The hallway outside the temple was dark and silent. The temple doors were shut and, as they had expected, barred and warded.
"You don't want to touch that," Rick murmured, looking at the weave of spells around the door. "There are some nasty enchantments on there. Excellent work, actually — very intricate, very sensitive, horribly lethal. I'm impressed."
"Ogle the black magic later, all right?" Scratch hissed. "We have bigger problems to worry about."
"Fine. Next time I'll let you turn yourself into tiger paste," Rick retorted.
"Both of you be quiet," Tessa whispered fiercely. "Now, come on — the secret entrance is down here."
The two Lightbringers led them to a patch of very ordinary-looking wall about fifty feet past the main entrance. Pointing to the top stone in the wall above a lamp sconce, Tessa began murmuring the prayer of the Dawn Sacrifice, moving her finger down a stone for each new word and one stone to the right for each new sentence:
"Nemmë Lothanasi; maremmë i enessë ba'neva a únemmë pelda. Nemmë Calimarimbë; caremmë mara i enessë rukia. Nemmë Tirimbë Metammurava; á termarë rambarya síllo i Ambar-mettanna." When her hand reached the last stone, she pressed it firmly; it slid into the wall half an inch, and a soft click could be heard inside. Then she pulled on the lamp sconce, and a door-shaped section of wall swung outward into the hall, revealing a large storeroom.
"Nice diction," Celine said.
"Thank you," Tessa said. "Come on."
The storeroom was dark and piled with boxes and barrels of supplies for the temple. Tessa summoned a small light to her hand while Rickkter pulled the secret door shut behind them.
"Where now?" Hough asked.
There were two obvious doors in this room: one to the north, leading to a small hallway connecting to the main entry hall, and one to the east, leading to another storeroom. Celine, however, directed them to the northwest corner of the room. Facing the north wall, she placed her hand on the ninth stone from the floor at the left edge of the wall.
"Edra," she commanded softly.
The secret door opened inwards with another quiet click, and they found themselves looking down a long, narrow corridor.
"Don't step on the third paving stone," Celine said as she entered the passage. Scratch and Rickkter followed her lead. Hough put a hand on Tessa's arm.
"What happens if we do?" he asked.
"No one knows," Tessa answered. "The command was passed down from Magnus the First, but he never stated why. Everyone's a bit afraid to find out." She entered the corridor, stepping obediently over the third stone. Hough swallowed nervously and followed after. Rick looked down at it and gave a quiet whistle of appreciation as he passed, but made no further comment.
The door to Raven's office was disguised as part of the bookcase, but the mechanism for opening it was clearly visible on this side and they passed through without any difficulty. Tessa gestured to the door leading to the bedroom; it looked plain enough in most respects, but it had a very imposing-looking lock. Scratch knelt before it and examined it closely with a magnifying glass.
"Very nice," he murmured. "Excellent craftsmanship."
"Ogle the lock later," Rick said. "Celine, we'd better light some of these lamps so Tessa can stop concentrating on that little orb of hers."
"Good idea," Tessa muttered.
They were unable to find flint and steel in the office, but Rick summoned a small flame to his finger and lit several of the wall lamps, bathing the room in a warm glow. Tessa banished her mage-light and knelt next to Scratch.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"Hard to say," he said, clenching three small picks between his teeth while he worked with two more in the lock mechanism. " 'Tis a very good lock. Just give me some time."
A crash sounded from around the corner that led to the main temple hall, followed by the unsettling sound of claws scraping against stone.
"Time may not be something we have," Rick said, drawing his sword with his right hand while he sent a bright ball of light down the corridor with his left hand. Tessa was by his side in an instant, drawing her own swords and going into a ready posture.
A second later the thing came into view. It was a massive beast, about six feet tall at its hunched-over shoulders, covered with a muddy-green scaly hide. Its arms were long and its legs short, and it walked on the soles of its back feet and the knuckles of its massive, clawed hands. Its face was a nightmarish mixture of troll and dragon, with protruding eye-stalks that were alien to both. It snarled and slathered as it approached, its long, forked tongue dripping with saliva, yellow teeth like daggers glinting in the glow of Rick's mage-light.
Rick cursed in recognition. "A shambler," he said, to no one in particular. "The bitch summoned a bloody shambler!"
After a moment's hesitation, in which it seemed to size up its opponents, the shambler charged, lumbering forward with surprising speed. Rick hit it with a blast of green energy that hardly seemed to faze it, then backed up against the wall to get out of the way. Celine and Hough dived for cover behind Raven's desk, and Scratch left the lock to turn his attention to this new opponent.
"How do we kill it?" the tiger asked, glancing over at Rick. The shambler had paused in the middle of the room and now seemed reevaluating its prey. While Rick's attack had done no visible damage, it had apparently convinced the creature that its opponents had a bit more fight in them than it had expected.
