“There is no saving a woman who has let a devil into her heart. It is best to let the purifying fires take her.”
Unnamed Priest of Hermes
Ventral witch trials. Twenty-third day of Feasting, 3064
Jake’s head pounded and the sun seemed much too bright. The newly appointed knights formed two ranks in the early morning fog in front of the Hall of Apollo. Duncan, Roy, Margaret, Dogwa, Bromley, and Jake stood tall and proud with the fresh crests on their crisp gray uniforms despite the previous night’s drinking. They had earned the right to wear the Eye of Apollo but they had not yet been assigned a unit or even a task. Jake looked forward to his assignment, but he worried they would part ways. This might be the last day they were all together. Jake’s thoughts wandered to Brom, as they often did. Count Varro wouldn’t split them up, he reassured himself. But was the decision up to Varro?
Jake grounded himself in the moment to push the thought from his mind. He didn’t know why they were ordered to fall in that morning or why there were targets on hay bales in the distance. This just added to the mystery of it all. They had proven themselves in the trials. Was more required of them?
A door opened on the side of the great hall; they would know soon enough. The knights snapped to attention as the Headmaster, Count Varro, Master Grim, and Master Salvo stepped from the building.
“Stand at ease,” the headmaster said in a soothing voice. “You wear The Eye now. We are all brothers and sisters in the service of Apollo.”
The knights relaxed their shoulders and locked their eyes on the group of leaders. Masters Grim and Salvo stepped forward. Grim carried a musket and a long black case with a bronze Eye of Apollo on the side. Flipping the brass latches with his good hand, Salvo pulled a long weapon from it. The iron and hardwood tool of combat looked like a musket but a few inches longer, with a more elegant mechanism.
“This is the weapon that will win the war for Great Brenar,” Salvo said as he held the weapon to his front, cradling it in his hook. “More reliable than a musket. The durability has been tested and outranks the musket by far. The fire rate, however, is lower due to an added step or two to the reload process. This drawback is a small price to pay for its superior accuracy and range. The shooter can now reach almost twice the distance a musket can and with the accuracy to make the added distance matter. We have achieved this by cutting six spiraling grooves into the inside of the barrel and tightening a cone-shaped ball’s fit with cloth and wax. This makes the projectile spin during flight, effectively stabilizing it.”
Salvo, admiring his own work, eyed the weapon from muzzle to butt stock. “We have been calling it a rifle, due to the rifling of course.” Turning to Master Grim, Salvo asked, “Would you be so kind as to give the musket to your sharpest-shooting student?”
Grim thought for a moment then held the musket out with a single shot cartridge in his palm. “Zimmar.”
Jake stepped forward and took the musket from Grim. Jake stood with the musket at his front as he was taught. Grim gave a sharp nod and Jake placed the butt of the gun on the ground at his feet. Taking the paper cartridge from Grim, Jake loaded it like any other weapon. He tore the paper with his teeth and primed the pan with a dash of fresh powder, then dumped the rest down the barrel. He worked the ball from the bottom of the paper pocket between his fingers and placed it in the muzzle, paper down. He drew out the ramrod and forced the shot to the bottom of the barrel, in the firing position. Thirty seconds and the musket was ready to fire. Jake didn’t rush so that he loaded the musket fluidly, demonstrating his comfort with the weapon. He thought it could have been loaded and ready to fire in fifteen seconds in a pinch.
Jake’s gaze went downrange to the targets in the distance. Too far off, he thought. The bales stood close to one hundred and fifty yards away. Jake had never made a shot that far. His eyes moved to Varro.
The Count nodded his head. “Get on with it. Take your shot.”
Jake knelt and cocked the frizzen with the palm of his trigger hand. He steadied himself as best he could, looking down the barrel to the iron post at the end and at the red and white target beyond. A trigger squeeze and a puff of smoke sent a musket ball downrange, striking the bottom of the wooden target. Once the smoke cleared, splinters made Jake smile, impressed with himself. When he turned, however, the leaders all wore an unimpressed expression. He looked over to Brom who gave a look that said, “not bad.” Impossible shots called for some sort of recognition and Jake appreciated that.
“Mister Zimmar performed well with the musket,” Salvo said. “Since Master Grim is familiar with the rifle and still possesses both his hands, he will load it but Mister Zimmar will take the second shot for consistency in marksmanship.”
Grim demonstrated the loading process, pausing after each step to show what he had done. He primed the pan with finer ground powder from a horn, then measured a precise amount of the same powder into an attached cup, just larger than a thimble. After carefully pouring the powder into the muzzle, Grim cut a small square of cloth from a strip hung from his belt. He pinched a lead cone between his fingers and held it out to the knights. It was coated in a thin layer of wax. Grim placed the flat end of the cone in the center of the cloth and pressed it into the muzzle. Then he removed the ramrod and drove the shot down with some effort.
