Out From Metamor - Part IV

For the next few hours, Malger had Vinsah practice upon the piccolo once more. Strangely, the raccoon did not find the instrument to be a frustration then, although his skill with it was not much improved over the previous day. But he was thankful that the bard did not ask him to play the drums again, as his paw pads were still a bit sore from his bleeding.

But it was not long after the sun bent to the west, the shadows turning about as they did, though many flickered and danced as the fire leapt, before Murikeer himself climbed down from his rock, and stumbled back to their camp. The yew pendant was clutched firmly within his paws, one eye barely kept open, his body shivering from an unseen agony.

“Muri?” Vinsah asked, lowering the piccolo from his muzzle. He’d finally been able to play more than a few notes in succession, although the melody he’d produced was not particularly interesting.

The skunk nodded, holding the pendant out towards his companion. “It’s done.” His words were choked, but composed. “Wear it and see.”

Vinsah held out his bandaged paws, and let the chain of his pendant slip between his fingers. The familiar weight felt the same, and the tree dangled there much as it always had. He lifted it higher, and then stroked his fingers across the yew’s chiselled surface, finding every crease and nook as he remembered them. He wondered if he would ever be able to note the change that had come over it.

And then, he slipped the chain over his head, and though he felt nothing, he changed quite suddenly. At least, it appeared to be so. Gone were the fur, claws, and pads, replaced instead by pair of youthful dark-toned hands. He turned them over several times, staring at them in bemusement. They were human hands, hands that had once been his in his youth.

He opened his mouth to say something, and then noticed that the muzzle and snout he had grown used to seeing at the bottom of his vision was no more. He felt a smile creep over his lips at that. He ran his tongue against his teeth, and was genuinely surprised when he felt the short sharp little fangs he’d grown used to having as a raccoon. Blinking, he could also feel his tail moving behind him, yet when he glanced back, he saw nothing. He rubbed his hands together, and felt the paws he now bore in every detail.

“I have not mastered touch yet,” Murikeer reminded as he laid upon his bedroll, arms clutched tightly to his chest.

“Ah yes,” Vinsah said, hearing his voice free of the bestial churr it had possessed. “Still,” he added, and then paused. “Might I borrow your looking glass?” he asked of the bard. Malger nodded, and then dug through one of his saddlebags until he produced a small mirror that was just slightly larger than his paw.

Staring within the mirror, Vinsah marvelled at the lean youth’s face that stared back at him. Not only was it a human face, dark-toned as toasted bread, but it was free of the lines of age. If it were possible, he looked even younger than he had thought himself as a raccoon, perhaps a lad of eighteen. At the very least he would appear to be roughly the same age as the skunk when disguised, helping add to the notion that he was an apprentice to Malger.

“A marvel,” he said, reaching up to touch that face, feeling his muzzle before him, and enjoying the strange reflection of a human hand rubbing at something that was not there. And then, the image distorted slightly as he focussed upon it, and he could begin to make out the outlines of his snout and paw.

“I can almost see myself. My real self that is.”

Murikeer nodded, opening his one good eye. “We know it is illusion, so if we concentrate, we can see through it. Unless one knows what it is, one will never be able to penetrate it.”

Vinsah nodded, and then sat back upon his bedroll, lifting the pendant once more from around his neck. Once more he could see his paws and snout, tail curling about his legs as well. “Is there any way I can wear this without being cloaked?”

Murikeer shook his head. “With the chain around your neck, the illusion activates.”

His muzzle turned down in a moue. “I suppose there was no choice.” His green eyes fell upon the still shivering skunk and he yearned to reach over and comfort him. But he remained where he sat, remembering well the last time he’d tried. “Thank you, Muri. Thank you.” He wished to say more, but could not find the words to express what he felt.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll leave then,” Malger announced. “You should wear your pendant whenever we travel, Vinsah. By tomorrow night, we should have left the Valley proper and be on the road through the Midlands. We will need to start earning our way very soon thereafter. So let us resume your practice.”

Nodding, the raccoon lifted the piccolo once more to his muzzle, hoping that perhaps now he would be able to master this inscrutable instrument.

