MK: A Road Into Darkness

The Starchild Prophecy, Part II

by Raven Blackmane


April 5, 707 CR.


The eyes of Raven hin'Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor Keep, shot wide open. Holding her breath, she silently lifted her head from her pillow. Her wolfish ears flicked back and forth, searching for the slightest hint of sound. But she could hear nothing save the nervous pounding of her own heart.

With a final suspicious glare in the direction of the window, she lowered her head once more and closed her eyes.


There was no doubt about it this time -- though her eyes were no longer attentive, the same could not be said of Raven's ears. Someone was calling to her.

And, more significantly, that someone was using the pet-name of Raven's childhood, an intimate and affectionate name that no living mortal, save Wanderer, would know about. And this was not Wanderer; the voice was female.

Which meant that the list of possible callers was a very short and disturbing one.

Slowly, Raven climbed out of bed and rose to her feet. She could not sense any hint of divine presence -- save the ever-present aura of Kyia herself -- but the gods could mask those auras if it suited their purposes.

"Who speaks my name?" she asked, putting both strength and respect into her voice.

"Help me," the voice called back, its sorrowful and desperate tones echoing all around her. "Please help me, Karenna!"

"Who are you? What do you want?" Raven demanded, fighting to keep the quaver out of her voice. She stood her ground, but her blood ran cold: she knew that voice. A voice she had not heard in nearly seven years, but which she remembered as clearly as her own reflection. That she should hear it now, here...

"Please, Karenna!" the voice begged. Raven could imagine tears in the eyes that went with that voice... "I need your help! Hurry!"

The priestess hesitated no longer; bolting from her private chambers, she dashed through the temple hall, out into the entry corridor, through the door to her left, and down the spiral staircase that led to the Lightbringer Archives. Halfway down the stairs she jumped off and hit the floor running, absorbing the shock of her fall with a little protective trick her mother had taught her. As quickly as her legs could carry her she ran to the next downward staircase, then the next, and the next, continuing her reckless descent into the very bowels of the Keep. At last, she came to the bottom-most level of the Archives, with its smooth floor of polished black stone. In the middle of that floor was a pedestal, a uniform black cylinder with a single hole at the center. Not a single grain of dust rested on the pedestal's surface.

Pulling up the hem of her nightgown, Raven drew Elemacil from its sheath on her left leg. She wore the holy sword of the Metamor Lightbringers everywhere save the bath, and over time she had learned to find its presence a comfort rather than a distraction. But now her hands trembled, ever so slightly, as she held the blade over the cylinder and lowered it into the open channel.

There was a quiet scraping of metal against stone, as the kryss-bladed sword slid into the pedestal up to its hilt. Still gripping the sword with both hands, Raven swallowed once, then spoke.

"Edra," she commanded softly.

There was a low, ponderous sound of grinding stone, and a six-foot wide circle of floor immediately surrounding the pedestal began sinking slowly downward. Raven held tight to the sword as the platform descended, passing through more than ten feet of solid rock before it opened to cold, dark, and stale air. Another fifteen feet later the platform hit bottom and ground to a halt. Lifting her right hand from the hilt of Elemacil, Raven summoned a ball of cool blue light to her fingertips.

And gazed into the ominous gloom of the Vault of the Lightbringers.

Like Raven's childhood name, it was something few mortals had any knowledge of. Raven alone had walked within this deepest and darkest of chambers. Lord Thomas, Merai, and a handful of the older acolytes knew of its existence and location, but not how to access it. Rumors of the Vault were present throughout the Order, and even among the secular mages of the Keep, but solid information was hard to come by. This was largely by design; for the Vault was the repository of the Order's greatest secrets -- and its darkest fears.

It was not an overly large room -- circular, with perhaps a twenty-foot radius the last time Raven had measured it out -- but that was of no concern, for it had never been meant to hold vast troves of wealth. Most of the Vault's floor space was filled with storage cabinets, shelves and tables radiating away from the platform at the center of the circle; all were secured with the most powerful of Kyia's magical wards. Similar shelves lined the walls, with a display case or other special mount or stand here and there for especially unique items in the collection.

And a dark and sinister collection it was. The Vault had been created to store, secure for all time, those artifacts which the Lothanasi deemed too dangerous for any mortal to have possession of: Daedric censer-pots. Amulets of power. Necromancer spell-books. The heart of Carcaroth, greatest of the Dragon Kings.

But even these were not the most dangerous treasures in the Vault. The most important objects here, those which Kyia herself risked her existence to hide, were those unholy artifacts of the deities themselves: The Ankh of Lilith. The Deathblade of Revonos. The Gauntlet of Mephisto. Even the seemingly innocuous Storm-Jewel of Wvelkim. These had been crafted by the deities for their servants' use, but over the ages the Lothanasi had captured and hidden them so that their destructive power might be contained. Kyia shielded the Vault from mortal and immortal beings alike, allowing all to believe these artifacts had been lost forever ... but there was ever the danger that one day some god or daedra might discover her deception. And what would happen in that event, no one truly knew...

At the moment, though, none of these unspeakably powerful objects held Raven's attention. She stepped off the platform and strode quickly to the eastern side of the room, where three very special items were kept.

"Karenna..." the voice echoed eerily about the chamber. Raven quickened her pace, stepping up to one of the three white sarcophagi resting in a row on pedestals of white marble. She gripped the edges of the lid, opened the latches, and pulled it quickly open.

And looked down at the form of her sister Talia.


Not precisely dead, but no nearer to being alive than the stones themselves. Talia's body was still medically living -- when not held in this magical state of suspended animation, the heart would beat, the lungs would breathe, the brain would carry out the ordinary functions of body maintenance. But this body had no spark of life, no aura, no consciousness. Talia's very soul had somehow been stolen from her, and only a shell, an automaton, remained.

Raven's brother, Aramis, and her mother, Anya, were in the same state. During the Battle of the Three Gates Raven had saved their bodies, healing their injuries and restoring flesh and bone to normal working order. But somehow, in the chaos of that conflict, their very spirits had been carried away. How, or whither, she did not know.

The priestess knelt at the edge of the pedestal and cried, a soft and lonely sound. When she had heard Talia's voice cry out to her, she had thought that somehow, at last, her sister had returned to life -- that her spirit had escaped both the hells and magical imprisonment and returned to her by sheer force of will. But every Lightbringer inwardly knew that such things were impossible, mere fairy stories. Despite her hallucinations on this night, Talia was gone.

And Raven was alone.

"Karenna!" A strong hand gripped her shoulder. Raven looked up, blinking tears from her eyes--

And saw Talia leaning halfway out of her casket, holding her fixedly in place. The not-quite-dead woman's eyes glowed an unearthly yellow...

"Aaagh!" Raven cried out in fright, sitting bolt upright in bed. Her breathing was panicked, and her heart thudded loudly in her ears. Through the window she could make out the song of the lark, carried on the cool spring breeze.

"A dream," she whispered, as if saying it would help convince her of the fact. She reached beneath her covers, felt Elemacil still in its sheath -- yes, a dream.

And yet, it had all felt so real...

Climbing out of bed for what felt like the second time, Raven retrieved her robe from its hanger and put it on. Going over to the window, she sat on the edge and looked out at the clear morning sky.

"A dream ... or something more?" she mused.

"At a guess, I'd say something more," came Merai's voice from behind her.

Raven turned to see the young cat-woman leaning against the doorframe, a troubled expression on her face. Raven had been so distracted that she hadn't even noticed the younger priestess's entrance.

"Tell me how near the mark I come," Merai said. "You dreamed that someone you cared for was in trouble and calling to you for help. When you arrived, he or she was gone ... only to suddenly reappear and continue pleading with you."

The wolf-woman nodded, once. "That's ... near enough to the mark, yes," she said, an uneasy feeling playing around the corners of her mind. "I take it that you had a similar dream?"

Merai nodded. "What do you suppose it means, Lothanasa?"

Raven looked out at the sky again. "I am not certain," she said slowly. "On the face of it, the message is obvious. But whence it comes, and whether it was meant for us specifically, I cannot say." She rose to her feet. "But methinks we should do well to seek interpretation from Lord Samekkh."

The feline priestess frowned. "But Samekkh hasn't been speaking to us since--"

"Since that incident with Rickkter, aye, I know," Raven finished with a touch of annoyance, mostly directed at herself. Her arrogance and stubborn persistence in that sorry episode seemed as though they would cause her no end of troubles. "But fortunately, a summons is not the only way approach the Master of Light. After breakfast, we shall speak with Saroth and Cerulean."

Merai was silent for a moment. "What," she finally asked, "do our dreams have to do with two dragons?"

Raven smiled tightly. "We need mounts," she said. "And where we are going, only a dragon will serve. Come, we have preparations to make."


Merai clenched her hands more tightly around the soft purple dorsal fin in front of her, resisting the urge to dig her claws into Cerulean's scaled hide. She was strapped into a harness of sorts that had been tailor-made for the dragon a good many years ago, but somehow she found the feel of actual dragon-flesh under her palms more reassuring than the leather handgrip at the front of her "seat". Cerulean was so large that she couldn't even have the satisfaction of digging her heels into his flanks; instead she was forced to lie prone, legs and tail stretched out behind her, secured by a half-dozen different straps to the cured leather platform that Cerulean wore between his wings like a back-satchel. Riding dragonback was a unique and utterly terrifying experience.

And utterly awe-inspiring, as well. Merai gazed out with stunned amazement as they passed over the untamed majesty of the Dragon Mountains.

"Well, Saroth!" Cerulean called out to his companion. "What think you of this land?"

The smaller bronze-skinned dragon let out a telepathic laugh, a sensation of joy mixed with wonder. {{What can I say? 'Tis glorious!}} he exclaimed, nearly performing an artful loop before he suddenly remembered his passenger. The net result was a sharp bob upwards and then downwards again that left Raven with her arms wrapped tightly around his neck -- unlike Cerulean, Saroth was slender enough for Raven to ride at his "shoulders" in a seated position.

Saroth was right -- it was glorious. Evergreen forests covered the lower portions of the slopes and filled some of the valleys, while the higher peaks rose past the treeline in jagged silver-white majesty. Rivers and streams flowed through the valleys, turning many of them into lush green havens of untouched beauty. Here and there wider valleys were flanked by foothills, and these were often crowned with beautiful spring wildflowers of pink, orange, purple and gold. In one place they flew past a waterfall that seemed to pour from the mountains as if they held the ocean itself, a towering cascade that fell for what looked like miles before landing in the gully below.

"The Weeping Prophet," Cerulean said, pointing out the waterfall and its mountain with a nod of his head. "It has flowed for a thousand years, perhaps even longer. This was a favorite spot of mine when I was a young drake, still finding my way in the world."

"'Tis beautiful," Merai said, at a loss for any other words.

Saroth looked over at Cerulean. {{How far are we from Seer's Peak?}}

"Not far," the blue-scaled dragon replied. "Come, if we get a little higher we shall see it from here."

They rose out of the gully into the open sky, and beyond a low ridge they saw Seer's Peak rise up to greet them. It was a strange mountain: Rising in sheer cliffs that were utterly impassable, it leveled off at perhaps five hundred feet into a broad mesa, watered by natural (or perhaps magical) springs within the mountain and covered with rich plant growth. At one end of this isolated paradise the mountain rose up further in a jagged peak, its unreachable summit roughly a thousand feet above the mesa. This portion of the mountain, which was in itself the true and proper "Seer's Peak", was craggy and full of caves, one of which was home to the Oracle of Samekkh. According to the books in the Lightbringer Archives, the Oracle tended gardens and a herd of cattle on the fertile plain of the mesa, and these provided for all her needs of sustenance. With the exception of the occasional visitor seeking wisdom, or the dragons who sometimes shared her company, the seeress was utterly alone -- free to devote all her energies to communion with the god of prophecy and light.

Idly, Merai wondered if she would be friendly.

The dragons flew over fields, gardens, and the aforementioned cattle before finally setting down in front of a cave entrance to which Raven directed them. After dismounting, Raven unstrapped Merai from her harness; Saroth then helped them off Cerulean's back to the earth below, which felt wonderfully solid to Merai after this latest adventure.

"Thank you, friends, both of you," Raven said to their reptilian companions. "Unfortunately, only the faithful may enter the Oracle's chambers."

Saroth seemed to smile somewhat ironically at the Lothanasa's mention of faith -- not that Merai could truly blame him, considering the nature of the Lightbringers' relationship with the gods. He held his metaphorical tongue, though, and it was Cerulean who nodded in acknowledgment to Raven. "Understood, Madam Lightbringer," he said. "While we're waiting for you, I'll show Saroth around the area."

{{Would you?}} the weather dragon asked with a smile. {{I've been wanting very much to see the Dragon Mountains, after all that you've told me about them.}}

"My pleasure," Cerulean replied, his dark purple eyes glittering. "By your leave, Madam?"

"By all means," Raven answered, and the two dragons leapt into the air and flew off. When they had disappeared behind the mountain, she turned to Merai.

"It will probably be best if you remain quiet and observe, Merai," she said. "Decorum is important to the Oracle, and it is considered improper for one of your youth and inexperience to address her."

"I understand," the feline girl nodded, casting a glance at the cave's entrance. Some sort of light -- steady, not flickering like a torch -- glowed a short distance inside, its radiance spilling into view from around a corner.

Raven put a hand on her shoulder. "Come, then. Let us find the answers we both seek."


The cave's interior was just as the books of lore in the Archives had promised: smooth-polished rock walls swept up on either side into seamless arched ceilings, making the passageways look as if they were something that had been grown rather than built. The rock itself was a miraculous thing, white stone that glowed from within: a steady, cool light that filled the halls and chambers and reminded the visitor that it was, indeed, the god of light that they were visiting. Perhaps fifty yards past the entrance, the narrow corridor opened up into a receiving hall. A walkway down the center of the hall was lined with decorative columns and large potted plants. The air was humid and fairly warm, but not suffocating, and a fog or mist hung in the room, obscuring anything more than a few feet past the edges of the path. At the far end of the hall, Merai could see the shadow of some sort of raised platform. And though she could not be certain, it seemed almost as if this platform's edges ... were moving ...

The cause of the illusion was clear as they drew closer and the fog dispersed: Snakes. Dozens of snakes crawled all over and around the white marble platform, which rose from a wide base to a smaller summit with flat sloping sides. From each of the platform's four corners rose a golden pole, with the image of a snake wrapped around it and a simple golden sphere at the top. A sloping walkway took the place of steps, rising gradually up from the path to the top of the platform. In the middle of that summit was a long, wide, elaborately carved couch in the Classical Suielman style; and lying on that couch, her right elbow leaning on its gold-plated arm, was the Oracle herself.

Merai's first impression of her was of ageless beauty: long, flowing blonde hair, fair and flawless skin, eyes that seemed deep and wise and unfathomable. Her appearance did not give the impression of youth, nor did it show any sign of aging; it looked simply as if she had always been as she was, and ever would be so. She wore a simple white shirt that looked to be made of silk, and whose hemline fell just above her midriff. Her legs--

The young Lightbringer's mind skidded abruptly to a halt. The Oracle had no legs. At her waistline, the contours of her body flared out again in the suggestion of hips, but it remained fused into a single unit, which tapered gradually into a long, serpent-like tail. As she looked closer, Merai saw that what she had first thought to be a shimmering dress was, in fact, a reptilian hide that met her human flesh at the waist, and whose scales glittered in the cool white light of the stones around them. She could see that the scales in the front of the Oracle's body were wide and thick, like the plates of a serpent's underbelly; to either side, these plates were flanked by a hide of small, smooth, glistening emerald scales. All in all, the image was rather like that of Quiz, the messenger woman Merai had seen here and there around Metamor -- that is, if Quiz could somehow have become a demigoddess.

The Oracle smiled at them, as Raven and Merai came to a halt at the foot of the platform. "Welcome," she said, her voice sounding rich and wise and, much like the rest of her, timeless. "I have been expecting you."

"I bid you greetings, wise Oracle," Raven said, lowering her eyes and nodding slowly in deference to the prophetess. "We are honored to stand before your presence."

The Oracle allowed her tail to slip off of the couch, and after a moment of fluid motion she "stood" -- if that was the proper word -- upright in front of it. As she crawled down the ramp of the platform, the serpent-woman's eyes fell on Merai. Quickly lowering her eyes in wordless submission, Merai nonetheless felt the Oracle's warm gaze upon her.

"You may lift up your heads," she said. "The Lothanasi are honored guests in the House of Samekkh."

Merai looked up to find the seeress still looking at her. She felt her eyes widen just a little in a wordless question.

The Oracle smiled again. "This is a strong one you have here, Raven," she said, not taking her eyes off of the feline girl. "She is coming along well."

"Aye, that was my thought, as well," Raven agreed. "Can you yet see any of what awaits her, wise Oracle?"

"Of course," the prophetess replied smoothly. She gave Merai a discerning look, and it felt to the young priestess as if the serpent-woman's eyes were boring into her spirit. "But it is not yet time to speak of such things. Live your life, Merai hin'Dana, and allow the future to attend to itself."

Merai nodded. "As you say, Madam Seeress."

The Oracle turned her attention back to Raven. "You have had a dream, Lightbringer," she said after a moment's pause. "Both of you have, if I am not mistaken. And now you have come to the holy mountain."

"Aye, Madam Seeress -- it is as you say," Raven acknowledged. "We seek the meaning of the dream, and whatever instruction the god of light wishes to extend on us." The Oracle knew all of this, of course, but it was considered proper decorum that the supplicant state his or her petition aloud.

The ageless woman nodded thoughtfully, making her way back up to the top of the platform. Once there, she turned and faced them again, standing between the two nearer poles with her hands stretched out toward the golden spheres.

"You will receive the interpretation that you seek," she announced. "Prepare yourselves."

Raven lowered herself to her knees, and Merai quickly followed her example. Up on the platform, the Oracle turned her face upwards, speaking something unintelligible in a low voice...

There was a flash of light, and what looked like bolts of lightning arced out from the golden spheres and connected with the palms of the seeress. The eerie link did not dissipate, but continued to flow, the bolts writhing like snakes and snapping and humming like one of Master Bryan's contraptions. The air smelt faintly of ozone.

Cool white light flowed out from the Oracle's palms and over her body. As the prophetess lowered her face toward them, Merai could see that her eyes glowed like white-hot coals. When she spoke, her voice was echoed, almost as if there were two people speaking in unison.

"The dream is a cry for help, as you already know," she said. "It falls to you to answer that call. You must travel toward the lands of the sun's rising, following the southern edge of the mountains, until you find the one who has summoned you."

Raven's ears twitched. "Exalted Oracle ... how can I help them when I know neither who they are nor what they need?"

"You will find help where you least expect it, and allies where you do not seek them," the seeress replied. Her glowing eyes narrowed a little, and her dual voice became more stern. "Be careful in the utmost, Raven. Remember your place at all times. Your fiery tongue may well consume you if you do not."

Raven lowered her head, the chastening words stinging even in Merai's ears. Indeed, Samekkh had not forgotten the episode with Rickkter.

"Great Seeress," Raven asked after a moment, "can you give me some vision of what trials I shall face? Some glimpse of what to prepare for?"

The Oracle was silent for a few seconds, apparently searching for the answer. "Expect to travel far and long," she said at last. "You will spend much time in the wilderlands, far from the touch of civil folk. You will travel to places you have never seen with your eyes, and lands you know only from history and legend. You will need to fend for yourselves much of the time -- but as you hunt, beware of the hunters." She paused again before continuing. "And you will face a great and terrible darkness ... but there awaits a great and radiant light, a shining new hope, if you succeed."

The prophetess lowered her hands, and the radiant link abruptly closed. The glow faded from her eyes and skin, and when next she spoke it was only her voice that could be heard. "I can see no more," she said, approaching them again. "May the light go with you on your journey."

Raven nodded once, rising again to her feet. She hesitated for a moment, as if debating whether they had been dismissed -- then she came to a decision, and spoke. "Madam Oracle," she asked, "what of the vision of Talia? Does it mean anything at all?" She almost looked as if she were pleading, Merai thought; her eyes held the glimmer of some fragile and tenuous hope.

The Oracle put a comforting hand on the wolf-woman's shoulder. "I would say that it says a great deal about you, Raven hin'Elric. But in regards to your real question: Samekkh has not seen your sister enter the lands of the dead." Her eyes widened somewhat, in an expression equivalent to a shrug. "That is not to say that her spirit's presence in this world is certain, for there are things that occur in the hells that Samekkh does not see -- but there is still hope that Talia lives on this plane of existence." She lowered her hand, and smiled sadly. "Nonetheless, you should be under no illusions: your sister was not directly responsible for this dream of yours. The vision you experienced originated with a soul far older than Talia's."

Raven nodded. "I understand. Thank you, Seeress."

The serpent-woman moved away from her. As Merai watched her High Priestess discreetly wipe a tear from her eye, she suddenly became aware that the Oracle was looking at her again. She turned, perhaps a bit abruptly, to meet the woman's face.

"You have a question, my child?" the Oracle asked, her eyebrows raised.

Merai swallowed. Even without the direct link to Samekkh, the prophetess was disturbingly perceptive. "Aye, Madam Seeress," she said. "What must I do in regard to this prophecy? Shall I go with the Lothanasa, or remain at Metamor and tend to the daily sacrifice?"

"A thoughtful question," the Oracle replied soberly. "Your concern for the proper observance of ritual is admirable, Merai -- but in this case you are called to a higher and nobler duty. Do not worry about the sacrifice, for you will be sacrificing of yourselves by carrying out this mission."

"Obedience is better than sacrifice, Merai," Raven noted, her voice sounding subdued. "That saying comes from far to the south, but it is quite true all the same."

"Very true," the seeress agreed. "Go with Raven, my child. But bring no one else, for this task requires the utmost discretion. You will find all the help that you need in due course."

"As you say, wise Oracle," Merai nodded.

"By your leave, Great Prophetess, we will now depart from you," Raven said.

"It is granted," the Oracle replied, smiling once more. "May the blessings of the gods fall tenfold upon your heads."

"Long life and health to you, Majestic Lady," Raven replied. The two Lightbringers bowed, then turned and made their way out of the audience chamber.

"I know not what I expected," Merai said softly, as they drew near the cave's entrance. "But that certainly was not it."

Raven smiled a little. "The Oracle has a way of taking one by surprise," she said. "She was certainly far warmer with you than I had expected, considering your youth. You should consider it a compliment."

Merai blushed. "She did say some rather peculiar things about me," she admitted. "I suppose I shall have to trust that she sees me more clearly than I do."

The older priestess chuckled. "That is almost always the case."

"What I don't understand, though, is her appearance," Merai said, an odd thought striking her. "She seems ageless ... and yet she has clearly fallen prey to the curse of Metamor, so she cannot have been at this mountain for long. Who was she when she lived at the Keep?"

Strangely, Raven laughed. "Your thoughts are misdirected, Merai," she chided her gently. "The Oracle has been changed, true, but not by the curse. Do you remember the chosen animal of Samekkh?"

After their recent encounter, the answer was obvious. "Of course: the serpent. 'Tis considered the wisest of all creatures."

"Precisely," Raven said. "Now, consider this: the Oracle is indeed nearly ageless, as you have said. This particular Oracle has served in that station for over two hundred years, her life prolonged by divine energy. Tell me, Merai: do you not suppose that constant exposure to a power such as Samekkh's might carry with it certain ... ancillary effects?"

In what seemed to be a frequent pattern in her life as a priestess, Merai felt herself gasp. "You mean that the Oracle was transformed into ... that ... simply by letting Samekkh's power flow through her?"

"Aye," the Lothanasa replied. "It was a gradual process, of course, but no doubt inevitable when one is exposed for so long to such energies."

Merai thought about that for a moment. "Has any Lightbringer ever been changed thus by such exposure?"

