Lessons of Faith

by Christopher Hughes

April 30, 707 CR

Quietly, I fumed. The tome Raven had given me ere her hasty departure held within it the text of a hundred invocations, from induced somnolence to lightning strikes, and yet despite my years of training, the request for the meagerest witchlight seemed beyond my grasp. Hastily, I scanned the words, ensuring that I had not somehow in the last dozen readings overlooked some word, some critical passage. Lacking speech might have caused a problem, but the Lothanasa had repeatedly assured me that mindspeech should serve in its stead.

{Samekkh, Lord of Light, I call upon your brilliance to deliver me from darkness!} The words of the Old Tongue came easily enough to mind, but no glow shot forth from my outstretched paw. Was that laughter I heard in my mind, or just my own frustrations mocking me? Flicking out one ray of thought, I reached for the cover of Raven's text, converting the sharp thrust to a gentle push at the last moment, closing the aging book without damaging the binding.

Was it the spell I used to communicate? My pronunciation? I spun back and forth within the lab, trying to isolate the reasons the spell might fail, but every possibility that came to mind seemed unlikely. I got as far in my reasoning as questioning the age of the tome and the translations and transliterations of the Old Tongue when I realized I was spinning like a mad top, and leaving the book behind I extended my mind for the door, dragging it open as I stormed from the lab, towards the inn and the solace of fresh stew.

The corridors echoed the whispers of my sueded paws against the stone floor as I marched from my study, mind churning. Why could I not make the simplest of spells work? Was my talent so far below that of Raven and Merai? Had my application to the Lightbringers been so foolish? This stormcloud raged in my mind, refusing to give me peace. I felt like an apprentice at University again, fingers fumbling over the simplest of enchantments; it wasn't a pleasant memory.

My paws carried me along the hallways of the Keep, attention directed inwards, until the muffled strains of a lute made their way to my ears, pulling a smile to my muzzle. Kyia had a way of knowing where her inhabitants needed to be, altering her passageways to fit their moods and desires, and it became simple enough to follow the music along the corridor to the Court Poet's cramped quarters, stopping before a thick wooden door from beneath which escaped the occasional dissonant note as Wand'rer sat within, trying to compose.

I paused a few moments, then held out a paw and thumped the thick sole twice against the heavy wood, claws catching against the door as I lowered it again. Nothing changed, and so I repeated the knock, waiting somewhat impatiently outside. Still the music continued within, and so I stretched out my awareness, seeking out the mind beyond the door. Even without probing, it was clear that the bard's attention was elsewhere, focused upon a new melodic line. Risking unwelcome distraction, I touched the wolf's mind. {Are ye there, ye rogue?}

The sudden dissonance that escaped the lute as Wand'rer's fingers struck the strings was worth any flood of reproach that could have followed. "A moment, o untimely ursine," the bard quipped. A brief scratching, the sound of a quill against parchment, probably recording some quick notations, and then the door swung wide to reveal the figure of the wolfman leaning against the inner frame in a loose chemise and trousers, the lute strung from his back. His ears and tail perked. "'Twas a heavy battle I fought with that phrase, ere we agreed to withdraw. When next we meet, though, be sure I'll have the better of it." His eyes twinkled with the laughter that he kept from his muzzle.

{Ye've still nae said how ye came t' yer old form again,} I sent half-sternly, lifting my eyes to study the bard. In truth, he looked no different from a year or more prior, when his foolishness and my own had forced us both into base animal forms. His, however, had been a penance from the gods, one he had served in mindlessness, from which he had been restored. A pang of envy pierced me, which I quickly fought aside. All that I needed of a body, I had in my current form, I told myself, as I had ever since the "healing" that had given me back my legs in exchange for my hands and voice. Dimly I wondered if the gods would ever see fit to give me back what I had when I began to voice my displeasure at being immersed in their affairs, but that was a question not even Raven could answer.

The bard rolled his shoulders, and then swiftly he knelt, wrapping his arms around my thick neck, muzzle held against my fur as he hugged me. "'Tis better I look you in the face and not give either of us a stiff neck for doing so," he breathed, and I felt the pang of his regret that, when his own punishment had been repealed, mine had not.

