by Charles Matthias

March 19, 708 CR

The library at Metamor was filled with musty corners hidden from the light in which secrets waiting to be rediscovered secluded themselves from all but the eyes for which they were destined. It was a place of mysteries and seemingly endless in its capacity to surprise any literate man or woman who strolled its close-knit shelves and huddled nooks. Despite the old close-packed stone and the awnings that seemed to lean over the unwary, the Keep library was regularly frequented by the curious, the learned, and the wary traveler in need of a quiet diversion.

And while the archives in the Lothanasi temple were also fashioned from stone with high arching walls and close-packed shelves filled with old tomes and scrolls, its gas-lit halls were almost always filled with studious acolytes busy copying, illuminating, cataloging and cross-referencing the many books, maps and scrolls. Its secrets were constantly plumbed and investigated, each new day bringing about some acolyte's discovery of ancient lore well known or once known to the Lothanasa. While the secrets were better kept the further down into the archives any ventured, this was a library eager to surrender its knowledge to any who came. And for the young raccoon acolyte newly assigned to reading anything and everything within its depths, the archives were a welcoming delight that offered itself up without complaint.

Elvmere had been intimidated at first when he'd been told two weeks ago that he was to search the archives for any knowledge that could be obtained about the plague afflicting Metamor. He'd done nothing in the temple except tend the sacrificial birds apart from a few jaunts to help the still weak Rickkter tend to things he had trouble doing himself. This was his first assignment that didn't smell at least partially of bodily waste and he wondered why some one such as himself would be trusted when other acolytes had far more knowledge of the contents of the archives; many of those same acolytes were even assigned the same task!

Nevertheless he methodically worked through the tomes following one avenue after another from the moment he woke to when he fell back asleep. He was not permitted to return to the main level of the temple and so he slept in a secluded corner in a pile of his own clothing, neatly reduced to his feral form to find some comfort. One of the other acolytes brought him some food each day, as well as vellum, ink, and some quills. With this, Elvmere found that he rather enjoyed his sojourn in the windowless archives.

Once word had reached him that the Fallen possessing Priestess Merai had been driven out – by Father Hough no less – and that the source of the plague had been located and destroyed, Elvmere's studies ventured from the purely medicinal and from healing magics – which if not for listening to Murikeer talk of his art as they'd journeyed together would have left his head spinning – to more general topics; he was also allowed to return to the acolyte's chambers to sleep each night and clean himself. He wrote down his thoughts on each subject he encountered in the archives, turning from one book to another however the mood struck him. And so he continued as the days slipped past, his green eyes weary but ravenous as his paws traced along each yellowed page, claws dancing across each finely wrought letter.

And so, engrossed as he was in his latest discovery in a musty, and rather monstrous, old tome and scribbling down a cross reference to another entry in still another monstrous tome in a completely different area of the archives, Elvmere did not at first notice the sound of the ancient wooden door at the top of the main stair opening. Despite the Spirit of the Keep, Kyia’s, ever present shifting of the main body of the Keep there were some things, very simple things, sometimes neglected. Oiled hinges were one, yet Elvmere took no note of the tortured squeal of the door being drawn open, and then pushed closed. The normal scribes, typically the age regressed whose smaller, more dexterous hands were more skilled at illuminations, were still at their morning prayers and would not intrude upon his reading for another hour yet.

Despite being, for all intents and purposes, banished to the archives he was not denied company. Many of the other archivists came to him with all manner of questions, but seldom intruded unduly. Yet their voices were often pitched very low, hardly above a softly thrown whisper, whereas they who had just entered showed no such respect for the quietude of the archives.

"… and his face!" someone chuckled, the masculine voice pitched low but a far cry louder than a whisper where the loudest sound in the archives, beyond those hinges, was the turning of an ancient vellum page. "I was not sure if he was going to swoon for lack of breath, or soil himself from both ends!" Elvmere blinked down at the words on the page before him, comprehension of the ancient, crabbed text almost lost among the intricate illuminations, dashed into chaos. Swoon? Void themselves?

"I don’t exactly recall, I was too busy trying to find somewhere to put my own nose." Another speaker laughed jocularly. Elvmere’s ears twitched and he raised his head, but his desk was at the back end of a row of tall stacks so he could see little. He knew that the speakers numbered two; one shod with soft leather soled boots and the other unshod with the click of claws accompanying each step.

