** WARNING ** - Contains brief scenes of graphic violence.
"My lord!" he pleaded, wrestling against the ropes holding him to the table, face pale and glistening with cold sweat. "I turned myself in to the Guard! I swore I would tell you all I know! Have mercy!"
I picked up a slender knife from the small tray at his side, wiped it against my smock to clear the blood away, and held it up contemplatively. "Indeed you did," I said calmly. "You turned yourself in to the Priory Guard. Strange behavior for an admitted slave trader, wouldn't you say?"
He began whimpering at the sight of the knife. "Please, lord. Please."
"And indeed you shall tell us all you know," I said. I leaned over the table and looked into his eyes. "Start with this, Aerik. What are the names of your three friends -- the ones you say you saw on the ridge?"
His eyes grew wide and started tearing up. "I don't know, my lord! They attacked us! I already told you everything!"
I stood straight, and with a single fluid motion, drove the knife through his pinky finger.
Aerik started screaming and thrashing as the tip rolled away and dropped to the floor. His shrill cries continued until I roughly grabbed his jaw and wrenched his head sideways to look into my eyes.
"Wrong answer," I said, unable to hold back a smile. "What are their names, Aerik?"
He began blubbering, then, reduced to wordless fear. There was nothing else to be learned until he could collect himself again, so I motioned over the Lindonian acolyte. "Bind his new wound," I said, turning to leave. "Let him think about the consequences of his actions for a few minutes. Tell me if he decides he wishes to cooperate."
North of Bramble Ridge
The guardsmen at the tent door snapped to attention as I walked outside into the sunlight. It took me a moment to realize there was a third soldier there, also poised in a stiff salute, wearing the colors of the Hands of Lindon.
"Yes?" I asked, wriggling out of the bloodstained smock and hanging it back on the tent frame.
"Captain Traven, sir!" the Hand said, posture tightening even more. "His Grace rides to join you, as requested."
Dyson was coming? "I didn't --" I began, then my brain screamed warning and locked my throat. I took a quick breath. "I didn't expect him so soon," I covered. "My commendations on your speed, guardsman."
"Thank you, sir." The visitor dropped his salute and bowed. Inside the tent, the prisoner began screaming again. When the Hand straightened, there was a poorly masked look of discomfort on his face.
I ignored him and strode across the camp. This was disturbing news. Dyson had been overseeing the recovery at Ballard's Grove! What could have possessed him to personally investigate this minor skirmish? Surely he wasn't that obsessed with the sorceror ...
The young peasant was still crouched next to our cooking fire, trying nervously to ignore the four guards standing alongside. As I got closer, he leapt to his feet, then threw himself to the ground in prostration.
"Stand up, you fool," I grumbled as I walked past. "I'm no Hand."
He got up, red-faced. "S-sorry, lord."
I ignored the apology and walked over to our trackers, who were chatting around one of the empty cages the slavers had abandoned. One of them noticed my approach, and instantly, the leather-clad men snapped into professional salutes.
I waved them to ease. "Your results?"
"Nothing at all like an army, Captain," said Franck, their hirsute sergeant. "There couldn't have been more than ten men on the ridge during the fight. The valley's full of prints, but no organized approach or departure this week or last."
He shook his head. "Impossible to say in all this activity, sir. No positive matches yet."
"Go out into the woods and keep looking." I lowered my voice. "It might spare you from His Grace's visit."
There was a collective twitch, and they hurriedly saluted and backed away. "Understood, sir," Franck said, with a note of terror that indicated he recognized just what a favor I'd done his men. Of such small gestures were loyalty forged.
North of Bramble Ridge
I'd only managed to find busywork for about half my men -- including a not strictly necessary supply run to Ballard's Field, a few hours south -- when I heard the thunder of hooves beyond the rocks to the west.
I sighed and looked around our encampment in the valley. We had settled into the spot where -- according to every witness we'd questioned -- the band of slavers had set up camp before notorious outlaw Dallion Maliceblade stormed in to free their cargo. There had been some sort of fight on Bramble Ridge, and the slavers had fled ... and, well, beyond that, things got hazy.
It always was, with Dallion.
