MK: A Presence Of Thieves
The Starchild Prophecy, Part IV
by Raven Blackmane
Prologue. August 2, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning. Samek'kema.
[Lord of Light, Radiant One, we honor you. Wisest of All, reveal your wisdom to us, we pray...]
Merai gazed intently into the flames before her, letting the words of the ancient prayer wash over her like gentle waves. Raven's chanting was almost hypnotic, rising and falling in regular, rhythmic patterns, as she praised and petitioned the God of Wisdom and Light. Samekkh had been silent toward them for over a year now -- a punishment for Raven's arrogance in her early dealings with Rickkter -- and the Lightbringers were now waiting with some hesitation to see if he would return his favor to them.
Merai turned her eyes away from the fire, glancing over at Raven. The High Priestess sat to her left in front of the fire, head down, eyes closed as she recited the ceremonial prayer of Samek'kema. On Merai's other side sat Tessa, her dark eyes reflecting the flames like two polished black stones; across from her was Celine, leader of the Metamor acolytes. The lower acolytes sat in concentric circles around the four leaders of the temple, nearly filling the hall. Merai smiled a little at that -- the last year had been kind to them, and many new acolytes had entered the ranks of the Order.
Raven finished the prayer, then turned and nodded to Merai. Taking up the little bag of herbs and flower petals they had gathered for this occasion, Merai sprinkled them into the fire. Tendrils of white smoke rose up from the flames, wafting around the seated Lightbringers and filling the temple hall. Merai closed her eyes and breathed deeply, savoring the sweet, spicy aroma. She felt a strange tingle in the back of her mind, saw her vision fade into darkness, and then...
Then she was somewhere else. She stood atop a tall, broad building, looking out over a vast city that was shaped like a wheel, with roads forming rings and spokes around a high and elaborate palace. Looking down, she saw a great plaza filled with people, all of them making a great deal of noise -- but whether they were shouting in joy or in anger, she could not be sure. And there, in the middle of the crowd, she saw herself...
Her vision blurred, spun, and shifted, and now she saw Yajiit floating before her, shining like the sun.
"Elenin," she said, smiling.
"Aye ... Elenin," Merai answered, the words coming with difficulty as she struggled to put her thoughts in order. "Starchild. I know ... I know what I am."
"You are more than you think you are, Starchild." A new voice, strong and masculine, spoke up just behind her, as a brilliant white light flashed and flickered. "You are a child of three fathers."
"Nay." Merai turned her head, and there to her right was Kyia, her stone-grey eyes hard and serious as they looked over Merai's shoulder in the direction of the male voice. "Not three fathers," said Kyia, shaking her head. "Four."
"Four?" the masculine voice asked, sounding perturbed.
"You shall see," the nymph answered, and then vanished in a burst of light.
Her vision spun again, and now Merai found herself standing in a small circle of brilliant white light, with nothing but impenetrable darkness beyond it. Nine figures stood all around her, just on the edge between darkness and light. One of them was clearly a dragon, massive and powerful, but the others were humans in robes of white. Their cowls were all pulled over their heads, obscuring their faces.
"Whom do you trust, Merai?"
The cat-woman looked, and there beside her was the Oracle of Samekkh. The Oracle placed her hand gently on Merai's shoulder, wrapping her long serpent tail around the young priestess's legs.
"I don't understand," Merai said.
"Not all of these are your allies, Merai," the Oracle said gravely. "Some will support you, but some will oppose you. Whom do you trust?"
Merai looked anxiously at each of the mysterious, hooded figures around the circle. Though they were dressed in the robes of the Lothanasi, all of them seemed ominous and threatening.
"I ... I don't know whom to trust," she said at last, turning to look back at the Oracle...
But the Oracle was gone.
"What is to be done with the Starchild?" asked one of the cloaked figures, his quiet, cultured voice carrying an air of quiet menace.
"She is a heretic," another voice answered. "She must be destroyed."
"What?" Merai exclaimed. "What do you mean, I'm not a--"
"The accused shall be silent!" the first voice said angrily, cutting her off. Then, more calmly, "Shall the Starchild live or die? Cast your stones."
The dragon raised a claw, tossing a white stone the size of an apple at Merai's feet. "Live," he said.
The cloaked figure to his left tossed in a smaller stone, this one black. "Die."
The third figure. "Die."
The fourth stepped forward, as if to speak, then suddenly vanished in a puff of smoke.
The fifth. "Live," he said, his voice filled with pity.
The sixth. "Die."
The seventh. "Die."
The eighth. "Live." Merai recognized Raven's voice, and for a moment her hopes grew. The vote was now three in her favor, four against. A tie would go in favor of the accused. The verdict would be decided by the last figure...
A black stone fell at Merai's feet.
"Die." The ninth figure stepped out of the shadows, cast off its robe--
And there was Suspira, grinning triumphantly. Taking her whip from her side, she wrapped it around Merai's neck and pulled her forward. Merai was powerless to resist. Taking her head in her clawed hands, the Mistress of Lust held her face inches from her own.
"You're mine now, dearie," she said.
"NO!" Merai sat bolt-upright, her tail straight out behind her, every bit of fur on her body standing on end. She looked about wildly, seeking her accusers, but they were gone. She was back in the Lightbringer temple, Raven and Tessa at her side, the acolytes murmuring worriedly in the background.
"Calm yourself, Merai!" Raven urged her, gripping her shoulder firmly. " 'Tis all right. You're here. You're safe."
Merai closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down, deliberately slowing her breathing. Gradually, her heartbeat slowed, her muscles relaxed, and her fur began to lay flat.
"Gods," she breathed at last, opening her eyes again. "What was that?"
"A vision," Raven said. "A vision of the future."
A cold chill ran down Merai's spine. "A vision of what may happen, or what shall happen?" she asked uneasily.
Raven bowed her head. "That, only the Lord Samekkh knows."
Merai looked back at the fire, eyeing it warily.
A city of rings. A child of four fathers. A trial, with Suspira plotting her destruction. What did it all mean?
"I think I need some time alone," she said.
The Dreamlands. January 11, Year 708 CR, or as near to it as may be reckoned here.
Nocturna walked through the gentle, rolling hills surrounding the Axis, the blades of ankle-high grass glistening a brilliant purple in the noonday light. She passed by a couple of fairies cavorting in a patch of wildflowers, then stopped to pet a large boar-like creature that was drinking from a pool of rose-tinted water. A flock of fae dragons flew overhead, their butterfly-like wings catching the light and shimmering in iridescent red, orange, green, black and gold. The Mistress of Dreams smiled at the sight, her usual somber mood lifted like a great weight from her shoulders. She loved this place, so full of life and light and wonder. So unlike the Hells "beneath" her, further down the Axis. The First Hell was calm and peaceful, but it was always robed in darkness; though they had a moon to shine on them, the souls who dwelt there would never again know daylight, not like this. Not unless Nocturna brought them with her, as she sometimes did, to speak with some loved one left behind in the world of mortals.
Off to her left, the Axis began to hum. Nocturna turned, looking at the glowing white column that stretched into infinity above and below, joining the Heavens and Hells with this in-between realm of the imagination. The Axis flickered, and a being stepped out -- a young woman, seemingly, with dusky blue skin, silver hair and glowing blue eyes. One of Nocturna's many children, the offspring of several brief and mostly unhappy pairings with other members of the Pantheon. The hair and eyes marked this girl as one of Samekkh's children, and thus one of Nocturna's most trusted servants.
"What is it, my daughter?" Nocturna asked.
"A summons from Below, Mistress," the young daedra replied, bowing briefly before her. "Our dread Prince has called for a meeting of the council."
Nocturna felt her lip twist in a show of distaste. She hated meeting with Ba'al and the other Daedra Lords. Given how little her opinion mattered on the council, she often wondered why Ba'al insisted on her presence at these gatherings. *Probably precisely because it annoys me,* she thought sourly.
"Very well," she said, nodding once. "I shall come anon." She favored her daughter with a brief smile. "Feel free to remain here for a while, if you like."
The younger woman smiled back at her. "Thank you, Mistress. I have missed the light."
"Enjoy it, then, on my behalf," Nocturna said, striding toward the Axis. "For I myself must descend into the heart of shadow."
She stepped into the Axis, feeling its warm glow surround her. Then, looking downward, she willed herself out of the Dreamlands, past her homeland of the First Hell, and down, down, down, into ever-increasing darkness.
Soon she found herself in a realm of blackest night, where rivers and pools of fierce blue flame provided the only illumination. A vast city spread out before her, the towers and spires of the daedric elite interspersed between prisons and dungeons where the blackest souls that had ever lived writhed and wailed in unending torment. And in the midst of all this darkness, rising above all other structures in the daedra's capital city, was a vast and towering pyramid, its polished, sloping sides gleaming in the faint blue light of hellfire: The Palace of Darkness, the dwelling place of Ba'al himself.
The Axis came to an end at the pinnacle of the pyramid, and Nocturna stepped out into the eternal darkness of the Ninth Hell. Immediately she felt cold, as if all life and energy were being sapped out of her. Even for her, a Daedra Lord and Mistress of the First Hell, this plane was nearly intolerable.
Floating down to the terrace in front of the gates, she turned and walked into the palace, paying no heed to the two balrogs who stood guard at the entrance. The corridors inside shifted to accommodate her haste, and very quickly she found herself at the double iron doors of the council chamber.
Without preamble, she seized the ring on one of the doors and pulled it open. Composing herself for a moment, she then glided in gracefully and nodded to the others who were present.
Prince Ba'al sat at the head of the long table, of course, his avatar-form a mass of pure darkness. His blue eyes burned like the hellfire in the canals outside, cruel and fierce. The remaining Daedra Lords sat along the sides of the table, their proximity to Ba'al indicating their current level of prominence within the council. As usual, Suspira sat at Ba'al's right hand, Revonos at his left. Agemnos and Lilith sat just beyond them, Klepnos and Tallakath further yet. Oblineth sat on the right side at the far end of the table, her expression neutral and distant.
The seat across from her was empty.
"Ah! The Lady Nocturna. So good of you to join us," Ba'al said, his voice deceptively pleasant.
*Bastard,* Nocturna thought. "I come as bidden, my Prince," she replied, nodding toward him.
"And none too soon, either," Suspira sneered. "Come, cousin, take your seat and let's get on with this."
Ignoring the self-proclaimed "Queen of Daedra", Nocturna turned and quietly made her way to her seat.
Ba'al leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. "Now that we're all here, I can introduce our guest for the evening." He nodded toward the corner of the room, over Nocturna's shoulder. "You may enter now," he said, raising his voice as though he were addressing someone beyond that wall of stone.
Nocturna turned to see who he was looking at -- and abruptly wished she hadn't. There, in the corner of the room, the darkness seemed to grow even deeper, and a presence the likes of which she had never felt before entered the room. It was a presence without form, without eyes or face or hands, without even the energy pattern that composed the daedra's bodies in their "natural" form -- but it was there, nonetheless. A being so thoroughly and terrifyingly evil that it made even the likes of Ba'al and Suspira seem innocuous. She shrank back in her seat, trying to put as much distance between herself and that ... _thing_ as possible.
She wasn't alone. "What in the Hells is that?" Agemnos gasped. Nocturna thought it was the first time she'd ever seen him lose his composure.
The being spoke, a cold and malevolent voice that seemed to speak straight into Nocturna's mind. [My name is not important,] it said. [I come in service to the One Below.]
The Daedra Lords looked at each other. "The One Below?" Lilith asked, arching an eyebrow curiously. She was trying to look relaxed, but the tension in her limbs told Nocturna she was anything but.
[The Morningstar,] the creature answered. [The Liberator. He who makes war against the great Tyrant enthroned Above.]
"Or," added Ba'al, "as he is commonly referred to in the mortal realm ... the Adversary."
"And your guards let him just traipse on in here?" Klepnos asked. He gave a short, choked laugh. "Good Hells, what's the universe coming to?"
"I agree with my good cousin Klepnos -- amazingly enough," said Agemnos. "What's that creature doing here?"
"He is invited," Ba'al said, his voice emphasizing the last word. "Now, if you will all turn your attention back toward me, I shall explain."
With obvious reluctance, the daedra lords turned their eyes away from the apparition in the corner of the room and back toward their prince and master. Nocturna was very uneasy about having that thing behind her back, but she had little choice for the moment.
"As you know, for the last several decades of mortal time, I have made mention of outside help that was willing to assist us in regaining our rightful place as the most honored members of the Pantheon. Our associate in the corner over there is the spokesman for that help. For years now, the Adversary's agents have been assisting us in provoking war between the two factions who most directly threaten our agenda on Earth: the Lothanasi and the Ecclesia."
Suspira scoffed. "Well, if that's the case, then they've been doing a piss-poor job of it," she said. "The corrupted faction of the Followers has fallen into shambles. With Jagoduun destroyed--"
"Elders be praised," Nocturna muttered.
"-- the Patriarch will never sanction a war against the Lothanasi. My servants tell me that every pawn the Adversary had in Yesulam has been rooted out." Suspira paused, considering for a moment. "Which, I should point out, was due in no small part to the actions of the _Elves,_ who have somehow _still_ failed to come under the control of this council..."
Lilith gave her rival a disdainful look, then deliberately turned her back. "And if you hadn't failed in bringing the Lightbringer whelp to heel two years ago, my plan would have succeeded," she replied, her smooth voice carrying a quiet air of contempt.
[Enough,] the Fallen said, with a voice that silenced all further argument. [All is not lost. Yesulam is no longer under our influence, but we have many agents among the lower levels of the Ecclesia. We may still accomplish both our objectives, if only we act swiftly.]
"But to do so, we will have to remove the Metamor Lightbringers from the equation," Ba'al said. "Raven has shown that she is too savvy to be used to start a religious war, despite our best efforts to lead her into it with the incident in the Angle last fall."
