Liturgy of Blood - Part XII

Vinsah lay in his bed that night dreaming of a woman. It was not uncommon among the Ecclesia priests to have such fantasies as they slept, pondering the life they could have had if they had been allowed to marry. He had been plagued by such temptations before, but one could hardly consider the life of a dream to be as true as the physical. At least, that was the stance that many in the Ecclesia held, though there were a few who felt dreams were another means of Eli to speak to them. Yet, from the very first moment he glimpsed her in his night scape, Vinsah knew that this was not like any of the dreams he had ever had before.

Nor was he sure quite why it was happening. Despite the rather unsettling affairs of earlier in the day, mostly concerning Akabaieth's rather cavalier approach to topics that were considered by many in the Ecclesia to be taboo, after returning from the Lightbringer Temple things had been rather serene. Akabaieth and he had enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the rooms that Thalberg had provided for them, talking of older times and how far they had come over the years. Never once did the Patriarch mention what he had discussed with the Raven hin'Elric, nor had he asked Vinsah to relate what Merai had shown him of the Lothanasi temple.

After the dinner, that evening, an hour after dusk had settled over the valley, enwrapping it in the dark folds of night, but also in the warmth of friendly faces, they went to the Chapel. The evening service was a special one that Akabaieth oversaw personally, with Vinsah acting as deacon, while Hough, Lothar, and the two other priests that had accompanied them from Yesulam were assistants. The hall was full of Keepers, many of them were Followers of Yahshua's teachings, but no longer part of the Ecclesia herself. Yet the vast majority were members of that faithful body, uniting in the ancient sacraments that held them together as a people.

In fact, the only thing that had happened that had given Vinsah pause was when, during their meal together, Akabaieth pulled out the small sculpture of quartz that Murikeer had fashioned for him while they had talked in the Library. The two points of lapis shone brightly, yet they appeared to droop slightly in the face, as if there was a sadness crossing the milky veins of stone. There was no question that the stone had been shaped with magic, and that fact alone was enough to make the Bishop wary. Though it appeared to amuse his master, Vinsah, having been raised and bred in the hills around Yesulam, was very distrustful of those arcane practices.

That brought to mind the Keepers themselves. Their very forms were the product of magic. How could one truly believe that magic was good at all? It had brought such a terrible burden upon these honest folk at the Keep. They were victims of the magic, and he truly did not blame them for their predicament as several members of the Council of Bishops did. Yet, that magic had brought upon them scorn, and disfigurement the likes of which was almost unknown in the history of the kingdoms.

Yet even so, many of the things he had seen since coming to Metamor shocked and appalled him nonetheless. Of course, none of it had truly affected him until their walk through the Library. But most especially, his mind fixated on the tour Merai had given him and the two Yeshuel of the Lightbringer Temple. In truth, it had been a relatively brief experience, as there was not much that the young priestess appeared inclined to show them apart from the main hall, and rooms of the acolytes. Yet as she described what they did there, words and tales of gods he did not believe in, he could almost feel as if those beings had reached out for him. Despite Akabaieth's assurances, he doubted he would ever truly feel comfortable in presence of Lothanasi.

Yet, as he lay there beneath the thick quilts, bundled tightly against the cold autumn air, dreams of that woman came to him, as if they had been there all along. He was sitting at his desk back in Abaef, preparing for the Service the following morning when he heard her voice calling out behind him. "Elvmere, you have come to me at last."

Turning, in surprise, he glimpsed her for the first time. Tall, slender, though modestly dressed in a rather radiant white gown, shimmering in the doorway, as if she were a part of it, he found that he could not take his eyes from her frame. She glided lightly forward, her feet barely gracing the clay tiles on the floor. Though he had never seen her before, Vinsah found that he did not need to look at her directly to know her features. There was a lucidity to the image that was so unlike any of his other dreams, that it gave him a bit of a fright.

"Who are you?" he asked, his own voice timid, his old hands tightening on the frame of his phantom desk. He could feel her breath on his cheek, warm and soothing, almost soporific. Yet how could one feel tired in a dream?

"I am the mistress of this house." She gestured with one silvery, almost translucent hand towards the walls about them both.

"But this is the Cathedral in Abaef!" Vinsah insisted, shuddering as he watched her lithe frame inch closer. "It is owned by no man or woman, only the Ecclesia herself can lay claim to her walls."

