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I

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The Heretic cringed inwardly in fear as she heard the bells tolling in the distance, where the gallows were, and where her imminent death must lie. Frozen in terror of what was to come, the Laposian guard who was escorting her tugged roughly on the rope tied around her neck.

“Move it!” he barked. She gave a surprised little jump and looked at him blankly for a moment before she seemed to come back to reality.

“Fuck off,” she snarled. The guard yanked her off her feet, dragging her along the rough forest floor for a few yards before allowing her to stand up again, the rope now partially cutting off the circulation in her head.

Goddamn Societal pig, she thought bitterly. Thinks he’s entitled to drag me over rocks and shit just because I’ve been sent to the gallows. Accused of witchcraft and heresy just because I don’t agree with this materialistic society and tyrannical government. For not supporting a society where you’re sentenced to death just for having a different opinion. God, you'd think that I worshiped the Wyrm or the Blood Eater. And it’s not even like I joined any of the rebellions, or even gave my support to them. No, all I did was mention that I didn’t agree with our society and government policies. But hey, I guess that’s just how us Laposians are: don’t rock the fucking boat or else we’ll kill you.

Some, like the woman being led to her death, had always hated Laposian society and culture and felt out of place. Some of them went on to join the rebellions, to try to take down the tyranny and mass consumerism. Some even joined the more radical group, the Plague Doctors. But most, like the Heretic did until recently, instead chose to quietly seethe with resentment, afraid to say anything for fear of being put down by the government, along with the condemnation of the public, most of which sympathized with the Progressive High Alliance: the group of countries that the rebellions were against. But just because the Heretic hated the Laposian government didn’t mean that she didn’t understand why they held such an iron fist over their countries. Political power was a corrupting force, and when power was threatened, it could be a scary thing. So, they let their greed take over, and the results were nations of tyranny. But just because she understood it didn’t mean that she despised it any less, because as she knew herself, it was perfectly possible to have self-control and to keep your greed in check.

But what I really just can’t understand, she thought, is how us commoners can just blindly hate everyone who’s different than us. How can we be such fools as to believe all the lies and propaganda that the government spews at us? How can so many people be fooled into hatred? Fooled into believing that anyone who doesn’t partake in their ever-changing silly fashion trends is an enemy who deserves to be put down?

As these thoughts raced through her head, she could hear the bells steadily growing louder. And as she and the guard trudged deeper into the Azuran Pines, the trees grew thicker, as well, making it harder to navigate around the protruding roots and massive trees, which for some reason suddenly amazed her.

Funny how beautiful nature suddenly becomes when you’re about to face certain death, she thought to herself, admiring the awesome beauty of the gigantic pine trees soaring hundreds of feet into the air. Each was layered with delicate bright blue needles that glowed with bio-luminescence in the darkness of night. It’s hard to notice the beauty of it when you alienate yourself from it, her thoughts continued. You don’t learn to truly appreciate the majestic beauty of it all. What gives us the right to just rip it all down? To destroy it all so that we can make room for useless bullshit? What gives us that right? Nothing. Nothing does. But we think we have it anyways. We have the power to preserve it, but no: we just rip it apart and take a giant shit on the carcass we leave behind.

Once again lost in her own thoughts, the Heretic tripped over a root, and the rope, which was already slightly too tight, tightened even further, making it difficult for her to breathe. Through her quickly-mounting migraine, she could hear the eager, blood-thirsty chattering of a crowd in the distance… waiting... hungry for the kill….

II

The District Judge smirked in barely concealed excitement as he watched the Heretic stumble out of the woods, led by a rope around her neck.

“About damn time,” the little old man to the Judge’s left murmured to him, scowling in the torchlight. “What the hell took ‘em so long? And why in Society’s name didn’t the guard take the goddamn road?”

“I can provide the answer to neither of those questions, your High Honor,” the Judge whispered in response. “Would you like me to ask for you?”

“For my sanity’s sake, yes. Please.”

“Guardsman Choil!” the Judge barked.
“Yes, your Honor?” the guard who was leading the witch answered politely.

