Matters of Faith - Part III

By: Charles Matthias & Ryx

Vinsah, sore from the ride and exhausted from tending to the three survivors that he found suspended from the crosses, looked up as Malger called and waved from the far side of the temple. Many of the slower group had arrived a few minutes before and were still standing around, stunned by the extent of the death meted out by the raiders that sacked the town. “Muri found a way into the temple! We don’t have much time, the floor’s falling in!” Malger called out as people began heading for the ruins of the temple. Vinsah followed the crowd, crawling over shattered stone pillars as he heard a deep groan from somewhere in the structure of the temple. Dust spilled out from beneath the collapsed roof as they all began moving more swiftly.

As he neared he could see the lord of Estravalle on his stomach in the dirt and mud, his face near a small hole in the broken stone. Malger crouched nearby as others began gathering close. After a brief conversation down the hole Keleran stood and looked around at those who had arrived. “Start digging, we don’t have much time.” Everyone moved forward in a mass, grabbing at stones.

Malger made his way over to Vinsah as the people of Estravalle began throwing stones back over the fallen pillars, ignoring the corpses that they fell upon. “Elvmere, we may be able to help in ways that they cannot when it comes time to start pulling people out. We’ll be able to get in before they do.”

“How?” Vinsah asked pensively, looking down at his hand for a moment before releasing his Tree and dropping his hand to his side.

“Shifting to a smaller form, like Muri did. We could squeeze through the hole and help from the other side.” The bard explained as they turned and then stopped as they found themselves facing Keleran and another man holding a large stone. With a glance at the travellers the men dropped their stone, one returning to the digging while their lord remained. The burly man clapped his hands to knock dust from his fingers as his attention focussed on Vinsah. His beard was streaked with stone dust and bloody mud, his face soiled to such a degree that only his eyes remained clear.

“You’re Patildor.” The man said simply as his arms crossed over his chest. “The people trapped in the temple mentioned Questioners. Those are inquisitors for your church.”

Vinsah quailed back but nodded as he cast his gaze down and chewed the inside of his cheek. “They are, lord Keleran, but this,” he waved an arm at the destruction of Deep Springs, “this is not condoned by the Ecclesia.”

“It was.” The man replied simply. “I am not blaming you, your grace. I don’t know where you are going or why you’re travelling with a Dreamslayer and a mage, but if that is your path so be it. But these… these inquisitioners who did this evil thing… they are of your church, I want to know what they are doing.”

Vinsah looked around slowly as the clamour and crack of rocks being moved continued not far away. The way that Lord Keleran had described Malger had taken him aback for a moment, until he remembered that the marten wore the Nocturna pendant as openly as he was wearing his yew tree.

His thoughts were quick to snap back to the moment though, as the temple shuddered and groaned again, a loud rumble shaking the earth under their paws. “The Ecclesia has changed since the death of the last Patriarch, but I cannot say how, but I do not sense that it was for the good.” Vinsah said slowly after much thought.

Keleran’s eyes narrowed contemplatively as he chewed the inside of his lip for a moment. “You knew him, the previous Patriarch. The last fifteen years have been quiet since his ascension to the papal seat.” He said slowly, unfolding his arms.

“I was one of his aides.”

“I thought none survived Metamor’s attack.”

“Your ear has been poisoned by ill news.” Malger interjected with a short, hard hiss. “The northern keep did not attack the Patriarch’s entourage. Quite the contrary, they moved to protect it once they learned of the plot against it.”

“And you know the truth of such news?”

“I am one of the few to survive, lord Keleran, I know the truth well. My journey, incognito as it is, with such strange company, is to Yesulam to learn of the new disposition of the Mother Ecclesia. This blasphemy will be laid at their feet with a host of others, I assure you.”

“And who are you to assure me of such things, traveller?” the man retorted with a wary look. “Your tree is not the icon of a peon within the laity. You have some position above the normal parish clergy.”

“I was… that is past, and done and over, my lord of Estravalle. Now I am a mere pilgrim.” Vinsah dodged as he shook his head, clasping his Tree with a shaking grip.

“We are simple travellers of the road, your lordship, and you should little concern yourself with us. Your people should be of a greater concern to you now.” Malger said before the man could inquire further, nodding at Vinsah’s sidestep.

“Believe me, bard, they are.”

