Questioning - Part III

Oil was in the air. Not only from the lamps burning about their humble home amidst the city of Metamor, but from the mail shirt that Intoran was busy cleaning. Sir Egland smiled as he watched his squire work dutifully with the ragged cloth over each chink and each ring, scouring them of dirt and grime that had been worked into them over the course of months. The stone beneath the oryx’s hooves was slick with the spilt lubricant, glistening vivid colours reflected from the firelight dancing within the hearth.

“Don’t forget to make sure you’ve wiped it clean with a dry rag,” Egland said, his voice soft. In his cervine hands he held his cherished viola, thick hoof-like nails pressing down upon the slender strings. He lifted the instrument to his chin, and sounded a few notes experimentally, holding the bow so delicately that a stray wind would have snatched it from him. The notes hung in the air like the tolling of church bells, mournful yet clear. Smiling slightly, the elk set the instrument back in his lap. “You remember how awful my fur was the last time.”

The Oryx, his own antlers still protruding dangerously form his skull, though Egland had months ago lost his own, and only now was beginning to grow a new set, nodded heavily. He lifted his slender muzzle up, a smile playing across the lips, his stretched pupils narrowing as he bent into the light. “I remember. It took quite some time to clean.” He laughed then, and smiled even more. “Are you sure you want me to wipe the oil off? Dame Bryonoth did say she was going to be carting comestibles for the merchants again tomorrow night.”

Egland waved the bow at his squire reproachfully, but the smile on his face could not be hidden. “I know what she said, and don’t think it isn’t tempting. But a knight’s squire should not make such mistakes. Even on purpose.” He glanced back down at the viola, the cherry red wood catching vague hints of the lamp light, as if they were blurred faces staring back at him from his instrument. The viola’s maker perhaps pleased that it owner could make such delightful song with it?

“Besides,” the knight continued, his expression growing darker. “Besides,” he said again, but no other words could come to him. Egland had been out riding Galadan upon the grasses, teaching Intoran how to handle his own steed and how to fight from the saddle when they had come to Metamor. He’d seen them from afar, but the sight of the red cross had not at first startled him. While he’d lived at Yesulam, he’d seen it frequently.

His squire Intoran had also been surprised, but once they had returned to the safety and warmth of their home, he seemed to forget that they were still at Metamor. Gone to see Bishop Vinsah, Egland supposed. But then again, they might also come to see him. Intoran could not know what he held against those black-robed priests. He could not know of Namir, Egland’s D’ahshan. Of how the Questioners had discovered Namir’s secret, and through friends on the Bishop’s council had him sent into the Bandi desert, where he was killed by the nomads.

“Besides, sire?” Intoran asked, his eyes wide, brownish-yellow orbs filled by fire light.

Egland looked up, startled from his unpleasant reverie. “I... it’s just that I do not know why they came.”

“The Questioners?” Intoran asked, his voice low.

Egland nodded, scowling. “I do not want to give them any reason to Question either you or I. They are not good people.”

The oryx let the oiled mail shirt rest against his knees then as he bent over the floor. “But they are priests, aren’t they?”

“They are. But they are not good priests. They will tell others of what you say to them. And if you do not answer their questions...” he waved the Viola bow about in the air for a moment, and then sliced straight downwards with it, before setting it back in his lap with the instrument. “I... I just don’t want them to know about us.”

Intoran looked back down at the mail, and lifted it off of his knees. The oil had already soaked into the short brown hide he bore, making the fur glisten darkly. “I see,” he said softly, gripping the rag tighter in his hand. He ran it firmly over the mail for several more moments, the silence filling the house. Egland yearned to fill it with music, but could not bring himself to lift the instrument anymore.

Eventually, Intoran finished cleaning the suit of mail, and took the dry cloth, wiping the excess oil from the metal. His hands were firm, his grip sure. Egland felt a small bit of pride fill him as he watched his squire, his love. Someday, Intoran too would be a knight, and that thought made him feel both a father and a brother strangely enough. “Will we continue our horsemanship tomorrow, sire?” Intoran asked suddenly, not even bothering to look up from the mail.

“Yes,” Egland said suddenly. “I hope so. Once you are finished with that shirt you may prepare supper.”

