MK: Shadow Hunt The Starchild Prophecy, Part V

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MK: Shadow Hunt

The Starchild Prophecy, Part V
by Raven Blackmane
March 15, 708 CR.
It was early morning when the lone rider made his way up to the gates of Euper, the trader-town at the base of Metamor Ridge. The young man pulled back his riding hood and dismounted. Brushing his unruly straw-blonde hair out of his eyes, he gazed up at the tall wooden palisade and the yellow banners flying from the guard towers.

His presence had not gone unnoticed.

"Good morrow to ye!" the guard called down to him. He was a strange-looking creature, a mixture of badger and human, dressed in studded leather armor and carrying a longbow casually in one hand. "Who are ye, and what business have ye in Metamor?"

"Good morrow," the young man replied. "I -- I am Brother Calvis of the Lothanasi Order, of the city of Bozojo. I have come to visit Merai hin'Dana."

"Another Lightbringer, eh?" The badger chuckled. "I've seen more o' you folks in the last few days than you'd believe. Just a moment."

The guard disappeared from view, then emerged a moment later through the gate.

"Welcome to Metamor," he said, shaking Calvis's hand. "I'd better warn ye, we're still technically under quarantine. We've had a plague here up until a few days ago, and while everybody's fine now we can't drop the banners just yet. You'll need a letter from the duke if you want to leave before the quarantine's lifted."

Calvis frowned. "How -- how long do you expect that will be?"

The badger grinned. "Oh, just about as soon as our last batch of Lightbringers gets themselves Cursed, I reckon. Word around town says the Mistress doesn't want 'em going back to their boss."

"Why is that?"

"Not sure. I could send a messenger to ask, if ye like."

"N-no, that's fine," Calvis said, waving dismissively. "I'm sure everything will work out."

The guard shrugged. "Suit yourself. Come on in, then."

Taking his horse by the reins, Calvis stepped through the gate and into the town of Euper. Looking up, he could see the castle of Metamor on the ridge high above them, and the long winding road snaking up to the entrance.

"Looks like we have a way yet ahead of us, boy," he said. Climbing back up on his mount, he headed off in the direction of the city.
~0~
"...Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by Eli, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed..."

"Merai?"


Merai looked up and smiled. "Tessa! Come here, look at this!"

The half-Elf raised an eyebrow, but stepped up to Merai's bedside and looked down at the book she was reading. "Is that a Canticle of Eli?" she asked.

"Aye, Father Hough loaned it to me last night, along with a few commentaries from Patildor scholars," Merai said. "Look at this -- a prophecy made about the Onequion seven hundred years before his birth. It tells how he would be rejected and persecuted for wrongs committed by others, how he would die an innocent death and then be raised up and honored. Oh, and look at this one --" she flipped over to another section of the book, scanned through several chapters, and then pointed her finger at a verse. "Here's a prophecy given around the same time. It predicts the exact city where he would be born. And over here--" she turned to another passage "-- it tells where he would grow up, in a backwater region of no reputation." She closed the book. "The commentaries say there are others, too -- hundreds of details about his life and death, written centuries before he was born. All apparently fulfilled down to the last letter, though I'm looking into that for myself."

"Why so surprised?" Tessa asked. "Felix of Lee left prophecies of similar detail, and the old Lightbringer texts are full of prophecies that came to pass."

"Aye, but they used _magic_ to see the future," Merai said. "Either arcane magic, or the power of Samekkh. And many of those old prophecies had lots of variations, only one of which came true. This book--" she tapped the cover for emphasis "--has one version of each prophecy, each one comes true as predicted, and all of it was written _in the Holy Land!_ These people had never seen magic in their lives, and their prophecies were more reliable than ours!"

"And what does that tell you?"

Merai grinned. "That Eli knows more about what's going on in the world than we'd like to think. I'm not sure what it all means yet, Tessa, but there is something important here. Something deep. Maybe even the secret to Iluvatar himself."

Tessa crossed her arms and smirked. "Keep talking like that and Mistress Raven will crucify you herself."

"I doubt it," Merai said, shaking her head. "Her allegiance is to the truth, not to any god. She just can't afford to look in the places I'm looking while the rest of the High Council is watching her so closely. If we ever manage to depose them, I think she'll explore every possibility. Anyway, what was it you needed?"

"You have a visitor," Tessa said, gesturing toward the door. "Brother Calvis has arrived."

"Calvis? Oh my!" Merai cried, springing off her bed and rushing over to her dresser. "After everything that's happened in the last week, I'd completely forgotten!" She leaned in toward the mirror, brushing nervously at her hair. "How do I look?"

"Like a silly girl in love who has taken leave of her senses," Tessa said dryly, putting her hands on her hips. "This is a boy who thought you looked like a goddess when your fur was still sopping wet. Do you really think he cares whether you've brushed it this morning?"

Merai paused, looking at herself for a long moment. "Probably not," she admitted.

"So quit your preening and go out there."

Merai turned and gave the half-Elf a look that was half incredulous and half amused. "Are all your people this blunt?" she asked.

"Oh, no," Tessa said, leaning back against the bedpost and flashing a self-satisfied smile. "That little trait is all mine."

"Well, hold on to it," the priestess said, grinning. "It suits you well."

Walking out into the temple hall, Merai immediately spotted Calvis near the entrance, talking to one of the acolytes.

"Calvis!" she called.

The tousle-headed young man looked up at her and beamed. "Merai!"

They met halfway and gave each other a long, warm embrace. "Gods, it is good to see you again," Merai said.

"And you, Sister," Calvis replied. "I -- I must say, you look ... even more stunning in your priestly robes th-than you did in your field gear."

"Flatterer," Merai said playfully, reaching up and rubbing the thick mat of hair on top of his head. "You are very kind, but a flatterer, nonetheless. Did you have a safe journey?"

"Aye, quite safe, though ... it took a bit longer than I had hoped," he said. Even with his occasional stammering, he looked more relaxed and at ease than Merai had ever seen. Granted, she had only seen him three times before -- twice on the mission to Aelfwood, and once on a visit to Bozojo last fall -- but still, it was clear that the confidence he showed in his writing was slowly beginning to seep into the way he carried himself in public. He was growing up, as was she -- or, at least, as she hoped she was. She often _felt_ like she was more mature than she had been two years ago when she joined the Lightbringers. Certainly she was far less prone to worrying and low self-esteem than she had been. Still, schoolgirl antics like she had displayed a few minutes ago made her wonder whether her "maturity" was not just an illusion.

Laying that nagging question aside for the moment, she turned her attention back to Calvis.

"-- other Lightbringers," he was saying. "Do you know ... what he meant?"

Merai blinked. "I'm sorry, Calvis, my mind wandered off there for a moment. What were you saying?"

"The guard at the gate. He said there were ... other Lightbringers here, that they -- they were being kept here until they changed."

"Oh, aye," Merai said, grinning at the memory of how Raven had trapped the three clerics who tried to seize control of the temple. " 'Tis a long story, that. Don't worry, we shan't keep you here more than a week." Her expression turned mock-stern. "In fact, if you are not out of the Valley after a week, I shall have you carried out. I like you just as you are, and if you turn into a woman on me I shall be very cross."

Calvis chuckled. "Don't worry, Merai. I-I have no desire to be Cursed." He winked at her. "Even though it has had a very nice result for you."

Merai put her hands on her hips, hiding her blush behind another show of playful severity. "Brother Calvis, if you keep that up I shall have to take that golden tongue of yours away from you. Such riches are completely inappropriate for an acolyte of your rank."

"M-my apologies, Sister," Calvis said, bowing low. "Rest assured that ... I would never hoard s-such riches for myself. This tongue is at your humble service ... however and wh-wherever you might wish to use it."

Merai gasped, feeling herself turn red all over, then swatted him on the head. "Now you're being naughty," she scolded. "Don't think I don't know what you meant!"

The young man grinned. "I had hoped you would."

She swatted him again, more gently this time, then took his chin in her hand and lifted it up so she could look into his face. "Don't tempt me," she warned him, eyes wide with sincerity despite their jovial mood. "I have had quite enough troubles with Lady Suspira over the years without you giving her any help. You are a wonderful young man and I am quite taken with you, but we must not let ourselves do anything rash or it could well destroy us. As Lightbringers we must be doubly cautious."

Calvis nodded. If he felt any disappointment, his eyes did not show it. "I would not have it ... any other way," he said.

