In the Absence of Martyrs

The Starchild Prophecy, Part III

by Raven Blackmane

September 17, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning

Somewhere, in a realm beyond the ken of most mortal beings, two figures stood facing each other in a field of darkness. A single circle of light, perhaps twenty feet across, sat between them, illuminated from above by some unseen source. Though the space within the circle shone brilliant white, very little light drifted beyond it, and the two figures themselves remained draped in shadow.

One of these figures appeared tall and fit, in the prime of his life; the other was shorter and bent with age. Both were dressed in long robes whose hoods obscured their faces. The robes were white, but an observer standing within the circle of light would have been hard-pressed to determine this, so deep was the shadow beyond.

There was a sound of footsteps, accompanied by a soft clicking noise that could not be readily identified. A third figure appeared out of the gloom and took its place at the edge of the circle. It was robed as the others were, taller than the aged man, shorter than the fit man. The third figure gazed at the others from beneath its robe, waiting expectantly. At last, when the others made no sign of acknowledgement, it spoke.

"Greetings, Alarun, Herelath." The figure nodded to the fit man and the aged man in turn.

"Greetings, my child," Herelath said, his hood moving slightly as he nodded in reply. "Thank you for coming so quickly. I apologize for the short notice."

"It was no imposition." Raven hin'Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor Keep, pulled back her hood and cast an appraising glance around the circle. "Where are the others?" she asked.

"For this business, we saw no need to involve them," Alarun replied, as he and Herelath pulled back their hoods as well and stepped into the circle of light. Alarun's strong, chiseled features were set in a grim expression. "The matter most directly concerns us three."

Raven frowned slightly but nodded once, moving to join them in the circle. Her toe-claws clicked quietly against the unseen stones as she walked. "Very well. Why have I been summoned, then?"

Herelath stroked his long, grey beard thoughtfully. "There is a... problem... brewing in the Midlands," he said, apparently choosing his words carefully.

"What manner of problem?"

"A Patildor priest by the name of Malkus has been stirring up his people against our people," Alarun said gravely. The Lothanas of Elvquelin, de facto head of the High Council, crossed his arms and looked directly at Raven, his hard grey eyes flashing. "We don't know exactly what is happening, but there are rumors of witch hunts, drumhead trials, burnings at the stake." He raised an eyebrow. "Apparently he is doing this in retaliation for our alleged part in the murder of the Patriarch."

Raven clenched her fists. "Damn it," she swore under her breath. "I was afraid of something like this. Is Yesulam condoning it?"

"We don't know," Herelath said, shaking his head wearily. "He has a small number of so-called 'paladins' with him -- knights fanatically dedicated to the Ecclesia -- but we don't know if he has any authorization for his actions from higher up."

"We suspect he does not, since he is staying away from prominent cities," Alarun added. "Also, we believe that his military support would have been stronger if this had been authorized by his superiors."

Raven pondered that for a few moments, then nodded. "So he's a maverick. Very well. 'Tis unsettling news, I'll grant, but it is of no more particular concern to me than to the rest of the Council. To be honest, Alarun, I fail to see why I'm here."

Herelath smiled slightly. "I was getting to that. We need you to go and... correct this matter for us."

The priestess looked up in alarm and indignation. "What? You want me to kill him? Absolutely not!"

"Not kill him, necessarily," Alarun said, putting up a disarming hand. "We just need him to stop killing our people. Whether you simply threaten him, or bring him to trial, or... use stronger methods... is up to you."

"My answer stands," Raven said firmly. "You're the Lothanas of Kelewair, Herelath. Surely you must have people who could handle this."

"Alas, the region he is operating in is outside my jurisdiction," Herelath answered, sounding apologetic. "Properly, the job belongs to Ellcaran, but I hesitate to bring such an issue to their attention."

Raven winced. Dagnir, the Lothanas of Ellcaran, was nearly as young as she was and twice as hot-tempered. His chapter of the Order nominally covered all the Southern Midlands west of the Southbourne River and north of the Marchbourne, but it was such a patchwork of Lothanasi and Patildor territories that he was unable to keep it properly under control. There had already been several small but bloody altercations between the two faiths in the few years since he'd assumed the high priesthood.

"Point taken," she said. "But I have no more right to interfere in Ellcaran's affairs than either of you."

"In this case, we believe you do," Alarun said. "Malkus is currently operating somewhere in the land known as the Angle, at the confluence of the Southbourne and Marchbourne rivers. We believe that he is headed toward the town of Anthaly."

Raven choked back the bile that rose in her throat. Anthaly was the birthplace of her mother Anya, and had been a favorite retreat for her family in the days of her youth. It was a small, peaceful town, and one almost as near to her heart as Metamor itself.

