Fistful of Silver

Fistful of Silver
A Guardians of Pelinon Novelette

Quincy J. Allen

One

Careful of the black bird perched on his saddle, Rellen guided his black stallion, Shaddeth, through the iron gates of Calamath City. He entered the shadow-filled, stone portal stretching thirty feet ahead, and felt the chill of winter that still clung to the southern regions of the Pelinon Kingdom. With one hand, Rellen pulled his black, woolen cloak tighter around his leather pauldrons and the bandoleer of pouches that crossed his chest. With his other, he held before him a small sphere of obsidian—the Eye of Tuluum—suspended upon a silver chain draped around his neck. His keen gray eyes were fixed upon the dramatic angle of the stone as it leaned forward several inches away from his body, defying gravity.

The white fetlocks of Shaddeth’s hooves clopped slowly across cobbled stones, sending heavy echoes ahead and drawing the wary eyes of two city guards in green tunics who stood in the sunlight just beyond the portal. One of them eyed Shaddeth’s muscled, chainmail-clad form with an appraising eye, while the other seemed intent upon the dagger-like blaze of white running down the middle of Shaddeth’s face. Both guards had stern expressions, as if Rellen—or the horse—were guilty of some crime.

Rellen exited the portal, relishing the warmth of the late afternoon sun, and nodded to the guards who remained silent as he passed by. Ahead lay a wide-open half-circle of cobbled stones about forty yards across, with a fountain at its center and three streets entering the area. A tall pile of aged firewood lay between the portal and the fountain, and a group of youths added to the pile one log at a time. A dozen or so men and women in the bright southern garments of the region busily hung holly branches and pine wreathes upon the doors and balconies of the shops that faced in towards the fountain. Rellen realized they were preparing for the Winter Solstice Celebration the following night. He’d been on the road for several weeks and forgotten all about it.

As Rellen passed the fountain, the pendant swung back and dangled freely in his hand. Rellen pulled up short and sighed with frustration.

“That’s all you’re going to give me?” he asked quietly.

The Eye gave no reply, not that he expected one, so he slipped the stubborn relic beneath his tunic where the cold obsidian gem chilled his chest. As usual, the Eye had provided only enough to arrive where he was supposed to be.

“I guess I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way,” he lamented. “As usual.”

Turning in his saddle, one hand resting upon the wrapped bundle of books lashed to Shaddeth’s withers, he looked to the nearest of the guards.

“Can you direct me to the City Guard Tower?” he asked.

“Aye,” the guard replied. “Straight up Barony Road, there.” He pointed past the fountain and down the middle street. “Seven blocks and you’ll see it on the right. Gray stone walls and a bell tower four stories up.”

“My thanks,” Rellen replied. Before turning back, he noticed two small, sharp-horned beetles with thick blue carapaces crawling across the bundle of books. He’d been plagued by the creatures ever since he entered the region. They weren’t dangerous, but if you squashed them, their stench was horrible. He flicked them both off his books, adjusted the heavy crossbow dangling from his saddle, and gave Shaddeth’s reins a shake that set the war horse moving once again.

Rellen’s eyes drifted across the faces of those preparing for the Solstice, and he noted something strange. The Winter Solstice was a happy time, marking when the days would grow longer and the nights shorter. Calamath was an agrarian city, and he would have assumed these people would be in better spirits. They all seemed subdued—quiet and almost fearful. Then he saw more city guards, all of them with wary eyes, as if they feared some sort of danger or subterfuge.

Rellen proceeded along Barony Road, shop fronts rolling by, when a commotion ahead broke the calm.

“Please don’t take him!” a woman cried as a guard held her shoulders. “He’s done nothing wrong.”

Two more guards stood in the street, one of them holding a set of shackles in his hands.

As Rellen approached, two other guards hauled a big fellow out of what appeared to be a pottery shop. The prisoner had long, wavy red hair and a nose one could plow a field with, but for all his size and what appeared to a thick frame beneath winter wool, he was no match for the guards. They dragged him into the street.

A number of passers-by stared on, but they did not stop, and many hastily disappeared into nearby shops, as if they were fearful they might also be clapped in irons.

“I tell you, I’m innocent!” the man shouted.

“Of course you are,” a guard growled. “All you Nissra cultists are innocent.”

“You can take it up with the Lieutenant,” another guard said. “All that stands between you and freedom is a purification rite.”

“There’s nothing to purify, I tell you,” the man struggled in their grasp. “I do not have the taint of evil upon me.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to fear, do you?” the guard with the chains asked.

“Just go through the rite,” the woman cried. “Do as they say, and everything will be fine.”

The man looked to his wife with frightened eyes and slowly relaxed.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “I will, Magdelain. I’ll be home soon. I promise.”

Rellen didn’t slow as he watched a guard shackle the shopkeeper.

One of the guards looked up at him with guarded eyes.

“Move along,” he ordered, pointing down the street. “You’ll only find trouble here.”

Rellen nodded and proceeded up the street with an easy clip-clop of Shaddeth’s hooves. The street was busy, with people from all walks of life moving about. Most of the shops had a wreath on door or balcony. He spied three-sconce candelabras in many of the windows, candles burning bright, meant to stave off darkness during the longest night of the year.

He crossed several blocks before spying a bell tower on the right-hand side. He made his way to it and guided Shaddeth to a wide area on the near side with several hitching posts. He quickly dismounted and secured Shaddeth’s reins to the post nearest a heavy, wooden door cut into the side of the stonework guard tower.

Taking a quick inventory of everything secured to his mount and confident Shaddeth would stomp anyone foolish enough to lay a hand on his belongings, he pulled a small strip of vellum and a charcoal stick from a pouch and scrawled the message, “Eye led to Calamath. Seeking bounties.” Rolling the vellum up, he held it before the black bird who obediently clamped down on it with its beak. When Rellen stepped back, the bird leapt from the saddle and flew northeast.

Giving a satisfied nod, he moved up to the heavy wooden door, opened it, and stepped inside.

Lanterns hanging on the walls and from a low ceiling lit the interior of the guard tower, a mixture of gray stone and dark timbers. The front, double doors to his left were closed but not barred. A weapons rack full of pikes, heavy spears, and long swords adorned one wall, and there was a large, empty cage on the far side of the room. A desk filled the space to Rellen’s right, and beyond the desk was a closed wooden door. Behind the desk sat a sour-looking city guard with dark, curly hair down to his shoulders and piggy eyes of green that narrowed as Rellen stepped up.

“Can I help you?” the guard asked tersely. His eyes rolled from the falchions at Rellen’s hips, up along the bandoleer of pouches, and stopped at Rellen’s placid countenance.

“I suspect you can,” Rellen said easily. “I am Rellen of Corsia, and I wish to check in with the Captain of the Guard.”

“I’m Lieutenant Stevin Maddock, and nobody sees the captain just by coming in here and asking. He’s a busy man, and being from the capital city doesn’t amount to a pile of rat shit around here.”

Rellen blinked a few times and let a slim, patient smile work its way onto his face.

“Of course it doesn’t,” he replied calmly. “What does amount to a good deal more is that I’m a bounty hunter come to Calamath to review your board and see what might be of interest to me.”

Maddock sneered when he heard the term bounty hunter.

“Let me see your writ,” he barked, holding out his hand.

“I’m afraid I’ll only present that to the captain. It is not only my right, but it’s been my experience that starting with the captain has a tendency to alleviate any future… misunderstandings.”

Maddock blew out an irritated breath.

“We don’t need your kind in Calamath,” he said bitterly. “You should leave the city.”

Rellen smiled broadly. He was accustomed to such treatment, having faced it with some frequency in the smaller baronies he’d visited across the realm.

“Well, Lieutenant Maddock, if it was up to you—or even the Baron, himself—I’d leave forthwith. Unfortunately for you, it’s not.” He put just a hint of an edge on the last word. “Assuming I don’t break any laws, only a Magistrate or King Saren, himself, can order me to leave this or any other city. As a member of the Guild, my duty is to check in with the City Guard, which is why I’m here, and I have every right to do so with your captain. Would you please fetch him?”