“What in the world are you doing stomping around in the woods? There’s a perfectly good road that you’re supposed to use. This is a public trial, for god’s sake, the people want to give the defendant a proper reception! (The crowd booed enthusiastically) And what took you so long? We have a schedule to keep.”

“Well, your Honor,” Choil explained, stopped just outside of the torchlight, “there’ve been rumors of a possible raid tonight.”

The crowd fell silent.

“A raid?” the Judge asked.

“Y-yes, your Honor. A raid.”

“From the Plague Rebels?”

“Yes, your Honor. Possibly even from the Plague Doctors.”

The heavy silence almost instantly shifted to a nearly-tangible cold fear.

“P-Plague Doctors?”

“Possibly, your Honor. But like I said, these were only rumors. They’re most likely not true, but still, I figured it’d probably be safer to not take the main road, where they’d most expect me and the defendant to be.”

“I have heard of no such rumors,” the Judge responded stiffly, if not a little fearfully.
“I—well, then, I’m sure that means that the rumors I heard were false, then, your Honor.”
“Very well. Just go ahead and bring the defendant up.”

“Yes, your Honor.”

Choil hissed something at the witch and pulled her roughly along behind him. Once they were visible in the torchlight, the Judge was annoyed to see that the Heretic’s face was swollen and reddish-purple.

“For Trebelaire’s sake, Choil, loosen that damned rope! What, are you trying to kill her before we have a chance to even get started?”

“Sorry, your Honor,” Choil murmured apologetically, loosening the rope slightly.

The Heretic was marched slowly up the creaky wooden steps by her escort, glaring with resentment at the icy crowd that glared silently back. Without a word from anybody, the rope was removed from around her neck by the hulking executioner who’d been lurking in the shadows, and her head was shoved roughly into the blood-crusted noose that hung to the Judge’s right.

Damn woman should have kept her fucking mouth shut, the Judge thought with contempt as the executioner made sure that the noose was set to the proper standards. Goddamn witch is getting exactly what she deserves.

“All good there?” he asked the executioner after a moment.

“Yes, your Honor.”

“Alright, then. Ahem. My good people!” he addressed jovially to the stony-faced audience. “Welcome, and thank you for coming here to witness justice from the High Society of Bigoltri at its finest! Welcome all you fine, faithful citizens; Laposians and Humans alike, as well as anybody else who may be present. Why, I think I even see a Sindayan fellow in the back there. Quite a ways away from home, aren't you, friend?”

“Así,” a short, stocky purple man responded in a foreign language, easily heard over his hundred-plus mute peers

“Yes, well, to the business at hand,” the Judge continued with a toothy grin. “As I’m sure you all know, we are gathered here tonight to--”

“Pardon me for interrupting,” the little man to the Judge’s left blurted, “but I’ve been thinking about what Guardsman Choip said about those raid rumors. And I’ve come to a sort of… realization. Do you know what it is that I’ve come to realize, Judge Rithle?”

“What would that be, your High Honor?”

“That I, too, have never heard anything so much as a tittle about this supposed ‘raid’ that's rumored to happen tonight. No, not a bit.” The High Judge slowly stepped forward, rheumatic old eyes glaring at Choil hard, as if trying to grab his soul with them and strangle it.

“You never did answer Judge Rithle’s question, Choik. The one about why you took so long. Would you mind answering that for me, boy? Would you, please? I think it may just put my old mind at ease, here, because right now it is definitely not at ease. No, sir, not at all. So please, go right on ahead, Mr. Choke. Tell me why you were so late in bringing the Heretic to trial.”

“Your High Honor, it was only five minutes or--”

“Silence, Rithle! Now go on, Chode! Speak!”

“Er, your High Honor, it's Choil,” the guard corrected nervously. The High Judge’s face momentarily contorted into a fit of boiling rage, which appeared to terrify the guard greatly. However, to Rithle’s surprise, the High Judge instead twisted his face into a forced smile, which seemed to terrify the guard even more.

“Please… please, just simply enlighten me to your… your delay in arrival.”

“Well, um, like I said earlier, your High Honor, I’d heard rumors of a possible raid from the rebellion, and--”

“What kind of raid?”

