The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by halfhand » Sun Feb 14, 2021 8:38 pm


With Jena as their guide through the decaying wetlands of Illian, the journey became much smoother, albeit not without its challenges. She seemed to have a sixth sense of the negotiable roads and trails that crisscrossed the seemingly impassable bog. With her coveted hunting knife, she had split the length of her wool dress to convert it to a riding dress with a bone needle and thread. This allowed her to sit behind Halfhand on his warhorse. It was out of the question for her to ride with Viellain on his temperamental Matese.

And at each of the nightly resting spots, the two Child of the Light provided the instructions in the ways of the Hunt. Jena seemed to take to the didactic with a sharp aptitude. Hidden behind her backwater facade and rough Illian accent was a seed of keen intellect and curiosity. She took a keen liking to Viellain’s assortments of tools from his remarkable articulating Manus to his razor-whip and his arsenal of flechette. She had a nimble hand and a quick study of the Hand’s projectile handling.

But, the brunt of her attention was on the greater treasure trove, the books of the trade that both Children always carried. It was a surprise to Halfhand to learn Jena’s level of literacy. But, she consumed the books that they shared with alacrity, and only needed bare assistance with some of the more arcane writings. Jena has little interest in sharing any details of her own upbringing, although based on her story of Troas, Halfhand already had his suspicions of the source of her reticence. But, it seemed that she had been raised in the books by the goodwife Lordis of Troas.

So, it was on an average camp night after a meager supper of a malnourished gamefowl, that Jena was surrounded by small piles of the beloved books. From Viellain’s collection came Rakin’s Complete Threat Dossier, the Booke of Wytches, and the Atlus Anatomicus. From Halfhand’s collection came his copies of the Way of the Light, Thais Meditations, and Universal Wordes of Power. Immediately after Jena had received the lent tomes, she had eagerly poured through them for a mention of her Witika. To her eventual disappointment she had only found only a one-sentence reference, in a cursory mention as a Omen of Calamity without even a footnote. However, that letdown was soon forgotten in the wealth of precious knowledge buried within the old pages. However, Halfhand did note her lack of interest in his own books after her cursory flip through them.

“Do not neglect the fundamentals.” Halfhand lectured her as he watched over her study from his seat by the campfire. He chewed slowly on the willow bark resin provided by Viellain, letting the bitterness seep into his throat. It was one of the few things that kept his headaches at bay.
She frowned, her eyes flickered briefly to the books of rhetorics. “I don’t see the point. I find nothing that would talk a draghkar to death.”
Viellain gave a stifled snort without looking from his own work with his makeshift contraptions that seemed to consist of a small copper kettle of burning woodscrap attached to a glass column of marsh water.

“Words may seem light and abstract, Jena, but they can carry the same weight and edge as a sword. With a sword, you may kill your foe. And in a productive day, you may even kill a dozen, perhaps a hundred before you can no longer find the strength to raise your arm. But with the right word at the right time, you could topple a nation or save a soul.”

Jena appeared unconvinced, but agreed that she will take another look through her neglected tomes.

Satisfied, Halfhand peered down at what Jena was currently perusing. It was the familiar red-leathered Booke of Witches with its thick illustrated pages. It was opened to the worn section on the Thirteen Forsaken.

On those smooth vellum pages was illustrated the most vile creatures that were once mortal. There was a page dedicated to each Forsaken, with an artist’s rendition in skilled woodcut relief. There was Lanfear, her willowy figure undulating like a snake, with ink-black braided hairs that trailed the ground behind her like a cape, and Sammael the Destroyer roaring like a lion with fanged overbite, a mane of golden hair and a jagged scar splitting his face. According to the lore, the Forsaken were supposed to have been bound in Shayol Ghul at the end of the War of Shadows, to be unleashed at the Last Battle. Although it was the suspicion of many historians, including the author of the Booke, that they prematurely tread the earth once more.

“Wouldn’t it be obvious to anyone with eyes if they came back?” Jena pointed at the gross caricatures of their beastly faces, as if reading his mind.

“These are just the artist’s guesses based on recount and gossip. If they walk the world now, they would appear like any other man, their seething evil cloaked beneath normal human flesh. That counts as your First Question of tonight, Jena.” Halfhand raised one finger.

Jena clamped her mouth shut as if she realized she wasted one of her precious questions. This was one of the rules imposed by the Child after the first day. Three questions a day. It was a lesson in itself. Questions can be a useful tool, but it can be a double-edge sword and a crutch of the weak-minded. She would have to choose them carefully and methodically, or find the answers herself.

However, Jena pushed forward undaunted. “Then I do use my second question. This refers to the Forsaken as if they had two meanings. One as the damned group of thirteen of the stories. But the second as the peno- penul- ‘penultimate of the Threat Hierarchy’.” She worked out the latter phrase from the book. “What do that mean?”

Halfhand nodded in understanding. The dense prose of the Booke of Wytches was known for dead-end references with minimal elaborations, if any. “I will explain to you the Threat Hierarchy, in which The Forsaken are the namesake of their own tier.”

Halfhand picked up a long stick and drew a curved triangle on the soil. “This is Abralof’s Threat Hierarchy of Powers, how we classify the danger of the witches who wield the One Power. There are five levels, and at each higher ascending level, there is a ten-fold increase in overall strength and ten-fold increase in rarity. Vermis, Behemoth, Leviathan, and Forsaken.”

He stabbed at the lowest level at the base of the triangle and scrawled a V. “At the bottom is the Vermis class. From hedge witches to Tower Novices, they are the most common. The initial estimate was a few thousands in the world, but with the wild awakening in the last decade, we suspect their number may be even greater. Their average power places them at the level of one trained Child of Light soldier.” He picked up a fist-sized rock from the ground. “This rock is a representation of their relative manifest strength. Ordinary appearing, yet in the right hand, enough to maim and kill.” Halfhand tapped the rock lightly against Jena’s forehead who gave not a single flinch.

With the stick, he drew the second level of the triangle.

“The next level is the Behemoth class, of which there are many hundreds in the Westlands. Your average Tower witch or Seanchan damane. These are the equivalent of a ten-man squad of determined Children of Light hunter-killers. The rock of their relative strength would be the size of a catapult round.” He tapped the rock in his hand against a half-buried granite boulder rising out of the marsh.

Then he scratched the third level of the triangle with an “L”.

“And this next tier above is the Leviathan class, of which there may be few dozens in the world. Each individually the equal of at least a hundred Children. The manifest rock of their destructive power would now be the size of the Stone fortress of Tear. A walking army with true city crushing power. “

“And finally, your penultimate level, the Forsaken class. Of their official count is just thirteen, the strongest Dreadlords sworn to the Dark One in the War of Shadows. And one Forsaken can only be matched with the power of a full Legion. At the highest peak of the Children’s strength, the Thirteen Named Legions was raised by the Secundus Lord to await the Thirteen’s revival. The Forsaken’s stone is the size of the Mountain of Mists.”

“And that leaves the tip.” The observant girl pointed at the tiny triangle left unmarked at the top.

Halfhand stabbed the stick into the top of the pyramid. “This is Annihilation. At this scale, we talk more of a force of destructive nature barely contained in human skin. Their stone’s size would be greater than that of the entire Westlands. If even one comes into existence, they have the capacity to destroy the whole world, break it anew, maybe permanently. If the Dragon comes once more. Or if a Forsaken class obtains a tier-raising force multiplier. To oppose an Annihilation would necessitate the entire Order of the Children united. And even that would be an uncertain outcome, because theoretically there is no ceiling to the power of an Annihilation.”

“Then based on this Hierarchy, the pair of you do only be able to face two Vermis-level witches.” Jena concluded as she studied the pyramid, but she arched a brow as if implying the question.

“Possibly. But, Abralof’s Hierarchy is a theoretical construct. If the outcome of all engagements was based simply on pure power, the world would be already lost and we may as well give up. In pure numbers alone, the Vermis now surpass the current roster of the Children. And if the Forsaken showed their face, we may be able to raise five full Legions if lucky, let alone the Named Thirteen. No, if we take the Threat Hierarchy as gospel, the Children would all be huddling in the Fortress against the threat of unopposable power.

“It is thus that we have the Philosophy of Da’vat. It means ‘Just one’. Whether a vermis or leviathan, it just takes one Child of Light. That in the right circumstances, no matter how rare, with the right preparation and the right luck, one simple Child of Light can overcome even the greatest witch.”

“Even an Annihilation?...” Jena asked incredibly, before flattening her ending inflection to pretend it was a statement. Halfhand let it pass without counting it as a question.

Halfhand nods, “Philosophy of Da’vat is what allows a Child of Light to rise and face insurmountable odds. Even a sliver in a million chance is greater than the zero chance of despair.” He points to Viellian who seemed to be already bored with this dialogue. “Just ask our witchkiller there who has listed a Leviathan by himself.”

