Winter's First Chill - Part IV

Midnight was nearly upon him when Kashin finally found himself in the piquant room atop the highest of the towers in Ava-shavåis with the man who had sent for him over two months ago. The feast had been labouriously slow, with each course taking an hour at least. Of course, through most of it, the Åelf did not eat a thing, simply talked amongst themselves, occupied with intricate board games, or breaking out in the occasional rhyme and verse. They did eat, Kashin realized, but only very slowly, taking a bite every few minutes, while he had finished his meal in only five to ten minutes.

Though they appeared to love to talk, they did not appear to notice him at all, and so spoke in their own tongue, leaving the former Yeshuel alone in a sea of incomprehensible words. Only Andares, who he sat with, spoke to him at all through those six hours. And even then, his companion preferred to spend the time reacquainting himself with news about the city as he'd been gone for three months.

Even so, a few of the Åelf did ask Andares about his presence. He had thought he would appear more shocking to those present, but not a single one raised a fuss over his eating at the table with them. Kashin often would ask Andares what he had just told another in response to a pointing or a queried look. Inevitably though, it was to remark on his table manners, and on how fast he ate his food.

Finally, unable to bear their mysterious behaviour, Kashin asked, "Why do they all pretend they don't care that I am here?"

Andares was cutting through a selection of meats and vegetables that had been delicately prepared in some sauce that Kashin couldn't name, but found delicious. The Åelf put down his utensils and folded his long, slender hands over his lap. "You were expected, so all those who would not let themselves be found in the presence of a human have had time to occupy themselves elsewhere. Also, you are not the first of your kind to wander this city. Though you are among the first in many millennia."

"How many have come this way then? Humans I mean."

"Few, fewer than you might expect. The magic of my people is attuned with this forest, and any wanderers who try to find their way here uninvited will find themselves stymied."

The Åelf sitting across from Andares, an older fellow whose face was marked by very hard lines, even harder and more rigid than most, slapped the table suddenly with one hand. Andares glanced up at him, his eyes meeting the other's for a moment. The other Åelf glowered briefly, one eye flicking over at Kashin as if to emphasize some unspoken agreement. Andares nodded finally and returned to his platter.

"I take it you are not to speak of such things?" Kashin asked, noting that the other Åelf must be able to speak his tongue. He would have to be careful what he said while at this table.

"It is not wise to stir magic when it is about us," Andares spoke softly, and that was the last he would speak on that subject for the remainder of the evening.

When the dinner was finally ended, Kashin felt as if he'd been the butt of some joke that he didn't know about. He hated sitting there amidst these people that he never knew, and could never truly understand, almost certainly being the subject of gossip and disgust. He found out shortly after the meal that the older Åelf had been Tilyå-nou, one of the elders of the city. When Kashin asked Andares how old he was, his companion would not say directly, only that he knew the founding of much of the present human world. Andares advised him to stay away from Tilyå-nou for now, and the former Yeshuel was quite delighted to comply.

Yet, he was glad that the dinner lasted as long as it did when he finally had to ascend the staircase up into the central spire. Step after endless step lead upwards, while cavalcades of frescoes and engravings decorated each wall. Every window he peered from opened out to a delightful little balcony, over which he could see the gold of the leaves, and the white snow clutching the tree branches. Had he not had time to digest his meal, he would have been quite ill by the time they were halfway up, and he shunned the thought of marring the celestial beauty of that edifice.

However, ascend the staircase he did, following closely on the heels of the slender Andares. His guide did not breathe a word, only motioned for him to walk carefully on the delicately carved grillwork in each stone. In the dark, he was not sure if the tower was made from marble, or porcelain, but whatever it had been fashioned from, he loathed to mar even one granule of it. He could not shake the feeling that he was but a filthy mongrel, a cast away mutt being invited unwashed and ungrateful into the palace of a king.

When they reached the topmost chambers, Andares stopped and held his hand out, motioning for Kashin to step through. Kashin nodded once to his guide, and then warily set foot through the vaulted doorway. The room was only dimly lit beyond, two white candles burning atop marble stanchions next to a single chair. The back was florid, reminiscent of the boughs of one of the trees outside, with bright green leaves fashioned from jade hanging from the delicate branches.

