Liturgy of Blood - Part XI

Bryonoth brought his charger to the top of the gentle rise, overlooking the fields and hills in the valley just before the western mountains began. It was a bright, but cold day. Nestled inside his armour he wore two surcoats to keep the chill out. Even the hills appeared to share his sentiments, as the leaves upon their trees were bright red, and many of those trees lacked leaves at all. It rather reminded the knight of a set of lips puckered, chapped, and bleeding.

Back on the steppe, the leaves would only have just begun their yearly descent. That is, for the few trees that they did have, usually along river banks and nestled in tight groves. The colours of the steppe were always greens and yellows, never oranges and reds, except in the hottest of summers when the grasses were scorched. And in Yesulam, the trees appeared to lose their leaves only as an afterthought during the dry months of winter. This chromatic display here at Metamor was surely a marvel that all ought to see at least once.

Turning back, gazing over the rolling grasses, he saw three other riders climbing the hill. The green heraldry of Sir Egland he spotted immediately, but the rat and wolverine were not hard to distinguish either. He patted the side of his charger's neck, the thick muscles tight with the excitement of the run. It was hard not to show off Povunoth's stamina, but with a bit of chagrin he realized he ought not show off too much, or he'd find himself all alone in the valley!

Both Maugnard and Saulius brought their steeds to repose when they surmounted the hill, while Egland took a few exploratory steps down the other side. The Keepers had wished to show their new friends some of the best places to ride in the Valley, as well as its natural beauty. So far, they had been successful on both counts. Yacoub removed his helmet, and let the wind blow through his light brown hair. Resting both his helmet and his hands on the pommel of his saddle, he stretched slightly, grinning boyishly as he gazed out across the sloping hills. "This is a remarkable sight! It is strange seeing mountains on either side."

"Aye, tis remarkable indeed. Thy eyes may marvel even more when thou canst see nothing in any direction except for the grasses!" Bryonoth declared proudly. It had been so long since he had seen his own homeland. For some reason, he felt a twinge of regret.

Sir Saulius only nodded in assent, lifting his own visor. "Truly, you speak."

Andre sat silently though, regarding them all, his paws crossed over his pommel. Bryonoth did not question his desire to remain quiet though, but turned once more to his countryman, the rat. "Dost thee believe thy steed can reach that grove of trees before mine?"

Saulius shook his head, though he afforded Armivest a gentle stroking along his neck. "No pony could ever outrun a stallion of the steppe. But he will account well oh himself, thou can rest assured of that."

"Then let us test his mettle," Bryonoth declared, setting Povunoth into a gentle trot down the hillside and towards the distant trees. "I will give thee a twenty-count head-start even, to make it fair."

Saulius grinned brightly, slamming his visor back down over his nose, and spurring Armivest forward, into the green grasses swaying gently, the hooves of his pony thundering down the hillside, while the Yesulam knight waited, counting out loud to twenty. At the promised count, he charged forward, chasing after the already distant Saulius.

Egland chuckled as he watched them go, noting that the wolverine was trotting his horse alongside. "Sir Saulius is quite a spirited fellow," he remarked then, still gazing after them.

"Aye, and I am glad to see it. He was not always this way." Andre fumbled at his helmet, thick black claws pulling loose the clasps. Soon, he let his own dark-furred head relax in the wintry breeze. His dark eyes showed a gentleness that Yacoub had failed to notice before. "I did not know him well at all until this last Summer Solstice, when we jousted together. Before that he was always hiding in the cellars with many of the other rats."

Egland wore a concerned moue, and then shifted slightly in his saddle, prompting his own steed to stomp his hooves impatiently. Galadan's russet fur bristled in that wind, the black mane laying against the back of his neck. He wished to run alongside the others. "Why was he hiding?"

"If you are a knight-errant, wouldn't you be distressed when you became a rat, a thing most consider vermin that should be killed?"

Yacoub's expression became even more unpleasant at the thought of it. "I see what you mean. How did you joust with him? He is barely one third your size, if that."

