This story is part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection.
Grimweld heard the weeping before he saw the distraught woman pushing through the throng milling about in the market. She stumbled up the steps toward where he stood guard at the citadel’s entrance. A small crowd followed her.
Grimweld readied himself. This was an opportunity to show the people how to be compassionate. To remind them that honor still existed in the war-racked lands of Morshan.
He stepped forward to meet the woman, who threw herself at his feet. She tried to stop sobbing long enough to speak. “My son … the gods be with my son …”
Grimweld knelt and removed his helmet, hoping that seeing his face would comfort her. He put his armored hand on her shoulder, conscious of the onlookers. “What happened?”
The woman shuddered. “We were coming home from the harvest festival last night with a couple friends when this—this thing lunged from the shadows. Ripped his throat open and left him to die!”
Grimweld considered the facts. “Where were you? Was this an animal? Human?” He paused. “One of the god-blessed?”
“We were in one of the alleys. I couldn’t tell whether the thing was god-blessed or not. It looked human from a distance, but it had the teeth of a jackal and the claws of a lion.” She grabbed his arm. “My son frequented some places he shouldn’t, but who doesn’t? He was a good lad, Herald! He needs the gods’ justice!”
“We will do what we can to bring him justice.” Grimweld stared her in the eyes. He needed to assure not only her, but also the growing crowd. “We built up this city for a reason, woman. We will not allow such beings to roam here unpunished.”
Grimweld strode through the halls of the Citadel of Light. This was the third reported attack in two months—after they had enjoyed fourteen months without hostile god-blessed in the city. He had been standing guard when the first two incidents were reported as well. Some may have deemed it coincidence, but clearly Eldrin meant it as a sign that Grimweld should lead the investigation.
He opened the doors to Sindar’s chambers and walked in. “Sindar.”
Tottering bookcases crammed with aged books, decaying herbs, and pawnshop materials lined the walls of the room. A tall man in a dark blue robe turned from the ragged maps spread on the table in the middle of the room. “Grimweld.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Why are you still in your armor?”
Grimweld mentally willed his armor to dissipate. It faded, returning to the void until needed again. “I forgot to dismiss it. I was standing guard when a woman reported that some creature killed her son last night. None of the eyewitnesses got a clear view, but it sounded like that god-blessed rumored to be prowling the city.”
Sindar frowned. “A rogue god-blessed foolish enough to let himself be spotted killing a random citizen in this city? Was this woman’s son anyone important?”
Grimweld shrugged. “They were only peasants. I don’t know what this god-blessed is after or why he slaughtered her son. But I intend to track him down to find out. I’ll need a replacement at the gate.”
Sindar pressed a finger against his temple as he concentrated. After a couple moments, he glanced up. “Two of the new acolytes will stand guard in your absence. How much help do you need?”
“As much as possible,” Grimweld replied. “We can’t have a rogue god-blessed terrorizing the city. What will the people think of us?”
Sindar nodded. “Agreed.”
“I’m taking the new acolyte who can see memories and beginning the search now,” Grimweld said. “Can you inform the council and estimate how many men we can spare for this hunt?”
“It will be done.”
Two and a half days later, Grimweld surveyed the chipped and faded exterior of Thanax’s chapel. Its miniature turrets and carved exterior should have been demolished decades ago when the Heralds established their presence in the city. But they had forced Thanax’s worshippers to leave, but the superstitions lingered. So the building remained, abandoned but not forgotten.
Footsteps approached. About time. He rose from the bench he had been sitting on to confront Sian. “Uncover anything?”
Sian shook her head, swaying her auburn hair. “Only the vaguest memory traces from people’s imaginings about this god-blessed.” She leaned against a crumbling brick wall. “Everyone fears the creature, but no one’s actually seen him.”
Grimweld pursed his lips. “We should have investigated these rumors long before. I had no idea they were so widespread. What do the people think of us?”
Sian shrugged and tossed a broken piece of brick from hand to hand. “The people I talked to were just grateful someone was listening. Especially someone who can see memory impressions.”
Grimweld waved his hand. “Drop the brick. It’s unprofessional.”
