A Presence of Thieves

The Starchild Prophecy, Part IV

by Raven Blackmane

Prologue. August 2, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning. Samek'kema.

[Lord of Light, Radiant One, we honor you. Wisest of All, reveal your wisdom to us, we pray...]

Merai gazed intently into the flames before her, letting the words of the ancient prayer wash over her like gentle waves. Raven's chanting was almost hypnotic, rising and falling in regular, rhythmic patterns, as she praised and petitioned the God of Wisdom and Light. Samekkh had been silent toward them for over a year now — a punishment for Raven's arrogance in her early dealings with Rickkter — and the Lightbringers were now waiting with some hesitation to see if he would return his favor to them.

Merai turned her eyes away from the fire, glancing over at Raven. The High Priestess sat to her left in front of the fire, head down, eyes closed as she recited the ceremonial prayer of Samek'kema. On Merai's other side sat Tessa, her dark eyes reflecting the flames like two polished black stones; across from her was Celine, leader of the Metamor acolytes. The lower acolytes sat in concentric circles around the four leaders of the temple, nearly filling the hall. Merai smiled a little at that — the last year had been kind to them, and many new acolytes had entered the ranks of the Order.

Raven finished the prayer, then turned and nodded to Merai. Taking up the little bag of herbs and flower petals they had gathered for this occasion, Merai sprinkled them into the fire. Tendrils of white smoke rose up from the flames, wafting around the seated Lightbringers and filling the temple hall. Merai closed her eyes and breathed deeply, savoring the sweet, spicy aroma. She felt a strange tingle in the back of her mind, saw her vision fade into darkness, and then...

Then she was somewhere else. She stood atop a tall, broad building, looking out over a vast city that was shaped like a wheel, with roads forming rings and spokes around a high and elaborate palace. Looking down, she saw a great plaza filled with people, all of them making a great deal of noise — but whether they were shouting in joy or in anger, she could not be sure. And there, in the middle of the crowd, she saw herself...

Her vision blurred, spun, and shifted, and now she saw Yajiit floating before her, shining like the sun.

"Elenin," she said, smiling.

"Aye ... Elenin," Merai answered, the words coming with difficulty as she struggled to put her thoughts in order. "Starchild. I know ... I know what I am."

"You are more than you think you are, Starchild." A new voice, strong and masculine, spoke up just behind her, as a brilliant white light flashed and flickered. "You are a child of three fathers."

"Nay." Merai turned her head, and there to her right was Kyia, her stone-grey eyes hard and serious as they looked over Merai's shoulder in the direction of the male voice. "Not three fathers," said Kyia, shaking her head. "Four."

"Four?" the masculine voice asked, sounding perturbed.

"You shall see," the nymph answered, and then vanished in a burst of light.

Her vision spun again, and now Merai found herself standing in a small circle of brilliant white light, with nothing but impenetrable darkness beyond it. Nine figures stood all around her, just on the edge between darkness and light. One of them was clearly a dragon, massive and powerful, but the others were humans in robes of white. Their cowls were all pulled over their heads, obscuring their faces.

"Whom do you trust, Merai?"

The cat-woman looked, and there beside her was the Oracle of Samekkh. The Oracle placed her hand gently on Merai's shoulder, wrapping her long serpent tail around the young priestess's legs.

"I don't understand," Merai said.

"Not all of these are your allies, Merai," the Oracle said gravely. "Some will support you, but some will oppose you. Whom do you trust?"

Merai looked anxiously at each of the mysterious, hooded figures around the circle. Though they were dressed in the robes of the Lothanasi, all of them seemed ominous and threatening.

"I ... I don't know whom to trust," she said at last, turning to look back at the Oracle...

But the Oracle was gone.

"What is to be done with the Starchild?" asked one of the cloaked figures, his quiet, cultured voice carrying an air of quiet menace.

"She is a heretic," another voice answered. "She must be destroyed."

"What?" Merai exclaimed. "What do you mean, I'm not a—"

"The accused shall be silent!" the first voice said angrily, cutting her off. Then, more calmly, "Shall the Starchild live or die? Cast your stones."

The dragon raised a claw, tossing a white stone the size of an apple at Merai's feet. "Live," he said.

The cloaked figure to his left tossed in a smaller stone, this one black. "Die."

The third figure. "Die."

The fourth stepped forward, as if to speak, then suddenly vanished in a puff of smoke.

The fifth. "Live," he said, his voice filled with pity.

The sixth. "Die."

The seventh. "Die."

The eighth. "Live." Merai recognized Raven's voice, and for a moment her hopes grew. The vote was now three in her favor, four against. A tie would go in favor of the accused. The verdict would be decided by the last figure...

A black stone fell at Merai's feet.

"Die." The ninth figure stepped out of the shadows, cast off its robe—

And there was Suspira, grinning triumphantly. Taking her whip from her side, she wrapped it around Merai's neck and pulled her forward. Merai was powerless to resist. Taking her head in her clawed hands, the Mistress of Lust held her face inches from her own.

