The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXV - Shattered Yew

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

The sun had set three hours before when Gamran finally arrived at the old chapel in the labourer’s district. Kehthaek had arrived shortly before sunset. A few words in the right ears had spread the news of Bishop Vinsah’s arrival in Yesulam like wildfire through the Bishop’s Council. Kehthaek had only waited for confirmation that the summons had been received by the raccoon before he’d made his way to the chapel. Gamran had made sure that Jothay’s scheming was done for the night first.

Captain Delius was in plain clothes, but his seaman’s swagger made him conspicuous. It was a risk, but one that they were forced to take. He knelt in one corner and softly sung a strange song to himself. Nemgas and Felsah sat nearby and watched him, but said not a word to one another. Kehthaek was even quieter, his chest so still that they could not hear if he breathed.

There was no one else in the chapel when Gamran arrived. Candles were lit along the altar, in each alcove and at the sacristy. A monstrance was set upon the altar, and the Host was limned in the subtle orange light of the many little flames. No priest would be by to remove the Host until midnight; an hour that was fast approaching.

“Ah, thou hast returned,” Nemgas spoke softly as he saw the little thief slip inside the chapel’s main doors. He closed them quietly, and then smiled eagerly.

“Thou didst say,” Gamran began, addressing Kehthaek, “that we must find the altar beneath Yesulam. Jothay hath told Czestadt to bring Vinsah there tomorrow at sunset.”

All of them sat up straighter. Delius made the sign of the Yew before rising and sitting in the pew opposite Gamran. “Tomorrow at sunset?” Felsah pondered. “Did he say why at that time?”

Gamran shook his head. “He didst say that the Council session wouldst be o’er by then.”

“So quickly?” Kehthaek asked. “That is peculiar.”

“Why?” Nemgas asked, brow furrowed.

“Bishop Vinsah has been gone from Yesulam for a year’s time,” Kehthaek pointed out. “There is a great deal he will need to tell them of that year.” The elder Questioner leaned forward, dark eyes focussed upon Gamran. “Did Jothay say why the Council session would end so soon?”

“Nay,” Gamran admitted, his earlier enthusiasm beginning to fade. “He said nothing of it, only that it would end ere the fall of night.” A smirk crossed his lips. “But we canst follow them to this evil altar and put an end to them all. And then we canst go back to our wagons!”

Nemgas held up one hand. “Patience. Thou didst say that Czestadt was to take Vinsah down to the altar. For what evil purpose, I wonder. Clearly, we cannot allow that to happen.”

“It will not happen,” Kehthaek assured them. “Captain, I will need you to tend to his grace. It may be the only way to protect him. I fear that Jothay may have more allies than we suspect.”

Delius nodded. “I will gladly see that his grace is kept safe. I will set sail with him if I must.”

“It may come to that,” Kehthaek agreed.

“But if Vinsah is not there,” Felsah pointed out, “what will Czestadt do?”

Nemgas crossed his arms. “Czestadt art a Driheli. He wilt obey the Bishop. What did Jothay tell him exactly?”

Gamran frowned for a moment as he tried to recall what he’d heard. Instinctively he fingered his belt, trying to find the pouch that he normally kept there with his juggling balls. When he didn’t find it, he hooked his fingers under the belt and thrummed them across his breeches. “I dost believe he told Czestadt that he didst need both of them, Czestadt and Vinsah at the altar tomorrow night. He did not say anything about what Czestadt should do if Vinsah were gone.”

Nemgas nodded. “But what dost matter be that Jothay hath need of Czestadt. If Czestadt shouldst fail to find Vinsah, he wilt go to the altar anyway.”

“Would he search for Vinsah?” Felsah asked, his voice even quieter than before.

“Aye, he would.”

Kehthaek brought his hands together. “Very well, this is what we must do. Tomorrow I will sit in observance of Bishop Vinsah before the Council. Felsah will be with me. Nemgas, you, Akaleth, Sir Petriz, and the Magyars must lie in wait for when Czestadt arrives. You will follow him down to the altar. You must not give him any indication that he is being followed. Unless you can find the altar, there will be no chance of defeating this evil.”

“Sir Petriz?” Gamran asked incredulously. “How couldst we trust him?”

“I trust him,” Kehthaek replied, a rebuke firm in his voice. “He has seen the truth and has begged you to let him help. His spirit is breaking. Unless you allow him to assist you, it may break completely. He will be of no use to you, to Eli, or to anyone if that happens.”

Nemgas nodded slowly. “Thou speaks the truth, Father. Will it be safe for Akaleth to venture into the deep places? I do not know how he wilt behave. They tortured him down there.”

“And that is why he must go,” Kehthaek replied. “If Czestadt learns you are following him, Akaleth may be able to show you the rest of the way.”

“I see,” Nemgas agreed. “And what wilt thee be doing?”

“Felsah and I will escort Vinsah to Delius’s ship where he will be safe for the night.”

“Aye,” Nemgas said with a smile. “‘Tis a good plan. I wilt see it done. Tomorrow, we shalt see thee in Jothay’s quarters. I wilt accompany thee back this night so that I might show thee the way between the walls.”

“Thank you,” Kehthaek said, his lips turning into a small smile. “Let us delay no longer. Unless there is some other detail of Jothay’s plans we have yet to hear...” Gamran shook his head. “Then I suggest we retire for the night. Tomorrow may be our last day on this Earth.”

“Indeed,” Felsah said softly. The others each nodded, faces solemn but ready. Without another word, they left the chapel. The candles danced in the breeze that came through the doorway as they departed.

It was still dark when several cloaked figures approached the Inn of the Slumbering Lion. They were hearty men, disguised in the flowing linen cloaks commonly seen in Yesulam. But beneath their cloaks they carried the straight-edged swords favoured amongst foreign-born knights, and not the curved blades in use by the city guard. From each direction they converged upon the Inn, blocking off all exits, leaving their quarry with no place to run.