The first speaker laughed. "Well, I didn’t exactly warn you."
His short, round ears turned as he lifted his head, the long, banded tail shifting behind him as he slowly pushed himself to his feet to look over the scroll shelves atop his desk. "Hello? Who is it?" he asked in his beastly churr, raising his voice slightly and almost coughing as the increased effort strained vocal chords used to whispering more quietly than a turning page. Somewhere distant a curious voice raised in an exclamation of confusion answered by his timorous inquiry.

Twitching his whiskers in curiosity, but very little concern for the two speakers did not seem to be making themselves secretive, so he felt no threat in their appearance. The slowly moving air of the archives, bestirred by some mechanism Elvmere had never sought to understand, brought a subtle aroma to his nose as those footsteps approached; excessive use of a rather expensive, sharp perfume overlaying a deeper, more earthy musk. The latter was passing familiar to him and he felt his whiskers lift in that recognition. Likewise he knew few who would so lavishly brocade themselves with additional scents. There was only one musk about the unseen duo, but the sound of claws and the voice, while very different than what he had known, accompanying that distinct lack of scent ticked over in his memory almost instantly.

He knew their names before he ever saw them move around the shelves to his little corner. "Master Malger! Muri! It is good to see you both again."

The pine marten came around the bend first with a crooked smile on his maw. "Master Malger? I stopped being that for you many months ago." He nodded toward the brown acolyte's robe that the raccoon now bore with bewildered amusement. "It appears you have a new master now, and certainly not one that I expected!" Malger was clad, as was his normal wont, in the garishly overdone raiment of a courtesan; rich emerald green vest and loose trews tucked into soft leather boots of black. Lace framed his neck and wrists and a sash, also black, matched his boots. A flute of fine silver was tucked under that sash at his left hip but he bore no apparent weaponry.

"Nor I," Murikeer added as he strode into view. The skunk was modestly apportioned with warm tunic and breeches similar in taste to what he'd worn on their travels through Sathmore. He had a new eye patch since the last time he'd seen the skunk, though still of leather, that wrapped about the back of his head behind his ears, but more finely crafted and inset with small red gems. Despite this his fur was unkempt and his countenance weary as if he had not slept in a week. "Hello, Elvmere. How have you been faring these last few weeks?"

Elvmere gestured at his little table, the pair of books open at the far end, the stack of sheets he'd scribbled upon, and the crumbs of his morning meal of bread and honey. "I've been studying many things, though I confess I could use a brief respite with my old traveling companions. When did you return to Metamor, Mas... Malger? That vixen, Misanthe, has she returned with you?"

The marten nodded as he leaned against one of the shelves, "Aye, though she did have to die at least once to ensure my safe return." He waved one hand almost negligently with a wiggle of his fingers. "But she's off on an errand. I'm sure any moment a little fox will sneak its way in here and curl up at my feet." He smiled softly and laughed. "She is such a sneak that, often, the only realization I have that she has returned is when I trip over her."

Murikeer and Elvmere both chuckled, well remembering their first encounter with the unlamented Sideshow's slave. As the marten had lain in prison recovering from his wounds while Earl Tathim contemplated what to do about him, the minstrel's friends had discovered the little fox hiding beneath his bed like a faithful dog. And no matter how often or with what vehemence he insisted she depart from his side, she had remained even more faithful than a devoted dog, seeing to Malger's needs even when the minstrel wouldn't. In the end, no matter how many times they'd tended his wounds or offered encouragement or their friendship, it had been Misanthe who had truly brought their friend from the blackness of despair back into the light of hope.

"If she comes she is certainly welcome," Elvmere replied. He gestured to the scripting table next to his own. The chairs were smaller and meant for a youth whose body would never attain a manly growth, but they were the only ones near. "Please sit and stay. There's no need for you to stand like that."

Both his friends took the seats offered. Malger leaned back and regarded the raccoon with an amused curiosity. His eyes stared past the bridge of his snout and fixed Elvmere, noting all that there was to see, which apart from his brown acolyte's smock and somewhat disheveled appearance was not much. "Now how is it that a highly ranked member of the Ecclesia could find themselves a lowly acolyte in the Temple?"