Damn my mindspeech, already. First the spells, and now this. I lifted a forepaw and patted against his side, feeling the loose fabric of the shirt rustle. {'Tis a'right, Charles,} I sent to him, ignoring the lack of explanation. {Th' gods answer only t' themselves, an' they have reasons for what they do, or so I try t' tell meself now that I work for them.} I tried to color my thoughts with humor, but the weariness must have shown through.

Wand'rer squeezed once, then released and sat over his heels before me, shifting the instrument against his back for balance. "Something's troubling you of that, then."

An' what use is a bard if he can't know what people want of him? I sighed, caught squarely on the receiving end of the wolf's own empathy. {Aye.} I studied the wolf another moment, then turned towards the hallway again. {Have ye th' time this even t' share a meal with me? I'm sure ye've nae desire t' eat alone either, an' I'm in sore need of a chat.}

Days after my induction to the Order, Lurene's name had appeared on the duty rosters in Jack's hooves. I suspect that the mule took my acceptance into the Lightbringers as a sign that I no longer needed a personal attendant, having the whole of the church to look after me, and the Keep was scarce of mages qualified in fieldwork. Between her sword-training prior to her arrival and my efforts to build her magical talents, the castellan had quickly set his sights upon her as a field mage, and only my own infirmity kept him from snatching her before. With that excuse gone, she had spent as much time on active patrol as the mule could steal from her, leaving me alone to practice my new spells. A small part of me ached to find her missing each morning, but part of me was glad for her absense; I dared not show her my lack of ability in something so simple. I'd never live down the embarrassment.

The wolf considered, then started suddenly, ears flattening as he glanced over his shoulder to the desk where a candle sat smoldering, a feeble wisp of smoke still curling from the warm wick. "Is't so late already?" His tail hung low and he barked a quick laugh. "Perhaps we'd best both make for the inn ere they stop serving, else we'll once more beg scraps!" His smile was forced and the worry rolled off of him in waves, amplified by my own.

{Aye,} I agreed, starting along the corridor, the wolf falling into step beside me. {We've both wasted th' day, so now we'll retire for ale and stew and hot broth t' waste th' night beside.} I whuffed. {A chance to talk as of old, without our women to distract us with silly things like sleep.} The attempt to make light of the situation felt hollow to even my own heart.

The wolf said nothing as we walked, only the rhythmic clack of his toeclaws against the stone breaking his silence. Then, in a low voice, he said only, "Is't aught ye can tell me, Christopher? Any news, any report?"

I sighed, shaking my head. {Would that there were, from either. All I can say is that we've nae word of anything bad happening t' them, an' we'd surely know if aught had.}

"The temple at Bozojo did take casualties a tenday since." Wand'rer's voice sounded haggard, and his pace faltered a few steps. "'Twould be in the direction of her travel."

{Aye,} I conceded carefully. {But had anything happened to Raven, we'd surely have heard.} I stopped and brushed my muzzle against the wolf's leg, trying to project the confidence I wished I could feel about Lurene's own fate, burying the fervent desire to be with her, protecting her. {Rest assured that they'll both come back t' us, Charles.} I smiled weakly in my mind. {Who else could tolerate yer croonin' and pinin' at all hours, or my insufferable lectures?}

The bard did laugh at that. "'Tis even so," he agreed, and some of the weight fell from his shoulders as we resumed our walk to the inn for evens. "'Tis even so."

Through two bowls of stew, a gammon steak and two pints of heavy ale, we talked in the inn's commons, bantering back and forth. News of the attack at Bozojo had been the gossip of the court for all of half a candlestripe, which is where the bard had gotten his news. I did my best to relay the facts as I'd heard them from within the Order, though ours were scant better than the rumors he'd received. Alongside, we shared stories, his of court intrigue, mine of students and experiments both gone wild.

The wolf lowered his own glass and studied me from his chair. "We've swapped roles, thou and I."

I glanced up from my bowl, licking the head from my muzzle. {How d'ye figure?}

His ears perked in a smile, and he took a draught from his pale ale. "Ye had reason to come to my quarters; what were they?"

