A Pawn Advances

by Christopher Hughes

Lurene's steel-grey eyes shone in the witchlights glowing softly over the mantle and from the desk, the lights eerily still in the strong draft from the open window, even to one as used to magic as I. {Christopher....} she thought, a tendril of her mind brushing against mine. She didn't continue, the thread flickering, then vanishing, a snuffed candleflame of an idea in her mind.

{Something still troubles ye, lass.} I knew, of course, what it was. I had had ample time to enhance and tune the spells that had become infused into the Curse surrounding me, including the spell of mindspeech that gave me some measure of voice in a wordless animal form. While unable to break or even to lessen the cage in which I found myself, I had become quite adept at modifying the bars and beams of the associated spells, even in adjusting minor attributes of the form itself. I thought that the stark white icebear's pelt still looked striking, even if it lacked the wizened appearance of the grey-streaked brown that I possessed before.

A short burst of static and frustrated apathy rolled from the wolf's shoulders, the emotional equivalent of a shrug. {Nothing we haven't discussed a score of times or more. I still think that this is folly. Didn't you yourself say that the Lightbringers had brought you nothing but trouble?}

Instinctively I nodded, my head bobbing once. {Aye,} I projected. {I did, an' if ye'd said six months prior that I might today be considering speaking with Raven about any of this, I'd have said ye were daft.} For a moment, I withdrew the ephemeral line, gathering my words before touching her mind again, resuming the conversation. {Six months, an' all we've seen... I've had time t' consider my past words, an' while none of what I said before was a lie, looking at all that's transpired since, much takes on a new light.}

"What light?" Lurene's use of her voice with me, even hushed, came as a bit of shock to me, proof of the true depth of her frustrations. "What is it you've seen or done or heard that has changed any of what you've believed? Christopher, if this were some experiment that had suddenly changed its outcome after a hundred identical tests, I might understand, but this—this is so unlike you!"

{Is it, Lurene?} Her head snapped towards me at the use of her name. Lass, child, sometimes even "love" if I felt bold; she knew as my terms for her. To use her own name stressed in response the intensity of how I felt, and she knew it. For a brief moment, I considered the implications, when one's own name becomes not a term of address but of emphasis. Then I dismissed that line, to focus on the main conversation. {An'... in one way, an experiment's result has changed. One that I would have thought you of most would notice.}

That caught up the young wolf short and her ears flattened at the prospect, tail curling behind her slightly. {What have I missed?} My mentor's heart swelled for a moment; challenged on her facts, my student's first response was not to defend her position but to question what detail I thought she had overlooked. That, however, was no longer the main focus of my interest in her, a fact not lost on Lurene either. Nominally, she was indeed still my apprentice, but she had become far more than that in the time she had been at the Keep, and even had she left my schooling, I doubt she would have changed rooms.

{Wand'rer,} I responded simply. {Ye've nae known the wolf as long as I, but believe me when I say that even from one day t' the next, he's a changed man. His heart has been given a drive and a focus that I dare say could only have come from one source, however it might have been delivered.}

Rather than respond, Lurene knelt before me, her claws roaming openly now over my back and sides. I'd long forsaken any pretense at clothing, the cost of tailoring a proper wardrobe to my purely ursine form prohibitive, to say nothing of the wasted effort in dressing and undressing daily without true hands, only a crude—though refining daily, growing in strength and agility—telekinesis available to me. Lurene could help me in and out of my attire, but then it would not be one wasted day, but two.

{That feels nice, lass,} I noted, lowering my head and inviting her to continue.