Elvmere knew the question would come and nodded his head to acknowledge the oddity. "It caught me by surprise as well. After the Patriarch excommunicated me, I learned that there was a plot to kill me, and so I was placed on board the Sondesharan vessel you left me at, Malger. The Sondeckis brought me back all the way to Silvassa, even carting me in a barrel at one point; there was some Whalish blockade closing the Coral Basin."

Malger chuckled lightly. "Well there was. Any ship that ventured into the Basin was corrupted by Marzac. Whales caught on to that and tried to keep vessels from wandering into its reach, but their actions came far too late to prevent hundreds from becoming enraptured by the dark taint of that place."

Elvmere paled under his fur, his ears lying back in distress. "I had heard rumors with that name..."

"It is no more," Murikeer added with a soft smile, revealing little fangs beneath thin lips. "There were several Keepers who journeyed there and defeated the evil. Kayla was among them."

"That I knew. Rickkter grumbled about it often enough. How is he doing? I haven't seen him since he left the Temple two months past."

"He's still grumbling," Murikeer added with a laugh and a shake of his head. "Only now it is about the quarantine. It has not yet been lifted even though no one has died from the plague in nearly a week." His whiskers twitched and he shrugged, "I would have helped prize out the cause of it, or help with purifying whatever source brought it about, but Kozaithy became stricken and it took every moment, every dreg of my skills and power, just to keep it from claiming her. I’ve lost one love, already. Two…" He shook his head and let out a sigh, swinging one hand in a short back-handed flick, dismissing the subject, "But it’s touch is lifted, and she is recovering well."

"One of the Sensates just died a very nasty end two days ago." Malger pointed out with a chuff.

Murikeer's snout took on a disgusted moue. Elvmere could hardly blame him; he knew of the Sensates by reputation and was grateful that his friend had only been accosted by them once, when he first arrived at Metamor and was still quite afraid of humans, and crowds. "From syphilis, which is not the same thing as the plague, and I dare say far more easily avoided."

"True enough, but it has the rest worried."

"And well they should be if that is how they live," Elvmere said softly, one furry eyebrow raised in admonishment. He had learned, in the gossip of his fellow archivists, that the newly arrived Archduke from the south was the ruler of the Sensates’ Guild, despite that apparent guild having existed far earlier than the newest noble at Metamor. Elvmere took in their gossip without saying anything to clear up their inaccuracies; or to reveal that he was a confidant of the archduke they spoke of with hushed awe.

Malger waved a paw in the air dismissively. "They are my concern, not yours. The Sondeckis took you back to Silvassa?"

"Aye," Elvmere nodded, tail twitching behind him between the table legs. "I spent most of the trip back hiding in the hold reading Patriarch Akabaieth's journals. It was all I had left. Even my Tree was destroyed, so I couldn't hide my form anymore." Murikeer nodded, having heard the tale already. "In the journals I found many thoughts from my mentor about me, and they always seemed to point toward the Lothanasi in some way. After traveling with you both last year, I came to know that the Pantheon is real and that they do much good for the faithful, just as I have always done for those I shepherd in Eli's name." He caught himself with a frown, "Shepherded." He wrung his hands together and looked at them, noting the stains of ink adding to the natural black and silver fur of his dexterous fingers. "So when I reached Silvassa I found Nylene and asked her to teach me the Lothanasi ways."

Malger chuckled and shook his head. "She does have a way of rescuing lost Follower souls."

"She accompanied me by boat to Metamor and taught me... many things I hadn't known. When we arrived here, we came to the Temple and I told Lothanasa Raven of my desire to serve as an acolyte."

The marten offered a lop-sided grin. "I'm sure that meeting was full of cheer."

Elvmere let a soft chuff escape his nose at the droll observation, "And then, breaking this new… choice of faith with Father Hough." He shook his head slowly, but grinned, "That made mistress Raven’s dubious resignation to my desires seem quite pleasant by comparison." Elvmere's muzzle twitched. "It was a little tense. She does not yet trust me and I do not blame her. But I do as I am asked and now I continue to study and learn. I have not yet been able to speak to Hough again; either by happenstance or design our paths have not crossed since our last, rather unpleasant, discourse. Perhaps it is better that way for now."

