In the Absence of Martyrs

The Starchild Prophecy, Part III

by Raven Blackmane

September 21

Consciousness returned to Raven slowly, in small snatches of awareness: A soft bed beneath her. A cool autumn breeze from a nearby window. The scent of fallen leaves, mixed with that of some kind of scented oil. Finally she gathered herself enough to open her eyes, and looked on the small bedroom where she found herself.

It was quite nice for a farmer's house, clean and adequately furnished. Various articles of wooden and wicker furniture took up most of the space in the room, and on the wall opposite the bed hung a tapestry, the threads woven into elaborate, swirling patterns of color in a simplified imitation of the Kelewair style. In the center of the work was a large triquetra, the pattern of three interlocking semicircular arcs that was the Followers' symbol for their triune Deity. Raven could make out several crosses hidden in various parts of the tapestry, as well, leaving no doubt as to what sort of house she was in.

Slowly, Raven sat up in bed, pulling back the sheets to get a better look at herself. Her armor and outer garments had been removed -- and, she now noticed, were sitting neatly folded in the far corner of the room. Her twin-cross, the symbol of her office as a Lightbringer priestess, was hanging exposed around her neck; apparently someone had pulled it out from beneath her undergarments to examine it. Other than that, she looked... surprisingly normal, for her. Considering the beating she had taken, she had expected to see herself covered with bandages and poultices, but there were no such signs of a healer's work. If she was surprised at this, she was even more surprised when she realized that she had no bruises or broken bones at all. She knew she had felt at least one of her ribs snap...

Straightening up quickly to get a closer look at herself and confirm this, she felt a deep, aching pain in her lower back. Well, not everything was healed, after all -- her left kidney, she realized, was still badly hurt. She would have to have Raenadan perform the Light Healing on her when she got back to Anthaly.

At that thought, it suddenly struck her how terribly fortunate she had been. By all rights, she should not have been worrying about returning to Anthaly, or anywhere else on Earth for that matter. If that girl had not recognized her howl as a cry for help, the farmers and herdsmen might have all rushed out to guard their pens from wolves, leaving her at the mercy of those mysterious assassins. Even if they had not killed her -- and she realized, based on their choice of weapons, that such was probably not their goal -- she would now be securely in their hands, rather than lying in a warm bed in the midst of a small, quiet village.

A soft knock sounded at the door.

"Come," she said.

The door opened and a man walked in. He was in his middle years, built like a farmer, with thick, meaty hands and strong features. His scent was that peculiar, not-unpleasant musk that country men developed, a product of going months or years without a proper bath. His grey eyes smiled at her as he entered.

"Good morrow," he said, his voice strong but gentle. Unlike Maxon and Kerala, he spoke with none of the rustic flavor typical of the Angle. "Feeling better?"

"Aye," Raven said, nodding. "Thank you, Master..?"

"Aaron," the man replied, extending a hand. Raven took it and clasped it a moment, then propped herself back against the headboard of the bed again.

"Thank you, Master Aaron. I am in your debt," she said, letting her face reflect her honest gratitude.

"Don't worry about it," Aaron said, coming to stand by her bedside. He looked at her a long moment, frowned, and closed his eyes. After a few seconds he opened them again. "You are still hurt somewhere," he said.

Raven gave him a curious look. "Aye, that's right," she said, wondering whether the man had some sort of intuitive aura sight.

"Could you show me where?" he asked, stepping closer to the bed. "We're no doctors, I'm afraid. I don't know much about the insides of a man's body -- and even less about a wolf's. No offense, milady."

"None taken," Raven assured him. " 'Tis back here, in the kidney." She pointed to the spot. "Methinks one of them struck it with his mace."

Aaron got down on one knee next to the bed, peering closely at the spot Raven had indicated. Thanks to whatever healing arts they had already used, there was no outward indication of the injury, but the farmer continued to study it intently. He stretched out a hand towards it, then hesitated, looking up at Raven.

"May I?" he asked.