Sian raised an eyebrow, but she released the chunk. “Sorry. Didn’t realize anyone cared.”
“Citizens would hardly have a high impression of our order from your appearance.” Grimweld gestured to her untucked shirt. “And if they don’t respect us, whom will they look to instead? Straighten your uniform—you shouldn’t present yourself in public like that.”
“People are less intimidated when I’m not put together,” Sian mumbled. But she did as commanded.
Grimweld sighed. His morning hadn’t been fruitful either. None of the law enforcement officers had any reliable information. In the distance, the noon bells rang.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“We pursuing another lead?”
“No. It’s time to attend the midweek service.”
“Oh.” Sian hastened to match pace with him. “I thought we wouldn’t be attending with the killer loose.”
“We’re not making any progress, and the people need to see Herald representatives at the service.”
A smile darted across Sian’s face. “People have told me you haven’t missed a service in five years.”
“That could be true. I don’t keep track.”
“No other Herald has a record even close to that.”
“And that’s an issue.” Grimweld halted and leveled his gaze at Sian. “Don’t fall into the trap of believing you can let observances slide because you’re a Herald. Too many problems have ensued when—”
An image of Sindar materialized in front of Grimweld. “We think we’ve identified the god-blessed,” the image said. “From the descriptions the woman provided, we suspect it’s Terix.”
Grimweld suppressed a gasp. After so many years, was his past returning to haunt him?
Sian wrinkled her eyebrows. “Are you all right?”
“Sindar bears news,” he explained. She nodded and moved to the side. Sindar could only appear to one person at a time.
“If that hunch is correct,” Sindar continued, “he may be attempting revenge, and the murder of the woman’s son was likely intentional. We’re sending men to interrogate the woman about her son.”
Grimweld nodded. “Sounds wise. I’m walking to the midweek service now, but will regroup at the citadel afterward.”
“Good. We’ll talk more then.” The image of Sindar vanished.
Grimweld rubbed his eyes as Sian rejoined him. “Well, that was enlightening. Sindar believes the god-blessed is Terix, who was one of our acolytes four years ago. Had a blessing from the goddess Alikana to be part reptile. Sharp teeth, retractable claws. Certainly fits the rumors.”
“Why isn’t he still a Herald?”
“We quickly discovered he was corrupt. He made mistakes, committed crimes, and was about to be disciplined. But before we could do that, he accused us of hypocrisy and escaped. If Sindar is right about his return, and he probably is, we should be wary.”
Sian nodded. “You don’t want to regroup with the others at the citadel now?”
Grimweld shook his head. “Don’t have time before the service.”
“We’re still attending after acquiring this new information?”
“I have a record to maintain, don’t I?”
To Grimweld’s disappointment, only one Herald besides Sian showed up to the service. He understood the Heralds were busy—especially with Terix in the city. But people would notice the vacancy of the Heralds’ pew at the cathedral’s center. And he hated that. Wouldn’t people decide worshiping the gods was unimportant if the Heralds didn’t set the precedent?
The priest prayed to the gods on the dais next to the large oil basin that burned over the cathedral’s central fire. Grimweld knew he should be devoting this time to praying privately to Eldrin. He bowed his head. Don’t let the people consider us unfaithful. May we not mislead them. Help us locate Terix. Use this opportunity to remind the people that heroes still exist in this world who will defend them from those who manipulate the gods’ gifts for ill.
The priest finished his prayer and silence reigned over the cathedral. Now was the time for the nobles and wealthy of the city to publicly offer up prayers. Grimweld waited for someone to rise, and when no one did, he stood. Perhaps through intercession he could circumvent the harm incurred by the numerous Heralds skipping the service. The eyes of everyone in the cathedral, who needed faithful role models to emulate, weighed upon him.
“Great Eldrin.” He raised his voice to sound throughout the cathedral. “Hear our requests. May we follow your path of honor and not be turned aside unto dishonorable pursuits. May we meditate on the good, walk in the light, and utter speech that befits the noble.”
