by Lee McLeod
The heavy scent of still, old air fills the tunnel. The only sound other than the soft slapping pats of dripping water in the darkness comes from the throat of the armored figure kneeling quietly before the door of the forgotten crypt. The quiet prayer in the old High Sylvan tongue drifts through the mausoleum, “Mighty Cudgel, hear my prayer. My blood cries out from the ground, mingled with my tears. I offer you, Great Avenger, my lifeblood as my libation before your throne. Grant me justice, and vengeance to those who have wronged me. Let not my blood be washed away. Let not my life be forgotten.” A mailed hand traces over the rune-carved door, as a soft blue glow begins to emanate from the sigils.
After a few moments, the figure rises, slowly, as the sharp pain in his lower back begins to scream. He turns to leave, only to find himself face-to-face with the thief. The priest quickly pulls his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, hoping to cover the stain of the blood as it oozes through the bolt-hole punched through the back of his breastplate. The thief’s eyes narrow with a spark of curiosity, before the old familiar haughty expression returns. "I'm not planning on murdering your friend,” he says quietly, but firmly. “You might want to try to talking him out of murdering me as well."
The priest’s brow furrows as he prays silently, “may the Avenger grant me patience and wisdom,” before answering the thief’s question.
"Tell me, thief - why are you here? Why are you traveling with us? It can't be for the pleasurable company. And it can't be because you think to somehow turn a profit from these pointless wanderings. Why are you here?"
The cleric’s abrupt response seems to puzzle the cutpurse. “What choice do I have?”
“You could left us at any time - in the Dales, both Kittering and the Cotting were large enough for one like you to ply his trade, or while we meandered through the hill-country. You could have left us at virtually any point in the last four weeks, and yet you continue to tag along. Why?
"It’s obvious that you aren't trying to help the council. You can't be doing to help the sellsword or the lady, or you wouldn't be so disrespectful to their beliefs. And I’m certain that you aren't here to help me track down my contracts. But you remain. Why, after all this time, are you still hanging on our heels?"
The thief stares at the priest for a moment, brow furrowed in genuine confusion, before he shakes his head. “You were present for the "puppets and pawns" speech, right?” At the reference, images of a sand-dry voice, a visage of dry cracked corpse-flesh, and the hollow glowing eyes sockets rush into the priest’s mind. “I've apparently been picked for this. If I had my way I'd leave and never look back, but it doesn't seem like I've got much of a choice.” His tone seems to soften momentarily. “Besides, even if I tried to run, where would I go?
Then shaking his head to snap himself out of his own introspection, he continues. “I could ask you the same question, cleric. It's obvious you've devoted your life to the fool's errand of revenge. Call them whatever you want, but I've seen the look in your eyes whenever you talk of the men you hunt. Why tag along with the witch and that unstable hick when you could be sating your bloodlust on those you chase? Why are you letting them slow you down?”
The priest’s sharp reply cuts him off, "Then you continue on this quest because that fool of a necromancer in the clouds told you too? His ploys to manipulate us and those fools on the council are as plain as the glyphs on that wall. We are no "puppet and pawns" unless we choose to bend our will to that of a corpse-herder.
"I continue on this errand because the council, for reasons unknown to me, asked for my help. And I cannot, in good faith, refuse aid to the innocent. The lady is here of her own accord. Her journey draws her is strange circles I do not understand. The sellsword has stood beside me as a brother-in-arms more times than I can remember. We may not always agree on the means, but our ends lie along the same path."
"I am here because I am meant to be here. I am a Harrier of the Council of Prelates. They hold my commission, my oath, and my allegiance. I hunt whom they direct me, where they direct me. And in all things, I serve the Cudgel. Those who I track now are of less value than the worms we crushed under the hooves of our horses on the way here. They sacrificed all claims to humanity and all pleas for mercy when they murdered women and children in cold blood on the steps of the temple in the Cotting. I hunt them at the pleasure of the Council, but sometimes,” a small gleam flashes in the priest’s eyes, “and take pleasure of my own in the hunt.
At the words, a twinge of pain races across his features, and the thief watches him shift slightly in his stance. After a brief moment, the priest collects his composure, and continues. "But none of that answers the question, thief. Why tag along? You wish to bend your will to the mad ravings of a decrepit old bone-hag? Leave his ramblings about “puppets and pawns” aside; he is as inconsequential as the weak spells which animated those poor bodies in these crypts. His kind are parasites. Ignore him. His only power lies in his ability to manipulate weak minds. You must decide for yourself what your purpose is. Choose your own fate, discover your own destiny."
A heavy sharpness enters into the cleric’s voices as he says, "It is for you to decide the whether and the why of your traveling with us. But if you are to continue along our path, we need to come to some agreement about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, beginning with the desecration of hallowed tombs!” The sharp rasp of these last words echo softly through the tunnel as the two men stand, toe-to-toe, staring coldly into each other’s eyes.