Raven nodded. Satisfied, the man put his hand on her back, running his fingers over the close-lying fur. Then he gazed at it intently, and spoke -- softly, evenly, but with great authority.

"In Yashua's name, be well," he said.

Raven felt a strange warmth suddenly flow from the man's hand into her back. Then, as she watched with her own aura sight, the injured kidney knitted itself back together, seemingly of its own volition. In seconds, there was not a hint that it had ever been injured.

The priestess looked up at the villager, eyes wide. "How?" she asked.

Aaron shrugged, giving her a small smile. "By His Spirit," he said. "As for 'Why', which I suspect is your next question: Because He told me to."

Raven leaned back against the headboard again, nodding distractedly, her eyes staring through Aaron to the wall behind. Because Eli told him to, she thought. Very well. Accepting that as true, for the moment at least -- why would Eli want him to heal me like this, especially when it was something my people could have healed themselves? Even assuming He has some interest in my life -- perhaps because of my efforts to bring peace between our peoples -- 'tis not as if I was in immediate danger from it. So why? What does He have to gain from it..? These and other, similar thoughts swirled around her head in wondering circles, but at the moment there were no answers for any of them. Reluctantly, she focused her mind back on the present.

"...those men?"

She frowned, pricking her ears forward. "Pardon?"

Aaron grinned for a moment, but she wasn't sure whether it was at her inattentiveness or the motion of her ears. "Those men who attacked you. Do you know them?"

The wolf-woman sighed and shook her head. "Alas, no," she said. "Though I have seen their kind before, once. They killed over a dozen of our Order's acolytes last spring in an attack on one of our temples." She lowered her gaze, staring at her folded hands. "I regret to say that they did so while trying to kill me and my apprentice."

Aaron winced. "That's a hard thing," he said soberly. "I'm sorry to hear that." He was silent for a time, lost in thought. "Do you have any idea why they tried to kill you?"

"A few possibilities have crossed my mind," she admitted. "I've made a rather large number of enemies in the past year by trying to negotiate a formal peace with the Patriarch of the Ecclesia." She grimaced. "Sadly, he made a number of enemies, as well."

"So we heard," the farmer said, his voice grim. "It pains me to say it, but there are a lot of folks in the Ecclesia who believe much more in 'Vengeance is mine' than in 'Love your neighbor'." He cast his eyes downward. "That's a large part of why we left, actually."

Raven looked up at him quizzically. "You left the Ecclesia?" she asked. "But then, how..."

Aaron chuckled, shaking his head. "There's a difference between leaving the Ecclesia and leaving the Body," he said. "We don't follow Yesulam's decrees anymore, but we still worship the same Abba and the same Yashua as every other Follower. We just feel like Yesulam has... well, strayed off the point of late."

"The point being what?"

The farmer smiled. "Yashua," he said simply. "Everything comes down to us and our walk with Him, you know. Yesulam worries about many things, but like the Master said, only one thing is needed. We left so that we could spend more time on the one thing and less on the many things, if you take my meaning."

"I think so," Raven said, nodding. The man's creed was simple, even rudimentary, but she couldn't deny the power that was working through it. Mayhap that's the reason for the healing, she thought. To show me that he is a true Follower, breach with the Ecclesia notwithstanding.

Just about then Raven felt a sudden urge to yawn. As she did so Aaron rose to his feet again, clasping his hands. "You're still weary," he said. "Forgive my intrusion -- you should be resting. Feel free to sleep as long as you wish. If I'm not here when you get up, my wife Sarah will be glad to provide whatever you may need."

"Thank you," Raven said, laying back against her pillow. He was right: she was still very tired, though her curiosity had kept her from noticing it much until now. Her wounds may have been healed, but her body had been through a draining ordeal nonetheless. As she settled in among the blankets and closed her eyes, she heard Aaron quietly leave and shut the door behind him. A few moments later she fell back into slumber.

