Liturgy of Blood - Part XIX

Vinsah had no idea how long he'd been clutching the hem of her robe and listening to her sing to him. It felt like forever that he'd just laid there, wrapped in the sound of her voice. Details of the world about him were few and hard to come by, only slowly coalescing after time. They were in a garden of some sort, that much he now knew, with pleasant flowers all about. He liked to sniff the sweet petals, and she would oblige him by snatching one and bring it to his face.

It took him quite sometime before he realized that he did not understand a word of what she was singing to him. When he finally looked up into her shimmering face, his own creased with confusion, she stopped her song and smiled down to him. He could not help but smile back, snuggling close to her dress. "Welcome home, Elvmere."

In that one moment, he did not start at the name, but recognized it for his own. Yet, the moment was short, and passed suddenly. Pushing himself away, he blinked, his voice trembling as he scanned about. He was once more inside his dream Metamor Keep, the trickling brook nearby, and the far gates closed now. He shuddered at what that could mean. "What am I doing here?"

She smiled, her long black hair cascading across her shoulders as she gently reached into the ground for something. "Healing. You have suffered great wounds, and you must heal."

"How long have I been here?" he asked with some concern. He reached up to his face, and found the mask as he'd expected. He scratched at it futilely, but of course, it remained where it was, forever a part of him in this dream.

"Been here in this dream with me? Longer than you might imagine, Elvmere. Far longer."

"My name is Vinsah, I've told you that before."

She appeared to ignore him as she held out her hand. Opening wide her palm, he saw the quartz sculpture held between her fingers. The two eyes fashioned from agate and surrounded by the darker chalcedony gazed back at him with deliberate intensity. "Murikeer would like you to have this. Will you not accept it?"

"I want nothing from that skunk!" Vinsah declared, stepping further back from the woman. He tore his fingernails at the mask, but of course, it did not shift in the slightest. "Nothing, you hear me? Nothing!"

The woman was suddenly at his back, as if she'd always been there. Her gentle hand touched his shoulder, that shimmering appendage flowing into him, soothing the anger he wished to hold onto. "Please, don't make me take it," he whimpered softly. "I'm afraid of it."

The woman gently reached over to where his hands hung limply before him, and set the quartz statuette within his palms. She then closed his hands over the object, and gently ran her finger soothingly up his arms. He held the object tightly then, afraid to open his grip and see those eyes again. "It is yours Elvmere. Yours alone."

"But why me?" he asked, his voice more that of a child's than a man of fifty years.

He turned to face her, like a boy to his mother. She gently ran the back of her hand along his cheek, just as a mother might. "We all ask that question, but there is never an answer for us. Sometimes we must rely on the wisdom of those who fashioned us."

He cast his eyes down, unable to look at her anymore, but still he kept his hands closed, unable to look at the statuette either. He was still wearing that acolyte's robe, but he could not explain why. It simply never occurred to him to remove it. In fact, it seemed a rather silly thing to do, undress before this woman. Still, it was better to think of that than of what was clutched tightly in his hands.

But soon, he found a gentle finger beneath his chin, lifting his head up. "Murikeer is waiting for you. You have to go with him now."

Vinsah started, glancing over at the skunk standing just a few ells away, by the gentle brook. His expression was solemn, but there was a hidden expectation within that face. The Bishop shook his head. "No, not with him. Please, anyone but him."

She gently brushed his hair back, one finger tapping the mask he wore. "You may take your time Elvmere, but he will still be waiting for you when you are ready." She then stepped away from him, fading into the garden itself. Vinsah turned about, to look for her, but she was gone.

"Where did you go?" he cried out, refusing to look at the skunk who was still standing by the brook. "Why have you left me with him?"

He did not truly expect a response, and so he was nearly floored when her voice rang from all about him "I am always with you, Elvmere." Scrambling, he turned back to Murikeer, who favoured him with a warm smile and an outstretched paw.

Screaming in sudden terror, Vinsah turned about, and fled away from the apparition, clutching the quartz figurine in his hands as if he could squeeze blood from it. He ran for what felt like hours, his legs unable to stop, propelling him along those terrazzo pathways. Finally though, exhaustion beginning to take its toll on him, Vinsah came to rest, kneeling down to catch his breath.

Peering between his legs as he kneeled down, he saw black paws, and a long bushy black and white tail behind them. Turning about, he found Murikeer standing a few feet away, one hand outstretched, his muzzle drawn into that same tight smile.