Raven's mind abruptly darkened. "It ... has been known to happen, aye," she said, her voice sounding strange. "Though not always by exposure to the gods of heaven."

She fell silent, and Merai thought it wise not to press what was clearly a sensitive point. It came to her memory, now, that Celine had once warned her about the Dark Forests of Lilith -- evil lands, such as Elderwood, each of which grew from an unholy place called a Nexus. The acolyte had said that these forests were imbued with the power of the Vampire Queen, and that anyone who dwelt too long within their shadow was doomed to become a slave to the dark mistress.

A number of horrifying possibilities stirred to life in her mind -- transformations of body, as well as mind, which prolonged exposure to such a forest might bring about. As it turned out, her dreams would be haunted by such creatures for a long time to come.


The flight home was quiet and subdued. Saroth looked delighted upon returning from his tour of the mountains, but both he and Cerulean fell into a polite silence when they sensed the Lightbringer's mood. Raven's presence had a way of stilling conversation when something heavy rested on her mind.

Nevertheless, when they were nearly halfway to Metamor the bronze-skinned dragon ventured to speak. {{You seem troubled, Lightbringer,}} he sent, his telepathic voice gentle in her mind. {{Did the prophetess bring you ill news?}}

After a moment, Raven shook herself out of her private reverie and replied. "'Ill news' is not quite the term," she said thoughtfully, gazing out at the eastern horizon. "Disturbing news, perhaps. Difficult news, certainly." She sighed. "However, the truth is that the Oracle could not share all the news I had hoped for."

Saroth seemed to smile inwardly. {{'Tis said that 'no news' is good news, my lady.}}

The Lothanasa bit her lip. "Not always, Saroth," she said, blinking back a lone tear. "Sometimes 'no news' is the worst kind of torture there is."


April 6.

Merai let out a little puff of breath as she set down her last bag on the pack horse's back. After tying down the satchel and checking all the straps and buckles for the third time, she sat down on a nearby crate and wiped her brow.

As soon as they had returned from their trip to the mountains, Raven had begun making preparations to set out again. They had spent the rest of the day procuring supplies and tying up loose ends around the temple; they would likely be gone for a few weeks, the Lightbringer said, and it was important that they leave nothing unresolved that the acolytes would be unable to handle. The two priestesses retired at the earliest possible hour and arose roughly two hours before dawn; now, with the light just beginning to brighten the eastern sky, they were almost ready to set out.

Merai sensed the familiar aura behind her even before her sensitive feline ears detected the sound of boots on cobblestone. Turning around, she saw Daria hin'Leon -- scout, Squire of the Red Stallion, and her best friend -- step through the door of the stable. With her long red hair pulled back in a ponytail and a rapier hung at her belt, and dressed in her trademark green-and-leather scout's uniform, the young warrior-woman was ready to ride.

"Good morrow, Merai," Daria said, in the friendly but quiet way that the predawn hours tend to promote. "Headed afield today? You're out of uniform, I see."

Merai cast a glance down at the jerkin, leggings and boots she was wearing, all of which made her look rather like a scout herself. It occurred to her that it had been almost two months since she had appeared in public in anything but her robes of office. Then, as now, she had been headed on an errand in the countryside; but that had been a brief afternoon excursion to one of the outlying towns, not a mission to some far-off land.

"Aye, but I fear it is a rather longer journey than my last," she replied.

"I gathered that from your beast of burden, here," Daria said, gesturing at the stocky little horse. "Where are you headed?"

Merai hesitated, but she could never lie to Daria. "South, then east," she said. "The Lothanasa and I are on a mission of the utmost importance -- I fear we shall be gone for several weeks."

Daria's bright blue eyes widened a little. "It surprises me that the Lightbringer should leave the Keep unattended for so long."

"Oh, 'tis no concern," Merai said, gesturing dismissively with her tail as she stood to check the straps on the luggage again. "The acolytes are most capable. The Keep shall want for nothing, I am sure."

"Of course," Daria agreed. Merai could hear her stepping closer, but she kept her back turned, her eyes on the horse in front of her. "What I meant," the scout continued, "was that I am surprised there is a matter at hand that is both so distant and so grave that the Lightbringer herself must journey so far to attend to it."

Merai shrugged uncomfortably. "These are strange and dangerous times," she said. "Much is required of all of us."

Daria said nothing in reply. Stepping up close behind Merai, she put a hand on the priestess's shoulder.

"You are headed into danger, aren't you?" she murmured.

Hanging her head, Merai nodded.

"You should not travel unprotected," Daria advised. "Two priestesses of Metamor, alone in the Midlands? It seems a recipe for disaster."

Merai shook her head. "Our mission is secret, Daria. It requires the greatest discretion."

"At least let me come with you, then," Daria insisted. "I may not be a knight yet, but I am well trained. I could be of at least some protection to you."

Even as Daria said the words, Merai was already turning around to face her. Her expression was filled with the sadness and fear that was churning inside her. "I'm sorry, Daria," she said, looking into the other girl's eyes with her soft mahogany-brown ones. "I wish you could come, but the gods have forbidden it. There are innocent lives at stake in this mission -- we dare not disobey their instruction."

The red-headed young woman sighed heavily. "So be it," she said, putting a hand behind Merai's head and drawing it near so that their foreheads touched. "But I shall miss you every moment that you are gone."

"As shall I," the priestess replied gravely, wrapping her arms around her friend in a tight embrace. "Pray for our safe return."

"I shall," Daria promised.

They drew apart and stood looking at each other for a long moment.

"Go on," Merai said with a small, sad smile. "You have a patrol to ride."

The two young women gazed into each other's eyes for a few seconds more; then Daria nodded, turned, and went to the stall where her horse was waiting. She fitted the young gelding for riding in silence, then led him out past Merai and the pack horse. As she climbed onto her mount's back, she looked once more at her friend the priestess.

"Godspeed, Merai," she said.

Merai nodded. "And to you, as well."

Without another word, Daria turned and rode out into the quiet predawn street.


"You are headed afield."

Raven frowned, taking a few steps further into Wanderer's quarters. The bard was sitting on his windowsill, gazing out at the Keep below, strumming his lute softly. He did not even turn his head to look at her as she entered.

"How did you know?"

"Riding boots," the wolf-man said quietly. "That, and the normal sound of your robes is missing."

She half-smiled at that. Wanderer's ears were keen, that much was certain.

"In that case, how did you know it was me?" she asked, coming up to stand behind him. Gentle hands reached down to touch his shoulders, and at last he looked up and smiled.

"Come now, my lady. I'd know that scent anywhere." Laying his lute aside, he turned and swung his legs down to the floor, presenting his lap to the priestess. She sat down, lightly, and kept one hand on his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her waist.

"So," he said, after a moment. "Where are you going, Raven?"

She sighed, lowering her head to rest it against Wanderer's. "I wish that I could say," she said. "It is a place far to the east of here, a land of legends ... but the Oracle could tell me no more than that."

"Hmm." The bard pondered that for a moment, his hand lightly stroking across Raven's thigh. "And for what purpose have the gods summoned you so far from home?"

"Someone is in great danger," the priestess said soberly. "They have called to us for help, and we must answer that call."

Wanderer drew back and looked at her quizzically, a small frown creasing his brow. "Who is going with you?"

"Only Merai," Raven said regretfully, her crystal blue eyes already refusing the bard's unspoken request. "The gods will permit no one else."

The wolf-man seemed incredulous, his mouth opening in a soundless laugh. "Wherefore? What can two priestesses do against such a danger?"

Raven smirked. "You should know the answer to that by now, Sir Charles the Worrier," she scolded playfully. "Merai and I handled ourselves well against those Moranasi last December. We'll be all right."

"Do you give me your word on that?" Wanderer asked, looking her squarely in the eye.

Raven held that gaze for a long moment, tasting the pain and sorrow and loss that had been theirs too often of late. At last she decided that there was no room for joviality here. "You know that I cannot," she said, her voice sounding hoarse to her ears. "But I must obey, Wand'rer. There is something important at work here, something that was set in motion a very long time ago. I cannot explain how, but my spirit tells me that the lives of countless mortals hang on the success of this one mission." She shook her head slightly. "I have no choice."

Wanderer continued looking at her a moment longer, then lowered his gaze. His arms held her more tightly against his chest, as though he were afraid that she would vanish into mist should he let go.

"I understand," he said quietly. "As much as any man could, at any rate. 'Tis just that, with all that has happened to us this year..."

"I know," Raven said, wrapping her arms around his neck and resting her head against his again. "I couldn't bear to lose you again, either."

They sat like that for a while longer, soaking in each other's touch, until at last Raven stirred and rose to her feet. "I should be going now," she said. "Merai will be waiting."

The wolfish bard rose beside her, and the two stood facing each other with their hands clasped together.

"Please come back to me," Wanderer said.

There was another long pause. Raven longed to speak words of assurance to him, to say "Of course I shall, my darling", or "I swear by the stones of Metamor that I shall" -- but she could make no such promise, as she had already told him. Nor could she say "I shall try", for the Lothanasi did not believe in "try" -- only do, or do not. In the end, she said the only thing that she could.

"If a mortal woman can, I shall return to you," she whispered.

They drew each other into a tight embrace, their lips meeting in one long, bittersweet kiss. Then Raven turned and walked to the door, pausing as she held it open. She looked back at the wolf-man, the friend who had so recently become much more. The only person she truly had left in the world.

"Farewell, my love," she said softly.

"Godspeed, my lady."

Then the door swung quietly shut, and she was gone.


The road to the Midlands, as expected, was even quieter than the city at this hour; Raven and Merai traveled for several hours without seeing a single soul. Even the small towns they passed through seemed nearly deserted, though by the time they approached the southern mouth of the valley the villagers had begun to rise and go about their daily business. The priestesses rode straight through, neither stopping nor speaking to anyone -- the two pack horses they led behind them carried sufficient provisions to last them as far as the Outer Midlands. They made excellent time, and by midday they had left the valley behind and were well on their way to Midtown.

For Merai, the journey was strange and exciting and a little frightening. She had lived her entire life at Metamor, rarely journeying much farther than Mycransburg and, with the exception of her recent trip to the Dragon Mountains, never leaving the comfortable familiarity of the valley. Her entire life thus far had been lived in the imposing but reassuring shadow of the mountains; thus it was quite unsettling for her to find herself in the midst of such _openness,_ with the land extending to the western horizon and no sign of the familiar Dragon range to be found. They stayed close to the Great Barrier Mountains on the left as they rode, and that provided her with some sense of security; nevertheless, Merai found herself constantly glancing furtively to her right, as if unconsciously expecting an attack on their vulnerable western flank.

No attack came, however, and they rode for days without incident, pushing their steeds as fast as they dared. In the evenings they would stop in a forest clearing, or a farmer's field, or one of the Lothanasi temples that dotted the landscape -- and then they would be off again in the morning, traveling from the break of day until the sun slipped below the all-too-flat western horizon. Whenever possible they traded their horses for fresh mounts at the stables that most of the temples kept; this allowed them to drive the horses faster, and thus make better time.

After journeying southeast for two days they angled due south just outside Komley, following the highway that led from Metamor to Kelewair. Around suppertime on the fourth day they turned off of this road onto a slightly narrower and less-used path, one that headed due east. They had rounded the edge of the Great Barrier now, and Merai felt more vulnerable than ever as they made their way through Elarial, then continued even further east, following the path of the Marchbourne, the river that flowed through that part of the Southern Midlands. By the time they reached the town of Bozojo they had been traveling for almost two weeks.

"We shall have to load up on supplies here," Raven advised as they passed through the western gate of the town. Both she and Merai were dressed in long hooded cloaks that shielded their faces -- the people of the Midlands could be erratic in their dealings with Metamorians, and the priestesses didn't want any trouble. They could have worn their robes of office for the journey into town, thus ensuring that they would be left unmolested, but to do so would have drawn unnecessary attention to themselves. Their mission was secret -- so secret, Merai thought ironically, that even they didn't know what it was -- and word might easily reach some unknown enemy if two Metamor clerics were spotted here, so close to the edge of the Outer Midlands.

"Aye, Lothanasa," Merai agreed softly, her eyes scanning the streets ahead of them for potential assailants. "Is there a temple here that can help us?"

"There is," Raven confirmed. "I sent word to them last night of our impending arrival. They will be expecting us."

Merai eyed the Lothanasa carefully, but she could see nothing of the older woman's face beneath the cloak. "How did you send word to them?"

There was a touch of amusement in the Lightbringer's aura. "That is one of the things you will learn in due time, Merai. Suffice it to say that we are not completely cut off from our allies, even out here."

"That's some comfort, at least," Merai said, more to herself than to Raven. Again she turned her attention to their surroundings, keeping a wary eye on anyone who looked suspicious. Out here, in a city with so many strangers and no fellow morphs, there seemed to be an unusually large number of suspicious people about.

An acolyte from the Lightbringer temple met them as they neared the plaza at the middle of town. He was a tall, dark and serious man, dressed in a simple brown robe, his hair cropped short and even.

"Good afternoon," he hailed them as they approached. "The kindness of Yajiit shines down upon us this day."

"Aye, 'tis so," Raven agreed with a nod. "And Lord Dvalin will grace us with his presence before the night has fallen."

The acolyte smiled grimly as Raven gave the proper countersign, confirming their identities. "Follow me, Mistress," he said. "I shall show you to our temple."

"You honor us, sirrah," the Lightbringer replied. "Lead the way."


April 19.

The temple assistant directed them to a small but elegant stone building, with a silver-plated dome that gleamed in the waning sunlight. The twin cross that rose from the top of the dome identified the structure as a Lothanasi temple. The acolyte led them around to the back of the building, where a wooden stable stood at the far end of a small courtyard. Two more acolytes, a man and a woman, came up to meet them, taking the reins of the horses as Raven and Merai dismounted. As they pulled back the hoods of their cloaks, Raven saw the eyes of the acolytes widen a little; but all three were well-trained, and in a moment they overcame their surprise and continued their work. While their mounts and the pack horses were led into the small wooden building, the tall acolyte guided them to the temple's rear entrance.

The temple priest met them inside, attended by two more acolytes. A thinly built man, his face worn and his hair grayed with age, Brother Lemuel had served the Order with honor, if not distinction, for over forty years. He was a quiet man, kind and capable, who happened to have been born in a part of the world where no high official of the Order would ever take notice of him -- or so he had thought, until the Lothanasa had contacted him last night in a vision-spell. Raven suspected that he would quite happily go back to his ordinary, daily routine once she and Merai were gone; but for now he was a gracious host, seeming to completely ignore the outlandish appearance of his guests.

"Lothanasa, Sister Merai, you honor us with your presence," the priest said, with a courteous and pleasant expression that did not quite carry the warmth and informality of a smile. "On behalf of all the faithful of Bozojo, I welcome you."

"I thank you for your hospitality, Brother Lemuel," Raven replied, matching his tone. "I assure you, we will not impose upon you for long."

"'Tis no imposition, Lothanasa," Lemuel said, giving a nod of respect. "If you have need of anything, you have only to ask."

"I fear we shall have to accept that offer," the wolf-woman answered, as she began removing her riding cloak. The priest made a small gesture, and the two acolytes behind him moved quickly to help her take off the long black mantle. Merai followed her example, removing her own cloak and handing it to one of the acolytes. After taking both of the garments the two temple assistants disappeared down one of the temple's corridors, presumably to place them in the wardrobe for safekeeping.

"We have been traveling for nearly a fortnight, and our provisions are running low," Raven continued. "I do not wish to draw attention to our presence here, so if one of your acolytes could go to the market in our stead..."

"Of course," Lemuel replied. "The supplies will be on two fresh pack horses come the morning."

"Thank you," Raven said, genuinely grateful. Letting out a tired sigh, she allowed a small smile to form on her lips. "Other than that, all we ask are a hot bath, a good meal and a place to sleep."

The priest broke into a warm grin. "All three are waiting for you, Lothanasa. If you'll follow me..."


Merai leaned back against the edge of the wide circular tub, purring softly in contentment. There were some things that even the Curse couldn't erase; cat or not, she still enjoyed the soothing comfort of a hot, leisurely bath.

Overall, she reflected, the journey hadn't been too difficult thus far. They'd ridden hard for many days, but the Lothanasi were well-established in the regions they'd traveled through and the local temples had been more than willing to help, even when they passed out of the Metamor Chapter and into the lands under the jurisdiction of Ellcaran and Kelewair. Raven had told Merai some days ago that her mother grew up in this region, and as a result she had a good understanding of which temples were most likely to help them and -- even more importantly -- keep their presence a secret. Bozojo itself was beyond the edges of Raven's own experience, but she seemed to have some second-hand knowledge that indicated they could trust Brother Lemuel. Given the sumptuous way the Bozojo acolytes had fed them this afternoon, Merai was in no mood to contest her decision.

As she lay there -- head back, eyes closed, submerged up to her neck and breathing in the scent of bath salts that wafted through the room -- Merai caught the sound of feet approaching from the hall. *It must be Sister Raven,* she thought, not bothering to move. She sent out a casual tendril of thought towards the person, lightly brushing against their aura.

Then she frowned. It wasn't Raven. She vaguely recognized the aura, as one might recognize the face of a person she had briefly met some hours before, but she couldn't quite put an identity with it. She ran through her memories of the acolytes she had met during the day, trying to find the one that matched the energy signature she was feeling now...

A moment later it became a moot point. She opened her eyes just in time to see a young acolyte walk past the tall wooden screens that hid the baths from view of the hallway. It was a man -- not much more than a boy, actually, and probably about Merai's age -- and at first he didn't even seem to notice her presence. He was halfway through the process of removing his outer robe when his eyes drifted to the left and he caught sight of Merai. He did a double-take that almost made it look as if he would jump out of his skin.

"Oh, gods!" he exclaimed, frantically wrapping his robe around him again as he stared at her, wide-eyed, like a deer frozen before the gaze of a predator. His cheeks were flushed brilliant red, a colorful contrast to his straw-blonde hair. "I -- oh, gods -- a thousand pardons, Priestess," he stammered. "I di-didn't know there was anyone else in here -- no one t-told me that you were ... were..."

In spite of the intrusion, Merai had to suppress a grin. Had she been merely a peasant girl, she thought, this boy likely would have taken no notice of her existence, and wouldn't have cared if he had. But since she bore the title of Priestess, while he was "merely" an acolyte, he was tripping over his tongue and practically cowering before her in remorse over his offense.

She gestured dismissively. "That's quite all right, Brother--?"

"C-Calvis," he said, still transfixed.

"Calvis," Merai repeated, nodding in satisfaction. "I've been in here long enough, in any event. Would you be so kind as to hand me that towel? If you're done staring at the Keeper girl, that is."

"Oh. Oh! Um, aye, of course, Sister Merai," Calvis said, blushing even more fiercely as he realized just what he'd been doing. "M-my apologies." He quickly grabbed the towel from where it lay beside the tub, handed it to Merai, and finally averted his eyes as she rose out of the tub and wrapped the towel around herself. She walked over to the far side of the room, where another set of screens had been set up as a changing area. Merai watched out of the corner of her eye as Calvis's eyes wandered back to her when she walked past.

Hidden behind the screen, Merai almost laughed at the young man's discomfort. Other acolytes and priests they'd met on the road had reacted with surprise or wonder at the Keepers' appearance, but she had never yet seen one thrown so totally out of sorts by it. *He must have lived a rather sheltered life,* Merai mused as she began drying herself off.

"So, Brother Calvis," she said casually, hoping idle conversation might take the young acolyte's mind off of his blunder, "what do you do here at the temple?"

Calvis cleared his throat. "Well, um -- you know, a little of this, a little of that. Mostly I take -- take care of the d-doves for the dawn sacrifices."

"An important job," Merai said seriously. "I imagine that must be very peaceful, caring for the birds. I'm very fond of them -- no, not like that," she added, laughing suddenly as she caught an image from his mind of a cat with feathers between its teeth. Normally she couldn't read minds, but the man had practically thrown the image out at her. "I like them because they are beautiful, gentle creatures. Living in this body has not changed that."

"Oh," Calvis said, his voice a strange mix of emotions. He fell into thoughtful silence, and Merai began putting on her nightclothes, a silk shirt and pants fashioned in what the Kelewair tailors called Elf Cut, though no one quite remembered why.

"So -- what has changed?" Calvis asked suddenly.

Merai's ears twitched. "Pardon?"

"With -- your body," he said, sounding like he was uncomfortable phrasing it that way but couldn't really think of a better way to put it. "What is different?"

"Well ... several things," Merai said at last. "The hearing and the sense of smell are very queer, at first -- much more sensitive. Having a tail takes getting used to, as well. It changes your center of balance, but it also seems to make you more steady in high places. I don't much fear falling anymore." She chuckled. "And then there is the fur. 'Tis very odd to feel that short, wet hair all about your body when you leave the bathtub!"

Calvis laughed, still sounding a little nervous -- though not nearly so much as a few minutes before. "Aye, I can imagine." Another pause. "Do you ... like it?" he asked, hesitantly.

Merai smiled. "We Keepers had best learn to like what the Curse gives us, or we should go mad," she said. "We have little choice in the matter. Still, it has not been hard to learn to live with this form. I still have my hands and my thumbs -- and my eyes and my hair, which were really the only parts of my old body that I loved. I was quite plain, really." She chuckled again, as she came out from behind the screen. Calvis was still standing rather rigidly in the middle of the room, his eyes fixing on her as soon as she appeared. "Of course, as far as Keepers are concerned, I'm still rather plain now," she conceded, looking down at the uniform tawny fur on her arms. "But I think it suits me."

If possible, Calvis's eyes grew even wider. "Plain?" he repeated, looking dumbfounded.

Merai looked up at him, wearing a look that was halfway between amused and puzzled. "Aye, plain," she said. Then she laughed, once, at the expression on his face. "Why, did you have a different opinion?" Half-jokingly, she turned around in a slow circle, as she sometimes did when presenting her clothes to Celine to make sure everything fit properly.

Calvis was still frozen in place when she turned to face him again. His expression was almost comical -- his eyes still wide, his mouth slightly agape.

"I ... I think that you are beautiful," he said at last, his voice shaky and a little stilted. "More beautiful than anyone else I have ever seen."

If it hadn't been for the look of awe on the acolyte's face, Merai would have laughed out loud. But Calvis was radiating utter sincerity, with such force of emotion behind it that it almost took Merai's breath away. She gazed at him, astonished, for several long seconds.

And then, abruptly, a broad grin spread across her face. Stepping forward, she reached up and placed a light peck of a kiss on his cheek.

"Thank you," she said, and meant it. With that, she turned and headed for the hallway.

"Will I see you tomorrow before you leave?" Calvis asked, as she neared the screens guarding the exit.

Merai turned back and smiled. "I hope so."


April 20. Shortly after midnight.

"Raven! Raven, awake!"

The voice of the Oracle came strongly and urgently to Raven's mind, piercing through her dark and clouded dreams like a brilliant shaft of light. "Awake, Raven! The hunters are upon you!"

The priestess awoke suddenly but made no movement and no sound. Quietly, she breathed in the scent of the room around her, her ears scanning for any sound of danger. She could smell the scents of the female acolytes who shared the room, the lingering incense of the dusk offering, Merai over on the far side of the room ... and something else. Something faint, markedly unusual, but also vaguely familiar -- and, she somehow knew, dangerous.

A memory clicked into place: weaponblack. She had seen the Long Scouts use it on their blades before heading afield, an oily, foul-smelling substance that clung to the metal and left it a uniform matte black. A sword or dagger coated with weaponblack was almost totally invisible in dim light, making it ideal for warriors making a surprise attack ... or, her mind noted darkly, for assassins.

