Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chapter 17: The Priestess

     Captain Frayg was examining the scene in the stables behind the Seabreeze tavern when she walked in. There was some considerable noise outside, as someone of her stature never traveled, even only so little distance as that between the Cathedral and the river, without an honor guard as escort.
     She was a short woman in flowing white robes and a white cloak with a wimple. She wore a belt of silver and gold and a silver chain diadem with a golden sunburst that dangled on her forehead. She also wore a white veil. She was preceded by two men in burnished bronze mail with white tabards also bearing the sign of Sol before she strode into the stables as if she owned them and the whole city around them.
     She had large dark eyes. and was dark of complexion, but the rest of her features were difficult to make out.
     "Who is the man who thinks he is in charge here?" She demanded almost as soon as she had entered.
     Frayg looked at her flatly. This was going to take some finesse, and he didn't feel particularly diplomatic this morning, considering he now had a second body – this one a woman's – missing its eyes and brain. Just keep your wits about you, and remember to act deferential. He approached the woman and bowed to her.
     "I'm Captain Hambelton Frayg of the City Watch of Ayrst, Your Eminence. I've been assigned to this location."
     "Very well." She looked at him appraisingly. "I am Archpriestess Halissa MacMorgen, Prime Examiner of the Temple of Invincible Light. I've been told there are signs of Witchcraft here."
     Not only a Witch Finder, but the highest ranked Witch Finder in the entire bloody Temple! Frayg grew concerned. Why would someone of such high office concern herself over this?
     "Pardon, Your Eminence, but I've seen no such evidence. As far as I can tell, we have a simple case of …" He hesitated, searching for the correct words.
     "Murder. You may speak the word freely without offense to my person."
     "If it please Your Eminence."
     "The event does not, but direct communication does."
     Frayg bowed, and the priestess continued. "So who is the victim in this case, Captain?"
     "We aren't sure yet. Your Eminence. That is to say, it's a young woman, but we don't know her name. We have men questioning the patrons of the Tavern, but we haven't much hope."
     "What about the stablehands?"
     "They've already been questioned. They claim not to have seen the victim enter the stable. In fact, they claim that no one entered this particular stable all evening. It's mostly used for storage and houses the proprietor's – that's Mistress Arya Seefer – it's where she keeps her two horses. Other horses, whether for sale or boarding are kept in the larger stables."
     "And what about the state of the corpse."
     "Well, it's rather shocking, Your Emi-"
     "Nothing shocks me, Captain. In the execution of my office I've seen things which would no doubt give you more than a few sleepless nights."
     "As you say, Your Eminence."
     She turned to her honor guard. "You two step outside and guard the doors. The good captain and I will have a look here. See to it that we're not disturbed." The two men saluted her, arms across their chest, and stepped into the stable yard.
     "Now, Captain Frayg, take me to the corpse."
     Frayg led the way to the end of the stalls where the last one to the left was open. There, in a pile of straw was the body of Aliquah. Her empty eye sockets stared blackly up at the ceiling. There was dried blood all over the straw.
     "You've seen something like this before, Captain?"
     "Your Eminence?"
     "Please, Captain, you may call me Halissa. Titles and honorifics can resume in public."
     "Thank you … Halissa. And please call me Frayg. Or Ham, if you'd prefer, though only a few friends call me by that."
     "Well, I wish for us to be friends, Ham, because I have a feeling we'll be seeing a bit of one another until we find out who is behind this abominable act."
     "As it pleases you."
     "Now answer the question. Have you seen this before?"
     "Yes. Just two days ago, in fact. There was another … murder. The last was a young man, and his eyes and brain were also missing."
     "And what are the differences besides the sex of the victim?"
     "Firstly, the man was found inside an inn – the Carter's Rest – in one of the upstairs rooms. His purse was missing, as well. As you can see, this victim still has hers, though it is empty."
     "Well, the other victim was tied to the bed. There was no sign of a struggle or of forced entry." He indicated the disheveled state of the stall. "As you can see here, there appears to have been a fight. The young man was nearly disemboweled, but this woman has only a wound to the back of her head – aside from the missing eyes and brain, that is to say."
     "Now, tell me Ham, why do you suppose anyone would take the eyes and brain of these two young people?"
     "I haven't the slightest idea ... er, Halissa. I expect that there may be some very evil purpose behind it. Some sort of Dark Rituals, perhaps? I have no knowledge of such things myself, but as you spend your days seeking out the sort of people who do, I suppose your presence here is just such an indication."
     "Very good, Ham. Now tell me what you know of the other victim. Who was he?"
     "His name was Nodge Prayner. He was the son of the Baker over on The High Street at Farm Street."
     "And he was at the Carter's Rest alone? Or was he with a group of friends? Wait. If he was that close to home, but let a room for the night, I think I can come to a conclusion. He was either preparing to leave home, and didn't know where he wanted to go, or, more likely, he'd found some companionship of the carnal variety, and likely didn't want to bring her home to meet his parents. Perhaps a whore?"
     "Several witnesses did see him dancing with a woman that night. Though they all agreed she was dressed too well for a ... Prostitute. The serving girl who saw the pair of them to the room said the woman was very pretty and very well dressed. But there was little sign of her in the morning."
     "Hmm. That's interesting. Assuming the same murderer in both cases – and considering the situation, I think it's safe to do so – he certainly has no compunction against killing women. So, did he take the woman to another location? Do you have any idea who she might be?"
