After the Summoning Wars
The Fate of Doug Palmer
As the meeting ends, Bert and Thomas head below-deck to meet with Dr. Haverdy. Captain John motions to Corporal Lorne, who had been waiting outside with Jenny. “Find out where they’ve taken Durgard. I don’t want him getting lost.” The corporal salutes and runs off.
“We still have the crystal ball,” Newton offers to Captain John, “maybe we can check to see if we can find any of the others.”
The Captain looks at him wearily with a pensive frown. “Yes. I forgot you had that. Please.” He looks as if he’ll collapse any moment from the strain of the last few days.
“Perhaps we can wait until you get some rest, though.” Jenny notes. “You look like death at the moment.”
Newton nods. “Make yourselves comfortable. The spell takes about an hour to cast.”
“Uh, let’s get a little privacy first.” Jenny suggests with a glance at the crew members engaged in various activities near where they stand on deck of the Vertragus.
“I don’t care about them.” the Captain responds. “Besides, I get the feeling if they wanted to eavesdrop, there’s not much we could do at the moment to avoid their sensors.” Despite his objections, though, he joins Newton as he leads the group to a quiet spot off-ship.
The hour passes excruciatingly slow as the fate of Doug and the others remains a mystery. In the meantime, Jenny finds Bee and invites him to join them, Captain John smokes several cigarettes, and Kelly sits absorbed in silent, barely contained anxiety.
All eyes fall on the orb as Newton finishes the spell. The smoky white color of the ball slowly coalesces into a dark image of Doug’s form. He’s bound in golden cords with his hands clasped in a prayer-like position near his face. He’s dressed in white robes, with his feet left bare. A bronze-colored rod is positioned between his teeth and tied in place with a cord behind his head, acting as a gag. Eight other men can be seen in a similar state.
They are arrayed in a tight circle in a darkened room, illuminated by a single candle at their backs, making their faces difficult to discern, though Doug and Marcus are recognized easily. The walls and ceiling lay beyond the range of the spell, but the floor is bare, flat stone. Whatever injuries they may have sustained during the ambush appear to have been healed.
After a moment of uncertain silence, Bee speaks up. “Well, at least they’re-”
He’s cut off by the appearance of two figures entering view. Both wear white robes with hoods that obscure their faces. They lift Doug from the ground and drag him away from his comrades. Marcus struggles and curses at them ineffectually through his gag. He and the others fade from the range of the sensor, though, and Doug is forced on his knees into a shallow copper basin. The robed men begin to pour water down his back with large jugs. Burning incense and flower petals are strewn about.
A middle-aged man steps into view. He’s slim and tall, with a long white robe emblazoned across the chest with a crimson fist. His face appears waxy and wrinkled with age, and he stares out of milky blue eyes. His hair is trimmed into a greying bowl cut and its topped with a faintly glowing golden halo. He meticulously wraps a crimson cord around his left hand as he reaches Sergeant Palmer’s side. “The Crimson Fist.” Newton whispers, echoing the thoughts on everybody’s mind.
“Sergeant Douglas Christopher Palmer III,” the man speaks slowly, “Today you will be granted Salvation.”
“Oh no.” Kelly whispers as she grips her symbol of Pelor close to her mouth. “Oh no. Oh, Pelor, no.”
Doug begins to cry softly, his tears mixing with the water pouring down his face. “You weep.” The priest notes quietly. “So do I, Brother. But I weep tears of joy. When you see the Light, so too will you.”
He begins to pace back and forth before the prostrate man, all the while wrapping the crimson cord intricately between the fingers of his left hand.
“I am Salvation. I have peered deep inside of you, and have seen a good soul tormented by a life of sin. I look upon your face, and my heart pains me, for you were never given the chance to walk in the light. I rage at cruel fate, that your path has not been easy, that your trials were too much for you to overcome, that day by day, you slipped farther away from the Good of the world. I see a soul that has wandered, seeking without knowing what to seek, searching without realizing that the goal has been given to you! Salvation! You pass to another realm today, and I shall not stand by and see your soul burn for all eternity because you did not get the CHANCE to see the light of goodness for all of your life! Within you, I see a brief glimmer of goodness. Within you, I see the need for a chance, the potential to rise above, and to live a life anew in the Grace of the Celeastial Realm.”
The stunned silence among the watchers around the crystal ball is broken only by the faint whimpers from Kelly with each verbal flourish from the proselytizer.
“Here at the end of your life, it may seem too late, the weight of your evil too heavy to put aside, the stains of your life set too deep within you to remove, even for the brief moment of redemption. But do not despair – I am your steward, your shepherd, chosen to guide you into the Great Ever-After! Your time of uncertainty has ended, and a time of Eternal Joy awaits you. We, together today, close your Earthly chapter, but in so doing begin your Eternal story in the Kingdom above. You are to be reborn of divine fire, a pure infant on the shores of that Celestial Realm, in the warm embrace of Heavenly Grace. A better home awaits you upon the Mountain above. Salvation.”