As Maddock stood, a decidedly bitter look upon his face, the front double-doors opened inward with a thud, and two guards led in the red-headed shopkeeper who was now secured in shackles. They marched him in towards the closed door at the back of the room.

Maddock nodded satisfactorily as they passed by and opened the door.

“Lock that Nissran up with the others.” Turning to Rellen, he said, “Alright, bounty hunter, come with me.”

Maddock followed the guards and their prisoner, with Rellen in tow. They entered a second room with a large desk on the right where a middle-aged man sat going through a stack of vellum. His eyes flitted up to the guards who led their prisoner through an iron door at the back of the room, and then he shifted his gaze to Maddock and Rellen.

“Captain Kellith Hendron,” Maddock said stiffly, “This is the bounty hunter Rellen of Corsia, here to check in.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. That will be all,” Hendron said.

“Yes, sir,” Maddock said. With a parting sneer at Rellen, he walked out of the room, leaving the door open behind him.

Rellen stepped up to the desk, reached into a pouch at his waist, and pulled out a folded piece of heavy vellum. He handed it over to the captain.

“Thank you,” Hendron said. “It was Rellen, yes?”

“That’s correct, Captain.”

The captain unfolded and read through the writ. When he got to the bottom, his eyes widened in mild surprise. “This is signed by King Saren himself.”

“Yes, sir,” Rellen said easily. “I knew him when he was young.” The captain raised his eyes expectantly, but Rellen offered no further explanation. “If I may, I’d like to review the board.”

Captain Hendron took one last look at the writ, drew in a long breath, and let it out. Folding the vellum, he handed it back. “Of course,” he said as Rellen slipped the writ back in its pouch.

Hendron rose and moved around the desk, leading Rellen to the board on the far side of the room. Bounty posters covered it, with most of them depicting rough sketches of criminal faces. Some Rellen recognized as Capital Bounties offered by the King, but others were regional or local in nature, with most of those showing the Seal of Calamath.

Rellen reviewed the board slowly, but nothing caught his attention. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but that wasn’t that unusual. The Eye of Tuluum had led him to Calamath, and his duty as a bounty hunter brought him to the board.

There was only one thing for him to do now.

He pulled out the Eye and dangled it in front of the board. Moving his hand over each bounty, he watched for any sort of reaction. Suddenly, the Eye slid forward, once again defying gravity. The poster before it didn’t have a sketch or even a description of the criminal. It simply held the name “Ravager,” and posted a bounty of five hundred pieces of gold.

Rellen smiled. “Tell me about this one,” he said, turning to the captain.

Hendron had been staring at the Eye, mildly surprised at its behavior, but he then shifted his gaze to Rellen.

“The Ravager.” Hendron let out a slow breath and went very calm. “The killings started a month ago. We’ve found twelve bodies inside the city so far, one every two or sometimes three days. Each one was slashed to ribbons with blades, and the killer carved the sigil of Nissra into each forehead.”

“Do you suspect that shopkeeper they just brought in,” Rellen said.

Hendron looked surprised. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know why they brought that fellow in, although it’s possible he’s been accused of Nissra involvement. The Nissra cult has been growing steadily for the past six months or so. When we discover them, we perform a purification ritual to purge the taint of Nissra. That was mostly under control until these murders started.”

Rellen knew little about Nissra. What he did know could be summarized in the fact that she was a minor blood goddess in the Zalliphur pantheon. She had a host of demons at her disposal, and she tasked her minions and followers with seeking the flesh and blood of non-faithful—the more innocent, the better. He also knew that there was little place for such filth in civilized societies. Nissra cults were a plague—one Rellen had never faced—but he knew they needed eradication.

“That’s some pendant you have there,” Hendron said, changing the subject. “What does it do? Lead you to evil?”

Rellen gave a slight chuckle.

“No,” he said wryly. “Nothing so direct. It’s a scrying stone of sorts. It leads me to places, sometimes things, but it only works on destinations relevant to me, and it can be fickle. It led me to this city, and it led me to that.” He pointed to the bounty poster. “But it won’t lead me to people, and therefore, not the Ravager. That I’ll have to do the old-fashioned way.”

“Where did you get such a thing?” Hendron asked, genuinely curious.

Rellen smiled. “Oh, I picked this up when I was young. It’s a long story, one I’m not inclined to tell.”

Hendron looked like he was going to press the matter when thudding footsteps filled the outer room followed by a boy shouting, “My Da is dead! The Ravager got him. Please come help!”

“There it is,” Hendron said quietly. “Just a little later than expected.”

Rellen turned curious eyes to Hendron as the captain strode into the next room. He followed to find a small, dark-haired lad in threadbare clothing standing before Lieutenant Maddock.

“It’s alright, son,” Hendron said, stepping up to the boy. “We’re here to help.”

Lieutenant Maddock’s gaze turned from the boy to his captain. “It seems we have another mess to clean up,”

“Let the boy lead you to his father,” Hendron replied. “Find out what you can, and if the silver is there, bring it back to me immediately.” Hendron shook his head. “Gods be damned Nissrans,” he grumbled in a low voice.

“I’d like to go with them, Captain Hendron,” Rellen said. “It seems my pendant has brought me to the right place at the right time.”

“We don’t need help from a damned bounty hunter,” Maddock growled.

Hendron looked hesitant. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’d prefer that Maddock go alone. A bounty hunter in the mix could complicate an already tangled affair.”

“Respectfully, Captain, my writ gives me the authority to tag along. While I am oath-bound not to interfere with your investigation, I am permitted to observe civil operations in pursuit of a bounty.”

Captain Hendron sighed. “Very well,” he said, opening his eyes once again. He glanced at Rellen and then turned his gaze to Lieutenant Maddock. “Maybe a fresh set of eyes might help. Take him along.”

Rellen hadn’t thought it possible, but Maddock’s features grew even more sour.

“Yes, Captain,” Maddock said.

Two

The boy led Maddock about ten blocks south into the city, with Rellen following on horseback, before guiding them into a maze of alleys that smelled of emptied chamber pots and rotting vegetables. Wooden balconies hung over their path, blocking out much of the waning sunlight and adding more chill to the air. There were dead-end alleys and dilapidated courtyards all along the way, a testament to the more impoverished area of the city they now occupied. Occasionally, a man or woman with nervous eyes would steal a glance over a balcony as the three passed by. Maddock said not a word once they’d left the guard tower, and he seemed to be going out of his way to keep his back to Rellen.

After navigating enough maze for Rellen to worry about minotaurs, they made one final turn and entered a filthy inner courtyard of sorts where a crowd had gathered chattering in low hisses and whispers. From Shaddeth’s saddle, Rellen saw that the crowd surrounded two teenage boys with angry eyes who stood facing away from each other. The older one, a lad of roughly sixteen years, threatened the crowd with a rusty short sword. The other, perhaps twelve, hefted a cleaver that looked gigantic in his small hands. The two boys stood guard over something that lay between them, and Rellen heard the sobbing cries of a woman nearby. The features and dark hair of the two boys, so very much like the lad who led them there, proclaimed their obvious kinship.

Rellen dismounted as the boy led Maddock towards the edge of the crowd.

“Make way!” Maddock shouted.

The nearest peasants turned angry eyes towards the intrusive command, but those same eyes grew wary, even fearful, when they spied Maddock’s guard tunic. Those in his path parted quickly, shoving people to get out of his way. The last of the crowd separated, revealing the two boys guarding the horribly ravaged body of a middle-aged man in blood soaked, rough, woolen garb. The area was slick with blood, and the victim appeared to have been killed by a thousand cuts. Most of his arms and legs had been exposed, for his killer had chosen to slash through the garments rather than removing them to undertake what Rellen suspected was some sort of sacrifice.

Several of the blue, horned beetles crawled along the pavement nearby, but they seemed uninterested in the body or the blood. Rellen made sure not to step on any of them, for he didn’t want to experience that stench again. Once had been quite enough.

“I brought them, Dalen,” their guide shouted as he ran up to the eldest of the two boys standing guard.

“They killed him,” Dalen said, his eyes upturned to Maddock. “They butchered him like an animal!”

“I know, boy,” Maddock said tersely. “I have eyes. Now step aside so I can do my job. We’ll see justice done yet. I promise.”