Raven had no idea how long she lay there, drifting on the edge of consciousness, before she at last awakened fully and felt able to rise from her bed. Sticking her head out the window, she found that the light outside was dim, but she was unable to tell whether the sun was rising or setting. Stretching and sighing, she picked out her clothes from the pile in the corner and began getting dressed.

There was a knock at the door just as she finished putting on her leggings. "Who is it?" she asked, her hand straying to the hilt of her sword.

" 'Tis I, Sarah," a voice replied. "Aaron's wife."

Raven relaxed, removing her hand from the weapon. "Come," she said.

The door opened and a middle-aged woman with long, braided auburn hair poked her head inside. Her expression was kind but concerned.

"I heard you stirring and wondered whether there was anything I could do for you," she said.

Raven looked at the other woman a moment, eyebrows slightly arched. She thought it odd that neither Aaron nor his wife had shown any reaction to her wolfish appearance. Shrugging the thought aside, she smiled as her stomach belatedly informed her of a rather pressing desire. "In truth, I am famished," she admitted. "If it is not too much of an imposition..."

Sarah returned the smile broadly. "Not an imposition at all. Aaron's just coming back from the fields, and we are about to sit down to dinner. Feel free to join us as soon as you're ready."

"Thank you. I shall be there anon."

Sarah nodded once and slipped out of sight again, shutting the door behind her. Raven quickly finished dressing and followed after.

The house was small by Metamor standards, so it was only a moment's work to find the dining room -- a room that also functioned as living room, entry hall and kitchen. A round table near the center of the room was circled by five chairs, three of which were occupied as Raven entered.

"Good evening," Aaron said, nodding to Raven as she approached. "Feeling better?"

"Much, thank you," Raven replied, clasping her hands in front of her. She turned a curious gaze on the two children sitting at the table along with Aaron, noting that their own eyes were wide with curiosity as well.

"These are our children, Rachel and Benjamin," Aaron said, his expression full of a father's pride. "Rachel, Benjamin, this is the Lady Raven."

"Hello, milady," the children said. Rachel had a serious but pleasant expression on her face, while Benjamin grinned broadly.

Raven chuckled. "Hello, Rachel, Benjamin," she said, rolling the strange names around in her head as she spoke them. She cast a sidelong glance at Aaron. "I'm not truly nobility, you know," she told him quietly.

"I know," he said, gesturing for her to sit down. "But it is a term of respect, and we believe you are deserving of it."

"I thank you for your kind words, as well as your hospitality," Raven said, taking a seat next to Rachel.

Sarah, who had been working in the far corner of the kitchen, came over to the table with a basket of broad, flat loaves of bread that had been sliced lengthwise for use as trenchers. "Here we are," she said, taking her seat. "If you would, Aaron?"

The four Followers closed their eyes and folded their hands in prayer. Raven bowed her head and clasped her hands in her lap as Aaron spoke a simple blessing over the food. Then Sarah distributed the trenchers and the meal began in earnest.

It was hearty, simple fare: roast mutton -- a real luxury in the Angle, usually reserved only for special occasions -- accompanied by boiled potatoes and a few assorted vegetables from the family garden. The bread that doubled as each person's plate was coarse and heavy, and deeply satisfying to Raven's rather insistent stomach. It felt strange to be eating the trencher at a meal -- in formal dinners among the nobility, that bread would be saved for distribution to the desperately poor -- but Raven realized that table manners in a country village were somewhat different from those in a ducal palace. Besides, it awakened a bit of the impish child within her, who felt almost as if she were getting away with something.

While they ate, the family questioned Raven about a wide variety of topics: the Keep, Nasoj, the Curse, relations between Lothanasi and Patildor at Metamor, and the Patriarch's tragic visit to the Keep the previous year.

"Are you really a Patriarch for the Lightbringers?" Rachel asked. Her eyes were unusually solemn for a girl her age, seeming to peer deep inside the priestess. They reminded Raven of Tessa's eyes.

