The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XI - Sword of the Bishop

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

Father Akaleth was not sure whether he liked conducting his affairs in secret, but it seemed that these days none of his associates would meet with him in any other fashion. Even Jothay was taking to meeting him in strange locations where few eyes would notice them. Still, he found that Kehthaek wished to do so far more irritating.

This time the three Questioners were gathering in an old storeroom for the Library. During the afternoon scribes would come to gather supplies and to clean the shelves, but in the early hours of the morning, it was empty and quiet.

Waiting for them was a man with peppered grey and black hair dressed in a blue robe with the Sondeckis heraldry on the left breast. Akaleth gazed at the Bishop’s choice of attire in surprise.

Bishop Morean of Sondeshara smiled and nodded. “I was and still am a member of the Sondeckis order. I did not become a priest until later in life.”

He was rather stocky in build and in very good health. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, judging by the few lines he bore on his cheeks. A small scar crossed his forehead, a testament to his younger years.

“And why did you become a priest?” Felsah asked as the three Questioners circled around the Bishop. He did not back up, but allowed them to form a semicircle before him.

“There are many paths a Sondecki can follow in my order, though there are two main branches. Those who train to be fighters and spies, and those who train to be defenders and healers. I was of the latter group. I ascended quickly to the blue, but thereafter could ascend no further. My power was not deep enough to master any of the greater mysteries.”

“I bet that upset you,” Akaleth mused acidly.

Morean narrowed blue eyes on the Questioner, crossing his hands before his waist. “Of course. But Eli had another path in mind for me. It was not long that I began to study for the priesthood. I’ve served as the Bishop of Sondeshra for nearly five years now, and I would not have had my life turn out any other way.”

“It is fortunate for you that the Sondeck is an approved magical art. All other magic is a sin,” Akaleth pointed out, not without a hint of distaste.

“It is a blessing. The Sondeck at least,” Morean replied, a rather irritated look crossing his features. “I find your tone insulting. I thought you wished to ask me about what you found in Metamor, not berate me for my past.”

Akaleth lifted his chin haughtily. “You forget, your grace, the man who killed Akabaieth is also a Sondeckis. Forgive me if I am a bit suspicious of them.”

Morean considered that and then breathed a bit more calmly. “Of course. I understand your reluctance. But I assure you, no one in my order could have killed the Patriarch.”

Kehthaek’s voice was like ice. “Your grace, do not mince words with us on this. I have seen the evidence that Metamor has arrayed against this Sondecki Krenek Zagrosek. There is no doubt in my mind that it was he who killed Patriarch Akabaieth. It is not a question of whether anyone in your order killed him. The question is how he could do such a thing.”

The Sondecki Bishop took a deep breath and looked around the store room as if to convince himself that they were truly alone. “I knew Krenek Zagrosek. He is a few years my junior, but he advanced even more quickly than I did. We were elevated to the rank of blue in the same year. He followed the path of the warrior and spy, so I did not get to know him as well as others. But I am shocked to hear that he would have turned to evil like this.”

Felsah spread his hands wide. “Tell us what you know of him. What sort of man was he?”

“He was outspoken,” Morean said. His eyes cast upwards as he remembered all that he could. “He was always the first to speak of the need to gain justice when a crime had been committed. I never knew him to have an unkind word for another in our clan unless it was earned. He was at times well regarded by the elder Sondeckis, and at other times seen as a bit of an upstart. Well, he and his friends at least. Those four were inseparable, almost.”

“Those four?” Akaleth asked. How he wished he could draw his hood up and make this a proper Questioning.

“Yes. Krenek had three close friends who rose through the ranks with him at the same time. They arrived in Sondeshara on the same day to begin their training. It was as if they were destined to be friends for life. I only knew one of them very well, and that was Ladero Alenez. He was very devout, and for a time I was his Confessor. Sadly, he died four years ago.”

“And the other two?” Akaleth pressed, feeling an edge come into his voice. He knew who these last two would be, or at least, he thought he knew. If he was right, it would be the last bit of evidence that he needed to be certain that Metamor had been telling the truth on this Zagrosek.

“The other two were Jerome Krabbe and Charles Matthias.”

“Charles Matthias?” Felsah asked, his eyes opening wide in surprise. Akaleth nodded and began to smile in victory. If Kehthaek had suspected, then he hid it well.

“Yes, the same one you mentioned in your report. I had always wondered where he had gone to all these years. Metamor Keep is a good place to go to hide. It is unfortunate you could not have Questioned him yourself. He knew far more than anyone else about Krenek Zagrosek. They shared the same room in Sondeshara for seventeen years.”

Kehthaek stood a bit taller, his grey hair stiffened. “Why did Charles leave Sondeshara?”

Morean let his gaze fall to the ground. There was a bitterness in his eyes now. “Because of the White Brothus. Brothus should never have ascended to the White, but for six years he poisoned the Sondeckis with his leadership and ambition.”

“Poisoned?” Felsah said in surprise. “What did he do?”

“He wanted to spread the influence of our clan throughout the Southlands. He was even willing to see it grow in Galendor. In the end his mind began to deteriorate and he sent some on missions that in retrospect were wrong. He sent Charles to kill the King of Kitch who had refused Brothus’s demand to accept several Sondeckis as bodyguards and advisors.”

“And did he do it?” Akaleth asked, sensing a reluctance in the Bishop’s manner.