"Oh, killing it's not that hard," Rick said in an absurdly casual voice, not taking his eyes off the beast. "It dies about as easily as you do. Of course, you have to get by its armor first. That's the hard part."
"You picked a bloody fine time to get technical."
Its mind apparently made up, the shambler turned its attention on Rickkter, swiping out with one handful of razor-sharp claws. Rick ducked the attack and sliced at the creature's hand as it passed, but the sword barely even drew blood. Tessa took advantage of the shambler's distraction to leap in and score a few quick hits against the monster's exposed neck. Its flesh sizzled and hissed on contact with the Elven blades, but even they seemed to leave little mark on the beast's scaly hide. The shambler did respond to her attack, turning to snap at her with its massive jaws, but Tessa danced out of the way, unscathed.
Scratch drew two of his daggers and threw them with deadly precision, one at the creature's chest and the other at its forehead. In each case they sank in less than an inch before falling to the ground. Rickkter darted behind the creature, attacking its flanks, but again both blade and spell-fire did little more than anger the creature.
The shambler roared in frustration at being surrounded by such fast and annoying opponents. It began wheeling in circles, swiping at Rick, Tessa and Scratch with increasing ferocity, its stray blows smashing chairs and bookcases to splinters. They danced and tumbled around the creature for what seemed like ages, and while they all managed to escape serious injury, they didn't seem to be any closer to actually harming the beast.
At last Rick had a burst of inspiration. "Scratch!" he shouted.
Scratch ducked behind a chair to avoid the shambler, which quickly smashed said chair to pieces. "Aye?"
"Can you still do that shadow thing?"
"Aye." Scratch threw a dagger at the creature's eye, but the eyestalk twitched out of the way. Tessa moved in to distract it with a few quick swipes, and the tiger leapt back behind the desk.
"Good. When I tell you, go for the back of the neck!" Rick dodged a swipe of the shambler's claws, partially parrying the blow with his sword. Backing up along the wall, he extinguished the lamps as he went, throwing one half of the room into darkness. Then he sent a few small blasts of energy at the creature's nose, goading it toward him. The bloodthirsty brute lumbered forward, moving ever deeper into the shadows, and leaned in close toward Rickkter, its mouth watering in anticipation of its meal.
"Scratch!" Rick shouted. Pulling one of Marshak's Teeth from his belt, he hurled the knife and embedded it in the bookcase beside Scratch. Swiftly the tiger grabbed the knife and dived into the shadows under the desk, vanishing into the floor. An instant later he popped out of the shadows on the ceiling just above the shambler, then drove the Tooth down hard into the base of the creature's neck. There was a sharp crack as the magic of the blade drove it through the beast's natural armor, accompanied by a snap as the Tooth severed the creature's spinal cord. The shambler twitched once, and then fell limply to the floor, as Scratch jumped safely out of the way. A moment later the body vanished in a flash of red light and smoke, its essence returning to the plane it had been summoned from, and the Marshak's Tooth clattered to the floor.
"Thanks," Rick said, picking up the knife and returning it to his belt. "Now let's get that door open."
"With pleasure," Scratch said, as he retrieved his own weapons.
Celine and Hough crawled out from under the desk, and Tessa and Rick helped them to their feet. "What was that creature?" Hough asked.
"Dimensional shambler," Rick explained. "They're native to the Dreamlands and some of the lesser hells. Sometimes they wander through portals to the Material Plane — and sometimes people summon them as guardians. Not that I'd ever trust my treasure with one of them."
"Are they evil?" Celine asked.
"Not really," Rick shrugged. "They're just predators, though they are rather nasty ones. But in situations like this you have to put them down. I've killed about a dozen of them over the years, though fortunately I never had to fight them in such close quarters before. They're quite vulnerable to fireballs and other high-powered spells, but in here those weren't really among our options. Anything that would have killed it probably would have done the same for you, too."
"True." Celine turned to Tessa. "Are you all right?"
Tessa examined her swords for a moment before returning them to their sheathes. "Well enough. A few scratches, but nothing serious. I only wish I had been of more use."
"You acquitted yourself well," Rick said. "Not many people would fight as bravely as you did against a monster like this. You helped distract it enough to keep it from skewering me and Scratch, and that's impressive enough for your first time."
"Perhaps. I only hope that Merai has no other surprises waiting for us."
It was another five minutes before Scratch finally got the door open. They could immediately see the amulet around Raven's neck, its soft green light filling the room.
"Nice work," Rick said, striding forward. "Now, let's see what we're up against." He leaned over the bed and looked down at the amulet. He had only studied it for a moment before a scowl crept across his face.
"Do you recognize it?" Tessa asked, taking a few steps closer. The others followed close behind.