The three returned to the hasty digging, working with the others to hoist massive slabs of shattered stone out of the hole and throw them into a growing heap nearby. Malger, Vinsah, and a couple of smaller men from Estravalle wormed their way into the widening hole to push stones up from below. They worked in a chain on their backs with Vinsah deepest into the hole since he was the smallest present. Due to the close confines of the hole they dared not bring a torch down with them, working by the diffuse light of Muri’s witchlight above and a torch held near the entrance. The voices below grew louder with each passing minute.

Then hands grasped at Vinsah’s shoulders startling the raccoon priest quite deeply at the unexpected event, but that brief touch startled the owner of the hands just as much. “It’s a animal!” a child cried as Vinsah heard them scramble back out of the hole hastily. “There’s an animal in the hole! With clothes on!” Vinsah muttered at the unexpected contact and he heard Malger just above him utter an oath. But there was no way for them to get out of the way if people began crawling out of the hole over them. Their illusions did them no good in the darkness.

Twisting about Vinsah crawled further down the hole that had been widened by the people in the cellar. He stopped when he sensed the end of the passage opening into the cellar and stopped as a hand smacked him in the face drawing a startled chuff from him and an equally startled cry from the owner of the hand. “What manner of creature rescues us?” a woman cried out in horror so close that the startled exclamation stung his ears.

“Who cares.” Someone else retorted. “Lord Keleran’s up there, and he would never bow to those Patildor beasts. If there’s room, stranger, take up the children first.”

“That’s not a man!” the first voice cried out. “It’s the face of some beast, I felt fur and whiskers.”

“I assure you madam, I am a man.” Vinsah grunted, affronted at the second woman’s dark words, and shifted in the hole. He braced his knees and paws against the rocky walls so that he could use his paws. “Small children can get past me if you would pass them up.”

“A torch, someone is passing down a torch.” A youthful male voice said. Vinsah turned and looked over his shoulder to see someone pass a torch down to Malger who passed it on to him. Pitch hissed and filled the tight confines of the passageway with cloying smoke as he awkwardly passed it down into the cellar. People shied away from its unaccustomed brightness and threw up hands to shield their eyes. Vinsah let out a soft gasp of startled surprise when he realized just how many people there were in the cellar; women and children and a few older men too infirm to stand against raiders. He did not see Muri among them. Eventually one of the women stepped forward and reached up to take the torch from his paw. Another stepped forward and glared up at him with sharp scrutiny.

“Terna, leave the man be!” a younger woman snapped as she picked up a toddler and approached Vinsah. The hole emerged at the corner of wall and ceiling above a rack of broken shelves. Vinsah had to reach down as she held the toddler up, flexing his legs against the walls of the passageway.

“Malger, coming up.” He grunted as he turned and awkwardly passed the squirming child up to the bard who then passed him further on to other hands. He turned and a baby was handed into his hands to be swiftly passed up followed by another toddler. Twelve young children were carefully passed up the chain before any of them commented on the hands that received them. A young girl of perhaps five let out a startled cry when his hands reached under her arms and she grabbed his wrists only to jerk her hands away with a scream and began struggling.

The bishop grunted and gasped as she beat at his head with her small hands, closing his eyes and turning away, his ears going flat against his skull. He tried to hold on but it was like trying to keep hold of an angry cat. She clutched at his neck and ears, yanking them painfully as she finally wriggled free of his grasp and fell into the hands held up to catch her. As she fell away a startled cry went up from the people still in the cellar and they retreated in a panicked surge. For a moment Vinsah was confused at their reaction, blinking as he clutched at the edge of the opening to regain his lost balance then saw the medallion clutched in the small child’s hand.

His Tree.

The loss of it for its own sake startled him but he then realized that with it went his illusion. He was a raccoon once more, in full view of the humans of Deep Springs who were unaccustomed to the curse of Metamor and were, indeed, very misinformed about the Keep and its affliction.

“Phergold demon!” one of the women shrieked and hurled a stone at him forcing the raccoon to withdraw his head and shoulders hastily as the entire temple gave out another shuddering groan. The very earth beneath their feet shook and heaved throwing many of them down and causing a moment of stark terror to bloom in Vinsah’s heart as the stones of the passage closed in around him. Grasping the lip of the opening he hastily pulled himself out as he heard Malger and those behind him shout and begin retreating as well. Vinsah more fell out of the opening than climbed, crashing down through the shelves in an ignominious tangle of limbs and tail.

“I am no demon.” The raccoon bishop said slowly as he gathered himself from the shattered shelves and sat up against the wall. He shook his dizzy head and immediately regretted his action as a throbbing ache squeezed his temples. “I am…” he stopped as he looked at his paws, finding himself at a loss for words of explanation. “I am Elvmere, of Metamor.” He found the words he needed as he awkwardly levered himself to his paws, still leaning against the wall. “Lord Keleran saw the fire and smoke left behind by the Questioners when they withdrew, he brought us with others to save who we might.”