Dalen hesitated a moment and then moved off, his gaze turning to the slashed husk of his father.

Rellen moved in as well, stepping off to one side so he could get a good look at what had happened.

The body was laid out face up, with arms slightly away from the body and the palms upward. In the left palm, someone had stacked a neat pile of silver coins. Although the coins were pristine, the victim was entirely covered in blood. Rellen had seen worse in his time, but not by much. He bent over to inspect the mark of Nissra clearly carved into the man’s forehead. It was a neat circle of exposed white skull, with deep gouges carved into the bone that formed two curves in a V shape topped by a half-circle. And to the right of the mark, a perfect near-half-circle had been cut into the flesh.

“It’s just like the others,” Maddock said, crouching down on the other side of the body.

“Exactly?” Rellen asked.

Maddock hesitated, and for a moment he had a thoughtful look upon his face.

“Well, that curved line on the forehead is bowed more than the last one…” he finally said. “It’s almost a completely half circle now.”

“But the others were different?” Rellen focused his attention on the small curve cut into the man’s forehead.

“Yes. Each body had a different sized curve or a straight line right there.”

“I’m assuming you’ve gotten rid of the previous bodies?” Rellen asked, hoping to see the other marks.

“Of course. They’d all been carved up the same. We burned each within a few days of discovery.”

“Curse the luck,” Rellen muttered under his breath.

“Listen, bounty hunter, they were always the same on the arms and legs, and there didn’t seem to be any on the torso except for the last one across the throat.”

“I meant no disrespect,” Rellen said softly. “It’s just that such details can be important to someone with my training. Could you draw those lines and curves in order from memory?” He pulled out a piece of vellum and charcoal.

Maddock gave a curious smile. “Sure…. I can’t imagine what you’ll be able to make of them, though.” Maddock took the vellum and charcoal and started making marks.

“You let me worry about that,” Rellen replied. “No detail is too small in my line of work.”

“Whatever you say.”

Crouching, Rellen dipped a finger into the blood on the cobblestones. It was mostly dry, which meant the body had been there most of the day. His instincts told him the murder happened no more than a few hours before sunrise.

“Tell me, son,” Rellen said, rising to face Dalen, “when did you find him?”

“Maybe an hour ago,” Dalen replied as tears rolled down his cheeks. “We’d been searching all morning when my brother Shadol found him back here.”

“Did anyone touch anything?”

“No, sir,” Dalen said. “When the three of us got here, I sent Thukal to get the city guard. The crowd gathered while we waited.”

“When did you see your father last?”

A woman with auburn hair, a stained apron, and a neat but faded dress, stepped up as she dabbed the tears on her face with a kerchief.

“He was home last night at nine bells,” she said. “He left for a tavern—I don’t know which one—and we didn’t see him until Dalen found… this.” Her eyes flicked to her husband’s body, and she turned away, her body wracked with sobs. She threaded her way through the crowd towards the perimeter.

Rellen glanced at Maddock, who seemed bored with the whole thing. He had to concede, finding twelve bodies like this deadened ones senses to such carnage, but Maddock’s disinterest seemed peculiar. Maybe Maddock was just that surly. Maybe he’d given up trying to figure out who had committed the crimes. Even Rellen had to admit that, for a city guard, there wasn’t a lot to work with, especially in a city where the Nissra cult was gaining a foothold.

He glanced up and realized the buildings rose on three sides around the small courtyard, and there were no balconies or windows facing inward. It was a perfect place to do what had been done to this man. Normally, his screams would have been heard for a great distance, but there were both magical and herbal means of silencing a person when one wanted to do something terrible. Rellen had used such means himself in the past.

“Did anyone hear or see anything?” he asked, looking around the gathered peasants. Maddock gave him another sour look.

Several said, “No,” and most of the heads shook in the negative. Many of them held fear in their eyes, so he couldn’t be certain if anyone knew something or not. These people would be fearful of both the Ravager and the city guard. They were caught in the middle. He’d seen it before, and he suspected none of them would speak up, even if they thought it was safe.

Rellen moved around the body past Maddock and crouched over the open palm full of silver coins.

“Curious about the coins,” Rellen said. He counted twelve, and they where stacked neatly into a small pyramid. “They all had this?”

Maddock blew out an irritated breath. “The first had one coin, the second two, and so on. I would assume the next body, if there is one, will have thirteen. They were all laid out like this, and they all had the mark of Nissra in their foreheads. There were no tracks leading away from the scene, no bits of hair or paper left behind. Nothing. And nobody ever heard or saw what happened.”

Rellen examined the body from head to toe. At the victim’s waist he saw a coin purse, and it appeared to be full.

“So, the Ravager didn’t rob them, either. Why leave the silver?”

“We don’t know, bounty hunter. Why don’t you figure it out?”

“Where are the rest?”

“Of the coins? The Captain has them all in his desk… as evidence. Although I can’t imagine what good that will do.”

Maddock bent over and retrieved the coins from the victim’s hand. He was about to slip them into a pouch at his waist when Rellen stepped up.

“I don’t suppose I could exchange a silver for one of those, could I,” he asked.

Maddock glared at him. “This is evidence,” he barked. “It all has to go to the captain.”

Rellen smiled. “Let me rephrase that.” He reached into a pouch and pulled out a silver coin and a gold one. “I’ll gladly exchange a silver to replace one of those and add a gold for your trouble. You said yourself that you didn’t see how it could be used as evidence.” Rellen knew that he was just on the edge of breaking his oath to the law. He could feel a twinge—just a tingle—deep in his guts, but there was nothing explicitly unlawful about him possessing a piece of evidence, so long as he didn’t steal it and all parties were aware of the transaction.

Maddock narrowed his eyes and licked his lips thoughtfully. His eyes shifted back and forth. Rellen could see Maddock’s mind working.

“Alright,” he finally said. “What harm is there? A fistful of silver is still a fistful of silver. He held out one of the coins, and, for a flickering moment, he looked at Rellen as if he were calculating something. Then, for the first time, Maddock smiled. “I guess you’re not so bad after all.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Rellen said, taking the coin. He placed the silver and gold into Maddock’s hand, nodded his thanks, and kneeled down over the body once again. “So what can you tell me about the wounds?”

Maddock sighed. “It’s just like the other eleven. Arms and legs slashed to pieces, clothes still on, and blood everywhere. I’d have to say it is peculiar that the slashes seem to be pretty consistently placed, as if each one was put where it belonged.”

“So it’s probably a ritual…” Rellen said to himself. “Perhaps even magical.” He let his eyes move from one slash to the next, looking for a pattern or shape that might hold meaning.

“Look,” Maddock said only a little tersely. “I examined each one as soon as I got to it.” He crouched beside Rellen. “I don’t know what you think you’ll be able to find that I didn’t.”

“Maybe nothing, but it’s worth checking.” He glanced at Maddock. “Besides, I may have a few tricks that you don’t.” He gave the lieutenant a wink and then pulled a bit of deeply black powder from one of the pouches on his bandoleer. He closed his eyes, whispered an incantation in the Arcana language, and sprinkled the powder over the body from waist to chin, letting the last of it fall over the victim’s heart.

The powder swirled over the body, slowly at first, gaining speed in tiny black cyclones, and then coalesced into one large sphere about an inch in diameter. The sphere hovered over the victim’s chest for a few moments, and then vibrated as it spun on its vertical axis. A few moments later, the sphere divided, splitting into two spheres with one about twice the size of the other. They orbited each other for a few seconds, rejoined once again, and then, with a small flash of light, exploded into a puff of smoke that floated slowly away.

Rellen cocked his head to the side. He’d never seen the spell do that before.

“What are you doing there?” Maddock asked.

“It’s a simple incantation meant to reveal how many souls took the victim’s life. It coalesces on the life-forces present at the time of death. And your Ravager appears to be Ravagers.”

Maddock looked worried. “Are you certain?”

“Fairly so. Although, there was something strange… see how the big one split into two?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s just say that’s a little out of the ordinary.” Rellen didn’t know why the spheres would separate and rejoin like they did. Normally, there would be a sphere for each participant in the killing. He had no idea what it meant.