Morean nodded and sighed. “Yes, he did kill the King. And then we never saw Charles again. Jerome was sent to track him down, and that was the last anybody has ever seen of him, though he sent regular reports on his fruitless search. A few years later, Ladero was killed and Krenek left the order as well. Ironically, only a year later Brothus himself died and the new white Yoenel has sought to undo many of the changes Brothus made.”

“You say that Jerome was sending reports,” Kehthaek noted. “Do you know where he is at present?”

Morean shook his head. “I have not returned to Sondeshara since November. I do not know what his latest report has said.”

Kehthaek let a sigh escape his lips. “Jerome was seen at Metamor during the Winter Solstice. He was with Charles Matthias. Krenek Zagrosek was also there. If Jerome was meant to bring Charles back, then he has deliberately ignored his mandate.”

The Bishop stared wide eyes. His hands gripped his blue robe tightly. “They were good friends. And if Charles did not want to leave, then Jerome would have to kidnap him to bring him back to Sondeshara. He was always terribly stubborn.” He frowned. “You never mentioned this in your report.”

Akaleth snorted in disbelief. “It was there. I certainly mentioned it.”

Morean looked at the younger Questioner and opened his mouth to speak. “I read your report Father Akaleth. I saw nothing of that.”

Kehthaek raised one hand. “You saw nothing of that, your grace, because it was removed from Akaleth’s report before it reached your hands.”

Akaleth spluttered in fury. “What? How dare you, Kehthaek! That was not your job!”

The elder Questioner turned on Akaleth and if it could be possible, towered above him. “It was my duty, Father Akaleth, as the lead Questioner to decide what would be said. Your report served only one purpose, to cast aspersions on Metamor and imply that they were more guilty than we agreed. You agreed not to mention those things in our deliberations. It was a violation of your mandate to speak of them in that report.”

Father Felsah blanched and took a step back from the immense presence of Kehthaek. Even Morean flinched. Akaleth balled his hands into fists and then reached up his sleeve to grab his whip. “I have never been more insulted than this! How could you say this before others?”

Kehthaek leaned forward, his face rich with disappointment. Akaleth had expected more lashing. Somehow, this was worse. “It gives me no pleasure, Father Akaleth. The time for keeping these facts secret is not yet past. Metamor did everything they could to save Patriarch Akabaieth. You know that is true.”

“That did not excuse their treatment of us,” Akaleth pointed out. Just touching his whip calmed him. He hated it, but every word that came out of Kehthaek’s mouth was unerringly true. He wanted to deny it, but could not make himself do it.

The mask fell of Kehthaek’s face again, and he no longer seemed quite so frightening. “No, it did not. But sadly, it is also irrelevant, Father Akaleth. I was not the one who edited your report.” Akaleth’s eyes widened, though he still fumed in rage. “Someone close to the Patriarch intercepted our reports and removed certain sections before they were distributed to the rest of the Bishops.” He turned back to the bishop and offered a mollifying smile. “Forgive our outburst, your grace.”

Morean straightened out his Sondeckis robe and nodded, his eyes disturbed.

“How did you obtain a copy?” Felsah asked quietly.

“That is not important. But what is important is what was removed. You choose to mention the presence of Zagrosek during the Winter Solstice and how he aided Metamor in the fight. No Bishop saw that part of your report.”

Bishop Morean frowned. “But why would they remove that section if they wanted to cause a war with Metamor? Surely showing an alliance between Metamor and the Patriarch’s killer would be more than sufficient to achieve that goal.”

“Indeed,” Kehthaek agreed. “Why would they remove it?”

Felsah rubbed at his chin. “Because they did not want others to know of Zagrosek’s associations?”

“That is what I believe,” Kehthaek replied. He returned his attention on Morean. “Several times in this last year, Zagrosek has shown up at Metamor to cause trouble. Now, did Krenek Zagrosek ever journey to Galendor in his youth?”

“About ten years ago, the four of them were sent to Southern Pyralis to assist the du Tournemire family in defeating the Sutt armies that were at the time conquering those lands. They were successful, and returned to Sondeshara afterwards. That is all.”

“Did du Tournemire benefit from this arrangement?” Felsah asked as he inched closer.

Morean thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes. The Marquis gained control of the swamps to the south. But those lands are useless. The evil that lives there is too dangerous for any to risk venturing in those swamps.”

“The evil?” Akaleth asked, suddenly finding the conversation interesting again. He’d have to inform Bishop Jothay. All of this information about Zagrosek’s associates would no doubt be of great interest to the Eaven Bishop. Perhaps Jothay might know who it was that had edited his report.

“Yes. The evil in that swamp.” Morean appeared to be pondering something for a moment before he continued. “Tell me, have you ever heard of the legend of Marzac?”

Kehthaek nodded slowly. Akaleth looked at him in surprise. Even Felsah appeared confused. “In my youth I spent some time with the scholars of Fellos. I learned of the Marzac legend there. I had never thought to hear it uttered in Yesulam. I suspect that neither of my companions have ever heard of it. But after what you told me of Zagrosek assisting the Marquis who controls those lands, I have come to a conclusion that would explain all the remaining questions that I have. Continue please, and leave out no details.”

Akaleth was haughty as he listened to the Sondesharan Bishop regale them with tales of ancient pagan people and of three terrible weapons. At least for the first few minutes. But then, he began to feel an inexplicable horror. He didn’t want to, but he found himself believing this Sondecki.

