Jonathon Reese entered the village of Durlap just after sundown. It was a small town, little more than a stopover for merchants on their way to bigger and better places. One small tavern in the town square served as a watering hole for the locals. It was here that Jonathon stopped. It was here he would make his play.
He hopped off his horse, and led it to the stables. A lanky redheaded kid with a bruised left eye stood up from his perch on a barrel to listlessly take the reins from him.
“You boy,” he said, “You seen any strangers around here recently?”
The boy shook his head, not meeting Jonathon’s hard blue gaze. Standing over six feet, Jonathon loomed over the young boy. Broad chested and well muscled, his hands seemed the size of small hams as he absently patted his horse’s flank. Hands that had done dark deeds. His clean-shaven face showed a slight grimace as he addressed the child again.
“Best not lie to me, boy.”
“No sir,” he spoke up now, shaking his head as he did so.
Jonathon moved past the boy into the smoky common room of the tavern.
The room was fairly cramped, most tables were taken with locals drinking away the end of the day. He drew a few disinterested looks are he strode toward the bar. He heard the same talk in small towns on his journey: complaints of drought, failing crops, and one old wiry bearded gaffer was ominously relating the birth of a stillborn calf the week before. He took note of all of this as he ordered a beer, and took a seat facing the door.
On his second drink, he struck up a conversation with the bartender.
Jonathon knew he must choose his words carefully. It’s what he did. As strangers, these people could be very useful to him, or they could turn on him if he said the wrong thing.
“I’m looking for someone,” he began.
“That so?” the man wiped the bar as he looked him up and down, sizing him up. There was no fear there, but Jonathon knew it wasn’t far away. “And what would this someone look like?”
“He’s a Tiefling,” at this, the bartender spat. “Black hair, horns. His face half covered about the mouth. He’s taken to chewing sprigs of mint leaves,” He could tell the bartender had no love for Tieflings, but wasn’t exactly listening to the description. Which meant that he hadn’t seen any recently.
“Damn demonspawn,” he said. “Not seen a one of them around here. What you want with him?”
“He’s a fugitive from justice, he’d not risk coming in here.”
“If you say so. You a bounty hunter?” the bartender asked.
“Something like that,” Reese was losing his patience, the conversation needed to turn somewhere else, but he remained calm. Calculating. Slow and steady. He knew his prey was here, somewhere. “Look, he’d not come in here, but even still, signs of his coming are not hard to miss.”
“Oh?” Reese knew he had his attention now.
“Wherever he goes, this creature brings destruction,” his voice dropped to a calculated whisper. “Has there been any outbreak of plague?”
The bartender’s eyes went wide. Reese had heard the talk of the poor harvest from the other patrons. He knew that the plague was just misdirection. He waited for the bartender to speak.
“Yeah, there was.” Reese hid his shock behind a stolid mask. “Bad one. Took Jeriah Miller and his son, Stefan. They just took sick and died, leaving poor Laisley to herself. She don’t come down to town anymore.”
Jonathon felt that the deaths of two people could hardly be considered an epidemic, though in a small place like this it could easily account for a tenth of the population. But this new bit of information was intriguing to him.
“A widow, you say? She stays home? Doesn’t go out, seek some comfort from the town for her loss? She doesn’t go to church?”
“No, Laisley just shut herself up in her house. So full of grief, she was.”
Jonathon grunted. Women were Belarus’s weakness. He fancied himself a charmer. Fancied himself a lot of things, a human being one of them.
Branden and Theodora Musse were the heirs to the two most powerful merchant houses in Allans Crossing. Their marriage was thought by many to be a perfect match. The arrival of their first child was to be a joyous day, but turned into a nightmare when Theodora bore a Tiefling child.
Branden was speechless at first. His family accused Theodora of lying with devils. Hers tried to argue that the spawn was somehow Branden’s fault. Theodora wept hysterically non-stop. She was taken away by her family and later committed to a sanitarium run by the church for her own safety.
Her family’s estate withered and died. No one would trade with them. Branden became detached and ruthless, prone to wild outbursts of inconsolable rage. His merchant empire crumbled around him over the years, as his more even-tempered competitors stole away his clients. Now he lives in near poverty, destitute. Few traders will work with him because of his raging episodes.
Belarus himself was taken away by his grandmother, before anyone could think to drown the child. It was too late to sweep under the rug, at any rate. Both families had gathered in the house Branden’s father had gifted to them on their wedding day to witness the wonderful birth their two filthy rich estates had spawned.
His grandmother, Shilah, hid the child in a brothel in the worst part of town. A depraved establishment that catered to anyone with a even a little bit of coin. It was said that even beggars could get head in that place.
It was here that Jonathon’s knowledge of Belarus’ upbringing suffered from detail. These facts he found out by backtracking and digging for clues. Usually in order to find his quarry, Reese would need only to trace their past, and he would find some kind of leverage to work on them. An old love, some family. Not Belarus. His past was dead.
Reese believed that somewhere around his tenth or eleventh birthday, he was taken in by a wizard. Some conjuror or hedge-doctor. Shilah hadn’t been much help to Reese. Old and frail, she made out that her memory wasn’t so good. But Reese helped her to remember. He had a way of it; could see into the truth of things. Nevertheless, she could not give him the name of the wizard.
