Chapter 27: Threats and Illusions
Withered, hard and brown.
Does the shell protect beauty?
Or is death within?
~ Miyara Miwa
We walked along the path north, reaching the dense forest of the ghost wood. We pushed our way through the tangled underbrush and burst into a clearing. The scraggly, black remains of a tree loomed over us, its burnt arms reaching into the sky. Someone had camped here recently. Ash first found the woman's scent, which started here and went south to where we found her. He found two other tracks, both headed north. We followed them.
A short while later, we came to another campsite; the tent was still there, although there were no people. The tent had not been there more than a day, Ash said, and the firepit had not been used yet. He cast around, and determined that the two others had left only within the last few minutes, mostly likely having heard us coming.
The track being so new, even I could follow it. We were so close that we decided to split into two groups: Ash, Kyosuke, and I could both follow the tracks and move very quietly as well, thus perhaps surprising them rather than warning them away again. The others could follow behind us a bit, but not too far behind.
Ash said one of the men had the same smell as the person he had smelled at the original site of the fake beastmen attack, and also at the graveyard. As for the unknown third scent, his tracks disappeared soon after we entered the woods. We all recalled Hosei's tale of an illusionist who could hide tracks and scents. We continue following the "beastman's" tracks, assuming they were probably still together, or at least not far from each other.
Initially, he was moving faster than we were, but we decided to continue to move slowly and quietly. He eventually slowed again, and we began to catch him.
Before long, we could see him, about 15 yards ahead, ducked down behind a tree, peeking out and waiting for us. We carefully made something resembling a plan with gestures: Kyosuke circled around behind him to the left, Ash circled to the right, and I moved slowly straight ahead, so that we would come upon him at about the same time from three different directions.
Having the shortest distance, I waited for them to get into position, and then saw the flaw in our plan: we were all trying to remain hidden, and so could not see each other's positions. At least for the most part: I could see Kyosuke, and I hoped our quarry did not.
I lost track of Ash, though I watched my cousin come up behind the man. As he quickly moved to wrap his arms around the man, I stood up, Kita drawn and ready. I could see what Kyosuke intended: hold his hands immobile and cover his mouth, and he would not be able to cast spells at us. A bold attempt, but he did not entirely succeed: Kyosuke had a firm hold on him, but did not completely immobilize his hands, nor was his mouth covered.
They struggled for a second, and Kyosuke succeeded before I could act. Ash and I both stepped in front of him, both of us holding our weapons threateningly, and I commanded him to stop his struggles.
Immediately, moving straight at Kyosuke over the man's shoulder, was a large, slavering, demonic, ghost-like apparition. I stared for a moment in horror, then realized it was just another illusion, of course. Ash, however, and Kyosuke both froze in shock.
The illusion attacked Kyosuke, and I could not see the sorcerer anymore. I struck at the apparition, and it disappeared at the first touch of Kita. Kyosuke stood still, a look of sheer terror on his face. For a moment, I wondered ... but he was indeed breathing.
The man attempted to flee between Ash and me, but Ash recovered quickly and struck him with his axe; bleeding, the man ran from us as fast as he could. I ran after him and sliced his back open, and he fell, screaming "Please don't kill me!", blood streaming from him. I yelled back to Ash to hunt around for the other man, and then I hit the man at my feet carefully with my hilt, sending him to sleep until Ravena caught up with us.
Ash could not find anything, and I said we would wait here until the others caught up, hoping that Hosei could find the other by some magical means.
A few seconds later, my cousin came back to himself and prostrated himself in front of me. I was in a quandary: I do not expect him to be able to ward himself against magic, not having any of those skills. But, we knew one of the men was an illusionist, and though the creature was truly horrific-looking, he should have realized it was nothing. Still, his inaction caused no harm. I declined to give him one of my blades, and he did not ask. I told him he would have to find a way to work off his dishonor, but for now, we had to remain vigilant against another, invisible sorcerer who was perhaps in the woods watching us.
As the man was bleeding on the forest floor, Kyosuke bound his wounds to stop the bleeding, and we bound and gagged him. The others had kept behind more than they meant, not being able to see us, and it was another twenty minutes before they finally appeared and I told them what had happened.
