:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Blackhill Saga, Part Six::

Part Six - Sacrifice

Karnus bent down and helped the exhausted villager back to her feet. “Not long now, we’re nearly there,” he said to the bedraggled woman, who nodded and set her face in determination.

The small band had reached the outskirts of Eriadna. Ryndathilar and others seemed unharmed by their recent possession, though it was clear that the parasitic entities had been unused to taking care of human hosts, and the villagers were suffering from malnutrition. Still, they had all survived the trek back to Eriadna, and now the ruined capital lay before Karnus once again.

As the group entered the ruins, Ryndathilar remarked that his men were missing from their makeshift guard posts. Karnus agreed that this was odd, and the two spurred their charges on with renewed haste. As they rounded the corner into the main square they were met by a crown of thronging people, jostling with one another – it looked like everyone who survived had gathered in the area. One man, turned, recognising Karnus and greeting him enthusiastically.

“What’s going on?” asked the bemused wizard, taken back by the man’s broad smile.

“A cleric! We caught a cleric!”

Karnus’ face froze, and he reached out and grabbed the man by both shoulder. “Where?” he asked in a tense voice. The man, misinterpreting Karnus’ urgency immediately grabbed his hand and led him through the crowd, crying “stand aside! The Lord Wizard wishes to judge the cleric!”

Karnus and Ryndathilar were led through the baying crowd to the side of the square, where a small house stood mostly intact. Entering he saw Tanthalys and Faralmyr, who broke off their whispered conversation and moved urgently towards Karnus. “You have heard?” asked Faralmyr.

“What happened?” replied Karnus, trying to stay calm. What were the odds, after all? Simon and Anora couldn’t be the only clerics working in the disaster zone… No, it couldn’t be…

“It turns out that your little hospital in Alpharyn was a hotbed of heretical teaching,” the elder Shepherd sneered at Karnus, “and you failed to see the… religion despite it being under your very nose.”

“Their group arrived this morning, began Tanthalys.

“Yes, and all of them in suspiciously good health.” The elder Shepherd interrupted. “I was curious how they were so well kept, asked around, and some concerned citizens told me of the cleric.”

“They betrayed her?”

Faralmyr mistook Karnus’ shock. “Yes, it turns out they were not as enthralled as the priestess had hoped.”

Karnus said in a quiet voice, “let me see her.”

Faralmyr bridled at this; “you are not trained to handle clerics. She will bewitch you; pour sweet words into your ear. No, you should leave this to us.” The elder Shepherd evidently relished Karnus ‘supposed inferior understanding’ of the ways of Clerics.

Karnus drew himself up to his full height. “Stand aside old man. I have faced clerics of Alphaks, Alphatia and Thanatos and walked away the victor. I need to… interrogate this cleric, see what she knows.”

“You have no authority here! I am the Shepherd, you are…

“You’re a Shepherd when it suits you,” snarled Karnus, raising a hand in preparation for casting a spell as Faralmyr did the same. Seeing the situation deteriorate, Tanthalys interposed himself between the two and shouted “stop! This is pointless. She is bound and gagged, and Karnus is an experienced adventurer, what harm can she do? Go, Karnus, see for your self the face of the enemy.”

Karnus glanced at the younger man before shoving past the older Shepherd, who stammered in angry confusion. The wizard hurried to the cellar door flung it open and descended the stairs.

Tied to a chair in the middle of the room sat Anora Pellagi, her head bowed, her mouth gagged. She had been roughly beaten; her clothes were torn and her face had a nasty bruise upon one cheek. As Karnus moved towards her he pulled out his dagger, knelt and immediately set about undoing her bonds,. “Anora, keep still, I’m here,” he said gently, pulling the gag out of her mouth.

The cleric looked up at the sound of his voice. “Karnus,” she said, “my love. I am glad I can see you one last time.”

“Shush now, just let me cut through these ropes and we’ll have you out of here in no time.”

“No, my love…”

“What,” Karnus glanced up in confusion for a split second before resuming his cutting.

“Think, Karnus. How will you explain my escape? They’ll know you helped me, and that’ll be the end of you, too.”

“I can take care of myself, Anora – I’ll… erase their memories, make them all forget they even saw you…”

“There are far too many to do that, my love,” though Karnus had cut away her bindings Anora stayed seated, “if you release me they’ll know, and you’ll forever be regarded as a clerical sympathiser.”

“I don’t care, we can…”

“Karnus,” began Anora in a quiet voice, looking at the ground, “I never told you how my dream ended…”

Karnus moved to stand in front of her. “What? This is hardly the time for dream analysis, Anora.”