As quietly as possible, Raven drew Elemacil from its sheath on her leg. Then, after a moment of preparation, she slid quickly from beneath the sheets and onto the floor, feet beneath her, blade at the ready. Stretching out with her aura sight, mind alert for any approaching attackers, she crept over to Merai, staying below the line of sight from the windows.

A quick examination confirmed what her aura sight had already told her: Merai was asleep and unharmed. Gently, she roused the younger priestess, putting one hand firmly over the cat-woman's mouth so that she would not make a sound when she awoke. Merai's mind flickered with recognition as she came back to consciousness, and she looked up at Raven and nodded. The wolf-woman removed her hand from Merai's mouth and gestured to her to join her on the floor. Merai quickly complied, drawing her own small sword which she kept by her bedside.

Raven sent a shaft of thought deep into Merai's mind. *Foes,* she said, the crude method of communication only allowing for simple images and ideas. Merai chewed at her lip, fear rising for a moment within her, before she steeled her will and nodded again.

Moving to crouch in the shadows on either side of the door, they waited in silence, listening intently. For a long time they heard nothing. Then, very faintly, they caught the sound of footsteps approaching in the hallway outside.

Raven looked at the door. It was locked, but not bolted -- the priest with the key, or a skilled thief with a set of lock-picks, could open the door without resorting to brute force. The windows were small, but they had neither glass nor grating. An assassin may not be able to slip in, but an arrow could do so with ease.

There came another sound: The faint, almost imperceptible sliding of metal against metal, coming from the lock on the door. After a few seconds of this, Raven looked up at Merai and nodded sharply, raising Elemacil into a ready position. Whoever was coming through that door, he didn't belong there.

Raven tightened her grip on the holy sword, trying to ignore the sweat that was beginning to form on her palms. Silently she reached out to Dokorath, connecting with his strength and power...

The lock clicked quietly open, an ominous sound in the silent night. Slowly, carefully, the knob on the door began to turn: one eighth of a revolution ... one quarter ... and then the door began to open, facing Merai.

An instant's glance with aura sight told Raven everything she needed to know about the dark figure that appeared through the doorway -- his soul reeked of evil and malicious intent. Moving with divinely-powered speed, she swung her blade directly at the man's neck, above the collar of his leather armor. Elemacil bit deeply, and he fell to the ground in a spray of blood.

But the assassin was not alone. A second man, who had been crouching back in the hallway, shouted out in a coarse-sounding language Raven did not understand. Instantly there came a whistling sound in the room behind her -- and she turned to see two arrows embedded in the floor. Each had a small sphere behind the head, which was glowing with an eerie green light...

"Damn!" Raven shouted, darting out into the hallway. The second assassin turned and ran, not even looking back. At the moment, though, Raven had more important concerns. "Merai, get out!" she cried at the top of her lungs, hoping to rouse as many of the acolytes as she could at the same time. "Awake, awake! Run, now!"

Taking her own advice, Raven raced down the hallway, Merai close behind. A handful of the more alert acolytes followed two seconds later--

And then the building was rocked by a deafening explosion.

"Awake, awake!" Raven cried again, magically projecting her voice to echo through the whole temple. "Foes upon us! Lightbringers to arms! Awake!"

By now the entire temple was roused, and there came answering shouts from the male acolytes' chambers and the priest's quarters. Raven could hear the moans of the wounded and the sobbing of the female acolytes who had remained unscathed, but at the moment she resolutely turned her mind toward survival. Whoever was attacking the temple was almost certainly after Raven and Merai; if they escaped, their enemies would follow, and the Lightbringers of Bozojo would be left alone. Or so she hoped.

Brother Lemuel met them at the back entrance to the temple, accompanied by half a dozen strong-looking young acolytes, all carrying swords or long knives.

"Did you see any of them?" Raven asked sharply.

"No," Lemuel returned. His face looked haggard, weary, and terribly frightened. The poor old man just wasn't used to this sort of thing.

"We have to get out of here," Raven said. "You and you, help us load our horses. The rest of you watch our backs. On three."

The acolytes quickly formed up in front of the door in pairs, Raven and Merai behind the second pair. One of the men gripped the handle of the door, holding the latch open.

"One. Two. Three!"

The door was thrown open, and the acolytes and priestesses raced across the open terrace and into the stable. Two acolytes were felled by arrows from the surrounding rooftops as they ran. Reaching the shelter of the stable, Raven turned and stretched out her hand toward one of the rooftops, where her aura sight showed a dark presence crouching in the shadows.

"Lotha raumallo dan i moreri, essenen Dvalino!" she cried.

A loud crack of thunder rent the cloudy skies above them, as a bolt of lightning flashed down and struck the shadowy figure on the roof. An instant later a second bolt struck another rooftop on the other side of the temple, sending chunks of masonry falling into the street. Neither archer even had the chance to cry out in pain.

"That will give us a few minutes, perhaps," Raven said, running to the back of the stable to check on the fresh mounts that had been prepared for them. Fortunately, it looked like the horses were strong, young, and healthy. She quickly went to work putting on her mount's riding gear.

Brother Lemuel, apparently deciding that it was safe for the moment, came running out of the temple with the satchels that held Raven and Merai's personal belongings. They swiftly changed into their scout's garb in an empty stall while the acolytes finished equipping the horses.

"Where is Brother Calvis?" Merai asked when she saw the priest. "Is he all right?"

"Aye, I think so," Lemuel said. "I saw him in the male acolytes' chambers a minute ago."

Merai relaxed visibly, even as she was in the process of putting on her leggings. "Thank the gods," she murmured. Raven gave her a questioning glance, but the feline woman either didn't notice or pretended not to.

"I don't understand it," Lemuel said, shaking his head. "How would anyone have known you were here?"

"There are others who can see beyond sight besides the Lightbringers," Raven pointed out. "In this case, though, I suspect that it happened when your acolytes went out for our provisions. One of them may have betrayed our presence to these attackers."

The old priest looked very frightened. "One of the acolytes? A traitor?"

"Such things happen," Raven said, remembering the betrayals her own homeland had fallen prey to the past December. " 'Tis also possible that he knew not what he did. Perhaps he thought he was reporting to some official from the Kelewair chapter, thinking that they would send us aid. It hardly matters now -- we shall leave at once and not trouble you again."

"This night has brought more trouble than I hoped to see in a lifetime," Lemuel said bitterly, as they came out of the stall and mounted their horses. "I do not blame you, Lothanasa, for you could not have foreseen it. All the same, I only hope that the success of your mission is worth the lives of the acolytes who died to further it."

Raven nodded solemnly, at last allowing her face to show the pain and grief she shared with the elder Lightbringer. "So do I," she said. "Cuialye lothan, Brother Lemuel."

"Cuialye lothan, Lothanasa."

Then Raven and Merai spurred their mounts out into the terrace and the street beyond, leading the pack horses behind them, leaving behind fire and death and vanishing into the darkness.


A few minutes of hard riding brought the priestesses to the eastern gate of the city. Not surprisingly, it was shut tight. Somewhat more surprisingly, the small after-hours passage through the gatehouse was open, the gatekeeper lying dead in a pool of his own blood.

"I don't understand this," Merai said, her voice somewhere between frightened and frustrated. "Why kill the gatekeeper? Why not just come in before the gate closes?"

"Evidently whoever had it in mind to kill us sent for reinforcements, but they failed to arrive before nightfall," Raven said. "The one working inside the city killed the gatekeeper to allow his fellows inside." She frowned. "Either that, or the surviving assassins have just fled the town, using the same exit as we."

"Either way, it does not bode well," Merai said.

"Agreed. We had best make haste toward the forests to the north. There we may have a chance of evading pursuit."

"Assuming they aren't already waiting for us," Merai said.


Merai followed Raven silently, almost in a daze, as they left the road going down into the plains and turned northward towards the forest, a few hours' distance from the city. She still couldn't believe what had just happened. Granted, Nasoj's attack during Yule had been far more frightening in its potential consequences, but that was war. There was something deeply terrifying about someone actually trying to kill you, specifically, as an individual. Especially when whoever it was didn't particularly care if other people got in the way.

The young priestess blinked back tears. There had probably been a dozen other women and girls in that room with them, and most of them had been killed by that magic arrow -- simply because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Simply because Raven and Merai had decided to spend the night there.

Shaking her head as if to ward off any further thoughts in that vein, Merai rode up alongside Raven.

"What do you intend to do?" she asked the wolf-woman.

Raven looked pensive. "We should travel as far into the forest as we may tonight," she said. "In the morning I will speak to one of the nymphs. They will certainly have noticed if a band of those murderers has passed through their land. If the assassins have gone before us, we shall turn off the path and find a different route through the trees. If they are following us, we shall look to the forest's inhabitants for help in dealing with them."

Merai raised an eyebrow. "Who lives in that forest that would be able to help us?"

The Lothanasa smiled, casting a glance up at the dark cloudy sky overhead. "You might be surprised," she said.


They rode all that night, until the warm light of dawn began to find its way through the leaves and branches of the canopy overhead. The road here was narrow, only wide enough for single cart to pass along it, and the trees grew up around them and hid the sky from view. The path twisted and bent around hills and some of the older trees as it went, so there was no clear line of sight back along the way that they had come; that was good, because it hid them from any potential pursuers, and it was bad, because they could not see whether they were indeed being pursued.

Fortunately Raven had a solution to the latter problem. Shortly after dawn they left the path and turned east, wending their way through the dense thickets until they found themselves at the bottom of a small dale. A little stream ran down into the hollow and formed a shallow pool, and here they tied up the horses and allowed them to drink. Then Raven left Merai and disappeared into the trees to the south of the dale, saying she would return shortly. Merai lay her head on one of their bedrolls and fell into a light sleep. One of the small benefits of being a cat was that she could nap almost anywhere and still maintain a kind of instinctive alertness about her.

It was difficult to say how long Raven had been gone when she finally reappeared, but Merai was sure it could not have been more than a couple of hours. The elder priestess looked weary.

"It is worse than we might have hoped, but not as bad as we feared," she said. "The dryads say that four men on horseback rode into the forest about three hours behind us, dressed all in black. Fortunately, there are no others on the path ahead of us."

"That is something, anyway," Merai conceded. "How far away are they now?"

"Not far -- no more than an hour, I expect. They are moving as swiftly as they may while making sure they do not lose the trail. We should be better off to force a confrontation on our terms, I think, than to keep running."

Merai nodded, clenching her jaw. "All right. What do we do?"


Forty-five minutes later a group of four riders dismounted, tied up their horses and left the forest road, plunging into the dense foliage on the eastern side. They moved slowly, cautiously, weapons at the ready, and the first figure stopped frequently and bent low to the ground, searching for clues to their prey's movements. The first two hunters bore swords, while the two in back carried shortbows with arrows ready on the bowstrings.

The dark figures followed the marks of the two Keepers and their horses down into the dale, where they found more telling signs: their prey had lingered in this area. They would not be far now.

The trail of evidence left the dale and headed northeast, just as the hunters had expected. The priestesses had obviously left the forest road in hopes of being lost in the underbrush, but they had forgotten that bare, hard-packed earth hid a horse's passing far more easily than soft dirt and forest undergrowth. While a commoner might have lost the trail after only a few yards into the brush, to an experienced tracker the signs were blatantly clear. The head tracker smiled a little at the good fortune his prey's inexperience had brought them.

Turning to his fellow swordsman, the leader motioned for him to go back for the horses. They had found a clear trail that any of them could follow, and since they could be going a considerable distance off the road it made more sense to bring the horses along behind them than to leave them unattended. As the lone assassin turned back, the other three continued down the trail, moving as silently as ghosts.

A few hundred yards later they descended into another hollow, this one filled with thick leafy vines that covered the forest floor like a rich green carpet, ankle-deep. The Keepers' trail ran through this undergrowth, barely visible among the tough, hardy plants, until it terminated abruptly at the base of an enormous oak tree. The tree's branches were thick and gnarled, perfect for climbing, and the heavy leaf cover hid all but the lowermost layers from view. The leader smiled tightly again: The Keepers thought they could escape by climbing trees. Ingenious, but not insurmountable: they would have to come down again somewhere -- and from the look of it, there were only a handful of trees adjacent to the oak that could support the weight of the Keepers. He turned and motioned for his two archers to check around those trees for signs of descent. They nodded, turned, each took a step--

And then promptly fell flat on their faces in the tangled mass of vines beneath their feet. The leader shook his head, incredulous: considering their degree of experience and training, these men never should have lost their footing, no matter how tangled the foliage. He moved to inspect one of the nearby trees himself--

And discovered that he couldn't move his feet at all. Looking down at himself in amazement, the head tracker saw that the vines on the forest floor had actually grown up around his feet as he stood there, wrapping themselves tightly around his ankles. As he looked at his companions, he saw that they, too, were being entangled by the thick, strong vines -- and worse, now their arms were being trapped, as well. Worst of all, both had dropped their bows when they had fallen. They struggled to pull their arms and legs free, but the plants held on with a supernatural tenacity that defied even the hunters' terrific strength.

Brandishing his sword, the leader slashed out at his leafy green bonds. The vines were cut easily enough, but as soon as he took a step the plants at his feet wrapped themselves around him again. Moving much more than a foot or two at a time was impossible. Still, he realized, he _could_ get them out of this rather clever trap; the plants didn't seem to show any inclination to kill, and they couldn't reach anything much higher than midway up his shins. It would take him a while, but not so long that the trail would go cold. They had more than enough time to catch up after they dealt with this little puzzle the Lothanasa had left for them.

He had just taken another step when he heard the sound of rustling in the foliage above them, along the rim of the dale. He looked up--

And saw a dozen large grey wolves looking down on him from all sides.


Raven watched with dark amusement as the lead assassin cut himself loose and foolishly tried to run. The vines, forgotten in his fear of the wolves, reached out and tripped him, dragging him to the ground to join his fellows. With his arms, legs and sword firmly immobilized, the predators made short work of him and his comrades. Fortunately the wolves' instinctive tendency to kill by strangulation kept the agonized screaming relatively brief. Merai sat on a branch with her back turned to the grisly scene, hands held firmly over her ears.

The wolves picked at the bodies for a while, eating the choicest parts, as the plants Raven had enchanted with Artela's proxy spell completely ignored them. After a time, though, the summons Artela had placed on them faded, and they slunk back into the shadows as their natural fear of man once again took hold.

"Our thanks, Queen of the Wild," Raven murmured, as the last of the beasts disappeared into the underbrush.

Raven and Merai climbed down from the tree and crouched over the bloody corpses, examining them for clues to who might have been trying to kill them. The wolves had left the assassins' robes torn and bloody but relatively whole; the vines' magical grip had held them face-down through the slaughter, so the front half of each garment was intact and largely unsoiled.

Still, there was not much to see. The men all wore simple black robes, possessing neither cape nor cowl, and matching black tunics underneath. The only distinguishing mark on the clothes was a small emblem on the left breast and the cuff of each sleeve: a red shield with a white hand inscribed on it, palm facing outward. In the center of the palm was a large red eye, and lines radiated out from the eye above and below -- a common symbolic device used to show the eye's all-seeing nature.

"What on earth is that?" Merai murmured, upon getting a good look at the emblem.

"I'm not sure," Raven said, frowning. "I don't like the look of it, though. It's the mark of some guild or order, obviously, but I don't recognize the device." She did not say that it was unsettlingly familiar to an emblem she had seen a certain rat wearing around the Keep lately.

"Any ideas about why they want us dead?" Merai asked.

Raven shook her head. "After the Patriarch's death, there are more possibilities than I care to think of," she said grimly.

They searched the bodies thoroughly, but they found no messages, jewelry or other distinguishing characteristics. The men's facial features were so unremarkable that they looked as if they literally could have come from anywhere, save perhaps for the Eastern Regions. The flesh on their bodies that was still intact showed no sign of tattoos or scarring, and their weapons were utterly utilitarian in their design. It was as if every shred of personal uniqueness or identity had been stripped away so they could be absorbed totally into the identity of the emblem, whatever that might be.

Taking a knife from her belt, Raven cut the emblem from the left breast of one of the robes, securing it in a pocket of her jerkin. Assuming they survived their present troubles, she would make a few discreet inquiries about it after they returned home.

"What should we do about the other hunter?" Merai asked, as they made their way back to the nearby hollow where they had concealed the horses.

"Let him go," Raven answered. "We couldn't catch him now if we tried, and we have other business that is more pressing. Somehow, I sense that these will not be the last hunters to pursue us. Henceforth we must move stealthily where we can, and quickly when we cannot use stealth."

Merai frowned. "Until what end? The Oracle said we were to face a great darkness. I cannot believe that she would have meant simply a band of assassins. How long can we keep up this game before we are caught? And will that be enough time to find what we came for?"

Raven shook her head. " 'Tis too early to answer most of your questions, though I wish I had the answers myself. Barring an army being sent against us, we might evade these hunting parties for a week or more -- if we and our horses can keep up the pace required. If we do not find what we came for before then ... well, there is another solution to our problem, though I wonder if the disease is not better than the cure. But come -- all that lies far ahead of us. Let us find our way back to the road and use what remains of the day to put this place well behind us."


They rode in silence for hours, the danger hanging over their heads stifling all idle conversation. Merai kept on guard with all her senses, both natural and otherwise, but she saw no sign of further pursuit. Raven seemed troubled and deep in thought.

The forest seemed to go on forever, the winding path stretching into the distance until it disappeared as it went around a hill or into a dale. There was no sense of malice from the woods around them, but Merai could feel a powerful aura of watchfulness. This was an old forest, with many dryads living in its trees, and their invisible eyes followed the priestesses as they rode.

Afternoon gave way to evening, and once again they sought the shelter of the trees as they made camp for the night. After receiving permission from the local dryads, Raven lit a small fire in a bare expanse of ground near a small stream. There was a chill dampness in the spring night air, and the Lightbringers huddled close to the flames for warmth as they ate their supper.

"So," Raven said after a time. "Tell me about Brother Calvis."

Merai stirred and looked up at her, ears twitching. "Pardon?"

"Brother Calvis. You asked after him last night before we left."

"Oh, aye. So I did."

A pause.


Merai looked up again at the elder priestess. In the dim firelight she could just see a smile flickering at the corners of Raven's mouth. "What?"

"Why are you avoiding the question?"

The cat-woman pulled her legs up close to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. "I'm not," she said, a little defensively. "He is an acolyte I met at the temple, 'tis all."

"I see," Raven said, her eyes sparkling. The words meant more than they said.

Merai turned to look at the fire. Half a minute later, she glanced back at Raven out of the corner of her eye. The older woman was still looking at her.

"What?" she asked, irritated.

That smile again. "Are you sure that is the whole story, Merai?" the Lothanasa asked, quiet amusement in her voice.

Merai shot her another sidelong glance. "You'll laugh," she muttered.

Raven grinned. "If that's true, it must be a good story," she said. "But if it makes you feel better, I shall not laugh." Her eyes sparkled again. "Not right away, at any rate."

The younger priestess made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. For a moment she said nothing. Then she took a deep breath and said, "Brother Calvis ... accidentally walked in on me while I was bathing."

The wolf-woman's ear flickered. "Ah."

"He is ... about my age, I suppose," Merai went on. "Very nervous." She chuckled. "Poor thing, he nearly died of embarrassment. I had him hand me a towel and then spoke to him as I got dressed."

"I see," Raven said again. There was something else in her voice this time...

"I was behind the screen!" Merai protested, her cheeks flushing as she realized what the other priestess was thinking.

Raven held up her hands, palms outward. "I didn't accuse you of anything to the contrary," she said innocently. Her aura was still radiating amusement.

"Hmph." Sulkily Merai turned back to the fire.

Another moment's silence. The wood on the fire crackled and popped quietly.

"There's something else, isn't there?" Raven's voice was serious.

Merai nodded. At length she spoke. "Before I left, he ... he said that I was beautiful." She looked up at Raven. "That I was the most beautiful person he'd ever seen." She wiped a tear from her eye and smiled slightly. "I've never met anyone before who thought I was beautiful."

Raven smiled tenderly. "Oh, Merai," she said softly. "Anyone who knows you can see that you are beautiful."

Gently, she drew the younger woman into a motherly embrace.

"You've always been beautiful," she said.


Two days later the priestesses emerged from the forest, entering the barony of Lanton. A steadfastly Patildor country, it was also the home of Baron Grenier, Lurene's father and the sworn enemy of Metamor. For two nerve-wracking days Raven and Merai dodged the baron's patrols, often having to travel for miles off the road to avoid being spotted. Being a Lightbringer in this land was cause for immediate enmity, and being a Keeper on top of that was likely grounds for a summary execution. While Raven and Merai could probably fight off any patrol that tried to detain them, the last thing they needed was another group of warriors hunting them down.

Strangely, though, the two Keepers saw no sign of their earlier pursuers during the days in Lanton's territory. Even in the rare hours when they rode over open land with no cover before or behind them, there was not even a cloud of dust or the faintest glimmer of an aura to indicate they were still being followed. The few dryads in the area had likewise seen and heard nothing of the black-garbed assassins.

"It would seem that our adversaries are no more welcome in Lanton than we are," Raven observed.

"Small surprise there," Merai replied sourly. "With the way he acts, 'tis a miracle that Grenier has not turned all the rest of the world against him. I wonder if he hates everybody."

"Everyone but those who line his coffers, I imagine," Raven said with a wry grin.

Gladly leaving behind Grenier's lands, the priestesses continued their journey eastward. Since they had left the safety of the trees for the open grasslands, they traveled by night and hid themselves as best they could during the day. They lit no fires and slept on the most hard-packed earth they could find, doing their best to leave no useful trace of their passing. Sometimes while they rested dark birds would fly in lazy circles far overhead, but Raven could not tell whether they were spies or simply animals out hunting.

Three nights after leaving Lanton they neared the first of the rivers that flowed through that region. There were four such tributaries that came down out of the northern mountains, eventually merging to become the Marchbourne many miles to the south. Two of these rivers merged upstream of the point at which the road met them, so Raven and Merai had only three fords to cross.

"Be careful fording the river," Raven advised. "The snowmelt comes off the mountains in the spring and lends it speed and depth. I shall go first, and take one of the pack horses with me. Keep a firm grip on the reins!"

The horses were understandably worried about trying to ford the river in the dark. More as a concession to necessity than anything else, Raven lit a small globe of light and set it floating two feet above her steed's head. Somewhat reassured, the horse moved forward into the water. Raven made sure the light moved with them. Once she was safely on the other side with both horses, Raven sent the light back across to Merai.

The river was distressingly fast and deep, even at the ford, but it was not particularly wide. Guiding her mount forward slowly and carefully, keeping a steady grip on the reins of the other pack horse, Merai eventually brought both of them across without harm. As soon as they were safely on the far side, Raven extinguished the light.

"Come, we must move quickly," she urged. Her aura once again seemed unsettled.

It was not long before her fears were justified. Less than two hours after crossing the first ford, Merai caught sight of distant torches, coming up from the southwest behind them.

"Sister Raven," she called softly, a feeling of dread settling in her stomach.

"I see them," Raven called back. "Hurry, the second ford is not far ahead."

The second river was stronger and wider than the first, since it held the waters of two tributaries that had already merged a few miles upstream, and its fording seemed to take distressingly long. It was difficult to judge distances in the darkness, but Merai could sense that the torches had come much closer in the time they spent crossing the ford.

"They're catching up," she whispered. "Lord Kammoloth, protect us!"

By the time they reached the third ford, which was much closer than the second had been, Merai could make out the individual torches flickering in the darkness. There were at least a dozen of them. *Too many to fight,* she thought.

Raven, abandoning all pretense of secrecy, lit a large, brilliant light over the river and sent her horses plunging in with barely a moment's hesitation. They crossed this last ford more quickly, and though the horses seemed very nervous about it they all made it safely to the far bank.

"Now, run!" Raven cried.