Several men checked on the stables. There was a door inside to the Inn, and a long low hatch that led to a basement. Men stood before each, swords in hand. At the rear entrance to the Inn two men took up guard, faces grim. And the rest, led by the Knight Templar Sir Czestadt of Stuthgansk, marched inside the common room of the Inn, finding only a single cleaning boy behind the bar. His face was white.

“I am for the Innkeeper Ahadi looking,” Czestadt said, staring resolutely at the boy. “Tell me where he is now.”

The boy stammered, “I... I don’t know, milord. He should be here soon.”

Czestadt neared, drawing his blade from under his cloak. “No. You now will me tell. Where is Ahadi?”

The boy swallowed, sweating with fright despite the twilight chill. His eyes could not leave the sword. He backed against the wall, trembling. His eyes darted back and forth, but mostly to a door set behind the bar. Czestadt smiled. “Thank you.”

The Magyars had been sleeping, apart from Chamag and Berkon who were on watch. It was the burly Chamag who saw Ahadi racing down the steps first, his bisht clutched tightly in one hand. “What dost thou need?” Chamag asked softly, so as not to wake his friends.

Ahadi shook his head, his skin gone pale. “Men! There are men in cloaks come for you. They have blocked off every exit. You must flee now!”

Chamag’s eyes widened, and then he turned and began to kick at the occupied bed rolls. “Get up! We have to run!” Berkon did the same, rousing each of them from sleep one by one. He had enough presence of mind to gently shake the Questioner instead of kicking his still healing ribs.

“What is it?” Akaleth asked as he stirred, seeing every one else also being forcefully awoken.

“Men have come to find you, you must flee!” Ahadi repeated. “You have no time!”

Nemgas was instantly alert. “They art in a bottleneck, we canst fight them here quite well.”

“No!” Akaleth snapped. “We must stick with the plan. If that is Czestadt up there, then he needs to live. We cannot find the altar without him.”

“Truly,” Nemgas admitted. His eyes grew cold. “Grab as much as we canst and flee into the sewers. We canst lose them there.”

“What about the horses?” Kaspel asked as he pulled on a tunic and grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows.

“No time!” Sir Petriz added as he gripped a blade and pulled open the door. “Hurry!” A vague look of unease came into his eyes, but it passed quickly.

Gelel grabbed his short sword and stood defiantly. “If ‘tis that damn knight we should fight!”

“Hast thee grass for brains?” Nemgas snapped at the young man. “Ja!”

Pelgan and Amile were out into the sewers first, followed by Akaleth and Sir Petriz. Berkon and Kaspel flanked the rest as Gamran and Chamag dragged Gelel out. Nemgas nodded to the two archers and they left as well. He gave Ahadi one last parting word, “I thank thee. Do not tell them where we hath gone.” And with that, he stepped into the sewers and followed after his fellow Magyrs. They waited for him with eager eyes. Nemgas scanned and then picked a direction. “This way. Cover our tracks.”

Wordlessly, they followed him into the depths.

The cellar door had been locked, but it only took Czestadt two tries to force it open. A portly man was climbing back up the stairs, his expression remarkably placid. And then he saw the sword point held at his chest. He began to back down the stairs. “Excuse me, milord, but how dare you come into my house with weapon drawn! If you mean to rob me, then take my money and leave us in peace. You will not go far before the city watch has taken you. You do know what they do to thieves?”

Czestadt laughed mirthlessly. “No thief I am, but steal your life I will if you do not out of my way move.”

Ahadi stumbled back down the stairs, his eyes ever on the sword point. Czestadt and some of the other knights followed him down. Two of their men would be searching the rooms at the Inn even now. They would find the Magyars.

Ahadi backed into a large cellar storehouse. Czestadt followed him in and knew that he’d been right. Unkempt bedrolls lay along the floor, while travelling equipment was stashed in every corner. The place stunk of unwashed men. There was no one else but Ahadi. Two exits led off from the room, a ramp that wound upwards and a door at the back.

Turning to Wodnicki who had followed him down he snapped, “Check them.”

Wodnicki first went for the ramp, and then peered out the door. He came back and in their native southern tongue said, “The ramp leads up to the stables. The door leads into the sewers. I think they escaped us, milord Templar.” He began to snarl. “And this man warned them! Let us cut out his throat.”

“Not yet,” Czestadt reprimanded him. But Ahadi was blanching even more visibly at their words. “Ah, I see you understand the southern tongue. Good, this will make it easier then. Tell me, where have they gone?”

“I don’t know anything,” Ahadi insisted.

Czestadt’s smile was cruel. He drew back his cloak and allowed the man to see the pink scar that crossed through his face. “You know many things, Ahadi. You know many things indeed.” He let go of the blade, and it hung in midair. Ahadi’s eyes went even wider. The sword tip began to trace across his trembling cheek. It did not draw any blood, yet.

“What sorcery is this?” Ahadi cried. He tried to back away, but the sword floated after him, the tip pressing against his skin.

“That is one thing you do not know, nor do you need to know,” Czestadt replied. Wodnicki stood back, watching with distinct unease. The Templar gestured to the door. “The Magyars escaped us out this portal. You know that they did. You came down here to warn them when you realized we were coming. You have been protecting them. You have been feeding them this last month and a half. And these are all their things except for what they took with them.”

Czestadt came around and stood behind the Innkeeper. “I have told you what I know. Now you are going to tell me what you know, aren’t you?”

Ahadi began to wail in misery. A moment later, weakly, dumbly, he began to nod.

Vinsah was nervous. Despite the hours of prayer he had engaged in both last night and that morning, all the months of wondering and travel had come down to this. He was going before the Bishop’s Council to lay his fate in their hands.

The deliberations did not begin until noon, and so he spent his morning in prayer. Jothay was busy but had food brought for him. It settled his stomach, but it was still so strange to eat milk and honey again after so long supping upon stew and various fruits and nuts.