The wolf-woman's eyes narrowed. "When should I leave?"


Raven arose from amidst the chalk Circles of the vision-spell and extinguished the candles, feeling a strange weariness settling over her. It seemed that there was never a chance for rest or peace anymore. She, Merai and Tessariel had returned to Metamor Keep less than three months ago, and already she was being summoned out again into the Midlands -- another distraction from her duty to protect Metamor.

The Lothanasa had returned to her chapter to discover that much had happened in her absence -- indeed, far too much. In the months since Nasoj's Yuletide assault, Lord Thomas had been slowly, quietly ensorcelled; unbeknownst to even his own aides and advisors, his mind was being enslaved, weakened and broken. In the spring, while Raven was gone, that enslavement had been completed, and the duke's body trapped in the form of a common horse. In the end the plot had been discovered and the duke rescued, but Raven still felt angry with herself that she had not been present to help save him. After all, Thomas was more than one man; he was the Keepers' leader and chief inspiration, the Horse Lord on whom so many prophecies depended. Had he been lost, the damage to the cause of Light would have been catastrophic. Granted, in their absence she and Merai had saved Aelfwood from being corrupted by a new Dark Nexus, likely saving the entire Elven race in the process; but still, she couldn't help feeling that she had forsaken her trust.

Leaving her quarters, Raven stepped out into the main temple hall, where Celine and a few of the younger acolytes were cleaning up after the dawn sacrifice. The temple doors would open to the public soon, and Celine made it a point to ensure that the hall was spotless when the worshippers arrived. The blonde-haired girl caught the expression on Raven's face and quickly dismissed her helpers. The younger acolytes nodded, picking up on the situation, and returned silently to their own quarters, shutting the door behind them.

"I know that look," Celine said seriously when the others had left.

Raven smirked a little in spite of herself. "You certainly do. You've seen it far too often of late."

Celine wiped down the altar with a damp cloth, speaking over her shoulder as she did so. "What crisis has befallen us this time?"

"Nothing worse than we expected, perhaps," Raven admitted, "though I curse the distraction it brings from our affairs at home."

The head acolyte dropped the cloth and turned around to face her, a deeply worried look in her emerald-green eyes. "Please tell me you're not leaving us again."

Raven grimaced. "I wish I could."

Celine let out an exasperated sigh. "What now?"

"A Patildor priest has gone on a witch hunt in the Southern Midlands."

"So why don't the Midlanders handle it?" There was something like anger, or indignation, in Celine's voice.

"He's heading for Anthaly."

Celine blinked, her anger suddenly evaporating. "Oh, gods," she murmured. "Your mother..." Her gaze turned questioning. "You don't want the Midlanders to handle this, do you?"

"No. If I leave it to Dagnir to resolve this situation, we'll have another religious war springing up in the Midlands -- and what's worse, Anthaly will be right in the middle of it." Her face hardened with determination. "I'm going to see to this myself, to make sure it is settled peacefully."

Celine scoffed -- a sad, resigned sound, more than a bitter one. "Good luck," she said. "We'll be praying for you."

Raven stepped up close to Celine, clasping arms with her in the ancient expression of friendship. The priestess smiled slightly. "Thank you," she said. "I have a feeling that I shall need it."


"Mistress!"

Raven stopped and waited for the footsteps in the corridor behind to catch up with her.

"Aye, Tessa, what is it?"

The half-Elf stood before her and crossed her arms. "Your pardon, Lothanasa, but you know what it is," she said, dark eyes burning with emotion. "Sister Merai told me that you're going out to stop some Follower priest from starting a war."

Raven raised her eyes expectantly. "And?"

Tessa drew closer to Raven's face. She hadn't changed a bit since she'd arrived, Raven thought -- literally. For some reason the Curse had no effect on her, even though its magic wrapped all around her body just like any other Keeper. They only explanation they could find was that the inherent magic of her Elven side somehow canceled out the effects of Nasoj's spells, acting as a kind of unseen shield around her whole body. Raven and the others had been forced to craft a story that Tessa was an orphan they'd discovered in their travels, who had then fallen prey to the gender-changing spell upon their return to Metamor. Tessa, for her part, had been forced to keep her ears hidden beneath her long auburn hair. So far no one had caught on to the ruse, as far as they knew.

"And," Tessa hissed softly, "I think there's something wrong when we spend three months doing nothing to stop the corruption in our own Order but jump into action to stop a priest on the other side."

