceased their clash and hopped away from each other. The woman made the first move with a wide kick, using the pistol on her feet to cover the head-on attack while her skirt flew with the scandalous move. Nero froze, taken aback with her carefree display, and barely managed to block her leg with his wings by instinct rather than reflex.
She used the wings as leverage to spring up with a graceful leap, landing on the side of a pillar. "I am a naughty girl, and it looks like a I need punish you for my lecture for granted!"
"A witch?" Nero glared her with cynicism. He felt the dangerous aura increase, as well as her excitement, when she heard the word.
Her clothes started magically dissolving as she slowly walked down the pillar. Her body moved sensually, swinging her hips in an inviting manner, but she had the eyes of an active predator, one who preferred to strike the prey first instead of waiting for a fool to fall for the honeytrap. Uncomfortably embarrassed, the hunter looked away, scrambling in his mind for ways to stop the madness.
"You're gonna catch a cold. Here, take this!" Nero kicked a nearby table at the woman. She slapped it away, but the cloth fell over her body. Then, the hunter used his charged shots to surprise her.
Black tendrils splashed from the pillar, forming a gigantic fist that almost punched Nero into the ground. The witch emerged right after, wearing a black tight suit and ready to shoot her target, only to be interrupted by a sneeze.
"First time I get to introduce myself without a barbarian tearing my clothes off, and this is how you ruin my show!" She complained. "I was considering letting you go if you gave me that watch, but now that you covered me in dust I'll enjoy toying with you!"
"Maybe you shouldn't shoot first and assume things. I'm not a thief or an angel!" Nero cocked a spiteful grin and threw more furnitures at her. "And if you call that a show maybe you should consider being a full time nun again, you're not impressing anyone!"
The witch retaliated by launching more tendrils at him. While he dodged, Nero put the watch in his pocket and decided to dismiss whatever she did and said as nonsense in order to focus on the fight. She sounded like a lunatic, but seemed to have more context than him so if anything went wrong he could still use the accessory as a bargaining chip.
She was really good in making him busy, giving little room the breathe. Their fight wrecked the whole place as they escalated their attacks trying to overpower, and impress, each other. Nero had to admit he was having a lot of fun in the chaos, against an opponent that kept him on his toes, making him use his tools, and always surprising with magic attacks from dead angles. But the best part was not having to deal with some kind of baggage on his shoulders.
Eventually, the witch summoned her fists again, intending to squish him head on. He accepted the challenge and morphed his wings into giant hands to catch them and prepared for the worst. The impact made Nero stumble backwards and crack the floor, losing his balance. He exerted so much strength to keep the stalemate his body accidentally transformed, surprising the woman.
"That doesn't look like an angel I know." She commented, lowering her guns and approaching with curiosity. "And these don't look like the summons a Lumen Sage uses."
"Will you stop throwing terms around? I'm a human!" Nero yelled, backing away as the witch came closer. "Mostly- I mean, I'm part demon!"
Her suit diminished the more power she gave to her summon. He felt his cheeks and ears burning with all kinds of stress, but he hated seeing the woman's delight even more, devilishly grinning at his display of frustration visible through the demonic skin.
She hooked her pistol on his horn, making Nero look up, right into her eyes. "I've never seen a demon that's such a cherry boy!"
"What the fuck?!"
The distraction was enough to make Nero lose balance and, instead of pushing, the magic fists pulled him up and gave him a strong shake. Startled, Nero lost control of his feathered arms and they turned back to their original form. He felt like a doll being pulled by strings, feeling more humiliated than hurt.
"And what would a demon boy be doing down here, looking for the soul of a witch to feast?" She asked, examining his body.
Nero shook his head, feeling naked in that position. "Look, I'm just looking for a missing woman, whatever business you have with witches and angels is not my problem. Now put me down!"
"Don't look at me. The lady downstairs seems to be interested in you." She shrugged. "She says you remind her of someone she knew."
The hands fidgeted around, delicately rubbing her thumb over the claws. Uncomfortable, Nero turned back and dismissed his wings to free himself, which apparently upset the owner of the magical limbs and made her leave the room. The witch looked amused, apparently hearing whatever the demon had to say.
"Never been downstairs, must be a coincidence." Nero dismissed. He pondered if she met a member of his infamous family, but he kept his curiosity to himself, knowing that mentioning his bloodline to strangers and lunatics would just invite trouble. "Anyway, I didn't steal anything. The watch was stuck in a demon, in fact I have no idea what this is."
He pulled the watch and showed it to her. The woman tried to snatch it from his hand, only to be evaded at the last moment.
"Ha! Finders keepers!" Nero played. "You tell me what this is and maybe I'll give it to you."
"Didn't you just say that my business is not your problem?" The witch chided.
"It will be my problem if your business get in my way. And the last thing I need is a witch ruining my job."
"How about you give me the watch and I won't spank you till your cheeks turn permanently red?"
Nero was tempted to ignore the threat and taunt her, but he knew she was dead serious and he didn't want antagonize the witch more than he already did. Despite not wanting to get involved in her problems, deep inside he was a little curious and wanted to see what was going on, feeling that at best it was an opportunity to know more about a newly discovered subject. And, at worst, if their cases were connected he wouldn't be caught off guard.
As she raised her gun, Nero's right arm began to glow and the watch was absorbed into the limb. A hot sting made his body shiver, and a brief, raging memory flashed in his mind before the artifact seemingly settled down.
"Ah, oops." He paused. "I didn't know that could still happen..."