“Someone has been uttering heresies in the marketplace,” a grim guard informed Suryn, Paladin of the Light.
“You can tell the Duke I will find the blasphemer at once.” Clad in a simple white robe with a hood, she motioned to her servants who rushed to bring her armor. Short-haired, with a defined and resolute jaw, she stood dignified and still with her arms outstretched like wings as her shining silvery breastplate was strapped on and her great sword belt fastened around her. Within minutes, she was marching to a gate of the keep in full armor. She flung the heavy door open, emerging resplendent into the sunlight. All around were colorful merchant stalls and bustling crowds. Everyone quickly parted for Suryn, whom they regarded with a mix of wonderment and dread. She reached out with her senses and sure enough, she could feel the forbidden words still hanging in the air at the very spot they had been uttered. There seemed to her almost a foul vapor floating there before her, still slowly dissipating. Now she focused and began to track the Hate back to its source. The crowd looked on in silent suspense as she followed the trail. After some time of this tension she held still for a while, then abruptly pointed and said, “You!”
The crowd melted away in fright from the area she had indicated. They were rushing to leave the area now while city guards streamed in with a rhythmic clanking. Only the person Suryn had indicated remained there, a man stooped over in a dark cloak, his features not clearly visible.
“Who are you? Show yourself!” For what seemed a long pause the man just stood there. The guards tautened bowstrings, drew their swords, and began to close in on him. Suddenly, the dark man sprang into action, black cloak swirling about him. Hissing black spikes issued forth from his hands, lodging in the throats of some guards who immediately collapsed, clutching at their hopelessly spurting arteries, their boots jerking spasmodically. The archers let loose a volley of arrows but the dark figure simply shifted away from where he had been standing as if he had simply re-materialized.
Suryn drew her sword with a resonant toll of steel and charged at the dark man. Suddenly a shadowy force jolted into her and she stumbled backwards. A blow that would have killed an ordinary guard just slowed her down but it bought the dark man the time he needed. He stretched out and lifted his arms and several archer guards floated into the air, wriggling helplessly as blood started flowing from their necks in streams to the strange being they had encircled. Suryn tried to charge again, but was actually thrown backward this time. Now, drained of life, the guards were dropped to the ground and the survivors began to flee in terror. The Dark Man and the Paladin of the Light were alone now.
Suryn launched a white-hot blast of purity to incinerate her opponent but he responded with an assault of his own that intercepted it. The two blasts canceled out. A shower of incandescent white sparks flew on towards her opponent but caused him no discernible harm.
She tried attacking him a few times more but was rewarded with the same result. Now he lowered his arms and stood there calmly.
“I am glad you came to me so quickly.” He said in a pleasant tenor.
“What do you want?!” Suryn challenged him grimly. She continued to circle him, watching for an opening to close the distance between them and take his head off with her silver blade.
“This realm has lacked any serious opposition for a long age now. I would just like to inform you all; the days of ease are over.”
“Why are you here, Demon?”
“Because you are here. I am mystified as to why a full Paladin was sent here. I am the price they pay for asking your aid.”
At that moment, she sprang at him, flying swiftly through the air as her armor burned bright with her fury. The dark man’s form wavered for a moment and then seemed to fold backwards into itself in a swirl of shadow. He was gone. Furious, Suryn drove her blade into the ground and it slid through the earth smoothly. As she jerked it back out, bright drops of molten sand went flying through the air.
Despite her exhaustion, Suryn felt uplifted that night as she entered the chambers of the Duke. He welcomed her with a friendly smile, his dark and intelligent eyes gleamed in the light of lamps and candles.
“I hear you saved us today from the dark powers. I see that I was right to request your presence here after all.”
“He will come back.” she admitted with dread and disappointment in the pit of her stomach.
“But imagine if you had not been here!” he insisted. “If he’s a Demon, this is the sort of threat we have not seen for generations.” For a moment, even the Duke seemed worried. At least, a shadow passed over his open face and was gone. He took a step toward her.
“I just wanted to personally thank you for your valor today on behalf of the realm.” He looked into her eyes earnestly. In spite of herself, Suryn again found her heart racing in his presence.
“You have my full support to keep seeking out the heretics of speech and thought and deny this new adversary the power he might gain from them. As always, if there’s anything you need, you need only ask.” Suryn found herself only able to nod in affirmation. The Duke stood nearly a head taller than her and as she looked up, her legs felt weak. To her utter shock, he took her hand in his and squeezed it comfortingly.
“I trust you are unhurt from the encounter, at least in body. I wish you rest as well as you may tonight.” He let go of her hand and began to turn away toward his desk.
