Questioning - Part XII

The Yesbearn laid down their morning platter at the table in the centre of the chamber. The three Questioners made the sign of the tree over their chests, and said the proper mealtime prayers before they began to sup of the eggs and bread. It was a far finer fare than they had dined upon during their journey, but not the finest any of them had ever eaten. No matter what else their hosts thought of them, they were always treated well in the lands where they were permitted. Few wished to bring their wrath by serving them poor meals.

The nighttime wind had dislodged some of the fog that had settled over the valley. The sky was still cloudy, so no sun showed, leaving the day a morass of grey in varying shades. The thickest of the fog had moved northward before running headlong in the Giant’s Dike, where it collected like the run off from a torrential rain. A much lighter fog remained behind, thick enough to obscure the roads along the ground, but not so thick as to prevent the Keep itself form being seen from within the city walls. Looking down from the Keep’s windows, the street lamps remained bright blurry beacons, but now, the roofs of houses were visible, like small rocks hidden just beneath the surface of murky waters.

In the chambers the Questioners shared, the disposition of the room had not lightened with the fog, but in fact had become darker, as if the colours were leeched from the draperies and carpets in order to brighten the day outside. Akaleth sat chasing his eggs around his plate for several moments before he set his utensil down and glared at the elder priest. “I cannot believe you made us sign that... that document,” his voice was harsh, but still deferential.

Kehthaek was chewing on a bit of bread. He regarded the younger priest as dispassionately as he had all those who had been questioned the previous day. It was how he always treated others. Neither Akaleth or Felsah had ever seen anything more from this priest. When he did display emotions, they were never the same as what he truly felt, they both were certain of that.

When the elder priest finished chewing his bread he spoke in soft but decisive words. “There was little in it that we had not already decided upon ourselves. What little there is, we did not need anyway.”

Akaleth well knew the former, that aggravated him as well, but the latter he could not accept. “Allow those we question to bring in a friend of their choosing to witness everything? That is unacceptable. She overstepped her bounds as a... a host!” This last word came out in shocked disbelief.

Felsah glanced between the two, still eating. His nighttime experience still stayed with him, but he was not yet willing to speak of it. The grey-haired Questioner shook his head. “You did not read the document as I did, Father Akaleth. Nowhere did it say that the friend is allowed to interfere, nor did it say that we are supposed to inform the questioned that they may bring a friend.” He then spoke no more, returning to the eating of his bread.

The younger priest sat there, blinking for a moment. After several seconds, a small smile crept along his lips. He nodded then, and once more let the calm mask of the Questioner close around his face. With patient deliberation, he ate of his meal once more.

The potion was as bitter a drinking willowbark tea with gin and as dry as a desert stone. If left a vile, oily taste that clung to the inside of his muzzle and throat like rancid wool. Lips curled in a distasteful snarl, he set the cup back down upon his table with a sharp thud, nearby clayware clattering with the force and bowed his head as he forced down the vile mixture, swallowing the bile which surged into his throat in retaliation. There he sat for several minutes, swallowing convulsively as he clutched at the surface of the table with both hands, short, trimmed claws digging into the ancient, use-stained wood.

He contemplated the cup before him as he opened his eyes, the simply fashioned pewter mug polished smooth by the many years of use it had seen. Worked into the cool metal were a handful of subtle but powerful spells intended for a few simple purposes, but lacking one extremely important enchantment. The primary purpose for the mug’s enchantments were to prevent the mixtures from being placed within from being incorrect, a spell which worked ingeniously well. Secondly its function was to prevent the user from becoming addicted to those same concoctions. Beyond that its enchantments were simply meant to keep it from deteriorating with age or being consumed by often times extremely powerful mixtures.

He would have thought, had he created the centuries old mug himself, that the creator would have added a spell to make the concoctions mixed within to taste a whole lot better than they most often did. Running his tongue over his teeth, he picked up the mug and stood. Carrying it across to his bag, he carefully wrapped it in a simple white cloth, secreting it deep within the voluminous confines of his bag. He was not sure yet if Rick realized that he had taken the mug again. The first time, when he had found Muri comatose from one of his sleeping draughts, the used mug at his bedside, the Raccoon had not reacted at all like Muri would have expected. Instead of launching into an angry, roaring diatribe at the skunk, he had merely sat and waited until Muri was conscious enough to understand him. Somehow, Rickkter quietly sitting there, holding the mug and softly questioning him about was worse than the screaming anger he had expected. In his state of drugged stupor he had not caught half of what was said, but Rick had taken the mug in the end.

And a week later, as he left for Glen Avery, Muri had taken it back.

He hoped he had been undiscovered in that. He still felt guilt at betraying his teacher like that in the first place, as he felt a genuine kinship with the irascible old raccoon, but without that mug he ran the risk of becoming addicted to the powerful mixture, or becoming dead by it.

Setting the sack on one of the many cluttered shelves, he checked his wardrobe once again to make sure that he had not spilled anything on it. He had contemplated, for a time, of wearing his most striking wardrobe, which he had commissioned made shortly after the first week of December. Robes in primary midnight blue stitched with silver and trimmed with deep ebony. Glyphs on collar, hems, and cuffs stitched in gold and silver by his own hand, with their own attendant magics. The outfit was much similar to priestly vestments, with a rune-worked alb, pale blue sash, tailcuff, and drape. No shoes, of course, but his paws were sufficient most times.

No, he had pondered then disdained that idea, choosing instead a simple yet expensively tailored pale brown shirt, dark brown leggings, and black vest. Understated, with nothing on it that would reveal to the casual observer that he was a mage, or for that matter any one other than a wealthy commoner. Exiting his lab, he descended the stairs and picked up the summons he had laid on the center table within his common room before leaving.

“Make my trip short, Kyia,” he admonished quietly as he let the door swing shut behind him with a quiet, ponderous thud of wood against stone, “I need to get this over with.” He started into the dim, near black depths of the stairwell.

The two Yesbearn standing outside the Questioners’ chamber doors were more than familiar with the dark-liveried, gray furred keeper swiftly stalking down the passageway toward them. They spared him mere level, cold stares as the snarling monstrosity approached, their hands never straying from their clasped readiness before each guard’s belt buckle.

Was this what they would become should they remain overlong? A thought which they chose to ignore, as they would remain where the Questioners demanded.

The raccoon stopped before them, his cloak swishing across his back a moment before settling. He glared at the door between them, not so much as moving a muscle.

“Open the door. Now” The raccoon hissed at them in its strangely bestial half-human voice, his gaze never leaving the door. He began to reach for the door, stopping when the two guards stepped together with a single precise sidestep from each, blocking the door. The creature backed off a little, growling softly to himself and shifting his gaze between the two guards. “I am here to speak with your masters, now stand aside.” He growled, his voice tightly restrained and dangerously quiet for one so furious.

