Shan knelt by the pit, looking at the bones that covered the bottom of it and repressing the urge to swear. He could not be sure how many bodies were left here, scavengers and the weather having taken their toll, but there were at least seven heads staring back at him, some decayed down to grey bone, others with strips of flesh and hair still clinging tenaciously.
“So much for finding survivors,” the Ranger muttered to himself, standing up and brushing the dirt from his knee. He glanced up at the sky, watching the red tinge bleed away into a deep blue. The first stars began to glimmer, and Shan knew they would be the only light to guide him for the rest of the night. He briefly considered making camp, and continuing at dawn, but there were still two children to account for. None of the remains were fresh enough.
A part of his mind wondered if he had not made a mistake by taking on this unofficial mission. There was no requirement, in the code or the Oath they swore, that obliged them to take on tasks outside of those given within the chain of command, though several of the older Rangers seem to believe that there should be.
“The Seal you carry with you comes with a heavy responsibility,” their elder instructor would repeat. “You are tasked with the defence of the Empire, from threats varied and hidden. If you graduate, and take the Oath, your responsibility is not to follow the orders from your superiors, but to maintain order and peace throughout our lands, no matter the cost.”
Those words, and many more like it, had made a profound impression on Shan during his training, and he swore, the day he received his commission, to live up to the heavy expectations of his instructors, and of the Empire itself. It had led to some less than desirable moments in the past, as he zealously attempted to solve any wrong that was brought to his attention, many of which still make the rounds in the Posthouses he frequents. The veteran members adore telling the newer recruits of the time Shan found himself infiltrating a brothel, disguised as a woman, to recover blackmail documents, and how he quickly discovered it was merely an attempt by a merchants wife to humiliate her husband by catching him in the same room as a cross dresser.
The howls of laughter are generally exuberant.
It was through events like these that Shan eventually learned to restrain his impulses and plan his outings. The stories remained widespread and repeated, as any story inside of a closed group tends to, but they were soon accompanied by real successes. Though Shan would no longer simply go off the moment he heard of a problem he would always listen, and store the information in the back of his mind, ready to be compared to other information he gathered. Matched with his innate curiosity, and zealous drive to excel, it led him to a long string of successful missions, most of them from outside official channels.
So it was that, as he was passing through Gallemsberg on his way west toward Allair, he heard the locals talking of missing children. His curiosity perked by the alehouse gossip, Shan began to dig deeper. Wary glances were dissipated by a flash of the Imperial Seal and eager, frightened tongues wagged with desperate pleas.
The town had been plagued, for several years, with vanishing children. The townsfolk were adamant of the distinction; many children died each year, from illness or accidents and, rarely, murder, but the disappearances that happened on the nights where both moons were hidden from view were different. Some had vanished from their beds, their covers discovered perfectly made in the morning, others from trips to the market, or the well. The town had been under curfew on the night of any new moon, with militia patrolling the streets, and still the children went missing.
Both moons would be new that night, and two children had already gone missing from their home by midday. With the tear strained faces of the parents still haunting his memory, Shan took to the forest surrounding Gallemsberg in what he expected to be a fruitless hunt. The mass grave had been a surprise, one that served to confirm the Ranger's fears; whatever was happening to the children of Gallemsberg was done at the behest of an intelligent agent.
“There's nothing more to do but press on,” he finally said, throwing a handful of dirt into the open grave.
There were six of them around the fire, their backs away from it. Each of them was dressed in a long red robe, with the hood covering their faces, save for one. His back was directly to Shan, robbing him of the chance to see his face, though he could make out a heavily scarred bald scalp. He had spotted at least one sentry, on the far side of the clearing from where he was hidden, and knew there would be at least two more somewhere in the woods. He remained quiet, kneeling, taking the scene in detail for the report.
Next to the slowly banking flames was a spit, upon which were tied a boy and a girl. Both were naked, their lips sewn shut and eyes empty black pits above streaming tracks of red running down their cheeks.
He knelt, observed, and listened. The language they spoke was foreign to Shan, seeming to consist of guttural warbling and sharp staccato explosions. The man without the hood seemed to be leading the chant, with the five others responding in what felt like rote chant.
Shan's disquiet grew with every moment. His mind was screaming for him to flee, to report to the nearest Posthouse, and bring a troop of deputies crashing through the forest to hunt these six men down. He remained, however, waiting, his teeth grinding at the sight and sound of the tableaux. He remained, ignoring the desperate cries for his own safety, because he needed to see the face of the scarred man. To be able to confront him, in public, for Infernalism.
His thoughts were interrupted by a noise to his right, in the darkened woods. He checked a swear, and slid his hand slowly to his sword, mentally berating himself for letting his guard down and ruining his night vision by staring at the only light source for miles. Scanning the shadows around him, Shan slowly began to creep backwards from the clearing, hoping to evade notice and make his way out of the forest and back to Gallemsberg. With some luck, the locals would be convinced by his description, and the Imperial Seal, and join him in raiding the camp. With even further luck, they might return and find someone remaining.
The sound, the dry snap of a dead branch, repeated itself and was joined by the rustle of leaves to his back. Deciding that secrecy was no longer warranted, Shan spun on his left heel, his long blade sliding out of the oiled leather scabbard at his side. The sentry creeping up on his back was taken by surprise, and the Ranger took advantage of those few moments of shock to stab him through the lung, pressing his hand against his mouth to stiffle the gurgling scream. Had the sentry been alone, it would have been enough.
Reacting purely on instinct, Shan dove to his right, away from a downward strike of an axe aimed at his head. The sudden dive made him lose the grip on his blade, and the first sentry crumpled to the ground two yards away, three feet of steel sticking out of his chest. Swearing, audibly, Shan tore his short blade from its scabbard and prepared to deal with the axeman and run into the wild.
He did not count on the scarred man getting involved.
Shan felt a sudden pressure on his throat, and he turned and slashed with his sword to dispatch what he thought was a third assailant. His blade whistled harmlessly through the air, and he heard the second sentry, the one with the axe, chuckle at the sight of it. Clawing at his throat, vainly trying to breathe, Shan stumbled away from the campsite and crashed through the woods. Dark spots were beginning to appear in front of his eyes, and his chest felt like it was freezing, and on fire, at once. The pressure relented for a moment, allowing Shan to draw in a gasping breath, then resumed as strong as before. Tears streaming down his face, the Ranger collapsed to his knees, short blade falling from nerveless fingers.
“Well, it would appear we have a spy in our midst.”
The voice seemed to float in the night air, coming from in front of the prostrate Ranger. Looking up, blinking away tears and spots, Shan tried to focus on the face.
It was scarred, horribly scarred, a network of lines drawn over every inch of exposed skin on the mans face. They seemed, to his oxygen-starved brain, to dance together into an interwoven script, a language he could not read or comprehent.
Another breath made it to his lungs, only seeming to increase the pair bursting in his chest. Shan did not feel the hands searching his body, opening his pockets and pouches, and extracting the precious Imperial Seal that every Ranger carries.
“Ah...” the man said, shaking his head softly. “It would appear that the Posthouse will miss an expected guess.”
The man who was searching him chortled again, and pushed Shan down onto his face.
“I am happy you could join us before the... meat of the ritual. We have so many hours of darkness left, and it always brings me such joy to entertain an unexpected guest.”
The world swam before his eyes, and Shan saw only darkness.