Her footsteps made no noise, as she crossed the room, to the single window overlooking the mud-thatched roofs of Abaef. His home was not very prosperous, but they did their best to live good lives with what they had. She gently pulled open the drapes, throwing pale light across the floor. It was hardly the sun of Abaef, which was bright and hot, beating down on them most days. "No, Elvmere, this is not the Cathedral at Abaef."

Vinsah blinked as she used that foreign name yet again. Rising from his chair, he found himself feeling rather rejuvenated, the slight aches of his muscles and bones gone. He moved to the window, but refused to stand next to her. The slight illumination emanating from her skin was enough to make him quite uneasy. Yet he did peer out the window, past the dark brown curtains, to find a land that was not his own. High grey peaks lined the horizon, each topped with billowing white plumes of snow. Nestled at their base were clutches of red and yellow, trees shedding their leaves for the winter frost yet to come. And the homes in the city below were made from stone, not clay.

"Who are you?" He asked again, his blood running cold through his veins. He drew his robes about his chest closer. Strangely, they were not the priestly vestments he normally bore, but those of an acolyte. "Where are we? Is this a dream?" The last was a silly question he knew, for how could it not be a dream? Yet, the anxieties of the day had clamoured together in his mind, convincing him that many things he had not thought possible were.

She did not speak just then, gazing at him with her soft eyes as her long black hair billowed about around her shoulders. Her eyes were deep and stone grey, containing worlds that Vinsah could only briefly catch a glimpse of. Reflected upon those orbs were visions of places and beings that had been lost to myth ages ago. "What is a dream?" she asked softly, gliding back towards the door, her hand beckoning for him to follow. "Come, Elvmere, you have hidden yourself for far too long."

Vinsah bristled at how she deflected his questions. Yet, the most upsetting thing was why she kept using that strange name. "My name is Vinsah," he declared, stumbling on his feet along after her.

If she noticed his words at all, she gave no indication, but continued out through the doorway, the light of her skin brightening the warm hallway outside. Vinsah followed after her, finding himself in a long corridor that was brightly decorated. It was so achingly familiar to him, yet the name refused to come to his lips.

Strange thoughts flowed through his mind, most revolving around her identity, and what the name Elvmere could mean. The more and more he thought as he trundled along behind her, his feet heavy with both worry and fear, the more he began to entertain the notion that this was not just a dream, but something different altogether. How he wished to dispel that very idea as soon as it had struck him; why couldn't it simply be a bit of undigested bread, as the old saying went?

The spectral lady turned about one corner, and disappeared from sight. Slowly, he came to a stop, considering. What reason did he have to follow this phantasm? Not only was she a frightening sight, one born not of the worlds that he knew, but also she would not even call him by his proper name! But if he did not follow, would he be attributing more to this night time wandering then he ought? Would he be accepting that a force his own people decried was playing a part in his life?

No, Vinsah would not allow himself to believe that. And so a simple dream this must be, for it could not possibly be of magical origin. His feet moved once more across the bright parquetry, glistening tiles layered with rich carpets, and past walls decorated with gilded tapestries and strange lettering. Yet, like the lady, it too appeared to be familiar in a way he could not name.

When he turned the corner though, he found himself standing in a courtyard, with a single wide gate at the far end, high walls closing in the field of grass and terrazzo walkways. Standing just outside the gates was a man, one that he had never seen before. He could not make any details out, except that he was clad in a midnight dark robe. There was no one else standing in those gentle gardens, each fresh with the delightful odour of the last blossoms of the year. Though it was obviously day, the light was pale, as if seen through a thick haze, yet he could see no clouds in the sky.

"Please stay, Elvmere," a soft voice said from behind him. Turning about, he expected to find the woman who'd come to him at his desk, but instead, there was only the corridor he'd come from. The entranceway was framed by dark green ivy twirling about each column, bright purple blossoms decorating those twisting curls.

Turning back around, trying to find the source of the voice, his eyes found that dark clad man again. He thought he could see a faint smile gracing his lips, beneath the finely combed black hair. His hands rested on his hips, as if in expectation. The trees about that sepulchral figure appeared dead, sucked dry of their life as their brown leaves twirled to the ground about the figure.

