Rhodovus groaned, rolling up to find one of Lidia’s priests leaning over him. Based on the green sash adorning the woman’s robes, she was of the fourth rank, making her the leader of the gaggle of clerics sent along with this mission. She whispered above him, “So bless this man, Goddess Lidia of Healing.” With his acute perception, Rhodovus sensed a tendril of divine energy wrap around his shoulder. He focused on his shoulder, watching as the wound slowly closed. The flesh seemed to crawl across the bloody hole, repairing the inner workings of his body. To test out the priest’s spell, he shrugged, wincing as he felt the still sore shoulder throb in response.
Lidia was actually the Elder Goddess of Healing Wounds from War, but he supposed her priests would want to increase the goddess’s dignity by encroaching onto the Ancient God Hypses’s Domain of Healing, especially now that the god himself had disappeared for almost three-quarters of a century.
He turned to examine the other occupants of this healing tent and saw Sir Thomas grimly staring at him. “Lord Thossolorian, please follow me. You will explain why I have a dead sergeant an hour before we have even begun marching to battle, or you will be hung for murder.”
Rhodovus sighed. “The quest for knowledge is arduous.” Shaking his stiff shoulder, he nodded to the priest, passing her a gold coin that she quickly pocketed. Despite his disdain for the false mages, he knew better than to offend some of the most reliable healers on Cespes. The faction of the Gods was truly a thing of terror.
He collected his things and clipped his unopened bag of holding to his belt; the army hadn’t been willing to open it in case he had trapped it, ruining any evidence they could charge him with. He asked, “Will I be performing this interview here or somewhere else?”
Sir Thomas stalked away. “Follow me. We have a tent prepared.”
Rhodovus thought furiously during the five-minute walk. Glancing at the sun, he determined that about an hour had passed since he’d lost consciousness, enough time for the army to finish several particularly troublesome preparations.
As he walked, his body ached, and he knew that those initial soldiers had probably beaten him so bloody that not even his bodily rune enchantment and the priest’s magic could fully recover his body. Then again, he doubted that she had truly tried, only healing him enough to keep him from falling unconscious due to the pain. She had still healed most of the damage though; it would have been a diplomatic incident if reports had spread of an Elvish Lord from the Academy being led around with blood pouring out of him. Nevertheless, because she had been ignorant of the pain tolerance granted by his runes, he could now perform at near optimal physical capacity since she’d healed him far more than she’d thought.
He grumbled. They had stripped him of his hidden daggers as well as the rune pages he kept taped to his body even while he slept. He thanked the Gods once more that rune pages erased all evidence of their existence after their use, which meant that the only connections between him and blood magic were the two remaining vials of disguised blood. Ideally, he would dispose of them before the army performed a thorough search of his belongings. The very thought of that necessary sacrifice made him lament the hundreds of gold coins that had gone into their creation. Now, he just had to find some way to safely discard the vials.
Based on the glare Sir Thomas would shoot him every few seconds, merely reaching for his bag of holding would constitute a threat that justified the use of lethal force. An argument along those lines might even hold up under truth spell, and Sir Thomas knew that. The elf eyed the guards flanking him, wondering whether there was some way he could fool them.
Supposedly, they were for protecting him from vengeful soldiers until the truth was determined, but they’d kill him just as quickly as Sir Thomas would if they suspected he was planning anything.
Rhodovus was pushed into a larger tent, his entourage surrounding the outside to prevent any interruptions while two of them followed him and Sir Thomas inside. There, he found three waiting men and a woman.
Sir Thomas softly spoke, “We’ll perform a triple inspection. Father Poin of the Elder God of Things that Light the Night, Kalcul, will perform the identification spells on the objects within your bag of holding, which we will need your assistance under truth spell to retrieve and verify that the objects we cast identification spells on are truly everything contained within your bag.”
Pointing at the two scowling men sitting in chairs at the side, the knight continued, “These two men have already signed a truth contract and will confirm for us anything you say about Yuliser. Miss Invikles here is a trained interrogator and will prepare the Truth-Speak contract the Royal Contracter wrote.” He coughed. “You shouldn’t even consider lying, although I would enjoy it if you did. It’d be terribly messy having to explain why our Elvish mage went insane or, depending on the severity of the lie, burned to a crisp. “
Sir Thomas smirked. “But please, if you wish to test a fourth rank contract made by a sixth rank Soul Mage specializing in Contracts, be my guest.”
He finished with: “I think I’ll enjoy finding out why I get to kill you, Lordling,” before taking one of the two final free seats by the woman.