"Agreed," Agemnos said, scratching at his beard thoughtfully. "She's clever, that one. A worthy heir to her father. I've tried exploit her arrogance, but the Enemy expected that and prepared for it. Between the Necromancer and the bard, her pride has been brought under control."
"My servants have tried to provoke her rage, but there's not enough there to truly corrupt her," Revonos said, grimacing. "She even felt pity for Lilith's Turguroth."
"And I have tried to appeal to her predator instincts, but she remains too close to Artela," Lilith added.
"All quite true," Ba'al agreed, nodding. "Raven has her weaknesses, but none we can use to truly subvert her. She's cautious, and while that has been to our advantage in the past, it's useless for starting a war."
[But that does not mean that she is untouchable,] said the Fallen. [If we wish to neutralize the Metamor Lothanasi, we must do so by attacking them at their weakest link.]
In the center of the conference table, an image appeared: A young feline woman dressed in the white robes of a Lightbringer priestess. At the far end of the table, Suspira showed a sinister smile.
March 4, 708.
The sun had not even risen over the mountains when the Flatlander caravan pulled up before the recently-finished gates of Euper. After a brief chat with their leader, the guard opened the gates, and the traders made their way through the streets of town, headed for the marketplace.
As with everything they did, the Magyars made their entrance in grand fashion. A band of musicians marched and rode at the head of the colorful procession, accompanied by acrobats, jugglers and dancers. The people of Euper awoke to the sound of the sitar, the shenai, the tamboura, and numerous drums, joining together in a haunting chorus that spoke of far-off lands and a strange and mystical culture. Behind them stretched no fewer than two dozen brightly colored wagons -- some for sleeping, eating, and cooking, but most of them filled with exotic wares from around the world. News spread like wildfire through the town, the excited voices of the children proclaiming it from house to house: "The Flatlanders are here! The Flatlanders are here!" For the peasant families, it was cause to rush out of bed and hurry to watch the excitement. For the merchants and shopkeepers, it was a call to lock down their wares, lest some enterprising young Magyar make off with them.
A crowd had formed along the sides of the road before they had even come half a mile into town. Children crowded close to see the performers and wagons go by; perhaps they would catch a glimpse of one of the strange and wonderful creatures that sometimes traveled with the caravans. These children were Keepers, of course, and it was not unheard-of for them to see a person wearing the form of a lion, a giraffe, an elephant, or a baboon -- but it was quite another thing to see the beasts themselves, alive and untamed. Many a parent would lose a few coppers to a child's pleading if the menagerie were in town.
The caravan came at last to a large open patch of ground -- just off the roadside, next to the marketplace and at the foot of Metamor Ridge itself. As the sun's rays began to creep over the mountains, catching the towers of the Keep and bathing them in warm golden light, the traders circled their wagons and began to set up shop for the day's visitors.
In the midst of all this bustle and excitement, then, it was not at all unsurprising that no one took notice of the three men huddled in the darkness of one of the traders' curio wagons. Had anyone bothered to examine them, it would have been quickly obvious that they were not Magyars, for their fairer skin and curly hair clearly showed them to be Pyralian. But even if some observer had noted this, it was highly unlikely that anyone here would recognize them as the once-proud assistants of Patriarch Geshter.
The tallest of the three men peered through the wooden slats of the window, eyeing the gathering crowd outside. All of them were watching the performers, dancing and playing in the midst of the circled wagons as their assistants gathered donations, both voluntary and unwitting, from the spectators. He allowed himself a small smile. No, no one would recognize these shells, these hosts. No one would even know they were here -- not until it was far, far too late.
Gently caressing the medallion in his hand, he watched as the sun finally thrust itself fully over the mountains, blanketing everything in the valley with the soft light of morning.
It was going to be a wonderful day.
"Message for Sister Merai hin'Dana!"
Merai emerged from her bedroom and couldn't help but smile as she saw Kee standing there at the temple entrance -- fidgeting, arms crossed, foot tapping, his whole body full of nervous energy.
"Good morning, Kee," she said, gliding up and taking the envelope from his hand. "Drinking Pascal's energy elixirs again, I take it?"
"Aye, twice so far this morning," he admitted readily, with an exaggerated nod of his head. "Quiz asked me to take her shift today, so I had to be up early."
"Well, I wouldn't make a habit of it, if I were you," Merai grinned. "You look ready to bounce off the walls. Thank you for the message, though."
"Welcome, Priestess. Good day!" And with that he was off again, his bright orange tail nearly a blur as he dashed out of the temple toward his next delivery. In the process he just barely missed running directly into Raven, who emerged from one of the storerooms the moment he passed the door.
Raven paused in the doorway, steadying herself after the near collision, then turned and looked in the direction the fox had gone. "Well. _That_ was alchemical, or I'm no healer."
Merai chuckled. "Mayhap we should tell Pascal not to give him those elixirs any more," she said, slicing open the envelope with an index claw as she spoke.
"Perhaps not," Raven agreed, walking back into the temple hall and casting a questioning glance at the papers in Merai's hands. "What have you there?"
"I don't know, I just got it myself." As she unfolded the papers and read the first few lines, Merai's face broke into a broad grin. " 'Tis a letter from Brother Calvis!" she said.
"Ahh," Raven said, her eyes sparkling. Though she generally respected her privacy, Merai knew the Lothanasa enjoyed hearing about her growing friendship with the young acolyte. "And how are things in Bozojo?"
"Hmm ... they seem well, from the looks of it," Merai said, scanning through the letter for any key points. "One of their acolytes has just been promoted to junior priest of the temple, to take Brother Lemuel's place when he retires. Calvis seems to think they've chosen well."
"I'm pleased to hear it was one of their own," Raven said soberly. "I would not soon trust anything that came from Kelewair in these days."
Merai made an unpleasant face and nodded. "Nor I. Hmm..." Abruptly her expression changed, going from distaste to surprise and delight. She let out a small gasp. "Oh, my! Listen to this: 'After much pleading on my part, Brother Lemuel has agreed to release me for a time to come and visit with you. Gods willing, I should arrive in Metamor a week after you receive this letter. I eagerly look forward to seeing the wonders of the Keep -- though not, I should say, as much as I await the pleasure of your company.' "
"The boy can be quite eloquent when his tongue need not participate," Raven said wryly.
Merai folded the papers and clutched them to her chest, grinning like a school-girl. "This is fantastic news! You will help me prepare for his arrival, will you not?"
"He will be extended every courtesy," Raven assured her, smiling warmly.
"Oh, thank you, Sister Raven!" Merai exclaimed. Impulsively she reached out and hugged the elder Lightbringer, much as she would her own mother.
"You're welcome, Sister Merai," Raven said, returning the embrace with equal affection. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to with Prince Phil. I'll be back in a few hours."
"Very well," Merai said, as they parted and Raven headed for the door. "I'm going to finish reading this, and then spend some time in meditation. See you soon!"
Merai returned to her room, flopped down on her bed and read through Calvis's letter in detail. Raven was right -- though he stumbled over his words in public, Calvis had the soul of a poet. They had exchanged many letters over the last several months, and he never failed to include some elegant compliment that left Merai blushing all over, or a stirring account of some new experience that had touched his heart. She looked forward to seeing him again, and regretted that the Keep's Curse would prevent him from staying for more than a week. Perhaps she could arrange to depart with him to Midtown for a few days so they could have more time together.
Setting aside the letter, Merai turned her attention to the meditation Circles drawn on the floor of the room. Right now she felt excited enough to go bouncing through the halls alongside Kee -- and, while she enjoyed the feeling, she also knew that she would never get any work done today if she did not take the time to center herself first. With mixed emotions, she lit the Circle candles, sat down in the middle of them and closed her eyes. After a few deep breaths, she focused her mind inward and downward, until she could visualize herself standing in the First Circle.
The Circles were an invention that the Lothanasi had developed to focus and direct the mind in meditation. The First Circle was designed to give the Lightbringer an anchor point, a firm grounding in self-identity. It was a place in the mind that was cut off from external perceptions, from light and sound and touch. In the silence that followed, the Lightbringer gained a sense of centered-ness that allowed her to separate her essential self from all of the transient emotions, goals and desires that flitted through her mind. The First Circle was a place of peace and solitude. But it was also only a beginning.
Merai felt herself anchor into the foundation of the First Circle, as the excitement and nervous energy faded into the distance and the solitude of that place filled her with a sense of calm. Once she felt suitably grounded, she began reaching outward to the farther circles. At the Second Circle the sensation of touch returned, and she paused to focus again. The key was to allow herself to acknowledge the sensation without becoming tied in to it. The ultimate goal of the Circles was to move beyond the perceptions of the body, into those things that could only be perceived through the auras and energy fields surrounding her, and letting herself become too attached to any one sensation would keep her from moving forward.
On toward the Third Circle. Now the sensations of smell and hearing returned, and Merai had to steady herself as her heightened senses once again channeled a torrent of information into her brain. She almost lost her focus entirely at that point, but she managed to steady herself and press on.
As she stepped into the Fourth Circle, Merai saw the auras and energy fields around her spring to life in a dazzling array of light and color. By focusing her attention first in one direction and then another, she could "look around" at the patterns surrounding her -- the people in the hallways, the birds on the windowsills, the trees in the courtyard below, and above all the vibrant aura of the Keep herself. Merai was used to all of these sights, having seen them many times, but she still marveled at their beauty.
Moving out to the Fifth Circle, Merai now found that she could shift her point of reference, moving her focus out and away from her body to examine distant auras more closely. She passed out of the temple, down the hall, through the shifting passages and corridors of the Keep, looking from side to side at the patterns and energy fields she saw along the way. She went past a room that was entirely opaque to her aura sight -- that would be Rickkter's room, she thought with a smile -- then passed into the palace section of the Keep and Prince Phil's office, where the rabbit sat talking with Raven. The Lothanasa flicked an ear as Merai's projected consciousness entered the room, then glanced for a moment in her direction before turning her attention back to the prince. Merai grinned to herself, then left the room and continued on. She couldn't hear what they were saying -- that would not come until Merai mastered the Seventh Circle -- but she was having too much fun at the moment to care.
Besides, it was important not to push too far, too fast. Venturing beyond the Fourth Circle was risky, for it distanced the consciousness from the body. Tales were told of some Lightbringers who pushed out to the Ninth Circle before they were ready, only to become separated from their bodies and lost -- formless wraiths, drifting aimlessly through the world until the end of time. A meditating Lightbringer could acquire great knowledge through the use of the Circles, but they had to be used carefully and responsibly.
Merai turned her attention beyond the walls of the Keep, venturing out into the bright, clear skies of a chill spring morning. She looked down at the crowds of people bustling through town, the shopkeepers hawking their wares, the guards patrolling the walls -- and down below, at the foot of Metamor Ridge, something altogether different from the usual activity of the city.
*The Flatlanders!* she thought. *What wonders have they brought with them this time?* Directing her focus downward, she soon "stood" about ten yards above the circle of wagons, looking down at the musicians, acrobats and dancers who were entertaining the throngs of Keepers. Merai noticed that some of the wagons had bars on their windows, and as she grew closer her aura sight revealed two great cats and a large black bear inside those cars. She made a mental note to find out when the animal trainer would give his performance -- it was always an exciting display, and Merai loved to see the huge beasts up close.
Wandering among the brightly painted wagons, Merai sensed the Magyars inside preparing for their next performances, or arranging their wares for sale. She was just about to continue on her way when something caught her attention in one of the merchant wagons.
The sensation was hard for her to define, even for herself. It was a faint presence that seemed to beckon her from the corner of her mind, sparkling and flickering like a firefly. Curious, she "entered" the wagon, casting her mental gaze about the cabin inside. It was dark, and filled with countless odds and ends, many of which glowed with magic of varying degrees. But none of those things resembled what had drawn her attention.
The flicker beckoned her again, this time from somewhere close by -- but when she turned, she could see nothing there.
*Hello?* she asked, projecting her mental voice outward so that it filled the room. *Is anyone there?*
Slowly, dimly, a form appeared before her mind -- tenuous, fragile, and indistinct. A brief sparkle of light, almost hesitant, flashed before her eyes. Whatever it was, it was alive, or at least conscious to some degree. It seemed almost shy.
*Hello there,* Merai said, smiling broadly. *I'm Merai. Welcome to Metamor.*
The apparition floated a bit closer. Merai could now see it a little better, though it appeared more as a distortion of the existing light and shadow than something that was tangibly there. It seemed to regard her carefully.
* 'Tis all right,* she said reassuringly. *You needn't be afraid of me, I shan't hurt you.*
Gently, Merai sent out a tendril of thought, brushing up against the ghostly presence that floated before her. She couldn't sense much from the brief contact, but the creature seemed to enjoy the sensation. It sent out a tendril of its own, feeling its way toward Merai.
*That's it,* she urged. *Let me get a good sense of you, now...* She sent out another tendril and wrapped it around the one sent out by the creature, letting a connection form between them...
Then, abruptly, a shaft of ice shot through Merai's innards. Her body went rigid, back arching, tail straight out behind her, mouth gaping in a silent scream. The elusive presence before her grabbed hold of her mind with the strength of a giant's fist, and suddenly Merai realized that she had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Her eyes were opened, and her shy visitor now showed itself to be something dark and monstrous. Black tentacles wrapped around her mind, then dragged her back to her own body. She felt herself being pushed down, down, toward the very center of her being, where the brilliant star that burned within her now seemed surrounded by walls of foul darkness. As her mind backed up against that furnace of light, seeking refuge and strength, a prison door rose up before her, sealing her inside. Peering through it, Merai found that she could see through her eyes and hear through her ears, but was powerless to command a single muscle. Filled with sudden terror, Merai pushed against the barrier with all her strength, trying desperately to escape this prison within her own body. A bolt of white-hot light shot out from the star within her, but the walls of darkness did not budge. Fear gave way to panic, and frantically Merai ran over every inch of her prison. There was no way out. She pounded on the walls, scratched them, bit at them, blasted them with fire and lightning, but the darkness gave not the barest hint of weakening.