Along each of the walls, the former Yeshuel saw the same sort of scroll work, the flickering light casting about on great feasts, poets, singers, and artisans on every side. A beam of moonlight sneaked in through the window at the rear, falling across the ivory sill, chiselled with diagrams the likes of which that Kashin had never before seen. Beyond, the empty trees stood, baring naked branches into the winds that swirled about the tower.

Yet, Kashin's eyes were drawn to the figure sitting within that chair, resting its long slender arms on velvety cushions, while the long ears danced above in the jewelled leaves. Though most of the Åelf melted into a blur when he tried to distinguish between them, with this one, he found little difficulty. In the way the skin clutched his high cheek bones, and the brows came together over his golden eyes, there was a sense of age to the figure. When he leaned forward, drawing his face into the light of the candles, Kashin drew a breath, for upon his tight lips was a smile.

"I am honoured at last to meet the Servant that I have been expecting," the ancient Åelf said softly then, and Kashin imagined that the wind quieted down to allow him to speak. His voice rang like a wedding bell, bright, but sombre. "And now, do please take the place that has been prepared for you."

Kashin turned, and saw another chair sitting to one side and out of view of the doorway. It appeared to be comfortable, adorned with thick cushioning much like the one that the master sat in, yet it did not possess any of the bright decorations. Uncertainly, he trod and ran his hand across one of the armrests. It was warm, as if somebody had just been there recently. As if sensing his thought, the older Åelf added, "No one has sat within that chair in centuries. I assure you, it has been waiting for you and for just this occasion. I have not entertained a guest within my chambers since before your Master's birth."

Kashin pulled the black cloak about him tightly, and then sat down, settling slowly into the cushions. They held him, meeting every muscle and contour of his back and legs. In fact, he could not think of a time he'd sat within a chair nearly as comfortable as this. It fit him perfectly, and from the glow in his host's eyes, he knew that this had been expected as well.

"I am Qan-af-årael," his host announced then, voice firm. "Master of Ava-shavåis, the Lord of Colours in Åelfwood." A queer smile touched his lips. "I have other titles, but they are only to be spoken in my own tongue, and I shall not bore you with them. Welcome to my home, Kashin of the Ecclesia."

Kashin stammered a moment, "Thank you for having me. I don't know how to feel."

"Nor do I," Qan-af admitted, his voice taking on a sudden sardonic cast. His head turned to the side, and with a grandfatherly smile upon his lips he added, "You may leave us now, Andares-es-sebashou. Watch at the door below, do not let any disturb us, for we have much to talk about."

The silent figure disappeared back into the shadows of the doorway, and Kashin saw him no more that day. He gestured about the room unsure if what he pointed at was a wall or another Åelf hiding against the stone. "I can barely see in here. Do you think that we could have more light?"

Qan-af nodded then, and he held up his slender palms to his chin, and blew a faint dust into the air. Kashin blinked in surprise, even though the yellow granules caught the glow of the flame from the two candles. As they spread about the room, the grains landed upon the wicks of other candles set about the room in a half-circle. As they touched, a bright spark shone, and soon, the room was cast into a soft light.

"How did you?" Kashin asked, turning about in his seat to look at the candles, lit by a speck of dust.

"There are many marvels that my kind treasure, in hopes the day may come when we may walk freely under the stars again. I do not believe such a day will ever be at hand, but some still hold out hope that things will once again return to how they were. It is unfortunate, for one truth I have come to understand in all my years is that things never stay the same. This world of ours is always changing, always different from one moment to the next.

"You see, young manchild, among my people, the moment is treasured. We seek to preserve the one moment into the next, fixing this world beneath us according to the pattern that we wish to weave. For millennia, we strode this continent, holding it in place against all who would upset the order that we imposed. Even now, we seek to hold this wood immobile, ageless and unchanging. We do not like to change or to admit that things are different in this age than in the last.

"You see, our lifespans are far longer than your own. We could never live as you do, changing from one moment to the next. That is your strength and our weakness. You adapt to the world around you, survive in its context, and reshape your own world to suit it. Whereas we, my people have always strived to master the changes, to keep all things as they were, and to conquer and still what would move."

Kashin shook his head. "But your city here stands amidst the trees. I cannot see that you have harmed a one in your livelihood. My people have cleared forests before because it did not suit the way they wanted the world to be. I think your description is backwards."

