by Christof Bradford and Charles Matthias

Though the sacred Liturgy of the Palms had come to an end over an hour ago, the Ecclesia cathedral in Metamor was bustling with activity. All six of Hough's seminarians, Father Felsah, and two dozen other parishioners busied themselves with removing the brilliant red tapestries and fronds that decorated the walls and altar. Linens were removed from the altar and folded up leaving only the bare stone visible. The walls between the clerestory windows, rarely seen because of the heavy curtains inscribed with the color of the liturgical season as well as appropriate images, were now revealed as Keepers carefully removed those curtains and carried them out to be beaten until the dust cloud subsided. The lanterns hanging from the high vaulted ceiling were lowered so that they could be easily extinguished. Only the statues and the bright windows themselves remained in their place.

For so it was, that during the holiest week for Followers, the church must be bare as they prepared themselves to walk with Yahshua to the execution tree. All light would be dimmed on that momentous day, and no man-made light, not even the barest and meanest of candles, was permitted to shine within the church until they celebrated their savior's resurrection the next evening. Both Father Hough and Father Felsah loved this time of the year and though their exact reasons were different, for both of them it was the central locus of their hope; herein they had been reconciled to Eli and what greater hope could there be than that? This was the lesson Hough had spoken on in his homily that day, and it was one he had carefully cultivated in his seminarians. That they felt the same way was impossible to miss in their determined and peaceful faces as they went about their tasks, patiently and gently guiding the parishioners who had lingered to help.

Hough was helping one of his oldest seminarians, the chameleon Patric who in only two weeks would be ordained a deacon, clean the altar space from some grime that had begun to grow when he heard the ponderous voice of Zachary remind some soldier that weapons were not permitted in the cathedral. Hough gestured with one hand to his charge to continue scrubbing at the reddish stains on the marble, while he lifted his gaze to stare down the length of the cathedral at the very large three-horned reptile standing in somebody's way; he couldn't see who that somebody was, but knew he should go and find out.

He had to wave several other parishioners and a few of his other seminarians back to their tasks as he walked down the long hall which still had far too many pews than was prudent for the holiest of days. Even Felsah lifted his big-eared head to see what he was about before nodding to the boy priest and returning to collecting fronds that had been left behind. The Kharrakhaz gazed down his green and brown mottled face past his gray beak at a lithe young man a few years too old not to be Cursed. The man was dressed in the blue livery of the Watch and was trying to decide what to do with his sword and spear when he saw Hough approach; he face waxed with relief.

"Father Hough, I come bearing a message for you. Forgive my impertinence, but I did not know to leave my weapons behind." His voice was deeper than Hough expected, but still not nearly as deep as Zachary's which always made Hough feel like his bones were rattling together.

"There is a place just within the narthex behind you that is suitable. Zachary can show you where." Hough folded his hands before him and smiled; a boy's smile always seemed to both relax and delight those who were adult in body and mind. "What message have you brought for me? Is it private?"

The young man frowned and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not rightly sure, Father. Some fellow that looks like a bird and a lizard is outside with his family in a covered wagon. He insists that you come and help him bring something inside the cathedral." Zachary's eye ridges lifted with curiosity even though little else in his massive bulk moved.

Somebody was always asking for Hough's help in one way or another so the request did not yet surprise him. "Something? And did you happen to learn this bird and lizard man's name?"

"His name is Jacob, Father. He has a wife and a son as well, and..." the man's lips twitched in a confused and amused smirk, "he has two eggs which his wife is defending."

"Eggs?" Zachary asked with a brightness in his deep tones that always took Hough by surprise. Though he had known the refugee from Bradanes for little more than three months now, he had shown himself strong and kind especially to those who were much smaller than him, as well as deeply pious and generous with what little he had. Still, he was a giant to Hough and always made him a little bit nervous when he stood so close. The thick tail that swayed back and forth from time to time could easily knock the boy priest over if he weren't careful.

"Aye, eggs," the messenger replied with a nod. "Chickens I s'pose. But he is asking for you, Father, and he says he has something he needs your help to bring here."

Zachary grunted and ever so slightly flexed his thick fingers.

"How big is this thing?"

The messenger's eyes flicked from Hough to the Kharrakhaz. "It's... big."

Hough chuckled under his breath and lifted his gaze to meet the three-horned reptile's gaze. "Zachary, would you be so kind as to help us fetch whatever this Jacob has brought for us? I will ask a few others to come of course."

The question appeared to relieve the big man. "I would be glad to help."

"Good, that's settled then. Young man, return to your post and let Jacob and his family know that we will be there shortly to assist them. Where are they?"

"At the first gate. You'll know which one." The man bobbed his head, tightened his grip on his spear, and then backed up several paces. "Good day to you, Father."

"Eli's blessing go with you, son," Hough replied and made the sin of the yew in the young man's direction. But the soldier had already turned and hurried back through the wide entrance and beyond the narthex; he was in the Keep proper before Hough had even finished. The boy priest sighed even as he smiled faintly at his temporary door warden who was muttering something under his breath. "Wait here for me a moment, my son, and we will all go together to meet this Jacob and his family."

"I will be here, Father."

It only took a few minutes to select five other able-bodied Keepers to accompany them. He also brought Patric along deliberately. If the soldier had been correct, then this family would have special needs that Patric, as a chameleon, would best be able to handle. He left Felsah in charge of the continued stripping of the church and led the little band of Followers out of the Keep and into the courtyard between the castle and the inner gates that led to Keeptowne. A short walk brought them to the first of the gates before which waited a wagon covered in wood and canvas led by a team of four donkeys. The animals appeared in good health though it was clear they were enjoying their repast from the Duke's lawn.

A pair of guards from the Watch, including the young man who'd brought the message, stood near the side of the wagon with the stoic patience of somebody who knows that they have no other choice but to wait. Within the wagon, Hough could hear a series of rough clicks and chirps in the midst of what must have been a hushed conversation. The animal Keepers with him could hear it as well, but none of them showed any sign of recognition.

