June 30, 707 CR.
Rickkter cast a glance at the walls around him as he stepped into the entrance hall of the Lightbringer temple, examining the ornamental script that covered both sides of the passage. While his knowledge of Old Tongue was not as sharp as it could have been, he could understand enough of it to decipher the main text that circled the room in flowing red Elvish letters: "In defense of the Light we make our home herein, shepherds of the pass where Darkness came once and shall come again. May we be ever vigilant to stand against it. May the Lady who rules herein grant us favor."
A noble statement, that. What a pity that the Lothanasi, like so many other religions in the world, so rarely seemed to live up to such lofty ideals.
Passing through the hallway he came to the second set of double doors, which marked the entrance to the temple hall. Like those at the mouth of the entrance hall, these were currently open. The temple opened to supplicants at the third hour after dawn, but a quick glance around the hall showed that there were no worshippers present at the moment. Just as well, considering Rick's purpose today.
Rick's boots echoed against the grey stone floor as he stepped further into the hall, toward the altar and the twin cross mounted behind it. The amulet around his neck tingled with energy, tickling the fur that rested next to the chain. The presence knew perfectly well why he had come to this place, but it did not stop him. Often it played the part of a passive observer -- and even though Rickkter fought in a effort to extricate himself from the "bargain", it did nothing to stop him. You can't blame me for trying, he thought, suppressing a snarl.
Just then Rickkter heard the sound of footsteps behind him. Turning around, he saw a young woman come out of one of the priests' rooms on the west side of the hall, heading for the main entrance. She had long auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail and was dressed in the grey robes of a Lightbringer initiate. Rick raised an eyebrow at that: he hadn't heard that Raven had taken on any new pupils since Merai.
"Excuse me," he said.
The initiate stopped and turned around. She had quite an attractive face -- albeit an unusual one -- with well-defined, somewhat angular features and large eyes that were so dark they appeared black. She arched one eyebrow at him curiously. "Aye, sir?" she asked.
Rickkter walked over to her, examining her aura as he did so. She was definitely a newcomer to the temple: her aura sparkled with unusual vitality, as well as a few overtones that Rick had never seen before. He would have liked to examine those aspects a bit more closely, but the magic of the Curse lay over everything else like an obscuring blanket, hiding the fine details from view -- and a direct probing, to reveal what lay beneath, would be an unwise breach of protocol.
"Is the Lothanasa available?" he asked, putting aside his curiosity for now. "I would like to speak with her for a moment, if I could."
The woman shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir, but the Mistress has gone to spend the morning with Master Wanderer. She won't be back until after lunch."
Rick frowned, a slight growl rumbling in his throat, and not just from the news. The initiate was clearly not from the Valley -- the accent in her speech was all wrong. Her r's carried a distinct trill, unlike the precise clipping that was more characteristic of Metamorian speech, and her frictives had a strange aspect to them, as well.
"You're new here, aren't you?" he asked.
"Aye, sir. I just arrived here last week."
"In that case, welcome to Metamor, my lady," Rick said, quirking a smile as he bowed to her. "My name is Rickkter."
"Tessariel," she replied, nodding once in acknowledgment. "Call me Tessa."
Rick perked his ears at that. "That's an unusual name you've chosen for yourself," he said.
"Most gendermorphs pick something similar to their birth name. 'Tis Elvish, is it not?" "Aye," she said, nodding again. "It means Willow."
"A lovely name for a lovely young lady -- if you don't mind my saying so," Rick said, grinning. "Where are you from?"
"East," Tessa replied cryptically. "Not far from Salinon."
"Ahh." It had been years since Rick had been anywhere near Salinon, but he could recall enough aspects of the dialect to recognize some similarity. There were still marked differences between what he remembered of that accent and the one used by Tessariel, but that could be due to local variations between towns. In any event, it wasn't worth concerning himself with any longer. "Well, Tessa, if Raven is absent, then I don't suppose there is anything you can do for me."
"What about me?"
Rickkter looked up to see Merai walking into the temple, feline tail waving lazily behind her. She smiled warmly at him as she approached. "Good morning, Rickkter. What brings you here?"