*What's happening to me?* she sobbed, as her mental avatar collapsed to her knees in exhaustion. *Dear gods, what's happening to me?*
A cold wind ran through the bedroom of Merai hin'Dana, extinguishing the candles and even the lamp in the wall-sconce. The priestess rose to her feet and walked out into the temple hall, a small smirk on her face. There was much work to be done.
Dr. Brian Coe looked up from his paperwork to see Caitlyn, one of his assistant healers, standing at the door to his office with a worried look on her face.
Carefully, Brian put his quill back in its sconce and capped the inkwell. "Aye, Caitlyn, what is it?"
"We have a patient I think you should look at, Brian. Master Feldon. His family just brought him up the hill from Euper."
The raccoon-man frowned, his ears laying back against the sides of his head. "Could you make a diagnosis?" he asked.
"I've not seen the like of it before," she said. "In some ways it seems like flu, but..." She concluded with a shake of her head.
"All right. I'll take a look."
When Brian entered the main sickbay, he saw a young man lying down on one of the beds, accompanied by an equally young feline woman and an elderly goat-morph that Brian suspected was either the man's mother or mother-in-law. He was wrapped in woolen blankets, and a cold sweat ran down his forehead. He seemed to be only partially aware of his surroundings.
"How long has he been like this?" Brian asked, placing a black-furred hand on the patient's forehead. The poor fellow was burning with fever.
"Just a few hours," the cat-woman answered. "It came on him suddenly after breakfast this morning. I made him some tea and had him lie down, but it only seems to have gotten worse."
"I suggested we should take him to see you, doctor," the older woman added. "One can't be too careful about such things, you know."
"Agreed." Brian carefully felt under the man's jaw, eliciting a wince of pain from his patient. "Well, the lymph nodes in his neck are swollen," he said. "That's often the sign of an infection. Help me unwrap him so I can check the others."
Obediently, the three women assisted Brian in peeling back the layers of blankets they had wrapped him in. The young man shivered even more violently as his skin was exposed to the cool air of the sickbay. Brian lifted the patient's arm, gently probed the armpit--
And drew back his hand as if stung. "Gods," he gasped, eyes widening.
"What? What's wrong?" the cat-woman asked, her tail twitching in agitation.
Carefully, Brian pulled up the hem of the man's tunic, exposing the bare skin of his armpit. There, nestled under the arm, was a swelling the size and shape of a hen's egg.
"Ashes!" the mother hissed, her face showing horrified recognition. "Oh, Akkala preserve us!"
"What?" the feline woman asked anxiously, her eyes pleading. "Please, Doctor Coe! What's wrong with Feldon?"
Brian let the hem of the tunic go, a cold chill running down his spine. "It was well that you brought him when you did," he said softly. "I'm afraid this isn't the flu, madam. It is the plague."
Priestess Merai hin'Dana walked unnoticed among the crowds of people in the marketplace, her usual white robes replaced by a traveler's outfit with a dark cape and cowl. Walking past the numerous shoppers crowding around the Flatlander wagons, she came at last to the one that the true Merai hin'Dana had been exploring in her meditations a few hours before. It was a simple curio and antique shop, indistinguishable from several others in the caravan, with the usual assortment of useless junk, forgotten treasure and half-baked magic items. The man behind the counter greeted her with a nod and wordlessly passed her a small parcel wrapped in plain brown cloth. The priestess placed it in the pocket of her jerkin, turned, and began walking back up toward Metamor.
Duke Thomas peered at the map of the Keep and its surrounding fortifications that lay spread out on his desk.
"Nicely done, Jack," he murmured, nodding approvingly. "Nicely done, indeed. From the looks of this, I'd say that Metamor has never been better protected."
"No one's going to be repeating Nasoj's Yule surprise, at any rate," the castellan agreed. "With the extra ring of walls and the new defenses around Euper, any enemy that tries to reach the Inner Keep will have a damn hard time of it. I'll certainly sleep better at night now that this is finished."
"It needs no better recommendation than that, my friend," Thomas said, smiling. "I--"
A knock sounded at the door.
A nervous-looking page stuck his head into the room. "Doctor Coe to see you, milord."
The duke nodded. "Very well. Send him in."
Coe must have heard his words, because he practically forced his way past the page as soon as Thomas had spoken. The physician nodded once to Jack as he approached the desk, then turned to face the horse-king.
"Milord, we have a very serious problem," Coe said.
Thomas motioned for him to continue.
"A patient was brought to the sickbay this morning from Euper. He has the plague."
Jack muttered a curse under his breath. Thomas slowly sank into his chair. "Plague?" he repeated softly, scarcely believing it. "Are you sure?"
"Very. The symptoms were clear, milord."
"The Flatlanders?" Jack asked. His voice was thick with suspicion.
"I don't believe they've been here long enough to have brought it," Coe said, shaking his head. "Plague generally takes a few days to incubate before it becomes visible. Clearly some trader brought it in with him, though. We haven't had a case of plague at Metamor in fifty years."
"How great is the danger, doctor?" Thomas asked.
" 'Tis too soon to tell, milord. Bubonic plague, which Feldon has, is not very contagious, though it is still very deadly once you have caught it. If that is all we face, our greatest concerns are the fleas that carry the germ and the rats that carry the fleas -- assuming that Lytherian's theory about the contagion is correct, of course."
"Do you believe it is?"
"Fortunately, I have never before had the opportunity to test it," Coe said dryly. "But I consider Lytherian a reliable source. Be warned, though, milord: Some strains of plague are far more contagious than the bubonic form. If an airborne strain has reached us, the situation is far more dire."
Thomas snorted once. "Bubonic plague is quite bad enough, I think," he said sourly. "What do you advise, doctor?"
"The clothes and linens of those who have contracted the disease will have to be thoroughly cleaned, somewhere far away from the city water supply. Victims will have to be isolated in sickbay, in case a more contagious strain is present. Someone should conduct a survey of the city to make sure that the rat population is under control -- though it is probably best that our cat-morphs refrain from hunting them for now, to avoid picking up their fleas." Coe's face twisted into an unpleasant moue. "And, unfortunately, we are going to have to quarantine the city."
The duke leaned back in his chair and nodded wearily. "I was afraid of that," he said. "Very well. Make the necessary arrangements, doctor. And notify the Lightbringers of the situation -- perhaps they can be of help."
The coonish doctor sketched a quick bow, then turned and nearly ran out of the duke's office.
"It never ends, does it, Jack?" Thomas asked rhetorically, gazing up at the ceiling.
"Only in death, milord."
Despite himself, Thomas managed a wry smile at that -- but only for a moment. "Go on, Jack," he said. "Notify the guard of the quarantine and prepare them to barricade the city gates. And tell Steward Thalberg to raise the yellow flag."
Raven was just returning from her meeting with Phil when she heard her name being called from somewhere in the temple antechamber.
"I am here," she said, stepping inside.
A familiar black-masked face appeared from around the corner of the antechamber's t-shaped intersection. "Ah, good."
"Doctor Coe? What brings you here?" Raven asked, her ears flicking forward in curiosity.
"Grave news, I fear. The plague has come to Metamor."
Raven blinked once in surprise, but quickly hid the expression behind her usual mask of composure. "Please explain, doctor."
Coe quickly outlined the events of that morning and his conversation with the duke.
"Lord Thomas hopes that you might be able to help," he said.
"Of course," Raven agreed, nodding. "I shall consult Akkala on how best to fight the disease. Worry not, doctor -- we will do all in our power to put a stop to this."
"Thank you, Lightbringer," Coe said, bowing once to the priestess. "Now, I apologize for having to take my leave of you so abruptly, but I must return to the sickbay at once."
"By all means," Raven agreed, waving off any further apologies with a gesture. "May Akkala be with you, Doctor Coe."
"And you as well, Mistress."
The raccoon quickly departed, and Raven entered the main temple hall. There were a few supplicants praying quietly before the altar, and two acolytes standing near the doors, but other than that the room was empty.
"Please dismiss the laity for now," she whispered to the acolytes. "I have a summons to perform."
"Aye, Sister Raven."
While the acolytes cleared the room, Raven walked over to Merai's room. Finding the door closed, she knocked twice. "Merai?"
"Come in," Merai's voice called.
Raven opened the door. Merai was sitting placidly in the middle of her meditation circles, eyes closed. For a moment Raven thought she caught a trace of a sharp, bitter odor, but it only lasted for an instant before being replaced by the more familiar scent of the beeswax candles. When the smell did not return, Raven dismissed it from her mind, attributing it to her own nerves.
"Merai, I need you to help me prepare the temple for a summoning," she said.
The cat-woman rose to her feet in one fluid motion, extinguished the candles with a wave of her hand, and opened her eyes. "I'll be glad to help," she said. "Who are we summoning?"
"The Lady Akkala. An outbreak of plague has struck the Keep, and I need her advice on how best to combat it."
Merai's eyes went wide in surprise and fear, and her tail shot out straight behind her. "Plague? In Metamor? How is that possible?"
"Dr. Coe suspects that it was brought here by traders." Raven narrowed her eyes. "I have my own suspicions. Akkala will be able to tell us what is truly going on. Come."
By the time they returned to the temple hall, the acolytes had already cleared out the room and shut the doors behind them.
"Milady Kyia, please make sure we're not disturbed," Raven said, walking over to the altar where the remnants of several supplicants' offerings still lay in the central bowl.
*As always, Raven,* Kyia's voice whispered in her mind.
Raven smiled slightly at that. "Merai," she called, looking over her shoulder briefly, "bring me the white, pink and rose powders from the supply closet, if you please."
Raven turned back to the altar and removed the bowl from its housing, then carried it to one of the adjoining supply rooms and cleaned out the blood, incense and other offerings. After drying it thoroughly and grabbing a basket of small candles from a nearby shelf, she returned the bowl to its place and began setting the candles in place on the altar.
After a few moments she heard Merai's voice behind her. "Here are the powders, Sister Raven."
Raven had turned halfway around when Kyia's voice suddenly shouted in her mind: *Raven, danger! Don't--*
But it was too late. Raven got only a moment's glimpse of the black amulet in Merai's hands before she slipped it around the wolf-woman's neck. The thing glowed bright green, and Raven felt the chain of the necklace contract to size itself to her neck. Then a surge of power shot through her, and all went black.
Priestess Merai hin'Dana smiled tightly as the Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric crumpled to the floor. Picking up the older woman with no more difficulty than one might lift a feather pillow, she carried her into the High Priestess's chambers and shut the door behind her.
The doors to the temple chamber swung open, and a weary-looking Sister Merai stepped out to address the throng of acolytes and initiates that had assembled outside.
The Lothanasa was nowhere to be seen.
"Sister Merai? How went the summoning?"
"Is Akkala going to help us?"
"Where is Mistress Raven?"
"Please, one at a time," Merai said, holding up a hand to forestall any further questions. "As you must know by now, a plague has broken out in Metamor. The first victim was diagnosed this morning down in Euper, where it was no doubt brought in by traders sometime in the last week. Sister Raven and I were making preparations for the summoning when she grew suddenly ill and collapsed. Apparently she was exposed to the contagion some time in the last few days, and it had the evil fortune to strike now. Needless to say, she was unable to continue the ceremony."
"Where is she now?" Sister Mabel asked.
"In her bed, resting. Since I am the only other full priestess at the Keep, she placed me in charge of the temple until she recovers."
"So why didn't you complete the summoning yourself?" Tessa asked, crossing her arms.
"I don't know the ceremony well enough yet to perform it myself," the priestess replied, shaking her head. "If I made a mistake, it could bring disaster on all of us. I shall study the summoning in detail and try to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, but that will take time. For now I need the rest of you to start looking through the Archives for possible treatments. Dismiss nothing out of hand -- mayhap some ancient alchemist discovered a salve or potion that will cure this blight. We'll hold daily meetings before supper to discuss what you've found. That is all for now."
Reluctantly, their faces filled with worry, the Lightbringers began to turn away and head for the Archives beneath the temple. Tessa and Celine were the last ones left standing there.
"Merai, I'd like to see the Lothanasa," Celine said quietly.
"As would I," said Tessa.
Merai sighed. "I'm sorry, my sisters, but Sister Raven gave explicit instructions that no one should see her except me. I have been with her for hours, and could well be infected already. She doesn't want to risk contaminating anyone else, especially the two of you." Her ears twitched back, and she shrugged. "After all, if I become afflicted as well, you two are the only ones who could carry on in my place."
Celine nodded thoughtfully. "Very well. But keep us appraised of her situation. If it gets worse, or better, the two of us at least should know."
Merai smiled sadly. "You know I shall," she said.
There was a long pause. Celine looked down at her feet. Tessa's eyes bored deep into Merai's face, but she said nothing.
"Well," Merai said at last. "I guess I had best begin researching that summoning. Please excuse me." With that she slipped past them and headed for the Archives.
"I don't like this," Tessa muttered.
"Neither do I," Celine admitted. "But like it or not, it makes sense. Besides, Merai is our friend, and she's never been false with us. We should give her the benefit of the doubt."
"I shall," Tessa said. "For now."
March 5, 708.
A harsh, bitter wind blew across the face of Mount Kalegris, sending fine, powdery snow whipping through the cold morning air. The lone traveler pulled the hood of his cloak more tightly around his face, wincing as the frigid gusts of wind bit at his nose. While springtime may have come in the valleys below, up here in the Dragon Mountains winter was still very much in force.