Seeing there was no one at the front of the wagon, Hough walked around to the rear and peered inside. The back of the wagon was designed to unlatch from the sides of the wagon, folding over to form a ramp to the ground. This was lowered already and so he had no trouble seeing what could only be the object that they were supposed to bring inside. It looked to be a massive slab of stone almost four feet wide and a foot thick; he couldn't quite see how long it was as the entire thing was covered by a heavy patchwork cloth and his eyes quickly fixed on the three figures standing within the wagon instead.

The figure closest had a bright blue and red plumage along the top of his head, a long narrow body, sharp claws and feathers lining his arms as if they couldn't decide whether or not they wanted to be wings, a long tail also tufted with feathers, and sharp talons on his feet, including one which rose like a sickle. His snout was more lizard like with a row of sharp fangs beneath thin scaled lips, while golden eyes peered out underneath his brow of short feathers. Behind this first bird-lizard was another of slightly larger size but with a duller green plumage, and a smaller similarly shaped creature this time covered in a bright profusion of downy feathers just like a young chick. His eyes bounced from Keeper to Keeper as he chirped with enthusiastic curiosity.

"Are you a priest of the Ecclesia?" The first figure asked in a lightly-pitched but masculine voice.

Hough nodded, never letting his eyes leave the trio. "I am Father Francis Hough. Are you Jacob?"

"Aye, and this is my wife Rebecca and my son Davin. I've brought this slab all the way from the deserts around Yesulam. But we need your help bringing it to the Cathedral." He glanced back once at his wife who was staring at them with suspicion. "But first, could you give my wife and son room to leave first before you enter?"

"Of course," Hough replied as he stepped back several paces. His fellow Keepers did likewise. Patric's two eyes kept swiveling across the strange creatures with palpable interest. From out of the wagon stepped the mother, cradling a satchel of cloths in her arms. She hissed a little as she stepped down into the daylight, moving quickly into an open space away from the others. Following after her was the boy Davin, though he did not seem to be afraid of them at all, rushing toward Patric and lowering his snout to sniff at the chameleon.

"Davin!" Rebecca snapped with a hiss of alarm. The boy chirped and dashed back over to his mother, but he did not stop watching them even as his tail danced back and forth almost like a bird readying to jump into the air.

Jacob followed them down and put one wing-hand on his wife's shoulder before turning his head nearly all the way back on his neck to look at the Keepers. "Thank you, Father."

As he was too big to fit inside, Zachary stood just outside the wagon while Copernicus and Cassius the polar bear climbed inside. The other three who'd come to help, all humans of wide girth and strong shoulders, waited at the bottom of the ramp while the lizard and bear hoisted the slab in the middle. They were able to lift it high enough for Zachary to slip his thick fingers beneath the end. They both gasped for breath before sliding around to the front of the wagon, Copernicus's heavy tail thumping against the canvas and nearly tearing it out with each step. Once they were in place behind the slab, they and Zachary started walking forward, carrying it out of the wagon. The three humans all gathered on the sides and helped hold it aloft. Hough could see the lines of strain in the human faces, but Zachary carried his end as if it were a mere trifle. Just how strong was the Kharrakhaz?

Of course that wasn't the question most pressing on Hough's mind. Once he was sure that his flock had a good grip on the slab, he turned to the family and asked, "Jacob, just what are you and your family? I've never seen anything like you here."

"I have no idea what the Curse has made of me and my family. Not long after we found this slab, a shimmering wall of light struck us in the quiet hours before dawn and we became what you see now."

Hough blinked and forced his mouth to close. He had heard others speak of the shimmering wall of light that rushed past them at midnight on the last Winter Solstice. Hough had been asleep at the time and hadn't seen it himself, but there was no doubt in his mind what that phenomenon had been, especially not after discussing it with Charles and his friends on their return from dread Marzac. But everyone he had heard talk of that wall of light who had been changed by the Curses had returned to their own shape only a moment later. Why not Jacob and his family?

"We saw that same wall of light here," Patric said as he walked on the other side of the family. The mother Rebecca eyed the chameleon warily, while the boy Davin turned his head from side to side to watch Patric's long tail as it swung back and forth with each step. Hough had the sudden impression of a cat about to pounce a grasshopper. "What is this slab?"

Jacob hissed and quickly shook his head, the crest of feathers on the back of his neck lifting as if in alarm. "It is best not to speak of this where others might hear. When we reach the Cathedral I will show you."

More mysteries and secrets. Hough frowned at this but could think of nothing to say. Of his flock carrying the slab, only Zachary seemed not to feel the weight, but even the three-horned reptile showed some tensing in his muscles beneath his pebbly hide. A rhythmic ostinato of grunts and groans escaped the throats of Copernicus and Cassius as they carried the rear of the slab, thick, meaty hands spread as wide as they could to keep the massive rock from tipping from side to side. The human men breathed heavily as they strained under the weight, but no complaint escaped either their lips or passed across the tongues of his beastly flock.

They moved quickly through the gardens toward the Keep walls passing by several soldiers, servants, gardeners, and a courtier or two out for a Sunday stroll through the pleasant Spring air. All eyes turned to watch them, but most resumed their own duties after that brief glance. A few did not look away until they had passed, and the gardeners kept a close eye on them for fear that they might damage the precious blooms now underway. This was especially true of Davin who chirped like a little bird in delight at the bright colors and delicate flowers bobbing up and down with the gentle breeze. His downy beak bobbed with them, bright golden eyes keenly focused as if he were about to snatch them up in his jaws as a light snack.

Patric saw this as well with his independent eyes, and moved to interpose himself between the flowers and young Davin. The seminarian was rewarded with a protective hiss from Rebecca, but one that was stilled when Jacob put his strange hand on her wing-arm and shook his head. Unable to pounce the interesting flowers, Davin resumed his stalking of the chameleon's long tail.