Viellain snorted in derision. “They’re all human flesh. They sleep and eat. They toss mountains but they’re still mortal. Sheep or Annihilation, they bleed the same to me.” But his bravado seemed to reflect the admiration of Jena. But he tempered his words, “The Hierarchy is not wrong. In terms of absolute power in a faceoff between us and a witch, there is indeed a sheer chasm. Human ingenuity will close the gap, but only so far. If faced with even a Behemoth class, it would be wise to reconsider our strategy. And a single Leviathan would render our little trip painfully short. But only a fool would rush into a battle with one, when indirect methods will work. Even with the tools at Child Halfhand and my disposal, you are actually more equipped to bring down any witch than us. Your innocuous appearance and a hidden dagger will find success where Legions would fall.”

She pondered Viellain’s words comfortably, digesting them in her head. Then she spoke up, methodically picking her words carefully. “But why target witches in the first place? The ones that do not pledge their soul to the Dark Ones like the Forsaken. One of the written theory say their source is the True Source that runs the Wheel of Time. That is not inherent evil. What of the thousands of them that mind their own business. “

“Like for example a village goodwife plying her potions.” Viellain probed carefully. There was a flash of predatory gleam in his searching eyes.

Jena remained silent to the probe, but there was a brief tightness of the corner of her lips.

“I will take this.” Halfhand gestured to Viellian. He sat next to Jena. “That is your question three. Let us say the theory is true. Channelers tap the power of the Creator. But there lay the rub.

“We take it as a universal truth that the Male Channelers will inevitably become irredeemably mad from their use of the True Source. Why would we assume women are immune to this? The White Tower declares this, but they have everything to gain from that claim. When mortals seize that of the divine, they corrupt willingly or not. That is the nature of corruption. No one wakes up one morning to decide to be evil. Corruption is an insidious path that starts with good intention and belief. But one misguided step after another finds you slowly becoming something unrecognizable from what you started.

“It is akin to a rabid dog. Sometimes one may fight a bear with you. But, you would never sleep with your back to one. Nor doubt that the right path is to put down a rabid dog at the earliest, if not only for the sake of the once loyal hound. Unlike many, I do not relish the taking of any life, but I appreciate the necessity of the sacrifice for the greater good. It was not any true evil beast or creature of the shadow that sparked the greatest calamities of the times, from the War of the Shadows to the Breaking to the Trolloc Wars. No, they were each started by a channeler who believed they wielded the Creator’s powers for good.

“And when the Last Battle finds us, and child, pray it does not in our lifetime, and the combined death and misery blot out all those other stains of history, its source will no doubt once again be the catalyst of a single human channeler.”

“So, yes, innocent or guilty, the spilt blood of a witch pave the road for the rest of humanity. It is what we call the Reaper’s Cut. And for the innocent lives of the world, our grim job is to give the reaper his due.”

He picked up one book from his pack and dropped it to the top of Jena’s collection. He could feel Viellain’s eyes boring into his back. The Hand could likely recognize the slim black book with gilded edges. E.M.T’s Philosophy of Nature and Powers.

“That was your last question, Jena. Sharp as always. Read and think. But do remember that an inquisitive mind is blessed, but dangerous is an entirely open mind for everyone. Corruption is not limited only to the witches, and often more subtle.”

And like every night, he left Jena to read in silence and ponder the lessons of the night. But even after that particularly heavy didactic, he could see the burning spirit in the young woman’s eyes, undiminished by the cold edge of his words of reality. And in fact, these grim talks in the dreadful swamps will soon be remembered as halcyon days in the face of the wicked storm that will soon consume their group.

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by halfhand » Sat Oct 31, 2020 12:27 pm


“...of unusual fiery academic discord for the scholars at the Saleri Conference to agree on the exact start of the Chaotic Era. There were strong arguments for both the losses at the battle of Tarwin’s Gap, the subsequent Battle of Falme, as well as near disaster at the Stone of Tear. But logic prevailed on the exhausted scholars and it was finally determined that it was the vanishing of the Lodestar that predated all of those catalysms.” - Maluga the Senior. Notes on the Saleri Conference of Chronology and Standards, CE 1.

Troias was an ordinary Illian town of comfortable means, deriving its industry from forestry and its nearby olive groves. It was of moderate wealth, being positioned on a major trade route. The townsfolk prided them on their rugged self reliance. They dutifully paid their taxes to the capital and were faithfully King’s men, but for all regards of their daily lives, thought themselves more of Troias than Illian. And they happily lived their lives in blissful ignorance of the dangerous outer world. That is until the events of two years prior that became too much to ignore.

The very first herald of concern was a local olive farmer arriving into town in the dead of winter, with a ludicrous rambling story about a gaunt creature stalking his farm and plaguing his family. The result was his young wife was now dead and buried. To find help for the rest of his family, he had trekked to the village through snow drifts, dehydrated and fingertips already blackening from frostbite, and the flesh on his arms savaged as if by a wild animal.

The village had gathered a small investigatory party, deputizing two of the local game trackers, the goodwife Lordis, and a contingent of hastily armed volunteers. When the party finally arrived at the farm, they found the house and the olive grove without a stir of life. They found the buried body of his wife where the farmer had described it, in a shallow grave barely cut into the frozen ground. But it was odd, for she was already mostly skeleton, despite the preserving cold. Many of her bones were broken, cracked with blunt teeth marks, marrow hollowed out. Goodwife Lordis was able to identify the teeth marks as human. This prompted a more extensive search of the grounds which quickly unearthed more skeletons in shallow burial sites, to the rising horror of the investigators, resembling the farmer’s two sons, and his elderly mother and father. Only the daughter was missing. There were no signs of any other creature.

The search party returned with the horrifying evidence and confronted the olive farmer.

The man quickly broke and confessed. Witika, the ghost of the forest has come into him. The first night it asked him for his wife. He refused. And the second night as well. But on the third, he was weak and could not refuse. And when she laid limp on the ground, with the scent of fresh blood heavy in the air, he could not resist the Witika and he devoured her. And when he had finished sucking the marrow out of her bones, he wept and the Witika left him. But it left him with a hunger that could not be filled. And a hunger that soon overwhelmed his guilt and the Witika came again, and the older son was the next to fall victim. After he buried the remains, he wept and wept and swore the Witika would not win again.

When the hunger inevitably returned, he killed the family goat and cow, drinking their fresh blood and ate their still steaming entrails, but it was not enough. He gnawed on his own arms, carving large strips of meat. But, it satisfied the hunger only briefly. And his baby son was next, but the Witika was insatiable and it turned its eyes on his daughter.

For his precious daughter, he scratched at his last shred of resistance, and there was a desperate battle between him and the Witika. In the chaos, the daughter fled into the frozen woods. The Witika chased her and neither to be seen again. With his family all lost to the Witika, the man finally went to town for help.

Goodwife Lordis matched the man’s teeth to the marks on the bones, confirming his insane story. The trial for him was short and the jury of his peers was unanimous. The man was hanged in Troias square, his last words a wailing warning of the Witika.

The people of Troias found the events disturbing but chalked this up as a farmer gone sick in the head from the winter madness. A strange but isolated event in their peaceful life. A month passed. A messenger from the Council of Nine had stopped by. They formally announced that the Children of the Light have been banned. The villagers shrugged. They have rarely seen a Whitecloak in their lifetime. What need did they have for one? They had no Darkfriends here to bother the honest folks, and there were no monsters outside of the occasional farmer sick in the head. The Witika was already a shadow of a memory.

But then they started noticing the lack of regular visits from the usual farmers that lived outside of Troias. A few men went out to check and only found abandoned farmhouses. In some of them, the denizens had clearly moved away with all their possessions. But in others, all the belongings were left without their owners. They searched more and more homesteads with growing alarm, but only in the daytime. The distant farms were all abandoned. They found farmers still in the larger commune farms or those closest to Troias or the major road. But those farmers were nervous, jumping at shadows, and quickly fled into Troias with all their belongings at the news. Perhaps the Witika was not a madman’s ranting after all.

Soon, Troias was filled to the brim with terrified villagers of the region. The Mayor took events into hand. He was steadfast and decisive, a retired sergeant of the Illian army and knew when the people needed a strong hand. It was likely due to his leadership that Troias maintained its survival for so long. With the surplus workers, he instructed them to craft a protective palisade around the city and instilled a militia. And that firm direction and the presence of the walls calmed the populace.

There was a farmers’ draft, where individual farmers would rotate shifts to work the fields closest to the Troas at day time and return at night to safety. This seemed to work for a while. But with the extra mouths and the disappearance of trade, they were starting to starve. Some of the townspeople packed up and left to brave the unknown, and a ration system was installed, but that bought them only a longer time of starvation.
Then came the day the Illian Companions arrived. The people’s hearts lightened. The Companions were the elite forces of Illian. Six of them came with the messenger from the Capital. They were in full polished plate armor that shined in the sun. But these armor were etched with strange markings that looked straight, but started to curve and bend in eerie ways if one stared at it too long. They carried heavy barbed lances atop their massive steed, also etched with serpiginous lines.