“Good night, brave guardian.”
Suryn’s hand seemed to burn as she returned to her own sparse chambers. Unbidden she remembered Kristyan, the young man in her childhood village. She had smiled at him every day and run her hand through her hair as she passed by until one day, she saw him with the wandering tinker’s daughter in his arms. She watched the pretty giggling fool fall into his arms as if from nowhere and then soon after her belly began to swell with new life.
She had always been the best student of scripture in the village; the elderly priests doted on her as a child and even as she grew into a young woman. She could cast blessings on the fields and help the sick. She won the gratitude of all, but the love of none. Then one day, she saw Kristyan and his wife gazing adoringly at their baby boy. That dark night, lying awake, she felt something tiny yet momentous silently snap inside her. Carrying almost nothing, she simply walked aimlessly into the hills, knowing even at that moment, she would never return.
One day, thirsty and nearly starved, she saw a white cathedral shining miles away. No matter how she marched towards it, it always seemed just as far off. She sensed somehow that her life was about to be decided and, with complete determination, she ignored the pains of her body however it might punish her and as she did, the cathedral started to grow nearer and brighter. Just as the last of her strength began to fail, she found herself somehow on its front steps. Then she had hauled herself up those final shimmering marble stairs and into the portal beyond.
Now Suryn realized she was curled up in bed with tears streaking down her face. Her palm still seared by the pain of the Duke’s warm hand. She had vowed to leave all thought of such things behind and if she was not careful, it would weaken her in her fight with the powers of Hate. She repeated calming mantras she had been taught as an initiate until she slid into the dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
The next day, Suryn marched down every street accompanied by guards, keen for the slightest scent of heresy. All the commoners she passed gazed upon her shining silver armor in awe and apprehension. She could sense their private fears though she could not know precisely what they were. They all felt to her like the mundane sorts of transgressions, not worth singling out. Then, down a tight row of houses she felt a disturbance that gave her a sickening feeling in her gut. Her guards immediately tensed up as they saw she was reacting to something.
“There.” Suryn gestured and they all rushed down the row to one narrow wooden house that looked little different from any of the others it was crammed together with. They immediately burst through the door to find a simple abode, dimly lit through a single window. Other than jugs of cheap wine, empty ones strewn across the floor, and workman’s clothing, nothing was there to tell more of the resident. No one was home; the guards started to look around, perplexed and awkward. To them, it was a simple room with nothing of interest. Suryn, however, was staring intently at the plain wall.
“I found it.” she said. She could see something like a swirling darkness on the wall, a portal of sorts that had allowed dark powers to enter. On the floor she could see from the dark marks lingering there, someone had knelt in supplication and sworn allegiance to the powers of Hate. She reached out her hand and closed the dark doorway with a flash of light that startled the guards. Then they stormed out of the house, questioning everyone in the area about the resident. They soon found him at his job working at a barrel shop. The guards seized him immediately and brought him to the Paladin.
The young man seemed surly and defiant. Suryn noticed he had piercing blue eyes that reminded her disturbingly of Kristyan.
“Why have you done this?” she asked him in a grim, level tone.
“What are you talking about?” he replied with something almost like contempt. Suryn felt anger flare in her. No one ever addressed her like that. Her suspects had always been frightened or just eager to be let free.
She pointed at him with a silver-gauntleted hand. “Dask, you have pledged yourself to the powers of Hate and let them into this city. I can tell that filth came from you. You are now under divine tribunal.”
Back in the keep, Suryn had Dask brought before her and told the guards to leave. Instead of cowering, the young man glared at her.
“I haven’t done anything. I just work my job to get by and pay the rent for a hole to live in. Doesn’t a Paladin of Heaven have more important things to do?”
“My work is to track down people like you. I could see in your house that you spoke to the Dark Powers there. Why?”
“I never mention the Darkness and I haven’t said anything heretical. Everyone knows better than that.”
“Your words or actions opened a Doorway. You invited a Demon into this safe and peaceful city. People have already died because of you. Your only chance now is to tell me everything you know.”
Dask was chastened this time and shuddered at the thought of the brutally murdered guards everyone had been talking about.
“The doorway was by the back wall of your house. You were kneeling at that spot when it was created.”
Fear and recognition passed over Dask’s face. “The Dark Powers? In my house?” he said with fearful wonder.
“What happened? Look here and tell me.”
He hesitated for a long while as emotions flickered across his face and he weighed his words carefully.
