Father Akaleth was absorbed in prayer before the altar and tabernacle when something wet, warm, and long began lashing his face. He opened his eyes to the enthusiastic greeting of a golden-furred dog with wagging tail. He couldn't help but laugh and scratch the dog behind the ears, "And a good morning to you too, Rakka!"
The dog licked his face a few more times, before lowering his front and wagging his tail eagerly. Akaleth knew that this dog was asking for play. He thought to ignore him now that they had been introduced and return to his prayers, but another voice, a young man's voice, called Rakka's name in embarrassment as if through clenched teeth. It was the closest any would come to shouting in so holy a place as this, and it caught the Questioner's attention.
A young man of broad shoulder with dark hair and firm lines in his face rushed over, genuflected toward the altar, and then grabbed Rakka by the collar. "Do not disturb Father at prayers, Rakka. Now come."
"It is all right,"Akaleth said with a faint laugh. He drew the sign of the Yew over his chest and regarded the youth dressed in a brown cassock. "Are you one of Father Hough's seminarians?"
"Ramad," the young man replied. "I have been with him almost two years now. He says that by next year I will be ready for the diaconate."
"And a year or two later for priesthood I expect." Akaleth stood and glanced at the dog and then back to the young man. "How is it that you are tending this dog?"
"It was Father Felsah's idea. Each of us will be tending Rakka for a week at a time. When our week is done the next will care for him. This is my week."
Akaleth nodded, then bent over and gently pet the dog who was now sitting on his haunches and panting. "Does he welcome everyone to the cathedral so joyfully?"
"No," Ramad admitted a bit defensively. His muscles twitched as if he were eager to get away. "Normally he is quite well-behaved. Father Felsah trained him very well."
"It was not Felsah who trained him, but he has been a good companion." Akaleth kept his voice quiet so as not to disturb the other Followers at prayer. He could see Kashin praying farther back, his one fist pressed to his forehead as he murmured the words under his breath. Czestadt was at the rear of the sanctuary and counting beads. Only a few others lingered there that morning after Matins.
"He is friendly," Ramad said with a nod, eyes narrowing and a smile creasing his lips as he looked down at the dog waiting patiently at his hip.
"Tell me, Ramad," Akaleth continued, "you were not born a man were you?"
"Nay," Ramad replied. "When I turned thirteen I became one by Metamor's curses."
"So why elect to become a priest?"
Ramad glanced at the doorway through which he'd come, obviously interested in finding some graceful way to excuse himself. But there wasn't any graceful way to avoid answering the Questioner, and so he bit his lip for a second of thought and then replied, "I have always felt a call to the priesthood. I thought at first it must be to the Lothanasi because they allow women to be priests. But after speaking with them, something didn't feel right to me. After I became a man I understood what it was. I came here and learned of Eli and Yahshua and knew that it was here I was called to serve. It just took Metamor's curses to make it possible."
"Do you think of yourself as a woman who has become a man?"
"Nay," Ramad replied with a quick shake of his head. "I may have started out as a girl, but I'm a man now. That's what matters."
"And a boy who becomes a woman, what would you say to such a one? Especially to such a one who wanted to be a priest?"
"Well, they're a woman now."
Ramad replied with a slight scowl. "Women cannot be priests.
The nuns would be more than happy to take them and give them a way to
serve and love our savior."
Akaleth nodded and said nothing. He lowered one hand and stroked Rakka's ears again. The dog leaned his head into Akaleth's hand, pressing his nose within and pushing into it, goading the priest to pet him more. He obliged with a few quick strokes down the back of his neck, before returning his attention to the seminarian. "You do not need to be afraid of me, young Ramad."
"I'm not..." Ramad started to object, then closed his mouth and lowered his eyes. "I heard about what you did here before."
"I was a very evil man then," Akaleth admitted without pause. "You would be justified in fearing such a man. But I am not that man anymore."
"You aren't testing me?" Ramad asked in surprise.
"No. I am only trying to understand you. You say that you have been called to the priesthood. I accept your word. Metamor's curses have made you into a man. You are not a woman who has been dressed like a man, or even a woman who is wearing an elaborate disguise or one who has trained their voice to sound like a man. You are a man. You may have a better notion of how girls think, but that is all. Is there some bit of that girl, some desire, some sin, that persists with you now?"
Ramad looked uncomfortable now rather than worried. "I... I guess sometimes I get well... bad desires. I don't like them, Father."
"Nor should you. The life of the priest is one that must be lived according to the highest virtues. We are called to be light for the whole world, Ramad. Light for the whole world. Think on that and marvel. We do not have the ability to do it alone, but the Spirit Most Holy, who lives within us and in the Ecclesia, gives us the ability and the wisdom we need, and the gentle promptings, and some not so gentle, that teach us to be that light and leads us ever closer and closer to Him who created us and knew us in the womb. He knew of the curses that would be placed at Metamor, and knew that you would become a man. He knew all of this and blessed you in a special way with your childhood as a girl. Do I know how this will help you as a priest? No. But I know that it is meant to do so.
"I was blessed in my childhood as well, even if I could not see it for He prepared me to keep silent at the moment when it was most needed. I did not learn how much of a blessing it was until far too late, and I have done terrible things because of it. But Eli's mercy is greater still and I have been blessed in more ways than I could ever count. Human justice, feeble and fickle as it is, would have seen me dead before I had a chance to repent in order to protect many from my grim predilections. I can only hope that those I have hurt will find the grace of love in their hearts to forgive me and forgive others who have caused them pain."
Ramad blinked at the sudden homily but nodded as he listened. When nothing more came from the Questioner's tongue, he bent down and gave Rakka a quick scratch behind the ear. The dog panted and licked Ramad's other hand a few times, tail wagging and sweeping the stone tiles behind him. Akaleth allowed himself a smile at the sight.
When the young man stood back up he said in a voice even quieter than before. "Are you going to stay?"
