Story by Ian Gray McGuire, Art by Alex Silver
“The device was obviously of Thounvar make. Lacking embroidery, forged of unstained wood, hanging blade overcome with waves of rust, no sensible craftsman would make something so gauche. Though, guess I should call our town lucky it saw so much time locked up in an old shed; no need to care for something with such a vile and seldom-realized purpose.” Jacque spoke through a suppressed shudder.
The Judiciar leaned in. “And what was it that raced through your mind prior to the manifestation?”
“My emotions at the time? Well, to be honest, my heart was pounding. I knew none of the others would be able to sleep after what needed to be done that day, so I volunteered out of a sense of” — she fumbled for the word — “protecting them, I guess. Someone needed to loose that rope, and it might as well have been me. Still didn’t mean I wanted to be there, standing up on that stage, the crowd of people bigger than I’d ever guess. Who would have thought so many people would come to see a funeral? Well, you know, execution, not funeral, but in our eyes Malcolm was already dead.”
The Judiciar shot her a glare that could tear through a Khainvar stronghold.
“Sorry sorry, I know you and your order are against that type of thing. The Witch’s funeral. Shows what we knew though,” Jacque spoke with a feigned chuckle, “since it was right about then that he up and flew away.”
“And the bonds fastening him to the device? We have multiple eye-witness reports that he was secured leading up to and during the proceedings.”
Jacque began pulling a shaking hand through her speckled brown hair, the lighter shade a sign of a bloodline long since diluted, before noticing, forcibly stopping herself.
“Well, it was the strangest thing. One moment he was bound to the board, sure as sunshine, but the next moment he sort of slipped and floated away. It was as if our laws and rules didn’t apply to him anymore, as if the Witch was beyond mortal ken.” Jacque paused, wonder and terror flashing across her face. “But there’s more. A sort of, feeling came over me. One moment I stood quivering, nerves a jumble, but the next — well the next I stood strong. I felt that I was immutable, unstoppable. Brave enough to stride through a LiKor’s den and strong enough to protect the whole village from harm. I was the people’s champion, I could take any burden. It was as if, almost as if—”
“The mask you wore came true.”
Jacque slowly nodded.
The Judiciar scrawled something in his notebook, then with a dramatic gesture furiously circled something on his page again and again. “Thank you,” he stood and made to leave, “your cooperation here has saved your town much heartache.”
Raising a hand in a deferential motion. “Sir?”
The Judiciar snapped back to his witness, black cloak swishing in his wake.
“What are you going to do once you’ve caught it?”
“What the codes demand.” Voice resolute, the Judiciar turned to the door, massive iron sword gleaming as he made his exit from the room and entrance into the foyer of Fallowfield town hall.
Embellished pillars, designed more to catch the eye than for a purpose as lowly as holding up the ceiling; a veritable menagerie of desks, chairs, and small tables, each its own ecosphere of pretty baubles and long since forgotten party gifts; and a carpet bearing a detailed depiction of the buffed and glassed exterior of the building sitting afore the setting sun, painting the floor in brilliant shades of yellow and orange. Yes indeed dear reader, the foyer was quite the fitting picture of the Khainvar way of life. The one exception was an odd painting hanging halfways covered by a window drape. It was woven of deep blues and putrid browns, in quite a nauseating display of color and artistry, yet it expediently transported the viewer into a realm of riverboats and adventure. Given the dusty old frame, lacking even an attempt at staining it gold, the Judiciar placed it as Bhyvar make, and the old hunter’s mind began to turn.
Scurrying out of a side room, from which the cries of several clinging guests echoed forth, came a plump man in suave dress, hair as black as night, and face worn with exhaustion.
“I do very much so hope that your talk with captain Jacque went without a fuss. All the others came out that door mumbling and quite nearly cowed to death. She’s made of sterner stuff, I know, but it’d still be nice for you to be, well, nice, every once in a while.”
The Judiciar eyed the man as a temperamental crowd would a floundering comedian.
