Rites of Ascendancy
by Raven Blackmane
May 27. Year 706, Cristos Reckoning.
The door to the sickbay swung open with a crash, and four battered and bloody scouts forced their way inside.
"Healer!" shouted one of the warriors, a thin and lanky leopard-morph who was missing a piece of his left ear.
Caitlyn sprang into action with an air of professionalism that belied her fourteen-year old body, brushing long strands of auburn hair out of her face as she examined the man the scouts were half-carrying, half-dragging in. Two and a half decades of training and experience directed her focus immediately to the arrow wounds in the fallen man's solar plexus.
"Over here," she said, directing them to an empty sickbed. "Merai! Bring water and a bottle of alcohol, and make haste!"
Merai was already up and moving. Unlike Caitlyn, Merai was no older than her thirteen-years and odd-months body showed her to be, and her lack of experience showed in the wobbling of her legs and the trembling of her hands as she ran to the supply shelf to retrieve the needed items. Caitlyn was a full-fledged medical healer, and had been for years now; Merai was a simple apprentice. She could feel the worry that radiated from her own mahogany eyes as she passed the jug of water and the bottle of disinfecting alcohol to the healer.
"Good," Caitlyn said shortly, having already stripped away the tattered jerkin and tunic from the fallen scout's body. "Bowl, cloth, and bandages."
"Aye, ma'am," Merai responded, noting with disgust the tremor in her own voice. *Damn you, Merai,* she thought at herself, angrily. *You weren't like this in training. You've seen blood before. One casualty from a lutin raid does this to you?!*
Snatching up the basin and washcloth from the corner and grabbing a handful of gauze bandages from a nearby shelf, Merai ran back toward the sickbed...
Struck the toe of her sandal against a protruding stone in the floor...
And tumbled forwards, the medical supplies flying out before her.
Caitlyn reached out and snatched the bowl before it hit, letting the towel and bandages land against and around her as Merai fell to the floor with a thump. She scrabbled to her feet again in an instant, rushing to Caitlyn's side even as she felt the raw burning in her cheeks.
*Damn you, Merai,* she cursed bitterly. *Too clumsy. Always clumsy. You'll never be a healer...*
"Thank you, Merai," Caitlyn said, quickly but gently. She did not look at Merai as she began washing and examining the scout's wounds. "Flank attack?" she asked the leopard-scout.
"Aye. Came straight out o' the trees to our left. Were too distracted by the lil' bastards in front o' us, I'm afraid."
Caitlyn leaned in close to examine the wounds, as Merai poured some of the water into the basin and rinsed out the bloody cloth without being asked. "Looks like these two are superficial," she said, pointing to a pair of arrow wounds. "This one hit a rib before it could pierce anything vital, and this other one looks like it just tore up the abdominal muscles. It'll hurt him to even breathe for a week, but it'll heal."
"And this 'un?" asked a grizzled wolf-morph, pointing to a wound in the patient's lower left side.
"Hit the kidney," said Caitlyn. "I can dress the wound, but t'will need a visit from the Lightbringer to heal properly." Even as she spoke, she was already doing just that -- running alcohol over each of the wounds and dressing them with the bandages. The scout groaned a bit -- whether from the pain of the wounds or the burning of the alcohol, Merai wasn't sure -- but he held still long enough for Caitlyn to finish the job, with Merai providing assistance and further medical instruments where needed.
In fifteen minutes, they had the wounds completely cleaned and dressed, and the scouts moved their wounded comrade into the adjacent room to wait for the Lightbringer's arrival. The door was hardly shut before Merai began cursing herself.
"By the Ninth Circle of Hell, I am useless!" she exclaimed, clutching the hair at her temples in exasperation. "Tripping on common floor-stones ... dropping things ... stupid, stupid Merai! Damn you, you unsure legs, you wobbly knees! Can you not stomach the sight of blood?!"
Caitlyn caught her by the shoulder and drew her into a comforting embrace, as the younger girl broke down crying. "Hush, child," Caitlyn said quietly. "'Tis not right to speak of yourself so poorly. You did well today, considering 'twas your first emergency treatment."
"But I'm so clumsy!" Merai lamented. "I have the hands and feet of the village idiot!"
"Nonsense," Caitlyn said firmly. "Healing work is dangerous and exciting, all at once. 'Tis natural to suffer a few butterflies, especially when you are young." She pulled back and gave Merai a serious look with her soft, muddy-green eyes. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Merai. You are a fine assistant, and you will be a fine healer one day. If you believe anything I have ever said to you, believe that."
Merai lowered her gaze, absently brushing aside a long strand of her dark brown hair. "Perhaps," she agreed, reluctantly, sniffling once. "But I shall never be a Lightbringer."
"Come now, Merai," Caitlyn chided. "Are you Lord Samekkh, or Mistress Nocturna, that you can see the future? You are a bright and attractive young woman, Merai--"
"I'm simple and plain," Merai retorted.
Caitlyn cut her off with a look. "You are bright, Merai, or you would not be here. The simple do not become healer's assistants." A small smile crept onto her face. "And my son thinks you pretty enough."
Merai blushed. "Daren is my best friend," she said. "He thinks of swords and horses and being a great warrior. He doesn't notice me like that."
"Perhaps not. But he ought to." Merai actually smiled at that. Caitlyn raised her hands to the girl's shoulders, about at an even height with her own. "Don't worry about tomorrow, Merai, for tomorrow will worry about itself. You are doing fine work here, and you will only get better as the seasons pass. Apply yourself, and not even Samekkh could foresee the heights that you will scale."
Merai looked at her a long moment, then gave her another hug. "Thank you, Missus Caitlyn."
"Any time, child," Caitlyn returned. "Now, come along -- we have a bit of a mess here to clean up."
They were just finishing up the task of cleaning the blood and grime from the sickbay floor when the door swung open again. Daren sauntered in with a grin on his freckle-spotted face, his carrot-top hair sticking to his forehead with sweat. He waved the shortsword he carried in a few quick feints at unseen enemies, then slid it into the scabbard at his belt.
"Good morning, Mother ... Merai," he said, nodding at each of them in turn.
"Nay -- 'tis more like noon, I think," Merai answered over her shoulder as she carried the cleaning supplies to their proper storage places.
"Aye, nearly so," Daren conceded, "and that's why I'm here. Would you care to have lunch on the battlements today? There's an archery team practicing in the parade ground."
Merai smiled. She and Daren often spent the midday hour atop the Keep's curtain walls, looking down on the people of Metamor as they went about their business. "Sounds like fun," she told him. "But I shall have to tell my parents where we're going -- and get myself a lunch, for that matter."
"And don't forget to sit at the archer's flanks," Caitlyn warned, raising a finger at her fourteen-year old son. "The last thing we need is one of you getting run through by a stray warbolt."
"Worry not, Mother," Daren said, with just a bit more noble a tone than a child his age was entitled to. "After all, when was the last time Merai and I got into trouble?"
"When was the last time you two spent more than an hour together?" Caitlyn returned, but her grin showed she meant no malice. "Did you manage to hold onto the lunch I packed for you this morning?"
Daren gestured at his backpack. "'Tis safe back there, Mother. Ready, Merai?"
"Ready. See you this afternoon, Missus Caitlyn."
"Aye. Take care, Merai."
Daren gave his mother a parting kiss on the cheek, and they were out the door. The lanky youth took out his sword again once they were a short distance down the corridor, and began swinging it experimentally, as was his custom. Taking a few steps, hopping forward, moving the sword to various classical combat positions, the young warrior-apprentice was a whirlwind of energy.
Merai, for her part, kept a steady walking pace, watching her friend with amusement.
"Mother says you'll put your own eye out one of these days, if you keep going on like that," she teased.
"Your old mother, or your new one?" Daren returned, as he leapt forward into a crouching thrust.
Merai grinned. Her parents, Alexander and Dana, were both accomplished scouts of long years' experience, and had fought side-by-side at the Battle of the Three Gates in the effort to hold the first ward. Both had, of course, been struck by Nasoj's TransGender spell, which left Merai's home life somewhat confusing for a while but more or less unharmed. Merai, like Daren and all the other children in the Keep, had been hidden in the catacombs below the fortress during the battle, and thus had been protected from Nasoj's spells by the rather potent magical aura that surrounded the depths of the Keep. As it turned out, this had been little more than a delaying tactic; as the Keepers had discovered in the ensuing years, each of these children was destined to suffer the Keep's curse sometime during their fourteenth year ... provided that they were still living at Metamor when that time came.
"My old mother," Merai said, answering Daren's earlier question. "Don't let him hear you call him 'old,' though. He's still too much my mother to stop worrying about things like that."
"Caution noted," replied Daren, parrying a few attackers' blows as they stepped out of the Keep proper and into the open-air commons.
Merai's house was not far from the Keep's Inner Gate, in a cluster of residences just off the commons. Like many of the houses in Metamor, it was constructed with load-bearing walls made of concrete bricks, with large post-and-lintel windows all around to let in air and light. Though humble in comparison to the fortress in whose shadow it was built, Merai's home was far larger and more technologically advanced than any commoner's house in the Midland fiefdoms; Metamor's advanced knowledge granted it a wealth unknown anywhere else in the world, and all of its citizens prospered because of it. For at least the thousandth time since she had become aware of such things, Merai silently thanked the Fates for allowing her to grow up in a land as blessed as Metamor.
Reaching the door a moment before Merai, Daren sheathed his sword and rapped twice with the brass knocker.
"Come in," a rich baritone voice called.
Daren opened and held the door for Merai. "Hail, mother, father," she said with a smile.
Merai's birth mother, Dana, stood at the kitchen table, changing the diaper on six-month-old baby Thomas. The towering man's long black hair fell loosely around his shoulders, his bronze-skinned arms rippling with even the small movements of changing the infant. He looked up at Daren and Merai and smiled, his grey eyes glistening.
"Good day to you, Daren," he said softly, his voice still carrying a commanding air. "How fared you in your training sessions this morn?"
"Quite well, sir," Daren returned with a grin, his eyes wide. Merai smiled. Even now, seven years later, every time Daren saw her mother -- especially when Dana was bare-chested, as now -- the boy still stood in awe of the Adonis-like scout. "Master DeMule has been training us in close-quarter blade work, an' he says I am one of the most talented pupils in his care."
"Not to mention one of the most reckless," Alexandra noted with a wry smile, pausing in the process of feathering an arrow. Her soft brown eyes sparkled as she added, "You're a courageous boy, Daren, but you must learn when to hold fast and when to yield. That incident with the traders last summer nearly got you killed."
The incident Sandra spoke of was a tussle Daren had gotten into with a few tough and small-minded merchants who visited the Keep with a shipment of steel for the Metamor weapons-makers. Not being fond of Keepers, some of the hard-bitten men had made a few scathing remarks about Daren's father, Leon -- a lionmorph, and one of Lord Thomas' guards. Daren had been within earshot, and when he heard the merchants call Leon a "mangy, flea-bitten tomcat" -- well, he happened to have his sword with him, and one thing led to another. Fortunately, a squad of Metamor guards broke up the fight before the Midlanders could lay a knife into the boy.
"Yes, ma'am. I'll try to do better," Daren said, trying and failing to avoid staring at the woman. Despite her recent pregnancy and the plain scout's clothing she wore, the brown-haired, creamy-skinned woman was blessed with a truly awe-inspiring figure. Her generous breasts strained against the fabric of her tunic with even the slightest movement, and Daren's eyes drank in the sight shamelessly. Sandra noticed -- but since she remembered all too well what it was like to be a man, she smiled and took the attention as a compliment.
"I know you will, Daren," she replied, finishing the feathers on the last arrow and placing it in the quiver with the rest. "You're a good boy, and you'll make a fine knight someday. Mayhap you'll even be a lion, like your father."
Daren grinned at the thought, as Alexandra stepped over to take the newly changed Thomas from her husband. She carried the child back into the home's single, communal bedroom, cooing and laughing softly.
"So, Merai," Dana said as he cleaned his hands in the kitchen's washbasin, "let me guess: you and Daren are going up to the wall, and you desire a lunch to take with you."
"Aye, Mum -- I mean, Da," Merai corrected herself. Even after seven years, she still made the occasional slip of the tongue. "We're going to watch the archers train today."
"Ahh, yes. Master Landon's archery drills -- I remember them well." Dana continued speaking as he pulled a wheel of cheese from the cupboard and began to slice off a block for Merai. "Every scout goes through the bow-training at least twice before ever seeing combat duty. I imagine you'll be going through it soon yourself, Daren. Your father has been training you in the bow, has he not?"
"Aye, sir, he has," Daren said, his tone sounding a little amused. "Though I don't know how much use a knight will make of it, what with the suit of armor and all."
"Oh, don't be too quick to dismiss the bow, Daren," Dana chided, taking an apple and a small loaf of bread from their places on the countertop. "'Tis more powerful than you might expect. How much do you know about the battle of Salinon Field?"
The red-headed boy wrinkled his brow in thought. "It was sometime in the 590's," he said slowly. "King Titus and the army of Salinon against ... I don't remember who they fought."
Dana nodded. "It was the Ebony Horde from the Eastern Regions," he said. "King Titus and his men went out on the field in full knights' mail, surrounded by legions of footmen. The Horde used phalanxes of pikemen, supported by fleet-footed cavalry ... and longbow archers." The man smiled grimly. "The Eastern archers used six-foot bows, so tall they had to tip them sideways -- like this -- to shoot. Their warbolts were two and a half feet long."
"Mighty Dokorath," Daren breathed.
Another grim smile. "Indeed. While the footmen ran against the phalanxes again and again to no effect, the archers fired on Titus and his knights. So powerful were their bows -- so sturdy their arrows -- that they pierced right through the warriors' breastplates."
Daren frowned. "But the Ebony Horde was repelled."
"Aye -- but not until reinforcements arrived from the neighboring kingdoms. Titus and his army had been a roadblock to the Horde, delaying their advance so the Midlands could rally against them." Dana gave the boy a stern look. "But Titus and his knights were all slain, because they underestimated the power of a strong bow. Now since then, our metallurgists have improved the quality of our armor -- made it stronger, more resistant to even a longbow's bolt. But it is only a matter of time before the bowmakers catch up again. When that time comes, you will have to be trained in many different weapons and strategies if you are to survive the change in battle techniques. Versatility is life on the battlefield."
Daren nodded sharply, attentively. "Aye, sir."
Having gathered up Merai's lunch in a burlap sack, Dana handed it to his daughter along with a small skin of water. About then, Sandra returned from the bedroom.
"Well, he should be happy for a while, now," she told Dana, peeking inside Merai's lunch sack as she spoke. "Hmm... looks good, but a little light." The woman dug around in the pocket of her jerkin for a moment and fished out two coppers, handing them to Merai. "Here, have Donny give you a cup of soup to go with that," she told her, giving the girl a kiss on the forehead.
"Thanks, Mum," Merai said, being careful not to slip up again as she and Daren headed for the door.
But Sandra had already turned her attention to her husband. "Well, Thomas is asleep and Merai's fed for the afternoon. Now, what are we going to do for lunch?" she asked him, slipping her hands around the man's waist with a sly smile.
Dana grinned, putting his hands on her shoulders and pulling her close, pressing her ample breasts against his own bare chest. "I thought I took care of your appetite this morning," he said softly.
"That was then," Sandra returned, her brown eyes flashing now in a very different way. "You know me -- always hungry."
"Indeed," Dana agreed, giving his wife a passionate kiss. She returned it eagerly, moaning softly as she pressed herself even more tightly against his body.
Despite herself, Merai giggled, and the innocent sound broke her parents off abruptly. As if noticing the presence of the children for the first time, they quickly shooed them out of the house, telling them to have a nice time, and locked the door behind them.
Merai and Daren shared a quick mischievous look, then moved as one to the right side of the house.
Ever since their early childhood, Merai and Daren had had a little secret about this house. Poking around one day in the corners of the communal bedroom, they had found a narrow crack between the bricks of the wall and the left post of one of the windows. This particular window faced the house next door, so direct sunlight almost never leaked through it, and it was across the room from Merai's parents' bed, so they never had reason to examine it up close. The end result was that the crack had never been noticed, except by Merai and Daren.
Like most children, they had held a love for secret things, and so they had kept the narrow crack in confidence between them. They had often used it to pass notes back and forth when Merai was stuck inside for the day -- usually either for chores, or as discipline for some sort of mischief she and Daren had gotten into. Of course, as the children had grown into teenagers, and the closed curtains on the window itself became more and more annoying, it was only natural that they should find other uses for their secret crevice.
Peering into the room through their tiny peephole -- Merai crouching low so that Daren could see in above her -- they watched as Merai's parents spun into the bedroom in a tight embrace, their laughter (and other sounds) just barely leaking through the thick concrete walls. They watched with rapt attention as Dana and Sandra shared their affections, various articles of clothing falling to the floor every few seconds or so.
"Wow," Daren whispered, after a particular article of men's apparel fluttered down. "And I thought my dad was impressive. That's just..." He trailed off with a shake of his head.
"'Tis normal for TGs, from what I've heard," Merai whispered back. "Methinks they can control its size or something."
Daren gasped then, as a few bits of Sandra's clothing worked themselves loose and the activities of the two adults inside intensified.
"Wow," Daren said again, still keeping his voice low. "I can't believe how well they've gotten used to it -- the change and all. 'Tis almost like they've been this way their whole lives."
"Aye," said Merai with a broad smile. "After all this, they still love each other so much -- Velena be praised."
They were silent a moment, watching in fascination as Dana and Sandra wrapped each other in a particularly passionate embrace. For a moment, Merai wondered if little Thomas would wake up with all the noise her parents were making.
"Do you think," Daren said thoughtfully, "that they'd be wroth if they knew we were watching them?"
Merai felt a tiny twinge of guilt at that -- a small voice inside her that seemed to say that maybe she shouldn't be watching this. But really, she reasoned, what harm could it do? She shrugged, pushing the thought aside. "Fourteen is the age of accountability," she answered, somewhat matter-of-factly. "You've already reached it, an' I'm nearly there. They would have to teach us about this sooner or later." She grinned. "Besides: if we didn't learn about it from our parents, what else could they do? Have it taught in the schools?"
They both had a good, long laugh about that one.
After the show was over, Merai and Daren stopped by the Deaf Mule and purchased a cup of peasant soup before climbing the access stairs to the battlements atop the outer curtain wall. Part lookout post, part observation gallery and part defensive perimeter, the wide rampart atop the wall ran the full length of the Keep's perimeter -- but it was also broken into sections, each separated from the next by a six-foot stone barricade. Merlons lined the rampart on both the outer and inner edges, thus shielding the archers atop it from both sides. Towers rose from the wall at intervals all along its length, housing lookouts, archers and heavy weapons. Accessible to everyone most of the time, the wall was fitted with heavy wooden doors that could be bolted tight against invaders in time of battle -- thus assuring that even if they could break through the curtain wall's three successive gates, an attacking force would have to expend a tremendous amount of effort to extricate the defending archers from their positions. This left the invading commander with the unpleasant choice of breaking up his assault to tackle the archers on the battlements, or proceeding towards the inner Keep -- and exposing the rear and flanks of his troops to withering arrow fire.
At the moment, though, the finer points of castle defense mattered little to Daren and Merai; they sat cross-legged on the cold stone of the rampart and looked out through an embrasure as Master Landon walked his archers through their target practice, aiming at targets a hundred yards away against a high wooden backstop meant to halt any stray bolts. Though the Keep had an indoor archery range, the fox-man preferred to conduct training outside when the weather permitted -- one couldn't practice firing with the sun in your eyes in an indoor range, and the public sessions helped to build the people's confidence in the scouts' ability to protect them.
The targets the archers were firing at consisted of outlines of various creatures -- men, giants, lutins, and a number of wild predators -- standing in different poses, exposing different weak spots to the archers' attacks. At Landon's orders, they would target a specific soft point within each of the outlines -- the heart, perhaps, or the head. None of these archers would actually be expected to shoot with such precision at a moving target, of course, but it was nonetheless important to teach them how to target a very small weak spot from a long distance away. Many of the land's most fearsome creatures, such as the giant spiders of Elderwood, had vulnerable points smaller than a man's fist; precision and accuracy, combined with speed, would save the life of many a scout.
Letting her eyes wander throughout the courtyard as she munched absently on her apple, Merai noticed two wolfmorphs walking together along the cobblestone pavement. Leaning forward, she saw that it was the Lightbringer, Raven hin'Elric, and the court poet who called himself Wanderer. The lupine man was strumming away at a lute, playing a tune that Merai couldn't make out from this distance and singing with visible enthusiasm. The priestess, for her part, varied in her expression between amusement and a general air of happiness. Knowing Wanderer, the man was probably composing an impromptu ballad in the Lightbringer's honor.
Merai sighed, wistfully, as the priestess and her poetic friend disappeared down a side street.
"I was wondering if you'd noticed them," Daren remarked around a mouthful of sandwich.
"How could I not?" Merai asked plaintively. "The high priestess has a -- an aura, methinks, about her person. She merely walks into a room, and the world stops and takes notice." She sighed again. "She is so intelligent ... so powerful ... why, the blessed Kyia even consented to leave her a form of beauty when the curse took hold. Everything she does is majestic, graceful." She gestured questioningly. "How could I ever hope to be like her?"
Daren replied after a moment's silence. "My parents always taught me that I can be anything if I apply myself to learn. 'Twas my father's encouragement that drove me to follow the path of a knight, rather than a common scout. I've seen you work, Merai, and I know you have the skills to be a healer. And if a healer, then why not a priestess?"
Merai shook her head absently. "I don't know, Daren. Truth be told, I'm ... I'm afraid of the change," she said at last, giving him a worried look. "I'm afraid of what I might become. I pray every day for Kyia to have mercy on me, to grant me a beautiful form I can be happy with ... but I fear the only thing that could make any new form tolerable would be a place among the Lightbringers. And that, I fear, is beyond what I can hope for."
"You are thinking of leaving Metamor." It was more a statement than a question.
Merai nodded. "But I'm afraid of that, as well," she admitted. "I'm so young -- too young to be safe on my own. No man of honor or nobility in the Midlands would want a simple Keeper peasant girl for a wife. And besides ... I love this place, Daren." Despite her mood, a wistful smile crossed the girl's features. "There is no land in all the world like Metamor -- none so blessed, so beautiful, so prosperous. If I leave, I leave the only world I have ever known, for a life of certain poverty ... and if I stay, I am at the mercy of Nasoj's curse."
"'Tis a hard choice to make," Daren agreed, getting to his feet and stretching his legs. "But I have made my decision -- I shall be a knight, and I shall ride throughout the land protecting all from the forces of darkness!" For what was probably the twentieth time today, Daren pulled his sword from its scabbard, pointing it out towards the parade ground in a heroic posture. Merai giggled a bit in spite of herself, and Daren grinned.
"Aye, one day all the known world will speak of the exploits of Sir Daren the Brave, Son of Leon!" he proclaimed, squaring his skinny shoulders and putting a foot up on the wall inside one of the embrasures. The gaps were wide enough for two well-equipped archers to stand abreast and fire, so there was plenty of room for Daren to strike a pose without Merai's view being obstructed by a merlon. "Travelers will come from the Flatlands, and the Pyralian Kingdoms, and say: 'Here lived Sir Daren the Brave, who once slew an entire army of giants with but this one blade!'"
"I doubt that very much," Merai laughed.
"Nay, 'tis true, milady! The vile ruffians came at him on the battlements, like this, but brave Sir Daren stood his ground! 'Ha,' said he, 'you vermin think you can defeat me?! Never!' And then he rushed at them, spinning like a whirlwind!" Daren twirled twice, executing a few artful attacks at the phantom giants. "'Take that, and that, and that!' said he, cleaving them one by one! Then one came at him close, and pressed him up against the merlon--" Daren backed up against the wall facing the Inner Keep to illustrate "--but brave Sir Daren fought him off, and sent the gargantuan beast tumbling to his death in the courtyard! Ha!" The freckle-faced youth launched himself away from the merlon, executing a somewhat awkward but serviceable roundhouse kick at his opponent.
At about that moment, Merai felt a tingling at the back of her neck -- an eerie sensation, one she couldn't quite place -- an instant before Daren returned his foot, wobbily, to the rampart beneath him. He stumbled, hunching over suddenly.
"Whoa..." he breathed, his knees shaking beneath him.
Merai straightened up where she sat. "Daren? Daren, what's wrong?" she asked.
"I ... I don't know..." said the boy, clutching his head with both hands. There was fear and confusion in his voice. "I -- everything's spinning -- feels like my head's on fire. Merai, where are you?"
"I'm over here, Daren," Merai said, getting up from where she sat. In the course of his "battle," Daren had put several yards' distance between them. "Just wait there, I'll come to you."
But Daren was trying to walk, trying to get to Merai. In his dizziness, he took two unsteady steps -- closer to an embrasure facing the courtyard.
"Daren, wait," Merai said, more sharply, as she quickened her pace. "Don't move."
"Merai, I -- I can't stand ... need to lie down for a minute..." Daren started to bend his knees to sit down, lost his balance, fell forward into the embrasure--
And with only a two-foot high stone ridge to separate him from empty space, tipped over the edge of the wall.
"No!" Merai had seen it happening and broken into a run, but her outstretched hand was just an instant too late and closed on empty air. She screamed, watching helplessly as Daren fell limply to the ground below.
There was a sickening thud. Several people in the town square looked up and began rushing toward the boy, shouting "Healer! Healer!" But the Lightbringer was nowhere to be seen -- apparently she and Wanderer had walked out of earshot.
Merai bolted down the stairs like a wild thing, racing through the open wall door and running to Daren's side. The boy's body was bleeding in a number of places, his arms and legs bent at sickening angles. Splintered ends of bones protruded from his limbs in two places. Blood seeped from a grave-looking wound above his right temple.
"Merai..." he moaned, weakly.
"I'm here, Daren," she managed, her voice threatening to choke off with a sob. Tears ran freely down her cheeks. "Oh, Daren ... please, please don't die..."
The healers arrived mere moments later, but the Lightbringer was not among them. Merai moved out of the way and let them surround the boy. They went to work immediately setting the broken bones, and Daren screamed as they slid the snapped shafts back into the body and realigned them with one another. Merai wept openly as she tried to console him.
"Hold on, Daren ... I know it hurts, but please ... hold on..."
The healers worked swiftly, wordlessly, professionally, binding up the most obvious open wounds before attempting a closer examination. As they finished binding the wounds on his limbs, Daren moaned once, and coughed up blood.
A chill fell over the healers. "He's bleeding internally," one said quietly.
"... And a concussion," another added, examining his head.
"Where is the Lightbringer?" demanded an onlooker.
"She's coming," someone else said.
"She won't get here in time," one of the healers said grimly.
Merai knew what that meant.
She also knew she wouldn't tolerate it.
"NO!" she screamed, bursting in between the healers and putting her hands on his head and chest. "YOU CAN'T DIE, DAREN! YOU CAN'T!!!"
At that moment, in the midst of her grief and rage, something connected inside Merai's body. Like a circuit being suddenly closed by the crossing of two wires, a current of power surged through her whole being--
And a flash of bright blue light flowed out of her arms, into Daren, like a bolt of electricity. He spasmed, once, and went limp.
Merai let out a long breath and collapsed, exhausted, to the ground. The last thing she heard before blacking out was the sound of one of the healers quietly swearing in amazement.