"No. My home is where I am assigned and at present that is Yesulam. When I return I will have been away for more than six months, and that is a very long time for any Questioner to be on the road, even when we have been sent on a Questioning. But, who can say what the future holds? Do you wish me to stay?"
Ramad smiled lightly and nodded. "A moment ago I would have said no. But just now you said more to me in a few words than I've heard yet in any of Father Hough's homilies! How do you speak to the heart so well?"
"Through great pain," Akaleth admitted with a long sigh and a glance toward the yew tree on which Yahshua hung. Though the wooden carving did not show all of the scars Yahshua must have received during His scourging and myriad humiliations, anyone contemplating His countenance would have seen the anguish borne with the greatest of love. "There are some who have suffered little who understand the depths of the heart with such intimacy that you would think they had lived your life as much as their own. The rest of us have to endure hardship to appreciate the way it forms a man just as beaten iron is formed by the smith."
"But Father Hough has suffered greatly," Ramad pointed out with a faint suggestion of shame at having, by comparison, spoken so lightly of her teacher. "He was... I cannot even bear to say it! But he has suffered terribly out of love."
"And his words ring true in many hearts," Akaleth replied, letting his hands wrap about one another in his voluminous sleeves. "But he didn't suffer the way you did, yearning to answer a call that was impossible for you in your youth."
Ramad gazed at him skeptically. "And you did?"
"Aye, I did. No, do not pry further. It is best to let that time lie in peace. I am sure you have many duties and studies this day, not the least of which is this pleasant dog who is looking to you to see to his needs. And I fear one of his needs very soon will be to do something he should not do here in the cathedral." Ramad looked down and saw that Rakka had gotten to all fours and was sniffing around the floor, turning about in circles. The young man's eyes went wide and he slapped his thigh and clicked his tongue. The dog obediently returned to his side, but those dark eyes kept looking around.
"Thank you, Father Akaleth," Ramad said with a smile. "Even if you don't stay here, I very much hope you come back from time to time."
"I would enjoy that. And I hope there is time for us later to speak again. I hope to meet your fellow seminarians as well. For now we do as we must. Obedience is the first step to true love, young Ramad. And as priests we are betrothed in an especial way to the truest lover there has ever been or ever will be." He gestured with a nod of his head toward the Yew and then toward the gold tabernacle atop the marble altar beneath the baldacchino with the blessed mother. Ramad followed his gaze and then prostrated himself as his right hand traced the sign of the Yew over his breast.
"Thank you again. I will meditate on your words. Especially on light." Ramad smiled to him and then patted Rakka on the back of the head. "Come, Rakka. Dominus tecum, Father."
"Et cum spiritu tuo."
With the faintest of smiles on his lips, but one more lively filling his eyes, Akaleth watched the young man walk down the central aisle while the golden-furred dog followed at his heels. It was always strange to see a dog in the sanctuary, but Rakka was very well-behaved. He recalled Felsah's attempt to teach some of the other Questioners humility by having them bring strays into the Questioner Temple and take care of them. A clever idea that did indeed teach humility, but had caused so much chaos and not a few acts of unintended desecration that Kehthaek had intervened after only a day and a half. The strays had all been offered to the merchants and aristocrats and each quickly found a new home. But those two days had been the most hectic to have ever passed within his home.
And even as he thought on that ill-fated plan, he saw its architect hopping toward him from the right side of the sanctuary near the altar rail. Felsah had a firm grip on his shortened robes with both hands and he held the hem of his robe up even higher so he wouldn't step on it with his large toes each time he landed and hopped again. The click of his claws on stone was a short tic-tic-tic like a woodpecker making a new home. His face was bright and his green eyes wide behind a bushel of whiskers as he came to a stop in front of his fellow Questioner.
"Akaleth! Have you finished your morning prayers then?"
"It seems that I have. When did you start having the seminarians look after Rakka?"
"Last week," Felsah replied. "Patric was the first, and now Ramad. The others will each have their turn. It is better than trying to manage strays."
"I was thinking the same thing."
Felsah shook his head in mirth, his long tail flicking back and forth as if he were trying to wag it. "Have you broken your fast yet? Wolfram has brought some fresh biscuits and pastries with him and he would very much enjoy the chance to share them with us both. He also would like to talk with us. There is something I wanted to show you, but it is best to wait until Patric can be there; he is presently visiting the nuns and helping them build their convent, but he'll return after None."
"If the noble captain in the guise of a ram wishes to speak with us, then let us not tarry. Where is he?"
"I've asked him to the room our schola uses to practice. Come, I will show you."
Together they walked down the main aisle of the cathedral past rows of pews and even longer stretches without pews where the faithful could stand or kneel freely. They entered a wide arched door on the northern wall at the back of cathedral which took them up a broad set of steps to a wide room with a trio of wooden platforms, each one higher than the one in front of it, and a series of closets on either side. The peculiar scent of brass and oil filled the room. Windows on the eastern face bathed the room in a delicate light. Nine unlit lanterns hung from the ceiling, each within easy reach of the four foot long candle lighter with quenching bell at its end that was propped in one corner. Behind them the stairs continued upwards toward the loft at the rear of the cathedral.
Sitting on the middle platform with his hooves propped against the back of the lower platform was the black-wooled ram. His buckler was empty of both sword and shield. But he was still attired in the blue livery of a soldier of Metamor. Brown eyes saw them approach, and his tufted ears were turned toward them as they stepped into view. He rose and bowed his head low, affording Akaleth a good view of the smoothed stump of his right horn. There were suggestions of the jagged break, but the worst of them had long since been filed away.
"Good morning, Father Felsah, Father Akaleth," he said with deep respect in tone and posture. "I brought some food for you both this morning if you'd like to share them with me."
"Thank you, Captain Wolfram," Akaleth replied with a nod of his head. "That is most gracious of you. We would be honored to join you in breaking our fast."
