Questioning - Part XI

A strange metallic clicking from the far corner of his rooms stirred Felsah from his sleep. He had not been sleeping terribly well to begin with. After many long weeks on the road, sleeping upon the hard pallets within the cramped wagon, either Akaleth’s elbows digging into his sides or his face pressed against the wooden seat, he thought he would enjoy sleeping in a soft quilted bed once more. But despite the lack of bumping elbows or the occasional loud snoring, he found little comfort in the thick folds of down and wool.

He had not slept well the previous evening either. As he’d lain stiffly in the folds of warm fabric, his mind had produced question after question he could use the next day. Snippets of imagined conversation with the Bishop and knights had come, pondering that had the next day had shown for the most part to be completely untrue. It had been a poorly hidden secret that Bishop Vinsah was set to be the next Patriarch upon Akabaieth’s death. Many times that night he’d imagined conversations where the Bishop had confessed to his master’s murder, sometimes amidst tears, and other times amidst threats of murder against Felsah and his fellow Questioners.

But of course, nothing of the sort happened. He had not really expected it to. Nor, despite his numerous night-time rehearsals, did he know quite what he would have done had any of them actually occurred. What had transpired was strange enough in its own way. The images still swirled within his mind, drowning him as they replayed over and over again. He had no idea how many times he had witnessed Father Akaleth being back-handed by the irate Bishop. Or the stormy entrance of Raven, her dire threats and warnings resounding within his ears.

Even those memories were not the reason his sleep was so troubled. They did swim through his mind, ricocheting back and forth through his head. Sometimes he would dwell on the words of the raccoon Bishop, his exotic face so strange and placid at times, whilst others had brought out the ferocity of a caged beast poked constantly with sharp sticks by passers-by. And then the cervine knight Sir Egland would return, his posture frightened, eyes wide, though his words respectful and certain, defiant pride filling each and every syllable. His face became that of the wolf priestess, her cold blue eyes like ice upon a mountain lake, a sight Felsah had not seen since his youngest of days. And then the bittersweet smile of Dame Bryonoth, a sad figure whose life had been a twist of cruel fate, each twist another line in her cheeks.

All of those filled his thoughts, but they were much of the time simple whispers, faint callings blended into the flow of dreams, the beginning incoherence of thought that led down into the deep of sleep. Their images broke apart as he sunk deeper and deeper towards his nighttime, rest, following that twisting road down into unconsciousness. They did not hamper his progress at all. There was something else disturbing him, like a length of rope fastened about his waist to keep him anchored to wakefulness.

And so, Father Felsah lay in the dark of his chambers, eyes staring half-lidded up at the ceiling lost in the complete stillness above. Aside from the metallic sound of a moment before, the night was quiet. Outside his door he could hear the gears of the ornate clock set upon the mantle continue to grind away, marking each second as they passed. At some point in the night, a wind had begun, and he could hear that one of the draperies had pulled loose its knots, and was now flapping and billowing like a sail in calm seas as the heavy breeze swept in through the windows.

Listening to the almost casual snapping of the drapes, he was reminded of the time he’d been sent to Eavey on the Northern coasts of the Southlands to investigate claims of heresy in one of the local parishes. He’d been the youngest of the Questioners sent, and so was sent on many errands by the two much older Questioners he accompanied. This had taken him up on deck or atop the forecastle, where he’d been able to stand in the salty sea breezes listening to the snapping of the sails. One day when the wind had been especially powerful, and that was not often in the equatorial waters of the Splitting Sea, the sail had sounded like the angry drumming of thunder in the sky. Though the sailors were too frightened to laugh near him, he knew they were smirking behind their hands at the wobbly Questioner every time he’d looked querulously up at the sky to see that it was still clear.

His eyes opened wider as he heard the metallic click again, as if some unseen figure were tapping the end of a sword upon the floor’s stone blocks. Felsah laid still in his bed, blinking slightly, the vestiges of sleep slipping from his grasp, as his mind became clear once more. The clock still ticked rhythmically, and the drapes snapped now and again. What then could be this third sound that had only now begun? His room had no windows, and what little fire the Yesbearn had made for him in the small hearth at the far end had long since smothered itself in the ashes, so he had no light by which to see.

The room was mostly unadorned, with the single bed set lengthwise against the wall, his feet pointing towards the now dark inglenook. Along the opposite wall were a series of hooks from which hung lanterns. While they could swing and perhaps strike the wall, the click had been coming from near the floor, so it could not possible be them. Besides, though the breeze blew through the main room, there was none to be found in his own bedchamber.