Once past the gardens they were delayed a moment as they navigated the slab up the handful of steps to the castle doors nearest the Cathedral within. The biggest trouble was that Zachary had to bend down to keep the slab level enough for everyone behind him to be able to hold on, and that meant his heavy tail stuck out further and nearly tripped up the two humans closest to him. But after a brief moment of terror when it looked like the slab would tip over and crush Cassius who was at the bottom, they managed to right themselves and reach the top of the stairs. Hough breathed a sigh of relief and followed them down the wide corridor to the Cathedral.

The Keep did not shorten the distance any – Hough found that it rarely changed itself for his benefit, at least not after revealing the immense Cathedral hidden and prepared for the Follower community – but it was an easy level walk that took perhaps a minute.

Father Felsah may only be a little jerboa and a foreigner at that, but he had in the short time that Hough and the others had been out retrieving the slab managed to finish most of the work stripping the Cathedral. He did not stand in a corner issuing orders to the seminarians and lay folk who'd come to help but was carrying any load that needed to be carried out no matter how heavy as he gave those orders. Hough felt a bit of a smile cross his face as he saw that there were only a few remaining pews to be moved out of the way; he still wasn't sure how he felt about having a Questioner in Metamor, but so far Felsah had proven as good as his word.

"Let us set that down there in the middle for now." Hough suggested as he moved ahead of Zachary to point at an empty place in the middle of the Cathedral. The many-hued light shimmering through the stained-glass windows made the floor appear as bright as a bed of wildflowers. Zachary nodded and the group eased the stone slab down to the ground. Hough and Patric made sure that the cloth covering it did not end up trapped beneath the slab on either side and then kept clear as the big Keepers all stumbled out of the way.

Zachary looked down at Jacob and a faint laugh bellowed up from his stomach. "Just how did you get that into your wagon?"

"I was still human then," Jacob pointed out with an upraised claw as if he were counting. "And I rolled it on a trio of logs; much easier that way."

"Well, now that it is here," Hough said as gestured with an open palm at the cloth-covered slab. "What is it?"

"It is a message from Eli," Jacob replied as he bent over the slab. He deftly grasped the cloth by the side and hopped backward, his toe claws squealing where the scraped against the stone floor of the Cathedral. The cloth billowed upward forming an arc as graceful and as brief as the waves crashing against the wharves of Ellcaran that Hough had grown up watching and playing within. And then it collapsed in a heap at the strange lizard-bird's taloned feet, revealing a speckled gray stone slab in whose surface runic inscriptions had been chiseled from the top to the bottom.

Hough and the others nearby studied those words, but most of them were in languages he did not know, and some did not appear to even appear to be in anything he could call a language, being a mixture of scratches and gouges that followed no lines either from side to side or up and down. But the very bottom of the slab, though the runes were archaic, was an old dialect of Galendish.

Hough read the words, then lifted his gaze, jaw agape, to stare in wonder at Jacob, Rebecca who still clutched a large cloth satchel to her chest, Davin who was clawing at the heap of cloth at his father's feet, and then to Patric, Copernicus, and Zachary who were also covered from head to tail in scaly hides. And then, like a lodestone to north, his eyes fell back to the slab and in a tight whisper he breathed, "Does this mean what I think it means?"

One thing that Felsah did not like about his jerboa body was its tendency to be suddenly listless and lethargic for an hour or two at a time during the day, and to keep him wide awake and anxious during the middle of the night. It didn't happen every day or every night, but it was frequent enough that he was beginning to wonder whether he should begin drinking coffee with his midday meal and seeking a herbalist for something to help him sleep at night. Coffee was common in his homeland, but he had not yet learned whether trade had brought it to Metamor.

After yawning his snout so wide that Madog could have stuck his head inside and touched the back of the jerboa's throat with his cold, metal nose, Felsah resolved to learn that week if the delectable and bitter brew was anywhere to be found. With this resolution in mind, he pushed away from the altar against which he'd almost fallen asleep, blinking wakefulness back into his eyes as he stared at the ornate baldacchino above the altar and the image of Blessed Yanlin standing at its apex. He'd only fallen asleep for a minute or two and tried his best not to think about whether anyone noticed or not.

Felsah took a breath to marshal his will and don the mask of the Questioner, something he had struggled to master with his new rodent instincts which made him very anxious around anything bigger than him or that smelled potentially threatening, which was most everything else that moved at Metamor. He turned around and saw the crowd gathered together in the middle of the Cathedral and barely managed to suppress the surprised squeak that jumped in his throat.

And he barely kept himself from shouting, "Troud!"

For standing in plain view before a huge block of stone was the feathered and scaled form of a Tened. Not just one, but three Tened! Though the second was a bit larger and didn't have the bright plume atop her head, Felsah knew her to be Tened. And the smaller one covered in bright downy feathers could be nothing but a young Tened. Though he had only ever seen their race in an especially vivid dream, and then only a specific one that claimed to have been tasked by Eli to watch and guide the race, he recognized them without hesitation or doubt.

What had Troud said to him in that mysterious letter he'd found upon waking? A wagon was coming to Metamor and it brought heralds of the Tened's return as well as some message from Eli. Could these three be the heralds? And was that slab of stone that Hough and the rest were marveling the message from Eli? Felsah felt a strange chill run up his tail from the tuft to the root, and then right up his spine and into his large ears. He tried to murmur a quick prayer, but his tongue curled the words into insensibility.

After another quick breath, his mind bouncing with wonder, Felsah hopped down from the altar, turned and genuflected while trying to keep himself as reverent as he could as he hastily made the sign of the Yew, gathered his Questioner's robe in both paws, and then hopped like the jumping mouse he now resembled across the now empty space in the Cathedral to where Hough and the others who had gone with him were now gathered with the Tened. Long tail with its tuft of fur at the end bobbed behind his head to give him balance.

The three Tened snapped their heads toward him as he hopped, and the largest of the three hissed warily in his direction. Hough turned and waved him closer. "Father Felsah, you must see this."

"I am seeing much," Felsah admitted as he came to a stop a few paces from the rest of the Followers gathered together. He looked at the plumed Tened and was reminded of Troud, though without the sullen hunger. "Whence did you three come? I and all the world thought your kind dead."

