Transcript – Distant Thunder

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Twenty One: Distant Thunder

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the continued memory of Corporal Cassian SinLeop on his journey home across Sangland; originally donated on the seventeenth of the month of Bloomtingtine in the year 723. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the twelfth of Highmoon, 730.

We Begin.

I left the station behind me.

It was only when I was two streets away that I had calmed down enough to think clearly.

I was in the middle of a city I barely knew, my home was still a good couple of hundred miles away and I’d run away from my train for no other reason than I’d been unnerved by a tattoo. I felt ridiculous.

Who’s to say that strange man on the other platform had even been looking at me?

Still, better safe than sorry, as my mother used to say. So, instead of turning around and heading back for the station, I decided to instead make my way through Zalatan to find a coach station. There would no doubt be at least one heading north towards Almari and from there I knew I would be able to get back home.

After asking several people and taking more than a few wrong turns, I was finally pointed in the right direction.

My route took me through the thoroughfare which, as could have been expected, was packed with people. This by itself might not have been so bad but most of the people were tauroxen who tend to run pretty large and, more importantly in this situation, pretty heavy. There were also wagons and even a couple of those new steam cars which filled the air above the street with a thick, grey cloud.

I’ve never had much of a problem with crowds but, faced with that, even I was hesitant to push my way through. My hand went to the ring in my pocket and the thought of Elbas waiting for me at home bloomed in my mind. I had to get back and nothing was about to stop me.

I began trying to navigate my way through the jostling crowd. I did try to tread carefully at first. I’d put my blue coat in my bag on the train but I still felt the urge to act appropriately to my rank.

But, after being pushed, elbowed and having my feet trodden on more times than I cared to count, I decided, to the Depths with it, and began a bit of shoving of my own.

I was able to push my way through to place myself behind a steam car which served as quite an effective plough through the crowded street.

The last person I’d spoken to had told me that to reach the coach station, I simply had to get to the end of the thoroughfare and I should be able to see it from there.

So, when the car reached the end of the road and continued on its way, wherever that might have been, I looked around, expecting the coach station to be in obvious sight.

It was not.

There was no sign of it and no signs pointing to it. I was starting to feel more than a little frantic.

“Can I help you, Sir?” It was a lawkeeper. She was nearly a foot taller than I was, but that was hardly surprising since she was a taurox. She had dark brown fur, spotted with white, and had short blonde hair that she wore tied back in a tail. Two short horns curved upwards from the sides of her head.

Her pristine scarlet coat had been given the addition of three silver bars across each shoulder, with another three on her left lapel. A sergeant.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I introduced myself, telling her that I was trying to get back home to Thakilton.

The lawkeeper reached up to scratch at her chin, thoughtfully. As she did so, I caught a glint of gold on her hand and saw what appeared to be a signet ring on her middle finger.

I’d never seen a lawkeeper wearing any kind of jewellery before but then again, I didn’t know many lawkeepers and had spoken to even less, so who was I to judge?

The lawkeeper snapped her fingers then, as if coming to a realisation.

She said that she knew the station I was trying to get to but, unfortunately, there were no more coaches going north that day. I swore softly under my breath. The lawkeeper chuckled and added that there was another station on the west end side of the city that she knew, for a fact, had at least two more coaches scheduled to depart for Almari.

I thanked her sincerely for the information and turned to go. Then I saw the crowd that I’d just pushed my way through. The prospect of having to go through anything like that again was not one I was looking forward to.

I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. The lawkeeper said that she knew a way through some back roads that would cut out most of the unpleasantness of the main road.

I thanked her profusely and followed her as she led me towards a narrow lane that ran behind a row of tall buildings.

As we walked, we got to talking. She told me her name was Sergeant Dayzira and that she’d been living in Zalatan for just a little over a year, she’d been transferred there after her promotion. It had been hard, she’d said, leaving her old home behind but she hadn’t minded as one of her daughters lived in the city so she got the chance to see her quite often.

Apparently, the sergeant had spent her twenties in the harem of the Tor of Manacca and had had five children, four girls and a boy.

I know a little of how taurox children are raised so I didn’t ask her how her children were, not wanting to touch on a potentially sore topic. Instead, I asked how long she had been a lawkeeper.

The conversation went on like this as we made our way through the back roads and winding lanes that twisted through Zalatan. I told her about my Elbas, about how I was trying to get back to see him. I even told her about the strange people with the odd tattoos that seemed to have been following me all the way from Hed-Gir.

She seemed interested in that, said she had never even heard of such a symbol.

I gave her a quick rundown of what the raekn girl on the trail had said, that it was the symbol of some religious group.

She asked if the girl had mentioned a name.

I was about to answer that no she hadn’t, when I realised that my new friend had led us into a dead end.

