Liturgy of Blood

by Charles Matthias

chapter 1

Word has a tendency to travel rather quickly at the Keep. Most especially when the rumour happens to be about one of the leading figures in the cosmopolitan life, and even quicker when it revolves around the Duke or one of the other nobles in the Valley. But the news that the Patriarch was going to be arriving that afternoon spread so fast that it would cool the hottest of wildfires in embarrassed shame.

The Duke had known of this for over a month of course, and had quietly begun their preparations. It was just over a week since the Autumnal Equinox Festival, and so many Keepers were tired of excitement, and had already returned to the normal casual pace of life at a castle in peace. The harvest gripped the farmers in Lorland and many of the other farming communities, while by midday the timber and engineering crews would be out finishing up the last month of their duties before the snows would begin falling. Everywhere, the scent of men and animals at work filled the air.

And it only intensified that morning. At the request of his eminence, Father Hough and Duke Thomas kept the visit a secret for as long as possible. This was the first time in several generations that the head of the Ecclesia had travelled through the Midlands, and they did not wish to alert elements in that country that were not favourably disposed to the Followers that such a tempting target was passing through their demesnes. And so, only a select few knew of this visit, the Prime Minister, Father Lothar of the Ellcaran diocese, Steward Thalberg, and Raven hin'Elric who had the unenviable task of insuring the Lothanasi did not take advantage of this event for mischief against their Patildor brethren.

Of course, this was until that morning, when Father Lothar arrived with a small entourage from Ellcaran - the nearest city of the Midlands - and asked the gatekeepers if the Patriarch had arrived yet. When the Metamorians had asked what he meant in bewilderment, the new priest explained why he was there. This caused a few of the guards to begin spreading the news, at first to check with their superiors if such an envoy was to arrive. The guard captains in turn checked in with the watch-master, who took the matter in some haste to George the patrol master, Misha Brightleaf, head of the Long Scouts, and Steward Thalberg, master of the Duke's household. Meanwhile, those same guards were telling their families and friends of this amazing news, and they in turn took it to all they saw on their daily rounds, while frantically trying to clean their steps and homes, as well as groom their children and themselves.

Not all greeted the news with delight; many Lightbringers soon began to file into Raven's offices complaining about the head of their rival faith coming to Metamor. Both the priestess and Merai had their paws full reassuring their adherents that this would in no way interfere with their practices and festivals. A few Lothanasi simply refused to leave their homes, wishing nothing to do with the Follower celebration. Some simply continued about their business as if that day was no different than the day before. Others joined in the preparations, not to be left out of any festivity. And some, like the Keep's baker, cleaned up for entirely different reasons.

Brennar found himself wondering why Gregor was having him clean off the steps with a scrub, as well as the floor and counters of his bakery. The news of the Patriarch's arrival that afternoon had reached their ears only an hour after their shop had opened for the day. The capybara had instantly become another person, no longer was he the slow waddling rodent with the slight paunch. Now, he was a whirling tornado intent on gathering every piece of dust or grime and hurling into the heavens and out of his store.

Grimacing, the tabby scratched a bit of the dirt from between his fingers and stared at his master who was inspecting his efforts and shaking his head feverishly, repeatedly demanding he scrub again. "I want this floor to shine! I want the Patriarch to be able to shave by looking at my floor!"

The parquetry was already glistening, or so Brennar surmised. His eyes shone in consternation back at him every time he peered at the pattern. "Why do I have to keep cleaning?"

"The Patriarch will be here this afternoon, don't you remember?" Gregor asked in astonishment of his apprentice.

"I thought you didn't want to have anything to do with the Phergolds." Brennar had always considered himself a rather devout Lothanasi, but the capybara's fervour made him feel quite insufficient at times.

"Well, the Patriarch is coming here anyway. And when he does, I want him to find the most well-run bakery with the most delicious breads available on the entire continent. And I want him to know that it was run by a Lothanasi too!" Gregor declared, glancing back towards his ovens which were already full with that morning's dough. Glancing back at his scrubbing student, he then added. "I thought you were friends with several Patildor. Why the pejorative?"

Brennar thought of Matthias who always stopped to talk to him and ask him of his apprenticeship whenever he came by to buy bread. "Well, people are people, be they Patildor or Lothanasi. But priests are not cut from the same sheet. They are a different breed altogether."

The baker laughed heartily at that, and then bustled on back to his ovens, calling out behind him, "Just make sure that those floors are sparkling. We've a lot of work to do this morning."

The tabby let out a soft grouse as he ran the cloth across the wooden tiling, breathing an unpleasant curse down on all dignitaries as he did so.

Of course, they weren't the only ones madly preparing for an event that was only hours away. The kitchen staff was busy amassing the large feast that Thalberg had demanded of them. The alligator had quietly stored up a large quantity of ingredients, most rare and expensive just for this occasion. But this necessarily meant that to cook so much he needed every available hand and paw. So Lady Kimberly and Bernadette found themselves with their paws deep in saucers stirring the creams and gravies that would complement the several course dinner.

Stirring a particularly buttery broth, Kimberly watched the rest of the kitchen staff scurry about from oven to shelf, and from counter top to stove, making sure that each course was begun in its proper time. Bernadette shook her head as if it were nothing unusual. "When was the last time we had somebody this important come to the Keep?"

Kimberly's question caught the mouse off guard for a moment, and so the shorter of the two of them nearly dropped the saucer pan she was clutching firmly between her paws. "Oh, dear me, I don't remember. It was many years before the curses that much I recall. We use to have a lot of dignitaries pay us a visit. We were quite the hub of the much of cultured civilization in the old days. We were the titular head of the Midlands and the Lothanasi for many years, despite how far away both are. Now," her gaze fixed upon the bowl in solemn contemplation, "now we rarely even hear word from them."

She perked up quickly though. "It is good to have guests once more. I always like to watch the dishes come together like this. Besides, we may not get to sit at the table with them, but we get to sample the food first anyway!"

"Dipping your paws in the batter again?" Kimberly asked in amusement, her own whiskers twitching with delight at the thought. She had been to one nice dinner half a year ago. Charles had not ever requested to take her again, mainly because she said she did not want to. The truth was more subtle. How she longed to dine finely with the rest, but she was so afraid of what had happened last time. Loriod was dead, but the embarrassment he had given her still stung deep.

"Oh, admit it, you do it too," Bernadette favoured her with a wink, and then licked at the tip of one of her claws, the thick, creamy, brown sauce disappearing onto her tongue. "Oh, this is nearly ready. You should try a bit of it."

Kimberly sighed, and set down the bowl she was working over. Dipping one claw into the warm batter, she scooped just a bit of the viscous fluid out, and quickly sampled it. Her eyes rose in delight at the meaty flavour, still free from the exotic spices that would be added later. "That is quite delicious!" She quickly dipped her claw in again and giggled in pleasure at the taste. "Oh, I do agree, this is quite ready!"

"How is yours coming?" Bernadette pointed with eager claws at the milky béchamel sauce in the earthen bowl.

"Oh, let's check and see," the rat grinned, her eyes beaming with delight at their innocent mischief. Dipping that one claw into the creamy whiteness, she drew out the buttery substance and licked clean her furless digit. "Oh, I think it needs just a tad more milk, what do you think?"

Bernadette liberally applied a sample to one of her small fingers, and savoured the delightful aroma as well as flavour for a few moments before replying. "Yes, I agree, just a bit more milk."

Kimberly reached for the pitcher on the counter and poured just a small addition to the sauce, and continued stirring until the substance was just as blended as before. Poking her fingers back into the béchamel sauce, she closed her muzzle around them completely. "Oh my!" she exclaimed, letting her paws fall limply to her side in ecstasy. "This is simply perfect!"

Bernadette of course, had to agree after making yet her own sample. The two rodents giggled in delight then, satisfied with their work and their fun. And though they did not see him, Steward Thalberg continue to watch them, unable to help himself. The feeling of excitement at such a prestigious guest had warmed his heart as well. But if they continued to sample the delicacies with such abandon, he might have to remind them who they were for. Even so, he had quite a lot of things to worry about, the playful mischief of two small women was hardly significant next to them.

One of Thalberg's other concerns centred around the decorations that would need to be assembled for the Patriarch's arrival. The Keep staff were wildly organising the vast array of emblems, tapestries, cloths, vases, paintings, statuettes, and pottery that it had in storage around the Halls of the Keep. Of course, given the variable nature of the Keep, this was no easy task. Instead, they simply tried to make any passage they happened upon reflect the fine taste that had been gathering dust for the last seven years.

In charge of that operation was the Keep's archivist, Malqure. The ibis as always wore his grey-liveried suit, with his wings folded across his back. Unlike most bird morphs at the Keep, Malqure had some use of his hands, though not to the extent that he would have liked. So, instead of moving the various priceless heirlooms himself, he directed a score of others in moving them out of storage and dusting them off.

"Be careful with that! It's fifth century Kelewairian, completely irreplaceable!" he shouted to one child who was holding the saucer by the narrow handle, and dangling it upside down while rubbing it over with an already dirtied cloth. The victim of his latest exhortation cupped the saucer in both hands then, and continued, stifling a chuckle at the frantic ibis.

Malqure did not altogether appreciate his transformation, as his duties as Archivist often required him to sift through old mouldy boxes of goods in forgotten storerooms of the Keep. His hands were, while capable of some things, rather inefficient. Plus, his long narrow beak made things even worse. One time several years ago he had been inspecting the Elvquelin plates that Duke Sedgewick purchased over a generation ago, and had accidentally tapped them with the sharp point of his beak, cracking one of them completely. That affair caused him no end of grief, for he could not let himself forget it.

"Where do you want these cloths?" one of the other Keepers asked, clutching a box of flimsy gossamer silk.

"Take those to the dinning rooms, and spread them out across the main tables. I don't want a bit of wood visible after you are done!" Malqure gestured with one wingtip in the direction of the dinning halls, and the Keeper scampered off quickly. "Don't drop those! They are worth more than you make in a lifetime!" he shouted after the aide.

A sudden shout of alarm made him turn on his talons, showing him a sight that made him gasp in freakish terror. In the centre of a pile of dropped tapestries and rugs, each hand woven by people long since dead, was a Keeper trying to hold onto a few more of the priceless decorations. "Pick those up now! I want you to straighten each one out again and check for any damage."

While the man did as instructed, Malqure reflected that things were not going so badly. A few mistakes, but everyone was excited, and was having a hard time staying focussed, himself included. It just felt that every minute or so, despite everything else being handled properly, another calamity was befalling his precious treasures.

As if on queue, the boy let out a gasp, and his eyes met Malqure's in an instant. The delicate piece of pottery he was holding in his small hands had shattered beneath his forceful dusting. The ibis could feel his wings flutter in agitation, before letting out a horrific squawk of frustration. This was going to be a long day, he realized.

And he wasn't the only to think so. Tucked away in his private chambers, Duke Thomas Hassan V prepared for the excitement and the ordeal that involved when such austere guests should arrive. His hopes of a quiet entrance for the Patriarch had been dashed, and he was not sure how it had happened. The plans that Father Hough and he had arranged involved a very casual assembly, one designed to mask the head of the Ecclesia's true nature. The Patriarch in his letter had expressed a desire to see the Keep as it is on a regular day. That had been completely spoiled.

"Watch it," he murmured softly as a small snag was torn free from his mane. "My mane is very sensitive."

"As you've told me before," his son, turned daughter, turned Prime Minister replied as she continued to brush out the deep black hairs of his mane. He had asked her to help him bathe and attire himself presentably, as it gave them a chance to discuss matters at the same time. Besides, father and daughter had so little time to be just that anymore - the affairs of state and running a kingdom weighed heavily on both their shoulders.

"So, what is his title again?" Thomas asked after realizing his daughter had not said anything else.

"His Eminence," Malisa replied, working the metal-tined brush through the coarse horse-hair. "And don't forget to genuflect and kiss his hand when you greet him. In his own land, he will be used to ordering Kings."

"How could I forget?" the horse remarked, wincing as one last knot was drawn out of his mane. "How many men did Hough say His Eminence would be bringing with him?"

"Only a dozen footmen, eight knights, three of his personal aides, and four men he called simply Yeshuel. That is twenty-eight altogether, including His Eminence of course."

"Have we prepared the guest chambers for all of his men?"

"Kyia helped in that, though we've been stocking and decorating them all morning. By this point I am sure they are grander than your own." With one sweep of her arm she gestured to the finely furnished mahogany cabinet that sat beside his wash basin, a heated pool over two metres wide in the centre of a marble tiled floor that was overlain with thick woolen carpets. "Compared to him, you live spartanly."

Thomas grunted once as Malisa rose to fetch his surcoat. It was a bright blue brocade, with frills at every loose end of fabric. He imagined he appeared more like a peacock wearing it than he did a horse. "I consider myself rather frugal for a noble."

"That you are, father, that you are," his daughter nodded in reply, helping him slip into the ostentatious garb. It was quite warm beneath the several layers of cloth, but Autumn had already begun in earnest, and so he knew it would serve quite well. "Although, you probably should spend the money to have the tailor make you something else for these occasions."

Thomas ran one of his thick hands across the front, mussing the filigree slightly. "You are probably right about that." He looked up in time to a humourous smirk flee his daughter's face. "And what of the rest of the preparations for His Eminence?" He sincerely hoped that the Patriarch was the sort who abhorred titles, as he feared it would become old in his mouth soon enough.

While Malisa updated the Duke on the present status of the frantic scrambling to make the Keep presentable for the Patriarch's arrival, others were actually taking steps to ensure that he did arrive. Misha Brightleaf had heard the news early that morning, and had immediately sent a message to the Duke to confirm it. What he had received back was an apology signed by Thomas himself for not having informed him prior to the day of arrival. It had also given him explicit instructions on how to go about his business.

And so the Long House was mostly empty, except for a few of the Longs who were busy sweeping, dusting, and straightening out the place. Caroline was along the upper balcony working away at the stained-glass windows, running a small chisel through the collected grime. His grey eyes brightened at her appearance. Her physical injuries from a month back were fully healed, though he had no desire to send her on any more missions quite yet. Nor had she expressed a desire to return to that life.

The knot of memory tightened his stomach, like a bad piece of meat, covered in mould and degradation. His eyes alighted upon the grin across her muzzle, and suddenly the tightness fled. Things were improving. Slowly, but she was recovering, as were they all.

A gentle poke in his side snapped him from his reverie. "What?" He barked in surprise, turning on the rat who was giving him an obtuse glare.

"I thought you said you were going to help me unroll this carpet?" Charles pointed at the deep green cloth that they were unfurling. It had been sequestered in one of the storerooms in the Long House. So far, they had never seen a need for it, as it was terribly unwieldy. Yet Misha had wanted to decorate the Hall in the colours of the Long Scouts. And so he had asked Charles, who had been busy straightening the armoury, grumbling about the fact that he had not been sent to oversee the Patriarch's arrival, to come assist him.

"Oh, of course, sorry, I got distracted," Misha murmured quietly, pressing his shoulders against the thick bundle. The carpet was spliced in several sections, otherwise it would have been completely unmanageable.

"I noticed that," Matthias remarked, though he did not appear to consider the fox's inattentiveness to be in the least way a crime. In fact, his nonchalance about the whole affair helped set his friend at ease. It also made him consider the reason why they were going to such lengths this morning.

"You've travelled a lot, Charles. Have you ever seen the Patriarch before?"

The rat shook his head regretfully. With a final grunt, they rolled the rest of the carpet out, and then buckled the cords just under the end of the carpet beneath the masonry in the predesignated spots. The stones in each spot were purposefully loose, but when snug against the carpeting, it was impossible to tell. "No, I've never had the pleasure." His face brightened then. "I cannot believe he is coming here!"

"Me either!"

Charles sported a distant look for a moment, and then favoured the fox with a slightly displeased grimace, though that could only last a minute before the joy of such a momentous occasion overwhelmed him. "I only wish I could have been out there in the woods to make sure he arrives safely with the rest of the Longs."

Misha waggled one claw to the rat, a chuckle hiding in his throat. "Now, you aren't quite a Long yet, Charles. Almost, but not quite."

"Yes, master," Matthias gave him an exaggerated bow, and then turned back to the storage chamber to retrieve the next section of carpeting. Misha couldn't help but notice how clean the rat's tail was this morning.

Of course, this was unlike many of the Longs, who were travelling through the woods by the road to Metamor, scouting to ensure that the area was free from malcontents. They each had an area that they would patrol, until they saw the Patriarch's caravan. At that point, they were to shadow its movements, while the next nearest Long went to alert the others, and so word could be passed along to the Keep well ahead of time.

Finbar found himself at the very end of this chain, watching the road from the edge of the woods, well concealed within the brambles and bright colours of the early Autumn leaves. Yellows and oranges, and all hundred shades between mixed to form a rusty mosaic, completely hiding his dun coloured body. His own thoughts were a jumble of elation and concern. He'd been tucked away behind those elms for nearly five hours, and so far not a creature had stirred along the road.

The road towards the South was lined by hills and trees for the first ten miles from Metamor. After that, the forests thinned out to sparse copse here and there along the river banks that crisscrossed the road. The hills remained though, and so naturally any thoroughfare would make many turns. Oftentimes, those bends made wonderful ambuscades, but with the authority of Duke Thomas and that of his predecessors, that problem had mostly been eliminated. There were a few stragglers who used the cover to trap unsuspecting Keepers, but it was rare.

And so Finbar stared at the bend half a mile away, wishing that something would come around it! The sun was perched high in the sky, signalling the clarion call of midday. The Patriarch was scheduled to arrive early in the afternoon, but if he did not appear soon along the road, it could be more towards evening. With the Autumnal Equinox past, the days were shorter than the nights, though as of yet he could not tell.

Finbar had just pulled out a bit of bread and meat from his knapsack when he heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Stirring in his perch, he scanned the hillside, and within moments, the sight of men on horseback was clear. He sighed as he watched the procession continue around the bend. Six knights in gleaming armour heralded the convoy, though they displayed no discernible banner. They were followed by a small contingent of troops, some carrying spears, others swords. They were followed by a single large carriage, whose only accoutrement was the silver and platinum gilding along each crease. Behind them was another set of troops, and two more knights. There was a man dressed in a tunic marked by a white crucifix behind the team of horses pulling the carriage.

"Excuse me," a voice called from behind him in a strange accent. Finbar spun on his heels, his reflexes quick, and his musteline body supple. He had a javelin in his paw before he'd even finished turning about. The figure that had come up behind him was a man dressed in the same fashion as the one behind the carriage. His was standing with his feet shoulder width apart, and had his thumbs hooked through his belt at either hip. A lock of grey hair spilled across in front of his chiselled face, more reminiscent of the statues that Finbar had seen about the halls of Metamor than one given to any mortal man. He did not appear to be armed.

"Who are you?" Finbar asked, his body tense with the surprise.

"My name is Kashin, and I take it that you are from Metamor?" His lisp was one that Finbar had never heard before. Still, the bright white crucifix in the centre of his otherwise lime tunic did set the ferret's mind at ease. Clearly, this individual was with the Patriarch. Yet how had he snuck up like that?

"Yes, do you accompany the Patriarch?" Finbar asked, still clutching the javelin between his claws.

Kashin nodded once, and then tossed his head back, the lock of hair falling back over his ear with practised ease. "His Eminence requests that you join him for the remainder of the trip to Metamor. He has never seen any quite like you, and is very interested in asking you of your home before he sees it himself."

Finbar lowered the javelin, and opened wide his mouth in surprise. "Me?" was all that he managed to say before the weapon finally fell from his nervous grasp. Kashin favoured him with a sudden knowing grin, crossed the space between them as silently as Misha ever had, and snatched the javelin from the air before it had struck the soft earth.

"Yes, you. If you would just come with me." Finbar stumbled after the man, blinking as he stared at the javelin in the man's hand. As if he knew exactly what the ferret were thinking, the man bearing the crucifix upon his tunic turned, and handed it to him. "I believe you dropped this."

"Thank you," Finbar managed to say, clumsily following after this ghost of a man. The Patriarch wanted to talk to him and ask him what Metamor was like? Where could he even begin? The Long Scout spent the rest of his journey to the carriage pondering that very question, and finding few answers.

Neither of them noticed the dark cloaked figure hiding just a few ells away. Nor had Lisa Ringe, who had been watching from just around the next bend. She was able to send the message up the line of Long Scouts to the Keep itself, where the news was received with even more panicked frenzy. Michael, and the rest of the timbermen, had been busy all morning repairing a few broken down houses, as well as assisting with the general maintenance. It had been heavy work, but they used much of the same materials that had just been taken down after the Autumnal Equinox Festival.

Now however, they were busying themselves whitewashing many homes that had become yellowed with dirt and grime over the summer. Though it was on the cusp of October, he was still terribly hot from exertion. Looking to either side of him along the cracking wall, he saw that Lindsey and Lance were equally ill at ease after a day's labour. Lindsey had removed the plaid flannel and slung it over one shoulder, leaving only his undershirt, which barely concealed the matting of thick red hair over his chest. Lance had simply never bothered with the shirt at all, relying on his coat of fur. But at this point, even that was too much for the moose who began to facetiously remark that he was going to have it all shaved off.

"So, how far away did they say the Patriarch was?" Michael asked, for what must have been the fifth time already.

"Four miles I think," Lance replied, scratching at his antlers. The velvet was finally beginning to come off, and it put the moose in bizarre moods at times.

"Probably only three at this point," Lindsey pointed out as he dabbed a bit of the whitewash over a small fissure in the wall's surface. Behind him, the sound of other Keepers sweeping out the streets and cleaning through the gutters along either side overshadowed any but their own words.

"How many more houses do we have to paint? Are we going to do this for every house in Metamor?" Michael asked with some trepidation. His arms were beginning to get sore. Being so short, he often had to reach far over his head to cover all the discolourations.

"Well, the Chief doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down yet, so we'll just have to see." Lindsey remarked, glancing one house down the road to the bull morph who was also helping with the work, his black hooves spattered with the white paint.

"Well, if we want to get cleaned up before he arrives, we better not do too many more," Lance suggested hopefully. "I mean, he isn't going to let us greet the most powerful Patildor in the world looking like a bunch of slobs, is he?"

Lindsey grunted. "I sincerely doubt it. After all, Tathom's a mess too."

Michael chuckled at that, and then with one stroke of his paw, finished his section of the wall. "Well, I'm done here. Shall we move onto the next one?"

The other two timbermen nodded reluctantly. "Might as well get it all done with. Somebody should tell him that the next time he comes, to warn us well in advance."

"I'll drink to that!" Lance crowed in delight, and then shrugged his shoulders as he carried the pail with him. "Once I have something to drink that is." They shared a laugh at that, and then moved on to the next wall in the endless series of them at Metamor.

For the Keepers, appearance was important, and so like the timbermen, each in their own way tried to improve their homes, and clean up the streets about them. None of them had any idea if the Patriarch would pass down them and see their handiwork, but they would not take the chance that he would not. Yet, for some, the sake of appearance was taken to a strange degree. Decked in full ambassadorial garb, Ambassador Yonson was hatching quite an odd one at that.

Weyden wondered just what he'd been thinking when he'd asked Larssen that question. Being Captain of the ambassadors guard, a collection of four men, and two former men, he was dressed with as much as his hawk body could wear. Larssen however, if he took the ambassador up on his suggestion, would need to wear very little.

"You want me to do what?" Larssen asked, bending over slightly. Being a giraffe did have its drawbacks. For one, very few of the ceilings within the Keep were large enough to accommodate his standing height.

"I want to ride you down the main concourse of the town when we greet the Patriarch. Not in your full form, that would be too ostentatious. Just large enough to give me a bit of prominence in the display. Duke Thomas will not be greeting him on foot you know. His entourage will come by horse drawn carriage or a palanquin. At this point he has no choice but to do something bold like that. Well, if he is going to be bold, I want to be bold as well." Yonson gesticulated with his paws as he spoke, his long tail curling and uncurling in a frenzy of excitement behind him.

Larssen appeared dumbfounded, and being the loyal guard that he was, sighed and lowered weapons to the ground. "I suppose it would be for the best. But won't you need some ceremonial barding for me? I'd rather not go naked aside for a saddle into the crowds. And how will you find a saddle to fit my back?"

Yonson waved his paws dismissively, turning his golden eyes on Maud. "Find the ambassadorial banners; they are somewhere in my cache. I think we can drape them over his sides if we tie the ends together."

Maud nodded, her frame tight fitting in her uniform, just as she appeared to like it. Weyden had never asked her why she so liked being a woman; perhaps he ought to sometime.

"Weyden," the lemur called, turning to him. "Take Larssen down to the armoury and see if you cannot find him a saddle that will fit over his back when he's about the size of a large horse. Nothing too big now. The banner's are only a metre high, so nothing shorter than that either."

"Of course," Weyden nodded, turning to his fellow guard, shrugging his wings helplessly. Larssen shook his head, the bright yellow and black spots appearing a bit duller all of a sudden.

"And Larssen," Yonson added, drawing both their gazes. "I'll be giving you a substantial reward for this. I do greatly appreciate your sacrifice." That cheered the giraffe up immensely. He even bragged about it all the way down to the armoury, at which point he had to shift to a more animal shape, and thus lost his voice. Weyden did not mind that in the least.

Of course, not everyone wanted to be at the Gates when the Pontiff arrived. Most of the Lothanasi intended to be elsewhere, usually sequestered in their homes, or busy with their craft. Some, like Murikeer Khannas, went into hiding when they heard the news. The skunk, having been at the Keep barely a month now, was quite sensitive to the very notion of such a man's appearance at Metamor. Not just because he was of a different faith, but also because he was still accustoming himself to large crowds again. The Autumnal Festival had given him quite a stir, he'd spent it at Glen Avery with Llyn to avoid the crush of people. This promised to be even more of a circus.

And so he turned to the one place he knew would afford him sanctuary from the pressing agglomerations of flesh. Tucked between two large stacks of books and tomes of varying colours and sizes, he whittled away the hours reading through the histories of Metamor Valley as well as learned essays on magical practices of the northern kingdoms. He'd set one of his witchlights on a small pedestal before him, and aside from the flame in the sconce a few ells behind him, it was his only illumination.

The scent of the pages, and of a bit of dust was strong enough to overshadow his own scent, though just barely. Reaching out with one black paw, he turned the well-kept page, his blunt claws gripping it gently. It had been so long since he had held a book so old, that the first time he'd sat down with a grizzled tome, he'd accidentally tore several of the pages with his claws before he'd found the knack of it. The corners of his muzzle turned up in a musteline grin at the memory of that. So much of his first days here in the Keep were worthy to be told as stories to delight children and friends years from now.

He'd almost managed to forget the coming celebration when a familiar scent began to tickle his nose and make his whiskers twitch in expectation. Glancing past the old words, he could see a supple form weaving in and out of the stacks of books in this far alcove of the Keep library. "There you are," the voice said in irritation. "I've been trying to find you all morning," Llyn added as if somehow he had committed a terrible offense.

"I'm just here, catching up on some reading," Muri remarked softly, a slight churr in his voice. Despite his reasons, he could not find it in himself to blame her for her worry. In fact, he felt a bit ashamed at having given her no warning of his obfuscation.

"Why now? Don't you know that the Patriarch is coming to the Keep?" Llyn stared at him in bemusement, but there was a distant quality to her voice. Muri could tell that the mink was barely containing her excitement so that she might lecture him.

The skunk nodded, not saying anything for a moment as he closed the book with a whump. Particles of dust flew into his face, nearly bringing him to sneeze. "You know how I feel about humans, and there's going to be an unholy mass of Keepers there to meet him. I'd rather not be a part of that." He did not mention that the idea of witnessing the arrival of the most powerful member of the Follower order held no great awe for him. Indeed, it left a cold lump of unease like a stone in his stomach. Llyn and Charles had convinced him that the entire Patildor faith were not inquisitioners, but he still had no wish to be a part of such a monumentous occasion for that faith.

Llyn cast her eyes down in disappointment. "I know. The very least you could have done was tell me that you were hiding back here. Do you know how long I've been looking for you?" He winced and finally asked. "Since just after sunrise when I heard the news. You are awfully good at hiding, Muri. Especially for a skunk."

"You still found me," he winked playfully at her, and she swatted his muzzle with her paw. Gently though.

"I'm going to watch the Patriarch arrive, so I'll be in the town square in case you need me."

"And I'll be here," Murikeer murmured softly, rubbing his muzzle with one paw in mock injury. "Come find me when he leaves!"

She did not say anything else, for which the skunk was glad. Turning to his books, he pulled out the next volume, and began to lose himself in the words of one long since dead. Idly he wondered just how much longer it would be before the Patriarch did arrive. Finally, he shrugged slightly. Whenever the Pontiff did show, it would be of little difference to him. They would never invade his sanctuary of old tomes. It was probably the one place in the Keep not frenetic with activity.

But of course, all of that activity came to a head only a short while later when Finbar, with a deliriously happy expression came bounding through the gates announcing the Patriarch's imminent arrival. Sure enough, only a few minutes later, the caravan of knights, troops, and the single carriage turned around the last bend in the road and began its march up the ridge towards the main gates of the castle walls. Behind those walls, arranged in the killing fields just outside the city were the two hundred and more Followers living at the Keep, as well as many of the other sects who had come to see this respected man's arrival. Nobles who had been alerted were waiting as well, decorated in their most expensive garb and attended by as many of their servants they could display. As promised, Yonson sat in the saddle behind the long yellow and black neck of Larssen with his long striped tail twitching in excitement.

However, as customary, Duke Thomas had provided the most garish of welcoming parties. A large eight-seated palanquin was at the ready in the road behind his personal carriage. The long staves were tipped with golden ferrules, and there were four altogether supporting the carriage. A dozen of the larger keepers stood at the ready to carry the litter back to the Keep in grand style. Normally, Thomas would not have ever dreamed of asking any of his fellow Keepers to carry him on their shoulders, but neither did he have such esteemed guests as the leader of one of the largest faiths in the known world.

Charles found himself wedged in between Misha and Llyn as they stood to one side of the main road, their hearts beating quickly in their chest. Matthias hoped for any glimpse of His Eminence as the moments trickled by. Llyn, whom Charles had only met a short while ago, was also just as excited. Misha did not appear to be so, though the expectation was clearly visible in his grey eyes. Caroline was standing nestled against the fox, her eyes peering down the road in wonder. This was the closest she had come to leaving Metamor in over a month.

A line of trumpeters played a dramatic fanfare then as the first of the Patriarch's party crossed the threshold and beneath the portcullis inside the castle walls. The cornets were all brightly polished, gleaming in the afternoon sun like a row of finely cut diamonds set in a pavé. Charles tried to stare past the knights, who were carrying green banners, the only mark upon them that of a white crucifix, but was unable to see anything quite yet. He shifted on his paws, cursing his height as several taller Keepers leaned in the way.

The six knights at the front of the caravan each stopped just metres before Thomas's own Knights of the Red Stallion, who bore their colours proudly, with nary a mark to blemish their armour or barding. Then, in a barely visible motion, the Patriarch's knights directed their steeds to the sides. The horses obeyed, walking sideways a few steps in precise unison. The dozen soldiers following after moved betwixt the two lines of knights, they laid down their spears, and drew their swords from their scabbards at the same time. Brightly gleaming steel shined in the afternoon air with yet another peroration from the trumpets as the Patriarch's carriage crossed beneath the portcullis and into the killing fields.

Charles took a gasp of breath as the soldiers filtered with practised precision between the green liveried knights and the carriage drew forth into the space left by their absence. It was hardly an imposing structure, seating at least six to eight people comfortably inside, while two men wearing the same green, though a slightly deeper hue, with the white crucifix upon their chests sat behind the equestrian train. In the faces of those two men, Charles could have stared for ages, as they seemed timeless, almost reflections of Abba Himself.

Duke Thomas moved to the forefront of the Red Stallion; Malisa, Thalberg, and Father Hough right behind him in their own ceremonial garb. The Princess and now Prime Minister as well was decorated with an airy blue dress even more frilly that the great azure cavalcade that her father wore. Yet with that, she bore the mantle that Posti had once carried upon his broad shoulders. The varicoloured epaulet dangled to the middle of her upper arms. Thalberg meanwhile wore his traditional crimson robe pulled tightly about his scaly chest. Underneath the robe he wore several other vests, each of a deeper hue of scarlet, until the last next to his dark green hide, which was a rich maroon tucked against his neck. Hough wore only his ornate dalmatic over the priestly white alb that was his custom. Charles doubted that the boy had anything finer than that.

Matthias held his breath as he turned then to watch the carriage. The two men of oddly powerful presence disembarked the carriage and stood at either side of the vehicle. Two other similarly clad gentleman who possessed similar countenances came out from the doors on either side of the carriage, and began to unfold the roof, which levered away easily. The first two men then tilted forward the front of the carriage, revealing the Patriarch standing there inside, arms held out wide, and with a face older than he could believe, though it wore a smile broader than a child's.

Almost immediately, the entire collection of Keepers that were afoot knelt to the ground, including Duke Thomas. About him on all sides, the rustling of fur and the quiet creak of leather could be heard, and though he did not see it as he could not take his eyes away from the Patriarch, his knee rested in the earth through his hose. The Knights dismounted and did likewise. Charles dug his claws into the earth, wishing that he had taken the time to have ornate boots made for just such an occasion. The trumpets let loose one more fanfare, and then they succumbed to silence. It was a very exciting moment with the cheers of each of the Followers clutched firmly in their breasts.

Without saying a word, only smiling that ancient smile, one that had seen more than any man should, yet still found peace in himself, the Pontiff climbed down the steps. He was aided by two of the men who bore no weapons, yet carried a presence unlike any Charles had heretofore felt deep in his breast. His Sondeck yearned to meet with them, like a lodestone signalling North. Yet his eyes followed the subtler presence of The Patriarch as the ancient man crossed the ground to stand before the kneeling Duke. His robes were white, speckled with golden flecks across the dalmatic draped over his shoulders. He wore no headpiece, and the circular bald spot amidst the white of his hair shone brightly in the afternoon sun. There was so much shining on that field that the Keepers had to blink to take it all in.

Matthias watched the leader of his faith stand before the Duke, a twinge of humour crossing his cheek as he regarded the assembled Keepers and all that had been prepared for him. The two men at his side appeared slightly uncomfortable for a moment, and then the Patriarch extended his hand towards the genuflecting lord of this land like a child who had forgotten an undesirable chore. Taking it in his beast's hands, Thomas brought the wrinkled flesh to his supple equine lips and touched the two together for a moment that threatened to stretch into infinity.

And then Duke Thomas released the hand, his posture perfect, not even the slightest quaver as he let his hoof-like hands fall before him. And then, the Patriarch spoke a few soft words, yet Charles heard them in his ears as if the man had whispered them there. "Rise, my children, and ye children of Metamor." It was not a beautiful voice, there was a gravel to it that made it hard to understand, even though spoken in an accent that was very familiar to the rat. Yet, nonetheless, it was a commanding one, despite the gentleness of it.

Thomas was the first to stand, his hooves circled by bright golden anklets with a central figurine at the forefront. Matthias guessed it to be the stallion head of the ducal crest. The rest of the Keepers rose in a wave about him, though the Patriarch's own men were the last to rise, each appearing as reverent as if they had been the ones to kiss the Pontiff's hand.

"Welcome, your Eminence," Thomas said in a voice loud enough to be heard by all. "Welcome to Metamor Keep!"

The Patriarch smiled again. "I am honoured to visit your amazing kingdom, my good Duke."

"I've prepared a palanquin to take us to the palace. If you'll be so kind as to come this way, your Eminence." Thomas gestured to the litter where the twelve large Keepers waited eagerly to bear their burden.

The Patriarch turned his head from side to side and favoured the horse lord with another simple grin. "If it would not be too much to ask of you, my good Duke, I would like to mingle with my people before we adjourn to your splendid palace."

Thomas appeared to stutter for a moment, but a broad smile filled his face suddenly, one that Charles knew was totally genuine. It was as if the Pontiff had surpassed some unspoken test. "Of course, your Eminence. You honour us with your visit."

The Patriarch smiled yet again, even as the three other figures from the carriage disembarked and joined their vicar. "You honour us with your hospitality." He then turned from the horse king, his face never once showing any signs of concern at the bestial nature of his host, and walked towards one side of the crowds. Charles watched with a bit of dismay as he turned to the other side of the road, being quickly surrounded by the Keepers there, each of them eager to simply touch the man or his robes. The two green liveried men stayed near him at all times.

Waiting, his whole body eager, the rat watched the other members of the Pontiff's caravan. One of the unarmed green liveried men, his bodyguards most likely, walked up to the Duke and exchanged a few words, before turning to Thalberg and engaging in animated discussion. The last of the four, this one with a strange grey lock of hair that was perched precariously on his brow, threatening to topple over and obscure his eyes at any moment, was standing in the middle of the road, simply watching them. Matthias gazed back for a moment, and then realized that those ivory orbs were fixed upon him, whereupon the rat broke the rapport, slightly startled.

While Duke Thomas and Malisa talked with the three other priests who had accompanied the Patriarch, and his eminence was wading through the sea of jubilant Keepers on the other side of the road, Charles took the time to see who had made an appearance. Yonson was standing beside the giraffe, chatting with the head of his own guard, a hawk who bore no discernable expression. With a bit of surprise, he realized that there were no other important nobles present. Not even his good friend Prince Phil had put in an appearance, though Charles immediately chalked that up to the rabbit being away at Lorland as he was often wont to do.

And then, Misha was poking him in the side, just as the rat had done to the fox earlier that morning. Snapping his head back up, Charles saw the Patriarch flowing across the road towards them. Llyn was barely able to stand still as the white robed man approached, though Misha possessed a calm demeanor in the face of the head of the Ecclesia. Charles knew that, like Oren, Misha belonged to a different sect of the Followers. Yet unlike Oren, the fox had the temerity to attend Service that Father Hough gave.

Up closer, Charles was finally able to make out fine details of the Pontiff's countenance. His vision as a rat suffered at distances, a fact that frustrated him at times. Now, he could tell that his eyes were a pale blue, bordering on a light grey. Those eyes were framed by a series of wrinkles that reminded Matthias of some of the older Sondeckis who had cared for him in his first days at Sondeshara. As he passed into their group, Charles could see a positive glow to the man's cheeks at every Keeper he spoke to. And he did not pass a single one of them by without saying a few words and clasping hands. Nor did he flinch when that hand was a paw coated in fur, scales, or the awkwardness of a feathery wing.

Finally, he found himself in reach of Abba's vicar, who he was sure was the holiest man alive. His tail curled about his hind paws, tightening around one ankle from his nervous trepidation. Llyn was even worse, stammering out half-formed phrases of respect and delight as the Patriarch smiled affectionately, much like a grandfather might do for a beloved grandchild. Even the two bodyguards flanking him at all times appeared to gaze at each of them like they were their children.

And then Matthias found himself confronted by this ancient man, his shaking paw extended. "I am so honoured, your Eminence," he managed to stutter. "Truly, Abba shines upon you and all those with you."

"Abba shines upon you as well, my child," the man smiled again, curiously. "Tell me, what is your name."

"I am Charles Matthias, your Eminence."

The Patriarch then took his paw, gripping it in a gentle yet firm embrace. "I am honoured to meet you as well, Charles Matthias. Your prowess with pen is not unheard of in my land." And then he had passed on to greet Misha and the rest. Matthias still held out his paw though, afraid to bring it back towards himself, for fear the power that he had just felt would vanish. His whole spirit was filled with a sudden calm, as if he had been temporarily transported into Heaven and the vision was slowly being drained away by the material finiteness of his present existence. The fact that the Patriarch had just complimented him on his writing did not even register with him then.

And then that man with the grey lock of hair was before him, gazing curiously down the two feet necessary to lock eyes with the rat. "Excuse me," he said in the familiar southern accent that Charles himself once bore. "May I inquire after your name?"

"I'm Charles Matthias, and you?" The rat asked, finding his own lisp returning after all these years.

"My name is Kashin. I am one of Patriarch Akabaieth's Yeshuel." the man added, though the name was only vaguely familiar to the rat.

"You protect his Eminence?"

He nodded then, a secret smile gracing his lips. "I am a bit curious though as to why one of your kind would be this far North."

"What?" Charles asked, quite surprised. For the man had not spoken in the tongue of the Midlands, but of Matthias's homeland.

Kashin glanced back to his charge, who was nearly at the end of the line of Keepers assembled, and then once more to the rat. "I shall see you again, sir Matthias." Charles watched the tall figure's back for a moment, before he felt Misha's tug on his sleeve.

"Who was that?" the fox asked him lightly, rather distant expression on his friend's face.

Matthias shook his head. "I'm not sure."

However, before either could pursue those thoughts further, The Patriarch had once more returned to the centre of the road, flanked on all sides by the four Yeshuel, and escorted by the three other priests. Father Hough, standing just behind Duke Thomas, appeared eager to join that company, but refrained from leaving his position. Approaching Thomas once more, the Patriarch nodded in consent to the unspoken question. Quietly, the group of them walked towards the palanquin, where the once more excited Keepers waited to hoist them on their shoulders and bear them to the Keep. However, Akabaieth turned one last time, and spoke in his gravelly voice. "Eli's blessing be upon all of you." He made the symbol of the cross, and then joined the Duke once more.

And at that, the trumpeters did finally let forth another chorus of magisterial splendour to match the cheers raised by the congregation of Followers on the field.

chapter 2

Patriarch Akabaieth slowly lowered himself into the damask cushions that adorned each of the two benches inside the palanquin. The palanquin was half-open on both sides, so that onlookers would be able to see their heads as they were carried about on the shoulders of the twelve Keepers. The benches lined the front and back of the gilded carriage, and the middle seat was supported by two upraised arm rests decorated with ivory castings of fin-de-siècle representations of animals. Laying his arms out across each, the old man smiled across the short space in the centre of the carriage to Duke Thomas who sat in the opposite chair.

To either side of the horse lord sat Thalberg, who's wide girth prevented any others from joining him to the Duke's left, and his adopted daughter Malisa and Father Hough to his right. The boy priest appeared to be only barely able to contain his excitement, and Akabaieth wondered if that was just the priest's second childhood showing through. The Patriarch could well imagine that many other Followers who had never been to the Keep would have thought this youthful servant of Abba a simple altar boy.

To his own sides sat two of the Yeshuel, and his assistant Vinsah. The middle-aged cleric had begged and cajoled him not to come on this foolhardy journey, but had supported him in every way once Akabaieth informed him the decision to go had been made. The Yeshuel of course were not likely to question his decisions unless they imperiled his life. They had strenuously objected to this course of action, as it brought them dangerously close to the border of Sathmore, and the Patriarch was horrifically unpopular in that Lothanasi dominated kingdom. Yet they too in the end had been by his side to defend his plans before the other priests.

And now before him was a menagerie of all that the Keep had wrought upon those that had lived here: two beasts that walked and talked like men, a woman who had been a man, and a boy who had also been a man. He could still feel the spot where the equine lips had graced the back of his hand. It had been a most unusual experience, as rarely did he feel lips quite so big or hairy. Still, never before in his life had he seen such amazing things as this. Truly, even Abba's hands were at work here among these people.

With a sudden lurch, the palanquin was raised by the twelve Keepers, and they made a slowly undulating trek to the castle at the other end of the Keep. It was quite a smooth ride, as with that many hands, or paws, most of the discrepancies were compensated for by the rest.

"I feel I should apologize, your Eminence," Duke Thomas began in his northern accent. "The news of your arrival broke this morning, and there was little I could do to stop the Keepers from preparing for it. So I instead decided to make it the affair they would expect. I do hope that you can understand, your Eminence."

Akabaieth nodded and smiled, the wrinkles on his face bunching together like familiar friends. "I have never been able to visit a town unnoticed without some priest or acolyte becoming overwhelmed with excitement and revealing my itinerary to another friend or brother. It is of little consequence, as I am used to it."

"Of course, your Eminence," Thomas nodded, while the remainder of his contingent sat quietly listening.

"Please, my name is Akabaieth. I only use the title for public gatherings. In private, you may call me Father Akabaieth, or simply Akabaieth," the Patriarch grimaced at the unwanted title, though somehow his face managed to convey a sense of joyful fatalism. "Do you tire of hearing `your Grace' or `my Lord' in all your day to day affairs?"

Thomas waggled his ears, and nodded his large equine head. "Yes, I do tire of those and any other honorific people have sought to bestow upon me. I am glad to see we are of like mind on the subject."

"Many prominent people do tire of those fussy titles. Some do not though. They are the sort who love their position more than their responsibility." He heard Vinsah give a sudden gasp at the casual dismissal he had levelled, and frowned slightly. "I have forgotten my duty, and I am ashamed of it. Let me introduce you to my confidants."

"No need to apologize, things were rather hectic out there." Thomas intervened, to which Hough nodded exaggeratedly.

Akabaieth did not object to the fig leaf that Thomas offered, but simply went on. "My fellow priest is Bishop Vinsah, he oversees most of the day to day affairs of the Ecclesia, as well as tending to my personal needs and itinerary. I could not do my job without him."

"It is not so hard, Father," Vinsah added, his cheeks a bit embarrassed at the praise given him. "I enjoy what I do for you and mother Ecclesia."

Thomas could not help but smile at Vinsah, who appeared to be even older than anyone else in the carriage except Akabaieth or Thalberg. The Patriarch shared that same grin, and continued on with the two green-liveried men. "These are Kashin and Iosef. They are my Yeshuel, my protection against those who do not like the Ecclesia or Followers. They are also my friends, for a man in my position has very few," the aged man finished, his voice edged with a slight tinge of remorse.

At that, no one spoke for several seconds. Duke Thomas was forced to reevaluate what he knew of this man with that one statement. Gone were any image of a man who believed himself to be anointed by the Heavens to do as he pleased. Instead, he found what appeared to be a kindred soul in many respects. Also, he could see a torrential current swimming beneath that calm exterior.

"So, why are you here at Metamor?" Thomas finally asked. "Barely one fifth of the Keep's population is Patildor. Most of the rest are Lothanasi, your ancestral enemies. In fact, Metamor Keep is the traditional head of the Lightbringer faith, clearly the antithesis to your own Yesulam." He could not help but add an edge to his voice, but he wondered if such would simply be interpreted as an aspect of what must be to them a horrific accent. At times, it even took the Duke a few seconds to understand what his guests were saying.

"For those very reasons in fact, that, my good Duke, is why I am here." Akabaieth gazed out into the rows of houses and roofs along the street to either side, peering at the freshly cleaned panelling and mortar. "There is an old Pyralian saying that goes something like this, `Stab your enemy's flesh and he will retaliate. Stab your enemy's hand and he will retaliate later. But stab your enemy's heart and he shall never retaliate.' I want to do the same thing, but instead of using a dagger, I will use my words."

Thomas bristled slightly, as did Malisa and Thalberg. Father Hough appeared to be distinctly uncomfortable just then, looking first to the Duke and then over to the Patriarch, as if weighing his options. Kashin and Iosef of course sat still, their eyes ever watching that of the figures across from them. Vinsah was busy gazing out the carriage door, as if some distant storefront were more interesting than what was being said here.

"And just what do you mean by that, your Eminence?" Thomas added the title a trifle more gratingly than he ought. Yet the effrontery had been too much.

"Please, do not take my words the wrong way. I do not mean to preach or proselytise to Metamor Keep. I have seen enough of that in my time, and done enough it myself to know that when there is a hot heart, hot words only make the heart hotter. Your Lothanasi and my Followers are both hot in the heart. My words will cool their hearts enough that they may begin to love each other as brothers."

Thomas breathed deeply for a moment, already, his countenance returning to normal. Hough appeared to be quite relieved. "Then you have come to the wrong place, for here at Metamor, we celebrate both faiths, and there is already quite a bit of brotherhood between them."

Akabaieth shook his head then, a distant look glinting his eye like a sapphire. "I do not mean for Metamor. I mean for this message to be spread about every corner of the northern continent. I mean to spread my message of love between our people to the courts of Sathmore just as well as the courts of Pyralis. My own people will be reluctant, but I know that in the end, they will find they've no choice but to do as I instruct.

"I am weary of war, of the bitter hatred, and of the constant struggle on both sides. I for too many years partook of that awful cup, drinking down the blood of Lothanasi, convinced that I was doing the will of Abba. I was wrong. I was horrifically wrong, and only by the will of my Father can I be cleansed of that taint. That is why I am here. I am here to right the wrongs my people have committed against the Lightbringers, and hopefully to help us all start on that road to peace."

Thomas blinked, and took another breath, unsure of what to say in return. Finally, he said all that would come from his lips. "I hope you can succeed. I apologize for thinking ill of your motives."

And at that, the Patriarch chuckled merrily, his gravelly voice giving way to a brusque laugh that was immediately amicable. "Did you really think I came here to convert Metamor to the Patildor? I suppose in a way, I have come to convert hearts, but mostly those in other lands." His face became distant, beatific as he peered out past the gambled rooftops to the Keep wall, and past to the mountains in the distance. "I have always wanted to see the Jewel of the North, and I knew that this would be the last chance I would ever have.

"I am an old man, nearly ninety years in age. I will not live out another decade. If I had not chosen now to right my wrongs, then I never would have another opportunity. We Followers believe that Abba will freely forgive our sins, but we also believe that we must do our best to make amends for them here in this world. After all, what good is forgiveness if it does not change the heart that is forgiven?"

"Well spoken," Thomas agreed. "Upon hearing all that you have said so far, I would be willing to support you in any way that we could. But we have our own problems to worry about, and can pay little attention to the affairs of the Southern midlands, not to mention the Kingdoms of Sathmore and Pyralis."

"Ah yes, this Nosaj fellow."

"Nasoj, Father," Vinsah corrected.

Akabaieth nodded. "Yes, that is it."

"We've only just in this last year completely recovered from his invasion seven years ago. We can ill afford any southern campaigns as he may strike again at any time."

Malisa nodded at that, though her brow was curiously creased. "Thankfully, we haven't seen any serious activity south of the Dike in nearly four months, excepting a minor raid on Mycransburg late in the Summer."

"Do you think he could attack while we are here?" the Yeshuel with the grey lock of hair dangling in his face asked. It took Thomas a moment to recall that the man's name was Kashin.

"Highly unlikely, reports indicate that he has no significant troop buildup near the Dike. Even if he is planning an attack soon, he won't be able to move that many Lutins to Metamor for at least a month. Since nothing we have indicates that there has been any serious changes up north, it's highly unlikely that he is even planning anything presently." Thomas at first wondered why Malisa was being so free with strategic information, though it only took him a moment to realise why. The Patriarch was not trafficking with their enemy, and was from a land so far to the South, that they had no influence in this region of the world outside the smattering of churches in the northern midlands. It was basically useless information for them

Kashin nodded solemnly though, a wave of relief crossing those chiselled features. The other Yeshuel, Iosef, was similarly expressive. Yet their master, Akabaieth, remained calm as he always appeared to be. Thomas found it hard to believe that this man had not been devoted to peace throughout the rest of his life.

"It is good to know that we are safe in your lands for the few days we shall be with you." The Patriarch said nothing of what would happen should they stay longer, and the Duke could not blame him for it. Yet it did still surprise him, for their guests had not once mentioned the curse or appear shocked and appalled at their bestial visages.

"Now, one thing you've not mentioned yet is what you want to do during your stay. You mentioned speaking to the citizens of Metamor, but what else had you hoped to accomplish while you are here?" Thalberg remarked softly, his long narrow crocodilian snout quite supple despite its length. "I have arranged for a banquet tonight, but beyond that, I am not sure what you will need."

At the mention of a banquet, Akabaieth appeared to be injured. "I was hoping to avoid many of the formalities such as exquisite dinners, but I will hardly decline what you have lovingly crafted in my honour. Our intent was to stay for three days, where I could hopefully spend my time coming to know this great city and its people, before I spoke to as many who would listen the last night. I still wish to do this, only it seems I will not be able to do so tonight, and that is just as well. My men have come through a long journey, a day of rest will do them good."

Thalberg nodded then, his gleaming yellow eyes working over the wrinkled figure in the seat across from him. "I have prepared quarters to billet your soldiers, and cleaned the stables out for your knight's steeds. I was not sure just what your Yeshuel were, so I arranged for them to be sleeping within the rooms made ready for you, your Eminence."

Kashin smiled slightly then, as did Iosef. Akabaieth waved a tired hand. "Please, it is just Akabaieth. I thank you for your foresight, as you have done just as I would have liked. I would like for my men to be allowed access to all that Metamor has to offer them. For many of them, it is the first time they have left the lands of Pyralis. It is unlikely they may ever see such a magical place as this again in their lives."

"Excuse me," Malisa then asked again. "I was under the impression that you Patildor did not approve of magic."

Father Hough chuckled a bit at that and said, "Well, some magic is certainly worse than others." Thomas grunted in assent at that.

The bright smile slipped slowly from Akabaieth's face as he pondered the question. "It is true that the Ecclesia has taken a dim view of the practitioner's of magic. Many priests of my faith feel that those who study such arts are people who only wish to control the world about them, in essence to play god on this earth. These magicians are thus susceptible to the temptations of greater and greater power. Clearly, as you can attest, many of them have succumbed to these temptations, and are drunk with their power, and seek only to expand it.

"Yet, the Ecclesia has also traditionally supported and encouraged those with natural gifts to pursue and cultivate them. We feel that they are blessings from Abba, and that to ignore them is to spurn a gift from Eli. So, most of the current thinking in Yesulam is that magic in itself is simply another expression of Eli's presence in the world. It is just another of His glorious creations. Like all things, it can be turned to good, or evil.

"I can hardly imagine though, that I would need to council the Patildor here at Metamor about the good and evil intrinsic in magic." He chuckled at his own joke, and was soon joined by the others in the palanquin.

"Things are changing throughout this world," Akabaieth added, his good humour suddenly vanished and replaced by something more transcendent, yet subtle and ominous. "And so we too must change and embrace those things that will help us survive. Magic is just another tool, we see that now, or at least we are beginning to appreciate this fact. Before I began this journey, I let my body be fortified under the watchful powers of a Pyralian healer. I could never have made it otherwise.

"But there is more to these changes then just the Ecclesia's growing acceptance of magic. The world is groaning under the weight of the times." Vinsah snapped his eyes over to the Patriarch in surprise. It was quickly apparent to all the others in the carriage that the priest had thought what was being said was some fears that had been promised would be left private. "It is not a feeling I can explain. Nor do I really understand the nature of the groaning. Yet I know it is there, like some unseen predator whose stomach has been empty for days, and the hunger gnaws on him as he would the bones of any animal he happened across." Akabaieth shook his head then, closing his eyes and rubbing at his temple. "Forgive me, for it is so hard to express, and so few share my feelings."

"We are rather cut off from the rest of the world as I said," Thomas murmured, drawing one thick black finger across the stubble of fur on his long chin. "Just what has been happening on the rest of the continent these days? We lost one of our brightest diplomats a short while back to bandits, and have heard little news since, aside from the occasional missive from Whales."

Suddenly, Akabaieth brightened. "You have heard news of the Isle of Whales? It has been so long since I have seen that glorious land. Tell me, who is the new King?"

Thomas blinked in surprise, as did everyone else, including Vinsah who was still recovering from the earlier revelations given by his master. "Well, why don't you ask Prince Phil that tonight at the banquet. He is the adopted son of their current ruler, King Tenomides."

"You have a scion of the royal house of Whales here at Metamor?" Akabaieth's face had stretched so far into a grin, half of his wrinkles had disappeared.

"Well, yes. He is away at Lorland watching over that land, but he will have returned to the Keep in time for the banquet this evening, as I said." Thomas peered curiously at his guest and asked, "What is your interest in Whales?"

"Ah, it is my homeland." All four of the figures sitting opposite the Patriarch blinked several times in surprise. Thalberg's jaw nearly dropped open in shock, and his jaw had quite a far way to drop. Akabaieth either did not notice their amazement, or was so used to the reaction that he paid it no attention anymore. "But as you said, we shall discuss all of that at the banquet this evening. You wished to know of the rest of the Northern continent."

The Pontiff took a deep breath, rubbing his chin thoughtfully before draping his hand back across the ivory arm rest covered in depictions of various animals. "Trade with the Southlands has become more difficult these days, as the Southlanders have become quite agitated about something. They do not say what though, only turn their heads in the direction of the setting sun and spit ruefully, or so I have been told. Yesulam conducts much of its business through Eavey on the northern coastline of the easternmost portion of the Southlands, so we see quite a few Southerners in our great city.

"This unrest has spilled over into many of the noble families of Pyralis. In the last three years, two internecine wars have broken out in western Pyralis, though neither were long lived."

Thomas suddenly asked, a curious moue crossing his equine features, "They wouldn't happen to be involved with the du Tournemire family would they?"

Patriarch Akabaieth blinked a few times, and then turned to his aide, "Vinsah?"

The priest shook his head after a moment's thought. "No, the Marquis has only one heir. He had another son, but the infant died during childbirth along with his wife several years ago."

"Ah, I was merely curious." Thomas waved his dark brown furred hand negligently. "You were saying, Akabaieth?" Despite their familiarity, he began to find his tongue tripping over the Patriarch's obviously foreign name. It might have just been easier to use his title, the Duke thought glumly.

The old man continued as if he'd never been interrupted. "In addition to that, groups of fanatics have popped up all over the northern borders of Pyralis, as well as in the Midlands. Many have been a reaction to what Nasoj has perpetrated, but not all of them are so. Others are rejecting something subtler, we have not been able to determine quite why they exist yet. The best news though is that the border between Pyralis and Sathmore has been quiet for many years now. That should make my message easier to give at least.

"There have been the usual famines and droughts that occupy any number of seasons and years like unwelcome guests who will not leave. But aside from this strange feeling I possess, and has been mirrored in the nervous actions of many living near the Splitting Sea, there has been little to warrant such doom-saying. Perhaps, as I hope, it is just fertile ground for the message of peace I wish to proclaim here at Metamor, and in every city that I shall visit this next year."

Thomas nodded at that, his ears twitching at the sound of the trumpeters outside the palanquin. Quickly glancing out the side of the carriage, he could see that they had arrived at the end of the town, and were about to cross through one of the gates leading to the castle grounds proper. "We'll be at the Keep itself in a few minutes, so we should probably continue this discussion at the banquet as well. Would you like me to escort you to your quarters once we arrive? Or is there something more that you wish to do?"

The Patriarch lost his distant expression once more, and pointed towards the town itself. "Vinsah, how many Keepers have followed us through town?"

The priest peered outside the palanquin, and blinked a few times as he counted quickly. Leaning back in, the Bishop brushed a bit of the grey hair from his eyes. "I would say that most of them are still following us."

"Then, I wish to mingle with them once more before you show me to the rooms you have prepared for us." Akabaieth appeared to enjoy that prospect. "Tell me, Duke Thomas, do you often mingle with your people? How often do you go among them as a friend, and not a ruler?"

"Rarely," admitted Thomas sourly. "I would like to do so more often, but the burdens of running a kingdom sometimes allow me no freedoms. Is it true that the more power you obtain, the less freedom you have? It has seemed that way to me, and I do not even covet anymore power than I already have!"

Laughing pleasantly, the Patriarch nodded emphatically. "We are of like minds. In Yesulam, I am known by my face and voice, and so cannot walk among the people as one of them. I always hope to do that in other cities where I am not as well known, but I have never succeeded so far yet. Do you know that I have not been able to simply go into a market to buy bread in over three decades? I miss the simple pleasures in life such as that. It is, as you say, the loss of freedom granted by the rank of office. Power is it's own prison. In the south it is often called fin halaes morada, or The Prison Unsought."

"I am sorry that things did not work out for you here, then. I had no idea that your secrecy was so important to you," Thomas was truly sorry now, for he knew exactly how the man must feel. Indeed, they were kindred spirits in many ways.

"It is of little import, as I have said. Besides, in a city where few will be struck with awe at my presence, I may be able to see more than I could in, say, Salinon."

"For people like us, freedom is hard to come by," Thomas sympathized. "I shall do my best to offer you as much of it as I can."

Akabaieth favoured him with his grand-fatherly smile yet again and then shifted slightly in the seat. "Thank you, Thomas. You are a most gracious host, putting up with a nostalgic old man such as myself."

"It is my pleasure," Thomas corrected, offering him a smile of his own, though it was a bit exaggerated on his equine muzzle so that the man might not miss it behind the animalistic visage.

The trumpeters let lose another blast, and the palanquin came to a sudden stop. After a few moments, the Keepers that had carried them from the Killing grounds lowered the long poles to the ground, setting them down once again. "Well, shall we go and mingle with our people then, Akabaieth?" Thomas extended his hand towards the old man as he rose from his seat, his long, black, flowing tail flitting between each of his richly dressed thighs.

Reaching upwards, the Patriarch took the strangely shaped hand in his own gnarled version, and was helped from his seat by the two Yeshuel at his side. "It would be a great pleasure." And then the two of them stepped out from the palanquin to the cheers from the throng of Keepers who had gathered about the formation of knights that had escorted them through the town. The Red Stallion had been their vanguard, while the Patriarch's own Knights took up the rear, and the Keepers walking with them covered their flanks. In its own way, it had been a grand procession the likes of which had been absent from Metamor for half a dozen years.

Stepping across the poles that held the palanquin aloft, Thomas reached over to the nearest of their bearers and offered him a comradely handshake. The bull morph appeared surprised, yet delighted at the same time, and returned the handshake with fervour, despite their misshapen hooves for hands. Thomas looked back and could see that the Patriarch had already waded once again into the sea of bodies, the two Yeshuel never even one metre from his side. Laughing to himself, the Duke of Metamor followed him in, taking notes from a master of the art. Yes, they were indeed kindred spirits.

chapter 3

Sir Albert Bryonoth led his roan charger through the boisterous streets of Metamor, unable to tear his eyes from the fantastic forms walking by him and alongside of him. Even so, he doubted that the Keepers realized he was staring at them, as his polished brass visor was down, covering his face. Even so, he had to keep from turning his head when a particularly bizarre sight caught his eye, and in this city, that was not too difficult.

Having grown up in the northern plains of the western Flatlands, Albert was aware of this fabled city, as it was cloaked in mystery from the earliest ages. He had not even become a knight of Yesulam when the news of its bewitchment had reached his town, and that had been only six years ago. The thought of animal men fascinated him to no end, but never had he imagined he would glimpse them with his own eyes. Now that he was, he could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Bryonoth peered over his shoulder towards Sir Egland, whom he had ridden beside throughout the ceremony. His fellow knight also appeared to be staring at every Keeper they passed by on their way to the stables. Albert doubted that the Keepers would blame them. By now, they were probably used to being stared at by foreigners with no intent of sharing their fate. The thought of himself becoming a woman or a child sent shivers up his spine, but the image of himself covered in fur, with a twisted animal snarl for a face nearly made him rattle in his armour.

Yet, for all of his awe, he could not help but reflect back to the first day of his new life in Yesulam. The Flatlands were for aeons famous for their horseman, many who had travelled to more civilized portions of the world to become knights. Yet, in the steppes, permanent settlements were few and far between, usually towards the outskirts where the rolling hills of Pyralis began to the south, or towards the northern forests bordering the Outer Midlands.

As a babe, Albert had nursed while his mother had ridden in the saddle, pregnant already with a younger brother who would not survive past the age of three. His earliest memories had always been of ridding across the endless steppe, the feel of a horse between his legs - at first a pony, but then once he was large enough, one of his father's chargers. It was always this way with the children of the Flatlands, born to the saddle, and among some tribes, to the horse's bare back itself. Those powerful beasts were their lifeblood; some of the rumours that he'd heard in the markets of Yesulam even went so far as to suggest that a Flatlander had the blood of a horse and not a man flowing through him. Bryonoth was not one to disagree either, for he felt infinitely more comfortable with his hoofed companions on a gentle plain than he ever would in the crowded city markets of a place like Yesulam or Metamor.

Yet, life on the steppe was hard, and many families moved from settlement to settlement throughout the course of their yearly migration. Yet the accident that had changed his young life had not occurred out on those endless veldts, but while stopping for a few days at Beleth, a small settlement hugging the Athasca river which separated the Flatlands from eastern Pyralis. While driving some of his chargers into the fenced off paddock for the night, his steed stepped into a gopher hole, and fell from beneath him, breaking its leg from the impact. His father tumbled to the ground, smacking his head against a rock, dazing him long enough to allow the charger to roll across both of his legs in its dying agony.

Albert's father had never walked again, though he was a proud man, and did not let his infirmity keep him from riding. No Flatlander was ever far from his saddle, no matter the injury. Yet, his legs would never be able to cope the migratory runs of his herd, and so they settled in Beleth, trading and selling horses to Pyralian merchants.

For young Albert -- whose name at the time had been Algor of the Bryonoth clan; Albert had been the name given to him when he had become a Follower knight - the village of Beleth was astounding in many ways. Travelling the steppes was a lonely business, with only ones family and the other members of ones clan for company. The village life was quite staid, with most of the villagers acting as farmers in the surrounding fields clutching the sides of the river Athasca. He remembered being awed by the town's buildings, some of which had two floors, though the Lord Constable's home was three stories high. Three stories high! For a young boy of the steppe, it was an impressive sight indeed.

What had even more enthralled him was the ferryboat that crossed the river everyday, carrying with it horses, and oxen, and other beasts, as well as many men. Often times, while giving his father's horses exercise, he would stop to watch that immense gondola traverse the rushing waters of the Athasca. There were many rivers cris-crossing the Flatlands, and the fording of each was done only at carefully selected places. None of them were quite nearly as wide or as deep, or even flowing as fast as the mighty Athasca.