He just hoped that Jothay would believe him when he told him.

A heavy morning fog lay across the northern reaches of the Herstal Forest. The city of Haethor lay quiet in its shadow, its watchtowers standing out like fiery eyes before the heavy green boughs. The forest loomed before Verdane’s army like a giant peering over a hillside with shoulders hunched forward. It scrutinized them like some crawling insect that had momentarily captured its fancy.

Though the fog was heavy, it was not intolerably cold. Already there was a hint of warmth in the air, and a promise that by midmorning the day would be clear and bright. But the grass was trodden and wet, and that made his soldiers miserable as they held ranks in the muddy field.

Verdane was not interested in attacking Haethor, so he kept his forces far enough away from the castle walls to not appear threatening. And he’d sent a seneschal to Lord Thrane upon arriving at dusk the previous day informing him of his peaceful intentions. And so only one contingent of his men were visibly armed.

The commander stood before him, his boots wet and muddy, and a broad axe slung across his back. “My men are in position and are at your command, your grace. Just say the word and we’ll begin marching forward.”

Verdane smiled and leaned forward in his makeshift throne. “There will be no need to march at this time, Captain. Just make sure that your men are holding their axes and eyeing the forest menacingly. They are meant only to intimidate, not to provoke.”

The burly man frowned in confusion, but nodded. “Of course, your grace.”

Verdane dismissed him and then turned his gaze upon his son and Lord Grenholt. The former shepherd guffawed and grinned rancidly. “Make him think you’re going to chop down trees in Herstal? That’ll scare him enough to come out of his hole.”

Jaime did not appear as pleased. “He may see it as a threat, Father. We don’t want to alienate Thrane. We want him to join us.”

“He will,” Verdane predicted with confidence. “If Thrane thought that there was a chance that my rule might crumble because of this feud, he would side with whoever he thought would rule in my stead. That is why I need to be strong and unafraid before him right now. If I show I am willing to violate a forest that he believes to be protected by spirits, then he will know that I am willing to do what is necessary to maintain my Ducal seat.”

“Or that you are mad,” Jaime cautioned. “I think this is a risk.”

Titian Verdane frowned at his son. Lord Grenholt continued to smile, but it was strained. “It is a risk I have to take. If this feud grows, then the Southern Midlands will cease to be. Both Otakar and Hassan will be fools not to attempt to annex our outer provinces. If it ends quickly, then they will have no time to make designs on our lands. So I am forced to do things I might otherwise not do.”

Verdane slammed his fist into his palm. “Necessity, Jaime. Necessity. When you are in check, you have to do whatever you can to protect the king.”

“Of course,” Jaime mused unpleasantly.

“You grace?” one of the guards called from outside. “Lord Thrane is coming.”

Verdane rose from his seat and smoothed out his doublet. “Good. Does he have any men with him?”

“Eight horsemen and two dozen pikemen,” the soldier relayed after several seconds count.

“Pompous fool,” Grenholt muttered darkly.

“Lord Grenholt, when Marion arrives, tell him that I will meet him here. Also tell him where his men can find food for themselves and their mounts. We are all friends here.”

The Mitok nobleman nodded stiffly and rose to leave.

Jaime was still frowning, though he rose to stand next to his Father. “Do you wish me to stay for this?”

“Of course. Thrane will expect to see you here. We should not disappoint him.”

He clasped his hands behind his back and cleared his throat. “Forgive me if I seem to be doubting your decisions, Father. I know how important this is. I just want to be able to help.”

Titian smiled and patted him on the shoulder firmly. His grip was strong, just as his son’s shoulder was strong. “I am proud of you, Jaime. I welcome your counsel above all others.” The sound of hoof beats could be heard approaching outside the tent. “Let us show Lord Thrane that he is among friends.”

A few moments later and Grenholt ushered in a rather wiry individual dressed in a bold yellow doublet. He bore a finely trimmed mustache that sat atop puffy lips. His hand rested against the pommel of an ornate sabre. “Your grace, Duke Verdane!” He bowed floridly, a smile writ large upon his face. “You bring honour to my lands with your presence. What can I do for you, your grace?”

“Lord Marion Thrane,” Verdane said, smiling in return. “It is always good to see my loyal subjects. Though I regret my presence here is not to celebrate good times.”

Thrane nodded, eyes dismissing Jaime after a quick glance. “I have heard, your grace. The war between Guilford and Dupré is regrettable. I can only hope that matters will sort themselves out.”

“They will not, not without our guidance,” Titian replied. “And that is why I am here. I sent a message to you requesting that you send a contingent of your men to join my forces. Together, we will show Dupré and Guilford the folly of their fight. I am curious why you have not yet marshalled your forces.”

Thrane sniffed defensively and stood a bit taller. “You’ll forgive me your grace, but I received a message from Lord Dupré also asking for my assistance. And let us not forget the recent foray of Pyralian forces into Sathmore. With armies massing on all sides, I thought it best to keep Haethor protected first.”

Titian was annoyed by the excuse, but did not show it. “Keeping the Midlands safe is my duty, Lord Thrane. And I will see that it is done. And right now that means I need you to join your forces to mine so that we can put down this feud before it erupts into civil war. I do not expect you to empty Haethor or leave her undefended. But I do expect you to bring a full compliment of archers, horsemen, and pikemen.”