"Oh, aye, I recognize it," Rick said sourly. "And it is a beast to unravel, too. I'm going to have to coax this defensive spell away from the power-stone, and then—"
His words were cut off by a blast of flame coming through the doorway. Celine was closest to the door and took the jet full-force in the back, falling to the floor with a scream of pain.
"What the—?" Scratch said.
Turning around, they saw Merai walking toward them with one hand outstretched, the other one holding Elemacil. Her eyes were cold, hard, and sinister, her ears folded back against her head, her tail flicking lazily back and forth ... and her mouth was smiling cruelly.
"Out of the way!" Rick shouted, drawing his sword and springing forward to attack. Obediently, Hough and Scratch cleared a path for the battlemage, while Tessa drew her own swords to stand beside him.
Merai gestured with one hand and Tessa was thrown back by the force of a modified shield-spell, landing next to Celine, who lay motionless on the floor. Rickkter countered the attack with a warding gesture and lashed out with his sword, which Merai blocked easily with Elemacil.
Meanwhile, Hough pulled out a crucifix and held it up toward the possessed priestess. "Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis—"
"Shut up!" Merai snapped, tossing a jet of flame at the priest. Hough darted out of the way, ducking behind Raven's bed. Rick launched a quick series of strikes at Merai, drawing her attention away from the boy.
Tessa, now back on her feet, threw a look over her shoulder at him. "You all right, Father?"
"Aye, but I need eye contact with her!" he said, peeking up over the edge of the bed and holding his crucifix before him like a shield. "You'll have to hold her down!"
By this time Scratch was kneeling at Celine's side and looking worried. "Tessa, we need you over here!" he said.
Tessa looked questioningly at Rick, who was engaged in a quick back-and-forth series of strikes and parries with the cat-woman.
"Go!" Rick said. "I'll handle her for now!"
"Will you, now?" Merai asked, smiling wryly as she swung for the raccoon's neck, forcing him to duck and roll to the side.
Rick countered with a low sweeping kick that knocked Merai off her feet. "Sure will," he said, pouncing on top of her and grabbing her arms.
"How amusing," Merai remarked, bringing her feet up underneath him and pushing hard into his solar plexus. Empowered by the Fallen's enhanced strength, the blow sent Rick flying over her, hitting the wall upside-down with a force that knocked the wind out of him. He recovered quickly, landing in a roll that left him in a kneeling position with his sword at the ready, but Merai was already on her feet again and beckoning to him mockingly.
"Come on, then," she said, smiling tightly.
Rick snarled and leapt back into the fray without a word.
As Rick and Merai continued their duel, Tessa examined Celine.
"It looks bad," she said. "I'm going to try the Light Healing."
"Be careful," Scratch cautioned.
Closing her eyes and stretching her hands over Celine's body, Tessa let her mind spin outward, downward and to the left, until she was surrounded by burned and bleeding tissues. She began to exert her will on the wounds, knitting the tissue back together, but the effort quickly sapped her strength. Exhausted and beginning to lose her connection to her own body, she let herself snap back out, at which point she fell limp at Celine's side.
"I couldn't do it," she gasped. "The wounds are too deep."
"Let me try something," Scratch said, putting one hand on his amulet while placing the other on Celine's back. Closing his eyes, he began to pray. "My Lady," he said, "I know that I have hardly even begun to serve you as I should. You have shown me so much grace already that I am almost ashamed to ask for anything more ... but still, if my service to you these past two years has been worth anything, hear me now. Please don't let her die."
Scratch fell silent and waited. Then, after a moment, his amulet began to glow with a warm rose-colored light. The light traveled over his body and down his arms, then enveloped Celine. Before his and Tessa's eyes, the charred flesh was restored to life and the wound closed. When the light faded, only perfect, flawless skin could be seen.
"Nice," Tessa said, smiling wearily. "Now, 'tis time for a prayer of my own. Please see to Celine."
"I'll protect her," Scratch promised.
Climbing slowly to her feet, Tessa grasped the twin-cross around her neck. [[Lord Dokorath, I pray you, give me strength to fight this enemy,]] she said, speaking the prayer in her native Elvish. Immediately she felt her weariness fall away, and with renewed vigor she turned to help Rickkter.
The battlemage was holding his own against Merai, but not by much. Tessa leapt into the fray, swords flashing, and Merai repositioned herself to block the new attacks. She moved her open hand to push Tessa away again, but this time Rick saw the spell coming and swung his sword at her hand to disrupt it.
"About time!" Rick said, though with more relief than malice.
"Glad to help," Tessa replied.
The two fought almost as a single entity, with Tessa timing her blows to land between Rickkter's. Merai moved with inhuman speed, countering each attack with sword or shield-spell, but still they managed to wear her down and force her up against the wall. Tessa thought she saw an opening in Merai's defenses and swung her right sword in a reckless blow to take advantage of it, but the priestess saw it coming and forced it aside, then trapped the blade between her body and the wall. Taking the momentary opening, she drove Elemacil in and upward toward Tessa's abdomen, aiming for her heart —
—and was stunned when the blade stopped an inch from the half-Elf's body, its Elven sigils glowing an angry red.