Perhaps a draft from the chimney itself had unsettled the set of decorative cast iron pokers that were hooked by the hearth. They could easily sway as well, and perhaps strike the tiling stones of the hearth. Felsah nodded a bit at that, satisfied he had found the answer to the mysterious sound. It must have been one of the pokers tapping lightly against the hearth as a down draft came though the chimney. He thought he detected a faint odour of ash in the air as it was.

He sighed and snuggled tighter within the blankets, his thin frame cold in the Northern air. He had spent most of his life in Yesulam, in the deserts of the Holy Land. It was very cold at night there too, but it was a different sort of cold. In the deserts, the cold had come from the heat of the day evaporating into the sky. Here at Metamor, the cold itself felt like a tangible reality, one that pushed aside the day, asserting itself by filling every big of bone, flesh, metal and wood with its resilient stillness.

Felsah turned onto his side, curling his legs up closer to his chest. It would not do to be tired all day long, and so with practised ease, he began to recite the Litanies in his mind. Their soothing words stilled all other thought, emptying him of their clawing concerns and pressing demands. The words of the Litany let his mind resume that downward spiral into slumber, sinking ever deeper into the warmth of his quilts and cushions. Like an enveloping glove closing tight around him, he felt sleep seal over him, cutting off the wakeful word bit by bit.

And then, just when only a tiny sliver of awareness remained, the words of the Litany long deteriorated into a mush of meaningless language, the metallic click sounded again. His eyes fluttered open, his lips set in a thin line. He shifted about in his covers and began to recite the Litanies once more, when a stray thought broke through his meditative regimen. There was something different about that particular sound, something odd that had summoned him back from sleep.

Being a Questioner, he had been trained to trust those uncertain thoughts that came to him. Often, they were a sign that the one being questioned was lying, or perhaps deliberately leaving part of his tale out, for fear it would lead the Questioners to an undesired conclusion. And so he listened, his body still curled as it was on the bed, one ear planted against the soft feather pillow beneath his head. Listened as the clock ticked, and the drapes billowed and snapped. He idly wondered why the Yesbearn did not retie the knot holding the drapes in place.

The minutes began to trickle by with no further sounds from within his room. He counted the number of times the clock gears ticked, curling one finger in his hand for every sixty ticks he’d counted. His eyes were heavy though, and he let them close, still holding his fingers into his palm at every sixty counts. Somewhere after he had all four fingers tucked in his palm, he lost count of the ticks, and did not try to catch up again.

And then he sat bolt upright in his bed when the metallic click sounded once more. This time, Felsah knew what had unsettled him so before, for the same quality permeated this noise, only much more clearly. The sound, where it had once come from the far corner of the room, was now right next to the foot of his bed.

He turned his back to the wall next to the bed, and took the tinder box set upon the night stand. A lantern was next to it, and in the dark, he fumbled with the lantern until it finally caught. He nursed the flame to quiet brilliance, and then set the tinder down. Turning in the bed, he held the lantern up and scanned the room, looking to see the source of the noise.

Felsah blinked when his eyes caught sight of the glimmering metal creature not four paces away. Reeling back with an abrupt hiss of indrawn breath, he nearly dropped the lantern in his startled surprise. That glimmer of metal, polished like the ceremonial armour of the Yesbearn, was the mechanical fox, Madog, sitting on his haunches at the very foot of the priest’s bed, staring up at the Questioner with his strangely luminescent golden eyes wide and his silvery ears perked high. His tail was behind him, laying flat against the floor. With slow deliberateness, he lifted one forepaw, and then set it back down again. The metallic click sounded as he did so, as familiar as the ticking of the clock outside.

“What are you doing here?” Felsah asked, his voice slow, forced out through clenched teeth, pitched low but nearly cracking still, eyes still wide, staring. His heart was beating a harsh, rapid staccato against the inside of his ribcage as it sought to escape the sudden fear that had stricken the priest, who clutched his sleeping shirt at his as if to hold his terrified heart within his body. He let out his breath in a gust, his body releasing the tension the unexpected appearance of the metallic animal had sent into him.

Madog blinked as well, the expression on his own angular, metallic muzzle one of simplest curiosity. The priest did not know how he knew that, but he could see it as plainly as on any child’s face. “Watching you,” was the earnest reply. Somehow, Madog had sensed his desire for quietude despite his fear, and had spoken so quietly that Felsah was not certain he’d heard him correctly.

“Watching me?” The fox gave a quick nod of the head. “Why?”

“Everyone is talking about you.”

This was hardly news to him. His kind were always the topic of conversation, of hushed conversation, whenever they entered or passed through any town, aside from Yesulam, where they were a common sight, and while feared, they were only feared when they came uninvited into a person’s home.

Of course, he had not invited Madog into his bedchambers. He glanced back at his door, but it was still firmly shut. “How did you get in here?”

