The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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halfhand
Posts: 47
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Tue Jun 30, 2020 8:29 pm

PROLOGUE

The girl sat silently in the tiny stone cell carved deep in the bowels of the Fortress of the Light. The only light in the room was a thin orange-gray strip from the tiny slit-like window facing the hallway. She raised her face expectantly to the sound of the heavy door unlocking and sliding open.

“They are waiting for you.” The shadow in the doorstep resolved into the figure of a Hand of Light.

The girl stood up, swaying slightly, the rough cotton gray shift falling over her pale legs that have not seen the sun in weeks. She held her bruised arms up, palms up. She wore two manacles encircling her slim wrists. These manacles were made of thick black sweat-stained leather, not the heavy iron of a common prisoner, but manacles nonetheless.

The Hand of Light entered the darkness of the room, locked the two manacles together, and the two walked into the hallway without another word. The hall was of austere graystone walls and floor, lined with hundreds of doors for similar guests of the Fortress. The majority of doors they passed were identical solid iron with heavy locks. Several doors were covered in gilded paper tags. A few rare doors were completely bricked up, sealing their occupants forever.

Crackling flames from sconces carved deep in the wall cast deep shadows behind the pair as they walked down the long hallway until they finally arrived at the end -- a nondescript steel door. A Child of Light stood guard here, his burnished breastplate and conical helmet scattering the red flickering light of the nearby torch. He opened the door for the two and they entered without ceremony.

They entered another plain windowless stone room. The girl felt the oppressive air in the room as if the low ceiling and walls were pressing heavily down upon her.

Three Inquisitors of the Light cloaked in white sat at the opposite wall, on heavy blackwood throne-like chairs. They sat nearly shrouded in shadow, but their practiced eyes watched the pair enter, studying, probing, never missing a single detail or movement.

There was a single chair facing the Inquisitors, lit by the only torch in the room, and this was the chair to which she was directed. Her escort locked her manacle to a chain connected to a cinder block in the ground, shuffled away, the door behind them with finality.

She looked to the left and right, but there was no table of instruments and questioning today, just the chairs and the Inquisitors. Before she sat on the lonely chair, she gave a stiff bow to her audience, her joints groaning with dull ache. For a second, a ghost of a smile appeared on the face of the lead Inquisitor who gave a small incline of his head.

As the girl sat, the lead Inquisitor spoke, “It is about time that we have met. Your interviewers have confirmed your veracity, and have found no obvious corruption of the Shadow. I apologize for the necessity of our methods, but you will not doubt that in these current times and of the events you have witnessed, necessary.”

Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “The stories of what happened in Illian have now spread wide and far, versions after versions, burning through the world like wildfire. Some of the most blasphemous accounts I have ever heard, but there is no doubt of the vast devastation and loss of life in Illian. Of the utter horror, depravity, and corruption that I still doubt words can do justice.

"So it is time. Let us hear your final account and we shall make our judgement. Tell us, child. Tell us of Illian and of the Halfhand.”

The girl wet her cracked, dried lips and spoke.
Last edited by halfhand on Thu Jul 23, 2020 3:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Rentris
Posts: 255
Joined: Sun Mar 22, 2015 2:01 am

Re: Hunters of the Light: The Illian Desecration

Post by Rentris » Fri Jul 03, 2020 1:26 am

The detail and description is fantastic. Write more. I want the story!

halfhand
Posts: 47
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Sun Jul 05, 2020 2:36 pm

CHAPTER ONE

“Spare not a single darkfriend to live, for a single seed of evil can grow to choke the world.”
Lord Captain Commander Toradon. Declaration of Command. NE 513.

Child Halfhand stared down at the fleshless skull, its sun-bleached boney visage grinning back. What tales would you say if you could still speak, the Child of Light wondered as the high Illian sun cast dark shadows into the deep eye sockets. This particular skull lay in a pit of bones nearly twenty paces wide, filled with other bones long, short, thin, scattered, with dozens of visible skulls leering out with their frozen smiles. Halfhand stood up from bended knee, briefly brushing the red Illian clay dust from his cloak of entirely bright white except for the faded sunburst emblem on his left breast.

"All humans without a doubt." His partner still crouched at the edge of the pit of bones. Child Viellain, a gaunt man with slicked back graying hair in a matching cloak, except a red shepard’s crook embroidered behind his sunburst. An Inquisitor of the Hand of Light, his skill and knowledge of the human body honed from decades in the Questioners’ laboratories and inquisitorial chambers of the Fortress. He continued, “A few callouses of old healed fractures from hard living, but no true new osseous injuries to suggest at all how they died. As if all flesh turned to dust and sloughed off. I would guess maybe sixty intact skeletons. Men, women. Children.”

Halfhand pondered this grimly. This was the first sign of any life since the two crossed into the Illian border two weeks past. They had rode through three small Illian villages prior, and each was void of any human life. There were clear signs of habitation, bowls and plates set out with rotted food of interrupted supper, children's toys still laid out in the street in the middle of play, and neglected livestocks pawing hungrily at the gates, but not a single trace of actual human persuasion. Until now.