Intoran did look up now, but past Egland and to the dark panelled ceiling above. “Will Dame Bryonoth be joining you? She hasn’t come out of her room all day.” The concern in the oryx’s voice was evident. There was little that his squire ever bothered to hide. “Not since we told her.”

Egland glanced up at the ceiling, the velvet of his newly growing antlers brushing against the back of his chair. He reached up one hand, and felt those bony protrusions between his ears, remembering when they’d been far larger. He’d saved them when they’d fallen off and mounted them above his hearth, despite how odd that had seemed to him at first. Beyond the ceiling lay Bryonoth’s chambers. She lived with them still, but had only in the last month shown any inclination to do anything. Egland was delighted by her recent activity, though she sometimes was strangely distant.

Like tonight. Perhaps he should speak with her and see what was bothering her. Bryonoth had never run afoul of the Questioners as Egland had after all. “Go ahead and prepare both our meals,” Egland said at last. “I will go speak with her.”

Intoran nodded and returned to wiping the mail shirt free of the excess oil. Egland lifted the viola in is hands delicately, and then laid it out once more in its case. Ever since he had become an elk, the playing of his instrument had become terribly difficult. But he was relearning the art, slowly perhaps, but with determination. Already, he could play some of the simple songs he had known in his youth. There was one he’d played for Namir that he could now play for Intoran, but he had not yet shown it to his squire. There would be time enough for that once the Questioners left.

The cervine knight set his hooves upon the curling staircase set back in a small alcove from the main room. With one hand gripping the wooden railing, he wound his way upwards, until he stepped out onto a narrow hallway with four doors, two on one side, one at the end, and the fourth set in the middle of the other. Bryonoth’s door was at the end, while Intoran took one of the two smaller rooms. He did not always sleep there though.

Bryonoth’s door was closed, but Egland could see the flickering of lamplight dance across the floor just before the door. There was little hope of stealing quietly to the doorway to listen at the keyhole. His hooves made quite a bit of noise both climbing the stair and crossing the wooden hallway. So, Egland simply tried the latch, and swung the door inwards.

His fellow knight did not immediately turn to greet him. She was bent over a small writing desk, furiously scribbling something on a small parchment. Egland stood in the doorway, waiting, watching curiously, but did not try to read what she was writing. Bryonoth lifted the parchment to her lips and blew across it, drying the ink. She was dressed in her walking clothes, no longer wearing the colours of her knighthood.

“Thou mayest enter, Ts’amut,” Bryonoth said, her voice distracted, but warm. “What dost thee wish?”

Egland stepped past the lintel into the small room. The sides sloped inwards as it rested against the corner of their home. One wall was inset as the chimney rose along it. Bryonoth was now folding the parchment, placing a bit of wax along the fold to seal it. Egland was surprised when Bryonoth turned about without affixing her crest to the wax, letting it dry in a smudge heap. Why could she be preparing a note and then fail to mark it as hers?

“Will you be joining us for supper, Yisaada?”

Bryonoth shook her head, her face slack with worry. “I hath this note to deliver will all haste, Ts’amut. I cannot enjoy supper with thee this eve. Thou hast my apologies.”

Egland grimaced, but nodded. “Would you care to accompany me tomorrow? I hope to continue teaching Intoran his horsemanship.”

“I wouldst be glad to accompany thee, my Ts’amut. I thank thee for asking.” Bryonoth then stood up, her form not so much slender as it was lighter than the elk was accustomed to. It was only in these last two months that he had known the Flatlander as a woman. She slipped the bit of parchment into her shirt, and extinguished the lamp over her desk. Light still poured in through the windows, but now the room was a sullen gray.

Egland backed out, leaving Bryonoth room to slip past him after closing the door. “Will you be back this evening?” the elk asked, as she took a few steps past him.

“Aye, I wilt return once I hath delivered my message.” Bryonoth said, though she did not turn around. She continued towards the stairwell, “I wilt see thee soon, my Ts’amut!”

“I will see you when you return, my Yisaada,” Egland called, but Bryonoth was already climbing down the stairs. Egland stood there for several minutes more, staring at the empty corridor. There had been something in Bryonoth’s demeanour that alarmed him, but he could not think what. Unsettled, he walked back down the stairs as well, wondering what his squire was preparing for him to eat.

