Matters of Faith

by Charles Matthias and Ryx

It was only a half hour before sunset when they finally saw the first outlying buildings that marked Estravalle. The town itself was nestled along one side of a small valley formed by a line of long tall hills, the first fingers of the Sathmore range. A deep river ran down the length of the valley, forming a modest lake at the foot of the small town, then continuing on out into the rolling hills to the North. The river was far too wide to ford, and so merchants travelling the foothills road had to use the bridge in Estravalle. So it naturally became a waypoint for merchant caravans of all varieties.

The centre of the town was dominated by a huge caravansary; a sprawling plaza of rough hewn granite flagstones. Around three sides were open fronted covered buildings large enough to shelter even large wagons. At the end of the northern wing was a livery, and the southern wing terminated in a resupply warehouse. Two large wainrights’ barns sprawled further up along one wall of the valley, smaller ferrier and blacksmiths shops scattered about in their shadows. Houses and other dwellings were scattered further up the flanks of the valley, surrounded by large gardens and fields. The rear centre of the plaza was dominated by the entry of an inn that towered three stories over the plaza, large enough to house the entire staff of more than one caravan. Presently the caravansary was unused, and as they approached they could see a half dozen residents sweeping the flagstones.

Circling the western side of the river and lake they passed a farmer with his wagon, who merely nodded at them with a wary look. How bad was it, Vinsah considered, when even a Bard’s troupe was given such short shrift. War had not yet fallen upon them, yet the tension presaging its eruption lay a heavy hand upon every corner of the land.

The hooves of their horses thudded heavily upon the stout planks of the bridge and Vinsah glanced over the thick rail down at the churning brown water rushing by beneath them. The caravansary was set far enough up the southern wall of the valley to be above the spring floodwaters, but there was still a short retaining wall footing either end of the bridge. A rider came out to meet them before they had fully crossed the bridge, his dress that of a minor noble, but he rode without escort or bodyguard.

“Hail and well met, travellers.” The man stated with a bearded smile as he drew abreast of Malger. “I am Keleran, master of Estravalle, and I am pleased to see your small party, master Bard.” The man continued as he turned his horse after glancing over Muri and Vinsah. “News from the south speaks poorly of growing tensions along the borders of Sathmore. What news comes from the north?” The noble was not young, but neither old, his face lined by a life of jovial good humour. For once in the past few days Vinsah was actually relieved to see a face that was not cast warily in their direction, without even the haunted strain of even those who professed ignorance of the growing tensions.

Malger bowed deeply from his saddle, doffing his hat with a flourish. “Well met, my lord. I am Malger, free bard, and these are my apprentices, Murikeer and Elvmere.” He crowed in a theatrical, baritone singsong. “We are but new put upon the road, hailing from the Northern Midlands where we wintered with Baron Loean of Midtown. Alas we are quite new to this growing tension of war. Our news is of more northern concern, and we would be quite honoured to entertain you with such news over a fine meal.”

Keleran threw his head back and laughed as he patted his steed’s neck, “Aye, good bard, a fine meal you shall have. The first caravan of the season departed but six days past, refreshing our stores.” He tapped his heels at his mount and cantered ahead.

Malger turned, illusory human face smiling as he glanced at his ‘apprentices’, “Welladay, shall we entertain our hosts with a good show?” he asked with a joking voice, “Or pain their ears with your screeching?” he cast a look at Murikeer, who only looked back at him blandly. “Elvmere, say nothing concerning any faith, even if you do not choose to secret your tree against your breast. We might still be in the Midlands, but this close to the border most lean closer to Lightbringer ways than Ecclesia.”

Close to the town end of the bridge, Vinsah merely nodded mutely, swallowing an uneasy lump in his throat as he glanced to the quartet of guards lounging complacently at the foot of the bridge.

With bright smile writ upon his face, Malger gestured to the other end of the bridge. “Now, with that settled, let us ply our trade for the good Lord.”

