Questioning - Part XVII

The night’s sleep had been meagre, but enough to rejuvenate Sir Poznan and his men. There was a long road ahead of them, a vast plain of unending low hills and grasses. It would take them a fortnight to reach the base of the mountains to the East, the bold and mysterious boundary to the Flatlands. While Sir Poznan knew little of the people in these northern lands, he knew even less about what lay beyond those mountains. The maps he’d been given for this quest did not go beyond the first series of peaks. He had wondered if that was because the Bishop had not thought they’d need to know, or because nobody even at Yesulam knew what lay beyond them.

After thanking the loathsome Burgomaster for his hospitality, Sir Poznan took his men back out amongst the rest of his knights. They had bivouacked just on the outskirts of the small village of Doltatra, setting up their tents in a circular pattern, the fires in the centre. The horses were milling about in a small paddock hastily arranged for them. With unconcerned regard for anything outside the paddock they grazed away at the long grasses of the steppe.

It was not yet morning, the eastern sky slowly beginning to brighten from the twilight purple that covered all else. The people of Doltatra were also growing restive, fisherman clustering around the sides of the river, some of the farmers heading out into the fields to till the ground, while a few of the children were out in the streets playing with the dogs. Uneasy eyes were cast towards the knights of Driheli as they donned their mailed shirts and gauntlets. As if one body, the town of Doltatra was holding its breath, waiting for the strangers to leave.

Sir Poznan had no wish to stay any longer than he had to, and as soon as he returned amongst the familiar tents, burrs and laughs of his own kind, he gave the orders to fold up the tents and the paddock. His squire Skowicz went straight for the cookfire and brought him back some of the sausage that was being grilled. Sir Poznan bit off a chunk of the spiced meat, chewing it down heavily as he scanned the horizon.

That blue light that had shone at dusk, that mountain in the middle of the Steppe, it was not there. Where at the sun’s setting it had been so clear, now with the sun’s rising he could see nothing but the ever level grasses of the Steppe. They had already decided to avoid this mysterious mount, the look of fear in the Burgomaster’s face had been etched into the knight’s mind. While he knew he should not fear some pagan superstition, it was best not too summon demons, even pagan ones.

He continued to stare as the sun begin to rise, the first rays of the yellow orb shining up from the South casting a warm glow upon the steepled grasses. The shadows that came with the sun began to shorten as more of that celestial orb inched its way over the horizon. The Knight Commander finished off his sausage and yet he continued to stare, standing in his mailed shirt, the scent of the oil still fresh. Somewhere out there was Kashin. The traitor had likely already reached the mountains and begun his way Southwards. It would take quite a bit of time before they had caught up with them.

And it had apparently been quite some time that Sir Lech Poznan had been staring at the eastern horizon, for the sound off hoofbeats behind him caught his attention. Skowicz was riding his own smaller horse, leading the reins of Sir Poznan’s charger in one hand.

“I brought your horse, master.”

Sir Poznan nodded, stepping into the saddle with practised ease. The feel of a horse between his legs made him complete. It made him feel far more powerful. The land before him would lay itself bare to him when he was atop his steed as a knight should be. “Thank you, my boy,” Sir Poznan said, turning to se that the rest of his company was very nearly assembled.

Skowicz turned as well, waiting with one hand pressed against his horse’s neck, a calm reassuring touch. The two waited as the rest of the knight’s and attendants saddled and joined them at the eastern edge of what had been their camp. “We ride east today,” Sir Poznan declared loud enough for them all to hear. They were bright, gruff faces, eager for the day of battle. “We’ve a fortnight’s ride to the mountains. Let us ride fast, and let us ride hard.”

With that, Sir Lech Poznan turned his charger about and took off at a pleasant gallop. It was not a pace they would hold, but it would fill his fellow knights with excitement to last them the rest of the journey across the Steppe. With the sun shining brightly ahead, the knight of Bydbrüszin smiled eagerly. Though it was still a few weeks yet to come, the knights of Driheli would taste battle once more.

Only with the greatest of trepidation did Weyden join her that morning when she went to see the Questioners. After receiving the summons the previous evening, Jessica had immediately gone to speak with the Lothanasa, feathers trembling, voice quavering in distress. She’d heard of how upset others had become when they had been questioned, and also, she had been unfortunate enough to see Raven in the temple when she’d been told of their arrival. The look of fury and fright that for a brief moment fixed itself upon the wolf’s face had been one she’d never forget.