They ran, pushing the horses as hard as they dared. Raven used a stamina spell provided by Dokorath to give the beasts a second wind, and they raced on ahead of their pursuers. They regained a good deal of distance as their enemies crossed the ford, and the torches did not gain on them any further during that night.

Daylight crept in with a whisper, the skies overcast and dreary, the air cold and wet. Looking back, Merai could not see their hunters in the growing light -- the torches had been extinguished, and the ground was too damp for a cloud of dust to be churned up in their wake.

"They are still not far off," Raven said. "And still they follow. Even with Dokorath's magic, our steeds cannot keep this pace much longer."

"How can we escape?" Merai asked, nearly at the point of despair. "Where can we go that they will not follow?"

Raven gestured forward. "There."

Merai looked up -- and there, out of the morning mists, a forest abruptly stood in their way.

It was like no forest that she had ever seen. Rising up suddenly in a thick line of trees, it was bordered by a strip of flat grassland several furlongs in width -- as if the other trees of the region shrank away from it out of loathing, or fear. The trees of the forest were massive, towering, and ominous, many of them twisted and covered with bark the color of soot. The undergrowth was only sporadic, with clusters of brush intermixed with carpets of herbal, low-growing plants; but the canopy was extremely thick, with vines growing everywhere and an eerie, moss-like substance that hung from the trees' branches like Yuletide garland. Precious little light escaped through the canopy to the forest floor -- which probably had a great deal to do with the lack of undergrowth -- and the morning mist seemed to hang especially thick among the trees, as if they were wrapping themselves in it like a shroud.

The horses stopped of their own volition as the road forked off to the north and south. They shuffled uneasily in the forest's shadow, looking around with wild eyes. The priestesses stood listening for a long moment -- but apart from the occasional snuffles and sighs of the horses, no sound could be heard. This surprised Merai the most; as a child who had grown up not far from forests and had spent a fair amount of time in them, she had learned how to recognize the bird calls, the buzzing of insects, and the other distinctive noises that characterized the woodlands. In contrast, this forest was utterly silent -- no birds, no cicadas, not even a cricket's chirp could be heard.

And there was something else, too -- something apart from the natural strangeness of the place. Something that hung over Merai like a cloud...

"There's something not right here," she said, softly. For a moment, the danger behind them was all but forgotten.

Raven turned and cocked an ear at her, but said nothing.

"... I feel cold," Merai whispered, a feeling of dread falling over her as she opened her mind to perceive the aura more fully. "Death..."

The Lothanasa let the last word hang in the air for a moment. "You know of this place," she said quietly.

Merai nodded. It was all too clear now what stood before them. "Elderwood," she murmured.

Raven closed her eyes and nodded once in acknowledgement. "There is a path that runs between the forest and the mountains," she said. "It should minimize the danger, but Elderwood has been growing in recent years and I do not know how much of the path is still serviceable. We may have to spend a substantial length of time within the forest itself."

Shaking off the deadly aura of the place, Merai threw an appraising look at the forest. "There's little undergrowth, so traveling through the forest shouldn't slow us down much. Have we enough provisions to make it through to the other side?"

"I do not know," the Lightbringer confessed, shaking her head. "We have enough food, certainly; but heretofore we have relied on rivers and springs to extend our water supply, and I do not think that we can trust whatever streams run through this evil place."

"Does the forest truly poison the water?" Merai asked, surprised.

"Not in the sense that you mean," Raven said. "'Enchants' would be nearer the mark. I doubt a little drink here and there would do much harm, but the magic of the Nexus is unpredictable. It is better to avoid all contact with the spells that lay on this land."

"And yet we must go through it." Merai looked dubiously at the menacing trees. "Is there no other way?" she asked.

"If we stay on the open lands, our pursuers will catch us and kill us," the high priestess told her. "If they are what I think they are, they will not follow us into Elderwood. The mundane forests hold terror enough for their minds, especially after what we have done to their comrades. They will not risk pursuit into a land that so clearly reeks of malice." She sighed. "Besides, the Oracle commanded us to follow the path of the mountains. We must have faith in the rightness of Lord Samekkh's instructions. He would not lead us astray."

There was a moment of silence. Merai looked back at the road over which they'd come. Far off in the distance, she thought she could hear the sound of hoofbeats.

"And what if you're wrong?" she asked quietly. "What if Lord Samekkh is still angry about that incident with Rickkter, and he has crafted all this simply to drive us into punishment?"

Raven swallowed visibly. "... If it has come to that," she said hoarsely, "then there is a great deal more that has gone wrong in the world than is within my power to fix."

With that, she turned her horse northwards, heading for the path that ran between Elderwood and the mountains. Wordlessly, Merai followed.


April 27.

The first day of travel through Elderwood was a fairly quiet one. The trail along the northern edge of the forest was in good condition, and they were able to ride as quickly along it as they had on the roads through the Midlands. There was no sign of their pursuers; apparently Raven's intuition had been correct, and they had turned south when they reached the forest's edge. The forest itself, though dark and imposing, did not seem as threatening in the afternoon sun as it had in the fog of morning. Merai's feline ears picked up a few strange sounds from time to time, echoing from deep in the forest, and she occasionally caught sight of flickers of movement in the trees above, but as long as daylight lasted they were able to pass unmolested -- and, apparently, unnoticed.

All that began to change, however, as the shadows lengthened and nightfall approached. The horses started acting nervous and edgy, sometimes even darting off the path toward the seeming security of the mountain slopes. Merai wasn't always sure what was startling them, but several times she spotted flickers of light in the nearby woods -- the glittering eyes of creatures silently watching their passage.

As darkness fell, even the trees seemed to become unfriendly -- low, twisted branches reached out over the path, catching at sleeves and harnesses like long bony fingers. Less than a quarter-mile later the trees drew close to the mountains, flanking the path on both sides. Merai was beginning to feel surrounded.

Dusk was a much more drawn-out affair than Merai was used to, since there were no mountains to block out the setting sun's rays, and they managed to go a mile or two farther before looking for a place to make camp. They came upon a small stream that ran down the mountain and across the path; it was narrow, fast and clear, and Merai doubted that it would have been here at all if not for the spring snowmelt. Raven turned the horses off the path and brought them to a halt at the base of the mountain, just a few yards away from the stream.

"We'll make camp here for the night," she said. "Tie up the horses by the stream so they can drink. I'll start a fire for us."

"Is that safe?" Merai asked. "Mightn't it draw attention to us?"

Raven looked out at the tall, forbidding trees and frowned. "Elderwood already knows we are here," she said grimly. "All that remains to be seen is what it will do about us. In any event, most predators are afraid of fire; we shall be safer with it than without."

While the Lothanasa gathered wood for the fire, Merai found a few thin but sturdy trees near the stream's edge and tied the horses to them, taking off their bits and bridles so they could graze and drink comfortably.

Starting a fire is a simple matter when one can summon heat out of thin air, and Raven had their campfire burning nicely in short order. As Merai laid out the bedrolls, positioning them between the mountain and the fire, the wolf-woman stood and gestured to her.

"Go ahead and sleep, Merai," she said, rubbing her eyes with one hand. "I'll take the first watch tonight."

"Aye, Sister. Thank you," the younger woman replied, lying down with her face away from the fire. Should she be awakened suddenly, it would be safer if her eyes were fully adjusted to the darkness, rather than half-blinded by the fire's light.

Worn and weary from the long day's ride, Merai slipped quickly into slumber.


Raven had been keeping watch for perhaps an hour when the forest canopy in front of her began to rustle. Her ears perked forward instinctively, tracking the sound, but she kept the rest of her body still as she warily eyed the treetops. The campfire was a few feet behind her, and her eyes were well-adapted for night vision, so she was able to see clearly when a small, lithe form jumped down from the trees to a patch of ground about four yards in front of her.

The creature paused for a moment, considering her, then came forward slowly for a closer look. It was obviously a predator of some kind, with a slender, muscular body that spoke of agility and power. Its head was narrow, tapering to a long snout, and large ears sat upright a short distance behind its eyes. Those eyes were bright and intelligent, and they watched Raven keenly as the creature nosed around the edges of the camp. The animal's hide was an unremarkable shade of brown; if it had fur, then it was short enough that Raven couldn't recognize it as such with so little light available.

As the creature came closer and the fire cast a little more light on it, Raven noted a few further details. She couldn't see any claws on the animal's feet (though she assumed it had them -- four-legged creatures generally didn't live in trees without such equipment), but it did have a long and whip-like tail, perhaps two-thirds as long as the rest of its body. The tail ended in some kind of barb or stinger, more like a scorpion than any mammal she had ever seen. The predator's tail flicked slowly back and forth as it walked, almost as if it were warning potential attackers to keep their distance.

Raven kept a close eye on the creature as it investigated their campsite. Every few feet it would stop, look up at her, then turn and continue sniffing around the camp. It walked around them to the west, all the way up to where the mountain began to slope upwards, then turned around and went back the other way. The animal's ears twitched in interest as it reached the stream and caught sight of the horses; after standing there for a moment with its tongue lolling out, it began creeping towards the big equines, its body held close to the ground.

Noticing the change in posture, Raven rose quickly to her feet and moved to stand between the hunter and its prospective prey. Looking the creature squarely in the eye, she growled a warning low in her throat.

The predator came to a sudden stop, its head rearing back as if struck. It stared wide-eyed at Raven for several seconds, as if measuring itself against this strange new being that had come between it and its food.

In the end, the whip-tailed beast decided that discretion was the wisest course. It cowered back, giving Raven a sullen look. Opening its mouth, it let forth a loud, sudden, high-pitched noise like maddened laughter, then turned and ran off into the forest, its tail held straight and low.

When she was sure it had really gone, Raven returned to her earlier spot and sat down, her back to the fire again. They faced no more trouble that night -- but as the hours slowly passed, Raven's ears often caught the disquieting sound of distant laughter.


April 28.

They were several hours into their second day's ride when they encountered just what Raven had feared: The forest had stretched north and covered the trail, growing right up to the sheer, rocky face of the mountain. A dense patch of undergrowth -- very strange for Elderwood, but perhaps due to the better sunlight at the forest's edge -- swarmed over the path, covering the whole area with a thick net of bushes and brambles. It was impossible to see how far the undergrowth extended.

"Could we cut our way through it?" Merai suggested dubiously.

"We could, but it would take far too much time and effort," Raven said. "The ground is clear to the south; it will be faster to simply ride around it."

"Must we go into the forest?" The younger priestess eyed the trees to their right with apprehension.

"The mountainside is too steep for the horses," the wolf-woman said firmly. "This is the only way. Come, there's still plenty of daylight left."

They turned aside off the overgrown path, staying as close to the mass of bushes as possible. Raven rode at the front, trailing the packhorses behind her, while Merai went behind them as a rear guard against any ambitious predators. The cat-woman desperately hoped that their little detour would be brief and they would be back on the road before too long -- but as the day stretched on into the afternoon, it became clear that there was no end in sight to the dense thicket. Indeed, by her own reckoning of directions -- which was much sharper, actually, since she'd become a cat -- the briars were angling further southwards the longer they traveled east.

"I don't like the look of this," she said, an uneasy feeling gnawing at her gut. "We've not seen brush this thick anywhere else in the forest."

"Indeed," Raven agreed grimly. "The forest has apparently decided what to do about us. It seems to be herding us further south."

*Further south,* Merai thought uncomfortably. Doing a few quick mental calculations, based on the maps she'd seen of Elderwood, she figured they must be somewhere near the forest's halfway point. If they were to head south now...

"What are we going to do about it?" she asked.

"Right now, I don't believe there is anything we can do," Raven said, sounding disgusted. "If an opportunity shows itself, we shall try to make our way north again. Until then, we travel as quickly as possible toward the east. The sooner we put the forest behind us, the better."

Merai sighed. "Well, at least we're still roughly heading east. That's progress, at any rate."

Not five minutes had passed when a new sound reached their ears.

"That sounds like another stream," Merai said.

"'Tis only a short distance ahead of us," Raven observed. "Come -- if the river is wide enough, it could mean a break in this living fence of ours."

They quickened their pace, anxious to escape the subtle corral the forest had crafted for them -- but their hopes fell as they looked upon the source of the noise. It was a river, true enough; but the river lay at the bottom of a deep and sharp-edged ravine that cut across the forest from north to south. The water looked fast, deep, and incredibly dangerous. Whatever banks it might normally have had were completely flooded over by the snowmelt coming off of the mountains, leaving nothing but a sharp four-foot drop between them and the waters below. On the other side the path wound off into the distance, free from any obstructions, silently mocking the priestesses and their troubles.

"This will complicate things," Raven muttered.

Merai stared at the flooded ravine, feeling utterly helpless. "Is there any way we can cross this rift?" she asked, desperately hoping the Lothanasa had some trick yet up her sleeve.

"Not here," the wolf-woman replied. "The horses could never make it over this drop, and the river is too strong to ford in any event."

"What about a bridge of some sort?"

Raven shook her head. "I have neither the knowledge nor the tools to fashion a proper bridge," she admitted. "If it were simply a matter of providing a log for us to climb across, we would have no trouble; but it would take a very large tree indeed for the horses to walk across it." She looked down once more at the river, then nodded. "We have no choice," she said. "We'll have to turn south."

"Toward the Nexus," Merai whispered.

Raven said nothing further as they turned to the right and rode off into the gloom.


They rode for the rest of the day alongside the ravine, which still showed no sign of turning east or permitting passage. The forest was dark even in broad daylight, and Raven ordered a stop when it became obvious that what little light was present was fading into evening. They built their fire only a short distance from the ravine, keeping it to their backs so as to keep from being surrounded by predators. If it came to the worst, they could always jump into the river and swim.

If the forest was dark during the day, it was black as pitch at night, and Merai found the fire's presence a welcome comfort as she sat down for her first watch of the evening. She looked up at the trees, trying to catch the barest glimmer of moonlight, but nothing penetrated Elderwood's thick and tangled canopy. She wondered how anything could hunt in such utter darkness -- until her own nose and ears reminded her that some creatures depended far less on sight than on scent and hearing.

The laughing-creatures began to raise their voices soon after nightfall. Most of the maddened cries seemed to be coming from the north, with a few to the west as well. The south, on the other hand, was quiet, almost as if offering them sanctuary. Inviting them in ... the way a spider invites a fly into its web, Merai thought sourly. Silently, in the back of her mind, she cursed the Vampire Queen for ever creating such an evil place.

There was a rustling sound, followed by the soft thud of several animals quietly jumping to earth. Turning to the north, Merai saw a pair of shining yellow-green eyes appear in the forest, just far enough away that she couldn't make out any other features. Then a second pair of eyes appeared a few yards away -- and a third, and a fourth, until a dozen pairs of eyes formed a jagged line from the ravine's edge around to the northwest. Strangely, the creatures made no move to attack, nor even to investigate more closely. They just stood there, watching, waiting.

Almost as though they were blocking the way back...


Merai's first watch was nearly coming to an end when the line of eyes abruptly vanished, accompanied by more maniacal laughter and the sound of legs and bodies pushing through the low-growing foliage. Quietly rising to her feet, the cat-woman listened intently for any sound of what had startled the beasts.

For a long moment, all was silent. Then...

A distant, high-pitched chittering echoed through the trees. It was a strange sound, both alien and somehow familiar, like something half-remembered from a dream ... or a nightmare.

The chittering grew louder, more insistent -- and suddenly it was accompanied by another sound: a man's voice, shouting in the incoherent, babbling manner of the very frightened.

"Lothanasa!" Merai hissed, unlimbering the shortbow from her back and opening the top of her quiver.

"I hear it," Raven answered tightly, already halfway out of her bedroll. In another two seconds they were headed south on foot, moving quickly but quietly; there were many dangerous creatures in Elderwood, some more cunning than others, and they had no desire to draw attention to themselves in the effort to help ... whoever it was.

"What if it's a trick? Something to draw us away from our camp?" Merai whispered. Though her voice was worried, she did not slow her pace.

"Even if it is, we have very little choice," the elder Lightbringer pointed out.

Nothing more needed to be said: if there was some fellow traveler who had fallen into peril here, they were honor-bound to help him in any way they could.

It didn't take them long to find the source of the noise. Perhaps two hundred yards south of their campsite, Raven and Merai came to the edge of a shallow slope leading down into a large open space. It wasn't precisely a clearing, for it was completely covered by the forest canopy, but the trees here were larger than most and the space between their trunks was wide. A short distance from the bottom of the slope, they saw a dark-haired man standing near a dying campfire ... and all around him, spaced at nearly regular intervals, were five giant spiders.

Merai's heart caught in her throat. The creatures were truly monstrous: each was the size of a standard riding horse, with eight long legs and a shiny, jet-black body streaked with green and white. Clusters of eyes glowed red in the fire's dim light, and long, wicked fangs dripped with venom, glistening threateningly. Every few seconds one of the spiders would chitter, though it was unclear whether they were actually communicating with each other or just terrorizing their prey.

"Can we win?" Merai murmured to Raven.

"Between the three of us, there's an even chance," the other woman answered, drawing Elemacil from its sheath. "Come, there's not much time."

They burst into the clearing at a run, Raven howling a fierce battle cry. The man looked up, his eyes widened -- and then he turned his attention back to the spiders, obviously having deduced that they were on his side. He yelled something at Raven, but Merai couldn't make it out over the sound of the spiders. Dropping back, the cat-woman pulled an arrow from her quiver, fitted it to her bow, and took aim at one of the spiders.

She let the arrow fly, aiming for the spinneret at the monster's tail. She missed by about four inches, and the warbolt buried itself uselessly in the spider's tough armored hide.

The arrow did get the creature's attention, though, and it quickly turned away from the man and skittered toward Merai. Fighting back the fear in her chest, she notched a second arrow and waited for the spider to close the distance. When it was six yards away she released the bolt, aiming straight for the center of the spider's eye cluster.

This time she hit the target dead-on, and the arrow drove deep into the spider's head. The creature reared back with a horrible shriek, then curled up its legs and rolled over, twitching spasmodically. Hissing triumphantly, Merai ran past the dying monster and headed back towards the campfire.

Raven had been busy in her absence, managing to get two of the spiders to turn from the man and attack her. One of the huge beasts was already missing a couple of legs, courtesy of a few well-placed slashes at the fragile joints; now she was holding them off with her blocking- and shielding-spells, pushing them back whenever they got too close. She slashed and jabbed at the head of one spider, but the beast was blocking her blows with its armored front legs, and again and again Elemacil glanced off the rock-hard chitin. Turning her head slightly, she caught sight of Merai.

"I'm fine!" she shouted, nodding abruptly at the man a few yards away. "Help him! Use fire!"

Merai nodded, abruptly remembering the Elderwood spiders' other weakness: though resistant to most types of attack, the creatures were notably sensitive to magical heat and cold. Slinging her bow over one shoulder, she stretched out her hands toward one of the spiders attacking the man.

"A tiramme, Yajiit!" she cried out, lifting her eyes to the unseen heavens. "A nasa yaja!"

For a second, Merai's whole body flared bright white, throwing everything in the clearing into sharp relief. Then the energy coalesced in her hands, and a blast of flame about a hand-span wide shot out from her fingertips toward the targeted spider. The firebolt hit the creature squarely in the abdomen, burning its way through a couple of legs on the way, and splashed against the armored shell with a roar. The spider wheeled on her, shrieking in pain, then backed quickly away, smoke pouring from the charred hole she had burned into its side. Stretching out her hands, Merai summoned a ball of white light and held it like an unspoken threat in the monster's direction. Taking the hint, the creature turned and scurried off into the woods.

"My thanks, Your Radiance," Merai murmured, dispelling the ball of light and turning to go back and assist Raven.

She never got there. Halfway through her turn, the young priestess was struck by something big, black, and heavy. Flying backwards, she landed on her side with a gasp of pain. Looking up, she saw one of the remaining spiders towering over her, its fangs working menacingly. The leg that had knocked her down braced itself against the earth beside her, and the giant arachnid's body tensed visibly.

Quickly, Merai summoned a shield around her outstretched arm, just as the creature lunged forward to bite. The fangs glanced off the invisible barrier, but Merai felt her arm jerk under the impact. The spider lunged again, and again she blocked, but the summoned field was weaker this time. She was hurting from her fall, drained from her summoning of the firebolt, and too distracted by her immediate problem to bring another spell to bear. Reaching down to her belt, she pulled her dagger from its sheath, holding it out towards the nightmarish creature with one hand as she waited to block with the other. She probably wouldn't get another solid block in, but at least she might take this monster down with her...

As it happened, she needn't have worried. An arrow whistled in from the right and planted itself in the spider's head. The creature turned, momentarily distracted--

Then screeched in pain as Raven drove Elemacil hard into the spider's spinneret.

Bilious green froth and smoke poured from the wound, the touch of the mithril blade like poison to the unholy creature. The wolfen priestess held the sword in place, twisting it a few times for added effect, as the spider thrashed, trembled, and finally collapsed, and a very relieved Merai quickly scooted out from beneath its hulking form.

"My apologies," Raven said, pulling the sword out of the lifeless body. Not a stain remained on the blade. "That was one of mine."

"No trouble," Merai answered, distractedly and a bit ironically, eyes wide as they stared at the hideous creature's jaws. "Though it would be nice if you didn't cut the margins quite so close next time."

"Watch your tongue, little one," the older priestess admonished her, a wry smile on her muzzle.

"Aye, Sister hin'Elric. Of course." A sudden thought struck her. "Are you all right, Lothanasa? Did they do any harm?"

"Nothing serious," Raven assured her. "A few bruises and scrapes. The shields caught most of their blows. And how did you fare?"

Merai looked down, checking her ribs where she had landed on them. She would be sore for a while, but nothing seemed broken. "I think I'm all right," she said.

Just then the cat-woman noticed a pair of boots by her head, and looked up to see the man they'd helped extending his hand to her. She took it, letting him help her to her feet, then brushed the dirt off of her leather jerkin and leggings.

"Thank you, sir," she said, flashing the stranger a warm smile.

"Udolan," he replied, a quizzical expression on his face.

Merai mirrored his look. "I beg your pardon?"

"Ni udolan," he repeated, shaking his head. He gestured toward Merai's mouth, pointed to his ears, and shook his head again.

"I believe he's saying that he doesn't know our language," Raven said slowly, coming around the dead spider to stand by Merai. She studied the man closely for a long moment.

"Quelye Lambemma?" she asked.

The man's expression changed, as if he'd almost understood what was said, but then he shook his head again.

"What did you say to him?" Merai asked.

"I asked him if he spoke Old Tongue," Raven replied, keeping her eyes focused on the stranger. "'Lambemma', in the words of that language. Obviously, he doesn't."

"But it looks as if he made more sense of Old Tongue than Common," Merai observed. "Are there lands near here where Old Tongue might have stayed in use? Where it might have evolved into something similar, but different?"

"'Tis possible," Raven conceded with a nod. "The Outer Midlands belonged to the Elves, back when the Empire conquered the West. This land was never part of Imperial territory, but I had assumed that Common eventually came to all the civilized lands. Apparently, there are yet a few exceptions."

"What is your name?" Merai asked, gesturing with her hands towards the man.

"Ya na esselye?" Raven added.

The man looked back and forth between them for a moment, then raised his hands to point towards his own chest. "Aldarion," he said.

Raven and Merai did likewise, telling him their names. He smiled, then beckoned them toward his fire.

"Sister Raven, the horses," Merai said, suddenly remembering their own camp.

"Aye." Raven looked at Aldarion and shook her head, motioning for him to follow them. The man shrugged, grabbed a satchel that lay a short distance from the fire, then followed them back to their campsite.

Fortunately the horses and gear were all unharmed -- apparently the laughing-beasts had been too afraid of the spiders to come back here any time soon. Merai and Raven sat down on their bedrolls, while Aldarion chose a nearby patch of ground and sat down cross-legged in the dirt.