Andre grinned then, his long teeth glistening in the noon-day sunlight. "With honour, sir Egland. With honour!" He then turned, ignoring the chase in progress on the fields ahead of them, and gazed instead at his fellow knight. "I did not hold back my lance when we charged each other. And neither did he. His skill with both sword and lance is quite remarkable. Even at his size, he knows how to handle himself well."

"Did your size help you?" Egland asked again, once more, that timidity at asking a question that might be impertinent filled his face.

"Possibly, though I think it also hurt me in that battle, for Saulius was quick and nimble, whereas I sometimes have a bit of trouble stopping myself when I run. He used that against me, and drew first blood."

Egland's eyes went wide. "That must have been some contest! I wish I could have seen it. Yet another Dawoud and Giant tale!"

Andre chuckled at that grinning lightly. "The Lord of all does have a way of reminding us not to be too proud of what we are."

The man peered at his companion for a moment more, starring at the black-furred paws resting on the pommel, dark claws lying against the fur on either side. "Do you mind if I" he asked, before his own voice caught in his throat from embarrassment.

Andre lifted one of his paws questioningly, holding it out. "You want to feel my paw?" he asked incredulously.

"Well, I suppose so. I guess I'm just trying to understand what it must be like. I hope I didn't offend you by that." His face, boyish even more, was as red as the leaves.

The wolverine laughed then, and held his left paw out even further. "Of course, I won't hurt you. You are not the first to ask that. Just don't let anyone else see you. They may get strange ideas. I am a married man after all."

Sir Yacoub Egland blushed even more as his questing fingers found what they sought. Running his fingers through the thick coarse fur, he felt the warmth they trapped. Running his thumb down the length of one of Andre's broad fingers, he marvelled at the suppleness of the digit, and then the length of the claw it possessed. It was smooth, though a bit chipped at the end, yet it still felt dangerous to touch, as if he were licking the blade of a knife.

The wolverine's palm was dark and calloused with thick pads, though not nearly as thick as an animal's. There was no fur of course, but the coarseness of the skin more than made up for the lack of animal hair. He placed his own hand against it, palm to palm, and saw that his fingers barely reached the ends of each digit, not to mention the claws that were half again as long! Rubbing gently against the dark skin, he grinned, unable to help himself in that. That was a very strong hand indeed.

Sir Maugnard was watching him curiously, letting him satiate his interest when a sudden shout echoed across the field. Snapping his eyes back up, he saw that the two knights, on the other side of the hills, and next to a copse of trees were waving towards them, Bryonoth standing next to his horse. "Something's wrong," Andre murmured softly.

Egland peered up, and grimaced. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure. Come on, let's see and find out." Andre led his stallion down the incline and across the grasses, with Egland just behind him. Clutching his helmet in one hand, Yacoub watched the grasses whirl by, dried leaves gently blowing onto the field from the nearby by woods. The wind whipped at his hair, drawing it in flowing bundle behind him. The gale whistled in the air, almost rather like a laugh.

When they reached their companions, the rat was gazing into the sombre copse of trees at the blackness held within. Sir Albert Bryonoth was resting one gauntleted hand upon Povunoth's neck, whisper calming words into the roan charger's nervously flicking ears. Andre rode to Saulius's side, and hissed softly. "What is it, Erick?"

The rat shook his head, his whiskers twitching furiously beneath his visor. "I'm not sure. Something lies in these woods, something unpleasant."

Albert kicked at a stone with one foot as Yacoub dismounted and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Thou needn't worry about me. I took a fall when Povunoth rode up the hill. He reared suddenly as the leaves fell. Twas most peculiar." His eyes though told another story. There was something distant in them, as if he were listening to a voice far away.

Andre glared at the blackness within those trees, his nose breathing in and out. Egland found himself staring at the wolverine, transfixed by that simple act of inhaling and exhaling. And then, the moment passed, Maugnard turned from the copse and gazed at the rest of them. "I do not know what has startled us so, but I believe we ought to alert George about it. He can send somebody to investigate."

"George?" Albert asked suddenly.

"The Patrol-master," Andre replied, his eyes turning curiously towards Egland. The knight turned away suddenly, a swell of embarrassment passing over him yet again. Fixing his eyes on the woods themselves, he noted the gnarl of each tree, and every branch. The leaves shifted and fell, some red, others a dead brown. And yet, for just a moment, he could of sworn they had formed a rather handsome face, one that was laughing with the wind. Then it to was gone.