“So, there were two of them and not just one,” Maddock said. “Hell, the city has more Nissrans every day. What difference does it make? We should just hunt them all down and give them the purification ritual. Problem solved. Can we go now?”

For a moment, he considered calling Maddock out on his disinterest, but then something occurred to him. What if he’s one of the Ravagers? Or part of the cult and protecting the killer?

He looked back at the body, letting his eyes run over it from head to toe. Something didn’t add up. A deep patch of blood soaked the center of the man’s woolen tunic, but there weren’t any slashes through the material there. Granted, blood covered the clothing, but the concentration on his chest looked out of place somehow.

“Lieutenant,” Rellen said, looking up. “You said the marks were the same on the arms, legs, and throat.”

“That’s right.”

“Did you strip them down… look at their chests and backs?”

“No. There weren’t any slashes in the fabric like the rest of the body. We burned them just as we found them.”

Rellen’s eyes drifted back to the blood-soaked tunic. He lifted the victim’s garment up from the waist and was surprised to find a small set of sigils carved into the flesh with a narrow blade, just over the heart. He pulled a piece of cloth from a pouch on his belt and wiped away most of the blood that obscured them. He immediately recognized the language of the sigils.

When he looked up, Maddock’s eyes were fixed upon the symbols, and his expression was blank.

“Could I have that vellum and charcoal?” Rellen asked, holding out his hand.

Maddock handed them over, and Rellen quickly sketched the sigils.

“What are they?” Maddock asked.

“Sigils. The language is Azjerbahn, and it’s used in the dark arts.”

“So, it’s a spell?” Maddock asked.

“I honestly don’t know… could be just ritual. Or maybe these Ravagers are completely out of their heads. I may be able to find out though. Is there a magic school in this city?”

“Yes. It’s near the Duke’s castle… on the south side along the main thoroughfare. Do you want me to keep this body?”

“No,” Rellen said, rising to his feet. He slipped the charcoal into the pouch where he got it and folded the vellum. Heading for Shaddeth, he looked over his shoulder. “I think I have what I need.”

“What are you going to do now?” Maddock looked slightly confused.

“First, I’m going to find an inn. Then I plan on finding the Ravagers … After that, I’m going to get paid.” He smiled. “So, where’s a good inn?”

“There’s one just a couple doors down the street from the magic school, actually,” Maddock said.  “Called the Green Gryphon. My cousin runs it.”

“Perfect,” Rellen said, pulling himself up into the saddle. “I’ll see you around, Lieutenant.”

With that, he pulled on the reins and guided Shaddeth back the way they had come, leaving a wake of perplexed faces behind him.

Three

The owner of the Green Gryphon—a spindly man named Mr. Cray—had suspicious eyes, a hawk nose, and tidy linen clothing of forest green. He led Rellen to a door halfway along the second floor of the inn, slid a key into the lock, and pushed the door open with a flourish.

“There she be, sir.” Cray pulled the key out and slipped it into Rellen’s shirt pocket.

Rellen, having left Shaddeth at the livery stable next door, was burdened with his heavy crossbow, saddle bags, and the bundle of books. He entered a simple room with a bed, dresser, table, small fireplace, and a row of coat-pegs just inside the door. He laid his gear upon the table and followed that with both falchions.

“Thank you, Mr. Cray. This will do nicely.” He stepped up to the door, slipped Cray a silver, and smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.” Without another word, he closed the door on a surprised face, slipped the key from his pocket, and locked the bolt.

Rellen moved to the fireplace, took several split logs from the pile beside it, and set them on the hearth. He placed his hand upon the logs, uttered a quick incantation, and the bottom-most log ignited with a sparking flash.

As the flames quickly spread across the other logs, he made his way to the table. Sitting down in the creaking chair, he pulled out a small sheet of vellum and a piece of charcoal from one of his pouches and began writing.

Hunting a killer or killers of twelve. Likely related to growing Nissra cult. Magic probably involved. Nothing solid. It could involve constabulary. Send a detachment.

Pulling a black feather from a pouch on his bandoleer, he placed it upon the table, closed his eyes, and gesticulated several times with both of his hands as he uttered a lengthy incantation. He felt the energy coalesce in the space before him and pour into the feather. Soon, the feather glowed an unearthly blue. He spoke the incantation again, focusing his will upon it. When he finished, the feather glowed white and transformed into a crow. The bird came to life, turned its head, and blinked at him several times.

Rellen rolled up the small piece of vellum and let the creature bite down upon it. He then went to the window, opened it onto the main street, and waited as the bird leapt from the table and flew out. It quickly adjusted its course and headed northeast.

With that out of the way, Rellen undid the strap securing the books and set them to the side one-by-one. When he got to a particularly thick, leather bound tome entitled the Lingua Magica, he set the rest aside and thumbed through it until he came to a section titled “Azjerbahn.” Retrieving his sketch of the sigils from the victim’s chest, he began the pain-staking process of translation.

It took him several hours, but when he was done, he examined what he had produced.

“Bonds cut from seething flesh, tying mother and son, the mother breaks upon fullest night.”

He read it again.

And again.

Rellen shook his head. The bloody thing didn’t make much sense to him. Did it mean cutting bonds to free something? Was it creating bonds cut from flesh? He was dealing with the Nissra cult, so it really could be either. Who was mother? Who was son? And how could a mother be born?

“Better to sleep on it,” he said quietly. Over the years, he’d found that sleeping helped him solve magical mysteries. He could feel fatigue working its way into his body, so he had more than one reason to turn in.

He rose to his feet with one last thing to do. He considered doing what he always did, but something told him that changing his routine might bear fruit.

He turned to the fire, placed his palms together, and pointed his fingers at the flames. He focused his will upon the glowing embers beneath the hearth and picked out two. He uttered a brief incantation of some potency, and as he pulled his hands apart, both embers lifted out and floated through the air towards him, until each hovered above one of his open palms. He focused upon the one above his left hand and spoke another incantation that caused the ember to glow more brightly. When it was white hot, he stretched his hand out towards the window, the ember following obediently, and he blew once upon it. The ember sailed towards the window, impacted the glass, and spread across the entire surface with a flash of ruby light. He repeated the same process, this time blowing the ember over his other hand towards the door where it impacted and spread across the entire surface.

Rellen let out a long, weary breath.

The spells of the day had taken their toll, and with a wash of deep fatigue, he moved over to the bed, grabbed one of his falchions along the way, and lay down upon the bed fully clothed and still in his leather armor. It was an old ritual, and one he was unlikely to abandon.

Four

A loud WHUFF of flame followed by a man screaming in agony sent Rellen leaping from the bed, falchion in hand. In the pale glow of the dying fire, he saw a man lying on the floor just inside the open door, writhing in pain and screaming.

The window shattered with another WHUFF as a man tumbled through. He immediately fell to the floor and added his screams to the chaos.

A shadow filled the doorway, and Rellen watched a burly man with a short sword tentatively stick his weapon and then his hand through the opening.

“You can come in,” Rellen called over the screaming. “The spell is spent. Besides, what would your masters think of such cowardice?”

Rellen’s taunt had the desired effect.

The man’s pock-marked features turned furious.

Infidel,” the last intruder hissed as he charged in. He swung his weapon in a fast, overhand arc Rellen parried easily with a clang of steel on steel. The attacker drew the blade back and sent a fist flying towards Rellen’s chin. Rellen leaned back, blocked another slash of the short sword, and then kicked the assailant squarely in the crotch.

The man grunted, doubling over as Rellen side-stepped, raised his blade, and separated the man’s head from his shoulders with a wet THUCK. Without pausing, Rellen stepped forward and thrust his blade through the throat of the man writhing by the door, silencing him.

Wrenching his falchion free, Rellen turned on the man writhing by the window, although his screams were easing into a pained groan.

Rellen stepped up and unceremoniously kicked the last assailant across the jaw, snapping his back and forth. His groaning stopped, but his breathing didn’t.

“I still have use for you, my friend.” Rellen said with satisfaction.

There was a commotion downstairs as footsteps thumped towards the base of the stairs.

Rellen grabbed the unconscious man’s collar and hauled him up into the chair. Laying his sword upon the table, he pulled a long leather strap from a pouch on his belt, pulled the man’s arms behind his back and slapped the leather strap around his wrists. Concentrating his will, he made several brief gestures, and the strap slithered like a snake, tightening and tying itself off in a firm knot.