All this practically doubled the load time.
Jake wondered if all this hassle was worth it. He wondered right up until Grim snatched the musket from his hands and replaced it with the rifle. Master Grim wore a smirk. Jake had never seen the man smile and this might be the closest Grim was capable of. He returned to his kneeling shooting position with his left knee up and his left elbow resting on it for support. This weapon was much longer and yet it felt well balanced. Jake squeezed the trigger, recoil, puff of smoke and a loud boom. Jake leaned into the cloud of smoke as if that would help him peer through it. Once the cloud had dissipated, Jake smiled again. Splintered wood lay scattered in front of the target. The shot punched a hole directly in the middle of the white and red circles. The knights stood motionless. Brom’s jaw hung slackly. Finally, Jake stood up, admiring at the rifle in his hands.
“Again,” Salvo said. He turned to the other knights. “Move the target back fifty paces so that Mister Zimmar may take another shot.”
The knights walked to the bales as Grim took the rifle to reload it, still showing his horrendous teeth with his smile. Jake thought the shot he had just made to be impressive, but any further must be a miracle.
By the time the knights returned, Grim had finished. He handed the rifle to Jake and whispered, “Keep ’er on target. No need to arc the distance.”
The target seemed untouchable at that distance, but Jake knelt again. He took aim, exhaled and fired at the bottom of his breath. At that distance, Jake couldn’t tell if his shot had struck the target, even after the smoke cleared. The group moved downrange eagerly awaiting the outcome. As they approached, however, they found only one hole in the planks. Jake let out an audible groan that he hoped no one else heard.
Count Varro stepped up to the target and poked his finger in the bullet hole. Jake realized that his second shot widened the first hole on one side. The knights stood agape, their eyes not leaving the target.
“This could keep us out of musket range,” Varro said.
“It is a specialized weapon for a specialized fighting force. It would work best in conjunction with muskets due to the reload time,” Salvo said.
“Well, that should work beautifully,” the headmaster said with a slight bow to Salvo.
Swords reverberated in the Hall of Apollo as knights sparred and practiced their finishing techniques on straw dummies. They all wore a light gray training uniform under a thick leather vest to protect from sword punctures. Those fencing wore mesh masks which formed a dome over their entire face. As a boy, Jake had watched his father’s noble friends fence by the code of the gentleman: stiff, and delicate with their quick thrusts and parries. It all seemed overly structured and rigid. Real attacks were never in a straight line. Duals among gentlemen were conducted uniformly. Strict rules were put in place hundreds of years prior and adhered to. Form meant everything. If you were killed flailing around wildly because you lost your composure in the thick of things, you were remembered as a coward or a slob.
The knights, however, fenced by the code of combat. The knight’s training barely resembled that of noblemen in friendly matches or duels for their honor. The knights didn’t only use their swords. They used their elbows, knees, feet, hands and even the occasional head-butt. The style seemed robust to Jake, designed to work in any situation. Anything would be permitted in a true mortal struggle, after all. Though some officers of the regular army would disagree due to their noble conditioning.
Dozens of knights trained at a time and dozens more looked on, soaking it all in, learning from the mistakes or triumphs of others. Count Varro and his men stood around an elevated fencing stage. Amir donned his leather vest with a training rapier under his arm, his curly black hair tied back out of his face. The sword almost fell to the floor when he noticed the new knights walk in.
“There they are,” Amir chuckled loudly with an open, welcoming arm. The rest of the knights welcomed the newly appointed brothers and sister with a hearty cheer before returning to training.
Jake filtered into the training session with the others. He and Brom took places by the hardwood stage where Amir fought another knight. Amir whipped the other knight’s thigh with the tip of his sword and drove a knee into the knight’s chest as he doubled over his leg. From his back, the knight yielded and removed his mask. Amir chuckled through his mask and helped his opponent to his feet.
“Good bout, brother,” Amir said with a hearty backslap. “Are you ready to go again?”
“Once I have—” the knight wheezed. “Once I have caught my breath.”
Amir laughed again in a friendly manner that drew a smile from his opponent, even though the man was obviously in pain. As he stepped off the stage, Varro took his mask and rapier. The Count offered them to Brom, and Jake noticed a twinge of anxiety on his friend’s face. Though he hid it well, Jake was certain Varro saw it too.
Brom took the mask and training weapon and stepped up onto the stage as Amir beckoned with a wide smile and wide hand wave. The way Brom held the sword suggested fencing was not his strongest skill. The hilt lay loose in his hand and he worried too much about how to hold his other arm.