He had believed this village was of the same pattern, until they had stumbled upon this eerie pit of human remains at the edge of the village, nearly by accident. A yawning pit of defleshed skeletons and an eight feet wooden pole buried deep in the center of the pit, dark charcoal words scrawled down in a shaky script. Repeating the same thing.

“The Hunger--” Halfhand had started to read them aloud, but was silenced by a finger to the lip from Viellain. The Hand shook his head, “Dangerous to speak anything that may be Words of Power. If this was an arcane ritual site...”

"I can feel immense evil here, Viellain." Halfhand grimaced in revulsion. He felt a dull throbbing ache from his mutilated left hand of his namesake. As a soldier of the Light for decades, he had seen his share of the aftermath of many bloody battles, even a few with hundreds listed on the final Butcher’s Bill. But there on the battlefield, there was blood and sweat, and raw emotions of victory and loss, all evidence of the human condition and its sacrifices. This mass graveyard was the opposite: the remains of humanity cast away by someone or something in this pit of convenience without a shred of dignity, as if the lives lost were of little significance.

Viellain nodded, thoughtful. An Inquisitor of the Light was tasked to some extreme measures in their pursuit for truth, but yet even this sight before him gave him pause.

"It has been some time since the Light has seen this land." Viellain agreed. "But even this seems...unusual." He stood up in turn, reaching into his cloak. Unlike Halfhand, he wore a dark leather vest instead of a steel breastplate, where he kept dozens of lethal tools of the craft in hidden compartments. Instead, he drew out a beaten copper flask, unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. It was an unusual habit for a Hand of the Light, but Viellain was an unusual Questioner with unusual ideas. And woe to anyone who would challenge a Hand on anything they do. Since Halfhand had known him over the decades, the Questioner was never far from the drink, perhaps to drown out some ancient memories never to be spoken. “It seems you may have been right, Half.”

Illian had closed off its border to the Light for the last two years but recently there has been dark stirrings on the wind. Nightmares creeping over the border into Altara and Murandy. Ravings from traveling peddlers, stories too difficult to believe, of cities given over to pleasures of blood and slaughter, and orgies of insane carnal hedonism. Many of those travelers were put to the question already by the Inquisitors, but the testimonies were almost invariably useless as those questioned already seemed reduced to loons. The sea around Illian’s port grew tumultuous with unpredictable storms, with more ships disappearing than returning.

The Children of Light have become insular of recent times, but these events were too much to ignore. However, it seems the pair of old soldiers, a drunk and a washed up zealot, were all that the Order was willing to muster to investigate Illian. But, in the Light, they had both picked up enough trades of the hunt that they were uniquely equipped in this thankless task.

"We should move on from here before nightfall. I would not want to stay here tonight. I will do what I can for them.” Halfhand kneeled before the pit of bones. He regretted that he could not give the full Last Ritual of Peace that these souls deserved, but their task was pressing and time wanting. But he could try to give them a shred of dignity. He removed the steel gauntlet from his good right hand, and placed his naked palm on the auburn dirt.

“May your souls find peace, may you return to the warm embrace of the Light, and let this protect you from the Void.” He took a handful of dirt, letting it warm in his right hand, willing his Word of Command into the dirt, and then casting the dirt over the mass grave. But where he normally would find a reflection of warmths and peace, he instead felt emptiness before him as if the bone-white pit before him was a yawning chasm of hateful darkness, consuming his blessing like a ravenous hole of hunger. It almost seemed to pull and drag at the Child himself like a physical presence, and Halfhand pulled back in alarm as if avoiding the snap of the jaws of a bear trap, almost stumbling.

Viellain raised his brow at Halfhand’s reaction, but the Child of Light just shook his head. Maybe it was exhaustion from the weeks’ hard riding. This would not be a battle for him to fight right now. He turned his back to the pit, still feeling as if there was a dark presence watching him, and left the Hand to his own task.

Halfhand returned to check on their two mounts as Viellain started the cleansing fire to the wooden pole, letting fire consume the stake and reduce the ominous message to the sky in smoke. His massive black warhorse fed complacently from the overgrown village green. The Child of Light checked the heavy saddlebags, the left now filled with provisions for a month from the larder of those unfortunate who will no longer need them, the right with tools of the trade borrowed from the Fortress Armory. He checked that the massive battle hammer remained securely strapped in. Unlike the steel cavalry sword engraved with serpiginous runes with matching scabbard on his hip, this heavy hammer was a crude weapon of pure iron, the only marking was a lacy trim of rust. Effective tools of the Light in a dark world that has forgotten peace.

When Viellain returned from his task, he mounted his own pale white thoroughbred, trained for speed and agility rather than battle. They set forth on their lonely quest again down the dirt packed road towards the next town, riding deeper into the grim unknown, a endless veil of dark gray clouds lining the horizon in front of them, leaving the last glimpse of sunlight a distant memory.
Last edited by halfhand on Thu Jul 23, 2020 4:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

halfhand
Posts: 47
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Thu Jul 16, 2020 1:07 pm

Chapter Two

“Fear not the evil that approach with the blade and bowl of death, but the evil that approach with a smile and sweet promises.”
Elder Patron Soan the Second. The Sermon at Meraldin.

