Liturgy of Blood - Part XIV

Prince Phil turned his head when a soft knocking sounded at his door, but his aide, Rupert, was of course quick to answer its summons. The rabbit returned his attention to the various reports on the situation in the North. Things were quiet, as he'd been told, yet would not be satisfied until he had made sure of that himself from what the scouts had written of their journeys. So far, the rumours were holding, as no major changes had occurred past the Dike in the last month. Though, Finbar's mention of something in the woods towards Lorland setting him ill at ease did give the Head of Duke Thomas's Intelligence a bit of pause. That had been near where Wessex had claimed to have seen the face of Zagrosek only two days ago.

Setting down the slips of parchment, he pushed such worries from his mind for the moment to glance at his aide who stood mutely by the door. "Who is it?" Phil asked in his light piping voice.

Though he could no longer speak, Rupert had grown quite adept at making his meaning known over the months since he had come into the Prince's service. With one great hairy hand he traced the symbol of the cross over his chest and pointed to the door. "Oh, do let him in!" Phil exclaimed excitedly as he instantly understood the great ape's message.

Rupert opened wide the door, displaying the frail old man that Phil had met at the banquet two nights ago. He was flanked on both sides by his Yeshuel, the same two that had served him at the feast in fact. The other priest was nowhere in sight. Akabaieth smiled warmly as he gazed down at the large bunny, who hopped from his chair and towards the door.

"It is good to see you again, your Highness."

"And you, your Eminence," Phil bowed his head lightly, hoping that would be the end to the titles and formality. "Do come in and make yourself comfortable. Can I have you brought anything?"

Akabaieth selected one couch that Phil often used to entertain guests, though he could not sit in it properly himself. "A new pair of legs," he declared as he stretched his own out, rubbing along his knees. "Excepting that, how about a bit of warm tea?"

Phil did not even have to turn his head to know that Rupert was preparing the requested drink already. His eyes strayed to the two Yeshuel who took up positions at the Patriarch's back; twin shadows were they, never uttering a syllable. Hopping up onto the couch to join the Patriarch, Phil did his best not to dig his claws in the fabric. He'd already had to have it upholstered twice in the last year from his own jittery nature..

"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Phil asked, eager to be with his countryman again.

Akabaieth smiled, his eyes trailing after Rupert reflexively. "Oh, there are a few matters that I had wished to discuss with you. First, I have been informed that some of my knights discovered something strange in the forests outside of Metamor. Have you investigated to see if there is any truth to their suspicions?"

Phil nodded quickly, his whiskers twitching along with his nose as he could smell the tea leaves being soaked in the hot water one room away. "I had a team search through there this morning. They found nothing. I will be sure to have the area combed thoroughly before you leave tomorrow." The rabbit paused and narrowed his gaze, the blue eyes turning mysterious. "How did you know I was responsible for such matters?"

Akabaieth chuckled lightly. "My Yeshuel are very good at discerning what is in the hearts of others. I am not at all surprised you did not tell me. Such a responsibility is a very important one, and one best left secret."

The Patriarch rubbed his chin thoughtfully for another moment though. "Still, it is good to hear that you have found nothing."

Phil nodded, his momentary suspicious-turned-embarrassment passing quickly. "As long as you are in this Valley, we shall do our utmost to ensure your safety. If I feel it is necessary, I will send every one of my scouts into those woods to watch over you."

Akabaieth smiled briefly, and then looked up and saw Rupert approaching with a simmering cup of aromatic tea. He reached out with slender fingers and took the cup, smiling thankfully to the ape, before sipping at its warm texture. "Ah, that is a pleasant flavour. What is it? I've not ever had anything quite like it."

Rupert began to mime something with his hands, and the Pontiff's eyes went wide in surprise. The ape held out his hands, pulling in the finger to form three larger ones. It made little sense to the old man, who had not expected to see a mute servant. However, Kashin spoke softly then, "He says that it is made from maple leaves." Rupert nodded and bowed his head towards the Yeshuel.

"Well, whatever strange tree you have pilfered to make this lovely brew, I am welcome for it!" Akabaieth chortled in delight as he took another drink. "Ah, that feels good. There is little else as comforting for old bones as a nice cup of hot tea."