His green eyes glimmered in the light from the gas-lit lanterns above them. "And you, Malger? I heard you had returned. News of a royal coming to court, and to all appearances already cursed, was the source of considerable gossip for days. That was, what, only a few weeks back?" He waved one hand up at the dim, flickering gas lights in their glass chimneys above. High enough to offer wan light, enough to read by if barely so, but not so low as to risk a fire touching any of the priceless writings. "I’ve been down here some time, I lose track of the days but for when I am awake, and when I sleep, and the passing of prayers. It all tends to run together."

"Just before the plague broke," Malger replied. "Poor timing on my part; but there's nothing to be done about that now." Murikeer listened quietly, gazing up at the lamp above the raccoon's writing desk.

"Did you settle your family's affairs?"

Murikeer chuckled behind one paw, not looking down from his stare at the light above, as his long tail flicked from side to side. Malger frowned at the young mage before returning his gaze to the raccoon. "Aye, and more than that besides!"

"And your servant, Misanthe? What was this you said about her having to die at least once, saving your life?" Elvmere asked, following Murikeer’s gaze upward toward the gaslight curiously but noticing nothing untoward about it.

Malger’s gaze also followed their own, a grin revealing sharp teeth under the deep brown fur of his muzzle and long whiskers. "Quite a story, that, and in a way I have to thank that fellow Maxamillian, Sideshow, for saving my own life and hers."

Elvmere’s gaze snapped down, "Sideshow?" he chirped in surprise, both brows shooting up and his ears pinning forward, "Did he rouse himself from the grave to seek absolution for his sins?"

Malger snickered at the thought of that but shook his head negatively, "Oh, no, he is still quite thoroughly dead." He waved one hand slightly, "I digress. He had about him a tidbit of profound magic; a ring of healing that kept even death at bay. Misanthe, the sneaky lass, snatched it from him when he fell, sealing his demise. She snuck it onto my finger the day you found her in my cell, though I did not know it for some weeks. When she told me of it I returned it to her, and that very night she lost her hands."

"The assassin found her?" Elvmere frowned as he listened, blinking at the slow brightening of the light around him but not consciously realizing that he could see more clearly as enrapt he was by Malger’s tale. "What you told me of her filled me with nightmares for months!"

"Found her, harvested those macabre trophies, and cast her overboard never knowing that she could not perish by any injury due to Sideshow’s rare little gift."

"It must have been an ordeal for her to rejoin you, after all of that."

"A story she has not yet told me." Malger shrugged, the emerald green of his finery taking on a deep, rich hue in the steady, clear light of the mid day sun. "But she did find me, and herself dealt with the Hand at a most opportune moment, saving my hide."

Elvmere applauded with a bright smile, "Then we are safe from that frightening woman’s dark desires to see you dead, or to continue gifting you with the hands of friends and family?"

"Quite very. As thoroughly deceased as Sideshow, and cast unremarked into the paupers’ cemetery." Malger grinned a most gleeful but equally sinister smile, "Rather short her hands. Those I had removed and fed to swine. May she wander the afterlife bereft of them."

Elvmere winced, then blinked in surprise when gloomy darkness abruptly fell about them. The sudden dimming of the light, after Malger’s dark tale, sent an icy shiver racing up his spine. "Murikeer?" he chirped upon realizing that the murky gloom was nothing more than the fitful glow of the gas lights he had grown used to reclaiming their darkness when the young skunk eliminated whatever spell he was working on. "Malger is telling horror stories and you bandy about with magic?" he chuffed, finding some mirth in his own start.

Murikeer chuckled as well, "I was seeing about lighting this gloomy place a tad better, but I imagine Kyia has it dimly lit for a reason." He shrugged as he dug into a small pouch produced from a pocket of his shirt. "But it’s too dark, you’ll be squinting like a mole if you spend too much time down here." Dropping a few small, glittering objects into his palm he stared down at them for a few seconds.

Small glimmering lights, like stars, appeared upon the dark pads of his palm. Eight in all, they cast a small pool of light around the sitting skunk and Elvmere’s small corner of the archive. Plucking one from his palm between two stout claws Murikeer extended his hand. "A mere spark, enough to illuminate what you’re reading but not blind everyone." When Elvmere extended his hand the skunk dropped the small, bright light into his palm. It was little more than a clear pebble of river smoothed quartz, hardly larger than the claw of Elvmere’s smallest finger. "Affix it to your brow and it will give a light sufficient to read by." Turning over his hand he let the remaining seven cascade onto a blank sheet of velum on the raccoon’s desk. "And more, to share."