Rhodovus looked toward the waiting woman who had spread out a parchment across the only non-chair furniture within the room, a wooden table in the middle. He noted that her seat was slightly above his, letting her tower over him. Foolish intimidation tricks.
The woman cleared her throat. “Mage Rhodovus, you may now inspect the contract.”
Giving it a glance and making sure that there was no foul play, he confirmed that it would merely force him to tell the truth and not force him to follow what others commanded him to do. Because Rhodovus was a noble lord, even the commander was leery of pushing him too far by ordering him to fully open his mind toward his interrogator. There was too high a risk that they would hear elven secrets that would result in their assassinations by both the Hewther Kingdom and the Summer Courts or infuriate the other nobles once they heard of the incident, not to mention that this army probably lacked expensive blank command contracts, which could cost over forty gold coins to chain a fourth rank elven mage’s soul. Unlike Law Contracts, which forced those who signed them to follow a certain set “rule” like speaking the truth, Command Contracts required a link to the very psyche of the beholden and controller, thus making them far more complex enchantments.
Luckily, this was a cheap, pre-finished, mass-produced Truth-Speak contract, so they couldn’t directly force him to reveal all the facts relating to Yuliser’s death as a Command Contract could. Instead, they could only give him free rein to repeat the events according to his perspective. It seemed that this small task force lacked any capable contract-specializing Soul Mages. It made sense: after all, what task force planned to hold a trial?
He casually signed it, pausing as he felt phantom chains bind his mind. Even though this contract had been undoubtedly mass produced in a batch of hundreds using Emulator Paper, this was the real deal. Nevertheless, there was a silver lining because the Soul Mage making it hadn’t had enough soul power to both mass produce and make it malleable enough for interrogators to specify the “rule” conditions according to their needs. “I think you’ll find yourself disappointed, Sir Thomas.” He just had to stall for ten minutes until the contract’s bindings disbanded.
Flipping over an hourglass, Invikles glared at him. “Don’t talk unless you’re asked a question. Now, did you kill Yuliser?”
“What type of dumb question is that! Of course, he did!” One of the men wearing a leather jerkin shouted. Rhodovus had to agree with the idiot.
Still, he politely replied, “Yes. I’m sure the witnesses can attest to that, much as they just have.”
She continued, giving both him and the man who had spoken out a frown, “Lord Thossolorian, would you kindly tell me why?”
Man, this woman really cut straight to the truth. He supposed it was the sign of a decent interrogator. More direct questions left less room for dishonest yet truthful answers. However, that only really worked for human criminals who tended to be far less experienced in the manipulations of upper echelon politics.
Pausing to gather his thoughts, Rhodovus leaned into his chair. “Well, I’m sure you already know from your investigations that Sergeant Yuliser had said he wanted to show me a special rune.”
“And did he?”
“Why, yes. He drew out a rune he had previously seen when he was younger. When I saw it, I immediately recognized it as a blood rune.”
The room hushed, and Sir Thomas stared at Rhodovus. “A blood rune? Where did he see it!? This is disastrous; I have to report it!”
Rhodovus calmly replied. “Calm down, Commander. I’m sure those two… gentlemen over there can confirm that Yuliser spent much of his youth in the Elven Courts. While I was conversing with him, he suggested to me that his Elven mother had discovered a blood rune—don’t ask me more on this; I truly don’t know where or even if she truly had. It is very possible that this is how he was introduced to blood runes, so I believe there is very little worry of a rampant blood mage preparing to sacrifice a city around these parts.” Rhodovus carefully edged around the truth. After all, he didn’t have any plans on sacrificing civilians anytime soon. Eight minutes left.
Rhodovus ignored the dampness of his clothes. While he’d never provide such an obvious tell when he lied, the humidity trapped within the tent was starting to make him sweat, and his thick robes did not help with this. Invinkles tapped the table with her knuckles, “Focus!”
The captain cooled down before growling, “And why did you kill him over this? Unknowing brushes with blood magic are hardly a death sentence.”
Miss Invikles interrupted. “Before we ask any further questions, I’d like to know something, Lord Thossolorian. You seem to know an awful lot about blood magic. Would you care to explain how this came to be, and what you think of it?”
Thossolarian cringed inwardly, but he outwardly smirked. He had to figure out how to make this woman stop this line of questioning… He had to distract her with something, but what? He continued down this train of thought even he answered with the carefully prepared answer he’d been taught his entire life.
“Well, I’m not sure if you commoners would know, but the Academy trains us mages to identify blood runes so we can more easily react to and eradicate blood mages.” Nevermind that the Academy had never taught him any techniques he hadn’t already known about from his time at the Elven Courts although to be fair, at the Courts he’d more focused on how to avoid such skills.