{And you're changing the subject,} Lurene replied with a smile in her mind, dragging her claws through the fur along my spine, drawing a growl out of me. {What is this font of inspiration to which you're referring?}

I rumbled quietly under Lurene's expert ministrations. During the time I had been crippled, her massages had over time become the one thing on which I could count to relieve the pain and tension built up in my fatigued muscles, and she had grown quite skilled, having such a willing subject on which to practice. {Why, nae save Raven herself, the head of the Lightbringers,} I said after some time under her fingers. {The rogue, prior t' his penance, was forever engaging in one act or another designed t' win the priestess' affections. Songs, poetry, howlin' at the moon, what have ye. Though, he never seemed too serious in his endeavors, as though the pursuit were a more a game than any serious interest. Raven, for her part, never made more response t' his serenades than an upended chamberpot. T' my eyes, the priestess seemed more interested in just how much rejection she could feed t' the bard without him losing interest in his songs and stories than in ever truly giving him an answer, an' I said as much t' Wand'rer on more than one occasion.} I sighed at that, heaving my bulk once against the wolf, who stroked my ears affectionately for my troubles. {I did him a disservice in that, I fear.}

Lurene giggled quietly. {And you accuse the bard of wandering in focus.}

I shook my head at that. {My thread's tangled, nae lost. Ere a week prior, Charles was something of a fop, giving the illusion of focus and intent, but truly never serious in his actions towards Raven. Now, all his masks are gone, but buried beneath his distractions an' confusions lay a core of will I never thought I would see within the wolf, some unleashed potential within him. What could have unlocked this barrier?}

{What indeed?} My apprentice's fingers strayed down to my side, and then she rose and hurried to the desk near the window, retrieving a boarbristle brush to remove the tangles from my coat.

I projected a smile at the wolfess. {Raven. Somehow, the two have consummated their passion for each other, in some way I've yet t' understand, an' may never. Nae physical; short of a betrothal they'd never commit such an act. Emotional, mental, spiritual. Somehow, they've managed, at least for each other, t' express that which they knew but that they felt they had t' hide from themselves an' each other. Have ye seen the way she looks at him now, when before all she could do was avoid his presence? An' he follows her as an eager puppy when he has the chance. Like schoolchildren on their first romance.}

Lurene's paw stilled its motion against my side for a moment, then worked the bristles of the brush free as if an intentional gesture before continuing the grooming. {And what do you think it means?}

Again, I paused in my own mind, pulling away the thin thread of my thoughts from her mind to assemble my thoughts into words. {It means that Raven's nae the woman I thought she was. Ere now, I felt that Charles' pursuit was... dubious, at best. She seemed cold, appraising an' altogether far too much the spiritual opportunist. Now, I know that cannae be the truth.}

{Why not?} Lurene's question touched dangerously in her own mind on the area of frustration before, a tiny knot of nervousness and impatience.

{Had it been so, Wand'rer would've rejected her outright,} I explained, leaning into the stiff bristles, feeling them scrape lightly against the skin beneath the fur, feeling loose hair and dander tugging free into piles around me. {The bard himself is too gifted at knowing what those around him want and need t' fall for any false front. Had he been taken by Raven's rebuffs, he would have stopped pursuing her years prior. Had she lied to him about her own heart, he'd have left her without a thought, save perhaps one of violence that would have been truly terrible t' behold. Nae, she told him of her own love for him, an' he responded. An' that says that beneath whatever deceptions she's perpetrated in the name of her faith, there is a core beneath the Lothanasa's own mask that is forthright and trustworthy.}

I hesitated, wondering how much to share of the priestess' actions, realizing that less than a full explanation would be dishonest. {Once, on another occasion, I saw much the same, but I dinnae understand what I'd seen. As she an' I were putting the bard's affairs in order during his penance, she grew emotional on singing one of Wand'rer's own hymns. I remember at the time hearing her nae trust her own voice, an' it... it dinnae puzzle me, so much as it led me t' wonder what had touched her so deeply: the music, the words, or a combination of both. I think now I may safely say 'twas neither in precise, but her emotion for the bard itself. That, in truth, only adds t' my surety that her feelings can be trusted, an' that leads me to further conclusions and questions best discussed with her. Questions about my own role in the gods' games, an' how best t' face it.}

Finally bringing the true topic once again to light, Lurene sighed. {Alright,} she conceded quietly, shifting around to my other side to continue her attentions. {Suppose I grant all these things as true. What says that, should you bare your soul to her, she won't respond by locking you away to protect the Order? If she's allowed all these lies to happen in the cause of the Lightbringers, what will protect you from them?}

I paused, then sighed, shifting myself against the ground. {Nothing, save the integrity within her on which I'll be relying.}

The brush left my side, to be replaced with the wolf's paw. "I don't want to lose you," she said quietly, her words echoing loudly in my ears in the stillness of the room.