The two travelers in white entered the outskirts of the next village before the break of dusk. It was with some relief that they saw living humans for the first time in two weeks. The fertile fields on the outskirts were thick with fields of amber-bearded wheat and lush vineyards. Amongst the fields, figures of Illianer farmers hunched in their lifelong backbreaking toil, rushing to finish their work before the disappearance of the last light.

There were the villagers in plain wool moving slowly through the crude dirt packed road that led into the heart of the village of a half-dozen wooden structures with neat thatched roofing. It was a typical quaint farming village of obvious prosperity, but of little other consequence to the affairs of the world. But it was a start to unraveling the Illian conundrum.

As they entered, the dark haired Illianer denizens parted for them readily, glancing up briefly at their approach. Each one gave the horsemen a smile. Despite the humid hot weather, each of them wore long wool shirts with sleeves down past their wrists and leggings down to their clay-stained shoes. There was a faint vaguely familiar smell in the air that Halfhand could not quite place.

“These seem to be a friendly bunch. “ Child Halfhand commented, as he inclined a head politely to a pair of villagers that moved aside for them.

“Yes, fradis, but a smile is not always friendly.” Viellain murmured. Halfhand studied the villagers as they rode past. The people smiled and bowed, but their unblinking eyes matched their gaze without any deference. Their smiling lips creased to their cheeks but left their eyes untouched.

“Lo citizen, do you have a Inn or a Tavern here?” Halfhand called out to one of the villagers standing at the side of the road, watching them. Without breaking eye contact or speaking, the man raised one arm to point at the tallest building in the center of the village. He gave them a silent grin of pale teeth.

“Illianers have gotten a lot stranger than I seem to remember.” Viellain muttered. “Don’t seem quite right in the head.”

“It has been a while. It must have been five years since the Koloi hunt in Akantus.” Halfhand furrowed his brows to recall the pair’s last visit to Illian. It seemed like ancient history since they were wading hip deep through swamp land in search of the bloodsucker.

“Ah, fradis, in the easten Illian bogs. I think I swore to never return to that blasted pighole.” Viellain laughed in retort, and then fondly, “But they did brew the loveliest vin reds.”

The simple rustic buildings in the village square appear to be well maintained with clean walls with faded blue trim. Villagers here halted their evening activating to stand and stare at the strangers enter.

Eyes still lingered on the two Children as they reigned their horses to the front of the supposed Inn, a nondescript two-story building. A picture window facing the street seems to be dark and there was no marking or signage outside. But there was a full trough and a post for horse hitching.

As the Children dismounted their steeds and tied their line to the post, more and more villagers appeared in the square to watch the strangers. The Children were used to being the center of attention in backwards villages, especially in their pressed white cloaks and shining armor.
But the slowly growing number of villagers standing here silently watching them filled Halfhand with some unease. He was used to seeing curiosity, suspicion, or even fear. But, these men and women seem to radiate a troubling intensity in their faces. The villagers appear well fed and healthy and the local stalls filled with produce. Not one appeared to have a stigmata of scurvy or marasmus. Yet, to Halfhand’s eyes, these villagers had a hungry eager look that he had only seen during major famines.

“Matese, behave yourself today.” Viellain commanded to his horse, loudly for the benefit of their audience. “We don’t want any more people with broken legs or necks.” The two trained horses were certainly capable of defending themselves, but those few choice words were usually enough to remind anyone with an itchy palm to stay away.

They ignored their watchers as best as they could and entered the Inn. It was a dank drinking hole appropriate for the town, yet not a single drunk lay here in their ale. All the lamps were dark and the room was lit only by the gray twilight filtering in through the front window. Only one man stood here in the gloom behind the long bar, facing the shelf of glassware. He was tall and slender, wearing a black long-sleeved shirt, with an upturned collar around his neck in the normal Illian style. His gangly arms and legs seem too long for his frame. He was humming to himself a foreign discordant tune.

He turned to the opening of the door and gave them a wide smile that stretched his face, “Mmmmm, visitors, welcome. Mmmmm.”

“Would you be able to set some light, Master Barkeep? It seems the night has caught up to you.” Halfhand gestured to the oil lamp gathering dust on the bar counter.

“Mmmmm. Yes. Oh yes, of course.” The man stepped to the counter, still humming, but just hovered over the lamp, staring as if he was slightly confused.

Finally, Viellain gave a grunt of impatience and reached over the bar. He gave a snap of his left hand, and a bright white flash sparked into the lamp’s wick. The kindled lamp began to scatter its radius of anemic light over the bartop, casting flickering shadows across the room. Viellain's left hand was equipped with the Manus, finger-armor of his own design. The matching ebony filigree finger-armor wrapped the full length of the Questioner’s thumb and ring finger like an articulating carapace, tapering to a clawed end with feromagut ridges that allowed him to spark fire with a fingersnap of convenience.

“Let there be Light. Two of your best.” The Hand of Light pulls up a seat to the bar, a copper coin clinking onto the old rotting bartop.

The innkeeper blinked at the sudden light, took a step away from the radius of the lamplight, still smiling. He began to fill the tankards behind the bar, yet his eyes stayed unwavering from his new guests. His gaze drifted between their armor and cloaks and faces. “Mmmmmm. Welcome to Tefike. Rare do be travelers now.”