"What?" she cried, her face a mixture of surprise and disgust.
Rickkter took advantage of the Fallen's momentary shock and slashed Merai's hand, being careful to cripple it without cutting it off entirely. The cat-woman shrieked and dropped her sword. Rick drove a quick blow into her face with the hilt of his sword, stunning her, then grabbed her and tripped her to the floor, pulling her arms back into a lock so she couldn't get any leverage against him.
"Father!" Rick shouted.
Merai, having recovered from the blow faster than any mortal had a right to, let out a scream of rage and flipped herself over on her back, taking Rickkter with her and slamming him to the floor beneath her...
Only to find herself looking straight up at Father Hough, who was waiting with crucifix in hand.
"Be still, foul spirit!" Hough commanded, his voice stern.
Merai flinched, her whole body twitching in one great spasm, but then her struggles ceased.
"Come out of her!" Hough ordered.
"Why — should I?" Merai gasped. Her voice sounded strangely echoed, as if there were another voice speaking along with her own. "I like it here. She let me in here!"
"You are welcome no longer, spirit. Come out of her, in the name of Yashua!"
"Go to hell, you sanctimonious little brat!"
"Be quiet!" Hough ordered. Merai's face twisted into a snarl and she hissed angrily, but she said nothing more.
Hough sighed, shaking his head, then looked up at the ceiling as if seeking guidance. After a moment he turned back to Merai, kneeling down so he could look at her more closely.
"Merai, listen to me," he said, his expression earnest. "There's something you need to understand. You think that I'm the one who has the power to free you from this. I don't. The power is not mine, it is Yashua's. He is the only one who can deliver you. He will do it, but you have to believe that he can. Do you understand?"
As he spoke, Merai flinched again, and then the snarl on her face was replaced by an expression of fear. The young woman began to tremble violently.
Inside her mind, Merai was in control again. The shadowy prison that had enveloped her had melted away enough that she could use her voice and her limbs once more. But she could still feel the black presence inside her, clawing at her heart, trying to take control again, held in check only by the words of the priest — the words, and the unseen power she could sense behind them, a power unlike anything she had ever felt before. And yet the priest said he had no power of his own...
She considered Hough's words. She desperately wanted to be free, but she was afraid. Everything she had ever been taught — by her parents, her teachers, the old Lightbringer texts, Raven herself — all of them said that Yashua was only a sorcerer, a mage with some strange inborn power that let him work miracles in a mana-dead region where no one else could. Did she really believe that a man, even a powerful man, could get rid of a creature like ¬this?
And if she did, and said so, was she still a Lightbringer?
"Yashua can free you, Merai," Hough said gently, as if reading her mind. "Do you believe that?"
Merai's mind swirled with thoughts, indecisive. Based on the things she'd heard about, the things she'd seen, it could be true — but it could also be a deception, all smoke and mirrors and carefully-applied magic. Which was it?
For a long moment, she didn't know what to think. Then, like bubbles rising to the surface, certain memories came to the front of her mind: The girl Raven had seen in Glen Avery, released from a Fallen at the words of a Patildor missionary. The Patriarch Akabaieth, so full of grace and love and a sense of otherworldly presence that Merai couldn't help but respect and honor him. The people of Bethany, who had healed Raven's kidney with a word and foreseen their own martyrdom.
*The choice is mine,* Merai thought, both to herself and to the evil shadow in her mind. *I can believe it is true, or I can say 'tis just an elaborate deception. There is no certain proof, and there is no certain disproof. The choice is mine. I choose to believe.*
Forcing back the lingering shadows of doubt, Merai looked up at Hough. "Aye," she said, her voice soft but steady. "I believe it. I believe Yashua can free me."
Hough smiled triumphantly. "Do you hear that, spirit?" he said sternly. "Now, in Yashua's name, leave this child!"
Merai's body shook one last time, and she let out a long breath and went limp, her eyes closing. In her mind, she felt the shadow depart like mist before the sun's rays.
She was free.
Carefully, Rickkter disentangled himself from Merai. "Well, now that we have that settled," he said, "let's see what we can do for the Lothanasa."
Tessa turned to Merai, who was examining her wounded hand. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"I am now," Merai said. Narrowing her eyes, she focused on her hand. Her expression went distant as she used the Light Healing, closing the wound in a matter of seconds, and then she looked up at the half-Elf. "Though it frightens me to think how much harm I have done to others with my carelessness."
"Worry about that later," Tessa said, putting her hand on the younger woman's arm. "What can you tell us about that amulet?"