Vinsah took the figurine and threw it at the skunk, pushing him away with his hands and then burying his face in them. As he crouched there weeping, his fingers could not help but explore the lines of the mask yet again, feeling it, growing familiar. Scratching then, he frantically tried to tear it away, but as before, met with no success. Ignoring the skunk who stood quietly nearby, perpetually watching over him, Vinsah tried to close his eyes and fall asleep, wishing no more of this dream.

And then, he felt a throbbing pain fill his chest. Vinsah blinked groggily, his whole body terribly heavy, wrapped tightly in thick quilts. It was bright out, he could see the blue sky outside the sole window, gentle clouds high overhead. He tried to lift his arms, but a sudden pain shot through his chest, and he collapsed back down against the pillow.

Slowly, the memories began to come back to him, of that dream he'd had just moments before that man had shown up -- that same black clad man that he'd seen in his dream his second night at Metamor. And then there was the dinner plate he'd used to protect himself. How had that woman known to warn him, and known that he had such a thing nearby? With a bit of a grimace, he decided that it would probably be good for him if he would at least entertain the notion that she was more than just a dream.

Yet, the details after that were hazy. Obviously he had somehow been brought to wherever he was now, and had been treated by a healer. Gazing out the window some more, he tried to see what was outside, but the pain in his chest forced him back to the pillow. That man had crushed several of his ribs, that much he knew, but why? And what had happened to the others? What had happened to Akabaieth?

A sudden image of that blessed man lying dead filled him with raw terror, and he tried to slide from his bed, but coughed extensively, the agony in his chest still more than he wished to bear. Yet, after he had regained his breath, and lay there wondering whose face it was that had knelt over him as he had faded in and out of consciousness, the sound of some animal approaching caught his attention. He knew it was an animal, for their claws made a staccato rapping noise against the stone floor.

And then, just as he turned his head to see the figure before him, another thought flooded his mind. What if it was not an animal at all? And when he saw the raccoon standing before him, dressed in a smart tunic and breeches, holding a glass of some foul looking liquid, he felt his heart sink into his stomach. He was at Metamor Keep after all.

"Ah, awake finally I see. We were wondering if you were going to make it at all. Your friend has been up and about for several days now." He leaned forward, pressing the glass to Vinsah's lips. "Here, drink this. It will help mend your lungs."

Vinsah did as instructed, drinking down the rancid concoction. He pressed his tongue out in distaste, shuddering as the brew coated his throat. Finally, blinking, he managed to ask, "What happened? With the Patriarch that is?"

The raccoon lowered his gaze. "I am not sure of all the details, but I do know that he is dead. Only yourself, and two others survived."

Vinsah closed his eyes, breathing slowly, noting that already, the brew did soothe his chest somewhat. "How long have I been here?"

The raccoon appeared uncomfortable suddenly, looking at his face, then away again. "You've been here for just over a week. I'm afraid–"

"What is it?" Vinsah asked, his eyes narrowing. Then, he ran his tongue along the tips of his teeth, noting that they felt different than before, sharper. "Oh no. Bring me a mirror."

The raccoon nodded and reached over to a nearby table where he lifted the requested object. It had probably been there for days now, in expectation of this very question. Vinsah peered into the reflection, noting the lines of his face were gone. The creases of his age had been washed away. In fact, given the thickening colour of his hair, he guessed that he was probably only twenty-five in physical age. Yet, his eyes did not care about the youthfulness of his face, they saw only one thing.

Around both of his eyes, there was a dark band of black fur, much like a mask. Closing his eyes, he leaned back, his chest beginning to heave, despite the pain, trying to bring tears to his slightly green eyes. "It is not so bad being a raccoon," the healer said consolingly. "You can still eat most anything you want to, and you will not shrink much in size when you are finished changing."

Vinsah looked back at the healer's face. His own would be much like that in a week or two. "You tell no one that I am awake yet. Nobody must know of this."

"But why?"

"Please, I cannot be seen like this yet. I am not ready for it." He then closed his eyes, trying not to think of the mask that he would always wear now.

The Healer nodded then and sighed. "Of course. I will leave you alone now." He could hear the click of the claws as the raccoon began to walk away. He'd make that noise himself before too much longer. Yet they stopped suddenly, and then turned around. "Oh, there was something nestled in the pocket of your robes when you were brought in here. I put it in this drawer. I thought you might like to know that it was saved."

Vinsah peered at him, as he pulled out a small figurine of quartz. It was the gift that Murikeer had made for Akabaieth what felt a lifetime ago. He twitched as his eyes settled upon the pale white quartz, seeing the chalcedony visage of the stone staring at him from his dreams. Sighing, he nodded, "Thank you."