Yet, it would not be for another seven years before he would for the first time ride upon it himself. For Algor of Bryonoth, he had been a man for several years now, according to the tradition of the steppes. But the orders of Pyralis would have nothing to do with anyone not of the age fifteen. And so he had waited, succouring his dream in the stories told by the other folk of Beleth. His father had wanted him to return to the steppes with the rest of the Bryonoth clan, but upon seeing that his son's mind was set, instructed him to take one of his chargers, any of his choice, and not to let anyone take it from him.

He gently ran his gloved hand across Povunoth's flank, feeling the muscles beneath that thick skin twitch in the practised regal trot that he bore in all places. Povunoth had been barely a yearling when they had left Beleth together, but already he'd become one of the strongest and fastest of all of his father's herd. He was not the largest, not by any measure, being only sixteen hands high, but there was a spirit to him, a self-assuredness that many of the others lacked. Albert had known he'd chosen wisely when his father had nodded approvingly, a smile of pride gracing his cracked lips. "Thy choice hast brought you honour, my son. Take this honour, and the spirit of our clan with ye into the rest of the world. Show them the wisdom of our ways, of the ways of the steppe. Never forget thy clan, Algor. Never forget the world that has made thee a man." He'd said before watching him sail away on the ferry barge never to return to Beleth or the steppe again.

Once they had crossed the stormy Athasca, the man of the steppe had found himself in the company of several other young men all journeying south along the river to join the ranks of the Pyralian Knights. Most of them were also from the steppe, and so they quickly became friends on that long journey. Several times, one of the Pyralian boys would try to take Povunoth from him, thinking he, a barbaric savage from the Flatlands, would not notice when they replaced his steed with one that appeared similar in colour only. They regretted this swiftly, as he gave them a drubbing that left them too sore to sit comfortably in the saddle for over a week.

Yet, the journey lasted only a month, in which time they crossed the Athasca one last time, but this time in a ship larger even than the Lord Constable's home back in Beleth. Most of the children of the steppe could only gape at such a huge construction, not believing such a structure could have been built by sons of the earth. Some of the Pyralian boys had snickered - Algor had refused to think of those pampered scions of noble families as men - though one look from himself and many of his Flatlander brethren had silenced their snobbish pretension.

From there, they sailed to Yesulam, in the deserts of the Holy Land, as he was told it was called. The Flatlands were still mostly Lothanasi, though among the horsemen, only the worship of Dvalin and Artela was taken seriously. Yet, though he knew that in joining the Pyralian Knights he would be giving them up for the Abba of the Followers, he still could not help but send a few prayers to Wvelkim while they were on that ship. He did not like the way the timbers shifted beneath his feet, and neither did Povunoth. He'd even offered prayers of thanks to that mostly forgotten deity in the Flatlands when they'd landed in Yesulam, the centre of the Ecclesia faith.

And yet, once Albert had recovered his demeanor, and was with his fellow men of the steppe once more, they each stood in awe of the opulent city before them. Spires standing higher than any tree any of them had ever glimpsed, gold inlays sparkling in the morning air like the morning dew had upon the steppe, only this was a work of man. Crowded citadels and shining streets led their way to central temple where they were each to be blessed by the Bishop before their training would begin. As a child, he had thought Beleth had been real market of civilization. In that moment, he realized that it was just as much a backwater as the Flatlands themselves were. In this city, in this metropolis of singing lights and dancing colours, people changed the world.

As he gazed out from beneath his visor, Sir Albert Bryonoth found that same gleam in the plaster of the walls of the homes in Metamor, and in the fur and faces of each and every Keeper. He thought back to their triumphal entry into the city, listening to Sir Egland tell him that the Duke of this land was more horse than man. At the time he'd scoffed at such a notion. Surely the rumours surrounding this fabled jewel of the North had been exaggerated.

And then he'd seen the equine master of this place bend on one knee and kiss the hand of the Patriarch. Every motion, every muscle flexed just as a horse's ought. The ears turned at each sound just as his own steed's, and the deep brown chestnut eyes of Duke Thomas had gazed with that same independent defiance he had seen in so many of his father's chargers, including Povunoth. Even his tail - what indignity must it be to have a tail, he wondered - swished back and fort, slapping at his flanks as if he were dislodging flies.

For a brief moment, a whimsical image of himself breaking that noble stallion and incorporating him into his herd flashed through his mind. Yet this was a horse who had been a man, not some wild beast who had wandered too close to his father's eye. Besides, who ever heard of a two-hoofed horse? He found himself laughing at the notion despite his normal restraint, and Sir Egland cast him a glance, though his eyes were hidden beneath his own gleaming visor as well.

"What do you find so funny, Sir Bryonoth?" Egland asked in his deep Pyralian accent. Even though Egland had been born of a noble home, they had still managed to become friends.

Albert watched an upright cat walk sveltely across the distant battlements, a spear clutched between two paws. "Naught that thy mind needs to worry over."

"Please, you have me curious now. What was it?" There was as always something earnest in the man's voice. They were about the same age, barely twenty each, but in Albert's mind, they had long since been men. "You know that I am not going to stop asking you until you tell me what it was. So you might as well confess, or I shall be bothering you the entire way back to Yesulam!"

"All right, ye knave!" Bryonoth chuckled again. Then, in a low whisper he added, "Mine eye simply fancied what a beautiful stallion the good Duke Hassan would have made. Can ye imagine the foals that might have sprung from his royal loins?"

Sir Egland laughed heartily than, staring absently at what appeared to be a child berating a tall badger over some perceived insult. "Do you Flatlanders ever stop thinking about how to breed your horses stronger?"

"And what would thou have us do? Breed them weaker?"

Again, his friend laughed, nodding towards the stables which they had somehow managed to find despite being distracted by the sights and scents of the streets of Metamor. "No, I suppose not. Perhaps you'll find a few mares who you'd like to introduce Povunoth to in here."

Albert could not help but join his friend in laughter as they made their way towards the familiar smell, one that he'd lived with his whole life. The flavour of horses was strong from the long wooden structure abutting the castle walls. A slant, tiled roof angled across the timbers, dumping rain water into cisterns waiting below, while a nearby silo of unremarkable height stored grain that had been shipped in from the farming communities across the valley. The double doors to the building stood open, while the sound of voices and well oiled armour could be heard inside.

Passing beneath the aperture, many of the older timbers replaced by stout hickory in the last year, Albert scanned the stalls, finding most of them empty, almost certainly in preparation for their arrival. Also, there were two figures, one tall and wide, the other short and narrow standing in the centre of the hay-strewn floor, each dressed in full plate. Yet neither of them bore the heraldry of the Red Stallion, the official order of knights for Metamor. With a grin, Sir Bryonoth realized that these two were knight errants who had been trapped here by the curses.

"Hail to ye," the larger of the two called out in a distinctly northern accent. "I am Sir Andre Maugnard."

"And I am Sir Erick Saulius," the smaller of the two figures called out, a long ropy tail circling behind him. With a start, Albert realized the smaller figure was a rodent of some sort. There was also something strangely familiar about his accent, faint as it was. "Who are ye, noble knights?"

"I am sir Yacoub Egland," his friend began, proudly displaying the heraldry they each carried on their shields. Gazing across at the two figures, he could see that they each bore their family crests upon their own escutcheon. The smaller of the two bore an arching rodent clutching a fasces of wheat. His companion hefted a much wider shield, carrying a dragon standing just before a series of low mountains.

"I am Sir Albert Bryonoth, and ye do honour me with thy presence, good knights."

Saulius reached his gauntleted hand to his visor, and threw it open, and back against the gold and red plumes dangling from his helmet. The long snout of a rat poked out from beneath the brassy metal, long whiskers twitching with every breath. It was a comical sight for Bryonoth, as he was made to wonder how a person of that size could possibly still be a knight. "Thou art a man of the steppe?" the rat asked suddenly. There was a conviction in his tone that informed Albert that this figure before him knew what it meant to be a man of the steppe.

"Yea, I was born in that harsh land. And thou, my good knight? Art thou a Flatlander as well?" Instantly, his doubts of the rat's capabilities had vanished.

"Indeed, I was weaned south of the Sylvan mountains. And thyself?"

"My range was towards the southern end of the steppe, for I must admit, I had not heard of the Saulius clan."

"Nor I the Bryonoth," Erick admitted wryly, and then he peered at the others curiously. "It seems that you are the first to bring your steeds here. What of thy brethren? Do they not know that we await them too?"

Egland laughed at that, trying not to stare at the rat's face. "Well, they are probably still admiring the sights, my good Sir Saulius. Your kingdom is a magical one the likes of which we have never glimpsed before in our lives."

Andre reached up and raised his own visor, the long snout of some ferocious beast poking forth. He flashed them a smile which showed them several long, sharp teeth. "One cannot blame them I suppose. Such places as this are rare." Removing his gauntlets and laying them across a stall door, he pointed towards their own escutcheons. "And just what do those symbolize? The cross I know, but the bend sinister I am unfamiliar with."

Yacoub lifted his shield and traced a mailed finger over the aforementioned green band crossing the brassy surface diagonally. "This symbolizes that our gifts are not ours alone, but come from He who created us. We hold them in our left arms, and the power of the almighty streams down into our bodies like so."

"Green is the colour of Mother Ecclesia," Albert added then, tapping his own crest. "We wear it to show our loyalty to her Holy bosom."

Andre nodded, his face distant slightly, as if he were thinking of some other time and place. "And where wer't thou born?" Bryonoth finally asked.

"I was born North of the Sylvan mountains in the Outer Midlands. Yet, for the last ten years of my life I have been a knight here at Metamor. With my new shape, I am ill-suited to life anywhere else now. But that hardly matters, for there are very few places in this world quite so beautiful as this valley."

"Thou hast not seen a sunrise across the steppe, my good Sir Maugnard," Bryonoth chided, and found himself immediately supported by the rat, who had set down his shield and was leaning across it, the tip digging into the soft earth.

"And you have not seen a winter in this valley. When the sun shines upon the freshly laid snow, it is as if the whole world was waking up for the very first time. I do not believe you have much snow down in the veldts or steppes of the Flatlands."

"True enough," Albert chortled then, removing his helmet and gauntlets, setting them across Povunoth's saddle. "Where might we sequester our steeds?"

Andre waved a thick paw towards the long row of stalls along the masonry. "Anywhere you like. We've moved most of the Keep's steeds to the other stables along the walls to make room for your mounts."

"Thank you, good sir Maugnard," Albert inclined his head, running a gauntleted hand across Povunoth's neck. The breath was warm in his body, and yet, the animal that had served at his side for so many years appeared eager to rest inside those confining walls. Tomorrow he would be out in the fields dancing and prancing like his herd mates back in the Flatlands.

"I am curious though," Sir Egland said, his voice carrying with it that apologetic tone he bore every time he was about to ask an impertinent question. "Why are you two waiting here in the stables? Surely knights such as yourselves would have been present to greet the Patriarch when he arrived."

Saulius shook his head, "`Twas not our intention to greet his Eminence, but instead we sought to greet you, our fellow champions of all that is decent and noble."

Andre shrugged, his armour creaking from his massive shoulders. "Besides, neither of us are part of Thomas's Red Stallion, nor is everyone here at the Keep a Follower as you may have noticed."

Leading Povunoth into the stall, the roan charger stomping in with a snort of independence, Bryonoth had trouble suppressing a smile. "Art thou Lothanasi?" he asked to the rat. It was strange, to see a rat wearing the colours and manner of a knight. In fact, it was a bit unnerving. Though his credentials were impeccable, as he was a man of the steppe, the very notion of a man being diminished so dramatically caused him to shudder imperceptibly in his protective sheen of armour.

Sir Saulius shook his head, at which Sir Egland breathed a sigh of relief. Having grown up a member of that pagan faith, Albert had much more tolerance than his Pyralian comrade. "`Tis unimportant to whom a man like us prays, for it is our honour and our dedication which define us. Dost thou not feel the same way?"

"Yea, verily," Bryonoth replied. "Thou hast found the nugget of the matter."

Egland however, continued to frown, but he turned his face back to his steed, removing the barding slowly, piecemeal. Calling over his shoulder, he asked, "And Sir Andre, just what sort of animal are you? I've never seen the like of it in Pyralis."

"I am a wolverine, or so I have been informed." Andre flexed his sharp clawed paws, and grinned widely, revealing his collection of sharp teeth. "They are creatures of the Midlands and Northern Sathmore mostly. They are vicious predators, and that I did not need to be told to know it was true. These claws have come in handy on many occasion before. I am sure they will again someday."

"How do you cope with being a monster to so many?" Egland pried, asking the questions that Albert wished to know, but was too polite to pose.

"It is not so hard here at Metamor," Andre replied. "How could it be when everyone else around you is in much the same condition? We have learned to accept it, and have given each other comfort in the loss of our human shapes. Yet, no matter how bizarre, we refuse to lose our humanity, as has sometimes happened."

"Would it not be unbearably warm in the summer?"

"Aye," Saulius added, shrugging slightly, his slender frame appearing to barely fill the crested armour. "But again, thou hast not glimpsed a winter in this northern land."

Andre favoured them with another of his grins. Though he knew it was meant to be kindly, it still appeared to both the knights of Yesulam to be the precursor to a bestial snarl. "With mountains so close on either side, the weather can be quite rough. Have either of you seen any snow?"

"Once or twice," Egland replied, stroking the neck of his steed with the palm of his hand. "Pyralis is a warm country, we see snow in the highlands, but rarely elsewhere." He appeared thoughtful for one moment and then let slip, "I would greatly love to see a winter here. It was always a joyous occasion among my household when the winter brought us any snow."

Albert found himself nodding, though because he too wished to see a Metamorian winter. This was the reason that Yacoub and he had become fast friends; they both shared a love for the great wildernesses that Abba had provided for them. It was such an unusual trait for the son of a Pyralian dignitary, as most of them were urbane and lovers of cities and all that civilization had to offer. Someday, Albert would take his friend to the steppes, and there they would be true men of the horse.

"Perhaps, one day, if the curses are ever lifted, you will be able to see one," Andre mused, but his voice did not sound too hopeful. Despite his northern accent, the doubt that such would ever occur was plainly clear.

"Until then, I shall enjoy our visit," Egland said, before that momentary gloom could sink into their bones. "Tell me, is there any place where we might take a spot of ale and find something to eat? It has been a long journey, and the Patriarch ordered us to enjoy ourselves during our stay."

"Enjoy yourselves?" Saulius prodded curiously.

"Insofar as we didst not act in a manner unbecoming of a knight of Holy Mother Ecclesia," Albert added, running a curry down through Povunoth's flanks. It was always his practise to groom the charger each night after they had made camp. It kept the muscles well relaxed and ready for whatever might come on the morrow.

"Ah, certainly, the Deaf Mule is one such establishment, one of the singular places for Keepers to patronize. There are other establishments of course, some not quite so popular but equally well accounted."

"Let us hie to this Deaf Mule," Albert suggested, his voice brim with pleasure. Though he was unsure of these two knights, there was no doubt they were companionable sorts. "It sounds like a rather congenial house."

"That it is, though I am afraid that it may be a bit crowded," Andre murmured. "Shall we wait for your fellow knights?"

Albert did his best not to blush, even as he felt Povunoth's tail slap him across his cheek, as if the horse knew what had been said and was reprimanding him for his thoughtlessness. "Of course, I am not much in the habit of being a part of great crowd."

"Neither am I, but for my esteemed peers," Andre held out his thick furred paws once more, gesturing to them both, "I will gladly make exception."

"And I as well. Ye are both honourable knights, and thou of my homeland no less! We shall wait for your companions until every last one is with us." Saulius wiggled his beard of whiskers, giving that whimsical cast to his muzzle once more. Sir Bryonoth found it hard not to laugh at the sight.

chapter 4

For as long as he'd lived at Metamor - or anywhere in the world for that matter - Charles had never thought he smelled a bouquet of roses any better than the one he clutched in his paw now. Of course, it was the wrong season for the thorny plants, but D'Alimonte kept a garden of them within the greenhouse that he maintained out of his personal time. Yet, the grasshopper performed a marvellous job, bringing out the brightest of reds, the deepest of hues of that luscious colour within each and every petal. Each tip was decorated with a dark maroon rim, the tone lightening as it drew towards the centre of the flower.

Yet the scent, ah the scent!, was the most gripping part. It reminded Charles of a million succulent kisses, each more precious than the last. As he savoured the benevolent odour, the rat found himself transported to a world of amorous sensation, where each new aspect only sent an electric thrill racing down his spine to collect at the tip of his tail. He was in a garden, surrounded by busts and statues of her blessed image, the rain gently sopping through the misty air, while the real visage of his love waited beneath the white cupola of a slender gazebo set beside the pock-marked lake. While he drank in the sweet scent of those roses, Charles was with her, his Lady Kimberly.

After the Patriarch had disappeared within the walls of the Keep, he knew that he would not see that most holy man again until the next day. The reason for this had to do with the fact that Kimberly had been working in the kitchens all day, as the Duke was intent on throwing a great feast in the Pontiff's honour. Of course, Matthias had not been invited. As he was no longer Head of the Writer's Guild, he was no longer considered part of the required intelligentsia for any visiting dignitary to meet. Thalberg had made that clear to him after his official announcement of resignation.

Yet, this also gave Matthias exactly what he wanted, a free evening. Since most of the Keep would still be rather boisterous with the presence of such a high official as the Patriarch, it was possible for him to have a few hours in which he could do just as he wished. And the rat's wish was to spend that time with the one that he treasured most in life, even more so than his Sondeck. Since they had known all day that the Patriarch and his men were coming, the kitchen staff would have had plenty of time to prepare the courses. So, he alighted upon the chance that his love would be in her room that early evening.

And to his delight, she was!

The oaken door which hid her countenance was drawn open at a pace too slow for the rat's heart, but his patience was rewarded as within a second or two, he glimpsed her face. From the most remarkable smooth rounded ears, down to the demure black eyes set astride her long narrow muzzle, ending in a brush of bright whiskers and her two long incisors beneath her stout tan nose. It was a cavalcade of beauty surpassing the distant mountains and forests or any corner of the globe.

Her muzzle turned up in a smile as she saw him, "Hello, Charles. I didn't know if I would see you today." Then suddenly, her nose twitched, and a bright flavour lit in her eyes. "Oh, what is that smell? Is that roses? Did you bring me roses?" She asked in delight, her whole body lifting even higher if it were possible.

Blushing, his own whiskers twitching in a flurry of excitement, Charles held out the bouquet tied together with gold-trim lace. Kimberly took them in her paws and brought the blossoms to her nose, burying the soft flesh in the dark petals. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes. Matthias could not say anything, only smile with his whole body as her ears flicked slightly, and her tail curled around one of her feet in bliss.

"Oh, they're beautiful, Charles," Kimberly finally said, reaching out to embrace him in a tight hug.

Matthias could not help but return the gesture, running his paws down her back as he did so, delighted to feel her this close again. Ever since the raid on Stepping Rock Manor, they'd been too busy to spend much time with each other. That, and they both still could only remember what had happened to another Long Scout named Craig Latoner, and the bedraggled state that the Lutins had left Caroline Hardy in. Whenever they had touched in the last month, Charles felt as if his flesh were still stained, and Kimberly had treated him so as well.

Not this time though. This time, the hug was pure, unadulterated by worry or doubt. Their embrace lasted for several moments, before finally they slipped to arm's width and stood gazing into each other's eyes. Matthias spoke softly, his face bright as was hers. "I knew you would like them. They are beautiful yes, but not nearly as beautiful as you."

At that, she smiled and hugged him again, burying her face in his chest. Charles could feel the prick of one of the thorns from the roses as Kimberly held them in her paws, but did not complain. "I'm so glad to see that you are here. I was worried you might be in the Kitchens all night too."

Kimberly leaned back slightly, never breaking her eyes from his own. "I was afraid of that too, but Thalberg wanted us to each take a break to clean up our rooms. He told me to go just a short while ago. I didn't have much to clean though." She waved one paw towards the rather tidy room behind her. Charles peered over her shoulder and saw the well-kept bed was already adorned with the winter quilts, all of them freshly cleaned of fur. Her mantle was dusted, as were each of the sparse furnishings within. Laying across one corner of her bed though was a velvet dress that he did not recognize.

"Is that a new dress?" Charles asked, pointing to the several folds of cloth draped on the quilt.

Kimberly turned her head to look and nodded. "I just bought it a few days ago. I wanted you to see me in it, but I haven't had a chance to wear it yet."

"Well, how long until Thalberg starts hunting you down?"

"He wanted me back in the Kitchens to help clean things up by seven."

Charles wiggled his whiskers in delight, drawing one of his arms across her shoulders and pressing slightly into her frame. "Well, that gives us two hours. Why don't you put that on, and we can go out to our favourite rock in the Western Garden. I'd like to buy some of Gregor's bread as well, I'm sure he's made a very special batch since the Patriarch is here."

She clasped her paws together in delight, the bouquet of roses still clutched tightly between her fingers. "Oh, that sounds wonderful! Give me a few minutes, and I'll be ready." She then leaned over and pressed her nose into the side of his cheek fur. It took Charles a second to realize that she was trying to kiss him. "Thank you so much for these roses that was really sweet of you!"

Matthias stood there, a grin plastered over his face. She'd kissed him! For a brief moment, he contemplated never washing that side of his face ever again., for fear he might remove that blessed touch. And then, returning to the moment, he realized that he was staring at a closed oaken door. Backing up a step, he waited for Kimberly to finish changing out of her work clothes into that evening gown. From what he'd seen, it was a rather inexpensive dress, but a nice one at that. Just the right thing for an evening stroll through the gardens and Metamor itself.

Gazing down at his own clothes, he knew he would certainly fit right in. The knees of both of his trousers were muddied from when he'd been kneeling in the Killing grounds earlier. Yet, his outfit had an overall dark tan cast, so it was only mildly noticeable. Yet, as he stared at those two imperfections, the rat knew he should have at the very least changed before he'd come to her door. Already, he felt embarrassed by his poor dress, knowing that his love deserved better from him.

After a few minutes, the door opened once more, and standing beneath the transom was a delight given straight from Heaven. Adorned in a lilac violet, Kimberly had spread her small paws across the front of the dress. The billowing folds of the skirt circled her feet, which were of course unshoed, with the hem ruffled lightly, more of that regal purple, though more bluish towards the end. The blouse itself crisscrossed her front in a V-shape, displaying a charming silver necklace against her upper chest and nestled snugly in her light tan fur. The sleeves drew the entire length of her arms, ending in gentle filigreed cuffs from which her paws sprouted.

"You look absolutely lovely! I feel as if I have just woken from death to be greeted by an angel!" Charles crowed in delight, unable to leave his eyes on any one feature for too long, eager to see all of it.

Her lips curled back in a smile, and her whiskers twitched pleasantly. The smile of a rodent involves the whole face, and to some it is quite a hilarious expression. To Charles, and his Lady Kimberly, it was one of sweet repose, an oft shared remark that needed no explanation.

"Thank you, I had hoped you would like it."

"Like it? I love it!" Matthias reaffirmed, stepping closer to her to gently run his palm across one of her shoulders, the fabric smooth beneath his touch. "I cannot wait to show you off! All the Keepers will be whispering about what a lucky man I am."

Kimberly smiled brightly then, hugging him closely, and then shutting her door behind her. "And they'll be saying the same thing about me."

Matthias laughed, and then the two of them walked arm in arm out of the castle itself, beneath the Ivy Causeway, and towards the town. The ivy had long since abandoned its flowers, but the bright green tendrils still curled around the marble entablature. The streets were mostly filled with Keepers cleaning up the last few messes still littering the cobblestones. That and the occasional group of soldiers from the Patriarch's caravan seeing the sights. Some of them appeared to be overwhelmed, while others possessed a thinly veiled look of disgust at the animal morphs sharing the streets with them.

Neither Charles nor Kimberly paid them much mind, as their destination was clear, and would not be hampered by the foreigners, at least not tonight. It did not take them long to make their way through to the steps of Gregor's bakery. The sweet aroma of delectable pastries and breads wafted through the windows and out the open door, causing every nose to turn as they passed, even that of the humans!

Inside of course, the smell was nearly overpowering, as every delight available made themselves known to their noses. Twitching in eager bliss, Charles knew that the cinnamon rolls were just fresh from the oven, while the apple filled croissants had been sitting on the heated counter for at least an hour. Thick moist slabs of his finest breads lined the shelves, loaf after loaf of scrumptious morsels making themselves known to the two rats.

"Charles, Kimberly," Brennar's voice sounded from the corner behind them. "I am surprised to see you here."

Turning on their paws, the two rats gazed at the tabby who was furiously scrubbing at a discoloured spot on the wood panelling. The interior of the Bakery was the cleanest Matthias could ever remember it being ever since he'd arrived at the Keep six years ago. "Hello, Brennar. Hard at work I see."

The apprentice nodded, his green-flecked eyes gazing across the shining parquetry. "It is not like it will do any good, as soon as anybody walks in here, I just have more to clean." He pointed to the dirty tracks they had brought in with them. Sure enough, there were two sets of rat paws marring the pristine surface of the tiled floor. In a low voice, Brennar added, his feline face carrying with it a bit of whimsy, "Gregor wants to impress the Patriarch, as if he'd actually come here."

"You can't blame him or anyone else for wanting to do that," Charles murmured, his voice also a bit playful. "Where is the capybara by the way?"

"He's working the oven, and he asked me not to let anybody distract him for the moment. Unless they were the Patriarch of course." Brenner pointed to the back room, the door of which was closed. "Are you the Patriarch in disguise perchance?"

Kimberly giggled spritely and even Charles had to laugh at that. "No, and it is a good thing to. The Ecclesia would not be well off with me for their leader."

Brennar nodded but didn't say anything more about that. He nodded his head to Kimberly and smiled as he continued to scrub at the discoloured spot. "You are looking lovely, milady."

She blushed happily, curtsying ever so slightly to the industrious cat. "Why thank you."

Brennar patted his paws against his pantaloons, the seam of which appeared rather fine for an apprentice. "So, why aren't you two following him around?"

"Who?" Charles asked, perplexed.

"The Patriarch of course."

"Oh!" Charles looked at Kimberly for a moment and then back to his friend. "Well, tonight is the banquet for all the important or interesting people at the Keep. I am no longer either, so I wasn't invited."

"And I have been in the Kitchens all day, but I've got a little break right now," Kimberly added.

"We hoped to buy some bread and eat it out in the gardens this evening, as there will be few left in the season quite so nice as this," Matthias explained, gesturing once to the rows of pastries lining the counter.

Brennar nodded, his long tail flicking back and forth from the seat of his trousers. "He should be out shortly if you don't mind waiting. He asked me not to sell any of his merchandise for him either."

"Has he let you make any bread today?" Kimberly asked suddenly, her nose twitching. Though the smell of cat did incite a sense of wariness in them both, the odour of the moist delicacies comforted their rodential instincts.

"Not today, and not the next few days either I'll wager. You know how dedicated a Lothanasi he is. Makes me wonder why he'd go to so much trouble to impress somebody he holds little regard for."

Charles laughed a bit then, running his paw across Kimberly's back as they stood there together, their dirty paws sullying the parquetry and making more work for the tabby. "Did he tell you why he wants to impress The Patriarch?"

Brennar nodded then, finally giving up on the discoloured patch of the wall. "Gregor wants to show him how good the fruit of a Lothanasi's labour can be. Or something to that effect. It's not like he is going to convince the man to switch faiths or anything!"

The tabby then gave Matthias a curious grin, the ends of his lips curling up in delight, showing them the long narrow feline teeth. "I heard an interesting rumour a few days ago, it was about you Charles."

"Me?" Matthias asked in mock surprise. Though he did not relish the fact, spreading rumours about his activities this last Spring was a popular past time among the Keepers. Thankfully, since joining the Longs, he'd managed to stay out of sight, so no new deeds had been added to the litany of his amazing feats lately.

"Yes, I heard that you've been visiting Raven hin'Elric at the temple every couple weeks or so these past two months. Are you planning something you haven't been telling the rest of us?" Brennar joshed, poking a claw towards his side playfully.

"Oh nothing important," Matthias said, trying not to think about the awkwardness that would bring at his next confession. "Simply asking a few favours of Raven, that is all."

Brenner winked at him, his green-flecked eyes alight with merriment. "Are you sure you aren't planning to convert? You'd make a good Lothanasi."

Laughing, Charles set his paw on his friend's shoulder. "I have as much chance of that as does the Patriarch, my friend."

"More's the pity!" a voice called out from behind them. Turning on their heels, they saw Gregor, dressed with stained apron across his front, come strolling out the back door. A hot wave of earthy air washed over them, bringing the scent of several newly baked flavours with it. "Not only are you dirtying my floor, but you are dampening my boy's spirits!" Though the words were said rather brusquely, Matthias knew it was all part of the capybara's unique blend of charm. "What can I do for you two heathens today?"

Kimberly had at first appeared uncomfortable by the Baker's tone, but upon hearing Charles laugh yet again, her whole body was set at ease. Brenner waved them on, and so the two rats walked up to the counter, behind which, the capybara paced, cleaning some bit of dough from his whiskers. "We were just hoping to buy something."

"Well, I'd hope so! I don't run this place just to let people come in and chat!" Gregor announced dramatically. It was as if he were rehearsing lines he'd use when the Patriarch came by to sample his wares.

Kimberly pointed to one of the cinnamon rolls drenched in a thick, white frosting. Charles nodded his head earnestly, having hoped to snag one of those pastries as soon as he'd smelled them. "We'd like two of your cinnamon rolls. How much are they going to cost us? And I was hoping for something a little less than our converting." Matthias winked at his fellow rodent, who finally let out a broad chuckle.

"Of course, you mean something in terms of money, do you not? That will be one silver for the both of them."

Charles was half tempted to haggle the price down a few coppers, but they did not have all night. So he fished the desired coin from his pocket, and plunked it on the table, the coin spinning on its side a few times before settling down tails up with a metallic ringing sound. Gregor scooped the coin back into his paws and then selected two of the largest of his pastries, and handed them to the two rats. The frosting was still warm, sweet, and sugary, and so a bit of that dribbled onto their paws as they took them from Gregor.

"They smell delicious," Kimberly remarked, smiling to the other rodent. "I hope the Patriarch likes them as well."

Gregor smiled then, nodding his head respectfully towards her, "If you are taken with them, Lady Kimberly, what matters what some priest from the south believes?"

She blushed at the complement, licking a bit of the frosting from her thumb before it spilled onto her dress. The two of them turned and walked back across the floor, grinning at Brennar who was already wiping up the dirt from where they had trod on the parquetry. Before they were out the door though, the tabby said, "That is a very fetching dress you are wearing, milady."

Kimberly turned, and curtsied once more, somehow managing to keep the pastry aloft. "Thank you! I hope Gregor will let you do some baking again soon. I rather liked your last batch of raisin bread."

The tabby brightened visibly, and there was a definite swagger to his step as he moved from spot to spot cleaning up the paw prints. Charles laughed again, licking at the frosting himself, savouring the thick, sugary flavour. "I told you that you have good taste," he remarked, nuzzling into her neck fur a bit as they walked back down the streets of Metamor towards the Western gardens. "And these rolls taste very good!"

She giggled at that, taking a bite from hers, closing her eyes as she did so. Charles watched her face for a moment as she chewed the sweet delight, running her tongue over every one of her teeth, not allowing a morsel of the taste to escape her. "That good, huh?"

Nodding, she took yet another bite, skipping slightly across the cobblestones. Charles laughed yet again, and followed right after her, diverting to the terrazzo walkways of the gardens soon enough. The bright fronds of the early autumn growths swayed to and fro in the light wind that was always blowing through the valley. Most of the flowers had already been moved into the greenhouse, but the bushes were still in full colour, and the array of hues alighting each tree were the charm of the season.

Nestled between several trees, each bearing yellow and orange leaves, were the familiar rocks that they would always sit at on their walks. Thankfully, the stones were dry that day, as Charles did not want to sully Kimberly's beautiful new dress. Holding her paw, he gingerly helped her find a nice place to sit, her tail laying behind her, dangling across the smooth stone, while the skirt bunched up about her knees. Charles took the space next to her, the rock cold through his trousers.

Turning towards the western mountain line, Matthias could not help but admire the great tracks of forest clinging to each face, as well as the gleaming sunlight reflecting of each of their boughs. Most of the woods along the mountain faces were coniferous, and so they retained their bright green hue throughout the season. That was until winter arrived and covered them in a blanket of white snow. Charles could not wait to show his beloved that sight, for it was one of the most serene that the rat knew.

Licking the last of her cinnamon roll from her fingers, Kimberly smiled up at him, her frame ebullient. Charles cleaned off his own claws then, the savoury flavour of the pastry still fresh in his mind, and returned the gaze. "This is lovely, Charles. I'm so glad that you stopped by."

"As am I!" He laid his paw in her lap, gently enfolding her own paws within his strong grasp. "I feel like I haven't seen you in month."

She turned away, sudden unwelcome thoughts making their presence known. "I don't want you to end up like Craig."

Charles clutched her even tighter and licked at her cheek fur. "I won't be."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because, nothing could ever keep me from returning home to be with you." He reached inside his coat pocket and drew out a slip of folded parchment. "I wrote a poem the other day, would you like me to read it?"

Her face brightened, and she turned back to peer delightedly at him. "Oh yes!"

Matthias grinned and turned his body towards her, his tail curling behind him in delight. The late afternoon sun cast its rays across the parchment he held, lighting the words up with the vermillion flame.

"Whence came the morning's beacon?
And why dost the birds do call?
Is that a lady weeping?
Or something grander than all?

Not the cry of a woman,
Nay, more dulcet than any bird.
A song that rides across the land,
It is that, that I have heard.

Wake now, oh delightful air!
Sing ye tones carried on the wind,
Come and rest upon my ear,
And my misery rescind.

Lost voice, be ever with me,
Mend my heart, so painfully tore.
Lift me from rest by this tree,
Oh comforter, guide me more.

I follow thee, oh lost voice,
Ye child of the morning sun.
Upon your path I rejoice,
Treading until the race is won.

Never will, never can I stop.
Your voice always moves my feet,
As each tone I dare not drop
Is more reason for my heart to beat.

And when the journey is done,
And rest is given to me,
I gaze into the face of the sun,
And who do I see but thee?"

Kimberly could not help but smile at the recitation, before finally reaching across the gulf and drawing Matthias into a tight embrace. "Oh, that was lovely, Charles. Thank you."

The rat smiled, glad to be with his beloved, holding her just as she held him. He breathed in her scent, rich with the flavour of the pastries and the roses, and the crackling yellowed leaves about them. "Whenever I leave you, all I can think about is your face and the sound of your voice. It will always bring me back to you, no matter the distance, and no matter the gulf. Death cannot keep me from you, my Lady."

She buried her face in his chest, unwilling to let go. Charles held here there, staring at the late afternoon sun. With the golden aura surmounting each tree top, and the snow-capped peaks silhouetted by that radiant star, the rat knew that it was going to be a beautiful evening.

chapter 5

Duke Thomas excused himself from their presence to oversee some matter that required his attention, and so Father Hough was left to continue the Patriarch's tour of the Keep. Of course, the real reason for the horse's flight had been to allow the Followers a chance to discuss things of a religious matter freely. Hough doubted that Akabaieth would not realize that was Thomas's intent, especially when the young priest broached his first question.

"What do the other bishops think of your coming here, Father?"

Akabaieth glanced over at Vinsah who shrugged, his ancient face long since given over to this plan. The two Yeshuel were impassive as usual. "Only a few of them know, those that had to know. Many of them do not like it. Many of them still think that this place is the home of demons."

"But you said my pastoral duties here were genuine!" Hough objected as they continued on down the long corridor. They were crossing from the more ornate wing of the Keep towards the blocky half, where most things were, including the Chapel that the boy priest so desperately wanted to show the Patriarch. Lothar was waiting there as well, tending to the priestly duties in Hough's absence.

"And I believe they are," Akabaieth replied. "Not all of the Bishops are in agreement."

Hough could not believe the words he was hearing. It went counter to everything he had been taught and learned about his faith. "You mean they haven't simply accepted your decision? But you are Abba's voice in this world, Father!"

It was a good thing that they were alone in the hall, for Hough was becoming quite agitated, shaking his little fists like an angry child told he could not have dessert. The Pontiff simply shook his head sadly, the lines of age showing clearly in that expression. "I wish it were so, but many of the Bishops have begun to doubt my legitimacy. Some have even accused me of being a false Patriarch."

Hough was aghast, tears forming in his eyes at such horrific news. "That cannot be!"

Vinsah sighed and spoke his own piece. "Father Hough, it is the truth. I myself was one very such person who doubted our Patriarch. Though I came with him, I doubted the wisdom of this action the entire journey. I only believed that he was doing the right thing when I saw the faces of your Keepers, and knew them to be true."

"But if you believed us to be demons, then why did you come?" Hough had stepped away from the Bishop Vinsah, staring up and down his ecclesiastical robes, wondering if he still was against them secretly.

"Because I serve the Patriarch, and despite my own misgivings, he is the voice of Abba in this world. Our disagreement does not change that. It simply means that I do not know all that I ought." Vinsah admitted, not gazing at his master, unable to meet the ancient man's eyes. Yet, there was a look of solemn peace on Akabaieth's face, as if his servant's anxieties had been known to him all along.

They turned a corner, and Francis Hough tried to collect his thoughts. Having been the priest of one of the remotest parts of the Follower faith, he had never had much contact with the elite priesthood circling Yesulam. Never had he heard of any of them questioning the Patriarch's decisions, once they were made. At least not in this manner. Certainly he had pondered why the Patriarch had reached a certain decision, and so questioned it to understand it, but never to refute it. From what Vinsah and Akabaieth had described, many of the other Bishops were trying to undermine the authority granted by Yahshua to the line of Patriarchs. It struck the boy as heresy.

"And what of these other priests?" He finally asked, seeing as none of the men from Yesulam were going to provide him with an answer. "Do they feel as you did, Bishop Vinsah?"

"I do not know what is in each of their hearts, but I believe that after this journey, they will come around and stand in harmony with the Patriarch."

"That was another of my hopes," Akabaieth interjected. "I could not tell it to Duke Thomas, as it would only cause unrest in the Followers here. They do know that some of their brethren hate them for what they've become, but they are still part of the body of Yahshua. If we reveal what people like me have let that body become, they will despair, and I do not wish them to face that, not when what we shall do here will start to heal that body."

Hough sighed slowly, his thoughts still a mess. "Then why tell me?"

"Because you ought to know, as you must watch over our flock here." Akabaieth raised one hand to his head, as if from fatigue. The Yeshuel moved a step closer to him, their eyes wary. But the moment was quick, and soon the man had regained his composure. "And also because I owe you an explanation for why I had put off your request to appoint a priest over this place.

"Many of the Bishops who argued that Metamor was a spawning ground for demons pointed out that no priest had ever come here and suffered the curse. Some claimed that only a true man of Eli could face the magic and remain in a way to preserve their position. In other words, it is good that you became a child, Hough, otherwise I could never have legitimized this parish without tearing the Ecclesia in half. Had you become an animal or a woman, all hope for Metamor's redemption would have been lost."

Francis took a deep breath, not saying a word. He'd held those same fears last Spring when he'd still been an adult. But Akabaieth was continuing, and so he returned his attention to the Patriarch's voice. "Even so, with you a child, there were still those who objected to my decision. They claimed that a child could not be a priest, even though there was nothing in our traditions which spoke against it. Some of them accepted however, and so the situation is not nearly as grave as it was a year ago, but the debate continues. My presence here has only brought it back out again."

"But it had to be done," Vinsah countered.

"Yes, you are right, Vinsah," Akabaieth said softly, almost forlornly. "I wish that they would see."

"They will see, once you show them," Vinsah repeated, placing a consoling hand on the man's back. The Yeshuel stared at it with one eye, as if they were ready for it to spontaneously change into a dagger or some other weapon.

"Thank you, my good friend," Akabaieth then said, sharing a bit of personal warmth that moved deeper than any smile he had favoured the Followers here at the Keep with. "I do hope that we are right."

Vinsah returned the smile, his own face having started to show the lines of age. Hough guessed him to be forty at least, maybe even fifty. Nobody could ever guess his own age, for he would always appear to be ten or twelve for the rest of his life. It would be awkward for most to treat him as an adult outside of Metamor, even if they knew how old he really was.

"So the division runs deep in the Ecclesia over Metamor?" Hough asked finally, though he wished that he did not have to.

"The Bishops of the Southern continent don't care about Metamor at all," Vinsah replied tartly. "Their indifference has allowed this situation to grow disproportionately massive. In all reality, the divisions exist on several levels. Only about Metamor though are they so open about it."

"Again, that is why we are here, to show them that this place is one blessed by Abba." Akabaieth pointed towards the walls with a magnanimous gesture. "And what of your parish here? I cannot remember the number of Keepers whom I have greeted so far. How thrives your ministry?"

Hough stood a little taller. "Well, most of them were delighted to know that this parish is now officially recognized by the Ecclesia. It has given many hope that they may one day be able to walk freely in other kingdoms too. Several of the Followers here had been depressed because they felt so isolated from the rest of humanity, but with my appointment here, they have grown chipper again.

"Tensions between ourselves and the Lightbringers are minimal, as Thomas said. The head priestess of their order here, Raven hin'Elric, is quite professional, and does not interfere in our work. As per the agreement Duke Thomas and I reached this last Spring, I've made no attempt to convert any of the Lothanasi, but several Keepers of various sects of our own faith have returned to full union with the Ecclesia."

"Ah, that is good to hear." Akabaieth smiled pleasantly. "It pains me more to see those who follow Yahshua to be divided to the point that we cannot worship together anymore, than it does to see others following a different path."

"As do I," Hough added, nodding as they continued down the hallway. It normally did not take Hough this long to make his way to the Chapel, but he knew that the Keep was giving them the privacy and length they needed to talk.

"Now, this Chapel you mentioned, where did it come from again?" Akabaieth asked, as if sensing Hough's thoughts.

"Well, it just one day appeared in the Keep. Nobody had ever seen it before until Madog and I found it while playing catch one morning."

"Madog?" Vinsah queried, his face a mix of curiosity. "Playing catch?"

Hough blushed slightly at that. "Madog is a mechanical fox. Misha found him about a year or so ago, and has rebuilt him and repaired him. He lives here at the Keep, treading the passages in ways few of us understand."

"A mechanical fox?" Akabaieth asked, his face alight with wonder. "Is he intelligent?"

Hough nodded emphatically. "Not only that, but I believe he has a soul."

"Curious," Akabaieth murmured, running one hand across his chin. "Is it a human soul?"

The boy priest shrugged. "I do not know, it does not feel quite right. I do not understand how it was placed in that body, but there is life behind those mechanical eyes. I cannot describe it, you would have to meet him to understand."

"I do hope that I will have that chance. Madog sounds quite intriguing. There are more wonders here at Metamor than I think I have ever glimpsed before." A distant expression clouded the old man's eyes for a moment, and then it was gone. "What were you saying before?"

Hough quickened his step a moment and continued his story. "Anyway, I was walking the Keep by myself one morning, trying to straighten out my thoughts. And then I ran into Madog, who was clutching the metal ball in his mouth. For some reason, I have always been friends with that mechanical fox, and he with me. I cannot explain it better than that.

"Anyway, his presence brightened my mood, and so I would roll the ball he had, and he would go chase after it, and bring it back. He accompanied me all the way back to my quarters, and then wandered down this door I had never seen before. Inside of it was the Chapel, as if it had always been there."

"So how did it come to be there?" Akabaieth pressed, ever so gently.

"Well, the Keep made it essentially. You know of the magical structure of this place. Things move around and reform at a whim almost. Not quite at a whim as things are pretty constant most of the time, but you may never take the same path to any place in this Keep if you wish, no matter how many times you go there.

"Madog told me that Kyia, the spirit of Metamor, had built this place for me. He'd asked her too if you can believe that. Knowing Madog and this wonderful place, I do believe it, even if others only think it a tale one tells children."

Kashin raised one eyebrow whimsically as he gazed at the boy priest before him, but said nothing. Vinsah cast Akabaieth a concerned frown, but the ancient priest only nodded solemnly. "And who is this Kyia? A servant of Eli?"

"I believe so, though the Lightbringers claim her as one of their pantheon."

Vinsah snorted, "They'd have claimed Yahshua too if they could."

Akabaieth held up his hand, and gave his aide a sharp look, one of the first that Hough had ever seen the Patriarch give. In that moment, Francis understood how this gentle grandfather of a man could have been a warrior for hate and persecution in his younger days, for the fire of it was still burning behind the mask of solemnity. "We are a guest in a house that is traditionally theirs. I wish to bring peace between us, so we must be understanding of them if we are to expect the same courtesy from them."

Vinsah looked terribly ashamed of himself, his face set in an apologetic moue. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned against you and our Abba in my hasty words."

Akabaieth nodded and placed one of his ancient hands against the man's face, stroking the weary cheek. "You are forgiven." He then turned back to Hough and offered him a consoling smile. "And you believe this Kyia serves Eli?"

Hough thought for a moment. "Yes, I do."

"Does she help the Lightbringers as well?"

"From all that I have heard, she assists all the Keepers, no matter their faith."

"Interesting," Akabaieth said, running his hand across his chin, eyes turned inward.

"There are books about her in the library I believe," Hough offered. "I am sure that you could peruse them at some point during your stay if you wished."

The Patriarch shook his head gently, smiling familiarly at them all. "No, I do not believe I will have much time for study while I am here. Tomorrow I will take a brief tour of the library before I meet with Raven hin'Elric, but afterwards I want to walk through the town and see the people, be they of our flock or not."

Father Hough nodded as he saw the double doors to the chapel finally. The private entrance to the beautiful hall was still through his room, but the Keep had provided with main doors for the rest to come through, so they would not disturb the privacy of his chambers. The doors themselves were made from thick, stout, oak with crossbeams of hickory. There was a locking mechanism inside, but Hough had never seen fit to use it.

"Here we are, I'm sure Father Lothar will be delighted to meet you finally."

"The new Ellcaran priest?" Vinsah asked.

"Yes, that is him. He arrived this morning asking if you'd shown up yet. You may blame him for revealing your coming." Hough winked playfully at the Pontiff, feeling his boyish spirits rising yet again. Sometimes, there were advantages to being a child, such as the fact that his mind was too excitable to stay worried for long over some lurking threat leagues distant. Then again, becoming distracted when he saw a kite flying outside the chapel windows while giving his Homily did tend to embarrass him.

The Patriarch gave out a little laugh at the returned good humour, but said nothing else until they had passed through the doors and stood in the Chapel. His eyes traced the rows of pews, all the way up to the altar and the crucifix hanging behind it. Then, he scanned the vaulted ceiling, the rather echoing sound that came back with each breath, and then the stained glass windows along each balcony. Everywhere he met colours and patterns that were so familiar to the Ecclesia, yet with an added twist. Many of the depictions featured animals in the guises of men, much like life at Metamor. Only the crucifix itself portrayed an unaltered human, a fact noticed by all.

"It's beautiful," Iosef said, unable to stay silent in the face of such splendour.

The Patriarch's eyes had returned from the clerestory, and was once again gazing at the pews, in which sat a few Keepers, kneeling and praying to towards the altar. "Very beautiful," he affirmed in a quiet voice, taking a few steps forward across the tiled stones. His eyes settled on a man in priestly cassock sitting with a woman who appeared to be more of a dog. She appeared to have been crying. The two of them then embraced in a light hug, the woman's tongue reaching out to lick at the man's ear reflexively. Akabaieth's voice was soft, barely audible as he said, "Very beautiful indeed."

Kee found himself before the Duke's personal chambers. He'd been looking for Thalberg, and he'd wound up here, so knew that the alligator must be inside talking with Thomas. The two guards saw him, and recognized the coyote instantly for who he was. One of them knocked on the door, and opened it calling out, "The messenger Kee is here."

Thomas's voice rang back, "Let him in."

The guard held wide the door, and with a nod of thanks, Kee passed through, his tail flicking nervously behind him. Thalberg was sitting in one of the Duke's ancestral chairs, his long tail draped over one side, his yellow eyes peering at the coyote curiously. Thomas was standing next to his Steward, a small tumbler in his thick fingers.

"Is something the matter, Kee?" Thomas asked, noting the coyote's nervous trepidation. "You look like somebody just threatened to dump their ale down your trousers."

The coyote wagged his long bushy tail in agitation, but could not help but to laugh at the bizarre analogy. "I've two messages for the Steward, but it is good that ye are here, for they would be well spent on your ears as well, my liege."

"Well, no need to keep us waiting, Kee. What terrible news has you in such a bunch?"

"Well, it is not really terrible, it will just interfere with your plans for the banquet this evening," Kee admitted, scuffling his paw along the rich maroon carpeting. "The first is that we just received a letter from Lorland stating that Prince Phil will be late returning from the castle. Apparently, their business there is taking longer than expected."

Thalberg and Thomas exchanged glances for a moment. They both knew that Wessex had asked for Phil's company while at the dead Loriod's estate. They also knew that the boy mage was there trying to restore Macaban to humanity and free him from the feral state those old spells had left him in several weeks ago. If he were going to be late returning, it was likely that something had not gone as intended.

"Well, how late did the letter say?" Thalberg asked, the first to speak. "I can easily delay the banquet for an hour if necessary."

Kee shook his head. "It did not say how late he would be, only that he would be late and to start without him if necessary."

"The Patriarch wished to meet Prince Phil, and if it is my power to grant, I will," Thomas declared intently, as if moved by some unseen force. "Yet Thalberg is right, we cannot delay the banquet forever. If need be, we shall start without the Prince and hope that something can be arranged later." He appeared thoughtful for a moment, his equine head gazing towards a window. Kee noted that the Duke had removed the ceremonial robe and was now dressed in the undershirts, still fancy, but hardly as ostentatious. "You said that was the first thing you had?"

"Oh yes, the other is that Zhypar Habakkuk has declined your invitation," Kee added, again scuffling his paw across the carpet. He could see that Thalberg was most upset with the refusal.

"But he's a Patildor!" The great alligator objected. "What in the world is possessing that marsupial mind of his to reject such an invitation!"

"Come to think of it," Thomas murmured, "I didn't see him at the greeting either. Could he possibly have taken ill?"

Kee shook his head. "He was in his office at the Writer's Guild. He'd locked his door, and wasn't coming out. He may be ill, but he sounded fine to me."

"Even if he wasn't Patildor, he is the head of the Writer's Guild. He should attend the banquet given in honour of such a dignified leader as the Patriarch. Metamor's chief trade is its books after all!" Thalberg continued to grouse.

"If he refuses to come because he is ill, that is one thing," Thomas gave his Steward a warning glance. "But you are right, it is extremely rude of him to reject the invitation without explanation. I shall go talk to him myself."

"Oh course, my liege," Kee nodded and bowed. "Are there any messages you wish for me to deliver?"

The Duke shook his head, "Not at this time, no. Wait, find the Patriarch and inform him that the banquet will be delayed for a short while." In a quiet voice he added, "I cannot imagine he will complain."

Again, the coyote messenger bowed. "Of course, my liege. He will know in minutes of your words." And with that, the humble servant returned back through the doors and sped off down the corridor, nearly falling to all fours to run.

Thalberg breathed heavily. "This wouldn't be the first time that kangaroo has made life difficult for others you realize?"

"Yes, he seems to have changed a great deal in the last year." Turning to face the alligator, the horse lord added, "But everyone changes as the years pass. I shall speak with him myself. You instruct your staff to keep the meals warm while we wait for Prince Phil's arrival. I want to be notified the moment his carriage is spotted."

"I will see to it that it is done," Thalberg inclined his long snout, closing his yellow eyes momentarily. "Shall I have Zhypar's place at the table changed?"

Thomas shook his head, his tail flicking between his thighs. "No, not yet at any rate. Let me talk with him and see if he will not change his mind. I cannot think of the last time a visitor of this stature came to the Keep. I'd hate for anything to go wrong, especially when it is done from stubbornness."

"Of course, I am sure you will make your point clear to him," Thalberg nodded his head again, and rose from his seat and left the room. Thomas followed after him, closing the door behind him. Two of the four guards standing out the door fell into step behind the Duke as the lord of Metamor and the Steward went in separate directions.

He was joined by two more guards rather quickly, and the procession of the five of them continued on their way through the halls of the Keep until they found themselves in the courtyard outside, walking towards the old barracks where the Writer's Guild made its home. The tiled roof shone brightly in the late afternoon sun, while the heraldic quill appeared to have been freshly painted. The back door though was where they entered. Two of the guards stopped and stood outside, while the other two followed their liege on in.

Habakkuk occupied the largest of the three offices, as his new station demanded. Prince Phil made a point to spend at least one or two hours a day here, but of late, that had proven impossible. Thomas idly wondered how long the rabbit would let that continue before stepping aside to let another take his position.

The kangaroo's door was closed of course, and a gruff voice responded at the Duke's knock. "I'm busy, can you please come back later."

"Zhypar, this is Duke Thomas. I was hoping you could explain to me why you refused the invitation to the banquet this evening."

The sound of something falling over and crashing to the floor could be hear beyond the door. One of the guards stifled a laughed. Soon, the sound of feet shuffling to the door could be heard, and then the sound of a bolt turning. Thomas wondered why the kangaroo felt it was necessary to lock himself inside. When the door opened, he saw that the face before him was uncombed, and haggard. "Duke Thomas, I was not expecting you. Please, come in."

Thomas crossed the threshold, while the two guards took position outside the door. "I rather doubted you did. I don't often come here after all."

Gazing about the room, he saw that the desk was arranged into neat piles of papers, most likely stories he had either read through and critiqued or stories waiting to be read. His stool was overturned behind his desk, and a few papers had fallen to the floor as well. A fresh piece of parchment was soaking up a bit of spilled ink as well, obscuring the first few letters written there.

"And you want to know why I turned the offer down," Habakkuk added, his long tail marred by a bit of ink as well. He turned to look at it and grimaced, running his paws across each other. "I'm not very presentable right now in case you hadn't noticed."

"The banquet is not for another hour at least, and besides, Prince Phil is going to be late arriving. We cannot start without him either. You'll have plenty of time to clean up. It must be something else."

Zhypar turned away, unable to look the Duke in the eye. There was something in the marsupial's voice that set Thomas on edge, but he could not quite identify what it was. "I just do not wish to meet him."

"But why?" Thomas held out his arms, his expression of befuddlement genuine.

"It would be too hard to explain. I just do not wish to meet him. Is that not reason enough?" Habakkuk growled angrily, his upset showing through clearly in the way he stood there, crossing his arms.

Thomas returned the gesture, his hoof like hands nestling between his elbows. "No, it is not. You are the Head of the Writer's Guild. That position carries with it a responsibility. You have agreed to meet those responsibilities, and one of those is that you will be present to entertain visiting dignitaries. Now, it is not one you will have to fulfill often, but when the time comes, you will do it if you are so able. Were you ill, it would be one thing. But you are healthy, and so I will not have you ruin one of the most important meals we shall ever have here at the Keep simply by refusing to dignify the Patriarch with your presence. Don't make me order you to come, Zhypar. I do not wish to do that."

Habakkuk stared back at his desk, as if he were only dimly aware of the Duke's presence. There was something else, some other world filling his vision for a moment. And then it was gone, like a bit of dust reflecting the light until it landed in the still waters of a nearby lake. "I probably could make myself sick rather quickly."

Thomas whickered angrily now. "You will clean yourself up, and you will be at the banquet. Do you understand that?"

Habakkuk nodded slowly. "Of course. I will be there."

"Good, now don't delay. Phil may arrive at any time." And with that, Thoms turned on his hind hooves, and stomped out of the room, leaving the kangaroo alone in his office once again.

Zhypar sighed slowly, stepping back over to his desk, clumsy on his large feet. He righted the spilled ink, and set down another sheet of parchment to soak it up. He'd been writing something, but the black ink had blotted it out. For that, he was glad.

chapter 6

Kneading his fingers together, Wessex stretched his arms wide and yawned. It had been a tiring day so far, and though the sun was still shining just above the western mountains, already the lull of sleep called out to him. He fondly looked forward to retiring to his cell in the dungeon for some peaceful rest. Their plan to rid him of his nightmares so far had proven successful. Not since that night nearly a month ago had he faced the dæmons taunting his dreams. Phil had been right, the magical wards on the dungeon had prevented whoever was invading his sleeping thoughts from returning.

Yet, with every distraction plaguing him, from the missing pages in the Sudenhart Arcanum, to Llyn's sword, and now to Macaban, he'd barely had anytime to start his own investigations. At best, he'd discovered that Loriod's summer clothes were probably free from guilt, but that he'd suspected already. Behind them in the carriage were more of Loriod's possessions, each waiting their turn for an augury. But as it was, he'd need to rest for several days after the incantation he'd performed over Macaban before he could start.

The donkey steward of Lorland had proved more difficult to call back than Phil had several months ago, but like before, the method had eventually proven successful. The boy wizard could not vanquish the look of sheer terror on Phil's face as he'd continued the proceedings. Was the rabbit thinking only of when they'd done this to him? Did he know that when Wessex had pushed his humanity against the curse he'd erupted into flames all those months ago? It was not something he liked to think about. So close he had come to giving Phil's his human body back, and yet, with each moment, the curse had pushed back like some ponderous wheel towering far overhead, ready to crush him beneath its wide black berth as it rolled across all of Metamor.

Yet, in the end, Wessex had been successful, and Macaban was restored to his humanity, as much of it that could be given anyway. Phil had instructed Captain Hargrove to see that their friend rest for a few days before retaking on his duties. The collie had hastily agreed, appearing delighted to have this magical conundrum finally sorted out. Of course, none of them in the carriage felt it was over.

"You haven't answered my question, Wessex," Phil chided him as they sat towards the back. The great ape Rupert was guiding the horses, the clatter of their hooves on the roadway covering their voices.

The boy nodded slowly, running his small fingers across the edge of his boots. "I know. I suppose it is possible that more of those traps may be still on the Lorlanders. I had not thought it would be possible to subsume their humanity so effectively. At least this gives us one additional piece of information that we didn't have before."

"And that is?" Phil asked, chewing on a fresh carrot. It had been harvested after Loriod's demise, and so he felt perfectly safe munching on the delicacy from Lorland.

"If Zagrosek was indeed the one who laid down those spells, as I believe he must have, then he knows a great deal about the curses."

"But Nasoj has not been able to access magic quite that powerful since the Battle of Three Gates. And any time he has possessed the potential, we've taken it from him. How could one of his subordinates master its intricacies?" Phil's ears were completely erect, as his eyes scanned the distant tree-line. The roadway led through the forest up into the hills surrounding Metamor. About twenty metres on either side of the road had been cleared to prevent banditry.

Wessex shrugged absently, looking back up, his face crossed with mystery. "Perhaps he's not associated with Nasoj at all."

Phil blinked a few times. "Do you mean this Zagrosek is allied with another enemy?"

The boy shrugged yet again, tapping his knee thoughtfully with one finger. "It is possible. We are not the most beloved of people to the south. I cannot of course be sure of this, but something tells me that Zagrosek has nothing to do with Nasoj at all. Not even Nasoj has dared to trifle with matters of the Underworld, something that Zag has done repeatedly."

The rabbit nodded, chewing the carrot down to half its size. They were cresting a rise, and the highest towers of Metamor could be seen in the distance. "And just what is this Underworld? I have heard you talk about it, but never what it is."

"Well, that is because nobody knows just what it is." Wessex glanced at the distant trees, noting the reds and oranges of the leaves as they littered the ground. "Very little is known about it, as almost nobody has any experience with it. The Lightbringers claim that it is not the realm of their daedra, or the Fallen. Not even the Patildor want to claim it for their own hell. The only thing anyone is certain of that does come from there is Matthias's Shriekers."

Phil shuddered, wrapping his paws about himself as best his rabbit form was able. "Is that all that you know? It does not sound to be much at all."

Wessex shook his head. "I know that neither you nor I are very religious men." The rabbit gave what could only be described as a snort at that. "But I did do a little reading on the Patildor shortly after Father Hough arrived here. I wanted to be ready in case we ever managed to get into a religious discussion. Thankfully we have not, but that is another matter. What is important was that there is one reference made to the Underworld in their theological tracts."

"And that would be?"

"Well," Wessex began, stretching his arms again, stifling the yawn that yearned to be on his lips. "When their Eli made all that was, he had to pull Himself back to make room for something that would be of Him. It was all very theological, and quite ridiculous, but the passage concerning the Underworld felt so true, that I was unable to forget it. The Patildor claim that when their Eli pulled back, something came into being that was entirely not Him. Not just without His presence, but so opposite to it, that everything wholesome that had existed in Him was negated. I'm not sure if the Lothanasi possess something similar, but I intend to look into it."

"If indeed there is a higher power, then that description of the Underworld, from what you have told me, sounds like it would be accurate," Phil mused drily, finishing off the last of the carrot. "But we must assume what we know, and not base our understandings on superstition. Do you think that you can track Zagrosek's power to its source and end his threat?"

"If I can find the trail, then yes, I think I can."

"Good," Phil slapped his knees with his paws. "That is all we need to know. I shall do my best to make sure that you can."

Wessex nodded, and then peered past the rabbit at something in the distant woods. He could not see it very clearly, but there was an icy chill clutching round his heart. His breath caught in his throat as he stared, unable to break his eyes from those clustered woods, the leaves shaking in the wind, falling to the ground, passing through something, some shape that he could not see. The boy blinked a few times, rubbing his palms over his eyes as if to banish this sudden feeling, but it persisted, his heart going just as cold as in the predawn twilight when he'd glimpsed the Symphony upon that wall.

Yet, in the way the leaves fell, coalescing about that figure of blackness between the gnarled trunks, he could almost make out a face. Constantly shimmering in the wind, each new leaf at once where his eyes ought to be, and then the next that gaping mouth. All of them made up his face for every moment, a face that had grown increasingly familiar in his nightmares. It split into two smaller faces, each even more recognizable, and then it was gone, his heart stone cold.

"Stop the carriage," he barely whispered, the hair on his arms standing on end. He ran his hands across the chilled flesh, trying to warm himself, though it did no good, for his eyes were still locked on that spot in the woods by the road.

"What?" Phil asked then, his face curious. The rabbit's eyes scanned the horrified features of the boy next to him, and then turned to Rupert and called out in a loud voice, hardly befitting a former naval commander of Whales, but a commanding one nonetheless, "Rupert, stop the carriage!"

The great ape did as instructed, though he turned about once the horses had come to a stop, and began necking each other and sniffing at the ground for any trace of grass. He mimed a question, but Phil waved a paw at him, still focussed on Wessex. The boy had stood in his seat, and was staring at the woods a short ways back up the road, the spot firmly entrenched in his mind, just as much as that wall had become.

"What is it, Wessex?" Phil asked, his whole body alert, as any rabbit would be who smelled a predator about.

"They're here," was all the boy could say, before his body began to shudder at the terrible thought of what might lurk in those woods.

"Who's here?" Phil pressed.

"I -" Wessex began, but his tongue caught in his throat, as images began to flash through his mind. It was of a great underground chamber, vast in proportion, the distant walls barely visible in the wan red illumination. A black suppurating light emanated from the centre of the floor, through a crack that ran across its length. A circle of dancing figures stood there, nine of them, each marked by carefully sculpted figures, stile and slash. He could not help realize that they were the chevrons that decorated the censer. Nor did he fail to discern that several of the figures were very familiar. In the centre of the ring lay the supine form of a hawk - his own student Jessica. And the fourth figure in the circle was none other than himself, his face contorted with the mask of death.

And then the image was gone, just as suddenly as it had come. The carriage surrounded him, and the white face of his rabbit companion was pressed close to his. "Wessex!" Phil shouted, while Rupert stood over them both, gazing on in concern. "Wessex, what's wrong?"

The boy shuddered, blinking free that sudden flash, a flash of something he had never before seen, yet had filled him with greater terror than even that Symphony had. Whatever lay inside that crack was a greater danger to the world than anything that censer could have brought forth. "Zagrosek is here."

"What? Now?" Phil asked, scanning the roadside. The rabbit's whole body started to shudder and quake, very subtly, though it was clear that fear was filling his mind.

"Yes, in that forest across the way!" Wessex pointed, rising to his feet again. Rupert reached out one hand to snatch him back, but his mind was set. He would not be taunted by this maleficent wizard. He had the power over his own thoughts.

"Wessex, come back!" Phil shouted, darting back in sudden rabbity fear, as the boy mage jumped from the carriage and towards the spot of the tree line he had seen the spectral faces of both Zagrosek and Matthias only moments before. He could hear the great ape following after him, and knew that he would never be able to outrun Rupert.

Just as he let that thought grace his mind, barely three steps from the carriage itself, Wessex felt the ape's large, thick, hand grip him about his collar and drag him back. Wessex beat at the thick simian arm with his fists, but to no avail, as he soon was deposited beside the carriage where Phil had hopped down in agitation, eyes straining to that wood in terror. "Wessex, what has gotten into you?"

"That man is out there right now, I can feel it!" Wessex cried out, nearly breaking down in tears as the desire to face him and the knowledge that his friends would not let him tore at his soul. "He's taunting me and there is nothing I can do."

"And you say he is in that forest, right now?" Phil asked, his voice shuddering.

"Well, he was, at least a moment or so ago," Wessex tried to take his eyes away from where he'd seen the leaves fall, trying to shunt those images from his mind. That black pit though kept returning, as well as the fact that Jessica was the one who lay in the centre, a knife hanging over her heart, ready to be torn out in some bizarre ritual.

Phil appeared thoughtful for a moment, his ears standing straight up. That he was fighting his own fear just to speak was evident to both of his companions, but they were long since used to the difficulties of his nature. "Well, you said that they needed you to open that door, correct?"

