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The Fine Line

Dazel stood on the edge of the cliff, looking down on the village below. Faint wisps of smoke wound up from the sleepy hovels as the sun crept over the horizon. From his vantage point, he could see dark shapes moving through the forest towards the village. For the hundredth time, Dazel found himself questioning his orders. Was this the best way? Did these people really have to die?
Yes, he decided. This was his duty. To safeguard the kingdom, sacrifices had to be made.
He and Myros carefully descended and made their way between the tall, looming trees as the battle began. The crash of metal on metal, accompanied by the screams of the wounded and the dying, came to them on the still, cold air. Myros nervously drew his blade.
The fight had already ended before they reached the village. A pair of Dazel's men-at-arms raced to douse a fire that had caught in one of the hovels' thatching. Another dozen stood near the center of the village, surrounding a score of kneeling, bleeding men and women. Still more of Dazel's men combed through the houses, looking for any who still hid inside. Only a handful of the men-at-arms were lying motionless on the ground; twice as many villagers had been piled together, waiting for a mass grave.
Another body slumped against the side of the largest structure. A short, well-notched sword lay in the dirt next to him, stained with blood. Myros groaned as he saw them, slamming his own blade back into its sheath.
Dazel turned to the nearest soldiers. “Were my orders unclear?” he demanded. “This man was to be taken alive at any cost.”
The soldiers glanced at each other nervously. Finally, one stepped forward. He swallowed hard, avoiding Dazel's gaze. “A dozen apologies, m'lord,” he stammered. “He refused to surrender. My men were defending themselves.”
Myros swung, hard, and caught the soldier across the face with his mailed fist. The soldier fell back, staggering. “You imbecile!” Myros exclaimed. “This man was the only link we had to Vol Dolan. Can you even comprehend what you've cost us?”
But some shred of life still coursed through the man's veins. He groaned, and his chin slowly lifted. His eyes opened. His hand stretched for the sword that lay nearby.
Dazel stepped swiftly forward, kicking the short sword away. He knelt next to the dying man, grasping his bloody shoulder. A soft white light began to gather beneath Dazel's palm, and the target stiffened, his eyes flashed open, and he gasped with a mixture of relief and pain. Some color seeped back into his pale face, and the trickle of blood down his right arm stopped. He gazed at Dazel with a mixture of fear and wonder.
Standing, Dazel stared down at the bloody figure. His robes, once pure white, were now stained with blood and mud around his knees. The nearby soldiers breathed a collective sigh of relief as they saw that their error would not cost them their lives.
“You're a mage of the Crescent,” the man at their feet whispered. His wonderment turned to hate. “You should have left me to die; I will never give you what you seek.”
Now Myros strode forward, towering over the captive. He grabbed the captive by the jaw, twisting his face upward and staring down into his eyes. “Not willingly,” he allowed. “But that will not stop us.”
Dazel saw in his companion's face the faintest trace of pleasure. It sickened him. The great desecration that they were about to perform should never have been necessary, much less allowed. It violated the last right any man might claim, the right to his own thoughts, his own mind. And yet it was clear from the captive's expression that there would be no other way. The man was a fanatic.
“Herren Merth,” Dazel began softly, “you force my hand. Give in now, and you shall be spared.” Merth only spat on the ground. “Then forgive me.”
Dazel passed his hand before Merth's eyes, his fingers glowing with the same soft light as before. Unwillingly, Merth watched, unable to tear his gaze away. Back and forth went Dazel's hand, and within a minute, Merth was gazing blankly into space.
Then Dazel placed his palm, the light blazing forth, and Merth's brow. A welter of emotions rose before him, the captive's jumbled and confused feelings. There was pain aplenty, and rage. There was grief and despair and more hate than Dazel had ever felt. They were all softened, tamed, a result of the hypnotism.
Dazel was about to press past the emotions when he caught a sense of something that surprised him. Besides the expected emotions, there was hope. There was love. There was the deep, aching longing for things left behind. It was not at all what Dazel had thought to find in the mind of a murdering rebel.
The sharpness and clarity of these feelings bit at Dazel's mind, but he brutally pushed forward, groping for the memories that he was looking for. And then he found them. A brief glimpse of a rocky slope, a gaping cave mouth full of unnatural darkness. Cold stone, chiseled into dizzying spiral designs, formed the entrance to the necromancer's deep dungeons. A tall, thin man, wrapped in dark robes, a staff of black wood topped with a pale skull in his hand: Vol Dolan. He stood in the middle of a high dais at the head of a long room, his arms raised above his head as he preached to his followers. These and a dozen other images assailed Dazel's mind for an indeterminable time. Then the flood of information overwhelmed Dazel's senses, and he blearily retreated.
He broke the contact and leaned heavily against the wall of the hovel while he tried to sift through the memories he had absorbed. Suddenly, he realized that some length of time had passed since he had begun. Myros had assembled the majority of their strike force in the middle of the village, and as Dazel watched, he turned and nodded to one of the nearby soldiers. “Kill them,” he said.
The men-at-arms butchered the prisoners, cutting down everyone except for the women and children. Merth, at last beginning to recover, moaned. Dazel spotted several faces among the crowd that he recognized from Merth's memories: brothers, nephews, a son.
Dazel left Merth in the care of the two soldiers standing nearby and made his way slowly over to Myros. “I have what we came for,” he rasped. He coughed, then stared at his palm: small flecks of his own blood stained his white gloves. No, surely it was Merth's.
“You know where Vol Dolan is?” Myros asked eagerly. “Then perhaps this rebellion will soon be over. It has gone on for far too long.”
There was the sound of a scuffle behind them. Then came the scrape of metal on metal, and they turned to see Merth standing above the bodies of his two guards. His worn sword trembled in his grasp, but his eyes were hard. He started forward, straight for Dazel.
Myros intercepted him before he had gone five meters. His own blade in his hand, he disarmed Merth with a quick, contemptuous blow. For a second, he gazed at his unarmed enemy. Then he casually ran him through.
“One less mouth for the king to feed,” he said satisfied. He glanced at the mass of prisoners still held in the center of the town. Dazel knew what was about to happen.
“Wait,” he murmured. “Give them to me. Surely I deserve some reward for my service? The high halls of my order's home are always in need of servants.”
Myros shrugged. “They're yours,” he acquiesced, wiping down his blade with a white cloth. He tossed the bloody rag to the ground.
The village folk were marched out, surrounded by the glistening ranks of the king's soldiers. They glared at Dazel as they passed. You were supposed to be our protector, their eyes cried. You were supposed to be our gentle, shining white knight.
Soon the entire column left the village behind. The once-white, blood-stained rag lay in the road, soaking up mud.




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