By Brian Flood
Chapter 32 - The Hearing
The House of the Suffering God
Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Late Afternoon, 30th Day of Eleint; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The paladin gestures to the pair of junior priests – at which point, the adventurers notice that each of the gray robed clerics is carrying a simple, collapsible canvas litter. The two servants of Ilmater move wordlessly into the room and set the litters next to the beds containing Lucas and Kjira.
“If you all would assist these two underpriests,” directs Alric, “we can move our wounded companions onto the litters to better ease their transport to the chapel.”
The party members move as the paladin suggested. They gingerly lift each mage from his or her bed and carefully transfer them onto the litters. Each junior priest then assumes a position near the head of the mages and grasps one of the carrying poles. Three adventurers each move to assist the priests; Darius, Alani, and Dolak help with Lucas’ litter while Kryian, Slyvia and Alric assist with Kjira. Cyzicus, being too short to truly assist with the hauling of the litters, places himself between the litters where he can best monitor the condition of the fallen mages.
The litter-bearing band makes its way from the infirmary and through a second set of double doors. They find themselves in a large, spacious chamber. Although in need of serious repairs, it is evident that this vaulted hall is the main chapel of the temple. No pews or benches are evident in the room; scuffmarks and indentations on the floor seem to indicate that worshippers instead kneel on the cold stone floor during services.
At the far end of the chamber, a long table has been set up. Seated in the center of the table is a large clean-shaven, dark-haired man clad in field platemail armor. The symbolic scarlet garment of the Red Cloaks is clasped around his neck with a platinum brooch. On the table in front of him, a naked bastard sword lies on the deeply stained wood.
To this imposing figure’s right – the party’s left – sits Abject Supplicant Asgar, head priest of this temple of Ilmater. The balding head priest appears tired, as if just finishing an exhausting project. He is dressed in the gray robes common to the priests of Ilmater. Bracelets made of corded rope decorate each of his wrists.
To his left is another Red Cloak officer. This brown-haired female warrior is clad in banded mail armor and has a peculiar scar decorating one cheek. Her eyes widen when the party enters the chamber, but she otherwise remains undemonstrative.
Lined up along the right wall is a ten-squad of Red Cloaks, dressed in chainmail and fully armed. At their head, nearest the table, stands Sergeant Malik, the Red Cloak leader who earlier ‘arrested’ the party.
Along the opposite wall is a motley gathering of folk. Johann – the hapless farmer with the broken wagon – looks rather uncomfortable and continuously shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Two Red Cloak soldiers stand to Johann’s right. The party remembers then as Stephen, the Red Cloak who helped Kryian subdue the beast and later interceded on Darius’ behalf; and Samuel, the soldier that was burned by the blob’s corrosive touch. Samuel appears to have mostly recovered from his wounds, although he slightly favors one leg as he stands in place. Next to Samuel and Stephan stands the bow-armed stranger that volunteered to help Slyvia in her attempt to contain the merchant stalls set aflame by the blob’s strange magic. With a gasp, Alani and Cyzicus further recognize him as the wheelwright who they had found to help fix the wagon. Lastly, the party is surprised to see Tomar standing at the end of the motley collection of citizens. The merchant looks somewhat bemused by the entire affair.
Alric wordlessly signals for the litter-bearers to lower their load. They do so and the two junior priests make a silent exit toward the chapel’s double doors. The Red Cloak officer in the center of the table waits until the clerics have closed the door behind them before he speaks.
“Let it be known that we are here to bear witness to the events that transpired earlier today in the market,” the officer intones formally. “All here are summoned to provide testimony to those events so that we may find fault – or dismiss the same – with this band of …caravan guards gathered here.”
The officer leans forward in his chair and makes eye contact with the party one by one. “I already have your names,” he announces, “but it is only fair that you know mine. I am Captain Crassius, commander of the Red Cloaks. You already know Abject Supplicant Asgar,” Crassius says, with a nod to the head priest. He then gestures to the female warrior at the table. “This is Lieutenant Denise, a patrol commander in the Red Cloaks.”