"You're mine now, dearie," she said.

"NO!" Merai sat bolt-upright, her tail straight out behind her, every bit of fur on her body standing on end. She looked about wildly, seeking her accusers, but they were gone. She was back in the Lightbringer temple, Raven and Tessa at her side, the acolytes murmuring worriedly in the background.

"Calm yourself, Merai!" Raven urged her, gripping her shoulder firmly. " 'Tis all right. You're here. You're safe."

Merai closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down, deliberately slowing her breathing. Gradually, her heartbeat slowed, her muscles relaxed, and her fur began to lay flat.

"Gods," she breathed at last, opening her eyes again. "What was that?"

"A vision," Raven said. "A vision of the future."

A cold chill ran down Merai's spine. "A vision of what may happen, or what shall happen?" she asked uneasily.

Raven bowed her head. "That, only the Lord Samekkh knows."

Merai looked back at the fire, eyeing it warily.

A city of rings. A child of four fathers. A trial, with Suspira plotting her destruction. What did it all mean?

"I think I need some time alone," she said.

The Dreamlands. January 11, Year 708 CR

Nocturna walked through the gentle, rolling hills surrounding the Axis, the blades of ankle-high grass glistening a brilliant purple in the noonday light. She passed by a couple of fairies cavorting in a patch of wildflowers, then stopped to pet a large boar-like creature that was drinking from a pool of rose-tinted water. A flock of fae dragons flew overhead, their butterfly-like wings catching the light and shimmering in iridescent red, orange, green, black and gold. The Mistress of Dreams smiled at the sight, her usual somber mood lifted like a great weight from her shoulders. She loved this place, so full of life and light and wonder. So unlike the Hells "beneath" her, further down the Axis. The First Hell was calm and peaceful, but it was always robed in darkness; though they had a moon to shine on them, the souls who dwelt there would never again know daylight, not like this. Not unless Nocturna brought them with her, as she sometimes did, to speak with some loved one left behind in the world of mortals.

Off to her left, the Axis began to hum. Nocturna turned, looking at the glowing white column that stretched into infinity above and below, joining the Heavens and Hells with this in-between realm of the imagination. The Axis flickered, and a being stepped out — a young woman, seemingly, with dusky blue skin, silver hair and glowing blue eyes. One of Nocturna's many children, the offspring of several brief and mostly unhappy pairings with other members of the Pantheon. The hair and eyes marked this girl as one of Samekkh's children, and thus one of Nocturna's most trusted servants.

"What is it, my daughter?" Nocturna asked.

"A summons from Below, Mistress," the young daedra replied, bowing briefly before her. "Our dread Prince has called for a meeting of the council."

Nocturna felt her lip twist in a show of distaste. She hated meeting with Ba'al and the other Daedra Lords. Given how little her opinion mattered on the council, she often wondered why Ba'al insisted on her presence at these gatherings. *Probably precisely because it annoys me,* she thought sourly.

"Very well," she said, nodding once. "I shall come anon." She favored her daughter with a brief smile. "Feel free to remain here for a while, if you like."

The younger woman smiled back at her. "Thank you, Mistress. I have missed the light."

"Enjoy it, then, on my behalf," Nocturna said, striding toward the Axis. "For I myself must descend into the heart of shadow."

She stepped into the Axis, feeling its warm glow surround her. Then, looking downward, she willed herself out of the Dreamlands, past her homeland of the First Hell, and down, down, down, into ever-increasing darkness.

Soon she found herself in a realm of blackest night, where rivers and pools of fierce blue flame provided the only illumination. A vast city spread out before her, the towers and spires of the daedric elite interspersed between prisons and dungeons where the blackest souls that had ever lived writhed and wailed in unending torment. And in the midst of all this darkness, rising above all other structures in the daedra's capital city, was a vast and towering pyramid, its polished, sloping sides gleaming in the faint blue light of hellfire: The Palace of Darkness, the dwelling place of Ba'al himself.

The Axis came to an end at the pinnacle of the pyramid, and Nocturna stepped out into the eternal darkness of the Ninth Hell. Immediately she felt cold, as if all life and energy were being sapped out of her. Even for her, a Daedra Lord and Mistress of the First Hell, this plane was nearly intolerable.

Floating down to the terrace in front of the gates, she turned and walked into the palace, paying no heed to the two balrogs who stood guard at the entrance. The corridors inside shifted to accommodate her haste, and very quickly she found herself at the double iron doors of the council chamber.

Without preamble, she seized the ring on one of the doors and pulled it open. Composing herself for a moment, she then glided in gracefully and nodded to the others who were present.

