Sir Fallon was up before dawn to meet with the guards assigned to him. They were a sorry lot, not the worst that the Talingarde armed forces had to offer, but far from the best as well. When they had mustered he took the pile of drawings that the acolytes had made and distributed them, two to a man. He then divided the 50 soldiers, 25 to search the section of Aldencross south of the watch wall, and 25 to accompany him to search the north side.
“Alright men, we have few leads and little time. Our quarry managed to infiltrate Tower Balentyne and murdered several men, so they are not to be underestimated. Always stay in your groups…do not allow yourselves to become separated. You’ve all been here a while, you know the people of Aldencross. Warn them. Question them. We need as many people looking for the perpetrators as possible. If you see anyone you do not know, detain them…And if you detect any threat, sound your signal horns. We need success, not heroes…”
He dismissed the men to their searches, joining the last group out the gate. He sniffed the cold morning air. The smell of magic was weaker outside the keep, faint, but undeniable. The trail inside the keep had run cold as he searched last night. Several guards, though none assigned to him, had the stink on them, but, outside of the rookery and mage’s quarters, their were no concentrations in the tower. That meant that the witches must be in the town…if they had not fled altogether.
The guards spread out once they were out of the keep. They went door to door, knocking, questioning, startling townsfolk from their sleep. They hung the wanted posters at every street crossing, every notice board. Sir Fallon followed, watching them, observing the people that they roused from slumber, sniffing. An hour passed. There was nothing. The town was clean.
And then the rain started.
Just as the sky was lightening a storm blew in, and fast. It had none of the preamble of a natural storm. No clouds moving in. No warning breeze. In just a few minutes the sky changed from a clear spring morning to pouring down sheets of rain. Rain that reeked of witchcraft. Where only a minute ago he had smelled nothing, now the entire city stank. Every drop of rain, every overflowing gutter, every water-streaked window bore the stink of powerful magic. Sir Fallon hung his head in despair and let the rain soak into his boots…he had lost. He wouldn’t be able to sniff out anything as long as this magical deluge lasted. He urged the guards to keep up despite the rain. While he had no chance of sniffing out the witches, they might still find someone who had seen the old serving man from the night before.
It was late evening when Sir Fallon finally called a halt to the search. The guards, sopping wet, regrouped outside the central gate separating the two halves of the town and reported. No one in town had ever seen the man on the posters. Every house had been searched, every person in town had been questioned. The few strangers in town were all merchants, and the guards who had questioned them insisted that they were the most perfectly amiable, good-natured, normal-seeming folks they had ever met.
Only after the last guard had reported did Sir Fallon notice something. Several of the guards, all of whom had reported meeting some of these “good-natured” strangers, has a certain slackness to their features, a slight staring, unfocused quality to their gaze. They had been charmed. He couldn’t smell them, but had found his witches after all…
Sir Fallon questioned the charmed guards, having them recount when and where they had met these kind strangers. After an hour of questioning, he carefully reconstructed the accounts. It seemed as if the witches had been stalking the guards as much as they had been searching for the witches. While the descriptions of the merchants varied, the times and locations of the encounters implied that it was the same three people, working their way systematically through town…and starting from the Inn on the north side of town. The first group of guards to mention them spoke of meeting a nice family of six in the Inn first thing in the morning, just as the storm had started. Sir Fallon dismissed the guards, he could certainly dispel the charms on a few, but too many had been infected. If he was going to cure them he had to find the witches and put an end to their evil.
Fighting the fatigue of having stayed up too late the night before and the sickening smell of a city drenched in magical rain, Sir Fallon ran for the inn as fast as he could. His boots slid in the thick mud and splashed through the deep puddles that made up the streets north of the wall. In many places the water had pooled so deeply that he had to cover his nose to keep from retching at the smell. While his nose had gotten him out of a lot of trouble in the past, his ability to keenly smell out witchcraft now seemed a liability.
Sir Fallon skidded to a stop just outside the door to the inn and shoved open the door to the common room to find the place bustling. While it was not surprising to find the inn busy on such a wet night, he was not ready for the site that greeted him. Wine, ale, and stronger drink were flowing freely and everyone was laughing and carrying on. When he entered their were a few cheers and everyone waved at him…there were even a few random calls of “Norm!” At first he was certain that they had just mistaken him for a local personality, but then he noticed the look. Everyone in the bar, the barkeep, the serving girls, the dancing girls, and every patron had the same slack-faced, glazed-eyed look as the guards. They were all under the witch’s spell, every last one of them.
With a cry of frustration and rage Sir Fallon lashed out at the nearest patron, calling on the holy power of Mitra to undo the witch’s curses. It only took a few blows to cleanse enough people of the enchantment for a brawl to break out. People fled, tables were over turned, chairs and fists went flying. Sir Fallon didn’t care. The entire town had been bewitched right under his nose. The witches could be long gone by now, but they had done their damage. Between the magical storm and the charmed townsfolk he would never be able to find the witches.
He lashed out around him, striking as many people as he could with no thought of defense. The more he could hit, the more he might be able to free. He took blow after blow as the drunken, mind-controlled mob descended on him. But he was strong. The more he hit, the more allies he had. The more he hit the safer the town became.
The fight stretched on for minutes, combatants steadily dropping to the floor or running for safety from the enraged witch-hunter. In the end Sir Fallon found himself faced off against a septet of drunken, charmed dwarves. He had always heard that dwarves were naturally resistant to magic…of course, he’d also never heard of an entire town being enchanted in a day. The thing that always made witches catchable was that they tended to have limited reserves of power. Just as he could not dispel an infinite number of magics, so witches were not supposed to be able to affect people on this scale. But now he had seen it. His powers were spent, and the witches’ clearly were not.
Sir Fallon stumbled with fatigue and took a hard blow to the midsection from the leading dwarf. Sure that this would be the end, he called once more in Mitra—if he could not cure everyone in town, he could at least win this fight. Holy flames engulfed his hand and he threw all his weight behind the next punch…but he wasn’t fast enough. The dwarves upended a table in front of them and the explosive power of his attack caused the old wooden furniture to burst into gleaming life, red and yellow flames licking along its surface.
Only then did Sir Fallon realize what he had done. The place was a matchbox, made entirely of wood from ceiling to floor and everything was soaked in spilled liquor. When the flames reached the kitchen there was an explosion. Flour? Oil? It didn’t matter what had caught, just that it had. The inn filled with fire. He heard breaking glass from above…probably the patrons who had sought refuge in their room escaping through the windows.
He stumbled out into the street to find that a mob had gathered. While people had fled the fight, they had not fled far, and others had come to watch. As the fire spread through the inn the crowd grew. He walked out into the arms of at least a hundred people, the magic-laden puddles of rain and the people’s enchantment-glazed eyes reflected the light of the burning building eerily. Then a cry went up from the people. “Murderer!” they yelled. “Arsonist!” cried others. Fingers pointed his way. Then fists. Then clubs, knives, and pitchforks.
As the angry mob chased him out of town, north, towards the cold, uncharted lands north of the Watch Wall he could see the fires spreading. Gouts of flames seemed to leap from building to building as if the fire were a living thing. Where he expected the rain to suppress the fire it did not. Some buildings seemed to ignite without being anywhere near the initial conflagration. By the time he crested the last hill and Aldencross faded from sight the entire town north of the wall was ablaze…