"Yes, let us do that. I think I've had enough air for today," he declared, turning his steed about, his body tight with a sudden fear, and yet also a sudden desire. Shaking such thoughts from his mind, Yacoub let his gaze pass only upon the grasses as they made their way back to the Keep.

Waiting outside the gold-panelled doors was a young girl, rather plain of features and manner, as well as a few of the temple acolytes dressed in simple smocks. Her eyes alight with both interest and anxiety at the sound of approaching footsteps, and of such venerable men. She stood straighter then, her lanky legs almost unfit for the job, but they managed quite well. The acolytes also stood prouder then, yet there was an uncertainty to their pose that hinted at their concern. They were men and women ready to welcome a snake into their home, and they were not happy about it.

The Patriarch of course arrived with his entourage of Vinsah, his closest confidante, and two of the Yeshuel. After a long day of simply exploring the town of Metamor and its peoples, as well as engaging in some rather interesting conversations, his most important task now lay before him, and he found himself a bit unsure. Akabaieth was not one who generally questioned his decisions right before he followed through on them, but what he did now was unprecedented. Never before in the history of the Ecclesia had the Patriarch ever set foot inside a pagan temple after his elevation to the highest Earthly office of his faith.

As he thought about it, Akabaieth realized that even before he'd become a Follower, he'd never been in a Lothanasi temple. While living on Whales, he'd never had any faith at all, his father's strict agnosticism ruling all else. A slight grin crossed his features. So much he had seen so far on this journey had been new to him. And this visit to Metamor felt like the summit of some high peak. Yet, over each pass, only higher pinnacles could be glimpsed.

Akabaieth bowed gently at the waist, his frail form shuddering with the practised motion. Both Yeshuel and Vinsah joined in the gesture of friendship, though the Bishop had started only a moment later than the others. The girl could she even be fourteen? returned the gesture, her eyes wide, as did the acolytes. "I am Merai hin'Dana," she said in a soft, yet firm voice. "The Lothanasa, Raven hin'Elric, awaits your presence. I am to bring you to her immediately."

"And I am Akabaieth." He smiled as he spoke, the ancient lines of his face creasing together. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Merai hin'Dana."

Merai blinked a few times, unable to keep herself from smiling at the remark. Still, it was clear that she was nervous from being so close to the head of what to her was a pagan faith. Vinsah watched her carefully, noting the way she moved to open the doors, and the way her eyes traced over each of them. She was so young, not just in age, but in manner. The Bishop was nearly old enough to be her grandfather!

Passing beneath the marble transom, Vinsah could not help but take a breath, his hand reaching up to cross himself. Yet, a careful glance from Akabaieth stilled that abjuring gesture. They were in a long corridor with a low ceiling, each tile decorated by murals and paintings. The walls themselves were carved in relief, ancient writings and almost forgotten glyphs adorning every surface. The Bishop tried to make out the script, but found it unreadable to his eyes.

Beyond a second set of open double doors there was a large tympan window set within the apse at the far end, through which Vinsah focussed his gaze as they continued past more of those reliefs. The open air waited for him, though in the distance grey clouds loomed low in the sky. He'd lost his sense of direction in the ever changing halls of the Keep, and was not sure where the clouds were coming from. It did not appear to be towards the southwest, for no hint of sun remained in that autumnal sky. Shrugging such thoughts aside, he returned his attention to the young girl who had led them to another ornate door, this one recently polished.

"The Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric waits inside for you, Patriarch. She has requested that only you join her, and that your companions wait outside until you are done." Merai held the doorknob in one hand, her slender fingers rubbing the brass slowly.

Akabaieth smiled then, his expression warm. "I had hoped to speak with her alone as it is. I do have a request to make of you, Merai hin'Dana, if it would not be an imposition to do so. I understand that you are a priestess as well yourself? I am sure that you have duties to your people."

Merai nodded, her face brightening at mention of her role. "I do have responsibilities, but I could at least hear your request."

