“All rise for his honourable majesty’s adjudicator, Eromeil Lavand,” the court announcer called as the adjudicator took her place on the bench.
The busy courtroom echoed with the sound of people standing. Overhead in the wings, a child began crying.
Eromeil sat herself down and smoothed down her robe, then looked at the assembled court. “Be seated.” There was a rumble as the court sat down.
“We are here today to rule over the case of the City versus one Langel of the outer villages, charged with the crime of murder. How does the defendant plead?”
A man in chains shuffled to his feet. “Not guilty, your honour.”
A murmuring of discontent echoed through the court and Elomeil hammered her gavel for order. “And will you be representing yourself, Langel?”
“No, your honour.” Langel said, shifting uncomfortably in his chains. “This… creature… will be representing me.”
The courtroom collectively gasped and broke into a roar of muttering and shock as everyone seemed to remember there was a cloaked, in-human figure stood next to Langel, that there had always been one stood there and up until now they’d just, somehow, not really noticed.
“Order! Order!” Eromeil shouted, hammering her gavel. “This is most irregular, Langel. You would be well advised not to make a mockery of this court.”
The figure seemed to increase in height without changing shape, it’s presence somehow standing out more in the room. It turned it’s glassy disc of a face towards the adjudicator and spoke.
“Guilt is innocence. The engine is out of time.”
The city prosecutors on the other side of the court stood up. “Objection, your honour. This is clearly ludicrous. The city demands that Langel be held in contempt of court until such time as a verdict can be reached in his absence.”
The figure turned it’s unreadable gaze on the prosecutor. “The engine must be recalibrated. Guilt is innocence. Time must flow.”
“Enough!” Adjudicator Eromeil announced. “Objection noted and denied. While I do not approve of my court being made a circus, Langel has the right to any counsel of his choosing, no matter how ill-equipped. The City, your opening statement.”
The city prosecutor stood up, brushing himself down and stroking his goatee as he approached the bench, before turning around and addressing the court proper.
“Ladies, gentlemen, officers of the court. Today we are gathered here to be shown that one Langel was responsible for the murder of one of the city’s most beloved officials. An echo, a City phenomenon known indubitably to be infallible in its display of past truths, was seen by multiple eye-witnesses, thus confirming Langel as the perpetrator of this heinous act, by echo-proxy. Over the course of what I am sure will be a short day in court, the city will prove beyond any doubt that Langel was in fact the murderer.”
The prosecutor took his seat and the figure drifted across the floor to the center of the court.
“Time is a shadow. Guilt is innocence. The engine must be recalibrated. Langel is not an echo. The past has not happened.”
There was an awkward silence as the figure drifted back to it’s prior position next to Langel. Langel just looked at the adjudicator and shrugged, helping himself to a cup of water with a shaky hand. Everyone was just looking at the figure in a state of confusion, but nobody wanted to say or do anything. Creatures like this figure, whilst usually harmless, rarely took an active role in human affairs and were extremely dangerous if provoked. They often carried extremely effective relics and devices and wielded the control of powerful spirits. It was safer to just ignore them and let them do whatever it was they were doing than get involved, most of the time.
The figure seemed entirely unaffected by the stares, oblivious to the confused scowls and the clearly nervous worrying of it’s client. The prosecutor just smirked, increasingly confident the case was in the bag.
“If I may, I would like to summon my first witness,” the prosecutor announced, “Sen Marleth.”
An elderly woman stood up in the gallery and was escorted to the witness stand.
“Sen Marleth, do you swear to tell the truth, before this court, before the spirits and before the echoes of your forebears?”
“Then in your own words, please tell the court what happened yesterday during the market celebration.”
The old woman cleared her throat and eyed the rest of the court nervously, as if she was only suddenly aware she was under it’s scrutiny.
“The market was bustling with people, music was playing and the stalls were opening early in anticipation of the official market day starting. I remember I was standing near the murderer.”
Langel waited for an interruption but the figure did nothing, merely standing next to him in silence, apparently incapable of sitting down.
“Aren’t you going to object? Isn’t that an objection? Why are you doing this to me? Why wont you let me use a proper defense you glassy-faced bastard!” Langel spat through gritted teeth, trying not to interrupt the proceedings and thus anger adjudicator.