The man pauses for a moment and looks down at the pitiful ranger with a benevolent smile. He has finished wrapping the cord around his left hand, which he now raises above his head, finders outstretched. Then he speaks with the force of a mighty thunder.
“I am Salvation. By the power of all that is Holy, by the very chains of my own Eternal Damnation, I grant you Freedom! Rejoice! YOU ARE FREE!”
With this final bellow, he thrusts his hand down upon Doug’s forehead. A blinding light erupts from his hand, and the two men are instantly engulfed in flame. A single voice is heard screaming in agony over the roaring cacophony. As the flames die, so too does the scream fade to echoes in the ears of the horrified spectators, wondering at the change in tone at the end – was that the voice of a man confronted by paradise, or just the dying breath finally losing its momentum?
Their eyes adjust, and the white-robed priest of the Crimson Fist stands untouched by the flames beside the burnt corpse of Doug Palmer. Kelly cries out in grief, falls to her knees, and sobs into her hands. Captain John musters the strength to simply utter “No.”
Newton tries to find the words to say, but realizes the crystal ball has more to show. The man who calls himself Salvation rips the skull from Doug’s remains and looks directly at the sensor that has been viewing him.
“Whomever you are, I have a message.” Still bearing the skull, he slowly paces back to the remaining eight rangers and Freemen. The sensor follows and reveals three robed men dousing the prisoners in clear liquid. The men desperately struggle against their bonds.
“What are they doing?” Jenny asks, fear welling in her voice.
“I seek the dwarf with the numbers zero-one-seven tattooed on the back of its neck.” The smooth voice continues. The gathered watchers glance at Bee, who covers his neck with a hand. “Justice must be done upon it. It must be given the Salvation that will otherwise forsake it.”
One of the robed acolytes emerges bearing a torch and hands it to the leader. He extends his arm to hold it over the prone captives and speaks over their muffled screams and curses. “Find me at the broken tower on the pine hill North of Swellburg where these men laid down their lives to be rewarded with eternal bliss. You too can find forgiveness in my embrace.”
Holding Doug’s still smoldering skull in one hand, and the precariously perched torch in the other, he begins his final incantation once again, this time with quiet grace. “I am Salvation…”
“No!” Captain John cries out in fury. He pounces at the crystal ball, as if to reach inside and strike the man down. “You son of a bitch! No!”
“By the power of all that is holy,” the man continues, unmoved by the unseen outburst, “by the very chains of my own eternal damnation, I grant you freedom. Rejoice, for you are free.” The words are spoken in a breathy whisper as the torch falls to the ground beside the shrieking hostages, igniting the fluid. The priest stands for a moment with a vague smile of satisfaction illuminated by the dancing lights watching the men writhe and scream against their demise. Then, with a swift flick of his hand, the scene abruptly vanishes, leaving the watchers in mute horror over what they’ve witnessed.
The silence is broken by Kelly’s quiet sobbing. She slowly works herself to her feet with Newton’s assistance. The young widow tries to regain her composure, but collapses in the cleric’s arms in a fit of despair.
Captain John touches her shoulder. “Kelly, I-”
“No!” The woman shouts, furiously thrusting his arm away. “Don’t ever touch me, you coward! Don’t ever speak to me!” She fights back the welling tears. “We should have gone back! How could you leave your men to die? They trusted you!” She gasps and shouts between quivering lips. “I trusted you!”
The Captain silently accepts the invective with a stony facade. Kelly gains a measure of control over her speech, and continues. “Maybe I should have seen this coming. When we left those two rangers to their fate in Canistooth, I should have seen you’re willing to sacrifice lives for this unknown quest of yours.”
Bee speaks up at this point. “Goin’ back fer others jes to die yourself ain’t no sense. Ye really shouldn’t feel guilty fer living. I’ve made it through a load o’ scrapes, an’ I don’t feel bad ’bout it.”
Kelly turns to him with clenched teeth. “That’s wonderful for you.” she growls. She looks back at the silent Captain. “Doug shared your banishment, so I shared his. No longer. I will not be another life for you to sacrifice. Maybe Corporal Lorne will wise up and you’ll only have yourself left. What will you do then, good Captain?”
She turns to return to the Vertragus. Newton and Jenny follow close behind. Newton slaps Bee on the head as they pass. “What’s the matter with you?” he scolds.
“Ye know what I’m sayin’, right Cap’n John?” Bee inquires of the scorned ranger.
“Shut up.” John responds quietly. “And don’t call me ‘Captain John’ anymore. It’s just John. I haven’t been ‘Captain’ for several months.”
“I deserted the men under my command during combat. When we left combat with the orcs in Peloria to save your life from Commander Locke, I made a judgement call to disobey orders, and for that, I’ve been stripped of my command. Strongheart gave me a choice of prison or exile here where I could report on the activities of the hobgoblins. I chose to regain my honor through service.” He pauses to stare at Bee for a short time. “Do you understand what has been sacrificed so you may live?”
Bee shrugs. “Sure. I guess.”
John lights another cigarette and lurches back toward the Vertragus. “Durgard is my only chance now.” he mumbles.
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