As Rellen stood, heavy feet pounded up the stairs and came to his open door.

Mr. Cray and two burly house thugs with studded clubs came to an immediate halt, staring at the carnage in the room.

“Great gods,” the innkeeper blurted.

“It’s alright, Mr. Cray,” Rellen soothed. “I’m fine.” He glanced at the two bodies on the floor. “They aren’t, I’m afraid.” He gave the innkeeper a satisfied smile. “I did manage to restrain this fellow, however,” he said, nodding to the assailant in the chair. Something made him do a double-take, and he stole glance at the unconscious man. In the weak glow of the embers, it was hard to tell, but there was something familiar about him.

“Who’s going to clean up this mess?” Cray demanded. “There’s blood everywhere, and it’s spreading.”

Rellen turned to the perturbed innkeeper.

“Let’s talk about that,” he offered. He moved to his saddlebag, pulled out five gold coins, and set them on the table. “Would that cover a broken window, someone with a mop, and two funerals?”

Cray’s features shifted from angry to larcenous. He stepped up to the table and swept the coins away with a motion so fast Rellen didn’t see where they went.

“I believe it would, sir,” Cray replied. “Shall I get the city guards?” he asked tentatively. “I can send for my cousin.”

Rellen was suddenly wary. Although it was sensible for Cray to consider the guards, there was something in the way he offered that got Rellen to thinking. What if Maddock was at the heart of all this, or at least involved. Had the lieutenant sent Rellen here so Cray could tell the killers where to go?

“I’d rather not,” Rellen replied. “At least not yet. I don’t know who’s involved in all of this, and I’d like to surprise them once I do.”

“You’re not suggesting my cousin is involved, are you?” Cray asked, shocked.

“Not at all,” Rellen soothed. “However, once he knows of this, he or someone else will have to investigate, and that could affect my own efforts.” Rellen eyed Cray. “Frankly, I’d like to find whomever is responsible before the city guard does. As a bounty hunter, I don’t have to worry about bringing them to the Magistrate before killing them.”

“I suppose see your point,” Cray replied.

“Infidels!” the prisoner shouted. Rellen, Cray, and the two house thugs turned surprised faces towards the man secured to the chair. “Nissra shall bathe in your blood!”

The man’s eyes were full of fury and hatred. He yelped once in pain, his body convulsed into a quivering moment of tension, and he went limp in the chair with a final explosion of breath.

They all stood there stunned.

“I did not expect that,” Rellen said with a good deal of disappointment. He had a few tricks that would have gotten him at least a few straight answers. “Make that three funerals,” Rellen added sullenly, looking to Cray.

“It’ll cost you another gold,” Cray replied.

Rellen rolled his eyes and let out his breath slowly. He dipped a finger into his coin purse and pulled out another gold coin. He handed it over, and it disappeared into Cray’s pocket as quickly as the others.

Rellen moved over and inspected the corpse, bewildered at how the man could have died. It didn’t take him long to find a ring on the man’s right index finger with a needle sticking out the side and several drops of blood on his thumb.

He carefully slipped the ring off and discovered the mark of Nissra on either side. He stepped back, an irritated look upon his face, and stared at the man’s features. Then it hit him. It was the shop owner who had been arrested the day before.

How is that possible? Rellen thought.

The odds that Maddock or even Captain Hendron were part of this just went up. It also meant Rellen unequivocally could not trust Cray.

“Is everything alright?” Cray asked, interrupting Rellen’s train of suspicions.

“Hmm?” Rellen looked to the innkeeper. “Oh, yes. Just thinking.” Rellen wiped his falchion off on the sleeve of the dead shopkeeper. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to change to a room that isn’t so… breezy.”

“Of course.” Cray said. He turned to the house thugs. “Attend to the bodies and get Hilda to mop up in here.”  Turning to Rellen, he said, “Collect your things and meet me at the end of the hall. The last room doesn’t have any windows.”

“I certainly appreciate that,” Rellen said as he started collecting his things.

Cray disappeared down the stairs, and Rellen looked forward, hopefully, to sleeping the rest of the night.

Five

Rellen managed several hours of uninterrupted sleep before waking shortly after sunrise. Having placed a minor portal lock spell upon the door of his new room, he left the inn and walked down the street to a large, stone building that looked almost as expansive as the baron’s keep further along the cobbled way. While the baron’s fortress was made of mortared, tan blocks, the magic school was a seamless, navy-blue stone that appeared to be cut from a single monolith.

The streets and shops were full of people preparing for the solstice celebration taking place that night. Even with city guards on every street corner, the people of Calamath seemed to be in better spirits than the day before.

Rellen strode up the long stairs of the school and entered the massive wooden doors standing open. The room beyond was a quarter sphere twenty feet across and as smooth as glass. A set of banners hung from the curved surface, one above each of four closed doors of black stone. In the center of the chamber an intricate, curving framework of silvery vines four feet high supported a sphere of blue crystal the size of a human head.

Having seen such a device before, at both King Saren’s keep and the magic school where he was trained, Rellen stepped up to the stone, leaned in and said, “I am Rellen of Corsia. I wish to speak with the Chancellor.” And then he whispered, “Aegon sul vas narivum.”

A moment later, a small yellow spark drifted out of the sphere and passed beneath a phoenix banner towards a door that was opening silently. Rellen brushed off his armor and strode through the door to find a spiral staircase that went both up and down. The spark drifted upwards, and Rellen obediently followed. He made his way up three flights and down a long, sconce-lit hallway to a black stone door. The spark disappeared through it, so Rellen knocked three times.

The door opened silently, exposing a wide room entirely lined with bookshelves jammed to overflowing. Off to one side was a tidy workbench with a wide assortment of arcane tools and paraphernalia, along with several small creatures of bizarre form, each contained in a small glass container. One was insect-like, another mammalian, and the last reptilian in nature. Each had distinctly humanoid faces, and where he would have expected claws or talons, they had what looked very much like tiny human hands.

At the far side of the room was a large desk of dark wood covered with more books. Behind that sat an aged human in green robes, with a bare scalp and a long white beard that disappeared behind the desk. As Rellen entered, the man raised piercing yellow eyes from the large tome in his hands.

Rellen approached slowly and stopped only a few paces from the desk.

“Good morning, Guardian,” the Chancellor said easily. “How may I help a servant of the Crown?”

“Good morning, Chancellor,” Rellen said, bowing his head slightly. “I have come seeking answers. I hunt the Ravager.”

The Chancellor raised an eyebrow.

“You may call me Thorril, and if you seek the Ravager, then you seek the bane of this city.”

“Indeed,” Rellen admitted. “It would seem that Nissra’s roots have burrowed deep here.”

“Many at the school have grown increasingly concerned with what is happening, but the constabulary has not yet called upon us to lend assistance. In fact, you are the first to come here seeking aid in the matter.”

Rellen’s brow furrowed. “Does this trouble you?” It certainly troubled him.

“Deeply,” Thorril replied, “but you know the law as well as I. We are forbidden from interfering unless specifically asked.”

Rellen nodded.

“I would see this Ravager dead or imprisoned as quickly as possible,” Thorril said. “What is it you wish to know?”

“You may be aware, but each victim had the sign of Nissra cut into their foreheads.” Rellen reached into a pouch and pulled out the sheet with the sigils he’d copied as well as Maddock’s series of curves and lines. He laid it down facing Thorril.

“Each of these curves and lines was associated with the mark of Nissra on the victims’ foreheads. I don’t know what they signify. The sigils, however, were carved into the chests of at least the latest victim, and I managed to translate it. I believe it means ‘Bonds cut from seething flesh, tying mother and son, the mother breaks upon fullest night.’ Beyond that, I have no idea.

“The sigils are obviously Azjerbahn.” Thorril eyed Rellen. “Do you know that language?” There was a hint of suspicion in his voice.

“No, sir,” Rellen replied easily. “I travel with a copy of the Lingua Magica. It took me hours to sort this out.”

