Liturgy of Blood - Part XVIII

Expending the last dregs of his power, Wessex finally managed to untie the bonds that held him fast. He floated there for a moment in the chaos of his vista. Glancing south, he could see the lines of magic contorting rapidly, and much death. Shaking with sudden apprehension, he flitted in that direction, zooming through the trees and intervening hills as if they were nothing.

And then the boy mage was upon the scene. Murikeer's group had just arrived, and the skunk was already beginning to cast his own incantations. Wessex's immediate thought was to assist him in the casting, but his body was too weak from what that woman had done to him. Gazing into the wagon though, he saw all that he needed to see.

He screamed out in protest, as if his cries would change reality. But the corpse remained where it was, the knife imbedded deep within his chest. Turning about, he surged towards the Keep, intent on reclaiming his body in case that woman had laid any more fatal traps for him. As he approached the towers of the Keep, he saw that Thomas was still passing with his chambers, hooves clopping across the hard tile floor.

Looking back to the south, he saw the dragon carrying the Patriarch's body growing larger. Travelling as Wessex had distorted time in a strange way, that magicians were still trying to explain. But as it was so dangerous to do – many who attempted such travel never were able to return to their bodies – there were no definitive answers available to the boy.

Yet, he walked back into the room, and saw that his body lay there, still and quiet. He reached out and pressed his incorporeal hand against the stripe of paste across his forehead, retying himself to his mortal flesh. With a gasp, the world spun about him, and he was staring once more at the ceiling, with a ring of soldiers bearing swords and spears around him, frightened looks on their faces.

"It is all right, I am still myself, "Wessex said as he wave them back. They stepped back cautiously, but did not lower their weapons.

Thomas though nearly barged through their ranks in his exuberance. "Wessex! You've returned! What did you see? Were you able to stop him?"

Wessex sighed and shook his head. "He had help, and was able to stop me. They killed the Patriarch, they killed that good man."

Both Phil and Thomas sighed visibly, their bodies slumping where they stood. "Somebody better summon Raven. She will want to know who did it. I think it is time we spoke a bit more openly about our fears. We've kept secrets from each other that should not be secrets." Phil scuffled his feet as he spoke, obviously ashamed of his own part in this.

Wessex looked downcast as well, sighing heavily. "We knew that Zagrosek was doing something, or at least, was in the area the day the Patriarch arrived."

Thomas was visibly shocked. "What? Why didn't you tell me?"

Phil scuffled his claws against the stone. "Wessex asked me to keep the secret until he was sure just whether Zagrosek was really there, and whether he intended him any harm. He's never shown any interest in anybody but Wessex here ever since Loriod's death. We simply did not realize that his target could be Akabaieth."

The horse lord continued to pace, glaring at each of them, though thoughtfully. "What other secrets have you kept from me?"

"Only about the nature of my dreams at night. Zagrosek has been in them, as well as Matthias."

"Matthias?" Thomas asked, surprised.

"Yes, your so called rat of might. Apparently, they are both of the same clan, and were once the best of friends. I believe that Charles is allowing himself to be used by Zagrosek, who is a much changed man. I do not believe that I can trust Matthias at all with this information, and that is why I have asked Phil to keep this secret with me."

Thomas peered at the soldiers still standing in the room and waved his paw at them. "Get out, all of you, now! You are sworn to silence!"

The soldiers nodded and left one by one, nearly rushing the door in their haste. It closed solidly behind them, leaving just the three of them, plus the unobtrusive great ape, alone to talk.

Wessex continued, speaking softly, trying not to think of the horrors on that field. "Through my dreams, Zagrosek is trying to force me to open up the room where Wessex stored that censer that he took from Loriod. I am the only one who can open it, as I am the one who sealed it. If that happens, then we are all doomed. The tear that Zagrosek made there is large enough to let things through that should not be.

"But, I thought that he was the sum total of my enemies, he and possibly Matthias. Yet I was wrong. For yesterday in my studies I stumbled upon an image of him and a woman. A woman with bloodshot eyes wearing a purple robe with a symbol upon her breast. This morning, I discovered that the symbol – the drawing hand – marked her as a Runecaster. Now, a great deal many more things make sense to me about what has happened these last eight months."

Thomas crossed his arms in confusion. "A Runecaster? Is that another Southern magic clan?"