The raccoon turned about and began to walk away once more. He stopped then and called over his shoulder. "I'm sure you will grown used to it in time. If you need anything, just call, I should be in the next room." Vinsah said nothing in reply however, and soon the Healer left him to himself.

All that the Bishop of Abaef could do was gaze into the glowing blue lapis of Akabaieth's face.

Sir Egland stood alone upon his crutches in the stables that morning. Leaning against an empty stall, he gently ran his thick finger across the wood, trying not to notice the darkening of his nail. Nor did he wish to consider the throbbing soreness on either side of his head, for it too was a symptom of his change. Instead, he focussed his thoughts on the pain in his legs. It was an all too human gesture, one that would be with him for a fortnight yet.

The Healer had told him that he was becoming a deer, and that the sullen discomfort he felt was normal for such a change. Considering the nature of the curses, Yacoub wondered how any of it could be considered normal, but he did not dispute the Metamorian's claims. He was trapped at the Keep now, like the rest of them, forever claimed as a resident by the fickle magic. That alone pained him, but it was a scratch compared to the loss of his companions, especially of Bryonoth, for whom he cared a great deal.

And so he stood upon the wooden crutches that would be his legs for the next few weeks, next to the stall that his steed Galadan had rested in last week. Povunoth's stall was similarly empty. It was as if a great hand had reached out of the sky and snatched away everything that had been important to him. Even though his viola had been found, it had been damaged, and he doubted that after his change he would be able to play it properly.

Resting his forehead against the stall door, he closed his eyes and searched for tears that he'd already shed once again. Yet, the sound of the stable doors opening started him from his melancholy. Turning his head to one side, he saw the rat Saulius, and Andre coming in, their faces downcast as well, yet holding something back. In that great paw that he'd touched, the wolverine clutched a bit of rope. It was too dark to see quite what though.

"I thought we would find you in here, Yacoub. I'm sorry about Albert and the others." Andre's voice was low, and heavy, but sorrowful.

"It is not your fault. You didn't know what was going to happen.," Egland mouthed, though his voice wished otherwise.

Saulius nodded then, and stepped closer into the room, "Aye, though tis good fortune that we found some of your companions alive."

"Kashin and Vinsah? Kashin has returned to the south, and Vinsah is still in a coma. Not the most inspiring of news," Egland replied tartly, turning on his crutches to face them fully.

The wolverine shook his head and yanked once on the cords of rope in his paw. Through the door trotted two horses, both rather dignified in stature, and immediately familiar. "A knight's closest companion is always his steed. We found Galadan and Povunoth along the road to the south, and decided to bring them both back for you."

Egland blinked several times, even as his own steed nosed its way past the wolverine and to the man who was becoming a stag. "Galadan!" He cried out for joy as he leaned upon one crutch and brought his hand up to stroke the equine muzzle. The horse nuzzled him, rubbing his nose into the thick palm, noting the change in scent, yet also that it was indeed his rider.

Gazing up to the other two knights, he felt a smile creep across his face. "Thank you both for this. I, I don't know what to say."

Saulius crossed the space, as did Andre, and placed a paw upon his shoulder. "Ye have nothing to say then. We two will be your friends and companions. That will not change, no matter how you may look."

"And even as a stag, I am sure you will have little difficulty serving as a knight," Andre assured him.

Egland laid his head softly against Andre's thick paw, rubbing his ear across the thick fur a moment, his smile buoyant. "And I will be yours!" Both Galadan and Povunoth whickered in agreement.

Kashin sat alone in the large chapel of the Ellcaran diocese. He'd left Metamor accompanied by Father Lothar the morning after the attack, and had kept no more than a few feet from him at all times since then. No other person was allowed to even touch it, and he guarded it as jealously as he should have guarded the Patriarch.

But Akabaieth was now dead, and he was not.

Gripping the grey lock of hair in his one hand tightly, he bent over, kneeling against the pew in front of him. He wasn't really praying anymore, as he'd been doing for the last hour or so, but simply trying to collect his thoughts. Kashin found it sometimes hard to move about or to keep his balance now that he'd lost his left arm. And there were many times when he reached out with that stump to grab at something, only to find he had no hand to take it with. Yet, somehow, he felt as if the arm were still there, only being continuously grilled over a hot flame.