Raven had assured her that whatever sting the Questioners had left within them it would be entirely circumstantial. The priestess showed the young journeyman the document that she’d had all three of those black-robed priests sign, binding their hands to a very simple task through only a single means. All they could do to her was ask her questions, and that was all. And the questions they were permitted to ask were restricted to the death of Patriarch Akabaieth.

Further, there was one other concession that had been granted which brought the young hawk a sense of relief. She would be allowed to bring an observer with her. Although they were not yet living together, Weyden and she spent so much of their time in each other’s company that it was considered simply a matter of time before he would ask for her hand in marriage. She had on occasion wondered if his reluctance to do so came from the fact that she did not have a hand anymore, and he was not sure how he was supposed to propose

There was much that she loved about her fellow hawk. He possessed a calm strength that she could nestle into when she wanted. He was rough like many men, and when in the company of his friends could be quite coarse. He was not afraid to fight either, having bloodied his talons during the assault alongside his fellow Keepers. But despite this, when he was alone with her, he could be soft and gentle, as if he’d pulled on a velvet glove to cover his coarse exterior. And most importantly of all, he loved her. With every glance form his golden eyes, from every silken touch of his wingtips, she knew and felt that love.

And so it came as a great surprise to her to see Weyden lose his composure when asked if he would join her to meet with the Questioners. “You don’t know them,” Weyden had shouted, his neck feathers standing on end, wings fluttering haphazardly, like a bird trying to free a talon from a tangle of brush while the baying hounds neared. “They will do terrible things if we do not do as they want!”

Her own resolve had been battered in those moments as she tried to reassure her love that all would be well, describing the document that Raven had shown her. But in the end, it took Raven herself to calm him down. And it was then that she understood finally what his true fears were. He had once been of the Ecclesia, but ever since he’d met her, he’d slowly adopted her ways and beliefs. In fact, his last expression of faith as a Patildor had come upon hearing of the Patriarch’s murder. From that day forward, he’d been a Lothanasi as surely as if he’d been born that way.

Weyden feared that the Questioners would discover this. The stories he’d described for the Lothanasa, even as he fought back his own sobs, of what they did to those who had left the Ecclesia had made Jessica’s feathers stand on end as she trembled. She had thought what some of the more zealous of the Patildor did to those that refused to join their faith was horrible enough. But after Weyden was through, she felt a hate for the Questioners surpassed only by her hate for Wessex’s murderer.

Nevertheless, Raven spent a great deal of time that evening assuring both of them that they would have nothing to fear from these three priests. And she also stressed that if anything happened that made them feel threatened they had every right to leave that room and tell the Lothanasa what had happened. The wolf did not smile, but there was a strange sense of wicked glee about her as she told them how quickly she would have those priests out of Metamor if they dared to violate their own accord.

The two hawks spent the night together, wrapped in each other’s wings, speaking quietly of humourous events in their lives. They laughed together as each did their best to keep their spirits high. When sleep finally took them both, their beaks were cracked in smiles. But even that could not completely dispel the fear that clutched them both. When the next morning came and they were making their way slowly to the Questioner’s room, they touched, each of them trembling slightly.

The guards at the door were dressed in black with the red cross upon their chests. They looked at the two humanoid hawks, neither of whom wore any clothing, their eyes widening slightly. “We are here to see the Questioners,” Jessica said, standing as tall as she could. Her golden eyes met those guards, gruff men both, and kept focussed, as if studying prey.

The gaze would unsettle most. But the two guards appeared to be men on the cusp of death’s grip, as they showed no outward sign of unease. These were men who had fought in wars and upon fields of blood until their was little human left within them. Silent as a tomb, one of them men opened the wide door, and gestured for them to enter.

Weyden was decidedly unsettled by their necrotic appearance. He held his breath as he passed underneath the aperture, Jessica following swiftly after, her wings pulled in tightly. The room beyond was bright, a cheerful atmosphere that belied the gaunt entrance. Along the walls brilliant white and yellow draperies hung, sways folded over several times between ornate columns carved with the likeness of animals. A large mantle occupied the far wall, marble, with a warm fire crackling behind the sluice. But the feature that most caught their eyes were the four chairs set a short distance before that hearth, three facing them, occupied by men shrouded in black cloaks.