Merai smiled. "Good. Now that that's settled, would you care for that tour I promised you?"

The young acolyte smiled. "Sounds lovely. L-lead the way, Sister."


~0~
"You were right. The view is wonderful from up here."

Merai squeezed Calvis's hand affectionately as they gazed out at the town of Metamor. It was a typically crisp spring morning, and the people in the streets below pulled their cloaks and scarves tightly about them as they went about their business. From their vantage point on the wall the two Lightbringers could see a group of children playing with a ball in the town square. Somewhere down in the gardens a songbird was chirping merrily.

"This is where I come to be alone," Merai said. "The guards rarely pass through this section. It surprises me that more people haven't discovered it."

"Well, it ... wouldn't be quite so special if they had, methinks," Calvis said, turning to the right and looking up at the Dragon Mountains in the distance. "I imagine the sunsets must be s-spectacular up here."

"Oh, aye. You can see the light reflecting off the snow, clouds hovering around the mountaintops..."

"Dragons flying around."

Merai laughed. "Not so many of those, no."

Calvis pointed. "How about th-that one, then?" he said.

"What?" Merai turned and looked westward, and sure enough, there was a large dragon flying over Mount Kalegris. Its immense wings shone reddish-gold in the morning sunlight, and it moved with speed and an obvious sense of purpose.

"It seems to be coming toward Metamor," Calvis said. "Do you ... recognize it?"

Merai shook her head. "No, I've not seen this one before." She frowned, squinting as she focused her aura-sight over the long distance. "There is a brightness to its aura that is familiar, though ... I cannot be sure, but I think it may be a Lightbringer."

"A dragonish Lightbringer? Here?"

Merai shrugged. "It has been known to happen."

The guards on the walls sounded an alarm as soon as they'd spotted the creature, and one of the Keep's own dragons was sent out to investigate. Merai and Calvis watched as the Keeper dragon flew in close beside the visitor, who was easily twice his size, and escorted it back to the Keep.

"Whoever it is, it must be welcome," Merai said.

The enormous guest flew over the castle, about fifty feet over their heads, then circled back around the towers of the duke's palace and came to rest on a large open space atop the Keep -- where, Merai suddenly noticed, Sister Raven was waiting for it.

"Look there!" she cried. "It has come to see the Lothanasa!"

Raven bowed low before the great creature, and the dragon returned the gesture by lowering its head and spreading one clawed hand out to the side. Then, before their very eyes, the dragon's body came alight with a reddish-orange glow, and then it shrank down into the form and stature of a man. Like Raven, he was dressed in the white robes of a Lightbringer priest. He clasped arms with the priestess in the traditional gesture of friendship, and then the two of them left the roof and went inside.

"What do you suppose that's about?" Calvis asked.

"I'm not sure," Merai said, her tail flicking slowly back and forth. "But I suspect that we shall find out, soon enough."

~0~
By the time they got back to the temple, Raven and the mysterious visitor were waiting for them in the main hall, along with Christopher, Tessa and Celine.

"Ah, excellent," Raven said as they walked in. "Angernil, this is my second-in-command, Sister Merai hin'Dana, and this is Brother Calvis, who is visiting us from Bozojo. Merai, Calvis, this is Brother Angernil, Lothanas of the Dragons."

Angernil bowed. "A pleasure to meet you, Brother and Sister," he said, his voice deep and sonorous. He was very tall, even in human form -- well over six feet. His skin was a rich reddish brown, like mahogany, and his head was completely bald. His face bore a prominent brow, wide nose with large nostrils, and thick, full lips that were a shade darker than the rest of his skin. His eyes were golden and glowed with an inner fire.

Merai and Calvis both bowed deeply. "You honor us with your presence, Master Angernil," Merai said. "What brings you to Metamor Keep?"

"A council, which you shall be part of soon enough," Angernil said, smiling warmly. "The Lothanasa and I believe the time has come for certain things long held in secret to be made known."

Merai looked over at Raven. "The Starchild Prophecy?" she asked, eyes wide.

"Indeed, Sister Merai," the wolf-woman said gravely. "Darkness is fast approaching. The time has come for you to know who and what you are."

"No pressure," Tessa murmured.


~0~

Down in the first level of the Lightbringer Archives a large table had been cleared for the meeting. At the table sat Raven, Angernil, Christopher, Tessa, Celine, Merai, and Calvis, who was there at Merai's insistence. Last to arrive was Rickkter, who sat down next to Merai at the far end of the table from Raven.

"Thank you for coming, Rickkter," Raven said, rising to greet him as he entered the room.

"Wouldn't miss it," he said. "I've been waiting to see a copy of this thing for ten years."

"I shall do better than a copy," Raven said. Going over to a nearby display case lined with defensive spells, she brought forth an old and tattered book, obviously well-worn despite the efforts of the Lightbringer archivists. "This is the original Fifth Book of Silvinia, Oracle of Samekkh. It contains the first prophecy ever given about the being known as the Starchild."

Raven opened the book to a page she had marked and set it on the table in front of Merai. Rickkter and Calvis both leaned in close, reading over her shoulder as Merai deciphered the ancient script.

" 'Tis a poem," she said, frowning at the strangely-shaped letters. "Just as you said, Rickkter."

"If you would do us the honor of reading it, Sister Merai?" Celine prompted.

"Oh, of course," Merai said with a sheepish smile. Looking back down at the page, she began to read in a clear, steady voice:

"A time is coming, far from now,

When darkness rages 'gainst the light;
Evil changes methods as
It toils to summon ever-night.



"Darkness twain is darkness one,
Light's guardians are lax and weak;
For power is their only goal,
Authority is what they seek.



"Sweetly come the tempting voices--
Pride arises, wisdom falls--
Holy Council is corrupted,
Traitors dwell within its walls.

"Light and light are drawn to battle,
Atrocities on either side--
Driven and deceived by evils
Who within their councils hide."

Merai paused and looked up. "That's rather grim," she remarked.

"And accurate," Raven added. "I spoke with Patriarch Akabaieth about this before his death. The upper levels of power in both the Lothanasi and the Ecclesia have been greatly corrupted -- ours by the daedra, theirs by the Adversary's Fallen and the power of Chateau Marzac. It is clear now that both have been working together to accomplish their goals: the reinstatement of the daedra lords in the official pantheon, and the eradication of the Patildor."

"But Marzac was destroyed months ago," Tessa said, frowning. "Patriarch Geshter is free of its influence."

"True, and I believe that is why the events of the last two weeks have taken place," Raven said, pacing back and forth as she spoke. "When Marzac fell, the Adversary lost his greatest pawn in the Ecclesia, but he still had at least some lesser priests and bishops in his grasp."

"Which the daedra used in their recent takeover bid," Rickkter added. "Though we have no way of knowing how many more they still have under their control."

"Aye. The good news is that the enemy's plans have been thrown into chaos. The ill news is that we have forced their hand, and they will use every resource remaining to them to ensure that we are destroyed."

"So what do we do about it?" Merai asked.

"Before we answer that, read the rest of the Prophecy," Raven said. "I want you all to know what Silvinia foresaw."

"Very well." Clearing her throat, Merai continued:

"Darkest shadow would befall us,
Light would never more be seen,
If Fate had not prepared a savior:
Holy child, Elenin.

"One child from her mother's womb,
And given life by holy seed--
Naught in her that we'd desire her,
Humbleness shall be her creed."

Merai stopped again. "Wait. What does that mean, 'given life by holy seed'?" She frowned. "And why does this sound suspiciously like the prophecies about Onequion?"

"Sounds like the gods were a bit envious of Yashua," Rick muttered.

"I do not doubt that they had a certain symmetry in mind," Raven said dryly. "Most of the deities, god and daedra alike, have a flair for the dramatic. As for the 'holy seed', Merai, I am unsure what it means. Clearly, though, the gods have been involved in your development since the beginning." She raised her eyebrows, and her eyes widened slightly. "Whatever their method, it appears that you have a measure of divine essence within you."

Merai swallowed back the lump forming in her throat. "That explains a few things," she said, thinking back to the strange events that had marked her life since she first joined the Lightbringers: her unusual talent for channeling divine energy; the remarkable well of power inside her, which she had first become aware of at her initiation as a priestess; and, perhaps most tellingly, the inordinate interest that Suspira had taken in making a meal of her life-force. Looking back down at the page, she said, "Let's see what the Oracle foresaw for me:




"Come in secret, Elenin,
Unrecognized by anyone,
That darkness may not know its bane
Has come to earth: the chosen one.