After he’d groomed himself, he donned clerical robes and waited for Jothay to join him. The portly priest was distracted, by correspondence from Eavey he said, and spoke little to Vinsah as they made their way to the Council chambers. The raccoon wore a cloak over his alb to hide his features, though he kept the yew pendant draped over his neck. In a small wrapped bundle was the gold-encrusted copy of the Canticles that traditionally belonged to the Patriarch. It was not much, but he knew returning it would earn him some good will.

The halls of St. Kephas’s Cathedral were all so familiar. Vinsah noted each fresco with fond delight. How many times had he walked these halls before? He had long lost count. The last time he had come this way he had been coming to sup with Akabaieth one last time before they left on their journey to Metamor. His heart trembled at the memory. He’d told his friend and mentor that the journey would probably take what life he’d had left, but Akabaieth had insisted it was what Eli wanted of him.

Vinsah rarely wished himself wrong. He looked at the furry paw-like hands clutching the hidden Canticles. Dark fur covered the back of his dark grey hands, while long fingers ended in black claws. They were more sensitive than before, and he felt every imperfection in the cloth protecting the holy book. Though he had often suspected something foul would happen on their journey, that he would end up looking like some animal had never occurred to him.

The Council Chambers were before them in no time at all. Standing before the doors with the green-liveried guards bearing their curved blades in one hand clasped over their chest, Vinsah balked. He stared with wide eyes at the decorative doors, each panel depicting some scene of Yahshua’s life, and of the covenants that Eli had made to His people throughout history. Through this door The Council that Yahshua had graced met and helped guide His will on Earth. Now that he was at the end of his journey, Vinsah felt only trepidation.

“They are waiting for you, Your Grace,” Jothay pointed out, nudging him with a meaty hand. “Come. We mustn’t keep Eli’s servants waiting.”

Vinsah swallowed and nodded. “Of course, Your Grace. We must not do that at all.” He allowed Jothay to press open the door, and he stepped through into golden light.

The Council Chambers were erected in a half-circle, with four pairs of doors, one at each point of the compass. A solid wall stretched between the eastern and southern doors, and it was there that the altar was placed. A monstrance held the Host, and the light from the stained glass windows along the southern clerestory bathed it in a brilliant rainbow of hues. Beside the altar was the Patriarch’s seat, though normally it was left unoccupied. Vinsah was surprised to see Geshter sitting there in the luminescent white robes of office. His mitre sparkled with gold inlay.

Vinsah swallowed as he stepped into the centre of the circle. Two rows of seats were made available for the Bishops assembled. Jothay left him upon entering and found his seat in the back row to the west. The murmur of voices stilled as the cloaked raccoon strode step after step in their midst. The cloak was drawn far enough over his head to hide his muzzle, though his tail was probably discernable underneath the linen. There were numerous empty seats on the Council, though a majority of the Ecclesia Bishops were present.

Vinsah bowed his head low to the Patriarch. “Patriarch Geshter, I am Bishop Vinsah, returned to Yesulam after a long and difficult journey. Much has happened since I left with Patriarch Akabaieth on his ill-fated mission. He had only begun to spread his message of hope and peace when a foul assassin’s blade struck him down, along with nearly his entire entourage. I have, as is my duty, returned to Yesulam to settle all that remains in this affair, and to find my new place in the Ecclesia.”

Patriarch Geshter was a man in his fifties. His hair was white and his face was haggard with many years of hard service. His eyes, a bright blue, seemed to shimmer in the radiance of the windows. He raised one hand, rings upon every finger, and beckoned Vinsah to come forward. “The Ecclesia is pleased to welcome Bishop Vinsah on his return. But you do not sound yourself, Your Grace. Reveal yourself so that all might see. It is known to us that the demon curses of Metamor have left you disfigured. Show us what that evil has done to you.”

He gripped the Canticles tightly in his left paw and lifted the right up to his cowl. “My appearance may be shocking to many of you, but I assure you, the heart that beats within my chest is the same that you each knew.” He threw back his cowl to gasps of shock, mutters of blasphemy, and even one shriek of horror.

Geshter’s eyes never left his face. His lips turned downwards. “Truly, the bane of Metamor has left you a beast, your grace. If that is indeed who you are. Is there any among the Council who will vouch for his identity? This man I do not recognize.”

Bishop Jothay giggled a moment as he stood. “Your eminence, in speaking with him last night and this morning, I do believe that this is Bishop Vinsah, once of Abaef.”

The Patriarch nodded and then looked across the Council. “Are there any other voices who will vouch for him?”

“Your Eminence, I will vouch for him.”

Several whispers rippled amongst the Bishops. Vinsah turned and saw two black robed Questioners seated in the far back. He felt a smile come to his muzzle. It was Kehthaek and Felsah.

“Father Kehthaek of the Questioners, come forward.”

The Questioner rose from his seat and glided down to the railing separating the Council from the centre of the chamber. Geshter continued, “It was you who journeyed to Metamor to ascertain what had happened there. You spoke to Bishop Vinsah while you were there. Is this the same man?”

Kehthaek turned to study the raccoon for one moment, and then let his icy gaze return to the Patriarch. “It is he, Your Eminence. This is Bishop Vinsah.”

“How do you know that?” another voice interjected. Vinsah turned and saw a younger priest, one whom he recognized. Temasah had been a priest in one of the small villages near Abaef. What was he doing on the council?

“Your Grace,” Kehthaek replied, “I know it because this man standing before us knows things that only Bishop Vinsah, he who held the post you now safeguard, would know. A Questioner must have the keenest of mind to judge whether a man lies or tells the truth. We are called like no other priest to know what lies in the hearts of men. I know this man’s heart. He is Bishop Vinsah, once aide to Patriarch Akabaieth, and now transformed by the curses of Metamor into a creature that is part man, and part raccoon. He is here to fulfill his responsibility to the Ecclesia as a proper Bishop should.”