{Nor I you, Lurene,} I answered, turning to brush my cheek against hers. {Nor I you.}

Across from the main doors to the Lightbringers' chapel stood a small arboretum, a dozen small trees planted in pots along with a number of hedges and shrubs, giving the illusion of an outdoor courtyard. Most of the greenery was barren still from winter, but a few plants showed fresh growth, a sign I'm sure many had taken as a good omen, that the winter and its tribulations were well behind us all. Would that I could be so optimistic, I thought grimly, pacing before the main doors. The services themselves would end soon, I knew, and Raven would stand at the door for some time, speaking with her flock before returning to her quarters. Then would be the time to catch her, I thought, at least to request an audience.

Little held my attention, limited gaze dancing from tree to tree, my nose catching a hundred scents in the air, but none of import enough to demand my attentions and distract me during my wait. I paced among the trees, feeling oddly out of my element, knowing what I was about to do, dreading the encounter and yet believing in its necessity. The talk with my apprentice the night before had bolstered my spirits, knowing she at least supported me, and yet still I feared... what? Damnation? Exile? Death? What frightened me was, I realized, the unknown, for in truth even if all I now believed were true, it still might not change the outcome of my meeting with the Lothanasa, an outcome I could not predict in any fashion. Even the most complex of magical experiments held some measure of predictability. This, I feared, was truly beyond my ability to anticipate.

The doors opened, and people poured forth from the chapel in a wave, chattering amongst themselves while I held near the trees, studying with little success the first strips of greenery. After a few minutes, the scent I'd anticipated came into focus, followed shortly by her voice, and I turned to look at the head of the local Order. Raven stood smiling amongst her throng, chatting with a young boy, fourteen going on forty from his words, about some niggling point of orthodoxy. Wanderer, I saw, knelt beside her, and her fingers strayed across the back of the bard's ears and along the scruff of his neck without thought, sharing an intimate moment as if it were the most natural act in the world, while he whined and thumped his tail and generally acted the part of an overeager puppy. Mangy cur, I laughed to myself, and touched the bard's mind with my own. {Wand'rer.}

{Christopher!} The wolf's own sending bubbled into my mind, seemingly overjoyed by my presence. He nuzzled once at Raven's paw, and I saw her eyes glass over briefly before she nodded and affectionately tousled his ears once, and then the bard bounded over to me, pressing his muzzle into my side before jumping back and cocking his head to one side. {Your fur... white?}

I nodded once, projecting the smile with ears and mind that my muzzle could no longer produce. {A minor effect of the Curse, one of the few things left within my ability to change, and needing magics t' work, but still a promising sign naetheless.}

{Indeed,} The wolf agreed. {Could you, perchance, adopt a smaller form, say that of a cub? Your shoulder is so tiring to study after so many knees and waists all about.}

{Better that than my tail,} I quipped in return, chuffing my own humor at the pained groan in the bard's mind.

{True,} Wand'rer reflected, {though first mayhap you should have one.} His own waved, thumping the stone floor as he barked a laugh.