He continued. “While I see the attraction that many have for the nearly limitless power offered by blood sacrifices, I find the idea of mass sacrifices distressing and have never wished to be one of those city-razing freaks. Elvish society has laws stating they will exile and assassinate anyone they notice performing a blood rite.” All true, Elvish practitioners, mostly nobles, preferred small sacrifices, extracting blood from willing participants who were usually paid for their precious resource, or taking the blood from beasts or criminals that were hardly accepted in cities. Also, small sacrifices had the advantage of being easily concealed, preventing the world from ganging up on you for performing illicit magics. If you were stupid enough to be reported, you deserved to die for threatening Elvish interests.
“Anyway, as to why I killed the man, the reason is both simple and logical. Once I told him what he had shown me was a blood rune, I was prepared to pay for his silence in gold.”
Invinkles cut in, “And his silence was worth twenty-five gold?” Rhodovus silently thanked the World Spirit that he had used half fae gold, which was actually mere flowers that had disintegrated under the presence of the magical fire. It was actually quite an interesting result proven by an Archmage of Fyorin Towers almost three centuries ago that Fae glamours would with extremely low probabilities turn real or, more likely, fade away once properly observed by either a mage or through an interaction with ambient mana. It had been called a collapse of the wave function, as it were.
Rhodovus squinted at her. “Would you not price the lives of the innocent at least twenty-five gold? But, more to the point, it was to convince him that he shouldn’t speak of it to anyone else or sell the secret. Moreover, immediately after, we planned to sign a contract in which I’d hoped to convince him to never speak of blood magic again. That gold was all for buying his silence. Perhaps if I were generous, he would have then gained some goodwill toward me and spread this around the camp. I know how you all hate me as it is.” Six minutes left.
Everyone in the tent shot him dark looks but kept silent. Suddenly, one of the two men sitting beside the priest of Kalcus opened his mouth. Sir Thomas glared at the late Yuliser’s two friends, preventing them from interrupting again. Still, one muttered, “For good reason too, Elvish bastard.”
Sir Thomas walked over. “I still don’t understand how all this led to the death of a good man.”
Rhodovus hesitated, pretending to be thinking. Invinkles growled, “Speak or be thought guilty.”
“That’s hardly legal,” Rhodovus shot back, gaining a grudging nod from Sir Thomas. However, Rhodovus began, “I hesitate to say this, but I wouldn’t be so sure that he was a good man. He did actively threaten me. I suppose that the unfortunate death of his mother made him hate all other elves.”
Sir Thomas glanced at one of the men who reluctantly nodded to confirm that what Rhodovus said was true.
“When I asked for his silence, he absolutely refused. He seemed suspicious of my actions. When I went toward him, he seemed to go crazy even though I had agreed to pay him. He yelled an insult about my kind and stabbed me through the shoulder. As many soldiers can attest to, I was not the first to attack. In fact, I was so surprised that I barely dodged in time, saving my life and allowing me to speak to you. Furthermore, before his untimely demise, he seemed to be insane because he declared that he would expose the blood rune to everyone in the camp. In the moment, I decided I had to end him before something truly terrible happened.”
Rhodovus looked around the tent, trying to appear regretful with all the acting skills he had learned in the Summer Courts.
Sir Thomas glanced at Invinkles. “There’s something off here.” Damnit. Only four minutes left.
The interrogator nodded. She calmly demanded, “Do you swear you have revealed the whole truth without leaving anything out?”
“As you well know, I have only spoken the truth.”
Sir Thomas growled, “Answer the question, Lord Thossolorian.”
Rhodovus sighed. “I guess not then.”
The two men in the back cheered.
Rhodovus continued. “Well, as I was walking through the camp behind Sergeant Yuliser, I smelled the odor of whatever your ‘cooks’ scrounged up for the pre-march meal. There were also these lovely flowers that almost reminded me of the Elvish forests. As I was talking to Yuliser, he seemed awfully edgy. Based on the smell he emitted, I suspect he might have been suffering from a lice infection…”
Sir Thomas glowered, “Enough with your stupid fancies! Did you provoke or threaten him to attacking first? Did you set up the events leading to his death?”
“No, and not really. He did truly threaten and stab me before I laid any harmful spells on him or gave any direct indication that I would do so. While I did say some rash words in response to his insults, I had not yet displayed any aggressive intent. As for setting up his death, it was only in the natural sense resulting from his actions upon my learning of the nature of his blood rune.” Rhodovus felt a slight twinge as the contract nearly reacted. Thank the World Spirit that the contract hadn’t built failsafes displaying when someone was telling a near lie. Most likely, it only had two states: truth and lie, with a lie resulting in a painful death. Three minutes.