“Jacque may be captain of the guard, but beneath the uniform she’s still a person,” spoke the Judiciar in an uncharacteristically compassionate tone, “you’d do well to remember that.”
The man paused, eyes flicking to the now empty sideroom and back to the Judiciar before settling on the carpet.
“Right then,” he quivered, eyes downcast, “Well then, at least tell me this, how goes your case? Have you deduced any clues from which you shall track down and slay your quarry? Shall I have the town up in arms?” A chivalric exultation taking over his voice.
“Patience,” said the Judiciar, eyeing the Bhyvar portrait with a keen eye, “If my craft were of the common man, you wouldn’t have called me here, now would you?”
“Of, of course,” stumbled the mayor, “but I still don’t see why we can’t have extra hands out on the hunt so to speak. Fallowfield isn’t big, but it isn’t small either. With a few additional eyes we could—” he trailed off, blubbering ideas despairing to a murmur in face of the Judiciar’s scowl.
“An untrained mob bearing pitchforks and torchfire is the last thing we need. And trust me, when a Witch is involved things escalate fast.” Turning back to his notebook, a look of wander crossing his face, “besides, I haven’t even puzzled out what we’re dealing with here. For that, more research must be pursued.” He snapped the journal shut with a resounding thwap.
“But you’ve interviewed nearly everyone at the incident. What more could you ask for?”
“Whatever came before the manifestation. As mayor, I assume you can bring me record of the crime?”
“That I could indeed,” spoke Sir Franken, fiddling with his pocket watch, “but I know just as well as anyone what happened. Mal—” he corrected himself, “The Witch had too much to drink at Pollyandul’s place, flew into a drunken rage, and killed Felys, the poor lad. Some say he smashed his victim’s head open with a wine bottle, but rumor says he did it with fell magics.”
The Judiciar let out a condescending sigh. “And this folkloric nonsense is precisely why a written report is superior to the spoken word, just bring me the document.”
Sir Franken scurried off to do as requested before sheepishly remembering that, while usually on the front of his mind, he was mayor, and so sent an aide to fetch the file. Sir Franken strode back to the Judiciar as a tense quiet fell upon the room. The sounds of Jacque bidding adieu Sir Franken’s guests, with all the stalwart assuredness usually ascribed to her post, were heard, and Franken checked his pocket watch twice in the same interim. Through it all, the Judiciar stood straight, completely aware of his surroundings and as if assured the master of them. Nothing crossed his face save what he put on it, and to read his emotions would be to read the tides themselves.
“So,” said Sir Franken, his pale hopeful voice daring to break the quiet, “do you want to know how I was knighted?”
“No,” drawled the Judiciar, mind narrowed on that of his hunt.
“Err, well then what about you? You must have visited a great many strange and foreign lands in your service. Why don’t you tell me about those?”
“My Order wishes it never disclosed wherefore and wherefrom my kind have gone.”
“Well look sir, man, Judiciar, you’re being quite unpleasant now. I’m just trying to strike up harmless banter. The way you react to what I say, why it’s barely like you’re human at all!”
At this, the Judiciar let out a smile, one that crossed his face in a jagged line, displaying a long row of gleaming teeth. If Sir Franken hadn’t been a sir but instead a Shrew, a Palawan Badger, or even a Barbary Lion, he would have bolted away in fear, for in the animal kingdom such a display would be to die for. But here, in the overly civilized foyer of Fallowfield town hall, Sir Franken merely edged back nervously, not yet sure if he was in on a joke, or the very one being made fun of.
It was at that moment precisely when the aide returned, presented the file, and quite expeditiously fled the room. The Judiciar sat to read the file, and Sir Franken, finally seeing his chance to withdraw from the domain of such a poor and punctual conversationalist, opted to attend to his most nervous guests in the neighbouring parlor.
It was only after they were all overly-pampered, promised pretty baubles, and sent out the door in a huff, that the word-weary Sir Franken finally strolled back to the foyer, a napkin to his brow. What he saw there bore little to lighten his mood, for without a trace the dark man who had so dominated the otherwise opulent room had vanished.