The figure just turned it’s glass disc of a face towards Langel, unreadable and alien.
“Screw this,” Langel sighed, throwing his hands up, “objection!”
The adjudicator leaned forward on the bench and looked at Langel and the figure dismissively. “Can the defendant please refrain from addressing the court. Does the defense counsel wish to lodge an objection?”
The figure just stood silently, whilst Langel put his face in his hands and sighed.
“Very well. Witness, please continue.”
The old woman looked at the figure nervously. It appeared to be staring right at her, silent and unyielding, the thoughts behind the glass disc unknowable. She swallowed, feeling deeply uncomfortable and stammered until the prosecutor caught her gaze, gesturing that she should carry on.
“T-The murderer was selling fruit with his son. I bought a jumaberry and asked the boy, who looked like such a nice child, all full of excitement, whether it was his first time in the city. The boy said it was. We chatted for a little bit about the things to see in the town and the boy asked for some money from his father. He was given some and ran off. That was when the echo started. It flickered into life in the middle of the market square, just outside of Merchant’s gate. There was a hush as everyone went quiet. This was the same place the councillor had been killed almost a year back and there hadn’t been an echo of the murder since, so every time someone saw one here, well, it was like you were just waiting for it to show up and I were no different.”
“And what did the echo show, Mrs. Marleth?”
“I’m getting to that. The echo opened up in the square, like echos usually do, and there was the councillor. Everyone rushed to get out of the way so people could see it proper, and that was when we all saw the murderer leap out and stab him in the back, like a coward.” The old woman spat, glaring in Langel’s direction.
“And can you identify the murderer?” The prosecution asked.
“Aye—it was that man there.” The woman said, poking a bony finger in Langel’s direction.
“No further questions, your honour.”
The adjudicator looked at the figure and at Langel, who had buried his head beneath his arms on the table top. “Your witness, err…. counsel.”
The figure glided across the floor silently towards the witness stand, slowing to a sudden stop in front of the witness. The woman cowered away from it, clearly distressed by the looming figure, but after a few moments of silent staring from the figure, she calmed down and looked at the adjudicator. Adjudicator Elomeil just shrugged.
“Why did you watch your son burn?” The figure said, it’s voice thin and metallic, simultaneously far away and a whisper in the ear.
“The skin floats on the water.”
“Stop it! Stop it!”
The prosecutor stood up. “Objection, your honour! That… thing… is abusing the witness!”
“Objection overruled. The defense is merely asking questions. Sel Marleth, need I remind you that you are under oath. Answer the defense’s question.”
“Objection!” The prosecutor shouted, clearly surprised by this turn of events, “How is the question relevant?”
The Adjudicator gave the prosecutor a stern look. “That is what the answer should reveal. I’m going to allow it. Sel Marleth, the answer please.”
“I didn’t see him! My eyes aren’t… I thought he was just watching the pot, I didn’t think he had his hand in there! I didn’t notice until the smell… oh gods! When I realised, it was too late, I… with his father gone, I… there would be too many questions. There was never an echo, I thought I was forgiven…” Sel sobbed, shielding her face behind her hands as if it would protect her from the shame. She glared at the figure.
“How did you know? How did you know!?” she shouted, eyes red and watery. “No-one knew! I never told anyone!”
Elomeil gave a quiet hand-signal and a pair of guards carefully escorted the distraught woman out of the courtroom. Langel just stared, mouth open as the figure glided back across the courtroom and resumed it’s vigil at his side. The court had burst into a low rumble of gossiping and whispering. No-one had suspected the old woman of anything, but equally no-one was buying that just because one eye-witness might be unreliable, the hundreds of others wouldn’t send Langel down. Everyone knew he was guilty, the crowd rumbled, the whole trial was a farce to keep up appearances, they said under their breaths.
Langel looked up at the strange robed figure staring forward with it’s flat glass face.
“I don’t know how or why you’re doing this, but thank you. I didn’t do this.”
The figure rotated on the spot to face him and looked down from it’s inhuman height. “Time is a shadow. The engine must be recalibrated.” Langel didn’t know what to make of that, and the figure turned back to it’s aimless stare into the distance.