Before I could say anything, she had turned on me with a cocked pistol in her hand. As you might have guessed, it was pointing at me. A glint of gold drew my eye once again to the signet ring the lawkeeper wore on her right hand. I hadn’t looked too closely at it before but, now the hand it was on was clutching a pistol, so I was suddenly paying much more attention to it.

It was that symbol again, the coiling dragon, rearing with lion-like claws.

She said that she was sorry about this, that she knew it wasn’t my fault, that all of this was just an unfortunate accident. But I had stumbled into something that had to remain hidden.

Now, this was hardly the first time I’d had a weapon pointed at me so it wasn’t as terrifying for me as it might have been for someone else. So, far from being distressed by the pistol, I snapped at her that if her cult or whatever it was such a secret then they should do a better job of keeping that secret. The first person I’d seen had had the symbol tattooed on his face, for goodness’ sake!

She looked at me mystified for a moment, then chuckled.

“No,” she said, “the existence of the church is common knowledge. Our true purpose is what must remain hidden.”

True purpose? I was getting angry now. I didn’t know what she was talking about, I said, I didn’t know about any purpose, let alone a true one!

The lawkeeper looked at me, almost pityingly. She said that she knew, but that I had stumbled into it all the same.

I knew where this was going. I knew I had to act fast. Fortunately, I had years of experience and had received training in how to deal with many different scenarios, including what to do if you were unarmed and confronted by an armed opponent.

The thing you have to remember, I could almost hear my old drill sergeant’s voice, is that a pistol can only be shot once. Sure, its dangerous while loaded but if you can get them to fire and miss, then they’re essentially left with a small club. And that’s when you get in close and disarm them.

The trick is getting them to fire and miss. The best way to do that, is to do what’s unexpected.

The one with a gun will be expecting you to run away. No good, they can take their time and aim and hit you in the back. Not an option for me anyway, we were in a dead end and the lawkeeper was covering the only exit.

So, I took my shot before she could take hers.

I ran straight at her, zigzagging from left to right in irregular distances to throw her off.

I could see her eyes widen in shock. The pistol went off and I saw the ball ricochet off the stone cobbles.

I grabbed her wrist, using all my strength to force it upward. So, now the pistol was empty. The downside was I was now grappling with a woman nearly half again my size and more than a little stronger than me.

I could have made a go at it. Who knows, I might even have done well. But, the threat of the pistol had been neutralised, there was nothing keeping me there.

So, instead of trying to make a fight of it, I pulled her towards me, taking her off balance. While she tried to keep her balance, I ran past her, back up the alley and away as fast as my legs would carry me.

I wasn’t the only one running. Everyone close by had heard the gunshot and most people were smart enough to want to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. There were a few idiots hanging around, looking for what the cause of the commotion was.

The lawkeeper was coming after me. I cursed under my breath. The people who had hung back were now seeing someone running from a lawkeeper. Some might try and interfere, thinking me a criminal and one or two did make a move to get in my way. But I’ve always been quick, so I was able to skip around them and keep running.

I did chance a look back, once. The lawkeeper was coming after me but she couldn’t keep up.

I ran back the way we had come, looking around for anything familiar I could use to guide me back to the high street. I knew if I could make it back there, then I might be able to lose myself in the crowd.

Down a long winding lane I ran, I looked back again and saw that I’d managed to shake off the sergeant. And I recognised the sign hanging over a cobblers shop, I was going in the right direction, I was going to make it back to the high street.

Then I saw something that brought me almost skidding to a halt.

A glimpse of crimson. More lawkeepers, three of them, these ones all armed with rifles, and they were running up the lane. I threw myself into the alcove of the cobblers shop doorway. They hadn’t seen me yet but if they kept coming then there was no way they’d miss me.

I leaned back against the door.

I knew that these lawkeepers were probably just responding to reports of a disturbance, that it was unlikely that they’d be yet more members of this group of creeps that seemed intent on stalking me across Sangland.

But I couldn’t take that risk. They seemed to know my every move, and were fixated on taking me. That made me shiver, despite the rather warm day.

I still had no idea why these people were so keen on finding me, what was I supposed to have done?

The lawkeepers had nearly reached me. I did consider turning myself in. Better that than risk running and ending up shot. Everyone knows some lawkeepers are a bit too quick on the trigger when they see someone running away.

But even if they were honest and they arrested me, or just took me in for questioning, who would likely be waiting for me at the station? The Sergeant. Or one of her companions.

But I was struggling to see an alternative.

That’s when the shop door opened and I fell backwards onto the carpeted shop floor.

I groaned in pain and shock.

Looking down at me, looking rather surprised, was a small, raekn man dressed in a shabby smock with a pair of half-moon glasses perched on his pointed nose.

“Good afternoon,” he said, sounding rather bemused.

