by Christof Bradford and Charles Matthias

Friday, March 30th 708 CR

The limestone walls of the buried town slithered around in each direction as Father Felsah made his way from little home to little home, greeting the other townsmice and spending a moment to pray with those who were sick or in need. Their relieved faces, full of bright whiskers and dark eyes glistening in the light of candles and lanterns, warmed his heart and made each new visit easier than the last.

He soon came near to his favorite cafe and his thighs itched with the desire to quicken his steps. Though he was eager to join his colleagues in the service of Eli in their nightly conversations over coffee and pastries, it was not proper for a priest to hop through the streets like a pup at play. He knew this evening's conversation would be most stimulating when the animated voices of Farshid and Mahmoud reached his ears before the scents of coffee and honey could reach his nostrils.

". . . has sinned in the eyes of God!"

"Not so, learned colleague, the Shah, may God bless him with long life and wise rulership for all his years, would never dishonor himself in such a way, and I cannot believe the Shahbanu is a harlot."

Felsah's whiskers twitched in amusement as the topic of their latest quarrel revealed itself in those few words. The news of the Shahbanu's pregnancy had been as much a surprise to him as to the other Follower townsmice, not to mention the flocks that Farshid and Mahmoud tended. But with nearly all matters regarding the golden-backed jackal who ruled as Shah, Felsah, Follower priest of Eli for a small jerboa village that was one stop along a trade route connecting oasis to oasis and finally to the river and the sea, knew that there was little point worrying over something he could do nothing about.

"Cannot believe?" Farshid's excitable voice echoed out one of the cafe windows as Felsah did his best to restrain his pace. The open doorway was so close now, and the scent of dark coffee and pungent teas made his nostrils twitch. "The Shah loves strange knowledge and foreign philosophies; he does not love women!"

Felsah let an expansive sigh escape his muzzle as he stepped beneath the opening and into the dimly illumined cafe interior. Little lamps with softly burning stones hung from the walls and the ceiling, bringing enough light for their sensitive eyes to see by. The eyes and snouts of Farshid and Mahmoud both turned in his direction as he entered, and the mullah stretched out one paw in invitation to the little table and cushions he shared with the rabbi. "Ah, my good Father Felsah, come! We are having a little dispute on the nature of love and the rewards Eli brings to those whose love is true!"

"I would not describe any such dispute in such diminutive terms," Felsah replied with a chittering laugh as he settled down on the cushions next to them. His tail and legs stretched out behind him as he leaned forward across the table, paws laying at its edge to brace himself. His short claws ticked the hard clay top as he glanced from the exasperated whisker-twitching expression of Farshid to the overly magnanimous and expansive wideness in Mahmoud's smile. As the mullah's nose twitched, his lower incisors revealed a bit of nut that had lodged between them. He seemed to notice this and quickly rubbed his face with one paw and the back of his teeth with his tongue before smiling wide again, this time with perfectly aligned incisors.

"What then do you believe?" Farshid asked. "For it is obvious to all that the Shah cannot be the father."

Mahmoud's smile darkened as he retorted. "And it is obvious to me that the Shah has led us wisely and he has been equally as wise before Eli in his bedchambers! I believe that their love is sincere enough and strong enough for Eli to have blessed them so."

Another mouse came behind him bringing a small bowl of steaming coffee, rich with a nutty flavor that made Felsah's tail bounce in delight. "Your usual coffee, Father. Shall I bring you today's special pastry?"

Felsah smiled to the young mouse, one of the younger sons of the cafe owner, a good friend even if he did obey Mahmoud's ways instead of following Felsah's. "Thank you, young Kharif. Tonight I will definitely want to sample one of your family's pastries!" The young mouse did not dare laugh at the jest with the mullah reclining in front of him, but he did bob his head with vigor and hop back through the cafe to so that he could laugh out of earshot.

Mahmoud sent the young mouse a withering but amused glance, and then turned to Felsah. "You are going to need a pastry tonight? And why is that?"

Felsah sniffed at his coffee and then lapped a single taste, but the brew was too hot to drink. Still, he could savor the aroma and the warmth that tickled his jowls and whiskers. "Of course, esteemed colleague. One should never discuss such weighty theological matters on an empty stomach!"

