"I'm telling you, Lady Alsha, there was a pillar here before! You've got to believe me. It's my job to know these things, dammit!" The old man pushed his spectacles back up his nose as he wagged his finger at the knight. Kirra Elrhanadan eyed the situation with amusement. His commander, Lady Alsha, was a patient woman, but there was a limit to how long she would tolerate anyone speaking to her in such a disrespectful manner. She was a woman of high standing, after all.
Kirra was far more interested in the alleyway than the conversation. To the untrained eye it was quite unremarkable, a section of the city that rarely saw anything interesting, but there was definitely something about it that had his senses tingling. Whether there had been a pillar here before or not changed nothing; something had happened here. His slightly pointed ears could not stop twitching and that always meant that something magical had gone on here recently, though the physical tick could never determine anything more than that. There wasn't enough Gor heritage left in him to discern more.
"I understand you think that, Master Swallow," Lady Alsha replied in a patient tone but then became more aggressive as she fired off a series of questions, "But if there was a pillar here before, where did it go? And the demon that was reportedly sealed inside? Why isn't it rampaging through the city?"
"I have no idea. That is not my job to know," Master Swallow retorted with a glare. He folded his arms as he looked up at the taller woman and said smugly, "It's a good thing that I'm diligent in my duties, or I would never have found out that it was missing."
Kirra rolled his eyes. There was definitely no reason for Mr. Swallow to be so disrespectful, and now it appeared he was fishing for some form of compensation for his trouble. Even though Kirra knew that something had happened in the alleyway, he began to wonder if Master Swallow had staged it all himself and he had called them down to Pentalus entirely for the purpose of being rewarded.
Sneering at the man's arrogance, Lady Alsha continued to treat the issue as protocol demanded. "Yes, you've done your duty I suppose," she replied with a slight inclination of her head. "Do you know anything else?"
"Not a thing," the old man answered with a shrug, earning another eye roll from Kirra. Lady Alsha caught this one out of the corner of her eye, and her mouth quirked up in a smile as Master Swallow went on, "I know it was a smaller pillar, obviously not a major one or we would know."
"Thank you for your time Master Swallow," Lady Alsha replied with a dismissive wave toward the entrance to the alleyway. "We'll take the matter from here."
"Aye, I'll be taking my leave then," Master Swallow replied in a bit of a huff. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose before straightening the clump of ledgers he held in his hands. He looked between Alsha and Kirra, bowing to both of them before shambling out of the alleyway. Lady Alsha watched him leave while Kirra took the opportunity to survey the alleyway a bit more thoroughly. He crouched down and looked at the cobblestones, noting a chalky residue on several of the stones.
"Can you believe that?" Lady Alsha asked once the old man was out of sight, "What a lunatic! How could anyone credit what he says? A pillar just disappeared? I'm sure that the demon disappeared along with it!"
"Hold on a second," Kirra replied tentatively. He reached out and collected a bit of the residue on his fingers and then rubbed it between his index finger and thumb. It was as he had guessed; definitely chalk. "What if he's right? Shouldn't we still look into this?"
"Really? You think there's something to his claims, Kirra?" She regarded him with a raised eyebrow. She scoffed and shook her head dramatically before going on, "I never took you for a fool. Or maybe it's your age talking?"
"Hey, no need to bring that up again," Kirra replied defensively, standing up and meeting her brown eyes with his violet ones, letting her see the challenge in them. "I've proven myself plenty of times, and you know it."
"Yes, I suppose you have," Alsha admitted. Kirra sighed in relief, glad that his bravado hadn't provoked further altercation. It had, in the past, with some of the commanders, but Alsha had always been fair. She proved it once again as she asked, "Okay, so what evidence makes you think that the old man is telling the truth?"
"Look at this residue here," Kirra said as he crouched down again, pointing at the substance. "Chalk. There's hardly any trace of it left because of the rain we've been having, but look at how it's arranged on these stones, like a circle."
"Okay, so there was a chalk circle on the ground," Alsha replied with a roll of her eyes. "I still don't see a pillar!"