His grin broadening, Akabaieth motioned with one gnarled hand to Vinsah and the two Yeshuel. "I would be honoured if you took the time to show my friends more of your beautiful temple."

Vinsah could not help but gasp. Even the Yeshuel wore surprised expressions, the crucifix upon their shirt displaying their committed allegiance to all who would gaze upon them. "There is no need to trouble her with such a request, Father," Vinsah ventured, his throat catching. "She does have her responsibilities, and we would just be an unnecessary burden upon her."

Akabaieth then turned back around, hiding his face from the Lothanasi, and gave his chief aide a rather disappointed expression. Vinsah felt shame clutch his heart in an instant. He'd rather have the Lightbringers whip him than see his master let down. "You should learn more about our neighbours, the Lothanasi. It is unlikely you will have an opportunity quite as good as this ever again, so do not shrink from it."

Akabaieth then turned around again to face the young priestess. Vinsah bristled slightly as he thought of that. He'd been twenty-five before he had been even named a priest over the small parish just outside of Abaef a good thirty leagues from Yesulam. However, the Patriarch's voice and face returned once more to those of respectful cheer. "As long as it would not be an imposition on you, priestess hin'Dana."

The girl blinked, smiling slowly, looking at the two acolytes standing next to her for a moment. "I believe I have time enough to give them a brief tour. I do not know how long you and the Lothanasa will speak, she has not told me."

Vinsah, feeling rather foolish at his confused emotions, spoke then again, this time directly to the young priestess. "Feel free to take as long as you want. I'm sure I can learn much from you this day, priestess hin'Dana."

She appeared to blush slightly at the title. "You may call me Merai if you wish, most everyone still does."

Furrowing his brow, noting that the Patriarch was not even looking in his direction, Vinsah finally forced himself to ask the question that had been bothering him since they had arrived. "Pardon me for asking, Merai, but just how old are you?"

At she laughed slightly, her face brightening at that. It was a simple, yet earnest expression, one that displayed an immense maturity for one who appeared so young. "I still haven't changed yet. And what do I call you?"

"I'm Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef. I am surprised to see someone your age holding such a sterling office among your kind."

Merai shrugged slightly, her eyes turning to one of the murals, tracing the ancient runes. "Service to the Gods knows not of age. We are all called, young and old."

Akabaieth clapped his palms together quietly in delight. "Wise words indeed! Even those of us at the end of our years should remember such wisdom. I thank you, Merai hin'Dana, for imparting such insight."

The young but certain priestess then turned the brass knob upon the door, opening it gently. "Simply walk on in, she is expecting you. I do hope what the Lothanasa will say to you will possess even greater wisdom than that, your Eminence." Her eyes returned to Vinsah and the two Yeshuel who stood quietly, a source of strength that did not waver. "If you three will follow me, I will show you the main Temple hall."

Vinsah gazed once towards Akabaieth, whose gentle smile was enough to assure him that he'd been forgiven for his hasty words. Washed in sudden relief, the Bishop turned his mind towards the words that the young priestess was intoning as she led them down another hallway past the apse, telling tales of the early days of the world, when the gods first chose to shine their light on men. Whispering a silent prayer for strength to Yahshua, he allowed himself to be immersed in the travails of Kammoloth and his court.

Reaching out with one frail hand to hold the knob, Akabaieth listened to the priestess's departing words, his own thoughts turning to a prayer for strength. Not for himself though, but for Vinsah, that his aide might one day learn peacefully what it took Akabaieth wading in blood. And then, he pressed the door inwards, and crossed through to Raven hin'Elric's chambers. There was an ornate desk sitting to one side, with two chairs on either end. A large bookcase occupied one wall, as did a few decorations, most of them clerical in nature.

And standing in the centre of the room, garbed in her traditional robes was the Lothanasa herself. Raven hin'Elric was a moderately sized woman, though with her lupine features now masking the human, her eyes were still a deep a blue. Akabaieth recognized them instantly for what they were, eyes used to boring into the depths of hearts and seeing what lie therein. He saw them everyday in his own mirror.