And that was one thing that all three of them could agree upon.

But like all of their conversations, and like all bowls of coffee and all plates of pastries, it came to an end and each of them, wishing Eli's blessings on each other, went their separate ways. Farshid and Mahmoud would seek their families. Felsah however, sought solitude, and for that he needed air.

So with a lightness to his steps, Felsah climbed the steps out of the burrow into a crisp desert night illumined by a bright moon just rising over the undulating dunes on the horizon. His eyes lifted to that silvery disc, and with a deep breath that wrinkled his nose and whiskers, he contemplated the beauty of Eli's work.

Buoyed with a sense of peace, he hopped through one of the fields surrounding his village's oasis, savoring the cool nighttime breeze ruffling his fur. When he reached his favorite spot for contemplation – just beneath a little shelf of rock overlooking the tranquil waters – he removed his outer robe and spread it out on the sand as a blanket. Lying down, he gazed at the bright stars and reviewed the day's events, planning his next homily.

His thoughts were interrupted as his ears picked up the labored breathing of panicked running. He looked up to see a human woman running awkwardly through the sand. She covered her unsightly pelt-less body in layers of woolen garments that were quite inappropriate for the desert's heat.

She caught sight of him, and in an instant was cowering at his feet. "You! You are a priest of Eli, are you not?"

Felsah, alarmed at her manner but quickly mastering his instinctual fear, bowed his head slightly and nodded, tail flicking from side to side behind him. "I am, Child. What do you have need of from Eli?"

She breathed a sigh of guarded relief, face flush from a long run, hair a tangled mess and her body reeking of sweat. "One of your god's servants seeks my destruction, I beg of you to rebuke him and grant me sanctuary from his wrath."

Felsah's large ears twitched at a new sound following in her wake, a sound that set his whiskers and nose twitching. It was like a songbird trying to imitate a lion's roar.

The fur-clad woman shrieked, "No, oh no! He's coming! Please, Priest of Eli, stop him!"

At his size there was little he could hope to stop that made this woman so afraid. But he was a priest and so he put a paw on her shoulder and smiled as best he could. "Eli will protect you here, my child."

Suddenly, from nowhere, a strange lizard that resembled something like a cross between a crocodile and a secretary bird covered in brightly colored plumage emerged before them through the many fronds dotting the oasis. Its scaly beak-like snout opened, revealing dozens of sharp teeth that would very much be at home in a crocodile's maw. "I've caught you now, Thief. Now to add your teeth and finger bones to my trophies," it crooned in a pleasant male tenor that was completely at odds with its display of savagery by way of shaking its necklace of teeth and bones at the woman..

Felsah stood as tall as a mouse could and, tightening his grip with his paw on the woman's shoulder, extended the other toward the feathered lizard. To say he felt no fear would be a lie, but at the very least he showed none. "I will not allow you to harm this woman. In the name of Eli and Yahshua, I ask you to lay no hand on her."

The interloper cocked its head to one side like a bird regarding a crumb of bread dropped nearby but not yet close enough for him to dare to approach. Only this creature's intense eyes glistened with a bemused pause. "There are two problems with your command, Felsah of the Questioners. Firstly, I am not one of the Morningstar's fools for you to rebuke. Secondly, the creature kneeling at your paws is no mortal soul worthy of your sanctuary. It is a minion of the Soul Thieves, those who would dare to name themselves gods in defiance of Eli," the lizard said with a harsh trilling sound that Felsah somehow knew was bitter laughter.

And with that one word, Questioner, Felsah knew that he was in a dream more vivid than he could ever remember having. Memories of his real life did not flood into his mind, but he did feel a strange sense of disquiet knowing that the jerboa in the burrow were merely wisps of imagination.

Felsah felt rather overwhelmed, and a part of him wondered if even this confrontation was not just another part of a very imaginative dream. But his dreams were rarely this detailed or this coherent. Normally whenever he dreamed, even those he knew well in life often appeared in different guises, or places he knew were arranged completely differently. Yet he neither knew this place nor this visitor.