Memories of when I said as much to the bard came to me, and I laughed. {Aye, I did.} My tongue failed me there for several moments, and when next I sent to his mind, it was only for him. {'Tis Raven's task for me. She left me a book of initiates' prayers, Old Tongue along with their translations. I've yet t' manage th' simplest witchlight, an' a Son of Samekkh I aspire t' be!} I snorted, lowering my muzzle again, glad for the ability to talk and drink at once. {Some priest I'd make. She notes that th' book she left me held spells t' train their initiates, an' even they escape me.}

The wolf called Wand'rer cocked his head to one side, tail curling behind him. "Hast spoken with the other acolytes?"

I shook my head at that. {I've nae felt it worth th' trouble, yet. 'Tisn't as if I've nae knowledge of magic, but these simplest incantations seem t' be beyond me!} I lifted a paw, projecting to the wolf's mind. {Lord of Light, bless me with your gift!} No response, not even a flicker. {I've checked th' pronunciation. I even asked Raven ere she an' Merai left if the spell of mindspeech would suffice, an' she said it would. At one point, I even tried an illusion t' create th' words! Nae a will'o'wisp has answered!}

At that, the wolf smiled. "Well and all," he responded in a hushed tone not for any but my ears to detect, "if acolytes and the Lothanasa cannot explain how thy casting is awry, perhaps should'st ask Samekkh himself; he is, mark ye, the one who wrote the spell."

I sputtered into my beer. {Ask th' god?} The bard's words transfixed me in shock.

"Aye." Wand'rer's grin spread like wildfire, the corners of his muzzle lifting. "Thou'rt so used to spells being little more than incantations, reagents, gestures, components. Any with the training could become a mage, as ye would insist for so long—"

{Any could!} I protested, realizing after I'd spoken that not only had I interrupted, but that wasn't the bard's point.

"Aye, any could," he agreed pleasantly, still smirking. "But ye forget that that's magic. The words ye uttered were no spell, my stubborn sage, but a prayer. With magic, whether thou hast belief in the results or no is immaterial, is't not so?" He pressed on into my sullen silence. "As I thought. Thou'rt trying to solve the wrong problem."

Not wanting to grant the wolf the benefit of being right, I lapped up the last of the amber ale before again projecting into his mind. {How would ye propose I solve th' right one, then?}

His turn to pause before replying, Wand'rer swung his lute around on its strap to his chest, picking at the strings before speaking. "I cannot say." He held his tongue for a few moments, worrying over the line I'd heard him attempt in his room earlier. "I've written hymns for both Ecclesia and the Lightbringers, friend Christopher, and found that, when working with strains meant to honor the gods, asking their favor has done much toward finding the best lines."

{An' ye just--ask th' gods? Eli or Iluvatar or whichever servant of his is th' focus of yer hymn?} I tried to keep the sneer from my voice, but even I was no miracle-worker.

"'Tis not so simple as ye make it sound, Christopher." Wand'rer plucked fitfully at the strings of his lute as he talked. "Ye've never truly prayed before, have ye?"

I hesitated, then lowered my head. {Nae. My father was a lapsed Ecclesiast ere he died, an' he never felt right in praying t' a power he thought he'd abandoned. I'd never felt th' need t' do so alone.} My hackles began to rise, and I lifted my head, thumping one hindpaw against the ground in frustration. {Damn! T' know th' nature of th' gods an' still be caught in their wiles!}

At that, Wand'rer chuckled, and my ears lowered in embarrassment. "Knowledge, my skeptical scholar, is not all, most especially where gods are concerned."

I lowered my muzzle and licked once at the hollow of the wooden bowl, then rose from my position and padded towards the kitchen, nosing it ahead of me. {Mayhap ye're right, but that's of nae help t' my current predicament. I'll feel a right fool if Raven returns an' I've nae divined the secret of these prayers. I should t' bed an' sleep off this ale. I'll see ye anon, Wand'rer. Try an' nae t' filch the good silver in yer sleep.}

The wolf looked mock-indignant. "I'd never! I've nowhere to sell it!" He smiled and ran his claws lightly over the back of my head as I passed again. "Sleep well, Christopher. By morning, I'll have this line; you wait."

A half-growl, half-yawn was my only answer as I padded out of the inn and towards my room for some much-needed bedrest.