“Thank you, Father Kehthaek,” Geshter said. “I believe it is now apparent that the man before us is indeed Bishop Vinsah. Though his form is startling, and troubling, it is he. How is it that you were changed into a beast?”

Vinsah gripped the Canticles in both paws again. “The curses of Metamor took me while I was healing after the attack that slew Patriarch Akabaieth. They are pernicious and the results cannot be predicted.” He felt a bit of guilt at saying that. His Lady had predicted what he would become, although at the time he had not understood what she meant when she told him that he would always after wear a mask. The mask of a raccoon it turned out.

“You have suffered magic,” another voice pointed out. Vinsah saw that it was Bishop Rott of Marilyth. He was in his seventies, and had not left the eastern Pyralian city in over a decade. Vinsah was genuinely surprised to see him. “Why should you even have a priestly office anymore?”

“Patriarch Akabaieth and this Council considered that issue last year when deciding the fate of Father Hough of Metamor,” Vinsah replied as levelly as he could. He’d never seen eye to eye with Rott. Akabaieth had privately admitted that his appointment had been a mistake. “This body decided that Hough was still a priest, and created a parish at Metamor for him to tend. My change is no different.”

Rott scowled. “Hough became a boy. He was still human. You are a beast, and we never said that beasts were capable of serving in the Ecclesia.”

“By creating a parish at Metamor we have given tacit acknowledgement to their ability to contribute. And I have lost none of my priestly authority since my transformation. At the Winter Solstice, an army from the north invaded Metamor. They were aided by demonic spirits, and I was able to exorcise them from the castle.”

“The Canticles say any Follower may do that by calling on the name of Yahshua,” Rott countered.

“No, they do not,” Vinsah lectured, feeling his hackles rise. “That power was expressly given to Yahshua’s apostles and to those whom the apostles anointed. There is a difference. It is the Rebuilders who in their heresy claim that ability is given to all.”

Rott sputtered indignantly, but it was Geshter who spoke, his voice calm and dispassionate. “Tell us of what you found in Metamor, and of the night Patriarch Akabaieth was killed.”

Vinsah shifted the weight of the Canticles in his paws again, and then lowered his head. “I will in just one moment. But first, allow me to lay this before you, Your Eminence. It is traditional that upon each Patriarch’s elevation to that divine office, this copy of the Canticles is placed in their possession. Patriarch Akabaieth brought it with him on our journey. In the battle it was thought lost, but on my return trip here, I discovered it in a locked chest that had been missed by the Metamorian soldiers.”

Geshter invited him forward with one beckoning hand. Vinsah unwrapped the linens, and then held the golden book aloft so that all could see. Geshter held out his hands and bowed his head low as he accepted the Canticles from the raccoon. Vinsah was careful to make sure his paws did not touch the Patriarch.

And then the weight was gone from his hands and the book lay resting in Geshter’s lap. He stroked one hand over it with a soft smile upon his lips. “Thank you, Your Grace. I am glad to see that this tradition of the Ecclesia has been kept. Now, tell us all that happened while Akabaeith was at Metamor.”

Vinsah lowered his head, took a deep breath, and began.

The other members of the Council were decent enough to interrupt him only to ask for clarification. Otherwise each sat quietly during Vinsah’s retelling of that fateful journey to Metamor. He spoke of the people of that city, of how they loved Akabaieth, and treated him with dignity and grace. He spoke of the glowing reception to the message of peace. And he spoke of how so many, Followers and Lothanasi, professed love of the man, and kinship with each other on the day that they left.

Vinsah had never been a good storyteller, but as the minutes passed and more and more of the Bishop’s began to lean forward to hear of the late Akabaieth, he felt as natural speaking as Malger must feel when playing his lyre or flute. It was only when he reached the part when Zagrosek attacked that he began to stumble.

“And that is when I had a dream,” Vinsah said, eyes lowered, voice heavy with emotion. “In this dream a lady spoke to me, warning me that to save myself I must put my dinner plate beneath my night clothes. This was the same lady who had come to me in my dreams the previous two nights telling me that I must not leave Metamor. I did not listen to her those nights, but I listened to her then.”

“Is she an angel or a saint?” Litton, the Bishop of Sekio in Kitchlande asked. His accent was so thick it was difficult to understand him.

“I don’t truly know,” Vinsah admitted. “She is not a saint, this I know, but I did not know whether or not she is an angel. I know that she was sent to me by Eli. She has looked after me and protected me and guided me ever since I first arrived at Metamor. But that night,”

“Did you say she first appeared to you at Metamor?” Rott asked, a smile playing across his weathered lips.

“Yes,” Vinsah admitted. “That is when I first saw her. I spoke of her to the Questioners. I am surprised that they have not already told you of her. But that night, she saved my life...”

“Don’t you think it odd that this lady would appear to you only after you have set foot in a pagan city cursed by demons?”

“Perhaps my eyes were only then finally open enough to see her?” Vinsah countered with more heat than he’d intended. “But I didn’t listen to her until that night. She told me how to save my life. I did it. I placed the plate under my night clothes and over my chest. That man I spoke of, the black Sondecki Zagrosek, he appeared in my tent and used his power to crush my chest and kill the other two priests who accompanied us. And I recognized the man. I saw him in my dreams. The Lady had told me not to leave Metamor or that man would be after me. And she was right. How could she not be from Eli?”

“Why save you?” Temasah asked. He was tracing one finger along the railing. “Why save you and not the Patriarch?”

“I do not yet understand that myself,” Vinsah admitted. “But that is what happened. After Zagrosek wounded me, I passed out and did not awake again until Kashin came in to check on me. By that time, Zagrosek had slaughtered the soldiers and knights, and had managed to chase Akabaieth down and assassinate him by plunging a jewelled Sathmoran blade into his chest. And he’d already vanished as well. Kashin wanted to know what to do about those who were only injured. I told him to bring us to Metamor Keep. It was the only place where our wounds could be tended and we might live.