Vinsah continued to play the piccolo right on into evening. Eventually, Murikeer joined him in his practice, though his efforts were directed at mastering a beat upon the drums. As the sun continued its westward journey and the clouds overhead began to mass along the eastern rim of the valley, Malger smiled and offered suggestion after suggestion to his tow apprentices. Nowhere in the marten’s behaviour was any hint that they were doing this simply for appearances sake. As far as Vinsah could tell, Malger was treating them like apprentices, expecting everything he could from them. By the end of their journey together, Vinsah wondered if he would not be competent enough to finish the rest of his travels as one.

As the stars began to come out for the night where the clouds did not hide them, Malger brought out some of the dried meat they had and began to cook it over the fire. He used the skewer as Muri had done days earlier, though it was laden for three, not for two this time. But he instructed both Vinsah and Muri to keep playing as he cooked. It was only after the meat was fully prepared did he allow Vinsah to lower the piccolo from his sore tongue and muzzle, and to let Murikeer rub his paws over each other to get feeling back within them.

“I liked the rabbit better,” Murikeer groused, though his voice was jocular enough.

Malger laughed and deposited a slice of the meat within his own maw. “And if you play well enough, master mage, we shall have meals filled with rabbit when we travel the Inns of Sathmore!”

Murikeer waggled a piece of meat the bard. “Don’t make me regret dragging you along on this journey, you letch!”

“Ah, but for the pleasure of my company, any price is worthwhile, no?” Malger jibbed, laughing brightly at that.

“When will we reach Sathmore?” Vinsah asked then, interrupting their banter.

Malger nibbled at his meat for a moment before answering. “It is hard to say, exactly. If you were to take to horse, perhaps a little over a week. Walking, perhaps two.”

Vinsah frowned at the reference to riding. “You know I must walk upon this journey. Two weeks does not sound too long to me.”

“It will take several months just to cross the length of Sathmore on foot though. Are you sure that you cannot ride?”

“Yes. At least for now I must walk. That is what,” he paused then, as he’d almost said ‘she told me’. Instead, he shivered and repeated himself. “That is what I was told.”

“Regardless,” Malger said thoughtfully, “we shall purchase another horse in Menth to help distribute the weight of our belongings. I am sure that you will have no trouble placing your things upon a horse’s back to ease our journey.”

Vinsah thought for a moment, and then nodded. “That I can do.” He shrugged his shoulders. A few days ago they had been aching from carrying that pack upon his back. “How far is Menth?”

“A day’s ride from the valley mouth,” Malger said, even as Murikeer continued to quietly eat his meal. “I have not been there in so long, it is strange to think of it now.” He smiled then, short-furred snout turned upward as if from some pleasant memory. “But when we leave in the morning, we must all wear our pendants.”

Vinsah nodded distractedly at that. His yew pendant lay at his side, untouched after he’d experimented with it earlier that evening. A strange sort of restlessness came over him then, and he rose to his feet, staring out past the fire at the dark line of trees beyond. “I think I shall walk for a bit, clear my mind before I retire.”

“Do not wander far,” Murikeer suggested gently, smiling to the priest as a friend.

Nodding as he strode from the protecting branches of the maple. The field beyond was dark, pale shadows from the fire swallowed up by the night. Overhead, the clouds moved and shifted in the sky, covering stars, and sometimes, the bright moon. Vinsah found his way to the centre of the clearing and waited for the moon to disappear once again from the sky, eyes straining towards the tree line in the distance. Though the evening was quite cool, he felt little of it. In one paw he tightly clutched his yew pendant, the chain dangling against his thigh.

When the moon disappeared once more behind the clouds he saw them. The witchlights that Murikeer had erected months before shone once more, dimly illuminating the trees on the other side of the road. Vinsah nodded to them, wondering at them. Why had they remained when all the others the skunk had placed had vanished? What secret did they hold? Without hesitation, he strode towards them, intent on finding out.

The witchlights continued to radiate their dull glow, a small collection that hovered in the air. As Vinsah crossed the field, striding through the grasses as effortlessly as if he were walking long a broad avenue, they began to shift further into the trees, as if repelled by his mere presence. Surprised, the priest stopped, staring at them for some time. They remained in the air though, hanging unmoving as if they had always been in their new locations just within the blooming tree branches.