"Yes, without me it will never open."

"Then, let us leave so that we dare not risk them taking you for that hideous deed." Phil stood up as best he was able to with his lapine body and urged the boy with one paw towards the carriage.

Wessex shook his head at the shivering Prince, a wan smile crossing his features."No, my friend. If he was out there, this may be another clue I need to track him down. I have to go out there. Rupert, can you come along and bring that anti-magic powder? If he is still there, then it would be very useful. I doubt that he would strike if such a lethal element were in play."

In moments, Rupert was brandishing the bag of deadly powder in one hand. Wessex had asked that he bring it in case it would be needed in the casting to restore Macaban's humanity. He was not sure of any complications that might arise, and was not willing to take any chances. Thankfully, it had proceeded smoothly, even though it had taken longer than expected. Now however, Rupert might have a chance to use it, a thought the boy mage did not relish.

Phil however, appeared even more frightened, hopping back as close as he could to the carriage itself, his face darkening with shame, his eyes on the verge of tears as he turned away form the woods, fighting all of his instinct to scurry into hiding.

Rupert looked down at his prince with his great simian eyes, and then shook his head to Wessex, pointing very firmly with his finger to stay here. Wessex stamped one foot in frustration. "Don't you see, this is an opportunity to take a stand against this man. Yet, I know that it could be dangerous, but we cannot hope to defeat evil if we only venture where it is safe. Rupert, I need you."

The great ape shook his head firmly again, and stood next to the cringing white rabbit. Phil was ducking so close to the ground, his whole body shaking, that a bit of the dirt from the road was smearing across his paws.

Sighing, Wessex could feel the burning desire filling him. Holding out his hand, his fingers unfurled, he gazed menacingly at the great ape. "Then give me the powder."

Rupert glanced to Phil, who only nodded briefly, staring at Wessex in anxious curiosity. Wessex then turned about, and began the trek towards the woods, intent on seeing what was there for himself. His fingers worked at the knot on the sack in his palm, slowly undoing the drawstring.

Phil watched the boy head towards that forest. Though he could not see anything out of the ordinary, it simply felt wrong, terribly wrong. Closing his eyes in humiliating shame at the fear that had clutched around his heart, preventing him from moving from that spot by the carriage, he tried to find that human still inside of the rabbit. Was he more than an animal? Wessex had given him back his humanity in his most horrible hour. And here, when the boy needed him, he was returning once more to that feral state, being just a bunny.

Pushing down the fear that would not leave him, Phil turned back and stared after the boy. He would need help, but Rupert would not abandon the Prince's side as long as they were out here, even if Phil ordered him to. Shaking with the ever present terror, more fitting a rabbit than a man, Phil leaped forward, digging his claws deep into the earth, as if that would somehow siphon his fright away.

The boy stared back at them both, Rupert quickly following after his master. Wessex smiled then, and breathed a sigh of relief. "Are you coming after all?"

Phil nodded, though did not let himself come to a full stop just yet, for fear he would turn back and flee from this phantom nightmare. Rupert took the satchel of anti-magic dust form the child mage, who appeared to be most grateful to no longer have it in his possession.

Wessex then turned on his feet, friends squarely behind him, and firmly glaring at the spot where the faces in the leaves had been. It was a rather unremarkable break in the tree-line, two oaks standing several shoulders apart, their branches decorated with bright orange leaves, and their roots creeping up out of the grassy soil, even out of the pile of discarded leaves that they had already shed. Past the first few trees were the stouter trunks of a few hickory, but beyond them was darkness. It was already moving on twilight. In another hour this road would be a shadowy haunt, not to mention the creeping blackness of the woods.

When they were but a few ells from the first branches of those two gnarled oaks, Rupert stopped them both and tested the air with one finger. Satisfied, he slightly opened the powder, and released a few of the sparkling particles into the air. They floated along the currents of the wind, between the two trees trunks themselves, and then quickly descended into the pile of leaves. Where they touched, the reds and oranges became a crumpled brown, and then an ash as the particles of anti-magic sucked every last drop of essence from them. None of the particles moved past those two trees, a fact which caused Rupert to take a sharp intake of breath.

"What does that mean?" Wessex asked. Despite his vast knowledge of things magical, this expensive and rare powder from Whales was still a mystery to him.

Phil shivered slightly in his white fur, trying his best not to bolt in panic. "It means that you were not just imaging things. Somebody has cast magic here, and upon those leaves."

"I saw faces in the leaves," Wessex added softly, stepping a bit closer to the trees. The rabbit was right behind him, while Rupert refused to let any go before him, cantering nearly up the oaks himself, peering into the darkness clutched within those sombre branches.

"What sort of faces?"

The boy shook his head, pressing one hand against his temples. "The first one I cannot say. I know that I have seen it before somewhere, and I was sure I knew it when I glimpsed it, yet it is gone now. The other two were the constant banes of my nightmares, Matthias and Zagrosek."

Rupert picked up one of the desiccated leaves and examined it. All that remained of it's substance were the veins running through it, the rest was a flimsy grey sheen. The ape showed it to Phil, who peered at it curiously, his eyes scanning the nearby trees though, listening with his large ears. Wessex heard nothing though, only the sounds that any forest might make. Having never spent much time outdoors, he could barely catalogue any of them. Every frog's croak was a laugh of derision to Wessex, just as every owl's hoot was the threat of a sudden attack.

"Whoever was here has left, Wessex," Phil then said, his voice slow, carefully measured, though aghast. "We need to move on, there is nothing more we can find here. We shall take some of these leaves with us so that you might examine them. I will tell the Duke of this if you wish."

"No, please do not do that, at least not yet." Wessex turned to his friend, his eyes a plea. "If you do that then Thomas will send out scouts to look for him. I am afraid that they would only die at the hands of Zagrosek. We must do this alone, at least for now. We know almost nothing about him. Perhaps these leaves can give us more insight into his power."

Phil nodded then, and placed a wary paw on his friends shoulder. "I shall share this burden with you alone then for sometime longer. But if anything unusual happens, please, do not keep me again from coming to your aid."

Wessex lowered his head, shuffling his feet in the fallen leaves, "I shall not. Let us leave this place though, for I do not wish to stay here any longer."

"Nor do I." Phil looked back to the aide, "Rupert, can you collect these leaves and put them in a sack? We do not have much time."

The ape nodded, but only collected a few in his arms, as he would not take the time to retrieve a sack until he was sure his charge was safe. Although he could not be sure, the boy could have sworn that the wind blew a few of the leaves away from the great ape as he watched. The rabbit hopped over to Wessex then and pressed himself into the boy's side a bit involuntarily. "Come away from this place, my friend. You cannot chase your dreams here. Perhaps your enemy taunts you because he is afraid you will be able to defeat him now?"

Wessex leaned back into the rabbit, helplessly. "I do hope so." And then the two of them walked briskly away from the trees. Phil however quickly outpaced the young mage, reaching the carriage and shaking with the repressed fear that had flowed like blood through his veins. With a cry of horror, he began to hack and cough, phlegm dislodging from his throat as he stood hunched over. Wessex stood and stared at his friend of many years. He knew all too well the burdens the rabbit wore, and this was the one of shame.

Lake's Head Inn was a modest establishment just a short distance from the wharfs and ferries that crossed the Bozojo Lake in the western portions of the Southern Midlands. Benlan Rais prided himself on providing all travellers with a warm meal and a clean bed, be they Kelewairian merchants riding north to sell their cloths in Landon, missionaries from Sathmore on their way to the Outer Midlands where their influence had waned in the last century, or even the occasional Flatlander knight roaming the countryside. However, the cloaked figure seated towards the back of the main hall was a mystery even for him.

Benlan Rais considered himself a well educated man, having spent many of his younger days working the Inns of Kelewair and watching the procession of dignitaries, merchants, and other well-to-do citizens make their rounds. He listened in on their conversations while cleaning tables and scrubbing floors, learning of life in other cities and other places, some he still had never seen, and probably never would. Besides, being the Master of Lake's Head Inn brought more than his share of the world to him every night.

Bozojo, being situated on the northwestern shores of the most important lake in the Southern Midlands, saw quite a bit of the trade routes flow past her docks. Caravans to the Outer Midlands often would make a stop in their humble town before continuing eastward. The trader's district was full of Kelewairian merchants, each trying to find the easiest way to ship their cloths and carpets out to the sea for trade with Sathmore and Whales. Aside from Ellcaran, Bozojo was the largest trading town in all of the Southern Midlands.

Yet, despite all of this, never before had Benlan Rais put up with a visitor quite like the cloaked man sitting in the back and slowly eating through his supper, as if he cared not whether the morsels ever made it to his belly or not. Whereas Benlan himself was short and balding already, barely past the age of thirty, the man shrouded beneath the tightly woven cape, of a design he could not recall seeing among any of the tailor's shops in the Trader's District, was tall, lithe, and had long, strangely luminescent black hair that dangled about one of his angular cheeks. He'd never seen the colour of the man's eyes, only the shape of his jaw-line, a rather triangular construction coming to a smooth, narrow chin.

Benlan found his eyes drawn to the object of his contemplation, peering curiously at the black cloaked figure sitting quietly in the back. He wasn't the only one in the Inn to notice him, as many of his other patrons, a few merchants, and one traveller dressed in bright garish clothes with a long slender sword strapped to his buckler, had also taken to staring at this enigma.

The stranger had selected a table in the far end of the main room, beneath the stairs to the loft that was reserved for private dinners, and so was only illuminated by the two flames dancing in the sconces set next to the stairwell. The loft only covered a small portion of the main room, the rest was open to the higher ceiling, decorated with trophies and animal heads, as well as plenty of braziers and the overhanging chandelier. The selection allowed the stranger to remain in solitude and gave him free room to watch the other patrons. Benlan knew that those who chose such a place to sit were the sort who did not wish to be disturbed.

Even despite his unusual appearance, the facet of him that most startled Rais was his voice. It had been as tender as the dulcet tones of a flute, yet as firm as any of the Innkeepers he had served under in his youth. Despite the fact that the stranger had only asked so far for a meal, the impression had been quite profound. Earlier in the day, when the swashbuckler had trotted in and loudly declared his need for a meal and a place to bed for the night, as if he believed himself to be the most important being in the room, Benlan had expected he would have to watch over him and prevent him from starting trouble with the rest of his patrons. Now, it appeared that all anyone could do was stare fixedly at this even more unusual sight.

Purposefully drawing his eyes away from contemplation of his guest, Benlan continued to lean on the counter behind which he worked. The scent of the lake air was blowing in through the open doors. The chill of the night was already upon them, but the season was still warm, and would be so for a few weeks more. Glancing to his side at a sudden movement, he saw one of his serving boys carrying an ale towards the far side of the room. Grabbing the boy's shoulder, he yanked him back and glared in his suddenly frightened face.

"Where are you taking that, Akin?" Benlan Rais snarled.

Akin, one of the newer lads to come into his employ when his father drowned just a short ways off the docks, was not used to his master's swings of temper quite yet. In fright, he nearly dropped the mazer. As it was, he spilled a bit of the frothy ale across the floor, eliciting another snarl from the Innkeeper. "I'm sorry, master. I was just brining Master Greylin the ale he requested."

Benlan took the mug from his charge and sniffed at the liquid, eyeing the garish individual who was busy drinking from another mazer. Sir Greylin did not notice their conversation, as he was too busy eying the cloaked individual on the other side of the room. The black-clad stranger appeared to know that others were watching him eat, but he did not seem to care. "Take this in the back and water it down by half. Then clean this spill up."

"But, master, I already watered it down by half," Akin protested.

Benlan secretly smiled that his young charge had come to understand the business of running an Inn so well already in his short time here. He'd make a fine lad and worker when he was a few years older. Yet, Rais had an image to maintain, and an Inn to run, and compliments were not to be given in front of the patrons. "Then do it again! And don't forget to clean this spill up. I don't want Sir Greylin to be drinking anything but watered down ale the rest of this evening, do you understand?"

The boy nodded, his short blonde hair dirty from tending to the horses in the stables earlier in the day. "Yes, master." He then darted back through the door, clutching the mazer of ale very carefully between his hands.

There was a stirring behind him, and when Benlan Rais looked up past the counter, he saw the black cloaked stranger standing there, his gloved hands bearing the plate of food he'd been served. His thin set lips opened almost imperceptibly. "Your meal was quite well prepared. My compliments to your chef and to your dutiful servants who brought it to me."

The Innkeeper blinked in confusion for a moment before stuttering out a prideful sentiment. "Well, here at Lake's Head, you only receive the best." This man unnerved him greatly. He was reminded of the hounds his first master had kept - slavering beasts that would bark and snap at him if he dared come too close or disturb their kennel. There was something powerful about this figure before him that made him quake as he had done whenever his master had ordered him to feed those hounds.

"Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?" he finally asked, gripping one side of the counter to steady himself. Though he could not see the man's eyes, he could feel them studying his balding figure and short stature, as if he were deciding whether or not to snap at him like those dogs once had.

The man folded his gloved hands on the counter before him, pulling the cloak tighter about his chest. His fingers were long and slender. "I have heard it said that you are a man with his ear in many places, Master Rais. Is this not so?"

Benlan watched Akin hand Sir Greylin his ale only to have the garishly clad man swat at him ineffectually. The boy had ducked out of the way and scampered back towards the kitchens. The traveller appeared to be uninterested in pursuing the rebuke, and settled back into his drunken stupor. Returning his attention to the stranger before him he replied, "One could say that I suppose. Are you interested in what I have heard?" Both of their voices were soft now. Despite the familiarity of the terrain, Benlan still felt wary revealing his second trade - secrets.

"I am interested in one or two things, yes, Master Rais." Those bell-like tones left him uneasy. "Would you prefer to conduct your business in the open, or shall we adjourn to a more private setting?"

Benlan normally conducted his business of this nature behind closed doors. Yet, he was not sure he wished to be alone with this creature. For a brief moment he wondered if this was one of those monsters from Metamor, but the smooth jaw-line hinted otherwise. This was not an animal-man, but something else. Perhaps a traveller from the distant east. His accent was strange enough to merit such a locale. Very little was known about the people living beyond the Åelfwood. At the very least, little was known about them in Bozojo, and certainly to Benlan Rais.

Instead of answering directly, he decided to stall for a moment, to better gauge his quarry. "I suppose that really depends on what your intentions are. Many seek information, but it is what you do with it that determines whether it is an honest pursuit or not. The choice is then yours, my good sir. The choice is yours."

For a moment, just a moment, he thought he saw a smile upon those thin lips, as if this was all a pleasant game of rings and hatches, and Rais had just made a startlingly clever move. But before he could respond, a third voice lurched into their conversation. "Hey, what are you two talking about?" Greylin demanded as he slouched towards them, ale spilled across his brightly coloured tunic. "Are you talking about me?"

Benlan saw Akin come through the kitchen door once more to clean up the spill he'd made. Rais waved a hand at him, motioning for him to get back. The boy, saw the two figures on the other side of the counter, nearly dropped the damp cloth he carried, and stumbled back through the swinging door. "We are having a private conversation. It does not concern you. Return to your seat and to your drink," The stranger ordered without so much as a glance at the inebriated hooligan.

"I think it does concern me, stranger. Maybe you'd like to show yourself and we can discuss it face to face." Greylin then swung a fist towards the cloaked figure's head. Benlan stepped back, reaching for the cudgel he kept beneath the counter for just such occasions. It was thick enough that it usually convinced the drunkards to take their brawl out into the streets.

Yet the stranger was faster than he, stepping deftly to the side and reaching out with one gloved hand and pressing softly to the man's shoulder. Greylin spun on his heels and collapsed to the floor, his head striking solidly against the hardwood. Yet, in that moment when the stranger had moved, a bit of the torchlight had flashed across the rest of his face, illuminating his features for just a brief second. Those angular eyes, hooked nose, and hard yet delicate features were not those of a man at all, but of something... else.

Benlan Rais slipped the cudgel back beneath the counter top, his mouth dry. The stranger turned to him, the golden eyes once more obscured behind the shadow of his cloak. His voice was almost sardonic, "I believe we ought to take this behind closed doors, lest interlopers continue to interrupt us."

"I agree," Benlan nodded, while two of his boys came forward to help Greylin out into the streets. Calling to the eldest of the two, he instructed him to watch over the Inn while he was busy discussing matters with the stranger. And then, he turned and led the black clad thing into one of his back rooms, oddly beguiled that something so strange in this world would pass beneath his eyes this once.

chapter 7

Prince Phil arrived just moments before Thomas had decided to start the banquet with or without him. Most of the guests who would be there were already sitting in their spots sharing a bit of idle conversation. Yet the most important of them all, Patriarch Akabaieth was waiting in the wings with Duke Thomas before he and his companions would enter. It was not until Thalberg gave them the signal that all of the guests had been assembled that the Pontiff walked boldly into the room full of Keepers.

All the assembled rose at his entrance, announced by another fanfare of trumpeters, whose dramatic chord rose to the high vaulted ceiling over head. The crystal chandeliers turned and shuddered at the sound, their delicate frame nearly giving out at the resounding harmony. Akabaieth walked across the thick red carpet towards the large end of the table. A high backed chair waited for him, as well as three others for Vinsah and the two Yeshuel. Thomas strode in afterwards, taking the seat at the head of the table, only slightly more opulent than what had been prepared for Akabaieth.

The fanfare subsided as they were all standing at their seats. Thomas raised one arm, and smiled to the crowd, "Please, let us sit and enjoy this meal together, friends and countrymen, and our honoured guests. You are all welcome at this table."

There was a brief but polite applause before those gathered found their seats. Akabaieth happily sat down in his, his legs having begun to trouble him from so much walking earlier in the day. He wondered how many courses they would have before the toasts would commence. He hoped it would not be too many, as he always ate at least one thing from each course, to honour those he visited. It would not do to eat too much after all.

Gazing across the table he could see two snow white rabbits, one of whom appeared to be rather clumsy, and was receiving assistance from the other hare. The voice of the Duke interrupted his thoughts, "Your Eminence, I would like to introduce you to his Highness, Prince Phil of Whales."

A smile crept across Akabaieth's face, as he held out his hand towards the hare, across the table. "I am honoured to meet the scion of the Whales royal line. I had not expected to find myself so fortunate as to encounter any of my kinsman on this journey."

Phil held out a paw, and it was just that, a paw. Akabaieth shook it firmly though, betraying no concern over its shape. The rabbit rocked his ears in surprise. "You hail from Whales as well, Your Eminence? But there is very little Patildor presence in that kingdom, how did you come to be the Patriarch of a faith alien to your homeland?"

A warmly clad rat lay a tray of breads in the centre of the table before them, each smelling fresh and wholesome. Akabaieth reached in and selected a small loaf, and with the serving knife, spread a bit of the cream across its surface, before taking a bite. It tasted slightly of cheese, and had proven an altogether delightful morsel. "I am also curious as to how the son of the King of Whales has become a Metamorian. I did not think it the practice of most to send their sons as diplomats. Who sits on the throne now? When I was a boy, Antrepides was King, but he was already old by then."

"That was nearly eighty years ago," Phil stammered, but excited by talk of his homeland. "His grandson, Tenomides now sits on the throne. I am not his true son, he adopted me as he had no legitimate heir."

The Patriarch's eyebrows rose, his hands pausing in the act of lifting the bread to his mouth. "You were adopted into the Royal line? But that has never occurred in the last several centuries in Whales. How came you to be an exception to this tradition?"

Phil did his best to shrug humbly, though the gesture was barely perceptible on his lapine form. "Tenomides had no heirs, and we had cultivated a strong relationship in the years that I served under him."

"Ah, then how did you serve our King before your adoption?" Akabaieth leaned in closer, licking a bit of the butter from his fingers as the rest of the table around him listened in on their conversation. By now, he was used to this sort of treatment. Vinsah would often interject when he felt the Pontiff was being to open about his life, but so far, he appeared to be more interested in satiating his stomach than censoring his master's conversation.

"I was, and still am, the Fleet's Master of the Fire actually," Phil replied, rather modestly considering the importance of such a position. The other rabbit was gently massaging his shoulder with one paw, as if to restrain his enthusiasm.

Akabaieth dropped the piece of bread from his hands as his face went ashen. "You command the Fire for Whales?"

"And employed it several times actually, does this upset you?" Phil asked, his face turning down slightly in a frown, despite the fact he could offer little expressive quality in his features.

Thomas looked back and forth between the two, the slice of bread clutched tight in his hoof-like hand, his mouth waiting. Both Iosef and Kashin were blissfully unaware of the sudden pause in the conversation, eating their fill of the breads as if there were no more courses to the meal. Vinsah idly rubbed one of his fingers across his plate, his eyes mixed with sudden worry, as if he had not expected the Patriarch's reaction. Even Thalberg appeared uncomfortable, as he sniffed at the bread, afraid that somehow it may have been tampered with for a fleeting moment.

And then, Akabaieth reached down and picked up the rest of his loaf. "When I was a young boy, I used to play on the wharfs, pretending to be a sea captain with my friends. It had always been my dream."

Phil sat quietly, a sudden look of sympathy crossing his blue eyes. Akabaieth continued, the years melting from his features as if he too were just as young as he was then. "I studied all that I could of seamanship and battle and tactics, hoping to impress the Fleet Commander enough to allow me into the Academy when I came of age. I never had any other thought for my life except that. My Father of course forbade me to do so; he wished me to be a diplomat just like him.

"He carried me away from Whales with the rest of my family when he was appointed the court ambassador to Breckaris on the southern shores of Pyralis. That had been my very first, and last trip on a vessel of any size built by the hands of men of Whales.. I can still remember it. I talked to all the sailors, inviting them to show me the techniques and the skills I would need as a sailor. In the two weeks it took to make the journey, I mastered all the basic knots as well as the calls. And even then, My Father scolded me for spending so much time with them, and locked me in his quarters much of the time below decks, and set me to reading treaties and trade agreements.

"I spent the next thirty years of my life in Breckaris. When I was of age to join the Academy, I managed to procure an application without my Father's knowledge. I needed his signature to officiate the document, but I of course by that point learned to forge his handwriting." Vinsah turned to his master, eyes wide with shock. Phil was already enrapt by the tale, and said nothing. Thomas stopped chewing yet again in shock that the leader of one of the largest faiths in the world would admit to such attempts at falsehood now. "I knew that if I were caught, I would be expelled, but I did not care at that point. Being in the Fleet of Whales was all I had ever wanted my entire life up to that point, and my Father was going to callously take that dream away from me.

"And he did too. Before I was able to send the application in, he discovered what I was at. He made me tear that document into pieces and throw them on a fire. That night, I watched all of my dreams die. I went to bed that night, tying and retying the knots I had learned in a bit of hemp I had purchased at the market and kept beneath my pillow. I can still tie each and every one of them, but I am afraid at my age, they are hardly strong enough to pass muster."

Phil nodded, his ears standing erect, his face even cuter than before, if it were possible. It was a face that Thomas had long begun to recognize. There was no question about it, Phil loved a good tale, especially a true one of hardship and loss. Anything that made the hare feel for the teller was enough to capture his imaginations. Even the Duke found himself hard pressed not to envision a young boy with tears standing in his eyes, working over a bit of rope, weaving the ends in and out in a vain attempt to recapture something that had been taken away from him.

"I tried joining the Navy of Pyralis as well, but since I was not born in their land, they would have nothing to do with me. And then the day came when my Father announced to me that he was going to secure a diplomatic position for me in an even remoter land from Whales, and my hatred of him was complete. Yes, I hated him at the time. It took me a long time to forgive him for doing what he had done to me. Speaking of it now brings some of it back, but I believe I understand why he did what he felt he had to do."

"Father, please," Vinsah murmured, looking quite uncomfortable.

Akabaieth laid a hand gently upon that of his aide's. "My youth is fraught with folly, Vinsah. I will not hide that fact, especially not from my countryman."

His aide looked away, taking a quick bite from the bread. Most of it had been passed about the tables by now. In another few minutes, the second course would begin. "I know I have never once been to Whales since my childhood, but I have always treasured it as my homeland and my country, despite all the places I have lived in the last eighty years."

"I have heard it said that you are named Akabaieth," Phil murmured quietly. "How is it that you do not have a Whalish name?"

The old man smiled. "But I do. My birthname was Apadares, but I changed it when I became a Follower. That happened shortly after my father told me of that diplomatic appointment he was arranging for me. One of the things he liked least about living abroad was the heavy emphasis upon the Ecclesia, at least in Pyralis. My Father was your average man of Whales, completely cosmopolitan, with little regard for things supernatural or mystical. So, I joined the Ecclesia to spite my father and to infuriate him. Once I had done that, he disowned me, and threw me out of his home."

"As I had no home anymore, the only place that would take me was the Ecclesia, and so I became a priest soon afterwards. I threw all of my energy into that, my hatred for my father as well. I did some very terrible things in those days, and I am still atoning for each and every one of them. But, I was noticed, and so, it was inevitable that I would rise among the ranks of the Ecclesia. I do not think I ever stopped wanting to serve my homeland, but I knew that it was not to be. And now, at this age, I will never see her again, I am too weak to make the crossing in even the best of seasons. Though, I wish that I could at least set foot on one of our vessels at least once more. Just once."

Phil blinked several times after the Patriarch had stopped speaking, looking first into that old face, and then down at his plate and his paws. And then, he returned to meet the old man's gaze, his own steady and firm. "I'm expecting a ship from Whales at Menth in just over a week. If you wish to wait a few extra days, not here at Metamor of course, then I can arrange it for you."

The Patriarch blinked in surprise, and then delight as once more the lines disappeared from his face, and the grand-fatherly smile became that of a young boy's. "Could you really arrange that? Would you do that for an old man's sake? An old man who has too recently fantasized of his lost youth."

The rabbit nodded, the rocking of his ears a symbol of his delight that he doubted Akabaieth understood, but those familiar with him would know well. "It is hardly an imposition on my account. And if it gives you some measure of happiness, then why not? Being a former Fleet Admiral, and the adopted son of the King himself does has its privileges."

"Father, that sort of delay will set our trip to Ellcaran back several days," Vinsah pointed out. "They will be quite worried if we do not appear at the appointed hour."

Akabaieth closed his eyes, an expression of weariness passing over his face, the age seeping back into the lines and creases. "Vinsah, my good and dear friend, the priest of the Ellcaran diocese is here at Metamor, we only have to tell him and he will understand and change the arrangements accordingly. And I have not smelled the sea in over two months. I tire of this air, I need salt in it. It just is not right otherwise."

Phil nodded his head in understanding. "A truly Whalish sentiment! I will send a dispatch to the Proctor from Whales in Menth this very evening. I'll notify him to expect your arrival and instruct him to afford you every courtesy."

Akabaieth nodded in thanks. "And would you be so kind as to keep my identity a secret? Nobody in that town is expecting us, and it would be pleasant to arrive inconspicuously for once."

The rabbit rocked his ears once again, finding yet another sentiment in common with the Pontiff. "Of course. I will draw up a note for you to carry to our Proctor. I am sure he will be quite astonished to find that he has the head of one of the most powerful faiths in the world on his hands!"

Thomas chortled at that, his laughter booming across the ceiling. "I'm glad to see you are getting your wish, Akabaieth."

The Patriarch appeared to be genuinely giddy at the prospect, his hands curving over themselves, as if he were tying one of those seaman knots. His eyes passed upwards as another servant brought in the next course. A large gold platter was carried in and laid in place of the bread dishes. The tray was filled with greens of every variety: lettuce, cabbage, celery stalks, cauliflower, broccoli, as well as cucumbers sliced crossways, and zucchini cut lengthwise framing the whole entourage. Egg whites dotted the surface, while the yolks had been crushed and sprinkled overtop the bountiful arrangement. Even a few mushrooms laced the collection, but they were hardly abundant when compared to the rest of the feast.

The two rabbits began scooping large portions onto their plates, their faces ravenous with hunger. They conspicuously avoided the egg whites, but took bits of most everything else. Kashin sampled one of the zucchini slices, dipping it in a bit of chunky white sauce that was set aside. He nodded then, and continued to feast, a rather amused expression gracing his countenance. Duke Thomas took nothing, but instead waited for the servants to come around again and fill his polished silver goblet ringed by sapphires along the base with the wine. He sipped a little, the bristles upon his muzzle glistening with a few drops of the amber liquid. "Marvellous! It is an apple cider, Akabaieth, you ought to try some of it. My personal favourite."

Akabaieth nodded to the blue liveried servant, the same feminine rat that had carried in the tray of bread from before. "Would you kindly fill my glass?" He held out the goblet, just as fine as the Duke's own. It also appeared to be mostly unused. The Patriarch doubted that they had been used once in the seven years since the great battle had isolated the Keepers from the rest of the world.

The servant bowed her head, and brought the brass pitcher over and poured out the sweet smelling liquid. The scent of apples was rich and slightly warm as well. Akabaieth smiled, gripping the goblet in one hand. "Thank you. What would your name be?"

The rat looked astonished that he had asked her for her name, and stuttered uncertainly, though politely, "I'm Kimberly, your Eminence."

"Thank you, Kimberly. Would you stay a moment? Kashin, please take the pitcher from Kimberly." The Yeshuel stood to his feet and took the heavy carafe from her hands. She appeared uncertain, an anxious expression crossing her features. "Prince Phil, I notice that you have not used your glass. Are you going to have anything to drink?"

The rabbit did his best to shake his head. "No, apple cider upsets my stomach."

"Do you mind if I borrow your goblet then?"

"By all means." Phil looked to Clover, who nodded slowly then, her less animalistic paws handing the brass goblet to the Patriarch.

"Kashin, would you please pour some of the cider into this glass?" Akabaieth held the goblet aloft, his face one of mystery. The Yeshuel did as instructed, filling it halfway as was custom, and then stood waiting. The grey lock of hair had once more fallen across his face, giving him a dishevelled appearance.

The Patriarch held out the glass. "Now, Kimberly, it would honour me if you would accept this bit of luxury. Take this and drink of it for my sake. You have worked hard on my account. You deserve to taste the fruit of your labours."

The rat blushed mightily in surprise at this gesture. The other servants who had worked the rest of the table stood watching, some in jealously, some in surprise and awe. Kimberly did take the goblet though, and bring it to her lips, her whiskers twitching as she smelled the rich aroma of the apples and the alcohol-laced cider. She did not mention that Bernadette and she had already sampled the cider not one hour ago. But then, it had not been warmed. The heat filled her tongue as did the taste, and her fur practically stood on end with the pleasure. Finishing off the last of the cider in the goblet, she handed it back, her paws quavering from the delight. "Thank you, your Eminence."

The Patriarch smiled at her, taking the goblet and wiping his napkin across the space she had drunk from, as if it were an old habit. "My name is Akabaieth. It would honour me if you would call me by that, Kimberly."

She appeared to be flustered, but nodded uncertainly anyway. Thomas and Phil watched in silence, both of their faces betraying none of the pride they felt in seeing this man, one of the most powerful in the world, step so low as to exchange his name with a servant, especially one that appeared to be nothing more than common vermin! Kashin stood by with the pitcher still in his hands, suppressing his mirth, though not very well as a smile crept onto his thin lips.

"Thank you, Father Akabaieth." And then she stopped and took the pitcher back from the Yeshuel. "It is a joy to meet you."

Akabaieth smiled broadly. "It is a joy to have met you. I am just an old man, but you are a beautiful young woman. I would think that any man would be honoured to meet you, Kimberly."

The rat's whole body glowed. She bowed swiftly, and with a smile creasing her cheeks, she glided from the room as if she had wings. Akabaieth returned to his goblet, sipping at the cider. While Kashin returned to his seat behind him, the Patriarch gazed up at the horse lord. "You are right, this is indeed excellent cider. Not too hot, but just warm enough to bring out every bit of flavour."

Thomas did not appear inclined to discuss the quality of his larder though. "Why did you do that? I've never had a visiting dignitary do that before, or at least, not in a long time." He cast a side glance at Phil. It was obvious that one other had done something similar in the years previous. Thalberg sat in his seat impassively considering all before him, letting the others talk, yet there was also a delighted look to his yellow eyes.

"When you are as old as I, the trappings of status lose their meaning. I find more pleasure in one honest smile than I do all the pomp and ceremony that comes with being the Patriarch. Most of my hosts are put quite ill at ease when I do that as well. For so many of them, their servants are an invisible portion of their lives. From what I have seen so far, that is not the way things are here."

Vinsah leaned forward slightly, a grin crossing his lips. "Last year, while we were visiting the Duke of Marilyth, he did the same thing, only the servant had been too thoroughly embarrassed to confess his name."

Akabaieth laughed a moment at the memory. "Ah yes. I then asked his grace what the servant's name had been, and the poor fellow could not tell me. None of them sitting at the table even knew. It had been a quiet dinner the rest of that evening. When I returned a few months later, the Duke called all of his people by name, without hesitation."

Thomas let out a loud burst of laughter then, holding his goblet high. "You are nothing like I expected, Your Eminence. Pardon my use of your honorific, but you deserve it more than most. Many in this world are born to the nobility by blood. But there are many others to whom it comes from their heart, and not a lineage."

"Well said," Akabaieth nodded, sipping at the warm cider once more. "I have met many hearts in my time. It is a shame that more often than not those with nobility in their lineage have lacked it in their hearts. It is a great relief to find it in two such men like yourselves." He gestured with his wrinkled hands towards both Thomas and Phil. The rabbit had a bit of broccoli stuck between his teeth, and appeared a bit silly as he bowed his head respectfully at the statement.

"And speaking of the nobility, I am curious as to the other guests. Could you please tell me who shares this table with us?"

Thalberg finally spoke then. "Due to the secrecy of your arrival, or the intended secrecy, I had to wait until this morning to send out the invitations. So many of the nobles in the Valley could not make it. The amphibian and the man sitting just past your guards are Lord and Lady Barnhardt; they are the only Patildor among the nobility in case you are interested to know. I made certain they would have a chance to meet with you. Now, the odd looking creature talking with them is Zhypar Habakkuk, the present Head of the Writer's Guild."

Akabaieth waved one hand to stop him. "I am sorry, I've never been very good with zoology. What is an amphibian?"

"The newt," Thalberg said, pointing at the rather slick sheen of the figure sitting just beside Iosef. He appeared nervous, casting his bulbous eyes towards the head of the table every minute or so. He wore a rather dark green doublet and hose, with jade brocade, that blended well with his splotchy skin. "He has to immerse himself in water at least once a day for about an hour or so or his skin dries out and cracks."

Vinsah appeared mystified. "The man beside him is his wife?"

Thalberg nodded. "They are quite happy together in fact." Kashin chuckled at some untold joke as he continued to eat the zucchini he had snatched. Vinsah, still appearing quite troubled looked to the Yeshuel with a questioning look. The grey haired man leaned over, and whispered quietly into the Bishop's ear. The older man's face blossomed as bright as a rose then, and he furiously dug his fork into a few leafs of lettuce and shoved them into his mouth.

Akabaieth looked at his protection curiously. "Just what did you tell him?"

Kashin shrugged, and smiled. "Just that amphibians don't physically copulate to reproduce."

The Steward nodded his large crocodilian snout then. "That is true. They are like fish in that regard. The female lays eggs, and the male privately inseminates them afterwards." Vinsah chewed even louder at that.

Akabaieth cast a glance at Lord Barnhardt, and noticed that the newt was studiously focussing on what the strangely shaped animal morph was saying. Even so, he caught grins of amusement from both Lady Barnhardt and Habakkuk. They had obviously heard what was being discussed and thought it highly amusing. The Patriarch shifted a bit in his seat, sipping at the cider again, sharing a few of his aides sentiments on the matter. "Then again, I was probably happier knowing little of zoology."

Thalberg, Thomas, and his two Yeshuel chuckled then, and even Phil and Clover rocked their ears in merriment. Finally, the alligator spoke again, his voice once more smooth. "Anyway, let me continue the introductions." The Steward then rattled off a list of names and duties, ranging from the mayors of the town just outside Metamor's walls as well as that of nearby Mycransburg, some of the commanders of their armies, and a few other civil service positions of importance. The Keeper of Duke Thomas Hassan's household finished by remarking in a seemingly mirthless tone, "And they have all been listening in on every word of what has been said. In two days time, every noble in the Valley will know that the Patriarch and his aide are rather uncomfortable discussing matters of zoological reproduction, among other things."

Vinsah snorted. "I imagine some of them have quite good ears."

Thomas nodded. "A blessing of the curses for many of us, I suppose you would say." He then appeared thoughtful for a moment, and turned to the Pontiff, setting his goblet down, and crossing his hands on the table. "And that brings to mind something else I've noticed about you, Akabaieth. We have discussed a great many things, but the one thing that you have never mentioned, nor even hinted at, is that many of us here at Metamor are no longer recognizably human. Why is that?"

Akabaieth shrugged helplessly, as if he had been reminded of an unpleasant duty. "What is there to say, really? Most of the world still fears what you have become. Many parishes of my own faith I am ashamed to say look upon you as demons, or at the very least, people forcibly succumbed to their power. I believe you to be just as human as I. I have always believed it in fact. Perhaps that is part of my Whalish upbringing creeping out, I cannot say. I just wish that more in Yesulam and throughout this world of ours agreed."

"If you have always believed us to be humans, why has your Ecclesia not officially sided with us?" Thomas pressed.

"As I said, I wish more in Yesulam felt the way I do. I do not have nearly as much sway over the Followers as the Patriarch's a hundred years ago did. Now all things must meet the approval of the council of Bishops in Yesulam. My voice swings many of their minds, but I am afraid that at present it is not enough. That is another reason why I am visiting the many lands of this continent. If I can convince many of the people's in the various kingdoms, then I will convince many of them."

Thomas shook his head. "So your faith is as much a game of politics as the rest of the world?"

Akabaieth considered the horse lord curiously. "When isn't a ruling body governed by politics?"

The Duke of Metamor flicked his ears to either side at the bit of repartee. "You are a rather cosmopolitan sort aren't you?"

"In some ways yes. But, I do the best I can to accomplish what I know is right." He then smiled towards Vinsah who acknowledged his superior with a nod. "And I do have allies who make the journey all the easier. Peace is not an easy road, but it is the only one I see that is worth travelling."

Phil stood higher in his seat then. "If it would be possible, I would like to discuss such matters with you again privately. I think I may know of a few ways to expedite your journey."

"I would appreciate that yes. Perhaps the day after tomorrow? Before I speak to the Keepers publically?"

"An excellent time, I will be free that morning."

Akabaieth grinned then, glancing to either side. "Is it not good to be in the company of new found friends?"

Thomas raised his goblet slightly, "That it is, your Eminence, that it is." The horse lord then crossed his arms again, leaning forward slightly. The rich brocade of his surcoat was nearly obscured by his large head when he did so. "I am curious about one thing. Your letter said you wish to arrive in secret. Yet, your journey must have taken several months at least, if you crossed over land as you say you have. Yet, your caravan barely had enough room for provisions to last a week. Surely you must have stopped in other towns along the way. By now, most of the Midlands must know that you are either here or in the general area."

Vinsah spoke quickly, discarding the half eaten bit of cabbage. "Actually, we have kept to the wilderness for our journey. It is hardly difficult to send a few of our number into the nearby towns to restock when we required it."

"Isn't that rather dangerous? Bandits and other ruffians roam the wilderness passes throughout much of the world."

Kashin spoke before the priest could continue, his grey lock of hair once more dangling across his forehead. With one finger, he stroked it back behind an ear. "Yes, it was very dangerous. But, most bandits are seeking solitary travellers, and will ignore caravans with well armed guards, especially as many as we had. An army might have been persuaded to join us in battle, but they would have been declaring war against all the kingdoms of Pyralis if they had. We were unmolested in our journey, as we took all the precautions that were necessary."

"And how long have you served the Patriarch?" Thomas asked, while Akabaieth enjoyed his cider and a bit of the vegetables.

The man who must have been in his thirties still dressed in the green tunic with white crucifix emblazoned across the front let out a quiet laugh. His companion sitting next to him had turned and was listening in on the conversation that Habakkuk and Lord Barnhardt were sharing with the Ambassador. Kashin's voice was quiet, but reverent. "You ask a Yeshuel how long he has served the Patriarch? I suppose the answer to your question would depend entirely on what you meant by the Patriarch. If you refer to Akabaieth here, then only the last eighteen years, ever since his elevation to the highest office in the Ecclesia. But if instead you are speaking of the line of Patriarch's all the way back to Yahshua, then I have been in their service since I was conceived in my mother's womb."

Thalberg gazed curiously at him, tapping his empty plate impatiently -- it was clear that the next course was something more palatable for the alligator's stomach. Even Thomas, Prince Phil, and Clover were taken aback by his remark. "Your mother's womb? You have known for that long? I can barely remember what life was like when I was three, let alone before I was born." Thomas admitted a bit skeptically.

Kashin laughed a pleasant chuckle then, smiling favourably towards the Keepers. "By that I simply mean that I was selected to serve as a Yeshuel before I was born. I have a hard time remembering my youth the same as the rest of you."

"Selected before your birth?" Clover asked, her soft voice curious, yet reassuring.

The man nodded then, finishing off the last of the zucchini. "Every thousandth conception in Yesulam is blessed by the Patriarch himself for a special duty - to become Yeshuel and protect the sanctity of Eli's priesthood. Not all of us survive childhood, or even birth, by no means, but those of us that do, are bonded to the Patriarch with every fibre of our being."

The horse lord appeared slightly uncomfortable. "Is this true?" he asked Akabaieth who was savouring the last of his cider. "Do you take these children and make them your bodyguards before they are born?"

Akabaieth set the goblet down, and tapped one finger on the table thoughtfully before he spoke. His voice was careful, yet sure. "It is a gift that my line offers, nothing more. Whether they accept that gift or not is up to them. Most do, for it is one of the highest honours any man may have."

"What if the child you bless is female?" Clover then asked, her ears twitching with sudden mischief.

"There have never been any female children blessed," Akabaieth remarked as if he were speaking of the shape of the clouds in the sky. "They are always born male. Many priests have debated the significance of this for centuries. I suppose one day one will be born female and much of our theology will have to be reworked."

"You don't appear to be overly concerned about it," Thomas pointed out.

The Patriarch shrugged and then smiled, gazing at both Kashin and Iosef. "They are good men, whom I am happy to call friends. In my position, I have precious few. What can be so terrible about that?"

The horse lord let out a breath, and then smiled. "You are a strange fellow, Akabaieth. Everything that surrounds you is touched in a very subtle way, yet it is touched. This world is better off for having you in it."

He laughed then, a bright chortle as his smile crept across his features again, and remained there. "You live in one of the strangest edifices in all the world, and yet you call me strange. How peculiar, especially coming from one who only moments ago wondered why I did not find his outward appearance remarkable. Indeed, I find it very remarkable, and very strange, despite the fact that you are still you on the inside. And you call me strange, imagine that."

"You are unusual," Vinsah confirmed, his own smile broad. "If you were not, you would not test everyone about you all the time."

Phil nodded even as he chewed on another piece of lettuce. "I think you touch others in a positive way. I know you have those sitting around you right now. You saw how Kimberly reacted at your compliments. She'll never forget you, and will probably be filled with that glow for many days yet because of what you said. I think I understand why you were selected to be the Patriarch."

"And why is that?"

"Because you have a way of reaching people through simple words and actions that most cannot accomplish despite their best efforts. You can change a person's feelings simply by being in the same room with them. I know you most certainly have mine."

The Patriarch nodded slowly, offering the rabbit a wry grin. "You are most perceptive. I was told much the same thing shortly after I was anointed Pontiff."

Thomas stared past the others towards the kangaroo for a moment, before nodding to them both. "It appears that you are right. I can see smiles on almost everyone's faces." And then he noticed the brightly dressed marten with a silver flute in one paw idly chatting with a few of the guests along one end. "It appears the first of our entertainers has arrived. Serpent Dream, do you have a song to share with us?" Thomas called out over the crowd towards the musteline.

The aforementioned marten snapped his head up in a sinuous motion, full of grace and vitality. His dark eyes glanced across the faces of the Patriarch and his companions for a moment, before he nodded, stepping more towards the centre of the table. "I do indeed, milord. My first song I have not played in many years, but I believe that our guests will recognize it." And then he set the flute to his muzzle, and blew gently across the surface, a sweet whistling melody ringing out to their ears. After only the very first few notes of a tune that Thomas did not recognize, Akabaieth and Vinsah both smiled in delight, even as the former clasped his hands together in time with the music.

Dream, a rather tall figure with a narrow, sleek frame, swayed from side to side much like his namesake implied as he released the tautly held notes from his claws and lips. The song itself held a Pyralian flavour, the frequent modal changes, yet overall lively mood, were hallmarks of their musical tradition. Despite the marten's claim that he had not played it in many years, Thomas did not hear a single wrong note.

Finally, Dream lowered the instrument after a particularly bright flourish, and bowed, almost his entire body bending over. Akabaieth clapped in delight as did Vinsah and most of the others sitting at the table. Kashin and Iosef joined in the applause, though they gave each other concerned looks for a brief moment. Even the weariness that Habakkuk had expressed earlier that day appeared to have vanished completely. The marten rose back up and faced them all, addressing not just the head of the table, but everyone sitting at it. "I do hope you enjoyed that little tune. It is the melody of a rather popular Pyralian hymn."

"It was lovely," Akabaieth crowed. "Tell me, Dream, have you spent much time in Pyralis?"

The marten shrugged slightly, "Once or twice. I was asked to play a few songs before the next course arrived. Would you care to hear a few tunes more familiar in this region?"

"Oh, I would be delighted to hear them." Akabaieth leaned back in his seat, his smile broad. He then glanced at Thalberg. "Just what is the next course?"

The alligator rubbed his paws together with a bit of a rasping sound. "The fish course. You should sample our delightful selection of fish eggs."

Vinsah cast a quick glance at Lord Barnhardt, blushed yet again, and then turned his attention to Dream. Akabaieth laughed merrily, and then gazed back at the minstrel, who was already bringing his flute once more to his lips. The music was the sort that he would remember even unto his sleep.

chapter 8

Morning on the second day of the Patriarch's visit was much less hectic for the Keepers. By then, almost everything that could be cleaned, had been, and everything that could be scrubbed, had been rubbed raw. Yet, the same sense of excitement, that feeling that something far vaster than the simple chores of life had descended upon them was ever present in the words and gazes of each Keeper. Of course, not all shared this sense in exactly the same way, but it was there nonetheless.

When Charles climbed from his bed an hour before dawn, and found that Garigan was not in his room, he felt a different sort of excitement. Anxiety more accurately described the fluttering of his heart, and the swift jerkiness of his movements as he scanned about for any sign of his charge's whereabouts. It only took the rat a moment to discover that he was not anywhere in their joint rooms. This troubled Matthias for two reasons: the first was that he did not know where he could be, the second was that Garigan had apparently disappeared without waking the rat, something that he'd never done before.

Sitting on his students bed, he found the covers neatly folded over, the thick winter quilts already in place. As he'd just risen, Charles was naked, but alone in the privacy of his quarters, he cared not. Even in the presence of his student, he'd grown comfortable speaking to him only in the fur, though more often than not they wore their Sondeckis robes. Running a claw through the brown fur on his thigh, he thought back to the first time it had happened; Garigan had been unable to sleep, and so had been singing the Song of the Sondeck, or at least trying to.

The pleasant memory was not sufficient though to ameliorate the rat's concerns. Scanning the room, his nakedness forgotten, he saw that the closet and drawers were all closed neatly, while the rug covering the cold stonework was well accounted. Gazing back down at his rodent flesh, he smirked. Like himself, Garigan slept naked, yet was rather prudish about walking where others might see him without something on. Crossing over the warm rug, the snatches of dead fur catching his toe claws every now and then, he walked to the closet, opened the doors wide, and peered in, holding his lantern just behind him. As he'd suspected, one of the garments was missing. Specifically, Charles saw that Garigan had donned his yellow Sondeckis robe.

Closing the closet door and relatching it, the rat could not keep his smile down. If he'd taken his robe, then there was only one place he could be, and that was the Sondeckis Shrine in the Long House. Running a finger across the solid oak frame of the closet, he realised that he was going to have to reconsider the yellow colour. Garigan had accomplished so much in such a short space of time. Perhaps he should test him to see if he were prepared for the rank of green?

Carrying the brass lantern back into his bedchambers, Charles set the illumination on his dresser, and quickly set about lighting the candles about the room. Once he was satisfied that he could find his way about without stumbling over his stool or what not, the rat found his brush and comb, and began to straighten out his fur. Though he had done this yesterday, it felt appropriate to do it again this morning. He certainly did not know the Patriarch's schedule, and so did not want to take the chance of bumping into the Pontiff looking as dishevelled as any common vermin!

Besides, Garigan would either return soon, or would be waiting for him in the Shrine, so there was no need to worry anymore. His anxiety left, he simply set about happily grooming his fur. Along his belly, it took little time at all, as it was rather sparse, and much lighter. But there were certain places along his back that were very difficult for him to reach by himself. Though his body was more supple than any human's, it still had its limitations.

A strange idea then floated up into his mind as he stood there before his mirror, comb and brush in paw, dressed only in his natural fur. It had not been that long ago that Misha had shown him how to find that other form, that rat-taur shape as he had come to call it. Although it had been disconcerting at the time, what with so many eyes upon him, in the privacy of his room, and an hour before dawn, his mind took to wondering just what it had felt like again. How would it feel to groom himself when there would be so much more of him?

Charles gazed back at his reflection in the mirror, wondering if it was a silly idea. He could barely use his Sondeck in that form, and it left certain bits of him in complete view of anybody who could intrude. Garigan could return at any moment after all, and what if Lady Kimberly were to make a surprise visit? For some reason, the very thought of her seeing him with four legs instead of two struck him as hilarious. The image of her look of shock at his chimaeric shape would soon melt into one of delight. She'd probably ask if he would give her a ride or something.

The sheer ridiculousness of the whole idea was what finally decided it for him. Setting the brush and comb on the dresser, he stepped back several paces, and made sure there was sufficient room. If he were going to do this on a regular basis, he'd need larger quarters! Closing his eyes, Matthias summoned the mental image of himself, just as Misha had instructed him to do. Standing at four feet in height, was a rat with paw-like hands, and a coating of brown fur which lightened as it came towards his chest. His long baize tail, with errant hairs poking from the seams in the flesh curled about his long-toed feet, with the dark claws digging into the earth. That was he.

It had only taken a few months after his initial change for even his dreams to picture him as a rat. Now, he could barely remember his human face. A distant memory that had slowly been expunged from his mind. He'd never had a painting done, so only those like Jerome who had known him then would be able to describe it to the rat. Many were disheartened that they could not recall what they had once looked like, but Charles was not one of those. The image of another rat appeared in his mind, and he could not help but smile. He had very good reasons for enjoying his new form.

Shunting Kimberly from his mind for just a moment, he concentrated once more on his self-image, bringing all the details back, and fixing them in place. And then, he thought of another pair of legs growing from behind him, extending his lower torso out backwards. Yet, the image did not change or shift slightly, but remained as it was and always had been. Grimacing, Matthias tried to push harder, but with every mote of his strength, it only repelled each attempt with swifter finality.

Opening his eye, he saw that he was still a two-legged rat. Misha had said it was hard, and even for the second time, it still felt impossible. What had the fox suggested he try those few weeks ago? He'd not really thought much about it at the time, he was too busy being shocked at his transformation. Apparently, a few other Longs had tried it and had been unsuccessful, despite their leader's advice. Very few Keepers could actually take such a shape ostensibly. With a bit of consternation, Matthias wondered why he could do it, even when it was near impossible anyway.

Taking a deep breath, Charles placed his paws on his hips, and stood akimbo before the mirror. His tail circled about on his foot paws, and he drew it across the fur, rippling the brown mass like a wave. Staring at it, he did it again, slicing the flesh of his tail through the brown mass of hair, and watched the fur shift fluidly. Smiling, the rat closed his eyes once more, the words of Misha fresh again in his mind. Pulling back the image of his morphic self, he imagined it as a placid lake, slowly working across the shoreline, drawing sand inwards, and depositing other minerals in their place.

At first it did nothing, and for a moment he felt the bitter agony of defeat. And then, some barrier gave way, and the image began to distort, his legs doubling and extending backwards. His lower torso became the body of a rat, complete with a thickening of his tail and a tripling of his weight. He did not need to open his eyes to know that it had worked, he could feel heavier, and higher off the ground. The cold masonry stung the pads in all four of his feet, and his tail lay somewhere about a metre behind him. Running his paws across his hips, he could feel where the two bodies joined into one, the muscles beneath strong and firm. Opening his eyes, he truly stared at himself for the first time in this form.

His upper body appeared much the same, though his shoulders were broader, and his physical strength was more obvious. Still, as a rat-taur, he appeared more sleek than powerful, but he was no longer as scrawny as before. The lower portion was as long again as his chest, and ended in the thick hairless tail. The claws on each of his paws were longer, and the toes thicker. In fact, his forepaws nearly resembled hands. The only aspect of his shape that made his whiskers twitch in embarrassment was the fact that Rickkter had been right about his appearance - certain parts of his anatomy were quite well accounted for.

Picking up the brush and comb once more in his paws, Charles curled down and turned to look over his large body. He was lying directly on his belly, much like a rat might, the tail curling around his hind legs. Despite his prodigious equipment below, the recumbent position was oddly relaxing. With a bit of chagrin, Matthias had to admit that Misha was right, the taur form was worth exploring a bit more.

When he began to brush out the long strands of brown fur, he became even more convinced. Grooming himself had always been one of his most enjoyed morning practices. Yet, with so much more to groom, it took on a whole new meaning. The colossal task was one that he found himself relishing even more with each stroke of the brush. The feel of bristles through skin that was still so new to him reminded him of his very first days as a rat.

Metamor had still been rebuilding much of their way of life at the time. Nasoj's brutal attack that had forever scarred the face of the inhabitants had been barely a year gone. Many of the homes had still stood burned and charred from where they'd been sacked. Into that climate Charles had arrived under the auspices of being a storyteller without a home. It had been a hard first year, and he did not wish to know what it had been like the previous year.

Yet, when he'd become a rat, one of the very first in fact, he felt some form of liberation. Mostly at the time as he was afraid that the other Sondeckis would find him. Yet also because there was so much new to discover about himself. His very first grooming had been an experience the likes of which he thought would never be repeated. Yet every time he brought the bristles of the comb to his fur, he felt it again and again.

But now that he had a new body once more, it was happening all over again. He brought the comb down through his rear thigh, watching his own hind paw twitch and stretch against the chilly masonry. Reaching out a paw, he poked at his own claws, shuddering at the sensation. It truly was all his, despite the fact it appeared so odd upon him. He idly wondered how Misha must have felt when Varnal's misfired spell had left him as a fox-taur. Perhaps he ought to tell the reynard how wonderful it was to groom oneself this way?

Setting the brushes aside, Charles took his water bowl and selected a small wash cloth from his dresser. Dipping one corner into the water, he began to rub down his new tail. It did not really need a serious cleaning, as he had washed it the other day. Still, he enjoyed working over the cracks and crevices, discovering the new avenues his flesh took. When he finally dabbed at the tapering end, and poked the single strand of hair there, feeling the electric thrill cruise up his twisted spine, he knew that he truly did appreciate this form. He was glad that he was one of those fortunate enough to be able to assume it.

Setting his cleaning utensils away, Charles considered himself in the mirror. Lying down as he was, he was still nearly four feet in height. When he stood he would be over five. It had been many years since he had been that tall. The one thing that this form lacked, aside from a decent way to cover his lower extremities, was a strong connection to his Sondeck. That disturbed him greatly. Misha had speculated that it would take a good deal of practice to bring it back at the level of mastery he was accustomed too.

Glancing over at the open door to Garigan's empty room, he smirked. The ferret wasn't the only yellow now, as the rat-taur would have to retrain himself from the very basic techniques. Closing his eyes once more, he began to search for his Calm. Most times, it was right there, waiting for him to approach. A night full of stars loomed overhead, each one bright. Charles lay recumbent on the sandy dunes of the desert outside Sondeshara. This had always been his Calm. And yet, though he had brought forth the image in his mind, it simply did not fit anymore, at least not for this flesh.

A growl of impatience waited in his muzzle, but he stifled it and returned to that sandy plain. Resting all four of his paws in the dune, he peered upwards, trying to lose himself among the celestial curtain. Yet he could not stop thinking about the particles of sand wedged between his toes, or scratching at his underside and everything that was down there. Standing up on all four of his legs, he tried to pry lose the discomfort, but it remained there, digging between his claws even further.

Staring down at the dune, he shifted his paws about, stirring the white sand, and only further embedding the annoyances in his pads. With a bit of chagrin he realized that his Calm was not going to work for this form. Slowly, he let the scene fall away, first the blinking lights of Sondeshara in the distance, and then the dunes about him, until all that was left were the stars. And then, one by one, they too winked out of existence.

All that left was the black slate of midnight, and his new shape. Charles was rather startled at how quick it had managed to conquer his subconscious. To find the Calm, he had to let that rule, not his own preconceived notions about what would work. He tried to envision something warm beneath his paws, and something that would not irritate the skin there. In moments, he felt his claws digging into soft loam, grasses and moss. He breathed slowly, pressing and lifting each paw in turn, gaining a feel for the terrain. There were a few rocks, mostly large boulders that the dirt clung to. A sudden image of the trail that Misha had led him up into the Eastern mountains and towards the glacier came to mind, but he pushed that away, focussing instead on what was beneath his paws.

And then, all of that disappeared when he heard a solid knocking upon his door.

Turning to the side, still a rat-taur and lying upon the cold masonry, he looked about the dark room. Only the candles he lit cast any light about, but they were enough for him to make his way about. Yet, he could not help but wonder who would come around at this hour. "Just one moment," he called out, rising to all four of his feet.

Gazing back into the mirror, he pondered his normal shape, knowing that he ought to switch back and put something on. Yet, that mischievous excited part of him had returned. Very few ever came knocking before dawn, even in the winter time when the sun was reluctant to ever rise. The thought of Lady Kimberly seeing him like so came back to him, and that was enough to decide the issue for him.

Crossing over to the door, he opened it wide, caring not for his nudity, or his strange appearance. Only, the figure on the other end, in the torch-lit hallway, was not Lady Kimberly. Instead, it was a human, standing a bit over his head, with a grey lock of hair falling across his forehead. He wore a green tunic, with the crucifix marked on his chest. He had his arms crossed, and wore a curious expression as he gazed down at the full length of the creature before him.

"My, you are full of surprises," the Yeshuel remarked as a slight grin creased his face. He flicked his head back, the lock of hair returning to its proper place behind one ear.

Charles stood there staring right back at the Patriarch's servant, the only thought going through his head was the image of the Pontiff himself coming around the corner to see the rat-taur in all of his naked glory. "I-" he started, and then stammered into nonsense.

"Don't worry, the Patriarch isn't with me. I'm alone," the Yeshuel added, as if sensing the scout's thoughts. Matthias tried to remember his name, but his self-inflicted embarrassment had shunted it from his mind.

"Ah, what do you want?" Charles managed to ask, fighting down the quavering in his muscles.

The green clad man smiled a bit broader this time. "I was hoping to talk with you, I promised you I would do that after all. I find you an interesting person. I asked the Patriarch's permission to do so, and he agreed to give me the morning to this task. He'll be busy visiting a few other places, and there are four of us to watch over him after all." He gestured inside the room. "Do you mind if I come in?"

Had Matthias taken the time to think it through, he would have asked him to wait while he changed, but as he was so flustered, all that he could manage to do was step out of the way, and close the door after the Yeshuel had come through. "Can I get you anything?"

"No, not yet." The man scanned the meagre furnishings and nodded his approval. "My name is Kashin, just in case you had forgotten."

"Ah, thank you," Charles said as he lay back down on his belly. With his prodigious nature obscured from view, the sense of embarrassment lessened. "I'm am curious why you find me interesting."

Kashin rubbed his palms together as he indicated the bed with its mass of quilts upturned. "Do you mind if I sit here?" Charles shook his head, and his guest stretched his legs for a moment before sitting down. Running one hand across the smooth weave, he appraised the rodent with one eye. "Given your current appearance, I can hardly understand why you think I would not."

Matthias glanced down briefly at himself, and then back at the green-clad man. "I can hardly blame you at that. But you thought I was interesting before you'd seen me like this."

"Of course, there is that as well. To put it mildly, I had never expected to see somebody of your upbringing this far north."

"My upbringing?"

"Well, you are a Sondeckis are you not?" Kashin asked mildly, his eyes penetrating. In that moment, not only did the rat's chest tighten, but he felt himself seek out his Sondeck to hold it in check, but his grasp on it as a rat-taur was flimsy at best. The gaze the Yeshuel levelled at him bore through his skin to something else beneath there. Matthias was not sure how he knew, yet that was how it felt. "I see I was right. I've never seen one of your kind before, and I have been curious as to what you could do."

"How do you know I am a Sondeckis?" Matthias asked, finding his guest a most unwelcome one.

Kashin held up both of his hands. "I have no intent to spread such news about. I understand you wish to keep it a secret. That is why I chose to speak with you in private about the matter." Charles breathed deeply, watching him, as the man continued, "I am Yeshuel, and we have our own secrets. You probably know us as defenders of the Patriarch, and in that capacity we most certainly serve. Yet, to do so, we have been blessed, and certain... powers have been given to us."

"Like the ability to know when another possesses magic?" Charles inquired, his defensive hostility waning.

Kashin shrugged softly. "Something of that sort. So, are you indeed a Sondeckis?"

Matthias nodded then, letting his arms dangle at his sides, and rest against his sloping back. "Yes, I am a Sondeckis."

The green-clad man then did something that surprised the rat completely. Stepping off the bed, Kashin then dropped to one knee and lowered his head in respect. He stood back then and returned to sitting on the quilts. Matthias blinked, unsure how to respond. "What was that for?"

"Your kind have always sought honour and to do justice. That is something that this world needs a great deal of now. You have my respect," Kashin's voice was almost reverent, not the sort he had expected to ever hear when he would tell another of his allegiances.

Charles stammered a moment, his face brightening visibly at the display, his muzzle pulling back to prominently display his incisors. "Thank you, I do the best that I can from here." He had no desire to reveal the fact that he had left the Sondeckis because their former white had corrupted that goal.

Kashin grinned, a small gesture, but one that carried an understanding alongside it. For a bodyguard, there was much to this unheralded man that Charles yearned to explore. "As to the other matter that interests me though." He pointed at Matthias's four legs and long tail that had curled along his side. "I was not aware that you Keepers could become an amalgamation in quite such an extraordinary fashion. Is this some secret you have harboured?"

The rat-taur chuckled and patted his lower middle section as he gazed at the smooth brown fur. "No, this is a more recent discovery. In fact, this is only the second time I've assumed this shape."

"Can all of you who are animal's do this?"

"Well, apparently only a few can. I only know of one other who has for certain though." Charles ran his claws along the fur once again, enjoying the alien sensation. "It is for most purposes a rather cumbersome and ungainly shape. I doubt I shall make use of it much, if at all."

Kashin nodded again, his eyes curious. "What is it like?"

"Being a taur?"

"No, being a Keeper? What is it like having fur and a tail, claw and fangs? How does one deal with the prospect that they may be a different gender, or a child the rest of their lives?"

"That is not an easy question to answer," Matthias admitted as he turned fully around to face his guest. "As I have always been a man, I do not really know what it is like switching genders. I imagine that one has to completely readjust the way they approach life, as so much of our social interaction is based on our sex. Even here at Metamor, men and women are treated differently. At least in this generation. We all grew up believing that men were men and women were women and that was the way it would always be. It is not so anymore. Perhaps the next generation will have fewer prejudices; I certainly hope so.

"As to being a child, I really cannot say either. You would have to ask one of the children, possibly Father Hough if you can find the time. I have heard many express frustration as they no longer have the strength or the reach they once used to. Plus, how serious can one be when one is continuously distracted by the sound of others playing?

"Having fur and claws, a tail and fangs, that I can try to express though. In my case, my teeth need to chew on something almost constantly. They begin to hurt if I do not. I have a collection of chewsticks that I carry around with me so that I may appease my need when the time comes. It did make speaking difficult at first, but one eventually relearns how. My claws are not very significant, much like thicker, longer fingernails, I suppose. Fur sometimes feels like having hair all over your body, but it isn't that either. I guess one could think of it as always having a tight fitting jerkin on, but that doesn't do it justice."

Charles rubbed his chin with one paw for a moment, considering. Finally, he shrugged again. "I have become so used to it, I have pretty much forgotten what it was like not having fur. Much the same for the tail as well. I can warn you, with a tail, you have to be careful going through doors. But there are advantages as well."


Charles felt his whiskers droop in a blush. "Well, when I am with Lady Kimberly, I like to curl my tail around hers as well as hold her hand."

Kashin laughed brightly then, patting his knee with one hand. "And people call you folks demons. Bah, you are just as human as the rest of us, maybe more so."

Charles nodded his head and then his eyes snapped up. "That reminds me. I have a few friends I visit in the cellars every morning. They are all rats like me, but they don't share your optimistic appraisal, at least, not completely. Would you care to join me?"

The man rose from the bed, folding the quilts back in place. "Of course, I'd be delighted."

"If you would leave so I can change. I don't want to show up as I am after all."

Kashin nodded and headed to the door. "I will wait outside." He closed the door behind him, and once more, the rat-taur was alone with his thoughts. Gazing across the room towards the other door, the one that led to Garigan's quarters, he smiled. The ferret was almost certainly at the Sondeckis Shrine practising his techniques. His pupil was quite dedicated, a fact that made Charles proud. He would be fine without the master for a few hours more.