“I walked,” Madog said simply.

“But the door is closed and there is no other way out.”

“Yes there is.” Madog looked back behind him briefly. Felsah let his gaze rise past the mechanical fox. Next to the inglenook was a small opening in the wall leading back into darkness. Leaning forward, Felsah strained to see where it went, but could only note that it twisted away to the right after a few paces. But he knew that the passage had not been there before.

“Where did that come from? Did you make it?” Felsah asked, his voice level.

“She made it for me, so I could come see you.” There was such a simple earnestness in the voice, Felsah could not imagine the creature before him even attempting to lie. He had known many liars in his time, many who had been able to feign innocence very well. This creature possessed not one strut of deception within him. Yet what was he? A creature of ancient magics, the Lothanasa had said. But what sort of answer had that been? Apparently, there were others at Metamor who knew more of Madog. While the automaton was not the reason for their visit, he was a curiosity that begged to be explored.

“She?” Felsah asked.

Madog blinked once, and then yawned, a very canine expression, that nevertheless seemed an odd thing coming from a mechanical being. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Father Felsah,” he said, his voice regaining the same dry tone he was accustomed to, though still pitched low.

He clicked his claws once more upon the stone, and then rose from his haunches, turning towards that strange entrance at the back of the room. “Good night, Father Felsah.” He then loped off down the path, his metallic sheen glinting in the lamplight for a moment before he disappeared around the corner. Felsah blinked in its passage, staring after it, uncertain whether he should get up and follow.

At the very least, he resolved to inspect the doorway. He set the lamp down on the nightstand, turned and slipped from under the covers. When he looked up, the entrance was gone, replaced by the solid wall that had been there before he’d gone to bed. He blinked several more times, listening to the sound of the clock. The gears suddenly wound tighter, and a single bell chimed.

With the striking of the hour, his stare was broken and he stumbled forward, pressing his hands over the wall, feeling for any seams that might exist. The stone was firm and pressed tightly together, cold to the touch as well. Had the stones moved any, they would have been warmed. There was no latch that opened the wall, no strange catch to be pressed. It was a solid wall of stone and nothing more.

It was little wonder the Ecclesia’s teachings on magic were so contentious for many. Seeing a sight such as this brought out strange rumblings within him that he’d strove to dispel. Slipping back beneath his covers, he knew that fear was not the word to describe it, although it was a part of it. Curiosity filled it as well, but that was a sensation he was well accustomed to. In fact, it was his constant companion, his lodestone and sextant in the world. It was not confusion either, although it had the flavour of such, but there was a lightness to it that he could not quite define.

Felsah banked his lantern, dimming it to a mere candle glow, but lacking the confidence to snuff it entirely lest the strangeness of the stones have occasion to offer up other visitors to his chamber in the night. He was certain that he would not hear any more metallic clicks that night, but strangely enough it was not the odd metal creature that unsettled him. It was more its unexpected presence. He lay his head back against the pillow, pulling the covers tight over his chest. He was cold once more, but it felt more distant. Other things cloaked his mind now, things he wished to ponder, without knowing whether he could.

After several minutes, the snapping of the drapes ceased outside, and all that remained to the night was the ticking of the clock. The words of the Litanies came once more to his mind, their subtle cadence fitting the rhythm of the clock. Before he’d reached the third mystery, sleep had finally claimed him completely.

Winter was leaving once more as it always did. The stars had nearly reached the Equinox once more, the northern beacon was rising in the night sky, and the sun rose in the day, reaching higher and higher above the pearly towers of Ava-shavåis. Each year was a long breath of the world, from Solstice to Solstice. Winter leading to Summer was an inhalation of new breath, new life, like the rising of the chest, the stars and sun reached their peak in the sky. And from Summer to Winter, that breath was exhaled, life turning to death, the earth’s chest lowering the sun and stars back to their lowest points in the sky.

Qan-af-årael long watched the sky at night, reading the stories in the stars, the great tale that they played out every night, secrets whispered through the universe, many of them so alien even one as ancient as he could not comprehend. Perhaps they were not meant for his ears, but for those living on worlds so distant no earthbound creature could possibly imagine what that distance was. But there were also whispers and subtle plays upon the light that spoke as clearly as if they were in the same room as he, standing at his shoulder, their silverly light brushing over his ear as they whispered.

For some time now, the skies had been murky, showing little for him to see. Since the arrival and departure of Kashin of the Yeshuel, there had been very little to see. Many things worried him of late, but they were such that he could not interfere and hope to improve them. The sending of the Sword of Yajakali through the Pillars of Ahdyojiak was one such incident. He did not know where it had been sent, but he had a terrible notion. Yet the stories in the sky continued to play, and though they did not speak to him, they still spoke.