The boy nodded. "Yes, they have little relation with the Sondeckis though, which made me wonder why she would be paired with Zagrosek. Then, I remember what I and my students had done all last May. We had gone about the Keep cancelling the runes that Loriod had inscribed everywhere. Now, we never did figure out where his magical ability came from. I think that this woman, this Runecaster, taught him enough simple tricks to employ for their benefit."

Leaning forward slightly, crossing out the lines of dust with his foot. "I believe that Loriod was controlled by her as well as by Zagrosek. It strikes me that Zagrosek is their troubleshooter, while this woman plays a more secondary role."

Phil and Thomas exchanged glances, the memories of Loriod's deviltry still fresh in their minds. Finally, Thomas asked out loud in consternation, "But why would two southern mages of such divergent clans wish to control Loriod? And why would they wish to kill the Patriarch? It does not make sense."

Phil nibbled at his lip slightly, trembling. "I think that it does. Whoever they are servants of wants to create chaos and unrest here at Metamor. Loriod was accomplishing that quite nicely. Had he not approached Matthias to blackmail him, it is possible that he may have been able to succeed in his plan to seize control of the kingdom from you." Thomas blanched at the idea of it. "I know, I would have just been a little pet for him, that thought frightens me as well. But we need to think what would have happened if they were successful.

"Now the way I see it, Loriod would have implemented across all of Metamor his strict policies to grind the spirits of all Metamorians into the dirt. I doubt he would do it at first, but slowly, as we came to depend on him more and more, he would start giving the orders, and we would have no choice but to comply. With his magic, he could control all those he needed to give the orders. In a year, maybe less, all of Metamor would have been like Lorland used to be, a beaten kingdom.

"So, into the picture walks Nasoj. He could easily sweep through the valley then, and Loriod would have found himself a plaything of the Lutins. Now, that didn't happen thankfully, but it appears that something similar is going to happen with this latest move by Zagrosek. This is going to destabilize the Midlands and the Southern kingdoms a great deal, and it will destroy the reputation we've been slowly rebuilding with many of them. In the end, it accomplishes much the same thing. It works to Nasoj's advantage."

Thomas rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Then they could indeed be working for Nasoj?"

Both Wessex and Phil shrugged helplessly. "Nothing my spies have turned up imply this, but nothing they've done has implied otherwise."

The door rattled as a fist hammered upon it savagely from without, causing them all to start momentarily before Thomas called out, "Enter!" Raven hin'Elric stormed in her face quite perturbed. Her long black hair was in tangles as she had run the entire length of the Keep from the Lothanasi temple to the Duke's chambers.

"What news is there of the Patriarch?" she asked immediately as the door closed.

Wessex peered curiously at her. "You knew?"

"Of course I knew," She snapped angrily, her lupine muzzle snarling the words. "I've been holding prayer sessions with my people so that he might be kept safe. So what of him?"

Thomas lowered his head. "I'm afraid that he's been murdered. We were too late to stop it."

Raven lowered her head slowly, her eyes tracing over the stonework. "Were there any survivors?"

Both Phil and Thomas looked to Wessex, who simply shrugged. "I don't know, I didn't stay long enough to see if there were or not. I do know that a dragon is flying this way carrying the Patriarch's body, and should be here soon, but that is all I know. Murikeer Khannas was trying to summon spirits to see what had happened presumably when I left."

Raven stalked to the child, anger filling her cold eyes. "You left him there to cast the spell by himself?"

Wessex stood as tall as he could, despite his fatigue. "The skunk does not need any of my help! I had been completely drained in just seeing that far magically. I was going to die if I stayed out there any longer. And any help I could have given Muri would have been tainted by my imminent death."

The priestess still scowled, but turned her gaze from the boy to the Duke. "You know since he has died on our lands, that I as Lothanasa have the responsibility to explain this to Lothanasi High Council. I fear what influence I had among them may have just gone up in smoke. If there were survivors though, they may offer us some hope to keep the peace between ourselves and the Patildor."

Thomas nodded his head in understanding. "We will let you know if we hear of any survivors. I don't doubt that with as many men as we have down there, that whatever evidence may remain, it will be found."

There was another knock on the door, and after giving his permission, Thomas was startled to see Matthias stride in, standing a foot taller than he used to, and dripping wet. Then, when he saw the long rat body trailing along after his torso, he knew why. He'd heard about this, but never seen it himself.

Yet, the Duke shook such distractions from his mind as he realized that Matthias was here, when he had been a full day's walk to the south already. "What are you doing here, Charles?"