“A rescue mission, your High Honor.”

“Rescuing who, might I ask?” the High Judge pressed, steadily advancing upon Choil.

“Um… the uh, the defendant, here. So that she could go back to the Plague Rebels, your High Honor.”

The High Judge, now within an inch of the guard’s face, sneered nastily, revealing a set of pearly, crooked white teeth. “Plague Rebels, huh?”

“That's what I heard, your High Honor.”

“And-and you're sure about this?”

“I- I think so—"

“Are you sure, Choil?”

“Y-y-yes, your High Honor.”

The High Judge stared up into Choil’s anxious face for a moment before letting out a wolfish bark of laughter, swinging towards the crowd with a wild grin and a manic gleam in his eyes.

“You hear that?” he screeched at the unsettled audience. “Guardsman Choid says that the Plague Rebels might try to pull off some kind of rescue mission to take back our lovely witch here! Further proof that this bitch (he kicked her smartly in the shin for emphasis) is yet another spy in our midst!”

This sent the crowd murmuring amongst themselves and throwing frightened glances towards the glowing blue trees around them.

“Now, tell me, Choil, who was it that was telling you these rumors? Huh?

The guard gave a sort of noncommittal shrug. “Just- just heard it around, your High Honor.”

The High Judge scoffed quietly, once again within an inch of Choil’s face. “‘Just heard it around,’ eh?”

Choil nodded nervously, catching Judge Rithle’s eye, begging for help. But Rithle knew better than to interrupt. Besides, this little chewing out by the High Judge was a good reminder to the people to always be afraid of their superiors. People who were afraid were easy to control. It was when they weren't afraid that they became dangerous.

“You know, as High Judge of Bigoltri, I’m kept pretty well in the loop of the enemies’ plans and activities, even if only rumored. And as I said earlier, I’ve not heard one bit about this supposed rescue mission. And who did you clear your, ah, woodland detour with?”
“N-n-nobody, your High Honor.”
The High Judge paused.

“You-you cleared that with nobody? Nobody at all?”

“No, your High Honor.”

The High Judge shook his head, chuckling in disbelief. “You know what, Choil?” he said quietly to the guard. “I could have you arrested, right here, and right now just for that little stunt right there. Serious stuff, it is. Is that what you want, Choil?”

“Not- not really, your Honor.”

The High Judge paused again.

“What did you just say?” he asked in a dangerously low voice.

“Um, uh, I uh, I said, ‘Not really, your High Honor.’”

“No, I asked what you said!”

“That- that’s what I said, your High Honor!”

“Don't you lie to me! Don't you dare fucking lie to me, Guardsman Choil!”

“I-I’m not lying, your High Honor!”

Face purple with rage, the High Judge grabbed Choil by the back of the neck and whipped him around to face the silent audience.

“Faithful people of Bigoltri, do you see this man? This man who is so unpatriotic as to lie to a representative of the High Society? Do you know what this is? This is treason! Heresy right before your very eyes! Is this the kind of behavior we tolerate here in our own country?”

There was a moment of low murmuring before anybody in the audience spoke.

“Er, your High Honor?” a man in the front of the crowd asked confusedly. “With all due respect, what is it that Guardsman Choil said? We're not entirely sure we know what it is that you're getting at, here.”

The High Judge paused for a moment, clearly annoyed at the people for not picking up on the guard’s little slip-up.

“What Guardsman Chuckle-Head here said was, ‘Not really, your Honor.’ This man deliberately left out the word ‘High’ in the ‘your High Honor,’ disrespecting me, and thus in turn disrespecting the state. And who disrespects the state?”

“The enemy!” the crowd cried enthusiastically.

“Hell, yeah, the enemy! And do we just allow the enemy to get away with blasphemy?”
“Hell, no!”

“That's right! Now, Guardsman Choil,” the High Judge addressed to the guard, who looked like he might pass out from fright at any moment, “since we have undeniably established that you are in fact an enemy of the state based upon your behavior, how am I supposed to trust what you say? Huh? How can I? Convince me!