"Muri, your profligacy with enchantments nearly got you arrested in Silvassa." Elvmere closed his hand about the delightful gift with a lightness in his heart at having such worthy friends. Despite their glaring differences; priest, mage, and sybarite, the three of them had forged a closeness that was like nothing Elvmere had known since the death of his beloved Akabaieth.

"A pox on guilds." Murikeer smiled.

"Or just a skunk’s upraised tail." Malger quipped, setting the three of them to laughing merrily in the quietude of the Temple’s archives. When they finished the marten slapped one paw on his thigh and then gestured to the satchel that the skunk had slung over his shoulder. "But it is ill-fortune for friends long parted to speak on empty stomachs. We brought some things to share with you, Elvmere."

"I have broken my fast," Elvmere said with a quick glance at the breadcrumbs he'd yet to sweep from the table. He'd become so engrossed in a history of Kammaloth and Lucien and the birth of the Lightbringers that he'd forgotten to sweep those crumbs into his paws where his skillful tongue could lick them clean, a rather beastly habit that Metamor had gifted him with. Still, he smiled and nodded to his friends, "But I would be grateful and delighted to share a meal with you."

Murikeer opened the satchel and produced a wedge of cheese and three small pastries the smelled of sausage. Following them were three wooden cups and a flask of wine. "Gregor said he sampled some of the goods that the Magyars brought and this is his version of it. I can't remember what he said it was called; something Flatlander and unpronounceable."

Both Elvmere and Malger took a pastry each and held it in their paws while the skunk sliced some cheese for each of them and poured out a small measure of wine. Elvmere sniffed the breaded meat and felt his tongue begin to salivate. "I believe I have had such things as this before, but I cannot say the name either. I do wonder how they manage to store an oven in their wagons."

"That is one secret I have not dared to learn," Malger admitted with a laugh as he accepted the cup of wine and wedge of cheese. "They guard their wagons with a tenacity befitting such a hard people. Still, it would be an interesting challenge."

Both Murikeer and Elvmere prayed silently in thanks for the meal, and then all three began to eat. The meat was flavored with rich spices that left their tongues burning but only after they had swallowed each bite. The cheese helped cool their tongues, and the wine smoothed everything down.

"So," Elvmere said between working a bit of meat loose from his fangs, "what does his Grace have to say about your new station?"

"Nothing yet," Malger said as he wiped his thin lips with a small kerchief. "He knows of my title and my claim to Sutthaivasse; I did not quite have heralds announcing my arrival with trumpets and pinions, but I did rather enjoy arriving in triumph after all this time. Leave it to plague to spoil my moment, but I digress. Malisa has assured me that her father desires to speak with me at length, but this plague and whatever machinations it has spawned have kept him busy."

Elvmere managed to nab the morsel on his tongue and swallowed it down. "And what have you done since your return? I have heard the rumors of your arrival and whispers of your associates, but not of your activities."

The marten chuckled lightly and shrugged his shoulders as he leaned back in the chair meant for one much younger in size. "Honestly? I have done very little since I've returned. Oh, I visited a few of the Inns in which I once plied the trade I valiantly attempted to teach you last Spring and Summer, and also some of my other friends here at Metamor, but for the most I have stayed in hiding like everyone else for fear of yon malady. Although I did enjoy seeing the little show the Magyars put on yesterday; I counted at least four of their number who have already become as we a sweet mix of beast and man. It did not seem to bother them much."

Malger shook his head and then shrugged again. "So, nothing much of consequence. Nor do I expect there to be much of consequence in the future. At least until Duke Thomas decides how he wishes to approach me. I have played at the horse lord's court many times, but I have never been privy to his political plans; all I know for certain is that he is a good and decent noble and I am confidant that an alliance between Metamor and Sutthaivasse will be of benefit to everyone."

"Even if you know not what it will look like?" Murikeer chided with a little twist to his snout.

"Even so!" Malger agreed with a laugh. "Even so, my lad. I have no idea what will come of it; nor if it means I'll have to return to Sutthaivasse. The option is open to me of course, but at least in the future I will not have to scratch out what our talents can provide along the road."

Elvmere smiled faintly. "I sometimes wish we could journey like that again. I do still hum the many tunes you taught me and tap with my paws the many rhythms you trained me in."