The pain for him, a former Yeshuel, was simply a reminded of the task he had to complete. It had long since ceased causing him distress. Yet, every time he tied off the left sleeve just below the stump, the fabric would rub across the scar and he would wince at the bizarre sensation. At least it never broke the scab, for dripping blood would only make the black of his dress slicker, and darker.

Everything he wore now was black, completely unadorned, just a simple black tunic and breeches. He had only purchased the sole outfit, as he doubted he would ever have need of another again. It matched his face quite well he thought these days. Most of the parishioners studiously avoided him, averting their gaze to some sculpture, window, or mural as he passed them by. The acolytes had blanched when they saw him enter, the Sathmoran blade tucked into the buckler he wore. Their requests that he leave that outside were met with a simple gaze that caused them to backpedal behind the colonnades and statuary lining either wall of the sanctuary. The temple guards however, had insisted he remove it, to which he told them who he was.

It was still at his side in fact, the full force of his oratory to the Ellcaran men a diminishing thing. They had each slunk off to their corners of the chapel after he'd finished regaling them with the tale of his failures. Even so, he knew it was wrong for him to have done this. Yet, he had to come before his Abba this one last time before he embarked on his quest.

Resting his head on his hand, he sighed, before peering up at the altar and crucifix at the front of the chapel. How many times had he tried to assure himself that he could not blame himself for not dying? So countless many times it seemed, and yet each one was as futile as the last. Both Father Hough and Lothar had assured him that he was not guilty of Akabaieth's murder, or negligence in the cause of his murder. Yet, he could only bitterly laugh at them, holding back tears that he wished to shed. The call of a Yeshuel broached no equivocation, especially in the matters surrounding the Patriarch.

Leaning back into the pew, the stump of his left arm coming to rest softly against the wood, sending a sudden jolt of pain up what was left of it, he noticed that he was no longer alone. Sitting just a short distance away to his left was a figure that was also clad in black, but this time a cloak that completely obscured his features. There was a timeless quality to the way he slowly lifted a pearl-grey hand, fingers slender and supple in a way that few he'd ever met could imitate, up to his chest. The figure placed his hands across his heart, tightening respectfully into a fist for a moment.

"We are well met, Kashin of the Yeshuel," he said softly, casting a gentle chime into the air as his musical voice filled the other's ears.

Kashin turned slightly, his eyes narrowing hard, trying to see what lay in the depth of the shadow of his cloak. Yet, he could only discern an angular jaw line, and tightly set lips; that and nothing more. "I am disgraced, and no longer of the Yeshuel. Who are you?"

"A messenger," came the reply. The hood of his cloak turned then, showing him even less of the man's face. The voice was deep, yet the musical quality to it made him wonder what sort of man this could be. The accent was unfamiliar as well. "My name is Andares."

Kashin's brow furrowed at that. "Are you from Whales? That sounds to be a Whalish name."

"No, I am not from your Whales. My name is older by far than that country. But you do weep for a man who was from Whales, do you not?"

Kashin bristled slightly, his hand slipping down to rest on the pommel of the dagger. With a sudden flash of chagrin, he took his palm from the hilt, ashamed at having thought of violence in the House of Eli. "Yes, how did you know?"

"My Master sent me here to find you, Kashin. I've travelled a long road, knowing only to expect a man dressed in black, whose left arm was missing, and who would be mourning the recent death of his own master. Is this all not found true in you?"

Breathing in deeply, he began to nod, not really wanting to, but not seeing a reason not to either. "Yes, I am the man that you seek."

The cloaked figure nodded as well, a small sound of delight escaping his lips, though Kashin could not tell what it had been. "I had expected to find you at the Ecclesia funeral services the day before, but you were not there. Are you waiting to mourn his passing at the burial?"

Kashin laughed bitterly at that, his hands tightening about the fabric of his breeches. "No, I will not be there either. I am a disgrace to the Yeshuel, I could hardly be present when the Patriarch's body is dumped into the sea sometime next week. Unlike you, he was from Whales, and at least in death lives out his dream. But I remain alive, and so have dishonoured his memory."

The stranger appeared to consider those words for a moment, before he gently shook his heads. "You have done no dishonour to yourself or to the memory of Apadares of Whales. You seek justice, do you not? Is that not why you carry that blade with you, even into the house of your own Abba, where weapons are strictly forbidden?"

Kashin turned harder, laying his stump over the pew so as not to press it against the wood anymore. "And just what is your interest in all of this? You know so much about me, but I know nothing of you."

"My name is Andares, as I have said. I was sent here by my master to find you and to offer you a chance to fulfill your desire for justice."