Still, dream or not, this strange creature before him seemed real, and the woman crouching at his long feet seemed real too. Felsah's whiskers twitched as he gazed down at the woman in consideration of the rest of the feathered lizard's words. "Do you renounce all false gods and believe that Eli is the one true God, that Yahshua is His only Son and who died on the Yew for the salvation of souls and forgiveness of sins?"

A smile slipped over her lips as she closed her eyes in concentration. Her breathing, ragged from her flight and her desperate pleas, slowed until she let all of that energy out in a long slow exhalation. "I d uhh ahhh." She frowned as the words seemed to stick in her throat, but opened her mouth again and forced them past, "Ye-ehh. . . No." Upon voicing her refusal, she clapped her hands over her mouth, and looked back at her hunter in fright, body taut like a bowstring and ready to dart off into desert behind them.

Felsah nodded sadly, somewhat surprised as he could not feel evil beneath his paw, but the tricks of the enemy were many and they often took on fair countenances to make their prideful rejection of Eli seem a harmless thing. With a faint sigh, he lifted his snout to the feathered lizard who stood with his hand claws tapping against each other with a dangerous patience. "I see that you are right. But I have given her my protection and I cannot refuse it even now. Together we can pray for her repentance and conversion."

"Repentance?" The creature trilled, its thin lips curling back over serrated fangs in an expression that could only be a bitter laugh and a sneer. "Oh, that would be a tale to tell the hatchlings, that is if there were any left!!" he said, roaring his last words in the woman's ear.

Felsah kept one paw on the woman's shoulder, though more to hold her in place now. He tightened his grip, little claws pricking into the furs covering her flesh. "But who are you who accuses her?"

The feathered lizard gestured at himself at what must have been his chest with one of his long-fingered and long-clawed hands. "I am *series of trills and chirps*, but you can call me Troud. I was the guide and guardian for the Tened." His eyes narrowed as a regard full of fury bore down on the woman. "That is until her masters drove them into extinction!"

"Who were the Tened?"

For a moment the rage disappeared from his snout and his feather puffed out in pride. "They were the best, the only ones who held on to the truth until the very end. All the others, the humans, the elves, the dragons, even the binoq in their tunnels, either traded their faith for this lot, or decided that they didn't need gods at all." He snarled at the woman, a bright hissing sound that made Felsah's tail start twitching in helpless anxiety. "When you and your masters, buoyed by your success in fooling the others, made your offer of power to the Tened, we were the only ones to drive you away. We knew that it was a fool's bargain."

Felsah drew on his reserves as a Questioner as he listened; this creature was obviously very ancient and likely had a wellspring of patience that would outlast even Grand Questioner Kehthaek's regard. Still, he waited as patiently as he could while Troud spoke, his tail flicking back and forth some and his whiskers twitching at the words.

As if his eyes were drawn to the motion, Troud returned his focus to the jerboa Questioner. Still, he told his story, the venom in his tongue never once directed at the rodent who could have been a simple snack at any time. "But they couldn't accept our refusal, their greed wouldn't allow that. They would see us beg to serve them. We began to sicken and die. Plague after plague ravaged us, but none of our healers could understand or cure the pestilences. When our numbers had been cut to a quarter of what they once were, they came back to us, oozing false sympathy. 'We can cure you, save you from death's grip. All you have to do is promise us your service.' Again, we refused them.

"When we were reduced to little more than a single village in these lands now known as Metamor, I discovered that the sickness destroying my people was no natural calamity. One of those who called themselves Daedra had created it, and set it upon us."

Felsah's muzzle twisted in righteous indignation at that, but he otherwise held his peace.

"I went before Eli and begged Him to set things right. He refused, saying that to restore health to my people would deprive their choice and faith of meaning. 'What good does it do them to make hard choices if they know that there is no real risk?' When the last died, I swore eternal vengeance. What was done to us, I will do unto the thieves and their servants."

The words that this Troud had placed upon Eli's lips seemed strange to Felsah, likely a condensing of whatever great and incomprehensible truth that had been distilled to Troud in that meeting. That prayer perhaps? Many of his own prayers had left him feeling dry and uncertain. Felsah could only shake his head, bewildered. "Revenge? Is that what Eli wishes you to do?"