The Åelf laughed softly, a small bitter laugh. "Yes, we live within these woods, accounting to its whims. Yet, that is how we know to live now. We do not attempt to change the woods to suit our needs, but instead have let our needs be its needs. In so doing, we preserve the moment, the birth of this forest again and again. And at the same time, hold onto the hope that we may one day return to the plains and fields of our younger days.

"But this world does not remain the same for all of us. You men have come into your time, and have swept those who came before you, swept us into the corners and the hiding places. One day, another race will rise up and sweep you from your cities and your homes, forcing you among the rocks or the trees. My kind eagerly awaits such a day, though they are foolish to think that they would be given back what we had. The days of walking the shining streets of Yerebey or Jagoduun are gone and will never return.

"But, my people wish to believe it is so, wish to hold that single strand of time when we were the masters of all creation. Even masters of your kind, teaching them much of our arts millennia ago, helping you to build empires together with us. That is why my people are in many ways, slaves to tradition, for it gives them solace. And it is why our feasts last for half of the day, because it is how our people once ate in Yerebey and Jagoduun. And I imagine that none of them spoke to you while you ate."

Kashin nodded then, even as he began to wonder just where Qan-af was headed with his thoughts.

"They did not speak to you, Kashin, because to do so would be to acknowledge the supremacy of your kind. In these times, we Åelf often wish to live as if you did not exist, though it is foolish to do so. That is why my pupil Andares is so precious to me, because he is not a slave of these traditions and these biases. He is not fond of change either, but he lives his life in the present, not in the past like so many of my brethren do. That is why I chose him of course."

Finally, unable to bear the soliloquy any longer, Kashin spoke, allowing his annoyance to slip through. "Excuse me, I am certain that you could spend several years discussing the ramifications of wanting to stretch a single moment into eternity. However, by the time you are done, I'll probably have died of old age sitting in this chair. Andares came to me and told me that you had information regarding the Patriarch's assassination. Living by yourselves with no contact to the outside world, I am curious how you came by it, but I am even more curious to know what it is.

"The facets of Åelf philosophy are certainly interesting, but I do not have the lifetimes needed to devote to their study, even an overview. So please, would you kindly tell me what I came to hear?"

Qan-af grimaced slightly, his face settling into an unpleasant moue. His voice, when it did ring again, was melancholy. "It is not surprising that I would ruminate on our people's tendency to cling to the past, for I am a product of the past. I speak of Yerebey, and I do so out of the throngs of memory, for it stood proud on the plains west of here most of my lifetime. My days have been spent watching the decline of my own people's place in this world, and the ascendency of man, who compared to us is nothing more than a short-lived, brutish beast that fouls everything it touches with its barbarism. By rights, I should be like the rest of my people and be bitter, but I am not. For as I said, all things change, whether we like it or not."

He sighed then and his golden eyes fell on Kashin's grey lock of hair, studying the way it perched atop his brow. "You have changed a great deal in these last few months. I see you have adapted rather well to the loss of your arm. I sense that you are a man who needs a purpose to understand his life, something to devote himself to. Now you seek out the ones responsible for your master's death. And you have come to me seeking information about them. I am afraid that what I am going to tell you will disappoint you and dishearten you. But for reasons that I plan to tell you this night, you must not seek out the man who killed Akabaieth."

"What!" Kashin shouted, his right hand clenching the chair as he nearly came to his feet. Letting go of the chair's arm, he held aloft the bejewelled blade. "I carry this sword for no other reason! What makes you think I will do otherwise?"

Qan-af gently held out ancient hands, motioning for him to sit. "You will not find him or anyone else who was involved here in this city, so put away your weapon, and calm your mind." The former Yeshuel slowly slipped back into the cushions, his thoughts astir. He would not abandon his quest on the word of something that was not even a man.

"I am not asking you to give up your search for justice. In fact, I wish you to continue on and seek out those responsible for the Patriarch's murder. But there are others who have also played a part in this catastrophe who did not hold the knife."

"Yes," Kashin murmured, his heart slowing, "Andares hinted at such."