The rat rubbed his arms, and breathed deeply. "I bring terrible news, the Patriarch–" he started to choke on his words, unable to finish.

Phil hopped over then, standing close to the rat. Wessex kept his countenance firm and straight. "We know, Charles. We just found out ourselves. How did you get back so quickly?"

The rat nodded softly, absently trying to squeeze a bit more water from the fur on his arms. "I was carried by a dragon.. He brought back Akabaieth's body as well as the survivors."

Raven turned on him, her eyes brightening somewhat. "Survivors? Who?"

"Kashin is missing his left arm, but otherwise he appears to be okay, but the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point is pure adrenaline. Vinsah and one of the knights, his name I forget, were badly injured though. I helped them down to Coe's already."

"Then we shall see Healer Coe immediately," Thomas declared, striding towards the door, Phil hopping along behind, Wessex and Rupert trailing after the rabbit. Charles stood a moment, letting them pass, departing alongside the lupine priestess.

Raven gazed over his form for a moment before speaking in a soft voice. "What happened out there, do you know?"

Charles shook his head. "Not really. It looked as if a small army had descended on them and cut them to pieces. I didn't have much time to investigate."

The wolf then laid a paw on his shoulder, causing Matthias to nearly start in surprise. "Are you going to be all right?"

Shaking his head, Charles peered down at the floor at the trail of water he had left coming to the duke's chambers and spoke softly as the guards followed them on all sides. "No, not really. It was horrible. I cannot imagine how anyone could do such a thing."

Gently squeezing his shoulder with her paw, Raven offered him a small smile, though not much of one. "I imagine that many of you fellow Followers will be grieving at the chapel." Matthias nodded absently. "Your Patriarch offered us all a chance to grow together in understanding. There will be many of my Lothanasi who will be grieving at our temple. It might help them know that Akabaieth's dream did not die with him if there were some Patildor to come share their grief with them."

Matthias looked confused for a moment and then nodded. "Ah, so you would like me to go with you to the Lothanasi temple to grieve for him with your people to show some solidarity?" Raven nodded slowly, her blue eyes soft just then. The rat sighed and then nodded a second time. "I will do it. In fact, if it would not be too much trouble, I would like to go there with you as soon as you finish speaking with Kashin."

Raven nodded and then removed her paw from his shoulder as their group drew up to the Healer's quarters. The door was half-open, and the sound of voices could be heard inside. Stepping through first, Thomas scanned about, noting the bare-chested Yeshuel with only one arm turn to face him. "Your grace, I am sorry I am not presentable–"

Thomas waved his protestations aside with the wave of one large hand. "No time for that now. What happened to the others?"

"Your healer has them in the back. Both of Egland's legs are completely broken, but the healer is confidant that he can mend them in time. Vinsah on the other hand, is going to be trickier. One of his lungs was punctured, and he's lost quite a bit of blood. It may be a while before we know if he'll survive."

"And you?" Thomas pointed to the stump "How did you lose your arm?"

Kashin snorted drily, his eyes long past tears it appeared. "I don't know. One minute we were confronting this man, the next, he'd thrown something black at us. It killed Iosef instantly, sliced him in two. I lost my arm. I guess he didn't notice I was still alive."

"Who was it?" Raven asked.

Kashin shrugged. "I'm not sure." He cast a glance towards Matthias and then shook his head. "It all happened so fast."

"Where is the Patriarch's body?" Phil asked then, sniffing around the empty room.

"I've already placed it in the chapel," Kashin grunted, and then pointed towards a blade he'd set down in one corner. It was finely carved, and there were gems set in the hilt. "He was stabbed with that dagger."

"That's Sathmoran!" Raven exclaimed.

"Yes, I noticed that as well," Kashin agreed. "I'm going to keep that dagger until I can return the favour and plunge it into the chest of the man responsible for this."

Wessex peered closely at it. "Might I have a chance to examine it magically?"

The Yeshuel shook his head. "You do not understand. I have failed my Abba. Unless I can right this justice, I will never be redeemed. My soul is tainted by my failure. I am alive where the Patriarch isn't. I cannot allow you to take the implement of this justice from me."

Wessex stared in open-mouthed astonishment. "But that dagger may have the clues we need to find those who've done this? Surely you can see that!"