I mock-growled at that. {Impugn not my stub, cur, or I'll see that ye've nae more than I in that area.}

The wolf smirked, ears held high, the edges of his muzzle curling up as best as they could as he slunk just out of range of my claws. His tail he nuzzled protectively. {Hush,} he crooned to it. {'Tis a'right, my darling. The bear is jealous and would have you for his own, but I'll protect you.}

I rolled my eyes at that one and whuffed, padding over to the bard and again pressing my muzzle to his side. {Enough, enough. In truth, I came t' speak with Raven. Could ye spare me some time with her 'til evens? I've much t' discuss with her, if she'll hear me.}

The wolf lifted his head at that, studying me curiously, his mind dancing around mine reflexively, but I held all my thoughts within the wall of my will, and after a few moments he gave the best equivalent he could of a shrug. {I've no reason to say no.} He turned to look at the wolfess, whose conversation seemed to be coming to a close. {One moment.} Then he was gone again, back to her side, and I watched as she knelt and ruffled the fur along his side, her eyes once more growing distracted as the two "spoke". Then his mind again touched mine, sending only a yes before disengaging. He nuzzled briefly at her paws, and then with a wave of his tail he padded off down the corridor and into the depths of the Keep.

Sensing my opening, I approached the priestess, waiting until the last of her well-wishers had left. "You had something you wanted to discuss with me, Christopher?" I felt her gaze upon me and lifted my head to her, her eyes coolly regarding me, arms folded across her chest.

For a moment, her even temperament flustered me and I started to excuse myself, but I shook off the reflexive response. Neutral, I reminded myself, not hostile, an' it would nae be as if she needed reason to dislike me. {Aye,} I projected. {Much, in truth.} My eyes cast down the hallways, and I let loose a sigh. {Ye may want t' make this more private, Lady; much of why I've come, ye'd likely not want overheard.}

Her ears did perk at that, tail held deliberately still. "Explain, please?" Interesting, I noted, that with the bard she seemed fully at ease with letting him touch her mind, while she allowed only the barest of contacts from me without resistance, actively shielding her thoughts from any further probing.

I made a show of touching her defenses, then withdrawing, acknowledging her privacy as best as I could. {It involves some insights I've had int' the Lightbringers, Lady, an' some truths about myself I'd feel more comfortable discussing in private.}

At the brush of my thoughts to her mind, I felt the internal flinch, but then as I withdrew she seemed to relax, sensing my intent. "Very well," she replied, motioning me into the chapel. "I could offer the use of my offices. Will that suffice?" Not neutral ground, clearly, but then I'd broached a sensitive topic.

{Ideal, if ye don't mind me checking yer warding,} I replied, starting up the steps without waiting for a response.

"Then by all means, follow me," Raven agreed cheerfully enough, tacitly accepting my request as she led me into the inner walls of the sanctum.

The main hall was much as I remembered from my few times within its walls, a large open area holding the dais and altar, with areas around for the congregation to stand during ceremonies. The altar itself held the twinned cross of the Lothanasa, as well as the other standards of any grand ritual. The last time I had come here, it was in anger at the Wand'rer, Raven and what felt at the time like the whole of the pantheon meddling in my private affairs, an affront that, in times not so long past, had caused me to swear opposition to the Lightbringers and their machinations, the whole of the faith filled with fakers, liars and frauds as far as I had cared. How much things have changed, I thought as Raven took me through a door in the left wall of the main chamber, into a short hallway that twisted a few times before ending at what I presumed to be the priestess' office, the walls lined with books of varying ages. Before one bank of shelves sat an oaken desk and chair, with more seats scattered about, rugs at their feet covering the cool stone.

Once within, Raven shut the door and I immediately examined the room for seals and sigils, eyes closed in a quiet inspection. The walls themselves were strongly shielded, but I added to the wards a measure of my own power, tuned to block the types of scrying I most feared. Most likely it was needless, but I could hardly be blamed for the extra measures.

"Interesting," Raven noted. "You've practiced that often, I see."

{Practiced, hardly. 'Tis a simple enough adjustment.} I shrugged, rolling my shoulders.

