Tranvar had a village square, as most villages do. It was usually just a place where people socialized between chores. It was rare to see more than a few people there at one time, but now the entire village had turned out.
In the center stood fourteen people. They were all able-bodied, but had little else in common. The crowd standing around them was composed of the very young, the very old, and Mitch Connerry, who had lost his arm to infection some years ago.
There was a small Speaker's Stage, with three people on it. One of them was Roland Manistro, the village elder. The other two were young Kara, and old Ilwar, both dead on the ground when yesterday they had been standing.
The two bodies had little in common. One was a little girl, eyes frozen in horrified shock and a sheet mercifully covering what remained of her ruptured chest. The other was an old man, hands serenely folded over his chest, and with only a thin red line on his neck indicating his cause of death.
Two of three struck down; and yet Roland seemed to stand three times as high. He had been well-known as the kindly old man who wandered the village and spread good cheer. But now, his face has transformed from a warm smile to an iron mask of determination. The words marched off his lips like soldiers as he spoke.
“Kara was found dead this morning. Her chest had burst open. The Drekava are upon us once more.”
The silence was heavy with painful memories. It had been almost forty years. There were people who were now fathers who had never known the Black Times. The fourteen in the center were all too young to know, but the older crowd – they remembered. A burst open chest only meant one thing.
An old woman, Sherry Rhav, raised her voice. “And what happened to Ilwar?”
Roland recoiled as if struck, and had to pause before speaking. “When Kara's parents showed us her body...we both knew what it meant. It's possible, using certain rituals, to see what she saw in her final moments. We needed to, to understand the threat. But the old powers...they have a cost.”
“You killed him?”
“He killed himself. And in doing so, he fed his power to me. We had both sworn off magick when the Black Times ended, but with Ilwar's sacrifice, I was a Magister once more. I saw the true face of the threat.
There are three Drekava in this town. Myeus is the oldest, a Drekava Agent skilled in stealth and guile. Typheus is a Hexer who can addle your mind while you sleep. And Kroseus...Kroseus is a new Drekava, born last night as they used Kara's life to fuel their sick ritual.”
One of the fourteen tentatively raised their hand. “You said...in this town?”
Roland sighed and turned to face them. “Yes. In this town. They wear human faces and by day masquerade as one of us. But the disguise isn't perfect.”
“They cann'ot appear too weak,” Sherry finished. “They are strong beasts, and if they take on too weak of a form, it won't work at all.”
The ponderous solemnity of the crowd began to creep upon the fourteen as well. Suddenly, it was becoming clear why this division had been ordered.
“You understand now?” Roland sighed. “Fourteen of you stand before me. Three of you are Myeus, Typheus, and Kroseus.
The fourteen, who had been standing close together, suddenly burst apart as they appraised each other with wild eyes.
“Be still!” Roland yelled. “There will no brawling. If a Drekava is killed in a man-form, it will simply take another.”
“Then how do we kill them?” another one of the fourteen cried.
A lifetime of pain and fear flickered upon Roland's face. “Follow me.” He stepped off the stage. “Sherry, please give the bodies a proper burial.”
“Of course. And then...I think then, I won't be following you.” The crowd nodded silent assent.
Roland began walking to the outskirts of town, followed by the fourteen, still sneaking fearful glances among themselves.
Sherry began to cry. “King in heaven preserve us, the Black Times are upon us again...”
The old machine, they had always called it. Sure, their parents had a strange fear of it, but that didn't stop the children from daring each other to touch it. It had been overgrown by vines and, for as long as any of the fourteen could remember, had been a simple fixture of the village.
There were no more vines. A small, hunched over man had cleaned off the machine and was busily polishing it, and the fears of their fathers become more apparent. The machine had two long tables, each fitted with straps. Above one table, a guillotine blade sat ominously. Above the other, there was an abnormally large spike.
The small man turned away from his labor. “'S ready, lord.”
“Thank you, Boggart.”
Roland looked at each of the fourteen in turn. “This is, as far as we know, the only way to kill a Drekava in human form. The Lancrel Guillotine. Boggart knows how to operate it. I leave it to you to find the Drekava in your ranks.
If a majority cannot be reached, you must still pick someone. The Lancrel Guillotine...” and again, the shadow of the Black Times darkened his face. “Well. Just pick someone.
I've warded the entire border of the town. The Drekava won't be able to leave of their own volition until they abandon their human forms. Their only chance is to get enough of you killed on the guillotine that they can shed their false skins and finish the rest of you off. You must kill them first.
And now, I take my leave.”
Roland walked away, taking care not to make eye contact with any of the fourteen. He had put forward an impossible charge, a conflict they had no choice but to see through. Now it was just the fourteen, milling around hesitantly; Boggart, idly polishing the Guillotine; and the dread contraption itself, looming, snarling,