"Research, my lady," he said, bowing again. "When I was here during the siege in December I came across a book in your Archives that caught my interest. I was hoping to examine it again, along with a few works that it made reference to -- if you could grant permission for me to do so, of course."
Merai flicked an ear back and gazed at him speculatively, arms crossed. "You cannot find this book at the Keep's main library?"
"Believe me, I have tried. As large as it is, the Keep library has very few books about the Lightbringers, and even fewer written by them."
"Of course. We keep them to ourselves so they won't be damaged," Merai said with a smirk. "I suppose I could let you into the Archives, but I shall have to go with you. Sister Raven probably would not approve if I were to leave you to run unchecked through our chambers."
"Perhaps not." Rick nodded, suppressing a smile. Knowing Merai, she was probably far more concerned with satisfying her own curiosity than with making sure he didn't cause any trouble. "Lead the way, then." He turned to the woman next to him and bowed again. "A pleasure to meet you, Tessa."
"Likewise," she said, returning the gesture.
Rickkter followed Merai back out into the hallway and through the nearest door on the left-hand side of the passage. They walked down a short corridor to a spiral staircase, which took them down to the first level of the Archives. The gas lamps that lined the room were already lit, and around twenty acolytes could be seen at the desks that took up much of the chamber's floor space, copying and illuminating manuscripts of older, decaying books and scrolls. Other acolytes walked here and there among the many bookshelves, making notes on small writing tablets.
"Sister Raven has instructed the acolytes to take a complete inventory of the contents of the Archives," Merai explained quietly. "Those works that are in poor condition are being recopied and enchanted with preservation wards so that they won't decay again."
"A wise idea," Rick acknowledged, pausing for a moment to admire the swirling patterns of blue, red, green and gold being applied to the margins of a newly copied manuscript. The young boy laid down the colored ink quickly and expertly, with the obvious touch of a skilled artist. Leaves, flowers, fruits and animals took shape as he worked, wrapping around each other and weaving back and forth to create a rich and vibrant border around the carefully lettered text.
"Impressive work," Rick said.
"Thank you, son," the acolyte replied. Rick raised an eyebrow at that, but then the child looked up with a kindly smile that seemed oddly out of place on his boyish features. Rick immediately realized that the acolyte must be far older than he seemed.
"When you've been doing this for thirty years, you tend to become good at it," the boy said.
"Indeed," Rick chuckled. Leaving the acolyte to his work, he turned to the bookshelves to begin his search.
After taking a moment to orient himself Rickkter headed down the south wall of the chamber, stopping at a set of shelves about two-thirds of the way back. He scanned over the books for about a minute before he spotted the title he wanted and pulled it out. Carrying the green leather-bound tome over to an unoccupied study table, he set it gently down and flipped through the first few pages. He quickly found a table of contents -- a very lucky find in a book this old -- and turned to the section that had caught his interest last winter.
"What is it?" Merai asked.
"A text on comparative religion. This was written about two hundred years ago by Magnus the Wise. Among other things, it contains the first analysis of the Way conducted by the Lothanasi."
"Pity that we didn't know where that was a few years ago," Merai observed. "It might have made our dealings with the Followers a bit easier."
"I doubt it would tell you much that you don't already know. Magnus had relatively little information to work with, which limited his ability to draw any solid conclusions. He was a cautious researcher, as might be expected."
Merai nodded. "So why did the book catch your interest?"
"Because Magnus was extremely thorough about quoting his sources," Rick said, pointing to a spot in the text. "Notice how he mentions the author's name and the year in which the work was written. At the end of each chapter there is a full description of each of the documents he cited." He flipped to the end of the chapter, scanning through the names and titles listed there until he came to the one he was looking for. "Here we are: 'Tolanes, "Balance as a focus of oracular prophecy", 478 C.R.' That's what we're looking for."
"Sounds rather dry," Merai noted wryly.
"Most scholarly works are," Rick agreed, closing the book and returning it to its place on the shelf. "But sages tend to demonstrate great wisdom about matters most people never consider, so their writings are worth the work it takes to read them." He brushed the dust off his paws on his breeches, then turned to Merai. "Any idea where we might find the Commentaries of Tolanes in here?"