For a moment, the Lightbringer studied me, her head cocked to one side in a very canine gesture, one she would have never allowed herself in public a tenday ago, and I wondered if perhaps her statement had been directed at something other than my alterations to the wards. "Interesting," the priestess repeated, taking a seat behind the desk that dominated one wall of the office, motioning to an open place on the floor nearby. "I'd offer you a seat, but—"

{Nae, Lady, ye needn't apologize. I thank ye, though.} I stretched out where she indicated, settling my massive bulk against one of the rugs, for a moment remaining silent, gathering my thoughts. A short span I waited, and then into the silence I projected, {I think, first, I owe ye an apology, Raven.}

"Apology?" The wolfess seemed genuinely startled by my words. "For what?"

{For how I treated ye because of the actions of others in yer order. For failing, until now, t' see ye for who ye are, only as who ye tried t' be.} I hoped the smile I sent cushioned the blow of my words.

Raven shifted slightly in her chair, wordless herself for a few moments. "I think," she said softly after some time, "that we both have acted in the past as we felt we must, not as how we wished we could."

{Aye.} I nodded to that, pausing again, trying to find the best way to approach the matter at hand. It felt, I realized, very much like a shrivening, and I chuffed a laugh. {Forgive me, Lady, for I've sinned.}

The High Priestess of the Metamor Chapter of the Order of Lightbringers blinked. "I beg your pardon?" Her voice held only stunned surprise at the Ecclesiast request for spiritual cleansing.

{My apologies, Raven. So much has happened, so much has changed, that I find it hard t' say it all in any order that makes sense, an' so I find myself stumbling for words.} I paused, sighing again. {I hope ye'll forgive me if the thread of my thoughts becomes tangled; I'm sure ye've had more than enough of that from the bard.}

Raven chuckled herself at that. "Charles' thoughts have become quite straightforward to me in recent days. But—yes, please. Part of my role in the Order is to listen to the thoughts of others, however confused they may be. Please."

She motioned for me to continue, and again I found myself at a loss for what to say. {The last time I entered these walls,} I started, letting my mind drift, {it was t' chastise ye for interfering in my life, an' yet ye gave me Lurene. Ye gave me my legs, albeit in different form than I'd hoped. So many ways in which the Lightbringers have touched my life, an' I've been blind t' them all, or willfully ignorant of them, something that in one of my students I'd have chased away with staves and cudgels, or at least harsh words about self-deception.}

My eyes roamed fitfully over the titles of the books lining the walls, resting on none, unable really to read any of them. {All my life, I've been a drifter, roaming from one pasttime t' the next, unable t' find any great focus in my life t' study. Magic was the passion of my childhood, and I've more than enough natural talent with it t' make it do my bidding, but I'll never have the capacity that Magus or Wessex do, even were I t' devote my life t' increasing my power. Alchemy was my father's schooling, an' for a time I worked as such in exchange for some small monies, but I'll never have the devotion t' the field that Pascal holds. Librarian? Fox Cutter holds that job, an' even then my interest was the knowledge within, not the ordering without.}

I rose, not totally aware of having done so. Pacing had always been a response to deep thought, and what was this if not self-introspection of the highest order? I formed a small circuit on the floor, lacking the room to move much beyond my route. {The day Akkala returned my mind t' me, after the raid on the lutin compound, she geased me, an' in so doing she gave me Lurene.} I smiled at that, almost unaware that I was still speaking to another mind. {Who but Velena could be responsible for what has come between us?} My steps resumed unawares. {Then Akkala touched me again, an' now I find myself squarely within Artela's demesnes. An' does not Samekkh "gift" his favored with a thirst for knowledge?}

"Christopher," Raven's voice intervened, stopping me in my tracks for a moment and giving me pause to turn and look at the wolfess. "What are you saying? Do you believe that you're some pawn of the gods now? If so, I can hardly be blamed for that."

I shook my head. {Nae, Lady,} I said as gently as I could. {If anyone is t' blame, it'd be me. When last we spoke, face t' face, I swore off any contact with the Order an' its gods, but....} I paused, chuffing a laugh. {What if I were a pawn of the gods long ere I came t' Metamor? Touched by so many in such a short span, what else could I be now? An' if that be true, would there be any place so remote that I could escape their plans?}

The priestess held herself very still at my words, then said after some deliberation. "What, then, are you suggesting?"

