The image on the wall blurred, before fading out completely as everyone scattered for help. I looked over to the boxy device covered in glowing runes on the table behind me. The light of the runes went away as Droclin took a six inch long crystal out of the top of the device.
I couldn't help but crack up laughing. He stood, annoyed that I was finding humor in this, but not willing to show it. “What is so funny?”
“I get drug across the galaxy to another world of genuine magic with wizards, dragons, and magical species, only to find out that you have LARP'ers in your midst.”
“I don't see the humor in it,” he said. Droclin was an imposing figure. The black man stood a few inches over six feet tall with a shaved head that reminded me of Samual L Jackson in a business suit. He seemed to be in a perpetual mixed state of annoyance and fascination when in my presence. I could never fully tell if he was about to kill me or give me a pat on the back. He hadn't made a move to kill me in the few months I had been stuck with him, so it seemed like I was in the clear.
“We have the same thing, well not the exact same thing, where I am from. Live Action Role Playing gamers who dress up as fantasy characters with fake swords and spells going into battle against each other.”
“Sparring is the basics of all forms of combat training.” This was the other voice in the room. He was introduced as Doll, pronounced 'dole'. Although I took to calling him Dull, at least in my own head. He was a straight laced Inquisitor, a form of highly respected detective in New Haven City. He reminded me of Spock, but on Prozac. He exuded having no personality or sense of humor whatsoever so strongly that I had no doubt he could kill a party just by entering the room.
I couldn't help but crack up laughing again. “They aren't warriors though. They are wannabe warriors who play dress up. These guys,” I gestured to the blank space of wall where the images were just broadcast, “at least use real weapons and spells to attack each other with, but even they are a bunch of fakers who have probably never been in a real fight in their lives. At least not one without a magical regeneration device to keep them from actually getting hurt.”
“That is a very astute observation.” The more Doll spoke, the more I wanted to call him Spock. “What brought you to that conclusion?”
“The elaborate, over the top costumes, for starters. Nobody in their right mind would wear them in a real combat situation. The dramatic bravado, rushing into a fight without any sort of tactical advantage. Take your pick. The dead giveaway is in their eyes.”
“What do you mean by that?” Doll asked.
“Magically created simulations were my first combat experience as well. I had that exact same bravado as each and every one of them. That comes from the feeling of invincibility in knowing that no matter how the fight goes you won't be harmed. It wasn't until I was in a real fight with flesh, blood, and bone, that I got to see how delusional I was. What is the point in having me here anyway?”
“It is part of your probation,” Droclin reminded me.
That killed the humor of the moment in an instant. Since coming to Haven I stirred up a bit of trouble. I got my hands on an Orb that contained the soul of an ancient evil dragon who let me use his power. The result was the destruction of a warehouse, leveling several city blocks, and the kidnapping of a powerful political figurehead in Haven. As part of my probation, I was to perform a certain amount of 'community service' at the behest of my supervising parole officer. It shouldn't have surprised me in the least when my P.O. turned out to be Droclin. He was the wealthiest individual in this entire world, and hadn't amassed his empire by making foolish decisions. He seemed to have a particularly keen interest in me. He was also a valuable ally. Our goals were essentially the same. I wanted to get out of this world and get back home to my family, and he seemed just as keen to get me out of this world. I wasn't a fool. He knew he could get something from me that would be very valuable to him, and he seemed to think that I was a worthwhile investment. Sure, he may have been using me, but as long as I got what I wanted, what did it matter?
Droclin set a file folder down on the desk in front of me. “Alec Bender,” he gestured towards the file. “Twenty one cycles old. Dead.”
I opened the file to reveal a photograph of the deceased lying on the ground just as the image on the screen. I stared at the picture, mesmerized. Not that I was looking at a photo of a dead kid, but that I was looking at a photo in the first place.
“What?” He asked. “I know you've seen dead bodies before, that's why you're on probation.”
“It's not that,” I grimaced at the unpleasant reminder. “I didn't know they had the ability to take photographs like this in Haven.”
“Indeed. There is a lot about Haven that you don't know anything about. Not every place here is the wild lands where you can cause death and mass destruction at your leisure.”
“Now you are just being an ass.”
“Yes, I am.” He grinned, savoring it. “Image capture devices, both still and moving, are becoming increasingly common. Although they are still expensive.”
“At least until you refine the process and can produce them for cheaper.” Droclin grinned without saying a word. Being a businessman myself, I knew how these things worked. The fact that I had a head for business, despite my tendency to be snarky, seemed to garnish more praise from Droclin than anything else.
“So these kids recorded their,” I thought of the right words to say. “Game. I take it they're a bunch of spoiled rich kids.”
“Very good. Why is that?” Doll asked.