Thrane licked his lips once and then nodded, his smile effortlessly melting across his cheeks. “Of course, your grace. How long do I have to organize my forces?”

“You mean you have not organized them already?” Barruw asked with the bite of sarcasm. “I thought you feared attack on your city.”

Thrane bristled and looked dismissively at the Lord of Mitok. “Organizing soldiers is not the same as corralling sheep, Barruw.”

“You will be leaving with us on the morrow, Marian,” Titian announced. “Organize your men today, and I will survey them this evening. Together we march westward to Ralathe.”

“Tomorrow?” Thrane asked in surprise. “Then I must prepare immediately. Forgive me your grace, but I must see to the disposition of my troops.”

“I look forward to seeing your men, Lord Thrane. And remember, I will not forget those who aid me in this difficult time.”

Thrane nodded, sucking on his top lip thoughtfully. He smiled again, bowed, and left the tent. Titian swallowed heavily and said nothing until he heard the clop of horseshoes. “I daresay he was far more organized than he would have us believe.”

“Spineless moron,” Barruw spat. “He wanted to play both sides. Surely you don’t mean to reward him?”

“On the contrary, Lord Grenholt, I will do whatever I feel I must to keep this land together. Let us discuss this further after we have had something to eat and drink. Jaime, order our men to be at ease but to stay in their camps. Let them know we march again tomorrow.”

Jaime nodded and left the tent to pass the word on to the individual commanders. Titian leaned back in his seat and took a long breath. Now he had to worry about Ralathe. His vassals should not turn on him like this. Not when he needed them the most.

It was all he could do not to growl.

Father Felsah had never heard the legend of Marzac before, and to hear it now in connection with the Patriarch’s killer was both distressing and more than a little disturbing. Knowing that such an evil could exist left him wondering why they had never heard of it before. Kehthaek had known of it, but then only because he had spent time with the scholars of lost Fellos.

There were two things that Felsah did when he needed to calm his mind. The first was to spend time in one of the Questioner chapels in prayer. He favoured the one that overlooked the river. There he could see all the symbols of Eli’s Spirit: the water, the wind as it rose in a haze over the water, and the bread in the form of stalks of grain as they grew along the banks of the river. Those images along with the execution tree set between the open windows helped him keep in mind all the blessings that Eli had bestowed upon His people. Felsah found it immensely comforting. After talking with Bishop Morean, he’d spent several hours cloistered in the chapel.

The other thing that gave him comfort was found in his monastic cell within the Hall of Questioners. There he could sit and draw pictures of the mechanical fox Madog that had sought him out while he was at Metamor. Ever since he’d met that strange creature, his mind had been fascinated by how such a being could exist. At times it acted like a normal dog. And at others it seemed the wisest of sages. A small smile played across his dark face as he surveyed his latest drawing. Madog sat upon his haunches with silvery tongue protruding from his snout as if he were panting.

When the insistent rapping came at his door, Felsah thought nothing of it. Normally the only one to ever visit him was Kehthaek, and the elder Questioner did not seem to mind Felsah’s obsession with the automaton. So, before he realized that the sharp staccato was quite different from Kehthaek’s soft knock, he invited his guest to enter.

“Father Felsah,” Akaleth’s voice sounded from behind him. From the subtle inflections, Felsah knew that his fellow Questioner was irritated about something. “What are you doing?” And now he was genuinely surprised.

Felsah closed his journal and set the quill aside. “I was drawing a few pictures. It helps to settle my mind.” He rose and gestured to the pallet. “Please come in and sit.”

The younger Questioner’s eyes narrowed as he gazed down at the journal. He drew his black cassock tightly around his hips before sitting cross-legged. Felsah sat opposite him, and met his dark eyes. “You look disturbed by something.”

Akaleth snorted derisively. “After this morning, I have to wonder why you aren’t. And just what were you drawing pictures of? It looked like a dog.”

Felsah rested his hands on his knees and did his best to hold onto a peaceful memory of the silver canine. “Do you recall the mechanical fox who appeared in our quarters back at Metamor?” Akaleth thought for a moment before nodding. “He came to visit me again each night we stayed there. He was so strange. When I was a boy my family had a dog quite like him. I loved that dog very much. So now to calm my mind, I sometimes will draw the mechanical fox.”

“Pagan magic,” Akaleth scoffed, his eyes darkening even more. He leaned back into the gloom of the cell and crossed his arms. “Don’t tell me that you think magic is not sinful now?”

“What? No, of course not. But I do have to wonder if perhaps there are other types of magic besides the Sondeck that might not be. He asked about Eli and Yahshua, Akaleth. There has to be something for that.”

Akaleth grunted and slipped one hand up his sleeve. Felsah knew that was a sign of the younger priest’s irritation. Whenever he felt like events were spiralling out of control, he would reach for the handle of his whip. Felsah wished that Akaleth did not need to rely on it for his stability, but there was nothing else he could do that he was not already doing.

“So why did you wish to see me?” Felsah asked, hoping that a change in subject might brighten Akaleth’s dour mood.

The younger Questioner shifted his feet a little and took a long breath. His arm muscles tensed. “Well, after his grace finished telling us about that Marzac place, I decided to do a little research of my own in the archives. I checked all of the correspondence from Metamor, and guess what I discovered therein?”