"Call thyself nothing, Elenin,
But salvation in thee lies!
Purify the holy councils!
Let us love who we despised!



"Mighty power in seeming weakness,
Courage hid in seeming fright,

Heal the friendships long asunder,

Child of power, child of light!"
She paused.

"There's a tall order," Tessa said soberly.

"Based on our research, Christopher and I believe that this part of the prophecy began to be fulfilled when Merai destroyed the Turguroth," Raven explained. "By demonstrating that there was still virtue and honor among the Lothanasi, we helped to heal the breach between the humans and the Elves."

"The friendships long asunder," Tessa agreed. "Aye, it fits. But it sounds as if Merai is destined to bring about the restoration of the Lightbringers and the Ecclesia, as well."

"I doubt that the Ecclesia is our concern," Angernil said thoughtfully. "Eli appears to have done a great deal to cleanse his own house, as it were. I should be more concerned about our fellow Councilors among the Lothanasi."

Out of the corner of her eye, Merai saw Rickkter let out a long breath and slump down in his seat, his eyes beginning to wander around the room. Evidently he'd heard all of this before.

"Agreed," Raven said, ignoring the raccoon. "And we shall come to that matter presently. But please continue, Merai."

"A-aye," said Merai, who was beginning to feel an uncomfortable weight being placed once more upon her shoulders. She continued:


"Two signs will come of thy appearing--
One when nigh, one when at hand.
When these come the wise may know thee,
Join with thee to make their stand.



"When time is nigh, Anarbereth
Will come to thee in might and power
That thou mayst know thy destiny
And see thy fast-approaching hour."

Her eyes widened. "That happened during Yaji'kema two years ago!" she exclaimed.

"Aye," Raven nodded. "That was the first clear sign of your nature, a message to rouse me from my slumber and warn me of your importance. I researched its meaning for months before it finally led me to the book you see before you."

"And it warned _me_ to start keeping an eye on you," Rickkter said, sitting up and taking notice again. "It isn't often that Yajiit makes public appearances. I didn't have the benefit of these Archives, but you should realize by now that this is hardly the only text that tells of your coming."

Merai's eyes lit up in sudden realization. "That's why you tried to keep me from going out on Daedra'kema two years ago, isn't it?"

Rickkter nodded. "I’ve been tracking down pieces and threads of this prophecy for almost ten years, ever since I learned I was to play a part in it. There were certain actions foretold that would mark who I was, the same as there were for you. What happened at Yaji'kema was one of the more obscure possibilities, thankfully. There were a few things you could have done that would have alerted the daedra to you far sooner."

Merai gave him a bittersweet smile. "I suppose I should count myself lucky, then. Still, sometimes I wish I had listened to you."

She looked back down and read the last two stanzas:



"When thy time is now at hand,
Then thou thyself be purified:
Go to the mountain of the sun
And there, at last, be glorified.



"Then darkness shall against thee rise,
And will destroy thee if it can;
But Elenin! thou shalt defeat it,
And dark shall ne'er unite again."

"So that's how the story goes," Rick said. "Nice to know Silvinia gave it a happy ending."

"Aye, but there are still no guarantees," Raven cautioned. "The prophecy has already nearly been broken twice. It could yet happen if we are not careful."

Rickkter reached out and idly ran one claw along the edge of the codex. "I must say, I am markedly disappointed not to have received mention," he said thoughtfully. "The Oracle is far less kind than Kalorn in that regard."

"Aye, what about the other predictions about the Starchild and her associates?" Merai asked. "The book that Rickkter and I saw spoke of many people who would assist the Starchild in her quest: the Wolf, the Rat, the Washer. Why are they not mentioned?"

"Those details were given in later revelations, which were not part of the original prophecy," Raven said. "Volumes have been written about the Starchild Prophecy, and not all of them agreed, as you surely know by now." She turned toward the bear-man who had, until now, been sitting quietly to her right. "For the last year, Christopher has been investigating the various prophecies in an effort to determine their accuracy, and what our course of action should be. Christopher?"

The acolyte rose to his feet, adjusted his monocle, and shuffled his papers absently in his hands for a moment before he spoke. "Thank ye, Sister Raven. By now ye're all familiar with the basic elements of the prophecy: a child with a partially divine nature is brought forth to defeat an alliance of two evils, the daedra lords an' the servants o' the Adversary. In the process, she will restore a sundered friendship and remove the corruption from the holy councils. The questions, o' course, are where, when, how, and with whom the Starchild will accomplish these feats."

Christopher glanced down at his notes before continuing. "The prophecy ye just read, Merai, was given by Silvinia in Year 242 of the Cristos Reckoning. In 244 she received a series of further prophecies that identified the other key players in the prophecy. She did nae receive names or faces o' those involved, but in her visions they were represented by animals or other symbols." He showed an ironic smile. "Of course, we now know that the animals the Oracle saw were more than just metaphors."

Rickkter sat back in his chair, looking bored again. The sage paid him no heed.

"The first players Silvinia recorded were those tied most directly to the Starchild herself: the Wolf, the Washer, the Shepherd, and the Dancer." Chris set down a parchment in the middle of the table, showing four stylized symbols corresponding to the names he had mentioned, arranged symmetrically around the symbol of a four-pointed star. Various notes filled up the rest of the space on the parchment.

"The Wolf is the Starchild's mentor, and obviously refers to Raven," Chris explained. "The Washer, or raccoon, is Rickkter, and is referred to as the Guardian-Protector. The Shepherd is some other religious figure who plays a brief but pivotal role in the Starchild's life, and the Dancer is a young and fearless warrior who accompanies the Starchild in her travels and helps to rally others to join her cause."

"Do we have any idea about the identities of those last two?" Celine asked.

"Given Merai's recent encounter with the Fallen, I suspect that the Shepherd is our own Father Hough," Raven said. "The Dancer, I suspect, is either Daria hin'Leon or Sister Tessariel."

"It has to be Tessa," Merai said firmly.

Tessa looked up at Merai in surprise. "Why?"

Merai smiled thinly, her ears flicking back. "I've seen the way you both fight. Daria may be fast, but she's no dancer. Nothing she does looks anything like that blade-song of yours."

Tessa looked thoughtful but said nothing more.

"To continue," Chris said, laying down another parchment much like the first, "the second group Silvinia reported are those who play important parts in the events surroundin' the prophecy, but who have little or no association with th' Starchild herself. Silvinia called these the Horse, the Rat, the Son, and the Orphan."

"The Horse, naturally, is Lord Thomas, the same Horse-King foretold by Felix of Lee," Raven said.

"Right," Chris agreed. "The Horse-Lord leads the army of light in the battle against th' darkness, though some of the later prophets say that he will not stand alone. The Rat is less certain, since as ye all know we have no shortage o' rats here at Metamor, but Silvinia says he will emerge from darkness to aid the Son an' the Orphan in their quest."

"Back up," Rickkter said, leaning forward to get a closer look at the second parchment. "What have you found on those two, the Son and the Orphan? Most of the sources I've seen don't say much about them, and the fragments I have seen never seem to relate directly to the central party."

"We did nae find much," Chris admitted. "Silvinia did nae speak much o' them. She said that the Son would 'walk two paths, and join them in himself', whatever that means. The Orphan, as ye might imagine, is someone who lost a father-figure, but Silvinia said he would 'walk down strange and winding roads with a people not his own, and in the end be vindicated'. She wasn't clear about their mission, but she seemed to think that it was tied to breaking up the alliance o' darkness. Some o' the later prophecies show the two meeting somewhere to the south to fulfill their mission, an' tell of a great house falling into darkness, but there's little more than that."

"I believe that the Son and the Orphan are two of those involved in the recent destruction of Chateau Marzac, which has shaken the daedra's alliance with the Adversary," Raven said. "I'm not certain who they are, but it seems likely that their part in the prophecy is finished. Our present concern is primarily with the first group."

"Aye, and that's where things become troublesome," Chris said. "Of the figures Silvinia names in the prophecies, four of them -- the Wolf, the Washer, the Horse, and the Starchild herself -- are marked for grave peril."

Rickkter snorted at that but said nothing.

"The Oracle did nae foresee their fates herself, only the danger," Chris continued. "But in the prophecies that come after, not one exists in which all survive."