Raven sighed and shook her head. "I appreciate your zeal, Tessa -- indeed, I share it to a large degree -- but there is a time and a place for everything. We are treading a knife's edge over a pit of destruction, and every move must be measured and cautious." She put a hand on Tessa's shoulder, looking into the young woman's eyes. "If the other members of the High Council are corrupt, as you and I suspect, then we must not arouse their suspicions," she said. "If our chapter is excommunicated and attacked by the joint forces of the others, we will gain nothing, and the daedra will be victorious. We shall move against the corrupt members of the Order, I promise you -- but first we must have proof, or at least strong evidence, that would turn their people against them. When we move, we must have a reasonable chance at victory. Until then, we must see to our other duties. There are wolves to fend off outside the flock, as well as within."

Tessa stared deep into her eyes for a long moment. Raven wondered what the half-Elf could see there. At last the young woman nodded.

"Very well," she said, her expression serious. "Do what you must, and Merai and I shall keep watch over things here. But do not expect that I shall be content to sit and wait forever."

Raven grinned. "I should hope not! There has been enough of that in our history already." She squeezed the girl's shoulder once. "But go on, now. You have your training to attend to, and I am pressed for time."

Tessa bowed once. "As you say, Mistress." Then the women parted, heading off in opposite directions along the narrow stone corridor.


September 19

A single lantern shone on the banks of the Marchbourne as the dragon emerged from the heavy layer of clouds overhead. The bronze-skinned creature settled to the ground with a rustle of wings, perhaps a hundred yards distant from the light, and his passenger climbed carefully to the ground.

"Once again you have my thanks, Saroth," Raven said, clasping a hand around one of his heavy forelegs. It was a small gesture, but it carried much meaning behind it. She looked up at him seriously. "It is said that the third time shall pay for all, my friend. If ever you have need of anything, do not hesitate to ask."

{{Thank you, Lightbringer,}} the dragon replied, his telepathic voice radiating sincerity. {{In truth, it was my pleasure.}} He craned his neck upwards, looking toward the small light that was approaching. {{Will you be all right here alone, my lady?}}

"Aye, I shall be fine," Raven assured him. "Go on home -- 'tis best if no one here gets a good look at you."

{{As you wish. Farewell, Lightbringer.}} Saroth sketched a brief bow and then leapt into the air, quickly circling upward.

"Farewell!" Raven said, extending a hand toward him. The dragon looked back and returned the gesture for a moment, then disappeared into the low-lying clouds.

Pulling the dark green hood of her cloak up over her head, Raven strode to meet the bearer of the lantern. Although it was difficult to make out features clearly, she could tell that he was somewhat shorter than she, with rounded shoulders and a head of straw-blond hair that was cropped short all the way around. He was dressed all in varying shades of drab brown, and a monocle hung from a chain around his neck. All in all he looked more like a librarian than a priest.

"Greetings, Lothanasa," the man said quietly when she had approached to within a few yards. His voice was smooth and cultured -- his crisp accent identified him as Kelewair-raised, although it carried some of the subtle inflections more typical of the Angle. "I am Brother Raenadan. I was sent by Lothanas Herelath to serve as your liaison for this mission."

"Thank you," Raven said, nodding once. "Are you from this area, then?"

"Nay, but nearly so. I hail from a village on the far side of the Southbourne, though I spent much of my childhood in Kelewair itself. But I know enough of this land to prove a capable aide, I think."

"Very well." Raven felt a brief glimmer of satisfaction. The man had passed the first test, that of honesty about himself. She had no idea how much he knew of her, but the fact that he was offering himself as a guide seemed to indicate that he was unaware of her family's ties to Anthaly. That he had answered her truthfully about his homeland was a small but positive sign.

"Where are we quartered for the night?" she asked, as they began walking back toward the distant lights of the village.

"There is a small inn-and-tavern on the outskirts of town -- the only one in town, actually," Raenadan admitted. "We have given the proprietor a small incentive to ensure that you may enter the inn unnoticed."

Raven frowned slightly. "Did you tell him who I was?"

"Nay, assuredly not," Raenadan replied quickly. "Only that you were a dignitary of some import who was passing through the area and preferred not to be seen about your present duties."

" 'Tis true enough," Raven said, smiling under her hood. In truth, she had known Maxon hin'Belnor since before she could walk, and the old innkeeper would have gladly put her up free of charge had he known she was coming. He was family, of a sort -- husband to her mother's cousin -- and after Anya's death he had sent a letter to Raven assuring her that she would always have a place at The Flute and Dagger, curse or no curse. Old Maxon was in for quite a surprise.

It took them another fifteen minutes to make their way to the back door of the inn. Raenadan knocked twice, and the door opened without a word. The tavern's kitchen was dark, the only illumination coming from Raenadan's lantern and a small candle held by the man who opened the door.

He was, in many ways, a stereotypical innkeeper: Not overly tall and quite stout, though his leathery hands spoke of many years of hard work. He was mostly bald, with a thick white beard comprising the bulk of the hair left on his head. He glanced only briefly at the dark, hooded figure of Raven before turning his eyes to Raenadan.