Finding the Commentaries turned out to be rather more difficult than Rickkter had hoped. While the Archives were laid out in more or less chronological order, with lower levels housing the older and more precious manuscripts, and each level was itself divided up into topical sections, none of those divisions were labeled and no comprehensive index existed -- which was, no doubt, why Raven had the acolytes working so intensely to compile one. So it was that Rick found himself walking down row after row of dusty bookshelves, Merai at his side, as they searched for Tolanes' hermeneutic writings.
"I'm surprised that Kyia is letting you go this far down," Merai mused as they descended the staircase into the third level of the Archives. "Most visitors are stopped at the first level. Even I couldn't reach the second floor until I became a priestess." "Maybe Kyia thinks this is worth our attention."
"Perhaps." The priestess was silent a moment, then turned to him curiously. "What _is_ this all about, anyway?"
Rick approached the nearest bookcase and began scanning titles. This section was apparently a collection of biographies from priests of the fifth century -- right time period, wrong topic. They were probably close, in any event.
"Do you remember the Canticle of Eli, Merai, the book I was reading in the library during the siege?" he asked.
"A little. Not much," Merai admitted. "I borrowed a copy from the library last January, but I had little time to study it closely before it had to be returned."
"Remember when I was looking at the book the Followers call the Apocalypse of Jhovannion?"
"I glanced at it." She smirked. "Typical prophecy, for the most part -- utterly confusing. Although you did say it purported to tell of the end of the world."
"And that is what caught the attention of Magnus." Rick turned to face her, gesturing with one paw. "Even though the Lothanasi don't believe in an end to the world, their oracles have prophesied a number of terrible battles between Light and Darkness," he explained. "These battles are supposed to restore the balance of Good and Evil, to drive the pendulum back toward the center. Magnus contrasted those battles with the Last Battle described in Jhovannion's Apocalypse. That was the subject of the chapter I showed you. The passage he cited from Tolanes is what sparked my interest, as he used one of the Lightbringers' core prophecies to do it."
"What was it? A passage describing one of these battles the prophets foresaw?"
"Aye," Rick nodded. "As I said, it was a core prophecy: that means that it is an event so monumental it could shake the very foundation of your whole religion, if not the whole world. The last such prophecy to be fulfilled foretold the war between the Elves and the Suielman Empire, which altered the political landscape of the whole western half of this continent. Also, these prophecies tend to be given not by one, but by numerous prophets through the centuries, each elaborating on or contradicting what went on before. As you know, until a prophecy is fulfilled, all you have are degrees of certainty."
Rubbing a paw over the spine of a book, Rickkter leaned close to examine the title before going on. "Tolanes apparently wrote his commentary on the most widely reported and accepted version of the prophecy, and Magnus draws some very interesting parallels between it and the Apocalypse. In case you're wondering, the generally accepted name for it is the Starchild Prophecy."
Rick heard Merai gasp. "Starchild," she whispered. "Elenin..." The 'coon turned around slowly and looked at her. "That would be the Elvish word, aye," he said. "Where have you heard of it?"
"... I was told, once," Merai managed, gazing back at him with wide, intent eyes. "What do you know of it?"
Rick gazed at her a moment before turning back to search for Tolanes. "Not as much as I'd like," he admitted. "I have an interest in the occult, and that particular prophecy interests me because it has been written of so widely, and not just by Lightbringers. However, I have never found a copy of the original base prophecy, or even an accurate reproduction of it. Supposedly it was given by the Oracle Silvinia, around five hundred years ago. Originally it was a fairly short poem, but later revelations expanded on what the Oracle had initially foreseen. Some were even partial or total revisions. Everything I've read about it has been second-hand or worse, though. I was hoping I might have more luck here, as this library seems to be a veritable warehouse of the original sources."
"Well, with Kyia here to protect us, Metamor had long been regarded as the safest place in the Midlands to store such things..." Merai said, her voice eventually trailing off.