I sat at the side of the room and watched in rapt fascination as Lurene held forth her hands. The journal in front of her—my first volume of research, a thick heavy tome—slowly lifted itself from the desk and hovered a solid foot over its surface. With her left hand, she held the spell of levitation while adding components to it with her right. Soon the inkwell, my burin and the candlestick floated, with not a tremor among them. Opening my inner eyes, I saw the faint tendrils of energy that surrounded each of the items and held them fast, directed outwards from the fingertips of her left hand, surrounding each in their turn.

I beamed inside, knowing how difficult extending such control was over more than a single object at a time. She turned to face me and flashed a pert smile. I smiled back, one paw slipping within the sleeve of my robe to draw out a thin slip of a knife as she turned her attention back to mentally juggling the floating assembly. A flick of my wrist sent the blade flying towards her, my roar following a second later.

Lurene's face turned to see the candleflame glint off the steel of the fast-approaching blade and she raised her right hand as if to catch it. With inner sight, I saw a tendril of force snake out from her hand and ensnare the dagger two inches shy of the candle. She twisted her wrist around, rotating the tip of the blade to point back at me. Her silvery eyes twinkled in the firelight, questioning me wordlessly.

I pointed, smirking, to the desk with a claw, and she looked back at the desk. In her haste to catch the dagger, she had lost concentration on the remainder of all else, which now lay scattered across the table's surface. A thin pool of greasy black was slowly growing where the ink seeped from its container.

Lurene jumped from her chair, snatching for a blotter to stop the inkstain before it spread. She frantically wiped at the black pool, then spent a few moments trying to shuffle papers and scrolls out of harm's way before returning to the spreading stain.

I smiled gently and raised a paw, extending a thin tendril of control to upright the inkwell. The metal container righted itself, but a thin line of thick ink stretched from its lip to the desk. No matter, I thought, and sculpted in my mind the image of a bowl, moving it through the desk to lift the ink away from the wooden surface. As I touched the blackness, though, I felt a buzzing in my ears, the quiet rumble of a hornets' nest, and a chill passed through me.

The ink slid away from my focus and poured itself down the desk, another heavy dollop of it escaping the bottle with a gurgle. It left behind it a spreading stain of black across the desk, rolling down. Lurene froze, eyes watching the movement, her hands gripping the arms of her chair white-knuckled. I tried to move, tried to urge the chair closer to help, but it was as if I had been encased in ice, frigid numbness spreading along my arms.

The chair? Lurene's hands? Memories of the scene rang in my mind, weeks after the duel that stole my legs before Akkala gave them back to me. I'm dreaming, I thought. I'm asleep, and having a nightmare. I tried to force the scene to still, but slowly the blackness begin to creep up the legs of Lurene's chair, the trickle from the inkwell becoming a stream.

My heart began to pound one of Wanderer's cadences, but the wizard within me took over where the combat-shy sage faltered, forcing my mind to stillness. The words of a banishment came easily enough, and though I lacked the fingers to make the gestures, the hands granted by movement of mind more than sufficed. I saw the web of magic building in the air around the spreading darkness, felt the tingle as it brushed against the inky form now surrounding the feet of my apprentice. Her own voice held silent, breath still as she looked at me pleadingly with silent silver eyes, and I released the matrix of filaments towards its target, expecting the thing to crawl back into the bottle and vanish.

As the web of power touched it, the thing lurched forward over my apprentice's legs, seeping up to her knees and climbing rapidly beneath her skirt, a fresh tentacle of darkness reaching towards my forepaw, the contact chilling me as it brushed against my leg. One tendril wrapped itself around my ankle—

—and I jerked my eyes open, gasping for breath, heart pounding wildly within my chest. My paws and ears felt slick with sweat, the floor beneath them chilled as the stone sucked out what little bodyheat my shivering generated. I forced the sleep from my eyes and rose, pacing about the room. A nightmare, I said to myself, sagging as a beaten rug against the floor.

My joints ached from stiffness, and I padded about the room, working out the worst of the pain, then to retire again to my rug as I began to breathe in measured paces, remembering my relaxtion and focus techniques from University. Muscles tensed, then released in measured groups, stress building and then receding as I lay limp against the floor. The last of the pain seeped from my joints, but sleep was slow to return, and the first lights of dawn filtered through the slats in the window ere oblivion overtook my senses.