When the Companions first entered Troias, they initially developed a train of gawking children. The Companions were heroes of legend and gleeman tales. The warriors that protected the King, and fought in wars of justice in far-off exotic lands. But the children were the first to notice something off with these men, although soon it became apparent to all. These Companions cloistered to themselves in their rooms at the Inn, spoke no friendly word to anyone else. They did not eat in public, and the trays left at their door went untouched. And their chilling stares. That was the worst. Some thought the gaze was snobbery, but others whispered that it was pure contempt. But all agreed that it seemed their eyes had a red glow like coals, especially in the dim of night.

It was obvious that they would not be the answer to the villagers’ prayers. They were not here to save them from the darkness stalking the countryside. No, their official purpose was to deliver the message from the capital. Lord Brend of the Council of the Nine has instituted what is to be called the Tithe. Two people to be delivered to the capital each week. Men, women, or children. It mattered not. But, two will be required by law. And the Companions were there to enforce the first Tithe.

In their official garbs, the Mayor and the Elders had met them in the square with pageantry and initially in happiness, but quickly resolved into confusion at this news. But the messenger was unyielding. Finally, it was decided that two of the Elders would go as the first Tithe, that they would go to petition Lord Brend, the Council, the King, of anyone who would listen. This was clearly some mistake. Troias would of course heed a draft if war was afoot, but this made no sense.

This was acceptable for the diplomat. He did not care who they were, just that there were two. So with little ceremony, the two Elders packed and left for the long journey to the capital with the messenger and the unsettling group of the Companions. There was a sigh of relief to their departure and fresh hope that the Elders would set things right and would return shortly with a patrol to help pacify their land and bring normalcy.

Such feeble hope was dashed when a messenger arrived the next week with guards in tow, but without the two Elders. When the Mayor questioned their location, the messenger’s only terse reply was “Tithes do not return” and he turned directly to the manner of the next two Tithes.

The atmosphere in Troias was no longer that of greeting saviors, but of a den of trapped voles facing a fanged predator. The last two Elders on the Village Council resolved to give one more attempt, and volunteered again and disappeared with the envoy.

The resilient Mayor came to a decision when they left and placed a gambit on his own neck. The next time the collectors came, their new palisade gate was ordered closed to them. As expected, the Elders never returned. The Mayor greeted the envoy and Companions from above the watchtower.

“We cannot welcome you to Troias today. But we have left out the King’s Taxes for the year before you. Every coin accounted for. You shall not be of want for a year.”

“As you will.” The envoy replied. “But I am here for the two Tithes. Send them out and we shall be our way.”

“We will not be sending out any more.” The Mayor announced. “Until you can explain their purpose or return our dipomats.”

The villagers hidden behind the wall held their breaths in fear.

Outside, the Envoy and the Companions studied the walls. It was a crude wall, but should easily keep out just six men. Yet, there was a sense of nervousness in the villagers as if there was a true sense that these terrifying Companions could tear down their walls with bare hands. But, worse of all, this was a charge that could be levelled by treason, but the Mayor was willing to take the sacrifice to the gibbet. From his time in the army, he carried the notion of the protection of the people is paramount.

Finally, the Envoy spoke up again. “As you will, but next time I come, the Tithe will be four. And so on until the debt is paid. ” And they departed to the collective relief of Troias but with a new sense of uncertainty of when an Illian army may be the next visitor. But to mixed relief and worry, every week the envoy returned with his same escorts. And each time, he would announce to the closed gate a tally that ominously rose by two each week with the grimness of an executioner’s axe. These punctual visits were the only sense of regularity in these uncertain times. They missed only one visit, but it was the same day two farmers failed to return from their shift, and the tally next week was two less. After that, no one went out on the day of a collector’s visit.

Meanwhile, the mood within Troias continued to grow darker and darker. The people continued to slowly starve. Cats and dogs have all but disappeared from the streets. People bartered, prostituted themselves, and eventually stole. It was only a matter of time until the first murder and the first rape. It was a shock. Crimes like that were unknown here. There was whisper that the Witika must have passed the walls. But no, it was just humanity. The two guilty villagers were scheduled for the hanging block, but after a long discussion of the jurists, were the first two to be sent unwillingly as Tithes, chained before the gate to be taken by the capital’s collector.

As crime and sin bubbled up through Troias, there was also a whisper of a group of citizens gathering in secret as the League of Patriots. It was the contention of the League that all the ills of Troias had come due to the Mayor’s defiance of the Council of Nine, and that peace would come one more when the Mayor and all his supporters were sent as Tithe and loyalty redemonstrated. And as misery and starvation grew in Troias, the League swelled in numbers and the plot for the takeover became less of a whisper and more of a roar. The clash was inevitable.

Jena took a sip of water for her parched throat, but continued her tale no more.

Halfhand had found himself hanging on to the young lady’s tales, half out of morbid curiosity, and the other a growing understanding of what Jena must have suffered. What did she have to do for her pack of food? “And what was the end? Did the League take over Troias?”

She glowered over the fire. “In a week, a month? Who knows? As sure when desperation crests. This do not be a gleeman tale, with a lesson and a wink. It do be just life. Maybe the world will never know the ending.” Her tale was a dark condemnation. It was true. The frogs of Troias were indeed drowning in the well.

“You have lived in Troias your entire life. Do you not feel any regrets in leaving it behind to its fate? You seem to have some endearment towards the Mayor and your Goodwife.”

“What if I did? If I were to beg you with all my heart, would you stop your mission to come to our aid? Hunt down our Witika of the Forest, scatter the mob of Patriots, and face the Companions? You two have the look that makes merchant guards look like puppy dogs and you may be a match for the first set of Companions, but for how long will you stay and fight for Troias?”

At the two soldiers’ heavy silence, Jena nodded to herself in confirmation. “Then there be nothing for regret. The Mayor knows what the Patriots’ yearn for; it is no secret. He may overcome or not. Troais will find its fate with me or without. It do be the edge of darkness and not its heart. And you two do be running rightly for the moldering heart of the Hummer’s Rot.”

“Hummer’s Rot?” Halfhand mulled over the strange regional term.

She frowned as if this was common knowledge. “Once the Goodwife do show me her poor patient with the Hummer’s Rot. It eats them from inside. Nightly hot fevers and his skin do be draped on his bones. And when you press your ear to his chest, you can hear the terrible humming of his heart like a wounded stray. And the worst part do be the blight spots. First a few black spots on the soles or fingertip, but then an entire finger blackens or the foot. Bit by bit, Goodwife do carve away pieces to halt the black bits, but eventually there is nothing left to carve. That pool soul died in agony, mad and blind. But when she showed me the heart afterward, it was black as mold and growing evil things.”

“It is the valves.” Viellain seemed to talk more to himself. He always had a better head for such things. “It is true the heart is the source of your Hummer’s Rot. But, destroying the source will destroy the patient. So it may be with your Illian.“

“Maybe so, maybe Illian will die if you kill its black heart.” Jena retorted. “But far sight better than the rot consuming you whole. A fate worse than death. So my helping you will do much good for all the other Troias in Illian. But, one day, I do promise, I will return to Troias.

“So I do agree to your demands." Her voice burned fierce with conviction. "But I do have one of my own. Teach me everything you know about fighting the Shadow, in men and monsters. Show that an ordinary human can roar back at the Dark Gods that squat over us. So that on the day of my return, I will purge the Darkness of whatever remains of Troias.”

And the fateful accord was met. That day, the two became three.

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by halfhand » Wed Sep 23, 2020 3:44 pm


“Pamper not the flesh. Flesh is weak but spirit is strong; flesh is useless where spirit is strong. Let your spirit be your shield and your sword.”
Prima Lord Lothair Mantelar. The Way of the Light. The Corsican Edition. FY 1021.

The town of Troias appeared to be a medium sized town on the fortuitous intersection of arable farmland and pine forest. Unlike the typical Illian city, this one was surrounded by a tall wooden palisade. Two scrawny watchtowers flanked the palisade gate which remained closed despite it being nearly noon. The palisade wall appeared to have been raised only in the last year; none of the sections had needed to be replaced yet from the attrition of the winter seasons.

The two Children of Light cantered up the main road up towards the gate, where they waited patiently in the sweltering heat. They have not passed any traffic on the way up here. With their trademark white cloaks destroyed at Tefike, they now wore travel dusters over their armor.
With no response from within the palisade for five minutes, Halfhand rode up to the wooden gate and hammered against the exterior with his gauntlets. “Hail! At the gate!” He called.

Finally there was movement atop one of the watchtowers. A figure in leather armor looked down at them from the watchtower. A loaded crossbow was held in hand, pointing at them. “Leave!” The man shouted down.

Halfhand raised his empty hands diplomatically. “We are travellers passing through. We would only like provisions and news. We have coin.”

“Troias do be closed.” The man replied immediately. Two additional men peered over the wall, all armed with crossbows. “Move on!” THWIP. A crossbow bolt embedded in the ground ahead of them as their horses danced back.

Seeing the futility of further discourse, the two soldiers reigned their horses back, as they retreated away empty handed from the sealed town.

