Captain Michael Lachdanan surveyed the scene grimly, his polished boots sinking slightly into the muddy riverbank. Behind him, two of his men were keeping the curious townsfolk back from the crime scene. A little further up the riverbank, another of his men was talking softly with the small girl in a blue dress who had made the discovery. In the mud before him, a thin cloth blanket covered a human shape. A warm breeze tugged at the covering, but it was soaked with river water and moved only slightly.
Lachdanan knelt and lifted the sheet. Underneath, was a young woman. If Lachdanan used his imagination, he could almost believe she was just sleeping. But it was a stretch. Her skin was pale and her thin blue lips were parted as if she had been about to say something. A large black beetle crept over her shoulder and scuttled toward the shelter of her collar. Instinctively, Lachdanan flicked the bug away.
Lifting the sheet a little higher, Lachdanan inspected the damage. Evidently, she had been in the river for awhile. The pike (who had lately grown bigger and more aggressive) had been at her, but there were two deep maroon puncture wounds that were definitely not the work of the Talsande's aquatic wildlife. One of the wounds was just below her left collarbone, but the one that had killed her went straight through her heart. The fish had torn away most of the bloodstained blouse and wasted no time getting at the flesh underneath.
Lachdanan started to pull the sheet back up and then paused to study her face one last time. She had been pretty, in a plain sort of way. Wet, her brown hair and thick eyebrows looked almost black. She had a narrow face with prominent cheekbones. She'd had a pleasant smile that she'd seldom had reason to show. Lachdanan recognized her, of course. Even if it hadn't been part of his job to know all the citizens under his protection on sight, Glorianna Lester had been at the center of a scandal that had been the talk of Tristram a few months ago. She had gone missing when Caravan left town a fortnight earlier. Most of the townsfolk had assumed she left with Caravan after finally building the courage to leave her husband, Farmer Lester. Now, it looked like Glorianna Lester was about to become the talk of the town for one last time.
"Who could have done such a thing?"
Startled out of his contemplation, Lachdanan looked up to see his scribe, Tomas, standing behind him. Tomas was a whip-thin boy of fourteen. He was inquisitive, detail-oriented, and one of the most responsible individuals Lachdanan had ever met. In short, he was probably the best scribe Lachdanan had ever had. Tomas had been quietly recording the details of the scene with a charcoal stick in a leather-bound journal. It was unusual for him to speak out in such a way, but then, discovering the corpses of townsfolk in the river was unusual too.
Lachdanan took a moment to ponder his assistant's question. He shook his head. "We'll have to find out," he answered.
Glorianna Lester awakened to find a handsome brown-haired man sitting beside her bed. The morning sun streamed in through the small window of the bedchamber. It was a charmless room whose splintery wooden floor creaked at the slightest movement and whose wood plank walls were as drafty as could be in the winter. She slept in a narrow bed with a straw-filled mattress. She had a chest of drawers for her meager wardrobe and a wash basin. On a hook on the door hung the belt that Farmer Lester never wore. It was meant to stay there as a warning. She had hid it once, but that had gone very badly.
"Well, well, well, well, well!" enthused the handsome brown-haired man. "Howdy and welcome t' the land of the livin'!" He laughed at some private joke with himself. He wore a fine brown uniform with a crimson sash. On the ring finger of his perfectly manicured left hand, he wore a gold ring set with a large red shard of ruby.
Instinctively, Glorianna pulled her thin blanket up to cover herself. For some reason, it smelled like the river. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" she wanted to know.
The handsome brown-haired man favored her with a charming smile. His teeth were white, flawless, and reminded Glorianna of a wolf's, or perhaps a fox's. "Well, as t' who I am, I'll be right upfront with y'all."
He had a strange accent that Glorianna could not place for the life of her. "I" came out sounding like "ah," "right" sounded like "raht," and "you all" slurred into a single word, "yawl." Glorianna wasn't sure who else he was addressing when he said "you all." As far as she knew, she was alone in her room with the strange man. He seemed friendly and harmless enough (but then, so did Farmer Lester most of the time), but there was something about him that made her skin crawl.
(And why was her skin so cold? They were in the middle of a heat wave for Zakarum's sake!)
"I'm the Duke of Hatred," he continued, in answer to her first question, "but y'all can call me Mr. Duke." He smiled again: Perfectly warm, perfectly charming, and it reminded Glorianna of a predatory fish swimming straight at her with a mouth full of needle-like teeth. "As t' why I'm here, well, that's a tad more complicated: Y'see, ever since Lord Mephisto had his run-in with the Horadrim, I've been fillin' in for him, and I can tell you that I've been as busy as a one-legged man in an ass-kickin' contest."
For some strange reason, the phrase 'one-legged man' made Glorianna think of Toby Wirt.
"It's my job," continued Mr. Duke, "t' help folks who have shuffled off the ol' mortal coil resolve any unsettled vendettas, conflicts, and so on." He lowered his voice and gave Glorianna a look filled with compassion and sympathy that made her feel like she was being eaten alive by red ants. "You're probably wonderin' what this has to do with you, darlin'.
"Well, there's no easy or gentle way t' say this, so maybe y'all had better see for yourself." He nodded at the sheet she was holding around her shoulders.
Glorianna looked down and saw two great maroon blossoms opening over her chest and left shoulder. She glanced up at Mr. Duke and then modestly peeked under the sheet at herself.
"Well," said Glorianna calmly and nodding her head, "that explains a lot." In one respect, it was strange that she felt no fear or pain at the realization of her condition. But then, she vaguely remembered that there had been plenty of fear and pain when it had actually happened. "But it doesn't explain what you're doing here," added Glorianna.
Mr. Duke reached over with one hand and pulled Glorianna's sheet down. He plunged his other hand between her breasts and there was a slippery, squishy sound. When he pulled his hand out again, he was holding something that looked like a piece of raw meat dipped in tar. It pulsed steadily.
"As y'all can see, your heart is as full of Hatred as a bayou's full of mosquitoes. Question is: what are y'all gonna do about it?"
Glorianna stared at her heart and felt tears welling up in her eyes. Plump white maggots writhed in the festering black Hatred oozing out of her. "Is that what I look like inside?"
"'Fraid so," said Mr. Duke sympathetically. "But it's not somethin' t' be afraid of. Just look at all the energy and life in it. Hate isn't a bad thing. Why, without Hate, there'd be no justice. You're not against justice, are you? 'Course not! This is the power to right the wrongs you suffered. Think of the people who are alive while you're lyin' dead on a riverbank: the father who sold you, the husband who beat you, the lover who betrayed you...
"Now, you have a choice, darlin'," continued Mr. Duke. "You can simply leave all this Hatred behind. Waste it. Let it dissipate. The livin' world will go on and forget about you and what it did to you. Or you can take this power an' use it to hold people accountable for their crimes against you."
"You're not sure," stated Mr. Duke. "I understand. You're thinking of how the Wisdom of Zakarum preaches how it's best to forgive. But even Zakarum punished the Chaos-Spawn. There must be justice before there can ever be forgiveness."
"Justice," repeated Glorianna.
"Somebody brought y'all t' this sad state of affairs. Somebody murdered you and dumped you in the river. Don'tcha wanna make that person pay? Don'tcha wanna settle it once and for all with the person you hate the most?"
Slowly, silently, Glorianna nodded. It was a barely perceptible nod, almost more with her eyes than with her head.
"Well, that's just grand," beamed Mr. Duke. "Now then, who would that person be? Who do you hate most of all?"
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