"Aye, after a fashion," Raven replied, nodding. "Sadly, though, I only have authority over the Lightbringers living north of Giftum." She sighed. "If it were otherwise, I might have been able to put a stop to the endless fighting between our peoples."

"Honestly, milady, I doubt that you could do any more to stop the excesses of your people than Akabaieth could to stop his own," Aaron said. "Unfortunately, hatred is a difficult thing to stamp out."

"Too true," Raven admitted, gazing into her cup of water as she swirled it around thoughtfully. "It tore my heart in pieces when I heard that the Patriarch had died," she added, her voice little more than a whisper. "After our meeting, I had thought we might finally have a chance for peace. If anyone could have taught us all to lay down our arms, it would have been he."

There was a thoughtful silence. "He was a good man," Aaron said at last, his eyes distant and sorrowful. "A man after Eli's heart. Though none of us here in Bethany are members of the Ecclesia, we all wept when we heard what had happened. Not for his sake, mind you, but for the world he left behind."

Raven nodded soberly. "I wonder what he might have done if he were faced with a maverick priest such as this one. I take it you have all heard the news."

"Aye," Sarah said grimly. "We know all about Malkus and his so-called 'crusade'. A messenger came from Brockhill with the news when he arrived there several days ago. The whole town has been praying about it ever since."

"But he has had no direct contact with anyone here?"

"No," Aaron said, shaking his head. "We no longer have any ties to the Ecclesia, as I said before. A man like Malkus would be more likely to condemn us as heretics than to seek our help in a witch hunt."

Raven frowned. Apparently Raenadan had been misinformed about Bethany's Followers -- not that that surprised her. "Do you have any idea where he is now?" she asked. "I need to find him before he can put any more of my people to death."

"I'm afraid not," Aaron said apologetically. "We --"

"Wait," Sarah broke in suddenly, putting her hand on Aaron's shoulder.

Raven looked at her curiously. The woman's eyes had gone distant, focused on some spot beyond the far wall. Then she blinked, stirred, and looked at her husband, a surprised look in her eyes.

"Markford," she said softly. "He's gone to Markford."

Raven's ears pricked forward. "How do you know?"

Sarah turned to look at the priestess, as if suddenly noticing her presence. "The Spirit spoke to me, just now as you were talking," she said.

"The Spirit of Eli? Are you certain?"

"Aye," Sarah said, nodding. "His voice was clear, very clear."

"And you'll have to hurry," Rachel added.

Raven looked wonderingly at the girl, who sat gazing at her with those profoundly serious eyes. She couldn't have been more than eight years old, and yet...

Suddenly something clicked in Raven's memory. "You're the one who called the people to help me last night," she said.

Rachel nodded.

"How did you know?"

"The same way she knows that time is short," Aaron said gravely. "Eli can speak to the young as well as the old, milady."

"Apparently so," Raven said, impressed... and yet shaken in a way that defied easy explanation. Pushing her chair away from the table, she rose to her feet. "Well, then. If what you say is true, I had best be on my way. Thank you again for everything. I am deeply in your debt. If ever you need anything that it is in my power to provide, simply send word and I shall do it."

"It was our joy," Aaron replied, as he and the others stood likewise. "And while we are grateful for your offer, don't let yourself be troubled if you never have the opportunity to repay that debt. It was a blessing to have you here, milady, no matter how short the time."

Raven smiled. "You're too kind. Farewell, then, to all of you. If I have occasion to when my mission is completed, I should like to come back and speak with you further about this faith of yours. I've not seen the like of it elsewhere."

"It would be our pleasure," Sarah said, smiling in return.

After gathering her remaining possessions from the bedroom, Raven said good-bye once more and made her way out of the house and down the street. As she had suspected, it was the same house where she had heard a girl -- Rachel -- praying for her grandmother the night before.

She hadn't gone far when she heard the door of the house open and shut again behind her.

"Milady!" a voice called.

Raven turned to see Aaron and Sarah's son, Benjamin, come running up to her.

"Aye, Benjamin?"