“I passed out again, and when I woke up the next time, a week had passed. While asleep, I had been transformed into the form you see before you.” Vinsah took a deep breath, glad that he had managed to get through all of that. “Of Zagrosek and the woman who aided him, they were never able to find a trail, and they searched long and hard for one. But it was in vain.”

“Why did you not attempt to return to Yesulam when you woke?” Rott asked in his drawn out voice. There was a vicious bite in his words.

“I was injured and could not leave the bed I lay in for weeks,” Vinsah replied, trying to keep his patience. It was one of the drawbacks of a beastly form, it sometimes interfered with his ability to keep a level head. “And when I did arise, it was the middle of the winter and a poor time for travel. And then there was the attack over the Solstice. I felt it was my duty as a member of the clergy to assist the Keepers in rebuilding their lives once the invasion was thrown off. When the weather finally cleared, I set out. Nearly six months ago now in fact I left Metamor Keep on a very long journey back.”

“Six months?” Litton of Sekio asked. “It took only two months for the Patriarch to reach Metamor.”

“I took a different road back,” Vinsah replied.

“Before we come to that,” Geshter said, lifting one hand to forestall any more questions from the other Bishops, “I would like to know more about your time at Metamor. Please, in detail, describe all that you did.”

Vinsah nodded and told them first about his sojourn in the Healer’s care. With a bit of chagrin he admitted that one day he was forced to see Metamor under an assumed name. It had not been his choice, he emphasized, but a requirement laid down by his caretaker. As he anticipated, the news was not taken kindly.

“You lied, a Bishop of the Ecclesia lying about who they were?” Temasah asked incredulously. “You always taught me to be forthright with my place in the Ecclesia. Yet here you admit to lying?”

“A sin that I have sought forgiveness for,” Vinsah said, his tongue beginning to weary. “I have not yet received absolution for it, but I have paid a price for committing it. I do not suggest that all of my actions in my absence have been free of error. I am a man like you, and the Evil One seeks to tempt me just the same.” Temasah looked as if he wished to say more, but he sat back and waved for the raccoon to continue.

He described how normal Metamor seemed to him, apart from the strange shape of the people that lived there. He did not mince words about the overwhelming Lothanasi presence there, but he did take some time to speak of the strong Follower community that was being nurtured there. That pleased some of the Bishops, but a few like Rott and Temasah only groused further.

And then he spoke of his Lady. She had come to him so often during those first couple of months at Metamor. He had been afraid of her at first, but as the days had stretched into weeks, he’d come to cherish her nightly visits. He tried to emphasize her role as a comforter and guide, and also that he felt certain that she had been sent by Eli, but as he knew some would, they tested him.

“This lady, she comes to you in your sleep and strokes your fur?” Rott asked incredulously. In fact, he nearly shouted it. “And yet you say this temptress was sent by Eli? I say that she was sent by the Evil One to draw you away from the teachings of the Ecclesia. She incites your baser instincts, and comforts you as a man would a dog! Are you a dog, Vinsah, is that what you have become?”

Vinsah did his best not to snarl. “You know nothing, Your Grace. She has done nothing except show me truth, and keep my eyes focussed upon that which is most important. I have never felt a being closer to the divine spirit apart from Patriarch Akbaieth. And I already told you, she came to Akabaieth as well.”

“And asked you to stay at Metamor,” Rott finished for him. He may be old and reactionary, but he was not an idiot. “Akabaieth is dead and with Eli, though even he must answer for his many mistakes of doctrine. It is good that this Council fought him when he dared suggest that not all forms of magic were a plague upon mankind’s souls.”

Vinsah blinked in surprise. In all his years upon the Council, he could not even remember Akabaieth trying to bring up the subject of magic in such a way. The Patriarch had only ever spoken of it in conjunction with those who suffer from its effects involuntarily. Was that what Rott was suggesting? To even feel the effects of magic was sinful?

“I had to stay at Metamor anyway,” Vinsah pointed out, not giving into Rott’s bait. “And of my Lady, I have pondered what she has led me to do, and asked whether it is the will of Eli. I remain convinced to this day that it is so. She has never led me astray. She told me many things I must do and I did them. When I needed comfort she was there. And when the time came for me to leave Metamor, she advised me on my path, and brought to me companions who aided me along the way. Yes, she is of Eli, of that I have no doubt.”

“Your certainty does you credit,” Geshter said, his voice measured, eyes narrowed intently. “But it is this council who will decide whether this spirit that has come to you in your dreams is of Eli or not. You do know that one of the false gods the Lightbringers fear is Nocturna. It is their belief that this demonness comes to men in their sleep and invades their dreams. How do you know you are not being plagued by a demon? No, do not answer just yet. I have heard your words. There must be some criterion established to properly judge this question. I have heard the one that you used. Continue to tell us what happened to you at Metamor, and hopefully we will gain a clearer understanding of what it is we seek to judge.”

Vinsah lowered his head respectfully to Geshter. The words sounded wise, but the raccoon began to wonder if this wasn’t some measure that he could never meet. Still, this was the Ecclesia, and these were many of his friends and fellow priests. They would recognize the truth when they heard it. He could not be afraid to give it to them now.

He continued his tale by describing the events of the Solstice invasion by Nasoj. It took nearly an hour to describe all that he knew, but he was grateful that for a while the other Bishops let him speak. They didn’t even question him when he mentioned that he had used the magic of the curse to become a full raccoon temporarily. In fact, he was able to describe the next few months of his stay at Metamor with only a handful of interruptions. By the time he spoke of the day of his departure, he was famished and his tongue ached for something to drink.