"Our kind?" the plumed one replied in bemusement. "You are a Questioner, that I see from your robes. I do not know what I and my family have become. But I know as you were hopping just now I felt a sudden urge to chase you. I am Jacob. This is my wife Rebecca and my son Davin."

"I am Father Felsah. Yes, I am a Questioner. And what you are is Tened. Have you never heard of them?"

Patric's head popped up at the name, but everyone else looked both confused and surprised. Jacob shook his long neck and ruffles the feathers along his arms. "No, I have never heard any other mention them before. Were they from the Southlands or beyond the sea?"

"They died many, many years ago, poisoned to death by the enemies of Eli for their steadfast faith. They once lived here in Metamor Valley." Felsah wondered for a moment whether he could truly rely on knowledge granted to him during a dream, but was comforted by the fact that he had never had a dream like that before. "But you look as they once did, Jacob. I do not understand why."

"Perhaps the message will explain it," Jacob said, gesturing to the giant slab of granite around which they had gathered. Felsah nodded and then stepped beside Hough who was running his fingers along the strange bluish metal lettering engraved in the surface. Felsah couldn't help but feel dwarfed by the size of the rock though it was a sensation he was becoming accustomed to. Still, he reached out and ran one finger across one of the letters near the edge – he couldn't easily reach anything else – and felt a strange awe at how smooth and cool it was, like a finely polished blade.

And then he realized that he could read two sections of the slab. One of them higher up the monolith was in the Suielish dialect used by the Ecclesia. And the one at the very base was in the common Galendish tongue. With a twitch of his whiskers and tail, the jerboa read aloud, "In memory of the Tened, who wouldst not be parted from the Truth, even to preserve their lives, I Who Am make this everlasting covenant with the Peoples of Scale and Feather. For so long as thou hast no dealings with those who wouldst name themselves gods in defiance of the Most High, I shall shield thee from their direct agency."

Several eyes widened at the words, each of them turning to look at Jacob and his family. Rebecca hissed at the sudden scrutiny as she held the bundle of cloth closer to her chest as if she were protecting something of great value. Whispers of "Could it be real?", "Who's it talking about?" and "Does it mean the Lightbringers?" passed back and forth between the men tasked with carrying the slab. Zachary could only grunt, his large eyes focused on Felsah and waiting for the mouse to speak again and offer his thoughts.

"We must, whenever we Followers are presented with what we are told is a message from Eli, ask questions until we can be certain that this is either real or not," Felsah advised as he noted first the slab, the Tened family, and the other Keepers. "First we must know where and how this was found?"

Jacob spread his feathered hands wide and nodded his long snout at the slab. "We found it in the desert near Yesulam. We were four days out from the Holy City. I woke from strange dreams and saw a light atop a small rise near where we'd stopped for the night. I ventured there and found no light but this resting in the midst of flowers."

"Flowers?" Felsah asked in surprise.

"Aye, there were flowers around it. I knew this had to be what had made the light, but the light was gone. I could read the words by lamplight, and I knew when I read them that this was important. I resolved to take it to Yesulam at once. However, it took the entire day to get the slab into our wagon. And then after only a single day's journey, the brilliant wave of magic struck us and we became as you see us now. And so we have traveled the last three months the long road to bring this to Metamor."

"Why did you not bring it straight to Yesulam?"

Jacob gestured at his feathered and scaled shape. "Looking as we do now? It took a day just to calm the donkeys down long enough for us to get close to them; we feared what might happens should we appear in Yesulam or any town. We have foraged for what we needed on our return journey when our supplies did not prove enough, but we have made it here at last."

"I suspect they would like some rest," Patric pointed out as both of his eyes turned to focus on the priests. "I will show them where they can rest comfortably if we have your leave, Father."

"We will place this slab where it will not come to harm," Hough agreed, casting a careful glance at the jerboa who was still captivated by the blue metal lettering. "We still have much to prepare for here this week. Perhaps after the Holy Days have passed we can spend more time studying it. I am sure Father Felsah has many more questions."

A few of Hough's flock chuckled at the bit of wit; even Felsah, despite his boundless curiosity which was generating question after question for the Tened family, had to smile at the jest. "Very true. I will wait until you have had a chance to settle in here at Metamor before I ask anything more. If you wish to speak with me of what happened, please come here to find me at any time. I am settling in here too."

Jacob thanked all of them for their help in carrying the slab and for both Hough and Felsah's hospitality, and then he and his family followed the chameleon back out of the Cathedral. The downy-feathered Davin chirped as he tried to hop in imitation of the jerboa. Zachary and Copernicus laughed as they watched him go.

"Emily will be happy to see them," Copernicus whispered toward the taller Kharrakhaz. Felsah tried not to turn his ears toward the private words.

Zachary was quick to agree, though he had a more difficult time disguising his voice; every time he spoke his chest seemed to throb with the flow of air into his massive lungs. "And to hear of this slab. I guess we better pick it up again."

"Aye," Father Hough agreed as he rubbed his hands together and began pulling one corner of the cloth back across the slab. "I think I know the perfect place to keep this safe. Help me cover it again, and I'll show you where. Thank you for carrying this. You may count this as one act of penance this week!"

Felsah blinked in surprise at the offer of indulgence, but he had much more interesting things to ponder than the finer points of guiding a parish. "I will finish my task here," he said to Hough, "and then I must tend to a few things myself."

"Shall we share dinner this evening then?" Hough asked as he stepped away from the slab. The other Keepers had already spread the large cloth over the top of the slab and were trying to figure out how to pick it back up again.

"I believe we shall. Until then, Father." Felsah bobbed his head once, and then hopped back toward the altar to finish what he'd stared, long tail waving back and forth over his head like a sail.

"Where are you taking us, Patric?" Jacob asked as he kept pace with the chameleon, holding back only a tail's length to keep his wife comforted in the strange castle halls. Cold gray stone welcomed them on all sides, though many of the walls were decorated with tapestries, ornate windows, and a few even boasted suits of armor or bits of pottery and statuary crafted in ancient times. They did not pass any other Keepers on their way, a fact that pleased Jacob for his wife's sake who clutched their two eggs so tight to her chest that he feared she might crack them if somebody were to make a threatening noise. That she had laid eggs only a few weeks past only highlighted how different they had become. That he loved what grew hidden within those eggs and held them to his cheek with as much joy as he had when he'd kissed Rebecca's human belly when Davin had first begun to kick only proved to him that their change did not bother him.