Troud leaned close to Felsah, and it took all of his self-control to keep from backing up. That reptilian beak and sibilant tongue brushed across the soft flesh of his ear and whispered, "Not in the presence of those who don't belong here." Stepping back, long tail waving from side to side, he glared anew at the woman. "Let her go, she is safe from me this night."

Felsah gazed down at the seeming woman and fixed her with his eyes and the Questioner intensity. "Know this woman, that it was a servant of Eli who protected you, even if you are Eli's enemy. Eli will always grant clemency to those who repent. Dwell on that. Now go." He lifted his paw from her shoulder, doing his best to still the anger that had blossomed in his heart at hearing Troud's tale.

"Yes, go. Leave this man's dreams in peace and never return to them, lest I forget his pleas for mercy and take my trophies of tooth and bone from your shattered husk."

She cast one look at Troud, then another at Felsah, wide eyes glimmering with a vile hatred, and then she fled into the desert as if the pagans' hell hounds were after her.

When the Dream Walker's presence had faded, Troud bobbed his head twice on his long neck and twisted it to the right to a degree that looked painful, "To answer the question that you put before me, hatred causes Eli pain. So no, I sin in His eyes when I hunt her kind."

Felsah had watched the woman flee, but now, he folded his paws before him, the one that had touched her shoulder aching with a numb chill. He rubbed it idly with his fingers and grimaced, the ache in his heart of Troud's tale still the worse. "So why do it if you know it causes He to whom you are faithful such pain?"

Troud leaned back a bit, the thumb claw from his right hand scratching at his chest feathers just beneath the chain of bone and fangs draped about his neck. He spoke almost as if he were a scholar instructing pupils. "Each of Eli's children have an individual failing to which they are most likely to succumb. For the Dragons, it is Pride, though Greed plagues them almost as much. For the Elves, it is Sloth. Humans, such as what you once were, enjoy Lust far too much, though Pride drives them almost as much as it does the dragons. For us, it was Wrath. Hatred was easy for us, and by the same token forgiveness was something even the Saints amongst us found difficult to achieve; though our most noble possessed a gentleness that..." his tongue failed him as his eyes seemed to slip into memory of a time long past. That brief flicker of peace was cut short by a hiss of renewed anger. "And try as I might, I have found myself unable to forgive them their slaughter of us.

"My people, my Eli-given charges, are gone. All that I have left until Eli's covenant is fulfilled are my sorrow and hate. The only joy left to me is the all too transient pleasure I feel when I catch them in my claws and teeth and take my trophies of bone and tooth."

Felsah lowered his snout some, whiskers drooping. "I am so very sorry for you, Troud. Not only have you lost your people, a faithful and good people, but you have lost something so precious... something I have struggled to keep at times, but never like this..."

The Tened ruffled the feathers of his crest and along his neck in an inscrutable gesture. "Thank you for understanding. I do have something to look forward to, and telling you of my pain helped remind me of it. Eli promised me that I would see the Tened live again. We would once more feel the wind in our feathers, and feel soil and sand between our toes. That there will be new children hatched into the world for us to raise." Troud rubbed the side of his snout with his right hand. He gazed across the waters of the oasis as the moon reflected in its depths. The tension in his body faded as he stared into the measureless distance. "I forget that promise sometimes."

Felsah chittered a little rebuke as he hopped a step closer to his dream-time companion. "You must if you would give up hope for something that does not bring any joy to you. What is worse, it brings you pain because it separates you from Eli who would have you trust in Him with confidence and hope! You may be weak to anger, but knowing your weakness is not an excuse for giving in to the weakness. If Eli is to bring the Tened back, then what will your actions, your sufferings have merited you? Nothing at all; will you have learned anything of faithfulness to Eli?"

The words struck Troud even more firmly than he'd expected. The Tened slumped to the sand with his legs folded up under his body like a nesting bird. With his head pillowed on a small dune he sighed. "Dear Eli, I am so tired. Five thousand years of hunting, of hurting, is too much, even for me." He pointed a clawed finger at Felsah. "I am like you, Questioner. I can only live in the present. I can not see what is yet to come, and I can only remember the past."