"All's ready," he said, his deep voice projecting through the room even as he tried to keep it quiet. "You can go right on up to the room from these stairs here." He indicated a set of steps to his right. "Nobody will bother you -- what few guests we have are all gone to bed, and I threw out the drunks about half an hour ago. Should be nice and quiet."

"Thank you," Raenadan said, nodding. "We shall require nothing more until the morning -- save the keys, of course."

"Of course." The innkeeper fished out a pair of keys from his pocket, held them up to the light to verify their identity, and then handed them to the Kelewair priest. With one last, curious glance at the figure in the shadows, he turned and began walking away.

"Uncle Max," Raven said softly.

The burly old man turned around, a surprised look on his face.

"What are you doing?" Raenadan hissed, clutching the sleeve of Raven's tunic.

"Don't worry, Brother Raenadan," Raven said, stepping forward a few paces but leaving her hood up. "This man is family."

"Now, I'd know that voice anywhere," Maxon said, a grin slowly spreading over his face. "Raven, that really you?"

The priestess nodded. "Hello, Uncle."

Suddenly Maxon chuckled, a deep and hearty sound. "Well, what are you waiting for, girl? Take off that hood and let's see what this so-called curse has done to you!"

"Very well," Raven said. "But prepare yourself -- this may be a bit of a shock..."

She reached up and slowly pulled back her hood, revealing her wolfish face to the innkeeper. Maxon stared at her silently for perhaps three seconds, then let out a low whistle.

"Artela's arrows," he said, shaking his head a little as though he disbelieved his eyes. "Wolf, right?"

Raven nodded.

"That Wizard did one right job on you, that's a fact." He grinned. "He couldn't take away your beauty, though."

Raven felt herself blush a little in spite of herself, though she knew it wouldn't show through her fur. "You're taking this rather well, Uncle," she said with a smirk.

"Aww, come on, now, girl," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Don't matter to me what some lunatic did to yer body. You're still Anya's little girl, and that's all that counts in my book. Now come here and give yer old uncle a hug."


The next morning Raven broke fast with Maxon and his wife Kerala. Raenadan had eaten early and gone out to speak to his scouts, acolytes from his temple who were searching the Angle for news of Malkus' whereabouts. Although everyone in that country knew that a 'witch hunter' was somewhere nearby, very few had any notion of precisely where that might be. The villagers of the Angle were mostly farmers, men and women with little knowledge of -- and even less interest in -- anything more than a mile or two beyond their fields. What little news they received came from the traders and travelers who passed through -- which were few, since no main highways ran through the region -- and from the occasional relative stopping by to visit from one of the neighboring towns. Raenadan hoped that some discreet reconnaissance might let them find the Patildor renegade before he showed up on Anthaly's doorstep.

"Can't say as I've heard much about it, myself," Maxon admitted in between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and ham. "Most of our guests lately have been going the other way, back towards Kelewair. Wasn't until we got a troupe of Flatlanders moving through here last month that we heard anything about it at all." He chuckled. "Naturally, they hadn't bothered to remember too many details. Didn't affect them, after all."

Raven nodded. The Flatlanders of the wandering trade caravans had no strong ties to any religious faction -- which was no surprise, really. The fact that most people in the 'civilized' lands looked on them as opportunistic rogues tended to discourage them from putting down roots.

"I wonder how the news reached Kelewair," Raven mused, taking a sip of milk. Maxon had milked the cow that morning, and whatever they didn't use at breakfast would be made into butter or cheese. The Angle didn't have the advantage of magic to keep food fresh -- any potential mages who might crop up in the area had to travel to Ellcaran or Kelewair to develop their skills. They generally didn't come back.

"Maybe someone escaped from this priest before he got around to burning them," Maxon suggested, only half-joking. "Or maybe one of the Followers felt convicted and decided to put the word out."

"Maybe." Raven pushed the remains of her food around idly with her fork as she thought. "How are relations with the Followers here? Has there been any trouble?"

Maxon and Kerala exchanged a look, then shrugged. "Not in a long time," Maxon said.

"About five years ago we had some Followers move in to Bethany," Kerala explained. With the way the light shone through the window on her red-gold hair, it almost seemed to Raven like she was looking at an older version of her mother. Her nose... those eyes, bright and blue like Raven's... the way the lines formed around her face when she smiled...

"...I'm sorry. What were you saying?" Raven asked, shaking herself back to the present. "Some Followers moved into Bethany, and..?"