He then set the cup down upon the nearby table, his face unreadable. Looking back to the Prince, he licked hips lips before speaking. "There is one other thing that I wished to discuss with you. This one privately."

Phil nodded, his ears rocking slightly. "Of course, my dear friend. Rupert, would you please excuse us?"

The great ape nodded and departed for his own quarters towards the back. The two Yeshuel melted away as well, stepping just outside the main door and pulling it shut behind them. Once alone, Phil fixed the priest with a friendly gaze. "What is it that you were so afraid to say in front of your own guards? Just from watching them and you, I can tell that they are your dearest friends, and sometimes your only friends."

Akabaieth drew one finger across the lip of his cup, before lifting it again to drink. "There is one thing that they do not wish to think about, but something that I must in these last few years that I have left to me."

Phil nodded thoughtfully. "Your death."

"Yes, my death." He sighed and set down the cup. "I know it is coming. No human being has lived past the age of 100 in several millennia as you well know. I myself am nearing that mark even now. The Yeshuel are my protection, and they would die for me, without question. Yet, my age is one enemy that they cannot face."

Phil wiggled his nose. "They appear to be ready and willing to accept it."

"I am sure they will once the time comes, yet what I wish to discuss with you will most certainly not meet with their approval. It goes against tradition, though it would not have been the first time that such a thing has been done for a Patriarch.

"You see, when the Patriarch dies, unless he specifically requests otherwise, his body is buried beneath the floor of the church he first served in, no matter how far he may have gone since then. It is usually expected that the Patriarch will let his people honour him in this fashion, and I do agree that in most cases, it is for the best."

"But not in your own?" Phil asked suddenly, noting the dark lines around the man's brows. It was as if he were nervous or afraid of something that might be said.

Yet, at the question, he shook his head. "I do not wish to be buried beneath the steps of that church. As you know, my heart was not in the right place in those days. I could not in good conscience let my remains be interred there, as that place for me symbolizes all the wrong things in my life."

"So why are you telling me this?" Phil, though he asked the question, felt in his heart that he already knew the answer.

"I," Akabaieth started, and then paused, reaching beneath his robes to draw forth bit of hemp, weathered and worn by years of use. The old man slowly began to tie a clove hitch about one of the long tassels on his robe. "I always wanted to be an officer of the Fleet of Whales. Even while I served as a priest in my younger days, I still longed for the chance to return to my homeland and serve her in the Navy. I have been many years out of consideration. All I have left of that is this rope, which I have never parted with once. Do you realize that this rope is eighty years old? They last well when not subjected to the salty sea, I suppose.

"So, I come to you, Master of the Fire, seeking that which only you can give. If not in life, then at least in death, I was hoping I could at least attain some of my dream. It would be posthumous, but the knowledge that I would have it would make me feel as if all those years wishing and dreaming were not wasted. And, it would be the only place I could ever wish to be buried, the only symbol that I wish to let the world make of me."

He gazed up to Phil, tears streaming from his eyes and down his cheeks. The rabbit felt his heart clutch in his chest, for he knew too well what this man was going to ask, and how terribly hard it was for any man not of the Guild to receive it. And it pained him as well, the very thought that he would have to deny this man that he found a love for that simple request.

"I only ask one thing, the only thing I think I could ever ask of anyone. Please, could you arrange to have my body returned to the sea and the fire in the manner of an officer of the Fleet, as well as a Brother of the Guild of Fire? Never have I asked for any other gift, nor have I ever asked for one harder to obtain. But, would you please consider it? It may seem to be the fond memories of youth brought back by being in the presence of my own liege-man, nay, my crown-prince, but it is a hope I have cherished all the days of my life."

He then, sighed, and began to untie the knot with a nimbleness that told Phil, who had seen men tie knots most of his life, that Akabaieth had indeed been practising his seamanship skills all of his life, despite how unlikely it was that they would ever be put to use. "You don't know how difficult a thing it is you ask."

"Only two people before who were not members of the Guild have been given similar honours. Both of them did Whales a great service in battle," Akabaieth retorted, damping his tears with the back of one hand.