Not knowing where they were going in a strange place did bother him.

Patric turned his eyes about without moving his head. "There is a place where people like us can speak freely amongst our own kind. A safe place where you can keep your eggs for now."

Rebecca hissed in alarm while Jacob's crest feathers rose in surprise. "How did you know of our eggs?"

"I know of them in three ways," Patric replied with a crisp warmth. "First, the messenger spoke of them. Secondly, I can smell them. And last, I have seen other wives of our kind acting as protective of their children in the egg as Rebecca does for hers though she hides them within that blanket. Please, good woman, take heart. None will bring your children to harm here."

Jacob nodded as the chameleon spoke, and knew that his answer was eminently reasonable. His head bobbing continued as they moved through the corridor, their heads shifting forward and back with each claw-induced staccato step they took. Davin nosed the suits of armor they passed, clicking the little claws on the tips of his fingers against each to hear the different sounds they made. And then he'd run to catch up only to get distracted by the next bright thing they walked past.

But Jacob was not out of questions yet. "How much further must we walk?"

"The Keep usually makes it a quick walk for me. I don't normally see windows when I go there, but I guess she wanted us to have a little more time first. I think it will be around that corner. It looks familiar."

"I remember hearing about that," Jacob admitted as he turned his head from side to side to admire the walls. How something this massive and this solid could shift its appearance at will was a magic beyond his ability to even begin to comprehend. That didn't stop him from trying to formulate theories.

Patric was right about the turn. Once they'd rounded the corner they saw a pair of broad-shouldered reptiles flanking a double door festooned with lizards, serpents, and birds in a fantastic array. Warmth radiated from the door. The reptile on the left, a tan-scaled lizard with bony horns on the back of his head and down his neck and back, turned his black eyes on the chameleon and in a raspy voice asked, "Patric, we didn't expect to see you away from the Cathedral for the next two weeks! What brings you... oh! I don't believe we've ever seen any of you here? Are you from Bradanes?"

"No, Paul, they are not," Patric replied. "They have come from even further. I want to introduce them to Emily."

Paul nodded, while the other reptile who appeared to have a rounded shell on his back, turned to open the nearer of the two halves to the door. "You'll have to change attire. I can smell a lot of mammals on you."

"If Kelly is not in I will show them myself." Patric smiled and bobbed his head in thanks to both of the door wardens, before stepping into the antechamber beyond. Jacob ushered his wife and son through first before following them inside. Neither Paul nor his companion appeared anything other than friendly, and their dry scent was reassuring, but they did stand a good bit taller than them and that was always intimidating.

The antechamber featured another double door at the far end, while two curtained alcoves led off to the side. The stones near the double door were littered with bits of sand. Each door was decorated with images of reptiles and birds. The curtains featured the Fellowship crest, a blue banner with a white egg in the middle.

"I see Kelly isn't here. No matter. Jacob, these rooms here have robes you can wear instead of your traveling clothes. We try to keep outside scents to a minimum within the Fellowship Hall. Some prefer not to wear any clothes at all; it is your preference."

"Let us see these robes first," Jacob suggested.

The four of them stepped within the alcove on the right. Hanging from hooks along the walls were white robes of all shapes and sizes. Patric was quick to doff his Seminarian's robe only to scurry his lithe shape into one of the slender white robes nearby. Jacob took his time and care removing his garments; with claws as sharp as theirs he could rend his garments in seconds without even thinking about it. He folded each piece so that he could don them again easily when the time came to leave this place. It took him several seconds to find a set of robes that would suit him and his family. He gathered them in his arms and carried them back to his wife and son.

And while his son had abandoned his cloak with the joyful disregard for propriety only a child could display, his wife had not even begun to take off her traveling clothes. "Rebecca, you can put the eggs down for a moment. They are safe here."

"But," Rebecca stammered, her glance turning on the chameleon with such intensity that the poor seminarian actually flinched and cast one eye about as if searching for a place to hide.

He sighed and chirped. "Patric, could you excuse us?"

"Of course. I will wait for you out there." Patric almost hopped in his haste. His tail thumped the floor as he bounded through the curtain back into the antechamber.

Rebecca finally set the eggs down, nestling them with utmost care atop Jacob's pile of clothes. With his help she was able to shimmy out of her heavy garments and don one of the Fellowship robes. Jacob could smell almost nothing on the robes, but their own gear stank of horse, mud, and even traces of some of the Keepers they'd just met. They could no longer even be called rags. Yes, such useless scraps of cloth were only good for the fire now.

He had to chase down Davin to get his robe on, but once done, they left the alcove with their eggs safely ensconced in Rebecca's arms. Patric kept one eye on them even as he moved toward the second set of doors at the other end. "Emily is hearing petitions at the moment so you'll have to wait before seeing her. Just keep quiet and wait. I will introduce you."

"We will follow your lead," Jacob replied, even though he wondered at the chameleon's choice of words. Hearing petitions? Wasn't that the sort of thing a noble did? Who was this Emily?

The Fellowship hall stretched a good distance before them with a rounded arch ceiling high above their heads. There were no interior columns, nor was there a floor as such that they were used to seeing in the rest of the castle. A ring of granite circled inside the walls, but the rest of the floor was a layer of bright yellow and white sand; logs and benches were arranged in rows through the sand at the other end of the room. More curtained alcoves lined the left and right walls. But perhaps the most noticeable change was the temperature which reminded Jacob more of the deserts of Yesulam than the fields of Metamor even at the height of Summer.