They all sat down on the platforms. Felsah straddled the middle platform, his long tail stretched out behind him, while either leg dangled over the sides, toes not reaching the wooden supports between each platform. Akaleth sat opposite him with Wolfram between them. The ram had a small basket behind him that smelled of warm, fresh bread and some fruit that Akaleth couldn't identify. He handed each of them a loaf as big as their fists and Felsah said the blessing. Akaleth tore off little chunks and found it soft, pliable, a little sweet, but mostly a savory morning delight. He finished his loaf faster than he usually would eat his meals and found another placed into his hands by the ram who kept a beastly eye on him and a strange expression on his snout, one foreign to any sheep he'd ever seen.
"Do you like it, Father?"
"This is excellent," Akaleth replied between bites. "Are these strawberries?"
"Oh yes. A fresh batch according to Brennar."
"I thought strawberries ripen in early Summer."
Wolfram shrugged. "I suppose. I think these come from D'Alimonte's greenhouse. The grasshopper always has something interesting growing there no matter the season."
"Grasshopper?" Akaleth asked in surprise, but then shook his head. "No, do not tell me. I can barely conceive of what it must be like to have fur or wool. To become like a grasshopper is beyond my limited understanding."
Wolfram laughed and smacked his knee with one hand. "I wasn't going to try to explain that! I don't understand it either! But if he can grow strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and all sorts of other fruits any time of the year, he must be a good man."
Akaleth almost corrected him by saying that it only meant this D'Alimonte was a master of horticulture, but kept the remark behind his tongue. This was the sort of uncharitable statement that he knew he was so prone to and that he had to defeat if he was to be a better priest and man. Instead, he took another bite of the juicy and savory pastry, chewed and swallowed, and then said, "And my compliments to your inventive baker."
"Gregor makes the best bread in all the valley, even if he is a Lightbringer." Wolfram licked one of his hoof-like nails of the last of the juice from his pastry and then balled his two-fingered hands into fists. "That's kind of what I wanted to ask you both about. Not the Lightbringers, but the gods that they worship... and the gods that they fear."
"The diabolical Pantheon of the," Akaleth couldn't help but snort at the name, "Lightbringers?"
"Aye, the, aedra and daedra lords as they call them. Why doesn't the Ecclesia teach us more about them and how to protect ourselves from them?"
Akaleth took his time chewing his next bite as he pondered the question. Felsah did as well, though the jerboa chewed a little faster. His piping voice squeaked as the first stirrings of an answer began to tumble from his long tongue. "In Yesulam where we both grew to maturity there was little need to discuss them because there is simply no one in all of the Holy Land who believes them to be gods to be worshiped. Many believe them to be demons to be feared and cast out. A few believe them to be spiritual beings of great power who are, unlike the demons, still capable of repentance for their sins and thus in even greater need of Yahshua the redeemer than we! But, since we do not deal with them ourselves, we do not hear of them much there."
Wolfram nodded, his thin lips grimacing in disappointment. "But in many places Follower and Lightbringer cross paths; and in some like Metamor, there are far more Lightbringers than Followers like us. Surely there must be something that can be done to protect us from them."
"It is the role of the priest to shepherd his flock and warn them to keep away from things that belong to the Lightbringers," Felsah replied with an occasional agitated squeak. The jerboa's tail tuft was bouncing up and down on the wooden platform; Akaleth could not help but watch it as he pondered what more he could add.
"But what if you do all that and they still find you?"
Akaleth knew that there had to be some reason behind these questions and so he decided it was best not to waste any more time on hints and circumlocutions. "Something happened to you or somebody you care about. One of the aedra or daedra did something, did they not?"
Wolfram's expression looked as pleasant as a man contemplating child-birth. "My friend, the best and closest friend I have ever had. He... he was torn from this world by one of the daedra lords. And I think that he was being attacked by them for months before hand. Everything he did, every project he started, was sabotaged in some way that either set him back months or nearly killed him. Misha saw what happened in the end not two months ago. It... it pains and angers me still." The ram's voice deepened and the bleating became a veritable growl. And between his clenched flat teeth, he described a dark fiery figure that laughed with a malice that turned the fiercest blood cold, a leash of chain, black as coal and red as a forge, and the screams for help from his doomed friend as he was dragged off into the midnight shade where only the echo of his screams and the daedra lord's laugh lingered.
Akaleth shivered, and Felsah had to fight to keep still. When Wolfram finished his tale, both Questioners made the sign of the yew to ward off the evil. Akaleth spoke, his voice measured and the mask of the Questioner firmly in place to hide his horror. "It seems that we should be doing more to fight such threats. I will be passing through Kelewair on my return journey and I will speak of this to Bishop Verdane. He will want to know immediately and he might have some ideas of his own; his diocese contains many Lightbringers and many who might serve the daedra too. I will also tell everything to my superiors on my return to Yesulam. Even the Patriarch will hear of this. Tell us everything you saw and heard, and now know that points to their dread influence in your friend's life. I will keep him in my prayers henceforth."
Wolfram lowered his eyes, hooves scuffling against the wood beneath them. "There is much that is personal, Father. And a lot is just guesses. I don't know if they are even true."
Felsah stretched out one paw and rested it on the ram's right arm. His short claws and small hands looked even smaller touching the well-muscled ram's forearm; they almost sank into his black wool and disappeared like a stone plunging into the sea. "The more we hear the better we will be to determine the truth; and the more likely we will be able to help your friend, and to keep what happened to him from happening to any other Followers."
Nothing was said for several seconds as the ram soldier took a deep breath and then exhaled so slowly that he seemed a flower closing its petals at the fall of night. "All right. There is a lot to tell, Father. I hope you have the time."
"I always have time for souls," Akaleth assured him with a nod of his head. "Please, tell us what you know."
"Well," Wolfram said as he propped his hooves on the platform again, hands gripping the wood behind him for support. "It began about a year ago when my friend opened his tin smithy..."