Sucking in his breath, an unknown terror filling his chest, Vinsah scanned the gardens again for any sign of the woman. He called out in his tenor voice, though it felt deeper, "Where are you? Why do you call me Elvmere?"

The sound of a laughing brook came to his ears then. Scanning towards one side of the high walls, he saw a small fountain nestled between the bright bushes. The water was overflowing the rim and cascading down a small rivulet over finely polished rocks. With a gasp he noticed something within the bright water, a peculiar piece of quartz that stood out alone among the granite stones of the fountain. Gritting his teeth, with a bit of temerity, he plunged his hand into the surprisingly warm depths, and drew forth one of the stones.

Turning it over in his palms, he found the grooves well worn, as if the water itself had shaped them. Yet, he nearly dropped it when it rolled to one side, and two pinpricks of dark agate stared back at him from a face that was too familiar. It was his face, though there were strange bands about the eyes that he did not recognize. Certainly part of the chalcedony, he quibbled, as he lowered the stone back into the waters of the stream.

"Do you always return gifts?" a new, but familiar voice echoed behind him. Sniffing at the air, he caught the first reek of the musk that had permeated the alcove where they had met earlier in the day. Wiping his palms on the acolyte's robes he now wore, he turned on his heels, glimpsing at the skunk, naked again except for the old leggings that came down to his hocks. The black fur of his broad chest appeared to rise with the question. The deep, almost featureless dark eyes held Vinsah's, yet they felt deeper than even the Splitting Sea.

Vinsah breathed a moment, studying the figure before him, reminding himself that this was only a dream. Yet, in a way, he knew this was not even a dream figure of Murikeer Khannas, but something else entirely. He shunted such thoughts once more to the dark recesses of his mind. "I found it in the stream. How could it be a gift?"

Murikeer crossed the terrazzo to stand next to the priest, and, waving his long tail about erratically, distributing his particular musk through the air, reached into the stream and pulled the shaped quartz out again. He traced his blunt dark claws over its surface as he let it rest in one black palm, the droplets of water glistening in the dappled light. "Perhaps I put it there just now for you to find." His eyes became shaded, as if staring at something beyond Vinsah. "Perhaps, it was there all this time and you only just now discovered it."

Vinsah nearly laughed in exasperation at that last cryptic remark. "But I've never been here before until now! I don't even know where ‘here' is!"

The skunk smiled slowly, an expression that Vinsah did not recall seeing all too often while Akabaieth and he had been talking in that dusty alcove in the library. It was quite strange to see it upon his muzzle now. "You do know where you are, you simply do not wish to admit it to yourself. Where else would you find me?"

With a sudden intake of breath, Vinsah hissed, "Metamor!"

"No, not quite," Murikeer murmured softly, gently holding out the stone to him. "Take it, Elvmere, for it is yours."

Vinsah took a step back, nearly stumbling into the gentle brook. "I can't. You made that with magic."

"We all have magic, it is inside of us waiting to blossom. You have magic too."

He said it with such calm authority that for a moment, Vinsah was afraid that he too shared that belief. Yet he shook his head violently, and turned away, deliberately stalking away from the skunk. "No, you are wrong! Magic is a temptation. I wish to have no part in it."

Yet, even though he had deliberately stalked several paces away, he could hear the mephit's voice in his ears s if he were speaking over his shoulder. He could almost feel the tickling of the skunk's whiskers along the skin of his neck. "Your master sought a healer before he made his journey, did he not? Was that not magic?"

Vinsah bristled, and slapped at the empty air over his shoulder with one hand, crossing his other tightly about the acolyte's robes. "I do not know how she healed him. She might have used herbs to soothe his aching bones. Many know such remedies."

"You don't really believe that do you?" the voice whispered into his other ear.

Stalking further away, Vinsah stepped off the terrazzo and onto the grasses, towards the high wall and the gate at the far end. The black man still stood outside in the distant grove, waiting and watching, almost curiously. Taking a deep breath, he turned about then, half expecting to find the skunk had disappeared into the mists of his dream-scape, but the acrid odour still filled the air, and the monochromatic figure still stood before him, only a few paces in fact.

"I have nothing to do with your filthy magic," he said between clenched teeth.

Murikeer gestured to the walls and flowers about them. "Then what is this place?"