“I-I… I d-don't--”

“How do I know that you weren't in fact meeting with the Plague Rebels in the woods? Oh, sure, how convenient that you just happen to hear these ‘rumors,’ and now nobody would suspect you of a thing! Well, I see right through you, buddy!”

“Yeah!” several people in the crowd agreed.

The High Judge turned back to the crowd, an expression of mixed pleading and revulsion on his face.

“Don't you people see what this is?” the High Judge begged the audience. “It's clearly an attempt to assassinate Judge Rithle and I!”

By Trebelaire’s name, Rithle thought in disbelief, the stories are true: the man truly is insane!

“Good god!” he cried. “I can't believe it! How could I not have seen it before? And to think that I call myself a judge. Ha! High Judge Snitla, you're a goddamn genius!”

This was met with a resounding cheer from the crowd.

“Yes, yes,” Judge Rithle continued with enthusiasm, “it's all so clear now! My good people, I’ll tell you exactly what was going to happen, here! You see, while High Judge Snitla and I would be busy with the trial of our witch here, Guardsman Choil would take the chance to kill us both when our guard was down, and that would be the cue for the Plague Rebels to come in and rescue them! And why not? You’d be killing three birds with one stone, so to speak. Well, guess what? Their plan has been foiled by our good man, High Judge Snitla! Guards: scout the perimeter for any ambushers waiting to attack! We will not be terrorized this way!”

The crowd gave another deafening cheer, many of whom were praising the two judges and cursing the guardsman and the Heretic.

“Now, then,” High Judge Snitla announced after the noise had died down, “I think that tonight warrants some additional punishment, wouldn't you say, Judge Rithle?”

“Yes, I would, your High Honor. What sort of punishment would you suggest?”

The High Judge took a moment to think before announcing theatrically that he knew of the perfect punishment to inflict upon the ashen-faced guard.

“And what would that be, your High Honor?” Judge Rithle asked in staged confusion, though he had a pretty good idea as to what the High Judge had in mind.

“Allow me to demonstrate. May I have a volunteer from the crowd, please?”

Almost every hand in the audience catapulted straight into the air. The High Judge pretended to be taken aback, and then, after a moment, called upon the Sindayan man in the back that had been pointed out by Judge Rithle earlier.

“It's always so good to see our allies from afar be willing to shamelessly prove their devotion to the High Alliance,” the High Judge remarked as the short purple man shouldered his way through the jealous crowd.

“Thank you, thank you,” he said graciously to the Sindayan man as he finally made it up to the creaky wooden platform. He shook his hand generously, smiling as he looked into the volunteer’s eyes, which were completely black with large, white pupils. “What's your name, my friend?”

“Payalo.”

“Well, Payalo, how do you like it here in Bigoltri?”

“Eh, cold… but… béna, er, good. Heh-heh,” he answered with a heavy accent.
“Yes, quite a difference from your home in Sindaya, isn't it?”

Payalo nodded with a polite grin on his face.

“Well, Payalo, the first thing that I’m going to have to ask of you is to take this knife, here,” the High Judge told him, pulling out an intricately designed knife with a white and gold handle and a blade as big as his forearm. “And I’m going to need you to do exactly as I say. And I mean exactly. Oh, and Walluce?” he addressed to the silent, hulking executioner standing at the back of the platform. “Could you please restrain Guardsman Choil, there? He's been edging back towards the stairs, and I’m afraid that he may try to make a run for it. Thank you. Now, Payalo, do you have a weak stomach?”

“No, High Honor,” he assured, shaking his head.

“Good. Now, the first request that I shall make is that you cut off his feet just below the ankles. Don't worry about him bleeding out, our good doctor over there will make sure that he doesn't. Doctor! Get over here! And Walluce, make sure that Choil is watching the entire time. I don't care if you have to hold his goddamn eyelids open with your own five fingers, just make sure that it's done. Good. And stop that piggish whimpering, Choil! Have some fucking dignity, man!”

The High Judge then stepped back as Payalo stepped forward and expertly sliced off Choil’s left foot with a single sickening crunch.