While they had all been told to remain in the cathedral during their stay and he was more than willing to sleep in one of the little rooms that they kept for seminarians and visiting priests, there was just far too much about the place that unsettled his Rebuilder soul. Hugo had been rapt with the beauty of the stained-glass windows, the clerestory, the mighty organ, and even the stations showing many scenes of Yahshua's torment on the way to the execution tree. But the statuary that filled the place, especially of Yanlin which was given so prominent a place above the altar, the image of Yahshua upon the yew, and of course, the tabernacle itself, all of this bothered him in a way he could not define and so he begged the seminarian whose room he was sharing if he might follow him out into the city that day.
The seminarian, a mouse named Richard who was Boots junior by five years, was tasked with visiting several Follower families to learn their needs that month, to pray with them, and to bring a blessing from Father Hough for them and their household. He chose a narrow passage hidden back behind stacks of altar candles in the main storage room for the cathedral that led out to the gardens, a passage that brought them outside the castle without having to pass through the Cathedral entrance. And it was also a passage whose exit could not be detected from the exterior. Hugo was amazed that they would show him such a secret escape, but Richard explained that Father Akaleth had requested it, and Hough had concurred.
How did he come to deserve such compassion from Ecclesiast priests?
Hugo was afraid even that subterfuge would come to naught when they reached the gates from the Keep grounds to Keeptowne, but none of the guards standing watch said anything as they passed.
Once through they stood in the smelly streets of Metamor with looming houses on either side, brightly colored tapestries hanging from high windows and little pinions flapping from the ramparts behind them. The sounds of voices, horse hooves, claws and Keeper hooves, wagon wheels, carriages, carts, children, a smithy, and more shopkeepers than he could count filled his ears. The typical scents of refuse and perfume tickled his nose, but he was also overwhelmed by the powerful animal musks that thronged the air. Hugo nearly fell to his knees as he tried to absorb everything at once. He hadn't realized how much he had missed riding in the carriage yesterday.
Richard's whiskers twitched in a faint chuckle. "If you think this is bad, imagine how it smells and sounds to me!" He pointed to his pink nose and large ears. He even flicked the pink flesh of his ears with his claws as if they were drums. "You get used to it. I'm going to meet Patric at the convent a little before None. You can meet me there. It's easy to find, don't worry. Everybody knows where it is."
It took him a moment to remember which hour of the day None was. Spending the last month in Father Akaleth's company had taught him many things about the Ecclesiasts that he had never known, such as the way they kept time. A regular schedule of special prayers throughout the day struck him as a ritualized affair without heart, but he had to admit that the devotion he'd seen in Akaleth and Kashin's faces as they'd prayed, and even Czestadt's, had made him wonder if it really was just a barren ritual of men. And there did seem to be a great deal of wisdom in spending a bit of time in prayer each day; he just couldn't believe that the Ecclesiasts might actually have stumbled onto a good idea.
After agreeing to the mouse's suggestion they parted ways with the mouse seminarian heading down one of the narrow alleys past shopkeepers and toward the Inns and homes on the eastern side of the city. Hugo followed a similar alley toward the west, and then proceeded south along a wider track between the tightly clustered buildings that paralleled the main thoroughfare. There would be more soldiers patrolling the main road and there might be one that would recognize him; it was best to stay where he wasn't as likely to be noticed.
He wandered for a while, admiring the beauty of the landscape surrounding the city, the variety of shapes every Keeper came in – many of whom were species of animal that he'd never seen before and most of which made Boots a little nervous – and noting how pervasive the magical flows were in this land. They were so strong that he felt as if he were walking through cobwebs every way he went, the tendrils of magical force brushing across him and sometimes clinging to him for a moment before snapping back into place.
But more than the magic, the beastly shapes, the children acting like adults, and the buxom women and impressive men, there was an air of friendliness and unity that was entirely missing from his home of Marigund. In Marigund the only thing that unified them all was that they were born there and that patriotism for their homeland was instilled in each generation with martial discipline. There was division amongst the Keepers based on faith, though unlike Marigund where the Lothanasi, Ecclesiasts, and Rebuilders had roughly the same numbers, here the majority were Lothanasi and the Rebuilders were so few in number as to be nearly invisible. Yet, there didn't seem to be any divisions, as he saw Lothanasi symbols hanging in the windows of one home, while the next featured a yew over its transom. And while he could tell when he ventured from the merchant's district to the laborer's district, there was never a sense of a Lothanasi or Ecclesiast district, nor even of a beast, or children's district as he might have expected from the Curses. The unity of the people of Metamor was even more beautiful than the mountains, the variety of their shapes, or even the abundance of magic flowing through their land.
Hugo eventually migrated to the market square where he purchased a small loaf of bread and a small wedge of cheese, little portions of which he shared with Boots who kept hidden within a deep and wide pocket inside his cloak. The sky was filled with clouds but if there was a threat of rain it did not seem to alarm any of the Keepers.
The square was filled with stalls selling food of every kind, from spiced and salted meats, to several different breads, cheeses, eggs, fruits, beans, lentils, spices, potatoes, celery, a variety of noodles, and even bundles of flavored grass and oats for those Keepers who had become ruminants. There were also merchants selling jewelry of mediocre quality, weapons so dull that they would need a week of sharpening to pierce a soap bubble, clothing promised to be tailored to any shape or size, with as many number of appendages as that Keeper possessed, wines claiming to be of older vintage than they really were, perfumes ranging from a sweet fruitiness to an astringent aroma so powerful that even Hugo wanted to gag when he caught a whiff, and several who sold trinkets of questionable value featuring a variety of animal designs that always seemed to catch a Keeper's eye. Hugo found a corner in which he could sit and share his food with Boots and watched it all with wonder and a bit of jealousy.
He could not help but wonder what it would be like to have fur and a tail like the beastly Keepers. He took the time to study those who came close, watching the way their misshapen legs moved, as well as the tails, some of which seemed ornamental, while others appeared necessary for the Keeper to remain standing upright. His eyes noted the way that their ears moved and turned at each noise that echoed around the market; rotating, laying flat, perking upright, and sticking straight out, all of them common to animals but so strange to see on men and women. Fur, fangs, hooves, horns, paws, claws, scales, tails, and feathers all were sported by one Keeper after another in such an array that it seemed amazing that each and every one of them could have once been a human man or woman like him. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness expressed by one type of beast Keeper to another. Unity existed between them even in the starkest difference in shape.