The Åelf continued, only nodding at the remark, "But for you to understand why you must not search after the one who committed the murder of the Patriarch and your friends, I must tell you a story that is very old among my kind. Before there was an Ecclesia, and before the Sulieman Empire even existed, when your kind first arrived on the shores of our land. The two continents were joined at that time, in a place known as Jagoduun. A beautiful palace of spires that challenged the very sky, much like our own Ava-shavåis I am told. From that place, we looked upon the works of your kind to the south, still living in tents and fighting amongst each other, and found it debasing that a species so lowly as your own might resemble us.

"But, something happened in the Southlands that changed that. Your kind discovered magic, and truly began to understand power. The Southern continent was transformed with its use, mages controlling the lives of the rest, leading them in their personal quests to dominate the land. Slowly, the more talented destroyed the rest, and seeing no others but each other, they turned their eyes North and saw us. Jealousy smote them, and filled their hearts as they looked upon our ways and our customs. They saw our cities that touched the sky and glowed brighter than the moon.

"And in that jealousy they sought to drive us out and take what was ours. This transformation swept the Southlands so quickly that my kind did not understand what was happening. Within a matter of ten to twenty years, your people rose from among the beasts and demanded their place at the banquet table, determined to have cities of their own that challenged the heavens, songs to extol their glory and their victories, fine clothes to dress themselves in, exquisite foods and wines to sup so that they might pretend to refined taste, and scores of servants, that they might have dominion over others. Truly, the wizards of those days aspired to be like the false gods they worshipped themselves.

"And so, they set themselves to taking Jagoduun, the only city that they could attack via land. The rest were beyond across the Splitting Sea. Armies were marshalled, weapons forged, banners lifted, and the wizards united, agreeing amongst themselves that if only they could share in this victory together, that they might divide it between themselves, the treasure, the knowledge, and all that lived there. Oh yes, in those days your kind aspired to keep us as slaves, and in fact, a few were taken, but with their spirit crushed they quickly died. My kind is not meant for the life of a slave, for we are born too high for that, too free.

"And so it was that while the mild months of winter came for Jagoduun, the nine wizards assembled and planned their attack, bringing with them eldritch forces the likes of which have not been seen in any age since. But by now, my own people had become aware of their intentions, and were preparing their defences. One among them, Yajakali, the son of Jagoduun's King, Kaerbashyia, who is spoken of as the fairest Åelf to ever trod this world, turned to the magical arts as well to repel what the nine would do.

"Yajakali was loved by his people and by his father, and with equal measure he loved them in return. Yet, the threat of the human mages preyed on him ceaselessly. He did not content himself with what Kaerbashyia's own wizards planned to keep their people safe, but sought out the same knowledge that the nine had mastered, desiring to use it against them. Days and nights he would spend in the dark halls beneath Jagoduun, collecting all that he needed, gold and jewels that had been formed under the crucible of their walls for millennia.

"Even while the armies of the nine wizards marched only days from Jagoduun, Yajakali worked in the forges beating sheets of iron into shapes that he had envisioned. Around the iron, he placed the gold and the rubies, fixing even the last in place while the walls about him trembled from the power of the nine. Kaerbashyia pleaded with his son to abandon his fruitless crafting, gazing in horror upon what was being fashioned. Yet Yajakali would not give it up, for it would be the doom upon all the humans, and bring an end to their pretentious siege, as is said he likened it.

"Yet, even while his own kind quailed in fear, for the nine wizards possessed great power, and the hordes of men swarmed at the walls like ants, Yajakali became a spectre of his former self, devoting all of his time towards the crafting of three objects. The first of which was a large platform, a dias, whose base radiated in nine directions, arcane symbols etched into each face. At each corner, a tall pole stood erect, with a gem set at the tip, dull and colourless. Though the largest of all of his endeavours, it took him but a week of ceaseless hammering and carving to fashion it.

"The second, designed to be placed in the centre of the platform, was a censer bedecked in jewels and carvings of all sorts of monstrosities being perpetrated against the men that he hated. At the base of the censer, those same nine symbols were etched in relief. Though the stories are not clear on what lay in the basin in the centre, it is known that there was a place for at least one candle to be lit. It is said that in his days, Yajakali used a candle and wick of purest obsidian that were rumoured to have been fashioned from the substance of the night itself.