Phil took a deep breath then. "You do know." Lowering his face, unable to look at the earnest man seated across from him, the Prince of Whales tried to put his thoughts in order. "And therein lies my problem. Both of those men served Whales in her hour of need. It was only with great reluctance were they granted such a death. You have not fought in any battles for Whales, and you have not served beside my guild brothers. Yes, I am fond of a good story, and the one of your life is most tragic indeed, for my heart cries out to allow this, but to move on such a whim would ultimately demean the meaning of that burial."

Akabaieth lowered his head, and with a trembling hand, slipped the bit of cord back beneath his robes, slowly rising to his feet as he did so. "I have expected this, and cannot truly say that I don't agree with your reasoning." Turning about, as if afraid that he would begin crying again before his country-man, he said, "Thank you for your time and your tea. I suppose I shall see you before I leave then."

He started towards the door while Phil sat there, watching this defeated child walking once more away from what he had always hoped for. How many times had he in his tenure had to actually look in the face of the youth he was rejecting, turning away from the life that they had yearned for? Many times it was because the applicant's heart was too cold or too soft. Yet, there were many who knew the price that would be asked of them, who just did not have the skills. Those had always been the worst, for they were the sort of people that Phil wanted to stand beside him as Brothers of the Guild.

As he gazed at the back of the Patriarch, he knew then that this man's heart was in the right place, and but for the refusal of his father, would have stood at his side -- possibly even been one of his own instructors and mentors, given that Akabaieth was well over forty years older than he. Jumping from the couch, caring not whether he scratched the fabric with his claws, he cried out in his loudest voice, trying not to let it tremble, "Stop!"

Akabaieth had raised his hand to the door, but just held it there, refusing to turn back around. "What is it?" he asked, his words smooth, defeated.

"Why are you here?" Phil asked him then. "Not just at Metamor, but why have you made this journey? Surely you did not expect to find a Prince of Whales here. Why did you risk your health and your life in travelling so far from Yesulam?"

"Because I wish to bring peace to the world. I wish to see all mankind, including you Keepers, embrace each other as brother and sister. I seek an end to conflict and hate, and an end to the constant wars. That is why I am here."

"Why do you want peace?" Phil asked again, his heart trembling.

"Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wish to let every man and woman pursue their dreams. Because," Akabaieth paused, his hand falling away from the door knob. "Because I have seen too much blood, and would not wish it upon any other."

Phil nodded then, standing as tall as he could. His heart beat rapidly, the remnants of a smile etching itself onto his mostly expressionless face. "Then, I believe that I can grant your request. I will see to it that you are given to the Sea and the Fire."

Akabaieth turned around rather quickly then, his face one of profound shock and fear, as if he were afraid that the offer was only going to be snatched away a moment later. "Do you really mean that? Do you truly intend to make an old man a child again?"

Phil nodded then, his ears beginning to rock in delight. "Oh yes, I intend all of that and more! Akabaieth, no, Apadares, by your actions, and your mission, you have served Whales in a way that few ever can. You have given us if not peace itself, at least the hope for peace. What we have done with weapons, you have done with your words. Your heart has always been among us, I see it in the faces of every one of my Guild Brothers."

Phil hopped over to the Patriarch who stood stunned, yet delighted at the same time. "I am going to grant your request. In fact, if you wish, we can draw up papers to formalize this agreement, so that when you do pass from this world, others will not try to take this away from you. I'll send my copy to my father for safekeeping, and you may keep yours wherever it suits you."

Phil however, was unable to continue as Akabaieth had fallen to one knee, and wrapped his arms about the rabbits neck and buried his face into the white fur of his shoulder, sobbing loudly. Yet, they were cries of joy, not sadness, as the rabbit could see when the man pulled back, eyes brimming with a profound bliss that few men ever felt in their entire lives. And then, the Patriarch bowed his head low, and placed his fist to his chest in salute. "Hail to thee, my Prince. You have given me the greatest gift I could ever receive from mortal man. Our King could not have chosen a better heir than yourself."

The Prince felt his own eyes brimming then, and he placed one of his paws on the Patriarch's shoulder to steady himself. "And Hail to thee, Patriarch of the Ecclesia. Whales could not have had a better son than yourself."