An old and gnarled walking stick found a small cleft in the rocks, and with a quiet grunt of exertion the traveler pushed himself up the incline to the top of the ridge. There he caught his first glimpse of the tall, proud towers in the distance, the polished grey stones glistening in the golden light of morning. As he looked on that sight for the first time in nearly two years, a broad grin crept across the traveler's face.
Scratch, the Protector of the Blessed Dove, Disciple of Akkala, had come home.
He whistled softly. "My lady, you are a sight for sore eyes," he murmured.
After pausing for perhaps a minute to soak in the view from the summit, the lay priest and reformed thief took his eyes off the spires of Metamor Keep and began making his way down the mountain. He still had a few low ridges and rocky passes to go through before he entered the Valley proper, but the worst of the journey was now over. For a man who had been on pilgrimage for the better part of two years, the rest of the trip would seem like child's play.
And what a trip it had been! After confronting the demons of his past as a member of the Thieves' Guild, Scratch had left Metamor Keep to learn the ways of Akkala, the Goddess of Healing and Purity. He had traveled far, through empty wilderness and towns and villages far from home, and he had learned much about the ways of peace, and healing, and compassion. He was a changed man now, his hatred and jealousy and bitterness finally put to rest. Serving the goddess was his life and his passion -- and now, after many months away, Akkala had given him permission to come home to Metamor.
He wondered what kind of reception he would get.
It was another two hours before Scratch found himself on the floor of Metamor Valley. The Keep rose before him in the distance, standing tall atop its rocky ridge, flags and banners flying in the breeze. Immediately he noticed a few things had changed: A new stone wall was visible a little more than half-way up the ridge, with short perpendicular sections connecting it to the old wall and dividing up the space between into several cells. At the foot of the ridge, surrounding the trading town of Euper, was a tall wooden rampart, with guard towers placed at regular intervals along the perimeter.
"They've been busy," Scratch said, partly to himself and partly to Akkala. "I wonder what scared them badly enough to do all this?"
If she was listening, the goddess gave no answer. As he came closer to the Keep, though, Scratch saw something that disturbed him more than all the new defenses.
"That isn't the Duke's banner," he said, frowning up at the yellow flags flapping in the breeze. "Metamor's colors are blue and white. Why would they be flying yellow flags?"
Almost as soon as he had said it, a memory clicked. "Oh, no -- it can't be, not here..."
*It is, Scratch.* Akkala's voice echoed inside his mind. Around his neck, the goddess's amulet glowed with a rose-pink light. *The plague has struck in Metamor.*
"How can that be?" the tiger asked, gazing up at the grey stone walls in disbelief. "Metamor is such a clean city, so advanced..."
*There is more at work here than just the plague,* Akkala said. Scratch could tell from her tone that she was angry, though not at him. *A great evil has been unleashed in Metamor. Raven is in danger, as is everyone else unless this is stopped quickly.*
Scratch closed his eyes and nodded. "What do you want me to do, my Lady?"
*Find the source of this evil and eliminate it,* the goddess answered. *Only be very careful. I cannot see all that is taking place within Metamor, for my brother Tallakath is opposing me -- but I fear that there may be something present here that even my power cannot deal with. Be on your guard.*
Scratch turned and headed for the city gates. If Metamor was under quarantine, he would have to pledge to remain inside until the plague lifted and all survivors were declared healthy. As soon as he passed the gates, there was no going back.
And that was fine with him. His goddess had given him a mission, and he would see it through.
Besides, if there was one thing he had always hated, it was leaving a job unfinished.
"Doctor Coe! Doctor Coe!"
"Doctor, a moment, please--"
"Brian, this man needs help--
"Doctor, my daughter--"
"--sir, my brother--"
"--my wife, please help her!--"
Forcing his way through the mass of people that descended on him, covering his sensitive ears with both hands, Dr. Brian Coe fled into his office and slammed the door behind him, nearly shutting it on his own tail in the process. Slowly, he let his body slide down to the floor, closing his eyes and letting out a deep sigh. The physician rubbed his eyes and shook his head.
"What a way to start a morning," he muttered.
"Doctor?" A familiar voice came from the adjoining room.
"I'm here, Claudia," he said.
The age-regressed healer walked into the office, carrying a tablet with a few sheets of parchment on it. She was looking down at the tablet as she entered. "Thank Akkala," she said. "We admitted sixty-three new patients during the night, all with the plague. We filled all the beds in the main ward, but Kyia was kind enough to provide us with a few extra rooms, so..." She broke off as she finally noticed Brian sitting on the floor. She gave him a concerned look. "You all right? Gods, Brian, you look like you had a worse night than I did."
"I didn't sleep very well," he admitted. "I couldn't stop thinking about this damn plague..." He sighed and shook his head again. "I just don't understand how this could happen. How could this many people come down with the plague so suddenly, especially in a city like this?"
"Have you spoken with the Lightbringers about it?" Claudia suggested.
"Not since yesterday. Raven promised she'd look into it, but I haven't heard anything since. I'll have someone go up to the temple once the other healers get here."
The girl set down her tablet on Brian's desk. "Do you need me to stay a while and help you?"
"Thank you, Claudia, but no," Brian said, getting to his feet and stepping away from the door. "You've been here all night, and we'll need you again tonight as well. Go home and get some rest."
"Thank you, Doctor. Good luck today." Claudia slipped out of the office, disappearing into the crowd of people filling the sickbay. As he stood in the doorway, Brian saw dozens of eyes turn towards him expectantly.
"We're going to need it," he murmured.
Scratch turned the corner and found himself standing in front of the huge double doors of the Lightbringer Temple. He immediately smiled at the sight. While not all his experiences in this place had been good ones, it was here that he had taken his first tentative steps away from his shadowed past and into the light of Akkala. While no one was immediately visible from the entrance, he could hear the rapid-fire conversation between acolytes rising up from the Archives below the temple. Voices debated this or that point of healing procedure, called to each other from great distances, and occasionally let out curses or cries of frustration. Clearly, the Lightbringers were busy with something of great importance -- and given the yellow flags and the quarantine checkpoint he'd had to pass to get here, the subject of their discussion was obvious.
Scratch followed the voices into the antechamber's right-hand side passage and down the stairs into the first floor of the Lightbringer Archives. The large vaulted chamber was crawling with acolytes, poring over hundreds of books and scrolls.
"Am I interrupting anything?" he called as he made his way down the spiral staircase.
A few acolytes heard his words and looked up. Celine, the head acolyte, was the first to recognize him.
"Scratch!" she called, looking pleasantly surprised.
"Good day to you, my lady!" Scratch replied, grinning as he made his way to the floor. "Or as good a day as can be in times like these."
Celine came up and embraced him warmly. "Welcome back," she said with a smile. "I can see that the past two years have been good for you. Your countenance has much improved."
"Aye, it has," Scratch agreed. "It has been a long road, and a difficult one, but worth every mile."
"Well, you shall have to tell us all about your journeys, then," Celine said, as other acolytes who remembered the tiger began to gather around him.
"Some other time, perhaps." Scratch and Celine looked up to see Merai descending the staircase with several scrolls under one arm. She swung herself over the railing and fell to the floor, using a modified shield-spell to break her fall and land lightly on her feet.
Scratch smiled broadly as he got a good look at her. "Merai, is that you? My, you've grown since I last saw you! And grown a coat of fur, as well, I see," he added with a laugh. "I notice you're a full priestess now. Congratulations!"
Merai stepped forward and looked up at the tiger, her expression grim. "Thank you," she said shortly. "Is there a reason why you are here ... Scratch?"
Scratch frowned in confusion, both at Merai's demeanor and the brief pause before she said his name. "Um, well, aye," he said at last. "Actually, I hoped to speak with Mistress Raven."
"I'm afraid she can't receive any visitors at this time," the cat-woman said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, the acolytes and I have a great deal of work to do. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a plague on." Without another word, she turned and walked past Scratch into the Archives, her tail swishing behind her. The other acolytes quickly stepped aside and returned to their duties.
"Well. I can't say that's an improvement," Scratch said quietly to Celine, after Merai was out of sight.
"I don't know what's gotten into her today," Celine said, shaking her head. "This isn't like her at all."
"In her chamber, sick with the plague. She appointed Merai as her representative in the temple, since she doesn't wish to risk spreading the illness to any of us."
Scratch glanced down at her, quirking a furry eyebrow. "So no one has seen her except Merai?"
"Not since yesterday afternoon, no."
The tiger stood there for a long moment, thinking. At last he nodded. "Very well. Thank you, Celine. I have some other business to attend to, but I shall stop by another time so we can catch up."
Celine gave him a small smile. "I look forward to it," she said. Her eyes, though, were worried.
"As do I," Scratch agreed. "Until later, then." He turned and made his way back up the stairs and out of the temple.
"Well, there's no doubt about it," he muttered to himself, after he had gone a good way down the hall. "Something's definitely wrong at the temple. I hope Lady Kyia kept my room waiting for me..."
After Scratch had gone, Tessa emerged from behind a nearby bookcase laden with protective spells. She came up alongside Celine and pretended to show her a passage in a book she was holding.
"That was not a good sign," she whispered.
"No, it wasn't," Celine agreed. " 'Twas almost as if she didn't recognize him."
"It was worse than that," Tessa said. "I've seen Merai treat vagrants with greater courtesy. Has he ever wronged her in some way?"
"Not that I know of -- at least, no more than any of us." She looked up at Tessa's face briefly and then pointed at another passage of the text, maintaining the charade for any would-be observers. "Scratch wronged us all, in a way, but he came around in the end. I can't imagine why Merai would be so cold with him."
"It may just be the stress she's under," Tessa admitted. "But I doubt it. What do you think we should do?"
"I'm working on that," Celine said. "When I come up with something, I shall let you know. Just try to keep an eye on her."
"Not a problem," Tessa said, taking the book back and snapping it shut. "Stalking is a talent that runs in my family."
Scratch found his room just as he had left it, right down to the unmade bed, the box of illusionist's gear on the shelf, the daggers in the nightstand drawer -- and the set of thieves' tools hidden in an alcove behind the table. He pulled out the kit and quickly determined that everything was still present and in good working order.
"My Lady, I never thought I'd be using these again," he said. "But if my hunch is right, Raven's life depends on it." He looked up at the ceiling. "I trust you understand that," he added.
While he was waiting for night to come, Scratch got some food from the Keep kitchens, drank a cup of tea at the Deaf Mule and chatted with a few old friends about his recent wanderings. At last he returned to his room and spent two hours in prayer and meditation before the sun sank behind the Dragon Mountains and night fell on the city.
Placing a hood over the lamp, Scratch drew the curtain and looked out at night sky. After waiting a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he whuffed in disappointment.
The moon was only half-full, but it sat in the midst of a perfectly clear sky. Even a normal human could see clearly in that light -- and for a cat-morph it was nearly like being in broad daylight.
Scratch shut the curtains and sat down on the bed in disgust. "There's no way a thief's going outside on a night like this," he grumbled. "She'd spot me in a second." He looked up at the ceiling again. "My Lady, could you entreat Lord Dvalin to arrange for better weather?"
He sat in the darkness and waited. After almost five minutes, an answer came.
*Not tonight,* the goddess answered softly. *Too many patterns will go awry if the clouds are diverted now. In five days the skies will be right for you to do your work.*
"Five days?!" Scratch exclaimed. "How many will die in the next five days? A hundred? A thousand?"
*Or none, perhaps,* Akkala countered. *But if the clouds across the sea are swept here before they drop their rain, a hundred thousand peasants in Fan Shoar will die in the famine that follows. There is more to this world than Metamor alone, Scratch.*
Slowly, the tiger nodded. "Aye. You taught me that well enough, milady." He sighed. "Very well, then. Five days."
March 10, 708.
A knock on the door roused Dr. Brian Coe from sleep.
"What is it?" he called.
"Wake-up call, doctor," the voice on the other side answered. " 'Tis the sixth hour."
Brian groaned and dragged himself out of bed. "Thank you," he said, not entirely sure that he meant it. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he stumbled toward the wash-room.
The last five days had taken a grueling toll on the physician and his staff. The numbers of plague victims had swelled from a handful, to dozens, to hundreds, until the sickbay had grown as large as the Duke's ballroom. Sister Merai had dispatched two dozen acolytes to the sickbay to assist Brian and his staff in their work, but there were still barely enough healers to go around. At last Brian had sent out an announcement that they could not take any more patients, and any additional victims should be confined to their homes until some way could be found of successfully treating the patients they already had.
Brian leaned over the basin and washed his face, then looked up at his own haggard expression in the mirror. It seemed like they had tried everything to combat this plague, and nothing was working. Clothes and linens belonging to the victims had been carefully cleaned and sanitized, waste was being disposed of with even more efficiency than usual, and the guards' investigations had turned up no sign of any greater rat infestation than usual. But none of those measures had kept the number of victims from rising. And as for actually _treating_ the victims -- well, both he and the Lightbringers had been researching countless leads, none of them successful. Everything from salves to leeches to alchemical potions to the mold-derived concoction discovered by Lytherian had been tried, and not one of the patients had yet shown any sign of recovery. It would not be long now before the first patients began either recovering of their own accord, or succumbing entirely to the disease.
Brian put on his clothes and made his way down to sickbay. One of the messengers would stop by his office later that morning with his breakfast, but for now he needed to see how the situation had changed overnight. Sensing his urgency, the Keep brought him to the door almost as soon as he had left the staircase.
Giving the handle a turn and pushing the door open, Brian walked in to find the sickbay strangely quiet. There was no mob of concerned friends and family members waiting to bombard him with questions. There were no voices of healers shouting out orders to each other across the vast hall that the sickbay had become. Looking around, he even saw that three of the beds near the entrance were empty. The patients in the other beds were lying there in silence, some asleep, some lost in thought or too much in pain to respond to anything.