Kerala smiled, and Raven had to fight back another wave of bittersweet memories. "Well, they were wonderful people, you know. Straight-backed folk, as Pappa would have said. They talked a lot about their Yashua and Eli and all, but they were gentle about it. Gentle about most things, actually. Anyway, a lot of folks in both towns decided to take 'em up on what they were offering, and a lot of other folks didn't. That might have been the end of it, if it hadn't been for a few rustlebums who just couldn't be neighborly to the new folks."

"There were a few folks around here who didn't take too kindly to all that strange religion the Followers were bringin' around," Maxon said. "They started talkin' loud about how we should send 'em all back where they came from, and let 'em take their new friends along with. Well, most of us couldn't see how it was worth raising a stink over, so we got everyone together and talked it out.

"By that time it was pretty near half-and-half between the Followers and us traditional types. We decided that the best way to settle things peaceful-like was to just let one half go one way and the other half go the other way. So the traditional folks all came over to Anthaly and the Followers went to Bethany."

Raven's eyes widened. "You mean to tell me that people left their homes over this? Just like that?"

Maxon shrugged. "Ba'al's bones, everyone knows one house is as good as another 'round here. Ain't much difference in that way. What really matters is your farmland, and all the fields are out in between the towns anyhow. Anthaly and Bethany have been sisters from way back, and everybody felt like one was almost as much home as the other. If it would stop folks from raisin' a ruckus, everyone figured it was worth the hassle."

Raven nodded, but inwardly she marveled at his words. Maxon was so matter-of-fact about the whole affair, when it had obviously been a huge inconvenience for both towns. Such effort expended for the sake of being neighborly. Such plain common-sense wisdom, to recognize the importance of self-sacrifice for the sake of peace. Once again she was reminded of why she loved this place.

"So, did it work?"

"Sure did. Hasn't been a lick of trouble since," Maxon said, looking satisfied. "They're still our neighbors, and we help each other out when there's a need." He chuckled. "They're always wanting to talk to us about Yashua, but we humor 'em. They never get pushy, and He's obviously been good for them, so I don't see any harm in it. Not that I'm what you'd call interested. I prefer gods I can deal with on my terms, if you take my meaning."

The priestess smiled. It was a common enough philosophy among the laity of the Order that the gods were simply merchants, trading miracles for worship the way a cobbler might trade a pair of shoes for a few silvers. Some took it more seriously than that, of course, but for many it was simply a matter of buying favors. In truth, Raven sometimes wondered if the Order itself really amounted to much more than that.

"So what about you, Raven?" Kerala asked. "Goodness, child, I haven't seen you in nine years! You've changed a lot since then -- in more ways than one, I'll warrant."

Raven sighed, a lopsided smile finding its way onto her face. "The last few years have been... interesting..."


The day passed slowly and uneventfully for Raven. She couldn't go out in the daylight, or even walk around the common areas of the tavern, for fear of being seen -- the attack by those shadowy assassins during her and Merai's trip to Aelfwood was all too fresh in her memory. The priestesses had not been careful enough on that trip, perhaps, and many Lightbringer acolytes in Bozojo had paid with their lives. She would not risk bringing down the same fate on Maxon and Kerala.

So it was that Raven spent the morning and most of the afternoon in her room, in prayer and meditation. After a time she emerged and went down to the kitchen, where she talked with Kerala while she helped in whatever manner she could. It was a pleasant experience for Raven, and it would have been a welcome vacation from her duties as Lothanasa were there not so much hanging over her head. Eventually she returned to her room and spent a few hours in combat practice, rehearsing the patterns of attack and defense that she had made it her business to learn more fully since Nasoj's last assault on Metamor. Finally, an hour before dusk, Raenadan returned to The Flute and Dagger.

"What news?" Raven asked, sheathing her sword as the bookish young man entered her quarters.

"Malkus has taken to the road again," Raenadan replied, looking vaguely displeased. "One of our scouts received word two nights ago that he was in Brockhill, but by the time we investigated today he had already moved on. The villagers tell us that he left half a dozen charred skeletons in his wake."

Raven clenched her fists. "Did they have any idea where he was heading?"

"Nay, he and his paladins left before dawn. No one saw which road they took, though it is probable that he continued westward." Raenadan took his monocle in hand and polished it for a moment on his tunic before raising it to his eye. "There is one other possible source of information."

The Lothanasa raised an eyebrow. "Oh? You mean to say that you were afield all day and failed to examine a possible lead?"

Raenadan smiled thinly. "When you hear of it, you shall understand why. There is another village a few miles east of here, between the Marchbourne and the last ridgeline of the highlands to the south..."

"Aye, Bethany. I know it well."

"Perhaps not as well as you think," Raenadan said, giving her another one of those thin, dry smiles. "In the years since your last visit -- or, at any rate, the last one you told me of last night --" there was the faintest hint of accusation in his voice "--the town has become populated almost entirely by Patildor. Naturally my men were hesitant to enter such a town for fear of hostility. They are, after all, only acolytes."