Nor could the women at the brothel. They cared not for names, only coin. Reese could still hear the cries of those heathens burning in their den of sin when he cleansed it with flame.
He had gotten a vague description of the wizard and not much else. That was where the trail of Belarus’s past went cold. Not until he was a grown man did he cross paths with Jonathon Reese.
“So you say they took sick? Both the father and the son?” The bartender nodded. “How long did the sickness last? Short or long?”
“It was very sudden!” Reese knew the answer didn’t matter. He nodded grimly, almost to himself, making sure the implications weren’t lost on the bartender. He was sure that Belarus was with the widow. Now only one task lay before him. He spoke a bit louder.
“Have you noticed any other oddities… in the weather? Any changes?”
“Yes, the crops… the crops were weak this year.” The bartender called across the room. “Pallick! Tell him about your calf!”
“What?” The old man across the room called back. “My calf was stillborn, just this past week!” Perfect, Reese thought. The gods were smiling on him, timing was on his side. “My cow won’t be the same! Her milk’s all dried up!”
“He says there’s a Tiefling demon about these parts!” The bartender explained. There was a pause, and then it seemed the room caught fire. Everyone was openly talking about demon Tieflings. Reese suppressed a smile. He could almost smell the flames of righteous cleansing.
“There’s a good chance he had something to do with the deaths of your townspeople,” Reese explained to the room.
“Jeriah and Stefan?” someone said. “How can this be?”
“Witchcraft!” someone else called.
“Yes.” Reese’s voice cut through the din. All eyes were on him, now. It was like a symphony he had conducted many a time before. His little embers were smoldering before him, he could see the flames in their eyes.
“Your Lailsley is under the spell of this spawn,” He recalled her name easily, it was a talent of his to listen and recall. “She has consorted with devils. This creature poisons all with which it comes in contact. It moves from village to village, preying upon its women, infecting them with its vile demon seed.”
“Not poor Laisley,” someone muttered. Jonathon continued on.
“In the far West, small villages have lost their way, and many women succumb to this monstrosity. Demon children run rampant in the streets, as they spawn faster than human children.”
“What can we do?” This from a young farmer in mud-stained clothes. Probably a pig farmer, thought Reese. He merely looked at them all.
“She’s been holed up with this creature for some time. There’s no telling what they may have got up to.”
The sparks caught. Before long, Reese was following a mob of twelve or so men bearing torches out into the night. The bartender spoke to the redheaded stable boy, told him to get some more lads with weapons. Timing was everything, and Reese didn’t want to waste much time waiting. They gathered in the square by the well, then set out up the hill to the widow’s home.
Her lights were off, but the fires from the multitude of torches threw wild shadows and light across the front of the home. Reese stepped to the front of the muttering men.
“Laisley Miller! You hold in your home a demon spawn wanted for crimes of blackest murder and sorcery! I call you to cast him out of your home!”
There was a long wait. A woman peered through the curtains in one of the front windows. Her hair looked a mess.
“You have let a most foul demon into your home, woman. I mean to see it expelled.”
She stood there staring out at them. The men behind Jonathon began to mutter.
“Let me go talk to her,” Reese said.
He stepped up onto the porch, gently rapped at the door, then let himself inside, closing the door behind him. They saw Laisley disappear from the window. After a few minutes, Reese returned.
“She won’t come out?”
“Why won’t she talk to us?”
“She’s been shut up in there for so long…”
“She is refusing to let me take the demon. Even now, it hides from you all in her attic space,” Reese paused to let that sink in. “Worse yet, she has confirmed that she carries its child.”
“How can this be?”
“What has she done?”
“She’s doomed us all!”
“The foul demon has killed her husband and child. It has infected her with its seed. She now protects it,” Reese calmly stated.
“What do we do?” the mud-stained pig farmer asked.
“Soon the taint of her sins will spread, the demon will come to your homes. Take your wives as its brides. Its demon kin will multiply and cover your village with plague,” Reese stepped down from the porch.
“There is only one thing to be done,” his voice grew to booming, it was another of his Gifts. “You must root out the source of this evil like a weed, and destroy this demon where it lies!”
The crowd was incensed. Laisley had not returned to the window. Someone threw a rock and broke it. The sound of breaking glass was like music to Jonathon. The tuning of the strings before the orchestra began. There were shouts and curses thrown, along with more rocks. Reese didn’t need to say anything. It was not long before the whoofing sounds of torches being hurled through the air signaled the crescendo. But he wasn’t finished.
“Some of you get ‘round the back and make sure the creature doesn’t escape.” A few men broke off and ran around the side of the house. He had to keep some order. A lot of these men were deep in their cups, and needed some extra guidance. He did not envy them explaining to their wives and families what happened here tonight. That was none of his concern.
Reese knew that Belarus had been here. The woman had confirmed as much.
Do you know who I am? he had said. She just nodded. He had gotten little information from her while he was in her house. After all, you don’t leave a kettle to boil on its own, and he couldn’t afford to keep the crowd waiting. He had done a quick turn of the house while he questioned her, pausing only to use his stare on her to snap her back into the present. The clues were there. He had filed them away for review later.
As he rode East, the fire from her home was still visible. But Jonathon Reese did not bother to look back.