Liturgy of Blood - Part IX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I am Murikeer Khannas, your grace."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it about?" the elder priest leaned forward, curiosity writ openly upon his face. Behind him Vinsah's brow furrowed at his master. The skunk was a mage by his own display, and Lothanasi. Regardless of his words, Vinsah never expected him to become so comfortable with these bizarre creatures, much less one of the other faith and a practitioner of the questionably darker arts.

"This particular tome concerns the binding of magic." Murikeer looked up from the book, his look mirroring Vinsah's, though due to the alien build of his furred muzzle it was impossible to read. "Though this particular passage I was reading was a discussion about the location of talent."

"The talent for your... craft?" the patriarch looked up briefly, his eyes travelling across the musteline man's odd features.

"Witchcraft, specifically in this case." The skunk responded, his white teeth flashing in the light briefly with the movement of his lips. "Though that was a name they gave to any who practised magic in that land during that time."

"And what does it say?" Akabaieth shifted in his chair, leaning his elbows on his knees. The skunk's hands continued to toy with the stone, as one might caress a worrystone, but the motions were more practiced; more directed. "Does everyone have it, or just a particular few?"

"This particular treatise claims that only a particular few might develop the talent, though the majority of other works state that everyone has some degree of magical ability."

"Everyone?" the patriarch intoned, his white eyebrows climbing his brow like startled caterpillars.

"To some degree." The skunk nodded as he slowly, carefully, turned the page of the large tome. "It's like… acrobatics, I guess." He grasped at the proper words, waving the hand that held the stone as if trying to formulate his statement. "We are all born with the ability to walk, run, jump, climb… the many things we do as children. Some are a great deal more creative at how they can manipulate their bodies. For some, that ability is as natural as breathing. For others, it has to be trained."

"So, with enough training, anyone can be a mage as you are?"

Murikeer chuckled, smiling warmly at the frail human before him. Something about the man instilled a calm over him he never thought he would feel around another human, much less a group of them, in his lifetime. "I am no mage, Aka." He chuckled, shortening the man's name by habit without thinking about it. "I am merely a journeyman, I have yet to test for mastery, or achieve the proper degree of power to do so." He scratched at the stone idly for a moment before continuing his speech, "Anyone can train, and yes, anyone can learn a bit of magic. But only those with the inborn ability to understand magic intuitively can become more. A good comparison would be a gourmet chef beside a field cook who can do little more than boil water. Both understand what they are trying to do, but only one can actually achieve it."

"I could do it?" the priest asked quietly. One of his Yeshuel turned a quietly startled look upon him, the motion only visible to Muri and the other three standing around the man. Yet that expression faded quickly into one of subtle amusement.

"Your Eminence?" Vinsah quailed, his eyes wide, a tremor to his hands as he held them up to his chest. Muri cast his glance to the younger priest, noting the way his fingertips pressed to his breast, ready to make the sign of the cross. Yet the motion died as their eyes met briefly, Vinsah's hand falling back to his side as if in practice for some future requirement.

Muri then turned back to Akabaieth, "Yes, if you learned and tried." He smiled as his gave fell once more upon the bishop, who was standing behind his master with an utterly shocked look upon his face. "You may already do some magic you do not know about."

"Such as?"

"I cannot easily say, but some of the subtle powers that you may grant as given to you by your Abba may be expression of your own inborn talents." He held up a forestalling hand as Vinsah blustered behind the Patriarch, his face suddenly pale. "In the context of your faith they may very well be God given abilities, but were I your Abba I would look to those with an inborn talent to make my voices to the people."

He glanced back at the patriarch's secretary, whose face was beginning to purple in apoplexy. "It would make those voices stronger, allowing them to spread his word that much better." His hands once more began to worry at the stone as he returned his smile to the priest. "It is better for them, especially in lands as intolerant of magecraft as those of the Yesulam tend to be, and other lands. Those who have the talent for magery require an outlet, and in your lands they do not know what it is they have, or can do. Many go mad, while others find an outlet for their nameless, undeniable urges."

"In the Ecclesia." Akabaieth nodded slowly, "We have come to understand something of that, but I had not thought to look upon it as you say." He rubbed his chin with one hand. "It is my wish that in the years before my end I can come to have the 'Lands of the Yesulam' as you call them come to understand that not all magic is vile, among other things." He placed his hands upon his knees and stood, one of his Yeshuel swiftly moving to assist him.

"Not all magic is evil, your eminence," Murikeer said, standing as well, "Nor is all magic good." He extended his hand, holding out the pale white stone he had been working with, "Most magic is merely benign, turned to one purpose or another." He finished as he deposited the stone in the Patriarch's outstretched palm.

The pale stone was quartz, but no longer possessed the crystalline lines that had defined its shape when it had been brought to the skunk. Now its edges were more smooth and rounded, its surface carefully worked into the likeness of a face. The Patriarch turned it over and found himself looking at his own face, carved into the milky translucence of the stone. Two tiny flecks of pale blue lapis were the only points of colour, hauntingly like his own eyes as they looked back up at him.

"Many things, my young friend Murikeer, are merely benign." He nodded as he rubbed his thumb across the smooth lines of his own face carved into the small stone. There was a secret smile crossing his lips as he worked the features of his own worn face into his mind. "It is those who make use of them that turn their purpose." He held up the stone, "My thanks for this gift, and your illuminating words. I wish you the best in your studies, and in your future. May you ever walk in the light, my son."

"Your Eminence," Murikeer called from behind them as they turned down the aisle. Akabaieth stopped and turned, his eyebrows lifted curiously. "I spent many years in Sathmore, Akabaieth, not far from the border of your kingdom and mine. Each time our two faiths met, there was a particular... I cannot say in easy words, Aka, a dislike that was much deeper than hatred." He leaned forward on the table, his hands shifting aside the stones and paper arrayed out on either side of the open book, "Yet I sense none of that in you."

Akabaieth lowered his head. "There was." The moment of sudden sorrow was short though, and the Patriarch returned his gaze to the skunk. There was a great deal of compassion filling his eyes, as if he were pouring it all out to cleanse what had come before. "Good day to you, Murikeer."

"And to you, Akabaieth," Murikeer said as he stood, watching as the glimmering glow of their lanterns faded down the twisting aisles. The younger priest, Vinsah, paused at the end of the nearest aisle and looked back at the skunk, his round face unreadable. Having watched him nearly as closely as the Patriarch, he would not have expected the look he got from the younger man. Not dislike or hatred, not even an uneasiness.

Curiosity, and respect. Both of which seemed to confuse the patriarch's adjutant a great deal.

Murikeer let out a long sigh as he looked down at the book before him. Letting himself slip into the spidery words written upon the yellowed page, he slowly sank back down into the rickety wooden chair, his own scent once more filling the air about him as he let the masking spell unweave.

Yet the words said little to him, his mind churning over that brief meeting.

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