The first thing Merai was aware of upon waking was the light that fell across her face from the nearby window.
Blinking and taking in a deep breath, she sat up and looked around. She was on a narrow, uncomfortable bed in the recovery room adjacent to the Keep's sickbay. A dull headache was throbbing somewhere behind her temples, but she seemed to be otherwise unharmed. Asleep on the bed beside her own was Daren, who looked to be in terrible shape ... but, somehow, he seemed to Merai to be better than he had been before she--
Before she did whatever it was she had done.
What in hell had she done, anyway?
"Daren?" she whispered.
"He cannot hear you, Merai." Merai looked up to see -- dear Kammoloth!--
The Lightbringer herself -- Raven hin'Elric, High Priestess of Metamor Keep, supreme Lightbringer over the Order in Metamor and all the Northern Midlands besides --was walking towards her from the open doorway. To Merai, it seemed as if her white linen robes shone with the light of Heaven itself.
"Lightbringer," Merai whispered, lowering her head in deference to the priestess.
"Worry not, little one," the Lightbringer said, favoring Merai with a comforting smile. "Young Daren will be fine. Your quick action saw to that."
"Thank Akkala," Merai said, smiling on her friend. "What?" she asked, as the second half of the wolf-woman's words caught up to her.
The priestess smiled again -- more broadly this time, so that her teeth glistened in a fearful lupine grin. "You have saved Daren's life, Merai," she said, her warm, soft voice filled with -- admiration? Of Merai?
"Several of his ribs had broken, and his lungs were filling with blood," Raven continued. "His brain had suffered injury, as well. You healed him -- repaired his ribs and closed the wounds in his lungs, and reversed the damage to his brain."
Merai's mouth gaped. "H-h-how?" she managed.
The Lightbringer took a few steps closer to Daren's bed, giving Merai a smiling look from the corner of her eye. "Well, Merai, it seems that you have a natural talent for channeling healing energies. In addition, your lessons with the healers' school have taught you much about a person's anatomy. Apparently, your unconscious mind saw what was wrong with Daren and channeled the arcane energies necessary to heal him." She turned and came closer to Merai, now, her eyes sincere and passionate. "Your ... burst of emotion -- that conviction that you would not let him die -- was the catalyst that sparked the healing," she said.
Merai was silent for a long moment. She -- Merai, the simple peasant ... Merai, with the feet and hands of the village idiot ... Merai, who was not worthy to tie the thongs of the High Priestess's sandals ... she had healed her best friend of his mortal wounds -- out of sheer force of will?
"But -- I don't even know what I did," she breathed.
"That's quite all right, Merai," said the Lightbringer, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You'll learn the 'whats' and the 'hows' in the due course of time." Merai looked up at the wolf-woman, and saw her eyes were serious. "You have a remarkable gift, Merai. Never have I seen someone with such pure, unadulterated potential. If you will consent, I wish to teach you how to channel that potential into something you can use -- the power to help others."
Merai blinked and her mouth fell open, astonished. "Does this mean you want me to...?" she trailed off, as if afraid that speaking her hope would cause it to shatter.
The priestess nodded. "Aye, Merai. I want you to join the Lothanasi -- the Order of the Lightbringers."
June 3, 706: Artela'kema.
"One of the most important skills you must have, as a priestess of the Order, is the ability to sense the energy fields around your patients," the Lightbringer said, as she and Merai stood at the bedside of a scout wounded in a recent excursion. "Through these auras, a Lightbringer can discern what is wrong with their patient -- and in the more severe cases, determine where to channel the energy in order to heal them."
The priestess gestured at the scout, a deer-morph whom Merai had seen a few times bringing in other wounded scouts to see the healers. "This man has had his ribs broken in three places," she said. "It could be healed naturally, but it is swifter and safer to use the Light-Healing -- to channel the energy into his body and knit the bones together ourselves. 'Twill serve as a fitting demonstration to you."
"Aye, Mistress," said Merai. Raven hin'Elric had instructed Merai to refer to her as "Mistress", or as Lothanasa -- the Old Tongue title used by the Lightbringers to refer to their High Priestess -- now that Merai had placed herself under the older woman's tutelage. "What must I do to sense these auras?"
"First, stretch out your hands toward your patient -- like this, just a few inches above the skin," the wolf-woman said, demonstrating and watching as Merai followed suit. "Good. Now, close your eyes. Open your mind to the ebb and flow of the energies around you ... relax. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly ... good. Do you feel anything?"
Merai's brow wrinkled in thought. "Aye, Mistress. It is like ... 'tis like placing my hands in a stream. But even that's not quite right ... but aye, I feel the energies around him."
"And around you, and me, and all of us," the Lightbringer agreed. "Good. Now ... open your eyes. Slowly. Stay relaxed -- calm. Good."
Uncertainly, Merai opened her eyes, trying very hard to keep her breathing slow and even. She looked down at the scout on the bed--
And gasped, softly, in awe, as she saw the shimmering, glowing radiance flowing around the scout's body and her own hands and arms.
"I see it," she whispered.
"Excellent. What do you see?"
Merai looked closer. Around the hart-man's chest there were eddies, disruptions in the energy field -- and sure enough, there she saw the dull red glowing of the broken ribs, throbbing with crimson radiance among the lighter glow of the rest of the aura.
"His ribs are broken, true enough," Merai confirmed. "Here, here, an' here."
"Precisely correct, my child," Raven said with a laudatory tone of voice. "Well done."
"Thank you, Mist--" Merai turned to face the Lightbringer, and was cut off suddenly by what she saw. Her aura-sight still in effect, Merai gasped as she beheld the brilliant, glorious radiance of her teacher and mistress. Her gray-furred skin seemed to gleam from beneath the surface, and her ice-blue eyes flashed like the light of a gas flame. "Dear gods," she whispered, lowering her eyes and unconsciously dropping to one knee. "My Mistress must surely be a goddess of the highest heaven..."
The Lightbringer laughed at that -- a light, easy sound, gentle in its rebuke. "No, no, my dear Merai. I am no goddess. You are simply unused to seeing beyond sight, and the light has blinded you. In time, your mind will adjust, and even my own radiance will seem but a pale glimmer -- at least, in comparison to the things that await you. Fear not, Merai -- you may rise and observe me in this healing. I am just as mortal as you are."
Somewhat encouraged by these words, Merai rose to her feet but kept her eyes lowered from her mistress's face. "Aye, Mistress," she managed. "What must I do?"
Raven hin'Elric held out a hand to her pupil. "Take my hand," she said. "Fix your eyes on the broken ribs we must heal ... and watch."
Still trembling from her newfound vision, Merai took the gray-furred hand of her mistress. Looking up at the wounded scout's chest, she focused on the regions of his aura which glowed red with injury. For a long moment nothing seemed to happen.
Merai became aware of a blurring on the peripheries of her vision, swiftly accompanied by a graying out of everything but the small circle of her sight that focused on the deer-morph's chest. The hairs on the back of her neck tingled, a soft buzzing filled her mind...
Then her gut twisted, hard, as she abruptly felt herself spiraling to the left, inward, downward, flying like a warbolt inside the scout's chest--
*Gods!* Merai gasped. Her voice echoed in her mind, but she heard nothing through her ears.
Her vision wrenched again, and when her sense of balance realigned itself she found her field of sight filled with cells, tissues, blood ... and the broken bones of the scout's ribcage.
The experience defied description. Somehow, she was looking through the man's body, past layers of skin and fat and muscle, yet somehow still being aware of them all. She could "see" the fragments and splinters of bone lodged amidst the damaged tissues, all the little shards that had formed when the ribs were snapped. Looming large in her view were the bigger pieces of bone, the ones which would eventually knit themselves back together with the proper treatment.
Then a shimmering cloud of gray and white ... something ... floated past Merai on her left. Instantly she recognized the aura of the Lightbringer.
*Lothanasa!* Merai called, focusing her thoughts in the direction of the priestess.
*Magnificent, is it not, my child?* Raven's voice echoed back, stronger and louder in Merai's mind than her own. *I have projected our awareness into the body of the patient. Now, witness the power of the Light-Healing.*
As Merai watched in awe, glowing tendrils extended from the gray-white orb, reaching out toward the broken bones. Grabbing hold of the two largest pieces of the nearest rib, the tendrils pulled the loose piece of rib up to the one still attached to the spine, realigning them where the rib had snapped. A third tendril of light shot out at the crack between the pieces, fusing the bone back together through sheer force of will. A few moments later, and the priestess had done the same for the other two ribs. Finally, the glowing sphere of the Lightbringer's consciousness gathered up the loose fragments and shards of bone, fusing them into imperfections in the healed ribs.
As soon as the healing was finished, the orb flashed back out of view, tugging Merai along with it. Her mind spun up, to the right, and out, snapping back into her body hard enough to make her knees give way and her head spin.
"By Akkala," Merai whispered, shaking off the sense of vertigo.
"Precisely," the Lightbringer said. She sounded weary; Merai turned her head and saw the other woman gripping the edge of the bed. The priestess's aura seemed to have diminished considerably in its radiance. "'Tis one of Akkala's most precious teachings to our Order," she continued. "The power to heal through the force of one's own thoughts. Though, as you can no doubt see, the process is ... somewhat taxing."
"Aye, Mistress," Merai said, concern in her voice. "Will you be well? Your aura--"
"I know, child," said the wolf-woman, waving off her student's worries. "It will rebuild to its former strength after I have rested a time. But you see now why we do not use the Light-Healing for everything."
"Aye, Mistress -- to channel energy to the scout, it drained your own reserves."
"Exactly. Remember, Merai," Raven said, pointing an instructive finger at the girl, "Light-Healing should only be done in the direst of circumstances, when no other healing will work. As you noticed, the energy transfer saps your own reserves of power, weakening you and decreasing your ability to perform simpler healing techniques. Use the Light-Healing to cure the gravest diseases and heal the most serious wounds -- but only use it to bring the patient to a condition where more traditional medicine may be used successfully."
Merai nodded. "As you say, Mistress." While the priestess was speaking, her attention had been drawn back to the bed across the room, where Daren still lay unconscious. Was she seeing what she thought she was seeing...?
"Lothanasa," she said slowly, "I'm not sure, but something seems ... wrong ... with Daren."
"Indeed," Raven said, straightening from her position over the scout's bed. "Tell me what you see, child."
Merai paused at her friend's bedside, stretching out her hands over Daren's form to better feel the pulse and flow of the energy field. "His aura's ... off, somehow," she said. "An' 'tis not just from the wounds in his arms and legs. 'Tis like..."
"What is it like, Merai?"
Her brow furrowed for a moment in thought. " 'Tis like his aura is ... changing, somehow. Like the whole nature of it is shifting, the way leaves change color in the fall."
"Very good, Merai," the priestess said, coming forward to stand at the end of the bed. "Now: why do you suppose Daren's aura is changing?"
Merai bit her lip, considered for a moment, then shook her head slightly. "I'm not sure. Is he coming down with an illness -- some sort of fever, perhaps?"
Raven smiled placidly. "Well, a fever is one of the side effects -- but it is not quite an illness, in the way that you mean." She paused. "Merai, how old is Daren?"
"He just turned fourteen a month or so ago," Merai answered absently. "Why, does--"
And abruptly, she got it. "He just entered puberty," she breathed. She turned to look at the Lightbringer, a feeling of dread washing over her. "'Tis the curse, is it not?"
The priestess nodded. "The Keep is beginning to claim him for its own," she said. "In fact, it was probably the onset of the curse that caused his dizziness atop the outer wall. It should take no more than a week more before the change is complete. Now, Merai: can you tell me which of the three changes is happening to him?"
Merai looked more closely at her friend, trying to see the physical changes past the aura that shimmered and gleamed before her vision. "Well," she said, looking at his face, "he seems to have less freckles than he used to ... I don't see any hair or scales on his face or neck, so methinks he's not becoming a morph. His face seems ... softer, somehow, than before." She looked at her mistress. "Could he be age-regressing?"
" 'Tis a possibility," the Lightbringer conceded with a nod. "But let us hold off diagnosis for the moment. You may feel free to pull back the covers and inspect the rest of his body. Just do not move him, as his arms are not totally healed just yet."
Nodding, Merai pulled the covers back to Daren's waist. He was still wearing the tunic he'd had on when he fell off the wall, and the blood on the garment had dried to a dull reddish black. "No extra hair on his arms, either," Merai announced. She frowned, blinked, looked again. "As a matter of fact, there seems to be less than before."
"And his torso? What of that?" Raven asked casually.
After a moment's hesitation, Merai reached down and carefully unbuttoned the tunic, which the healers had refastened after Merai's healing made further work in that area unnecessary. She fumbled on the first and fourth buttons, but finally got them all undone. Steadying her hands for a moment, Merai pulled open the two sides of the shirt--
They were small, they were unassuming, but those were most definitely breasts growing on the body of Merai's best friend. The nipples looked swollen, tender, and entirely too large for a boy.
Merai looked back at her teacher in shock, and the other woman nodded solemnly. "You may inspect the rest, if you so desire."
Merai hesitated again. She suddenly felt very self-conscious, far more than she ever had while watching her parents in the bedroom.
"You are a healer, Merai," the priestess said, a bit sharply. "You will look on a man's body many, many times as you perform your healing work. It is a necessary and proper consequence of your duties. There is nothing to be ashamed of."
Merai bit her lip again, and nodded. Pulling the covers back the rest of the way, she exposed Daren's pants. They seemed ill-fitting on his changing form. She looked back at Raven, who nodded once. Then, even more carefully than before, Merai unfastened the clasp on Daren's pants and pulled them off of his body.
"His legs ... they're smoother," she said, trying like the Ninth Circle of Hell to keep a clinical air of professionalism. "More slender. Less hair on them. His ... pelvis ... looks broader."
"A telling observation," said the priestess. "And his ... equipment?"
Nervously, Merai untied the loincloth and looked beneath it. Two of the three things she knew were supposed to be there were missing, and the third looked unnaturally small.
Merai let the cloth drop and hung her head dejectedly. Solemnly, she pulled the covers back up over her friend's body.
"They're ... leaving," she said at last.
The Lightbringer was there beside her now, putting a comforting hand once again to her shoulder. "He'll be all right, Merai," she said gently.
"He'll be a she in a few more days!" Merai retorted.
"But he will survive," added Raven, softly but firmly. "Merai, this happens to about a third of the boys and men who fall under the Keep's magic -- and with the notable exception of the Lady Malisa, they all learn to adjust sooner or later. They all adapt, and most of them thrive. This is a fact of life in Metamor, Merai. The sooner you learn to accept that, the easier on you things will be."
Merai's jaw worked soundlessly for a moment. "Lady Malisa?" she managed.
The Lightbringer nodded. "Do not tell anyone I told you this, but the Duke's adopted son has taken quite badly to becoming his daughter. Have you not noticed how asexual her clothing is? How much she exerts herself to keep herself flat-chested?"
"She's ... been gone for a while, hasn't she?" Merai asked, hardly believing the priestess's gall in spreading such rumors.
"Aye, she has," Raven agreed, stepping back from the bedside and motioning for Merai to follow. "And one can only hope that she'll have come to better terms with herself by the time she comes home. That, however, is really none of our concern. My point is that you need to learn to accept the changes the curse brings, or it will drive you mad -- both as it affects the ones you care about, and as it begins to affect you." The wolf-woman gestured toward the exit. "Come now -- the next step in your training begins in the temple chambers."
Merai threw one more nervous glance at the almost-boy who was Daren. *Blessed Kyia,* she thought, *what accursed tortures does this place have planned for me? O, my lady, be merciful!* Then, without another word, she followed the Lightbringer out of the room and shut the door.
They walked in silence until they reached the ornate outer doors of the temple chambers. Merai felt a chill, just for a moment, as she looked at the monstrous and terrifying beasts that rampaged across the relief carving of the doors. Each one was illuminated with gold, silver, and bronze, with carefully cut gemstones for eyes. All represented creatures which the Order had fought against at one time or another throughout its 1500-year history. As the Lightbringer pushed open one of the doors and they walked inside, Merai took comfort in the relief sculpture that graced the inner doors of the temple: those same beasts filled with fear, fleeing from the Light of Heaven handed down to the men and women of the Lothanasi. It was reassuring to know that even the forces of darkness could be made to feel fear.
As Raven hin'Elric opened the inner doors, Merai saw that there was already someone inside: A tall, lanky scout, rather young from the looks of him. Merai did not recognize him.
"Ah, Lightbringer. Good, I was hoping you'd be here soon," said the dark-haired man.
The priestess nodded. "Lord Thomas has returned from the Hunt, I take it?"
"Aye, and we've brought in the ritual buck for the evening ceremony," the youth replied. "'Tis waiting in the Duke's stables, on your pleasure, madam."
"On behalf of Artela, I thank you." Merai noticed that there was courtesy but little warmth in the wolf-woman's voice; evidently the rumors regarding her mistress's air of superiority were true, notwithstanding her kindness to Merai herself.
Raven turned to her pupil. "I would say this is an excellent opportunity for you to gain experience in ritual preparation, Merai. Come with me to the storerooms, and help me collect what is needed."
It took only a few minutes to gather together the soaps, salves, oils, perfumes, and other equipment needed for the ceremony. Transferring some of the heavier gear to the strong arms of the scout, they tucked away the smaller items in the deep pockets of the Lightbringer's robes and the smaller ones on Merai's civilian tunic and pants.
"That should be all, then," the priestess announced with a tone of satisfaction. "Lead the way, sirrah."
The ritual buck captured by Lord Thomas and his men was a truly magnificent animal, a twelve-point stag with a lustrous coat and bright, active eyes. The beast looked up when they entered the stable house, the scout going in first. As he drew near to the deer's pen the animal suddenly lunged, kicking out aggressively and causing the man to jump back involuntarily.
"Excellent," said Raven with a small smile. "He is perfect. You may leave now, sirrah."
"Aye, madam. Thank you."
The scout left, and Raven and Merai came a few steps closer to the pen. The hart snorted a warning at them, and they stopped a few feet from the gate.
"Very well, then," said the priestess. "The first task in preparing this buck for the Mercy Offering is to pacify the animal enough that it will allow you to touch it."
The stag paced back and forth in front of the gate, keeping its eyes on the two women.
"That much seems clear, Mistress," said Merai. "But how?"
"The process is similar to that of the Light-Healing. Feel its aura, and tell me what you sense."
Obediently, Merai stretched out her hand toward the animal and closed her eyes. Relaxing, focusing her mind on the energies that surrounded her, she directed her attention to the aura around the deer...
"... Anger," Merai answered, after a moment. "Frustration. Fear. Confusion."
"Very good. Now, imagine that same aura -- but with a sensation of peace ... calm ... docility. Picture such an energy field in your mind."
"... I have it," Merai said, after a few more moments of concentration. "Now what?"
"Now it becomes more difficult," the priestess said evenly. "You must enter the beast's mind, and project the image of that docile aura from your mind to his."
Merai hesitated. "What if I do something wrong?" she asked, opening her eyes and looking at the Lightbringer. "What will happen to my mind -- or the deer's -- if I cannot calm his thoughts?"
The older woman sighed. "Merai, if you are to be a priestess of our Order you must learn to have more confidence in your abilities. Your self-confidence is more important than your level of talent -- and your talents, Merai, are considerable. Even so, your uncertainty and self-doubt will sabotage your efforts if you cannot overcome them. Remember that."
Merai lowered her eyes and nodded. "Aye, Mistress."
"Do not worry," the priestess assured her. "I will be here to help you if you founder. You cannot learn to fly if you will not step outside the nest. Now: Enter the hart's mind and project the image."
Merai nodded, turned to the buck and stretched out her hand once more. "As you say, Mistress. I shall try."
"Do not try," Raven hin'Elric said sharply. "Simply do -- or do not. 'Try' is for those with no faith in themselves."
A small smile crept onto Merai's face. "Aye, Mistress."
Gazing intently at the deer's aura where it surrounded the creature's mind, Merai felt herself spin inwards and downwards, along the path of her outstretched arm and into the mind of the beast. Primitive, passionate thoughts swirled around her like a hurricane, the raw and unblemished power of instinctual thought.
*Gods!* exclaimed Merai, taken aback by the force of the beast's emotions. Pushing back the torrent with the force of her own will, Merai built a fragile barricade around her thoughts and tried to steady herself.
Fighting to hold herself in place in the buck's mind, Merai projected the image of peace, calm and docility as strongly as she could. But with her attentions divided between transmitting the message and maintaining the barrier between her mind and the animal's, she was too disturbed and frightened herself to send the thought properly. The barricade began to splinter and crack under the strain of the buck's emotions.
Desperation and panic gripped Merai's heart, as she threw all of her will into sending the image of peace. Her mental shield collapsed, and the full force of the tempest hit her again. Her grip gave way, and she spiraled down, deeper into the mind of the beast...
And ran up against a firm, steady wall of gray that came down from the outside. Stopping her descent, the wall wrapped around her to form a solid shield between her and the storm. The winds around her stilled, and Merai regained her balance.
With her footing thus assured, Merai projected the image again with all of her strength. Briefly, the gray barrier opened to admit the passage of the thought--
And in the blink of an eye, the whirlwind quieted and died, leaving the softly blowing breeze of a mind at peace.
The gray wall pulled up and away, and Merai followed it out of the buck's mind. Snapping back into her own body, Merai blinked to refocus her vision and saw the deer standing placidly before her. Leaning over the gate, the animal snuffled her outstretched hand in curiosity.
Merai giggled, just a little. She looked over at Raven, a sense of awe and wonder in her gaze and in her heart, and the Lightbringer nodded, a small smile on her face.
"Aye. This was your doing, Merai," she said, her blue eyes seeming to sparkle.
"But -- but I never could have done it without you, my Mistress," Merai said, her eyes lowering suddenly as she remembered her near-failure. "I wasn't strong enough. If you hadn't been there to help me, I would have been swept away."
"That is true," the other woman acknowledged. "You were not strong enough. But that is nothing to be ashamed of, Merai -- this was your first attempt, ever. In time, you will learn how to stand for yourself against the torrent of another creature's thoughts. Even just now, all I had to do was provide you with a safe place from which to act. Everything you see here--" she gestured at the passive stag "--was your own mind at work. You should be proud."
Merai smiled shyly and nodded, once. "So now what do we do?"
"Now we prepare the deer's body for the Mercy Offering," said Raven, reaching out to stroke the animal's fur. The deer didn't seem to mind the wolf-scents that clung to her body. "This is the day of Artela, when we honor the goddess of the wilderness. This ... magnificent hart ... must be properly ornamented. You can start by preparing the ceremonial wash we will use to bathe the animal."
The sun was low on the western horizon when Merai led the stag out of the Keep's outer gate and around the curtain wall, to the level ground north of the ridge where Metamor stood. The Lightbringer walked ahead of Merai and the deer, facing the wilderness to the north of the Keep. A crowd of perhaps two hundred had gathered on the ramparts and outside the walls to watch Artela's Mercy Offering take place. Two swallows whisked by overhead, oblivious to humans and gods and their religious ceremonies.
Merai flexed her hands around the reins of the jeweled harness and threw a sidelong glance at the deer, amazed at the beauty of the animal. Following the Lightbringer's careful guidance, Merai had helped to bathe the hart, apply the proper oils and ointments, and fit it with the ceremonial bridle, harness and saddle that adorned the beast for this ritual. Washed of all the dirt and grime of the forest, the buck was even more stunning than before.
The priestess stopped and turned to face the Keep, and Merai obediently came to a halt in front of her. She allowed a few dramatic seconds of silence before speaking.
"Nature's bounty brings us life," said the Lightbringer in a loud, clear voice. "Nature birthed us, nature sustains us, and into the cycle of nature we one day shall return. Therefore we honor the Bright Lady Artela, Queen of the Wilderness, with this glorious mount -- a beast captured in the Hunt, now returned to the Mistress of the Hunt as an act of mercy."
The wolf-woman stepped forward, and Merai handed her the reins of the beast. Raven brought the stag's face close to her own.
"As mercy has been granted to us -- the protection of this Keep and her people from the wild forces of nature -- so we now grant you mercy," said the wolf-woman. "Now return to the Mistress who gave you life."
Raven released the reins and touched the deer lightly on the rump. The animal took off at a run for the treeline. Once it was out of sight, the Lightbringer stretched her hands skyward, palms up, and said a benediction in the ceremonial Old Tongue.
The ceremony over, the people began to filter back inside. Eyeing the scattered clouds in the purplish-red sky above, Merai was thoughtful as she turned back toward the walls herself. As the priestess came alongside her, Merai gave the older woman a questioning gaze.
"How will the hart take off its riding gear?" she asked.
Raven hin'Elric smiled at her. "Oh, Artela will see to that," she assured her. "She will come to the deer tonight and return it to its natural, wild splendor. Next week, we shall go into the forest and retrieve the gear for next year's ceremony."
Merai stared at her. "Just like that?" she said, somewhat incredulously. "She appears in a flash of light and takes off the gear? I thought that the gods were spirit."
Raven smiled. "'Tis not quite as clear-cut as that," she replied. "The gods are beings of light and energy, as near as we have been able to discern. They are no more aetherial spirits than you or I, and they can and do take physical form quite often."
Merai felt her jaw drop. "But -- if the gods are not spirit, would that mean they--"
"Are not immortal?" her mistress completed the sentence. "Or can be killed? 'Tis a possibility -- though it would take more power than any mortal has ever amassed, even if it could be done. The gods are powerful and mysterious, and they have not revealed all their ways even to me." The wolf-woman's face was sober as she waved an instructive finger at her student. "But one thing you must learn, Merai -- and the one thing you must never tell a soul outside the Order -- is that whatever they are, the gods are not what they claim to be."
Merai blinked. This was too much, too fast. "So ... what are you saying, Mistress?" she asked, confusedly. "That the gods are not the guardians of this world, come to earth for the good of all mortals? That they did not establish the cycles and patterns of this world -- bring order out of chaos? Refine and arrange the Creator's work into all its present beauty? Do you mean that Artela is not truly the Queen of the Wilderness?"
The daughter of Elric nodded -- once, slowly.
"Then why all the words to the contrary in the ceremony?"
The priestess smiled. "My child, do you not remember the Story of the Beginnings, which I told you when you were small? That is the truth concerning the gods, as near as we can discern it -- not the fables and old wives' tales you were taught by your elders. The gods may be deceitful toward us, and limited in their power -- but their power is awesome, nonetheless. They may well be responsible for the very existence of magic in the world -- though that is far from certain," she admitted with a small frown. "If a fierce and powerful warrior comes through your door one day and claims he is a god, you may not believe a word he says -- but you do as he commands nonetheless, for fear of your life. The Order serves the gods and plays along in their game because they are too powerful to do otherwise -- and because the gifts they grant us in exchange for obedience are so abundant. They do not ask for our faith, as long as we do what we are told." She put a hand on Merai's shoulder, just briefly. "And it is important that you have no illusions about what you are doing."
Merai nodded silently. Then, after a moment--
"Mistress? How do you know the gods are not spirit? Light, energy, spirit -- how can you distinguish one from another?"
The Lightbringer frowned again. "Because, Merai ... I have encountered creatures of spirit before." The tone of her voice was dark, low -- perhaps reverent, perhaps fearful; it was hard to tell.
Merai gave her an inquisitive look.
"There are some things you are not yet ready to know, child."