“The recorder is one thing, but it could easily have been stolen or borrowed. The costumes are something else entirely. They look tailor made to fit each person.”
“Correct. Sorcery and Mazes has become a popular sort of sport among the more elite classes of Haven.” Doll spouted off the information in his regular monotone that I grew to hate almost instantly. “It may be a game, but it is a precursor to professional competitions. It has been around for centuries among nobles to relive the battles of their ancestors, for training, to settle disputes, and to prove their worth. What makes S&M so unique,”
I couldn't help but snicker a little bit at the abbreviation for Sadomasochism on Earth. He stopped talking, annoyed at the interruption. I stuck my pinky finger in my right ear and wiggled it a little bit. It was more of a nervous habit than anything. It's not like nudging the magical device absorbed in my ear that translated all languages I heard into English made it work better. I still hadn't fully accepted this standard issue piece of equipment that is distributed to all denizens of Haven, but they were remarkably effective. Not only for opening communication, but as a scapegoat. “Sorry, bit of a translation problem. Please continue.”
“What makes it so unique is that all participants wear regeneration apparatuses to ensure that they don't receive any permanent or life threatening injuries.”
“So what happened with this guy?”
“No kidding, smart-ass. If he had a magical ring of regeneration, how did he die?”
“That is what we need you to find out,” Droclin interjected. “He had no injuries on him. His remains have been evaluated by a Mystic, and he did not die by any form of magical means. There is no sign that he was poisoned. Nor is there any sign of injury on his body, although it is yet to be thoroughly examined by a Necromancer.”
“Jesus, you're not making this easy.”
“I didn't make it this way,” Doll replied, stoically.
“So why am I in on this? I'm no forensic expert, nor am I a detective.”
“He died while wearing a device of regeneration,” Droclin said. “Something circumvented the magic and killed him. You are the closest thing we have to an expert on things that Aren't magical. Besides, we have to give you something to do and your knowledge of all things magical is,” He paused, trying to think of the right words.
“Nonexistent,” I added.
“I was going to say limited, but that will do just as well.”
“Why am I being assigned to fight crimes and solve murders?”
“Because you need to prove your worth if you ever hope to get back in the good graces of the Gold clan and the Council. You will need them as an ally if you want to achieve your goals.”
The Gold clan were the self proclaimed militia whose only goal was to obtain all the Orbs, like the one I came in contact with, and lock them away so they could never be used. They were like a religious order who strongly believe that anyone using the Orbs is permanently tainted and can't be trusted, despite the fact that I willingly handed it over to them; eventually. Kidnapping their leader certainly didn't help my cause any.
The league of leaders from all the nations of Haven making up the Council were like the United Nations of powerful magical beings. My actions garnished a lot of attention, and none of it positive. During my brief time in Haven I managed to make quite the name for myself, and been personally invited to meet with various members of the Council, but declined. My reputation may have preceded me, but so did theirs. I had no love of politicians on Earth, and the Council members, albeit every one of them an intelligent alien species with epically powerful arcane abilities, were still nothing more than the manipulative politicians I was used to.
“So when do I start?”
“Right now. This is why you are here.” Doll gestured at the wide open space around us. “This case was so unusual from the start that we were immediately called in.”
“Who exactly is 'we', anyway?”
“As you know, crime in Haven, at least the civilized parts of it, are relatively low,” Droclin explained
“Because of your court system.”
I remembered all too well what their court system was like from my own arraignment. It was as quick as an Alabama lynch mob, but surprisingly accurate. Any criminal brought before the court was greeted by three judges of various races. Each judge wore a Ring of Truth, a magical device that could determine whenever the person speaking was lying or not. If you lied before the judges, your sentence was immediately harsh.
There was no gathering of evidence, hours of paperwork to fill out, or months of trial. When a criminal was caught, they were immediately brought to the court, asked few questions to determine their guilt or innocence, and were then either sentenced, set free, or in rare cases held pending further investigation.
My own sentencing was just as quick, but not with the results I expected. The only charge they could bring me up on was the complete destruction of several city blocks when I chose to make it rain down cannonballs. Hey, I was being hunted by a group of fanatics who thought I was a threat just because I had an artifact containing the soul of an ancient evil dragon who was slowly taking me over. They did have a point there, but it was still a matter of self defense. Unfortunately I took that defense a little too far.
Miraculously nobody was seriously injured from the incident. Several law enforcement officers were wounded, but they all made a recovery in record time. It didn't change the fact that I injured them needlessly. With the power of Barthandolous I could have merely teleported away, which was what I eventually did after summoning my lead rain. The incident at the warehouse was dropped because it was deemed that I was acting in self defense to being jumped as they tried to take the Orb from me by force. Similar charges were dropped for the kidnapping of Dragonus Gold because I used that opportunity to hand over the Orb to him, of my own free will, so that he could lock it away.