Nothing was forthcoming, so he soldiered on. He quickly described his first day on the road, and then how he was joined by the skunk Murikeer and the pine marten Malger. And also, how he came to accept the gift that Murikeer offered. “My Lady told me in my dreams when I first met her that one day I would have to go with Murikeer. The same one that Akabaieth met and spoke with at length. And that first night sharing a camp with them, I saw that dream over again. I knew that this was what had been meant. To accompany them south on their journey, I would need to appear human. And so I allowed Murikeer, who is an accomplished illusionist, fashion a spell into my Yew pendant that would disguise me. Here in Yesulam it does not work, but elsewhere, when wearing this, I will appear as I once did in my youth.”

Rott was apoplectic. “You allowed a mage to cast a spell on the very symbol of your faith? You allowed a Lothanasi to do such a thing? And your Lady told you to go with him?”

Vinsah nodded, green eyes narrowing. “The magic was a gift. It kept me safe. Had I not been disguised, I would have been killed long before I reached this city. It is not safe for somebody who appears as I do to walk freely in this world. I had no choice but to wear the disguise.”

“You used magic! Magic is a sin! And yet you defend yourself,” Rott spluttered, his face filled with rage. “Your eminence, do we need to hear any more? This man has not just shirked his responsibilities to the Ecclesia, but flaunted his defiance of her sacred laws!”

“I have done no such thing!” Vinsah countered. “I have acted always in defence of the Ecclesia! I went into Sathmore, and I showed to many that there is nothing to fear from those of our faith. Ours is a faith of love and service; to all men and women of this world. But had they seen this face, the face of a beast, they would never have heard that message. I did what I had to do because it was the only way.”

“A man of faith would have listened and trusted in Eli,” Temasah countered with an air of pride. “You trusted in magic to protect you. But here in Eli’s Holy Land, the magic does not protect you does it?”

“Eli guided me to use this magic!” Vinsah declared, feeling his hackles rise again.

“No,” Rott snapped, “it was your Lady who told you to use magic!”

“Who was sent to me by Eli!”

Rott leaned back and sneered. “We have only your own word for that. If she has told you to use magic, then she is clearly an evil spirit sent to lead you astray.”

“You know nothing,” Vinsah declared, barely able to hide the snarl that trilled upon his tongue. “You know nothing of her, Your Grace!”

“Then tell me, is it a sin to use magic?” Rott’s smile was that of a triumphant warlord who had waded through his enemy’s blood.

Vinsah lowered his snout and took a deep breath. Slowly he managed to still the fire in his heart. “That depends, Your Grace. No, let me finish. If you use magic to bring harm to others, or to gain more and more power for yourself, then yes, it is sinful. If you use it to break one of the Commandments, then it is a sin. It is not the magic itself which is innately sinful, but the manner in which is it applied.”

He held up one paw to forestall Rott’s latest objection. “And let us not refer to the absolutism of the Canticles. We in the Ecclesia have already made exceptions for the Sondeckis, amongst several other mage clans in the Southlands. We recognize that their magic is an innate gift from Eli, and a gift from Eli is not to be scorned but put to use in His service and the service of His Ecclesia. Now tell me, do I speak wrongly when I say thus?”

“No, you do not Your Grace,” a new voice said. His was quiet, but the conviction in it was sure. Vinsah turned to one side and smiled at the forty-year old Bishop of Boreaux, Gavroche. He had been appointed five years ago, and was the seventeenth member of his family to have held the post. Few complained about favouritism, as the people of that Kitchlande province adored them and their wise leadership.

“Oh, and what do you have to say about it, Your Grace?” Rott asked, the ill-regard clear in his voice.

The dark haired man nodded to the Marilyth Bishop. “Bishop Vinsah speaks the truth when he says that the Sondeckis amongst other mage clans of the Southlands have recognition here by the Ecclesia. That their powers are innate is self-evident. Further, they work here in Yesulam. If they were foul, then why would Eli allow them to work in His holy city? If Bishop Morean were here, he could demonstrate the powers that our Creator granted him.”

A small smile came across Gavroche’s face, “And I suppose we must conclude, since Bishop Vinsah here stands before us a blend of man and beast, that the spells upon Metamor are also recognized by Eli as being without sin. His illusion does not work. Perhaps that is deliberate. Perhaps Yahshua wills that all be exactly as He wants them in His city. Perhaps Vinsah was always meant to become this mixture of raccoon and man.”

There were a few murmurs, but mostly they were disgusted. Vinsah smiled to Gavroche and nodded his head in thanks. “I do not know why this happened to me, I only know that it could not have happened unless Eli willed it.”

“So?” Rott finally managed to say. “Does that matter at all? The most important fact is that you used magic. Magic! And you let it be cast upon your yew! Sacrilege! No true priest of the Ecclesia would stoop to such blasphemy.”

“Oh?” Vinsah snapped, his tail sticking out straight behind him. He could not hide his impatience anymore. “You talk about blasphemy, but do you know what I have discovered? On my journey here I found that Bishop Hockmann of Breckaris was under the control of a foul wizard from Marzac! Some of you know what Marzac is. It is a place of unutterable evil, and it corrupts the hearts and souls of all who venture into its grasp. I freed Hockmann from their curse by the grace of Yahshua, but it was not easy. And it was not the first time I have witnessed such evil.”

Rott spluttered, but it was Temasah who spoke next. “Marzac? We heard of that place before. Are you saying that Bishop Hockmann was enslaved. And the man is not even here to defend himself!”

“If what his grace says is true,” Gavroche intoned solemnly, “then we may all be in jeopardy. The people of Boreaux have long guarded the Southlands against the evils at Marzac. And...”

“And nothing!” Geshter’s voice thundered. Everyone turned in shocked silenced at the power of his voice. The Patriarch had risen from his chair, his face red with fury. “Marzac no longer represents any threat, evil or otherwise. I myself performed an exorcism there several years ago! It has been cleansed. I will hear no more of such trifles. If Hockmann was corrupted by some magician, then it was the magic that did it, not a place which is now free of taint.”