Bowing once more at the waist, he intoned in very sombre words, "Hail to thee, and well met, Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric. I am Akabaieth, Patriarch of the Ecclesia, and Pontiff of the Followers of the Way."

Though nowadays, he normally flinched at such a long title, he gave it now out of respect for her. From the slight twisting to her ears, and an involuntary wag of her thick grey tail, he knew she had received it in kind. She bowed then at the waist as well, her tail rising high into the air behind her. "Hail to thee, and well met, Patriarch Akabaieth of the Ecclesia. I am Raven hin'Elric, daughter of Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor." She then favoured him with a mysterious grin, as if she was still unsure of his intentions. "I am honoured to invite you into this temple where I have served as head priestess for the last seven years. Would you care for something to drink and a place to sit? I can provide both. A man of your age must be weary from standing upon his legs all day long."

"I would greatly appreciate both."

Raven gestured to the ornate chair sitting before her desk. The smooth surface had been wiped clean, obviously to demonstrate that she was committing her full attention to their conversation. The chair itself was embroidered with a family crest, ostensibly Raven's own. Sitting down on the soft linen, he could feel the feather cushioning beneath take the weight from his legs. It was quite a pleasant sensation.

"Thank you. I do hope that I have not caused you our your people any distress by coming here."

"Is milk suitable?" she asked as she held out a decanter and a brass tumbler. He nodded and she poured the white drink and handed it to him. Setting the carafe back down on the counter, she remarked, "You have caused quite a disturbance in my affairs. Yet it is not one that Merai and I could not cope with. However, I would like to believe that it was worth it. So, why have you come here, and why do you wish to speak with me, a lowly priestess of a faith that your kind have persecuted for years?"

Akabaieth took a sip of the milk, thoughtfully gazing into those deep blue eyes. They sparkled like sapphires, he thought. "I suppose it had been too much to hope for. Alas. Our faiths have never been on good terms, and things only grow worse as time passes on. True, for now things are calm, but I know that among my own people, there is unrest. In fact, my coming here was stiffly opposed by some in my own council. Yet I knew that I must make this one last effort if any hope for peace and understanding between our faiths is ever to be had.

"That is why I am here. I wish to talk with you, not about the broad goals, though that too, but about what we can do to help usher in an era of peace. I hope that one day, your Lothanasi will rejoice at this inconvenience I've brought upon them. It can only happen though if both of our faiths wish it to happen. You, being the Lothanasa of Metamor, the traditional seat of the Lightbringer faith, would be a significant ally in this cause, if you so choose to ally yourself to peace."

Raven gently rubbed her chin with one paw as she sat down in the opposite chair, pulling her robes tightly about her supple frame. Her voice was soft, but their was a hint of iron to it. "That is all well and good. I doubt that many here at Metamor would find your goal unappealing. We are weary of war, but can expect little else with the threat of Nasoj ever present to the North."

And then, the iron bit. "Why should we believe though that it is what you wish? I have asked about, and I know that in your younger days, you incited several Pyralian cities to openly assault Sathmoran manors, simply to force them to convert to your faith, or to put them to the sword. How can we accept the hand of peace, when that hand is drenched in the blood of our own kinsmen? Why should we not believe instead that you have a knife in your other hand, waiting to plunge it into our hearts should we choose to take that stained hand?"

Akabaieth frowned slightly, his eyes casting downwards for a moment. His face was whiter than before, and his fingers could barely hold the tumbler anymore. Lifting those ancient orbs once more, he fixed his solemn gaze upon the wolf. "You speak truly, for I have done those things, and my hands are stained in the blood of innocents. Not only my hands, but my very soul is marred by the lives I've torn asunder. You do have every right to doubt my sincerity. You do have every right to choose to refuse me and send me on my way. I implore you though to listen to what I have to say.

"I want to bring peace between our peoples, not as a ruse to weaken you, but as a chance to strengthen us both. I have lived a long life, longer than most are gifted with, and in that life, I have made many mistakes, many things that I regret and bear the most terrible shame about. What I did to your people, your kinsmen, is one of the worst. I know that unless I make amends for what I did, then I can never be forgiven the guilt, either by Eli, or by myself."