Boots cowered in his coat pocket most of the time, overwhelmed by the scents of so many predators about, though from time to time he did poke his black-furred and pink-nosed snout from behind Hugo's cloak to look at the creatures his master marveled at. He took no delight in them, admitting with a worrying squeak that he did not like this place and hoped that they would be leaving soon.
If we stay, I could become just as they are, half man and half animal, Boots.
The simple objection of his familiar was endearing and made his heart swell with compassion. He had briefly thought to tease him with the possibility of becoming some type of cat or dog, but now he knew he could never do that. It would hurt his little friend far too much to hear of such a thing.
Wouldn't you like it if I became a rat like you, Boots?
He felt a sense of curiosity in the midst of his little friend's fears. Like me, Master?
That's right, Boots. A rat just like you. Wouldn't you like that?
Just like me? Would you still be my master or would we both have a new master?
The question caught Hugo off-guard. The image of himself as a familiar was far too hilarious not to burst into a warm laughter. Boots was far smarter than any normal rat; almost twenty years as a familiar could not help but give his friend insight into things that ought to be beyond him. He gently stroked Boot's little head inside his cloak and gave him another morsel of cheese. Boots devoured it gratefully, his fears forgotten.
I will always be your master and you will always be my Boots.
The answer almost satisfied his friend. Would I still be able to ride in your pocket?
Of course, because I would be a really big rat, almost as big as I am now.
But bigger animals are scary!
I wouldn't be.
And that was all it took for Boots to be comforted again.
He resumed watching the various Keepers from his vantage point on a small stone railing that kept the back of each merchant's stall protected from thieves. Any man trying to step over it would be visible to everyone in the market, especially the soldiers stationed throughout who kept a wary eye on the comings and goings that thronged around them. Still, they couldn't see everything. As Hugo watched, a creature with dusty reddish fur, a long, thick tail, with black rings around his eyes and tipping each finger, and a wiry body that was no more than nine hands high, slipped on top of the wall and laid completely flat. His little paws darted out and snatched a pair of fruits from the nearest table, each of which was deftly stuffed into the pockets of his baggy clothes. He then slid right off the stone wall and darted back out of the marketplace.
Hugo was so dumbstruck by the brazenness of it that he didn't cry out for the guards. Instead he got to his feet and chased after the little fellow. The creature saw him running after him and tried to dart down the nearby alleys, but Hugo's legs were much longer and after two turns he'd snagged the lithe fellow by the arm. "Little thief!" Hugo snapped, giving the young boy a shake. "You're going to take those apples right back."
"Lemme go! Didna' steal anything!" The boy complained, tugging on his arm, and then opening wide his jaws to reveal lots of little teeth amidst four wicked-looking fangs. He tried to bite down on Hugo's hand, but the mage bopped him on the forehead with his other hand.
"And don't try that either!"
"Ow!" The boy shook his head and slapped his long tail on the ground several times. "Jus' hungry. Nobody gives me anything."
Hugo, now holding the boy, could smell that neither the boy nor his clothes had been washed in days, and that there were several holes in both tunic and breeches from wear. It looked as if the boy had been on the streets for a while, an urchin. But why was he already cursed. He didn't seem big enough to be old enough to be cursed. Then again, Hugo wasn't quite sure what the boy was so there was no way of knowing if he was the right size. But he was acting like a child much younger than a boy on the cusp of manhood.
Hugo was about to study the child magically when a whoosh of feathers overhead made them both look up. A plume of black feathers fell from a nearby roof to land on the other side of the boy, growing within a few seconds into a tall hawk in a human shape. "Oh, Kuna, what have you gotten yourself into this time," the hawk asked, its voice decidedly feminine.
"I caught him stealing fruit," Hugo explained, as he let go of the boy's arm. The child immediately fell to the ground and rubbed his arm back and forth, giving him a many fanged glare. "Are you his mother?"
"No," the hawk replied. "I caught him trying to steal from me as well. I have been trying to keep an eye on him since."
"Where are his, Kuna's, parents?"
"Sadly, they died many years ago. Kuna has been on the streets for many years now, haven't you, Kuna?" The hawk stared down at the child who flinched a bit at the steely golden gaze. The animal boy swallowed and then nodded his head up and down.
Inside his cloak he could feel Boots cowering in terror, though he tried to comfort the rat with a gentle pat to the head. Hugo could feel a peculiar tang in the air, like a wind springing up from nowhere. "Are there no orphanages that can take care of him?"
"Oh, there is, but Kuna prefers to live like an urchin, don't you Kuna?" Again the fierce avian stare followed by the little mammal's nodding. "Nothing but a little child and here I am having to take care of you. I'm practically your auntie now. Be good for your auntie and return those apples you stole."
Kuna swallowed and rolled both apples out of his pockets and hefted them in his small paws. "I will, Auntie."
"Thank you for stopping him," the black-feathered hawk said to him, her gaze no longer quite as hard, but still very intense. There was just something about a bird-of-prey's eyes that unnerved Hugo. "One day I'm sure I will be able to get him to stay at the orphanage where he will be taken care of and taught proper manners and behavior. I do the best I can until then."
"I don't quite understand," Hugo admitted, standing in the boy's way. Kuna rubbed his fingers over the apples and stared at his legs and the street beyond with a resigned duty. "I didn't think the Curse affected children."
"Children born to those already cursed, if the curses are the same, can be born with the same curse already. And that's what happened to you, Kuna, isn't it?" The boy nodded again, tail and head drooping.