The Yesbearn moved not an inch, their faces impassive, hands resting on the pommels of their sheathed swords, cold eyes regarding the raccoon with hollow stares. Taking a step back, the keeper flexed his fingers, but did not reach for the sword at his hip or any of the daggers visibly on his person or hidden. “Your Masters have gone too far this time. To interrogate their own is one thing, but summoning my student, an act which I do not approve, is too much. They have no such rights to demand the presence of whom they please at their whim, so it is high time they were told where the line of their authority stops.” He thrust out a hand, pointing at the floor before the door, “Right there, and not an inch beyond. This is not Yesulam, this is not the kingdoms of the Ecclesia, and they hold no power here besides what was granted over their own. You will step aside and open the door, Patildor lapdogs, or I will go through you and remove the door myself.”

If the insult to their faith struck true, neither of the guards showed any reaction, yet neither of them moved.

“Rickkter!” a voice called from down the passageway, immediately familiar, causing the raccoon to turn his head slightly, enough to see the speaker from the corner of his eye. One guard also turned his head slightly to achieve the same visual, his posture otherwise unchanged.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Muri could hear Rickkter’s angry snarl even before he stepped into the passageway, finding himself only a couple dozen paces from the raccoon where he faced to sombre-faced foreign guards wearing black livery with a livid red cross. The Questioners’ personal retinue he immediately guessed, judging by their severe look and their heraldry. Where the knights he had seen with the patriarch had been liveried in green and white, which set their stern professionalism to a rather approachable air, the two facing Rick were like two weathered oaken statues garbed in severe, unrelenting, blood tinted shadows.

Without even trying he could sense that Rick was about to do something very swift, very hard, and quite damaging to the two persons blocking the door. “Rickkter!” he called out, striding rapidly down the passageway, “What’re you doing here?” he asked as he drew abreast of his teacher, sparing the two gaunt faced guards a brief appraising glance.

“Sparing you the risk of standing before the spectres these two protect.” The raccoon snarled, glaring at the impassive guards.

“Spectres? These Questioners?” He did not think for a moment that the individuals conducting this interrogation were in fact any manner of spirit or undead, but he could understand his teacher’s misgivings. Very likely Rick had crossed paths with them in his past in most unpleasant ways.

“Yes.” Rickkter grabbed Muri by the arm and pulled up several paces up the corridor, out of earshot of the Yesbearn guards. He kept the two of them facing away from the guards. “I am not going to let you be placed before them like some specimen to be dissected.”

Murikeer blinked a couple of times, honestly surprised by that statement, “Their questions need to be answered.” He responded, glancing toward the guards and the door beyond them. A sharp squeeze of his arm brought his attention back to Rickkter.

“The only answers their masters are concerned with are answers that confirm their own assumptions. Facts and ‘truth’ are two different things to them. Their overseers are not concerned with the truth of what they are seeking, Muri, only with hearing what they want to.” He said, his voice level and dangerously calm, “Their questions will lead you where they want you to go, confirming, in their minds, their own fabrications.”

A scowl creasing his brows, the skunk frowned, “Their ‘overseer’, Rick? Did you have occasion to speak with the Patriarch? I did, person to person, and he cared not that I am a skunk, a Lightbringer, or a mage. Only that I was a person whose faith was different than his own, but whose beliefs were no less valid than his own.” He shrugged slightly, pointing one thumb toward the door, “As distasteful as it will be, they deserve answers.”

Rickkter merely scowled at his student, frown deepening, “And what do you think they’ve been getting for the last few days? By now they have the story from the Ecclesia, and are looking for whom to fault. As for Akabaieth, yes, I did meet him. He was a rare kind, but he was not their kind. It is the task of the Questioner to root out heresy and threats to the flock. And you, my friend, are very… very outside the flock.”

“And you think I don’t know that? Men like these always twist the truth to their own ends, as men of gods, all gods, have always done so. But they need the truth nonetheless.”

Rickkter swore loudly, practically yanking his paw away from Muri’s arm. “And you are going to go along with this gods be damned farce? You want to risk what they could do to you?” he barked, incredulous.

Murikeer nodded slowly, licking his teeth. The taste of the painkillers was still fresh upon his tongue, and he could feel the warm, weightless tingle of it spreading through his chest, his ravaged, empty eye socket was a painless hollow in his skull, the anaesthetic properties of the mixture beginning at the centre of the pain first. “Rick, there is nothing in that room that will scare me, but I sure as hell know I can scare them. But I can also enlighten them as to the circumstances of Akabaieth’s death, and the wishes that he had hoped to see come about in his order, the entire Church itself.” He reached out and placed a hand upon his teacher’s shoulder, “You yourself showed me that I can face the root of the greatest fear and overcome it, I am ready for them.”

With a look of disgust on his face, Rick removed his pupil’s hand. “Your adolescent idealism is going to get you very hurt, Muri.” He growled as he turned away, his tail lashing behind him, the fur bushed to nearly twice its usual thickness. A little way up the corridor he paused, turning and slightly to stab a finger back at the skunk. “I tried to spare you from this. Remember that.” Turning about, he stalked down the passageway and into the shadows of a crossing corridor as Muri stared after him, muzzle dropping in surprise.

It was several moments before Muri could bring himself to look back toward the guards, only to find one of them pushing the door open wordlessly. There was no expression upon his face, as if the scene they had just witnessed had never happened. Indeed, they seemed to Muri more like empty, soulless automatons than human.

Without a word he released his wrist, drawing his composure back about himself as one might a cloak, and passed between the two guards. Steeling his expression and manner, he stepped into the Questioners’ chambers once more in control of himself; at least outwardly, as he had no desire to reveal the distress and turmoil within his spirit.

The outer receiving chamber was empty save for a single small table to one side of the door and two chairs against one wall. There were four doors off the foyer, which he assumed would lead to sleeping chambers, and one of them stood open. Beyond was a bright, cheerily decorated room and he could see the shadows of at least one additional guard just within.

Crossing to the inner chamber, he stepped between two more of the dark skinned, stone visaged guards into a sombre chamber decorated with tasteful, bright colours. He could easily sense that there was a feeling of presence about the room, a subtle air that made him immediately think of the man whom he had met so briefly in the library a mere three months past. That air was disturbed, however, by the motionless, black shadows in vaguely humanoid shapes with the same blood hued cross upon their robes seated in three massive chairs to one side of the room, their backs to the single massive hearth dominating one wall of the chamber. Empty cowls were turned toward the door, silently watching his entry. A fourth, last chair was placed directly across the room from the trio, with a small table between them.

“Murikeer Khunnas.” He stated simply, stopping two paces beyond the guards, clasping both hands before his waist, and bowing in slight greetings, “Answering the summons of the Questioners of the Church.”

“A kind welcome, master Khunnas.” The centre of the three shadows spoke, a slight nod of its cowl motioning toward the last chair, “Please, be seated so that we may begin.”

Murikeer eyed them oddly as he moved toward the chair, one black furred eyebrow raised very slightly. What was with the cowls, he thought, being up when there was nothing to shield the wearers from. Was it some technique meant to unsettle the questioned or to frighten him? If so, it was quite ineffective, as he could see beyond them with little effort. Crossing to the chair, he spared a few seconds to view their particular auras. Focussing forward the spirit sight, which had always been entirely second nature to him, was less of a struggle with each passing day, but it still brought a twinge of pain to the ruined hole where his left eye had once been.