"And you hope to redeem yourself by this crusade at the twilight of your life? Just when you may not live long enough to see it through?"

"No, I am doing this now because it is the right thing to do. And if I don't start it now, I may never start it. Others can finish what I hope to begin. I believe that Vinsah will be one such figure. I know that my past makes it harder to believe me, but have you not seen men change their lives, turn them around and start over again on the right path?"

Raven nodded slowly then. "Yes, I have. But the question I want to know is, have you done that?"

Akabaieth took another sip of the milk. "I hope so. This is my last chance to do what is right. I so dearly want to make good on this chance."

The Lothanasa folded her paws before her, the claw tips gently rapping on the desk. "I do not have the influence my father did with the Lothanasi High Council, but I will send them word of your desire. I cannot promise that they will listen though."

He nodded slowly. "I understand that. It will take a while before my own council sees the truest course is the one that leads to peace."

Raven stopped tapping then and held her paws tightly together, he eyes peering close, scrutinizing his every move. "I do not know quite why, but I believe you when you say you want peace. I have spoken with the others who were with you yesterday, and with those who have seen you this morning, and all of them tell me of this wonderful grandfatherly man. I believe you are more than that. I think you are a grandfather who wishes his descendants to avoid his own mistakes."

She then looked away a moment, towards her bookshelf. "Of course, you can no more change their ways than I. Each will do as they wish. We simply have to hope we can make them wish for the right things." The priestess fell into a long silence, her eyes still fixed on one of those books, as she seemed to struggle with some internal question. At last she looked back at him, her eyes serious and determined.

"There is something I must show you," she said, rising and walking over to the bookshelf. She carefully removed one of the tomes and carried it back to her desk, laying it open to a page that she had marked. The book seemed unspeakably ancient, its pages yellow and crumbling around the edges. The text itself, though still dark and clear, was written in an archaic script of the Common Tongue. Akabaieth had a good deal of experience with old books -- the library at Yesulam had a handsome collection of early works -- but the dialect was unfamiliar, and required some effort to decipher.

"I retrieved this from the Archives in anticipation of our meeting," Raven said, sitting back down in her chair. "The original text dates to 242 Cristos, and this copy was made not many years after that."

"What is it?" Akabaieth asked, peering closely at the text. It appeared to be a poem of some kind.

"A prophecy of Silvinia, the Oracle of Samekkh," the Lightbringer said. "Perhaps the most reliable seeress of the last thousand years, at least among my people. This particular revelation was long forgotten by our order -- I only recently rediscovered it, in one of the deepest levels of our Archives. I believe you will find it quite germane to our present discussion."

Akabaieth read through the ancient poem slowly and carefully. The first four stanzas described a time of coming darkness, when two evils would unite to wage war against the guardians of Light. It spoke of corruption and traitors within holy councils, "light and light" drawn to battle, atrocities committed...

"Abba, have mercy," he whispered. He looked up at Raven, who was watching him with a knowing expression. "This sounds much like what we have seen happen between our own peoples."

"Precisely," Raven said, nodding once.

Akabaieth turned back to the poem, reading even more intently now than before. The next stanza...

" 'Elenin'?" he asked, reading the unfamiliar word.

"It means Starchild," the priestess replied. "Elenin is the main focus of the prophecy, as you will see."

The next few stanzas were ... disturbing, to say the least. There were so many deliberate parallels, even down to the language used...

"Lothanasa, it sounds as if your Oracle means to set up this 'Elenin' as a counterpart to Yahshua."

"I do not doubt that the gods had in mind a certain degree of imitation," Raven conceded. "It is no secret that they are jealous of the following that your Hirasoth has acquired. I would not be too concerned, though the task to which Elenin has been called is considerably different."

That was true enough, Akabaieth realized as he read through the remainder of the poem. Elenin was to play a central role in the destruction of this alliance of darkness, possibly in some sort of battle. She -- for the Starchild was clearly female -- would cleanse the "holy councils" of corruption, renew old friendships that had long been torn apart, and bring love where there had once been hatred.

"And you believe this prophecy is about to be fulfilled?" the Patriarch asked.