Standing on all four of his legs, he closed his eyes and brought the mental image back again. Slowly, and with a tinge of regret, he brought his old form back again.

chapter 9

Stalking the halls and corridors of books and musty tomes, Akabaieth could not help but smile, his aged face agape like any amazed child's. Arrayed upon one shelf at his right shoulder were enough books to occupy the reading of a man's entire lifetime; but it was only one shelf among many, so very many. In his many years he had come to find himself in some of the greatest libraries of the lands of his faith, yet none of them held the quiet, awesome intensity of this rather rustically built collection.

Some were larger, there was no doubt, and much more grandly built. The one in which he found himself now seemed to be a warehouse rather than a library. Shelves towered on all sides, the aisles between them almost too narrow for some of the larger creatures of fantasy that wandered among them. High above a gabled roof came to a peak barely the height of one man above the uppermost shelves. Shadows crowded tightly up in those gables, where the feeble light of the nearest braziers could not reach. Due to the tight confines of the library the lighting was far from optimal, which was why Vinsah was carrying a lantern. One of the two Yeshuel at the patriarch's side was also carrying a bright lantern, his attentive eyes looking up into the shadows high above warily.

The two lanterns provided more than enough light for the quartet to explore by, which had been Akabaieth's intention since learning of the extensive size of the library at Metamor.

The Librarian, Fox Cutter, had been most polite in showing them around them in some sections of the library that morning. He had introduced them to the histories concerning the Valley and its surrounding baronies. In another wing entirely was the collection that the Writer's Guild were currently adding. It was clear that those areas had received a recent dusting, many of the intricately illuminated tomes not yet faded with the years.. Yet the archival scent was not far from the deeper reaches of the scholastic cavern.

The remarkable refuge for the learned scholar was quite unlike the library of Yesulam. Domed ceilings with stained-glass windows cast the daylight across every corner of that edifice, illuminating every book title for any passerby to glimpse. Scribes and priests tended to those books, dusting them daily, reading them, and refurbishing the ancient grimoires for future generations. Here at Metamor though, it was as if the books were in hiding, waiting for the time when they would be summoned forth to perform their prescribed duty. It held the marvel of a man holding his breath, waiting for some unseen signal to exhale.

Breathing of the dusty air, as if he meant to see how long the library could continue to hold its breath, he caught a faint whiff of something else entirely. It was a tantalizing odour that defied his ability to identify immediately under the heavy mustiness of the books. Gazing down the long passageway, lined by the old musty books on either side, covers of every colour and condition, he could see a faint light defining the muted edges of a shadow; a shadow which moved. Waving one hand, Akabaeith motioned his small entourage to move forward. So far, he had not seen many others in the library aside from the vulpine librarian himself, and none at all once moving deeper into the depths of the archives. He was curious to see who this book mole would be.

"Don't you want to see the section on comparative religion?" Vinsah asked in some surprise as his master left him. Seeing that the Patriarch was intent on his destination, the Bishop gripped the hem of his robe in one hand and hurried after him, the two Yeshuel already at his back. For his advanced years, the Pontiff was still a rather spry man, easily able to take his own path without the aid of his warders. Vinsah managed to catch up to the patriarch and trailing Yeshuel shortly after the elder located the source of the curious scent.

Akabaieth was rather amazed at himself for not immediately identifying the tickling, subtle musk before seeking out its source. Now that he had located that source, the knowledge sprang into his head with the same clarity of a childhood memory relived. He had once, so many years ago it seemed a dream, encountered one of these very beasts hiding out in a hollow log he had chosen to secret himself in to escape the pranks of his elder kinsman. That creature had felt itself cornered, and threatened by the surprised youth invading its sleeping place. Before the child had been able to escape, it had turned and given him a full introduction of its reek.

It was a lesson Akabaieth had remembered for years, and used often in his diplomatic mediations between warring countries. Invasion of another's space, even in ignorance, was often met with the most extreme of measures.

That memory brought himself up quickly a moment after discovering who was occupying the small alcove at the end of one long aisle. The skunk was sitting at a table covered with tomes and papers, his head bowed over an opened book which was propped up on another. Hearing their approach, he looked up, dark eyes going quite wide in surprise as he found himself gazing upon the visage of the patriarch.

"I pardon for the intrusion," Akabaieth said, his lips twisting into a smile, "I was just curious to see who else was sharing this remarkable edifice with me. May I inquire your name good fellow."

The skunk stood with a haste that brought the immediate regard of the Yeshuel to him, his fur ruffling as he looked from human to human, eyes wide. The scent of his musk was much more powerful here, where the still air of the archive kept it contained for the most part, making it almost overpoweringly strong as the skunk rose. A single light shone from a few feet above the table, but the patriarch was unable to see what it was suspended from, but the odd, steady intensity of it made him believe it may have been magical.

"I am Murikeer Khannas, your grace."

"Eminence." Vinsah offered quietly from the shadows behind the patriarch. It was a correction the Bishop was all too used to supplying, so often that he did not even notice himself saying it, nor did the other three humans seem to even hear it.

"Akabaieth." The ancient said, his gravelly voice running over the bishops more quiet tenor, "I do not think we need to worry about titles too much. I prefer not that is." He moved forward, into the light that he might be more easily seen. The two Yeshuel moved forward as well, their mouths opened slightly as they tried not to breath too deeply. Yet, they retained their composure despite the lurid reek "Please sit, my son."

The skunk did not immediately sit, his eyes darting from human to human as they emerged from the shadows of the aisle. He wore no shirt, the still air of the libraries often becoming uncomfortably warm, especially to one swathed in dense, black fur. He did, though, due to Llyn's adamant badgering, have on a pair of old brown leggings cut short just above his hocks.

"We are well met, Murkieer." He said as he stepped forward again, "But I am no lord, merely Akabaieth, a fellow traveller curious at the wonders of this magnificent library." To Murikeer's amazement, the old man managed to keep his face neutrally passive despite the almost overwhelming power of the skunk's lingering musk hanging heavily in the still air of the alcove. Yet, for the Patriarch, after living in some of the cities of the south were there was little water to waste on sewers the skunk's harsh reek was quite tame.

Vinsah, though, was not quite convinced of that, lingering as far back as he was easily able to and breathing quietly through his alb, hoping the skunk could not see beyond the alcove. His eyes strayed uncomfortably to the suspended light, as if warding himself from its pale illumination.

Murikeer's eyes darted from man to man swiftly as he stood, cursing his near nudity as he identified the Patriarch Akabaieth and his entorage. The first man was easily enough identified due to his age and the subdued cut of his expensive robes. The two others in green smocks with the crucifix emblazoned across the front were bodyguards, and the fourth he could not easily identify behind one of the guards was most likely the Patriarch's adjutant.

He had sworn that he would not be a part of the farce that was this one person's attendance at Metamor the moment he heard about it. It was a charade that did not suit him in the least, and he had withdrawn as far from it as he thought himself capable of, yet here he was speaking directly to the most powerful single man in most of the Midlands looking and acting the dunce. Surely he could do better than this. If he was meant to suffer this man's presence, at the very least he could account himself respectably.

"As you would wish, Akabaieth," Murikeer responded, his command of the tongue-tripping name perfect, though slightly accented with his western Midlands learning of the man's name. He shrugged, using his disdain and indifferance for the whole faith as a shield to enwrap himself. Yet he did not immediately sit. There was something about the old human that forced him to remain on his feet, though he did not find himself particularly alarmed.

That alone he found very peculiar. He had felt a sudden, brief surge of panic when he looked up and found himself facing four humans all alone in the bowels of Metamor's great library, but it passed almost as swiftly as it had arisen. Something about the man instilled a calm in him that he could not identify or understand. He found himself meeting the elder's steady gaze... and looking away soon after.

Akabaieth could tell the youth was more than nervous, almost panicked, but not why. He did not move any closer than the three steps he had taken into the alcove, sensing the sudden wariness in the skunk by the movements of his body and the sudden redoubling of his powerful musk. His posture was not threatening, and the calm aloofness of his Yeshuel would not be seen as any more a threat that they seemed as bodyguards. Yet this timidity spurred his thoughts, and his feelings. Many that he had spoken with had been overwhelmed at his presence, unable to hide their emotions, yet the skunk was different in that. He almost appeared afraid, and not just because of Akabaieth's station.

Still, though the young fellow appeared almost ready to jump and flee from the alcove, he was slowly calming, that fear abating. When their eyes met, he could see a great strength within the dark depths of the creature's inhuman gaze, but there was a great fear there as well, and a sorrow that piqued the ancient priest's curiosity. The skunk's gaze broke, though, his eyes roving down to the array of books scattered across the table between them.

Glancing down at the stack of books on the table, Akabaieth pointed with one frail hand. "What have you been studying, may I ask?"

The skunk glanced back up, blinking as he stared back down at the titles before him. His voice was quiet, as if he were trying to conceal the rough animalistic churr, "Lothanasa Kindilkane's treatise of Artela." He pointed to a green-bound book on the top of one of the stacks to one side. Akabaieth noticed that the book had yet to be opened and he could easily discern the title for himself from the cover.

Turning his head down, as if to study the tome, Murikeer spoke softly, haltingly. "It's a treatise on the ways of Artela, the Lothanasi goddess of the wilderness."

The two bodyguards said nothing, only stood there flanking the Patriarch. The man who was trying not to be offended behind the Patriarch rubbed at his eyes to hide the emotion. However, the one who had called himself Akabaieth smiled wider. "And what have you discovered?"

Murikeer had expected, and hoped, that the Patildor would find an excuse to leave then, once they knew that he had no interest in their ways. Yet the Patriarch, the head of their entire faith, had just expressed interest in his. He was not quite sure how to deal with it, and his nose told him that he was acting like any nervous skunk would. Akabaieth's nose must not work quite right.

"It questions why she chose the forest as her demesnes, as Lilith had chosen the wood as well. Now the sisters, of ethos if not flesh, battle for supremecy of the forest lands." Murikeer offered quietly, resting the tips of his fingers upon the closed tome as if he knew its words perfectly well already, "This particular treatise concerns the lands that surround this crux point between north and south, for it seems Artela had chosen this land to be the focus of her attentions millennia ago.

"Her presence is felt the strongest here of all places, of so I have come to learn and experience firsthand, and to the north of these lands where Lilith's machinations work to further the aims of the northern tribes to win the lands south of the Wall. I've had to spend a great deal of time up there recently."

Akabaieth stood a bit back, giving the cornered Keeper a bit more room as he listened to his words. "Ah, I have heard it is dangerous up that way. You must be quite resourceful."

The skunk looked back up at him, dark eyes haunted, "Sometimes life doesn't give you much of a choice." He churred, shrugging one shoulder as he smiled ruefully with one corner of his angular muzzle. He sighed inwardly as his eyes settled upon the patriarch, who's face had paled slightly. The two guards at his side were breathing through their teeth while the last of their small group had actually covered his nose with the fine silk of his alb.

The skunk paused, his long tail swishing behind him in agitation, but for some reason, he felt it slow and lessen at this revelation. Something in the back of his mind screamed to him that these were humans, the ones who had hunted him and cried out to put his fur beneath their feet. Yet another part of him recognised that face upon the Patriarch just now. He'd seen it every time he'd gazed into a reflective surface these last few years. The face of somebody who had lost everything, yet went on anyway.

Raising a hand, he waved it in a short, intricate gesture that he made obvious to the quartet standing before him, his eyes watching the guards warily. They should have seemed more threatening, he thought as he incanted a short phaze, calling upon a tidbit of his inner magic. Yet they did not move, their eyes did not even widen as he performed magic right there before their ward. They knew, he suddenly realised, that his magic was benign even before he cast it. He was tempted to gaze at the flow of magic about them, for surely they possessed a version of their own; yet the strangely sullen eyes of the fourth figure stilled that fleeting desire.

His hand finished its motions as a weak whisper of wind began to blow outward from the depths of the alcove, as cold and damp as the breath of the Earth herself. It gained in strength, spreading outward through that hidden corner of the library like a chill winter breeze falling down an open chimney, then finally faded. By the time the last of the brisk air had swept the lingering potency of his musk away he had cast a second, much more subtle spell to mask his odour temporarily.

Akabaieth fell momentarily silent as the skunk before him spoke a short phraze in the elder tongue; inwardly amazed at the use of the progenitor language of the Yeshuel to summon magic. As the breeze faded and his senses rejoiced in the absence of the harsh smell of the reclusive bookworm he heard Vinsah squeak something behind him and had to smile as he overheard the first refrain of the First Penance. He knew that the conservative younger bishop would quote the entire liturgy for what he had just witnessed and had to slowly shake his head.

His eyes turning slightly towards his charge, the Patriarch sighed softly. Vinsah was a strong sort, not given to the closed-minded rants of many others in the church, yet Akabieth feared in such a reaction that they might never come to tolerate their sister faiths. In time though, he knew it would change. Something deep inside him told him that one day Vinsah would indeed embrace all peoples, even the Lightbringers, as his own brethren

"You wish to startle me away, young Murikeer?" he asked quietly, his eyes humorous as he met the skunk's gaze. The two looked at each other for a few moments before Muri's gaze turned to the guards and Vinsah and he shook his head.

"Actually, Akabaieth, I had wished the opposite." He smiled, motioning a hand toward one side of the alcove. "I thought the removal of my... well, musk, would make it less uncomfortable for you and your entorage." He slowly settled back into his chair, palming something from the tabletop next to a sheet of parchment with a habitual movement. "If you would care to sit and talk, I would be honoured."

Strangely enough, Murikeer found that he felt it would indeed be an honour. One of the guards moved to the side of the alcove. Carefully moving a stack of ancient, dusty books, he brought back a simple wooden chair and set it before the patriarch. Akabieth smiled warmly and nodded.

"Thank you, my son, I fear that my old bones are not as spry as they once were." For what may have been the first time since his time in the Watchwoods, Muri actually began to feel comfortable in the presence of a human. There was something stilling about Akabaieth, a calm reassurance that he had felt in some of the elder Lothanasi priests he'd known in his youth.

Murikeer found himself chuckling softly as he nodded, placing one hand along one side of his muzzle, whiskers angling back, "Nor is your nose it seems, father." He joked humorously, "You did not run at first whif. What brings you here?"

"Here? To Metamor, or to the Library?"

"The library." The skunk replied, "Your reasons for coming to Metamor itself are far beyond what I think you would care to reveal, or have the time to." He rested his forearms against the edge of the table, a pale white stone held in his hands. He idly moved the stone about as he spoke to the elderly priest, his tension fading with each passing word.

"Curiosity, and hunger." Akabieth smiled back as he sat down upon the chair. The aged wood creaked almost as alarmingly as his own bones, but did not collapse under him. He shifted into a comfortable position, not minding the dust that he knew would discolour his robes. "These places, libraries, are the only true immortality any of us will ever have. Not even your magic I think can give that to a man." Muri shook his head wordlessly, his short round ears pivoting forward. "What we ever learn or know or do will only be held in these places, long after our bones are but dust and our names lost to even myth."

"Even the name and bones of one such as yourself, Akabaieth?"

"Yes, even myself." He nodded with a quiet sigh, "One day all that I am, and have ever done in the name of my faith, will be forgotten but for what is written and lost in places such as this." He waved a slim arm at the towering shelves surrounding them. "Both the good deeds, and the mistakes."

"And the mistakes." Murikeer reitterated as he turned the stone about in his hands, his eyes fixed upon the patriarch's lined visage, "Though not even all of those are forgotten." He tapped the page of the book opened before him, "Sometimes even those are recorded for the edification of those that come later. Such as Anderosha here, in the Book of Twelve Rings. It was written, I suspect, approximately six hundred years ago in a place now known as The Sands." He turned one page back, reading a few of the ancient, spidery lines, "I can only guess at that, though, referrencing maps as well as the words of Laniard, the man who scribed this work."

"What is it about?" the elder priest leaned forward, curiosity writ openly upon his face. Behind him Vinsah's brow furrowed at his master. The skunk was a mage by his own display, and Lothanasi. Regardless of his words, Vinsah never expected him to become so comfortable with these bizarre creatures, much less one of the other faith and a practitioner of the questionably darker arts.

"This particular tome concerns the binding of magic." Murikeer looked up from the book, his look mirroring Vinsah's, though due to the alien build of his furred muzzle it was impossible to read. "Though this particular passage I was reading was a discussion about the location of talent."

"The talent for your... craft?" the patriarch looked up briefly, his eyes travelling across the musteline man's odd features.

"Witchcraft, specifically in this case." The skunk responded, his white teeth flashing in the light briefly with the movement of his lips. "Though that was a name they gave to any who practised magic in that land during that time."

"And what does it say?" Akabaieth shifted in his chair, leaning his elbows on his knees. The skunk's hands continued to toy with the stone, as one might caress a worrystone, but the motions were more practiced; more directed. "Does everyone have it, or just a particular few?"

"This particular treatise claims that only a particular few might develop the talent, though the majority of other works state that everyone has some degree of magical ability."

"Everyone?" the patriarch intoned, his white eyebrows climbing his brow like startled caterpillars.

"To some degree." The skunk nodded as he slowly, carefully, turned the page of the large tome. "It's like... acrobatics, I guess." He grasped at the proper words, waving the hand that held the stone as if trying to formulate his statement. "We are all born with the ability to walk, run, jump, climb... the many things we do as children. Some are a great deal more creative at how they can manipulate their bodies. For some, that ability is as natural as breathing. For others, it has to be trained."

"So, with enough training, anyone can be a mage as you are?"

Murikeer chuckled, smiling warmly at the frail human before him. Something about the man instilled a calm over him he never thought he would feel around another human, much less a group of them, in his lifetime. "I am no mage, Aka." He chuckled, shortening the man's name by habit without thinking about it. "I am merely a journeyman, I have yet to test for mastery, or achieve the proper degree of power to do so." He scratched at the stone idly for a moment before continuing his speech, "Anyone can train, and yes, anyone can learn a bit of magic. But only those with the inborn ability to understand magic intuitively can become more. A good comparison would be a gourmet chef beside a field cook who can do little more than boil water. Both understand what they are trying to do, but only one can actually achieve it."

"I could do it?" the priest asked quietly. One of his Yeshuel turned a quietly startled look upon him, the motion only visible to Muri and the other three standing around the man. Yet that expression faded quickly into one of subtle amusement.

"Your Eminence?" Vinsah quailed, his eyes wide, a tremor to his hands as he held them up to his chest. Muri cast his glance to the younger priest, noting the way his fingertips pressed to his breast, ready to make the sign of the cross. Yet the motion died as their eyes met briefly, Vinsah's hand falling back to his side as if in practice for some future requirement.

Muri then turned back to Akabaieth, "Yes, if you learned and tried." He smiled as his gave fell once more upon the bishop, who was standing behind his master with an utterly shocked look upon his face. "You may already do some magic you do not know about."

"Such as?"

"I cannot easily say, but some of the subtle powers that you may grant as given to you by your Abba may be expression of your own inborn talents." He held up a forestalling hand as Vinsah blustered behind the Patriarch, his face suddenly pale. "In the context of your faith they may very well be God given abilities, but were I your Abba I would look to those with an inborn talent to make my voices to the people."

He glanced back at the patriarch's secretary, whose face was beginning to purple in apoplexy. "It would make those voices stronger, allowing them to spread his word that much better." His hands once more began to worry at the stone as he returned his smile to the priest. "It is better for them, especially in lands as intolerant of magecraft as those of the Yesulam tend to be, and other lands. Those who have the talent for magery require an outlet, and in your lands they do not know what it is they have, or can do. Many go mad, while others find an outlet for their nameless, undeniable urges."

"In the Ecclesia." Akabaieth nodded slowly, "We have come to understand something of that, but I had not thought to look upon it as you say." He rubbed his chin with one hand. "It is my wish that in the years before my end I can come to have the 'Lands of the Yesulam' as you call them come to understand that not all magic is vile, among other things." He placed his hands upon his knees and stood, one of his Yeshuel swiftly moving to assist him.

"Not all magic is evil, your eminence," Murikeer said, standing as well, "Nor is all magic good." He extended his hand, holding out the pale white stone he had been working with, "Most magic is merely benign, turned to one purpose or another." He finished as he deposited the stone in the Patriarch's outstretched palm.

The pale stone was quartz, but no longer possessed the crystalline lines that had defined its shape when it had been brought to the skunk. Now its edges were more smooth and rounded, its surface carefully worked into the likeness of a face. The Patriarch turned it over and found himself looking at his own face, carved into the milky translucence of the stone. Two tiny flecks of pale blue lapis were the only points of colour, hauntingly like his own eyes as they looked back up at him.

"Many things, my young friend Murikeer, are merely benign." He nodded as he rubbed his thumb across the smooth lines of his own face carved into the small stone. There was a secret smile crossing his lips as he worked the features of his own worn face into his mind. "It is those who make use of them that turn their purpose." He held up the stone, "My thanks for this gift, and your illuminating words. I wish you the best in your studies, and in your future. May you ever walk in the light, my son."

"Your Eminence," Murikeer called from behind them as they turned down the aisle. Akabaieth stopped and turned, his eyebrows lifted curiously. "I spent many years in Sathmore, Akabaieth, not far from the border of your kingdom and mine. Each time our two faiths met, there was a particular... I cannot say in easy words, Aka, a dislike that was much deeper than hatred." He leaned forward on the table, his hands shifting aside the stones and paper arrayed out on either side of the open book, "Yet I sense none of that in you."

Akabaieth lowered his head. "There was." The moment of sudden sorrow was short though, and the Patriarch returned his gaze to the skunk. There was a great deal of compassion filling his eyes, as if he were pouring it all out to cleanse what had come before. "Good day to you, Murikeer."

"And to you, Akabaieth," Murikeer said as he stood, watching as the glimmering glow of their lanterns faded down the twisting aisles. The younger priest, Vinsah, paused at the end of the nearest aisle and looked back at the skunk, his round face unreadable. Having watched him nearly as closely as the Patriarch, he would not have expected the look he got from the younger man. Not dislike or hatred, not even an uneasiness.

Curiosity, and respect. Both of which seemed to confuse the patriarch's adjutant a great deal.

Murikeer let out a long sigh as he looked down at the book before him. Letting himself slip into the spidery words written upon the yellowed page, he slowly sank back down into the rickety wooden chair, his own scent once more filling the air about him as he let the masking spell unweave.

Yet the words said little to him, his mind churning over that brief meeting.

chapter 10

Kashin leaned out the window and stared up into the blue sky. It was a chilly day of course, and on the high balcony where the winds swept to and fro it was only colder. Yet, his green, woolen tunic was more than a match for the elements, and so he held that position for several seconds more as he gazed up at the mostly cloudless sky. Distant shadows lined the mountains, moving along as the clouds overhead moved, while the crystalline white horizon gleamed from the midday sun.

And then, he drew himself back in and peered at the rat who considered him whimsically, his whiskers twitching unconsciously. "Do you normally hang out over a hundred metre precipices when asked for the time?"

"Only when they are available," Kashin replied, laughing slightly. "It is still midmorning though, so a few hours more before I ought to return to the Patriarch's quarters."

Charles nodded then, glancing a moment out the high window himself. "Is there anything you would like to see? We've been to the cellars, and now to the battlements. Perhaps something more towards the middle."

Kashin smiled and rest his hands on his hips. "Is there any place that you would like to show me? I am a visitor here; it is customary for the host to show guests around, is it not?"

Grinning, Matthias inclined his head towards the stairwell on the other side of the tower. "You've seen the chapel right?"

"Yes, I was there for an hour or so yesterday. Quite an impressive cathedral I must say. Father Hough did not say how long it has been there."

The rat shrugged helplessly as he began to take the first of the spiral steps leading down back into the castle depths. Dust clung to the corners of each step, the granite along the centre worn smooth from use, while the edges were nearly as sharp as the day they were cut, whenever that had been. Unlit braziers hung on the inner walls, while the narrow windows lining the staircase cast long shadows along their path.

"With the Keep, one can never be certain," Charles finally said after passing by the first landing, which lead to a lower balcony, but nothing else. "It could have been there for years, hidden, waiting for the time to be discovered. Or, it might have appeared that very morning when Father Hough found it. Part of the charm of this place I suppose, there is always a new surprise waiting to be uncovered.

"My quarters use to be a solitary room, but one day after I returned from an assignment, there was a second chamber there, as if it had always been. It didn't look new, it had that used feeling about it, if you know what I mean."

Kashin nodded, running his fingers along the inner wall as they continued downwards. To rock felt cold to the touch, yet there was a warmth buried deep beneath the surface as well. "Most peculiar. How do you find your way about if things change so often?"

"Well, they don't change all the time, just when needed. Most of the passages I walk tend to be the same day in and day out. Others have never taken the same path twice to their own quarters, or so they say. If you just think about it, most of the time you can get where you are going."

"Very peculiar. No other structure in this world is quite like it. At Yesulam, there are many great wonders, but nothing like this. Nothing even resembling this."

Charles nodded then and stepped off at the next landing, heading down a side passage lined with banners and warm, satin draperies. "I am wondering. What is Yesulam like? I have never been there, and almost certainly never will."

The Yeshuel rubbed his chin with one finger thoughtfully for a moment before answering. "Yesulam is a city on a hill, much like Metamor, except that this hill is in a parched land. Oh, we have plenty of crops and farms, but it is much warmer than Metamor, and much drier. We depend quite a bit on irrigation and trade to support ourselves. Yet, despite that, there are at least five times the number living there than you have here at Metamor. Maybe ten times, I can not be sure, I was never good with numbers.

"Life in Yesulam revolves around the Ecclesia as you might well imagine. Apart from foreign diplomats and ambassadors, everyone attends Service at least once during the week. The Patriarch never announces when he'll be officiating the ceremony otherwise the halls of the Great Temple would be flooded with petitioners. Even so, we spend quite a bit of money just expanding the temple space so that all who wish to come may.

"The Great Temple once was just a simple building, barely a third the size of your chapel here at Metamor. Over the centuries it has grown though, and with it, so too has the culture surrounding it. Disreputable establishments are simply unheard of in Yesulam. And while there is crime much like any other city, organized elements have never been able to gain a foothold. Corruption does exist, I am ashamed to say, but in recent years, it has mostly existed among the foreign dignitaries allowed to stay in Yesulam. The last few Patriarch's have been rather adamant about at least keeping their Holy city free from the pitfalls of other kingdoms.

"When I was growing up, I lived in a monastery with the others of my kind once I was about seven I think. All around us we saw the finery and success that the Ecclesia had brought to its people. And then, on the feast days, we were all instructed to find some article in the monastery and take it to a poorer family and share it with them. We were to use the money we could acquire from selling it to help that family celebrate the feast in their own homes. It is hard to forget the look on those children's face, some of them only a year or so younger than I, burn bright with delight when they saw the meal they would have that night. I didn't see many of those children again, but every once in a while I would run into them down at the market while I was on errands for the monastery. We'd always hug and tell each other of our lives when we did. And they'd have that same smile on their faces too."

Though Charles did not say it, he could see that Kashin had a smile that must have mirrored those children's own. His eyes were distant as if he were reliving those moments, and was sharing a feast with one of those poorer homes yet again. "That's just one of the practices instituted in the last fifty years to help preserve the service of Eli in His own home. Things are not perfect in Yesulam, despite the gilded streets and boisterous crowds and solemn services. No, it is far from perfect, but no place ever is. It has its own charm."

"It sounds rather like a nice place," Charles murmured as he walked. "How large is your army?"

"We have quite a significant force, but since our only neighbours are the wandering nomads in the deserts to the east, and the Flatlanders to the north, they see little action. We are on the edge of the civilized world, at least on this continent. The Southern continent provides us with quite a bit of trade and many of the cultural fineries. I remember a ballade I heard just a few months ago, shortly before we left the city there that had migrated all the way from the western shores of the Kitch Steppe. Many of the nobler families had become quite taken with it, and have requested their own musicians learn the piece so that they might hear it whenever they desire.

"At the same time though, books from Metamor Keep are a rather expensive item. They are also frowned upon by many in religious circles, so only the affluent are able to procure them. It may delight you to know that your name is known to some in Yesulam."

Charles blinked in surprise at that revelation, and then the words that the Patriarch spoke to him the previous day came back to him. He stopped where he stood, his claws digging at the carpet in shock. "The Patriarch told me he enjoyed my works," he said, barely louder than a whisper. He could feel his heart flutter at the very notion of it! Once more, the rat was overwhelmed with the enormity of what had happened the previous afternoon.

Kashin nodded. "I knew of you before I arrived. Patriarch Akabaieth was rather smitten by your tale of the father and his rebellious son."

"Ah yes, I recall that one. I wrote it for a friend, never thinking where it would go. It appears it has gone quite far indeed if it met the Patriarch's eyes."

Kashin smiled. "I enjoyed it as well. Though I am curious. Are you still writing? I had thought you were the Head of the Writer's Guild, and yet Duke Thomas introduced some other person as the Head. I do not recall his name immediately."

"That would be Habakkuk," Matthias pointed out. "I left the Writer's Guild just over three months ago now."


"Well, it was no longer my calling. Oh, I still write occasionally, usually a poem or something, but it is no longer what I am meant to do. I take it you have never had any calling other than to serve the Patriarch?"

Kashin shook his head. "My whole life, that was all that I have been trained to do. I enjoy it, it feels right to me. I see in him a hope for something greater. His hope gives me hope that my service is what is right. Many say that he was not always like this, but I have only known him for about ten years, and have only seen his gentleness."

The Yeshuel gazed curiously at the rat for a moment, who had turned his face away as if to study the tapestries lining the wall. "You once served something as well. I know your kind do not leave easily. You must have been terribly disillusioned."

Matthias grimaced and turned the corner, and saw the two guards standing outside the Long House. He looked back up at his companion who was well over a head taller than the rat. "Yes. Here is the place I wanted to show you."

Kashin regarded his guide oddly for a moment, but did not comment further as they walked up to the two guards bearing the Keep's heraldry upon their breast. Charles smiled and waved his paw towards the two, who gave him friendly looks, but to the Yeshuel they appeared wary. "Don't worry," the rat said, his whiskers twitching, "Kashin is with me. I'm just going to show him a few things."

"I can see that," one of the guards, a ferret said. Kashin looked at him a second time and could not help but grin.

"Finbar, wasn't it?" Kashin asked as he stepped closer.

"Yes, I still want to know how you found me yesterday morning." The other guard, a girl, was trying not to chuckle.

Charles looked between the two, and then nodded, remembering what the ferret had said after the Patriarch's entrance. He'd been in shock of course, as would anybody having been so accosted and then handsomely treated.

Kashin simply smiled though at the question and shrugged his shoulders, hooking his thumbs through his belt. "You Keepers aren't the only ones who can use their nose."

Finbar shook his head, his dark eyes frustrated. "No, that is not it. You appeared upwind of me; you couldn't have detected me. And why didn't I know you were there until you announced yourself?"

"I serve the Patriarch as a body guard. I cannot be unskilled can I?"

Finbar dug his paw into the masonry with little success. "I suppose not. I would still like to know how you did it."

Kashin laughed and patted the ferret on his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. "Perhaps I shall tell you before I go then. Charles here would like to show me what you are protecting. Would it be acceptable for us to pass?"

Finbar nodded, opening the wide door with one paw. "Of course. But don't take too long in giving me that explanation. I'm dying to know!"

As Kashin offered a parting word to the ferret, assuring him that he would not delay in providing an answer to his inquiry, Charles stepped into the Long House. The carpeting was a new sensation beneath his toes, yet it was a welcome one. Scanning about the main hall, he saw that nobody was about. Most of the Longs were probably patrolling the Keep in pairs, switching on and off over the course of the Patriarch's stay. Misha would probably recall the Followers so that they might attend Service tonight, but that was all.

"Most impressive!" Kashin exclaimed as he walked up to stand next to the rat. His eyes gazed across the balconies and high ceiling, as well as the defences lining the out walls. "What is this place?"

"It is where many of the scouts are trained. Also, it is a fall back point in case we ever face invasion again," Charles said, pointing at several of the doors. "Those contain goods and supplies for several weeks. We keep them all fresh, so there can be no mistakes. Water collects in cisterns in both rooms every time it rains, so we always have fresh drink as well. As you can see, we have enough space to house quite a few Keepers if need be."

"It appears that this is more than just that, you have many more doors."

Matthias nodded at the unspoken implication. "I have to speak with Misha, could you wait here a moment?"

"Of course. I won't touch anything. You don't need to ask," Kashin assured him.

"Thank you," the rat turned on his heels and walked towards the fox's office.

He found his friend sitting behind the desk, reading over a map. It appeared to be of the valley. "Ah, Charles, do come in. I've been wondering where you have been. Garigan is in the Shrine, and told me that you weren't in your room. He was rather worried."

"I've been showing one of the Patriarch's bodyguards around. I thought I would show him the Long House, or at least parts of it. I'll check in on Garigan once I'm finished escorting Kashin about the place."

Misha waved his paw. "No need, I will do that myself. This problem can wait."

"It's awfully quiet here today. Where is everyone?" Charles asked, pulling his chewstick from his breeches and nibbling at the end. Whenever he grew anxious, the urge was almost too powerful to resist.

"Patrols mostly. His grace wants to ensure that Metamor remains safe from any surprise attack while the Patriarch is here. Not even one Lutin is supposed to be allowed to get within five-hundred metres of the Keep. George and I have our work cut out for us, but so far it has been quiet. In fact, it has been quiet for the last month. Nothing major since their push on Mycransburg a couple months back." Misha turned back to the map, frowning at it in consternation. It was as if he were studying some dilemma that was resisting all attempts to sort out.

"And Caroline?" Charles asked softly.

"She's with Dream Serpent right now. Apparently, he is teaching her how to play the flute." Misha turned away from the map, folding it up with a bit of impatience. "Do you know Dream?"

Matthias shrugged and put the chewstick back down. "Only by reputation. I've heard him play before, quite a talented musician. I've never talked with him much though. Then again, I didn't know you well until this year either. I've led a rather secluded existence here at the Keep so far as you know. First with the Writer's Guild, and now with the Longs."

Misha gestured to the door. "You ought to talk with him some. He is quite an interesting fellow. Joy's old flame actually. Then again, you wouldn't have known Joy back then either."

Charles put his paw on the door, holding it shut for a moment more. "Is there anything else you have to say to me privately? Kashin is waiting out there for me."

The fox's grey eyes lit up slightly, and then he nodded slowly. "Charles, I'm going to need you on patrols most of tomorrow. I need to give some of the other Longs a rest, and it would be good practice for you. I know you wanted to be around while the Patriarch was here, but I need you out there."

The rat sighed softly and then took his paw off the door. "When should I be ready to leave? Who will I be going with?"

"You'll be with Finbar this time, and I want you in the field before the sun rises. You'll be heading north to watch the perimeter there. It should not be a terribly difficult mission, but I doubted you'd be delighted to know of it," Misha said apologetically.

"It is all right, I will just make the most of the time I have now." Charles gazed back at his friend, and saw that Misha was truly sorry about it, but was determined to go through with it anyway. Matthias knew he would be. "Is there anything else?"

"No, that was it," Misha reached for the door again, and this time, Charles did not stop him. They emerged to find Kashin standing exactly where the rat had left him. He had not moved a at all during the entire time that they had been in the office. Closing the door behind him, Misha walked up to the green clad figure and extended his paw. "I'm Misha Brightleaf, and you are?"

"Kashin. It is an honour to meet you, Misha Brightleaf." Kashin bowed ever so slightly, accepting the fox's paw in his hand. They shook briefly, and then the Yeshuel asked, "Are you the one who oversees this place of refuge?"

The fox nodded and gestured with one paw at the room about him. "I like to think of myself as a tenant dutifully watching his master's house while he awaits his return."

"From what Charles tells me of the Keep, that sounds to be a rather apt description of every Keeper!"

Misha chuckled heartily and nodded emphatically. "I suppose one could say that. Well, I do have a few errands to run, I do hope that you enjoy your stay here at Metamor. May your journey be a safe one." And with that, the fox left them alone together again, disappearing inside the Shrine to deliver Garigan the message that his master was well.

Kashin and Matthias then walked about the Long House, discussing the various aspects of its construction, as well as its decoration. Often times, the man from Yesulam would point some unseen defensive mechanism and explain its uses to the rat. Other times, it would the Yeshuel who was surprised by some clever invention the Keep had devised to protect itself. Several times he remarked how he would recommend this or that trap to his superiors back in Yesulam. Yet, Charles did keep him from seeing many of the rooms that were restricted only to the Longs and those in training to be Longs.

Still, that allowed them plenty of time to navigate the upper halls, which were mostly defensive structures, including the cauldron of boiling oil, though it did not have any oil in it presently. Kashin always found the ability to ask rather direct questions. He was mostly concerned with the rooms origin, to which Charles had to admit he was as much in the dark as the Yeshuel was. He did reveal that Misha and he had stumbled across it while playing a game of predator and prey. That last had elicited one of the most comical expressions he had yet seen grace the man's face, a mix of bemusement and shock.

Returning to the Main Hall, Charles stretched his arms wide. "Well, that is pretty much most of what we have here. I've enjoyed showing you about. It was quite educational."

"Well, you haven't shown me those rooms," Kashin pointed to several doors on the lower floor as they stepped off the staircase.

"We don't allow visitors in there. I'm sure you understand that."

"Of course." Kashin looked about the empty room for a moment, and then a slow smile crept across his lips. "You know, I have never had a chance to trade blows with a Sondeckis before."

"Most would count themselves lucky if they suffered a similar fate as yours," Matthias remarked whimsically, unsure of what his guest was intimating.

Kashin chuckled and then loosened his belt slightly. "What I mean is, I would like to spar with you before I return to the Patriarch. As longas you do not mind that is."

Knowing deep in the back of his mind that he would regret it later, Charles shrugged. "I suppose we could do that. I've never fought a Yeshuel either."

The man simply grinned and slowly stepped away from the rat, digging his shoes into the rug. "Do you want any restrictions on the match? What should we fight to?"

Charles loosened his legs a bit, feeling the Sondeck flow through each of his muscles. Inside of him, he found his Calm, this time the sands outside Sondeshara not irritating his feet. "Well, you need to be fit for the Patriarch, and I have my own duties, so I suggest the first of us to bring the other to his knees is the winner."

Kashin nodded, turning to face him, standing akimbo. "Agreed," was all he said before his arms came up before him, slowly rotating back and forth, his body relaxed, fluid. Charles stepped leg over leg, circling in slowly, gathering his force in his paws and arms. He had no intention to pull his punch, for something told him that this man would be capable of taking that sudden crushing blow.

The first swing is always the one that takes the longest to give, or so it seemed to Charles as the two of them slowly circled each other, eyes alert and feet ever swift. Kashin continued to rotate his hands in a circular fashion, palms facing inwards, his fingers uncurled, but otherwise made no offensive gesture. Breathing slowly, letting the Sondeck regulate even his need for air, Matthias studied each movement of the man before him, from the way his feet stepped across each other, to the way his chest rose and fell, and even to the little twitch of his pinky. Nothing escaped his notice, as he was sure nothing of his body failed to register with the Yeshuel.

And then, after what felt like several minutes, Kashin took a sudden step forward. Matthias waited though, continuing to circle, despite the rapid movement of his foe, waiting to see where the second foot would land. Yet, the second foot did not move him forward, but back into that outer circle. It had been a ploy, noting more; a test to see how Matthias would react, to understand his style. If the rat had backed off, he would have known that Charles fought defensively. If he'd moved forward, then the Yeshuel would have known that the rat was an aggressive combatant. Now the man from Yesulam knew him for what he was -- cautious.

Kashin however did not place his third foot back in that outer circle, but once again strode forward, continuing to meet Charles at his edge of the imaginary ring. Matthias tightened his control of the Sondeck, watching the man's shoulders, for the very first blow. Kashin threw a jab down towards the rat's shoulder, but Matthias was easily able to block the move and make a counterstrike of his own. Yet he winced in pain as the knee he had not seen slammed into his ribs. Despite the hidden blow, his paw had landed upon the man's chest, flinging him back a few paces.

His opponent did not take the time to recount their blows, but once again resumed the circle, studying him, his face betraying none of the pain he'd just received. Matthias hid his own wound as well. It did sting, but only a little. That blow the rat had delivered would have caved in most chests, yet somehow he'd known this man could accepted it.

He whipped his tail about a bit, hoping that it would catch the man's eye. Kashin did not appear to notice it, but continued his level gaze, eyes focussed and unblinking. Charles decided to do something unexpected, in order to see what Kashin would do. So, he stepped back a pace, and continued his circle. Kashin stepped forward once, a wry grin on his face. Charles had expected something like that, he knew this man would have been very well trained.

But, he doubted that Kashin would expect him to do as he did next. Matthias turned about and ran in the exact opposite direction, straight at the nearest wall. It had the desired effect, for he heard Kashin start after him, running at a steady pace. Turning about, Charles flung his arms forward, releasing the force he'd grown in them, and slamming it all into the man's legs. Kashin nearly fell over at that point, twisting on one foot to keep himself upright as he brought his fist down on top of the rat's unprotected head. Charles threw his arm up and deflected the shot, but it tore several hairs from his forearm as he did so.

Kashin then brought his other leg up, the knee aiming once against for the rat's side. As the man was quite a bit taller, it was an easy shot for him, but Matthias was expecting it this time, and stepped out of the way, wrapping his arm about the Yeshuel's own and twisting backwards. Yet the move was expected, and with his free arm, Kashin reached around and gripped the rat's shoulder, nearly forcing his arm to dislocate.

Grimacing at the sudden pain, the rat smashed his head into the man's groin, and heard an unexpected yelp escape his lips as he back off several paces, stretching his fingers. Kashin favoured him with an amused grin, though no other sign of their recent tangle showed on his face or his frame.

Stepping away from the wall and back towards the centre of the room, Matthias tried not to think of what had just happened. The Sondeckis were trained in combat such as this, but in terms of style, they did tend to rely a bit heavily on their ability to channel physical force. If it were not for his Sondeck, he could never have won a fight against this man, Charles recognized that already. Their was a suppleness to his movements that the rat could only hope to mimic, never match.

This time though, it was Charles's turn to be surprised, as Kashin leaped into the air, landed on his palms, and bending over backwards, kicked at the rat with the soles of his boots. Charles had never before seen an opponent try such a tactic, and so he was caught off guard by the motion. Yet, the foot still did not connect solidly with his muzzle, as he brought up his arms and knocked most of the leather boot to the side. Yet, it did manage to catch a scruff of his fur, and had probably left a small cut as well.

Still, the position gave Charles an opening, and he took it. Grabbing the man's leg, he yanked forward, while his other paw released a bit of force towards the man's arms, intent on crashing him to the floor on his back. Yet, Kashin twisted on one palm, and brought the other boot up to swipe at his head yet again. Matthias had to release the leg and duck out of the way to avoid the roundhouse, allowing his opponent time to recover his stance.

Kashin then began to move his hands before him in a very intricate pattern, yet slowly as if weaving a loom. Charles tightened his claws into his palms, baling the Sondeck there. Kashin was obviously preparing for something, perhaps refocusing, or attempting to distract the rat as he moved. Either way, it gave Charles time to ready one of his own techniques, one he was sure the Yeshuel had not seen before. Force projection was best executed in a manner containing the whole body, and the Longfugos technique was one of the best examples of this. Capable of destroying spells, it would clearly be sufficient to send Kashin to his knees.

And then Kashin stood still, his hands resting before him contemplatively. Matthias stopped, holding the power for a single moment before the unthinkable happened. Leaping forward in the air, his fingers tightening into a thick weave, Kashin lunged at Charles, his body twisting like a corkscrew in the air. Matthias brought back both of his arms, and then smashed his paws together in a V-shape motion, unleashing the power of the Longfugos technique. A wall of dense force thundered through the room, distorting the air before him, the shimmering image of Kashin growing closer.

And when the two met, the wall of force enveloped him and smashed his body against the air. Yet Kashi did not fall as the rat had expected, but instead he threw open his hands, thrusting the wall before him aside and driving his legs through, connecting solidly with the rat's chest. Charles tried to bring his arms back up to lessen the blow, to hold onto the foot, anything to keep from falling backwards, but it was no use. His energy had been spent into the wall of force, and he had little left to hold onto. Stuttering, he fall backwards and landed upon his tail.

Kashin landed on his boot, rubbing the carpet with one heel. Gazing down at the coughing rodent, he nodded softly. "That was most enjoyable."

Charles rolled over onto his belly, and struggled to his feet, the blow having knocked the wind from him. He felt a hand reach out and take his own. Looking up, Kashin was smiling, one broader and simpler than he'd ever seen the man give before. "Here, let me help you up."

"Thank you," Charles sputtered as he returned to standing on two paws. He took a moment to catch his breath, and then stared curiously at his victorious opponent. "How did you?" he waved his paw negligently as if to suggest what had just happened.

"Force can be diverted after all. I doubt you've ever seen anybody ever try it though."

Charles shook his head, and then gazed past the Yeshuel at the third figure standing in the room watching them. It was Garigan, dressed in his simple tunic with the yellow band along the sleeves. His musteline face was bunched up anxiously, but he said nothing. Kashin turned around and saw him and nodded slowly. "Hello there, did you enjoy the fight?"

Garigan blinked a few times, and then asked, "Charles, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine, just got the wind knocked out of me, that's all. Kashin here can deliver quite a good kick."

Kashin grinned and then walked over to the ferret. Garigan happened to be standing in the doorway leading to the Sondeckis Shrine, but he did not appear capable of moving from that spot. Charles quickly caught up with the Yeshuel and grabbed his arm. "I'm sorry, you cannot go in that room."

"Oh, my apologies." Kashin simply nodded at the ferret, who continued to watch him skeptically.

"It is all right, it is just that we don't allow visitors to see everything that there is. Something are best left secret after all."

"We don't or you don't?" Kashin asked pointedly, raising one eyebrow.

Charles bristled at that slightly, but kept his feelings buried inside. "I don't know quite what you mean."

Kashin smiled then again and patted the rat on the shoulder. "Nothing, I suppose. I ought to be returning to the Patriarch's chambers as it is. I must say, you do put up quite a good fight, Charles. I do hope that our paths will cross again someday. Perhaps next time you will be the visitor?"

Charles laughed then. "I hope it is possible, but I doubt it. In any event, I hope to see you again before you have to leave. It was a pleasure meeting you, Kashin."

"And you, Charles." Kashin then walked towards the door of the Long House, and a moment later he was gone.

Garigan came up to stand next to the rat, still a head taller than his master. "What was he? I've never seen anything quite like it."

Matthias shook his head, still gazing at the door. His chest rang with a dull throbbing pain; there would be a boot shaped bruise upon it soon enough. "I haven't either. All I know was that he is a good man. I suppose in the end that is all we should ever have to worry about."

"I hope so," Garigan said softly, breathing a sigh of relief.

chapter 11

Bryonoth brought his charger to the top of the gentle rise, overlooking the fields and hills in the valley just before the western mountains began. It was a bright, but cold day. Nestled inside his armour he wore two surcoats to keep the chill out. Even the hills appeared to share his sentiments, as the leaves upon their trees were bright red, and many of those trees lacked leaves at all. It rather reminded the knight of a set of lips - puckered, chapped, and bleeding.

Back on the steppe, the leaves would only have just begun their yearly descent. That is, for the few trees that they did have, usually along river banks and nestled in tight groves. The colours of the steppe were always greens and yellows, never oranges and reds, except in the hottest of summers when the grasses were scorched. And in Yesulam, the trees appeared to lose their leaves only as an afterthought during the dry months of winter. This chromatic display here at Metamor was surely a marvel that all ought to see at least once.

Turning back, gazing over the rolling grasses, he saw three other riders climbing the hill. The green heraldry of Sir Egland he spotted immediately, but the rat and wolverine were not hard to distinguish either. He patted the side of his charger's neck, the thick muscles tight with the excitement of the run. It was hard not to show off Povunoth's stamina, but with a bit of chagrin he realized he ought not show off too much, or he'd find himself all alone in the valley!

Both Maugnard and Saulius brought their steeds to repose when they surmounted the hill, while Egland took a few exploratory steps down the other side. The Keepers had wished to show their new friends some of the best places to ride in the Valley, as well as its natural beauty. So far, they had been successful on both counts. Yacoub removed his helmet, and let the wind blow through his light brown hair. Resting both his helmet and his hands on the pommel of his saddle, he stretched slightly, grinning boyishly as he gazed out across the sloping hills. "This is a remarkable sight! It is strange seeing mountains on either side."

"Aye, tis remarkable indeed. Thy eyes may marvel even more when thou canst see nothing in any direction except for the grasses!" Bryonoth declared proudly. It had been so long since he had seen his own homeland. For some reason, he felt a twinge of regret.

Sir Saulius only nodded in assent, lifting his own visor. "Truly, you speak."

Andre sat silently though, regarding them all, his paws crossed over his pommel. Bryonoth did not question his desire to remain quiet though, but turned once more to his countryman, the rat. "Dost thee believe thy steed can reach that grove of trees before mine?"

Saulius shook his head, though he afforded Armivest a gentle stroking along his neck. "No pony could ever outrun a stallion of the steppe. But he will account well oh himself, thou can rest assured of that."

"Then let us test his mettle," Bryonoth declared, setting Povunoth into a gentle trot down the hillside and towards the distant trees. "I will give thee a twenty-count head-start even, to make it fair."

Saulius grinned brightly, slamming his visor back down over his nose, and spurring Armivest forward, into the green grasses swaying gently, the hooves of his pony thundering down the hillside, while the Yesulam knight waited, counting out loud to twenty. At the promised count, he charged forward, chasing after the already distant Saulius.

Egland chuckled as he watched them go, noting that the wolverine was trotting his horse alongside. "Sir Saulius is quite a spirited fellow," he remarked then, still gazing after them.

"Aye, and I am glad to see it. He was not always this way." Andre fumbled at his helmet, thick black claws pulling loose the clasps. Soon, he let his own dark-furred head relax in the wintry breeze. His dark eyes showed a gentleness that Yacoub had failed to notice before. "I did not know him well at all until this last Summer Solstice, when we jousted together. Before that he was always hiding in the cellars with many of the other rats."

Egland wore a concerned moue, and then shifted slightly in his saddle, prompting his own steed to stomp his hooves impatiently. Galadan's russet fur bristled in that wind, the black mane laying against the back of his neck. He wished to run alongside the others. "Why was he hiding?"

"If you are a knight-errant, wouldn't you be distressed when you became a rat, a thing most consider vermin that should be killed?"

Yacoub's expression became even more unpleasant at the thought of it. "I see what you mean. How did you joust with him? He is barely one third your size, if that."

Andre grinned then, his long teeth glistening in the noon-day sunlight. "With honour, sir Egland. With honour!" He then turned, ignoring the chase in progress on the fields ahead of them, and gazed instead at his fellow knight. "I did not hold back my lance when we charged each other. And neither did he. His skill with both sword and lance is quite remarkable. Even at his size, he knows how to handle himself well."

"Did your size help you?" Egland asked again, once more, that timidity at asking a question that might be impertinent filled his face.

"Possibly, though I think it also hurt me in that battle, for Saulius was quick and nimble, whereas I sometimes have a bit of trouble stopping myself when I run. He used that against me, and drew first blood."

Egland's eyes went wide. "That must have been some contest! I wish I could have seen it. Yet another Dawoud and Giant tale!"

Andre chuckled at that grinning lightly. "The Lord of all does have a way of reminding us not to be too proud of what we are."

The man peered at his companion for a moment more, starring at the black-furred paws resting on the pommel, dark claws lying against the fur on either side. "Do you mind if I-" he asked, before his own voice caught in his throat from embarrassment.

Andre lifted one of his paws questioningly, holding it out. "You want to feel my paw?" he asked incredulously.

"Well, I suppose so. I guess I'm just trying to understand what it must be like. I hope I didn't offend you by that." His face, boyish even more, was as red as the leaves.

The wolverine laughed then, and held his left paw out even further. "Of course, I won't hurt you. You are not the first to ask that. Just don't let anyone else see you. They may get strange ideas. I am a married man after all."

Sir Yacoub Egland blushed even more as his questing fingers found what they sought. Running his fingers through the thick coarse fur, he felt the warmth they trapped. Running his thumb down the length of one of Andre's broad fingers, he marvelled at the suppleness of the digit, and then the length of the claw it possessed. It was smooth, though a bit chipped at the end, yet it still felt dangerous to touch, as if he were licking the blade of a knife.

The wolverine's palm was dark and calloused with thick pads, though not nearly as thick as an animal's. There was no fur of course, but the coarseness of the skin more than made up for the lack of animal hair. He placed his own hand against it, palm to palm, and saw that his fingers barely reached the ends of each digit, not to mention the claws that were half again as long! Rubbing gently against the dark skin, he grinned, unable to help himself in that. That was a very strong hand indeed.

Sir Maugnard was watching him curiously, letting him satiate his interest when a sudden shout echoed across the field. Snapping his eyes back up, he saw that the two knights, on the other side of the hills, and next to a copse of trees were waving towards them, Bryonoth standing next to his horse. "Something's wrong," Andre murmured softly.

Egland peered up, and grimaced. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure. Come on, let's see and find out." Andre led his stallion down the incline and across the grasses, with Egland just behind him. Clutching his helmet in one hand, Yacoub watched the grasses whirl by, dried leaves gently blowing onto the field from the nearby by woods. The wind whipped at his hair, drawing it in flowing bundle behind him. The gale whistled in the air, almost rather like a laugh.

When they reached their companions, the rat was gazing into the sombre copse of trees at the blackness held within. Sir Albert Bryonoth was resting one gauntleted hand upon Povunoth's neck, whisper calming words into the roan charger's nervously flicking ears. Andre rode to Saulius's side, and hissed softly. "What is it, Erick?"

The rat shook his head, his whiskers twitching furiously beneath his visor. "I'm not sure. Something lies in these woods, something unpleasant."

Albert kicked at a stone with one foot as Yacoub dismounted and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Thou needn't worry about me. I took a fall when Povunoth rode up the hill. He reared suddenly as the leaves fell. Twas most peculiar." His eyes though told another story. There was something distant in them, as if he were listening to a voice far away.

Andre glared at the blackness within those trees, his nose breathing in and out. Egland found himself staring at the wolverine, transfixed by that simple act of inhaling and exhaling. And then, the moment passed, Maugnard turned from the copse and gazed at the rest of them. "I do not know what has startled us so, but I believe we ought to alert George about it. He can send somebody to investigate."

"George?" Albert asked suddenly.

"The Patrol-master," Andre replied, his eyes turning curiously towards Egland. The knight turned away suddenly, a swell of embarrassment passing over him yet again. Fixing his eyes on the woods themselves, he noted the gnarl of each tree, and every branch. The leaves shifted and fell, some red, others a dead brown. And yet, for just a moment, he could of sworn they had formed a rather handsome face, one that was laughing with the wind. Then it to was gone.

"Yes, let us do that. I think I've had enough air for today," he declared, turning his steed about, his body tight with a sudden fear, and yet also a sudden desire. Shaking such thoughts from his mind, Yacoub let his gaze pass only upon the grasses as they made their way back to the Keep.

Waiting outside the gold-panelled doors was a young girl, rather plain of features and manner, as well as a few of the temple acolytes dressed in simple smocks. Her eyes alight with both interest and anxiety at the sound of approaching footsteps, and of such venerable men. She stood straighter then, her lanky legs almost unfit for the job, but they managed quite well. The acolytes also stood prouder then, yet there was an uncertainty to their pose that hinted at their concern. They were men and women ready to welcome a snake into their home, and they were not happy about it.

The Patriarch of course arrived with his entourage of Vinsah, his closest confidante, and two of the Yeshuel. After a long day of simply exploring the town of Metamor and its peoples, as well as engaging in some rather interesting conversations, his most important task now lay before him, and he found himself a bit unsure. Akabaieth was not one who generally questioned his decisions right before he followed through on them, but what he did now was unprecedented. Never before in the history of the Ecclesia had the Patriarch ever set foot inside a pagan temple after his elevation to the highest Earthly office of his faith.

As he thought about it, Akabaieth realized that even before he'd become a Follower, he'd never been in a Lothanasi temple. While living on Whales, he'd never had any faith at all, his father's strict agnosticism ruling all else. A slight grin crossed his features. So much he had seen so far on this journey had been new to him. And this visit to Metamor felt like the summit of some high peak. Yet, over each pass, only higher pinnacles could be glimpsed.

Akabaieth bowed gently at the waist, his frail form shuddering with the practised motion. Both Yeshuel and Vinsah joined in the gesture of friendship, though the Bishop had started only a moment later than the others. The girl - could she even be fourteen? - returned the gesture, her eyes wide, as did the acolytes. "I am Merai hin'Dana," she said in a soft, yet firm voice. "The Lothanasa, Raven hin'Elric, awaits your presence. I am to bring you to her immediately."

"And I am Akabaieth." He smiled as he spoke, the ancient lines of his face creasing together. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Merai hin'Dana."

Merai blinked a few times, unable to keep herself from smiling at the remark. Still, it was clear that she was nervous from being so close to the head of what to her was a pagan faith. Vinsah watched her carefully, noting the way she moved to open the doors, and the way her eyes traced over each of them. She was so young, not just in age, but in manner. The Bishop was nearly old enough to be her grandfather!

Passing beneath the marble transom, Vinsah could not help but take a breath, his hand reaching up to cross himself. Yet, a careful glance from Akabaieth stilled that abjuring gesture. They were in a long corridor with a low ceiling, each tile decorated by murals and paintings. The walls themselves were carved in relief, ancient writings and almost forgotten glyphs adorning every surface. The Bishop tried to make out the script, but found it unreadable to his eyes.

Beyond a second set of open double doors there was a large tympan window set within the apse at the far end, through which Vinsah focussed his gaze as they continued past more of those reliefs. The open air waited for him, though in the distance grey clouds loomed low in the sky. He'd lost his sense of direction in the ever changing halls of the Keep, and was not sure where the clouds were coming from. It did not appear to be towards the southwest, for no hint of sun remained in that autumnal sky. Shrugging such thoughts aside, he returned his attention to the young girl who had led them to another ornate door, this one recently polished.

"The Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric waits inside for you, Patriarch. She has requested that only you join her, and that your companions wait outside until you are done." Merai held the doorknob in one hand, her slender fingers rubbing the brass slowly.

Akabaieth smiled then, his expression warm. "I had hoped to speak with her alone as it is. I do have a request to make of you, Merai hin'Dana, if it would not be an imposition to do so. I understand that you are a priestess as well yourself? I am sure that you have duties to your people."

Merai nodded, her face brightening at mention of her role. "I do have responsibilities, but I could at least hear your request."

His grin broadening, Akabaieth motioned with one gnarled hand to Vinsah and the two Yeshuel. "I would be honoured if you took the time to show my friends more of your beautiful temple."

Vinsah could not help but gasp. Even the Yeshuel wore surprised expressions, the crucifix upon their shirt displaying their committed allegiance to all who would gaze upon them. "There is no need to trouble her with such a request, Father," Vinsah ventured, his throat catching. "She does have her responsibilities, and we would just be an unnecessary burden upon her."

Akabaieth then turned back around, hiding his face from the Lothanasi, and gave his chief aide a rather disappointed expression. Vinsah felt shame clutch his heart in an instant. He'd rather have the Lightbringers whip him than see his master let down. "You should learn more about our neighbours, the Lothanasi. It is unlikely you will have an opportunity quite as good as this ever again, so do not shrink from it."

Akabaieth then turned around again to face the young priestess. Vinsah bristled slightly as he thought of that. He'd been twenty-five before he had been even named a priest over the small parish just outside of Abaef a good thirty leagues from Yesulam. However, the Patriarch's voice and face returned once more to those of respectful cheer. "As long as it would not be an imposition on you, priestess hin'Dana."

The girl blinked, smiling slowly, looking at the two acolytes standing next to her for a moment. "I believe I have time enough to give them a brief tour. I do not know how long you and the Lothanasa will speak, she has not told me."

Vinsah, feeling rather foolish at his confused emotions, spoke then again, this time directly to the young priestess. "Feel free to take as long as you want. I'm sure I can learn much from you this day, priestess hin'Dana."

She appeared to blush slightly at the title. "You may call me Merai if you wish, most everyone still does."

Furrowing his brow, noting that the Patriarch was not even looking in his direction, Vinsah finally forced himself to ask the question that had been bothering him since they had arrived. "Pardon me for asking, Merai, but just how old are you?"

At she laughed slightly, her face brightening at that. It was a simple, yet earnest expression, one that displayed an immense maturity for one who appeared so young. "I still haven't changed yet. And what do I call you?"

"I'm Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef. I am surprised to see someone your age holding such a sterling office among your kind."

Merai shrugged slightly, her eyes turning to one of the murals, tracing the ancient runes. "Service to the Gods knows not of age. We are all called, young and old."

Akabaieth clapped his palms together quietly in delight. "Wise words indeed! Even those of us at the end of our years should remember such wisdom. I thank you, Merai hin'Dana, for imparting such insight."

The young but certain priestess then turned the brass knob upon the door, opening it gently. "Simply walk on in, she is expecting you. I do hope what the Lothanasa will say to you will possess even greater wisdom than that, your Eminence." Her eyes returned to Vinsah and the two Yeshuel who stood quietly, a source of strength that did not waver. "If you three will follow me, I will show you the main Temple hall."

Vinsah gazed once towards Akabaieth, whose gentle smile was enough to assure him that he'd been forgiven for his hasty words. Washed in sudden relief, the Bishop turned his mind towards the words that the young priestess was intoning as she led them down another hallway past the apse, telling tales of the early days of the world, when the gods first chose to shine their light on men. Whispering a silent prayer for strength to Yahshua, he allowed himself to be immersed in the travails of Kammoloth and his court.

Reaching out with one frail hand to hold the knob, Akabaieth listened to the priestess's departing words, his own thoughts turning to a prayer for strength. Not for himself though, but for Vinsah, that his aide might one day learn peacefully what it took Akabaieth wading in blood. And then, he pressed the door inwards, and crossed through to Raven hin'Elric's chambers. There was an ornate desk sitting to one side, with two chairs on either end. A large bookcase occupied one wall, as did a few decorations, most of them clerical in nature.

And standing in the centre of the room, garbed in her traditional robes was the Lothanasa herself. Raven hin'Elric was a moderately sized woman, though with her lupine features now masking the human, her eyes were still a deep a blue. Akabaieth recognized them instantly for what they were, eyes used to boring into the depths of hearts and seeing what lie therein. He saw them everyday in his own mirror.

Bowing once more at the waist, he intoned in very sombre words, "Hail to thee, and well met, Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric. I am Akabaieth, Patriarch of the Ecclesia, and Pontiff of the Followers of the Way."

Though nowadays, he normally flinched at such a long title, he gave it now out of respect for her. From the slight twisting to her ears, and an involuntary wag of her thick grey tail, he knew she had received it in kind. She bowed then at the waist as well, her tail rising high into the air behind her. "Hail to thee, and well met, Patriarch Akabaieth of the Ecclesia. I am Raven hin'Elric, daughter of Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor." She then favoured him with a mysterious grin, as if she was still unsure of his intentions. "I am honoured to invite you into this temple where I have served as head priestess for the last seven years. Would you care for something to drink and a place to sit? I can provide both. A man of your age must be weary from standing upon his legs all day long."

"I would greatly appreciate both."

Raven gestured to the ornate chair sitting before her desk. The smooth surface had been wiped clean, obviously to demonstrate that she was committing her full attention to their conversation. The chair itself was embroidered with a family crest, ostensibly Raven's own. Sitting down on the soft linen, he could feel the feather cushioning beneath take the weight from his legs. It was quite a pleasant sensation.

"Thank you. I do hope that I have not caused you our your people any distress by coming here."

"Is milk suitable?" she asked as she held out a decanter and a brass tumbler. He nodded and she poured the white drink and handed it to him. Setting the carafe back down on the counter, she remarked, "You have caused quite a disturbance in my affairs. Yet it is not one that Merai and I could not cope with. However, I would like to believe that it was worth it. So, why have you come here, and why do you wish to speak with me, a lowly priestess of a faith that your kind have persecuted for years?"

Akabaieth took a sip of the milk, thoughtfully gazing into those deep blue eyes. They sparkled like sapphires, he thought. "I suppose it had been too much to hope for. Alas. Our faiths have never been on good terms, and things only grow worse as time passes on. True, for now things are calm, but I know that among my own people, there is unrest. In fact, my coming here was stiffly opposed by some in my own council. Yet I knew that I must make this one last effort if any hope for peace and understanding between our faiths is ever to be had.

"That is why I am here. I wish to talk with you, not about the broad goals, though that too, but about what we can do to help usher in an era of peace. I hope that one day, your Lothanasi will rejoice at this inconvenience I've brought upon them. It can only happen though if both of our faiths wish it to happen. You, being the Lothanasa of Metamor, the traditional seat of the Lightbringer faith, would be a significant ally in this cause, if you so choose to ally yourself to peace."

Raven gently rubbed her chin with one paw as she sat down in the opposite chair, pulling her robes tightly about her supple frame. Her voice was soft, but their was a hint of iron to it. "That is all well and good. I doubt that many here at Metamor would find your goal unappealing. We are weary of war, but can expect little else with the threat of Nasoj ever present to the North."

And then, the iron bit. "Why should we believe though that it is what you wish? I have asked about, and I know that in your younger days, you incited several Pyralian cities to openly assault Sathmoran manors, simply to force them to convert to your faith, or to put them to the sword. How can we accept the hand of peace, when that hand is drenched in the blood of our own kinsmen? Why should we not believe instead that you have a knife in your other hand, waiting to plunge it into our hearts should we choose to take that stained hand?"