The boy looked slightly puzzled, but his eyes were as serious as his sister's had been a few minutes before. "I think Abba wants me to tell you something," he said.

Raven shook her head slightly in amazement. She'd fallen in with an entire family of prophets! Smiling, she lowered herself to one knee before the child. "Very well. What is it?"

The boy's lip twitched, his face showing a twinge of sadness. "He says that a lot of bad things are going to happen, but you shouldn't blame yourself," he said. "It has to be this way. In the absence of martyrs there's a presence of thieves."

Raven cocked her head and frowned at the boy. Beyond the language itself, which was rather complex for such a young child, the message sounded like a riddle -- and an ominous one at that. "I've not heard that saying before, Benjamin," she said. "What does it mean?"

"I'm not totally sure," Benjamin admitted. "I think I know, but I'm not supposed to say. Abba said you'd find out for yourself what it means."

The Lightbringer stared at the Follower child for a long moment, then nodded. "Very well," she said gravely, rising again to her feet. "Thank you, Benjamin. I shall keep that in mind."

Benjamin nodded. "Be careful, milady." With that he turned and ran back to his house. Raven watched him go, then turned and began the walk back to Anthaly.

Raven saw no one on her walk back to Anthaly -- the sun was just setting, and the farmers of both towns had gone indoors for the night. The priestess chose a discreet path through town to The Flute and Dagger, avoiding open windows and doors. Most of the town was still unaware of her presence, and she intended to keep it that way. Kerala opened the back door for her, and when she saw Raven standing there her eyes went wide.

"Raven!" she exclaimed. "What in earth or heaven happened to you, child? We've been worried sick!"

"Shh," Raven hissed, putting a finger to her lips. "Not so loudly. Let me in and I shall explain."

Kerala did so, stepping aside to let Raven enter. Apart from the two women the kitchen was deserted.

"Where's Raenadan?" Raven asked.

"Up in his room, and not alone," Kerala answered, her features creased with worry and suspicion. "A bunch of soldiers rode into town today, dressed in white and armed to the teeth. They've been up there ever since. Ill business, I'll warrant, or you can take me for a nymph."

Raven's eyes narrowed. "Get Uncle Max and meet me at my room in twenty minutes, and I shall explain everything," she said, touching her hand briefly to the other woman's shoulder before turning to head up the stairs.

The door to the priest's room was shut and locked. Raven pounded twice on the heavy timbers.

"What is it?" Raenadan's voice called, sounding miffed. "I thought I had made it clear we were not to be disturbed."

"Raenadan, you will open this door immediately or I shall take it down myself!" Raven growled, magically amplifying her voice until it resonated loudly in the room beyond.

There was a sound of scrambling feet. The door flew open in seconds, and the bookish priest stared wide-eyed at Raven.

"Lothanasa!" he exclaimed. "P-praise the gods, we thought you were dead! I --"

"Get out of my way," Raven snapped, pushing roughly past the spindly little man into the room beyond. Seven tall, muscular warriors wearing white tunics emblazoned with the twin cross were sitting on the floor around a map of the Angle. The men quickly rose to their feet and stood at attention when they saw Raven enter the room.

The priestess cast an icy gaze over the men, coming up to each one in turn to take in his appearance and scent for later reference. At last she turned back to Raenadan, arms crossed.

"Inquisitors," she spat distastefully. "What in all the hells were you thinking?"

Raenadan cleared his throat and stood up a bit straighter. "A rescue, perhaps?" he offered. "Lothanasa, when you failed to return from your... excursion into Bethany last night, I assumed that the Phergeld must have captured you."

"A moment ago you said you thought I was dead," Raven reminded him. "And you will not use that epithet in my presence."

Raven turned to the Inquisitor captain, easily distinguished by the golden insignia on his tunic. "When did Raenadan summon you, Captain? Answer truly."

The man glanced over at Raenadan, his expression unreadable.

"I am over here, Captain," Raven said pointedly.