Captain Crassius pauses to catch his breath before continuing. “The first thing we must do is determine if any of you are under the influence of evil magics or evil masters -- ”
Before the officer can complete the sentence, Alric steps forward. Crassius raises his eyebrow in surprise at the holy warrior’s audacity and then says, “Yes, paladin?”
“Sir,” Alric begins, “I have already made it quite clear to Asgar that no one in this party bears any malevolent traits. I have traveled with them for almost a tenday now and I would have been able to sense such.”
Crassius nods in response. “I understand your belief, Sir Alric. But we have a long history here of dealing with the Black Robes and other agents of evil. Procedure will be followed.”
Alric nods in response and steps back. “Very well, then,” he says, bowing in deference to the town’s laws.
Without another word, Crassius glances over to Asgar and nods his head. The priest closes his eyes and stretches one hand toward the party. “He Who Endures,” he begins, invoking Ilmater’s graces, “show me, your servant, those who walk in the ways of darkness.” Finishing the brief incantation, the priest opens his eyes – his hand remains pointed in the party’s direction. He sweeps the hand briefly across the party and then over both of the groups that stand to either side of the adventurers. Finally, he lowers his hand.
“There is no dark presence here,” he announces matter-of-factly to the Red Cloak officer.
Crassius nods wordlessly and turns to look in Johann’s direction. “You sir – Johann, son of Darik. Tell us what occurred to you today in the market.”
Johann, visibly trembling, gathers himself as much as he is able and clears his throat. Despite his best efforts, his cracking voice still shows the strain of this event on the poor farmer.
“Uh, well, Captain sir,” he begins, “I was bringin’ a load ‘o veg’tables and such fer sale in the market when my wagon went teets up. Tilted over, all ‘o the sudden, like. Well, these here folks,” Johann continues, with a nod in the party’s direction, “they was in the market and musta seen my problem. They came right over an’ offered ta fix the thing – that dwarf there, he said it was jist a broken axle an’ all.”
“Well,” the farmer goes on, “them two there – the halflin’ and the elf girl – well, they made off ta the wagonwrights ta see if they could fetch some expert help. Them two on the stretchers and that half-elf girl, wull, they up an’ decided to git a drink, I guess. Them other three – the dwarf, that feller with the ripped shirt, an’ that boy there, they stayed ta see wut they could do ‘n the meantime.”
“All of a sudden,” Johann explains, his eyes going wide, “a feller comes out ‘o the ‘ole Goldcoin ‘ouse, all panicky and such. He screamed at us an’ tol’ us to run and was startin’ to say somethin’ else when a great behemoth of a beast came outa the ‘ouse. ‘Ran him right down, it did!” the farmer exclaims with excitement.
“Wull, the thing ran right inta my wagon an’ wrecked it. Sent my ‘ole season’s ‘arvest all over the market, it did! The dwarf and the feller with the ripped shirt, they tried to stop it. That boy there, his wolf got run over by the beasty and he went to take care of it.”
“Next thing I know,” Johann continues, “there’s a commotion comin’ from inside the Goldcoin ‘ouse. All uva sudden this slimy thing washes out of the ‘ouse, like. Wull, that was enuf for me, I tell ya! I made to git outa there right quick, almost ran inta these two guards on my way out!” Finished with his tale, Johann nervously shifts his weight again from foot to foot.
Crassius nods and asks the farmer, “So these people here did nothing to conjure that creature?”
Johann shakes his head in a negative response. “Uh-uh. Nuthin’ that I saw, anyway.”
Crassius nods and addresses the two Red Cloak soldiers that stand next to the farmer. “You two guards – what happened next?”