Malger's eyes alighted on the raccoon acolyte and he smiled broad enough to reveal his fangs. "It seems there is a bit of a bard in your soul after all, lad! Now if we could only improve your taste in clothes."

"I've never desired anything fine to wear," Elvmere retorted. "This simple smock is as good as anything else; though aye, I would prefer the traveling clothes and cloak I bore if we were to take up the road again."

"Who can say what the future holds for us!" Malger gestured with one paw at the tall stacks of books around them. "There may be more changes in your life ahead of you than just your faith."

"Speaking of which," Murikeer interjected after sipping at his cup of wine. "Have you any favored in the Pantheon? You know of my devotion to Artela. But of yourself, have you any to which you feel a special calling?"

Elvmere's muzzle turned down in a slight moue as he pondered the question. With any consideration of the gods to which his mind was now increasingly turned, there was always that lingering, almost foundation, of his many years in the Ecclesia, both before his ordination, and through his long service in the hierarchy. He had grown up in the Holy Land, or Ainador as his fellow Lothanasi called it, and in that place no thought was given to the Pantheon. If any though was given it was only to curse the foreign demons or to suggest that they did not exist at all.

But they did exist, and they weren't demons. He knew of the help they gave to man, these Lightbringers, and he knew that it was his calling to serve them and belong to them as his Lady and Patriarch Akabaieth had guided him. But that did not mean that for one moment he stopped believing in the primacy and the oneness of Eli, Yahshua, and the Spirit Most Holy. Any devotion he developed for any in the Pantheon had to be tempered by that fundamental reality, one that he still hoped deep down he could be reconciled with.

And he hoped for that devotion, could almost feel it there just out of reach, drawing him further and deeper into the vast histories and rituals surrounding each of the gods. But he could not yet make such a claim. So with a sigh he rested one paw on the treatise beside him and then shook his head. "Not yet, my friend. I am grateful to Wvelkim for delivering me safely across the sea back here to Metamor, but since then I have not felt any particular call to him. And of the others Artela, Akkala, Kammoloth, Velena, and the rest... I am still learning who they are. That is what I was doing when you came down. The history of the first Lightbringers is fascinating and helps me understand them and better understand our people."

"How so?" Murikeer asked.

"When I was in Abaef, I never understood why any would believe as we do. I thought the faith of the Ecclesia would have swept all of this away. It hasn't. But why hasn't it? Part of that answer lies in the people who turn their hearts and their supplications to the Pantheon. Knowing their history helps me understand them. And it helps me understand the rituals, which in turn help me to understand the gods. There is more to this world than even either of you showed to me on our journey together."

"You showed me more than I expected," Murikeer added with a warm smile. He finished the rest of his wine and wiped his muzzle on the back of his wrist. "I never understood why Patriarch Akabaieth had kept you so close. I thought you were like all the rumors I had heard of foreign Patildor. I am so grateful to be proven wrong."

"As was I," Malger added with slight shake of his head. "You'll find the one to whom your life is called. Both Muri and I have."

Elvmere's striped tail flicked behind him. "You speak as if I were a child not yet a man."

"Well," Malger said with a warm laugh, "you almost are! A man certainly, but a young one with years to go before his prime. But a child, no. Just a young man."

"I am much older than either of you," Elvmere pointed out.

"Perhaps, but Metamor has made you young again." Malger tipped his chair forward some and his whiskers twitched with mischief. "Young enough to be my apprentice last year."

"Maybe there is some reason for your youth," Murikeer suggested.

"I have often pondered it," Elvmere admitted with a slight nod. "Whatever the reason I am grateful for it. I have another lifetime in which to serve. Unasked for, but accepted."

"And will you be spending it here?" Malger asked. "I would like your company if I should ever go out onto the road again."

"For now I will be staying here," Elvmere replied as he glanced around at the stacks of books and ancient scrolls, marveling at the knowledge they must contain. "Lothanasa Raven wants me to stay out of sight for now. There are many who would recognize me if I were to walk the streets of Metamor openly. In another few years, I will be just another raccoon and few will recognize me as the long lost Bishop Vinsah. It is better for both Lothanasa Raven and for Father Hough if that is the case. I would hate to be the cause of further scandal, but I know there is little I can do about it but obey the Lothanasa."

Murikeer frowned. "You cannot stay in here forever. Even with those stones I gave you it will ruin your eyes."