The air was dry and crisp with the heat as well as the scent of lizards, snakes, and numerous birds. But the most powerful scents came from the half dozen figures at the far end of the hall. A large padded stone bench dominated the space and resting atop it was a mottled brown and green lizard whose proportions were truer to an animal than a man. Around the bench clustered a pair of ravens, a turtle that stood like a man, a large snake coiled in the sand with a pair of arms resting on his coils, and another lizard who could stand on his hind legs and whose neck had a long thin frill connecting to his chest. This last was complaining in a bitter voice and loud voice.

"And that's not all that those, those... mammals who live next to me have done! Just yesterday they let that foul smelling pig of theirs root through my vegetable garden! Why that beast dug up and ate all of my turnips, smashed my radishes, and ruined my potatoes! I'm going to have to plant everything anew and there's no stopping that pig from doing it again! You have to help me, Brood Matron. I don't know what to do!" The whole time the iguana was twisting his exceptionally long fingers back and forth as if there were no bones at all in them.

The large four-legged lizard leaned forward on the rocky perch and hissed, but the sound was not threatening, more a conversational sigh than anything else. "I will bring your concern to Thalberg's attention and ask him to see to it that you have enough seeds to replant your garden. Perhaps we can have a stronger fence built to keep the pig out. I will have to talk with our members amongst the carpentry guild to see if they can help. For now you should go home and save what you can and if your neighbor will not promise to restrain his pig, let me know and I will have Copernicus do what he can."

The answer appeared to mollify the iguana who began nodding his large head, the frill beneath his chin warbling back and forth like a sail caught unfurled in the wind. 'Thank you, Emily! Something has to be done! They just keep letting the pig into my garden. No other, just the one that belongs to the reptile!"

"We will do what we can, I promise, I..." Emily suddenly tried to put her forearms on either side of her head as if she'd been subjected to a piercing shriek. Everyone stared at her in confusion, wondering if they should do something.

Patric was the first to move, bounding across the sand as fast as he could; Davin immediately began to chase him, arms out stretched to try and snatch that the unsuspecting chameleon's tail. Jacob ran after his son to keep him from biting their benefactor, while Rebecca followed just to keep close to him. The large lizard atop the rock snapped, "Shirraz, stop that! What is it?" She lifted her head and blinked, large fang-filled jaw dropping as far as it could. "Oh my! Tened! True Tened! But how?"

All other business was immediately postponed. Emily apologized to the others who'd come that day to seek her help, but after the squealing of Shirraz the ghostly Tened that had been bound to the Perch at the appearance of the Tened family, she found she could only concentration on one thing at a time. Not even worry about her husband Raymond and their many children at home could penetrate that focus. Reclining before her were three very live and very real Tened, something she had never thought would happen.

And judging by their confusion it was obvious that they didn't know what was going on any better than did she.

So after the other petitioners had left and she was alone with the three Tened and the chameleon Patric who did his best to help minister to the Followers amongst the Fellowship of the Egg, Emily wasted no time in trying to help bring an end to their befuddlement.

"By whatever agency, even if only by the luck of the Curse itself, you three have become Tened." Beside her Shirraz was trilling in delight so loudly that it made Emily want to cover her ear holes again. "The Tened were an ancient race that once lived here in this Valley. But they were wiped out by plague and sickness and until today I thought they were no more. Several artifacts of the Tened have been found here at Metamor in the years since the Curses were laid. The Perch on which I rest is one such artifact. The amulet Jon the artificer wears and uses to change into an ancient relative to the Tened is another. I will introduce you to him another time. I wish that you could see my constant companion, Shirraz, but she is only visible to the one who sits upon the Perch."

"Shirraz?" Jacob asked, trilling the 'r's just as the ghostly Tened did. "Who is she?"

"She is the spirit of the last Tened Brood Matron to sit upon this Perch before they met their end. She advises the Perch as it tests the worthiness of any who would sit upon it. Those that are worthy the Perch will accept; those that are not, well... they are not allowed to sit on the Perch. The Perch is a symbol of authority amongst the Tened. Does it look familiar to you at all?"

"Nae it does not. In truth, I heard the name Tened for the first time today. I had no idea what we'd become." Rebecca bobbed her head up and down in agreement, but otherwise kept still clutching her eggs. "You say that creatures that looked like us once lived in this valley a long time ago? That is what the desert mouse Questioner said of us when he saw us."

"The Questioner?" Emily glanced at Patric meaningfully. Shirraz stopped her delighted preening, curious as well.

"Father Felsah," Patric supplied.

"Did he recognize you, or did another say what you were?"

"He recognized us," Jacob replied even as he gestured to himself with one wing-hand. "It is good to finally know what we've become, but if we have been touched by the Curse of Metamor, why have we become a long dead race and not some animal like the rest of you?"

Emily turned her head ever so slightly toward the ghostly Tened who had resumed her trilling in unquenchable joy. Shirraz offered an uncertain wave of one hand, something Emily had learned in the years she had known the apparition was her equivalent of a shrug. "That is a mystery we will have to explore, but for now, I think we should help you three find your bearings here. Rebecca, how many eggs have you lain, and when did you lay them?"

"Two weeks ago," Rebecca replied, taking a single nervous step back as soon as she had been addressed. "I have two eggs, two children within."

"You are not the first of our kind to have lain eggs," Emily counseled her with as much warmth as she could convey in her reptilian speech and posture. She leaned forward, jaw opening as gently as she could to imitate a smile. "I myself have my first children hatched from their eggs waiting for me to return home in Euper. Behind those curtains we let many of the Fellowship without means keep their eggs safe for the time of their hatching. Please allow me to show you; they will be safe here while you and your family find lodgings at Metamor suitable to your needs and your profession." This last she said with an eye toward Jacob who had yet to say what trade or profession he practiced.

Rebecca appeared to tremble beneath her feathers as she lowered her arms and stared down the end of her snout at the bundle of cloth in which she protected her eggs. After a moment heavy with uncertainty, she nodded briefly, her brown feathered tail flicking from side to side like a nervous dog. "Please show me where they can be safe."