"What if someone cast a spell here?" Kirra suggested, ignoring her sarcasm. "Didn't the Gor use magic circles in some of their magic during the great war?"
"You know your history well, so I'll have to take your word on that. To be honest, I don't really remember that chapter in my studies, so I have no idea," She replied with a shrug. She remained unconvinced as she went on, "So you're saying that a Gor snuck into the city and released a demon? That's even stranger than the old man's theory! The Gor stay away from here."
"I didn't say a Gor did it," Kirra replied through gritted teeth, "I said that it might have been Gor magic."
"Then who else? Who does Gor magic other than the Gor?" Alsha asked, throwing her hands up in the air. "And ancient magic at that, if they only did circle magic during the Great War."
"Well, Neredos is Gor trained . . ." Kirra began, but was interrupted by a snort from Lady Alsha.
"So you think that the Eternal King himself came down and released a demon using a magic circle of chalk?" Alsha replied with wide eyes. Before he could respond she snorted and added, "Kirra, you've got to be joking."
"No!" Kirra answered, stomping the ground to drive the point home, "Listen to me, dammit! I'm establishing the fact that Gor magic does not have to be used by a Gor. King Neredos was once human, was he not?"
"True," Alsha replied, finally considering the point. Her snarky attitude had disappeared when she asked, "Okay, so who then?"
"I have no idea," Kirra replied with a shrug, which received an eye roll. Lady Alsha looked as if she were about to interrupt again, so he went on quickly, "But I think it's worth investigating, don't you? We have to find out if it's true, and something did happen here, I can feel it."
That admission stopped the words from leaving her mouth, and instead she took a deep breath, composing herself before she replied. "If you had felt something, why didn't you say that in the first place?" She asked, almost glaring at him. "You know I would have trusted your instincts if you had said you sensed something was amiss."
"Maybe I want to be known as something more than a divining rod?" Kirra suggested with a growl. He stood and walked back toward his commander, shrugging apologetically, "You heard what they said at my last review. The other knights think that the only qualification I have as a knight is my heritage. I wanted to make sure I had evidence to back up my claims, so that I wouldn't have it going on record again that I think this case has merit because I sensed something."
"But you know that I believe in your other qualifications, Kirra," Alsha replied as the young knight came to stand beside her.
"Do you?" Kirra returned with a glare, startling her, "A second ago I was trying to explain a theory to you, and you wouldn't even listen. Sure, you listen longest and hardest when I say I sense something, but you don't give me a chance unless I tell you that first. Are you sure that you actually have respect for me?"
Kirra turned and started to walk from the alleyway, but Lady Alsha caught his arm and spun him back around. Even though it wasn't proper protocol to show such levels of affection, she brushed away the silver hair from in front of his face so that she could fully see into his eyes. "Remember, Kirra, I'm trying to accept you here. I requested you, whereas all the other commanders have been passing you around. It's true that they can't wait to get rid of you, but I've never understood their reasons," she smiled as she rested an affectionate hand on his armored shoulder, "I think of you like a son, but that also means that I sometimes get in the habit of treating you like a child. I'm sorry, and I'll try to listen to you more in the future.
Kirra nodded, but didn't reply. He wanted to believe her, but he had gotten used to the fact that he couldn't trust anyone in the Everbright City to actually do as they said. In his experience the lot of them were hypocrites, though for the most part Lady Alsha had proven to be different.
"All right, let's investigate this thing," Alsha said with a determined nod. Then she gestured toward the alleyway entrance. "Since I have no idea which way to go on this matter, I'm going to trust you to lead us, Kirra."
"What!?" Kirra stammered.
"You're saying that you want a chance to distinguish yourself, don't you?" Alsha replied with a sly smile, "Well I think commanding your first investigation is the right way to do that. You may be only eighteen, but you're smart, Kirra. You're going to do fine. Come on, lead the way."