The thrice-damned sorceror had struck in the capital city a month ago, murdering a prominent businessman and kidnapping his son -- and sending the Hands of Lindon into a frenzy. Dyson refused to reveal any details to me, but I'd heard whispers through my ranks that the son himself was under suspicion of magic, and that the Hands had been about to pounce and uncover a criminal conspiracy. We'd been mobilized to help in the search, and the trail had lead steadily north.
Whispers of strange occurrences had led us to another murder, this time in the small village of Ballard's Hollow. According to the official inquest, a local fletcher had been lured into the woods and slain by the sorceror in some dark ritual, with his two sons and two of their friends arriving too late to stop Dallion.
And then Ballard's Grove.
I had been in Briech -- hoping to arrive ahead of the sorceror for once -- when word reached my regiment of some terrible calamity behind us. So we crossed the river and rode south to their aid. But something unexpected popped up: The small farming settlements we passed were all abuzz with news of Dallion's act of magnanimity.
Something was wrong. The man was a merciless and indiscriminate killer. I'd dispatched a messenger and most of my regiment to Dyson, and stopped with a company of my most trusted men to investigate.
And Dyson had received my message. And ridden out of Ballard's Grove to join me.
The horses of four Hands thundered into view, red and black barding fluttering with their motion. Senior Inquisitor Dyson was in the lead, his beady eyes surveying the scene, the Eye of Lindon he always wore around his neck bouncing off of his bulky armor. As he rode into camp, my remaining men threw themselves to their hands and knees, and -- trying to keep my resentment from smoldering in my eyes -- I knelt and bowed my head.
He dismounted in front of me, and I saw his metallic boots swivel to face me. "You had better have an awfully good excuse for dragging me all this way, Captain," he said icily, in his clipped aristocratic style.
"Your Grace," I said levelly, staring at his toes, "the honor of your presence comes as a surprise to me. I assure you this situation is under control and my investigation proceeds with all haste."
Dyson heaved an exaggerated sigh. "That is exactly what I'm talking about, you lackwit," he said. "Investigate, chase, investigate, attack. If you displayed a spark of intelligence above that of a common dog then I wouldn't have to take such personal interest in your efforts."
I stared at his boot and bit back my reply.
"Stand up," Dyson said scornfully. My men scrambled to their feet and I straightened to glare into his eyes.
"And tell me about Dallion's army," Dyson said, either not noticing or ignoring my look.
"Nothing to tell, Your Grace. He does not travel alone, but I can assure you he commands not even a dozen men."
"That, I am told, is not what the commoners say. Do you know what that means, Captain?"
"Enlighten me, Your Grace."
"That this calls for the intervention of an Inquisitor, rather than a common swordsman." Dyson looked around the camp. "You have, I can only hope, had the presence of mind to detain witnesses?"
"Three. One of the slavers, stabbed and found at the brink of death; one who says he was a slaver who fled and returned to surrender; and one of the slavers' victims, who sought out my men to report the sorcery he witnessed."
"All of them saw our Dallion?"
"Yes, your Grace --"
"-- and all of them say he was a young, magic-wielding cripple?"
"Well, yes --" I started. Apparently the godly power of his all-seeing Eye of Lindon had again given the Inquisitor the results of my investigations long before I myself could say anything to him. It was getting to be routine, but still left me unnerved.
Dyson's face twisted into a sneer. "Traven, this meant nothing to you?"
"He has an army, Captain!" Dyson shouted into my face. "An army of sorcerors! Surely you cannot be so dense as to not see that in every place witnesses have identified the man, his description has differed? Ballard's Hollow! The cave to its north! The robed man in Ballard's Grove! And now here!"*
I stood my ground. "Tales of shapeshifting are not unknown, Your Grace -- and should he have others assisting him, I would expect to see reports of many Dallions simultaneously."
Dyson barked out a laugh. "You and your 'tales,' Captain. Perhaps one as superstitious as you should have been sent to Ballard's Grove."
"And perhaps Your Grace would be so kind as to enlighten me as to what occurred there?" I asked. Word of the actual state of the town had not yet filtered to us; we all had seen the red glow on the horizon above it, but the route I and my men had taken bypassed the trade routes, and thus also northbound traffic.