I was ordered to pay for the damages, which wasn't a problem because of the vast amount of wealth I came across since arriving in Haven, although it did take a large chunk away from it. I didn't go to prison, but was remanded to the care of Droclin who would be responsible for keeping me in line until such a time as it was determined that the influence of the dragon was completely lifted.
Unfortunately that may never happen. The power that the dragon showed me was intense, and not something I could shake easily. Every day I felt like a drug addict with the source of their addiction constantly on their mind. It wasn't easy. If I had the Orb anywhere near me, I couldn't honestly say that I would be able to resist picking it up again with the intent of using its power. Since my ultimate goal was to collect all of the twelve Orbs scattered around Haven, I wasn't entirely certain that I was up to the task.
The next several hours seemed to drone on forever. All of the Larpers in attendance were brought to the warehouse meeting room where Doll and I sat at a table. Droclin, of course, went home and back to bed. Presumably with several naked women waiting for him. As soon as he left I had the theme from Shaft stuck in my head for the rest of the night.
Each person was brought in while Doll opened up a file on them and began asking questions.
“Please state your name.”
“Angoret Valentic,” the young, nervous boy said from across the table as he looked down at his hands.
“Angoret, do you have anything to do with the harm that came to Alec Bender this evening?”
“Do you know what happened to Alec Bender this evening?”
“Do you know of anyone who would want to bring harm to Alec Bender?”
“Thank you for your time.”
And with that the kid left, hurrying out of the room. Doll wrote a few notes in his file, set it aside, and called out the name of the person on the next file.
“Wait,” I called out to the burly guard at the door. I turned back towards Doll. “What the hell was that?”
“That was the interrogation interview.”
“What do you mean that was the interview? I've asked more questions than that of my dog when he crapped on the floor.”
He looked at me, completely puzzled by the statement. “Why would you do something like that?”
“See, that's where I'm confused. You show more interest in my conversing with a dog than you did in interviewing that kid about a murder investigation.”
“You don' t know what an Inquisitor is, do you?” He asked.
“A guy who asks weak questions and lets a potential murder suspect walk away?”
He didn't roll his eyes at the remark, but he did almost look annoyed, which was the closest thing to an emotional response I had seen from him so far. “I can't fathom why someone like you, who has been through the court system, does not know this. The Inquisitors of Haven are the emissaries of the court. While our findings are not legally binding, they are grounds for bringing suspects to the court for judgment from the triumvirate. Only in very rare cases are suspects brought to the court without an Inquisitor.”
His explanation was very dry, but I was getting it. Inquisitors like him were the police force who were charged with investigating crimes and determining who is brought before the court where the judges with rings of Truth pass sentence.
“Do you have a Ring of Truth?” I asked him, finally piecing it together.
“Essentially, yes. While Inquisitors do not wear the actual rings of court Judges, we are permanently enchanted with the blessing of Truth.”
“Permanently enchanted? I didn't think that was possible.”
“It is, but it comes at a great cost. It is only for those who are completely devoted to their work. Undergoing the enchantment is a lengthy process, and is very taxing on the system. And there are other side effects.
“Jeez, talk about taking pride in your work. What side effects?”
“Just like with the Rings of Truth, an Inquisitor is incapable of telling a falsehood.”
“You mean you can't lie?”
“That's definitely not for me, then. You must be single.”
“Yes, but what is the relevance?”
“If I had that kind of curse on me, it would just take one question from my wife of 'does this dress make me look fat?', 'do you think she is pretty?' or 'is it ok with you if my brother comes to stay with us for a while?' and I would be out on my ass.”
“Now that you have amused your curiosity, can we get back to work?”
Permanent truth serum or not, he did have a knack for changing the subject quick. We called in the next suspect and Doll repeated his questions. It became instantly apparent that he was going to continue along the same boring, even if it was efficient, line of questioning. It also became immediately apparent that I wasn't going to let that happen. I swear, I wasn't intentionally trying to be a pain in his ass. I was fascinated by the game they were playing and asked them a bazillion questions about their characters, how they played, their costumes, their magic, and how they regenerated from injuries.
It only took the next interview before Doll put a stop to the process. “Is it necessary for you to waste our time like this?” He asked.
“I'm not wasting time. I am gathering information.”
“What information have you gained from your methods of questioning?”