The two Children set camp out by the pine forest next to the city just off the main road. They had watched the city briefly from afar, but there was no flicker of activity except at dusk where a group of farmers had appeared at the gate and were allowed in before the gate again slammed shut.

“I could go over the walls.” Villain stoked their campfire as the embers glowed. “I can see what I can find and they will be none the wiser. They didn’t even clear the treeline next to the palisade.”

“It’s not worth a lucky crossbow shot.” Halfhand continued to study the Illian map that he spread on the ground and weighed down with rocks. Troias appeared to be the last habitable settlement on the edge of the vast Illian marshland.

CRACK! There was a snap of a twig breaking at the periphery of camp. Halfhand drew his sword half from his scabbard. THWIP. Viellain gave a flip of his wrist and a dagger hilt vibrated from a pine tree trunk from the direction of the breaking twig. A face appeared from behind that same tree. The faint light of their campfire revealed the face of a young woman, barely a slip of a girl. She was thin, wearing a brown wool dress that was a size too big for her, and toting a large overstuffed knapsack.

“I do not be a threat.” She called out with her biting Illianer accent. She eyed Viellain’s dagger hilt at her eye level. She started to approach their campfire.

“Child, what are you doing skulking out here? That could’ve been your death.” Halfhand watched her approach. Her straw hair was shoulder length and tied back to a ponytail by a faded red ribbon, but what he noticed was her bright blue eyes that burned with intensity.

“I missed on purpose.” Viellain corrected him, “I saw the waif tailing us from the town. She’s been watching us for the last two hours like a curious magpie.”

“I am Jena.“ She declared boldly. She paused as if considering her words. “Jena of Troias. I would like to join your party.”

Halfhand frowned, but Viellain gave a loud laugh.

“Has your mother not taught you about strangers in the forest?” Viellain barked.

“You do no be normal strangers. You do be Whitecloaks? I heard you talking.” She retorted.

“We are Children of the Light” Halfhand corrected tersely.

“You do find Darkfriends then. Kill the spawn of shadows as they say? Then I would be here with you then in that town.” She continued towards the fire but halted as Halfhand raised a finger at her.

“No further.” Halfhand had sheathed his sword, but still kept a ready hand on the hilt. Viellain lounged at ease, yet would pincushion the woman with his flachettes at a single wrong move . The shadow often take on many forms and neither soldiers let their guard down against even this innocuous figure in the night. “Where we go or hunt is no place for a child. Be gone.”

“I am not a child. I have been declared a woman before the elders.” She replied fiercely, folding her arms. “I will not slow you down. I know the land well. And I heard you wanted provisions. I have brought everything of mine.” She set her bulging backpack on the ground and opened it. The two Children tensed as she reached into the pack, but she only pulled out a wineskin which she raised up. “Even wine for the oily one.”

“Throw that over, magpie.” Viellain held out his hand. Jena threw the full wine bladder at the Hand who caught it easily. He uncapped it and sniffed it and gave a shrug to Halfhand. Your call. She turned her gaze back to Halfhand and waited.

“We are not leaving the country. Our goal is the heart of Illian.” Halfhand explained.

“Then you will need my help even more. Neither of you know this land and you will need my guidance, and not any of the sniffling cowards in Troias or anywhere else will lift a finger for you. I got through your strings-and-bells around your camp. I am not dead wood. I have even killed a skudirka with this.” She pulled a hunting knife from her belt and held it up to the light. It was an old blade but the carefully sharpened edge gleamed, and the hilt well cared for. The knife was older than her but it fit her like a soldier’s sworn blade. Halfhand has not heard of a skudirka, but he did not doubt the dedication of her words.

The last thing they needed was a girl of unknown measure following them into a storm of evil. But yet something held his doubt. In that girls’ burning eyes, he saw his own. In this depressing Lightforsaken country, she has been the only bright sun that still seemed to shine. A sole lighthouse in a fog of misery and corruption.

He hesitated with his answer but finally shook his head. This was far too important and dangerous to bring her with them.

“I’m sorry, Jena of Troias.” He addressed her. His voice was soft and firm. “One day, the Children will once more ride through Illian, but you will have to wait for that day. Until then, keep your fire burning.”

Jena frowned and thinned her lips at the rejection. She briefly opened her mouth to argue again, but stopped when she saw the firmness in Haflhand’s face. She picked her pack and then faced them once more. “I do not accept your answer. I will show you. You will see.” With that, she turned and disappeared into the treeline once more.

“You know her eyes as well as me. That is one who will not take ‘No’ for an answer. Shall I see the magpie back to the city?” Viellain glanced up at her departure from his study of the wineskin.

“No, I suspect it will be a futile cat and mouth chase. She clearly knows the land well enough to track us down and skirt around your warning perimeter. We will trust that she has enough sense to return home.” Halfhand replied.

But he would be wrong. That night, the girl did not show her her face again and in the morning they had set off on the planned course towards the goal of the mountain pass. Quickly, the land of Illian dipped into marshlands. There were no travelers and the roads were in severe disrepair, not having seen a maintenance crew in months, possibly years. They ran into multiple sections of road overgrown by thick snakevines and thorns, as well as others collapsing into hungry sinkholes. On several occasions they had to backtrack around areas of the roads that seemed to dissolve into the swamp.

Outside of the general decay of Illian’s infrastructure, they passed several unsettling sites. The first was a fish kill of immense proportion. Upon the small marshy inlet floated thousands of shimmering bodies of fish corpses, mixed in with floating cadavers of wild fowl and even dead mammals at the edge. Yet instead of a warning smell of decay and stagnant water, there was a nutty smell drifting from the lake like roasted almonds.

The second they passed was a circle of statues on a hillside. This was a spot called the Council of Kings on the map, where travelers could rest under the shade of the twenty-foot tall busts of long forgotten royalty encircled in frozen dialogue. But, their century old stone faces seemed to be in the process of melting like candle wax, with rivulets of stony drops down their facade, leaving their regal ancient figures contorted into monstrous distortions.

The third was a massive sunken crater centered on an otherwise uninterrupted segment of road. In the middle of the crater was a jagged hole about 5 paces wide surrounded by piles of dirt, as if something large had bore out. Or in. It took an extra hour to circle around the rim of the crater to the other side. It went without saying that the Children decided to strike camp far away from those sites.

They dubbed these sites Stigmata, wounds of the earth that is the evidence of a sick and dying land. These rare omen have been spotted more and more often in the Westlands since Tarwin’s Gap was overrun by the Blight and Falme was lost to the Seanchan. Halfhand had always believed that something important vital to life was lost that began the Westland’s decay. But, to see three Stigmata in Illian in a measure of a few days was more proof that the wider rot is accelerating here.

It was on the third morning upon waking that Viellain showed them the sign that they were still being followed. Next to their camp was a small collection of nuts, fruits, and a stale honey cake set out for them.

“Looks like we have a friendly magpie. Or at the least a very absent minded squirrel.” Viellain picked up a blueberry and turned it in his finger.
Halfhand looked around but could only see the desolate gloom of the Illian marshlands. It was a message from her. Bold, yet naive. While they kept their horse at only a walking speed and they needed to backtrack, it was still an impressive feat for the girl to catch up to them on foot. Clearly she had paid attention to their planned route and knew the better paths to catch up.

Villain chewed the berry carefully. “Not poisoned. Fresh, plucked on the last day.”

“Leave it. We should not encourage her. She will likely need this more than us.” Halfhand took one last view of their dreary surrounding and resolved to lose their tail. At least for her own good.

They pushed the speed of the travels through the marshland but the terrain was a challenge. The useable roads have dwindled to useless sections of forgotten step stones, and they needed to forge through dense patches of swamp foliage that grew in bewildering chaotic tangles of roots and tangling branches. The ground underneath was untrustworthy, with areas that threaten to swallow a horse or man whole within minutes. But they pressed hard on through the treacherous terrain and for after two days, Halfhand felt likely that Jena had been left long behind.

For two nights they had to sleep in the crooks of low hanging march trees due to the swamp ground, but as the third night approached, they finally spied an auspicious stopping point. It appeared to be the only serviceable site in miles of marsh. It was a rocky outcropping that rose from the marches, and likely offered a measure of dryness and visibility. Pressing their tired horses, they finally reached it at dusk.
As they rode up the outcropping, the horses shaking thick mud, Viellain raised a silent finger and pointed ahead.

Curled up ahead was the figure of a familiar young woman sound asleep, still in her mud soaked cloak. She was still holding a string of three whole rabbits in her hand where she had passed out from exhaustion. It was Jena. Somehow, she had managed to reach them here, likely knowing this would be the only usable camp site for them. And from the looks of it, had spent a long time traveling through both day and night.

“I think, fradis, that she is going to keep following us or die trying.” Viellain dismounted from his horse. The girl continued to sleep without stirring. “Either we put her out of her misery or…”

Halfhand dismounted as well, looked down at the sleeping girl. Viellain was right. This was not a decision they could outrun.