Dyson's face instantly grew cold. "Do not concern yourself. I would rather have your abilities, such as they are, containing the current threat. But suffice it to say that the old baron's farmstead was disturbed on the same night that the new Eye was desecrated with the Horns of Acatoth."
I stiffened. Suddenly, my current investigation seemed like a stroke of immense luck. "Yes, Your Grace."
Dyson sauntered over toward the interrogation tent, leaving one of my men to scramble for the reins of his horse before it could wander away. "But let us not forget: Ballard's Grove is a symptom, not a cause. Our Dallion is the cause. He is a disease, Traven. Alone, he can be hunted down and fought off -- but if we let his disease spread, it will soon overwhelm our ability to contain it."
"So we must strike at his army as well as hunt the man himself, then?" I asked.
"Something even more important," Dyson said. "You will see." He paused to turn back to one of his personal guard. "By the way, Motin, kindly heat my brand."
Erick's head twisted toward the tent door. I saw hope momentarily flare in his eyes as Dyson entered. Then Erick saw me, and the hope died away.
He tried anyway. "Your Grace," he pleaded, "I beg your mercy. You must believe me --"
"I am not here to believe," Dyson said, walking to the table to loom over our prisoner. "I am here to witness, in Lindon's name. You will tell your story again, from the beginning. Lie --" Dyson glanced back at me -- "and perhaps I will put you back in the Captain's hands." He smiled humorlessly. "If I'm feeling merciful."
"Your Grace," Erick said, "every word I've told has been Lindon's own truth."
"Then you will repeat every word, under His eye."
The prisoner nodded, starting to sweat again. "Yes. Yes. We were attacked by the sorceror Dallion and his army. I was in camp. We heard two whistle blasts, and saw him on the ridge, motioning his troops in. I fled."
"And how did you know this was Dallion Maliceblade?" Dyson asked, sounding bored.
"When he rallied his troops, his hands shone with blue fire!"
"You never saw his face, though? Or heard his name?"
Erick looked down guiltily. "Not until I got here," he admitted. "The Captain's men couldn't stop talking about him. But who else could it be, if the Hands of Lindon are chasing him through the area?"
"And these troops of his. How many?"
Erick's eyes grew wide. "As I live and breathe, Your Grace, he had us half surrounded --"
"How many did you see?" Dyson asked coldly.
Erick stopped. He looked around the room uncomfortably. "He signaled to both far ends of the ridge, and to the eastern rocks. At even a single rank that could have concealed 50 men. We were but 12 in the camp."
"How many did you see?" Dyson repeated.
The prisoner's voice softened in defeat. "Three, Your Grace. Him and two next to him."
"None of the slavers' prisoners saw more than those three," I added. "And everything he's told you, he's already admitted to me. Word of the army seems to have spread because the captives assumed the slavers ran from something, even if the captives couldn't see it."
Dyson gave me a scornful stare. "Then you torture this man for confirming what the others have said?"
"I doubt his motives, Your Grace. He's offered no explanation for his surrender, only pleas for mercy. Perhaps he sought to cut a deal against his fellows -- but with these scum, it seems far more likely he's here as a spy for Dallion himself, and already double-crossed his encampment for them."
Dyson smiled smugly. "This is why they make me Inquisitor, Traven, while you're just a common soldier. It does not matter whether he's working with Dallion or not; we can use him either way." He turned toward the door. "Motin!"
Dyson's guard soon came in, holding an iron rod intricately bent at one end into the shape of an Eye of Lindon. The eye design was glowing red with heat. Dyson snatched the brand from Motin's hand. "Hold his head down," he said sharply.
Erick's eyes went wide, and he started thrashing against his ropes. Motin and I grabbed him, pinning his shoulders to the table and each grabbing a fistful of his unkempt hair. Dyson lowered the brand to his cheek. Erick started screaming.
There was a loud sizzle, then the smell of burning flesh.
Erick was sobbing incoherently by the time Dyson pulled the brand away. Dyson ran his hand over the Eye of Lindon burnt into the prisoner's face, then smiled. He nodded at us, and we released our grips and stepped away. Erick's sobs trailed away into whimpering.