“Metamor, where beasts speak with the tongues of man.” A wizened old man spat as he hobbled to the edge of the crowd leaning heavily upon a cane.

Vinsah winced at the approbation and shook his head. Another slow, groaning rumble shook through the temple and dust fell from the ceiling as cracks raced wildly up a nearby pillar. “We do not have time to debate!” he shot back as slivers of stone slowly broke loose and fell from the pillar. “What matters face or faith when death hangs over your heads! Neither Eli nor your pantheon will hold the stones up forever.” He turned and thrust a hand toward the gaping hole in the wall near the ceiling. “Go, before we are all crushed.” He staggered dizzily and clutched his head again as the cellar swam in his vision, focus fading to gray before springing back to vivid sharpness again.

Despite their distrust the people understood the truth of his words and moved toward the wall. Middle-aged children were helped up then turned to help bring up the last of the babies and toddlers. Vinsah watched as he leaned against a pillar and tried to keep his balance against the headache throbbing behind his eyes. For the moment he understood something of the pain that using magic brought to Murikeer and wondered how the mage ever managed to tolerate it. As adults began helping each other into the tight orifice of the passage he looked around but could not seek the skunk through the dancing shadows created by the lone torch. Another grinding roar bellowed through the cellar and sent everyone to their knees in fear as the cracked pillar crumbled into a heap. One small blessing was that the passageway split open from wall to floor and a pile of stones spilled out across the floor as everyone hastily retreated. The person still in the passageway at the time came rolling back in with the stones battered and bruised but otherwise unharmed.

Vinsah gathered himself up from the floor and sagged against the pillar again as his vision swam to gray once more. His head throbbed and he could feel the warm, wet trickle of blood seeping through the fur of his brow. Someone moved over nearby and looked quietly at him for a few moments before turning and speaking quietly to another person nearby. Considering their earlier anger directed toward him he was surprised when he felt hands at his elbows and was guided over toward the gaping black hole in the wall. The narrow stony hole through the earth was like a passage up from the abyss he thought as he felt the hands at his back pushing him forward toward the hands reaching down for him. Malger’s face swam into his vision looking concerned, the words coming from his mouth unintelligible as he felt the marten’s furry arm around his shoulder.

In the unwavering light of Muri’s witchlight he could not hide the truth of his appearance and the men who came with him from Estravalle fell back in horror as Malger helped him up from the gaping hole into the Lightbringer temple cellar. No one drew steel on him at least as quick words were exchanged by those already freed from the huge crypt. “I… I couldn’t find Muri down there.” Vinsah managed to say and frowned at his slurred words. “It was too dark. It’s got to be torture for him trying to hold the temple up.”

“I will find him, Elvmere.” Malger assured him as the dirty bard helped him down onto a patch of grass some distance away from the fire and destruction of the town where others had also begun to gather. “You’ve taken a nasty hit on the head so lay back and take it easy.” Then Malger was gone, back to help with the ongoing rescue. Vinsah sat there with his head bowed, elbows on knees as he felt some measure of clarity returning as the chill bite of the night air cleansed his lungs.

Malger made his way back toward the chain of rescuers only to be caught by Keleran before reaching them. The lord and two others met him half way with faces set hard and wary. “What is that?” Keleran asked with a cautious, flat voice, pointing one hand toward where Vinsah sat. “His clothes are the priest’s, and you recognise him. Who are you, stranger? What are you?”

Malger frowned and rubbed his brow, feeling his own fur beneath the illusion and wincing inwardly at the grime and skin oils fouling his normally immaculate pelt. “My lord Keleran, it is a long and delicate story, and not one appropriate in the telling right now. He’s not a monster, he’s a priest as you said.” He started walking again and the men moved aside to let him pass then fell into step around him with Keleran at his side. “Our friend is still down there, Elvmere did not see him.”

They made their way among the crowd of rescuers and the rescued alike as people milled around aimlessly. The cold night air was filled with wails of sorrow as those emerging from the temple discovered their loved ones scattered about the town commons. Malger looked toward the sounds of agony and grief with a tight ache clutching at his heart. Keleran stopped to help an exhausted woman navigate her way over one of the fallen pillars when the light suddenly vanished and plunged the town into flame-licked darkness. Everyone froze where they were and cries of startled surprise added to the chorus of grief as they suddenly found themselves night blind.