And at that, the two men, both grown and old, fell back into hugging each other tightly as they wept for each other's joy. Silently, three figures that could hear them through their doors, shed their own happy tears.

Wessex concentrated on the leaves before him, spaced evenly about the cold slate floor of his workroom, each one marked by varicoloured dusts sprinkled over their surface. And about them, bright white chalk lines, circled and contained them. There was one circle around each leaf, and the a larger circle containing all of them. He'd spaced them out sixty-four at a time, as it was the largest he could handle in one casting. Already, he had performed the augury twice on two other sets of the leaves that Rupert had scooped up, but nothing had been among them.

He'd spent his entire evening after returning from Lorland assembling the various materials he would need for the casting. He'd had to dismiss Jessica and his other students when they'd stood ready for his return home. The worried look on the hawk's beak had been painful to see, but he had never been closer to tracking down his nemesis before. With Loriod's clothes, he could be searching for years and find nothing. But with these leaves, he might very well find that edge he needed anyway. He was tired of sleeping in the dungeons, and wanted this foul man exorcised from his life as soon as possible.

The boy grimaced, rubbing his hands together to sprinkle more of the yellow dust across the leaves. Chanting lowly, the words so long ingrained upon his tongue, he no longer had to think about them consciously. Though, he did not let his mind wander too much during the casting. Even the tiniest error could render the augury powerless, and he would have to try again another day. There was not enough energy left in him to cast another without some rest. Having already performed one more that morning, this would enervate him for half a day. If this proved unsuccessful, he would try again in the morning with more of the leaves.

Still, as he chanted the last few phrases of the incantation, he could not help but feel slightly guilty for the way he had brushed off his charges. Jessica especially, who certainly be concocting a whole slew of horrible images in her mind about what he could be at in his present work. Having told her so much of his nightmares, and the fears that they had spurred, she was bound to suspect any irrational behaviour on his part could be caused by tampering from Zagrosek. In some ways, Wessex could not blame her, for indeed, his very life had been turned upside down by that man.

Finally however, the boy was able to shunt such thoughts from his mind and focus on the last phrases of the chant before the spell would be complete. Grasping a small narrow shaft between his hands, runes inscribed upon the surface, the yellow dust filling each crevice, he set it down in the midst of the larger circle, in the exact centre of the slate. The dust glowed blue at the final word, a flaring nimbus that absorbed the staff, and radiated to each of the smaller circles casting them in the same pale light.

And then, each of the leaves began to glitter, bright sparkling sapphires that began to give off a faint shimmer, rising above the circles, and coalescing in the air before him. Each time before, only wisps of images, of animals, and of trees filled his vision. Days of summer past, when they had flourished in life. Again, this time he saw that, yet there was something creeping in the background, a figure, no two figures, lurking just beyond the range of his vision. Gripping the staff tighter, he tried to isolate the leaves which knew of those shadows, and to focus his energy upon them.

Almost immediately, ten of the leaves disintegrated as they were no longer supported by his magic. The dust he needed for the augury had the unfortunate side effect of destroying the leaves if he ended the casting upon them too soon. Yet, he did not need them, but only those that had been touched by those shadows. At their death, the images grew stronger, the simple trees pulling back, revealing more trees, and also a better look at the figures standing there in the darkness. They were dressed tightly together in robes, one larger than the other, but that was all that he could see.

A smile graced Wessex's lips as he watched and tried to single out more of the leaves that he needed. There was no question in his mind who these figures were. They were the proof he had needed that Matthias was in alliance with Zagrosek. The rodent would be in chains and in the dungeon within the hour if only he could focus the image sharper. With his exertion, uninfected desire roaring through his veins, he forced another eight leaves out of the spell, destroying them, sucking the last few gasps from their cells until they were a desiccated husk.

The image grew in intensity, as he could now clearly see the folds of their garments, and the Sondeckis symbol was clearly apparent on the right shoulder of Zagrosek, whose face he could now see in outline. That shield was even more blood red than before, and the white sword was almost stained, a sickly white, like the suppurating wounds he'd seen on plague victims. Yet, the other figure, the smaller one, also appeared to be human, and not a rat as he had at first surmised. Grimacing, he tried to push even more leaves out until he could see only these two.