May 10, 707 CR

The pounding at the door jarred me out of my fitful reverie, and it repeated itself more insistently before I could muster the presence of mind to probe beyond the door. My mind was a tangle of Phil's knotwork, pulled in a dozen directions at once as I tried to force some focus to my attention. My blind gropings met with little success, but within moments the familiar voice of the bard rang out clearly through the heavy door. "Christopher! Are ye in there?"

Given a voice, my mental skeins had purchase with which to grasp at the mind beyond the door, and even as I contacted him, I sent another filament of control to grasp the heavy lock, straining to twist it in its setting. {Aye, ye cur, an' nae so loud!} My ears rang even from my own mindspeech, to say nothing of Wanderer's penetrating shout. The bard could project, I granted silently.

The next thud of the wolf's fist against the door sent it swinging wide, and he caught it scant inches from crashing into the wall behind, a fact for which I was relieved. I visibly sagged against the stone floor, unaware I had tensed when it opened, and let out a heavy sigh. {What d'ye want, Charles?} I hoped the use of his proper name would encourage him to cut through his usual banter and start with the meat of the matter.

He had already opened his muzzle to speak again when my missive touched his mind, and he stopped himself short, ears back and tail high in surprise. To his credit, though, he paused only a moment before resuming his old posture. "Ye've not been seen at table for half a week. Eryn's asked about ye, and Celine says ye've been absent from the temple for nearly two day. Even if ye're but an acolyte, I know ye've a stronger sense of duty than to abandon thy new-found post."

I tried to yawn, to force some of the tension from my weary frame, but only a weak chuff escaped my muzzle and I sank again onto one of the rugs, too sore to even lift my head and meet the wolf's stern gaze. {I've nae energy for chores.} Even the effort of speaking felt like a drain, holding the wolf's mind in my own to communicate. {Th' last few days have been a blur.}

Seeing me in this position must have touched some nerve within the wolf, for he quickly knelt next to me and touched his fingerpads to my nose. "Thou'rt cool and damp there, Akkala be praised, so likely no fever. Lurene's been gone now—" His voice choked itself off there, his fingers gripping my fur. "Ye've not... heard any news, have you?"

{Nae,} I sent back with a sigh. {Jack says she should return by th' week's end, but...} I rolled my shoulders, lying back down against the bed. {She'll arrive when she does, if she does.}

Wand'rer held his voice for all of ten seconds, counted off in the slow rasp of my breath. "Ye can't surely mean that."

I shrugged again. {She'll leave again in a tenday, nae doubt. Jack's been wanting his hooves on her talents since ere I fought her father, an' now he's every excuse he needs.}

The wolf rose and spun on his heels for the door. "I'll fetch out Celine. Stay here." His tail vanished through the door, his mind gone from my reach even ere I could tell him I had nowhere better to go.

The head acolyte clucked her tongue as she entered the room, stopping short at the doorway. "I can see why you asked me to come."

"Well, I doubt he'd rise to come to you, just now," the wolf quipped weakly, tail hanging low in worry. "Certes, I doubt he's lifted from that rug, this last day."

{Will ye both kindly speak t' me an' nae above as if I were some piece of statuary?} I groused tiredly, wishing that they'd speak neither above nor to, but away from, preferably far enough away that I could get back to my nap, however short it might be before fear or worse drove me awake again.

Celine knelt in front of me, her fingers brushing through my headfur as if I were a cub. "Tell me, Christopher. Have you had any visions, felt any presences? Has anything disturbed you in prayer?"

I rolled my shoulders once, my eyes still lidded. {A few dreams, mayhap. With Lurene's absense, ye'd suspect I'd be prone t' fits. I'm tired, Celine. I've nae slept alone in months, an' this is her first patrol, a month in th' Giantdowns t' search for signs arcane an' report t' Jack. Three days in, I slept fitfully. Three tendays hence, an' 'tis little wonder I get nae rest.}

The words sounded empty in my own ears, but I felt no desire to dredge up the numbing horror of my nightly visions. Each time I closed my eyes for more than a few heartbeats, I would drift into slumber and be taken again to that scene, watching the woman I loved slowly grow more encased in the shimmering darkness that spread from the inkwell, its icy grip tight spreading up my legs, rendering them as deadweight that once held me trapped in that infernal chair. Two night prior, her face and one arm were all that remained uncovered, and she flailed frantically for me to free her, but every spell, every attempt, every effort I could make to rescue her fell short. Every score of attempts might yield an inch of freedom, but the oppressive blackness quickly made up the lost ground and more, cutting her off from me, and me off from the rest of the world.

