I touch my small torch to the wick, and the votive candle flickers to life, adding its warm glow to that of the others in the room. With a soft murmur of ancient words, in a tongue long forgotten by the rest of the world, I move on to the next candle, bringing it to life as well. One by one, the tongues of fire fill the room, as the air grows thick with the smell of incense. As I have done a thousand times before, I reverently return the torch to its stand beside the altar, whispering the timeless ceremonial prayer.
Slowly, with practiced grace, I return to stand before the altar. Spreading my arms wide, palms facing upward, I kneel in a posture of reverence and submission to the powers that rule this world.
All is in readiness. I lift up my head, fixing my eyes on the icon in the center of the altar. To untrained eyes, it is a simple vertical beam of wood with two crossbeams, unremarkable and unornamented. I know better. Within this humble symbol lies power unharnessed by any wizard or conjuror. Mine, and mine alone, is the right and the authority to channel that power.
I am the Lightbringer.
Quietly, I speak the archaic words I learned from my father, Elric, and he learned from his mother, and so on, back into the mists of time. The candles flicker, as a wind from nowhere sweeps across the chamber. The room crackles with energy, causing my fur to stand on end. Once again, I bow my head. He has heard and received my request for an audience. They always do.
I am the Lightbringer.
"Raven, my child. It pleases me to see you once again." The words come from the man-who-is-not-a-man that stands on the pedestal behind the altar. His face is still obscured in the shadows, but I know his scent. Even before I acquired my lupine characteristics, I knew the smell of each of these beings intimately.
"Lord Dvalin, you grace me with your presence," I say with practiced humility. Arrogance is unseemly in the presence of such powerful beings. It can go unsaid that he was virtually compelled to respond to my call. We both know it to be true.
The being called Dvalin smiles. I can feel the radiance of the expression, even in my current posture. "Lift up your head, Raven. Fear not, and tell me why you have requested my presence here today."
Without a moment's hesitation, I lift my eyes to look upon Dvalin. His skin glistens like burnished copper, his eyes like polished opals. There is majesty and pride in his posture as he looks down on his favored supplicant.
"The farmers of Metamor request your assistance, my lord," I say. "The weather has been poor for them this season—the fields are drowning in rainfall and the forest growth is making deep incursions into the planted lots. I have come today to ask for your favor on their behalf. The crops need at least twenty days per month of your blessed sunlight or they will fail. The people of Metamor will starve."
Dvalin laughs softly, a silvery sound that brings to mind gentle rain on distant mountain slopes. "And you believe I am sending the rains that are drowning your crops?" he asks.
I lower my eyes to the icon of the twin cross. "All people know that my lord Dvalin sends the rains and sun to this land as he deems right."
"That is true, my daughter. But there are many things which take place among my people which even you do not understand. The poor weather your farmers now experience is the vengeance of divinity wronged."
I blink. This is not what I had been expecting. What have the commoners done this time? Who have they angered? And what price will they have to pay to make amends?
"What vengeance, my liege?" I ask, looking up once more to the weather lord.
"Restitution for an attempted deicide—an act which may yet be completed if you do not soon intervene," Dvalin said. "A simple farmer on the outskirts of Metamor decided early this spring to increase his tillable farmland. To do so he expanded thirty feet into the adjoining forest." Dvalin's eyes glittered. "In the process of clearing this land, he felled an oak over two hundred years old."
I bite my lip, suppressing the murderous thoughts running through my mind. Damn damn damn damn damn! When are these idiotic peasants going to learn?!
"Whose tree was it, my lord?" I ask.
"A dryad by the name of Nyi," Dvalin answered. "The roots of the tree still live, but they will not last much longer without the energy the green leaves provide. Your people must urge the tree to send up new growth as a gesture of good faith to Nyi. Do this and the nymphs will cease their manipulation of the local weather patterns. Then I will see to it that your crops receive all the sunlight they need."
I nod, already knowing what must be done. "Thank you, my lord," I say. "I will do as you have said."
"See that you do," Dvalin replies. Then, another rustle of wind, and he is gone.
Quickly, I rise from my submissive posture and extinguish the candles. Going to the storeroom beside the sacred chamber, I pull out the items I will need for my mission, placing them in the deep pockets of my white linen robe. Special incense. Ceremonial powders. A pouch of earth from the banks of the Vyaldi river. A single oak leaf. There, that should do it. Only one more thing remains, and that lies beyond my skills. Leaving the inner sanctum, I walk through the supplicants' hall and out of the temple, towards the den of the alchemist.