The drugs, however, mitigated the agony to a mere ghost of an ache. The muscles sensed the pain, flinching at it, but it did not register upon his mind.

He tried not to scowl as he gazed upon them, for there was nothing to see. There was no void about them that would indicate un-life or dark spirit, but there was a shadow about their essences that defied his vision. The one to the left of centre was more visible, in some manner, than the others, as if his spirit were a banked forge with the light of his soul shining through, the dim glow of its force licked about at the edges by a shadow different than the strange, contained emptiness at the centre. Darkness sought to claim that one, he felt, but its grasp was only seeking, it had not yet touched deeply upon his soul.

The man to the right of centre was an even dimmer glow, as if age lent a greater degree of that strange protective emptiness about his spirit. But beyond that emptiness Muri could sense a cold, fierce light of startling brightness, and something else, something that defied his ability to ken.

In the centre of the trio the third of them was pure, stark emptiness of spirit, yet Muri could sense that it was there. Moreso even than the second individual, there was a sense of great strength of spirit within him, a piercing, cold white light which would blind were it unbanked. There was no sense of dark malevolence about it despite the emptiness, he felt, perhaps it might be the touch of divinity? He considered that idea curiously as his hands found the arms of the chair and he lowered himself back into it.

Letting the dull ache of his scrutiny fade back to normal vision, he blinked his good eye once as he settled into the chair, his tail draped over one arm, the tip flicking softly back and forth. He had taken no precautions to mitigate the power of his natural daily musk, simply to use its affect to hasten the termination of the inquiry, yet none of the three, or the guards, seemed to react to it. The centre figure raised one arm slightly, “I am father Kehthaek.” The voice was old but not ancient, smooth as any diplomat, without a trace of any emotion whatsoever. The arm motioned to the man to the right of centre, “This is Father Felsah, and Father Akaleth.” He finished as the arm swung to the man to the left of centre, then lowered back to the arm of the chair in which the figure sat. “We have summoned you to discuss the matter of Patriarch Akabaieth’s death. We have been given to understand that you were the first upon the scene of his camp after the battle occurred?”

The priest’s voice carried the familiar rough accent that Akabaieth had possessed, though with more culture about it, more smooth a cadence. Muri knew that this individual had been born into wealth and power, and raised as an aristocrat though his voice had long lost the usual tone of condescension one would find familiar of most born into social rank. The Patriarch’s voice had hinted at a less cultured childhood, but had gained a certain body to it over time that touched the listener on a far deeper level than this speaker’s could.

“Aye, I was the first from Metamor to reach the camp.” Muri said, resting his hands upon the arms of the chair, fingers curled loosely about the knurled caps.

“How long after the attackers had left did you arrive?” one of the others spoke up, his voice bespeaking more youth and the upbringing of a commoner, but no less measured, no less strictly controlled and empty of emotion or intonation. Muri recalled his name to be Felsah.

“A short time, perhaps a few minutes. No more than five by my closest reckoning.” He could hardly forget the scene he had come upon, the horses left alive still struggling to their hooves in the shadows shortly before his witchlights illuminated the scene. The scene had been burned into his very psyche as keenly and lastingly as his eye had been seared out, and the pain was almost similar, though to his spirit rather than his body.

“How is it that you, of this entire keep, arrived so swiftly?” the third of the group asked, his voice harsh and accusatory, carrying the tonality of youth and the intonation of distrust. Akaleth he had been named, the one whose spirit had been licked at by the shadows of darkness.

“We had been warned of the attack before it occurred.”

“How would this be, that you could be warned of this ambuscade before it was sprung? Did the attacker send you a note detailing their intentions?” Scorn tinged the younger priest’s question, his cowl stirring slightly. Within the shadows of that cowl Muri could make out hard, accusatory eyes glaring at him, widened in surprise at his answer.

The skunk frowned, drumming his fingertips upon the capped ends of his chair’s arms, the tips of his claws clicking lightly upon the wood. “Might I see your faces?” he asked quietly, no deference in his voice, merely quiet insistence. The centre figure nodded, the cowl bobbing for a moment as he reached up and drew it back, weathered hands emerging from dark sleeves as the cowl was removed. The man revealed was aged, hair graying with his years, face lined but not yet entirely free of luster of youth. His eyes, however, were as piercing and alert as any youth’s. The other two did likewise, revealing heads of hair as black as Muri’s primary fur, their eyes equally as piercing as the elder Questioner. The priest named Felsah seemed to be only a few years older than the youngest member of the trio, Akaleth, whose expression was of visible scorn where the other two kept their expressions empty. A small smile playing at the corner of the skunk’s muzzle, he bowed his head slightly, “Thank you.”

His fingers splayed upon the arms of his chair, “Metamor was able to divine that the attack was to take place, roughly when, but not precisely how. Scouts had been sent out earlier in the day to patrol the surrounding lands, and further scouts and messengers were sent out with all possible haste to bring warning to the camp and the scouts already afield.” He clasped the endcaps, “My patrol group was found by one such messenger, a dragon, who was able to warn us, and we made all possible haste toward the camp. As my legs were the longest, I was able to run the most swiftly.” He said nothing about how he had brought up the spirits of the earth to assist his flight, cleaving a pathway through the forest for their group.

“We?” Felsah interjected quietly, one eyebrow raised slightly.

The skunk nodded, the recollection of those in his party painful even still. One was exiled, another, once dear to him, dead. “Scouts for Metamor.” He replied simply, frowning.

“Why do you frown?” the priest continued, voice insistent but not harsh, “Who else was with you?”

Shaking his head slowly, Muri looked down for a moment, frown deepening as he let a quiet sigh escape his chest, “My… a friend.” He said at length, “She was slain during the assault we endured this past yule.” Llyn. Her loss still clutched at his heart, paining him beyond the capability of any drug to surcease.

“Who else among that party yet lives?” Kehthaek asked quietly, his voice strangely steadying, banishing the momentary vision that seared through Muri’s memory, of the blinding stroke of raw energy which seared the life from Llyn’s body in the span of a single heartbeat. “Finbar.” He muttered through clenched teeth, banishing the memories, his hands clutching tightly at the arms of his chair, the quiet scree of wood under his claws cutting into the momentary silence. “He is one of the Keep’s scouts. He was not far behind me in arriving.” He said nothing of the fourth member of their group, Matthias, who had been exiled to Glen Avery, and had more than enough on his mind.

“But how is it that Metamor knew the attack was coming?” Akaleth interjected, his voice fierce counterpoint to Kehthaek’s calm, “And for how long did they know before they dispatched these… dragons… that warned you?” he spat the word as if the mere use of it irritated him.

“I was afield with the scouts, so I do not know of those matters. Suffice to say that one of our keep mages had come to learn of the impending attack and brought warning to the Duke, who, I would expect, dispatched all messengers within minutes.”