“Order! Order!” Adjudicator Elomeil called, using her gavel to get the crowds attention once more. “Given the recent events, I feel a recess is in order. Court shall adjourn for one hour.”
“Hani, my boy, what have you gotten me into?” Langel said, ruffling his son’s hair through the bars of his holding cell as he awaited the court to be back in session. “This imaginary friend of yours. I don’t know what to make of it.”
He looked awkwardly to the far corner of the cell which was taken up mostly by the large figure which stood and stared silently at him and his son.
“Dad, he just wants to help. We weren’t even here when the councillor was killed. Why don’t they just believe you?”
“Because the echoes are never wrong, son. Ever. And people are sure it was me they saw. I was there, I saw it too and even I half believe them.”
“Dad, don’t give up!” Hani cried, hugging his father through the bars.
Langel chuckled bitterly. “I’m not, don’t worry. We both know the truth but Hani, you need to be prepared for the worst. Sometimes the truth just isn’t enough. Even with an imaginary friend to help out.”
Tears began to form in the young boy’s eyes. “I don’t know what to do, Dad.”
“The light must cast a shadow. An echo must have a voice.” The figure said as it moved out of the cell, passing through the bars as if they were smoke. “35 cycles too late is too early.”
“I don’t understand.”
“A scar in time saves nine.” The figure said, and a thin, grey hand slipped out from under the robe. It guided Hani’s and Langel’s hands together and the two felt a warmth spread through them before the grey hand released them and withdrew back into the folds of the cloak.
“What—” Hani began but was interrupted as a guard entered.
“Court is back in session. You have to leave now, boy.”
Hani looked to Langel and Langel just nodded quietly. Another guard joined them and escorted Hani out of the cells.
“How did you get out of the cell?” The guard asked the figure nervously as it loomed over him.
“Why does your wife sew with red thread instead of blue?”
The guard, wrinkled his brow and just glared. “No matter. Come with me. And no funny business, if that’s even possible with your kind.” The guard unlocked the cell and lead Langel back into the courtroom, followed silently by the gliding figure.
Everyone took their seats, then rose again as the adjudicator re-entered the chamber. Elomeil sat and everyone else followed soon after. “During our recess,” Elomeil announced, “a formal complaint from the knighthood was brought to my attention. This is a human court, for human affairs and not the interests of such strange creatures as the defense counsel. The royal family has let it be known that they agree with and support the knights’ assertion and as such, a knight shall be replacing this creature as the defense counsel.”
The large doors at the back of the courtroom opened and in strode an knight in full rider’s regalia. The guards allowed him through and he faced the figure. Langel looked the man in the eye and swore he saw something familiar, but behind the face guard of the rider’s helm, he couldn’t be sure. Then he heard the knight speak.
“You wont send me back. I wont do it!”
“Guards!” Langel yelled, but it was too late. The knight pulled his sword from it’s sheath and attacked the figure, running it through. The robe collapsed to the ground in a heap, empty, the weight of it pulling down the knight’s sword arm as it fell. The glass disc fell and shattered as guards rushed to the scene.
“What is the meaning of this!?” Elomeil yelled. “Arrest this man!”
The knight, still struggling, was wrestled to the floor as the guards grabbed him. Held down tight, another guard removed the man’s helm and there was a gasp from the court. Hani, sitting in the gallery strained to see, but too many people had stood up and crowded to get a look themselves and he couldn’t squeeze through.
“That’s impossible!” Hani heard someone exclaim. “Look at him!”
“I stopped it Hani! We’re safe now!” Yelled a voice, suddenly silenced by the blow of a fist. Soon, guards swarmed into the courtroom and began moving everyone out.
Hani tried to work his way through the crowd to see what was going on, but he found himself grabbed by a guard. “What’s going on? What happened? Is my dad alright?”
“Everyone has to leave the courtroom until this mess can be cleared up. It’s not safe.”
“But what about my dad?”
“I don’t know. You’ll be informed as the situation is contained.”
“Guard!” Elomeil called out over the bustling of the crowd as they were evacuated from the room. “Bring the boy!”
Hani almost fell into the guard as they abruptly changed direction and headed back towards the front of the courtroom. With a thud, the doors to the court were shut and the room became silent. Hani approached the bench.
“Boy, tell me, who is that man?”