“I told you of the flowering rose, but I didn’t tell you what happened next. The rose died, an unknown force broke it, but as it died it scattered its seeds far and wide…”

Karnus stared at Anora for a second, his brow furrowed. Then, realising what she was saying he quickly grabbed her wrist and hauled her to his feet. “No,” he cried, “no,no,no. I don’t care what Valerias wants with you – you don’t have to die for her!”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“Because I love her…”

“You said you loved me.”

“Please, Karnus… don’t make this more difficult than it already is…I do love you, but I always knew this would happen…I serve Valerias’ will. The seed must be planted.”

“Why?” Karnus shouted, “Why must we mortals die to fulfil their immortal will? Why should we be pawns to be used and thrown away? Why must you be sacrificed to further Valerias’ plans?”

Anora smiled, and reached out to embrace the Wizard. As she drew him into a tender embrace his shoulders began to shudder, and she held the man as he sobbed. “Because she loves us. If my sacrifice means that more people come to know that love, then it’s one I would make a thousand times over…”

Karnus gently pulled back from her arms. He met her gaze with tear stained eyes and said quietly, “I would have killed every last one of them, shattered their minds, to save you, you know,” he said as tears streamed down his face.

“I know. That’s why I can’t ask you to save me…”

Karnus and Anora held each other for a moment, both conscious that it would be the last time. After the moment had passed, Anora pulled back and looked at the wizard. “There is one thing I would ask.”

Karnus wiped the tears from his eyes. “Anything.”

“The methods of execution for criminals in Blackhill are… unpleasant… You can grant me a much quicker death, I believe.” As Anora spoke Karnus adopted a horrified expression, and mutely began to shake his head. “I know it is much to ask,” she continued, “but it would be a mercy. I would rather die by the hand of one I love.”

Karnus silently nodded, as fresh tears welled up in his eyes. Anora leaned in and kissed him passionately before turning and resuming her seat. Without another word, Karnus found some rope and tied her to the chair once again. He turned to go, stopped himself, then walked back for one final kiss. When it was over, he whispered “I love you” in Anora’s ear. She smiled and gave him a look that meant more than words.

Karnus climbed the stairs back to the ground floor, stopping for a second at the top to compose himself. When he opened the door, he saw Tanthalys looking at him with concern. “Are you okay? She did not attempt to bewitch you?”

Karnus ignored the question and walked over to the shattered window. Outside the crowd were still restless, and a wagon had been pulled up – it appeared that some men were working on it. “What will happen to her? Will she be burned?”

Tanthalys joined him at the window. “No, that is not how we do it around here. She will be placed on the wheel,” he gestured to the carpenters detaching the wheel from the wagon, “her limbs will be broken in many places, and then intertwined with the spokes, and she will then be strung up to endure a slow, painful death, as a warning to all who would worship immortals.”

Karnus looked at the smiling Shepherd in horror. “No. That’s… inhuman…”

”It is how we do things in Blackhill,” replied the indignant Faralmyr.

“Then perhaps Blackhill deserves everything that’s happened to it!” Karnus turned and stormed out the door, leaving the flabbergasted Shepherds staring after him.

Karnus sought out Crackle, who had been left in the charge of one of Anora’s patients. The boy was glad to see the wizard again, and was upset at seeing Anora arrested when they had arrived in Eriadna. “I don’t like these people,” mumbled the child. “I’m beginning to agree,” replied Karnus.

The wizard spent the night consumed by dark thoughts. When he eventually slipped into sleep his nightmares were many and varied, a tide of darkness washing over him and lifting him along with it. Karnus surrendered to the sensation, riding the nightmares through their horrid dance of despair before crashing once more on the rocks of wakefulness.

Waking early, Karnus gathered his wits and made his way with Crackle back to the square. All the remaining survivors had gathered to see the execution. Some of them were obviously excited, but Karnus noted that most of Anora’s group from Alpharyn were subdued – clearly they were questioning what sort of justice it was to condemn their saviour to this cruel and unusual execution.

Faralmyr and Tanthalys were standing side by side before a large wagon wheel, they sight of which made Karnus feel sick. As the elder Shepherd beckoned a young woman was dragged screaming towards him. Karnus recognised her as one of Anora’s assistants from Alpharyn. The woman was obviously terrified.

As Karnus made his way through the crowd Faralmyr cleared his throat and the crowd became silent. “You stand accused of aiding and abetting the crime of religion,” he said to the terrified young woman before him, “how do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” gulped the woman.

“Your plea is judge to be tainted by the association of your crimes, you are hereby found guilty and sentenced to re-education in the Light of Rad. Next!”