“The crowd certainly turned out for our arrival” Halfhand commented as he took his seat at the bar. The barstool felt like it could disintegrate at any time.

“Mmmmmm. Oh we love visitors here. Very much.” The innkeeper’s smile split wider. He set a filled tankard each in front of the guests.
Viellain intercepted both tankards, downing one quickly and began to nurse the second without a complaint. Anything is likely to be better than the rotgut he keeps in his flask.

“Water for me.” Halfhand said simply.

The Innkeeper eyed him. He found a chipped pitcher on a shelf behind him and poured out the request. The Child of Light looked at the glass of gray water. There was a tiny spider floating in the filmy water. Halfhand looked about the dim common room. There were two tables with thick cobwebs wrapped around their legs. The common room did not seem to be used for months. It was this time that he identified the scent that hung in the air. It was the scent of lingering decay, like faint creeping black mold festering under a thin layer of fresh paint. Did this strange bartender man just stand in the dark humming night after night waiting?

He looked out through the picture window to see their horses drinking undisturbed, but now there are smiling villagers standing just outside the window looking in at them.

“Mmmmmm. Will you be staying long?” The Innkeeper wiped the bartop, but did not break his stare as if the two guests would vanish if he were to blink.

“We do seek information. We may stay as long as we need for our search.” The Hand of Light sipped from the second tankard. His piercing gaze matched that of their server. “We have passed by many villages, all empty. Have you any news from your neighbors or the capital?”

The Innkeeper replied without pause or reflection. “Mmmmmm. That may be. That may be. It has been quiet. Not much villagers indeed. Perhaps they have gone to the King’s Reverie. You two would love the Reverie.”

Before they could speak more, the front door opened once more with a heavy creek. Halfhand turned slightly to watch the group of seven townspeople file in. They each bore a bludgeon or spear. They formed a half circle around the pair in the soon crowded common area.
A sweaty fat man with a medallion of a balance around his high collared neck stepped up, a cudgel wielded in hand. “You two be whitecloaks.” It was not a statement, not a question.

Viellain continue to drink his tankard without pause, although his right hand disappeared into his cloak, likely fingering a hidden knife or poisoned flechette.

Halfhand turned in his seat to face the man. “We are Children of the Light. Pray tell me, do you walk in the Light, citizen?”

The fat man spoke again, “I am Master Toz, the lawful mayor of Tefike. You should be aware that Whitecloaks are banished from Illian on the Council of Nine’s orders. Your kind are not welcome. I will not have you disturb the peace.”

“It is of concern on how you treat the servants of light. We are but peaceful travelers. If you would answer some questions, we would be happy to move on.” Halfhand replied curtly. As he spoke, he studied the small mob. Like the local militia of most backwards villages, it was likely comprised of local thugs and the most functional drunks that could be roused. In most circumstances, the odds would favor the two experienced soldiers, but in the scrum of close quarters, it may be difficult to escape unscathed. Additionally, like the villagers they have encountered outside, these men seem to emanate wrongness. Though they clutched their weapon in inexperienced hands, there was no fear or hesitation in their eyes. Halfhand glanced at Viellain who continued to nurse his tankard, who appeared annoyed at the interruption of his drink, gesturing at the bartender quickly for a refill.

“By the laws of Illian, we are placing you two under arrest.” Major Toz proclaimed. “You will be taken to meet a representative of the Council of Nine for judgement. Will you come peacefully?“

Halfhand traded look with Viellain. Tefike has been the first true clue in their investigation. Escape here would be possible but not without violence and force. This source of information would be burned. It may be of more benefit to go along with this charade for now. Viellain seems to agree, as he gave a slight nod and gulped down the last of his tankard. He removed his right hand from his cloak unarmed.

“Very well then. We shall comply with your request. “ Halfhand stood and flung his white cloak back. The villagers stiffened when he reached towards his sword, but the Child merely unclipped the scabbard and placed it into the hands of the nearest villager. “Watch it well for I expect it back in the same condition”. As the villager accepted the sword, Halfhand caught a glimpse of the serpiginous scars on the man’s forearm peeking out the edge of his long wool sleeves.

A second villager pulled the Child’s gauntleted hands behind him, and tied it with coarse rope. Viellain acquiesced to this as well. He gave a wink to his guard, “Thank you, master of ropes.”

They were escorted out of the Inn by their new entourage. The day’s light was nearly gone, but the dirt road was lined with a surprising amount of villagers watching their arrest. It was possible that the arrest of the two strangers was the event of their year. The people watching them seem to have a hungry look on their faces, their thirsting eyes watching in anticipation.

The two were marched down the central street, now lined with more waiting villagers as if it was a feast parade. As they passed, the townspeople swarmed around to tag along, a large mob just walking and scrambling behind them. Instead of taking them to any official building, they were marched to the outskirts of town and towards a nearby grove of ancient trees with a towering entwined canopy that blotted out the rest of the dying light.