A dubious look of disbelief drew the corners of Akaleth’s eyes into slits, “This mage, this seer of the future, could foresee the attack upon the Patriarch, yet could not foresee the impending assault you recently underwent?”

Shooting the young priest a harsh glare, the skunk bristled, “To my understanding he was nearly slain in learning of the ambush that took Akabaieth’s life. He was one of the first to have been slain during this siege, very likely by agents attempting to prevent such knowledge from forewarning us.”

“He was slain?” Felsah, as if clarifying a fact, which brought Muri’s attention back to him and away from the irritating accusatory glare of the younger priest.

“Yes. Wessex was his name.”

A derisive snort came from the younger priest, “Was everyone who knew anything about this event slain during the siege?” he grouched, toying with something unseen within the voluminous folds of his sleeves, “This seems like an awfully convenient occurrence to me.”

Murikeer nearly started out of his seat at that remark, the fur of his hackles standing on end as his tail bushed to twice its normal thickness, levelling a sharp glare upon the priest, “You overstep yourself, human.” He hissed sharply, jabbing one finger toward him, “This wall of stone is all that stands between the battle hardened hordes of the north from the soft, heedless kingdoms of the south, to include your own. Had we not thrown back the attack you would have met nothing but slaughter in coming here.” He pushed himself back into his seat, “Your own slaughter, as well as countless others. Do not belittle the sacrifices we have made, the losses we have suffered, as merely some cleaver ruse to sidestep accusation for Akabaieth’s murder.”

“It is merely convenient to the Patriarch’s murder, master Khunnas, is his meaning.” Kehthaek interjected before the skunk could continue, one hand raised slightly in a disarming gesture, “Of that there is no doubt.” Turning his gaze back to the elder of the three, Murikeer nodded, forcing himself to calm. “Did this mage Wessex speak to any of what he found, and why he felt the way he did?”

“I do not know, but I would suppose so.” Muri replied, watching Akaleth from the corner of his eye, frowning as he saw the priest’s hands moving within his sleeves as if toying with something, or masturbating. That image brought a cold smile to the corner of the skunk’s muzzle, allowing him to relax slightly and focus again on Kehthaek, “Though to whom he would have made such confidences I do not know, as I was not terribly familiar with him.”

He had seen Wessex on only a few occasions, and had once crossed magic with him in an informal but quite intense duel. Despite the diminutive frame and apparent scarcity of years the curse had placed upon him, Muri sensed that there were depths to Wessex that even Rickkter lacked, a wisdom and knowledge that bespoke great age and experience, very much of it quite dark.

“Who knew him best?”

“I could not exactly say, though I do seem to recall he had an apprentice, journeyman rank. I would think that she knew him very well.”

“What was her name?” Felsah, leaning forward slightly in his chair, elbows on the arms, fingers steepled over his knees.

“As I did not know him, I did not know her, so I could not tell you her name.” The skunk shrugged helplessly, “I am sure that someone around here would now, however.”

“You were the closest to the Patriarch’s camp?” Kehthaek asked suddenly, bringing the focus of the questions once more back to the topic of greatest interest.

“Likely, yes, perhaps an hour north by foot.” He nodded.

“And you were warned of the attack by a dragon?” Felsah continued, eyebrows raised curiously, his question answered by a short nod from the skunk. “Why didn’t the dragons try to save the Patriarch?”

“They tried, but they were unable to find the camp. A great storm had reduced their ability to fly and navigate. The one that found us was in a state of near immobility due to exhaustion and we had to carry it with us.”

“Carry it?” Felsah asked, voice momentarily incredulous.

Murikeer nodded, smiling slightly, “It was but a small dragon, and flew very much under the might of the storm where the larger dragons had been forced to fly a great deal higher. By luck alone it found us.”

“A storm?”

Muri nodded, “A terrible storm. It made seeing very far quite difficult.”

“Yet you ran, through the forest, in the dark of the night, to a camp you did not know the exact location of, from what, you said an ‘hour north’ of? This storm must not have been so terrible as you say.” Akaleth asked sharply, leaned forward in his chair much as Felsah had been, eyes piercing, lips sneering even as he formed the words. Muri could see that the object with which he had been toying was some sort of wide, use worn leather strap.

“Shall I show you this storm?” Muri growled back, eyes meeting the younger priest’s gaze without wavering. Akaleth scowled at that strange challenge, leaning back in his chair and shooting Kehthaek a brief glance.

A slight frown pulled at the corner of the older priest’s mouth as he regarded the skunk for several moments, “Show us?” he asked guardedly, “By what means?”

“Quite simply, by letting you see as I saw.” Raising one hand slightly, Muri let his eyes narrow, reaching back into his memory, recalling the day, the hour, the moments before Matthias had charged out into the rain and returned a moment later with the exhausted Gornul in his arms. Head bowing slightly, he focussed upon the force that lay beyond the meagre shelter, bringing it to the front of his awareness as he reached for the power within him.

Pain seared through his ravaged eye, nearly stealing the weave from his grasp, but the drugs in his system swiftly dampened the sharp agony. The room grew swiftly dark, filling with clouds the ugly black of a fresh bruise, churning about as if agitated by some great and unseen ladle. Lightning flared, the clap of thunder roaring through the room. Tree branches, hanging low with the weight of the water coursing from them, lashed in the howling wind. Rain thundered with such force as to dampen the growling, fading bellow of the thunderclap. Faces peered toward Murikeer, the dim glow of a single witchlight etching their waterlogged features in sharp shadows. Llyn, her expression concerned, her face achingly precious to his gaze, stood closest. Finbar a few paces away, and Matthias a vague shadow peering out into the deluge.

“What is this?” Akaleth spat with a hiss, jerking back into his chair and crossing himself as he stared wide eyed at the storm roaring around them, “What abominations do you dare bring up from the abyss to drown us?” his voice grew into a harsh, enraged bellow, muted by the roar of the rain and the growl of thunder. “You dare such blasphemy, you…” his voice trailed off as if choked beyond comprehensible speech as he bit off the words he had meant to say.

“It is merely an illusion, Father.” Murikeer stated, his voice calm, leaden, his attention on the weave of the illusion, the memory elusively playing about within his mind as the pain in his empty eye throbbed with growing force. “It is this deluge that we all faced that night, through which the dragons attempted to reach Akabaieth’s camp. They had to fly as high into the clouds of this storm as they dared lest they be battered to the earth by it.”

“But you said that one of them warned you?” Felsah stated as he tried to peer beyond the lashing tree branches, trying to see something of the world beyond the waterfall which defined their shelter, but seeing only darkness and wildly capering shadows when the lightning stroked the sky.

As one, both Finbar and Llyn turned their heads sharply toward the rain, then Matthias charged into the darkness. A moment later he returned, carrying the exhausted dragonet.