"A dream, nothing more!" Vinsah insisted, crossing his arms before him. Yet, he knew that his words were a lie even as he spoke them. The alternative, though, was something that he simply could not allow himself to consider.

The skunk appeared to notice that as well, the scent of his musk increasing. Strangely enough, it did not gag the priest as it had in the library. "You do not really believe that, now do you, Elvmere?"

"My name is Vinsah!"

Murikeer bore an amused expression then, still holding out the figurine of quartz in his wet paw. "Vinsah? What is Vinsah, Bishop of Abaef? He is a mask that you wear. Servant to a man who has caused more bloodshed in his days than most kings, deluding himself into believing the world fits precisely into his own perception. Vinsah is one willing to believe that the atrocities his master committed, as well as many of his kinsman, are empty memories, best left forgotten.

"Blood does not forget though." Here, the skunk closed his paw about the stone, holding it tightly to his chest, and peering into the air behind the priest. "Not twenty five years ago, your master incited the people of Breckaris to invade a short distance into Sathmore, and to put to the sword all who would not convert to his faith. Did you know that he had done that?"

Vinsah nodded fiercely. "Yes, I knew of it! But he has changed since then! Akabaieth is no longer that sort of man."

Murikeer scowled then, waving a hand towards the wall, it began to shimmer as if fading into the mist. "But is your Ecclesia still that sort of Ecclesia?" the skunk asked, even as the landscape shifted about them, changing. There was a broad rolling field to either side, small homes lining the cobblestone streets. The homes were fashioned from wood, though Vinsah was unable to recognize the stock. The sky was deeply overcast, and subdued lights came from the homes, cries of torment echoing from out the open windows.

"Come, Elvmere. Come and see what your Ecclesia has wrought," Murikeer commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. Vinsah stumbled along afterwards, pulling his cassock about him tighter, refusing to look behind him. He could hear the sounds of hoof beats, and a shrill chorus of a hymn that he had sung many times in chapel. Only this one was accented with the screams of men and women who cried out to other gods for protection and deliverance that would not come.

Murikeer led them to an open door. It was a small home, about the size of the homes back in Abaef. Inside were several armoured men, all bearing the sign of the crucifix upon their blood smeared surcoats. A woman was crying, huddled in one corner, clutching two young children to her chest. A man in dirty clothes lay face-down in a growing crimson pool that soaked the timbers of the floor. Standing over the man was a figure dressed in priestly vestments, speaking calmly, yet harshly. Though he was a good twenty five years younger, Vinsah recognized him instantly; Akabaieth.

One of the guards dragged the smaller of the two children from her mother's arms. The child screamed and cried out for her mother, bawling, tears streaming from her eyes and down her cheeks. Akabaieth leaned over and faced the little girl, holding out a small crucifix, the long end sharpened into a blade. "Now, little girl, what is your name?"

Her eyes became transfixed upon the dagger he held, her weeping stopping, even as the mother cried out in horror. "Leave my daughter alone you monsters! Leave her alone! Oh Kammoloth!"

"Silence!" Akabaieth snarled, slapping the woman with his aged hand. She fell back into the wall, her other child, a boy that appeared to be no more than eight, fell with her, but held close. The man who would be Patriarch turned back to the girl, a smile crossing his lips. Vinsah had seen his master smile often, yet what he saw now was a malicious contorting of that visage, an evil façade that made him shudder in horror.

Turning to Murikeer, he could feel tears standing in his own eyes. "Please, end this! I cannot bear to see this."

"You will watch, Elvmere, and learn what your master has tried to teach you, then and over the years. You flinched at this, so many years ago. You cannot flinch this time." The voice was cold, yet despite that, the priest was certain that there was a sparkle of sympathy to it, as if whoever had invaded his dreams wished that they did not have to do this.

Vinsah wished that he could banish such a notion, just as he wished he could banish all magic and all Lothanasi, but it remained rooted in his mind. Turning his eyes back to the little girl, he saw that she was trembling as Akabaieth ran a finger down her cheek, wiping her tears away. "Don't cry little girl. We are hear to save you. Now, what is our name?"

"Elsie," she said in a very small voice. She pulled away from his touch, as if his fingers were snakes. He gripped her cheek between his thumb and forefinger, and forced her to look into his eyes.