As Emily scrambled off the Perch, her body swinging back and forth with each wobbling step her four lizard's legs took, the image of Shirraz shimmered and then vanished from her sight as did the matriarch's presence from her mind. As filled with wonder as she was, there was only so much of the ancient's glee that she could digest at one time. Jacob stayed close to his wife as the two of them followed Emily along the wall to their right with its curtained alcoves. Patric hung back, long-fingered hands clasped before him as if he were praying which he probably was. The bright downy-feathered Davin ran back and forth in zig-zags after them, sharp-clawed hands snatching at every bit of sand taller than the rest and sending them in a spray in every direction.

Emily was about to draw the nearest curtain aside with a forepaw when the little boy landed next to her face and chirped with the delight of a bird who had just flown for the first time. His voice was high-pitched but there was something in it that assured her it was the voice of a boy. "Why do you walk like an animal?"

She leaned back on her legs, the warmth of the sand very comfortable on her belly and tail. "This is how the Curses made me, Davin. I have become almost in body a creature known as a komodo. I still have hands and I still speak. Some of us here don't even have that!" She lifted one forepaw and showed her thumb in action by making a fist. The boy trilled a laugh and tried to make a fist back, but his long claws kept him from closing his fingers all the way.

"Davin," Jacob chided with a the gentle but firm voice of a father. "Let the good lady show us where we can place your brothers.... or sisters."

Davin lowered his wing arms in a pout for a moment, but he pounced another little pile of sand that some previous child had built on their last visit and began trilling in delight again. Emily felt her heart swell with delight at the enthusiasm of the hatchlings and lifted her arm to draw the curtain aside. Beyond they saw a long alcove with a sandy bottom that stretched a good ten feet back into the wall with mounds of sand and several caches of eggs in a variety of shapes and colors. The chamber was deeper than she remembered by at least three more feet providing plenty of open space for new eggs. The spirit of the Keep seemed more than willing to provide them more space to protect their unhatched young, but in the eight years they had made this hall their home the main hall had never grown in size. With the new reptiles and birds from Bradanes it was beginning to feel very crowded at their semi-annual gatherings. Why Kyia made the egg-chamber larger but not the main hall she could not understand.

"These are," Rebecca whistled between her teeth in wonder, "the Fellowship's children?"

Emily bobbed her head up and down. "At least those who haven't hatched." There were not quite a dozen clutches within the alcove, but now there was room for almost twice that many. Dare she hope it would soon be filled?

Rebecca eased into the alcove, taking care not to step near any of the clutches. Her feet left three-toed tracks in the sand as she carried her eggs toward the rear of the alcove. Jacob grabbed the curtain and held it aloft, letting more light pour into the chamber. He clicked his tongue against his teeth but did not step any closer. Instead he watched as his wife knelt down and began to dig a little furrow in the sand. Once satisfied with her little crater, she gingerly placed both eggs within. The eggs were about the size of a family loaf of bread, oblong and adorned with a speckled leathery shell. With utmost care Rebecca eased the sand back into place, filling in the gaps between the eggs and nearly covering them completely in the warmth. She bent her head forward until the tip of her snout brushed against each in as close to a kiss as she could come.

Rebecca then began to trill a little song, one that weaved back and forth much as a mother rocking a child back and forth in her arms. Emily felt a momentary but terrible regret fill her heart that she couldn't do that for any of her children.

"Let us give her a moment," Jacob suggested as he let the curtain fall back into place. "Thank you for providing a place for our children. But what of us? What shall we do? I have only ever visited Metamor a time or two before; is there any way you can help us?"

Emily waddled back toward the Perch as she pondered the question. She was dragging her chest up over the rock when she finally replied. "We will try to help in any way we can. First, what trade do you practice?"

"I am primarily a tinker, though I have also worked with bronze."

"Excellent! We can certainly use more artisans, both to fill our own needs, and to give the Fellowship some much-needed silver."

"There is one thing," Emily said, finally giving in to Shirraz's insistence. Jacob lifted his snout, curiosity writ in his bright eyes and plumage. "There is a standing stone to the north of here. I will have Copernicus show you where if he can spare the time. It too is an artifact of the ancient Tened. Shirraz tells me that you and your family must go see this."

"Why do we need to see it?" Jacob asked.

"I do not know, only that you will understand once you have."

Jacob's tail twitched and he cast a quick glance back at the alcove where his wife still remained with their children in the egg. "If I can convince Rebecca to leave this place, then we shall go whenever you have arranged a guide for us."

"Good. Now that that is settled, I hope you would do me the honor of joining my family and I for an afternoon meal. Raymond will want to meet you, and I dearly wish to introduce you to my children... if they'll let me."

"Emily?" Patric asked even as he lifted one hand to get her attention.

"Oh, Patric, what is it?"

Patric cast a quick glance behind him as Rebecca finally emerged from the egg-chamber, but his right eye he kept firmly fixed on the komodo. In a tone suffused with delight and weight, he said, "There is one more thing you need to know about. Something Jacob and his family brought with them that even now is hidden within the Cathedral."

Curious, Emily and Shirraz turned their heads as one to listen.

Elvmere rarely felt hurried in any of his tasks, but with the frenetic activity and the silence surrounding that activity in which the Temple had found itself locked since the Plague had come to Metamor and even since it had left, it was hard not to find himself moving more quickly than was his wont. He'd spent the morning cleaning and putting away the instruments of sacrifice and other holy vessels almost without aid; almost because there was usually a more senior acolyte assisting him. Sometimes the senior acolyte was a child in body, other times a fellow half-man half-animal. But in each case the actual age of the senior acolyte was generally still less than Elvmere's actual age. Though he may look to be a healthy young man, if one in the guise of a raccoon, he could claim sixty years of life already.

After finishing with the vessels he'd been tasked with cleaning the sparrow cages, a filthy task that he had performed many times before, but not in a few weeks. This was followed by an insistence that he bathe, but right after drying off to help tidy the archives. Any time spent in the archives carried a promise of the chance to learn more of the history of the Lothanasi and of the deep secrets of the world, a subject that fascinated him mostly for the sake of knowing and marveling. And he was on his way back from drying off his fur when he first heard the strange sound coming from one of the storage chambers.