“Your trade, fop.” Muri returned sardonically as he shifted in his saddle and glanced toward Vinsah, “You inflict it upon us each evening anyway.”

Malger grunted a laugh, feigning a pained expression as he laid his hand over his heart. “Oh now, it is your singing that does inflict pain on others, Master Mage. That throat of yours makes a wildcat caught in a trap sound truly harmonious.” He chided as he spurred his horse forward at a canter. The guards watched them pass with brief nods to Muri and Elvmere before returning to their conversations. Vinsah was sure he saw the eyes of one fasten upon the Tree dangling at his breast, but the older man said nothing.

Shortly beyond the bridge the road split, the main branch leading to the front of the caravansary plaza and the other following the river toward the east. It did not seem to lead to any other area of Estravalle, piquing Vinsah’s curiosity enough to ask Malger if he knew of any other nearby towns.

“There’s another village some distance up there in the hills. Deep Springs I think its name is, but the few times I’ve passed through here I never travelled that way. It’s a craft town, their wares traded here. Technically it lies in the lands of Sathmore, but this is the only easy route to reach it so neither kingdom contests what sovereignty it swears to. That’s all I know of it.” He shrugged as the hooves of his horse clicked loudly on the flagstones of the caravansary.

Their late evening shadows stretched across the flagstones as they made their way across toward the livery. The town residents sweeping the flagstones paused their work to watch them, leaning on their broad push brooms. Lord Keleran’s horse was already drawn up to the hitching post, reins merely draped over the use-polished wood. The black horse raised its head and looked lazily at them when Malger drew up and dropped smoothly from his saddle. One of the livery grooms was there ready to meet them, knuckling his brow as Malger looped his reins over the same hitching post. He caught Muri’s mount by the bridle as the skunk neared, securing the horse as Muri dismounted, and they both waited for Vinsah to catch up.

The stones were cool under his paws, areas worn glass smooth by years of wagon traffic. He found himself looking into the shadowed depths of the open wagon shelters and unused stalls, imagining for a moment what the caravansary might look like when the summer trading season was in its height. He glanced up as a groom neared, the young man dirty and pungent, his teeth in poor shape, but his countenance was not cowed like many peasants. The lad bowed his head only slightly, knuckling his brow as he extended a hand for his reins.

“Ah tak yer steed, milord. Aught should I wit yer wares?” he nodded toward the horse’s laden pack. Vinsah released the reins and took down the saddlebags that held his canticles, Akabaieth’s journals, and grooming kit. “She be took good care of, yer grace.”

Vinsah blinked at the use of title as he took a step back, then noticed the lad’s furtive look toward his Tree. He winced inwardly as he realized that the modest, gold trimmed icon marked him as a ranking member of the Ecclesia rather than mere laity. Most Followers merely wore a simple cross or carved wooden representation of the Tree, certainly not gold etched inlay. He swallowed and chewed the inside of his lower lip for a moment, his tail bushing behind him in startled realization of his predicament. “I am confident in you, my son.”

Malger paused at his shoulder as he looked at the young groom, “He will not bite you, lad, rest easily.”

The boy was about to speak again when a startled shout came to everyone’s ears, spinning them about in place to seek its source. One of the marten’s hands went to the hilt of a sword as Vinsah reflexively grasped his Tree. Muri, a few paces away rubbing his back, froze and looked at them, then toward the sound.

They saw three of the guards clustered near the eastern foot of the bridge, the fourth sprawled out on his stomach reaching down toward the surging stream. The sweepers were already in motion toward them, prompting Malger to follow, Muri falling into step a pace behind him. Vinsah looked to the groom, who met his eyes, shrugged, and shook his head, not moving. The bishop turned quickly to follow, catching up to Muri and Malger as they reached the crowd gathering near the bridge.

Two of the guards used their long pikes to keep the crowd back while the other two worked together to fish a body out of the river with another pike. “It’s Heddard!” one of them grunted as they seized the dead man’s shirt and heaved him up onto the bank. Two long shafts stood from the middle of the man’s back, the sight of them creating a sudden distressed muttering. The three newcomers stood near the back of the crowd, looking at each other in concern. “Someone go get Lord Keleran!”