Merai looked nervously between Chris, Raven and Rickkter. "Rick mentioned that to me last year," she said unhappily. "I had hoped you would find a way around it."

"Unfortunately, no," Chris said. "Also unfortunately, they seem to be in peril for different reasons. The Horse-lord guides the army of light into battle; whether he lives or dies seems to depend on where he commands his troops, and when and how the other players accomplish their goals. In the prophecies where he dies, it is because the Starchild is delayed or hesitates in her mission, and the armies of light begin to falter; the Horse-lord goes out to the battle to encourage his troops, and while they succeed in holding off the darkness until their salvation arrives, the Horse-lord himself is killed during the battle."

"That doesn't sound so hard to prevent," Merai said, frowning. "Just make sure that Lord Thomas stays in the Keep."

"Sadly, 'tis nae quite that simple, lass," Chris replied with an apologetic smile. "If you are delayed and Lord Thomas does not go out to encourage his troops, they will be routed and thousands more will die before the end."

"I was afraid it would be something like that," Merai muttered. "Very well, then, I shall try to be on time, whatever that means. What about the others?"

"The Wolf and the Washer are both in peril on several occasions," the acolyte said, looking at Raven intently. "Raven, it is most important that you do nae make a target o' yerself. When the Starchild descends into the heart of darkness, you must stay behind, or the forces of light will fail. You will want to protect her, but there are places an' times where an' when ye cannae do so." He turned to Rickkter. "In those cases, that duty falls to the Washer."

"Naturally," Rick said, nodding grimly. "I don’t suppose you have any good news for me on the various permutations you’ve uncovered?"

"Nay. By most accounts ye're in little danger accompanying the Starchild into the darkness -- that is why the gods have chosen ye, t' protect Merai where Raven cannot. Yer greatest danger almost always seems to come at the end, during the final battle. It is unclear exactly how you will meet yer fate, but there is always mention of a great sacrifice." The sage hesitated for a moment, as if weighing his words. "Whether ye choose that sacrifice or not, yer personal end is the same; you will perish. In all the variations I've studied, no matter which other members of the party survive, you are the only person for whom it is foretold that death is a certainty."

Rickkter let out a half-hearted, disgusted chuff and leaned back in his chair, scowling and shaking his head.

"I am sorry to have to tell ye that," Chris said softly.

For a long moment no one said anything. Then Merai cleared her throat once. "Christopher? What does it say about me?" she asked.


Chris gave her another apologetic smile. "Yer peril is nearly as great as Rickkter's, dear lass," he said. "More has been written o' you than any o' the others, so 'tis no surprise that the prophets have foreseen the greatest number o' ways that you could die. They say that ye will journey into the heart o' darkness, th' den of evil itself. There ye'll find the proof ye need t' damn the tainted council an' expose their corruption t' the world, but at great risk t' yerself. Silvinia wrote that ye would come out of th' darkness and bring the aid that would save the army o' light an' destroy the darkness, but nae all of the later prophets agreed."

Merai nodded slowly. "Do you know what she meant by the heart of darkness? Does it have anything to do with this mountain of the sun she mentions in the first prophecy?"

"They seem t' be connected, but not one an' the same," Chris said. "There have been several 'mountains o' the sun' mentioned in the old records, but it is nae clear which this is."

Raven looked over at the dragon-priest. "Angernil?" she said, eyebrows raised questioningly.

"It refers to a mountain near the northern end of the Sathmore range," he said. "It is a distinctive landmark, a high mount with two equal peaks, evenly spaced. It has been given many names over the ages, but Sun Mountain is the name used by the people of Sathmore. From the capital of Elvquelin, the sun appears to rise between the peaks on the morning of the summer solstice."

"Any idea of a direct relation to the prophecy?" Rick asked.

The dragon shrugged. "Not offhand, though the mountain is a symbol of the Sathmore Empire."

"That fits, then," Chris said. "Given the corruption we've seen in th' Metamor High Council, it seems likely that Elvquelin is the 'heart of darkness' that Silvinia foresaw. Merai must go there t' find the truth that will let us expose the corruption in the High Council."

"Which brings us rather conveniently to the question at hand," Raven said, leaning forward and placing her hands on the table. "How shall we deal with Alarun and the Elvquelin Lightbringers? We have long suspected them of treachery, but now we have very clear evidence that they have been working with the daedra lords and the Fallen to take control of this temple."

She straightened up and resumed pacing. "Yesterday morning I spoke with the leaders of the Flatlander caravan that brought the Fallen to Metamor," she said. "Their last stop before coming here was Elvquelin. It was there that they took on the three possessed Followers, who paid them handsomely in exchange for Magyar clothing and passage to Metamor Keep."

"Do we know who gave them the Tallakath idol and the amulet?" Celine asked.

"Unfortunately, no, and that is why I say 'evidence' and not 'proof'," Raven said. "The Fallen seem to have erased many of the priests' memories concerning the time of their possession. We cannot prove that Alarun, or anyone under him, provided them with the artifacts they used to attack us. Without that proof, we cannot bring charges against him."

"Well, then, what are we waiting for?" Merai asked, her voice and expression suddenly sharp. She straightened up in her chair, and her tail lashed violently behind her. "If the proof we need is in Elvquelin, let's go to Elvquelin! We cannot just sit by and let them get away with this!"

"I agree with Merai," Tessa said. "It's time we put an end to Alarun and the rest of these traitors."

"I cannot believe that the rank-and-file Lightbringers would support alliances with daedra and Fallen," Merai urged. "If you expose their deeds, Sister Raven, their power will crumble!"

"You may well be right, young one," Angernil said, holding up a hand to silence any further words from Merai and Tessa. "But addressing the 'rank-and-file', as you put it, is a far more protracted endeavor than addressing the High Council. And since each chapter of the Order is independent, the priests of the local temples will be unlikely to rebel against their Councilors unless very strong proof indeed is given for their treachery."

"Exactly," Raven said, nodding. "And that is our chief concern at the moment. We must have proof positive that Alarun and the other corrupted members of the Council are in league with the daedra lords." She looked at each of their faces in turn. "Someone must indeed go to Elvquelin, as you say, Merai, but merely entering the city is not enough. Someone must infiltrate the Grand High Temple itself and bring back the proof of the Council's guilt that is mentioned in the prophecies."

There was a long pause.

"Oh, is that all?" Rickkter said, his voice laden with sarcasm. "And here I thought this was going to be difficult!"

Raven glared at him, but only for a moment. "It will be exceedingly dangerous, there can be no doubt of that," she said. "But we have little choice, for we will never gain the support we need otherwise. And if we fail to turn the tide of public opinion against them, the rank-and-file will turn on us and destroy us when we attempt to arrest the other Councilors." She sighed, reaching up and rubbing her eyes with one hand. "Obviously, there are only a few of us who could perform this mission. I would go myself, had Silvinia herself not advised against it, but my appearance could hardly go unnoticed in Elvquelin."

"As could mine," Angernil added. "My present form may be human, but a dragon cannot hide his true nature from one with aura sight."

"C-couldn't you change into a wolf?" Calvis asked suddenly, looking at Raven. "You could go with Tessa, p-pretend to be her pet!"

Merai patted Calvis's hand. "Sister Raven gave up the ability to shape-shift in exchange for human hands," she explained gently. Then turning to the rest of the table, she added, "I could do it, though. I can change into a cat easily enough -- I've done it several times."

"You'll still have problems, though," Rickkter pointed out. They turned to look at him. "The Curse," he explained, tracing the outline of Merai's aura with one finger. "The bloody thing is a huge beacon for anyone with aura sight or mage sight. Thankfully, there is a way around it. Shortly before Nasoj's last attack, Murikeer and I managed to create a talisman that could allow an animalistic keeper to completely pass for human. It could even fool mage-sight, though we were never able to get it to fool touch as well."

"Why hasn't this been made more widely known?" Raven asked.

Rickkter only shrugged in response. "They take a while to create; each must be individually crafted to its owner. We only told Duke Thomas and a limited number of high-ranking officials in order to keep them a secret, at least until we had perfected them. As to why we haven't done more work on them since…" He shrugged again. "Circumstances got in the way. The good news, though, is that since Muri is back with us -- and once more able to use his magic -- creating talismans that are only required to hide the Curse on Merai and Tessa will be a simple task. Even if it's not perfect, it's expected a familiar will have enchantments on it. Then our only problem will be dealing with the people along the way."