"The last of his endeavours was a great sword, fashioned entirely from gold. Of course, Yajakali had no intention of wielding it in battle alongside his brethren, gold is too soft for that. The hilt was fashioned with nine sides, and on each, barely large enough to see, were those same symbols. There is a slot inside the base of the censer's basin that the sword hilt sinks into, but only if the symbols are aligned in just the right way. Of its use, only that I know. Of all his creations, the sword took the longest, for the blade was marred by his own enchantments, lines that drew inward, absorbing power so that he might channel it directly into the censer and platform themselves.

"As you may have surmised, those nine symbols were intended and specified to the nine human mages, one for each. After a month of the siege, the sea of humans outside the walls dwindled, though hardened and relentless as ever, the people of Jagoduun began to despair. Where was their fair prince to fight at their side? He was dwelling in the cellars, a thing forgotten of light and of joy, devoted to his creation, unaware that it harboured powers that should never have been called upon.

"Even his father, King Kaerbashyia, had fallen into despair, convinced that his people were doomed. The other Åelf were stunned at the news that came to them about their brethren in Jagoduun, and their own people and mages were dispatched to help. And in another week, they would have arrived and overwhelmed the remnants of the human army, or so we would like to have believed.

"Yet, Yajakali's plan came to fruition first. Upon this very night, the Solstice of winter, when the sun shines not in the lands of the north, the world's natural flows of magic reach an apex. The human wizards understood this as well, and had planned a ceremony of their own to tear down the walls of Jagoduun. So, both our prince Yajakali and the human wizards summoned forth great powers, exerting their wills in that moment when midnight was reached. Yet neither could have guessed what it truly would accomplish.

"For Yajakali had devised his plan to take the wizard's power from them, and leave them as the beasts he knew them to be. The nine gems he had placed atop the poles on the platform would burn brightly with their energy, able to be unleashed by the sword if ever there was a need. They drew more power than they could possibly possess though, and there was more to his own creation than even our fair prince understood. The wizards all died that night, their bodies being consumed by the power they had drawn upon. The human camp was obliterated, and the remnants of their forces scattered back to the lands of the South. My people were free from the threat of those humans, for nearly ten thousand years more.

"Jagoduun was destroyed as well in that moment. The lives of every one he cared for were drawn through that blade and into the censer, blasting a hole through the very fabric of reality. Something was touched in that moment that never should have been woken, a power so terrible and evil that it cannot rest until it has consumed everything upon the face of this world. Not even your Ecclesia would dare claim this realm for its Hell, as your Eli cherishes the sinners too much to subject them to what waits in that dark place. It is known among those who share faith only as the Underworld.

"Also in that moment, the land North of Jagoduun cracked and fell into the sea, casting the thousands of Åelf who had travelled to rescue Kaerbashyia and his people to their deaths. Forevermore the two continents would be separate, as they are to this day. Of Jagoduun and Yajakali, nothing remained above the ground. Beneath it though, it is said that the chambers where the fair prince worked his magic still exist, though cracked and warped by the power that channelled through them. The land became cursed, clustered with swamps and decay. No more was it a place fit for any life. Indeed, all who approached in the first few years following died terrible deaths, though not before they were driven mad, seeing things that were not there, screaming of terrors only they could know.

"There was some benefit to the Southlands in the end, for no more did the wizards control the lives of men, for they set themselves into clans and dedicated themselves to the task of repairing their broken world and lifting their fellow men out of their beastly past. The most prominent at the time, the Boreaux, made it their task to prevent any from venturing into the swamps that lay about the ruins of Jagoduun. Though they are simply a noble house in the Southlands now, they still do their best to watch their northern borders for things that should not be. Long are their memories, and if it could be said that my kind is grateful for any man, it would be the faithful stewards of Boreaux, for their diligence has prevented the world from descending into that pit's power for nearly eleven millennia."

Kashin gently shook his head, so many names and so much history making it spin. "Yes, yes, that is all very interesting I'm sure. So your prince did something stupid and opened a doorway to this Underworld. What does that have to do with Akabaieth's murder?"