"I wonder what he's doing out here in the middle of Elderwood," Merai mused.

"Only he can answer that," Raven said, giving their visitor another measuring look. "But I suspect that this encounter is the reason we were meant to go through Elderwood in the first place."

"You think he can lead us to our destination?"

"I don't know," the wolf-woman admitted. "But the Oracle told us that we would find allies where we did not look for them. Where could that be more true than Elderwood?"

Merai nodded silently, looking at Aldarion closely. The man was of medium height and slender in build, dressed in the familiar cloth and leather gear of a frontiersman or a scout. His long black hair fell down to just below his shoulders, and his eyes looked equally dark in the dim light of the fire. He seemed fairly young to Merai, no older than twenty-five, and his face was tall, fairly narrow, and somewhat angular. Nevertheless, his features had just enough softness to give them a pleasant shape, and he had a ... a radiance, almost, that seemed to glow just beneath his skin. Overall, the effect was ... well, "beautiful" was the best word Merai could think of to describe it. Aldarion was handsome, but not in the way that most handsome men were; it was a different sort of appearance, one that Merai found captivating in its unfamiliarity.

"How ... did you ... get here?" Merai asked him, gesturing accordingly with each important word.

Aldarion sighed, a strange smile on his face. "Udiarhian," he said.


The man searched the ground near him, grabbed a nearby stick, and drew a line in the dirt. Seeing that the soil was soft enough, he nodded once in satisfaction, then drew a stick figure of a person lying on a bed. He pointed to the figure, then gestured at himself.

"You were asleep," Merai said, putting her hands together and resting her head on them like a pillow. The man nodded.

The next picture took a bit more time, as Aldarion sketched out a rough map of the surrounding lands, from Elderwood to the Forest of Aelfwood in the east. He drew another stick figure of himself, this one within the bounds of Elderwood, then two smaller figures beside it. Lastly, he drew a cloud-shaped outline around the map, and connected it with a line to the picture of the sleeping man.

"Interesting," Raven said, stroking her chin in thought. "Apparently, we weren't the only ones brought here by dreams."

Merai grabbed another nearby stick and quickly added her own sketches: two stick figures in their beds, for Raven and herself, with lines connecting them to the same map. She paused, considering.

"What sort of symbol would you use for 'danger'?" she asked.

Raven was silent a for moment, her brow creased in thought. "The Death's Head, I think," she said at last.

Obediently, Merai drew a rough symbol of a skull and crossbones in the blank space east of Elderwood. Then, circling the two small figures Aldarion had drawn, she drew an arrow towards the danger-symbol.


She looked up at Aldarion. The man was frowning at the Death's Head, his expression seeming to imply that some mystery had just fallen into place. He looked up at her briefly, shook his head, then drew a second "danger" symbol -- just north of the Forest of Aelfwood.

"Si na gurth," he said, pointing.

Raven and Merai exchanged a look. "It sounds like he knows of the danger that brought us here," the younger woman said.

"Indeed." Raven fell silent for a long moment, staring intently off into the woods. At last she rose to her feet, seeming to come to a decision.

"There is naught else that we can hope to do tonight," she said, stepping over to the far side of the fire where Merai had kept the watch earlier. "I advise that we get what sleep we can this night. Tomorrow, perhaps we shall see if Aldarion can show us a way to cross the river. Aldarion."

The man looked up.

"Sleep," she said, pointing to her bedroll.

Aldarion shook his head. Getting up, he went over to stand beside Raven; then he gestured to the priestess, then at the bedroll.

Raven held his gaze a second longer, then nodded. "Thank you, Aldarion."

The man smiled.

The wolf-woman came and laid down with her head just a foot or so from Merai's.

"Sister Raven?" Merai whispered.


"Perhaps it is nothing, but ... have you noticed how our friend over there has not reacted at all to our appearance?"

"Aye, I had noticed that," Raven answered softly, her mood darkening with suspicion. "I think it likely that his role in this encounter is far less coincidental than he would have us believe. He was expecting us -- not just two people, but two people from Metamor. He knows more than he is telling -- perhaps more than he can tell, with the language barrier."

"Do you think he is the one who summoned us?"

"I doubt it," the Lothanasa replied. "There is something magical in his aura, but I sense no spellcasting ability. Methinks he is a ranger of some sort, sent by whoever summoned us to ensure that we arrived safely."

"You think it safe to trust him, then," Merai said.

"I believe so, aye. But keep your eyes open, all the same, Merai. Watchfulness is paramount in the dark forests." She turned over on her side, away from the fire.

"Aye, Sister Raven. Good night."

"Good night, Merai."

The two priestesses rapidly fell into sleep. On the other side of the fire, eyes and ears fixed on the surrounding woods, a man sat alone and waited for daylight.


April 29.

"You were right, Sister Raven. He was expecting us."

"Aye, 'tis beginning to look that way."

The Lightbringers watched as Aldarion led the horses one-by-one across the narrow bridge, a rugged-looked affair of thick ropes and wooden planks. He had insisted on leading the animals across himself, presumably because he wasn't completely sure if the structure would support their weight. So far, though, it seemed to be holding up just fine.

They had come upon the bridge roughly a mile south of the clearing where they'd first met their mysterious ally. It looked very much like a bridge the Metamor Long Scouts might construct under the circumstances -- not permanent by any means, but serviceable. The fact that Aldarion had apparently built it by himself in anticipation of their arrival was a testament to his skills as a frontiersman.

The last horse was across the ravine now, and Aldarion beckoned to them from the far side. Merai went across first, feeling the gentle sway of the bridge with every step, hearing the rush of the river below. She moved carefully, a step at a time, hands gripping the two heavy ropes from which the whole contraption hung, her tail flicking back and forth in response to the tiny changes in balance brought on by the bridge's movement. Half a minute later, she was on the eastern side. Raven moved swiftly but gracefully to join them, and in another two minutes they were riding through the forest again, Aldarion walking a few steps in front of the horses.

"It seems Aldarion is taking us southeast," Raven told Merai, after they had been travelling for about half an hour. "That will bring us close to the edge of the Nexus zone, but we should cut several days from our time in the forest."

"Is that safe?" the younger priestess asked uncertainly.

"It is an acceptable risk," the wolf-woman said -- which, Merai noted, was not exactly an answer.

Over the next several hours, Merai noticed a change in the topography of the forest. The trees seemed to grow weaker, thinner, and more gnarled, and even their leaves looked as black as soot. Openings appeared in the canopy above them, exposing a dismal grey sky. The dry earth of the forest floor was replaced by bogs and marshes, and the horses were forced to slow down and step carefully to avoid any uncertain ground. Tiny flying insects swarmed around them, getting into eyes and ears, and Merai often thought she saw mysterious ripples in the ponds and pools of water around them.

Sometime around the third hour of the afternoon, a break appeared in the treeline to their right -- and Merai looked out at the darkest, most oppressive landscape she had ever seen. Stretching off into the distance, cloaked in a heavy mist, was a swamp; but whereas most swamplands were green and teeming with life, albeit largely unpleasant life, this swamp was as dead and quiet as a graveyard. The reeds and marsh grasses were black and withered, and the stagnant water stank of death and decay. Off in the distance, burning through the sickly grey fog, an ethereal blue light hung in the air like a malevolent specter. Waves of pure evil washed over Merai's mind, chilling her spine and stifling all speech, all life, all hope. They rode past as quickly as they were able, and no one spoke again until the dead swamp had once more been shrouded by the trees.

"Gods preserve us," Merai breathed, wiping the cold sweat off her brow. Her fur felt matted and clammy all over from the perspiration.

"The greatest danger is behind us now," Raven said, sounding weary. She had probably been even more heavily battered by the Nexus's aura than Merai, the younger woman thought. "But we must travel quickly, to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Nexus before nightfall. Its magic grows stronger in the dark."

"Does it drain the life of everything near it?" Merai asked. "Are even the Dark Queen's own creatures not safe in its presence?"

"We are not certain," the wolf-woman replied. "No one has yet survived an encounter with the Nexus and returned to tell the tale. We suspect that close exposure to its magic will turn the living to undead, but that is only speculation."

Merai forced down the uneasy feeling rising in her throat and focused on Aldarion, who was still gamely leading them through the trackless forest with nary a word. Inwardly, she desperately hoped and prayed that he knew where he was going. Darkness was only a few hours away, and the shadow of the Nexus weighed on her like a death threat. The sooner they were out of this damned forest, the better.


By the time they were forced to stop for the night, they had moved out of the wetlands and back into the dry forest again. It was with some relief that Merai lay down at the base of a tall, sturdy-looking tree, grateful to have solid earth beneath her. Compared to the twisted demesne of the Nexus, the rest of Elderwood seemed almost wholesome.

Her perspective received a jarring adjustment when she awoke to the sound of ear-splitting laughter all around them.

She was on her feet in three seconds, moving with the speed of instinct, and she grabbed for the bow and quiver beside her. Raven and Aldarion were already standing with their backs to the fire, swords drawn. Slinging the quiver over her shoulder, Merai looked up--

And froze as she saw a horde of laughing-beasts rushing out of the woods on all sides.

The creatures ran with reckless abandon, climbing and leaping over each other to reach the three intruders. As they drew close, the predators turned and lashed out with their whip-like tails, snarling and cackling as they tried to pierce their prey with the barbed stingers. Raven slashed Elemacil in a broad arc in front of her, slicing off the tails of a few of the dog-sized beasts. The creatures she had struck yelped in pain, then turned and attacked again with their jaws of needle-like teeth.

"Merai!" Raven shouted. "Look out!"

Shaking herself out of her daze, Merai turned to see half a dozen of the little brutes pouncing towards her. She blocked their attack with a wild swing of her arm, the unseen energy field knocking them aside like children's toys. The animals landed deftly on their feet and started back towards her again.

In the few seconds of breathing room she had, Merai notched and fired two arrows in quick succession. Both struck their targets, but there were so many of the stinger-tailed beasts coming towards them that the arrows did little good.

"Merai! Hi danoch!" Aldarion shouted, pulling an arrow from his quiver and tossing it to Merai.

As she caught it, she instantly saw that it was not an ordinary arrow; in place of a barbed tip, there was only a small rounded cylinder. Merai had her suspicions about it immediately, and quickly notched it and fired, aiming far behind the front line of the advancing horde.

She was not disappointed. The arrow struck with a flash and a roar, as a blast of magical fire rolled out in all directions from the point of impact. The flames dissipated about three yards in front of her, leaving a field of well-charred bodies in its wake. The surviving beasts panicked and scattered, leaving only a brave handful who persisted in their attack. Holding them back with her protective shields, Merai lashed out with her claws and shredded them one by one.

With her side of the camp momentarily cleared, Merai ran to stand beside Aldarion. The frontiersman was slashing away at a sea of laughing-beasts, many of them uncomfortably close. Summoning another shield, Merai pushed the closest ones back with a wave of her hand.

"Give me another!" she said, shouting to be heard above the noise of the predators. She held out her hand toward him, but he shook his head.

"Iblain bannen!" he shouted back.

Under the circumstances, the meaning was obvious. Merai bit her lip, casting a glance over at Raven as she again pushed back the advancing hordes. The older woman's ears were pressed back against her head, her teeth bared, as she cut into the little beasts again and again. Still they kept advancing, dropping out of the surrounding trees, dozens, hundreds of maddened voices cackling as the assault continued.

"We can't stay here, Raven!" Merai shouted, her tail twitching in anxiety. "There are too many of them!"

"I -- would have -- to agree, Sister!" Raven called back, her words punctuated by the thrusts and slashes of Elemacil. "Do we still have the horses?"

Merai looked over her shoulder to the trees where their mounts had been tied. "Yes!" she replied, rather surprised at the news herself. "I think the beasts are ignoring them!"

"They -- *ungh* -- aren't hungry," the wolf-woman said, grunting as she fought off a particularly insistent laughing-beast that had latched on to her arm. "These creatures are attacking on orders!"

"Aagh!" Merai cried out, flinching back as one of the beasts stung her with its tail. The wound burned, but she didn't seem to be affected too strongly by it -- apparently the venom was relatively mild, more painful than deadly. She dealt the creature a sharp kick, hearing the crack of its ribs on impact. The animal howled in pain and ran off as fast as it could.

"I can create a diversion, but it won't stop them for long," Raven called to her. "On my word, go get the horses -- and make sure Aldarion has one, as well!"

"All right!" Merai nodded in exaggerated fashion. "I'll take the bags off one of the packhorses!"

"Make ready!" In a sudden movement, Raven thrust both hands out in front of her, pushing back the attacking animals with such force that a six-yard swath around her was cleared. Then, immediately, she held Elemacil aloft in both hands and called out in a loud voice:

"A hlaranye, Dvalin! Sule dan i lamanose!"

There was a sudden, fierce howling noise, and then a mighty wind shot through the forest like a flood, circling the three travelers and their campsite. The closest predators were lifted bodily into the air and carried off, while the rest were blasted back more than fifty yards. The wind whipped at the long, loose hair all three of them wore, but otherwise they were untouched.

"Go!" Raven shouted, her arms still upraised.

Merai was already moving. Using her claws she slashed through the ropes holding the horses, not bothering to waste time untying them, then likewise cut free the baggage off of the packhorse that was carrying the least. It wouldn't hurt them too badly to lose the provisions, and time was of the essence.

Leading the horses over to the fire, she motioned for Aldarion to climb onto the newly-freed mount; he did so quickly, then led Raven's horse over to her as Merai climbed into her own saddle. As soon as Raven saw that everyone else was ready, she lowered her arms and virtually leapt into her saddle.

The wind stilled an instant later, and they took off running toward the southeast, where the forest's edge awaited them. Merai held tightly to the remaining packhorse's reins; fortunately it was not too heavily laden, a week's worth of its provisions having already been used, and it managed to keep pace with the others quite well as Aldarion led them in their escape. They charged right through the ring of disoriented predators, trampling several of them along the way, and were well clear of the laughing-beasts before they began to give pursuit.

The Lightbringers and their companion soon discovered that fate was smiling on them tonight: Though they were fierce and agile, the short-legged, tree-dwelling predators were not well-suited to an extended chase on the ground. They were out of their element on the forest floor, while the horses were fully in theirs, running over the firm soil unimpeded by the scant undergrowth. Raven summoned a ball of light to go along a short distance ahead of them, showing any trees or other approaching obstacles long before they reached them. After a while the beasts dwindled from view, apparently having given up the chase, and Aldarion brought them down to a slower, more relaxed pace.

"We shall have to keep moving now until we are out of the forest," Raven said. "I dare not give the Mistress of these woods time to plot a second attack."

"Why did she wait so long to do it?" Merai asked, absently rubbing one of the welts on her arm. Now that the adrenaline had faded, she could feel dozens of the stinging bruises all over her body; she suspected that Aldarion and Raven were in similar shape, but it was difficult to tell in the dim light. "Why wait until escape was within our reach?"

"Most likely, she had hoped to force us towards the Nexus, where she might have been able to capture us ... or twist us to her will," Raven added as a grim afterthought. "When Aldarion found us and led us across the ravine, she was forced to abandon that plan. I imagine it must have taken her all day to muster enough creatures for that attack." She shook her head. "If we keep moving, we should be out of the forest by midday. I doubt she will be able to rally her forces again before then."

"What hour is it?"

"Something like two hours before dawn. Take heart, we shall be able to rest soon."


April 30.

True to Raven's word, they reached the edge of the forest shortly before noon. Merai felt a sudden rush of relief as they stepped out from beneath Elderwood's branches, beholding the vast plains of the Outer Midlands and the mountains of the Great Barrier Range rising behind them. Looking up at the cloudless blue sky, feeling the sun shine down on her face, Merai felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

They rested out in the fields for a time, breaking their fast and dozing in the noonday sun, but by one o'clock Raven was prodding them on again. She pointed out, quite reasonably, that dehydration was a threat on the plains, even in springtime, and they were running low on water. After about an hour's ride they came to a grove of poplar trees around a small stream, and the horses drank thirstily as the travelers rested a while longer in the shade and renewed their own water supply. Though they kept a watchful eye, Raven and Merai saw no sign of the assassins that had haunted their steps through the Southern Midlands.

"It seems that we have lost our hunters at last," Merai said brightly.

"Aye. It takes weeks longer to ride around Elderwood than to take the path we traveled," Raven said. "Even if they knew where we were going, it could take them a month or more to pick up our trail again. I suspect they have left us for dead; if they still have any spies watching for us, they will likely stay close to the main highway from Salinon to Kelewair. In any event, I think that danger is behind us for now."

That evening they stopped in Frondham, a small, peaceful little town that straddled one of the several mountain-born rivers of the region. It was home to an old and humble Lightbringer temple, and the local priest was more than willing to accommodate their needs. After her first real bath in almost two weeks, Merai treated her stinger-welts with a medicinal salve from the temple storerooms. With the chill heat of the ointment anesthetizing her wounds, she curled up contentedly on the soft, clean mattress of the guest room, convinced that the Ninth Heaven itself could not be more pleasant.

They set out the next day with fresh provisions and horses, borrowed from the Frondham Lightbringers for the sake of their still-unknown mission. They made excellent time on the smooth dirt roads, and after two more days of travel -- nearly a month after leaving Metamor Keep -- they came upon another forest.

"Aelfwood," Merai whispered, gazing at the towering redwood conifers that seemed to rise for miles above them. She felt no stain of darkness, no touch of evil on this land, but she was filled with a mixture of awe and fear nonetheless. For while Aelfwood was very different from that other legendary forest they had just passed through, in one respect it was just as infamous: For over a hundred years, no human who entered the land of the Elves had ever come out alive.

Or, at least, no one had ever admitted to it. Aldarion obviously knew something of the goings-on in the forest, or they wouldn't be here. Merai wondered just how much he knew about this "danger" he spoke of, but that sort of question was rather difficult to answer with stick figures and hand motions.

"Do you think we can trust him?" Merai asked quietly as Raven drew up alongside her.

"Methinks we have little choice," Raven replied. "We have yet to see any sign of the great darkness the Oracle spoke of, and Aldarion knows this land better than either of us. If he says it lies within Aelfwood..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "I shall not force you to come with us, Merai. You may return to Frondham and wait for us, if you so choose."

"No, Sister Raven," Merai answered, straightening herself in her saddle. "My place is with you, and I shall remain by your side whatever the risk. The gods have seen us safely thus far; I have faith that they will not abandon us now."

"I pray you are right, Sister Merai," Raven said gravely, putting a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "And I appreciate your loyalty. Now, come -- our mission awaits us."

The wolf-woman gestured to Aldarion, and he dutifully took the lead again as they entered the forest.

The similarities and differences between Aelfwood and Elderwood quickly became clear to them. While there was much more light on the forest floor here than in the oppressive Elderwood, it was still dimly lit compared to most woodlands; thus, there was a similar lack of undergrowth, which led to easy travel for the horses. Most of the trees were massive, ancient redwoods, ten feet or more in diameter and well over a hundred and fifty feet tall. The bark of the trees was corrugated from top to bottom with folds and ridges, and its color was a soft and pleasant auburn shade that almost seemed to glow from within. The air was cool but not uncomfortably so, with just the right level of humidity. A gentle breeze drifted by, and Merai's feline nose caught a scent like spices and wildflowers in the wind. This would indeed be a lovely place to dwell, she thought; no wonder the Elves had chosen it as their home.

They had entered the forest near its northern edge, at the feet of the Barrier Range, and they proceeded eastward over gently sloping terrain. The forest ran from the Barriers in the north to the Sylvan Mountains in the southwest and a larger, distant range in the east. Much of the intervening land was rolling, hilly country at a fairly high altitude, and it was in this terrain that the redwood forest grew and thrived. The land seemed to be somehow magical, as well; as soon as they had entered the forest, Merai became aware of a soothing, peaceful aura, one that rose up from the soil like a sweet fragrance and resonated in the surrounding trees. Here was a place, she thought, that had truly been touched by the hands of gods.

They rode in amiable silence for half an hour, the aura of the forest lifting their spirits. Then, as they approached the base of a particularly massive tree, Aldarion held up his hand, bringing them to a halt.

"What is it, Aldarion?" Raven asked, moving her horse up beside his.

"Tulineth," he replied quietly, looking up into the surrounding trees. If there was anything in particular he was looking at, Merai couldn't see it in the heavy shade where they stood.

He turned to look at them, an apologetic expression on his face.

"Nan dim sinen," he said.

There was a soft whistling sound, and Merai felt something small and sharp strike her neck. At the same time, she saw something hit Raven from above, striking her in the shoulder. The wolf-woman quickly yanked it out, looking down at the object, then up again at Aldarion. Merai had just managed to identify it as a feathered dart when she slumped forward in her saddle and all went black.


May 3.

Soft sheets. The scent of flowers. Something cool and damp against her forehead.

Raven hin'Elric opened her eyes and blinked, trying to make sense of her surroundings. There was someone else in the room -- she could hear them walking around -- but their scent was unfamiliar. Reaching up, she felt a wet cloth resting on her forehead. Sitting up in the bed she found herself lying on, Raven rubbed her sleep-fogged eyes and looked around again.

The room was small and round, perhaps twelve feet in diameter, with unpainted wood for the walls and floor. The roof had support beams radiating out from its center, and looked to be covered with some kind of treated animal hide. Small round windows gave Raven a view of branches and tree trunks, which didn't really tell her very much about her surroundings. Other than the bed, the room housed a nightstand, a small table, a chair -- and Raven's unfamiliar companion.

She had the look of a woman in her teens, young, slender, and delicate. Her clothes were simple and sparse, a halter top and loincloth of some unremarkable brown material, ornamented with beads in a few places. The necklace she wore was a simple leather cord strung with beads, shells, and a few gold rings. Her hair was reddish brown, long, and braided, with small white flowers woven into it. She had dark eyes that were both bright and serious, well-defined and beautiful features--

And, Raven suddenly realized, pointed ears.

"You're awake," the girl said. Her voice was as melodic as a birdsong, but there was an evenness to it that tempered its beauty -- the voice of civility.

Raven's ears twitched. "You speak Common," she said.

"Aye, some of us still have the talent," the other replied, sitting down in the chair beside Raven's bed. "My people, more so than others. That's why I was chosen to tend to you."

"Your people?" Raven echoed. "You are an Elf, are you not?"

"Half-Elf," the girl corrected. "My name is Tessariel."

The priestess smiled. "A fair name."

"It means Willow," the half-Elf replied, extending a hand in greeting. "If it pleases you, you may call me Tessa. Everyone else does."

"Very well, Tessa," Raven said, taking the girl's hand. The gesture was, again, civil and polite, but lacking any sort of real warmth. "I suspect that you know who I am."

"Raven hin'Elric, the priestess of Metamor," Tessa replied, nodding once. She studied Raven closely, her eyes showing a mix of reservation and curiosity. "I suspect _you're_ wondering what you're doing here."

The priestess's lip twisted ironically. "The thought had occurred to me."

"I must apologize for our poor manners when you arrived," the half-Elf girl said, her eyebrows lifting in what seemed to be an expression of genuine regret. "Our lord the king is very wary of outsiders, and though we sought your help, he did not want you to be able to disclose our location to others."

Raven nodded, rubbing at her left temple where a dull ache still remained from the anesthetic. She understood the Elves' reasoning, even if she didn't care for the side effects. "Where are we?" she asked.

"On the outskirts of Taralas, the capital city of Quenardya," Tessa said. She drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, her feet perched on the edge of the chair. "You have an audience with His High Majesty, as soon as you feel ready."

"I see." Raven climbed slowly off the bed, walking over to a window and staring out at the trees. From the look of things, this hut was on a wooden platform some fifty feet in the air. "And what is this danger, for which you have summoned our aid?"

The girl's aura darkened considerably. "I'm not sure," she admitted, sounding uncomfortable. "I'm only a servant girl, and though I belong to the royal house certain things are unknown to me."