Prince Ba'al sat at the head of the long table, of course, his avatar-form a mass of pure darkness. His blue eyes burned like the hellfire in the canals outside, cruel and fierce. The remaining Daedra Lords sat along the sides of the table, their proximity to Ba'al indicating their current level of prominence within the council. As usual, Suspira sat at Ba'al's right hand, Revonos at his left. Agemnos and Lilith sat just beyond them, Klepnos and Tallakath further yet. Oblineth sat on the right side at the far end of the table, her expression neutral and distant.

The seat across from her was empty.

"Ah! The Lady Nocturna. So good of you to join us," Ba'al said, his voice deceptively pleasant.

*Bastard,* Nocturna thought. "I come as bidden, my Prince," she replied, nodding toward him.

"And none too soon, either," Suspira sneered. "Come, cousin, take your seat and let's get on with this."

Ignoring the self-proclaimed "Queen of Daedra", Nocturna turned and quietly made her way to her seat.

Ba'al leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. "Now that we're all here, I can introduce our guest for the evening." He nodded toward the corner of the room, over Nocturna's shoulder. "You may enter now," he said, raising his voice as though he were addressing someone beyond that wall of stone.

Nocturna turned to see who he was looking at — and abruptly wished she hadn't. There, in the corner of the room, the darkness seemed to grow even deeper, and a presence the likes of which she had never felt before entered the room. It was a presence without form, without eyes or face or hands, without even the energy pattern that composed the daedra's bodies in their "natural" form — but it was there, nonetheless. A being so thoroughly and terrifyingly evil that it made even the likes of Ba'al and Suspira seem innocuous. She shrank back in her seat, trying to put as much distance between herself and that ... thing as possible.

She wasn't alone. "What in the Hells is that?" Agemnos gasped. Nocturna thought it was the first time she'd ever seen him lose his composure.

The being spoke, a cold and malevolent voice that seemed to speak straight into Nocturna's mind. [My name is not important,] it said. [I come in service to the One Below.]

The Daedra Lords looked at each other. "The One Below?" Lilith asked, arching an eyebrow curiously. She was trying to look relaxed, but the tension in her limbs told Nocturna she was anything but.

[The Morningstar,] the creature answered. [The Liberator. He who makes war against the great Tyrant enthroned Above.]

"Or," added Ba'al, "as he is commonly referred to in the mortal realm ... the Adversary."

A pause.

"And your guards let him just traipse on in here?" Klepnos asked. He gave a short, choked laugh. "Good Hells, what's the universe coming to?"

"I agree with my good cousin Klepnos — amazingly enough," said Agemnos. "What's that creature doing here?"

"He is invited," Ba'al said, his voice emphasizing the last word. "Now, if you will all turn your attention back toward me, I shall explain."

With obvious reluctance, the daedra lords turned their eyes away from the apparition in the corner of the room and back toward their prince and master. Nocturna was very uneasy about having that thing behind her back, but she had little choice for the moment.

"As you know, for the last several decades of mortal time, I have made mention of outside help that was willing to assist us in regaining our rightful place as the most honored members of the Pantheon. Our associate in the corner over there is the spokesman for that help. For years now, the Adversary's agents have been assisting us in provoking war between the two factions who most directly threaten our agenda on Earth: the Lothanasi and the Ecclesia."

Suspira scoffed. "Well, if that's the case, then they've been doing a piss-poor job of it," she said. "The corrupted faction of the Followers has fallen into shambles. With Jagoduun destroyed—"

"Elders be praised," Nocturna muttered.

"— the Patriarch will never sanction a war against the Lothanasi. My servants tell me that every pawn the Adversary had in Yesulam has been rooted out." Suspira paused, considering for a moment. "Which, I should point out, was due in no small part to the actions of the Elves, who have somehow still failed to come under the control of this council..."

Lilith gave her rival a disdainful look, then deliberately turned her back. "And if you hadn't failed in bringing the Lightbringer whelp to heel two years ago, my plan would have succeeded," she replied, her smooth voice carrying a quiet air of contempt.

[Enough,] the Fallen said, with a voice that silenced all further argument. [All is not lost. Yesulam is no longer under our influence, but we have many agents among the lower levels of the Ecclesia. We may still accomplish both our objectives, if only we act swiftly.]

"But to do so, we will have to remove the Metamor Lightbringers from the equation," Ba'al said. "Raven has shown that she is too savvy to be used to start a religious war, despite our best efforts to lead her into it with the incident in the Angle last fall."

"Agreed," Agemnos said, scratching at his beard thoughtfully. "She's clever, that one. A worthy heir to her father. I've tried exploit her arrogance, but the Enemy expected that and prepared for it. Between the Necromancer and the bard, her pride has been brought under control."

"My servants have tried to provoke her rage, but there's not enough there to truly corrupt her," Revonos said, grimacing. "She even felt pity for Lilith's Turguroth."

"And I have tried to appeal to her predator instincts, but she remains too close to Artela," Lilith added.

"All quite true," Ba'al agreed, nodding. "Raven has her weaknesses, but none we can use to truly subvert her. She's cautious, and while that has been to our advantage in the past, it's useless for starting a war."