As he perched on the slender balcony overlooking the topmost peeks of the trees, the canopy of the very Åelfwood itself, Qan-af listened to the sounds of the forest around him coming to life. Far below, the songs of his people were sung, many melodies combined into one harmonious discord. From that sound rose up, as it had to be, the Morning Song, rising upwards as if the very wind bore it up of necessity through the treetops and to the grey sky overhead. The delicate crafting of the notes, each harking to days of old, days that few even of his kind had seen, wrapped firmly about his heart, eliciting a trembling from the ancient Åelf.

Andares-es-sebashou would be waiting for him in his sitting room down the stairwell. He was a young Åelf, and certainly the most travelled of any of his kind still left in the city. Most spent their days in the ivory towers stretching amidst the forest peaks, singing songs of older days, of other cities they had once lived in, of empires that stretched the course of the land, of beautiful places long buried beneath the upheaval of earth. Of old joys and of old wounds that could not heal.

But Andares was different, Qan-af-årael had seen that from the first. When he’d been young, Qan-af had selected him to be his personal attendant, and had taught him all that he would need to know, brought him into many of his confidences, though not all. When there was a need to interact in the world beyond the forest, it was a task he left for the youthful Åelf. Such a time was coming soon once again, a fact that pained him greatly, but not for the reason that many amongst his own kind would have thought. Oddly enough, he suspected that the humans would better be able to grasp the pain that filled him now.

The story of the stars was not speaking to him, but there were other stories to be told, other ways of hearing them. Within his slender aged fingers, he clutched one such story, the latest chapter to be played out before him was now made clear. A wild and strange trek through the mountain passes of the Barrier range, a flight from bold pursuers, a flight unlike any before undertaken in all the annals of history. The message said none of it in words, but the play of events was still known to him.

And also, what he, Qan-af-årael, Master of Ava-shavåis, the Lord of Colours in Åelfwood, must do. And where, in the end, he also must go. It was not as if he had not known of this inevitable destination, this trek from his homeland, one that he dearly loved in a way that could only be described as how a parent loves a child. The towers of Ava-shavåis were his own bones, grown solid into the forest, the leafy boughs his flesh that protected those bones. The susurration of the wind his breath and blood, soughing all through those boughs and bones, filling them with each and every life.

In a space even shorter than the breath of the world, he would leave it.

With a heavy sigh, he stroked one hand across the crenellated sill, before gliding once more back within the solar, his need now clear. Andares was as expected standing in the entranceway to his sitting room, the song of the morning breathed upon his lips. Subtle colours radiated from his body as he stood, filling the pearl walls with a many hued radiance. His eyes, strange but bright grew even brighter as the ancient Åelf descended the stairs to enter the room on the opposite side.

Andares-es-sebashou lowered his head respectfully, falling slowly to one knee. He rose again, and strode across the room to meet his master. He was dressed in tight garments of river blue and aquamarine, whose underside, visible at the collar and cuffs, was a pale silvery blue. His face, angular and white, topped by long dark hair that was drawn back in a tail, covering the tips of his slender ears, regarded him earnestly.

“Our little friend up North wishes to go to Metamor,” Qan-af said, holding out the slim note he’d received upon sparrow’s leg only an hour before. “He fears that I will forbade him from that path.”

Andares blinked once, subtle amusement playing across his high cheekbones. “Will you?”

“No. The time has come for him to leave his confinement within the caves of the Nauh-kaee. Send word to him that he must bring those our friend in Metamor selects to Nafqananok in Qorfuu.” He paused, even as his student nodded his assent at the instructions. “You will be waiting for them there.”

“In Qorfuu?” Andares said, surprise showing through. Sometimes, Qan-af thought with pleasant humour, the boy could be so blunt. “When do you wish me to leave?”

“On the Solstice you must leave for Qorfuu. You must bring our friends here to Ava-shavåis a month before the Autumnal Equinox.”

The surprise was replaced by disbelief. “To travel from Metamor to Qorfuu and then to here within so short a time? That has never been done before.”

“Nevertheless, it will be done this year. Send the message. Our friends will know what must be done far better than we.” Qan-af offered him a slight smile, but it was gone within a moment. Andares bowed his head low once more, and then stepped past to walk to the aviary to do as his master had bid. Gliding once more, Qan-af made his way to the chair in the centre of the room. It was facing another chair, this one with only one arm. Only three months ago, Kashin of the Yeshuel had sat in that room learning about the past. A past that threatened to rise up once more over the present and crush both it and all the future.

Heavily, Qan-af slumped within that chair, feeling the weight of ages long past settling upon his shoulders once more. The song of the Morning below began to fade, as if it were drowned as well by the onrush of old aeons.

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