Akabaieth frowned slightly, his eyes casting downwards for a moment. His face was whiter than before, and his fingers could barely hold the tumbler anymore. Lifting those ancient orbs once more, he fixed his solemn gaze upon the wolf. "You speak truly, for I have done those things, and my hands are stained in the blood of innocents. Not only my hands, but my very soul is marred by the lives I've torn asunder. You do have every right to doubt my sincerity. You do have every right to choose to refuse me and send me on my way. I implore you though to listen to what I have to say.

"I want to bring peace between our peoples, not as a ruse to weaken you, but as a chance to strengthen us both. I have lived a long life, longer than most are gifted with, and in that life, I have made many mistakes, many things that I regret and bear the most terrible shame about. What I did to your people, your kinsmen, is one of the worst. I know that unless I make amends for what I did, then I can never be forgiven the guilt, either by Eli, or by myself."

"And you hope to redeem yourself by this crusade at the twilight of your life? Just when you may not live long enough to see it through?"

"No, I am doing this now because it is the right thing to do. And if I don't start it now, I may never start it. Others can finish what I hope to begin. I believe that Vinsah will be one such figure. I know that my past makes it harder to believe me, but have you not seen men change their lives, turn them around and start over again on the right path?"

Raven nodded slowly then. "Yes, I have. But the question I want to know is, have you done that?"

Akabaieth took another sip of the milk. "I hope so. This is my last chance to do what is right. I so dearly want to make good on this chance."

The Lothanasa folded her paws before her, the claw tips gently rapping on the desk. "I do not have the influence my father did with the Lothanasi High Council, but I will send them word of your desire. I cannot promise that they will listen though."

He nodded slowly. "I understand that. It will take a while before my own council sees the truest course is the one that leads to peace."

Raven stopped tapping then and held her paws tightly together, he eyes peering close, scrutinizing his every move. "I do not know quite why, but I believe you when you say you want peace. I have spoken with the others who were with you yesterday, and with those who have seen you this morning, and all of them tell me of this wonderful grandfatherly man. I believe you are more than that. I think you are a grandfather who wishes his descendants to avoid his own mistakes."

She then looked away a moment, towards her bookshelf. "Of course, you can no more change their ways than I. Each will do as they wish. We simply have to hope we can make them wish for the right things." The priestess fell into a long silence, her eyes still fixed on one of those books, as she seemed to struggle with some internal question. At last she looked back at him, her eyes serious and determined.

"There is something I must show you," she said, rising and walking over to the bookshelf. She carefully removed one of the tomes and carried it back to her desk, laying it open to a page that she had marked. The book seemed unspeakably ancient, its pages yellow and crumbling around the edges. The text itself, though still dark and clear, was written in an archaic script of the Common Tongue. Akabaieth had a good deal of experience with old books -- the library at Yesulam had a handsome collection of early works -- but the dialect was unfamiliar, and required some effort to decipher.

"I retrieved this from the Archives in anticipation of our meeting," Raven said, sitting back down in her chair. "The original text dates to 242 Cristos, and this copy was made not many years after that."

"What is it?" Akabaieth asked, peering closely at the text. It appeared to be a poem of some kind.

"A prophecy of Silvinia, the Oracle of Samekkh," the Lightbringer said. "Perhaps the most reliable seeress of the last thousand years, at least among my people. This particular revelation was long forgotten by our order -- I only recently rediscovered it, in one of the deepest levels of our Archives. I believe you will find it quite germane to our present discussion."

Akabaieth read through the ancient poem slowly and carefully. The first four stanzas described a time of coming darkness, when two evils would unite to wage war against the guardians of Light. It spoke of corruption and traitors within holy councils, "light and light" drawn to battle, atrocities committed...

"Abba, have mercy," he whispered. He looked up at Raven, who was watching him with a knowing expression. "This sounds much like what we have seen happen between our own peoples."

"Precisely," Raven said, nodding once.

Akabaieth turned back to the poem, reading even more intently now than before. The next stanza...

" 'Elenin'?" he asked, reading the unfamiliar word.

"It means Starchild," the priestess replied. "Elenin is the main focus of the prophecy, as you will see."

The next few stanzas were ... disturbing, to say the least. There were so many deliberate parallels, even down to the language used...

"Lothanasa, it sounds as if your Oracle means to set up this 'Elenin' as a counterpart to Yahshua."

"I do not doubt that the gods had in mind a certain degree of imitation," Raven conceded. "It is no secret that they are jealous of the following that your Hirasoth has acquired. I would not be too concerned, though - the task to which Elenin has been called is considerably different."

That was true enough, Akabaieth realized as he read through the remainder of the poem. Elenin was to play a central role in the destruction of this alliance of darkness, possibly in some sort of battle. She -- for the Starchild was clearly female -- would cleanse the "holy councils" of corruption, renew old friendships that had long been torn apart, and bring love where there had once been hatred.

"And you believe this prophecy is about to be fulfilled?" the Patriarch asked.

Raven nodded, her eyes showing no joy at the thought. "I cannot be certain yet, but I believe that Elenin has arrived and is currently being prepared for her role in the prophecy. There was an incident this past July involving Yajiit -- or Anarbereth, as the Oracle calls her -- which precisely parallels the reference in the poem."

Akabaieth glanced back at the book. "Which would mean that this corruption it speaks of has already arrived, as well."

"Precisely -- and that is the reason I needed to show you," Raven said. "It makes the question of peace between our peoples much more complicated. This is about more than old grudges and religious differences -- someone is deliberately driving Lightbringers and Followers to destroy each other."

"So that this darkness may rise on the earth."

"Aye." Raven ran a hand through her hair, brushing it out of her face. "And that is why I had to test you before revealing this to you. I had no way of knowing how far the corruption has spread amongst your clergy - for all I knew, you could have been corrupted yourself. Now, to my relief, I see otherwise."

Akabaieth studied the woman closely. She looked tired, he realized suddenly -- as if recent events had wearied her beyond her years. "And how far do you believe this corruption has spread among the Lightbringers?" he asked.

"Too far. I believe that we can trust Lycias - he is the Lothanas of Whales, our southernmost chapter, and a good friend of my father's." Akabaieth grinned momentarily at the mention of his homeland, but the gesture was quickly washed from his face. "And Angernil, Lothanas of the Dragons, is almost certainly incorruptible, though he rarely involves himself with the rest of the Order these days. As for the other six..." She shook her head. "I cannot be sure of their allegiance."

"Two thirds of the High Council?" the Patriarch asked, mildly surprised. "Can it have gone so far?"

"I fear so. That is why I hesitate to push too strongly for peace at this time." She looked at him with a mixture of sadness and frustration. "This war must come to an end," she said wearily. "You and I both know this. I have done my best to promote peace between our faiths here in the Valley, and I believe that I have done well -- but there is only so far I can go. Even though I am officially the chief authority over my chapter, the rest of the High Council is a powerful voice. If we were to sign a peace treaty, you and I, the Council would brand me a heretic and declare war on my entire chapter."

"And many within my own council would likely do the same to me," the Patriarch added, finishing Raven's unspoken thought. "It would seem that we are walking the proverbial slippery slope."

"Indeed." The priestess leaned closer, her blue eyes gazing at him intently. "Who can you trust, among your own councilors?"

Akabaieth finished the last of the milk and set the tumbled down on the desk, his slender fingers tracing its surface for a moment as he considered all the words he had just heard. Finally, drawing his hand back into his lap where it lay quietly, he spoke in sombre tones, "Very few it would appear. I know there are some among the Council of Bishops who would like nothing more than to exterminate all Lothanasi, and all magic. They are a quiet few, I do not know who they are precisely, but I know they exist, fomenting dissent over my charge."

He then furrowed his brow. "In answer to your question though, I know that I can trust Vinsah completely. He may not yet be as tolerant as I wish him to be, but he is growing in understanding each passing day. My Yeshuel are incorruptible, but they play no part in deciding policy. In the past, Cardinal Geshter of Pyralis has been my ally in quelling sentiments on the Pyralian-Sathmore border. It has been quite a while since I have seen him last, so I do not know if his sentiments have changed over the years. I do not know any of the Midlands priests well enough to say. Of those residing at Yesulam, Bishop Juthay would be one who I feel I can trust. The others, I am not sure."

He frowned slightly. "I shall have to pray about this. When I am better assured of their loyalties, I shall send you a message."

"Excellent -- only be sure you can trust the courier," Raven said. "It may be wise that no one among your advisors know of his mission, either."

"Aye." Reaching over to the desk, Akabaieth carefully closed the book. "These are sad times in which we live, Lothanasa."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps we should consider them hopeful times, since we know that a brighter day awaits us."

Akabaieth smiled warmly. "True enough," he conceded. "However, I would like to ask a favour of you though in this regard."

"What is it?"

Akabaieth licked his lips once. "Would you try and work more closely with Father Hough, at least as one guide to another. It would help our cause greatly if others could see a greater harmony at Metamor between our two faiths. You both have done remarkably well so far, but every step forward is one that we must eventually take."

Raven appeared thought ful at that, her blue eyes tracing across his features. "Very true. We have agreed not to interfere in each other's affairs, but little else. I suppose it is time that we aimed for more. I doubt the Midland Lothanasi would object, though the Sathmoran chapters might not appreciate it."

"No matter what we do, we shall alienate some of our brethren."

"Again, true." Raven pursed her lips, the dark, black nose glistening in the lamp light. "What shall you be doing to foment the peace?"

"I will be travelling through the Midlands these next few months talking to every parish along the way, and telling them of my dream for peace between our two faiths. I will order the local priests to carry out my wishes to do their best to be more accommodating. I hope to speak to a few of the Lothanasi in the Midlands as well, as I have to you."

Raven cocked her head to one side, her thick black hair dangling over one ear. "Is there anything more you wish?"

"No, that is all." He gripped the armrests, preparing to rise from the chair.

"Here, let me help you," Raven said, coming over to him. Taking his arm, she helped to steady him as he rose to his weary feet.

"My thanks, Lothanasa," he said, walking beside her back towards the door.

"My pleasure," she assured him, showing him a small, reserved smile. "I thank you for coming, though I wish that I had better news to offer you."

The Patriarch shrugged. "Better a sad truth than a pleasant lie. If nothing else, I thank you for making Metamor welcome to my people. Here, at least, there is proof that Lothanasi and Patildor may live together as brothers."

"Aye. Let us only hope it is the first glimmer of a brighter tomorrow."

They stopped at the door, and Raven extended the arms of friendship toward him, palms up. Akabaieth placed his own aged arms over them, clasping forearms with her for a moment in the ancient gesture of brotherhood.

"May Eli bless you, Raven hin'Elric," he said, smiling.

"Live in the light, Akabaieth of the Ecclesia," she replied, returning the expression.

He turned to open the door, then paused as he grasped the handle. "Oh, now that I think of it..." he said, turning to look at her. "You said that you believed this ... Starchild, Elenin ... has already arrived. Who do you think it is?"

Raven smiled again, a mysterious glint in her eyes. "Well, 'tis too soon to be certain. The child has yet to be tested in any real way. But I suspect that it is someone you have already met."

Akabaieth opened the door, and looked up to see the young priestess Merai sitting on the floor of the temple with Vinsah and his two Yeshuel. She was animatedly describing some great battle in the history of the Lightbringers, her mahogany-brown eyes sparkling with life. The Patriarch turned to Raven, his eyebrows raised in a silent question. The Lothanasa gave him another mysterious smile and nodded once, almost imperceptibly. Akabaieth turned back toward the girl, looking on her with new eyes. There was such innocence in that face. The Patriarch wondered just what the future had in store for her.

By now the young priestess and his own men had noticed their entrance, and were standing attentively as Raven and Akabaieth approached. Vinsah gave a wary look towards the wolfen Lightbringer, but he quickly masked it in polite, attentive expression.

"Lothanasa," Vinsah said, nodding respectfully.

"Father," Raven replied, nodding in turn.

"Come, Vinsah, we've taken enough of the Lightbringers' time. Again, my thanks, Lothanasa."

"A pleasure," Raven replied courteously. "You are welcome within these walls, your Eminence."

Akabaieth turned to Merai, who was regarding him closely. "Thank you for being such a gracious hostess, Merai. I am in your debt."

The girl smiled broadly. "It was my pleasure, your Eminence."

Escorted by Merai and three acolytes, the Patriarch and his men made their way out of the temple, down the ornate hallway and through the two massive doors at its far end. Vinsah seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they passed under the transom, and Akabaieth suspected that several of the acolytes had done likewise.

They had not gone far down the passageway when Akabaieth stopped, turning to look back at the brown-haired priestess who stood in the doorway watching them. They exchanged a long look before Merai stirred, raising a hand in farewell. The Patriarch returned the gesture, and the girl disappeared from view. A moment later, the heavy doors swung shut, and all was quiet.

"What was that about, Father?" Vinsah asked as they turned and continued walking.

Akabaieth smiled distantly. "The future, Vinsah," he said softly. "The future."

chapter 12

Vinsah lay in his bed that night dreaming of a woman. It was not uncommon among the Ecclesia priests to have such fantasies as they slept, pondering the life they could have had if they had been allowed to marry. He had been plagued by such temptations before, but one could hardly consider the life of a dream to be as true as the physical. At least, that was the stance that many in the Ecclesia held, though there were a few who felt dreams were another means of Eli to speak to them. Yet, from the very first moment he glimpsed her in his night scape, Vinsah knew that this was not like any of the dreams he had ever had before.

Nor was he sure quite why it was happening. Despite the rather unsettling affairs of earlier in the day, mostly concerning Akabaieth's rather cavalier approach to topics that were considered by many in the Ecclesia to be taboo, after returning from the Lightbringer Temple things had been rather serene. Akabaieth and he had enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the rooms that Thalberg had provided for them, talking of older times and how far they had come over the years. Never once did the Patriarch mention what he had discussed with the Raven hin'Elric, nor had he asked Vinsah to relate what Merai had shown him of the Lothanasi temple.

After the dinner, that evening, an hour after dusk had settled over the valley, enwrapping it in the dark folds of night, but also in the warmth of friendly faces, they went to the Chapel. The evening service was a special one that Akabaieth oversaw personally, with Vinsah acting as deacon, while Hough, Lothar, and the two other priests that had accompanied them from Yesulam were assistants. The hall was full of Keepers, many of them were Followers of Yahshua's teachings, but no longer part of the Ecclesia herself. Yet the vast majority were members of that faithful body, uniting in the ancient sacraments that held them together as a people.

In fact, the only thing that had happened that had given Vinsah pause was when, during their meal together, Akabaieth pulled out the small sculpture of quartz that Murikeer had fashioned for him while they had talked in the Library. The two points of lapis shone brightly, yet they appeared to droop slightly in the face, as if there was a sadness crossing the milky veins of stone. There was no question that the stone had been shaped with magic, and that fact alone was enough to make the Bishop wary. Though it appeared to amuse his master, Vinsah, having been raised and bred in the hills around Yesulam, was very distrustful of those arcane practices.

That brought to mind the Keepers themselves. Their very forms were the product of magic. How could one truly believe that magic was good at all? It had brought such a terrible burden upon these honest folk at the Keep. They were victims of the magic, and he truly did not blame them for their predicament as several members of the Council of Bishops did. Yet, that magic had brought upon them scorn, and disfigurement the likes of which was almost unknown in the history of the kingdoms.

Yet even so, many of the things he had seen since coming to Metamor shocked and appalled him nonetheless. Of course, none of it had truly affected him until their walk through the Library. But most especially, his mind fixated on the tour Merai had given him and the two Yeshuel of the Lightbringer Temple. In truth, it had been a relatively brief experience, as there was not much that the young priestess appeared inclined to show them apart from the main hall, and rooms of the acolytes. Yet as she described what they did there, words and tales of gods he did not believe in, he could almost feel as if those beings had reached out for him. Despite Akabaieth's assurances, he doubted he would ever truly feel comfortable in presence of Lothanasi.

Yet, as he lay there beneath the thick quilts, bundled tightly against the cold autumn air, dreams of that woman came to him, as if they had been there all along. He was sitting at his desk back in Abaef, preparing for the Service the following morning when he heard her voice calling out behind him. "Elvmere, you have come to me at last."

Turning, in surprise, he glimpsed her for the first time. Tall, slender, though modestly dressed in a rather radiant white gown, shimmering in the doorway, as if she were a part of it, he found that he could not take his eyes from her frame. She glided lightly forward, her feet barely gracing the clay tiles on the floor. Though he had never seen her before, Vinsah found that he did not need to look at her directly to know her features. There was a lucidity to the image that was so unlike any of his other dreams, that it gave him a bit of a fright.

"Who are you?" he asked, his own voice timid, his old hands tightening on the frame of his phantom desk. He could feel her breath on his cheek, warm and soothing, almost soporific. Yet how could one feel tired in a dream?

"I am the mistress of this house." She gestured with one silvery, almost translucent hand towards the walls about them both.

"But this is the Cathedral in Abaef!" Vinsah insisted, shuddering as he watched her lithe frame inch closer. "It is owned by no man or woman, only the Ecclesia herself can lay claim to her walls."

Her footsteps made no noise, as she crossed the room, to the single window overlooking the mud-thatched roofs of Abaef. His home was not very prosperous, but they did their best to live good lives with what they had. She gently pulled open the drapes, throwing pale light across the floor. It was hardly the sun of Abaef, which was bright and hot, beating down on them most days. "No, Elvmere, this is not the Cathedral at Abaef."

Vinsah blinked as she used that foreign name yet again. Rising from his chair, he found himself feeling rather rejuvenated, the slight aches of his muscles and bones gone. He moved to the window, but refused to stand next to her. The slight illumination emanating from her skin was enough to make him quite uneasy. Yet he did peer out the window, past the dark brown curtains, to find a land that was not his own. High grey peaks lined the horizon, each topped with billowing white plumes of snow. Nestled at their base were clutches of red and yellow, trees shedding their leaves for the winter frost yet to come. And the homes in the city below were made from stone, not clay.

"Who are you?" He asked again, his blood running cold through his veins. He drew his robes about his chest closer. Strangely, they were not the priestly vestments he normally bore, but those of an acolyte. "Where are we? Is this a dream?" The last was a silly question he knew, for how could it not be a dream? Yet, the anxieties of the day had clamoured together in his mind, convincing him that many things he had not thought possible were.

She did not speak just then, gazing at him with her soft eyes as her long black hair billowed about around her shoulders. Her eyes were deep and stone grey, containing worlds that Vinsah could only briefly catch a glimpse of. Reflected upon those orbs were visions of places and beings that had been lost to myth ages ago. "What is a dream?" she asked softly, gliding back towards the door, her hand beckoning for him to follow. "Come, Elvmere, you have hidden yourself for far too long."

Vinsah bristled at how she deflected his questions. Yet, the most upsetting thing was why she kept using that strange name. "My name is Vinsah," he declared, stumbling on his feet along after her.

If she noticed his words at all, she gave no indication, but continued out through the doorway, the light of her skin brightening the warm hallway outside. Vinsah followed after her, finding himself in a long corridor that was brightly decorated. It was so achingly familiar to him, yet the name refused to come to his lips.

Strange thoughts flowed through his mind, most revolving around her identity, and what the name Elvmere could mean. The more and more he thought as he trundled along behind her, his feet heavy with both worry and fear, the more he began to entertain the notion that this was not just a dream, but something different altogether. How he wished to dispel that very idea as soon as it had struck him; why couldn't it simply be a bit of undigested bread, as the old saying went?

The spectral lady turned about one corner, and disappeared from sight. Slowly, he came to a stop, considering. What reason did he have to follow this phantasm? Not only was she a frightening sight, one born not of the worlds that he knew, but also she would not even call him by his proper name! But if he did not follow, would he be attributing more to this night time wandering then he ought? Would he be accepting that a force his own people decried was playing a part in his life?

No, Vinsah would not allow himself to believe that. And so a simple dream this must be, for it could not possibly be of magical origin. His feet moved once more across the bright parquetry, glistening tiles layered with rich carpets, and past walls decorated with gilded tapestries and strange lettering. Yet, like the lady, it too appeared to be familiar in a way he could not name.

When he turned the corner though, he found himself standing in a courtyard, with a single wide gate at the far end, high walls closing in the field of grass and terrazzo walkways. Standing just outside the gates was a man, one that he had never seen before. He could not make any details out, except that he was clad in a midnight dark robe. There was no one else standing in those gentle gardens, each fresh with the delightful odour of the last blossoms of the year. Though it was obviously day, the light was pale, as if seen through a thick haze, yet he could see no clouds in the sky.

"Please stay, Elvmere," a soft voice said from behind him. Turning about, he expected to find the woman who'd come to him at his desk, but instead, there was only the corridor he'd come from. The entranceway was framed by dark green ivy twirling about each column, bright purple blossoms decorating those twisting curls.

Turning back around, trying to find the source of the voice, his eyes found that dark clad man again. He thought he could see a faint smile gracing his lips, beneath the finely combed black hair. His hands rested on his hips, as if in expectation. The trees about that sepulchral figure appeared dead, sucked dry of their life as their brown leaves twirled to the ground about the figure.

Sucking in his breath, an unknown terror filling his chest, Vinsah scanned the gardens again for any sign of the woman. He called out in his tenor voice, though it felt deeper, "Where are you? Why do you call me Elvmere?"

The sound of a laughing brook came to his ears then. Scanning towards one side of the high walls, he saw a small fountain nestled between the bright bushes. The water was overflowing the rim and cascading down a small rivulet over finely polished rocks. With a gasp he noticed something within the bright water, a peculiar piece of quartz that stood out alone among the granite stones of the fountain. Gritting his teeth, with a bit of temerity, he plunged his hand into the surprisingly warm depths, and drew forth one of the stones.

Turning it over in his palms, he found the grooves well worn, as if the water itself had shaped them. Yet, he nearly dropped it when it rolled to one side, and two pinpricks of dark agate stared back at him from a face that was too familiar. It was his face, though there were strange bands about the eyes that he did not recognize. Certainly part of the chalcedony, he quibbled, as he lowered the stone back into the waters of the stream.

"Do you always return gifts?" a new, but familiar voice echoed behind him. Sniffing at the air, he caught the first reek of the musk that had permeated the alcove where they had met earlier in the day. Wiping his palms on the acolyte's robes he now wore, he turned on his heels, glimpsing at the skunk, naked again except for the old leggings that came down to his hocks. The black fur of his broad chest appeared to rise with the question. The deep, almost featureless dark eyes held Vinsah's, yet they felt deeper than even the Splitting Sea.

Vinsah breathed a moment, studying the figure before him, reminding himself that this was only a dream. Yet, in a way, he knew this was not even a dream figure of Murikeer Khannas, but something else entirely. He shunted such thoughts once more to the dark recesses of his mind. "I found it in the stream. How could it be a gift?"

Murikeer crossed the terrazzo to stand next to the priest, and, waving his long tail about erratically, distributing his particular musk through the air, reached into the stream and pulled the shaped quartz out again. He traced his blunt dark claws over its surface as he let it rest in one black palm, the droplets of water glistening in the dappled light. "Perhaps I put it there just now for you to find." His eyes became shaded, as if staring at something beyond Vinsah. "Perhaps, it was there all this time and you only just now discovered it."

Vinsah nearly laughed in exasperation at that last cryptic remark. "But I've never been here before until now! I don't even know where `here' is!"

The skunk smiled slowly, an expression that Vinsah did not recall seeing all too often while Akabaieth and he had been talking in that dusty alcove in the library. It was quite strange to see it upon his muzzle now. "You do know where you are, you simply do not wish to admit it to yourself. Where else would you find me?"

With a sudden intake of breath, Vinsah hissed, "Metamor!"

"No, not quite," Murikeer murmured softly, gently holding out the stone to him. "Take it, Elvmere, for it is yours."

Vinsah took a step back, nearly stumbling into the gentle brook. "I can't. You made that with magic."

"We all have magic, it is inside of us waiting to blossom. You have magic too."

He said it with such calm authority that for a moment, Vinsah was afraid that he too shared that belief. Yet he shook his head violently, and turned away, deliberately stalking away from the skunk. "No, you are wrong! Magic is a temptation. I wish to have no part in it."

Yet, even though he had deliberately stalked several paces away, he could hear the mephit's voice in his ears s if he were speaking over his shoulder. He could almost feel the tickling of the skunk's whiskers along the skin of his neck. "Your master sought a healer before he made his journey, did he not? Was that not magic?"

Vinsah bristled, and slapped at the empty air over his shoulder with one hand, crossing his other tightly about the acolyte's robes. "I do not know how she healed him. She might have used herbs to soothe his aching bones. Many know such remedies."

"You don't really believe that do you?" the voice whispered into his other ear.

Stalking further away, Vinsah stepped off the terrazzo and onto the grasses, towards the high wall and the gate at the far end. The black man still stood outside in the distant grove, waiting and watching, almost curiously. Taking a deep breath, he turned about then, half expecting to find the skunk had disappeared into the mists of his dream-scape, but the acrid odour still filled the air, and the monochromatic figure still stood before him, only a few paces in fact.

"I have nothing to do with your filthy magic," he said between clenched teeth.

Murikeer gestured to the walls and flowers about them. "Then what is this place?"

"A dream, nothing more!" Vinsah insisted, crossing his arms before him. Yet, he knew that his words were a lie even as he spoke them. The alternative, though, was something that he simply could not allow himself to consider.

The skunk appeared to notice that as well, the scent of his musk increasing. Strangely enough, it did not gag the priest as it had in the library. "You do not really believe that, now do you, Elvmere?"

"My name is Vinsah!"

Murikeer bore an amused expression then, still holding out the figurine of quartz in his wet paw. "Vinsah? What is Vinsah, Bishop of Abaef? He is a mask that you wear. Servant to a man who has caused more bloodshed in his days than most kings, deluding himself into believing the world fits precisely into his own perception. Vinsah is one willing to believe that the atrocities his master committed, as well as many of his kinsman, are empty memories, best left forgotten.

"Blood does not forget though." Here, the skunk closed his paw about the stone, holding it tightly to his chest, and peering into the air behind the priest. "Not twenty five years ago, your master incited the people of Breckaris to invade a short distance into Sathmore, and to put to the sword all who would not convert to his faith. Did you know that he had done that?"

Vinsah nodded fiercely. "Yes, I knew of it! But he has changed since then! Akabaieth is no longer that sort of man."

Murikeer scowled then, waving a hand towards the wall, it began to shimmer as if fading into the mist. "But is your Ecclesia still that sort of Ecclesia?" the skunk asked, even as the landscape shifted about them, changing. There was a broad rolling field to either side, small homes lining the cobblestone streets. The homes were fashioned from wood, though Vinsah was unable to recognize the stock. The sky was deeply overcast, and subdued lights came from the homes, cries of torment echoing from out the open windows.

"Come, Elvmere. Come and see what your Ecclesia has wrought," Murikeer commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. Vinsah stumbled along afterwards, pulling his cassock about him tighter, refusing to look behind him. He could hear the sounds of hoof beats, and a shrill chorus of a hymn that he had sung many times in chapel. Only this one was accented with the screams of men and women who cried out to other gods for protection and deliverance that would not come.

Murikeer led them to an open door. It was a small home, about the size of the homes back in Abaef. Inside were several armoured men, all bearing the sign of the crucifix upon their blood smeared surcoats. A woman was crying, huddled in one corner, clutching two young children to her chest. A man in dirty clothes lay face-down in a growing crimson pool that soaked the timbers of the floor. Standing over the man was a figure dressed in priestly vestments, speaking calmly, yet harshly. Though he was a good twenty five years younger, Vinsah recognized him instantly; Akabaieth.

One of the guards dragged the smaller of the two children from her mother's arms. The child screamed and cried out for her mother, bawling, tears streaming from her eyes and down her cheeks. Akabaieth leaned over and faced the little girl, holding out a small crucifix, the long end sharpened into a blade. "Now, little girl, what is your name?"

Her eyes became transfixed upon the dagger he held, her weeping stopping, even as the mother cried out in horror. "Leave my daughter alone you monsters! Leave her alone! Oh Kammoloth!"

"Silence!" Akabaieth snarled, slapping the woman with his aged hand. She fell back into the wall, her other child, a boy that appeared to be no more than eight, fell with her, but held close. The man who would be Patriarch turned back to the girl, a smile crossing his lips. Vinsah had seen his master smile often, yet what he saw now was a malicious contorting of that visage, an evil façade that made him shudder in horror.

Turning to Murikeer, he could feel tears standing in his own eyes. "Please, end this! I cannot bear to see this."

"You will watch, Elvmere, and learn what your master has tried to teach you, then and over the years. You flinched at this, so many years ago. You cannot flinch this time." The voice was cold, yet despite that, the priest was certain that there was a sparkle of sympathy to it, as if whoever had invaded his dreams wished that they did not have to do this.

Vinsah wished that he could banish such a notion, just as he wished he could banish all magic and all Lothanasi, but it remained rooted in his mind. Turning his eyes back to the little girl, he saw that she was trembling as Akabaieth ran a finger down her cheek, wiping her tears away. "Don't cry little girl. We are hear to save you. Now, what is our name?"

"Elsie," she said in a very small voice. She pulled away from his touch, as if his fingers were snakes. He gripped her cheek between his thumb and forefinger, and forced her to look into his eyes.

"That's a pretty name, Elsie. I bet you love your mother very much, don't you?" The girl said nothing, her eyes filling with tears as they stared at the body of her slain father. Akabaieth pinched her cheek tightly. "Don't you?"

"Yes," she bawled out, the tears flowing again.

Akabaieth smiled that vicious animalistic grin. "And your mother loves you very much as well doesn't she?"

"You leave her alone!" the mother cried again, holding her son close to her chest.

Vinsah's master ignored her objections, and gripped Elsie's chin tightly between his fingers. "Now Elsie, look at me. Does your mother love you very much? Answer me, Elsie." He never raised his voice to the girl, yet the threat was clear as his other hand clutched the crucifix dagger.

Finally, she nodded her head, crying even harder again. Akabaieth pulled her close to his chest then, turning her to face her mother. He held the knife before the little girl, his eyes gazing resolutely at the woman crouching in the corner with her son. Vinsah wanted to throw up, his eyes filling with tears at the sight before him. All he could do was tell himself that is was simply a dream. Yet it was not, it was far more sinister; memory.

"Will you renounce your pagan beliefs and embrace Yahshua?" His voice was so calm, almost as if he were asking what colour the sky was.

The woman spat at him, tears standing in her eyes. "You monster. What does your Yahshua know of love? How can you preach of love and forgiveness if you come in and murder my husband and threaten my children! You dogs! I spit upon your god! I spit upon him and all of you!" Sh burst out in fright, clutching her son to her chest, knowing that in that moment she had killed them all.

Akabaieth's face twisted in a sudden rage, and with a flick of his wrist, he'd sliced the tip of the knife across Elsie's throat. The girl reached up and clutched at the wound, but her fingers could not staunch the flow of bright red blood that surged forth. It welled between her fingers, spilling loudly to the floor a moment before her body crumpled into the spreading, muddy crimson pool. Her tiny form twitched as she stared at the ceiling, her eyes pleading for any surcease from the pain. Vinsah cried out in horror, beating the walls with his fist, wishing that he could stop what he was seeing. Murikeer stood staring, an angry moue adorning his features.

Yet, as the priest watched, a change came over Akabaieth's face. He stared down at his hands, and at the girl. A look of horror crossed his features, as if for the first time in his life he realized what he had done. And then, while the soldiers looked on in puzzlement, and the woman continued to shriek in horror at the murder of her daughter, Akabaieth let his face fall into the folds of his hands, a sob of shame breaking through his throat; the bloodied blade slipping from his fingers to join the still form of the child in the muddied pool of spilled blood.

And then, just as suddenly, it was all gone. Vinsah stared about the courtyard, the flowers and gardens as they had been before. The gate still stood open, and the black-clad figure waited beyond. Turning about in horror, Vinsah snarled, "Murikeer Khannas!" But the skunk was not there anymore. Instead, another Metamorian was before him. A tall wolf with long black hair, dressed in clerical robes. She held the small stone of quartz in her paws, and gazed at him with her own deep blue eyes. There was something else in her paws though, a piece of black cloth of some kind.

"Raven hin'Elric," he said, the words coming from his throat in a snarl. "Don't you try to tell me that my Ecclesia has tortured your people. You Lothanasi have done the same to us over the years! Don't deny it, you know it is true."

"Elvmere, would you please stop being so trite. I have a gift for you."

Vinsah kicked at the stones, flailing his arms about in frustration. "My name is Vinsah! I'm the Bishop of Abaef, not this other name! Stop taunting me with your mysteries and riddles and your so-called gifts! I want nothing of them!"

"Regardless, you shall accept this one, no matter what you choose to call yourself." Raven stepped closer, the soft pads of he paws gliding through the grasses towards him. She gently tossed the stone towards him, but he stepped back, letting it land in the loam before him. Glancing down, he could see the two eyes of agate gazing back at him, almost forlornly.

And then, in that moment of distraction, he felt Raven's paws at his back, the black piece of cloth closing over his face. "Vinsah is but your mask, Elvmere. If you chose to wear it, then you will." She said, as she cinched it tight behind him.

Reaching up with his fingers, he clawed at the fabric that covered his face. There were holes for the eyes, so he could still see clearly, yet the feel of it tight against his flesh was horrifying. Even so, despite his searching fingers, he could find no seem to slip beneath, no loose edge to work at. His hands grasped and clawed at the knot behind his head, yet he could make no leeway there either.

"Get this infernal scrap of cloth off of me now!" he demanded, thrashing about. "Damn you, Lightbringer, get this off!"

She stood before him then, and with a swift stroke of her paw, slapped him across the face. He blinked in sudden shock, stumbling back, and tripping over the stone he had let fall to the Earth. He landed on his back, the breath knocked from him. Wheezing, he turned over on his side, gasping for any air that would come to him. With one hand, he reached up and felt the sting along his face, even through the thick black cloth circling his eyes.

"Why did you do that?" he demanded as soon as he regained his breath.

Her eyes were cold as ice. "I serve the gods, Elvmere. Though we follow different paths, we both know the price for damning. You have seen it, seen what it has done to your precious Akabaieth. And yet you would easily wish it on another."

Growling in frustration, but more from shock now, he slowly rose once more to his feet, wiping the smeared dirt from his cassock. The stone lay there before him, the deep chalcedony marks about his eyes a tribute to the cloth he now wore. "I want this off of me!" he said again, though not nearly as hotly this time.

"Then take it off. Once you are ready, it will come off," Raven declared, stepping down and lifting the figurine again. "You have been offered a gift, will you not accept it?"

Vinsah gazed down at the stone in her paws, blinking, reaching out slowly with one hand. And then, he could feel the magic contained therein, and flinched once again. He pushed her paw away, turning on his feet and starting away. "No, I will never accept the gift of a beast. Never!" He screamed, throwing himself towards the gate, eager to leave this phantasm that plagued him.

Just as he reached the archway beyond which stood the solitary figure dressed in a black robe, the woman shouted once again. "Stop!" He found his feet rebelling against him, bringing him to a halt just before the gate. The voice was not Raven's, that he knew, but that of the woman who had first come into his study and brought him into this strange hazy world. Turning about, he glimpsed her iridescent form hovering over the grasses. Her long hair flowed behind her, cascading about her shoulders like a waterfall. Her slender hand was outstretched, a look of worry creasing her brow.

"Please, Elvmere," she called out in a caring tone, the very first of which he had heard throughout this entire nightmare. "Please, stay here. Out that gate lies darkness, fire, and pain. Stay where it is safe, Elvmere. I implore you."

Vinsah tried not to hear the name she used, the name that they all used for him. Glancing back at the man whose hands were folded beneath his robes, he laughed sullenly, humourlessly. "Safe? You call the torment safe? You call what has been done to me safe? I have been bound by this mask!" he pointed at it with one finger, scratching at it again feverishly with his other hand. "I want out!"

"Look at what awaits you should you leave," she said softly, pointing towards the man dressed in black robes. Vinsah sighed, and did so staring at his face, at the strange mark upon his breast - it appeared to be a red shield with something inside of it. The black-haired figure smiled slowly, a creeping gesture that made Vinsah shudder suddenly. It was the same smile that Akabaieth had worn when talking to Elsie.

Yet, it was not until the stranger removed his hands from the folds of his robes did Vinsah recoil in horror. Slowly, the sepulchral figure drew forth his palms, unsheathing them from the back confines of his dress. Yet, where he expected to see white, there was nothing but red. The man's hands were drenched in blood. Vinsah cried out in horror, backing away from the gate, and crumpling to the ground at the woman's feet. He reached out a hand to grasp her ankle, to hold onto to something, somebody, even if that person was one of his tormentors. The evil he had just glimpsed made the mask feel like a safe haven.

The woman knelt down and gently stroked his hair with her slender fingers, whispering quietly, words that he could not understand, yet seemed to fill him with a strength that he'd never felt before. Somehow, despite everything else, he knew that he could trust this woman, to some extent. "Wake Elvmere. Wake from your dream, and do not forget who and what you have seen. And remember, beyond the gates lies darkness, fire, and pain."

Vinsah closed his eyes, the mask tight about his forehead, shuddering as the sounds of that man's laughing echoed in his mind. He shut them out, listening instead to the soothing words of the nameless woman, the celestial being whose fingers stroked through his loose hair, calming him. So many images clouded his thoughts though, yet he pushed them all away, only letting that woman's foreign words inhabit his mind and heart in that moment. And for one brief moment, before he started from the quilts of his bed in a sweat, he felt as if everything in his life were right, and that even the name she had given him suited him.

Then it was all gone in a flash. Jerking out of his covers, Vinsah stared about him at the empty room. A bit of light crept in through the closed window, a silvery casting that was diffused by the jalousie. Scrambling out from the covers, he pulled back the shutters, and let the moon's light illuminate the chambers he had been supplied. As he was the Patriarch's aide, they were private, and his stirring would rouse no one.

As he stared out over the homes and fields of Metamor, he could almost feel the mask still clutching around his head. Pusillanimously, he raised his hand to feel at his eyes, but at the last moment snatched them away, afraid that it would still be there. He breathed slowly, closing his eyes, trying to forget all the things he had seen in that dream. But they all came back to him in an instant the moment he gave them a thought.

Whimpering, Vinsah slumped to the floor, wrapping his arms about the silken draperies. He raised his hand again, staring at it, as if half expecting to see blood covering the flesh. Yet, it was the stern hand he had come to know over the course of his life, the familiar implement with which he accomplished his daily tasks. Closing his eyes, afraid of what he might see, he brought those fingers to his face in an instant.

Skin, nothing but his own skin was found beneath those fingers. Rubbing them about his eyes, he could feel the lines of age starting to form, as well as the imperfections he had grown familiar with. Softly, he cried out in delight, running those digits all over his face to reassure himself that the mask did not lay hidden anywhere. Yet, it was all his own human skin. No black cloth lay in hiding to give credence to that lurid dream.

Breathing deeply, Vinsah pulled himself back up to his feet. It had to be all a dream, he reassured himself again as he stumbled towards the bed sheets. Cold mountain air poured in through the open window, and he quickly found himself shivering. Despite the many days and nights they had travelled, still, this was the chilliest place that Vinsah had ever known in his life. He reached down and wrapped a simple smock about his shoulders, pulling it tight with both hands. Gazing at the quilts, he considered returning to his sleep for a moment.

Then, almost instantly, he dismissed the idea. It was just a dream after all, but a most unpleasant one. He slipped on some sandals, and lit a lamp with a bit of tinder. Blowing gently, he coaxed the flame to life, until it shone brightly about his room. He then closed and latched the windows once more, much to the relief of his old skin. Taking the lantern in one hand, he stepped out of his room.

Kashin and Iosef were sitting at the main table in the audience room that connected to all their chambers. It was an opulent affair, carpets, mahogany furnishings, sweeps and drapes hanging from every crevice, as well as finely wrought marble decorations adorning the hearth. There was a small fire crackling in the heart, and the two Yeshuel were tossing the remnants of some nuts into the flames, causing them to crackle and pop lightly.

They both looked up as Vinsah emerged, their gazes curious. "Is something wrong," Kashin asked in his quiet voice.

"I cannot sleep," Vinsah intoned in a voice equally quiet. "I think I will take a walk, if you do not mind."

"I'll accompany you," Iosef offered, rising to his feet.

Vinsah shook his head. "No, I would rather be alone right now. Thank you though." Iosef slowly returned to his seat, while Kashin gazed curiously at the Bishop. His grey lock of hair dangled before his eyes once again, making his gaze unsettling. Vinsah opened the main door and was out as quickly as he could be.

Shutting the door behind him, he was relieved to hear the latch click in place. The hallway was not nearly as fine as the room he had just let, but the carpeting was rich and thick. He could walk along it silently enough. It was a dark night at the Keep, and the stillness about him was a relief after the cosmic insanity of his nightmare.

Yet, he smiled in relief at the thought, it was just a nightmare. All of it was a horror inflicted upon himself from having to face too many things he had been uncomfortable with in the day. Murikeer had never tried to give him a gift, and certainly Raven had never tried to put a mask over his face!

And then, at the thought of the Lothanasa, his smile began to fade. With a start, he realized that he'd only seen Raven hin'Elric very briefly, and even then, he'd not been paying very close attention. Then how had she been so real in his dream? Why did he see her and not Merai?

Reaching up to his face, he felt the skin around his eyes. They were as before, no mask had come to shroud them. He laughed slightly at his foolishness. Surely anybody can appear in a dream, he thought. Yet, there had been one aspect of it that had not been horrible. That woman, whatever it was she had been saying to him at the end to calm him, that at least had been a bright point. He pondered what language she had been speaking in, when he saw another light approaching down the corridor.

Dream did not immediately understand what Mosha had asked of him, but then, she was a rather flighty bird sometimes. This night had found her much more fitting that guise than normal, for she had come to him in the guise of a raptor. He had to chuckle at his dreamtime lover, for she offered him a variety he would never have in his waking life. Oh, but he had definitely tried, but Mosha could give him far more than they, and did.

Yet sometimes she asked him to do the oddest of things. This time she had asked that he put on one of the many masks he wore during the Madrigals he played at various masquerades or to serenade some lord or lady at the behest of their less musical lovers. The only other garment he had chosen to wear was a simple blue traveling cloak to ward away the chill of Metamor's night-dark halls.

Humming a haunting tune to himself, he danced slowly down the ever changing halls of the Keep, his steps bearing him in no particular direction. A few guards passed him in his dance, smiling as they found themselves made a part of his dirge-like song.

Turning another corner, he noticed yet another wanderer awake in the same late hour, moving slowly down the passage with a lantern held in one hand. The man wore a loose though well fashioned smock of the Ecclesia, revealing himself to be one of the Patriarch's staff. His attention was cast more toward the floor at his feet, not noticing the silent dance of the marten upon the thickly carpeted passageway.

As the priest drew nearer, the marten ceased his humming, his dance ending in a flourishing pirouette as he sketched a deep bow to the older human. Rising, he expected to find the man smiling at him, or at least expressing confusion at a quiet, masked dancer before him in the midnight halls of Metamor. Yet the man did not smile, nor did he look confused. His face was suddenly cast in a stark mask of absolute horror, the lamp falling from his hands to snuff itself on the carpeting.

Vinsah pushed at the figure with his arms, weak from the sudden fear. Dream stepped back, curious, asking softly what was wrong. Yet Vinsah did not hear the words, but only saw that mask. He turned about, finally finding his legs beneath him, and his voice in his throat. He let out a shrill scream that quickly descended into sobs of anguish as he hurtled down the hallway, not caring that he could see none of it.

He could hear the click of Dream's toe claws upon the floor taking up chase. Vinsah cried out again, as another light was ahead of him. Before he had realized what had happened, he had run into Kashin's broad chest. The Yeshuel barked a startled question, before passing him over to Iosef, and then darting down the hallway, his legs pumping hard.

Dream doused his light as soon as he realized what had happened, and scampered into a side passageway, holding his breath as Kashin ran past. Once the Yeshuel was gone, he slipped out, and quietly tip-toed his way back to his home. Whatever it was Mosha had intended, he hoped he had accomplished it. He did not wish to be out while the Yeshuel was on patrol for a masked madman.

However, Kashin only ran to find the dropped lantern, and then realized that whoever had caused the fright was gone. He returned with the lamp, his grey lock of hair perpetually hanging before his eyes unnoticed. When he made his way back to the Patriarch's chambers, he found Iosef sitting silently at the table, staring into the fire. The sound of chanting could be heard from behind Vinsah's door.

"Is he all right?" Kashin asked softly, shutting the door to the main hallway once again, and locking it.

Iosef shrugged. "He refused to tell me what had startled him so. He's reciting the First Litany now." The man looked towards the Patriarch's doors themselves. "Should we tell his Eminence when he wakes tomorrow? Do you know who it was who was in that hallway with us?"

Kashin nodded slowly. "I think that it was an accident, so, let us leave that decision up to Vinsah. I will strongly urge him to say just what he'd seen though."

The other Yeshuel nodded slowly then. "Just to be safe, I don't think we should let anybody walk the halls at night without an escort."

Kashin grimaced unpleasantly, his eyes gazing into the fire for a moment, watching the sullen red embers crackle. "Agreed. We might want to wake Alfais, and Lakaesh just to be safe."

Iosef nodded, and then turned to raise the other Yeshuel from their slumber. Kashin listened to Vinsah's chanting for a moment, and realized that he had a bit of trouble making out the words. Sighing, he returned his attention to idly tossing nut shells into the fire.

chapter 13

Even though the sun had yet to rise, both Matthias and Finbar could see well enough in the dark that they had little difficulty in scouring the rolling terrain. Still, the rat grimaced every time he bumped his toe on a loose stone or got tripped up by a dangling root. Clouds had settled over the region just south of Metamor, leaving with them very few stars to guide them by. Finbar though was familiar with the area, and helped Charles along as they traversed the same grounds over and over again.

He'd had little difficulty rising at the appointed hour thankfully. After the beautiful Service that the Patriarch had given at the Chapel, Charles had dropped right off to bed. He'd only woken up when Garigan came in several hours later, but the rest of his night was peaceful. So, several hours before the first rays of the sun would shine above the mountain ridge to the east, he'd slipped over to the Long House, and met with the ferret and Misha.

Brightleaf informed them that he'd heard rumours of somebody, or something, stalking the forests near Lorland from George, who in turn had heard it from several knights. So, instead of keeping an eye out for Lutins from the North, they were chasing after phantasms to the South. Still, Matthias knew that is was important. The Patriarch was one of the most powerful men in all the world, and the lands of the West were not very hospitable to his message.

Glancing up at the ferret's backside, dyed brown and green not one hour before, Charles watched him scurry to the edge of the forest over looking a long broad field. Finbar gazed back and waved his paw in a quick motion. Matthias scrambled up the incline, his claws barely leaving a trace of his presence. He slouched down low, next to the ferret, his paws resting before him as his tail dangled back down the hill.

"Those are the woods," Finbar signed with his paws, and pointing across the open field of grass towards the tightly bound copse of oak. Leafless branches strained at the dark sky, like a tangled skein.

"Do we have to cross the field?" Matthias indicated, his face creased with worry. Being a rat, he did prefer having cover. Scampering about in the open felt like courting disaster.

Finbar shook his head and moved his paw in a circle. Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and began to slip back down the incline, returning once more to the safety of the woods, clustered about like ancient pillars. The ferret slipped back down after him, and motioned for him to follow once more, starting off in a westerly direction, staying close to the edge of the trees.

Lifting his feet high to avoid the gnarled roots that gripped the hard ground tightly, Charles set out after him. Leaves were littered over every scrap of earth, rustling and shifting at each sudden breeze. The branches overhead shook as the clouds churned overhead, even more leaves falling about their path. One even landed on the rat's shoulder a moment, before being swept off to settle on a small caern of stones.

It was rather cold in the early morning air. Matthias was thankful for his fur, and the thick cloth he wore, that the same colour as the dye in his fur. It was not the same sort of cold he knew living in a desert, where the heat simply drained away into empty air. Here in the woods of Metamor, the chill felt as if it clustered, growing from the soil itself, and budding where the leaves had once been. Every wind would shake a bit of that chill loose, only to drag it across their fur, and settle into their bones. The rat had no often been outside the walls of Metamor in the winter, and he realized that he did not relish that thought.

Finbar appeared to be used to the chill though, scouting out ahead, carefully scrambling over loose stones and leaves, without shivering once. Charles idly wondered how long Finbar had been a Long Scout. He had never actually asked after the ferret much, as he was usually off on patrols and so forth. Though he had worked along side of him before, they truly did not know each other well enough yet. Matthias would of course have to make amends of that when the time came.

Grimacing, he lifted his foot a bit higher so as not to trip over the root that had suddenly appeared in his path. Matthias chided himself on letting his thoughts wander, and so returned his attention to the leaf strewn ground, and that of his companion in these lonely woods an hour or so before dawn. It was not unlike his days in Sondeshara when he would be forced to march in silence across the countless dunes. Even so, it would have been pleasant if Finbar and he could have spoken of something aside from their mission. Yet, Misha had instructed them to act as if there were Lutins around every tree.

Gazing at the gnarled branches and sloping bark, Charles wondered if indeed there was something out in these woods. From all that Misha had said, the knights had been quite startled by whatever it was they had glimpsed, or thought they glimpsed. Yet they could not describe it any better than a strange shifting of the leaves. The rat was not convinced that anything at all lay out here, as the leaves were always stirring, and if one mind was worked up, one could imagine they had seen all sorts of fantastic images among them. Yet, one thing was for certain, their horses had been spooked by something.

For that reason, and that reason alone, Charles was concerned. Even Misha had appeared as if he did not believe it fully himself. Yet, when such an important man as the Patriarch was about, not even the merest and most ridiculous of threats could be ignored. If there was somebody out there, they had to know who.

Finally, while the clouds overhead began to continue to eat up the last remaining stars, Finbar motioned for them to stop and climb the incline yet again. Charles rubbed his paws together slowly, nodding, and began to scale the tree roots to the tope of the rise. When he peered out across the field of grass from beneath a mulberry, he could see that the copse was only a short distance away.

He signalled, "Do we cross now?"

Finbar nodded and slowly slipped out of his jerkin, shifting down to his smaller animal form. Charles shuddered as he listened for any owls or other birds of prey. It would be most humiliating to die like a rat, a meal for some simple beast.

However, Finbar did not shrink all the way, just until he was small enough to crawl through the grasses unseen. Clutching a dagger between his teeth, he scurried out into the tall weeds, disappearing instantly. Matthias watched the tops of the flowing reeds, some already brown from the cold, noting an occasional rustle, but he had to admit he was not sure if that was Finbar or the wind.

It took a few minutes, but soon he saw the ferret crouched on the other side of the ridge, waving with his paw, the dagger still clutched in his musteline jaw. Matthias then put down his own dagger, and slowly shrank to nearly his normal animal size. Then, taking the almost impossibly large dagger between his teeth, resisting the temptation to chew upon it, he descended the hillside, the feel of dried grass all about him.

The ferret's scent was strong among the grasses, as well as a couple of mice that probably had a burrow nearby. Following in the Long's footsteps, he slowly navigated the clearing between the two groups of trees. Ducking and weaving, taking each step one at a time, he did his best not to disturb any of the grasses. His ears strained to hear the sound of flapping wings that would herald a predator come to snatch his life away, despite the fact that he knew owl's made little noise when they flew. Vaguely, he recalled the time a hawk had tried to snatch him from one of the Keep's flying buttresses, and it had only been Kimberly' sudden warning that had saved his life. Shuddering, he pushed such morbid thoughts from his mind, and continued on through the grasses.

It did not take that long to cross the short clearing though, and soon he was at Finbar's side, returning to his morph form. Though, now that they were both naked, he could feel the bite of the cold even more. Thankfully the copse was rather small, so it would not take them overly long to search through its demesnes.

Walking side by side, Charles and Finbar scoured the outer edge of the woods, their daggers clutched firmly in their paws. To the rat's eyes, there did not appear to be anything untoward about the dense cluster of trees set on the rise. Finbar, though, shivered as they walked through the lonely boughs, casting his dark eyes about warily.

However, their first search produced nothing, no scents of anything but the forest dwellers, and even they were muted, sleeping in their hollows. Moving further into the cluster of trees, almost no light to see by except what the curses had provided them, they scoured for traces of signs of passage, any broken twigs, charred remnants of a fire, anything that would lead them to unravel the mystery. Yet there was nothing to be found.

Finbar leaned against one tree, his expression most confused. "Did you see anything?" he signed, his motions slightly erratic but readable. The cold must he been effecting the ferret more without his jerkin, Matthias thought.

The rat shook his head once, and then returned in a series of quick gestures, "Maybe it was just a wolf or mountain lion that spooked the horses."

"I suppose," Finbar replied, his paws hesitant, and his expression even more reluctant. "This place just feels wrong somehow."

Charles blinked in surprise, resting his back against an oak. He could feel the dye scratching off, revealing his bark brown fur underneath. "I don't feel anything. Are you certain?"

"Very," his eyes scanned about the dark enclave of strange shapes. Charles peered about as well, noting the twisted trunks and rising branches, each a lifeless arm beckoning the rolling clouds overhead. On many occasions, the rat's mind would have reformed the shapes before him into spectral nightmares. Yet at that moment, they remained as they were, trees that had lost their leaves for the winter.

"There is nothing out here," Matthias signed, rising from his reclined position. "It is cold, and I doubt we will find anything by standing around here waiting."

Finbar sighed and nodded, heading back towards the rise from which they had crossed over. Charles wrapped his arms tight about his chest, shivering at the slightly damp air. Gazing up at the dark clouds overhead, churning and thickening slowly, he knew that there was a storm coming. It was probably inevitable, their good weather would have to turn sometime.

Grimacing, he trotted just a little bit faster. It would be pleasant to drape himself once more in the thick wool of his jerkin. Even more pleasant was the thought of sharing some hot cider next to the fire in the Deaf Mule with Lady Kimberly! With that image in mind, he crouched low to the hill while Finbar made the passage. Storm or no storm, they would enjoy themselves.

Vinsah sat next to the Patriarch that next morning over a breakfast of fresh eggs and some strange yellow melon that he'd never partaken of before. Sucking upon the tender juices for a moment, he tried his best to remain affable. He'd barely been able to sleep after reciting the First Litany that previous evening, instead lying in bed, staring at the window and the moonbeams shining in through the jalousie. When they finally faded some hours before dawn, he'd slumbered warily, rising every few minutes so as not to tumble into the world of dreams again.

With a shudder that he barely was able to conceal as he spooned a bit of the eggs upon his tongue, thoughts of what had awaited him on the other side of sleep began to resurface. That Murikeer had been a particularly strong image was rather disconcerting, especially considering the things that he had said. Vinsah had laid down to rest after his absolutions hoping that the dream would fade with time, like all dreams did. However, this one did not, and the visions he glimpsed the previous night were just as strong then as they were that moment. He imagined that they would remain with him forever, taunting him with their ghastly questions.

They had come unbidden, as if they had been there all along, waiting for him to arrive in their demesnes. Gazing mysteriously at the walls about him, he could almost hear their voices still, especially that nameless woman's. It was as if she were speaking through the very stones of the Keep, making her request known, and calling him by that other name that was not his own.

Shaking his eyes from the masonry, he helplessly rubbed his fingers around his eyes, but they only met bare skin. He'd done that so often, it was almost like a habit he'd had his whole life. He doubted that Akabaieth would not notice either. The Patriarch was man used to discerning a soul in distress, no matter how well hidden. Or masked, he thought ruefully.

Kashin had come into his room that morning and informed him that he should tell the Patriarch what had happened last night. Still, the Yeshuel assured him that the choice was his own. The Bishop was free to tell or not of his own volition, they would not discuss a matter that they felt was irrelevant anyway, a pure accident. Vinsah had not replied at all, only nodding his head so that they would know he understood the request.

Yet, it mattered little, since from the way Akabaieth wiped his mouth with a gentle touch of the green cloth napkin, he knew that the Patriarch would quest after such knowledge himself. And only a moment later, the bishop was proven right as the older man asked, "There is something troubling you, Vinsah. I can see it in your eyes, and how you barely eat anything at all. What is it?"

Sighing, he set the melon down and lowered his gaze to his plate. "I had an awful dream last night, Father. I took a walk to get my mind of such things, but stumbled into a figure who appeared to have stepped out of my dream."

Akabaieth's frown was a curious one. "Stepped out of your dream? How is that possible?"

Vinsah shrugged slightly. "It was dark, and I was a bit wound up, so I probably was just seeing things, and gave some poor Keeper quite a start." Even as he spoke them, he did not believe the words. Whoever it had been he'd seen in the hallway, there was only one thing that he could be certain of - he wore a mask.

The Patriarch nodded thoughtfully, as if he had suspected that to be the truth all along. "And your dream? What was so horrible that it disturbed your rest?"

Tapping the melon slice with one finger, the Bishop narrowed his eyes, wondering what he could say. Would Akabaieth laugh if he told him that a woman spoke to him, and that both Murikeer and Raven had taunted him? How would the Patriarch react to the telling of a bit of his own past? He pushed that away and spoke softly, carefully, "It was about this place, that much I know. There was this man standing outside the gates, his hands bloody. There was also this woman asking me to stay. It was so strange, that I have been trying to keep my mind from it."

"Eli speaks to us in dreams," Akabaieth murmured quietly as he leaned forward slightly over his plate. "Sometimes what he says is very subtle, we cannot hear it."

Vinsah bit his lip. "Maybe, I know it is crazy, but maybe we should stay here."

Akabaieth's eyes rose high on his brow. "Here? At Metamor?" Vinsah sighed, and looked away, ashamed at himself for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. The Patriarch however, was continuing, "It is impossible of course, you know that. We are on a mission of peace. We cannot attain that by hiding anywhere, be it at Yesulam or here. While I admit this castle and its people have quite a bit of charm, it is not my place."

He then furrowed his brow, his eyes soft and gentle. Yet, at the same time, there was a worry in them that Vinsah had no often seen. "If you wish," Akabaieth murmured, so softly that Vinsah could barely hear him, "I would allow you to stay here, if you feel your dream requires it of you. I would miss your company of course, but Eli's ways are a mystery to us all."

Vinsah shook his head quickly, stunned that the Pontiff would even make such a suggestion. "No, I will be at your side, Father. The dream, was just a dream, a frightening one, but a dream nonetheless." Yet, he wondered if it had been a message. It was not any sort he would expect from his Abba though, filled with pagans and magical beings as it was!

Akabaieth smiled then, patting the Bishop's hand with his own far more frail one. "You are a dependable man, Vinsah. I always knew in my heart that you would be a servant of peace."

Vinsah stuck the melon slice into his mouth to keep himself from saying anymore. Even thinking about the dream brought it back. There was so much more to it that he was afraid to tell, so much more that cast his soul in doubt.

Yet, Akabaieth at least sensed his unease to discuss such matters, and turned to a different topic. "Kashin tells me that there is a storm approaching. He does not think that it will interfere with the speech later this afternoon, but I would like you to talk with Thalberg about arrangements for another place to give it if it does rain."

"Of course," Vinsah said between bites. "Is there anything else that you would like me to do to prepare for such a misfortune?"

"Well, the reason I wanted to speak to the field was so that everyone who wished could hear me. If we are forced inside, we'll only be able to take a limited few. What of the others who wish to hear? Do you believe that you could talk to some of the mages hereabouts to see if they might know of some way around this problem?"

Vinsah felt his breath catch in his throat. "I'd rather not, if that s all right with you, Father."

Akabaieth once again appeared to have expected this response. His gaze was once again disapproving, and the Bishop felt himself wilt underneath of it, like a flower under a parched sun. "Are you that uncomfortable around the presence of magic?"

The Bishop sighed, looking away, his face flush with shame. "Maybe I just need more time to come to terms with the idea. I don't like it, and I've always believed it to be wrong. Yet here I watch you treat it much like any other curiosity. How am I supposed to feel?"

Looking away as well, the Patriarch gazed across the room to the Yeshuel who stood at the door, but did not listen. "How did you feel talking with Merai yesterday? You were quite unwilling to do that at first I remember. Yet when I came out, you both appeared to be in animated conversation."

Vinsah grunted at the memory. "It was not as bad as I thought it would be. They were friendly people. Merai had a graciousness that I hadn't expected in one so young."

"And why do you believe that this task may be any different?" Akabaieth returned his gaze to the Bishop, eyes still disapproving, yet offering him some hope. They were eyes that understood his misgivings, yet wished to help him rise above them.

Sighing, he stood from his chair. "I suppose I shall do as you ask. You are right, I will never know unless I try. I will ask Thalberg when I see him today who he might recommend."

Akabaieth finished the last of his eggs. "You might consider asking Murikeer Khannas. I am not certain of his depth of ability, but he might be able to help. I am rather fond of him."

Vinsah kept his lips closed as he heard his master's idea. The bit of quartz that Muri had tried to offer him in his dream almost standing before him on a pedestal. It was a brief image, but one that he quickly dismissed. "I'll be sure to ask him," Vinsah said quickly, catching the moment. "I should see to the arrangements as soon as possible, to give Thalberg and his people the time to prepare.

The older man nodded, smiling once more to his adjutant. "Remember, my son. These people are doing their best to struggle in a world that has cursed them. Without their own magic, they would all be dead."

Vinsah nodded slowly, and politely excused himself, stepping out the door almost in relief. Akabaieth watched the Bishop leave and sighed. One day, he knew Vinsah would be the man he wished him to be. Yet, he had to ask Eli in a rather impromptu prayer, why did it have to take so long?

Sipping upon warm apple cider, Dream watched the quartet of knights at the front of the Mule laugh and eat, swapping old stories, and some not quite so old. Some he even recognized as jongleur tales from his days in Pyralis, retold poorly as their own misadventures. Smiling, he wiped the aromatic sweetness from his muzzle with a folded handkerchief, wondering if that was not how all such tales were formed, each man claiming as their own, until they were absorbed into the travelling bard's repertoire.

It was quiet for a midday meal at the Mule, the four knights excepting. After last night though, Dream wanted some quiet, some place to sit and think, to reflect on just what had happened. Mosha had not been forthcoming with information when he'd returned to slumber, and to her sometimes desultory manner. He'd tried to forget about it as just an uptight superstitious foreigner, but the look on his face, as if it were one of recognition, was not something that he was likely to banish from his mind for long.

And so he sat at a dark corner of the Mule, sipping at his apple cider - leftovers from the banquet two nights before - and listening to the sound of the knights' voices as well as the crackle of the fire in the inglenook. October was not a cold month to many at the Keep, but the embers of summer had long since gone out, leaving them with the approaching frost of winter. The glow from the hearth was welcome though, as it warmed his outside while the cider his inside. Plus, the scent of flames lapping through the oak was one that he found distinctively pleasant.

Glancing up, he saw that there was a short figure standing before the table, a mazer of the crisp-smelling apple cider in one slender paw. It was a rat, the black of his eyes turned to flame as they shone brightly in the fire's gleam. He was dressed in a light green brocade, the neck turned down on his tunic. It took the marten a moment to realize that it was Matthias, once Head of the Writer's Guild. "Do you mind if I join you?" the rat asked, indicating the empty chairs about the table.

Dream smiled then, and indicated that the rat take the seat next to the wall. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Charles threaded his tail through the back of the chair and lapped a bit at the cider, his whole face contorting in bliss at the flavour. "Well, I was just coming in to relax for a bit. I just returned from a patrol, and wanted something to drink. I saw that you were alone, and so thought to give you company." Mathias dipped his nose into the mazer again for a moment. "Besides, I was hoping to run into you sometime anyway. We've lived here for many years the both of us, and both being storytellers, it is remarkable that we've never actually told our stories to each other."

Dream Serpent fingered the side of his mazer with one blunt claw, leaning forward a bit with his sinuous body. "That is a rather fancy way of saying you wish to become acquainted."

The rat laughed slightly, his eyes straying to gaze curiously at the knights as they laughed raucously. He then peered back at the marten sitting next to him, his muzzle relaxing into a smile. "Well, one should always strive to use one's language to their utmost fullest."

"To what end though? So that your listeners will understand or so that they won't?"

Matthias sipped at the cider, one of his whiskers glistening with the bright, golden brew. "Actually, only so that those I wish to understand, will. You are a bard, yes? Are your tales for everyone, or only for those who hear them?"

Dream favoured him with a grin then. This was the sort of thing he needed actually, a distraction, a pleasant witty conversation to take his mind away from the screaming flight of the Patriarch's adjutant. "A well put question, my good scout. I am curious why one who has such a way with words, as you yourself demonstrate, would choose the life of a warrior?"

"I do not wish to fight, but to protect that which is important to me, I shall. Would you also not strive to keep safe those who matter to you?"

"Everyone must choose their own path. But if I can offer them a step out of danger, then I will." He gazed back at the knight's as one of them made a call for more wine be brought to their table. The wolverine pushed his large paw against one of the men, nearly toppling his chair in his enthusiasm.

"So," Matthias asked then, rubbing his claws along the wooden surface of his mazer, "when did you come to the Keep?"

As the marten and rat talked of times spent in the past, the knights became a bit more subdued, speaking of tomorrows and of yesterdays. The laughter lay at the back of their throats, each new friends, knowing that they likely would part company for the last time that next morning. As the wine was poured into each of their goblets, they regarded each other, half-formed smiles upon lips and muzzles. Finally, Andre held aloft his glass, "To honour and comradeship."

"To honour and comradeship," they each intoned as they solemnly partook of the new wine.

Sir Bryonoth was the first to set his glass down, gazing at the steer behind the corner with one speculative eye. "Dost thee realize that we know each other so well, yet we have only known of each other for scant two days?"

"Aye," Saulius murmured softly. "Tis good to here of my homeland. I wish it were possible for me to return there someday."