Acting as a paragon for the people was a heavy responsibility. One misstep could disillusion them about the path they were called to follow.
After praying a bit longer, Grimweld concluded by praising Eldrin for his virtues and reseated himself on the pew, bowing his head. A few others prayed, the priest threw incense on the remainder of the burning oil, and then the service ended.
The people began to disperse, and Grimweld and Sian stood. As Grimweld’s gaze aimlessly flitted around the crowd, he spotted the woman who had lost her son heading in their direction. He gawked—it almost seemed too coincidental.
“Herald!” the woman exclaimed as she neared them. “I knew I’d find you here!”
“Faithfulness reaps benefits,” Grimweld whispered before stepping into the aisle to intercept the woman. “How can I be of service, lady?”
“It’s been three days, Herald.” Unshed tears reddened the woman’s eyes. “I asked your friends yesterday and they said they didn’t have any update. But I knew you could help me.”
He guided her into a pew and sat beside her. Sian stood behind and quietly put a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
Grimweld cleared his throat. “I’m glad you found me. We were looking for you. I want to hear more about your son.”
The woman wiped her eyes. “What about him?”
Grimweld strove to break it to her gently. “We think the creature was a god-blessed and deliberately attacked your son.” He refrained from mentioning the god-blessed was also an ex-Herald. “We’re trying to determine why the god-blessed would have targeted your son. Do you know anything that could help us?”
The woman swallowed and averted her eyes for a moment. “He ran in a group of friends… I don’t know what they did, but they frequently met in the chapel of Thanax.”
Grimweld’s eyes widened. “When you said your son spent time in places he shouldn’t, I didn’t realize one was the chapel of Thanax.”
The woman floundered to respond, tears spilling down her cheeks. “I—I’d just lost my son. And you were a Herald. How was I supposed to tell you that my son participated in dark practices?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Grimweld noted the number of bystanders transfixed by this spectacle. He didn’t wish to give the impression that he sanctioned involvement in dark practices. Yet she was hurting and needed help.
Grimweld touched her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I’m not here to judge. I just want to capture the being that murdered your son so he never roams the streets again.”
“Thank you,” the woman said between sobs.
Grimweld looked at Sian. “We should inspect the sanctuary.”
“I … I should go with you,” the woman said. “I may recognize my son’s possessions if he left any there.”
Grimweld exchanged glances with Sian. Terix might be hiding in the chapel, which would make the area extremely dangerous. But if the chapel was empty, the woman’s knowledge could come in handy.
“We’ll need to clear the place first,” Grimweld finally said, turning back to the woman. “But we would appreciate your assistance.”
The floor of Thanax’s chapel glistened. Grimweld wiped his finger along a pew and lifted it up to his face. No dust. Even the low, vaulted ceiling was free of cobwebs.
“This place was allegedly abandoned decades ago,” Grimweld muttered. “But it looks as pristine as it would have been when people worshipped here.”
“Because someone’s been cleaning or because of dark influences?” Sian asked.
Grimweld frowned. “It bodes ill for us either way.” He marched toward the front of the chapel. “Come—if a group was meeting here, they would be in the basement.”
He pulled on a door in the wall, which opened without squeaking. Everything was too perfect. He peered into the darkness, glad he wore his full armor. “We need a light.”
“I have some supplies in my pack,” Sian said. A minute later, she handed him a lit torch.
“Stay behind me,” Grimweld ordered. Neither of them spoke as they descended the spiraling staircase.
When they arrived at the bottom, Grimweld prepared to defend himself, but the basement was deserted. Old books, alchemist materials, and other unsavory objects and designs of dark origin scattered the room.
Sian circled the parameter, carefully avoiding the pentagon sketched in the middle of the floor. “Looks like no one’s home.”
Grimweld glared at the dead candles and mound of supplies inside the pentagon. “I had hoped to end this affair with Terix here.”
“You may have needed reinforcements.” Sian picked up one of the books on the floor. “It’s not like I would be helpful in a fight.”
Grimweld shook his head. “Terix isn’t a challenge. I … I mentored him four years ago. He’s dangerous. But he never outclassed me.”