"Yes, I do recognize it, that is why I am not going to allow you to take it. I must find all of the clues myself! This is my task, not yours. I will let you know of anything I find, but I must find it, not you." Kashin reached over, a bit unsteadily, and gripped the dagger's hilt with his hand. Blood still clung to the blade, but dripped off slowly as he held it there. "I pledge myself to this task and no other until either I die or this dagger finds its justice."

Raven stepped forward a bit more closely. "You know who I am, do you not?"

"Yes, you are the Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric. Akabaieth spoke highly of you."

She nodded her head, ears flicking to the side. "His death is going to lead to war if we do not have the evidence to show that it was not Sathmore that is responsible for this atrocity. Only you or your companions under Coe's paws can testify to this. Will you speak of the true murderer here to help keep the peace?"

Kashin then shook his head sadly. "I cannot. I am a disgrace, and my word would only taint yours. Should I stand with you and declare that Sathmore is free of guilt, the Bishops of Yesulam would only say that I was in collusion with you the whole time, as I let the Patriarch die. No, it cannot be my words. Perhaps Egland and Vinsah can provide what you need, but I cannot. Not if I want peace, which I desperately do."

Raven nodded slowly and stepped back. "Then best wishes to you on your quest. I ought to return to my people and pray for safe passage for his soul." She turned then, and started out of the room. Charles watched her for a moment, and the started on his four legs after her, his eyes a mix of curiosity and sadness.

Wessex watch the two leave, and then he stepped forward, approaching the man who was once a Yeshuel. "Did you see any symbol on the man's cloak? It was a man who did this, right?"

Kashin nodded slowly. "I saw something, but I knew what that man was from just his bearing. I did not want to say earlier, because I did not know how Charles would react to it. I know that he would never take part in such a thing, but loyalties among southern mage clans are hard to break."

"So, you know what clan he was from?" Phil asked softly.

"Yes, he was a Sondeckis," Kashin confirmed. "I do not know if the other two would have recognized him or not. For Raven's benefit, you may inform them of our attacker's identity when they are well enough to leave this place again, if they can."

"Was he a tall fellow, broad of shoulder, though slim in proportion? With black hair?" Wessex asked then.

"Yes, that was him. How did you know?"

Wessex sighed softly. "You hunt the same man that I do, Kashin. If you would care to listen, I can tell you what I know of him."

The man slumped heavily down on the floor, leaning his head into his sole hand, his chest heaving. "No, I wish to hear nothing more of this!" He then looked up, tears once again marring his face. "Please, leave me to weep in peace. I will speak more later. Not now. Please go away."

Phil hopped up beside Wessex and gently nuzzled him with one paw. "Let it rest for now."

The boy sighed, and turned about, following Thomas and the rest out the door. So close had he come, had they all come, yet still it had all ended in pain and death. Closing the door, he listened to the sound of Kashin's weeping, and afforded himself a tear as well.

Misha glared at the boot tracks in the grass along the side of the hill. Behind him, the lights from Muri's spells still glowed brightly, while the bodies were sorted through. They'd been here several hours already, and thankfully it had stopped raining. Dawn would be approaching before too much longer, yet Brightleaf had no desire to leave. At least not until he had figured out for himself what had happened here, and who was responsible.

What gave him the most dismay was the thoroughness of the death. Aside from the three that had flown back with Charles, there simply had been none! But, when he counted the bodies that they had, or at least the parts that they had, he realized that there was one missing. Either there had been another survivor who had managed to escape and had not come back, or there was a body missing that they did not know about.

Yet, even that paled into insignificance against what he faced before him. There was no question as he followed the pair of footsteps into the hills that these were the tracks of those responsible for the crimes. Even though they were barely discernable in the rain slicked mud, somehow, their imprint had become solid. Murikeer had simply nodded when he'd pointed that out. Obviously something that had occurred due to the skunk's intervention.

One set of tracks was slender, while the other was quite massive. In fact, the second was so massive, it appeared as if his weight had simply doubled, as nowhere else on the field was his footprints quite so deep. The smaller pair had to belong to a woman, even though he saw them in only one other place on the field of battle, and that was next to the Patriarch's carriage.

Yet, the other, which obviously belonged to a man, was one of the clues he was missing. That and the fact that the footprints simply stopped, disappearing completely without a trace as they worked into the hills. There was a bit of scrub nearby, and a few trees in the distance. He'd scoured the area for several ells in each direction, but not a single twisted blade of grass or broken twig heralded their passage. He even checked the scents from the boot-prints, but could find nothing like elsewhere. Whoever it had been had escaped cleanly.