With a bewildered smile Kirra stepped out of the alley onto the much busier street. His mind was racing as he ran through the protocol for how to handle an investigation. He had been in the Order for four years, but had never been put in a position like this. None of his commanders had ever trusted him to lead anyone, for any reason, but he had still received the training necessary to accomplish the task.
He took a deep breath and nodded to himself, firming up his resolve, and then set out to find the nearest tavern. Places of drink were the most likely to know who the locals were, since they made their profits by keeping spirits high in their communities, and his first step was finding witnesses.
He spied a tavern a short way down the street, and began to make his way toward it, knowing that Lady Alsha would follow. Anyone who saw them coming moved out of the way. Even though Kirra himself was not keen on using his position as a Knight of the Firmament as a means to bully the populace, the citizens of Pentalus had learned long ago to avoid impeding anyone who wore the silver banded mail of the Order. It was something he was used to, and when he was in a hurry he was glad of it, but he couldn't stand the look of fear in their eyes when they saw him. No one should be afraid of their protectors.
When they reached the tavern, Kirra hesitated outside the swinging doors, formulating what questions he would ask. Lady Alsha came up beside him, looking down at him expectantly. His initial impression was that she was judging him, but one look at her eyes told him that she had been sincere in letting him run the show. Her support filled him with determination, and after taking a deep breath, he stepped into the Forgotten Crow.
The place stank of alcohol and unclean bodies. This was not the richest of taverns, and serviced a clientele that matched its lack of tasteful décor. Even the bar itself seemed grimy, and Kirra almost turned to leave in order to escape the nausea he experienced by the smell. Steeling himself, he focused on the task at hand and walked to where the bored bartender sat lazily watching the patrons who were drinking quietly at his tables.
The bartender was caught in a daydream and failed to notice the two Knights until Kirra cleared his throat. When he turned in the direction of the noise, he was startled and dropped his rag, backing away. When his back collided with the bottle rack behind him, he stopped and stared at them as he said warily, "I'm sorry for being rude, what can I do for you?"
"There's no need to worry Master . . ." Kirra trailed off, waiting for the man's name.
"Kimbler," the man answered quickly.
"Master Kimbler," Kirra repeated. Then with a reassuring smile he took a seat at the bar, and Lady Alsha followed suit. "Two Carambun Ales, if you would. We need refreshment."
"As you wish," the bartender stammered, then went about filling two small tankards with the dark liquid. Setting the tankards before the knights, he didn't even wait for them to pay before he walked away. Kirra was painfully aware of the other patrons staring at them apprehensively, but he was waiting for the right opportunity to act. If he waited long enough, the person he needed to talk to would give themselves away. He had already ruled out the bartender. He may have known something, but mostly he was just scared of them, and scared enough that he'd likely tell them anything just to get them to go away. He needed someone who knew more.
"You're doing well so far," Alsha said with a smile, being careful to avoid mentioning anything about their investigation. It was Kirra's call on what to talk about, and she would follow his lead, however he chose to direct the conversation.
"Thank you, I just hope that we can crack this thing," Kirra answered sincerely, looking in Alsha's direction but watching the crowd behind her instead, for reactions to his words. He kept his voice low enough that it seemed he was just making conversation with her, but also projected his voice well enough that the ears in the room could hear him if they were trying to listen in. "Something happened in that alleyway, we just have to find out what."
Lady Alsha was watching the room behind him as well as she replied, "You're right, of course. And I'm sure that someone in the area will have something to tell us."
"Indeed, I was thinking we should talk to the fruit merchant across the street," Kirra added nonchalantly. As soon as he finished the sentence, Lady Alsha bolted from her stool and dashed across the room, grabbing a scruffy looking man from his seat and forcing him up against the wall. In the same move she managed to draw the dagger from her belt and press it up against his ribs, her eyes telling him that if he moved an inch the dagger would go deeper.
"Everybody else, stay where you are," Kirra commanded, glaring at the patrons until they were cowed. As soon as he was sure that there wouldn't be any trouble, he moved to where Alsha held her prisoner and gestured for her to lighten her grip.