Thorril eased a little. “I suspect that phrase is part of a larger portal spell, but that’s merely an educated guess. It is likely an attempt to cross the barrier between planes, but which ones or for what purpose is beyond my reckoning without seeing more of the spell. And even then, it might only be known to the caster.” The chancellor paused for a moment. He traced his finger along the curves and lines that Maddock had scrawled upon the vellum.

“Wait a minute….” Thorril cocked his head to the side. “Those appear to be…” His brow furrowed. He lifted his spindly frame out from behind the desk and shuffled to a nearby bookshelf. He pulled out a thick tome, opened it, and thumbed through thick pages before stopping. He turned and held out the book. “Look at this.”

The page held the first portion of a spell in the Bailian arcane language, and it was meant for drawing power from full moons in order to purify cursed people or items.

“I believe those are moon signs,” Thorril said. He stared at Rellen. “This all started about a month ago, yes?”

“That’s what they told me,” Rellen replied.

“That would have been around the time of the new moon.” Thorril stroked his beard. “The solstice celebration tonight coincides with the new moon.” He looked deeply concerned. “A new moon on the Solstice is a very rare occurrence. It will be the darkest day with the darkest moon in seventy-five years. If I were working with dark magics, that would be a potent day, indeed. And I’d bet a sack full of gold this all started with the last new moon. Was there a pentagram around the bodies?”

Rellen shook his head. “Not around the one I saw. I’ll ask the lieutenant I’ve been working with if there were pentagrams around any of the others.”

“Very peculiar.” Thorril said. “If they’re working with some sort of portal or gate, anything that came through would be unconstrained, which, when dealing with such magic, can be not only dangerous but lethal. Any caster worth his salt would know this, which suggests they didn’t care. Based upon what you’ve told me, I suspect they are working with a spell that builds in potency with each iteration, and if I’m any judge, it will culminate with the new moon tonight during the height of the solstice celebration.”

“That does make sense,” Rellen agreed. “There’s something else…” Rellen pulled out the coin he’d gotten from Maddock and presented it to Thorril. “The bodies were laid out with silver coins in their palms. The first victim had one, and each subsequent victim had one more.”

Thorril raised an eyebrow.

“Does it mean something?” Rellen asked.

Thorril carefully took the coin and inspected it for a few moments, turning it in his bony fingers.

“It depends.” He eyed Rellen for a moment and then focused upon the coin. He whispered something under his breath that Rellen didn’t understand and traced his finger around the coin’s edge. Holding it up, he turned it left and right as if it were a prism in sunlight. “Silver is a potent metal, with influence and efficacy across most planes. As currency, it can procure assistance from all manner of intra-planar creature. If it was being used here, it was probably a combination of both spell component and currency. If so, the coins would be linked to one another. The fact that the number of coins increased with each killing lends itself to the notion that they’re building up the potency, and if it is a portal spell, nearly anything might be able to come through at this point.”

“Could the coins be linked to people?” Rellen asked, wondering if he could use them to track the killers.

“Probably… to those who died, anyway,” Thorril replied, handing the coin back, “and that’s assuming it was a rite of some sort. Possibly to those who performed the rite, although it’s unlikely. Such links bind to the spirit that was released, not those who released it. I must confess, however, I’m not well versed in spellcraft involving Azjerbahn.”

“Do you know of anyone in Calamath who is?” Rellen asked.

“Not at this school,” Thorril said defensively. He seemed offended by the mere suggestion. “I don’t permit the teaching of the darker magics, and neither did my predecessor.”

“That doesn’t answer the question,” Rellen said quietly.

The Chancellor drew in a slow breath and let it out even more slowly, eying Rellen. “You’re right,” he finally said. “It does not.”

“So, who?”

“I’ll tell you,” Thorril said, lowering his voice, “but you must swear as a Guardian that you will not share who gave you this information.”

“I so swear it,” Rellen said solemnly.

“It is… rumored…,” Thorril said carefully, “that the baron’s son, Kellith, was educated at the Magics Academy in the capital city.”

“Kellith?” Rellen asked, surprised. “Not Kellith Hendron? The Captain of the Guard?”

“The same,” Thorril said. “Do you know him?”

“I just met him,” Rellen said, his suspicions blossoming. “Thorril, this may be an awkward question, but what is the possibility that Captain Hendron is the Ravager?” He eyed Thorril’s face, gauging the old wizard’s response. “He has a knowledge of Azjerbahn, is in a position to manipulate the investigation, and would not be considered a suspect in something like this.”

Without skipping a beat, Thorril shook his head. “Unlikely,” he said. “I know for a fact that Hendron and his father were gone for two weeks in the middle of the month on a tour of a farming community to the south. One of my students accompanied them in an effort to improve crop yields.”

“Could he have been involved with the other attacks?” Rellen asked.

“I suppose,” Thorril said slowly. “But a spell like this would require there be only one caster for all iterations.” He seemed to ponder something for a few moments. “I see what you’re getting at, but Hendron has never struck me as a man who coveted power. He even turned down the baronial seat when his father was ill some years back. He insisted his younger brother take up the mantle in his stead.”

So, it can’t be Hendron, Rellen thought, but he could still be involved. If so, how? And Why?

For a moment, he considered asking Thorril more, but he didn’t want to put the chancellor further on the spot and, more importantly, he didn’t want to risk giving himself away. As unlikely as it was, Thorril could be in in on what was turning out to be a far-reaching Nissra conspiracy of some kind. For all he knew, Thorril was the spellcaster involved. But the Captain being both the Baron’s son and a student of magic who knew Azjerbahn simply couldn’t be a coincidence.

“Thank you for your help, Chancellor,” Rellen said a bit hastily. “I appreciate the information, and you can rest assured that my oath shall remain unbroken.”

“Thank you, Guardian,” the Chancellor said. “Should you need anything else, do not hesitate to reach out to me. Ever do I serve the King, above all.”

“As do I,” Rellen said. He gave a deep bow and strode from the room. As he walked down the long hallway, he contemplated the possibilities. Based on what he’d heard, it was likely that either Captain Hendron or Lieutenant Maddock were involved in the Ravager killings. It was also possible that both of them were, and even that one or both of them were actually undertaking the rituals themselves and not just covering up the crimes.

The shopkeeper who had tried to kill him and committed suicide was the key. The man had obviously been part of the Nissra cult. But how could he have come after Rellen if he was supposed to be locked up and destined for a purification ritual? Everything pointed to Hendron and Maddock.

But why? If they were involved, what was their endgame?

Six

With the door to his room once again magically barred, Rellen sat at the table with an assortment of items laid out before him.

He rolled out a large sheet of vellum and drew a circle that reached nearly to its edges. Focusing his will, he placed Maddock’s coin in the center of the circle and pulled out several eyelashes from his right eye. He carefully placed them upon the coin. Closing his eyes, he chanted a short spell as he drew a complex Bailian sigil at the top portion of the circle. He repeated the process with a different sigil beside the first, and then another and another, placing each one along the perimeter of the circle. The process took him several hours, and when he was done, the interior of the circle was filled with sigils that made a spiral all the way to the coin. When he was done, he drew a line from the coin to the exterior of the circle and placed one last sigil at the end of the line.

Opening his eyes, he watched the coin glow brightly. A gossamer filament of blue flowed out along the line, coursed its way over the last sigil, and extended quickly across the room to disappear through the wall at a down-angle.

“So, there is a link,” he said with a good deal of satisfaction.

Rising to his feet, he placed the coin in his pocket. The filament moved with it, and he knew he was the only one who could see it. He’d created a connection between the one coin he possessed and the other eleven that had been found with the body. He had a trail to follow, and he knew where it would lead, but he wasn’t sure what he would find when he got there.

Moving quickly through the city, the filament led him straight back to the City Guard Tower and inside.

As he neared the tower, the filament did something he’d never seen before. It slowly separated into two filaments that seemed to lead to the same place, but only a few feet apart.

What the…? Rellen thought.

Upon entering, the filaments disappeared through the front desk where a different lieutenant currently sat, and they passed through the wall towards where Captain Hendron’s desk would be in the next room.

The lieutenant looked up from the desk. He was about to say something, but Rellen interrupted him.

“Captain Hendron,” he called out. “It’s Rellen of Corsia. May I have a word?”

“Come on back,” Hendron called back.