The cloaks were not completely black. Like the guards outside, and the two standing next to the door on the inside, their chests were blazoned with a simple red cross, the ends of which were wider than the crosspiece. Sitting with arms resting upon the chair like judges pronouncing a sentence, they stared full at the two hawks who had come within their demesnes. Weyden did his best not to show his fear, but Jessica could see his wingtips beginning to flutter. She pressed her own against his back, soothingly urging him forward. They had to be strong for each other.

“Which of you is Jessica?” one of the cloaked figures asked. She could not tell which spoke though.

She stepped around and just to the side of the fourth unoccupied chair, her talons digging uncomfortably at the carpeting. “I am,” she could not think of a proper title for these priests, so added, “Questioners.”

The middle one nodded his head. “You may simply call us, Father. Won’t you sit down?”

Jessica shook her head. “I cannot sit, Father. I need a perch to stand on.”

“A perch?” the priest to the left asked incredulously.

“A fire log will do.”

The centre priest raised one arm. “Please bring a log for Jessica and her friend.” This must have been directed to the guards, as they both stepped around the Questioners and brought a log each, setting them down on either side of the chair. The bark had been stripped from them, leaving their surface a thing of yellowed streaks. Jessica’s talons dug within them delightedly, and she found her balance more sure.

Weyden had been utterly unable to speak yet, his beak closed so tightly that she doubted he could have opened it had he really wanted to. His nervousness was obvious to her, but she wondered if the priests would recognize it for what it was. Clearly, they were not accustomed to reading the emotions of birds.

The centre priest shifted just enough so that it was clear he was staring at Weyden. “What is your name?”

The hawk stared back with his golden eyes, unblinking. His perch was solid beneath him, the brown of his feathers dulled by the brightness of the room about him. His hooked beak remained as still as stone for several moments, moments in which the only sound that could be heard within the room was the ticking of the ornate clock. It was a low dull sound, announced with each swing of the pendulum hanging within the glass case beneath the time piece. Jessica had heard tell of clocks of such exquisite design before, but they were so outrageously expensive that until now, she’d never seen one.

Compared to the enigma the black cloaks presented, the clock was a passing fancy. Nor had she ever held much fascination with the mechanical trinkets that Misha Brightleaf so savoured. Instead, her focus moved back to the Questioners, the cowls of their cloaks turned to the form of her love. Weyden was still standing mutely, eyes wide with apprehension, his beak straining to pry itself open, yet at the same time remaining firmly shut for fear that something untoward would be hurled from it.

The priest on the left leaned forward in his seat some. “Your name?” he called out, his voice suffering from a flutter of annoyance.

Weyden’s body jerked as if he’d been a statue suddenly brought back to life. “Weyden, Father.”

This appeared to satisfy the priest, as he leaned back in his seat, cowl still pulled over his face. Though they were both hawks and could see amazing details at even great distances, she could still see little beneath those hoods. The priest in the centre nodded his head. “Well met, Weyden.” The cowl turned towards her then, slow and smooth, as if it were turning upon a gear like those in the clock. “Now, you are Jessica, one time apprentice to the mage Wessex ard’Kapler is that not so?”

Jessica nodded her head, wing tips stretching a bit. “Yes, Father, I am.”

“And I am Father Kehthaek,” the man said, lifting back his hood, revealing an old face, one creased with lines and cracks much like an unfurled sail or crumpled bit of parchment. His hair was greying, and white in some places. The other two priests also removed their cowls at this. “This is Father Felsah.” He indicated the dark haired man in his thirties to his right. “And Father Akaleth.” The priest on his left looked very similar to Felsah, only his face was marred by an expression of contempt.

“Yet you are now a journeyman?” Akaleth asked, as if he had not even been introduced.

“Yes I am, Father.”

“When were you made a journeyman?”

Jessica remembered well that day. It had been the day before Akabaieth’s murder. Weyden and her had just gone to visit Wessex to ask him if he wished to accompany them to the speech. The boy mage had no interest in such matters, but had been ebullient regardless. “It was in October. The Patriarch was here, I remember that.”

“Interesting,” Akaleth said, but the word held the expression of a stone. “And why is it that he chose to make you a journeyman while Patriarch Akabaieth was at Metamor?”