[But that does not mean that she is untouchable,] said the Fallen. [If we wish to neutralize the Metamor Lothanasi, we must do so by attacking them at their weakest link.]

In the center of the conference table, an image appeared: A young feline woman dressed in the white robes of a Lightbringer priestess. At the far end of the table, Suspira showed a sinister smile.

March 4, 708.

The sun had not even risen over the mountains when the Flatlander caravan pulled up before the recently-finished gates of Euper. After a brief chat with their leader, the guard opened the gates, and the traders made their way through the streets of town, headed for the marketplace.

As with everything they did, the Magyars made their entrance in grand fashion. A band of musicians marched and rode at the head of the colorful procession, accompanied by acrobats, jugglers and dancers. The people of Euper awoke to the sound of the sitar, the shenai, the tamboura, and numerous drums, joining together in a haunting chorus that spoke of far-off lands and a strange and mystical culture. Behind them stretched no fewer than two dozen brightly colored wagons — some for sleeping, eating, and cooking, but most of them filled with exotic wares from around the world. News spread like wildfire through the town, the excited voices of the children proclaiming it from house to house: "The Flatlanders are here! The Flatlanders are here!" For the peasant families, it was cause to rush out of bed and hurry to watch the excitement. For the merchants and shopkeepers, it was a call to lock down their wares, lest some enterprising young Magyar make off with them.

A crowd had formed along the sides of the road before they had even come half a mile into town. Children crowded close to see the performers and wagons go by; perhaps they would catch a glimpse of one of the strange and wonderful creatures that sometimes traveled with the caravans. These children were Keepers, of course, and it was not unheard-of for them to see a person wearing the form of a lion, a giraffe, an elephant, or a baboon — but it was quite another thing to see the beasts themselves, alive and untamed. Many a parent would lose a few coppers to a child's pleading if the menagerie were in town.

The caravan came at last to a large open patch of ground — just off the roadside, next to the marketplace and at the foot of Metamor Ridge itself. As the sun's rays began to creep over the mountains, catching the towers of the Keep and bathing them in warm golden light, the traders circled their wagons and began to set up shop for the day's visitors.

In the midst of all this bustle and excitement, then, it was not at all unsurprising that no one took notice of the three men huddled in the darkness of one of the traders' curio wagons. Had anyone bothered to examine them, it would have been quickly obvious that they were not Magyars, for their fairer skin and curly hair clearly showed them to be Pyralian. But even if some observer had noted this, it was highly unlikely that anyone here would recognize them as the once-proud assistants of Patriarch Geshter.

The tallest of the three men peered through the wooden slats of the window, eyeing the gathering crowd outside. All of them were watching the performers, dancing and playing in the midst of the circled wagons as their assistants gathered donations, both voluntary and unwitting, from the spectators. He allowed himself a small smile. No, no one would recognize these shells, these hosts. No one would even know they were here — not until it was far, far too late.

Gently caressing the medallion in his hand, he watched as the sun finally thrust itself fully over the mountains, blanketing everything in the valley with the soft light of morning.

It was going to be a wonderful day.

"Message for Sister Merai hin'Dana!"

Merai emerged from her bedroom and couldn't help but smile as she saw Kee standing there at the temple entrance — fidgeting, arms crossed, foot tapping, his whole body full of nervous energy.

"Good morning, Kee," she said, gliding up and taking the envelope from his hand. "Drinking Pascal's energy elixirs again, I take it?"

"Aye, twice so far this morning," he admitted readily, with an exaggerated nod of his head. "Quiz asked me to take her shift today, so I had to be up early."

"Well, I wouldn't make a habit of it, if I were you," Merai grinned. "You look ready to bounce off the walls. Thank you for the message, though."

"Welcome, Priestess. Good day!" And with that he was off again, his bright orange tail nearly a blur as he dashed out of the temple toward his next delivery. In the process he just barely missed running directly into Raven, who emerged from one of the storerooms the moment he passed the door.

Raven paused in the doorway, steadying herself after the near collision, then turned and looked in the direction the fox had gone. "Well. That was alchemical, or I'm no healer."

Merai chuckled. "Mayhap we should tell Pascal not to give him those elixirs any more," she said, slicing open the envelope with an index claw as she spoke.

"Perhaps not," Raven agreed, walking back into the temple hall and casting a questioning glance at the papers in Merai's hands. "What have you there?"

"I don't know, I just got it myself." As she unfolded the papers and read the first few lines, Merai's face broke into a broad grin. " 'Tis a letter from Brother Calvis!" she said.

"Ahh," Raven said, her eyes sparkling. Though she generally respected her privacy, Merai knew the Lothanasa enjoyed hearing about her growing friendship with the young acolyte. "And how are things in Bozojo?"