Hosei said our captive had recently been casting magic and he was carrying magic components, which he took charge of, as well as a license to cast magic under the name of Furederiku Hukenrathu. Hosei looked around us carefully, but he could not see anyone either. Even with a license, if I understand western laws, he was still liable for attacking us with magic. We dismantled the camp and took everything with us back to the village: we could question both him and the woman.
We found only one thing one does not normally find in camps, although we had expected to see it: a partly-used vial of manbane, which Ravena took into her care. She said there were still three or four more lethal doses in it. There were three sets of rather sparse equipment, and a woman was apparently one of them, again as we expected.
Ravena pointed out that if we took him back in his current condition, it would be at least a week or more before we would be able to speak with him: she would not be able to heal him with unnatural quickness in town, where others could not help but notice. Silly western barbarians: how can they possibly regard with suspicion such a talented healer? We paused long enough so that she could heal the worst of his wounds, ensuring we would be able to easily revive him there, and also that he would continue to heal normally but quickly on his own.
The village leader and the watch captain housed him in a cell separate from the woman, who was still unconscious. Hosei said if we bound his hands, covered his mouth, and watched him like a hawk, he would be unlikely to cast any spells. We followed his instructions, and Ravenna revived him.
He was consistent with his story: he was just collecting herbs to sell in Nulun. In fact, he babbled endlessly about the herbs he was looking for. When he took a breath, Ravenna said quietly that everything he had said was complete nonsense.
He changed his story only a little: he did not really know about herbs, but had been hired by a man named Martin. He was only following instructions. He admitted that Martin was the other person with him, but would not claim the woman as one of the group: he insisted they were only two, despite the fact we knew better. He also said he did not know the village doctor, and repeated that they were peacefully gathering herbs in the woods when beset by a mob. I believe he meant Kyosuke, Ash, and myself, although we are hardly enough to comprise a mob.
I tired of his lies, especially on those items we knew the truth of, and I tried a different tack. I told him that since he was telling us nothing useful, we could simply kill him now and talk to the woman when she woke up. He glanced at the village leader and the watch captain; they said nothing to contradict me. Ash eagerly pulled out an axe. I did not wish to fell him in such a way: I am not an executioner. But he did not know that: in his eyes, I must have looked quite frightening, my scarred face looking at him grimly, looming over him with Kita ready to drink his blood.
Now fearing for his life, he desperately looked around at anyone who looked more sympathetic than I did (everyone there, I would think), and finally pled to the watch captain, "Please do not let them kill me".
The watch captain, looking a little uncomfortable with the situation, said that of course he would not let us kill him there. Before our prisoner could relax, he continued, "Since we have no evidence against you, we cannot keep you in jail and will release you."
That I could work with. I smiled, and the man flinched. I told him we would be waiting for him outside. He continued pleading for his life, and I told him if he would answer our questions, he would be useful and we would not kill him.
Although he was clearly terrified, he would not change his story, and I grew very weary of chasing him in circles. He insisted he knew nothing about anything. We asked about the skeletons, about the beastmen, about the vampire, about the springwort. Then someone asked him about the girl who had fallen on the stump, and that accident proved the key: he simply fell apart.
Sobbing, he said he had nothing to do with her death and thought Martin had been responsible. He did not know why he would do anything so horrible. He said he would tell us everything, and begged that we believe him about the girl's death.
Gerig and Martin had hired him and the others to scare the villagers into leaving, but he stressed repeatedly that no one was supposed to get hurt. Everything was illusion. But the girl's death ended it all. He was horrified, and the woman, who had just been a hired hand, accused Martin of killing the girl, whereupon Martin, angry, had poisoned the woman.
He thought the reason behind the conspiracy was for Martin and Gerig to buy property in the town inexpensively, after driving everyone away. This man had been hired to create frightening illusions, and Martin had given him an enchanted ring to raise the dead with. Rebelling against the increasingly deadly tactics, though, he specifically told the skeletons not to attack anyone, which explained their odd behaviour.
Closing all the loopholes, he said they had dumped red dye in the river, Sutami put the springwort in the water barrels, and Martin had enchanted boots that allowed him to leave no tracks behind him.
We had the story and the guilty parties, but still had to gather the others: Gerig first. I asked the village leader what to do with this wretch, and he said he would send to Nulun for people to take him and the others back there for a trial. Unless we wanted the job, of course. I immediately turned that down: none of us had the slightest interest in traveling to Nulun, and I refuse to become a jailer on top of everything else.