Celine's eyes narrowed as I spoke into her mind, and a questing probe brushed against my mind, but I deflected it tiredly, letting it skitter uselessly off of my will. I had no interest in putting up with her examinations; all I wanted was sleep, until either I felt rested enough to rise... or didn't.

That thought alone shocked me, but even the realization that death would be preferable to this waking dream quickly sunk into the mire of my apathy and exhaustion, a fact which anew rang the alarums in my mind, and I pushed weakly against my own ennui. {I wish I could just... awaken from this pall,} I sent feebly to her, slumping again to the floor, letting the stone suck away the warmth from my body.

Celine's fingers twined in my fur again briefly, and then she rose, pacing out of my room, the wolf quickly on her heels. He pulled the door closed behind him, and from beyond the wall I heard muffled voices. I knew if I tried I could make out their words, but the content seemed unimportant and I waited, wishing they would simply leave me in peace.

Shortly, I heard footsteps retreating down the corridor, followed close behind by the whisper of the bard's pawpads, and I smiled weakly before drifting again into unconsciousness, some small voice within wondering if this would be the last time I asked for sleep uninterrupted.

The tendrils of thick blackness wrapped themselves around my waist, creeping steadily upwards along the length of my body. The oily darkness sank into my apprentice's hair, climbing it rapidly like a candlewick until only her pleading face and one arm remained free. She waved at me, begging me wordlessly to free her, but all I could manage was a faint sigh. Why fight the inevitable? I could no more save her with all of my talents than I could stop the tides or call down the moon from the sky. What would it matter? She would be gone, as if she never were, and I would soon follow. Maybe then these dreams, once horrifying and now banal, would return whence they came, taking me with them.

{Christopher!} Lurene's voice cracked the silence, and then suddenly within the black morass I felt her presence, brilliantly alive but hidden, a shrouded star. {Don't give up! You might fight back! The target isn't me, it's you! Look beyond!}

Her words bored a hole through the glass cage of my resignation, and I probed within the frantically waving vision. {Whe--where are ye, lass?}

{Awake, beside you. You've been touched; I can see it, but I can't affect it. You look mauled, and there's a scent of... hyena, I think, or jackal.} She sounded confused. {It's--it's like your soul is bleeding... Christopher, what's happening to you?}

Bleeding of the soul. Mauled. The words shone in my retinas. A Stalker. Children of Lilith, spirits that feed on the emotions of their prey as her physical minions feast upon their bodies. Apathy, indifference, boredom all ensnare their targets as they feed.... Oh, gods, a Stalker.

The scene froze, Lurene's arm held in midswing, face wide in an aura of panic. Only the black, viscous fluid remained mobile, pouring itself into the figure of a gaunt wretch with pale skin, stretched painfully over distended ribs. Black claws tipped its fingers, and when it opened its eyes only vacant sockets stared at me, a thin line of oily sputum drooling from its lipless maw. Behind, the backdrop of the dream faded to the real world, the wolfess hovering over me, her eyes closed, probing around me with tendrils of her mind. One strayed near the fiend and it pounced, trying to snatch it ere she pulled away.

{Lass! Leave me t' deal with th' cursed thing!} Even as I spoke, I felt her presense subside from my mind, leaving me alone with the shrivelled figure, its vacant holes staring blankly at me. Now, I asked. How was I t' deal with a thing whose very nature was spiritual hunger and need?

Where there is a hole, ye fill it. I turned the full force of my attention on the beast and spilled forth a wave of energy, latching onto the thing with my will, trying to slake its hunger. Its own talons sank into my psyche in return, suckling like some vicious babe at its dying mother's teat. I felt I felt myself vanishing into that toothy maw, drawn down within its endless craving.

