Sentinel Jocane has always been a faithful servant of the Church of Divine Silana. His skill with a sword was matched only by his piety. So when he was ordered to investigate an invasion by undead creatures, he obeyed without question. He would find the source of the stories and quell them. After all, the Church had long ago decreed that the undead could not possibly return.
What he finds will test his faith to its limits. Stripped of rank and declared a heretic, he nevertheless pledges his life to solving the mystery of the undead creatures. With the grudging help of people who had been his enemies only days before, Jocane strives to restore the integrity of the Church and defeat the growing evil that threatens the entire continent.
A strong west wind brought with it the scent of the autumn flowers that carpeted the plains between the Randorish Forest and the road to Perlac. Jocane, perched atop his sturdy mount, studied the lands about them as he reached for a waterskin. His fellow Sentinel, Arloc, rode beside him in silence. Neither had spoken for two hours, a result of their latest argument. Jocane glanced at his companion and felt his anger rise once more. He clinched his reins in white-knuckled fists. Arloc was a dangerous man. When enforcing Church doctrine, violence came to him too easily. If left unchecked, his actions could erode the trust placed in the Church by the people who worshipped Divine Silana. It fell to Jocane to correct Arloc's violent behavior. Jocane was no stranger to the sword, but he preferred to talk first.
Jocane checked his map. The city of Perlac lay to the northeast, beyond the horizon. They would reach their destination about an hour after dark.
Arloc shifted in his saddle. "I still don't believe two Sentinels are needed to perform this task. Either one of us is sufficient."
Jocane's eyes narrowed. He tapped a finger against his chest. "I am the senior Sentinel for the eastern half of the continent." He jabbed the finger at Arloc. "You are here to observe and learn. Under orders from Guardian Roder, I am to provide you with further instruction. I will evaluate your temperament and performance, and I will report back to him." He frowned and looked into the distance. "Guardian Roder also worries also about your habits when not in service to the Church. You drink too much, and you share your bed with too many women. This, I have already seen. I fear that you do the Church more harm than good. In fact, I wonder what else you might be capable of."
Arloc opened his woodland brown cloak and gazed at the highly polished Sentinel's chain mail beneath. "Why? The Church gives special permissions to those who stand guard before it. Sentinels are allowed to do all these things. Personally, I think the mercy you show is a sign of weakness. You're a coward."
"Watch your tongue, Arloc. In the past weeks, you have exceeded your authority. Don't exceed my patience."
"I've done nothing beyond what Church doctrine allows."
"What doctrine allows and what a given situation requires are not necessarily the same. I will teach you the difference. Learn well, and you shall retain your position. I hope this will be so." He closed his eyes. "Our Order must fulfill the needs of the Church of Divine Silana."
"The needs of Silana, or of the Church?"
Jocane looked at his companion. "There's no difference. In time, you will come to realize this. Divine Silana will provide your answers. It's all a matter of faith."
The two returned to silence as their journey dragged on. They passed many travelers coming and going along the busy road. Some were lone horsemen, others were members of large caravans. All cast wary glances at the two armed men as they rode past. Heavy rains had left puddles standing on the paving stones of the broad track. The Church had paved the continent's main roads a century before. A portion of the tithes of the faithful went toward the maintenance of those roads. As a result, the passage of the main thoroughfares was a comfortable journey.
As Jocane had predicted, night fell before they arrived at the gates of Perlac. A contingent of city militia warded the entry. During daylight hours, the heavy traffic was allowed to come and go unimpeded. During hours of darkness, however, everyone underwent a higher level of scrutiny before passage was granted. Jocane found their precautions ridiculous. If he wanted to enter the city on some malicious errand, he would do so during the day and avoid the nighttime's heavier security.
He and Arloc waited for several minutes before a soldier waved them forward. The guard, dressed in the standard black and gold livery of the Perlac militia, yawned. "What is your business in Perlac this evening?"
Jocane sat up straight in his saddle. He parted his cloak to reveal his glimmering armor, capped with the medallion of the Sentinels of Silana – a silver lightning bolt on a field of blue. "Stand aside."
The startled soldier bowed and backed away. Jocane guided Arloc through the gates and into the city. He tugged his cloak back in place to hide his armor. Tonight's mission required secrecy, at least for the time being.
He found the Boar's Tusk Tavern near the city's north wall. They turned east and rode a short distance away before Jocane indicated he was ready. The Sentinels dismounted and secured their horses to a wooden beam, then returned to the Boar's Tusk on foot. The sounds of raucous laughter and drunken singing carried to them outside the building. He loosened his sword in its scabbard before he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The patrons scarcely noticed the two new arrivals. Jocane selected a spot at the bar where two chairs sat unoccupied. He ordered two mugs of ale, then relaxed and watched for their target. He and Arloc chatted as they sipped their bitter drinks, each watching his half of the bar. After almost an hour, Arloc nodded toward the entry.