The guard with bandages on his legs steps forward first. “Rider Second Class Samuel, sir,” he says, introducing himself for the record. He then continues, “Stephan and I were on dismounted patrol when we saw a crowd of people leaving the market at a run. We arrived in the square to find the front of the Goldcoin House had been smashed. Some sort of creature was dragging that man there,” he nods in Kryian’s direction, “all over the market while that dwarf chased it with a couple of torches. We also saw that blob creature that the farmer described. It was moving slowly toward a man who was laying unmoving near the Goldcoin House.”
“Stephan went to help out with the four legged foe,” Samuel continues, “and I went after the blob with my spear. I regret to say that I could not reach it in time – it covered the helpless man and began to…to eat him!” The soldier pauses to compose himself, his trembling voice relaying the horrific sight of the blob dissolving the man’s flesh.
Finally, he continues. “I continued to try to contain the blob thing. Someone, I’m not sure who, also his it with a couple of arrows. As I was attacking it, the thing started to unleash some sort of magic spells. One of the beams made a pillar grow to twice its size; another erupted into a fireball on one of houses to the south. About that time, the thing wrapped itself around my legs – the pain was more than I can describe…” Again, the soldier pauses in his tale, his mind filled with images of the amorphous creature covering his own legs, the smell of his own dissolving flesh still vivid in his mind.
“Continue, soldier,” Crassius commands with a hint of sympathy in his tone.
“The dwarf showed up and drove the thing back with a pair of burning brands. If he hadn’t arrived when he did…” the soldier’s voice trails off.
Crassius nods again. “I see – and did the dwarf kill the blob creature?”
Samuel shakes his head. “I think not. He chased it back into the Goldcoin House – but the thing’s magic also shrank him for his efforts. Those two on the litters there, they and that elven maiden arrived just before the explosion inside the House.”
“I see,” replies Crassius. Looking past Samuel to Stephan, the captain says, “and you, rider? What have you to report?”
Stephan clears his throat and answers, “Rider Third Class Stephan, sir. Like Samuel said, I went to help with the four-legged abomination.”
“Oliphant!” adds Dolak with a harrumph.
Stephan glances at the dwarven warrior. “Um, yes,” he says, “the…oliphant. Anyway sir, all I did was grab onto the rope that that man there was holding,” he explains, indicating Kryian. “Fortunately for us, the thing ran into the wall of the ‘Tankard – that gave us a chance to tie it up.”
Crassius dips his head in response to the soldier’s answer. “Very well,” he announces. Looking at the next witness – the bow-armed wheelwright – he says, “Master Orn? What did you see?”
The man takes a step forward and glances at the party. “Wagonmaster Thalibul Orn,” he says in introduction, “I’m a retired Red Cloak. I am now a wheelwright at Rolling Wheel Wagons.”
Turning back to Crassius, Thalibul continues. “As Johann said, those two there – the elven maiden and the halfling – came to the store seeking assistance for a broken wagon. Just as I was grabbing my tools, some sort of commotion broke out in the market. Those two ordered me back inside – for my protection, I guess. Well, I went back inside, alright. Just long enough to grab my bow and follow them.”
Crassius grins at this remark. “You are supposed to be retired, Thalibul.”
The wagonmaster shrugs in response. “Old habits die hard, I guess. Anyway, by the time I grabbed my bow and a quiver of arrows and got the market, the place was quite a mess. Most of the carts and stands on the south side had been smashed; one of the stalls on the north end, near my shop, was on fire. That half-elven maid,” he says, indicating Slyvia, “was trying to do something about that fire. About the time I went to go for water, a squad of your Red Cloaks showed up.”
Crassius thanks the wagonmaster for his testimony and then turns to Malik. “Sergeant, what can you tell us about what happened next?”