Felsah shook his head. “A year ago, the Follower priest at Metamor sent a letter asking if an exorcism had been performed at the Chateau Marzac.”

“The castle built in the swamp?”

Akaleth nodded. “I couldn’t find the reply in the archives. And what is more, the letter of intent that Patriarch Akabaieth sent to Metamor to tell them of his arrival was missing.”

“Missing?” Felsah felt a bit of alarm creeping into the back of his mind. “Did the librarians know where it went to?”

“I didn’t ask them. Somebody had to have removed that letter. For all I know, it could be one of the librarians that did it. I also decided to look at the Book of Exorcisms to see if Marzac was listed. It wasn’t. But if that book is to be believed, there is a period of four years in which no exorcisms took place. About seven years ago the exorcisms start, and at the beginning of the next page, they start again only two years ago.”

Felsah took a deep breath. “Somebody removed a page.”

Akaleth nodded again. “That is what I believe.”

“But if Marzac was exorcised from any evil, why would they do that?”

“Bishop Morean told us that the evil in the place corrupts the minds of any who venture there. If they were not warned, any cleric who ventured there could have been corrupted. Then, it is only a matter of claiming they performed an exorcism, and nobody would be the wiser.”

Felsah felt a chill settle in his spine. He shuddered. “We need to tell Father Kehthaek.”

The younger Questioner looked irritated again. “He’s not in his cell. I am going to have something to eat. I’ll be speaking with another individual this evening who could shed more light on this.”

“Who?” Felsah asked.

“Another ally. Tell Kehthaek what I found when he returns from wherever it is he’s gone too.” Akaleth stood up and brushed his cassock down. “And try not to get distracted with pictures of pagan dogs next time.”

Felsah tried not to be irritated by the haughtiness in the younger man’s tone. A few deep breaths later and he was able to concentrate again. If those papers had been taken, then it meant that whoever had falsified the exorcism on the Chateau did not want anyone to know about it.

Whoever had done it, was likely their enemy.

With that thought in mind, Felsah opened his journal and began to draw Madog again.

The bruise that Vinsah suffered at the hand of the inebriated Sir Danel did not last more than a week. By the time they passed Sunkboat his cheeks were free of blemish again. Still, whenever he thought of that night in Eldwater, he ran his paw pads across his furred cheek to feel for the soreness.

Both he and Malger were grateful that the sailors on board the Trout were not aware of their real appearance. Nor did they know about the trouble they had encountered the night they boarded. And in truth, they didn’t care. It was not unusual for many of the sailors to be pitched into the street after a night of too much drinking. And according to Malger, it had already happened three times since they had left Eldwater.

Malger was reluctant to disembark with Sheyiin in tow. When they arrived in Breckaris they would part ways, but in a city as large as Breckaris it would be easier to hide the vixen.

In truth Vinsah did not mind being stuck on board the ship. He used to get a terrible seasickness even sitting in a boat on a calm day. Now, his youthful procyonid constitution seemed well suited to life on the waves. The Breckarin river was rarely turbulent, but even in those few times when he felt the floor lurch beneath him, he’d felt perfectly at ease.

Sheyiin was also blessed with a firm stomach, which was doubly fortunate since she had no choice but to remain below decks. Vinsah glanced up from Akabaieth’s journal to smile to the vixen, but her eyes were elsewhere. Her ears were turned to the Bishop’s quiet thrumming of paws upon Malger’s drums.

The marten had left him down in their small quarters to practice so that he could breathe the fresh air above decks. Vinsah had to admit that his practice was only half hearted at best. He would frequently lose the beat when he moved one paw forward to turn the pages of the journal. Most of Akabaieth’s entries discussed day to day matters interspersed with short profound thoughts. Sometimes the raccoon was startled at the spiritual depths his master had obtained before death claimed him. But most of the time Vinsah was left with the warmth that memory of his white hair, wrinkled face, and gentle voice brought.

He stopped playing the rhythm altogether when his eyes caught the first sentence at the top of the page. “Concerning the Lothanasi.” Vinsah shifted on the small bed, letting his tail curl about his legs. He pulled the drums into his lap and framed the journal with his foot paws. Green eyes intent, the Bishop resumed his soft drumming as he read.

15 July 703 Cristos Reckoning

Concerning the Lothanasi.

I have spent a great many years wondering what is to be done about our brethren to the West who are under the sway of the old Pantheon. Our forebears in Yesulam abandoned the worship of the gods centuries before the coming of Yahshua. And in many places in both Sonngefilde and Kitchlande the Lothanasi had not taken root. It is only in Pyralis and in a few provinces of the Midlands that we can see a land forsake its roots and embrace the Ecclesia.

But as I have grown older and more versed in history, I have come to the conclusion that the lords of Pyralis saw Yesulam as an ally, one that could help them throw off the rule of Sathmore. And it was for geopolitical reasons that they joined the Ecclesia and spread the message of Yahshua amongst their people.

At the time, the Ecclesia welcomed Pyralis with open arms, but this I believe in retrospect was a mistake. It has built enmity between Sathmore and Yesulam. It has made them cling more tightly to their faith and has prevented Yahshua’s message from reaching their ears. And it has led overzealous men of the cloth to do vile deeds in attempts to convert them.