Another twenty leaves fled from his magic then, dying instantly in a blue flame, as the picture magnified tenfold, drawing him to nearly stand next to his mortal enemy and this new element. Zagrosek was plain in stark relief, yet for the moment, his visage did not interest the boy, who had grown accustomed to its sneering countenance in his dreams. The other figure though was a woman, which surprised the boy to no end. Her long black hair reached down to her waist, billowing in the folds of her purple robes. Bloodshot eyes gazed across the damp landscape, cold and iron that lived in them day and night. A symbol was traced over her breast, this one not of Sondeckis origin, but something else. It was of a pointing hand, nothing more.

The sudden knocking at his door, nearly startled him enough to break his concentration. Yet he was too focussed upon what had just now been revealed to him to let this slip away. Speaking a few syllables, he drew the power back from the leaves, leaving them intact, and raised the sceptre from the circle. The nimbus of blue vanished almost instantly, the yellow dust trickling from the crevices of his short staff. Setting the magical implements down on the slate, Wessex walked from his workroom to the door to his quarters.

Normally he left his door open, as his students would be coming and going most hours of the day. Yet for the last two days, he had kept it shut and locked. Now that he had found something of what he'd wanted, he would allow himself this one break in his work.

Opening the door, he saw that Jessica and Weyden were standing outside, their thick black talons carving gouges into the masonry beneath them. "Hello, Jessica, Weyden,' Wessex said in delight. In truth, he was happy to see them both, though it might have been easier if his student had come alone. "Do come in, I have just finished some of my work, and would be delighted to entertain you."

Their beaks opened in a grin, though Jessica's was more pronounced. "That must have been a very important casting."

He nodded, still all smiles though. "Yes, it was. I'll tell you about it another time. For now though, come on it, I'll shall find you both a perch and you can regale me with the reason for your visit."

Weyden gently nudged Jessica's back with one wing, his eyes finding nothing in the room but her. "Actually," he said, "we came here to ask you if you would like to accompany us to see the Patriarch's speech."

"I thought it was going to rain earlier, but apparently Yonson assured him that the storm was going to pass overhead, but do nothing. He is one to know weather after all I suppose," Jessica pointed out, a bit of excitement in her voice. Wessex gave her a questioning glance, as if wondering why she was so delighted by the chance to hear the leader of a faith foreign to her own speak. "Weyden here asked me if I would accompany him, as he is going to be by Yonson's side during the whole affair. I thought it might be something you might want to see as well."

Wessex shook his head slowly. "I have no interest in the affairs of the gods, and especially not those who would tell me I must serve them. I serve people, not beings who have no better interest than to control our lives."

Jessica appeared aghast, and Weyden himself was quite startled by the vehemence of that statement. Wessex blinked at them, and then bowed his head in shame, scuffling his shoes across the floor. "Forgive me, it has been a hard two days for me at work. I should not have spoken so hastily. Both of you serve the gods faithfully, to your credit. I should not have attacked that. You have every right to do as you wish."

Weyden squinted his eyes at the mention of serving the gods, but did not make any move to correct the boy's misconceptions as to his religious practice. Jessica of course notice the subtle movement and glanced back at him with her own comforting eye, s if to tell him that he should not be so certain either, and then returned her gaze to her master. "I understand. Do you promise you will tell me all about it tomorrow then?"

"No, not tomorrow," Wessex looked back up, his face creasing with a secret smile. "I still have a few things left to finish up. But I imagine that the day after that I will be able to let you know. I think you will find it useful in your own studies in fact. Especially since, it is my belief, that you are ready to begin your own magical studies."

Jessica's beak broke even wider into a grin, and Weyden's did likewise. "Oh, master! You really believe I am ready for such a challenge?"

"Absolutely! I will give you help from time to time of course, but you will be able to choose which mysteries that you wish to explore. Congratulations Jessica, you are no longer an apprentice magician, but a journeyman!"

The hawk ruffled her chest feathers proudly and leaned down to enwrap the boy in her wings, rubbing her beak across his small forehead, careful not to nip into his flesh. It was the best that she could manage for a hug, but it would suffice. Turning about, she found Weyden's wings about her, embracing her as he spoke his congratulations as well. "I always knew that you would do well."