Gazing in consternation at the larger set of footprints, he kneeled down to examine them closer. On a whim, he checked to see how deep the boot-heel for each foot had been. Much to his surprise, he found that the right boot-heel had sunk half-an-inch deeper into the ground than the left had. Rising back to his hind paws, he imagined how that man must have been walking to make those marks. After taking a few steps himself, he knew the answer. He'd been carrying something heavy on his right shoulder.

And then with a bit of a tremble, he knew exactly what had been carried off into nothingness. He turned about, and found Murikeer at his back, watching him with a puzzled expression. "Play acting?" the skunk asked.

"No, trying to figure out why the man was walking more heavily on his right boot than his left." Muri kept this face placid, despite the rage that had and still dwelled behind the dark eyes. "He was carrying something over his right shoulder, and I believe that something to be our missing knight."

The armoured figure of Sir Andre Maugnard arrived as they stared at the enigmatic trail left by the two that had committed the complete atrocity of the camp. Misha was utterly amazed that one of the pair, the male, had wrought such absolute destruction alone, unaided it appeared in any way by the smaller, ostensibly a female. The wolverine was still seething, the fur of his muzzle bristled, whiskers pricking rigidly from the open visor of his helm. "His name is, or was, Sir Albert Bryonoth." The wolverine growled, the damp leather of his gauntlets creaking in protest as he clenched his fists.

Murikeer frowned then, gazing at the tracks that led to nowhere. "What could they have wanted with him?" His brows furrowed as he stared at the pair of footprints using normal vision, then using his spirit sight. The smaller pair of footprints, the female, had a taint of dark magic about them, growing brighter shortly before the trail ended. The male's footprints were normal, whatever power he had was not thaumaturgic.

He glanced back toward the battleground itself, the twisted web of the local energies shimmering an ugly, bruised purple to his spirit sight. The death had stained the land, just as the blood of those slain lent an ugly rusty hue to the dark earth.

"I don't know. And I do not like it when I do not know these things." Grimacing, he finally turned away from the tracks and gave the skunk his full attention. "And what have you discovered?"

"Not as much as I would like." Murikeer rubbed his palms together, his tail flitting about behind him. "There is one thing I can assure you of, our enemy will not have an easy time traversing these lands again. I spoke with the spirits of the earth, and they are most unhappy about this evil, and will do their best to keep him out of Metamor should he return."

Misha, unsure of what to think of the spirits, though he'd seen a good many in his time, and had been saved by that Fox spirit once, nodded at that. "Do you have any idea what the man could have done to slice those people in half as he did?"

Murikeer shuddered as he thought of the bodies lying in neatly cut pieces. "I have no idea how he managed that. The sear marks on the trees and the saddle of that horse bear all the marks of a powerful spell, but there is no trace of magic about them." He turned his dark gaze to meet the fox's interested stare, then at Andre, who merely glared at him. "I've never seen anything like it before in my life. I hope I never do again."

The fox then pointed at the tracks that led into nothing. "And did the spirits tell you what this might mean? Did they tell you where our enemies went?"

Murikeer bore a rather distant look then. "All they would tell me was, ‘Into the shadow'. I have no idea what they mean by that."

"That makes no sense to me either. At least not yet. Maybe we can find some more clues elsewhere. This trail is a dead end I am afraid." The skunk nodded then as he fell into step with the fox, eyes trailing back to that path, wondering if it really was what Misha claimed it to be. And what had they meant by the words, ‘Into the shadow'?

Charles had been up for over twenty-four hours at that point, and strangely enough, he was still wide awake. It was past dawn, and yet he had not left the Lothanasi temple since he'd arrived the night before with Raven. Having been in his taur form long enough, he had grown to be rather self-conscious to the stares that were levelled at him as he entered the temple itself. So, Raven had taken him to a side room where he could change, and given him a spare robe to wrap himself in.

She had informed him of course that it was the robe acolytes would wear, minus a few other accoutrements that he would not be allowed to don, but he had assured her it would be fine. He had not anticipated the endless stream of confused questions from the Lothanasi that had come to the temple seeking some sort of solace once they heard the of the loss. Almost every single one of them looked at him, looked at the robe and then asked him when he'd become Lothanasi.