Kashin grumbled sourly, keeping his voice low. "So your master has a tendency towards precognition, so what? Why should I care what he wishes?"

"My master can help you find the man responsible for the Patriarch's death. Not only that, but tell you why he was killed, and why they have tried to blame Sathmore." His voice was so sublime, that Kashin could swear it was a highly articulate form of bird song at times.

Yet, at that request, he turned his back to the man, gazing at the lofty murals along the inner wall of the chapel. Bright colours flared on each panel, rising high to the clerestory, where they were met by the sun shining in through the stained–glass windows. "You know so little of what it means for a Yeshuel to be disgraced. It is my sole duty to find the man responsible for this, and kill him myself. I have already had one offer of assistance from a Metamorian, and I turned him down. Why should I treat your master, or for that matter you, any differently? I will accept help from no man."

The soft voice let out a chuckle, and then turned to face him more fully, the soft light cascading from above catching on his lips. Kashin glanced back at him, noting a strange delicacy to those features that he had never seen in the face of any other. "I find your adamancy rather amusing, simply because I am not a man at all. Nor is my master."

Kashin stared then, his eyes fixed on what lay beneath the dark cowl. "You are not a man? Then what are you?"

That pearl-grey hand rose once more to the edges of his cowl, joined by a second like it. Together, they drew back his hood, slowly, letting the light shine on more and more of his features every moment. Kashin felt his heart quicken in his chest, and his fingers clench and unclench into his palms. The nose was straight, almost bent like a hawk's, but slender as well. The golden eyes were slanted, each lobe coming to a point beneath the thick eyebrows. Long black hair cascaded over his ears before being pulled back into a pony tail. Drawing his fingers through the hair, Kashin could see that those ears came to rather long points.

With a quick breath, he spoke softly, "Spirit!"

"Åelf is the proper term," Andares remarked, a bit of a smile crossing those tight lips. Glancing those golden embers across the sanctuary, he noted a few parishioners kneeling and praying, so he drew the hood back over his face.

"I thought you were just legend," Kashin said, his body shaking from the surprise. The earlier vehemence washed away from him like rain.

"We are very much a reality, we simply do not show ourselves often. You mortals have not been kind to us over the centuries." There was a hint of anger in that voice, but it was tempered as if with resignation.

"And I am responsible for none of it."

"True enough," Andares admitted, his eyes shining slightly in the receding daylight streaming through the windows above. "Will you accept the help my master has offered? There are a great many dangers in this world, most of them even more frightening than the death of one man, though he be the leader of one of your great faiths. There is a terrible battle being waged behind closed doors, and your master's murder is only one sign of that. If you come and speak to my master, you will know much more."

Kashin nodded softly, the hardness seeping back into his lips. "What you are asking me to do is to abandon my quest for justice. I cannot do that, no matter the reason."

Andares shook his head gently. "No, I am telling you that your quest for justice is one part of a larger puzzle. Who is it that you seek to kill?"

"The man who killed the Patriarch of course."

"The one who stabbed him or the one who instigated the murder?"

"Excuse me?" Kashin asked, confused.

"I can tell you this, for it is all that I know," Andares spoke even softer now, leaning forward so that no other ears could possibly hear. "The man who killed Apadares of Whales would not have known that he was there if he had not been told by another who wished him dead."

Kashin licked his lips then, grimacing morosely. "I will need to think about this. How can I find you when I decide?"

The cloaked figure nodded, the tight lips breaking into a slight smile. "Go to Bozojo near the border of the Outer Midlands. Find the Lake's Head Inn, and its innkeeper, a man named Benlan Rais. He will know where I am. It is a week's journey there, so decide quickly. I will only wait until the beginning of the last month of your year."

"I understand. I shall not take long in deciding then." Kashin set his hand down on the pew before him, drawing himself upon his feet. "Do you know anything else you dare tell me?"

Andares also rose, backing away slowly down the pew, his head bowed low in the cowl. "Only that things shall become far worse before they improve. Decide wisely, Kashin. I will be waiting for you in Bozojo."

Kashin watched the figure slowly glide across the aisle, his feet barely appearing to touch the carpet. He then turned back to gaze one last time at the crucifix, a symbol he had born on his chest for so many years. Bringing his hand to his breast, he made the fist over his heart, and bowed deeply to the altar of his Abba. Then he walked briskly down the aisle, stump swaying in a new rhythm to his steps. It would be a long time before he could speak to Eli again.

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