Merai turned and looked at Raven's bed, where Rickkter was already in the process of untangling the weave of magic around the amulet. She shivered as she looked at the unholy device. "Not much," she said. "The Fallen received it from someone down in the Flatlander caravan, in the same wagon where it took control of me. I think it had allies, perhaps other Fallen."
"Maybe it was one of them that tried to kill me," Scratch said.
"It must have been. I don't remember mine doing anything to you — well, except for being rude. For which I apologize."
"No apology necessary," the tiger said, waving dismissively. "I'm just glad you're all right."
"Same here," Celine said, sitting up with a tired smile on her face.
"Celine! Oh, gods, I'm so sorry!" Merai exclaimed, rushing over and embracing her long-time friend and confidante.
"Hush, child! What did I just tell you?" Celine grinned, patting Merai on the back. "Anyway, Scratch seems to have taken care of the matter."
"Not me," Scratch insisted. "My Lady Akkala gets all the credit for that."
"I hate to interrupt," Rick said through gritted teeth, "but I think ... I ... almost ..." Reaching his hand in toward the amulet, he grasped the power-stone. With one last grunt of exertion, he clenched it hard between his fingers, crushing it to powder.
"Got it!" he said.
There was a flash of bright green light as the spell shattered, and then the amulet went dark. The latch at the back of the necklace fell open, and Rickkter picked it up and tossed it into the corner of the room.
"She may need some help coming out of it," he said, stepping aside.
"I can handle that," Merai said, leaning over and placing her hands on Raven's temples. "Awaken!" she said. There was a glow of rose-pink light around her fingertips, and then Raven's eyes fluttered open. The wolf-woman blinked a few times, reached up to rub her eyes, and then let out an enormous lupine yawn.
"Merai?" she asked. "What happened?"
Merai and Tessa briefly explained all that had taken place over the last several days, including the elaborate deception the Fallen had woven in order to place the Elvquelin Lightbringers in charge of the temple.
"Ingenious," Raven said, stroking her chin thoughtfully. "No doubt they were planning on having me 'succumb' to the plague shortly after they had taken control. With the rightful Lothanasa out of the way, and with Merai's support, Alarun could have placed one of his own people in our seat on the High Council."
"But why would the Fallen care about helping corrupted Lightbringers?" Scratch asked. "They've never shown much interest in helping the daedra or their servants before."
"That is the question of the hour," Raven said, slowly getting to her feet. "War makes for strange bedfellows, though, and both the daedra and the Fallen would benefit from having us out of the way. The friendship between the Lothanasi and Patildor here at Metamor is one of the few things keeping the two faiths from falling into outright war with each other."
"And if the Metamor chapter were to suddenly change its opinion of the Ecclesia, that war wouldn't be long in coming," Rickkter added. "And with the sides as evenly matched as they are, it would be a bloodbath. After a few years of fighting the Pyralians, Sathmore would be ready to look for any advantage they could get to win the war..."
"Including invoking the daedra," Raven said, finishing Rick's thought. "If the High Council voted to give them a place in the recognized pantheon, Ba'al and the other daedra lords would pour all their power into the fight with Pyralis."
Hough shivered. "Which would likely mean the utter destruction of the Ecclesia."
"Which explains why the Fallen are so eager to help," Tessa said.
Scratch let out a low whistle. "Diabolical," he murmured. "So, now that we've figured out their plan, how do we stop the plague?"
"Rickkter was on the right path," Raven said, nodding toward the raccoon. "If the plague hasn't responded to any sort of treatment, then this is all a trick of Tallakath's magic."
"And a deadly one, at that," Celine said.
"True, but if we can find the source of the spell and destroy it, those who are still alive will recover immediately," Raven said. "And given that all this trouble started when the Flatlanders came to town, I suspect I know where to look for it..."
Leaving Celine and Tessa to watch over the temple, Raven, Hough, Rickkter and Merai headed down to Euper with grim determination on their faces. It was now very late at night, and the Flatlander camp was as quiet as the rest of the town. Merai directed them to the wagon where she had been seized by the Fallen. Rickkter kicked the door in and charged inside with sword at the ready.
It was a typical-looking curio wagon, filled with the usual odds and ends collected by the Magyars. Raven summoned a bright blue orb of light to illuminate the cabin. There was no one else in the room.
"Rickkter and I will look for the spell's focus," Raven said. "Father Hough, please warn us if you see any more Fallen."
Hough nodded. "Understood. They have been in this room before, but there are none here for the moment. I shall keep watch, though."
"Thank you." Raven and Rickkter began browsing the shelves of artifacts and oddities. Merai, who had quite had her fill of Fallen and Flatlanders, stayed in the doorway and watched.
It didn't take long for them to find what they were looking for. "There," Rick said, pointing to a small black statue of a man with a red hourglass carved on the back. He handed it to Raven, who examined it closely and nodded.