“So I take it we’re going to camp with the Illian rep tonight? Or is this a pitstop with the sheep welcoming committee?” Viellain asked, and received a shove and resounding silence. No of their escorts seemed to rise to Viellain’s provocations, and only increased their pace.
As they were led into the thick grove, Halfhand watched their escorts from the corner of his eyes. There were now over fifty townspeople here alongside their militia entourage. A few young women skipped around them as if this was Bel Tine or Sunday. He kept a mental tracker on the villager that carried his sword.

Sputtering torches flared up as the crowd now moved deeper into the woods. It was clear that they were not being taken to a diplomat skulking into the woods. But what perverse idea of justice did these hayseeds have in mind? Halfhand tested his binding, stretching the ropes but finding little yield. The nearby guards also now had tight grips on both of his arms to curtail any escape attempt.

After a ten minute of walking and unrequited insults from Viellain, they came into a clearing now in the grove, ringed in oil-soaked torches. A hunter’s moon struggled to break through the thick cloud cover in the night sky.

A group of three hooded men waited in the center of the clearing next to an ominous man-sized stone structure. The tallest man held a long wicked appearing black sword in his hand. The crowd around the two Children surged forward, dragged the two forward.
The sacrificial lambs were delivered.

halfhand
Posts: 47
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

Post by halfhand » Thu Jul 23, 2020 3:09 pm

CHAPTER THREE

“Belief is power. It is Belief that defines our reality. Faith shapes the material world.“
Lothair Mantelar. The Way of the Light.

One months prior

Child Halfhand walked the path as the enormous marble walled Dome of Truth rose before him, casting its immense shadow over the courtyard. He came to a stop before the elaborate heavy door of polished Tairen mahogany and the two Children of Light sentinels flanking the door in full ceremonial armor of gilded silver and hammered gold. One of the honor guards held out a hand at his approach.

“The Anointed expects me.” Halfhand removed his scabbarded sword and handed it to the guard. The sentinel guard studied the fine silver etched runes on the scabbard and carefully tucked in the cradle of his arms.

The other guard saluted and opened the door for his entrance. “You are expected. Walk in the Light, Child Halfhand.”

“Walk in the Light,” Halfhand returned a short salute, moving into the high arched entrance hall, past rows of thick marbled columns, and finally into the massive vaulted Dome of Truth.

The Dome of Truth was the most elaborate ceremonial hall of the Fortress. Nearly one hundred paces wide in diameter, the walls were pure marble blocks brought down from the Mountains of MIst, polished until they gleamed like fresh powder snow. Hundreds of delicate golden lamps hung from the vaulted ceiling lighting the entire interior in an ethereal glow that spared no spot of shadow. The speaker’s dias stood in the center of the Dome of Truth, to face the audience arrayed in a circle around the dias. Here, thirteen men and women in their formal whites sat in session, the thirteen Anointed including in normal circumstances, the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of Light himself.

The small hush of whispers died when Halfhand ascended the dias. He gazed up at the elaborate frieze and murals of Children’s past victories on the alcove walls of the Dome. He set his hands on the smooth ivory surface of the speaker’s pulpit.

The Dome’s lamps were designed to cast the speaker at the epicenter in an ascendant halo of light, but also bathe them in the reflected collective heat of the lamp as well. Rare were those that would voluntarily seek to stand here for long. Within seconds, Halfhand could already feel small beads of sweat forming on his brow.

He looked through the bright light of the Dome above to the waiting faces of the Anointed, old and new. There was Eamon Valda, believed to be second in line to the mantle, hard faced but with shrewd, evercalculating eyes. Next to him sat Geofram Bornhald, the grandfatherly general that was once a rising flame until the disastrous First Battle of Falme when the legions of Light fell before the new Seanchan threat. And then next was Omerna and Canvele and Castoneda. And of course, there were new Anointeds seated on the Council since he was here last.
But missing of note was the Lord Captain Commander Pedron Niall himself, first among Anointed and one of the Great Generals of the Westlands. There were rumors rampant of an illness that has stayed Niall’s appearances for the better part of three months.
“Welcome back to Amador. Your absence has been noted. Let us hear your request, Child.” Lord Bornhald motioned him to proceed.
“Brothers and Sisters under the LIght. Honored and Anointed by the Creator’s Grace.” Halfhand began, his conversational voice carrying easily underneath the acoustic ceiling of the Dome.

“When I took the oaths under this same Dome, under the eternal witnesses, I accepted the duty as a Child of the Light. To be the bulwark against the Darkness in men’s hearts, to be a voice of truth for those who cannot speak, and the protector of the powerless. And in all that, we are now negligent, and derelict in our duty in the Illian matter.

“When Illian did the unthinkable and broke from the covenant of the Light and banished the followers fo Light, they revealed their true nature. Yet, a year passed and a second year. The Fortress of Light sits silent. Not powerless, but unwilling. The Children of Light sleep, lacking heart, lacking will, lacking belief. These are not easy words for me to proclaim, but it is the truth. We have allowed the seed of darkness to plant in the Westland. Unanswered, we will be helpless but to watch the light will wink out one by one, and the Shroud of Night will fall upon nation after nation. This is a black miasma that if unopposed, will threaten to swallow the entire Westland. And not even this eternal Fortress will weather that final storm.

“Let us find our way again. To just abandon an entire land is anathema to our founding principles and the oaths we have sworn.”