The ancient Åelf sighed, as if clutching a terrible burden. "Everything, I am afraid. For the man who killed him was surely a servant of that dark place. For whatever reason, Jagoduun draws certain individuals to it, those it knows it can use. The doorway that was opened when Yajakali drew out the nine's spirits was enough to make a tear, but not enough for what lay on the other side to escape in any numbers. From time to time the gateway has weakened, and foul creatures have spewed forth. Five hundred of your years ago was the last time such has ever occurred. But the seas have shifted since then, and Jagoduun no longer is upon the southern continent, but on ours."

"You speak of Jagoduun as if it was a person," Kashin pointed out, swiping back the grey lock of hair with his hand.

"Though I do not know for certain, it is thought that Yajakali still lives, or at least exists trapped within his own creations, waiting for the time to draw all of the world into the realm of his new masters. Others suggest that the spirit of the Underworld possessed my fair prince, and continues to do so today, torturing the kind soul that he had once been in ways that we cannot imagine. Much of my knowledge on this event comes from curious sources, collected together over the millennia by friends I have courted in other lands. I have written the story of Jagoduun, but it is too long for one evening. There yet remains one chapter to be written, and we will both play a part in it."

Kashin blinked and leaned forward. "How do I relate to this Jagoduun? I've never even heard of it before tonight. And you still have not told me how this relates to Akabaieth."

Qan-af nodded slowly, resting his tired hands upon the gilded arms of his chair. His chest heaved, for the pressure of what he was about to say surely was wearing him down. "Jagoduun is the Åelf name for the city. The Boreaux family renamed the land in their own tongue, and it has bore that name ever since. In their tongue, it simply means ‘death'."

"So what is it?" Kashin asked impatiently.

"That land was renamed Marzac. Later, after they attempted to build a castle upon that spot, it became known as the Chateau Marzac. The project was short-lived, for it unleashed a horde of Underworld beasts. It is the only instance when the Boreaux family shirked its responsibility, and the consequences were terrible for them. A few generations later, after they had fought back the onslaught, no more magicians were born to their line, as their strongest were killed in the battles.

"You have heard of the Chateau Marzac, have you not?"

Kashin nodded slowly, his throat suddenly dry. He had indeed heard of that place, had heard the stories of its haunting, but had given it little thought, after all, one of their very own had performed an exorcism within its walls. Any evil that might have lingered there would have to have been vanquished. "But, the Ecclesia exorcised that place three years ago. Whatever evil may have lurked there is gone now."

Qan-af shook his head, an expression of regret crossing his features. "It is true that your priests have great powers in the name of your Eli, but what lays in that pit is not so easily removed. When a person sets foot in that land, they open themselves to its taint. They may never know it, or what it will do through them, but it is there. Whoever you sent to Marzac to perform the exorcism was taken by that power, and when that happened, your Eli no longer responded to his call, for it was a lie. Somebody within your Ecclesia is a traitor, whether they know it or not, and divulged the secrets of your Patriarch's plans, allowing their minions to kill him."

Kashin wished that it was not true, but what the Åelf said simply made too much sense for him to ignore. Balling his one hand into a fist, he hit the arm of the chair. "But if he does not know, how could he possibly be responsible?"

"By now, he is not alone in being under Yajakali's influence. There will be others in your Ecclesia who serve him more openly, and will advocate and ensure the inevitable happens given the manner in which your Patriarch was murdered. They will drive the nations of this continent to war."

"But why?" Kashin asked, hitting the chair again.

"Because, the more death, the more the fabric of this world is weakened. The easier it will be for them to widen that tear and walk this world once again. You cannot seek the man who killed the Patriarch because to do so, you would have to travel to Marzac, and if you do, you would be lost to us, another pawn of the forces that destroyed your master. Your task in this final chapter of Jagoduun, is to prevent this war, to hold the tear in check. You must return to the home of your Ecclesia and find those who are in Yajakali's power, and kill them."

Kashin shot up from the chair then, refusing to hear any more of this. He stormed to one side of the room, glancing at the intricate reliefs and snarling. "This is pure nonsense! Why should I believe any of this? For all I know, you could be using me in your own little scheme to topple the human kingdoms so that your kind might once again walk the world. You've as much admitted that you Åelf do not care anymore for us humans. Why should I trust you, despite the kindness you have shown me in bringing me here?"

