Sunset on the Peaks
He who serves his liege as he does his Lord shall be blessed in the eyes of Heaven. - Book of Belabaut, 41.27
Henri D’Alagin had never been particularly religious, but as his horse galloped toward the gleaming white gates of the Château de Selvilles he muttered a silent prayer to the powers above. He was a common man, a man of the earth and the mountains, and despite his high-ranking military status the pomp and circumstance of the nobility made him deeply uncomfortable. And then, of course, there was the news he bore. There was no telling how the Comte would take it.
The spires of the castle rose high into the cloudless sky. The structure was probably as old as le Fort du Poissot, the rocky fortress in which he lived and worked, but it could not have appeared more different. It shone with an extravagance that came only with royalty and the bottomless coffers of the Challant family. As he approached the gate, which was already open for him -- he rolled his eyes in disgust at the lax security -- several footmen dressed in scarlet gestured for him to halt.
“Bonjour, Commandant,” said one. He offered his hand to D’Alagin, who ignored it and dismounted his steed. “Please follow me. Gérald here will take your horse.”
They walked through rose-covered gardens, manicured hedges covering the grounds in ornate patterns. The whole thing reeked of ostentation. Or perhaps it was the sickly-sweet pollen from the pear trees that permeated the air like smog. D’Alagin turned his nose up at the decorative gargoyles and set his mind at the task ahead.
The Comte’s office was as extravagant as the rest of the palace, though its small size made the meeting a more intimate affair than he had expected. Challant was old and greying in person; his dark eyes had weary jadeness to them that only came with age. D’Alagin had seen the same expression in his former commanders.
“Bienvenue, Monsieur,” said the Comte. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Merci,” said D’Alagin, and sat. “I hope my presence is not too much of a burden on your time.”
“Of course not,” came the reply, and D’Alagin could tell it was genuine. “I will always make time for a man who serves his country with such honor. And besides,” the man added with a chuckle. “I am grateful for anything to distract me from the damn church. Ántou forgive me for saying so, but le Moine Principal is not an easy man to deal with.”
D’Alagin nodded, unsure of how to respond.
“Well,” said Challant, “I will not bore you with my problems. I am sure you have a good reason for your visit. It is not every day that the Commandant of the Guardsman requests a meeting with me.”
“Yes,” D’Alagin said slowly. “Monsieur, I...I have come to speak to you about a rather...curious encounter I had on the mountains yesterday.”
“Correct me if I am mistaken,” Challant said, “but I believe you have been patrolling the mountains for nearly thirty years now. I would imagine surprises to be hard to come by, at this point.”
D’Alagin nodded, opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He was a man of the earth and of the blade; words were not his natural element. Challant seemed to pick up on his hesitation.
“Commandant,” he said kindly, “do not trouble yourself with composing regal language. I assure you, my respect for your office will not be dulled by your choice of words.”
“I am not worried about my choice of words,” replied D’Alagin. “I fear instead that you will not believe what I have to say.”
“You have earned my trust through your decades of service.”
“I can only hope so.”
A solemn look passed between the two men as they sat in the circular office. The sunlight cast a golden glow across the room.
“I...I have read the Sacresante, Monsieur,” he began. “I will confess that I have never been as pious as some, but, nonetheless, I worship Ántou as is my duty. And I recall the story of Sant Amilaus, how he slew the demons of the mountains and cast away the Darkness from the land.”
“It is an inspiring tale.”
“Indeed. But Monsieur, yesterday, during a routine patrol on one of the western trails, I believe I encountered a...a demon of the mountains.”
Challant’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he otherwise did not react. The silence stretched for several uncomfortable seconds before D’Alagin continued.
“I know how strange this must sound. I have trouble believing it myself. But...well, I know the mountains, and the wildlife and people that live on them, and this creature was unlike anything I have seen before.”
“Gaunt. Pale. Sunken, black eyes. Flesh stretched so thin over the bone that it may as well have been a bare skeleton. It felt...not alive, somehow; as if it were animated by some higher and malevolent power.”
“As it is described in the scripture.”
“What...what did you do with it? Were you in danger?”
D’Alagin shook his head. “Non, monsieur. I was traveling alone, but despite that, it seemed frail and weak. I marked the location, slew it with my blade, and burned the corpse.”
For the first time, Challant’s expression changed to one of frustration. “So you burned the evidence?”
“Non,” D’Alagin quickly replied. “Not all of it. In fact...this may be the most interesting part of the whole encounter.” From his pocket, he pulled out a small object folded in a handkerchief and laid it on Challant’s desk. As he unwrapped it the sun glimmered on its golden surface, lighting it with a magical brilliance. A necklace and pendant: the concentric circles of the Church of Ántou hanging from a simple metallic chain.
Challant leaned forward to examine the object. “This is a monk’s necklace,” he said softly. “From the Monastery itself.”
“It hung from the creature’s neck.”
The Comte gazed at the golden rings for a minute, seemingly deep in reflection. D’Alagin sat silently, watching the other man’s dark eyes flicker with thought. Finally, Challant spoke again.
“I trust you, Commandant.”
“And I do not trust le Moine Principal.”
Challant’s eyes met D’Alagin’s and seemed to bore into them with an intensity that was almost palpable.
“The Mountain Guard has been functionally independent from the state since its early days. I respect this, and I am aware that I have no true authority over you.”
“However...if you are willing, I believe you could be of great assistance to me in this matter. As you may imagine, my political position comes with certain...restrictions. I require a person with great skill and whom I can trust completely.”
D’Alagin hated politics, and he hated religion. Challant was asking him to entangle himself in both -- a job that would be uncomfortable at best, and downright dangerous at worst. And yet, despite his outward display of wealth and grandeur, the Comte seemed somehow genuine. He had demonstrated nothing but respect, and that counted for a great deal amongst the Guardsmen. D’Alagin realized that his mind was made up.
“I serve at the pleasure of the Comte,” he said, and Challant gave a thin-lipped smile.
“I am glad to hear it. You must travel at once to the Monastery, then. I will make an appointment for you. See what you can find about this missing monk, and what the records show about the demons of the mountains. Be tactful and cautious. The Church is a powerful entity.”
D’Alagin nodded and rose to his feet. “I will do as you say. Perhaps it will be best if I leave the pendant with you, for safekeeping.”
“I agree,” replied Challant. “May Ántou guide your journey.”
“Merci.” D’Alagin made it nearly to the door before a final thought crossed his mind and he turned back to the Comte.
“One last thing, Monsieur. Do you recall the demons in the scripture making a chattering sound with their teeth?”
Challant thought for a moment. “No, I do not believe that was ever mentioned.”
“Strange. Perhaps I imagined it.”
Challant smiled. “Or perhaps the creature felt cold in the mountain wind. Farewell, Commandant.”