Sergeant Malik takes a step forward before formally offering his report. “Sir, when we arrived, I wasn’t sure WHAT to make of the situation. As Master Thalibul has said, several of the stalls were wrecked – others were aflame. He and that half-elven woman were standing near the blazing stalls. Over near the Goldcoin House, I could see that the place had been dealt quite a blow – there was a large hole where the front door used to be. Samuel was on the ground, obviously in pain. Nearby him was a horribly mangled corpse. The only figures standing were those two on the stretchers, the dwarf – he was much shorter, then – and that elven maid. That elf had a bow in her hand and those two on the stretchers looked to be spell-casters. I immediately assumed they were some sort of Zhent agents – what else but magic could have caused that sort of destruction?”
The sergeant clears his throat before continuing. “I detailed Corporal Tomas and a few men to detain Thalibul and the half-elven girl. I then ordered the others to stand down and cease resistance – I refrained from immediately attacking them to save the marketplace from any further destruction. They made to move and I started to repeat my order. That’s when a great wall of flame erupted from the Goldcoin House. The two on the stretchers went down – the elven girl was near Samuel and both of them were saved from harm, as well.”
“At that point,” he explains, “we ran forward to police up any survivors. That is when Supplicant Asgar arrived with his priests and took the entire band under his care.”
Crassius remains quiet for several long seconds as he digests all that has been told to him. At last, he turns to Asgar. “Abject Supplicant,” he asks, “were you able to identify the corpse that we recovered from the market?”
The head priest shakes his head. “I regret not,” he answers. “But tonight I shall ask for Ilmater’s blessing in speaking to his departed spirit. I should be able to do so first thing in the morning. Normally I would not call on the spirit of one whose suffering on this plane has ended. I have no desire to further torment those who have gone to their final reprieve. But in this case I fear I must recall this man’s spirit – if only to give us some idea of what he knows concerning the origin of that four legged beast and the magic spewing blob.”
The Red Cloak officer touches the priest’s hand with his own. “Your efforts will be most appreciated, Supplicant,” he says.
Finally, Crassius addresses those for whom the hearing is held – the adventuring party. “I will now open the floor for you to speak on your own behalf to add testimony to that which you have already heard. Know you, however, that your employer,” he indicates Tomar as he continues, “has already spoken well on your merits. Since Master Tomar is regarded as a friend around these parts, this bodes well in your behalf.”
“So,” the officer concludes, “Do any of you have anything to add? Anything that might lend a clue to the origin of these creatures or of this man who killed early on during the incident?” He sits back in his chair and awaits the party’s response.
Darius stands mutely, not wishing to speak at this point. He bends at the knees and scratches behind Soft Fang’s ears.
Kjira lies calmly flat on her
stretcher and declines to speak. In light of what she has just heard, she
has nothing significant to add.
Lucas, the red robed mage, also remains quiet; having nothing further to add and only wanting to sleep and rest.
As the long minutes of silence drag on, Crassius clears his throat to catch the party's drifting attention.
“Am I to understand then, that you
all agree with what has been said here by these witnesses?” he asks.
Darius stands up and motions Soft Fang to stay put. He then square his shoulders back, looks at Crassius, and says, “Yes, your witnesses are essentially correct. What I don’t understand is why you had us locked up last night. Is this some city thing, where it is not right to help strangers? If so, I prefer the open trail and woods to cities, then.”
“Last night?” Crassius asks with a bewildered look. “It has been only two hours or so since you were brought here. It took us that long to gather all these witnesses here to see if we WOULD proceed to incarcerate you and your companions.” His volume raises slightly as he continues, “I don’t know what forest you crawled out of boy, but here we -- ”
Supplicant Asgar interrupts Crassius’ outburst by laying his hand gently on the man’s armored arm. Crassius turns to say something but quickly cedes to the stern look he receives from the priest. Asgar then turns to address Darius.
“Mind you, young man,” the priest says in a calm but firm tone, “we have a fair justice system here in this town. It is the duty of Captain Crassius and his Red Cloaks to enforce that justice. You must understand, they had no way of knowing that YOU did not cause the destruction in the market. So, they have taken the time to gather all the facts in the matter and examine them. You have been kept here in the Temple for your own safety, as well as the safety of others. Should you have proven to be agents of the Black Network, we could better defeat you here on Ilmater’s sacred grounds.”