Raven turned to look at her. "You are a slave?"

"Bondservant," Tessa corrected, speaking the word politely but quite deliberately. "My grandmother was human, the concubine of an Elven prince."

The Lightbringer frowned, but passed over the issue for the time being. "Do you know anything about this danger, this darkness?"

Tessa remained motionless for a long moment, eyeing Raven carefully. There was something going on behind those impassive dark eyes, but she couldn't read it for the life of her. "... I'm afraid not," she said at last, averting her eyes to gaze out the window. "As I said, I've not been told much of anything."

"Nothing?" Raven frowned. Something about the girl's aura was not right -- she was shielding her emotions carefully, as if she knew how the Lightbringer might read her and was doing everything in her power to prevent it. "You serve at the royal court," she said. "Have you not heard anything said that might give us some notion of what we are up against?"

The half-Elf's eyes flickered back to the wolf-woman. "It's not my place to go spreading around court rumors or speculations," she said coolly. "I'm sure His High Majesty will tell you all you need to know."

Raven closed her eyes and sighed. She obviously wasn't getting anywhere. "All right," she said. "Your king has summoned two clerics, so I can only assume that the danger is one for which our kind is desperately needed. Tell me, are there any priests still left among the Elves?"

"Aye, there is one -- but he is very old, and his health is frail."

"The Elves do not grow old."

"He is only Half-Elven, as I am," Tessa said, her gaze sharp. She sounded offended by the accusation implied in Raven's words. "And he is over four hundred years old. He has not the strength to challenge this threat ... or so I have heard." She turned and looked away again, apparently having said more than she had intended.

Raven paced slowly across the room, considering what the girl had said. Whatever the nature of their enemy, the Elven king apparently believed that the power of a holy cleric would be of great help in defeating it. And if the priesthood had fallen into such serious disarray after the departure of the last Elven Lightbringer, roughly a hundred and fifty years ago, it was understandable that the Elder race should break its longstanding silence and ask for human help. Which really left only one major puzzle unresolved.

"Why us?" Raven asked. "There are other Lightbringers, strong ones, much closer than we. Why Metamor?"

There was silence for a long moment. Raven could almost feel Tessa weighing her words. "You live in the house of Kyia," she said. "His High Majesty feels sure that if she has accepted you, then your motives must be pure. But the High Council is largely corrupt, and we dared not trust anyone else."

Raven wheeled on the girl, sudden fire in her eyes. "What are you talking about?" she growled. "How would you know that the Council is corrupt?"

Tessa returned the gaze for an instant, a glint of steel in those dark eyes. Then her expression softened into a strange mix of sorrow and pity. "Why do you think the Elves left the Order to begin with?" she asked softly.

There was another long silence, and the flash in Raven's eyes dulled as quickly as it had arisen. In fact, she had suspected that there was trouble in the High Council for months -- ever since she had found the Starchild Prophecy in the Lightbringer Archives last autumn. But she had never guessed that such corruption had been present for so long, that it could, in fact, have been directly responsible for severing the final link between humans and Elves. If that was the case, then the Order's hands were dirty indeed.

She swallowed, forcing that thought aside. "Where is Merai?" she asked.

"In another house, not far from here. Worry not, she's fine."

"Take me to her, then," Raven said firmly. "Once she is ready, we shall go to see your king."


Merai was still asleep when Raven entered the hut, located on another platform a short distance from the one where she had awakened. Other platforms appeared on most of the larger trees in the vicinity, stretching out through the forest canopy as far as the eye could see. Long rope bridges and wooden ramps connected the platforms to each other, uniting them to form an entire city in the air -- albeit a fairly diffuse one, at least in this area. Tessa had mentioned that they were on the outskirts of town, so Raven was not surprised that she saw only a few people walking about.

There was a guard at the entrance to the hut, and Aldarion sat by the younger priestess's bedside. He looked up and smiled -- a little sheepishly, Raven thought -- as she walked in.

[Good afternoon, Raven,] he said.

Raven blinked in surprise. [Aldarion, you speak the Old Tongue?] she asked, replying in the same language. By now she had figured out that the language Aldarion had been speaking all along was, in fact, Elvish -- the original language from which Old Tongue had in part been derived. Or, more properly, it was a form of Elvish, a "common" dialect rather different from the ancient written language Raven was familiar with; evidently Elvish speech evolved over time just as human speech did. That accounted for the similarities to Old Tongue that Raven had noted when Aldarion spoke, while also explaining why she could not understand him.

[Little,] he conceded. [Enough. Much sorrow I feel, that I not tell you. Was secret ... um, mission. Was needed.]

[That is debatable,] Raven said, a little more harshly than she had intended. She softened her expression, adding, ['Tis all right. I understand. How is Merai?]

[She sleeps,] he said, smirking a little. [Looks well.]

[May I wake her now?]

He nodded, stepping back from the bed. Raven gently woke the younger woman and, once she had recovered from her initial disorientation, gave her a quick briefing of the situation, or at least as much has she had determined so far. Merai seemed unhappy to learn how little Tessa had been willing to reveal, but she resigned herself to wait for the explanation from the king himself.

It took them another thirty minutes to prepare for their visit to the royal court -- Tessa advised them that they would do well to look their best, and she and Aldarion provided all of the water, soaps and scented oils that they needed for the task. They exchanged their scout's apparel for long, flowing white robes provided by Tessariel. The robes were very similar to their own Lightbringer robes in many respects, but they were made of a lighter fabric and seemed to shimmer and glisten from within. Raven asked why they could not simply wear their robes of office, which they had brought with them for such an occasion and had (fortunately) not lost in their flight from the forest. Tessa hinted rather pointedly that wearing Lothanasi robes in the Elven court would not do anything to improve their reception. The wolf-woman gritted her teeth at this, but chose to let the matter drop.

By the time Raven and Merai emerged from the hut, ready to leave, an honor guard was waiting for them outside: eight Elven warriors, dressed in ceremonial gold-plated armor and wearing the emblem of Quenardya on their chests, stood rigidly in two square formations of four each. Each of the soldiers carried a gold-plated sword that was as ceremonial as the armor, though none the less sharp because of it. Raven noted silently that there had been a time, long ago, when the weapons and armor would have been mithril rather than gold; but though mithril was virtually indestructible, the shrinking realm of Quenardya had been unable to hold on to it. Most of it had found its way into the hoards of the gods and daedra, or the secret treasure caches of any number of mortal conquerors -- where it was then forgotten about when the miserly tyrants passed from the earth. Very little mithril was left in the world, at least in any place known and accessible to man or Elf, and the honor guard's swords and armor quietly echoed this sad fact -- yet another symptom of the Elvish empire's decline.

The first group of honor guards went ahead of them, the second group behind, with Raven, Merai, Tessa and Aldarion in the middle. Raven was unsure of what direction they were heading, since she had no real knowledge of where she had awakened, but her innate wolfen navigational instincts told her that they were travelling roughly northeast. They walked for a long time, over countless platforms, ramps and bridges. Gradually the city became both denser and more crowded, with people walking everywhere around them along platforms that were much larger than on the outskirts. The buildings grew taller, as well, with many of them stretching up for several stories around the trunks of the trees. The overall effect was something like Glen Avery, but far more polished and constructed with a great deal more thought and attention -- which was rather unsurprising for a race that was perfectly capable of living forever. Indeed, most of the buildings in this "downtown" area were decorated with beautifully ornate carvings, intricate painting and illumination, and other artistic touches. The entire city was a work of art, its form stemming as much from aesthetics as from function, and as they traveled ever closer to the heart of the capital the sheer beauty of the place became utterly awe-inspiring.

About thirty minutes into their walk, they arrived at the royal court -- and nothing that they had seen so far could have prepared them for it.

"Mae govannen," Merai whispered, eyes transfixed.

Silently, Raven echoed her protege's words. The building, if it could be called such, was a tree -- a tree like none other that the world had ever seen. It was, by Raven's rough estimate, at least two hundred feet wide, and it stretched far, far above them until it disappeared into the clouds. Its surface was a pale golden white, and it shone like something between alabaster and mother-of-pearl. The bark, if indeed it had bark in the ordinary sense, was as smooth as marble, or so it seemed as they looked upon it. Huge, massive branches bearing golden leaves stretched out from the tree on all sides, beginning about a hundred feet above the platform where Raven and the others stood. Long bridges extended out from the tree like spokes from a wheel, connecting it to the surrounding city of Taralas. Most surprisingly to Raven, she noticed doors, small windows and balconies spaced intermittently all around the tree; a massive pair of ivory-colored doors stood facing them on the far side of the bridge.

"...Do your carvings into the tree's body not do it harm?" Raven asked, at last finding her voice.

"The Amanalda is our first home, given to us by the Iluvatar," Tessariel answered, her aura radiating a sense of profound reverence. "As you see it now, it has ever been. Like the Elven people, it shall never grow old, nor fall sick, nor perish, until the day that the earth itself passes away."

*Were such a day ever to come,* Raven added silently. She had read much about the Elder race in the Lightbringer Archives, and had long since given up trying to understand Elvish theology. The Elves were a complex, often inscrutable people, and though they had once been partners in the Lightbringer Order they had always remained detached from its human members. They acknowledged and reverenced the gods, and Order doctrine stated that they joined the gods beyond the Veil after passing from this life ... but the Elves themselves never confirmed such notions, nor engaged in discussions of the gods' true natures or the identity of the All-Father. Indeed, the Elves always seemed to act as if they knew something that the rest of the Order didn't, some secret that it was their duty to protect as the firstborn of Iluvatar's children. Of course, if the old stories were true, Elves behaved that way about a great many things, in all aspects of life.

Tessariel said something to one of the guards, and they began moving forward again. The bridge was a rope one, like the others they had crossed before; but unlike those more mundane structures, this bridge was elaborately decorated. The ropes from which it hung were silvery-white, the planks a finely polished golden wood. There were Elvish words carved in the planks, some of which she recognized -- tree, light, Iluvatar; her Elvish vocabulary was not large, though, and without a translation dictionary the overall meaning escaped her. For now she simply noted the beauty and skill with which the calligraphic script had been written. Below the bridge, Raven noticed a carpet of white lilies growing all around the Amanalda; the flowers grew nowhere else in the forest that she had seen, but they seemed to cluster tightly around the Blessed Tree, as if reveling in its warmth and light. Somewhere up above them, the sound of wind-chimes floated lightly through the forest.

The guards at the far side opened the doors without a word, without even looking at Raven and Merai. They entered a small, circular entrance hall -- its walls, ceiling, and floor all the polished wood of the tree itself -- then followed the honor guard to a spiral staircase that led down from the right side of the room.

"I would have thought the royal chambers should be at the summit," Merai said quietly.

"Nay, 'tis too much walking," Tessa explained. "Though the view up above is wondrous, the chambers near the earth are highly prized."

They walked down the stairs past three heavily guarded landings, which Tessa said were the royal chambers, at last coming to the bottom. More guards awaited them at the heavy wooden doors, but these stepped aside and allowed the honor guard to pass without a word. The doors were swung open, and the priestesses and their escorts entered the court of His High Majesty, The King of Quenardya.

A long blue carpet with gold trim ran from the doors to the dais at the far side of the chamber, flanked by decorative columns that reminded Raven of the Oracle's sanctuary. The large, ornate throne -- one of the few items in the palace still plated with mithril -- was flanked by smaller thrones on either side, and a dozen additional chairs lined the chamber on either side of the dais. There were carvings, sculptures, veils and curtains all around the throne room, augmenting the simple beauty of the tree itself, but Raven paid little attention to any of them. Her eyes were focused on the people who awaited them inside.

It was difficult to guess the age of Elves, since their bodies did not deteriorate over time, and there was little to indicate the relationships between the two men and one woman who occupied the dais. The man in the middle, obviously, was the king, but the woman to his right could have been his wife, or the queen mother, or his daughter. Similarly, the man on his left was probably the eldest prince -- but whether he was brother, cousin, or son to the king was impossible to tell. The chairs along the walls were filled with a fairly even mixture of men and women -- advisors, possibly, or respected elders of the realm. All were dressed finely, in clothes of beauty and obvious quality but without the excessive gaudiness so common among human royalty. None of the men wore beards, and though some had white or silver hair, that was no particular indication of age among the Elvish people. Many Elves, it was said, were born with white or silver hair.

One man did not sit in any place of authority; rather, he stood at the foot of the dais, and turned to face Raven and Merai as they entered. Unlike the others, he was an obviously ancient man, with a long gray beard and worn, wrinkled features. He was dressed in a white robe much like the one Raven herself was wearing. The old man caught her eyes and smiled as she approached.

As they drew alongside the columns nearest the dais, the honor guardsmen turned and took up positions to either side of the blue carpet. Trained by long experience, Raven knelt before the Elvish monarch, Merai and the others following suit.

The king said something in Elvish to the old man -- his voice was regal and strong, but also gentle -- and he responded in kind. Then, coming to stand in front of them, he placed his hands on Raven and Merai and said something else. Raven felt a familiar tingle of magic pass through her body, then looked up.

[Can you understand me?] the old man asked.

Raven nodded. The sensation was strange; she knew the language spoken was not Common, and yet she suddenly understood it as naturally as her native tongue.

[Good.] The man turned again to face the king. [Your High Majesty, I present these two clerics, whom I have summoned here at your command: Raven hin'Elric, High Priestess of Metamor, and Merai hin'Dana, until recently her apprentice and now a full priestess herself.]

[You may rise,] the king said, gesturing with one hand. Raven noticed that he had no scepter -- apparently such a symbol of authority was unneeded among the Elves. [Do you understand why you have been summoned here?]

[I am afraid not, your High Majesty,] Raven replied, meeting his gaze directly for the first time. There was curiosity in those eyes, but also wisdom forged in long years of trial and hardship. This was likely the same king who had ruled Quenardya when the Elves at last withdrew from the Outer Midlands, abandoning the open country to the younger races. It had not been a happy time in their history. [We know only that we have been called to assist you in the battle against some great darkness. If such is the case, we pledge ourselves to your service.]

Apparently, the king's counselors had not been expecting this. What came next was a sound roughly akin to a choked gasp by nearly a dozen people in unison, followed by a number of voices trying to speak at once. The king raised his hand, cutting off their words. [There will be order,] he said firmly. [Baranor?]

One of the advisors stood. [Your High Majesty,] he said, [what is Sindafan proposing? Are we now to summon aid from the Tainted Order in our hour of need? Is this the depth to which we have fallen?]

[The daughters of Elric and Dana are pure, your High Majesty,] the gray-bearded man -- Sindafan -- insisted. [They are children of Metamor. The lady Kyia has accepted them.]

[But must you bring them here, Sindafan?] Baranor looked almost nauseated at the whole idea. [No human but our own servants has gazed upon his High Majesty in over a hundred and fifty years! Yet now you bring us these ... creatures, these beasts, these children of a twisted council, to save us from the dark power to the north?]

[Enough of this!] The words leapt from Raven's voice with a snarl. Tessariel quietly put a hand on her shoulder, but Raven ignored her. [We have traveled through hardship and danger for nearly a month -- followed no more than a prophet's guidance -- because we believed that we were needed. That our sacred oath compelled us to give aid. Now, at last, we arrive here -- coming in good faith! -- only to be mocked, insulted and disparaged.]

Raven took a step closer to the dais. The guards to either side lowered their hands to their swords, but did not move to draw them ... yet. She stared piercingly at Baranor, eyes flashing with anger. [We came here to offer help and extend friendship, but you have answered our kindness with pride and disdain. I once believed the Elves to be greater than humans, somehow better than us. I see now that you are guilty of the same failings as we ... and I am severely disappointed.]

She paused, forcing herself to stop, collect her thoughts and catch her breath. The voice of the Oracle echoed quietly in her mind, reminding her of the dangers of forgetting her place. Turning back toward the king, she made herself kneel again before him. Despite her words, she found it somehow easier to bow before the Elven lord than before a human nobleman.

[Your High Majesty,] she said, [I know not how my Order has wronged you -- what crimes we have committed -- but I swear to you by the blood of my father that I shall do all in my power to root out such wrongs and correct them. If that is enough to satisfy you, then we dedicate ourselves to your service in the fight against this evil. If not, then I pray you to release us to return to our homeland.]

[Your pledge satisfies us, Raven of Metamor,] the king said gravely. [Please forgive the ingratitude of some in this court, for we do not share it. By our solemn word, you and your fellow priestess are welcome in Quenardya, as is your aid. You may rise.]

[Thank you, your High Majesty,] Raven said, rising to her feet and taking a few small steps backward to again stand beside Merai. The younger woman's aura bore a distinct sensation of relief.

The king gestured to Sindafan, and the gray-haired man -- obviously the half-Elf cleric that Tessa had mentioned -- stepped forward again to address them.

[You have come to us in an hour most dire, Raven hin'Elric,] Sindafan said gravely. [The darkness you have spoken of is all too real. Quenardya is under attack by a Turguroth.]

Raven's blood ran cold. [A Death Master,] she murmured.

Merai leaned in closer to her, frowning. [You know something of this, Sister Raven?] she asked softly.

The wolf-woman nodded. [Aye. 'Turguroth' is a title the Lightbringers once gave to wizards who practiced the magic of death. They were not allied with the Necromancers of old, but they had the power to control the undead ... and perform various other spells of evil and darkness. It was difficult to become a Turguroth, but those who did were often amazingly powerful.] She sighed, closing her eyes. [We had thought the breed extinct by the end of the sixth century. Obviously, we were mistaken.]

[Gravely so, I fear,] Sindafan said. [The Death Master has come over the mountains from the Forest of Darkness and built a tower in the northern outskirts of our kingdom. Much evil magic has gone forth from that place, and several villages in its vicinity have been destroyed.] He shook his head in frustration. [We do not know how he built the tower so quickly, but it was almost certainly done with magic -- or at least hidden with magic as the work proceeded by hand. However it was done, it stands there now, and it is already heavily guarded.]

Raven frowned. [What do you know of this Turguroth?] she asked. [How powerful is he?]

[Very,] Sindafan replied. His voice sounded even graver than before. [Priestess, do you know aught of the Bales?]

The wolf-woman felt another cold chill run down her spine, even colder than when she had first heard Sindafan speak the word Turguroth. [... Aye,] she said. [Elven vampires. Terribly strong, terribly powerful.]

[And terribly magical,] the old man added. [This Death Master is a Bale, albeit a young one. He was barely two centuries old when he was turned, as near as we have been able to discover. That was perhaps another century past, no more. His inexperience is the one balance we have against his power.]

Raven nodded, quietly cutting off the ironic voice in her head. *Three hundred years old, and the creature is inexperienced? Gods help us all if the world should ever see a veteran Bale!* [What is his intent?] she asked.

Sindafan looked briefly to his king, who gave an acknowledging nod. [A number of strange and unholy magics have been detected in the vicinity of the black tower of late,] he said. [We believe he may be attempting to open a new Nexus here in Aelfwood.]

If Raven had thought her spine could not grow any colder, she was wrong. Aelfwood was a wonder of wonders, a realm imbued with the richest, purest magic the world had ever seen. To think of that power and beauty twisted, corrupted, perverted by the forces of Lilith -- she shuddered bodily at the thought.

[You are right,] she said, straightening herself and clenching her teeth in determination. [The circumstances are dire. Show us what you want us to do.]


Within the hour a war council had been called in the king's library, two floors above the entry hall in Amanalda. Those in attendance included Raven, Sindafan, four of the king's top generals, and the king himself. The strategists hunched around a large table with a map of northern Aelfwood stretched across it, noting the locations of troops and defenses as established by the Elven rangers and military scouts. Merai and Tessariel stood off to one side and tried to be inconspicuous, which basically amounted to not getting in anybody's way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a vampire-necromancer, the Bale didn't have much in the way of living troops. Oh, he almost certainly had living beings in his tower -- three whole villages full of people didn't just disappear into nowhere, after all -- but these were more likely to be food than soldiers. Or, more correctly, food first and soldiers later: most of the Bale's troops were undead skeletons, supplemented with a few packs of dire wolves and other predators from the dark forest to the north.

As one of the Elven generals pointed out, this produced an unusual tactical situation in any attempted assault on the tower. Skeletons were brittle, and thus highly sensitive to any sort of blunt trauma -- but swords were much less effective than maces, and arrows were practically worthless against them. Furthermore, these undead troops were almost incapable of complex tactics -- but they attacked in mindless droves, totally without any sense of fear or self-preservation. Only a cleric could conceivably frighten the undead, forcing them to turn and run ... and that was one of the ways in which Raven and Merai could prove invaluable.

Far more troublesome than the undead troops, however, was the Bale himself. Vampires of any sort were notoriously difficult to kill, and Elven vampires even more so. Fortunately, all types of undead were vulnerable to mithril, and the Elves agreed upon examining it that Elemacil was one of the finest blades in existence. The difficult part would be surviving in close-quarters combat long enough to strike a fatal blow.

[Merai and I can defeat him,] Raven said firmly. [We faced down a circle of Moranasi and survived. My greatest concern is that he may try to overwhelm us with sheer numbers.] She exchanged a glance with the head general. [If you can draw his forces out of the tower and somehow insert us behind them -- perhaps from the roof, here -- provided that you can hold his minions outside, we should be able to entrap him in a two-to-one battle and vanquish him.]

[I may be able to play some small part in this,] Sindafan said. [If I could be placed here, at the front gate, after the enemy forces have been driven out onto the battlefield, I should be able to compel any returning undead to keep their distance.]

Merai found herself speaking up. [But how can we be placed on the roof, or you at the gate?] she asked, puzzled. [It seems impossible.]

[It might well be, in ordinary circumstances,] the old cleric admitted, [but the Fates have smiled on us. The great eagles have had their nesting grounds disturbed by this Bale's troops, and have pledged their support in our battle against him. The eagles will carry you in and insert you in the proper positions.]

The cat-woman frowned. [What about archers?]

"When was the last time you saw a skeleton who could use a bow and arrow?" Tessa asked, her expression ironic. "They have not the coordination for that."

There were yet a few more details that had to be worked out, mostly concerning the deployments of the Elven troops and the tactics they would use to draw out and entrap the Bale's army. Most of these concerns, and the contingency plans that accompanied them, were dealt with over the course of the next two hours, and the plan was looking firm when the translation-spell Sindafan had cast finally began to wear off. The king adjourned the session, noting that it would take a full day to rally the army and another day to place everyone in position. At dawn, three days hence, they would attack.


Tessa stepped off of the staircase about six floors above the main entrance, nodded at the two guards on the landing, and opened the door to reveal a corridor that seemed nearly as long as the Amanalda was wide. Three doors flanked the hall on either side, and Tessa gestured to the nearest one on the right.

"Here is your room, Priestess hin'Elric," she said. "If you have need of anything during the night, don't hesitate to ask me. My room is the third on the left."

Raven thanked her, walked inside, and shut the door behind her. Tessa beckoned to Merai.

"We have an additional bed in my quarters, Priestess hin'Dana," she said as she continued walking to the end of the corridor. "I'm sorry we couldn't provide a room for you, as well, but most of the Amanalda is filled to capacity. As I'm sure you might imagine, we do not have many visitors here, so we had only the one guest room available."

"No apologies necessary, Tessa," Merai said, stepping into the room behind her. Inside it was clean and comfortable, with two small, soft-looking beds, a night-table, a wardrobe, a looking-glass, and a few decorative curtains. There was one circular window perhaps one and a half feet in diameter, and welcome, cool night air drifted in through the open portal. "In the last month, I've endured far worse. Compared to a bed of dirt and rocks, this seems like the Ninth Heaven."

"I'm glad it pleases you. Our home is yours."

There was something oddly stilted in the half-Elf's words, and Merai threw her a curious glance. "You aren't very happy about our presence here, are you?" she asked, probing the woman's aura for clues. "There's something about us that unsettles you."