“On guard,” Amir said as he lunged forward and stomped loudly, slamming Brom’s sword out of his hand with a forceful downward strike. The movement happened so fast it was almost a blur with a sharp whipping sound. Jake could imagine Brom’s stunned expression under his fencing mask. Patiently, Amir picked the sword up and put it back in Brom’s hand.
“Tight, so it won’t fly away,” was the only thing he said before retaking his starting position.
“Again, on guard.” Amir swung his sword overhead and crashed his blade into the other. Brom stiffened and gripped the hilt so tight, he almost went off the edge of the stage.
“Too tight. Your sword is not your enemy. Loosen up,” Amir instructed as he sent a flurry of half-speed blows. Brom staggered backward, blocking each as best he could. He was running out of stage.
“Push back,” Jake called from the crowd. Brom heard the tip and swung his blade wildly. He slowly moved forward with additional erratic swings. Sometimes violence of action can be better than precision, Jake remembered.
Suddenly, Amir diverted Brom’s sloppy lunge and spun around him, wrapping his arm around Brom’s torso and slipping a foot behind Brom’s shaky stance. With a loud grunt and a strong heave, Amir had Brom off his feet and falling to the hardwood stage. Landing flat on his back, gravity pressed the air from Brom’s lungs. His sword spun off stage. During the panic of trying to catch his breath, Amir dove onto Brom, pinning him down. The Count moved to the edge of the stage closest to them.
“How many weapons do you carry with you, Bromley?” the Count asked. Clinching his right fist, Brom arched his back, throwing Amir off balance. Amir quickly blocked Brom’s right jab but was blindsided by a crushing left hook.
Amir’s mask flew off as he rolled to the opposite edge of the rectangular stage. Blood flowed from his nostrils and down his cheeks. The crowd fell silent. Amir sat dazed. Brom jumped to his feet and assumed a solid fighting posture.
Amir blinked several times at Brom and chuckled. He stood and wiped the blood from his nose. Amir’s chuckle turned into a guffaw. Confused, Brom returned the guffaw as Amir threw his arm over Brom’s shoulders and smacked his chest with a hearty thump.
“Your swordsmanship could use some tuning but if an ox had fists, he wouldn’t hit half as hard as you,” Amir said cheerfully.
Count Varro strolled down a long corridor with his hands clasped behind his back. Paintings of battles and famous knights of the past lined both walls. Though he had walked past these paintings many times before, Varro inspected them closely as he walked. The painters managed to capture the drama of each scene. He paused in front of Master Fieldur and his legendary battle with the lindworm on the sea cliffs of Ska’al. The knight had driven his lance through the serpent’s heart from horseback. The painter captured Master Fieldur’s triumphant expression just before the lindworm dragged him and his horse over the cliff’s edge and into the sea.
Varro continued to another of his favorite paintings: DuPonte and the changeling. The monster had taken on DuPonte’s form and sat down to dine with his family. Varro stepped closer. The rage on DuPonte’s face as he swung his axe down on the monster was superb. Varro couldn’t imagine the skill such a lifelike expression would require to paint. Then, his eyes moved to DuPonte’s family. Though they appeared surprised and frightened, Varro didn’t believe their emotions had been fully captured. Their faces seemed flat. They felt like a painting and not like people. Perhaps the same effort and detail was not put forth by the painter.
Continuing, Varro passed Phillipe and the Succubus, Thanic’s Five and the Minotaur, and Lars and the Banshee. He reached Headmaster Fray’s door and knocked.
“Just a moment, Count,” Fray called from inside.
“Take your time, my lord,” Varro called in return. He clasped his hands behind his back again and strolled to the painting across from the door. The Trial and Execution of the Necromancer Simon Aldus. The painting showed Simon burning at the stake as Master Lancaster read his crimes to the mob in village square. The fire illuminated the knights who had run down and captured the criminal. Varro leaned in to try to pick out Headmaster Fray. He had been a young knight at the time and this was his first hunt. A young man caught Varro’s eye. He looked exactly how Varro imagined a young Fray would look. The Count inspected the boy for several moments. It appeared as if the boy had been crying. Not blubbering or wailing, but tears on an otherwise stoic face.
The door opened behind Count Varro and the Order’s physician walked out. Headmaster Fray stood in the doorway and beckoned Varro in with a warm smile and an upturned hand.
“I hope all is well,” Varro said as his eyes followed the physician down the hall.
“It is nothing,” Fray reassured. “Just an examination.”
The old man closed the door behind Varro and made his way to his desk. A map of the New World lay unfurled on the ebony desktop.
“Count Varro, I have asked you to visit me tonight because I have a mission for you and your men.” The headmaster took a sip from a steaming mug and sat down, gesturing for Varro to do the same. Only two lanterns and several small candles lit the room. A room of that size required more, but Fray preferred the dim light. The old man leaned forward and pointed to a small island off the southern coast of colonial Brenar.