Gavroche made the sign of the yew before his chest, and Vinsah very nearly did the same. Geshter slowly sat back down. “Now, show me this pendant of yours. The one you say a magical spell was cast into.”

Vinsah drew it over his head and strode upon the dais. He knelt before Geshter and lifted the pendant in his paws. Geshter took it and studied it carefully with his eyes. The wood was inlaid with silver, but here it could give no sign of its magical enchantments. “I see nothing remarkable about it.” He set it beside himself on the altar. Vinsah took a few steps back, feeling strangely naked without it.

Geshter’s voice, when he continued, was level and inquisitive. “A short while ago you said that it was not the magic itself that was a sin, but the intent mattered. Is not the use of magic itself an affront to Eli? You are telling Him and His Son Yahshua that the world we have been given is not enough, we must conquer the realm of the spirit as well. Even if you mean to do good by it, you still do harm. If a man starves his family to give all he owns to the poor, has he not committed a sin against his family?”

“It is as you say, Your Eminence, that such a man would have sinned against his family. But magic is a part of our world. We can no more ignore it than we could close our eyes and hope to still see. And we haven’t. We’ve accepted that some magic is innate and given a gift by Eli. Isn’t it time that we saw that there are other forms of magic that are the same way?” Now that he had said it, something he had been afraid to say before the Council, he knew that it had been the right thing to do. There were some like Gavroche and Jothay who would side with him. Perhaps there were more yet.

“The Canticles are very specific that sorcery of any type is forbidden,” Rott pointed out, waving one finger as he did so. “Would you call the Canticles Yahshua gave us wrong?”

Suddenly, he remembered a long ago conversation with Malger. The pine marten had demonstrated far greater facility with the translations of the Canticles than Vinsah could have ever expected any to know. “No. They are not wrong at all. They are the inerrant word of Eli. We are its caretakers. But we have been wrong. Magic is not forbidden, but sorcery is.”

“And sorcery is the same as magic,” Rott replied.

“I once thought that very thing, but now I understand I was mistaken too. Sorcery is derived from an old Henad word, ‘sorsassran’. In Henad, it refers to those who grow, harvest, and produce herbal unguents and potions that give the user strange visions and lead them to do odd and inexplicable things. In places of the Canticles where the context is clear, the translation of ‘sorasassran’ is not magician. Nor is it magic. It is as I have said.”

“Blasphemer!” Rott screamed, standing up in his seat. He was joined by Temasah and several others on the Council. “You dare speak against the Ecclesia and the Canticles! Will you defy Eli next?”

“I am Eli’s servant!” Vinsah shouted right back. “I have always been and always will be!” He had to take a moment to breathe to keep from growling like a beast. “But if you will not believe me on this, there are others here more versed in ancient Henad than I.” He looked to find Jothay, who was well-regarded as a scholar of Henad. Vinsah had expected him to speak more openly in his defence, but if there was ever a time Vinsah needed him, it was now.

But Jothay’s seat was empty. Vinsah felt his heart begin to beat more rapidly. Where had he gone? He looked around frantically to find another who would speak for him. Slowly, Gavroche began to stand. The raccoon sighed in relief.

The Council session had begun deteriorating the moment Vinsah mentioned Marzac. Jothay had nearly begun laughing in hysteria when Geshter had admitted he had cast the exorcism. What had all his trouble at removing any traces of the place from the archives meant if the Patriarch would just brazenly admit to it? True, the argument over magic had been entertaining. Even Jothay had been stunned with how eager the raccoon was at digging his own grave.

Still, the note he’d received from Czestadt made for a pleasant reason to quietly leave the Council and catch his breath. He’d been biting his lip for the last half hour and his face was paling. He swallowed down the bitter taste of iron and found the Driheli knight standing in the hallway outside the Council chamber. His face was haggard and unkempt.

“What is it now?” Jothay asked as he leaned in close. They could not speak openly here.

“Your grace,” Czestadt began, his voice weary, but simmering with anger. “We found where the Magyars had been hiding. They took refuge beneath an Inn in the merchant’s district called The Slumbering Lion. The Innkeeper, Ahadi, admitted it to us. After he told us all that he knew, I handed him over to the city guard and told them he had been harboring fugitives.”

“But you did not capture them?” Jothay asked, his earlier excitement at this reprieve beginning to wane.

“No, Ahadi warned them of our approach. He had a door in his cellar that led into the sewers. I believe Ahadi is also guilty of smuggling, but I will leave that for the city watch to decide.”

“Did Ahadi know where they would go?”

Czestadt shook his head. “No, he did not. But they were not alone. They met with two Questioner priests and a third stayed with them.”

“Questioner priests?” Jothay asked, his voice turning into a hiss.

“Yes. The one that stayed with them was beaten, as if he’d been tortured.”

Jothay snarled. “Damn him! I will kill Zagrosek this time!” He sucked in his breath and quickly glanced at the guards. They were not paying him any attention. More quietly, he continued. “Remember what you are to do at sunset. Come to my chambers and escort Vinsah to the altar.”

“What of the Magyars?”

“Forget them for now. I need you and Vinsah at the altar shortly after sunset. Will you do this?”

Czestadt nodded stiffly. “Of course, your grace.”

“Was there anything else?”

“No, that was all.”

Jothay waved one hand. “Good, now go prepare yourself. The Council will not meet for much longer.” He did not wait for the knight to say anything more. The Bishop of Eavey returned to the Council, eager to see its culmination.

As had been the case for as long as Vinsah was a Bishop, discussions of magic went nowhere. After Gavroche’s impassioned defence of Vinsah’s position, and his right as a Bishop to say so, Rott and Temasah followed it with even more vitriol. It was all brought to a halt by Geshter raising his arms.

“Bishop Vinsah, I have heard many things this day. You have said much that has enlightened us about Metamor, and of the changes it has made in both your body and your mind. You came here to fulfill your responsibility to the Ecclesia. But what will you do afterwards? What can you do for the Ecclesia? You are no longer Bishop of Abaef. You have no flock to tend. What would you have this Council do with you?”