Her wing’s shrugged slightly. “I had been his apprentice for ten years. He decided that the time was right for me. I doubt the Patriarch being at Metamor had anything to do with it.”

“Did you have any contact with Patriarch Akabaieth?” The third priest, Felsah, asked then. His voice was empty, bereft even of curiosity.

“I saw his speech, but that was all.”

“Did your master Wessex have any contact with him?”

Jessica shook her head. “None at all.”

“And why is that?”

“He had important work he had to attend to. He could not afford to be distracted from it.”

“What important work?” The priest crossed his hands in his lap, dark eyes holding her golden orbs as firmly as Weyden often did. But they lacked the soft intensity her lover held for her. It was as if meeting the gaze of an alabaster statue in one of the Keep’s gardens.

“I don’t know all the details,” Jessica admitted. She had read a great deal of them in Wessex’s notes though. What she found there still upset her, even two months later. Her feathers trembled, as if a cold wind had swept up under them. Outside, the fog was beginning to clear, but she still could not see the mountains in the distance. It would be another day or two of steady winds before the low clouds finally were dislodged from the Valley.

“What do you know?” Akaleth asked suddenly, his voice cutting through her sudden distraction like a meat cleaver.

“He’d found some leaves in the forests around Metamor that had been touched magically,” Jessica replied, trying to say as little as she could. Despite Raven’s assurances that there was little these three could do to her or Weyden, she still felt frightened that she might say something that would bring their wrath down upon her. “He was trying to discern who it was who’d touched them and what they intended.”

“And how long did this take him to do?”

“A couple days. Powerful magic stood against him. I do not understand all that he did to counter it.”

Akaleth appeared to be getting bored, or annoyed – she wasn’t sure which – at all this talk of magic. “And what did he find?”

“He discovered that somebody was going to try and kill the Patriarch.” Jessica remembered how she had felt the first time she had read that in Wessex’s notes. It had felt like a slap of cold water in her face. She’d sat there rereading the paragraph to make sure she’d understood it properly. But it stayed there, confounding her, as she had half-expected the letters to rise off the parchment and walk away. Her master had discovered Zagrosek’s plans, but too late to stop them.

“When did he discover this?” Felsah asked.

Jessica’s eyes turned back towards that barely mobile statue. “The evening of the day the Patriarch had left. Certainly after they had made camp.”

“Do you know what time?”

“No,” Jessica shook her head. “I do not know. Only that it was long after sunset.”

“What did Wessex do once he knew what was to happen?”

“I wasn’t there,” Jessica admitted, though she had more to say.

But Father Akaleth did not appear interested in allowing her to finish. His voice was harsh, bearing the hint of accusation without actually making any, at least none that she could discern. “That you weren’t there is irrelevant. You were Wessex’s closest student. Did he not think it important enough to tell you what happened? After all, you have known that he found magical leaves was it that told him of this coming disaster? Would you then not know of the events that followed?”

Jessica nodded her head then, a sharp dipping motion that made her look like she was drinking from a bowl. “I do know that my master warned Duke Thomas immediately. I do not know all that was said between them, but I do know that our forces were sent out as quickly as possible afterwards.”

“Did Wessex do anything else to prevent this atrocity?” Akaleth asked then, his voice softer, but still bearing its hard edge.

“Yes. He tried to warn them magically.”

Akaleth crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat. “And just how did he attempt to do that?”

Once more, Jessica was drawn to the memory of the words that Wessex had written. The notes she had found after his death, hidden away inside the wall behind his desk, held many answers, and just as many questions. Many things were described within them, the course of events that had led right up to his death, retelling of dream after dream, so many times had Zagrosek and Matthias laughed at her master. But it was not the dreams that he had so often, but the one dream that came to him the day he died. In that dream, Jessica was being prepared for ritual sacrifice, but for some arcane ritual the likes of which she knew she could not comprehend. And it was also the only dream in which that Runecaster appeared.

Her name was still a mystery, yet the face was burned into Jessica’s memory, even though she’d never glimpsed this ally of Zagrosek. A tall woman, face hauntingly beautiful. Thin cheeks, almost skeletal, bearing bloodshot eyes that cared for no one. It was a face that plagued Jessica’s imagination. And it was in trying to save the Patriarch that Wessex had first discovered her. He’d never told Jessica of her existence, even though it was she who had stopped him that night. It took those notes to reveal the Runecaster to the hawk.