Egland appeared rather thoughtful at that, running one slender finger down his boyish face. "Maybe someday you will."

The rat shook his head. "I do not believe so. Look at me. Dost thee truly believe that they will accept me as a man of the steppe looking as I am now? Nay, my good friend, Sir Egland, they will not."

The younger knight from Pyralis grimaced ."It may yet be possible for you to return to your old form."

"I share in thy hope," Saulius murmured then, once again returning his narrow snout to the tumbler.

"We all do," Andre interrupted, his tongue working around his large teeth. "But it is good to see that at least here we can be friends, without fear of our skin."

Bryonoth nodded gladly at that. "Most certainly! Thou hast a bountiful menagerie to behold, yet behind each frail skein, is a man or woman, just as with us. Truly, the wonders of creation are not the containers, but what rests inside of them."

Egland appeared to wilt slightly at that declaration, regarding his goblet morosely, his eyes straying over to the wolverine's paws, and then back to his goblet. He then spoke softly. "We don't often open ourselves to reveal what is inside though." He then looked up, fixing both Andre and Saulius a smile. "You both have shown great kindness to my companion and I. I thought I'd show you a little something of my private self."

"Dost this have anything to do with thy box?" Saulius said, pointing a claw towards the small wooden box that Egland had carried with him.

The knight nodded, rising from his chair and lifting the box from the table behind him, and set it down next to his tumbler. The case was made from hard pressed hickory, metal clasps on one end holding it together. Unleashing each in turn, he gently lowered one side to reveal a velvety interior, and crisp , finely wrought instrument. Four narrow strings ran from the knobby head, to the base, passing over an ornate bridge, carved delicately by a master artisan.

To one side was a small bow, the horsehairs lining the inside drawn taut. He gently lifted the neck of the instrument in one hand, and rested the other end beneath his chin, and drew the bow across the strings, a sudden dulcet tone resonating throughout the bar. Egland favoured them with a slight grin as their expressions filled with delight.

"I did not know you were a musician as well!" Andre roared in surprise.

Egland blushed slightly. "I know, that is why I wanted to share this with you now. It will leave you with something to remember me by more than just as a fellow knight." And at that, he began to draw the bow across the strings again, his left hand delicately touching and changing the timbre of each note, producing a sonorous melody, soft, yet instantly capturing. A song-chant echoed from that simple piece of wood and string, under the careful touch of Egland's skill.

Even Matthias and Dream were caught by the lucidity of the note, turning their heads a moment to gaze at the standing knight, performing like a bard before his friends. Dream's brow furrowed in delight at the sight, though his ears began to pick up imperfections in the tuning. With a sudden grin, he saw the knight stop playing, and turn the knob to fix the note.

However, that interruption broke the spell around Matthias, and so he turned to his companion and asked in a soft voice, "So, how good is he?"

"Oh, he sounds to be quite talented. I am sure that with a bit of training he could have even become a minstrel."

"Do you know his name?" Charles asked as he considered both of the musicians. "Also, what is he playing? I always have such a hard time remembering their names."

Dream stared at the slender man, his eyes curious. "I believe that the others called him Yacoub. And the instrument he's playing is known as a viola. It is the larger sister to the violin, something I am sure you have seen in your travels."

Charles nodded, grinning slightly. "Yes, I do recall hearing such beautiful tones before. Though never from a knight. What a strange occupation he has chosen for himself."

Dream chuckled lightly and pointed at the finely wrought design of the viola. "Look at his bearing, and at the quality of the instrument. He is probably the third or fourth son of some minor noble. So far from the line of succession, he was probably forced to be a knight by his family and his honour."

Following the marten's blunt claw, Charles had to admit that what Dream said was probably true. However, another thought came to mind at that point. "I have heard that you are giving Caroline Hardy lessons on the flute."

Dream nodded and sipped at the last remnants of his apple cider. "True, she just one day in the market happened upon me and asked to be shown the flute, and so was so intrigued by it, that now I give her lessons. I am happy to help any unleash their hidden musical talents. You may even have one that you are not aware of," he remarked, gazing mischievously at the rat.

"Perhaps," Charles said, drinking the last of his cider as well. "Do you have your flute with you?"

Dream nodded, and drew it out from beneath his coat. "Yes, why?"

"Well, I think you should see if he would care for a duet."

Dream turned back towards the knight, and smiled. "I think I shall. Come, let us ask if he would accept my accompaniment!"

The two crossed by the inglenook, sparkling flames licking higher and higher up through the chimney, a testament to all that a warm home welcomed them here, and over to where the four knights relaxed. Yacoub did not stop his recital when he noticed the two others approaching, but only grinned as his music had drawn forth enjoyment from more than just his fellow knights. Even the bovine bartender had stopped his cleaning and was listening with one ear beneath his horns.

Dream stood patiently, flute held behind him as he watched and listened to the gentle flowing melody emanate from the finely crafted viola, each string vibrating as the bow passed over its surface in long fluid motions. Though his hands had been calloused from carrying the reins of his horse, their was a fineness to Yacoub's hands that still lent itself well to the handling of such a delicate thing as music.

And then, with a low mournful cry, the piece came to a close, and Sir Saulius stood from his chair, paws applauding, while tears stood in his eyes. "Ye hath a great skill, Sir Egland. I could almost see the faces of my fellow Flatlanders gazing across the plains, watching the grasses flow in the late Autumn winds. Marvellous!"

Egland bowed, a smile filling his face as the other present also clapped, though none quite so eloquently as the knight rat. Dream finally though came forward and with a wide flourish, bowed and produced his flute. "Might you care to play a duet? I couldn't help but admire the skill of a fellow musician like myself, and though to share a tune or two with you."

Yacoub appeared startled for a moment, and then a smile crept across his features as he gripped the bow tightly in his right hand. "Certainly. Perhaps you would like to play a few variations on a theme with me? I know just the theme too. Seeing so many rats about, I could not help but think of it."

Both Charles and Saulius blushed, now eager to hear what bit of sound they could possibly have reminded him of.

"That sounds pleasant," Dream concurred, loosening one end of his flute, and then replacing it to just the right length, testing the notes.

"I will play the theme once, and then I'll replay it, and you can join in then. After that, well, we shall see where we will go then. Ready?"

Dream licked his lips, silently tapping the keys to his silver flute. He blew on the hole, a single note sounding, and then nodded. Egland grinned to the knights, an almost fiendish cast to it as he started instantly into a rather quick duple metre, the notes scurrying up and down the scales, darting this way and that. Almost like a pair of rats, Matthias thought with a grin.

Though the melody was rhythmically rather straightforward, the harmonies it intimated at were quite advanced. It was rather exciting, and soon all of them were caught up in his recitation, that they barely noticed Dream joining in at the repeat, as his notes were slow, merely a backdrop to the first few phrases. Yet, before even the theme had been restated in full, Dream began a counterpoint to Egland, matching his tenacity, and his flavour with wispy breaths upon that slender instrument.

Yacoub smiled at the excitement that Dream and he were able to concoct in tandem as they moved onto the first variation, one that was even more erratic than the theme itself. Small notes graced every main one, almost as if they were an afterthought to the theme. Yet they added an urgency that even more gave Matthias the impression of rats. Glancing over at Saulius's squirming nose and whiskers, he could see too that his fellow rodent felt much the same.

The variations came quickly on the heels of each other, with Egland and Dream trading off melodies, interweaving into each other, and often times playing contrapuntally. The original theme would rise for one moment upon the viola out of the sea of notes of notes flourishing upon the flute, and then it would sink back down into the miasma, only to have the flute follow him up in the grandeur of that original declamatory statement.

And then, as if on some unseen signal, both of the instruments went soft, playing a rather guttural intonation on the largest of the strings. Each noted was stunted, as if it could only start itself, and then was clipped short, while Dream played a variety of figurations in the flute's lower register, a rather dull sound that somehow the marten gave a sombre life.

Yet, even that passed quickly, as the theme became more martial in texture, while Dream adapted the original four note motif to a military caste. Charles could almost hear the drummers leading them into battle, when that too disappeared beneath a strident storm as Egland rose in ascending ferocity up to the highest of his strings, gliding his fingers back and forth along its thin length, making the animal morphs wince at the squeaking texture.

Dream however, somehow managed to match that, by dropping quickly with his own tone every time Yacoub raised his own. Matthias could imagine those rats being dragged across something hot now, squealing as their fur was singed. Yet, the unpleasant, but strangely delightful passage was soon followed by a much more melodically inclined theme, this one barely recognizable as being derived from the original theme. Yet, Dream was able to draw upwards each of their hearts at the mellow tone he created in harmony with the viola's singing. With a bit of regret, it passed as well onto yet another variation.

And so the two musicians continued, each showing the strengths of their craft by continuously adapting to what the other had given, until the original theme felt as if it had been completely varied away. Yet, everyone gave a bit of surprise when that theme resurfaced suddenly, and logically right out of the depth of the music, asserting itself mischievously on the viola, while Dream continued to play that other melody, until it too disintegrated back to that four note motif. With an ever rising flourish, they joined in unison, escaping away to higher and higher notes, until Egland lifted the bow, and Dream lowered his flute, both of their grins wide.

The applause was slow to come, as the four others stood in amazement at what they had just witnessed. Yet, Andre did manage to bring his massive paws together in a thunderous peal to break the sudden silence. The rest joined quickly, each quite impressed with what they had just seen. "That was amazing! It did sound like two rats scurrying about there in the beginning," Charles remarked with delight as he patted both Dream and Egland on the back with his slender paws.

Yacoub winked playfully at the rat, and then turned to Dream, "You play remarkably well. I have not had quite so much fun simply playing in many years. It is a pity that we may never have another opportunity to perform together again."

Dream blew another note on his flute, and grinned. "I do have a few things that I ought to see to, but I think that we have time for a little more fun. I doubt anyone would object."

"Please!" Andre insisted, grinning from ear to ear, his muzzle pulling back to reveal the large teeth. "Continue!"

"Verily, I say unto thee. If it is thy intent to tantalize us with such prowess, than at least thou might have the courtesy to slay us with your delightful tunes," Sir Albert pointed out, waggling one finger, a grin creasing his face as well.

Both of the rats chimed in agreement with their comrades, and soon, Egland held the viola beneath his chin once more. "Your turn to pick a theme. I don't believe I ever caught your name."

"Dream, " the marten said simply, and then began to play something a little bit slower, extending one long, slender leg in the first steps of a slow, circling dance, his tail swaying in time with the haunting notes escaping from the gleaming silver flute. Charles took the seat among the knights, deciding that he did not have anything he really needed to do just that moment.

chapter 14

Prince Phil turned his head when a soft knocking sounded at his door, but his aide, Rupert, was of course quick to answer its summons. The rabbit returned his attention to the various reports on the situation in the North. Things were quiet, as he'd been told, yet would not be satisfied until he had made sure of that himself from what the scouts had written of their journeys. So far, the rumours were holding, as no major changes had occurred past the Dike in the last month. Though, Finbar's mention of something in the woods towards Lorland setting him ill at ease did give the Head of Duke Thomas's Intelligence a bit of pause. That had been near where Wessex had claimed to have seen the face of Zagrosek only two days ago.

Setting down the slips of parchment, he pushed such worries from his mind for the moment to glance at his aide who stood mutely by the door. "Who is it?" Phil asked in his light piping voice.

Though he could no longer speak, Rupert had grown quite adept at making his meaning known over the months since he had come into the Prince's service. With one great hairy hand he traced the symbol of the cross over his chest and pointed to the door. "Oh, do let him in!" Phil exclaimed excitedly as he instantly understood the great ape's message.

Rupert opened wide the door, displaying the frail old man that Phil had met at the banquet two nights ago. He was flanked on both sides by his Yeshuel, the same two that had served him at the feast in fact. The other priest was nowhere in sight. Akabaieth smiled warmly as he gazed down at the large bunny, who hopped from his chair and towards the door.

"It is good to see you again, your Highness."

"And you, your Eminence," Phil bowed his head lightly, hoping that would be the end to the titles and formality. "Do come in and make yourself comfortable. Can I have you brought anything?"

Akabaieth selected one couch that Phil often used to entertain guests, though he could not sit in it properly himself. "A new pair of legs," he declared as he stretched his own out, rubbing along his knees. "Excepting that, how about a bit of warm tea?"

Phil did not even have to turn his head to know that Rupert was preparing the requested drink already. His eyes strayed to the two Yeshuel who took up positions at the Patriarch's back; twin shadows were they, never uttering a syllable. Hopping up onto the couch to join the Patriarch, Phil did his best not to dig his claws in the fabric. He'd already had to have it upholstered twice in the last year from his own jittery nature..

"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Phil asked, eager to be with his countryman again.

Akabaieth smiled, his eyes trailing after Rupert reflexively. "Oh, there are a few matters that I had wished to discuss with you. First, I have been informed that some of my knights discovered something strange in the forests outside of Metamor. Have you investigated to see if there is any truth to their suspicions?"

Phil nodded quickly, his whiskers twitching along with his nose as he could smell the tea leaves being soaked in the hot water one room away. "I had a team search through there this morning. They found nothing. I will be sure to have the area combed thoroughly before you leave tomorrow." The rabbit paused and narrowed his gaze, the blue eyes turning mysterious. "How did you know I was responsible for such matters?"

Akabaieth chuckled lightly. "My Yeshuel are very good at discerning what is in the hearts of others. I am not at all surprised you did not tell me. Such a responsibility is a very important one, and one best left secret."

The Patriarch rubbed his chin thoughtfully for another moment though. "Still, it is good to hear that you have found nothing."

Phil nodded, his momentary suspicious-turned-embarrassment passing quickly. "As long as you are in this Valley, we shall do our utmost to ensure your safety. If I feel it is necessary, I will send every one of my scouts into those woods to watch over you."

Akabaieth smiled briefly, and then looked up and saw Rupert approaching with a simmering cup of aromatic tea. He reached out with slender fingers and took the cup, smiling thankfully to the ape, before sipping at its warm texture. "Ah, that is a pleasant flavour. What is it? I've not ever had anything quite like it."

Rupert began to mime something with his hands, and the Pontiff's eyes went wide in surprise. The ape held out his hands, pulling in the finger to form three larger ones. It made little sense to the old man, who had not expected to see a mute servant. However, Kashin spoke softly then, "He says that it is made from maple leaves." Rupert nodded and bowed his head towards the Yeshuel.

"Well, whatever strange tree you have pilfered to make this lovely brew, I am welcome for it!" Akabaieth chortled in delight as he took another drink. "Ah, that feels good. There is little else as comforting for old bones as a nice cup of hot tea."

He then set the cup down upon the nearby table, his face unreadable. Looking back to the Prince, he licked hips lips before speaking. "There is one other thing that I wished to discuss with you. This one privately."

Phil nodded, his ears rocking slightly. "Of course, my dear friend. Rupert, would you please excuse us?"

The great ape nodded and departed for his own quarters towards the back. The two Yeshuel melted away as well, stepping just outside the main door and pulling it shut behind them. Once alone, Phil fixed the priest with a friendly gaze. "What is it that you were so afraid to say in front of your own guards? Just from watching them and you, I can tell that they are your dearest friends, and sometimes your only friends."

Akabaieth drew one finger across the lip of his cup, before lifting it again to drink. "There is one thing that they do not wish to think about, but something that I must in these last few years that I have left to me."

Phil nodded thoughtfully. "Your death."

"Yes, my death." He sighed and set down the cup. "I know it is coming. No human being has lived past the age of 100 in several millennia as you well know. I myself am nearing that mark even now. The Yeshuel are my protection, and they would die for me, without question. Yet, my age is one enemy that they cannot face."

Phil wiggled his nose. "They appear to be ready and willing to accept it."

"I am sure they will once the time comes, yet what I wish to discuss with you will most certainly not meet with their approval. It goes against tradition, though it would not have been the first time that such a thing has been done for a Patriarch.

"You see, when the Patriarch dies, unless he specifically requests otherwise, his body is buried beneath the floor of the church he first served in, no matter how far he may have gone since then. It is usually expected that the Patriarch will let his people honour him in this fashion, and I do agree that in most cases, it is for the best."

"But not in your own?" Phil asked suddenly, noting the dark lines around the man's brows. It was as if he were nervous or afraid of something that might be said.

Yet, at the question, he shook his head. "I do not wish to be buried beneath the steps of that church. As you know, my heart was not in the right place in those days. I could not in good conscience let my remains be interred there, as that place for me symbolizes all the wrong things in my life."

"So why are you telling me this?" Phil, though he asked the question, felt in his heart that he already knew the answer.

"I," Akabaieth started, and then paused, reaching beneath his robes to draw forth bit of hemp, weathered and worn by years of use. The old man slowly began to tie a clove hitch about one of the long tassels on his robe. "I always wanted to be an officer of the Fleet of Whales. Even while I served as a priest in my younger days, I still longed for the chance to return to my homeland and serve her in the Navy. I have been many years out of consideration. All I have left of that is this rope, which I have never parted with once. Do you realize that this rope is eighty years old? They last well when not subjected to the salty sea, I suppose.

"So, I come to you, Master of the Fire, seeking that which only you can give. If not in life, then at least in death, I was hoping I could at least attain some of my dream. It would be posthumous, but the knowledge that I would have it would make me feel as if all those years wishing and dreaming were not wasted. And, it would be the only place I could ever wish to be buried, the only symbol that I wish to let the world make of me."

He gazed up to Phil, tears streaming from his eyes and down his cheeks. The rabbit felt his heart clutch in his chest, for he knew too well what this man was going to ask, and how terribly hard it was for any man not of the Guild to receive it. And it pained him as well, the very thought that he would have to deny this man that he found a love for that simple request.

"I only ask one thing, the only thing I think I could ever ask of anyone. Please, could you arrange to have my body returned to the sea and the fire in the manner of an officer of the Fleet, as well as a Brother of the Guild of Fire? Never have I asked for any other gift, nor have I ever asked for one harder to obtain. But, would you please consider it? It may seem to be the fond memories of youth brought back by being in the presence of my own liege-man, nay, my crown-prince, but it is a hope I have cherished all the days of my life."

He then, sighed, and began to untie the knot with a nimbleness that told Phil, who had seen men tie knots most of his life, that Akabaieth had indeed been practising his seamanship skills all of his life, despite how unlikely it was that they would ever be put to use. "You don't know how difficult a thing it is you ask."

"Only two people before who were not members of the Guild have been given similar honours. Both of them did Whales a great service in battle," Akabaieth retorted, damping his tears with the back of one hand.

Phil took a deep breath then. "You do know." Lowering his face, unable to look at the earnest man seated across from him, the Prince of Whales tried to put his thoughts in order. "And therein lies my problem. Both of those men served Whales in her hour of need. It was only with great reluctance were they granted such a death. You have not fought in any battles for Whales, and you have not served beside my guild brothers. Yes, I am fond of a good story, and the one of your life is most tragic indeed, for my heart cries out to allow this, but to move on such a whim would ultimately demean the meaning of that burial."

Akabaieth lowered his head, and with a trembling hand, slipped the bit of cord back beneath his robes, slowly rising to his feet as he did so. "I have expected this, and cannot truly say that I don't agree with your reasoning." Turning about, as if afraid that he would begin crying again before his country-man, he said, "Thank you for your time and your tea. I suppose I shall see you before I leave then."

He started towards the door while Phil sat there, watching this defeated child walking once more away from what he had always hoped for. How many times had he in his tenure had to actually look in the face of the youth he was rejecting, turning away from the life that they had yearned for? Many times it was because the applicant's heart was too cold or too soft. Yet, there were many who knew the price that would be asked of them, who just did not have the skills. Those had always been the worst, for they were the sort of people that Phil wanted to stand beside him as Brothers of the Guild.

As he gazed at the back of the Patriarch, he knew then that this man's heart was in the right place, and but for the refusal of his father, would have stood at his side -- possibly even been one of his own instructors and mentors, given that Akabaieth was well over forty years older than he. Jumping from the couch, caring not whether he scratched the fabric with his claws, he cried out in his loudest voice, trying not to let it tremble, "Stop!"

Akabaieth had raised his hand to the door, but just held it there, refusing to turn back around. "What is it?" he asked, his words smooth, defeated.

"Why are you here?" Phil asked him then. "Not just at Metamor, but why have you made this journey? Surely you did not expect to find a Prince of Whales here. Why did you risk your health and your life in travelling so far from Yesulam?"

"Because I wish to bring peace to the world. I wish to see all mankind, including you Keepers, embrace each other as brother and sister. I seek an end to conflict and hate, and an end to the constant wars. That is why I am here."

"Why do you want peace?" Phil asked again, his heart trembling.

"Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wish to let every man and woman pursue their dreams. Because," Akabaieth paused, his hand falling away from the door knob. "Because I have seen too much blood, and would not wish it upon any other."

Phil nodded then, standing as tall as he could. His heart beat rapidly, the remnants of a smile etching itself onto his mostly expressionless face. "Then, I believe that I can grant your request. I will see to it that you are given to the Sea and the Fire."

Akabaieth turned around rather quickly then, his face one of profound shock and fear, as if he were afraid that the offer was only going to be snatched away a moment later. "Do you really mean that? Do you truly intend to make an old man a child again?"

Phil nodded then, his ears beginning to rock in delight. "Oh yes, I intend all of that and more! Akabaieth, no, Apadares, by your actions, and your mission, you have served Whales in a way that few ever can. You have given us if not peace itself, at least the hope for peace. What we have done with weapons, you have done with your words. Your heart has always been among us, I see it in the faces of every one of my Guild Brothers."

Phil hopped over to the Patriarch who stood stunned, yet delighted at the same time. "I am going to grant your request. In fact, if you wish, we can draw up papers to formalize this agreement, so that when you do pass from this world, others will not try to take this away from you. I'll send my copy to my father for safekeeping, and you may keep yours wherever it suits you."

Phil however, was unable to continue as Akabaieth had fallen to one knee, and wrapped his arms about the rabbits neck and buried his face into the white fur of his shoulder, sobbing loudly. Yet, they were cries of joy, not sadness, as the rabbit could see when the man pulled back, eyes brimming with a profound bliss that few men ever felt in their entire lives. And then, the Patriarch bowed his head low, and placed his fist to his chest in salute. "Hail to thee, my Prince. You have given me the greatest gift I could ever receive from mortal man. Our King could not have chosen a better heir than yourself."

The Prince felt his own eyes brimming then, and he placed one of his paws on the Patriarch's shoulder to steady himself. "And Hail to thee, Patriarch of the Ecclesia. Whales could not have had a better son than yourself."

And at that, the two men, both grown and old, fell back into hugging each other tightly as they wept for each other's joy. Silently, three figures that could hear them through their doors, shed their own happy tears.

Wessex concentrated on the leaves before him, spaced evenly about the cold slate floor of his workroom, each one marked by varicoloured dusts sprinkled over their surface. And about them, bright white chalk lines, circled and contained them. There was one circle around each leaf, and the a larger circle containing all of them. He'd spaced them out sixty-four at a time, as it was the largest he could handle in one casting. Already, he had performed the augury twice on two other sets of the leaves that Rupert had scooped up, but nothing had been among them.

He'd spent his entire evening after returning from Lorland assembling the various materials he would need for the casting. He'd had to dismiss Jessica and his other students when they'd stood ready for his return home. The worried look on the hawk's beak had been painful to see, but he had never been closer to tracking down his nemesis before. With Loriod's clothes, he could be searching for years and find nothing. But with these leaves, he might very well find that edge he needed anyway. He was tired of sleeping in the dungeons, and wanted this foul man exorcised from his life as soon as possible.

The boy grimaced, rubbing his hands together to sprinkle more of the yellow dust across the leaves. Chanting lowly, the words so long ingrained upon his tongue, he no longer had to think about them consciously. Though, he did not let his mind wander too much during the casting. Even the tiniest error could render the augury powerless, and he would have to try again another day. There was not enough energy left in him to cast another without some rest. Having already performed one more that morning, this would enervate him for half a day. If this proved unsuccessful, he would try again in the morning with more of the leaves.

Still, as he chanted the last few phrases of the incantation, he could not help but feel slightly guilty for the way he had brushed off his charges. Jessica especially, who certainly be concocting a whole slew of horrible images in her mind about what he could be at in his present work. Having told her so much of his nightmares, and the fears that they had spurred, she was bound to suspect any irrational behaviour on his part could be caused by tampering from Zagrosek. In some ways, Wessex could not blame her, for indeed, his very life had been turned upside down by that man.

Finally however, the boy was able to shunt such thoughts from his mind and focus on the last phrases of the chant before the spell would be complete. Grasping a small narrow shaft between his hands, runes inscribed upon the surface, the yellow dust filling each crevice, he set it down in the midst of the larger circle, in the exact centre of the slate. The dust glowed blue at the final word, a flaring nimbus that absorbed the staff, and radiated to each of the smaller circles casting them in the same pale light.

And then, each of the leaves began to glitter, bright sparkling sapphires that began to give off a faint shimmer, rising above the circles, and coalescing in the air before him. Each time before, only wisps of images, of animals, and of trees filled his vision. Days of summer past, when they had flourished in life. Again, this time he saw that, yet there was something creeping in the background, a figure, no two figures, lurking just beyond the range of his vision. Gripping the staff tighter, he tried to isolate the leaves which knew of those shadows, and to focus his energy upon them.

Almost immediately, ten of the leaves disintegrated as they were no longer supported by his magic. The dust he needed for the augury had the unfortunate side effect of destroying the leaves if he ended the casting upon them too soon. Yet, he did not need them, but only those that had been touched by those shadows. At their death, the images grew stronger, the simple trees pulling back, revealing more trees, and also a better look at the figures standing there in the darkness. They were dressed tightly together in robes, one larger than the other, but that was all that he could see.

A smile graced Wessex's lips as he watched and tried to single out more of the leaves that he needed. There was no question in his mind who these figures were. They were the proof he had needed that Matthias was in alliance with Zagrosek. The rodent would be in chains and in the dungeon within the hour if only he could focus the image sharper. With his exertion, uninfected desire roaring through his veins, he forced another eight leaves out of the spell, destroying them, sucking the last few gasps from their cells until they were a desiccated husk.

The image grew in intensity, as he could now clearly see the folds of their garments, and the Sondeckis symbol was clearly apparent on the right shoulder of Zagrosek, whose face he could now see in outline. That shield was even more blood red than before, and the white sword was almost stained, a sickly white, like the suppurating wounds he'd seen on plague victims. Yet, the other figure, the smaller one, also appeared to be human, and not a rat as he had at first surmised. Grimacing, he tried to push even more leaves out until he could see only these two.

Another twenty leaves fled from his magic then, dying instantly in a blue flame, as the picture magnified tenfold, drawing him to nearly stand next to his mortal enemy and this new element. Zagrosek was plain in stark relief, yet for the moment, his visage did not interest the boy, who had grown accustomed to its sneering countenance in his dreams. The other figure though was a woman, which surprised the boy to no end. Her long black hair reached down to her waist, billowing in the folds of her purple robes. Bloodshot eyes gazed across the damp landscape, cold and iron that lived in them day and night. A symbol was traced over her breast, this one not of Sondeckis origin, but something else. It was of a pointing hand, nothing more.

The sudden knocking at his door, nearly startled him enough to break his concentration. Yet he was too focussed upon what had just now been revealed to him to let this slip away. Speaking a few syllables, he drew the power back from the leaves, leaving them intact, and raised the sceptre from the circle. The nimbus of blue vanished almost instantly, the yellow dust trickling from the crevices of his short staff. Setting the magical implements down on the slate, Wessex walked from his workroom to the door to his quarters.

Normally he left his door open, as his students would be coming and going most hours of the day. Yet for the last two days, he had kept it shut and locked. Now that he had found something of what he'd wanted, he would allow himself this one break in his work.

Opening the door, he saw that Jessica and Weyden were standing outside, their thick black talons carving gouges into the masonry beneath them. "Hello, Jessica, Weyden,' Wessex said in delight. In truth, he was happy to see them both, though it might have been easier if his student had come alone. "Do come in, I have just finished some of my work, and would be delighted to entertain you."

Their beaks opened in a grin, though Jessica's was more pronounced. "That must have been a very important casting."

He nodded, still all smiles though. "Yes, it was. I'll tell you about it another time. For now though, come on it, I'll shall find you both a perch and you can regale me with the reason for your visit."

Weyden gently nudged Jessica's back with one wing, his eyes finding nothing in the room but her. "Actually," he said, "we came here to ask you if you would like to accompany us to see the Patriarch's speech."

"I thought it was going to rain earlier, but apparently Yonson assured him that the storm was going to pass overhead, but do nothing. He is one to know weather after all I suppose," Jessica pointed out, a bit of excitement in her voice. Wessex gave her a questioning glance, as if wondering why she was so delighted by the chance to hear the leader of a faith foreign to her own speak. "Weyden here asked me if I would accompany him, as he is going to be by Yonson's side during the whole affair. I thought it might be something you might want to see as well."

Wessex shook his head slowly. "I have no interest in the affairs of the gods, and especially not those who would tell me I must serve them. I serve people, not beings who have no better interest than to control our lives."

Jessica appeared aghast, and Weyden himself was quite startled by the vehemence of that statement. Wessex blinked at them, and then bowed his head in shame, scuffling his shoes across the floor. "Forgive me, it has been a hard two days for me at work. I should not have spoken so hastily. Both of you serve the gods faithfully, to your credit. I should not have attacked that. You have every right to do as you wish."

Weyden squinted his eyes at the mention of serving the gods, but did not make any move to correct the boy's misconceptions as to his religious practice. Jessica of course notice the subtle movement and glanced back at him with her own comforting eye, s if to tell him that he should not be so certain either, and then returned her gaze to her master. "I understand. Do you promise you will tell me all about it tomorrow then?"

"No, not tomorrow," Wessex looked back up, his face creasing with a secret smile. "I still have a few things left to finish up. But I imagine that the day after that I will be able to let you know. I think you will find it useful in your own studies in fact. Especially since, it is my belief, that you are ready to begin your own magical studies."

Jessica's beak broke even wider into a grin, and Weyden's did likewise. "Oh, master! You really believe I am ready for such a challenge?"

"Absolutely! I will give you help from time to time of course, but you will be able to choose which mysteries that you wish to explore. Congratulations Jessica, you are no longer an apprentice magician, but a journeyman!"

The hawk ruffled her chest feathers proudly and leaned down to enwrap the boy in her wings, rubbing her beak across his small forehead, careful not to nip into his flesh. It was the best that she could manage for a hug, but it would suffice. Turning about, she found Weyden's wings about her, embracing her as he spoke his congratulations as well. "I always knew that you would do well."

Jessica turned back to her master then, her face bright. "Are you sure that you do not wish to join us?"

Wessex nodded and patter her on one wing. "Go, you two. Enjoy your time. I will be here waiting for you when you get back. You can tell me all about it afterwards. Fair enough?"

"Oh, most fair indeed!" Jessica agreed, squawking loudly in joy at her elevation. Wessex crossed his hands proudly behind his back as he watched the two hawk's walk off together, Weyden's wing encircling his students. Gently closing the door, he began to ponder just what he would need for his next casting tomorrow morning. Tomorrow, he would know what was in Zagrosek's mind, and who this other figure was.

Akabaieth slowly walked down one of the outer halls of the Keep, his attention half divided between the resplendent view from the windows and the finely decorated hall before him. Each footfall resounded through the mostly empty hall, echoed by the two pairs of boots following closely behind him. Kashin and Iosef were always at his back, their breath nearly upon his neck as the trod those ever changing corridors.

He had no particular destination in mind, at least not for another half-hour. That was the appointed hour of the speech he had planned to give. The news that the messenger had brought, a young spritely lad by the name of Kee, had been fortuitous indicating that it would almost certainly not rain as it had been threatening.

Akabaieth ran over the speech continuously in his mind, circling over and over the important passages, noting the places where he knew the crowd would laugh, where it would cry, and just when he would have to become fierce and demanding, and the others when he would need to be gentle. He'd had the speech written for weeks now, yet still, he wished to ensure that it was perfect. The fact that his mind was circling was also probably what was causing him to continuously circle about the Keep like his was -- variable architecture. It was something that he doubted he'd ever become accustomed to.

But eventually things began to look like they were changing. The arches had a slightly different facade and the tapestries appeared newer. It was about this time when his eye caught the animal morph reclining on a window ledge. The figure was staring so intently, that for a moment, Akabaieth doubted that he had been noticed. It was only because he was looking in the direction of the outside wall itself that he caught the moment when the raccoon's ears swivelled around to pick up the sounds of their booted feet.

The raccoon was quickly off the ledge and on his feet, heading straight for them. The Patriarch quickly scanned his features; he was about six foot, dressed in black with a cloak billowing out behind him. He definitely had the appearance of a rogue or an assassin in such garb, but when Akabaieth gazed into his face, there was nothing of the tell tale cold only an odd complacently.

Even so, Kashin stepped out before the Patriarch, his face a mix of concern and curiosity as he held aloft one hand to stop the raccoon. "Halt," the Yeshuel announced in a hard voice. "What is your business."

The animal morph turned his docile gaze towards Kashin, his arms appearing from under his cloak and rising until they were about level with his shoulders. When he spoke, the raccoon's voice carried a soft rasp to it, something not quite natural. "I only wish to speak with his holiness. A quick word and then I shall be gone."

Iosef interposed himself between the figure and the Patriarch as well, giving Akabaieth a curious look. The Pontiff nodded slowly, a warm smile creeping across his face. It was hard to hide, as his recent discussion with Prince Phil had been joyous enough to nearly wipe out all other concerns from his mind. Yet, he had his responsibilities, and so kept that moment inside. "I can spare a moment for you."

The bodyguard moved from in front of the keeper, but still kept a peculiarly interested eye on the raccoon. The Keeper didn't appear to really notice - either that or he did not care what the Yeshuel did; he just turned his gaze back towards Akabaieth and came forward a few paces where he offered a quick bow of introduction.

"Your holiness. It is an honour to speak with you."

"And a pleasure to speak with you as well. Pray tell, what do you wish to speak about?" Akabaieth decided not to correct him on the use of his title, despite how awkward it made him feel.

The gray raccoon spread his arms once more in a gesture that declared harmless intention. It dawned on the Patriarch that this individual was a warrior and this was his way of showing he meant no harm. "A simple request, your Eminence. Nothing more."

Now however, he felt comfortable in making a request of his own. "Call me Akabaieth, please. And what is it you would like of me?"

Straightening up, the raccoon licked his lips and folded his paws before himself. "This is not for me, but for a friend. I wish nothing more than for you to say a prayer for him, be it at Service or at some other time."

It was not unusual for priests to receive such a request. Yet for the Patriarch himself to be the subject of such a one was a marvel that made Akabaieth straighten up a little as he regarded the animal morph before him. "Certainly. What is his name?"

"His true name was Sir Donovan, of the Knights of Thorn, but for the five years I knew him, it was always as Egan. And I suppose I shall always think of him as that."

The Pontiff nodded with a satisfied smile. "A blessing for a departed fellow knight, is that it? Well, I doubt that will be much trouble. What is your name, by the way."

"My name is Rickkter," replied the raccoon in that odd soft tone of his. "But I am not a knight, nor have I ever been."

Akabaieth's smile did not waver, but only became more inviting. "You appear a warrior yourself, yet claim you are not a knight. Then how is it you came to be associated with a Knight of Thorn for five years?"

Rickkter's tongue darted out to lick his nose again, retreating very slowly as he eyed the floor beside the Patriarch. "He was exiled, unjustly, from the order. From the time that I knew him, there is no possible way I could believe what he said he was accused of. Up until the day he died, he lived by the rules of your religion when circumstances would have made it easier not to. A more noble man, I never met."

Akabaieth found himself nodding. "So what happened to him?"

"He died," Rickkter admitted after a quick inhalation of breath. "He died in the most noble way that your religion defines; he gave his life for a friend."

"And now you're repaying the favour?"

"As sorrowful an effort that it is, it is all that I can do for him, yes. I am not of your faith, Akabaieth, but I know that he would find comfort in such a gesture. And who knows," the raccoon added with a wry smirk, "you might be right about heaven after all."

That made the Pontiff chuckle. "Yes, I can see he was a good friend of yours. Very well, I shall honour your request, making prayers for both Sir Donovan of Thorn and Egan. Just in case he chose to keep that new name."

Rickkter crossed both arms over his chest and bowed deeply at the waist. "You honour me, your Eminence."

"And you honour your friend. You have a brighter soul than you realize."

After a brief consideration of that, Rickkter nodded uncertainly and bid Akabaieth well before heading off to his own personal destination within Metamor. The Patriarch watched him leave, the long striped tail swaying at each step, before gazing curiously at his own Yeshuel. Once the supplicant had turned about a corner, Kashin whispered very softly, "A very interesting individual."

"Oh?" Akabaieth prompted. "Was he truly dangerous?"

Iosef nodded thoughtfully as he rubbed his chin with two fingers. "Very dangerous, but yet, I saw no desire in him to be dangerous."

Kashin flicked his head back, the grey lock of hair once more depositing behind his ear. "He did not believe you when you told him his soul was brighter than he thought. It immediately turned to dark things that are probably best not spoken of." He gazed down the hallway, as if expecting any moment the raccoon would return to demand how they knew what they did.

Akabaieth nodded thoughtfully, and turned about, continuing in his walk. "Rickkter may well indeed be such a fellow, but I will honour his request. It was given with a clear heart, and that is what concerns me." He licked his lips, the words of the speech beginning to return to his mind. "Now, I suppose we should make our way to the balcony for the speech. Will Vinsah be there waiting for us?"

"His message said as much."

The Patriarch turned to regard Kashin mysteriously. "You appear to think his message said a bit more than that."

The Yeshuel shrugged as he walked at Akabaieth's shoulder. "I do not believe that he consulted Murikeer at all regarding your request."

Akabaieth sighed softly then. "It would appear he has a longer road to travel than I had thought. It is just as well. When he is ready to walk in the footsteps I have lain for him, he will be the better man for it, and so too will the world I feel. You do know that when I die, he will almost certainly be made the new Patriarch."

The two Yeshuel nodded. "He will finish what you have started, Akabaieth. His heart is in the right place, he just doesn't know it yet." Kashin assured him, as did Iosef with a smile.

The Patriarch smiled again, "Then let us begin this path. For I see the day when we will all know peace, and a glorious day that it is." His speech in mind, the three of them continued on their way through the halls of Metamor. No longer were they wandering aimlessly, but now they had a fixed goal, and a solid purpose beneath their feet. The dream of peace an intoxicant that they gleefully took part in as they prepared to give it freely to the Keep.

chapter 15

Murikeer knew that the moon was shining, despite the fact that overhead, all one could see for leagues in every direction were the formless shapes of sombre clouds. It lent a darkness to the Keep that was surpassed only by those endless winter nights in the Watchwoods, where the stars and moon would only rarely break through the tangle of snow-covered tree limbs. But at the Keep, there was always a torch flaring in the distance, reflected by dim shadows on the clouds above.

Occasionally the skunk would think back to his time spent those years up in the woods north of the Giant's Dike, hiding in his cave, eating what he could, with only Keletikt and the cave itself for company. And at times, he sought his own solitude, afraid of the crush of faces and names, despite the fact that for those years he had so often longed for the company of others. Now that he had it, he crept back into the lonely places, finding the empty passages in the library to study, or the most remote seat when he sat down to eat. After so many years of solitude, it had become his refuge.

Crossing over the veranda, Murikeer swept such thoughts from his mind. He was not awake at this early hour simply because of insomnia. His intention was motivated more by what he had seen of the Patriarch. After talking with him in the library about a good many things, and then the speech had given the previous evening, it had convinced him to take this course of action. Stepping around another bend in the corridor, he saw the two guards outside of the Long House.

He had not been there often, though enough times that he was familiar to all the guards. The first one, an aged-regressed boy, by the name of Allart if he remembered correctly, held his pike up, the end pointed towards Muri's chest. "State your business here," the boy replied, his voice a light tenor.

"I wish to speak with Misha. I tried to talk with George, but he was asleep." Murikeer shrugged slightly with his shoulders, his long tail twitching at a slight breeze in the air.

The two guards snorted at that. "Of course he is. Anybody without a reason to be awake is asleep right now. Why do you want to see Misha?"

"Because he can assign me to a patrol to oversee the southern reaches of the Pass, where I will be able to help protect the Patriarch's flanks this first day out."

Allart and the other, whom Muri was unfamiliar with, a collie it appeared, exchanged glances, and then the boy nodded. "I think you will most certainly find yourself out there then. We need all the help we can get for this one." Allart opened the door into the dimly lit main hall of the Long House. Murikeer stepped through, and the door was quietly shut behind him.

There were a few voices inside the Long House itself, towards the armoury mostly, where a few lights shone, spilling across the green carpeting. The stained glass windows were dark, as were the upper reaches of the room, shrouded in a darkness like a swarm of bats clutching the ceiling. The door to Misha's office was ajar though, and a faint light flickered within. Crossing the sombre hall quietly upon the thick pads of his paws, Murikeer waited a moment at the door, listening to the voices inside, and sniffing at their scent.

The first voice he instantly recognized as Misha's, and while the second was familiar, he had a bit of trouble placing it, though he smelled like a rodent of some kind. At that, he finally realized that it had to be the rat Matthias whom he'd chatted with a time or two. Then, with the back of his knuckles, he gently rapped on the door frame.

"Come in," Misha called out suddenly, his voice carrying through the room outside. Murikeer pushed the door open, and saw that his instincts had not failed him. Misha was standing behind his desk, while the rat Matthias had turned around in one chair to se who it was knocking on the Head of the Long Scouts door at three in the morning. Both of them appeared to be slightly startled when they saw it was the skunk. "Murikeer, what can I do for you?"

"Well," the skunk said as he glided into the room on silent paws. "Actually, I was thinking that I could do something for you."

"Oh?" the fox asked, grey eyes curious.

Muri decided that there was little point in beating around the bush. "I want to be on one of your deep patrols to the south to watch the Patriarch's back."

The fox leaned forward on the table, his tail wagging over the top of the chair behind him. "Llyn told me that you had cloistered yourself in the library so that you wouldn't have to be any part of his visit. Why the sudden desire to protect him, if I may ask?"

Matthias gently tapped the arm of his chair in interest as he watched, his expression unreadable. After having spent so much time alone, Murikeer had lost his ability to hide his feelings rather effectively, and he was sure his face revealed that. "Well, he found me anyway, and we talked for a bit. I watched his speech from afar, used a little bit of magic so that I could hear it better. I'd always thought the leaders of the Patildor could only envision harm for those who practice either magic or the Lothanasi faith, but he showed me differently. I would like to be sure that others among them feel the same way."

Misha appeared thoughtful for a moment, while the rat turned back around and gave the fox a pleading look. Brightleaf then nodded, his muzzle breaking open into a smile. "We would love to have you along, Muri. I was just describing to Charles here what his assignment will be. Most of the Long Scouts are already on their way to reconnoitre the area where Kashin said they will be camping the first night out. It is a day's walk after all. I can send you and Charles along to the same place. I'm curious though, why didn't you check in with George first?"

The skunk favoured the fox with a frown then, the scent of his musk increasing at his slight irritation. "George was asleep when I came by. Considering who is leaving tomorrow, I would have thought that such matters might interest him at the earliest possible time. So I came to see if you were up instead."

Misha laughed then, a loud barking sound. "You are one hour too early if you wished to see George. He's going to be handling affairs around the Keep as he usually does, so does not need to rise for another hour at least. The Long Scouts are the ones you are best off talking with anyway, and so here you are." The fox winked playfully at Muri then. "Had you been here an hour ago, you could have left with Llyn in fact. She's already begun her journey to the southern borders."

"With who?" Muri asked, curiously.

"Finbar. Don't worry, she'll be all right. If you want, I can have you two scouting in a region close by."

"I would appreciate that, yes." Murikeer appeared to notice the rat for the first time and flashed him a quick grin. "It appears that we will be travelling companions this day."

"It would seem so," Charles remarked, returning the smile. "So what did the Patriarch say to you when you talked? I never had a chance to speak with him aside from when I met him at the gates the first time."

Murikeer reached for the nearby seat, and slipped into it, his tail curling over one arm rest. "Surprisingly little about himself. He spent most of it asking about me and magic."

The rat blinked a moment. "After his speech yesterday, I knew he was a man of tolerant expression, I simply did not realize he was that tolerant. To ask after a faith his own specifically condemns, that is quite remarkable."

"Most," Misha nodded, and then pointed towards the map of the Valley that he had stretched out over his desk. "The Patriarch will be camping for the night in this nestle of hills, just a few hours from Castle Grenier. Due to the nature of his mission to Metamor, and Grenier's relations with us, his advisors felt it best if they circumvent that land altogether, so as far as we know, they don't even know he is here yet. I want the two of you to cover the fields just north of here. There are trees scattered about, so you will have plenty of cover. You can keep a good eye on the road from here as well, to keep a watch for any other travellers."

"How long will it take us to walk that far?"

"If you start now, you should arrive sometime in the early afternoon. It is not an easy distance to cover, especially not when you will have to be moving in secret, but from what Llyn has told me of your abilities Muri, I doubt you will have any difficulty."

Misha then turned to Charles who looked rather eager considering the hour of the morning. "Take Murikeer to the armoury, and find him something light that fits. And then dye your fur and start off Expect to see the Patriarch passing you both by sometime late in the afternoon. Don't forget to take something to eat with you when you go." Misha added the last as if he were referring to a specific event.

Charles grimaced slightly and then rose to his feet, turning to look at the skunk. "Shall we go get ready then?"

"I think I would like that," Murikeer smiled, his tail flicking once more to the side as he and the rat left Misha's office back into the gloom of the Long House. The golden light crept from the armoury across the floor as if it were a shadow as well. Glancing briefly at the rat as he walked briskly along at his side, he knew that it would be a pleasant day indeed.

Duke Thomas Hassan genuflected once more to the ancient man standing before him. On all sides, Keepers had gather to watch the recessional, where the Patriarch's men, and Thomas's own Knights of the Red Stallion were sandwiched between them. On either side of the Duke were Thalberg and Malisa, sparkling in their ceremonial attire, while Prince Phil and his betrothed Clover stood a bit further off, but no further from Akabaieth.

"I wish you a safe journey, your Eminence," Thomas called out loudly as he rose once more to his hooves. "You have given us all a wonderful dream, and I do hope that one day it may be more than mere fantasy."

"As do I," Akabaieth intoned loudly, the grand-fatherly smile on his face endearing. "Metamor is fertile soil for this dream, and I can already see that you live a good measure of it now. I hope that one day you will visit Yesulam, and grace us with your presence."

The horse lord nodded his long head expressively. "Oh, I hope that one day any of us could as well."

Akabaieth smiled, and then bowed respectfully one last time. "I thank you all for your hospitality. Truly, I felt as if this were a second home while I stayed with you all. May Eli's blessing be upon you all." He then turned, to the sound of the trumpeters grand proclamation, and walked to the carriage that awaited him. The two Yeshuel at his sides carried a stately pace, one that Akabaieth could easily surpass if he wished it. But he knew they walked so slow so that he might not exert himself, for which he was ever grateful.

Vinsah stood by the carriage, his face shrouded as he gazed back towards the glistening towers and minarets of the castle at the far end of the town. Yet he bowed and lowered those eyes when Akabaieth approached. Holding out his hand, he and the Yeshuel helped the Patriarch climb into the carriage with ease. Akabaieth favoured him with that large smile as he settled into the central seat, stretching his legs and rubbing the knees with one tired hand.

The trumpets flared again as the carriage jostled slightly, one of the Yeshuel, Kashin of course as was his ceremonial duty as the primary guardian, whipping the team of horses into motion. Already assembled about them, the knights and soldiers would have fallen into formation and begun the slow march towards the gates themselves. The two Yeshuel who sat in the main carriage with him, gazed softly out the windows at the faces of the Keepers, many of whom were collecting after the carriage to follow them out. Vinsah snorted slightly as he watched them, shaking his head slowly. "They always do this, they always follow after you, hoping that you will make one more appearance."

"I know," Akabaieth said softly as he stroked the back of one palm with his slender fingers. "Can you truly blame them?"

"No, I suppose not." Vinsah murmured quietly, his expression creasing with something else. The Bishop of Abaef had found his eyes focussed on something else, the massive gates along the outer wall of the Keep. Tensing, he watched them draw closer, the image of that dream, and the man with the bloodied hands standing beyond the portal, became stronger and more vivid.

Trembling, Vinsah clutched the arms of his seat tightly, peering at the mortar as it approached with an inevitability that felt as tangible as his own flesh. He kept telling himself that it was just a dream, and that he was letting himself be frightened by mere phantasm, but he could not shake the visage of that dark-cloaked man. He wished to clutch to that woman's radiant form again, and with that, came the sensation that something lay over his face.

Reaching up his hand instantly, he felt around his eyes quickly, not caring who else noticed the motion. It was still soft flesh; there was no thick cloth to mask his face. Breathing in relief at that, he tried to ignore the approaching gate, but it continued to dominate his thoughts. It was ridiculous to let himself be terrified of something that he had only glimpsed in a nightmare, but his emotions did not feel to be his own.

Closing his eyes tightly, he breathed in fear, as if the moment he passed out of Metamor he would be struck dead. Yet, only a few seconds later, Akabaieth said, "You can open your eyes again, Vinsah. We've left Metamor."

Chagrined, Vinsah peered out of the carriage, and saw that the Patriarch's assurances had been true. They were working down the slope towards the main road to the south, while the Keep itself lay behind them. Turning back, the Bishop found he could not meet Akabaieth's consoling gaze. Instead, he rebuked himself for his weakness in the face of a dream. Yet, his master said nothing, for which he was grateful.

It was still many hours before he could even attempt the casting, but still, Wessex wished to be prepared. The leaves he'd used before had been meticulously and carefully cleaned. Any mark he might add to them could change what memories they held of his enemy, and those were the very treasures he wished to explore.

The rest of the leaves remained in the bag that Rupert had filled, and that had been placed in his den so that it would not interfere in the casting, when he attempted it. The conditions for that would not be right until the afternoon, but, as in any such magical endeavour, there were many such considerations he had to work out before the appointed hour arrived. He'd sorted through his dusts and selected the ones he would need, and most of the rituals that would be required to break past the defences of a mind like Zagrosek's, even in absentia. But those were only the mot general of requirements, for there was so much more that would be involved.

Foremost on his mind was the identity of that woman with him. The symbol of a pointing finger was one that he was sure he'd seen before, and so the first thing he had begun to do was to try and find the reference. Her identity might not be important to the knowing of Zagrosek's mind, but it certainly would assist him if she had also participated in the spell craft that had touched those leaves in his workroom. Of course, scouring his tomes he had found little luck, as there was no mention of a pointing finger in any heraldic symbols.

Staring once more at his drawing of it, he set the book down on the table and just let his mind wander over that symbol. The finger itself was pointed downwards slightly, while the other three fingers were curled up beneath the thumb. There was no indication what that finger had been pointing at, for its tip rested in the air. It was a very easily constructed symbol, but also one that escaped his current understanding.

Wessex had encountered many hands and fingers in his research. They were popular themes to use in heraldic symbols, especially for mage clans. They were often used as signs of power, and the action that they employed conveyed the means of power. The Sondeckis heraldry was a good example of this, where the hand with sword inside represented their dedication to combat, and the shield that circumscribed the hand reflected their desire to protect others. There were many others that were similar, but not like the one he stared fixedly at now.

Grimacing, he tapped the image thoughtfully with one finger, tracing the tip across each curve. Wessex stared at it as he drew it out with his hand, wondering who that woman he'd seen with Zagrosek was. He'd thought she would be a southern mage, but none of the clans that he had read involved a pointing finger as their symbol. Unless of course she belonged to one of the two clans that had been taken from Sudenhart Arcanum. He'd have to ask Habakkuk when he would have those two pages rewritten for him sometime soon.

However, Wessex gazed at his own small hand and blinked in surprise. A boyish grin spread over his face, the cheeks flush with sudden delight. Laughing out loud, he pounded the table several times and jumped from his chair in childish delight. He looked back at the figure and envisioned the hand moving. In that moment, it had all made sense to him, and he knew exactly what the woman had to be.

The symbol was not of a pointing finger at all, but one that was drawing something.

"It looks like the Keepers are finally giving up," Iosef said as he pulled his head back into the carriage. "I only saw about five left on the road behind us."

Akabaieth nodded slowly then, setting his book aside. Vinsah was still curled into his chair, gazing glumly out at the trees. The Patriarch reached into the satchel that he'd had placed in the carriage early that morning. Pulling open the loose knots, he drew forth the bit of quartz that Murikeer had fashioned for him. Gazing into the flecks of lapis for a moment, he smiled at the remembered conversation he'd had with the skunk.

A sudden intake of breath from the corner told him that Vinsah remembered it as well. He turned to face his adjutant, his gaze calm, but equally concerned. "Have you learned so little that you would shrink from a mere trinket? Murikeer Khannas gave it freely as a gift, to a man that he had never given consideration to before, and I suspect thought to be an oafish fellow. It is symbol of respect from a Lothanasi. What could possibly upset you about that?"

Vinsah sighed, trying to ignore the two Yeshuel who sat stone-faced in the carriage with them. "It's not the gift, not really. I suppose it is more what he said about you, about our Ecclesia, and about magic. Nobody has ever dared suggest to the Patriarch, especially not a man from a foreign faith, that our views on such a pervasive thing as magic are completely wrong. You are the Vicar of Eli, why didn't you defend your fellow Followers?"

Akabaieth rubbed the stone with one finger, as if he too could summon the magic to shape the stone as Muri did. "But the Ecclesia is wrong on the issue of magic. Murikeer was right, we all have magic. We may not think of it as such though. I have thought on this quite a bit since our conversation. It will take quite a bit of effort, but on this issue as well, we can make the Council of Bishops see our way."

The Bishop almost bristled at that remark. "Our way?" he asked, resisting the urge to clench his teeth at the assumption.

Sighing, the old man looked back down at the quartz that bore his own face. "There is something more bothering you than just my conversation with Murikeer. Please, I care for you more than I have any other, Vinsah. Please tell me what plagues your mind."

Vinsah hung his head low then, resting his hands in his lap, the burning ways of youth in his fifty-year old heart. He averted his eyes from that stone of quartz, though he knew that the eyes within it were made of lapis and not agate. "My dream two nights ago." Akabaieth nodded at that, as if in expectation of that answer. "There was a stone just like that, only of my face, that Murikeer and others kept trying to give me."

"Did you ever accept it?"

"No, I wanted nothing to do with it. It was-" Vinsah sighed, unable to finish the sentence as he shuddered.

"What was it?"

"I don't really know. I suppose you would have had to be there to understand."

Akabaieth took a slow breath and cupped his hands over the stone, obscuring it completely between his long, slender fingers. "Were the eyes on your stone agate?"

Vinsah snapped his head up in shock. "How did you know that?"

The Patriarch returned the gaze, this one intended to be comforting, even though the eyes said that they knew his words would bring none. "I had a dream last night, much like yours, though quite peaceful. I was preparing to sail, when I turned and saw this tall woman, with radiant black hair and deep eyes, standing by the wharf with you by her side. She had a gentle hand on your shoulder, while you clutched a bit of quartz in your hands. Oh, you also were wearing a black mask over your eyes."

Vinsah could feel his skin crawl, lumps over lumps, as he listened to the Patriarch's words. His heart skipped several beats as he gripped the arms of his chairs tighter. His short nails dug into the wood, chipping at it. "What happened?"

Akabaieth's gaze bored deeply into Vinsah's face, striking at his heart, and what he hid there. "She asked me to leave you in her care while I was sailing. Nothing more, that is all she would do."

"And what did you do?"

"I told her that the decision was yours, and that I would not stop you, only relay her request to you." He then leaned forward slightly and gestured to the door. "It is my belief that you are being called to stay here at the Keep. I do not know why, and I do not know by whom. If I felt that this was a direct command from Eli, I would insist that you return to that castle this instant. In fact, I never would have let you leave. This lady, whoever she is, feels that you should stay. I do not believe she means you any harm, which is why I am even telling you this."

"Do you want me to leave?" Vinsah asked hotly, yet there was a tinge of fear to that voice. The Yeshuel stirred slightly, noting Vinsah, in case through anger he should overstep his bounds.

"I think you need to do what you feel is right."

"But you feel that what is right for me to do is to stay at Metamor and become cursed like they!" Vinsah stammered in the heat, his whole body shaking with fury at the suggestion that gnawed at his heart like a ravenous beast.

"I believe that in the end, it may be better for you to live as they do, yes." Akabaieth slipped the piece of quartz back into his satchel and grimaced. "I would also be happy to have you at my side when we proclaim our message of peace to the rest of the churches in the Midlands. I will respect either wish. If you want to return to Metamor, I can have two of the knights escort you back. But if so, you will have to decide quickly, for we will soon be half a day's walk from that city."

Vinsah peered at the Patriarch as if he had just started speaking in a foreign tongue. There was no doubt in his mind about what he wished to do. "Of course I will stay with you, for it is at your side that I belong. If I go to Metamor, I could jeopardize your mission of peace. Especially if I become a woman. You can imagine the furor that would cause in the Council of Bishops. They would excommunicate me!"

"Sadly, I fear that you are correct about that," Akabaieth murmured quietly. "Very well then, I shall speak no more of these dreams."

Vinsah breathed a sigh of relief, and let his body relax. He nodded in thanks to the Patriarch and set to ignoring the unruly stares the two Yeshuel gave him. Once this day was over, he would never again have to think of these unpleasant matters. He eagerly awaited that moment as he glumly rested his gaze upon the passing trees outside the carriage.

"So, how much longer do you think it will take them to pass by?" Charles asked as he peered at his companions nestled in the small grove of trees along the rise of one of the many hills in the southern regions of the valley.

They were four, having met up only an hour before on their patrols. Murikeer and Charles had shared quite a few words on the first portion of their journey, but had grown quieter as the trees thinned out from the thick forests that carpeted the ground, to these occasional patches dotting the surface. Llyn and Finbar had been making their rounds, having already been in these remote areas for a few hours, and were delighted by the extra company.

Of course, the rat and Finbar had spent much of the time keeping their eyes open for signs of an enemy's passage while Llyn and Murikeer reacquainted themselves. Of course, after the first few minutes, they were as attentive as their companions, as they found a place on one of the hills from which they could watch the procession pass by.

"Any moment now, I would think," Murikeer remarked as he gazed up at the dark sky. "It is hard to tell the hour with storm clouds overhead."

"I think it is going to rain tonight," Finbar murmured as he sniffed at the air. "It smells like it."

"Wonderful, our fur is going to get sopping wet!" Charles bemoaned.

Llyn laughed a trilling laugh "At least for some of us that won't be a problem."

Both Murikeer and the rat scowled at the two mustelids as they chortled in glee at the irony. The skunk was about to reach over and suddenly grab the mink's leg to startle her where she sat, when something caught his eye. Turning back to face the north road, he saw the glint of armour in the diminished daylight as the first of the Patriarch's caravan came down the road.

"They're here," he whispered quietly, drawing back into the shadows of the grove, though his eyes continued to watch the shapes slowly emerge.

Matthias and Llyn both moved forward to see, while Finbar scanned the area once again for any sign of interlopers. But, of course, there was nothing there. The ferret had been unable to shake that strange feeling that he'd had when scouting out the woods near Lorland the previous morning with Charles, but so far, he'd never felt it again quite so tangibly. Even just then as the Patriarch's carriage was within shouting distance, the sensation was but a clinging memory.

The rat turned back to smile at his friend Murikeer, and to urge him to come forward more, but he had wrapped the thick expanse of his tail about his front and was kneading the fur with his paws. That he was nervous was not something to dispute. "Is something wrong, Muri?" Matthias finally asked.

"No," the skunk added quickly. "I'm just not used to watching this sort of thing. It's been a long time for me."

Llyn smiled favourably to him, and that expression was enough to embolden him to step out from behind the tree-trunk and his own tail. "But, for such a man as he, I suppose I should be honoured. And I am, strange as it is to say."

The rat nodded and patted the ground between himself and the mink. "Then let's see him off this one last time, shall we?"

Murikeer took a deep breath and stepped forward. "Yes, we shall." His musk very slight, the skunk slipped between the two Keepers, and grinned as he watched the parade of humans pass by before him. He idly wondered if he would ever see the like of Akabaieth among the Ecclesia again.

Vocalizing the last phrases of the incantation, Wessex pressed both of his palms into small hexagons on the diagram before him. Not only was the workroom covered in white chalk lines, but also many of the lines decorating its surface were formed from carefully placed granules of the coloured sands that he kept in storage. The leaves that he'd saved from his last casting were once again placed in individual circles, with one larger circle containing them. Only this time, that larger circle was inscribed within a multifaceted hexagon, with lines of dust radiating out towards his hands.

The fact that each grain of sand had to be properly placed was the primary reason that the spell had taken him much of the afternoon to prepare for. That and the fact that to travel through thoughts required it to be night, for then it would be far more easy to pass into the realms of the shadows and thoughts that lurked within them. It was not the Shadow realm itself, but merely a periphery upon which the boy mage could walk and find Zagrosek's mind. It was dangerous, but it could offer him the clues he needed to defeat the wizard.

Yet, once he set his palms within the hexagons, the coloured dust sparkled, gleaming a pale flame as the torches about the room dimmed. The leaves writhed with the forceful energies flowing through their dried veins. Yet, they rippled and shimmered, images rising up from each of them to coalesce into the whole that he had seen yesterday. The profile of Zagrosek's face just before some strange woman's. His studies had told him more of the woman, and he would explore her more later, but currently, the object of his desire was the black-robed Sondecki.

Wessex peered into the wizard's eyes, noting the contour of the dark iris against the round pupil, drawing it wide further with his will, wondering what things could be reflected there in. He felt detached from his own form, as if he were flying through that very forest, a particle of dust, settling in before this man's face, studying it before plunging into the eye itself. Yet, he never quite reached there, as some strange unseen force blocked his way.

In consternation, Wessex pushed at the empty air, but it thickened like mud the further in he went. In fact, the very features before him dimmed like a filmy soap as he pressed deeper in, until he could barely move at all, except o back out. Grimacing, he put both of his hands into the mix, and drew them apart, as if he were digging through the sand. He then held the muck away from him, packing it tightly against the air, holding it in place.

Proceeding like that, the boy was very quickly able to dig his way through the defence about Zagrosek, and finally plunge into his eye. There was a flash of electricity that made him cry out in terror, as that black visceral mass coated everything he could see like a plague. It was the same muck that had radiated from the censer so many months ago. Yet, there was one very powerful image that dwarfed all others, one that made Wessex claw his way from out of that diseased mind and back into the real world, where he quickly wiped clean the spell, scattering the dust across the slate floor.

The sight was of Zagrosek plunging an ornate Sathmoran knife into an old man's chest.

Akabaieth turned the flame in his lantern down slightly as he closed his devotional and set it upon a cushion. The large carriage that he and the others had ridden in on their trip to Metamor was convertible into a small one man bed and side table, and that is where Akabaieth had slept almost every night for the last two months. The turquoise folds of the curtains draped over the windows were a comforting sight. The gently swayed in the cold wind of the October night, but otherwise remained as stolid as faithful companions. The rat-tat-tat of rain on the top of the carriage slowly grew louder, like the gentle beat of the waves against shore.

Kneeling upon a pillow before his bed, he lowered his eyes and began to think over all that he had seen that day in their travels again, and all that had been said an unsaid. Slowly, words began to come to his lips, in a voice very soft, and very private. "My Abba, thank you for your son Yahshua, and His sacrifice for all of us. And thank you for your servants at Metamor Keep, for their hospitality. I do hope that you can multiply their hearts, and bring such understanding to all peoples of this world.

"And I ask your blessings upon this place, and its people, for such great suffering and great hope I have rarely seen. Grant blessings upon Prince Phil, who has done me a great favour, one that I thank you for finally making true. And bless Murikeer Khannas in his pursuits, for I believe the words he spoke to me will bring great understanding to our people. Watch over Vinsah who I know has a long road ahead of him, give him a comforter along the way. Also, I ask for intercession on behalf of Egan, formerly Sir Donovan of Thorn, that his eternal soul might find peace at last.

"Lastly, I pray that you would give aid to Raven hin'Elric. She is a faithful woman, even though she does not worship your Son. Help us both to cleanse the council, through whatever medium you deem worthy, be it this Elenin or not. Thank you for giving me such a long life to appreciate all the wonders in this world. I give all these things unto you, Abba, in the name of Eli, and of Yahshua. A-men."

He fell silent, his voice had already disappeared within the confines of the cloth shrouded carriage. Rising on tired knees, he slipped beneath the thick quilts of his bed, drawing the bit of hemp he kept with him into his hands. Running his fingers along the fraying seams, he began to work over his knots, each and every one with practised ease. Yet, halfway through his exercise, he stopped and stared at the square knot he'd worked into the hemp. He'd passed his seamanship exam finally.

Opening the door to the lantern, he blew the wick out completely, casting his room into darkness. With the knot clutched in one hand, he laid down to rest, a contented smile upon his lips.

chapter 16

Wessex pushed his way past a startled ibis carrying something that appeared to be extremely delicate. The grey-liveried bird gave a strangled cry as the pottery toppled out of his wing tips to crash to the floor, splintering into thousands of shards. The boy mage was highly unconcerned with such a temporal matter though, intent on only one thing, the Duke's personal chambers.

The guards standing outside the Duke's room lowered the ir staves at his running approach, eyes intent on preventing him from causing any harm. Wessex shouted in anger at them as he came to a stop before them. "Get out of my way! I need to speak to his grace immediately!"

One of the guards, a broad chested man, grimaced and knocked on the door. "Who is it?" the Duke's voice called back.