And then the silence is broken by the soft chuckle of the thief. “A corpse-herder he may be, but a creature more powerful than you or those you serve could ever dream of being – unless, of course, you have to power to alter time and trick people, including delusional clerics, into doing your bidding? And you did his will before without noticing. What makes you think you'd notice it now? After all, you've dedicated your life to being the puppet of the church. And I know enough about magic to understand that you and he draw some of your spells from the same place. Unless you’d like to suggest that that little trick back there, making the hobs rot from the inside out, isn't drawn from the Void?
“So you do this because the High Council asked? I'm surprised you'd do anything requested of you by a group that includes that fat baron. I am here because I was asked as well. I've nowhere else to go, and I'm less likely to be found by the fanatics of the Blood Crescent wandering around in the wilds with you lot.
The thief’s eyes grow hard. “But I may reconsider. You claim to want only justice, and yet when your friend threatens to kill me, you don't worry about stopping him from committing murder. And you have the gall to hassle me about why I'm here? I wonder, priest, if he did murder me, would you be able to punish him as you would any other murderer? Or would your principals be decayed by your friendship?”
The thief steps back, his hand moving, unseen, from the pommel of a hidden blade. “In any case, don't worry about me. I've no wish to have to try my daggers against your friend’s swords. I'll stay out of his way. You might want to keep him out of mine.”
He then turns to head back down the dark passageway, toward the redoubt erected by the party in an adjoining chamber. After a handful of steps, he stops and turns toward the priest, shaking his head slightly. “You know, you remind me of someone I met a long time ago. He was a priest too. His only purpose in life was tracking and killing those his god wanted dead. He lived only to bring glory to his god, and to serve his will. Like you, he found purpose only in obedience to his masters, and he enjoyed his work. Truly, I can find only one small difference between you and him - you worship the Cudgel. He worshipped the Reaper.” A sardonic smile crosses his features as he turns and disappears into the darkness of the tunnel, leaving the priest standing alone at the door to the sepulcher.
Sometime later, the priest steps into the room with the rest of the party. He closes the heavy wooden door behind himself, removing a hard iron piton from his satchel, and jams it hard in the door-jam, spiking the door shut. As he turns to the rest of the group, the sellsword steps toward him, holding one of the arrows out before him. The weapon is finely crafted, the head lined with cruel barbs, designed to sink deep, to cut and rend while they remain, and to rip and tear when removed. A greasy film covers the surface of the arrowhead. His back begin to ache again as he looks at the devilish implement.
“Tormond, the lady says she’s never seen an arrow like this before. Any idea where it might have come from? Not the sort of thing hobs usually carry.”
The priest takes the arrow, turning over in his hands. "Doesn't look like anything I've seen before. Not an assassin's weapon, more of a battle arrow...but definitely not hob-make. These must have been acquired from some other source.” His mind begins to sort through the possible means and motives for supplying a band of hob raiders with such weaponry. Recovering himself, he replies, "But what about you? How are your wounds feeling? Did the healing help some?"
"Yeah, I'm doing fine. Still missing a chunk out of my leg from pulling the arrow out, though. I won't be doing that again. Thank you. I was in bad shape. Did you get hit? The shots came from the dark as I started charging so I missed what happened."
The lady’s voice speaks from across the room. “Are you alright, Brother Tormond? You seem distracted.”
He turns slightly to face the elf, and a piece of his cloak catches for a moment on broken shaft of the arrow, where it punched through the thick steel of his cuirass. The brief movement of the arrow brings and explosive of pain that arches from his side across his entire body, making him wince with pain. He coughs, roughly, in an attempt to cover his agony. "I was wounded as well, but nothing too serious. I took care of it. Shouldn’t have let them catch us by surprise like that though. Doesn't speak well of our combat prowess to get chewed up in an ambush by a bunch of hobs. Ah well, such complaints are nothing but wounded vanity, and the beasts now swim in pools of their own blood and filth. More than they deserve.” He hides another cough within a rough chuckle, before continuing.
"And everyone else, are your wounds feeling better? Perhaps we'd best bunker down for a while - rest up before continuing on." The party nods in agreement, and begins to settle down for a long rest. The priest settles himself down in a corner, groaning under his breath as he tries to sit down. He begins packing a pipe-bowl and chars it, before taking a long pull. As the smoke begins to drift around him, his mind begins to wander.
Smoke and darkness. Too confident. Too hasty. Again. He hears an echo from deep within his mind, screams and cries of anguish, fires burning. He smells the bitter tang of blood and bile, hears the hoof-beats, and everywhere the sounds of death. We should have been ready. I should…again, it’s all happening again. Struck from behind, struck from the darkness, friends crying out in pain. I’ve failed again. When will I learn to open my eyes? How much more blood must be spilt before I wake up?
As if in answer, he feels a warm trickle running down the small of his back, and a strange coldness beginning to spread from the steady ache in my side. How much more blood must be spilt before you wake up, Tormond?