     "Unfortunately, no. We have a good description of her, and a few witnesses who claim they would know her if they saw her again, but that is all."
     "What is the description, then, if you would indulge me, please?"
     "Well we know she is shorter than average and has very dark brown hair and eyes – one witness described them as the color of chocolate. She's young, but not as young as the victims. Apparently she dances well and likes to drink red wine. That, unfortunately, is all we have to go on."
     "Do you think that's enough? In a city the size of Ayrst there are bound to be a large number of women who could fit the description."
     "Unfortunately, yes. In fact I've already met one, but I don't expect it was her."
     "Make that two." Halissa pulled the wimple from her head, revealing her long dark hair. "I suspect I'm even about the right height."
     Frayg frowned at her. "Hmph. I see your point."
     "In any case, I suspect we'll find her in a condition similar to this one."
     "Unless she committed the act herself."
     "Wait. You suspect the woman of having murdered the young man?"
     "Not necessarily. I wouldn't cross her off a list of suspects yet, though. As far as we know, she was the only one with him, and then she went out the window."
     "The window?"
     "Yes. She wore a green corset that night. The window to the boy's room was open and, as I said, there was no sign of forced entry. However, when I examined the exterior of the building from the alley I found fibers matching the corset's description on the drain pipe. I believe she climbed out that way."
     "That's very interesting." She frowned. I'll have to destroy that corset when I get back. "So, if she is your suspect, I suppose we're looking for the same woman in this case, yes?"
     "Most likely, though I wouldn't stake my life on it."
     "How do you mean?"
     "If your suspicions are correct, and the eyes and brains are needed for some sort of Dark Magicks, then isn't it likely we're dealing with some sort of band of … witches, or whatever they are?"
     "A coven of witches. I would expect them to be a very small coven, though. We Inquisitors are very good at finding them, and when we do we are also very good at getting them to tell us how to find their brethren."
     "I see." Frayg hesitated before adding, "That's comforting to know."
     "As it should be, Ham. We are the bastion which protects Palonias from the worst kind of enemy: the Darkness Within."
     Frayg bowed. "As you say, Halissa."
     "Now, take me through this scene here. Like you I'm an investigator, but my investigations are not usually of the physical variety. I get my clues from the mind of the perpetrator and from The One."
     "As you wish. First, as I pointed out, the victim suffered a blow to the head, though there appears to have been a struggle first." He walked over to one of the bales of hay and pointed behind it. "There is a broken bottle and a broken glass here. They were drinking mead."
     "It appears as though the victim was lured here by the someone. The Seabreeze was crowded last night, so they must have come out here for a little private party. This is similar to the story at the Carter's Rest. If the woman is involved, she must try to get her victims off their guard and to an isolated location."
     "You believe the same woman may have lured this girl out here for a drink?"
     "It's possible. Or perhaps it was a young man operating in the same method."
     "That is really all we'll know until we're finished questioning the other patrons."
     Halissa bent over and reached behind another of the bales. From behind it she pulled out a small crystal. It glowed with an amber light. She held it up for Frayg's inspection.
     "And what do you suppose this is, Ham?"
     He blinked, startled. That wasn't here a moment ago. I would have seen that.
     "I … is that a Witch Crystal?"
     "Yes. What do you know of them?"
     "Very little, I'm afraid. Isn't that your area of expertise?"
     "Yes it is, and its presence here confirms my suspicions. There is some manner of witchcraft involved here."
     "And that is proof?"
     "Yes. These crystals do not form naturally. Oh, they come from natural sources, but a crystal such as this one is shaped and treated using the Darkest of Dark Magicks. I will need your help." She began pulling her wimple over her head and refitting her veil.
     "I''m at your service."
     "You're not going to like this, Captain Frayg, but I am taking charge of your investigation. I would still like you to lead it as usual, but I need to be informed of all progress, and I may need to make decisions you will not like. Is that understood?"
     "Yes." Frayg stiffened. Back to titles, I see. "Yes, Your Eminence."
     One of the Archpriestess's Honor Guard entered and bowed.
     "What is it?" She asked impatiently.
     "Your Eminence. One of the watchmen has asked permission to enter."
     "I suppose we're done here. Let him in."
     The guard bowed again and left them.
     Halissa turned back to Frayg. "Do you suppose they have some information for us?"
     "Let us hope."
     The guard entered somewhat nervously. On seeing the Archpriestess, he bowed low, before he began.
     "Pardon me, sir, I didn't like to interrupt, but we have an identity on the … the body, sir."
     "Please tell us then," Halissa said sweetly. Frayg merely nodded.
     "Her name was Aliquah Namadar."
     Frayg closed his eyes. Just great, he thought. A nobleman's daughter. He sighed heavily before opening his eyes again. "Anything else?"
     "Yes, sir. Some of the other patrons knew her. They said they saw her go off with a woman. And one of the serving girls described the woman as being very generous – said she'd paid two gold marks for a bottle of mead ..."
     The Archpriestess interrupted, "Thank You, Watchman."
     Both men looked at her in some surprise, before she continued, "I must be going, as many duties call. However, I expect to be kept up to date on the investigation, Captain Frayg."
     "Yes, Your Eminence. How should I go about that?"
     "You may send reports to the Cathedral. If I have anything of interest to tell you in return I shall send you a note or a page."
     "As you wish, Your Eminence."
     With that, she swept from the stable. The guard let out a sigh of relief.
     "It's OK, Alpert." Frayg smiled. "She made me nervous, too. Woman like that ... makes everyone nervous."