"The Magician Wessex, here to speak with you. He claims it is urgent."

"Send him in at once," Thomas called back, though there was a hint of worry in the tone, most of it was still light hearted.

Wessex did not give the two guards any more attention as soon as he was past the door. The Duke's private chambers were well furnished, with a large table in the middle. Prince Phil stood on a small stool before it, his paws splayed out over a map of the valley. The rabbit nodded his head to the boy, though there was concern in his eyes at Wessex's bedraggled condition. The wizard had not bothered o scrub the coloured dusts from his hands, and so a rainbow of hues was smeared across both his pants and shirt.

"What could be so important that you have to nearly batter down my guards just after dinner?" Thomas asked, his voice jocular as usual to help set his guests at ease.

However, the boy mage had no time for such small talk. "Zagrosek intends to kill the Patriarch tonight."

Phil nearly fell from his chair as his arms gave out before him, sprawling him further across the table, his massive weight almost upending the chair for a moment before he regained his balance. Thomas spun about, his long tail lashing furiously at one colonnade. The horse lord's eyes began to flood with white, though not nearly to the extent that Macaban's had when Wessex had shown him the Sondeckis symbol.

"That evil mage who was controlling Loriod?" Thomas asked again, just to be sure. When the boy nodded, the equine duke clopped his hooves on the floor in agitation. "How do you know that? I thought you couldn't find any trace of him to use?"

Wessex grimaced, "Your grace, we don't have time to discuss that right now. If we don't hurry, then the Patriarch will die tonight. Just trust me when I say this, we need to somehow reach him before Zagrosek does."

Phil looked back at the map, his eyes overcome their momentary shock, now focussed entirely on the battle. "I have enough scouts combing the southern woods that if we can get word to them, it will take some of them less than an hour to reach the Patriarch's encampment, maybe less. Our best men I've stationed as close as possible. So all we have to worry about now is getting word to them. Wessex, there are a few mages out in those groups, Murikeer Khannas for one, is one of the southernmost groups. Do you think that you could communicate with him magically?"

The boy nodded thoughtfully. "It would not be easy, the distance is great, and I'd need to procure some of my materials, but I think that I should be able to warn him. That is assuming of course that Zagrosek wouldn't expect that. I don't know the full extent of his powers yet, so we need to take every contingency into consideration."

Thomas walked over to the table, and beat one hoof-like fist upon the map. "Dragons! We can have them fly south to warn the rest, if they can find them, and if not, then to help defend the Patriarch's caravan. They should be able to make the flight in about an hour or two at most."

"We have only a handful of dragons here at the Keep right now," Phil pointed out, his voice bereft of anything but the heat of tactics. "It's past nightfall, so Cerulean won't be able to help us. Saroth is still recovering from his injuries, and with the storm to the south, I wouldn't want to have him risk himself like that."

"What of the others?" Thomas asked.

Phil peered thoughtfully at the map, tapping the place where the Keep had been drawn in. "There is one other thing to consider. Zagrosek would notice a large dragon flying in the sky, even at night and with this storm. They are hard to miss. I think we should send Gornul to warn the others, and have the larger dragons follow closely behind him, but up over the clouds. He can communicate between them to coordinate the defence."

Wessex paced slowly about the room, still shaking from what he'd seen. "Zagrosek could have an ally, though I have no idea how powerful she might be."

The horse lord grimaced and walked back over to the door, and opened it wide. The two guards appeared startled, especially considering the vehemence of their master's voice. "Wake the Knights of the Red Stallion now, and have them gallop south along the road. Also, bring me Gornul and ready all of the dragons that we have. Send to the commander of the stallion this note."

He held out an empty hand, and then swore privately to himself, before snatching at a pen and sheaf of paper from the desk to one side, scribbling something quickly. He stamped his seal in wax, and then folded it in two. Pushing that into the guards hand, knees trembling, he barked, "Now go, come back here with Gornul immediately after you deliver this. Spread the word, we are on an alert, I want the guard doubled instantly at the Keep."

The guard nodded quickly, before darting off down the hallway, while the second shouted something down the hallway. Thomas closed the door, his face grim. "Now, we have a few minutes until Gornul arrives, what else do we need to do to stop this?"

Wessex shrugged, "I need a few things from my workroom. I cannot perform the ritual in there, as I already have a spell cast into the floor, it would take too long to clean up. Other than my magical observation, I'm not sure what can be done that you haven't already set in motion."

Phil hopped off the stool, and gazed into a corner of the room. Suddenly, the great ape Rupert emerged from the shadows, where Wessex had never seen him. "Rupert, take Wessex back to his quarters and help him bring back what he needs for the spell."

The ape look frightened and pointed to Phil with one finger, himself, and then at the floor. Phil shook his head. "No, I need you to do this now. I will be safe here, Thomas's guards are quite competent. Go now, that is a direct order from your Prince. We do not have any time we can afford to waste."

Rupert nodded reluctantly, lumbering over to the door, and gazing at Wessex with fierce eyes. The boy, having finally caught his breath, strode over next to the large silent caretaker, and began to make his way to his room. The ape's legs were much longer, and so he soon realized that he was slowing him down with his own short ones. Any other day, he would have turned red from embarrassment at the thought of it, but tonight was different.

"Rupert, you need to carry me. I'm just slowing you down." Wessex stood there as the ape turned to regard him for a brief moment, before his thick grey hands reached down and lifted the child onto his back. Wrapping his arms around the thick neck, Wessex buried his head into the thick hard fur before him, ignoring the stares of guards as they tried to figure out what could be wrong.

Closing his eyes, Wessex tried not to think about that single image he had seen, of Zagrosek stabbing the Patriarch. Though he had no love for the man, if Zagrosek wanted it, he would oppose it with his last breath. And he had many more yet to breath. Besides, with a seething hatred boiling in his heart, he had watched this man murder too many already. He would enjoy bringing his nightmares to an end.

Gornul blinked the rain from his eyes as he plunged through the inky blackness of night. It was dangerous enough for a dragon to fly at night, but in the midst of an intense thunderstorm, it was nearly suicide. And considering Gornul's small frame, he was constantly being tossed about by sudden gusts, and hammered by the sheets of icy rain that the clouds flung forth.

Yet, he persevered; having heard what the Duke wanted, and knowing the rightness of the cause, he could do little else. Pumping his wings against each chaotic blow of the winds, he soared over the treetops, always keeping the road in sight. Though he could only see it clearly when a flash of lightning would illume the sky briefly. At first, he'd been able to watch the roaring progress of the knights as they pounded along the muddy slopes, exerting their horses as they charged. They'd have to rest their steeds at some point, the dragonnette knew, a fact that made their effort only one of show.

Casting his mind into the darkness below, he searched for other minds, other thoughts. At this distance, only the vaguest of generalities could he even discern, but it would be enough. Once he found others, he had been instructed to swoop in lower and deliver the message, and then continue on further south. So far, he had found few Metamorian minds to talk with, and so he continued towards the dark thick skies to the south.

Thinking upwards, he could feel the comforting presence of his fellow dragons overhead. They were not many, but against one man, it should be enough. Still, without him to guide them, they would be lost. All of that responsibility weighed heavily on Gornul's little shoulders, even more so then the tonnes of rain that had already saturated his scaly hide.

Blinking all of it away, he focussed instead on the winds and the currents. He would be strong, and he would do his very best to save that good man.

Rupert and Wessex returned shortly to Thomas's private chambers. The Duke was pacing, while Phil studied the map nervously. There were six guards outside his door now, and they immediately let the ape carrying both the child and several casks and bags in his paws and over his back into the room. They did not even say a word as they passed, their faces all creased with sudden worry. They did not know what had caused their liege such alarm, but they would give their lives to defend him from whatever it was.

Wessex slid down to the ground, tumbling slightly as he did so, and then clapped his hands together, looking about the floor. Finally, he pointed to a wide open section before a bookcase that was covered with a carpet. "There, roll the carpet away, and set my materials down there. That should be enough space."

"What exactly is it that you are going to be doing, Wessex?" Thomas asked even as the great ape set about organizing all of the implements that the boy had requested he bring. "Will it be dangerous to you?"

The boy nodded emphatically as he watched Rupert handle the materials. "Very dangerous, Zagrosek could kill me if I am not careful. But, I have sufficient cause to believe that he wouldn't do that."

"What about to us?" Phil asked pointedly, his blue eyes knowing far more than anyone else aside from Wessex did about this man. It was to the rabbit that the boy had gone when he could trust no one else. Even now, they had kept their knowledge secret, only saying what was needed. Now, both recognized that some of these secrets would have to be shed.

Wessex grimly nodded. "If Zagrosek can use me in my dreams, it is entirely possible he may use me here. You ought to have guards in here to protect you in case I am not myself when I rise from the spell." The boy began to examine the casks that Rupert had brought, checking each one to make sure it was still intact. He found nothing wrong with any of them, and so began to study the floor where the great ape had rolled the carpet away.

Thomas turned to the door, and barked a few more orders. There was no question that he was nervous as his equine tail was flicking from side to side in agitation, and his ears swivelled to catch every noise, no matter how minute. Pacing, his hooves clopping on the tile floor, he peered at all of the dusts and chalk that the boy had brought with him. "What do you mean use you in your dreams? And just how do you know that Zagrosek is going to kill the Patriarch?"

"I studied the leaves that Phil and I collected in the woods outside of Lorland," Wessex added quickly, pouring out a bit of the sand into a funnel, rotating it in a perfect circle from long practice. The bright yellow sand traced out a narrow curve upon the ground, sparkling in the ambient lamplight. "I am afraid that I cannot take the time to explain the particulars just now. Phil knows most of it anyway, he can tell you while you wait for me to do my part in stopping this madness. This will only take me a moment more to prepare, and then I want you to pour out the contents of this ewer onto my chest." He indicated a small earthenware pitcher with single handle. "After that, you will not be able to speak to me until I break the spell."

Thomas nodded, bending down to lift the ewer clumsily in one hand. Wessex placed several chalk lines in a radial pattern around the circle, sprinkling more of the coloured dusts along each line. He fought with his shirt a moment, before discarding it to one side, revealing his hairless ten year old chest. Stepping inside of the circle, he then took a small jar in his hands. Twisting off the cap, he dipped his finger into the white paste inside, and rubbed it across his forehead, and down both sides of his chest, and around the base of his sternum.

Setting the jar outside of the circle, Wessex lay down upon his back on the cold slate. He shivered for a moment as his skin met the stone, but otherwise he remained calm. "Pour the ewer please. And do watch my body. You will know when I have found him."

Phil watched the soldiers file in the door, each armed with spear and sword, all of them nervous. He then returned his gaze to the horse lord who stood precariously leaning over the incantation drawn on the floor, gently upending the contents of the ewer upon the boy's chest. It was a rather viscous blue liquid, the like of which he had never seen before. It had the consistency of paint, only it gleamed in the torchlight like something living.

Wessex shuddered as the fluid struck his chest, soaking into the paste he had drawn across his flesh. The marks swelled, burning through him, and causing him to nearly bite his tongue in half. Closing his eyes shut, he could feel it soak into his flesh, burning as it was caught in the spell. He did not need to open his eyes to know that the outer circle had begun to glow baleful red flame, like molten lava as it churned in the heart of a volcano. The paste on his chest would be glowing that same colour, though the one on his forehead would remain dormant for now. And then, once all of the fluid had been poured, they would go silently black.

The moment was hard to miss, as suddenly, every sensation he could feel through his body vanished. Staring, he could see from inside of the circle all of the Keepers in the room, each one glowing with the ever present magic of the curses. Letting his incorporeal presence rise, he flew through layers and layers of stone intangibly, until he was perched atop the highest parapet at the Keep, gazing over the dark landscape, all of it burning brightly with the Valley's magic. The clouds overhead were a sombre black as the storm raged. In the distance to the south, pinpricks of light shone the way.

Intrinsically, he was drawn to the brightest of the lights to the south, approaching them at remarkable speed, despite the distance. He saw four Keepers nestled beneath a copse of trees trying to keep from getting wet. He recognized one of them as that skunk that had been living up in the north for several years. Muri, for that had been his name, was a mage of some talent, and was the perfect person to impart the news to.

Yet, just as he tried to speak to the skunk's mind, another presence formed before him. He started in shock, his arms rising up to ward off the apparition that had materialized as if from nowhere. Wessex recoiled, summoning all the magic he could garner in this in-between realm, uncertain what he could possibly do now. Yet, the realization that he had been right, and how he wished that he had not been, was full in his mind.

Before him, grinning sardonically, was a woman dressed in fine purple robes, with the insignia of the drawing finger upon each sleeve. Though her smile was tight, almost forced, her bloodshot eyes told him a story of contempt and victory. Her long black hair twisted like a writhing den of snakes in the air, as she held out one of her hands. When she spoke though, her voice plunged wintry ice into his heart. "I am afraid that you are too late, Wessex ard'Kapler. Too late by far."

Over the fabled city of Ava-shavåis, there were few clouds, the night sky clear, the stars shining brightly in the vault of the heavens. Standing alone in his solitary tower, Qan-af-årael studied those stars. He could not help but wonder where Andares was now, as it had been two weeks since he had sent him on his errand. The stars were not very forthcoming either on the intervening nights, as they never even showed him anything. Too many clouds in the sky to see.

That could of course mean several things, and he had gone over every one of them many times already. Running his slender fingers across his angular features, he listened o the quiet of the woods about him. The grip of Autumn was upon the Åelfwood, leaves exchanging green for yellow or orange, while the towering pines at the foot of the Barrier Range stubbornly kept their colours so that all might admire their tenacity.

Yet, the moment when the story of the stars would be told was nearly upon him, and the clouds were only beginning to move in over the night sky. As he watched, his eyes trailed to the constellation of the Master and Servant. They were whole for the moment, the first time he had seen that occur at any time of the night since he'd sent Andares to the lands of the West. He wondered what that could portend as he let his focus trail over to the other major constellation of the Autumn season, the Hunter. The eye appeared to be dimmer than the rest, though with his own orbs, he could note tell why just then.

Taking a deep breath, he counted the moments that were left, an ancient ritual as old as himself. After so many centuries, he did not need to look at the stars to know the hour. Opening again, he watched as the story of the stars unfolded before him. The clouds of the sky continued their motion, passing in front of the Master, all in that moment. They even covered the Servant's left arm as before. And there they stopped, collecting into an agglomeration for a moment while the story was told.

Qan-af sucked in his breath, his ancient frame shaking with fear at the sight of such an omen. A sudden glimmer in the rest of the sky caught his attention though. The Eye of the hunter had flared, and shone even more brightly than any other star in the constellation. Peering into the bright blue intensity, the Åelf glared back, trying to see what was reflected in that oculus. Yet, the telling of the story was past, and nothing more could be gleaned from the stars.

Lowering his head, he leaned against the sill, running his fingers over the intricately carved ivory of the railing. With a shudder, he did his best to push the thoughts from his mind. The Master was going to die this very night. Unsettled, he journeyed back into the tower, and descended the stairs. Qan-af would watch his people's festival this evening, for he did not wish to think of what he had just witnessed.

He did not know how long he had been fighting the wind, but Gornul continued on as he had not yet seen the Patriarch's caravan. The dragonnette knew that it had to lie farther to the south as the forest had thinned to the point that only the occasional copse along the ridge of a hill afforded any place to hide. So, until he saw the caravan, he would continue to fly.

Cringing from the beating rain, Gornul tried not to think about how tired his wings felt. Sullen pain lanced through his back every time he flapped them to stay aloft in the wind-racked air. Occasionally he would catch an upward thermal and would have the chance to relax them for a few moments as he soared upwards, yet they were often disrupted by a sudden gale that would cause him to lose altitude, struggling to carry the winds again.

Nor did the storm show any signs of abating. In fact, the further south he went, the stronger it felt. Pounding harder, a soft squeal escaping his muzzle, though was instantly drowned by the rain, he continued onwards, feeling something at the edge of his mind as he worked along the length of the road. Off to one side, there were a few presences, though he could tell little of them. Diverting slightly, he began to make a slow descent, hoping that his small shape was not silhouetted by the lightning flashing all around.

Casting his thoughts about, he could feel four minds nestled within that small grove of trees. At first he did not recognize any of them, but then suddenly, one of them sparked a familiar image inside of him! It was that rat, Charles down there among them! Feeling suddenly giddy, Gornul circled in low, trying to flash the warning to them as he had done for a few of the scouts that he'd passed on his way down.

Yet, a grunt from his back convinced him otherwise. His wings simply stopped pumping, too sore to continue despite his best efforts. Gliding in, he tried to keep his eyes set on the dark cluster of tree tops, doing his best to slow himself down as he plummeted. The world spun about him at times as the wind blew his wings this way and that, his thin tail swinging back and forth as they grew closer, the minds of his friends nearer.

Crying out mentally, he warned them of his impending crash. Startled thoughts returned, but Charles knew to listen, and Gornul saw the rat dart out from the trees, gazing up into the rain to find the helpless dragonnette. The other three scouts joined Matthias out on the knoll, looking about warily. Gornul could not help but smile as he watched his friends assemble there before him. Flapping his tired wings once more, he gave out a shriek at the pain that lanced through his shoulders, and then crashed into the arms of the skunk and rat, who had nearly run into each other as they tried to catch him.

The damp grass beneath him, Gornul breathed slowly, his whole body in agony over that intense flight. The cold stinging rain filled his eyes, but he did his best to wipe them away with one paw. Matthias crouched next to him, while the skunk leaned over top of the rat. The other two gazed about the hill, scanning for signs of anyone else.

"What are you doing here, Gornul?" Charles asked as he gently ran his finger across the blue sales of the dragonnette's tummy.

Gornul breathed in again, and then sent all four of them the image of a bad man killing the Patriarch. They all were visibly shocked.

"Somebody is going to kill the Patriarch?" the skunk exclaimed quietly, though the surprise was plain in his voice.

The dragonnette nodded his weak head, and then showed them an image of dragons flying over the clouds, and then diving through and attacking the bad man. He then pointed to himself with one claw as he lay there. "You need to warn the other dragons?" Matthias asked, and Gornul nodded once more.

"Could you do that?" Llyn asked as she approached, gently resting her palm on the skunk's shoulder.

Murikeer shook his head firmly. "I could never send thoughts that far away. Perhaps if I cajoled a few spirits of the air, but that would take too long."

Charles continued to gently rub Gornul's belly as he thought. "Gornul, can you send your thoughts that high from the ground?" The return image was a shrug, and so the rat considered further. However, he only took a moment for such things. "We need to get to the Patriarch as soon as possible. Murikeer, do you think you could give Gornul enough power to send his thoughts that high?"

The skunk nodded, "I believe so."

"Good, then you will carry Gornul while we make our way South. As soon as we can see the camp, you send your thoughts to the dragons over the clouds. Whoever it is that intends to do misdeed to our Patriarch will find himself facing a much larger force than he expected!"

Finbar started then, "But we're an hour north of their camp. We might not make it in time, and we dare not sprint."

Murikeer cast a glance toward the ferret, then at the soaking wall of dark water in the forest beyond the shelter of the large tree. "We will run as fast as our legs will carry us." He muttered, throwing out one hand, fingers splayed. He lidded his eyes as he looked down to the earth past his hand, the rumbling hiss of the rain fading from his hearing. Fervently he sent his desires into the very earth as his feet, letting his wishes be known to the spirits of the world around them. After several long seconds he suddenly clenched his hand into a fist and looked up, his jaw set, eyes hard and cold. "I will lead, you three keep up as best you can, I am not going to keep my pace to yours."

Scowling in confusion, Finbar stepped forward to brace the skunk, halting him before he had made two steps, "Who put you in charge?" he asked, his voice pitched above the howling of the wind. Llyn quickly stepped over and grasped his shoulder, but he would not move. "We'll kill ourselves if we charge through this mess in the dark."

Muri sidestepped him, pausing momentarily to let the Charles put the obviously exhausted dragonnette on the top of his small pack. "The spirits guide our path." He assured as he ducked into the rain, his fur suddenly going flat with the weight of the cold, pounding water. He glanced back over his shoulder as his white stripe began to fade, a sudden flare of yellow-white light appearing in the air a few feet away. Finbar hissed, leaning away as Charles took a step back, throwing up a hand to ward off the brightness. Only Llyn seemed unfazed by the sudden flare of light. "Follow the light!" the skunk yelled, then turned and plunged into the darkness.

Watching the bobbing witchlight warily, Finbar hastened to follow, ducking his shoulders as the heavy rain crashed down upon him. Charles was already out before him, Llyn close at his heels. "What the hell did he do?" the ferret called back to the mink, the one member of their foursome who seemed perfectly at ease in the chill rain.

She stepped past him, shaking her broad head slowly, "Don't ask, Finbar." She responded in a muffled yell, jerking her head toward the two fading forms in the rain ahead. The light did not recede with them, hovering a few paces ahead and several feet above Finbar, to whom it had been anchored. The ferret shook his head with another glance at the fiercely glowing orb and fell into step behind Llyn.

Charles, however, sped past the light, and kept pace only a few metres behind his friend the skunk. His heart beat rapidly in his chest, his mind racing over how such disaster could have come about. And how had Metamor come to know of such a thing before they? Trying not to dwell on those questions, he focussed on the path before him. Tears welled behind his eyes, ready to be shed should they arrive late.

Duke Thomas paced endlessly before the circles of power that Wessex had inscribed, and in which he now lay, completely comatose. That is, except for the occasional jerking of his body to one side or the other, and the terribly contorted expressions he bore. He never once cried out though, in the midst of whatever struggle he was engaged. To be able only to watch, and knowing that to disturb or try to help could only kill him, was a terrible burden that the Duke wished not to wear.

Phil was not much better, his rabbity nervousness preventing him from giving any aid to his lord in that time. Instead, his mind drew itself over the many possibilities that lay before them now, most of them bad. With a grimace he realized that he should never have agreed to hold Wessex's secrets this long. Had they all worked together instead of being distracted, they might have been able to flush Zagrosek out by now. The paltry scouts he could send to investigate had only demonstrated the need of such an act. Yet he'd done nothing in order to protect the secret that Wessex jealously guarded.

With a sour sense of irony, Phil wondered just who was controlling who in this terrible mind game.

The guards standing in the room wore unpleasant moues, each and every one of them. They had long since learned what was going on, as neither Phil nor Thomas were apt to keep their mouth's shut at this time. They warily watched their charge Wessex though, knowing that at any moment, he might rise and be a completely different person. The thought of a malignant being hiding behind those boyish eyes was most unsettling. Even Rupert, who stayed towards the shadows for when he would be needed, could not help shift about slightly on his hand-like feet to relieve the tension.

Thomas turned on the rabbit suddenly, his eyes gleaming, "How long has it been since we sent the dragons?"

Phil looked over at the clock resting on the bookshelf. "It's been two hours, your grace." Sighing he watched the minute hand move a tick. "And Misha has been gone with his troupe for just a few minutes less than that." The leader of the Long Scouts had been horrified when he'd heard the news, and insisted that he take out a group of his own men that had remained behind. Though, from the look in his eyes, he knew that they were going to be cleaning up what was left.

The horse lord glared down at Wessex's prone body and grunted. "Dammit, this is taking too long. The dragons should be there by now."

"Maybe they will arrive at any moment," Phil offered.

The Duke pointed with one thick finger at the boy. "Look at him! He's been that way ever since he went into that trance. I cannot imagine he hasn't found something! The Patriarch could have died hours ago for all that we know. And there is nothing we can do about it!" He ran his hand along his chin then, trying to calm himself. "And do you realize just what will happen should the Patriarch die on Metamor's holdings?"

Phil nodded his head sadly. "There will be war. Maybe not today, but someday. The tensions are high, have always been high towards Pyralis an Sathmore. I have no doubt that hostilities will be renewed along their borders. I am not sure how the Midlands will react to this news. The Ecclesia and Lothanasi have always managed to get along tolerably well in those lands, though not quite as nicely as here. No matter the result, Akabaieth's dream for peace will die with him."

Thomas turned about in obvious frustration, glaring once more at Wessex's tiny frame. "If so, we will need to be even more vigilant. For if Nasoj could ever defeat us, then with a war to the south, he'd have no trouble conquering and levelling them all."

The chilling image of Lutin armies marching over the cities of Sathmore and Pyralis was enough to make Phil glance again at the clock, wondering how long they would have to wait to know.

"Who are you?" Wessex demanded as he stared at the slender figure before him. The woman laughed a crisp merry laugh, her bloodshot eyes peering over his ghostly self. She had done naught but block him every time he tried to approach one of the Keepers through his magic. No matter how he tried to slide past her, she always was suddenly there, interposing herself between him and his goal.

She tilted her head to one side, gazing in amusement at his streaked face. "You don't really think I had planned to tell you?"

Wessex tried to gather the threads of magic into his hands, but she always snatched them away before he could get a firm grip. Whoever she was, the boy knew that she had at her disposal more power than any one human being was ever supposed to. Obviously, she was tapping into a true source, drawing her energy from that. Yet the child wizard knew that if he could discover that source's identity and location, he might just have the key to destroying both her and Zagrosek as well.

"Your friend Zagrosek did, even though he doubted me too." Wessex reached out at an errant strand of the magical thread flowing about them. It was too small to be of import, but at least it would be something. The woman either did not notice, or did not care.

She idly pressed down her robe, as if wiping some bit of dirt away. "Oh, Zag, he's such a trifle boor. Prone to silly melodramatics, and pompous posturing. I'm not surprised even you could get his name."

Wessex wrapped the strand about his arm, feeling the generous flow of energy along its conduit. Racing his thoughts for a moment to its tip, he tied it off to another series of threads, and followed them away before repeating the process. Very quickly, he'd amassed quite a bit of the magical flow in the area around them, though none of them directly near the woman.

"And I will have yours as well," the boy hotly declared as he began to draw the noose closed around the woman. She still did not appear to notice what he'd been doing.

Her eyelids raised curiously. "Oh, not another boorish male! Are you all the same, trying to save the world with bold declarations?" She chuckled then and grabbed one of the threads that Wessex had tied off. "Stop posturing and just do what you came do to. That's why women have always held the true power in this world. You men are too busy looking important to do anything."

Wessex grimaced as he found his noose so expertly restrained, even as he tried to pull it tighter, it only tugged back at him. With a sudden shriek of horror, he found it closing about himself, wrapping tightly around his chest and legs, pinning them together. He held out his arms as long as possible, trying to untangle the weave, but they were inevitably drawn close to his chest.

She gazed uninterested in his direction for a few moments more as he struggled to move, crying out against the tight bonds of the magic. "Aren't you going to cry out, little one? Maybe your mother will hear you and come to your rescue?"

Wessex grimaced, but did not give her the satisfaction of screaming again. It would hardly have mattered if he did, as he was alone in this landscape with her. He watched as Murikeer and the others darted off into the woods, having been warned by one of the dragons. Yet, the woman did not appear to care about them. Was it too late already? No, if that were the case, they would leave as quickly as possible. Either it was about to happen, or Wessex was more of a threat to them than even he realized.

And with a grin, he knew that they could not risk hurting him either. "Why, you are going to free me eventually anyway," he called out to her, smiling as best he could despite the strain.

"Oh?" her eyes grew interested once more.

"Of course, you need me to open that wall, you and Zagrosek both. I know what you are planning, and I will stop it and you."

She laughed then, crossing the space between them to run her hand across his cheek. Her fingers grew tight upon his chin, forcing him to look into her eyes. "No, my child. You know very little of what we plan." She then drew a rune, blue flame sparkling in the air, and stepped back. "I will enjoy the parley though, my boorish little boy."

And with that, she winked at him, and vanished into the streams. Wessex grunted, struggling against his bonds, but each time he tried to flex his arms, the rune she'd traced on his chest flared brightly, causing the bonds to tighten all the more. With a sigh, he floated in the miasma of magic, trapped.

It felt as if they had been running forever, but of course, that was only due to their continuous exertion. Charles was trailing behind Murikeer who leaped through the woods as if they were his own creation, ignoring any possible obstruction, and miraculously never stumbling. Finbar and Llyn, both of whose legs were rather short, had trouble keeping up with either of them, the witchlight trailing far behind the rat in the darkness.

Even Charles, whose own legs were not that large, had a bit of trouble keeping pace with the skunk, despite the fact that conditions were quite mild for them as they ran. The rain doused forest seemed to part before them as they ran, the ground blessedly free of root or boulder. Even the earth itself seemed firm beneath their paws, nothing worse than mere puddles created by the continuing deluge soaking their boots.

Finbar had never been on the trail they were following, the familiar trees seen at angles he had never before glimpsed in relation to any path he had found in the forests south of Metamor. It was totally incongruous with what he knew of these woods. There was little question that this was the skunk's doing, but he could no longer even see the monochromatic pelt of the stranger who had raced far ahead into the night. Llyn was nearby at least and in the short distance the witchlight illuminated, he could see the pink tail of the rat weaving back and forth as he ran. If they were going to make it in time, he knew that Charles and Murikeer would have to forget about them and go on ahead.

And Matthias had just that same idea as he struggled to find pace with the skunk. He knew that he could easily fuel his legs with the Sondeck, but that tended to wear his body out very quickly. If there was any fighting to be done, he would need his Sondeck in order to do it. Whoever was trying to hurt the Patriarch would have a very rude surprise when they arrived, not to mention the dragons!

But, he had no desire to let the skunk outrun him through this wood either. Murikeer's long legs were an advantage, giving him a gait that Matthias could easily have matched when he was a human, but was no beyond his capabilities, at least in his current form. With an almost audible chuckle, Charles knew exactly what he had to do if he wished to reach the Patriarch in time.

Coming to a stop, he leaned down and removed his drenched trousers from his legs and draped them over his shoulder. It would take a few moments, but he could more than make up for them in a few short strides. Closing his eyes, and pushing the rain away, he brought up his self image. With a sudden glint in his eye, he brought the rain back, letting it wash over him, and over his form. It felt so much easier than before, for soon, his body began to meld, expanding and growing another set of legs. Soon, he stood on four paws in the hard earth, feeling as if he'd been born a taur!

Grinning at the power racing through his muscles, Charles galloped swiftly after Llyn and Finbar who'd managed to pass him by. Within moments, he passed them again, their eyes growing in wonder at his huge shape as he rocketed past. In that moment, he felt as if things would be all right now, and that they would save the Patriarch. He wondered if the sudden euphoria was part of the change, but did his best to return his mind to the serious affairs at hand.

It only took him moments as he'd surmised to reach the skunk, nodding his head to Gornul who clutched the back of Muri's pack with his claws. He dug all four of his paws into the earth, pushing himself along as fast as he dared without outpacing the skunk. He had no idea how much longer it would take them to reach the Patriarch's camp, but with a sudden peal of thunder overhead, he wondered if they weren't already too late.

chapter 17

Zagrosek watched the Patriarch's camp from the shadows along the near hillside. They were nestled a good ten metres from both the wood and the road. The horses were arrayed in two neatly arranged paddocks, while everything else was laid out in spirals around the central wagon, which obviously held the Patriarch. Two of his green-liveried bodyguards stood outside, their faces very cold in the rain. Some of the soldiers were asleep in tents, while the rest kept their backs to the struggling fire. Two of the other bodyguards were slowly circling the camp, as were two of the knights.

He had to nod in approval at the pattern, it would not be easy to penetrate. Running his fingers along his chin, he considered each for a moment before reaching a decision. Darting from the shadows, he quickly sidestepped to the forest itself, dancing through the woods, and stepping on a few leaves. He had no doubt that they had caught at least a small glimpse of him in that moment. But of course, that was exactly what he wished anyway.

Kashin ran a hand through his slick hair, pushing it back from his face. The rain was making their first night away from the Keep miserable, but it was hardly something they had not lived through before on the journey up. It had been an uneventful journey so far, aside from what he'd seen in the carriage between Akabaieth and Vinsah. It was his hope that it would remain so.

Yet, his eyes did catch a glint of something moving amidst the hills and towards the forest. He reached his left hand out and gently shook Iosef. "Did you see that?" He nodded towards the shadows in the distance.

"It is raining, thundering, and I have water dripping in my eyes," Iosef declared sourly. "But I did see it. What do you suppose it could be?" His voice was soft, muffled so that only they could hear each other over the rain.

"Possibly an animal, and in fact it probably was. But it makes me uneasy, and I wish to be sure."

Iosef nodded then, glancing back at the camp they were slowly circling. "If you will hold your curiosity for a moment, I will warn the others of the potential danger."

Kashin waved one hand in understanding, his gaze tracing over the shady contours of the trees in the distance. It was not as if something like this had not happened before either. Once on their trip northward, they had found small gang of robbers hiding in the woods who thought they could sneak past them. Yet, there was a dry scraping in his heart that told him this time would be different. He could not place it, as he'd never had anything to compare it with, but because of it, his fright was palpable.

It only took Iosef a few moments to pass on instructions to the others. The younger man crossed his arms as he stare into those woods as well, his finger tracing over the white cross. "Alfais and Lakaesh know what we intend. I told them we would be gone only a few minutes at best. Also, I've ordered the knights to double their watch for now, so we'll always have a pair of eyes on every side of the camp."

"Excellent," Kashin intoned softly. It was exactly the thing that he would have done if he'd been Iosef. The Yeshuel always seemed to know just what was best for each other and for their charge. "Be careful, we do not know who could be in there. How is your night vision?"

Iosef grinned slightly at the suggested weakness. "As good as yours at least."

Kashin brushed back his hair once again, smiling warmly to his friend then. "I thought as much. Let us see what we shall see then." He slowly walked over the muddy earth, his shoes lightly pulling out with nary a sound. The forest near them had taken on a bizarre cast, one more suited to nightly haunts then a pleasant roadside stop. Lightning reflected off the bark, shining into the depths, flashing a bit of movement as well within them.

Both the Yeshuel took a deep breath, and then moved beneath those boughs, the rain splattering across their shoulders as it dripped from the leafless branches. The hill sloped down to a small ditch just past the second set of trees, and soon they were out of sight of the camp. Kashin grimaced, motioning for Iosef to back up and into the light of the fire. For very suddenly, he felt distinctly uncomfortable.

As he peered back up the ditch, he saw a third figure waiting for him, arms crossed over his thick garments. Both Iosef and Kashin blinked in shock as the black-haired man gazed down at them, his expression completely unreadable. The two Yeshuel immediately examined his heart, trying to know if he was a danger or not. Yet, there was nothing there that they could feel, aside form something that was rather familiar to Kashin.

"You are a Sondeckis," he said softly. It was the same sort of churning inner machine that had lived inside of Charles's heart. "What do you want here?"

The man smiled blandly, uncrossing his arms, the shadows filling his palms. "To kill the Patriarch," he said suddenly, as if he were describing the weather. Both Iosef and Kashin lunged forward to stop him, their whole bodies reacting on instinct. Yet Zagrosek threw out both of his hands in a downward V.

Kashin was not prepared for the Longfugos technique to be used so suddenly like that, and so dived to the side to avoid its blow. Iosef barrelled straight into the force, intent on disrupting it. Yet, what left the Sondecki's hands was not just air, but a tangible black mass that seared through the air, the rain hissing as it struck it from above, the wood of trees flaring in brief flames where the darkness touched them.

With a cry, Kashin saw it drive right through Iosef's body, slicing him neatly in two. And then, a lancing pain struck through his left arm just above the elbow, as that black vapour drove through his upper arm with a hissing shriek, cleanly removing it in an instant.

The Yeshuel tumbled to the ground, rolling back into the ditch, the cry dying on his lips even before he gave it, as the flood of pain through his severed stump brought the door of consciousness slamming shut.

Stalking through the trees, the first two of the four Yeshuel neatly dispatched, and without raising any alarm as well, Zagrosek tried to work his way around to the back of the camp. A pair of mounted knights were riding their horses through the mud. They were not wearing their plate armour, only a vest of oiled ring mail, so they had the full range of vision. It would not be easy to slip past them.

Yet, he waited and watched, knowing from unseen signals that he did not have much time left. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes at the most. Reaching into the shadows, he drew their substance into himself, cloaking himself with it. The world of Shadows was a dark world, but one that he could move through with some effort. Pushing himself partially within them, he stepped out from the trees, crouching low, his hands pawing at the ground as he skulked past the knights, who happened to be watching ahead of them as it were anyway.

Leaning against one tent, he gently loosened the stake on one end. Depositing the iron in the wet grass, he slipped back into the shadows again as another pair of knights passed by the tents, gazing this way and that. With a grin, Zagrosek recognized the pair as the ones he'd seen out in the woods a couple of days ago. He resisted the temptation to shake some leaves in the distant woods, and returned his focus to the tent flap.

Pulling up a second stake, he finally had enough room to slip beneath the tight fabric. It was a small enclosure, one that contained six sleeping forms. From the boots and coats of mail nestled together at their feet, he knew them to be some of the Patriarch's soldiers. Reaching out towards the nearest one, he placed his hands firmly at both sides of the man's head, and with a quick twist, snapped his neck. The young man had never had a chance to even realize he'd been killed.

The second one started slightly as Zagrosek touched his temples, but the blurriness had lasted only a moment before he too lay limply next to his comrade. In like fashion, Krenek dispatched the next three. Always his ears listened to the sounds outside, trying to pick out the voices in the camp about him. From the hushed conversations and shadows moving about, he could tell that the two Yeshuel he'd left in pieces in the ditch were already being missed. Grimacing, he realized that his task would become much harder in short order.

Slipping over to the sixth and last soldier within the tent, he accidentally stumbled, his foot catching on a bit of grass. The man started, rising from his covers, and turning to see the malformed bodies of his comrades, and the grasping hands of Zagrosek intent on silencing him. He managed a startled cry before he too lay dead on the grass.

Krenek cursed himself beneath his breath as several shadows approached the tent. Drawing out the Sathmoran blade he'd brought with him, he clutched it tightly in one hand, the ornamental dagger in the other. He knew the man who poked his head and chest in the tent was one of the knights from the swagger of his legs. The man did not have time to cry out though as Zagrosek plunged the sword into his belly, grabbing his shoulder and dragging him inside the tent.

Of course, with that killing, the entire camp would know of his presence. He darted back to the hole he'd made in the back of the tent, slipping out once more into the rain. He drew the Sondeck into his arms, knowing that he'd need every last bit of it he could muster if he were to survive this battle. However, no matter what the outcome, he knew he would enjoy it.

Vinsah knew it to be a dream from the very first moment. He was standing just inside his tent, peering out at a dark overcast night. Only a short distance away loomed the gates of Metamor Keep. They bore a remarkable resemblance with the physical constructions he had passed beneath twice so far, and a vividness of detail that he did not normally associate with his dreams. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, he was able to spot nicks, rotting wood, and discolourations all over their surface. It gave the whole plain about him an eerie feel, one that he could not dispel.

The gates were open, invitingly. Through them and past the arch into Metamor Keep, the sky appeared to be completely clear. It reminded him of his self-created visions of heaven that he so liked to day dream about while preparing for Service. The black haired lady stood waiting beyond those gates, her arms outstretched, a gentle smile on her lips. He knew her, and shuddered, despite a sudden warming of his heart.

"Elvmere, I need you to listen carefully if you are ever to come back to me."

At the sound of that foreign name upon her dulcet lips, his hands reached up to his face. They found a shred of cloth over his eyes. He cried out in horror, ripping at it, but it would not move, remaining firmly in place. "Stop calling me that!" he cried out as he tugged at the resilient mask. "I want nothing to do with you and your stupid mask!"

"You will do as I say this time, you need to," her voice cajoled sternly, even as a third figure stepped between them, obscuring the light. Vinsah looked at the man, dressed tightly in his black robes, that strange symbol upon his chest. His hands were held before him, drenched in blood.

Vinsah stumbled backwards, the mask forgotten as he faced this nightmare. "No, please!" he cried out, raising his hands before him to ward off the blow he knew in his heart was coming.

Yet the woman's voice was strong in his ears. "Elvmere, use your dinner plate. Put it beneath your robes!"

Vinsah blinked in confusion at the advice, even as the world began to fade away. He slunk back into the tent, cringing all the more, trying to hold onto those heavenly sounds. For some reason, he did his best only to hear her voice, as it touched something deep inside of him. Something that he did not know was there at all. Closing his eyes shut, he pushed all of it away except for her.

When he opened his eyes again, he was sitting in his cot, the rain splattering on the tent roof to slide down into the grasses around them. Vinsah lay back down, sighing hopefully, the sound of the rain drowning that of the voices outside. Even so, as he watched the silhouettes reflected from the fire, he could tell that something was going on.

Grimacing, Vinsah reached down beneath his cot, and pulled out the dinner plate that he had used that evening. He chided himself on how ridiculous this was as he slipped it under his robes, directly over his chest. The cold metal made him shiver violently for a moment as he lay there beneath the thick covers. Closing his eyes, he wondered why he would listen to that woman, trying to identify what it had been inside of himself that she had touched.

No longer did he question her reality as such, though he still did doubt whether she meant him any good. Still, there could be little harm in following this request, despite how uncomfortable it made him. What still unnerved him though was the use of that strange name, the one that did not belong to him.

However, his thoughts were interrupted when a dark figure slipped beneath the flap of the tent. Vinsah peered to see who it could be, very curious now, since it did not appear to be any of the soldiers or other servants. Had one of his fellow priests slipped off in the night and just now come back to rest?

However, the sound of two others stirring in their beds proved that notion incorrect. It was when the man stood up straight that he began to see some features. Not many of course, but enough to cause him to scream out in horror. The man's hands were dripping with blood, as he held both sword and a dagger. His face was dark, the eyes malicious, and the black hair drenched with rain. It was the man from his dream come to kill him.

Setting one of the weapons aside, the figure threw his palm towards Vinsah. The Bishop felt a sudden impact strike his chest, crushing the dinner plate into his ribs. Sudden searing agony exploded through his chest, silencing his horrified scream. He gurgled from the pain as he was thrown back onto the cot. He could just watch as the figure quickly did the same thing to his fellow priests, caving in their chests completely before he faded out of consciousness.

Leaving the tent of the priests, Zagrosek knew that he would finally be unable to skulk about in the shadows. Before him were several charging horses, as well as the six remaining soldiers, while the two Yeshuel remaining approached quietly, obviously intent on taking him by surprise.

Gazing malevolently at the first of the two knights, he stood ready, gripping the sword in one hand and the dagger in the other. They were a pair, the darkness making it hard to see the colour of the horse's fur, or the identities of his attackers. The nearest held a mace in one hand, and was swinging it as he charged, intent on using the force he could generate with such momentum to knock Zagrosek completely out. Yet Krenek was a man used to force, and knew how to apply it himself.

Ducking low just moments before the charger reached him, he ran the tip of his blade against the legs of the horse, putting his Sondeck into the blow. The blade itself snapped in half at the impact, though the horse did collapse, flinging the rider overhead as its front legs buckled into pieces. The knight slammed into ground head first, the armour twisting his body in the mud, a loud crack sounding as his spine tore in two. The man's beast slammed to the ground, hurling itself haunches over head, silencing the knight's howl of agony as it rolled upon him. Its piteous shriek of pained terror ripped into the night, briefly louder than the thunder of the storm itself. The sound ended in a bloody gurgle as Zagrosek made a short, swift turn, the blade of his dagger opening its throat, spilling black blood across the churned mud.

And then, in one smooth motion, Zagrosek turned on the other approaching knight, and slipped the blade of his dagger up through the cracks in his armour, delving deep into his belly. The man dropped his sword uselessly to the ground as blood gurgled up from his throat and spilling over his coat of mail. Krenek removed the dagger, and with a second plunge, drove it into the belly of the horse as it charged past, slicing clean its abdomen. The beast cried out in horror as it collapsed on the ground, organs spilling out through the gap, the blood soaking into the earth as the rain fell.

Of course, the other five living knights wanted their turn as well as they charged in at him, certain that at least one of them could get through this quick man's defences and strike him dead. The six soldiers moved in closer to follow after them, eager to help, but knowing that it was best to let the men on horseback strike first. Zagrosek let them come closer, tucking the dagger beneath his arm as with one hand, he threw the shadows towards the closest, slicing both rider and horse in half. Leather and flesh flared with brief flames, the brass fittings glowing a livid red as the two halves crumpled to the ground, wounds instantly cauterized.

Yet, the other knights advanced without delay, bearing down on him from every direction. Zagrosek sucked in his breath, throwing a punch at one horse, and then ducking and rolling out of the way of another. The tip of one sword sliced through the robes of his shoulders, and he could feel a brief slash of pain as it sliced his flesh, a trickle of blood flowing free. Growling in fury, he threw out his force at the last two, knocking them both backwards. One of the horses toppled sideways, kicking its hooves in the air as it rolled over its rider's legs.

Grinning at the sight, he turned and found the last three knights still standing, one of them knocked from his horse, but still walking, while the other two tried to swing from both sides at his back. With a single punch, he sent the riderless knight sprawling against the priests' tent. Then, Zagrosek stepped to the side, and with his free hand, grabbed the one rider's arm, and jerked it hard. The knight screamed in pain as his shoulder was dislocated, but that scream turned to one of misery as the end of his blade sunk itself a foot into the chest of his comrade. Another punch sent the man from his horse and into the mud, crawling away, one hand over his ruined shoulder.

Zagrosek grunted in sudden excruciating pain as something slammed full into his back. He fell face first into the mud, the knife pinned beneath him. Rolling over, the brown muck staining his black cloak, he glared at the sight of the two green liveried men standing over him, feet drawn back to kick. Krenek rolled forward then, accepting the blows of their feet with only another loud grunt. One of them had cracked a rib, but it was not as if that had never happened before.

The first, the shorter of the two leaned down to grab at his legs, twisting them both as if he intended to tie them in a knot. The second bent over to grab at his arms to pin them down. Zagrosek however, was a second faster, thrusting the knife blade forward, meeting the centre of the cross imprinted there. Jets of crimson blood streamed forth as he drew the dagger back, the heart itself pierced and overflowing through the cross.

The last surviving Yeshuel cried in horror as he bent Zagrosek's legs in a direction they were never meant to go. Krenek screamed from the sudden pain that coursed through his body, before he managed to lean forward, supporting his weight completely on the Yeshuel. The Sathmoran blade struck home, even as the man tried to block the blow that he knew was coming a moment too late. Falling to the ground, Zagrosek kicked at the loose head, sending it tumbling beneath the feet of one of the screaming horses that were running lose.

Turning his gaze behind him, he saw the six remaining soldiers charging. He had to give them credit for their bravery, despite how foolish it had been. His leg ached as he spread them apart, and his chest groaned, the water dripping from his forehead sweat as well as rain. He had used quite a bit of his advantages against those Yeshuel, there was very little left that he had in him. Drawing his palms together, he dropped the knife to the ground, and balled as much of his own innate Sondeck within them. With a cry of rage, he unleashed the power, cascading it over the soldiers, sending them each sprawling to the ground.

He did not have much time now, a small voice warned him. Grimacing, he limped over towards the prone soldiers, burying his knife in their chests while they struggled to catch their breath. The last one of them had actually managed to rise to his knees, and a look of terror crossed his eyes. "Please, no!" he'd managed to say, his words dying in a hiss as Zagrosek pushed him off the end of his blade.

Turning back, he saw the sole knight still standing, holding his arm and dislocated shoulder while trying to stand between the Patriarch's tent and the Sondeckis. Zagrosek laughed, tossing back his hair, and pulling his robe tightly about himself. The man cringed, drawing and holding his sword aloft in his weak arm, barely keeping the tip level as he cringed. "Damn you to Hell! I will not let you have the Patriarch. You will not have him," he cried out in horror as the enemy who'd massacred them rest of his comrades came within striking distance.

Without word, Zagrosek slapped the blade away, and wrapped his left hand about the man's throat before the knights gleaming sword had a chance to dart in for a lethal blow. The voice in his mind told him that he did not have any time to fool around, and so, reluctantly, he simply crushed the man's larynx. He left the gasping, dying figure before the carriage, and slipped inside, the knife gripped firmly in his right hand.

Yet the Patriarch was not there. The bed was empty, the sheets upturned. Scanning about in sudden fright, he examined each wall and every crevice. There were not many, as the carriage was rather small, just large enough for Akabaieth to sleep in at night and keep warm. The drapes were al unfastened on each side as well, the cloth flapping against the sills, water spilling in and wetting the quilts.

Zagrosek beat his fist against the door, afraid that he had lost his quarry. That had been why those other two Yeshuel had taken their time before fighting with him. They'd been making sure that the Patriarch could slip away while they covered his escape. Those two Yeshuel had probably expected it would take longer for Zagrosek to kill them, so his Eminence could have run far. Especially not at his age.

Stepping outside, he glanced around the woods, trying to find the man. Grimacing, he could see nothing but the darkness all about him, the rain obscuring most everything outside the clearing. Growling in fury, he reached out to the voice in his mind. "Agathe, stop playing with Wessex and get over here, I need you now."

"Is it finished?" the voice asked, amused at the harshness of the request.

Zagrosek could barely contain his seething rage. "No, damn it! The Yeshuel helped the Patriarch escape. He is nearby, I need to you to show me where."

Agathe immediately materialized out of the shadows next to him, stepping from her playtime. She glared hotly in his direction. "If you hadn't insisted on playing with them first, you probably could have killed him without any of them noticing!"

Zagrosek snarled. "That defeats our purpose here. It has to be a slaughter, now will you hurry up and find the Patriarch! Those Keepers will be here shortly."

The woman with the bloodshot eyes glided over to the carriage, and began to trace her finger over its surface, a blue nimbus appearing in its wake. Suddenly, it flared, and a bright blue line began to trail from one of the windows of the carriage, heading down the near hillside towards a grove to the west on the other side of the road.

Zagrosek flashed her a grin then, and charged after that blue trail, while Agathe simply crossed her arms and shook her head in annoyance. He ran down the hillside in long strides, his boots splashing mud in every direction. Within moments, just on the other side of the road, he saw the Patriarch's fleeing form, only metres from the tree line. The knife firmly clutched in his hand, he crossed the span in a scant few seconds, his hand gripping the Patriarch's shoulder tightly, and drawing him back.

Akabaieth's face was settled, calm. In his hands he gripped a small piece of hemp rope tied tightly into a knot of some kind. Zagrosek peered over his form for a moment and then held the knife tentatively in his hands. The Patriarch's eyes glowered slightly. "You intend to kill me? You, a Sondeckis? Why?"

Krenek pursed his lips thoughtfully, the blade poised and ready to strike. "You are a good man, Apadares of Whales. In other circumstances, I would have killed myself before entertaining the thought of ending your life. But you have put yourself in the way of our plans."

The Patriarch breathed heavily, struggling as best he could, which was not very well at all against the man's grip. "How can evil know that which is good? You intend to kill me, you abdicate any notion of understanding what is right. Your cause is void, and you shall fall with it. The people's hearts cry out for peace, and no man or cause can stop that."

"You speak rather harshly for a man about to die," Zagrosek mused softly, running his fingers over the hilt of his dagger. Agathe's voice in his head was most impatient. He could hear some contempt about his sex laden in with it too.

"I will not beg from a dog," Akabaieth declared, though there was no trace of any malice in his voice, only contempt.

"Then what do you hope to accomplish by these endless provocations?" Zagrosek demanded, pressing the blade tip against the man's frail chest. If it were possible, it appeared as if the Pontiff was clutching the bit of rope tighter in his hands.

He licked his lips, leaning backwards slightly, gazing past Zagrosek's shoulder to the encampment on the other side of the hill. "I know I will die, and I know that you will kill me. Your blade is Sathmoran, yet you are Sondeckis. I had always thought your clan nobler than this. It is a pity to be proven wrong now."

Zagrosek shook him once more. "Last time, your Eminence"

The Patriarch let out a sad laugh then. "I have lived a long life, and I have earned death many times over throughout it. I find it strangely relieving to know that in a moment I will be dead, and joining my Abba. You are a bit slow if you do not realize what I am doing. Delay, young fool. Any delay brings them closer to stopping you."

Zagrosek blinked in surprise, and then in anger. Growling, he plunged the knife full into the man's chest, the frail bones of his ribs cracking like brittle twigs under the force of that thrust. Akabaieth cried out at the sudden pain, clawing futilely at Zagrosek's wrist. The light faded from his ancient eyes as he went limp in the Sondecki's arms. The bit of rope dropped from his hands to land in the mud beside him. Zagrosek dropped the body then, eyes blazing with fire at being so easily manipulated by his quarry. The Sathmoran blade was pressed into the Patriarch's chest up to the hilt, and he left it there for the Keepers to find.

Agathe was idly tapping her foot as she waited by the carriage for his return. He ran back, not wanting to spare another moment. She scowled at him, "Men! You have to do everything the hard way!" He ignored the flippant remark and scoured the bodies strewn out over the camp. She came up beside him, her voice snarling, "What are you doing now?"

"A last minute check. It was rather intense, I don't know if I killed them all. Do you see any alive?"

She pointed with a finger towards one knight who lay slumped beside the priests' tent. Zagrosek moved over, standing over the figure, intending to crush his chest with his foot, when he noticed the face. A smile crossed his lips as he considered for a moment. "Well, what are you waiting for?" Agathe demanded.

Zagrosek pointed at him, his smile soft. "This was one of the ones we saw from the forest. He's the one with that very peculiar image about the Duke in his mind. Do you think that you could fixate him on that image? Just as a little something extra to leave the Keepers?"

Agathe scowled still. "We'd have to take him with us now. There is no time left. The Keepers will be here in a few minutes."

Zagrosek bent over, his chest aching, as did his leg. He reached down and grabbed the man's arms, hoisting him up on his shoulder. He pulled a bit of the armour off to make him lighter, but with his Sondeck, it was not a heavy burden at all. Grinning, he then peered over at the shadows in the hills. "Shall we be off then?"

Agathe laughed slightly then as she followed after him, her annoyance turning to amusement as they stalked into the shadows. The dark coalescing mass covered them, absorbing them into the featureless realm, where they could watch without fear of discovery. Climbing over the hill tops, they moved to a rather remote location, far from spirits and other interferences. There, Zagrosek set the knight down upon what appeared at times to be a stone floor, other times one made from wood, and others, just simply a pile of sand.

Then, he looked to Agathe, whose insidious grin turned sultry, as she began to open her robe. Zagrosek burned then, watching as the purple cloth fell aside, revealing that she wore nothing at all underneath. Her smooth skin, imperfection worn away by her own hand, tight curves framing every component of her body.

The Sondeckis disrobed, revealing that he was similarly attired. He reached out a thick hairy arm towards her, his breath hot with the victory they had achieved together. Her sexist remarks aside, Agathe took his hand in her own, and then leaped into his chest, wrapping her legs about his middle, pressing her hips into his waist and at what lay there. She pressed her fingers into the rib, drawing a small rune upon it, mending the break for the moment, though it did cause her suitor a bit of discomfort.

Zagrosek, though, only grinned wider as he pressed his lips to her own, his tongue diving within her throat as he pressed her back against the ever changing floor. The knight never awoke through any of it, only remaining comatose as the two wizards consummated their victory with animalistic shrieks and passions.

With a lurch, Kashin rose from the ground, the cold of the rain soaking through his clothes. It could only have been minutes since they'd faced the Sondeckis, but aside form the rain and thunder, the world about him was completely quiet. He tried to prop himself up on his arms, but he tumbled to the side as he did so, crying out as his left arm felt the ground in a way that he'd never experienced before, the world dimming around him briefly as he battled to remain conscious.

Pushing up with his right hand, he gazed at the stump of his left arm, the wound cauterized completely, only a scabby flesh to cover the severed muscle and bone. He touched at it experimentally, hardly believing what he was seeing. It sent a searing pain back to his mind, and he flinched away from it. How in the world had that man done such a thing? That black power had come from nowhere, as if it had not existed at all.

Glancing over and down along the ditch, he saw part of Iosef's face staring up at him from a pile of leaves. Grimacing, he walked over to help the man up, but much to his horror, only found half of him there. He scuttled back in shock, blinking at what he saw. Iosef had been completely cut in half, the rest of his body just missing. As he stared at it, he looked about for his own arm, but saw nothing but the wet leaves and the broken branches form where they'd tumbled.

Kicking himself for the sudden horror, he ran up the hill, using his right arm to help him climb, though slipping when he tried to reach out with his nonexistent left. It did not take him long at all to get within view of the camp. The rain had mostly doused the fire, only the last remnants licking defiantly at the air. Yet, even by that feeble light, he could the bodies of men and horses strewn everywhere, the grim scene lit by flickering strobes of lightening.

Gasping in horror, he ran towards the Patriarch's carriage, saying prayers over and over in his mind. Yet taking care not to touch any of his fallen comrades, he saw that it was empty. Scanning about the bodies, he found Alfais and Lakaesh in front of the priests' tent, the latter without a head. He screamed in rage as he scanned each body, hoping he would not see his master among them.

He saw a slight movement to one side, and spinning on his heels, Kashin had lifted a sword in his good hand instantly. Yet there was nothing but more bodies before him. Except for one of the knights, who was moaning and reaching his arm weakly to his forehead. Kashin breathed a sigh of relief and ran over to the figure, dropping the sword at his side.

It only took him a moment to examine the twisted remnants of the man's legs to realize what had happened. Yet he had miraculously survived, or at least, had not yet died. "Egland," he called out, leaning in closer, with one hand removing the knight's buckles to ease him from his armour. "Sir Egland, can you hear me?"

He nodded softly, his voice a dry rasp in his throat, "What happened?"

"I don't know. Where is the Patriarch?"

"In... his carriage," Egland replied even as he coughed up some blood.

Kashin put his hand to the man's cheek. His skin was still warm, which was a good sign. He might live after all, if he could be brought to Healer quickly. "I already checked there, he was not in it."

Yacoub Egland shook his head sadly then, tears streaming down his eyes. "Then I don't know."

The Yeshuel patted the knight on the shoulder with his only hand and then stood. "I will be back for you. I need to find the Patriarch." Egland nodded as he lay there, breathing slowly in his armour, but steadily.

Kashin looked over the rest of the bodies then, checking to see if any of them were still alive, but most were already going cold by the time he reached them. Grimacing in horror, his stomach barely kept in check, he peered into the priests' tent, but saw all three of them sprawled on their cots. Sighing, he entered anyway, to be sure. The two younger priests were very cold, but there was still blood pumping through Vinsah's veins.

Pulling back the covers, Kashin gently lifted the front of Vinsah's robes, and found a dented dinner plate over his chest. Lifting that slowly, he heard the man groan in sudden pain. Looking up, the dark eyes of the Bishop found his own. "It's all right, Vinsah, you are alive. I shall get you to somebody who can tend to your wounds."

Vinsah breathed noisily. Obviously, several of his ribs must be broken. "No one for leagues," he whispered barely from the great strain. "No one except-" his eyes began to roll back into his head, the whites clearly showing.

"No one but who?" Kashin barked loudly, pulling his head back up before he could pass out again.

The priest shuddered once more, blinking at the pain in his chest. "No one but, Metamor," he said in a tone that Kashin could not place, before his eyes rolled back again. This time, the Yeshuel did not pursue any further elaboration. Standing, he came out of the tent, and glanced about the field. A sudden flare of lightning illuminated the nearby hills, and made something flash in the distance.

Gritting his teeth together, Kashin ran as fast as he could towards the sight, crossing over the road and down the hill, until he saw that it was a gem reflecting the light. Slowing down, he could feel his heart beat loudly in his chest, his mouth beginning to hang agape. Suddenly he felt his heart seize in his chest, a low, keening moan escaping his throat as his eyes fell upon a scene from the very pits of a hellish nightmare. Falling to his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, he crouched by the twisted body of the Patriarch, the gleaming hilt of a jeweled blade sticking out of his chest.

"I failed you, Abba!" he declared, reaching with his one hand to the collar of his shirt. His sobs racking louder than the rain, he began to tear the fabric away, revealing bare skin beneath. With a care and precision that his large hands appeared incapable of, he deftly managed to remove the white cross from his green tunic, and leave it completely intact. Then, he gently draped that cross over Akabaieth's chest, letting it rest there as he stared.

"I've failed you, my Abba. I am no longer worthy to serve you or your Ecclesia." His words were soft, thick with melancholy and shame. He beat his fist into the earth as he sobbed loudly, the rain drenching his chest, soaking what hair was there.

Yet, the memory of the two still left alive at the camp returned to him, and he reached underneath the Patriarch's body, awkwardly hoisting it onto his shoulder. It was such a tiny frame, and so light, as if everything important had already left. He closed his hand around the bit of rope that had lain nearby in the mud, grasping it in his large hand as he rose. He then turned back around and ran to the camp.

He gently laid Akabaieth's body in one of the covered provisional wagons. He put the bags of grain along side the body, to keep it steady. Running over to the tent, he reached in and gently pulled Vinsah out as well, the dinner plate clattering to the wt grass, a twisted testament to some strange foresight that the Bishop appeared to have. He then deposited him next to the Patriarch, and returned for the knight.

Once all three of them were secured in the wagon, he scanned about to see if any of the horses were left, but they had apparently scattered. Grimacing, he grabbed the ropes between his fingers, and took a deep breath. Surely there were Keepers nearby who would be headed down the road who could help. But, if he waited for them, then the knight and Vinsah might both die. As it was, he knew in his heart he was condemning them both to a different life, but he knew that it was the only way. If Vinsah himself would suggest it, then how could he refuse?

Yet, as he watched, a slice of deeper shadow seemed to appear in the forest nearby, gray shadows moving within the darkness. He looked about, grabbing a nearby sword, and stood his ground, watching that mysterious portal in the tree line form. But to his surprise that strange man did not emerge, but instead two Keepers, both of whom he instantly recognized.

The skunk made a few gestures and said a word or two, and suddenly lights blossomed around the camp, casting them in brilliant illumination. The other figure jumped at the sudden light, rearing on his hind set of paws. It was Charles and Murikeer, the former wearing that taur shape he'd once shown Kashin by accident.

They both turned to see Kashin standing with a sword in one arm, the other completely missing. And then their eyes scanned the massacre, the blood, and the torn bodies that were left. Charles started shaking, before he leaned his torso over his arm and began to heave his last meal free. The skunk simply stood aghast, his paws held out helplessly, jaw dropping open at the carnage as he slowly fell to his knees and dropped his head in defeat.

Kashin dropped the sword to the ground, turning back to the carriage. "I need help with this. Two of them are still alive."

"Who did this?" Murikeer demanded, his voice seething with a raw rage that was more animal than man.

"I don't know, at least not yet. I need to get these two back to Metamor as soon as possible. They will die without the aid of magic. Can you help me? Charles, you are a taur, do you think you could pull this wagon?"

Mathias peered at him in a bit of shock but nodded, approaching quickly, wiping something unpleasant from his muzzle. "Certainly, I will do what I can. I cannot promise much though."

Murikeer waved his arms about and shook his head. "No, I have a better idea." He peered over his shoulder and for the first time, Kashin noticed the small blue dragon perched there. "Here, are the dragons overhead?"

The dragonnette nodded slowly, trying not to look at the bodies strewn about the field. Murikeer then began to recite an incantation, holding his paws tightly together, and gazing up into the storm clouds, his eyes unblinking despite the rain spattering his angular muzzle. A few moments later several dragons burst through the clouds, of all variety of colours. The creatures suddenly surged to a halt, backwinging powerfully as the devastation on the ground was revealed to them. Two of the huge creatures let out horrified shrieks and rumbled over the crash of thunder, bright eyes blazing in anger. Kashin stared in shock as the four great serpentine beasts folded their wings and plummeted to the ground, throwing their great pinions out only to break their stooping dives, and finally descended onto the field.

Murikeer gazed at the largest of the dragons. "Do you think that you could carry that wagon back to the Keep? And keep it from jostling around? There are two wounded men inside and this is their only chance to survive."

The dragon glared down at the skunk, nostrils flaring as the scent of death was borne past his senses. His great eyes glowed with a fierce yellow light, fury stirring within those great orbs framed about by the pale green sheen of his scales. "It will not be difficult." His voice was deep, almost like the organ in the Cathedral at Yesulam, made heavy by the crushing weight of his anger and sorrow. "You might want somebody to sit inside to keep watch over the injured while I fly."

Kashin immediately stood up, holding his right hand to his bare chest. "I will do it."

Charles nodded as well, running his paws over his frame. "I will as well. Somebody will need to talk to Duke Thomas immediately when we return. It might as well be me."

Murikeer nodded, glancing back towards the forest, as another witchlight approached. A few moments later, Finbar and Llyn emerged from the woods, panting heavily, and gazing at the collection of dragons. Their eyes then fell on the assorted bodies littering the field, and they both recoiled in horror. Llyn pressed her paws against her muzzle and kept shaking her head as she softly moaned, "Oh no, please Abba don't let it be true!"

The skunk flicked his tail about in agitation as he scanned the scene. He intended to call forth every last spirit he could find to know just what had happened here, and who was responsible for it. He then peered back at Matthias, who was standing uncertainly on four paws. He blinked, noticing the strange shape that his friend wore for the very first time. He would have to inquire after it later though, as right now he had other affairs to attend to.

His gaze met the horrified stare of the mink, the words written within causing her to stagger back as if stricken and bury her muzzle in her hands, falling to her knees in the bloodstained mud. He placed one hand consolingly on her shoulder as the muscles of his jaw bunched, his gaze returning to the field of death.

The dragon who had agreed to carry them approached the wagon, gently poking his snout beneath the cloth that kept it dry. Kashin slipped in the other end, and rest one arm across Vinsah's legs, and laid the stump of his left on Egland's chest. Matthias peered in and then realized that there would not be nearly enough room for him in there as he was.

"Hold on a moment, let me change back," he advised the dragon, closing his eyes and drawing up his self image.