“Much better,” the raccoon mused thoughtfully as he extended the Sondeshike in his paws. The cool metal felt pleasant against his calluses, but harder than it had any rights to be under his claws. He stood in one corner of his main room, bent over a small patch of bare stone. Only the floor was not empty. Far from it.

Rickkter peered down curiously at the empty space, while his student Murikeer watched on from a short distance away. The skunk’s tail was lashing back and forth as if tied to a clock’s pendulum. The patch over his ruined eye was sitting oddly on his muzzle, slipping downwards slightly as he bent forward, so that the gaping socket would be visible if the leather patch were to shift only a little more. His face was grim, his gaze cool but appraising.

Rubbing his paws across the Sondeshike’s sloping surface, he kneeled down, taking a step back as he did so. Rickkter then waved the end of the Sondeshike only a few short inches over the ground. It whisked through the air, the ferrules gleaming in the lantern light. “Much, much better,” he said again, green eyes wide with admiration.

He scooted back another step, and set the Sondeshike aside. He curled his long striped tail about his legs, and crossed them before him, the cold stone seeping through his thick breeches and fur to numb his rear. He ignored all of that, focussing instead upon that empty corner, letting every detail leap into brilliant clarity. The walls and floor were both fashioned from the same stone, the plain pearl gray that was found throughout most of the Keep. They fit together tightly, as if they were not placed as separate blocks, but hewn from a single towering spire of rock, and then cut to look as if they were separate stones.

As Rickkter stared, he could see his own shadow twist and distort as the flame in the lanterns twisted and distorted behind him. The skunk’s shadows was also visible, thrown against that wall like a cavorting sprite. Sullen cracks in the wall, not visible before, became clear, hairline fissures that crisscrossed the stone as if they were made to release pressure. Other variations in the stone’s surface became clear, bumps here and a recess there, all hollowed smoothly, but insignificantly. He doubted he could have felt them if he’d traced his fingers across them.

And then, other more subtle features became apparent. The very walls themselves pressed in and out, as if they were breathing, as if they were a living organism whose lifespan was so long, it was nearly impossible for mankind to observe any of the signs. Faint lines and flows, eddies of air and other tangles also became apparent. They drew themselves around, slowly wafting through the walls and floor like water filling a streambed, and then pushing on down the hollows in a forest.

Of the corner itself, nothing extraordinary came to him. Even as the raccoon studied the flows of the magical energies about his own domain, he could recognize many of the dweomers he had placed, casting to protect, and to warn. But of the device that his student had fashioned, there was nothing. Not even the slightest indication that anything was there. Even the space it occupied looked like nothing more than air, and the castings required to make that possible were also hidden from him.

Blinking once, Rickkter dispelled the images before him, and the corner snapped back into its normal occluded appearance, walls unmoving and smooth without deformity. He turned up to Murikeer and narrowed his eyes. “If I had not seen you place the trap there, I would not believe anything was there at all.”

The skunk nodded his head, flickers of pride showing in his eye, but little else. Rickkter straightened himself up once more, and then dropped the extended Sondeshike onto the corner. A shrieking metallic snap could be heard, and the Sondeshike jumped from where it lay. When it had settled down once more, it was laying with one end poking upwards into the air at an angle, a curiously impossible position.

Rickkter stepped back out of the way while Murikeer bent down over his creation to remove the illusion. Hushed words were spoken then, untangling the intricate web of lines that had bound themselves to the stone.

At the firm but not insistent knocking, both of their heads turned. Rickkter waved one paw for his student to continue as he went to the door, drawing it open to reveal a red fox dressed in the colours of the Watch. He was fidgeting slightly, his long tail wagging back and forth like a dog who’d snatched a bone from one of his kennelmates.

“What is it, Nikolai?” Rickkter asked, his gaze firm but impatient.

“I have news, master Rickkter,” the fox said, his golden eyes scanning down towards the money pouch at the raccoon’s belt.

“Very well, step inside,” Rickkter said, stepping out of the way, holding the side of the oaken door with one paw.