Just then the door to the wagon's bedroom opened, and two men stepped out. They were dressed like Magyars and one of them carried a lantern. Both were armed with long knives.
In an instant Rickkter and Raven were standing between them and Father Hough, swords at the ready.
"Drop 'em," Rick snarled.
One of them looked at Rickkter and snarled in recognition. "You!" An instant later, though, both their expressions turned rapidly from anger, to confusion, to terror at the sight of the two heavily armed Keepers. The knives and lantern clattered to the floor.
"Good. Now, hands above your heads."
The men did so, obviously too frightened to say anything further.
Hough peered at the men intently, his boyish face creased with a frown. "There was something there for a moment," he said. "Two more spirits, I believe. They fled as soon as they saw us."
"Thank Eli," Merai murmured.
Raven, Rick and Hough all turned to look at her with puzzled expressions.
Merai looked back and forth between them. "What?" she asked.
After an awkward silence, they turned their attention back to the two frightened men standing before them. "Who are you?" Raven asked.
The men exchanged glances. "We are — were — servants of Patriarch Geshter," the older of the two said. "I am Father Justin, and this is Father Alexander. Those demons have been controlling us for months. One of the Patriarch's advisors, Bishop Khumraen, performed some dark ritual that put them inside us. We didn't know what he was doing until it was too late."
"Why were the spirits not exorcised after the Patriarch was freed from Marzac's control?" Hough asked.
"We — they — escaped from Yesulam before they could be captured," Justin said. "I fear that I remember little of how we got here..."
"For the moment, that is not important," Raven said, holding up a hand. "You may go sit down for now. In the morning we shall decide what to do with you."
Alexander retrieved their lantern, and the two men returned to the bedroom. A moment later Raven heard their voices again.
"Josiah?" Hough repeated, following them inside. "I know him..."
They found Bishop Josiah bound to a chair in the bedroom, where the other two priests had apparently restrained him after the Fallen that had possessed him entered Merai. A quick interrogation revealed that he knew as little about what had happened to them as the others.
While Rick and Hough questioned the men, Raven placed the idol of Tallakath on the counter. One quick blow from Elemacil sliced it neatly in half, releasing a bright flash of yellow-green light.
"Done?" Merai asked.
"That should end this," Raven agreed, putting away her blade. "We shall find out for certain come the morning."
March 11, 708.
The morning crept in slowly, the skies still blanketed with clouds. Brian Coe walked into sickbay and was shocked to find it nearly half the size it had been the previous day. He rushed to his office, a horrible feeling of dread filling his stomach.
"Caitlyn?" he called. "What happened? Oh, god, don't tell me we lost half of them in eight hours..."
Caitlyn walked out of the adjoining room, a broad grin on her face. "Relax, Brian," she said. "They aren't here because they're well. I sent them home."
"They're well?" Brian repeated, eyes wide. "Well, that's the first good news we've had in a week. I was beginning to think no one would pull through this."
"You misunderstand," Caitlyn said, her smile growing even wider. "They're all well, Brian. The plague just vanished." She gestured at the door behind him. "The only reason these people are still here is because they haven't woken up yet."
Dumbfounded, Brian turned and looked out at the sickbay. For the first time in a week, instead of faces wracked with pain and torment, he saw patients sleeping peacefully.
"When ... when did this happen?" he managed.
"Sometime in the middle of the second watch. The Lightbringers came by a short time later and explained that they'd found the source of the plague and destroyed it. Turns out it was some sort of spell."
"A spell." Brian shook his head in amazement. "That explains why none of our treatments were working." He turned around. "You know what this means? Lytherian may have been right, after all!"
The seeming-girl chuckled. "Don't worry, Brian. I haven't thrown out your bread mold cultures."
"Good. We may yet find a use for them." He smiled. "Now let's give these good people their wake-up call. I want this room back to a manageable size by lunchtime."
"It is over, then?"
"Aye, my lord," Raven said, nodding once. "At a total of sixty-two deaths for all of Metamor and Euper, I believe this constitutes the least destructive plague epidemic on record."
"That is still sixty-two too many," Thomas said.
"Agreed, sire. At any rate, the plan has been foiled, so we have nothing more to fear from it."
"Excellent," the duke said, leaning back in his chair. "I shall have the quarantine lifted immediately."
"Actually, milord, I would advise that you withhold that order for the moment," Raven said, raising her hand. "Metamor will be receiving some important guests very soon, and I would like certain preparations to be made for their arrival..."
March 13, 708.
Two days later a caravan pulled up to the gates of Euper, the banners of the Sathmore Empire and the Lightbringer Order waving atop their carriages. A herald dressed in faintly ridiculous purple-and-white doublet and hose leapt out and strode purposefully up to the gate.
"Who goes there?" one of the guards on the wall shouted.