Felsah moved closer to Troud, sitting next to him on the sand, his tail flicking back and forth, brushing out the smooth sand as the moon shone across the oasis, casting a brilliant silver light everywhere. "Then stop hunting. Protect those who need protection from the evil ones, but do not hunt them. Trust in Eli and Yahshua. If He died that my sins would be forgiven, I cannot imagine why yours can't be as well. But you need to confess them and repent of them. I am a priest; I have never heard a confession in my dreams before but if this is real then so too shall the forgiveness be."

"Of that, I have no doubt. Nor do I doubt that Eli will forgive my sins; I just... can you listen to five thousand years of hunting? Can you listen to five thousand years of a pain that could only find release in the hunt and in this?" He rose his neck from the dune long enough to lift the necklace of bones with one hand, jangled them together like the dry rustling of grass, and then dropped them back to his neck. The crest along the back of his head lowered as if it were a pillow whose stuffing had been removed. "I want it to end. I do want forgiveness. But those murderers and liars are still murdering and lying and stealing souls! Someone has to stop them..."

Felsah twitched his toes, catching the reflected moonlight in his claws. "Their ways cannot last forever. Who can stand against the power of Eli?"

"No one," Troud admitted with a heavy sigh. He slid his head over slightly, a bright golden eye focused curiously on the jerboa. "Would you really hear my confession?"

He nodded. "If you would offer it." He reached into one of the pouches at his side and drew out a small purple stole and draped it over his neck. Either end bunched into his lap, but he kept them from falling into the sand.

"Then be grateful that time in dreams does not pass as it does when awake!" Troud shifted a little closer and nodded for Felsah to begin. The Questioner took a deep breath and began the opening invocation.

"And for your penance," Felsah said after an interval of time he had no way of measuring. Though Troud had recounted a history of his existence since the death of his beloved Tened that was beyond the ability of the jerboa's mind to contain all at once, the moon had not shifted more than a handspan in all that time. It still glimmered across the oasis, the crops for the burrow mice still swayed in a cool desert breeze, and the stars overhead seemed fixed in their place as if each were its own northern star.

Troud listened patiently to what Felsah proscribed for him. In truth he asked for so little in comparison with the weight upended on him; he felt as if the entire contents of the Galean Sea had been poured down his throat. But the penance was always lighter; this was one of the mysteries and humble realities of the Ecclesia.

Felsah made the sign of the yew over Troud's long brow, and the feathered lizard repeated the gesture with his sharp-clawed fingers. "Thank you, Father Felsah. Thank you." Slowly, almost as if he had to remind himself how his body worked, Troud rose to his sickle-clawed feet and walked to the oasis pool, golden eyes lost in a strange sort of daze. He lowered his snout into the water, rippling its surface, scattering the silvery light of the moon and making the faint shadows in the sand dance like a cavalcade of puppets.

When he lifted his dripping snout from the water, the distance in his eyes was immeasurable, and the thin lips covering his fangs split while his crest lifted and then fell several times. At last, in a faint hiss, he turned back to the jerboa and said, "How very curious... the Canticles given to your people say that He works in mysterious ways." He nimbly walked back to the set of dunes where he laid next to Felsah in the soft sand, much closer than even when he'd offered his confession. "I was hunting one of Nocturna's servants on that mad endless quest, and whose dream should she enter to hide from me?"

Felsah nodded and laughed lightly at the strangeness of it all. Though uncountable hours, if not years must have passed since he'd first come out of the burrow village, a part of him could still remember the taste of the coffee in the cafe, and the bristling good humor between Farshid and Mahmoud, not to mention his own true life at Metamor where he slept in a small monastic cell near the Cathedral for the last few days.

When the jerboa managed to find his voice again he said, "Even the evil unwittingly bring Eli's will to fruition. I have seen it first hand even in my short life... You have told me your name, and your deeds, but what are you exactly? You are not a pretender like the Lothanasi, and you are not an angel. But you are not a man, nor a Tened either. And yet, you sin like we do and suffer weakness as we do. What are you?"

Troud offered him a trilling laugh, one borne of genuine good humor and unburdened delight. "Oh, but I am a Tened. Just because I never lived life in flesh on the earth does not make my spirit any more or less than that of my people. Eli breathed life in me to be their guide and intercessor. I taught them; I hunted with them. And now!" His golden eyes filled with a joy that Felsah could feel like a sweet comb of honey carried in his paws. "And now at long last, I can do it again."