"We're going to untie you and let you leave the camp now," Dyson said. "But know this, you miserable piece of scum. For your sins, your life is now forfeit to Lindon. You have one chance to begin your redemption: Find the sorceror you saw atop Bramble Ridge. Look him in the eyes. Point at him, and say: 'The Eye of Lindon is upon you.' Otherwise, say nothing of this to anyone. Can you hold all that in your simple brain?"
Erick looked up and nodded vigorously.
"Good," Dyson continued, "because you have one month to complete this task. Lindon's mercy rests on your shoulders and yours alone. I suggest starting your search to the north." He smiled menacingly. "If you should fail, I think you will find that Lindon's mercy is a great deal more fickle than even your friend the Captain's."
The inquisitor wheeled and strode out of the tent. "Come, Traven."
"This is the second slaver?" Dyson asked.
"Yes, Your Grace," I said. "Our treatment has brought him closer to consciousness, but we're uncertain he'll ever be able to answer questions. My scout found him up on the ridge, along with three bodies with their throats slit. This one had been stabbed in the back and the wound pulled open. He lost a great deal of blood, but barely clung to life, and the scout kept him from passing on until the healers arrived."
Dyson rolled his eyes. "We haven't time for mercy, Captain. Motin, see if the pain of a broken leg is enough to bring him around."
Dyson's guard pulled a jagged metal mace from his belt and swung. There was a sickening, squishy crunch.
Almost immediately, Dyson put his hand on the slaver's shoulder. The man spasmed, then bolted upright, face twisted in agony. Motin and I -- after a moment of shock at Dyson's strange suggestion having worked -- lunged for him and wrestled him back to the table, easily pinning him with our body weight.
Dyson flashed me a smug smile. "Now then. In other circumstances, perhaps we could use that trick with the black and white balls that you seem to favor, Captain. But this man's injuries should send him to Lindon's embrace by night's end, so what's the point?" He turned to the wounded man, who was gasping for breath and blinking his eyes into near-focus. "I am here to witness, in Lindon's name," Dyson continued. "Tell the whole truth, and perhaps He will look upon you favorably on your trip to the Gates of Heaven. Do you understand?"
The slaver looked around the room, then his eyes gradually centered on Dyson's form, taking in the bright marks of the Inquisition on his armor. At this, he seemed almost to deflate, and nodded in defeat.
"How many did this to you?"
"Three," the man croaked through a throat two days dry.
Dyson looked down, annoyed, then uncorked his waterskin and poured some liquid into the man's mouth -- less as an act of mercy than to aid our comprehension. "No others? No trace of others?"
The wounded man swallowed and licked his lips. "No, Your Grace." He sounded much better, but speaking was obviously still an effort.
"And how many were you?"
"What happened atop the ridge?" Dyson asked.
"Got behind them with bows," the slaver said, pushing out clipped sentences between shallow breaths. "Hid in bushes and snuck up. I stepped on branch --- they heard. Two of them hid too. Third one -- sorceror -- called us out. Carl shot at him, missed. He jumped behind cover. First guy snuck up, jumped me" -- the man swallowed and winced in pain -- "but dropped his knife. We started fistfight. Second guy snuck behind us, took Thom down. The sorceror taunted Jerry and Carl. Kept them from seeing his friend. I couldn't warn them in time. Carl got mad, tried to charge --" the man lifted his arm and made a weak chopping motion -- "second guy hit him as he jumped. He fell in brambles. Then --" the man convulsed once, squeezing his eyes closed.
Dyson waited in silence. I made eye contact with Motin, glanced at the wounded man, and loosened my grip. Motin did likewise.
At length, the slaver began to speak again. "Then sorceror stood up from bushes. All business. Wild eyes. Glowing hands. 'You!' he said. Then, zap!" He gestured vaguely. "Shot ray down at bush. Flash of light, crack of ice. 'Drop ... your ... weapons,' he said."**
"And?" Dyson asked.
"And?! It was magic! So scared," the slaver moaned. "Couldn't move. Saw Jerry drop bow. Forgot about sorceror's friend. Then he stabbed me in back."