“That would be war then. To enforce the accord of Light.” Lord Canvele interrupted. “The Order is tired of war, our resources spent. Illian is a petty insignificant swamp city, let them do their own things. What business is it ours now?”

“The business of the Light United. When all nations fall one by one, will we stand against the Dark One by ourselves?” Halfhand countered. “And shall we desert the people of Illian? The crimes of the crown are not the crimes of the people.”

Lord Valda leaned forward, “Words well spoken, but they are merely words. We appreciate your passion, but your tone treads on borderline insubordination. The Council has given you audience due to your position and service, but you no longer sit as an Anointed, Halfhand. Your superstitious Sect holds no more sway. The time of fire and brimstone is over. While you have been chasing shadows in the sweatstain of humanity over the last two years, we served the role of governance. You present no actual evidence to this illustrious body that we should commit any action into that Light-forsaken swamp.”

Halfhand held his tongue. He could not speak aloud the full truth. He could not describe the violent dreams of the past months. Of the sense of impending doom that he could feel even thousands of leagues away. That every time he turned his gaze to the southeast, he could see the dense waves of malignancy that seemed to chew and consume all light in the horizon. Those words would do the opposite of his purpose and turn the attention in the wrong direction.

“Every word he has said is true, Lord Valda.” Lord Castoneda interjected. “What more evidence do you have then the published words of the Council of Nine. The absolute affront of…”

“Come off it, Castoneda, you should be used to be on the short end of the stick.” Valda sneered. The diminutive Lord Captain roared at this and the Council quickly dissolved into arguments. This was against decorum for the Anointed to bicker like this in front of supplicants, but it evident that the Council was under a lot of tension. Finally, Bornhald finally slammed his fist on his armrest until the Council fell to silence.

“I think that will be enough questions today. “ Lord Bornhald appeared tired and exhausted. “We will consider your words now. You are dismissed from the Council.” He closed the conversation with finality.

Halfhand bowed with resignation to the Anointed. He looked at each face of the Anointed, counting the votes in their eyes. He had served before on the Council long enough to know how the vote will swing. The Anointed will continue to discuss and argue after he has departed the Dome, but the verdict has already been written in their eyes. It will be eight to four against action.



He left the Dome of Truth with a heavy heart and a bitter taste of futility. He accepted his sword without a word from the ceremonial guard. He did not wait around to hear the inevitable resolution of inaction.

He walked aimlessly through the empty great halls of the Fortress. He walked past the familiar sight of old captured banners of conquered enemies and heretics, interspersed with elaborate murals of past battles won. This was the visual history of the Children from its start as a group of preachers under Lothair Mantelar to the modern legion of crusaders.

But the Fortress was much different than he last remembered. He passed one or two other Children in the long hallways, where he expected dozens in the height of the day. A faint layer of dust covered statues of old martyrs, and training halls sit vacant and unused. The Fortress felt more like a museum now than a stronghold. It seemed to be an ancient mausoleum of forgotten dreams now resting on the laurels of past victories while the world has moved on.

As he continued to walk down the lonely halls, the corridor slowly filled with fleeting specters in luminous cloaks and translucent armors. Some familiar faces, but most unknown to Halfhand in life. Most of these hazy apparitions appeared for brief seconds, flickering in and out existence in mid-step or mid-prayer. Rare were those phantasms that would pace the entire hallway. These were not true ghosts, but the mere spiritual footprints of the devoted. The ancient Fortress of Light has become a place of power, charged over the centuries by the beliefs and prayers of the faithful generations. Every stone in the citadel has been infused with the collective consciousness of the Children and these specters were a manifestation -- to those of spectral attunement. Normally, the faint background energy of the Fortress would be drowned out by the activities of living Children. But, now, it seemed the hallways belonged to the treads of the dead.

Halfhand paused to regard a familiar group of apparitions, four male and one female in shining armor and pure cloaks. Their young faces reflected bright excitement and hope. Their mouths moved in silent words lost in time but Halfhand could replay each word from his own memories. Of a shared dream in their future in the Order. The five figures collapsed into motes, leaving the Child of Light to his empty thoughts. He felt hollow, fighting the feeling of immeasurable sadness and grief of comrades met and lost. Was this empty fortress worth all the sacrifices?
Maybe it was too late. He has fought enough battles to quench anyone’s thirst. He could ride north to outrun the terrible brewing darkness. Perhaps crossing the sea would be enough.

Lost in his thoughts, he did not realize a living Child of Light had caught up to him and was now casually pacing him as if their proximity was merely coincidence. It was the figure of Lord Castenoda, one of the Anointed who had sat in council. The Lord Captain was a short man but he made up for it with a dominating personality. Castonada was a Cairheinin lord before he became a Child, and his sharp wit and mastery of the Game of Houses made up for his stout physique. He was known to be the leader of the War Hawks of the Council. In the past, the two have not gotten along. Halfhand felt that Castonada took too much delight in the manipulation of the lives of common man, to think of them more as pieces than living beings.

He gave a polite nod to Castenoda. In this matter today, the Cairhien Lord Captain was an ally, although it was likely due to Casteonda’s expansionary thirst rather than out of principal. He was a proponent of the theory of the Empire of Light. But an ally was an ally, although allies of Castenoda knew to keep their back carefully guarded.