“Well done, Payalo!” High Judge Snitla praised over Choil’s screams. Judge Rithle could tell that he was, strangely enough, genuinely impressed. “Very swift, and very clean. What is it you said you do in the war?”

“Torturer,” Payalo answered bluntly as he stepped aside for the doctor and quickly chopped off Choil’s right foot, thrusting him into a fresh frenzy of thrashes and screams.

“Well, I certainly did pick the right man for the job, didn’t I?” High Judge Snitla remarked, chuckling along warmly with the crowd. “Now, could you please cut off the hands? Just below the wrists, please.”

III

God, they're giving him the Pain, the Captureman realized from atop his perch in the trees.

He quickly readjusted the imager and turned his head just in time to avoid seeing the next step in the guard’s torture, though that didn't stop him from hearing the thunk of the blade and the guard’s screams as his hands were sliced off. Bracing himself, he opened his eyes once more to point the imager in the direction of the District Judge as he tossed the dismembered hands to the cheering crowd, smiling and waving with professional showmanship.

“Next, I would like you to cut off his nose, Payalo. We're going to make him look like the monster that he really is.”

I'm gonna fucking puke, the Captureman thought as the guard’s head was pulled back. Choil's nose was sliced off too quickly for him to shut his eyes against it.

“Quit your blubbering, you pansy!” the High Judge snapped as Choil’s blood-clogged screams filled the air, battling with the raucous cheering and jeering from the crowd.

The Captureman never ceased to marvel at the seemingly endless bloodlust people had when worked into a frenzy. And he never ceased to be amazed by how easily they were manipulated, either. Especially when gathered into crowds like this.

“Now cut out his tongue. Ha ha! Let him talk to those heathens now. I’m sure he’ll get far.”

The guardsman’s garbled shrieks ripped through the air, shredding any last decency left in the crowd, acting as the final fuel for their raging fire.

“Kill him!” they cried. “Just fucking kill the fucker already! Take his eyes! Take his ears!"
“Snitla!” Rithle screeched, beating off the ravenous crowd with his bare hands. “Help me!”

The Captureman slowly shook his head in quiet disappointment at the rowdy crowd below.

Animals,” he whispered to himself, “they're a bunch of goddamned animals.”

“Payalo! Cut out his eyes and give them to me,” the High Judge ordered. “The crowd needs more!

“Así, High Honor.”

Payalo then quickly used his fingers to gouge out Choil’s eyes and handed them to the High Judge, who held them aloft and cried, “You see? We have justice! Justice in the hands of professionals, and not amateurs such as yourselves! Because justice in the hands of the untrained is a very, very dangerous thing. It's a delicate balance, justice. And so, it must be up to people who know what they are doing to administer it, so that we can continue to uphold our beloved society and thriving culture. When this is not done--not held up--we fall into savage barbarianism, which is exactly what is happening to those traitorous black magicians that call themselves the Plague Rebels and Plague Doctors. And is that what you want for yourselves? No? Then contain yourselves, people! Don't fall into frenzy for nought! We call ourselves the High Society for a reason! We are gentlemen! We are ladies! And most importantly, we are civilized!”

Coulda fooled me, the Captureman scoffed inwardly.

“You thirst for his death,” the High Judge continued, “but do you even realize what we’ve done to him? Do you?” He let the question hang in the heavy, silent air for a moment, acting as though he were waiting for an answer even though he knew none would come.

“We have given him a fate worse than death!” he screamed, spit flying out of his mouth. “A fate worse than exile! We have given him the Pain! He will go today a free man. He will still be part of the High Arms. But he will suffer, and he will be humiliated for every second of it. We have taken his hands. We have taken his feet. We have taken his nose, his tongue, his eyes. He will never walk again. Nor will he ever wield a sword again. He will not smell, taste, speak, or see ever again in his life. But his ears will never be harmed, as per the law. Because with his unharmed ears, he will hear every jeer that comes his way. He will hear every woman who cries in shock at his fate, and every child who screams in horror. Every second of his miserable, pathetic little life will be spent in misery and damnation, because he will always hear the world that hates him with his perfect ears.”