The moon came out again as he stood there, but he was so close that the witchlights only dimmed, he could still make out their ghostly traces in the air. Nevertheless, he waited a few more seconds until the clouds once again passed in front of the moon. With his lights brilliant once more, he took another step forward. They retreated further into the woods, limning the edges of the obscuring branches like an aura of pale energy.

Vinsah nodded then, and took a few steps backwards. The witchlights responded in kind, nearing the edge of the trees once more. “So,” Vinsah said both to himself and to the lights. “You are not going to let me near.” But were they merely running away, or was it something else, he wondered silently.

He took a few paces up to the north, and then resumed his trek towards the lights. They did not seem to retreat away from him, but moved steadily to the east. The raccoon went back to where he started, and then tried to approach the lights from the south. Again, they retreated eastward, their direction the same no matter which way he approached.

“Are you leading me?” he asked, his voice soft and quiet in the faintly illuminated night. The witchlights did not respond to him, but continued to hover, pale spectres that seemed to regard him expectantly, waiting for him to act.

Vinsah finally decided to follow where the lights went, and passed underneath the first of the tree branches on the eastern side of the road. His guides continued to pull back within the trees, steadily passing through branch, and around trunks that came into their way. The ground was uneven beneath the raccoon’s boots, cut through with wide gashes like crinkles in cloth. Thin rivulets of water trickled along through them, small tributaries that would feed into the river.

But as he continued inwards at what felt a painfully slow pace, the lights seemed to grow closer, as if they were nearing their goal. And then, just as the raccoon crested a slight rise, they hovered over the edge of a deep defile. Vinsah blinked for several moments as he peered down into the defile, trying to comprehend what he saw. At the bottom lay a smashed wagon, both axles cracked into kindling. Amongst the remains were various bags split open, their contents long since scavenged, and a few smaller chests that had been smashed, their contents ruined from the snows. But one chest did survive, it’s lock still in place. And upon that lock was the green cross of the Ecclesia.

“My..” Vinsah said, his muzzle hanging open in confusion. It was one of the wagon’s from their caravan, the one that had been destroyed so long ago. How had it come to reside in this gully, and why had it never been discovered?

Slipping the chain of his pendant through his belt so that it would not fall, he scrambled down the embankment. His boots struck one of the split bags, and a strangely pleasant odour came to his nose. Roses? The air here was scented oddly, as if the flowers of the Spring had already blossomed and were in full bloom. Vinsah paused a moment as his nose continued to sniff, his ears perked fully. But no other scent did he detect, and the forest was still.

The witchlights over head cast the ruined wagon in a strange glow, but the light seemed concentrated upon the one trunk that had not been ruined in the wagon’s fall. Vinsah set his paws underneath the handles at either side, and found that the chest was light enough for him to carry. Pulling it close to his chest, he started back up the defile. After many slips and near falls, Vinsah reached the top, and set the chest down upon the ground.

Turning back to gaze down at the wagon, e noticed that it did not seem s brightly illuminated as before. Glancing up at the witchlights in surprise, he saw them all fading out, their glow dimming until they began to disappear altogether, one by one swallowed up by the night. When the last one was finally extinguished, Vinsah could only offer a sad smile, returning to look down at the wagon. “Over at last?” he said to the air, wondering if his old friend Akabaieth could hear him. “What have you left for me, I wonder.”

But there was no answer upon the wind or in the sky. It was very dark now, but after a few minutes, the moon came out again, and he could vaguely see the ground beneath him. His raccoon eyes were suited to seeing in darkness, so he was able to make out the lines of roots and the folds of earth without too much trouble. He hefted the chest once more in his arms, the yew pendant slapping against his thigh with every step.

It did not take him long to bring that chest back to the camp. Neither Malger nor Murikeer were looking in his direction when he arrived carrying his burden. The skunk was once again juggling his luminescent balls in the air, while the marten tuned the strings of his dulcimer.

Both of them looked up when Vinsah delicately set the chest down before the fire. Their eyes went wide at the sight of the strange chest, brought from who knew where. “What is that?” Murikeer asked, his balls of light vanishing from sight quickly as he lost his concentration.