When Jena woke up, night had fallen. She sat up quickly, realizing that she had fallen asleep in the middle of trying to gather tinder. First she patted the ground for her missing rabbits and turned to see the campfire crackling and the two men sitting by the fire. She pulled out her knife before she recognized the two figures at the campfire. Then her eyes turned to the remaining quarter of a rabbit still crisping on the campfire.

“My rabbits…!” She cried out, but quickly clamped down her outrage, holding onto a front as if this was of no concern to her. Her gurgling stomach betrayed her.

“Yes, they are delicious.” Viellain grinned to her over a mouthful of greasy meat.

She still eyed the rabbit hungrily, but she put her knife away.

“You are very far from home, Jena of Troias.” Halfhand turned to the young woman, who matched eyes with him with her unblinking blue eyes.

“There is nothing in Troias for me. For anyone for that matter. Not anymore.” her eyes flickering longingly to the rabbit, and back at him. “I will join you like I had explained. As you can see, I will not slow you down a step. You can no longer deny that you need me. You wander the marshes in circles. I do carry my weight and tend to myself without complaint.”

Halfhand gave a nod of acknowledgement. She did earn his respect. “Why is it that you want so badly to come with us? Knowing that it could be to the end of death or worth?”

She paused, internally debating her words when she found them. “Because I do not want to be a frog in the well.”

“A frog in the well?”

“There do be a story in Troias or a lesson. There is a group of fen frogs that live in a dark, damp empty well. All they see of the world is the shadows from above. But down in the well, they are safe. Those frogs that try to jump out get plucked immediately by hungry beaks. That do be the warning of Troias, stay in the safety of the well. Don’t be a jumping frog. Don’t stick your head out or you’ll be plucked.

“But they do be wrong. The don’t see the well is flooding bit by bit. Worse, they refuse to see. And the frogs huddle as the water rises up, and frogs one by one disappear under the water. I will not be one of them.” Jenna finished, her jaw clenched.

“And what if you are plucked away outside your well?”

She replied without hesitation. “Better to die with just a glimpse of the light than the scrabble in the well’s smothering illusion of safety. I had desperately asked the Creator for an answer and you have rode in from the veil. One way or the other. I will not be returning to the well.” Her eyes held Halfhand with conviction but also a sense of desperation as if she hung on the edge of a cliffside and he held the only safety line.

Halfhand made his decision. He stood up from the fire. “Remove your clothes, girl.”

Jena’s eyes widened slightly at his command. Her mouth became a thin line. But, her face defiant, she stripped, removing her cloak, her long dress and blouse. Without speaking, she folded her clothes and set them next to her. She stood up straight, stared back at Halfhand without shame.

Halfhand walked around the girl with studied eyes. The girl merely stared forward silently. Then, the Child of Light reached to his side, unclipped a water skin and emptied its content over the girl.

Jena gasped as the sanctified water soaked down her hair, dripping down her body, but gave no other reaction.

“I witness no brand or marks of the beast or witch.” Halfhand declared. “Very well, you may join us, child. But you will do as I command. Run when I say. Fight when I say. And at the first time you slow us down, you will leave without argument. And if we find you are not what you say, your life forfeit.”

A wide smile flashed on Jena’s face. She hastily redonned her clothes, not caring that she was still wet and quickly dragged her pack down to join them at the fire. Viellain handed her the last quarter of the rabbit, which she consumed in two large bites, heedless of the burning grease dripping down her chin.

As Jen sat down, her eyes lighted on Halfhand’’s scabbard and the flowing runes of Solon’s Tree etched down the scabbard’s sides. “You have those strange markings on your weapons just like the Companions.”

Viellain was suddenly paying attention, but he kept his voice even, “What did you just say, girl?”

“The Illian soldiers that have been stopping by Troias. They have weird markings like that on their armor now.”

Halfhand frowned at this. This would mean that the Illian Companions have delved into runes and sigils of power. But, if not the Light…

“Jena, tell us everything you know about Troias and the Companions. Start from the beginning.”

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by Melat » Sun Sep 20, 2020 7:15 pm

It is good to read about the crimes of the crown of Illian. It gives us more reason to subjugate them into a rightful order.

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by Viellain » Tue Sep 01, 2020 1:32 am

Amazing Halfhand! I like that I’m drunk just like real life.

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by halfhand » Sat Aug 29, 2020 4:13 pm


“...but the Great Schism would not be the last internal war of the Children of the Light. The significance of the four schisms is not as just one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Westlands since the Hundred Wars, but the secret was that no outsider has ever heard of.”
- recovered manuscript of The Secret History of the Children of Light. Author unknown. Excavated 965 NE.

Halfhand sat stiffly at a long mahogany table draped in fine cream linen set beneath the massive high arched hall under rows of glittering crystal chandeliers. The walls were decorated with thick wall hangings of plush green with bright yellow trims. Golden bees were stitched masterfully in the tapestries as if they were ready to take flight at a moment. From wall to wall sat rows of long immaculately set tables lined with chairs for the illustrious guests of this feast. Around him sat nobles in richly brocade coats with high upturned collars and ladies in impractably garrish dresses and impeccably coiffed hairstyles. Beautiful servants walked gracefully behind the guests, pouring out bright red wine from tall decanters into high-stemmed crystal chalices. Black flies danced through the air, their faint hum a backdrop to the dim of celebration. Halfhand watched one fly crawl on the face of his neighboring diner who was too busy guzzling down his refreshment to notice.

There was light banter around him from the guests as they generously sipped endlessly refilled wine. There was a palpable excitement in the feast hall as the army of servants in billowy blouses and trousers began to deliver their main feasts to the waiting gourmands.

Halfhand felt a deep hunger within him, saliva building in his mouth in anticipation. The beautiful servants gracefully carried silver domed plates that were polished until they shined like ornaments. A youthful servant with a cold smile and dead black eyes set down a large silver dome in front of Halfhand. Tendrils of steam drifted out from under the silver cover, sending out whafts of delicious aroma of spices and meat. The Child leaned forward as if pulled by the smell of hidden culinary treasure.

There was a brief silent in the feast hall and then in unison, the servants lifted the covers with a flourish. There was an instant waft of delicious stream escaping into the air to reveal the delights underneath.

Human flesh piled each polished silver plate, lovingly stewed or boiled. There were thin almost transparent slices of raw liver to be dipped in spicy sauce. There were whole haunches and ribs, generously carved from the massive roasting spits in the kitchen. And for the lucky, jellied brain served with mother-of-pearl spoons. The nobles around him dove in immediately, tearing at the flesh with hands and mouth, yellow grease dripping down elbows and chins in glistening rivulets. Two ladies at the next table in the finest silk fought over a bowl of lovingly candied lady fingers.

Halfhand turned to his own plate of a perfectly braised human arm, lying on a bed of blanched rose and amaranth. The skin was properly crisped like the finest pork belly, and the exposed richly marbled meat bespoke of a pampered origin. Its delicately manicured fingernails were still painted crimson red.

Yet instead of immediate revulsion, Halfhand only felt intense craving as the aroma and the saliva filling in his mouth in anticipation. Joining the greedy patrons around, he lunged forward to sink his teeth into the intoxicating feast before him.

Halfhand lurched violently awake, gasping and drenched in sweat. The crackle and pop of the small campfire drew him back into reality. The bracing night air in his lungs and the touch of the hard dirt beneath him finally yanked him fully from his confused reverie.

He touched his clammy face, and felt the saliva still trailing down his chin. There was still a faint taste in his mouth, sweet and lingering like the memory of a dissolving caramel drop. His headache pounded like a drum, a souvenir of Tefike that refused to be left behind.

He saw Viellain sitting across the fire, watching him with his unreadable eyes. The Hand of Light danced a dagger in his hand as is his habit, its steel surface flashing red in the camplight. Viellain gave him a smile, full of teeth like a shark. “Bad dream again?”

“Yes, a bit.” Halfhand slowly stood up, consciously working to slow down breathing. He peered into the surrounding clearing where they had camped, finding solace in reality. He ignored the faint gurgle of his stomach. He did not want the Inquisitor to see how shaken he was. He could feel Viellain’s thoughtful stares ever since Tefike. “I think I shall stay awake for the rest of the night.”’

Viellain continued to watch Halfhand, narrowing his eyes briefly. Finally, he flashed him a grin, “Suit yourself. One does not argue with a chance to sleep.” The Hand of Light turned over, pulled his blanket over him and was soon asleep. That one never had a sleep issue.
Halfhand restlessly paced the campsite’s perimeter. His temples continued to pound like a drum and his muscles whined from fatigue. He could feel the weeks of sleep deprivation etched in his muscles and nerves.

He needed to find solace in routine. He unpacked his saddlebags and carefully laid the pieces in front of him. He polished the individual piece of
his armor with an oiled rag and checked the fasteners and joints. He sanded down the edges of the gash on his burnished breastplate that was starting to show a thin layer of rust.