Malger stood startled for a moment before he realized why the night darkness had suddenly fallen upon the village. Grabbing Keleran’s shoulder he vaulted over the fallen pillar and scrambled for the black maw in the dim night shadows. People scattered as he bulled through them heedlessly only to find that there was no one in the cavernous passage into the temple cellar. He hoped that was because everyone had gotten out because he was not confident that the place would last much longer. His eyes were keener at night than they had ever been prior to taking up residence at Metamor so he was able to shimmy down the narrow passage with more haste than the unseen person following him. The temple moaned above and around him as he burst into the dim, flickering light of the cellar and looked around quickly. Rocks popped and growled around him like the gut of an angry beast, forcing him to move at an awkward crouch despite having several feet of clearance above his head.

“Muri!” he yelled as loud as he could then choked as he inhaled a lungful of dust. Another torch lit the cellar from behind him as he made his way further into the gloomy depths looking for the young mage. “Muri! Where the hell are you?”

“Over there!” Someone called loudly from behind him. Shadows danced wildly across crumbling walls as Malger turned and shambled through the debris toward the two men making their way toward a back wall. He saw the mage slumped on the floor in an unconscious heap and as the men tried to pick him up the marten could see that the left side of Muri’s face glistened with fresh blood.

“Yahshua’s blood!” one of them yelped after grasping one of the unconscious mage’s arms, then dropped it as he jerked back in surprise looking at his hands as if he expected them to burst into flame. Malger shouldered past him and grabbed the illusion-masked skunk under one arm. On the unconscious mage’s other side Keleran looked across at him with a strange look but said nothing as they made their way out from under the crumbling temple. They dragged the limp form over to the grass near Vinsah and laid him down gently. The raccoon looked up then over at Muri with concern as he levered himself up onto his knees.

“What happened?” he asked as he used his fingers to look for injuries that his eyes could not see through the illusion.

“He overextended himself keeping the temple up.” Malger supplied as he sat down heavily on Muri’s other side and draped his arms over his crossed knees. “He was the same way after he ripped half a mountain open a couple of months ago.”

“He’s so powerful?” Keleran, still standing nearby, asked in surprise.

Malger grunted and waved one hand at the black swath of blood covering much of Muri’s face. “If you call near killing yourself ‘powerful’, I guess.”

Keleran squatted and looked at Vinsah for a long time. Others were also beginning to gather around the foursome, staying back at a respectful distance. “Whatever you are, you have acted in good faith to help us here.” He said abruptly as he stood and swatted dirt from the thighs of his soiled hose leggings. “I don’t care what you look like or what gods you cleave to, you are welcome in my house.”

Vinsah looked up and bowed his head to the man slightly. “If you would allow me I can offer words over any of the Way who have fallen here.”

Keleran looked at the grounded and nodded slightly. “There were many. Father Yhan was a good man and a good shepherd to his flock.” He said with a rough anger in his voice. “He embraced everyone with Eli’s grace, regardless to whom they swore their souls. His death was undeserved.”

“No death here was deserved.” Someone else swore and Vinsah could only nod in agreement.

“It is the fate of Eli’s children to face persecution and death.” The raccoon bishop said quietly as he looked across the town again. Without the bright glow of Muri’s witchlight he could see little more than indistinct shadows in the torch-dappled night.

“These rooms are yours for as long as you need them,” Lord Keleran said, gesturing to the modestly posh set of adjoining rooms on the far end of the great hall within his manor. The Lord of Estravalle’s home was about the size of the Inn itself, though spread lengthwise along the western end of the valley. It had been many hours since they had rescued the people trapped beneath the temple, many hours in which Vinsah had prayed over far too many mutilated bodies. He still found it difficult to expunge from his mind the sight of the late Father Yhan’s body, or what little of it they could find. In punishment for the crimes of comporting with those considered to be enemies of the Way, he was eviscerated, then drawn and quartered while his faithful, those who had not fled to the shelter of the temple, were made to watch. Gritting his teeth, he shook the images out of his head and kept his gorge from rising, saving the anger they fostered for a better time.

“Thank you, noble Lord,” Malger said with a slight smile. It was more a twist to his ears, as he had doffed the illusion for the time being. In one paw he clutched his own talisman, much as Vinsah did.

“You will forgive me for only offering you two rooms, but it is all I have,” the man said, looking between the two Keepers, even as Murikeer himself was brought up by two servants upon a stretched canvas.