However, Kashin barked, " We don't have the time! Please get us into the air now." He asked, his voice weary and laden with unchecked sobs.

The dragon stood over them both, Charles suddenly dwarfed and cast into shadow by the great reptile's size. And then he found the dragon's talons clutching him about his lower torso, and with a pump of the wings, drawing him up into the air. He cried out, as his pants flitted from his shoulders down onto the field, leaving him with nothing to cover himself with when he returned.

Charles however did not truly care at that point, for Kashin was right, there was little time to argue over such matters. Instead, he glanced to his side through the rain as the dragon held in his front hands the wagon, while he was clutched once more between the Keeper's toes. He griped the thick leg with both of his arms, his long tail dangling in the rain-pocked wind behind him. Almost the entire length of the road to Metamor, he could see lights streaming southward -- all of them too late.

Too late.

Whimpering, he bit back his tears, the rain providing more than enough for all of them.

chapter 18

Expending the last dregs of his power, Wessex finally managed to untie the bonds that held him fast. He floated there for a moment in the chaos of his vista. Glancing south, he could see the lines of magic contorting rapidly, and much death. Shaking with sudden apprehension, he flitted in that direction, zooming through the trees and intervening hills as if they were nothing.

And then the boy mage was upon the scene. Murikeer's group had just arrived, and the skunk was already beginning to cast his own incantations. Wessex's immediate thought was to assist him in the casting, but his body was too weak from what that woman had done to him. Gazing into the wagon though, he saw all that he needed to see.

He screamed out in protest, as if his cries would change reality. But the corpse remained where it was, the knife imbedded deep within his chest. Turning about, he surged towards the Keep, intent on reclaiming his body in case that woman had laid any more fatal traps for him. As he approached the towers of the Keep, he saw that Thomas was still passing with his chambers, hooves clopping across the hard tile floor.

Looking back to the south, he saw the dragon carrying the Patriarch's body growing larger. Travelling as Wessex had distorted time in a strange way, that magicians were still trying to explain. But as it was so dangerous to do - many who attempted such travel never were able to return to their bodies - there were no definitive answers available to the boy.

Yet, he walked back into the room, and saw that his body lay there, still and quiet. He reached out and pressed his incorporeal hand against the stripe of paste across his forehead, retying himself to his mortal flesh. With a gasp, the world spun about him, and he was staring once more at the ceiling, with a ring of soldiers bearing swords and spears around him, frightened looks on their faces.

"It is all right, I am still myself, "Wessex said as he wave them back. They stepped back cautiously, but did not lower their weapons.

Thomas though nearly barged through their ranks in his exuberance. "Wessex! You've returned! What did you see? Were you able to stop him?"

Wessex sighed and shook his head. "He had help, and was able to stop me. They killed the Patriarch, they killed that good man."

Both Phil and Thomas sighed visibly, their bodies slumping where they stood. "Somebody better summon Raven. She will want to know who did it. I think it is time we spoke a bit more openly about our fears. We've kept secrets from each other that should not be secrets." Phil scuffled his feet as he spoke, obviously ashamed of his own part in this.

Wessex looked downcast as well, sighing heavily. "We knew that Zagrosek was doing something, or at least, was in the area the day the Patriarch arrived."

Thomas was visibly shocked. "What? Why didn't you tell me?"

Phil scuffled his claws against the stone. "Wessex asked me to keep the secret until he was sure just whether Zagrosek was really there, and whether he intended him any harm. He's never shown any interest in anybody but Wessex here ever since Loriod's death. We simply did not realize that his target could be Akabaieth."

The horse lord continued to pace, glaring at each of them, though thoughtfully. "What other secrets have you kept from me?"

"Only about the nature of my dreams at night. Zagrosek has been in them, as well as Matthias."

"Matthias?" Thomas asked, surprised.

"Yes, your so called rat of might. Apparently, they are both of the same clan, and were once the best of friends. I believe that Charles is allowing himself to be used by Zagrosek, who is a much changed man. I do not believe that I can trust Matthias at all with this information, and that is why I have asked Phil to keep this secret with me."

Thomas peered at the soldiers still standing in the room and waved his paw at them. "Get out, all of you, now! You are sworn to silence!"

The soldiers nodded and left one by one, nearly rushing the door in their haste. It closed solidly behind them, leaving just the three of them, plus the unobtrusive great ape, alone to talk.

Wessex continued, speaking softly, trying not to think of the horrors on that field. "Through my dreams, Zagrosek is trying to force me to open up the room where Wessex stored that censer that he took from Loriod. I am the only one who can open it, as I am the one who sealed it. If that happens, then we are all doomed. The tear that Zagrosek made there is large enough to let things through that should not be.

"But, I thought that he was the sum total of my enemies, he and possibly Matthias. Yet I was wrong. For yesterday in my studies I stumbled upon an image of him and a woman. A woman with bloodshot eyes wearing a purple robe with a symbol upon her breast. This morning, I discovered that the symbol - the drawing hand - marked her as a Runecaster. Now, a great deal many more things make sense to me about what has happened these last eight months."

Thomas crossed his arms in confusion. "A Runecaster? Is that another Southern magic clan?"

The boy nodded. "Yes, they have little relation with the Sondeckis though, which made me wonder why she would be paired with Zagrosek. Then, I remember what I and my students had done all last May. We had gone about the Keep cancelling the runes that Loriod had inscribed everywhere. Now, we never did figure out where his magical ability came from. I think that this woman, this Runecaster, taught him enough simple tricks to employ for their benefit."

Leaning forward slightly, crossing out the lines of dust with his foot. "I believe that Loriod was controlled by her as well as by Zagrosek. It strikes me that Zagrosek is their troubleshooter, while this woman plays a more secondary role."

Phil and Thomas exchanged glances, the memories of Loriod's deviltry still fresh in their minds. Finally, Thomas asked out loud in consternation, "But why would two southern mages of such divergent clans wish to control Loriod? And why would they wish to kill the Patriarch? It does not make sense."

Phil nibbled at his lip slightly, trembling. "I think that it does. Whoever they are servants of wants to create chaos and unrest here at Metamor. Loriod was accomplishing that quite nicely. Had he not approached Matthias to blackmail him, it is possible that he may have been able to succeed in his plan to seize control of the kingdom from you." Thomas blanched at the idea of it. "I know, I would have just been a little pet for him, that thought frightens me as well. But we need to think what would have happened if they were successful.

"Now the way I see it, Loriod would have implemented across all of Metamor his strict policies to grind the spirits of all Metamorians into the dirt. I doubt he would do it at first, but slowly, as we came to depend on him more and more, he would start giving the orders, and we would have no choice but to comply. With his magic, he could control all those he needed to give the orders. In a year, maybe less, all of Metamor would have been like Lorland used to be, a beaten kingdom.

"So, into the picture walks Nasoj. He could easily sweep through the valley then, and Loriod would have found himself a plaything of the Lutins. Now, that didn't happen thankfully, but it appears that something similar is going to happen with this latest move by Zagrosek. This is going to destabilize the Midlands and the Southern kingdoms a great deal, and it will destroy the reputation we've been slowly rebuilding with many of them. In the end, it accomplishes much the same thing. It works to Nasoj's advantage."

Thomas rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Then they could indeed be working for Nasoj?"

Both Wessex and Phil shrugged helplessly. "Nothing my spies have turned up imply this, but nothing they've done has implied otherwise."

The door rattled as a fist hammered upon it savagely from without, causing them all to start momentarily before Thomas called out, "Enter!" Raven hin'Elric stormed in her face quite perturbed. Her long black hair was in tangles as she had run the entire length of the Keep from the Lothanasi temple to the Duke's chambers.

"What news is there of the Patriarch?" she asked immediately as the door closed.

Wessex peered curiously at her. "You knew?"

"Of course I knew," She snapped angrily, her lupine muzzle snarling the words. "I've been holding prayer sessions with my people so that he might be kept safe. So what of him?"

Thomas lowered his head. "I'm afraid that he's been murdered. We were too late to stop it."

Raven lowered her head slowly, her eyes tracing over the stonework. "Were there any survivors?"

Both Phil and Thomas looked to Wessex, who simply shrugged. "I don't know, I didn't stay long enough to see if there were or not. I do know that a dragon is flying this way carrying the Patriarch's body, and should be here soon, but that is all I know. Murikeer Khannas was trying to summon spirits to see what had happened presumably when I left."

Raven stalked to the child, anger filling her cold eyes. "You left him there to cast the spell by himself?"

Wessex stood as tall as he could, despite his fatigue. "The skunk does not need any of my help! I had been completely drained in just seeing that far magically. I was going to die if I stayed out there any longer. And any help I could have given Muri would have been tainted by my imminent death."

The priestess still scowled, but turned her gaze from the boy to the Duke. "You know since he has died on our lands, that I as Lothanasa have the responsibility to explain this to Lothanasi High Council. I fear what influence I had among them may have just gone up in smoke. If there were survivors though, they may offer us some hope to keep the peace between ourselves and the Patildor."

Thomas nodded his head in understanding. "We will let you know if we hear of any survivors. I don't doubt that with as many men as we have down there, that whatever evidence may remain, it will be found."

There was another knock on the door, and after giving his permission, Thomas was startled to see Matthias stride in, standing a foot taller than he used to, and dripping wet. Then, when he saw the long rat body trailing along after his torso, he knew why. He'd heard about this, but never seen it himself.

Yet, the Duke shook such distractions from his mind as he realized that Matthias was here, when he had been a full day's walk to the south already. "What are you doing here, Charles?"

The rat rubbed his arms, and breathed deeply. "I bring terrible news, the Patriarch-" he started to choke on his words, unable to finish.

Phil hopped over then, standing close to the rat. Wessex kept his countenance firm and straight. "We know, Charles. We just found out ourselves. How did you get back so quickly?"

The rat nodded softly, absently trying to squeeze a bit more water from the fur on his arms. "I was carried by a dragon.. He brought back Akabaieth's body as well as the survivors."

Raven turned on him, her eyes brightening somewhat. "Survivors? Who?"

"Kashin is missing his left arm, but otherwise he appears to be okay, but the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point is pure adrenaline. Vinsah and one of the knights, his name I forget, were badly injured though. I helped them down to Coe's already."

"Then we shall see Healer Coe immediately," Thomas declared, striding towards the door, Phil hopping along behind, Wessex and Rupert trailing after the rabbit. Charles stood a moment, letting them pass, departing alongside the lupine priestess.

Raven gazed over his form for a moment before speaking in a soft voice. "What happened out there, do you know?"

Charles shook his head. "Not really. It looked as if a small army had descended on them and cut them to pieces. I didn't have much time to investigate."

The wolf then laid a paw on his shoulder, causing Matthias to nearly start in surprise. "Are you going to be all right?"

Shaking his head, Charles peered down at the floor at the trail of water he had left coming to the duke's chambers and spoke softly as the guards followed them on all sides. "No, not really. It was horrible. I cannot imagine how anyone could do such a thing."

Gently squeezing his shoulder with her paw, Raven offered him a small smile, though not much of one. "I imagine that many of you fellow Followers will be grieving at the chapel." Matthias nodded absently. "Your Patriarch offered us all a chance to grow together in understanding. There will be many of my Lothanasi who will be grieving at our temple. It might help them know that Akabaieth's dream did not die with him if there were some Patildor to come share their grief with them."

Matthias looked confused for a moment and then nodded. "Ah, so you would like me to go with you to the Lothanasi temple to grieve for him with your people to show some solidarity?" Raven nodded slowly, her blue eyes soft just then. The rat sighed and then nodded a second time. "I will do it. In fact, if it would not be too much trouble, I would like to go there with you as soon as you finish speaking with Kashin."

Raven nodded and then removed her paw from his shoulder as their group drew up to the Healer's quarters. The door was half-open, and the sound of voices could be heard inside. Stepping through first, Thomas scanned about, noting the bare-chested Yeshuel with only one arm turn to face him. "Your grace, I am sorry I am not presentable-"

Thomas waved his protestations aside with the wave of one large hand. "No time for that now. What happened to the others?"

"Your healer has them in the back. Both of Egland's legs are completely broken, but the healer is confidant that he can mend them in time. Vinsah on the other hand, is going to be trickier. One of his lungs was punctured, and he's lost quite a bit of blood. It may be a while before we know if he'll survive."

"And you?" Thomas pointed to the stump "How did you lose your arm?"

Kashin snorted drily, his eyes long past tears it appeared. "I don't know. One minute we were confronting this man, the next, he'd thrown something black at us. It killed Iosef instantly, sliced him in two. I lost my arm. I guess he didn't notice I was still alive."

"Who was it?" Raven asked.

Kashin shrugged. "I'm not sure." He cast a glance towards Matthias and then shook his head. "It all happened so fast."

"Where is the Patriarch's body?" Phil asked then, sniffing around the empty room.

"I've already placed it in the chapel," Kashin grunted, and then pointed towards a blade he'd set down in one corner. It was finely carved, and there were gems set in the hilt. "He was stabbed with that dagger."

"That's Sathmoran!" Raven exclaimed.

"Yes, I noticed that as well," Kashin agreed. "I'm going to keep that dagger until I can return the favour and plunge it into the chest of the man responsible for this."

Wessex peered closely at it. "Might I have a chance to examine it magically?"

The Yeshuel shook his head. "You do not understand. I have failed my Abba. Unless I can right this justice, I will never be redeemed. My soul is tainted by my failure. I am alive where the Patriarch isn't. I cannot allow you to take the implement of this justice from me."

Wessex stared in open-mouthed astonishment. "But that dagger may have the clues we need to find those who've done this? Surely you can see that!"

"Yes, I do recognize it, that is why I am not going to allow you to take it. I must find all of the clues myself! This is my task, not yours. I will let you know of anything I find, but I must find it, not you." Kashin reached over, a bit unsteadily, and gripped the dagger's hilt with his hand. Blood still clung to the blade, but dripped off slowly as he held it there. "I pledge myself to this task and no other until either I die or this dagger finds its justice."

Raven stepped forward a bit more closely. "You know who I am, do you not?"

"Yes, you are the Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric. Akabaieth spoke highly of you."

She nodded her head, ears flicking to the side. "His death is going to lead to war if we do not have the evidence to show that it was not Sathmore that is responsible for this atrocity. Only you or your companions under Coe's paws can testify to this. Will you speak of the true murderer here to help keep the peace?"

Kashin then shook his head sadly. "I cannot. I am a disgrace, and my word would only taint yours. Should I stand with you and declare that Sathmore is free of guilt, the Bishops of Yesulam would only say that I was in collusion with you the whole time, as I let the Patriarch die. No, it cannot be my words. Perhaps Egland and Vinsah can provide what you need, but I cannot. Not if I want peace, which I desperately do."

Raven nodded slowly and stepped back. "Then best wishes to you on your quest. I ought to return to my people and pray for safe passage for his soul." She turned then, and started out of the room. Charles watched her for a moment, and the started on his four legs after her, his eyes a mix of curiosity and sadness.

Wessex watch the two leave, and then he stepped forward, approaching the man who was once a Yeshuel. "Did you see any symbol on the man's cloak? It was a man who did this, right?"

Kashin nodded slowly. "I saw something, but I knew what that man was from just his bearing. I did not want to say earlier, because I did not know how Charles would react to it. I know that he would never take part in such a thing, but loyalties among southern mage clans are hard to break."

"So, you know what clan he was from?" Phil asked softly.

"Yes, he was a Sondeckis," Kashin confirmed. "I do not know if the other two would have recognized him or not. For Raven's benefit, you may inform them of our attacker's identity when they are well enough to leave this place again, if they can."

"Was he a tall fellow, broad of shoulder, though slim in proportion? With black hair?" Wessex asked then.

"Yes, that was him. How did you know?"

Wessex sighed softly. "You hunt the same man that I do, Kashin. If you would care to listen, I can tell you what I know of him."

The man slumped heavily down on the floor, leaning his head into his sole hand, his chest heaving. "No, I wish to hear nothing more of this!" He then looked up, tears once again marring his face. "Please, leave me to weep in peace. I will speak more later. Not now. Please go away."

Phil hopped up beside Wessex and gently nuzzled him with one paw. "Let it rest for now."

The boy sighed, and turned about, following Thomas and the rest out the door. So close had he come, had they all come, yet still it had all ended in pain and death. Closing the door, he listened to the sound of Kashin's weeping, and afforded himself a tear as well.

Misha glared at the boot tracks in the grass along the side of the hill. Behind him, the lights from Muri's spells still glowed brightly, while the bodies were sorted through. They'd been here several hours already, and thankfully it had stopped raining. Dawn would be approaching before too much longer, yet Brightleaf had no desire to leave. At least not until he had figured out for himself what had happened here, and who was responsible.

What gave him the most dismay was the thoroughness of the death. Aside from the three that had flown back with Charles, there simply had been none! But, when he counted the bodies that they had, or at least the parts that they had, he realized that there was one missing. Either there had been another survivor who had managed to escape and had not come back, or there was a body missing that they did not know about.

Yet, even that paled into insignificance against what he faced before him. There was no question as he followed the pair of footsteps into the hills that these were the tracks of those responsible for the crimes. Even though they were barely discernable in the rain slicked mud, somehow, their imprint had become solid. Murikeer had simply nodded when he'd pointed that out. Obviously something that had occurred due to the skunk's intervention.

One set of tracks was slender, while the other was quite massive. In fact, the second was so massive, it appeared as if his weight had simply doubled, as nowhere else on the field was his footprints quite so deep. The smaller pair had to belong to a woman, even though he saw them in only one other place on the field of battle, and that was next to the Patriarch's carriage.

Yet, the other, which obviously belonged to a man, was one of the clues he was missing. That and the fact that the footprints simply stopped, disappearing completely without a trace as they worked into the hills. There was a bit of scrub nearby, and a few trees in the distance. He'd scoured the area for several ells in each direction, but not a single twisted blade of grass or broken twig heralded their passage. He even checked the scents from the boot-prints, but could find nothing like elsewhere. Whoever it had been had escaped cleanly.

Gazing in consternation at the larger set of footprints, he kneeled down to examine them closer. On a whim, he checked to see how deep the boot-heel for each foot had been. Much to his surprise, he found that the right boot-heel had sunk half-an-inch deeper into the ground than the left had. Rising back to his hind paws, he imagined how that man must have been walking to make those marks. After taking a few steps himself, he knew the answer. He'd been carrying something heavy on his right shoulder.

And then with a bit of a tremble, he knew exactly what had been carried off into nothingness. He turned about, and found Murikeer at his back, watching him with a puzzled expression. "Play acting?" the skunk asked.

"No, trying to figure out why the man was walking more heavily on his right boot than his left." Muri kept this face placid, despite the rage that had and still dwelled behind the dark eyes. "He was carrying something over his right shoulder, and I believe that something to be our missing knight."

The armoured figure of Sir Andre Maugnard arrived as they stared at the enigmatic trail left by the two that had committed the complete atrocity of the camp. Misha was utterly amazed that one of the pair, the male, had wrought such absolute destruction alone, unaided it appeared in any way by the smaller, ostensibly a female. The wolverine was still seething, the fur of his muzzle bristled, whiskers pricking rigidly from the open visor of his helm. "His name is, or was, Sir Albert Bryonoth." The wolverine growled, the damp leather of his gauntlets creaking in protest as he clenched his fists.

Murikeer frowned then, gazing at the tracks that led to nowhere. "What could they have wanted with him?" His brows furrowed as he stared at the pair of footprints using normal vision, then using his spirit sight. The smaller pair of footprints, the female, had a taint of dark magic about them, growing brighter shortly before the trail ended. The male's footprints were normal, whatever power he had was not thaumaturgic.

He glanced back toward the battleground itself, the twisted web of the local energies shimmering an ugly, bruised purple to his spirit sight. The death had stained the land, just as the blood of those slain lent an ugly rusty hue to the dark earth.

"I don't know. And I do not like it when I do not know these things." Grimacing, he finally turned away from the tracks and gave the skunk his full attention. "And what have you discovered?"

"Not as much as I would like." Murikeer rubbed his palms together, his tail flitting about behind him. "There is one thing I can assure you of, our enemy will not have an easy time traversing these lands again. I spoke with the spirits of the earth, and they are most unhappy about this evil, and will do their best to keep him out of Metamor should he return."

Misha, unsure of what to think of the spirits, though he'd seen a good many in his time, and had been saved by that Fox spirit once, nodded at that. "Do you have any idea what the man could have done to slice those people in half as he did?"

Murikeer shuddered as he thought of the bodies lying in neatly cut pieces. "I have no idea how he managed that. The sear marks on the trees and the saddle of that horse bear all the marks of a powerful spell, but there is no trace of magic about them." He turned his dark gaze to meet the fox's interested stare, then at Andre, who merely glared at him. "I've never seen anything like it before in my life. I hope I never do again."

The fox then pointed at the tracks that led into nothing. "And did the spirits tell you what this might mean? Did they tell you where our enemies went?"

Murikeer bore a rather distant look then. "All they would tell me was, `Into the shadow'. I have no idea what they mean by that."

"That makes no sense to me either. At least not yet. Maybe we can find some more clues elsewhere. This trail is a dead end I am afraid." The skunk nodded then as he fell into step with the fox, eyes trailing back to that path, wondering if it really was what Misha claimed it to be. And what had they meant by the words, `Into the shadow'?

Charles had been up for over twenty-four hours at that point, and strangely enough, he was still wide awake. It was past dawn, and yet he had not left the Lothanasi temple since he'd arrived the night before with Raven. Having been in his taur form long enough, he had grown to be rather self-conscious to the stares that were levelled at him as he entered the temple itself. So, Raven had taken him to a side room where he could change, and given him a spare robe to wrap himself in.

She had informed him of course that it was the robe acolytes would wear, minus a few other accoutrements that he would not be allowed to don, but he had assured her it would be fine. He had not anticipated the endless stream of confused questions from the Lothanasi that had come to the temple seeking some sort of solace once they heard the of the loss. Almost every single one of them looked at him, looked at the robe and then asked him when he'd become Lothanasi.

At times, Charles was so annoyed by the question that he wanted to tell them he'd been Lothanasi all along, but had simply been spying on the Patildors. But he kept his tongue in check, for one look at the distraught faces of Keepers who only a few days ago had been opposed to the Patriarch's visit was enough to remind him of what that man had done. Akabaieth had brought together both Patildor and Lothanasi in a common dream of peace, and then he was killed for it.

So, Charles did as Raven had asked him to do, explained that he was here because Akabaieth was willing to care for them too, so why shouldn't he. Amazingly enough, that always brightened their faces and gave them renewed hope. Interestingly enough, Charles found himself enjoying his stay there that night all the more.

Many times during each hour, one of the real acolytes would lead groups together in prayer to this god or that. Charles did his best to look reverent, offering his own prayers during those time silently. And then there was the singing which would start as if on a whim from one corner of the temple, and then fill the entire building with its resounding chorus. Though to gods he did not really believe in, Charles found himself singing along at times, smiling at all the tender faces about him.

And so the evening continued on into morning. Charles saw Raven from across the hall talking with a few folks who appeared to be rather distraught. Matthias recognized them as soldiers. They had probably seen what had happened there on that field and been horrified. It might have been the very first time they had seen bloodshed. Whatever it was, Matthias could not tear his eyes away from the scene.

It did not last long though, as shortly thereafter, Raven helped the girl stand on her feet. Merai was there as well, and offered the girl a long hug, which she accepted, crying into the younger priestess's shoulder. Charles sighed and cast his eyes down when he saw Raven looking back at him. When he looked up again, Raven hin'Elric was standing before him, her blue eyes a mix of curiosity and amusement.

"You know, you would make a good acolyte now that I think about it. You have brought hope back to many of my people here tonight."

Matthias nodded at that, gently stretching himself out in the robe. "I am not called to the life of the priest, you know that. Even were I Lothanasi, I would not fit for long living in this temple."

Raven gently lowered herself, her own robes collecting about her paws. Her grey tailed wagged behind her as she watched the various faces about the room. "Still what you did for me this night is much as they did as well." Her eyes favoured him with a bit of mischief in them. "And contrary to what I've heard, you have a lovely singing voice, when you are sober at least."

Matthias snorted in surprise, and turned to the priestess. "I suppose I should take that for what it is worth. Why are you so happy all of a sudden? Don't you grieve for the Patriarch's death? You appeared to before."

Raven nodded then, looking out over the pews and the people sitting in them. "There is much yet to be done, I agree. That has not changed. But have you watched the faces of the Lothanasi that you have been with this evening?"

Smiling slightly at the memory of each one, he nodded. "They were quite happy to see me I thought."

"Not quite, but close. Have you seen your face as you talk to them?"

"Well, no, of course not."

Raven smirked then, her muzzle drawing back to reveal her teeth. "I have. I think that you have gained greater joy and hope by being here as well. That is a reason enough to have some happiness. Akabaieth's hope for peace has come true here at least."

Charles thought about that for a moment, and then a smile creased his own face, filling it after each moment. "You're right, it is being played out here this very night. I never thought of it like that. In that case, thank you for inviting me here. You have given me a great honour."

She rose from her seat then, noting a few more people entering, looking lost. "As have you, Charles. Thank you for coming into our home to help us mourn. Thank you for giving them hope back, hope that we can live peacefully together."

The rat stood then as well, "Lothanasa, we will have peace. I know that someday, our people will know peace."

She smiled one last time, and then turned to greet the others. Charles leaned back, an impenetrable smile on his muzzle. He sat waiting for the next set of people to come in through those doors needing comfort. With a sly grin, he secretly hoped they'd ask him if he'd become a Lothanasi.

Phil was already in the middle of composing a letter to his father to make the necessary arrangements, the reports from his scouts waiting for his attention to one side, when there was a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" he called out in his bright rabbity voice. However, this day, there was little brightness there.

" 'Tis Raven hin'Elric, Phil. May I have a word with you?"

Phil gestured to Rupert, who already had his hand on the brass knob, and the great ape swung the door open. The priestess glided in silently, nodding once to Rupert as she passed, and headed straight for the desk where the Crown Prince of Whales sat trying to sift through a mass of intelligence reports.

"What can I do for you, Lightbringer?" Phil asked, looking up at her as she approached.

Raven reached into one of the pockets of her robe and withdrew a small envelope, placing it on the desk before him.

"I need a message sent to Whales," she said, her expression quiet and serious. "With all possible haste."

Frowning, Phil awkwardly turned the letter over with his paws and leaned forward to examine it. It was sealed with the emblem of the Lothanasa of Metamor, with a second seal indicating that the message was to be delivered to one Lycias, Lothanas of Whales. "I have a courier ship departing from Menth today," he said at last. "I can arrange for the captain to deliver this for you, but it may be safer if you send one of your acolytes along to carry the letter."

"If I could spare any for the journey, I would," Raven said. "You needn't worry, though -- the letter will take care of itself."

Warily, Phil glanced down at the unassuming envelope. "You cast a ward on a letter?" he asked.

"After a fashion. The seals are enchanted -- if anyone attempts to tamper with either of them, or open the letter in any other way, it will incinerate itself."

Phil blinked. "You do realize there is a strict ban on fire-spells aboard sailing vessels, don't you?"

The priestess smirked. "Relax, Phil. 'Tis a highly directed spell -- it will not even singe the hands of the person holding it. Your beloved ships will be in no danger." The smirk twisted itself into an ironic grin. "Besides, is not Whales the one nation in the world that installs Fire projectors aboard its warships?"

Phil rocked his ears. "True enough," he admitted. "Though, actually, our scout vessels and couriers aren't Fire-equipped -- they're too small and cramped, and there are just too many of them to keep the secret safe. They really don't have any weapons at all, except for those carried by the men."

"Doesn't that make them rather vulnerable?" Raven asked, eyebrows raised.

Again, the rabbit gave that odd ear-smile. "Not to pirates -- our men are well-trained in close combat. Besides, would you want to face what the Fleet would do to you if you destroyed one of our ships?"

The priestess smirked. "I think not."

"Me neither." The prince straightened in his chair, patting the envelope in front of him. "I'll send this out to Menth immediately. Your letter should arrive in Whales in five or six days."

"Thank you. What do I owe you for this?"

Phil waved his paw dismissively. "Don't worry about it, I'm happy to be of help. Besides, the ship was here anyway." After all, Phil had his own message to send. One that pained him to do.

Raven gave a small, reserved smile and nodded. "I appreciate it. Again, my thanks, Phil."

"No trouble, Lightbringer."

The wolf-woman left as silently as she had come, Rupert opening the door for her on her way out. Idly, Phil ran the pads of his forepaw over the magic-laced wax seals, wondering what business Raven had in Whales that was so important.

The figure stood alone on the rocky plateau, framed against the moonlight as she wrapped her cloak around her tightly. Winter was still two months away, but tonight the wind was as cold as death.

A whisper of rushing air came intermittently in the darkness, the sound of two great wings flapping. There was a quiet scraping of claws against dirt and stone, and the woman turned to greet her visitor. Perched before her was a majestic creation, sinewy flesh wrapped in reddish-brown scales, the tips of each glistening a brassy hue. Th eyes burned softly, more from scrutiny than from desire, as they were ancient eyes, long given over to consideration.

"Thank you for coming, Angernil. You honor me with your presence."

"It was no imposition." The creature's voice was deep and rich, hinting at a wisdom older than recorded history. "It is a pleasure to see you again, daughter of Elric."

"I fear that the news I bring is far from pleasant, Lothanas," Raven said soberly. Her eyes twisted in consternation, her paws balling slightly. "Akabaieth, the Patriarch of the Patildor, has been murdered."

There was a moment of silence. In the silver light of the moon. Raven thought she saw the dragon's eyes flash with surprise. He breathed a short, frustrated sigh, sending twin plumes of mist into the cold night air. "When did this happen?"

"Yesterday, after his departure from Metamor."

"Do you know who was responsible?"

"Aye. Lord Thomas informs me that it was a man called Zagrosek, a Southlander from an order of force-mages called the Sondeckis. The dagger he used was of Sathmoran design."

Angernil's eyes narrowed. "It would seem that this Southlander intends to start a war between the two faiths."

"Aye," Raven agreed, a feeling of dread and anger rising in her throat. "I wanted to warn you of what has happened before the rest of the Council receives word of it. There will be an inquiry, of course, and in the present circumstances I suspect it would be best for them to know as little as possible."

"You suspect collusion amongst our fellow Councilors?" The great dragon's voice was now curious, as of a man asking for the solution to a truly daunting puzzle.

"Aye. You are aware of the Elenin Prophecy, given by Silvinia in 242?"

Another silence, as the dragon searched his long, ancient memory. The great wyrm had been alive for centuries, and had read virtually everything ever written in the Order, but it was impossible for him to remember everything at once.

"... Aye," he responded at last, his eyes widening. "I remember. You believe it is coming to pass?"

"Aye," Raven said, a hard edge to her voice. "The Council has been corrupted, Angernil. You and I both know this. Some of them, at least, were almost certainly involved in the Patriarch's murder. If I allow them to see how much of this plot we are aware of, they may decide to kill me, as well."

The dragon tapped the claws of one hand against the ground, leaving deep furrows in the dirt. "Caution is certainly in order," he said. "Though you must tell them something, lest they accuse you of being party to his death. We must consider the reaction of the Patildor, as well."

Raven nodded. "We have three survivors, two of whom will testify to their own people that a Sondeckis was responsible for the deed." She shook her head sadly. "The third, one of the Patriarch's bodyguards, has been disgraced in the eyes of his people and will be of no use to us, though he remembers the most of any of them."

"The survivors will be our salvation in this, I think," the dragon mused. "Thank Artela that they were spared." He scratched at his long, scaly jaw for a moment, then turned his golden eyes back toward Raven. "How many of your people know of the Sondeckis?"

"Very few. Lord Thomas, Prince Phil, the mage Wessex, Charles Matthias. Prime Minister Malisa, most likely. Habbukuk, the head of the Writers Guild, likely knows of the order but may not know that a Sondeckis was involved. I suspect the same of Rickkter, since he hails from the Southlands. Generally, it seems to be a well-kept secret."

"Good. I would advise that you pretend ignorance of the Sondeckis when you address the Council. Describe the man and the powers he used, but give no indication you know the name of his order -- it will seem less likely, then, that you have helped to falsely incriminate the Sondeckis in the murder. I suppose it is too much to hope that Zagrosek was wearing the emblem of the order?"

"No, of course not -- he was trying to impersonate one of us, after all. Fortunately, Wessex has encountered him before, and on those occasions he was wearing his order's crest. Thomas passed on a copy of the image to me."

"Excellent," the dragon said as he nodded his long serpentine head. "Show the Council that, as well. Let them believe you are investigating the murder in ignorance, not yet knowing Zagrosek's affiliations or the nature of these Sondeckis."

"That seems wise," Raven agreed. "During the inquiry I shall ask Lycias to investigate the meaning of the emblem -- since it is clearly not the symbol of any northern mage order, the others should not think it suspicious for me to search for it in the south."

"Agreed. Does Lycias know what has happened?"

"He shall, shortly -- I have dispatched a sealed letter to him aboard a Whalish courier vessel. I dare not use the vision-spell for this news -- the danger is too great that one of the others will overhear."

"Aye." Angernil gave the wolf-woman a serious look. "Be careful, Raven. You are walking a path between two packs of baying hounds, and both await the chance to tear you to pieces."

Raven closed her eyes and nodded. "I know." She fell silent for a long moment, biting her lip in quiet frustration. "Damn it, Angernil, we were so close," she said, her voice beginning to crack. She wiped away a tear that was forming in the corner of her eye. "So close to peace. Now, with Akabaieth gone..." She shook her head. "He didn't seem to think there were many in his own council that he could trust. With our best ally dead, and our own Council corrupted, I don't know if we shall ever see peace in our time."

"Do not give up hope yet," the dragon admonished her, gently placing one massive hand against her back. "We still have a chance. But we shall have to move more carefully from this point on, until we can root out the ones responsible for this and gather enough evidence to bring them to justice."

"And in the meantime we have to do our best to avoid a war."

"Aye." Angernil sighed again. "It shall be difficult, of course. But so long as there is any chance, we must not give up."

"Agreed." Raven looked up at the old dragon, smiling sadly. "Thank you for your help, Angernil."

"You need only ask." Angernil stepped back away from Raven, spread his wings, and rose into the air. "Cuialye lothan, Raven hin'Elric."

"Cuialye lothan, Angernil," Raven said, repeating the traditional farewell of the Lightbringers. In Old Tongue, it meant "Live in the light" -- the same farewell she had given to Akabaieth.

The dragon circled high into the sky and soared off to the west, heading for his home deep within the Dragon Mountains. After watching him for a long moment, aborted tears already dried, Raven turned and began the long climb back down into the Valley. On her way down, she said a silent prayer for the Patriarch, wherever his soul might be now.

chapter 19

Vinsah had no idea how long he'd been clutching the hem of her robe and listening to her sing to him. It felt like forever that he'd just laid there, wrapped in the sound of her voice. Details of the world about him were few and hard to come by, only slowly coalescing after time. They were in a garden of some sort, that much he now knew, with pleasant flowers all about. He liked to sniff the sweet petals, and she would oblige him by snatching one and bring it to his face.

It took him quite sometime before he realized that he did not understand a word of what she was singing to him. When he finally looked up into her shimmering face, his own creased with confusion, she stopped her song and smiled down to him. He could not help but smile back, snuggling close to her dress. "Welcome home, Elvmere."

In that one moment, he did not start at the name, but recognized it for his own. Yet, the moment was short, and passed suddenly. Pushing himself away, he blinked, his voice trembling as he scanned about. He was once more inside his dream Metamor Keep, the trickling brook nearby, and the far gates closed now. He shuddered at what that could mean. "What am I doing here?"

She smiled, her long black hair cascading across her shoulders as she gently reached into the ground for something. "Healing. You have suffered great wounds, and you must heal."

"How long have I been here?" he asked with some concern. He reached up to his face, and found the mask as he'd expected. He scratched at it futilely, but of course, it remained where it was, forever a part of him in this dream.

"Been here in this dream with me? Longer than you might imagine, Elvmere. Far longer."

"My name is Vinsah, I've told you that before."

She appeared to ignore him as she held out her hand. Opening wide her palm, he saw the quartz sculpture held between her fingers. The two eyes fashioned from agate and surrounded by the darker chalcedony gazed back at him with deliberate intensity. "Murikeer would like you to have this. Will you not accept it?"

"I want nothing from that skunk!" Vinsah declared, stepping further back from the woman. He tore his fingernails at the mask, but of course, it did not shift in the slightest. "Nothing, you hear me? Nothing!"

The woman was suddenly at his back, as if she'd always been there. Her gentle hand touched his shoulder, that shimmering appendage flowing into him, soothing the anger he wished to hold onto. "Please, don't make me take it," he whimpered softly. "I'm afraid of it."

The woman gently reached over to where his hands hung limply before him, and set the quartz statuette within his palms. She then closed his hands over the object, and gently ran her finger soothingly up his arms. He held the object tightly then, afraid to open his grip and see those eyes again. "It is yours Elvmere. Yours alone."

"But why me?" he asked, his voice more that of a child's than a man of fifty years.

He turned to face her, like a boy to his mother. She gently ran the back of her hand along his cheek, just as a mother might. "We all ask that question, but there is never an answer for us. Sometimes we must rely on the wisdom of those who fashioned us."

He cast his eyes down, unable to look at her anymore, but still he kept his hands closed, unable to look at the statuette either. He was still wearing that acolyte's robe, but he could not explain why. It simply never occurred to him to remove it. In fact, it seemed a rather silly thing to do, undress before this woman. Still, it was better to think of that than of what was clutched tightly in his hands.

But soon, he found a gentle finger beneath his chin, lifting his head up. "Murikeer is waiting for you. You have to go with him now."

Vinsah started, glancing over at the skunk standing just a few ells away, by the gentle brook. His expression was solemn, but there was a hidden expectation within that face. The Bishop shook his head. "No, not with him. Please, anyone but him."

She gently brushed his hair back, one finger tapping the mask he wore. "You may take your time Elvmere, but he will still be waiting for you when you are ready." She then stepped away from him, fading into the garden itself. Vinsah turned about, to look for her, but she was gone.

"Where did you go?" he cried out, refusing to look at the skunk who was still standing by the brook. "Why have you left me with him?"

He did not truly expect a response, and so he was nearly floored when her voice rang from all about him "I am always with you, Elvmere." Scrambling, he turned back to Murikeer, who favoured him with a warm smile and an outstretched paw.

Screaming in sudden terror, Vinsah turned about, and fled away from the apparition, clutching the quartz figurine in his hands as if he could squeeze blood from it. He ran for what felt like hours, his legs unable to stop, propelling him along those terrazzo pathways. Finally though, exhaustion beginning to take its toll on him, Vinsah came to rest, kneeling down to catch his breath.

Peering between his legs as he kneeled down, he saw black paws, and a long bushy black and white tail behind them. Turning about, he found Murikeer standing a few feet away, one hand outstretched, his muzzle drawn into that same tight smile.

Vinsah took the figurine and threw it at the skunk, pushing him away with his hands and then burying his face in them. As he crouched there weeping, his fingers could not help but explore the lines of the mask yet again, feeling it, growing familiar. Scratching then, he frantically tried to tear it away, but as before, met with no success. Ignoring the skunk who stood quietly nearby, perpetually watching over him, Vinsah tried to close his eyes and fall asleep, wishing no more of this dream.

And then, he felt a throbbing pain fill his chest. Vinsah blinked groggily, his whole body terribly heavy, wrapped tightly in thick quilts. It was bright out, he could see the blue sky outside the sole window, gentle clouds high overhead. He tried to lift his arms, but a sudden pain shot through his chest, and he collapsed back down against the pillow.

Slowly, the memories began to come back to him, of that dream he'd had just moments before that man had shown up -- that same black clad man that he'd seen in his dream his second night at Metamor. And then there was the dinner plate he'd used to protect himself. How had that woman known to warn him, and known that he had such a thing nearby? With a bit of a grimace, he decided that it would probably be good for him if he would at least entertain the notion that she was more than just a dream.

Yet, the details after that were hazy. Obviously he had somehow been brought to wherever he was now, and had been treated by a healer. Gazing out the window some more, he tried to see what was outside, but the pain in his chest forced him back to the pillow. That man had crushed several of his ribs, that much he knew, but why? And what had happened to the others? What had happened to Akabaieth?

A sudden image of that blessed man lying dead filled him with raw terror, and he tried to slide from his bed, but coughed extensively, the agony in his chest still more than he wished to bear. Yet, after he had regained his breath, and lay there wondering whose face it was that had knelt over him as he had faded in and out of consciousness, the sound of some animal approaching caught his attention. He knew it was an animal, for their claws made a staccato rapping noise against the stone floor.

And then, just as he turned his head to see the figure before him, another thought flooded his mind. What if it was not an animal at all? And when he saw the raccoon standing before him, dressed in a smart tunic and breeches, holding a glass of some foul looking liquid, he felt his heart sink into his stomach. He was at Metamor Keep after all.

"Ah, awake finally I see. We were wondering if you were going to make it at all. Your friend has been up and about for several days now." He leaned forward, pressing the glass to Vinsah's lips. "Here, drink this. It will help mend your lungs."

Vinsah did as instructed, drinking down the rancid concoction. He pressed his tongue out in distaste, shuddering as the brew coated his throat. Finally, blinking, he managed to ask, "What happened? With the Patriarch that is?"

The raccoon lowered his gaze. "I am not sure of all the details, but I do know that he is dead. Only yourself, and two others survived."

Vinsah closed his eyes, breathing slowly, noting that already, the brew did soothe his chest somewhat. "How long have I been here?"

The raccoon appeared uncomfortable suddenly, looking at his face, then away again. "You've been here for just over a week. I'm afraid-"

"What is it?" Vinsah asked, his eyes narrowing. Then, he ran his tongue along the tips of his teeth, noting that they felt different than before, sharper. "Oh no. Bring me a mirror."

The raccoon nodded and reached over to a nearby table where he lifted the requested object. It had probably been there for days now, in expectation of this very question. Vinsah peered into the reflection, noting the lines of his face were gone. The creases of his age had been washed away. In fact, given the thickening colour of his hair, he guessed that he was probably only twenty-five in physical age. Yet, his eyes did not care about the youthfulness of his face, they saw only one thing.

Around both of his eyes, there was a dark band of black fur, much like a mask. Closing his eyes, he leaned back, his chest beginning to heave, despite the pain, trying to bring tears to his slightly green eyes. "It is not so bad being a raccoon," the healer said consolingly. "You can still eat most anything you want to, and you will not shrink much in size when you are finished changing."

Vinsah looked back at the healer's face. His own would be much like that in a week or two. "You tell no one that I am awake yet. Nobody must know of this."

"But why?"

"Please, I cannot be seen like this yet. I am not ready for it." He then closed his eyes, trying not to think of the mask that he would always wear now.

The Healer nodded then and sighed. "Of course. I will leave you alone now." He could hear the click of the claws as the raccoon began to walk away. He'd make that noise himself before too much longer. Yet they stopped suddenly, and then turned around. "Oh, there was something nestled in the pocket of your robes when you were brought in here. I put it in this drawer. I thought you might like to know that it was saved."

Vinsah peered at him, as he pulled out a small figurine of quartz. It was the gift that Murikeer had made for Akabaieth what felt a lifetime ago. He twitched as his eyes settled upon the pale white quartz, seeing the chalcedony visage of the stone staring at him from his dreams. Sighing, he nodded, "Thank you."

The raccoon turned about and began to walk away once more. He stopped then and called over his shoulder. "I'm sure you will grown used to it in time. If you need anything, just call, I should be in the next room." Vinsah said nothing in reply however, and soon the Healer left him to himself.

All that the Bishop of Abaef could do was gaze into the glowing blue lapis of Akabaieth's face.

Sir Egland stood alone upon his crutches in the stables that morning. Leaning against an empty stall, he gently ran his thick finger across the wood, trying not to notice the darkening of his nail. Nor did he wish to consider the throbbing soreness on either side of his head, for it too was a symptom of his change. Instead, he focussed his thoughts on the pain in his legs. It was an all too human gesture, one that would be with him for a fortnight yet.

The Healer had told him that he was becoming a deer, and that the sullen discomfort he felt was normal for such a change. Considering the nature of the curses, Yacoub wondered how any of it could be considered normal, but he did not dispute the Metamorian's claims. He was trapped at the Keep now, like the rest of them, forever claimed as a resident by the fickle magic. That alone pained him, but it was a scratch compared to the loss of his companions, especially of Bryonoth, for whom he cared a great deal.

And so he stood upon the wooden crutches that would be his legs for the next few weeks, next to the stall that his steed Galadan had rested in last week. Povunoth's stall was similarly empty. It was as if a great hand had reached out of the sky and snatched away everything that had been important to him. Even though his viola had been found, it had been damaged, and he doubted that after his change he would be able to play it properly.

Resting his forehead against the stall door, he closed his eyes and searched for tears that he'd already shed once again. Yet, the sound of the stable doors opening started him from his melancholy. Turning his head to one side, he saw the rat Saulius, and Andre coming in, their faces downcast as well, yet holding something back. In that great paw that he'd touched, the wolverine clutched a bit of rope. It was too dark to see quite what though.

"I thought we would find you in here, Yacoub. I'm sorry about Albert and the others." Andre's voice was low, and heavy, but sorrowful.

"It is not your fault. You didn't know what was going to happen.," Egland mouthed, though his voice wished otherwise.

Saulius nodded then, and stepped closer into the room, "Aye, though tis good fortune that we found some of your companions alive."

"Kashin and Vinsah? Kashin has returned to the south, and Vinsah is still in a coma. Not the most inspiring of news," Egland replied tartly, turning on his crutches to face them fully.

The wolverine shook his head and yanked once on the cords of rope in his paw. Through the door trotted two horses, both rather dignified in stature, and immediately familiar. "A knight's closest companion is always his steed. We found Galadan and Povunoth along the road to the south, and decided to bring them both back for you."

Egland blinked several times, even as his own steed nosed its way past the wolverine and to the man who was becoming a stag. "Galadan!" He cried out for joy as he leaned upon one crutch and brought his hand up to stroke the equine muzzle. The horse nuzzled him, rubbing his nose into the thick palm, noting the change in scent, yet also that it was indeed his rider.

Gazing up to the other two knights, he felt a smile creep across his face. "Thank you both for this. I, I don't know what to say."

Saulius crossed the space, as did Andre, and placed a paw upon his shoulder. "Ye have nothing to say then. We two will be your friends and companions. That will not change, no matter how you may look."

"And even as a stag, I am sure you will have little difficulty serving as a knight," Andre assured him.

Egland laid his head softly against Andre's thick paw, rubbing his ear across the thick fur a moment, his smile buoyant. "And I will be yours!" Both Galadan and Povunoth whickered in agreement.

Kashin sat alone in the large chapel of the Ellcaran diocese. He'd left Metamor accompanied by Father Lothar the morning after the attack, and had kept no more than a few feet from him at all times since then. No other person was allowed to even touch it, and he guarded it as jealously as he should have guarded the Patriarch.

But Akabaieth was now dead, and he was not.

Gripping the grey lock of hair in his one hand tightly, he bent over, kneeling against the pew in front of him. He wasn't really praying anymore, as he'd been doing for the last hour or so, but simply trying to collect his thoughts. Kashin found it sometimes hard to move about or to keep his balance now that he'd lost his left arm. And there were many times when he reached out with that stump to grab at something, only to find he had no hand to take it with. Yet, somehow, he felt as if the arm were still there, only being continuously grilled over a hot flame.

The pain for him, a former Yeshuel, was simply a reminded of the task he had to complete. It had long since ceased causing him distress. Yet, every time he tied off the left sleeve just below the stump, the fabric would rub across the scar and he would wince at the bizarre sensation. At least it never broke the scab, for dripping blood would only make the black of his dress slicker, and darker.

Everything he wore now was black, completely unadorned, just a simple black tunic and breeches. He had only purchased the sole outfit, as he doubted he would ever have need of another again. It matched his face quite well he thought these days. Most of the parishioners studiously avoided him, averting their gaze to some sculpture, window, or mural as he passed them by. The acolytes had blanched when they saw him enter, the Sathmoran blade tucked into the buckler he wore. Their requests that he leave that outside were met with a simple gaze that caused them to backpedal behind the colonnades and statuary lining either wall of the sanctuary. The temple guards however, had insisted he remove it, to which he told them who he was.

It was still at his side in fact, the full force of his oratory to the Ellcaran men a diminishing thing. They had each slunk off to their corners of the chapel after he'd finished regaling them with the tale of his failures. Even so, he knew it was wrong for him to have done this. Yet, he had to come before his Abba this one last time before he embarked on his quest.

Resting his head on his hand, he sighed, before peering up at the altar and crucifix at the front of the chapel. How many times had he tried to assure himself that he could not blame himself for not dying? So countless many times it seemed, and yet each one was as futile as the last. Both Father Hough and Lothar had assured him that he was not guilty of Akabaieth's murder, or negligence in the cause of his murder. Yet, he could only bitterly laugh at them, holding back tears that he wished to shed. The call of a Yeshuel broached no equivocation, especially in the matters surrounding the Patriarch.

Leaning back into the pew, the stump of his left arm coming to rest softly against the wood, sending a sudden jolt of pain up what was left of it, he noticed that he was no longer alone. Sitting just a short distance away to his left was a figure that was also clad in black, but this time a cloak that completely obscured his features. There was a timeless quality to the way he slowly lifted a pearl-grey hand, fingers slender and supple in a way that few he'd ever met could imitate, up to his chest. The figure placed his hands across his heart, tightening respectfully into a fist for a moment.

"We are well met, Kashin of the Yeshuel," he said softly, casting a gentle chime into the air as his musical voice filled the other's ears.

Kashin turned slightly, his eyes narrowing hard, trying to see what lay in the depth of the shadow of his cloak. Yet, he could only discern an angular jaw line, and tightly set lips; that and nothing more. "I am disgraced, and no longer of the Yeshuel. Who are you?"

"A messenger," came the reply. The hood of his cloak turned then, showing him even less of the man's face. The voice was deep, yet the musical quality to it made him wonder what sort of man this could be. The accent was unfamiliar as well. "My name is Andares."

Kashin's brow furrowed at that. "Are you from Whales? That sounds to be a Whalish name."

"No, I am not from your Whales. My name is older by far than that country. But you do weep for a man who was from Whales, do you not?"

Kashin bristled slightly, his hand slipping down to rest on the pommel of the dagger. With a sudden flash of chagrin, he took his palm from the hilt, ashamed at having thought of violence in the House of Eli. "Yes, how did you know?"

"My Master sent me here to find you, Kashin. I've travelled a long road, knowing only to expect a man dressed in black, whose left arm was missing, and who would be mourning the recent death of his own master. Is this all not found true in you?"

Breathing in deeply, he began to nod, not really wanting to, but not seeing a reason not to either. "Yes, I am the man that you seek."

The cloaked figure nodded as well, a small sound of delight escaping his lips, though Kashin could not tell what it had been. "I had expected to find you at the Ecclesia funeral services the day before, but you were not there. Are you waiting to mourn his passing at the burial?"

Kashin laughed bitterly at that, his hands tightening about the fabric of his breeches. "No, I will not be there either. I am a disgrace to the Yeshuel, I could hardly be present when the Patriarch's body is dumped into the sea sometime next week. Unlike you, he was from Whales, and at least in death lives out his dream. But I remain alive, and so have dishonoured his memory."

The stranger appeared to consider those words for a moment, before he gently shook his heads. "You have done no dishonour to yourself or to the memory of Apadares of Whales. You seek justice, do you not? Is that not why you carry that blade with you, even into the house of your own Abba, where weapons are strictly forbidden?"

Kashin turned harder, laying his stump over the pew so as not to press it against the wood anymore. "And just what is your interest in all of this? You know so much about me, but I know nothing of you."

"My name is Andares, as I have said. I was sent here by my master to find you and to offer you a chance to fulfill your desire for justice."

Kashin grumbled sourly, keeping his voice low. "So your master has a tendency towards precognition, so what? Why should I care what he wishes?"

"My master can help you find the man responsible for the Patriarch's death. Not only that, but tell you why he was killed, and why they have tried to blame Sathmore." His voice was so sublime, that Kashin could swear it was a highly articulate form of bird song at times.

Yet, at that request, he turned his back to the man, gazing at the lofty murals along the inner wall of the chapel. Bright colours flared on each panel, rising high to the clerestory, where they were met by the sun shining in through the stained-glass windows. "You know so little of what it means for a Yeshuel to be disgraced. It is my sole duty to find the man responsible for this, and kill him myself. I have already had one offer of assistance from a Metamorian, and I turned him down. Why should I treat your master, or for that matter you, any differently? I will accept help from no man."

The soft voice let out a chuckle, and then turned to face him more fully, the soft light cascading from above catching on his lips. Kashin glanced back at him, noting a strange delicacy to those features that he had never seen in the face of any other. "I find your adamancy rather amusing, simply because I am not a man at all. Nor is my master."

Kashin stared then, his eyes fixed on what lay beneath the dark cowl. "You are not a man? Then what are you?"

That pearl-grey hand rose once more to the edges of his cowl, joined by a second like it. Together, they drew back his hood, slowly, letting the light shine on more and more of his features every moment. Kashin felt his heart quicken in his chest, and his fingers clench and unclench into his palms. The nose was straight, almost bent like a hawk's, but slender as well. The golden eyes were slanted, each lobe coming to a point beneath the thick eyebrows. Long black hair cascaded over his ears before being pulled back into a pony tail. Drawing his fingers through the hair, Kashin could see that those ears came to rather long points.

With a quick breath, he spoke softly, "Spirit!"

"Åelf is the proper term," Andares remarked, a bit of a smile crossing those tight lips. Glancing those golden embers across the sanctuary, he noted a few parishioners kneeling and praying, so he drew the hood back over his face.

"I thought you were just legend," Kashin said, his body shaking from the surprise. The earlier vehemence washed away from him like rain.

"We are very much a reality, we simply do not show ourselves often. You mortals have not been kind to us over the centuries." There was a hint of anger in that voice, but it was tempered as if with resignation.

"And I am responsible for none of it."

"True enough," Andares admitted, his eyes shining slightly in the receding daylight streaming through the windows above. "Will you accept the help my master has offered? There are a great many dangers in this world, most of them even more frightening than the death of one man, though he be the leader of one of your great faiths. There is a terrible battle being waged behind closed doors, and your master's murder is only one sign of that. If you come and speak to my master, you will know much more."

Kashin nodded softly, the hardness seeping back into his lips. "What you are asking me to do is to abandon my quest for justice. I cannot do that, no matter the reason."

Andares shook his head gently. "No, I am telling you that your quest for justice is one part of a larger puzzle. Who is it that you seek to kill?"

"The man who killed the Patriarch of course."

"The one who stabbed him or the one who instigated the murder?"

"Excuse me?" Kashin asked, confused.

"I can tell you this, for it is all that I know," Andares spoke even softer now, leaning forward so that no other ears could possibly hear. "The man who killed Apadares of Whales would not have known that he was there if he had not been told by another who wished him dead."

Kashin licked his lips then, grimacing morosely. "I will need to think about this. How can I find you when I decide?"

The cloaked figure nodded, the tight lips breaking into a slight smile. "Go to Bozojo near the border of the Outer Midlands. Find the Lake's Head Inn, and its innkeeper, a man named Benlan Rais. He will know where I am. It is a week's journey there, so decide quickly. I will only wait until the beginning of the last month of your year."

"I understand. I shall not take long in deciding then." Kashin set his hand down on the pew before him, drawing himself upon his feet. "Do you know anything else you dare tell me?"

Andares also rose, backing away slowly down the pew, his head bowed low in the cowl. "Only that things shall become far worse before they improve. Decide wisely, Kashin. I will be waiting for you in Bozojo."

Kashin watched the figure slowly glide across the aisle, his feet barely appearing to touch the carpet. He then turned back to gaze one last time at the crucifix, a symbol he had born on his chest for so many years. Bringing his hand to his breast, he made the fist over his heart, and bowed deeply to the altar of his Abba. Then he walked briskly down the aisle, stump swaying in a new rhythm to his steps. It would be a long time before he could speak to Eli again.


The sun sparkled brilliantly off the waves as the quinquireme Iros, ceremonial flagship of the Fleet of Whales pounded her way along the coastline. Rarely did she venture so far from home, and a veritable squadron of lateen-rigged fishing coasters and small trading vessels clustered around to wonder at her size and bulk. Iros was really not suitable for fighting- she was far too slow come about and rather clumsy in stays. But she was a symbol in green, gilt and orange, a visible expression of the long arm of the Island of Whales and her ability to strike shrewd blows anywhere there was enough water to float a ship. Even if she did only leave port for ceremonial purposes these days.

And, of course the fact that she had once been Fleet Flagship of another kingdom's navy spoke volumes in and of itself. As did the fact that the kingdom in question simply did not exist any longer.

Presently trumpets sounded and the great drum that gave time to the rowers ceased its eternal beating. "Iros" slowed then and stopped, becoming a mere plaything of the waves despite her impressive bulk and polished brightwork. The rag-tag assortment of small craft around her backed and filled their sails to hold position at a respectful distance, their crews all aloft in a mass of gesticulating and pointing humanity. Then three small and inconspicuous black lumps soared skywards up Iros's colossal standing rigging, only to burst open together as one in a display of perfect seamanship. And then quite suddenly Iros was adorned by three great Ensigns. First, of course was the tricolour purple white and red of Whales, emblazoned in the centre with the Royal seal of Tenomides. Immediately under it flapped the flame-orange banner of the Master of Fire. And, flying on a brand new halyard immediately alongside the banner of Whales flew proudly the bright green pennant of the Ecclesia, surely for the first time being flown from the masts of a ship of war. Then a dirgeful note issued forth from the trumpets, and the flags were lowered into the half-mast position of mourning.

On this day, at exactly local noon, every ship in the Fleet of Whales was lowering its flag as well.

Iros drifted slowly to leeward for a time as last minute preparations were made. Then a small raft covered with flowers was uncovered and a sea-anchor was made fast to Iros's bows. The men in the small craft were abuzz with excitement. It was clear that some sort of very special ceremony was about to take place.

Across the waves, standing alone on the nearest ship was a tightly dressed figure watching, his eyes memorizing every event, casting them into illusions to weave upon his return to Metamor. Murikeer Khannas had requested such a position, and so was one of the few Metamorians able to attend the burial ceremony. Disguised by a clever illusion that his years in isolation had managed to forge, he was intent on observing all that transpired this day, so that he might show his fellow Metamorians what had been done with the body. He saw nothing that happened on his ship though, only the Iros.

Meanwhile, aboard Iros herself strict discipline was maintained. In perfect symmetry dozens of white-clothed seamen ran aloft to man the yards and the rowers were assembled hats in hand on the vast maindeck, which they had spent all morning swabbing and holystoning to the most perfect whiteness. And then the chief mourners appeared from belowdecks. There were a dozen robed priests of different flavours and varieties, all wearing black somewhere on their persons, the central figure of which was just a child. And among them strode confidently a white rabbit in a simple yet resplendent blaze-orange uniform, accompanied by a gorilla in full-dress Marine blues with more decorations on his chest than anyone aboard had ever seen before.

Despite the deeply instilled discipline of the Service, an audible "ah!" swept for just a second across the deck before dying under the withering glare of dozens of petty officers and master's mates. The rabbit was, after all, ultimately their commanding officer and subservient only to Tenomides himself. It was his plan that had won Whales the ship they stood on, and his resourcefulness that had turned a certain national disaster into a decisive victory. He had not been aboard a Fleet ship in almost a decade, though his sad transformation at Metamor was as story widely told. Phil had somehow been brought aboard without being seen, though the scuttlebutt had been flying all day. And there he was, before their eyes!

The priests formed a line along the break in the quarterdeck as the great ape solemnly helped the Master of Fire climb up onto the rail. It was clear that he was about to speak. Yet, he remained silent a moment more while the child, the central priest among the collection, walked slowly forward to the raft festooned with bright flowers. His small body, only that of a boy, was sure to cause whispers among the crew, yet at this moment, none were voiced.

It was Father Hough of course, whom Phil had requested perform this small gesture. Reaching within the folds of his robes, the boy produced a bit of hemp, one that all sailors immediately recognized for the training rope given to children who wished to be seamen. Reaching the side of the small raft, Hough placed the bit of hemp within the central most ring of flowers, showing each the knot that had been tied within it. A square knot, the very last the deceased had ever worked.

The priest slowly made his way back to the break in the quarterdeck, joining his fellow clergy, eyes sombre, bearing a great pride within them though. He gazed upwards once to the orange-clad rabbit, and nodded. Phil returned the gesture, and then his own gaze settled on the crew before him, passing over every face with a measure of respect and concern.

"Men of Whales," he began in a high-pitched voice that was very strange to hear on a ship of war. "It is good to be at sea again with you, but I wish the occasion could have been a happier one. For today we are here to bury a great man. It was his earnest hope, he told me once, that he might be buried at sea in the manner of a Fleet officer and Brother of the Guild of Fire. This man was a fellow traveller to us all, a man of peace and principle. And he was born a son of Whales. Thus, it is our duty and our honour to give this final gift. Especially as he never asked another.

"Akabaieth, born Apadares of Whales, rose to become Pontiff of the Ecclesia, a religious order that wishes harm to no man. His clerical life was dedicated to peace, and he was murdered most foully on a mission of peace. But these bare facts do not give the measure of the man. Akabaieth was gentle and wise, kind and strong inside where it counts. I am very proud to have known him, and only wish our paths might have crossed sooner. As well they might have had his childhood dream of joining our great Fleet come to pass."

A pair of large tears welled up in the rabbit's eyes, but his voice continued strong and pure, if not quite in the rasp that the men were used to hearing from their officers. "I am proud also to have been Akabaieth's countryman. While our Service is dedicated to the making of war and indeed even this ship we stand aboard is a trophy of war, we do not seek conflict. Our nation is one of traders and our first mission is to protect these traders. Never have we fought a war of aggression and never have we sought to enrich ourselves unfairly at the expense of other lands. Trading can only be profitable in an atmosphere of peace, and I like to think that the Pontiff's childhood helped colour his later thinking."

The Master of Fire stood for a moment in silence, as if he was seeking words. But when he continued his voice was steady. "Only twice before have non-Brothers been ceremonially buried at sea by ships of the Fleet. On each of these previous occasions the man honoured was a great warrior or leader who stood by us in an hour of need. Some have questioned my wisdom in allowing Akabaieth this privilege. However, in my heart I know it is deserved. For is peace among all nations not Whales' greatest need, and is it not right and proper that we should honour a man who stood so forthrightly for what we all believe in? Who died in service to us all?"

No one answered Prince Phil's rhetorical questions, of course, so he continued. "It is now my sad duty and honour to commit the mortal remains of Akabaieth, once Apadares of Whales, to the Fire and to the Sea he once so yearned for. Captain of the foretop, haul away!"

And with that the flower-draped raft that had waited silently on the maindeck was raised silently into the air, then eased out over the great ship's side and gently lowered until it kissed the waves. Then, the ship's side was manned as it slowly began to fall off to leeward. Three times the trumpets blasted in salute, and then the raft was cast off.

"Captain Argoson," Phil said with quiet dignity that seemed oddly in character with his lapine body. "Get us underway and bring the ship about, if you please."

"Aye aye, Sir," he responded, formally lifting his hat in an elegant salute that was rapidly going out of style. Then he turned to his first officer. "Man the oars, Peter."

"Man the oars, aye aye Sir!" he replied. Then he turned and began bellowing out his orders. "Larboard watch! Man the oars! Make secure the sea-anchor!"

Half the men on the maindeck went tumbling down into the hull of the huge quinquireme, where they gathered into the groups of five to an oar that gave the ship its designation. The sea anchor was hauled in, and presently Iros was a living thing again, white wings dipping in unison to the endless beat of the great bass drum.

"Starboard oars, avast!" cried the First Officer, and as one the men on the ship's left side ceased their toil. And as a result Iros began circling around to face the bobbing raft that was Akabaieth's coffin. At the ship's bows, a plumber's nightmare of brass pipes with a fire burning fiercely under it began to whistle. When it reached a certain note, everyone aboard knew, the world's greatest Fire projector would be ready to issue forth.

The First Officer timed it well. Iros was charging downwind and was just out of range of the raft when the note became just right and held. A man in an orange uniform identical to Phil's came striding up to where the rabbit solemnly stood. "My Master and my Brother," he addressed the lapine formally. "Would you do our ship the great honour of firing the projector with your own hand?"

Phil's eyes narrowed for just a second, then he nodded. "Yes, I suppose it is fitting."

There was just time for the pair to make it to the bows before the critical moment arrived. The Master of Fire hopped up onto a little stool that had been provided especially for him, and sighted along the highly-polished brass barrel. And then he took the lanyard in his teeth and pulled firmly.

Liquid Fire erupted in a huge torrent, the flames for a moment dwarfing Iros herself and the roar sounding like the enraged scream of a huge primitive beast. Raw fierce heat blasted back along the deck of the great ship, and the clerics standing near the stern went wide-eyed in shock at the sheer power of the display. Even forewarned, they had simply been unable to conceive of the power of the chemical demon that was the trademark and the monopoly of the Fleet of Whales.

And when it was over, there was not a trace of the little raft left to be found. Akabaieth's remains were quite simply no more.

Iros circled the site three times in salute, the little fleet of onlookers now showing far more respect and maintaining a greater distance. Then with his own forepaws Phil removed a Medallion of Fire, symbol of the Guild, from its Royally sealed container and cast it upon the waves. Forevermore, the name Apadares would appear on the Roll of the Brotherhood among all the rest, without distinction.

And somewhere a young boy smiled as his dream at last came true.