“Well spoken today.” Lord Castenoda spoke first with his rich jovial voice, as if they were close friends. He walked through a pair of ethereal spirits without noticing. “Although the council did not vote your way today, your entreaties were not in vain. The Council is not in unison, as you may be aware, but yet they are many of us who absolutely recognize the danger. The Children do have the stomach nor the will for any official engagement. However, I do believe that if someone was able to enter Illian and bring back evidence -- heresy, war crimes, persecution of the followers of Light, anything -- Many of the Anointed may recover their forgotten mettle.”

Halfhand had little patience for the ambivalence of courtplay and replied curtly, “Your proposal is for me to go to Illian then on a fact finding expedition. In an unofficial capacity.”

Lord Castanoda gave a nod. “Indeed, as you have so bluntly cut to the matter of it. I think that it seems you have the motivation and the experience. You would not have any official sanction or shelter against Illian reprisal. However, successful, any discoveries or testimony from you will carry weight before the Council. Bring me anything with the air of legitimacy, and I can bring the Anointed to action.” The implication was clear. If you cannot find something, make it up.

“It may be possible,” Halfhand ignored the insinuation, “But not without help.”

“I would have thought you more confident, with your vaunted abilities, even if half the Anointed feel they tread dangerously close to heresy. Regarding any obvious assistance, we will have to be discrete. I can arrange for you full access to the armories before your departure. We have a Vindicator patrol under Hand Jebrel on the Murandy border. They are officially on dragonsworn hunting duty but if you have a need of discrete strategic firepower, they may find themselves crossing the border by accident. And we may find select volunteers to go with you, under the same condition as you.”

Halfhand pondered these conditions carefully. It was more generous than expected, although Castonada’s dealings are always fraught with costs. And it was a path forward, a treacherous path. “This is acceptable. But I have one condition. I pick those who go with me,”
Lord Castonda appeared surprised that he accepted so quickly. “Very well. Give me your list by the end of the day.”
“I do not need a list. It will be just one other.”



Halfhand found Child Viellain at his usual spot by The Gallow Tree. The Gallow Tree rose from the aptly named Courtyard of the Damned in the center of Fortress, its time-blackened gnarled branches clawed into the sky. Unlike the gibbets at the front of the Fortress for common criminals, this was the execution ground for the most wicked of those convicted of witchery and blasphemy. The ground over its roots here was covered with dense black clay, like a pool of obsidian oil. Nothing grew on the soil here aside from the ancient branchless tree. In stark contrast to the halls steeped in the radiant benedictions of the faithful, the ground here was soaked in centuries of death and evil.

According to Children lore, the Gallow Tree was already ancient before the laying of the foundation stone of the Fortress. Stories say that this lonely snakewood tree was used by ancient settlers for executions centuries before the first witch was hung by the fledgling Children of the Light. It was the whisper of new Initiates that the roots of the tree sat on a portal to the domain of death and that when Serenia Latar, the only Amyrlin Seat to be hung, was executed here, the Dark One’s own hand split the courtyard to drag her soul into the abyss. An unlikely event, Halfhand always thought, given that it was only Latar’s lifeless rotting body that was hung here, whisked from her death bed in Altara. But there was no doubt the Gallow Tree had a bloody, haunted history, and the Fortress of the Light was built around the tree, encapsulating the Gallow Tree, almost as if the original purpose was to contain it.

The ancient snakewood tree was resilient against physical and spiritual damage. There were countless scorch scars along the trunk that spoke of past escape attempts or the last fury of the condemned. Ancient totems of protection squatted around the tree, and countless talisman of shelter were nailed into the ironlike bark to keep the residual evil at bay, but Halfhand could still feel the edge of the darkness pushing and probing against the edges of protection.

As Halfhand walked into the Courtyard, he tried to avoid breathing in the heavy air that surrounded the Gallow Tree. Here the final cries of the dying stained the walls and ground like a tangible layer of despair. He could feel the persistent stain of hate, fear, anguish and guilt. But the worst was the lingering drops of innocence drowning in the bottomless pool of evil. In the quest for the eradication of evil, there was unfortunate collateral damage. Not all those that lost their lives here were guilty. Halfhand understood the price of the eternal battle, but it did not make it easy to block out the haunting wailing of those martyred souls.

A circular marble seating area encircled the courtyard, for audiences of the executions. On such a bench did he find Child Viellain napping, an empty flagon in hand, his shepherd's cloak pillowed beneath his head. The Hand always said he found this area peaceful. Only he could find this place peaceful.

“I had heard you returned.” Viellain said, one bleary eyes opened to Halfhand’s approach as if he sensed his presence. “I can’t imagine it was to catch up.”

“I came to speak before the Anointed” Halfhand sat on the next bench. “You look...well.”

“And you look like you spent a year in a bog.” Viellain sat up and yawned. “If you had seen me before, I could have saved you the trip and your breath. You could’ve had the ghost of The Patron Mantelar appear in the Dome and lifted you on his shoulder and the Council would still dither over any action.“ No matter how irreverent the Hand appeared, he was no drunk washout. He was like a spider sleeping on his web that touched all cracks of the Fortress.