“I’m here.” Came the immediate reply as the man in question ran up, a heavy sword slapping at his hip. Vinsah had not seen the sword earlier. “Who have you found?”

“Heddard the garnet miner, lord.” One of the guards replied breathlessly, his tabard and armour soaked and dripping cold water. Vinsah moved forward through the crowd to stand at the taller, bearded man’s side, looking down at the body. His first instinct was to offer the man last rites, but when his eyes spied the red and black fletching upon black shafts standing from the man’s back his voice quailed in his throat and he retreated hastily.

Malger’s strong hand caught his shoulder as he escaped the crowd, the marten’s human face expressing concern. “Elvmere, what did you see?” he asked firmly, turning the raccoon bishop to meet his startled gaze.

“Yesbearn.” Vinsah croaked as his hand clutched so tightly at his tree that the solid edges bit into the pads of his palms. “Those are the arrows of a Yesbearn Knight of the Ecclesia.” He hissed, pitching his voice low as he felt a shiver race like glacial ice up his spine.

Malger blinked, his jaw dropping as Muri let a chuff out through his nose. “Questioners?” the bard hissed the question, drawing the bishop away from the milling crowd. “There are Questioners here?”

“Smoke.” Muri said as Malger questioned the bishop, snapping the marten’s head up with surprise, his eyes travelling the direction Muri was looking. Billowing fresh from the far end of the valley a black plume of thick smoke grew toward the sky, lit from below by deep, glimmering orange bright against the darkening sky.

“Deep Springs burns!” someone cried from the crowd, pointing as a cry of shock burst from a dozen throats. Everyone seemed to look at everyone else for a breathless moment as the import of the dead man and the growing column of smoke connected with unpleasant conclusions. Suddenly two men burst away from the crowd, casting aside brooms as they ran with all possible speed toward the livery. Keleran followed a heartbeat later and everyone else fell into his wake except two of the guards.

“Muster the guard!” Keleran bellowed as he ran. “Deep Springs has been attacked!”

Muri turned swiftly and began running toward the livery as well, eliciting a startled cry from Malger. “Muri!” he yelled as he broke into a run as well, Vinsah close at his heels. He caught up as they reached the horses, the young mage already swinging up into his saddle. Vinsah caught his reins as Malger swung up into the saddle of his own horse. “This is not our fight, Muri.” He said levelly, drawing his reins in firmly as his horse sensed the panic of the crowd and began sidling sideways in an uneasy dance.

The skunk mage did not reply as his own horse shifted uneasily, held in place by Vinsah’s grip on the reins. Malger nodded, then looked down at the bishop. “Mount up, Elvmere.” He said as he looked back at the hasty preparations within the livery. Every available horse was pulled from stalls, saddles appearing swiftly and being dropped upon hastily blanketed backs.

Vinsah looked uneasily at the marten, then the skunk. Muri frowned as he leaned down to reach for his reins, “This has nothing to do with your quest, so set aside that holier than thou attitude. If there are Questioners out there you’re the one we need to understand what in the hells they are doing.” Muri growled as a dozen horses were led from the livery by pale-faced, fearful stable hands. They could hear the master groom inside yelling to get other horses saddled. Vinsah looked up at the skunk’s human face, seeing at the barest edge of his perception the angular lines of his real face under the illusion. The sun had finally dropped below the western horizon, leaving the skunk’s face framed by the light of the lantern hanging over the livery door.

He found he could not argue with the skunk’s truthful, if seemingly harsh, words. His Lady had said that he must walk on his journey, but this was not his journey, it was not, as Malger had said, their fight. He glanced toward the inn as he heard the sound of running feet and jumbled voices, witnessing a mob charging toward them waving torches. Suddenly, a flash from his dreams came to him, an image of his mentor and friend, Akabaieth, leading troops upon a small Sathmoran village. Those were the days before he had come to know that was not Eli’s ways, and before he had become Patriarch. He had turned from those ways, and under his wise leadership the Ecclesia had finally moved away from those practices, but the sight of the man with the arrows of the Yesbearn in his back brought all of that crashing down on him once more.