Next he turned to his collection of weapons. He gently polished the short silver gauche blade, using a small brush to clean the socket that allowed it to be attached to the spring mechanism of his left gauntlet, then wrapped the silver attachment carefully in oilskin cloth.
He drew his steel rune sword and sharpened the edge with the whetstone. He cleaned the fine serpinguous grooves on the steel surface with the wire brush. The delicate carving of Solon’s Tree was designed to align the structure of the steel with the inner Light of its wielder, but the intricate designs also attracted grime. When this tedious task was completed, he finally turned to the iron war hammer, which he scoured the surface with a thick steel brush until fine rust flakes drifted to the ground like a light snow. It was a constant struggle to keep the rust at bay on the wrought iron surface, but there was no substitute for elemental iron in his craft. After he was satisfied, he rubbed a thick protective layer of grease over the black warhammer.

But the most important part of his routine was to prepare his mind. He sat down cross legged in front of the campfire and started his ritual. He dabbed a drop of sanctified oil onto his finger and traced the symbol of the Seeing Eye to his forehead in three practice strokes. He closed his eyes, forced his exhausted body to relax, and began to speak his litany.

“I am the Fire of Righteousness.
The Bane of Chaos,
I walk the Path of Order
I speak the Word of Truth
In the Creator’s Shelter
I Fear No Shadow or Evil
I am a Child of the Light.”

As he repeated his litany, he could feel the stress and strain flow out from the muscles as if given as sacrifices to the fire. The vice-like headache began to ease. He could still feel a dull ache in his temple and he could feel the heaviness in his muscles but they no longer affected him. His mind felt more clear, rededicated to its purpose, and the lingering doubt sealed harmlessly away.

With his emotions in check and wrapped in the comforting protection of his battle meditation, he turned to the irksome question of the dreams that have now plagued him. It has been three nights since Tefike, and a vivid nightmare each night that wracked him awake. He was not a stranger to nightmares in the last few years, but these new dreams were vivid amalgamations of unmentionable depravities. And unlike normal dreams, these intense scenes lingered on in his consciousness like they were true experiences lived. And in between the otherworldly tableau was the brief visions or memories of the Presence of Tefike, of that wide chasm of formless maw that seemed capable of consuming the heavens.

Yet as he studied that strange vision, it seemed oddly familiar. And in his state of meditation, the Child of Light stepped into his memory palace in search of the reason for this sense of familiarity. He walked through the hallways of his mind’s eye, rifling through the faint echoes of past dark encounters. He dug deeper and deeper, peering into memories locked away in the dark recess of his mind. And there, he finally found it. In a shard of memory from decades ago that he had long isolated in a mental cage. It was of his own beginning. It was the beginning of everything.

The secret chamber was like countless identical rooms in the depths of the Fortress of Light, unyielding windowless walls with a claustrophobic air. In the middle of the room sat a box of sandalwood, the size of a wardrobe trunk, with the corners etched in filigree bronze. A black near transparent sash was draped over the box and flowing down the front. A yellow outline of the Seeing Eye within a sunburst was embroidered on the sash. A circular opening was barely visible behind the sash, big enough for an adventurous hand.

Two Children of the Light stood on each side of the box. Each was armored in the burnished armor of the Order. But instead of the conical helm, each wore a veil over their face with the Seeing Eye embroidered in gold thread. Each held a long thick-bladed sword in their right hand at ready, with the weapon’s spine resting on the cradle of their elbow.

The young acolyte entered, scalp shaved and oiled, and wearing only a plain white uniform without armor. The two witnessing Children began to intone in the Old Tongue, an alien melodic language that the Acolyte did not know.

The young Child of Light looked at the golden gilded box and approached without hesitation. There were no questions, for he knew that any doubt would lead immediately to failure and death. He was prepared for this. This was about pure faith in the Light and Order.

He kneeled before the box. The two Witnesses raised their blades and crossed it above the young supplicant’s neck. Ignoring the heavy blade hovering behind his neck, the acolyte studied the box before him. The box was shackled to the ground by eight silver linked-chains. The top of the box was engraved with a scene of a blindfolded man holding a scale, to his right a sunburst over roses, and his left, a black hound over thorns. The Child’s eyes slipped to the sash and the opening.

Without hesitation, he took his left hand, sliding it past the silk sash and into the inside of the mysterious box.

Initially, he felt...nothing. Confused, he carefully opened his fingers and stretched deeper, when sudden excruciating pain lanced up his left arm as if sharp fangs had sunk deeply into his fingers. Reflexively his body tried to pull back from the source, but he forced his arm still against the shrieking protestation of his burning nerves. He had bit his tongue as he could feel the salty wetness in his mouth through the haze of pain. The agony chewed up his arm, consuming him as if hot molten was injected into his veins Yet, he held his arm still. It may have been that frantic focus on holding that allowed him to remain conscious through the white hot pain.

And then the sharp needle like pain vanished from within the box. He pulled his arm out, raising it up to his face. The hand was mutilated, blood streaming down his arm in warm rivulets, his thumb was a stump at the knuckle and his ring and small finger hanging on by jagged tendons. His wounds pulsed with intense waves of pain, sending lancing arrows of agony radiating to his shoulder.

The two Witnesses retracted their swords and reached down to pull him up to a standing position. The acolyte stumbled as they led him to a hidden chamber at the end of the room that was now open. It was a lightless room the size of a closet. As soon as his escorts let him go, he collapsed to the stone floor within.

The door closed behind him with a grim finality, leaving him in utter darkness and the debilitating pain of his left hand for company.

For some time, he could lay curled, holding the remnant of his left hand as the warm blood seeped into the cold stone floor. His face was wet, although he could not remember crying. The overwhelming pain transitioned into a numbness and his body began to function again.

He grasped against the stone wall with his right hand, and pushed him back up to a kneeling position. There, he knelt in the closed darkness, the heaviness of the Fortress pressing down on the man buried alive in stone. His only sensory input was the pain in his hand and the unyielding hardness of the stone on his knees.

He remembered the litanies, whispering and chanting them into the blackness. And those words of promises and hope served to distract him just enough from the pain of his wounds.

And he kneeled and whispered until the hours bled into days, until his throat and lips cracked like parchments, and his knees ulcerated and bled and scabbed.

His left hand stopped bleeding, but began to blister, swell, and seep. The numbing pain of injury was now replaced with the growing gnawing of infection and rot. The infection chewed up his arm, toxins and evils flooding through his lymphs and bloodstream until his body was a boiling war zone. The fevers and chills burned through him until he could no longer remain kneeling. His body no longer listened to him, as the rigors sent his body contorting like a marionette controlled by a sadistic child. He would scream hoarsely as the uncontrolled spasms of his muscles seemed on the verge of snapping his back like dry twig. He felt simultaneously if his body was on fire and frozen as his body was torn apart at the smallest level.

The only way to survive was to retreat from the prison of his corporeal body. He found he could let his consciousness drift, disconnected from his physical being. Or perhaps he was untethering his soul. But, it freed him. And there he found the visions.

There were glimpses of divine light and radiance, of transcendental Oneness with the land and every life, of being filled with belonging and love. There were worlds of alien beauty and infinite possibilities.

But interspersed with those visions of wonders were the omens of nightmares. There were bloody wars, famines of millions, of death and decay. Visions of the Dome of Truth collapsing as the Seanchan invaders topple the Fortress atop their flying monsters with lances of fire. Millions of black-veiled Aiel leaving a city of tall unfinished towers in flames and surrounded by thousands of skewered bodies. Armies of hulking creatures of horrors leaving bones and ashes in their wake like an infinite wave of locusts. There was an ocean boiling in black flames. A massive winged man rising in a city square. A hand rising from a pile of bones, dripping in blood. And always, no matter the images, it always flashed to the same vision.

There his light of consciousness floated In the infinite night void of countless stars. But before him the stars began to blink out of existence until there was a chasm of darkness that stretched to both horizons of infinity. And in that maw was only oblivion where not even light could escape and existence was consumed. And no matter how much he fled from that, no matter the brightest dream of wondrous utopia to which he fled, he would always be dragged inevitably back before that black consuming Presence in a cycle of inevitability.
In one last attempt, he flung himself back into the last bastion, his dying corporeal body. He found it in that tiny of insignificant dust, flowing into the heavy flesh. Instinctively now he let the Light of his soul pour into his flesh container, burning through the virulence like fire, and forcing his lungs to suck in the breath of stagnant lifegiving air.

The burning air in his lungs woke him up once more to the choking darkness of his cell. But now he no longer felt infections raging within him. He flexed his now useless mutilated hand, but the wounds were healed now another raged in pain. All he could feel was intense hunger and thirst. He rolled against the cold stone wall, licking the surface with his desiccated tongue trying to capture some condensation to quench his thirst.

He felt against the wall until his hands traced the door frame, and he pounded the door with as much of his strength as he could. It came out as a small thump. He leaned against the door and waited.

There was a long pause, and blinding light flooded into the room as the door opened. He shielded his eyes until they adjusted. Leaning against the wall, he pulled himself to stand, nearly toppling on his atrophied legs. But he willed them to work, and they reluctantly agreed, as he stumbled out into the main chamber, his right hand desperately holding to the doorframe. He could feel his skin hanging loose on his frame.