"He looked relieved when you mentioned that we were looking elsewhere; he's definitely our man," Alsha explained. She kept her eyes locked on those of her captive, and Kirra took a good look at him as well. He noted the fear in the man's brown eyes beneath a mess of long blonde hair that hadn't been washed in months. Then he saw that the man's hands were clenched in fists, showing the anger buried beneath his fear. He wasn't a large man, but he had the build of a man who had seen his fair share of hard work. He was a peasant, and peasants in Pentalus had a reputation for hating the Knights of the Firmament.
"All right, let's take a seat so we can talk," Kirra said, gesturing toward the chair the man had been forced out of. Alsha complied and forced him into the seat. Kirra drew his curved sword and pointed it at the man's neck, and Alsha sheathed her dagger while she turned her attention to the rest of the room, making sure that no one tried to leave.
"Here's how this is going to work," Kirra explained with feigned sweetness in his voice, smiling reassuringly even as he pressed his blade closer, "Something happened in the alleyway across the street, and you're going to tell me what you know, or you will be detained until you do."
"I don't know what you're referring to," the man said weakly. Kirra's eyes widened in surprise at the response. Whoever had this man afraid enough to resist a Knight of the Firmament with a sword to his throat was someone powerful indeed. However, that didn't mean there weren't ways to make the man co-operate.
"You know full well what I am referring to," Kirra replied with a sneer. He hated lying, but sometimes it was necessary. "You know, we don't have to detain you," he whispered so that only his captive could hear, "We could just kill you now, and make it look like an accident."
He regretted the threat as soon as the words left his mouth, but he didn't let his face falter. After all, the ends justified the means as long as the ends were within reason. Still, his bluff had the desired effect, and despair replaced the fear in the detainee's eyes. Raising his hands helplessly the man said, "All right, I'll tell you what I know, but it isn't much. Most of us were here at the time you're talking about, but I'm the only one who saw anything. We're just simple people trying to survive, and we don't want any trouble."
"You presume to speak for everyone here?" Lady Alsha said, easily loud enough for the rest of the room to hear. She only glanced over her shoulder for a moment, but it was enough for the man to catch her glare.
"I'm a regular here, and these people are my friends. I'm not a bad person, milady, but I'm not eager to get killed either," the detainee replied dryly, eyeing the sword at his neck anxiously, "Let these people go. What I have to say could endanger them if they knew, just like telling you will do to me."
"Do as he says, Alsha, he's telling the truth," Kirra said, pulling the sword back slightly from the man's neck, giving him some room. Lady Alsha nodded and gestured toward the door, and the patrons quickly left the tavern. They were followed by the bartender himself, who was the only one to glance back at the man in concern.
After watching the others leave, the detainee said, "That was my brother. He owns the Forgotten Crow. He has a family to protect, so I hope you'll stay away from here after I tell you what I know." Kirra nodded, and the man continued, "Two weeks ago, this entire area was taken over by Huzain Sabreeza's men."
"Huzain Sabreeza?" Kirra questioned, not recognizing the name.
"You're really not from Pentalus, huh? Everyone in this section of the city knows Huzain," the detainee replied, shaking his head. "He runs the local merchant guild, and charges hefty taxes on everyone who wishes to open up shop in this area. He's the real power here."
"I understand," Kirra replied with a nod, "So when you say that he took the street over, what do you mean? Wouldn't that have been noticeable? I would think we'd have had reports of something going on if there had been an armed force in the area."
"You're giving the people much more credit than they deserve," the detainee answered with a nervous chuckle, "When Sabreeza's men come out in force, the people know to walk somewhere else, and the shops know to shut their doors and windows. An outsider wouldn't know what was going on, if they were to walk through, since none of Sabreeza's enforcers dress in uniform. They have an identifying mark though. Each one has a facial tattoo over their left eye in the shape of a double cross. If the symbol has any meaning other than as an identifying mark, I don't know, but they all have it."