Vinsah swallowed and felt a bit surer of himself. Geshter may not be Akabaieth, but he was no fool either. If there was a way Vinsah could serve, Geshter would send him there. Of that he was certain. And there was one place where his service would be welcome.

“Your Eminence, I request that you create a new diocese. A diocese for Metamor. Right now Metamor is part of the Midlands diocese. Bishop Ammodus oversees the Metamor parish from Kelewair. No diocese in all of the Ecclesia is larger. Let it be split, with Ammodus’s diocese that of the Southern Midlands and the Northern Midlands the new diocese, one overseen from Metamor. It is the best place that I can serve the Ecclesia, your eminence. It is the one place in all the world I can walk openly as what I am.”

Geshter nodded slowly. “You are certainly correct in that. It is the one place where somebody like you could serve. And would you enforce the edicts of Yesulam in this new diocese?”

“Yes,” Vinsah replied. “There is no other way to serve.”

“All the edicts of Yesulam? Even edicts against the use of magic?”

Vinsah swallowed heavily. “I would counsel against the frivolous use of magic, but magic cannot be completely avoided in Metamor.”

“And would you maintain the law that Followers are not to associate with the pagan Lightbringers?”

His heart began to go cold. He did not like this line of questioning at all. “I can hardly be expected to maintain such an edict in a city so dominated by the Lothanasi! Not even Bishop Ammodus attempts to do such in his diocese!”

“Will you proselytize to the people of Metamor and make of them Followers?”

“The treaty Yesulam signed with Metamor forbids us from doing that!”

“Such a treaty that violates the will of Eli cannot be valid,” Geshter declared.

“Patriarch Akabaieth signed it! He sat in St. Kephas’s chair. He acted on behalf of Yahshua in doing so. He knew that to have a presence in Metamor was enough of a message to bring. All would see the way Followers lived and know us, and know Him too.”

“But that is not what I would ask you to do,” Geshter replied icily. “That is, if I were to make you the Bishop of Metamor. But as it is, I cannot see how I could trust you. You have, by your answers, demonstrated that you will not uphold the laws of the Ecclesia. By your actions this last year, and by your words this very day, you have shown how far you have strayed from the flock. You are not a Follower if you will not follow, Vinsah. You think your own wisdom is superior to that of the Ecclesia. That is pride and vanity.

“If they had been your only sin, Vinsah, then perhaps I would have considered some lesser punishment. But you have repeatedly demonstrated contempt for this Council. You have advocated heresy before us. Will you recant what you have said about magic, about Metamor, about the Lightbringers, and about your lady? Will you recant to save your immortal soul?”

Vinsah felt as if he’d been stabbed in the heart. He quivered and stared up at the yew that hung before the altar. The suffering face of his saviour gazed upwards to the heavens in supplication. All that came to him were those words of misery uttered in that terrible moment. “Abba, Abba, why hast thou forsaken me?”

“What did you say?” Geshter rose from his seat, gripping the pommel of his sceptre in one hand.

“Even if I could recant all that I have said about magic, about Metamor, about the Lothanasi, about any of it, I could never recant, could never refuse my Lady. She was sent to me by Eli. I know this in my heart, and in my very soul. Please believe me when I tell you that she is His servant as much as any of us here are. If what I have to say is too radical, is too revolutionary, then send me to Metamor where I may serve to strengthen a fledgling community there. I need never return to Yesulam or to this Council, but do not make me turn my back on all that you say.”

“So,” Geshter concluded, a sad expression crossing his lips, “it is as I feared. You refuse to recant these heresies, and you think I will make you Bishop over a fledgling community? Your blasphemy will destroy them before they can even mature. No, Vinsah, no, I cannot do that at all. It saddens me to see one such as yourself fall to this, but you have condemned yourself with your own words.”

Before any could speak, Geshter raised his sceptre over the altar. Like a hammer, he brought it down squarely on Vinsah’s yew. Vinsah let out a strangled cry like an animal’s screech. “Vinsah excommunicato!” At those hideous words, many in the Council gasped.

With each thing denied, Geshter crushed the yew pendant under his sceptre. “Res sacræ! Ritus! Communio! Crypta! Potestas! Prædia sacra! Forum! Civilia jura vetantur! Nunc Salvi!” The yew held up under the first few blows. But then pieces of wood began to shatter, and the silver inlay began to distort. Vinsah fell to his knees, paws raised in agonized supplication, begging it to stop. But Geshter continued. “Vinsah excommunicato! Excommunicato in perpetua!”

“No...” Vinsah said, falling to the ground in horror. Could it truly have happened? Could he have witnessed this? Could he, who had served Patriarch Akabaieth and the Ecclesia faithfully for all these years truly have been excommunicated?

Hands gripped him under his shoulders and lifted him to his feet. Guards. “I forbid thy soul’s entrance to paradise, Vinsah,” Geshter continued, but this time in a level voice. “Thou art damned to perdition for all eternity.” Vinsah stared at Geshter who was brushing splinters from the base of his golden sceptre. He then wiped the remnants of the yew from the top of the altar into one hand. “Bring me his pouch.”

The guard at his right loosened the small pouch he hung from his belt. The guard brought it before the Patriarch and held it open. Geshter deposited the pieces of the yew inside. “Carry this with you always so that you will know just what it is that you have done by your rejection of the Ecclesia. Now go, for you are no longer allowed in this holy chamber.”

In shaking paws, Vinsah cradled the bag. He stumbled towards the doors. Both Gavroche and Jothay came to meet him. Gavroche stared at him dumbfounded, but found no words to say. Jothay smiled sadly, and then glared at the guards. “Leave him be. I shall take him from here.”

Vinsah could only stare at the pouch in which his shattered yew lay. All that he had ever lived for was now destroyed. He couldn’t even find it in himself to ask why.

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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