At times, Charles was so annoyed by the question that he wanted to tell them he'd been Lothanasi all along, but had simply been spying on the Patildors. But he kept his tongue in check, for one look at the distraught faces of Keepers who only a few days ago had been opposed to the Patriarch's visit was enough to remind him of what that man had done. Akabaieth had brought together both Patildor and Lothanasi in a common dream of peace, and then he was killed for it.

So, Charles did as Raven had asked him to do, explained that he was here because Akabaieth was willing to care for them too, so why shouldn't he. Amazingly enough, that always brightened their faces and gave them renewed hope. Interestingly enough, Charles found himself enjoying his stay there that night all the more.

Many times during each hour, one of the real acolytes would lead groups together in prayer to this god or that. Charles did his best to look reverent, offering his own prayers during those time silently. And then there was the singing which would start as if on a whim from one corner of the temple, and then fill the entire building with its resounding chorus. Though to gods he did not really believe in, Charles found himself singing along at times, smiling at all the tender faces about him.

And so the evening continued on into morning. Charles saw Raven from across the hall talking with a few folks who appeared to be rather distraught. Matthias recognized them as soldiers. They had probably seen what had happened there on that field and been horrified. It might have been the very first time they had seen bloodshed. Whatever it was, Matthias could not tear his eyes away from the scene.

It did not last long though, as shortly thereafter, Raven helped the girl stand on her feet. Merai was there as well, and offered the girl a long hug, which she accepted, crying into the younger priestess's shoulder. Charles sighed and cast his eyes down when he saw Raven looking back at him. When he looked up again, Raven hin'Elric was standing before him, her blue eyes a mix of curiosity and amusement.

"You know, you would make a good acolyte now that I think about it. You have brought hope back to many of my people here tonight."

Matthias nodded at that, gently stretching himself out in the robe. "I am not called to the life of the priest, you know that. Even were I Lothanasi, I would not fit for long living in this temple."

Raven gently lowered herself, her own robes collecting about her paws. Her grey tailed wagged behind her as she watched the various faces about the room. "Still what you did for me this night is much as they did as well." Her eyes favoured him with a bit of mischief in them. "And contrary to what I've heard, you have a lovely singing voice, when you are sober at least."

Matthias snorted in surprise, and turned to the priestess. "I suppose I should take that for what it is worth. Why are you so happy all of a sudden? Don't you grieve for the Patriarch's death? You appeared to before."

Raven nodded then, looking out over the pews and the people sitting in them. "There is much yet to be done, I agree. That has not changed. But have you watched the faces of the Lothanasi that you have been with this evening?"

Smiling slightly at the memory of each one, he nodded. "They were quite happy to see me I thought."

"Not quite, but close. Have you seen your face as you talk to them?"

"Well, no, of course not."

Raven smirked then, her muzzle drawing back to reveal her teeth. "I have. I think that you have gained greater joy and hope by being here as well. That is a reason enough to have some happiness. Akabaieth's hope for peace has come true here at least."

Charles thought about that for a moment, and then a smile creased his own face, filling it after each moment. "You're right, it is being played out here this very night. I never thought of it like that. In that case, thank you for inviting me here. You have given me a great honour."

She rose from her seat then, noting a few more people entering, looking lost. "As have you, Charles. Thank you for coming into our home to help us mourn. Thank you for giving them hope back, hope that we can live peacefully together."

The rat stood then as well, "Lothanasa, we will have peace. I know that someday, our people will know peace."

She smiled one last time, and then turned to greet the others. Charles leaned back, an impenetrable smile on his muzzle. He sat waiting for the next set of people to come in through those doors needing comfort. With a sly grin, he secretly hoped they'd ask him if he'd become a Lothanasi.

Phil was already in the middle of composing a letter to his father to make the necessary arrangements, the reports from his scouts waiting for his attention to one side, when there was a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" he called out in his bright rabbity voice. However, this day, there was little brightness there.

" 'Tis Raven hin'Elric, Phil. May I have a word with you?"

Phil gestured to Rupert, who already had his hand on the brass knob, and the great ape swung the door open. The priestess glided in silently, nodding once to Rupert as she passed, and headed straight for the desk where the Crown Prince of Whales sat trying to sift through a mass of intelligence reports.

"What can I do for you, Lightbringer?" Phil asked, looking up at her as she approached.

Raven reached into one of the pockets of her robe and withdrew a small envelope, placing it on the desk before him.

"I need a message sent to Whales," she said, her expression quiet and serious. "With all possible haste."