Felsah pondered that for several seconds as he stretched his toes in the sand but was forced to admit he didn't understand. "You can do it again?"

"Aye. Oh aye! Eli whispered to me when I was drinking here just a few moments ago. It has been so long since I have heard His voice I did not at first know it was Him, but it was. How sweet it was, Father. How sweet! And He showed me that the hour of the Tened's return has come." Troud's demeanor changed as he related those words. Feathers that seemed dull and sad became fluffy and vibrant, rich in hue and vivacious in color. "So much to do! And yet, I am to rest for a time?"

"Was that also revealed to you?"

"Yes. There is so much to do, and yet Eli wishes for me to rest?" Troud tilted his head to one side in confusion.

Felsah pondered what that might mean but knew that he had no more answers to give. "Perhaps this is when you must trust Eli the most. He has forgiven you, but He is also asking you to practice this trust if it is to come to pass."

"True, true." Troud trilled softly in laughter, the good news too much for even his uncertainty over what his rest meant to dispel his elation. He turned his beak-like snout toward Felsah, and shifted back on the sand so that the side of his tail thumped up and down with his excitement. Both golden eyes studied Felsah as if noting his shape for the first time. "When you first came to Metamor, the Curse was to make you a fennec fox, for that is the form that best matches your soul. But Eli said that the lands of Metamor have a surfeit of foxes. Now that I see you in your mind's eye, I have to admit that the jerboa's body suits you almost as well."

Felsah twitched at that, startled to hear this strange spirit tell him something similar to what Madog had once said. "Why do you say that? Why say I should have been a fennec? And why say that jerboa suits me?"

"Did you never wonder why you became such fast friends with the automaton Madog?" Now Felsah could not hide the squeak of alarm that erupted from his throat. He grasped either end of the stole still dangling about his neck even as his tail lashed from side to side in surprise. But Troud paid his paroxysm no mind. "It was because you reached out to a kindred spirit."

"What mean you a kindred spirit?"

Troud shifted one claw as if he were balancing scales. "It's difficult for me to explain. It's how you view the world, the things that make you happy, the things that fill you with fear or grief." Troud snarled in a faint frustration, and then pointed his claw at Felsah's chest. "The traits of the spirit, the mind, that make Felsah of Gardara, the Questioner, a unique person from anyone else, mean that the body that would be most comfortable for you to wear is that of a fennec."

When Troud said no more of Madog, Felsah found he was able to corral his instincts and bring them back under the Questioner discipline he had been taught. Still, he held out his short arms and flicked his long tail back and forth. "But that is not what I am."

Troud chuckled a throaty high-pitched laugh, "As I said, the lands of Metamor are practically overrun with foxes. But the jerboa is a good fit, nonetheless."

Felsah laid his paws atop his knees as he sat, eyes glancing over the oasis near his dream burrow town, and then turned back to his guest. "You know me that deeply then?"

"To some degree, yes. Eli has given me some understanding of you. Understanding that I will forget when I leave here."

"Why would you forget?"

"Remember, I am not an angel. I do not have an endless capacity for insight into another's spirit."

Felsah shook his head, feeling the burning chase for the truth ignite in his heart. "That does not answer my question. That you cannot know all that there is of me, that you explained. Why you will forget what you have learned, that you have not answered."

"Because I do not want to remember. I have no desire to be privy to something that should remain between you and Eli. I am not your confessor, nor do I wish to be." He trilled softer then, and lowered his gaze. "Thank you again for being mine. You will not remember much of it when you wake either."

His whiskers twitched as if he'd been rebuked, but after a moment he'd settled his nerves and managed to accept what he'd heard. "But there must be a reason for you to be here now, to receive forgiveness, and to learn that your people will come back, right here in my presence."

"Yes, I understand now. I am here, in your dream, which in itself is a reflection of a life you could have lived, because of who you are. You are a Questioner, a member of an order that much resembles the Tened's priesthood of ages past. You will have a role to play in what is to come." Troud lifted his hands in a shrug, "And that is what I know of why I am here, in your dream."