“And know you this, young man,” the priest finishes, “you should be grateful for this justice system. Had this been some stricter town – such as Voonlar or Zhentil Keep itself – you would find you would not receive a hearing at all.”
A moment of uncomfortable silence follows the priest’s answer. It is Alani who finally speaks.
“I too have nothing further to add to what has been said by your witnesses, Captain Crassius,” the elven scouts says. “I hope you will speedily conclude that we did nothing to bring harm to your citizens and have indeed, tried to lend our assistance to a dangerous situation” she adds, her voice dripping with charm.
Gesturing to Kjira and Lucas, she
continues, “The horrific injuries of our two companions here are testament to
our good intentions and willingness to take risks for the sake of others. I’m sure that most caravan guards would not have lent a
hand so readily or swiftly – for their sakes, I hope that you will see fit to
offer them the best priestly and healing attention that you can,” she
Looking up at the Captain, Alani asks respectfully, “Might I ask what you intend to do about investigating whether the blob has actually been destroyed and if you are going to order the catacombs beneath the town ‘cleaned’?”
Crazies frowns as he responds, “I suppose we will have to wait until the building ceases to burn. And then, we will try to enter only if it is safe for our soldiers. If we cannot enter, than surely nothing can leave, either.”
“As for the catacombs,” he
continues, “I do not have the men nor the resources to mount an expedition
into those endless, winding passages. Not
with Harvestfest on the morrow and Zhent activity on the rise.
I shall leave the catacombs to those who seek ‘adventure’ in seeking
out the secret, final resting-places and lost treasures of a people now long
gone. I am sure that some
enterprising sort will seek to enter the catacombs, as they always do.
Perhaps they will even return to tell the tale.”
“Now,” he asks, “do any of you have anything more to add to the evidence presented by the witnesses?”
Once again, silence reigns over the party as they digest all that the officials – both military and religious – have told them. Several long, uncomfortable minutes pass before Asgar finally clears his throat and addresses Captain Crassius.
“Commander,” the priest begins, “I believe you have the information you need. Are these travelers free to go now?”
Crassius nods in response. “Aye, they are.”
Then he continues by turning back to Asgar. “Abject Supplicant, the only question that still plagues us concerns the origin of those creatures, and that stranger who was killed by them.”
Asgar agrees with the officer, saying, “Yes, indeed. As I said earlier, tonight I shall pray for Ilmater’s graces. On the morrow, I will attempt to contact the deceased’s spirit and ask it those same questions. I shall send word to you on what I discover.”
Crassius nods in understanding. “Excellent,” he says. “I will eagerly await that information.”
Then turning to the party, Crassius says, “Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may have caused you. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Asbravn. Now, if you’ll excuse us, my soldiers and I will leave. We have much work to do in restoring the market.”
With that, the officer gives a nod of respect to Asgar – which the priest returns in kind – and stands. Lieutenant Denise, who has sat wordless at Crassius’ side throughout the hearing, stands as well. At her brief gesture, Sergeant Malik barks, “Detachment! Left Face! Forward, March!”
The Red Cloak squad, accompanied by the officers, exits the temple. Riders Samuel and Stephan nod in farewell to the party and then they break away from the witness group and follow the other soldiers.
After all the military members have departed, Master Orn – the retired Red Cloak and wagonmaster – speaks up. “Well then, Master Johann, let’s see what we can do about your wagon, shall we?”
Johann Darikson – who seems quite overwhelmed with this whole affair – licks his dry lips before responding. “Y-y-yes, I-I-I’ll be needin’ some help with that, I reckon.”
The farmer and the wagonmaster then take their leave of the others. In their wake, only the party members, Asgar, and Tomar remain in the worship chamber.
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