Hani looked confused for a moment. How would I know? He looked at the captured man, his helmet now removed and gasped.
“Dad!?” Hani gasped, looking between Langel and the man on the floor. At first glance, they were remarkably similar.
“Prosecution, I think you may have a problem with your case. If the man’s son can’t even tell the difference when stood in front of him, a witness’s testimony means little,” Elomeil announced.
The Prosecutor examined the incapacitated twin. “Your honour, I think the city will want to change the accused. This man is the one, several eyewitnesses testimony mentioned a scar on the mans right hand. Look!”
Langel looked at his own hands, confused for a moment, but said nothing as Elomeil descended from the bench and looked at the man’s hands. On the right one there was a large scar, just in the crease of the thumb and forefinger.
“Okay, you’ve made your case. Get me that testimony and we’ll move this along, shall we?” Elomeil said after a moment of consideration. “Guard, take Langel and his son into custody for the time being, for their own protection. And someone clean up that mess.” she ordered, pointing at the bundle of robes and the glass disc that was all that remained of the slain figure.
“All due respect your honour, but I’m not touching it. You don’t mess with those… things… unless you’re looking for trouble.”
Elomeil rolled her eyes and snapped. “Very well. We’ll deal with it later. Prosecution, your case awaits. Let’s get this farce over with.”
After a few short hours, Langel and Hani were brought back into the courtroom.
“The court has heard the evidence and, given the recent events, the court will now pronounce the verdict.” Adjudicator Elomeil cleared her throat. “We find the defendant Langel of the outer villages not guilty. The new defendant, who refuses to identify himself, is found guilty of murder by echo-proxy, guilty of murder and guilty of disrupting court proceedings. The sentence is death by public hanging, to be performed at dawn tomorrow.”
The unidentified man, now stripped of his armour and shackled, stared at Hani and Langel.
“He can’t take you back now he’s dead. You don’t have to do the things I’ve done, you get to grow up with a father and live, knowing he won’t come for you.” The man said quietly.
Hani shrunk back, afraid of the intense, mad stare of the guilty man.
“As first punishment, the guilty will dispose of the remains of the defense counsel.”
The guards, with their long spears, nudged the prisoner along, forcing him to shuffle in his chains and bend down to pick up the bundle of remains. As he touched them, the bundle came to life, swirling up and wrapping around the prisoner, enveloping him. There was a muffled scream from inside the rapidly swirling robes and the guards, shocked, jumped back, afraid of what might happen. As they watched, the glass disc reconstructed itself and slid up the swirling surface of the robes and as they settled in to the familiar shape of the robed figure, it affixed itself at the top.
“The engine is recalibrated.” It said. “In 34 cycles, the echo travels, the effect is the cause.”
Then it disappeared, winking out of existence.
The court was silent, everyone stunned by the terrible events. The guard and Elomeil shared a look of horror, and Elomeil gave a dry, shaky swallow. “Langel, Hani, you are free to go. Guards, escort them, recount the events to the public. I’m going to retire to my chambers, the courts are closed for the rest of today.”
The guards escorted the father and son out of the court and took them to the guard house where their aneen was impounded.
“You should leave the city immediately. Head home to the outer villages. The people of the CIty will not forget your face so soon, despite your innocence.”
Langel nodded with a grunt, and began prepping the beasts for travel. The beast shuffled happily now it was back with a familiar master, and once the straps were secured, Langel hoisted himself up and extended a hand to his son, pulling him up alongside him. Flicking the reins, he urged the beast on and it loped to it’s feet, raising them high and began it’s journey out of the city gates and towards the outer villages.
“What the hell happened back there, dad?” Hani asked after the city was long behind them.
“I don’t know son. But we don’t have to worry about it any more. I think everything is going to be fine.”
Langel rubbed his hand again, looking at the place where his scar had been, now perfectly smooth. He looked back to his son and smiled to see him mirroring his movements, rubbing his own hand, like a little version of himself.
Hani poked at the weird new scar on his hand and wondered why his imaginary friend had given it to him. He asked, but his friend floated next to them, unnoticed and said nothing but it’s cryptic phrases before fading away again.
“We will meet again in 34 cycles.”
This work is published under the Creative Common BY 4.0 International License