“I will have to speak for this, as the dragon you see cannot speak. It has a form of speaking that is heard only in the mind. It is by that we knew to look for his coming.” Murikeer explained, “It is by that which the dragon was able to confer the warning of the attack to us. It was too exhausted by his ordeal by that point to continue onward, so we carried it.” As the three illusory keepers turned their attention to Gornul, Murikeer released the illusion, which vanished as abruptly as a bubble of soap falling to a dry floor.

Akaleth hissed, closing his eyes to slits against the brightness of the room, “What good, then, were the other beasts?” he muttered through clenched teeth, lip curled in a sneer. “It was Metamor’s hope that, once someone reached the camp, that they would be able to send some manner of summons to the dragons so that they would know where they were needed, and come to protect Akabaieth and his retinue.”

“Hah!” Akaleth proclaimed, drawing three gazes toward him, “Dragons protecting the Patriarch!” he cried out in strange exultation, as if some esoteric point had been made. “How did you hope to send them a message in the face of that storm?”

“With magic, of course.” The skunk said simply, a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“Magic!” Akaleth’s voice had rose so in pitch that Murikeer for a moment wondered whether the curse had taken him exceptionally early. He then saw the contorted lines of the Questioner’s face, and the mocking disbelief within him. It was plainly obvious now that Akaleth was not the understanding man that Akabaieth had been, nor would he likely ever be.

“Yes, magic. That is what I am, if you failed to understand that from the illusion you just witnessed.” He turned his gaze toward Kehthaek, “Akabaieth believed that it was a tool, one that could be used as much for the greater good of all as it was perceived to serve the darkness of evil.”

“How is it you know his feelings on the matter?” Felsah asked, genuinely curious, one eyebrow raised slightly, a slight frown upon his lips.

“He said as much when we met.” Muri said plainly, meeting the priest’s dark gaze, the calming sensation he had experienced so many months previous once more stealing through him, easing his spirit, pushing back the ache of his ruined eye. He had thought he would be frightened into flight to be so close to a human as he had been when the Patriarch came upon him, but with that man there had been something altogether that touched him. Peace. A peace that he had not at all expected when braced with four humans in the dark, lonely corner of the Keep’s expansive library.

“When did you meet?”

“I believe it was the second day that he was here.” He replied, looking back upon that encounter much as he had brought forward the memory of the stormy scene under the pines, “I was sitting in as secluded a corner of the library as I could find, hoping to avoid the chaos of Akabaieth’s presence in the keep.” He had to smile warmly, “I did not think that it would instead seek me out.”

“Are you not a member of the Ecclesia?” Felsah asked, quietly.

Murikeer scowled at him for a moment as if the improbability of that question had not registered correctly, “No. I am of the Lothanasi, the Lightbringers.” Not even Akaleth appeared disturbed to hear that, “In truth, I was researching a treatise associated with my goddess, Artela, when Akabaieth chanced upon me.” At this Akaleth did stir, frowning as he raised one hand to sketch the sign of the tree upon his chest. The handle end of some whipping or flogging device was revealed within the sleeve of his robes in the brief moment it took him to cross himself, quickly hidden as he secreted his hands away within his sleeves again.

“What did Patriarch Akabaieth have to say about that?” Felsah continued. Kehthaek watched quietly, while Akaleth seemed intent on holding his tongue.

“He asked me what the treatise said, and I told him.” The skunk replied. Akaleth bore a disgusted moue then, his dark eyes narrowing sharply in distaste. “They are real.” Murikeer reiterated defensively, peering from the corner of his eyes at Akaleth, “Whether or not you believe in them.”

Kehthaek shook his head slowly, “The reality or veracity of the lesser pantheon is not in question today. What did you and Patriarch Akabaieth speak about?”

“Magic, mostly.” Murikeer said, settling back into his chair. The pain throbbing in his head had lessened for the moment, letting him focus his thoughts on other things for the moment. It was by careful preparation that the drugs in his system did not fog his mind as they fogged his sense of pain. “I am a mage, recently raised to Master rank, though I was still a journeyman at the time I spoke with Akabaieth. When I first spoke of this to Akabaieth I must admit that I had expected a reaction more akin to Father Akaleth’s than the one I did receive.” He leaned back in the chair and smiled, holding his hands up slightly from the arms of his chair, punctuating his speech with small motions, “Instead, I found a man who simply wished to understand me, as a man, and what I do, as a mage.” He levelled a stare on Kehthaek, “I fear humans, I must explain. I was far south of here when the curse took me, as I was at the Keep, as a child, when the curse was laid. For a year I was hunted, hounded, pursued, and persecuted by humans for what I had, have, become.” He waved one hand to take in his new physical appearance, “So I expected to fear this ancient, powerful human, but there was… something about him that gave me peace, so I found myself speaking with him.”

Listening quietly, Kehthaek nodded slowly as Muri spoke, “We talked of magic, as I said. He asked questions, and I answered them. We spoke of the talent for magic, that spark within every person that presages their blossoming gift. He asked if it was given only to a select few or to everyone. I explained to him that everyone had the gift in some form or another, but not always in equal measure; strong in some, less so in others. Each of us, I told him, even he, and you, have some innate ability at magic, whether realized or not.”

“You suggested that the leader of the entire Ecclesia faith possessed pagan powers?” Akaleth snorted derisively, “To his face? I would wager how that was received.”

“As a simple fact, Father.” Murikeer shot back dryly, “Magic is not a pagan thing, it need not even be related to any manner of deity or ‘other power’ transcendent of the mage themselves. It is a thing that we each have. I explained to Akabaieth that the gifts he granted to Abba were simply expressions of his inborn talents. I told him that it was likely that way with all who live in the lands of Yesulam. Unable to express those abilities, or learn of them, or how to harness them in the ways those of us in other lands are given knowledge of, they find themselves turning to, or being drawn to, other avenues of expression.” He paused for a moment as he gazed across toward Akaleth, “Such as the cloth.”

“Sophistry!” Akaleth spat venomously, nearly lurching up from his chair, “You speak heresy, beast, ware your tongue lest someone remove it from your skull!” the priest warned with apoplectic rage in his voice, shaking a finger at Murikeer. Kehthaek and Felsah merely turned their heads slightly toward their youngest member. Murikeer regarded him impassively, not moving from his seat, “You speak sophistry, Khunnas!”

Lips pursed in a hard line, having sensed that the younger priest would react as he had, Muri turned toward Kehthaek, “Is it not true that priests of the Ecclesia can lay hands upon a person and heal them?”

The elder Questioner’s lips curled as if in a smile, “Yes, that is true.”

“What then of mages like myself who do the same thing? Is that wrong?”

Kehthaek took a slow breath and said, “That is a question with which the Ecclesia is currently struggling.”

“And that is a dodge,” Muri riposted, “How can magic be evil when it can be used to heal the wounds of others and restore them to life? How evil to strengthen a weakened beam and keep a house upright? To find water in lands parched of it?” He leaned forward in his chair, meeting the elder’s gaze earnestly. “It is a tool, Father, a very precious tool, but like any other tool can be used to aid or hinder.” He sat upright, glancing toward the youngest priest, “Father, lay your whipping strap there on the floor before Father Kehthaek if you would humour me.”