"Hmm ... they seem well, from the looks of it," Merai said, scanning through the letter for any key points. "One of their acolytes has just been promoted to junior priest of the temple, to take Brother Lemuel's place when he retires. Calvis seems to think they've chosen well."

"I'm pleased to hear it was one of their own," Raven said soberly. "I would not soon trust anything that came from Kelewair in these days."

Merai made an unpleasant face and nodded. "Nor I. Hmm..." Abruptly her expression changed, going from distaste to surprise and delight. She let out a small gasp. "Oh, my! Listen to this: 'After much pleading on my part, Brother Lemuel has agreed to release me for a time to come and visit with you. Gods willing, I should arrive in Metamor a week after you receive this letter. I eagerly look forward to seeing the wonders of the Keep — though not, I should say, as much as I await the pleasure of your company.' "

"The boy can be quite eloquent when his tongue need not participate," Raven said wryly.

Merai folded the papers and clutched them to her chest, grinning like a school-girl. "This is fantastic news! You will help me prepare for his arrival, will you not?"

"He will be extended every courtesy," Raven assured her, smiling warmly.

"Oh, thank you, Sister Raven!" Merai exclaimed. Impulsively she reached out and hugged the elder Lightbringer, much as she would her own mother.

"You're welcome, Sister Merai," Raven said, returning the embrace with equal affection. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to with the prime minister. I'll be back in a few hours."

"Very well," Merai said, as they parted and Raven headed for the door. "I'm going to finish reading this, and then spend some time in meditation. See you soon!"

Merai returned to her room, flopped down on her bed and read through Calvis's letter in detail. Raven was right — though he stumbled over his words in public, Calvis had the soul of a poet. They had exchanged many letters over the last several months, and he never failed to include some elegant compliment that left Merai blushing all over, or a stirring account of some new experience that had touched his heart. She looked forward to seeing him again, and regretted that the Keep's Curse would prevent him from staying for more than a week. Perhaps she could arrange to depart with him to Midtown for a few days so they could have more time together.

Setting aside the letter, Merai turned her attention to the meditation Circles drawn on the floor of the room. Right now she felt excited enough to go bouncing through the halls alongside Kee — and, while she enjoyed the feeling, she also knew that she would never get any work done today if she did not take the time to center herself first. With mixed emotions, she lit the Circle candles, sat down in the middle of them and closed her eyes. After a few deep breaths, she focused her mind inward and downward, until she could visualize herself standing in the First Circle.

The Circles were an invention that the Lothanasi had developed to focus and direct the mind in meditation. The First Circle was designed to give the Lightbringer an anchor point, a firm grounding in self-identity. It was a place in the mind that was cut off from external perceptions, from light and sound and touch. In the silence that followed, the Lightbringer gained a sense of centered-ness that allowed her to separate her essential self from all of the transient emotions, goals and desires that flitted through her mind. The First Circle was a place of peace and solitude. But it was also only a beginning.

Merai felt herself anchor into the foundation of the First Circle, as the excitement and nervous energy faded into the distance and the solitude of that place filled her with a sense of calm. Once she felt suitably grounded, she began reaching outward to the farther circles. At the Second Circle the sensation of touch returned, and she paused to focus again. The key was to allow herself to acknowledge the sensation without becoming tied in to it. The ultimate goal of the Circles was to move beyond the perceptions of the body, into those things that could only be perceived through the auras and energy fields surrounding her, and letting herself become too attached to any one sensation would keep her from moving forward.

On toward the Third Circle. Now the sensations of smell and hearing returned, and Merai had to steady herself as her heightened senses once again channeled a torrent of information into her brain. She almost lost her focus entirely at that point, but she managed to steady herself and press on.

As she stepped into the Fourth Circle, Merai saw the auras and energy fields around her spring to life in a dazzling array of light and color. By focusing her attention first in one direction and then another, she could "look around" at the patterns surrounding her — the people in the hallways, the birds on the windowsills, the trees in the courtyard below, and above all the vibrant aura of the Keep herself. Merai was used to all of these sights, having seen them many times, but she still marveled at their beauty.

Moving out to the Fifth Circle, Merai now found that she could shift her point of reference, moving her focus out and away from her body to examine distant auras more closely. She passed out of the temple, down the hall, through the shifting passages and corridors of the Keep, looking from side to side at the patterns and energy fields she saw along the way. She went past a room that was entirely opaque to her aura sight — that would be Rickkter's room, she thought with a smile — then passed into the palace section of the Keep and the prime minister's office, where Malisa sat talking with Raven. The Lothanasa flicked an ear as Merai's projected consciousness entered the room, then glanced for a moment in her direction before turning her attention back to Malisa. Merai grinned to herself, then left the room and continued on. She couldn't hear what they were saying — that would not come until Merai mastered the Seventh Circle — but she was having too much fun at the moment to care.