Frowning, Phil awkwardly turned the letter over with his paws and leaned forward to examine it. It was sealed with the emblem of the Lothanasa of Metamor, with a second seal indicating that the message was to be delivered to one Lycias, Lothanas of Whales. "I have a courier ship departing from Menth today," he said at last. "I can arrange for the captain to deliver this for you, but it may be safer if you send one of your acolytes along to carry the letter."

"If I could spare any for the journey, I would," Raven said. "You needn't worry, though -- the letter will take care of itself."

Warily, Phil glanced down at the unassuming envelope. "You cast a ward on a letter?" he asked.

"After a fashion. The seals are enchanted -- if anyone attempts to tamper with either of them, or open the letter in any other way, it will incinerate itself."

Phil blinked. "You do realize there is a strict ban on fire-spells aboard sailing vessels, don't you?"

The priestess smirked. "Relax, Phil. 'Tis a highly directed spell -- it will not even singe the hands of the person holding it. Your beloved ships will be in no danger." The smirk twisted itself into an ironic grin. "Besides, is not Whales the one nation in the world that installs Fire projectors aboard its warships?"

Phil rocked his ears. "True enough," he admitted. "Though, actually, our scout vessels and couriers aren't Fire-equipped -- they're too small and cramped, and there are just too many of them to keep the secret safe. They really don't have any weapons at all, except for those carried by the men."

"Doesn't that make them rather vulnerable?" Raven asked, eyebrows raised.

Again, the rabbit gave that odd ear-smile. "Not to pirates -- our men are well-trained in close combat. Besides, would you want to face what the Fleet would do to you if you destroyed one of our ships?"

The priestess smirked. "I think not."

"Me neither." The prince straightened in his chair, patting the envelope in front of him. "I'll send this out to Menth immediately. Your letter should arrive in Whales in five or six days."

"Thank you. What do I owe you for this?"

Phil waved his paw dismissively. "Don't worry about it, I'm happy to be of help. Besides, the ship was here anyway." After all, Phil had his own message to send. One that pained him to do.

Raven gave a small, reserved smile and nodded. "I appreciate it. Again, my thanks, Phil."

"No trouble, Lightbringer."

The wolf-woman left as silently as she had come, Rupert opening the door for her on her way out. Idly, Phil ran the pads of his forepaw over the magic-laced wax seals, wondering what business Raven had in Whales that was so important.

The figure stood alone on the rocky plateau, framed against the moonlight as she wrapped her cloak around her tightly. Winter was still two months away, but tonight the wind was as cold as death.

A whisper of rushing air came intermittently in the darkness, the sound of two great wings flapping. There was a quiet scraping of claws against dirt and stone, and the woman turned to greet her visitor. Perched before her was a majestic creation, sinewy flesh wrapped in reddish-brown scales, the tips of each glistening a brassy hue. Th eyes burned softly, more from scrutiny than from desire, as they were ancient eyes, long given over to consideration.

"Thank you for coming, Angernil. You honor me with your presence."

"It was no imposition." The creature's voice was deep and rich, hinting at a wisdom older than recorded history. "It is a pleasure to see you again, daughter of Elric."

"I fear that the news I bring is far from pleasant, Lothanas," Raven said soberly. Her eyes twisted in consternation, her paws balling slightly. "Akabaieth, the Patriarch of the Patildor, has been murdered."

There was a moment of silence. In the silver light of the moon. Raven thought she saw the dragon's eyes flash with surprise. He breathed a short, frustrated sigh, sending twin plumes of mist into the cold night air. "When did this happen?"

"Yesterday, after his departure from Metamor."

"Do you know who was responsible?"

"Aye. Lord Thomas informs me that it was a man called Zagrosek, a Southlander from an order of force-mages called the Sondeckis. The dagger he used was of Sathmoran design."

Angernil's eyes narrowed. "It would seem that this Southlander intends to start a war between the two faiths."

"Aye," Raven agreed, a feeling of dread and anger rising in her throat. "I wanted to warn you of what has happened before the rest of the Council receives word of it. There will be an inquiry, of course, and in the present circumstances I suspect it would be best for them to know as little as possible."

"You suspect collusion amongst our fellow Councilors?" The great dragon's voice was now curious, as of a man asking for the solution to a truly daunting puzzle.

"Aye. You are aware of the Elenin Prophecy, given by Silvinia in 242?"