Turning left, Brian headed toward where his office had been the last time he saw it. Inside, he found Caitlyn sitting numbly at the desk, staring at the wall. She had replaced Claudia on the night shift two days ago.
"How was it last night?" he asked.
The girl didn't turn to look at him. "We lost some patients," she said.
Brian winced, his raccoon ears flattening back against his head. "How many?"
She swallowed visibly. "Thirty-seven," she said.
Brian blinked once, then sat down on the edge of the desk, his legs suddenly too weak to support his weight. "Thirty-seven?" he repeated, as one might repeat a foreign word that one had just heard for the first time. His mind stubbornly refused to recognize those words. Clearly they couldn't be plain Common. There was some mistake, some misunderstanding. Caitlyn obviously wasn't really telling him that over _three dozen patients_ had died in the course of eight hours. That was obscene. That was unheard of. That was...
That was the plague. The bane of mankind, destroyer of cities, scourge of civilization, the unseen conqueror that had taken more lives than the Human-Elf war. Thirty-seven lives was _nothing_ for the plague. Gods, it wasn't even getting started yet.
"Where ... where did you--"
"The morgue," Caitlyn said. "With the quarantine, there's no way to get wood for the pyres. Besides, I suspected you would want to examine the bodies."
"Eventually," the doctor said, nodding once. His whole body felt numb, lifeless. "Do you ... have the list?"
The young healer handed him a writing tablet with a list of names on it. Thirty-seven names...
"Will you need anything else, doctor?"
Distractedly, Brian shook his head. "Uh, no, no thank you, Caitlyn. You may go."
Caitlyn headed for the door.
She paused and looked back, her hand gripping the doorknob. "Aye?'
Brian swallowed back the lump in his throat and tore his eyes away from the list. "I -- I have never been a particularly religious man," he said. "But if you should happen to have time today to pray for these poor souls..."
"I shall," she said, nodding. "And for you, as well."
Brian nodded back. "Thank you," he said.
Then Caitlyn left, shutting the door behind her -- and Brian was alone.
Alone with a list of thirty-seven names.
It was about ten o'clock in the morning when Priestess Merai hin'Dana called the Lightbringers together in the temple hall. The cat-woman sat on the edge of the altar, one foot crossed in front of the other, hands in her lap, shoulders rounded, face downcast. She looked beaten, drained, and defeated, and the acolytes and initiates knew that this was not going to be a pleasant meeting.
"A few hours ago I received an update from sickbay," she said, eyes fixed on her feet. "Thirty-seven patients died last night. Despite all our efforts ... despite every attempt to find a cure ... they still died."
She paused and cleared her throat. "When I heard the news, I knew we had run out of time. I would have to do something quickly. So after reviewing all that I had learned about the ceremony, I attempted to summon the goddess Akkala to heal Sister Raven." She looked up, eyes haunted. "She refused the summons."
Anxious murmurs rose up around the room. Merai silenced them with a gesture. "I do not understand what error I may have made, or what I might have done to offend the goddess. But we cannot afford to stand by and do nothing while I try to discern my mistake. That is why I have contacted the Imperial High Temple at Elvquelin ... and asked Lothanas Alarun for immediate emergency support. He is sending a group of experienced priests to assume temporary command of this temple."
There were more than a few gasps of shock.
"But, Sister--" Celine said, eyes wide.
"Merai!" Tessa exclaimed.
"Mistress--" someone else began.
"Please!" Merai shouted, her voice and expression suddenly angry. "I don't like it any more than you do, but we have no choice!"
"Serke yrchava!" Tessa spat. "There are other priests in our chapter who could help. Byron, Holdeman, Calvis--"
"None of whom have ever dealt with the gods in person!" Merai countered, stepping up to look Tessa square in the eye. "What makes you think they can do any better than I?"
Tessa held her ground. "What makes _you_ think some Imperial toady can do any better than you?"
"You will not speak of your superiors in that tone of voice, _Initiate_ Tessariel!" Merai shouted.
"Oh, don't you _dare_ lecture me about superiors, human!" Tessa snapped, jabbing her finger into Merai's chest. "Your kind have been rebelling against your betters for _ten thousand years!_ You think _I'm_ the one who doesn't understand respect?"
Merai swatted Tessa's finger away and, fast as lightning, drove the palm of her other hand into Tessa's chest. The half-Elf flew backwards some ten feet, landed hard, and tumbled to a stop another twenty feet away, gasping for breath.
"That will be enough, Initiate Tessariel." The priestess turned her eyes back to the shocked faces of her audience. "The contingent from Elvquelin will arrive in three days," she said, her face now chillingly calm. "They will assume temporary command until Sister Raven has recovered. In the meantime, I shall expect all of you to render your full support to Doctor Coe as he gives aid and comfort to the victims and their families. There is nothing more we can do here, so I am closing the temple for the next three days. That should reduce the chance of any of us becoming infected." She turned and began walking back towards her bedroom. "You have ten minutes to gather any belongings you need. Oh, and Adrian, Miles?"
"Aye, ma'am?" Miles asked, as the two muscular gendermorphs stepped forward.
"Please escort Initiate Tessariel out of here. Someone can bring her belongings to her at a later time, but she is stripped of all temple privileges until further notice."
As the two men dragged out the battered half-Elf, Celine rushed to pack some clothes and supplies for the next few days. As she was picking out a backpack from a supply room, her husband Jonathan came up behind her.
"What's happened to Merai?" he asked softly.
"I don't know," she whispered back. "Tessa and I have been working on that."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"I'll let you know. For now, though, I think the fewer people who know we're up to something, the better."
"As you wish, luv," Jon said, giving her a peck on the cheek. "Call for me and I'll come running." He chuckled once, without mirth. "Of course, I doubt I'd be able to stop anyone who could throw Tessa around like that."
Celine shook her head. "Somehow I think we couldn't stop her if every acolyte in Metamor were on our side."
"How's your chest?"
Tessa readjusted her ice pack and let out a ragged sigh. "Sore, but nothing broken, I think," she said. "I'm glad Kyia keeps some ice in storage for us."
Celine shrugged. "One of the blessings of living in a home that tries so hard to please." She smiled for a moment, but the expression was soon swallowed up by concern. "I still can't believe she hit you."
"I can," Tessa said, looking self-satisfied. "They say that a person reveals his true self when put under stress and pressure. That thing in the white robe revealed itself when I provoked it, and it is _not_ Merai."
"But her aura--"
"--can be faked. Or masked. Difficult, but not impossible." Tessa shook her head. "No, something diabolical is going on ... and the one person who would be able to tell us what it is is lying sick in her chambers, if she isn't dead already."
Celine frowned a moment, lost in thought. "Mayhap not the _only_ person," she said at last.
Tessa looked up from the couch where she was lying, quirking an eyebrow in interest. "Oh? I'm afraid I still don't know many people here outside of the Order..."
"No, but I do. And there is one person you should see before you talk to anyone else. If anyone can tell us what's wrong with Merai, it would be..."
"Me?" Rickkter asked, his expression at once both surprised and amused. "What makes you think _I_ know anything about this?"
"Don't be coy, Master Rickkter," Tessa said, crossing her arms. "I've heard the stories. You were a healer once, you know more about magic than almost anyone and you've fought and defeated creatures that most humans have never even heard of. I have to believe that you at least have some theories about the cause of Merai's behavior."
"Many, and none of them pleasant," the raccoon answered.
"Then could you at least come and look at her?" Tessa pressed. "See if there is some hint in her aura that I've missed? If Merai is under some spell, or replaced by some kind of doppelganger, then she and Raven could both be in danger."
With a sigh, Rickkter closed the book he had been reading. "All right," he said. "I'll look. Where is she?"
"In the sickbay."
At that moment, the sickbay was just down a flight of stairs and around the corner from Rickkter's quarters. As they walked past the rows of beds filled with patients, Rickkter made a sound of disgust.
"I knew from the moment it started that this plague was unnatural," he muttered. "I've been in plague-ridden towns, and trust me, they don't look anything like Metamor."
"If it isn't truly the plague, what is it?"
"I'm not sure. There's definitely some sort of magical aura in the air, but I'm having trouble locating its source. I think someone or something may be masking it."
Tessa was scanning the room as they walked, looking for some sign of Merai among the healers and acolytes rushing around. At last she spotted her in the distance, talking to one of the healers and gesturing at a writing tablet the other woman was holding.
"There she is," she said, pointing her out to Rickkter.
"I see her," Rick said. He furrowed his brow in concentration, fixing his eyes on the priestess. "Let's see," he said. "That looks strange, and somehow familiar ... where have I..."
Merai looked over her shoulder and glanced in Rickkter's direction. A look of shock crossed his face, and he quickly turned away.
"Blood and ashes," he hissed. "Come on, let's get out of here."
"What? Why? What's wrong with her?" Tessa asked.
"Not here," he whispered fiercely, taking her by the hand and all but dragging her out of the room. He didn't speak again until they were at least five minutes' walk away from the sickbay.
"This is bad," he said, leaning up against the wall.
"What is it? Some sort of daedra?"
"Worse," Rick said harshly. "I've tangled with these things twice before, and I was damned lucky I lived to regret it. The good news is that what you saw really is Merai's body, so she's physically unharmed. The bad news is that she has been possessed."
"Possessed? You mean--?"
"Aye. A Fallen." He shook his head and muttered some sort of foreign curse under his breath. "If you want to save Merai, I suggest you talk to Father Hough. As of this moment he's her only hope."
Scratch looked out the window and nodded in satisfaction: the sky was completely overcast and the night was as black as pitch. Even feline eyes would have trouble seeing on a night like this, and that was exactly what he wanted. Shuttering the window again, he walked over to his bed and began donning his old thieves' gear.
The last several days had been a mixture of tension and boredom: he had laid low, venturing out as little as possible, staying well clear of the temple and sickbay, doing everything he could to avoid drawing attention to himself. If there was a terrible evil at work in Metamor, as Akkala said, then he might well be the only person in a position to do something about it. He couldn't afford to be caught by whatever dark forces had ensnared Merai.
The former thief fastened his climbing harness and tested the straps, then armed himself with the ropes, clamps, claws and other gear he would need for climbing the walls of the castle. His black tunic had required some modifications to accommodate the dragon wings he had inherited from the Sivikian two years ago, but the matching tights still fit perfectly. After pulling on his hood and mask, he looked at himself in the mirror and smiled: virtually all of his bright orange markings had been hidden from sight. Outside, in the darkness, he would be all but invisible.
After extinguishing the lamps in his bedroom Scratch returned to the window and looked down. The Keep had placed his room on the north face of the castle, on the eighth floor -- four stories above the Lightbringer temple. This would be easy; the window to Raven's chambers was almost directly beneath him. Anchoring his climbing rope firmly to the stone ledge of the window, he stepped out onto the wall.
Though spring had already arrived in the Valley, the night was still blustery and cold. Frigid winds whipped along the northern side of the Keep and the sheer cliff face below it, stinging Scratch's nose even through his mask. He moved slowly and carefully, rappelling down the side of the castle in small hops, landing softly each time on the bare pads of his feet. Within a couple of minutes he was standing just above the unique semicircular window that marked the main hall of the temple. Raven's window, he knew, would be the second one to his right. Carefully, silently, he crept across the stone wall until he was positioned just above it. Removing an anchor from his belt, he fixed the rope in place about six feet above the window. The anchor wasn't designed to hold the full weight of the climber -- that would require driving a piton into the stone, which would be far too noisy -- but it would safely redirect the force of Scratch's weight so that he could let go of the wall and hang straight down over Raven's window.
With the anchor in place, Scratch turned himself around until he was hanging upside-down over the window. Turning a small winch on the climbing harness, he slowly let out the rope, lowering himself down until he could see inside.
Not surprisingly, all he could see were the heavy curtains that covered the window. Removing the lock-picking tools from his belt, he quickly and quietly opened the latch and pulled one of the windows open. Grabbing the curtains by the rungs, he slid them just far enough apart to see the room beyond.
He didn't like what he saw. Raven was lying on her bed, stiff as a board, still dressed in her priestess's robes. There was an amulet hanging around her neck that Scratch didn't recognize, and it glowed with an eerie green light. While he didn't have the best aura sight in the world, the tiger-priest could easily sense the evil surrounding the necklace.
There was no one else in the room, and Scratch didn't hear any sound of other people in the temple, so he decided to act while he had the chance. Lowering himself down the rest of the way, he turned upright again and climbed into the window. After releasing the rope from his harness he crept over to the bed and examined the amulet more closely.
It was a ghastly-looking thing, with arcane runes and demonic-looking faces etched in a surface of solid black. The green light emanated from a jewel in the center of the amulet, doubtless a power-stone of some kind. The feel of evil around the device was palpable.
Reaching behind Raven's immobilized head, Scratch grasped the necklace and tried to open the clasp. Despite his best efforts and highly dexterous hands, however, he couldn't manage to get the thing off of her. After fumbling with the clasp for five minutes, he finally pulled out one of his enchanted daggers and tried to cut the necklace's chain. The blade didn't even make a mark on the strange black metal. He tried the heavy-duty cutters from his thieves' kit, but succeeded only in denting the blades of the tool. Placing his hands on the amulet itself, he tried to dispel the enchantment with a proxy spell that Akkala had given him, but the magic backfired in a flash of light that singed his hands.
*Looks as if this is beyond my skills,* he thought, as he returned to the window and reattached the rope to his harness. *At least I know she's still alive. Maybe Celine will know someone who can help her.*
Scratch had just finished closing the window and turned to begin climbing up the wall when he heard the sound of another window opening somewhere above him. Looking up, he saw a shadowy figure leaning out of a window about three stories up -- right next to his rope. The figure moved, and Scratch heard the horrifying sound of a knife being drawn across the rope.