I scrabbled to my feet and slammed the door shut. There was a small window in the door that I now peered cautiously through. I saw the lawkeepers jog past the shop, continuing up the lane.

I was then suddenly aware that the shopkeeper’s head was beside my own. He was also peering through the window.

“Aaah,” he said, knowingly, “trouble with law enforcement, is it?” He narrowed his beady eyes at me. “You’re not wanted for anything serious, are you? You haven’t killed anyone?”

I stammered out that no I hadn’t done anything. The lawkeepers were after me but I didn’t know why.

The shopkeeper gave me a searching look, as if he could read my honesty, or lack thereof, in my eyes. Finally he nodded, looking satisfied.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “this isn’t the first time I’ve had to help someone hide from the law.”

He turned and walked back through the shop. I watched him, astonished. He was a small, soft spoken man in middle age. His grey hair grew in tufts over his small, pointed ears. In short, he looked the exact opposite of the sort I’d expect to be casually saying they were used to sheltering fugitives.

I followed him back to his counter where a boot was perched ready on a cobbler’s horn, its sole hanging off it like a limp tongue.

This must have been what the shopkeeper had been working on before he’d heard me hiding outside his shop. He picked up a small hammer and began gently tapping nails into the sole, fixing it back in place.

“So, you have no clue at all why they’re chasing you?” he said to me, not taking his eyes from his task.

I told him no, none. And then, probably out of the mix of fear and frustration, I told him the abridged story of what had happened since I had left Hed-Gir. The strangers with their bizarre tattoos and staring eyes, how they’d seemed to follow me all across Sangland, finishing with my encounter with the sergeant who, for no apparent reason, had tried to shoot me down in a dark alley.

By the time I’d finished my story, the shopkeeper had put down his hammer and was staring at me with a look of amazement.

“Well, I’ve heard some tales in my time, boy,” he said, “but that is quite a story.”

I asked if he knew anything that might help me.

He told me that, unfortunately, he didn’t.

“But,” he went on, moving away from the counter and beckoning me toward a backdoor. “I do know someone who might. She’s a bit of an expert on strange things, I’m not promising she can help you or anything, but if anyone can point you in the right direction, I’d say it’d be her.”

It wasn’t much but I figured it was better than trying to find a coach station all while avoiding every lawkeeper in town.

I listened as the shopkeeper gave me the directions to find this friend of his, then left by the backdoor which let me out into a narrow alleyway.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to go far. The place the cobbler had pointed me to was only a couple of streets away. Of course, I had to go very carefully the whole way there, making sure there were no lawkeepers waiting for me around any corners.

I was lucky though. I guess they were all either up the hill with that sergeant, or else they were patrolling the main roads.

The residence of the cobbler’s friend, as it turned out, was a curiosity shop. A sign that swung above the front door gave the place’s name as “Dayle’s Curiosities.”

It looked very much the same as any number of junk shops I’ve come across in my time. Outside the door was stacked old and rough looking wooden furniture, a rather beaten down looking bookcase with ragged and dog-eared books on its shelves that might well have been printed in my grandfather’s day.

Through the window, I could see a rather dingy interior with even more random bits and pieces stacked and shelved with no apparent rhyme or reason.

I was imagining the owner being of similar stock to the cobbler, a soft-spoken, elderly person shuffling about the shop, and I wondered how anyone like that was supposed to be of any help to me.

Still, I had no better options so I pushed open the door. A small bell tinkled, breaking the stuffy silence of the shop’s interior. I flinched at the noise. After the day I’d had, any noise was enough to have me worried I was about to be jumped by hostile strangers.

I had not been completely wrong about the shop’s owner. She was a taurox woman. I panicked a little when I first saw her stand up from behind the counter. The shop was so dim that I only saw her outline at first, and thought it might be the Sergeant. But, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw that she was obviously quite a bit older than the Sergeant had been. I guessed her to be around fifty, but she had the bearing of someone thirty years older. Her hair was slate-grey and her horns were starting to yellow. Her eyes were hidden by a pair of thick glasses and she was almost buried in a thick cardigan with a pink woollen shawl wrapped around her shoulders.

“Hello, dear,” she began, her voice quavering slightly, “I’m Madam Dayle. Can I help you?”

I could only stare. This frail old woman was who the cobbler had said could help me?

A polite cough from the old woman snapped me out of my reverie and I stammered that the cobbler had sent me.

“He said you could help me,” I finished, rather feebly.

The old woman, Madam Dayle, was looking at me with a curious expression. With a shuffling step she walked around the counter and through the shop.

“What would a strapping fellow like you need help with?” she asked. She looked to be inspecting her stock.

I told her more or less what I’d told the cobbler, that some strangers were chasing me and I didn’t know why. That one of them, a lawkeeper, had gone so far as to be about to kill me before I’d gotten away.