Felsah nodded his head. "Then, if this dream is true, I will keep my eyes open for any sign of you or your Tened." A sudden thought came to him and he blinked in surprise when it did. "There is one fellow who is a creature that lived along with the Tened; he says that he is a Kharrakhaz. Know you of this?"

"I know of the beasts, but not of the man. You did a passable try at pronouncing the name. But truly, the Curse upon this place did that? That is. . ." Troud trailed off in thought.

"He seems a good fellow. He rescued me from being attacked by men who were much bigger than I."

"Well, well. This bears some thinking about." Troud stood up and twisted his tail from side to side. "I think it's time to be on my way. Thank you for sharing these moments of peace with me, Felsah of the Questioners. Eli guide you in your endeavors."

"And you as well, Troud. If nothing else, remember hope. Without hope in Eli, we have nothing to keep us from sin."

The morning sun's light warming his ears and leaking through his eyelids, and the taste of fur in his mouth were the first sensations that greeted him as he struggled towards wakefulness against his body's nocturnal instincts. Felsah opened his eyes to see that he had started sucking on the tufted tip of his tail during the night. He opened his mouth and moved his tail down to his feet. "Yashua, grant Your servant the strength to face the day with open eyes and a spring in my step."

With his morning prayers completed, Felsah put on his smock and carefully walked with one foot put in front of the other to the plank of wood resting on bricks that served as his desk. He pulled a sheet of parchment in front of him and re-filled his pen with ink to write down the details of his strange dream. As he nibbled on his quill his eye caught sight of something on his desk that was not there the previous night when he forced himself into sleep's embrace. Three letters were placed in a row with the seals facing up. All three letters bore the same seal, the seal used by the Patriarch on official documents of some importance. Felsa returned his pen to the ink bottle and reach out with a trembling paw to take up the letters. One was addressed to Patriarch Geshter, the second to Kehthaek, and the last to Felsah himself. Setting the letters to his superiors aside, Felsah opened the letter addressed to himself.

To My Confessor

As you read this letter, a wagon is approaching Metamor having journeyed a great distance indeed to deliver news of Eli's Covenant with His children of Scale and Feather. Watch for its arrival and guard the Heralds from those who would see the Tened remain a fading memory remembered only by the eldest of Dragons and Elvenkind.

Yours in Service to Eli, Troud

Sunday, April 1st 708 CR ( Palm Sunday )

There were many duties for soldiers in the army of Metamor. The defense of the Valley was foremost and this was accomplished by a rigorous schedule of patrols which brought every soldier in Metamor from the northern reaches of the ruin of the Giant's Dike to the southern fields and farms near Jetta and just north of Midtown. There were castles whose battlements they stood watch from as the sun made its westward journey through the sky or the stars spun over the head's at night. And there were roads that had to be kept clear and passable for both merchants, travelers, and more soldiers.

Each of those duties carried with it the possibility that they would be attacked by little monsters from the north or by brigands from the south and that meant that every day that greeted them could also be the day that death presented its cold and unbreakable salutations as well. But for those soldiers given the duty of inspecting cargo, something that had leaped to greater prominence in the days following the ends of the quarantine, there was more to fear of death from a desperate merchant than a despicable monster.

Most days inspections consisted of an endless series of tipping grain barrels and wine casks to feel the weight shift, rifling through bolts of cloth, tapping the sides of wagons checking for the hollow echo of a secret cache, and asking the same set of questions over and over again to impatient merchants and weary travelers. Their tasks were so routine that more often than not they were done half-heartedly, or only taken seriously when a lovely lass was in sight.

But the soldiers in Duke Thomas' militia had learned through bitter experience that enclosed wagons traveling into the Duchy of Metamor warranted close and serious inspection. When said wagon was being driven by someone dressed for concealment, the inspection would be very close indeed.

George made his way to the road's center and lowered his pike to block the wagon's path, while his fellow guards at the checkpoint and watchtower moved to flank the wagon. "That's far enough. You will halt and stand to for inspection in the name of Duke Thomas Hassan IV of Metamor."

The cloaked driver pulled back on the reins with gloved four-fingered hands, bringing the team of four donkeys pulling the wagon to a stop.