"Of course," Raven said. She didn't bother to hide the accusation of cowardice that lay behind her words. Raenadan, for his part, ignored it.

"It seems likely, given their ties to the Ecclesia, that the people of Bethany might have heard something of this priest and his plans," he said. "I thought it prudent, however, to seek your counsel before pursuing this lead."

"I appreciate that," Raven said, turning and walking over to her wardrobe. She opened it and began to remove her scout's gear. "However, you will not need to investigate Bethany. I shall do it myself, tonight."

Raven caught a ripple of surprise in Raenadan's aura. "Lothanasa, do you think that is wise? Your appearance --"

"--will scarcely matter under cover of darkness," Raven finished curtly, closing the wardrobe firmly. The sound of wood against wood carried an air of finality. "Besides, your scouts have already demonstrated the limits of their resolve in this. I do not need the help of cowards who are so afraid of what they do not know that they will not dare to speak to farmers and shopkeepers."

"But..." Raenadan sputtered for a moment, and with her back turned to him Raven grinned. It was the first time she'd heard the man at a loss for words. "Just what do you hope to find when all the town is asleep?" he demanded at last.

Raven turned toward him, her grin pared down to a small smile. "That which cannot be seen in the daylight," she said. "I have spoken of Bethany with my relatives here, and by all accounts its people are utter pacifists. If there is any conspiracy between individuals in Bethany and murderers like this priest, it would certainly have to be carried out under cover of darkness. There are still far too many in Bethany with relatives here who would spread the alarm if such business were conducted openly."

The priestess put on her jerkin over her tunic, then picked up her leather leggings and gazed expectantly at Raenadan.

"Ah. Very well, then. I shall leave you to your preparations, Lothanasa. Cuialye lothan."

"Cuialye lothan," Raven returned, nodding once. She waited until the door was shut behind him, then continued donning her gear.


Raven crept quietly through the stubble of long-since harvested wheat fields, heading toward the scattered lights of the village ahead and trying not to trip over anything. The heavy clouds of the previous night had largely moved on, but the moon was less than half full and the night was quite dark as a result. Raven's wolfish vision compensated for that somewhat, but it was still hard to make out any variations in the ground beneath her feet. Caution was definitely warranted -- the last thing she needed was to step in some animal's burrow-hole and fall sprawling on the ground.

Fortunately Raven had been trained for this sort of thing since her youth. As the youngest child of the family -- and, she ironically noted, the one who was least likely to inherit the position of Lothanasa -- she had been trained as a field cleric, to work closely with soldiers in the field and run errands swiftly across country. That training had served her well on many occasions, and it did so here, as well. Long years of practice joined with wolfish instinct to make her naturally stealthy -- and while she was more exposed than she would have liked, out here in the naked fields, she stayed low enough and moved quietly enough that an untrained eye would be unlikely to mark her passage.

Finally emerging from the hedgerow that separated the fields from the commons, Raven peered out at the village before her. The first houses were perhaps a hundred yards from the edge of the fields, and covered a swath of about four times that distance from left to right. There were few lamps still lit at this hour, so it probably would not take her long to conduct her search.

Making her way toward the main street that ran east-west through the town, Raven noticed that the closest light was coming from the second house on the north side of the street. It was a small, thatched-roof building, much like the vast majority of the houses both here and in Anthaly, though there were a few two-story houses scattered here and there. Staying low to the ground, Raven approached the window where the lamp shone, her soft-soled boots keeping her footfalls silent. When she was about six feet away she stopped, turned her ears toward the window, and listened.

The voice she heard was soft and high-pitched. "...and thank you so much for the good harvest this year -- Mum and Da say now we'll be able to get a cow, so we can have milk this winter! Please keep helping Gamma, too, 'cause her hands still hurt an' she has a hard time making our sweaters for us. I know you can finish making her all better, an' I believe you're gonna do it, like you did with Gaffer's knee. An' please keep us all safe tonight while we're sleepin'... An thank you for always listenin' to me. I love you, Abba..."

Quietly, Raven slipped away, her face flushed. She had been eavesdropping on some girl's bedtime prayers! As she moved on toward the next house, she saw the light go out in the child's room. A thought struck her: It was at least two hours after sunset, and the girl was only now going to sleep. In Anthaly the farmers went to bed almost as soon as the sun went down, and it was much the same in the Valley and every other rural community she'd ever visited. Was it possible that a child could have spent that much time in prayer? Raven had to admit that, behind the simple language, the girl had expressed a remarkable amount of faith for her grandmother's healing. As far as Raven knew, Eli granted healing solely at His discretion -- one could not bargain with Him for it, as with Akkala. For a child to be so sure of His answer in spite of that fact struck Raven as unusual, to say the least.