Rickkter paid little attention, and they shortly reached the section he desired. They spent the next several minutes searching before they at last came upon the Commentaries of Tolanes, a set of some twenty-odd volumes analyzing the prophecies and holy texts of the Lothanasi. Rick found the tome he needed and pulled it out, scanning through until he located the passage Magnus had mentioned.
"Ah, very nice," he said, displaying it so that Merai could read alongside him. Tolanes' version of Common was fairly archaic, but still understandable to modern eyes.
"In the Starchilde's allies be balance displayed, for divers be their natures. Called by power divine, their union were a wonder else. The great Oracle does show their nature true in the names she does give to them. Wolf, shrewd predator, is yoked by Horse, though her nature bids it not. With Rat she joins, that does hide and slink through shadow, beyond Artela's ken. Washer, too, is called, guardian of Starchilde. Brute he appears, kin to Rat in darkness, with bite more fierce and teeth more potent. Beast of prey and carrion beast he is, he cares not whence come his meals. Protector of Starchilde, ennobled then, from Darkness moved to Light. Balance returned, in small as in great."
Rick and Merai stared at the text for a long time before Rickkter snapped the tome shut and shoved it back onto the shelf. "Damn, I hate prophecy," he muttered, stalking off a short distance.
"What's a Washer?" the priestess asked, her voice barely above a whisper. Rick was silent for a long moment, his arms folded across his chest, before he turned back. " 'Tis an old name for a raccoon," he growled.
The two locked gazes. Merai's feline eyes were wide and anxious. "Rickkter ... I'm getting scared," she breathed.
Rickkter looked down and shook his head, a small smile crossing his muzzle. He gazed up at her. "Milady Starchild, I presume," he said.
The rest of their attempts at research were largely fruitless; Tolanes only devoted a few paragraphs of his treatise to the Starchild Prophecy, and he was not so careful as Magnus about reporting his sources. They tried for a time to locate any further commentary on the Starchild in Tolanes' other volumes, but the collection was simply too large to read thoroughly in the time allowed. Soon Rick's stomach began to warn that noon was approaching, or rather had already past, and reluctantly he and Merai made their way back up to the temple.
"I'm sorry it wasn't all you hoped it would be," Merai said. "I shall try to continue the research myself, and if I find anything of note you will be the first to know."
"I appreciate it," Rick said, and meant it. "When you're the focus of an ancient prophecy of apparently tremendous importance, it helps to know what's expected of you."
"I would have to agree with that," the priestess said wryly, though the mirth did not reach her eyes. Rick could see a deep-seated worry in her aura, the sense that a heavy weight had just been placed firmly on her shoulders. "Have you found anything more about yourself in the books you've studied?" she asked.
Rick hesitated. "Aye," he said at last. "That's why I have been trying to find the complete text of the original prophecy. There are several conflicting points, a great many revolving around the animal participants in the version you saw. All but the most credible sources lack any description of the participants except to give criteria by which they may be known, deeds they have performed. Even those disagree on the particulars. Great Maker, there are even a few versions with different outcomes, in which the darkness overcomes the light. What I want to find is the original, so that I know for certain who it is about." He paused, cocking his head to the side. "And exactly what happens to them."
"Because depending on which version you subscribe to, the wolf/teacher, the washer/guardian, the horse/lord, and even the Starchild herself, will die. In each version I have ever seen, one or more dies. Never do all of them live."
Merai stumbled over her own feet. For a long moment she stood there, speechless. "Every one?" she managed at last.
"Do you think there's any way out of it?"
With a grimace, Rick turned and strode toward the last flight of stairs.
"I hope so."
Rick and Merai climbed the staircase and walked out of the side passage into the main entrance hall of the temple. A familiar figure stood there waiting for them, leaning back against the opposite wall.
"Good morrow, Rickkter," Raven said, nodding to him in acknowledgment. An enigmatic smile played on the corners of her muzzle. "Tessa advised me of your arrival. I hope you found all you were looking for."
"Yes and no, Lothanasa," Rick said, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the wall. "Not nearly all, I fear. But then again, I didn't expect to find what I was looking for."