The crowd didn't move… neither did they speak. They had somehow been brought down from their primal frenzy and coerced into cooperation. There was a minute of contemplative silence before Judge Rithle cleared his throat.

“Ahem. Er, are-are we ready to move on to the trial now?” he asked the High Judge hesitantly.

“Yes, yes, please,” Snitla said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “And guards, keep patrolling the area in case the Plague Rebels do decide to attack. You may find a scout or something, I don’t know. And somebody get rid of this blubbering idiot already! Captureman, where are you?”

The Captureman took his eyes away from the imager and briefly lit a torch he had brought with him.

“Good! Just make sure that the imager has a clear shot of Judge Rithle and I, as well as the defendant here.”

“As you wish, your High Honor,” the Captureman replied, adjusting the imager.

Imagers were magical objects that could capture either individual moments or events over periods of time, which could then be viewed later. When a moment of time was captured, it was called an image, and when a period of time was captured, it was called a sequence. And then there were films, which were longer than sequences and comprised of multiple ones at that, usually depicting a story or event.  In the Laposian territories, though, they were usually meant for propaganda reasons, to be shown in town squares and festivals.

The Captureman had grown up in a military family, who were also devout Trebelarians, and all growing up his family had blindly and faithfully believed in the High Society and Trebelaire. Trebelaire was the god of material beauty and mortal pleasures, and also the central deity of Trebelarianism, a patriarchal offshoot of the more matriarchal religion of Masfinitheism, which worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses. However, Trebelarians considered Trebelaire to be the only true god, and all others to be false idols. Trebelarianism was also the official religion of all the High Society countries. Though in years past people didn’t care as much about what religion other people followed, it just happened to be that Trebelarianism was the dominant religion. That is, until the rebellions started. After that, Trebelarianism became a mandatory religion, and to be a nonbeliever was basis enough for a witch trial, which was as good as a death sentence. Because of this shift to not only religious but military totalitarianism, the Captureman found himself increasingly sympathetic with the Plague Rebels. He also found himself increasingly questioning his faith in Trebelaire, often going through periods of total disbelief. It was hard for him, though, to totally abandon the superficial ideology so ingrained in him.

Yet, while it was true that he secretly sympathized with the Plague Rebels, the Plague Doctors were a different matter entirely. Just the thought of them alone was enough to send chills down the Captureman’s spine. He'd seen sequences of attacks from them, and to say that they were terrifying was a bit of an understatement. They attacked at night, swooping in without any warning, slaughtering anyone who got in their path--whether they be civilian or not. Their attacks were seemingly random, too, and almost always when least expected. Just the sight of the black figures with their distinctive beaked, black, skeletal masks was enough to let you know that there was going to be slaughter within seconds. And unless you were already well-hidden or astronomically lucky, you were as good as dead. Those in the rebellion who used magic against the Progressive High Alliance were considered black magicians. But if the Plague Rebels were magicians of black magic, then the Plague Doctors must be harbingers of death itself. In fact, the Plague Doctors were the exact reason that the Captureman had to remain hidden, because recently they'd been kidnapping capturemen that worked for the High Society and destroying all of the sequences they had with them. And the High Society certainly liked their propaganda. Of course, he didn’t dare voice any of these opinions to anyone else, as the reasons why were directly below him: one with her head in the noose, and the other a bloody wreck of a man.

“Alright,” Judge Rithle said to the quiet audience with a business-like clap of his hands. “Now that we’ve settled back down, I think it’s time to read the charges. Can we do that without having another riot break out? Yes? Good. Now, as you know, we have gathered here tonight to conduct the trial against yet another heretic. Another traitor. Another witch…. Another Plague Rebel.”

The crowd hissed and booed in hatred at the witch.

“Now, now, settle down, settle down,” Judge Rithle ordered calmly after letting them express their contempt for a few moments. “Now, for the charges at hand.