The fox slipped inside. He was shorter than Misha, and far less bulky. But he was a skilled fighter, and far more faithful to the craftiness of foxes found in the old fables. Nikolai glanced once curiously to the skunk who was prying an old iron trap from the end of the long metal staff, and appeared ready to ask what it was, but the sullen look from Rickkter kept the question in his throat.

“What news have you brought, Nikolai?”

“Ah, well,” Nikolai said, turning to the raccoon completely, his arms at his sides. “I was on the wall this afternoon, on duty, and I saw a great black carriage come up the road to Metamor.”

“Is that all?” Rickkter asked dismissively. “We receive many carriages here at Metamor. Most are made from wood, but some are painted black.”

“But,” Nikolai said, his eyes twitching with excitement. Rickkter wished the fox would not take so long to get to the point. When he’d first become one of the Kankoran’s informants, he’d been so long winded that the raccoon had suggested he join the Writer’s Guild. “But, this one had a red cross painted on every side, and was driven by four men, each dressed in black with that red cross on their chests.”

Rickkter blinked. He knew that symbol. He’d run afoul of those Patildor priests, if such they could be called, before. His paw quivered as he held the door, claws digging into the wood. What the devil could they want here at Metamor? “When was this?”

“About an hour ago, master Rickkter.”

“An hour? The Questioners could already have met with Duke Thomas or Bishop Vinsah..” he stopped at that, the annoyance in his voice cut short. The reason why he’d run afoul of the Questioners had come back to him in that moment, and a seething fury took its place. He quickly reached into his purse, and grabbed the first coin his fingers touched. He shoved it out towards Nikolai, who snatched it in surprise.

“Who are the Questioners?” Nikolai asked then, even as Murikeer stared, his one eye wide. He held the iron trap in his paws, his flesh tightening, flesh pressing against the teeth of the trap.

Rickkter did not stay to answer the question though. With his tail flowing in the air behind him, the Kankoran swept out the door and into the hallway.

Kneeling over the badly damaged iron bear trap, Murikeer cocked an ear back as Rickkter turned to answer the insistent knocking at the chamber door. Pressing down upon the spring, he prized the jaws open and withdrew the raccoon’s battle staff, setting it aside with only a brief glance at the shaft. There was not a scratch, mar, or dent on its retractable length, despite the strength of the trap. He knew the construct to be hollow, and the metal that it was crafted of a rather complex allow of nothing more than common metals, but it was still a marvel to see such an item withstand the steel jaws of the trap unmarked. The few times he had ever examined it he had never found any enchantments, spell weaves, or even a natural tendency to attract or hold manna.

How it was so strong was lost on him, despite his understanding of earth magics.

Intent as he was upon disarming the trap and removing the small, magnetic stone from its center, that he at first did not understand the importance of the young fox’s words. At the description of a black carriage with crosses upon it he sat up slightly, turning to look back over his shoulder after easing the jaws of the trap shut, his ears turning about to focus more alertly upon the conversation. That description could only mean one thing; the Inquisitioners had come to Metamor.

“Who are the Questioners?” Nikolai was asking as Muri turned and stood, trap in hand, one eye fixed upon the fox who spared him a brief glance past Rick’s shoulder. Rick did not bother to answer, a harsh growl escaping his throat as he swept out the open door and disappeared down the corridor. “Master Murikeer, who are the Questioners?” he asked again, still holding the door open and eyeing the snaggle-toothed trap in the skunk’s hands. Murikeer did not know that answer precisely, as he had never personally run afoul of them before, but he was familiar with their works.

“Inquisitioners, Nick… they’re here to charge Metamor with some evil, and lay their judgments upon us.” He frowned as he walked across to one wall of the small, empty chamber. All that adorned the walls were a few spare coat-pegs with mundane odds and ends hanging from them, upon one of which he hung the trap. He slipped the spell stone into one of the many pockets of his vest as he returned and picked up Rick’s forgotten battle staff. The fox watched curiously, a frown pulling at the corner of his muzzle.

“They’re the ones that burn Lightbringers at the stake?” he asked, his quiet, growling voice concerned.

“Not that I have ever personally seen, but yes, their lackeys are known to do such things following their judgments of abomination.” The skunk replied as he walked toward the door, “Doubtless Master Rickkter has crossed paths with them personally in his past, by his reaction to the news.”