Halfhand smiled briefly. “It was worth a try. Where are all the Children?”

Viellain peered into the spout of his flagon and shook it for the last drops. “Here and there. Sleeping, drinking, some whoring.”

Halfhand frowned at the jest.

Viellain sighed. “I do not know what sense you had in the Dome of Truth, but the Council, and therefore the Children, is locked in an internal struggle. With the Lord Captain Commander out of sight, Eamon Valda is making a move to consolidate his power base here. Squads loyal to other factions have been sent out of the city, and those that remain stay in their own quarters as a precaution. And here comes you walking oblivious right into the thick of it.”

“I want nothing to do with this.” Halfhand shook his head.

“You want nothing, but you should care. You’re a big unknown, the bull in the porcelain shop, calling for a crusade while everyone’s counting their daggers and wondering how to remove you from the board. Now I hear you’re moved into Castenada’s play. And by your presence, I assume you’re dragging me in as well. ”

“Word passes quickly.” Halfhand studied the Hand. Under the cavalier facade and the greasy hair was of the most cunning Questioner minds. “Will you ride with me one more time? Can I trust Lord Castenada?”

Viellain paused in thought. “It depends. Did he tell you that you are not the first he sent?”

“No, but it would not surprise me. What happened to the others?”

Viellain nodded. “I’ve looked into the Illian matter myself. Castenada’s last and only attempt was Inquisitor Grakus a year prior. I have obtained the three communications that Grakus sent.

The first one was sent by pigeon from Ebou Dar. Grakus explained his infiltration attempt into Illian by sea as a part of a mercantile fleet departing from the Altaran capital. With the epidemic of ship disappearances around Illian, these merchants had decided to band together for safety of their trip, which made it easy for him to join as a new ship hand.

“His second communication was by far the longest and sent after they approached the port of Illian. Grakus wrote of terrible endless cemaros in the sea of storms that devastated the small shipping fleet en route to Illian. In fact, their ship was the only survivor that limped into a sea of dead calm outside the Bay of Illian. No wind stirred within a two-league radius of port Illian. Worse yet, at the boundaries of the still water floated dozens of unmoving ships. By spyglass, they were able to identify the nearest four trade galleons, three fishing boats, and even a sea folk skimmer. Not a single movement could be seen on their decks. Too damaged to return through the sea of storms, they could pray for the wind. After two frustrating days of floating listless on the random eddies of the dead sea, they came close within visual range to one of those galleons. What they saw sent their ship into panic. There could be seen a sailor, clearly dead for weeks, tied to the central mast, with large strips of flesh carved from his desiccated body. The only living company was a flock of seagulls. Whether it was a warning or the doing of famished sailors, it was enough to almost stir a mutiny. Grakus was able to convince the captain to send him and a small group to try the Illian shore with the ship’s only oar-powered dinghy. He sent the second pigeon on preparing for that excursion for land.“

“He must have made it to Illian if there was a third letter. What was the final communication?”

Viellain searched in his cloak until he pulled a piece of yellowing paper covered in wax paper from his lapel and handed it to Halfhand, “Read it yourself”.

The Child touched the broken wax seal of a songbird, and unfolded the paper. He read it out loud.

“‘It is good news. I have arrived in Illian.
The people prosper and the rulers are just and good.
There is nothing to be concerned about.
It is true paradise here. Send no one else.
Faithfully,
Gk1.’”

Halfhand frowned and glanced up, “Surely this is a forgery?”

“It is without a doubt his handwriting. The cipher and seal are his as well.” Viellain answered, his lips pressed into a thin line. “It is beyond a shadow of doubt written by the exact hand of Grakus. And none have heard from him since.”

Halfhand knew Hand Grakus by reputation. He was an experienced Inquisitor and specialized infiltrator. Like all inquisitors, he had specialized training against torture and corruption, both physical and spiritual. This letter was troubling.

“An Inquisitor got compromised. This is bad, bad flaka, Halfhand.” Viellain said, his Taraboner accent thick as he raised his voice, “I know you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. This is only the crest of the wave. This isn’t a snipe hunt or a bunch of sunstroked inbreds huddled in a basement. You’re stepping in to some next level flaka and you are expecting me to come with you?”

Halfhand was silent for a moment. Yet even in the courtyard with the chained darkness of the Gallow Tree claiming his vision, he could feel the pressure of the storm brewing in the direction he knew to be Illian. And he knew that if he went alone, it would be a fool’s errand. He needed Viellain.

“Yes, my friend.” Halfhand finally spoke. “Will you come?”

Viellain frowned sternly at Halfhand. Then, he gave into a loud laugh, “Fine. I’m tired of this dustbin anyways. I hated Grakus anyways; probably just drunk in a ditch.”

Halfhand felt a heavy weight off his chest. He clasped hands with the Hand of Light. “You warm my heart, fratis.”

“Like old times.” Viellain threw his tankard at the Gallow Tree. “With such good decision making, how is that we are the last two of the band surviving?”

Halfhand gave a sad bittersweet smile at this. “So can Castenada be trusted to keep his end of the bargain?”

“Assuming we survive this fool’s quest.” Viellain grinned without mirth, “But let us ride once more.”

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