I hesitated for a moment, remembering that he was like a walking lie detector. Mostly I gathered information on their game because I was completely fascinated by it. Sorcery and Mazes carried a very distinct similarity to the pen and paper role-playing games I frequently attended in college. It wasn't just the nostalgia of it all that got me so intrigued, but the fact that they were actually living the fantasy instead of imagining it. They still created their characters persona, race, class, and abilities. Those who didn't have their characters abilities naturally were augmented with spells, potions, and enchanted items. A frail skinny nerd who had never been in a fight in his life could literally take on the form of a burly barbaric warrior.
While some of the characters picked up certain abilities they found intriguing, others took it to the extreme. The dog-like thief was a Frenzic in real life, an intelligent feline species. The wizard was played by an elvish man who had absolutely no magical talent whatsoever. All the effects from his spells came from enchanted items at his command. He would have been a perfect candidate for a warrior with his natural physique, but took on the wizard character to play something different. The same could be said for the squat, lycanthrope warrior played by a tall, gangly Vinish woman who looked to be some sort of reptilian species. The only players who seemed to have aptitude of their own that wasn't augmented were the Sorceress and the Game Master who portrayed the old wizard.
The sorceress was a fascinating young woman by the name of Kaithlein. Her fair skin looked like it had never seen the light of day. She was passionate about the game and the battles they represented. She studied at the Magic Academy with a double major in magical theory and arcane history. According to Doll's nod of approval, the only affirmation of any interest he showed all night, this was an impressive feat.
Kate, as I grew to call her, was the know-it-all equivalent of Harry Potter's Hermoine. She seemed to know everything there was to possibly know about anything. The type of person you could potentially waste all day trying to stump with useless trivia. She didn't do it for attention or glory, but because she was fascinated, and obsessed, with learning. She constantly needed to be reminded during gaming sessions that she couldn't use certain spells because her character hadn't learned them yet.
Kedvin, the Game Master, was a master strategist. This wasn't a self proclaimed title, but his actual job description when working in the military. Haven hadn't seen many major wars since the dragons lost their rule, but there were still frequent skirmishes among rival villages, communities, religious sects, and so forth. Conflicts still arose inevitably. Wars were always fought over a difference of opinion, and Haven contained significantly more of these differences than all of earth combined. After his exile from the military due to health reasons, he worked on creating ways to summon creatures in the private sector. Summoned creatures could be sent into battle without any loss of life, and thus became invaluable to the military. He has since used his methods of summoning creatures to orchestrate the games when he didn't have enough players to fill in the roster of antagonists for the scenario.
He was particularly fascinated with all of the questions I asked of him. In particular, 'Why?'
“I'm not sure I understand the question.” He seemed completely thrown off guard to have deviated from the standard Inquisitor line of questioning.
“Why is the game so complicated?”
“Combat in all forms is complicated and unpredictable, which is why,” he started to spout off like a salesman with a well worn pitch of his product.
“I understand that,” I interrupted. “What I'm curious about is why the process of starting the game is so complicated? Why can't players simply play to their strengths?”
“Because S&M is all about the fantasy.”
This time I managed too stifle a giggle, although I responded with, “That much I definitely understand. But isn't it enough of a fantasy to be in this situation in the first place? I mean, have any of your players used this as a combat simulator, the way it was originally intended, without all the bells and whistles of fantasy?”
“Well, I don't know, but,”
“Look, I'm not mocking what you do. I think it's great. But I bet it does get mocked a lot, and the majority of people don't take you seriously.”
He looked at Doll, knowing that he wouldn't be able to tell a lie, but at the same time seemed to be pondering whether he should because this wasn't relevant to the investigation.
“My world had a game like similar to this. It was complicated because you had to use your imagination. There was no real magic. It was all done with pencil, paper, miniature figurines, and a few drawings of what a creature would look like. It got ridiculed, but at least it maintained a certain degree of respect because you had to be intelligent and creative to be able to play it. It wasn't until people started swinging foam swords at each other and throwing tennis balls while shouting 'lightning bolt' that any respect for it was gone. It went from an intelligent game to mindless, pointless, violence. I think that if you want to reclaim the honor this game once represented, you need to get back to your roots.”
He pondered this for a very long time before speaking again. “Did your game ever regain its honor?”
“I don't know. I got so absorbed in my career that I never went back to playing. Now that world is gone, and I may never find out.”
Doll eventually broke the awkward silence that followed by ending the interview. Doll couldn't understand how any of this information was relevant to the case, and even I had to admit that it was a bit of a stretch. “He was in this game session for several hours with nobody entering or exiting the area other than those playing the game. Something in this environment got him killed whether it was accidental or not. By getting more intimately acquainted with this environment I may be able to find out what it was.” Most everything I had to tell him was BS, but wasn't a lie. The odds seemed favorable that something in the game resulted in his death, and by playing the game and understanding how exactly it worked, it was indeed possible that I would find out what happened.
To my surprise, Doll went along with it. All I had to do now was prove my worth.