Besides, it was important not to push too far, too fast. Venturing beyond the Fourth Circle was risky, for it distanced the consciousness from the body. Tales were told of some Lightbringers who pushed out to the Ninth Circle before they were ready, only to become separated from their bodies and lost — formless wraiths, drifting aimlessly through the world until the end of time. A meditating Lightbringer could acquire great knowledge through the use of the Circles, but they had to be used carefully and responsibly.

Merai turned her attention beyond the walls of the Keep, venturing out into the bright, clear skies of a chill spring morning. She looked down at the crowds of people bustling through town, the shopkeepers hawking their wares, the guards patrolling the walls — and down below, at the foot of Metamor Ridge, something altogether different from the usual activity of the city.

*The Flatlanders!* she thought. *What wonders have they brought with them this time?* Directing her focus downward, she soon "stood" about ten yards above the circle of wagons, looking down at the musicians, acrobats and dancers who were entertaining the throngs of Keepers. Merai noticed that some of the wagons had bars on their windows, and as she grew closer her aura sight revealed two great cats and a large black bear inside those cars. She made a mental note to find out when the animal trainer would give his performance — it was always an exciting display, and Merai loved to see the huge beasts up close.

Wandering among the brightly painted wagons, Merai sensed the Magyars inside preparing for their next performances, or arranging their wares for sale. She was just about to continue on her way when something caught her attention in one of the merchant wagons.

The sensation was hard for her to define, even for herself. It was a faint presence that seemed to beckon her from the corner of her mind, sparkling and flickering like a firefly. Curious, she "entered" the wagon, casting her mental gaze about the cabin inside. It was dark, and filled with countless odds and ends, many of which glowed with magic of varying degrees. But none of those things resembled what had drawn her attention.

The flicker beckoned her again, this time from somewhere close by — but when she turned, she could see nothing there.

*Hello?* she asked, projecting her mental voice outward so that it filled the room. *Is anyone there?*

Slowly, dimly, a form appeared before her mind — tenuous, fragile, and indistinct. A brief sparkle of light, almost hesitant, flashed before her eyes. Whatever it was, it was alive, or at least conscious to some degree. It seemed almost shy.

*Hello there,* Merai said, smiling broadly. *I'm Merai. Welcome to Metamor.*

The apparition floated a bit closer. Merai could now see it a little better, though it seemed to be more a distortion of the existing light and shadow than something that was tangibly there. It seemed to regard her carefully.

*'Tis all right,* she said reassuringly. *You needn't be afraid of me, I shan't hurt you.*

Gently, Merai sent out a tendril of thought, brushing up against the ghostly presence that floated before her. She couldn't sense much from the brief contact, but the creature seemed to enjoy the sensation. It sent out a tendril of its own, feeling its way toward Merai.

*That's it,* she urged. *Let me get a good sense of you, now...* She sent out another tendril and wrapped it around the one sent out by the creature, letting a connection form between them...

Then, abruptly, a shaft of ice shot through Merai's innards. Her body went rigid, back arching, tail straight out behind her, mouth gaping in a silent scream. The elusive presence before her grabbed hold of her mind with the strength of a giant's fist, and suddenly Merai realized that she had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Her eyes were opened, and her shy visitor now showed itself to be something dark and monstrous. Black tentacles wrapped around her mind, then dragged her back to her own body. She felt herself being pushed down, down, toward the very center of her being, where the brilliant star that burned within her now seemed surrounded by walls of foul darkness. As her mind backed up against that furnace of light, seeking refuge and strength, a prison door rose up before her, sealing her inside. Peering through it, Merai found that she could see through her eyes and hear through her ears, but was powerless to command a single muscle. Filled with sudden terror, Merai pushed against the barrier with all her strength, trying desperately to escape this prison within her own body. A bolt of white-hot light shot out from the star within her, but the walls of darkness did not budge. Fear gave way to panic, and frantically Merai ran over every inch of her prison. There was no way out. She pounded on the walls, scratched them, bit at them, blasted them with fire and lightning, but the darkness gave not the barest hint of weakening.

*What's happening to me?* she sobbed, as her mental avatar collapsed to her knees in exhaustion. *Dear gods, what's happening to me?*

A cold wind ran through the bedroom of Merai hin'Dana, extinguishing the candles and even the lamp in the wall-sconce. The priestess rose to her feet and walked out into the temple hall, a small smirk on her face. There was much work to be done.


Dr. Brian Coe looked up from his paperwork to see Caitlyn, one of his assistant healers, standing at the door to his office with a worried look on her face.

Carefully, Brian put his quill back in its sconce and capped the inkwell. "Aye, Caitlyn, what is it?"

"We have a patient I think you should look at, Brian. Master Feldon. His family just brought him up the hill from Euper."

The raccoon-man frowned, his ears laying back against the sides of his head. "Could you make a diagnosis?" he asked.

"I've not seen the like of it before," she said. "In some ways it seems like flu, but..." She concluded with a shake of her head.

"All right. I'll take a look."