Had the Ecclesia fallen back upon old ways so swiftly?

Grabbing Muri’s arm, he stuck a foot in the stirrup and hauled himself up into the saddle behind the skunk. Though he could not see it, he could feel the skunk’s thick tail pressed firmly against his gut, draped off to one side. They draw their mounts away from the crowd as more horses were brought out and people began mounting. Torches hissed and guttered in the chill night breeze, casting ghostly shadows against the walls of the caravansary. Other people began gathering as well, armed and armoured with a collection of eclectic items and materials.

“How far is Deep Springs?” Malger asked a rider that sidled up alongside them on a fidgety draft horse that was unused to the weight of the saddle on her back.

“Just shy of three leagues, it’ll take us most of the night to get there.” The man said as he tried to keep his mount under reign. “It’s near full dark, the moon is just a sliver, so the road will be difficult to see. We could run these horses, the road is not a bad one, but Keleran does not want us to risk them in case we have to come back to defend Estravalle.”

“We can run the horses as long as they’ll bear us.” Muri said as he drew up before the man’s large mount and captured her bridle with one hand. Horses around them stamped and snorted, milling around in confused disarray as those making the journey selected their steeds. A light bloomed above their heads, steady and bright, but Vinsah never saw the skunk make a motion or utter a word to create it. Hands went up to shield eyes as the mob looked warily at the blinding glow that banished the torch shadows and lit the plaza with the brightness of noon sun. “I can offer light.”

“You a mage?” Keleran asked as his antsy steed danced on the flagstones, eager to stretch its legs.

“I am, milord.” Muri offered as he released the other man’s horse once he got it under control.

“Good, stick close at my side.” He danced his horse in a tight circle as he stood high in his stirrups. “Gather around! We don’t know what we’re riding into, so be ready for anything! The good mage here will light our path, so douse your torches. If you fall behind you can light them and catch up.” He sat back into his saddle and spun his horse toward the roadway, then urged his mount forward with a wave of his arm. With a flick of the reins and poke of his toeclaws, Muri goaded his mount to follow. Vinsah grasped tightly around the skunk’s waist as the horse heaved under him, grunting as his chin struck firmly between Muri’s shoulerblades. It was going to be a long, rough trip.

And it was, very rough. They raced headlong into the night, the bright light of Muri’s magic floating along silently above them. Vinsah could not lean far enough back to keep his head muzzle from hammering into Muri’s back, so drew himself forward and hung on tightly, pressing the side of his head against the back of the skunk’s neck. Thankfully, the skunk’s heavy tail acted as a cushion against all but the most painful of jostling. Only once did Muri slow, dropping back to create a second glowing sphere of light for the slower horses that fell behind.

The large party that left Estravalle was winnowed down to a mere six mounts by the time they drew near the burning village of Deep Springs almost an hour later. Towering plumes of smoke rose above the crumbling remains of outlying houses and farms. They slowed as they passed the burning heap that was once a large house, staring with mute horror at the crumpled bodies strewn about in the garden. Adults and children, the ground around each stained dark.

“What vile work is this?” Keleran moaned as their horses snorted at the stench of death and fire. “These folk were no danger to anyone, few of them even bore weapons.”

Vinsah could only close his eyes and rest his brow against Muri’s back, suffering terrible visions from his dreams. He mentally crossed himself and prayed fervently for the salvation of those deceased souls, and the salvation of his own. Only two decades past he had been party to atrocities as vile as those his eyes now witnessed, though he had never raised a weapon nor condemned any to death by his voice. But he had stood aside, mute witness to the devastation that Akabaieth and others that had been like him in those days had once believed the path of Righteousness, slaughtering those who did not swear to Eli and the Ecclesia.