With seeming reluctance, the man's eyes shifted to Raven. Despite the fact that he was bigger and stronger than she, Raven could smell his fear. "We were summoned from Kelewair on the nineteenth, Mistress."

The wolf-woman nodded once, curtly. "There are nine men in an Inquisitor circle, Captain. Where are your other two comrades?"

"Bed-ridden with consumption, Mistress."

"I see." Raven turned and strode back over to Raenadan. "My room. Now."

Once they were behind closed doors, Raven turned on the priest.

"I dislike being lied to, Raenadan," she growled. "When I arrived here, you told me that Bethany was allied to the Ecclesia and so threatening that your scouts would not set foot in the town. In fact, they are a village full of Rebuilder pacifists with greater wisdom, perception and common compassion than I have seen in a thousand Lightbringers. You told me that you believed me dead, and yet when I questioned the presence of your bedamned Kelewair attack dogs you claimed that you had intended to rescue me. Now I find that these same Inquisitors have been on the road by your summons for three days." She jabbed one clawed finger into the man's chest, watching him wince in pain. "You shall be honest and open with me from this point forward. It is not your province to judge whether or not I shall like the news. Deceive me again and I will make you beg for the Sixth Hell. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly, Lothanasa," Raenadan said quietly, his eyes lowered.

Raven held him there a moment longer, then turned and stalked over to the window, gazing out at the darkness with arms crossed. "Why did you summon the Inquisitors?" she asked.

"A simple precaution, under orders given me by Lothanas Herelath. He said they might be necessary to... detain Malkus, should less stringent methods fail."

"Why did Herelath not leave that to my discretion?"

"He said that you would not request them under any circumstances, even though they might be needed."

"Quite right. Did he give you any other secret orders I should be aware of?"

"Nay, Lothanasa."

Raven frowned. The man's aura was so wracked with nervousness that it impossible to tell if he was lying. She could use a Truthsayer spell, or project herself into his mind and compel him to speak, but Lightbringers knew how to resist such techniques. Besides, such an act would likely be a political disaster for any later dealings with Herelath and his chapter.

"For the duration of this mission you shall take orders from no one but me," Raven told him. "If Herelath dislikes it, I shall address his grievance personally when this matter is behind us."

"As you say, Lothanasa."

"Very well." She turned around to face him again. "I was attacked last night, but not by the people of Bethany. Who it was, I know not, but this is not the first time they have tried to capture me. It was the men of Bethany who came to my aid and healed my injuries from the attack."

Raenadan looked puzzled. "Healed you? How? They are only Patildor."

"I'm not sure. It matters not, in any event. While they had no ties to Malkus or his crusade, they were able to direct me to his next target. The priest is in Markford, and by all accounts I must make my way there quickly if I hope to prevent any further bloodshed."

The priest nodded. "Very well. I shall order the captain to make ready --"

"You shall do nothing of the sort," Raven cut him off harshly. "I will go to Markford, with men of Anthaly whom I know I can trust, and we shall entreat the mayor to aid our cause. Malkus will be brought back to Anthaly -- peacefully, if possible -- and thence handed over to his own people for judgment. I shall contact Father Hough at Metamor tonight and ask him where the priest should be delivered."

Raenadan looked unhappy but nodded, once. "Very well. What shall I do, Lothanasa?"

"Wait here and keep a firm leash on your Inquisitors. I will set out for Markford tomorrow at first light. If we have not returned in two days' time, then send your warriors to look for us. If we are dead or missing, contact Herelath and ask him what to do."

The man nodded again. "It shall be as you say, Lothanasa."

"See that it is," she said firmly. "Dismissed."

Maxon and Kerala arrived at Raven's door only a few minutes after Raenadan had left. The Lightbringer ushered them inside without preamble and quickly explained all that had happened to her in the last day, as well as her plans to deal with Malkus.

Raven's uncle sighed and shook his head sadly. "Well, Raven, that's dark business you've brought to Anthaly, an' no mistake," he said. "Not that I blame you, you understand. But it's a long way from here to the Giantdowns, and folk like us aren't used to fightin'."