"That's a pretty name, Elsie. I bet you love your mother very much, don't you?" The girl said nothing, her eyes filling with tears as they stared at the body of her slain father. Akabaieth pinched her cheek tightly. "Don't you?"

"Yes," she bawled out, the tears flowing again.

Akabaieth smiled that vicious animalistic grin. "And your mother loves you very much as well doesn't she?"

"You leave her alone!" the mother cried again, holding her son close to her chest.

Vinsah's master ignored her objections, and gripped Elsie's chin tightly between his fingers. "Now Elsie, look at me. Does your mother love you very much? Answer me, Elsie." He never raised his voice to the girl, yet the threat was clear as his other hand clutched the crucifix dagger.

Finally, she nodded her head, crying even harder again. Akabaieth pulled her close to his chest then, turning her to face her mother. He held the knife before the little girl, his eyes gazing resolutely at the woman crouching in the corner with her son. Vinsah wanted to throw up, his eyes filling with tears at the sight before him. All he could do was tell himself that is was simply a dream. Yet it was not, it was far more sinister; memory.

"Will you renounce your pagan beliefs and embrace Yahshua?" His voice was so calm, almost as if he were asking what colour the sky was.

The woman spat at him, tears standing in her eyes. "You monster. What does your Yahshua know of love? How can you preach of love and forgiveness if you come in and murder my husband and threaten my children! You dogs! I spit upon your god! I spit upon him and all of you!" Sh burst out in fright, clutching her son to her chest, knowing that in that moment she had killed them all.

Akabaieth's face twisted in a sudden rage, and with a flick of his wrist, he'd sliced the tip of the knife across Elsie's throat. The girl reached up and clutched at the wound, but her fingers could not staunch the flow of bright red blood that surged forth. It welled between her fingers, spilling loudly to the floor a moment before her body crumpled into the spreading, muddy crimson pool. Her tiny form twitched as she stared at the ceiling, her eyes pleading for any surcease from the pain. Vinsah cried out in horror, beating the walls with his fist, wishing that he could stop what he was seeing. Murikeer stood staring, an angry moue adorning his features.

Yet, as the priest watched, a change came over Akabaieth's face. He stared down at his hands, and at the girl. A look of horror crossed his features, as if for the first time in his life he realized what he had done. And then, while the soldiers looked on in puzzlement, and the woman continued to shriek in horror at the murder of her daughter, Akabaieth let his face fall into the folds of his hands, a sob of shame breaking through his throat; the bloodied blade slipping from his fingers to join the still form of the child in the muddied pool of spilled blood.

And then, just as suddenly, it was all gone. Vinsah stared about the courtyard, the flowers and gardens as they had been before. The gate still stood open, and the black-clad figure waited beyond. Turning about in horror, Vinsah snarled, "Murikeer Khannas!" But the skunk was not there anymore. Instead, another Metamorian was before him. A tall wolf with long black hair, dressed in clerical robes. She held the small stone of quartz in her paws, and gazed at him with her own deep blue eyes. There was something else in her paws though, a piece of black cloth of some kind.

"Raven hin'Elric," he said, the words coming from his throat in a snarl. "Don't you try to tell me that my Ecclesia has tortured your people. You Lothanasi have done the same to us over the years! Don't deny it, you know it is true."

"Elvmere, would you please stop being so trite. I have a gift for you."

Vinsah kicked at the stones, flailing his arms about in frustration. "My name is Vinsah! I'm the Bishop of Abaef, not this other name! Stop taunting me with your mysteries and riddles and your so-called gifts! I want nothing of them!"

"Regardless, you shall accept this one, no matter what you choose to call yourself." Raven stepped closer, the soft pads of he paws gliding through the grasses towards him. She gently tossed the stone towards him, but he stepped back, letting it land in the loam before him. Glancing down, he could see the two eyes of agate gazing back at him, almost forlornly.

And then, in that moment of distraction, he felt Raven's paws at his back, the black piece of cloth closing over his face. "Vinsah is but your mask, Elvmere. If you chose to wear it, then you will." She said, as she cinched it tight behind him.

