"I can certainly see why and how your friend would get lost in this labyrinth of a city," said Sorano to Rhiara, as they carefully trod side-by-side down the cobblestone streets. "All the better to delay besieging armies, not so fortuitous for the non-native traveler. If only the bastard nobility would let us open a chapter here, I might have more familiarity."
"I'm completely out of my depth in a city like this." Rhiara sighed as she looked around at the buildings she and Sorano walked past. She had never seen so many inns and taverns all in one place before. "Athaliah is, too. We're both from this cute little village up north, and... well, Viarosa is something else entirely." she shrugged. "Why won't the nobles let your order set up here, anyway? I thought most people would have appreciated their own holy order on their doorstep."
The Sun Elf let out a hearty chuckle, shaking his head. "Viarosa is the See of the Patriarchate of Celestis. This city, like much of Foveros, is very orthodox in thought. Our Order is understood to be 'heretical' for our faith in our Grandmaster. The more zealous types disregard our benevolence and condemn our beliefs," he explained. "Or, at least, those who pretend to be zealous. He who puts on airs of holiness for appearance's sake alone, you know the sort. Did you see how easily that hypocrite fop Demetrios was purchased by our Lord? Oh, Lucian told me everything; arrogant leech let us walk right through the gate, betraying whatever God he says he prays to, and besmirching his position and responsibilities for thirty silver an 'entrance fee.' If you didn't see it, you can ask him to confirm when we get back," he said, rolling his eyes in disgust, though not at Rhiara. He had a special distaste for men of false faith.
Rhiara ran a hand through her snowy hair, somewhat uncomfortable with the discussion. She had seen and heard of plenty of injustice in the world in the short time she had been out of Hoffen, but she still tried her best to be optimistic. "W-well... maybe that entrance fee goes towards running the city. Or maybe he spends it on making his family happy. People need any bit of joy they can find, especially now. Lysandra knows that there's already enough negativity in the world."
Sorano paused a beat, sighing sadly. For once, a tiny smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he looked over to Rhiara. "If only the world were so innocent. You saw how he clothed himself, how he walked and gesticulated, how he surrounds himself with gossipers and harlots, whom he needs to provide him his ego he himself cannot sustain alone. He took that money and pocketed it for no other reason than to have it," he replied. He shrugged to himself, and added, "His kind would argue that perhaps that's how things have to be, that life is about those who can merely survive, and those who cannot. Those above, and those below, who serve to prop up those who are born above, or slither into their status."
He pursed his lips, stroking his hairless chin thoughtfully. "And maybe there's truth to that. But I ask you to consider, how much darker the world would become if every man and woman felt this way. If there's anything Lucian has taught me, lass, it's that people like you are lamps; the Light of Solanius burns brightly in people who think in ought-to-be's, for hope is fostered in people such as these. And when you lend a lamp's flame to another wick, the flame is never lessened. True love and happiness never decrease by being shared, and when many lamps burn brightly, they illumine the darkest of rooms. What good is it, then, that men should yearn to snuff the flames of one another, all for the sake of being able to say they are the brightest flame burning?"
Though he clearly enjoyed musing like this, he quickly realized where he was, who he was with, and what he was doing, and his expression fell. "My apologies, for getting carried away on a sermon undesired."
Rhiara fell silent, and simply nodded as the elf spoke. "Don't worry about it, Sorano. You've... you've given me quite a bit to think about." She really did spend time thinking about what he had said as they continued their journey; she was glad that she could affect others' lives for the better if she tried.
"My response was the same when it was Lucian doing the talking," Sorano said with a genial laugh. "This is the sort of thing that got me to join the Order, personally. But alas I've digressed too long; let us focus on finding the others." And so he fell silent, turning his attention on his surroundings. As they came to the end of the street, they could hear a growing commotion not too far from them. Sorano held his arm out to stop Rhiara, his ears twitching as he looked for the direction of the shouting.
