“Burn the witch!” An out crier shouted with furious passion.
“Sorceress please,” L’Vorna shouted aloud. “If you’re gonna go through with it … May as well get it right.”
L’vorna was bound to a twelve foot stake of oak by rope and chain. She dangled face down, carried through a vicious and angry mob. Her last views before immolation to be the muddy ground of some backwater town at the edge of the Jade Highlands.
She hadn’t caught a good view of them yet. A thought that put a sour taste of disappointment in her mouth, having been caught unawares in the middle of her sleep. The sour taste grew as she realized that she was being paraded through town in just her sheer nightwear. But with every step they traveled, her long scarlet hair swayed like weighted curtains; offering her a glimpse of her captors; a cadre of five men.
One was at vanguard, the leader she presumed. He led their way through the hordes of villagers with a certain confidence, as if he had been through this before. Two carried her stake and the others brought up the rear. They were well armed and well armored. They carried themselves as trained men, never moving their hands too far from the hilt of their swords. Not out of fear, but practice and vigilance. They wore breastplates underneath their dark jackets; a telltale sign of highwaymen.
“…turned mercenaries no doubt,” she strained to think to herself. The incessant roaring of the mob nearly deafened her mind as well as her pointed ears.
Her voyage came to a halt and the man carrying the end of the stake near her head lowered her down. Her feet began to rise upward, gradually sending her blood rolling toward her skull. She blinked a few times, her eyes trying to adjust from the dark of night and muddy ground to the sea of torches before her. She pondered for a bit, wondering what would be more intimidating the glares from the mob or the torches foreshadowing the near future.
“Damn that owl,” she thought. “Why didn’t he alert me?”
She scanned the roaring crowd and sky, as best she could from her position. The sky yielded no fruit, but as her eyes passed over the leader of the mercenaries she noticed something peculiar tucked inside his jacket… Just behind his left lapel, was a silver device that resembled a large pocket watch.
“Well that explains a lot…” She thought as her cool exterior swiftly washed away. “Haven’t seen one of those in ages. They’re Hunters…”
Just as her mind began to wonder, the mercenary leader began to speak. He raised his hands upward or downward as L’Vorna saw it, seeking to muffle the crowd, if only just to hear himself think. She was grateful for that even if he meant to burn her alive.
“People of Jade Creek, great citizens of the Republic,” he began as the mob stifled their rage and his men started to stack wood beneath her head. “We bring before you the witch harboring amidst you and vanquisher of your nearest kin: the town of Wheaton!” Exclamatory yells crying for murder and justice book-ended his statement like a period at the end of a sentence. He raised his hands up high again, quieting the crowd.
“State your name witch, so that it may be marked for the record like a bloodstain on the pages of history.”
“Wheaton?” L’Vorna asked. “This is about Wheaton?”
“Your name and your name only witch!” One of the stake carriers lunged the hilt of his blade deep in to L’Vorna’s gut. She curled over, as much as her restraints would allow and let loose a painful gasp.
“I … had nothing to do with the burning of Wheaton,” she said with strain. “I tried to stop it.”
“Really?” The leader asked mockingly. “Then who did?”
L’Vorna looked forward out in to the crowd, straightening her neck and gritting her teeth behind her lips.
“It was a dragon,” she said barely believing the truth of her own words.
“A dragon, you say,” he continued. “Dragons haven’t been seen for over five hundred years. Your name is known to me witch; Lorna Vallen.”
“The name of a witch if there ever was one,” a woman shouted from the ground, ushering in an overwhelming amount of agreeing grunts and yells.
“My brother lived in Wheaton!” Another yelled from the mob. “Burn the witch!”
“If a dragon burned Wheaton to ash, you called it forth,” the leader shouted.
L’Vorna could hardly fault the hunter. Dragons have been gone in earnest for over two millennia. The last seen was the mother of all dragons, guardian of the last true Paladin. On that he was correct. But on L’Vorna summoning a dragon… On that he was not.
“Bring forth the witness lieutenant.”
In that moment L’Vorna remembered the girl. She was a young girl half L’Vorna’s age and strong of chin. Her skin was desert tan and her short jet black hair stopped just below her ears. A sixth hunter pulled her forward from within the crowd. L’Vorna saw the girl handle a sword better than most men and with an unparalleled certainty in every step. Even though she was being floundered about, L’Vorna could see in the girl’s gait that something was off.