Knowing what was coming, Scratch pulled the quick-release on the harness and pushed away from the wall of the Keep with all the force he could muster. In only a moment he was far enough away from the wall to spread his wings, and after two terrifying seconds he managed to gain control of his fall, swooping out away from the cliff face and into the open sky.
Suspecting that his attacker might have a bow with him, Scratch came back the long way, curving off to the east side of the Keep and then flying close to the walls to keep him from getting a good angle on the shot. He approached the open window with daggers in hand, but inside he found only an empty room with no sign of his assailant. Exiting the room through the open door, he headed off in search of Celine.
Father Francis Hough fidgeted in his seat, his boyish features lined with a deep-seated concern that belied his apparent age.
"In all my days, I had hoped never to see this again," he said wearily. "Possession is perhaps the most frightening weapon in the Adversary's arsenal. I have performed blessedly few exorcisms myself, and still it pains me to see anyone so completely under his power."
"So you can do it, then?" Tessa asked.
Hough laughed humorlessly. "_I_ can do nothing, child. It is Eli who will force the demon to leave, if indeed He chooses to do so. I am only the instrument."
"What do you mean, 'if He chooses'? Why would your god leave someone in the hands of His mortal enemy?"
The priest shrugged. "Possessions differ from case to case. Some people become possessed by chance, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some become possessed because of the sins of others -- if a child is offered to the Adversary by his parents in some black ritual, for instance. And some become possessed because they invited it."
"Invited it how?"
"There are different ways. Worship of the Adversary. Black magic. Some forms of divination. The important thing is not so much the method as the heart of the person in question. Eli holds the free will of mortals as sacred, and seldom will He countermand it -- even if it would help the person's immediate problem. The Savior desires children, not drones."
"For the moment, let's assume that won't be a problem," Celine said, holding up a hand to stave off any further questions from Tessa. "Right now our greatest concern is putting Raven back in control of the temple before the contingent from Elvquelin arrives and takes over. We need to find a way into the high priestess's suite before Merai knows we're there. If Raven is still alive, we'll need to rescue her before we deal with Merai so that she can't harm her. Obviously, the front door is not an option at this point -- Merai will almost certainly have it sealed and trapped."
"Doesn't the temple have secret passages that we could use to get inside?" Rickkter asked.
"It does, but the hidden door leads to Raven's office. The door into Raven's bedroom is locked from the inside."
"Can you pick a lock, Rick?" Tessa asked.
The raccoon grimaced and shook his head. "I'm a mercenary, not a thief. We don't pick locks, we smash them. I don't think we want to give Merai that kind of warning."
"Agreed," Celine said. "However, I do know someone who can get us inside."
Rick frowned at her in puzzlement -- a frown that abruptly turned into a scowl. "Oh, no. Not him."
Celine raised her eyebrows. "Do we have any choice?"
Before anyone could say anything else, the doors of the cathedral burst open and Scratch ran in, dagger in hand. He stopped for a moment, apparently puzzled by his surroundings, but then he noticed Celine and ran towards her and the others seated at the front of the chapel.
"Celine!" he called. "I was just inside Raven's chambers..."
Celine looked over at Rick and smiled. "See?" she said.
"She doesn't have the plague -- she's been paralyzed by some kind of amulet," Scratch continued, his expression earnest and deeply concerned. "I tried to remove it, but it wouldn't come off and it threw my dispelling spell back in my face. Then someone tried to kill me as I climbed back up the wall." He slid his dagger back into its sheath. "We'd better come up with a rescue plan."
"Brilliant deduction," Rick muttered. "What did the amulet look like?"
"All black, runes and daedra heads on it, green power-stone in the middle," Scratch said, his eyes still fixed on Celine. Then his ears flicked back, he frowned, and he looked up at Rick and Hough, as if noticing them for the first time. He turned back to the Lightbringers. "What are _they_ doing here?" he asked, puzzled.
"Helping, apparently," Rick said. He turned to Celine. "The amulet sounds familiar -- I've used similar types of magic myself. I should be able to find a way around it."
Celine smiled again. "It seems Kyia has put together our team for us," she said. "Tessa and I know the secret entrances into the temple complex. Scratch knows thievery -- no offense, Scratch."
"Rickkter is the only one of us who could deal with that amulet--"
"Potentially," Rickkter said.
"-- and Father Hough has the power to exorcise this thing that's possessing Merai."
"Eli willing," Hough says.
For a moment all five were silent, looking at each other.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Tessa asked, springing to her feet. "We have a rescue to make!"
The hallway outside the temple was dark and silent. The temple doors were shut and, as they had expected, barred and warded.
"You don't want to touch that," Rick murmured, looking at the weave of spells around the door. "There are some nasty enchantments on there. Excellent work, actually -- very intricate, very sensitive, horribly lethal. I'm impressed."
"Ogle the black magic later, all right?" Scratch hissed. "We have bigger problems to worry about."
"Fine. Next time I'll let you turn yourself into tiger paste," Rick retorted.
"Both of you be quiet," Tessa whispered fiercely. "Now, come on -- the secret entrance is down here."
The two Lightbringers led them to a patch of very ordinary-looking wall about twenty feet past the main entrance. Pointing to the top stone in the wall above a lamp sconce, Tessa began murmuring the prayer of the Dawn Sacrifice, moving her finger down a stone for each new word and one stone to the right for each new sentence:
"Nemmë Lothanasi; maremmë i enessë ba'neva a únemmë pelda. Nemmë Calimarimbë; caremmë mara i enessë rukia. Nemmë Tirimbë Metammurava; á termarë rambarya síllo i Ambar-mettanna." When her hand reached the last stone, she pressed it firmly; it slid into the wall half an inch, and a soft click could be heard inside. Then she pulled on the lamp sconce, and a door-shaped section of wall swung outward into the hall, revealing a large storeroom.
"Nice diction," Celine said.
"Thank you," Tessa said. "Come on."
The storeroom was dark and piled with boxes and barrels of supplies for the temple. Tessa summoned a small light to her hand while Rickkter pulled the secret door shut behind them.
"Where now?" Hough asked.
There were two obvious doors in this room: one to the north, leading to a small hallway connecting to the main entry hall, and one to the east, leading to another storeroom. Celine, however, directed them to the northwest corner of the room. Facing the north wall, she placed her hand on the ninth stone from the floor at the left edge of the wall.
"Edra," she commanded softly.
The secret door opened inwards with another quiet click, and they found themselves looking down a long, narrow corridor.
"Don't step on the third paving stone," Celine said as she entered the passage. Scratch and Rickkter followed her lead. Hough put a hand on Tessa's arm.
"What happens if we do?" he asked.
"No one knows," Tessa answered. "The command was passed down from Magnus the First, but he never stated why. Everyone's a bit afraid to find out." She entered the corridor, stepping obediently over the third stone. Hough swallowed nervously and followed after.
The door to Raven's office was disguised as part of the bookcase, but the mechanism for opening it was clearly visible on this side and they passed through without any difficulty. Tessa gestured to the door leading to the bedroom; it looked plain enough in most respects, but it had a very imposing-looking lock. Scratch knelt before it and examined it closely with a magnifying glass.
"Very nice," he murmured. "Excellent craftsmanship."
"Ogle the lock later," Rick said. "Celine, we'd better light some of these lamps so Tessa can stop concentrating on that little orb of hers."
"Good idea," Tessa muttered.
They were unable to find flint and steel in the office, but Rick summoned a small flame to his finger and lit several of the wall lamps, bathing the room in a warm glow. Tessa banished her mage-light and knelt next to Scratch.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"Hard to say," he said, clenching three small picks between his teeth while he worked with two more in the lock mechanism. " 'Tis a very good lock. Just give me some time."
A crash sounded from around the corner that led to the main temple hall, followed by the unsettling sound of claws scraping against stone.
"Time may not be something we have," Rick said, drawing his sword with his right hand while he sent a bright ball of light down the corridor with his left hand. Tessa was by his side in an instant, drawing her own swords and going into a ready posture.
A second later the thing came into view. It was a massive beast, about six feet tall at its hunched-over shoulders, covered with a muddy-green scaly hide. Its arms were long and its legs short, and it walked on the soles of its back feet and the knuckles of its massive, clawed hands. Its face was a nightmarish mixture of troll and dragon, with protruding eye-stalks that were alien to both. It snarled and slathered as it approached, its long, forked tongue dripping with saliva, yellow teeth like daggers glinting in the glow of Rick's mage-light.
Rick cursed in recognition. "A shambler," he said, to no one in particular. "The bitch summoned a bloody shambler!"
After a moment's hesitation, in which it seemed to size up its opponents, the shambler charged, lumbering forward with surprising speed. Rick hit it with a blast of green energy that hardly seemed to faze it, then backed up against the wall to get out of the way. Celine and Hough dived for cover behind Raven's desk, and Scratch left the lock to turn his attention to this new opponent.
As the monster came to a halt in the middle of the room it focused its attention on Rickkter, swiping out with one handful of razor-sharp claws. Rick ducked the attack and sliced at the creature's hand as it passed, but the sword barely even drew blood. Tessa took advantage of the shambler's distraction to leap in and score a few quick hits against the monster's exposed neck. Its flesh sizzled and hissed on contact with the Elven blades, but even they seemed to leave little mark on the beast's scaly hide. The shambler did respond to her attack, turning to snap at her with its massive jaws, but Tessa danced out of the way, unscathed.
Scratch drew two of his daggers and threw them with deadly precision, one at the creature's chest and the other at its forehead. In each case they sank in less than an inch before falling to the ground. Rickkter darted behind the creature, attacking its flanks, but again both blade and spell-fire did little more than anger the creature.
The shambler roared in frustration at being surrounded by such fast and annoying opponents. It began wheeling in circles, swiping at Rick, Tessa and Scratch with increasing ferocity, its stray blows smashing chairs and bookcases to splinters. They danced and tumbled around the creature for what seemed like ages, and while they all managed to escape serious injury, they didn't seem to be any closer to actually harming the beast.
At last Rick had a burst of inspiration. "Scratch!" he shouted.
Scratch ducked behind a chair to avoid the shambler, which quickly smashed said chair to pieces. "Aye?"
"Can you still do that shadow thing?"
"Aye." Scratch threw a dagger at the creature's eye, but the eyestalk twitched out of the way. Tessa moved in to distract it with a few quick swipes, and the tiger leapt back behind the desk.
"Good. When I tell you, go for the back of the neck!" Rick dodged a swipe of the shambler's claws, partially parrying the blow with his sword. Backing up along the wall, he extinguished the lamps as he went, throwing one half of the room into darkness. Then he sent a few small blasts of energy at the creature's nose, goading it toward him. The bloodthirsty brute lumbered forward, moving ever deeper into the shadows, and leaned in close toward Rickkter, its mouth watering in anticipation of its meal.
"Scratch!" Rick shouted. Pulling one of Marshak's Teeth from his belt, he hurled the knife and embedded it in the bookcase beside Scratch. Swiftly the tiger grabbed the knife and dived into the shadows under the desk, vanishing into the floor. An instant later he popped out of the shadows on the ceiling just above the shambler, then drove the Tooth down hard into the base of the creature's neck. There was a sharp crack as the magic of the blade drove it through the beast's natural armor, accompanied by a snap as the Tooth severed the creature's spinal cord. The shambler twitched once, and then fell limply to the floor, as Scratch jumped safely out of the way. A moment later the body vanished in a flash of red light and smoke, its essence returning to the plane it had been summoned from, and the Marshak's Tooth clattered to the floor.
"Thanks," Rick said, picking up the knife and returning it to his belt. "Now let's get that door open."
"With pleasure," Scratch said, as he retrieved his own weapons.
Celine and Hough crawled out from under the desk, and Tessa and Rick helped them to their feet. "What was that creature?" Hough asked.
"Dimensional shambler," Rick explained. "They're native to the Dreamlands and some of the lesser hells. Sometimes they wander through portals to the Material Plane -- and sometimes people summon them as guardians. Not that I'd ever trust my treasure with one of them."
"Are they evil?" Celine asked.
"Not really," Rick shrugged. "They're just predators, though they are rather nasty ones. But in situations like this you have to put them down. I've killed about a dozen of them over the years, though fortunately I never had to fight them in such close quarters before. They're quite vulnerable to fireballs and other high-powered spells, but in here those weren't really among our options."
"True." Celine turned to Tessa. "Are you all right?"
Tessa examined her swords for a moment before returning them to their sheathes. "Well enough. A few scratches, but nothing serious. I only wish I had been of more use."
"You acquitted yourself well," Rick said. "Not many people would fight as bravely as you did against a monster like this. You helped distract it enough to keep it from skewering me and Scratch, and that's impressive enough for your first time."
"Perhaps. I only hope that Merai has no other surprises waiting for us."
It was another five minutes before Scratch finally got the door open. They could immediately see the amulet around Raven's neck, its soft green light filling the room.
"Nice work," Rick said, striding forward. "Now, let's see what we're up against." He leaned over the bed and looked down at the amulet. He had only studied it for a moment before a scowl crept across his face.
"Do you recognize it?" Tessa asked, taking a few steps closer. The others followed close behind.
"Oh, aye, I recognize it," Rick said sourly. "And it is a beast to unravel, too. I'm going to have to coax this defensive spell away from the power-stone, and then--"
His words were cut off by a blast of flame coming through the doorway. Celine was closest to the door and took the jet full-force in the back, falling to the floor with a scream of pain.
"What the--?" Scratch said.
Turning around, they saw Merai walking toward them with one hand outstretched, the other one holding Elemacil. Her eyes were cold, hard, and sinister, her ears folded back against her head, her tail flicking lazily back and forth ... and her mouth was smiling cruelly.