“Two will suffice,” Malger said. “One for the mage to heal, and the other that we might sleep.”

An hour ago, when they had all begun making the journey back from Deep Springs, each of them had felt a renewed sense of energy, their bodies still charged form their exertion and near death. But now, even the Lord of Estravalle had to stifle a yawn at the mere suggestion of sleep.

“I shall leave you to it then, it is nearly dawn,” he remarked as he stepped back across the landing. “If you have need of anything, merely ask one of my servants, and they will attend to you. I believe that all in town know of you by now, so if you wish to venture amongst them, you are free to do so, even without the illusions I think.”

Vinsah nodded slowly at that, rubbing his paw pads along the wooden surface of his tree. “You are a most gracious host,” Malger replied. “May your dreams be peaceful.”

Keleran smiled an odd smile then, before turning about and leaving the two Keepers standing along on the landing. The two men carrying Murikeer had already deposited him in the massive bed in the one room, while a nurse lifted the quilts to cover his sapped body.

“Shall we retire then?” Malger asked, gesturing to the other room. “Elvmere?”

“Yes,” Vinsah said, nodding weakly as he stumbled into the room. His own wound still ached, leaving his head with a dull throbbing. There were two beds in this room, as if they had been prepared for them. They could have been, the bishop knew, but thought it better not to ponder it.

Malger shut the door behind them, and from the churring in his voice, Vinsah knew that the marten was not ready to sleep just yet. “If you are up for it, Elvmere, I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on what we just saw.”

Vinsah took a deep breath, and then turned and sat upon the bed, his tail trailing across the quilts behind him. He held his yew pendant in his lap, rubbing over it with his paws. “I know no better than you why Deep Springs was attacked.”

The marten crossed to the other bed and climbed atop it, curling his legs beneath him as he sat. “You knew enough to recognize the fletching of the Yesbearn. There were Questioners there. How could that be?”

He let a heavy sigh escape his chest, the ache in his head making it difficult to concentrate. “The Questioners act only on orders directly from Yesulam. So, somebody close to the Council of Bishops had to have ordered that raid.” He looked down at his grimy, blood and mud stained, gray furred paws and shook his head helplessly. “That slaughter.”

“Are there many in the upper echelons of the Church who want to destroy the Lothanasi?”

“Some, yes,” Vinsah admitted, the taste in his throat quite vile. “But they have never been open about it. There are many who are willing to kill a few here and there if it will lead the rest to convert, but they do not wish to slaughter the Lothanasi. Just convert them.” Malger cocked his head to one side curiously. “So I do not understand what happened at all. It is beyond even what I have heard done. They did not attempt to convert them at all, they just killed the people, even the Followers.”

Malger nodded slowly. “So what are you saying?”

Vinsah narrowed his gaze, lifting one paw to rub at his head. The blood had caked into his fur, and he’d have to soak it to properly clean it. “There is something very wrong with this. This was not just a raid on the Lightbringers. It has to be something more. That village was not an example against those who might turn from the Way, it was too remote, too small. It was just a slaughter; killing for the sake of killing, in the name of the Holy Seat.”

The marten drew his knees up to his chest then, thrumming his claws upon his breeches. “Deep Springs is remote and very difficult to reach, true. They did not pass through Estravalle either. They must have come through the mountains themselves. So they must have wanted to attack Deep Springs because of where it was, not what it was or how the pastor was tolerating the Lightbringers. Deep Springs lies upon the borders of two kingdoms, tacitly supported by Estravalle and the Midlands, but lying in the territory held by Sathmore.”

Vinsah found himself nodding then. “Yes, I think you are right. Everyone has said there is talk of war in the air. We have seen it. Perhaps this was the first strike.”

“Or maybe the Questioners are being used to goad Sathmore into striking first and justify a war? But this was done on the order of the Church. Why do they want to start a war, even a Holy War? To avenge Akabaieth?”

“No,” Vinsah said grimly. “That would merely be the excuse. But if this does become a war between the faiths fought in the Midlands, then it may very well drive the Midlands to war with itself.”

Malger did not say anything just then, but let that disquieting though hang in the air. For a time he rubbed his claws together, mind pondering over the chaos that it would cause. But, after several long minutes, he could not fight back the yawn which worked free of his muzzle. Vinsah yawned as well a moment later.

“I hope that it does not come to that,” Malger said, his voice heavy. “But we can do little here, and we’ve many miles yet to travel. What good we can do, what little we can do to stop it we shall do.”