Merai frowned but said nothing. A few moments later, when she felt the silencing airs of the Lightbringer's demeanor had dissipated, she summoned her courage and spoke again.
"Mistress ... there is one thing you have never told me about the gods, in all your stories. What happened to the Creator, and why has it gone silent? Who is the Creator?"
Raven smiled again. "That, Merai, is one of the great mysteries of existence. If the gods know, they refuse to tell me -- and I have asked them, many times." The priestess looked up at the sky with a thoughtful gaze. "The Supreme Creator remains hidden from us. We do not know why it has withdrawn from its creation, nor why it refuses to return at our invitation. Try as we might, we have been unable to coax it into revealing itself. But we will keep trying." She favored Merai with a sidelong glance. "Who knows? You might be the one who unwraps the mystery of the Creator. 'T'would be quite a legacy, would it not?"
Merai nodded again, her mind quietly reeling. Gods who really weren't, priests without faith, a mystery Creator, beings of spirit and beings of light -- it was all so overwhelming when she faced it at once.
*'Tis truly amazing,* she thought, *how little time it takes to turn one's entire world upside-down.*
June 10, 706.
Merai tugged once at the neck of her light gray robe, which the Lothanasa had given her as a sign of her new status as a Lightbringer initiate. It was really quite comfortable in most ways, and provided deep pockets with plenty of room for the tools of her trade -- but there was a small portion of seam-work near the back of her neck that scratched against her skin terribly. She would have to speak to her mother -- her new mother -- about correcting the problem; Merai was living in the temple chambers now, but she still returned home to visit almost every day, and Sandra would be happy to make her robe a little more wearable.
The sickbay was empty when she walked in, save for Daren, his (her) parents Leon and Caitlyn, and of course the Lightbringer.
"Daren is coming out of her coma," Raven told her as she approached. "She should be conscious in a few moments more. I assumed you would want to be here when she woke up."
"Aye, Mistress," Merai said, somewhat distractedly, nodding her head once. "Thank you, Mistress." Though she was trying mightily to be respectful to her teacher, Merai's vision continued to be drawn to the figure on the bed.
There was little left of the old Daren for her to recognize. His -- her, she reminded herself yet again -- her hair was still the fiery red it had always been, though longer than before. Some aspects of her face -- particularly the region around her eyes and the bridge of her nose -- were still fairly unchanged. The teenage girl in the sickbed looked like she could have been Daren's sister, but she was by no means a "female image" of Daren himself. Her skin, once so covered with freckles, now only had the barest smattering of them just under her eyes and over the bridge of her nose. Her body was slender, fairly athletic, and a bit smaller than Daren's male body had been. Pert breasts, slightly on the largish side for a fourteen-year old girl, and noticeably broader hips emphasized the totality of the changes wrought by the curse. Fortunately, the Keep's physicians had dressed Daren in a plain white robe that disguised the changes as much as possible -- it was their hope that this would help Daren adjust to the initial shock a bit more easily.
Merai took a seat by Daren's head, across from where Daren's mother was sitting. Leon hovered just behind his wife, looking somewhat uncomfortable but nonetheless resigned to make the best of the circumstances. They had all known that this might happen someday ... and if not this, then something else. The curse spared no one.
"Is there any danger that he -- she," Caitlyn amended herself, "will hurt her arms or legs when she wakes up? I fear she may panic when she discovers what has happened."
Raven shook her head gently. "We have been accelerating the healing of her broken bones in preparation for this moment. They will be a bit more fragile than usual, but she should be able to move about normally without trouble." Her lip twisted in a wry expression, but the humor did not reach her eyes. "Just make sure she does not throw herself down any steps."
"Or into any walls," Leon agreed soberly.
Just then, Merai caught a flicker of movement in Daren's eyelids.
"Daren?" Merai asked. "Daren, can you hear me?"
"We're here, Daren," said Caitlyn, as if afraid on some level that her daughter would be blind as well as disoriented.
"Merai?" Daren whispered, her throat dry. "Mum? Da?"
"Aye, Daren," confirmed Leon, his tail swishing uncertainly. "I'm here, too."
"Daren." The Lightbringer's voice was gentle, but clear. "The Keep's curse has come into effect on your body. You will feel sensations quite alien to you. Try to remain calm and give your mind a chance to reconcile with your new form."
Daren let out a long breath. "Aye, Lightbringer," she said, blinking her bright blue eyes a few times and sitting back a little in bed. "Uhn. You're right -- it does feel strange," she remarked, still sounding a little dazed. Her voice had warmed up to a low soprano. "Oh. By the stars, my voice even sounds odd."
"Here, honey, your throat is dry," Caitlyn said, handing her a cup of water from the bedside table. Daren took it and drank a long draught, coughing a little as she swallowed. "Thanks, <cough> Mum. Merai, what <cough> happened?"
"The change started to hit you while you were vanquishing that swordsman," Merai said, a small smile creeping onto her lips. Like Raven's smile a moment earlier, it did not reach her eyes. "It gave you a bout of dizziness that sent you off the wall."
"Merai saved your life, Daren," the priestess noted quietly. "She gave you a burst of healing energy that closed the worst of your wounds."
"Merai?" Daren asked, her voice carrying a touch of awe. "Merai, how did--"
"I'm learning about that," Merai cut him off with a smile. "Apparently, I was just so determined not to let you die that my mind took care of the problem itself."
"You always were stubborn," Daren said with a giggle.
No sooner had the sound escaped her mouth than Daren's eyes widened, the last remnants of fog being swept from her mind. Slowly looking down at her body, finding the robe disguised most of the details, Daren examined her hands with a worried expression. Abruptly she began a detailed search of her body with her hands -- running them along the arms, eliciting a gasp as she reached her breasts, and finally sliding them down into the cleft between her legs. After a few seconds of careful, then desperate probing, Daren suddenly collapsed back against the headboard, her mouth hanging soundlessly open.
" 'Tis gone, Da," she moaned, eyes wide in shock and rapidly filling with tears. " 'Tis gone! All gone!"
"It'll be all right, Daren," Merai said, trying to console her friend. "Really, 'tis going to be all right. Daren, listen to me. Listen to me!"
But Daren was not listening. She continued to shake her head, slowly, back and forth, tears running freely down her cheeks as gasping sobs escaped her throat. Raven put a hand on Merai's shoulder and pulled her gently back, away from the bed.
When they had reached the opposite corner of the room, the Lightbringer turned Merai to face her. "Now is not the time, Merai," she whispered, her expression gentle but firm. "There are stages to the Change: shock, denial, anger, fear, and acceptance. Not everyone goes through every stage, but they are the most common route. Daren needs time to work through her shock and denial before she will be able to listen to words of comfort. As it is, you risk saying something that may make her reaction worse."
Merai opened her mouth to say something, stopped, and nodded, reluctantly. "Aye, Mistress," she said.
The priestess smiled consolingly. "I know you care about Daren, Merai. That is a good thing. But right now, with the way she is reacting, it seems best if you stand back and wait."
Merai nodded, turning back to face the bed from a discreet distance. She stood there and watched, waiting, as her best friend wailed and moaned over the loss of what she had been.
Merai tried, very hard, not to picture herself in that position.
June 15, 706.
Merai sat alone in the quiet solitude of her private chamber, which had now been her home for more than two weeks. The sun had not yet risen above the Great Barrier Mountains, but the night creatures had returned to their roosts and lairs in anticipation of the long, hot day that was to come. The morning lark had not yet stirred from its perch, and the nightingale had returned to its place of rest. Merai found it the perfect time for her meditations.
She sat within circles that existed more truly in the mind than in the rings of candles on the floor, focusing her thoughts after the manner prescribed by the Lothanasa: Inward and downward ... sense the energy fields around you, the energy within yourself ... find the center and remain there. Close off all distractions. Quiet your thoughts, your cares, your concerns.
Merai sensed the changes in the energy flow around her as another being entered the room. Examine the pattern...
"Good morning, Mistress," Merai said softly, not moving from her cross-legged sitting position.
A pause. "Good morning, Merai," Raven answered, with what sounded like admiration in her voice. "Your senses are becoming nearly as attuned as the wolf's."
"It was nothing, Mistress," Merai responded automatically.
"Of course it was," the priestess returned, a bit sharply. "By Samekkh, it took me nearly a month to sense the energy around me as well as you do. Never reject praise that is well-deserved, Merai -- it is no less foolish than accepting acclaim you have not earned."
Merai lowered her head. "Aye, Mistress."
The Lightbringer sighed. "Do
you know what day this is, Merai?"
"Aye, Mistress," answered Merai, looking up at her teacher. "It is the first day of preparation for the Day of Dedication, when all members of the Lothanasi renew their vows -- and new initiates begin their ritual preparation to enter the Order. Our week of fasting begins today."
"Excellent. Then you have not eaten anything since midnight?"
"Very good. I will warn you, Merai, that this first day will be difficult for you -- the second, harder still." She smiled wryly. "On the third day it begins to get easier, as your stomach has no room left to shrink. I must remind you, however, to drink water whenever you can. We don't want our new initiate collapsing from dehydration."
"No, Mistress. I shall be careful."
"Just so," Raven agreed. "Now come, it is time for the dawn sacrifice. I wish to see you perform it on this day."
Merai rose from her posture of meditation, wobbling only slightly on the way up. "As you wish, Mistress," she said.
Stepping out into the main temple chamber, Merai was greeted by darkness. The only light was a hint of predawn illumination, slipping in through the tympan window at the back of the apse, framing the monolithic altar Merai now approached. Moving in near-total darkness, knowing each item's location from memory, she retrieved the incense, the candle, the ceremonial knife -- and the dove, sitting docilely in its communal cage with the others. Merai stroked the bird's head, consoling it quietly, as she took it and her materials to the altar.
Kneeling down before the altar table, Merai dipped her fingers into the incense jar, scooping out a small measure of the fragrant powder and letting it run off her hand into the bowl-like depression before her. She placed the candle in the center of the bowl, pressing it down into the small mound of incense. Then, taking the dove in her left hand and the blade in her right, she held both over the bowl, and paused.
Then, reciting from memory, Merai spoke out clearly in the words of the Old Tongue:
"Nemmë Lothanasi; maremmë i enessë ba'neva a únemmë pelda."
[[We are (ever) the Lightbringers; we abide (ever) in the midst of the darkness and are not (ever) overwhelmed.]]
"Nemmë Calimarimbë; caremmë mara i enessë rukia."
[[We are (ever) the Bright Ones; we (ever) create (order/goodness) in the midst of chaos.]]
"Nemmë Tirimbë Metammurava; á termarë rambarya síllo i Ambar-mettanna."
[[We are (ever) the Guardians of Metamor; may her walls (stand firm/endure) from now to the end of (time/the world).]]
Reaching into the mind of the dove, Merai spoke peace and bid the creature into deep, soundless sleep. Then...
One quick, deliberate movement of the knife, through the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord and carotids -- a swift death, over before the dove could regain consciousness. The blood spilled out into the bowl, covering the candle and mixing with the incense. Solemnly, Merai rested the still form of the bird alongside the depression, allowing the remaining blood to continue to fill the bowl. Lowering the knife on the opposite side of the altar, Merai raised her hands over the bowl, one palm facing either side of the candle.
"Serkë ... serken. Coí ... coíen. Er fira ilyenen nai nuva coirëa. Á quantuva sina osto-aina i lothanen."
[[Blood ... for blood. Life ... for life. One dies so that many may live. May this holy place be filled with the light.]]
As she spoke the final words of the ancient prayer, the space between Merai's hands filled with a soft, warm glow. Orange-yellow light bathed the young girl's face, slowly building in intensity. Then, abruptly, the candle sprang to life, ignited by the divine heat Merai had summoned. The wick flared briefly, and Merai dismissed the heat with a thought. The natural light of the blood-soaked candle grew as the unearthly light Merai had formed died away.
Merai lowered her head and closed her eyes for a moment, then rose and backed away nine short steps from the altar. She turned away from the altar and saw the Lightbringer standing behind her, hands clasped before her within the long white sleeves of her robe. The dimly flickering light of the candle revealed her expression of solemn approval.
"That was excellent, Merai," the priestess said quietly. "Never have I seen one perform the dawn ceremony so well their first time. I was particularly impressed with the way you quieted the dove. Artela will no doubt be pleased by such an act of mercy."
Merai bowed her head, hiding a small smile. She had been learning to communicate with the temple doves over the past week during her free time, and had quickly gained familiarity with the birds' emotions and thought patterns. "Thank you, Mistress. Having been inside the minds of such creatures, I felt it necessary to perform the act humanely."
"And you did well," said Raven. "I sensed not a thread of pain or suffering in the dove's mind. Come, let us light the lamps."
Merai fell into step beside the priestess, taking one of the small hand-lamps from its shelf in the storage room. Together, they lit the lamps from the ceremonial candle on the altar; then slowly, reverently, they moved from one wall-lamp to the next, carefully lighting each wick without spilling the oil or extinguishing the wick in the hand-lamp. In the space of two minutes, moving in silence and practiced piety, they had illuminated the entire chamber with a warm, diffuse light.
By the time they had finished, the spicy-sweet aroma of the incense was beginning to fill the temple, as the candle's heat reached the solution of blood and incense and sent its fragrance aloft. Extinguishing the hand-lamps and returning them to their proper resting place, Merai and the Lightbringer quietly moved into the apse behind the altar.
Looking out over the grounds of Metamor and the surrounding wilderness, Merai and the wolf-woman watched as the sun's first rays came up over the Great Barrier Range to the east. Radiant hues of purple, pink and orange danced across the sky, painting the snowcapped mountain peaks in the pastel tints of the newborn day.
"Isn't it beautiful, Lightbringer?" breathed Merai, awestruck. "Like a little piece of heaven, carried down by Yajiit herself."
"There are ... few things in this world to compare with a mountain sunrise," Raven agreed softly. "I used to stand here every morning after the dawn ceremony ... and just wait for the sun to come up. I still do, occasionally. And all these years later, I have only seen five things to compare with its splendor."
Merai threw her a sidelong glance. "Five things?"
Raven smiled slightly. "Akkala ... Velena ... Dvalin ... Samekkh ... and Yajiit. As I said," she added, nodding at Merai's gaping expression, "the gods often appear in physical form. Those five, I have seen personally -- face to face."
"What about the nymphs? And Artela?" asked Merai.
Raven nodded. "I have seen them, as well -- but they are goddesses of nature, Merai, and tend to take forms which are earthly in their beauty, not heavenly. Artela, for instance, appears as a beautiful, dusky-skinned woman in a hunter's garb. A mortal meeting her in the forest -- and not benefiting from our own gifts to perceive beyond sight -- would think her no more or less human than you or I."
There was a brief silence. "And the daedra?" Merai asked, her voice uncertain.
The priestess frowned. "The daedra are ... dark. Brooding. Seductive. One who is trained to perceive beyond sight, as we are, can feel their presence when they enter a room. To one without our perception, though, they can appear as virtually anything ... even a being of light." Raven gave her a serious look. "They are dangerous, Merai. Someday, inevitably, you will encounter one. If you remain here, at Metamor, you will certainly see at least one by the end of the Month of Mid-Autumn." She paused for a moment, allowing the Lightbringer name for October -- and its associated spiritual "holiday", the Daedra'kema -- to sink in. "Be always on your guard. Believe nothing, trust nothing, not even your own eyes, when a daedra is near. Negotiation with them is sometimes possible, but it is unspeakably dangerous. Never deal with them on their own terms. Otherwise, they will gradually eat away at all you hold dear -- and at the last, they will come for you." The older woman's eyes were grave and haunted. "It has happened more than once in the long history of our Order, and I do not care to see it happen again."
Merai nodded. "As you say, Mistress."
The Lightbringer put a hand on her shoulder and smiled in a comforting manner. "You should rest now, Merai," she said gently. "You have spent the last five hours in meditation. Sleep now, and rejoin me here at the hour of one to continue your lessons."
Merai nodded again, smiled, and returned to her chamber alongside the temple. She was quietly thoughtful as she extinguished her meditation candles, then removed her ceremonial robes and hung them in her wardrobe. Turning to her bed, she marveled at it once again -- a four-poster canopy bed, easily fit for a queen, and laden with soft white linens and a comforter and pillows stuffed with the finest goose down. It was worlds beyond anything she would have hoped for as a Lightbringer's humble assistant.
But then ... she wasn't just a lowly assistant anymore, was she?
After all, Merai -- Merai hin'Dana, the simple peasant girl! -- had just performed the dawn sacrifice of the Lothanasi. It was their most sacred daily ritual, and the Lothanasa had entrusted it to Merai. The High Priestess herself had said repeatedly that she had never seen someone of Merai's inherent talent -- Merai found it terribly difficult to believe, and a little frightening to consider, but the Lightbringer had said it. And one thing everyone knew was that Lightbringers never spoke falsehood.
Merai climbed into the bed, wrapping herself in the delicate, soothing embrace of the linens. Somehow, the Lightbringer had seen something in Merai that she herself had missed -- and now, with the things she had learned to do in only a few short weeks under Raven hin'Elric's tutelage, Merai was beginning to believe it, too. Maybe she really could be a Lightbringer.
The one thing she'd always dreamed of. The one hope she'd always thought could never come true.
And now the realization of her dream was as close as the thirteenth of September.
After praying one last, heartfelt prayer to Kyia, Merai drifted quickly into slumber, dreaming of beings of light.
June 22, 706.
"... Lothanas Lucien looked up at the great and terrible creature, and spoke unto it saying, 'Who art thou? And wherefore art thou imprisoned so in the depths of the earth?' The great and terrible creature looked down at Lucien, and said unto him, 'I am Nathales, one of the nine siblings of the gods and the daedra, we who were called titans. Our power was great upon the earth, and none could stand against us, until the day our lesser brothers and sisters defeated us by treachery and imprisoned us, as I am now imprisoned..."
"Merai?" a familiar voice drifted down from above her.
The girl looked up from the aged manuscript she had been quietly reading from. "Down here, Mistress."
Raven hin'Elric descended the staircase at the far side of the room with a knowing smile. "I see you have busied yourself with the Lightbringer Archives."
Merai grinned. "Aye, Mistress. The scope of our library is ... incredible." She cast an expansive hand gesture around the enormous, vaulted room, located just below the temple chambers and accessed by a spiral staircase from one of the temple's narrow corridors. Shelves of books towered two stories high on all sides of the warm, gas-lit chamber, while standing bookcases, racks of scrolls and tables for study were arranged in the open space along the room's long axis.
And that was just the first floor of the archives. The lesser-used documents in the collection occupied dusty chambers for ten levels below them, farther down into the recesses of the Keep than any other region still in use. Spiral staircases connected the halls of the mammoth archive to one another, enabling the Lightbringers to travel quickly among their vast pool of knowledge without backtracking repeatedly through the rest of the Keep. Few Keepers outside the Lothanasi knew just how far down the Archives stretched, what lay beneath them, or even just where in the Keep they were located. The outer walls of the Archives were shielded by potent magical wards -- placed there, according to the Lightbringers' records, by Kyia herself. The only way to enter the Lightbringers' collection of arcane knowledge was to get past the Lothanasa -- and virtually no one in Metamor, no matter how curious, considered that an acceptable risk.
Merai had been extended access to the first floor of the Archives as part of her education and training to be a Lightbringer. To say she had been overwhelmed would be an understatement of grave proportions; for here she found the annals of the Lightbringers stretching back to -800 CR, when the Order was founded by the man known only as Lucien. Besides the historical tales, here were legends of gods and daedra, kingdoms and empires, prophets and heroes -- stories so old that their origin was lost in the midst of time; here were vast bestiaries, meticulous records of every creature -- mundane or miraculous -- that the Lightbringers had encountered through history; here were catalogues of herbs and potions, spells and ceremonies, artifacts and ritual blessings, and so much more that Merai could read for the rest of her life and never see it all. Despite the mischief she frequently engaged in with Daren, Merai was quiet by nature -- she often spent long hours in the Keep library, hunting for hidden treasures of lore -- and this sudden access to the Archives was nothing less than a dream come true.
"Aye," Raven said, casting a thoughtful glance around the chamber. "Aye, it is quite remarkable, is it not? The greatest repository of wisdom in all the Midlands, and possibly the richest archives in the entire Lightbringer Order. The manuscripts here date back to the time of Valaria Lightbringer, Lucien's great-granddaughter -- closer to the time of Lucien himself than any other archive in the Order." The wolf-woman smiled. "They were entrusted to us because Metamor is the most secure fortress in the world, and Kyia's wards over these chambers are the most potent known -- even the mages of the Sulieman Empire could not penetrate them."
The priestess fell silent for some moments, as she drew nearer to the table where Merai sat. Clasping her hands before her, she averted her eyes and bit her lower lip in thought.
Merai frowned. "What troubles you, Mistress?"
Raven hin'Elric took a quiet breath. "Daren's mother, Caitlyn, has requested ... that I send you to speak with her daughter."
The initiate studied her mistress's face. "And you think this unwise, Lothanasa?"
The Lightbringer lowered her head a fraction. "No -- no, she is right, it is necessary." She turned to look at Merai, sadness in her eyes. "But I suspect it will be quite painful for both of you."
Now it was Merai's turn to bite her lip. "Is she not well?"
"In body, yes. In mind..." She shook her head. "You had best see that for yourself. I suggest that you go now."
It was the permission she had been both anticipating and dreading since the moment Daren awoke. Merai rose from her seat quickly -- too quickly, as she tipped backwards on the chair instead of sliding it away from the table, as had been her intent. She gripped the edge of the table just in time to avoid falling, as the chair tipped over behind her with a wooden thunk.
Raven smiled, a little twist in the corner of her lip. "Moderation in everything, Merai," she chided her gently. "'Those who run fast will surely stumble.'"
"As you say, Mistress," Merai said, righting the chair and heading quickly for the staircase. "I shall see you again shortly."
"I fear that will not be possible," Raven said. Merai looked back at her, and the priestess nodded. "It is the Day of Dedication, and there are certain things I must do in my own chambers to prepare. I will be sequestered until dawn -- even the acolytes will spend the night elsewhere. You are released until the hour of nine tomorrow morn."
Merai bit her lip again, then nodded. "As you say, Mistress," she said. "Tomorrow morn." Without another look back, she turned and ran up the stairs.
The house of Leon hin'Gallad and his family was built in a manner quite similar to that of Merai's family. Unlike Merai's house, however, it had a separate bedroom for Daren -- and was decidedly lacking in any secret peepholes. Caitlyn met Merai at the door with a smile that seemed to settle halfway between sad and apologetic, and wordlessly ushered her inside.
Inside, the house was laid out with the two bedrooms opening to a common living space, to which was appended a kitchen much like that in Merai's home. The teenage-bodied woman opened her mouth, as if to say something, then gestured helplessly at the door to Daren's room. Merai nodded her understanding and clasped the door handle. She hesitated for several seconds before actually opening it.
The first thing Merai noticed inside the room was what was not inside it. The walls of Daren's room had always been covered with swords, knives, bows, even a pole-arm -- the family's weapons, inherited from a long and distinguished line of warriors. Only Leon's favorite sword was not kept there -- he placed it beside his bed each night, in case he had need of it. All of these weapons had been taken down and removed from the room; even Daren's shortsword was nowhere to be seen.
In the center of the room, sitting on the floor with her knees pulled close to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs, was the girl Merai had met some twelve days before. Her long red hair was matted and stringy, her face and hands tinged with dirt and sweat. She was still wearing the plain white robe she had been dressed in at the sickbay, though it now seemed ragged and dirty. There was a noticeable tinge of body-scent in the air, along with other scents from the chamber pot in the far corner. A basin of water sat untouched in the other corner, alongside a bar of soap, a towel, and one of Missus Pascal's famous lab-grown sponges.
The room's window had been shut and barred. Thick tapestries were hung on the walls to act as padding. The only light within came from a single, lonely candle that sat before the girl, where she stared at it in silence.
As Merai stepped inside, Caitlyn shut the door from without. The girl did not look up or acknowledge her presence.
After a moment, Merai spoke. "Your mother asked me to come speak with you." She swallowed. "Methinks I can see why."
Merai walked quietly over to the candle and sat down in front of it, perpendicular to the girl. The redhead did not move a muscle.
Merai regarded her thoughtfully. "You've not been kind to yourself, Daren," she said. "Methinks you haven't eaten much, to judge from your complexion, and 'tis clear you have not bathed -- nor even taken off that robe."
"'Tis not my body," the girl muttered. "What care I what happens to it?"
"It is your body, Daren," Merai answered gently. "This is what you are, now. We knew that something like this would happen one day. Why not at least clean yourself up and see the beauty of this form for what it is? You may find 'tis not so bad."
"Do you not understand?!" Daren shouted suddenly, rolling towards Merai onto her hands and knees. "I do not want to see! I do not want to know! And I do not want to be beautiful!" She spat the word like venom.
Seizing a handful of Merai's robe, she pulled her childhood friend towards her angrily. "This is your fault!" she screamed, tears rolling freely down her face. "I would have died -- gone to Hell, to rest in Nocturna's endless night -- but you pulled me back! You forced me into this thrice-damned changing body! You made me this way!" She punctuated each statement with a painful jerk on Merai's robe. "Now they won't even leave me an escape! Damn you, Merai, why did you do it?! Damn you! Damn you!" She pounded weakly on Merai's arm with bitter fists, at last breaking down into sobs and collapsing into the other girl's lap.
Merai put her arms around Daren and held the other girl close, gently caressing the back of her head amidst her paroxysms of rage and sadness. The tears rolled down Merai's own face as she tried to comfort Daren, as her mother had comforted her as a child.
"I am sorry, Daren," she whispered. "I did not know ... could not know..." She swallowed back a sob. "I was just so afraid to lose you..."
There could be no more words for a very long time. The two girls cried together, the one comforting the other, until at last even the tears ran dry and they fell into a long, deep silence.
The candle had burned low in its holder before Merai rose to her feet, reached down for Daren's hand, and helped her up as well. The redheaded girl stood limply before her. Merai guided her over to the corner of the room that held the wash-basin.
Daren looked down once at the bowl of water but said nothing. Merai stood before her, giving her a comforting look. Slowly, deliberately, she reached out and untied the sash of Daren's robe. The redhead's lip trembled, and she shook her head a little.
"Shh," Merai said soothingly, brushing a hand along Daren's cheek. " 'Tis all right." Daren lowered her eyes, but did not protest further.
Clasping the edges of the robe just below the girl's neck, Merai gently spread the garment back and over Daren's shoulders. When Daren caught it at the waist, Merai guided it down the rest of the way by hand, quietly pulling it out of the redhead's half-hearted grasp and letting it fall to the ground.
Merai kept her facial expression soft but neutral as she stood and briefly examined her friend's unclothed form in the tenuous light of the candle. Then, taking the sponge and applying water and soap, she reached out and touched it to Daren's right shoulder.
Moving the sponge in slow, careful, circular motions, Merai applied the lather to the other girl's shoulder. When she did not protest, Merai moved around to the back, the other shoulder, and the back of the neck. Soundlessly, ever so gently, Merai applied the cleansing lather to Daren's arms, her hands, her stomach. She hesitated for a moment, then applied the sponge to Daren's breasts. The girl let out a little gasp at first, but then fell silent and allowed Merai to continue her work.