Kirra settled back into the chair across from his detainee as he filed away the information for later. Though he kept his sword out, he pulled it away from the detainee's throat. The detainee had been cooperative so far, and there wasn't any reason to believe he'd try to escape. Even if he did, Alsha was still standing watch, and Kirra was sure she was fast enough to catch him if he did decide to make a break for it.
"That isn't the strange thing though," the detainee continued with a shake of his head, as if clearing away a dream, "That sort of thing happens from time to time, and the whole area knew about it. I was curious though, and I let it get the best of me. I peeked through the slats on the window shutters while everything was going down, and what I saw was more confusing than anything else."
"And what did you see?" Kirra asked, gesturing for the detainee to go on when he hesitated.
"Shades," the detainee replied finally. He looked as if he had been sentenced to death, but he continued anyway, "About ten of them. They were leading an Elrok down the street, covered in bundles of cloth."
"Shades in Pentalus. . . and an Elrok?" Kirra questioned, but even when the detainee nodded Kirra asked again, "You're sure it was an Elrok?"
"Nothing else that walks on two legs is that big. It had to be, but it was completely covered from head to toe, so I don't know for certain," the detainee admitted with a shrug. His eyes lit up as he remembered another detail and went on, "There was another man with them too, and he wasn't a Shade or one of Sabreeza's men. He was dressed in very peculiar armor, obviously an outlander. From his skin I would guess that he's from the western desert. I watched them until they disappeared from sight. After that, the rest of them dispersed and things returned to normal."
"You're sure that there's nothing else you saw?" Kirra asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, I'm sure," the detainee stated firmly, "but I'll warn you, that if you try to investigate, you might end up dead in a back alley. No one challenges Sabreeza unless they're sure that they can do something about it, which means no one challenges Sabreeza."
"I think we can handle ourselves," Lady Alsha interjected, glaring at the man, "Do you really think he can take on the Knights?"
"If you're the only two who bothered to come down to investigate," the detainee replied dryly, "I don't think the Knights have a great deal of interest."
"We'll see about that," Kirra said with more conviction than he felt, "Your information may be just the thing to pull them into this. You've been most helpful."
"I'm sure the Knights will be happy to hear about how the peasants are making up stories to waste their time," the detainee continued in his dry tone, "You know, you're the first Knights I've ever met who didn't want to bully me into submission. You still did it anyway, but I could see in your eyes that you didn't want to. That's the only reason I told you anything."
"We're glad that you did, and we're sorry that it had to go that way, honestly," Lady Alsha replied solemnly. "We are both aware that there are many in the order who think that they are better than those they protect, but please know that we are not like them. My company is dedicated to fighting the corruption within the Order's ranks."
"If that's true, then why did you threaten me at all?" The man snapped. Lady Alsha's mouth slid closed and her reassuring smile was replaced with a thoughtful frown.
"Sometimes the ends justify the means, sir," Kirra explained, "Even if we don't agree with them."
"Spoken like any other authority figure," the detainee accused with a bitter laugh. He looked Kirra in the eye defiantly as he went on, "Do you really think that you're actually different? You'll end up becoming just like them if you keep thinking that way." Any fear of the knights that the detainee had displayed before was completely gone, and had been replaced by bitterness, and Kirra saw little reason to keep the conversation going.
Lady Alsha seemed to agree and with a dismissive wave of her hand she said, "Thank you for your time and information, but we have to get back to working on this."
Kirra took the cue to stand and sheathe his sword, and the two Knights turned to walk out of the tavern, but they stopped as the detainee added his final thoughts. "Keep working on it as long as you want, but you won't solve anything. Eventually you'll go back to your beautiful city in the clouds and forget about us down below, and we'll still be here, trying to survive. You don't have to live here, so what do you care?"
"I do care," Kirra replied, meeting the detainee's eyes one more time, "And to prove it I'm going to do everything in my power to stop Sabreeza."
"Good luck then," the detainee replied with a nod, but then laughed bitterly again as he added, "But the next time I see you it will be in an alleyway, and I'll be chasing the rats away from your corpse."