“That man that was murdered.” Nikolai commented as he followed Murikeer out the door, shutting it behind them. The skunk murred curiously and tossed a glance back over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised slightly. “The priest, back last autumn, I don’t recall his name now.”

“Akabaieth.” Murikeer whispered with a quiet sigh, then nodded, “That would certainly be cause enough to bring them. Thank you, Nick.” He said in a somewhat louder voice as he began walking down the corridor, intending to return to his chambers, “Don’t spend that coin all in one place.” He smiled slightly across at the fox as they reached a crossing corridor, “He threw you a whole garret, if you hadn’t noticed.”

As the skunk turned down the intersecting corridor, the fox stopped with an abrupt drop of his jaw and began digging through his belt pouch.

The corridor was narrow, a little musty, and the torches had a look of having been long unlit. There was dust upon the floor, which he could feel under the pads of his paws as the darkness of the narrow passage grew. The skunk rubbed at his left temple, as near to his empty eye socket as he dared, trying to push away the nagging, throbbing discomfort that he’d been having all morning. The spells he had shown Rickkter that morning did not require any input on his own part beyond the incant and decant phrases, so it was not the use of any magic that was causing the pain. Rather, it was the fact that he had not used any of his brew, a powerful mix of herbs and other ingredients, which he had been using to mitigate the agony of his missing eye. Time was healing the gaping wound naturally, where all of the talents of healer Coe, Raven and her acolytes, and Father Hough had failed.

They had healed his flesh from the devastating burns suffered as he vanquished the evil student that had returned from his past. The same student who had slain Llyn, and by his own words had also blinded Murikeer’s old master, Heiorn.

With a sigh, he shook his head at the memory of that last news, that his much loved master was blinded in the same way he nearly had been. Similarly unable to be healed by magic or divinity, and suffering the same agony with each touch upon the magic that was his life, Heiorn’s existence, if he still lived, must have been pitiable.

Just as the darkness of the narrow corridor was becoming such that he thought he might need to suffer the brief pain of summoning a witchlight he saw that there was light ahead. A few moments later he found himself stepping from an alcove onto the familiar landing just outside his chamber door, coming up behind a young lad of perhaps six or seven years who was trying, without much success, to affix a message to his door. Unfortunately, the counter weighted holder intended for such things was a good foot out of his reach, and he was trying to hop high enough to push the message under it.

Not dressed in the colors of a page, and likely too young to be one, the child’s presence was somewhat confusing to the skunk.

“Lad?” he asked, gently, as he stopped a few feet away. The child, with a startled cry and gasp, spun about and shoved himself back against the door as his eyes settled upon the skunk.

“Mastersire!” he blurted out with a sharp gasp, clutching the message to his chest, “You are Morkire?” he looked quickly at the name on the letter, but Murikeer could tell he was trying to read it up-side-down.

“Murikeer, lad, I am. Who might you be?” he tried to smile, but he was not sure how such would be received by the child, as his smile would, to an animal, be considered more of a snarl despite the softness of his features.

“Timsin, mastersire Morkire.” He replied, his eyes wide as he swallowed, “Lemis wanted made me to bring this to you so’s he could go play.” The child’s countenance fell slightly, but his nervousness refused to abate.

“Lemis? Page Lemis?” the skunk asked, cocking his head slightly to one side as he knelt to be on something more eye level with the child. Timsin nodded rapidly, trying to back further away only to be forestalled by the door at his back, clutching the message to his chest. “His duties are as a page, young Timsin, not to play.” He smiled again, gently, “Your duties are to play, so once you give me that message, it is my instruction that you do so.”

Timsin nodded again, vigorously as he jerked the message out toward the skunk, who took it gently with one hand and stuck it under his arm, “And you need not fear my wrath, child, I am not displeased with you.” He said as he stood, his eyes warm as he looked down the length of his short muzzle, but that gaze hardened as his teeth gleamed slightly through the black fur of his lips, “But I would like you to send this page Lemis to me as soon as you find him.”

Timsin quailed, his face paling as he shook his head, “Lemis would no believe me, mastersire.” He said with a whine, frowning, “Lemis mean, make us do all work for him or beat us up.”