Reaching up with his fingers, he clawed at the fabric that covered his face. There were holes for the eyes, so he could still see clearly, yet the feel of it tight against his flesh was horrifying. Even so, despite his searching fingers, he could find no seem to slip beneath, no loose edge to work at. His hands grasped and clawed at the knot behind his head, yet he could make no leeway there either.

"Get this infernal scrap of cloth off of me now!" he demanded, thrashing about. "Damn you, Lightbringer, get this off!"

She stood before him then, and with a swift stroke of her paw, slapped him across the face. He blinked in sudden shock, stumbling back, and tripping over the stone he had let fall to the Earth. He landed on his back, the breath knocked from him. Wheezing, he turned over on his side, gasping for any air that would come to him. With one hand, he reached up and felt the sting along his face, even through the thick black cloth circling his eyes.

"Why did you do that?" he demanded as soon as he regained his breath.

Her eyes were cold as ice. "I serve the gods, Elvmere. Though we follow different paths, we both know the price for damning. You have seen it, seen what it has done to your precious Akabaieth. And yet you would easily wish it on another."

Growling in frustration, but more from shock now, he slowly rose once more to his feet, wiping the smeared dirt from his cassock. The stone lay there before him, the deep chalcedony marks about his eyes a tribute to the cloth he now wore. "I want this off of me!" he said again, though not nearly as hotly this time.

"Then take it off. Once you are ready, it will come off," Raven declared, stepping down and lifting the figurine again. "You have been offered a gift, will you not accept it?"

Vinsah gazed down at the stone in her paws, blinking, reaching out slowly with one hand. And then, he could feel the magic contained therein, and flinched once again. He pushed her paw away, turning on his feet and starting away. "No, I will never accept the gift of a beast. Never!" He screamed, throwing himself towards the gate, eager to leave this phantasm that plagued him.

Just as he reached the archway beyond which stood the solitary figure dressed in a black robe, the woman shouted once again. "Stop!" He found his feet rebelling against him, bringing him to a halt just before the gate. The voice was not Raven's, that he knew, but that of the woman who had first come into his study and brought him into this strange hazy world. Turning about, he glimpsed her iridescent form hovering over the grasses. Her long hair flowed behind her, cascading about her shoulders like a waterfall. Her slender hand was outstretched, a look of worry creasing her brow.

"Please, Elvmere," she called out in a caring tone, the very first of which he had heard throughout this entire nightmare. "Please, stay here. Out that gate lies darkness, fire, and pain. Stay where it is safe, Elvmere. I implore you."

Vinsah tried not to hear the name she used, the name that they all used for him. Glancing back at the man whose hands were folded beneath his robes, he laughed sullenly, humourlessly. "Safe? You call the torment safe? You call what has been done to me safe? I have been bound by this mask!" he pointed at it with one finger, scratching at it again feverishly with his other hand. "I want out!"

"Look at what awaits you should you leave," she said softly, pointing towards the man dressed in black robes. Vinsah sighed, and did so staring at his face, at the strange mark upon his breast – it appeared to be a red shield with something inside of it. The black-haired figure smiled slowly, a creeping gesture that made Vinsah shudder suddenly. It was the same smile that Akabaieth had worn when talking to Elsie.

Yet, it was not until the stranger removed his hands from the folds of his robes did Vinsah recoil in horror. Slowly, the sepulchral figure drew forth his palms, unsheathing them from the back confines of his dress. Yet, where he expected to see white, there was nothing but red. The man's hands were drenched in blood. Vinsah cried out in horror, backing away from the gate, and crumpling to the ground at the woman's feet. He reached out a hand to grasp her ankle, to hold onto to something, somebody, even if that person was one of his tormentors. The evil he had just glimpsed made the mask feel like a safe haven.

The woman knelt down and gently stroked his hair with her slender fingers, whispering quietly, words that he could not understand, yet seemed to fill him with a strength that he'd never felt before. Somehow, despite everything else, he knew that he could trust this woman, to some extent. "Wake Elvmere. Wake from your dream, and do not forget who and what you have seen. And remember, beyond the gates lies darkness, fire, and pain."

Vinsah closed his eyes, the mask tight about his forehead, shuddering as the sounds of that man's laughing echoed in his mind. He shut them out, listening instead to the soothing words of the nameless woman, the celestial being whose fingers stroked through his loose hair, calming him. So many images clouded his thoughts though, yet he pushed them all away, only letting that woman's foreign words inhabit his mind and heart in that moment. And for one brief moment, before he started from the quilts of his bed in a sweat, he felt as if everything in his life were right, and that even the name she had given him suited him.