Dyson let out a laugh. "Is that all you remember?"
The slaver closed his eyes again. "Carl blew whistle to get help. Jerry got hit. I tried to draw knife, felt more pain. Then black."
Dyson looked meaningfully at me. "Motin, stay and confirm that the descriptions of the three men he fought match the descriptions the Captain has already collected, then instruct the healers to stop wasting their meager efforts. Captain, come with me."
"Yes, Your Grace," I said, loosening my grip and standing up.
"Your cooperation was appreciated," Dyson said over his shoulder at the prone form. "May Lindon not judge you too harshly tonight."
North of Bramble Ridge
"The first whistle blast was from the fallen slaver," I said.
"Thank you, Captain," Dyson said acidly. "I'm not certain what I'd do without your remarkable grasp of the obvious."
"That was incredible thinking," I continued, ignoring him. "He must have picked up Carl's whistle so the second sound would be the same as the first. And the sheer chutzpah of it! Convincing the remaining slavers it was a battle signal! No wonder they ran -- who would believe a maneuver like that was just a bluff, especially if their scout team had been dispatched?"***
"Captain," Dyson said, and his tone turned menacing.
I shut up, face flushing red.
"While, loathe as I am to admit it, I share your admiration for a force of three defeating a well-armed group five times their size ... do not forget Dallion and his men are enemies of Lindon. They deserve recognition for their resourcefulness ... but not our respect. Never our respect."
It was the mildest reprimand Dyson had ever given me -- or anyone else I'd been in earshot of. I could have believed -- if the belief would not have been heresy -- that he was trying to convince himself of the idea. Nevertheless, I dropped straight to one knee and nodded acknowledgement.
A disturbing thought crossed my mind: Was Dyson this persistent with Dallion because he had finally found someone he felt worthy of his attention? ... Was he finally treating someone as an equal?
Dyson strode past me wordlessly, and I got back up and followed, trying to suppress my unwelcome speculation. He made a beeline for the fire, where our last guest was milling around aimlessly.
The peasant -- a boy not quite in his teens -- recognized me and offered a breezy nod. Then he saw my urgent look, and glanced around him to see the four Priory Guards at his sides kneeling down in prostration. Suddenly panicking, he threw himself down to join them.
"Lindon must be smiling today," Dyson said, unamused, "because just this once I will forgive your impertinence. Get up." The boy did, shaking in relief, along with my men.
"I am here to witness, in Lindon's name," Dyson said, sounding bored again. "You will repeat all you have told the Captain, under Lindon's eye."
"I will, Yer Grace," the boy said. "I told him how Mr. Dallion rescued us from the kidnappers. We heard a whistle up the ridge, then he showed up with glowy hands and whistled to his army. All the kidnappers ran, and we was all cheering. But scared too, y'know, cause the guy was doing magic, and that's worse'n kidnapping." He looked up hopefully at Dyson, trying to win some points back.
"Go on," Dyson said, not taking the bait.
The boy swallowed. "Well. Um. Mr. Dallion and his friends walked down the hill. His hands were still all glowy. He got down to the camp and seemed to remember, so ZOT! he shot this light beam out at the ground and they weren't glowy no more. They unlocked the cages and Mr. Dallion, he said --" the boy squinted, trying to drum up the memory. "He said, 'You are free, take what you need from the camp, and you go home and tell everyone that Dallion Ma-- Mal-- Malzblade is a friend to the common man.'"****
"But that's not all you saw, is it?" Dyson prompted.
"Nosir," the boy said, then his eyes grew wide as he realized his mistake and he prostrated himself. "I-mean-no-yer-grace!"
"Get up," Dyson said, sounding increasingly annoyed.
The boy did. "I 'membered I took my hat off in the cage. I turned round a minute or two after heading for home and came back. But Mr. Dallion and his friends were still there and I got all scared. Then -- then I heard -- Mr. Dallion say ..." The boy's face colored and he looked down.
"You don't need to repeat his blasphemies again," Dyson said.
The boy nodded in thanks. "And he fainted."*****
Dyson shot me a smug grin, as if to say: Does that sound like the Dallion Maliceblade we've been chasing?