Madam Dayle was at the front of the shop by the time I’d finished, looking through the dolls that sat together on a table. Then, before I could react, she took three long strides to the front door, sliding a deadbolt into place.

She turned to face me, and all the frailty I’d seen before was suddenly gone.

“These people,” she said, in a voice that was suddenly strong and stern, “you said they have tattoos?”

I answered that yes they had. At least, I added, a lot of them did. I didn’t know if the lawkeeper had had one but she’d had a ring with the same symbol on it.

“Was it this one?” Madam Dayle asked, pulling open the neck of her cardigan.

I felt suddenly chill with fear.

There, just beneath her collarbone, was that symbol again. The coiling dragon, thunderbolts jutting out from it. She was one of them. Was she about to try and kill me too? My eyes began darting around the shop, looking for a weapon.

Madam Dayle tutted impatiently.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, pulling her collar back up. “Oh take that stupid expression off your face, I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not one of them.”

“You’re not,” I asked, confused, “but then, why-?”

“Time changes many things,” she answered, cryptically, “people can start out serving a common purpose but, over time, the means they choose to achieve that purpose can tear them apart.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. She tutted again.

“You don’t need to understand,” she said, “all that really matters to you, I suppose, is whether or not I can or will help you. Luckily for you, I can and I will. Now, these people, when did they start coming after you?”

I told her I had first seen them in Hed-Gir.

“Had you acquired anything recently?” she asked; “Had you found something, or maybe bought something?”

Surprised, I told her that yes, I had. I had bought a ring for my husband.

“Show me.”

Before I even realised what I was doing, I was pulling open my bag to fish out the gift. This woman had a commanding presence that a lot of my COs wouldn’t have been able to match.

I opened the box and showed her the ring.

I saw a fire in the woman’s eye then as she looked at the small golden circle.

“That’s it,” she whispered, and I was surprised at the reverence in her voice. I was perplexed. This was it? This was what all the fuss was about? It was a nice ring, certainly, but I’d bought it for a few dollars. How was it important?

Madam Dayle looked at me for a moment, then shook her head.

“You’re probably better off not knowing. And besides,” she went on before I could object, “I think we’re nearly out of time.”

She gestured towards the window. I turned and felt my stomach drop. There were three lawkeepers outside. One of them was the Sergeant. They were standing in a group, talking. They hadn’t seen me yet.

“I’ll need that off you I’m afraid,” Madam Dayle extended a hand. I hesitated for a second, then handed Elbas’s present over to her. She took it, delicately, as if she was lifting a butterfly. She then gestured towards a backdoor that had been obscured by hanging curtains.

“Wait for my shout,” she said, “then run like the Depths are behind you. And, I promise, you’ll never hear from those fools again.”

I did as she instructed. The door opened onto yet another back alley. I pressed my ear against the door. From outside the shop, I heard her calling, I assumed, to the lawkeepers.

“I found the one you’re after! He’s in here!”

I was momentarily terrified that the old woman was turning me over to the Sergeant. But, no; “He’s in here,” was what she had said.

So, I decided to trust her and ran away from that door in the direction of the high street.

I was nearly at the end of the alley when another sound brought me to a stop. It might have been muffled by the door, but I know screaming when I hear it. I began running even faster than I had before.

I was finally able to find a coach that was heading north, and was able to make it back to Thakilton. Back to my Elbas. I’m not sure how comfortable I am living in a place called Dragon’s Rest after all of that, but I suppose I’ll be fine… Just as long as I never see another tattooed dragon again.

Final notes; it turned out the rest of this memory was waiting for the under-librarians in the next book. It took an annoying amount of time to get them to send it up here but we got there in the end. As promised, I can now give the notes on this memory as a whole.

We have had no luck tracking down this image that Corporal SinLeop claims to have seen all across Sangland, or any of the people who supposedly wore it. If there ever was a Sergeant Dayzira working in the law department of Zalatan, there isn’t one now, and there’s no record of her ever being employed there. The symbol is not listed as an icon identified with any of the still existing or formerly practiced religions in the Federation. The nearest I got was with my friend over at the Etterean University who does know a little about Dark Age iconography. She says that it sounded like a symbol that was usually associated with storms or radical change. But other than that, she said, she had no idea.

We conducted a quick follow up interview with Corporal SinLeop, or rather Sergeant SinLeop now, via apovox. He has left active service and is now employed as a Training Sergeant at the Almari Barracks. He says he has not seen anyone with the tattoo since, and hopes it stays that way.

This older woman who appears at the end is interesting. She was obviously associated with those others, having the same tattoo, but seems to have split from the group at some point. The name Dayle does ring a bell but I’m not sure why. I may go back through some of the previous inscriptions, see if anything pops up. For now, however, I don’t think there’s anything more that can be done with this.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]