"Out of the way!" Rick shouted, drawing his sword and springing forward to attack. Obediently, Hough and Scratch cleared a path for the battlemage, while Tessa drew her own swords to stand beside him.
Merai gestured with one hand and Tessa was thrown back by the force of a modified shield-spell, landing next to Celine, who lay motionless on the floor. Rickkter countered the attack with a warding gesture and lashed out with his sword, which Merai blocked easily with Elemacil.
Meanwhile, Hough pulled out a crucifix and held it up toward the possessed priestess. "Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis--"
"Shut up!" Merai snapped, tossing a jet of flame at the priest. Hough darted out of the way, ducking behind Raven's bed. Rick launched a quick series of strikes at Merai, drawing her attention away from the boy.
Tessa, now back on her feet, threw a look over her shoulder at him. "You all right, Father?"
"Aye, but I need eye contact with her!" he said, peeking up over the edge of the bed and holding his crucifix before him like a shield. "You'll have to hold her down!"
By this time Scratch was kneeling at Celine's side and looking worried. "Tessa, we need you over here!" he said.
Tessa looked questioningly at Rick, who was engaged in a quick back-and-forth series of strikes and parries with the cat-woman.
"Go!" Rick said. "I'll handle her for now!"
"Will you, now?" Merai asked, smiling wryly as she swung for the raccoon's neck, forcing him to duck and roll to the side.
Rick countered with a low sweeping kick that knocked Merai off her feet. "Sure will," he said, pouncing on top of her and grabbing her arms.
"How amusing," Merai remarked, bringing her feet up underneath him and pushing hard into his solar plexus. Empowered by the Fallen's enhanced strength, the blow sent Rick flying over her, hitting the wall upside-down with a force that knocked the wind out of him. He recovered quickly, landing in a roll that left him in a kneeling position with his sword at the ready, but Merai was already on her feet again and beckoning to him mockingly.
"Come on, then," she said, smiling tightly.
As Rick and Merai continued their duel, Tessa examined Celine.
"It looks bad," she said. "I'm going to try the Light Healing."
"Be careful," Scratch cautioned.
Closing her eyes and stretching her hands over Celine's body, Tessa let her mind spin outward, downward and to the left, until she was surrounded by burned and bleeding tissues. She began to exert her will on the wounds, knitting the tissue back together, but the effort quickly sapped her strength. Exhausted and beginning to lose her connection to her own body, she let herself snap back out, at which point she fell limp at Celine's side.
"I couldn't do it," she gasped. "The wounds are too deep."
"Let me try something," Scratch said, putting one hand on his amulet while placing the other on Celine's back. Closing his eyes, he began to pray. "My Lady," he said, "I know that I have hardly even begun to serve you as I should. You have shown me so much grace already that I am almost ashamed to ask for anything more ... but still, if my service to you these past two years has been worth anything, hear me now. Please don't let her die."
Scratch fell silent and waited. Then, after a moment, his amulet began to glow with a warm rose-colored light. The light traveled over his body and down his arms, then enveloped Celine. Before his and Tessa's eyes, the charred flesh was restored to life and the wound closed. When the light faded, only perfect, flawless skin could be seen.
"Nice," Tessa said, smiling wearily. "Now, 'tis time for a prayer of my own. Please see to Celine."
"I'll protect her," Scratch promised.
Climbing slowly to her feet, Tessa grasped the twin-cross around her neck. [[Lord Dokorath, I pray you, give me strength to fight this enemy,]] she said, speaking the prayer in her native Elvish. Immediately she felt her weariness fall away, and with renewed vigor she turned to help Rickkter.
The battlemage was holding his own against Merai, but not by much. Tessa leapt into the fray, swords flashing, and Merai repositioned herself to block the new attacks. She moved her open hand to push Tessa away again, but this time Rick saw the spell coming and swung his sword at her hand to disrupt it.
"Glad to have you with me," Rick said.
"Glad to be here," Tessa replied.
The two fought almost as a single entity, with Tessa timing her blows to land between Rickkter's. Merai moved with inhuman speed, countering each attack with sword or shield-spell, but still they managed to wear her down and force her up against the wall. Tessa thought she saw an opening in Merai's defenses and swung her right sword in a reckless blow to take advantage of it, but the priestess saw it coming and forced it aside, then trapped the blade between her body and the wall. Taking the momentary opening, she drove Elemacil in and upward toward Tessa's abdomen, aiming for her heart --
--and was stunned when the blade stopped an inch from the half-Elf's body, its Elven sigils glowing an angry red.
"What?" she cried, her face a mixture of surprise and disgust.
Rickkter took advantage of the Fallen's momentary shock and slashed Merai's hand, being careful to cripple it without cutting it off entirely. The cat-woman shrieked and dropped her sword, and Rick quickly grabbed her and tripped her to the floor, pulling her arms back into a lock so she couldn't get any leverage against him.
"Father!" Rick shouted.
Merai let out a scream of rage and flipped herself over on her back, taking Rickkter with her and slamming him to the floor beneath her...
Only to find herself looking straight up at Father Hough, who was waiting with crucifix in hand.
"Be still, foul spirit!" Hough commanded, his voice stern.
Merai flinched, her whole body twitching in one great spasm, but then her struggles ceased.
"Come out of her!" Hough ordered.
"Why -- should I?" Merai gasped. Her voice sounded strangely echoed, as if there were another voice speaking along with her own. "I like it here. She let me in here!"
"You are welcome no longer, spirit. Come out of her, in the name of Yashua!"
"Go to hell, you sanctimonious little brat!"
"Be quiet!" Hough ordered. Merai's face twisted into a snarl and she hissed angrily, but she said nothing more.
Hough sighed, shaking his head, then looked up at the ceiling as if seeking guidance. After a moment he turned back to Merai, kneeling down so he could look at her more closely.
"Merai, listen to me," he said, his expression earnest. "There's something you need to understand. You think that I'm the one who has the power to free you from this. I don't. The power is not mine, it is Yashua's. He is the only one who can deliver you. He will do it, but you have to believe that he can. Do you understand?"
As he spoke, Merai flinched again, and then the snarl on her face was replaced by an expression of fear. The young woman began to tremble violently.
Inside her mind, Merai was in control again. The shadowy prison that had enveloped her had melted away enough that she could use her voice and her limbs once more. But she could still feel the black presence inside her, clawing at her heart, trying to take control again, held in check only by the words of the priest -- the words, and the unseen power she could sense behind them, a power unlike anything she had ever felt before. And yet the priest said he had no power of his own...
She considered Hough's words. She desperately wanted to be free, but she was afraid. Everything she had ever been taught -- by her parents, her teachers, the old Lightbringer texts, Raven herself -- all of them said that Yashua was only a sorcerer, a mage with some strange inborn power that let him work miracles in a mana-dead region where no one else could. Did she really believe that a man, even a powerful man, could get rid of a creature like _this?_
And if she did, and said so, was she still a Lightbringer?
"Yashua can free you, Merai," Hough said gently, as if reading her mind. "Do you believe that?"
Merai's mind swirled with thoughts, indecisive. Based on the things she'd heard about, the things she'd seen, it _could_ be true -- but it could also be a deception, all smoke and mirrors and carefully-applied magic. Which was it?
For a long moment, she didn't know what to think. Then, like bubbles rising to the surface, certain memories came to the front of her mind: The girl Raven had seen in Glen Avery, released from a Fallen at the words of a Patildor missionary. The Patriarch Akabaieth, so full of grace and love and a sense of otherworldly presence that Merai couldn't help but respect and honor him. The people of Bethany, who had healed Raven's kidney with a word and foreseen their own martyrdom.
*The choice is mine,* Merai thought, both to herself and to the evil shadow in her mind. *I can believe it is true, or I can say 'tis just an elaborate deception. There is no certain proof, and there is no certain disproof. The choice is mine. I choose to believe.*
Forcing back the lingering shadows of doubt, Merai looked up at Hough. "Aye," she said, her voice soft but steady. "I believe it. I believe Yashua can free me."
Hough smiled triumphantly. "Do you hear that, spirit?" he said sternly. "Now, in Yashua's name, leave this child!"
Merai's body shook one last time, and she let out a long breath and went limp, her eyes closing. In her mind, she felt the shadow depart like mist before the sun's rays.
She was free.
Carefully, Rickkter disentangled himself from Merai. "Well, now that we have that settled," he said, "let's see what we can do for the Lothanasa."
Tessa turned to Merai, who was examining her wounded hand. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"I am now," Merai said. Narrowing her eyes, she focused on her hand. Her expression went distant as she used the Light Healing, closing the wound in a matter of seconds, and then she looked up at the half-Elf. "Though it frightens me to think how much harm I have done to others with my carelessness."
"Worry about that later," Tessa said, putting her hand on the younger woman's arm. "What can you tell us about that amulet?"
Merai turned and looked at Raven's bed, where Rickkter was already in the process of untangling the weave of magic around the amulet. She shivered as she looked at the unholy device. "Not much," she said. "The Fallen received it from someone down in the Flatlander caravan, in the same wagon where it took control of me. I think it had allies, perhaps other Fallen."
"Maybe it was one of them that tried to kill me," Scratch said.
"It must have been. I don't remember mine doing anything to you -- well, except for being rude. For which I apologize."
"No apology necessary," the tiger said, waving dismissively. "I'm just glad you're all right."
"Same here," Celine said, sitting up with a tired smile on her face.
"Celine! Oh, gods, I'm so sorry!" Merai exclaimed, rushing over and embracing her long-time friend and confidante.
"Hush, child! What did I just tell you?" Celine grinned, patting Merai on the back. "Anyway, Scratch seems to have taken care of the matter."
"Not me," Scratch insisted. "My Lady Akkala gets all the credit for that."
"I hate to interrupt," Rick said through gritted teeth, "but I think ... I ... almost ..." Reaching his hand in toward the amulet, he grasped the power-stone. With one last grunt of exertion, he clenched it hard between his fingers, crushing it to powder.
"Got it!" he said.
There was a flash of bright green light as the spell shattered, and then the amulet went dark. The latch at the back of the necklace fell open, and Rickkter picked it up and tossed it into the corner of the room.
"She may need some help coming out of it," he said, stepping aside.
"I can handle that," Merai said, leaning over and placing her hands on Raven's temples. "Awaken!" she said. There was a glow of rose-pink light around her fingertips, and then Raven's eyes fluttered open. The wolf-woman blinked a few times, reached up to rub her eyes, and then let out an enormous lupine yawn.
"Merai?" she asked. "What happened?"
Merai and Tessa briefly explained all that had taken place over the last several days, including the elaborate deception the Fallen had woven in order to place the Elvquelin Lightbringers in charge of the temple.
"Ingenious," Raven said, stroking her chin thoughtfully. "No doubt they were planning on having me 'succumb' to the plague shortly after they had taken control. With the rightful Lothanasa out of the way, and with Merai's support, Alarun could have placed one of his own people in our seat on the High Council."
"But why would the Fallen care about helping corrupted Lightbringers?" Scratch asked. "They've never shown much interest in helping the daedra or their servants before."
"That is the question of the hour," Raven said, slowly getting to her feet. "War makes for strange bedfellows, though, and both the daedra and the Fallen would benefit from having us out of the way. The friendship between the Lothanasi and Patildor here at Metamor is one of the few things keeping the two faiths from falling into outright war with each other."
"And if the Metamor chapter were to suddenly change its opinion of the Ecclesia, that war wouldn't be long in coming," Rickkter added. "And with the sides as evenly matched as they are, it would be a bloodbath. After a few years of fighting the Pyralians, Sathmore would be ready to look for any advantage they could get to win the war..."
"Including invoking the daedra," Raven said, finishing Rick's thought. "If the High Council voted to give them a place in the recognized pantheon, Ba'al and the other daedra lords would pour all their power into the fight with Pyralis."
Hough shivered. "Which would likely mean the utter destruction of the Ecclesia."
"Which explains why the Fallen are so eager to help," Tessa said.
Scratch let out a low whistle. "Diabolical," he murmured. "So, now that we've figured out their plan, how do we stop the plague?"
"Rickkter was on the right path," Raven said, nodding toward the raccoon. "If the plague hasn't responded to any sort of treatment, then this is all a trick of Tallakath's magic."
"And a deadly one, at that," Celine said.
"True, but if we can find the source of the spell and destroy it, those who are still alive will recover immediately," Raven said. "And given that all this trouble started when the Flatlanders came to town, I suspect I know where to look for it..."
Leaving Celine and Tessa to watch over the temple, Raven, Hough, Rickkter and Merai headed down to Euper with grim determination on their faces. It was now very late at night, and the Flatlander camp was as quiet as the rest of the town. Merai directed them to the wagon where she had been seized by the Fallen. Rickkter kicked the door in and charged inside with sword at the ready.
It was a typical-looking curio wagon, filled with the usual odds and ends collected by the Magyars. Raven summoned a bright blue orb of light to illuminate the cabin. There was no one else in the room.
"Rickkter and I will look for the spell's focus," Raven said. "Father Hough, please warn us if you see any more Fallen."
Hough nodded. "Understood. They have been in this room before, but there are none here for the moment. I shall keep watch, though."
"Thank you." Raven and Rickkter began browsing the shelves of artifacts and oddities. Merai, who had quite had her fill of Fallen and Flatlanders, stayed in the doorway and watched.
It didn't take long for them to find what they were looking for. "There," Rick said, pointing to a small black statue of a man with a red hourglass carved on the back. He handed it to Raven, who examined it closely and nodded.
Just then the door to the wagon's bedroom opened, and two men stepped out. They were dressed like Magyars and one of them carried a lantern. Both were armed with long knives.
In an instant Rickkter and Raven were standing between them and Father Hough, swords at the ready.
"Drop 'em," Rick snarled.