He began following the clamoring voices, turning the corner to spot a tavern with a wooden sign bearing the image of a jovial looking bard holding a fiddle. An audience gathered outside as four figures were marched out the door, secured by peasants, seemingly led by an imposing, pale man. Athaliah, Mostafa, Ceara, and... someone Sorano didn't recognize, but figured was probably involved in whatever just happened in there. As the gathering stopped in the street outside, a growing crowd of peasants emerging from their houses, the pale man stepped atop a conveniently discarded crate, placing him well above even the tallest of his audience. "Good and faithful citizens of Viarosa, hear me!" he shouted, his voice gruff and commanding. "Before you stand four heathens, who sought and plotted to consort with the demons of the Infernum for their own nefarious ends, placing at dire risk the entire realm of mankind! For this most detestable crime against humanity and against blessed Calidorus himself, there can be no acceptable punishment but death! Death, by the fires of Calidorus that they might purge these sinners of the foul taint of the arcane!" Hopping down from his makeshift platform, the witch hunter took a bottle of clear liquid out of the hands of the nearby barkeep, uncorking it with his teeth and taking a step towards the four condemned.
"Sorano!" Rhiara whispered, but hopefully loud enough for the elf to hear her. She pulled her bow off her body, now really thankful that she had brought it and a few arrows along. "What do we do? I could put an arrow in him, but..." she trailed off, looking at the crowd surrounding her friends and the man that was about to kill them. "That'd prove what everyone already thinks."
"Nock an arrow and hide. If I need your assistance I will whistle. I must first win the mob," he muttered to her. As she moved to comply, he stepped forwards into view of the pale man and the mob.
"Enough! Those four are not guilty of your charges, you accursed dogmatist! That you would immolate supposed heathens on a whim, you are no better than the Easterners who menace us for the same!" Sorano cried, jabbing an accusatory finger towards the man, the digit crackling with lightning.
The witch hunter glared, recognising Sorano's efforts to sway the assembled peasantry and noticing the arcane electricity which danced about his finger. "And lo!" he shouted, drawing the attention of the crowd once more. "Behold, a dark elven mage, come to meddle in the justice of man! To threaten good and faithful citizens, to sow the seeds of doubt in their - in your - minds! People of Viarosa, will we stand for such heresy?! Will we allow evil sorcerors to rescue those who would call demons forth upon us?!" A resounding "No!" came back from the mob. Gottmar turned to face the elf. "You were not present when I heard these four discuss their intentions. Yet, in a startling coincidence, you are present now to assure me of their innocence? What possible explanation could there be, other than the fact that you are their co-conspirator?!" More shouts erupted from the peasants; cheers for the witch hunter and insults and threats hurled at Sorano.
"Oi! Wait a second," cried one of the peasants, pointing curiously at Sorano. "That's not a shadow elf. Shadow elves got skin black like charcoal. 'Is skin is like piss," he observed. "Innit the Darkies that are in with the devils?"
Sorano seized the opportunity to elaborate on his unlikely and unwitting ally's case, ignoring the piss-skin comment for the time being. "Indeed I am a Sun Elf, a loyal and blessed child of Acanthio, God of Magic, Father of Elvenkind. But foremost I am a follower of our Lord Solanius, Light of Light, God of Gods. And it is chief among his Commandments that we judge righteously! Do you know not of the evidence for his charge? Has he shown you, or has he merely captivated you with honeyed words? This man is a would-be-murderer in the clothing of a guardian, who beguiles you, who ignites a blaze of your sensibilities! For I am here not because I am a co-conspirator, but because I am their friend, and I can vouch for their innocence!"
Seeing the expressions of doubt on a few of the peasants' faces, Athaliah decided to join in too - if they could turn the common people against the scarred man, she and the others would have a very good chance of living. "Calidorus is a god not only of mankind, but of law and honour!" the dark-haired girl began, shouting as loud as she was able. "Is it honourable and lawful to kill people based on nothing more than a conversation, and without even the mention of a fair trial?!" she turned to the captor himself, glaring at him with anger and contempt. "You follow Calidorus only when it suits you, murderer." she practically spat her words at him. "How many families have you torn apart because somone just so much as uttered the word 'demon'?!"