"Hold on a moment," Celine said, looked worried. "Let's back up and think on what we're saying here. I admire your bravery, Merai, but I have a bad feeling about this whole plan. Prophecy or not, do we truly want to send our child of destiny into the lion's den?"

"I am not afraid," Merai said, her eyes glinting with determination. "The Prophecy says I must go to Sathmore -- peril or not, I see no good reason to defy it."

"Besides," Christopher added, "we have little choice in the matter. Several of the later prophets confirm that only the Starchild can find the proof we need."

"I'll go with you!" Calvis said quickly.

Merai shot him a stern look. "No, you won't," she said, gripping his hand tightly. "Sorry, luv, but this is too dangerous. If I don't want you as a woman, I certainly don't want you as a corpse."

Calvis looked down at the table. "I don't want you as a c-corpse, either," he said, sounding hurt.

"I have divine powers. You don't." She smiled and winked. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. I'm the child of destiny, right?"

Calvis smiled a little but said nothing.

"If Merai is willing, I'll do it," Tessa said. "I do not fear these _duredain."_

"You should," Rickkter said darkly. "They have powers at their command that you've never seen. The magic that forged that amulet is no child's play." He looked up at Raven. "I won't be able to travel with them openly, but I'll do what I can to protect them," he said. "I'll talk to Misha, too -- he may be able to spare a team of Longs as backup. If the temple raises the alarm, they're going to need all the help they can get just to make it back alive."

"Agreed, and thank you for your help," Raven said. She turned to Merai. "We can provide you with maps of Elvquelin and the Grand High Temple from the Archives. Alarun may have made changes to the temple since it was built, so don't depend on them too heavily."

"What will we use for a cover story?" Tessa asked.

Raven smiled tightly. "After they found out what they had brought here, the Flatlanders were quite ready to prove that they were unwitting pawns in this game. They've agreed to help in whatever way necessary. Once the quarantine is lifted we'll send you back to Elvquelin with them, disguised as a fortune-teller. Merai will play the part of your familiar."

"How will they speak to each other?" Celine asked. "I should think that a talking cat would draw rather a lot of attention."

"We can arrange for an exclusive telepathy spell between them, so that they will be able to communicate in secret," Raven said. "With the aid of the talismans it should be indistinguishable from the spells used by mages to speak with their familiars."

The high priestess returned to her seat. "While you are on your mission to Elvquelin, I shall send for Lothanas Lycias of Whales," she said. "He is the only other Councilor I am sure we can trust, and I want him to be here with us when the time comes to move against Alarun and the others."

"Or when they decide to again move against us," Angernil added. "Lycias may well be a target himself, and he will be safer at Metamor than at home."

"Since Prince Phil has been recalled to Whales, we'll need to contact him through a vision spell and ask for Lycias to be brought to Metamor," Raven said. "I dare not contact Lycias directly, for Alarun will almost certainly be watching for any communication between our temples."

"If I may make a suggestion, Lothanasa," Christopher said, raising a paw, "I've been studyin' the vision-spell ye use to communicate from afar, an' I think I've come to an understanding o' the mechanics of it. I believe I know of a way that we can disguise yer connection t' Phil, so that the other Lightbringers are less likely to notice ye."

Raven nodded in approval. "Excellent. The less opportunity we give them to know of our plans, the better."

There was another brief silence, as they all looked at each other. The plans had been made, and there was little left to do but carry them out.

"Any questions?" Raven said at last.

"When do we leave?" Tessa asked.

"Lord Thomas said he would lift the quarantine on the 27th, but we may be able to expedite that somewhat once we can be assured that Brother Valenkar and his associates will not be returning to Elvquelin. I am hopeful that we might coax a confession out of them in exchange for sparing them from the Curse, but we cannot hang our plans on that chance. In the meantime, you can study the information we have on Elvquelin and learn the art of fortune-telling from the Magyars." She winked at Merai. "Of course, there should be time for other things, as well."

Merai turned to Calvis, giving him a bittersweet smile. "We'd best make the most of it, then," she said. "If I'm supposed to save the world, I expect my schedule from here on shall be a bit cramped."
~0~
The three Sathmore Lightbringers proved far more cooperative than Raven had anticipated. Once she intimated that they could be transferred to quarters in Midtown, beyond the range of the Curse, they were all too willing to implicate Lothanas Alarun as the one behind their attempted takeover of Metamor.

"He speaks of you often," Valenkar said, his demeanor earnest and almost too helpful. "He sees Metamor as the chief obstacle to all his ambitions."

"What ambitions?" Raven said, frowning. While she already knew or suspected much, she wanted to know what these three were aware of. "He is already the leader of the High Council. What more can he gain from seeing me ousted?"

"He never told us," Tygen said. "But whatever his plans are, they concern the entire Order. A few weeks ago he sent out summons to five of the other high priests -- everyone save you, Lycias and Angernil."

"Most of them arrived before we left Elvquelin," Merodac said. "They met often in the inner chambers of the temple, guarded by only their most trusted servants. I know not what they spoke of, for they mentioned it to no one."

"They are planning for war," Raven said, eyes narrowed. "A war that will engulf all the lands of the West." She shook her head. "The fools are so afraid of the Ecclesia and its message that they will even seek the aid of daedra lords to destroy it. They long for a return to the old days, when our Order held sway over the whole Suielman Empire and kings pleaded to hear our wisdom. But those times have passed, and this mad pursuit of theirs will bring destruction on all of us if it is not stopped."

The three Sathmorans looked at each other.

"What must we do?" Valenkar asked.

Angernil stepped forward, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. His eyes glowed like two tiny furnaces in the dim light of the Sathmorans' guest quarters. "You are none of you innocent in this affair," he said slowly, pacing back and forth and looking at each of them in turn. "Yet you do not bear the same degree of guilt as your masters. If we succeed in deposing them, you will be tried for your actions. However, if you repent of your mistake and continue to cooperate with us, I do not think it unreasonable that your sentence shall be greatly commuted."

"Provide us with whatever we ask of you, and never cross us, and your lives shall be spared," Raven said. "Otherwise, you face crucifixion alongside your masters for heresy and daedra-worship." She walked with Angernil to the door, then looked back over her shoulder. "Consider that carefully," she said.

Then the three Sathmorans were left alone in their room.

"Well, that was a pleasant surprise," Angernil remarked, once they had gone some distance down the corridor.

"Indeed. It seems these three are willing to do anything to escape the Curse. Their testimony should prove useful in swaying the other temples to our aid."

"It is not enough, though," Angernil said. "Alarun will say they gave their statements under coercion, and to a certain degree he would have a point. Merai and Tessa must still go to Elvquelin."

"I know. Unfortunately, it appears that Alarun will not be the only high priest there waiting for them."

"Whether that is fortunate or unfortunate remains to be seen," Angernil said.


~0~
"... so that, in sum, is the situation. I trust you can see why haste is called for."

"Indeed." Thousands of miles away, in his office on the island of Whales, Phil leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily. Raven's spectral image stood before him, waiting; she could see Phil, his chair, and his desk -- everything he had been directly touching at the time the spell was cast -- but the rest of their surroundings were a featureless field of black.

Phil sat in silence for a long moment, lost in thought -- and then a change came over him and he straightened up in his chair, eyes suddenly hard and determined. The timid rabbit and world-weary prince had left the scene, and in their place was the old grizzled sea-captain who had earned the respect and fear of friend and foe alike.

"Very well," he said. "Brother Lycias must reach Metamor, quickly and unharmed. I shall draft orders to the Fleet that our flagship should bring him thither immediately."

Raven's eyes widened slightly. "That is ... very generous of you, Phil, but I believe that a simple courier vessel would--"

"Let me ask you, Lothanasa," Phil said, cutting her off with an upraised paw, "what sort of ransom would a Lightbringer high priest be worth for, say, a band of pirates?"

The priestess frowned at the unexpected turn in the conversation. "I -- I'm not certain," she said. "A great deal, I imagine. But you have said before that no pirate would dare to attack a ship bearing the flag of Whales."

"Ah, true, but the pirates are growing bolder these days," Phil said, leaning back in his chair and rocking his ears in his version of a grin. "You never know when some ... _pirate_ ... might try attacking one of our vessels, particularly one with such an important person aboard. Best that we not take any chances." There was something strange in his tone of voice, his aura...

Then he winked, and Raven abruptly understood. "I see," she said, a small smile creeping onto her face. "And naturally, these ... _pirates_ ... will be less likely to attack your flagship, since it is both large and equipped with the Greek Fire."