Akaleth scowled fiercely at the suggestion, glaring at Murikeer for several seconds before glancing to Kehthaek, who merely nodded slowly. Standing from his chair, the young priest drew from his voluminous sleeve a stout, short strap of leather. Age worn and stained with years of use, the stinging knots at the end of the weapon hissed as they drew from his sleeve. Crossing from his chair, he dropped it in a heap on the table which stood between Questioners and questioned.

Stiff backed, he returned to his seat and sat slowly, glaring all the while at Murikeer. “Now, Father, could you please order that device to strike me.” He requested, glancing back to Kehthaek.

“I cannot.” The priest replied with a frown, looking down at the inert strap.

Muri pointed one finger toward the strap, “That is magic, there before you on the table. A ‘thing’, an item, inert of its own.” He met Kehthaek’s gaze, then glanced to Felsah before turning his gaze toward Akaleth, “Of it’s own, it lacks any sort of volition toward any activity.” Steeling himself, he took a breath, “Father Akaleth, take up your toy and strike me with it.”

Akaleth glared at him as he stood from his chair without seeking any sort of acquiescence from Kehthaek. “It is not a toy.” He growled as he took up the strap, looking down at the skunk seated before him, his hand tightening upon the braided leather handle of the strap. There was no hesitation in his hand, nor any staying the blow as he drew up his arm and lashed down at the unmoving target before him.

Teeth set, Muri steeled himself for the blow, which caught his shoulder with a heavy blow from the width of the strap, whipping down across his chest with the knotted tips at the end of the strap. Designed to sting terribly without leaving a great deal of marks, the device was largely ineffective against his fur and garments, but the blow was fierce nonetheless, and were it not for the drugs he would have grunted at the swift, bruising pain.

Akaleth brought his hand up as if to deliver a second blow, but held his swing, turning abruptly and crossing to his chair. By the time he turned and sat the strap was no where to be seen, once more secreted in his sleeve. Kehthaek and Felsah watched impassively, unmoved by the display.

“Like magic, that strap, used to strike, to inflict pain.” Muri rolled his shoulders, “Which, might I add, is the very worst way to garner truth. Of its own, the strap was inert, lacking either good or evil intent. It was the hand of the wielder that determined its use.”

With a nod, Kehthaek waved one hand slightly, “Pointed, but irrelevant to this issue.” He said dryly, “We are told not to try to take powers reserved to the Heavens within our own hands. That is sin. The question that we must ask is this is all magic an inborn gift as you say, and thus not reserved for the Heavens, or is it an usurpation reserved for Followers with special duties, or for none at all.” He spread his hands wide then, shoulders lifting in a slight shrug, “That is the question we are struggling with. Many of the bishops’ council believe different things, which makes it very hard to give a firm answer. Patriarch Akabaieth may have been trying to fathom something of magic, a thing admittedly few of the Bishops’ Council have chosen to place much study into.”

It was subtle, but there was something in Kehthaek’s tone that told Murikeer that he should not pursue this line, that he should allow the Questioners to move the discussion elsewhere. Why that would be the case, he did not know, but he knew better than to push any further, himself. He nodded after several moments, settling back into his seat and waiting for them to continue.

“Was that all that you and Patriarch Akabaieth discussed?” Felsah asked again, his voice steady.

“Aye, that was all.” The skunk offered with a small nod.

“When you arrived at the Patriarch’s camp, what did you find?” Kehthaek asked, picking up the thread of the questioning once again.

One paw raised slightly, Murikeer met the older human’s gaze with his one good eye, “It would be easier for you to understand if you saw it for yourselves.” He said, though did not immediately begin the illusion he had already drawn to the front of his memory. He had tried long and hard over the past two days to recall what he had witnessed in those few days that the Patriarch had been there. Akaleth heaved a disgusted sigh, but said nothing. A small motion of Kehthaek’s hand bade the mage to continue.

The image sprang into being with deceptive swiftness, the room fading from the senses of sight and hearing, but not out of touch. Everyone present could still feel the chairs in which they sat, and even see them if they concentrated enough. Muri had not entirely released the weave of his earlier illusion, making it easier to bring up another, though even that usually effortless action was costing him precious time as the painkillers were worn away.

Before them all, the scene that he had come upon became clear, swimming from the haziness of storm and darkness into lifelike clarity. The blighted plain, strewn with bodies twisted and smashed, soaked through with rain and blood, was visible through the intermittent strokes of lightning, bereft of colour and hope. To one side on that plain stood Kashin, holding a sword warily towards them as they emerged, his left arm severed and cauterized above the elbow. He’d been standing before a wagon in which he’d placed the bodies of Vinsah, Egland, and the Patriarch. The horses had scattered, and so there was nothing to pull the wagon.

“Why is the Yeshuel pointing his sword at you?” Felsah asked curiously, pointing with one finger at the knight, who wavered on his feet even as the priest spoke. Lightning split the sky, briefly illuminating a macabre scene of destruction and chaos. A heartbeat later another light appeared, this one steady but no less bright, streaking into the sky and fixing itself several hundred feet above the ground as another, then a third appeared, shedding their light upon the camp.

“Eli’s grace.” Someone muttered in awed horror as the lights illuminated a scene of destruction. Horses moved listlessly among the unmoving corpses of Yeshuel, fallen and smashed tents, and shattered wagons.

“He feared that we were the attacker returning. This is what myself and the scouts with me came upon. The lights you see summoned the dragons, who arrived a few moments later.” Indeed, even as he spoke, a small host of winged shadows burst from the clouds and into the bright glow of the lights, their bodies throwing back as they pounded the air with their wings to slow their charge. “One helped us return the few wounded survivors back to Metamor aboard one of the remaining wagons, by carrying it. Kashin, the knight with the sword, was the only ambulatory survivor we ever saw, and we sent him back with the dragon. I remained behind in hopes of finding out who had wrought this horrific slaughter.”

“Did you?” Kehthaek’s voice, sombre, tinged with sorrow.

Sadly, Murikeer shook his head. The illusion wavered slightly, features melting, changing, then steadied once again. The rain had abated slightly, to a dreary, cold drizzle rather than the previous downpour. The wagon and Kashin with it were now gone, revealing in clear detail the bodies that lay strew about in the centre amidst the tents. “I spoke with the spirits of the Earth here, but they had little to tell me about the attacker, only that he used very dark magics to mask his escape.” The skunk held up his hands helplessly, “As to what he used /to/ attack… it was no magic that even the spirits could tell me of.” He sighed.

Watching the skunk, Akaleth raised one eyebrow at that, but did not pursue the obvious line of questioning. It was Felsah’s voice that broke the silence, “Where was Patriarch Akabaieth murdered?”