The lieutenant glanced back to the open doorway, nodded once to Rellen, and then went back to a stack of vellum in front of him.

Rellen stepped through the door, and when he turned to face the captain, he stopped in his tracks.

Hendron sat behind his desk, his face raised to greet Rellen with a friendly smile. One blue filament from the coin went straight into the lower left-hand area of the desk, as expected. However, the other went straight into Hendron’s heart. And that wasn’t all. There were dozens more of the filaments running from the lower part of the desk and joining at the Captain’s heart.

Rellen was astonished. He hadn’t expected to see something like that, but in an instant he pieced together a theory. Hendron was the mastermind, and he had someone working for him who was doing the actual killings. He immediately though of Lieutenant Maddock, although the odds of Maddock being a spell caster, let alone knowing Azjerbahn, was a stretch. There must be someone else.

“What can I do for you?” Captain Hendron asked.

How to proceed…? Rellen thought. Do I start with the spell, the threads, the murders, or the shopkeeper? He quickly made his decision and stepped up to the desk, intent on tripping the captain up.

“I was wondering what happens to the Nissra prisoners you bring in.”

“They’re given a choice,” Hendron replied. “Stay locked up or undergo a purification ritual that cleanses them of Nissra’s taint. We performed it on the prisoners below yesterday.”

“Were you there?” Rellen asked.

“No. I leave that up to whichever Lieutenant is on watch.”

“How does that all work?”

“The ritual requires a lawfully aligned priest coupled with a mage. When we have a dozen or so prisoners, the priest purges the taint while the mage places a… well, I guess you’d have to call it a curse… that makes the person violently ill if they’re even in the vicinity of anyone with the taint of Nissra. It’s similar to the constraint placed upon bounty hunters to obey the law. Once the ritual is performed, we keep them for three days and then release them.”

“And that includes the man they brought in yesterday?” Rellen asked. “The big fellow… long wavy red hair and a nose you could plow with?”

“Shaylen Rual?”

“I don’t know,” Rellen replied. “His shop was on the main thoroughfare from the eastern gate.”

“That’s him,” Hendron said.

“Is he still downstairs?”

“He should be,” Hendron replied. “Let me check.” He thumbed through a stack of vellum on his desk. “Here he is. He opted for the purification. It was performed not long after he came in, and he’s waiting for his release.”

“I don’t think it took, Captain,” Rellen said, “assuming it happened at all.”

Hendron looked surprised.

“What makes you say that?”

“He tried to kill me last night and then committed suicide… with this…”  Rellen pulled the ring from his pocket and held it out.

“Gods… you can’t be serious.” Hendron looked genuinely appalled, recognizing the ring for what it was, and his reaction shook Rellen’s theory about his involvement.

“You can ask the innkeeper at the Green Gryphon,” Rellen said. “I paid him to arrange for three funerals, including Raul’s.”

“Are you certain?”

“I know what happened last night, but there’s only one way to be certain it wasn’t Raul. Let’s go downstairs.”

“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Hendron agreed. He rose from his seat, and Rellen watched as the dozens of blue filaments connected to Hendron’s heart moved with him. “Follow me.”

What could they mean? Rellen thought.

They quickly made their way through the rear door, along a series of empty cells, and down a spiral staircase at the end of the hall. They descended a single floor to find a tidy dungeon illuminated by lanterns hanging from the ceiling. There were fourteen cells in all, most of them occupied, and when they reached the end of the line, Hendron turned worried eyes to Rellen.

“Something wrong, Captain?” a blond-haired man in the cell beside him said with an air of devious delight.

Hendron scowled at the prisoner and turned to Rellen.

“He’s not here,” he said.

“I want to show you something,” Rellen said. He pulled out the vellum with the sigils and handed it over. “I’m not sure what it means,” he lied.

The Captain looked at the sigils and was mildly surprised. “I haven’t seen Azjerbahn for fifteen years.”

“So, you recognize it?” Rellen asked, a little surprised. It had been a perfect opportunity for Hendron to play dumb.

“Yes. It’s been a while, but it looks to be part of a portal spell of some kind. It says ‘Bonds cut from seething flesh, tying mother and son, the mother breaks upon fullest night.’” He looked up at Rellen with worried eyes. “Where did you get this?”

Rellen was an exceptional read of people, and the Captain’s responses all seemed genuine.

“It was carved into the chest of the last victim.”

“What?” Hendron asked, immediately concerned. “Maddock didn’t say anything?”

“He said he didn’t see it. I must admit, the victim’s wounds were obscured with blood and covered by his tunic.” Rellen took a deep breath. “Why was Maddock assigned to the Ravager murders?”

“It was his turn,” Hendron said simply.

“So, it was just blind luck?”

“I guess you could call it that. The lieutenant who would have been assigned came down with a nasty illness of some kind. Took a healer three days to get him back on his feet.”

That can’t be a coincidence either, Rellen thought. Maddock must be involved somehow.

“So, how do you know Azjerbahn?” Rellen asked, hoping to catch Hendron off guard.

Hendron hesitated a moment.

“I spent a number of years at the Magics Academy in Corsia, not that I have much talent. My father felt it important I receive a rounded education. He’s been shaping me to replace him someday, but to be honest, I don’t have much interest in becoming Baron.”

“Really?”

“Politics and drafty castle corridors with little sunlight. I like the outdoors… and keeping the people of Calamath safe… especially now with this Nissra cult gaining momentum.”

“So, you want to see an end to the cult?”

“Of course I do. Wretches like the Nissran’s ruin a city… ruin the people in it. There’s even a member of my father’s council who thinks we should go easy on them. The damned fool. He suggested giving the cult a place in tomorrow night’s solstice celebration as a peace offering. Fortunately, my father turned him down…. If it was up to me, he’d been in a cell and given the rite with the rest of these bastards.”

“Did you consider having someone at the magic school try to trace the coins or at least figure out what they’re being used for?”

“I sent Maddock to do that with the coins from the third body.” Hendron said. “He said they weren’t able to scry anything and sent him back with them.”

There it is, Rellen thought.

“Captain, what do you know about Maddock?”

“Maddock?” Hendron replied. “He’s an old friend. I hadn’t seen him for years, but when he returned to Calamath about eight months ago, I gave him a job with the guard.”

“Eight months ago?” It was all starting to fit together. Rellen hesitated, wondering how Hendron would respond to what he was about to say. “Captain, I think Maddock is deeply involved with the Nissrans, and he’s covering for them.”

“What makes you say that?”

“A number of things. The way he handled the last body. His general disinterest in the clues. I’d bet a sack of gold he knew of the sigils on the victims chests. And I just came from the Magic School. The Chancellor said he hadn’t been asked to get involved in the murders yet. The only thing I haven’t figured out is who is casting this spell. Not everyone knows Azjerbahn, even if they have the gift.”

Hendron’s face paled, and he slowly locked eyes with Rellen. “Maddock went to school with me,” he said, “and he learned Azjerbahn.” He shook his head. “But he hates the Nissrans. His parents were part of the cult when he was a child. They tormented him terribly.”

“Maybe they turned him?” Rellen offered, desperate to find Maddock now.

“They did more than that,” a voice called from the far end of the dungeon. “They filled him with me.”

Rellen and Hendron turned surprised faces to see Maddock standing at the base of the spiral stairs.

Rellen immediately reached for one of his falchions.

“Take them!” the thing calling itself Maddock shouted, eyes alight with fury.

The doors of every occupied cell burst open, and the nearest door slammed into Rellen just as he drew his blade. The impact caught him in the back of the head, and the lights went out.

Seven

Rellen woke to a freezing chill surrounded by thick forest. In an instant, he realized three things. He was gagged, he’d been stripped down to just his leggings, and he was lashed spread-eagle to a large wooden cross. He looked up to where his hands were bound and saw several of the blue beetles that infested the region crawling along the wooden beam towards his hand.

Before him, a large, rough wooden table had been set in front of a burning pyre. Two dozen people in crimson robes kneeled around it, all of them facing Maddock. Maddock stood between the fire and the table, his body covered in robes of crimson and gold. Captain Hendron had been laid out upon the table, bound to the four corners with rope. Hendron had also been stripped down to his leggings, and surrounding him was a circle of silver coins. Each coin had a blue filament running from it straight into Hendron’s heart, making it look as if he were at the center of glowing wheel… or a portal.