"A shame to hear that. Perhaps once we have completed the cataloging and rearrangement of the Archives you will be able to look again and discover what you sought." Raven's expression shifted subtly, and she tilted her head slightly to one side. "In exchange for the access we've given you today, could you spare me a few moments in my office? There is a matter I would like your counsel on."
Rick frowned a little at that, but nodded. "Very well. Lead the way." The Lightbringer turned and strode back into the temple hall, thence to her private chambers on its west side. Rick followed, walking through a corridor that bent to the right past a large storage closet until he came to Raven's richly furnished office.
Raven walked behind her desk, drew out a black piece of folded cloth from one of the drawers, and handed it across to Rickkter. "What do you make of this?" she asked. Rick unfolded the cloth -- then felt his eyes widen in surprise as he saw what was on it. It was the symbol of a Southlands clan -- that much was obvious -- and its elements were a mixture of the familiar and the foreign. Against the black of the cloth lay a red shield with a white hand inscribed on it, palm facing outward. In the center of the palm was a large red eye. Lines radiated out from the eye above and below, indicating its all-seeing nature.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, scowling at the device as he traced a claw along the contours of the stitching.
"Off of the body of a would-be assassin," Raven said, eyes distant. "He was dressed in a black robe and tunic, with neither cape nor cowl. That symbol was on the left breast and the cuff of either sleeve. He and several others like him tried to kill me and Merai during our recent journey." She focused her gaze on him. "Do you recognize it?"
He glanced down once more at the emblem and shook his head. "Yes and no. For the most part, it resembles the emblem of the Sondeckis, except here there is --"
"-- an eye in place of the sword," Raven finished. "Aye, I know. I had thought that the Sondeckis might have a sister clan, or perhaps a faction that had broken away from them and adopted a different symbol."
"Sister, no. The Sondeckis keep their matters very, very personal. As for a splinter faction..." He ran his claw around the edge of the eye. "Not that I know of. Of course," he conceded, "I have been away from the Southlands for some years now. Considering the turmoil of the region, there could have been a recent split in the clan that I haven't heard of. However, that's only happened once before, and they didn't last long before the Sondeckis themselves cleaned up the matter. Like misers, they keep their business to themselves."
"And the same is true of your people, no doubt," Raven said, nodding. "And of the Lightbringers, as well." She perked an ear curiously. "So, what do you think? Were they genuine, or imposters?"
Rick rubbed the fabric between his fingers. "I'm not sure," he said. "If I were talking to almost anyone else, I would say they must be fakes. There are few individuals who could survive an encounter with a group of Blacks bent on their destruction, no matter what clan they were from. But I'm not totally convinced they're Sondeckis, either. How did they attack you?"
"Initially, they attacked the temple where we were staying with arrows tipped with explosive rune-stones." Raven bowed her head. "Many acolytes died as a result." The priestess seemed to gather herself for a moment before continuing. "After Merai and I escaped they pursued us on horseback, armed with swords and bows. Artela helped us to eliminate some of them, but more came after us some days later. We lost them by fleeing into the Dark Forest."
Rickkter raised his eyebrows. "Elderwood? That was a bold move." "We had little choice," the wolf-woman said wryly. "So, are you any nearer a decision on these men?" She nodded at the cloth.
Rickkter unfurled the cloth once more and gazed at the symbol. "No. Swords and bows are not at all typical of the Sondeckis -- they prefer to use their staves and bare hands. Explosive runes are outside their usual purview, as well. Of course, if this is a splinter faction, they may have decided to make use of methods their brothers usually reject." "And since Zagrosek was seen in the company of a Runecaster, 'tis not implausible that they could find a similar mage to enchant their weapons for them," Raven added. "Or they may have such a mage themselves," Rick pointed out. "The all-seeing eye suggests a devotion to things secret or hidden, and that often implies a strong connection to the magical arts." He turned the symbol toward Raven. "In addition, there is a strange type of magic on this cloth. It's not Sondecki and it's not clerical, I can tell you that. But from the feel of it, it is definitely masking something underneath."