“Wessex cast his spirit onto the magical weave so that he could find them and warn them.”

“He did what?” Akaleth asked, eyes narrowing.

“Cast himself onto the magical weave. His spirit left his body temporarily so that he might be free to search for the Patriarch more quickly.”

“Blasphemy! Only Eli can separate a man’s soul from his body.” Akaleth said this last as if concluding some great argument.

Jessica could feel her love flinch as the priest spoke. It was as if Weyden’s soul were yearning to bolt from his flesh then and there to free itself from the presence of these supposed men of Eli. She could see the look of panic that was clambering up to his face, golden eyes trembling so slightly that the black robes were certain not to have yet noticed. The stories he had told of what these Questioners could do to a man who had left the faith filled her mind, bringing that susurration to her own feathers.

There was no way that she could hope to argue with these three on matters of theology anyway. Since doing so would only turn the discussion onto the differences between Lothanasi and Patildor upbringing and teachings, a subject that for Weyden’s sake, her beloved Lothanasi convert, she would strenuously avoid. And so, still feeling the lashing of Akaleth’s words as if a whip upon her back, she considered how to rephrase her answer.

It took her only a moment, one in which none of the Questioners spoke or moved. Her voice was scratchy as always, but also quick, as if afraid that her thought would leave her if not spoken fast. “I do not know anything about that. But some part of him was projected from his body, his mind perhaps, awareness, so that he could see and communicate with beings farther away. It was powerful and dangerous magic, a kind he would not have used if he did not think the need to warn the Patriarch was worth risking his own life.”

“If he was using this powerful magic,” Akaleth asked, breathing the last word like a curse, “then why did he not succeed? Patriarch Akabaieth and almost all of his men still died.”

“Somebody stopped him from warning anyone.”

“Someone?” Felsah interjected, one of his eyes widening.

“Another mage. A woman. She was waiting for him, and bound him in the threads of magic so that he could not do anything.”

“Bound him?” Felsah asked again. To his left, Kehthaek sat as silent as stone, face turned to the hawk mage, but eyes staring distantly, through her, lost within his own thoughts. Akaleth still had his arms crossed, his unpleasant face twisted impatiently. He acted as if he were suffering from some terrible injury and bearing it up bravely for the benefit of others, others who in his mind did not sufficiently appreciate his sacrifice.

“Tied him up, using the threads of magic like they were rope.”

“What sort of mage would be able to do such a thing?” The middle-aged Questioner asked again, the confusion clear only in his voice.

Jessica was glad that the questions had returned to a magical nature. They made her feel comfortable, for these were the sorts of things that she could discuss at great length. In fact, she often had first with Wessex, and now she did so with Elizabeth. Almost everyday she would meet with Misha’s elder sister to continue her studies. At first it had been Elizabeth who had been doing the learning, studying what Jessica understood, where her limitations and strengths were. But now Jessica could feel her guiding hand leading her onto new paths of magical understanding.

“Almost all mages have the ability to weave the threads of magic that exist and flow throughout the world. It is something that we all learn as apprentices within a few years. Tying knots is merely taking the weave to the next level, and while more difficult, is something that most could learn with practice. Any spell of binding requires the tying of knots in the magical threads. If I had a precious heirloom that I wanted to protect, I could bind threads of magic to it and to myself by tying knots in each. That way, if anyone touched my heirloom, I’d know it instantly.”

Akaleth waved one hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. I’m sure you could satisfy avarice in all sorts of ways with this.” She felt a flash of heat in her feathers at that, but said nothing. “You said that a woman stopped Wessex? Who was she?”

“I don’t know her name,” Jessica admitted. “But I do know that she was a Runecaster.”

“From one of the Southern mage guilds?” Kehthaek asked, his voice crisp and so sudden, that Jessica’s talons dug deeper into the log in surprise.

“Yes. The Runecasters. Their symbol is of a hand with drawing finger. She was of the purple rank.”

“Why would a Runecaster wish to kill Patriarch Akabaieth?” Felsah asked, the central priest silent once more.

“I don’t know.”

“Have you ever seen her?” Jessica shook her head. Felsah licked his lips and then asked, “Do you know what she looks like?”

“That I do know. Tall and slender, with long black hair and bloodshot eyes. That is the way that Wessex described her to me.”