Once more the scene shifted, slewed, and clarified, revealing the field on the other side of the muddy track that had once been a road. Murikeer gestured to one spot where the grass was stained a dark, viscid red. The ground was slightly higher in the centre of the crushed heap of grass than elsewhere, the blood of the slain staining the ground before the rain could wash it away. “Here.” Murikeer reported. “He had been attempting to reach the safety of the forest when his killer caught up with him.”

“It looks as if somebody knelt beside him.” Akaleth pointed out, his voice suggestive of dark things.

“That was Kashin, I think.” The skunk replied with a shrug, “Trying to pick him up with one arm.” He had not expected the Questioner to have such a keen eye. He had not seemed willing to look overly closely at the entire illusion, much less notice minute details.

“What did you find in the tents?” Felsah asked.

Muri’s tail twitched, the tip brushing against the side of his chair as he felt the pain growing within his skull. The painkillers were wearing off, and yet they continued to ask questions. The illusion shifted subtly to reveal the inside of first one tent, in which a group of wagon tenders had been slaughtered so swiftly and efficiently their faces had never lost the peaceful expressions of sleep. The inside of another tent appeared, revealing several soldiers with their throats slit, then another tent where two priests lay with their chests caved in, sightless eyes gazing into the night sky as the tent had been half destroyed by a horse in its death throes. Kehthaek and Felsah studied the scene gravely for a few moments, Akaleth looking with one lip curled slightly, one eye closed as if to banish the terrible sight.

“Where is the third Yeshuel?” Felsah asked, his voice subdued, pointing at the two crumpled bodies, one without a head, whom had been the first two found. Murikeer let the scene melt into the forest, where they came upon the half of the third, all that remained of him, the horrible wounds cauterized just as had Kashin’s arm.

“Do you have any idea where the murderer went?”

“Which direction, yes.” Muri nodded, letting the scene shift rapidly. Pain lanced through his head, forcing him to grit his teeth. As things came into focus once more they were in a brightly lit section of the field some distance away from the camp, looking down upon a pair of booted footprints. The marks progressed only a few feet before simply ending, no where near any tree, boulder, or rocky ground. He could remember clearly how long he and Misha had paced back and forth along the length of those tracks, tracing the progress of each person throughout much of the battle.

“A man and a woman?” Akaleth asked curiously. “We have only been told that it was a man who killed them. Why is that?”

Murikeer blinked, rubbing his temples for a moment before replying, replacing the patch which he had knocked askew, “Well, we do not know what role the woman played in the attack itself, but I think she was preventing us from protecting the Patriarch’s camp magically. The man alone was responsible for the death you saw. The woman’s footsteps only appear in the field briefly, here.”

“So there were two?” the younger priest pursued, mouth pursed in a hard frown, “Two alone who committed this terrible crime?”

“That is what we believe.”

“Why do their footprints stop? Are you hiding something?”

Murikeer shook his head. The fur all over his body was beginning to ache, the pain beginning to throb within him, presaging the eventual failure of the drugs to perform their function. He was pushing the potion to its limits, and would not be able to hold together for much longer. He felt his composure melting, anger flaring at this priest for asking such foul questions.

“They simply disappeared. That is how it was, how you see right here before you. It is not a thing I can forget.”

“Why is one of the man’s footprints deeper than the other?” Felsah ventured, as is the barbed byplay between skunk and young Questioner were not occurring.

Akaleth flicked one hand negligently, “He was likely carrying something.” He replied rhetorically, not looking away from the skunk.

“We believe he may have been carrying Sur Bryonoth, whom was not found at the scene of the battle nor after.” He did not need to explain that the knight had turned up over a month later, trying to capture the Duke. “We examined this spot, where the tracks end, the entire field where this tragedy occurred, both magically and otherwise. It is beyond any of us here at Metamor to understand. The why of the events, the who of its perpetration, and where they went are all questions that have not yet been answered despite the best of our efforts to learn.” His voice was a strained growl as his head throbbed, the pain growing steadily as his protection wore thin. With a hiss, he gave a quick flick of one hand, the illusion vanishing abruptly.

Felsah blinked, casting his gaze around the room for a moment as if he did not remember where they had begun, then looked back to Muri, “Are you all right?” he asked.

“The magic pains me.” The skunk muttered, rubbing his temples, the remains of his eye squeezed shut as best he could close the remains of the empty socket.

Akaleth smiled coldly, condescendingly, “Of course it pains you. It is magic.” He said, smirking at his barb.

His head jerking sharply, the skunk leveled a glare upon the mage that wiped the self satisfied smirk from his face. Instantly the room dissolved again, replaced by the cramped confines of a small, dimly lit closet lined with shelves. Upon the shelves were small casks, in the corners of the room stacked large barrels. The floor was covered with sand, as were the shelves, which were at a slight angle toward the wall.

Leering at them all was a tall, muscular, bearded man with a wicked blade in one hand, the other about their throats as each experienced the illusion first hand. With a sinister grimace on his face, a glint of malevolent evil in his dark eyes, the bearded man thrust the dagger forward. A thin, shrill wailing filled the room, a sound which Muri did not know but soon realized was the sound of his own scream as that dagger seared out his eye.

The dagger was withdrawn, the bearded man casting them aside, and the illusion collapsed as Murikeer felt that stabbing agony all over again, the flesh under his fur going pale. Kehthaek seemed unmoved, a frown creasing his aged features. Felsah looked ill, swallowing his heart. Akaleth seemed genuinely stricken, drawn back into his chair as far as he could go, one hand clasped to the left side of his face, seeking to find out if he still had his eye.

None of them moved as Muri lurched out of his seat, crossing toward Akaleth. The Yesbearn, however, moved swiftly, the metallic hiss of their swords slicing through the silence as one reached Muri and grasped his arm. Halted a pace before Akaleth’s chair, the skunk reached up with one hand and jerked his eye patch away, revealing the horror which that dagger had left where his eye had once been.

Forcing Akaleth to look up by sheer force of will alone, he met the priest’s two eyes with his one, “This.” He hissed, pointing at the ruin of his left eye, “This is what pains me, a ruination caused by a blade cursed to steal souls.” He jerked his arm away from the guard. “Have you known suffering, Questioner? Have you felt the pain of having your soul ripped apart? Have you faced death and thumbed your chin at it?” he hissed, his voice growing louder with each word, until he was nearly yelling, his composure evaporated as totally as the drug which had sustained him from the agony within. He thrust a finger toward the priest, the guard at his side not moving to stop him once the threat of physical assault seemed over, “I have faced daemons and destroyed them, there is nothing in you or your macabre circus that engenders fear within me.”

Turning, he stalked toward the door, “I have lost friendships because I sought to bring the truth of what Akabaieth wished you to know, to show you the truth of what happened to him.” He cast back over his shoulder, “Turn the words as they suit you, dark robes, but the truth remains.” He stopped at the outer door and looked back at them, focussing only on the younger priest, “Turn the truth against me at your own peril.” He warned, then crossed through the foyer. Biting back the agony, he reached out with his magic and caused the door to open so explosively that the two guards outside spasmed with startled surprise.