"Agents of the Lothanas of Elvquelin," the herald declared, holding up a gilded scroll. "In view of the current crisis, the most honorable and distinguished Brothers Valenkar, Tygen and Merodac have been ordered to assume temporary control of the Metamor chapter of the Lothanasi."
The guard frowned. "This here city is under an official quarantine," he said, gesturing at the yellow banners that were flying from the parapets. "I'd advise ye to come back when the plague has died down."
"The plague is the very reason we are here, you insufferable twit!" the herald snapped. "If you'll come down here and examine these papers, you will find that everything is in order!"
"All right, all right," the guard muttered. "I'll come down and have a look. Damned Imperial bluebloods..."
The guard emerged from the gate a moment later, and the herald handed him the scroll with an exaggerated flourish. The Keeper studied the papers for a few moments, then nodded.
"All right, I suppose I'll have to let you in," he said, pulling the gate open. "But yer takin' yer lives into yer own hands."
"Let us worry about that," the herald said condescendingly, returning to his carriage. "Onward, men!"
The procession made its way through Euper, up the long and winding road to Metamor, and finally to the gates of the Keep itself. Alain Blackthorne and a contingent of other guardsmen were waiting for them.
"Welcome to Metamor, gentlemen," Alain said, bowing to the three Lightbringer priests. "Please follow us."
"Lead the way, sirrah," Brother Valenkar said.
Alain and two other guards took the lead, followed by the herald, the three Lothanasi and the rest of the guards. The rest of the contingent followed on behind them.
After about five minutes of walking, they came to a pair of double doors with two guards in front of them. The doors were opened before them, and Alain ushered them all inside.
"Brothers Valenkar, Tygen and Merodac of the Lothanasi Order!" the herald proclaimed.
"Ah! The Lightbringers." Lord Thomas, seated on his throne, looked down at the new arrivals and smiled. "Welcome to Metamor, gentlemen."
The priests looked around in confusion at the duke's audience chamber. "Wait, you misunderstand," Brother Valenkar said, turning to Alain. "We must go to the temple..."
"And why is that, my Sathmoran brother?" Raven asked, coming into view from behind the throne, followed by Merai. "I am right here."
Brother Valenkar's jaw went slack for a moment, as he struggled to find his voice. "L-Lothanasa," he managed at last. "What an unexpected surprise! We had received word that you were gravely ill..."
"The reports of my debilitation have been greatly exaggerated," Raven said with a thin smile. "As you can see, I have made a remarkable recovery, and we are well on our way to having the plague completely under control."
There was an uncomfortable silence. The herald looked back and forth between the duke and his employers, apparently wondering if he was supposed to say something bombastic. The priests ignored him entirely, exchanging nervous and embarrassed looks amongst themselves.
"I ... see," Brother Valenkar said at last. "Well, then, Lothanasa, I ask that you forgive our intrusion on your affairs. We shall leave immediately." He turned to go.
"I'm afraid that is impossible," Duke Thomas said.
The priest turned back around, eyes wide. "What?" he gasped.
"You broached an official quarantine, Master Valenkar," the horse-lord said, steepling his hoof-like hands before him. "When you did so, you made yourself subject to its restrictions. The Lothanasa believes we have the plague under control, but you know as well as I do that an outbreak does not disappear overnight. We need to ensure that the foul pestilence is not lying dormant anywhere. I won't be able to sanction lifting the quarantine for at least two weeks."
"Two weeks?!" the priest exclaimed. "But by then the Curse will have changed us!"
"I'm very sorry, Master Valenkar, but you should have thought of that before you broached the quarantine." Thomas turned to Alain, who was still standing at attention beside the now-panicked priests. "Captain, please see that these good folk are given lodging in the Keep. And make sure that our own people have minimal contact with them. We don't want to risk someone inadvertently giving them the plague."
"Aye, sir," Alain said, his expression serious. "I'll post guards at their doors to make sure no one disturbs them."
"Excellent," Thomas said, nodding. "Good day, Master Valenkar. I hope you and your brothers enjoy your stay at Metamor." He gestured to Alain, and the dumbstruck priests were ushered out of the chamber. The herald, now looking very lost, followed forlornly behind them, accompanied by the rest of the Lightbringers' assistants and retainers. The doors swung shut with a heavy thud.
Moments later, everyone in the room — even Raven — broke out laughing.
The next day a grand feast was held by the Metamor Lightbringers, with Rickkter, Scratch and Father Hough as the guests of honor. Kyia thoughtfully provided a dining room for the occasion, lavishly decorated with Kelewair rugs and tapestries and crystal chandeliers, and Lord Thomas was more than happy to arrange for a sumptuous dinner prepared by the duke's master chefs. The acolytes sat at the long cherry-wood tables side by side with the priestesses and their honored guests, taking a break from their duties of serving to be waited on by the Keep's kitchen staff.
After the main course, Raven stood to address the assembly.