Merai washed Daren's entire body in this way, from face to toes, then wrung the soap from the sponge and began to rinse in the same fashion. This time, Daren put a hand on Merai's as she neared her breasts, wordlessly took the sponge, and finished the task herself. With Merai's aid, she then washed her long red hair in the water that was left in the basin. Taking the towel Merai offered her, she used it to dry herself off. Merai then helped her to wrap her wet hair in the towel, forming a kind of makeshift turban.
Spotting a pile of clothes Caitlyn had left on Daren's bed for her, Merai guided her friend over to the bedside. Daren looked on the women's clothing with a lost expression, so the brown-haired girl began dressing her in them. Caitlyn had chosen the garments well -- they were attractive, but simple and not overly feminine -- and after the first few articles of clothing Daren rapidly got the idea and began helping Merai to dress her.
Finally, Merai unwound the towel from Daren's head and, having found a brush, began using it on the girl's long hair. Daren stood passively by and let her work, until at last Merai stood before her, judged for a moment, then nodded and smiled.
Leading Daren over to the far wall, Merai reached up and removed a tapestry from where Daren's looking glass had been. It was still there, looking none the worse for its isolation, and Merai stood her friend in front of it. Taking the candle from the floor, Merai carried it closer to the mirror, letting its light bathe Daren's newly cleansed form.
Daren turned her head away from the mirror, lowering her eyes. "Merai, I..."
"Shh," Merai said again, just as gently, taking her friend's chin in her hand and guiding it back towards the looking glass. "'Tis all right. Just look."
Nervously, Daren raised her eyes to the looking glass -- and looked. She looked at the soft, red hair falling down around her shoulders ... the sand-colored tunic with its dark brown sash and the two alien bulges in front ... the short brown pants that cut off a few inches above her knees ... the women's leather sandals. Most of all, she looked at the face staring back at her from behind the mirror. She raised a hand to her cheek, watching as the reflection copied her movements.
Daren had never been a particularly handsome boy by most folk's standards -- his features mottled by too many freckles, his nose a bit too pug-like, his face a bit too round. One of those Midland traders who had nearly killed him had gone so far as to say his mother must have beaten him with an Ugly Stick. Daren had always tried not to let it bother him overmuch, focusing instead on the things he could improve: his training, his athletic build, even (at his mother's insistence) his etiquette. But he never forgot that he was, at best, of decidedly mediocre appearance.
The face Daren now saw in the looking glass was not mediocre. It was not even average. While Daren was still a year or two away from truly caring about such things, he had been a capable judge of whether or not a girl was pretty. The girl Daren now saw looking back at her through the mirror was not yet mature by any means, and had some years to go before reaching her adult appearance -- but her looks, considering her youth, were really quite ... nice, actually.
And Daren had never known what it was like to look ... nice.
She had said, before, that she didn't want to see herself -- didn't want to be beautiful.
It was, she now reflected, decidedly better than being ugly. Even if it was strange to see in the mirror.
"You see?" Merai said softly. "It's not so bad, is it?"
Daren lowered her eyes, showed a melancholy little smile, and shook her head just a little.
Merai smiled broadly. "Will you come out with me now?" she asked gently.
Daren looked up at her friend, blue eyes catching the flame of the candle.
Merai ate supper with Daren's family that night, since her own parents did not know she had been locked out of the temple and, besides, she suspected that Daren would take solace in her company. Discussion around the dinner table was carefully light and deliberately free of any mention of either Daren's condition or her status as a potential knight of Metamor. She had lost a lot of body mass in the change, and a good measure of her muscle tone had dissipated during her self-imposed confinement. It would be, Merai suspected, a long and difficult climb back to the level of physical training he'd once held, and whether she could even reach that level again in this new form was still an open question. Not every TG had the makings of an Amazon...
"Will you be all right, Daren?" Merai asked quietly, when she prepared to take her leave of them.
"... Methinks, aye," the redhead replied at last. "Though I believe I shall need you now more than I have ever needed you before. This change is strange and frightening still, though I fear it less than before. You will come and visit when the Lightbringer permits?"
"I shall," she nodded, smiling. "And if necessary, I shall find a way to sneak myself out, or you in."
Daren grinned. "You always were a troublemaker."
"And you're one to speak of it!" Merai laughed, embracing her friend. "Good night, Daren. I must be off."
"Good night indeed, Merai. Methinks you will be more a sister to me now, and not merely a friend, eh?"
"Perhaps." Merai smiled again. "If that is so, then I shall see you again soon ... my sister." She put her hand to Daren's shoulder. "Walk the Dreamlands in peace this night."
"And you, as well," Daren said, copying the gesture. Then Merai turned and disappeared into the shadow of night.
A lone girl sat on the ramparts of the Metamor curtain wall, as the deep blue sky above her exploded into a brilliant display of purples and reds, oranges and golds. Her knees pulled close to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs, she contemplated the glistening light that rose over the mountains before her.
With her newly attuned aura perception, she recognized the person approaching even before she heard the footsteps echo off the stone battlements.
"I thought I might find you here."
"Good morning, Da," Merai said, her eyes still on the horizon.
"Leon told me the Lightbringer released you last night. You didn't come home."
"I couldn't sleep."
Dana sat down beside his daughter. "Thinking of Daren?"
"How is she?"
Merai considered. "Better, I think," she said. "Certainly, that she has ended her sequestration and is willing to look on herself again is a good sign. But I fear what may become of her as she adjusts to her new form. Daren so wanted to be a knight."
"She may be so yet," Dana replied. "Metamor has three women knights. 'Tis not impossible."
"Not in Metamor, no," Merai conceded. "But Daren wanted to be a knight-errant -- to wander the land, righting wrongs and correcting injustices. Which of all the other kingdoms of the world would accept a woman as a cavalier?"
"Which would accept a lion?" he countered. "Or a child? Methinks Daren never thought this through to begin with -- he would have faced challenges and persecution in any of the forms the Keep might grant him. At least as a woman he need not fear charges of devilry, or truancy."
Merai smiled a little but said nothing.
" 'Tis the curse, isn't it?" Dana inquired gently, after a moment. "That's what is really on your mind."
The girl lowered her head a little, pulling her legs closer to her body. "What is it like, Da?" she asked. "What's changed, from when you were a woman?"
The bronze-skinned scout smiled wryly. "What hasn't?" he answered rhetorically. "The male body has ... drives, I suppose ... that are so much stronger than what you might expect. It has a natural bent toward aggression, to an extent that it sometimes blocks reason. All the physical hungers are greater, but sensations are more ... consolidated, I suppose. More local to one part of the body or another. On the other hand, I find that this body is much more easily focused than my old form. It is much easier to close off distractions and concentrate on a goal, a useful skill for a soldier. There are trades-off, naturally, but it is more a different experience than an unpleasant one -- though it does take some time to become accustomed to."
Merai frowned. "Perhaps. Still, methinks I would not like it." She turned to look at her father. "Both you and Mum have been changed by the first spell. What does that mean for me? I ... I do not want to be a man," she admitted. "I do not think I would like what I would become."
"There is nothing that says you will become a man," Dana reminded her. "The change of the parents need not determine the change of the child -- especially since both your mother and I were changed in the battle, rather than by the random transformation of the curse. There is only a chance of one in three that you will become a man. But do you think that it will be any easier for you with one of the other forms?"
Merai smiled. "The third spell would probably be the easiest, as I would stay as I am now," she said. "But I am not sure I like the idea of growing old while yet a child. Somehow the image is disturbing."
"So you wish to take on an animal form, then?"
The girl sighed, brushing a lock of brown hair out of her eyes. "I know not what I want," she confessed. "My Mistress has been given a comely form, or so it seems to me -- but what if I were to become something ghastly? And what of the new changes to the mind that come with the new body? Even you have changed, Da, and you remain human; what then might I expect from an animal's drives and urges?" She looked back out at the sky and sighed again. "I do not know if any of the changes would please me."
Dana nodded. "There is another option, of course."
"I know. But to leave the Keep? Nowhere on earth is man as blessed as here in wealth and happiness, knowledge and liberty. Where else on earth may a woman become the Lightbringer?"
Her father frowned. "There are
not priestesses outside of Metamor?"
"'Priestesses,' aye," she said, turning back to face him. This was something she'd only learned herself a short time ago, speaking to the Lothanasa over supper. "But the Lightbringers of the other kingdoms promote the male priests over the women, and so a woman only becomes Lothanasa when she is the only one fit to lead -- and that happens rarely. Mistress hin'Elric is the only Lothanasa on the High Council at this time. If I were to transfer to another branch of the Order, I would never be allowed to develop my skills -- if I was accepted at all."
There was silence for a few short moments. A single cloud briefly passed over the rising sun before continuing on its journey to the southeast.
"So what do you plan to do, Merai?"
Merai rolled over to sit on her heels, facing her father. She clasped her hands before her, as if unsure what to do with them. "I do not know. I am afraid no matter what I do. Remain a priestess at the Keep and be changed, or escape to the south and live in exile -- which is the greater curse? How will I live when I am something I was not created to be?"
Dana took his daughter's hands in his own. "The same way all of us do, Merai," he said gently. "By learning. By living one day at a time. We face our fears, and in so doing we move beyond them. We need not ask, 'How will I live?' -- we need simply to live. And as the gods are merciful, they help us to carry on."
The scout got to his feet and helped Merai to do likewise. "I cannot tell you what the right decision is for you to make," he said. "You must follow the calling of your heart. But whatever choice you make, you should make quickly. The time of your own changing is close at hand."
With that, they said their good-byes and went their separate ways -- Merai to the temple, her father to the barracks. Pausing at the top of the staircase that led down from the ramparts, Merai took one final look at the sunrise and whispered a prayer to Kyia.
She did not see the eyes that smiled on her, as she descended the stairs and walked toward the Inner Keep and the temple of the Lothanasi.
July 20, 706: Yajii'kema.
Merai cast a curious glance around as she entered the sparring room of the Metamor barracks. Master DeMule, the castellan, was training his young pupils in the art of swordplay; almost a daily routine for the youths of Metamor Keep. All Keepers were required to contribute to the defense of the land, though Merai herself was largely exempt because of the strenuous demands placed on her as a Lothanasi initiate. She was temporarily released from her duties because the preparations for the noon sacrifice had already been made, and Raven herself would be conducting the ceremony. Only the Lothanasa was permitted to perform the Sacrifice of Yajiit, though all members of the Order were required to be present for it, so Merai was left with a little time to go see how Daren was getting on. She wanted to invite her to the sacrifice, anyway, as it was likely to be an exciting display.
As it happened, Daren was in the dueling ring at the moment Merai stepped through the door. The redheaded girl was facing off against a tall, lanky boy of about her own age. Both were dressed in protective chain mail and light helms that covered the entire face, and each carried a blunted foil and a buckler. Daren's hair was drawn back in a ponytail that stuck out the back of the helm; still, it was her friend's familiar aura that first told Merai that it was Daren in the ring.
It was difficult to tell how long the two youths had been fighting, but Daren was attacking vigorously as Merai squeezed her way through the crowd to the edge of the ring. The redhead swung her foil in two quick upward slashes, both blocked, then parried a series of the boy's blows in turn. Three downward slashes, a parry, two more, another parry, and a thrust, which the boy easily dodged. The harsh, high-pitched clang of the foils against each other rung in the rafters of the training hall and echoed harshly in Merai's ears.
The boy followed up with a counterattack of several hard downward swings, driving Daren toward the edge of the ring. Merai knew from Daren's previous stories that if either combatant fell out of the ring the match was over. Finally turning aside one of the boy's strikes with a grunt of exertion, Daren virtually threw herself at her opponent, putting every ounce of strength into her blows. Backing up a few steps, the boy parried the swings and finally locked swords with Daren. Then, with a grin that only Merai could feel, he pushed the redhead roughly to the mat with a kick in the solar plexus.
Daren let out a sound of pain and astonishment as she fell backwards, her sword falling to the mat. She scrambled to get up and reclaim it, but the boy seized the moment and pounced on her. Pulling her arms behind her back, he wrestled her to the mat; the sword went up against her throat, and the match was over.
"Hold," commanded Master DeMule in his deep, gruff voice. The burly man stepped into the ring and faced his students, turning as he spoke so that he could meet each one's eyes in turn.
"Look at this, all of you, and look well," he said, gesturing to the pair of youths still entangled on the mat. "Let this be a lesson to all of you: a lesson of how to fight ... and how not to fight."
The castellan began to gesture as he spoke, entering the mannerisms of an artisan instructing his apprentices. "The first lesson of combat is a simple one: Attack your opponent's weaknesses and avoid his strengths. Never confront an opponent strength-for-strength unless no other measure remains to you -- go for the weak spot in his defense. To do that, you must study your enemies and learn to see those weaknesses, and how to use them to your advantage. We will teach you what we can in this, but a quick mind is your greatest weapon on the battlefield. It will be a far better aid to you than any lesson we can teach.
"The second lesson is much like the first: know your own limitations." He crossed his arms and paused, apparently intending to impart a lesson that would not be well-received but which he believed beyond a shadow of doubt.
"A woman in peak fighting condition will never be as strong as a man in peak condition," he said firmly, then added with a smile, "unless the woman is a dragon, or has some other advantage that counters the normal differences in design." He raised a finger. "But -- that does not mean that the woman must needs be less capable than the man. It simply means that a woman must use the advantages she has been given.
"A man-soldier is strong, but often slow," Master DeMule explained, returning to his habit of gesturing. "The heavy armor which his strength lets him bear also weighs him down. On the other hand, an 'amazon' -- as some call them -- is quick and agile. She knows how to use her opponents' strength and size against them. She is trained in the arts of ambush and concealment, and can strike quickly from the shadows ... only to melt back into them without a trace." He looked at a number of the female recruits in his audience. "We will teach you to do these things, in addition to instructing you in swordplay and archery," he said. "Battle is more dangerous for a woman, make no mistake -- but we will give you every advantage we can. And when you leave this barracks for your first mission, you will be as skilled and as deadly as ten man-soldiers from any lesser land. But for now, take this as an important lesson: a man must fight like a man -- and a woman must fight like a woman. Remember that, put it into practice, and you'll probably live to see your silvered years. Dismissed."
As the crowd dispersed, Merai climbed into the ring, where Daren was lying on the mat and rubbing her stomach.
"That was a harsh blow, wasn't it?" Merai commented.
Daren flipped up her face guard and winced. Her face was red, partly from exertion and partly from embarrassment. "Aye," she grunted. "Garulf fights like a wild beast. I hope the curse leaves him a woman, or better yet a child."
" 'Twould be a terrible waste of a skilled fighter, methinks," said Merai as she helped her friend to her feet. "Anyone who can best you at the blade must be of some use to the realm."
"Nay, Master DeMule is right," Daren replied with a disgusted tone as she stepped out of the ring and began to remove her mail. "I was trying to use this body like my former one. Damn the inconvenience of these scrawny limbs," she muttered.
Merai raised a questioning eyebrow. "I thought you were becoming more accustomed to your new form."
"Oh, I am. 'Tis completely livable, just as you said. But now I shall need to change everything I have learned about combat if I am to survive training, much less the field of battle."
"Not everything," Merai mused. "A woman can still swing a sword and ride a horse."
"Aye, but the sword must be a saber or rapier, and the horse a light scout's mount," countered Daren, "rather than a claymore and a Percheron stallion. A woman has not the strength for such stout weapons."
"Perhaps not. But there is much you can do in the Duke's service besides being a cavalier," Merai pointed out. "Knighthood is more than great swords and horses."
"I know," Daren sighed, mopping her brow with a towel. "Master DeMule says that, with training, I could serve as a field officer." She grinned wryly. "It seems he thinks me just mad enough to show flashes of tactical brilliance. But it shall be a hard road."
"Anything worthwhile would be so. But come," she added, smiling, "I am here to lighten your heart, not weigh it down. At noon today is the Sacrifice of Yajiit, and I should like you to be there with me." Her grin broadened. "Who knows? Maybe the goddess will look on us with favor and send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice."
Daren frowned. "I thought that Her Radiance always consumed the sacrifice."
"She does. But most years she sends only a rush of heat that ignites the sacrifice. In more favorable times, she sends a great ball of fire from out of the skies. I am told 'tis quite an amazing sight."
Neither Merai nor Daren had ever actually seen the Sacrifice of Yajiit, of course: children were forbidden to attend the ceremony because of the danger involved. But Merai was now a temple initiate and Daren had reached the age of accountability, so they were now free to attend the sacrifice for the first time.
Daren rose to her feet, stretching her arms over her head. "Then I shall go with you and be amazed," she smiled. "With you in the service of the Lightbringers, methinks it must be a year of favor." She glanced up at the clock on the wall, then nodded. "Let's go, 'sister': 'tis nearly noon, and we must still walk through town to reach the altars."
As they walked through the streets toward the south end of town, Merai considered her friend with a sidelong glance. In the weeks since her transformation she had grown more confident -- Merai could tell, because she again walked with her head held high -- but there was an undercurrent of weariness, and vague concern, shown by her rounded shoulders and the look in her eyes.
"Has the bleeding stopped yet?" Merai asked, carefully.
"... Aye," Daren replied, after a moment. Her face showed the hints of a frown. "Aye, methinks it is over with, for the time being. How do women stand this every month?"
"You'll become accustomed to it," Merai assured her. "You might speak with my mother sometime if you have questions."
"I have. You've been locked away in that temple at all hours, and were not there when I approached her."
Something in Daren's voice caught Merai's attention. She studied her friend's crystal-blue eyes closely, reading the flickers and whispers of her aura that echoed within them. The eyes, it was said, were the window of the soul...
"I am sorry I have been absent from you, Daren," she said. "A great gift has been entrusted to me, and with it comes great responsibility. What it all means, I know not; but I have not the time for fun we once enjoyed..." She looked away, casting her eyes downward. "Nor, I fear, have I been given the time with you that you need at this stage. I wish there were more that I could do."
Daren closed her eyes and nodded, but said nothing.
The crowd had already gathered around the altars by the time that Merai and Daren arrived. The Sacrifice of Yajiit was something of an annual festival for the Lightbringer faith, and Metamor was the only place north of Elvquelin and west of Salinon where the ceremony was performed. Hardy souls who were unafraid of the Keep's curse made pilgrimages from towns as much as three week's ride away to see the sacrifice, their caravans congesting the town for days and bringing a considerable boost in the innkeepers' revenues. Some were devotees of Yajiit; some were Lothanasi from towns in the Midlands; and some were merely curious, hoping to see fire from heaven consume the sacrifices in one brilliant, terrifying inferno. It was considered a sign of a good harvest and a mild winter ... and a spectacular show, besides.
As it turned out, they were not disappointed.
The temple acolytes had slaughtered the cattle and placed the sacrifices on the massive stone altars, which were constructed in a precise ring to the east of town. Because of the obvious threat of fire -- and the less obvious one of intruders hiding behind the stones during an approach on the Keep -- the altars were well removed from trees, buildings and fields, and stood alone amidst the naked terrain that sloped down from the Keep at the base of the ridge.
The altars themselves had been constructed centuries ago, and over the years had been occasionally repaired by the Lothanasi. The rocks were charred and blackened by years of repeated exposure to Yajiit's manifest presence, but they remained solid and stable. Not even Yajiit could set fire to bare rock; or at least, no one had ever seen her do so, and lived to tell about it.
The Lothanasa stood in the center of the ring, waiting to recite the prayer of offering. The crowd stood back at a discreet distance on all sides. Merai led Daren to the front, the crowd parting before her when they noticed the grey robe that marked her as a Lightbringer initiate.
Raven hin'Elric saw Merai as soon as she reached the front of the crowd, and her eyes seemed to glitter in acknowledgement. Now that her pupil was here, she raised her hands in a gesture for silence. The people fell mute almost immediately.
"The Sun is the focus of all that exists in our world," she said in a loud, strong voice. "It brings light and warmth to us, drives back the darkness, gives life to our crops -- and thus gives life to us, as well. The Sun binds the planets to their spheres and holds the elements of the world in order. If Nature is our mother, then the Sun is our grandmother, and it is from her womb that all we know was given birth.
"We have come today to honor She who governs the Sun in all Her glory and wisdom -- Her Radiance, Mistress Yajiit. The Queen of the Sun holds the awful and destructive forces of the cosmos in Her hands ... and it is Her blessing, Her mercy, and Her benevolence to which we entrust ourselves this day."
Once more the Lightbringer raised her hands, but now she spoke the Blessing Prayer in the Old Tongue.
"Aiya, Anarbareth, Nariel! Anta`mmelya` si anna sina laitaleo. A tulamme si, a nai nuvan laitalilya oiale. Aman nai na i esse Yajiito."
[Hail, Sun-Queen, Fire-Maiden! We give you now this offering of worship. Come to us now, and may your blessings be ever with us. Blessed be the name of Yajiit.]
Raven lowered her arms and stepped out of the ring, withdrawing until she stood just before the first row of onlookers. Then, with the anxious silence of subjects awaiting the words of their king, the people stood and watched as the shadows slowly crawled toward the precise moment of high noon.
After a minute or two, Raven hin'Elric threw a glance at the mechanical timepiece the Metamor artisans had painstakingly crafted for her. It was already high noon. If the goddess did not answer her call...
"Look!" a woman in the crowd shouted, pointing up at the sky. "What is that?"
Merai followed the woman's gesture, along with everyone else. High in the deep blue sky, above the mountains to the east, a new star -- or what seemed a new star -- had appeared in the heavens. It was glowing brightly and growing in intensity. It seemed to be coming toward them.
The people fell silent once again, unsure of what this strange new sign could mean. Merai looked to the Lothanasa, but Raven hin'Elric was attentively watching the light in the sky. Her face gave no hint of emotion, but beneath the surface Merai could sense a churning confusion, shock and joy and dread and hope all swirled together and fighting to rise above one another.
The light continued approaching until it was directly above them, at which point it came to a stop and hovered -- high, high in the sky. Then, slowly, the light began to grow again. Whatever it was, it was beginning to descend.
Merai looked again at the wolfen priestess. Raven hin'Elric, eyes still fixed on the light in the sky, slowly dropped to her knees. The crowd, seeing the Lothanasa on her knees for what was probably the first time, quickly followed suit.
Merai looked up, squinting, trying to shield her eyes against the sun, straining to see this strange new light that approached them. For what seemed an eternity, there was nothing.
...a soft rustle began to come from the faraway trees...
...the wind began to stir...
...a dull rumbling mixed with the wind, growing, echoing, becoming a roar...
There was a sudden flash of light, the crowd gasped, and it seemed that Merai could see a figure amidst the growing, churning ball of fire.
The form of a Woman.
She was a glory beyond description. Her skin shone like molten gold, but with a softness that was foreign to gold and very much like living flesh. Her eyes were human, but they burned like two piercing blue flames. Her hair was fire itself, brushed into long, flowing threads, red and orange and gold, that glowed from within like a hot coal.
And all around Her a fire burned, an aura of light and heat so pure, so perfect, so intense, that Merai felt it would surely burn her eyes from their sockets and leave them blind to any sight but Her glory.
But Merai did not turn away.
The goddess halted perhaps ten feet above the ground, hovering in the center of the circle. She looked to the Lightbringer and nodded; the priestess lowered her head in silent respect. Then She flew up to the altar nearest to the Lothanasa and touched Her radiant hand to the sacrifice upon it.
The meat, the wood, the kindling, even the bones of the slaughtered bulls -- all went up like a torch, and within seconds were burned to dust and ashes. The stones of the altar glowed red with the heat. The unmistakable odor of burned flesh wafted up from the sacrifice and over the crowd, filling Merai's nostrils with its scent.
And then the goddess flew to the next altar. Slowly, majestically, Her Radiance the Sun-Queen, the Mistress of Fire, consumed each of the offerings in turn, while her mortal supplicants looked on in fear and wonder.
At last She came back to where she had begun, floating before the Lightbringer. Raven, sensing some unspoken command, lifted her head. The woman and the Woman exchanged a long, silent look. Then, deliberately, the goddess turned her head.
And looked at Merai.
She didn't know what to do. This wasn't supposed to happen. She wasn't yet fully trained in the etiquette of divine contact. The laity were not meant to see such things as these. What if she said something, did something foolish...
And then the goddess stood before her, and all her doubts were burned away.
As Raven had done, Merai lowered her face before the goddess, but she felt a strange, internal summons to lift her eyes again. The shining blue eyes of the Woman, so human and yet so divine, looked on her in tenderness.
The goddess smiled, showing rows of glistening white teeth, and Merai's head swam, drunk with the power that washed over, around and through her. There was nothing else, nothing but light, nothing but glory, nothing but awful and mind-burning splendor. Nothing but her and the goddess.
Unthinkingly, Merai lifted up her hands in a posture of worship and supplication. The goddess stretched out Her arm, Her right palm almost touching the girl's head. Suddenly a ring of fire sprang up around Merai, and the people around her yelped and scattered. But Merai saw nothing, save the Woman.
Then, softly, but with a voice that resounded from mountain to mountain, the goddess spoke. The sound was as brilliant as the dawn, as warm as a hearth-fire; stronger than sunlight, more lovely than gold.
"Elenin," She said.
Then this Woman stretched out Her arms, turned once in a circle to cast Her gentle gaze on all that were present, and rose into the sky, swift as a shooting star.
Gradually, the fire died down and went out. Merai slowly came out of her trance. Lowering her hands, she blinked, shook her head as if to clear the dizzying sensations of divine energy, and looked up.
Every eye was on her.
"Mae govannen," the Lothanasa murmured. Merai looked at her and blinked again.
"Wow," she said, dreamily, then giggled and slipped blissfully into unconsciousness.
When Merai came to, Daren was sitting there beside her, serious blue eyes studying her thoughtfully. Merai's own eyes fluttered, blinked, then opened wide, as the memory of her experience suddenly returned to her.
"Daren?" she murmured, confused. "What happened? Where is everyone?"
Daren shrugged. "The crowd departed not long after you fainted."
"And the Lightbringer?" Merai was looking around, but the wolf-woman was nowhere in sight.
A tiny frown creased the redhead's face. "She instructed me to stay here with you 'til you awoke. She said she needed to look for something -- was quite apart from herself, or seemed to be. She left as soon as the crowd had gone."
Merai sat up, rubbed her eyes, and looked up at the sky, trying to judge the hour. "What time is it?"
"Around the hour of two."
"Gods! Two, you say?!"
"Aye, and it has been right dull waiting for you to wake up," Daren smiled at her. "Though I got to listen in on some very interesting dreams, to judge from the sounds you were making."
Merai thought about that, her mind struggling to recall what she had been thinking about before she awoke. There was something there, a grey cloud of thought in the corner of her mind, but each time she grasped at it, it seemed to dissolve into nothing, its tendrils slipping through her fingers. She shook her head slightly. "I don't remember anything," she said. "It's all just a blur -- half-remembered images and feelings."
"Pity," Daren replied. "I should think it would be important, after an experience such as that." The girl looked at Merai curiously. "What happened to you, anyway? What does it mean?"
"...I don't know," Merai admitted. "I have heard of other appearances by Her Radiance, but I do not believe it has ever happened on the day of the Sacrifice before. The goddess would not have appeared unless something truly important was about to happen, but I have no idea what that might be."
"What about the word she spoke? 'Elenin'? That must be some kind of message."
"I don't know," Merai said again. "'Tis Old Tongue, or resembles it. I have little knowledge of the Old Tongue lexicon, I must admit, but it seems a compound word to my ears -- a name, perhaps, or a title."