Mayhap Lurene screamed. Mayhap I only imagined it. Mayhap I heard its laughter instead. As I felt myself fading, disappearing into the Stalker's gut, I realized I could not do it alone. There was but one source remaining, and it was trust in that, or die.

{Velena, I'm but yer humblest servant, an' an unfaithful one at that. If it pleases ye, give me th' power t' fill this wretch's need, an' I can repay ye in th' one means I have, through devotion t' Lurene, all the days of her life.} The gasp, I knew, was Lurene's, but the words had been said, and if the goddess chose not to answer, at least they were good words by which to die.

A vermillion haze filled my field of vision, accompanied by the scream of the Stalker, and then my world was filled with black as I fell into a deep, restful sleep.

May 12, 707 CR

I felt sunlight, warm against my face, streaming in through the slats of the windows. Dawn. I tried to rise, stiff from the last of the cold still lurking in my bones. The wolfess beside me stirred as I moved, rubbing at her eyes in the amber glow. "Christopher?"

{Aye, Lurene.} I touched her mind, then her cheek in a light caress, turning to the window to draw back the cover, a burst of yellow light filling the room. {I hope I've nae give ye too much a fright.}

Suddenly her arms were around my neck, hugging herself tightly to me. I wrapped my own around her and held her tightly. {Aye,} I said again to her unasked question. {I've been a stodgy old fool t' nae say it ere now. I love ye, Lurene. It took th' fear of losing ye an' then myself t' admit just how much.} I smiled. {Ye may nae be ready, but I release ye from yer apprenticeship. Ye can study under any mage ye choose.}

She didn't move from her position, and then I felt her shuddering against me, soundless tears rolling into the fur of my neck. "I love you, Christopher. I said nothing when I left, afraid I wouldn't come back to you. I couldn't do that to you."

{Ye came back, lass,} I soothed, stroking her fur gently. {As did I. An' if ye can wait until Raven returns, we can make this formal.} I paused, the blood rising to my cheeks. {Lurene, would ye be my wife?}

Her crying started anew then, but this time they weren't tears of sorrow or fear. "Aye, my love."

We held each other for a time, then, until her tears ran themselves dry in my fur. My eyes glanced to the window, and reluctantly I rose from my spot, {I've one thing, though, t' which I must attend this morn. Please, join me?}

Wordlessly, she stood next to me, and then we left our quarters, making our way towards the Lightbringer chapel. The front doors were open, Celine standing at the entryway, an unfamiliar buck beside her in clerical garb. "Christopher!" The chief acolyte's eyes went wide. "Are you well?"

I smiled with my eyes as best as I could. {Aye. Thank ye, Celine. I wish I'd been in better sorts when ye came to' see me, but... ye understand.}

The senior acolyte nodded. "I do, yes." She indicated the stag next to her. "This is Brother Myers of Lorland. I sent word as soon as I saw your condition, but by the time he had arrived, you were sleeping soundly." Her gaze dropped, her voice lowered. "I must confess, I thought when next I saw you it would be in a coffin."

Myers nodded, his own eyes studying me intently. "Indeed. I'm amazed you survived. Spirits of that sort are hard to best, even for an experienced priest, but you look no worse for wear. I came as fast as I could, but I didn't expct to arrive in time." He seemed to stare through me for a moment, then blinked. "How did you defeat it?"

Lurene's fingers stroked my fur. "He gave it what it wanted," she said with an impish grin, leaving my fellow Lightbringers looking very confused.

{Aye,} I agreed before continuing, leaving no room for further questions. {I'll tell all when Raven returns; she'll want th' whole story, an' I'd rather tell it but once, but in the meantime we've much t' prepare, an'... I have one thing t' attend now. Th' dawn sacrifice is done, aye?}

Celine nodded. "I'm sorry you missed it, but we couldn't wait."

I shook my head. {Nae matter. I wanted t' approach the main dais, t' give thanks where they were due.}

"Please." The senior acolyte motioned me within.

I led my now-intended to the altar at the front of the room opposite the grand entrance, lowering myself to my knees before the altar. {Lord of Light,} I projected towards the twinned cross above the dais, {please bless your servant with the touch of your radiance.}

As if in anticlimax, it was no surprise that I then lifted my eyes to see the air between Lurene and I filled with motes of light, echoes of the brilliant white light of the heavens.