“What did you do to her?” L’Vorna asked, examining the girl.
“This girl is the only survivor from Wheaton and bore witness to the witch’s attack,” the leader clamored. “Tell them girl, seal this witch’s fate!”
The crowd died down lower than it had since L’Vorna’s ordeal began. The air was ripe with anticipation.
“She did it…”
The mob roared.
“No,” L’Vorna thought. “Why would she lie? What could they have done to coerce her? Why would they do that?”
“She shouted a mighty incantation at the center of town!” The girl yelled, fueled by the crowd. “She spewed forth the beast from her mouth and burned the town and everyone within to ash!”
The mob’s fervor reached its peak in a loud amalgamation of violent cries and wrath fueled yells. The girl stoked their kindling flames of mad vengeance. A lone torch spiraled through the air. L’Vorna watched it twirl like a flaming baton signaling the beginning of the Great Race back in her hometown of Vahline. She watched the torch bounce and the flame jump to the dry wood at the base of her stake. The lead hunter glared at L’Vorna. She detected something in his gaze. Something beneath the black leather of his jacket and the grey spread of stubble on his chin.
“Pitty?” She pondered for the briefest of moments.
“Tonight you dine with Asata in Infernus.” He flagged his men and together they walked away from the brewing flames.
She felt the light leave the crowd and become a large wash that shined over her. She looked up to see a wave of torches rushing toward her like an infinite swarm of flaming locust.
“So this… is to be my final pyre,” she said looking through the ribbon of flames. She glanced down as the torches landed at the foot of her pyre. The blaze was already starting to pick up, she could feel the rising heat on her scalp. Her eyes met with the girl through the rising smoke and haze. L’Vorna felt anger and sympathy for the girl. Just as she thought to open her mouth to say goodbye, she noticed a peculiar glint in the girl’s eye. She strained her eyes to peer deeper, longing for the aid of her owl. But her innate vision proved to be enough. She saw it again; a gold speckle flickered across the girl’s left eye, like a sheen of oil on the surface of water. She immediately rationalized it as a reflection from the light of her impending immolation. But her erudite nature knew better.
It all became clear; her sudden capture, the Hunters, the girl’s false testimony. L’Vorna began to paint a vivid picture in her mind as she pieced everything together. Her decipher of the situation must have made a painting of its own across her visage, because the gold eyed being grinned with a leer of satisfaction. L’Vorna watched as it turned to make its exit through the crowd.
” It was able to maintain form, even within the presence of the Hunter” L’Vorna pondered as she looked around. Her eyes rolled through the rising smoke and ash. Just beyond the front row of the crowd she locked on to the lead Hunter, but more specifically the device he had stowed away under his coat. “I’ll show them a witch.” She thought. Her face let loose a devilish grin that quickly turned in to an ominous cackle.
“You would burn me at the stake?! You would attempt to cleanse me through flame?!”She began to berate and shout at the mob. The boom of her voice surmounted the churning flames encroaching upon her and the mob was driven to silence as if suddenly stricken with a chilled wind. “You fools, you’ve been played by an evil you couldn’t hope to defeat,” she continued as the flames started to take her. Within moments she was enveloped by fire. The flames seemed to bend around her, enlivened by her presence and passion. The spectacle caused several members of the crowd to step back and cower, including one of the Hunters. L’Vorna’s certain burst of verbal emotion caused the changeling girl to pause her exit and turn back toward the pyre. Its eyes widened amazed by the churning conflagration, then quickly narrowed to a piercing stare.
“Cleanse me by fire?” She chuckled as her rope binds burned off. “You know not the irony.”
From amidst the crowd the changeling released a roar that was as frightening as it was unnatural. The crescendo sounded like something akin to the horn of an agnimotive and a dying hound. Those closest to it parted in fear, creating a clear path to the pyre.
“The witch she summoned a demon to destroy us!” A civilian shouted from the crowd.
“Silver out men!” The lead Hunter bellowed.
The sharp sounds of ringing steel punctuated the roar, as the Hunters drew their blades and crossbows.
“What manner of beast is it?” A distressed Hunters asked, struggling to load a silver headed bolt.
“I don’t know…” the leader answered. “But we’re in for a fight.”