Tessariel sank down onto her bed, head held low. " 'Tis not your fault," she said, sighing heavily. "And 'tis nothing about you, personally, that troubles me. I am grateful for your offer of assistance -- more so, now that I know the full extent of the danger." She looked up at Merai, confusion and frustration mixing with sadness in her eyes. "But as much as I try, it is difficult to overcome my prejudices. Even though the lady Kyia approves of you, I find it hard to trust a Lightbringer."

"But why?" Merai asked, her voice mirroring the confusion she saw in Tessa. "What did the Lightbringers do that wronged you so?"

Tessa sighed again, her eyes distant. " 'Tis a long story, and an unpleasant one."

"I have all the time you need," Merai assured her.

The other woman nodded, pushed back a lock of red-brown hair, and then looked back at Merai. "It began a little over a hundred years ago," she said. "Have you ever read of a Lightbringer priest named Haless?"

"Haless the Apostate?" Merai had seen the name in one of the old historical tomes of the Lightbringer Archives.

"Aye," Tessa agreed, her voice sour. "Do you know why he was branded a heretic?"

"No, the history books never mentioned."

"Unsurprising. It doesn't matter, the charges were fabricated -- somehow he had angered the Lothanas of Kelewair. My great-grandmother was an acolyte in his temple at Salinon ... and his wife."

"Oh, no," Merai breathed.

"Aye," Tessa said again. "They were just recently wedded, she no older than I am now. They had not yet had any children when the Inquisitors arrived in Salinon." She was silent a moment, and averted her gaze. When she looked up again, her eyes were moist. "The trial was a mockery of justice. Haless was executed, and my great-grandmother was imprisoned with the rest of his so-called 'collaborators'. They would have been killed, as well, but one of the younger Inquisitors was appalled at what had taken place and helped them to escape." She chewed at her lip. "I'm certain the boy was executed for his 'betrayal.' "

Merai swallowed back the lump that had formed in her throat. "What happened to them after they escaped?"

"Most were probably hunted down and killed," Tessa said with a shrug. "My great-grandmother and a few others managed to escape to Aelfwood -- even then no Midland soldier would enter this forest, Lightbringer or not. They threw themselves on the mercy of the king, and he granted them asylum. They found a home in the kingdom's servant class, joining the other humans who had accompanied the Elves when they returned to the forest."

"Are all humans in Quenardya servants?"

Tessa nodded. "Some receive more important positions than others -- many teachers and master craftsmen are humans -- but all are bondservants, like myself. The same is true of half-Elves -- even Sindafan is technically the indentured servant of the royal family, though he is highly respected throughout Quenardya."

Merai rolled that around in her head for a minute, then asked, "What happened to your great-grandmother?"

The half-Elf woman smiled sadly. "Eventually she stopped grieving for Haless, though it took a long time. She remarried, to a half-Elf man who served as the king's cup-bearer. When she was about twenty-five, she gave birth to my grandmother."

"That would make your grandmother ... what, a quarter-Elf?"

"No such creature," Tessa said, shaking her head. "The innate magic of the Elves is never reduced to less than half -- 'tis a quirk of their nature that defies the mundane laws of heredity. If a human and an Elf produce a child, it's a half-Elf. If a half-Elf weds a full-blooded Elf, all of their children are half-Elves, as well. But if a half-Elf weds a human, their children are human -- though they are very fair, healthy, and long-lived, truly exceptional members of your race. My grandmother was one such woman, and when she came of age she caught the eye of the crown prince, Luinthol."

"The crown prince married your grandmother?"

Tessa laughed, showing the first genuine smile Merai had seen so far. "Nay, of course not. The Elven prince and a human woman? It would have been scandalous. But he came to love her very much, and purchased her as his concubine. She is still alive, and well for her age -- and he treats her as well as he would a wife. In all these long years since, he has not taken an Elf-maid for a wife; in fact, he has promised that he will not wed until after she dies."

"I'm glad that he treats her so well," Merai said, genuinely impressed.

"So am I," Tessa agreed. "We rarely speak, but I am proud to have him as a grandfather. My mother is their only daughter, but she has given them many grandchildren." She smiled again, her dark eyes sparkling. "She gave birth to me at fifty-two, the youngest of five sisters. My father is one of the court musicians -- a half-Elf, like me and my mother, but his line has carried Elven blood a good deal longer. In fact, his great-grandfather was Sindafan's elder brother."

"Ah, so you and Sindafan are related."

"Aye. He has also served as my tutor for the last year or so." She seemed almost shy about it, as if she felt like she was boasting. "They recently discovered that I have some clerical aptitude, and he has been training me to become his successor." A cloud passed over her eyes, and her smile abruptly grew sad again. "I fear for him terribly, with this new threat from the north," she admitted. "He feels that he has some great role to play in the coming battle, but I do not know if his old body can bear the strain."

Merai reached out and put a comforting hand on Tessa's. "His life is in the gods' hands," she said soberly. "He will not depart from this world until he has accomplished the work he was sent here to do."

Tessa's lip twisted. "You're a believer in destiny, then."

The priestess laughed. "Tessa, if you were in my place, you would be, too! Listen to my story, now, and we'll see if you agree..."

They talked long into the night, their discussion beginning with a recounting of Merai's recent adventures and continuing on to wander among many things. When at last they turned out the lights, they embraced each other good-night like sisters or old friends. Merai slept peacefully that night.


May 6.

The morning light was just beginning to filter through the trees above when the Elvish army drew near the tower of the Death Master. It was a tall, black column about as wide as the Amanalda, perhaps eight stories tall and no doubt stretching several levels below ground. It sat atop a broad, gradually sloping hill, the Barrier Mountains rising up only a scant distance behind it, and a wide swath of bare ground separated it from the surrounding forest; no doubt the trees had been cleared during the process of construction, both for building materials and to make an unseen approach more difficult.

The spire seemed to be made of black granite or something like it, its walls ornamented here and there with unholy sigils painted in crimson. Small windows were more or less evenly spaced around each of the levels, and a ring of battlements crowned the roof. There was one entrance, at least twelve feet tall and framed by two massive iron doors as black as the tower itself. It stood facing southward like a predator's mouth.

Merai and Raven stood with the chief Elven general -- Arathond was his name, Merai had learned -- behind the first line of footmen in the primary assault force. They were dressed for battle, their gossamer robes having been exchanged for the leather scout's armor they had been wearing when they arrived. Arathond was giving final instructions to a group of mages, who then quickly dispersed to their positions near the edge of the clearing. A messenger came up only a few minutes later, reporting the moment all had been anticipating: all troops were in position and stood ready.

Merai looked back at the three great eagles, crouching back in the forest and trying to remain unseen. They were truly awesome creatures to behold, birds almost as large as a small dragon, with brown bodies, brilliant white heads and piercing gold eyes. Sindafan stood with them, leaning against a nearby tree, speaking quietly. Occasionally one of the eagles would make a sound in reply -- the birds had a language, but it was very difficult for an Elf or human to learn and even more difficult to speak. Merai suspected that the half-Elven cleric had used a translation spell to communicate with them, but there was no way to be sure.

Arathond dismissed the messenger and turned to Raven. [All is in readiness,] he said. [I would suggest that you join Sindafan now.]

[We shall, General,] Raven said. Turning to Merai, she added, "Come, let's move back to a safer distance."

Sindafan smiled and nodded in greeting to them as they approached. [Good morrow, priestesses,] he said, his gray eyes shining warmly. [Though I doubt it shall remain so for much longer. May I introduce the gentle folk who have agreed to serve as our transportation in this battle?]

[You may,] Raven nodded.

The elder cleric gestured at each of the eagles in turn as he spoke. [This is Windshadow, the nest leader who first offered the assistance of his people. The one with the slender beak is called Sundancer, Windshadow's niece. And the third one over there is Brightbeak, who would like to be Sundancer's mate but isn't being promised anything yet.]

Sundancer made a sound like laughter, and Brightbeak shot the old Half-Elf a look that was apparently a glare. Sindafan just chuckled quietly.

[We are honored and grateful for your assistance, noble ones,] Raven said seriously.

Just then the air was filled with a sound like roaring flame. Merai spun back towards the tower, just in time to see half a dozen fireballs blast through the windows and explode inside with a flash. There was a horrible wailing, shrieking sound from within the black spire -- Merai thought it strange, for how could a skeleton scream when it had neither lungs nor vocal cords? --

And then the black doors swung open, and a tide of bone and steel came pouring forth.


The two battle lines ran up to meet each other, for the Elves were intent on stopping the undead hordes before they reached the forest. The skeletons moved with an eerie, disjointed gait, silent except for the clatter of bones and the clink of weapons, their eye sockets glowing with a disturbing green light. The Elves were well-equipped to face them, armed primarily with maces, morning-stars and war hammers -- not an Elf's favorite weapons, to be sure, but there were enough of them in Taralas to at least equip the main assault force. Most of the soldiers also carried shields, which proved especially useful against the swords carried by most of the skeleton warriors. The armies met at roughly halfway, coming together with a terrific clash of steel and bone but with very little other noise; the skeletons, for whatever reason, didn't vocalize in battle, and the Elves must have realized that their battle cries would do nothing to intimidate such an enemy. Within a few seconds the entire battle seemed to take on a dreamlike quality.

The Elven mages continued launching their fireballs on the tower, but now they proceeded more systematically, starting at the top level and burning each subsequent level in turn. They waited roughly a minute between salvoes, hoping to give any enemy forces the opportunity to retreat to the next level. The idea was to force as many troops out of the tower as possible, to make things easier on Raven and Merai when they went inside. They also hoped to disrupt the Turguroth's control over his forces, since all undead creatures were deathly afraid of fire.

For a while it looked as if the plan was working almost too well. Undead troops continued to pour out of the tower's black mouth, until they began to spill around the edges of the Elven battle line. Rather than be surrounded, the Elves pulled back, drawing in closer to the edge of the forest. Dimly aware of the opportunity for a rout, the skeleton hordes followed. Finally the last of the Bale's reanimated forces trickled out of the gate ... and that was when the second group of Elven forces came into action.

They came out of the woods to the east and west of the tower, sweeping in on the rear guard of the Death Master's troops. The flanks of the two Elven lines quickly came together, encircling the sea of undead soldiers. Then, slowly, they began to tighten the ring.

The fighting was vicious and bloody. The Elves were far better warriors and tacticians than their enemies -- the ease with which they had encircled them demonstrated that -- but the skeletons outnumbered them at least six to one. The true horror, though, was that the Bale's black magic was at work on the battlefield; every time that an Elf-soldier perished, his body was reanimated within minutes and began attacking his former comrades. The Elves quickly realized what was happening, and were forced to take the grisly step of beheading their fellow soldiers as soon as they died. Fortunately, an undead creature could only be animated once; the skeletons collapsed into piles of bones when they "died", and no amount of magic could restore them again.

Despite the simple-minded tactics of his minions, though, the Bale was not stupid. Not long after the Elves succeeded in surrounding his undead forces, a second assault wave poured forth from the gate: dire wolves, dozens of them, each as large as a small bear and all of them thirsty for blood. As expected, they went straight for the line of Elves nearest to the tower's entrance, attacking them from behind just as the Elves had attacked the Turguroth's skeletal troops. The Elven army broke its ring formation and fell back from the attacking wolves, unwrapping its line from around the remaining skeletons and falling back again toward the forest. Casualties in the maneuver were high, but they drew the Bale's reinforcements away from the tower and prevented a rout of the Elven troops.

[Sindafan, now!] Arathond shouted.

Raven and Merai didn't wait for further instructions. Quickly, they moved to stand in front of Sundancer and Brightbeak, even as the gray-bearded cleric did likewise with Windshadow. In unison, the three massive birds rose into the air, reached out with their talons, grabbed hold of their "passengers" by the waist, and took off like the wind towards the dark tower.

Windshadow circled around the enemy forces and swooped down by the black gate, expertly dropping Sindafan on his feet by the entrance. As hoped, there were no troops guarding the gate, and the aged cleric took up position beside one of the open doors, his back to the outside wall. If any of the Bale's evil forces tried to get back inside, they'd have an unpleasant surprise waiting for them. Windshadow flew back to the forest's edge and took up position high in a nearby redwood, presumably so he could keep an eye on Sindafan.

Meanwhile, Sundancer and Brightbeak had deposited the two Lightbringers on the roof of the tower. Raven drew Elemacil as soon as her feet were steady, and Merai mentally rehearsed a few spells that were likely to prove useful.

As expected, there was a door on the roof that opened to a staircase leading down into the tower -- and a few seconds after they landed, that door burst open and a dozen skeletal guards poured through. Evidently, some of the Bale's troops had been holed up in internal rooms, away from the threat of fire.

Merai gave them a taste of what they had missed, murmuring a quick prayer and launching a jet of flame at the oncoming soldiers. Two were struck in the head and disintegrated instantly; the rest stopped in their tracks, momentarily paralyzed with fear. The two eagles took advantage of this, grabbing a skeleton with each foot and carrying them aloft, then dropping them unceremoniously on their comrades below. Raven wielded Elemacil with divine speed, striking down four of the remaining soldiers much faster than any mundane sword could have done, as Merai took the remaining two and threw them bodily over the wall -- after all, an animated skeleton was no heavier than an ordinary one.

"That was easier than I expected," Merai said, looking at the crumpled pile of bones on the ground below.

"We won't be so fortunate next time," Raven assured her grimly. "Your flame attack took them by surprise. Next time they will be expecting it."

"We'd best move quickly, then. Can you track this Turguroth by his aura?"

"Aye. Follow me, he's several levels below us."


The passageways along the outer perimeter of the tower were blackened and charred by the mages' fireball attacks, the carpets and tapestries that had once ornamented them burned to ash and cinders. Piles of dust that had once been skeletons were scattered here and there in the corridors, the unfortunate few who had not escaped either to the inner rooms nor to the battleground outside. Raven and Merai moved swiftly and quietly through the hallways, bypassing the inner rooms where some soldiers may have survived. The Death Master was radiating an aura as black and foul as the Ninth Hell, and there was no way he could disguise his movements from the Lightbringers.

Three levels down they ran into a small squad of enemy soldiers -- apparently the Bale was aware that they were pursuing him and was throwing obstacles in their way to slow them down. This fight was longer and tougher than the brief skirmish on the roof, but the feeble-minded skeletons could neither comprehend any magic themselves nor take any steps to defeat the Keepers' blocking spells. Raven and Merai were almost literally untouchable, and though they felt the brute force of the creatures' blows no sword blade ever drew their blood. Within five minutes the entire squad had crumbled, and the priestesses continued on their way -- but not before Merai retrieved a mace that had been held by one of the skeletons. It was heavy, and she had little experience with such a weapon, but she suspected it may yet prove valuable.

She was correct. As they continued their winding way around and down the tower, following circling corridors and spiral staircases along the perimeter of the spire, they repeatedly encountered small groups of the Bale's soldiers. Sometimes there was a dire wolf among them, perhaps even two, but for the most part they were the same soldiers the Turguroth had depended on in the battle outside. (From time to time, Merai wondered how the battle was going, but there was no way to know -- a simple glance out the window revealed nothing meaningful, and they wasted no time in prolonged observation.) Raven and Merai disposed of these opponents without fail, though each battle grew more time-consuming and gave their enemy a further lead toward ... wherever it was that he was going.

"It seems that he has gone below ground," Raven noted, as they stepped out onto the second floor of the tower.

"That's odd," Merai frowned. "Why would he not try to escape?"

Raven flashed an ironic grin. "Perhaps he is aware that the mages outside are waiting for him to do just that. A Bale can run much faster than a human man, but not fast enough -- and there are a hundred ways those mages could halt his escape. If they could merely delay his flight into shadow for half a minute, the daylight outside would do the rest."

Merai nodded in sudden understanding. Elf or not, a vampire could not long survive the sun's rays ... and the Turguroth had crafted a lovely clearing outside that was fully exposed to the light of day. "We shall have to face him in his element, then," she said.

"Aye, and let us hurry. Unless I guess amiss, the creature's feeding pens are below ground, as well."


Sindafan was beginning to think that the Turguroth's troops had forgotten their tower entirely. The mixed line of skeletons and dire wolves -- much depleted from their first assault, but still formidable -- was slashing away mindlessly at the Elven battle lines, oblivious to the covert insertion of the Lightbringers at the top of the spire. The old cleric could sense them now, fighting their way through another squad of enemies on the second floor, continuing their relentless pursuit of the Death Master through his own fortress. Before long they would be confronting him in the depths of the tower, two against one -- no, the odds were worse than that for the Bale. Sindafan had been watching these Keeper priestesses for months, and it was obvious that several of the gods and goddesses were throwing their support behind the women's actions. How else could they have survived a battle with veteran Shadow Bringer mages?

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a change in the magic around him. The Bale was doing something, issuing silent orders to his troops--

And then, all at once, the Death Master's troops turned and began running back toward the tower.

Back toward Sindafan.

He swallowed back the gorge that rose in his throat, forcing himself to stand tall on frail legs. Very well -- this was, after all, the reason he was here. Looking over his shoulder, he reached back toward the emergency lever just inside the gate. Channeling a bit of energy into a very refined variation of a shield spell, he gestured at the lever. It pushed back obediently, and there was a groan of pulleys and chains as the counterweights fell and the doors slammed shut behind him.


Merai felt a dull crash on the level below them. "What was that?"

"The doors," Raven said, blocking a skeleton's blow with her sword and then pushing it backwards to crash into one of its comrades. "Sindafan, most likely."

"But why?" With the strength of Dokorath flowing through her limbs, Merai drove her mace into the head of her opponent. The lucky blow shattered the brittle bone to splinters, and she spared a moment to look out the window. She quickly saw the reason why the gate had been closed: the Turguroth's army was running back toward the spire, doubtless trying to get to the ground floor before Raven and Merai could do so. As well as they had done so far, she knew that there was no way that they could stand against all those enemies at once.

"He is buying time for us to reach the Bale in his lair," Raven said.

"Aye, all well and good. But that leaves him to face that whole army alone!"

The situation weighed heavily on both of them -- there was nothing they could do to help the old cleric. Wordlessly they dispatched their remaining adversaries and ran for the staircase.


Sindafan watched as the enemy hordes continued their advance, his long life passing before his eyes in memory. The Elven soldiers ran after the retreating forces, slashing at their flanks and heels. The mages hit them with fire, ice, and lightning, powerful spells that wreaked unspeakable havoc on their targets. But the creatures kept coming, running as though every daedra in all nine hells were on their tails, ignoring all the death and destruction being dealt out against their fellow soldiers. Where one fell, a dozen more trampled over its body and did not look back.

When the evil mob was within a hundred feet of him, Sindafan reckoned that he could wait no longer -- the Elven soldiers had winnowed the field as much as possible in the time allowed, and now he was the only thing stopping those remaining skeletons from prying the doors open. And they would open them, he had no doubt of that; it would only be a matter of time, and the Elves could not cut them down quickly enough to stop them. If even a few dozen of them made it inside, and rushed on Raven and Merai at once ... well, between them and the Turguroth, the priestesses would stand little chance. Which meant that it all depended on him.

Looking up at the treetops, he saw Windshadow watching intently, waiting for a signal. Sindafan sighed, waving the bird off with a gesture. While the eagle might be able to rescue him from what he had in mind, there were even odds that both of them would perish in the attempt. Windshadow was a young leader, strong and capable; Sindafan knew that he had no right to ask such a sacrifice, neither of the eagle himself nor of his nest-clan. The huge bird raised his left wing in acknowledgment, and the old cleric turned once more to the battlefield. With a long, deep breath, he stretched out his arms to heaven ... and shouted with all the strength he had left.

"Autoch, aicahoth! Autoch, ethenen o Galadhin!"

There was a flash like lightning, and Sindafan's whole being burst into shimmering radiance. Pure, intense light, the Light of Heaven, shot forth from him in all directions -- and struck directly to the heart of the approaching hordes.

The dire wolves yelped and wailed in pain, crouching and covering their eyes with their paws. The skeletons reeled as if struck, and those that did not collapse on the spot turned and fled in all directions. The Elven soldiers were ready for them, and struck them down even as they hurried to surround the Bale's remaining forces.

But the light only lasted for a few seconds. Sindafan collapsed to the ground, his strength utterly spent. The undead skeletons still ran away, their fear driving what little reason they possessed from their minds -- but the dire wolves blinked, shook their heads, and ran towards the cleric with a horrible snarl.

The Elven soldiers were swift, but not as swift as the wolves. Sindafan opened his eyes, caught sight of the oncoming predators, and closed them again.

*Ah, well,* he thought. *Four hundred years, most of them good -- 'tis enough. Who wants to live forever, anyway?*

Ten seconds later, the wolves fell upon him and tore him to pieces. Three minutes after that, the last of the wolves lay dead, and the Elvish army stood alone on the field of battle.


The passage to the first sublevel was open and waiting, a slab of stone turned aside from one wall to reveal yet another spiral staircase. With the roar of battle echoing through the halls all around them, Raven and Merai did not stop for a moment -- there might be a legion of enemy forces only seconds behind them.

"How will we keep them from following us down?" Merai asked when they had gone about six steps down.

There was a loud creaking, and the stone door behind them slammed shut with a rush of air.

"Somehow, I suspect that is no longer a concern," Raven said, a sardonic note in her voice as she turned and continued her descent. "If he believed there were yet any chance that his troops could break through and enter the tower, he would have left the door wide open. As it is, I suspect that our allies have won the day -- and he wishes to keep them out of this conflict."

"Very astute, Lightbringer." The voice echoed through the confining stone passage -- smooth, cultured, amused. A sick feeling churned in Merai's stomach. She saw Raven's hand clench more tightly around Elemacil, and the sword itself seemed to glow with a silver-blue light. Almost as though it was warning them...

Raven maintained her bearing, walking slowly down the remaining steps to the room beyond. It was a wide, circular chamber, with sixteen columns spaced evenly around an open center. Torches flickered on both the outer and inner sides of each pillar, casting the whole room in a tenuous yellow light. Sigils and lines of power were drawn out in the middle of the floor, presumably for the ceremony that would open the Nexus; fortunately, all were still inactive. Behind the stairs they had just traversed was a second staircase which delved down to the next subterranean level.

And there, standing in the center of the chamber, was the Turguroth.

He looked surprisingly healthy for an Elf who had died a century before. Tall, fit, with well-defined features and long, silky black hair tied back to reveal his pointed ears, he seemed the very picture of genteel refinement. He was dressed in simple black tunic and breeches, with an equally black sash held fast by a silver buckle in the shape of a skull. Like his breathing cousins up on the surface, he wore no facial hair, and his dark eyes glittered like a serpent's as he faced his pursuers. He held a sword in one hand, a light blade of moderate length that looked similar to the one that Rickkter used. The weapon was as black as his garments, and it shone like polished obsidian in the shifting torchlight.

The Bale smiled, and Merai's gut wrenched again. "The Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric," he said. "I've been watching you for a long time. What a pleasure it is to meet you at last!"

Raven said nothing. Elemacil at the ready, she stepped slowly forward, past the circle of columns, and stopped about ten yards from her opponent. Mentally, Merai ran through her list of possible offensive spells -- what was likely to work, what wasn't -- and rehearsed the casting of her various defensive shields. The shield-spell was designed for instantaneous, subconscious personal defense, but in the aftermath of Nasoj's winter assault she and Raven had developed a number of variations on the theme. Quietly, she began moving to the right, working towards a position where she could lay down an effective crossfire.

The Death Master seemed to ignore her. He let the silence hang for a moment longer before he spoke. "No noble speeches, priestess?" he asked, eyebrows raised. "No lofty proclamations that you have 'come to put a stop to this madness'? No oaths on your father, your sword, your life? I must say I'm disappointed -- I had thought your talent for melodrama unmatched in the lands of the West."