Daren shook her head, still only half-believing what her eyes had seen. "Strange doings are afoot in the councils of the holy. I don't like the feel of it."
Merai half-smiled at the other girl. "What happened to the adventurous boy who never let anything get between him and a mystery?" she asked.
"He matured rather abruptly into a girl who has had decidedly too much experience with those mysteries," the flame-haired girl answered, a bit sourly. "I've had about as much dealings with the arcane powers of the world as I should like, thank you very much!"
"Methinks you were a bit more adventurous than that this morning," Merai replied. "You surely took your chances against Garulf. That seemed more like the old Daren I knew."
"Aye, but Garulf is flesh and blood. That, I can understand." Her face showed a heated and frustrated expression. "I am a warrior, Merai," she said, clenching her fists in a kind of emphasis. "If I cannot touch it, protect it, or attack it with these two hands, I've passed outside my knowledge. These beings you deal with are beyond my ken..." Her face darkened. "And this encounter disturbs me greatly."
"In that respect, I agree," said Merai, getting to her feet and stretching her legs. "I suppose I shall go and speak with the Lightbringer now -- perhaps she has discovered something of what has happened here."
"I shall go with you, as far as I am permitted," Daren said, also standing and stretching. Her eyes focused on Merai, and the young initiate saw concern within those pools of blue. "You still look weak," she said.
"Perhaps I am," Merai nodded wearily. "I think that after being bathed in such power and radiance as Mistress Yajiit's, the absence of that power leaves one feeling ... diminished. Less than whole, if you take my meaning."
Daren nodded sympathetically. "Come, I shall help you if your knees give way."
Daren walked with Merai all the way to the temple, through the outer doors, and into the ornamented passageway that led to the inner chambers. The door to the right-hand side passage was open. The spiral stairs at the far end of that passage led down to the Archives.
"Mistress?" Merai called.
"Down here, child," Raven's voice called back.
"I should go, then," Daren said, putting a hand on her friend's shoulder. "I hope you succeed in unraveling this mystery."
They embraced and said their good-byes, Daren departed, and Merai made her way down to the first floor of the Lightbringers' massive library.
The Lothanasa was not there.
"Mistress?" Merai called again.
"I shall be up shortly, Merai," the wolf-woman's voice came from the opening in the floor where another staircase spiraled downward. "Do not try to come to me -- the wards will not allow you to pass beyond the first level."
Obediently, Merai walked over and sat down at the edge of the descending stairs. Curiously, she reached out a hand towards the opening, observing the white field of magic that resisted her touch. Pushing harder only caused the ward to harden and grow hot against her hand. Merai had no idea how the Archive's wards could be so discerning -- she needed no mark or amulet to enter the first floor, nor did she wear anything to show that the lower levels were sealed to her. But somehow the protective field knew when to give and when to hold. It was almost as if the ward was alive...
Which, Merai realized, was not such an impossible thing in Metamor.
Several minutes later Raven hin'Elric emerged from the staircase -- dusty, tired-looking, and not provoking so much as a glimmer from the mysterious ward. She brushed a strand of long black hair out of her eyes and sighed forcefully.
"Glad to see you have returned to us, Merai," the Lightbringer said. "I trust that you are well?"
Merai nodded. "A bit weary, Mistress -- but aye, I am well."
"Excellent." The wolfen priestess seemed agitated, distractedly brushing a bit of dirt from the shoulder of her robe. Her eyes drifted to a spot somewhere behind Merai, then turned and focused attentively on a nearby rack of scrolls.
"Mistress?" Merai asked, after several seconds of silence.
"Were you able to discern ... what..."
Raven hin'Elric turned suddenly to look at her, eyebrows raised expectantly.
"... What I mean is ... why ..." Merai gestured helplessly. The priestess continued to look at her fixedly -- not moving, not speaking, just waiting.
Merai let out an exasperated gasp. "Mistress, what in the names of all the gods was that about?"
"I don't know," Raven answered.
Merai blinked. The priestess nodded at her expression.
"There are many things about this encounter that are troubling," she said. "I know of no other occasion in our long and storied past in which Yajiit has appeared on the day of her own sacrifice. Further, the goddess rarely speaks, especially in the presence of commoners. Even a word from her is an extraordinary event."
The Lothanasa frowned. "But the truly troubling thing about today's incident was her physical form. Did you mark the appearance of her eyes?"
"Aye, Mistress," Merai answered immediately. "They were blue, and flashing. But very ... human, as well."
"Precisely," Raven confirmed. "The eyes of Her Radiance are usually a fiery yellow, devoid of human emotion. Yajiit wished to emphasize the humanity of her nature today -- but why, I know not."
"And that word she said? What did that mean, Mistress?"
For just a fraction of a second, the lupine woman's expression froze. Then a thoughtful look crossed her face. "I don't know," she said, with a tone of voice so skillfully crafted that it would have made the Headmaster of the Thespian's Guild look like an amateur by comparison. "I shall have to look into this further," she added.
"Then ... you have never heard this word, 'Elenin', before in your life?"
"No," the Lothanasa answered innocently.
Merai searched the older woman's face for a moment longer, then nodded. "Very well, Mistress. What shall I do now?"
The wolf-woman considered that for a moment. "When was the last time you attended your wilderness survival training?" she asked.
"Three weeks ago this Sunday, Mistress."
The priestess nodded thoughtfully, turning away from Merai and scratching her chin with one hand.
"I think you should renew your studies in that field, then," she said at last. "In these times, we may have need of a field cleric again soon. I shall speak with Misha Brightleaf and ask him to recommend the best instructor for your level of skill."
"Brightleaf? The Phergold?" Merai asked, surprised. "Isn't he rather mad?"
"Brightleaf is not half as mad as he seems," Raven replied, turning back to Merai. There was a flicker of gray steel in those pale blue eyes. "If you had been aware of half the missions he and his Long Scouts completed successfully this year, you would understand that. And if you knew the meaning of that small-minded label, you would not dare apply it to Brightleaf."
Merai's mouth worked soundlessly for some moments. "I ... as you say, Mistress," she managed at last, kneeling and lowering her head before her mentor and idol. "Forgive me, my Mistress. I am only a simple peasant girl, and it is a word used often among the people I have known. If the word was ill-chosen, I beg your pardon. I am ignorant of too many things, it seems."
Merai felt a warm, gentle hand touch her head, its fingers running through her long brown hair. There were claws on those hands, but they barely brushed against her scalp with the gesture.
"It is all right," the Lightbringer said, her words as gentle as her touch. "You are indeed a peasant girl, and for that you may be forgiven your ignorance. But know also that times of change are coming, Merai. The conflict between the Lothanasi and the Ecclesia must come to an end, or both will surely perish. Words such as 'pagan' and 'Phergold' have no place here at Metamor, for we are all Keepers -- and we all stand to protect the Light."
Merai nodded, still not looking up. "Have the gods spoken with you on this matter, my Mistress?"
"Not in so many words. But there is a quickening coming, Merai -- forces at work in the world for centuries are beginning to coalesce, and many of the great prophecies are beginning to unfold. This recent business with Loriod ... the arrival of this Oren fellow from out of the south ... the troubles with Scratch a few months ago ... even the appearance of that man Rickkter, troublesome as he is -- all of these things tell us that we are standing on the cusp of history." She put her hand under Merai's chin, raised her face to meet her own, and smiled. "I do not know what lies ahead, but it is always important to know who your allies are. Especially when facing the unknown."
Merai simply nodded. The priestess smiled more broadly for a moment, then removed her hand from the girl's chin, an unspoken instruction to rise. "I shall draft a letter to Brightleaf, and you may carry it to him. You should find him in the barracks at this hour, if my memory serves."
The Lightbringer went up the stairs towards her private chambers in search of paper and pen. Merai's emotions churned as she watched the older woman's tail vanish from view.
Something was not right. The priestess's words had been comforting, and much carried the ring of truth, but there was still something ... amiss.
Raven hin'Elric, the Lightbringer, was hiding something from her. It had revealed itself in that moment of hesitation, when Merai had asked about the word 'Elenin'. The Lothanasa knew more than she was telling -- or, at the very least, she suspected. But whether suspicions or facts, she had not shared them with Merai.
Why? Obviously the goddess's message had been directed at Merai. So why was the Lightbringer keeping it from her?
There was no answer, of course. Merai had been trained since her earliest years to trust the Lightbringers implicitly, and it was finally that training that dictated her actions. She would do as Raven asked -- follow orders, obey instructions, never poke her head in where it wasn't allowed -- and trust that the Lothanasa would share all when she felt it was time.
Merai only prayed that the priestess would tell her before something dire came up. There were many times in a cleric's life, as Merai knew, when a moment of ignorance could be fatal.
The weeks passed swiftly, as the fiery days of summer gave way to a temperate and agreeable fall that was everything the farmers had hoped for. Lorland yielded record crops under the careful administrations of Prince Phil the Protector and his steward Macaban, and the lands of Metamor ate richly of all manner of fruits, vegetables and grains. So great was the surplus that whole storehouses of food were sealed with preservation spells in preparation for the lean winter months, when the caravans from the south were fewer and farther between and fresh food was harder to come by. The barley crop was particularly handsome that season, and the beer-makers throughout the land rejoiced at the bounty that was placed into their care; Metamor ale, with its thick, soupy brew and rich flavor, was more food than drink to the people of the northern Midlands, and the brew-masters turned out keg after keg of the celebrated beverage during that autumn.
Throughout this time of general good fortune, Merai continued her training in the myriad skills that the Lightbringer Order required. Her skills were sharpened in both archery and swordsmanship, though she discovered her knack was far more for the former than the latter. She performed ably, though not perfectly, in her wilderness survival training, and progressed through three different instructors prescribed by the fox Brightleaf, learning the tricks of hunting, tracking, concealment, ambush, and other essential skills for survival in the field. And most importantly, of course, she continued to be instructed in the work of the Lothanasi themselves: Raven hin'Elric helped her to refine her skills in the use of the Light Healing and the performance of various sacrifices and rituals, while the temple acolytes drilled her endlessly on topics from the history of the Order to the psychology of daedra to the proper etiquette of divine diplomacy. There were times when Merai felt as if her head was going to burst from the sheer mass of knowledge being drummed into her; but somehow she survived, and even flourished, in spite of the intense (and often unforgiving) curriculum.
The morning of the Thirteenth of September dawned clear and bright, almost innocuous in its cool, cloudless visage. An outsider would have looked on the sunlight bathing the walls of the Keep, the gentle breeze blowing through the trees, the generally agreeable way the people went about the day's business, and never imagined a single reason for Merai hin'Dana to be sick in her room, bent double over the chamber pot on no less than three distinct occasions before the hour of nine. It was perhaps just as well, for cleanliness' sake, that the child had been fasting for some time now.
"This is an important day for her," said some of her kin, with what was doubtless the most laughable bit of understatement to be heard in Metamor aside from, "That Nasoj fellow is a bit of a rapscallion, isn't he?"
The temple acolytes, of course, simply rolled their eyes and smiled before getting on with their own business. They could forgive the peasantry for failing to quite grasp the significance of the Day of Admission, if for no other reason than that the specifics involved were closely guarded secrets. No outsider ever saw the goings-on of the ceremony, and those within the Order were not well-disposed to speak of it. The Lothanasa, they all knew, could be a harsh mistress if she found that the Order's carefully crafted aura of mystery was fractured by a pair of loose lips. This was one of the reasons the acolytes generally abstained from alcohol.
But if her friends and family were not fully aware of the implications of this day, the same could not be said of Merai herself. Her nervous sickness was only one proof of this.
When she was not paying homage before the "bronze altar", Merai alternated between prayer, meditation, and a study of the Order's holy texts, endeavoring to center herself to some acceptable degree before the ceremony that awaited her that evening. She chose to study the writings of Magnus Lightbringer II, also known as Magnus the Wise, the Lothanas of Metamor during the latter half of the sixth century. It was a troubled time in the Order's history, when the last of the Elven Lightbringers (so it was said) passed beyond the Veil, and the Lothanasi felt the loss bitterly, though the rest of the Earth had long since ceased to care about the Elder Race and its dealings. Magnus had sought Samekkh above all other gods, and was rewarded with a wisdom and soundness of judgment that helped to steer the Order through those troubled years. He wrote a great deal on a wide variety of subjects, but he was most remembered for his Dialogues -- conversations with his pupils on philosophy, theology, sensible living, and the Order itself. The Dialogues of Magnus the Wise were not recorded by Magnus himself, but by the acolytes and lesser priests whom he instructed. It was in these conversations that the Lightbringer's quiet, gentle and persuasive demeanor demonstrated itself most clearly, and Merai often found that reading the teacher's counsel brought a sense of peace and focus to her spirit.
She had just finished reading through the Dialogues' commentary on the way a Lightbringer initiate should be when a knock sounded at her door. "Come," she called, looking up from the text.
The door opened, revealing the face of the acolyte Celine. The woman was an AR, her thirty-odd-years mind now concealed in a fifteen-year-old body. Like most of the acolytes, she generally stayed out of Raven and Merai's way unless she was instructing the young initiate girl, or performing some other specific task. The temple assistants were sometimes eerily inconspicuous, and Merai had often happened upon them suddenly when she thought she was alone. Theirs was the quiet work of the Order, and they did it very well.
"Merai, they're ready for you," Celine said, her green eyes smiling.
Merai smiled -- a bit nervously -- nodded, and rose to her feet, following the seeming-girl out across the temple hall to the acolytes' living quarters. Celine's body was older than Merai's by a little more than a year, but Merai was several inches taller than her. The acolyte was dressed in the simple brown robes worn by all the temple assistants, and her straight blond hair was cut just below her ears. Still, in spite of her commonplace appearance, Celine's eyes flashed and her body moved with a quiet passion and energy that spoke volumes about how she looked at her world, her job, and her life. Merai had come to enjoy the woman's company over the course of the long summer's training.
Still, Merai's place was with her Mistress. She had been disappointed to learn that she could not see the priestess today before the ceremony -- another part of the Order's tradition. Merai tried to encourage herself with the knowledge that, after tonight, there would be no more barriers. She would be Lothanasi, just as Raven was. She would be a priestess.
She tried not to think about what would happen if she was rejected. That had happened before: applicants to the Order completed the long period of training as initiates, only to have their hopes dashed by a veto from the High Priestess -- or High Priest, as was usually the case. The initiate would then have to complete another full year of what amounted to indentured servitude to the Order, until the Day of Admission came again.
And then there were the cases when the Lothanas was truly displeased...
Merai shook her head once, as if to clear it. She was worrying too much, as usual. Telling herself this, however, was never effective in actually calming her: either she would accept her own argument, tell herself she had nothing to worry about, and begin worrying that she was being too prideful; or she would worry about the fact that she worried so much, and whether Raven would want a new priestess who was so much of a worrier...
The acolytes' living quarters were basically a single vaulted hall that was divided down the middle by a thin wood-frame wall. This wall divided the men's living quarters from the women's, and there was a pair of doors in the middle which could be locked by either side, or both. The furnishings were simple but comfortable, with wood-paneled walls and floors, several rugs, an assortment of bunk-style and double beds, and a hearth and wash-room for either side. Wooden chests at the foot of each bed provided storage for the acolytes' few material possessions.
The quarters were, sadly, occupied at far below capacity. Unfortunately, the acolytes had suffered the same marked depopulation at the Battle of Three Gates as the rest of the Lightbringer Order at Metamor. No one knew quite how two thirds of the temple servants had been slaughtered in the chaos of battle, especially since they were not actually fighting in most cases. There were whispered rumors of a wraith that had slipped inside the Keep during the fighting, but everyone was far too busy with Nasoj and his army to notice the deaths while the battle was on. No reliable eyewitnesses had survived, and to this day the murder of the acolytes remained one of the blackest mysteries in the Order's history. Raven had worked tirelessly to recruit new temple servants since that time, but there were still only forty-seven of them in quarters designed for a hundred.
A number of the acolytes greeted Merai as she entered, and she tried to remember most of their names. Most of the remaining acolytes were women, many of them age-morphs and most no older than twenty-five -- an acolyte's work was often strenuous, and few remained in active service after the age of forty. Fortunately, these veterans found positions as teachers, healers, recorders and archivists, so no ex-acolyte was ever in want. The Lightbringers made sure of that.
What followed were several hours of intense preparation. Merai's finest initiate robe was selected and taken away to be cleaned thoroughly, along with her best sandals, tunic, and undergarments. Then Merai herself was carefully and meticulously bathed by the female acolytes, who treated her skin with half a dozen different kinds of soaps, powders and oils, and her hair with another half-dozen concoctions. After she had dried off, the temple assistants went to work on the fine details: manicure, pedicure, a careful shaving of body hair in places Merai had never much thought about before, and even a meticulous hunt for stray hairs around Merai's eyebrows and lashes. Merai felt fairly sure, when they had finally finished their work, that even the princesses of Sathmore did not receive such painstaking "beauty" treatments.
By this time Merai's clothing had returned from its cleaning, and the acolytes very ceremoniously dressed her in the same clothes Merai had put on for herself two or three hundred times before. Somehow, though, those garments seemed fresher, cleaner, purer than they ever had before. It was a strange but satisfying feeling.
With the detail work completed, one of the older acolytes skillfully plaited Merai's hair into an elaborate braid, adding small white flowers into the weave in various places. At the same time, Celine applied a bewildering array of creams and powders to Merai's face; apparently, these substances were used by women of the nobility to make themselves more beautiful. The acolytes called them "make-up", but Merai wasn't sure what deficiencies they were supposed to be making up for. Her features were plain, yes, but not blemished, and it seemed unlikely to the initiate that these near-mystical compounds were going to do much for plainness. Still, when Celine held up the looking-glass for Merai to examine her work, she had to admit that her skin seemed to glow a bit more richly than before, her mahogany-hued eyes seemed a bit brighter and warmer, and her lips seemed just the slightest bit fuller. But it was still five hells' worth of trouble to go through for vanity's sake.
Once all the physical preparations had been made, Celine helped Merai to rehearse her role in the upcoming ceremony, walking Merai through every word and action. Through all of this, Merai took no food and only water to drink; but then, she had been fasting for several days now, and as Raven had promised, her stomach finally could contract no further. The sun was sinking over the Dragon Mountains to the west when Celine finally ruled: "You are ready."
Merai's heart nearly skipped a beat, but she maintained her composure as the honor guard of six acolytes gathered around her -- two before, two behind, and one to either side. Celine went before her at her right-hand side, and opened the door that led back to the temple hall.
The male acolytes had been busy in her absence. The entire chamber was lit by candles, hundreds of them, placed in tiers and rows all around the vaulted room. Bunting and veils of fine white silk hung on the walls and over the doorways, giving the hall a lighter, almost airy feel. A single great, rippling veil was suspended across the width of the temple behind the altar, obscuring the apse and the tympan window within it that looked northwards. The remaining acolytes of Metamor were gathered along either side of the hall in straight, precise rows. And before the altar, flanked by three acolytes on either side, was the Lothanasa.
Even after all she had experienced, the sight still filled Merai with awe. The High Priestess of Metamor Keep was literally radiant, a warm diffuse glow emanating from her white linen robes. Her long black hair had a vibrant, glossy sheen, her fur was impeccably groomed, and her eyes -- even more so than usual -- seemed to glow like two jewels of aquamarine that burned from within. She held something in her hands, which flashed and shone silver in the tenuous light of the candles.
One of the acolytes nearest to the priestess lifted a flute to his lips, and began to play out a soft, haunting melody that was older than time. As the music rose into the air and filled the hall, Merai's honor guard began to advance, and Merai moved with them. Slowly, solemnly, in time with the flow of the music, she approached the Lothanasa. She heard nothing but the sound of the flute and the pounding of her own heart.
As she drew nearer to the priestess, Merai saw elaborate patterns traced out on the floor of the hall, weaving together and sweeping up towards the altar, ending in a single great circle directly before the offering basin. Within the circle was inscribed the form of the twin cross: Heaven Above, Earth Below, Meet in the Middle. The symbol of the Lothanasi. Raven hin'Elric stood in the circle, her feet fixed between Heaven and Earth.
Coming closer, Merai saw what the priestess held in her hand: a sword, small and light, with a blade that wound its way back and forth like a snake. She had seen a sword of this type once at Daren's home -- he had called it a kryss, and said they were most often used for ceremonial purposes. This particular kryss was ornamented along the length of its blade in an elaborate, ancient script that Merai could not read. A blood channel snaked down the center of the blade. The hilt was ornamented, as well, but Merai could not make out any details, save the elaborate twin cross that appeared prominently on the side.
When Merai was at arm's length, the Lothanasa lifted the kryss in her right hand and held it over Merai's head. Obediently, Merai stopped, as the melody of the flutist drew to an end with a few soft, thoughtful notes.
There was a profound silence for several seconds. Then the Lightbringer spoke in a strong, authoritative voice that seemed to echo around the room.
"Who is this that has entered the chambers of the Bright Ones?"
Merai looked up at the priestess. "It is I, Merai hin'Dana, of the family of Anboren."
"Why have you come to us, Merai hin'Dana?"
"To pledge my life in the service of Light."
"And who gives this Light, that you pledge to in service?"
"Lord Kammoloth, His name ever-praised."
"Then what is your pledge, and what do you promise? What do you offer in service of Light?"
"I will give from my heart with each breath that I take, showing compassion and mercy and love.
"I will give with my hands to nourish the hungry, and heal with these hands the blind and the lame.
"I will guard and protect those who need a protector, and stand as a voice for those who cannot speak.
"I will stand against evil and darkness and fear, drive back the shadow and summon the light.
"I offer myself, in both body and soul -- all of my being, and all of my life."
The High Priestess nodded, once, slowly. She did not smile, but Merai detected the hint of satisfaction in her aura. She lowered the blade to rest upon Merai's head, lifted it, and moved three steps to her right, leaving the circle unoccupied. Facing the circle, the wolfen Lightbringer lowered the kryss to point at the twin cross in the center. "Kneel," she commanded.
Stepping forward, Merai took her place in the circle, kneeling before the basin of the altar. She held up her hands, palms outward, and felt the Lothanasa place the cold steel upon them -- the hilt in her right hand, the blade in her left.
"Blood for blood," said the Lightbringer soberly. "Life for life. One dies so that many may live. In accepting this burden, you must prove you are worthy. You have shown your intent: now show your resolve." This said, she backed slowly away from the altar.
Merai closed her eyes and took two long, deep breaths. Then, lifting her hands over the basin, she closed her fists.
There was complete and utter silence. Merai gritted her teeth and her eyes welled with tears, but she did not make a sound. Finally, the soft *drip, drip, drip* of blood into the basin could be heard. On the floor of the temple, the lines of power began to glow.
Slowly, Merai let the point of the blade fall until it rested in the center of the basin, now gripping the hilt with both hands. The blood ran down the hilt, and Merai repeated the words.
"Blood for blood. Life for life. One dies so that many may live."
Then, shifting her grip on the hilt, she lifted the kryss aloft, pointing the blade skyward. The circle around her flared into brilliant white. Wind began to stir unbidden in the temple hall, as strange and unearthly lights flashed white, pink, green, silver, blue, and gold in the air around her. Merai spoke out in a loud, clear voice that resounded like a thunderclap.
"May this vessel be filled with the light!"
There was a blinding flash, a deafening roar, as light that came from nowhere and everywhere swirled and coalesced around the kneeling young woman. A column of light rose up from the circle to the vaulted ceiling high overhead, a shaft of radiance that surged and flashed and seemed to cut through the fabric of the physical plane to the Heavens themselves. Merai was blind to everything, everything but the light, and those on the outside lost sight of her in the glare. Then, with the sound of a thousand hurricanes, the vortex came down from the ceiling, flowing into her body, collapsing, condensing, drawn into eyes and hands and mouth and heart--
And then there was darkness, as the last of the light disappeared within her and the wind that had extinguished every last candle was stilled.
There was awestruck, dumbfounded silence. And then a new light appeared--
A light that radiated from the body of Merai hin'Dana, a pure, warm, bright light that filled the room.
And in that moment, as she stood and turned, looking around at the alarmed and astonished faces of the acolytes, Merai noticed her robes.
The soft gray tone of the Initiate had been transformed to dazzling white.
If the Lightbringer was surprised, she did not show it. Rejoining the still-glowing Merai before the altar, she clasped hands with the younger woman.
"The Gods of Heaven have accepted your pledge," she said, in a voice that subtly commanded every murmur and whisper among the acolytes to silence itself. "Now you are Lothanasi, a priestess in the service of Light. From this day forward, I call you sister."
The acolytes burst into cheers. The Lothanasa grinned, and the new priestess returned the expression, two tears of joy running down her face. She squeezed Raven's hands tightly, suddenly remembered her hand, and looked to discover that it had healed without leaving so much as a scratch. She looked up at Raven again, who nodded. Then the wolfen woman gestured down the hall, indicating the rows of applauding temple assistants who stood before her. Merai, an uncertain smile on her face, passed down the aisle between them, clasping the hands of those who reached for her in an expression of friendship. Not knowing what else to do -- her quarters were being blocked by the decorations, not to mention several cheering rows of acolytes -- she returned to the living quarters of the temple assistants, sat on the nearest bed, and looked up at the ceiling in wonder.
The first woman to stick her head through the door, not surprisingly, was Celine, who ran up and embraced Merai with a laugh. "Congratulations, Merai!" she said. "Or should I call you priestess now?"
"Merai is fine," the girl returned, laughing with her. "Dear gods! In all my life, I'd never imagined ... it was so incredible, Celine!"
Merai suddenly detected a bit of nervousness in the other woman's smile. "Um, yes. There is that..."
"What?" Merai asked, puzzled. "Did something go wrong?"
"Oh, no! Not at all," Celine laughed suddenly. "'Tis just that this was a bit more ... exciting, you might say ... than most Days of Admission have been."
A moment later, the significance of what the acolyte was saying hit Merai, and she fell over backwards on the bed. A giggle tinged with definite signs of hysteria escaped her lips.
" 'Tis happening! 'Tis happening again!" she cried, deliriously, the words coming out in a sing-song voice. "What in all nine circles of Hell is going on? Why does it keep happening to me?"
"Merai! Pull yourself together, child!" Celine admonished her. "Listen to me: the circle, the robe, the wound: 'tis all supposed to happen that way. It is normal. The only strange thing this time was the wind and the light."
"The wind and the light! Only the wind and the light!" the girl exclaimed, still hysterical. "The wind that blew out a thousand candles! The light that shot through me like a pillar of fire and absorbed into every pore of my body! What a fool I've been! Silly little details, of course!"
"Aye, 'tis usually a brief gust and a flash like lightning that does the change. What happened -- this is significant, but you needn't worry yourself about it, child! The Lothanasa is looking into this, and when she uncovers the reason you will be the first to know."
Merai shook her head for what felt like the thousandth time. She could feel the energy within her, energy as blinding as Raven's aura had been all those months ago, when she first learned to see beyond sight. It was crawling beneath her skin, flashing with every blink of her eyes, filling up her heart and lungs with a power that her mind scratched at feebly in a vain effort to understand. She was drunk on power, inebriated with divine energies. And much like alcohol, it was too much for her frail young body to handle.