She was several houses away, approaching a two-story house with a lamp burning in an upper window, when a new sound came to her ears. It was very faint, but she just made out the sound of a boot striking toe-first against a protruding cobblestone -- or so it sounded to her judgment, at any rate. She only hesitated for an instant before she continued moving at her previous pace, being careful not to show any indication that she had heard anything. The sound had come from somewhere behind her, and not far away. Holding her breath for a moment, she could make out the faint sound of several people breathing behind her. Sounds like a welcoming party, she thought sourly. And not the sort I would have expected from Bethany, either...

Steeling herself, Raven quickly rehearsed a few spells in her mind. Then, spinning around, she shut her eyes tightly, summoned a brief flash of very bright light to her outstretched hand, opened her eyes again, drew her sword --

And there in front of her, momentarily blinded by the light, were half a dozen men in black cloaks and cowls. While colors were difficult for Raven's night vision to discern, she was fairly certain she could see a familiar insignia over each man's left breast: the symbol of a red shield, a white hand, and a red all-seeing eye.

"Oh, just brilliant," she muttered, leaping forward to seize her momentary advantage. She swung, Elemacil sang, and one man's head went rolling on the ground.

Then, like any sensible person faced with five-to-one odds, she fled.

As her surviving attackers recovered their sight Raven dashed back down the westward road, then ducked into a side-street and ran south. After a few more of these shifts and jogs she came to the edge of town. She stopped, listening -- they were following her, but the sound was distant. There, to the southwest, was a fallow field growing high with tall grasses. If she could get there before they got sight of her again...

She dashed out into the commons, heading for the hedgerow -- but before she had gone a dozen steps, she heard a horse's whinny and the sound of hooves. Two dark figures came riding into view, from the copse of trees to the north of town and the shadow of the ridgeline to the south. Both were riding towards Bethany and the open ground where Raven stood. In the darkness in front of her, several hundred yards off, she thought she could make out another horse and rider prowling the fields she had crept through only a short time before.

Muttering a curse under her breath, Raven turned and ran back into the village, deliberately choosing a path between two houses that were a good distance from where she had just emerged. She sniffed the air as she ran, trying to get some idea of where her assailants were. As she tried to recall their scent to her mind, however, a frightening realization struck her: she had never caught a scent off of any one of them. She hadn't noticed it in the heat of the moment, but she had been within mere feet of the darkly clad warriors and hadn't smelled anything of them. To a woman who had spent the last eight years growing heavily dependent on her sense of smell, it was as though she had suddenly become color-blind.

Some sort of enchantment, no doubt, she thought. Whoever they are, they obviously knew they would be facing a Keeper...

Carefully, Raven considered her options. Lightning and the various fire spells were immediately ruled out -- in a town of thatched-roof houses, those spells could quickly turn all of Bethany into a funeral pyre. Head-on confrontation was also out, for obvious reasons. Raven was no knight, and she wasn't about to act like one by diving into a crowd of obviously competent opponents. Unfortunately, running away was also impossible, since the assassins had done a very capable job of covering their flanks this time. Crying for help? It was a possibility, but given that she looked like a werewolf and was in the middle of their town in the dead of night, the people of Bethany might decide to shoot her too and let Eli sort out the bodies. Pacifism had a way of being conveniently abandoned when one's own family was at risk.

No, she would save a cry for help as the last resort. For now she would do her best to separate her opponents and pick them off one by one, as opportunities presented themselves. It would take a lot of running, but she had inherited more than a little of the wolf's endurance for that sort of thing. With any luck her attackers would grow weary of the chase before she did.

For a moment she stopped to listen, doing her best to quiet her own breathing. Her ears picked up the sound of feet again, now coming from two different directions. Despite the danger, she smiled grimly; the more they split up trying to find her, the more dangerous to them she would be.

She headed towards the fainter of the two sets of footsteps, moving between the houses in an effort to stay hidden. As she made her way east and south, trusting her ears now that her nose had failed her, the nearer set of footsteps grew close behind her and then faded again, heading off to the south. Raven took a brief jaunt northward between two narrowly spaced houses, then continued her pursuit.

Stopping and listening, she frowned. From the sound of things, those footsteps she'd been pursuing were circling back again. And now...

Raven's ears darted forward as the sound of footsteps fell away altogether.

Quickly she scanned the houses around her. Spotting a two-story building with a sturdy-looking frame, she dashed over to it as quickly as she could while still remaining silent. Digging her claws into the sturdy wooden beam at one corner of the house, she carefully climbed up to the roof and clambered over the side. Shimmying back away from the edge, she peered out into the alley below and waited.