Matching the child’s frown, Murikeer nodded as he reached over his head and pushed the door open, “Wait here.” He said as Timsin moved hastily out of his way, letting him enter his chambers. Dropping the message on the table in the center of his main room, he crossed over to a shelf and withdrew a small scrap of dark gray paper. Retrieving a pen from the same shelf, he quickly penned a short message of his own and sealed it with wax, placing his mark upon the seal. Returning to the door, he passed it to Timsin with a cold smile, “Deliver this to Lemis, then I would like that you tell your mother or father of this young Lemis.”

Wide eyed, Timsin took the message with tentative fingers as he nodded slowly, “Th - thank you, mastersire Morkire.” He smiled timidly, to which Murikeer nodded, his smile softening.

“Go, child, and play. It will be short years before you are a page yourself, which will allow you brief time for such fun.” He advised gently. Nodding, the child turned and dashed for the stairwell with all due haste. Murikeer watched for a moment, a soft chuckle in his throat as he closed the door.

How well he remembered being that young, as it was little more than a decade before. Returning to the table, he picked up the message and glanced at the wax seal. The wax was black, with the stylized ecclesiastic cross of the church stamped squarely in the middle of the flat circle created by some secretary’s ring. His name was all that graced the message, penned in a fluid, flourishing grace, but lacking any of the titles that would have been associated with him. No mention of ‘mage’, or even ‘master’, which was his recently acquired rank. Muzzle quirked in a rakish sneer, he flicked the wax off with a claw and unfolded the parchment.

Master Khunnas,

Your presence is requested at the residence of the Ecclesia Questioners in the Keep at the noon hour two days from now. By understanding you were a witness to the events which transpired during the regrettable death of Patriarch Akabaieth and it is upon such topics that you will be Questioned.

A frown creasing his muzzle, Murikeer sighed and dropped the letter upon the table. The thought of standing before the Questioners themselves left his heart feeling utterly empty and very, very small. He quailed more at the thought of their questioning and judgment than he would at the thought of summoning up some minion of Ba’al without the prison of a summoning circle into which to trap it.

His pack was still in the chair upon which he’d dropped it earlier that morning when he arrived at the Keep from Glen Avery, still damp from the brief morning fog and forest rain caused by snow melting in the treetops. Opening it, he drew out a carefully packaged bundle and set it upon the table as he sat in one of the chairs. Unwrapping it, he set aside the cup he used to mix the ingredients sealed in small, wooded unguent pots.

Leaning back in the chair, he looked at the small assortments of pots ruefully. Seven doses, that was all he had left. He could get the ingredients for more, without a great deal of trouble, but he had made a decision not to. The magic of Rickkter’s cup prevented him from getting addicted to the powerful drugs, but if the raccoon found out that he had made off with it a second time, unasked, it would totally destroy the relationship that they already had in a delicate balance.

When it came to working magic they set aside their differences and the loss of respect that had grown between them, a fact which Murikeer regretted daily. The raccoon was a harsh taskmaster, but there was a lot to respect about him when it could be seen under that disagreeable exterior. Murikeer had seen it, on occasion, and knew that the mage was not half so evil as he pretended to be. The skunk had wanted so very much to earn his respect, though he knew he could never see the raccoon as he had Heiorn, as a surrogate father. But with the results of his injuries and the need to hide the fact that he had been nearly stripped of his magic had brought Murikeer down so far as to steal his teacher’s magic cup to survive the medications he had concocted for himself. Concocted so that he might hide his weakness from his teacher.

Even now he tried to hide it from his teacher, from everyone, though Rickkter knew the truth now. He had found Murikeer in a drugged coma a month earlier, and found what Murikeer had taken, which had resulted in a wroth diatribe much of which the skunk had been unable to respond to in his drugged haze. That had resulted in a regrettable schism between them that showed no signs of healing.

With a sigh, Murikeer looked at the unguent pots again. Seven doses, carefully measured, were all that he had left. He knew that he was going to have to rely heavily upon his magic to see his way through the upcoming Questioning, and that would require re-mixing a dose specially for the meeting. What that would leave him with, he did not know.

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