"First of all, I would like to thank all of you for your tireless efforts during the recent plague," she said. "You gave of yourselves constantly, without thought of recognition or reward, risking infection yourselves in order to aid those who were already ill. In this you proved yourselves worthy of the name of Lothanasi. I am very proud of all of you."
There was a brief round of applause as the acolytes congratulated each other for their hard work.
"I would also like to extend my personal thanks to those who risked their lives to save me and Merai, and the rest of the Keep along with them." One by one, she acknowledged her rescuers, bidding them to stand as she spoke their names. Each was met with thunderous cheers and applause, with the loudest being reserved for Father Hough. The boy blushed and sat back down, embarrassed at the adoration showered on him by the Lightbringers.
"Despite your differences, you all united behind a common cause: saving the Metamor Lightbringers, and saving Metamor itself," Raven said. "In this age of increasing tension and division, that gives me hope for the future."
The feast carried on for a good while after that, as dessert was served and the wine and ale continued to flow. Dinner gave way to the swapping of stories and jests, as well as a few rousing drinking songs led primarily by Rickkter. Scratch regaled the crowd with stories of his adventures on pilgrimage, Rick shared a few old war stories from his mercenary days, and everyone had a great deal of fun at the expense of the Sathmore Lightbringers.
"I wonder what our new friends will be changed into when the Curse hits them," Celine said.
"Methinks an ass would be appropriate," Merai laughed.
"If there's any justice to the Curse, that herald will become a preening peacock," Rick grinned.
"I would suggest that Brother Valenkar ought to be a weasel," said Raven. "But then, I have come to know many excellent mustelids in the last nine years, and I think he hardly deserves to be in such good company." A dozen ferrets, minks, martens and otters raised their mugs in agreement.
As the celebration at last began to wind down, Rickkter was the first to excuse himself from the table. "Thank you again for your excellent hospitality, Lothanasa," he said, crossing his arms over his chest and bowing in his usual fashion. "But I fear I must now take my leave of you."
"Go with our blessing, Rickkter," Raven said, bowing in turn. For once, the tension that usually ran between them was absent, and Raven gave the raccoon a genuinely good-natured smile.
"Alas, I fear I must depart, as well," Father Hough said, rising from his seat. "I have a few duties to attend to before the evening service."
"Good-night, then, Father," Raven replied. "Remember, you are always welcome here."
Hough smiled. "Aye, I know."
One by one, the Lightbringers began to take their leave, heading off to the bath-houses before bed. The kitchen staff cleared the plates and silverware and carted them back downstairs for washing. Eventually Raven herself departed, and Merai wandered back to her bedroom. There she leaned on the windowsill and looked out at the night sky, which was clear and filled with stars. She didn't know how long she stood there before she heard Tessa's voice at the door.
"Scratch and I aren't tired yet, so we're heading down to the Deaf Mule."
Merai smirked. "Mayhap that's because you two drank nothing but water all evening."
Tessa chuckled. "Well, Scratch is a disciple of Akkala, and my stomach isn't yet accustomed to that soup you humans call ale. At any rate, we're heading down for a pint of mead and a game of pool. Care to come?"
Merai turned and smiled at the half-Elf. "Thank you, Tessa, but I'll pass. I have other plans tonight."
"Kyrie, rex genitor ingenite, vera essentia, eleyson.
"Kyrie, luminis fons rerumque conditor, eleyson.
"Kyrie, qui nos tuae imaginis signasti specie, eleyson..."
The Follower congregation sang in unison, eyes gazing upward, many of them with their hands clasped over their hearts. The litany was a plea for Eli's mercy, but it was also an expression of worship, for it declared His goodness and faithfulness with every line.
"Yashua, Dei forma humana particeps, eleyson.
"Yashua, lux oriens per quem sunt omnia, eleyson.
"Yashua, qui perfecta es sapientia, eleyson..."
Some were here out of obligation, simply going through the motions and rituals and religion of the faith, but for many it was a time of genuine worship and communion with their god. Word had gotten out that Father Hough had played a direct role in stopping the horrible plague that had visited Metamor, and he had been careful to give the credit to Eli Himself whenever he was asked about it. After having their faith verified so powerfully before their eyes, many Followers were feeling especially thankful these days.
"Kyrie, spiritus vivifice, vitae vis, eleyson.
"Kyrie, utriqusque vapor in quo cuncta, eleyson.
"Kyrie, expurgator scelerum et largitor gratitae; quaesumus propter nostrasoffensas noli nos relinquere, O consolator dolentis animae, eleyson."
And so they sang, asking once again for Eli's mercy even as they rejoiced in His deliverance of them. And through it all, Merai hin'Dana stood in the back of the cathedral, gazing up at the emblem of the yew tree — the crucifix, symbol of life from death and freedom from bondage — and listened in utter fascination.