Then it was all gone in a flash. Jerking out of his covers, Vinsah stared about him at the empty room. A bit of light crept in through the closed window, a silvery casting that was diffused by the jalousie. Scrambling out from the covers, he pulled back the shutters, and let the moon's light illuminate the chambers he had been supplied. As he was the Patriarch's aide, they were private, and his stirring would rouse no one.

As he stared out over the homes and fields of Metamor, he could almost feel the mask still clutching around his head. Pusillanimously, he raised his hand to feel at his eyes, but at the last moment snatched them away, afraid that it would still be there. He breathed slowly, closing his eyes, trying to forget all the things he had seen in that dream. But they all came back to him in an instant the moment he gave them a thought.

Whimpering, Vinsah slumped to the floor, wrapping his arms about the silken draperies. He raised his hand again, staring at it, as if half expecting to see blood covering the flesh. Yet, it was the stern hand he had come to know over the course of his life, the familiar implement with which he accomplished his daily tasks. Closing his eyes, afraid of what he might see, he brought those fingers to his face in an instant.

Skin, nothing but his own skin was found beneath those fingers. Rubbing them about his eyes, he could feel the lines of age starting to form, as well as the imperfections he had grown familiar with. Softly, he cried out in delight, running those digits all over his face to reassure himself that the mask did not lay hidden anywhere. Yet, it was all his own human skin. No black cloth lay in hiding to give credence to that lurid dream.

Breathing deeply, Vinsah pulled himself back up to his feet. It had to be all a dream, he reassured himself again as he stumbled towards the bed sheets. Cold mountain air poured in through the open window, and he quickly found himself shivering. Despite the many days and nights they had travelled, still, this was the chilliest place that Vinsah had ever known in his life. He reached down and wrapped a simple smock about his shoulders, pulling it tight with both hands. Gazing at the quilts, he considered returning to his sleep for a moment.

Then, almost instantly, he dismissed the idea. It was just a dream after all, but a most unpleasant one. He slipped on some sandals, and lit a lamp with a bit of tinder. Blowing gently, he coaxed the flame to life, until it shone brightly about his room. He then closed and latched the windows once more, much to the relief of his old skin. Taking the lantern in one hand, he stepped out of his room.

Kashin and Iosef were sitting at the main table in the audience room that connected to all their chambers. It was an opulent affair, carpets, mahogany furnishings, sweeps and drapes hanging from every crevice, as well as finely wrought marble decorations adorning the hearth. There was a small fire crackling in the heart, and the two Yeshuel were tossing the remnants of some nuts into the flames, causing them to crackle and pop lightly.

They both looked up as Vinsah emerged, their gazes curious. "Is something wrong," Kashin asked in his quiet voice.

"I cannot sleep," Vinsah intoned in a voice equally quiet. "I think I will take a walk, if you do not mind."

"I'll accompany you," Iosef offered, rising to his feet.

Vinsah shook his head. "No, I would rather be alone right now. Thank you though." Iosef slowly returned to his seat, while Kashin gazed curiously at the Bishop. His grey lock of hair dangled before his eyes once again, making his gaze unsettling. Vinsah opened the main door and was out as quickly as he could be.

Shutting the door behind him, he was relieved to hear the latch click in place. The hallway was not nearly as fine as the room he had just let, but the carpeting was rich and thick. He could walk along it silently enough. It was a dark night at the Keep, and the stillness about him was a relief after the cosmic insanity of his nightmare.

Yet, he smiled in relief at the thought, it was just a nightmare. All of it was a horror inflicted upon himself from having to face too many things he had been uncomfortable with in the day. Murikeer had never tried to give him a gift, and certainly Raven had never tried to put a mask over his face!

And then, at the thought of the Lothanasa, his smile began to fade. With a start, he realized that he'd only seen Raven hin'Elric very briefly, and even then, he'd not been paying very close attention. Then how had she been so real in his dream? Why did he see her and not Merai?