The raccoon bishop looked up as Muri’s steed finally came to a stop, his heart quailing anew at the sight that greeted his weeping eyes. Five crosses stood in the centre of the common square that had once been the centre of Deep Springs. Upon each cross was hung a man by his feet, his head toward the ground in the ultimate desecration of ancient penance. Slack arms dangled below the man’s head, hands dark with the blood seeping from slashed wrists. The men were gird only about the loins with tattered rags, their flesh crisscrossed with the weals and bleeding slashes of scourge marks.

Keleran dropped from his saddle without bothering to halt his steed, striding over the corpses lying inert upon the ground around the crosses. Two men from Estravalle, swords drawn, paused and examined the bodies for signs of life. Malger dismounted slowly, looking around in mute horror as Muri helped Vinsah down from their shared mount. The unwavering illumination of Muri’s witchlight revealed the atrocity in gristly detail. Only two buildings remained standing in the entire village; the follower chapel on one side of the commons and the remains of the Lightbringer temple across from it. The chapel was untouched, the stained glass above the entry unbroken. The temple fared less well. The columns supporting the vaulted stone roof lay in shattered ruins around its foundation, the roof collapsed into the heart of the temple. The tortured foundation groaned under the unbalanced weight, the stone slabs cracking with loud, thunderous pops.

Vinsah followed Muri toward the crosses, stepping pensively over scattered corpses of simple village people. The greater number appeared to have had their throats slit, but he was horrified that others had been hewn like firewood by a dull axe, their partially severed limbs pointing in unnatural directions. He felt his gorge rise and fought it down, crossing himself as he closed his eyes and whispered a prayer.

“Help me here!” Keleran yelled as he tried to hoist one of the battered bodies dangling from the crosses. The limp form was lashed to the apex of the cross with twine that sliced deeply into his ankles, too high for anyone to reach with a sword to cut. The wood appeared too thin to climb, but Malger scrambled up it with ease, owing to having claws on both hands and feet. He used a dagger to sever the twine and dropped back down as the lord of Estravalle and two others caught the falling body. “Lothanasi Markadath still lives.”

Vinsah hurried over and knelt beside the man as they gently laid him upon the blood soaked earth. He could see immediately that there was nothing he could do, the man was too close to death, his wounds too grievous. He looked to Malger standing nearby with a pained expression on his face. He was at a loss, for his knowledge of medicine was too rudimentary for such grievous wounds, and he knew nothing of the Lightbringers and their rituals of passage. Malger could only shake his head slowly.

Vinsah looked back down and gasped as he found himself looking into a pair of strikingly blue eyes, bloodshot with the stress of his torture. His jaw worked soundlessly for several moments as Vinsah leaned close. He knew that the man was not long for the world so asking him to restrain himself would be senseless if there was something of import he was trying to convey. “T- temple.” The man managed to gasp, blood foaming from the corners of his mouth as his eyes pierced Vinsah’s soul.

“I am sorry, Lothanasi, but the temple is razed.” Vinsah said softly as Keleran gave the man’s shoulder a gentle squeeze and moved on to see if anyone else still lived. The dying man’s brow furrowed as he managed a meagre shake of his head, shortening his already shallow breathing.

“Temple… cellar.” He gasped, eyes rolling up for a moment as he fought to keep conscious. “Shelter in…. cellar.” Vinsah rocked back on his heels as the import of the doomed man’s last words hit home. He looked toward the temple with a surge of panic when he heard the sharp sound of cracking stone.

“Muri!” he called to the skunk who knelt near a ravaged corpse several paces away. Vinsah’s mind refused to recognise the torn clothing draped over the bloody, dismembered corpse as the robes of a follower priest. “There may be people hiding beneath the temple.” By the time he returned his attention to the Lothanasi the man’s life had fled, his eyes losing the arresting blue gleam as they stared unseeing at Muri’s floating light. Vinsah bowed his head, unsure how to bless the passing of the man who was not of his faith, but who did not deserve the death that had been visited upon him by an unknown Questioner of the Ecclesia.