Focusing her clouded mind as much as she could, Merai willed the power to bury itself, to submerge deeper into her being, away from the surface and down to the core of her soul. The power entwined itself with her life energies, braiding itself through her spirit as her locks of hair were braided together, finally settling down into a soft, vibrant glow that her mind was better able to work around. The power would be there when she needed it, but for now it was out of her way.
"The Lothanasa has looked into many things, and said little about any of them," Merai said wryly, her voice and mind now steady. "But she is my sister and my High Priestess, and I will trust her judgment for now."
"Mistress Raven has never led us astray," Celine reassured her.
"Perhaps. But leading astray and mis-leading are not always the same thing," she mused. "This is somehow connected with the appearance of Her Radiance on Yajii'kema, or I am a greater fool than I ever suspected. But the Lightbringer will say nothing of it to me."
"That may change now that you are a priestess," the older woman pointed out.
"I dearly hope so," Merai said, getting up from the bed and embracing the acolyte once more. "I shall have to attend to this hand now," she frowned, looking down at the blood that covered her otherwise-unmarred hand. "I shall be terribly glad to get this 'make-up' off. It feels as if I've a creature of some sort clinging to my face!"
Celine laughed again. "Very well, Sister Merai. Allow me to teach you how to remove yonder creature..."
Merai's first month as a Lightbringer astounded her with how mundane it all was. On most days, it was little different from her routine as an initiate -- she continued in her studies and received ongoing training in survival, combat, and clerical skills, much as before. True, she performed the dawn sacrifice every other day, alternating with Raven, and she did a few minor healings on patients who arrived in Coe's sickbay; but there were no great ceremonies, no petitions to the gods, and no dire spiritual crises to mediate.
Faced with more free time than she had been expecting, Merai found herself often walking around the city, dressed in her newly white clerical robes, observing the comings and goings of people about their everyday lives. Raven actually encouraged her in this, saying that it was important for Metamor to recognize its newest priestess and learn to respect her. "And perhaps," she added, "the knowledge that the Order is not dead in Metamor will encourage others to apply as acolytes and initiates. We are still in dire need of additional priests, especially in times such as these."
During these public appearances, Merai often stopped by the barracks to visit Daren. The redheaded girl had been training intensely for months, immersing herself in the instruction and guidance of Metamor's finest "Amazon" warriors. Much of this training took her into the forests of Metamor Valley, sometimes for days on end, where the master scouts instructed her and the other women-warriors in the swift and stealthy combat that was their forte. Special emphasis was given to mounted combat, and Daren often spoke to Merai of racing through the forests on horseback at a breakneck pace, learning to use the speed and agility of her light mount to its fullest potential.
Hand-to-hand combat was not neglected, either, especially since Daren was still seeking entry into the Knights of the Red Stallion, Lord Thomas's elite order of warriors. The trainers drilled Daren and her fellow classmates heavily in the martial arts, both bladed and bare-handed, working those brave young women until they were nearly dead on their feet. But the training bore fruit, and when Merai came by to visit on the twelfth of October Daren's arms and legs showed the well-developed muscles of a woman in peak fighting condition.
"You've chosen a wonderful day to come," she told Merai after they had embraced in greeting. "We're being inspected in one-on-one combat skills today. I've been assigned to a rematch with Garulf."
Merai's eyes widened. "The brute you fought back in July?"
"Can you win?"
The redhead grinned. "We shall see, won't we?"
Merai found a place at the edge of the dueling ring, the crowd parting before her when they saw her priestess's robes, while Daren and Garulf entered the ring. The boy was looking much more muscular than he had just three months ago; the training had transformed him from a lanky youth into a well-built giant. He was equipped with the steel plate armor of a footman, which only made him seem more massive and imposing. In his hands he held a blunted claymore, a monstrous sword that was so heavy he needed both hands to hold it.
Daren, in sharp contrast, was wearing leather body armor, a light and flexible choice that was often used by the Keep's female warriors. It could stop a bolt from a light crossbow and resist a certain degree of assault by a blade, but in the end it was designed to allow the wearer to avoid such blows through speed and agility. On her head, Daren wore a close-fitting metal helm that shielded the top and back of her head while leaving her peripheral vision unobstructed. The helm was a typical scout's design, painted matte black to eliminate the glare that would otherwise reveal it to a watchful enemy in the field. Metal guards, also painted black, were strapped to Daren's wrists -- a lighter and less clumsy alternative to a shield. Her sword was a sturdy rapier, its edge taken off like Garulf's claymore. Her hair was pulled back in a double-woven braid much like the one fashioned for Merai on the Day of Admission. To Merai that seemed somehow appropriate, since this match was Daren's own moment of truth -- the day she would discover how well she had learned the lessons that had been taught her.
The two warriors-in-training saluted one another from opposite sides of the dueling ring. Master DeMule stood at the ring's edge, looking at each of them in turn. Seeing that both were ready, he gave the signal. "Begin."
The opponents entered the center of the ring cautiously, blades raised in a neutral, ready posture. They circled each other slowly, analyzing one another's moves, looking for weaknesses. Merai chewed at her lip in mixed anticipation and worry. Even with blunted edges, a sword the size of that claymore could do a fearful amount of damage...
Just when Merai was wondering when one of them would press the attack, Daren suddenly feinted to the right, cut back to the left, and brought down her sword in a sweeping arc to the lower right. Garulf blocked the blow, but not with as much speed as he might have -- unlike Daren's, Garulf's helmet partially blinded his peripheral vision, and the heavy armor he wore slowed his actions.
Holding Garulf's blade at bay, Daren quickly stepped in close and delivered a sharp elbow to his temple. The worst of the blow was absorbed by the helmet, of course, but the speed of the attack threw Garulf off guard. Without stopping for a second to observe the results, Daren disengaged and rolled behind her opponent's back to his left side, deliberately staying in his blind spot as he continued his rapid turn to the right, where Daren had been moments before. Another swift dart inward, and Daren planted the pommel of her sword hard against the back of his head. A resounding clang echoed in the training hall, and Merai winced involuntarily.
Though Garulf seemed shaken, it was to his credit that he did not let the same tactic work again. Turning as quickly as his armor enabled him and backing up several steps, he kept the lightly-armored young woman in his view. The next time she feinted, he followed the true path of her attack and blocked her sword firmly.
What followed next was a series of dodges, weaves, spins and exchanges so swift and complex that Merai lost track of it all. It was the dance of battle, in all its deadly and terrible beauty. The two opponents came at each other again and again, in every way their considerable training had taught them. Daren, like the fabled mongoose, launched a rapid series of blinding attacks from every possible angle, focusing on her opponent's weak spots -- the head, the backs of the knees, the Altiades' tendons, and any chink in the armor that exposed itself -- all while working desperately to stay out of the way of the enemy's weapon. Garulf, like the cobra, was sluggish, powerful, much larger than Daren, and focused on finding the opportunity for that one, finishing strike.
The battle dragged on for what seemed like ages, with neither fighter coming any closer, it seemed, to ending the match. They were both tiring -- sweat was dripping from their faces now, and Merai sensed the weariness in each of them. Daren's attacks required more energy to execute, but the weight of his armor sapped Garulf's strength at about the same rate, even with his simpler maneuvers.
Finally, on a particularly daring attack by Daren, Garulf mistimed the sweep of her blade and the redhead brought it down -- hard -- against the base of his neck. Had the weapon been edged, it might easily have slashed his carotid arteries, but in its blunted state it left only a surface cut -- and, Merai supposed, the makings of an awful bruise. Continuing the movement of his failed block with a howl of pain, Garulf brought his left arm up against Daren's right, striking her near the elbow. Daren stumbled back, off-balance after her attack. Sensing his moment, Garulf charged at her--
Not seeing as Daren quickly regained her feet, knelt--
Met the man's hands at the handle of his sword--
Braced, using her body as a lever, guiding Garulf's massive body up and over by his own momentum--
Rolled with the throw, landing on Garulf's chest as the young man came down on his back--
Pulled a dagger from where it lay hidden in a hip-sheath--
And brought it quickly against the throat of the stunned footman.
"Hold," Jack ordered, stepping into the ring. As before, Daren and Garulf remained frozen where the match had ended.
The castellan gestured at the scene with a hint of pride. "Look well, friends and pupils," he said. "This is what you can do when you use your opponent's weaknesses against him. Proper training, properly executed, can make up for vast differences in size and strength. What matters, as I have said, is how you fight."
The burly man turned toward Garulf. "You have learned well, too, Garulf. Let this be a reminder to you, that you apply the same lessons to your own training that Daren has applied so well to hers. There is no shame in making a mistake -- but refusal to correct a mistake is inexcusable.
"And as for you, Daren," he added, turning to the red-headed young woman, "remember that proper technique must always require follow-through. For a few seconds, you gained the advantage over your larger, stronger opponent -- but in the heat of battle, if you were to falter for even an instant, and failed to press your advantage, your opponent could quickly turn the tables against you. This is crucial for any warrior, but especially for you women warriors who lack the sheer muscle to hold an enemy down: Press your advantage when it presents itself. In the moment your enemy is subdued, you have time for one, fatal strike. Do not hesitate, do not question, and do not offer a surrender. Kill, while you have the chance. It may be the only one you get."
Master DeMule turned to address the rest of the audience. "What I say is hard, and I understand that full well. Taking a life should never be easy, and it should never bring joy to your heart. But it is sometimes necessary, and on the field of battle you do not have the luxury of debating the matter. Your primary goal, on any mission, is to live to fight another day. Often the only way to do this is to kill the enemy when the opportunity presents itself. Is it hard? Aye, it is. But if you cannot do it, then you have no place among the warriors of the Keep. Remember that, and consider it well. Dismissed."
As the crowd dispersed, Master DeMule approached the two young warriors and helped them up. "Keep working at it, Garulf," he said, giving the boy a slap on the back. "You're getting better."
"Aye, sir. Thank you, sir," said the boy, who promptly went off toward the baths to clean up.
When the castellan had helped Daren to her feet, he smiled a tight, approving smile and gave her hand a firm shake. "Excellent work, Daren," he said. "We'll make a field officer out of you yet."
"Thank you, sir," the young woman said proudly, her face beaming. "And by the way: I've been thinking about it, and I've decided that it's time I made a new start for myself." Her expression grew thoughtful, serious. "My name -- Daren -- reminds me who I used to be, what I've lost. I want to be reminded of what I've become -- what you and the other trainers have helped to make me, sir. And I've come to a decision."
The mulish man's ears perked expectantly.
"From now on," said the warrior woman, "you can call me Daria."
October 30, 706: Daedra'kema. Dusk.
Merai stood at the tympan window at the back of the temple hall, watching as the last rays of the sun slipped behind the western mountains. A strange feeling was gnawing at her stomach, something like dread mixed with morbid curiosity. This would be her first Daedra'kema.
The Night of the Daedra came every year, of course, and its dark phenomena were observed throughout the known world. But this would be the first time Merai had ever been awake and out of her house after the sun went down on this most unholy of nights. Often as a child Merai had awakened on this night to hear strange sounds from outside, and her sleep had often been plagued by dark and disturbing dreams, but her family had always sealed the house with the most capable blessings and talismans the Lightbringers could provide.
This year, it was Merai who had spent the day traveling throughout the city, sealing the homes of those who had children, as Raven had taught her to do. There were many houses in the Keep and the adjacent town that sought protection, and the Lightbringers endeavored to help as many as possible, but in the end hard choices had to be made, and often the simple peasants were left defenseless in order to protect the families of Metamor's mages and warriors. Raven hated that cruel fact as much as Merai, but with only two priestesses to do the work there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, they would both be out and about the Keep all night, doing their best to keep watch over those whose houses could not be sealed. Any great disturbance would be sensed immediately and, if possible, dealt with.
And it was Merai's duty, in part, to deal with them.
Of course, the daedra themselves had certain rights on this night, a fact that was lost on neither Raven nor Merai. If the old legends were true, Daedra'kema was one of the results of an ancient treaty between the gods and their darker cousins, during the time when both struggled against the titans for control of the Earth. The daedra had acknowledged Kyia's control of the Keep, but had insisted on the right to visit that place on their one special night of the year. Exactly why the Keep was so important to either the gods or the daedra was a mystery even the Lightbringers had not solved, but the agreement stood -- and the Order had to deal with the consequences.
She turned and saw Raven standing at the entrance to her quarters. "It is time, isn't it?" Merai asked.
The wolfen woman nodded. "I shall be patrolling about the Keep for most of the night," she said. "It is likely that I will not see you often, so I shall give you your instructions now. I want you to stand guard on the battlements and watch for anything peculiar. Mischief will likely abound this night, and we cannot interfere in all of it, but if you see an apparent threat to someone's life, do not hesitate to step in. The imps know their boundaries, and will back down if you challenge them for those violations."
"What about wraiths?" Merai asked.
Raven grimaced. "You aren't likely to see a wraith here tonight. They are antisocial creatures, and they know that Kyia forbids killing within these walls -- though they have tried to breach that law on occasion. But your sight is strong, and you know the tell-tale signs of a wraith. If you sense one is near, call to Kyia for aid and she will confront it. Do not approach it yourself."
Merai nodded, fingering the twin-cross talisman that hung from her neck. "And if I should come across..." she hesitated at the prospect of speaking the words 'Daedra Lord' on such a night, but Raven took her meaning.
"If you sense their presence, investigate it," said the high priestess. "But be cautious, and do not overstep your authority. Do not let them provoke you to anger, or any other emotion they can use against you. Confront them only if you believe that their trespass is blatant. Much of their magic will dissipate in the light of dawn, but if they become wroth they can do terrible destruction to both body and mind. Be careful, Merai."
"I shall, Lothanasa."
Raven smiled, and they made their way toward the front door together. "You will become hungry during the night, if you are still as human as you look," the older woman said. "When that time comes, you may go to the Deaf Mule and eat what you wish -- the Order has a line of credit with Master Donny, and he will treat you well. The tavern will be open all night, for Donny and many others are afraid to sleep on Daedra'kema, so do not worry that you will disturb anyone. In fact, the Mule may well be in need of a watcher -- some of the daedra are quite fond of his ale."
Merai swallowed. "I shall keep that in mind."
Raven put a comforting hand on her shoulder, as they stepped out into the corridor. "Worry not, Merai," she said. "If your heart is pure and your disposition tactful, you will see the morning dawn on even this darkest of nights. I will not tell you not to fear, for we all fear the daedra -- but it should be a healthy fear, the same fear that would drive you to be tactful before royalty -- a respect for their power. It should not be an unreasoning terror that freezes your heart and stays your hand from action. Remember that we have the light on our side, and if light is properly used, it will always dispel darkness." She smiled again, a gentle wolfen curl to her lips that did not seem quite so menacing as it once had. "Go with Kyia, Sister Merai."
"And you, Lothanasa."
They stood there for a moment -- the mentor and the pupil, mistress and student -- and then turned and went their separate ways: Merai towards the battlements outside, Raven towards the heart of the Keep.
Merai hugged her cleric's robes tighter about her as she exited the door to the top of the outer walls. She could feel the cold October wind biting into her as she surveyed the Keep outlined below her.
"'Tis not a good night to be up and around, cleric," said a voice from behind her.
Merai spun on her heel at the sound, turning to see a darkly clad raccoon -- a warrior, from the looks of him -- whom she had passed unawares in the shadows. He was sitting on one of the parapets, looking out over the darkened country side -- and judging from his appearance, he was well prepared for the evening. A pair of swords on his back, another one hanging from his left hip, and several other blades were visible on his black leather armor. She also noted the black stone and ruby talisman around his neck.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said it wasn't a good night to be out," he repeated, in that curiously foreign accent of his. "Daedra'kema is a dangerous day to be out after dark. Even more so for a Lightbringer."
Merai blinked in surprise. Who was this man, this warrior, to be telling a priestess what she should and should not be doing? "The Lothanasa has trained me well," she said confidently, wanting to put on a strong face for the stranger. "I can take care of myself."
The coon-man chuckled mildly. "Really? What rank are you? You appear to be a bit young for a priestess. Not someone capable of dealing with some of the stronger creatures that might come through tonight."
"I might surprise you," Merai countered. "The Lothanasa is most impressed with my progress to date. She says that I have the markings of a fine priestess!"
"I'm sure she does ... I'm sure she does," muttered the warrior, as he looked back over the dark valley.
"And what, if may I inquire, are you doing out here on this dangerous night?" Merai asked. "Your weapons won't harm a daedra."
"I might surprise you," he retorted, echoing Merai's own words. "I have defenses against the daedra, just as you do." He turned back toward her with a predatory grin, a truly strange sight on a raccoon. "But unlike you, this is my sixth Daedra'kema. I've been doing this a long time, and I know well the ways of my enemies. I have even had to deal with some of the other horrors that slip through on this most unholy of evenings." His large black eyes flashed in the darkness, as his voice took on a cold but twistedly casual tone. "Tell me, cleric... have you ever been witness to a ghoul feeding? Have you ever seen them tearing the decaying flesh off rotting carcasses? Or what about dimensional shamblers? Ever seen one of those bug-eyed freaks coming to rip your insides out?"
Merai said nothing. She sensed that her own fears were beginning to surface, and something in the dark man's fur-masked face told her that he could see it.
"Take my advice and go inside," said the warrior as he scratched his black nose. "Let those with more experience handle things tonight. This place has seen the death of enough clerics in the last few years, it doesn't need another one."
There was no question -- he could sense Merai's fear. He seemed almost satisfied with himself, a feeling that sparked anger and indignation in Merai. He was trying to scare her back inside, to keep the "pretty little girl" out of harm's way. But Merai had her duties, and as scared as she was, she couldn't just run and hide at the first sign of trouble. She had a duty to protect those around her, and this dark man's words could not change that.
"I thank you for you advice, but I intend to stay tonight," she said. "It is my duty to defend my home from all evil, no matter the origin of that evil."
The man looked at her, those shining black eyes seeming to probe her soul. Perhaps he was doing just that -- perhaps he had the ability to see beyond sight, and was looking into Merai's heart even now. Certainly he was more than he appeared -- no ordinary warrior could protect himself from the daedra, much less do battle with the dark forces that ruled Daedra'kema. Apparently he did see some glimpse of the power and emotions that churned inside Merai's heart, because he seemed to come to a decision. He eventually got up off his seat and walked over to her.
"Then I hope your night goes well," he said soberly. "For this night will show you evil the likes of which you have not imagined. If you survive untouched... then I will most impressed. Good night, cleric. I bid you well. For I think you can use all the help you can get."
Merai felt a shiver as she looked up into the warrior's eyes. There was something more there, something that she could not see entirely. Perhaps that disturbed Merai more than anything else -- with her spiritual sight, it always seemed so easy to read people's emotions. Yet here was this dark stranger, whose eyes spoke of knowledge and experience, but whose heart spoke in a language she could not understand.
And then he was gone. And she was left alone on the wall, the wind biting into her through her robes.
Merai was just arriving at the section of the curtain wall that divided the city of Metamor from the Keep proper when she heard the sound of footsteps echoing from the far side.
"Who goes there?" she called, her hand reaching up to touch the twin cross around her neck.
A familiar voice called back to her. "Come now, sister, don't tell me you don't recognize me!"
Merai reached out with her mind and smiled at the aura she saw approaching her. "Daria!" she laughed. "What are you doing out here, you mad little wench?"
"Mad, am I?" Daria laughed in return. "One might very well say the same thing about you, standing up here all alone!"
They met halfway and embraced, grinning like children again. Daria was dressed in her leather combat armor, her hair braided into a long ponytail as it had been for her match with Garulf. Her rapier was in its sheath at her left hip, and she had an unlit lantern hanging from her belt.
"Did you come out here on my account?" the priestess asked.
"Aye, even so," the warrior-maid answered. "I thought you might be lonely up here, with your solemn duty and all that. Anyway, methinks I shall be as safe with you as anywhere else, and my company may help you to pass the time more quickly."
"True enough," Merai conceded. "And I shall be grateful to have you here, as foolish as it may have been for you to come. Come, let's make the rounds."
They began a slow patrol along the outer curtain wall, proceeding clockwise around the city of Metamor. In time the wind died down and a thick fog rolled in from the northwest, settling on the valley like a shroud. The lights of Metamor burned rather futilely against the murky darkness, as the fog concealed anything that was more than two meters away.
They had just entered the third hour of the first watch of the night when the chilled feeling began to run along the back of Merai's neck. She shivered involuntarily.
"What is it?" Daria murmured, sounding concerned.
"...They're here," Merai answered softly.
It began with a sound like whispering, distant voices conversing in secret all over the city. No words could be detected in that unsettling dialogue, but the hissing, breathy voices swirled around Merai and Daria and brushed at them as they passed. Once, Daria stopped suddenly, spun around and drew her blade, her head making quick, sharp motions in all directions as her eyes scanned the soupy air around them.
"Did you feel that?" she whispered. "Something just touched my neck."
"I felt it," Merai whispered back, "but your blade would do nothing against it. They're just mocking you. We'd best keep moving."
After a moment Daria nodded, and returned her sword to its scabbard. "Aye. I like that idea rather much," she said uneasily.
There was a faint sound like laughter as the two young women turned and continued on their lonely patrol.
Some time later Merai and Daria were approaching the south end of the curtain wall when a new sound assaulted their ears in the darkness. It was a great rustling noise, something akin to the flutter of leaves in the wind, but somehow more ominous.
"It sounds like..." Daria started to say, only to be broken off by a harsh, shrieking cry above and behind them.
"Birds," Merai finished. "Get down!"
They quickly sat down, and a moment later a torrent of black wings flew by not seven feet above them. Terrifyingly large shapes flew past them, heading south, occasionally letting out an ear-splitting screech as they passed.
"Black eagles," Merai said, when the last of them had gone. "I wonder where they're going."
As they stood up, Daria pointed south. "There, I'd say."
The warrior-woman had pointed towards the district of the market town where the valley's livestock were bought, sold, and butchered. Though it was unseen in the fog, the eagles had been flying in that direction, and from the sound of things had been getting ready to land. Moments after she spoke, Daria's point was reinforced by the agonized bleats and bellows of sheep and cattle. The hideous cries of the eagles mixed with the groans of their prey, a cacophony that echoed from the very mountains.
"I thought that killing was forbidden tonight," said Daria.
"It doesn't apply to animals," Merai answered grimly. "Besides, the market is outside Metamor proper."
Daria continued staring into the darkness for several seconds before turning away, ashen faced. "What will happen to the people who owned those cattle?" she asked. "Those birds could eat up half a year's income tonight."
"Methinks the Duke will help them somewhat," Merai said thoughtfully. "He's a wise and benevolent man. The Lothanasi will help as well, but our ability to aid them depends on the generosity of the faithful as a whole."
"Is there nothing you can do?"
Merai shook her head sadly. "To anger the master of Rage on this night by killing his chosen servants would welcome punishment upon the whole of Metamor."
"... Then let us go where we can be of some use."
Without another word, they turned away from the noises and began circling north again along the battlements.
"Do you hear that?"
Merai stopped and listened closely. "It sounds like a voice."
"A rather dreadful voice, at that," Daria added.
The priestess closed her eyes and listened again. It was a rather high-pitched, nasally voice, singing a tune that was badly off-key. She couldn't make out the words at this distance, but the voice rose and fell and quivered like a drunken man's.
"I think we should look into this," Merai said softly. "Come on."
They descended by the nearest set of stairs and came out onto a narrow side street that wound from west to east across the city. The drunken singing seemed to be coming from the northeast.
They followed the sound to an apothecary's shop located a little ways off the main road that ran through the center of town. As they got closer, they noticed that the windows of the shop had been broken, and the unsteady voice was coming from inside. The slurred and quavering lyrics were growing more understandable as they approached.
"Oh, I once knew a girl as
round as the moon
Wit' these purty brown eyes that would light up the room!
She was gentle and sweet-like, but none took her hand,
'Cause if she sat on yer lap ye could ne'er again stand!
So's I told 'er, 'Say, Missy! Lemme take ye away,
Ye can eat all ye want and be happy all day!'
So's I laid my ol' hand on the kind little lass,
And now the ol' cow spends her days eating grass!"
The door opened just as Daria reached for the handle, and a wizened little grey creature stumbled out. Its head was much too large for its body, and had long pointed ears that stuck out sideways. Its spindly little arms and legs were connected to large hands and feet with four digits each, and each finger or toe ended in a stubby black claw. The little wretch held a bottle of patent medicine in each hand, and reeked of alcohol from every pore it in its naked little body.
Wide-eyed, Merai and Daria looked inside the shop, and saw that every glass display case had been smashed. Empty drug bottles were strewn everywhere, most of them broken. Obscene doodles were scribbled on every flat surface in what appeared to be charcoal.
The two young women exchanged a glance, then looked back at the little creature that had, presumably, caused all this havoc. It was still standing there, tottering, mumbling drunkenly to itself, periodically drinking from one of the bottles it held. Then it stopped, seeming to notice them for the first time. The creature leaned forward, leering at them with its beady little red eyes.
"Whassamatter?" it asked, spreading its arms out in a comical gesture of innocence. "Ain'tcha never thsseen a drunken gremlin before?"
Merai said nothing, mostly because she couldn't think of anything appropriate. Daria looked back at the shop again, then back at the gremlin.
"Did you just ... drink everything in the store?" she asked, in a disbelieving tone of voice.
The little creature cackled. "Thhsssure did, lassy!" it lisped proudly. "And hell'th bellthss, whatta buzzth I've got! Hoo!"
With that, the imp turned and staggered off into the street. As it wandered into a pool of light from a nearby street lamp, there was a quiet whoosh, a squish, and a yelp of pain.
The gremlin cursed fitfully, spinning around uncertainly to stare up at the roof of the apothecary's shop. There was a crossbow bolt protruding through the center of its forehead.
"You flea-bitten bathstard!" it squealed. "Do you have any idea how much that thstingthss?"
Dropping the bottles and grabbing the bolt in both hands, the imp pulled it out of his head with a schlupp, broke it in half, and threw it up at the roof. With a final obscene gesture, the gremlin grabbed up its pilfered drugs and proceeded totteringly on its way, muttering softly.
Looking up at the roof, Merai and Daria saw a figure standing there with a crossbow in his hand. It was the same raccoon warrior who had spoken to Merai earlier. He looked profoundly dissatisfied.
"Damn," he said. Then a whisper of fog passed over the shop, and he was gone.
Daria looked at Merai, her face echoing the disbelief that Merai felt.
"Don't ask," Merai said, shaking her head. "I don't know either, so don't ask." Without another word, she turned and walked back towards the curtain wall. After one last look at the apothecary's shop, Daria followed her.
The second watch of the night was remarkably quiet, at least in those places Merai and Daria patrolled. They came across a few more gremlins, most of whom were defacing property or drinking or, more often, defacing property while drinking. Hells only knew where all the alcohol was coming from, though the fact that a caravan was presently stopped at the market town may have had something to do with it. For all their carousing and destruction of property, though, the maniacal little daedra weren't really hurting anybody, and as such were completely within their divine rights.
Fortunately, there was no sign of the more tangible, bloodthirsty creatures that the dark warrior had spoken of earlier, save the flock of black eagles they had already seen. It may have been that the shadowy hunter was taking care of them himself, if and when they appeared; if so, Merai was grateful for the help. She didn't want to imagine facing one of those shambler-creatures he had told her about.
Shortly after midnight, Merai and Daria were approaching the inner Keep again when a sound of wings came from behind them again.
"What now?" Daria muttered.
"Hush," Merai said. "It sounds like just one."