The spectacle was repeated five more times with varying men and women. As the guilty were sentenced they were tied up together in full view of the wheel and the Shepherds. As Karnus lingered in the crowd he heard someone whisper “re-education? The Shepherds are being generous today?”

“You think so? Came the reply – it’s just long, slow, torture from what I’ve heard. Better to die now…”

Disgusted, Karnus moved onward through the crowd. Suddenly the crowd parted, and Anora was dragged out of the house that had been her prison. Karnus’ heart surged when he saw her – she had been beaten even more than before, and now looked truly wretched. Anger filled the wizard, and he suddenly found himself hating these Alphatian vagrants that surrounded him…

Anora was hauled up in front of the Shepherds. “You stand accused of the crime of religion.” Faralmyr was obviously enjoying this. ”You have no right to speak before this august assemblage, and you have been found guilty. You will be broken upon the wheel.” The crowd cheered, except for Anora’s people from Alpharyn, some of whom comforted the others surreptitiously.

As Karnus watched with tears welling up in his eyes the woman he loved was brutally stripped of her clothing and strapped to the wheel with ropes. Crackle whimpered beside the wizard and turned away. A strapping young man wearing a mask took up a smith’s hammer and hefted it before Anora, whose face filled with horror at the prospect of it smashing her limbs. Karnus saw her composure finally break and could contain himself no longer. He said a brief word of magic and strode out of the crowd.

“Enough!” cried the wizard as all eyes in the throng turned to him. Karnus walked slowly through the crowd to stand close to the Shepherds, all the while his gaze locked with Anora’s.

“She must die,” Karnus voice broke as a lump grew in his throat. He cleared his throat and continued, “but let her die instead at the hands of a Wizard of Glantri. Let her be undone by that which she seeks to undo.”

Some of the crowd were evidently keen on the idea, and cheered at this news. Others scowled, eagerly anticipating the cleric’s screams. Faralmyr glowered at the wizard, sidled up to him and started to speak “that is not how we do things,” he said in a quiet voice,”In Blackhill heresy is punishable by…”

”Blackhill is gone!” Karnus shouted at the top of his voice, silencing the crowd. “It was shattered a week ago and will never, ever, exist again, whatever you might think. Look around you. You think this is Blackhill? This land is a desolate wilderness that will never be your home again.”

“Tomorrow we leave this place. Most of you will never return. The live you had before are over. Your traditions are defunct. Your laws are obsolete.”

Karnus scowled at the silent crowd. “In their place, you have me. Understand? I am the ultimate authority here. Not the laws of Blackhill. Certainly not these cretinous Shepherds. Me. And anyone who disagrees can say so right now.”

“You are…” Faralmyr began in a high pitched voice, before his words were cut short by Karnus’ snarling of a few words of magic. A pair of sapphire arrows of magic arced through the space between the two and struck the Shepherd. He reeled, stunned from the impact and fell to the ground, moaning softly.

Karnus looked around at the crowd. “Anyone else?”

In the silence, nobody in the crowd chose to say anything. Karnus panned his gaze across the assembly. A few of the surviving city guards looked uncomfortable, but they glanced at Ryndathilar, who stood silently with his arms crossed, and said nothing. The wizard’s eyes met Crackle’s for an instant, staring at Karnus with a mixture of fear and awe. Karnus glanced at Tanthalys, who knelt by the stunned Shepherd. He was visibly conflicted but said nothing. All present had seen Karnus in action over the last few days. All of them knew the power that he wielded, and the consequences of opposing him. Silence prevailed.

“Good,” said Karnus quietly. He turned to the younger Shepherd. “Your sentence has been passed. The cleric will die. But it shall be by my hand.”

Karnus stepped up to the prone Anora, who stared at him without fear. He looked into her eyes for the last time, and she nodded once. He stepped back from her and levelled his staff at the cleric, who closed her eyes and began to mumble in prayer. Karnus let her finish her orison then, with tears welling in his eyes, spoke a single harsh word of Hutaakan.

Twin beams of energy surged forth from the Staff of Hutaaka’s eyes, lancing across the short distance to strike the cleric square in the chest. For an instant Anora’s form was encompassed in blue light, then she was gone, leaving only drifting dust.

Karnus lowered the staff, turned, and walked through the crowd. Some of them were moaning in anguish at the death of the cleric. None dared cheer her demise. In silence the crowd watched the wizard walk through their midst, before he reached the edge of the crowd and, with a single word of magic, vanished from their sight.

A few moment later, in a nearby empty alley, the Staff of Hutaaka appeared, clattered against some fallen masonry as if cast aside, and lay on the ground, its eyes dimmed in empathy with its master. The alley was filled with the sound of sobbing, its source still cloaked in invisibility.

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