Sian shot him a glance. “You didn’t mention you were his mentor.”
Grimweld didn’t answer. Long-forgotten memories were resurfacing. “If this is safe, we should bring the woman down here. See if she recognizes any belongings of her son’s.”
“All right.” Sian started to mount the steps, then hesitated. She glanced over her shoulder. “You … you should know I think her mind has issues.”
Grimweld furrowed his brow. “She seems normal on the outside.”
“Her memories have a weird tint, and her internal feelings don’t match her actions. Like in the cathedral. She may have been outwardly upset, but I sensed an eerie stillness underneath. I’ve only gotten a conflicted impression like this once before—when I was talking to a lunatic.”
“Duly noted,” Grimweld said. “Thanks for informing me.”
He walked over to the stone altar as Sian ascended the stairs. Assuming he didn’t need his armor anymore, he dismissed it into the void. He picked up an ornate knife speckled with red. The stains didn’t appear decades old either.
They should have torn down this chapel long ago.
Grimweld sifted through the pile of herbs and animal body parts for anything that might provide a clue about Terix’s location. His mind kept returning to his time mentoring Terix, who had once held Sian’s position. Terix, like Sian, had never understood Grimweld’s devotion. But Terix was worse in almost every way. At least Sian had a good heart and righteous motives.
Grimweld sighed and rested his arms on the altar. Spending these past several days with Sian had been troubling. Her inattention to her appearance indicated that the Heralds were growing lax. They had forgotten the early days when everyone thought the Heralds were another group of power-hungry despots seeking a fiefdom to conquer.
Grimweld hadn’t been alive in those days. But he had been trained by those who were, and they had drilled the importance of honor and hope into him. A populace in times this dark needed flickers of light to ignite hope. Outside their city, the world was overrun with god-blessed who sought their own gain. The Heralds needed to be different. They were forgetting that.
Footsteps sounded from the stairwell, and Grimweld pivoted. Sian and the woman emerged.
The woman looked around, eyes wide with horror. “This … this is what my son was involved in?”
“Appears so. Do you recognize anything?” Grimweld asked.
“I … I don’t know …” The woman scanned the room. “Wait.” She gestured toward the candles, books, and instruments strewn in the pentagon’s center.
“Some of those may have been his.”
Sian caught Grimweld’s concerned glance. “No one else is here to use the pentagon. It’s harmless.”
“Just be careful not to cut yourselves on anything,” Grimweld said as Sian and the woman stepped within the pentagon. “You’re entering a dark field.”
They rummaged through the supplies, but nothing bad happened. Grimweld exhaled slowly and turned to examine the other items in the room.
The image of Sindar appeared. “I don’t have much time, so I’ll make this quick. Our men broke into the house of the woman who lost her son. They discovered her lying dead with similar wounds on her that she described on her son.”
Grimweld’s blood chilled. “What?”
“Return to the citadel as soon as you can and we’ll discuss the details more fully.” Before Grimweld could respond, the image disappeared.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose. They found the woman’s body? But the woman was sorting through the paraphernalia inside the pentagon with Sian. Grimweld turned.
His gaze met the woman’s as she picked up a rusty dagger. Sian said something appeared off… His eyes widened and he immediately summoned his armor from the void. The armor began to slowly materialize.
“Sian!” he yelled as he leapt forward.
The woman slashed the dagger across Sian’s arm. Sian gasped. Blood spurted out and dripped on the floor inside the pentagon.
The pentagon outline began to glow crimson. Grimweld skidded to a stop inches from the outline. The woman held a small bottle under the gash to collect Sian’s blood. “Fight her, Sian!” Grimweld shouted. But Sian’s eyelids were already closing and her limbs growing limp from the dark enchantment.
“Sorry,” the woman hissed. “You’re too late. She’ll survive. But I’m getting what I need from her.”
Grimweld’s jaw clenched, and his armor finished materializing around him. “What are you?”
A cruel smile spread across the woman’s face. “I thought you’d already guessed.”
“My friends found your dead body,” Grimweld said.
