Dining With the…Witchhunter
In the morning we visited the mayor, Clayton Sharp, briefly, to see if we could get any more information on the nature of the mine, its origins or anything really. The only thing he could suggest was talking to Philip Black a little about the “old ways” before the mine. He was the oldest surviving villager. While there I noticed a painting of Clayton Sharp and his daughter, weathered and askew. At the time I thought perhaps the witchhunters might have her hostage, but now I think I probably jumped to a wild conclusion – the result of the stress of the past couple days, the lack of sleep, and perhaps desperate to find a cause to the Zamoch’s madness beyond the mine. Regardless, when I shared my suspicions, Sulayn emphasized that we had to investigate, and Halda volunteered to transform into a rat and inspect the basement of the witchunter’s building while we ate brunch with him. Her abilities have certainly become remarkably useful – between the invisibility, the endless uses of transformation, her powerful mind blast, and her ability to concentrate electricity in the air into flashing bolts, and even her nearly limitless ability to heal mortal wounds.
To be honest I don’t remember much of the meal and its discussion. Elias droned on pleasantly with Gustov. Aetherton helped them observe formalities by correcting the list of his formal titles – which I have to say I never realized was so obscenely long. It served a good distraction while Halda was investigating. Sulayn and I refused to eat the dry biscuits and slop they offered, not because we were snobs, but because we knew we were dining with enemies. He remained by the door – our lone sentry against the twenty that Gustov had arranged in the room, including the half dozen or so on the second floor balcony overlooking the main hall in which we ate. Aetherton occasionally chimed in.
I remember eventually Elias turning the conversation to the matter at hand. “But what could this woman possibly have done that would require such rough treatment?”
“She consorted with witches.” Halda, ironically, had just arrived. She shook her head almost imperceptibly to indicate that she had found no evidence of any hostages.
“How can you know,” Aetherton asked.
Gustov said simply, “We have our ways, just as we know that Halda here has abilities.” He smiled sweetly.
“But surely she’s not dangerous, just as you have come to allow Halda to exist.”
“Oh she is dangerous, just as Halda is. We in the order have learned that once one consorts with witches and devils it leads to all sorts of corruptive influence. It rots people from the inside, and eventually devilry results from it.” His eyes sparkled in the torchlight dangerously at Elias.
“We’re not in Barstoi, Gustov. Here, we don’t drag people into the streets to burn them for witchcraft. We even have a school devoted to the study of magic, sponsored by the crown.” Of course, midwives spit at suspected casters, and rumors flew about sorcerers who made pacts with various devils, people hung charms against witches and hags, and made the symbol of Pharasma against the unfortunate deformed or migrant Sczarni families. But it was true, in Caliphas we didn’t drag people into the streets to burn them. Usually.
“Oh we wouldn’t have burned her. Yet. We have an agreement. And besides, out here, you know as well as I do, that we are not exactly under the Caliphas city laws. Out here, the people look to those who can truly protect them and are willing to support the actions necessary.
Sulayn stepped forward, the guards around him shifting uncomfortably. “Tell me, then, is that what Pharasma thinks would be necessary? Would your god support this? Burning innocents?”
“Not innocents, but those who consort with witchcraft must be cleansed.”
“Cleansed? So your god, would want you to cleanse anyone who makes deals for magic by burning them alive? That’s what your god teaches?”
“Oh she did more than that. You see, she sold a piece of herself. Can you see the mark? We can see it clearly? If you don’t believe me, Halda, I believe those glasses you sometimes wear will help you see things clearly as we see them.” He motioned for a guard with two fingers, “Show them.” And then to Anna he said softly, while touched the back of her hand. “Do you mind girl?” She cringed but did not resist. The guard pulled up her sleeve.
Halda put on her glasses and focused on the arm. “Yes, I do see a mark, something like a wizard’s mark.”
“You see then, the mark of the hags in the woods. She has made a deal with them, marking her soul by its impurity.”
Sulayn persisted, “But we have learned these payments sometimes are in gold, in service, in a variety of things.”
“Yes.” Said Gustov flatly and unconcerned.
“So those of your faith believe that payment for magical services requires death by burning.”
“Yes,” said Gustov. “It is for the betterment of all. This life is afterall a stepping stone into the next world, Pharasma teaches us. Do not fear it. Any suffering in this life only sweetens the afterall, or teaches us valuable lessons. It prepares us.” Gustov turned to his meal again and stabbed a biscuit gleefully. “But let us not discuss this right now. First we must dine.”
A Deal With the …Witchhunter.
How much longer would we dine? We understood the nature of the information he had. We understood his motives. We had one day remaining before the burnings would resume, and half our day was already wittled away. This was part of his plan all along. It was time to leave.
As Elias and he were about to discuss the finer points of the wine brought it, I said, “What does any of this even matter anyway. So Gustov believes she made a deal with the sisters. Maybe she did. Maybe it’s not a good decision. But we can’t let her be interrogated by them, and we can’t let her stay a hostage.”
Elias perked up. “This is true. Gustov, you know we can’t let her stay.”
“Oh she most certainly is staying,” he said it politely but it was as if he drew a dagger. His men started fingering their scabbards.
