The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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halfhand
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Re: The Hunt: The Illian Desecration

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

CHAPTER SEVEN

“...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.

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