“I moved into that small room after the Duke’s judges gave my wife the house. The master cooper pays me well but that damn judge took away almost everything I had.”
“What did you do to her?” asked Suryn, her voice sinking into derision. “Are you a criminal against women?”
“No! One day she simply went to a magistrate and told them I had abused her. They never even talked to me about it. When I got home from work, I was shut out of my own house.”
“So far you have denied responsibility in any way you can. You have a lot to answer for now.”
“It’s not my fault!” he snapped “I don’t know how a Demon got in. I never even got to ask her why. They wouldn’t let me see her or our son!”
“Take care how you speak to me. Your soul hangs by a thread.”
“God damn my soul and yours too! I don’t care anymore.”
Suryn had had enough. Her face went pale with rage and she ordered the guards back in.
“Whip him.” Her tone was flat but her voice was tight. She watched intently as his shirt was stripped off his back and he was forced to his knees. His body was well-toned from honest work and he glared at her with his blue eyes. It satisfied her now to see this abuser prostrated on the ground. A guard tested a cane for its snappiness and found it to his liking. Then the whipping began. Before long, Dask was screaming in pain.
“Stop.” she commanded. She laid her hands on his lacerated back and soon there were ribbons of silvery smoke curling upward like a cauterizing incense. At first he screamed again and then began to sigh deeply. When she lifted her hands, his back was pale and unblemished again. The guards stood dumbstruck by what seemed to them a miracle.
“Again.” she ordered them. Hesitantly, they obeyed not daring even to spare any force in their blows. Then they obeyed again. By the fourth time what had seemed miraculous sickened them. The room was thick with that odd burnt odor of healing flesh.
“You can take him to his cell now.” she told them. Dask had fallen from consciousness from the pain, though his pale skin had not been left with a single scratch. When he was recovered she was confident that he would speak to her with proper reverence. Servants of the Divine were not to be trifled with.
Dask lay trembling in fevered sleep as the sensations of pain on top of pain troubled his dreams. In that maze of apparitions it came to him. He saw himself in a drunken rage on the night he had lost his wife, his child, and his house forever bellowing and throwing sloppy punches at the cheap plaster walls. Little paint chips had been embedded in his fists for a couple weeks after that, paining him every day at his job as he hammered iron hoops into place around oaken staves. He’d had to spend extra on some special ointment and bandages to heal properly at all. It came to him again. He had held his bloody fists to his chest and full of rage, had sworn himself against all this cursed land. As this vision of revealed memory faded, he thought he perceived a man in dark robes hovering over him.
“There, there.” The figure said. “You will be alright in just a bit more time. She saw to that much. Listen carefully, unless of course you want to stay trapped here answering her interrogations. When you come to, look for a jagged rock in the corner. If you want out bad enough you will chisel at that corner. Do not stop, not to eat, drink, sleep, or relieve yourself. That chisel stone won’t break, trust me. But it will exact a price of you. How much are you willing to pay for your freedom?”
Dask sank back into his trackless haze of pain and unknown hours passed as he slowly became aware of his surroundings, his muscles taut as wire, his jaw and teeth aching horribly from clenching, grinding, and screaming. More time passed before he dared to inspect his body for wounds and broken bones. He could only sob in incoherent amazement as he felt himself over and felt only his smooth skin. It was as though he had awakened from a nightmare and all the beatings had only been imagined. He heaved in relief and rolled in fetal position for a while trying to internalize his odd situation. Dask reflected in anguish on how his whole life had fallen apart in such a short time. His wife and child gone. Even his meager rented room and bottles of booze to ease the pain were gone now.
He heaved back and forth in his pitch-black cell, the memories of overlapped anguish still overwhelming him. Somehow he found himself crawling for the corner of his black cell and sure enough his groping hand found something smooth and glassy to the touch. The chisel. His heart jumped. It was cold and sharp around the edges by which he held it. He hesitated but then he remembered his rage and despair. Then blindly in the dark he began lashing out at the wall, heedless at how his own implement sliced fiercely into his hand.
Even as his hot blood poured forth against the frigid shard of rock he only renewed his efforts. Somehow in his gut he knew this was some kind of test on which his life depended. At length he heard footsteps coming down the hallway and instead of falling quiet he redoubled his efforts, scraping at the wall like a madman, now with hot sheets of his own blood running down his forearms. There was shouting outside his cell door but he ignored it. He kept hammering and slashing, single-mindedly now, channeling the last of his will into the knife. Just as the door began to creak open, he blindly lurched forward, expecting to smash his head against solid stone. Instead, he tumbled forward into an incomprehensible emptiness and fell.