She did not have to wait long. A little more than a minute later two of the shadowy figures came down the narrow street from the east, moving with scarcely a sound as their hooded heads turned this way and that. Fortunately, for the moment neither of them were looking up.

Gathering her feet beneath herself, Raven concentrated for a moment and then leapt into the alley behind the assassins, a small magical trick absorbing the impact as she landed lightly on her feet. Elemacil was out in an instant and, with the power of Dokorath flowing through her, Raven charged at the men with unbridled ferocity.

They were armed with maces rather than swords, the blunt-headed weapons speaking of an attempt to subdue rather than kill. The one nearest to Raven aimed a swing at her, but she parried the blow with a quick slash of her sword. Elemacil glowed in the darkness as the heavy wooden haft of the club was cleaved in two.

Raven's assailant, however, was far from helpless. Dropping the useless handle of the mace, he drove his hand into her chest with the palm outward. There was a loud crack as Raven flew backwards onto the ground, at least one of her ribs snapping with the blow.

Pushing back the pain with the force of Dokorath's combat spells, Raven quickly regained her feet. Both of her enemies were nearly on top of her, and with a snarl she summoned another flash of light. They saw it coming this time and raised their hands to block the light, but it gave Raven the moment she needed to dart away from them down another side street. When she had gone about a dozen paces she turned quickly around, facing the men who had, predictably, followed her. Stretching a hand toward the nearest one, she whispered a prayer to Samekkh.

A ray of searing white light shot out from Raven's fingertips, striking the man squarely in the face. He fell to his knees, clutching his face and screaming horribly as the power of the spell burned through his flesh.

"Thank you," Raven murmured as she turned and ran off again, the other assassin still close behind her. In spite of the danger, she couldn't help but feel a small glow of satisfaction at how well that had worked -- it was a new spell she had only just been granted this past Samek'kema. Raven's performance in the matter with the Turguroth earlier this year had persuaded Samekkh that she no longer deserved his disfavor, and he had provided her with the spell as a precaution against any further encounters with the undead. Obviously the spell was also quite effective on living foes.

All the same, Raven knew that she wouldn't be able to use the same trick twice -- the ray could be dodged if the opponent was agile enough and knew it was coming, and she had no doubts either about the awareness or ability of these warriors. True, she'd eliminated two of them already, but she was injured and wouldn't be able to block out the pain forever. Pushing aside thoughts of despair, she darted to the right at the next intersection, then left again --

And then fire shot through her right leg, sending her sprawling to the ground.

A last-minute shield absorbed the impact of the fall, but right away Raven knew she was in trouble. Looking back, she gritted her teeth and pulled the arrow out of her leg. Two small runes glowed a dim green along the side of the arrowhead, most of their magic already expended by the blow. Trying to get to her feet, Raven confirmed what she had feared: her right leg was completely numb and useless.

Looking down the street behind her, Raven saw one of the shadowy figures approaching, his expander bow shimmering as it collapsed down into a cylinder again. Hearing footsteps, Raven looked to see two more of the men coming down the street from the other end. One of them was carrying a mace, but the other wielded a sap -- a heavy bag of lead shot designed for knocking people unconscious with minimal injury. Apparently they intended to take her alive.

Realizing that she was quickly running out of options, Raven let out an ear-splitting howl at the top of her lungs. It was a long, loud call, the kind that could be heard for miles in the right situation. It was only a matter of moments before it drew a reaction from the people of Bethany.

"Wolves! Wolves!" she heard voices shout, as a clamor began to rise up in the houses around them.

"No!" another voice rose above the rest, louder than Raven would have thought possible. Unless her ears deceived her, it was the same girl she had heard praying earlier. "A lady! 'Tis a lady! Someone's attacking her! Help, everybody! Help!"

The men were upon her then, pounding away with their blunt, heavy weapons as she tried to hold them off with ever-weakening shield spells. She tried to make a few slashes at the men, but with her leg useless and no room to swing she was unable to take advantage of Elemacil's potent enchantments. The third man and the one who had been pursuing her arrived in moments, adding their own weapons to the attack.

At last Raven's shield-spells collapsed, her strength exhausted, and the maces and clubs began to beat down against her flesh. Silenced by a world of pain, she was only dimly aware of the change in the voices as the townsfolk rushed out of their homes and began running toward Raven and her mysterious assailants, alerted by the voice of a girl who continued to shout that there was a lady in trouble. The voices grew loud and angry, the footsteps heavy, but the priestess could make sense of none of it. At last three of the assassins rose and ran off into the night in opposite directions, forcing past anyone who tried to stand in their way. The last one paused as he stood over her, then gave her one last blow to the head with his sap. Raven saw the heavy bag descending toward her, and then all was darkness.

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"In the Absence of Martyrs", copyright Raven Blackmane