Elvmere twitched his whiskers and his ears as he caught a rhythmic beat from within the narrow room in which fresh robes were stored after being cleaned. It sounded like a ball being thrown to the ground again and again. Curious, he opened the door and froze, slack-jawed at a sight that simply could not be real. A raccoon boy child, no more than ten years of age, was sitting on a chest against the near wall, tossing a small green ball against the opposite wall and catching it as it bounced back to him.

The child caught the ball one last time and turned to look at him. There was a glow about him as if he needed no lamp to light his way. "Go now to the Wolf and pass on to her these words: 'It is not your place to meddle with the destinies of those who were once lost to the world, but are now found. For the Most High has remembered them, and they shall never be forsaken.'"

Elvmere blinked and stared at the raccoon child trying to comprehend what he saw before him and what he had just heard. There had been no such children at Metamor when he'd come, but he'd been kept cloistered in the temple for over three months. And how long had it been since he'd even heard Eli mentioned? The words and the form startled him so that he could not hide the slight tremor that came to his voice. "Who are you, child?"

The raccoon child appeared to smile at the question, though there was nothing of the playfulness he would have expected to find in a child of his seeming age. Seeming only because the intensity and regard in the boy's blue eyes gave him the austerity of one for whom the mere passage of seconds was brief beyond comprehension and yet of inestimable interest. "I? I am but a simple messenger, Bishop Elvmere."

Elvmere's eyes widened and he took a step back, heart catching in his chest. He half wanted to turn his head from side to side to make sure that nobody else could see or hear him, but he dared not let this raccoon child from his sight for fear that he would suddenly disappear. "I... I am no longer a Bishop."

"And why would you hold a mistaken belief such as that?"

Elvmere shook his head and his paw reached for something no longer at his neck. "I... I was excommunicated by the Patriarch himself!"

"The one who thought to destroy you had no authority to do so, other than what you yourself gave him." The child climbed off the chest and stared up at Elvmere with a serenity that made the most tranquil of waters seem a raging tempest. "Such a charism, once bestowed, can never be removed. You know this."

Elvmere blinked. "I don't understand. Who are you?"

"As I said, I am but a messenger." He walked past Elvmere and pressed something into his paw. "Do be sure to pass the message I bore on to the wolf." The child closed the door, and the sound of claws tapping on stone ceased.

He tried to speak one last time, but no words came to his tongue. Elvmere blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the narrow chamber and its shelves of fresh linen, surprised that he could faintly smell something very sweet in the air. He glanced down at his paw and marveled at the small twig with a single long and thin green leaf and pale capped nut. He knew it even more surely than he knew the shape of his paw. This was from a yew.

His trembling increased, and while one paw gently cradled the yew twig, the other reached for the door and pushed on the handle, stepping back into the corridor. He wasn't surprised when he didn't see the child in either direction. He was surprised to see not a single pawprint that could have been the child's, but even more surprised when his nose detected none of the sweetness in the air that he'd momentarily scented in small room, nor the muskiness he associated with other raccoons.

With a long sigh, one claw tracing along the length of the twig, leaf, and nut, he wondered if that child were something far more than he appeared. Could he be...

Elvmere closed his paw over the twig and walked back the way he'd come. He didn't really believe that the Lothanasa would see him on such short notice, but she had to know what he'd seen and heard.

Surprises kept coming his way as she made him wait only a few minutes before admitting him to her office. Her expression was hard but with a gentleness that only those closest to her recognized. Elvmere sat as he was bade, feeling even younger than his youthful body suggested in her presence. Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric may have been his junior in years and a woman as well, but there was a power in her presence that few he had ever known could equal. Only his old master Patriarch Akabaieth had ever inspired in him such prompt obedience as did she.

"You caught me at a good time, acolyte," she said as she sat down. "I am sure you are curious what I, priestess Meria, and the others have been doing these last two weeks."

"If it were something I should know about I am sure you would have told me," Elvmere replied, even though he did sometimes burn with curiosity. And while his trembling had passed, he was still far too nervous over the child to worry about the secret doings of his Lothanasa.

"In that you are correct," Raven admitted with a nod of her head. Her ears stood upright and her ice blue eyes held him firmly as if she truly were a predator watching a morsel. "What is it that you must see me for, acolyte?"

"Are there any raccoon children in Metamor? About ten years of age?"

"Not that I am aware of. The oldest children I know who are cursed in animal form as we have been are the two boy's of Lord Avery and they are but seven, though I admit they seem a few years older than that. But no other children are even close. And certainly no raccoons amongst them." Raven's brow lowered over her eyes. "Did you see such a child?"

"Aye, in the linen room. He told me to pass a message on to you, Lothanasa." And as she listened, he described what he saw and what he'd heard. She kept her hands folded in front of her while her snout was fixed upon him. Her eyes left him only long enough to note the yew twig when he set it on the desk between them.

"Not my place to meddle with those who were once lost... interesting. I will ponder this. And this." She took the yew and turned it over in her fingers. "For now..." she paused, ears folding back in thought as she tapped the nut with the tip of a more human-like fingernail than Elvmere could claim to sport. "You learned to play several instruments on your journeys with Malger Sutt, is that not so?"

He was still too shocked to be any further surprised by the sudden change in conversation. He nodded his head and felt his tail twitch behind him. "I did indeed learn to play several instruments, and he also trained my voice for many types of song. There was much I still had to learn, but he counted my skills as sufficient for an apprentice."

"Then you shall be so again. Tell Celine that I would like you to be assigned to the Temple musicians in addition to your other duties." Raven smiled as she said this as if she were doing a favor instead of burdening him with so many tasks that he wouldn't have time to dwell on the meaning of the raccoon child's words.

Elvmere rose at her signal and bowed his head. "Thank you, Lothanasa, I shall do as you ask. And thank you again for seeing me."

Raven nodded to him and offered him a blessing. As he left, the raccoon rubbed his paws together, and wished he hadn't handed over the twig. He was doing as his Lady and Akabaieth had asked of him, and yet, there was still something missing.

And all the while he searched for Celine he wondered just who Eli's lost children were.

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