“We can’t allow that, Gustov. Of course you understand that. Let us be off, and respect our agreement.”
“Our agreement was not to burn any villagers for three days.”
“Harm!” Sulayn growled.
“Very well,” Gustov said with what he must have thought was patience. “Harm. We will not harm her. She’ll remain safe her – well except for some discomforts from the questioning process.”
“We will be taking our leave Gustov, I’m sorry. Anna, right this way madame.” Everything was calm, but it was somehow just as fast, just as much movement, as the night before. Any fool could see.
Gustov rose quickly, his chair falling back, “You’re breaking the terms of our agreement then?”
Elias grimaced. “Changing the terms, then, yes.”
All hands were on their hilts. I leaned into the table painfully slowly, between Elias and Gustov. “Gustov, please understand, we can not let Anna stay here. We simply can not. You, on the other hand, can avoid this. You can always return to your ways in a day.”
He looked at me as an impertinent bug. “I can not do that. She will be staying here.”
“Gustov,” I pleaded. “Even if you win this, and I don’t think you will-“
“Oh we will.”
“That’s what your man thought last night. I gave him a similar warning.”
He snorted, and I continued. Again I tried, for all the good it would do. “Gustov, I may not be a man of words, but-“
Aetherton cut in, “Vali, you’re wrong. Words matter.”
What the hells was the man doing? Gustov smiled. I held up a hand. “Aetherton, no.”
I turned back to Gustov, his men hunching their shoulders menacingly, Elias inching away with Anna. “Gustov, you must be able to see that even if you win you will lose twice as many men as us. Is this really worth it?”
“I doubt that very much.” He glanced at me, and stared at our party one by one.”
“Vali, I disagree. Words matter very much.”
What did he think he was doing? Anna’s life was hanging in the balance and he was trying to have a pissing contest with me. “Aetherton,” I said more firmly, widening my eyes. “No.” Please just stop.
But the moment had passed. Elias moved quickly to the door, everyone drew their weapons except Aetherton and me. And then everything erupted into chaos. Several men attacked Sulayn but he simultaneously pulled out his black glaive and swept it across the room, spraying the walls and half the people with blood, leaving broken carcasses. The men above began chanting and I released a couple arrows at them. Halda sent several more reeling and grasping at their heads, and then everything went black.
When I came to, Aetherton was pulling me and Sulayn out from the chairs of the table while Elias met four men at a time, his red-hot sword crushing their bucklers and ripping through armor at the familiar magical blinding speed. Gustov was calmly pulling out a vicious looking whip and the serrated sword of his Order. Whatever Aetherton’s faults, he did save both me and Sulayn. Those chanters above had cast a magical sleep on me. But Mila!
I quickly slipped away from Aetherton’s grasp, and he mercifully let me go, and I scrambled for Mila and my bow. She was also coming to her sensing, mewing, though I could not even hear it over the din of battle. I flicked a Quicksilver potion off my bandolier and gave myself my own magical speed, as well as Mila. But now I was not going to run.
I stood up, throwing a chair aside in the process, flicked and sprayed a Flametouch potion onto my quiver, pulled back and shot a small fireball at a chanter sending him crumpling backward. Behind me Elias was taking out two or three armed men in the same time, and Sulayn was practically leaping off the walls doing the same. I aimed at the true bastard, Gustov, and pulled back with all my might. The short screeched toward him, and would have hit him straight in the face but for a last second twitch, only slicing him across the cheek, then exploding against the wall and all around him. He staggered from the explosion, which alone would have destroyed a castle gate door, let alone a man, but he remained standing. I stood shocked.
But Elias crossed the room in two great strides, a cloak of shadows following him. “Gustov, you should have taken the deal when you could have.” And he mercilessly cut Gustov down with four great shuddering swing, each one shaking the room like a cannon ball hit. Gustov’s men ran as they saw his broken body fall.
Sulayn flipped up to the second floor and chased the last of them down. Afterwards, Sulayn and Halda conferred about how to save Gustov. He tried to whisper, “Don’t, don’t heal me,” but I ignored the request and sprayed him. His magical protection must have still worked though, because for the first time in over a year, my healing failed.
I left him to sort through the wreck. And now…now I help the villagers dispose of the dead. What a waste. Nearly two dozen men dead. Men who could have defended Anactoria from the next attack. The others prepare the next steps, while I sort through Gustov’s diary, bury the dead, and when I have the chance, replenish my potions to no doubt be prepared to me the Zamoch.
I can’t help noting how many compromises we’ve made in our defense of Ustalav. And looking around at the damage we can do, I can’t help thinking about our responsibility in this. I am responsible for my companions just as I am responsible for their well-being. That means I am also responsible for Bekaz even if I didn’t kill any of the villagers, or for the man Aetherton nearly decapitated, or what to do with Xel Pelac, and this carnage.
I’m not sure what to do about that. As they say, a beard does not make the philosopher. And I don't even have a beard. I’m doing my best to find the peaceful solutions. And I know that each of my companions is too, in their own way. But what little good that does sometimes. For now, I can at least help the villagers dig – and make a little space for the weight of our decisions.