Muri nodded as he stood and made his way over to the heap that remained of the Lightbringer temple. Malger walked up to stand beside him with another man from Estravalle. “The spirits have fled from the land here.” Muri said as he looked at the slowly settling temple. Even as they watched one of the overstrained, toppled pillars cracked and shattered pieces of stone rained down from it.

“What do you mean?” Malger asked as the other man rubbed his face with one hand, smearing bloody dirt into his beard and across his brow without noticing.

“Who ever exorcised this place has chased them from the earth, at least for the time being. They will return, but it will not be anytime soon.” The skunk explained as he stepped up onto a toppled pillar and hopped down to the littered earth on the other side. “I will not learn anything from the land.”

Malger nodded slowly as he heaved a breath, his foppish clothes stained and torn. “Ears and nose then. If you find anything give a yell.” He said as he started off toward one corner of the temple with the man from Estravalle trailing in his wake. Muri scratched his head as he turned and went the other direction, not noticing as a hank of shed fur fell from his fingers.

The slow, tortured grinding noise of stone sliding against stone rumbled subtly as he walked slowly around the foundation of the large temple, looking for any sort of entrance where refugees may have fled to when the invaders arrived. After several minutes he stopped and crouched, brows furrowing as he strained to hear what he thought were voices. It took several seconds before the sound did resolve into the muffled, whimpered cries of terrified people, trying to stay quiet for fear of being found by the invaders.

Creeping slowly through the rubble, he peered into every dark hole he came across, a small candle glow darting around into the shadowed depths like a lost firefly. After some minutes he found a hole that went deeper into the ruins than he could see. Leaning close he could smell the sweaty, pungent stench of humans and fear. Unfortunately the hole was barely large enough for his head, it was more a chimney than any sort of actual passage. He rocked back on his heels and looked around, spying Malger coming around the near corner alone.

“I found a hole, but it’s a small one. I’m not sure if it goes all the way inside.” He said as the bard came to stand beside him. They both regarded the hole pensively as the quiet whimpering within fell silent. “They’re afraid that we’re still the inquisitioners.” The skunk said with a frown.

“Inquisitioners?” Malger grunted, voice surprised.

Muri shrugged as he looked around furtively, then began undoing the laces of his shirt. “That’s what I learned to call them. Questioners and other powerful missionaries who use torture and fear to bring new souls to the faith on fear of death.” He said as he shrugged out of his shirt and then began with the buttons of his leggings. “I’m going to see how far I can get in through this hole.”

“Apt title for those who sacked this place.” Malger agreed as he looked back toward the commons where Vinsah and the others were still dealing with the suspended lightbringers. “You’re going to shift down to animal form?”

Muri nodded as he pulled his leggings off and draped them over his shirt. “Tell Vinsah. I might need you two to come down in here. Leastwise you’ll need to show them where to start digging.” Biting his lower lip, Muri took a steadying breath and took his mithril pendant off, his illusion vanishing as he did. He handed it to Malger and then turned back to the ragged gap in the stones. A short distance down into the hole the dim candle glow of his witchlight gleamed and shifted about as if anxious to get moving again.

Shifting away from his humanoid form was not something Muri had ever done particularly much because it always left him with an uneasy feeling that he might get stuck that way. It was a natural form to him, at least, unlike the ‘taur forms that he had seen a few at the Keep adopt in the past months. He recalled the sight of the rat Goldmark rampaging among a mob of lutins in the form of a huge rat with a humanoid torso. It only took him a couple of seconds to shrink from a barely five foot tall half-human skunk to a barely foot-and-a-half tall normal skunk. Shaking out his fur he glanced back at the huge form of Malger nearby, then shambled into the now gaping maw leading down below the temple.

That his vison was a hazy, shortsighted monochromatic panorama was one reason he disliked his natural form. Having only one eye, unable to see much to his left at all did nothing to make him favour it more. Still, his sense of smell and hearing were greatly heightened and his whiskers granted him another strange sense of touch that enhanced his blind side. He could smell the fear of the people ahead, the stench of stale, hot air and sweat. He banished his witchlight with a brief thought, stopping for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.