I stopped, gathering my thoughts again as though trying to pull threads of cloud from a thunderstorm. {Let me now change my approach an' ask ye a question, if I may?}

Raven nodded once. "Of course."

{Why do ye serve the gods?}

Raven paused again, rigid in her chair for some moments. "Why do you ask?"

I resumed my pacing, letting my mind follow its own course. {Ye're a smart woman, Raven hin'Elric.} I paused, knowing that in the next few sentences, the outcome of the conversation would be determined. {Smart enough that ye have t' know that the miracles that the gods work—an' I'll nae call them less—are magic. Vast orders of magnitude beyond any working that even Magus could accomplish, but magic naetheless.}

Raven's expression changed not at all, a fact that, for a scant moment, filled me with dread. "Your point being?"

My words rushed forward into the void that the wolfess's short response created. {That the gods—however powerful they are, in whatever form they truly exist—are not true gods, not beings truly inexplicable or outside the knowledge of mortals. Vastly more powerful, aye, an' probably far older by years beyond reckoning, but not genuinely an order of creation apart from our own.}

I felt the seconds passing in the beats of my heart, expecting my words to call down the full wrath of the Lightbringers' high priestess, but Raven only replied in carefully measured tones, "There are many within the Order who would regard such words as heresy, Christopher."

I let out the breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. {Aye, but not you, Raven. Ye know the truth of what I say, an' yet ye still find it within yerself t' serve them, t' answer t' their calls an' respond t' their summons.}

"Why do you think that is?" The wolfess' voice never wavered in volume, never gave any hint of the emotions behind her words. All I could sense in her words was a polite curiosity, one that could easily hide interest, rage or indifference.

Damn ye, Raven, react already, a part of my mind roared, but I fought down the desire to goad her into some form of emotional response that would tell me how she felt. I knew I could scarcely afford to stomp on the delicate bridge between us I was struggling to build. I drew in a deep breath and released it, seeking refuge from my own temper in blunt honesty. {In truth, until just a few days ago, I'd have said that ye served because ye enjoyed the games ye played with the lives of others, as I felt ye played with the heart of that fool bard, Charles. Inside of the last tenday, something changed. I cannae say what, an' I'll nae ask, but ye've changed. The bard has, as well, but it was yer change I found most striking, an' that gave me the strength t' come an' speak of these things with ye today.}

Raven smirked slightly, ears flat against her head. "Do you still think of me as merely playing with Charles' heart?"

No angry heart could've given that smile, however trimmed with dark humor it might have been. I bowed my head to Raven, eyes downcast. {Nae, Lady, an' I owe ye a great apology for my beliefs ere now. I can only say that the face ye showed the rest of us, an' the experiences I had with the Order, led me only t' think that ye toyed with the bard as ye toyed with the world, an' now I accept as fact that, whatever it is ye seek from the gods, power and manipulation are not amongst them.}

"Accepted," the priestess nodded, and I lifted my eyes to her again. "Why, then, do you think I serve the gods?"

I paused again and then sighed. {In truth, Lady, I think ye serve because ye see yer life as being already so entangled in the ways of the gods that ye've sought t' gain some measure of control over your fate in the only way ye can, by bargaining and choosing which gaesa ye take, which ye may reject, offering some measure of devotion t' the gods an' receiving some measure of their power in return.} I waited, then finished the thought. {As I would do.}

It took ten seconds, in full, for Raven to realize the intent of my words. "Are you suggesting that, after years of apathy and months of open hostility, you now wish to join the Order?"

I nodded to that. {Aye, Lady, I do.} Again I bowed my head. {I wish t' study the gods, their powers, their nature, as a Son of Samekkh. What better way t' learn magic than by examining its use in one more adept than oneself? An'... nae disrespect, Lady, but I'll wager that ye've precious few among the Order with whom ye could be as candid as I. Yer devotion, I suspect, comes not from blindness t' the truth of the gods' natures, but in full accord with it.}

The air grew very still. I could hear my own heart beating in my chest, feel the air whistling in my lungs. The walls seemed briefly to oppress upon me, to confine and entrap me, and I briefly wondered if I had spoken my last words to another living soul.