Jessica turned back to her master then, her face bright. "Are you sure that you do not wish to join us?"

Wessex nodded and patter her on one wing. "Go, you two. Enjoy your time. I will be here waiting for you when you get back. You can tell me all about it afterwards. Fair enough?"

"Oh, most fair indeed!" Jessica agreed, squawking loudly in joy at her elevation. Wessex crossed his hands proudly behind his back as he watched the two hawk's walk off together, Weyden's wing encircling his students. Gently closing the door, he began to ponder just what he would need for his next casting tomorrow morning. Tomorrow, he would know what was in Zagrosek's mind, and who this other figure was.

Akabaieth slowly walked down one of the outer halls of the Keep, his attention half divided between the resplendent view from the windows and the finely decorated hall before him. Each footfall resounded through the mostly empty hall, echoed by the two pairs of boots following closely behind him. Kashin and Iosef were always at his back, their breath nearly upon his neck as the trod those ever changing corridors.

He had no particular destination in mind, at least not for another half-hour. That was the appointed hour of the speech he had planned to give. The news that the messenger had brought, a young spritely lad by the name of Kee, had been fortuitous indicating that it would almost certainly not rain as it had been threatening.

Akabaieth ran over the speech continuously in his mind, circling over and over the important passages, noting the places where he knew the crowd would laugh, where it would cry, and just when he would have to become fierce and demanding, and the others when he would need to be gentle. He'd had the speech written for weeks now, yet still, he wished to ensure that it was perfect. The fact that his mind was circling was also probably what was causing him to continuously circle about the Keep like his was -- variable architecture. It was something that he doubted he'd ever become accustomed to.

But eventually things began to look like they were changing. The arches had a slightly different facade and the tapestries appeared newer. It was about this time when his eye caught the animal morph reclining on a window ledge. The figure was staring so intently, that for a moment, Akabaieth doubted that he had been noticed. It was only because he was looking in the direction of the outside wall itself that he caught the moment when the raccoon's ears swivelled around to pick up the sounds of their booted feet.

The raccoon was quickly off the ledge and on his feet, heading straight for them. The Patriarch quickly scanned his features; he was about six foot, dressed in black with a cloak billowing out behind him. He definitely had the appearance of a rogue or an assassin in such garb, but when Akabaieth gazed into his face, there was nothing of the tell tale cold only an odd complacently.

Even so, Kashin stepped out before the Patriarch, his face a mix of concern and curiosity as he held aloft one hand to stop the raccoon. "Halt," the Yeshuel announced in a hard voice. "What is your business."

The animal morph turned his docile gaze towards Kashin, his arms appearing from under his cloak and rising until they were about level with his shoulders. When he spoke, the raccoon's voice carried a soft rasp to it, something not quite natural. "I only wish to speak with his holiness. A quick word and then I shall be gone."

Iosef interposed himself between the figure and the Patriarch as well, giving Akabaieth a curious look. The Pontiff nodded slowly, a warm smile creeping across his face. It was hard to hide, as his recent discussion with Prince Phil had been joyous enough to nearly wipe out all other concerns from his mind. Yet, he had his responsibilities, and so kept that moment inside. "I can spare a moment for you."

The bodyguard moved from in front of the keeper, but still kept a peculiarly interested eye on the raccoon. The Keeper didn't appear to really notice - either that or he did not care what the Yeshuel did; he just turned his gaze back towards Akabaieth and came forward a few paces where he offered a quick bow of introduction.

"Your holiness. It is an honour to speak with you."

"And a pleasure to speak with you as well. Pray tell, what do you wish to speak about?" Akabaieth decided not to correct him on the use of his title, despite how awkward it made him feel.

The gray raccoon spread his arms once more in a gesture that declared harmless intention. It dawned on the Patriarch that this individual was a warrior and this was his way of showing he meant no harm. "A simple request, your Eminence. Nothing more."

Now however, he felt comfortable in making a request of his own. "Call me Akabaieth, please. And what is it you would like of me?"

Straightening up, the raccoon licked his lips and folded his paws before himself. "This is not for me, but for a friend. I wish nothing more than for you to say a prayer for him, be it at Service or at some other time."