A Child of Light stood awaiting him, almost just appearing as like a glowing halo to the acolyte’s weakened eyes. “Your sacrifice is acceptable. Your eyes are opened, and your vessel primed. You are now the Twelfth Conduit, touched by the Light. You will be known as the Halfhand. Know your manifest strength in the Light is limited only by your devotion and faith.” The unknown speaker’s voice seemed to be so distant, without a trace of warmths. The speaker lowered his voice. “But remember always your vow of silence on this matter of secrecy.”

And with that, after weeks of starvation, infection, and visions, Child Halfhand passed out in exhaustion, collapsing bonelessly to the ground.
That was the start over so many decades ago. In that secret room, he was given both a gift and a curse. The twelfth of his kind. And likely the last. A week after Halfhand left that room, he had heard a terrible fire had blazed through the bowels of the Fortress, and before it could be finally stopped, had burned through that room as well as countless other irreplaceable artifacts.

Halfhand left his meditation as the ancient memories poured back in. The campfire was dwindling to embers as the soft pink of dawn was creeping through the treeline. He looked down at his left hand of sacrifice. The skin has scarred well over his wounds, but left his hand in a perpetual sign of benediction. The nerves were permanently damaged by the infection, but in the presence of evil, it ached as if it remembered the pain of its marking. Right now, the hand was silent, but a clear reminder of how he was inexoriably connected to the darkness that has taken root in Illian.

The Presence at Tefike could not be a coincidence, something so linked to his own creation decades ago. The Wheel of Time did not have coincidences. It Weaves as it Wills.

Was it the Dark One himself? How can one human defy such a thing of eternal vastness?

But now, seeing the undeniable connections, he was only more certain now that it was destiny that waits for him in Illian, where everything was to come in full circle.

He hummed to himself as he began to repack his gear. As he hummed, he thought the song was catchy although he could not quite remember where he picked it up.

Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

by halfhand » Sat Aug 08, 2020 6:47 pm


“Death is not defeat. Surrender is defeat.”
Unknown author. Litany of the Battlesworn.

Halfhand struggled futilely against the crowd forcing the two Children forward into the clearing. There was grasping hands all around his neck, arms, back, pushing forward like a tide of unrelenting flesh. Through the fingers all around his face, he could see the foreboding stone construct rising before them with an ominous black object buried in the front. Halfhand wondered how many of the travelers through Tefike have met their terrible fate here.

A murmur bubbled through the thick throng of villagers around him, resolving into a dull synchronized chant. The chant resonated in Halfhand’s brain, yet he could not resolve any of the words, as if they slipped in and out of his ears like a thief of thought. But it made his nerves crawl like a terrible itch that made him want to claw his skin into bloody ribbons. His left hand pulsated with a deep throbbing pain testifying to the evil gathering force here.

Finally arriving in the center at the stone construct, the two Children were forced unwillingly into a kneeling position. The first thing Halfhand noticed was the shallow trough dug into the ground before them, speckled with dried blood, running black in the torchlight.
There was a fist-sized obsidian figure embedded in the rocky monolith right at eye level for the kneeling Children. Yet even this close, Halfhand could not catch any true details of the figure. No matter how he focused, his eyes seemed to slip around the edges of the object of power. If he squinted, it seemed to grow hazy countless limbs. But once he made eye contact, he struggled to break away his gaze as if an invisible force was holding his head. It was becoming difficult to think, to wrap words together, to even struggle against his captors.

The mob of villagers gathered in a circle around them, torch light reflected in their ravenous eyes. One of the villagers carried a long viciously curved sword in both hands, its jagged black edge now stained a violent purple from its past victims. He gave a practice swing of the blade through the air and strolled to the side of them. There was a palpable rush of excitement from the crowd, boiling to a climax of palpable greedy excitement.

As the crowd’s rumbling became a deafening howl, the obsidian figure seemed to hum and vibrate in anticipation. A heavy presence sat in Halfhand’s head, forcing him to bend his neck forward in offering to the wicked blade. The Presence assaulted his mind, alien violent images attempted to pour into his mind, assaulting his mental barriers like thousands of razor needles drilling into his skull. Visions flicker through his brain, of fields of blood and deep, of deep unquenching hunger to consume, and of a black formless entity of infinite hunger. He felt detached from his body, as his thoughts were pulled apart into intangible threads.

Think! Act! Halfhand fought the sense of crushing sense of powerlessness and the obliteration of his conscious mind. In the void that consumed him, he could feel the sense of urgency of the proximity of the executioner blade to his corporeal body. He grabbed desperately at the threads of his Self, pulling them together in the infinite void.

There, he found his mind’s voice, and the last trace of his consciousness screamed the litanies into the void. “I am the Light. The Light within me!” It was just barely enough. The words of power within him glowed like a torch of whiteness, flaring from his soul, beating back at the ravenous insanity. He clung to the building white heat, pushed and pushed against the Dark Presence. And he was in his body once more, the words of power flowed from his voice in an explosive roar, and for a brief second, his voice snapped through the spell.

In that second, Viellain spun and rose in a fluid motion, his bindings disintegrating, his hidden blade glimmered in a violent arc as it severed cleanly through the neck of the executioner. It was enough for the falling executioner's blade to topple harmlessly behind Halfhand’s neck in midswing. “Do it!” Viellain screamed, as glittering knives appeared in both his hands.

Back in control of his body, Halfhand fanned the glowing power of his soul flowing through his body. He sent the righteous power into his right hand until his limb felt like it was scorching heat and the power was seeping into the molecules of the gauntlet, turning it into an extension of his body. This was his ability of sacrifice, the Regalia of Light.

He slammed his right hand forward against the obsidian figurine. There was a brief pause of resistance before he could make physical contact. He flexed his fingers hard against the shield of force around the figurine, the gauntlet’s metal glowing white as if heated on a hot forge. He felt the resistance crack as a chorus of simultaneous shrieks pierced Halfhand’s mind. The cursed figurine shattered underneath his grasp, and a howling maelstrom of energy exploded out. The torches all blew out instantly from the concussive force and the clearing was swallowed by a violent vortex of red energy. Halfhand was flung back, slamming heavily into the ground, his head smashed against the ground. He tasted iron on his tongue and bright stars flashed in his vision.

Halfhand stumbled to his feet, blinking his eyes against the distorted landscape of the clearing. He struggled against the double vision of the head blow, but it seemed as if a veil had fallen in on the clearing as the torrent of malevolent energy swirled violently around. Distances, sizes, and shapes fluctuated as if stretched and compressed, as if reality itself was being torn. The clouded moon seemed to be grown even more faint.
In the charged darkness, the villagers wailed and cried, clutching at their heads in this new nightmarescape. The dark silhouettes of the villagers seemed to twist and transform into grotesque shapes with sickening crunching noises and tearing of fabrics. Then in union with gibbering howls, the mass of terrible silhouettes surged forward.

The first villager to stumble onto Halfhand appeared to be a butcher, once a fat man in an apron and cleaver. Yet in the storm of insanity, the butcher’s bulbous body seemed to have ballooned into a grotesque proportion that seemed nauseatingly impossible. Halfhand dodged underneath a massive hand that was more tumorous growth than fingers, and delivered a heavy blow to the slavering disproportionately small face to the sound of skull fragments crunching.

There was no further break as he was inundated by rushing figures of the villagers flashing between human and terrible vissages that could be described as beasts or demons.

Somewhere behind him, he could hear the muffled whistle of Viellain’s deadly projectiles flying through the air slashing into any vulnerable soft spots. But even as some of the mad assailants fell, they were replaced by more horrific subhumans, mind and body completely lost to madness.
They assailed Halfhand from all sides, grabbing his cloak, kicking, biting and clawing. It was only time before he found himself dragged to the ground. He rolled away from his savage blows from the maddened villagers.

There was a bright flash of torchlight that struggled against the thick darkness. Viellian could be seen, one of the ritual torches in hand and his flask in the other, igniting the torch successfully against the swirling torrent. The sickly light barely illuminated the inner ring of the mob around the Hand of Light. The orange light struggled, casting light on the seething mass of assailants. Black burns and ritualistic scars covered the villagers torsos like diseased poxmarks in imitation of tattoos. Even in their flickering torchlight, their bodies were distorted in grotestquoe and shifting shapes. Halfhand could see a dense aura of evil dwelling in each body, that blended together with the cutting vortex of malevolence.
Viellian blew through the torchfire, and the continuous blue plume of his Herald’s Breath licked out in a wide arch around the Questioner, scorching anyone unlucky enough to be in range. Tortured bodies flared up in the path of the naphtha-fueled fire, flaring up and toppling in agony, spreading the flames to whatever they contacted.

In the hazy light of the fires, Halfhand spotted the nearby black executioner’s sword half buried in the ground. Fighting through the crowd, he desperately grabbed the hilt.