Qan-af nodded thoughtfully for a moment, though did not reply immediately. Instead he rubbed his chin slowly between one finger and thumb, considering the dangling jade leaves before his eyes. When he did speak, it was with a sombre conviction that spoke more clearly to Kashin's heart than any proof could devise. "The three objects that Yajakali crafted, the dias, the censer, and the sword, were lost in the destruction of Jagoduun. For eleven thousand years, they have remained lost. Yet, only this last April, the censer was seen in Metamor Keep."

"In Metamor? Why?"

"I am not sure of its exact purpose, but I do know that only two months later, an ambassador arrived at the Keep, the first they have seen since their terrible curse which you have witnessed firsthand. The ambassador hails from the Chateau Marzac."

Kashin blinked and then his eyes dropped to his black boots. His mind flashed back to the dinner that first night at the Keep, trying to conjure the faces of those present. At the far back of one of the tables had been a strange creature the likes of which he had never seen before, a lemur someone had said. That lemur, had indeed claimed to be such an ambassador. The former Yeshuel felt his skin tremble and instinctively he sought out the chair that had waited for him. He sunk into the fabric quietly, his eyes slowly making their way back into Qan-af-årael's face.

"I met that man two months ago. Why would they care about Metamor?"

"Because, they believe, as I do, that the prophecies will find their fulfilment, or their breaking, at Metamor. I am sure you have at least heard of the prophet Felix of Lee? We Åelf do not have prophets, but I have studied Felix, and his descendants, trying to understand the course that his vision has laid out for the world. His last few stanzas point towards Metamor. Yajakali knows this, and will try to destroy them and isolate them. I believe that is why the Patriarch was murdered when he was.

"In fact, your survival was part of prophecy as well. Though you are not mentioned in Felix's work, some of his descendants who inherited his gifts foresaw your existence. That you lost your arm was no accident, for you must reach out and not hold back. You must cleanse the Ecclesia or any hope that the others of the prophecy might have will be washed away.

"The censer has been brought into this world again. The sword and dias may still be lurking, waiting for a chance to show themselves and dramatically change the world as we know it. Keep your eyes open for such things, for you will know them if you see them. And you will have nightmares the remainder of your days if you do."

The former Yeshuel was sure that he was going to have nightmares anyway, he did not need assistance from any spectral relics. However, no matter how he wished to see around it, he knew that the Åelf spoke the truth. He had to help his own people, somehow. Yet, there was still one thing that he had to know before he could commit himself to this new task. "And what of the man who slew Akabaieth? What is to happen to him? Is he to go unpunished?"

Qan-af shook his head slowly then, his hands resting once more on the arms of the chair, tracing out the shapes of the leaves engraved there. "No, that man has his own fate, and I assure you that it will not be a pleasant one. A single moment's time in the clutches of the power of the Underworld is more pain than ought ever to be envisioned."

Kashin pursed his lips then, and flicked the grey lock of hair back behind his head. Taking a deep breath, he rose from the chair, and ran his hand across the jewelled hilt of the Sathmoran blade. "I must take your leave from you then, at the first light tomorrow."

"Where do you intend to go?" Qan-af-årael asked, his eyes curious, though there was a subtle smile across his lips.

"Yesulam," Kashin said, his voice a thick whisper. "I am going to Yesulam."

"I will have Andares guide you from the forest. You will find no harm while you are in this wood."

"Of course." Kashin then turned back and gazed into that ancient face, searching it for some reassurance, but found only that slight smile. "Thank you, Qan-af-årael. Though I do not like what I hear and must do, it is better to now know who I fight, and why. I will cleanse the Ecclesia of this taint. I would give you my word, but until I have redeemed Akabaieth's spirit, it is no good."

"Your word is better than you know, for Akabaieth would have wanted you to survive to do what you now must."

Kashin nodded uncertainly, and then stepped towards the doorway. "I wish to sleep, is there anywhere that I might do so?" His voice was weary, the memory of his master's death filling all the empty corners of his mind.

"Andares will show you to a room you may sleep in. May Eli be with you on this journey, Kashin of the Yeshuel, for you are now more a part of them than you ever have been before."

Qan-af spoke with such reverence, that for a moment, Kashin thought that the ancient Åelf might have embraced the Follower faith, but only for a moment. All he could do was nod once more, before slipping back from the lighted room to the tower stairs. He doubted very much that he would find any sleep no matter the room that awaited him.

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