While the people trapped in the temple might be happy to see the light, expecting rescue, he did not expect that they would be particularly receptive of a skunk following that light. Squeezing his way through small, tight gaps, he followed his nose deeper into the stones of the temple, using powerful claws to dig aside debris that blocked his path. It took him several long minutes to weave his way through the narrow passage before he sensed a void before him and could hear the furtive, hushed voices of the refugees trapped below the temple.

“Mamma Terri, something’s trying to get in here.” He heard one quiet, scared whisper from the mouth of a young girl very close by.

“Just an animal, dear, now be quiet and leave it alone.” Another voice, older and matronly, chided just as quietly, voice strained with fear. Perched at the lip of the hole, Muri steeled himself against the expected pain and focussed on his mage vision to reveal the room before him.

A sharp spear of throbbing pain lanced through the left side of his skull, causing him to clench his teeth as he looked around hastily. The cellar was packed with bodies, too many for him to count, mostly children and a few adults. Dim glimmerings of old magic caught his attention here and there, but nothing of any great power. The surrounding flow of raw spiritual energies was a tangled chaos, the usual smooth patterns warped and tattered by the death and destruction tainting it.

The structure of the temple actually had a magic of its own drawn in by years of ritual and faith, allowing him to locate the danger almost immediately. The magic of the place flowed to the pillars standing in the middle of the open cellar trying to support the uneven weight of the fallen roof above. Already some had buckled and the ceiling was bowed dangerously, the weave of magic interlacing the stones coursing madly into the cracks as if trying to keep the failing slabs together. Though they knew their danger, the people trapped in the cellar could not see how dire their situation really was.

Muri scrambled awkwardly from the hole and let out a startled, animalistic cry as what he thought was a stable path down to the floor turned out to be little more than a slender sliver of unbalanced shelving. Head over tail he tumbled down the remaining shelves and crashed against a yielding body, earning a startled cry to echo his startled musteline chirps. He could sense bodies hastily moving away from him as he backed hastily into the wall and regained his balance, seeking someplace where he could be of use shoring up the weakened stones.

“Hello down below!” a voice echoed from above, pulling attention swiftly away from the skunk as everyone went suddenly silent. “Hello! Is anyone alive down there? This is Keleran!”

“Lord Keleran!” someone in the darkness cried out, their voice breaking into sobbing cries as people scrambled toward the hole.

“Lord Keleran, are the Questioners gone? Did you kill them?” someone else yelled. No one paid any heed to the skunk working its way along one wall. Their attention was focussed upon the distant, echoing voice of Estravalle’s lord coming to the rescue.

“They are gone! Hold on, we’re going to dig you out.”

“Quickly, Lord Keleran, the temple is falling in on us!”

Finding a relatively clear corner near a weakened pillar, Muri shifted back to his humanoid form, drawing himself carefully out of the way so that no one would step on or bump into him. He gritted his teeth against the sustained pain of holding his mage sight and prepared himself to endure even greater agony. Taking a deep breath and swallowing the fearful lump in his throat, he reached out for the tangled skein of unbound energies and gathered them to himself. Immediately the pain of his mage sight was forgotten as his head felt as if it were about to split like the stones he hoped to save. His control wavered as he fought against the agony, magic spinning loose from his grasp as he sought to bind it into a usable form.

For several long, tense minutes he fought the elusiveness of the tangled energies and his own blinding pain before he was able to weave the magic back outward among the pillars. Somewhere above a shuddering groan boomed through the heavy stones, filling the stuffy darkness of the cellar with choking dust and terrified cries. Even Muri felt a moment of heart stopping fear as he saw a distant pillar flare with tortured energies, then slowly crumble. People scattered from the doomed pillar, but the floor above held and no one was apparently injured by the crumbling rock. The energies needed to shore up the remaining supports doubled, putting further strain and pain on him as he pushed himself back against the wall, his paws braced on stone slabs to either side.

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