“How many times did Wessex see her?”

The question came from Kehthaek. His eyes had been staring through her, now they held her firmly, as if his hands were about her throat. “Only three that I know of. The first was when he was studying the leaves he’d found. He saw her in them. The second time was when he went to warn the Patriarch. The last was in his dreams.”

“Tell me of his dreams.”

“They started after the Summer Solstice.” Even after she said it, Jessica knew that she was on dangerous ground. A chilling premonition swept across her. She knew that she could say as little as possible about those dreams. Somehow, she did not know how, she knew that any words she spoke would make their way back to Zagrosek and that vile woman. “He did not like to talk about them much.”

“But he told you?” Akaleth asked, his arms pulling tighter across his chest. “Did he tell anyone else?”

“I know he told one other, but I do not know who it was.”

“This Wessex’s seems like he was very secretive.”

“Well,” Jessica said, feeling some heat enter her voice. “He worried that if he spoke freely, then our enemy would learn what we knew. He felt that as long as the enemy did not know what we knew, then we had an advantage.”

“A sound tactic much of the time. It’s weakness is that you might be too secretive, and your enemy moves against somebody you had not told. Is it possible that Patriarch Akabaieth died because Wessex was too secretive.”

Jessica shrugged her wing, the tips yearning to stretch outwards. “I don’t know. I do know that Wessex wished for the rest of his days that he could have discovered their plan sooner.”

“Their plan?”

If there was one thing that she thought it safe to mention, it would be the name of the man who had plagued her master for so long. He had forced it out of the mouth of Zagrosek himself. That she might know it should come as no surprise. “The woman and her ally.”

“Who is this ally?”

“A man who calls himself Zagrosek.”

At the utterance of the name the room spun suddenly. The faces of all three Questioners changed in subtle ways, as if she were watching them being moulded carefully and assiduously by potter’s hands. Flashes and hints of emotions, ranging from confusion to triumph, to fear, graced their faces, each so remote as to make her wonder whether she had simply imagined them. But they remained silent for several moments, each digesting this latest revelation as if it were some long expected morsel.

“Zagrosek?” Kehthaek asked then, leaning forward ever so slightly in his seat. Despite his remoteness, there was a strange expectancy on his face, as if he feared this scrap would be yanked from him if he did not fully grasp it as quickly as possible.

“Yes, that was the name he gave for himself when my master first met him.”

“And when was this?”

“Last April. He was inciting one of the nobles, a Lord Loriod, to rebel against Duke Thomas’s rule. But the Duke uncovered the plot before it came to fruition, and Wessex played an integral role in stopping Loriod. The armies of Metamor besieged Loriod’s castle, and it was then that Wessex stumbled upon this man calling himself Zagrosek. They had a magical duel, and it was then that my master was rewarded with that name.”

“Who is this Zagrosek?”

“He travels in the guise of a black Sondeckis.”

“A Sondeckis?” At this, Kehthaek’s eyes did raise.

Jessica nodded. “Yes, he was wearing the black robe of the Sondeckis. You’ve heard of them?”

The elder priest nodded. “The Sondeckis are one of the few clans in the Southlands that are officially recognized by the Ecclesia. Yet you say that one of them was controlling this Lord Loriod, and an ally of this female Runecaster. What part did he play in the death of Patriarch Akabaieth?”

She found the question odd enough that she almost laughed. But the mirth died upon her tongue, and so she simply nodded. “From what I understand, he is the same one who killed the Patriarch.”

This did not appear to surprise Father Kehthaek in the least. She suspected that he’d already guessed the perpetrator to be a Sondeckis. After all, he had spoken with Misha and others who’d doubtless told them of the state the bodies had been in after Zagrosek had finished with them. She idly wondered if they’d heard his name before, but the way they reacted when she’d spoken it could mean only two things they had never heard it before, or they recognized it from someplace else. A shudder raced from her tail feathers up to her neck, and then down each of her wings as she considered that last dread possibility. Might they know who Zagrosek is?

“So the only two that you are aware of who were present to kill the Patriarch were Zagrosek and this female Runecaster?”

“That’s all that we know of, or at least all I know of.”

Kehthaek nodded, and then leaned back in his chair. As if this were a signal to the other two priests, they both leaned forward. Felsah spoke first though, his voice soft, accent thick, but clear. “What else do you know of this Zagrosek?”