"His friend caught him. But I got even more scared," the boy continued in a small voice. "So I snuck away and ran back home."
Dyson crouched down next to the boy and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "That's alright, child. You were facing a very scary man. Now I just have one more question for you, and it's a very important question. Okay?"
The boy smiled uncertainly and nodded.
"Did you tell anyone else what you've told me and the captain? Anyone? Anyone at all?"
"Nos--No, Yer Grace."
Dyson stood back up. "Good lad," he said, patting the boy's head. "Your faith was strong. Lindon will save a space for you at the Gates of Heaven."
The boy gasped in relief. "Oh, thank you, Yer Grace!" he effused, and threw himself to the ground in prostration at Dyson's feet.
Dyson bent down. Calmly, without any hint of emotion on his face, he grabbed the child's head with both hands and wrenched. There was a small pop, and the boy jerked and collapsed, lifeless, to the ground.
In the shocked silence, Dyson turned to one of my guardsmen. "See to it that this boy gets full rites and a proper burial."
"Dyson --!" I said.
He whirled to me, baring his teeth. "Do not forget your station, Captain!"
Numbly, I sank to one knee. "I'm sorry, Your Grace," I managed.
"You should already have figured this out, you tin-headed steelslinger, so don't make me explain this again. One Dallion Maliceblade is trouble enough. We do not need any evidence getting out that there is more than one of them. Officially, this was his doing, and it was the same man we've been chasing all along. Do you understand?"
I nodded, speechless.
"Thank Lindon that the malcontents under his sway are content to give him credit for their work. A snake can be beheaded; a hydra must be burnt."
I stood up, trying not to look at the small body at my feet. "Your Grace," I protested, "this boy is not the only one."
"He is the only one who saw so much. But, yes. They will all have to be dealt with," Dyson said, turning to walk back to his horse. "I expect the Priory Guard to round up every one of the freed prisoners. Take those that will recant and have them spread word that Dallion was working with the slavers all along, and only kidnapped them to spread lies about his true nature. Take those that won't recant and follow my example." He untied the reins and swung up into his saddle. "Find the remaining slavers if you can, but don't be too concerned. Erick will likely lead me straight to them."
"And what of the real Dallion?" I asked helplessly.
Dyson looked down at me and smiled. "He is still, I presume, headed northward. When you're done, take your personal guard and return to Briech. With the Priory Guard cleaning up the mess in Ballard's Grove, perhaps he'll even get confident enough to poke his head into view."
* This was entirely unintentional on our part. The Ballard's Hollow murder was blamed on the real Dallion. The bard our party ran across -- the only witness to get a good look at us in the caves -- took a severe dislike to Jonas, and in order to get him in trouble, described him as the sorceror holding hostages there. The desecration in Ballard's Grove was carried out by Zack, who one of the guards saw face to face. And the slaver camp was all Simon's doing.
** We have a house rule that, in much the same manner as attack rolls, you can roll to 'confirm' critical successes on skill checks; the better the confirm result, the more outstanding the success. I rolled a natural 20 on my Bluff check. Then ... when confirming ... another natural 20. I re-confirmed ... and got ANOTHER freakin' natural 20. At that point, the GM stared in shock, gave in completely, and ruled that not only had I distracted my intended target, I'd also paralyzed him with fear for a round -- and that this had happened to all three of the remaining bad guys. At that point, the fight (which, incidentally, we were supposed to lose) was basically over.
*** It also helped that, after circumstance and assistance bonuses, my second Bluff roll (from a level 0 character, mind you!) was a nigh-godly 29.
**** This was my idea too. Background: In the previous session, we had met Dallion and (due to intersecting interests and genealogy) formed an alliance with him against the church. I had a sudden flash of insight that, as long as we had been thrust into the position of being heroes to people, this was a free chance to build up positive name recognition on the most recognizable name brand we possessed. Jesus Christ, I was on fire that night.
***** For the record: "Oh my fucking god." May I also point out that I pulled off this ENTIRE thing -- both the fight intimidation AND chasing away the bandit camp -- with a level 0 character, who knew just one single spell, and that spell was Ray of freakin' Frost? ]B=8D