“Ah, that’s rather inconvenient for me, isn’t it?” Sian’s blood trickled into the bottle. “I hate it when I lose another body. It’s been a pleasure interacting with you over the past couple days. I only wish I could have witnessed you and Terix facing each other again. That would have been truly entertaining.”
“Where is Terix?” Grimweld growled.
The woman cackled. “Oh, he’s dead. I killed him. Over a year ago, actually.”
Grimweld stared at her as he tried to process this. The bottle nearly brimmed with blood, and though the woman promised Sian would survive, Grimweld didn’t trust her. He didn’t know what dangers would befall him when he intruded the pentagon, but for Sian’s sake, he had to try. He drew his sword.
The woman grinned. “What will the people think when they find you standing over a defenseless widow’s body amid evidence of cultic rituals?”
Grimweld swallowed, and for a split second he paused.
The woman screwed a cap on the bottle. “You’re exactly as Terix described—a hollow shell, driven by the whims of the populace.”
Her face began to contort and her skin hardened to resemble scales. Grimweld inhaled sharply as fangs protruded from her teeth and claws grew from her appendages, transforming her into the image of Terix.
The creature grinned. “Now you understand what’s happening.” Dropping Sian, it sprung toward the exit.
Grimweld chased after the creature, uninhibited by his weightless, god-blessed armor. He pounded across the room, up the staircase, and through the meticulously polished chapel. He needed to know what the shapeshifter intended to do with Sian’s blood.
The creature threw open the sanctuary doors and ran toward the center of town. Grimweld’s feet thudded across the threshold and onto the old cobblestone roads as he fixated on the inhuman creature darting through the alleys. As he turned a corner, he observed the hustle and bustle of the main streets ahead. The creature was trapped. An additional burst of speed fueled his legs as he neared the end of the alley.
Then the creature’s limbs shrunk and its body shape distorted. Grimweld shook his head and laughed. Was that the creature’s big plan? Shapeshift into something else and disappear? It couldn’t evade him. And he would have no trouble slaying it.
The creature finished its transformation only seconds before it skittered into the busy market street. Grimweld gripped his sword hilt, ready to behead the creature—until it spun around.
Grimweld gasped and screeched to a halt. It was a girl. A small, pre-adolescent girl with pigtails and tears in her eyes ran toward him and threw her skinny arms around his armored legs. “Herald!” she cried. “I … I’m lost. Can you tell me where the carpenter’s shop is?”
The whole world seemed to slow around him. Grimweld felt the eyes of everyone in the crowd as they turned to look at this spectacle: a quivering girl requesting help from a Herald. His throat tightened. He must kill the creature. Yet, as he knelt and locked gaze with it, he realized he couldn’t bring himself to plunge his sword through a little girl’s heart. Not with the crowd watching and wondering whether he would exhibit nobility and kindness by aiding this little girl. They all expected him to do so.
If he executed her, the people would never recover from the shock. He could explain the situation as best he could. Maybe most people would believe him. But his public image would be permanently tarnished. People would remember him as the Herald who killed a helpless girl.
A tiny grin slipped out of the creature’s mouth. “Like I thought,” it whispered so only Grimweld could hear. “You’re a great moral example to the people. But are you anything more?”
A farmer stepped forward. “If you don’t know where the carpenter’s shop is, I can show her the way.”
Grimweld’s mouth felt dry. “I—It—”
“Where’s she going?” someone asked. Grimweld realized the girl no longer hovered around his legs. She was gone.
“Where did she go?” he asked as he stood and shoved through the crowd. “Where is she?”
A couple bystanders attempted to direct him, but Grimweld searched for ten minutes without seeing any sign of a girl with pigtails and tears in her eyes. The creature had changed shapes and fled.
Grimweld stood in the middle of the market, clothed in his glorious armor, attracting the attention of every passerby, and completely helpless to thwart this shapeshifter and its plans for Sian’s blood.
Grimweld tilted his head to the sky. “Eldrin,” he whispered, “I … I’m trying to live as a man of honor.”
But the heavens gave no answer that day.
[This story is a part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection. Click the button below to download the whole collection.]