“On the morrow,” Vinsah added, offering him a comforting smile. “I do not believe that anything that we have seen today has happened with Yesulam’s blessing. Others close to the Holy Seat have acted on their own desires and motivations, hiding their deeds under the seal of the Mother Church. When I arrive there, I shall put an end to it.”

Though the marten did not look convinced, he nodded his head once before turning to climb beneath the covers and sleep. Weary, though still worried, Vinsah did the same.

Murikeer rubbed his tongue against the roof of his muzzle slowly as he tried to banish the vile taste in his muzzle. He could hear people not far away talking in soft voices, none of which he recognized, but when he tried to open his eyes they felt as if they had been glued shut. Working his jaw he tried to speak but all that came from his dry throat was a raspy hiss that silenced the voices. He heard chairs scrape on a wooden floor and the distinct thud of boots and the more subtle sound of paws and claws crossing the floor.

“Welcome back, apprentice.” Malger said with warm good humour as Muri felt a paw on his arm. Someone at the other side of the bed stroked a cool, damp rag across his eyes and rested a warm hand upon his brow.

“H-“ the skunk rasped through his dry throat, “How- how long?” he finally managed as he opened his eyes a tiny crack to let in a sliver of bright sunlight.

“Two nights, lad. It’s the afternoon of the third day.”

“Jian, bring some water please.” The woman stroking the gunk from his eyes said to someone else in the room. Bare feet moved across the floor and quiet thanks were exchanged a moment before someone slid a gentle hand under his head and rested the rim of a cup against his lips. “Everyone escaped the temple.” The woman said to him, her voice sounding older but not aged. Muri could do nothing but nod slightly as he sipped at the water and luxuriated in the delightful feeling of moisture returning to his parched throat.

“You’re quite the hero hereabouts.” Malger continued and then let out a warm laugh as Muri heard the trilling musical cascade of fingers across the strings of a dulcimer. “I’ve even begun working on a very fine ballad of your masochistic heroism.”

Indistinct shadows and shapes moved across his vision as he cracked one eye open a little further. Eventually those shapes began to resolve into sharper focus and he could not help but stare when he found himself looking at Malger as a marten, not as a human that he had come used to seeing over the past six weeks. “D- did my – spell – fail?” he asked roughly, working his jaw several seconds trying to get the words out intelligibly.

Malger looked at his foppish attire then shook his head with a bright, warm, furry smile. “No. While we’re in Lord Keleran’s house we’re free to be as we naturally are. I’ve wiped away a lot of false knowledge about Metamor in the past couple of days, but I am distressed to discover just how pervasive our detractors have been in their lies against us.”

“You can tell him all about it later, master Sutt.” The woman said as she stood and carried the washbasin over to the bureau and set it down. “Let us give him some time to recover himself while we leave.” Her voice was commanding but gentle as she grabbed Malger’s elbow without the slightest flinch at the feel of his fur. The young maid with then laughed softly and went out of the door ahead of them. Before the door closed Vinsah sidled in past them and drew the door closed.

“I heard that you had awakened.” The raccoon said, his appearance that of a human rather than the truth under the illusion he wore.

Muri looked over at him as the priest drew abreast of the bed. “I just – woke up.” He coughed and Vinsah smiled.

“I heard them speaking from the room below. The lady Keleran was gracious and gave us lodgings while we waited for you to recover. But that is not the reason I came to speak with you so soon.” He said as he drew a stool over beside the bed and sat down. Resting his elbows on his knees he leaned closer. “I have a problem, Murikeer, with my illusion.”

Muri raised his brows as he turned his head to look at the priest. At such proximity he could smell his apprehension as wholly human rather than raccoon. “Is it failing?”

“No, no, it’s still fine. But my Tree marks me as too highly placed in the church. Is there any way to make it look ordinary?” he asked with a frown. As much as he had argued against hiding it within his shirt the idea of even doing so little as masking its actual appearance galled him.

Muri’s eyes dropped to the Tree dangling from the collar of his shirt. “Looks – looks fine to – me.”

Vinsah looked down as well then sat back in his chair to reach up and catch his Tree in one hand. Raising it up he could only cock his head to one side curiously, his ears under his illusion springing up as his eyes widened. No longer did his Tree have the gold gilding and precious inlay that he had been familiar with for nearly fifteen years since the day that Akabaieth had gifted him with it. Now it appeared as nothing more than a simply carved if inaccurate representation of the holy Tree yellowed and polished by years of use.

He could only blink and look back at Muri who only shrugged and smiled back at him.

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