"And because it will be accompanied by our primary task force," Phil added. "We cannot allow our flagship to sail alone, or it might be said that Whales has become weak and spread its forces too thin."

"And we certainly wouldn't want anyone to think that," Raven agreed with mock seriousness.

"Of course not." Phil took out a pen and a piece of blank parchment. "Naturally, just to be on the safe side, I will order that a full complement of Marines accompany the fleet. Just in case they need to repel boarders, of course."

"Naturally," Raven agreed. "Pirates tend to be rather brash about that."

"That's just what I'll tell the fleet," Phil said, ear-grinning again. "Give me a moment and these orders will be underway."

Taking his pen in his mouth and loading it with ink, Phil put nib to paper and began to write. Raven watched him in silence for a time, as the smile slowly faded from her face.

"Phil," she said gently. "You are putting your people in great danger on our behalf. Sathmore will not fail to notice a Whalish battle fleet sailing past their capital city. You may be provoking them to a conflict that they otherwise would have avoided."

Phil put down his pen and looked up at her. "That is possible, Lothanasa," he conceded. "However, if what you say is true, then a conflict with the Empire is inevitable. Sathmore has just been through one war and is preparing for a broader one, and Metamor will likely be one of their prime targets now that they have failed to take over your temple quietly. If Metamor is attacked, Whales will come to the aid of its ally -- and if that happens, it would be a great help to have our fleet so close to their capital." He ear-smiled again. "Besides, the Imperials have been rattling sabers for months. Their vessels patrol the Straits of Good Fortune and there are rumors of experimental warships being constructed in Elvquelin, far from the main shipyards at Isenport. We've been looking for an excuse to remind them that the high seas are our territory."

Raven bowed. "Let us pray, then, that they don't respond to the lesson too harshly. Good day, Phil, and thank you again for your help."

"It was my pleasure, Lightbringer," Phil said, rocking his ears one more time. "Good day."

The vision-spell ended, the rest of the world faded back into view, and the Prince of Whales continued to write, drafting the orders that would very likely send his people into war.


~0~
"Penny for your thoughts."

"Silver penny or copper penny?"

"Copper. I may be a priestess now, but I'm still poor."

Calvis sighed, running his hand gently through Merai's long, soft brown hair. They were in her spot on the battlements again, Merai laying back with her head in Calvis's lap. It was late afternoon, and they had a few hours yet before Merai was needed back at the temple for the dusk incense offering. Since the meeting in the Archives they had hardly left each other's presence for more than a minute, as if either one of them might disappear at a moment's notice if they turned their backs.

" 'Tis a lot to take in," he admitted. "When I m-met you, I ... I just thought you were an amazingly beautiful girl. Well, a-and a priestess, of course, but ... I didn't know you had this prophecy hanging over you. I didn't kn-know you were supposed to save the world."

Merai gave him a bittersweet smile, reaching up to trace her hand along his cheek. "I didn't know, either," she said. "It isn't as if I asked for this." She frowned as a thought struck her. "Is it too much for you?"

"No," Calvis said quickly, reaching up to clasp his hand around her own. "What we have ... what we could have ... I-I won't give that up because of some prophecy. But hearing that -- that Master Dagnir is a traitor..." He shook his head. "I know he is young, and loud, and confident ... a-and I don't agree with some of what he's done ... but a traitor? He's my high priest, Merai. 'Tis hard to accept."

"I can understand that," Merai said, nodding. "But from what Sister Raven tells me, Dagnir has always been close to Alarun. I fear we cannot afford to trust him, not for the moment at least. Mayhap my mission with Tessa will show us if he is innocent."

"Perhaps." Calvis was silent for a long moment, looking thoughtfully up at the mountains. When he spoke again he did not meet her eyes. "Merai, when all this is over -- th-the mission, the prophecy, the struggle with the High Council -- would you come back with me to Bozojo? Not forever, n-necessarily," he added quickly, "but for a few months, a year, something like that."

Merai frowned again. "Calvis, 'tis a bit early to be making such plans," she said. "We may not even survive this fight."

"I know," Calvis said, though his expression said he didn't even like to think about that possibility. "But ... we've known each other a year, Merai, and I know there's something between us. But I-I still don't know you half as well as I would like." He smiled a little. "I think I'm in love with you, Merai hin'Dana. But I don't know if ... if we're meant to be together, and I don't think we can figure it out if we're living two weeks' ride away from each other. I know y-you have your duties, and I would offer to come here instead, but..." He shrugged, gesturing at the castle.

Merai smiled up at him. "I understand," she said. "And I think you're right -- our homes are too far apart for us to work through this properly." She thought on it a few moments, then looked at him again. "I'm not ruling anything out, Cal -- I may well come to Bozojo with you, if I can -- but if not, there might be another way. You could transfer to Midtown, or Menth, or one of the other towns in our chapter. You'd be out of range of the Curse, and only a day's ride from Metamor."

Calvis looked pensive for a long moment, then nodded. "I s-suppose I could live with that," he said. "It wouldn't be like sharing the same temple, of course, but..." He shrugged.

"Who knows?" Merai said. "Raven might let me move to one of the other temples in the chapter, once she judges me ready. It would mean leaving Metamor, which would be hard ... but it might be worth it." She winked.

The young acolyte grinned. "Only one way to be sure."

Merai sat up, turned around, and kissed him, a light brush of her lips against his. "We'll see what happens," she said.

~0~
Tessa sat down on the edge of her bed and pulled open her dresser drawer, taking out the mithril amulet given to her by her king before she left the forest of Quenardya. She turned it over a few times in her hands, running her finger over the Elf-runes inscribed on each side. At last she took it in both hands, placing her thumbs over the emblem of the Blessed Tree, and spoke in a firm, clear voice: "Pedo, lammen o giliath."

The amulet flared into a bright, blue-white glow, and then in her mind's eye Tessa saw the face of the king before her. He smiled, but his eyes were grave -- he knew that she would not have used the amulet except in dire need.

[Greetings to you, Tessariel, daughter of Quenardya,] he said, addressing her in her native Elvish.

[Greetings, your High Majesty,] she said, bowing deeply. [On behalf of the people of Metamor, I bid you health and blessing.]

[And the same to you and the people of Metamor,] the king said, nodding once in slow, regal fashion. [But what dark hour has befallen you, that you should come to us for aid?]

[The hour my kinsman Sindafan foresaw, and feared,] Tessa replied gravely. [It is not yet fully come, but given the great distance between our lands I fear that it will be too late if I do not act now. Much has been revealed to me this day, and when I have explained it will be clear why the help of our people is so dearly needed...]


~0~
March 20, 708.

The Lightbringers arose early in the morning, for the Flatlanders would be departing today for Elvquelin and there were still last-minute preparations to be made. The acolytes assisted the Magyars in loading aboard food, water and other necessities, while the tribe's wise woman, Madam Kalasha, continued instructing Tessa in the fine arts of fortune-telling.

As the old matriarch had explained a few days ago when they began, there were two types of fortune-tellers commonly employed by the Flatlanders: the wise old crone and the beguiling young enchantress. Since Tessa was far too young for the former, she would have to learn the ways of the latter. Despite her usually blunt, somewhat cynical personality, the half-Elf had picked up the mannerisms of the Flatlanders with remarkable speed, and was now slinking around the nomads' wagon train with the poise and seductive bearing appropriate to her role. When Raven came down to inspect the caravan that morning Tessa was dressed in the baggy, wildly colorful pants and blouse that were the trademark of the Flatlanders, though hers were cut so as to expose the midriff, the better to entice gullible young men into her wagon to have their fortunes read. She wore no shoes, but rounded out her ensemble with gold bracelets, anklets, necklaces and earrings. A veil covered her face from just below her eyes, further adding to the carefully-crafted aura of mystery and forbidden sexuality.

"Mistress Raven," she said, sketching an elaborate bow as the Lothanasa approached. She mimicked the strange accent used by this particular clan of Magyars -- a vaguely eastern sound, more akin to that of the messenger Kee than the affected formality of Sir Saulius. Raven's ears were not keenly trained for such things, but the half-Elf seemed to do a fairly good job with it.

Raven smiled. "Very good, Tessa," she said. "You seem to have adapted quickly to this new role. Is all in readiness?"

"Nearly so, or so I am told. I've not seen Sister Merai yet, though -- is she still in the temple?"