Jessica breathed heavily, talons scrapping at the wood, gripping tighter. The log was not the best perch she’d ever used. It was thankfully not rolling about on the floor, but it did rock back and forth occasionally. So far it had not thrown her balance off, but she was sure that should the air decide to gust she would be blown backwards squawking and flapping.

“We do not know very much. We cannot even be certain that we can trust that we have seen the real him, or whether it is all some elaborate illusion meant to fool us.”

“Oh come now,” Akaleth started. “There is more that you know of Zagrosek, you just do not wish to tell us.”

Jessica shook her head, even s Weyden tensed, his wings yearning to spread. “No, Father, there is nothing more that I know of him. There is more that I have heard of him, but nothing that I can say I know is true. A great deal of magic surrounds him, very powerful and dangerous magic, of a kind that frightens me terribly.”

“And how do you know that?” Akaleth asked, draping his hands over the arms of his chair. His dark hair drifted in front of his face, casting shadows across his features.

She could feel her feathers trembling, spreading along her back. This was something that she wished not to speak of. She was forever thankful that she had never seen the censer itself, but the descriptions of it that Wessex had written down, and the way that Elizabeth had spoken of its power, made it seem all too real.

“Because of what he has been able to do. We have discovered through research that some of the things that were done to the Patriarch’s men could not have been done by somebody who was simply a Sondeckis. And none of us have any idea what sort of magic it was in the first place that could slice a man in half.”

“You are referring to Iosef the Yeshuel?” Felsah asked.

Jessica nodded. “I guess that was his name. I do not remember well.”

“You mentioned dreams,” Kehthaek reminded, his voice flat, but insistent. Jessica blinked once, her golden eyes trailing back to the elder priest. While he never threatened or even appeared capable of threatening as Father Akaleth seemed wont to do, there was nevertheless something extremely dangerous about this priest. There was a keenness to his wit that would be sharper than any blade that the younger priest might choose to bring out answers.

“Yes, I did,” Jessica admitted, her voice starting to quaver. Weyden’s stance shifted ever so slightly. It was certainly obvious to the Questioners, but it was even more glaring to his lover.

“Tell us about the dreams.” The older priest leaned forward, resting his elbows upon the arms of the chair, and his chin upon his fists. His eyes were intent, not predatory as hers were often assumed, just intent.

“Well, in them, Zagrosek appeared to my master, taunting him about the death of one of his other students, Dorson.”

“Did Zagrosek kill this Dorson?” At Jessica’s nod, the priest continued. “How often did he have these dreams?”

“Twice a week at most. When they started happening more often, Wessex took steps to prevent them from occurring.”

“What did he do?”

“He would sleep in the dungeons. The walls there were proofed against most forms of magic. It was his belief that his dreams were magically induced, and that by sleeping in the dungeons, he’d be free of them.”

“Did it work?” Felsah asked, the elder priest continuing to stare, but now silent.

“Yes, he never had that dream again,” Jessica replied hesitantly. There had been that one other dream, the one in which Jessica had been a sacrifice, while those mysterious figures danced about, including Wessex himself!

“Did he have other dreams?’ Felsah asked, though it held more the spectre of curiosity than delving.

Reluctantly, Jessica nodded, no longer able to even look at the three priests. Her eyes turned downwards towards her talons, which were gripping the log more tightly. Some of the wood was chipping under the pressure form her sharp claws, buckling under her weight. “Yes,” she whispered, though with her hawkish voice, it came out scratchy. “There was one other nightmare that he had.”

“Was this like his other dreams?” Akaleth asked, beginning to show at least some interest in the current line of questioning.

She shook her head, even as she felt Weyden’s eyes upon her. This was something that she had not told even him. “No, no it wasn’t.”

“But it was a nightmare? Did Wessex think it magically induced?” Felsah pressed.

Jessica shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. It happened the night before Wessex was killed.”

“If that’s the case, then how do you know he had this nightmare which was supposedly different from the rest?” Akaleth drawled, leaning forward in his seat, gazing at her with disbelieving eyes. His eyes spoke clearly that he gave no credence to anything she was saying at this point, or that he did not care what she said. She was not sure if this was good or not.