Curious, Hugo tried to see into the realm of magic. He had already determined that the Curse of Metamor showed itself as a black mass that was attached to each and every Keeper, a mass that was so nebulous in shape and design that it was next to impossible to see any pattern in its structure, or any pattern between the type of curse received. And so it was with Kuna, though there seemed to be a hint of magic being pressed against him now, several threads working through him in little bursts like pulses of candlelight through a narrow slit of wood. It didn't seem to come from the hawk which was a surprise because he could tell immediately she was a fellow mage and a powerful one at that.
"What is he? I've never seen an animal that looks like him before."
"A meerkat. They are found on the savannahs of northern Kitchelande. I have never been there myself but there are a few here who have seen that strange land."
Hugo laughed, though he still felt a strange unease that he couldn't explain. "Strange land? That is ironic to hear from the beak of a black-feathered hawk. How did you come by black feathers? That isn't a natural color for hawks."
She lowered her beak and quickly preened one of her wings arms before looking up at him and nodded. She lifted her left leg and pointed a talon at him. "You are very perceptive for a stranger to this land. I see you are a mage and that you have a familiar in your cloak. You may assure him that I would never harm a creature as loyal to his master as your rat." Hugo blinked in surprise but the hawk continued to speak before he could ask her how she knew about Boots. "As for my feathers, they were once red like any other hawk. I fought a terrible battle against an evil sorceress and though I won that battle, it stained my feathers black and they have been that way ever since. Even new feathers grow in black! But I like it."
She glanced up at the sky and her eyes narrowed. "I would love to speak with you more. You seem a very interesting visitor to Metamor and I hope that you enjoy your stay and that you find time to see all that our beautiful city has to offer; before the Curses make you a resident that is! I have so much to do, and keeping watch over this little one is just one of them. Now Kuna, hurry up and return those apples for your Auntie!"
The meerkat child bobbed his head up and down and then darted around Hugo, weaving past his legs with a flexibility impossible for even a human child. Another moment and he was gone around the corner, only the faint clicking of his claws and thumping of his tail betraying that he still ran toward the market.
A loud flapping of wings erupted behind him, and Hugo turned again to see the hawk returned to an animal shape and flying up between the buildings. A moment later and she too vanished from his sight. Hugo blinked and took several deep breaths. He wasn't sure how he knew it, but he was absolutely certain that something deeper than the schooling of an urchin child had just taken place. He shivered in the cool wind that filled the alley and stepped very lightly back into one of the larger streets.
He decided to take the hawk's advice and kept on walking, intent on seeing as much of the city as he could before the hour of None arrived and with it his rendezvous with Richard at the convent. In his cloak pocket little Boots shivered, mind still frightened that the hawk might come back and snatch him away. Hugo stroked the top of the rat's head with one finger as he walked.
It had not been ten minutes after the ram had finished telling his tale before Akaleth was interrupted in his prayers again. It had taken Wolfram longer than expected to detail all of the events where he believed the daedra had played a hand in his friend's unfortunate fate. Both Felsah and Akaleth stopped him repeatedly to ask questions to probe his memory and to try to draw some threads of consistency between the events. There was much there that could not be easily explained but that there was diabolic hands at work could not be denied by any right-thinking man.
Midday came upon them and passed before Wolfram admitted that he couldn't think of anything else. The two Questioners tried to suggest things that Wolfram could do for himself should he see anything like this happening to him or to any of his other friends, but most of them ended up becoming some variant of alert the nearest priest. They did caution him that such malignant spiritual beings were known to revisit places and people they had tormented before, and Felsah promised Wolfram that if he ever came to him with some suspicion he would investigate it immediately, even promising to go with him to look over those places where the daedra caused accidents and especially where his friend had disappeared with that daedra lord.
Wolfram thanked them both profusely and offered to bring them both more food later that evening. Akaleth gratefully accepted the offer and after giving the ram a blessing, left the schola practice room to attend to his midday prayers. On his tenth Pater Noster his nose twitched with a particularly potent pungent aroma coming from behind him. A moment later he could hear the click of claws on stone nearing him. He swallowed his breath and lifted his eyes to the Yew to recenter his thoughts, but a woman's voice with an audible churr beneath it interrupted him. "I'm sorry for intruding, but are you Father Akaleth?"
He made the sign of the yew and then turned to face the woman. She was modestly dressed in a warm tunic and breeches with a blue cloak over her shoulders that was split in the back to make room for her very long and thick tail. Her fur was a glossy black with a white stripe down the middle of her head, back and tail. Soft, round ears were twisted toward him, while warm green eyes regarded him with intense curiosity. It took a moment for the name of the animal to come to him, but there was no mistaking her genus as anything other than a skunk.
"I am Father Akaleth," he replied as he stood and rubbed at his knees from habit. "And who are you my child?"
"My name is Kayla," she said, bowing her head slightly. She had no dress to curtsy and Akaleth suspected that she would not have done so anyway even if she had been clad in a dress. "Misha told me that you and I have something in common."
That piqued his curiosity. He allowed his lips to form a slight smile. "What is it that we have in common, milady Kayla?"
The honorific seemed to embarrass her. "It is just Kayla. He says that you have seen something that I have seen. A sword made of gold with a nine sided pommel."
Akaleth almost buckled to the ground, and he reached out for anything to steady himself, but there was nothing but the skunk in reach. She grabbed his hand in her own, and he felt the tough pads in her palm and along the bottom of her fingers, as well as the short, sharp claws the Curse had bestowed on her. He could not recall clasping the paw of any Keeper other than Felsah; the grip was strange, with some of the quality of holding Rakka's paw when he offered it, but shaped more like a man's hand. But their touch was brief, for as soon as she had steadied him, she let go and nodded her head, breathing in awe. "You have seen it."
"The Sword of Yajakali," Akaleth replied in the barest whisper. "How did you come to know of it?"
"A group of us from Metamor and some others went to the Chateau Marzac and faced Yajakali himself. We saw the sword there. How did you know of it?"
"It was in Yesulam. I first saw it in July of last year. I saw it... do things." Akaleth shook his head. "The memory is very horrible for me as I'm sure it must be for you. Did you wish to discuss what you saw and what you endured travailing against that evil? Do you want to hear what I saw and did?"