"Enough!" the witch hunter roared, unbridled rage rising upon his scarred face. "How dare you call into question my faith in blessed Calidorus! It is unwavering; unfaltering!" Gottmar raised his sword, brandishing it at Athaliah, and with his other hand drew his short falchion. He turned to the peasants who restrained the accused. "Release them, citizens. I shall duel them myself, one after the other, and let Calidorus decide which of us deserves his favour!"
A low murmuring could be heard from the crowd as the peasants hesitated, before a few stepped up to fulfill the witch hunter's order, pulling the four captives off to the side to secure them. At this point, a protest had begun to emerge from the crowd, whisperings of "unfair," and "hypocrite" bubbling up.
Sorano let off a proud chuckle, rolling his head to the side, cracking his neck as he stepped forwards. He made the sign of Solanius over himself with one hand, drawing his broadsword in the other. "Mother Aurelia, pray for our souls," he said, flourishing the blade, taking a few practice swipes. He spoke up, loudly enough to be heard by the audience. "I shall be the first to duel. Shall we take this to the death?" he asked.
"The prayers of a common whore won't save you, heretic." Gottmar nodded. "But if death is what you wish for," He made the sign of Calidorus across his chest with the tip of his blade. "For your sake, let us pray that you are granted a swifter end than the pyre."
"A rich statement coming from a man mere skin shades away from being a proper Easterner," Sorano replied with a wry smirk. "The divide between your blasphemy and the worship of the Flame grows thinner with every innocent life falsely accused and taken by your kind, 'Witch Hunter.' You stand between me and the last shred of hope this world has for surviving Htraknu's wrath. But I'll ensure you receive a proper burial."
At the mentioning of Htraknu, those peasants who had begun doubting Gottmar cast wicked glares at the pale man, appearing to study their environments as whispers could be heard from that half of the mob that was being won over.
And as they deliberated, the clapping of thunder boomed through the square as Sorano stepped forwards, skipping a considerable distance to meet Gottmar head on, attempting a single-handed swipe at the base of the neck. The hunter had anticipated sorcery, stepping back as the elf used his arcane craft to close the distance between them and ducking under his swing. From almost a crouch, Gottmar barreled into Sorano's torso with all the force he could muster, bringing his falchion around to swipe at the mage's side.
The elf's lungs emptied as the armored warrior charged into him, sweeping him off his feet. As he landed on his back, he saw the pale man attempting to slash him across the middle, likely to try and gut him. Lifting up a hand as if to vainly attempt to stop the blade or cry mercy, instead a pulse of lightning fired off, striking his cuirass.
As Sorano recovered, shouting could be heard as the peasants began to fight amongst themselves, pulling on each other, shoving others away, with some now attempting to strike their opponents. A couple of freemen in the crowd ran to the four captives with knives, but instead of taking "justice" into their own hands, they moved behind them to cut the ropes of Athaliah and Mostafa, who stood side by side, closest to the rioters. And as the ropes came loose, peasants on the side of Gottmar clubbed the two rescuers, striking them over the head with stones, presumably plucked from the misshapen street, screaming about not letting the witches escape.
The sudden burst of lightning crackled around the witch hunter's metal armour, protecting him for the most part from the brunt of its energy. Still, sparks flew in front of his face and small bolts of electricity arced onto his skin, forcing him to release the elf and jump back. Growling, he blinked to clear his vision, before launching a thrust with the tip of his sword directly at the elf's chest.
Sorano deftly swung his blade, misdirecting the human's weapon to safely sidestep away. "Athaliah, get the papers!" he cried, thrusting his fist forwards and attempting to strike Gottmar with the crossguard to push him away. "Bard, grab the others and run!"
As he gave this order, he let out a shrill whistle, no doubt signalling Rhiara to offer aid. It was only a matter of time before someone tipped off the city guard, so the party had to act quickly to retrieve the objective and escape the scene.