Raven nodded, her eyes showing no joy at the thought. "I cannot be certain yet, but I believe that Elenin has arrived and is currently being prepared for her role in the prophecy. There was an incident this past July involving Yajiit -- or Anarbereth, as the Oracle calls her -- which precisely parallels the reference in the poem."

Akabaieth glanced back at the book. "Which would mean that this corruption it speaks of has already arrived, as well."

"Precisely -- and that is the reason I needed to show you," Raven said. "It makes the question of peace between our peoples much more complicated. This is about more than old grudges and religious differences -- someone is deliberately driving Lightbringers and Followers to destroy each other."

"So that this darkness may rise on the earth."

"Aye." Raven ran a hand through her hair, brushing it out of her face. "And that is why I had to test you before revealing this to you. I had no way of knowing how far the corruption has spread amongst your clergy for all I knew, you could have been corrupted yourself. Now, to my relief, I see otherwise."

Akabaieth studied the woman closely. She looked tired, he realized suddenly -- as if recent events had wearied her beyond her years. "And how far do you believe this corruption has spread among the Lightbringers?" he asked.

"Too far. I believe that we can trust Lycias he is the Lothanas of Whales, our southernmost chapter, and a good friend of my father's." Akabaieth grinned momentarily at the mention of his homeland, but the gesture was quickly washed from his face. "And Angernil, Lothanas of the Dragons, is almost certainly incorruptible, though he rarely involves himself with the rest of the Order these days. As for the other six..." She shook her head. "I cannot be sure of their allegiance."

"Two thirds of the High Council?" the Patriarch asked, mildly surprised. "Can it have gone so far?"

"I fear so. That is why I hesitate to push too strongly for peace at this time." She looked at him with a mixture of sadness and frustration. "This war must come to an end," she said wearily. "You and I both know this. I have done my best to promote peace between our faiths here in the Valley, and I believe that I have done well -- but there is only so far I can go. Even though I am officially the chief authority over my chapter, the rest of the High Council is a powerful voice. If we were to sign a peace treaty, you and I, the Council would brand me a heretic and declare war on my entire chapter."

"And many within my own council would likely do the same to me," the Patriarch added, finishing Raven's unspoken thought. "It would seem that we are walking the proverbial slippery slope."

"Indeed." The priestess leaned closer, her blue eyes gazing at him intently. "Who can you trust, among your own councilors?"

Akabaieth finished the last of the milk and set the tumbled down on the desk, his slender fingers tracing its surface for a moment as he considered all the words he had just heard. Finally, drawing his hand back into his lap where it lay quietly, he spoke in sombre tones, "Very few it would appear. I know there are some among the Council of Bishops who would like nothing more than to exterminate all Lothanasi, and all magic. They are a quiet few, I do not know who they are precisely, but I know they exist, fomenting dissent over my charge."

He then furrowed his brow. "In answer to your question though, I know that I can trust Vinsah completely. He may not yet be as tolerant as I wish him to be, but he is growing in understanding each passing day. My Yeshuel are incorruptible, but they play no part in deciding policy. In the past, Cardinal Geshter of Pyralis has been my ally in quelling sentiments on the Pyralian-Sathmore border. It has been quite a while since I have seen him last, so I do not know if his sentiments have changed over the years. I do not know any of the Midlands priests well enough to say. Of those residing at Yesulam, Bishop Juthay would be one who I feel I can trust. The others, I am not sure."

He frowned slightly. "I shall have to pray about this. When I am better assured of their loyalties, I shall send you a message."

"Excellent -- only be sure you can trust the courier," Raven said. "It may be wise that no one among your advisors know of his mission, either."

"Aye." Reaching over to the desk, Akabaieth carefully closed the book. "These are sad times in which we live, Lothanasa."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps we should consider them hopeful times, since we know that a brighter day awaits us."

Akabaieth smiled warmly. "True enough," he conceded. "However, I would like to ask a favour of you though in this regard."

"What is it?"

Akabaieth licked his lips once. "Would you try and work more closely with Father Hough, at least as one guide to another. It would help our cause greatly if others could see a greater harmony at Metamor between our two faiths. You both have done remarkably well so far, but every step forward is one that we must eventually take."