When Brian entered the main sickbay, he saw a young man lying down on one of the beds, accompanied by an equally young feline woman and an elderly goat-morph that Brian suspected was either the man's mother or mother-in-law. He was wrapped in woolen blankets, and a cold sweat ran down his forehead. He seemed to be only partially aware of his surroundings.

"How long has he been like this?" Brian asked, placing a black-furred hand on the patient's forehead. The poor fellow was burning with fever.

"Just a few hours," the cat-woman answered. "It came on him suddenly after breakfast this morning. I made him some tea and had him lie down, but it only seems to have gotten worse."

"I suggested we should take him to see you, doctor," the older woman added. "One can't be too careful about such things, you know."

"Agreed." Brian carefully felt under the man's jaw, eliciting a wince of pain from his patient. "Well, the lymph nodes in his neck are swollen," he said. "That's often the sign of an infection. Help me unwrap him so I can check the others."

Obediently, the three women assisted Brian in peeling back the layers of blankets they had wrapped him in. The young man shivered even more violently as his skin was exposed to the cool air of the sickbay. Brian lifted the patient's arm, gently probed the armpit—

And drew back his hand as if stung. "Gods," he gasped, eyes widening.

"What? What's wrong?" the cat-woman asked, her tail twitching in agitation.

Carefully, Brian pulled up the hem of the man's tunic, exposing the bare skin of his armpit. There, nestled under the arm, was a swelling the size and shape of a hen's egg.

"Ashes!" the mother hissed, her face showing horrified recognition. "Oh, Akkala preserve us!"

"What?" the feline woman asked anxiously, her eyes pleading. "Please, Doctor Coe! What's wrong with Feldon?"

Brian let the hem of the tunic go, a cold chill running down his spine. "It was well that you brought him when you did," he said softly. "I'm afraid this isn't the flu, madam. It is the plague."

Priestess Merai hin'Dana walked unnoticed among the crowds of people in the marketplace, her usual white robes replaced by a traveler's outfit with a dark cape and cowl. Walking past the numerous shoppers crowding around the Flatlander wagons, she came at last to the one that the true Merai hin'Dana had been exploring in her meditations a few hours before. It was a simple curio and antique shop, indistinguishable from several others in the caravan, with the usual assortment of useless junk, forgotten treasure and half-baked magic items. The man behind the counter greeted her with a nod and wordlessly passed her a small parcel wrapped in plain brown cloth. The priestess placed it in the pocket of her jerkin, turned, and began walking back up toward Metamor.

Duke Thomas peered at the map of the Keep and its surrounding fortifications that lay spread out on his desk.

"Nicely done, Jack," he murmured, nodding approvingly. "Nicely done, indeed. From the looks of this, I'd say that Metamor has never been better protected."

"No one's going to be repeating Nasoj's Yule surprise, at any rate," the castellan agreed. "With the extra ring of walls and the new defenses around Euper, any enemy that tries to reach the Inner Keep will have a damn hard time of it. I'll certainly sleep better at night now that this is finished."

"It needs no better recommendation than that, my friend," Thomas said, smiling. "I—"

A knock sounded at the door.


A nervous-looking page stuck his head into the room. "Doctor Coe to see you, milord."

The duke nodded. "Very well. Send him in."

Coe must have heard his words, because he practically forced his way past the page as soon as Thomas had spoken. The physician nodded once to Jack as he approached the desk, then turned to face the horse-king.

"Milord, we have a very serious problem," Coe said.

Thomas motioned for him to continue.

"A patient was brought to the sickbay this morning from Euper. He has the plague."

Jack muttered a curse under his breath. Thomas slowly sank into his chair. "Plague?" he repeated softly, scarcely believing it. "Are you sure?"

"Very. The symptoms were clear, milord."

"The Flatlanders?" Jack asked. His voice was thick with suspicion.

"I don't believe they've been here long enough to have brought it," Coe said, shaking his head. "Plague generally takes a few days to incubate before it becomes visible. Clearly some trader brought it in with him, though. We haven't had a case of plague at Metamor in fifty years."

"How great is the danger, doctor?" Thomas asked.

" 'Tis too soon to tell, milord. Bubonic plague, which Feldon has, is not very contagious, though it is still very deadly once you have caught it. If that is all we face, our greatest concerns are the fleas that carry the germ and the rats that carry the fleas — assuming that Lytherian's theory about the contagion is correct, of course."

"Do you believe it is?"

"Fortunately, I have never before had the opportunity to test it," Coe said dryly. "But I consider Lytherian a reliable source. Be warned, though, milord: Some strains of plague are far more contagious than the bubonic form. If an airborne strain has reached us, the situation is far more dire."

Thomas snorted once. "Bubonic plague is quite bad enough, I think," he said sourly. "What do you advise, doctor?"