Raven laughed.

Her full-throated laughter, muffled by the thick tomes that surrounded the walls and the layers of shielding her Order and I had placed on the room, doubtless never was heard by another pair of ears, but it rang in my own like a carillon. She leaned back in her chair, clutching at her sides, laughing until the wind escaped her and she coughed, gasping for air.

Finally catching her breath, Raven hin'Elric spoke. "Christopher, of all the things I could have expected you to say, that was not among them."

{Aye.} I chuffed a bit nervously, her laughter infectious. {An' yet, it is the truth, as all the things I have said in the past, in light of what I knew then. Truth never changes, but perceptions of truth change constantly, and I fear I let myself be blind t' that fact for some time.}

"Already you speak like one of Samekkh's Students." Raven smiled.

I bowed at that, the underside of my muzzle nearly touching the floor. {I'll take that as a compliment, then.}

The wolfess and I held still for several moments, and then when Raven spoke again, her voice held a more somber tone. "You realize, of course, that there is danger involved. Not just to you, but to Lurene. You could well be putting her life at risk. The Metamor chapter of the Order is in disfavor at the moment, for reasons far beyond what I could explain easily."

{Metamor at large is in danger at the moment, Lady,} I replied simply. {The Keep and its inhabitants are weakened now from a siege, and its enemies will surely not overlook that fact. Plus, I'd wager that ye're not halting yer newfound relationship with Wand'rer, are ye?}

"No," the priestess confessed. Then she smiled. "You realize the irony of this, do you not?"

{Irony?} I cocked my head to one side.

"Christopher is an Ecclesiast name, and yet you've gone from being an unbeliever to expressing interest in joining the Lightbringers."

I whuffed at that, my ears rocking forward. {My father was a lapsed Son of Eli, one with a guilty streak at having chosen his profession over his familial faith. I wonder if he gave me the name in hopes of finding solace in it.} I shook my head, laughing darkly. {If he knew of my decision, he'd rise from the dead to haunt me.}

Raven hesitated, and her eyes caught mine in a curious glance, but then she shook her head. "I'm sorry; I didn't know."

{'Tis alright, Lady. I made no issue of it. An' I know I should nae make such jokes, even within these walls.} I shrugged. {There was little enough love lost between us, though we parted for the last time on fair terms.}

Raven seemed to draw within for a few moments, behind the veil of her defenses, and I wondered what thoughts passed through her mind in that brief span. It would have been simple enough to determine, or at least to try, with a bit of probing and some careful magery, but I had promised, tacitly if not openly, to respect her privacy, and I intended fully to make good on that assurance; healing the breach between us would take more than just time, and for me to risk destroying any chance I had of pursuing what I felt was the one future left open to me... no, better to leave her to her thoughts unmolested. Still, I couldn't help but wonder what I had touched in her in a way I hadn't expected.

The wolf then nodded, her thoughts returning to the present. "Very well. Plus, we're in need of researchers, more so now than ever since the siege, as you noted. I can accept you as an acolyte in the order at any time, once you've completed your basic studies." She rose from her seat behind the desk. "If you're serious about this, we should begin discussing what you'll need to know." Pacing out from behind the desk, she drew her clawtips delicately over the lengths of the shelving, selecting two thick tomes and placing them on the desk. Dust permeated their covers, and the bindings were beginning to fray from age and use. "You should probably start with these. In the next few days, I'll write out a listing of what in specific you should be studying." She looked down at me, the smile evident in her ears and tail. "I assume you'll let me know after that when you'd be ready for your examination?"

I rose, the books raising from the desk to hover next to my shoulder as I bowed to Raven. {Aye, Lady,} I accepted. {I have much to learn, and little enough time to learn it.}