Again, the wolf-woman gave no response. Then, as she quietly shifted her weight back and forth, her eyes watching closely for any attack, the tip of her tail flicked once.

A jet of flame shot forth from Merai's hands, perfectly on cue -- she had spent the last several seconds speaking the prayer under her breath. The tongue of fire licked out across the room at the Bale, who quickly stretched out his left hand towards it in a blocking spell--

Even as Raven leapt forward, Elemacil at the ready.

The former Elf parried her blow, as the flames of Merai's attack licked around the edges of his unseen shield. A quick exchange of slashes and parries followed, and Merai held back to look for any effect on her opponent. His aura reeked so strongly of evil and death that it was difficult for her to interpret any changes in it; it seemed as though the attack had startled him, but she sensed no measurable increase in his fatigue. It seemed strange that a three hundred year old mage should be taken by surprise to any extent, but Merai's "reach" with that spell was exceptionally long -- perhaps he had thought that she was out of range. Or perhaps he simply had too much Elven panache left in him to expect an opponent to leap into battle without a word.

The swordplay grew faster, as Raven stretched out for Dokorath's combat skills and the Turguroth drew on his own sources of power. They struck with speed and strength, but little of the art and advanced tactics that Merai saw in Daria's training matches at the barracks. Merai knew that Raven was no swordswoman, though she knew enough to make use of the war-god's blessings; fortunately, it seemed that the Bale had similarly limited training. Indeed, his techniques seemed rather reminiscent of ceremonial fencing, the type engaged in by noblemen who would never be caught alive on the field of battle. Merai wondered what he had been like when he was yet living.

Raven maneuvered the Bale until he was at a right angle with Merai again, this time with his sword-arm exposed to her. The cat-woman let loose another fire-spell -- lower this time, a bit more powerful, and directed towards his knees. He had to stoop to block the attack, and Raven scored a hit against his left shoulder. The sorcerer gasped at the blow -- instinct, Merai thought, since he didn't need to breathe -- and pushed the wolf-woman back with the shield spell he had been a half-second late in summoning. He turned, glancing for a moment right at Merai, and she saw that his wound was seeping a faint black smoke.

"She's quite strong for one so young," he observed, sounding almost casual as he moved onto the offensive again. "You'd best be careful with her, priestess -- any child with such an aptitude for fire is bound to set the castle ablaze." He stretched out his hand toward Merai, fingertips glowing with a yellow-green light, and a stabbing pain tore through her gut. She doubled over with a feline wail, the sensation flooding through her brain and blocking out all conscious thought.

The Turguroth answered Raven's earlier hit with one of his own -- a minor cut to her left forearm -- as the sound of Merai's agony distracted her for an instant. She snarled at the blow, quickly striking back with enough fury to put her adversary back on the defensive.

"Merai!" she shouted. " 'Tis all in your mind! Fight it!"

Merai did fight it, plunging down to the center of her being where that throbbing field of divine energy was knitted to her very soul. Finding renewed strength and confidence there, she lashed out at the phantom pain, driving it out of her body as quickly as it had come. Blinking as she returned to full consciousness, the young priestess steadied herself and looked closely at Raven's aura. The older woman was bleeding a little, but more disturbing was the pall that covered her arm around the wound. It was seeping outward in all directions, sapping the strength in Raven's arm and poisoning her aura with its deathly chill.

Placing a firm shield around herself, Merai plunged into the site of the wound with the Light-Healing. At first she tried simply closing the wound, but it opened up again and refused to respond to her commands to heal. As she studied the patterns of energy around the cut, though, she suddenly recognized the threat: the Bale was using a cursed blade. Speaking a quiet prayer to Velena, Merai channeled energy against the curse itself, and within seconds it disappeared like a morning mist before the sunlight. Spiraling up and out, Merai snapped back into her own body and took stock of the situation again.

Raven's aura was back to normal again, though there was still a little blood on her arm. The Bale's wound continued seeping that foul black substance, and it seemed that the wound had actually widened: the oily smoke now drifted down to the floor and rolled along it for a second or so before dissipating. Merai was beginning to feel confident -- it looked as if they might win this battle after all. Raven spun out of the way of one of the Bale's attacks, crouching to the floor in a roll as she did so--

And abruptly the lines of power on the chamber floor began to glow.

"Ah, wonderful!" the Death Master said, looking genuinely pleased. "Thank you for the blood, Lothanasa. From a woman such as yourself, I didn't need much."

Raven frowned, pressing the attack harder, but the Turguroth was backing away from her toward the descending staircase. As he neared the first step, he stretched out both his hands in a shoving motion, and Raven was knocked backwards no less than ten yards. As he turned and disappeared down the stairs, Merai rushed to Raven's side.

"Are you--"

"Fine," Raven finished, picking herself up and racing after the vampire-Elf. Merai was only two steps behind her.

The next flight of stairs was a long one. When they came out onto the level floor, some thirty feet down, Merai looked on their surroundings with astonishment.

The walls of the room were lined with gemstones -- each perhaps the size of a small apple, exquisitely cut, and glowing with a faint rose-pink light. The gems filled no less than forty rows from top to bottom, wrapping all around the room -- there must have been thousands of them -- and all were connected by more long, intricate lines of power, which glowed an ominous red in the dim light. In the center of the chamber was a deep pit about fifteen feet across, with yet more stairs spiraling down around its outer edge to the floor below. As they drew close to the edge there was a rush of air, a sudden blur of motion, and then the Bale stood across from them on the far side of the pit. In his arms, struggling vainly against his inhuman strength, was a young and emaciated-looking Elf-maid. In his hand was a double-bladed ceremonial dagger.

"Ah, there you are!" he said, flashing that horrible smile once again. "You're just in time. Now that you so kindly helped to mix our blood on the floor above, priestess, all that remains is the sacrifice. I trust you'll be just as helpful here."

"What are you playing at, Turguroth?" Raven growled.

"Well, it's actually quite simple," the Death Master replied, taking on a mock-serious tone imitative of a schoolmaster. "For the Nexus to open, this young lady and I" -- he gestured with his free hand and the girl -- "have to die together." He threw an apologetic look at Merai. "I would have been happy to use you for this, Merai, but I really need a virgin. Nothing personal."

Merai's ears burned with shame, but she said nothing.

"Now, as I see it, you have two choices," the Bale continued. "Either you can stand there and watch me kill this girl -- in which case I'll run downstairs and grab another one; I assure you, I have no shortage here -- or you can try to kill me without letting her die in the process." He lifted his eyebrows again in a warning look. "In the interest of fairness, Merai, I should tell you that your little firebrand spell would have a rather adverse affect on the young lady." Shifting his gaze to Raven he added, "And as for you, Lothanasa, you know as well as I do that you cannot hope to strike a killing blow from that distance with a thrown sword."

For the next five seconds it was a standoff. The only sound was the uneasy hum emanating from the gemstones around them.

The Bale sighed. "Very well, then. It seems I'll have to force the issue. You have ten seconds. Ten..."

Merai's mind raced, trying to--


--think of anything, anything at all that could keep the--


--Bale from killing the girl, finally realized--


--that there _were_ no spells for something like--


--this, that she would have to improvise, but--


--what could stop a ... oh gods, of course!--


--didn't know enough Old Tongue, sure hoped Common worked--



"--send your light now!" Merai shouted, stretching out her hands toward the Bale.

There was an immediate burst of radiance, one that flared brighter with every second, as both the Bale and his intended victim squeezed their eyes shut against the light. The Death Master lifted his knife toward the girl's throat--

And screamed in agony and sudden realization: Anarbereth -- Yajiit, the Goddess of the Sun -- had not given Merai any ordinary light.

It was sunlight.

The Bale's hand still gripped tightly around the knife but he was utterly unable to use it, as the muscles in his arm clenched up and refused to move. The creature's flawless pale skin turned in seconds to the color of a boiled lobster, then bulged and distorted as blisters appeared across its surface. Merai channeled yet more energy into the impromptu spell, and the blisters began to rupture, dripping a watery fluid that quickly turned to steam. There was a faint sizzling noise, rather like frying bacon, and the white steam that rose from every part of the Bale's body was joined by traces of black smoke. Hair caught fire (though clothing and, for that matter, the terrified Elf-maid were strangely untouched), skin and subcutaneous fat boiled away, flesh charred to blackened cinders, bones themselves began to burn, and through it all a loud, tortured scream rose up to wake the souls in all nine hells. Then the vocal cords were burned away, and all that was left was a horrible, wheezing hiss ... until the pile of clothing, ash, and blackened bones fell to the ground, still and lifeless.

The Elven girl let out something like a mangled whimper and collapsed in a heap, unconscious but alive.

Merai let the summoned light fade, lowering her hands and looking around the room. The gemstones were still glowing, but the lines of power had faded. The air was filled with the ghastly scents of a burnt sacrifice, made worse because she knew that the "sacrifice" had been ... well, not human, but something reasonably close. She wondered if she would ever get the smell out of her hair -- or her fur, for that matter.

Raven had walked over to the pile of bones and was examining it, pushing the remains this way and that with the toe of her boot. At last she drew out the skull, and grimaced as the backbone came along with it. Reaching down with Elemacil she severed the head from the neck, cutting off any possibility that the monster could regenerate. Then, for good measure, she placed the tip of the blade on the crown of the skull and drove the sword downwards, splitting the bone into pieces.

"Rest in peace, Elder One," she said quietly.


It took about twenty minutes of concerted spellcasting for the six Elf-mages to blast down the door that had sealed Merai and Raven underground. Arathond was with them as they moved down into the first-floor chamber, his sword in hand. The two priestesses were waiting for them in the center of the room, well away from the site of the wizards' demolition work.

[What news, General?] Raven asked, rising to greet Arathond as he approached.

[It is a bittersweet day for Quenardya, priestess,] he replied, his dark eyes carrying the burden of a commander who has just sent men to their deaths. [We have yet to count the bodies, but we believe that one in five of our finest warriors perished in this assault. The cleric Sindafan was killed, as well.]

Raven nodded, lowering her eyes in respect. [He seemed a good man,] she said. [I have no doubt that his death will be felt deeply in your kingdom.]

[Aye.] The general showed a sorrowful half-smile. [But he did not perish in vain, it seems, or I would not be speaking to you now. I take it that the Turguroth has been destroyed?]

[Aye,] Raven nodded, sighing heavily. [He shall trouble your people no longer -- though he nearly succeeded with his plan. And he would have succeeded, if not for my sister Merai.]

"Sister Raven!" Merai whispered, looking embarrassed.

" 'Tis true, Merai," the wolf-woman said with a shrug. "Never have I seen a cleric cast such a spell before, summoning sunlight to one's own hand. Most creative, my sister."

"Perhaps it was," Merai admitted, smiling a little. "But surely you had a plan to deal with the Bale?"

Raven gave her a tight-lipped smile. "I was working on that in the moment you acted," she said dryly. "The best I could think of, under the circumstances, was to wait until he went down below again and corner him before he could seize another victim. But that would have meant sacrificing that young girl in order to save Aelfwood -- an acceptable trade, but one I am terribly glad I was not forced to make. You have only been a priestess for a little while, and you are not so rigid in your thinking as I have become. Today, your quick thinking saved the life of that child." She put a hand on the cat-woman's shoulder. "You should be proud."

"I am," Merai admitted, blushing a little.

[Pardon me, priestess,] Arathond cut in, [but I am told that the Bale likely had captives in this tower. Have you found them?]

[Aye, General. Follow me,] Raven said, walking toward the downward staircase and beckoning them to come after.

As they entered the chamber below, one of the Elf-mages gave a sudden gasp. [Soul gems!] he cried. [Thousands of them!]

Merai looked at Raven, taken aback. "Soul gems?!" she repeated. "That's what these crystals are?"

Raven nodded.

"I thought they were power-stones, or some such," the younger priestess said, gazing around the room in newfound wonder.

[Aye, good sir, these are soul gems,] Raven confirmed, turning back to the mage.

[It seems inconceivable that the Turguroth could have collected such a vast cache in his short life,] Arathond mused.

[I suspect that he did not do so,] Raven said, touching one of the gems thoughtfully. [More likely these were entrusted to him by Lilith for the purpose of empowering this spell. Opening a Nexus takes a great deal of energy -- the Vampire Queen has likely been collecting souls for centuries in order to do so.]

"We shall have to destroy these gems before we leave, so that the souls may be freed," Merai said. "Best not to tempt anyone to use them again."

"Aye," Raven agreed, reaching out to touch another stone. "I wonder--"

The wolf-woman fell abruptly silent. "Lothanasa?" Merai asked, turning to look at her.

"... dear gods," Raven whispered, her fingers lightly stroking over the surface of the gem.

"What is it?" Merai walked over to stand beside her. As she drew near, Raven looked up -- and Merai saw that there were tears in her eyes. "Raven?" she asked.

"Merai ... I know this aura," Raven whispered, gesturing at the stone with her free hand. "Like I know my own name. I know the soul in this gem."

Merai looked at the stone, then back at the older priestess. "Who is it?" she asked quietly.

Raven sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes, then smiled in a sudden expression of hope.

"Talia hin'Elric," she said softly. "My sister."


May 7.

Sindafan's funeral was simple but elegant, as befitted a son of the Elder Race. They built the funeral pyre on a mountain cliff overlooking the forest, the bare rock ensuring that the fire would do no harm if it burned out of control. Windshadow's entire nest-clan assisted in carrying wood up to the site, saving the Elves many hours of tiresome work. By the king's request, Tessariel was chosen to light the pyre; it was only fitting, he said, that the apprentice who had learned so much from the old cleric should now help him in the final stage of his journey.

The fire quickly spread amongst the logs, rising up to envelop Sindafan's lifeless shell. The body had been covered with a heavy blue sheet -- taken from the king's own chambers -- to mask the damage done by the dire wolves, but within a few minutes it, too, was set aflame. A short time after that, all the wolves' vandalism was rendered irrelevant.

Tessa stood beside Raven and Merai -- she in black, the priestesses in white -- as they watched the flames consume the body.

"What will you do now?" Raven asked quietly.

"... I do not know," the half-Elf woman admitted, shaking her head. "Quenardya needs a cleric, perhaps now more than ever. But I am not trained."

Raven folded her hands in front of her. "I know your opinion of our Order," she said. "I shall not ask you to submit to my instruction. But I know of many clerics outside of our order -- disciples of Artela, or Akkala, or Samekkh, some of whom are excellent teachers. I would gladly direct you to one of them, if you so desired..."

"Hold a moment," Tessa said, turning to gaze seriously at the older woman. "You are High Priestess of your chapter, correct?"

"Aye," Raven said, frowning slightly.

"Then you answer to no one?"

"Those of us on the High Council work with one another out of respect and a spirit of cooperation, and we give serious consideration to each other's opinions ... but aye, what you say is true. I alone make policy for the Metamor chapter."

Tessa nodded, clearly thinking something over. "You swore to my lord the king that you would uproot and expose the corruption within the Lothanasi. Will you swear the same to me?"

"I shall," Raven answered firmly. "And to anyone else who may doubt my sincerity."

"I do not doubt your sincerity, Lothanasa," Tessa said, shaking her head. "You have proven yourselves -- both of you -- to be women of honor. Your example has led me to this decision."

Raven raised her eyebrows questioningly. Tessariel knelt before her, gazing at her closely with those dark, sincere eyes.

"I believe in your quest to restore honor to the Lothanasi," she said, her voice hoarse as she fought back tears and tried to put on a brave expression. "And if you would have me, I would be honored to join you in that quest."

By now, everyone around them was watching Raven and Tessa. The half-Elf woman's parents looked on with what seemed to be a mixture of pride, surprise and confusion.

Slowly, Raven reached out her hand to the kneeling woman.

"The honor is mine," she said, smiling gently. "Welcome to our Order, Initiate Tessariel."


The funeral proceedings went on for the next three days, as Quenardya buried its sons and fathers who had given their too-precious lives in defense of Aelfwood. As the last pyres were lit, at nightfall on the third day, a song rose up from the assembled throng of mourners. It was a song with no words that Merai could hear, but filled with a power that was nearly magical -- loud, clear, and filled with the raw emotions of pain and sorrow and loss, now rising, now falling, each individual voice a counterpoint that somehow blended and flowed with all the others. Raven and Merai fell to the ground and sobbed inconsolably at the mere sound of the Elven threnody, overwhelmed with grief.

On the dawn of the fourth day, however, the Elves dried their tears, bathed, and put on clean robes. Raven and Merai did the same, and though their hearts still ached with the memory of the previous night, they joined the people of Taralas for a feast hosted by the king himself.

[We have faced great sorrow and great loss,] he told Raven as she and Merai sat at his table before all the people. [But we have preserved much more than we have lost, and because of that it is fitting that we should celebrate.]

The feasting and celebration went on for another four days, and Raven and Merai were showered with adulation by the people of Taralas. Evidently, all but the most hardened members of the nobility had changed their attitude when they heard of the Lightbringers' role in the battle, and they now offered their apologies to the priestesses for their dishonorable actions of before.

"Well, that's one way in which Elves are yet superior to men," Raven remarked to Merai. "I do not think you would ever see a human noble make such an apology."

"Probably not," Merai conceded, then smirked. "Unless you held the threat of excommunication over his head, of course."

As the feasting came to an end, the Lightbringers made preparations at last to leave Aelfwood. They received a hero's farewell, of course: the king presented them with Elven cloaks and shortswords emblazoned with the emblem of Quenardya. While they were not mithril, they had many powerful enchantments set on them for the destruction of evil -- and as any historian would tell you, Elven steel was the finest in the world.

In addition to the gifts, the king released Tessariel to go with Raven and learn the ways of these new, purer Lightbringers. He blessed her in her mission, but also reminded her that she was still a bond-servant to the Elven throne -- and he bade her to return when she was ready to shepherd their own people in the ways of Light. A few hard-liners in the court were still less than pleased that one of their own was leaving to join the "Tainted Order", but the king silenced them firmly. After receiving such aid from Raven and Merai, he pointed out, the Elves had no reason to spite them.

Besides her personal belongings, provisions, and the royal blessing, Tessa received one other important item before leaving Aelfwood: a necklace with a mithril amulet, the emblem of Quenardya imprinted on one side. Should she, Raven or Merai ever have need of Elvish aid in fulfilling their quest, the amulet would give them a magical link to the king himself. There was only enough magic in it for one use, though, so the monarch cautioned Tessa to keep it for their hour of greatest need.

Raven and Merai, of course, had not forgotten the danger they faced on the way to Aelfwood, and after a conversation with the king he made certain that they would have no trouble on the return journey: a guard of one dozen Elven and half-Elven rangers was sent with the priestesses, riding on all sides of the women as they made their way westward.

They rode first to Frondham, exchanging their horses for the ones they had brought from Bozojo, then turned south until they reached the highway that led west from Salinon to Kelewair. They traveled at a much more relaxed pace along the road than they had through the grasslands and forests to the north; no one dared to trouble the priestesses or their honor guard, and with towns and inns all along the way, the trip home was as comfortable as it was safe.

They turned north again from the highway when they entered the Southern Midlands, bypassing Kelewair and stopping once more in Bozojo. There, under oath of confidence, they shared with Brother Lemuel the news of their mission, though they kept some things secret even from him. While he still mourned the loss of so many acolytes, he agreed that their sacrifice had not been in vain. Raven and Merai lingered there two days, comforting the surviving acolytes as best they could. Merai and Brother Calvis went on several long walks around the city -- but even when they thought they were alone the rangers followed at a distance, keeping a watchful eye over the young priestess. At last they parted, promising to write to one another, and the whole company continued into the west.

They were riding in silence one afternoon, not far from Metamor, when Merai noticed Tessa fingering her amulet thoughtfully. Pulling gently on the reins, she moved her horse to walk alongside the half-Elf's.

"Thinking of home?" she said quietly.

Tessa looked up, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Partly," she admitted. "Mostly thinking of myself, though. Leaving home, coming to Metamor--" She smiled. "--becoming an initiate of the Lightbringers, of all people." A shrug. "Thinking of what you said about destiny ... and wondering where mine will take me, if I have one."

Merai sat a bit straighter in the saddle, shifting her tail to halt an approaching cramp. "That reminds me of something," she said. "Have you ever heard the word 'Elenin' before?"

Tessa furrowed her brow in thought. " 'Tis a name, or a title," she said pensively. "I could not say if I've heard it, though it seems strangely familiar."

"Do you know what it means?" Merai pressed.

The other woman nodded slowly. "Aye, I think so. It sounds like a contraction of two Elvish words, 'elen' and 'hin'. 'Elen' is our word for star -- 'tis closely related to our name for the Elven race, as well. 'Hin' you already know from your own name, Merai hin'Dana: it means 'child'."

"So 'Elenin' means ... Starchild? Literally?"

"Aye, most likely," Tessa agreed. "Figuratively, it could mean Elf-child, but Starchild is the most literal translation. Where did you come across it, some old text in your Temple Archives?"

"... no," Merai said, shaking her head absently. Her mind had journeyed back eleven months and some-odd days, to the moment when she saw a goddess face-to-face and lived. "It was spoken to me, just that one word."

Tessa looked askance at her. "By whom?"

Merai lifted her eyes to the sky, feeling the gentle sunshine bathe her face. "Anarbereth," she said.


A short distance up ahead, Raven's ears flicked as they monitored the conversation behind her. Merai was one step closer now to discovering the prophecy -- should she go ahead and reveal the rest?

... No, she decided. It was not yet time -- too many pieces had yet to fall into place. The prophecy was underway, but there were still countless ways its ultimate fulfillment could be halted. Best to continue to play the side of caution.

Still, she could not help but feel a warm, quiet optimism that had long been foreign to her. The first known contact between humans and Elves in a century and a half had ended not merely on pleasant terms, but with Man's ambassadors hailed as heroes in the Elven realm. A plan Lilith must have had in the making for ages had been foiled. Merai was showing the intelligence and skill to put her as-yet untapped power to good use. And as for Raven herself...

She smiled, feeling both joyful and melancholy. She had personally searched through all 3,599 remaining soul gems in the Turguroth's collection -- it only took a moment's touch to know whether an aura was familiar or not -- and none of them contained the souls of her mother or brother. Her search complete, she had then brought in the Elven soldiers and overseen their destruction of the gems. The sensation of that many souls being suddenly released from bondage had been indescribable, as she vicariously shared in their flight to the quiet rest of the afterlife. In spite of the happiness she felt on behalf of those souls, though, she could not help but feel disappointed.

Still, it had not been entirely fruitless. There was a wondrous new possibility now, one which Raven had thought lost forever. It was simply a matter of finding the appropriate magic, and someone who could perform it. That would no doubt be difficult -- the spell required was virtually illegal, and had been lost ages ago to most of civilization. Most of those who could perform it had gone into hiding -- or had been executed. But the lawmakers had never considered that such a spell could be used for good as well as evil, and for a noble cause she might be able to persuade one such "reformed" practitioner to make an exception. Given proper incentive, of course.

Raven sighed, feeling another smile creep onto her face. All of that could wait for less troublesome times. Though perhaps not one by nature, she was learning to be a patient woman. For now the possibility itself was enough.

" 'Heal the friendships long asunder,' " she murmured. " 'Child of power, child of light.' "

"What did you say, Lothanasa?" Merai asked, still a good distance behind her.

The wolf-woman turned and smiled back at her, reaching into the pocket of her jerkin. "Nothing, Merai," she assured her. "Just thinking of a poem I once read."

Tenderly, she stroked the warm, glassy surface of the soul gem, feeling the familiar presence within. The Oracle had been right: They had received a bright and shining hope indeed.


(Note: Raven, Merai and Tessa returned to Metamor on June 23rd, 707 CR.)

Copyright 2000 by Raven Blackmane. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank You.

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