Reaching up to his face, he felt the skin around his eyes. They were as before, no mask had come to shroud them. He laughed slightly at his foolishness. Surely anybody can appear in a dream, he thought. Yet, there had been one aspect of it that had not been horrible. That woman, whatever it was she had been saying to him at the end to calm him, that at least had been a bright point. He pondered what language she had been speaking in, when he saw another light approaching down the corridor.

Dream did not immediately understand what Mosha had asked of him, but then, she was a rather flighty bird sometimes. This night had found her much more fitting that guise than normal, for she had come to him in the guise of a raptor. He had to chuckle at his dreamtime lover, for she offered him a variety he would never have in his waking life. Oh, but he had definitely tried, but Mosha could give him far more than they, and did.

Yet sometimes she asked him to do the oddest of things. This time she had asked that he put on one of the many masks he wore during the Madrigals he played at various masquerades or to serenade some lord or lady at the behest of their less musical lovers. The only other garment he had chosen to wear was a simple blue traveling cloak to ward away the chill of Metamor's night-dark halls.

Humming a haunting tune to himself, he danced slowly down the ever changing halls of the Keep, his steps bearing him in no particular direction. A few guards passed him in his dance, smiling as they found themselves made a part of his dirge-like song.

Turning another corner, he noticed yet another wanderer awake in the same late hour, moving slowly down the passage with a lantern held in one hand. The man wore a loose though well fashioned smock of the Ecclesia, revealing himself to be one of the Patriarch's staff. His attention was cast more toward the floor at his feet, not noticing the silent dance of the marten upon the thickly carpeted passageway.

As the priest drew nearer, the marten ceased his humming, his dance ending in a flourishing pirouette as he sketched a deep bow to the older human. Rising, he expected to find the man smiling at him, or at least expressing confusion at a quiet, masked dancer before him in the midnight halls of Metamor. Yet the man did not smile, nor did he look confused. His face was suddenly cast in a stark mask of absolute horror, the lamp falling from his hands to snuff itself on the carpeting.

Vinsah pushed at the figure with his arms, weak from the sudden fear. Dream stepped back, curious, asking softly what was wrong. Yet Vinsah did not hear the words, but only saw that mask. He turned about, finally finding his legs beneath him, and his voice in his throat. He let out a shrill scream that quickly descended into sobs of anguish as he hurtled down the hallway, not caring that he could see none of it.

He could hear the click of Dream's toe claws upon the floor taking up chase. Vinsah cried out again, as another light was ahead of him. Before he had realized what had happened, he had run into Kashin's broad chest. The Yeshuel barked a startled question, before passing him over to Iosef, and then darting down the hallway, his legs pumping hard.

Dream doused his light as soon as he realized what had happened, and scampered into a side passageway, holding his breath as Kashin ran past. Once the Yeshuel was gone, he slipped out, and quietly tip-toed his way back to his home. Whatever it was Mosha had intended, he hoped he had accomplished it. He did not wish to be out while the Yeshuel was on patrol for a masked madman.

However, Kashin only ran to find the dropped lantern, and then realized that whoever had caused the fright was gone. He returned with the lamp, his grey lock of hair perpetually hanging before his eyes unnoticed. When he made his way back to the Patriarch's chambers, he found Iosef sitting silently at the table, staring into the fire. The sound of chanting could be heard from behind Vinsah's door.

"Is he all right?" Kashin asked softly, shutting the door to the main hallway once again, and locking it.

Iosef shrugged. "He refused to tell me what had startled him so. He's reciting the First Litany now." The man looked towards the Patriarch's doors themselves. "Should we tell his Eminence when he wakes tomorrow? Do you know who it was who was in that hallway with us?"

Kashin nodded slowly. "I think that it was an accident, so, let us leave that decision up to Vinsah. I will strongly urge him to say just what he'd seen though."

The other Yeshuel nodded slowly then. "Just to be safe, I don't think we should let anybody walk the halls at night without an escort."

Kashin grimaced unpleasantly, his eyes gazing into the fire for a moment, watching the sullen red embers crackle. "Agreed. We might want to wake Alfais, and Lakaesh just to be safe."

Iosef nodded, and then turned to raise the other Yeshuel from their slumber. Kashin listened to Vinsah's chanting for a moment, and realized that he had a bit of trouble making out the words. Sighing, he returned his attention to idly tossing nut shells into the fire.

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