“Wreih Tchetic, the High Court, on behalf of the High Society, has brought you here, this being the night of Friday, March seventeenth, 5665 of the Second Age, on the basis of your expressed views against the High Society, the High Court, the Progressive High Alliance, and Trebelaire himself. You are being charged with heresy, as well as witchcraft. Though no physical or eyewitness evidence is currently available to validify the charge of witchcraft, it has been decreed by the High Court that any person or persons who is in possession of such blasphemous ideas as yourself must be a sympathizer with the rebellion, and therefore a practitioner of black magic. Have you anything to say in your defense, Wreih Tchetic?”

“Bite my fuckin’ ass, you Societal pig,” she growled, hawking a fat loogey in the Judge’s eye. This was immediately met by a huge outcry from the crowd, many of which resorted to throwing rocks and liquor bottles at her.

“Quiet! Quiet, or you shall all be charged with attempted treason!” High Judge Snitla screeched, successfully silencing the outburst. “Control yourselves, people! This criminal will get her punishment yet, but be patient! If you can’t control yourselves, then we will be forced to do it for you! Now, please, Judge Rithle, go on."

“Right. Thank you, your High Honor. Anyways, as proposed by the High Jury and approved by High Judge Snitla and I, the defendant shall receive the mandatory punishment for the crimes committed. As I’m sure all of you know well by now, heresy is punishable by public whipping, and witchcraft is punishable by public hanging using a Bigoltrian noose, so that the suffering of the defendant may be maximized to reflect the damage inflicted upon the High Society.”

“Do it while she’s neked!” a drunken man from the back hollered with a noticeable slur in his voice. This proposition was met with a resounding cheer from the men, and a nasty grin spread across the District Judge’s face.

“You want her stripped naked?” he asked lasciviously.
“Yeah!” the men confirmed with a rumbling cheer.

“Very well, then. Walluce, please take off her clothes before you begin the whipping.”

“Will do gladly, your Honor,” the executioner said with a leer towards the woman in the noose.

“And Wreih,” Rithle added in an undertone, “you must take the lashes standing up. If you fall, your suffering will just be that much worse.”

“How many lashes, your Honor?” Walluce asked as he ripped off the woman’s shirt.

“I’ll tell you when to stop.”

IV

The Sharpshooter peered through the scope of his rifle, watching as the woman they were there to rescue was whipped naked with angry, painful tears streaming down her face.

“Gutch, you done taking care of those guards they sent blundering into the woods?” he hissed into his mic irritably.

“Almost. Just be patient, Mhaes. How’s the situation in the gallows?” Gutch asked, who was both Mhaes’s close friend and commander.

“Still being whipped. Though I’d say it’s almost done, so I’d hurry up if I were you. Oh, and our spy in the audience just told me that before we got here, they gave one of the guardsman the Pain. Thought he was a spy sent to assassinate the two judges and rescue the witch.”

“Fucking pigs,” Gutch scoffed. “Never afraid to turn on one of their own to keep the rest of the sheep in line. So, I assume he’s still alive?”

“That's what our man said.”

“Alright. We’ll try to rescue him as well, then. I’m sure he’ll be a little more sympathetic towards the rebellion after getting the Pain for no good reason.”

“Well, hurry the fuck up. God, blood and little bits of skin are everywhere. Poor woman is in fucking shreds.”

“Alright, alright, we get it. We're almost done. Just keep your sights on the High Judge, and tell us when they hang her, if it gets to that.”

“They're getting ready for it now, actually. Checking the noose. Getting the crowd excited.... And yep. There she goes.”

“Do we have two or three minutes to finish up here?”

The Sharpshooter unconsciously checked the time signature on his scope. “Yeah, but damn, hurry up. They may tie Bigoltrian knots, but that doesn't mean the victims can last forever.”

“Okay, give us about three minutes, and I’ll tell you when you can fire the shot.”
“Yes, sir, Gutch.”

“You still have a line of sight with the High Judge?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What about the District Judge?”

“That as well, sir.”

“Alright. Just await my word, and keep those lines of sights.”

“Aye-aye, cap’n,” he confirmed with a sigh.

No pressure, the Sharpshooter thought nervously to himself, no pressure at all.