"Aye, I do. To both. There are so few of us who have seen and faced it that I just want to know everyone who helped. Sometimes I feel so alone. Sometimes I feel as if I'm the only one who carried that great weight, even if I know I wasn't. Does that make sense?"
Akaleth nodded, even if he did not feel quite so encumbered as she. "We aren't made to bear a burden alone. Come, let us go someplace where we will not disturb others with our voices."
The wooden platform in the schola practice room was still warm where he'd sat for most of the morning. He took his old place again, while Kayla sat a few feet from him, her tail dangling over the side, the tip swaying back and forth like a boy on a swing. Akaleth found it odd that a woman would be involved in something as horrifying as the desolation of Yajakali, but there could be no doubt she knew of the blade and that meant there were depths to her he did not even suspect. He admired her.
"How many of you were there who left Metamor to face this monster?" Akaleth asked after they were both comfortable.
"There were eight of us at first. Zhypar Habakkuk, Lindsey, James, Jessica, Charles, and myself were the Metamorians, while a Binoq named Abafouq and a Nauh-kaee named Guernef guided us into the Barrier mountains."
Akaleth raised one hand and narrowed his eyes. "A Binoq? A Nauh-kaee? I have never heard of such creatures. What are they?"
Kayla explained and Akaleth could only sit back and marvel as her story unfolded. He did not recognize the woman who chased them through the mountains and was grateful for it. His heart hungered in awe at the description of the sky vessel Nak-Tegehki and then the ancient cities of Qorfuu and Ava-shavåis. His jaw gaped when told of the mighty Rheh Talaran and their flight across the Steppe and the eastern half of Pyralia. His curiosity became a ravenous beast that he fought every second to keep in check, otherwise her tale would never be completed and he might miss the most important details.
When Kayla described their attackers in the woods near the Breckarin river, he could no longer hold the monstrous hunger at bay. "The man in black... describe him again will you?"
Kayla nodded and steepled her fingers beneath her chin as she thought. "He had black hair, dark eyes whose color I never could tell, and a southern complexion. He was both broad shouldered and lithe, and he moved faster than almost any man I have ever known. His black robe covered him from shoulder to feet, and it featured the heraldry of his order on his left breast. A shield with a white palm and red sword inscribed."
Akaleth nodded as he remembered the days of his torturing in that subterranean temple. "Was his name Krenek Zagrosek?"
"You know him?" Kayla leaped forward and almost put her paws on his knees in her excitement. That long tail lifted over her head quivering as if it were another listener eager to know.
"In the most unpleasant way," Akaleth replied. "I do not know how long it was, a few days to a week, I'm not sure. But for that time at the end of July last year, I was that man's prisoner, and I spent every waking moment either being beaten by that man, or healing from the crushing wounds he'd given me. Even after I escaped it took me a month to be able to do anything more than walk across the room without exhausting myself in agony."
The priest lowered his head and waved on hand. "But that was before you saw him in Breckaris. Please, tell me what happened next. Everything you speak of now is after the last time I saw him. Please continue, Kayla."
And she did. And very quickly Akaleth felt a sickening gratitude that he had never met the Marquis du Tournemire whose tortures were so vile that it made him want to vomit. He slipped his hand into his sleeve and grabbed the inside of his robe, curling his fingers tighter and tighter until they hurt. He relaxed at the news of their rescue and the defeat of that woman mage who had hunted them in the mountains. His heart wept at the wounding of the northern woman, and then his jaw fell agape again when he learned that she was here at Metamor amongst the nuns. He resolved right then to chastise Felsah for not telling him these things.
Kayla sketched very briefly the horrors they faced in the swamp, and then because she wasn't there to see, had to also briefly sketch the manner in which Zagrosek was slain. "Crushed by a carillon? I commend this James on his cleverness and keeping his wits about him. And you say he begged for prayers at his death?"
"That's what Charles told me. They were dearest friends."
"Ah yes, I remember that about Charles Matthias. I've seen what the corruption of Marzac can do. It does not yet relieve me to hear this, but I know in time I will be very grateful to hear that Zagrosek sought redemption with his dying breath. It hadn't occurred to me that he could be as much a victim of Marzac as so many others were."
Kayla's face turned dour, eyes darkening with some secret she had not and did not dare reveal. "I think every one of us who crossed the path of Yajakali in any way were his victims."
"Wisely said. What happened next?"
Kayla described the ritual in the Hall of Unearthly Light but the magical terms were a dizzying morass to the Questioner. All he could focus on was the terrible reality of that blade and its companion pieces as the ritual unfolded. And then miraculously failed. "Wait, could you describe that sword you said came through the card?"
"It was a black blade with a silver tang down the middle. I had never seen the like."
"I have," Akaleth replied with a long exhalation and then, despite himself, a long and hearty burst of laughter. Kayla gazed at him with an unreadable beast's expression while he gained control of his immense sense of relief and awe. "Oh, Eli! How great and mysterious are Your ways! How great indeed! 'Twas Nemgas that swung that blade to thwart Yajakali again. I know it!"
"Nemgas?" Kayla asked.
"In a moment," Akaleth assured her, unable to hide his delight behind the mask he usually bore. "Finish telling your tale and then you will understand when I tell you mine."
There was not much left for the skunk to reveal. Once the mountain came through the card they fled back up the stairs and out of the Chateau. After the explosion they were rescued by the rabbit prince of Whales and started their voyage home. "We still need to beware the corruption of Marzac, but so far it has failed all attempts at returning. The sword, the censer, and the dais are all gone forever. We saw them melt into slag before we fled. But... that was the only time we ever saw the sword."
Akaleth took a deep breath and let his mirth die with the next words from his throat. "Just as I am grateful that I did not have to endure the many horrors you faced from the Marquis, Yajakali, Agathe, and the rest, you may be grateful that you never experienced the cry of the little souls snuffed by that blade, and the gleeful giggling of the man who wielded it."