The men's expressions turned rapidly from anger, to confusion, to terror at the sight of the two heavily armed Keepers. The knives and lantern clattered to the floor.
"Good. Now, hands above your heads."
The men did so, obviously too frightened to say anything.
Hough peered at the men intently, his boyish face creased with a frown. "There was something there for a moment," he said. "Two more spirits, I believe. They fled as soon as they saw us."
"Thank Eli," Merai murmured.
Raven, Rick and Hough all turned to look at her with puzzled expressions.
Merai looked back and forth between them. "What?" she asked.
After an awkward silence, they turned their attention back to the two frightened men standing before them. "Who are you?" Raven asked.
The men exchanged glances. "We are -- were -- servants of Patriarch Geshter," the older of the two said. "I am Father Justin, and this is Father Alexander. Those demons have been controlling us for months. The Patriarch performed some dark ritual that put them inside us. We didn't know what he was doing until it was too late."
"Why were the spirits not exorcised after the Patriarch was freed from Marzac's control?" Hough asked.
"We -- they -- escaped from Yesulam before they could be captured," Justin said. "I fear that I remember little of how we got here..."
"For the moment, that is not important," Raven said, holding up a hand. "You may go sit down for now. In the morning we shall decide what to do with you."
Alexander retrieved their lantern, and the two men returned to the bedroom. A moment later Raven heard their voices again.
"Josiah?" Hough repeated, following them inside. "I know him..."
They found Bishop Josiah bound to a chair in the bedroom, where the other two priests had apparently restrained him after the Fallen that had possessed him entered Merai. A quick interrogation revealed that he knew as little about what had happened to them as the others.
While Rick and Hough questioned the men, Raven placed the idol of Tallakath on the counter. One quick blow from Elemacil sliced it neatly in half, releasing a bright flash of yellow-green light.
"Done?" Merai asked.
"That should end this," Raven agreed, putting away her blade. "We shall find out for certain come the morning."
March 11, 708.
The morning crept in slowly, the skies still blanketed with clouds. Brian Coe walked into sickbay and was shocked to find it nearly half the size it had been the previous day. He rushed to his office, a horrible feeling of dread filling his stomach.
"Caitlyn?" he called. "What happened? Oh, god, don't tell me we lost half of them in eight hours..."
Caitlyn walked out of the adjoining room, a broad grin on her face. "Relax, Brian," she said. "They aren't here because they're well. I sent them home."
"They're _well?"_ Brian repeated, eyes wide. "Well, that's the first good news we've had in a week. I was beginning to think no one would pull through this."
"You misunderstand," Caitlyn said, her smile growing even wider. "They're _all_ well, Brian. The plague just _vanished."_ She gestured at the door behind him. "The only reason these people are still here is because they haven't woken up yet."
Dumbfounded, Brian turned and looked out at the sickbay. For the first time in a week, instead of faces wracked with pain and torment, he saw patients sleeping peacefully.
"When ... when did this happen?" he managed.
"Sometime in the middle of the second watch. The Lightbringers came by a short time later and explained that they'd found the source of the plague and destroyed it. Turns out it was some sort of spell."
"A spell." Brian shook his head in amazement. "That explains why none of our treatments were working." He turned around. "You know what this means? Lytherian may have been right, after all!"
The seeming-girl chuckled. "Don't worry, Brian. I haven't thrown out your bread mold cultures."
"Good. We may yet find a use for them." He smiled. "Now let's give these good people their wake-up call. I want this room back to a manageable size by lunchtime."
"It is over, then?"
"Aye, my lord," Raven said, nodding once. "At a total of sixty-two deaths for all of Metamor and Euper, I believe this constitutes the least destructive plague epidemic on record."
"That is still sixty-two too many," Thomas said.
"Agreed, sire. At any rate, the plan has been foiled, so we have nothing more to fear from it."
"Excellent," the duke said, leaning back in his chair. "I shall have the quarantine lifted immediately."
"Actually, milord, I would advise that you withhold that order for the moment," Raven said, raising her hand. "Metamor will be receiving some important guests very soon, and I would like certain preparations to be made for their arrival..."
March 13, 708.
Two days later a caravan pulled up to the gates of Euper, the banners of the Sathmore Empire and the Lightbringer Order waving atop their carriages. A herald dressed in faintly ridiculous purple-and-white doublet and hose leapt out and strode purposefully up to the gate.
"Who goes there?" one of the guards on the wall shouted.
"Agents of the Lothanas of Elvquelin," the herald declared, holding up a gilded scroll. "In view of the current crisis, the most honorable and distinguished Brothers Valenkar, Tygen and Merodac have been ordered to assume temporary control of the Metamor chapter of the Lothanasi."
The guard frowned. "This here city is under an official quarantine," he said, gesturing at the yellow banners that were flying from the parapets. "I'd advise ye to come back when the plague has died down."
"The plague is the very reason we are here, you insufferable twit!" the herald snapped. "If you'll come down here and examine these papers, you will find that everything is in order!"
"All right, all right," the guard muttered. "I'll come down and have a look. Damned Imperial bluebloods..."
The guard emerged from the gate a moment later, and the herald handed him the scroll with an exaggerated flourish. The Keeper studied the papers for a few moments, then nodded.
"All right, I suppose I'll have to let you in," he said, pulling the gate open. "But yer takin' yer lives into yer own hands."
"Let us worry about that," the herald said condescendingly, returning to his carriage. "Onward, men!"
The procession made its way through Euper, up the long and winding road to Metamor, and finally to the gates of the Keep itself. Alain Blackthorne and a contingent of other guardsmen were waiting for them.
"Welcome to Metamor, gentlemen," Alain said, bowing to the three Lightbringer priests. "Please follow us."
"Lead the way, sirrah," Brother Valenkar said.
Alain and two other guards took the lead, followed by the herald, the three Lothanasi and the rest of the guards. The rest of the contingent followed on behind them.
After about five minutes of walking, they came to a pair of double doors with two guards in front of them. The doors were opened before them, and Alain ushered them all inside.
"Brothers Valenkar, Tygen and Merodac of the Lothanasi Order!" the herald proclaimed.
"Ah! The Lightbringers." Lord Thomas, seated on his throne, looked down at the new arrivals and smiled. "Welcome to Metamor, gentlemen."
The priests looked around in confusion at the duke's audience chamber. "Wait, you misunderstand," Brother Valenkar said, turning to Alain. "We must go to the temple..."
"And why is that, my Sathmoran brother?" Raven asked, coming into view from behind the throne, followed by Merai. "I am right here."
Brother Valenkar's jaw went slack for a moment, as he struggled to find his voice. "L-Lothanasa," he managed at last. "What an unexpected surprise! We had received word that you were gravely ill..."
"The reports of my debilitation have been greatly exaggerated," Raven said with a thin smile. "As you can see, I have made a remarkable recovery, and we are well on our way to having the plague completely under control."
There was an uncomfortable silence. The herald looked back and forth between the duke and his employers, apparently wondering if he was supposed to say something bombastic. The priests ignored him entirely, exchanging nervous and embarrassed looks amongst themselves.
"I ... see," Brother Valenkar said at last. "Well, then, Lothanasa, I ask that you forgive our intrusion on your affairs. We shall leave immediately." He turned to go.
"I'm afraid that is impossible," Duke Thomas said.
The priest turned back around, eyes wide. "What?" he gasped.
"You broached an official quarantine, Master Valenkar," the horse-lord said, steepling his hoof-like hands before him. "When you did so, you made yourself subject to its restrictions. The Lothanasa believes we have the plague under control, but you know as well as I do that an outbreak does not disappear overnight. We need to ensure that the foul pestilence is not lying dormant anywhere. I won't be able to sanction lifting the quarantine for at least two weeks."
"Two weeks?!" the priest exclaimed. "But by then the Curse will have changed us!"
"I'm very sorry, Master Valenkar, but you should have thought of that before you broached the quarantine." Thomas turned to Alain, who was still standing at attention beside the now-panicked priests. "Captain, please see that these good folk are given lodging in the Keep. And make sure that our own people have minimal contact with them. We don't want to risk someone inadvertently giving them the plague."
"Aye, sir," Alain said, his expression serious. "I'll post guards at their doors to make sure no one disturbs them."
"Excellent," Thomas said, nodding. "Good day, Master Valenkar. I hope you and your brothers enjoy your stay at Metamor." He gestured to Alain, and the dumbstruck priests were ushered out of the chamber. The herald, now looking very lost, followed forlornly behind them, accompanied by the rest of the Lightbringers' assistants and retainers. The doors swung shut with a heavy thud.
Moments later, everyone in the room -- even Raven -- broke out laughing.
The next day a grand feast was held by the Metamor Lightbringers, with Rickkter, Scratch and Father Hough as the guests of honor. Kyia thoughtfully provided a dining room for the occasion, lavishly decorated with Kelewair rugs and tapestries and crystal chandeliers, and Lord Thomas was more than happy to arrange for a sumptuous dinner prepared by the duke's master chefs. The acolytes sat at the long cherry-wood tables side by side with the priestesses and their honored guests, taking a break from their duties of serving to be waited on by the Keep's kitchen staff.
After the main course, Raven stood to address the assembly.
"First of all, I would like to thank all of your for your tireless efforts during the recent plague," she said. "You gave of yourselves constantly, without thought of recognition or reward, risking infection yourselves in order to aid those who were already ill. In this you proved yourselves worthy of the name of Lothanasi. I am very proud of all of you."
There was a brief round of applause as the acolytes congratulated each other for their hard work.
"I would also like to extend my personal thanks to those who risked their lives to save me and Merai, and the rest of the Keep along with them." One by one, she acknowledged her rescuers, bidding them to stand as she spoke their names. Each was met with thunderous cheers and applause, with the loudest being reserved for Father Hough. The boy blushed and sat back down, embarrassed at the adoration showered on him by the Lightbringers.
"Despite your differences, you all united behind a common cause: saving the Metamor Lightbringers, and saving Metamor itself," Raven said. "In this age of increasing tension and division, that gives me hope for the future."
The feast carried on for a good while after that, as dessert was served and the wine and ale continued to flow. Dinner gave way to the swapping of stories and jests, as well as a few rousing drinking songs led primarily by Rickkter. Scratch regaled the crowd with stories of his adventures on pilgrimage, Rick shared a few old war stories from his mercenary days, and everyone had a great deal of fun at the expense of the Sathmore Lightbringers.
"I wonder what our new friends will be changed into when the Curse hits them," Celine said.
"Methinks an ass would be appropriate," Merai laughed.
"If there's any justice to the Curse, that herald will become a preening peacock," Rick grinned.
"I would suggest that Brother Valenkar ought to be a weasel," said Raven. "But then, I have come to know many excellent mustelids in the last nine years, and I think he hardly deserves to be in such good company." A dozen ferrets, minks, martens and otters raised their mugs in agreement.
As the celebration at last began to wind down, Rickkter was the first to excuse himself from the table. "Thank you again for your excellent hospitality, Lothanasa," he said, crossing his arms over his chest and bowing in his usual fashion. "But I fear I must now take my leave of you."
"Go with our blessing, Rickkter," Raven said, bowing in turn. For once, the tension that usually ran between them was absent, and Raven gave the raccoon a genuinely good-natured smile.
"Alas, I fear I must depart, as well," Father Hough said, rising from his seat. "I have a few duties to attend to before the evening service."
"Good-night, then, Father," Raven replied. "Remember, you are always welcome here."
Hough smiled. "Aye, I know."
One by one, the Lightbringers began to take their leave, heading off to the bath-houses before bed. The kitchen staff cleared the plates and silverware and carted them back downstairs for washing. Eventually Raven herself departed, and Merai wandered back to her bedroom. There she leaned on the windowsill and looked out at the night sky, which was clear and filled with stars. She didn't know how long she stood there before she heard Tessa's voice at the door.
"Scratch and I aren't tired yet, so we're heading down to the Deaf Mule."
Merai smirked. "Mayhap that's because you two drank nothing but water all evening."
Tessa chuckled. "Well, Scratch is a disciple of Akkala, and my stomach isn't yet accustomed to that soup you humans call ale. At any rate, we're heading down for a pint of mead and a game of pool. Care to come?"
Merai turned and smiled at the half-Elf. "Thank you, Tessa, but I'll pass. I have other plans tonight."
"Kyrie, rex genitor ingenite, vera essentia, eleyson.
"Kyrie, luminis fons rerumque conditor, eleyson.
"Kyrie, qui nos tuae imaginis signasti specie, eleyson..."
The Follower congregation sang in unison, eyes gazing upward, many of them with their hands clasped over their hearts. The litany was a plea for Eli's mercy, but it was also an expression of worship, for it declared His goodness and faithfulness with every line.
"Yashua, Dei forma humana particeps, eleyson.
"Yashua, lux oriens per quem sunt omnia, eleyson.
"Yashua, qui perfecta es sapientia, eleyson..."
Some were here out of obligation, simply going through the motions and rituals and religion of the faith, but for many it was a time of genuine worship and communion with their god. Word had gotten out that Father Hough had played a direct role in stopping the horrible plague that had visited Metamor, and he had been careful to give the credit to Eli Himself whenever he was asked about it. After having their faith verified so powerfully before their eyes, many Followers were feeling especially thankful these days.
"Kyrie, spiritus vivifice, vitae vis, eleyson.
"Kyrie, utriqusque vapor in quo cuncta, eleyson.
"Kyrie, expurgator scelerum et largitor gratitae; quaesumus propter nostrasoffensas noli nos relinquere, O consolator dolentis animae, eleyson."
And so they sang, asking once again for Eli's mercy even as they rejoiced in His deliverance of them. And through it all, Merai hin'Dana stood in the back of the cathedral, gazing up at the emblem of the yew tree -- the crucifix, symbol of life from death and freedom from bondage -- and listened in utter fascination.