"I'm not sure," Raven said, frowning. "I had assumed she would be here with you. Carry on, and I shall see to her."

"Aye, Mistress."

Raven found Merai back in her bedroom in the temple, as Tessa had suspected. Her bags were packed and stood waiting by the door, but the young priestess sat in front of the mirror, hair brush in hand, staring blankly into the face of her reflection. She did not move when Raven approached. The wolf-woman reached out a tendril of thought toward her apprentice and quickly sensed the churning mass of emotions roiling beneath her skin.

Quietly, she came up behind Merai's chair and placed her hands on the young woman's shoulders.

"What do you see?" she asked, running one hand over Merai's soft brown hair.

There was a long silence. In the mirror, Raven saw Merai's eyes glisten with tears that threatened to come forth at any moment.

"I see a girl," Merai said at last. "Not a priestess. Not the Starchild. Just a silly girl."

Raven took the brush and began running it through Merai's hair. "Is that what you see," she asked, "or what you wish to see?"

Merai smiled a little, but the expression did not reach her eyes. "A little of both, perhaps. Sister Raven, I'm afraid. Afraid I'm not going to be able to do what is expected of me. I've read the prophecy and Christopher's notes over and over again, and I think I understand at least some of what I'm meant to do ... but then I look in the mirror, and I'm just Merai. Just a simple peasant girl. I know I have a great gift -- this power that allows me to heal people and protect the innocent -- but how am I supposed to be the savior of the world? I don't see how it can happen ... and I'm not even sure if I want it to."

Raven raised her eyebrows at that. "Why is that?" she asked, careful to keep any judgmental tone out of her voice.

Merai's tail twitched in agitation. "I've ... never had an easy time accepting praise, as you know," she admitted. "I was always hard on myself -- I never felt worthy of recognition. Over the past two years, as I've served with you, I've come to accept myself as a Lightbringer, and to accept the attention that comes with that. But now, with this prophecy, all those old thoughts and impulses have come right up to the surface again. The gods have called me to be some sort of hero, but..." She shook her head slightly. "It doesn't seem right. It doesn't feel like my place. I don't think I'm the sort of person who's made for glory."

"I believe I can understand that," Raven said thoughtfully, stroking the cat-girl's hair gently. "And yet, as strange as it seems, it is your place, Merai. All your life has led you to this, whether you knew it or not. But if it helps," she added, "then do not think of yourself as a hero. Think of yourself as a servant, for so you are -- a servant with a strange task to fulfill, but a servant nonetheless. You're quite right in saying that glory does not become you, for you would not have nearly the same sweet and gentle spirit if it did." Merai smiled at that, more genuinely this time. "But perhaps that is fitting, in itself, for you are not the one who has brought these events to pass. You are merely the instrument that has been chosen, and though you have been prepared all your life for such a time as this, you are still the tool and not the wielder." She patted Merai's shoulder. "Take comfort in that, if you wish."

Merai reached up and clasped Raven's hand with her own. "I do," she said softly. "It is a strange thing to take comfort in, but it does put my heart a little more at ease."

"I am glad to hear it." Raven handed the brush back to Merai. "And now, my sister, you had best make your way down to Euper, lest the Flatlanders leave without you."

Merai stood, gave one last look at her reflection, and nodded. "Aye," she said, as some new strength seemed to rise up behind her eyes. "Aye, it is time."

They walked over to the door, where Merai's bags waited, and suddenly she turned and wrapped Raven in a tight embrace. Raven returned the hug with equal affection, and they stood there together for a long moment: mistress and pupil, but something more than that, as well.

"I love you, Sister Raven," Merai said, very softly.

"I--" Raven tried to speak, but her voice cracked and caught in her throat. She cleared her throat, swallowed, and tried again, blinking back the sudden tears that had filled her eyes. "I love you, too, Merai," she whispered. She pressed her cheek against the top of Merai's head and held her tighter, as if she could protect her from all the evil and darkness and danger that surrounded her.

In the end, though, Raven knew that she could not protect Merai. That time had come to a close, at least for now. The young priestess's life was in the hands of Rickkter, her Guardian-Protector, and in the hands of the gods, who had prepared her for this time since before she was born.

At last they parted, and looked at each other with an expression that carried more than words could ever say. Then Merai turned, gathered her bags, and walked out to the front door of the temple. She pulled it open and paused there, looking back.

"May the grace and protection of all the gods be with you," Raven said. "Cuialye lothan, my sister."

Merai blinked once, squeezing her eyes shut hard, and nodded. "And with you, as well," she said. "Cuialye lothan, Lothanasa."

And then she was gone, leaving Raven alone in the temple of the Lightbringers.


~0~
Father Jean Paul, priest of the Ecclesia for the city of Kelewair, strode swiftly but confidently down the halls of the ducal palace. He held an ornate scroll-case in his right hand, while with his left he fingered the yew-tree amulet that hung about his neck. The building was large and its passages sometimes confusing, but Jean Paul needed no guide. The room for which he was headed was one he had visited many times before.

As usual, the guards at the door stepped forward to block his path as he approached. Their expressions were respectful but resolute.

"Halt," said the one on the right. "State your business, Father. The duke has said he is not to be disturbed except in the most urgent circumstances..."

"Aye, aye, I've heard it before," Jean Paul said, waving off any further explanations with an irritable slash of his left hand. He held up the scroll-case in front of the guard's nose, waving it threateningly like a club. "Is a sealed dictum from Yesulam urgent enough for you, sirrah? Come now, no more of this foolishness. Open the door."

The guard's eyes widened at the sight of the scroll-case, the yew-tree seal of Yesulam clearly visible on the side. He opened the door a crack and spoke in a hushed voice to one of the guards on the other side, then shut it again.

"Your request is being conveyed to the duke, Father," the first guard said. "It shouldn't be long."

Jean Paul rolled his eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. "Incredible," he growled. "Intolerable. That a priest of the Way should be made to wait on a nobleman's good pleasure, and here in one of the most devout houses in all the Midlands!"

"Begging your pardon, Father," said the guard on the left. "The duke means no offense. 'Tis just that, with the recent unrest in these parts, he is wary of the threat of assassins."

"You already know who I am," Jean Paul said pointedly. "And so does the duke."

"Aye, most true, Father," the other man nodded. "But they say that many fearful things may be done with magic. A godless wizard could disguise himself as many things -- even a priest."

"You speak far beyond what is proper for a man of your station," the priest said, his voice intentionally harsh. "Nevertheless, you have stumbled into a sort of truth, and one that bears no small relation to my message for the duke."

Before the guard could reply, the door opened inward, and he and his comrades stood aside to allow the priest to pass.

"You may enter, Father Jean Paul," a voice called from within.

One of the guards who had been standing inside the duke's chambers led the priest from the sitting room, down a narrow corridor and into the washroom. The guard gestured for him to enter and then went back the way he had come. Inside, Duke Verdane -- the Red Wolf of Kelewair and King of the Southern Midlands -- sat in a bathtub full of steaming sudsy water, which in turn sat atop a heavy cast iron grate over a pit of red-hot coals. A servant-boy armed with a bellows sat to one side, apparently watching the pit and waiting for it to need tending -- or for the duke to assign him some other, equally meaningless task. The duke was laying back against the edge of the tub with his eyes closed, but as they entered he opened his eyes again and sat up straight.

"Welcome once again to my home, Father Jean Paul," Verdane said smoothly, nodding an acknowledgment to the priest. "I trust you will forgive me if I don't get up -- as you can see, I am rather occupied at the moment. Nevertheless, I shall be happy to hear any news from the Holy City."

"I knew it would be so, your grace," Jean Paul said, bowing. "Word of your devotion to our faith has reached even the halls of Yesulam. In any event, I shall take no more of your time than is necessary." He held up the scroll-case and passed it to Verdane, who took it with a nod. "This message came to our cathedral yester evening. I received instructions to pass it on to you, unopened."

Verdane's eyebrows raised in interest but he said nothing. He slid his thumbnail across the seal, breaking it open, then pulled the top off of the case and withdrew a rolled piece of parchment bound with two ornately carved wooden rods. The lettering on the scroll was equally ornate, rich black Rukilian ink with accents of red, blue and gold where appropriate. The top of the scroll bore the seal of the Ecclesia, identical to the one he had broken to open the case; at the bottom of the page was a medallion of wax imprinted with the seal of the Patriach's personal secretary. This dictum had, to all appearances, come from the very highest office of the Ecclesia.