Kayla listened far more patiently than he did, or so it seemed. Her fur seemed to rise like a dog's hackles at some points, while at others she seemed on the verge of tears. Akaleth did not have the heart to mention how many children he had seen the Sword consume, nor did he describe it in any detail both to spare her that heart-rending image and to keep himself from breaking down in tears as he had nearly done in Marigund. But what he did describe was enough to set both of them on edge.
In fact she asked no questions until he described how he stumbled upon the Magyars hiding in the sewers beneath Yesulam during his escape. It was not about the light he created that she asked, nor even how he was able to move a body battered and broken as his had been. Instead she asked, "Is that the Nemgas you spoke of before?"
Akaleth could not help but like and admire this skunk lady. She was perceptive and a quick thinker. Her questions, few as they were, always seemed to anticipate his answers. "Aye, this is Nemgas. He carried the sword you saw, the sword known as Caur-Merripen. An ancient blade once wielded by the great Pelain of Cheskych."
"Pelain? I've heard that name," Kayla noted. She pondered it for a moment and then shook her head. "I cannot recall where."
"He lived over a thousand years ago. He was a Suielman noble who traveled east to the Vysehrad mountains. He climbed Mount Cenziga and was split in twain. And then after building the city of Cheskych, he was slain while killing a dragon corrupted by Marzac... Vissarion was the name."
Kayla gasped and then clasped both paws over her snout. Akaleth regarded her with a level gaze. One by one she put her paws back into her lap and then let out a long slow breath, eyes dropping to fix upon the wooden platform beneath her. "I know that name. I... met that dragon. It is... too complicated to explain now. Please, continue."
"Truly the connections between these events, the ones you and I have both witnessed, are greater than we expected when first we began. After Nemgas nursed me back to health, I joined him in following Czestadt back down to that foul altar where Bishop Jothay was performing a terrible ritual with the sword." Akaleth did not describe the battle that followed in much detail except to say that Zagrosek escaped, the Blood Bound were defeated, Nemgas and Kashin were split, and Jothay died when the sword literally turned on him and skewered him into the altar.
Kayla shook her head at the mass of details. "Now I have to know a few things. Nemgas and Kashin were split? What does that mean?"
"It has something to do with Cenziga. If you are curious for a first hand account, Kashin is here now with us praying in the cathedral. You may ask him. I cannot explain it better."
She grimaced but nodded. "I will have to. What happened when the sword killed Jothay? That couldn't have been the end of it."
"Nay, it was not." Reluctantly, Akaleth continued his recitation with the appearance of the Shrieker but did not say how it was defeated, only that it was smitten, and at its death the entire chamber began to sink further into the earth. Kayla did not pry any further, but shook her head in wonder at the tale's conclusion.
"And you never saw the sword after that?"
Kayla sat thinking for nearly a minute, her face and eyes turned inward as she poured over the evidence that Akaleth had given her. She tapped her claws together a few times as if counting with them. Her tail settled down behind her, the end lazily drifting back and forth across the platform. And then she lifted her green eyes, the eyes of a beast that showed more intelligence and compassion than many men he knew, and met his gaze without any sign of weakness. "Do you know a Dazheen?"
It took Akaleth a moment to recall the name, but after several seconds pondering he began to nod. "Nemgas and the other Magyars mentioned her. She was the seer for their tribe."
"The Marquis said something like, 'Now let me introduce you to my dear friend Dazheen' just before he showed his final card, the one that you said your Nemgas struck through with that other sword... Caur-Merripen. Yes, that is it. What do you make of that?"
Now it was Akaleth's turn to ponder the elements of the tale and determine what each of them meant. He sought some deep significance at first, but finding none, turned toward simpler explanations. The answer came to him like a stone rippling a pond. "It means that Nemgas and the other Magyars found their way back to their wagons. And they went to Cenziga again. This Cenziga was the opposite of Marzac in some strange way. The only weapon the sword couldn't destroy was Caur-Merripen, and Caur-Merripen had been twinned by that forbidding mountain. And that mountain closed whatever infernal hole was made at Jagoduun. It is... unimaginable. I suddenly feel like an ant dodging sandals on a busy street."
"That's how I felt most of the time we were on our way there. Every time I started to feel like we had the strength to win the battle something vaster and more malevolent would sweep it all away." Kayla then began to smile and a long sign escaped her chest. "I'm just glad to meet somebody else who was involved. I always knew we weren't the only ones contending with Marzac. I just never thought I would meet another."
"Father Felsah was also involved. He knows some things I do not and I know he would be delighted in hearing your side of the struggle. Both Kashin and Czestadt were involved as well and they know many things I can only guess at. What of the others who accompanied you? Where are they?"
"Charles and James are in Glen Avery where they live. Lindsey went north to Arabarb to free his homeland from the loathsome Baron Calephas. Jerome went north into the Giantdowns two months ago and nobody has seen or heard from him since. I worry about him. Jessica is here at Metamor now, and married too; it was such a lovely wedding and they make a handsome couple! Oh! Abafouq and Guernef returned to the Barrier range, and we haven't heard from them again either. Andares went back to his people too. Again, we haven't heard from him. I wish I knew how they all were doing. I miss them."
"Would you believe that there are days when I miss the Magyars?"
Kayla's snout seemed to scrunch in on itself for a moment before she began nodding. "You're human, and they were you're friends, even if only for a little while. Of course you would miss them."
"It is a shame that we cannot know each other better, Kayla. We have struggled to win the same fight and yet, this is probably the only chance we will ever have to see each other. And I confess, I would love to meet your friends as well. I have long desired to meet this Charles Matthias and it seems I have missed him again! Such are the ways of Eli, we will never receive all that we desire, nor should we. Ah, thank you, Kayla. Thank you for finding me here and telling me of what we have shared."
"Thank you, Father Akaleth." Kayla smiled to him but did not come closer. "I don't feel quite so alone anymore."
Akaleth surprised her and himself by reaching forward and hugging the skunk.