“I met with him that day,” Jessica said, even though that was not how she knew. “I saw him that day before he was killed. Wessex did not die until the following evening.”

Kehthaek waved his hands in the air before him, and at his signal, both Akaleth and Felsah leaned back in their chairs, waiting for the elder priest’s lead. Th man’s brow tightened, in one of the first expressions of emotions possible, the man began to scrutinize Jessica with one eye, the other keeping Weyden observed. Both hawks waited, wondering what could possibly be happening.

At last, the old man spoke, his words were chosen carefully. “There is much to this tale that has been left out. You speak of dreams and nightmares, but paint them so broadly as to be nearly meaningless. Let us instead return to the beginning. What was the first time that any word of this man, Zagrosek, came to your master?”

“It was a day or two before they fought in Loriod’s tower. It was when Dorson was killed. An object of great power had been taken from Loriod’s castle and brought to Metamor. It was very evil, anyone who saw it could tell that. Dorson was helping my master study the device when the evil in it tricked them both. Wessex left momentarily, and when he came back, Zagrosek was standing there, having just killed Dorson. Zagrosek and the device disappeared into a hole a moment later, one that was torn between the worlds. Wessex then sealed the room off with the most powerful magic he knew.”

Kehthaek’s face narrowed even further. “What was this magical device?”

Jessica wished she could have bit her lip, but she had no lip to bite. “It was a censer. Carved with demons and strange symbols. When Zagrosek left, it tore a hole into the Underworld.” Kehthaek’s eyes went wide at that. “Wessex did his best to close it off.”

“Did he succeed?” Kehthaek asked.

“Partially. What was beyond could not get through to our world unless Wessex undid the spell upon the wall. That is what his dreams were making him do. In his nightmares he started to sleepwalk, going back to the wall where he’d sealed the Underworld tear. And then, just before he’d started sleeping in the dungeons, he’d begun to draw the runes upon that wall necessary to unbind his spell while sleepwalking.”

“What of this final dream?”

“It was not something he or I understand,” Jessica admitted. Strangely enough, she felt she had to talk of these matters now, had to unleash them from her heart. She was not sure why that was so, but it felt as necessary to her as breathing. “There were nine figures dancing in a circle around an altar. Wessex was one of the nine. There were some he recognized and some he did not.”

“Who did he recognize?”

“Lord Loriod was there, the woman he’d fought trying to save the Patriarch, Zagrosek, and Habakkuk.”

Kehthaek blinked. “Zhypar Habakkuk, Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild?” She nodded at that. The elder priest stared for several moments, but his eyes lost focus, dwelling on things much farther away than any of them could imagine. For several moments he sat like that, stroking his chin with one finger, lost amidst his own thoughts. “When Wessex was killed, how did he die?”

“His throat was slit,” Jessica said in distaste. “And whoever did it reanimated his corpse so that he might undo his binding upon that wall.”

“Blasphemy!” Akaleth shouted in dismay. Yet, this time, instead of accusing her of such, he was actually sympathizing with her, if such were possible.

“Did they succeed?” Felsah asked, his voice very soft.

Jessica nodded. “Some Keepers found him and were able to destroy the Shrieker that escaped. When that happened, the tear was repaired.”

“Who are these Keepers?” Felsah asked again.

“A scout named Charles Matthias and his student Garigan, but they don’t live at Metamor anymore. They now live in Glen Avery.”

“Where is that?”

“At the northwestern edge of the Valley. It takes five hours to journey there on horseback.” Felsah appeared to frown ever so slightly at this, but he said no more.

Kehthaek tapped his chin one more time. “Have you heard any more from Zagrosek since then?” Jessica shook her head, feeling herself drained. “Very well then, you may go.”

At this, Weyden’s wings spread a bit, hopping down from the log and coming over to her side. She blinked then and stared first at the three Questioners, and then down to her lover. His wing was extended, and she hoped once more within it. “Good bye, Fathers,” she said, not sure how to properly excuse herself. But they said no more, staring after them both as they walked out the door once more.

Jessica felt her beak tighten, chest squeezing close. Weyden pulled her tight, nuzzling her with his beak. She leaned into his touch, comforting as it was. “Thank you,” she managed to say, although she wasn’t sure what she was thanking him for.

“I love you,” was the reply.

She nestled further into his wing, comforted by his touch and his voice. Why had she told them so much, she could not help but wonder.

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