Jocane took another sip of ale, sat his mug on the bar, and turned to face the door. Two men had just entered, one of them standing a full head taller than his companion. The scar running from his right eye to his jawbone confirmed his identity. He was the man the Church had sent him to arrest. He was a heretic, one who must be dealt with according to Church law. His crimes against the Goddess would not go unpunished.
Arloc reached for his sword and started to rise to his feet, but Jocane placed a restraining hand on his arm. "Not here."
Arloc's brow furrowed. "But he must pay for his crimes!"
"Not inside the tavern. Too many people in here who might decide to protect him. We'll wait until he leaves."
Arloc glared at Jocane, then edged back onto his seat. The twitching of his jaw muscles betrayed his irritation. For the next two hours, they sat in silence. Jocane's stomach rumbled, but he refused to order food. If they left without finishing their meal, it would draw unwanted attention. Besides, there would be plenty to eat at the local temple, when they brought this heretic in to face his judgment.
With a roaring laugh and a hearty clap to the shoulder of one of his companions, the heretic left his table, headed toward the door. This time, Arloc remained seated and waited for Jocane's first move. Once their target had left the tavern, Jocane deposited a silver coin on the bar and followed him to the door. Their ruse had worked; no one paid any attention to the two Sentinels as they stalked their quarry.
Jocane shouldered the stained wooden door aside and stopped just outside. With a glance to his left, he spotted the heretic, talking to a pair of men who had left the tavern only moments earlier. All three were armed with longswords. Their heavy cloaks made it difficult to tell if they wore armor. But it would not matter, in the end. These two strangers would not interfere in the business of the Church.
Jocane squared his shoulders and started toward them, Arloc at his side. "Verod of Perlac! The time has come for you to answer for your crimes!"
Verod thrust his hands on his hips. "And just who are you supposed to be?"
He threw off his cloak. "I am Jocane, and this is Arloc. We are Sentinels of the Church of Silana. In the name of our Goddess, I hereby charge you with Heresy against her Church. You will now come with me to answer to these charges, and if necessary, accept your punishment."
"To be murdered by the Church, you mean." Verod drew his sword and turned to his companions. "Back away, boys. This is not your fight."
Arloc grinned and drew his own blade. "All the better."
The two strangers glanced at each other, then at the swords that seemed to have materialized in the Sentinels' hands, and they edged back into the darkness. Arloc took a step forward, but Jocane held up his free hand. "Your initiative is appreciated, but not needed. I will deal with this matter."
Verod swung his weapon in tight arcs as he circled his opponent. "How can you possibly believe I'm guilty of crimes against the Church? I have done nothing wrong, and you have not even looked into the matter."
Jocane's eyes narrowed. "It is all a matter of faith. The Diviner has spoken to Silana, and she has declared you guilty. That is all I need to know."
He raised his sword and strode forward. Verod delivered a wild swing at Jocane's head, but Jocane parried the blow with little effort. His return strike drew blood from Verod's left leg. His foe staggered, and Jocane drove forward without mercy. He pounded blow after blow on the heretic, who staggered to one knee. Jocane's sword traversed a broad arc and sliced completely through the wrist of Verod's upraised sword arm. The blade tumbled away with a clatter.
"Yield to the judgment of Silana."
Verod clamped the stump of his arm and sneered at the Sentinel above him. "Finish it now."
"That is not my place. I am only to bring you in, not kill you."
Verod reached his remaining hand toward the hilt of his dagger, but Jocane was quicker. He swung the flat of his blade against the side of Verod's head. The heretic collapsed in a heap at Jocane's feet.
Arloc moved to his side. "Shall I go deal with his companions?"
He wiped his sword on the fallen man's cloak, then slid it home in his scabbard. "No. They have done nothing wrong. Get the rope."
"But they associated with this heretic! We should punish them!"
Jocane grabbed him by the arm. "This is what Guardian Roder spoke of! Those men backed away when we announced ourselves. There is no need for further action."
"And if they become a threat later? Any damage they do could have been prevented by our actions, right now."
Jocane thrust him away. "We are not thugs. We are Sentinels of the Church of Silana. We were ordered to bring this man in, and we shall do so. Now do as I said!"
Arloc secured one end of the rope to Verod's feet with violent jerks of the rope, eliciting cries of pain from their awakening captive. He tied the other end to the pommel of his saddle while Jocane secured a leather strap around Verod's arm to slow the bleeding. They remounted and rode at an easy pace along the paved streets of Perlac, dragging their burden behind them. A trail of blood from Verod's grievous wounds marked their passage. A few minutes later, they arrived at the Temple of Silana.
A sentry stepped forward to bar their passage. "Who comes before the holy house of the Divine Goddess, Silana?"
Jocane bowed in his saddle. "I am Jocane, Sentinel of Divine Silana, and this is Sentinel Arloc. We bring with us a Heretic, Verod by name, who must face his final judgment."
"Welcome to the Temple, My Lords." He stepped aside. "May Divine Silana have mercy on his soul. If she sees fit to do so."
"Glory to Silana."