Now that he was free, and the others were distracted by the ongoing brawl, Mostafa could see to his companions. He pulled Ceara with one hand and Mortimir with the other, rushing them into the empty tavern and seeing to their bonds.
Athaliah, once freed from her bonds, immediately ran towards the tavern. The only thing standing between her and Bjorn's notes was a wooden door, closed and probably locked. She steeled herself and shoulder-barged the door with all the power she had - the door flung open and Athaliah found herself on the hard and slightly sticky wooden floor. As it turned out, the door wasn't actually locked.
She groaned as she rose to her feet; her shoulder was beginning to bruise. Bjorn's notes were resting on the table where they were sat before all this happened. Their enemy mustn't have found them worth bothering with, she assumed.
Upon hearing Sorano's whistle, Rhiara emerged from her hiding spot, on a balcony overlooking the street. She had already nocked an arrow, prepared to make sure the group could escape.
Athaliah was outside once more, with the papers in one hand and her sword in the other; a few townsfolk that followed Gottmar stood in her way, armed with shivs while one man held a simple woodcutter's axe. She cut one down as he ran towards her, axe raised high above his head. Another two got behind her - Athaliah barely blocked one knife in time, but another was making its way to her chest.
She prepared herself for pain that never came; the blade merely scratched Athaliah's cuirass as the peasant fell forwards with a pained grunt, an arrow lodged firmly into one of his kidneys.
Rhiara still hated having to harm people regardless of whether they deserved it or not; every time her arrows found a target, she felt pangs of regret. Though she'd never admit it, she also felt pride in saving the lives of her friends, regardless of how she did it.
Gottmar continued to parry the elf's attacks as they came, watching out of the corner of his eye as arrows began to fly into the crowd behind him. Making a quick jab with his sword to force his opponent backward, he took the opportunity to scan the rooftops and soon spotted the mystery archer; a girl of no more than twenty years loosing shots into the assembled peasantry. Anger rose up inside him - was there no limit to the evil these heathens were capable of?! Hurling his falchion at Sorano's chest, both in rage and to buy himself a little time, the witch hunter reached behind him for his repeating crossbow and sent three bolts in rapid succession towards Rhiara, levelling the weapon at the elf afterwards to deter his advance.
The first bolt fired by Gottmar hit Rhiara's bow almost perfectly - the wood cracked and splintered, and it looked like it was close to snapping completely. Rhiara ducked when she saw the man out of the corner of her eye; it turned out to be a smart decision, as another two bolts flew through the air and hit the wall behind her.
The sound of dozens of heavy boots on cobblestone began to echo through the streets, gradually becoming louder and louder until the noise of the marching almost drowned out even the sounds of combat.
Two formations of armoured men appeared on either end of the blood-soaked street ; their armour, while ugly and dull, was still functional - better than most soldiers got, even. They wore brigandines of various colours, their arms and legs were well-protected with full plate and their heads were protected by all kinds of helmets. Some carried spears, others swords and some brought axes. Each man carried a massive circular shield four feet in diameter.
The guardsmen began to close the fighters in by advancing from both sides; many of them saw what was happening, and made a break into the alleys close by. Soon, the entrances to the alleyways were a crush of bodies all trying to force their way in. Athaliah, Sorano, Ceara, the demon-hunter Gottmar - all of them had nowhere to go and they knew it.
Everyone in the middle of the two walls of iron and men stood still, some examining whether an escape was possible while others merely looked down at their feet and sheathed their weapons, resigned to their fate.
One of the guardsmen left the safety of his formation just by a few paces; the only notable thing distinguishing him from the other guardsmen was his hefty brown fur cloak, probably taken from a bear. He lifted up the front of his bascinet, revealing a lightly bearded, chiseled face, and the disapproving scowl on his lips.
"All of you are coming with us!" he sounded like he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. "For the crimes you have all committed in the City of Viarosa, and against her people." He and the dozen other men behind him marched towards the battered group, while the men on the other side of the street turned around and headed in the direction of Viarosa's keep. The circle was closed so that nobody could escape.