Raven appeared thought ful at that, her blue eyes tracing across his features. "Very true. We have agreed not to interfere in each other's affairs, but little else. I suppose it is time that we aimed for more. I doubt the Midland Lothanasi would object, though the Sathmoran chapters might not appreciate it."

"No matter what we do, we shall alienate some of our brethren."

"Again, true." Raven pursed her lips, the dark, black nose glistening in the lamp light. "What shall you be doing to foment the peace?"

"I will be travelling through the Midlands these next few months talking to every parish along the way, and telling them of my dream for peace between our two faiths. I will order the local priests to carry out my wishes to do their best to be more accommodating. I hope to speak to a few of the Lothanasi in the Midlands as well, as I have to you."

Raven cocked her head to one side, her thick black hair dangling over one ear. "Is there anything more you wish?"

"No, that is all." He gripped the armrests, preparing to rise from the chair.

"Here, let me help you," Raven said, coming over to him. Taking his arm, she helped to steady him as he rose to his weary feet.

"My thanks, Lothanasa," he said, walking beside her back towards the door.

"My pleasure," she assured him, showing him a small, reserved smile. "I thank you for coming, though I wish that I had better news to offer you."

The Patriarch shrugged. "Better a sad truth than a pleasant lie. If nothing else, I thank you for making Metamor welcome to my people. Here, at least, there is proof that Lothanasi and Patildor may live together as brothers."

"Aye. Let us only hope it is the first glimmer of a brighter tomorrow."

They stopped at the door, and Raven extended the arms of friendship toward him, palms up. Akabaieth placed his own aged arms over them, clasping forearms with her for a moment in the ancient gesture of brotherhood.

"May Eli bless you, Raven hin'Elric," he said, smiling.

"Live in the light, Akabaieth of the Ecclesia," she replied, returning the expression.

He turned to open the door, then paused as he grasped the handle. "Oh, now that I think of it..." he said, turning to look at her. "You said that you believed this ... Starchild, Elenin ... has already arrived. Who do you think it is?"

Raven smiled again, a mysterious glint in her eyes. "Well, 'tis too soon to be certain. The child has yet to be tested in any real way. But I suspect that it is someone you have already met."

Akabaieth opened the door, and looked up to see the young priestess Merai sitting on the floor of the temple with Vinsah and his two Yeshuel. She was animatedly describing some great battle in the history of the Lightbringers, her mahogany-brown eyes sparkling with life. The Patriarch turned to Raven, his eyebrows raised in a silent question. The Lothanasa gave him another mysterious smile and nodded once, almost imperceptibly. Akabaieth turned back toward the girl, looking on her with new eyes. There was such innocence in that face. The Patriarch wondered just what the future had in store for her.

By now the young priestess and his own men had noticed their entrance, and were standing attentively as Raven and Akabaieth approached. Vinsah gave a wary look towards the wolfen Lightbringer, but he quickly masked it in polite, attentive expression.

"Lothanasa," Vinsah said, nodding respectfully.

"Father," Raven replied, nodding in turn.

"Come, Vinsah, we've taken enough of the Lightbringers' time. Again, my thanks, Lothanasa."

"A pleasure," Raven replied courteously. "You are welcome within these walls, your Eminence."

Akabaieth turned to Merai, who was regarding him closely. "Thank you for being such a gracious hostess, Merai. I am in your debt."

The girl smiled broadly. "It was my pleasure, your Eminence."

Escorted by Merai and three acolytes, the Patriarch and his men made their way out of the temple, down the ornate hallway and through the two massive doors at its far end. Vinsah seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they passed under the transom, and Akabaieth suspected that several of the acolytes had done likewise.

They had not gone far down the passageway when Akabaieth stopped, turning to look back at the brown-haired priestess who stood in the doorway watching them. They exchanged a long look before Merai stirred, raising a hand in farewell. The Patriarch returned the gesture, and the girl disappeared from view. A moment later, the heavy doors swung shut, and all was quiet.

"What was that about, Father?" Vinsah asked as they turned and continued walking.

Akabaieth smiled distantly. "The future, Vinsah," he said softly. "The future."

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