As usual, the porcupine woman is at her workbench, half a dozen flasks and beakers bubbling over small torches and oil lamps. She's toying with some sort of ring, examining its blue gemstone closely under a hand lens. Her large black eyes are shining with ... something. Probably something I don't want to know about.
"Pascal," I say quietly.
The alchemist starts in surprise, dropping both ring and lens on the table.
"Dammit, Raven, don't you ever knock?!" she growls, turning to face me.
"When it suits my purposes," I reply, a small smile playing on the corners of my muzzle. "I need a growth serum suitable for an oak tree."
Pascal crinkles her muzzle in thought. "I think I have something like that around here," she says, getting up and scurrying over to one of the many storage cabinets in the laboratory. "What's it for?"
"A farmer cut down a dryad's tree this spring. If the stump doesn't send up new growth soon the roots will die."
"Uh oh," Pascal notes, as she continues to scan the shelves. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the bad weather we've been getting, would it?"
"It would," I say simply. "Every nymph in and around Metamor is working to disrupt Dvalin's cycles. We have to save that tree or the Keep will go hungry this winter."
"Well, then," Pascal says, bringing me a small brown flask, "you may take this with my blessings. Just apply it to the vascular cambium around the edges of the stump, and that tree'll be growing again in no time."
I take the flask, examine it closely, and slip it into the pocket of my robe. "Thank you, Pascal," I say, smiling. "You may have just saved the Keep from disaster."
"Whatever you say, Lightbringer," the porcupine replies, waving a paw in dismissal as she returns to her workbench. "You just do your job and keep the Gods happy, and let the rest of us get on with our lives."
"Indeed." And without a word more, I slip out the door and head for the farmlands outside the Keep.
The incense is burning, its spicy odor filling the air around me. The powders have been spread in a wide protective circle around myself, the tree, and everything else in a ten-foot radius. The soil from the sacred river has been moistened and applied in thick, dark lines to my wolfish face. The oak leaf has been placed in the center of the stump, the focus of the ceremony I now prepare. Finally, taking out the alchemist's flask, I carefully apply the dark green liquid, a little at a time, to the still-living layer of cambium that lines the outer rim of the trunk.
Kneeling before the tree, my twin-cross amulet clasped between my hands, I call out to Nyi in Old Tongue, the ancient ceremonial language of the Lightbringer Order: [[The damage will be undone. Restitution has been made. Your tree will live again, and in time will flourish once more. Bestow your forgiveness upon my people, my lady.]]
A rustling sounds in the leaves. A thick, earthy scent fills my nostrils. My lowered eyes spot the dainty, green-skinned feet as they shimmer into existence on the stump.
"Your restitution is accepted, mortal," a voice says.
I have spoken earlier of the silvery voice of Dvalin. The voice of a dryad is nothing like that. It is rich and earthy, a warm, melodious alto that speaks both of nature's simplicity and nature's wisdom. Many males find it is often suggestive.
I look up at the nymph before me. She is nude, of course, with fine proportions, hair with the appearance of leaves and eyes the color of bark. This nymph, however, has seen better days; her body is emaciated, her arms and legs thin and weak in their appearance. Nyi is close to starvation, as the cells in the tree that houses her slowly die off, one by one.
But there is a smile on her lips now. She knows that her tree will grow anew—and though she is weak, in another fifty years she will be as strong as any other dryad in the forest. Fifty years is nothing to a creature who is nearly immortal.
No other words need to be said. I return her smile, a wind blows through the trees and she is gone. I return the flask and empty pouch to my robe and rise to my feet, leaving the incense to burn as an offering to the nymph.
As I walk back toward the gates of the Keep, the clouds above part, allowing warm, blessed sunlight to fall onto the land once again. I smile, bathing my face in its heat and light. Once more disaster has been diverted for the citizens of Metamor Keep.
There are many people in Metamor, and each has their place and their talents. The wizards and warriors deal with the monsters of the north. The AR's spy on and negotiate with the humans of the south. I take care of everything else; the invisible beings that surround us and permeate every aspect of our lives. I am the supplicant to the benevolent deities, protector from the malevolent ones, and ambassador to the neutral, the unknown, and the schizophrenic.
My name is Raven hin'Elric, High Priestess of Metamor Keep. I am supreme among clerics; the first, last, and only line of defense between the Keep and the spiritual darkness that would consume her. I am sworn to defend this sacred castle, to my dying breath.
And defend her I shall. I have the power.
I am the Lightbringer.