We should all be ashamed of our role in perpetrating these crimes against the people of Sathmore, and against Lothanasi everywhere. It is a stain that the Ecclesia will bear with it for all time. It is only through the grace of Yahshua, and His power to cleanse us that we can continue to serve Him. Praise Eli that He built His Church upon that promise.

I can only conclude that the Ecclesia’s current approach to Sathmore and the lands where the Lothanasi still thrive is ultimately a failure. I fear it will remain a failure for many more years, though I hope and pray that I will be able to begin the healing process that will be needed.

I wish to go to Elvquelin and offer my apologies to the head of the Lothanasi order in person. But I fear that will never come to pass. It is unfortunate that there is no Follower community of significance at Metamor Keep. Though it may no longer be the head of the Lothanasi faith, Metamor once was its centre, and by going there, I could show the rulers of Sathmore that I am honest in my desire for true peace.

Vinsah rolled his knuckles across the drumskin and could not help but churr in delight. His master had been contemplating journeying to Metamor far earlier than any had guessed. If only he’d been able to venture there sooner, perhaps his mission would have been successful.

It was foolish to ponder what might have been. His Lady had reminded him of that several times. He smiled as he thought on her, and hoped she would be in his dreams again that night. Of late she had been encouraging him to read Akabaieth’s journal. He’d been reluctant to look into his master’s private thoughts at first, but now it no longer bothered him.

He reached down and turned the page, glad to see this particular journal entry continued longer. Vinsah well remembered seeing Akabaieth as a young man leading the raid on the Sathmoran village in an attempt to make them convert. He could feel some of the sorrow and regret spilling into the late Patriarch’s words.

There is also the matter of the curses at Metamor, but I am confidant that the Council will accept my judgement soon.

But as I consider what can be done to truly heal the breach between our people, I have come to some conclusions that I know I cannot yet share. We look down upon the Lothanasi as a pagan people worshipping false gods and engaging in barbaric practices. We tell ourselves that they are a heathen people and thus incapable of kindness or spirituality.

The truth is that there are deeply spiritual people who are Lothanasi, and I have no doubt are living moral upright lives that any Follower would call saintly if only they bowed their knee to the Yew instead of the Pantheon. If we came to them from a position of love, and did not threaten their culture, they would be more receptive to the message of Yahshua.

But the Ecclesia is not ready to accept this truth, nor the greater truth about the Pantheon. They exist.

The raccoon missed a beat as he read that sentence. His paw slid up to his chest where the yew pendant hung around his neck. He looked like a human right now, but he could still feel all of his procyonid features. Both Malger and Murikeer had told him that the Lothanasi gods were real, and they had said it with such conviction, that he had begun to believe it himself. Malger had claimed to meet his goddess regularly at night in his dreams!

But Vinsah had never fully accepted the notion that the Lothanasi were real until he saw that his master had believed it too. Swallowing tightly, he read on.

I fear that almost every single member of the Bishop’s Council would desert me on this point. Even Vinsah would not believe it, though I wish for no other to trust me as much as he. But I know that the Lothanasi Pantheon is as real as the angels and demons are real. They are creatures of great power who have throughout the centuries assisted their followers in many tangible ways.

But for all their power, they are still only servants of Eli. Even in their faith they claim that there is an all creator Illuvatar who is beyond their understanding. They claim to be acting on Illuvatar’s behalf. What if in some sense they are right?

If we accept the proposition that Illuvatar refers to Eli, then we have to also believe that in the beginning, the Pantheon was faithfully fulfilling Eli’s wishes. When Yahshua came and sacrificed His life upon the Yew, and founded his Church in the Ecclesia, the Pantheon should have led their followers into adopting Yahshua. In this they failed.

It is sinful to worship them just as it is sinful to worship angels, or even saints. But it may not be sinful to show them honour or to serve them faithfully insofar as that service does not conflict with one’s service to the Ecclesia. I do not believe it to be sinful, though I remain humble before Eli and accept that I could be wrong in this.

I do not feel that I am. But even a Patriarch must restrain himself at times. Merely saying these things will not bring any peace between our people. It will only lead to division amongst the Bishops and outright incredulity amongst the Lothanasi. Sadly, it will take years of reform amongst both the Ecclesia and the Lothanasi before we as people will be able to trust each other enough to learn from one another.

I imagine a day when Ecclesia priests will spend a year serving in a Lothanasi temple to learn their ways, and Lothanasi priests will come to Yesulam to learn of the great mysteries of Yahshua. Perhaps even one day our faiths will unite, and the Pantheon might be humble enough to serve all the peoples of the world and help to spread the good news of Yahshua. I know I will never see such a day, but I will pray for that peace nevertheless.

It is my hope that by reaching out to the Lothanasi as I intend will be enough to begin the healing process. I could never serve in their temples or even kneel before their altars. I can only stand as a man and extend my hand in friendship. A part of me fears it will take another who can adopt their ways to mend this breach.

But so long as the Pantheon refuses to accept Yahshua’s dominion, it will take a Follower to begin healing the wounds that several centuries of conflict have wrought. I pray that there will be Lothanasi willing to listen with open hearts. I pray also that there will be Followers who can remain humble and treat them as equals instead of inferiors. As it is written, ‘You believe because you have seen. How much greater the faith is the man who has not seen yet still believes.’

Help me, Abba. Help me to continue to believe and to do Your work here on Earth. But not as I will, only as Thou wills.