"Unfortunately, Uncle Max, I fear that we shall all be forced to do things we are unused to before this business is finished," Raven said, her lip twisting ruefully. "Whom can I trust to take with me, that would be skilled enough if it came to a fight?"

Maxon and Kerala exchanged a look. "Your Uncle Taden, for starters," Kerala said. "He's still the sheriff's deputy in these parts, and he can hold his own in a fight. Your cousins Joss and Evin are with the militia, and they're two dependable lads."

"I'll call in Bensin from Bethany," Maxon offered. "He's the captain of the militia for both towns, and not so much of a pacifist as a lot of those folks. A good man, and he owes me a favor. Besides, it will look better if you've got a Follower with you when you take this rabble-rouser in."

"Agreed," Raven said, nodding. "If my experience with Aaron and his family is any indication, I doubt I have to worry about his reaction to my appearance."

"Naw, I don't think he'd say anything," Maxon agreed, waving a hand dismissively. "All of 'em are liable to think it odd, though. We'd do best to get to your relatives tonight, break it to 'em early. I'll send for 'em right away, if ye like."

"Please do. I'd like to meet with them as soon as possible to explain the situation." Raven paused, sighing. "I doubt we can afford more than five of us. Any more and the people of Anthaly are likely to notice." She rose to her feet, and the others did the same. "Thank you for your help," she said. "While you're contacting Uncle Taden and my cousins, I have another matter to address."

"We'll leave ye to yer work, then," Maxon said. "Be back soon."

"Father Hough..."

Francis Hough, Ecclesia Priest of Metamor, sat up straight in his bed, looking around in confusion at what had suddenly become a foreign environment. He still felt what seemed to be his mattress beneath him, but the walls, the floor, the furnishings -- even the bed itself -- had been replaced by a featureless field of black. Only his own childlike body and the nightclothes he wore were apparently unaffected.

With the growing fright of a child, Hough began praying under his breath. "Hear me, Abba, in the hour of my need..."

"Relax, Father. You are safe here."

Hough turned in the direction of the voice, which now seemed to be right at his elbow. There, dressed in the gear of a common scout, was a weary-looking female wolf with a very familiar pair of ice-blue eyes.

"Lightbringer?" Hough asked, puzzled. "Where am I? What is this place?"

" 'Tis a difficult thing to explain," Raven said with a small, dismissive gesture. "You could, perhaps, call this a dream, but rest assured that I am truly here and this is no figment of your boyish imagination. I shall not disturb your sleep for long, but I have an important question for you."

"Very well," the priest replied, folding his hands in his lap. He still did not at all like the looks of this place -- or the lack thereof -- but if Raven said it was important then he would put his other concerns aside for the moment. "What is it?"

"I am preparing to arrange for the arrest of a renegade priest of the Ecclesia," she explained, tail twitching as she paced slowly back and forth across his field of vision. "This man stands accused of the murders of dozens of Lightbringers. However, given the present tension between the two faiths, I dare not try him under Lightbringer law. I wish to remit him into the custody of the Ecclesia, somewhere where he may be judged fairly and punished justly for his crimes. Is there any chapter of the Ecclesia where you can assure me that he will face justice, where his crimes will not be ignored because of politics?"

Hough thought a moment, taking in what the priestess had said. "The diocese at Ellcaran," he said at last, looking up at her. "I served there myself for years, as you well know. Father Lothar will ensure that justice is done. You will need at least two witnesses to the crimes who will testify, of course."

"Of course." Raven nodded once. "Thank you, Father. I shall let you return to your rest now."

"Thank you," Hough said, lying back down to rest his head against the pillow he could feel but could not see. "Good night."

There was a sound like a soft rustling of wind, and Hough abruptly found himself back in his bedroom. Giving one last, nervous glance at the walls, as though afraid they would disappear again when he turned his back, the priest rolled over and went back to sleep.

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