"The clothes and linens of those who have contracted the disease will have to be thoroughly cleaned, somewhere far away from the city water supply. Victims will have to be isolated in sickbay, in case a more contagious strain is present. Someone should conduct a survey of the city to make sure that the rat population is under control — though it is probably best that our cat-morphs refrain from hunting them for now, to avoid picking up their fleas." Coe's face twisted into an unpleasant moue. "And, unfortunately, we are going to have to quarantine the city."

The duke leaned back in his chair and nodded wearily. "I was afraid of that," he said. "Very well. Make the necessary arrangements, doctor. And notify the Lightbringers of the situation — perhaps they can be of help."

"Aye, milord."

The coonish doctor sketched a quick bow, then turned and nearly ran out of the duke's office.

"It never ends, does it, Jack?" Thomas asked rhetorically, gazing up at the ceiling.

"Only in death, milord."

Despite himself, Thomas managed a wry smile at that — but only for a moment. "Go on, Jack," he said. "Notify the guard of the quarantine and prepare them to barricade the city gates. And tell Steward Thalberg to raise the yellow flag."

"Mistress Raven!"

Raven was just returning from her meeting with Malisa when she heard her name being called from somewhere in the temple antechamber.

"I am here," she said, stepping inside.

A familiar black-masked face appeared from around the corner of the antechamber's t-shaped intersection. "Ah, good."

"Doctor Coe? What brings you here?" Raven asked, her ears flicking forward in curiosity.

"Grave news, I fear. The plague has come to Metamor."

Raven blinked once in surprise, but quickly hid the expression behind her usual mask of composure. "Please explain, doctor."

Coe quickly outlined the events of that morning and his conversation with the duke.

"Lord Thomas hopes that you might be able to help," he said.

"Of course," Raven agreed, nodding. "I shall consult Akkala on how best to fight the disease. Worry not, doctor — we will do all in our power to put a stop to this."

"Thank you, Lightbringer," Coe said, bowing once to the priestess. "Now, I apologize for having to take my leave of you so abruptly, but I must return to the sickbay at once."

"By all means," Raven agreed, waving off any further apologies with a gesture. "May Akkala be with you, Doctor Coe."

"And you as well, Mistress."

The raccoon quickly departed, and Raven entered the main temple hall. There were a few supplicants praying quietly before the altar, and two acolytes standing near the doors, but other than that the room was empty.

"Please dismiss the laity for now," she whispered to the acolytes. "I have a summons to perform."

"Aye, Sister Raven."

While the acolytes cleared the room, Raven walked over to Merai's room. Finding the door closed, she knocked twice. "Merai?"

"Come in," Merai's voice called.

Raven opened the door. Merai was sitting placidly in the middle of her meditation circles, eyes closed. For a moment Raven thought she caught a trace of a sharp, bitter odor, but it only lasted for an instant before being replaced by the more familiar scent of the beeswax candles. When the smell did not return, Raven dismissed it from her mind, attributing it to her own nerves.

"Merai, I need you to help me prepare the temple for a summoning," she said.

The cat-woman rose to her feet in one fluid motion, extinguished the candles with a wave of her hand, and opened her eyes. "I'll be glad to help," she said. "Who are we summoning?"

"The Lady Akkala. An outbreak of plague has struck the Keep, and I need her advice on how best to combat it."

Merai's eyes went wide in surprise and fear, and her tail shot out straight behind her. "Plague? In Metamor? How is that possible?"

"Dr. Coe suspects that it was brought here by traders." Raven narrowed her eyes. "I have my own suspicions. Akkala will be able to tell us what is truly going on. Come."

By the time they returned to the temple hall, the acolytes had already cleared out the room and shut the doors behind them.

"Milady Kyia, please make sure we're not disturbed," Raven said, walking over to the altar where the remnants of several supplicants' offerings still lay in the central bowl.

*As always, Raven,* Kyia's voice whispered in her mind.

Raven smiled slightly at that. "Merai," she called, looking over her shoulder briefly, "bring me the white, pink and rose powders from the supply closet, if you please."

"Aye, Lothanasa."

Raven turned back to the altar and removed the bowl from its housing, then carried it to one of the adjoining supply rooms and cleaned out the blood, incense and other offerings. After drying it thoroughly and grabbing a basket of small candles from a nearby shelf, she returned the bowl to its place and began setting the candles in place on the altar.

After a few moments she heard Merai's voice behind her. "Here are the powders, Sister Raven."

Raven had turned halfway around when Kyia's voice suddenly shouted in her mind: *Raven, danger! Don't—*

But it was too late. Raven got only a moment's glimpse of the black amulet in Merai's hands before she slipped it around the wolf-woman's neck. The thing glowed bright green, and Raven felt the chain of the necklace contract to size itself to her neck. Then a surge of power shot through her, and all went black.

Priestess Merai hin'Dana smiled tightly as the Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric crumpled to the floor. Picking up the older woman with no more difficulty than one might lift a feather pillow, she carried her into the High Priestess's chambers and shut the door behind her.

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