It was not unusual for priests to receive such a request. Yet for the Patriarch himself to be the subject of such a one was a marvel that made Akabaieth straighten up a little as he regarded the animal morph before him. "Certainly. What is his name?"

"His true name was Sir Donovan, of the Knights of Thorn, but for the five years I knew him, it was always as Egan. And I suppose I shall always think of him as that."

The Pontiff nodded with a satisfied smile. "A blessing for a departed fellow knight, is that it? Well, I doubt that will be much trouble. What is your name, by the way."

"My name is Rickkter," replied the raccoon in that odd soft tone of his. "But I am not a knight, nor have I ever been."

Akabaieth's smile did not waver, but only became more inviting. "You appear a warrior yourself, yet claim you are not a knight. Then how is it you came to be associated with a Knight of Thorn for five years?"

Rickkter's tongue darted out to lick his nose again, retreating very slowly as he eyed the floor beside the Patriarch. "He was exiled, unjustly, from the order. From the time that I knew him, there is no possible way I could believe what he said he was accused of. Up until the day he died, he lived by the rules of your religion when circumstances would have made it easier not to. A more noble man, I never met."

Akabaieth found himself nodding. "So what happened to him?"

"He died," Rickkter admitted after a quick inhalation of breath. "He died in the most noble way that your religion defines; he gave his life for a friend."

"And now you're repaying the favour?"

"As sorrowful an effort that it is, it is all that I can do for him, yes. I am not of your faith, Akabaieth, but I know that he would find comfort in such a gesture. And who knows," the raccoon added with a wry smirk, "you might be right about heaven after all."

That made the Pontiff chuckle. "Yes, I can see he was a good friend of yours. Very well, I shall honour your request, making prayers for both Sir Donovan of Thorn and Egan. Just in case he chose to keep that new name."

Rickkter crossed both arms over his chest and bowed deeply at the waist. "You honour me, your Eminence."

"And you honour your friend. You have a brighter soul than you realize."

After a brief consideration of that, Rickkter nodded uncertainly and bid Akabaieth well before heading off to his own personal destination within Metamor. The Patriarch watched him leave, the long striped tail swaying at each step, before gazing curiously at his own Yeshuel. Once the supplicant had turned about a corner, Kashin whispered very softly, "A very interesting individual."

"Oh?" Akabaieth prompted. "Was he truly dangerous?"

Iosef nodded thoughtfully as he rubbed his chin with two fingers. "Very dangerous, but yet, I saw no desire in him to be dangerous."

Kashin flicked his head back, the grey lock of hair once more depositing behind his ear. "He did not believe you when you told him his soul was brighter than he thought. It immediately turned to dark things that are probably best not spoken of." He gazed down the hallway, as if expecting any moment the raccoon would return to demand how they knew what they did.

Akabaieth nodded thoughtfully, and turned about, continuing in his walk. "Rickkter may well indeed be such a fellow, but I will honour his request. It was given with a clear heart, and that is what concerns me." He licked his lips, the words of the speech beginning to return to his mind. "Now, I suppose we should make our way to the balcony for the speech. Will Vinsah be there waiting for us?"

"His message said as much."

The Patriarch turned to regard Kashin mysteriously. "You appear to think his message said a bit more than that."

The Yeshuel shrugged as he walked at Akabaieth's shoulder. "I do not believe that he consulted Murikeer at all regarding your request."

Akabaieth sighed softly then. "It would appear he has a longer road to travel than I had thought. It is just as well. When he is ready to walk in the footsteps I have lain for him, he will be the better man for it, and so too will the world I feel. You do know that when I die, he will almost certainly be made the new Patriarch."

The two Yeshuel nodded. "He will finish what you have started, Akabaieth. His heart is in the right place, he just doesn't know it yet." Kashin assured him, as did Iosef with a smile.

The Patriarch smiled again, "Then let us begin this path. For I see the day when we will all know peace, and a glorious day that it is." His speech in mind, the three of them continued on their way through the halls of Metamor. No longer were they wandering aimlessly, but now they had a fixed goal, and a solid purpose beneath their feet. The dream of peace an intoxicant that they gleefully took part in as they prepared to give it freely to the Keep.

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