Rickkter grumbled to himself as he made his way to the door. The magical treatise he had been reading for much of the morning had led him to stop wondering exactly what its writer had been trying to prove and to instead try to divine what the poor man had been smoking at the time. Absently Rick groped for the door handle.
"Ah, Rick. I'm glad I was able to catch you." Standing in the doorway was Brian Coe. The brown raccoon was leaning on the door frame and panting lightly. "You've mentioned before that you've had some experience as a healer in the past. I need to know how much."
Rickkter shrugged as he closed his book. "Assistant to a professional more than anything else. She did most of the work, I learned what I could. If you need something, I could help out." He narrowed his gaze at Brian. "Why are you asking?"
Coe let out a languished puff from his nose as he wiped a paw over his muzzle. He raised his gaze, looking Rickkter in the eye. "Have you ever dealt with plague?"
Blinking, Rickkter repeated, "Plague? Are you serious?" Brian nodded. "Here?" Brain barely got out another nod before being pulled into the small anteroom to Rick's apartment. "Okay, tell me the truth; how bad is it? How many cases?"
"Only one confirmed so far. I'm concerned about it spreading, though. I want to know how many people I can summon for assistance if it does surface again."
With a sharp shake of his head, Rickkter sucked a breath in through his teeth. He turned back to Coe. "How many times have you encountered plague?"
"Personally, I've never seen it. Metamor has not had a case in decades."
"I've only encountered plague three times myself, and only the last time in a city. That was when I was doing mercenary work, and the city was under siege." He put a paw on his fellow raccoon's shoulder. "People are deathly afraid of plague, Brian. I've seen a city literally tear itself apart with people trying to get out of it. When people hear that it's come to Metamor, anyone with means is going to try and get out—"
"—potentially spreading it to the rest of the valley. I know."
"All I'm saying is that you need to notify the gate captains as to what is happening, and do things very quietly. Once the people catch wind of this, we are going to have chaos on our hands."
Brian sighed again. "I know." He mentioned to Rick about having spoken with Thomas about the plague.
"That's good. But just in case, you should go notify Thalberg. Get to the gate captains and arrange things as quickly as you can. I'll speak with George, perhaps Misha as well, and see what other help can be arranged."
As they stepped out of the room, Brian turned back to his friend. "Something tells me that before this is over, we are going to need all the help we can get."
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 very nice coat of fur, as well, I see,"
he added with a wink and 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 — and the fact that two healers had themselves come down with the disease wasn't helping any. 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 care and 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, Cardiff—"
"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. I shall inform Lord Thomas of our guests' impending arrival. 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. She kept her voice down to prevent anyone else in the sickbay from overhearing, but her words still carried a quiet intensity. "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 set aside the alchemical poultice he had been preparing. Given their track record up to now in treating the plague, it probably wouldn't have worked anyway. "All right," he said. "I'll look. Where is she?"
"She said she was going to update Lord Thomas on the situation."
"At this hour, that would mean the audience chamber. Come on."
As they walked out of the sickbay, 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."
At the moment, the Duke's audience chamber was just around the corner and a short ways down the corridor. The doors of the chamber stood open, with two guards flanking it on either side, and Rick and Tessa were quickly recognized and waved through. The place was in a frenzy of activity, no doubt due to the current crisis, and pages and messengers darted this way and that between the small groups of court officials clustered here and there on the floor of the wide, open hall. Tessa wasn't sure what they were doing, but given the usual nature of such things she doubted it was anything very useful or productive. She scanned the room as they walked in, looking for some sign of Merai in the crowd. At last she spotted her in the distance, behind the dais, talking to Lord Thomas and another woman whom Tessa recognized as one of the temple acolytes. She was looking primarily at the Duke but gesturing periodically at a writing tablet the other woman was holding. The Duke was listening intently, arms crossed, tail flicking in quiet agitation. Steward Thalberg stood off to one side, his crocodilian face unreadable.
"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 audience chamber.
"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. "I have a few years' experience with it, but I'm a mercenary, not a thief. I can pick most common locks, but I've seen the doors in Raven's office. You'd have to be a master thief to open those. I could blast the door down with magic, but 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, then his face brightened in understanding. "Oh, of course. But he's reformed now. Do you think he would do it?"
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."
"We're a few steps ahead of you, mate," Rick said dryly, his muzzle twisted into a smirk. "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 seen this type of magic before. 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!"