"I noticed that also." Raven sighed, shaking her head. "I've tried to untangle the weave of the spell but with no success. We seem to be no nearer an answer than before."
"Unfortunately, no." Rick let the scrap of cloth fall onto the desk. "If you want my advice, I would suggest that you be very careful if you make any further trips to the Midlands. Assume these men are Sondeckis, or something like them, until you have occasion to prove it one way or the other -- but be on guard for surprises, as well. If you encounter them again, use long-range spells to keep them at a distance for as long as possible, since close combat is their strength. Wear enchanted armor, if you have any -- it may absorb their blows, if indeed they have the Sondeck and decide to make use of it." Raven nodded. "I appreciate the advice," she said, showing a small but grateful smile. She straightened and walked back around her desk, heading for the door. "Thank you, Rickkter, you've been most helpful."
"I wish I could do more, Lothanasa," Rick said, bowing again. "One question, before I go..."
Raven looked back at him, ears perking forward. "Aye?"
"Where did you and Merai go this spring? And where did you find that woman Tessa?" The priestess seemed to ponder something for a long moment before coming to a decision. "Will you swear to speak of this to no one save Merai and myself?" she asked. Rick raised an eyebrow at that, but nodded. "I swear it."
Raven took a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh. "We went to the Forest of the Elder Race," she said. Her eyes narrowed and suddenly hardened. "A Turguroth -- and a Bale, no less -- was trying to open a new Dark Nexus in that holy wood. The king of that land entreated us to aid in stopping him."
Rickkter blinked. "The Elf-lord asked a human for help?"
"Aye. It seems that their priesthood has fallen into shambles since they withdrew from the Order. We entered the Bale's tower and destroyed him. Unfortunately, the last Elven priest perished in the fight." She nodded back toward the temple hall. "Tessa was his apprentice. She came back with us to learn the ways of the Lightbringers."
"She's an Elf?"
Rickkter nodded, suddenly realizing that he had never seen Tessa's ears when he spoke to her -- they had been covered up by her hair. "I wondered about her, when I saw her aura," he said. "Well, Lothanasa, it seems you had quite an adventure. Destroyed a Bale, saved the Elves and gained a new apprentice in one stroke. Most impressive."
"And a bloody close-run thing, as well," Raven said, in all seriousness. "The Turguroth was a fiercer opponent even than the Moranasi we fought a few months ago. But we won, praise Artela -- and thanks in no small part to Merai. In the end, she was the one who unmade him -- summoned pure sunlight to her hand and burned him to ashes. It was Yajiit's power, of course, but I believe she invented the spell herself, at that very moment."
Rick shook his head, genuinely impressed. "That girl is a wonder."
"Aye." Raven cocked an eyebrow. "I take it you know something of who she is."
Rickkter froze for an instant before looking up at her with a curious expression. "I'm sorry? All I know is that she is a Keeper, a lovely girl, and, apparently, an exceptionally talented cleric."
Raven clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "Now, I know better than that, Rickkter. You and she were off looking at the Starchild Prophecy today."
His ears lowered to the back of his head and the raccoon glared at her. Eventually he conceded and nodded. "We found a book in your Archives today that hinted at it strongly. I assume you have the original Prophecy here, as well?"
Raven gave him another one of her enigmatic half-smiles. "Somewhere," she said. Rick snorted. "Figures." He turned to leave.
He turned around. Raven's expression was serious.
"I know that we have had our ... disagreements ... in the past," she said, looking regretful. "I was to blame for some of them, I shall admit. I hope that we can put them behind us -- for Merai's sake, if nothing else."
Rick chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip for a moment, then nodded. "Just do your best to watch out for her, Lothanasa. If you've started digging into that prophecy, then you know the role it lays out for you. You also know that if the daedra get their claws on her, it's over... for all of us."
Raven nodded. "I shall. I know I can trust you to do the same ... Guardian Washer." She smiled a little at the last.
Rick grunted at that, then nodded and headed for the door. He'd spent enough time on this quest for one day. There would be plenty of time later to prepare for his role in fulfilling the prophecy ... and to see whether he could possibly get out of it.