For a moment, through his pain fogged vision, Muri thought he saw Rickkter standing just beyond the threshold, a look upon his muzzle just as startled as the guards. Moving past the raccoon, he realized by the wardrobe alone that it was not his mentor. He was garbed in priestly vestments, gray rather than black. Rickkter’s acquaintance, then, Vinsah.

Sparing the priest not a second glance, the skunk moved rapidly down the passageway, teeth gritted tightly against the pain that he felt at any moment would surge up and overwhelm him, send him crashing into an abyss of unrelenting agony. He found a door swiftly enough, jerking it open and stepping into the room beyond, which was cluttered with brooms and other cleaning supplies. A closet; yet with another door on the opposite wall, which he crossed to and yanked open as well, stepping out onto the balcony outside his chamber door.

Vinsah had been wandering the halls of Metamor aimlessly. His paws had been clutched behind his back just above his tail as he walked, muzzle bent low in thought. At least, that was how he appeared to the Keepers he passed in his passage. In truth, there was very little on his mind. Faint images would come to him, and then disappear back into the murk, hidden suggestions that did not yet wish to be seen. About all that his mind could really focus on was the walking itself, one paw before the other, claws clicking against stone, grey vestments rustling about his legs and tail.

But it was only the act of walking that the Bishop concerned his mind with. The actual destination he left to providence, conforming himself to the whims of the Keep. It was oddly satisfying to lay himself in the hands of this edifice, a strange sort of comfort that he felt he knew deep in his heart, but the why of it he could not determine. So it came as a great surprise to the raccoon to see that he had stumbled upon the corridor just outside the Questioner's chambers.

Idly, staring at the two Yesbearn standing on either side of the door, he wondered if he had not been brought back here to accept or decline Father Kehthaek's request for a private audience. He had not even given the matter much thought, preferring to allow at least a day or two for his mind to fully settle itself. It was strange to see how Kehthaek had changed in the many long years since they'd been at seminary together. But there was no doubt that the man was a Questioner, and there were simply certain things one always remembered about Questioners; chief amongst them was that they were always Questioners, no matter how they dressed or acted.

Caught in that moment of reflection, he was quite startled when the chamber door suddenly flung open, a percussive blast accompanying its swing, and Murikeer stormed out. The two Yesbearn spun about, their swords singing as they were half-drawn from ornate sheaths. One glanced through the open door as Murikeer stalked past, his fur bushed in agitation. Satisfied at what he saw inside, the Yesbearn held up a forestalling hand as his companion prepared to follow the retreating skunk. Startled, Vinsah blinked and tried to speak, but the mage was past him in only a few steps, moving quickly down the corridor. There was a look of both anger and pain upon his muzzle, one that brought a feeling of concern for the young mage into the priest’s breast. Swords clicked and armor muttered as the two Yesbearn resumed their posts, one of them drawing the door to the Questioners’ chamber closed. Following the skunk tentatively, Vinsah watched as his fellow raccoon Rickkter's apprentice disappeared through another doorway.

The room beyond was a closet stuffed with brooms, but there was another door at the far end that Murikeer had already passed through. Gingerly, Vinsah stepped around the chambermaid's arsenal in their constant battle against disorder, and into the next room. It was a balcony overlooking the gardens of Metamor. Though Vinsah could only see the vague outline of hedges through the fog, he'd walked that way enough to know it even though it was indistinct.

In one corner of the balcony, leaning against the polished marble balustrade was a dark silhouette in the shadows of the tower wall. Vinsah stared at it for several moments before noting the way the shadow heaved and shivered, and then realized that it was the skunk Murikeer himself, head bowed and tail fallen, his shoulders heaving as if he had run a great distance. Walking over quietly, Vinsah slowly placed one paw against the trembling figure. "Murikeer?" he asked in a low whispering voice.

The skunk did not turn, only shivering in the cool air, his long tail wrapped around his legs. Small round ears were laid back, as if attempting to shut out all sound. Vinsah let his paw rest a little more heavily on the back of the skunk's shoulder then, leaning forward a little more to get a better glimpse at the youth's face. Muri’s muzzle was clenched tightly shut, teeth pressed together so fiercely that they must have ached. There was great pain writ upon that animalistic face.

"Murikeer?" Vinsah asked, alarm creeping into his voice. He patted his paw several times upon the skunk's back, encouraging him to turn out from his corner. But the skunk remained as resolute as stone, his hands clutching the stone balustrade tightly. His one eye was firmly shut, dark fur shivering as some terrible agony poured through his bones. The priest could almost feel it himself a burning fire that scoured the flesh and baked the marrow.

Taking a deep breath, Vinsah reached around and placed one paw upon the skunk’s brow, then both, feeling the great furnace that burned under his touch. The skunk was terribly ill, burning with some manner of terrible fever. Setting his jaw, Vinsah took a steadying breath and felt a similar heat growing within himself, spawned deep within his own breast and building outward, coursing down his arms to his grey furred hands. It was not something he often performed, but it was a rite that all priests knew to some extent. Filling himself with that warmth, an embrace from the most Holy, he let the power flow through his hands into the skunk's form. It was as if he were pouring sweet milk and honey, it flowed smoothly and rich, saturating and cleansing.

Only this time, what wounds there were could not be healed. There was no illness for his touch to cleanse, only the churning, boiling miasma of some mixture that the skunk had ingested, but not poison. It was as if this nepenthe were simply flowing around the source of the agony that raged through the skunk, an untouchable bulwark that resisted his touch like a rock in a riverbed. Vinsah gave more of his energy, his claws digging through the dark fur of the skunk, as if that would bring a deeper connection. But even still, his efforts could not brace that injury, leaving it as before.

He realized what it was that resisted his touch so tenaciously a moment later as his claws pressed firmly at the flesh of the skunk’s scalp under his fur. Vileness; the dark, tainted touch of some sinister curse had torn at the skunk’s very soul, leaving a tattered wound which his touch could not mend.

Vinsah's eyes blinked open when a paw rose to clutch at his wrist. Murikeer slowly turned his head, the tension melting from his muzzle slightly, “What… what are you doing?” he rasped, his dark eyes glazed with the effects of whatever drug he had poured into himself. "It's all right," he said through clenched teeth. "Please, let me handle it."

The Bishop sucked in his breath, taking a short step back and releasing the skunk’s head. "I'm sorry," he managed to breathe. The fog that cloaked everything seemed to suck his breath away.

Murikeer shook his head briefly as he pulled the priest’s hand close, placing his own overtop it for a moment, “It is- it is not something your ability- your touch can repair, Father.” He muttered, frowning, “Others have tried already, all have failed.” He released Vinsah’s hand and turned back to the balustrade, both hands clutching at the cold stone. “All have failed.” He said again, to himself, as he shook his head, gazing off toward the northeastern mountains.

On unsteady legs, the Bishop backed into the closet once more, his own long stripped tail flicking back and forth. After negotiating his way around the broom handles and mops, Vinsah shut the door, and began to walk along the halls of Metamor, aimless once more. His mind was even less cohesive than before.

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