Father Jean Paul watched the duke's face as he read the dictum, noting as the man's expression progressed from curiosity, to puzzlement, to surprise ... and finally to suspicion.

"What does it say, my lord?" Jean Paul asked.

Verdane just rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the priest, who unrolled it and read it for himself. "Oh, my," he said, when he had read it in its entirety.

"This letter ... you are certain it is legitimate?" Verdane asked, frowning.

Jean Paul shrugged. "Can there be any doubt?" he asked rhetorically. "It bears the seals of the Holy Mother Ecclesia and the Patriarch himself, and it arrived by official Ecclesia courier. What more proof can there be that this is, indeed, the Patriarch's will -- and thus the will of our Lord?"

"Indeed." Frowning, Verdane turned and stared at the far wall in silence. Jean Paul clasped his hands behind his back and fidgeted slightly.

"Will there be any assistance from Pyralis in this mission that Yesulam has given us?" Verdane asked.

Jean Paul gestured helplessly. "I know no more than yourself, your grace," he said. "But it sounds as if the matter is considered to be of the utmost urgency, and Pyralis is a month's ride from Kelewair. I believe we must look to our allies here in the Midlands."

Verdane snorted at that. "Ah. Our allies." He cast a sharp glance at Jean Paul, his eyes full of sudden fire. "Does Yesulam have any notion of our political situation here?" he snarled. "Do they understand what I've had to do to maintain order? I am surrounded by enemies or rivals on three sides, father, and my own vassals are ready to go to war with each other again if one so much as sneezes." He gestured at the scroll the priest held in his hand. "This can only make matters worse."

Jean Paul bowed. "With respect, your grace -- perhaps focusing on a foreign enemy is precisely what is needed to unite your people."

"Not when the target is a religious one," Verdane said. "My subjects are far too divided. I shall remind you that, my own faith in the Ecclesia notwithstanding, one of the High Councilors of the Lothanasi makes his home in my city." His eyes narrowed. "And in the future I shall thank you not to advise me on matters of politics."

The priest bowed again. "Of course. Forgive my presumption, your grace."

Verdane waved off the apology. "Enough. Tell Yesulam I shall convey their request to my vassals. If any of them wish to participate in this ... crusade ... I shall not stop them. But they shall not march under my banner. I have troubles enough without seeking more of them."

Jean Paul sputtered for a moment. "But, your grace -- the Patriarch himself--"

"-- can march to war, if that is his wish," Verdane snapped. "There is a time for faith, father, and a time for reason. Today my reason tells me that I shall not endanger my crown and my subjects at Yesulam's bidding. Today the Patriarch's gratitude comes at too high a price." He turned away and gestured dismissively. "Leave me now."

"As you wish, your grace." The priest bowed one last time and made his way out of the duke's chambers.

Outside the palace, he met a man standing among the flower gardens in the courtyard, hooded and cloaked in the chill morning air.

"Duke Verdane has failed us," Jean Paul said quietly.

"As I suspected," the other said, sounding vaguely disgusted. "And to think he once showed such promise."

"Our time is short. If Verdane discovers our deception, he may send warning to Metamor -- or even oppose us directly."

"He will not have the time," the cloaked man assured him. "We have the other scroll; I shall ride for Lanton tonight." Beneath the hood, Jean Paul caught a glimpse of a smirk. "I suspect that Baron Grenier will have sufficient motive to join our cause."

Jean Paul smiled knowingly. "Of course," he said. "There are few motives as great as revenge."
~0~
The caravan rolled on at a sedate pace, only a little more than half the speed at which Raven and Merai had traveled when they set out for Aelfwood nearly a year ago. Merai and Tessa kept mostly to themselves on the first day, staying in the wagon that Tessa would use for her readings when they made their stops in town. Madam Kalasha would pop inside from time to time to check on them or collect a jar of reagents from the wagon's shelves, but for the most part the two young women were left to their own devices. Merai read often from the copy of the Canticle she had brought with her, while Tessa continued her studies of the fine art of performing divinations for money. Merai didn't know what to make of the crystal balls, palm-reading texts and other items Tessa was learning how to use, and frankly she wasn't sure she wanted to know. Her recent experience with the Fallen had made her wary of opening herself up to any sort of magical examination. She focused her attentions primarily on meditation and the study of the Patildor scriptures. From time to time Tessa would come and look over her shoulder to see what she was reading, but she never made any comment on it.

They pulled into Midtown shortly after dusk, and Tessa put her books aside and exited the wagon. She returned some time later -- Merai wasn't sure how long it had been, as she had been absorbed in her reading -- carrying a tray with supper for both of them: two bowls of stew, a loaf of bread, a saucer with a large dollop of butter smeared onto it, two cups and a pitcher of water. Merai set aside the Canticle and joined Tessa at the table, where they gave thanks to Kammoloth, Yajiit and Dvalin for the food and then began their meal.

"What do the Elves say about Iluvatar?" Merai asked, tearing off a hunk of bread and dipping it in the saucer to coat it with butter.

Tessa quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Merai shrugged. "Do they know who He is? Why He has fallen silent? Has He withdrawn entirely from the world, or are there some He still speaks to?"

The half-Elf shook her head. "The Elves don't speak of such things," she said. "Not to humans, and not to half-Elves. They say that they have their own revelation of Iluvatar, and we mortals have ours. It wouldn't be appropriate for them to tell us about a spiritual path that we can't follow."

"So the mortal races _do_ have a revelation from Iluvatar?" Merai pressed. "The Elves know that much? The All-Father isn't just being silent with us?"

"That is what they imply," Tessa confirmed, nodding once.

Merai took a spoonful of stew and rolled it around thoughtfully in her mouth. While the basic ingredients were familiar -- beef, carrot, potato, onion, celery -- the spices were very unusual. She had tasted Flatlander food a few times during her childhood -- the caravans sold traditional Magyar cuisine whenever they were in town -- but she had still never quite gotten used to the seasonings. They were both hot and tangy, and they made her eyes water. It wasn't an unpleasant experience, really, but it certainly felt odd to her palate. She took a drink of water and then another mouthful of bread.

"So, what do half-Elves and humans in your land believe?" she asked, after she had swallowed.

Tessa shrugged. "It depends. Many follow the nine gods, just as their ancestors did before coming to Aelfwood. Artela is particularly popular, which should come as no surprise."

"Any Patildor?" Merai asked.

"None that you would recognize as such. The Ecclesia is a human organization -- it has no presence in Aelfwood." Tessa took a mouthful of stew and followed it with a drink of water. "But there are some in Quenardya who worship Eli as the All-Father, and Yashua Onequion as His Son. I think they may be Rebuilders whose ancestors fled persecution by the Ecclesia." She shrugged again. "There aren't many of them, but they are there."

Merai took another few bites of stew, grimaced a little at the rush of heat in her mouth, then leaned back in her chair with her cup of water in hand.

"And what do you believe?" she asked.

Tessa looked up from her stew, her aura registering surprise. "What?"

Merai smiled thinly. "Come on, Tessa," she chided, "you know what I mean."

Tessa took a bite of bread, chewing it carefully and deliberately before swallowing. "I believe that you're asking questions that are dangerous for a Lightbringer priestess to be asking," she said, her voice low and serious. Her large dark eyes shone and glittered like two pieces of polished obsidian in the dim light of the oil lamps. "You have sworn an oath to honor the Nine Gods and serve the Lothanasi Order -- body and soul, all of your being, all of your life." She quoted the words of the Lightbringer pledge of dedication, words that were only too familiar to Merai. Tessa's eyes narrowed, and her voice took on a measure of quiet intensity. "Lately, though, all your attention seems to be focused on a different religion from the one to which you swore your allegiance. That would disturb me in any Lothanasi priest, with the times being what they are, but it is especially worrisome coming from you, the Chosen One of the gods who is somehow supposed to save the world."

That last sentence came out harsh -- harsh enough to make Merai's ears twitch back and her tail shoot out straight behind her. It must have sounded harsher than Tessa had intended, too; no sooner had she said it than her eyes widened and she abruptly fell silent.

Merai just stared at her friend, momentarily taken aback at Tessa's sudden display. The half-Elf was a passionate woman, and Merai was used to seeing her respond to things with feeling and blunt honesty, but this was the first sign she'd gotten of Tessa's true feelings on this particular subject. She was surprised, even shocked, and a little offended.






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