Despite his cool outward demeanor, the Sharpshooter was actually a very nervous-natured man, full of self-doubt, and he was definitely feeling that right about then. If they were to rescue the prisoner and assassinate both judges in one go, then it was crucial that he didn't miss the first shot, because then they could go find cover and potentially escape. It was also important that he at least get the High Judge first, since he had the larger influence.

The rifle (or "wands," as most people referred to them) that the Sharpshooter was using was a prototype, and an old one at that. The proper name for that kind of gun was a photon-emitting long-range rifle, though only geeks called it that. Most people simply referred to them as photon-rifles, or photon-guns, if referring to the non-rifle variants. Photon-guns, unlike ninety-nine percent of the guns used in the war, fired streams of highly concentrated photons instead of bullets or shells. The photons were so highly energized they were lethal due to their absurd level of radioactivity. In addition, the photons’ wavelengths were beyond the visible spectrum. Combine that with being almost completely silent, photon-rifles were the ultimate tool for long-range assassination. The only problem was that the gun had to be attached to a collapsible photon-generator, and this particular prototype only had about one and a half seconds of use before the system had to cool off, which itself was a ten-minute process. Luckily, the shut-off system was automatic, because if the insulation inside the generator was compromised, then the whole thing could explode violently. The price to have this smuggled out of Kalamar Corporate, the company-owned country that was the world’s only manufacturer of “magical” objects, had been astronomical. At the time, though, this new advancement in weaponry had been exciting stuff, and everybody in the rebellion had been dying to get their hands on one of them. The Sharpshooter was just glad that it hadn't come out of his pocket. In fact, it had been a gift presented as a thank-you for moving from his esteemed position within the Plague Rebels to a new position with the Plague Doctors.

Of course, the photon-rifle wasn't exactly the ideal gun for the task at hand because of its limitations for taking out multiple targets, but his other rifle, the one that shot actual bullets, had broken earlier that day, and guns weren't exactly a common commodity.

“Damn,” Gutch’s voice crackled over the radio,. “Every single one of those mother-fuckers was carrying nothing but a sword and crossbow. You’d think they’d have at least a gun or two, seeing as the High Judge of fucking Bigoltri is here."

“So, I take it that you’ve got all of them?” the Sharpshooter asked.

“Yep. You’re good to go.”

“Alright.”

The Sharpshooter closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried in vain to clear his mind. He opened his eyes, heart pumping like a cannon in his head. He lined up the sights with the High Judge’s head, held his breath, and pulled down on the trigger for a little more than half a second before releasing it.

And down went the High Judge.

Knowing that he had only moments to act, the Sharpshooter lined up the sights with the District Judge’s panicking head, and with the photon-generator at fifty-one percent heat capacity, he let loose until the automatic shut-off kicked in. Down, too, went the District Judge.

Almost immediately, the densely-populated clearing was swarmed by a mass of Plague Doctors with guns crackling and the people screaming. The Sharpshooter had a sinking feeling as he watched his fellow Plague Doctors push inwards like a murder of shadowy crows, slaughtering every man, woman, and child who stood in their way. The screams were deafening, and the Sharpshooter found himself trying to cover his ears, but to no avail. The gunfire, the chem bombs, the screams, the cries... it was tearing his mind apart. Ripping his soul to shreds. He tried to close his eyes, but the faces of all the innocent people he’d killed before flashed before his eyes. He heard their screams. He heard their pleas. The heart-wrenching, soul-crushing guilt and shame that kept him up at night and that'd been looming over his head like a dark shadow during the past few missions came trickling--bubbling--roaring up like some great, raging demon, devouring him from the inside out. And in that moment, all his hatred for the High Society and the Progressive High Alliance was focused inwards on himself, so that there was nothing more in the world that he desired other than to be destroyed.

“We got ‘em. The witch and the guard that was tortured. Everyone else is dead. Except ourselves, of course. We suffered no casualties.”

“How-how many are dead?” the Sharpshooter asked hesitantly.
“At least a hundred pigs down. Maybe more. Why?”

The Sharpshooter put down the photon-rifle and unholstered his handgun.
“Hello?” Gutch’s voice crackled from far away.

Mhaes turned off the radio… and put the gun to his head.


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