Vinsah turned the page again but saw that a new entry had begun. His flesh shivered, though it was quite warm. Akabaieth had certainly been right about one thing. Had he spoken these thoughts four years ago when he had written them – even one year ago shortly before he left for Metamor – he would have been roundly criticized by all on the Bishop’s Council. Nothing he said after that would have mattered anymore. He’d been wise to keep this to himself.

But now Vinsah had been entrusted with it, and he felt very small. How could he shoulder this burden? Did he even believe it was true? He wanted to bite his tongue in reproach. Of course he believed it. After everything he had seen, how could he not? Why was it so hard to believe that the people of Sathmore were not of Eli too? He thought of all the selfless people of Estravelle and the many that he had helped pull from underneath the collapsing Lothanasi temple. There were mothers, fathers, and children. All of them fashioned with love by Eli.

And even the Pantheon of the Lothanasi had been created with love, and was still loved by Eli.

And now he had to go before the Bishop’s Council believing all of these things. He had always intended to return the jewelled copy of the Canticles that was passed down from Patriarch to Patriarch. And he still would. But Vinsah knew that he could not let this journal fall into their hands just yet. Akabaieth would be posthumously declared a heretic and any hope of peace would be lost for another generation or two.

With heavy heart, the raccoon closed the journal and focussed on his drums. He tried to play an upbeat tune while he offered a quiet prayer. He wished to know and understand what Eli willed for him. That was all. Slowly but surely, his paws beat to the rhythm of his whispered words.

It was past dusk by the time that Akaleth finally had a chance to meet with Bishop Jothay. His grace had readily agreed to meet with him after Akaleth had sent a note mentioning Marzac, but affairs of the Council had kept him tied up throughout the morning and afternoon. But what irked the Questioner was Jothay’s choice of venue. Even though it was now dark, he still wished to meet in one of the sewers!

The only consolation that Akaleth had was that this particular sewer was filled with fresh water. He could not imagine the fetid scent in the sewer ducts that left the city. Some of the streets in the poorer districts were bad enough.

Akaleth found himself waiting in a small alcove with a single doorway at the far end. He leaned against the corner of the alcove, keeping an eye out for Jothay’s approach. It was dark, and only the meagre lantern he brought with him cast any illumination. And though the streets of Yesulam were above his head, he could hear nothing but the drip and flow of water.

A sudden scraping of stone against stone caught his ear. Staring down the alcove, he saw light dance beyond where his lantern shone. A moment later and the portly Bishop Jothay stepped inside, carrying a lantern in one hand, and a sword that appeared to have been fashioned from gold. Akaelth’s eyes widened in surprise as he saw it, but Jothay rested it against the inside of the aperture a moment later. His grace stepped forward and smiled, blocking the sword from view.

“Good evening, Father Akaleth. I must say I wish I could have met with you sooner. Your letter sounded very important. Tell me, where did you learn of Marzac?”

Akaleth smiled and stood a bit taller. “I have been concerned that some on the Bishop’s Council do not seem to take as serious the threat from pagan evils as you and I do, your grace. So I took it upon myself to begin asking Questions of those who might shed some light on recent events.” He had no intention of mentioning that it was really Kehthaek’s idea, or that Kehthaek was even involved. As far as he was concerned, that insufferable man had no right to the rewards this inquiry would bring.

Jothay nodded. He was smiling that cherubic grin that made his face seem childish, but in the light from the lantern, it gave it a haunted almost sadistic cast. Akaleth had seen far worse in the faces of those he had Questioned. “I see. That is good! But where did you learn of Marzac?”

“This morning I spoke with Bishop Morean. He knew this Krenek Zagrosek from the days of his youth, and I hoped he’d be able to tell me more about him.” Jothay’s smiled began to fade, replaced by a thoughtful moue. “It seems that Zagrosek has had a close association with three other Sondeckis all of his life: Charles Matthias, Jerome Krabbe, and Ladero Alenez. Alenez died four years ago, but you would be surprised to hear by what.”

Jothay slowly began to nod. “I do not see how this is important yet, or how it relates to Marzac. But how did this Alenez die?”

Akaleth rather enjoyed being the one to have all of the knowledge. He no doubt was giving the Bishop quite a stir. “From a Shrieker! Have you heard of them, your grace?”

The Bishop’s eyes seemed to stare past Akaleth for a moment as he thought. He began to bite his lip. “I have heard of them. But tell me more.”

“About ten years ago, Zagrosek and his three friends were sent to western Pyralis to assist a Marquis Camille du Tournemire in liberating that region from the oppression of the Sutt family. They were successful and du Tournemire gained control of the Marzac swamps. Thousands of years ago it was the site of a battle between men and the pagan creatures that once ruled these lands. One of those pagan wizards destroyed them all by creating a hole to a place of great evil. And that evil infects all of the swamp. Any who go there are touched by its corrupting power. Or so says Bishop Morean.”

Jothay nodded slowly. “The legend is better known in the Southlands than in Galendor. I have heard some of it before.”

“Then you know how dangerous it is,” Akaleth said with a grin. He could see the wheels turning in Jothay’s eyes. Yes, he had definitely given the Bishop powerful news. This would be what they needed to root out the pagans from the Ecclesia. “Five years later the four Sondeckis all went their separate ways. We know that Charles ended up at Metamor, and that Jerome was sent looking for him. Zagrosek ends up killing the Patriarch. And he was seen at several other key points in time.”