George rarely felt intimidated by strangers visiting Metamor, even when they were fellow Keepers of large stature. As a brown bear, he stood several hands higher than most in his company, and he bore a pike eight feet long with a breadth thicker than some swords. Nevertheless, his nostrils warned him of a quality he could only describe as otherness in the driver. The scent was dry like a serpent's, but with an odd bouquet that tickled him in a way that assured him what perched before him on the buckboard of the wagon was not any ordinary Keeper, or at the very least, was not any type of Keeper he'd met before.

While the other six soldiers with him fanned out around the wagon, George stepped to one side so that he could note the driver's profile. Even if the dry scent had not given it away, his posture would have revealed that he was not human. His head and shoulders were pressed forward, the head itself long and narrow within the confines of his cloak, while his hands were covered by dark gloves; he had only four fingers and these appeared to have long claws judging by the shape of the gloves.

His back half was even odder in design. His thighs were thick and strong, supporting him on long legs which were covered with several folds of the cloak like a robe to hide his feet. A long tail stretched behind him and through a break in the buckboard to disappear within the confines of the wagon. Heavy curtains draped across the front of the wagon, while the remaining walls were wood without any obvious doors. The hood of the cloak turned to watch the bear, and George could almost see bright eyes within the shadowed cowl.

"I will need you to open your wagon for inspection," George said with a wave of one paw. "Why are you cloaked? Are you a leper?" He'd heard and met several of the refugees from Bradanes, but even though they had been covered from head to foot in almost rags, they were human until the Curses claimed them after which their disfigurements and sores were healed. The driver wore his cloaks for a different reason.

The driver turned slightly, lifted one arm and pulled the curtain back from the front no more than an inch. A warm light came from within, but George couldn't see anything past the driver. The cloaked figure hissed a short series of clicks, and then returned his focus on the bear as he let the curtain drop back into place. "I am no leper. I and my family are cloaked for protection. Metamor is not far now?" he asked George, letting out a popping click in some of his words.

"Another hour north along the road," George replied as he tapped one claw along the haft of his pike. At the rear of the wagon he saw a ramp lower to the ground. A pair of ropes were attached to the end of the ramp so it could be raised from within the wagon. "Who do you need protection from?"

The words were easy to understand, but the driver had a tendency to intersperse his words with short clicks and the occasional whistling note. "Those not of Metamor. Those who would see us and see only monsters instead of a man and his family."

"Then you are safe here. Show yourself so we may know if you are friend or foe."

The gloved hand reached for the end of the cowl and with a long pull, drew it back over his head. A reptilian snout emerged, thin lips parting to reveal curved fangs lining either side of his maw. But this snout was followed by cheeks covered in short, bright red and blue feathers framing wide golden eyes, between which rose a crest of striped black and white feathers as long as those of a bird's wing. As George stared in wonder he deftly removed both gloves revealing talons at the end of each finger, scales like a bird's running back nearly to his wrist, and then a fan of gold and red feathers running along the back of his hand and arm as if it were trying to be a wing as well.

His head lifted on a long neck and tilted to one side with the intense predatory regard he'd seen in a trained falcon. "Do you need to see more?"

George was about to stutter a reply when he heard a startled cry from his men at the back of the wagon. The bear grunted and dashed toward the ramp, both paws gripping the pike, ready for any surprise. The driver leaped from his perch, the cloak flinging off of his legs to reveal three-toed feet, one of which had an upthrust talon that looked more like a sickle than a claw. He chased after the bear and was on him at the same time George reached the ramp and saw what it was that made his men cry out in surprise. Two of them stood in front of another pair of half-cloaked figures very similar to the driver, with a heavy bolt of old cloth in their hands.

And all he could think when he saw what had been hidden beneath the cloth was that it was no wonder this strange bird-lizard needed a team of donkeys to haul his wagon.

"Please lower your spears, kind guards. My wife, she is very protective of our son and future children." He twisted his long neck to face into the wagon and called out a warbling whistle to the larger of the wagon's passengers. "Dearest Rebecca, these good men mean us no harm. They just need to inspect our cargo."

"If they dare to harm Davin, or so much as touch my eggs, I will gut them and eat their livers!" the larger, green-feathered, bird-lizard hissed as she backed up inside the wagon, dragging her smaller companion with her.

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