Another silence, as the dragon searched his long, ancient memory. The great wyrm had been alive for centuries, and had read virtually everything ever written in the Order, but it was impossible for him to remember everything at once.

"... Aye," he responded at last, his eyes widening. "I remember. You believe it is coming to pass?"

"Aye," Raven said, a hard edge to her voice. "The Council has been corrupted, Angernil. You and I both know this. Some of them, at least, were almost certainly involved in the Patriarch's murder. If I allow them to see how much of this plot we are aware of, they may decide to kill me, as well."

The dragon tapped the claws of one hand against the ground, leaving deep furrows in the dirt. "Caution is certainly in order," he said. "Though you must tell them something, lest they accuse you of being party to his death. We must consider the reaction of the Patildor, as well."

Raven nodded. "We have three survivors, two of whom will testify to their own people that a Sondeckis was responsible for the deed." She shook her head sadly. "The third, one of the Patriarch's bodyguards, has been disgraced in the eyes of his people and will be of no use to us, though he remembers the most of any of them."

"The survivors will be our salvation in this, I think," the dragon mused. "Thank Artela that they were spared." He scratched at his long, scaly jaw for a moment, then turned his golden eyes back toward Raven. "How many of your people know of the Sondeckis?"

"Very few. Lord Thomas, Prince Phil, the mage Wessex, Charles Matthias. Prime Minister Malisa, most likely. Habbukuk, the head of the Writers Guild, likely knows of the order but may not know that a Sondeckis was involved. I suspect the same of Rickkter, since he hails from the Southlands. Generally, it seems to be a well-kept secret."

"Good. I would advise that you pretend ignorance of the Sondeckis when you address the Council. Describe the man and the powers he used, but give no indication you know the name of his order -- it will seem less likely, then, that you have helped to falsely incriminate the Sondeckis in the murder. I suppose it is too much to hope that Zagrosek was wearing the emblem of the order?"

"No, of course not -- he was trying to impersonate one of us, after all. Fortunately, Wessex has encountered him before, and on those occasions he was wearing his order's crest. Thomas passed on a copy of the image to me."

"Excellent," the dragon said as he nodded his long serpentine head. "Show the Council that, as well. Let them believe you are investigating the murder in ignorance, not yet knowing Zagrosek's affiliations or the nature of these Sondeckis."

"That seems wise," Raven agreed. "During the inquiry I shall ask Lycias to investigate the meaning of the emblem -- since it is clearly not the symbol of any northern mage order, the others should not think it suspicious for me to search for it in the south."

"Agreed. Does Lycias know what has happened?"

"He shall, shortly -- I have dispatched a sealed letter to him aboard a Whalish courier vessel. I dare not use the vision-spell for this news -- the danger is too great that one of the others will overhear."

"Aye." Angernil gave the wolf-woman a serious look. "Be careful, Raven. You are walking a path between two packs of baying hounds, and both await the chance to tear you to pieces."

Raven closed her eyes and nodded. "I know." She fell silent for a long moment, biting her lip in quiet frustration. "Damn it, Angernil, we were so close," she said, her voice beginning to crack. She wiped away a tear that was forming in the corner of her eye. "So close to peace. Now, with Akabaieth gone..." She shook her head. "He didn't seem to think there were many in his own council that he could trust. With our best ally dead, and our own Council corrupted, I don't know if we shall ever see peace in our time."

"Do not give up hope yet," the dragon admonished her, gently placing one massive hand against her back. "We still have a chance. But we shall have to move more carefully from this point on, until we can root out the ones responsible for this and gather enough evidence to bring them to justice."

"And in the meantime we have to do our best to avoid a war."

"Aye." Angernil sighed again. "It shall be difficult, of course. But so long as there is any chance, we must not give up."

"Agreed." Raven looked up at the old dragon, smiling sadly. "Thank you for your help, Angernil."

"You need only ask." Angernil stepped back away from Raven, spread his wings, and rose into the air. "Cuialye lothan, Raven hin'Elric."

"Cuialye lothan, Angernil," Raven said, repeating the traditional farewell of the Lightbringers. In Old Tongue, it meant "Live in the light" -- the same farewell she had given to Akabaieth.

The dragon circled high into the sky and soared off to the west, heading for his home deep within the Dragon Mountains. After watching him for a long moment, aborted tears already dried, Raven turned and began the long climb back down into the Valley. On her way down, she said a silent prayer for the Patriarch, wherever his soul might be now.

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