“I need you to go to Delwhick. The island is small, mostly inhabited by farmers and miners. The port, Adeline, acts as a resupply depot and a trading port for goods going in and coming out of the mainland colonies. They have no regular army garrison. The troops are in use elsewhere.”
Fray paused to take another sip.
“They may have experienced a rather sad case of suspected witchcraft.”
“Witchcraft?” Varro hushed his exclamation.
Fray pursed his lips and nodded solemnly.
“I received a letter this morning from a Mrs. Alana Fritz. Her husband was a member of the local council and died last year. She took his seat on the board and is asking for our help.”
“Headmaster.” Varro sat forward folding his hands on the desk. “We are soldiers, heavy cavalry. We have a war to fight. We have no time to get involved in local witch trials.”
Fray pressed his index fingers together before further explaining the situation. “If we do not respond, then who would answer the call? We belong to an order that once specialized in helping people with the supernatural. Though the need has dwindled quite a bit, we are still required for our original purpose. In this case, I need you to discern whether or not there was indeed witchcraft practiced, or if a little girl has been executed out of suspicion. If dark forces are in play, we could have bigger issues. If not, I need you to bring swift justice to those responsible. We are coming out of an age of deep superstition and I want it to die sooner rather than later so that these false witch hunts can die with it. I trust you in this matter.”
“I thought creatures of night were gone from this world. The Knights of Apollo have not been needed for a hunt in over half a century.”
“No,” Fray corrected. “Just because the Order of Apollo had not been called to duty does not mean these evil things are gone. It only means they have not been stirring up trouble where our long arms may reach. For example, A young Emperor Cedric Leone, obsessed with the occult, went against his father’s mistrust of magic and took nine warlocks as his closest advisors.”
Varro’s eyes widened and he licked his lips nervously. “Could a warlock have something to do with this?”
“Hard to say.” The old man sat back and stroked his beard with a wrinkled hand. “The warlocks have never strayed too far from their master. No one outside the Palace of LaRea has seen them for decades. Not many would want to, I imagine. If a warlock was involved, it would indicate the island holds greater value than the mines and moderate commerce. But if a warlock is not involved, they soon will be. Leone’s lust for items of power would lead him to investigate any indication of the unnatural.”
“The island could be a military target due to the demand of saltpeter and sulfur. Most of the gunpowder in the colonies came through Adeline. It would not surprise me if the Emperor sent one of his dogs to disrupt the operation. This peculiar incident, however, did not affect productivity in any way other than spreading fear amongst the island’s inhabitants. I believe it is the fear of many that killed that poor little girl.”
Part of him didn’t want to hear what atrocities had taken place, but Varro needed to know the details. His eyes narrowed as Fray continued.
“The report states that a little girl dug up her dead father, breathed life back into his lungs then sent him to kill her family. He threw her little brother down a well then killed her mother with a spade. The abomination disappeared. The little girl was hung the next morning for practicing witchcraft. There is much more to be discovered. I am sure of it.”
Varro sat back with a sigh. The war-hardened fighter never lost the soft spot in his heart for children.
“I have looked into the island itself,” Fray said pulling a stack of papers from under the map. “History of Delwhick states that the natives who used to inhabit the island had experienced mysterious incidents like this in the past. Mothers drowning their babies, braves killing their children, blood rain. That sort of thing. All of which had fallen into folklore until several years ago. The entire tribe was killed in their sleep by a single brave.”
Varro exhaled a long breath. All the stories of the Order he had read, all those paintings outside, all became too real in that moment. Varro sat up straight and tugged at the bottom of his jacket to smooth the fabric.
“When shall we depart?” Varro asked determinedly.
“I have made preparations for the Marion and the Albatross to sail you and your men there. I’m sending you with two ships so that you may send one back with a message once you have found out what has been happening. They should arrive here within the week. I want you to remain there until this crisis is resolved. No delegations. Make this your personal responsibility. If there is a warlock involved, kill it by any means necessary. Who will you take with you?”
“I will take Sergeant Brutus Fane, Sergeant Amir and of course Lieutenant Jorn Fitzand. I will also take the new recruits to blood their blade early.” Varro spoke confidently, almost puffing his chest out as he did so. “We will solve this problem promptly.”
“I would like you to also bring Master Salvo. He helped me with my research on the island’s history and this issue interests him greatly. Bring some rifles. I want to hear of their effectiveness in the field. The marines garrisoned on each of the vessels are also at your disposal as auxiliaries if the need arises.” Fray folded his fingers and looked very seriously across the desk into Varro’s eyes. “I want this taken care of, be smart. Be careful. Remember your training, your oaths and your courage. Return home safely.”