Jothay crossed his arms and leaned back against the alcove wall. “Tell me, Father Akaleth, why do you believe that Zagrosek is involved in the Marzac legend? Because of this Marquis?”

Akaleth smiled. A good Questioner could not only extract information from an unwilling suspect, but he could also put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and draw conclusions that others might not see. It was truly a satisfying moment to unravel and comprehend the complexities of life.

“There are three more pieces of evidence that I have discovered that I wish to say first. We know that Zagrosek has some connection with the Marzac legend because one of the three artifacts of Marzac, the censer, was seen at Metamor, and Zagrosek was seen placing it there.”

“Truly?” Jothay asked, his eyes going wide.

“Aye. The other two pieces of evidence were found right here in Yesulam. While talking with Bishop Morean I discovered that the report I wrote on my Questioning had been intercepted before it reached the Council. Certain sections which revealed the association between Krenek, Charles and Jerome were removed. Second, while I was in the Archives, I discovered a request from Metamor wanting to know if an exorcism had been performed on the Chateau Marzac. I looked at the records of exorcism, and found a page missing spanning a four year gap.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

“This is what I believe happened. Sometime after the Marquis came into possession of the Marzac swamp, he ventured there and became corrupted. He requested an exorcism be performed, and then gained himself an ally here in Yesulam when that fateful priest set foot in the swamp unprepared. Zagrosek sought out the Marquis when he went to look for Charles and Jerome, and was tricked into entering that swamp too. And now he and at least one member of the Bishop’s Council serves that pagan power. This Bishop had access to my report, Patriarch Akabaieth’s itinerary, and perhaps now even the ear of Patriarch Geshter.”

Jothay smiled slowly, nodding and sucking a bit of blood from his lip. He laughed, a merry little laugh that nevertheless made Akaleth feel distinctly uneasy. “Good work, Father Akaleth. Have you told anyone else of this?”

“I knew you would want to know first.”

“I see. Only, I fear that you have been labouring under a misconception, Father Akaleth. I told you we needed to remove those in positions of power that supported tolerance towards pagan ideas. We need to be more confrontational if we are to ever defeat the Lothanasi or even the piddling Rebuilders.”

Akaleth snorted. “I do not see how what I am doing is wrong. I am tracking this pagan power so that we can expose it and restore the Ecclesia.”

Jothay shook his head. He reached behind him and drew the golden sword forward. Akaleth glanced down at it and felt his blood begin to run cold. There was something wrong with this blade. “What you have wrong is that the power of Marzac is not a pagan power. The elves sought to control the power of Heaven, and Eli smote them for it. What was left in Marzac was prepared for the Ecclesia! It was left for the Eccelsia to use to defeat Eli’s enemies here on Earth.”

Akaleth took a step back. “That... that’s the sword!” Akaleth’s felt his whole body begin to tremble. His mind reeled from what he now understood. Jothay began to smile widely to him. “You! You were the one who betrayed Patriarch Akabaieth!”

He took another step back and bumped against something. He spun on his heels and saw a man there. His face was not clear in the light, but he was dressed in black robes. The same shield, hand and sword insignia that he’d seen upon Bishop Morean was now before his eyes.

Akaleth stumbled back a pace, and gasped. “You! You’re Zagrosek!”

Zagrosek nodded. “Listen to the Bishop, Father Akaleth. Things are not as they seem.”

The Questioner could not help but press himself against the far wall of the alcove, his eyes gazing at the Bishop. Jothay was feverishly giggling as he cradled the golden blade in his arms. “It was Akabaieth who was the traitor. He wanted peace between the Ecclesia and the Lothanasi. He wanted to lower our defences and let the Lothanasi spread their pagan ideas throughout our lands! He would have laid bare Yesulam’s gate for those monsters to ravage. He had to die to save the Ecclesia.”

“It was wrong!” Akaleth spat. “You are under an evil influence. In the name of Yahshua, I...” Zagrosek’s hand clamped over his mouth, and though he struggled and bit, he could not get free. He kicked and tried to slip away, but the Sondecki’s hold was both firm and nearly effortless. Akaleth tried to submit the prayer in his mind. Please, he prayed, do not let this be my hour.

Jothay sighed and waved the tip of the golden blade before his face. He felt something throbbing at the back of his mind, something utterly alien and revolting. “I will give you one more chance, Father Akaleth. I told you, if you do not support me, I must destroy you. Will you join me?”

He could always nod. He’d at least get to live a bit longer, and perhaps be able to betray them later. But who else could he trust?

The answer came immediately. And with it, another way he might live long enough to bring these evil men to harm. He struggled a bit, looking beseechingly to them both. He muttered unintelligible words, and Jothay began to nod. “Take your hand from his mouth. I want to hear what our delightful little Questioner here has to say.”

Zagrosek removed his hand, but he still kept Akaleth pinned against the wall. Akaleth took a few quick breaths and then smiled at Jothay. “I’m not the only one who knows.”

Jothay’s eyes slowly widened, and his smile disappeared into a fierce snarl. “Is that so? Well, you will tell me who it is. And don’t think I am going to spare you any misery either. The day of your death will come, Father Akaleth. But it is not today. But by the rise of the sun you will wish it were!”

The Bishop took a step back. “Bring him to the altar.”

Akaleth frowned, but then he felt a sharp pain to his head and everything went black.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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