"Your body as well," Malger added. "I must find some pretext to take you down to the southern towns where you won't be recognized, even if only to let you see the sky."

"You will need to seek the Lothanasa's permission first. I am one of her acolytes and a sworn servant of the temple. In that I am no different from any other acolyte."

"But that doesn't mean you need to stay here always."

The raccoon nodded. "True. I hope that one day I can leave here and be known as Elvmere by all. But I know that I cannot make that decision."

"I shall visit you as often as I can," Murikeer assured him with a faint smile. "Perhaps the Lothanasa will accede to a request from me to let you accompany me on errands in the woods. I could help you better know Artela. Or perhaps, I could even teach you some magic. You are no longer under any prohibitions against its use. I'd be honored to instruct you in what you can learn."

"Apprentice to both you and Malger?" Elvmere laughed, despite a sudden hesitancy in his heart. He had not even considered that magic was lawful for him now, but a part of him, that part still rooted in the man he once was and the faith he had held tightly to his heart, knew it could not be so easy as that. "Thank you, Muri. Maybe sometime you will have to teach me, but I do not think I am ready for it yet."

"If you ever change your mind, I will be happy to teach you."

"Thank you. What of you, Muri? What are these errands you speak of?"

The skunk's long tail flicked from side to side behind him as he shifted in his seat. "Errands that seem to keep me moving between the Keep and Glen Avery, or at least they had ever since I returned to Metamor last December. I have been here helping Rickkter regain his strength, and lately fighting to keep Kozi alive. Akkala heard my prayers, she is recovering and will be well enough to travel again in a few days. Kozi wants to make sure that the last of the refuges from Bradanes arrive safely this Spring. I go to the Glen to visit my aunt and my pupil Lady Kimberly who lives there with her family. Or at least she normally does; the poor woman and her children were trapped here at Long House while her husband Charles was still at the Glen. I would have spent time with them but..."

As the skunk tensed and began to tremble, his one eye pressing shut, Elvmere stretched out one paw to offer comfort. "Speak no more of that, my friend. It is past."

"Aye, it is. It is past." Murikeer opened his eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. "I haven't yet decided where to settle. I feel more comfortable at the Glen, and I have family there. But there is much here at Metamor for me too. And there is the Legacy to consider as well; I really should visit that place again."

Malger grinned. "I'll come with you if you go there again. Just don't rip any more of the mountain down without warning me first."

Murikeer chuckled. "Nae, no more of that should be needed."

And then, for several seconds none of them said any more, each of them watching the others, their glances showing the closeness of their hearts in a way that no gesture could. Their heads leaned closer together as each waited for another to speak. How many moments of silence had they shared on the roads together last year? How many evenings had they spent singing and plying their trades to delight fellow travelers or locals coming in for a drink and a hot meal? How many more would they ever have?

A warm tolling echoed down the circular stairs and all of their heads turned. Their ears lifted as the sound of booted feet and youthful laughter followed the sonorous chime. Elvmere smiled and sighed. "The other acolytes are coming to start their duties. I'm afraid you won't be able to stay any longer."

"Then we shall take our leave," Malger said as he stood and stretched. He looked down, shifted his paws back and forth, and chuckled. "No Misanthe. I'll make sure she comes on our next visit."

"Tell her I am grateful for all that she has done for you," Elvmere said as he rose to his feet. He handed his empty cup back to Murikeer who put it and the other two back into his satchel. "And I am so very grateful to you both for coming to see me. I have missed your companionship. Sometimes I wish we had not parted ways in Silvassa all those months ago, but I know we are each the better for it."

"And marked by it too," Murikeer said with a soft smile. "May the gods tend you, Elvmere."

"And may they protect all of your steps, and all of those you love," Elvmere replied as he and the skunk clasped arms. Malger clasped their arms a moment later, nodding but making no offer of benediction.

"Take care of yourself, Elvmere. Keep up your musical practice."

Elvmere's muzzle twitched into an amused grin. "As you wish, Master Malger!"

All three of them laughed and then his two guests returned the way they'd come, disappearing within the tall shelves carrying away with them some of the warmth. Elvmere sat back down at his writing desk and rolled the little brilliant sparks of light about in his paws. They dazzled everything around, casting their light on all the ancient tomes of the Lothanasi and the mighty Pantheon.