Vinsah kneeled before the chest, running his paws over its surface before turning it around to show them the green cross of the Ecclesia upon its lock. “I followed your witchlights, Muri. They led me into the woods where I found a ruined wagon nestled in a small gully. This was the only thing left unspoiled in the wagon.”

“A wagon from the Patriarch’s entourage?” Malger asked, his voice strangely subdued. “But how is that possible?”

Murikeer shook his head. “It shouldn’t be. We searched the area thoroughly. You said that you followed the witchlights?”

Vinsah nodded then, thumbing the latch. “Yes, when I neared them they moved further back into the woods. I followed them, and they brought me to the gully. After I took this trunk out, they vanished. I think they were waiting for somebody to follow them. They knew that there was more still to be found. I don’t know how it was missed before, but it has been found now.”

“They went out?” Murikeer said, still digesting the Bishop’s words. A strange smile crossed his muzzle then, his one eye brightening. “What is in the chest?”

“I don’t know.” Vinsah admitted, leaning over the chest, finding that the latch was unlocked. He slowly lifted the lid, it felt strangely light under his touch. “Let us see.” He pulled the lid back until it rested upon its hinges. The inside was lined with velvet, cushioning the contents, which appeared to be a few bound books. The first Vinsah recognised as Akabaieth’s copy of the Canticles. No, it was not Akabaieth’s anymore.

“This,” Vinsah said, reverently running his claws over the gold inlaid surface. Delicate scroll-work had been fashioned upon the book, the lock itself a finely carved yew tree. “This is the Canticles that are passed down from one Patriarch to the next. It is very old.”

“Why was it kept within this chest then?” Malger asked, moving closer around the fire.

“Akabaieth rarely used it,” Vinsah said, unable to take his eyes off the book. “He knew the Canticles by heart. He only opened this book on the holiest of celebrations.”

“Returning this should make many more sympathetic to you then,” Murikeer opined quietly. But Vinsah could only shrug at that.

“Perhaps, but return it I will.” His eyes strayed back into the chest, and saw that another book lay within, this one bereft of the golden adornments that covered the other like gossamer thread. An even greater look of shock crossed the Bishop’s muzzle. “Oh my! It’s his journal.”

“His journal?” Malger asked, still inching closer on his paws.

“Akabaieth’s journal. At least, his latest one.” Vinsah slipped the golden book back inside the chest, and tenderly lifted out the second. “I saw him write in this a few times, but he always kept it to himself, never letting another read what he wrote.” He let the book fall open to the middle, his eyes glancing over the words, but not reading them. It was clearly Akabaieth’s handwriting though upon those pages.

With an uncertain tenderness, Vinsah closed the journal. “I wonder why he placed this in the trunk. He usually kept it in his carriage.”

“What does his last entry say?” Malger asked, nearly leaning over the priest now.

Vinsah shook his head, holding the book more closely to his chest. “No. If he meant it for no man to see in his life, why should we look at it now?”

Murikeer’s one eye narrowed as he gazed at the tome that Vinsah cradled like a lost heirloom. There was an almost sullen pallor surrounding the eyepatch he bore over the other, as if it too were trying to pierce the grave to discern the very nature of the journal. “Maybe,” he said, his voice a whisper over the crackling fire, “it can guide you. Perhaps he left it behind so that others might use it after he was gone.”

Vinsah did not reply immediately to that, but sat where he was next to the chest, still holding that slender journal in his paws. The binding was still strong even after years of writing. He let the book settle once more in his lap, but with only a light touch, he kept it closed. There were no adornments on the book, nothing to separate it from any other tome. Who could know it was special but those who had seen it used, or those who read its contents?

“What will you do with it?” Malger asked at least, sitting back down in his seat. The fixed curiosity was no longer present upon his muzzle. Merely polite interest was all that remained.

The raccoon priest looked between marten and skunk, seeing that while the bard had leaned back in his seat, it was now the illusionist that had begun to lean so close that he could feel the mephit’s warm breath upon his shoulder. Strangely enough, Vinsah did not feel anxiety at having Murikeer so close. There was a comfort that he could not describe, a settling of the spirit that he had felt only with his lady, though not as strong.

“Take it back to Yesulam,” Vinsah said at last, looking back to the chest that stood open. He then glanced up at the horses grazing quietly in the distance, still tethered to the maple.