The mother and the son, Rellen realized, and everything fell into place.

The demon inside Maddock was going to bring the goddess Nissra into the world and let her occupy Captain Hendron’s body. Once she did, she could get rid of the baron and take his place… with an entire barony at her disposal. He looked around and spotted his armor and gear lying off to the side of the fire. Not that any of it would do him much good while he was bound to the cross.

“We stand upon the precipice,” Maddock intoned, raising his hands above Hendron’s body. “You shall all bear witness to Nissra’s entry upon this world, and when she comes, she will raise all of us to the heights of demi-godhood. Nothing shall stand against her and those who serve her will.” His eyes moved to Rellen. “Good, bounty hunter, you’re awake. You, too, shall bear witness. Did you think it was stupidity that made me show you the moon signs? I left you breadcrumbs to bring you here. … and for your meddling, you will be Nissra’s first meal upon this world. Prepare for an eternity of agony!”

Maddock closed his eyes, lowered his hands, and placed them over Hendron’s heart where the filaments joined together. His lips started moving, and although Rellen couldn’t hear him, the intensity of the filaments grew brighter. He saw Hendron’s mouth extend in a scream of agony, but no sound came out.

Rellen didn’t have much time, and even if his plan worked, he didn’t know how he could defeat two dozen cultists. He looked up and saw that one of the beetles was just within reach.

It’s now or never, he thought.

He closed his eyes, focused his will, and gesticulated with both hands. He felt the magic course through his limbs. An instant later, the leather straps binding him loosened and slithered free of his wrists, dropping to the ground. Rellen grabbed the beetle with one hand and ripped the gag from his mouth, focusing his will once again. He blurted an incantation, made three quick motions with the hand holding the beetle, and then smashed the insect across his chest.

“He’s free!” someone shouted. “The infidel is free!”

“Get him!” another screamed.

A whiff of the beetle’s stench assailed Rellen’s nostrils as he felt the spell flow from its crushed body across his skin. With a chitinous clattering, thick plates formed across his skin in a swirl of light, encasing him from head to toe. When he opened his eyes, he saw a half-dozen men and women in robes charging straight for him. The others were rising to their feet, while Maddock seemed immobile as he continued his incantation. The wheel of filaments around Hendron’s body had darkened to near black with ethereal blue edges. Energy crackled along them, and a ruddy form was superimposing itself over the Captain.

The first of the cultists reached Rellen, slashing with a long, curved dagger. Rellen raised his arm, and the blade clacked against the armor, cutting a deep gouge that found only a small purchase of flesh. Rellen sent a punch into the man’s throat and felt a wet squelch. The cultist gurgled as a spray of blood erupted from his mouth.

Rellen stepped back to find that the horns of the beetle had manifested along his armor at knuckles, heels, elbows, knees, and back. He blocked the slash from another dagger and sent an elbow into the next attacker’s face. The horn pierced flesh and bone before Rellen wrenched it free.

A cultist crashed into him, and then another, sending him to the ground.

“Don’t kill him!” one of them shouted.

He kicked and punched as bodies piled on top of him. Daggers pierced and slashed at his armor, and some of the attacks got through. He felt blood seeping beneath the chitinous layer, and he realized that he done for. Strong arms pinned him to the ground, and then the mob lifted him to his feet, holding him in place as he watched the form if Nissra grow more solid around Hendron’s body. She was hideous, with crimson skin like a dragon, horns rising above her head, and jagged tusks descending from her jaw.

Rellen struggled, but the hold the cultists had on him was unbreakable.

“Excuse me,” a familiar voice said from behind him.

There was a crackle of electricity, and then a bolt slashed into the cultists holding him. He felt the energy tingle across his skin, most of it absorbed by the armor. The cultists, however, danced and trembled as lines of white electricity coursed across their bodies. Rellen turned to see Thorril, the Chancellor of the magic school, standing a dozen paces behind him with his finger outstretched and the bolt of energy coming from it. Thorril lowered his hand and the energy ceased, causing the cultists to drop to the ground, their bodies smoking.

“I believe you have a bounty to collect,” Thorril said.

Rellen didn’t hesitate.

He leapt forward, charging across the grass and straight for where Maddock was still casting his spell.

A tumultuous circle of black smoke had surrounded Hendron and Nissra, running along the circle of the coins.

Am I too late?

Rellen leapt over the table just as Maddock opened his eyes.

“NO!” Maddock screamed.

Their bodies slammed together, and then there was an implosion of magical energy that sent them flying. Their bodies hit the ground, but Rellen never lost his grip. They came to a stop a dozen yards past the table, with Rellen on top of Maddock.

Rellen raised a horned fist and sent it crashing down into Maddock’s torso. He raised his other fist and sent it down. Again and again, Rellen pierced and tore at Rellen’s body, opening wound after wound as the crazed servant of Nissra screamed in pain and horror.

When the grass surrounding them was covered in Maddock’s blood, Rellen raised his fist one last time and sent his last blow into the center of Maddock’s face. Maddock quivered once, and then his entire body shuddered as a smoky form seeped from his ruined mouth and nostrils.

“I believe I can attend to that,” Thorril said from behind him.

Rellen turned to see the Chancellor gesticulating as he cast a spell. A wash of magical energy passed through Rellen’s body and latched upon the smoky form of the demon… one of Nissra’s minions. The demon shrieked and struggled at the bonds that now held it in place.

Thorril stepped up, muttered another spell and drew out the lines of a box in the air in front of him. Blue lines of energy formed around the twisting demon, encasing it in a prison of blue lines. Thorril shouted a final word, and the prison shrank. As it did, the energy cut into the demon’s body. It hissed and spat and shrieked in agony. In moments, the box shrank to nothing, leaving only the drifting smoke of a destroyed minion of evil.

“Come, Guardian,” Thorril said, holding out his hand. “Let us attend to the good Captain.”

“Does he live?” Rellen asked.

“Indeed,” Thorril replied. “And you interrupted Maddock’s spell just in time to send Nissra back where she belongs.”

“Thank the gods,” Rellen said. “How did you know I was here?”

“I put a trace spell on that coin when you let me examine it,” Thorril said simply.

“So what made you come find me?”

As they reached the table where Hendron lay unconscious, Thorril reached into his robes, withdrew a small, rolled up piece of vellum, and handed it over.

“I believe this will explain fully,” he said as he began examining Captain Hendron.

Rellen unrolled the vellum.

Thorril, you served my father as a Guardian. I must ask you to take up the mantle once again and help my eldest brother Rellen. He is clever and brash, but he tends to get into trouble wherever it exists. Find him and lend what aid you can.  ~ King Saren III

Rellen smiled and eyed the old wizard as he cast a simple restoration spell over Captain Hendron. A Guardian, eh?

“Thank you, Thorril,” Rellen said.

“You needn’t thank me,” Thorril said without looking. “As I said, ever do I serve the King, above all.”

“As do I,” Rellen replied, moving over to where his armor and equipment lay. “As do I.”

Eight

Rellen hooked two sacks of gold coins over Shaddeth’s withers and pulled himself up into the saddle, wincing at the handful of small wounds he’d received the night before. Thorril had been kind enough to bandage them once Rellen’s armor spell had dissipated. He turned in the saddle and looked to where Captain Hendron and Thorril stood in the doorway to the guard tower.

“Many thanks, Rellen of Corsia,” Captain Hendron said. “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.”

“I couldn’t have done it without the Chancellor,” Rellen replied. “Thanks again, old man,” he added, winking to the elder Guardian.

“It was a pleasure,” Thorril replied, nodding his head. “Where are you headed now?”

Rellen smiled. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the Eye of Tuluum. He held it before him and watched it swing towards the eastern gate.

“I have no idea,” Rellen said, “But I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.” He released the Eye and waved to them both.

“Farewell, gentlemen,” he said.

“May the winds ever be at your back,” Hendron said.

“And grant you every victory,” Thorril added.

With a bow, Rellen pulled the reins and set Shaddeth moving towards whatever his next destination might be.

 

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