A few seconds later the creature came into view: a large mallard duck, circling dizzily around above the city. He saw them standing on the wall and quacked at them loudly.
"Look at me!" he cried. "I'm an eagle! I'm an eagle!" The duck gave another whoop of delight that ended in a garbled quack, then flew out of sight into the fog. His voice could still be heard for several minutes, proclaiming his newfound eaglehood.
They said nothing for a long moment, looking off in the direction where the bird had disappeared.
"I have never had a drink in my life," Daria said slowly. "But right now, I think I should like one."
Wordlessly, they headed for the Deaf Mule.
The tavern was crowded that night, as might have been expected, especially considering the madness going on outside. They took a seat in a booth along the wall opposite the bar, and presently Donny came over to take their orders.
"An ale, please," Daria said, a bit weary but still anticipating her first taste of adult drink. "Whatever's on tap."
The bovine barkeep looked closely at Daria's face, apparently recognized her, and nodded. Daria was legally an adult now, having reached her age of accountability, and an ale was well within her rights.
Donny turned and looked at Merai, with a small smile that seemed to dare her to try passing herself off as an adult.
"I'll have a bowl of soup, Master Donny," she said. "And a glass of milk, if you have any available."
The man nodded, then turned and walked back to the bar.
"He doesn't say much, does he?" Daria remarked.
"He's a barkeep," Merai answered simply. "His task is to listen."
Merai took another look around the Mule's main hall. There was a faintly smoky scent in the air, as though someone had been using a pipe earlier and had put it away. Most of the tables and booths were occupied, as were all but a scattered handful of seats at the bar. Some scouts were crowded around one of the billiards tables in a fairly lively (and noisy) match, and two or three people were playing at the dart boards. Most people were just chatting, drinking, and trying not to look outside. Nobody wanted to think about what might be going on out there.
Donny had just brought their drinks and Merai's soup and was walking back to the bar when the front door opened. A draft of cold air blew through the room, and a tall, slender woman of perhaps twenty-five years walked in, accompanied by a young man with a close-trimmed goatee and tousled blond hair. In her hand the woman held a leash, and on the leash was a large mastiff who walked obediently at her side.
Both the woman and the man were dressed in the style of Flatlands traders, with brightly colored tunics, leather jerkins, loose-fitting breeches and leather boots. They both wore gold earrings and bracelets, and the woman had several gold necklaces with a variety of gemstones set in them. Her hair was long and red like a fox's coat, and her eyes flashed vibrantly, even from across the room.
"Ah, now this is my sort of establishment!" she declared, casting an approving glance around the room. "Barkeep!" She turned and strode confidently over to the bar, flashing a smile full of pearly white teeth at Donny. "Two mugs of your best ale, if you please. We've been on the road a great many days, and I am dying for a draught of good beer."
Donny cast a disapproving glance at the woman's dog.
"What? Oh, old Jambris, is it? Don't worry, my good man, he's trained very well. Lie down, Jambris. There's a good dog." She smiled and scratched the dog's ears, as it settled happily to the floor at her feet.
The young man sat down beside the woman, chuckling softly as he looked down at the mastiff. Donny brought them their drinks without another word, and they settled down to talking quietly between themselves.
Daria, meanwhile, was just tasting her first sip of Donny's brew.
"What's it taste like?" Merai asked.
The redhead rolled it around in her mouth for a moment, swallowed, and considered. "Yeasty. Quite similar to bread, actually, but with another taste to it as well."
"That would be the alcohol, methinks."
"Aye. Suppose so." She took another drink, set down the mug, and looked at Merai closely. "Is something wrong?"
The priestess rubbed her arms absently. "I don't know," she said. "I've had this prickly feeling on the back of my neck all night -- I suspect it is the daedra's presence. When that gust of air came in the room just now, I think it worsened the chill."
In the mirror that lined the wall behind the bar, Merai thought she caught a glimpse of the trader woman looking at her, but the eye contact between them lasted only a moment before the stranger turned back to her companion. *Probably just looking around, the same as I,* Merai thought.
They ate and drank in silence for a while, the weight of their bizarre experiences silencing all small talk. Merai ordered a cup of tea after she had finished her soup, and Daria requested another beer.
"Mark how much you drink," Merai told her seriously. "You know not how much of that brew your body can handle."
"Worry not, Merai," Daria said with a laugh. "This shall be my last, I promise."
Merai said nothing more, nursing her tea in an effort to drive the chill from her bones. The roaring fire in the hearth seemed to be doing nothing to make her any warmer.
A few moments later, Merai caught a flicker of motion in the corner of her eye. She turned, looking over the room, but she didn't sense anything out of the ordinary, other than the same oppressive chill that had hung in the air all evening. Rubbing her eyes, she returned to her drink.
A minute or so passed, and the flicker happened again -- but this time, Merai distinctly sensed it as some sort of energy, reaching out through the room. She looked intently over the entire tavern, searching beyond sight for the source of the power she had felt. But it was already gone, either having hit its target or diffused through the room, and no energy source was apparent within sight. The tingling on Merai's neck grew slightly chillier, sending a shiver down her spine.
"What is it?" Daria asked, noting her friend's behavior. "The cold again?"
"Nay. 'Tis something more than cold at work here," Merai answered quietly, continuing to survey the crowd. "Some sort of magic is in play, but I cannot spot whence it comes."
Daria frowned, her hand straying to the hilt of her sword. "What would you have me do?"
"Keep watch for anything suspicious," Merai whispered back, without looking at her friend. "But don't stare at anyone for too long, lest someone take notice of us."
Several more minutes went by before Merai noticed something peculiar: The group of scouts at the billiards table were becoming even rowdier than before. They were all jesting and laughing loudly -- which was not so unusual in itself, since they had all been drinking -- but two of the scouts, female TGs, seemed to have much more exaggerated figures than they had earlier. They had a strange look on their faces, the sort of look Merai's mother often got before she shooed Merai out of the house to spend time with her father. Both women had unbuttoned their shirts partway, so that their impressive bosoms were quite prominently displayed. As Merai watched, one of the women drew close to one of the men in their group, said something to him, then wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. They held each other in the embrace and kissed again and again, their hands running over each other's bodies.
Merai blinked in astonishment and rubbed her eyes again. Then she noticed that the second woman was doing much the same thing with another scout. At a nearby table, a woman was sitting on a man's lap, straddling him as he ran his hands over her chest. At another table, a fox-morph woman climbed on top of the table and began dancing suggestively, taking off pieces of clothing and dropping them on the howling, cheering men gathered around her.
"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Merai asked Daria.
"I ... I'm seeing what you're seeing, but I know not whether I can be seeing what I am seeing," the redhead answered, sounding a bit dazed. "Is this the daedra's work?"
"Either that, or Velena herself is quite drunk tonight," Merai answered.
"What shall we do?"
"Just stay quiet for now. If the one is here whom I believe to be here, she is in disguise. I shall confront her once I know who she is."
"Be careful!" Daria hissed. "These creatures are dangerous, Merai."
"And you think I did not know that?" Merai countered. "Now stay quiet. Look for anyone who appears unaffected by this madness."
Looking more closely, Merai saw now that a number of people were not participating in the insanity going on around them; in fact, they were not doing anything at all, only sitting rigidly upright, immobile and oblivious. Merai recognized one of them as Misha Brightleaf, the Long Patrolman, and another as Copernicus, the lizard scout. In fact, all of the immobilized people Merai recognized were Patildor, members of the Ecclesia. Idly, she wondered if this was the only effect the daedra's magic could have on them.
Merai looked back at the billiards table. One of the women was sitting on the edge of the table, her legs wrapped around her partner. With Merai looking on, she leaned back onto the felt-covered surface, the man readily moving with her.
Then Merai noticed the two strangers at the bar again--
And immediately, her vision piercing through the haze and illusion, Merai saw her foes.
The woman was breathing out an aetherial red smoke that drifted around the room, being drawn into the lungs of the people in the large but poorly-ventilated tavern hall. The young man who was with her was making subtle gestures and hand movements here and there around the room, each time sparking a change in form from one of the bar's patrons. The discreet little spells had enough power behind them to send chills through Merai's spine in both directions. The massive dog at the woman's feet seemed, all of a sudden, to become a thin disguise over something much more powerful and monstrous, something whose eyes flashed and glittered red as the mastiff watched Merai.
Inwardly, the priestess debated what she should do. Strictly speaking, no one was being hurt by the magic the daedra were spreading, and the dark ones' divine rights allowed them virtually any indulgence that did not lead to a mortal's harm. Would Merai be acting responsibly to demand that they leave?
She looked around the room once more, as if seeking guidance from those being enchanted all around her. Off in one corner of the room, Merai spotted Celine -- the acolyte who had been so kind to her -- being drawn willingly into the arms of a tall weasel-morph that Merai did not recognize. Celine, Merai knew, was betrothed to Jonathan Caroway, another acolyte and a fine gentleman. The two loved each other very much, or so it seemed to Merai, and were pledged to marry come the spring. And yet here was Celine -- a woman as dedicated to the ideals of Lady Velena as the world had ever seen -- about to give herself to another. All because of the manipulations of these daedra.
Merai set her jaw. This was harm, real harm, being done by the dark ones -- not harm of the body, but harm of the soul. She knew now what had to be done.
"Stay here," she said quietly to Daria. Taking a deep breath, she got up from the booth and approached the two strangers at the bar. The woman's "dog" growled menacingly as Merai drew near.
The woman turned and looked at Merai, her lip twisting into a wry grin. "Hail and well met, priestess," she said smoothly.
"My lady," Merai replied, with a fractional inclination of her head. "I trust you are enjoying yourselves this night?" she added dryly.
"Very much so, my dear!" the woman laughed, a sound that made the Keeper girl's blood run cold. "And so are most of these folk, from the looks of things."
"I doubt very much that they will be as happy when dawn comes and they discover what you have led them to do."
The seeming-trader snorted derisively, as her companion giggled once to himself. "That's the trouble with you Lothanasi," she said, taking another drink from her mug. "You're all so damned inhibited that you can't bear to see anyone else having a little fun. My associate and I are simply helping them to ... release their tensions, you might say."
"Meaningless unions such as these are far from innocent fun!" Merai retorted. "They cause scars on the soul that can never be wholly undone. You are leaving these poor folk with stains on their consciences, guilt and shame that will last a lifetime!"
"And what would you know of this, Merai hin'Dana?" the other woman shot back, turning on the priestess with a menacing glare. There was a flash of red in those dark, mysterious eyes. "How much do you really understand of what you see happening around you now? Have you ever experienced these emotional scars of which you speak? Or are you merely repeating my elder sister's propaganda?"
Merai swallowed. In these matters, she knew only that which she had been taught, both by her parents and by the Lightbringer and her acolytes. It held the ring of truth to her ears, but the fact was that her own discreet observations of her parents told her little about what she was seeing now. If she rose to the daedra's bait, she would likely cross the line of reasonable conduct and begin an argument she had little chance of winning, due to her lack of experience if nothing else. The Daedra Lords were among the most clever and deceptive orators the world had ever known, and given half the chance they could almost certainly persuade someone that the sky was green and the oceans red. After all, Merai had already seen them persuade a duck that he was an eagle...
The Dark One must have sensed Merai's indecision, because she quickly pressed her argument. "The universe is chaos, Merai," she said, quietly and soberly. "It was born out of chaos, and in chaos it will one day perish. Order is contrary to the very nature of things, so when we create disorder, we are aiding in the universe in its natural course." She leaned in towards Merai, gesturing with one hand to emphasize her point. "Order leads to weakness, Merai. The unworthy and undeserving prosper, and the vitality of the whole is diminished. You need look no further than the average noble house to see the effects: the foolish, the deformed, the mad, the sickly, and the stupid fill the bloodlines of the nobility through all the world!" She clenched her fist, her eyes flashing passionately. "Think of it, Merai: No people on earth give more thought to their mates than the nobility. They select their mates with an eye towards creating the perfect specimens, the strongest and purest in blood and breed. Yet no people on earth are as polluted by frailties of mind and body as the ruling caste. That is the result of careful and orderly breeding, Merai! The average shepherd's dog has more strength and vitality in its members, and they breed with no thoughts toward anything but satisfying their basic desires! Can you really say that your way is better?"
"Man is more than an animal, my Lady," Merai insisted, her sympathy for Celine driving her to continue in the dangerous debate. "The All-Father has given him a soul that makes him higher and nobler than the low creatures of the earth. It is the soul that is being wounded by your actions, not the body."
The daedra smiled tightly. "Look around you, Merai," she said. "Mark you well what is happening here. Look!"
Submissively, Merai turned and looked, yet again, at her surroundings. The room was littered with men and women engaging in loud, raucous and unruly behaviors that would have made a sailor cough and avert his eyes. It was mad, utterly mad, all of it. They were acting positively ... inhuman.
"There's your noble ape, Merai," the woman whispered in her ear. "There's your human soul in action."
"But you have done this to them!" Merai said angrily.
"We have done nothing but loose them from the inane lessons of 'morality' that have been drummed into them incessantly since the time of their birth," the daedra countered. "Look at them, Merai. Man is an animal, no better or worse than any other. Chaos is the way of your kind, your natural bent. It brings you pleasure to behave in this way, because you are acting in accordance with your nature. Why should we not help you to embrace that?"
Merai bit her lip, shaking her head. "It isn't right," she said. "We can be ... better than our natures ... nobler than our basest emotions. We can choose."
"But is that the right choice?" the seeming woman asked quietly. "Is that truly the choice you want to make, Merai? Look closely before you speak."
So Merai looked -- and she kept on looking. She watched the men and women moaning in ecstasy, shrieking in delight, laughing and giggling and making any number of other, more guttural sounds. Somewhere inside her mind, a little voice told her that she should not be watching such things -- this was the business of adult folk, and it belonged in the privacy of bedchambers, not the public forum of the tavern. *Leave now,* the voice urged. *Go find Raven. She will deal with this. Do not look at these things any longer.*
But as she watched, she found that she did not wish to stop watching. It was the same curiosity that had driven her, on many occasions, to peer through the crack in the wall at her parents, as they engaged in the usual behavior of married folk. She had desires of her own -- desires she had never spoken of to anyone -- desires that had left her lying awake in bed at night, imagining what might be, what could be ... what she wished to be. She saw the pleasure her parents shared and wondered what it was like, what they felt, what they experienced. She was, after all, a teenager, a developing young woman, and the changes in her own body were sparking changes in her thoughts and emotions. And now, as she watched the behaviors of the men and women around her, scarcely even considering the significance of what she was doing, Merai opened her mind and heart to those thoughts and feelings.
And suddenly the world ... stopped.
There was a flash of light, a cloud of red smoke, and then Merai turned to see her adversaries in their full and malevolent glory. The woman -- Lady Suspira, the Mistress of Lust -- was dressed from head to toe in her usual red leather, with high-heeled boots and a whip that hung from her belt. The young man did not change in outward appearance, but Merai suddenly knew him as Lord Klepnos, the Master of Madness and Folly. The dog grew in size, its flesh became red, and its muzzle distorted into a nearly reptilian nightmare of bones and teeth, while its paws grew wicked claws like a dragon's talons. A Hound -- Merai shivered at the very sight of the monstrous creature, as it snarled and bared its teeth at her.
All action in the room had ground to a halt, and everyone save Merai and the daedra was frozen in place, suddenly oblivious to their surroundings. Somewhere in an insanely rational corner of her mind, Merai idly wondered if time had actually stopped or if this was yet another enchantment on the tavern itself.
Suspira grinned. "Thank you, my dear. That was all that I needed." She stretched a hand out, claw-like, toward Merai. The young priestess moved to bring up her hands in a defensive spell that Raven had taught her, but she froze in mid-action, suddenly unable to move. Dark, choking tendrils wrapped around her soul and clutched at her heart, as sinister fingers of thought probed through every fold and corner of her mind. Then the daedra raised her outstretched arm, and Merai lifted slowly into the air.
"Wha--" Merai gasped, scarcely able even to speak.
Suspira's eyes narrowed. "Foolish whelp!" she hissed. "Did you think your feeble powers could protect you from us? You are nothing! A single, concerted thought -- an isolated instant of lust -- was all I needed to enter your mind and take hold of your greatest weakness." She seemed to be gloating now, as she took a few steps closer to Merai. "You haven't the strength or the discipline to stop me now that I'm inside--" she smiled wickedly "--so relax, and allow me to show you the error of your ways. Discover the pleasures to be found as one of my servants."
She turned and beckoned to her companion. "Klepnos, if you would be so kind?"
"Heh. Right. Kind," the apparent youth chuckled, his eyes going wide as he looked at Merai hanging helpless before him. Extending a hand towards Merai, he made a small gesture in the air. Immediately the young woman gasped, as her flesh itself began to crawl and twitch beneath her skin. It was a strange feeling, not painful as such, but it felt inexpressibly odd, and disturbingly wrong. The Master of Folly continued making small, deliberate movements with his hands -- pointing here, waving there, often moving his hands like a potter over invisible clay -- and the feelings intensified. It felt as if Merai was being pushed, pulled, and stretched in a hundred directions at once.
She tried to scream, but her lips would not move and no sound came from her throat. She fought to raise her arms, to summon some sort of protective shield, but she was immobilized and defenseless. All her training, all her endless hours of instruction in the ways of the Lothanasi, every guard and defense she had at her disposal was rendered useless by a moment of selfish weakness -- and now this Daedra Lord, this madman, was twisting and shaping her to his liking. If Merai had not been paralyzed, she would have shuddered in fear.
The terrifying sensations seemed to drag on into eternity. Merai felt a shifting of her clothes against her skin, and a cold chill touched her body as her robe somehow fluttered away. She felt a sudden, growing pressure in her chest, and a tingling sensation below her waist. Her eyes could still move and look about as she willed, but Merai kept them fixed on the mad Daedra Lord before her, afraid to see what was being done to her in the mirror behind the bar.
Finally, the shiftings and changings came to an end. Suspira looked up with an expression of approval, idly wrapping a lock of her silky red hair around one finger. "Very nice," she said. "Excellent work, Klepnos."
Fearfully, Merai looked up at the mirror -- and once again felt a gasp leap from her throat. The woman looking back at her from behind the glass was just that -- a woman. Not a child, nor a teenager, but a woman in the full bloom of adulthood.
And she was beautiful! Long, silky brown hair, a heart-shaped face with perfect features, and an exquisitely formed body, with full and shapely breasts to catch the eye of any man. Her robe, as she had guessed, had fallen to the floor during the change, leaving her dressed in only her undergarments -- which had themselves become creations of satin and lace, rather than simple and unadorned linen.
Merai was awestruck at the sight of it all. She, Merai the plain, Merai the ordinary, Merai the common peasant, now had virtually the body of a goddess. This was a form men would notice. This was a body they would find attractive. She would be the envy of all of Metamor. Men would flock to her like birds to Artela's hand...
*No!* she told herself fiercely, squeezing her eyes shut to block out the sight. This was wrong, all of it, terribly wrong. She was beautiful now, aye, but it was a beauty crafted to the purposes of the Lady Suspira. If Merai surrendered to this temptation, if she accepted this form that the daedra had forced on her, she would make herself into the dark one's servant. As long as she had any will left in her, she would not allow that to happen.
In spite of Merai's internal resolve, Suspira did not seem at all concerned. The daedric woman nodded in satisfaction. "Aye, that shall be perfect," she announced. Lifting her right hand, she snapped her fingers once, and Merai fell to the floor, breathing heavily. In the back of her mind, Suspira's claws kept a firm hold on her.
"You ... are wasting ... your time, Suspira," Merai breathed wearily, putting as much spite and defiance into the words as she had strength to summon. "I shall ... never ... surrender to you ... no matter what you do to me."
Suspira laughed, an amused smile playing on the corners of her lips. "How positively adorable," she mused. "The little wretch still thinks that she can resist my call, Klepnos. Can you believe that?"
Klepnos chuckled, as he merrily began turning one of the nearby Keepers into a cockroach. Time still stood frozen, to all appearances, and when he failed to get any reaction from the unfortunate Keeper he abandoned the task, leaving the man with a human torso protruding from a giant roach-like body.
"I believe a further demonstration is in order," Suspira noted, walking up to Merai and placing a hand on her head.
Instantly, Merai's world exploded in a swirling mass of emotions. Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch flooded her brain in a surge of raw, animal sensations, a flood so intense that her conscious mind foundered beneath them. And amidst all the emotions that suddenly churned in the forefront of her existence, a single impression rose above all: a yearning, overwhelming need, a hunger such as Merai had never known, that clawed at the walls of her mind and begged to be satisfied.
This, Merai had no strength left to fight. The girl-turned-woman cried out, bent double on the floor in mental and emotional chaos. And then her mind fell, down, down, into the maelstrom.
Suspira smiled again in satisfaction, the Keeper girl collapsing beneath her touch as the mind-spell she had woven went to work. Suddenly the formerly-little priestess went silent and, after a few moments, slowly raised her head again. She sucked in a deep breath, then let it out in a soft moan, looking up at Suspira. In those rich, reddish brown eyes there was only the barest glimmer of conscious thought, but emotions flickered and flashed like a lightning storm. And one emotion, one feeling rose above all in those twin mahogany pools: Pure, unquenched lust. The very sight of it brought a thrill of glee to the dark one's heart.
But there was confusion in those eyes, as well -- the confusion of Merai's rational mind, which sought desperately to come to terms with what was happening to it. Confusion, and great, terrible fear.
"Poor little Merai," Suspira said, putting on an expression of pity. "Always wanting to know what's behind the door, on the far side of the curtain, under the covers. Always wanting to see just a little bit more of what the grown-ups do. And always spending just a little too much time wondering what it is like." She reached out her hand once again towards the child, caressing her chin with mock tenderness. "How would you like the opportunity to find out exactly what it is like, Merai? You're dying to know, aren't you, child?"
Suspira would have thought the girl ready to leap out of her skin at that. "Yes! Yes, please!" she gasped, though her eyes immediately showed that she felt betrayed by her own being.
"I thought so," the daedra grinned. Turning to one side, she put her hand to her chin in a show of pondering. "Now, for this game, you need a partner, Merai." She turned, and again the small, knowing smile. "But you already knew that, didn't you? You even knew which partner you wanted, before he was taken from you."
The woman-child winced, but only for a moment. Suspira nearly had her now, and the girl's hunger was greater than her shame. It was a false hunger, of course, and like all the daedra's tricks it was no more substantial than mist -- but it was a mist so thick and heavy around Merai's mind that it clouded her from perceiving anything else.
The Mistress of Lust stepped forward to whisper in Merai's ear. "He can still be yours, Merai. You can have anyone you want -- well, almost anyone," she amended, waving a dismissive hand in the direction of the frozen Patildor across the room. "And he can be just the way you want him, Merai. Just the way you imagined him. My associate here can see to that." She gestured at Klepnos. "Just say the word, Merai. Say his name, and he shall be yours."
She could sense the cauldron that churned inside the girl, a sea of conflicting thoughts and desires, concerns and emotions.
"Dľ ... D-d-..." Merai stuttered, turning around to look at her friend, still frozen in the booth at the other side of the tavern. There was pain in her eyes, and fear -- but the lust, always the lust, was strong, and it was ever growing. Suspira channeled even more of her energies into the girl's mind. This effort was straining her to the limit, but it would all be worth it if she could claim the prize of this child's soul.
"Yes...?" Suspira prodded, pushing a bit harder on the girl's mind.
And then, it snapped. "D-Daren!" Merai exclaimed. "Daren!"
"And Daren it shall be!" the daedra proclaimed triumphantly, gesturing to Klepnos. The Prince of Fools chuckled to himself and waved a hand at Daria.
Instantly the redheaded girl became unfrozen, shuddering once as the spell lifted. "M--Merai?" she asked uncertainly. "What--"
"Heh. What, she says. What, indeed?" Klepnos mused. Then his hands darted out again, going once more like a potter to the clay.
A fraction of an instant later, the magical sensations reached the girl. "Merai, what... what's happening? Merai!" Daria shouted, suddenly, as her form began to shift. Her face had rapidly gone from confusion to panic. "What's happening to me?! Merai!"
"Hehehe... make a new man out of you, aye, I will..." Klepnos muttered, narrowing his bloodshot eyes in concentration as a grin spread across his face.
Daria's body began to grow, splitting her clothes at the seams. Her chest broadened as her breasts shrunk; her face became firmer and more angular; her hips and buttocks grew less rounded and pronounced; and muscles rippled outward all over her body, her limbs becoming strong and masculine. Then Daria cried out -- in shock or pain, no one could tell -- as a bulge grew out between her legs, becoming greater and greater with every passing instant, until at last Daria's breeches split apart to reveal the thing Suspira saw in so many of Merai's passing fantasies.
In truth, there was little to compare between this Daren and the one Merai had known. His face was truly handsome -- godlike, if any mortal could have the arrogance to claim that term -- and not a smattering of freckles remained. He was far taller and more muscular than Daren had ever been, and his flame-red hair reached down to his shoulders like the hair of Merai's mother-father, Dana. But Suspira knew better than to let Klepnos make the boy wholly different from what Merai had known; for there was a glint, a sparkle in those crystal blue eyes, that showed that this was, in fact, Daren hin'Leon, in mind if not in body.
And with one look at Merai's own eyes, Suspira could see that she recognized him, too -- and wanted him. Terribly.
Daren, to his credit, seemed to have at least a small notion of what had happened. Of course, Suspira herself had made sure that Daria followed the conversation, frozen or not. "Merai, why? What did you do to me?" he asked in a wondering voice.
"Poor boy, you never were smart enough to see it," Suspira chided him. "She wanted you for years, but you never saw the desire behind her friendship." She spread her hands wide. "There were too many exciting things to do to worry about 'silly girl business', eh, Daren? That's why you liked Merai so much in the first place! She was a tomboy, a mischief maker! You could relate to her!"
Merai looked back and forth anxiously between Suspira and her Daren, like a puppy wanting to be let out to play. Actually, that was not far from the truth: Merai's reasoning mind had been so submerged beneath her raw passions and urges that she was now little more than an animal. Only the daedra's firm grip on her mind kept her from leaping onto the object of her "affections".
"I don't understand!" the man-boy exclaimed, his face full of confusion. "Do you mean that Merai ... Merai loved me?"
Suspira snorted derisively. "Love. What a wonderfully inane concept." She had waited long enough -- Merai was ready. She snapped her fingers, and immediately Daren's questioning expression was replaced by something else: raw, unreasoning animal lust. "Go on, children. Mummy wants her supper."
They needed no further encouragement. As soon as Suspira's invisible grip on them was released, the transformed and mind-addled youths threw themselves at each other, tearing clothing to shreds, knocking over tables and chairs, and degenerating into a writhing mass of rough and savage kisses, caresses, howls and moans. Suspira and Klepnos looked on with pride at their handiwork.
"This will be rather disturbing for them, I imagine," she remarked to her companion. "Doing this to each other, at Merai's urging and all that. I think that when they come to their senses they will likely go quite mad."
"Heheheh," the tousled-haired "young man" giggled. "Some are born mad, some achieve madness, and some have madness thrust upon them, eh?" He laughed uproariously at his own pun, and Suspira joined him.