Invinkles questioned, “Did you kill Yuliser to hide something he knew?”
“Miss, I’ve already told you that I killed him to prevent him from revealing the blood rune. It is one of my responsibilities as a rune mage.”
“Did you truly act in self-defense? Can you repeat the exact words to me, ‘I acted only in self-defense without any machinations at play?’”
“I can’t say that because all my actions today were to prevent the exposure of a potentially dangerous blood rune. However, that does not make me guilty. I acted in defense of myself upon being stabbed by Yuliser. Had he been willing to sign a Minor Command Contract promising to remain silent on the matter at the nearest city, which I’m sure the Academy would have been willing to pay for, he would still be alive now. Depending on the strength of his soul, I could have even used a Rank 2 Contract of Silence I keep on hand for purposes like these.” Two minutes.
Suddenly, Sir Thomas confidently grinned, all teeth like a shark. “Let’s see what else you keep on hand, eh?”
“Take out everything in your bag of holding,” the knight commanded.
His heart thumping, Rhodovus reached into his bag and pulled out two vials of black ink, two vials of green ink, ten vials of red ink, a stack of various types of paper, gold, his quill, some rope, a few day’s rations, some rune designs, a small folding desk, a mana battery, a notebook, a healing potion, an fourth rank enchanted sword, an anti-arrow warding Artifact, and a flask of Never-ending Water. It was actually quite a bit considering that his maximum storage space was two cubic feet.
Once finished, Rhodovus announced, “I swear that I have just now taken out all the items I am aware of within my bag of holding.”
Father Poin looked at the items in interest, a glint of greed flickering in his eyes, but Sir Thomas shook his head, warning, “Do your job. Don’t forget that we’ll have to report on this too under truth spell if we convict the mage.”
The priest paled upon realizing that Thomas had noticed his thoughts and quickly chanted a prayer to his God, invoking the God’s Blessing Spell: Reveal. Silently listening to the priest’s chanting, Rhodovus secretly fidgeted his toes, which were concealed by his shoes. He stoically refused to glance at the two black vials, best not to draw attention to the only evidence of his crime. His nerves felt frayed; if the Kalcul’s spell reacted to the blood magic…
After an eternity, the priest finished chanting “Oh, God within the Light Domain Kalcul, he who pierces through the fog of ignorance and darkness to find the truth, please light that which seeks to hide falsehood.”
The priest carefully stared at the items, but there was no change. Rhodovus imperceptibly relaxed. It seemed that this priest was unable to invest enough of the God’s consciousness for Kalcul to notice the problems about those two vials. Still, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. After all, one of the first rituals Rhodovus had performed on the blood ink was to make it resistant to detection spells. The priest turned to the knight and reluctantly shook his head.
Handing over Rhodovus’s necklace of rune sheets and concealed daggers, Sir Thomas grimaced. “Even though this stinks of some retched Elvish lies, I guess you’re free. Thossolarian, we aren’t hanging you. Today, at least. Be that as it may, you just killed a good soldier today. You’re getting an official demerit and will serve a punishment for causing unrest even though you acted in self-defense. Refusing will mean death.”
“What punishment?” Rhodovus frowned.
The commander smiled. “You’ll draw runes that provide buffs better than the 10% you claim our mages max out at to all of our soldiers without sacrificing any aspect of their battle strength, emotions, or intelligence.”
Rhodovus interrupted, “I don’t have the mana to do it, and by the time I get through the last one, the first few will wear off. I will follow your rather stringent conditions but will only do it for the captains. If you haven’t forgotten, I am still necessary to attack the Dungeon.”
Sir Thomas grinned. Rhodovus gritted his teeth, suddenly wary of the man’s next words. Speaking slowly, Sir Thomas said, “That’s fine. Just do our captains. It’s fine if you do only that even though you really ought to have considered the repercussions you’d have to suffer through before you killed a decent soldier. However, I wasn’t finished with your punishment. I agree with you exactly; we need to conserve your mana. After all, you’re going to be fighting on the front lines rather than from the back as you were going to before. No need to say you’ll follow through with your punishment under truth spell. I think I’d prefer you trying to escape, so I can execute you for deserting.”
“You will regret this, Commander,” Rhodovus shouted as he stormed out the tent. Once he did a cursory scan to confirm that no scrying spells followed him, he smiled. Time’s up.