The hilt was slick like oil, and almost immediately he could feel the concentrated evil of the blade grasping at him, as if probing for cracks in his spiritual armor. Instead, the Child of Light forced his Regalia of Light to burn down through his right hand into the cursed blade, fighting it and beating it into submission. The blade writhed in his hand like a strangled serpent. Using it was like swinging through water, and it obeyed grudgingly. But it was enough to allow Halfhand to clear the suffocating space of tortured flesh around him. The curved executioner’s blade cut through his assailants, leaving wounds and amputations that poured thin blood like wine.

Through the nauseating shifting nightmarescape, he finally spied the villager carrying his confiscated sword, the gilded rune markings glittering like a beacon. He charged through the crowd towards his sword, leaving a wake of liquifying bodies in his wake, wading through a rising pool of blood and ichor. The cursed sword was shrieking and shaking in his grip, as the steel began to buckle and crack under the strain of the raging battle of wills, until the material finally shattered and the blade cracked in half.

He threw the shattered piece of the executioner’s sword at the villager swinging Halfhand’s scabbarded sword like a cudgel. The jagged piece impaled the villager in his chest, who toppled backwards, leaving his grasp on Halfhand’s sword.

Halfhand grabbed his runed sword in mid air, the familiar hilt fitting comfortably in his right gauntlet. He unsheathed it and immediately, his regalia of Light flowed into the sword, pouring into the material designed to hold its power. In contrast to the cursed blade, this sword felt weightless like he was wielding the wind itself. The sword seemed to mist in the tumultuous red storm. He charged the growing horde, the blade melting through corrupted muscle and bone like butter.

Suddenly, a shining bonewhite crescent flashed above Halfhand. He barely twisted his face away as a sharp bladed instrument cut down, catching Halfhand’s right breastplate and carving down his breastplate with a shriek of grinding metal.

He stumbled back, touching his breastplate, feeling a deep gouge going down his plate armor, but the tempered steel still held.

Through the whipping fog energy, an ominous figure rose, looming over Halfhand. The figure was like a stick, impossibly thin and tall. It stooped with its arms tapering to wicked scythelike bone that rested on the ground. It was like a nightmare version of a preying mantis, wrapped in the heavy aura like a cloak. A familiar human head above a stretched torso gazed down at him with lidless eyes, a familiar haunting incessant humming from its mouth stretched too long. It was the bartender. The once bartender charged at him with jerking movements like a puppet. Its scythes rained down like a violent razor rain as it skittered after Halfhand.

Halfhand ran and dodged before the creature, but other villagers caught in the path were not as lucky. One was cut nearly in half from head to groin, and a second impaled like a writhing roast before the body was sent flying into the hazy darkness.

Halfhand retreated until he felt the hard surface of the sacrifice monument on his back. He ducked as a scythe like appendage came down, cracking into the hard rock. The scythe seemed to be stuck, as the creature struggled to pull free. Halfhand lunged forward, slicing through its spiderlike limbs at the joint. The limbless bartender toppled to the ground, looked up at him with emotionless eyes, continuing to hum its song. Halfhand impaled the chest cleanly with his blade and then decapitated the bartender, but that did not silence the bloody song. Screaming, he hacked the body again and again, blood speckling his face, until the unrecognizable pulp of the remains was finally silent.

If the mob had been led by any intelligent mind, they could have overwhelmed the two Children of Light with their sheer numbers. Yet now they were robbed of any sentience, just unadulterated madness. Many even turned on themselves, biting and clawing with mindless zeal. It had become less of a battle, and more of butchery as Halfhand and Viellain hacked down the villagers until not one more stood. At some point, the psychic storm had dissipated into the air, and the moon barely recovered its gray light.

Gasping for breaths, the two soldiers fell to the blood drenched ground, back to back. Blood and worse spattered Halfhand’s face and armor, soaking every shred of clothing. His muscles and joints burned. His sunburst cloak was long torn to shreds. He still gripped his sword tightly in case of reinforcements, but no movement stirred in clearing or the treeline. After a few minutes of blessful rest after what felt like an eternity of unrelenting blood, they helped each other up to unsteady feet.

Halfhand stood over the bodies of the fallen, in piles of scattered severed parts and stinking innards. The fragments of the statuette lay on the ground, seeming to bleed black ichor.

In the light of the remaining torch and burning bodies, Villain slowly began to search for his spent arsenal, at least those that could be salvaged. The Hand of Light had made out well. His cloak was ruined, and he was drenched in blood, but he seemed to be unscathed otherwise.
Halfhand followed, his sword aimed at each body in case they stirred. Some of the faces were contorted in terror, others in rage, and yet others in serene peace. But they were all human faces. A lump formed in his throat as he looked from body and body. There was no severed tentacles or carapace. No fangs, claws, or nightmare constructs. All unambiguously human. Not a single deformity outside of the ritualistic scars crawling over their back and torso.

Did he imagine it? Was it an illusion? Halfhand’s head pounded like it would explode. Halfhand ran his fingers over the vicious rend in his steel armor. No, of course not, no human could have done that. “Just witchcraft.” He muttered to himself.

“As black as witchcraft can get.” Villain spat on the ground. He fumbled shakily in his vest until he finally found a full flask. He took two swigs, and poured the rest over the shattered melting remains of the obsidian figurine. He dipped the torch down until a healthy fire roared before him. He lit a second torch and handed it to Halfhand.

Halfhand watched the fire, expecting...something. Anything seemed to be possible tonight. But nothing came from the shards as the fire consumed them unabated. “Viellain, that thing spoke to me in my head. Did it speak to you?”

The Hand of Light was silent as he watched the blaze. He seemed to be debating something internally, spinning one of his daggers in his hand. FInally, he growled. “Never mention that to any other Hand. You will be dragged down to the deepest dungeon of the Fortress to be questioned. Even I would not be immune if I mentioned such a thing. We should go.”

Halfhand gave a simple nod to the warning. They picked their path through the piles of bodies back into the groves to retrace their tracks. They made their way through the grove, torch and weapons in hand. As they weaved through the treeline, Viellain spoke again to break the grim silence.

“I have heard of something similar. There was an incident on the Windbiter’s Finger. This should be taken with a grain of salt, as the testimonials are piecemeal and the witnesses unreliable. All reports point to a deep sea fisherman trawling up a shard of black glass from the Aryth Sea that was described in a similar pattern. A traveling Inquisitor had picked up the initial rumbling of suspect worshipping in the fishing village. Now, what he found was not anywhere close to this flaka we bumbled into. But he sent for a Purifier squad, and they were able to manage that village and cleaned every speck of that place. Yet every member of that squad and the Inquisitor himself was dead within a year. Their deaths seemed unconnected, some in battle, other disease, and some suicide. But all were as dead as dead can be. There are no coincidences, fratis. And what happened tonight here makes that fishing village a domestic spat. ” He paused. “And we will need to finish what we started here when we return to the village.”

They found their way back to Tefike unaccosted. The village was as they had left it, deathly silent without a sign of human life. Each unlit house stared sullenly at the two Children through their black windows.

Their horses remained where they had left them, rousing from their sleep to their masters’ approach. Halfhand patted his warhorse’s side reassuringly and rustled through his weapons pack. He pulled out the detachable silver blade which he affixed securely to the socket above his left otherwise useless hand. Viellain reloaded his collection of deadly projectiles and flasks.

Resigned to their grim task, they moved from house to house in Tefike, knowing that any remaining denizens would need to be put to the sword. They kicked down doors, sweeping through the houses. However, there was no life left in the village. Every residence spoke the same story. Each living area was in general disarray as if lived in by wild animals. Food sat rotten and uneaten on shelves. Excrement, blood, and unmentionable body fluids smeared into every wall in unreadable glyphs. The stench was terrible, a mixture of negligence and rot that was stark to the well maintained exterior of each house. Halfhand forced down the building bile in his throat as they finished their investigation of the last house.

“In order to properly clean this place and the ritual site, I will need to use up the fuel I have packed and it will likely be a week’s work for the two of us. Not counting about any farms close by as well.” Viellain said, as he checked the content of his saddlebag.

Halfhand gritted his teeth. “We do not have the time. This is just the the tip of the darkness. We have to forge on.”

Viellain gave a laughing bark more from incredulity than humor. “Tip of the darkness? Sheer exhaustion is keeping me from just running gibbering into the woods right now. This should be enough for us to bring a full legion.”

“I cannot quite explain it. I just ask you to trust me.” Halfhand looked east. There was a faint pink haze of the encroaching dawn that was slowly being swallowed by a heavy aura of darkness. “We have come too far to stop. I know the terrifying corruption here is the prologue. No. Send one of the pigeons to Hand Jebrel. His Vindicator squad can clean up here. We will move on. We must.”

Halfhand tore off the remains of his cloak and mounted his warhorse. Viellain shook his head and sighed, “Very well, may our glorious deaths be sung beautifully in every tavern in Amador.”

The two rode out of Tefike. On the road leading out, Viellain staked a sign. On it, he drew the unmistakable mark of a large X with horns in black ink. Tefike was declared Excamona. It represented a message that no Light-fearing traveler should miss. Here lies Evil. Only death and obliteration awaits entrance.

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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


“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.

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.”

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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.

The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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


“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.