"Klepnos, dear coz, you are truly wonderful company!" Suspira proclaimed, putting a hand around his shoulder. Klepnos giggled, as his neck suddenly stretched out like a serpent's, turning round and planting a kiss fully on Suspira's lips. She returned it for a moment, then broke the kiss and flicked her finger at the mad lord's nose. His neck snapped back into his body like rubber, his head wagging back and forth a few times for effect.
It was about then that Suspira felt her eyes begin to glow red, the red mists around her growing thicker in anticipation. Power was beginning to flow back to her from the pathetic, writhing beasts on the floor, payback for the energy she had expended to bring them to this point. She was still horribly spent, but not for much longer. She could see the energy inside the girl Merai, a raw, unfocused power bound up in the child's very soul. To the daedra's eyes, the priestess's heart pulsed and glowed like a tiny, fiery sun -- more energy than had ever been seen on the Earth in the heart of a mortal being. The Enemy had invested a great deal of power in this one, so much that every heaven and hell was shaken at the thought of it.
But in only a few moments, it would all be for naught. For as soon as the girl climaxed, her very soul would be laid open to Suspira -- and she would drain the little wretch dry.
Unfortunately for Suspira, it was at that moment -- with bare minutes to go between her and the greatest meal she could ever know -- that the door to the tavern burst open, and the radiant light of heaven shot through the room like a firestorm.
The Hound whimpered and cowered, and the two daedra covered their eyes, as a swirling, fiery divine presence entered the room. In the center of it all, running through the door with her accursed talisman in hand, was the Lothanasa.
"Let her go, dark one!" the wolfen priestess demanded, holding her twin cross before her like a shield. "You will not have this child!"
Recovering from the initial onslaught, Suspira straightened up and stood her ground. Merai and Daren continued unabated. If she could only delay the attack for a minute or two more...
"Is that so, Lightbringer?" Suspira snarled back. "And who are you to say what can and cannot be mine? Jambris!"
The Hound had also recovered by this time, and with a roar the daedric beast leapt at the priestess, claws outstretched. The predator was terrifyingly fast to any mortal eye, and the Lothanasa was knocked brutally to the floor. She cried out, a howling wail of pain, as the Hound laid into her with long, ripping swipes.
But the result was not what Suspira had hoped. Somewhere in the swirling cloud that was Merai hin'Dana's mind, the screams of the Lightbringer reached the girl's consciousness.
"Sister Raven!" she cried.
"No!" the daedra shouted, suddenly realizing her terrible mistake. But it was too late -- for then, with a sound like a mighty thunderclap, Suspira's enchantment shattered.
It was only Sister Raven's screams that pierced the shroud of lustful emotions that had buried Merai within her own mind. The sound shot through the swirling red mists like a shaft of silvered light, and with a snap Merai came suddenly back into awareness.
"Sister Raven!" she cried out, extricating herself from Daren's arms and leaping to her feet in a flash. Training and instinct instantly directed her to the most immediate danger: the Hound of hell was tearing viciously into Raven with talons that were all too real. Somehow, Merai knew instantly what she must do.
"Back! Get back, demon dog!" she ordered, stretching out her hand toward the unholy beast. A bolt of crackling white energy shot from her fingertips, the power flowing as naturally as water, and the Hound leapt into the air with an ear-splitting shriek. It spun to face Merai and backed away, snarling and roaring. Merai grabbed her twin-cross amulet -- that, at least, had not been taken from her -- and held it out towards the beast. Again, the clerical spell came effortlessly: the gold talisman glowed white, and the Hound was pushed back by an unseen force, skidding across the floor and leaving deep gouges in the wood with its claws.
Kneeling at Raven's side, Merai laid a hand on her stomach, where the worst of the damage had been done. Reaching out with the Light Healing, her mind spun down and to the left, and she was suddenly surrounded by torn and bleeding tissues. Quickly, expertly, with skill that came both from training and a natural prowess she did not even begin to suspect existed, Merai bound up her Lothanasa's wounds until only a few shallow scratches and scrapes remained. Spiraling up and out again, Merai looked up at the Hound, still snarling a few yards away. The entire process had taken only a few seconds, and in a moment Raven was on her feet as well, a rose-colored shaft of energy flowing into her from the swirling lights that filled the room.
"Thank you," the wolf-woman said simply, her attention immediately focused on the Hound before them. The creature had regained its courage and was advancing again.
"Come on, you thrice-damned cur," Raven snarled. "You'll find I have a bit more bite in me now!"
Once again the Hound roared and leapt. It still moved with terrible haste, but this time the Lothanasa was ready. Reaching into her robes with a speed hastened by divine power, she drew in a flash the holy sword Merai had used at the ceremony. The silvery blade lashed out, humming softly beneath the roars of the beast, and cut deeply into daedric conjured flesh. The Hound screeched its pain, passing over Raven to crash upon the table behind her. Its wounds oozed a black liquid that turned to smoke as it hit the floor. Raven brandished the blade again, and the creature cowered back before her, running to hide behind its mistress.
"Will you now attack me with your little silver tooth, Lightbringer?" Suspira asked, her voice dangerous. The fingernails on her hands lengthened into sharp, wicked talons, and she seemed to grow in size before them. "I think you will find me a most deadly opponent."
"I do not need to fight you, Mistress Suspira," Raven said seriously. Wordlessly, Merai drew alongside her, again directed by a silent impression whose source she now began to guess at. "Did you truly think that I would come alone?"
Suddenly, the light that surrounded the two priestesses coalesced into two figures -- Akkala on their right, Velena on their left. Merai had seen neither of them before this night, yet she knew them immediately by their auras, the radiant shrouds of rose and red that surrounded them and shimmered in the white robes they wore. If not for the danger of the circumstances and the rush of adrenaline, Merai might have been stricken dumb with awe at the sight of these two beautiful, radiant Women of Heaven. This night, however, some unseen force was strengthening her, beyond what she could have imagined.
"What are you doing here, sisters?" Suspira hissed, virtually spitting the last word. "We are well within the rights of our treaty!"
"There are greater rights in play this night than yours, Suspira," Akkala said sternly. "You have tried to steal that which was not destined for you."
"Lord Kammoloth is most displeased," Velena added, her blue eyes full of steel. "You know the dangers of meddling with prophecy! And there is another who seeks to deal with you, as well."
A soft white light suddenly appeared, swirling around the two daedra lords like a glowing cloud and slowly hemming them in. A voice like a young woman's spoke from within the light.
"You are no longer welcome in Metamor," the voice said, echoing strangely around the room. "Leave my home, Lord and Lady, or we shall grant the mortals power to evict you."
Suspira's face contorted in impotent rage. "You shall pay dearly for this, Kyia," she hissed menacingly. "Though it take me ten thousand years, I shall see you scattered to the four winds for this insult!"
A flash of light passed from the goddesses to the two mortal women, and Merai felt a fresh surge of power within her bones. Fearlessly, she and Raven approached the Daedra Lords, huddled back to back in the glowing ring of Kyia's presence. The Hound crouched at their feet, whimpering.
"Stay away from me!" Suspira demanded, but the two priestesses stretched out their arms on either side of the daedra, and a ring of light appeared on the floor. Merai felt no fear now, only a firm determination to do what must be done. Here, at least, her training had instructed her well.
"Begone, dark ones!" Raven ordered, her voice loud and strong. "Autalye, essenen Kammalotho!"
"Essenen Kammalotho!" Merai repeated. "Autalye! Autalye, moreri!"
Light channeled through Raven and Merai and into the ring, shooting up on all sides of the daedra and spiraling around them. The floor sprang into light, glowing with such pure, white radiance that its features could no longer be seen.
"No!" Suspira shouted, as her form began to dissolve into red mist. "No, damn you all, I was so close! I was so close!"
The Master of Madness and the Hound likewise began to break apart, their forms coming undone in the light of Heaven. The mists swirled together and fell toward the floor, as if some great vacuum were drawing them into the circle of light.
"No! No!" Suspira called out again, her voice ringing thinly around them as her essence was drawn down into banishment. "No! Lightbringer ... you ... bitch!" And with a final wail, she was gone.
The column of light vanished, the circle faded, and not a puff of unholy smoke remained.
"Precisely," Raven growled, with a predatory grin.
With the departure of the daedra, the paralysis spell on the tavern shuddered, cracked, and shattered to splinters. The enchantment on the patrons' minds, unfortunately, was more persistent, the energy having been transferred directly from Suspira to the souls of the men and women she touched. They continued in their savage acts of revelry as if nothing whatsoever had happened.
"My Lady Velena," Merai said, turning to the Goddess of Love and lowering her eyes respectfully. "Can you do anything for these poor people?"
"Easily, child," the goddess replied with a smile. "And I do not wish to allow my sister to reap any more power this night, in any case." Stretching forth her hand, the silk-clad maiden moved her palm in a sweeping arc over the entire room, bathing it in a warm red glow. The men and women of the Deaf Mule stopped in mid-act, shook their heads and blinked as if coming out of a trance -- which, in fact, they were. What followed was a long, embarrassing moment of silence, several minutes in length, in which the people Suspira had enchanted looked at Raven, back at each other, then quickly disentangled themselves with bright red faces and nary a sound. It seemed that the goddesses were invisible to them, at least in bodily form, but their divine presence was unmistakable. There was a quiet rustling as humiliated Keepers retrieved their clothing, and Merai did so as well -- though her robe did not fit her altered body quite so well.
"Your physical changes will last until sunrise," Velena told Merai. "Even I cannot change that. You may also feel stirrings of the enchantment that was on you, but you must resist it." She put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Surrendering to lust, even now, would open your heart to my sister once again. Though she is weakened, she could not fail to seize such an opportunity."
"I understand," Merai nodded, her cheeks blushing with shame and embarrassment as she bowed before the Woman.
The goddesses turned their attentions to Raven. "We must be off now, dearest Raven," said Akkala. "There are many hours yet between us and the morning sun, and this is not our night."
"As you say, my Ladies," Raven replied, bowing before them. "All the same, the worst of the night has passed, and I look to the dawn with hope."
"As do we all," Velena smiled. Then, in a flash of light, they were gone.
Slowly, Merai got to her feet. All around the tavern, people were looking at themselves, their neighbors, their erstwhile partners, and the general state of chaos that the room was in. Daren was examining himself closely in the mirror, running a hand over his face in disbelief.
Quietly, Raven drew alongside Merai, returning her sword to its sheath beneath her robes. Leaning in close to the girl's ear, she whispered, "I think we had better talk."
Merai sat on the cold stone of the battlements, looking numbly out towards the east. Raven sat beside her, fingering her talisman thoughtfully.
"Well," she said. "Obviously you have had quite a night."
Merai let out a long, dejected sigh. "Damn this head of mine to the seventh hell," she muttered. "I am a fool, and worse. I have no right to stand with the Lothanasi."
"Mind you what curses you call upon yourself," Raven said sternly. Then, more gently, "You have learned a valuable lesson this night, Merai. And you have survived."
"Barely, and thanks to you," Merai answered bitterly.
Raven chuckled. "By an inch or a furlong, survival is survival. Besides, it was not I who broke your enchantment. Only you could do that."
Merai frowned. "But Lady Velena canceled the enchantments on all of those other people."
"Aye, but that was after Suspira had gone -- and the dark one had been more deeply inside your head than those others. When a Daedra Lord turns its full attentions on you, no outsider can break the spell until it has been banished. It took great strength of will to do what you did."
"So why did I not have that strength of will before I heard you scream?" Merai asked. "Or for that matter, before she had even gotten inside my head?"
"You made a mistake," Raven said simply. "You allowed your baser desires to blind you. It is a common enough error in youth."
"And a deadly one!"
Raven put her hand on Merai's shoulder. "We cannot expect always to do perfectly, Merai, especially not at your young age. There is no shame in mistakes, unless you fail to learn from them. Let this be a lesson to you, that a Lightbringer must be pure. You must learn to discipline your mind and control your thoughts -- to be mistress of yourself in both mind and body. Even a small trace of impurity in your heart can be seen and exploited by the foul powers of the hells."
Merai hung her head and sighed again in exasperation. "But if we cannot expect to always be perfect, than how can we expect to remove all impurities?" she asked. "How can we fight the darkness when there is darkness in all of us?"
Raven smiled. "A fair question. And that in itself is the reason we must stand together. One priest alone cannot stand forever against the shadow -- but where there are two or more, one may be strong when the other fails. All of us are bound up together in our fate, Merai."
The younger priestess nodded. "I just wish that I could be like you, Sister Raven," she said glumly. "You are so strong, so sure. You never falter."
"... Is that what you think?" Raven asked quietly, after a moment. "You believe that I have never failed? That I do not fail now? You give me far more credit than I am due, Merai. Nay, I'll admit it," she added, waving off Merai's automatic protest. "I am no Lucien, no Magnus, and no Valaria -- though I hope to be, one day. You have not seen me in my greatest failures."
The wolfen Lothanasa was silent a long time, the newly stirring wind blowing now and again in her hair. At last she spoke.
"I told you once that there were powers on this earth that you were not ready to hear of," she said soberly. "I believe that you are ready now to at least hear some of it. Have you heard of the Fallen?"
"Yes, of course," Merai answered readily. "Supposed monsters that cannot be seen, heard, touched or smelt, who seize mortals by the heart and bend them to their will. Some say they were the first children of the All-Father. A fairy story to frighten children."
"That is indeed what they are often made out to be," the wolf-woman agreed. "But the truth is more fearful, as I must tell you. The Fallen do exist, Merai -- terrifying beings of pure spirit. They are all too real."
Merai looked at Raven, a shocked and frightened expression on her face. "Lothanasa ... you have encountered these creatures?"
The older priestess nodded, her expression haunted. "Once," she said. "And pray that I should go to the end of my days without doing so again."
Merai swallowed. "What happened?"
Raven turned her pale blue eyes on the younger woman. "It was eleven years ago," she said. "I was a very young priestess, only a little older than you, and far too confident for my own good. I was in Glen Avery, aiding the local physic, when word came to me of a young girl wracked with tremors. She screamed and wailed at all hours, day and night, and threw herself into the fire whenever the chance arose. Naturally, when I heard of this, I went to investigate.
"The parents let me inside the girl's bedchamber and shut the door behind -- they scarcely went in anymore, save to deliver food. The girl was lying on the bed, and was in the midst of quiet spasms when I approached."
Raven's lips showed half a smile, but there was no mirth in the expression. "I drew lines of healing upon the floor and began to call on the names of Lord Kammoloth, Akkala, and Samekkh -- for I thought that at least half the illness was in the child's mind. I could sense another presence in the room, hovering over the girl -- nothing like a daedra, but there all the same. Yet in my lack of experience I assumed it must be a daedra, some foul servant of Tallakath or Klepnos, or perhaps both. That was when I spoke to the presence and commanded it to leave."
The high priestess rubbed her hands over her arms, looking chilled at merely the memory. When she spoke next, there was a slight tremor in her voice. "Then the girl looked up at me -- that innocent, precious little girl -- and in her eyes was the darkest, most dreadful malice that you can imagine. She spoke ... but the voice was echoed, as if there was another speaking through her. 'Kammoloth, Akkala, Samekkh -- I do not know these names,' she said. 'And who are you to give orders to me?'"
Raven fell silent for a long moment. "Then what happened?" Merai asked.
"The most frightening moment of my life," the older woman answered quietly. "The child grabbed me by the arms and threw me bodily across the room, so hard that I hit the wall some four feet up and slid to the floor. Then she picked up a dinner plate her parents had left and began to attack me with it." She shuddered. "Her blows held the strength of ten men."
Merai stared at the Lothanasa, her voice suddenly lost. "... What ... Why did she not kill you?" she finally asked.
"I do not know," Raven answered, shaking her head. "But after she had beaten me unconscious, I awoke to find myself in the local physic's care. The girl's parents said that she had thrown me out of the room after I ceased to be entertaining."
There was another long pause.
"So the gods have no power over these creatures?"
"None whatever, that I have seen."
"What happened to the girl?" Merai asked.
Raven showed a crooked smile. "As it happened, a wandering Patildo missionary passed through Glen Avery two weeks later, while I still was recovering from my injuries. He heard of the girl's trouble and offered to help. In curiosity, I went with him, to see what he might do -- though I stayed at a distance this time," she added with a chuckle. "What I saw astonished me. He spoke to the creature in the name of his god, Yahshua Onequion, whom we call Hirasoth. He commanded the spirit to leave, and the girl began writhing and coughing violently -- and then, the dark presence left, and the girl fell into deep sleep." She scratched her nose absently. "As I believe, the girl is now serving in a diocese to the south as one of their acolytes -- 'nuns', I believe they call them. The spirit has never troubled her again -- and believe me, I have been careful to keep track of her since then."
The priestess looked up again at her young pupil. "I made a mistake," she said. "Akkala be praised that I did not perish for it, but was allowed instead to learn from it. Since that day I have been far more respectful of the unknown powers of the world -- powers both for good, and for evil. And I no longer underestimate my foes, as I did then." She patted Merai on the back. "You will learn, as well, I think. Simple you're not."
Merai laughed at that. "There was a time when I would have disagreed with you," she said. "But somehow it is encouraging to know that I have not been alone in my follies."
"Nor will you ever," Raven replied, getting to her feet. "But let us all endeavor to find new follies, rather than returning again and again to the old ones."
They both laughed, and Merai stood and embraced her mistress and friend. "My, you've grown," Raven smiled, adding with a wink, "in more ways than one."
Merai blushed. "I suppose I shall need a larger robe."
"Nay, don't worry yourself about it. Come the morning sun, you and all the rest will return to normal, as Lady Velena told you."
They stood there together for a long moment, saying nothing. But there was something that still troubled Merai.
"Sister Raven?" she asked. "How did your blade injure the Hound? I thought the daedra to be insubstantial, immune to mortal weapons."
"To mortal weapons, aye, they are immune," Raven said, once more drawing her kryss and holding it up for Merai to see. "Yet this is not a wholly mortal weapon. You see this blade, the way it shimmers like silver?"
"Yes, I see it," Merai answered, a bit distractedly, as she ran a hand over the cool surface of the blade. Not a mark remained of the hell-hound's foul blood. "It is most beautiful, the fairest I have ever seen."
"Indeed. For this blade is forged of mithril, Merai -- or Elf-silver, as some call it. That most precious of metals, imbued with magic itself, drawn from the depths of the earth by dragons and Elves in the days of the Titans and under the direction of Nathales. Little now is left in the world, and its value is beyond price. Only a mithril blade may wound the unholy flesh of the dark ones -- and, indeed, it is potent against many great beings of darkness, daedra or no. This holy blade is called Elemacil, the Starsword, and only the high priest of Metamor Keep may wield it -- though how it came to us, I shall not say."
Merai nodded thoughtfully, as Raven put the sword away. That left one question yet unanswered.
"Lothanasa ... I saw how quickly the gods sped your blade to the attack. Fast as that terrible beast was, it had no power to take you by surprise." She looked searchingly into the elder woman's eyes. "You allowed yourself to be hurt, didn't you? You knew, or suspected, that the feeling of your pain would awaken me from the dark one's enchantment. Or do I speak falsely?"
"... No," Raven said quietly, averting her gaze. "No, Merai, you do not."
"That was a great and terrible risk to run, Sister hin'Elric. You could well have been slain."
The wolf-woman turned her eyes back to Merai. They shone gently in the light of the street lamps below. "And what of it?" she asked. "At the last, if all else had failed, that would surely have brought you out of the Enemy's grasp. As I have told you before, Merai, we stand on the edge of a quickening. There was more in play here tonight than either of us could guess. In the grand scheme of things, my life may well count for little ... or much. That remains to be seen." She laid a hand tenderly on Merai's shoulder again, and smiled. "But I am not afraid, nor would my death have been in vain -- of that I am quite certain. And there is no nobler sacrifice than to give your life in defense of others." She turned her gaze and looked down from the battlements. "And now, Merai, I think there is another who wishes to speak with you." She indicated the tall figure standing in the shadows below. "I shall leave you to your privacy, and see if there are yet any gremlins skulking about this night."
She gripped Merai's arm comfortingly, then turned and made her way along the wall back toward the Inner Keep. Footsteps sounded from the nearby stairs, and a moment later Daria -- or rather, Daren -- emerged. Merai leaned against a merlon facing inwards toward the Keep, not looking at the tall, handsome young man as he approached. Daren walked up to the adjacent merlon and leaned against it, looking once at Merai out of the corner of his eye. They stood there for a long moment in silence -- Daren not saying a word, Merai afraid to. At last she summoned her courage and broke the awkward silence, knowing what she had to say.
"I ... I'm sorry, Daren," she said, still not looking up at him. Her cheeks burned with shame, in spite of the October chill. "Everything that happened -- everything they did to you -- it was my fault. If I had disciplined my mind, as I should have, you would never have suffered this ... this indignity."
There was a long pause. Merai felt Daren's eyes on her, studying her closely. At last he lowered his head and shook it, sighing.
"Don't punish yourself so harshly, Merai," he said quietly. "Mayhap you made a mistake -- I know not. Your mind is yours to judge, not mine." He was silent for another moment, as if considering something. "But think of this," he added. "The dark ones would not have been able to use me against you, if you had not already loved me."
Merai brushed away a tear. "I wonder," she murmured.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Daren asked, looking out over the wall again.
The young priestess sighed. "I was afraid," she said. "Afraid you wouldn't be interested. Afraid ... that I was too plain for you to love." She traced a finger in slow spiral patterns on the block of stone before her. "After you changed, I lost interest. The female form holds no attraction for me."
Daren nodded absently. "I am sorry, Merai. All my foolish talk about our being sisters must have only deepened your pain."
" 'Tis all right," Merai assured him. "You couldn't know how I felt. Besides, I was thinking more of your welfare than my own feelings."
The red-haired man turned to face her, leaning against the merlon with an elbow. "So where does this leave us?"
"... I'm not sure," Merai admitted. "Lady Velena said that these changes to our bodies would last until dawn..."
"Lady Velena?" Daren asked, disbelieving.
" 'Tis a long tale," she answered with a dismissive gesture. "The point is, come the morning you will return to being Daria, and I shall become my plain and ordinary self." She lowered her eyes. "Still, I shall be grateful for it. This body now seems ... sullied, to my heart."
"I know what you mean. 'Tis natural, I suppose, for the Mistress of Lust to leave one feeling dirty at her touch." There was another long pause before he spoke again. "Merai, I wish you no discomfort, nor pain ... but if you are willing to be a sister to Daria once more, I shall be most grateful for it."
Merai turned and looked at him, her lower lip trembling. Then, she stepped forward and embraced him tightly, pressing her head close against his chest. "I ... should be most honored ... my sister."
Daren wrapped his arms around her comfortingly. They held each other for a long moment before stepping back to look one another in the eyes.
"... We'd better say good-bye before we do anything rash," Merai murmured. "We don't want Mistress Suspira to have the last laugh."
Daren smiled. "As you say, priestess. I shall see you tomorrow?"
Merai smiled back. "Count on it."
They each put a hand to the other's shoulder, briefly gripping it in a gesture that spoke more than words could say. Then the two young Keepers turned and made their way in opposite directions, out into the cold black night.
Merai awoke slowly, groggily, as if returning from the nether depths of the Dreamlands. The last thing she remembered was performing the dawn sacrifice in the temple; she had become dizzy, fallen over and blacked out. Now, as awareness returned to her, she realized that something was ... different. Her body felt strange, and the sensations from her eyes, ears, nose and skin felt odd. It did not take her long to realize what had happened.
Sitting up in her bed, she slowly got to her feet, making a point not to look down at her body. She wanted to face what the Keep had done to her all at once.
There was a mirror on the wall opposite the door, hung in the far corner so that she could not see her reflection from the bed. With purpose and determination she walked up until she was right beside the mirror. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped in front of the looking glass.
Slowly, she took in the sight before her. The first thing she noticed was her ears, now long, pointed and seeming to be higher up along her head than before. Her nose was higher and straighter now, and its tip was covered with light brown leathery skin. Long whiskers protruded from her cheeks, and her eyes, though still the same rich reddish brown as before, narrowed to vertical slits in the sunlight that came through the window. Her long brown hair was likewise unchanged, but her skin was covered everywhere with a thin coat of tawny fur.
Looking down at her hands, she saw that they remained quite human, though each finger was tipped with a claw. Her palms were covered with thin pads that were much like the skin on her nose, but she found that she still had a fine degree of sensitivity in her fingertips. As she looked up at the mirror again, Merai became aware of her tail, twitching back at forth of its own accord.
A cat. She had become ... a cat. And a remarkably human cat, all things considered. Merai looked at her face in the mirror again. All in all, she thought she looked rather ... plain, actually.
And that suited her just fine.
Kneeling before the looking glass, Merai murmured a prayer of thanks to Kyia for blessing her with this form -- a body she could live with easily, and one that would not interfere with her work. Getting to her feet, she took one last look in the mirror before turning and walking out into the temple hall. There was work to be done, and she had a week's worth of hunger to sate.
Behind her, a pale, ghostly woman watched from the corner of the room, smiled, and returned to her resting place within the stones of Metamor Keep.
Raven hin'Elric sneezed as she opened the massive book, sending a cloud of dust into the air. She really needed to keep this place cleaner, she thought, as she paged through the ancient tome in the lower depths of the Lightbringer Archives.
She had been searching for this book since the middle of August, when one of the Lightbringer historical volumes had first hinted to her of its existence. Unfortunately, the archives were so large that there was little organization to them -- and, at any rate, many of the older volumes were too fragile to be moved around in any attempt at reordering the works.
The high priestess found what she was looking for on page twenty-seven of the old leather-bound book. It was a prophecy of Silvinia, the Oracle of Samekkh, which she had first recorded in the year 242 CR. Silvinia had proven herself most accurate in other, more short-term prophecies, so the Lothanasi had been careful to preserve each message the God of Wisdom handed down to her.
The pages were yellowed and crumbling around the edges, but the text itself was quite black and clear. It was a poem, written in an older dialect of the Common Speech and in a quite archaic script. Fortunately, her father had taught her to read such older forms of the language, knowing that it would sometimes be necessary for her to access the stores of wisdom found in the archives' deeper levels.
Holding her lantern over the book, Raven read Silvinia's prophecy with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. This explained it -- all of the strange and amazing things that had happened over the course of the year were made clear in this text. It was both comforting and terrifying; comforting, because she now knew what to expect ... and terrifying, because it meant that her darkest fears and suspicions were all horribly true.
"Elenin," she whispered. "Starchild."
For the first time in a long while, Raven hin'Elric was not at all sure what to do. Certainly Merai would have to hear of this sooner or later. But if Raven told her, would it corrupt the fulfillment of the prophecy? How much should anyone know of their own destiny, especially a destiny such as this?
At last she shook her head and closed the book. She would not speak of this to Merai, at least not yet. Silvinia had prophesied that Elenin would come in secret, and Raven would make quite sure that it stayed that way. The Daedra Lords had watchers everywhere, and if she told Merai what she now knew it was likely that the Dark Ones would catch wind of it before long. That could cause them to force their hand before all was in readiness, and that...
That could well mean the destruction of them all.
Carefully, Raven returned the book to its place on the shelf. She knew she would have to find it again soon, so she took a white handkerchief from her pocket and tucked it between the books, letting it hang out from the bookshelf like a flag. Now, at least, it would be a bit easier to locate when she had need of it.
Returning to the spiral staircase, she made her way slowly back up to the temple chambers.
"Lord Samekkh, grant me wisdom," she prayed.
Copyright 1999 by Raven Blackmane. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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