“To Yesulam?” the skunk asked after a moment’s startled pause. “Are you sure that is wise?”

Vinsah gave the youth an arched gaze. “Safer than leaving it here in a gully with only this chest to protect it.” He gestured towards the horses with one paw. “Will they be able to carry the weight of this chest?”

“For now,” Malger said as he stirred the fire with a long stick. The blaze crackled and popped as he worked, unearthing piles of smouldering wood that once again burst into brilliant flame. “It would be easier to carry both without it, and we should not take the symbol of the Ecclesia into Sathmore any more than we must.” His eyes fell upon the golden book within the chest and his expression soured. “But we will have to keep the Canticles hidden completely. It cannot be allowed to see the light of day on our journey. Not only would it bring distrust, but also thieves and murderers after the gold.”

Vinsah looked at it then, surprised at the thought. Who would dare deface the Canticles Eli had given to His Patriarch’s? Desperate men who would see it for the material it had been made from, not what they had been fashioned into, that was who. Dumbly, he nodded, and lifted the journal to set it back within the chest. But the edge of the binding caught upon one of the trunk’s braces, and it tumbled form his paws to the ground beside him.

Startled, Vinsah leaned over to pick up, notingt hat it had fallen open, the pages lifting up to the air, the shimmering wall of flame that danced not two feet from it limning the words. And in that moment, despite his reluctance to see what the journal contained, a single paragraph leapt from the page and into his eyes.

The stars are a sailor’s companion, his guide through the sea at night. I imagine so much as I look at them, and smile. And frown. They are being led. As if they return to an earlier place that I do not know. All things move by the will of Eli. Whatever it is I feel is part of His plan, though He choose not to reveal it to me.

He could not help but blink, his paws furiously scrabbling at the edge of the book to shut it, lest he read any further. The words there were his master’s, of that he had no doubt. But he had no wish to understand the meaning just then. Instead, Vinsah quickly brushed the leather binding with his paws to wipe it free of dirt, and then slid it back inside the chest. With uncharacteristic heaviness, he dropped the lid back into place, sealing the contents within.

“Is something wrong?” Murikeer asked, still leaning over the priest.

“No,” Vinsah said, shaking his head. “I was merely afraid that something might have happened to the journal.” He took the chest and moved it a bit loser to the maple itself, though away from the fire. “But it is well. I suppose I am still exhausted from all that has happened.”

“And we have not yet begun to travel,” Malger pointed out, his grin wry.

Vinsah nodded sagely at that, and then began to laugh, smiling to both of his companions. Both joined him in merriment a moment later, the skunk settling back down into his place around the fire as the churr filled his throat. Despite their weariness, they all nevertheless felt as if the weight of it had melted from them. As the night grew older, they each found their way to peaceful sleep.

When they awoke the next morning, the sun was only beginning to rise beyond the eastern peaks. The sky was free of clouds, they had blown northwards during the night. The fire was still burning bright, and they shared a warm meal of sausage and bread. But after they ate, the three of them began tp pack their things once more. Both Malger and Muri helped Vinsah redistribute his belongings so that he would not have to carry them, instead letting the horses bear that burden.

The only things they did not stow upon the steeds were their pendants. These they laid upon the stones as if they were not yet ready to don them again. Little was said amongst them that morning, but little needed to be.

It was only when Malger doused the fire, the hissing of the flame as it was smouldered, the smoke rising like a beacon into the sky, did the true reality become clear to them all. After three days time, they were leaving that clearing and heading South once more. Vinsah felt strangely disappointed that they would have to leave, though he had no regrets.

Almost as one, they took their pendants, each a symbol for something different, and slipped them over their heads. Where once three Metamorians stood, now there were three young men. As befitting their role as apprentices to Malger, Muri and Vinsah lead the horses, while their companion almost skipped as he went down the road.

Vinsah clutched the lead in his paw tightly, seeing only a hand. He glanced once more back up the Valley, but Metamor castle was nowhere to be seen. How long had it been since he’d left it? Five days? Six? He could no longer quite remember. Nevertheless, he knew he’d come a long way already.

Turning his gaze back upon the bard, he smiled and kept on the road south.

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